Going Home by D.A. Kent


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D.A. Kent

Disclaimer:

Paramount owns the show and the characters, who in turn own too much of me.



Kathryn Janeway looked around the room at her senior staff. She felt her heart swell with pride. They had performed their duties aboard Voyager for nearly seven long years, going above and beyond the call of duty more often than not. Perhaps the time had come when she would finally get them home.

The room was electric with a mixture of hope and fear; hope that they would finally be returning to the Alpha Quadrant and home, and fear that the wormhole they were depending on to get them there would collapse before they could use it.

Kathryn knew that the final stage of their voyage together would truly test the best of them. She knew much more than they did about what to expect upon their return home. She was a Starfleet Captain, after all. And she'd thought about little else for seven years.

With a sigh, she stood and struck her best Captainly pose before the group, knowing that they would immediately quiet down and turn to her. They did, and she smiled a weak smile at them. She had a disciplined crew and they were tuned in to her every movement.

They were also a very tired crew. Finding and tracking the wormhole had been no small effort; it had taken five weeks, and the entire crew had felt the pressure. And the worst was still ahead of them. Would they make it back home or would they have to face their greatest disappointment thus far?

"Welcome to what is hopefully one of our last staff meetings," she smiled at the senior staff. Many soft laughs and sighs of relief ensued. "However, we must keep in mind that, while we keep hope alive for ourselves and the rest of the crew, we do not allow ourselves the luxury of losing sight of the obstacles we have yet to face." She paused for effect. "We have a lot of work ahead of us, People. And, unfortunately, whether or not we are successful depends on our share of luck, as well." She noticed the almost imperceptible reactions of both Tuvok and Seven as she said the word 'luck.' She smiled to herself. Logical.

"I know that you all have a great deal to accomplish yet today, so I'll make this brief . . . ." She knew they were all wondering about the purpose of this meeting. They had already had the usual staff report meeting. This was a special meeting that had only been called an hour ago, when she had asked Chakotay to inform the senior staff that there would be a special staff meeting at 1400 hours. He had obliged, and she had then called both Chakotay and Tuvok into her ready room to brief them on the purpose of this meeting.

It had always been her intent to call this meeting as a *Special Meeting* when the time came. She did not want it to interfere with any other duties or meeting agendas that were already scheduled.

This was a meeting to discuss special instructions for the crew upon arriving home. There was one item on this agenda, and it was all hers.

She took a deep breath and continued. "There is only one topic for discussion here and now: Our return home. Let us assume, for the purpose of discussion, that we will be successful in getting through the wormhole and returning to the Alpha Quadrant. According to the transmission we received five days ago from Starfleet Headquarters, they will ask us to dock at Deep Space Twelve. This is good news. Most of us are more familiar with the Deep Space Four and Deep Space Nine space stations, and I need to be sure we remain as neutral as possible in our initial negotiations with the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command." She paused, waiting for her words to sink in and for her staff to focus on what she intended to tell them now.

She looked at each face in the quiet room. She gazed at Neelix, her sensitive morale officer who made it his special job to look after his Captain, sometimes to the point of intrusion, yet she always forgave him. There was Tom Paris, a man who had truly grown from man- child to man in the past seven years, and B'Elanna Torres, a capable young half-human, half-Klingon woman who carried her own demons. That Tom and B'Elanna had become a couple, a most unlikely yet remarkably stable couple, was something that still made her smile in wonderment. Then her glance fell upon Seven of Nine, a young female former Borg who was finally beginning to find her own way, and Harry, a young green ensign on his first mission - a two-week mission that had turned into seven years - and a more dedicated and devoted crewmember no Captain would ever find. The fact that Harry and Seven were slowly becoming a new couple and forming a bond that both needed desperately was no surprise to her, yet she worried about their future together when they returned to Earth and it was discovered that the beautiful young woman was once part of the Borg collective.

Then there was the Doctor, a hologram who'd developed his own conscience as well as a decent bedside manner after all, and who had become much more than a projection of light, shadow and energy; Tuvok, her advisor, friend and sometimes conscience - a Vulcan whose wisdom had saved her from herself on countless occasions; and, of course, to her immediate right sat Chakotay.

Chakotay was her Rock of Gibraltar, her friend and so much more.

They were as close as two people could possibly be; they had shared everything two people could share with each other, been places together, accomplished incredible things . . . together. They had moved heaven and earth, prayed to and cursed the gods, and cheated the devil himself, if the Borg and Species 8472 were to be considered such. They'd saved each others lives and the lives of their crew countless times, shared meals and a bed when they'd had to. There was only one thing they hadn't shared, and that was a physical bond. And although they had come so close on so many occasions, it was the one thing they had yet to experience with each other. She wanted so much for that to happen, but wondered if Fate would ever grant them the chance.

Kathryn shook her head and brought herself back to the present.

"First, I want each and every one of you to know that no matter what happens now, the efforts you have all given are more appreciated than you can ever know. You are all fine officers and I am proud to have had you serve as part of my crew." She looked down and paused a moment to make sure no emotion crawled into her voice.

"Now. I need you all to understand how Starfleet Headquarters and the United Federation of Planets will plan events once we get through to the other side of the wormhole. First, we can be sure we will immediately be contacted by Starfleet Headquarters. As commandeers of this vessel, they will be afforded the opportunity of first contact with us. More than likely, the first person we will see on our viewscreen, assuming that it will still be operational after passing through the wormhole, will be the face of a Starfleet Admiral." She paused. She especially wanted Tom Paris to have a moment to consider her words. The first face they saw could very well be that of his Father.

"This is how it will happen," she continued. "We will be greeted formally by the Admiral, then given coordinates and instructions for bringing Voyager to the space station. They will give us further instructions once we have successfully docked. Those instructions will include debriefing procedures, containment cautions and how to deal with the public press. They will ask us to disembark, and then they will escort us to another vessel. That vessel will be instructed to proceed to one of the top secret and highly secure debriefing sites that the Federation keeps for such confidential debriefings. In our case, we will probably end up in one of the highly restricted areas within Starfleet Headquarters. Our families will be formally notified of our return, even though our faces and career descriptions will be plastered on every public address system within the Federation of Planets. They will assure us of their sincere concern for our emotional welfare and tell us we are expected to cooperate fully so that we may return to our lives as quickly as possible." She paused again, letting her words sink into the minds of those in the room. She knew her words would mean nothing to Neelix or Seven, but they were listening intently anyway.

"We will not be allowed to communicate outside the debriefing site until it is no longer considered a security risk. Because our situation is . . . unique . . . our debriefing may continue for days or even weeks. We will not be allowed to interface with each other once we arrive at the site. Our debriefings will be separate and private and we will all be encouraged to share our innermost thoughts and feelings with the debriefing teams." Here she paused again. "Most of the crew will be debriefed in approximately three days. To hold them longer would raise questions in the eyes of the media, and Starfleet will be very concerned about negative publicity. More than likely the general crew will be allowed to leave while the senior staff will be detained longer. Obviously, the reason behind this is that all of you have been much closer to the hierarchy and the top decisions that have been made here on Voyager during these past seven years. Starfleet Command will be very interested in anything you might have to say." She once again paused to allow her words to settle into everyone's minds. "Does anyone have questions thus far?" she asked.

"Captain?" began Tom Paris.

"Yes, Lieutenant?" she encouraged.

"Ah, I don't understand. We are returning to the Alpha Quadrant after being lost in the Delta Quadrant for seven years."

"Your point, Mr. Paris?" she asked, knowing full well where he was going with this.

"Well, granted, this wasn't a planned scouting trip to the Delta Quadrant, but we have a shipload of new information about a quadrant of space that Starfleet and the Federation have no previous knowledge of. Why will we be treated like criminals? I mean, the crew in general. Voyager. I know I will be treated like a criminal. The Maquis may also have something to worry about . . ." he finished quietly.

"You're right, Tom. I will address that in a moment." Kathryn nearly sighed. Leave it to Tom Paris to get straight to the heart of what she most wanted to discuss. "First, our return will be a much celebrated event. Unfortunately, we will not personally be involved in these initial celebrations. While the media, and Starfleet, are celebrating our return, we will be debriefed and, of course, given a complete check up by enthusiastic medical teams wanting to be certain we haven't brought back some terrible disease from an unknown planet in some unknown star system." A few chuckles came from some of the staff, chuckles that the Doctor did not understand.

Many of the Doctor's comrades were most likely thinking the same thing: Voyager's doctor, though a hologram, was not only capable, but extremely motivated, to make sure everyone aboard Voyager was in excellent physical health. Detaining crewmembers was the only method at his disposal to ensure he had company in Sickbay.

And he truly enjoyed having someone to talk to.

Now Captain Janeway lowered her voice an octave and leaned over the table slightly so that her words would be taken very seriously.

"Remember, People, lack of knowledge purports fear in most humanoid species, as well as in many non-humanoid species. The fear of the unknown is what has kept our species' alive with ambition and reinforced the quest for more knowledge - but it has also been the undoing of many civilizations. We all know what Fear wants; every one of us here in this room has dealt with Fear."

Everyone in the room, save Seven, remembered quite well how the Captain how dealt with Fear Itself when they had discovered the humanoid life forms who had been kept in stasis chambers for longer than their fifteen year cycle. The Captain had found that Fear had taken their minds captive and threatened to destroy them if Janeway and her crew didn't leave them alone with him in his mental playground, forever. But the Captain had tricked him into letting his captives go; she had answered her own question: What does Fear want most? To be conquered.

The Captain continued. "After Voyager's crew is debriefed and the medical analyses check out, the crewmembers will be released to rejoin their families, and to rebuild their lives. There will be much fanfare, more celebrations, and all the crewmembers will be interviewed by the media as often as possible. We, the senior staff, will remain in the secured location, more than likely, and we may or may not be allowed to watch the news reports." Again, she paused. "I must warn you: Sometimes people change the way they behave, the way they think, after surviving a terrible or frightening incident or event." She looked around the room, taking in the faces of her senior staff. They were trying to figure out what she meant by that last statement.

"What I mean to say is that people can change. For example, someone who was an exemplary crewman, who caused no problems and perhaps even supported his commanding officer and offered constant assistance whenever possible, may suddenly say some untoward things when in the face of a media conference, especially after the journey is well over and there can be no further consequence." She paused, and took in the blank, lost looks of her senior staff. She sighed inwardly. "I realize I'm being vague. Unfortunately, there is no way I can prepare you for some events that may unfold, no matter how much I want to. I just hope that you will remember my words, if there is a need to later. All I'm saying is: Be prepared for anything to happen."

Kathryn sighed imperceptibly - she hoped. This was much more difficult, and exhausting, than she'd ever imagined. "Now, let's get back to Mr. Paris' earlier questions."

Captain Janeway paused, then spoke more slowly, and with more emphasis. "I've just told you how Starfleet Command will orchestrate our homecoming."

The Captain paused again briefly so that she could look at each of her senior staff now gathered around the conference table. "Now let me tell you how I see events unfolding."

The entire staff sat a bit straighter in their chairs. They could sense the tides changing. The Captain was going to prepare them for another scenario, their true mission. This homecoming wasn't going to be dictated by the Federation, it was going to be orchestrated by Captain Kathryn Janeway of the U.S.S. Federation Starship Voyager. Tom Paris smiled. Now, things were going to get interesting.

Kathryn Janeway stood straight beside her chair. This was the moment she had waited for - for seven years; she had looked forward to it, and dreaded it. Earlier, she had briefed Chakotay and Tuvok as to the purpose of this meeting, but she hadn't told them all of what she was going to say to the staff. She knew they would expect part of this, but she also knew she would surprise them with some of what she would say now. So be it. She would handle repercussions later, if necessary. It had to be this way.

"Here is how I see our homecoming unfolding." She looked into each pair of eyes before continuing. She had to be sure they understood what was happening here. She had their undivided attention. Good.

"After we pass through the wormhole, we will be contacted by the Federation - as I said before, the first face we will see will more than likely be that of an Admiral." She noticed Chakotay and Tuvok sit a bit straighter in their chairs, waiting. They both knew that she was capable of doing anything. They also knew her well enough to know that they would have to work very hard to stay one step ahead of her. She smiled to herself; let them try. She needed everyone to be as sharp as possible.

"After we are hailed and receive a warm welcome home, I will state our demands." She again paused. "Understand this: We will be arriving back in the Alpha Quadrant, a place most of us still call home. But we have to keep in mind that the political climate has more than likely gone through several changes since we were last aware of them seven years ago. At the time we became lost in the Delta Quadrant, political tensions were extremely high. We have no idea how the Federation views the Maquis now. We have no idea what has become of the conflict with the Cardassians, although we believe those issues to be settled. We will have to tread softly. I will not allow the Federation to treat the former Maquis on this ship any differently than our Starfleet issue crewmen." This last sentence was said more for herself than for the staff who were present in the room. She turned to look out the viewport behind her, at the star clusters that had served as their guide home for the past seven years. Chakotay and Tuvok managed to exchange a quick glance before she once again turned to face the people at the table.

"We will no longer be treated warmly after I state our demands. Starfleet is expecting our return to be witnessed dramatically through the public press, and they will do everything within their powers to make this happen without incident. They will not be expecting anything untoward to happen. After all, we are a crew who has been lost in a strange world for many years. We will be more than happy to comply with their orders and take any and all instructions without compromise. We will even be happy to accept repercussions of our past decisions gladly, just to be welcomed home again. This is how Starfleet and the Federation will view our return." She paused for emphasis. She began to walk slowly around the conference table, looking evenly at any pair of eyes that turned her way.

She continued. "But they are wrong. In the past seven years, we have done more than search frantically for a way home; we have all grown - as a group, and as individuals. We have all assimilated more knowledge. We are not the same explorers who became lost in the Delta Quadrant seven years ago." She had used the word 'assimilated' for Seven's benefit, she knew. She smiled to herself.

She wanted to inspire Seven to continue to listen to the conversation, and to make her feel a part of the group.

Captain Janeway continued. "We are not going to return home on anyone else's terms except our own. We will not be dictated to regarding the safety of our crewmembers. Starfleet Command will be unprepared for us to be anything but compliant. And they do not like being unprepared for anything." She paused again, allowing her words to sink in.

"Seven years is a long time to be away. Initially, I tried desperately to hold fast to the rules of the Federation and Starfleet Command above all else. I have always been aware of my duties to both Starfleet and to this crew. And there have been times when I've had to make difficult choices." She was sharing things with her senior staff that she had not said before, not in words. They sensed what she was about to say, but she felt the need to speak the words.

"There have been times I've been faced with choices that I may never have faced as a Starfleet Captain in the Alpha Quadrant. Not long after our crews were joined, Commander Chakotay tried to tell me I was holding onto Starfleet values in an area of space that Starfleet has never known. He argued that Starfleet protocols were not necessarily valid since Starfleet training never prepared us to meet many of the situations we were encountering. He also tried to reason with me about the impracticalities of the Prime Directive. I resisted listening to the Commander for as long as I possibly could.

Finally, I had to recognize the truth of his words, and sometimes I've had to adjust my ways of thinking, difficult as that may have been for me." All eyes were upon Captain Janeway, as she slowly made her way around the room, then back to her chair at the head of the table.

"You must all remember that in the eyes of Starfleet Command I am a well-trained, disciplined Starfleet official. I was trained to believe that there is no way better than the Starfleet way." She paused. "And I've believed that wholeheartedly for most of my life." She noticed Tuvok's expression soften slightly. He knew how difficult those first months and years were for her out here in the Delta Quadrant. She'd relied on his wisdom many times to help direct her down the right path. She only hoped she had not disappointed him along the way. She knew there were times he did not agree with her decisions, and that was all right. She just didn't want him to be disappointed in her. His opinion of her would always matter greatly.

Chakotay glanced around the room. The Captain certainly had everyone's undivided attention. It was so quiet one could hear the gentle hum of the warp engines. He was both proud of her and, at the same time, uneasy with her words. He kept listening to what she wasn't saying beneath the words. Even though she was sharing more with her senior staff than she ever had before, somehow he felt there were some things she was not saying. There was no reason for him to feel that way, except that he knew Kathryn Janeway. For the second time since the meeting began, he met Tuvok's eyes. So, Tuvok also believed there was more here than her words revealed. At least it wasn't his imagination alone.

Sometimes he knew he could be far too protective of his Captain.

But sometimes she could be so damned stubborn. He forced his attention back to the present.

Captain Janeway continued. "We will soon be facing a very different homecoming than what most of us have anticipated. It is vital that you all remember this. You are the senior staff and I expect you all to stand beside each other now as you have before.

Only this time it will be much more difficult. Emotion will soon play a big factor with this crew. To be home and not immediately be allowed to see family and friends, to have to wait for debriefings . . . And on top of that, the same Captain who was responsible for their seven-year absence from those family and friends may very well hold them hostage again, for the good of the crew. You can well imagine that the worst is not necessarily past us." Again, she paused. She had been exhausted coming into this meeting. Now she was pushing herself to get through it.

"Starfleet Command will not expect anything from us except blind faith and allegiance. So, as you may well imagine, they will be very unhappy with me when I fail to obey their orders. Remember who I am in their eyes: A decorated, reliable Starfleet Captain with a history of fighting every obstacle in her path and winning. I have served as a prime example of what they most want their Captains to be. And I will be hitting them where it hurts, their egos, when I let them know we are calling the shots, not them. First, they will wonder what influence I am under to have changed so much in their opinions. They will wonder if it is Borg influence - they may, you know - or some other alien influence. They will begin to wonder if seven years in the presence of countless unknown enemies can change a Starfleet Captain's way of thinking, no matter how well- trained. Keep in mind that no trained Starfleet official can ever be allowed to question Starfleet regulations. Trust me, Starfleet will be looking forward to my debriefing." She paused and again looked around the room. She wanted them to realize the full impact of how their arrival, and demands, would be received upon their return. She saw Tom Paris's expression. He knew full well the price of Starfleet regulations. His Father knew of nothing else. It was still amazing to her that his experience as Admiral Paris's son could be so different from her own experience as Admiral Paris's protégé.

"I want all of you to think about what I've told you. Reflect on this when you have a moment - every time you have a moment. I need all of you to keep a level head, to work with each other, to cling to each other. This is a time we cannot allow ourselves to be divided. This is our final test of strength as one unit." Seven would definitely understand that analogy.

It was time for the final moment of truth. "When you leave here today, I want each of you who have crew reporting to you, to call them together and explain the situation in whatever way you see fit.

Let them know our struggle isn't over the moment we reach the other side of the wormhole. In fact, in many ways, it has just begun. Let them know that their Captain isn't going to allow the Maquis, or any other member of her crew, to be persecuted or rejected by the society we are returning to. If some crewmembers choose to be angry with me, then allow them that. In fact, encourage them to be angry only with me. Just be sure they stick together as a crew. I will tolerate nothing but a unified front. Any crewmember who refuses to cooperate will be thrown in the brig.

We do not have the luxury of time for further discussion. Feel free to pass that tidbit on to the crew if need be." She paused yet again to let the depth of their situation sink in. And it was important as well that the senior officers understand that their Captain was not going to accept any mistakes from this moment forward. There was no time for mistakes.

Her voice softened as she took in the faces of her staff. "I realize this won't be easy. There will be dissention. Many of the crew will not understand our situation. You cannot expect them to. But you must be strong and maintain the upper hand. We have served together as one crew for seven years. We will return to Earth as such. I will settle for nothing less. We may have to brave the storm, but if it's necessary, we'll do it. We have faced the Borg, People, and we have faced Species 8472, the Kazon, the Vidiians, the Hirogen - and everyone else who has had conflict with us, for seven years. We will face the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command, and we will win our freedom. Anything less will be unacceptable. All of our people will go free." She realized her voice had remained strong and determined even though she was so very tired. Well, at least her stubbornness was good for some things . . .

"Any questions?" she asked the group softly.

"Captain," began B'Elanna, "do you really think it could get so bad they'd detain us longer than absolutely necessary - in view of how the media could perceive this? That could look bad for them, couldn't it?"

"Keep in mind, B'Elanna, we will not be allowed access to the press. Whatever the press is told, it will come directly from the same people who want to look best in the eyes of the news images. We do not know what story will be told."

"Captain, we're talking about Starfleet here!" Tom Paris exclaimed. "I thought Starfleet stood for all things good and pure. At least that's what I was always told . . ."

Kathryn sighed. She had tried her best to uphold all that Starfleet stood for all these years, and now it sounded as though she were making them out to be a cheating, brutal enemy.

"You need to understand, People. I am preparing us for the worst. You all know how a wild animal responds when cornered. All sense of dignity and culpability disappear when threatened with losing face and not all decisions made under those circumstances are necessarily the same decisions made in the best of times. Remember, negative press is the worst enemy Starfleet can have. The Admiralty will not be happy. We are one starship. Who are we to question their methods or to argue with them? They will hold me accountable - as well they should."

Harry Kim had been very quiet, but now he spoke. "Captain, are you saying that we will dock at DS12, or not?"

Captain Janeway smiled slightly at him. Harry was her prized pupil. He had grown so much in the past seven years, yet he would always have an innocence about him that would sometimes benefit him and sometimes prove to be his undoing. "I'm not sure, Harry. We'll have to see how the initial contact goes. I have plans, depending on what happens. We may need to move to neutral ground, near the Cardassian border. Commander Chakotay is aware of the area and knows the coordinates. Remember, many of our plans are dependent upon the political moods of the times. I have already discussed this in detail with Commander Chakotay and Commander Tuvok. You will all be informed of decisions on a need-to-know basis. There is too much work for each of you to do to be involved in circumstances that do not immediately concern you or your staff."

She paused once more. "I know this is not going to be easy, not for any one of us. Keep your posts ready, inform me of any changes in your stations, keep your crewmen as informed as needed in order for them to perform their duties, but give no more information than necessary. Again, this is to ensure that no one is overloaded with information they do not need to process. We all need to focus on our objectives."

"Also - get some rest. And ensure that your crew gets rest. We all need to function at our peak levels. This will be most important as the situation escalates. Thirty-six hours from now, I want every one of us to be as well rested as possible when we face that wormhole.

If any of you, or any of your crew, has difficulty sleeping, go immediately to Sickbay and ask the Doctor for a sleeping aid.

That's an order. We are not in a position to be patient and wait for sleep to come to us. We only have 36 hours. So, talk to your people and get some rest. We will meet here again at 2000 hours. I realize this is an odd time for a staff meeting, but I promise to make it brief. The purpose will be literally to see how the crew is holding up and to address any other concerns that may arise between now and then. Chalk it up to a nervous Captain who has to know everything that's going on."

The last comment brought slow smiles around the table. No one thought of Captain Janeway as a nervous type, certainly. And, yes, she always wanted to know what was going on with the ship and her crew. It only made sense that as their time in the Delta Quadrant drew to a close, she would want to know the mood of the crew and the condition of the ship. They also wondered among themselves whether or not she would go to the Doctor for a sleeping aid for herself, if necessary. The Captain was known for her sleeplessness and if they were all feeling this edgy, how was she doing?

"All right, then. We'll meet again at 2000 hours. Dismissed."

Everyone rose from the table and began filing out the rear doors.

The Captain remained seated. "Chakotay, Tuvok." Both Commanders waited until the rest of the crew had departed, then sat back down on either side of her, as was their custom. The three sat in silence until the Captain was ready to talk.

Finally, she said, "Anything?"

Commander Chakotay sighed. "I think you got your points across. There's no doubt who will be in charge after we cross through the wormhole."

"How did the senior staff react to my scenario? You were both gauging the mood of the crew throughout the meeting. I was too busy trying to address the issues without scaring the hell out of everyone in the room." She allowed herself to sit back more comfortably in her chair. She would only allow herself this luxury in front of her two most trusted senior officers.

"I believe you were successful in your endeavor to alert the crew to what lies ahead of us, Captain," said Tuvok. "I also believe you successfully scared the hell out of them."

Both Janeway and Chakotay smiled at that. It was so unlike Tuvok to say the word "hell," even when repeating it.

"I also believe no one will underestimate the purpose of this meeting," added Chakotay. "Their true feelings will be even more evident at our next meeting at 2000 hours. They will have had more time to sort through the things you've said, and to have spoken with their staffs. But, keep in mind, they realize your fight is for their cause, their freedoms. I don't think any crewman will take that lightly. Appreciate your tactics or not, there are 142 members of this crew who have stood behind you and your decisions for seven years."

Kathryn sighed heavily and put her head back against the headrest on her chair.

"Captain, why don't you take your own advice and get some rest?" asked Chakotay gently.

"Because I have so much to do," she replied. "I wouldn't be able to rest right now if I tried." She stood, folded her arms across her chest, crossed to the viewport behind her and looked at the fleeting star fields outside the window.

After a moment, Kathryn turned back to Chakotay and Tuvok. "I need both of you to keep your eyes and ears tuned in to the mood of the crew, and particularly the rest of the senior staff. We need to be sure none of our shipwide preparations are encumbered by any sort of ill will or reservations this crew may suffer." She crossed back to her chair and stood behind it, resting her arm on the headrest.

"And I meant what I said before, if anyone needs to blame someone for something - anything - allow them to blame me. Just don't allow those feelings to detract from their duties. Understood?"

Both officers nodded their understanding.

"Good. And report anything back to me that you feel I need to know about." She lowered her voice and spoke in softer, more measured tones. She wanted them to know she appreciated them both, but there were certain things she would not tolerate from this point forward. "I know that from time to time, the two of you have tried to 'protect' me from things you don't think I need to be concerned about - but none of that now, do you understand me? I want to know everything from here on out. I need to know what's going on. Understood?"

Again, both officers nodded.

"Good." She sighed. "Dismissed."

Both Tuvok and Chakotay stood and exited the Ready Room, leaving the Captain alone with her thoughts.



At 2000 hours, the senior staff met with their Captain in her Ready Room. The meeting lasted precisely 27 minutes. The senior staff had informed their staffs about the imminent dangers and security protocols that Voyager could face soon if they arrived safely back in the Alpha Quadrant. They had also shared with them a bit of information regarding what Captain Janeway would be negotiating upon their return. When the Captain asked about shipboard morale, the consensus was that it was just too early to tell. Most of the crew was still tired, but happy, about the prospect of returning home.

The facts of the matter did not seem to bother them, but it was generally agreed that the facts simply had not yet hit home, so to speak. The Captain again urged her senior staff to get some nourishment, then rest. She would try to do the same. They would meet again in the morning at 0700 hours.

Captain Janeway again asked her two most senior officers to stay behind. They did so, informing her that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. She was exhausted, she knew, and found it extremely difficult to focus on anything they said for any length of time.

After twenty minutes with Commanders Chakotay and Tuvok, she dismissed them, telling them she was going to retire to her quarters to try to get some of that much-needed rest herself, and that they should do the same.

Fifteen minutes later, she was able to escape to her quarters. There was something important that she had to do now. It was time.



Upon entering her quarters, Kathryn went to the replicator and ordered a cup of hot, black coffee, strong. She needed it. After taking several sips of the hot liquid, she felt her resolve begin to return. She sighed heavily and sat before the computer on her desk.

She had so much work to do, but now wasn't the time for usual ship business. She had to take care of another, more urgent, matter.

"Computer, prepare for encrypted message - for Starfleet Command only, to be accessed by security codes known only by the joint Admiral staff. If this message is not relayed within 96 hours, delete it from the database. No other authorizations apply, including Voyager's head of security encryption codes and the First Officer's authorized overrides. Captain's security code Janeway Gamma 2,3,0. Begin encryption sequences."

"Acknowledged," confirmed the Computer, as it began to assimilate the encryption codes.

Kathryn knew this would take a few minutes, so she entered her sleeping area and looked into the mirror over her nightstand. Tired - she looked as tired as she felt. She put down her coffee cup and splashed water on her face. She applied a bit of makeup and a lighter shade of lipstick that made her look a bit more refreshed.

Well, she felt better at any rate. She took a deep breath, picked up her coffee cup and went back into her living area. She sat on the sofa under the viewport and looked out at the stars. Would she miss the Delta Quadrant's star systems? She didn't think so. Who could know for sure?

Leaning back against the sofa, Kathryn went over the message in her head. She'd worked on it, planned it, for over six years. She'd had to store it in her memory; she couldn't take the chance of having it anywhere in ship's records, and risk having either Tuvok or Chakotay discover it by accident. Or, worse, if something had happened to her and they found the encoded message later, they would think she had kept something from them. And if they did find a way to decode it - perhaps with Seven's assistance - she would not be here to explain her intentions.

"Encoding sequences ready," stated the computer's voice.

Forcing herself to think about how important this was, the Captain made her way to her desk. She closed her eyes and forced herself to locate her center, to steady her heart and her mind, the way Chakotay had taught her. She didn't practice this often, and it took her much longer than someone with more patience and experience.

When she was ready, she faced the small viewscreen in front of her.

Kathryn put on her best Captain's face. "Computer, begin," she stated.

She heard the bleep, then began her message:

"This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the U.S.S. Federation Starship, Voyager. If the Federation Admiralty is viewing this now, then we have made it home to the Alpha Quadrant. Today's stardate is 65242.3 and it has taken us nearly seven years to return home, since Voyager and the Maquis ship, commanded by Captain Chakotay, became stranded in the Delta Quadrant.

You may be wondering what purpose I have in encrypting a personal message to the Admiralty, since - as I've stated - we are most likely home now. My intent will soon be understood.

Seven years ago, I made a Command decision to destroy the Caretaker's array in order to save a race called the Ocampa. This decision resulted in Voyager's being stranded in the Delta Quadrant with no quick way home.

Captain Chakotay's ship was destroyed, both of our crews had suffered many casualties, and he and I merged our two crews into one for a journey home that might well take 70,000 light years. All of this is recorded in the ship's logs.

For seven years now, I have done my best to adhere to the principles and rules of the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command, as those rules existed when we left home seven years ago. There have been occasions when those principles have led us safely through our difficult times, and there have been times I've had to improvise another way.

While I did everything within my power not to become involved in the political climates of other species, I did authorize my crewmembers to act upon their . . . humanity . . . from time to time. For example, there have been incidents when I could not allow other peoples to die senselessly, if we could help them to live. You may consider this a violation of the Prime Directive; I do not. As each of you must be guided by your conscience, I was guided by mine.

I have often sought the advice or suggestions of my crewmembers; we were many times faced with new challenges and new situations. We have met many new species -- some were friendly, most were not. You will find within the ship's log entries that on certain occasions I have had to - compromise - the Prime Directive, as well as several other Starfleet protocols, in order to do what I considered to be the proper course of action at the time.

No matter what the outcome, any and all Command decisions made aboard Voyager these past years have been mine, and mine alone. I've made those decisions with a clear mind, though not always with a clear conscience.

I say this to you now because I have . . . certain crewmembers who stand by their Captain, no matter how strong - or how weak - they think her decisions may be.

It would not be unlike them to try to convince you that they took part in the decision-making processes. As I've stated here, I may have sought their advice, but all decisions have been mine.

As all of you know, there are times when a Commanding Officer must stand alone, and this is one of those times.

Thank you.

End transmission."

The bleep of the computer added a finality to Kathryn's message.

She sat back in her chair and contemplated her message. She had said all that she had intended to say in this format. She knew that both Tuvok and Chakotay would not appreciate the fact that she had done this, but it was her choice to make. Her decision. The time had come for her to gently pull away from her staff and stand alone.

Some responsibilities could not be shared.

Kathryn crossed again to the replicator and ordered another cup of coffee. She was sure she wasn't the only member of the crew who was using replicator rations frivolously, and hoping they wouldn't have to worry about it much longer. Besides, she needed this coffee. There was so much work to do and so little time to prepare.

As she sat again at her desk, the door chimes sounded. Who could that be? As she had crossed the Bridge on the way to her quarters, she had been sure to announce rather loudly that she was going to get some rest. She hadn't wanted to be disturbed while she was recording her message to Starfleet Command.

"Come."

Chakotay stepped into her quarters and crossed to the front of her desk. He brought a red rose out from behind his back and held it out for her. She smiled and leaned forward to take it from his hand.

"What could I have done to deserve this?" she teased.

"It's just a reminder to keep things in perspective. Not everything is black and white. Some things are red." He smiled that smile that showed his dimples and made his eyes twinkle. She loved that smile, the way he made her feel when he turned to her with that look on his face. It was that special smile that she knew was reserved just for her. With one look he could make her feel more like a woman and less like a Captain than anyone else had ever been able to do. Sometimes, like now, it made her uncomfortable.

She looked away from him and motioned for him to sit down. He did, and she stood and crossed to the replicator. "Coffee or tea?" she asked.

"Tea, please," he replied.

"Computer, one cup of Vulcan spice tea, hot." The computer chirped and she took the cup of tea to Chakotay. He had come to love the Vulcan blend almost as much as she did. She saw that he had noticed the cup of coffee on her desk, but he didn't say anything. He knew that she wouldn't be sleeping much tonight, and he was prudent about his reprisals of her at times like these. Times like these? So far, there hadn't been many times like these, that was for sure.

"Any additional news about how the crew is handling the fact that their homecomings may be postponed?" she asked. Not that she cared as much as she normally would have. Right now her complete focus was on the task in front of her - reasoning with Starfleet Command, a daunting, if not impossible, task.

"As you suspected earlier today, a few of the crewmembers are not happy about it, but I think most of the crew aren't surprised. No one really thought in their hearts that we'd be able to just land the ship, fall into the arms of loved ones and go home." She smiled at Chakotay's description. No one could quite put things into perspective as well as her First Officer.

"Kathryn," Chakotay began softly.

"Yes?" 'Here it comes,' she thought. The reason he'd come to her quarters.

"I know that right now you're feeling alone. But I want to remind you of what I told you once a long time ago. You are not alone, Kathryn; you are never alone as long as I'm alive. I am beside you even during those times you cannot see me. I want you to remember that in the days ahead."

She couldn't lie to him, but she also had to let him know how much she appreciated him. "Chakotay, I do understand what you're saying to me. Truly I do. And I appreciate the fact that you are always by my side. I know that I can depend on you to be there for me. I've known it for a long time, even before you told me, and before we faced the Borg together. Sometimes I can lose sight of it, I'll admit. But you and I have a - special - relationship that has helped to keep me strong all these years." She reached across the desk and entwined the fingers of her left hand with the fingers of his right. This was a special gesture they shared from time to time, a reminder of the time they had spent together on planet New Earth.

"I don't know that I could have survived these past seven years without you."

"You would have, Kathryn. That's who you are. You are the strongest person I've ever known, and the most stubborn, sometimes to the point of losing focus." He unconsciously rubbed her thumb with his. "Tuvok once told me your stubbornness is not only your strongest asset as a leader, but also your greatest weakness. He was right."

She smiled, gently pulled her hand away from his, and once again sat back in her chair. "Leave it to a Vulcan to say that." She knew Tuvok felt that way. It sometimes amazed her that she and Tuvok had become so close over the years. She was nearly as emotional at times as he was unemotional.

Chakotay had to smile. He had intended to say something to stop her in her tracks, to make her think. He should have known it would take a lot more than that to affect Kathryn Janeway. He'd have to try a different tact.

"Kathryn . . ."

"It's okay, Chakotay. I know what you're trying to do. I'm fine. I'm just tired. In fact, I made certain to let everyone - especially you - know that I was going to my quarters to get some rest. What made you think I'd still be awake?"

"I know you, Kathryn Janeway," he smiled. "Whether you admit it or not, I know you very well. And not only did I expect to find you awake, you're probably on your second cup of coffee as well. You're thinking of all the work that needs to be done before we make first contact with Starfleet 36 hours from now."

"Show off," she smiled at him. Chakotay loved the sound of her voice. When it was just the two of them, her voice was soft and silky, not the 'command' voice she used when others were present.

And when she was especially tired, as she was now, her voice sounded even huskier, sexier. This was the voice he told himself she reserved only for him. Maybe he was kidding himself, but sometimes it made the days, and nights, pass more easily.

Chakotay again wondered, as he had so many times in these past days, whether there would be time for the two of them after the Starfleet interrogations were over - and if the Maquis were given immunity for their past actions. He didn't know if he dared hope that his Maquis crew would be allowed to go free, but if anyone could arrange it, Kathryn Janeway could.

"Kathryn," he began softly, "I may not get an opportunity to say this later, so I need to say it now." Kathryn looked at him, knowing that whatever it was he needed to tell her was important to him. She may not be in the mood to hear it, but she owed it to him to listen.

She nodded.

"I want to thank you for sharing your Federation vessel with my wayward Maquis crew for seven years now, for believing in them, for trusting them, for treating them like your own. And now, for fighting the institution you respect most, in their Honor. As much as I've grown to respect you, I respect you more today than you can ever imagine. There aren't many people, human or otherwise, who would put everything on the line for a handful of rebels, the way you plan to do now."

"Chakotay . . . ," she whispered.

"No, don't say anything. I just wanted to tell you. Okay?"

Kathryn nodded almost imperceptibly and lowered her eyes to the coffee cup that was now in her hand. The lump in her throat prevented her from speaking anyhow.

Chakotay turned the conversation in another direction. "I know you are going to put in a word for Tom Paris as well. Tom and I have had our disagreements, but he doesn't deserve to go back to prison." He paused a moment, then continued. "Then there's you."

"Me?" His statement brought her back to the present quickly.

"Starfleet Command may well decide to bring charges of court- martial against you, you know. If they decide to play dirty, they can easily find any number of incidents to give them reason - any slight variance to Starfleet protocol, something they decide violates the Prime Directive . . ."

"Chakotay, that is the least of my worries. I don't have time to be concerned about that just now." Kathryn stood and began to slowly pace the room. No matter that he was speaking casually, this was a deliberate conversation on Chakotay's part, Kathryn knew.

"Kathryn, I'm not bringing this up because it's unpleasant; I'm reminding you that the Maquis and Tom Paris aren't the only causes you need to address with the Federation and Starfleet Command when dictating terms to them before we dock Voyager - if we dock Voyager." Chakotay stood and crossed toward Kathryn, wanting her to listen. She suddenly seemed uncomfortable. "Kathryn. Look at me." He stood in her path and took her by the shoulders to face him. "You must also ask for complete immunity for any and all actions and decisions made aboard Voyager for the past seven years."

"Chakotay . . ."

"Listen to me, Kathryn. Think about it for just a moment. Remember when we sought to form an alliance with the Kazon? We involved ourselves in their political issues. On more than one occasion, we sought passage through a part of space controlled by less technological races in order to shorten months, or years, from our journey home. We rescued telepaths from a freighter and gave them safe passage to a wormhole, even when it was in direct conflict with the laws of that region of space. We returned to the Borg after our initial conflict with them was over . . . . Need I continue?"

"No."

"At best we've stretched the interpretation of the Prime Directive to the limit. And I'm afraid Starfleet Command may see it as much more than that. They may decide to form a Board of Inquiry to assess each situation and decide if a Grand Court-martial is in order. And I want you to know, Kathryn, that if that should happen, I will not let you stand alone before that Board."

"Chakotay, I am the Captain of this vessel. You cannot change that now."

"I'm not changing anything. But I won't allow you to be judged alone for things I helped you to accomplish."

"Every decision that was made aboard this ship has been mine."

"Kathryn, I will not . . . ."

Kathryn knew this discussion would go nowhere, yet Chakotay would not let it go until he felt he had gained an advantage. She placed her right hand on his chest in order to silence him.

"Chakotay, please. I just can't continue this discussion right now. Let's sit for awhile, all right? I need to stop thinking for a few minutes and just unwind."

Chakotay sighed, realizing he was probably pushing her too hard.

"All right." He removed his hands from her shoulders gently. "But do you understand what I am saying?"

Kathryn glanced up at him, "I understand," she said quickly. She walked over to the couch and sat, placed her cup on the coffee table, then motioned for him to join her. He smiled slightly, in spite of himself. How did she do that to him so easily? After he was seated next to her, she relaxed beside him. "Now, tell me. What thoughts have been going through your mind most these past couple of days? The Maquis situation? The question: Is this really true? The concern: Will we really make it home in a matter of a few hours from now? What?"

"That's a question I'm not prepared to answer; I've been too busy to think about it."

"Try," she smiled at him.

"Mostly, I suppose I've been anxious that this doesn't turn out to be a huge disappointment for the crew if something goes wrong and we don't make it home just yet."

"The crew? I know that the disappointment on this ship will be huge if we don't make it home." She paused, deep in thought.

Then, "But what about you?" she asked softly. "How disappointed will you be?"

Chakotay paused. "I will be disappointed. But not nearly as disappointed as most of our people."

"Really? Why not?" she asked, puzzled.

"Because, truth be known, I don't have anything in the Alpha Quadrant that I care about more than what I have on this ship, and if this ship is in the Delta Quadrant, then that's where my heart is." He paused, looking at his hands. He knew he'd said more than he had intended to, but there was nothing he could do about it now. It was all too obvious what he meant.

Kathryn was silent after Chakotay had said his piece. Of course she knew what he'd meant by those words. She could see, too, that he had said more than he'd meant to and that he was waiting anxiously for her reaction. She looked at him sitting next to her for a long moment, then reached her right hand out and touched his left hand. Chakotay turned his hand over and took hers gently. Kathryn lay her head back against the sofa behind her, closed her eyes and thought about what a lovely moment this was. She thought about his words, and enjoyed the feeling of his hand holding hers. Would he still feel this way after she'd said her peace to Starfleet Command? After she faced charges of court-martial, perhaps served time for those charges? They sat this way for a long while, each thinking his or her own thoughts.

Suddenly, Kathryn opened her eyes, then sat up slowly. She couldn't allow herself to enjoy this moment any longer. She would savor the feel of it later, maybe for years to come, but no more for now. She could feel Chakotay's eyes on her, and she met his eyes with hers. "Thank you for that quiet time just now. I needed it." She smiled and took her hand from his. She took her coffee cup, stood and walked across the room to her desk. Chakotay followed her, wondering what she had been thinking that had changed her mood so suddenly.

Kathryn looked up as Chakotay crossed to her. "Can I get you another cup of tea? I'm afraid that one is cold now."

Chakotay knew that she was trying desperately to turn the mood back to everyday things. Next she would suggest going over crew reports. "Kathryn, stop a moment. Please." Chakotay stood beside her and forced her to look into his eyes. "Before you continue, before we move away from this moment, I want you to know that when all this is over . . ."

"Chakotay, please. Let's take things one day at a time right now, okay?" She just couldn't face where this conversation was headed.

Not now.

Chakotay sighed. He looked into her eyes and saw the turmoil. He didn't want to add to the pressures she was already feeling about the journey ahead. "I understand." He knew all too well that she was uncomfortable any time he attempted to discuss their having a future together. "But I want to remind you that I don't give up easily. I haven't waited all these years just to let you get away from me once we're home. Understand?"

Kathryn smiled at him. He certainly was persistent. She was glad for that. But the thought returned - would he still feel that way if she were court-martialed and he had to wait several years for her to serve a prison sentence? Everyone has a limit as to how long they are willing to wait for . . . what? Had they shared enough together that he would want to wait much longer? Their hands had touched fleetingly over the years, their eyes had locked on many occasions.

They had spent three months stranded alone on a strange planet together. If that happened to them today, she knew that she wouldn't be strong enough to keep a distance between them as she had then, nor would she want to . . . She had silently given her heart to this man, and perhaps someday she could tell him. Suddenly, she felt tears threaten to sting her eyelids and she turned away quickly.

Chakotay felt the sudden change in her demeanor. He first saw the beautiful smile she had given him, then her face had clouded over and her mood had quickly changed. "Kathryn? What is it?" he asked gently.

"I'm just tired," she said simply. "Too tired for where this conversation is headed."

He moved close to her and gently encircled her waist with his hands, encouraging her to lean against him. She wouldn't always allow this, but he was hoping she wouldn't reject him just now. She didn't. He felt her tense at first, but then she relaxed and leaned back against his chest.

She needed Chakotay so much right now. She just wanted to melt into him for a little while, just be next to him and let him hold her.

But she couldn't allow herself to even think about that right now.

She would be using him and she could never allow that to happen.

She cared about him too much for that. In fact, she cared about him more than he may ever know.

That thought brought her up with a start. She gently pulled away from Chakotay and turned to him. "Thank you for being here for me. But I really need to lie down and try to sleep. We have so much ahead of us in the next several hours and I know that I'm far too tired right now to negotiate our way out of a paper bag. I have to rest."

"I understand," he said. "I'll leave you alone. Let me know if you need anything." She nodded, then walked with him toward the door.

Suddenly, Kathryn stopped beside him and touched his cheek briefly. "I meant it when I said I don't know what I'd do without you," she said. And she had meant it then, before they had faced the Borg that first time, and she meant it now as well. As she looked into his eyes, she knew without a doubt that he was the only man she would ever need. And if there was any way possible, she didn't want to lose him before she had him. "Promise me something," she whispered softly.

"Anything," he said, just as softly, seeing an intensity in Kathryn's eyes he'd never seen before.

"After we get home . . . and when it's all over . . . if you still feel we'd be good together . . ." her voice trailed off.

"Yes?" Chakotay prompted.

Kathryn swallowed hard. "If that time comes, be persistent. You know how stubborn I can be." She smiled sadly at him, and her eyes were moist with tears.

He took her hand from his face and held it for a moment. He smiled just as sadly, "More than anyone." Then he kissed her hand gently and left quickly. He didn't trust himself to stay one moment longer.

After the door slid shut behind Chakotay, Kathryn took several deep breaths. She simply couldn't indulge in a good cry just now.

A moment later she felt better, but remembering how Chakotay had held her hand and kissed it gently, she felt an old familiar burning knot in her stomach and lower abdomen. She sighed. If they ever got the chance to make love, she didn't think she could stand it.

Just the thought of it made her heart race and her . . . stop it! She couldn't do this now! What was she thinking? That's the point, she told herself. She wasn't thinking. Just for a little while she wished she could take the time to feel, not think.

Putting both cups in the replicator, she crossed to her couch, took the blanket from the back and draped it over herself. She lay her head back on the arm of the couch and let out a deep sigh.

"Computer, dim lights 75 percent," she said. As the lights dimmed, she glanced over at the red rose she had managed to put into a bud vase earlier. Perspective. Chakotay had said the rose was to remind her to keep things in perspective. And one of the things she told herself she had to keep in perspective was her relationship with Chakotay. Now more than ever before, she had to concentrate on being his commanding officer, not his friend, or anything more than that. She had to stand alone. It felt strange to her; she had come to depend on Chakotay so much in these past few years.

And what would he have said if he'd known about the message she had encrypted to Starfleet Headquarters only moments before he'd arrived at her door this evening? She closed her eyes and tried to put that thought out of her mind. She knew he would be upset with her, and she didn't have the time and energy to waste in thinking about how Chakotay would feel about things she knew she had to do. Some things were her sole responsibility, her duty, as Captain of this vessel.

She was so exhausted that the coffee didn't quite do its usual job, and she fell into a deep sleep.



Kathryn awoke with a start at 0530 hours. She felt chilly; the blanket had fallen onto the floor during the night. She quickly sat up on the couch and pulled the blanket up from the floor, draping it around her body. She brought her knees up and leaned her chin onto them. She wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked slowly. She hadn't done this in years; she hadn't felt this lonely in years.

After a few minutes, Kathryn stood from the couch. "Computer, illuminate to 100 percent." The computer obliged and she crossed to the replicator. "Computer, coffee -- black, hot and strong," she stated in her Captain's voice. After the cup of coffee appeared, she held it in both hands and crossed to her desk. The first cup of coffee in the morning was always the best. It warmed her first, then got her brainwaves moving. She always tried to sit and enjoy it without having to do anything else at the same time, but she often failed. She smiled to herself. The Doctor disagreed with her about the cause and effects of coffee, of course.

"The Doctor . . ." she heard herself say aloud, to herself. When they arrived home, she would find a way to negotiate a future for their Doctor, too. She knew that he was worried about what would happen to him once they returned to Starfleet Headquarters. By now, there were certainly other EMH programs that were programmed with a more complex database of medical knowledge than the Doctor had been programmed with seven years ago. But there was one thing the Voyager's doctor had that no other EMH had, and that was first hand knowledge of Delta Quadrant species and their physiology. She felt quite certain she could convince Starfleet to view the Doctor as a pioneer in his field. If they did not want to upgrade his program, perhaps he could teach at Starfleet Academy. She smiled again. He would love to teach at the Academy! Nothing could be more fitting for the Doctor than to have a lecture hall full of students, absorbed in his every word and description, taking notes and studying for his examinations. All that would be required would be a lecture hall equipped with holoemitters. Many people would question whether the Doctor would be an effective teacher, but Kathryn Janeway knew there would be few teachers who would savor the job as much as he.

And he had been a wonderful and devoted teacher to Kes.

"Kes . . ." she whispered aloud, and felt the tears sting her eyes.

Sometimes the memory of Kes came to her mind so abruptly, she nearly doubled over with the pain of her loss. Kes had been so special to Kathryn. She had been just a child, yet also a lovely young woman who had brought such love and encouragement to everyone she met. She had lived fully for each day, and yes, sometimes Kathryn wondered if her affection for the girl was made even stronger because Kes reminded her of a daughter she might never have. Kathryn closed her eyes and tried to focus her thoughts on the day ahead. So very much to do . . . and she didn't need to start the day with such an emotional beginning.

"Chakotay to Janeway," came the voice over her comm badge. She raised her head, happy to hear Chakotay's familiar voice.

"Janeway here," she replied.

"Captain, sorry to bother you so early, but we are detecting a hail from the other side of the wormhole. It's faint and we can't acknowledge it yet, but we're working on it."

"I'm on my way," she said. As the communication ended, she drained her cup of coffee and started for her bathroom. Time for a 5-minute sonic shower and a change into a fresh uniform. She didn't think Harry and Chakotay would get that communication channel open within the next 15 minutes. And if they did, they'd be better off responding to that hail themselves than to want their Captain to respond as she currently felt without a shower.



Precisely 15 minutes later, Captain Kathryn Janeway stepped onto the Bridge of her starship. As the turbolift doors swooshed closed behind her, she walked purposefully toward her Captain's chair as she called "Report!" over her right shoulder.

"We are still trying to acknowledge the communication channel we detected on the other side of the wormhole, Captain. We have ascertained that it is a Starfleet vessel, but nothing else thus far," Tuvok spoke in his usual crisp tone.

"How were you able to determine that?" she asked.

"The rotating frequencies match those used by the Federation," he replied simply. 'Some things never change,' she thought.

Captain Janeway took a deep breath as she sat down. This was the moment they had all waited years for - and sometimes it seemed, a lifetime for. And everything depended upon her to see them safely home. Not just to the Alpha Quadrant anymore, but home - safe, free.

Chakotay came forward, crossed to his command chair and sat. He looked at Kathryn. She stared straight ahead, focusing her thoughts on their imminent situation, he knew.

"Kathryn," he said softly, as he leaned toward her.

"Not now, Chakotay," she said gently. "I really need to concentrate just now."

"I know. Just remember: black, white - and red," he replied. Then he turned back toward his monitor, but not before he caught the slight smile tug at the corner of Kathryn's mouth.

"Captain," Tuvok's voice came suddenly through the quiet.

"What is it?" Kathryn kept her voice calm and steady. She had to maintain control no matter how much her nerves bade her otherwise.

"We are being hailed." Tuvok paused slightly. "By a Federation vessel."

"On screen," replied Captain Janeway steadily.

Immediately, there appeared a blurry figure surrounded by a blurry background and some sort of furniture, and most importantly, a blurry Starfleet insignia on the wall behind him. A faint voice was heard, then the man halted. Evidently he realized he was not getting through to Voyager. He turned slightly to his right and began to speak to someone off screen.

"Mr. Kim, see what you can do to clear up the transmission," Janeway said steadily, but firmly. Even though the image was distorted, she recognized the face on the screen and wondered if Tom Paris did also.

"Yes, Sir," replied Harry Kim. He was already working frantically to do just that.

Just then the screen became clear and the face of Admiral Owen Paris appeared larger than life before the Bridge crew. The entire crew stopped what they were doing, suddenly completely aware of what this meant. Kathryn stood slowly. She needed to stand out of respect for her superior officer, but she also had to do it slowly in order to keep her knees from buckling underneath her. She took a step forward and smiled tentatively.

Admiral Paris almost smiled, and the creases in his forehead became more relaxed. "This is Admiral Owen Paris from Starfleet Headquarters on the planet Earth," he said in his most formal tone. "Greetings from the Alpha Quadrant, Captain Janeway." This was said in a more relaxed tone, and he again nearly smiled.

"Thank you, Admiral," said Captain Janeway in her best Starfleet manner. She smiled slightly. "You have no idea just how good it is to see you again."

"I don't often hear those kind words, Captain. I must assume that you are anxious to return home." Again, there appeared the hint of a smile.

"You assume correctly, Admiral. It has been a long journey."

"I can well imagine, Captain." He paused. "Much has happened since your ship was lost seven years ago, Kathryn. We are much more advanced in our technology, but not so much so that we have achieved access to the Delta Quadrant. I'm afraid there have been more . . . pressing matters to attend to. I seem to be one of the few who believe Delta Quadrant access should be considered a priority."

Admiral Paris glanced down a moment, as though he did not want the Voyager crew to see the dark shadow that moved quickly across his eyes. "However, we believe that we can successfully work with you now to bring the Voyager safely back to the Alpha Quadrant. As we speak, we have several crews working on the data we are receiving from your telecommunications signal.

It will take us several hours to decode the transmissions and interface them with our current technology. We will then give you instructions for preparation to be brought through the wormhole.

Do you understand?"

Kathryn nodded. "Yes, Admiral."

"Good," he said matter-of-factly. "In the meantime, have your best crewmembers stand by to successfully bring Voyager through that wormhole, and home."

"They are already standing by, Admiral," said Captain Janeway softly.

The Admiral paused a moment, then said softly, "Kathryn, my son . . ."

"Yes, Admiral." Kathryn interjected gently, "Lieutenant Paris is right here on the Bridge."

"Lieutenant . . . ?" The Admiral began.

"Yes, I granted him a field commission seven years ago when we first became lost in the Delta Quadrant. He is my helmsman, Admiral, an integral part of my senior staff and one of my most responsible and trusted crewmen." She walked slowly toward Tom Paris, who seemed frozen by his computer terminal.

"May I greet him, Captain?" asked the Admiral. Kathryn knew he was following by-the-book Starfleet protocol, by asking the Captain of the vessel for permission to speak with one of her crewmen.

"Permission granted, Admiral," Janeway slightly nodded her head in difference, and Admiral Paris turned slightly to acknowledge his son.

"Hello, Son," he said in a formal tone.

"Hello, Sir," replied Tom, in a smaller voice than was his usual tone.

"I see you've made something of yourself, finally. I know Kathryn Janeway well and she would never have made you her helmsman unless she felt she could depend upon you in a time of crisis."

"Yes, Sir," replied Tom.

"Good. I intend to go over your record in detail with Captain Janeway upon your return to the Alpha Quadrant and . . ."

"And we'll have plenty of time for that, Admiral," interjected Janeway quickly. Didn't that man see that Tom was extremely uneasy, and that this was not the time to publicly humiliate him?

Admiral Paris turned back towards Kathryn Janeway and brought himself up to full Starfleet attention. Kathryn also brought herself up to a full, erect stance.

"I will contact you again in fours hours' time, Captain, with instructions for entering the wormhole. In the meantime, maintain full stop and wait for my signal."

"Aye, Admiral," replied Janeway.

" . . . And Captain . . . ?" he replied more gently than before. "It's good to see you, too. Congratulations on getting your crew home."

"Thank you, Admiral, but we're not home yet."

Admiral Paris actually laughed at that. "Always the scientist, the non-believer of gods and miracles."

"You might be surprised at some of the things I believe in these days, Admiral," she replied softly, with a gentle smile.

"Perhaps, Kathryn, perhaps. We shall catch up with one another soon, and perhaps you will surprise me." He suddenly seemed older, and tired. "Welcome home, Captain." And with that, Admiral Paris ended the transmission.

For a full minute, the entire Bridge crew was silent, mulling over the significance of what had just occurred.

Finally, Kathryn turned and looked across the Bridge at her First Officer who was still sitting in his command chair. He looked up and they locked eyes. "Now the games begin," she said simply.



Kathryn Janeway sat quietly behind her desk in her office. She was drinking yet another cup of coffee, and awaiting word from the Bridge that Starfleet was contacting them again. It would soon be four hours since the transmission from Admiral Paris. The door chime sounded.

"Come," she said.

Chakotay entered and stood in front of Kathryn's desk, waiting for her to speak first. She gestured for Chakotay to sit, which he did.

"Coffee?" she asked.

"No, thank you. Were you able to get any rest?"

Kathryn looked at Chakotay, opened her mouth to speak, then closed her mouth again. "I was going to tell you that I did, but I can't lie to you, you know."

Chakotay smiled. "I know. When you try, it's so obvious that it's a lie . . ."

"All right, enough already. I did lie on the couch for almost an hour. But I couldn't get comfortable and I couldn't stop thinking.

Finally, I got up and had a cup of coffee. And that's the truth." She hated the fact that he always cornered her on the little things.

"I see. And this is how many coffee's later?" he asked.

"Only one. I've been rationing myself." She smiled. "Gods, I hate it when you question me like this!"

"I have to do it, Captain," Chakotay said, with a twinkle in his eye. "I need to know the answers to these questions if I'm asked by a member of the senior staff how our Captain is feeling. Also, the doctor expects me to be aware of your physical condition, and . . . other crewmen have a right to know the answers as well . . . ."

"That's a lousy excuse, Commander," she smiled.

"Yes, but you are the only Captain we have and we need to take care of you and see that you try to take care of yourself. A Starship Captain has very little privacy."

She had to give it to him for trying. "Well, that will all be over soon. I want my life back to myself," she stated simply.

"And what makes you think it's that easy to get it back?" he asked.

Kathryn looked at him; he'd gotten the upper hand on this one. She didn't know where he was going with this.

"What do you mean?" she ventured.

"Maybe I'll still manage to be around to ask all those questions months from now." He had a slight smile on his lips and his eyes had a mischievous gleam in them.

"Chakotay . . ." she began.

"I know. Not now. But imagine, if you will, a certain Commander following you around the Starfleet campus asking you if you've had too much coffee, if you've eaten three square meals today . . ."

Kathryn laughed. "Well, I don't think I'll have to worry very much about that, Commander."

It was Chakotay's turn to look upended. "Why not?"

She leaned conspiratorially over her desk toward him. "Because I know the Starfleet campus backward and forward, upside down and inside out. I know all the hiding places, and I also know that you do not. You will spend your time looking for me, but never finding me. And I might even be closer to you than you think, but you'll never know."

"Sounds mysterious. You really know the campus that well?"

"Believe it." Kathryn stood and took her empty coffee cup to the recycler. "I spent so much time there my parents were always trying to remember whether they had one daughter or two."

Chakotay laughed. "I don't believe that one for a minute, Kathryn Janeway. I know your parents would never have forgotten about you! Just as I don't believe anyone who's ever met you could easily forget you."

Kathryn returned to her chair, then looked up at Chakotay. Her smile was replaced with a look he didn't often see on her face.

They locked eyes for a brief moment, but it was long enough for Chakotay to see that look of - longing. There was no other way to describe it. It was loneliness, the type that permeates one's soul - and longing. He wanted so much to take her in his arms and just hold her. He could help make her burdens even lighter than she had ever allowed him to before, if she would only let him in. But she hadn't let him that close to her in these seven years. Now that things were going to change, maybe that would change too. He could only hope, and dream. And tell his heart to wait a little while longer.

"Commander . . ." she began in that low silky voice, but was cut off by Tuvok's voice coming over her comm badge.

"Captain," Tuvok said, "we are being hailed by Starfleet Command."

"We're on our way!" she replied, as she and Chakotay stood together. "Looks like it's show time, Commander." She crossed around the desk and toward the door to the Bridge. Chakotay waited until she had crossed in front of him, then followed closely behind her.



Once she and Commander Chakotay were in place on the Bridge, Captain Janeway nodded toward Harry Kim, then turned toward the view screen. "On screen," she instructed.

This time Admiral Paris's face appeared immediately before them, with no interference from the signal.

"Admiral," Captain Janeway greeted him.

"Captain." Admiral Paris seemed more relaxed than he had during their earlier transmission. Janeway guessed that he had had an opportunity to accept the fact that his son was truly alive after all these years. Just hearing about it was one thing, but seeing his son's face must have been quite another, she knew.

"Captain, we have determined the most appropriate way for Voyager to return to the Alpha Quadrant. As you may have ascertained on your own, the wormhole is extremely unstable. Our investigations show the instability to be worsened on your end, so your entrance must be taken with extreme care." Captain Janeway nodded her understanding. "I am sending the appropriate coordinates to your helmsman now."

Admiral Paris began punching buttons on his console. Janeway noticed that he did not reference Tom Paris, just the helmsman. So typical of Admiral Paris, she thought, but just this once he might have considered how his son might be feeling.

"Enter the following coordinates at the base of the wormhole," continued Admiral Paris. "From your perspective, these readings will be approximately 1.5 kilometers off the center of the opening.

That will, however, be a correct reading. The instability has forced a shift within the wormhole itself. Without interference, the wormhole will be entering a state of collapse in approximately 5 hours, beginning at your end. Enter the wormhole at Warp 2.5. As soon as your thrusters are able, engage at Warp 5, then when you sense the collapse behind you, engage Warp 7. This should allow you to gain the momentum necessary to push you through to the Alpha Quadrant. We will be working on this end to maintain the opening for as long as possible. We will also emit a rotating polaron burst at the precise time you enter the wormhole, in hopes of stabilizing the energy readings so that your journey will be less . . . chaotic." He paused.

"Understood," said Captain Janeway. "Lieutenant Paris, do you have the coordinates?"

"I have them, Captain," stated Tom Paris from the conn.

"And, Captain . . ." began the Admiral.

"Yes, Admiral?"

"The impact may still be substantial. Your entire journey through the wormhole will take no more than 42 seconds. As you know, that will seem an eternity. Voyager may be heavily damaged by the time she reaches the Alpha Quadrant. There's no way to know for certain." He sighed almost wistfully.

Kathryn Janeway understood his implications. She knew the Admiral well, and she also knew the unknown factors of wormholes well. What the Admiral was alluding to was that the casualty list might be high. What he didn't know was how experienced her crew had become at being prepared for almost anything.

"I understand, Admiral." Kathryn saw him look up at her then, and knew that he understood that she knew exactly what was in store for them. Perhaps he saw a hint of just how far she had come, and how much she had experienced, since she was a young Starfleet Cadet under his tutelage those many years ago.

The Admiral continued, "Captain, you must ready your ship and be at the opening precisely 2.2 hours from now. At exactly 15:41 hours you must enter the wormhole. This has been determined as the best time, and just prior to a phase shift that we fear may occur. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Admiral."

"Good. We'll see you on the other side, Captain." He took a deep breath. "I look forward to our catching up."

"As do I, Admiral." Kathryn smiled slightly.

"Good luck, Captain Janeway. Gods' Speed." With that, Admiral Paris ended transmission. Once again, the Bridge crew was silent.

The time had come at last.

Kathryn turned and took in her Bridge crew in one sweeping glance. Most of her senior staff were here. Tuvok, Harry, Tom, Seven, even B'Elanna had been on the Bridge for this transmission, and of course, Chakotay. It suddenly occurred to her that this may have been the first glimpse B'Elanna would remember of the man who could possibly be her future father-in-law. Kathryn smiled in spite of the situation. She saw Chakotay looking at her expression, trying to figure out what she was thinking. He was indeed the finest First Officer a Captain could ever wish for, even though his ability to read her was sometimes disconcerting.

Immediately, an overwhelming feeling of loss caught her unaware.

She had to grab onto a railing to keep her balance. She hoped she had done so in a calm manner even though she had nearly fallen to her knees. She shut her eyes tightly for a moment and took a deep breath, steadying the dizziness that threatened to overtake her.

Loss. There was no better way to describe what she was feeling.

For seven years, she had lived with, depended upon, this crew.

Now she knew without a doubt that they were much more to her than a crew; they were her friends, her family. No matter how much she had tried to distance herself from them, knowing that she had to, knowing that as the Captain of Voyager she had to keep that perspective that Chakotay was so fond of reminding her of, and knowing that she could never allow any of them to enter her heart, she now realized how horribly she had failed on that account.

Perhaps she had known it all along, but hadn't wanted to admit it.

The fact was, they were all a part of her, they were all deeply imbedded inside her heart.

Kathryn took another deep breath and forced all thoughts from her mind as best she could. Feeling a little better, she opened her eyes and looked around. No one seemed to be aware of what had just happened to their Captain; they were all still lost in their own thoughts of home, family, friends. But she did not look at Chakotay. She didn't want to know if he had seen her take hold of the railing, and had witnessed her moment of weakness. She just didn't want to know. She had to keep a clear mind, and a clear head. She was sure she'd find out later if he had witnessed her weak moment. He would be sure to bring it to her attention in private. Maybe she had simply had too much coffee, she thought.

She sighed inwardly.

"Commander," she said to Chakotay in a steady voice that belied the way she really felt. "Inform the senior staff there will be a meeting in my Briefing Room in 30 minutes. You have the Bridge."

"Aye, Captain," said Chakotay, not giving any indication he knew she wasn't feeling well. Kathryn slowly let go of the railing, found she could manage to move on her own accord, pushed her shoulders back and walked briskly across the Bridge, down the two steps and into her Ready Room.

As the doors whooshed closed behind her, Kathryn walked more slowly toward her chair and sat heavily upon it. She put both elbows on the arms of the chair and rested her forehead in the palms of her hand. At a time when she needed to be at her strongest, why was she feeling so weak? Hadn't she prepared herself for this moment for nearly seven years? Isn't that what had given her the courage to continue during those times she felt ready to give up? After all, this seven-year journey had been merely a means to an end. Or had it really been more?

Just as she was beginning to get a grip on herself, her door chime sounded. She sighed. She didn't even have to guess who it was.

"Come."

Commander Chakotay came into the Ready Room with a padd in his hand. He stopped before Janeway's desk and handed the padd to her. "Captain, I thought you might want to take a look at this before our staff meeting."

Janeway took the padd from him and scanned it. It was a thorough look at current ship's systems as well as where they needed to be prior to entering the wormhole. She smiled. Just like Chakotay to be ahead of schedule. "Thank you, Commander. Thorough as always." Chakotay nodded, but remained where he was, hands clasped behind his back. Kathryn sighed. He wasn't going to let her off the hook this easily. "Anything else, Commander?"

"Yes, thank you." Chakotay sat down in the chair in front of her desk.

Kathryn took a deep breath and brought her eyes up to his.

"What?"

"I was wondering what the hell happened to you out there a few minutes ago."

Kathryn stood and walked to the viewport, her back to Chakotay.

"I just experienced a bit of dizziness, Commander. Nothing to be concerned about. Too much coffee, not enough sleep and, no, I am not eating properly. I am lax on all those good things both you and the Doctor are constantly reminding me of. I'll try to do better tomorrow."

"Nice try," said Chakotay gently.

Kathryn turned to look at him. She had decided to dump the coffee/sleep/food bit on him, admit she wasn't taking care of herself, and he'd be forced to buy it. "What do you mean?" she asked him.

"That wasn't the problem out there."

Kathryn paused. She just couldn't fool this man. "Do you think anyone else noticed, Chakotay?" she asked softly. Better to know the answer to that question before they proceeded.

"No. Practically everyone on this ship is in his or her own world right now, Kathryn. No one else noticed."

"Then why did you?" As she asked the question, she turned back to face the viewport. Why had she asked? She knew the reason why, and she really didn't want to open up that can of worms. So, why had she asked?

"Because I am beside you, Kathryn, always. I told you all about that long ago and I have never left your side. Not in all these years.

Not even when we fought the Borg." He paused and they both thought about that time for a brief moment. It was the most trying time of their seven years together, yet they had risen above it and were stronger now than they had ever been before. He rose and crossed toward her. "I know you. I know who you are and what you stand for. I watch you and look out for you. I care for you." He paused. He forced his mood to change, to turn back to the present. "Kathryn," he spoke more gently now, "are you all right?"

She turned slowly toward Chakotay, her arms crossed beneath her breasts. She just couldn't lie to him, not now or ever. "Yes. I'm fine now." She sat on the couch and motioned for him to sit beside her. He crossed up and sat next to her, not too far, yet not too close.

"I had a strange moment on the Bridge," she said. "After Admiral Paris ended transmission, I turned to look at the Bridge crew, and suddenly this feeling came over me. It was one of protectiveness, of family - and the feeling that I am about to lose that family."

She looked into his eyes. "I've spent seven years trying not to become personally involved with my crew, Chakotay, not to care so much that I wouldn't be able to send one of them on a dangerous away mission if the need arose. Seven years, telling myself that my family is on the other side of the galaxy and not here on this ship.

I've told myself that while I appreciate every member of this crew, I am not so close that I can't walk away from any of them once my job is done, once I return them safely home to the Alpha Quadrant."

"Kathryn," Chakotay reached for her hand, knowing this day was inevitable when she would realize just how much she cared for this crew, her new family . . . a feeling that she had, indeed, tried to deny to herself.

"No, Chakotay, don't try to make this easy for me. I see now that I've intentionally blinded myself to . . . so many things. I've told myself that once I get this crew home, I can rest. I can let go and rest . . . ." She let her sentence trail off, and Chakotay sat in silence and held her right hand in his left.

Finally, Kathryn spoke. "You've always known that I've been deluding myself, haven't you?" she asked in a small voice.

"You haven't been deluding yourself, Kathryn. You've done what you've had to do in order to get the job done."

"At what expense, Chakotay?" she whispered, turning to face him.

He looked up and met her eyes with his own. Perhaps they were both thinking the same thing.

Suddenly, the door chimed, bringing both of them to their feet. "It's the senior staff, Captain," said Chakotay gently. "Time for the meeting." Kathryn nodded her head and started for her desk to pick up several padds she would need for the meeting. Chakotay often admired and even envied her ability to clear her mind and even her soul for whatever needed her attention at the moment. It was definitely one of her strengths as a Captain. "Enter," he called toward the door.

As the senior staff entered the room and began to take their place at the briefing room table, Kathryn gathered her padds from her desk, taking her time. She forced away the feelings she'd experienced earlier on the Bridge. There'd be plenty of time to think about them later, to put them into perspective. Right now she had to get her crew home.

Kathryn sighed, took her padds and crossed to the conference table where the senior staff awaited their Captain. Yes, there would be plenty of time for perspective later.



Kathryn Janeway sat alone in her Ready Room waiting for the next hour to pass. They were nearly home.

She poured just one more cup of coffee, knowing that it had to be decaf. Neelix had brought this fresh pot to her only an hour ago.

She could always tell the difference, even though Neelix swore she couldn't. Sometimes she just didn't have the heart to tell him the truth, though. He worked so hard to make the coffee good for her.

The doorbell chimed. "Come" she said, knowing full well it was Tuvok with the last report of the hour.

Tuvok entered, stepped up to the Captain's desk and handed her the padd. "Here is the Bridge report, Captain."

Captain Janeway took it from him and motioned for him to sit. "It looks as though all systems are ready."

"They are, Captain. This ship is as prepared to enter the wormhole as possible with the resources we have in our possession. We have reinforced aft shielding and remodulated the tachyon pulse to match the Federation frequency as soon as it is detected. From our own research and knowledge of this wormhole, and with the modifications we have made, Voyager should not experience the amount of damage that Admiral Paris seemed to suggest."

"Good. We have to be intact on the other side or we won't be in a position to make demands."

"Acknowledged."

"Tuvok?" Kathryn knew she had to ask her old friend this question, even though she feared his answer. "Do you think I'm doing the right thing?"

"That is a difficult question to answer, Captain. I have often disagreed with your logic, but have nonetheless tried to understand why you make the decisions you make." Kathryn laughed. Tuvok looked at her. "I did not intend for my assessment to be humorous."

"I'm sorry, Tuvok. I'm just overly tired. I just had an image of you trying to figure out my logic at every move. I know I can be a difficult person to understand at times."

"Indeed," stated Tuvok matter-of-factly. Kathryn smiled again.

Leave it to her most trusted advisor to be so eloquently straightforward. 'Vulcans,' Tom Paris would say.

Kathryn regained her control and put her Captain's face back on.

Tuvok related to her better this way. "Let me rephrase my question, Tuvok. Is there any logic at all in my decision to take a stand with Starfleet Command?"

Fully expecting Tuvok to say 'no,' she was completely surprised when he replied "Indeed."

"How so?" she asked softly, leaning forward expectantly.

"This crew has experienced seven years in the Delta Quadrant, Captain. These seven years will be impossible to describe to anyone - or any institution - who hasn't been here to share it with us. The heroism of this crew, Starfleet and Maquis alike, is beyond believability for most to understand. The ship's logs will explain, but they cannot show, the allegiance this crew has shown to their Captain, to the things they believe in. It cannot show the courage, the strength of heart and mind, and the focus that this crew has demonstrated while knowing in their hearts that they may never return home again." Tuvok paused slightly. "In your mind, Captain, allowing one part of your crew to be welcomed home while another part is shunned, is unacceptable." Here, Tuvok stood and put his hands behind his back, in difference to his Captain of many years. "I admire your courage, Captain, as I have on many occasions in the years I have known you. I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve with you once again."

The force of Tuvok's words brought tears to his Captain's eyes. She blinked them back with difficulty and stood to face her Lieutenant Commander. "Thank you, Tuvok," she whispered to him, "For more than you'll ever know." Tuvok nodded slightly, his way of showing his respect for her.

"Chakotay to Janeway," came Chakotay's voice over her Communicator.

"Janeway here, Commander."

"Captain, it's time to perform the final systems check."

"On my way," she replied. Crossing from behind her desk, she crossed to Tuvok, touched his left arm briefly with her right hand, looked into his eyes and said "Thank you, Old Friend." Then she became the Captain again and walked purposefully through the doors onto the Bridge, with Tuvok close behind her.

"Captain on the Bridge," stated Chakotay, as he and the rest of the Bridge crew stood to face their Captain. Kathryn was touched; she had long ago requested her Bridge crew not accommodate her with the formal Bridge command whenever she entered the Bridge. But now, she knew this was a final salute to their Captain prior to entering the Alpha Quadrant, and returning home. It was a 'thank you' of sorts, and an Honor.

Captain Janeway nodded quickly to each of her Bridge crew, saving her First Officer for last. He smiled as he returned her nod.

"Thank you, All," she said. "As you were." As the Bridge crew once again turned to their duties, Tuvok moved to his station quickly, and Captain Janeway moved to sit in her command chair.

Kathryn Janeway took a deep breath and turned to her Commanding officer. "Ready when you are, Commander."

As Chakotay ran through the final systems checks, Kathryn listened dutifully. It wasn't necessary for her to be here, but it was somewhat of a Starfleet tradition, in honor of the Captain, to ask the Captain to be present for a final run down of ship's systems just prior to a major undertaking. She smiled to herself. 'Enjoy this, Kathryn,' she told herself. 'Who knows if you'll ever be privy to this or any other such honor again, after Starfleet is finished with you.' She closed her eyes and listened to the gentle tone of Chakotay's voice calling for status, and the answering voices of her various crewmen.

Finally, all was quiet. Kathryn opened her eyes and turned to Chakotay. "Sounds like we're fit as a fiddle," she smiled.

"I hope so, Captain. We're as ready as we'll ever be."

"True." She sighed heavily. "Mr. Paris," she called down to the helm. "Take us to the wormhole, Warp 2. Maintain a distance of 2 kilometers after approaching the final coordinates."

"Aye, Captain," Tom responded.

Kathryn wondered how Tom was holding up. Seeing his Father - twice - after seven years, and being treated like a distant acquaintance by him, couldn't have been easy. But she knew Tom was accustomed to being treated this way; poor Tom had never been good enough for his Father. Well, she would make sure the Admiral knew how fine his son had turned out, and how grown-up and responsible he had become, given the chance. All she could do was tell the Admiral, then let the chips fall where they may.

History wasn't written in a day, and she was sure it would take longer than that to heal the breach between Tom Paris and his Father. Largely because of this, she knew Tom didn't relish returning to the Alpha Quadrant. Among the crew, it was commonly known that Tom Paris had made a better life for himself aboard Voyager than he had ever known before. And he was the first to admit it. Well, she would do what she could to see to it that he was given another chance on Earth.

She saw that Chakotay was looking at her. As she met his gaze, he smiled. "You can't change the world, Kathryn."

"Damn it, Chakotay," she whispered as she leaned toward him so she wouldn't be overheard by the rest of the Bridge crew. "Can't I even have a private thought that you can't interpret?"

Chakotay smiled. "Maybe I'm psychic after all, and you're just now figuring it out."

"Highly unlikely."

"Why is that? Maybe I've just been good at hiding it from you."

When she didn't answer right away, he looked up from his console and met her straightforward stare. Finally she said, "No. If you were psychic, you would have figured out a lot of things by now that you obviously haven't."

"Oh?" Chakotay asked, intrigued.

"Never mind." She sat back in her seat, crossed her legs and glanced at her monitor. "We have a journey ahead of us and a very important mission to think about just now," she said in her best Captain's voice. Chakotay smiled as he turned his gaze back to his monitor. He was definitely filing this one away for later. She wasn't going to get away with that one so easily.

The Voyager crew sat wordlessly and waited for the proper time to enter the wormhole, their position ready for ascent. Each was thinking his own thoughts, lost in time, and space, and more unsure of the future than ever before.

Kathryn Janeway was planning her greeting for Admiral Paris on the other side. The Captain knew that the Admiral would have an open comm link not only between Voyager and himself, but between himself and all of Starfleet Command. This was going to be an event unlike any other - the welcoming home of a crew lost for seven years, a crew returning from a part of the galaxy previously uncharted by the entire Alpha Quadrant. The wealth of information aboard Voyager alone would make any Starfleet official water at the mouth, so to speak. She planned to use this as part of Voyager's bargaining chip, if need be.

Kathryn also knew that the Admiral would deactivate the comm link between himself and the rest of Starfleet Command at the first tiny indication that something, anything, was wrong. This was good; it might keep negotiations open longer this way, before egos were embarrassed or offended publicly. And things would become 'wrong' very quickly in his eyes, she thought wryly. She didn't want to have to do this, wished with all her heart and soul there was another way, but she'd known for years that this day was inevitable if they returned home. The day of reckoning had arrived.

Captain Janeway could not, would not, sacrifice the reputation of any of her crewmembers in order to satisfy any old business Starfleet might want to take care of at the expense of her people.

No, they were all in this together, her crew. They'd stood together through tougher times than this. They'd won their share of battles in the Delta Quadrant, and they would win this one.

As Kathryn Janeway psyched herself up for her next conversation with Admiral Paris, Chakotay watched her from the corner of his eye. He was deeply concerned - about several things. First, he knew Kathryn was on edge and feared that her lack of sleep and food these past few days might begin to take their toll on her. But he also knew that at times like this she could also be at her very best. And, when it was all over and things had settled down, she would collapse until her mind and body were rested, then do it all over again when the next time came. This time, however, she might not have that luxury; she had been kind in her words about Starfleet debriefings in the staff meetings.

Chakotay also knew that Starfleet Command had even larger egos than Kathryn had let on in those same staff meetings. He hoped that she had underestimated them intentionally, in order to prevent the senior staff from dwelling on things they could not change. He knew those egos well, and he was fairly certain Kathryn did also.

He had to trust her on that one.

There was also something else. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but it made him uncomfortable. Kathryn had something up her sleeve. He could always sense it when she kept something from him. It was true she couldn't lie to him, but she had become awfully adept at keeping things from him when she wanted to. And he knew she was up to something. He shook his head to clear his mind. Maybe he was just imagining it. They'd all been under such intense pressure lately, and hers was greater than everyone else's combined. Perhaps he was just sensing that never-ending weight the burden of Command put on her. And he knew she felt this was her moment of truth.

Whatever happened now, he would stand beside her. She knew she could depend on him, and he would die before he let her down again. Again. For a flicker of a moment, he remembered their conflict over how best to engage the Borg that first time, nearly four years ago. It was the first and last time they'd disagreed so vehemently. It had taken time, but they had repaired the damage to their friendship, and had somehow managed to grow even closer together in the aftermath. He closed his eyes tightly. He would never allow that discord to happen again. Even now, the thought of the pain he had caused her, the hurt in her eyes, still made his heart ache. He would never again be the cause of her hurt. She had paid too high a price in life for other causes; he was determined to be her solace instead. He wanted to be the one she sought to make her burdens lighter, not heavier.

"It's time." Kathryn's command voice brought Chakotay out of his reverie. "Mr. Paris, take us to the wormhole entrance and hold steady. Prepare to go to Warp 2.5 on my command."

"Aye Captain." Then a moment later, "We're at the entrance, Captain. Ready to go to Warp." Kathryn thought she detected just a bit of wistfulness underlying Tom's words. She suddenly wished she had taken more time to talk to Tom about Admiral Paris, and explained to him why his Father was such an important part of her life. And to tell him that she understood why his Father wasn't an important part of his.

Kathryn forced her thoughts back to the present. "Mr. Tuvok?"

Tuvok watched his chronometer, then at the precise moment dutifully called the countdown. "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one . . ."

"Engage," said Captain Janeway, softly but firmly.

With those words, Commander Chakotay silently reached over and took his Captain's hand, as Tom Paris led Voyager into the wormhole, marking the beginning of the 42-second journey that would take them home.



The viewscreen showed swirls and shades of colors never before imagined. Voyager rocked and shook and vibrated. When Captain Janeway knew the time was right, exactly eighteen seconds after entering the wormhole, she ordered Tom Paris to engage thrusters and increase speed to Warp 5. She knew Tom was struggling to maintain control of the helm, so she ordered Harry Kim to transfer duplicate readings from the helm control to his monitor in order to keep Tom apprised of any surprises. Fourteen seconds later, the Captain detected the collapse of the wormhole behind Voyager and ordered Mr. Paris to jump to Warp 7. She contacted Engineering and ordered B'Elanna Torres to increase power to the deflectors and reinforce the shields, just as Voyager gained the momentum necessary to push through the wormhole to the Alpha Quadrant.

Ten interminable seconds later, Voyager burst through the other side of the wormhole as it collapsed behind them. Suddenly, the shaking and jerking stopped and calm surrounded them. The viewscreen immediately cleared, and the Bridge crew saw familiar star systems they had not seen in seven years. They were in the Alpha Quadrant; they were home at last.



It was strangely quiet on the Bridge. Kathryn Janeway took a deep breath and forced herself to gain her wits about her. Timing was critical, and there was no time to daydream. She stood from her chair. "Mr. Kim, are we in the Alpha Quadrant?" she barked in her strictest command voice. Time to get this crew back to the present.

"Yes, Captain, we are in the Alpha Quadrant," replied Ensign Kim, quickly pulling his eyes from the viewscreen and punching commands into his console.

"We are being hailed by Starfleet Command," stated Lieutenant Tuvok.

"Mr. Kim, create a frequency distraction, interference of some sort - I need a moment," said Janeway quickly.

"Yes, Captain." Then, "The Federation is reading a phase variance in our ship's sensors and communications systems. I'm making it look as though I'm working to correct that variance."

"Good work, Mr. Kim. Mr. Tuvok, ship status."

"We are in good shape, Captain. Minor damage on decks 2, 3 and 5 - minor injuries to six crewmembers. All relevant systems are functional."

"Weapons and shields?"

"Both are in tact, Captain."

"B'Elanna?"

"We're in good shape down here, Captain, the warp core is undamaged."

"Good. All hands, remain at your posts and stand ready for further instructions. Harry, Tuvok, maintain distortions in our pattern buffers. Scramble random readings so that scans of our ship will show some damage."

"Aye, Captain," replied Harry Kim, smiling to himself. The Captain knew what she was doing, all right.

"Yes, Captain," replied Tuvok, working the controls on his monitor.

Captain Janeway paused, took a deep breath, glanced once at her First Officer for support, and at his slight nod, she said in a softer tone, "All right, we're as ready for this as we'll ever be. Harry, clear up that variance and open a channel."

Admiral Paris' face immediately appeared on the viewscreen.

"Captain Janeway. Welcome home." Kathryn detected relief in his voice.

"Thank you, Admiral."

"How did Voyager fare through the wormhole, Captain?"

"Our ship's analyses are still being calculated, Admiral. Voyager isn't in the same condition she was in seven years ago, you know." She wanted him to think they weren't as strong as they actually were, but she found it difficult to sell her ship short, even in these circumstances.

"Of course not, Captain," the Admiral chuckled slightly. In spite of herself, Captain Janeway almost bristled, but caught herself. She felt like telling him Voyager was in *better* shape than she'd been in seven years ago. Perhaps she had been mended and reworked - several times over, in fact - but some of the alloys and minerals found in the Delta Quadrant had proved to be richer than those found in the Alpha Quadrant. Voyager was, in many ways, performing better than when she had left the Alpha Quadrant. But now was not the time for Admiral Paris to know that.

"Captain Janeway, stand by for a transmission of a direct course to Deep Space 12 from your present location. Under these circumstances, we believe that will be the best place to dock your ship. As you know, DS12 has a large containment facility for Intrepid vessels, when they are in need of service or . . . inspection."

"Of course, Admiral," said Janeway, because it was the correct thing to say.

"Coordinates received, Captain," stated Tom Paris evenly.

"Let me assure you that Voyager is both safe and sanitary, Admiral. We are virus-free and without pathogens or infections aboard. However, I understand your need to inspect this vessel thoroughly, even with my assurances."

"Thank you, Captain. Your cooperation is appreciated," said the Admiral, knowing full well that Voyager's Captain had no choice in the matter. And he knew that she knew she had no choice in the matter. This was all a necessary show of words, which he sometimes grew wary of. Many, many years of protocol, anticipated actions and reactions. He sighed inwardly. Sometimes he almost remembered times of interstellar war with fondness. And that was something he would never admit to anyone, ever.

"But first, Admiral, there are a few things we need to discuss." Kathryn Janeway stood tall and proud in the Admiral's viewscreen.

He'd nearly forgotten how beautiful she was until he'd first seen her three days ago from this very spot. Seven years in the Delta Quadrant had only made her more beautiful, in the way a woman is beautiful. She was no longer the young girl he had mentored all those years ago. Frankly, if he'd admit it, she hadn't been that for a long time. But those admissions were harder and harder to come by, as the Admiral found himself growing older. 'And she's stronger,' he thought. 'She's never looked as comfortable and confident on the Bridge as she does right now.'

And suddenly, Admiral Paris's wise inner voice told him to sever the communications link with all of Starfleet Command. He moved his right hand slowly out of sight of the viewscreen, but Kathryn Janeway knew exactly what he was doing.

"Captain?" asked the Admiral, with a steady tone, giving her time to reconsider what might be forthcoming.

"Please listen carefully, Admiral. As you know, I have several crewmembers aboard Voyager who are ex-Maquis renegades. I fear that even though the conflict with Cardassia is now over, Starfleet may hold some of my crewmen partly responsible for the initial violation of the Treaty between Cardassia and the Federation.

If this is true, and they intend some form of punishment, I cannot, in good conscience, hand my trusted crewmembers over to waiting Federation officials. These men and women wear Federation uniforms on my ship, Admiral, and they have proven themselves to be indispensable for seven years. In fact, I can tell you with certainty that we are home today because of the determination and hard work of these former Maquis, and of the Starfleet crews, combined."

Kathryn Janeway paused a moment to allow the Admiral to consider her words, then continued with a strong voice. "Seven years ago, I made the Captain of the Maquis ship my First Officer." She sensed, rather than saw, Chakotay stand and cross forward to stand behind her. "This is my First Officer, Commander Chakotay.

He has been instrumental in unifying our two crews, in blending them into one crew that is stronger and more substantial than either one was before."

She paused a moment, then continued. "Admiral, I fear persecution for my ex-Maquis crewmen, and I will not condone that sort of treatment from Starfleet Command. I want any and all pending charges against the Maquis dropped. Only then will we continue on to Deep Space 12, and dock there."

"Captain Janeway, I can appreciate your position. But this is hardly the forum for this discussion." The Admiral's words were measured. He knew this situation could potentially get out of hand, and away from him, quickly. He didn't want Kathryn Janeway to throw away an entire Starfleet career in the next few minutes, and he knew Kathryn Janeway. When she believed in something, she took a stand and forgot about limitations.

"I disagree, Admiral. While I realize seven years is a long time, I also know that for centuries wars have been fought, then remembered for many years to come. Spoils of war and the losses suffered are never forgotten." She paused, giving both herself and the Admiral time to evaluate her words. "Secondly, seven years ago I granted the field commission of Lieutenant to Thomas Eugene Paris. He has served Voyager tirelessly and admirably as helmsman these past years. I want his prison sentence in the New Zealand prison where I found him seven years ago to be considered served in full. He has served his time well, Admiral, aboard a Starfleet vessel."

"Captain . . . consider these things you are asking." Please don't do this, Kathryn.

Kathryn ignored him. She had to finish this now. "Admiral, before we continue our journey to Deep Space 12, I want assurances that all members of my crew will be welcomed home and treated as one celebrated crew. And not one of them is to be brought up on charges at any time in the future. I want assurances of immunity, in writing. Any and all decisions made aboard Voyager these past seven years have been mine, and if there are charges to be brought, they are to be brought against me. For my crew, I will accept nothing less than the terms I've stated here."

Admiral Paris looked intently at Captain Kathryn Janeway, his former protégé. He remained stoic, even stern, in his demeanor.

But he had never been so damned proud of her as he was at this moment! That didn't mean he condoned her stand, her terms. In fact, she had thrown them all into quite a mess, and he would try to deal with the Admiralty the best he could - without seeming weak, of course. "These are your terms, then?" he asked, in his best official voice, that same voice had been feared by many throughout his years in Starfleet Command.

"Those are my terms," Captain Janeway said in her most Captainly voice. Then she crossed to the right of the conn and punched in a code on the console. "I am transmitting a formal request to you now, explaining all of this to the Admiralty - in case they feel you . . . misunderstood my message to them. You will also find my recorded statement of assurances that all decisions made aboard Voyager for the past seven years have been mine, and mine alone, including the decision that stranded us in the Delta Quadrant."

They had both taken a stand, and unfortunately it was necessary that they stand on opposite sides of the situation. That was a given.

They both knew it. What would or wouldn't happen, what Captain Janeway commanded Voyager's crew to do next, was not part of the equation just now. Admiral Paris would deliver the terms to Starfleet Command, then a decision on how to proceed would come forth. He would be asked to deliver the decision back to Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Federation Intrepid Class Starship Voyager. Meanwhile, Captain Janeway and her ship would stand by. And wait. And Admiral Paris was probably the one person who would want to help them the most, yet he would be kept at bay because of his association with Voyager's helmsman, and its Captain. He would simply be the messenger.

"Your transmission is received," said the Admiral, glancing at his own console. "You realize the consequences this may have, Captain?"

"I do."

"It's unfortunate you have chosen this time to make demands of Starfleet, Captain." One more try, he thought. But he knew it was little more than words. Kathryn Janeway had made her decision to follow this path long before today. The Admiral knew her even better than she thought he did.

"It gives me no pleasure to do this, Sir." And the Admiral knew she spoke the truth.

Admiral Paris and Captain Janeway looked at each other evenly.

They still shared mutual respect, and always would. Kathryn was glad of what she saw deep inside the Admiral's eyes: He was not disappointed in her. He understood full well that she was responsible for her crew. And her crew had paid its dues. Starfleet Command may think differently, they both knew.

"Captain Janeway, I will deliver your terms to the Admiralty. I will report back to you with a decision 24 hours from now." With that the Admiral signed off. Kathryn closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Now they had 24 hours to wait. One thing about Starfleet Command: They were punctual. Voyager would be kept waiting for her Destiny for precisely 24 hours.

The terms had been given. The Bridge was silent. Then, "Captain, may I see you in your Ready Room." Chakotay's words were measured, firm, and underlying that, very angry. "Now, Captain."

Kathryn took a deep breath and sighed inwardly. This was not a time to allow Chakotay to see her weaknesses. Just as she knew she wasn't about to see his. Those were the rules, even though they knew each others weaknesses so very well. She glanced over her shoulder at him, but didn't meet his eyes. She didn't have to see them to know the anger that would be there. She nodded slightly to let him know she understood his request, without acknowledging the insistence in his voice. She turned and started for her Ready Room, with Chakotay following closely behind her. As they neared the doors, Tuvok came from behind his console and intercepted them. "Captain. Commander, may I join you?" he asked, looking directly at Chakotay.

'He intends this to be Chakotay's decision since this is obviously his meeting,' thought the Captain. She turned to look at Chakotay behind her. Chakotay and Tuvok were staring intently at each other, Chakotay trying to gauge Tuvok's purpose for wanting to be present for what was about to happen behind the closed doors of the Captain's Ready Room, and Tuvok simply waiting for an answer to his request.

Commander Chakotay broke eye contact first, and gave Tuvok a slight nod. Tuvok returned the nod, almost imperceptibly. 'Great,' thought Kathryn, 'Just what I need right now. A logical Vulcan and an angry warrior.' As she turned and once again headed for her Ready Room, she heard Commander Tuvok say "Lieutenant Paris, you have the Bridge."

As the three officers entered the Ready Room and the doors closed behind them, Tom Paris crossed his arms over his chest and turned in his chair toward Harry Kim. "Well, Harry ole' boy, how'd you like to be privy to the conversation going on behind those closed doors, as we speak?"

"Ah, no thanks. I'd rather stay right here and never know a thing about it. I still have expectations for a long and rewarding life." Harry smiled, and shook his head to himself. He had his own opinions about what was happening in there. He had never seen Commander Chakotay look so angry, and he'd definitely seen him angry before. And when the Captain had told Admiral Paris about her recorded statement, Harry thought the Commander would tear the armrest off his chair, he was clutching it so tightly.

And Harry knew how Tuvok was when he became even more stoic and logical than usual. Harry knew the Vulcan would never admit to being different from one day to the next, but Harry knew first hand that even Tuvok had bad days just like everyone else; they were just not as noticeable. And when the Captain got upset . . . well, that was another story altogether. Harry knew her wrath all too well. He'd never forget the time he'd had an affair with a female of an unknown race and the Captain had given him quite a talking to about endangering the lives of everyone else with a possible disease, or worse. He'd hurt her, too, by disappointing her.

One of Captain Janeway's strengths as a leader, and one of her most endearing qualities, was the fact that she truly cared for each and every one of her crew, Harry knew. She also expected only the very best efforts from every crewmember aboard her ship. And there was just something about her that made everyone want to please her. No one could stand it when they saw their own faces reflected in the disappointment in her eyes, not even Tom Paris.

And when it came to standing toe to toe with someone . . . well, tired or not, there just wasn't anyone who could pull one over on her.

And, quite frankly, neither of the Commanders held a candle to her when she was standing up for something she believed in.

Harry knew that neither Tuvok nor Chakotay were pleased with the conditions she had set for Starfleet. He had seen the looks in their eyes. He didn't know exactly what was wrong, but he knew it had to do with her not asking for enough, probably concerning herself.

Both, yes even Tuvok, had seemed surprised when the Captain had told Admiral Paris that those two conditions were all she asked.

Oh, well, Harry sighed. He'd just do his job and let Tom do the wondering. He was good at it. Harry always managed to get himself into trouble when he got involved in things that were none of his business.

After entering her Ready Room, Kathryn Janeway crossed behind her desk and sat in the chair. She tried to appear casual as she placed her elbows on the arms of the chair and clasped her hands in front of her. Chakotay stopped in front of her desk and glared at her, as Tuvok moved to the side and stood quietly with his hands behind his back, looking past them both to the other side of the room, as was his custom. The depth of Chakotay's anger was now much more apparent with just the three of them in the room, but Kathryn could tell he was still holding a good deal of his emotions back. Chakotay looked at her, his dark eyes flashing, and he started to open his mouth to say something, but didn't. Instead, he turned and paced several feet away from her desk, then back again.

"Well . . . ?" Kathryn asked him. She knew she was provoking his anger by not allowing him to speak first, and when he was ready.

But, frankly, just now she had to concentrate on other things at hand, and she didn't have time for this. She suppressed the overwhelming thought at the back of her mind that the truth of the matter was that she couldn't stand to see him hurting this way.

Chakotay stopped suddenly in front of her desk. "I wish I had your skills, Captain, at being who you want to be when you want to be her.

I don't know why you ever ask my advice or even bother to listen to me; you'll do what you want to do with or without my counsel." He was looking at her, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. "What is it, Kathryn, can't you even look at me?"

Kathryn forced herself to look him in the eye. She barely managed, but knew she had to. She could not show weakness, not now. She thought of what lay ahead, and how much she had left in front of her. Somehow, it gave her strength. "Are you finished?" she asked softly, with steel in her voice that shadowed her true thoughts and emotions.

"I've hardly begun." His eyes were hard and cold, and hers were unreadable.

"Then get on with it."

Chakotay nearly faltered, but after seven years of working to gain Kathryn Janeway's complete trust, he wasn't going to let her off so easily. He needed to finish this, now. He had never been so angry, nor so hurt, but he refused to allow himself to wallow in the latter.

He worked to keep his anger alive. "Only yesterday I asked you to demand complete immunity for this ship and for yourself when dealing with Starfleet Command. You pretended to be too tired to talk about it. You wanted to sit quietly, not discuss ship's business.

Now I know why. You were afraid to tell me what you were really going to ask of your precious Starfleet Command. Spare the wayward Maquis and poor Tom Paris, but Voyager's Captain is going to go down with her ship!"

Kathryn had heard enough. She stood slowly, looking her First Officer straight in the eye. Her tone was measured and firm. She was now just as angry as Chakotay, and she wasn't going to hear any more of this. "That's enough. You've had your say, and whether your anger is abated or not, put it to rest! Now! That's an order!"

Chakotay lowered his voice, and crossed the one remaining step to the front of the Captain's desk. He stood eye to eye with her, with the desk between them. "You had no intention of asking for immunity for yourself. You never planned to ask for it, yet you wouldn't tell me that yesterday. Why not? Afraid I'd try to talk you out of it? Afraid I would make sense with my arguments, Captain?"

Kathryn paused, but maintained eye contact.She could see Chakotay was still angry, but the fire in his eyes was dying away, and she could see his pain beneath the anger. It hurt her deeply to know she'd caused him this pain, but she'd had no choice. She was the Captain, and First Officer or not, Chakotay was a member of her crew and she had to look out for his wellbeing above her own.

There could only be one Captain; ship responsibility was not a shared duty. "I did what I had to do, Chakotay. There was no other way."

"I don't buy that, Captain."

"Whether you do or don't, you'll have to accept my decision. There is no other choice."

"There never is, is there?" His anger was fading, but he grabbed onto it for one final run. "Tell me, how long have you planned this? In the senior officer's meeting three days ago you told us how things would unfold once we reached the Alpha Quadrant. So far, you've been completely accurate. You've proved you know Starfleet Command very well. So, how long have you planned to ask for a full pardon for the Maquis and Tom Paris, but not to ask for anything for yourself?"

"Make your point." Kathryn was feeling the strain and she refused to give in to it.

"How long, Kathryn?" Suddenly, Chakotay's voice was less angry.

Kathryn desperately wished he were still angry. She could deal with the anger much easier than the hurt. "These entire seven years? Six? Could that even be part of the reason you've pushed me away for so long - kept me at arm's length, because you've had no way of knowing what will happen to you after we reach home?"

"Stop this, Chakotay. You're reading way too much into this." She couldn't let him continue to think like this.

"For seven years, you've expected to be hit with a general court- martial when we return home, haven't you? So you couldn't forge a personal relationship with one of your crew, much less a Maquis.

Is that it, Kathryn? You think you may have to serve several years in prison for those charges, don't you? But first - you will accomplish the one thing you are most determined to do; you will get your crew home. At every cost, including any rewarding relationship you and I might have had."

"Chakotay, don't you understand? I couldn't ask for immunity for myself. This way we have a chance of winning something - the freedom of the Maquis and Tom Paris. If I'd asked for a pardon for myself as well, we'd lose it all. Starfleet Command would never have granted that! They'd have nothing left to satisfy their egos; they would have immediately denied me everything I'd asked for, and we would be at war with them. This way they can give me what I want, in exchange for getting even with me later. It's a simple trade off."

"That is an accurate assumption." Tuvok's voice interrupted them, and brought them both back to the present. They turned to look at him at the same time, both having forgotten completely that he was in the room. "It is a simple trade off. However, it would have been prudent to let Commander Chakotay and myself know about your plans before you presented them to Admiral Paris, Captain."

For a moment, no one spoke. Both Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay were speechless. Neither could believe they had both forgotten that Tuvok was in the room. And they had both said some things they would never have spoken had they remembered they weren't alone.

"Tuvok," said the Captain, in a milder tone. "I apologize for arguing with Commander Chakotay in your presence. I . . . had forgotten you were in the room with us."

"Indeed. But your apology is not necessary, Captain. I quite understand both of your concerns."

"How can we both be right, Tuvok?" asked Chakotay, in a despairing voice, as he turned away. He sounded tired, spent.

"It is possible, Commander. I, as an emotionally uninvolved third party, see that the Captain feels her duty is not only incomplete, but is in many ways, just beginning. She is forced to look ahead. And you, Commander, are already beginning to look back over the past seven years with regret that things were not different between the two of you. You do not realize that she has yet to look back."

"Thank you for clearing that up for us, Tuvok," said Chakotay with a mixed note of sarcasm and sadness in his voice. "But it really doesn't matter a damn anymore." With that said, Chakotay turned and looked Kathryn Janeway in the eye for a brief moment, then turned and left the Ready Room without looking back. The doors shut behind him, and Kathryn suddenly thought she would faint.

She slowly sat back down in her chair, thankful that it was just behind her.

"Captain, are you all right?" asked Tuvok, moving to the spot Chakotay had just vacated in front of her desk.

"I'm fine, Tuvok."

"I don't believe you are telling me the truth, Captain. However, I believe your emotional state is worse than your physical state at this time."

"I'm fine on both counts, Tuvok." When Tuvok didn't respond, Kathryn looked up into his eyes. "Really."

"Yes, Captain."

"Do I hear a 'but,' Tuvok?"

"But I have known you a very long time, Captain. And I have never seen such regret in your eyes." Kathryn looked away from him. "Perhaps there will be a time for you and Commander Chakotay yet."

Kathryn tried to laugh, but a small sound was all that came out.

Her eyes immediately became full with unshed tears. "I'm afraid time eventually runs out, Tuvok, for everything and everyone. I know you won't understand this, but Commander Chakotay just told me good-bye." She forced herself to stand slowly. She then forced the tears away and looked back into Tuvok's eyes. She smiled slightly at him. "But thank you for the sentiment." Then she lowered her voice, and her eyes. "And the approval."

Tuvok nodded at his Captain, accepting her words. Humanoids had such a full range of emotions he would never quite understand.

With much effort, they too could learn to suppress their emotions, and he was quite certain that once they had experienced the clarity of logic instead, they would be much happier as a species. He sighed inwardly, simply as a logical release of physical tension.

"Is there something else you would like to discuss with me, Tuvok?"

"No, Captain." At the Captain's confused look, he explained. "I simply felt the need to be here when the Commander asked to speak to you. He was obviously very upset."

"I don't understand. You didn't trust him to be alone with me? Did you think he would become violent?"

"No, Captain. I was afraid he would say something he did not mean. This was not the time to say something hurtful to you for the sole purpose of doing so. After all, it may be quite some time before he could apologize to you for it. But it is now obvious that my presence did not make the difference I had intended."

Kathryn suddenly needed to be alone. "Thank you, Tuvok. Then if there's nothing else, you're dismissed."

Tuvok nodded his assent, and left the Ready Room. As soon as the doors closed behind him, Kathryn lowered herself into her chair once again and lay her head on her arms, on her desk. She just needed a moment to regain focus. She had a long road ahead.

"Chakotay to Janeway," came the voice through her comm badge suddenly.

"Janeway here," she said, immediately bringing her head up from her desk.

"Captain, we are being hailed by a Starfleet ship." Chakotay's voice held none of the emotion it had only minutes ago when he was standing before her. In fact, he sounded very normal. Good. At least he had decided to help her get her crew home and put their own situation aside, just as they were both trained to do. "I'm on my way," she said, wondering what was wrong. She rose quickly to her feet and headed for the door, and her Bridge.



Captain Kathryn Janeway arrived on the Bridge only a moment later. Commander Chakotay glanced up as she entered, then looked back at his console. She looked at Harry Kim. "Identify," she said.

"Uncertain, Captain. The ship's identification mark is not in our current database."

That meant it was a newer ship, constructed sometime within the past seven years. "In fact, Captain, I'm getting some strange readings . . . ," continued the Ensign.

"Such as?" asked the Captain. Sometimes Harry could still frustrate her with his less than concise Bridge comments.

"I'm not sure . . . but it seems more like a stationary signal, and not one coming from a ship at all."

She knew it was the best Harry could come up with, but they didn't have more time to waste. Kathryn Janeway stood center, took a deep breath, pushed her shoulders back, and said "On screen."

Immediately, there appeared an office type setting in the private room of a home. Seated at his desk was an elderly, but quite dignified, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. After a stern moment, his face slowly broke out into a wide smile.

"Kathryn!" he exclaimed. "Welcome home, my Dear!"

Kathryn Janeway smiled slightly. She should have known. "Thank you, Jean-Luc. It's good to see you." And it truly was good to see his familiar and kind face.

"Don't worry, Dear Kathryn, we have a secured channel." He smiled.

"Are you quite sure, Admiral?" She smiled back. It was an old joke; Admiral Picard could command a starship with the best of them, and much better than most, but he always relied on his Android Bridge officer, Data, to secure all ships' security channels.

"Quite, Kathryn. Data was here earlier today and I asked him to fix this up for me so that we might have an intimate conversation."

"Ah, then I believe we're secure." They both paused.

"How are you, Kathryn?" he asked carefully, and worriedly.

"I'm well, Jean-Luc. And you?"

"Getting older every day, you know. But I've missed you, Kathryn. No one has a sense of humor worth a damn anymore; you always laughed at my jokes. Only you found my humor worthwhile."

Kathryn felt a great fondness for the Admiral. When Voyager first became lost in the Delta Quadrant, she had often thought of him and what he would have done in certain circumstances. As time had passed, thoughts like those became less and less important. No one else from the Alpha Quadrant had experienced what the Voyager crew was experiencing; it was their journey alone. And Kathryn had often had to make quick decisions based on instinct and gut feelings, rather than issue standard Starfleet-trained orders based on historical facts and knowledge.

"Kathryn," Jean-Luc continued, more cautiously, "I'm concerned about your current situation. This stand you are taking could become . . . troublesome for you."

"You mean, Starfleet could reject my demands, Jean-Luc. I'm well aware of that."

"Yes, I know. Kathryn, what do you plan to do if that happens?"

Kathryn paused. "I don't have quite the same faith that you do regarding our secured channel, Jean-Luc. Please, let's turn this conversation in another direction."

Admiral Picard threw his head back and laughed heartily at that.

"Very good, Captain Janeway. Always the diplomat. Oh, I have missed you so very much." Then he regained his seriousness.

"Kathryn, I know all that is happening between you and Starfleet Command. I am keeping an eye, and an ear, bent toward Starfleet Headquarters at this very moment, if you understand my meaning. The Command structure has changed a bit, Kathryn. And I'm old. No one asks my advice quite so much anymore. I still give it, though, of course." They smiled at each other. "I will do what I can for your cause, if anyone will listen to me over there."

"Thank you, Jean-Luc," said Captain Janeway softly.

"No need to thank me, Kathryn." He paused, and looked at Kathryn Janeway with friendship and admiration. "I'd do the same in your shoes, you know."

"Yes, I know."

"I thought there wasn't anyone left who'd do a foolhardy thing such as you're doing now, but then, I didn't expect to see you again, Captain. I certainly would never have put you in the 'coward' category, Kathryn. So, if I can cause a disruption down there in Starfleet, I'll look in and do so. And, Kathryn . . ."

"Yes, Jean-Luc?"

Jean-Luc leaned in a bit closer toward his viewscreen. "I hope you don't mind my saying so, my Dear, but the past seven years in the Delta Quadrant has been good to you. You're more lovely today than you were when you left us seven years ago."

"Thank you, Jean-Luc. My opinions on that are quite different, I assure you, but I appreciate the compliment just the same."

Jean-Luc's eyes shown with affection. "One more thing; I expect a full day of your time when all this nonsense is over, Kathryn. I want to live seven years in the Delta Quadrant in one day, and you're the person who can take me there, with your stories. You give me a day, and I'll cook the meals and listen."

"Agreed." Kathryn smiled again. Even Jean-Luc knew of her aversion to cooking.

Jean-Luc suddenly thought of something. "Perhaps you've even encountered the Borg, Kathryn?"

"On several occasions, Jean-Luc. And I'll be happy to tell you all about it. And about our dealings with Q, as well."

"Ah! Q! Of course! Ah, my dear, he would certainly love you! He would be beside himself with joy at the prospect of making himself the center of your attentions!" He laughed delightedly. "I have something wonderful to live for now, Kathryn! A full day of your beauty, attentions and stories. Meanwhile, I'll push my weight around and stir things up a bit at Headquarters. Deal?" He smiled, enjoying himself intently.

"It's a date, Admiral," replied Kathryn, smiling.

"Well then, I definitely have something to look forward to, Kathryn. This has been a good day, after all. Thank you, my dear. And gods' speed to you and your crew. May you live long and prosper." With that, Admiral Jean-Luc Picard broke his communications with Voyager, with a smile still on his face.

The Bridge was silent for a moment, each of the crew still trying to grasp the fact that they had just witnessed their Captain and the legendary Jean-Luc Picard carry on a conversation like old friends, or . . . .more.

"Well, Captain," said Tom Paris, finally breaking the silence on the Bridge. "Who would've thought? You and Jean-Luc Picard? Old *friends?*"

"We enjoyed each other's company on rare occasions, between missions, Mr. Paris. In the Captain's lounge at Starfleet, that's all."

"Geez, it sure sounded like more than that from where I'm sitting, Captain. I mean, I could be wrong, it's been known to happen, but he sure appreciates you, Captain."

"Mr. Paris, that will be all," Commander Chakotay spoke up sharply. Kathryn smiled to herself. Maybe Chakotay couldn't turn all of his emotions off as quickly as he thought he could. She took a small pleasure from his own obvious reaction to her conversation with Jean-Luc Picard.

"Yes, Sir!" said Tom Paris, responding to Commander Chakotay.

Then he shut up quickly. Sometimes even Tom Paris knew when to quit.

"Commander Chakotay, I'll be in my Ready Room. You have the Bridge," Captain Janeway said, as she crossed the Bridge and through the double doors to her seclusion.

After the doors closed behind her, Kathryn crossed up to the viewport and looked out. The Alpha Quadrant. She was just beginning to allow herself to acknowledge privately that more times than not she had actually thought they'd never see this star system again. She'd put on a brave front for seven years, and she had worked hard to believe her own words, but truth be told, she had given up hope long ago that they'd ever get home again. Well, almost. Sheer determination accounted for something, she thought.

After a few moments, Kathryn replicated herself yet another cup of coffee and sat in her chair in front of her computer. She couldn't think clearly right now. Maybe after she'd finished her coffee. She sat back and relaxed. Jean-Luc Picard. She smiled. Gods, the good times they'd shared together! They had talked and laughed and shared so many stories! That was the part no one, certainly not Tom Paris, could ever understand. She and Jean-Luc had a special relationship built on storytelling. He'd told her of his real adventures and she had told him of adventures she wanted to experience. Now she would be the one to tell him about the real adventures.

Jean-Luc had looked older, yes, but he was still sharp. He was an old man now, but he had always lived for exploration, and he would never lose that thirst for knowledge. She remembered when she first met Captain Picard; she was a young Cadet and he was astonished that she had asked Admiral Paris to be her mentor at the Academy. He was also quite impressed that she had the stamina to keep up with the Admiral's expectations. She had given up holidays and weekends, studying and writing dissertations.

And Jean-Luc had kissed her, once. She had been young and inexperienced in love, but she had wanted Jean-Luc to make love to her. He had refused. He said he could not, in good conscience, become involved with someone so very much younger than himself. He said she would serve to be a constant reminder of his mortality. But the kiss . . . he had wanted just one kiss, to taste the youth and energy of her, and to know that for just one moment in time, they had enjoyed each other, in that way. Kathryn smiled now, thinking about that moment. She had truly wanted him, and he had refused. Secretly, she knew that he had often regretted that decision. She saw it in his eyes from time to time. But they had never spoken of it again. And he knew the moment would not be repeated. He'd had his chance. She smiled again, remembering.

He was a gentleman then, and still one now.

Oh, well. Time to put all of the past behind her for now. There was just too much ahead of her to think about. She drank her coffee slowly, once again experiencing an aching loneliness that she wanted desperately to share with . . . someone.



Precisely 20 hours after Voyager's last communication with their Starfleet representative, Admiral Paris, Commander Tuvok called the Captain to the Bridge once again. They were being hailed on another secured channel from somewhere within the Starfleet Academy.

Captain Janeway reported immediately to the Bridge. Scans could not detect anything out of the ordinary about the hail, but it was not yet time for the expected hail from Starfleet Headquarters. She commanded her Bridge crew to stand ready and then called, "On screen."

Admiral Paris was seated at his desk. "Captain Janeway," he said, in greeting.

"Admiral." It was his show.

"This is a secured channel, Kathryn. We are able to speak freely now."

"I understand, Admiral." It was still his show.

The Admiral sighed. He looked older now than he had several hours ago. Perhaps he was feeling the strain. "Kathryn, what do you mean by making these . . . these . . . impossible demands of Starfleet Command? Surely you don't think they will take them seriously?"

"But I do, Admiral. And, may I ask, why aren't you involved in those discussions, as an active member of the Admiralty?"

"Because I am 'too close' to the situation, Kathryn. My son is aboard Voyager, and his situation is being discussed, of course.

And I also served as mentor to the Captain of the vessel when she was a mere Cadet. It was strongly suggested that I stand clear of the proceedings and merely await the outcome."

"It must be difficult, Admiral. I apologize deeply for the position this puts you in."

"Kathryn, put an end to this. What can this prove?"

"I'm not trying to prove anything, Admiral. All I want is for my crew to be able to go home to their families without fear of persecution."

"A noble cause." He sighed. "I realize you've had seven difficult years, but this tact will get you nowhere, Captain. You must know that."

"I'm counting on Starfleet to do the right thing, Admiral. My people have been through enough. The Maquis and Tom Paris have paid their dues to Society, and anyone else Starfleet might think they owe a part of themselves to. I don't know what awaits any of my people now, Admiral. I just want to be sure no criminal charges are brought against any member of my crew."

"And if your demands are not met, Captain?" asked the Admiral.

"We'll take it a step at a time, Admiral." She was giving him nothing.

The Admiral paused. He looked Kathryn Janeway directly in the eye, and she didn't balk. He remembered that she had never looked away from him when all others had - even his own son. It had taken a great deal of courage for her to hold her own against him then. But it was different now. It wasn't just courage that possessed her; it was something else. In the past seven years, she had experienced more than most people would in their entire lifetime. Now she held her ground because she knew she was right, and she would face him down if need be. No one else had ever done that, could ever do that, had ever tried to look him in the eye and take a stand. Finally, slowly, Admiral Paris smiled. Kathryn was surprised, but her expression never wavered.

"You may not believe this, Captain Janeway, but you are preaching to the choir."

Kathryn knew he referred to an old Earth expression which meant, in essence, that he agreed with, and understood, her stand. She allowed herself to return a small smile, something one never did with Admiral Owen Paris. She was more relieved that she had his understanding, and blessing, than she would have ever admitted to anyone.

Admiral Paris took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Captain Janeway, I shall return shortly to deliver the official Starfleet verdict. I wish the best of times for you, and gods' speed for your safe and unrestricted journey to Deep Space 12."

"Thank you, Admiral."

"And, Captain?"

"Yes, Admiral?"

Admiral Paris leaned slightly forward in his chair. "Do you know why I never sponsored another Academy Cadet after you?"

"Because no one asked you?" She smiled. It was common knowledge that no one had ever asked the Admiral to sponsor them until Kathryn Janeway had gotten up the nerve. And, it was often said, after observing how he had worked her so hard that she missed every social occasion and holiday for two entire years, that no one had ever asked him afterward, either.

"That was true, yes, until you began to rise through the ranks and a couple of smart Cadets discovered you had begun with me. Then they actually asked me to sponsor them. But I told them no. Do you wish to know why?"

"Very much, Admiral."

"Because you worked me too hard, Captain! I spent night and day trying to find enough challenging work to keep you busy!"

"I can assure you, you worked too hard, Admiral."

Both smiled at the memories. Then the present returned to their minds, and they gently put the smiles away.

"I hope you're granted those demands, Kathryn." Admiral Paris sat up straighter in his chair. "Gods' speed and good health, Captain." With that, Admiral Paris severed the comm link, and as usual, the Bridge was silent as those present worked to grasp what had occurred. Admiral Paris was not known to be a supporter of anything or anyone that was not pure Starfleet to the core. And though the Captain had been just that in the past, she was now turning the tides, and he approved. Was this the same Earth they had left seven years ago?

Finally, Tom Paris spoke. "Well, Captain, congratulations. I have finally seen my Father smile. Then I heard him actually compliment you, backhandedly of course. But it was a compliment just the same. Suddenly I'm not so sure we're on Earth, Captain. Maybe this is a friendly planet with Starfleet look-alikes."

"Tom, believe me, your Father and I never got on in the past the way it seemed just now. I made your Father's life miserable many times. "

"I was beginning to worry, Captain. And, I don't mind that he likes you best. I'm just glad he likes *someone*. And I'm glad I got to witness him smile. It may never happen again, you know. A once- in-a-lifetime kind of thing. I'll have to remember to tell my Mother and my Sister about this. They probably won't believe me."

"I'm not sure I would, either."

"By the way, did he really work you that hard?"

Kathryn walked over and sat in her command chair beside Chakotay, who tried to appear interested in his console at first, but eventually sat back and listened to the Captain's story along with everyone else. "Your Father made absolutely sure that I worked at my studies a minimum of 14 hours every day, 7 days a week. Somehow I knew not to complain or he would find a way to increase my workload."

"Now that sounds like the Father I know, Captain. Whew! You really had me worried there!" But Tom remained with his chair turned up toward the Captain's chair. He leaned slightly toward her, and his expression and attitude changed. "Just imagine what it would have been like to have him in your life both at the Academy and at home. And believe me, he was maybe even a little worse at home because his children had to be perfect, Captain."

Kathryn looked Tom Paris squarely in the eye. "I've tried to imagine it, Tom. And it's not easy to do. But somehow you've managed to overcome it all and become your own person, and a valuable member of this crew, without your Father's assistance or support." Tom wasn't expecting to hear this praise from Captain Janeway at this moment. He'd known for a long time that he'd do anything for her. She had been his savior, not only from that prison in New Zealand, but from himself. She was the first person who had ever believed in him. And because of Captain Janeway, Tom Paris had discovered who he was in these recent years, and it wasn't just Admiral Owen Paris's son. Tom Paris and Kathryn Janeway locked eyes for a moment, until Tom had to pull his away. He suddenly felt the very unfamiliar feeling of tears forming under his eyelids. Kathryn knew they had just ventured into uncharted territory, so she changed the subject back to a lighter topic.

"But you know, Tom, what goes around, comes around. Your Father paid a dear price for making sure I excelled at my studies."

"How so, Captain?" He had managed to get his emotions under control once again, and looked up at her.

"After I graduated the Academy and he chose me as his Science Officer, he thought I'd be the same studious, acquiescent Cadet he had once sponsored. But, he had created a monster, Mr. Paris. He had taught me to think for myself. And I questioned many of his command decisions, much to his dismay."

"Really, Captain? How did you manage to do that and stay on Bridge duty?"

"Oh, I managed to get myself thrown off the Bridge on occasion, Tom."

"What? You're kidding! You!?"

"You're surprised?"

"Uh . . . yeah. Geez, Captain, I thought you've always done the right thing, every time!"

"Well, Lieutenant," said the Captain, with a gleam in her eye. "That depends upon whose opinion you ask. When I disagreed with your Father, I did so believing I was acting in the best interest of science and our further education as explorers. Unfortunately, your Father decided I was being insubordinate." She stood from her chair and started for her Ready Room.

"Captain?" Janeway turned back toward Tom. "Don't leave us hanging here! What happened? I know how much dear old Dad hates insubordination. It's a wonder he didn't throw you in the Brig!"

"Oh, he did, Tom. That's what he did to all insubordinates, and I was no different. As you know, he always believed in teaching hard-earned lessons." She once again turned to go.

"But, Captain!" Tom didn't want her to go! Not on that note! Kathryn turned once again to face him, and Tom stood from his chair. "He really threw you in the Brig?" he asked, incredulously.

"Twice, Mr. Paris. Mr. Chakotay, you have the Bridge." And with that, the Captain went through the doors of her Ready Room, and a dumbfounded Tom Paris sank down into his chair, with his mouth hanging open.

Harry Kim had watched and listened to the entire conversation. His mouth was now hanging open as well. The Captain? Thrown into the Brig?

Commander Tuvok had listened also, but this was a story he knew well. He had even been present for one of the incidents when Lieutenant Janeway had been forcibly removed from the Bridge and taken to the Brig. She had matured a great deal since that time, he reflected. But then again, she still has the same stubborn streak and the same forceful determination. He sighed unwittingly. She was certainly a remarkable individual, and one who would always challenge him.

B'Elanna Torres, who was now glad to have been on the Bridge at the time of this conversation, smiled. She was pleased that the Captain had fought with an Admiral over her beliefs. The Captain and B'Elanna did have some traits that weren't all that dissimilar, after all. And it was probably the Captain's same perseverance that had gotten them back home.

Chakotay simply sat and tried not to think at all. He admired and respected Captain Kathryn Janeway. He always would. But now he would have to learn to live without her, and that was easier said than done.

Lieutenant Commander Tuvok broke the silence on the Bridge.

"Lieutenant Paris, Ensign Kim, please close your mouths, and resume your duties." Both men came to their senses and snapped their attentions back to the consoles in front of them. Commander Chakotay and Lieutenant Torres both suppressed smiles at Tuvok's admonishment.

And, behind her closed doors, Captain Janeway smiled slowly. She crossed to her viewport as she'd done so many times in the past few days, knowing that the presence of the familiar star systems served to reinforce the idea that they were, in fact, home. Well, at least she'd brought a little spontaneity to the Bridge. So, they all thought they knew their Captain pretty well. Sometimes it was nice to drop a little bomb now and then.

Captain Janeway spent the next 20 minutes staring out the window and counting the stars and star systems. She wanted to remember them all, and she silently thanked them for welcoming Voyager and her crew home.

In less than three hours' time, Voyager's crew would know what sort of homecoming they would really have.



At the appointed time, the Captain was called to the Bridge for an incoming transmission from Starfleet Command. She entered the Bridge from her Ready Room and stood center, shoulders squared, with her chin held high. She had just spent the last hour in contact with her Spirit Guide. It was the first time in months she had meditated, and she wished she could share her experience with her First Officer. But she knew she was on her own now; she had severed the cord between them herself.

And now, Captain Janeway was ready for this. It was time to move forward. She had already ordered Harry to open the shipwide channel for this transmission. This was an important occasion for the entire crew, and she wanted each and every one of them to hear what was said firsthand.

Kathryn took a deep breath and looked forward. "This is it, People. Let's see what Fate has in store for us. On screen."

Harry Kim opened the shipwide channel and engaged the viewscreen.

Admiral Paris appeared before them as he had the first time, as a direct representative of Starfleet Command. "Captain."

"Admiral." The Captain waited, as the Admiral knew she would.

"The Starfleet Admiralty has deliberated for 24 hours regarding your stated demands. They also determined that the Voyager isn't in as . . . delicate . . . a predicament as you might have us believe. She seems to have made the journey home without incidents of concern."

The Admiral paused, but the Captain merely nodded, acknowledging the Admiral's words. She had known Voyager would be scanned, and she knew the Admiralty would discover that Voyager was in good shape. She wanted them to believe she was trying to conceal Voyager's true state to them, thus making them question her next step should they deny her demands. Now she waited for the Admiral to continue. She wasn't giving him anything.

"Captain Janeway, it is agreed that Lieutenant Thomas Eugene Paris be pardoned from his New Zealand prison sentence. His term is considered "Served in Full" and he is free to pursue his . . . life's further interests. The Admiralty will also take into consideration all information you may provide to them with regards to his status of "Lieutenant" for the Starfleet records. If it is deemed appropriate, Starfleet Command will enter the rank of "Lieutenant" into his permanent record."

Kathryn Janeway nodded slightly toward Admiral Paris, then lowered her eyes momentarily. She swore she wouldn't react emotionally if the news was good, but damnit, she couldn't help it.

She regained her composure after only a couple of seconds, and looked Admiral Paris in the eye once again. She saw Tom Paris at his conn station out of the corner of her eye. He definitely had tears in his eyes, and he lowered his head to his chest. The Admiral's lengthy hesitation told Kathryn that he, too, felt the relief but could never, and would never, show it.

"Also, as you are aware, the Maquis situation involving the Cardassians was resolved several months ago. The Treaty between the Federation and Cardassia, which was originally deemed satisfactory for everyone involved, is still in effect. Peace is with us now."

The Admiral paused for effect. "The former Maquis crewmembers aboard Voyager were involved in direct violation of Federation orders prior to disappearing into the Bad Lands, and then disappearing from the Alpha Quadrant, seven years ago. It was your duty, Captain, to bring them safely home, not as crewmembers but as prisoners, that they might serve the prison sentence that awaited them."

Here, the Admiral paused, and Kathryn Janeway suddenly realized she had been holding her breath since he had begun to speak. She slowly let out her breath, and the Admiral continued, "However, the Admiralty understands that the loss of several important Starfleet crewmembers aboard your ship would have proved devastating to a ship the size of Voyager, without immediately back filling those positions. It is understood that you gave the Maquis an opportunity to prove themselves reliable, loyal, and resourceful." Admiral Paris paused, but fixed Captain Janeway with a stare that implied she leave the explanation as it stood, be it right or wrong.

"Captain, the Admiralty feel that, with your commendable Starfleet record preceeding you, they must accept you at your word if you insist that these Maquis fugitives have been instrumental in the functionality of your ship, and that they have behaved as responsible crewmen. Is this so?"

"It is, Admiral. I could not ask for a more responsible crew, Starfleet and Maquis alike." And a Borg and a Talaxian, she thought. And, for a while, an Ocampa.

"Then it is deemed that the former Maquis have nothing to fear from the Federation of Planets, nor from Starfleet Command. We shall record that their time was indeed much better spent aboard Voyager than in serving a prison sentence. However, it must be understood that those who have *personal* feelings of unwelcome for the Maquis aboard Voyager are not representatives of Starfleet, nor of the Federation. Is this understood, Captain?"

"It is, Sir."

"And I urge you to reiterate these words to your entire crew prior to docking at Deep Space 12, Captain."

"I will, Admiral."

"It must also be noted by you, Captain, and urgently conveyed throughout your ship, that any sort of negative press against Starfleet or the Federation will be considered a violation of the good grace that has been awarded your crew, and each individual must take into his own hands the reprimands of this Order, if any such compromise is discovered. Is this understood as well?"

"Yes, Admiral."

"Then, with no further delays, I welcome you back to the Alpha Quadrant, Captain Janeway. You and your crew are to continue your journey to Deep Space 12. You will receive further orders when you arrive, and there will follow a debriefing period for each crewman. The debriefing period should run approximately 72 hours for your general crew. The debriefing period for your senior staff will more than likely run much longer, but this is common procedure, as you well know. Is this understood, and acceptable?"

"Yes."

"Good. Then we are finished here, if there is nothing else."

"Nothing else, Admiral. And thank you." The last was said in what was barely more than a whisper. Captain Janeway wanted Admiral Paris to understand that the last words were meant for him alone.

The Admiral looked at the Captain, and his eyes softened.

"Welcome home, Captain. You may continue to Deep Space 12." Then the Admiral ended transmission.

All was quiet. When Kathryn Janeway allowed herself to breathe normally again, she turned to her Bridge crew to find most of them smiling broadly. She smiled back. Of course, Tuvok wasn't smiling, actually, but his eyes held a sentiment that he could not hide when he brought his gaze to rest on her. She nodded slightly toward him. They had served on many missions together, but this was certainly their most significant. Seven years, and they had both survived. "Mr. Paris, set a course for Deep Space 12," the Captain said, turning toward Tom Paris.

"Aye, Sir!" he called over his shoulder to her, as he began to input the coordinates on his console.

"What is the reaction aboard ship, Mr. Tuvok?"

"There is much . . . celebration . . . going on throughout the entire ship, Captain," Tuvok said, looking at her with a hint of distaste in his eyes. Kathryn understood him well. He did not consider the mission over until it was truly over.

"Understood. Just watch over the festivities, Tuvok. Make sure they don't get out of hand."

"Noted, Captain."

Kathryn turned back toward her First Officer, to find him looking at her with a warmth and a familiarity that they had come to share with each other. They looked into each other's eyes for a long moment, then Chakotay stood and walked over to his Captain.

"Congratulations, Captain," he said warmly. "You always said you would get your crew home, and you did."

"With a lot of help," she said softly.

"Well . . . congratulations." Then he pulled the warmth away, closed himself to her, and walked back to take his seat at his command console.

So, that was it, then. After everything was said and done, Chakotay would go his way and she would go hers. Suddenly, she felt very tired. "You have the Bridge, Commander. I'm going to get some rest."

Chakotay nodded, as Kathryn crossed through the doors to her Ready Room. She was not going to her quarters; it would be too lonely there. She crossed over to her sofa and lay down, pulling the blanket down around her. She sighed heavily. The sofa felt good, safe and warm. It was the closest thing she'd had to a companion in seven years. And those seven years were bound to become a lot longer before she allowed anyone to get close to her again.

Just as she was closing her eyes, Kathryn noticed the rose from Chakotay across the room in the vase where she had left it. She opened her eyes again. The rose was slightly wilted now, but it still looked regal, somehow. Like Chakotay. He was hurting and disappointed, yet still regal and strong. And nothing was black and white; sometimes it was red. She felt the tears roll down her cheeks. It seemed like a thousand years had passed since he had given her that rose, and not just a matter of hours. Funny how quickly things can change.

The exhaustion settled in, and finally, Kathryn Janeway fell into a deep sleep.



The following day, preparations were made for their reception at the Deep Space 12 space station. Captain Janeway spoke to Starfleet Command on three separate occasions, within the confines of her Ready Room, from her console.

Lieutenant Commander Tuvok and Commander Chakotay prepared the crew for their homecoming. They reminded the crew that it would still be several days before they could see families and friends again. They would disembark Voyager at DS12, then be examined by a top medical team to be sure the crew wasn't carrying any pathogens, known or unknown, into the Alpha Quadrant atmospheres.

The Doctor was extremely irritated by the fact that no one at Starfleet Command would take into account that the entire crew had been well tended to by their own physician, whose talents and knowledge was a direct example of a well-trained Starfleet officer.

He was a programmed Starfleet officer, at that, and not apt to make mistakes. Commander Chakotay assured the Doctor that his knowledge wasn't being questioned. They were simply concerned about information that the Doctor's program might not have included seven years ago. After all, Starfleet officials were not aware that the Doctor's program had been expanded and allowed to evolve, he explained. But they would find out soon enough. The Doctor would have to be patient.

After the medical examinations, the crew would be separated from one another and given separate quarters for a period of a few days, at which time the debriefings would take place. During this time, the media would be fed stories from Starfleet Headquarters; the stories would depict a brave Captain and her crew, who fought for their lives daily for seven years, before returning home safe and sound. And, no doubt, it was Starfleet training that had ensured their survival. Commander Chakotay took great care to remind each and every crewmember that they must never disagree with Starfleet's media stories. Smile, nod, and wave. Let the stories run until they are spent. Then get on with your lives. Although not all crewmembers were happy about that - especially the former Maquis - they respected their Commander enough to nod their acquiescence. It was a small price to pay for their return to freedom.

Every member of Voyager's crew was full of hope, and fear. Seven years was a long time to be away from home. A lot can happen in seven years, as this crew knew well. And there had been no time for further celebrations; there had been too much to do.

On the final night aboard Voyager, the Captain sent a shipwide message from the Bridge, one final message from a Captain to her crew:

"Good evening. This is your Captain speaking. We may not have the time to officially bid farewell to each other when we dock Voyager at 1100 hours tomorrow. But I want you to know that I won't forget you. Each and every one of you has done your part in getting this ship home, and in the future, in your darkest times, I want you to remember that you were a vital part of this crew, this family. You have all served this ship, and her Captain, well. It has been a seven year journey that you will remember with mixed emotions, I'm sure, but understand that it has also been a time of two diverse crews coming together and working toward one common goal. We were all challenged beyond our imaginations, but not beyond our capabilities. We have learned much, and we have survived.

Together.

It has been an honor to serve as your Captain.

May each of you live long, and prosper."

The crew was especially solemn that evening, and each in his own way gave thanks for their persevering Captain, but wondered anxiously about what awaited them now.

Finally, at 1100 hours the following morning, Voyager docked at Deep Space 12. The Captain and her crew were met by members of Starfleet Command and representatives of the United Federation of Planets. There were hails and horns, and fireworks lit the sky.

Then it was over, and they were whisked away and segregated while medical teams took scans and samples. When that was done, they were taken to another facility at Starfleet Headquarters, and once again segregated. The rooms were comfortable, but felt foreign. They had been used to their accommodations aboard Voyager for seven years. Nothing else would feel quite as comfortable to any of them for some time to come.

Now they awaited the debriefings, which would begin the following day.



After being delivered to her quarters, Kathryn tried to settle in.

They were each allowed to bring one bag of possessions, and uniforms, with them. Other personal items would be returned after the debriefings were concluded.

Kathryn unpacked her bag. Other than a few clean uniforms and sleepwear, she had brought a tricorder, various padds, the small computer from her quarters, and a few personal items given to her on different occasions by her crew. She had also, surprisingly, brought her medicine bundle, in case she decided to contact her Spirit Guide again. She wasn't in the habit of meditating often, but it felt good to have it nearby, just in case. Besides, it reminded her of Chakotay. He had helped her to put her bundle together with just the right items. She smiled as she remembered the first time he had told her about his Spirit Guide.

Putting her things away, Kathryn realized with a start that she had brought several items that Chakotay had given her. She put them all in a drawer, and was suddenly very sad and melancholy. She missed Chakotay, and she missed her crew.

For seven years, Kathryn Janeway had been determined to get her crew to the very point they were at today. But she hadn't been prepared for the sudden and painful separation from her crew, and the intense feelings of loss she was experiencing now. She was no longer their Captain, and she no longer had a crew. After a very long and full seven years of duty, it was all over in little more than a moment. It felt as though she had awakened from a dream. She could sure use Tuvok's counsel right now, but of course she was not allowed to see him at all.

Kathryn glanced at the chronometer across the room. It was nearly 2200 hours, which meant nothing to her. Time seemed to have ceased at some point today. She crossed to the replicator, realizing she could have anything she wanted for dinner. It had been so long since she had known what it was like to have an unlimited number of replicator rations. The Voyager crew had been using limited rations for nearly the entire seven years in the Delta Quadrant in order to reserve the vital energy needed for running the ship's systems.

After ordering a cup of real coffee, Kathryn crossed to the small desk and chair and began looking through the padds she had brought with her, but none of them interested her. She managed to get her computer on-line, but there was nothing she wanted to do there either. There was nothing that needed her attention right now, and she didn't quite know how to handle that. For seven years, there had always been something that she needed to tend to, reports to write, reports to read, data to compile. Even the wonderful Earth coffee that she had remembered every day for seven years didn't taste quite so wonderful. Almost, but not quite. Maybe she had adapted to Neelix's coffee better than she thought.

Neelix. She sighed. What did he think about his welcome to Earth, her home planet? And what about Seven of Nine? They were both segregated as well. She knew that they understood why, and would do their best to be accommodating to the Starfleet officials during the debriefings.

And what would happen to her? Would Starfleet allow the Captain of Voyager to return home and make demands of them, then just let her go? Chakotay had been right: There were a thousand things they could find within ship's records that would offer them cause to bring charges of general court-martial against Captain Kathryn Janeway. But would they?

Kathryn finished her cup of coffee. She wasn't hungry, and just the thought of being able to have anything she wanted for dinner was almost too overwhelming to think about. She was just too tired to eat anyway. She lay on the bed and pulled the unfamiliar covers up over her. She didn't feel like changing into sleepwear, so she kept her uniform on. This room wasn't hers, and she suddenly missed her quarters on Voyager. For that matter, she missed her Ready Room, where there was always something for her to do, a pressing matter for her to handle, while searching for a way home to the Alpha Quadrant. For the first time in her life, Kathryn Janeway felt insignificant.

Kathryn fell asleep eventually, and slept fitfully. The bed was unfamiliar, as were the surroundings. The small window on the opposite wall from her bed allowed little starlight to shine through, and she was used to looking at vast star systems before drifting off to sleep. She was also accustomed to knowing that her First Officer was in the quarters next to hers, but not tonight, for the first time in seven years. Nothing was familiar, or would ever be again.



The debriefings continued. After nearly 60 hours, everyone but the senior staff and the Captain was dismissed. They could search out families and friends once again, and try to make some sense of their lives.

Ship's logs were scrutinized by the Admiralty. Some sections were skipped because of unnecessary technical information not needed at this time, or because of matters that were deemed too insignificant for the current proceedings. There was a great deal of information here, interesting information. The Admirals had to force themselves to focus on certain aspects of the logs in order not to stray for their own entertainment purposes.

The senior staff had initially been subjected to the same sort of question and answer sessions, and allowed the same information gathering regarding the Alpha Quadrant's past seven years, as the rest of the crew. But after the others were dismissed, the senior staff began a more rigorous question and answer session. They were each asked about the missions they had undertaken and the new species they had encountered. The Captain was asked the same questions, and given the same information padds regarding the past seven years of Alpha Quadrant history as the rest of the crew, so that they might at least catch up on the state of political affairs during their absence.

The Borg and the Talaxian were asked countless questions about their lives and experiences.

The media were fed daily updates about the Starfleet crew that had returned home after seven years of constant struggle in the Delta Quadrant. The news stories were brief and held no real information. Starfleet authorities were quoted as saying they were extremely proud of the Captain and her crew; the Captain's superior Starfleet training was instrumental in the return of the lost ship and crewmen.

After an additional four days of questioning, the remaining crewmembers were exhausted, including the Captain. Several of them were beginning to ask how much longer this would continue, and the evasive answers they received served to make them only more anxious that this be over soon. The Captain was as tired as the rest of the staff, but she knew this would continue until the Admiralty was satisfied with all the answers to all the questions.

For the Admiralty, this was an unprecedented occasion and they were making the most of every moment, knowing that this would go down as a great moment in Starfleet history.

History would certainly recall this time when the Alpha Quadrant (and Starfleet Headquarters) welcomed home a wayward ship which had brought back the most vital information ever gathered regarding the never before explored Delta Quadrant. And things were going to be handled by the book.

Finally, each of the senior staff was told that the next day would bring the final debriefing session. Afterward, they would spend one additional night in their current accommodations, then be allowed to leave the following morning. As they were feeling a bit relieved about this, Captain Kathryn Janeway was called into a large pretentious conference room with all the Admiralty present, including Admiral Paris, who sat on the sidelines. Kathryn immediately knew why she was called before the panel. She stood proudly before the board members. She had served her crew to the best of her abilities, and she had brought them home again. That was all that was important; and if that were to be her life's accomplishment, then so be it.

After the room was quiet, Admiral Gustav stood from his chair.

"You are Captain Kathryn Janeway, of the Intrepid Starship Voyager. Is this true?"

"It is." She was pleased that her voice sounded strong and steady.

"We, the Starfleet Admiralty, find probable cause to indict you on charges of general court-martial, for actions taken aboard the Federation Intrepid Starship Voyager during these past seven years.

Effective tomorrow morning, a Board of Inquiry will begin an investigation of these charges. You are ordered to remain in your quarters for the duration of the investigation, except when escorted by Starfleet security to other areas of this facility. Do you understand fully what I have said to you?"

"Yes. But, may I ask you to be more specific about the 'actions taken'? What, precisely, are you investigating?" Kathryn knew she was playing with fire, but she really didn't care. Out of the corner of her eye, she could practically see Admiral Paris cringe on the sidelines, but she refused to look his way.

The silence lasted for several unending seconds, but Kathryn did not waver. She looked directly into Admiral Gustav's eyes and waited for the answer.

Finally, when he realized she would not be stared into submission, Admiral Gustav cleared his throat noisily, indicating that this was highly unusual and not appreciated. This was looked upon as questioning the wisdom of the Admiralty, but Kathryn wanted an answer to her question.

"Captain Janeway, this Board will define the charges for you clearly when it decides to do so. This is a preliminary investigation, and no other explanation is required to be given at this point. You are dismissed and remanded to your quarters.

Security, escort the Captain to her quarters immediately."

Kathryn turned away from Admiral Gustav, wondering why he was being so evasive. Yes, it was true that he was not required to give her a lengthy explanation of the charges at this point, but it was odd that more information wasn't given to her. Kathryn felt a hand on her shoulder, and she turned. It was the security guard, letting her know that it was time to go. She turned toward the exit, and saw Admiral Paris standing at the back of the room. She smiled slightly and nodded in his direction, to let him know she was all right.

As Kathryn entered her quarters, she heard the door close behind her. Two security guards were posted outside her door. She sighed. These quarters were slowly beginning to drive her crazy.

The bed wasn't comfortable, the small window barely allowed her to look at the world outside, the table was too low and the chair was too high. The tub in the bathroom was small and she couldn't even relax in it and let the tensions of the day wash away. She stood in the center of the room and looked around. What she really missed was her quarters on Voyager.

Kathryn strode to the replicator and ordered a cup of coffee, then sat on the small couch, the only comfortable piece of furniture in the room. "Computer, play Janeway beta two." Taichovsky played quietly in the background. At least she had thought to bring a couple of discs of her favorite music. Chakotay had made this one for her from his private collections, and had given it to her for her birthday three years ago. They had taken a midnight sail on Lake Charles, drank a bottle of champagne to celebrate her birthday, and he had given her the disc. She realized soon after that he had spent a great deal of time making it for her. He knew she liked classical music, but not all of it. He had sorted and copied music for her for two weeks in order to come up with the perfect collection that he knew she would enjoy. And she did enjoy it a great deal. Sometimes it was comforting just to listen to the music and know that Chakotay had carefully chosen each selection just for her. He knew her well. There was not one selection that she did not like.

Suddenly, Kathryn realized she had a grin on her face, and she wiped it away and stood. Well, now what? She couldn't even write a letter to her mother or her sister, Phoebe. No communication whatsoever was allowed with people on the outside of this facility, or inside it for that matter. She put the rest of the coffee and the cup in the recycle bin. She needed to sleep. There was nothing else to do anyway. And things were proceeding as she had known they would.

An hour later, as Kathryn Janeway was tossing and turning in her sleep, her former First Officer was trying to get to sleep on his own uncomfortable bed, in his own quarters. Finally, he threw back the covers and padded over to the replicator. "Computer, Vulcan spice tea, hot."

"Cannot comply. There are many varieties of tea available, among them: English Breakfast Tea, Earl Gray Tea, Cardassian . . ."

"Chamomile, then," said Chakotay, in irritation. He'd grown fond of the Vulcan spice tea that Kathryn had often served him when they had worked late in her quarters. He'd even learned to take it for granted, and had forgotten that it was a special blend that Tuvok had created. Of course this replicator wouldn't have the recipe.

He'd taken for granted a lot of things in the past, he thought, as he took his cup of tea and crossed to the small hole in the wall that passed for a window. For seven years aboard Voyager, when he thought of home, he remembered special pleasures that weren't available on Voyager, a real sunset for instance, and not just a holodeck simulation. But now, suddenly, Voyager seemed to offer things that the Alpha Quadrant did not.

He hadn't seen Kathryn for 22 days. After spending day after day next to her on the Bridge, and sleeping in quarters next door to hers, he hadn't been prepared for the loneliness he was feeling, simply because he had not seen her for 22 days. They had managed to have dinner together often, worked late together, took occasional holodeck pleasures together, met new species and discovered new star systems together . . . And only a few days ago he had told himself he would be able to live without her. Now he wasn't so sure. His heart felt as though it were breaking, and he had no desire to do anything. He kept telling himself he could go on, he would go on, without her. He had no choice.

But, he kept hearing her voice in his mind. She would speak his name in that low, sexy, throaty voice that she used only for him.

And his arms would ache to hold her, just as they had ached to hold her for seven years. But now, he couldn't even see her, be with her, serve her needs as her First Officer. He couldn't even gaze at her from a distance, and take some comfort in the fact that she was near. And only a few days ago, she had made a decision and broken her ties with him. Again he told himself there was no choice for him to make; it only took one to break off a tie with another. Gods, he missed her. Why couldn't they have been granted a time to share together?

During the past seven years together, they had never made love.

But, truly, they had. They had made love in his mind hundreds of times, and he was virtually certain that they had made love in her mind as well. At times, he had managed to catch a look on her face when she thought he was preoccupied, and he turned to her suddenly and caught her off-guard. She always managed to cover her surprise, and he had never called her on it. He remembered that several times she had caught her breath, and looked away quickly, just as he saw the crimson blush creep up her cheeks. He smiled now, remembering. She had no idea how beautiful she was, and how she could at times nearly rip his heart out of his chest with just a smile. Yes, he supposed that, truth be told, they had made love on several occasions, if only with their eyes.

For the past six nights he'd had the same recurring dream. No, not a dream really. He kept hearing Kathryn's voice saying his name over and over again. Not as though anything were wrong, but just saying his name. Sometimes the intonation would be a little different, but she would continue to repeat it again and again, with several seconds between the words, as though giving him time to respond. He would toss and turn, then finally awaken with the sheets wrapped around him tightly.

Chakotay had been told that tomorrow would conclude the senior staff debriefings. He wondered about Kathryn. Would she be allowed to leave as well? How was she, and where was she right now? He knew she wasn't next door. It would sound foolish if he said it aloud to anyone, but he would have known if she were next door because he could always feel her presence when she was that close to him. It would sound crazy to tell anyone, but on Voyager, when he was in his quarters, he had always known whether she was in her quarters or out somewhere else on the ship. He could just feel her presence, even from next door. And he couldn't feel her now. He hadn't felt her presence in 22 days.

Chakotay took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He needed to contact his Spirit Guide and ask for guidance, but again tonight he knew he wouldn't be able to focus. Perhaps tomorrow would be better. He slowly let out his breath and opened his eyes. He finished the cup of tea and put the cup into the recycle bin. Then, he crossed to the bed and lay back down to try to sleep once again.

Chakotay stared at the empty ceiling and sighed. Tomorrow would tell the tale. Even though Kathryn had pulled away from him, he needed to know that she was all right. He would never leave her to suffer alone. Damnit, he missed her. He would always miss her. He had known for a long time there was no one else for him except her. She was the most stubborn person he had ever known, and the kindest, and he would do anything for her. He had held her in his dreams for years now, and tonight would be no different. Finally, Voyager's ex-First Officer fell into another night of fitful, restless sleep.



Elsewhere, in the same building, B'Elanna Torres was pacing her quarters and occasionally throwing out a Klingon curse. She was impatient and bored. And sick and tired of all the questions. She just wanted to get out of here and see what was left of her life.

Maybe she and Tom could just disappear for awhile. For a moment, she actually smiled. The past seven years weren't so bad, really. She and Tom were a lot alike; neither of them had known a better life anywhere in the Federation than what they had discovered on Voyager. Nowhere else would she have been Chief Engineer of a starship like Voyager, would she be trusted by anyone the way Captain Janeway had trusted and believed in her, would she have forged the friendships she had finally developed on Voyager. She would miss that damned ship. She kicked the wall angrily, and hurt her foot in the process, but somehow she felt a little bit better.



Tom Paris was playing endless games of solitaire on a padd. He always won. His mind was reeling. Tomorrow, it would finally be over. They could all go . . . home. He had no home to go to. His home was where B'Elanna was. They would go away somewhere together and decide what to do now. He didn't know how it would go when he saw his Father, and finally, for the first time in his life, he didn't care. He had proved himself to *himself*, and that's what had been important all along. He no longer cared so much if Daddy was proud of him. Thomas Eugene Paris was a decent person and a damned good pilot. There was one thing he was looking forward to, though: The next time he saw his Father, he would look him in the eye for the very first time.

Tom had been happy on Voyager. He'd miss that ship, that family, that Captain who had given him the first break of his entire life. He had disappointed her from time to time, but he'd always managed to win her trust back. She knew his faults, and she knew his good qualities. She knew him well. And he would do anything for her, yet nothing could ever repay what she had given him, and that was the opportunity to prove himself, and to believe in himself. Finally, he threw the padd across the room and went to bed. He lay there a long time before sleep overcame him. He kept thinking about B'Elanna and wondering if they would make it together as well on Earth as they had on Voyager. He also thought about the Captain again, and his frustration mounted. She had done so much for him, and now he didn't even know where she was.



Neelix was trying to enjoy the small pleasures of Alpha Quadrant foods via the replicator. After many days of trying, he still wasn't able to replicate one dish that had leyola root in it. Finally, he just gave up. This planet, Earth, must not be agriculturally developed enough to have discovered leyola root, he surmised. He tried to keep a smile on his face, and his mood in good repair. No telling when he would be needed to build morale again.

But, inside, Neelix was depressed. He missed his kitchen and his friends, the Voyager crew. He had truly felt like one of them, until now. They were all separated from each other, and it had happened so quickly. No time for good-byes or for plans to be made. And here, on this planet Earth, he felt so . . . so alien. And these Starfleet people didn't seem very nice. But most of all, he missed his Captain. He missed her smile, her kind words to him, her trust in his counsel, her belief in him, and her unending patience with him.

He also missed her because she had loved his Kes so much, and being close to her had helped to keep Kes alive. He felt tears come to his eyes. What would he do now? The Captain had said she'd help him to acclimate to his new life, and he believed her. But right now, he sure missed her. He'd give anything to be able to take her a fresh pot of his special coffee. He'd tasted the Alpha Quadrant's version of coffee, and he knew that she must be missing his coffee a great deal by now . . .

Well, tomorrow it would all be over and maybe he would see her again soon. He would not even consider the possibility that she could face this court-martial he'd heard people speaking about.



Seven of Nine was regenerating in her quarters. The Captain had explained to the Starfleet Admiralty that Seven needed a regeneration alcove in her quarters. They didn't seem too happy about it, but they had made sure it met Seven's specifications. And Seven did not understand the need for the endless questions. The Admiralty could acquire the same information by reading the ship's logs. Time was being wasted, and it was unproductive and useless.

She would continue to be patient and forthcoming, as the Captain had asked them all to be. After this was over, she would find out what was expected of her. She wondered, not for the first time, where the Captain was.



Harry Kim was nervous and agitated; nervous because tomorrow was the last day of the debriefing and he couldn't get it out of his head that it would be the most strenuous. And, he was agitated because he wanted to see his Mom and Dad desperately. He missed them so much. And he wondered about Libby. He didn't love her anymore; time had moved them apart from each other. He wished her well, but there was someone else he really cared about. Seven still did not understand how or why he felt the way he did about her, but she did understand more now than she once did. And he had noticed that over the past six months she sought his advice and companionship more and more often. He smiled slightly. He'd win her over yet!

Suddenly, Harry's mind turned to Captain Janeway, and his smile disappeared. He wondered where she was and what she was doing.

He knew she had to be going crazy without the ship to run. She had lived for seven years with only the thought of getting them home on her mind. What was she thinking now? Somehow he didn't think she was relaxing and letting go of the burden of Command. He wanted her to be happy and at peace. He hoped she and Commander Chakotay would finally get together once this was all over. Mostly, he hoped she wouldn't have to go through a court- martial.

Harry took a deep breath and grabbed his clarinet from the sofa. He wanted to practice his best piece, his original creation, "Echoes of the Void," so he would be ready to play it without incident for his Mother. He still needed her approval. And he needed to clear his mind about Captain Janeway. She would be all right. She was the strongest person he knew. He only hoped he could see her again before they all went their own way. He had to let her know what she meant to him, and that he would go anywhere, serve on any mission, to be under her Command again.



Tuvok was meditating in his quarters, but he was not experiencing the balance that he was accustomed to during meditation. He decided to continue another time, and rose from the floor, extinguishing the small candle on the table in front of him.

Tomorrow, the debriefings would conclude, and soon he would return to Vulcan, and to his family. But before he left Earth, he would find Captain Janeway and assure himself that she was well. He needed to bid her farewell, and assure her that he would see her on his next journey to this planet. He was always proud to serve as a member of her crew, and his respect for her was unequalled. He hoped she would realize her bond with Commander Chakotay and deny herself his affections no longer.

Why terrans needed an emotional bonding, Tuvok would never understand. But it was so, and he had watched the bonding between the Captain and Commander Chakotay with great interest over the years. And he knew Captain Janeway well. He had known her throughout her relationship with Mark, and with others in the past. She was stronger with Commander Chakotay, the bond was much greater. He hoped that she would trust logic then, and mate with him. He also hoped that no charge of court-martial would be forthcoming from Starfleet. The Captain had done her best for seven years, and that was far better than most could have done.

Although he had at times disagreed with her, he had always followed her orders. And he would always be her friend.



The Doctor was held hostage inside the computer system, inside Voyager. He was shut down and could not even activate himself.

He was at the mercy of anyone and no one, but he waited as patiently as he possibly could, knowing that the Captain would not forget about him. At least he hoped she wouldn't forget about him.



The next morning marked the beginning of the 23rd day since Voyager had returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Each of the senior staff was preparing for the morning sessions with various members of the Admiralty, as they had for 22 previous days.

Captain Janeway also went through the morning routine, wondering if she would be allowed to leave her quarters today at all. And what of her senior staff? Were they allowed to leave yet? She hoped so.

She had brought them home, and it was time they got on with their lives somehow. She thought of Seven and of Neelix, and the Doctor. She would hopefully be able to help the Doctor without much incident, but Seven and Neelix were different. Neither knew much about this planet, or this quadrant. But she also knew that Harry would take care of Seven, and Neelix would do just fine.

Neelix was a survivor.

As Kathryn was finishing her second cup of coffee while sitting on the couch, and reading about modified molecular strategy on a padd that she'd managed to coax out of one of the security guards the night before, her door chime sounded. "Come," she answered, looking toward the door.

Admiral Paris entered and walked to the center of the room, putting his hands behind his back. Kathryn's mouth fell open and she jumped up from where she sat, putting her coffee cup down on the coffee table quickly, then standing at attention. "Sir," she said, formally.

"At ease, Captain," said the Admiral. "I'm here as a friend."

Kathryn relaxed, and looked the Admiral in the eye. Then she picked up her coffee cup and crossed to the replicator. "Coffee?"

"Yes, thank you." Kathryn remembered that the Admiral was as much of a coffeeholic as she was. "Still black?"

"Yes."

Kathryn ordered coffee for the Admiral, crossed down and past him as she motioned him to the table and chairs. The Admiral followed, and Kathryn sat both cups of coffee on the table in front of them.

They sat, then looked at each other across the table, and took a drink of coffee.

They sat in comfortable silence for a few moments, then the Admiral said, "This table is too high. And the chairs are too low."

Kathryn smiled. "And I thought it was just me," she said.

The Admiral relaxed a bit at her smile. "Kathryn, there wasn't anything I could do."

"I know, Admiral. I didn't expect you to be able to talk them out of the investigation."

"Kathryn, Kathryn. Why didn't you ask for immunity for yourself as well as your crewmembers?"

"Because I would have lost any chance I had at winning something, Admiral. You know that. And you would have done the same thing in my place." Both were silent for a long moment.

"Yes, I knew exactly what you were doing. I just didn't want you to do it. This may not end well, Kathryn. But, perhaps it will. I know of one old crotchety Admiral who won't keep his nose out of all this, and who knows, maybe he'll cause enough of a stink to actually accomplish something."

Kathryn smiled. "Jean-Luc Picard."

Admiral Paris looked up. "He contacted you, then?"

Kathryn looked the Admiral in the eye. "Yes. How did you know?"

"He told me he was going to. He asked that I send Data over to see him so Data could heighten the sensor array on his comm channel and cloak his transmission to you. I'm glad that he got through."

"And he knew he could trust you."

"Yes. He knew I would be his ally on this one, Kathryn. But I'm afraid it was my son he was thinking of, and not you. He thought I would be protective of my son."

"Admiral, believe me when I tell you that Tom has become the man you always wanted him to be."

"I wish I could believe that, Kathryn." The Admiral looked tired, beaten, whenever he spoke of his son.

"You can. He has proved himself to me many times over, Admiral.

He's smart and thoughtful. And he has risked his life many times to save other lives around him. He is also the best damned pilot I've ever known." They both paused, looking away and thinking their own thoughts. "All he ever needed was for you to let him go, Admiral, so he could find his own way through the difficult years."

"I find it difficult to hear this description you've just told me, and think of my son," said Admiral Paris sadly. "But I know that you place high expectations on your crew, Kathryn, so if you believe in my son, I will try to give him another chance to prove himself to me."

"Admiral, just let him be himself. He shouldn't have to prove anything, just to be your son."

"You make a point, Kathryn, but I've never been good at staying uninvolved in my children's lives." He looked away sadly for a moment, then back at Kathryn. "I remember you always did have to get in the last word, though." They smiled sadly at each other.

"Wait until you see him again, Admiral," Kathryn whispered, and reached over to cover his hand with hers. "You will be proud of him." Then she removed her hand and crossed to the small window. She would never, *ever* allow herself to become emotional in front of Admiral Paris. It was time to change the subject, but the Admiral beat her to it.

"Kathryn, today the Admiralty continues the debriefing process with your senior staff. This is scheduled to be the final session with each of them. The intent is to question them about you, specifically your conduct and decision-making abilities during the past seven years. Do you know what this means?"

"Tell me," she said softly, still looking out the window.

"It means they don't know what else to do. There is no real evidence against you, and they're looking for confirmation, validation, a reason to charge you with court-martial. The ship's logs are full of vital information, and from what I understand, you were thorough in your evaluations of events as they unfolded. There isn't an Admiral on that Board who will vote to bring charges against you unless they can find something concrete, something that would withstand any scrutiny."

Kathryn turned to him with such raw hurt in her eyes that Admiral Paris had to pull his eyes away from her. "And the Board would subject my senior staff to a period of such intense questioning that they would pin their entire case against me on what they learn from them today." It was more of a statement than a question. Kathryn knew what they were capable of doing.

Admiral Paris wanted to prepare Kathryn for what might occur.

"You know as well as I do that people can turn against one another in times of strife, Kathryn. We've both experienced it. And if the Admiralty garner enough information from your crew, it might very well make the difference in whether they bring formal charges against you or not. Today, it is still an investigation."

"You don't know my senior staff." Kathryn turned back to the window, realizing after she spoke the words, that she had warned this very same staff about the possibility of these things happening to them. Her warning had been given only a few days ago, yet it felt as though it had been a hundred years since that day in her Ready Room.

"I know people, Kathryn," the Admiral continued. "And people can change quickly. But we will see. The interrogations begin soon." The Admiral stood, and Kathryn turned toward him again.

"Will you be there?" she asked.

The Admiral paused, but only for a moment. "We will both be there, Kathryn. I'm here to escort you to a viewing room."

"A what?" Kathryn had never heard of a 'viewing room' at Starfleet Headquarters.

"Yes, I know. It's highly unusual. But this entire debriefing process has taken far too long. And now, the Admiralty want you to be present for the final debriefings of your senior staff."

"Why? Aren't individual debriefings confidential?" Kathryn looked at the Admiral, but he looked away. "Admiral?" Kathryn crossed closer to Admiral Paris, forcing him to look her directly in the eye. "What is it?" she asked softly.

"Kathryn, this final session with each of them is a different sort of session than they've been subjected to prior to today. The intent here is to question them *only* about you, specifically your conduct and frame of mind during the past seven years. The Admiralty wants you to witness these last sessions with your senior staff.

However, you and I will be secluded in a room adjacent to where the actual sessions will be held. "

Kathryn thought for a long moment, as she continued to search the Admiral's face. "Then they truly don't know what else to do."

"No, they don't, Kathryn," the Admiral continued. "And, as you are well aware, you are not favored by Admiral Bullock, and he is heading the investigation."

Kathryn smiled wryly. "I've faced adversity before, Admiral. And, believe me, Admiral Bullock is nothing compared to some of the things we were up against in the Delta Quadrant. "

Admiral Paris took a step toward Kathryn. "I know today will be difficult for you, Kathryn. You have always been so protective of your crews. Try to take your own advice and let them go; perhaps they will find their own way better than you think."

"Oh, I do trust them to do just that, Admiral. For seven years I depended on each of them to find their own ways, separately, then bring that maturity and knowledge back to the group." Kathryn smiled fondly at the thought, then looked Admiral Paris in the eye.

"They are good people, Admiral. I won't be disappointed, and neither will you."

"Then if you're ready, we'll leave, Kathryn. The interrogations begin soon." Admiral Paris started toward the door.

"Why do they want me to witness all of this, Admiral? What if I don't want to be a party to this at all?" She suddenly did not want to hear what her senior staff would say about her, without knowing she was listening.

"They want you to hear what is said about you, Kathryn. Then if charges are brought, you will know the reasons why."

Kathryn sighed. She would not be allowed to sit this one out. She had faced the Borg and Species 8472, and she would face either of them again rather than face what was before her today.

She suddenly recalled a time when an alien had appeared to her in the guise of her Father and had tried desperately to convince her to follow him into his matrix, to give up her life and move on. He had underestimated her, expecting her to follow him with an explanation based primarily on sentimentality. But before their final confrontation, he had forced her to witness a painful account of her crew trying to say good-bye to her while she lay dead. Would this be a similar account? Or, would this one be very different? She didn't want to know. And she certainly didn't want to eavesdrop on these proceedings as she'd been forced to do then.

And, of course, this memory also brought to mind Chakotay, and how he had begged her not to die as he held her body next to his just outside the cave, as the storm roared behind them. The alien had been working on her even then, trying to show her how her own death had occurred.

"We need to go, Kathryn."

Kathryn nodded, and returned her thoughts to the present. She took the empty coffee cups from the table and placed them in the recycle bin. Then she and Admiral Paris left her quarters and walked together toward the other end of the complex, with the two armed security guards who had been posted outside her door following them. As they passed door after door, she wondered which one was Chakotay's.

Suddenly, Kathryn's heart skipped a beat. Chakotay. She would be forced to listen to what he said about her today as well. She truly did not want to do this.



As they walked into a small room behind the large conference room, Kathryn noted that this room was designed specifically for viewing what was happening in the larger room. There was a small table and four chairs in this room. And a huge one-way window.

There was nothing else to do here, but watch and listen.

In the larger room, the Admiralty was already gathered and someone was speaking. As she moved closer to the window, she saw that Seven of Nine was in the room with them. Apparently she had just arrived, and she seemed uncomfortable. Kathryn smiled to herself. She missed Seven, and seeing her - even from this distance - reassured her that, while she had made her share of mistakes and wrong decisions in the Delta Quadrant, she had made some good choices, too.

Kathryn turned to look at Admiral Paris. He stood in the back of the viewing room by the door, arms behind him. He was doing his duty by bringing her here. He knew she didn't want to come, but he was forced to bring her anyway. She would have to make the best of this; there was no choice. She turned back toward the window, and reluctantly sat in one of the chairs. There was nothing to do but watch, and listen.

"I do not know," Seven was replying to a question.

"Surely you know why the Captain would make such a decision?" asked one of the Admirals at the end of the table. Kathryn saw that it was Admiral Bullock. As Admiral Paris had mentioned earlier, he was not known to be a fan of Kathryn's. He had wanted his niece to be commissioned to Voyager, but she had been no one else's choice. Kathryn wondered which of her many decisions was being questioned now.

"No," replied Seven.

"Just 'no'? Nothing else?" asked the Admiral.

"It was not my position to question the Captain's orders, or her reasons for them."

"Yet, we see in the ship's logs that you did question her on several occasions." While the Admiralty was waiting for Seven to defend herself, she sat quietly, seeming to be deep in thought. When no answer came, the Admiral asked "Seven of Nine?"

"Yes?"

"Did you not hear what I said just now?"

"Of course. But there was no question asked."

Kathryn smiled. This was her Seven. These people did not know her. They didn't know to be specific; but they would learn eventually. Perhaps.

"The question," began the Admiral, sounding a bit put out, "is 'Did you or did you not question Captain Janeway when you felt she was wrong'?"

After a moment, Seven said "Yes, initially, and I was wrong to do it. The Captain is always right."

"Do you believe that?"

"Yes."

"Did you always?"

"No. I did not understand structure and the reasons for adherence to steadfast rules. As Borg, we thought as one, and we acted as one. But when Captain Janeway released me from the Collective, I had to learn to think and act as an individual. I did not understand many things at first, but Captain Janeway gave me an opportunity to learn them for myself. And Commander Tuvok taught me many things, among them that the Captain is always right."

"Even when she is wrong?"

"Yes. She is allowed."

"Do you respect Captain Janeway?"

Seven paused. Then finally, "Yes."

"Why did you pause, Seven of Nine? Do you wish to reconsider your answer?"

"No."

"You respect her, then?" repeated Admiral Bullock.

"I respect Captain Janeway very much."

"Why did you pause a moment ago?"

"Because the mere word 'respect' is flawed. It is used to express something which cannot be expressed."

"Please explain, Seven of Nine."

"Captain Janeway released me from the Collective, not knowing how I would respond to being human. I was appalled. I felt violated and weak. She was patient. She allowed me to . . . evolve and to learn from my new experiences. She encouraged me to become the human person I should have been, yet she did not try to mould me into her image, as she could easily have done. Instead, she drove herself to set a fine example for my benefit. She encouraged me to become . . . myself."

"I see. And you respect her for this?"

"Captain Janeway is a friend to those who would have a friend and a formidable enemy to those who put her crew and her ship in danger. You ask if I respect her. Yes. Your language is weak and cannot truly describe how I . . . feel . . . about her."

The Admiralty looked at each other across and around the table.

They were not accomplishing new ground here. This Borg wasn't providing the assistance they had hoped she would.

"Seven of Nine, we will be frank with you. We believe the Captain acted irresponsibly in many instances during her tenure as Captain of Voyager, while in the Delta Quadrant. Do you believe the Captain behaved erroneously, or put lives in danger, while she was in command, during your time on Voyager?" Admiral Bullock leaned forward in his chair, and rested his arms on the table in front of him.

Kathryn Janeway, behind the window, had her suspicions confirmed. This was how the Admiralty was hoping to find their proof of her misdeeds - by questioning her senior staff, and putting them on a sort of trial of their own. She closed her eyes, and lowered her head, trying to understand why they would do this.

'They must truly be desperate,' she thought. She knew now that no real evidence had been found in the ship's logs for bringing charges of court martial against her - at least not sufficient evidence that would withstand media scrutiny - and that this was the only avenue left for Starfleet Command to follow in their quest to find her guilty of misconduct, or any number of Starfleet violations.

Seven of Nine stood suddenly. She did not like this questioning at all, and would continue with this no longer. She looked at the Admirals seated at the table. She looked each of them squarely in the eye. There were nine of them.

Kathryn Janeway lifted her face back toward the window and looked at the nine Admirals herself. She noticed that now *they* seemed uncomfortable.

"As Borg, I gained the knowledge of many assimilated species. I know things about races that you will not meet in your lifetimes. Many of the Delta Quadrant species hold decency and valor as yardsticks for measuring the greatness of their own, as you do. I have seen those qualities many times over in Captain Janeway. Are you, as leaders, and her superiors, so small and insignificant that you treat your greatest individuals in this manner? Captain Janeway nurtured me as though I were one of her own, one of her crew. She took the time to encourage me when she had no time to give, and she bravely fought every obstacle to keep her crew, and her ship, safe from harm. I am grateful that I have her fine qualities to aspire to, unlike the qualities of those individuals I see before me now."

Kathryn felt a lump form in her throat. She had tried to teach Seven, to show her humanity in its best form, but she had always felt that whenever she gained two steps in the right direction, she immediately feel back three. And now, hearing Seven's words meant more to her than she could ever have known.

The Admiral spoke again.

"You wish to be like her?"

"When we were in conflict with the Borg and I told Captain Janeway that I wished to stay in the Borg Collective, she took her people to safety, then returned for me. How many leaders do you know who would have risked their own lives to rescue a former Borg drone?"

"She took you away after you said you wanted to stay?"

"Yes. I had been warned that Voyager would be destroyed and the crew assimilated if I did not comply with their demands and return to the Collective. Captain Janeway was able to discern from Voyager's computer that I was following orders from the Borg, and she returned for me. I ask you again, judging from the information you have at your disposal concerning the Borg, would any of you have risked your life or the life of other crew members for me?"

There was no response, only silence. And the sounds of discomfort - chairs squeaking and padds scraping against each other as they were pushed around on the tabletop.

"You ask me if I respect Captain Janeway. Yes. And you ask me further if she was irresponsible. No, she was not. She was a true leader who often made difficult decisions that others would have feared making. Did she unnecessarily put lives in danger? Only her own, so that others might not perish. And now, I am quite finished with your questions."

With that, Seven of Nine turned and left the room. Where she went then, Kathryn didn't know. All she knew was that Seven had, after all, learned some important lessons from her Captain.

Kathryn shut her eyes quickly, and tried to focus her thoughts on the events at hand. It was still early in the day, and there were so many more interviews ahead. She couldn't allow these sessions to tire her.

Only moments later, she looked up quickly, hearing a familiar and special voice come from the other room. Neelix. She smiled faintly. He had tried so hard to take such good care of her. And he had turned out to be quite a Morale Officer, after all.

"Hello there," said Neelix, to the Admiralty. He was uncertain whether to sit in the chair or wait to be invited. He thought about what the Captain would do in this situation, and decided she'd wait to be invited. So, Neelix stood proudly before the chair with his hands clasped firmly behind him.

"Please sit down, Mr. . . ."

"Neelix," said Neelix, sitting quickly in the lone chair in the front of the room that Seven had just vacated.

"Neelix," responded Admiral Bullock. This was obviously his show, Kathryn thought to herself. The other Admirals preferred to sit quietly and listen.

"Well, I'm told this is the last session I'll have with you wonderful people," smiled the exuberant Talaxian.

"Mr. Neelix. You are of a species known as . . . Talaxian?" asked the Admiral.

"That's right. I'm Talaxian," responded Neelix, looking around the room. Kathryn wished she could be with him, or at least let him know she was here.

"Mr. Neelix, we don't wish this last session to be long and complicated . . ."

"Good! That's a relief!"

"Please, Mr. Neelix, allow me to finish."

Neelix cleared his throat and sat straighter in his chair.

"Certainly, Sir."

"You served Captain Janeway as . . . Chief Morale Officer, and Head Cook, for nearly the entire seven years Voyager was stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Is this accurate?"

"Yes. And, for the last three years I also served as Ambassador."

"Ambassador?"

"Uh, well, yes. And during the first two years I also served as Guide."

"Guide?"

"Yes."

"Why did you not continue to serve as Guide?"

"Well, ah, we'd reached the end of the line, so to speak, of my knowledge of the Delta Quadrant." When there was no response from the nine Admirals at the table, he continued. "You see, we had reached the end of the area of space I knew. I had never traveled or traded beyond the Hiren systems and after we left that sector, I concentrated on my cooking skills, and the Captain utilized my skills as Chief Morale Officer as well. And, later, after she witnessed my language skills during negotiations with the Tac Tac, she made me Ambassador."

"I see. And did you enjoy your travels aboard Voyager, Mr. Neelix?"

"Oh, certainly." He leaned a bit toward the huge conference table, as though he were going to let them in on a big secret. "I thank the gods every day that Captain Janeway allowed me to stay aboard Voyager and become a vital member of her crew."

"A vital member of her crew?"

"Oh, yes, she assured me of that many times." Here, he paused a moment and his smile became shadowed with a hint of sadness. "You see, after my knowledge of the space we encountered ran out, I was afraid that Captain Janeway would ask me to leave Voyager, feeling that I was no longer useful."

"And she didn't."

"No. In fact, when I asked her if she wanted me to leave, she told me for the first time that I was a vital member of her crew. She also told me that I had become a part of the Voyager family, and I tried to never let her down." Here Neelix sat up straight and proud once again, and Kathryn felt the lump in her throat return. "Captain Janeway was strong and determined, Admirals, and you should be proud that she represents your Starfleet. She always spoke of this institution, and used proud and upstanding examples from your history to prove her points and to serve as the very backbone of our daily lives. She said it would be strict adherence to Starfleet rules and regulations that got her crew home, and she was right!" Then his voice became sad again. "She did it, just as she said she would, no matter the cost to herself."

"What did this 'cost' Captain Janeway, exactly, in your opinion, Mr. Neelix?" asked Admiral Bullock, quickly seizing on Neelix's last words.

"It cost her a great deal, Admiral. Each time a crewmember suffered in any way, the Captain hurt with them. And when we suffered a casualty, the Captain blamed herself, no matter what the cause. She took her responsibilities seriously, and she was determined to get her crew home. She put that destination above everything else. Captain Janeway is more determined and persistent than anyone I've ever met. And she got her crew home, even if it meant losing the possibility of being with the one person who could bring her personal happiness."

At this, Kathryn felt her heart quicken and her breath catch in her throat. Even Neelix knew how she felt about Chakotay. Had it been that obvious? She didn't think so. Still, spending seven years together on a relatively compact spaceship meant that the occupants would more than likely know more about each other than in usual circumstances. Kathryn sighed. Yes, she had needed to think of the crew first. And as long as Voyager was lost in the Delta Quadrant she had been unable, and unwilling, to allow herself to focus on a personal relationship. Not only was it considered inappropriate behavior for a Starfleet officer to engage in a personal relationship with a member of her crew, but she would have felt she were being disloyal to the crew as a whole. It was a feeling she could never quite make sense of, but it was there nonetheless.

She heard voices continuing in the other room, and she brought her thoughts back to what was being said there.

"Who was the person that could bring her 'personal happiness', Mr. Neelix?"

Neelix had seemed lost in thought himself, then he looked up suddenly.

"I apologize. I seem to have gone on about things that are not my business."

"Mr. Neelix, we're quite certain that as part of your duty as Chief Morale Officer, you had to be aware of crew involvements, as they were. No apologies necessary. Now. *Who* exactly was the person you feel Captain Janeway gave up a personal relationship with?"

"As I said, it wasn't my business to be concerned with the Captain's personal life," replied Neelix more firmly, with thoughts about this due process of Starfleet law. Something told him this wasn't just question and answer anymore. This was a different line of questioning than the past days had brought. Now it was all turned towards Captain Janeway. He was going to be much more guarded from this moment forward.

"Mr. Neelix," said the Admiral, deciding it was time to take a different tact with this strange fellow. "We understand you have . . . loyal feelings towards Captain Janeway, but we are her superiors. She reports directly to us. And we need your assistance in . . . documenting her performance over the past seven years . . . Now . . ."

"Fine. Captain Janeway is the finest Captain your Starfleet could ever hope to have serve it. She is just, kind, and deeply compassionate about her work and her responsibilities. And she is deeply loyal to Starfleet beliefs and regulations, even in the Delta Quadrant, where some argued that the rules didn't apply. And because of her strength as a leader, she brought her crew back home again and saved an entire race of Ocampa from total annhilation from a race known as Kazon." Neelix paused. "So, tell me, is there anything else you'd like to know about Captain Janeway?"

Kathryn folded her arms across her chest and forced herself to sit straight in her chair. She watched the scene in the other room and tried not to take Neelix's words to heart just now. She would have plenty of time to think about what he had said later. She knew Neelix adored her, but she had never realized just how much that adoration was based on respect, until now.

The Admiralty paused, taking in this odd and devoted alien who was never going to give them the information they required in order to make a valid judgment for or against Captain Kathryn Janeway.

Admiral Bullock looked around the room, meeting the eyes of several of the Board members. He could see that they were thinking the same thing he was. Perhaps more true information would come from the Captain's Starfleet and Maquis senior staff.

The two alien lifeforms, the Borg and the Talaxian, seemed impenetrable. Starfleet personnel were trained to be scientific and factual, and the Maquis crew might still have some hostility remaining about having to work in harmony with a Starfleet crew.

"Mr. Neelix," said Admiral Bullock, turning front. "We thank you for your time here today. That will be all." Then he sat back in his chair. Neelix did not move.

"You are dismissed," emphasized the Admiral, in case Neelix was experiencing a language barrier.

"Yes, but . . . well, may I see the Captain?" asked Neelix.

"That won't be possible just now, Mr. Neelix. You are dismissed."

Neelix rose slowly from his chair. He seemed spent, his posture slouching in an uncharacteristic way. He turned and walked slowly from the room. At the door, he turned as though to say something, then closed his mouth and looked around the room at the Admirals, and his eyes showed hurt and sorrow. He turned and left the room quietly.

Kathryn slowly stood. She turned to look at Admiral Paris in the back of the room.

"Please, Admiral, may I leave this room? I really don't feel comfortable listening to my senior staff being questioned about my behavior."

The Admiral looked at her with understanding in his eyes. He crossed down to her then and touched her shoulder.

"Kathryn," he said softly, "I always thought your softness and caring might cause you to fail as Captain, but it is those very qualities that have earned you not only respect as a Captain, but admiration as well." He paused and removed his hand from her shoulder. "You have no idea how much I want to honor your request, Captain, but I was ordered to bring you here for the duration. I'm so sorry, Kathryn."

Kathryn nodded her understanding. The Admiral left her side to pour her a glass of water, and Kathryn returned slowly to her chair.

When she looked up, Harry Kim was standing in front of the chair that Neelix had just vacated. She swallowed hard, and Admiral Paris handed her the glass of water, which she so desperately needed. Then he left her to her thoughts, and returned to his post at the back of the room.

Harry looked uncertain and nervous. Finally, Admiral Bullock turned to him.

"Good morning, Ensign Kim."

"Good morning, Sir," said Harry.

Kathryn smiled to herself. Harry was used to her way of doing things. She had been his first Captain on his first mission. Maybe he'd learned some bad habits from her, but he'd learned some damned good ones as well.

"Ensign Kim," asked the Admiral, in his strongest, most fearsome voice. "You served as Ensign under Captain Janeway for seven years. We'd like to ask you some questions about that today."

Harry was quiet, pondering. The Admiral looked up at him, waiting for an acknowledgement. Finally, Harry asked, "Where is Captain Janeway?"

"Ensign, she has been involved in several debriefing sessions, as have you." Harry nodded, and looked down at his feet. "Ensign Kim, why do you suppose Captain Janeway chose you as part of her Bridge crew, when she had many other more . . . seasoned . . . Bridge officers to choose from?"

"She chose me because I was young and didn't come to her with bad habits." Harry paused, then quickly added, "Sir."

"Is that so, Ensign?"

"Yes, Sir."

"She told you that?"

"Yessir. Well, sort of. In later discussions, she intimated that this was partially the reason." Harry squirmed in his chair. Kathryn smiled on the other side of the one-way glass. He remembered that conversation. Good. It was always good to remember from which way one came.

"Also . . ."

"Yes? Continue, Ensign."

"Well, Captain Janeway always believes in repaying her debts. I mean . . . well, another reason she chose me is that I had a great academic record, but no real experience. And she wanted to help me gain experience. She wanted to do for someone else what Admiral Paris had done for her; she told me once that she is where she is today because of him, and the chances he took for her." Harry squirmed some more and looked at his shoes.

Kathryn silently thanked Harry for telling Admiral Paris what she had never told him herself. She, too, looked down a moment, then back at the window. She knew that Admiral Paris was still in the back of the room, and she heard him pull out a chair quietly, and sit.

"Have you ever felt overpowered by the others on the Bridge crew?"

"Overpowered, Sir?" asked Harry.

"Young. Inexperienced."

"Yes. Especially in the beginning. And sometimes even at the end."

"Did they make you feel inferior, Ensign?"

"No, never that. I just had much less experience than everyone else on the Bridge. And, well, they had all experienced so much that I couldn't possibly relate to, not for a long time. But after seven years, and a lot of experiences of my own under my belt, I began to have more opinions to share. I felt more involved in the troubleshooting sessions and meetings. And the suggestions I did make were given more consideration."

"So, Ensign, did the Captain not take you seriously before?"

"I didn't say that, Sir. The Captain always took me seriously. She just listened more intently to my suggestions when they started to make sense."

Kathryn smiled again.

"I see."

"Captain Janeway took a gamble by putting me on the Bridge, Admiral. She trusted me with much more responsibility than I would have entrusted to me had I been in her shoes." Suddenly, Harry sat up straighter in his chair. "But, I have stood up to her challenge, Admiral. I worked my butt off to learn all that I could from the Captain, and I proved to her that she didn't make a mistake."

"And was this important to you, Ensign?"

"More than anything, Admiral."

"Why?"

The Admiral was becoming bored with this conversation. It was getting them no further along in this process than they were before.

"Because I never wanted her to regret choosing me over all those other, more qualified, individuals who wanted the commission to serve aboard Voyager."

Kathryn shook her head slightly. Once, not so long ago, Harry would not have been so bold, nor had this much faith in himself.

"And it didn't matter to you that Captain Janeway was the very reason that you were lost in the Delta Quadrant, Ensign?"

Now Kathryn saw why Admiral Bullock had questioned Harry slowly and without hint of leading him down a certain path. But, he had been leading him down a path, slowly.

"It wasn't Captain Janeway's fault that we were in the Delta Quadrant, Admiral. We were drawn there by the Caretaker's array."

"True, but according to ship's records, and many of your crewmates, the Captain did have a choice that would have resulted in your getting back home only hours after you arrived in the Delta Quadrant."

"Our Captain's choice, Admiral, was to return us to the Alpha Quadrant, and allow an entire race called the Ocampa to be annihilated, or destroy the array, save the Ocampa, and try to figure out another way to get home. Captain Janeway chose to let everyone live." Harry's voice was strong and determined, and Kathryn wanted to reach out and hug him. He had defended her decision of so long ago, and so far away - a decision she herself had questioned many times.

"She could not have been certain that this race known as the Ocampa would have been annihilated."

"Yes, she could. Sir. We had already encountered the Kazon. They were a vicious and arrogant race. They intended to destroy the Ocampa for their water."

"I see. Mr. Kim, did Captain Janeway, at any time, behave in an . . . irresponsible manner, in light of her ship's responsibilities, in your opinion?"

"Never."

"Why don't you think about it for a moment or two, Ensign Kim. There's no need to answer so quickly."

"I don't have to think about it. I've thought about it for seven years, and I was there."

"Of course, Ensign."

"Captain Janeway behaved in a manner that I can only hope to aspire to, Sir. And I am grateful for the experience to have served under her command." Harry's voice was strong and powerful, and there was silence around the room. It was obvious that they were finished here.

"Thank you, Ensign Kim, that will be all. Please exit to the right."

Harry stood slowly, then straightened to his full height and walked proudly through the door. And Kathryn Janeway was so proud of him at that moment that she thought if she had to serve the entire seven years over again in the Delta Quadrant just to see Harry Kim come this far, she would. She felt tears threaten to come forth, and she reached for the glass of water Admiral Paris had brought her earlier.

Who was left, Kathryn wondered. B'Elanna, Tom, Tuvok, the Doctor, and of course Chakotay. That would wrap up the senior staff. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Three down and five to go? Would they really parade her entire senior staff through this room in front of her?

The door opened and B'Elanna Torres walked into the roomful of Admirals and was motioned to sit in the single chair at the front of the room where the others had been before her.

Knowing from her days at Starfleet Academy that a favorite ploy of Starfleet was to keep a person waiting in order to wear them down, B'Elanna sat still and tried her best to exude patience, while Admiral Bullock conferred quietly with the person to his right.

Kathryn took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She and B'Elanna had certainly had their disagreements, and in some ways she felt she knew B'Elanna the least of her senior staff. They had always had a distant respect for each other, but in many ways Kathryn didn't know how B'Elanna felt about her, or about much of anything for that matter. Sometimes she felt that Chakotay still controlled B'Elanna's strings. He could convince her of things no one else could, even Tom.

B'Elanna sat and waited. Finally, when she felt she couldn't stand it any longer, and that she might like to take a punch at someone, Admiral Bullock turned to her and spoke.

"Good Morning, Ms. Torres." B'Elanna nodded. No more 'Lieutenant,' she thought. Now it's just 'Ms. Torres.'

"We will be brief here, Ms. Torres. We know that you are anxious to get this debriefing behind you and return to your . . . family and friends."

B'Elanna said nothing. No, she wasn't anxious to get back to anything. Tom was her life now, and she was certain he was waiting his turn in one of those rooms down the hall.

"Ms. Torres, we have been investigating Captain Janeway, and we feel she may be in violation of . . . well, several Starfleet protocols. We would appreciate your assistance in this matter. Now . . ."

"No."

"I beg your pardon."

"I said 'no' and I think you heard me just fine."

After a pause, Admiral Bullock continuted.

"Ms. Torres, you are a . . . were . . . a Maquis traitor. It would be in your best interest to cooperate fully with the Admiralty. Now, Captain Janeway . . ."

". . . was an exceptional Captain in every sense of the word. She gave me opportunities that no one - no one - had ever given me before. She trusted me, and made me Chief Engineer of her ship. I know that Chakotay encouraged her, but it was ultimately her decision. And that was just one of the things she did to encourage the Maquis and the Starfleet crews to join together in one cause - to get home." B'Elanna paused, and stood. "No, you will not convince me to speak against Captain Janeway. I was proud to serve under her Command, and . . . and I would do so again."

"You would serve under her Command again, Ms. Torres? After spending seven years on the same ship with her and following her orders, fighting the Borg, and other warmonging species rather than retreat to a safer distance and plan an alternate course?"

B'Elanna was quiet for a moment, getting her anger under control before she spoke. Finally, she spoke quietly, but with force beneath her words.

"Just how much of the ship's logs did you read, Admiral? When you were looking for Captain Janeway's mistakes, did you stop to realize that she took us through those warmongers only because not to do so would have meant venturing many light years off course and perhaps never returning to Earth? Did you realize that at all times the Captain was aware of the fact that we were a scout ship to the Delta Quadrant, and that all information we could bring back to the Alpha Quadrant might benefit many species and save countless lives in some unforseen future? Captain Janeway is a scientist, and she never forgot that she was trained to discover whatever truths she could, for a cause she believed in." B'Elanna paused, and when she spoke again, her voice cracked. "Kathryn Janeway is grounded in her Starfleet teachings. She fully believes they won't let her down. I only wish I believed in something as strongly as she believes in that."

The room was quiet. Several eyes were cast down on the padds on the table in front of them. Kathryn Janeway's eyes were closed and her head was cast downward. She hadn't failed B'Elanna after all.

When she looked up again, she saw B'Elanna exit through the back door of the conference room. The door stood open for a moment, then Admiral Bullock raised his voice toward the back of the room.

"Next! Please, we don't have all day here!"

The Doctor made his way through the back door, with his Mobile Emitter clearly in view on his upper left arm. "I apologize, Admiral. I wanted to be sure the holoemitters were on line in this room before I walked in and just . . . disappeared. That can be so annoying."

"Yes," replied the Admiral, looking for direction from the padd in front of him. Finally, the Admiral looked up and motioned the Doctor into the chair in front of him.

"You are a hologram, correct?"

"Yes. That's why I need the holoemitters." Kathryn smiled. The Doctor did not like this one bit, and that was certain to bring out his worst bedside manner.

"Understood. Doctor . . . uh . . . Doctor . . . ."

"Just 'Doctor' will do fine."

"Yes, ah, Doctor, you served Voyager as primary physician for the full seven years in the Delta Quadrant, is that correct?"

"Give or take a week or two." When the Admiral merely looked up, the Doctor said "Yes."

"Very interesting. Holograms are not programmed to lie, or to cover truths in any way. This will prove interesting indeed." The Admiral seemed to be speaking to himself, but the words were not lost on the Doctor, although anyone who saw him would have sworn he hadn't heard the words at all.

"Doctor . . ."

"Yes?"

". . . Were there times in the seven years that Voyager was stranded in the Delta Quadrant that you felt Captain Janeway was not behaving in the . . . best way for a Captain to behave?"

"Since I am a physician and have not experienced the Starfleet Officer's training program, I would not know what exactly I would be comparing Captain Janeway's behavior to. Therefore, I must ask you to rephrase your question."

The Admiral sighed. This might not be as easy as he'd thought.

"Doctor, you are programmed to know when an officer is ill, either physically or psychologically, and should be relieved of duty, are you not?"

"Yes. So, your definition of poor 'behavior' is a physical disability or emotional imbalance. Interesting." The Doctor looked around the room. Kathryn smiled to herself. He was definitely trying the patience of the Admirals in the room. They were becoming restless and anxious.

"Doctor, let's cut to the chase." Admiral Bullock was certainly annoyed.

"Of course, Admiral." The Doctor seemed to be enjoying himself tremendously.

"We've reviewed your medical logs for the past seven years . . ."

"Good! They're fascinating, aren't they?"

"Yes. However, we noticed something even more interesting than the actual entries."

"Oh?"

"The absence of entries. Doctor, we have discovered several instances within your logs where information seems to be missing."

"Really?"

Admiral Bullock paused, seeming to collect himself.

"Doctor, to be specific, we found evidence of eleven 'missing' entries. These all seem to be during extremely stressful times when Voyager was either under attack or there were disagreements among the staff. And, most especially, these missing entries were noted when you and Captain Janeway were at odds with each other, when you gave her instructions she disagreed with . . . or, at certain times when she seemed to ignore your advice entirely." The Admiral paused, and looked up at the Doctor.

The Doctor understood that the Admiral was waiting for a reaction, so he merely said, "Hmm."

"Doctor, do you know why these entries are missing?"

"Yes."

"Yes? Please explain." The Admiral was certain that he'd finally stumbled onto something worthwhile.

"Well, it's very simple, really. Just prior to our disembarking from Voyager after docking at Deep Space 12, I was entering my final medical log because of the slight injuries the crew sustained during the interval in the wormhole . . ."

"Yes, yes, Doctor. Please continue."

". . . and, well, I'm ashamed to say that I experienced a slight malfunction, probably a glitch that occurred during the ride through the wormhole, you understand, and I attempted to record my log before my program had had a chance to stabilize, and unfortunately, some of the information within the medical logs were lost."

The Admiralty was looking at the Doctor, waiting for further explanation. When none was forthcoming, and the Doctor resumed looking around the conference room, an Admiral from the other end of the table leaned forward.

"Doctor, do you expect us to believe that these specific pieces of information just . . . happened to disappear at random?"

"I am not programmed to lie or deceive, Admiral." The Doctor held his head up proudly.

Kathryn actually laughed aloud, then caught herself. She shook her head in admiration for the Doctor's cunning explanation. She knew that on several occasions the Doctor had reported reprimands of her behavior in the ship's medical log, and she had expected to face the consequences after returning home. He had overruled her on exactly eleven occasions in the past seven years, and no matter the consequence, the arguments had not been pretty. On four of those occasions she had even refused to follow his orders. But somehow he had managed to erase the information from the ship's data processors, yet he had not erased the space where those bits of information had been stored. Kathryn knew that he had left those spaces intentionally, to make a point. No, he had not been programmed to lie or deceive, yet Kathryn had long ago allowed B'Elanna to advance the Doctor's program so that he would be able to evolve. And his advanced sensibilities had indeed evolved, and now he was protecting his Captain, and his friend.

The Doctor remained content in the chair, and awaited the next question. The Admiralty whispered among themselves, and Admiral Bullock looked down the row of Admirals seated to his right, judging their reactions. He sighed, and turned to the Doctor.

"Doctor, I have one more question."

"Certainly," said the Doctor, folding his arms across his chest.

"What is your personal opinion of Captain Janeway?"

"My personal opinion . . . ?" muttered the Doctor.

"Yes, not your medical opinion, but your personal opinion."

The Doctor dropped his pretenses. He unfolded his arms and rested his hands in his lap. He was suddenly all business.

"Kathryn Janeway is a capable, strong and determined Captain. If it weren't for her persistence and relentless optimism, we would not be in the Alpha Quadrant today. It was only through her efforts that we fought countless foes and won. We made First Contact with many new species of whom we had no previous knowledge. We made many friends, and we made many enemies. Throughout it all, Captain Janeway entrusted her tireless crew with responsibilities that would have been unheard of on any ordinary mission here in the Alpha Quadrant. Through her trust and guidance, most of the crewmembers on board Voyager have experienced much personal and professional growth. I have witnessed a Starfleet crew and a Maquis crew join together and work in harmony. And they were led by one Captain - Captain Kathryn Janeway, a Captain absolutely devoted to her crew, a Captain who showed mercy to every race, unless it threatened harm to her crew."

The Doctor paused. Then he looked up into the eyes of the rapt Admirals seated in front of him.

"You brought me here today to speak against Captain Janeway. You can't possibly know what it was like out there for all of us, in particular Kathryn Janeway. Have any one of you led an away mission that lasted seven years, been on duty for seven years straight? Held nearly 150 lives in your hands for seven years, while traveling through unknown territories, and encountering new civilizations, wondering all the while how you would possibly be able to continue to convince your crew that no matter what happened, you would get them safely home again?"

Here the Doctor paused again, briefly. His voice calmed, and he strove to hide the emotion beneath it.

"And have any of you ever known what it is like to be a hologram, a projection of light, energy and shadow, and live in a world of sentient life forms? A projection who is turned on and off at the will of others who enter your domain? And if you do know what that is like, if you can imagine what that would be like, imagine a Captain who grants you the right to control your own program, permission to turn yourself back on again when someone else happens to turn you off while you were in the middle of something important. Imagine a Captain who grants you the right to evolve, to study and learn, to have access to the holodecks so that you might learn to sing Opera, the right to learn from your own mistakes, and to take responsibility for your actions. The opportunity to fall in love. Imagine a Captain who treats you with the same respect she gives the sentient life forms aboard her ship." After a pause, the Doctor added, "Imagine that, if you can at all."

Kathryn was barely able to keep her tears at bay. She felt exhausted and sad. Why was this so disorienting? She no longer knew a life that did not involve running a star ship and commanding a crew. Yet these people that she had grown to care about very deeply were no longer a part of her crew. In fact, she no longer had a crew.

The Doctor stood slowly.

"Now imagine just one more thing, if you will - imagine a group of strangers who ask you to speak ill of the one individual who showed you compassion, and who epitomizes the sort of person we should all strive to be. You asked my personal opinion of Captain Kathryn Janeway. You now have it. I will be in my Sickbay aboard Voyager should you need to ask me anything further. Good day."

And with that, the Doctor walked proudly through the conference room, and exited through the same door as the others had done before him.

The room was quiet now. Even Admiral Bullock seemed to be losing his resolve to bring down the reputation of this respected Starfleet Captain.

Kathryn closed her eyes and covered her face with her hands for a moment to regain some sort of perspective. She felt strong hands on her shoulders, and looked up to see Admiral Paris looking at her with concern. She smiled a faint, sad smile at him and asked quietly, "Please, can't I go now?"

"Kathryn, you must believe me when I tell you I have no choice but to keep you here. It's almost over now. And you are better off to know what happens here than not to."

Kathryn looked up into his eyes.

"Are you sure, Admiral? Tell me, are you looking forward to hearing what your son is going to say here today?" Admiral Paris stiffened visibly. "I didn't think so," whispered Kathryn, just as they heard Tom Paris speak in the background, in the other room. "But let me assure you, Admiral. I know your son, and you have nothing to worry about. He won't disgrace you." She turned front, and sat straight in her chair, as Admiral Paris returned to the back of the room.

"Lieutenant Paris?"

"That's right."

"Thomas Eugene Paris?"

"The same. Son of Admiral Owen Paris. That's me."

"And you served Voyager as helmsman for the past seven years?"

"Actually, I just flew the ship, Admiral. I served Captain Janeway."

"Of course, Lieutenant," said Admiral Bullock slowly, trying to gauge Tom Paris's frame of mind. "And what do you think now about your seven years aboard Voyager?"

"These past seven years have been the best years of my life; better than anything I've known before."

"You mean you believe that serving your prison sentence aboard Voyager was preferable to serving it in the New Zealand prison where Captain Janeway found you?"

"No. I mean spending the past seven years in the Delta Quadrant with the Voyager crew and Captain Janeway has made me want to live again. I wasn't a very happy person when she met me."

"I see. And how did you feel about Captain Janeway when she first came to you?"

"It wouldn't have mattered *who* came to see me, Admiral. I would have agreed to escort *anyone* into the Bad Lands just to get out of that Penal Colony."

"And after you were brought aboard Voyager, and the ship was lost in the Delta Quadrant, how did you feel about serving Captain Janeway as her helmsman?"

"It didn't matter to me who I served; to be offered the opportunity to fly that ship, I would have served anyone."

"I see. And how do you feel about it now?"

"Now? Now I am glad that Voyager's Captain was Kathryn Janeway, if that's what you mean. She's the reason this crew and ship have returned to the Alpha Quadrant. She's the reason we survived out there in the Delta Quadrant, too. Not every Captain could fight the Borg twice and win, face Species 8472 twice and actually form a truce with them, not to mention deal with the Q Continuum every time Q felt like stopping in for a visit . . ."

"Q? Is this the same omnipotent being that Captain Picard . . . ."

"The same. Only Captain Janeway happens to be Q's son's godmother. I don't think even Captain Picard managed to become family."

"Fascinating."

"Look, what is it you want from me? We've been debriefed for weeks, and I for one would like to know how much longer this is going to take."

"This is the last session, Lieutenant Paris."

"Good. So, what do you want to talk about today?"

"We are discussing it now, Lieutenant. Captain Janeway's behavior as leader is suspect regarding Starfleet protocols. We feel she may have been negligent or irresponsible at times. We'd like you to clear some things up for us on this matter."

Tom laughed in disbelief.

"What? You want me to help you court-martial Captain Janeway, isn't that right?"

"Lieutenant, we are investigating the Captain's behavior . . ."

Tom laughed again.

"And you need the assistance of others, such as the senior staff, the folks who were in constant contact with the Captain on a daily basis. You can't find proof of her irresponsibility yourselves so you want us to do your dirty work for you."

Tom rose from his chair and walked around it. He turned to the entire group of Admirals present in front of him.

"I'm a bit surprised not to find my Father here, Admiral. It isn't like him not to be involved in the important matters at Starfleet Headquarters. For as long as I can remember, he was always here, working, being important. But you know, my Father looked upon Kathryn Janeway as his prized protégé, and maybe he still does, and maybe you asked him not to be here for that reason."

Tom paused a moment to collect his thoughts, then continued.

"You know, when I was younger, I used to wonder what qualities Kathryn Janeway had that made my Father care about her, what qualities did she have that I didn't have? I had never met her, but I heard about her at the dinner table every night that my Father actually made it home in time to eat with us. But now I know about her qualities first hand, and I understand how and why my Father was so proud of her achievements, and proud to be her sponsor at the Academy. And I can only hope that I've made her proud of me, the way she made my Father proud of her."

Tom paused again, then regained his composure, as well as his cocky attitude.

"Wait a minute - maybe my Father's read the ship's logs, too, and doesn't believe any of the charges you've drummed up against Captain Janeway! Maybe that's it. Maybe that's why he's not here today."

"Lieutenant, you are out of line . . . ." began Admiral Bullock.

"What a surprise; that's never happened before! Admiral, let me tell you something, it will be a cold day in hell before I involve myself in any way with your charges against Captain Janeway. She can only be described as the . . . as the bravest person I have ever known. I admire her, and I only hope that I've lived up to half of her expectations. She gave me the opportunity to learn, and to grow up, not to mention to serve as Voyager's pilot. I have finally become a responsible person through knowing Captain Janeway. I am a better person today than the prisoner who first boarded Voyager as a spectator, and I am proud to look each one of you in the eye today and say that you all pale in comparison to the brave Captain I served under in the Delta Quadrant. I only wonder if any of you would have had her endurance, or her perseverance - or her tolerance. Would your crews have made it home again?" Tom paused, and looked around the room again. "You want me to help you crucify Captain Janeway? No, thank you. I refuse. And if you want to throw me in the Brig, well go ahead, I've been there before."

Tom turned and started for the back door, but just before he reached it, he turned back to the Admiralty.

"You know, I'm glad my Father isn't here today. I'll tell myself it's because he stood up for what he believed in and refused to be a part of this ridiculous charade. Maybe I'll even be right."

He turned and walked out with his head held high. Kathryn heard the door close behind her, as Admiral Paris left the room. And Kathryn had never been so proud of Tom Paris as she was at this moment.

Kathryn was alone in the small room now, with half a glass of water and a huge window in front of her, allowing her to eavesdrop on everything that went on in that other, larger room. She was exhausted, and her heart ached. She knew what was coming. There were only two people left for the Admiralty to interview, Tuvok and Chakotay.

Just then she looked up to see that Tuvok had already entered the room and was seated in front of the Board. He looked front and center, as was his custom. Kathryn felt tears spring to her eyes as she looked at her old friend and confidante. She knew that he understood why she had not confided all of her intentions to him and Chakotay. She was the Captain, and Tuvok always respected her right to handle things in the way she felt was appropriate. Even if he disagreed with her decisions, he obeyed her orders. He was loyal to the end. And Kathryn Janeway already missed him. She may not get another command in her lifetime, and if she were court-martialed, she certainly would not.

It suddenly occurred to her that the thought of a future command was not unwelcome, nor unwanted. How odd, she thought, that after seven years in an unknown universe trying to get her crew home, she did not feel the need to rest. But then, she knew why.

She had lost the only man who could make her happy, and if she stood in one place for very long, she would not want to go on at all. So, she would run, and keep running. If she were court-martialed and forced to spend time in prison, she did not know how she would escape her demons then.

Tuvok was speaking . . .

"I do not know."

"You served under Captain Janeway's command for many years, Commander Tuvok, isn't that correct?"

"That is correct."

"And the ship's logs note that you were, in fact, with Captain Janeway when she made the decision to strand Voyager and the entire crew in the Delta Quadrant with no known way of returning home. Is this correct?"

"That is also correct."

"How did you feel about that?"

"I am a Vulcan, I did not 'feel' one way or another about it."

Admiral Bullock sighed. Vulcans.

"What was your *opinion*, Commander, regarding the Captain's decision?"

"At first I thought she was in error. I pointed out to her that the Prime Directive prohibits us from involving ourselves in the politics or affairs of other races."

"And what was her reaction?"

"Captain Janeway correctly pointed out that we had been drawn into the current situation by matters outside our control. We had not made the first contact ourselves. But we were now involved and the lives of an entire race was at stake."

"Do you believe that, Commander? Or did you simply accept Captain Janeway's opinion as fact?"

"I believe her opinion was correct. We had already encountered the Kazon in battle and we knew they were ruthless in their pursuits. The Ocampa had what the Kazon wanted most - water. And they would have destroyed the Ocampa rather than share rations with them."

"I see. So you believe that Captain Janeway made the right choice by destroying the array?"

"There was little alternative, Admiral. The rights of the many shall not be compromised for the rights of a few."

From her seat in the other room, Kathryn smiled. A twist on Vulcan philosophy.

"And how did you feel later, Commander, when Captain Janeway made a Maquis Captain named Chakotay her First Officer instead of you?"

"I did not feel . . ."

"What was your *opinion* about that, Commander Tuvok?" Admiral Bullock tried not to show his impatience, but Vulcans always tended to aggravate him.

"At first I again thought Captain Janeway acted in error. I believed I was the logical choice for First Officer. However, I soon understood why she chose Commander Chakotay as First Officer, and she was soon proven to be correct in her choice."

"She chose Commander Chakotay because he was a Maquis, and she felt he would be able to control the rest of the Maquis and convince them to act in a manner consistent with Starfleet protocols. Is this true?"

"That is partially correct, Admiral. She had also reviewed his Starfleet record and knew that he would be a worthy First Officer. He had captained many vessels in his own right, Starfleet and Maquis, and she believed his knowledge and expertise would become valuable assets on the Bridge when encountering enemies on our journey back to the Alpha Quadrant."

"And, in your opinion, was Commander Chakotay a valuable crewmember?"

"Yes. The Captain was correct in her assessment of Commander Chakotay's abilities."

"Do you believe Captain Janeway acted irresponsibly at any time during the seven years Voyager was stranded in the Delta Quadrant?"

Tuvok turned and looked directly at the Board for the first time.

"No, I do not."

"Would you serve under her Command again, Commander Tuvok, if the opportunity arose?"

"Indeed, I would."

Kathryn blinked back her tears once again. Old Friend, thank you for that.

"Were Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay involved at any time in a personal relationship, Commander Tuvok?"

"I do not see that my opinion . . ."

"I am not asking an opinion, Commander, I am asking if they were, at any time, engaged in a personal relationship."

Kathryn held her breath. Here it was, finally. The Admiralty had detected something in the ship's logs. No matter how hard she had tried to keep herself neutral with every member of her crew, her humanity had shown through somehow. As Seven would say, Humanity is flawed.

When Tuvok was silent, Admiral Bullock leaned forward and said, "Commander Tuvok, we must know the answer to this question."

"To what end?" asked Tuvok. Kathryn was surprised at Tuvok's question. She thought that he was the one person who knew without a doubt that she and Chakotay had never had an affair. She didn't expect him to hesitate now.

"Commander Tuvok, what is your answer to this question?"

"No." This was obviously not the answer the Admiralty was expecting. There actually seemed to be a few disappointed faces in the room, Kathryn noted. Perhaps they were just as bored as they looked, and were hoping that the entertainment was about to begin.

"No?" asked Admiral Bullock. "As a Vulcan, you will tell only the truth, isn't that right?"

"That is correct. There is no logic in telling a lie."

"Yet you state that the Captain and her First Officer had no personal feelings for each other?"

"I did not say that. I said they did not have a personal relationship in the sense that you are referring."

The Admiral sighed and leaned back in his chair.

"Tell me, Commander Tuvok, what sort of relationship did they have?"

"Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay share perhaps the most intimate of relationships without sharing physical intimacy. They know each other well, and they have shared much. They know precisely how the other will act or react to a given situation, and this knowledge has often served to protect Voyager and her crew."

"Protect the crew? How so, Commander Tuvok?"

"This shared knowledge is intuitive, Admiral. It is not shared telepathically, or in any other form that an alien species might understand and translate. Yet, the Captain and Commander have more often than not, acted in harmony. They often behave as one."

Tuvok knew without question that, to Lieutenant Paris's dismay, the two most senior officers had never physically formed bonds with each other. Tuvok had also witnessed the fire in their eyes grow in intensity over the years, without diminishing.

Kathryn smiled. Seven had obviously had an impact on Tuvok, though he would deny it if asked. And, Tuvok had obviously been very aware of the attraction between the Captain and Commander.

Kathryn was suddenly very glad that Tuvok had known. This would serve as confirmation to her that she had, indeed, once known Chakotay's feelings for her. She closed her eyes and fought against the tears that once again threatened to blind her.

The Admiral leaned forward and looked at Tuvok.

"Commander, it seems to be the crew's assessment that Captain Janeway acted responsibly, and without error, during Voyager's entire seven year journey. Is this also your assessment?"

"I believe that Captain Janeway made errors in judgment. She is a humanoid, and to err is human. Which decisions were flawed and which were not, is something that we shall never know, since it is impossible to undo that which has been done and do it differently. Therefore, I must conclude that Captain Janeway performed her duties to the best of her abilities, which are infinitely superior to the abilities of most."

Admiral Bullock actually suppressed a smile at this logical explanation. He hung his head for a moment in order to gather his thoughts. Finally, he raised his head and sat back in his chair.

"Thank you, Commander, for an insightful, if unemotional, assurance of the Captain's performance." 'And thank you for giving me a rare gift - deriving actual satisfaction from a Vulcan explanation,' he thought.

"You are welcome."

"You are dismissed, Commander."

Tuvok rose from the chair and bowed slightly toward the Admirals' table. He turned and left through the rear door, as the others had done before him. Admiral Bullock actually smiled at Tuvok's retreating back. Finally, he had underestimated a Vulcan. That was a pleasing thing to know.

As Tuvok left the room, he wondered not for the first time, where the Captain was today. He knew that the debriefing process would occupy her mind for the time being, but when things quieted down she would be forced to face the reality of her situation. At best, she would be free of court-martial charges, perhaps even decorated by Starfleet in the end, and given another commission. More than likely, Voyager would be retired and she would be given a newer, more efficient vessel. Tuvok knew that it would only be then that Captain Janeway would emotionally and mentally allow herself to let go of the crew that she had grown so protective of these past seven years.

He also wondered about the Captain's relationship with Commander Chakotay. Even though Tuvok had been present during their final confrontation in the Captain's Ready Room, he did not understand why they each considered that moment as their final test of faith in each other. It seemed to him that a possibility still remained for them to work out their differences. However, he also knew that the Commander was a very stubborn man, yet not nearly as stubborn as the Captain. Perhaps these weeks apart had forced them each to realize that their true feelings for each other would not allow them to remain apart, yet feel whole. Even though Tuvok did not understand the human need for emotion, he nevertheless knew that the need existed.

As she watched Tuvok leave the room, Kathryn again found herself thanking her lucky stars that she had had the steadfast support of her friend, Tuvok, these past months and years. She had relied on him for years for her moral support, and her conscience.

Kathryn stood, closed her eyes, and worked her neck muscles in order to release some of the tension she felt. Suddenly, she stopped what she was doing and held her breath. He was there, in that other room. She knew without a doubt that when she opened her eyes, Chakotay would be on the other side of the glass. She could always sense him; she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end when he was within a dozen meters of her.

Kathryn slowly opened her eyes, and her breath caught in her throat. Chakotay was there, all right. He had seated himself in the chair, and was waiting for Admiral Bullock to address him. Gods, she had missed him!

Admiral Bullock was speaking in the background, and Kathryn watched Chakotay nod and make a couple of one or two word comments, none of which she heard. She sat slowly, and looked through the glass at the man who made her heart quicken, who had taught her to find her Spirit Guide, to appreciate the little things when they were stranded on New Earth, to question Starfleet protocols. This man - what was so special about him that he could make her forget everything she had ever learned, ever known, ever believed in - by simply looking into her eyes?

The tears filled her eyes now, and she tried in vain to blink them away. But truthfully, she no longer cared. This was the last straw; the last of her resolve was washing away. Here was the man who made all the difference, and she had thrown away whatever chance they might have had at spending the rest of their lives together.

"Commander," Admiral Bullock was saying, "We simply want to know your opinion of Captain Janeway's general frame of mind during the past seven years."

"Her 'general frame of mind' was better than anyone else's. She promised the crew she would get them home, and she did. What else do you wish to know from me that you cannot learn from the ship's database?"

Chakotay was cold, distant. Kathryn knew what that meant. He was already distancing himself from the past seven years. He was trying to run from it all. Would he be able to forget her, to move on and find someone else to love and share his life with? A part of Kathryn wanted him to be happy more than anything else in the world, yet another part of her, selfishly, didn't want him to be able to move on so easily without her. Somehow she would run like hell, too, but she knew that it would take everything she had to outrun her loneliness.

"Commander, what sort of Captain was Kathryn Janeway?"

"Why do you want to know my opinion? You have the facts at your disposal from the ship's logs."

"It is important to . . ."

"To what? To discredit Captain Janeway? So that you may bring charges of court-martial against her?"

"Commander . . ." began the Admiral.

"Yes." Chakotay stood and began to pace beside his chair. "I am a Starfleet Commander, appointed by Captain Kathryn Janeway. I was her First Officer for seven years, and I stood by her side through more direct attacks from enemy fire than any one of you has ever imagined. Together we faced more First Contact situations than any of you have ever dreamed of, with some races more primal and some more technologically advanced than any of you can understand. We fought for our freedoms and our rights, and we celebrated our victories, large and small, with our friends and our new family on Voyager. Captain Janeway and I sat side by side on the Bridge for seven years and as each year passed, I was amazed that she could still surprise me by thinking of new ways to defeat our enemies, new ways to improve First Contact situations, new strategies for protecting our people and our ship against alien attacks, new ways for detecting wormholes and anomalies, possible ways home. She continued to astonish me with her undying efforts, her persistence in her quest to get her crew home. She strove to show only enthusiasm for any and all progress made in our journey, no matter how small. And by her own show of strength, she encouraged every one of her crewmembers to become better, and stronger, than they had ever been before. Through Captain Janeway's example, each and every crewman aboard Voyager has returned home wiser, braver and stronger than when he left."

Here Chakotay paused and looked down a moment, and when he looked up, the anger had left his eyes and his face, and his voice nearly broke when he spoke again.

"Once, I left this uniform behind me, thinking I would never look upon it again. I left Starfleet and its protocols behind me, and I joined the Maquis cause in the fight against the Cardassians."

Again, Chakotay paused, but only for a moment. Then he looked at the Admiralty, one by one, and continued.

"I never looked back. I never forgave Starfleet for seeking a treaty with the Cardassians, for being cowards, I thought at the time. And when I joined forces with Captain Janeway, she asked me to once again wear this uniform. I wanted to resist, but I knew that by putting on this uniform, I would be better able to convince the Maquis crewmen to work hand in hand with their Starfleet counterparts. She knew that as well. And we were right; it worked."

Again, Chakotay paused. He was putting something into words that he had only felt before.

"I once again wore this uniform, but it was different this time. Now, I was First Officer, not Captain. And I was following a Captain who was unlike anyone I'd ever known before. She taught me what the true meaning of 'Starfleet' is, Admirals. Starfleet isn't merely a set of rules and regulations written on a padd, and memorized by every Starfleet Cadet the moment they enter the Academy. It isn't the Prime Directive, with all its fallacies. Starfleet isn't out there somewhere, it's in here, it's what's in your heart."

Now Chakotay stood front and center at the table where the Admiralty sat, rapt with attention at Chakotay's firm, but gentle, words.

"Kathryn Janeway embellishes all that Starfleet once stood for, what you all think you still believe in. But Kathryn Janeway is more 'Starfleet' than any one of you. She just returned home from seven years spent in the Delta Quadrant with a piecemeal crew, spreading a little bit of 'heart', and faith, wherever Voyager traveled. And now, you want to punish her for believing in you."

"Commander . . ."

"I once told her that I would not sacrifice today for a tomorrow that may never come. Well, Kathryn Janeway never gave up on tomorrow. She promised to get her crew home again, and she would have spent her entire lifetime looking for a way, for as long as it took."

Chakotay paused a moment to find the words he sought.

"I have only one thing further to say: If you pursue a court-martial against Captain Kathryn Janeway, I will make it my mission in life to discredit your decision. And I will have nearly 150 Voyager crewmen, and the media, at my disposal. So, you decide, Admirals. Make your decision quick, and let us all go and find some sort of peace for ourselves. Kathryn Janeway performed her duties admirably, and now it's your turn to do the same."

And with that said, Commander Chakotay turned and left the room, and never once looked back.

Kathryn thought that her heart would break. He had believed in her, she had always known that. Even in her weakest moments, he was there, always there for her, supporting her, listening, lifting her spirits. Would she ever see him again? If she called his name now, would he come?

The rear door opened, and Admiral Paris waited for Kathryn to join him. When she felt she could stand, she did. When she felt she could walk without weakness, she made her way through the rear door, where she saw that the two security guards were waiting there with Admiral Paris.

As she and the Admiral began to walk down the hall with the two guards several steps behind them, she found her voice and whispered aside to Admiral Paris, "I had to listen to every word each of my senior staff said, Admiral, and you were free to leave when the going got a bit tough. It doesn't seem fair, does it?"

"No, Kathryn, it isn't fair." He stopped and turned to her, forcing Kathryn to stop as well. "But you were right about my son. I've never been more proud of him than I was today. Thank you for allowing him to find his own way, Kathryn. You did what I was never able to do."

Kathryn softened. Admiral Paris had his faults, but didn't everyone? She smiled slightly at him, and he relaxed a bit for the first time in hours. They both turned and started down the hallway again.

"And, one more thing, Kathryn?"

"Yes."

"My son and a Klingon?"

"Half Klingon, Admiral." She glanced over her shoulder at Admiral Paris and saw that he had a big smile on his face, and his eyes had softened.

"I certainly didn't know my son had it in him to attract a Klingon woman, let alone keep her happy."

Kathryn smiled.

"And, believe me, Admiral, this one isn't easy to keep happy!"

"Really? What can you tell me about her, Kathryn?"

They both stopped walking again, and turned to face each other.

"Well, Admiral, she is easily irritated by Vulcan rationale, she can't stand an unkempt engine room, and she really goes berserk when a Captain demands thrusters and there hasn't been time to repair them since the last attack."

Admiral Paris smiled.

"I like her already."

"I thought you might."

They began walking again, and stopped outside Kathryn's room.

Two new security guards were waiting by the door, replacing the two that had brought them back. The Admiral nodded slightly at them and they returned the nod. Good, he recognized them.

Kathryn didn't trust any stranger just now. The original guards moved away and continued down the hall.

"This room is already a prison, you know. They don't even have to move me to ensure that I'll suffer greatly as a result of court-martial."

Admiral Paris put his hands on her shoulders.

"Kathryn, you have no idea how important this session was today on your behalf. Each one of your senior staff respects you and trusts you implicitly. They continue to stand behind you, Kathryn. And, as we've discussed, the Admiralty has nothing without endorsement from one or more of your staff. And they didn't get that today."

Kathryn looked away.

"Has my senior staff been allowed to leave the grounds, Admiral?"

"They will remain here tonight in case the Admiralty needs clarification on some point from their interview today. But they will be allowed to leave tomorrow morning." Kathryn nodded. "Also, I still have my say in front of the Admiralty later today."

"You, Admiral?" asked Kathryn, incredulously. "What could they possibly ask you?"

"I have volunteered as a character witness on your behalf, Kathryn."

"Really. Does it matter now?"

"Believe it or not, the Admiralty is weighing evidence and trying to do what they think is right. I'm not saying I agree with how they have chosen to handle this . . ."

"Ever the diplomat."

"I suppose that's true, Kathryn. But if I recall correctly, you learned quite a lot about diplomacy by studying with me."

"More than you'll ever know, Admiral." She looked at him with her eyes full of respect and admiration. She would never rob him of the credit he deserved.

Kathryn turned to go inside her room, and Admiral Paris began to move away down the hallway. After several steps, he stopped and turned back.

"And Kathryn?"

She stopped and turned.

"Yes, Admiral?"

"I believe there is one more witness on your behalf later this evening as well." At Kathryn's slight frown, Admiral Paris smiled. "Some old crazy Admiral who threatened the entire Starfleet staff with his return to the Cadet training program if they didn't release you immediately. He said something about having a date with you in the near future that they had better not interfere with."

Kathryn smiled. Admiral Picard.

"Thank you for letting me know."

Admiral Paris nodded, and continued on his way.

Kathryn went inside her small room and shut the door. She hadn't been kidding when she told Admiral Paris that it was a prison. She sat on the bed, and kicked off her shoes. She was exhausted. After a moment, Kathryn automatically looked toward the small window on the other side of the room. Oh, what she wouldn't give to be able to look at the stars tonight. Somehow, that would calm her and perhaps bring her a bit of peace.

Finally, Kathryn stood and crossed to the small desk across the room, and opened its single drawer. She took out the small bundle that Chakotay had helped her put together. Maybe tonight she would contact her Spirit Guide.



While Kathryn Janeway was attempting to contact her Spirit Guide, Chakotay was once again hearing her voice call his name in his sleep. He tossed and turned, and struggled with the sheets, and his conscience.

Finally, still in his dreams, when his heart could no longer stand to hear her voice, his mind shouted to her, "What is it, Kathryn?"

Then, out of the sudden silence, came her answer.

"You know how stubborn I can be."



The following morning, Kathryn woke with a start. She had been dreaming, but she couldn't remember what the dream was about.

She sat up in bed, still in her uniform. She shook her head, trying to remember her dream. No, dreams. There had been a lot of images, blending together, then pulling apart. Not just dreams, some of the images were of happier times aboard Voyager, and times of hardship, then times of celebration. She remembered Neelix bringing a birthday cake to Kes, during her second birthday celebration. They had celebrated in Sandrine's bar that evening, and everyone was smiling. It seemed like such a long time ago.

Chakotay had been there in her dreams, too. He was always there, beside her, behind her, leading her, always there to let her know that she wasn't alone. No matter what, he had told her, she would never be alone as long as he was alive. But she was alone all the same, and she needed him beside her now. She felt so empty inside, and she needed his strength to help her find her way.

After a moment, Kathryn rose and began to get ready for the day ahead. Whatever the day would bring, it would bring. There was nothing she could do now to change whatever decision would be handed down to her this morning.

After she bathed and dressed, and forced herself to eat some bread and butter with her coffee, she was nearly beside herself with anxiety. Surely they would come for her soon.

But it was several hours before she was to know her fate.

At precisely 0200 hours, Admiral Paris came to fetch Captain Janeway, then escorted her back down the hallway they had traveled only yesterday. But this time, he led her directly into the larger room where the entire Admiralty was already assembled.

As the Admiral and the Captain entered the room, the members of the Board stopped moving and talking and studying their padds.

Admiral Paris made his way to the back of the room and sat, and Captain Janeway automatically continued forward to the chair that each of her senior staff had sat in the day before. As she stood before the chair, Admiral Bullock spoke.

"Captain Kathryn Janeway?"

"Yes." Kathryn held her head high, and her voice was strong.

Amazingly, she felt rested.

"These past seven years have proven to be quite a journey for you and your crew. We have debriefed each of you and spent hours acquainting ourselves with your ship's logs. Frankly, Captain, since the logs are so detailed, and since much of the information is new to the Alpha Quadrant, it will take quite some time to glean all the information from your excellent database. We thank you for being so exact."

Kathryn nodded slightly. Whatever this was, it was not what she expected.

"Captain Janeway, as you are well aware, we spent the entire day yesterday speaking with each of your senior staff regarding your behavior as Captain of Voyager during the seven years you commanded them in the Delta Quadrant."

Kathryn nodded again.

"Captain, we have studied many of your First Contact encounters, and, frankly, because these situations were so new, and quite unlike anything in our history, this Board of Inquiry actually found that each of us would have handled circumstances quite differently than you did. And quite differently from each other. Was any one of us more 'right' than the other? There is no way to know. We were not in the Delta Quadrant with you. We were not in your shoes. There was no one for you to rely on except yourself, and your good judgment, to save your people and your ship from harm, and to get them home again. Your crew believes you to be reliable and just, and they believe that it was your inspiration, your undying courage and determination that brought Voyager home again. They believed in you for seven years, Captain Janeway, and they believe in you now. Based on what we have read, seen and heard, we have concluded our investigation. We rule that there is no just cause to bring charges of court-martial against you. We believe you behaved in a courageous and Captainly manner."

Admiral Bullock stood, and the other Admirals followed suit.

"Captain Kathryn Janeway, you are excused from duty for a period of two months in order to rest and get your feet back on the ground, so to speak, after which time you are to report directly to me, for a full set of new orders. You are dismissed."

The entire Admiralty then stood tall and straight and saluted the Captain standing before them. This was the highest honor a Captain could receive after an act of heroism.

Kathryn paused briefly, taking in the moment in disbelief.

"Thank you, Sir," she managed to say, then returned the salute. The Admiralty relaxed visibly. Captain Janeway nodded at Admiral Bullock and he smiled at her and nodded back. She then turned and walked swiftly through the back door. Admiral Paris followed her as she continued down the hallway without stopping, until she was outside in the open air and sunshine once more.

"Kathryn."

She stopped and turned toward the Admiral.

"I will arrange to have your things packed and ready for you to pick up later," said Admiral Paris. Kathryn nodded her understanding. "Kathryn, this is a wonderful day for Starfleet, and for you. And . . . I hope you are able to share it with *him* later today."

Kathryn looked at the Admiral.

"How did you know?" she asked.

"The moment I saw the two of you on Voyager's Bridge together, I knew how you felt about each other, Kathryn. It was as evident as though it were something . . . tangible. Don't let him get away, Kathryn. Seven years is a long time to waste."

"I'm afraid it's too late, Admiral. We more or less said our good-byes before docking Voyager."

Kathryn looked at the ground to keep from showing the Admiral how she felt about that.

"A pity. But perhaps you have a choice." Kathryn looked up into the Admiral's eyes. "Swallow your pride, Kathryn. Some things are worth it." Then the Admiral looked at the sky, and Kathryn's gaze followed. "I envy you, Kathryn. You've just returned from the mission we've all dreamed of, planned or not. But, for you, it will forever be bittersweet if you cannot share your memories with the man you love."

Again, Kathryn turned to look into Admiral Paris' eyes. She managed to smile a sad smile.

"And when did you become a prophet?" she asked softly. "No one would believe there is this side of you."

The Admiral smiled.

"That's true. Everyone thinks of me as a tyrant, and I would appreciate your not dispelling that myth."

His smile widened and his eyes actually danced. Kathryn smiled sadly in return, then nodded. Finally, she turned and walked away. She needed some quiet time just now, time to think.

Kathryn walked directly toward the Campus gardens, enjoying the feel of real sunshine on her body, and the smell of real lavender in the air. Real air, not the artificial atmosphere of Voyager. Kes would have loved it here. Perhaps tomorrow she would take some time to really look at the gardens, and enjoy the fragrant scents of all the exotic flowers.

Perhaps she would do just that.

Tomorrow.

And perhaps Boothby would still be here, tending the roses. She would look for him, tomorrow.

Kathryn walked to the small footbridge that separated the north gardens from the south gardens. She had spent many hours in this section of the garden when she was a Cadet, thinking, dreaming.

How long ago that seemed now. How far she had come in such a short time. She was just now all grown up, yet she felt so old, so tired. Where had all those in-between years gone?

Feeling the warmth of the sun on her body, and seeing the beauty of the gardens around her, it would have been easy to convince herself that she had merely dreamed the past seven years, if it weren't for the pain in her heart.

Kathryn walked to the furthermost edge of the bridge, and leaned on the railing. She looked at the sky, remembering, and she felt so totally alone. She had done what had to be done. She had made a promise to her crew, and nothing in this world, or any other, would have prevented her from getting her crew home. She would have spent her lifetime with that one goal in front of her, if necessary. She knew that in her heart, so there could be no regrets, could there? She had succeeded in bringing Order out of Chaos.

Suddenly, Kathryn felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Her heartbeat quickened and her breath caught in her throat. She quickly stood up straight. He was here. He was nearby. She forced herself to take a deep breath and calm her heartbeat before turning around.

But when she turned, her heart began to beat quickly again as she looked at him.

Chakotay.

She forced herself to ignore her emotions; this had happened many times before. She had often had to compose herself during those times Chakotay had leaned over her shoulder to study something with her or to look at something she was showing him. She had felt his presence at those times, his body close to hers, and she always thought that he knew she was struggling to keep her wits about her, and that he leaned in just a bit closer on purpose. She thought that then, and she knew it in her heart now.

Chakotay had found her, and it hadn't taken him long. All he'd had to do was stop and concentrate, think of where exactly Kathryn would go given free reign of Starfleet Headquarters, and Starfleet Academy. She had a soft spot in her heart for the lavish gardens at the Academy, and for Boothby, who had supplied her with roses for her quarters while she was a Cadet.

Chakotay had stood from a distance and watched her as she found her place on the footbridge. His heart and his pride had waged a war inside him about whether or not to go to her; his heart had won, and here he was. He had watched her for ten full minutes from afar, collecting his courage to go to her, to see her one more time.

He would give her one more chance to come to him. He had offered her his heart on more than one occasion, and she had always refused it. But always, she would leave a spark of hope for him to cling to. He didn't know about now, though. Not after his angry parting shot in her Ready Room, with Tuvok present. He was sure she had considered that moment, their parting moment, as he had.

But now he had to know for sure. She had asked him to be persistent, and he was doing just that. One last time.

As he neared her, Chakotay could feel Kathryn suddenly become more aware of her surroundings, and stiffen slightly. Could she sense that he was near? He had always wondered if she could sense him, as he could her. So often he had found telling signs that she could do just that.

He stopped several meters from her, at the edge of the clearing. He had always loved watching the sunlight dance on her auburn hair. It had pained him when she had cut it, but he'd also understood that she needed to be free of it. He'd often thought that when she had cut her hair, it was an unspoken gesture of cutting ties with Starfleet and the Federation, for it had happened concurrently with the beginning of her acceptance of the fact that Voyager may never reach home again.

Now, Chakotay watched the sun dance over Kathryn's hair and realized that it was beginning to grow long again. He nearly smiled at the thought, but tried to get hold of himself instead. He did not come here to wear his heart on his sleeve once again. He had come to see that Kathryn was all right, and to show his heart that he had to try to move on without her. But then she turned around, and looked straight in his direction, and into his eyes. She *had* to have felt his presence.

Kathryn stood looking at Chakotay for what seemed an eternity. They both simply stood, and stared. Finally, Kathryn forced herself to speak.

"Hi," she said softly.

Damn! She could barely force her voice above a whisper.

"Hi," he repeated softly. Well, that was prolific. And it felt as though the pressure on his throat was cutting off his voice. "Still watching the stars, Captain?" he managed to ask. And why had he called her 'Captain'?

She never let go of his eyes.

"When I was a little girl, my Father used to tell me that if I chose just the right star to tell my wish to, it would come true."

"And did it ever work out that way?"

He was reverting to his old Maquis ways, he thought. Don't believe in good fortune, for it rarely touches those who aren't pure of thought and deed.

"You're here now, aren't you?"

She'd said it aloud, even though she hadn't meant to.

As soon as she had blurted it out, she wished she hadn't. It was too honest for their current situation. They were sparring with each other, each jockeying for position, any comfortable position. They tore their gaze from each other, and looked away.

Finally, Chakotay looked back at Kathryn.

"Is it over?" he asked, needing to know for sure that she would be spared a general court-martial.

"Finally," she answered in what was nearly a whisper. That was behind her now, and she didn't want to give it entry into this, more important, conversation.

The light was waning and the air was sweet with the soft scents from the gardens around them. Chakotay noticed the pink rose bushes nearby. They were pretty, but not as pretty as peace roses.

But the peace roses had been a special hybrid he had made especially for the woman he loved, nearly six years ago. Six years? Had he loved her that long? Sometimes he couldn't remember exactly. At times he felt he had loved her forever, and sometimes he was caught unaware with fresh new emotions by something so simple as a smile, a touch, a certain way she looked at him, a joke she would tell, her laugh. And when she spoke to him in that special way . . . No! He couldn't do this now! This was not what he had come for.

Kathryn watched Chakotay struggle with his emotions. She tried to understand his turmoil.

Why had he come?

Was it merely to confirm their good-bye, to put closure to this seven-year episode in the life of the Angry Warrior?

At that thought, she felt her tears begin to betray her, but she forced them away with all her might. She would not become weak now; she would not give in to her temptations and tell him she needed him. He had to seek his own journey from here, and he had decided to do that without her. He had made that much clear to her during that last episode in her Ready Room, with Tuvok there to witness the entire, horrible event.

After seven years of being together day in and day out as Captain and First Officer, she realized how very much she had come to depend on him. She no longer knew how strong she was without him, for he had become so much a part of her.

"Well, you did it, Captain. You got your crew home," Chakotay said gently, forcing himself to speak, to bring his thoughts back to the present.

"*We* got *our* crew home, Commander."

If he was using Command titles, then so would she. And she would be damned if he would give her all the credit for something that she would never have been able to accomplish without him beside her.

Chakotay was quick to respond.

"You can say that, Kathryn. You may even believe it. But the fact is we wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for your determination and strength."

"And when I was weak, I took my strength from you."

She took a small step toward him, wanting him to understand that this was true.

Kathryn heard Chakotay take a deep breath. Was it as difficult for him to have this discussion as it was for her? How could it be? He was the one who had made the decision to let go, to no longer pursue hopes of a future for the two of them together.

When Chakotay felt he was able, he decided he had to try to end this somehow, and asked, "What will you do now?"

Kathryn actually smiled a weak, small smile.

"I was going to treat myself to a wonderful dinner tonight, but I can't decide between Italian and Chinese food."

Chakotay reacted with a small smile of his own, though where it came from he would never know. She still had the power to move him, to control his every emotion.

'Good try, Kathryn,' he thought. 'But I can't allow you to lighten this conversation. I need it to stay where it is.'

"And then what?" Chakotay finally managed to ask.

But she was too honest.

"I'm not sure." She realized after she said it, how very sad that made her feel. "You?" she managed to whisper back to him.

"I don't know."

So here they were, Captain and Commander - two fearless leaders who had fought foes and won victories in the Delta Quadrant for seven long years, and had then brought their crew home. Two strong, steadfast leaders who knew all the answers to all the questions, who made snap decisions while in the heat of battle and pushed their wits to the end to find new ways to tackle old problems, when no logical answer was within reach.

Two lonely, lost souls who should be able to commiserate together, but wouldn't.

Finally, Kathryn could stand the silence between them no longer. And pride be damned.

"Well, if you've no plans for dinner, you're welcome to join me."

Had her voice really come out so forlorn, so hopeful? Had he heard the same thing in her voice that she had? She looked him in the eye, searching for the answer.

Chakotay knew that if he allowed it, if he even dropped his guard for one moment, Kathryn Janeway would be under his skin worse than ever before. He needed her more at this moment than he had ever needed, or wanted, her before.

And if his ears weren't deceiving him, he thought he had heard an invitation in her voice that had nothing to do with dinner. He had to be honest with her, completely honest; he had to leave her tonight knowing that he did so with no questions left unanswered in his mind, or in his heart.

"I can't do that, Kathryn," he answered her. And then he added, "Not unless there is more than just dinner."

Kathryn searched Chakotay's eyes, but found no answer there. She had to answer him, but she didn't understand, and so she asked him, "What do you mean?"

Chakotay took two steps toward Kathryn. The light was growing fainter still, and he had to be able to see into her eyes as he told her his answer.

"We've already had dinner, Kathryn. We've danced all the dances and told all the stories, and shared moonlit sails on Lake George. We've fought our enemies side by side, and protected our crew, together." He paused, not trusting his voice to continue without taking the time to swallow the lump that was suddenly in his throat. "I can't have dinner with you tonight, Kathryn, and then just walk away."

Kathryn knew she hadn't come this far just to turn away now, and she took another step toward Chakotay. This was the time for all the cards to be dealt.

"Then don't walk away. Stay for breakfast . . . in the morning."

She had taken a risk, but it no longer mattered.

Chakotay struggled with himself longer and harder than he had ever done in his life. For seven years, he would have sold his very soul for the chance to hold Kathryn, to love her, for one night. He had dreamed of listening to her heartbeat while lying next to her, and seeing, just once, a look of undying love in her eyes.

Closing his eyes for a brief moment to collect himself, he opened them again to find that Kathryn had closed the distance between them further. When he spoke, his voice was barely above a whisper.

"I need more than that now, too, Kathryn."

"What do you need, Chakotay?" she asked softly, her voice barely above a whisper. She stared deeply into his eyes, those incredible eyes that had told her how much he cared for her, for nearly as long as she could remember. She had to know everything; nothing could go unsaid now.

Did she have any idea how that voice, and those eyes, affected him? He couldn't give in now, not to the promise of just a few hours of what his dreams had been made of for nearly longer than he could remember. If he loved her tonight, and she expected him to leave tomorrow, there was no longer a question about whether he would be able to survive without her. He may as well die tonight.

Suddenly, Chakotay found a strength he didn't know he had left.

He looked deeply into Kathryn's eyes, took another step toward her and answered her question, knowing full well that he was once again wearing his heart on his sleeve.

"I need a promise, a commitment from you, Kathryn. I want us to share the future together, whatever time each of us has left. No matter what happens in life, from this day forward, I want you next to me when I close my eyes at night, and when I open them again in the morning. I need you, Kathryn. I want you by my side, and not just tonight and in the morning, but always."

Had he said too much? Was it still the wrong time? He continued to look into her eyes, and suddenly he saw that they were filling with tears, but she tried to force them away.

"And then you'll have dinner with me?" she asked softly, through the tears that still choked her.

"What?"

Had he heard her correctly?

"If I give you my heart, and promise I'll always be at your side, then you'll have dinner with me tonight?"

Chakotay nodded, not knowing what else to do.

Then Kathryn closed the distance between them, and they stood toe to toe, looking into each other's eyes. Suddenly, she smiled up at him, and in that voice of velvet, said the words he would remember until the day he died, the words that had made it all worthwhile.

"You've owned my heart for years, Chakotay. And I'll never turn you away again, I promise." And, as the tears threatened to return, Kathryn said softly, "Now, I have just one question."

Chakotay still couldn't believe he had heard her correctly, and answered automatically.

"What's that?"

"Do you prefer Italian or Chinese?"

The remark suddenly registered, and Chakotay smiled slowly, then broadly, as the tears now threatened to overtake his eyes. Kathryn smiled back at him, and her eyes twinkled with mischief, and then something more.

Chakotay slowly brought both his hands up to Kathryn's face. His left hand caressed her cheek and his right hand touched her chin, allowing his thumb to gently brush her lower lip. Chakotay looked longingly at her lips, then back into her eyes, and Kathryn saw more desire there than she could have ever imagined. Just as Kathryn thought that she couldn't stand it any longer, Chakotay began to lower his lips to hers. And when his lips finally, gently, touched hers, Kathryn Janeway knew that she had finally come home.

THE END


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