Disclaimer:  All the characters as well as the plot and dialogue from “Endgame” belong to Paramount - I’ve just changed things around a little.

Rating:  PG-13

Acknowledgements:  The first part of the story, in the Delta and Alpha Quadrants, is taken from Diane Carey’s novelization of “Endgame”. Also, Geoffrey Mandel’s “Star Trek Star Charts” has proved most helpful in determining the political configuration of the Gamma Quadrant.   As always, thanks to Shayenne for pointing out errors and omissions.
 
 



By Mary S.

           Captain Janeway and an older version of herself from the future, Admiral Janeway, walked down the corridor outside Astrometics.   The admiral’s mouth curled in a cynical smirk as she listened to her younger self.

           “We have an opportunity here,” declared the captain decisively, “to deal a crippling blow to the Borg.  It could save billions of lives!”

           “I didn’t spend the last ten years looking for a way to get this crew home earlier just so you could throw it all away on some intergalactic goodwill mission!” came the older woman’s snarled reply.

           Kathryn stopped, appalled by what she was hearing.   This woman couldn’t be her!  It wasn’t possible that she could become so jaded, so selfish! – was it?

           The admiral was continuing her argument.  “Seven years ago, you had a chance to use the Caretaker’s array to get home.  Instead you destroyed it.”

           “I did what I knew was right.”   How many times had she had this argument with herself?  She knew what was coming next.

           “You put the lives of strangers ahead of your crew…”

           Kathryn’s eyes hardened.   “You got home, that means I will, too.  It may take a little longer…”

            Admiral Janeway’s face was set in stone, her voice hard.  “Seven of Nine is going to die.”

           The captain stared at her, her face paling.   Surely she must have heard wrong.  “What?”

           The voice was implacable.  “Three years from now.  She’ll be injured on an away mission.  She’ll make it back to Voyager and die in the arms of her husband.”

           Kathryn’s voice fell to a whisper.  “Husband?”

           The other shoe dropped, as the admiral answered almost maliciously.  “Chakotay.”

           Oh god, no!

           Stunned into silence, she stared at her future self in horror.  It couldn’t be true, surely!    She wouldn’t put it past herself to lie in order to get her way.   And the admiral was most determined.

           The older Janeway was speaking again.   “He’ll never be the same after Seven’s death.  And neither will you.”

           Kathryn peered at her, trying to decide if she was telling the truth, trying to find a way out.   “If I know what’s going to happen, I can avoid it.”

           The other stared back almost contemptuously.   “Between this day and the day I got Voyager home, I lost twenty-two crew members.  And then, of course, there’s Tuvok.”

           The captain nearly staggered.   “What about him?”

           The admiral grinned sadistically.  “You’re forgetting the Temporal Prime Directive, Captain…”

           “To hell with it!” snapped her younger self.

           The older Janeway gazed at her almost sadly as she delivered the final blow.  “Tuvok has a degenerative neurological condition that he hasn’t told you about.   There’s a cure in the Alpha Quadrant…”

           Kathryn stood stock-still, her brain pummeled again and again with one horrifying image after another.   Seven, Chakotay, Tuvok!   Dear heaven!   She couldn’t lose them, never mind twenty-one more!    What was she going to do?!
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 
 

           Captain Janeway sat in her ready room, her eyes fixed on Tuvok’s face as he confirmed the admiral’s words.

           “…it will be several years, however, before the symptoms become serious.   Until then, the doctor can control my condition with medication.”

           Janeway nodded slowly.  “But is it true that there is a cure in the Alpha Quadrant?”

           He looked down briefly before meeting her eyes.  “Yes.  It is called the ‘fal-tor-voh’.  It requires a mindmeld with another Vulcan.”

           “And you can’t meld with one of the other Vulcans here, on Voyager?”

           The answer was obvious – if he could, he would have already done so.

           Tuvok’s voice remained stoic.   “None of them is compatible.”

           “I see.”   She paused, before continuing.  “But members of your family are.   Tuvok, why didn’t you say something before?    You must have realized when I asked you to find a way to destroy the hub, that you were, in effect, sentencing yourself to death.”

           He gazed at her steadily, his expression never changing – the quintessential Vulcan.  His reply reflected everything that he was.   “To quote Ambassador Spock – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

           She nearly burst into tears, but restrained herself, schooling her expression to remain detached.   Under the weight of his incredible sacrifice, it was the least she could do.

           She rose to her feet and tapped her combadge.   “Janeway to the senior staff.   Meet me in the briefing room in ten minutes.”   She waited a beat before hailing the admiral and requesting her presence.

           She glanced at Tuvok, who had risen when she did and was waiting for her to precede him onto the bridge.    “We’re not out of options yet, Commander.   Maybe if we all put our heads together, we can find a way to have our cake and eat it, too.”

           Tuvok hesitated, clearly mystified at her metaphor.  “Cake?”  he repeated.  “Captain, what does a nutritionally valueless substance have to do with destroying the transwarp hub?”

           She grinned up at him, her eyes starting to dance.  “Ahh, that’s the secret now, isn’t it?   Come along, Commander, we have some work to do.”

           She strode onto the bridge, a spring in her step once more.   They had come so far, had beaten the odds so many times.   She wasn’t about to accept defeat just yet!
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Over an hour later, they had devised a semblance of a plan.   It had a lot of holes, and the chances of Voyager’s surviving to return to the Alpha Quadrant were slim, but – it was a plan.   It would, however, need a lot of modifications to make it viable.

           At the moment, Tuvok held the floor, a graphic of the transwarp hub displayed on the monitor behind him.   “Once inside the hub, we would fire a spread of transphasic torpedoes.”

           “They would be programmed to detonate simultaneously,” explained Seven.

           Tuvok continued.  “Assuming the torpedoes penetrate the shielding, the conduits should start to collapse in a cascade reaction.”  He paused, then added the kicker.  “In order to avoid the shock wave, we would have less than ten seconds to exit the hub.”

           The room was silent after he finished, each person calculating the odds of survival.

           The captain turned her head slowly, letting her gaze pass over each familiar face.   They were so dear to her, these people.   She made an instant decision – this time, they would all make the call.

           Her voice, low and intense, brought their attention back to her.  “Seven years ago, I made a decision that stranded this crew in the Delta Quadrant.  I don’t regret it, but I didn’t know all of you then, and Voyager was just a starship.  It’s much more than that now.  It’s our home.

           “I could order you to carry out this plan and I know none of you would hesitate.  But I’m not going to do that.  You know the people who work under you and you know what your own hearts are telling you.  So we’re not going to attempt this unless everyone in this room agrees.  No one will think less of you if you don’t.”

           “Captain?” came Harry Kim’s voice.

           She turned to gaze at him, nodding.   “Go ahead, Harry.”

           He paused, collecting his thoughts, before starting to pace forward slowly.  “I think it’s safe to say no one on this ship has been more obsessed with getting home than me.  But when I think of all we’ve been through, maybe it’s not the destination that matters – maybe it’s the journey.”  He smiled at Chakotay as he passed.  “I can’t think of any place I’d rather be, or any people I’d rather be with.”

           They turned as one to face the viewport, as Tom lifted his coffee cup.  “To the journey.”

           Their voices echoed his words – “to the journey” – as they raised their cups in turn.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Late that evening, the captain stood silently in the mess hall, staring out the viewport.   They needed an edge, some extra little thing that would allow them both to destroy the hub and survive the shock wave.    She couldn’t think, her brain felt fried.   Chastising herself yet again for not being able to come up with some idea, no matter how outrageous, she was distracted by the sound of the doors opening.   A moment later, she heard her own voice, demanding coffee from the replicator.   The admiral had come to see her.

           “I’ve been so determined for so long to get this crew home,” began her older self, “that I rather forgot how much they loved to be together.  And I forgot how loyal they are…to you.   It’s taken me a few days to realize it, but this is your ship, your crew, not mine.  And I was wrong to try to manipulate you…”

           “You were only doing what you thought was right,” replied the captain.

           “Well, you’ve changed my mind about that.  I’d like to help you carry out your mission.  Maybe, together, we can increase the odds.”

           Janeway stared at her intently.  “You mean have our cake and eat it, too?”

           The admiral frowned.  “We can’t destroy the hub and get Voyager home.”

           “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

           The older woman was silent as she examined possibilities.  Her voice took on a speculative tone.  “There might be a way.  I considered it once, but it seemed too risky…”

           They smiled at each other in perfect understanding.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Early the next morning, the admiral was running one final diagnostic on the shuttle when the captain appeared in the door, clutching a hypospray.   Her bearing was confident as always, but her eyes gave her away – she couldn’t quite hide her fear that this time they were pushing their luck too far.

           After one glance, the admiral calmly continued to check her readings.  Her destiny was set – one way or another, she knew she would not survive this day.   In a way, it was liberating, being able to choose the time and manner of her death.   She would be giving her life in order to save those most dear to her; she would make a difference, and in the end, that was what mattered most.    With the great love of her life gone, she really had no desire to slowly sink into oblivion.   This way was much better.  Now she just had to convince her counterpart, hesitating behind her.

           “It’s about time,” she muttered.  “I’m not getting any younger, you know.”

           The captain moved behind her, adjusting the hypospray.  “You’re sure you want to do this?”

           “No, but Voyager isn’t big enough for both of us.”    As a joke, it was pretty bad, although it did serve to lighten the tension slightly.  And like most black humour, it held an element of truth.  The admiral had already acknowledged the obvious:  not only was this ship not hers, neither was the timeframe.   She didn’t belong here – it was time for her to go, and they both knew it.

           The captain gazed at her fondly.  “Good luck, Admiral.”

           The other glanced back.  “You, too.   And, Captain, I’m glad I got to know you again.”

           Kathryn nodded and turned to leave.   There was nothing more either needed to say.   Time to be on her way.

           A minute later, the shuttle lifted off, swept out the shuttlebay doors, and went to warp immediately, on a heading for the hub.   The first part of the plan had been implemented.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Tom Paris burst into sickbay, in response to the doctor’s urgent summons.   His eyes were drawn at once to the center biobed where B’Elanna lay groaning, as the doctor scanned her.

           “Doc!  Is this it?!”

           She snapped at him before the doctor had a chance to reply.  “Yes, flyboy, this is it!”

           He stared at her in amazement.  “I can’t believe it!”

           Abruptly she sat up as another contraction tore through her.  “Believe it!” she growled through clenched teeth.

           Tom grinned delightedly.  “I might actually win!”

           “Win what?” came out as a groan.

           “The baby pool.  I picked today…”

           Even though she hadn’t thrown anything, instinctively Tom ducked as B’Elanna snarled again.   “I’m so glad I could accommodate you!”

           The doctor began to explain about the vagaries of Klingon labour when the captain’s voice interrupted.

           “Bridge to Paris.  We’re about to get under way.”

           Tom stared at his wife in horror.  He couldn’t leave!  Not now!  She gazed back at him steadily, panting slightly, then nodded.  “Go, Tom.”

           “But…”

           “Go, flyboy.   If this mission has any hope of success, we’ll need our best pilot at the helm.    Don’t worry – I have the doctor.”

           The captain’s voice echoed through his commbadge again.  “Is there a problem, Mr. Paris?”

           His eyes never left hers as he answered.  “No, Captain.  On my way.”

           As the doors swished closed behind him, B’Elanna turned to the EMH.  “All right, Doctor.  Let’s get this show on the road.”
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           The bridge was a scene of controlled chaos, in the midst of which sat the captain, her face determined, her voice steady as she issued orders.

           “Is the ablative armour fully deployed?”

           “Aye, Captain,” Harry replied as he checked the readings.

           “Transphasic torpedoes?”

           “Armed and ready,” came from Tuvok, his fingers dancing across his console.

           “Steady, Tom.   Hold our course.   Tuvok, target the junctions connecting the apertures.   Ready!   Fire!!”

           As the torpedoes streaked towards their targets, the ship shuddered, leaping wildly a second later as the first ones exploded.

           “Captain!” shouted Tom.  “I’m having trouble staying on course!”

           “Keep us pointed towards the Alpha Quadrant.   Tuvok, continuous fire!  Seven, help Tom at the helm!”

           The ship shook again, harder this time.

           “The aperture’s jumping all over the place.  I can’t keep up with it!”

           From behind came Tuvok’s calm tones.  “Aft armour is down to six percent.”

           The shuddering was getting worse.  It felt as if Voyager was about to shake apart at the seams.

           “The armour is failing,” reported Tuvok, his voice never changing.

           Chakotay called to Seven.  “Where’s the nearest aperture?”

           “Directly ahead, but it leads back to the Delta Quadrant!”

           The captain stared at her first officer in horror.  No!   They were so close!   She couldn’t go back!  Just a few seconds more, that was all they needed!

           Another bang and she was thrown half out of her chair.    Consoles sparked as Harry yelled that there were hull breaches on decks seven through twelve.

           At the same moment, Tom’s voice rang out.  “The aperture’s gone, Captain!  I need a course!”

           She was out of options.   Her primary responsibility was to the ship and crew.

           Grimly, she answered.  “Head for the Delta Quadrant!  At least we’ll be in familiar territory.”

           But even as she spoke, he interrupted her.  “Too late!  That one’s gone, too!”

           There was only one aperture left.   Without waiting for orders, Tom heeled the ship over on its side, then plunged straight down through myriad flashes as the conduits began to collapse in a cascade reaction, just as they had planned.  Voyager dived into the last one, shaking almost uncontrollably, barely ahead of the shockwave.

            Janeway lay on the floor, unable to move as Voyager actually seemed to scream in agony.   All she could hear was the sound of metal stressed far beyond the tolerance levels it had been designed for.   She covered her ears, convinced that this time she had pushed their luck too far.

           Somehow, the ship held together as it flashed through the conduit, then fell into normal space at the exit point.   As the shockwave blew out behind them, there was one more mighty shake that shorted out nearly all the remaining consoles.   Smoke filled the bridge as the crew lay motionless on the deck, too dazed and confused to move.

           Silence reigned, broken only by the hissing of sparks, and the hum of air recyclers as the smoke began to dissipate.

           For several moments, no one moved.   Then, Harry began to drag himself up over his console, as Tuvok clambered back to his station from where he’d been thrown.

           A few coughs sounded as people discovered that, contrary to all expectation, they were still alive.

           Janeway gulped a breath of smoke-tinged air, coughed twice, then found her voice.

           “Harry?” she called out weakly.  “Any idea where we are?”

           There was no answer.

           She began to crawl to her chair.  “Harry!” she demanded more firmly.   “Where are we?”

           Turning her head, she saw him staring down at his console, as if he couldn’t believe his eyes.   At the sound of her voice, he looked up, his face white, his expression horror-stricken.   When he eventually answered, his voice was weak.

           “Somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant.  That’s all I know.…”

           There was a collective gasp before the bridge fell silent.
 
 

                              *****************************
 
 

           Meanwhile, in the Alpha Quadrant, chaos and confusion were running rampant.

           Reg Barclay had been quietly working alone in the Pathfinder research lab when suddenly every sensor array started going crazy.  Reams of data and information poured out, all indicating one thing – a  transwarp aperture was opening almost on top of them!  That could mean only one thing – the Borg!

           Breathless and almost incoherent, he’d frantically hailed Admiral Paris.    “Admiral!  You must come immediately.  There’s a t-t-t-transwarp a-p-perture f-f-forming…!”

           Paris hadn’t wasted any time, quickly ordering red alert and rounding up as many admirals as he could.   Now, they were all huddled together, staring at the readings in dismay, muttering among themselves.

           “Are you sure that’s what it means?” Reg overheard one admiral ask another.   The other shrugged his shoulders.  “It’s Greek to me, Jack.  We have to trust this fellow knows what he’s talking about.  Owen says he does…”

           Admiral Paris appeared at his elbow.  “Now Mr. Barclay, I want you to explain exactly what we’ve got here.”

           Now that disaster was staring them all in the face, Reg found himself to be unnaturally calm.  “The readings indicate a transwarp aperture is about to open.”

           “I see.   Where exactly?”

           “Less than a light year from Earth.”

           “How many cubes?  Can we tell?”

           “No, sir, we can’t get a clear reading.  But the graviton emissions are off the scale!”

           Paris frowned, then looked at the others.  “I want all ships to converge on these coordinates!  Tell the captains to prepare for a full-scale Borg invasion!   And tell them – we make our stand here!”

           At once, the admirals scattered to summon every vessel within communications range, reporting back that eighteen were immediately available, with nine more on the way.   Reg knew that was only the vanguard.   Within hours, every battle-worthy ship in the Federation would be howling through space at maximum warp towards Earth.

           He stood at the viewport, eyes glued to the aperture which was clearly visible now as it began to grow, looking like a great maw filled with light.   Even as he watched, it became steadily brighter, until the automatic filters had to go to maximum to cut the glare.     Around him, he could hear voices talking, but they gradually faded into the background as he continued to stare, mesmerized by the terrible vision before him.

           A voice raised in fear and excitement suddenly grabbed his attention.  “I’m getting a reading – there’s a ship coming through! – with a Borg signature!”

           Oh god, this was it!

           The entire room froze with tension, then turned as one to stare out the viewport.

           The eighteen ships moved into formation, weapons trained on the aperture as a Borg sphere burst through.

           However, even as Paris began to give the order to fire, a cascading explosion behind the sphere caught up with it, blowing it into smithereens.   The light was so bright that everyone had to close their eyes against the glare which no filter could dim.  By the time the light had diffused enough that they could all see again, there was no sign of the aperture, no transwarp readings, nothing.   All that was left were little bits of sphere floating among the armada.

           They continued to stand there, waiting for the other shoe to drop, but nothing happened.

           Finally, after several hours, when the sensors still reported nothing, the admirals ordered the fleet to stand down.    For some reason beyond their comprehension, the aperture had miraculously been destroyed, catching the sphere in the explosion.

           The official report of the incident, submitted to Starfleet and subsequently the Federation Council several weeks later, would raise more questions than it answered.
 
 

                              *****************************
 
 

           The Gamma Quadrant!   Unexplored, unknown space!  Oh god!

           No one spoke, no one had to, they were all thinking the same thing.   ‘Now what do we do?’  Heads turned to look for their captain.

           At Harry’s words, Janeway had slumped back to the deck, so stunned with shock that she was unable to get to her feet.    ‘The Gamma Quadrant!’ was all she could hear, all she could think of.

           Only when Chakotay knelt down beside her did she realize where she was.   She stared up at him, for the moment quite incapable of speech.   Her horrified expression, mixed with disappointment and despair, tore at his heart.    Without thinking, he reached to take her in his arms, tucking her head against his neck and whispering reassurance to her.   “We’ll get through this, just like we always have.  We’re still alive, we’ll make it.”

           In desperation, Kathryn clutched at him, the only constant left in her universe.   Feeling her tremble, he tightened his grasp, wanting to comfort her, even as she began to take deep breaths to bring herself under control, to be the captain.    He held her for another few seconds until her shudders eased, then loosened his grip and moved back.   She looked at him and nodded, then started to scramble to her feet.   He squeezed her fingers before letting go and taking his seat as she settled into her chair.

           As damage reports began to come in, he surreptitiously kept an eye on her as he checked the console between them.   Kathryn seemed to be in control once more, the captain’s mask firmly in place.  But Chakotay could see her hands clenching the armrests until she realized what she was doing and made a conscious effort to relax.   He sighed, knowing that once again she would blame herself for their latest predicament, and once more, he would have to think of a way to get her past her guilt.   At least, he told himself, he’d had a lot of practice by now.

           At the console behind him stood Seven, silently watching.   She was beginning to realize that while Chakotay might have indicated a romantic interest in her, there was a big part of him that she would never have.     For years, rumours and gossip had circulated about the command team, but, unsupported by any evidence, Seven had discounted them as wishful thinking by the crew.   Now, however, she was having second thoughts.

           Chakotay’s actions could leave her in no doubt that he cared deeply for the captain.   And in their current circumstances, she knew, Janeway was going to need all the support she could get.  Therefore, it was only logical to ensure that Chakotay was completely free to give her everything he could.  For the good of the captain, and by extension the ship, she must end their budding romance.  One of Tuvok’s bits of wisdom came to mind – ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few’.  It was certainly true in this case.   Seven squared her shoulders, resolved to speak to Chakotay as soon as she could.
 

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           It seemed somehow appropriate, thought more than one crewmember later that night, that in the midst of such unmitigated disaster, one happy event shone forth like a ray of hope.

           Miral Paris had finally made her appearance.

           The captain had just started to call for status reports when she was interrupted by the doctor.

           “Sickbay to Lieutenant Paris.  There is someone here anxious to make your acquaintance.”

           Even as he spoke, the wail of a newborn baby could be heard over his voice.   A sudden hush fell across the bridge as everyone remembered what had been happening all this time in sickbay.  As one, the crew turned to look at Tom, smiles breaking out on every face.   Even Tuvok had a cheerful glint in his eye.

           Tom turned in his chair to face them, his face a beacon of joy.  The captain nodded to him. “Go, Tom. Give them our love.  And… congratulations!”

           Leaping to his feet, he dashed to the turbolift.    Janeway turned to her left, waving her hand towards the helm.  “Commander?”  she indicated.

           Chakotay got up, making his way down to the pilot’s chair, then  checking the navigational readings and status of the engines.   “Course, Captain?”

           She pondered his question before shaking her head.  “Hold us here until we have a chance to sort out the damage.   I don’t think anyone is in a big hurry just at the moment.”

           “Aye, Captain.”  He set the controls to station keeping, then paged a relief pilot, but remained at the helm until Ensign Baytart appeared.  Resuming his chair, he began to assess the ship’s status on the command console.   It didn’t look good, although at this point, he supposed they should all be grateful just to be alive.

            A small sound caught his attention and he glanced to his right.  Janeway was sitting rigid in her seat, both hands grasping a PADD, but with her eyes unfocused.   Chakotay tensed with worry – he didn’t like the look of her at all.   She was slipping, losing concentration, something he couldn’t ever remember seeing her do even at the most difficult moments.    Reaching over, he brushed her hand, trying unobtrusively to get her attention.  At first she didn’t respond, then suddenly she jumped and looked at him, one eyebrow raised.   He smiled reassuringly and patted her hand, before returning to the console.   As he tried to focus on the data displayed there, he frowned over Janeway’s atypical behaviour.    In the situation they now found themselves, the crew needed her determination and will more than ever.   It would be up to him to hold her together.   He would have to think about how best to do that – maybe he better talk to Tuvok.

            Unconsciously, he sighed, suddenly feeling overpowered by the ramifications of their latest predicament.  Dear heaven!  Would this never end?!   Even imprisonment in New Zealand would be preferable to this constant drag on their strength and resources!  Briefly closing his eyes, he attempted to find the inner calm that would allow him to accept the latest disaster and deal with it as best he could.   There was no point raging against circumstance – it had happened.    He heard the captain get to her feet, and gathered himself together.    Time to get to work.

           Janeway stood silently for nearly a minute, staring at the viewscreen as if she could find all the answers to their problems out there in the stars of the Gamma Quadrant, if only she looked hard enough.   Then she shook her head and turned to him, her face a study in determination.   Chakotay breathed a silent sigh of relief – for the moment, his captain was back.

           “Commander,” came her authoritative voice.  “Have the senior staff meet in the briefing room in ten minutes.  Including Mr. Paris.   I’m sorry to disturb him but we need his input.   And get someone from Engineering to fill in for Torres.”

           “Aye, Captain.   Bridge to senior staff.    Meet in the briefing room in ten minutes.  Chakotay out.”

           Rising to his feet, he turned to her, speaking in a low voice.  “I’ll go and get Tom.   I need to pay my respects to our latest addition anyway.”

           Janeway nodded, then on impulse, moved to follow him.  “Wait a minute.  I’ll come with you.   Tuvok, hold the fort until we get back.  We won’t be long.”

           As the turbolift doors closed, she glanced up at Chakotay.   His eyes were fixed on the bulkhead – obviously, he was miles away.   Suddenly, she felt absurdly awkward standing there alone with him.   She told herself not to be silly, that no matter where his heart had taken him, he was still her friend, the person she could always count on.   But that wasn’t true anymore, her head reminded her.   No longer would she be able to completely relax around him – now Seven’s shadow would always be between them.    Her breath caught in a little sob and she bit her lip to maintain her composure.  Chakotay heard and looked around, his eyes searching her face.

           “Kathryn?  You okay?”

           “Yes, of course,” she replied brightly.   “Why?”

           “You don’t sound like it.”

           “I’m fine, Chakotay.”

           He sighed heavily, but didn’t press the matter.   This was neither the time nor the place.   However, he promised himself, very soon he was going to sit her down and have a frank discussion about the command structure.    Obviously, she couldn’t take much more.

           The doors opened on deck five and they strode out together, heading for sickbay.    In a curtained off corner, they found B’Elanna sound asleep while Tom paced slowly back and forth, his daughter in his arms.     Miral lay quietly, staring up at her father with that infinitely wise look on her face that newborns have, as if they know all the secrets of the universe.    His expression was one of complete bliss.

            Kathryn and Chakotay paused for a moment, their faces reflecting his joy.   Tom looked up as they stepped forward to admire the baby, then he placed her in the captain’s outstretched arms.

           “Oh, Tom!  She’s so beautiful!”  Kathryn’s eyes were shining.  “Welcome, Miral, to your family.”   She glanced up at Chakotay.  “Do you want to hold her?”

           “Of course.”  Settling the child comfortably in his arm, he placed his other hand briefly on her forehead and murmured a few words, before bending to gently kiss her.   Miral stared up at him solemnly, as she clutched his finger tightly.   He felt an old regret surface and was suddenly very envious of Tom.   Glancing at Kathryn beside him, he knew she felt the same – as she gazed at Miral, one tear slowly slid down her cheek.   Knowing she would be mortified it anyone noticed her emotional display, Chakotay hastily made a show of handing the child back to Tom.    By the time he turned back to her, she had regained control and pasted a bright smile on her face.

           He let his hand support her back for a few seconds, hoping she could take some strength from his touch.    But then he heard the doctor’s voice very close by and had to step away.   Kathryn sighed softly before turning to leave.   Chakotay indicated B’Elanna and said he’d be along in a minute.  Nodding, she stepped past the screen and headed for the door.

           Chakotay moved to B’Elanna’s side, gazing down at her before bending to kiss her forehead.   She stirred slightly but didn’t waken.   He let his hand rest on her hair a moment longer, then turned to Tom.

           “I’m sorry to drag you away, Tom, but there’s a meeting of the senior staff in a few minutes, and we’ll need you there.”

           “That’s okay, officially I’m still on shift.  I’ll get Miral settled and be right up.”

           “Don’t rush, we can start without you.”

           “Thanks, Chakotay.”

           The commander slipped out and hurried back to the bridge.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Nearly an hour later, the staff meeting was winding down.   The list of repairs filled an entire PADD – hull breaches on six decks, transporters, long-range sensors, weapons systems as well as the holodecks.   As had happened before and probably would again, they would have to survive on emergency rations for a couple of weeks until the replicators had provided enough replacement parts.   But – they were still alive, and the ship was still functional, albeit with emergency forcefields.   With time and a lot of effort, they could put Voyager back together.

           The doctor was able to report one bit of good news – while a number of personnel had sustained bumps and bruises as well as several broken bones during their rough ride through the conduit, no one had been seriously injured.

           The most critical problem was that, once again, they were completely alone in an unknown part of the galaxy.   Careful study of very meager star charts added to Seven’s knowledge of the extent of Borg space, had led Harry to estimate that they were nearly twenty thousand light years from the Galactic Core, with another twenty thousand beyond that to Federation space.   Not as far away as seven years before in the Delta Quadrant, but not close, either.

           Chakotay had been keeping a watchful eye on the captain and saw her mouth tighten as Harry delivered his report.   Although she seemed to be her usual self, her hands were gripping the table edge so tightly they’d turned white.   He glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed and found Tuvok’s gaze flicking over her before coming to rest on him.    Although not apparent to the casual observer, he knew the Vulcan well enough to note the concern in his eyes.

           At that moment, Janeway rose to her feet, signaling the end of the meeting.  “Thank you, everyone, for all your hard work.   It’s not going to be easy, but I believe that somehow, some way, we will find our way back.  We did it once – we can do it again.”

           Tom shook his head and muttered something to Harry as they started out the door.   The latter glanced back at the captain, then nodded thoughtfully.   Chakotay followed them out, close enough to hear Tom’s words.   “Sounded to me like she was trying to convince herself more than us.”

           The commander opened his mouth to reprimand Paris for speaking out of turn, but said nothing.   Tom’s remark hadn’t been malicious, more a statement of fact, one he couldn’t help but agree with.   He slowed his steps to allow Tuvok to catch up to him.

           “Come along to my office, would you?” he murmured to the Vulcan.  “I want to run something past you.”

           “Certainly, Commander.  Would now be a good time?”

           “Good as any.”

           Janeway had already disappeared into her ready room, so the two commanders handed over the bridge to Harry and retreated to the privacy of Chakotay’s office.   He wasted no time in coming to the point.

           “Tuvok, let me be frank.  I’m worried about the captain.  She nearly broke down today and while I’ll grant you it was all a dreadful shock, nevertheless, she’s been through worse and not reacted that badly.  And in the meeting now, she was barely holding on.   I don’t know if she’ll be able to cope with everything we’re going to face out here.”

           Tuvok regarded him steadily from his chair on the other side of the desk, fingers steepled as he pondered his reply.   Finally, he sighed.  “I am forced to agree.   I have known the captain for many years, and have seen her in every conceivable situation, but at this moment, I have no idea of her mental state.   It is…unsettling, to say the least.”

           He paused, as if unsure whether to go on, but then continued.  “There is another problem, Commander, which I suspect you have not been made aware of.   I have been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological ailment peculiar to Vulcans.    For the time being, the doctor can control it with medication, but eventually, it will progress to the point where drugs alone will no longer have an effect.   How long that will be I don’t know – the time period varies with each individual.  However, when it does happen, I will no longer be able to function as a Starfleet officer.”

           Chakotay stared at him in horror.  “You mean – it’s a disease of the mind?!”

           “In effect, yes.   I am telling you this now, because if the captain does indeed suffer a permanent breakdown, you could well be alone in charge of the ship and crew.  I would be unable to assist or support you.”

           Chakotay paced across the room and back.   “How long have you known?”

           “A few months.”

           “And when did you tell the captain?”

           “I didn’t.  But I discovered shortly before we implemented the admiral’s plan that she knew.  I surmise that the admiral must have told her.”

           Chakotay tugged on his ear thoughtfully.   “But right now it’s under control.”   Tuvok nodded.   “Well, one problem at a time, I guess.   I imagine the doctor is searching for a cure?”

           “Indeed.   However, I do not believe he will be successful.  Vulcan scientists have been trying for hundreds of years to find such a cure but so far, only a mind meld with members of the immediate family seems to be effective.”

           “A mind meld?!  And it wouldn’t work with other Vulcans, who aren’t related to you?”

           “No.”

           Chakotay shook his head, not bothering to argue.   He knew that Tuvok and the doctor would have discussed the options thoroughly.   He sighed and sat down again, suddenly very weary.   It seemed that he could feel the actual weight of the ship settling on his shoulders.    He slumped with exhaustion as Tuvok eyed him carefully.

           “Perhaps you should rest, Commander.  It has been a long day for you, too.”

           “I can’t, Tuvok, not yet.  But thanks for thinking of me.  However, I am going to get something to eat.  Join me?”

           The other nodded.  “Yes, thank you.  I would like to continue our discussion about the captain.  Perhaps we can devise some way of easing her workload…”
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Kathryn sat at her desk in her ready room, apparently studying the PADD in her hands.  In fact, her mind was thousands of light years away, in the Alpha Quadrant.   What had happened?  Why had it all gone so wrong?  Had they – had she – miscalculated somehow, overlooked some small factor critical to their success?

           She went over every minute, every second of the last two days, but couldn’t find her error.   And it was her error, she was sure of that.   She was the captain.  It had been her job, her responsibility to get them home.   And she hadn’t.   Instead, they were even worse off than before!

           The Gamma Quadrant!

           The words hung in her mind, colouring her thoughts, her perceptions, until all she could see was them.

           Naked terror rose up in her throat.  ‘What am I going to do?!  How am I going to manage?!  I’m so scared!  I don’t know if I can do this any more, I don’t know if I have the strength!’

           She tried to call on her stubbornness and determination, but they seemed to have vanished.   All that was left was a very frightened woman, who felt in imminent danger of being crushed by the terrible weight on her shoulders.

           ‘What if I can’t do it?!  What if I can’t find a way home again?!  Please!  Someone!   Tell me what to do!!’

           She huddled in her chair, tears running down her face, her heart pounding.

            She was lost and all alone.

           She was going to fail.

           She couldn’t do this anymore.
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           It was several hours later, near the end of this long and dreadful day, that Kathryn finally left her ready room, forced out by hunger.   She’d had nothing to eat for nearly twenty-four hours, as she had been too tense that morning to have more than three cups of coffee.   Now her stomach was rumbling and she was feeling somewhat lightheaded.   As the replicators were restricted to making parts only, she had to go to the mess hall to find something to eat.

           The bridge was quiet, only a skeleton staff present for the evening shift.   Most of the crew were either working on repairs, or resting before going back to work on repairs.

           Kathryn nodded to the duty officer and stepped into the turbolift, calling for deck two.   Hopefully, the mess hall would be empty, or nearly so.   She couldn’t face her crew right now while she felt so miserable, she just couldn’t.

           The doors to the mess hall opened and her heart sank.   It was full of people, talking quietly or just sitting together, drawing strength and comfort from each other.   She hesitated, debating whether she should just go to her quarters, but hunger drove her in.   She would get something, eat as quickly as she could, and leave.

           Trying not to attract unwanted attention, she entered quietly, terrified they would start to blame her for their present predicament.   Her mind was so shuttered by then, her thoughts so twisted by shock and horror, that she was unable to perceive their looks of sympathy and commiseration. Picking up a plate of something from the counter, she eased silently between the chairs to a corner table where she could look out the viewport.

           Her hand closed around the fork, lifting it to her mouth, as she gazed out at the unfamiliar stars – and that was when it all came crashing down.

           She was so tired, so goddamned tired of staring at the unknown!  She had been so looking forward to seeing familiar constellations and planets once again, so eager to see Earth!   Dammit, she wanted to go home!  Was that too much to ask?!  She just wanted to go home!!

           Her fork clattered to the table as terrible, shuddering sobs forced their way up her throat.  She pressed her hands to her mouth, trying to choke them back, but they were like an unstoppable tidal wave.   Gasping, she bent double as her emotions poured out, grief and sorrow overwhelming her.

           Around her, the room fell silent, as the crew looked aghast at their brave, confident captain who was falling apart before their eyes.   They glanced at each other in shock and consternation, not sure what to do.   Chell hurried out of the galley, tapping his combadge as he ran.

           “Chell to Chakotay!”

           There was a pause before the commander’s weary voice answered softly.   “Chakotay here.  What is it, Chell, can it wait?”

           “It’s the captain, Commander!  Please come – and hurry!”

           “What’s happened?!  Where is she?!”  His voice radiated tension.

           “In the mess hall.  She…she’s…crying, sir!”

           “I’ll be right there.  Stay with her!  Chakotay out.”

           It seemed to Chell, hovering uncertainly over his anguished captain, that hours passed before the doors opened to Chakotay’s hurried steps.   Mortimer Harren, ensconced at the next table, had gone to sit beside her and was patting her arm, but to no avail.  She didn’t even know he was there.   They both moved aside as Chakotay came over to them.

           He didn’t hesitate, picking up Kathryn and sitting down in a chair so he could cradle her in his lap.   Her hands still covered her face, and her body shook as she moaned in agony.   Chakotay wrapped his arms tightly around her, and whispered reassuringly, hoping the sound of his voice and the warmth of his body would penetrate her misery, making her aware that he was there.

           “It’s all right, Kathryn, I’m here.  You’re not alone.  It’s all right.”  Over and over he repeated the words, his breath tickling her ear as he held her close.

           At first, she seemed not to be conscious of his presence, but gradually the shudders eased and her sobs abated.   He stroked her back, massaging taut muscles, trying to ease the tension from her body.     And as he did, he found himself deciding that this was where he wanted to be for the rest of his life – with her.   Not with Seven or anyone else, but with Kathryn, in whatever manner they could agree on.    The thought brought him a peace he had never expected to feel after such a horrendous day.

           Here they were, lost again, worse off than ever, and he didn’t really care as long as he could be with her.   He bent his head and nuzzled her hair, then whispered to her that he loved her.   He didn’t think she heard but at least he’d said the words.    He would remember even if she didn’t.

           Kathryn lifted her head, her face blotched and tear-strained.   Her movement brought Chakotay’s concerned eyes to her.   Gently stroking her cheek, he smiled at her, letting her see all he felt for her.   She stared up at him in wonder, sure she must be mistaken.   He didn’t love her, did he?  The admiral had said…well, maybe what she’d said no longer applied.  After all, her timeline hadn’t ended up in the Gamma Quadrant.

           “Chakotay?” she whispered, her eyes huge.

           “I’m here, Kathryn.   You’re not alone.  Hang on to me, I won’t let you go.”

           She nearly burst into tears again, feeling her emotions running raw and unfettered.  “I made such a mess of everything and I’m so afraid I won’t get them home!   How can I do it?!  Please, Chakotay, tell me!  I don’t know how anymore!”

           He stroked her hair as she clutched his jacket in her fists.  “Ssh, Kathryn, don’t cry.   We’ll do it together, all of us, that’s how.   You’re not alone, sweetheart.    Everyone on this ship is behind you, you’re not alone.”

           She gazed up at him disbelievingly.   “And you?  Will you be there, too?”

           “Right beside you, just where I’ve always been.   We’ll make it, Kathryn, maybe not for a while, but eventually…we’ll get home.”

           He felt her body relax as she sighed and let her head rest on his shoulder.  “I’m so tired...”

           He smiled down at her, then rose to his feet, lifting her easily and settling her in his arms.  “Hang on to me, Kathryn.  I’ll carry you back to your quarters.”

           She mumbled something, but he couldn’t make out the words.  As he started for the door, the crew gathered around, concern on every face.

           “Will she be okay, Commander?”  he heard from one.

            “Tell her not to worry, Commander,” said another.

           “Yeah,” added a third, “tell her we’re in this together, just like we’ve always been.”

           Harren stood at the door.  “Tell her we know we’ll get home someday.  It’ll just take a little longer than we thought.”

           Chakotay nodded to them.   “Thank you, all of you.   Perhaps, when she’s had a good night’s sleep and is feeling better, you’ll tell her yourselves.  I think she’d like that.”

           Chell smiled happily.  “I’ll start organizing something, Commander, don’t you bother your head about it.   Now, let’s see…”

           The doors closed behind Chakotay, cutting off the rest of Chell’s words.   He strode to the turbolift and minutes later, was punching in his override to Kathryn’s door.    Stepping through, he looked around before heading for the bedroom.   Gently, he lay his sleeping captain down on her bed, then started to pull off her boots.

           Even though he tried to be careful, the motion roused her and she sat up on her elbows, blinking dazedly.

           “Chakotay?”  she murmured, clearly at a loss.

           “Sorry to wake you, I’m trying to get off your boots.  How on earth you can wear these things is beyond me!”

           She started to retort in kind, but was distracted by the sight of her own room.  “How did I get here?  I was…I…was…in the messhall.  I was looking at the stars….”  She paused, obviously gathering her thoughts, before her eyes widened in horror.  “I…oh no!   I broke down in tears, didn’t I?!   I sat there and cried in front of the entire crew!”   Her face was white with shock.   “How could I do such a thing?!  What’s the matter with me?!”

           Chakotay sat down beside her and took both her hands in his, forcing her to lie back on the pillow.

           “Kathryn,” he began, “I want you to listen to me – and don’t interrupt!”  he added, as she opened her mouth to speak.

           “First of all, without a doubt, this has been the worst day of your life.  We started out this morning so full of hope, so sure that this time we would get home.   And now look at us – worse off than we were seven years ago!”

           Kathryn stared at him, her face wrenching as he bluntly assessed their situation.

           He continued.  “I’m not at all surprised that you broke down in the mess hall.   In fact, I’m glad you did.”

           She gazed at him in complete astonishment but made no sound.   Chakotay leaned forward, his voice intense as he made his point.

           “Kathryn, you have been holding in your emotions for seven years!  You’re so sure that you have to be perfect, the consummate captain holding everyone together!  Well, guess what?!  You’re a human being, just like the rest of us.  And thank god for it!   After our meeting in the briefing room, I had a long talk with Tuvok, mostly about you.   He’s worried about you, Kathryn, and so am I.   You can’t keep everything all bottled up the way you have been.  It’s not healthy!”

           Pausing, he waited to see if she had anything to say, but shock was keeping her silent.  He decided to press on while he had the advantage.

           “There’s going to be some changes around here, and the biggest ones are going to come from you.   You are going to let me in, let all of us in.   We’re a family, and families stick together when the going gets tough.   So no citing protocol, no holding aloof because you’re the captain.  We know  you’re the captain, for heaven’s sake, we don’t have to be reminded!

           “Voyager will still be a Starfleet ship, that’s a given.   And for the most part, we’ll run her according to Starfleet regulations and protocols, but – we will be a lot more flexible.  If a situation warrants bending the rules, then we’ll bend them.  Quite frankly, Starfleet is in no position to object, is it?”

           He paused again, trying to gauge her reaction.   She looked rather shell-shocked, but her eyes were with him.    Lifting a hand, he lightly stroked her cheek.  “How are you doing so far?”

           Kathryn gazed up at him in disbelief.    The angry warrior was back – she didn’t know where he’d been hiding all these years, but he was certainly here now.   Her captain’s side tried to object to his demands; after all he was the first officer, he shouldn’t be giving the orders.   But she was still so stunned by the day’s events that her protest died even before it got out of her mouth.   Her Kathryn side silently rejoiced at finally being allowed some elbow room and shoved the captain out of the way.

           He was waiting for her to answer.   “I’m fine,” she whispered, “I think.  I’m not…sure what to say.   It’s a lot to take in.”

           “Brace yourself, there’s more.   You need to let me carry more of the load, like we did the first couple of years we were in the Delta Quadrant, remember?   And you need to listen to and follow the advice of your crew now and then, especially mine.”

           He held up a hand as she started to protest.  “I know, you make the decisions.  That’s fine, I don’t have a problem with that.   But in the last year or so, you’ve been isolating yourself too much – from me and everyone.  And we’ve seen today what it’s come to, haven’t we?”

           She nodded slowly, acknowledging the truth of his remarks, then sighed heavily.  “I can’t promise how much I’ll be able to change, Chakotay, but I will promise to try.  Will that be good enough?”

           “Of course, that’s all I ask.”  He looked down, as a rueful expression crossed his face.  “I suppose I shouldn’t have thrown all this at you right now, but…there’s never a good time, is there?”

           Kathryn could hear the frustration in his voice and hastened to reassure him.   “It’s not that so much, but…you’ve changed somehow.”

           His mouth tightened.  “Not changed, Kathryn, found myself again.   In the last few years, I let you get away with far too much.  The angry warrior turned into a lapdog.  Well, that’s over and done with.   We tried doing things your way, the Starfleet way, and it took a terrible toll on you.  So now, we’ll try it differently.   I won’t force you to compromise your principles, I’m willing to be reasonable, but you have to be, too.  Fair enough?”

           Kathryn nodded, even though she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.

           Chakotay bent over her and gently kissed her forehead, then sat up.  “Why don’t you get ready for bed while I go up to the mess hall and get us both some tea?”

           “How about coffee…?”  Her voice died away at the look on his face.
She sighed.  “Fine.  Tea.”

           He patted her hand, then rose to his feet.  “That’s my girl.”

           By the time she had changed into her nightgown and prepared for bed, Chakotay was back, a thermos of boiling water in one hand, mugs and a small container in the other.   Dropping a few loose tealeaves in each cup, he poured the water carefully over them.   As the aroma drifted past and registered in her nose, she felt her mind relax.   He handed her a mug, then watched her over the rim of his cup, making sure she drank it all.

           “Time for sleep, I think; you must be tired,” he told her, as he took the mug out of her hand.

           She shrugged her shoulders.  “I don’t know if I can sleep tonight, it’s been such an awful day.   I should be checking on the crew…”

           He got to his feet.  “Tell you what.    I’ll take a quick turn through the ship, make sure everyone is managing all right.   If you like, I can pop in when I’m done, and give you a report.”

           Her eyes flew up to his.  “Would you?  I’d appreciate it if you’re not too tired.”

           He smiled fondly.  “Not for you.  See you in a while.”
 

                                         =^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=
 

           Half an hour later, Chakotay approached Kathryn’s quarters, wondering if he should go in or not.   He didn’t want to disturb her if she had fallen asleep, as he sincerely hoped, but he had promised to let her know how the crew was holding up.   He decided to use his override to open her door, tiptoe in quietly and see if she was still awake.

           Slipping silently through her living area, he peeked around her bedroom door, only to find her propped up comfortably with several pillows, her reading light on.   Smiling, she held up the book she was reading – La Vita Nuova.   “Seems appropriate tonight, don’t you think?” she asked.

           He stepped up to the bed and sat down on the edge.  “I had hoped you would be sound asleep,” he began.  “The tea is supposed to make you drowsy.”

           “Well, I’m more relaxed, if that’s any help,” she replied, “but I can’t sleep, Chakotay, not yet.”   She shivered slightly as she spoke.  “How is the crew?  Are they dreadfully disappointed?  What are they doing?”

           He scratched his chin.  “Actually, they’re managing quite well.  A lot of them are still in the mess hall, talking.   They’re a little quieter than usual, but no one’s particularly upset, more resigned, I guess.   We’ve been disappointed so many times before, I suppose they weren’t really surprised when we didn’t make it.   And,” he added, “they’re all worried about you.  They care about you, Kathryn, a lot.  I think they’re more concerned about how you are than the fact we’re stuck in the Gamma Quadrant.”

           Kathryn bowed her head.  “I don’t deserve their sympathy or concern.  I…”  She stopped as his hand covered her mouth.

           “Kathryn, we agreed you’re not going to drown in guilt.   It was not your fault and no one, no one, is blaming you!  Understand?!  And of course, they care about you – why wouldn’t they?   You’re part of the family.”

           He paused and moved his hand, but she remained silent.   “Much better,” he added approvingly.  “Just listen to me and you’ll do fine.”  His voice was stern, but his eyes were twinkling.   Gently, he nudged the corner of her mouth with his little finger, tugging it up into a smile.

           Kathryn sighed and made herself relax, as she nodded and smiled more naturally.   She knew he was right, but old habits were hard to let go.

           Chakotay sat back, pleased that he’d been able to coax her into heeding his advice.   However, as he looked at her more carefully, he noted the tiny muscles still tensed around her mouth and eyes.   Yielding to a sudden impulse, he asked if she would like him to stay for a while.

           Kathryn swallowed, wanting to say yes, but knowing she must say no.   He had done more than enough for her today – she couldn’t expect his undivided attention anymore.   That wouldn’t be fair to him or Seven.  She took a deep breath and lied through her teeth.

           “Chakotay, I’m fine.  I can read for a while.  I’m sure you have things you want to do.”

           “Kathryn,” he growled, “you’re doing it again.   Pushing me away.   I didn’t ask how you were, I asked if you would like me to stay with you.”

           Biting her lip, she nodded slowly, keeping her eyes focused on his hands.   “Yes,” she whispered, “but I’ve taken too much of your time already.   Chakotay, I know about you and Seven and I’m very happy for you.    I’m sure you want to go and see how she is…”

           Her voice died away as he gripped her chin, tilting it up so he could see into her eyes.   “Kathryn, enough.   It’s time for some plain speaking.  I had barely started to get involved with Seven when all this happened.   And the only reason I even considered it was because I thought that’s what you wanted.   It was pretty obvious how upset you were when I rescued you from Quarra; it didn’t take much to figure out that you would have preferred to stay there with that fellow.”

           “Jaffen,” she whispered, her eyes haunted.

           “Yes, Jaffen.   I realized then that I was being foolish trying to hold on to something that hadn’t existed for a long time, if ever.   I know I’m your best friend, Kathryn, but for so many years, I have wanted to be much more than that.    However, when you retreated into yourself after we left Quarra, and wouldn’t let me anywhere near you – I gave up.   I told myself that you had never loved me as I wanted you to, and you never would.   And if I had any brains at all, I would move on.   It wasn’t long after that Seven asked me to join her for a picnic.

           “I was intrigued and flattered, so I did.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I found I enjoyed myself much more than I’d thought I would.   And I must admit, I wondered what your reaction would be when you found out.  Would you be jealous or would you just pat me on the back and go on your merry way?”

           Kathryn looked surprised.  “Then why didn’t you tell me, say something?   Why let me find out from the admiral?”

           Chakotay looked a little sheepish.  “I couldn’t get up the nerve.  When push came to shove, I couldn’t do it.   I knew that if I did, I would extinguish the last bit of hope I still held that maybe someday…you and I could be more than friends.”

           Sighing, he took her hands.  “Kathryn, I’m at a turning point here.  I can’t go forward or back until I know what you feel for me.  It’s not fair to either of us, you know, hiding your feelings this way.”

           Kathryn stiffened reflexively, the words automatically flying off her tongue.   “Chakotay, you know we can’t have a personal relationship, protocol won’t allow it…”

           He dropped her hands and sprang to his feet angrily, glaring down at her.  “Oh, cut the crap, Kathryn!   I’ve put up with it for seven years but enough!   If you only want me as a friend, fine, I’ll live with it!  But for god’s sake, at least this once, be honest with me and yourself!”

           Stunned into silence, she stared at him, knowing he was right – that she’d been unfair to both of them.   She took a deep breath, willing her heart to stop pounding.

           “I’m sorry, I hadn’t thought about it from that point of view.  And you’re right, of course.   The truth.”   She looked up at him, her gaze steady.  “The truth is, Chakotay, that I have loved you for a long time, since we were on New Earth.   I was going to tell you that day, when Tuvok hailed us.  I’d been thinking about it while I weeded the tomatoes.   But once I knew the ship was coming back for us, I couldn’t say anything.”  She shrugged her shoulders.  “You know how it had to be, I had no choice.”

           Chakotay sat down on the bed, his fingers reaching for hers as he gazed sadly on her face.

           She went on.  “I kept hoping that when we got home, when we weren’t in a command situation anymore, I could tell you and maybe we could do something about it.  But over the years, we drifted apart, you looked elsewhere and so did I…”

           “Oh Kathryn,” he breathed, his heart breaking.  If only he’d known!

           “The hope was still there,” she continued, “but in the last year, it had gotten pretty faint.   And then the admiral told me about you and Seven, and I knew I’d lost you for good.   Whatever happened to us, whether we got home or not, we could never be more than friends.   I couldn’t, and still can’t, justify taking you away from her – that wouldn’t be fair to either of you.

           “I don’t blame you for not waiting for me, Chakotay.   I had my chances and all I did was push you away.   You should go on with your life and if you can find happiness with Seven, then fine – make the most of it.   Don’t waste your chance like I did…”

           Despite her best effort, her voice broke on the last sentence and she turned her head away, fighting for control.   Damn, it hurt!   Even now, after so long!    She tried to swallow the lump in her throat, but to her horror, felt hot tears start to slide down one by one.

           Chakotay reached to turn her face towards him, and gently wiped her cheeks.   “Oh, Kathryn,” he murmured softly, then bent and very gently kissed her.

           She sat motionless, too surprised to resist.   By the time she began to wonder if she should, she was lost in him.   His mouth was so soft and warm as it slid across hers, just as she’d always imagined it would be.   Unconsciously her arms came up to wrap around his neck and she leaned into him, trying to get closer.

           His arms tightened around her as his mouth pressed down more insistently, his tongue pushing against her lips.  Without hesitation, she parted them, letting him sweep in to explore, to taste and touch everywhere.    She moaned, her body responding as her brain shut down.   When he finally lifted his head, his eyes were almost black with desire.

           Her hands came up to tug his jacket off his shoulders as she gazed at him, mesmerized.   He caught his breath – finally, after so many years, he was about to have it all.

           And then he pushed away her hands.

           She jumped slightly as if coming out of a trance, before easing back from him.   He saw the movement and knew that, hard as it was, he’d been right to stop.   She wasn’t ready, not yet.

           Smiling down at her, he rose to his feet.   “I think maybe I better say goodnight, while I still can.”

           Kathryn nodded her head, trying to return his smile.  “Chakotay, I’m sorry, it’s been such a long day and…well, I guess I got a little carried away.”   She caught the look on his face and held up her hand.  “Don’t misunderstand.   I meant what I said and,” she took a deep breath, “I’m willing to make some changes in our relationship.   I just want to take my time.

           “We have so many problems to deal with right now, and I need to be able to concentrate on them before I can even start to think about us.   So… are you willing to wait some more?”

           Chakotay stared down at her, wondering where the real truth lay.   She said she wanted him, just not yet.   Well, he could wait for a little while.   She was right, they did have to devote their energies to the ship, but….

           Kathryn felt his uncertainty and knew she was in danger of pushing him away again.   This time he might not come back.   The thought spurred her to give him a commitment.   Scrambling to her knees, she reached for his hand.

           “Chakotay, let me make you a promise.   When we have the immediate situation under control, I will sit down with you and explore new…parameters.   I won’t go back to the way we were.”   She took a deep breath.  “And I will try to become more involved with the crew, and let go of the captain from time to time.”

           Standing beside the bed, he lifted her hand to his lips, kissing each finger carefully, before turning it over to kiss her palm.   She felt every nerve ending jump with anticipation.   Oh lord!  When they did come together, it would be like a warp core breach!

           “I’ll wait, Kathryn, for a little longer.”  His voice dropped to a passionate growl.  “And then I will come for you.   Understand?”   His eyes pierced hers, leaving her in no doubt of his meaning.

           She gulped and nodded.

           Stepping back, he started to the door.   “Sleep well, Kathryn.  Call me if you need me.”

           “Y-yes, thank you, I will.”  Damn, her voice was shaking!

           He grinned at her, understanding her reaction perfectly and headed out of her quarters.

           Kathryn lay back on her pillows, apprehensive and yet, in a way, excited, too.   Somehow the immediate future didn’t look quite as bad as it had a little while ago.   ‘When one door closes, often another opens.’  She could remember her mother telling her that more than once during her childhood.

           The thought of mother and home dampened her mood somewhat.   Heaven only knew when she would see either again.  But, with her crew’s support, and her own iron determination, eventually they would find a way back to the Alpha Quadrant.   Somehow, some day, she would see Earth again.    It was just going to take a little longer than she’d thought.

           She relaxed in her bed and let her mind wander.

           What a day it had been, starting out so full of anticipation that this time they would actually make it, then seeing all their hopes come crashing down along with the transwarp hub.     For a little while, she had actually given up, succumbed to the terror and guilt that were part of her existence.  Now, thanks to Chakotay, she was actually feeling happier than she had any right to, considering their circumstances.

           Settling herself against the pillows, she closed her eyes.   Despite everything, life was definitely looking up.
 
 

The End

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