Written way back in the hiatus between Voyager's first and second seasons, when the characters were still fresh and the Delta Quadrant seemed to hold endless possibilities. It takes place ten years into Voyager's journey.
by Laura Williams
Part One: "Algebra"
Kathryn sat back on her heels and watched the boy play in the surf.
He'd started out the afternoon building sand castles with the other children, but as always he soon lost interest in their activities and wandered off to explore on his own. Now he stood at the place where the water met the sand, experimenting with the rolling waves, waiting poised for the water to come and cover his toes. When it did he froze, and Kathryn could almost hear him counting the seconds between one wave and the next. High overhead a sea bird wheeled and soared, crying out to the unfamiliar creatures below. The boy turned back to her and pointed up at the bird. "What?" he asked.
She raised her eyes as well, shading them from the setting sun with one hand. "That's a minara," she said.
"Minara," he repeated dutifully. He watched it dive into the surf and snatch its dinner, then fly away out to sea. "Minara."
Kathryn also watched. "It looks a little like a sea gull," she commented.
He turned back to her. "A sea gull. That's an Earth bird, isn't it?"
The boy cocked his head to one side, considering. "Minara. Sea gull. Are they related?"
Kathryn smiled and shook her head. "Probably not."
"Oh." His disappointment lasted only a moment. An especially large wave slammed into his knees and ankles, its power almost knocking his thin frame to the sand.
Kathryn drew in a sharp breath, intending to admonish him for not paying attention to the waves, but then she reconsidered and let the breath out slowly. As much as she wanted to catch him up in her arms and keep him safe from the incoming tide, she knew she had to let him take his chances and learn his limitations. Her mind spun ahead in time, trying to imagine him in five years, ten, twenty. He would make a handsome man, of that she had no doubt, a man possessed of infinite curiosity, jubilant spirit, calm self-assuredness. She looked forward to watching him grow and change, but a part of her secretly wished he would stay four years old forever.
A small hand on either side of her face pulled her gently back to the present. The boy smiled down at her. "See what I did?" he turned and pointed to a patch in the sand where he had painstakingly carved a handful of words with a stick. "Look what I wrote!"
Kathryn smiled, stroked the boy's thick dark hair. "What do all these words say?"
He knelt down beside her and pointed to each one in turn, beaming with pride. "This one spells 'Kathryn'," he said, and pointed at her. "That's you."
She managed to keep her face serious for him.
He moved on to the next word. "This one spells 'Ipasha'." He thumbed his own thin chest. "That's me. But everybody calls me 'Pasha'," he said.
"Everybody but me."
"Uh-huh." He turned to the third word. "This one spells Voyager. That's home." He looked up at her with a grave expression. "Voyager is hard. It has a lot of letters."
He surveyed his work, counting quietly to himself, then looked up suddenly. "But it has the same letters as your name -- seven." His eyes lit up with the discovery.
Kathryn nodded. "You're right. Seven letters in 'Janeway,' too." He grabbed his stick and set to work while she patiently spelled the word aloud for him. He wrote each letter carefully, then wrote the number "7" under each of the three words. Then he sat back on his heels.
She pointed to the word they had skipped over during the brief numerical interlude. "What does this one spell?"
"That's 'Chakotay'," he said proudly, then paused to count. "It has eight letters -- one more than your name."
"So it does."
He wrote the number under the name, then began to draw elaborate patterns in the sand around the words he had written. Kathryn's mind wandered again. If she concentrated hard, she could visualize a scene very like this one far in the future, when Ipasha's child would write his name in the sand of some unimaginably distant planet. The thought brought tears to her eyes, the realization that the scene had repeated itself countless times in the past -- she could even remember it from her own childhood -- and would repeat itself countless times in the future, that she was a link in a chain that would continue, unbroken, to infinity. She shook her head slightly. Looking at Ipasha often brought these philosophical thoughts to mind. Chakotay insisted that it was perfectly natural, but even after four years of parenthood it still caught her by surprise every time.
A shadow passed over her and she looked up. Ipasha was standing now, staring down at her, eyes wide. "Why are you crying?" he asked, his voice full of four-year-old concern.
She forced a smile. "I was trying to imagine what you will look like when you're grown," she said.
He jammed his fists into his hips. "That's easy. I'm going to look like Daddy," he said with decision.
"Oh? Are you?"
He nodded once, tersely. "I'm going to look just like him."
Kathryn studied him. Though he was whippet-thin now, his broad shoulders and long legs promised a powerful adult body. The mannerisms -- the endless questioning, the impulse to spend time alone, even the terse nod and the hands-on-hips posture -- were definitely hers, but he was essentially correct. The coarse dark hair and soulful brown eyes had very little to do with her genes. "I think you're right, Ipasha," she said. "Do you think you'll be as handsome as he is?"
"Handsomer," he bragged.
Kathryn laughed quietly. The quirky sense of humor had nothing to do with her, either.
A shout rose up from down the beach. She shaded her eyes to regard the sun, then rose to her feet. An hour before sunset, he'd planned, and that would be about now. She reached for Ipasha. "It's time to go," she said.
He reluctantly took her hand and turned down the beach with her. They walked in silence for a time, but Kathryn could almost hear his young mind mulling over something. Finally he squeezed her hand lightly.
"Kes was there when I was born, wasn't she?" he asked.
"Yes, she was."
"And who else was there?"
It was something they had discussed many times. "Well, the Doctor was there, and your father."
"And what did Dad say when I was born?"
Kathryn smiled, remembering. "He said you were the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Then he said a prayer to give thanks for a healthy, handsome son."
"What if Kes hadn't been there? Would I have been born anyway?"
"Of course you would have. I did all the work, you know." She ruffled his hair affectionately. "Kes just helped."
Ipasha was silent for a long moment, and Kathryn had the unshakable sensation that the other shoe was about to drop.
When he spoke again, his voice was so soft she almost didn't hear him. "Kes was younger than you, wasn't she?"
Kathryn frowned, puzzled, then suddenly realized where this line of questioning would ultimately lead. She dropped to one knee in the sand and turned Ipasha around to face her, her hands resting gently on his shoulders. "Ipasha," she began, "Kes was an Ocampa. They don't live very long. You know that."
"How long do humans live?"
She peered into his brown face, searching for words that would reassure him. "Much longer than Ocampa. I'll probably live long enough to see your children grow up and have children of their own. Daddy too."
"We'll both certainly try."
After a moment of hesitation, he nodded once and started down the beach again, tugging her to her feet behind him. They walked on, side-by-side.
Soon Kathryn could make out a knot of people gathering on the beach for this most solemn occasion. She recognized each of them, members of their little spacefaring community, people she worked with and played with every day. And at the fringes of the gathering were the children, twenty of them now, ranging in age from a newborn human baby to a six year old boy with a vaguely Klingon look about him. Kathryn smiled, remembering the flurry of activity that had preceded his birth. Harry and B'Elanna had been the first to come to her asking permission to marry, which she had granted without hesitation. But when they came to her again, six months later, and asked permission to have a child, she had hesitated.
She and Chakotay had stayed up late into the night, poring over their ship's technical specifications and interior designs, Kes and Neelix's food production capabilities -- any statistic that would help them determine just how many lives the ship could safely sustain. In the end, after long hours of calculations, the discussion had erupted into an argument.
Janeway sank back on the couch and rubbed her eyes. "I don't know," she said. "The numbers look good, but this ship simply wasn't designed for raising children."
Chakotay looked up in surprise. "It wasn't designed for growing food or converting dilithium either, but we've managed to make it work."
"That's not the point."
"Then what is the point?"
She leaned forward to get a better view of his face. "The point is that we're talking about children. They need more space than we have, schools, homes. Do you really want to bring new lives into the universe all these light-years from the Alpha Quadrant?"
He nodded vigorously, surprising her. "Yes! For two years we've been asking the crew to think of this ship as home. Obviously they do -- would they want to have children here if they didn't think of Voyager as their home?"
"But if we let them start families out here, they may give up hope of ever getting back to the Alpha Quadrant."
Chakotay's face showed disbelief. "It's been two years, Captain. Yes, we may eventually make it to the Alpha Quadrant, but who can say how many years it will be before we get there? You can't ask these people to put their lives on hold indefinitely."
She waved one hand in a gesture of dismissal. "That's not what I'm asking."
"Yes it is." He rose swiftly and stalked to the door of her quarters, but something made him turn back, his face intent, his voice full of barely restrained anger. "I don't know about you, but I want a family. I don't care whether it happens here or in the Alpha Quadrant or on some planet somewhere in between. But I want it. Now, unless we find some other method of propulsion, I'm going to be over a hundred and ten years old by the time we get home. You're a scientist. You do the math." And with that he turned on his heel and left, as angry as she'd ever seen him.
Kathryn remembered staring after him in shock, letting his words slide over her consciousness, then eventually sink in. She'd spent most of the rest of the night sitting alone in her quarters, thinking of the people back on Earth -- Mark, Bear, her parents -- wondering what they were doing, hoping they had gone on with their lives. She buried her face in her hands, ashamed that, in her self-imposed seclusion, she had failed to recognize her crew's need to move on, her first officer and friend's need to build a life of his own.
Later she went to Chakotay and told him of her decision, apologized for her blindness. And after that night, nothing on Voyager, nothing in her life, was ever quite the same again.
Eleven months later, after a healthy pregnancy and a feat of genetic engineering that the Doctor crowed about for weeks, B'Elanna gave birth to a huge squealing baby boy. They named him Alfred, after Harry's father. Alfred Torres-Kim.
The Voyager family soon began to grow steadily, blossoming with six new additions over the next two years, making up for the losses they had suffered over the first two -- Seska, Durst, Aquino, others. And at the end of the second year of growth, Kathryn had joyously informed her second-in-command that their secret little twosome could not remain secret much longer, for soon they would be three.
Ipasha spied a friend at the edge of the gathering, a handsome, perpetually smiling man with thinning fair hair and a bushy mustache. He yanked on her hand and pulled her after him, then let go and fairly climbed up the man's leg in his enthusiasm.
Tom reached down and hauled the boy up into his arms. "Pasha! Where you been all afternoon, kiddo?"
Ipasha squirmed, avoiding Tom's tickling fingers. "Playing at the beach with Mom."
Tom grabbed him by the ankles and hung him upside down. "Playing with Mom, huh? When are you gonna come and play with your poor old Uncle Tommy?"
The boy squealed with delight, fascinated with the world from this new perspective. "Tomorrow!" he shouted.
Tom swung him gently from side to side, then caught Kathryn's look of disapproval. "This is hardly the time, Tom," she warned, failing to keep her suppressed smile from reaching her eyes. "But you can have him all day tomorrow, if you want him."
Tom flipped Ipasha to his feet and glanced out at the water. He shook his head lightly. "I don't know, Captain. Seems like tomorrow might be a good day to scare up a little mermaid somewhere..."
Kathryn laughed and looped her arm through his. "Tom Paris, you are incorrigible."
He grinned down at her. "Why, thank you, Captain. I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me."
Ipasha took her other hand, and the three of them joined the gathering.
Kathryn scrutinized the crew closely. With few exceptions, the adults were a study in dark clothes and somber faces. They'd experienced death before, but never quite in this manner. There had been accidents, lives lost in the line of duty, but this was the first death attributable to natural causes, specifically old age, and it brought the force of their predicament home to them. Never mind that Kes' lifespan was considerably shorter than theirs, or that tomorrow they might find a way back to the Alpha Quadrant. In many of their minds her death signalled the beginning of a long string of losses yet to come.
She glanced around, nodding somberly to friends. Tuvok's serene expression caught her eye. He'd never admit it, but even he seemed to be affected, and Kathryn felt a lump rise in her throat, thinking of him. They'd almost lost him, too, barely two years into their long journey, when the pon farr set in and rendered him unconscious for days with the force of the blood fever. But with his usual flair for the dramatic, the Doctor had mulled over the problem and come up with yet another holomedical miracle.
This time, though, they had not been so fortunate.
Her eyes fell on a pair of dark figures at the water's edge, one tall and powerfully built, the other short and pudgy. She nodded toward them and steered Tom and Ipasha in their direction. Chakotay was out of uniform, as nearly all of them were, dressed in leggings and a loose black tunic that picked up the few remaining dark patches in his rapidly graying hair. The clothes were formal; he would be performing the rites for Kes, at Neelix's request. In fact, from the first shipboard funeral to that first Voyager wedding right up to the present, he'd officiated at all of the ship's formal occasions. By rights it was her place as Captain of the vessel, but somehow it seemed more fitting to let Chakotay do the honors. He had been their unofficial spiritual guide from the very beginning.
Neelix stood beside him, also dressed in black, hunched over a little with grief. Tom released her and went to him, draping one arm around his shoulders. The Talaxian had known from the outset of their relationship that his time with Kes was severely limited, that he was sure to outlive her by many years. He had tried to be philosophical about her death, but his wry glibness could not hide the grief he felt. Kathryn glanced up at Chakotay's profile, imagining what it would feel like to suddenly lose him. Her heart went out to Neelix.
Chakotay seemed to feel her eyes on him and turned from his quiet contemplation of the sea. He smiled slightly and took Ipasha's free hand, pulling them both away from Tom and Neelix, who now stood huddled together at the water's edge. At a respectable distance from Neelix's grief, he knelt down before Ipasha, who immediately wriggled into his arms. "So tell me," he asked, "what did you do this afternoon?"
"I made a sand castle, and saw a minara, and wrote my name in the sand with a stick. Your name too. And Mom's."
Chakotay nodded his approval. "That's a lot for one afternoon, isn't it?"
Ipasha shrugged. "Where were you? I wanted to play with you, too."
Chakotay sobered. "I needed to be with Neelix this afternoon. You understand why, don't you?"
The boy nodded. "Because Kes is dead."
"Did you make Mr. Neelix feel better?"
"I think so. That's why we're all here now." Chakotay peered anxiously into the boy's face, so like his own, looking for understanding. "Being all together like this will help him feel better, too. And us. It helps us all."
Ipasha glanced at something over his father's shoulder. "Will it help the Doctor feel better, too?"
Chakotay followed his gaze to the far side of the gathering, where B'Elanna and Harry had set up the portable holographic projector they had designed years before. The Doctor knelt before Alfred Torres-Kim, teasing him gently through the grief visible on his ageless features. Chakotay nodded. "It should."
Ipasha dug his bare toes in the sand and looked away, the subject evidently closed.
Chakotay rose to his feet and leaned close to Kathryn. "How are you doing?"
"All right," she said, then blinked back the tears that had formed in her eyes. "Not as well as Ipasha, apparently."
Resting his hand absently on the boy's head, Chakotay frowned. "How much of this do you think he understands?"
"I think he knows what's going on. Though we need to talk to him later."
Chakotay raised his eyebrows in silent question.
"He was asking me earlier how long humans live," she elaborated. "I think he's a little afraid that you or I..."
Chakotay let out a long breath. "We'll talk to him after the service, then." He surveyed the assembled crew and glanced at the sun, sighed.
Kathryn placed her open palm on his cheek. "Time?" she asked.
He nodded. "Time." He kissed her briefly, then bent to hug Ipasha. Slowly he made his way to the platform that waited for him.
Part Two: "Geometry"
Chakotay paused at the edge of the platform, taking a moment to clear his head. A ritual, he'd always been taught, must be performed with a good and pure heart, so he closed his eyes and looked inward, searching for his center. Each time it got a little harder, each time he was asked to perform this particular service he felt a small piece of himself slip away, as if he were slowly shedding layer upon layer of his soul. His heart felt heavy in his chest, but then Kathryn's gentle fingers brushed his hand and the center that had eluded him suddenly came into focus. He stepped up on the platform. He did not look back at her; without his ever having to express it, she would know of his gratitude.
He surveyed the gathered community. Nearly all of them were there; only a handful of individuals had remained on the ship, freeing everyone else to attend the service. And those not in attendance, he knew, would be watching him, feeling with him, participating from above. It was an awesome responsibility, the burden of all their spiritual weight, so far away from everything they knew and understood -- not a load to be shouldered lightly, and at first he had been reluctant to accept it. But as they traveled and the months, then years, went by, he came to realize that if they were to establish any kind of community at all, they needed rituals to define their relationships to each other and the universe around them, something sacred and known to cling to in the face of all the unknown ahead. And so he had looked within himself, searching for the courage he would need in order to carry out the responsibility they had thrust upon him. To his great pleasure and humility, he had found that he possessed it.
From then on he had performed every sacred ritual that their journey had required -- funerals, various rites of passage, and later, weddings and other joining ceremonies. The ones that gave him the greatest joy, though, were the children's naming ceremonies. Looking out over the gathering he could see them, twenty of them including his own child, and remember lifting them high above his head, presenting them to the extended Voyager family. He had been there when some of them were born; the religious beliefs of several crewmembers required that a spiritual leader be present to perform certain rituals during the birthing process. He felt greatly privileged to have helped bring these children into life, looking after the mother's and child's spirits just as the Doctor and Kes looked after their bodies.
The memory of her smiling, elfin face flung him immediately into the present. The gathering had become silent as he'd stood there, mentally and emotionally preparing himself for the ritual he was about to perform. Now they waited expectantly, willing him to soothe their aching spirits. Chakotay drew in a long breath and said a silent prayer, humbly asking for the strength and courage he would need to assuage their profound grief.
He raised his head and spoke in hushed, reverent tones. "My friends," he began, "everything the Great Power does, it does in a circle." It was his own most cherished belief, and so he began each ceremony with the same words, at once an incantation and invocation. "The circle is continuous; its ending is its beginning, and every point is connected to those that come before and after it. In the circle each of us touches the lives of those around us in countless ways, both large and small. In this way we belong to each other, and so we come together in times of joy and sadness, for in the circle we are one."
He paused, the incantation over, and raised his voice slightly before continuing. "Kes has been part of our circle for eight years. In that short time she has touched us in infinite ways, healing our bodies with her gentle hands, healing our hearts with her gentle words. If we look within ourselves we will find the marks of her love upon us. And if we look to our children, we will see the marks of her love there as well. Kes helped each of them into life, and she will live on within them. For death is not an ending but a change of worlds, and they are not dead who live in the hearts they leave behind."
Chakotay looked behind him, gesturing Neelix to stand near him. "Who gives this good woman into the next world?"
Neelix stepped forward hesitantly. "I do," he said, and Chakotay reflected it was probably the first time he had ever heard the Talaxian whisper.
"Have you any words to say on her behalf?"
Neelix paused for a long moment, gathering himself. Then he raised his head and spoke confidently, with great conviction. "Kes dearly loved being a part of this circle. She was grateful to each one of you for accepting her into your lives and allowing her to join your journey. She saw things she never would have seen if she had stayed on her world. She learned of people and places she'd never dreamed of before.
"More than anything, she loved bringing your children into life, watching them grow and change... She felt responsible for keeping them healthy and happy. To her they represented the lives you have made for yourselves here in the Delta Quadrant. Without them, Voyager would never have been a home to you. And so she felt privileged that you entrusted their care to her.
"She wanted to see the Alpha Quadrant and the homes you left behind, but as long as you keep her in your hearts and honor her memory, a part of her will be there with you when you return." Neelix started to say more, then shook his head and withdrew.
Chakotay surveyed the gathering. "Does anyone else have words to say on her behalf?"
There was a slight pause, then the Doctor stepped forward, his eyes lowered, his voice unusually soft. "Kes was my pupil," he began, "but she taught me...more than I thought possible." He looked up. "She made me realize that knowledge is not wisdom, but that sometimes wonder is. She taught me that being alive has nothing to do with the form we take. For this I thank her, and honor her memory." He stepped back.
"Does anyone else have words to say on her behalf?"
The pause was longer this time, and so Kathryn stepped forward, Ipasha in tow. "Kes taught me that the greatest strength is gentleness. We will miss her, but her counsel will always be a part of our circle." She stepped back.
Chakotay nodded to Neelix, who picked up the urn. "We now commit the body of this good woman to the next world."
Neelix slowly made his way to the place where the water met the sand. He gazed out over the ocean for a moment, his back turned to the gathering, then gingerly sprinkled the ashes over the waves. As he did so, the crew slowly moved together, joining hands in large circles. Abruptly Neelix let out a small cry and fell to his knees in the sand. Before anyone else could move the Doctor cut across the circle and knelt beside him. The two men sat hunched together for a long moment, then rose as one, the Doctor's arm draped protectively around Neelix's slumped shoulders. They returned to the circle.
Chakotay glanced at Kathryn, whose tears flowed freely down her face, and held out his hand. Neelix joined him on the other side, closing the circle. "We will see Kes in the next world, but for now we must honor her memory," Chakotay said. "We must assist each other to bear the burden of her passing, and remember that in the circle, no one is ever alone."
They all stood together, hand-in-hand, while the sun sank into the ocean. Once the orange disk had completely passed below the surface of the water, Chakotay released Neelix's hand, and the circles broke. People scattered in different directions, some talking, some in silent contemplation.
Neelix stepped in front of him. "Thank you, Commander," he said simply, then turned away, the Doctor's arm still resting across his shoulders. Tom Paris joined them and the trio walked quietly away.
Kathryn squeezed his hand. "How are you doing?"
He drew in a long, shaky breath. "This is very hard," he said.
"I know. But you do it very well."
He leaned down and picked up Ipasha, who rested his head on his father's shoulder. "Ready to go home?" he asked.
Ipasha nodded against his neck.
Chakotay reached for Kathryn, who touched his hand, then pulled away. "I need to see that everyone gets back to the ship all right. Then I want to take a turn around the Bridge, check in on Neelix..." Her voice trailed off.
Chakotay frowned. "I need you. Please don't be long," he said.
"I won't. An hour at the most."
He nodded, then smiled as she rose on her toes to kiss him.
Chakotay watched her walk away and join the gathering again, then turned and made his way down the beach. He felt Ipasha shiver and pulled the boy to his chest against the cool ocean breeze. "Cold?" he asked.
Ipasha nodded and snuggled closer to him. "Tired."
"Me too. As soon as we get home we'll just go to bed. Okay?"
"Not until Mom gets home."
"All right -- not until Mom gets home. But you might have to keep me awake."
"I will." Ipasha yawned and Chakotay smiled, wondering which one of them would fall asleep first.
Finally he reached the transport site, on a bluff a few yards from the beach. He waited patiently, accepting words of consolation and appreciation from the crew, until finally he gave Harry the order to bring them home.
Moments later he shifted his young burden to a more comfortable position and stepped down from the ship's transporter platform. It was hard for him to imagine the first time he'd materialized aboard this ship, aggressive and angry, phaser drawn, poised for a fight. He could never, not in his wildest imaginings, have guessed that eight years later he would still be on this ship, much less strolling casually to the Captain's quarters, their sleepy child cradled in his arms.
In a way the ship didn't even look like the Voyager he remembered. Whole sections of her interior had been altered to serve purposes for which they were not originally designed; Neelix's conversion of the Captain's dining room to a galley had been only the first of many such overhauls. B'Elanna's endless engine modifications had left the Engine Room only a shadow of its former self. Kes and a team of helping hands had turned one of the cargo bays into a huge hydroponic garden; in her absence it would be tended by volunteers. Every last centimeter of the ship had been studied and modified for maximum efficient usage.
Chakotay crossed into their quarters. Ipasha scrabbled down and stumbled into his room, which had for four years belonged to his father. Before Ipasha was born Chakotay and Tom had spent an entire day removing a section of the wall that normally separated the two sets of rooms -- yet another interior overhaul. Tom had found something infinitely amusing about the whole situation.
"You know," he'd said, resting against the bulkhead, "you guys should have done this a long time ago."
Chakotay looked up warily from his work. "Done what?"
Tom nodded toward the ragged hole between the rooms. "Ripped out that wall. It's a lot more convenient for you this way -- no sneaking around the corridors trying to keep it a secret."
"We never snuck around the corridors."
Tom snorted. "Like hell you didn't. You still do."
"We do not."
"Yes, you do, Chakotay. You always look up and down the hall before you walk into her quarters, and she's going to have your baby in a few months. If that's not sneaking, I don't know what is."
Chakotay sat down beside Tom. "Paris, I think you've got way too much time on your hands."
"Maybe so." Tom glanced sidelong at his friend, suddenly serious. "What I can't figure out, though, is why you didn't get together sooner. I mean, it was pretty obvious to everyone how you felt about each other years ago -- I think even Tuvok knew."
Tom nodded. "Harry and Kes always said we should just give you both some time, but for a while there B'Elanna and I were worried it would never happen."
Chakotay grimaced. "I'm glad you were all taking such an avid interest in our love lives."
Tom elbowed him lightly in the ribs. "Just looking out for you, pal. Ever since the Caretaker tried to drop you down a pit, I've felt kinda responsible for you."
"Don't do me any favors, Paris."
"Don't worry." Tom absently toyed with the cutting tool he held in his hands. "What did take you so long, anyway?"
Chakotay looked out at the stars for a long moment. He almost wanted to tell Tom the real answer to his question, warn him about taking people for granted, caution him to think before making decisions, because out here, regret could last a very long time. Instead, he chuckled softly. "I was saving myself for the Delaney sisters," he said.
"You know, Chakotay," Tom said, reddening slightly, "if your kid inherits your sense of humor, we're all going to be in a lot of trouble."
Chakotay passed through the archway where the wall had been, remembering the conversation, looking for his son. "Pasha?" he called. "Where did you go?"
He paused in the doorway, reminding himself to respect the boy's privacy. "Can I come in?"
He found Ipasha standing beside his bed, examining a handful of small stones he had arranged on the coverlet. "What have you got there?" he asked, kneeling at the edge of the bed.
Ipasha placed the stones in a row and removed his hands so Chakotay could examine them. "I picked them up on the beach this morning." He reached out and touched one of them, running his finger over its surface. "Tuvok says they're smooth like this because of the water."
"You were with Tuvok today?"
"Uh-huh." Ipasha arranged the stones in a small circle. "He took Alfred and me for a walk while Mom was busy this morning."
"I see." That would have been while Kathryn was asking the local government's permission to hold their ceremony by the sea. He tried to imagine the staid Vulcan strolling on the beach with two small children in tow. For a moment the image eluded him, until he remembered that Tuvok had children and grandchildren of his own, impossibly far away on Vulcan. Chakotay, suddenly keenly aware of the nearness of his own child, placed a hand on his shoulder. "Tuvok probably enjoyed that. I know he misses his children a lot."
Chakotay watched, fascinated, while Ipasha picked up the stones and thoughtfully rearranged them again and again. The shape he put them in was always the same, a circle, and each stone always touched the ones that came before and after it, though the order of the stones changed with each new circle. One stone in particular, a flat blue-gray one, caught Chakotay's eye. He reached out and flipped it over, immediately recognizing the markings on its hidden face.
"Pasha? Where did you get this stone?"
Ipasha stood very still, his eyes downcast.
"Did you take this from my medicine bundle?" The boy nodded slowly. "You know this is sacred to me, don't you?"
"Yes." Ipasha's voice was very small compared to his own. "Are you mad?"
"Well, yes, a little." Chakotay gently turned the boy to face him, softening when he saw Ipasha's lips tremble. "If you want to look, that's okay. But ask first, all right? Ask me so we can talk about it together. Can you remember that?"
Ipasha nodded again. "Not mad now?"
Chakotay shook his head. "Not mad now. But why did you take the stone?"
Ipasha retrieved the stone from his father's hand and placed it beside his own little collection on the coverlet. "Because yours is different. Mine are plain. But yours has snails on it."
Chakotay looked at the stone again, discovering with a smile that the markings representing metamorphosis, four sets of concentric circles, each one larger than the last, really did look a little like a group of snails. "Did you take it because it's marked? Pasha, would you like to learn how to mark some of your own stones?"
Ipasha turned wide brown eyes on him. "Can you teach me?"
Chakotay smiled. "I should have taught you a long time ago." He ducked into the living area of their spacious quarters, returned with his arms full of treasures. He knelt again beside the bed, producing a padd and stylus. "We'll start with something a little simpler than the...snails," he said. "Can you draw a circle?"
The boy took the stylus and carefully drew a wobbly circle, not quite round, not quite unbroken. He frowned "No. Here, you do it for me." He tried to pass the padd to his father, but Chakotay shook his head.
"If you can write your name in the sand, you can draw a circle, Pasha. I'll help you." He pressed the stylus back into Ipasha's small hand and covered it with his own. Together they decorated the padd with many circles, some large, some small, all round and unbroken. Chakotay studied the boy's face as they worked, inwardly smiling at the intensity written there. He was reminded of himself as a child, drawing endless circles on endless padds while his own father hovered over his shoulder. But there was something else in the set of Ipasha's jaw, the way he bent with his nose almost touching the padd, something that had not come from him. He could see Kathryn there as well, and cherished the boy all the more for that resemblance.
Ipasha looked up from their joined hands. "Can I mark one of the stones now?" he asked.
"Not quite yet." The boy's face fell a little. "Next we have to draw some lines across the circle. Like this." Chakotay took his hand again and together they cut one of the circles with three straight lines. "Now. Do you know what this represents?"
Ipasha picked up the padd and held it close to his face, concentrating. "Is it the medicine wheel?"
"That's right. The wheel represents the paths we walk in life, and the places where the lines cross represent the places where we sometimes stop." From his pile of treasures, Chakotay produced a stone with the same icon carved into its face, barely visible now. He ran his thumb over the worn markings, then handed the stone to Ipasha. "This is the first symbol I learned how to make when I was a boy."
"Did your father teach you how to make it?"
Chakotay nodded. "And someday you will teach your children."
Ipasha turned the stone over and over in his hands, his eyes wide with awe. "It's very old, isn't it?"
Chakotay's lips quirked up in a smile. "It's not that old, Pasha. Do you think you're ready to try it yourself?"
Ipasha nodded eagerly, and Chakotay produced a carving tool. As he handed it to the boy he paused a moment, imagining a dozen different scenarios that all inevitably ended with Ipasha impaling himself on the sharp end of the tool -- and with Kathryn never forgiving him for injuring their son. Ipasha searched through his collection of stones and finally seized upon a particularly round and smooth one. With quiet intensity, he set to work.
They sat for an hour that way, Ipasha dutifully carving different symbols into his stones, Chakotay offering encouragement, until Kathryn returned. She sat on the edge of the bed and went through their pile of stones, holding each one close to her face and examining its markings, making small sounds of admiration. She studied one stone in particular for a long time, then held it out to Ipasha. "Did you do this one?"
They boy looked up from his work. "No, Daddy did that one."
She smiled down at Chakotay with puzzlement. "What does a frog represent in your mythology?"
Chakotay glanced at the stone she held out, hid his smile. "Actually, that's not a frog."
"Then what is it? It looks like a frog."
Father and son exchanged a glance. Finally Ipasha spoke up. "I wanted a stone that meant home..." he said.
Janeway looked at the stone again, then frowned at Chakotay. "This isn't what I think it is, is it?"
Chakotay smiled sheepishly. "It's the Voyager," he said.
"My ship does not look like a frog."
"No, it really looks more like a tadpole," he replied. "Right after its legs start to grow."
Janeway rose to her feet with dangerous quickness. "That's it, you two. Bed. Now."
Together the three of them cleared the coverlet and Ipasha settled comfortably in bed. Kathryn and Chakotay sat on either side of him, poised as always to go over the events of the day -- another ritual established to reinforce their connections. Kathryn slid one arm around the boy's shoulders. "Is there anything you want to talk about, Ipasha? Anything about what happened today?"
Ipasha's brown hands plucked at the coverlet. "Why was everyone so sad today?" he asked.
Chakotay shared a worried glance with Kathryn. "Because of Kes," he said. "We thought you understood that."
Ipasha nodded. "I know she's dead, but she's still here, isn't she?"
Kathryn hesitantly touched his cheek. "Ipasha, she's never coming back."
The boy became frustrated. "I know that." He looked at Chakotay. "But you said she's still a part of our circle. If we remember her then she can never really be gone, right?"
Chakotay sat back, marveling at Ipasha's instinctive grasp of concepts he had struggled with all his life. "That's right," he said. "She will always be a part of our circle, as long as we take the time to remember her."
"Then why was everyone so sad?"
Kathryn laughed softly. "Because not everyone has your incredible little mind, Ipasha."
Ipasha frowned. "My mind's not so little."
"Well, right now your not-so-little mind needs rest." She helped him settle under the covers, then kissed his cheek. "Good night, Ipasha."
Chakotay bent and took the boy's head in both hands, pressed their foreheads together. "Sleep well, Pasha," he said.
Together Chakotay and Kathryn lowered the lights and retreated from the room. Once in the living area of their quarters, Chakotay slumped against the wall. Kathryn touched his arm with concern. "What is it?"
Chakotay shook his head. "Sometimes he amazes me," he said.
Kathryn slipped her arm around his waist. "I know. Me too."
"I see a lot of you in him."
She regarded him with an amused smile. "I was just going to say the same thing about you." She steered him toward the couch. "You look exhausted," she said.
"I am. I always forget how hard days like this are." He closed his eyes. "I think I'm prepared, but then when the time comes..." He shook his head.
She took his hand. "That's why I'm here, remember?"
He sprawled on the couch beside her, settling back into the circle of her embrace. "How is Neelix?"
"A little better. Tom and the Doctor are with him."
"And how was everything upstairs?"
She yawned. "The Bridge was right where we left it this morning. I've ordered a late departure and granted shore leave for tomorrow."
Chakotay's face brightened. "Good -- we can take Pasha to the beach again."
"Actually," Kathryn began, smirking at him, "I think Tom's got something special planned for him tomorrow. I've already granted myself shore leave, and if the First Officer plays his cards right, he might be able to convince me to do the same for him."
"Yes. The Captain feels she and her First Officer haven't spent nearly enough time together lately. Alone."
Chakotay grinned, then sobered. "I should like to point out to the Captain," he said, a near-perfect imitation of Tuvok, "that she has a one-track mind."
Kathryn laughed, then rose from the couch. She looked back when he did not follow. "Coming to bed?"
"I want to put these stones away first."
She padded off to their bedroom. "Well, don't be long."
"I won't. Fifteen minutes."
"Make it five."
"Is that an order?"
He heard her chuckle, then her head peeked out at him. "Commander," she said, "my ship does not look like a frog."
Chakotay laughed quietly, watching her disappear behind the closing door. "Aye, Captain," he called after her.
He rose and gathered the stones he and Ipasha had scattered over the rooms and carefully put them away, along with other odds and ends that Ipasha had dropped or stowed in improbable places. In his mind he went over the events of the day again, reflecting, considering, seizing on odd moments of illumination and understanding. He thought of Ipasha, so full of curiosity, innocent but at the same time possessing a wisdom that Chakotay did not remember from his own childhood. Ipasha knew his place in the universe, knew who he was and where he belonged. It was a continual source of amazement to Chakotay that he had not realized his own place until after he had been flung so many lightyears from the world he knew, and that he had not truly discovered who he was until he could define his connections to the two people who mattered to him most.
He strode toward the bedroom. Before he entered, he paused to touch a stone tablet hung on the wall beside the door. It had been Kathryn's gift to him at Ipasha's naming ceremony, and was covered with carvings, ancient symbols and ancient words. He reverently ran his fingers over the markings, imagining her white hands carving diligently at the tablet, her face bent over it in intense concentration, hidden away from his curious eyes. He smiled. The door parted for him and he stepped through it, the words of the ancient saying echoing in his mind.
Do not walk behind me, I may not lead.
Do not walk before me, I may not follow.
But walk beside me, that we may walk the Circle as one.
Part Three: "New Math"
He stood alone where the water met the sand, watching the sun slowly descend toward the ocean.
He'd stood there a long time, letting his mind wander back to other oceans, other suns, other gatherings, both joyous and solemn. The scenery had changed over the years, but the people were always the same -- Tom, B'Elanna, Harry, Alfred, Tuvok, many more -- faces he could call up just by looking inward and remembering.
One memory in particular tugged at him, like a child full of infectious enthusiasm. He closed his eyes and gave himself up to it, and instantly he was there again, standing in the circle between his parents, watching with wide eyes as Neelix scattered the ashes over the sea. He could recall virtually every detail of that day -- building sand castles with Alfred and the other children, playing with Tom before the gathering, watching Chakotay's face as he spoke to the crew. He'd listened to his father speak with something very like awe; he'd never before realized what a profoundly spiritual man Chakotay was. And then when the Doctor had stepped forward and placed his arm around Neelix's slumped shoulders, many of the adults had begun to weep openly. He remembered being frightened that something terrible was about to happen, and so he hid away, face pressed into his mother's thigh.
Abruptly the memory became almost too vivid to bear. He'd tried not to think about it, had pushed it away from his mind all day, but suddenly he was four years old again, walking beside his mother on the beach of some unimaginably distant planet. It was one of his clearest memories of her, bound inextricably with the memories of the people joined hand-in-hand in large circles, and the scattering of the ashes, and death.
He sank to his knees in the sand, letting the grief overtake him. For a long moment he simply knelt there, watching the waves roll in and out, while a flock of sea gulls dove for their dinner. Tears rolled uninhibited down his cheeks.
Absently he picked up a stick of driftwood and carved his name in the sand, then his parents', then Lizzie's and Kes' He added numbers under them -- an "8" for Chakotay, a "7" for his mother, a "6" for himself and his wife, and a "3" for the little one. A smile crept to his lips, and as an afterthought he drew a large circle through the names, connecting them. He sat back on his heels and admired his work, then frowned. The circle was a little wobbly, not quite round, not quite unbroken.
A strong hand fell on his shoulder. "Time."
He rose to his feet and turned reluctantly. "Already?"
The older man nodded, reaching up to drape his arm over his friend's broad shoulders, steering him away from the beach. "An hour before sunset, like always. Let's go."
He sighed. "Where is he?"
"Up on the bluff waiting for you."
"Are Kes and Lizzie with him?"
"Kes was gathering stones for him, the last I saw."
Ipasha's dark eyes closed briefly. "He's really hurting, isn't he?"
The older man's voice, usually full of warmth and humor, was rough with sorrow. "We all are, Pasha."
Ipasha stopped, placed his big hands on his friend's shoulders. "I want to thank you for coming, Tom," he said.
Tom smiled, a little sadly. "We're family, Ipasha. We've been family since before you were born." He shook off the younger man's hands and began to walk again. "Your mother gave me a chance when no one else would. I'll always owe her for that."
"Yes, but if it hadn't been for her, you would have never been stranded in space for thirty years. Eventually you would have gotten out of prison and gone on with your life."
Tom shook his head. "But then I would've never met the Delaney sisters, and that was definitely worth thirty years."
Ipasha grinned. "Now, which one are you married to?"
Tom pretended to think hard. "Let's see. What year is this? I think it must be Jenny..."
"Jenny Delaney," Ipasha mused aloud. "I always had a crush on her."
"Uh-huh." He cocked his head and gave Tom a sidelong glance. "You know, if she weren't my mother-in-law..."
Tom poked him lightly in the ribs. "Kiddo, when you were born I prayed you wouldn't inherit your Daddy's evil streak."
"I think Kes is going to have it, too."
Tom groaned. "Poor, unsuspecting kid... At least she got my good looks."
"I wouldn't be too sure, Tom. I think she's going to look more like my mother than anyone else."
"As long as she doesn't look like your Daddy." Tom's voice became serious, wistful. "No matter who she looks like, Jenny and I would like to see her more often."
"You and Lizzie are never going to move back, are you?"
Ipasha shook his head. "I doubt it. After so many years of traveling, it's hard to think about settling somewhere. Deep space is really the only home either of us has ever known."
Tom clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, it was hard for us old folks to get over. We got back to this quadrant, fully intending to settle down and spoil our grandchildren rotten, but then you all just took off."
"I know. You've got to remember, we were all essentially raised as nomads. Never stayed too long in the same place. The idea of having one home that you always go back to... We haven't felt that since the Voyager." Ipasha shook his head. "My father doesn't understand it either. I think Mom did, in a way, but not him."
Tom glanced at him with unreadable eyes. "He says the two of you barely talk anymore."
Ipasha looked down in shame. "It's hard... I don't think he's ever really forgiven Lizzie and I for not settling on Dorvan V with him and Mom. And then we started traveling again, and Kes was born... There just doesn't seem to be enough time anymore."
Tom took him by the arm, stopped him. "Time doesn't have anything to do with it. I know he's never stopped writing you -- hell, he even writes to me once a week, and you know how well we get along. And he understands more than you think. He was out there in the Delta Quadrant for thirty years too, remember?" Tom shook his head. "No, you're the one who cut him off. You broke the circle, Pasha. Only you can close it again."
"But we couldn't just move back, not now."
"You don't have to. The circle isn't about where you are. It's about who you are, and who you love. The greatest success I've ever known in my life is being at peace with myself and my family. Are you at peace, Pasha?"
Ipasha lowered his eyes.
"That's what I thought," Tom said. "Just tell me you'll talk to him today. Today's the day for it -- endings are beginnings, that's what your Dad always tells me."
Ipasha smiled at Tom's grudging respect for Chakotay's spiritual beliefs. "All right, I'll talk to him."
"Promise." A thought struck Ipasha as they walked. "Anyway, not everybody left. Alfred's still around."
Tom rolled his eyes. "Alfred. I thought Harry was repressed when he was younger, but Alfred..."
Ipasha laughed. "Well, Harry must have grown out of it eventually. And the rest of their kids aren't like that."
"No, they're all normal. They have boyfriends and girlfriends and lives. But Alfred..." He shook his head. "You tell your Dad he better pray for that one."
"I'm sure he already has."
The two men crossed the beach slowly, side-by-side, until they reached the base of the bluff. Ipasha paused, turned back toward the water. "Who else is up there?" he asked.
"Well, Harry and B'Elanna, and their kids. Hargrove, Kyoto, Dalby... Tuvok brought his whole family, but of course they knew her before we ever went to the Delta Quadrant. Everybody's there. I think B'Elanna even managed to bring the Doctor."
Ipasha ran a hand through his long dark hair. "I don't want to do this, Tom."
The older man put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I know you don't."
"Why did he ask me to do it, anyway?"
"Because he can't." Tom shook his head. "Look, I know this isn't going to be easy for you. This may be the hardest thing you've ever done, but it'll make you feel better. It'll make Chakotay feel better. That's why we all came."
Ipasha shook his head. "He's going to be lost without her, isn't he?"
"Probably, for a while." Tom looked out at the ocean. "It's funny -- back on the Voyager, before you were born, he was the only one who never seemed lost."
Ipasha looked at him with interest. "What do you mean?"
"He just...settled into it all. Oh, the first couple of years were hard -- they used to argue a lot."
Ipasha chuckled. "I know. He told me he couldn't believe how angry she used to make him."
Tom smiled and Ipasha could see him thinking back. "He got so angry once he tore a whole bar apart."
"What?" Ipasha gasped.
"Just a Holodeck bar," Tom added, "but he destroyed it like an expert." The older man shook his head. "But after that, things just seemed to get better and better..."
"They both knew there was nowhere else they'd rather be than with each other."
Tom nodded. "They had forty good years together."
"They should have had forty more."
Ipasha closed his eyes. "She always said she'd live to see my kids grow up and have children of their own."
"She was much too young to die, Tom." His voice caught in his throat.
Tom placed a supportive arm around Ipasha's shoulders. "I remember when Kes died, all those years ago. We said the same thing about her. But I also remember what your father said at the service, that she had touched our lives in infinite ways, and that it was time for her to move on to the next world." He turned Ipasha around to face him. "Your mother touched us all in infinite ways, Pasha. We may never know why, but it must have been her time, too. You just have to accept that."
Ipasha met his eyes, then impulsively embraced the older man. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it."
They climbed in silence, side-by-side.
Tom was right; everyone was there on the high bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A great throng had gathered at the burial site, including many faces Ipasha had not seen in years, members of his extended Voyager family, people he had grown up with, learned from, admired. And mixed among them were the unfamiliar faces of Starfleet dignitaries Ipasha had only heard of. Although Kathryn had retired from Starfleet almost upon the instant of their return to the Alpha Quadrant, her aborted career was legendary, and the brass had come to pay their respects. At the head of the gathering Ipasha spotted Lizzie, who waved to him and forced a smile. He made his way to her, his eyes locked on the two figures beside her, a little girl with wavy chestnut hair and large brown eyes, and a tall, powerfully built man, his white head bent in grief.
Ipasha touched his father's shoulder. Chakotay turned and took his son's face in both hands, pulled him close until their foreheads touched. "Pasha," he breathed, his voice a mixture of relief and sadness.
Chakotay's face was drawn and pale, his hands unsteady. Clearly he had barely slept at all during the long passage from his homeworld to Earth, alone with his late wife's lifeless body, and Ipasha was suddenly ashamed for the rift that had formed between them. He pulled back slightly, intending to apologize for his silence, but Chakotay's still-strong fingers held him fast. "My son," he whispered, "remember that a ritual must be performed with a good and pure heart." Then he let go.
Ipasha stepped back quickly, unable to look at his father's gaunt face. He turned, glanced over the gathered people and checked the position of the sun. Reluctantly he mounted the platform.
The terrible weight of all their grief hit him and again his mind flew backwards in time to that evening on a distant beach when he stood beside his mother and listened to his father, and knew, without a doubt, who he was and where he belonged. Somehow over the years he had lost that feeling, and he berated himself for letting it slip away. He feared that he would never find it again.
They turned their faces up to him expectantly, so many people he knew, so many more he did not know, all waiting for him to speak. But there were no words.
He searched the crowd for some anchor, anything he could cling to as sacred and known. He saw Chakotay holding his grandchild in his arms, and for the first time in far too long Ipasha met his father's eyes. He drew in a long breath, then smiled slightly, suddenly finding the words.
"My friends," Ipasha said, "everything the Great Power does, it does in a circle. In the circle each of us touches the lives of those around us in countless ways, both large and small. In this way we belong to each other, and so we come together in times of joy and sadness, for in the circle we are one."