BCWYWF… Part 9: Homecoming

Being back in Federation space felt good, but it wasn’t the end of the journey. For that, they’d have to reach the Alpha Quadrant and then Earth.

They’d been traveling for three days, Voyager towed by a Federation salvage tug, Admiral Paris’s ship, the USS Scobee, leading the way. In six more hours, they would cross the ‘finish line’—at least the first one—for they’d have another two weeks before they were securely in the orbital spacedock of Earth’s McKinley Station.

Now that the ship’s com system was fully functional, the crew had been taking turns contacting their friends and family at home. Captain Janeway was able to have an extended conversation with her sister Phoebe, Tom and B’Elanna had shown off the baby to Tom’s mother, and Joe Carey got to hear a play-by-play recap of his son’s high school graduation ceremony.

Because of the monthly contact they’d had with Earth during their last year in the Delta Quadrant, very few of the crew would be coming home to big surprises. They had already received any ‘Dear John’ letters or other news—good or bad—that would be coming, and they were now able to start making plans for their futures once again. The entire commissioned Starfleet crew had been granted three-months of compassionate leave, during which time they were free to rejoin their families, prepare for new assignments, or just reacclimate themselves to their lives and homes. And, despite the lingering questions about their legal status and careers, even the Maquis were celebrating the rapidly-approaching end of their journey. It was a hopeful time for the crew and the families they had left behind.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the families of those they had lost in the transwarp accident. Just before the first personal messages arrived from the survivors to their loved-ones, the families of the dead had received the heartbreaking news: their sons or daughters or spouses had survived the past seven years only to die within sight of home. For them, Voyager’s homecoming would be a painful reminder of how close they had come to a happy ending.

Then there were the families of those who had died either in the initial shockwave that tore them from home or as a result of the incredibly dangerous conditions Voyager had faced during their years away. These families had neither the celebration of returning heroes nor the comfort and condolences of a Federation very aware of their fresh wounds. None of the milestones—not the initial word of Voyager’s survival, nor the establishment of regular communication, nor this final report of the ship’s return brought them peace, comfort or good news. In fact, each story of progress and hope had served only to remind them of their loss. They had come to feel like the forgotten families of Voyager. And, while they were happy for those who would be coming home, they looked forward to they day they would finally stop hearing about this particular ‘lost-lamb’ of the Federation.

No one was more aware of these simultaneous and conflicting experiences than Kathryn Janeway.

As the captain of Voyager, she had assumed responsibility for the lives put in her care. In the days since they left Starbase 32, she had spent her off-duty hours composing personal messages of condolence to each of the families of the dead, even those she had already written to once communication with Earth had been reestablished. She knew the story of Voyager’s resurrection would spread quickly, and she didn’t want the news to cause any more pain than necessary. She had also been busy writing letters of commendation for the survivors, petitions on behalf of her Maquis, Borg, and holographic crewmen, and preparing an official report on the mixed success and failure of their transwarp jump.

The projects had taken a toll on her, and she was now looking forward to turning her sights to preparing for a more upbeat task: crossing into the Alpha Quadrant, one of the last major milestones on their seven-year journey.

It was a bittersweet reality that they wouldn’t be making the crossing under their own power. She had always imagined standing behind Tom Paris as her pilot steered the ship safely home. As it was, she wouldn’t even be able to be on the bridge for this momentous day. Instead, she and her officers would gather in the mess hall, the largest room with forward-facing windows, as the ship was ‘handed off’ from Fleet Operations Beta to Fleet Operations Alpha. There would be no ribbon to break through, no line to cross, but instead—like the coming of midnight on New Year’s Eve—they would simply celebrate as the clock (and the Scobee’s sensors) told them they had reached the right spot.

Today’s gathering would be symbolic and casual. They’d save the formal celebration for their arrival back on Earth. But this would serve to end another chapter in the book of their adventure, and the captain was now counting the days—instead of the years—until she could close it for good.

She was sitting at her desk in her quarters—her cabin now acting as her office as well as her home—when the enunciator sounded. She was happy and surprised to see B’Elanna come through the door. Only five days after giving birth, her friend was looking and acting very much like her old self, and that included—at least at the moment, Kathryn realized—her Klingon temper.

“I need you to tell me this isn’t true!” she was shouting as she burst into the room.

“Good morning to you, too, B’Elanna—now what are you talking about?” The captain genuinely had no idea.

B’Elanna threw a PADD down on Kathryn’s desk as she spoke. “I just got a letter from my old roommate at the Academy asking me if it was true that I married ‘the traitor.’ Apparently, half the Federation thinks Tom was a Maquis double-agent and that he was responsible for getting Voyager stranded in Delta Quadrant.” As she was speaking, B’Elanna could tell from Janeway’s face that this wasn’t the first time her captain had heard this gossip. B’Elanna’s expression changed as she realized the truth.

“You knew.”

Janeway nodded. “Yes. Captain Wheaton told me a few days ago. But he also told me that the Federation went to great lengths to end those rumors once they learned what had really happened to Voyager.” This didn’t make B’Elanna feel any better.

“That was over three years after we disappeared. This rumor about Tom went undisputed for three years?” Her eyes challenged her captain as she asked, “Why didn’t you tell him?”

Janeway stood and walked around her desk to face B’Elanna. “I didn’t know how. He’d been through so much—losing Harry, almost losing you, having to take responsibility for this ship while I was injured. By the time I found out, he started to make some real progress with Admiral Paris, and then Miral was born…he shouldn’t have to deal with this on top of everything else. I guess I just wanted to protect him from it as long as I could.”

B’Elanna understood the impulse to shield Tom from this news, but she also knew that he needed to be told before he—like she had—learned about it second-hand. “He deserves to hear about this from you, Captain.”

Kathryn knew it was true. “Alright. Is he in your quarters?” she asked. B’Elanna nodded as the captain considered how she’d break the news. “I think maybe Admiral Paris ought to join me. Just make sure Tom’s at home in about twenty minutes.” As B’Elanna turned to leave, Janeway added one final comment. “Starfleet knows the truth and so do we. He’ll prove them all wrong, B’Elanna,” she said confidently.

“He always does,” her friend answered before heading home to her husband.

As promised, B’Elanna saw to it that Tom was waiting when the captain and his father arrived. In his favorite new position, the pilot was lying on his back on the couch in their quarters, his infant daughter asleep on his chest as he read a book on childrearing from a datapad. B’Elanna scooped the baby gently into her arms so her husband could greet their guests.

“Sorry,” Tom apologized as he sat up. “She naps better if she can feel my heartbeat.” Wondering if this would be the first of many times when Tom would use Miral’s needs to justify his own, B’Elanna couldn’t let that go unchallenged.

“Tom, she ‘naps’ almost twenty-four hours a day at this point. Just be honest and admit that you can’t stand to put her down for more than a minute.” She kissed her husband on the head, then made an excuse to leave the three alone. “But you’re going to have to, because I promised Naomi she could tell Miral a Flotter story this morning.” B’Elanna was trying to keep the atmosphere light, but she gave the captain a long, intense look. As she was leaving, she looked back at Tom and said gently, “I’ll be back in an hour. I promise.”

Tom wondered what he was supposed to make of the hidden message he knew he’d just been sent. Maybe it had something to do with the two senior officers now sitting in his living room—somehow he knew this was an official visit. “Can I get you both something?” he asked as he walked to the replicator.

“Coffee would be nice,” Janeway offered, and Tom ordered some for them all.

As he handed the cups to his guests he asked, “So what’s the bad news?” The captain and the admiral exchanged glances, and Tom guessed he was right about the reason for his wife’s promise to return quickly. He braced himself for the worst.

He couldn’t have been more surprised at what he heard.

Only those who knew Tom and the full story of his brief period as a Maquis could know the irony—the absolute ridiculousness—of thinking he could have done what had been alleged. Captain Janeway’s offer to take him along on her mission had been a total surprise to him and to Starfleet, a moment of inspiration cooked up solely by the captain as she sought to improve her odds of success while giving a friend’s son a second chance.

As he listened to the captain speak, Tom couldn’t help but feel a flood of emotions that were familiar and painful all at once. He was facing the consequences of some bad choices made in a different lifetime. He had more than paid for those mistakes, yet people were still willing to see him in the worst possible light. Was his absolution only valid aboard Voyager? Did his redemption expire at the boarder to the Alpha Quadrant? The timing of this news made him think it just might.

But even Tom was surprised at how quickly that feeling passed. He had finally come to mean the mantra he had said for most of his adult life: he didn’t care what most people thought of him. Because the people that mattered all knew the real Tom Paris now, knew the man who had reinvented his life, reclaimed his rank and position, and who was respected and loved by his family and friends.

He also now knew for sure that what he’d said to his father several days earlier was true: he was prepared to face the consequences of his past. One of which seemed to be a willingness of strangers to think the worst of him. In light of the questions still hanging over his and B’Elanna’s future, he could live with that. It was the least of his problems.

When she returned, B’Elanna found him alone, recycling the empty coffee cups. “Are you ready for lunch?” he asked casually. Not what she was expecting to hear.

“Are you alright?” she asked. She’d prepared herself for anger or even depression, but the man standing in front of her was the picture of calm. “Before I answer that,” he said evenly, “I have to ask you: am I still married to the most beautiful engineer in the galaxy? And is that still our baby daughter in your arms?” Wow, she thought. How could he be taking this so well?

His questions were rhetorical so she didn’t bother to answer. Instead, she took a step closer and put her hand against his face. “This doesn’t upset you?” she asked, still searching for a hint of pain in his eyes. What she found was a quiet acceptance. Tom reassured her as best he could.

“It upsets me that it hurt you to hear about it. It upsets me that my family had to live with it for almost three years before they could be sure it wasn’t true. But I’m not going to let it ruin this moment for me—or for us. I’m happy, B’Elanna, for the first time since I was a kid. And I don’t have to prove myself to anyone except the two of you anymore.”

He moved her hand from his face and kissed her palm. “Now what do you want for lunch?”

~*~*~*~*~

The party started at 18:00 hours, and was strictly a family affair. At Admiral Paris’s request, the Scobee’s officers now assisting in Voyager’s repair were transported back to his ship. Somehow, Owen knew this was a private moment for Janeway and her crew, and he didn’t want his people intruding on their celebration.

As the first real social occasion after their accident, the mood was subdued, but light. They had all dreamed of this moment for seven years, and everyone seemed determined to make it the happy occasion they deserved for it to be.

Helping to elevate the mood was the formal debut of Voyager’s ‘Beta Quadrant baby.’ B’Elanna had warned Tom in advance that he’d have to share his daughter with their friends tonight, and he had agreed to rein in his overprotective new-father impulses. Still, she couldn’t help but notice how his eyes followed his daughter from one set of arms to another as she was passed from crewman to crewman. Not that the Doctor allowed any one person to hold her too long. He was taking his duties as Miral’s godfather very seriously—or at least that was the excuse he used when snatching her out of the arms of her latest admirer.

For her part, B’Elanna was feeling a little melancholy, though she wasn’t sure why. All day—even before her discovery of the rumors about Tom—she’d had a vague feeling of uneasiness. She couldn’t even name the reason.

As had been true for much of the last seven years, as soon as B’Elanna’s mood took a downward turn, Neelix appeared out of nowhere to brighten her spirits. She was contemplating the stars from a quiet corner of the room when her friend approached.

“Are they looking familiar yet?” he asked. He could tell from the look on her face that she didn’t understand what he meant. “The stars,” he clarified. “Haven’t we been passing through Klingon space all this time?”

B’Elanna could smell a Talaxian therapy session coming on—almost as clearly as she could smell Neelix’s ‘special occasion’ musk cologne. “That’s what they tell me,” she said softly. “But I haven’t been here since I was a little girl. I never really memorized the look of the constellations.” Boy, she did not want to be having this conversation.

Luckily, her friend had grown very skilled in teaching B’Elanna lessons without beating her over the head, so she reluctantly decided to let him take her down this difficult path. She almost always felt better in the end. She hoped that would be true today, too. And maybe Neelix could help her figure out her blue mood. Characteristically, he often knew what was bothering her even when she didn’t.

“Did you try to contact her?” he asked. “You told me once you thought she’d be on the Klingon homeworld.” He didn’t say ‘if she’s still alive,’ but B’Elanna knew that was the proper end of this sentence. During the entire year of regular contact with Starfleet, B’Elanna had made only a half-hearted attempt to find her mother. Not from a lack of interest; after her near-death experience several years earlier, she’d always wondered if her visions of her mother on the Barge of the Dead were real or the workings of her imagination. The answer made all the difference, for—if she did experience some kind of supernatural glimpse into the Klingon afterlife—her mother might actually be dead.

B’Elanna wanted to believe that her mother would be waiting for her when she got back. After finally making peace with Miral on the Barge, she couldn’t face the chance of finding out they’d never get the chance to reconcile in person. As long as she was stuck in the Delta Quadrant, she needed to keep that possibility alive. Complicating her decision was the knowledge that—having lost regular contact with any of her Klingon extended family many years earlier—the best way to track down her mother would have been through her father. And there was no way she was opening that old wound. At least not back then.

Neelix’s question was understandable, though. Here she had been, traveling through Klingon space for days. A quick call to the Federation ambassador on Qo’noS could probably have told her what she needed to know. Yet, with all the losses she had just been forced to face, B’Elanna wasn’t sure she could take any more bad news.

She turned away from the window and looked at the kind and gentle man trying—as always—to help her do the right thing. “I sent a letter to the colony on Kessick 4 in the final datastream. If she’s alive, someone there should know how to reach her.” B’Elanna knew that didn’t explain her reluctance to make a simple inquiry now that they were so close by. “Neelix, do you remember when Samantha, Tom, and Tuvok were missing in the Delta Flyer and you couldn’t bring yourself to tell Naomi that they were lost?” His expression told her instantly that he did. “You didn’t want Naomi to have to face the possibility that her mother was dead—just like you’d had to face the loss of your family. You wanted to spare her that pain if you could.” She turned back to the stars. “Well, at least for now, I need to be able to believe that my mother is alright. I’ll find out soon, I promise. Just not yet.”

She braced herself for the gentle logic she knew she would hear next. “B’Elanna, I was wrong about Naomi. It’s never a good idea to avoid the truth. Besides, if your mother is alive, think of the opportunity you might be missing. To introduce her to Tom and her granddaughter. To let her see what a wonderful person her daughter has become. I’m sure Admiral Paris would be willing to help you contact her.”

She appreciated what he was trying to do for her, but she needed him to understand. “I’m not ready,” she said to her friend. “Soon, but not yet.” She put her hand on the Talaxian’s arm. “But I’m glad that—when I am ready—you’ll be here to help me though it. Either way.”

B’Elanna took a moment to reflect on all the ways in which Voyager’s morale officer had boosted her own spirits over the years. He’d made her Blood Pie on the Day of Honor, and banana pancakes when she was trying to lift herself out of her deep depression. She knew he’d snuck Tom extra replicator rations when they were celebrating an anniversary, and—most importantly—he had helped her get the courage to talk through her doubts about her relationship with Tom when her insecurities told her she and her then-boyfriend were a bad match. If it weren’t for Neelix, she might not be standing in this room now, watching her husband quietly obsess over their baby daughter. She knew how much she owed this man and she was grateful. “You know, my mother would really like you. You’re an honorable man, Neelix.” He smiled. He was a good friend, and he knew B’Elanna well enough to know when to stop pushing.

She also knew that their crossing into the Alpha Quadrant would be bittersweet for him as well. “Neelix, we’ve spent the past seven years traveling 70,000 light years to get home. And when we get there, you’ll be 70,000 light years from yours. Are you ever sorry you decided to come with us?” It was his turn, she noticed to take a long look at the stars.

“I miss being around other Talaxians sometimes. I miss some of the friends I made back there. And,” he almost hesitated to continue. “Sometimes I do wonder what would have happened if Kes and I had taken my ship and gone on our way after the captain helped me rescue her from the Kazon. If she might not have had a happier life in the end.” She could see the pain of ‘what might have been’ playing across his face. But she saw something else, too. When he turned back to face her, she saw a man at peace with his decision.

“But I’m not sorry I joined this crew, B’Elanna. Ever since the war, I thought I’d never have a family again. My family was the most important thing in my life, and when they were killed, a part of me died, too.” He looked into her eyes before continuing. “But I have a new family now. And a new home. My life is better than I ever could have imagined the day I first met all of you. So, no. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad I can share this moment with all of you.”

B’Elanna wondered if anyone else ever saw this quiet, introspective side of Neelix. She took a moment to wonder what all of their lives would have been like without him. She was grateful she’d never have to find out.

Tom was watching the Doctor snatch his daughter out of the arms of Sue Nicoletti when he saw Chakotay arrive. The first officer looked agitated—a rare state for a man with so much inner calm. Paris intercepted him on his way past. “You look like you’re having a bad day,” Tom said. “What’s wrong?”

His concentration broken, Chakotay considered if he wanted to answer the pilot’s question. He had come to like and respect Tom over the years—an amazing admission considering the contempt he’d felt for the man both in their months together in the Maquis and the intervening years before Paris had reappeared in his life on Voyager. But camaraderie still didn’t come easily between the men. The commander had to admit, though, he could use someone to talk to right about now, and Kathryn and B’Elanna would be too personally affected by the news he had just received. Taking a chance, he motioned for Tom to move with him to a quiet spot away from the festivities.

“I just got some bad news,” he said, referring to the PADD in his hand. “A posting I was hoping for didn’t come through.”

Tom knew from B’Elanna that Chakotay would probably be leaving Voyager after they reached Earth. She didn’t go into details—his wife kept her friends’ confidences—but Tom had pulled that much out of her the night of their party in holographic San Francisco. Tom assumed it had something to do with the change in Chakotay’s relationship with the captain, but he was still unsure how the commander could possibly be hearing about a new posting before they even knew if they’d be allowed to stay in Starfleet. He decided Chakotay would tell him whatever he was comfortable sharing.

“I guess I should get used to it,” the first officer continued. Tom didn’t understand. “Get used to what?” he asked.

“To being a Maquis again,” was Chakotay’s surprising answer. “That’s why this project fell through. I heard through a friend that the brother of the program’s director had been injured during a Maquis raid on a Federation scout ship. I wasn’t even involved, but there were just too many…complications. Of course, that’s not the official reason they gave. They mentioned my ‘uncertain status,’ but it’s the same thing.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. “Apparently, you and I were conspiring to hijack Voyager, too.”

Chakotay realized now that Paris knew about the rumors. “How did you find out?” he asked.

“The captain and my dad broke the news this afternoon. It’s funny, Chakotay, but I seemed to have missed the meeting where we planned it all. Very clever of you to trick the captain into springing me from jail. And pretending to hate my guts added an extra element of realism, don’t you think?”

Tom was being sarcastic, but Chakotay could tell he wasn’t really bothered by the lies spread about them. “You seem to be taking this remarkably well,” the commander marveled.

Tom just shrugged, “It’s not like this tarnished my ‘spotless’ reputation. Think about it: before we got sucked across the galaxy, I was just a drunken liar who got caught while playing mercenary. This cooked-up story actually makes me sound like a rebel mastermind fighting for a cause I believed in. At least in the lie I’m smart and noble.”

Tom had a point. What difference did it make what people reviled him for? Especially when both stories were so far off the mark of the person Tom Paris had become. Chakotay had to admit he’d misjudged the man hiding under all that liquor so many years ago. Standing here, talking to this Tom Paris, he wondered if—under other circumstances—they might have ended up friends fighting together for the Maquis.

Clearly Tom was wondering the same thing. “Sometimes I wish I’d been with you for the right reasons. If I’d been sober for more than five minutes in those days, I might have believed in the cause just as much as you and B’Elanna.” Tom was turning uncharacteristically serious. “You were only doing what you thought was right to defend your home and a lot of innocent people. The Federation didn’t give you many options, Chakotay. I admire that you had the courage of your convictions.”

‘The courage of my convictions,’ Chakotay played back the words in his head, wondering if he still had that same determination to defend what he knew to be right. The anger was gone lately, and with it the passion he had felt for his cause. It was too easy to intellectualize it all in retrospect. And the struggle that had been so black and white in his mind before he ended up on Voyager now seemed full of shades of gray.

For some reason, Chakotay also had a fleeting memory of seeing the Delta Flyer zooming toward an ocean planet on the verge of an ecological disaster, and watching Paris violate direct orders, risking his life to defend it. He smiled at Tom, as he spoke. “I seem to remember you found your own cause a few years ago—and your own courage. You know, I could have killed you for what you put the captain through that day, but I have to admit that I admired your taking a stand for your beliefs.”

Tom looked him in they eye. “You didn’t think I had it in me,” he said.

Chakotay returned the honesty. “No, I didn’t.”

Tom just smiled. “Well, I paid for that decision, but I don’t regret doing what I thought was right,” he said, remembering his thirty days in Voyager’s brig, and the eighteen months he’d spent busted back to ensign. The remark led Chakotay to consider the consequences of his own choices. He didn’t regret them either, he realized, even if there were repercussions now.

“Don’t let all this get to you,” Tom continued, bringing their conversation back to Chakotay’s bad news. “You’re more than your past. We all are. People will realize that in time.”

At that moment, the first officer saw a look of panic cross the pilot’s face, his eyes scanning the room. An instant later, the panic was replaced by a small sigh of relief. Chakotay turned to see what Tom was looking at. He should have known. The tiny face of an infant appeared over the shoulder of Ensign Wildman, who had apparently made the unpardonable error of blocking the lieutenant’s view of his daughter.

“Paris, you’d better watch it or your reputation as a ‘ladies man’ is going to be ruined for good.”

Tom laughed. “I’ve just narrowed the field down to two specific ‘ladies,’ Chakotay.” Tom couldn’t help but nod toward the door where Captain Janeway had just appeared. “You might want to give it a try yourself,” he teased.

As the commander returned Tom’s grin and headed to greet his own favorite ‘lady,’ Paris had to stop and wonder if he and Chakotay were actually becoming…friends. If so, it was only one more miracle to be attributed to the fabled journey of the starship Voyager.

Kathryn was glad to see her crew having a good time. She was even happier to see the dark haired man walking toward her from the other side of the mess hall. It was funny, she thought. She had spent virtually every day of the last seven years working with, talking to, and enjoying the company of her first officer, but she had never allowed herself to acknowledge anything but a deep affection and respect for the man. Until recently. These days, just seeing Chakotay enter a room gave her a twinge of anticipation. She laughed at how this most comfortable of relationships was making her anxious—in very appealing and interesting ways.

She was feeling more and more at ease with the progression of their relationship—to the point that a part of her wondered why she had held back for so long. Another part of her was even more convinced she had done the right thing: how productive would it have been for the captain to feel like a schoolgirl at the sight of her first officer? No, she wasn’t going to second-guess herself now.

But she was going to enjoy the feelings she had in this moment. “Hi,” she said as he got closer. “Care to buy a lady a cup of coffee?”

He smiled. “This is a celebration, Captain. I think the preferred drink is champagne.”

She allowed herself a moment to think of the day when he’d never call her ‘captain’ again. “Commander,” she answered almost in retaliation for his formality, “if I want to stay awake to the end of the party, I think it’s going to have to be coffee for now.”

There were very selfish reasons why Chakotay wanted to keep her awake this evening, so he was happy to honor her request. They walked to the replicator and she placed her order. She checked to see if anyone could hear them before she spoke. “Can you keep a secret?” she said to him mischievously.

He laughed, “For your sake and mine, I hope so.”

Kathryn smiled, but indicated the replicated cup of hot coffee now in her hand. “I think I’m going to miss Neelix’s ‘special blends.’ But please don’t tell him that.”

They were in a relatively quiet spot, and she took advantage of the privacy and changed the subject. “You looked like you were in the middle of a pretty intense conversation with Tom Paris when I came in. Is everything alright?”

Chakotay had already decided he wasn’t going to tell Kathryn his news just yet. “We were just plotting our next secret mission against the Federation,” he said with a mock conspiratorial tone.

Janeway sighed. “I’m glad he finally knows,” she admitted.

All of these reminders about consequences had Chakotay thinking now. “Kathryn, tell me honestly, what are you hearing from the Federation about our status?”

She was hesitant to answer during what was supposed to be a celebration, but she would have told him later that evening anyway. “The situation is a little more complex than I’d been led to believe,” she admitted. “The issue isn’t really about the actions the Maquis took against the Cardassians in defense of the colonies. I’ve been pretty much guaranteed that those charges will be dropped. What’s more difficult are the raids on Federation ships and outposts. If they can prove you or your crew participated in those attacks, the advocate’s office doesn’t think they can let that go unpunished.”

He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. “Those raids were our only way to get supplies and weapons to keep up the fight. We weren’t thieves—we were desperate people trying to hold off a ruthless enemy, with no one to help us. I don’t know what else they expected us to do!” His frustration was understandable, but Kathryn was worried that someone would overhear their conversation. She took a subtle step closer to Chakotay, and grabbed his hand in hers. The physical contact brought him back into the moment, and he realized that this wasn’t the time or the place.

When she was sure he had calmed down, Janeway released his hand and stepped back. “I’m sorry,” he whispered softly.

“Don’t be,” she said, and meant it. “You’re just passionate about your beliefs. It’s one of the many things I love about you.” He looked at her, then, with a sense of wonder. This woman—this captain—who’d been sent to hunt him down had become his best friend, his confidante and his soul mate. If there were any justice in the universe, she’d soon become his lover—and maybe more. The odds against them couldn’t have been more staggering, yet she loved him and even defended the actions she had been sent to punish him for. Life was strange and good.

“No matter what happens,” he said when he’d regained his composure, “we’ll get through it. Besides, after seven years in the Delta Quadrant facing the Borg, the Hirogen, Species 8472, the Vidiians…,” he could have gone on for an hour and not finished listing the hostile aliens the two had seen on their journey home, “…I’m not going to let three Starfleet admirals frighten me.” She laughed. Put that way, there was really nothing to be worried about. Their most dangerous battles were definitely behind them.

Neelix had asked Tom to help him in the galley, which prevented Paris from seeing something that—had he been watching—might have given him a heart attack.

The Doctor had just stolen Miral from the clutches of Samanta Wildman, and had what—in the moment—seemed like an inspired idea. “Seven,” he said. “Would you like to hold the baby?” Seven of Nine had been a Borg for sixteen years, and had a well-deserved reputation for fearlessness. Yet, at the thought of holding this tiny, wriggling…individual…she found her hands trembling. The Doctor gently placed the child into Seven’s unsteady arms, and showed the young woman how to properly support the baby’s neck. With the uncanny way children have of sensing uncertainty in the adults around them, Miral chose that moment to wake up and start crying.

Seven was still trembling, but, with the Doctor’s instruction, she moved the child to her shoulder and began stroking her back gently. Of course, at the sounds of his child’s cries, Tom began the three-meter dash out of the galley—and into the grasp of his wife. “Let it go, Tom, she’s fine.”

“But I heard her crying—” He could see now that Seven was holding his daughter, and he turned to look at B’Elanna. “Seven…,” he said when he saw them.

B’Elanna interrupted him, “…is standing with the Doctor, who won’t let anything happen to the baby. Let her do this, Tom. She’s had a rough time lately. Babies are good therapy. Besides, you have to relax about letting her out of your sight. We won’t be able to be with her twenty-four hours a day. She’ll do better if she gets comfortable being around different people. Besides, you won’t be able to fly the ship with her in your arms, now will you?”

For a moment, Tom’s mind drifted back to their last time in the holodeck, and he remembered the baby carrier B’Elanna had replicated from the historical database. If he had one of those, he actually might be able to keep her with him at his post…

For her part, Miral Kimberly Paris was now thoroughly at ease on the shoulder of her Aunt Seven. And, to her own great surprise, Aunt Seven was growing increasingly content to feel the warm, wriggling bundle settle back to sleep against her. “You’re going great, Seven,” the Doctor complimented her. “She likes you.”

Seven’s occipital implant raised with her eyebrow. “She likes being held. The fact that I am the one holding her is irrelevant.” As she was speaking, Seven felt her shoulder become cold and wet. “What is…,” she moved her hand to touch the damp spot and pulled back a sticky white mess, “…this? She’s leaking some kind of fluid. Doctor—”

He reached down into a large satchel tucked next to the couch and pulled out a white cloth. The Doctor passed it to Seven as he explained. “It’s common for babies to, well, ‘spit up’ a little. Just wipe it away and place the cloth between yourself and the child.”

The look on Seven’s face was a mix of surprise and disgust. “She regurgitated partially digested milk onto my shoulder?” Gee, when she put it that way.

“It’s totally harmless, Seven. Babies haven’t developed complete control over their bodily functions.”

Seven was unsettled and mildly repulsed at the implications of the Doctor’s comment. Borg maturation chambers certainly had their appealing side, she now realized. However, as she looked down at the sleeping child in her arms, she began to feel an almost instinctual protectiveness. A humanoid child was thoroughly defenseless and totally dependent on those around her. Seven’s right hand moved to stroke Miral’s tiny fingers, which were balled up in a tight fist. As her hand felt the soft touch against it, the fist reflexively opened and took Seven’s index finger into its grasp. “Her helplessness is disturbing,” Seven said softly.

The Doctor watched as Seven began to display for this child a feeling he knew she had already experienced for Naomi and Icheb. In one of the great cosmic ironies, their Borg was great with children. It was now clearly a matter of time before Miral would be learning to play Kotis’Kot and studying the stars with her surrogate aunt. That is, if the crew stayed in contact after they got home.

The Doctor couldn’t help but consider a few fleeting and unsettling thoughts.

What would happen to them once they reached Earth? Would he be able to request a specific assignment like the other members of the crew? Would he be allowed to keep the mobile emitter that gave him the unprecedented freedom no other 24th century hologram had ever experienced? Would Seven be welcomed back as a rescued human woman or reviled as a former Borg drone? Would the Federation allow her to go on with her life, or lock her away to study her? And if they were both given their freedom and autonomy, what would they choose to do with the rest of their lives?

That led him to worry about their burgeoning romantic relationship. He had been in love with Seven, he realized, for several years, and they had been the closest of friends during that time. It was only recently, however, that she had appeared to take a similar interest in him. And, when it seemed that Voyager’s journey would last the bulk of the crew’s natural life, unusual pairings—like a hologram and a drone—had seemed almost normal. But the reality was different in the Alpha Quadrant. One’s choices of potential mates increased exponentially. Would Seven still view him in the same light when given the opportunity to know and interact with so many others of her own kind?

Whether the baby in her arms heightened her instincts overall—or perhaps she just knew the Doctor so well—Seven could sense that his mood had changed in the last few seconds. “Am I doing something wrong?” she asked, looking toward the child. She knew the Doctor was almost as overprotective as Lieutenant Paris.

“Oh,” he said, “no, you’re doing beautifully. You would make a great mother yourself one day.”

She stopped for a moment to think about the possibility before she responded. “And you would be a wonderful father,” she offered. The Doctor had never told Seven about his experiments with a holographic family, and his bittersweet experiences with the children he had programmed for himself. But, parenting an organic child had never really occurred to him. Until now.

Seven came as close as she ever did to smiling. “Perhaps we’ll discuss this topic in greater detail one day in the future,” she suggested vaguely. The Doctor returned her smile. No matter what might happened when they finally reached Earth, at this moment it was clear: Seven only had ‘ocular implants’ for him.

By Neelix’s calculations, they were now just moments away from crossing into the Alpha Quadrant. “Attention everyone,” he said over the din. “We should be leaving the Beta Quadrant in about one minute now. If everyone has a beverage, I think the Captain would like to say a few words.”

As everyone reached for their glasses and Janeway made her way to the front of the room, B’Elanna acknowledged the pleading look in her husband’s eyes and nodded. It took Tom less than a second to reclaim their daughter from Seven’s arms.

Kathryn waited for her crew to come to attention before she began. “Almost seven years ago, we began our journey together. A few days from now, it will finally come to an end. During that time we have all shared a common dream that is about to come true. Ladies and gentlemen,” she glanced at Neelix to confirm the timing, “welcome home.” The captain raised her glass to her crew and they returned the tribute.

As everyone took a moment to embrace their friends, Janeway searched the room for her first officer. He was already on his way to her. “Congratulations, Kathryn,” he said as he hugged her. “You did it.”

She pulled back and smiled. “We did it.” Only one more milestone to go…

~*~*~*~*~

Like most things one dreams about non-stop for years, returning to Earth was different than most of the crew had imagined. A single-minded focus on getting back had allowed them all to romanticize their homecoming. Of course, what they were actually coming back to was the reality of lives lived in limbo for almost seven years. Tom’s joke about Rip van Winkle hadn’t been too far from the truth; in some ways, they were coming back from the dead, and they and their families would require a substantial amount of adjustment before Earth felt like home again.

Before they could even set foot on the planet, they had to coordinate an unending stream of complex logistics. First on the agenda, B’Elanna and the captain worked with the crews at McKinley Station to maneuver Voyager into its docking slip. Once the ship was secured, the senior staff spent the majority of the day meeting with Starfleet officials in the Mess Hall. Finally relieved of their engineering duties, the junior officers and crew were busy packing down their quarters and getting ready to disembark. Starfleet had cleared an entire floor at the Academy dormitory for the crew’s use while they were being debriefed and processed, and Commander Chakotay had coordinated their room assignments. All that remained was to finalize the timetable for transporting to the surface, where they would finally get to see their families face to face.

By the end of the senior staff meeting, the schedule for the next two weeks was set. They would spend forty-eight hours moving into their new quarters, spending time with their families, and making themselves available to answer Starfleet Command’s inevitable questions about the last seven years. At the end of the week, there would be an official ceremony, with all the pomp and circumstance due returning heroes. Of course, while the ceremony would conclude their official welcome home, it would mark the beginning of the hearings, debriefings, and reporting that would bring true closure to their journey, finally resolving some of their most critical unanswered questions.

As promised, Starfleet’s JAG office had scheduled formal hearings on the status of the former Maquis, to begin in earnest the following week. The Liberty’s crew would have several days to consult with legal council before they would face the court, and the hearings were expected to take just a few days. The other crucial and lingering questions—the status of Seven and the Doctor, Tom Paris’s parole and commission, legal guardianship of Icheb—would all be taken under advisement by a specially appointed Federation tribunal. There was no pre-determined deadline for their rulings, but everyone knew the cruel sort of limbo so many of Voyager’s crewmen now found themselves in. Kathryn was assured that these rulings would be handed down with deliberate care and speed.

As soon as their official business wrapped up, the senior officers made their own final preparations for the short trip to San Francisco. A few of them had been given permission to stay off base: Kathryn in her sister Phoebe’s apartment, Tom and B’Elanna at the Paris family residence just outside the city. Just like the rest of the crew, they had to agree to make themselves available to Starfleet officials, and, until all proceedings were concluded, they were prohibited from leaving Earth.

All that was left now was to say their goodbyes. Not to their friends and coworkers—the crew would be spending quite a bit of time together over the next two weeks—but to their home for the past seven years. The ship would have to be evaluated before a final decision was made on a refit. If she were to be repaired and recommissioned, Voyager’s crucial systems would be stripped and rebuilt from stem to stern before she would be put back into service. Of course, it was possible Starfleet would decide the damage was too extensive and take her out of service. So much was still up in the air.

Not surprisingly, B’Elanna wanted to take one more trip to Main Engineering before she could bring herself to leave. Tom was waiting for her in their quarters when she returned.

Instead of packing as he’d promised, Tom was sitting on their bed staring out the window, the baby draped over his shoulder, and a clear view of Earth filling the viewport. “Hey,” she said, surprising him from behind. “You can spend the rest of the night looking at it, or we can finish packing and actually get there.” He smiled sadly, but didn’t get up.

“I was telling MK about her uncle Harry,” he said softly. “And how happy he’d be to know we made it home.” B’Elanna sat on the bed next to her husband and rubbed his back gently. She wanted to believe their friend did know, but she suspected that thought would do little to comfort Tom. He shook off his grief and took a long look around the room. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get this stuff all boxed up and ready to go.”

B’Elanna agreed. “We should figure out what we’ll need for the next few weeks. I guess the rest can go into storage.”

Tom nodded. “I wasn’t sure how much we should take with us,” he said. “I wish we knew if we were coming back.” Every moment of their future was in limbo at this moment. Suddenly the man so determined to face his past seemed a little hesitant about what that might mean.

“We should take it all, Tom,” B’Elanna said evenly. “Just in case.” She handed him a storage box and moved the baby to her crib so they could finish compacting their lives into so many cargo containers.

It took them the better part of three hours. All of their possessions were now neatly stacked in two piles, the larger containers encoded for delivery to the storage compartment they’d been assigned on the base. Only their clothes, the crib, a few datapads, and the bat’leth would be sent to their temporary residence at Admiral Paris’s home.

After they finished packing, the couple took turns in the sonic shower and got dressed to leave. In doing so, there was now no way to avoid the last reminder that their long mission had really ended. “I will never get used to this new uniform,” Tom said as he wrestled with the proper placement of his pips on the red quilted collar.

B’Elanna wasn’t any happier about their new ‘wardrobe.’ “Is it as hot and uncomfortable as it looks?” she asked as she lifted her own version of the garment off the bed.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Although all the fasteners are on the front and there are fewer layers. I bet I’ll be able to beat my old record time in getting you out of yours.”

B’Elanna would have thrown a pillow at him if they weren’t all packed away. She knew her body demanded a few more weeks of recovery before they could play those kinds of games.

Tom checked in with the captain as soon as they were dressed. Janeway gave them permission to head to the surface and made plans to contact them in the morning. As they prepared to leave for the transporter room, Tom took B’Elanna in his arms. “This will always be the first home we made together,” he said sentimentally. “I’m gonna miss it.”

She took a long look around them. They had lived in these quarters less than a year, but she knew exactly what he meant. “Me, too,” she agreed. “But look on the bright side: maybe our next place will have more than one room.” She leaned up and gave Tom a quick kiss on the lips. There was no way she was going to let her husband get too morose on their first night back on Earth.

“Let’s go,” she said with great resolve, handing him their duffle bags before picking up the baby. They both knew that, no matter what they would face in the coming weeks and months, the most important mission of their lives had just officially ended. There was no turning back now.

~*~*~*~*~

While everyone else packed their lives into crates, the Doctor and Seven of Nine tried to find ways to occupy themselves. They had spent most of the afternoon instructing Starfleet technicians on the proper way to install a Borg alcove, but that only took a few hours. What few personal possessions they had were easily placed in duffles. Now they stood together in sickbay, wondering what to do next.

Starfleet had suggested the Doctor’s program be transferred to Louis Zimmerman’s lab on Jupiter Station, but he had asked, instead, to stay with the rest of his crew. Out of deference to the doctor’s wishes, the base personnel had reserved a small holosuite for his exclusive use. They also agreed to let him keep his mobile emitter for the time being, with the promise that Starfleet engineers would have several scheduled opportunities to examine the device. The Temporal Prime Directive worked in the Doctor’s favor in this case, since Federation personnel were prohibited from doing too detailed a study of the emitter’s 29th century technology. Their investigation would be limited to a few rudimentary scans, which would be classified instantly.

Seven had been assigned her own quarters on the base, and she requested (and was granted) a room close to Icheb. Her pupil had spent very little time alone since his reintroduction to humanity, and she wanted to be close by if he needed her.

For now, though, there seemed to be nothing left to do. After confirming that most of the crew had already transported to the base, Seven called the captain and received permission to disembark. The Doctor would have to wait, however. As the chief medical officer, he would be duty-bound to stay aboard until everyone except the captain had gone ashore.

“Well,” he said to Seven as she prepared to leave. “Will I see you later?”

She fidgeted nervously. Why was it that their little dating dance never seemed to get easier? “I don’t have plans for the evening. I could help you design a your new holographic quarters,” she offered, “if you’d like.”

He smiled. He would like very much. “1900 hours?” he suggested.

Seven nodded. “I’ll see you then,” she said, then turned and left.

Exercising one of his newer freedoms, custom designed by the mother of his new favorite Klingon, the Doctor prepared for the next step in his own personal journey. “Computer,” he called out. “Initiate subroutine Omega 2A.” With that, his obsolete uniform was replaced by the gray shouldered style they would all be wearing now.

As he put the finishing touches on the last of the ship’s medical files, he began to contemplate the design of his new ‘quarters’….

~*~*~*~*~

With her crew’s departure spread out over the course of an entire day, the captain couldn’t avoid a sense of disappointment that this most anticipated of moments held so little fanfare. She did see the wisdom, though, of letting her people get readjusted to their lives and families with some measure of privacy. There would be a lot of interest and attention paid in the next weeks and months. It was probably just as well that today’s reunions were low-key.

Her own first night home would be complicated, she knew. Her sister would meet her at the transport site. After an all-to-brief reunion, they would head to Mark’s home to get Molly. Phoebe had offered to pick up Kathryn’s dog herself, but—after facing everyone from the Borg to the Vidiians—Janeway wasn’t about to be frightened off by one harmless ex-fiancée. Besides, there was some closure she knew she needed in saying a final goodbye to the man she’d once loved. Afterward, they would transport to Phoebe’s apartment and studio just across the bay in Berkeley for a quiet dinner at home.

The plans had been made for days, but somehow Kathryn decided to improvise a slight change in her itinerary. She left her meticulously packed quarters for the short trip down the hall. She wasn’t totally surprised to see his room a mess. “Need a hand getting packed?” she called out as she entered.

Her first officer’s head peeked around the bedroom wall. “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not going,” he joked. “Just have the repair crews work around me.”

She laughed. “Isn’t it amazing how much ‘stuff’ we’ve collected while on replicator rationing? I was tempted to recycle half of my things just so I wouldn’t have to pack them.” He knew this was a lie meant to make him feel better about his own overgrown collection of things. Kathryn was a collector, a ‘pack rat’ as Tom had called her once. She’d no more recycle her precious possessions than he would.

“I’ll tell you what,” Chakotay offered, “just throw everything into the nearest crate. I’ll sort it all out later.” She laughed and started doing just that. In short order, they had everything ready to go. Like Tom and B’Elanna, he would be taking only the basics with him to his new quarters: a few newly-replicated uniforms, some civilian clothes, his Akoonah and medicine bundle, and a few datapads. He stuffed them all into his duffle bag then took a look around his home for the last time. Then he turned to face her.

“Thank you,” he said with great sincerity.

“I told you it wouldn’t take very long,” she said referring the their packing, and totally missing his meaning.

Chakotay looked at her for a long minute before he continued. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity,” he clarified. “For rescuing me and my crew, for trusting me enough to make me your first officer. For being such a good friend. I owe you everything, Kathryn.”

She didn’t know what to say. “Thank you,” was what came out. “For being willing to try it my way. For all the times you knew I was wrong, but stood by me anyway. For being my partner and my best friend.” She took a step toward him and took his hand in hers. “Thank you for not giving up on me.” She pulled him to her and hugged him tightly.

When she finally pulled back, she remembered the reason she had come to visit him in the first place. “Do you have plans tonight?” she asked a little tentatively.

“No,” he answered. “My cousin is away on a Vulcan archeological expedition, so there’s no family waiting to meet me. But I just assumed you’d want some time alone with your sister.” When she looked up at him, Chakotay noticed how vulnerable this tough, strong woman seemed tonight.

“I’m anxious to see her,” Kathryn admitted. “But I…after everything we went though to get here, it just seems wrong to spend our first night home apart.” She searched his face for validation. “Does that seem silly?”

He could only smile. “No. In fact, I wanted the same thing. I just didn’t want to intrude on your time with Phoebe.”

Kathryn was relieved. “You wouldn’t be intruding. Actually, she’s looking forward to meeting you.” He wasn’t sure why that comment made him nervous. Kathryn now seemed anxious to start their evening. “Well then, I just need to make sure the rest of the crew has gotten down safely and I’ll get ready to go.” She pulled away and headed toward the door. “I’ll see you in a few minutes.” She smiled at him one last time and headed back to her quarters.

As he watched her leave, Chakotay couldn’t help but wonder if this was the start of their lives as a couple. As he began to change clothes for their departure, he couldn’t help but face the reminder of all they still had to overcome before leaving their ranks and duties behind. He held the new issue uniform in front of him and sighed. Soon, he thought. Very soon.

~*~*~*~*~

Kathryn had seen her sister in letters from the datastream and then live on her viewscreen as they got closer to Earth. Somehow, that hadn’t prepared her for the seven-year-older woman who met them at the transport site. Her ‘baby’ sister no longer had the flawless skin of a thirty year-old. If Kathryn wasn’t mistaken, those were the beginnings of wrinkles at the corner of Phoebe’s eyes. It only reinforced how much of each other’s lives they’d been forced to miss. It also made her wonder how different she now looked.

“Welcome home, Kath,” Phoebe said as they embraced. “My god, where’s your hair?!”

Chakotay smiled. He knew Kathryn was wondering why everyone made such a big deal about her hair. “It was impractical.” Janeway explained. “Three years into the trip I hacked it all off.” Her sister couldn’t hide her disappointment. Phoebe was an artist, and Kathryn’s long red hair had been the captain’s one nod to aesthetics and romance in an otherwise—in her sister’s opinion—dry scientific life.

“Well, it will always grow back,” Phoebe reassured her, instead making Kathryn just a touch insecure. It was about this moment that the younger Janeway realized the identity of the man standing next to her sister. “So, I guess this must be Chakotay,” she said smiling—not at him, but at Kathryn. The sly look in the woman’s eyes now made it the commander’s turn to feel a little insecure. He was nothing if not charming, however, and he decided to make a good first impression on this woman who he hoped would be a part of his life for quite a while.

“It’s good to meet you, Phoebe,” he said extending his hand. She threw her arms around him instead.

“You, too,” she said with great enthusiasm. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said, more than a little cryptically. “Mother’s looking forward to meeting you.” That raised a question he had forgotten to ask. The sisters filled in the gaps for him.

“When is she getting back to Earth,” Kathryn asked.

“Not for another month,” her sister answered. “She’s on the only Federation ship in the sector, and Starfleet had to dispatch a transport to go get her. You know Mother; she was furious that she didn’t know you might be back so soon. She never would have gone so far away if she thought she’d miss being here for your homecoming.”

Kathryn turned to Chakotay and filled him in. “Mother is coordinating a project for the Federation cultural ministry and the Cardassian government to help salvage works of art and other artifacts damaged or lost during the war. It’s really just a way to help diffuse the years of hostilities.”

Phoebe added some of the latest news. “Rumor has it that the Cardassians are making overtures for Federation aid and assistance in rebuilding. Very controversial, as you might imagine.” It was hard for Chakotay to think of yet another Federation/Cardassian alliance without instantly feeling the rush of anger he had lived with as a Maquis. Yet he knew these were different times, and that the Dominion War had changed everything, several times over. He’d reserve judgment—for now.

He was happy, though, when the conversation turned away from politics. Phoebe had grabbed her older sister’s arm as they began to make their way toward the exit. “Well, I know Mother is sorry she can’t be here, but there is one other old girl who will make quite a fuss about your return.”

Kathryn smiled sadly. “If she still recognizes me after all these years.” She turned to her sister as they reached the main doors. “Are you sure Mark doesn’t mind our coming by to get her. Molly’s been his dog for the past seven years.”

Phoebe knew Kathryn wasn’t really worried about Mark’s reaction to returning her dog. She was really asking if Mark minded seeing her again. “I think he feels like giving up Molly is the least he can do to make up for…,” Phoebe watched Chakotay out of the corner of her eye before she continued. “Well, let’s just say I think he wonders how you really feel about his moving on with his life after you were lost.”

‘How I feel about his marrying someone else,’ Kathryn thought. It was funny. Though part of her had been sad to hear of Mark’s marriage, another part of her was relieved. By the time her ‘Dear John’ letter had arrived, her own heart had moved on as well. And she was grateful to him for keeping Molly. Now, with the promise of a new life with a new love, she realized she’d be happy to see her old friend and former flame one more time. Her reply was for Chakotay as well as her sister. “He shouldn’t be worried. I’ve moved on, too. I just hope he’s as happy with his new life as I am with mine.”

With that, they stepped though the door, and into the warm, fading sunshine of the California summer evening. Kathryn slipped her hand into Chakotay’s and squeezed it gently. He leaned over and whispered into her ear. “Welcome home, Kathryn.”

She turned her eyes to meet his, not even bothering to wipe away the tears. “I can’t believe we’re really here,” she said softly. “I can’t believe we made it.”

They stood there for a few moments, just drinking in the familiar sights and smells of this place they had known so well. In another lifetime, or so it seemed. After a moment, they headed for the underground transport that would take them to Mark’s home in the Olde Mission District. This would be only the first of several surreal moments they would experience in the next few hours.

Mark was still living in the same house she had helped him pick out over a decade earlier. Kathryn could never figure out why he’d want to live in such an old place—one of the few to survive the big quake of 2294—when the newer homes had so many more modern conveniences. Still, it was a quaint and charming place, and she had grown fond of it over the years. Particularly the handcrafted stained glass door at its entrance.

There were two reunions to be had behind that door, she knew. One would be about bringing closure. The other—hopefully—about finding a lost love. It was the later that caused her the most anxiety. Chakotay could tell she was nervous, and tried to be reassuring. “Dogs never forget their people, Kathryn. She’ll know you. Don’t worry.” Still, as they waited for a reply to the doorbell, her stomach did small cartwheels.

When he answered the door, they both stood there awkwardly. Finally, she made the first move. “Mark,” she said as she leaned over to hug him.

His eyes were tearing up as he returned the embrace. “Kath, you look wonderful. It’s good to see you.” He pulled the door open wide, “Please come in.”

The three stepped inside, and Kathryn couldn’t help but notice the lack of a big red dog in the room. Her anxiousness caused her to overlook an important introduction. “Hi,” she heard him say, “I’m Mark Johnson. And you are?”

She turned as he answered. “Chakotay. I’m Kathryn’s…first officer.” True, though less than complete.

Mark sensed as much, but was hardly in a position to comment. “It’s nice to meet you,” he said, before realizing the frantic look on Kathryn’s face.

“She’s in the yard,” he said. “I’m sure she can’t wait to see you.” He led them through the house to an immaculately landscaped enclosure behind it. Before they were even though the door, a large Irish Setter bound toward them, a wet tennis ball in her mouth. She dropped the ball at Mark’s feet and sat at attention. Kathryn’s face fell. The dog didn’t even sniff her.

“Good girl, Chloe,” he said as he took the ball. “Now, where’s your mother?” Of course. This dog was too young to be hers. It was one of the puppies Molly had been carrying when Kathryn left on her ‘three-week’ mission. Before Mark could explain, Kathryn saw a blur of red out of the corner of her eye, walking as fast as four old legs could maneuver, a fluffy tail wagging wildly.

“Molly!” Kathryn called to her. The old dog picked up her pace and threw herself at her mistress, who was suddenly sprawled on the grass and covered with more kisses than she’d had in the last seven years combined. “My Molly,” she said, in the moments when she could come up for air. “I’ve missed you sweetheart.” She reached out and hugged the big dog to her, her hands reflexively scratching the same spots she knew to be Molly’s favorites. They sat together on the grass until Kathryn had scratched or rubbed every inch of the dog’s fur. Any doubts she’d had about being remembered were put to rest forever.

When they came back inside, Mark invited them to stay for a cup of coffee. Kathryn politely declined. “It’s been an exhausting day,” she said truthfully. “I’m anxious to get settled in.” He pretended to understand, and she didn’t bother to reassure him. They would be friends again one day, she knew. But for now, it was probably best that they keep a little distance.

Phoebe took the doggie bed and favorite toys while Chakotay clipped on the leash and led Molly outside. As Kathryn turned to say goodbye, Mark decided to risk it. The answer might make him feel better about the way things had ended up. “So,” he asked, “do you love him?”

She was caught off guard, but smiled. “Yes. He’s a good man, Mark. I can’t imagine my life without him.”

He smiled, then took her in a warm embrace. “Then he’s the luckiest man in the world,” he said sincerely.

She pulled back and touched her hand to his face. “Take care of yourself,” she said gently.

He took her hand from his cheek and kissed it. “Maybe we can have lunch after you get settled in,” he said. “I’d love for you to meet Janelle.”

“I’d like that,” she said before turning to go.

When she reached the bottom of the steps, Mark saw Kathryn take the leash from her first officer’s hand, then watched as the man put his arm around her shoulder as if it were destined to be there. “Bye, Kath,” he said under his breath. He noticed she didn’t look back.

Phoebe’s apartment was a large loft in a converted warehouse in Berkeley’s old arts district. Most of the buildings dated from the late 20th century; anything older was turned to rubble in the big quake. All windows and tall ceilings, Phoebe’s home also served as her art studio, and featured a rather eclectic collection of half-completed paintings and sculptures. She had cleared out an old storage room on the lower level for Kathryn’s use. It would be her big sister’s temporary home until she could sort out her life.

Molly took no time getting settled in, her well-worn bed carefully placed alongside Kathryn’s. The trip from San Francisco had exhausted her, and Kathryn realized the toll old age was taking on her girl. The dog was sound asleep in less than ten minutes.

Phoebe replicated a nice vegetarian dinner—Kathryn noticed her sister’s kitchen was, as usual, practically empty—and they sat around talking for most of the evening. Phoebe and Chakotay seemed to hit it off, sharing the same interest in spirituality, art, and ancient cultures. It was funny, she realized: her impulsive, head-in-the-clouds sister was actually much more like Chakotay than she was. Rather than annoying her as they once did, her sister’s ramblings now seemed compelling and fascinating. Had Phoebe changed so much, she wondered, or had Kathryn—perhaps through her relationship with her first officer—come to appreciate the parts of her sister that had once seemed to irresponsible and flighty?

Phoebe, who had once tagged along uninvited everywhere her older sister went, had also seemed to develop a better sense of when Kathryn needed to be alone. After dinner, she placed their dishes in the recycler, and excused herself.

Chakotay considered leaving, too. It was now almost midnight, and he hadn’t even seen his new quarters. The last thing he needed was to be found wandering around Starfleet Headquarters lost in the middle of the night. He could tell, though, that Kathryn wanted him to stay. Once again, he was caught squarely between his heart and his head. Granted, there was no bed check back at the dormitory. But he still couldn’t figure out when it would be safe for him to let down his guard and truly relax about his relationship with this woman who was still his captain.

She sensed his uncertainty and knew he would take his lead from her. She took his hand in hers. “I don’t think you should go back to the base alone this time of night,” she said softly. “It might raise too many questions.”

He wasn’t sure. “More questions than my not coming home at all?” he asked.

She decided to abandon logic. “I want you to stay.”

She wouldn’t need to beg, he knew. But he wanted to make sure he understood what she was suggesting. “Are you sure you’re ready,” he asked.

She almost laughed. “If I’m not ready by now, I can’t imagine I ever will be.” She stood up and walked to the front door, picking up the duffle he had left just inside. “Here,” she said. “Why don’t you get ready for bed. I don’t think I should make love to you while you’re in that uniform.”

He laughed as he watched the immovable line pushed another ten feet back. Apparently, as long as she could pretend he wasn’t her subordinate, she could make an exception. “I don’t know,” he said smiling, “many of my fantasies have involved getting you out of yours.”

She threw the bag at him as she walked toward the bedroom. “Humor me,” she said as she went. He planned to do that, and more.

As she suspected, they fit together perfectly—though she was surprised at how aggressive this gentle man could be. They’d both waited a long time for this, however, and she found herself getting a little carried away herself. There was no going back now, she realized, and the thought made her smile. More than crossing into the Alpha Quadrant, docking her ship in Earth orbit, or smelling the salty bay breeze fill her lungs, this experience—feeling the soft kisses and caresses of the man she loved on her body—let her know she was finally home.

This moment began her new life, she realized. Leaning over to kiss him one last time, she wrapped herself in his arms and drifted soundly to sleep.

~*~*~*~*~

This was an old, familiar sensation: feeling the bright light and warmth of the sunshine pouring throught his bedroom windows. For a second, Tom wondered if he was still a child about to wake up from the most extraordinary of dreams. The hand that suddenly appeared on his butt told him that was probably not the case. He rolled over to kiss the hand’s owner, then had a very bizarre sense of déjà vu. He’d lost his virginity in this very room when he was seventeen years old. Now he was waking up in it with his wife.

Ironic, he thought, that he’d gotten more action in this bed as a teenager than he had last night. Three weeks and counting…

“Good morning,” he said softly. “How do you like my room?” It was very late when they had finally stumbled in the night before. They’d taken time only to strip off their uniforms and collapse on the mattress before both had fallen sound asleep. In the morning light, however, B’Elanna could see the wall of adventure novels, the model ships, and a pair of old skis propped up in the corner.

“It looks like you just left if yesterday,” she said.

Tom was just as surprised. He had assumed the Admiral would have thrown out every reminder of his shame the same day he’d thrown out his only son. Just another way in which he had underestimated his father’s love, he now knew, as he looked around at this virtual shrine to his youth. “I’m pretty sure the clothes don’t fit any more,” he kidded, wondering again why falling in love with B’Elanna had made his body gain and lose weight so unpredictably. Surely all the exercise he was getting should have kept him svelte. No matter, he thought. She clearly loved him as he was.

B’Elanna made a mental note to raid his closet for things she’d want to keep. Maybe his old clothes didn’t fit him anymore, but she suspected some of his t-shirts would make perfect nightgowns for her.

They were about to enjoy their first long kiss of the morning when their three-week-old alarm clock decided to go off. At the sound of her daughter’s cries, B’Elanna knew someone else had first dibs on her body. Denied his own enjoyment, Tom crawled out of bed and scooped his daughter into his arms. “Your timing stinks, Monkey,” he said, using his pet name for his child. He’d had to explain it to B’Elanna: Miral Kimberly. M.K. Monkey. It made perfect sense to him. Besides, every daughter needed an embarrassing nickname bestowed by her father. It was a Paris family tradition.

B’Elanna had propped herself up in the bed and reached out to take the baby from his arms. She settled her daughter under her breast; the crying stopped as soon breakfast began. Tom plopped himself at his wife’s side and began to stroke his daughter’s hair, as he did every morning while B’Elanna fed her. “What do you want to do today,” he asked as he watched them. It was a free day for Voyager’s crew, Starfleet understanding that they had a lot of personal business to attend to now that they were home.

“I don’t know,” B’Elanna said. “Your sisters are coming for dinner, so we can’t go too far,” she reminded him. “Do you have anything in mind?”

He looked a little far away for a moment—not the carefree man who had just sat down beside her. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “There’s a package I’d like to deliver.”

She understood. “Great. Why don’t you take a shower while I finish feeding MK. Then you can get her dressed and changed while I get ready.”

Tom was back in the moment now, and laughed. “You know, your suggestions always seem to leave me on diaper duty. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”

B’Elanna laughed. “Seventeen hours of labor, Tom. I’ve got to get you back some way.” She leaned over and kissed him before swatting him off the bed. “Get going,” she teased.

As she watched him pick up a change of clothes and head for the door, B’Elanna let herself enjoy seeing her husband in this place, this room that had been such a part of his life as a child. There was a happy ending in this house for him, she now knew. One big mystery solved. She only hoped the rest of their questions would have equally pleasant answers.

After a quick breakfast with Tom’s mother, the couple retrieved the padded case and headed out. Incredibly anxious to be back in the pilot’s seat after feeling like a passenger for most of Voyager’s final weeks, Tom signed out a two-seat shuttle for the short trip to Marin County. He’d confirmed the address in the Federation database, and made sure the family would be home when they arrived. He parked the craft on a landing pad near the residence and they headed out.

B’Elanna was carrying Miral, knowing that Tom would want to hold onto the case for as long as possible. A part of her had wondered if Tom would keep it for himself. It had been a gift from him, after all, and one of the few tangible connections he would ever have to their lost friend. Somehow this gesture seemed more appropriate, however. As they reached the front door, she confirmed the name above the bell. John and Mary Kim. They were in the right place.

The visit stated out awkward, but congenial. Tom was amazed at how much like his mother Harry had been, and he loved seeing the walls covered with pictures of his friend as a young boy. Sometimes it amazed Tom that he had only known Harry for seven years. He could barely remember a time when he didn’t feel like he had a little brother.

The family was polite and gracious, and they clearly enjoyed seeing the two young people Harry had written them about so often. But their pain was tangible, and a part of Tom wondered if he was right to intrude on their grief. He decided to get to the point as quickly as possible. “I found this in his quarters,” Tom said, remembering his first look inside his best friend’s home after the accident. “I gave it to Harry on his last birthday.” Tom handed them the case and watched as Harry’s father lifted out the gold saxophone. “He was really starting to get good at it. I thought you might want to have something from his time on Voyager.”

He watched as Mr. Kim closed his eyes and fingered the instrument silently. “Thank you,” he said softly.

B’Elanna noticed Harry’s mother smile. “Wait here for just a minute,” she said before leaving them. When she came back, she was holding a box. “Harry sent us a letter in the last datastream, before….” She decided not to finish the sentence. “He asked me to dig this out of his things so he could give it to you when you got home.”

Tom took the box hesitantly. It held a small datachip plugged into a hand-held holoprogramer. Tom moved his thumb to turn it on. When he saw the program name on the screen, he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. ‘Captain Sulu and the Adventures of the USS Excelsior.’ It was to have been their next holodeck role-playing game. Mrs. Kim didn’t understand the significance, but she explained, “This was the first one Harry ever wrote. He was twelve, I think. He was always complaining that he couldn’t talk his friends into playing with him.”

Tom couldn’t help but laugh. It wasn’t a new adventure Harry had planned for them, but an old one. He took the chip from the imager, and smiled. “Thank you,” he said as he put it in his pocket. “This really means a lot to me.” He was surprised to find another gift appear in his hand, a datapad with an unread message.

“He sent this, too,” Mrs. Kim said softly. “But perhaps you’ll want to listen to it in private.” Tom remembered the day they had rushed to finish their final letters for the last datastream. Why would Harry have sent one to him? He decided to wait until later to find out.

The exchange of gifts seemed to break the tension, and the Paris’s found themselves staying for several more hours, sharing stories of their son’s adventures—carefully editing out the ongoing side-show that had been Harry Kim’s love life. They talked for a long while about the way Harry had solved their transwarp instability problem, in the process probably saving his friends’ lives. And Tom told them about their son’s posthumous and long-overdue promotion. It was a cathartic experience for all of them, but it soon left Tom and B’Elanna exhausted. After a while, they said their goodbyes and headed for the door.

Once they were settled into the shuttle and about to take off, B’Elanna asked the question she’d been wondering for half the day. “So what was on the chip?”

Tom just smiled. “Just a reminder from Harry that it was his turn to play captain,” he said sadly. “Let’s go.”

B’Elanna didn’t understand, and she didn’t need to. “Do you want me to fly us home?” she asked out of consideration for Tom’s emotions. The question alone seemed to bring him to life.

“Are you crazy?” he answered, smiling over at her. “In fact, let’s do a little sightseeing before we head back.”

They spent the next hour touring the wine country from the air, then flying over the bay, around the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally buzzing his father’s house before Tom steered them back to base. Flying was therapy for him, B’Elanna knew, and she was just as happy to have him work out his grief from the pilot’s chair.

As they put down at the base hangar, she soon realized their little trip had reminded Tom of one more old friend. “I need to get to work fixing the Flyer,” he said almost to himself. B’Elanna smiled. He might just have been thinking out loud, but she knew this was just the kind of project Tom needed to get him though the difficult days ahead. B’Elanna decided to talk to Kathryn about it in the morning.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay had returned to the base early that same morning, no one the wiser about the way he had spent the previous night. Kathryn was spending the day with Molly and a few old friends from the Academy. They agreed to meet on the base for dinner that evening. Chakotay didn’t have the luxury of enjoying his day off, however: the commander would spend this morning with his Fleet appointed legal counsel trying to map out a defense for the charges still pending against him and trying to secure pardons for his Maquis crew.

He didn’t mind spending his day this way. He was determined to get his past behind him now that the future looked so promising. Last night had been an important first step in making a new life for himself, but it only left him more determined to get the whole legal mess over with. He wanted Kathryn openly in his life, not just in his bed. That simple luxury continued to elude him as long as he was a Maquis outlaw.

He had showered and changed into a fresh uniform, and was leaving his new quarters when he ran into Seven. She was dressed more casually than he had ever seen her, in a loose-fitting linen shirt over simple black slacks. Her hair was subtly different too. “Where’s the fire?” he said as she rushed past him.

“Oh, Commander,” she said, only now realizing he was even there. She showed him the datachip in her right hand. “I am assisting the Doctor with his new quarters,” she said a little self-consciously. “And I’m late,” she admitted.

“Don’t let me get in your way, then,” he said smiling. Seven and the Doctor. It still made his head spin. But whatever made his friends happy was just fine with him.

She buzzed at the entrance to the holosuite. (Starfleet had been thoughtful enough to install a privacy lock on this normally public room.) The doors opened to show a holographic replica that exactly duplicated the base’s crew quarters. Given his choice of any setting, the Doctor had elected to live just like the rest of his crewmates. Well, with a few additional touches.

“Good morning, Seven,” he said as he welcomed her. “Did you finish them?”

She nodded. “A few minutes ago. I hope they’re to you liking.” She moved to the control panel just inside the door and inserted the chip. “Computer, initiate subroutine Gershwin Monet Beta 2.” Instantly, the standard issue dresser was replaced by a player piano, and the non-descript wall hangings with two original-looking impressionist paintings.

“They’re wonderful,” he said, impressed with her work.

“I have another surprise for you,” Seven said unexpectedly. “Computer, download EMH autonomous wardrobe. Initiate and resynch program.” The Doctor zimmered in and out as his program restarted.

“What was that?” he asked. Seven handed him a PADD. I thought you might like the ability to choose your own clothing,” she explained. Until this moment, an engineer needed to reprogram new outfits into the doctor’s datafiles each time he wanted to change out of his standard-issue uniform. On the PADD, however, was a listing of approximately fifty different changes of clothing the Doctor could request of his own free will. He was touched.

“I thought you might want to wear something casual for our picnic,” she said. “You can select whatever you’d like, but I’d recommend file Delta 501. It’s a particular favorite of mine.”

He smiled. This was a lovely turn of events. He had designed Seven’s wardrobe for so long, he was now anxious to see what she’d picked out for him. “Very well,” he said. “Computer, initiate subroutine Delta 501.”

While the Doctor wasn’t programmed to feel pain, tactile sensations were a necessary part of his interactions with the physical world. He could ‘feel’ everything from pressure to temperature to texture. And this new sensation could only be described as…constriction. He looked down at what he could see of his new clothing. Tight pants in a faded blue with a contrasting top stitching. He could feel pockets at the waist and the loops where a belt might be worn. Interestingly enough, Seven hadn’t bothered to add a belt to the program—an unusual oversight for someone normally so precise. He couldn’t see more than the arms and front of his shirt, but he realized it was made of a thinner version of the same material used in the pants. Funny, he noticed, how it was equally coarse and soft. It, like the pants, also seemed too small for him.

“Do you like it?” Seven asked, showing an obvious appreciation for her own handiwork. “They’re called ‘blue jeans,’ she explained. Circa 1995, though I have had them distressed as if worn for a few years as B’Elanna recommended.” He was now beginning to understand.

“B’Elanna recommended this outfit to you?” he asked. “Isn’t it a little…form fitting?”

Seven smiled. “Yes,” she said. “The clothing is designed to conform to the male body. Lieutenant Torres said something about ‘turnabout being fair play.’ I don’t understand the reference, but I have to agree with her assessment. It is a very attractive look for you.”

The Doctor grimaced. His ‘assessment’ was being squeezed with every step he took. After years of the looser uniform pants, this was going to take some getting used to. Still, the look on Seven’s face made him think it might be worth the discomfort.

“Well, then,” he said trying to get used to the strange sensation of being fondled by one’s own clothing. “If you like it so much, I guess this is what I’ll wear. Shall we go?” He downloaded his program into the mobile emitter and picked up the basket of food he’d replicated. “After you.” He showed her to the door.

~*~*~*~*~

The rest of their week flew by. After an initial day of respect and privacy for the crew, plans for Voyager’s homecoming celebration were reaching a climax, and Starfleet’s returning heroes were finding themselves the center of a flurry of attention. Governments from every planet in the Federation seemed to want an interview with the Delta Quadrant pioneers, and they even found themselves the subject of stares and whispers as their faces became well known across the world.

Some of them were handling the fuss better than others. Naomi had become quite a star, as had Neelix, the Alpha Quadrant’s only resident Talaxian. Kathryn was shocked to learn that the story of Voyager had been turned into a series of popular children’s books, and their real life adventures were now routinely taught in Federation schools.

The attention was less than welcomed by the former Maquis, who would have been just as happy to slip quietly back into the fabric of Federation society. B’Elanna wasn’t thrilled, for instance, to see her life discussed publicly as if it were one of those old television ‘soap operas’. And, while she knew the commotion would eventually die down, she was an intensely private person now faced with instant celebrity. It made her supremely uncomfortable.

Tom, on the other hand, let it roll right off him. He’d spent the week ignoring all the fuss, intent on helping B’Elanna prepare for her hearing. Maybe it was his life as an admiral’s son that allowed him such detachment, she guessed. Or that their being seen as heroic might help to combat the years of unfounded and untrue rumors about his involvement in their disappearance. No matter what, she envied they way he could shut it all out.

The morning of the ceremony, she allowed herself to hope that it would all come to an end soon enough.

While both the Paris’s hated the new standard issue singlets, B’Elanna had to admit that the dress uniforms were quite nice. She thought Tom looked especially handsome in the white formal jacket. They had just joined the rest of their friends at a pre-ceremony reception for the crew and their families in the Academy’s dining hall. It was the first time most of the crew had seen one another in almost five days.

B’Elanna knew something was different about Chakotay the moment she saw him. There was a bit of the old Maquis fire in his eyes, though this time she could tell it was from happiness rather than pain. She was just ready to ask about this change in him, when her attention was distracted by the man walking toward her tentatively from across the room.

Tom had been standing only a few feet away talking with Kathryn when he saw his wife’s eyes go blank. He didn’t even bother to excuse himself before heading to her side.

“B’Elanna, what is it?” he started to say before turning in the direction of her stare. The man was getting closer now, barely looking in their direction has he came toward them. He was a head shorter than Tom, a human, mid-fifties, handsome, with a dark complexion, and jet black eyes. He looked familiar, though Tom couldn’t place why. Paris made the connection just seconds before the man spoke.

“Hello, B’Elanna,” he said softly.

She just glared back at him. Tom wasn’t sure what to do; this was his wife’s call to make. He thought for a moment that she might pass out before he saw her steel Klingon strength of will ignite her courage. “Hello, daddy,” she said flatly. “It’s been a long time.”

John Torres looked shamed, and rightfully so. “Too long,” he said softly before turning to introduce himself to his son-in-law. “You’re Tom Paris, I assume,” he said hesitantly.

Tom didn’t know what to say. “Yes, sir,” was all he could squeak out. He wanted desperately to put his arm around his wife while she faced her long-lost father, but he knew she didn’t want or need that kind of support right now.

“John Torres,” the man said, as if Tom didn’t already know.

Tom’s next impulse was to slug the coward who had caused his wife so much lifelong pain. Again, though, he knew that was B’Elanna’s call to make.

Perhaps because she was caught off guard, perhaps her husband’s own successful reconciliation was still fresh in her mind, but B’Elanna decided in that moment to offer up her anger. She’d never forgive her father for abandoning her and her mother. She’d never forget the way the pain of that loss had colored her entire life. But now, standing before her was a tired, old excuse for a man, clearly wracked with guilt and full of a lifetime of demons. Maybe he was punishing himself enough for the both of them.

They stood awkwardly for a moment before she broke the tension. “You look well,” she lied.

“So do you,” he was being sincere. “You’ve grown into such a beautiful woman,” he said, a tender look in his eyes. How ironic, she thought, that he should find her beautiful now. But then she supposed he always did have a thing for Klingon women. He kept talking, afraid now that he might never get the chance again. “I just wanted to see you one more time, to tell you how much I’ve missed you, and how proud I am of the woman you’ve become.” She didn’t know how to respond.

“Thank you,” was all she could say.

The crowd was being ushered to their tables now, and B’Elanna’s look told her father she had to be going. Torres started to step away, then quickly turned back, a pleading look in his eyes. “I’d like to spend some time with you if I could,” he blurted out. She was ready to decline when he added, “I have news about your mother.”

Afraid B’Elanna might rip it up, he handed Tom a small card with his contact information. “I’ll be on Earth for the rest of the weekend,” he offered as he backed away. “I hope you’ll let me finish this conversation before I have to go.” With that, he smiled sadly and walked away, leaving his daughter and her husband stunned.

“Are you okay?” Tom asked when they were finally alone.

“I think so,” she said flatly. She was numb, he could tell.

“What should I do with this?” Tom asked, referring to the card her father had handed him.

“Keep it,” she said softly. She looked again at the empty space where John Torres once stood. “For now.”

After the reception, the crew was escorted to the parade grounds for their official welcome home. As expected, they were serenaded by a Vulcan children’s choir, and subjected to ponderous speeches by several Federation officials. Then the academy’s elite Nova Squadron flew the traditional ‘missing man’ formation in honor of their lost friends. It was a very staid, very respectful event, followed by the unveiling of a memorial commemorating the return of the lost ship. Like all such ceremonies, there was an element of ritual intended to bring a sense of closure to their ill-fated journey.

Of course, no one knew better than Voyager’s captain how tenuous that closure now seemed. Not only were they still grieving the loss of their friends, the fate of everything from the Maquis, to the rescued Borg, to the ship itself was yet to be determined. At least the coming week would allow them to start moving on.

Janeway spent the last part of her day greeting the families of the dead. Tom and B’Elanna introduced her to Harry’s parents. She introduced them to Tuvok’s wife and children. “It’s an honor to meet you T’Pel,” Tom said sincerely. He felt like he knew the woman before him after helping Tuvok program a holographic version of his wife during the commander’s recent pon farr.

“And you as well, Mr. Paris. My husband mentioned you several times in his letters home.”

Yikes, Tom thought. “Well, I hope his observations weren’t completely negative,” he joked.

Tom almost laughed out loud when, in a stereotypically Tuvokian manner, T’Pel raised her eyebrow and offered sardonically, “Not all of them.” Clearly, they had made a perfect couple, he realized.

T’Pel’s control of her emotions didn’t make her husband’s friends feel any better about his loss. Kathryn, in particular, was clearly mourning for her oldest and dearest friend. “There won’t be another day in my life when I don’t think of him,” she said to the Vulcan woman.

The response she received was kind. “Then I hope you’re memories are of pleasant times, for I know he would not want you burdened with regrets in his name.” The captain nodded her head and made a silent pledge to herself. ‘Only the happy memories,’ she thought. That would take a Vulcan’s self-control, she knew, but it was a pledge she would try to keep.

Chakotay had just finished saying goodbye to Moira Delaney, who was just as vivacious and beautiful as the two daughters she had lost, when he saw Kathryn move off by herself. He made his way across the room to stand with her. “How are you holding up?” he asked.

Her face betrayed her. “I’ll be glad when this is over,” she admitted. “How about you?”

He was equally drained. “Nothing a quiet evening at home won’t fix.” She looked a little disappointed until he added, “Yours or mine?” She smiled, just as inspiration took over.

“How about neither?” she answered. “I know a place where we can spend the whole weekend and not see a single Starfleet or Federation face,” she said.

He was intrigued. “Tell me where and when,” he said, glad to agree. He could see the wheels spinning in her beautiful head.

“Meet me at the shuttle hangar at 1700 hours,” she said. And leave that uniform home.

He smiled. “It’s a date.” Maybe this day would end on a happier note than it had begun, he hoped.

~*~*~*~*~

Tom answered the door with the baby in his arms. He wasn’t surprised that John Torres was arriving a little early. He suspected it was everything the man could do to wait for this long-overdue reunion.

If she were honest with herself, B’Elanna would have had to admit to feeling just as anxious. She had wrestled with the decision to call her father, the final choice made by a deep need to hear about her mother’s fate. Somehow she suspected the news wasn’t good, but the reality couldn’t be any worse than her imagination.

She deliberately timed their meeting too late for dinner. She wanted to be able to excuse herself in the least awkward way if she didn’t like the way the conversation was going. Instead, she had invited her father to visit Admiral Paris’s home late that evening, her in-laws conveniently arranging to spend the night out of town visiting friends.

Now John Torres stood in the doorway of the Paris home, looking at the accusing eyes of his much-taller son-in-law, and feeling very much like he deserved to: ashamed and uncomfortable. Luckily, the little bundle wiggling in front of him offered a much-needed icebreaker. “Is that my granddaughter?”

Tom resented his using that term of endearment, no matter how true it was. Torres didn’t have any way to know how much his past actions had endangered this little girl’s entire existence, but her father knew and deeply resented it. But he was determined to be polite to this man if it killed him. “This is Miral Kimberly,” he said with unconcealed love and more than a little protectiveness.

“May I hold her?” Torres asked, putting Tom on the spot.

“Sure,” he said less than convincingly. “I guess so.” He handed the baby to the older man and was surprised at how comfortable he looked holding an infant. “You seem like you’ve had some practice,” Tom said. “Do you have other children?”

He saw the pain in the man’s face. “No,” he said sadly. “Just B’Elanna. I never remarried. Klingons mate for life.” Now Tom was totally confused.

No more so than his wife, who was now standing behind him at the door to the kitchen. She decided to pretend she hadn’t heard her father’s last comments. “I’ve see you’ve met Miral,” she said softly.

Torres’ eyes were sad and empty as he answered, “Yes. She’s beautiful. She looks just like you did as a baby, B’Elanna.” The man looked down into the face of his granddaughter as he continued. “It’s nice that you named her after your mother.”

They stood awkwardly for another moment before Tom took the initiative. “I was just putting the baby to bed,” he said, taking his daughter back into his arms. “There’s some coffee in the kitchen if you want to make yourself comfortable.” He looked back to B’Elanna as he was about to leave the room. When he saw the look on her face, Tom couldn’t stop himself, and walked over to kiss her before he left the room. “I’ll wait upstairs,” he whispered softly. She was a little embarrassed, but appreciated his show of support.

“Why don’t we go sit down,” she said as she led her father through the living room and into the kitchen.

For the next hour, Tom could hear gentle murmurs and raised voices and the breaking of at least one glass. Not long afterward he heard the front door close, followed almost immediately by the banging of the back porch’s screen door. When he was sure Torres was gone, Tom rigged his combadge as a baby monitor (a little trick his father had taught him), slapped B’Elanna’s on his chest, and headed downstairs.

He saw her sitting on the sand just off the deck. She was staring out at the water and he could hear that she was crying. He grabbed the blanket off the deck lounge chair before moving to join her at the bottom of the steps. He wrapped the blanket around her without saying a word. Even though it was summer, San Francisco evenings could be chilly, and he knew B’Elanna was sensitive to the cold.

He sat down on the sand next to her and let his wife cry it out. She’d tell him when she was ready, he knew. After about ten minutes, the crying stopped, and he watched as she pulled her emotional control back together. Tom spent a moment silently thanking Tuvok for teaching B’Elanna how to meditate. Before their sessions, she might have turned her anger at her father toward him.

It was still a few more minutes before she could bring herself to speak. “Mother’s dead,” she said flatly. Tom resisted the temptation to show her comfort physically. She’d reach out for him when she was ready.

“What happened?” he asked gently.

“She was killed in the war. Apparently the Klingons got involved in the whole Cardassian mess. Mother was on one of their scientific transports when it was ambushed.” B’Elanna turned to face him. “She died a little over two years ago,” she said. “Just about the time of my shuttle accident.”

Then it was true, he realized. B’Elanna’s ‘hallucinations’ about seeing her mother on the Barge of the Dead had been real. What frightened him most about that realization was knowing how close he had come to losing his wife forever back then.

Clearly there was more to the story, he could tell. “Apparently, seven years ago when they found out I was missing, my father contacted Mother, and they decided to reconcile. Their marriage was over, but they became friends again and stayed in touch until her death. He wanted me to know she had forgiven him. He wants me to forgive him, too.”

Tom could only imagine how hard this was for her to hear. He knew how B’Elanna carried the pain of her childhood around like a shield. She had given so much of her life to her feelings of abandonment and bitterness. He wasn’t sure she could let that go, even if her mother had found a way to.

“He also told me that things were different than I imagined. He said that my mother asked him to leave, said their fighting wasn’t good for me, and that if he was an honorable man he would do the right thing and stay away. He told me he didn’t want to go, but that Mother was within her rights. I had forgotten,” B’Elanna was now looking off in the distance, “only a Klingon woman can end a marriage. I don’t know why I didn’t think about that before.”

“Do you believe him?” Tom asked, not thrilled with the reminder of this particular facet of Klingon matrimonial tradition.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t want to believe him. I don’t want to think I spent my whole life blaming him for something that wasn’t his fault. Besides, he could have come looking for me later on. I was at Starfleet Academy for two years while he still had his commission. He could have tried to find me then.” She just shook her head. “I don’t know what to think anymore.”

Tom didn’t know what to say. “How did he know where to find you now?” he asked.

B’Elanna answered in a kind of monotone, as if the words she was saying had no meaning. “I wrote my mother a letter in the last datastream. The authorities on Kessick 4 forwarded it to him. He contacted Starfleet when he realized we might be coming home.”

Her flat tone of voice helped Tom know that she had probably worked through the heat of her emotions. He readjusted the blanket to cover them both as he pulled B’Elanna against his shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he said gently. He was glad she was letting him comfort her now. “I’m so sorry.”

They sat on the beach for another few minutes before the cold got the better of them both. “Let me make you something warm to drink,” he said as he stood up.

“No,” she said. “Let’s just go to bed. I just want you to hold onto me for awhile.” Better idea, he thought as he helped her up. He followed her up the stairs to the deck and dropped the blanket back where he’d found it.

He forced himself to stay awake until he knew she was asleep, curled in her favorite position with her back pressed firmly against his chest. Tom couldn’t help but think that both of their family situations were more complex and nuanced than either of them had realized while growing up. Maybe their parents had just been imperfect people trying to make the best decisions for their children in uncertain circumstances.

As he drifted off to sleep, he could only wonder what damage he might accidentally do to MK as she grew up. The thought unsettled him, and he found himself holding B’Elanna closer to his chest. Even though she was sound asleep, it was her turn to comfort him for a while.

~*~*~*~*~

Their weekend had been glorious, two whole days with Molly on Kathryn’s family farm in Bloomington. It was their first extended time as a couple openly in love, and they both enjoyed the simple pleasure of walking unselfconsciously with their bodies intertwined.

She had introduced him to her neighbors as her partner, and he knew he truly was. But Chakotay was becoming a traditionalist in his old age, and he couldn’t help but hope that his title would soon be upgraded to husband. Their lives were stressful enough as it was, however, and he kept that little wish to himself. One victory at a time, he knew. And he had proven himself a very patient man.

The were sitting together on her front porch—looking up at the familiar constellations and making plans for the future—when he broke the news about his fellowship. Kathryn was angry, but not surprised. This whole damn situation was too political, she said, and she railed at the unfairness of it all. Having had almost two weeks to adjust to the news, Chakotay was more philosophical. “Look, you weren’t looking forward to spending time in the rain forest anyway. I’ve gotten over this Kathryn. You should, too.”

“So what will you do?” she wondered out loud.

He smiled. “There are lots of things I can do with a resume like mine. ‘Former Maquis terrorist and Starfleet hero. Excellent judge of character. Special skills include shadow boxing with aliens, and rescuing beautiful women from the Borg.’ Who wouldn’t want to hire me?” He was laughing, but she was still worried. They’d need to find a future they could both embrace, she knew, if they were going to make a life together.

She realized at that moment that any new career was likely to limit their time together as long as she captained a starship. Hell, she’d leave Starfleet altogether before she would give up this relationship, but she didn’t want it to come to that. They’d have to think up a new plan. But not tonight. Tonight she had other adventures on her mind.

They’d done a good job in making up for lost time, she knew, but that didn’t mean she was in any way satisfied. “Well, I have a job for you right now,” she said suggestively. “You can start by working this kink out of my neck. By the time you’re finished, I’m sure I’ll have come up with another assignment.”

He was used to taking orders from her, though not necessarily this kind. “Yes, ma’am,” he said with his best Tom Paris twang. They both laughed out loud.

“Don’t kill the mood,” she teased. “Unless you want me thinking of other men while you massage my neck.” Perish the thought, he said to himself. Not that there was any real danger of that. As his hands worked their way through her knotted muscles, somehow he knew her mind was on him and him alone.

They made full use of their final night together before they had to face the cold stark glare of reality. The morning would come too soon, they both knew. And, though he didn’t say it, Chakotay had been making plans for a new future. Plans he suspected Kathryn wouldn’t approve of.

~*~*~*~*~

The hearing lasted five days—much longer than Kathryn had been led to expect—during which the actions of the Liberty’s crew, both before and after they were pulled into the Delta Quadrant, were closely scrutinized. The defendants were tried in two groups: those who had once served in Starfleet, and those civilian colonists who had joined the Maquis in defense of their homes. The civilian defendants were pardoned almost immediately: the utter devastation their colonies had faced at the hands of the Jem’Hadar was worse than any punishment the Federation could hand down.

Of greater concern, however, were those who had resigned their Starfleet commissions to take up the cause, especially those who took on positions of authority in the resistance like Chakotay and B’Elanna. These former officers, crewmen, and cadets had signed and sworn oaths of allegiance to the Federation and of non-interference in the affairs of other cultures. Oaths they had broken by becoming Maquis. In addition, since they had brought the bulk of the military and technical expertise to the cause, the former ‘Fleeters were more easily tied to the crimes committed in the name of the Maquis. Crimes that included piracy, theft, sabotage, and—depending on one’s view—attempted murder.

Of Voyager’s non-Maquis crew, only Kathryn Janeway had heard all of these allegations before. She had been fully briefed about the men and women she’d be hunting down before Voyager left for the Badlands. Even Tom, who had been part of Chakotay’s cell for almost six months, learned a thing or two about his wife’s past during the inquiry. For Joe, Sue, and the others who had come to show support for their friends, this was all painfully new. Over and over, as the hearing progressed, charge after charge was laid out: multiple raids on Starfleet supply ships, the explosion of a Federation munitions storage facility, and the destruction of three Cardassian ships, resulting in the deaths of over a hundred soldiers. Despite these allegations, however, the Starfleet crewmembers remained united in support of their friends.

They weren’t the only ones to hear surprising and disturbing stories, however. Voyager’s Maquis also learned the details of the last years of their struggle, and what they heard led most of them to wonder if questionable tactics hadn’t been used by both sides. Chakotay, in particular, was very unsettled by much of what he discovered. Aboard his ship there were rules and limits and a clear understanding that they were to follow a code of honor at all times. Clearly other Maquis leaders had a more subjective set of principles. One of the sad realities of being part of an underground movement, he knew, was the lack of a system of accountability. By its nature, a rebellion operated outside the law. But did that mean that its members were exempt from all laws? Weren’t some things still just morally wrong?

And yet his friends and colleagues had been forced to pay for their mistakes with their lives. What greater consequences could they have faced?

Officially, since both sides stipulated to the facts of the case, there was no need to call witnesses to the events themselves. The issue here was more the motives and character of the Liberty’s crew, and whether their circumstances justified any of what they had done. Wrapped up in the question was another mitigating factor: these men and women had a second ‘past’ to be considered: seven years of service as Starfleet officers aboard Voyager. Kathryn took the stand for almost three whole days, relating incident after incident where the former Maquis had in some way or another proved themselves loyal and worthy officers. She spoke at length about Chakotay’s role in saving Voyager from the Kazon’s attack at the array, taking the lead in integrating the two crews, insisting on their loyalty to her as their new captain, and helping his crew develop new ways of conducting themselves that were in support of Starfleet’s ideals.

Janeway spoke of B’Elanna’s promising academy record, her gifts as an engineer, and the role her talent, hard work, and inspiration had played in keeping the ship functional for so many years without proper maintenance facilities. She said—and believed—that, without B’Elanna, they would still be trapped in the Delta Quadrant if not dead. She spoke of B’Elanna’s emerging leadership abilities, and the way her talent and tireless efforts had made Torres respected by her entire staff. Kathryn even presented a formal deposition from Joe Carey—Voyager’s senior engineer at the time of the Caretaker incident, supporting Janeway’s decision to make B’Elanna chief engineer and enthusiastically vouching for the character of his ‘boss’. As his prerecorded testimony was played aloud, Torres searched the hearing room for her friend. The look on her face when she caught Joe’s eye was all the thanks he would ever need.

Janeway’s arguments were passionate, logical, and carefully considered—to the point that one would guess she had been practicing her testimony for the entire length of Voyager’s trip. Only once did she almost lose her composure: when asked about Tuvok’s holodeck scenario in anticipation of a potential Maquis mutiny. She feared that—without Tuvok’s own testimony—his tactical simulation could be easily misinterpreted. The captain struggled to explain the circumstances under which his preparations had come to light: by the time his scenario was discovered, the idea of a Maquis mutiny was so ridiculous that the crew thought it had to be a holonovel, written for the their entertainment. No one, not even Tuvok, considered a mutiny a real possibility at that point.

After this part of the proceedings, the Voyager crew began to suspect something about their captain: when discussing Tuvok’s Insurrection Alpha scenario, neither she nor the examiners made reference to the actual Maquis mutiny—instigated by the implanted mind control techniques of a former Maquis operative—that had taken place less than a year earlier. Was it possible she hadn’t included the incident in her logs? If not, why? Did she withhold it for fear of the ramifications for Tuvok, Chakotay, B’Elanna and the others involved? Since it was never mentioned, they could only speculate. And certainly none of them would ever volunteer the information.

The inquiry concluded with brief closing statements and an opportunity for the accused to make a final collective statement. By prior agreement, the former Maquis admitted to the charges against them without comment. Only Chakotay spoke on their behalf. His words were passionate and eloquent: they had been soldiers fighting a military battle against an invading enemy of overpowering strength and against overwhelming odds. They believed each action they took was in support of the greater cause of defending the weak from the oppression of the powerful. They apologized for the necessity of their methods, but not for the cause for which they fought. It was not despite their Federation principles, he argued, but because of them that he and his crew had taken up this struggle. They had believed in the nobility of their fight, and refused to diminish its significance by denying the truth.

From the expressions on the faces of his friends, it was clear that Chakotay’s next words were not part of their scripted statement to the court.

“This council has alleged that our actions call into question our fitness as representatives of the Federation. I’m not sure it is possible for me to prove you wrong. But as a man who has served proudly as a Starfleet officer for most of my adult life, including the past seven years, I stand here today to remind you of a key principal of service under Federation law: that the captain is responsible for the actions of his crew. Therefore, I ask that you hold me personally accountable for the charges and specifications you have outlined. And I ask you to pardon my crew, whose actions were not only in defense of the innocent, but were taken under my orders and as a result of their loyalty to me.”

The examiners immediately moved to quiet the rumble that stirred through the hearing room, and Tom was afraid someone would have to physically restrain B’Elanna. In the end, however, Chakotay’s petition was allowed to stand, and the council adjourned to make their decision.

“What did you do that for?” B’Elanna was shouting at Chakotay as Kathryn and Tom moved to join them.

He put his hands on his friend’s shoulders to calm her as he answered. “It was the truth, B’Elanna. Besides, if I can give them someone to punish, maybe they’ll go easier on the rest of you.”

Tom was shaking his head. “Chakotay, none of us are going to let you throw yourself to the wolves for this. You were only doing what you thought was right at the time.”

Chakotay took a moment to look at Paris before he answered. “Tom, three weeks ago your father offered to help clear your Starfleet record, to make it as if Caldik Prime and your time in the Maquis had never happened. And you wouldn’t let him. You didn’t want to run away from the truth of what you had done. You wanted to take responsibility for the choices you made. That’s all I’m doing now. I did the things they’re accusing me of. I don’t want to pretend that never happened. I don’t want to renounce the cause we all believed in. I can’t do that, and I wouldn’t ask B’Elanna and the others to do that either. Not after everything our friends fought and died for.”

B’Elanna was still furious. “I don’t need you to take the blame for my actions. I don’t care if they…” Chakotay cut her off. “Take you away from your husband and child? Strip you of your rank and kick you out of Starfleet? Undo all the work you’ve done to make a new life for yourself?”

She wasn’t deterred. “So it’s okay for you to take the blame—face the consequences—but not the rest of us? We were in this together, Chakotay.” She was shaking with anger.

“There’s a difference, B’Elanna: I was the captain. You were under my command. Besides, this isn’t about taking the punishment, it’s about taking the responsibility. I need to do this. Not just for you and the others, but for myself.”

While Tom was grateful for the sacrifice his friend was making, he couldn’t believe Chakotay realized the full consequences of his actions. “You know, you could end up serving time. They could throw you out of Starfleet for good.”

Chakotay turned to look at Kathryn before he answered. “Actually, I planned on resigning my commission when we got home anyway. I’m looking forward to life as a civilian.” He turned back to look Tom in the eye. “And, you never know. I can think of one ex-convict who’s been able to build a good life for himself after paying his debt to society. Maybe he can be my role-model.” Tom could only shake his head at the compliment from this man who used to find him less than worthless. What a long, strange seven years it had been.

“And,” Chakotay continued, “since I may only have a few more days of freedom, I think we should go somewhere to celebrate.”

B’Elanna couldn’t believe her ears. “Celebrate?! What could we possibly have to celebrate?”

Chakotay put his arm around his dearest friend. “That we’re home. We’re alive. And—at least for tonight—we’re together. What else do we need?” He turned to Paris, “Tom, I assume your parents would love a night with their granddaughter? Tell the Admiral he’s babysitting, because you and your wife have a date.”

With that, and looking—quite ironically—as free as they had ever seen him, Chakotay led them out of the hearing room and into the bright California sunshine.

~*~*~*~*~

The place was exactly has they had come to know it, a credit to Tom Paris’s skills as a holoprogrammer. From the pool table that banked to the east, to the mahogany bar top, to the collection of seedy-looking characters, any one of Voyager’s crew would have recognized Chez Sandrine’s in an instant.

It had been Chakotay’s idea to hold their celebration here. For some reason, he felt compelled to return to the bar where he first recruited Tom Paris, in a strange way coming full-circle in his journey. That trip—when he had gone looking for the rumored ‘great pilot in need of bail-out’—had been his last visit to Earth before Voyager’s overdue homecoming. To Chakotay, this place reminded him of those days as a Maquis captain. In an odd way, he needed to reclaim that feeling; he was about to pay for the choices he made back then, and this felt like a good way to reconnect to that part of his past.

He had laid down three ground rules for the evening: casual clothes (no uniforms), no ranks, and no conversation about the hearings. And what better place, Chakotay figured, for a fun evening out than Sandrine’s, their own ‘neighborhood bar’?

For Tom Paris, however, the choice of settings complicated his emotions about the entire night. It was ironic that Tom had chosen Chez Sandrine’s as his first Voyager holodeck program. While he had told the crew on many occasions that this Marseilles tavern was his home-away-from-home while on Earth, it had really been his place to retreat from his life. This wasn’t his reality; it was the place he hid in to escape it. Not knowing the symbolism this tavern had for Chakotay, Tom wasn’t sure why his friend picked the real Sandrine’s for this special celebration. Paris assumed he had chosen it to remind them all of happier times on Voyager. Ironic, he thought, that here they were on Earth, after dreaming of nothing else for years, headed to a place that would remind them of their days in the Delta Quadrant.

More familiar than the rest with the streets of Marseilles, Tom was ahead of schedule and sharing stories with B’Elanna as they walked. He wanted to have a few moments alone before their friends arrived. His wife had been very upset by Chakotay’s decision to take the blame for the crimes they committed together in the Maquis. Tom was hoping he could help her relax and enjoy what might be their last night together with their friend before the judgment came down.

When the tavern doors swung open, the juxtaposition of the real and holographic Sandrine’s took the couple some getting used to. Almost without thinking, Tom headed for ‘their table,’ forgetting that he had added that particular secluded booth to his holodeck program when he was trying to advance his relationship with B’Elanna. The real Sandrine’s had no such spot. Instead, they found a few small tables near the back of the room and pulled together enough seats for the entire group.

When she came to take their order, Tom almost didn’t recognize her. It was mutual. “Sandrine?” he said to the aging woman standing before him. She was older and much more subdued than the vivacious barkeep of Tom’s program. And he could see her searching her memory, trying to place the face.

“Do we know each other?” she asked, a bit embarrassed.

Tom just smiled. “We did once, a long time ago. I used to be a regular here…a few years back.”

The woman smiled, “Ah, forgive me, Cherie, but we have so many cadets come though our doors…”

At that moment, Tom Paris felt very, very old. “Of course,” he said, a little chagrinned, before recovering his composure enough to order two glasses of wine. Clearly Sandrine had made a bigger impression on him than vice versa, he thought. But he wasn’t the same young man he had been in those days. Tom decided to take her lack of recognition as a compliment. Maybe that Tom Paris was really gone forever.

Still, B’Elanna knew that she was watching a telling moment in her husband’s life. She wasn’t sure for a second how he would take Sandrine’s not recognizing him. She got her answer quickly. Almost instantly, she watched the ghost of Tom Paris get up and head for the door. Her husband, the ‘new and improved’ version of the man, sighed deeply and began to relax. He knew now that he could visit his old haunt without being haunted. It made them both more comfortable.

The Doctor and Seven arrived exactly on time, not a surprise from Voyager’s most precise couple. Tom noticed that the two were growing more and more relaxed together, Seven developing an almost casual posture while holding his arm, the Doctor looking less self-conscious than he had on their previous ‘dates’. For her part, B’Elanna was glad to see Seven in a more relaxed outfit. For the moment, at least, she seemed to favor tailored slacks and bulky sweaters to her impossibly tight one-piece suits. Seven’s hair was also changed, pulled back in a less-severe ponytail instead of the tight twisted bun. The Doctor was wearing a turtleneck sweater and blazer, a look that definitely suited him. (B’Elanna couldn’t help but notice the subtle flap built into the jacket’s arm—no doubt to make the mobile emitter less obvious.)

“Mr. Paris,” the doctor said as he approached the table. “I see you’re uncharacteristically punctual tonight.”

Tom rolled his eyes at the sarcasm. “Doc, you’re going to have to get used to calling me Tom when we’re off duty. I know some people might view that as a term of endearment, but I promise not to take it that way.” B’Elanna just shook her head.

She complimented her friends on their casual dress. “Doctor, I like your new look. And you, too, Seven. That sweater is very flattering.” B’Elanna suspected the men at the table might have preferred the old outfit, and she wanted to give as much positive reinforcement to her friend as possible.

“Thank you,” Seven offered sincerely. “I have found this attire to be less—conspicuous. And infinitely more comfortable.”

No doubt, B’Elanna thought, saying instead, “It suits you.”

Neelix arrived on the arm of a young Orion woman, but excused himself when he saw his friends. “Thank you for the directions,” he said as he stepped away. “You were certainly very helpful.” Tom noticed the way Neelix’s ‘guide’ put her hands on her hips and pouted as the Talaxian walked toward their table. Clearly the woman had hoped his request for ‘directions’ was a euphemism for something more lucrative. Tom was glad to see some of the seedier sides of Marseilles life hadn’t changed. It gave the city character.

Neelix seemed oblivious. “Very friendly place!” he said as he sat down. “And wasn’t that young woman the loveliest shade of green.” Tom just looked at B’Elanna and smiled. One day he’d tell his friend about the reputation of Orion women, but for today he’d preserve the illusion. Besides, his attention was now drawn to the couple walking through the doors.

It was the way they walked that first caught his attention. The man’s arm was around the woman’s shoulder, and she leaned into him, with her arm around his waist. The sight was both shocking and absolutely right. And long overdue from Tom’s perspective. He reached out to touch B’Elanna’s hand, and subtly nodded in the direction of the door. His wife looked at their friends, then squeezed her husband’s hand. This might be a momentous night after all.

It was at that point that Tom realized something was up. There was no way—considering the very delicate nature of the hearings they had just witnessed—that the captain and commander would let themselves risk being seen in such a compromising posture with so much on the line. Tom knew this meant a deal had been struck, the Maquis’ fate already determined. And, he suspected from the calm confidence Chakotay was exuding, that B’Elanna and the others were probably out of danger. But at what cost, Paris wondered.

When they approached the table, Janeway and Chakotay didn’t bother to pretend they were anything other than a couple enjoying an evening with friends. “Thanks for joining us,” Chakotay said as he held a chair for Kathryn. He motioned for a waiter as he took the seat next to her. “What’s everyone drinking?” he asked.

“You’re in France, Chakotay,” Tom chimed in. “Home of the best vineyards in the quadrant. I recommend the Chateau St. Martagne, anything earlier than 2313.”

Chakotay had trouble reconciling the beer-swilling Tom Paris with the wine connoisseur seated at the other end of the table. A man of many talents, he knew. Chakotay placed the order, then took a look around. “Somehow I don’t think that’s what you were drinking the last time we were here, Tom,” he said casually. Paris looked a bit uncomfortable, which hadn’t been his friend’s intention. “I guess we’ve both come a long way since that night,” Chakotay said, turning it into the compliment he’d intended.

“Just don’t try to corrupt my virtue this time,” Tom said, deciding he had been overly sensitive. He filled in the missing pieces for the rest of their friends. “I was just an innocent pilot sitting at the bar over there, minding my own business, when this persuasive Indian showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. ‘Join the Maquis,’ he says to me. ‘See the galaxy.’” Looking at B’Elanna, Tom then turned back to his friend. “I owe you for that one,” he said jokingly, but knowing it was true in the best of ways.

Chakotay smiled. “Any time.” At that, a young waiter arrived with the wine, and enough glasses for everyone in the group. As soon as they were filled, Chakotay raised his and made a toast. “To good friends. We’ve come a long way together. May this be only the beginning of our journey.”

The group shared his toast, and all but the Doctor sipped from their glasses. Seven and B’Elanna’s eyes raised almost simultaneously. “This isn’t synthehol,” B’Elanna said, her eyes blinking quickly from the kick of the real wine.

“Bite your tongue!” Tom teased. “You’re in France, B’Elanna. They don’t allow the fake stuff here. You might want to take it easy, though. I don’t want to have to carry you home,” he suggested.

His wife only laughed. “Tom Paris, the day I can’t drink you under the table is the day I give up my hyperspanner for an apron.” They laughed, but Tom was skeptical. He wasn’t proud of his reputation for being able to handle his liquor, but he knew B’Elanna—who hadn’t even had the ‘fake stuff’ since before her pregnancy—would be surprised at the jolt real spirits could have. He’d keep an eye on her, he thought. Just in case.

After a few hours, the Chateau St. Martagne was having an effect on all of them—except the Doctor, who was suddenly longing for the holographic Sandrine’s, where he could at least mimic his friends’ drinking with holographic wine. As it was, he would be their ‘designated pilot’, even though none of them was flying anything but a transporter this evening. He’d monitor their speech patterns and make sure no one embarrassed himself. Not too badly, anyway.

They had changed seating arrangements several times as some couples got up to dance and friends moved to start conversations. For the moment, the women were sitting together at the far end of the table watching as Chakotay and Tom had an animated conversation about which ship would win in a drag race, the Delta Flyer or the Liberty. Neelix and the Doctor were deep in discussion over 24th century fashions, comparing and contrasting their preferences in casual clothing. Surprisingly, it was Seven who started the women’s next conversation.

“Lieuten—B’Elanna, have you noticed that your husband’s eyes change color? Some days they are a deep azure blue, yet other days they are almost a soft pale gray.”

B’Elanna was just tipsy enough not to notice that Seven had made such a keen personal observation about Tom’s body. Instead, she could only agree. “Yeah. It’s kind of nice, isn’t it? I wish sometimes he was in science—those blue uniforms would really highlight his eyes.”

Kathryn had her own thoughts on that subject. “I don’t know. The Doctor’s eyes are deep brown and he looks great in blue. Of course, I was always partial to the red uniforms. I’m going to miss those old singlets.” She sounded wistful. Then a thought hit her. “Though, I have to say, B’Elanna, I did love the Maquis look. All that suede and leather.” The three women practically sighed at the same time.

B’Elanna got a very distant look on her face. “That’s what Tom was wearing the first time I saw him,” she said, her mind wandering back to some wine-induced memory from long ago. “He had this orange shirt and a brown suede vest, and these pants that were just tight enough that they left very little to the imagination….” Her voice trailed off for a moment, and her friends went with her in their minds. “Of course, Chakotay didn’t look too bad in leather, either.”

Kathryn would have blushed had she been sober. Instead, she just smiled. “I know. But I think I prefer him in linen. When we were on New Earth, he had this one tan striped shirt. He used to wear it while he was woodworking. It would cling to the muscles on his back when he’d work up a sweat. I used to make excuses to come in from the garden when he wore that shirt.”

Seven was feeling a little left out of this conversation now, since the Doctor was fairly limited in his wardrobe while aboard Voyager, and her own experiments in dressing him were so recent. She thought instead of his other qualities. “The Doctor sings to me,” she said out of nowhere.

B’Elanna frowned. “Ugh, opera!” she groaned. “Actually,” Seven said, “I do enjoy the arias, but I prefer the 20th century ballads. My particular favorites include the brothers Gershwin, and someone named Tormé.”

B’Elanna was surprised at what she was about to admit. “Tom’s got a great voice, too. He likes to sing to me in the shower.”

Seven’s expression turned quizzical. “How can you hear him if he’s in the shower?” she asked.

Kathryn and B’Elanna just looked at each other. B’Elanna was intoxicated enough to answer. “Because I’m in the shower with him, Seven. More often than not we shower together.” At this comment, Seven looked confused—and Kathryn looked wistful. Almost at the same time, and for very different reasons, the three women sighed.

Seven’s mind now wandered a bit. Clearly there were many activities that could have sexual overtones that she had never considered. She would have to give this some consideration…

Kathryn’s thoughts were a bit more sentimental. She had to admit she envied B’Elanna. What must it be like, she wondered, to have the luxury of living with and openly enjoying the man you were in love with? It had been so long since she’d had that kind of casually comfortable relationship with her ex-fiancée Mark. Afterward, she’d spent her time cloistered in her quarters on Voyager, unable to express her deepening feelings for the man that had taken Mark’s place in her heart. Even now, sitting in this bar with her closest friends, the man she loved only a few meters away, she knew that kind of daily relaxation was still far from her grasp. Until Chakotay was cleared—or punished—there was no way for them to even make the simplest plans for their future. It was some small comfort that there would at least be a future for them.

When that future finally came, she made a mental note to conduct her own experiments with the acoustics in her shower…

B’Elanna was also musing about the object of her affection. She was keeping careful track of the days since she had given birth. Four weeks, three days. Only eleven more days to go. This was the first time in over three years that she and Tom had abstained for so long. And, while there were some things they could enjoy in the interim, their play was infinitely more complicated as they dealt with her lactation, sleep deprivation, and wildly-fluctuating hormonal levels. Not to mention living with their in-laws and the stress of the hearings. Chakotay was right, she knew. There was no way she could imagine having to leave Tom and the baby at this point—no matter how willing she was to face the consequences of her actions as a Maquis. And, as she gazed at the two men laughing and joking at the other end of the table, she knew in her gut that they would see to it that she didn’t have to. At another time in her life, their impulse to protect her would have made her angry. Right now, however, it made her appreciate them all the more.

She also found herself appreciating the way that navy blue vest looked on the tall blondish man she was now staring at. It definitely brought out the blue of his eyes. Maybe she could get away with only six more days…

“What about you, Seven?” she heard Kathryn ask. The question brought them all back to the topic of the noble men of Voyager. “Have you…explored the more intimate aspects of your humanity yet?” This was a difficult question for Seven to answer considering her one brief attempt to experiment with intimacy—an attempt that had included a holographic version of a certain first officer. Of course, she had only chosen Chakotay because he was attractive, unattached (or so she thought) and reasonably familiar to her. And because he wasn’t the Doctor. That would have been too risky if things hadn’t worked out.

“I have made some preliminary studies,” Seven answered her captain honestly. She found herself looking at the Doctor as she continued. “I believe I require more research, however. In fact, B’Elanna, I was wondering…” she wasn’t sure she was drunk enough to ask the next question. But she decided to continue despite the risk of embarrassment. “You are very familiar with the additions that have been made to the Doctor’s program. I understand he has experimented with…intimate contact himself. I was just wondering…”

B’Elanna decided to put Seven out of her misery. “Let’s say he is just as equipped for intimacy as the next man. More so, if you keep in mind that he made those additions to his program himself.” This led all three women to a rather interesting mental image. Kathryn and B’Elanna instantly struggled to shake off the thought. Seven, on the other hand, seemed intrigued.

It was at about that point that the men glanced over and saw the women looking a bit dreamily in their direction. “I’m getting the distinct impression, Chakotay, that they haven’t been talking about the refit of the warp engines.”

His friend laughed. “You don’t think they’re comparing notes, do you?” he asked.

“They’ve had a lot of wine,” Tom said, as he smiled back at B’Elanna. His acknowledgement of her stare pulled her out of her daydream, and she laughed before turning back to continue her conversation. Tom just shook his head. “Eleven more days,” he said to himself.

“What was that?” Chakotay asked.

Tom just shook his head. “Nothing,” he changed the subject.

“Something’s different about you, Chakotay. Care to tell me what’s going on?”

Chakotay’s expression changed. Tom wasn’t sure why, but he knew there was a newfound sense of peace about his friend. About to face the music for some fairly serious charges, the man sitting across from him exuded freedom and calm. “Tom, there comes a point when you finally know the answers to questions you’ve asked yourself for years. Once you get those answers, there’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.” That sealed it, Tom knew. The man had cut a deal. There wouldn’t be any surprises for him in tomorrow’s verdict.

“B’Elanna’s never going to let you get away with this,” he said.

Chakotay just smiled. “Sure she will. You’re going to help her.”

Tom was unconvinced. “Does Kathryn know?” he asked.

Chakotay’s expression gave only a hint of the pain that question evoked. “She knows that I’m doing what I need to do. She knows I don’t want her to try and stop me. And she knows I love her.” His last words were quite an admission considering the tenuous nature of the men’s friendship.

Tom had always felt a grudging respect for Chakotay, even during their days together in the Maquis. That respect had now grown into full-fledged admiration. Tom wished he’d had his friend’s courage after his own mistakes at Caldik Prime. Only when he was much older did Tom learn the incredible freedom that came from being unafraid of taking responsibility for one’s actions. Sometimes, he now knew, it was the internal prisons that were the most confining. Chakotay sensed the change in Tom’s mood and asked a question he’d always wondered about. “Do you ever wish I hadn’t come looking for you in this bar so many years ago?” The question was easy for Tom to answer.

“I used to. While I was sitting in that cell in Auckland, thinking about how easily I seemed to find new ways to screw up my life. I was sober for the first time in a long while, and there was nowhere to run to get away from myself.” Tom was looking down into his now-empty glass, and made a mental decision he wouldn’t have any more wine tonight. “I knew you and the rest of the crew would think I’d run out on you. Hell, you expected me to screw up, so I don’t think I was any great disappointment to you. But I didn’t want B’Elanna to think…” Chakotay noticed that Tom was unconsciously fingering his wedding ring as he continued. “But look how things have turned out for me. I’m married to the most beautiful, talented woman in the galaxy; I’m someone’s father and someone’s son. If it meant any of that would go away, Chakotay, I’d live every single moment over again without changing a thing.”

Even though he had initiated it, this conversation was getting a little too serious for Chakotay’s plans. Of course, he appreciated Tom’s admission. The introspective Tom Paris was a recent revelation to him, and he realized now how much more there was beneath the slick surface of the man he once thought he knew. But Chakotay wanted this night to be light and fun, and he was going to get his friend back in the proper mood. “Well, I know you convinced her to marry you, Paris, but you’ve been keeping that beautiful, talented woman to yourself for too long. I think it’s my turn.” He downed the last of his wine and walked to the other end of the table.

He caught the tail end of a conversation about chest hair, and decided to pretend that he hadn’t. “Care to dance?” he said as he interrupted the women, all of whom seemed surprised that he was talking to B’Elanna.

“Me?” she said looking up at him.

“You. Make your husband jealous and dance with me, Torres.”

B’Elanna looked down the table at Tom to make sure he was listening. “It’s Paris, actually, since I’m off duty.” Tom smiled at her public acknowledgement of the name she had recently taken. “But I’ll dance with you Chakotay. As long as you stay on your own feet this time.” She put her hand in his and let him lead her onto the dance floor. This left Kathryn alone with Seven as they watched their friends walk away.

Tom wasn’t about to let Chakotay’s challenge go unanswered. “Kathryn, are we going to let them get away with that?” he asked, extending his hand.

She was dizzy enough without dancing, too, but she was glad he had asked. “You’re on,” she agreed. “But no twirling, Tom. My head is spinning from all that wine.”

He just laughed. “I’ll be gentle,” he teased. Wow, Kathryn thought. He was flirting with her, even if she knew it was innocent. As Tom took her hand and walked to the dance floor, she enjoyed a long-missed feeling of being just another woman out with her friends. Tomorrow she’d be their captain again, but—for tonight—she was just Kathryn.

Unlike Chakotay, whose two left feet were somewhat exaggerated, Tom’s reputation as a good dancer was well deserved. B’Elanna watched her husband lead their captain around the floor, as she dodged her best friend’s missteps. “Chakotay, didn’t they make you learn to dance at the Academy? Isn’t it required training for all future starship captains?”

He laughed. “Sure. Wilderness survival, advanced diplomacy, and the Fox Trot. But I was sick that day. I almost didn’t graduate because of it.”

Luckily the music changed to something with a slower tempo, and they were able to avoid the need for fancier footwork. B’Elanna spent a long moment considering the old friend holding her in his arms. “Something’s different with you, Chakotay. You’ve changed.”

He didn’t know how to respond. “Thanks. I think. In what way have I changed?”

She smiled at him as she answered. “You’re happy. And even with everything they’ve thrown at us the last week, you don’t seem the least bit angry. It’s like you’re…”

“Free?” he asked. “That’s how I feel. Free to face the choices I’ve made. Free to admit that I’m in love with a woman who’s been off limits for seven years. I’m finally totally free, B’Elanna. What do I have to be angry about?”

She just shook her head, still not realizing the price her friend was about to pay for that freedom. “You’ve earned a little happiness, don’t you think?” she asked. “I just hope Starfleet realizes that and drops these stupid charges.”

Chakotay just smiled back at her. He changed the subject intentionally. “You know, you’ve changed a lot yourself these days.” He let his eyes find Kathryn and her dance partner as he continued. “B’Elanna, who ever would have thought that you and Tom Paris…” They both laughed before his voice turned serious. “It took me forever to admit it, but you’ve been good for each other. I’m glad to see you so happy and at peace with yourself. You’re not my angry little Klingon anymore.”

She stopped smiling and slapped his arm. “You know I always hated it when you called me that,” she almost snarled at him. But she couldn’t help but smile, too.

“You know, B’Elanna, Tom’s a very lucky man.” She blushed from the sincerity in her friend’s voice. Unfortunately, the mood was broken when he once again miscalculated the rhythm of the song and stepped hard onto her left foot.

“Ouch! And he’s a good dancer, too,” she teased, pulling away from Chakotay’s grasp and dragging him across the room by the hand.

“Tom Paris,” she said as she reached her husband.

“B’Elanna Paris,” he answered her with the same tone.

“Dance with your wife,” she said, pulling him right out of Kathryn’s arms. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, turning to give his friends a shrug before he was pulled across the room.

Chakotay just smiled and looked at Kathryn. “I guess you’re stuck with me,” he said as he stared into her eyes.

“Lucky me,” she said, as she moved into his arms.

“How long,” she whispered as he held her close. He didn’t know what she was talking about. “How long will you serve?” she asked bluntly. He should have known she’d figure out his little plan.

“Just enough time for you to get that ship fixed and ready to head back out. You’ll be so busy, you won’t even notice I’m gone.” His confirmation caused her stomach to knot up, but she was determined not to let it ruin their night.

Chakotay clearly agreed. “I know this isn’t Admiral Stewart’s overly ostentatious home, and we’re not surrounded by Starfleet brass, but I think you could still make good on your promise.” Kathryn realized this was probably as much of a welcome home party as they were likely to share anytime soon. With great determination and a lot of fanfare, she reached up and gave Chakotay a long, passionate kiss in full view of their totally oblivious friends and a few dozen French tourists.

“I can’t believe I’m going to let you do this,” she said softly as their lips parted.

He took her back into his arms. “We’ve got to face this, Kathryn, if we’re ever going to get to the other side.”

She knew he was right. Yet, as she held him for the first time on this strangely familiar dance floor, she allowed herself to dream that his night might last forever. Or at least for the next few months.

~*~*~*~*~

Chakotay never told them it had all been prearranged, and only Kathryn and Tom Paris had guessed what he had done. The Maquis captain had negotiated the details of his punishment the night before he was to give his closing statement, when it became clear to him that the Federation would be seeking some atonement for all the crimes committed by the Liberty’s crew. While he was partly motivated by a desire to protect his friends, Chakotay also felt a personal need to own the things he and his crew had done. To take responsibility for his actions in a way that preserved both his honor and his dignity. By approaching the advocate general, he had been in a better position to bargain for terms both he and his friends could live with.

When the ruling was handed down, B’Elanna and the others could only sit in stunned silence as they realized exactly what he had done. Chakotay pled guilty to multiple charges, and was sentenced to seven years for his role as a Maquis captain, though the court allowed him to count his years on Voyager (technically in Federation custody) as time served. He would be incarcerated for five months in the Federation Penal Colony in Auckland, and stripped of his provisional rank—though he was allowed to keep his honorable discharge and his Federation citizenship. In fact, the council publicly acknowledged his heroism during Voyager’s long trip home, and commended him for his courage in facing up to his past. They were clear in their ruling that, once his sentence was served, Chakotay would be welcomed back into Federation society—if not necessarily into Starfleet. It was a compromise he could live with.

The rest of the Liberty’s Starfleet crew, including B’Elanna, were pardoned for all crimes committed as Maquis. They were allowed to keep their provisional ranks—if they chose—but only until they could complete Starfleet certification for full commissions. Those that chose to leave the service had commendations placed in their official jackets, and were given honorable discharges. Their long nightmare was finally over.

After the sentences were read, Chakotay was taken into custody, though it amounted to little more than confinement to quarters. The Federation knew he was a hero to many of its citizens who had opposed the alliance with Cardassia, and even more who had learned of his life aboard Voyager. Still, he was due to be transferred to Auckland the next day, and his friends were granted permission to visit with him for thirty minutes before his final processing.

Kathryn had been sitting with Tom at the sentencing hearing. His suspicions confirmed, Paris had taken her hand as the sentence was read. They met up with B’Elanna as soon as the hearing ended, and walked the short distance to the security barracks. Neelix, Seven and the Doctor met them when they got the news.

Chakotay was already in his standard issue prison jumpsuit when they were escorted in to see him. His mood was amazingly upbeat. “It isn’t quite as fashionable as the old black and red, but it’s actually a lot more comfortable than those new uniforms,” he joked.

B’Elanna didn’t appreciate his attempt at humor. “I can’t believe we’re letting you do this,” she spat, unknowingly mimicking Kathryn’s words from the night before.

Chakotay took her hands in his before he answered. “I don’t mind paying for my crimes, B’Elanna. Hell, I was willing to die for this cause; serving a few months in a Federation prison seems like a small price to pay. And then it will all be behind us. Besides, I’ve always wanted to visit New Zealand.”

He turned to face her husband, “Tom, any words of advice from your personal experience?”

The pilot smiled, knowing their relationship had now come full-circle. “Yeah,” he said, “if a beautiful redhead shows up and offers you a job, take it.” The men laughed. “Seriously, Chakotay, you’ll be fine. In true Federation fashion, it’s all very civilized. The food stinks,” Tom glanced over his shoulder at Neelix, “but they don’t serve leola root so it might even seem like an improvement.”

Chakotay turned and extended his hand to Paris, who gladly shook it. “Take care of them,” he said under his breath, knowing that neither Kathryn nor B’Elanna would appreciate the thought.

“You know I will,” Tom said sincerely.

He moved to Kathryn and took her hands in his. Her eyes were full of tears, and he could tell she was fighting to keep them from escaping down her cheeks. “Looks like I don’t need to resign my commission,” he said softly. She could only nod as he continued. “Do you ever start to feel that the powers that be are conspiring against this relationship?” he joked.

She couldn’t help but smile. “They forget how determined I can be when I set my mind on a goal. I’ll be waiting for you,” she whispered, out of habit. She’d forgotten: they didn’t have to hide anymore.

Chakotay took her face in his hands. “I’ll be out before Voyager leaves spacedock, you know.” He turned back to face the group, “Just have B’Elanna and Seven pace themselves on those repairs.” Even Seven smiled sadly.

Tom took the opportunity to give his friends some privacy. “Captain, we’ll wait for you outside.” He put his hand on his former commander’s shoulder as he walked out. B’Elanna and Neelix took a moment to hug Chakotay before making their exits. The Doctor and Seven shook his hand.

When they were finally alone, Janeway asked him, “Are you allowed visitors?” He smiled. “I don’t know. But I think it would be easier on us both if you didn’t.” She looked upset at the thought. “It’s only five months,” he said gently. “And I don’t think I could stand watching you leave me more than once.”

She understood, and agreed.  “See you then,” she said softly. Then she kissed him one last time before she watched the guards lead him away.

~*~*~*~*~

Kathryn had received the official word that Voyager was to be refit and put back into service. Also, following a thorough debriefing with Starfleet Command, Seven of Nine would be granted Federation citizenship, and was absolved of any responsibility for crimes committed as a Borg. Just like Jean Luc Picard, she was viewed as a victim of the collective, not a criminal, and the Enterprise’s captain had spent considerable time helping prepare her for her deposition.

Janeway was pleased—if not surprised—when her pupil showed up at her apartment door later that evening. “Seven, it’s good to see you. I take it you’ve heard about the ruling on your status?”

Seven nodded. “Yes. That’s why I’ve come to talk with you.” Janeway invited her in, but didn’t bother to offer her a seat. She knew Seven preferred to stand. She did notice that Seven shifted her weight from foot to foot, uncharacteristically, as she spoke. “I am considering taking the Starfleet Academy equivalency examination. I would like to be considered for a permanent posting on Voyager. If you agree.”

Kathryn smiled. “I’d be thrilled to have you stay. Have you discussed this with the Doctor?” The captain was sure she saw her friend blush.

“Yes. He is planning a three-month lecture series at Starfleet Academy to discuss ‘Medical Breakthroughs of the Delta Quadrant.’ He mentioned that he plans to return to duty on Voyager when the tour is complete.”

“Well, then,” the captain said, “I’d be thrilled to sponsor you through the academy. I’ll even help you study, if you’d like.”

Seven looked relieved. “Thank you, Captain, but Lieutenant Torres—B’Elanna—has agreed to be my study partner. I have offered to coach her through advanced stellar cartography in return for lessons on the subtleties of shuttle piloting.” Seven decided not to mention B’Elanna’s tutoring on advanced dating rituals, since that had been a side agreement unrelated to their academy work.

For her part, Janeway could only laugh. “Don’t you both already know a lot about those two topics?” she asked.

Seven agreed. “Yes, but we thought it would be more…enjoyable to have a partner to review the materials with.” Surely the world would stop spinning any moment, Kathryn thought, if these two rivals were becoming friends.

They visited for a few more moments, before Seven excused herself. She had a ‘date’ with the Doctor—this time in the real Venice—and she didn’t want to be late. “Captain,” she said as she started to go, “as a member of Voyager’s crew, would I be assigned my own quarters?”

Janeway smiled. “You could have had your own quarters at any time, Seven. You only had to ask.”

Her friend nodded. “Then I’d like to make such a request now.”

“Consider it done,” Janeway said, smiling, as she watched Seven leave. She made a note to herself: adapt one crew cabin with a Borg regeneration alcove. She instantly added an addendum to her note: better go ahead and equip it with holoemitters, too, she thought.

~*~*~*~*~

With the Maquis and Seven off her plate, and Neelix’s official appointment as a roving Federation Ambassador, Kathryn was finally starting to relax. The only thing left to resolve was the issue of Tom Paris. Unlike his Maquis friends, Tom had been on assignment for the Federation when Voyager was lost, and Kathryn had given him a field commission instead of a provisional rank. Unbeknownst to Tom, she had been fighting as passionately behind the scenes for him as she had so publicly for the Maquis. Tom had more than earned his new rank, she knew. But she also knew the outlaw legend her young helmsman had been saddled with right after they disappeared. Janeway decided their treatment of Tom Paris would be a final test of the integrity and honor she had always believed were part and parcel of Federation and Starfleet life.

But, when the ruling came, even she was surprised. And she knew she needed to see Tom and B’Elanna right away.

The young family had been staying with Owen in the Paris home just south of the bay area. The admiral answered the door when she arrived. “They’re waiting for you,” her mentor said as he walked her through the main foyer and through the large kitchen at the back of the house. Before he opened the door to the porch, he stopped and faced her. “From the look on your face, I’m guessing the news isn’t good,” he said softly.

Kathryn hadn’t even realized she’d looked so intense. She put her hand on her friend’s arm. “I think I owe it to Tom to tell him first,” she answered, “I’m sorry.”

Owen smiled sadly. “Don’t apologize, Kathryn. You’re right. I just have to get used to the fact that I can’t protect him. I guess I never really could.”

Janeway smiled back at him, and said gently, “He’s a good man, Admiral. He doesn’t need your protection. Just your love.” Owen knew the truth of what she was saying. It was a lesson he had almost learned too late. They stepped though the kitchen door and onto the long deck that ran the length of the house, overlooking the private beach below.

Prepared for their captain’s visit, Tom and B’Elanna were both in uniform, sitting on the sand with MK. The couple was watching out over the water in a scene very similar to one they had created on Voyager’s holodeck only a few weeks earlier, B’Elanna seated between Tom’s raised knees, her back against his chest. This was a much more peaceful moment for the couple, however, with their lives no longer in danger, B’Elanna’s freedom guaranteed, and their real, gorgeous daughter on the blanket beside them. Their future was still uncertain, however. They couldn’t fully relax and enjoy this time together until the last of their questions was answered.

They heard the screen door slam, and could see Kathryn standing with Tom’s father on the porch. “I guess this is it,” B’Elanna said softly before they stood up.

“I guess so,” Tom answered. “My turn to face the music,” he joked.

She didn’t smile, instead turning around on the blanket to face him. “Whatever it is, we’ll be alright,” she reassured him.

Tom smiled. “Yep. Just a question of Scenario A or C,” he said, almost under his breath.

“What?” B’Elanna asked. Tom still hadn’t told her about his three-option prediction for their welcome home.

“Nothing,” he said and smiled. “Let’s go see the captain.”

They climbed the stairs to the porch hand in hand. Tom was wearing Miral in a ‘snugglie’ exactly like the one B’Elanna had replicated for their last night in Voyager’s holodeck, and B’Elanna carried the blanket over her arm. “That’s an interesting…‘harness’ you’re wearing, Tom,” Kathryn said as they reached the top step.

“Yeah, well, I figure B’Elanna got to carry her around all day for over eight months. It’s my turn.” They were trying to keep the mood light, but the air was full of the tension of anticipation. They knew that whatever Kathryn was about to say would chart the course of their lives for the foreseeable future.

“Maybe we should go inside,” Owen suggested. He held the door as B’Elanna lead the way into the house.

Tom passed the baby to B’Elanna and unbuckled and removed the carrier. He immediately headed for Owen’s study, a place where he had years of experience in getting reprimanded. Tom’s father sat behind the large oak desk, and B’Elanna took a seat on the couch at the far side of the room. Tom was moving to sit next to her when Kathryn stopped him. “Tom, I’m sorry, but it’s customary for one to stand when given this kind of news.” Her friend looked hurt, but complied.

“Captain…” B’Elanna blurted out sharply, not sure why Kathryn had to make this even harder for her husband.

“It’s okay, B’Elanna,” Tom said, realizing that, this time, his father would be present to see him stripped of his rank and commission. He pulled himself to attention in front of his commanding officer, just the barest hint of the old mask slipping over his face to contain his emotions.

Kathryn took a deep breath. “Thomas Eugene Paris,” Janeway said solemnly. “It is my duty to inform you that your field commission of lieutenant has been revoked.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small box. The look on Tom’s face instantly changed to one of dumbfounded confusion. “In its place, you have been granted a permanent commission,” she opened the box to reveal the golden pip, “and the rank of lieutenant commander.” She opened the box, pulled out the pip and added it to his collar, unable to contain her smile any longer. “Congratulations, Tom,” she said as she reached out to shake his hand. Like another very similar day in her ready room seven years ago, Tom Paris didn’t know what to say.

Which was fine, because his lips were soon covered by B’Elanna’s, which would have made talking impossible anyway.

Kathryn was truly apologetic about the drama. “I’m sorry, Tom, but I wanted you to remember this moment for a long while. You’ve earned this, and I’m very proud of you.” B’Elanna let him out of her embrace just long enough for Tom to give his captain and friend a long hug. When she pulled back, her serious expression returned. “I’m afraid there’s more, if your heart is up to it.” Tom couldn’t imagine what else she could say.

“I don’t know what plans you and B’Elanna have made for your future,” she began.

Tom had to think. “Well, honestly captain, we weren’t really in a position to make any before today.”

Kathryn hesitated a moment, a little afraid to even bring this up. “I know most of the crew has done nothing but dream of the day they could leave Voyager behind, but I get the sense that the two of you were happy with the home you’d made on the ship. So I’ve asked Starfleet to keep you with me, assuming you’re both willing.”

Tom and B’Elanna looked at each other for a moment. They’d never really discussed their next steps. Each was hesitant to answer without time to talk to the other. Then Tom saw a look in his wife’s eyes that answered all of his questions. “Well, now that you mention it,” he said, “I’m sure B’Elanna won’t let anyone else take over her engine room, and I guess I would have a problem with seeing a new pilot at Voyager’s helm.”

Janeway averted her eyes for just a moment. “I’m afraid you would have to get over that, Tom,” she said cautiously, “if you’re going to be my first officer.”

There was no question now that the ‘Paris mask’ was gone. Tom’s jaw visibly dropped, and he had that same open-mouthed, glazed-over expression he had once saved for B’Elanna’s bombshells during their courtship. Kathryn filled the awkward silence with an offer she hoped would be too good to resist.

“Of course, I’m willing to throw in the unofficial captaincy of the Delta Flyer if that will help, now that my helmsman isn’t likely to object to having the first officer fly his ship.”

Tom was slowly regaining his composure, but it was B’Elanna who answered first. “He accepts,” she said quickly.

“B’Elanna!” Tom interjected, “I thought there were rules about senior officers fraternizing with their subordinates. Isn’t that going to make our marriage a little dull?”

Kathryn laughed. “Yes it would, so I’ve told Starfleet that my chief engineer will be reporting directly to me. Tom, as long as the two of you aren’t worried about it, neither am I.”

Tom didn’t know what else to say. “Excuse me, Captain, but could you hold our daughter for a moment?” Tom pulled the baby out of B’Elanna’s arms and handed her off to her godmother. It was a good thing B’Elanna was no longer pregnant, Kathryn thought, when Tom took his wife in his arms and lifted her off the ground with his embrace. “I guess we’re doing this,” he said to B’Elanna as he let her feet hit the floor again.

“I guess we are,” she smiled back at him.

He turned back to face the other woman who had totally changed his life. “We accept.”

They had convinced Kathryn to stay for dinner, but she left soon after to go back to her sister’s apartment. The captain had spent seven years away from her aging Irish Setter, Molly, and she liked to spend her evenings at home when she could. Her friends also knew the separation from Chakotay was difficult for her, and they tried to respect her privacy.

Tom had finished loading the dishes into the recycler, and was relaxing in the lounge chair on the back porch when his father appeared. “Is B’Elanna putting the baby down?” Owen asked, a little uncomfortably.

“Yeah,” Tom answered. “That is if she was able to pry her out of mom’s arms.” It was the first time the two men had been alone since Tom’s promotion in the admiral’s study that afternoon. Owen took the chair next to his son and spent a few minutes staring up at the stars. Tom could tell his father was uncomfortable. They sat together in silence for a long moment, until Tom got the courage to break the ice. “Tell me what you’re thinking?”

Owen shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “That I’m proud of my son. And a little jealous,” he admitted.

Tom couldn’t imagine. “Jealous? Of what?”

Owen looked at his feet, the deck, the stars—any place but his son’s eyes. “Not of you. Of Kathryn. Sometimes, I think she did a better job raising my son than I did.” Only after his admission did he meet Tom’s eyes.

“She’s my captain, not my parent,” Tom said softly. “Besides, I don’t think I gave her quite as much grief as I gave you—though Captain Janeway might disagree.”

Owen laughed, softly. “Maybe so, but still wish I knew what went wrong between us…”

Tom had spent most of his adult life asking the same question. “Look at what we were just doing, Dad. As long as I can remember, we’d sit on this porch at night, me looking out at the water and you looking up at the stars. We just wanted different things. One’s not better than the other. They’re just different. And I guess that’s all I really ever wanted from you: permission to have my own dreams.”

Tom wasn’t trying to refight this old battle, however. “But I think the only way this is ever gonna work between us is if we both just forgive each other and move on. You weren’t the easiest father in the world, and I wasn’t the easiest son. I know we’d both do a lot of things differently if we could, but I’m not sorry for the way things turned out. I’m happy with my life now.” Tom paused for a moment to get the courage he needed to finish. “I’ve forgiven you. I think it’s time you forgive yourself.”

Owen just nodded gently to himself, and turned away. “Are you sorry you ended up a pilot instead of a sailor?” he asked his son.

“Not anymore,” Tom said honestly. “B’Elanna gets seasick on anything bigger than a sailboat.” They laughed out loud together. And, for the first time in all their years of sitting together on this deck, the admiral spent the next hour gazing out over the water, while his son leaned back to enjoy the view of the stars.

~*~*~*~*~

The refit was going better than expected. B’Elanna had four crews working around the clock—a luxury she could never have afforded in the Delta Quadrant—and, despite the enormous task in front of her, she was home by dinnertime almost every night.

Tom would be taking family leave for the first four months of their layover, and was already having a wonderful time being a full-time father. He and MK were joined at the hip (or, to be more precise considering Tom’s favorite baby carrier, the chest), and he couldn’t remember any longer what his life had been like without her.  He and B’Elanna continued to live with Tom’s parents, and were enjoying this weird feeling of having a ‘normal life.’

Tom was becoming quite a cook, and he usually had dinner ready when B’Elanna and his parents returned from work. He did have his own ‘special project,’ however. With Kathryn’s permission, Tom had requested that the Delta Flyer be transported to a Starfleet hangar just a few miles from their home, and he spent a fair amount of his free time getting his ship put back together. It wasn’t unusual for B’Elanna to find him lying under a panel, the baby sleeping behind a forcefield, Tom singing butchered song lyrics to his daughter at the top of his lungs.

B’Elanna helped him when she wasn’t too tired, though she was interested to see that Tom’s engineering skills improved when the Flyer was his patient. All of the years of faking ignorance at the subtleties of plasma couplings were now exposed as exaggeration. He’d never get away with that trick again.

Just over three weeks into their homecoming and they were ready for a test drive. Leaving their daughter at home with her grandparents, they were cleared to take the Flyer on a quick check-out flight: once around the solar system. Tom hadn’t been in space in a long while, and it had been even longer since he’d piloted anything more than a ground shuttle. He was anxious to get her in the air.

They had done a short hop to the moon and back before plotting a course for Saturn. The view would be wonderful, and Tom looked forward to navigating the more intense gravitational forces he knew he would find between the planet and its moons. After buzzing McKinley Station for his own peek at B’Elanna’s progress and dodging a few stray satellites, all that was left was to test the warp drive. He called for his copilot to bring the warp core online, and they made a quick jump to light speed. It was a short ride, and all they needed to know that their hard work had paid off.

Everything was checking out. The Delta Flyer was officially back in service. For this and other reasons, Tom thought a celebration was in order.

He dropped them into orbit on the dark side of the giant planet, well out of view of any prying eyes. Then he slipped the helm controls to autonavigation and turned around in his seat. “I think I’m declaring her fit for duty,” he said of his favorite ship. He stood up and leaned on B’Elanna’s console. “What about you?” he asked a little playfully.

“Excuse me, Commander?” she asked.

“You heard me, Cadet,” he teased her since she had started this little rank game. “Are you feeling fit for duty?” He had been a very patient man, but it was now six weeks and one day since their daughter was born and he was through waiting. B’Elanna knew this test flight had been carefully timed. She came prepared.

“Stick out your neck,” she ordered. This was a new wrinkle, Tom thought. He just stood there looking confused. “Unless you want it to be six weeks and two days,” she continued, “you’d better stick out your neck.” Still confused, he did as he was ordered.

He didn’t see the hypo until she was placing it against his jugular. “Hey!” he said as he grabbed her arm. “What was that for?”

She smiled. “Contraceptive booster,” she explained. Of course. They knew they wanted more children. Just not this year. She handed him the hypo and he adjusted it for her gender and body chemistry before returning the favor. Technically, only one of them needed the shot, but why take any chances?

Now safely guaranteeing the stability of their family size, Tom pulled B’Elanna away from her station and onto the jumpseat. “I guess that means you’re in the mood for some ‘mushy stuff,’ he teased her.

She played along. “That depends,” she answered. “What kind of ‘mush’ do you have in mind?”

This time their little conversation played out without the interruption of a warp core breech. “Traditionally, it requires a proposal,” he said, then finished the question he’d wanted to ask on that day so long ago. “Will you marry me?”

She leaned over and gave him a long kiss. “I already did, you idiot.”

He pulled her onto his lap and began to test his theory about the easy removal of their new uniforms. Having already set the unofficial Starfleet records for longest flirtation, most action-packed proposal, and shortest engagement, they proceeded to reenact its longest honeymoon.

~*~*~*~*~

She was pleasantly surprised when Owen Paris showed up at her door. Kathryn was in the process of moving into her newly-refurbished ready room, and hadn’t expected any visitors. “Admiral, how nice of you to drop by,” she said as she welcomed him. “To what do I owe this honor?”

She noticed her old friend was carrying a datapad. Suddenly, she understood. He was bringing her new orders. “Captain, I have a mission that you and your crew are uniquely qualified to handle.”

She was intrigued. “As long as it’s in this quadrant, and takes less than seven years, I think my people would be happy to oblige. What is it?”

She showed the Admiral to the seat across from her desk and he handed her the PADD. The display was marked classified, and she put her thumb in the proper spot to verify her identity and clearance. Almost immediately, she couldn’t believe what she was reading.

“You’re kidding,” she said as she looked up from the orders. “Why Voyager?”

Owen thought for a moment. “It’s simple. Because you’re the only ones who can. Because it needs to be done. This wound needs to be healed, Kathryn. Who better to do that than this crew?”

She shook her head, trying to imagine giving these orders to her people. How would they react, Janeway wondered. The idea came to her almost instantly. “They’ll be suspicious of Starfleet,” she said. “I’ll need to take along a civilian. Someone familiar with the history, who would have credibility with both sides.”

Paris smiled. “I was thinking the same thing,” he nodded. “As a matter of fact, I think your first officer knows where to find someone who’d be perfect for the job. Why don’t you call him in here and we can discuss it.” He’d arranged this all along, she now knew.

“Janeway to Paris.” It took a second for him to reply.

“Paris here, Captain.”

She looked at the young man’s father as she spoke to him over the com, “Commander, can you report to my ready room?”

She waited for his familiar, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ but got a restrained, “Aye, Captain,” instead. Maybe this new job was growing on him.

As she waited for Tom to arrive, Kathryn couldn’t believe what she was about to do. But if this worked out, this new assignment could mean a challenging, but incredibly meaningful mission for them all. And it might go a long way toward healing some of her friends’ wounds permanently.

Lt. Commander Paris appeared at her door in a matter of moments. “Admiral,” he acknowledged his father as protocol dictated, as if they weren’t still living in the same house and hadn’t just had breakfast together four hours ago. “Captain, what can I do for you both?”

Her eyes gleamed as she handed him the PADD. “I have a mission for you, Tom,” she said wryly. He could never have guessed what she was about to say.

Tom already knew his way to the motor fleet repair bay. He’d spent more than his fair share of time tuning up these old heaps as part of his rehabilitation. Still the guards felt the need to point him in the right direction. He found the man he was looking for lying under an old shuttlecraft, welding off a blown power conduit. He was surprised to see his old friend looking tanned and rested, as if he’d been at a spa instead of in prison.

“Hey,” he called out. “You look like somebody I used to know.” Chakotay smiled up at his friend. It had been almost five months since they’d last seen each other, and in some ways it felt like a lifetime.

“Well,” he answered, “if it isn’t Lieutenant Commander Paris. Come to show off that new pip or are you up to something useful for a change?”

Tom smiled. “Look,” he said back at his friend, “I know I’m not a beautiful redhead, but I’m here to spring you.” Chakotay looked confused; Tom just laughed. “Wait until you hear what they want us to do!” he said as he helped his friend off the ground. “Let’s take a walk.”

“They want us to what?” Tom wasn’t surprised. It had been his reaction, too.

“You heard me. They want us to lead a Federation humanitarian mission to Cardassia Prime. You know: food, medical supplies, the whole works. In exchange, the Cardassians have agreed to give Starfleet some intelligence data on a Maquis prison break that happened just before the whole thing with the Dominion went south on them. Three impounded Maquis ships were stolen about the same time. They think the two were related.”

Chakotay was stunned. “So some of the Maquis might have gotten away? Why didn’t Sveta mention this to me? She seems to think all of the rest of our friends are all dead.”

Tom nodded. “Apparently the Cardassian government covered it all up. They were humiliated that the Maquis were able to break out right under their noses. Some guy named Riker apparently orchestrated the whole thing. It would have been a huge embarrassment to them at the time. Of course, pretty soon afterward they had bigger problems than a few dozen escaped prisoners.”

Chakotay couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Let’s say the story is true and we get whatever information the Cardassians have about these Maquis. Then what?”

“Then Voyager goes looking for them. There were sightings of the missing ships heading into the Badlands. The Cardies took some shots at them and at least two of the three ships were damaged. They could have landed—or crashed—on one of the Class M planets in the Terikof Belt. They could be regrouping, waiting for reinforcements to come. Or they could be dead. We won’t know until we try to find them.”

Chakotay was incredulous. “There’s been no sign of them in years? I can’t believe it. Someone would have seen or heard something.” Then he realized: maybe not. The Terikof planetoids had water, and plant and animal life—enough to sustain a humanoid colony for many years. Any Maquis living there would have had no access to technology, though, if their ships were damaged or destroyed. And subspace transmitters would be useless with all the interference from the plasma storms. There very well could be Maquis alive and hiding out—or trapped—in the Badlands.

Tom had allowed Chakotay to come to this realization on his own. Another thought came right behind it. “If this is true, they might not even know that the war is over.”

“Exactly,” Tom said. Which is why Starfleet is a little hesitant to just go in searching for them. They might believe it was some kind of a trap.” Chakotay was sure that they would. At the time these prisoners escaped, the Federation was still helping the Cardassians hunt down and capture the Maquis. They’d probably be incredibly suspicious of any Starfleet crew claiming to be there to rescue them. Suddenly, it was all making sense.

“So,” Chakotay said. “That’s why they want Voyager to lead the mission. A ship full of former Maquis—now loyal Starfleet officers—they think Riker and his cell will believe them.”

Tom nodded. “That’s pretty much it. Plus, Voyager was designed and built to maneuver through the plasma storms in the Badlands. Only an Intrepid class ship can make it in and out. It has to be us.”

Chakotay didn’t know what to think. “Why would the Cardassians want to help us find some escaped Maquis?”

Tom explained. “It was their idea. The prisoners were all former Starfleet officers. They know Starfleet would rescue them if it could, so they’re using their information about the prisoners as a bargaining chip to get Federation aid and assistance. Their entire civilization has been devastated. They need Federation help to survive.”

Chakotay’s head was spinning. Every impulse in his body was resisting the belief that a Federation/Cardassian alliance could be a positive thing. Wasn’t that how they got into this mess in the first place? “Okay, so you’ve answered the question, ‘why Voyager?’ But I need to know: why me?”

“You’re one of the last surviving Maquis officers. They’ll trust you. Plus, the Federation wants a civilian in joint control of the mission. They’re afraid the Maquis won’t believe anyone in a Starfleet uniform. Even if they used to fight alongside them.” Tom took a deep breath. “I’m sure you can remember how you felt the first time you saw me standing back in uniform on Voyager’s bridge. If your eyes had been phasers, I’d be dead right now.”

Chakotay was unconvinced. “I’m just not sure I can do this, Tom. Not after everything that happened. I can’t just meet casually with Cardassian officials after what they did to my family. I’d feel like I was betraying everything my father died for.”

Paris understood. Then he remembered a phrase he’d heard his father use when describing the parallels between this situation and another in Federation history. “Chakotay, have you ever heard the phrase ‘only Kirk could go to Qo’noS’?”

Basic Federation history; of course he knew. “James Kirk, The Kitomer Accords, right?”

Tom nodded. “Yeah. Two civilizations: the ‘good guys’—the Federation, of course—and the ‘bad guys’, a highly aggressive species known for their brutality, their tendency to want to conquer other worlds by force, and their total lack of scruples when it came to warfare. I think you might have heard of them. They’re called Klingons.”

“Make your point, Tom,” Chakotay said. Paris knew that he—of all people—could.

“The Klingons had battled Kirk and his crew for years. They were bitter enemies; a Klingon even murdered Kirk’s son. The Federation and the Empire were stuck in an ongoing cold war, which occasionally turned hot. Everyone suspected that an all-out war was inevitable, and no one would take bets on who might win. Then the Klingon energy plant on Praxis exploded and the balance of power shifted. The Klingons were on the verge of dying out as a race. The Federation held all the cards, and had a choice: make peace with the Klingons, help them rebuild, or exploit the situation as their best chance to wipe out a bitter enemy for good.”

Feeling just a little dense, Chakotay was getting Tom’s point. He finished the parable for his friend. “So the Federation sent Kirk, of all people, to negotiate the peace treaty with the Klingon government on Qo’noS. I get it. We’re the ‘good guys’ and we don’t exploit another culture—even our bitter enemies—just because we hold the military advantage. It would make us no better than them.”

Tom nodded, then continued making his point. “And it turns out that the Klingons weren’t the one-sided stereotype most of the Federation had come to believe. They’re actually quite an honorable people once you get to know them—though I don’t recommend eating in their restaurants. And, let me tell you, I, for one, am really glad we made peace with the Empire. Though, I have to say that keeping that peace is something I struggle with just about every day of my life.”

The men smiled. Tom’s joke led Chakotay to another thought. “So what does B’Elanna think about this new mission?”

Paris’s expression turned serious. “She’s skeptical. She’s waiting to see what you think before she makes up her mind.” Tom turned to look at his friend. “Maybe only Chakotay can go to Cardassia. Maybe the anger and hatred and threat of future conflicts won’t end until somebody with every reason to hate the Cardassians decides to take a chance on building a new peace.”

Damn. When did Tom Paris get to be so eloquent? “Okay. So let’s assume I were to go on this questionable mission. What’s the plan?”

Tom handed Chakotay a PADD, but summarized its contents. “Voyager leads a convoy of supply vessels to Cardassia Prime, where we spend a few weeks helping them plan out a rebuilding project and pump them for information about the escaped prisoners. Then we leave a diplomatic envoy to coordinate the humanitarian efforts, and head for the Badlands. We find some way of verifying that there are Maquis hiding there and do our best to convince them to listen. If they do, we take them with us and keep looking. We don’t stop until we’re sure we’ve rescued anyone left alive.”

He could tell his friend was almost convinced. “So what’s my role in all of this?”

Tom was pretty sure this answer would push Chakotay over the top. “Technically, you’d be a civilian consultant to the Federation, and a roving ambassador to the Cardassian system. ‘Roving’ is the key word: you and your team would be housed on Voyager. The rescue operation would be under joint command; you would have to coordinate the logistics with Captain Janeway. In a sense, the two of you would share command of this mission. That is, if you can stand the thought of working that closely—probably for years—with someone so stubborn and strong-willed.”

Chakotay couldn’t help but smile. “Did she arrange this assignment?” he asked.

Tom laughed. “Amazingly enough, I think it was my dad’s idea.” Tom let it all sink in for a minute before he continued.

“So, whadda you say?” He saw the conflict on his friend’s face. Then he got the answer he was hoping for.

“I’m in.” Chakotay said with growing conviction. “Now when do I get out of here?”

~*~*~*~*~

Tom Paris had become an optimist of late; so much so that he had already transported Chakotay’s poorly-packed belongings into the cargo bay of the Delta Flyer before leaving on his “mission” to recruit his former commanding officer. Six hours later, after the typical Federation bureaucracy involved in processing a prisoner’s discharge, he and Chakotay were finally on their way home.

Each man now realized that, once again and for the foreseeable future, home would be Voyager. Earth was a nice enough vacation spot, but they had put down roots—oddly enough—in space. They both looked forward to getting back. Chakotay, in particular, was anxious to see his former captain, new business partner, and the love of his life one more time. She had honored his request to stay away while he served his time, and he’d neither seen nor heard from her in almost five months. He’d missed her more than he could stand.

Tom could have beamed directly to Auckland to pick up his friend, but—not surprisingly—the earthbound pilot was taking every chance he could to fly these days. The captain had to stop him from taking the Delta Flyer every time they needed supplies from Earth. Today, Tom reminded her, he’d have to retrieve Chakotay’s personal belongings before coming back, and she had relented. It was tempting now, on his way back to the ship, to take the scenic route home, but, out of compassion for Chakotay and Kathryn’s long separation, he plotted the shortest path back to Voyager.

There was no need for Chakotay to man one of the Flyer’s stations on this short hop from Auckland, so he sat up front with Tom, on the jump seat next to the helm. As they flew, Paris made small talk. There was a time when Chakotay had found his chatty companion’s non-stop banter annoying. These days, he kind of enjoyed catching up on the gossip. “And Neelix keeps trying to convince the me to let him program leola surprise into the replicators. I think it’s driving him crazy that we don’t need a cook anymore. So far, I’ve refused, but some of the DQ’s actually miss it.”

“DQ’s?” Chakotay asked.

Tom realized he was talking in code. “Sorry. Delta Quadrant survivors. Some of the new additions are calling us Voyager Veterans the ‘DQ’s. You should see their eyes light up when one of the vets tells a story about the Hirogen or Species 8472.  Especially to the kids right out of the Academy, who are totally gullible, of course. I threatened to put Chell on gamma shift for the next year after I heard him spinning some tall tale about his personally defeating the Borg.”

“I tell you, Tom,” Chakotay reminisced, “that’s the best part of your new job: controlling the duty assignments. I would never have admitted this before, but I used to keep bumping Chell to the bottom of the rotation list for bridge duty when he was on alpha shift. The man is a decent engineer, but he just annoys the hell out of me.” He smiled at the memory. “Just one of the many perks of being the first officer.”

Chakotay’s comment was just the opening Tom was looking for. “I’ve been meaning to ask you how you feel about my…about me…”

“…taking my place?” his friend helped him say it. “I think its great. I also think it’s going to kill you at first to watch someone else maneuvering Voyager around those plasma storms. But I think you’re ready to do more than just execute someone else’s orders. I was a little surprised to hear you accepted the offer, but I have to admit that I was glad, too. Kathryn needs someone she can trust and count on in that seat. You’ll make a great team.”

Tom was relieved at the show of support, but couldn’t help but notice the way his friend’s voice trailed off at the end. “I know it’s been hard for you to be away from her so long.” Chakotay just averted his eyes as Tom continued. “Is that why you wouldn’t let any of us visit or contact you?”

Chakotay nodded. “That was part of it. I knew I’d want to ask questions about how she was doing and I also knew I didn’t want to hear the answer. But, since I’ll finally get to see her in another…,” he checked the chronometer, “fifteen minutes, I’ll go ahead and ask. How has she been?”

Paris throttled the thrusters back to avoid a micrometeor shower as he thought about how to answer. “She’s kept to herself a lot. B’Elanna and I forced her to go out to dinner with us once a week just to keep an eye on her. You know the captain, Chakotay; she just pretends she’s fine and works sixteen hour days. But it’s been hard on her.” As they made a gentle arc around the curve of the earth, they could now see McKinley Station in the distance. “I imagine it hasn’t been too easy on you, either. At least Kathryn had her friends and her sister to look out for her. It must have been hard for you to go through this all alone.”

Interesting, Chakotay observed. Tom had been concerned for him, as well. “I did feel pretty isolated sometimes. But there’s something to be said for stepping out of your life for a while, Tom. It can give you a great sense of perspective on who you really are and what you want.”

Better than most people, Tom could relate. He’d had a similar experience at Auckland years earlier. “So,” he asked, “do you know now what you want out of the rest of your life?”

Chakotay smiled. “Yes. And I suspect that everything I want out of life will be standing in that shuttlebay waiting for us to dock—assuming you get this thing moving and get us there.”

Tom was no longer under Chakotay’s command, but—out of habit and friendship—he found himself answering, “Aye, aye, sir!” And he increased the thrusters to maximum.

As predicted, she was pacing the shuttlebay, waiting for him, B’Elanna by her side and almost as excited. The women heard the plink of the forcefield engaging and knew now that it wouldn’t be long. They watched the huge bay doors part and the sleek outline of the Flyer as it glided inside and onto the deck. When the doors closed and the bay was repressurized, the forcefield lowered, and B’Elanna turned to the crewman manning the bay’s console. “Chell,” she said. “You’re excused.” The women were now alone and hardly able to contain their excitement as the Flyer’s access hatch opened.

Tom deliberately held back and let his passenger disembark first. As he followed Chakotay across the large room, Tom wasn’t sure he could have shown quite as much restraint as he was now watching from his two friends. Of course, they’d had seven years of practice, he now realized.

Kathryn was smiling, but she walked at a normal pace toward him, toward this part of herself she hadn’t seen in many months. It seemed like forever, but was only moments before he stood before her. She gently reached out and brushed her fingers across his tattooed forehead. “Welcome home,” she said softly. Always a man of few words, Chakotay returned her greeting with a long kiss. He pulled away only long enough to take her into his arms for a bone-crunching hug. As they embraced, his eyes were tightly closed, allowing this one moment to purge him of five months of separation.

It would be a long time, he realized, before he’d be comfortable letting her out of his sight again.

When they finally parted, he looked into Kathryn’s eyes for a long moment, just convincing himself that this was real, and that he was free and in the arms of the woman he loved. He inspected every millimeter of her face as he spoke. “I’ve missed you, Kathryn,” he said with almost reverence. “How have you been?” It was her turn to reassure herself that this wasn’t a dream.

“I’ve had better months,” she said honestly. “But they’ve taken good care of me.” She nodded in the direction of the Paris’s who now stood at a respectful distance enjoying their friends’ reunion. Chakotay realized he had another woman to greet.

He scooped his best friend into the air as he hugged her. “B’Elanna,” he said as he spun her around. “How’ve you been?”

She held onto his arms as he put her down. “I’ve been fine. Thanks to you,” she said, acknowledging the sacrifice he had made for her and the others. “Welcome back, Chakotay.”

Tom reclaimed his wife as the couples started walking toward the door to the corridor. “Captain,” he said, intentionally formally. “As one of my first official acts as your first officer, I’ve decided to stage a mutiny. Consider yourself relieved of command for the next seventy-two hours. That’s an order.”

Janeway smiled. “Yes, sir,” she said turning his trademark acknowledgement around. “Do I have the commander’s permission to return to my quarters and pack a few things?”

Tom smiled, but stayed in character. “I’ll give you three hours. Then I’m beaming you off the ship myself.”

As they reached the corridor, Tom and B’Elanna pulled out of each other’s arms, professional decorum taking over. They were on duty, after all, and years of practice knowing when they should act like mates and when they needed to be seen as officers took over without a conscious thought. They couldn’t help but notice, however, that the captain and the ambassador were still happily entangled, his arm tightly around her shoulder; hers firmly holding onto his waist. After years of having to hide their affections, they could finally just be themselves, and it didn’t matter who saw. One last sign that their lives were finally becoming their own. It was about time.

~*~*~*~*~

It was move-in day on the newly-refurbished starship Voyager, and the ship was a flurry of activity. They had three days to get everyone settled into their new quarters before they’d leave for Cardassian space, and juggling the logistics was getting a little complicated.

Officers were moved in according to rank, and they were helped out some by the fact that Captain Janeway had been practically living on Voyager during the last two months of the refit. Once her friend and companion Molly had died—peacefully, and at the extraordinary-for-an-Irish Setter old age of fourteen—she discovered she was less and less interested in going back to her sister’s home near the base. She was lonely, and found that working around the clock was the only thing that made her feel better. It was a bad habit she’d developed during her years in the Delta Quadrant, but it was a routine that had comforted her in its familiarity. Now, however, those lonely days and nights were about to come to an end.

Her civilian partner was almost finished his own move-in, back to familiar quarters at the other end of the Deck 4 corridor. It was common knowledge to Starfleet and the crew that Captain Janeway and Ambassador Chakotay were partners in life as well as this mission, but they had elected to keep dual quarters. The captain’s cabin would serve as their private residence; the ambassador’s would act as his office and mission command center.

The first officer and chief engineer were happily rearranging the furniture in their new quarters: a family suite with two bedrooms in addition to the living area. Not that the second bedroom would be getting that much use for a while. Neither could stand the thought of leaving their six-month-old daughter in a room so far away. Her crib would stay in their bedroom for the time being.

The Paris’s would be one of three families making this journey, and the ship’s crew now included a childcare specialist and a Federation teacher. It had taken Tom Paris a while before he was comfortable leaving his daughter in the care of a stranger, even a highly-skilled Vulcan au pair. It remained common for the crew to see him working in his office or wandering the ship, MK snuggly strapped to his chest, a datapad in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. In fact, his was the only office on the ship to have its own playpen and diaper-changing station.

Voyager’s new science officer was getting used to having quarters at all. Her specially-designed home had its own unique features, including a working kitchen and a Borg alcove—in addition to the standard issue bed. Ensign Hanson was now spending many of her nights sleeping instead of regenerating, but she would need access to the alcove until the Federation’s doctors had found a way to completely remove the rest of her Borg implants. For now, however, she was happy with the compromise that allowed her to at least feel more like a human being.

Seven’s time on Earth had been one of huge adjustment. While most of her friends were focused on the fate of the Maquis, Seven had been fighting her own battle for acceptance, not just of Federation society, but of herself. She was more afraid than she had anticipated when Voyager first docked, and her debriefing with Starfleet officials was an intimidating exercise. She could tell, just by watching the faces around the table, that some of her examiners were put off by her direct nature. Appearing intimidating to humans had never concerned her before, but these officials had her future in their hands. She tried to be more conscious of her tone from that point on.

During those days, Captain Janeway and her other friends had tried to offer their support, but she was in much less jeopardy than Commander Chakotay and the others, so she resisted taking too much of their time and attention—with one exception. To no one’s surprise, the Doctor was with her at every critical moment, helping her prepare her responses to questions, or—on several occasions—distracting her with outings: picnics, trips to the opera, even a dinner out with his ‘father,’ Dr. Louis Zimmerman. (Only after meeting the sardonic and morose holoprogrammer who had created her ‘boyfriend’ could Seven truly appreciate exactly how far the Doctor had come in exceeding his original programming.)

Seven had also received substantial support from another—totally unexpected—source. The day after Voyager arrived home, Captain Janeway had arrived at her door with a distinguished looking human, a Starfleet officer Kathryn introduced as Captain Jean Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. Seven had recognized him, of course. Picard had been assimilated by the Borg many years earlier, before Seven was separated from the collective. She not only recognized Picard, his knowledge and experiences were a part of her on some level. She wasn’t sure, however, why he was now visiting her.

She soon realized that his was a man of uncommon courage and compassion. Instead of viewing her as one of the drones responsible for his own pain and suffering, Picard treated Seven as a kindred spirit, a human stolen from her life and forced into a kind of slavery. She had now been set free, as he had, by a caring group of Starfleet officers who were as close to him as family. He was there to help.

During the week of debriefing, Picard had never left her ‘side,’ metaphorically, since he had deliberately chosen a seat across from Seven, where she could look into his eyes at any point in the conversation to regain her composure and receive a reassuring smile. He even spoke on her behalf, with an eloquence she had found uncommon in most humans. By the end of her ordeal, she realized that Captain Janeway and her uncommon crew were not anomalies: Starfleet had many other officers of equal character and compassion. It made her adjustment to Federation society much easier.

After the Federation panel declared her innocent of any actions taken while under Borg control and granted her the full rights of any Federation citizen, Seven took the uncharacteristic step of inviting Captain Picard to join her and the Doctor for an evening out. Accompanied by Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi (with whom the Doctor was already acquainted), the four took in a Shakespearan comedy at the old American Conservatory Theatre, then had a long dinner at Fisherman’s Wharf. It was the first time in her memory that Seven felt like a ‘normal’ woman. It gave her hope for her future.

A future that now included bare quarters just crying out for some individual touches.

Her home was on Deck 6, just down the corridor from Voyager’s newest holosuite, the private residence of her beau, the ship’s chief medical officer, Doctor Zimmerman—whose first name was still under consideration. (It had taken him seven years to select a last name, and his friends weren’t holding out any hope for a fast decision now.) Seven and the Doctor were continuing to persue ‘social scenarios,’ and had progressed from an almost adolescent uncomfortableness to a slow exploration of the pleasures of being a man and a woman. In fact, just as he had for her in the past, Seven prepared a comprehensive lesson plan—with a little help from B’Elanna—that she and the Doctor could study together. By the time Voyager headed back into space, they would be up to Lesson 47: Other Uses for Chocolate Sauce. It was all very educational.

In addition to his new home and new scholarly pursuits, Doctor Zimmerman (who had also easily completed the Academy equivelency test) was assigned the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and granted the full rights and responsibilities of any Starfleet officer.

The Doctor also benefited from key design changes to Voyager, herself. Using power from its two holodecks and an ingenious design by the ship’s chief engineer, all of Decks 1 though 6 were now equipped with holographic emitters. Not only did this reduce the Doctor’s dependence on his one-and-only mobile emitter, it allowed the rest of the crew certain luxuries they would otherwise have been without on a long starship posting.

Luxuries like pets. Holographic pets, at least. Not that organic pets were unheard of on a starship, though some species were clearly less practical than others where issues of exercise and hygene were concerned. But perhaps Voyager’s crew, with their own holographic officer, had less trouble seeing a distinction. In any case, not only was Captain Janeway now raising a virtual Irish Setter puppy named Moira, Seven—Ensign Hansen—had decided to share her quarters with a photonic Siamese cat she called Annika. And, while some of her crewmates might have wondered why their science officer had filled her life with holographic lifeforms, her closest friends knew she was making progress in her ‘organic’ relationships as well. In fact, she and B’Elanna Paris were now coauthoring a holonovel together in their off-duty hours, an interactive version of the Klingon pulp romance “Women Warriors at the River of Blood.”

It had been Tom’s job to recruit and request replacement crewmen for those that Voyager lost, whether in the Delta Quadrant or to new assignments. They were sorry to be losing Joe Carey and Samantha Wildman, for instance, though everyone understood their friends’ desire to spend more time on Earth with their families. Other key positions were open for less pleasant reasons. Tom had long since given up on trying to replace Harry and Tuvok—there was no way to do that. Instead, he looked for new officers, with different kinds of gifts.

He recommended that the captain promote Ensign Alissa Lang to Lieutenant, and move her to Tactical on a permanent basis. Lang was a Voyager Veteran (as the DQ’s or Delta Quadrant survivors had come to be known), and she had always proven herself handy in a crisis. One of the youngest members of Voyager’s original Starfleet crew, she had been among the first to request a permanent assignment on her old ship when they got back home.

And, as hard as it was for Tom to admit it, he felt that Ensign (now Lieutenant) Vorik was the best choice for Ops. The young Vulcan had really developed into a fine engineer, and his years of working with B’Elanna had proven his ability to improvise in a crisis—a key talent for someone at the critical operations station. For more personal reasons, Paris also requested that Vorik’s Vulcan mate, a young Starfleet science officer named T’Perra, join the crew as well. Not that Tom expected their mission to keep Voyager out of contact for three years, but—considering Vorik’s choice of a substitute partner during his last pon farr—Paris wasn’t about to take any chances.

Most of the newly-commissioned former Maquis would be working on the search and rescue detail. That left a slew of engineers, scientists and—for this mission—skilled pilots left to recruit. For the past three weeks Tom sat in his office, reviewing a mountain of personnel records in search of the right matches for their unique blended crew. As he read and re-read the mind-numbing files, two names kept jumping out at him.

Noah Lessing had come to the Delta Quadrant on the USS Equinox, and had participated—peripherally and under direct orders—in some horrific actions during his pre-Voyager years. During their time together on Voyager, Tom had come to see another side of the man, and had spent some time wondering if, under other circumstances and with a less ethical captain, some of his friends might have made similar choices. He was relieved, in retrospect, that he would never have to find out.

Tom was glad to learn that Noah and his friend, engineer Marla Gilmore, while officially reprimanded and permanently reduced in rank, were allowed to stay in the service when they reached Earth. Unlike some of their crewmates, the two had shown real remorse for their unethical behavior while on the Equinox. Tom had even requested that Noah be transferred from engineering to navigation not long after he came aboard Voyager. Tom knew Noah was a strong—though not quite brilliant—navigator, and he wanted to see the young man given another chance.

It was a tough sell—the captain had a troubling experience with Noah during Voyager’s conflict with the Equinox. Tom didn’t know the details—neither Janeway nor Lessing would speak of it—but she agreed to let her first officer work with the young man and let him prove his value. But she declined to appoint Lessing Voyager’s permanent helmsman. Not yet. At least, Tom thought, she had agreed to give Noah a chance. It was all he could ask.

B’Elanna had appointed Sue Nicoletti her new ‘right arm,’ the position recently vacated by Joe Carey, and they had agreed to ask Gilmore to be their new transporter chief. The job was still beneath the talented engineer’s skills, but Ensign Gilmore seemed to like being given the chance to earn her deliverance.

So for now, there’d be no chief pilot. Tom would represent all navigational issues in senior staff meetings while they ‘test drove’ potential helmsmen, including Lessing. There was at least one other interesting contender for the position, however.

Tom had asked for and received two recent Academy graduates, who couldn’t have been more different from one another.

Ensign Robert Wang was the son of two well-regarded Federation officials, high-ranking officers in the diplomatic corps. He had excellent grades while at the Academy, yet his service record showed five different reprimands for everything from insubordination to unauthorized use of Starfleet property. He was a talented pilot, but his operator’ license had been suspended on three separate occasions. His Starfleet counselor noted the young man’s deep-seated anger and feelings of inadequacy, though she had rated him highly on issues of ethics and character. Her final notation was what jumped out at Tom: ‘It is my opinion that this young officer is destined to ruin what might otherwise be a fine career if he cannot find an opportunity to prove himself capable and worthy of the responsibility the service has placed with him.’ Wow. This sounded a little too familiar.

The second of his choices wasn’t at all controversial: a young Ktarian, also fresh from Starfleet Academy. Ensign Kayla Hower had just graduated at the top of her class, an engineering specialist with a reputation for innovation and excellence. She had her choice of postings, and was requesting assignment to Voyager. Hower’s personnel file also mentioned that she was a talented violinist and holoprogrammer. She had authored six holonovels while maintaining a perfect academic record, and playing on the championship Pareses Squares team. Clearly an overachiever. Her psych profile mentioned her guilelessness and innate sense of fairness. Hower was known for latching onto the least popular cadets and making them friends.

Paris wasn’t at all surprised to find that Hower’s best friend was the walking reprimand, Ensign Wang.

They couldn’t help but remind Tom of two other young officers he had once known. One, a screw-up pilot who needed to learn some respect for the uniform, and the other a stiff engineer who needed to be reminded of how to have some fun once in a while. Finding the other parallels downright eerie, Tom couldn’t help but wonder how much luck Hower had in her romantic life….

If he could get his act together, Tom thought, Wang could be a serious challenger to Lessing for the top pilot’s spot one day. So, with Janeway’s permission and Hower’s friendship, Wang would be Tom Paris’s own ‘personal reclamation project.’ The captain wished him as much good luck as she’d had with hers.

Thinking about Wang and Hower couldn’t help but make Tom miss the overachiever who had helped Captain Janeway ‘reclaim’ him. He switched off his computer console and reached for the large display PADD he kept on the shelf under his desk. He leaned back in his chair and flicked it on. The smiling face of Harry Kim appeared before him.

“Tom, if you’re seeing this then we’ve made it home safe and sound, and I have only four words for you, ‘I told you so!’Now, I know we might not be seeing much of each other once we’re back—somehow I doubt B’Elanna’s gonna let you go on the kinds of adventure I’ll be looking for. But I want you to know that, no matter where we both end up, you’ll always be my best friend. And, even if we’re posted on different ships, I’ll be thinking of you, and the great times we had on Voyager.

I know you’ve made fun of my ‘playing captain’ on the gamma shift. And I know you’ve said you’re not interested in command. But I think you ought to at least consider it. You might make a half-decent captain one day. I might even let you practice by being my first officer. Until then, take care of yourself.”

Tom absentmindedly fingered the new pip on his collar. When he realized what he was doing, he shut off the PADD, put it back on its shelf and smiled. The letter that used to make him sad was starting to remind him of some very happy days. Harry was now on the biggest adventure of his life. Tom hoped he was having a great time.

~*~*~*~*~

Before they left on their new assignment, Voyager’s DQ’s had to say some painful goodbyes. Among the most difficult to let go were their youngest crewmembers. Naomi Wildman was now in the process of getting to know her father, and Icheb would be starting his second semester at Starfleet Academy in just a few weeks. The Wildman family had become Icheb’s legal guardians—Seven had only grudgingly admitted that she’d be too far away to take on that responsibility herself—and Naomi was having no end of fun bragging about her new ‘Borg big brother.’

Everyone knew leaving Naomi behind would be difficult for everyone, particularly for Neelix. The ‘ambassador’ from Talax had been among the first recruits to Chakotay’s diplomatic team, with the very specific task of coordinating the Federation’s aid programs for Cardassian children. And—while he was happy to be given a challenging and official position—Neelix knew he would miss the little goddaughter he had come to view as a surrogate child.

In her own imaginative attempt to comfort her friend, Naomi had recorded over three hundred short messages for Neelix; he was to play one each day for the next year. By then, she told him, she’d be a lot bigger, and he’d have to come see her in person to get the next batch. He promised her he’d keep their date.

The captain would also be saying a difficult goodbye. On one of Kathryn’s last nights on Earth, she asked to spend the evening alone with Phoebe at her art studio, just enjoying each other’s company and talking the private language of sisters. They talked about the legendary battles of their youth, of the way their differences—one an artist, the other a scientist—had kept them apart as young women. And they talked about the loves that had brought their lives both pain and meaning.

With Phoebe, Kathryn could admit her deepest fears and weakness. She could talk of her lonely nights on Voyager, first missing the man she’d left behind, then mourning the man she saw every day but couldn’t have.

Kathryn also talked about her darkest days in the Delta Quadrant. Days when she refused to leave her quarters, her guilt at the fate of her crew overwhelming her. She’d missed Phoebe the most in those times. Until then, only her sister’s gentle prodding and total understanding had been able to drive away her demons. Even Chakotay had barely succeeded in drawing her out of herself.

As the evening drew to a close, the two made a pact: every week, no matter what was going on in their lives, they would take time to write or call the other. They’d never let time or distance get between them again.

Phoebe ended the night by giving her sister a gift she had made, a painting of two young girls sitting on a beach, their backs leaning gently against each other. One had her hands in the sand; the other, her face to the sky. One a dreamer, one a doer. Yet which was which? For in their own lives, the dreamer had turned earth into art. And the doer had looked with wonder into space. They were different and the same, and part of each other. And would be for the rest of their lives.

Much of B’Elanna’s last night on Earth was spent at the computer console in her father-in-law’s study. Babies grow so fast, and Kathryn knew that MK would likely be a much different child when her grandparents got to see her again, so she’d offered the couple one more evening in the Paris home—in the process giving Tom one more chance to enjoy his reconciliation with his family before they got underway.

The captain didn’t realize that it would actually be B’Elanna’s night for making peace with her parents.

The engineer had excused herself after dinner and went to the console on the Admiral’s desk. B’Elanna needed to write a letter to her own father to close the largest wound in her life once and for all. She’d had several months to think about what John Torres had told her. Several months to consider her tumultuous childhood, to search for any clue that her mother might actually have sent the man out of their lives. She remembered his spoiling her when she was small, his distance and rejection as she grew older, and his absolute absence in the rest of her life.

She’d also had several months to watch her husband, not without his own demons, dote on their daughter as if her life were his own. Tom didn’t spoil Miral. He didn’t attribute wonders to her greater than her real abilities. He just loved her and was there for her. Watching Tom with MK led her to two inexorable conclusions: that no honorable man would walk so totally away from a child he loved, and that she had been crazy to ever even remotely compare her husband to her father.

She knew now that she neither wanted nor needed a relationship with John Torres. Yet, ironically, in realizing this, she was finally able to forgive him and let go of her anger. She didn’t think she’d be seeing her father again, not in her life, nor in Sto’Vo’Kor, so she took this opportunity to wish him a peaceful and happy life. And she asked him not to contact her again. It was a message she started and erased several times over the course of the night. Finally, she felt comfortable with the words she had chosen and hit ‘transmit.’

After she’d sent the message, B’Elanna heard Owen Paris come into the room, no doubt faking some excuse—a misplaced datapad, an urgent desire to read some novel for the fifth time—to see if she was alright. “I’m sorry, Lanna. I was just trying to find my blue sweater.”

She stood up from the desk and walked toward him. “Did you call me ‘Lanna’?” she asked.

Suddenly the very powerful Starfleet admiral looked a little afraid. “I guess I did. Is that alright?”

She smiled, enjoying hearing her mother’s pet name for her spoken by this man. “It’s nice. Dad.” She hugged him, not a meaningless gesture for someone so private. Owen just looked at her for a moment, then realized with some amazement that he’d not only reclaimed his son, he had found another daughter.

~*~*~*~*

It felt strange for him to be sitting in one of the ‘big chairs.’ Even stranger to look down at the conn and see someone else about to pilot them out of spacedock. Tom had taken command of Voyager on many occasions during their years in the Delta Quadrant, but a temporary duty shift always meant sitting in the captain’s chair. Now he would be to Janeway’s left on a permanent basis, and he knew it would take a lot of getting used to.

As was customary when heading out on a new mission, the senior officers were all at their bridge stations: B’Elanna manning the engineering console, Seven at the science station, and three slightly nervous new faces—Lang, Vorik, and Lessing—at Tactical, Ops, and the Conn respectively. Ambassador Chakotay stood at the railing next to B’Elanna, the Doctor—not needing his mobile emitter—was on the jump seat next to Tom. Neelix was the last to join them, winking at Lieutenant Lang as he stepped off the turbolift and leaned on the tactical console.

There was no more reason to wait. Kathryn turned to her first officer. “Mr. Paris.” Tom knew this was his cue.

“Lieutenant,” he said giving the orders now instead of executing them, “clear all moorings, lay in a course, and clear our departure with operations.” Noah’s fingers moved with confidence as he did as he was told. “Ops has cleared us, sir,” he acknowledged. Tom turned to Vorik, “Ready thrusters.” The Vulcan nodded. “Thrusters ready.”

Lieutenant Commander Tom Paris turned to his right and took the liberty of smiling at his superior officer as he said, “Looks like we’re all set, Captain.”

Kathryn couldn’t help but enjoy herself as she gave her first official command of Voyager’s new mission. “Engage,” she said, and took a deep breath. And they were off.

~*~*~*~*~

EPILOGUE:

Kathryn Janeway was just about to doze off after another exhausting day. The last month had been more complicated than she had hoped, as her crew had one difficult negotiation after another with their former enemies. She knew Chakotay was bearing the brunt of everyone’s frustration, yet he seemed to handle himself with a grace and good humor she thought would be difficult for another man under these circumstances.

The intelligence information they had received might make it all worthwhile. Their diplomatic task now almost complete, Voyager was about to head off in search of some prodigal sons and daughters of the Federation, including Thomas Riker, an old friend—sort of. They’d gone to the Academy together when he was still the one and only William Thomas Riker. The transporter accident that had duplicated Wil—creating the Tom Riker she now searched for—had happened long after they’d graduated. Tom would know her, whether or not he’d trust her. She only hoped this rescue mission would have a happy ending for them all.

She couldn’t help but think of the last time she’d steered Voyager in the direction of the Badlands looking for Maquis. It was just over seven years earlier. That three week trip had turned into a seven year fight for survival, and had changed her life—and over a hundred and fifty others—forever. Somehow she hoped this mission would be just as interesting, but significantly shorter and less dangerous.

Her thoughts of those years led her to remember all the friends she’d had to leave behind. Keeping a promise to herself, when those memories came, she forced herself to call up the best of those times: surprising Tuvok with a birthday cake, watching Harry grow from a scared and timid boy into an experienced and confident officer.

Kathryn was tired, but happy. There were ways in which her life had come together now that she might only have dreamed of just a few short months ago. She was home, sharing her life openly with the man she loved, and leading her crew on a mission of exploration and adventure. It was both fulfilling and exhausting. So much so that, sitting here trying to squeeze in just one more hour of work, she could hardly keep her eyes open.

She forced herself off the couch and walked her coffee cup to the recycler. Already dressed for bed, she shooed Moira, her holographic puppy off the bed, and slipped under the covers next to Chakotay. The expression on his face revealed a restful, rejuvenating slumber. She drifted off while watching him sleep.

That night, she had her favorite recurring dream:

She had been following the small lizard for several minutes when they came to a clearing in the forest, a beautiful, quiet spot where the nearby stream pooled before continuing on its way. Soon they were joined by a huge, green and yellow snake. She watched as it welcomed the lizard onto its back like a trusted friend. She heard the creatures speak to her with their thoughts.

“You have been on a quest,” they spoke in tandem. “You have searched for many years, desperate to find what you seek.” She couldn’t deny it. “Yes,” she answered. “And have you found what you searched for?” they asked her.

“Yes,” she replied, as she smiled.

“And what was it you sought?” they inquired. It was the easiest question for her to answer.

“Peace.”

THE END

~*~*~*~*~

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS:

  • Someone to Watch Over Me, music and lyrics by George Gershwin
  • A text-only version of this story is available by email to barbara@federalproductions.com.
  • I have selectively used some names and details from Jeri Taylor’s two Voyager books, Pathways and Mosaic. While I enjoyed both books, they’re not canon, so I chose to use or ignore her history for the characters as I saw fit. I also chose to depreciate much of the plot of “Human Error,” since I felt it hit the reset button on Seven in a counterproductive way.
  • For those that asked, a sequel is probably inevitable, but not any time soon. I can be bribed with compliments and ideas for how you might like to see Voyager’s new adventure in the Badlands play out. Requests to complete missing scenes for this story will also be taken under consideration. (Any passages highlighted in blue are scenes added after the story’s original publication at the request of certain readers. Heck, if you were willing to wade through this massive story, the least I can do is respond to your wishes.)
  • PLEASE feel free to point out misspellings and omitted words. It’s the internet; I can fix it easily and for free.

Barbara


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