Disclaimer: The Startrek universe: theirs. This story: mine. Profit: I wish.

Rating: PG-13

Author's Note: YAEF: Yet another "Endgame" fix. This story started out being written for J/C Fichaven's break up C/7 humanely" challenge, and then turned into a "two-fer" when I decided to combine it with Jadie's Nexus's Valentine's Day project. Valentine's Day is long since past, so we're back to "break 'em up without killing anyone," with a little bit of Valentine's Day for good measure.

Summary: Returning home is not quite what Janeway imagined it would be.

Regrets, I've Had A Few

by 50of47

Love IX
Emily Dickenson

Have you got a brook in your little heart,
Where bashful flowers blow,
And blushing birds go down to drink,
And shadows tremble so?

And nobody knows, so still it flows,
That any brook is there;
And yet your little draught of life
Is daily drunken there.
Then look out for the little brook in March,
When the rivers overflow,
And the snows come hurrying from the hills,
And the bridges often go.

And later, in August it may be,
When the meadows parching lie,
Beware, lest this little brook of life
Some burning noon go dry!

Stardate 54975.5, 0803 hours
Friday, December 23, 2377 8:03 am

"Mr. Chakotay, the helm."

Damn, thought Chakotay, from where he stood next to Seven of Nine at the tactical console behind the command chairs. One look at the wounded expression in Janeway's eyes told him. She knows. Damn, damn, and damn. Chakotay hustled over to the conn and plopped himself down awkwardly, his thoughts overrun with self-recrimination. Why did I ever agree to help Seven out with her social skills? Chakotay wondered. My instincts told me to postpone it until after the year-end crew evaluations were done, but I just went along when the Doctor wanted to start immediately. I must have the worst timing in the galaxy.

Silence filled the Bridge as the crew took in the sight of their journey's destination finally within reach. Chakotay stared out at Earth from his vantage point at the helm as he struggled with his conflicted emotions. The thought "I should have waited" crossed his mind once more as he wondered if there was a way he could extricate himself from the relationship mess his "involvement" with Seven had created. He sat numbly at the console, his troubled spirit unmoved by the sight of the blue-green planet hanging like an exquisite jewel in the star-spangled velvety blackness of space surrounding it. After a short time, he heard a long, drawn-out sigh from behind him.

Janeway rose from her seat and said, "I'm sure that Headquarters' bureaucracy has filled my inbox to overflowing by now. I'd better see to it. Tuvok, you have the Bridge." She crossed the Bridge to her Ready Room and disappeared inside.

The First Officer watched her go. It was safe to say that Tom Paris would probably not return from Sickbay and his wife and new daughter to finish his shift, so Chakotay glanced at the chronometer on the helm console to see when his relief would arrive. There was still time left in which to mull things over, and he hoped to devise at least the beginning of a solution that would resolve his dilemma with the least amount of pain inflicted all around.

--

Meanwhile, Janeway stood on the upper level of her Ready Room, watching the Starfleet armada surrounding the ship continue to grow as more and more ships joined in to escort Voyager to its home in the distance. She wondered how it was possible to feel both completely elated and so thoroughly disappointed at the same time. She had expected to share this triumphant moment with Chakotay at her side, not alone in her Ready Room, staring out a viewport while she struggled to control the rush of emotion that had welled up the moment the doors closed behind her.

There was a time when the sight of Earth would have been everything she could ever have asked for. She couldn't pinpoint the exact moment when a personal, loving relationship with Chakotay had become an integral part of her dream of "home." She had pictured herself getting through the debriefings relatively unscathed and making a successful case for pardoning Voyager's Maquis, in addition to persuading Headquarters to show some degree of compassion for the five former Equinox crew members. She would then quietly settle down with Chakotay to raise a family once a romantic involvement with him could no longer taint his future. That unspoken vision of hope had become the stream of living water she drew upon in her darkest hours and the fuel for her ongoing drive to press forward relentlessly on Voyager's long journey home.

So the Admiral was right, she thought. I was convinced she was lying when she told me Chakotay had moved on. I figured she was just trying to manipulate me into carrying out her agenda, but it really was true after all. Janeway sighed and shook her head at the very thought of a fulfilling life on Earth with Chakotay. At least my fantasy helped get us all home. I figured we would have a chance at starting something lasting then, but I guess it wasn't meant to be, any more than my other relationships.

A memory of New Earth and Chakotay's declaration of love wrapped up in an "ancient legend" sprang quickly to mind. Maybe if I'd done more to nurture his love over the years, it wouldn't have dried up on me like this. Janeway wiped away the tears that had trickled down her cheeks despite her effort to hold them back. She stepped down to the main level and seated herself at her desk to begin working her way though her messages. My career in Starfleet fulfilled me long before I met him at the start of this godforsaken odyssey, she thought, and I have to hope it will be enough again someday.

--

An hour later, the Ready Room door chimed. Janeway knew without question who it would be, and schooled her facial expression into one of absolute professionalism. "Come," she called out.

Chakotay charged into the room with an exuberance Janeway would have found infectious had she not known about her first officer's budding romance with Seven of Nine. As it was, Chakotay's excitement only saddened her more by underscoring what she had lost. She would never again have that easy friendship with him based on the unspoken understanding between them of what would be possible once Voyager reached home. They would now go their separate ways, Chakotay with Seven, and she back to Indiana and her career. Difficult as it was, she managed to hide her sorrow.

"Kathryn, there's a big impromptu homecoming party going on in Sandrine's right now that's putting anything Neelix ever arranged for us to shame," said Chakotay as he handed her a padd. "I've worked out a rotation that will cover all vital stations and still allow everyone to attend at some point. It'll probably be ongoing until we reach Earth, but I'll see what I can do to keep the crew within reasonable bounds."

Janeway looked up from scrolling through the padd and said, "That won't be necessary, Commander. They've earned it. Leave them alone for now."

Janeway's detached manner and by-the-book use of Chakotay's title rather than his name chilled his good humor and dampened his enthusiasm. "Are you all right, Kathryn? You don't seem especially happy to be home."

"I'm fine, thank you, just a little swamped with all the communications from Headquarters."

"I'll see you later at the party?"

"Yes, of course. I need to get on top of these messages first, and then I'll put in an appearance."

Janeway's brittle tone and tense manner did not escape Chakotay's notice. "If you'd like some help with all of that..."

She cut him off, saying, "I'll be fine, Commander. Don't let me keep you from anything." Or anyone, she thought.

Janeway made a deliberate show of returning her attention to the padd, but when she realized Chakotay was still standing before her desk, she added a "dismissed" as an afterthought without even looking up. He stared at her for a moment with a sinking feeling at the faint bitterness he could easily detect beneath her words. Then he sighed and made his way out of the Ready Room without another word.

Once the doors closed behind Chakotay, Janeway set the padd down. She rested her elbows on the desk and buried her face in her hands as she struggled once more to subdue her emotions.

--

She had been sitting like that for several minutes when the chirp of the comm system interrupted her thoughts.

"Paris to Janeway."

"Janeway here."

"Captain, I'm wondering when we might see you in Sandrine's? Doc is going to release B'Elanna and the baby in about 45 minutes, and my other half is insisting on showing off Voyager's newest crewmember, at least for a little while. She was hoping you'd be there."

"I'm swamped right now, Tom. You know what 'Fleet bureaucracy is like."

"Yeah, guess I do."

"So then you also know I'll need a break from it in about an hour or so,' said Janeway with a smile in her voice that Tom could easily hear. "I'm sure I'll be able to get away."

"Thanks, Captain. B'Elanna will be thrilled. See you later. Paris out."

Janeway was relieved that Tom's com call had interrupted her ruminations over the loss of Chakotay's affections. Now that she had a goal to focus on, she could set aside her feelings and focus on what needed to get done. She opened another message from Headquarters and began to read.

--

Just over an hour and a quarter later, Janeway had reduced the flood of incoming messages to a manageable bulk. More importantly, by burying herself in work, she had been able to distance herself enough from her emotions to find an accommodation that would allow her to get through the next few days. Once the ship landed, the physical distance she would be able to put between herself and Chakotay would help her maintain her equanimity during what she expected to be long and very intensive debriefing sessions.

Janeway knew that she would be licking her wounds over this personal loss for a very long time when she finally allowed herself to think about it, but that was something she intended do in private once she was no longer responsible for Voyager and its crew. She trusted that her mother, sister, and a few close friends would make good sounding boards, and if her feelings of abandonment – and that's what they are, she thought -- still proved too complex to resolve, she would work with a professional counselor outside of Starfleet. She could readily see how losing Chakotay and then having to live with the concrete evidence of it in front of her for years had turned the Admiral into a bitter, cynical woman, and she wanted to avoid the same fate for herself. Not for the first time, she questioned the wisdom of having stuck to her self-imposed protocols on a deep-space mission so unlike anything in Starfleet history. She had always assumed they would return sooner rather than later, but now she had to wonder again if she would have held to her convictions if had it appeared certain that Voyager's journey would actually take the entire seventy years. She resolved to work through her conflicted feelings once the debriefings were over.

"Computer, locate Commander Chakotay," she said.

"Commander Chakotay is in his quarters."

"Locate Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine is in Commander Chakotay's quarters," responded the computer.

Janeway shuddered at the images that quickly came to mind, but pushed them away for a later time. With both Seven and Chakotay otherwise occupied, she could comfortably spend some time in the holodeck with the Paris family and the rest of the crew. Afterward, she would return to her Ready Room for another hour or so of work and then to her quarters to begin packing up her mementos of the Delta Quadrant. Only after she was off duty did Janeway feel she would have the privacy to work out a schedule that would keep her from being left alone with Chakotay before Voyager docked. She knew she would not be able to avoid him entirely, but for the sake of her emotional well-being in the next few days, she did not intend to have the conversation with him that he had so clearly wanted earlier in the Ready Room. There would be time enough for that once she had been able to come to terms with her loss.

--

Tom Paris spotted Janeway the moment she entered Sandrine's. "Three cheers for the heroine of the Delta Quadrant," he called out.

Sandrine's echoed with raucous shouts. Janeway stopped dead in her tracks at the tribute, and then worked her way through the assembled crew to stand over by the fireplace. It took a few moments for her to find her voice because of the lump in her throat, and then she raised her hands for quiet.

"Thank you for your appreciation, but I can't take all the credit. I had the finest crew in Starfleet to help me complete this mission to bring Voyager home."

"Hear, hear!" called out a voice in the back, sending the crowd into a round of laughter. When the room settled down, Janeway continued.

"I want to thank all of you for your loyalty and support. I know it wasn't easy, especially at the beginning, but we're standing here at the end of this remarkable journey because of your willingness to set aside personal differences and work toward our common goal. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been your captain for these past seven years. I know that whatever my future in the service holds, it will never come close to this time spent together. We've become a family, and I'll miss every single one of you..." Here Janeway's voice faltered.

"At least until the one-year Voyager reunion," called out Tom Paris.

The crew laughed, and Janeway shot back, "You would know, Tom – you're making the arrangements."

"Walked straight into that one, flyboy," said a smirking B'Elanna Torres.

"Right," said Paris. "Listen up, everyone – same time next year, at the real Sandrine's in Marseilles. I'll be in touch."

When the crew's laughter died down, Janeway continued. "Admiral Paris has authorized me to share the contents of an official communiqué from Headquarters. They agreed with my assertion that the Maquis were freedom fighters and not terrorists, and have dropped all charges against…."

The crew erupted into applause and cheering. Janeway allowed their exuberance for a few moments and then raised her hands again for attention. "They based their decision to exonerate the Maquis on seven years of honorable service aboard Voyager. All field commissions will be honored, and if you decide to stay in Starfleet, a place will be found for you. Furthermore, everyone is entitled to back pay and six months paid leave of absence pending reassignment.

"We'll be arriving in San Francisco in a matter of hours. As you know, the Christmas holiday is in a few days, and 'Fleet is already contacting your friends and family to join us on the grounds of Starfleet Academy. Debriefings will begin on Tuesday the 27th, and since we will all be sequestered from that point on until the hearings are finished, Headquarters has offered to provide housing for your loved ones to stay with you for the next three days." She scanned the crowd, looking for one face in particular. "Is Mr. Chell in the room?"

A blue hand shot up and a voice called out, "Over here, Captain." The crowd parted to let the Bolian pass. "What can I do for you?"

"Mr. Chell, how are the arrangements for Prixin coming?" asked Janeway.

"They were nearly finished when our visitor from the future showed up," Chell answered.

"Good. I explained to Admiral Paris that we were about to observe Prixin when everything happened so quickly to get us home. I told him how much the celebration has meant to us over the years and how it would be our last chance to be together as a family like this…"

"Until the first Voyager reunion," interjected Tom Paris.

"Point taken, Tom." She turned to address him. "Your father offered us a large reception hall at the Academy for a private gathering so that we could celebrate Prixin and include our loved ones." She turned back to the Bolian. "Mr. Chell, are you up to enlarging the party and having it ready to go on Christmas Day?"

"Of course, Captain," responded Chell. "Leave it all to me and you won't be sorry."

"If you find you need extra help, Admiral Paris will see that you get it. Just let Commander Chakotay know, and he'll transmit the request to Headquarters."

"Will do, Captain."

She turned to address the entire crew again. "We'll still be together for a while longer before the debriefings start, so I'll have the chance to speak personally with every one of you. Please remember that my door will always be open to a member of Voyager's family. See you on Earth."

The crew applauded again, which Janeway graciously acknowledged with a nod as she turned and moved toward the table where B'Elanna Torres sat with her newborn daughter. The admiring crewmembers that had come over to see the baby drifted away to allow Janeway and Torres a few moments of personal time together. Torres attempted to get to her feet when she saw Janeway approaching, but the Captain motioned for her to remain seated. She flashed Janeway a grateful smile.

Tom Paris made his way over as well when he saw the Captain headed in that direction. Janeway reached the table and sat down. She leaned over to peek inside the blanket cradled in Torres's arms.

"Who have we here, B'Elanna?"

Torres handed the baby to Janeway, who looked into the sleeping infant's face with delight. "Captain, I'd like to present Miral Kathryn." she said. "Tom and I decided to name her after two very significant influences in our lives."

Janeway's breath caught and her eyes filled as she looked up at Torres. "B'Elanna, I don't know what to say, other than thank you," she said, wiping away tears.

A handkerchief appeared in her line of sight, and Janeway looked over to see Tom Paris holding it out to her. He pulled over a chair from one of the nearby tables and joined them.

"You had faith in both of us when others didn't, Captain. We wouldn't have any kind of a future, let alone a happy one to look forward to without you," said Paris. "Speaking for myself, these years with you on Voyager have been the best of my life. Here, I'm not just some Admiral's son -- I'm doing something important with my life, something that other people appreciate."

"I understand, Tom. I remember times when it wasn't easy being Admiral Janeway's daughter, but Starfleet was what I always wanted, so it was easier for me. I remember you telling me that you originally wanted to join the Federation Naval Patrol after the Academy."

"I did, Captain, but we don't always get what we want."

"Isn't that the truth," said Janeway with a pang, reminded for a moment of Chakotay.

Paris noted the change in his Captain's mood, and wondered what it was about. He jumped in quickly to say, "It's not such a bad thing, ma'am. I have to tell you, I wouldn't trade these last seven years for anything. Not getting to join the Naval Patrol is small potatoes compared to what I've experienced as one of your senior officers."

"Tom, you're going to make me cry," said Janeway. "I knew you had it in you. You just needed a second chance."

"I feel the same way, Captain," said Torres. "After I left the Academy, I hated Starfleet and everything it stood for, but you've shown me the best side of the service. It's changed my mind about a few things. Once it began to look like we'd really be getting back this time, I started thinking about joining the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, if they'll have me."

"B'Elanna, if your father-in-law and I have anything to say about it, they will," Janeway said. You've pulled off some pretty remarkable things to keep this ship flying, and I think 'Fleet would be lucky to have a little bit of your Maquis ingenuity. I'll speak to Owen on your behalf."

"Speaking of family," said Tom, "we'd be honored if you'd agree to be Miral Kathryn's godmother. I can't think of a finer person for her to look to for guidance."

"Now I am going to cry," said Janeway, as she dabbed at her eyes. "Yes, of course I agree. The honor is all mine."

Torres shifted uncomfortably in her seat, which did not escape her husband's notice. "I think we'd better get you home," said Paris. "The Doctor said only an hour, and it's been more than that." Paris helped his wife to her feet, and Janeway handed over Miral Kathryn.

"I'd better rest if I'm going to be on the Bridge when we reach Earth," said Torres. "I wouldn't miss that for anything."

"Then I'll count on seeing you there, B'Elanna," said Janeway. She walked the Paris family to Sandrine's exit and turned back to the room to spend some time socializing.

As she circulated among the members of her crew, Janeway found that she was genuinely enjoying herself, despite the emotional blow she had suffered a few hours earlier. It had been a while since there had been a large family-style gathering – not since Tom and B'Elanna's wedding reception and last year's Prixin. She took advantage of the opportunity to catch up with many of her crew and listen to their plans before Voyager reached Earth and stress from the debriefings cast the pall of reality over future hopes. Janeway resolved to see to it that as many of those hopes were realized as possible.

She had worked her way around the room to where Tuvok stood, taking in the crew's merriment with a stoic Vulcan eye.

"There were times when I thought this day would never come, old friend," said Janeway, "but here we are."

"Indeed."

"I've spoken to Owen, and your family is on their way from Vulcan. They should be here within a few days," she said. "You'll soon be your old self, Tuvok."

"I am grateful for your assistance."

"As I am to be able to provide it," said Janeway.

"Captain, I heard you speak of the Maquis exoneration earlier when I stepped inside to ascertain if the proceedings were under control. What of the Equinox crew?"

"That's still under discussion, Tuvok. Their conduct has been exemplary since they came aboard Voyager, and I have no idea yet of how receptive a board of inquiry will be to my request for some degree of leniency based on the extreme circumstances they endured. Their complicity in committing genocide can't go unpunished, but neither should they be completely stigmatized for a situation that was so far beyond their control. You saw what I turned into after just a couple of days dealing with that crisis. I can't even begin to imagine what years of it must have been like."

"Perhaps a general discharge, with all records pertaining to the Equinox sealed," said Tuvok.

"That seems to be the direction Headquarters is learning toward," said Janeway. "The five of them really shouldn't remain in the service after participating in something like Equinox, but there is plenty of work in the private sector where they could put their skills to good use. I doubt any of them will ever find themselves in similar circumstances again, so the kindest solution would be for them to be able to put it behind themselves and just go on without undue prejudice. They already have to live with what they've done for the rest of their lives."

Tuvok began to respond to her comments when he heard delighted laughter from across the room and watched as Janeway's posture stiffened. She excused herself abruptly, pleading work in the Ready Room to finish up and the need for several hours of uninterrupted sleep before the final approach to Earth. He watched as she quickly left Sandrine's. Tuvok turned to locate the source of the merriment and saw Commander Chakotay together with Seven of Nine and the Doctor. To his discerning eye, Seven seemed to be hovering closer to the Commander than mere friendship would allow, and Tuvok wondered if this was what had distressed the Captain.

Although he had said nothing to anyone about his observations over the years, Tuvok would have considered himself blind not to have seen the deep attraction the Captain and Commander shared for one another for the past seven years. Barring visual cues, his acute Vulcan sense of smell certainly would have alerted him to the greatly increased pheromone level when the command team worked closely together. He had long admired Captain Janeway for her restraint in devoting herself entirely to duty when she reasonably could have maintained that Starfleet protocol was never intended to apply to their situation in the Delta Quadrant. She could have taken the path of least resistance instead and allowed herself to succumb to the Commander's obvious affection for her.

This bears watching, Tuvok thought. It would be unfortunate indeed, if at a time when the Captain was free at last to follow her inclinations, the object of her affection was no longer available to her. She has forgone enough of her personal life.

--

A short time later found Janeway dragging a large storage container into her quarters that she'd had delivered to her door while she finished up her work in the Ready Room. Once she had wrestled the bulky object inside, she took a few minutes to change out of her uniform and have a light meal before getting down to the task of packing up her belongings. Books and clothing were quickly taken care of, but when Janeway began to sort through her souvenirs from Voyager's seven-year journey to decide how best to pack them securely, she suddenly found herself on rocky ground emotionally. So many were associated with Chakotay, and by the time she picked up the stone carvings he had made for her while they were marooned on New Earth, she could barely see through her tears.

She hurriedly packed them away with the rest and then sat down in her chair with a sigh. I have to get some rest, she thought. There's at least another nine hours to go before we reach Earth, and it won't do me any good to waste that time crying over regrets when there's so much still to be done. I took him for granted these past few years and now I have to live with the consequences. I have no one to blame but myself. Janeway's tears continued to flow for a few minutes longer until she finally wiped her eyes and made her way to the bedroom. She instructed the ship's computer to wake her in six hours' time and then laid down to rest.

--

Chakotay, in the meantime, had been looking for a graceful way to extricate himself from the party after a reasonable amount of time had gone by. He had seen Janeway's stricken face and how quickly she left moments after he arrived with the Doctor and Seven of Nine. He decided that now was as good a time as any to straighten things out between them. Tuvok saw Chakotay start for the door and intercepted him.

"May I be of assistance?" he asked.

"Excuse me, Tuvok?"

"If you are looking for the Captain, she mentioned having a few things to finish in her Ready Room, and that she would then go to her quarters to rest. She appeared to be exhausted, and is undoubtedly asleep by now. Thus, my offer of assistance."

"Thanks Tuvok, but it's a personal matter. It'll keep until later. Better the Captain should get some sleep before the media circus begins."

"Indeed. If you will excuse me, I must return to the Bridge."

"Fine. I'll keep an eye on things down here for you, Tuvok. See you later," said Chakotay as he turned back to the party. Tuvok inclined his head in acknowledgement and left Sandrine's.

--

2115 hours, approaching Earth

"Captain, we're almost there," said Paris.

"Assume a standard orbit once we're in position and wait for clearance to land, Lieutenant."

"Yes, ma'am."

Janeway smiled at the boyish exuberance in her helmsman's voice, comparing it to the very different person he had been when he came aboard seven years ago. She looked around the Bridge. Her half-Klingon, former Maquis head of Engineering sat at her station with her newborn daughter in a carrier strapped to her chest. Across the Bridge, Janeway's Captain's Assistant stood next her mother, who crewed the Science station. Voyager's sentient hologram stood next to the reclaimed Borg at the secondary tactical station behind the command chairs. Tuvok and Ayala stood side by side at Tactical, Starfleet and Maquis working together. Her once very green fresh-out-of-the Academy Operations officer could barely contain his excitement long enough to monitor his station. She thought of Neelix, finally among his own kind once again, in the arms of his new family. With a sigh, Janeway remembered Kes, whose people she had saved from annihilation at the start of Voyager's adventure. This seven-year journey hasn't been for nothing, she thought. Her eyes came to rest briefly on the former Maquis she had been sent to apprehend and who now sat next to her. He's coming back as one of my most trusted officers, and I hope one of my closest friends again someday, she thought, once I've gotten over losing him.

The Bridge was silent as Voyager assumed Earth orbit. Every eye on the Bridge watched intently as the planet revolved beneath them, as did anyone on the decks below who was within range of a viewport or a monitor carrying video feed from the main viewscreen. Janeway held her breath at first, as if home was a dream that she thought might vanish at any moment.

"Captain, we're being hailed by Starfleet," said Kim.

"Onscreen, Harry," said Janeway as she rose to her feet and walked to the center of the command deck to receive the hail.

"This is Starfleet Command, Admiral Owen Paris speaking. You are cleared for landing. Welcome home, Voyager," he said, visibly moved. "Well done."

"Thank you, sir. We'll see you momentarily. Janeway out." She walked to the helm and rested her hand on Tom Paris's shoulder. "Go to Code Blue."

"Code Blue, aye," Paris answered.

"Torres to Engineering. Take the warp core offline, and vent all plasma from the nacelles. Transfer all available power to atmospheric thrusters, and stand by to commence landing procedures."

"Acknowledged," responded Vorik.

"Tuvok to all hands. Report to Blue Alert stations." Tuvok looked down at his panel and then nodded in the direction of the helm, where Paris had turned in his seat, awaiting the signal to proceed.

"Plotting a descent course," said Paris as he entered calculations into the helm console. "Atmospheric controls at standby, landing mechanisms online, inertial dampers at maximum." He extended the landing struts and looked up expectantly at Janeway.

She paused a moment to drink in the sight of Earth once again, and then said, "Take us down."

--

Voyager descended into the atmosphere through the cloud cover and emerged over Baja Mexico. Paris adjusted course to follow the California coastline. As the ship flew over what had once been the Venice Beach neighborhood of Los Angeles before the Hermosa Quake of 2047, Janeway remembered her conversation with Chakotay on the boardwalk in 1996 Los Angeles, when he had congratulated her for getting them home and she had observed "right place, wrong time." She smiled at the memory and thought, everything's where it should be… well, almost everything.

Tom Paris heard a sigh next to him and looked up. "Gorgeous sight, isn't it?" Janeway just smiled and nodded. She squeezed his shoulder and kept her eyes on the viewscreen as San Francisco came into view.

"On final approach," said Paris.

As Voyager neared the Golden Gate Bridge, the night sky before them exploded with brilliant color. Red, green, gold, and white antimatter fireworks filled the heavens. Tom Paris let out a whoop.

Janeway grinned and said, "Tom, I think it's time for you to show off a little of the fancy flying that got us home."

"Your wish is my command, ma'am. Harry, put me on shipwide."

Janeway turned to Kim and nodded.

"This is Lieutenant Paris to all hands. Get to a viewport, hang on, and enjoy the ride. We're coming in for a landing. Paris out." Janeway had no idea what he had planned, but grabbed a nearby railing to brace herself.

Paris took Voyager low over the Golden Gate Bridge, close enough to see the cheering crowds packed onto the span below them, and then soared up through a cluster of red, green and gold fireworks. He circled the Bay, made another flyover of the Golden Gate, and then set course for Starfleet Academy's parade grounds.

As he circled the Academy campus, Janeway could see hundreds of people gathered at the edges of the landing site. She watched as the ground slowly came up at her and felt the shudder run through the deck as Voyager touched down.

"The Eagle has landed," said Paris.

"We're home," breathed Janeway.

--

Half an hour later:

Chakotay stood outside Cargo Bay 1 with the senior staff, waiting for Janeway to arrive. He had assembled the crew by rank and department in the bay, with the overflow spilling out to line the corridor as far back as the turbolift. Chakotay could hear the Captain's approach long before she rounded the corner because of the ripple of applause that followed her as she moved down the corridor, pausing occasionally to speak to a crewmember and accept their thanks and congratulations. Janeway reached the cargo bay doors. Just before she stepped through, Chakotay took her arm.

"Kathryn, we have to talk," he said quietly.

"And we will, Commander," she said with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, "but first things first." Janeway gently pulled her arm free and swept into the cargo bay.

Chakotay was stung by Janeway's continuing use of his title instead of his name, and stared after her for a moment before following her inside. He felt as though she was purposefully distancing herself from him. To be fair, Chakotay knew that she had needed the several hours of sleep she had gotten, and that once she awoke, there were a myriad of details for her to oversee in the few hours remaining before they were "officially" home. Still, he felt deliberately shut out, something he intended to rectify when he held Janeway to her promise to talk. He would pick his moment once things calmed down enough for them to find some time together.

"Lower the ramp," Janeway ordered. She plunged into the midst of the assembled crew and made the rounds, speaking to as many people as she could reach. Anticipation for their reception grew along with the sound of the crowd outside filtering into the cargo bay through the opening made by the descending ramp. Janeway had to raise her voice after a few minutes to be heard above the cheering and shouting outside.

Finally, Vorik called out, "Loading ramp down and secured, Captain."

Janeway made her way over to her senior staffing waiting near the exit, and turned to face the rest of her crew. "Are we ready to do this?" she called out. A chorus of enthusiastic ayes answered her. Smiling, Janeway walked toward the top of the ramp with her senior staff.

If the crew had thought the noise from the crowd was loud before, it was nothing compared to the roar that went up when the Captain emerged into view. She stood in the opening for a moment, and then started down the ramp with Chakotay on one side and Tuvok on the other, closely followed by the rest of the senior staff. The crew allowed them to get several meters ahead and then followed their senior officers.

Janeway's eyes picked out Admiral Paris and Reg Barclay to her left, standing at a short distance from the bottom of the ramp, waiting to greet them. Most of Headquarters and a large group of civilians waited a dozen meters behind them, with the remainder of the crowd and the press at a respectful distance. Barclay was clearly beside himself with excitement as he motioned toward the group of civilians. Janeway's eyes filled and she began to tremble as she saw her mother, sister, and Mark start forward to stand near Barclay and Admiral Paris. Chakotay watched her struggle for emotional control and quietly took her hand and squeezed it. Janeway squeezed back and gave Chakotay a quick smile before letting go of his hand. She continued to lead her crew to the bottom of the ramp and onto the parade grounds, where she stopped and turned to face her welcoming party.

Admiral Paris stepped forward and extended his hand. "Welcome home, Kathryn. I see that my faith in your command abilities all those years ago was not misplaced. I don't know anyone else who could have accomplished what you have. Your father would have been so proud of you."

"Thank you, sir," Janeway began, when she felt something bump up against her leg. She looked down to see Molly's expectant face looking back at her. Janeway had been so emotionally wrought up at finally setting foot on Earth once again that she hadn't even noticed that Mark had brought her dog with him. Molly wagged her tail and began to lick Janeway's hand, and that was all it took to break her emotional control. Her face started to crumple, and Owen Paris quickly pulled Janeway into a fatherly hug.

"It's all right, Katie," he said, rubbing her back. "You've waited a long time for this moment. Take a few minutes with your family. The rest of the brass can wait."

Janeway nodded and smiled though her tears. A hand clutching a handkerchief appeared over her shoulder, and she turned to see Tom Paris handing it to her. "I seem to be doing a lot of this lately, Captain," he said with his characteristic smirk.

"So you have," answered Janeway. She looked past Admiral Paris at the waiting Starfleet officers and family members eager to approach. "Owen..."

"We're all just spectators tonight, Katie. Go talk to your mother. I'll recruit your First Officer and Lieutenant Tuvok to help me reunite your crew with their loved ones, and you can join us when you're ready. Mr. Barclay is handling the details of getting everyone situated in quarters, starting with you and your family."

"Thank you, Owen." Janeway turned to her tactical officer and said, "Tuvok, I know there's no one here for you tonight. Please join my family and me when you're finished helping Owen." Tuvok nodded his acknowledgement. Janeway turned to Chakotay and said, "I'll see you later, Commander." She started to say another few words to him when a tremulous voice interrupted her.

"Captain Janeway?"

Janeway gave Chakotay a sheepish smile and shrugged. She turned in the direction of the voice and came face-to-face with Reginald Barclay.

Janeway extended her hand, which Barclay shook with considerable enthusiasm. "Mr. Barclay," she said, "I can't even begin to thank you for everything you did for us through the Pathfinder Project. That little piece of home in the monthly datastream meant so much to all of us. We have you to thank for that."

"Oh, you're very welcome, Captain Janeway." Barclay's eyes widened as he said with some intensity, "I just couldn't stand it that all of you were out there alone with no word from your loved ones. It hurt to even think about it," he said, as his eyes began to fill.

Janeway was touched by his obvious attachment to Voyager and its crew, and resolved to have a word with Owen Paris about a commendation for Barclay. She understood from the Doctor's visit to the Pathfinder Project on Jupiter Station the previous year that Reg Barclay was a very sensitive soul, devoted to seeing that Voyager and its safe return remained a priority with Starfleet. She said, "We were never far from home once Pathfinder reached us, Mr. Barclay."

"Reg," he said.

"Of course," she said. "Reg, I'm going to see about making you an honorary member of my crew."

"Really?"

"Really. You've earned it," Janeway said. She enjoyed the wonderful smile that lit up Barclay's face, and marveled at how little it took sometimes to make someone happy.

"I'm honored, Captain Janeway. Thank you," said a delighted Barclay. "And now I have to get you over to your family, or Admiral Paris will be very upset with me."

"We can't have that, now can we Reg?"

"No, we can't," he said with a shy smile. "This way, please."

Janeway allowed Barclay to lead her over to where her loved ones stood patiently waiting for her. Chakotay watched as she fell into her mother's arms, weeping, and Phoebe and Mark took their turns hugging and kissing Janeway. It made his heart ache to see it. He had thought he would be at her side for this homecoming, and would spend time with her and her family as Tuvok was about to. He wondered if she had even considered that he might have no one waiting for him at the parade grounds. Chakotay realized that Janeway was in her captain's public persona mode, but it was uncharacteristic for her to be this thoughtless under any circumstances. He wondered if her perception of his "relationship" with Seven had influenced her behavior, and that thought further strengthened his resolve to clear up any misunderstanding between them. Chakotay sighed and turned to the task of assisting Admiral Paris, Tuvok, and Reg Barclay with reuniting the crew with their loved ones.

--

Five weeks later:

Chakotay strode out of the Starfleet Headquarters building and onto the Academy grounds in a huff, gritting his teeth in frustration after another failed attempt to contact Kathryn Janeway. He'd just been told that her debriefing ended the day before, and that she had already left San Francisco. Since no one at Headquarters had been forthcoming with her destination, Chakotay chose to leave the building rather than say something he knew he would regret. He wandered at random along the many footpaths crisscrossing the grounds, trying to burn off enough of his bad mood to clear his mind so he could determine his next move. Chakotay's feet led him to where Boothby's well-tended rose garden would burst into glorious bloom in a few more months, and he took a seat on a convenient bench to relax and think for a while. He happened to glance to his right and noticed a familiar tall figure turn onto the footpath several meters farther along from where he had just been.

"Tuvok, wait up a minute," Chakotay called out after the Vulcan, who turned when he heard his name.

"Yes, Commander. How may I be of assistance?"

He hurried over to where his former shipmate stood waiting for him. They started to walk together along the footpath, and Chakotay took a few moments to collect his thoughts before saying anything. "Tuvok, I've been trying to get a few moments alone with Kathryn for weeks now. I realized it would be nearly impossible during the debriefings, but now I feel she's just trying to avoid me. She's left town and instructed Headquarters not to give out her location."

"The latter is no doubt a protective measure due to the intense media scrutiny she has been receiving," said Tuvok. "As for avoiding you, I cannot say for certain, except to observe that perhaps she is distressed over your relationship with Seven of Nine."

"Relationship? There's no relationship with Seven of Nine," said Chakotay. "Is that the rumor making the rounds?

"I do not concern myself with gossip, Commander. However, you did arrive in Sandrine's the day of Voyager's return to the Alpha Quadrant with Seven of Nine on your arm. Anyone attending would have assumed the two of you were a couple, judging by Seven's behavior."

"That's what I was afraid of. And the Captain was there, wasn't she? I thought I saw her leave just as I came in."

"Indeed."

"Tuvok, it's a long story, but things were not what they appeared to be," said Chakotay. "The Doctor roped me into helping Seven with her social lessons about a month before we got back. He came with us to the party to act as a chaperone when we realized Seven had developed a schoolgirl crush on me. Her behavior was out of control and had gone beyond the scope of the lessons, so the Doctor was there with us to coach her."

"I see," said Tuvok. "Given the antipathy you have displayed toward Seven of Nine since she came aboard Voyager, I did find her behavior and your tolerance of it to be puzzling."

"And I can see where it may have led to misunderstanding, but quite honestly, I'm surprised by the depth of Kathryn's reaction to it, if that's what this is."

"Then I would advise you to seek out the Captain to correct the misperception, Commander," said Tuvok. He paused for a moment to consider his next words and then said, "Had we remained in the Delta Quadrant for many more years as originally anticipated, I would have advised her to consider an involvement with you."

"Tuvok!" Chakotay stopped walking.

"Human beings are emotional creatures, not meant to live in isolation," said Tuvok as he turned to face Chakotay. "They require companionship for fulfillment and happiness."

"And you don't? How have you managed all these years on Voyager?"

"You forget, Commander. I do not experience longing as you do. My bond with my mate transcends distance. It is faint, but remains ever present. I have never been separated from T'Pel from the day we were first joined, nor she from me."

"Humans should be so lucky."

"Perhaps," said Tuvok. "However, since your species does not bond in that manner, I would advise instead that you pursue your inclinations regarding the Captain. She shares them."

Chakotay was unable to keep the surprise off his face at hearing this.

"The fact that I have said nothing all these years, Commander, does not mean that I have not observed the deep unfulfilled bond between you and Captain Janeway," said Tuvok. "The strictures of protocol are scarcely an issue now that Voyager has returned to Earth. It would be illogical for both of you not to act upon your suppressed emotions at this time."

"I've been trying, Tuvok, but can't seem to connect with her."

"I promised Captain Janeway that I would not violate her privacy by divulging her plans, but how would Mr. Paris put this?" asked Tuvok. "A 'little bird' told me that she would be staying several days in Siena with her mother and sister, and would then spend some time at her mother's home in Bloomington, Indiana before returning to San Francisco."

"This 'little bird' didn't happen to sing any songs about coordinates, did it?"

Tuvok took a blank padd from a bag he had been carrying over his shoulder and tapped in Janeway's schedule. "I would advise waiting until next week before contacting the Captain," he said as he handed the padd over to Chakotay. "Her debriefings have been particularly rigorous, and her emotional well-being requires that she spend time with her family apart from everything connected with Voyager."

Chakotay scrolled though the padd and noted a day the following week that seemed perfect for a visit. "Thanks, Tuvok. I owe you one."

"You owe me nothing, Commander. I have known Kathryn Janeway for many years. She has paid a very high price to bring this mission to its successful conclusion. It is time for her to see to her own happiness."

"No argument there. I only hope I can resolve this impasse," said Chakotay.

"I know to you be an honorable and thoughtful man from our days together on the Val Jean and Voyager. If you find that the Captain will not hear you out, advise her to contact me. Perhaps if the 'little bird' were to sing again..."

"Tuvok, I won't insult you by calling you a romantic, but I think you know what I mean."

"Indeed. I also know that Kathryn Janeway has sacrificed enough."

--

Stardate 55121.76, 1037 hours

Tuesday, February 14, 2378; 10:37 am

The persistent beeping in her father's study finally penetrated Janeway's consciousness. She had been curled up on a couch in front of the crackling fireplace in her mother's living room, completely immersed in rereading her favorite volume of Anthony Trollope's "Palliser" novel series while a snowstorm powdered the Indiana countryside outside with a fresh blanket of white. She sighed and set the book down, wondering who might be contacting her, and hoping that it wasn't the media. She had been home from Italy for three days now, and actually relished the few remaining days of "me" time she would have until her mother returned from visiting with Phoebe in Paris.

Janeway went into the study, activating the terminal on the desk as she sat down. Much to her surprise, Seven of Nine's face appeared on the screen.

"I hope I am not intruding, Captain," said Seven. "I wished to contact you to say goodbye."

"Seven?"

"Yes, Captain. I have decided to accept the Vulcan Science Institute's offer and we are leaving in two hours. I did not wish to go without thanking you for all you have done for me over the years. You have always had my best interests at heart."

Janeway's heart sank at the thought of Seven and Chakotay leaving for Vulcan. So much for keeping up a friendship with him, she thought. I can forget about that, too. She said, "Seven, I'm so proud of what you've become. I wish you all the happiness the future can bring."

"Thank you, Captain. I wish the same for you as well. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go to make final preparations for our departure."

"Of course, Seven. Please stay in touch. You're one member of my Voyager family that I will miss very deeply."

"As I will miss you, Captain. Goodbye."

"Goodbye, Seven, and good luck." With that, Janeway cut the com link and buried her face in her hands. She had finally begun to accept the loss of Chakotay over the past few weeks, but Seven's unexpected call reopened the wound again. This is not how I imagined spending my first Valentine's Day back home, she thought. Suddenly, the walls of the house felt too confining, and Janeway felt the need to get out into the crisp winter air to clear her head. She called Erin, the new puppy she had brought home two days earlier, and snapped a leash onto the dog's collar. Janeway stepped into the mudroom behind the kitchen to get into her hat, coat, and gloves, and then headed out of the farmhouse.

--

Meanwhile, Chakotay shivered as he trudged though the snowstorm to the Janeway homestead. He had left the transport station behind about fifteen minutes earlier, and found himself wishing for a moment that he'd worn his Starfleet uniform with its built-in thermal insulating properties. It certainly would have been a lot warmer than civilian clothes, he thought, but that would have encouraged Kathryn to hide behind her rank. This conversation has to be about just Kathryn and Chakotay.

He arrived at the sprawling, centuries-old farmhouse about ten minutes later, climbed the two steps up to the wraparound porch and front door, and rang the bell. Getting no response, Chakotay knocked on the door and waited. He knew someone was home because he had seen smoke wafting from one of the house's chimneys as he'd approached. When his first knock apparently went unheard, he knocked again. After another minute of waiting, Chakotay walked around to the back, thinking that perhaps whoever was at home was in one of the rooms at the rear of the large house and might not have heard him.

As he rounded the corner to the back door, his eyes fell on two sets of tracks leading away in the direction of a forest at a considerable distance. It was obvious that someone had taken a dog out for a walk a while ago. He judged that they would probably return fairly soon, since the footprints had already partially filled with fresh snow. He decided to follow the tracks and surprise whoever it was, hoping it would be Kathryn. If she had indeed been avoiding him, Chakotay thought she might feel less threatened by first encountering him out in the open, rather than having him just show up at her door.

The snow continued to fall as he followed the tracks toward the woods. He saw a small figure emerge from the trees with a dog bounding ahead though the new fallen snow. The animal caught his scent and raced toward Chakotay, skidding to a halt at his feet. It was a young female Irish Setter, who promptly reared up on her hind legs and rested her front paws against him. She wagged her tail furiously as she begged for attention. He chuckled and bent down to scratch the dog behind its ears. With his head lowered, Chakotay didn't see the person coming toward him and only looked up when he heard a familiar voice calling the dog to her.

As Janeway had emerged from the forest, she noticed someone in the distance who was obviously tracking her. The falling snow made it difficult to distinguish who it might be, but the form seemed familiar and unthreatening. As she slowed her walk some ten meters from the man, her suspicions were confirmed. Janeway came up to him slowly, taking the time to catch her breath and conceal her surprise at seeing her former First Officer here. She wondered what was still so important that he was determined to speak to her after weeks of being studiously avoided.

"Chakotay, don't misunderstand me – it's good to see you, but what are you doing here? You're going to miss your transport," she said.

"What transport?" Chakotay had no idea what she was talking about.

"To Vulcan."

"I'm not going to Vulcan, Kathryn. What ever gave you that idea?"

"I spoke to Seven a little over an hour ago," said Janeway. "She called to say goodbye before leaving for Vulcan. Since I haven't heard a thing about your plans from anybody, I assumed you'd be going with your girlfriend."

"Seven's not my girlfriend, Kathryn," he said. Janeway stared off into the distance with a perplexed expression on her face. Chakotay shivered and said, "Look, can we have this conversation inside? You may be used to an Indiana winter, but I'm freezing out here." He waited for a moment, seeing that her mind was elsewhere. "Kathryn?"

"Oh. Yes, of course," she said. "This way." Janeway turned and led the way back to the farmhouse without another word.

--

Chakotay sat at a large round table near a window in the farmhouse kitchen while Janeway fussed over the controls of a replicator next to the stove. She had offered Chakotay a bowl of vegetable soup for lunch, which he had accepted.

"I thought your mother cooked everything from scratch, Kathryn."

"She does. My father insisted we have a replicator since he was in 'Fleet, and we used it for everything but meals. Personally, I'm glad it's here. My mother saw to it that I learned the basics of cooking, but I'd rather use the time I save with this gadget for just about anything else. Mucking around the kitchen never held much appeal for me."

"What a surprise," said Chakotay. Their lunch materialized just then and saved Janeway from having to come up with a clever retort. They ate in silence for a few minutes, neither one of them knowing quite how to begin the conversation until Erin came over to Chakotay and put her front paws into his lap to beg for food.

"Erin, down," said Janeway. "There's nothing there for you."

"One of Molly's?"

"One of Molly's great-grandpuppies, actually," said Janeway. "Mark never bred her again once she had the litter she was expecting when Voyager left for the Badlands. He's never been much of a dog person, although he loves Molly."

"I was surprised to see him at the parade grounds."

"I wasn't. Headquarters sent me a list of which family members and friends would be meeting us when we landed. Aside from that, I expected my mother to invite him and his family. Mark was an old friend of the Janeway clan long before I was engaged to him. What surprised me was that he brought Molly, though I probably should have anticipated that, too. It's just the kind of thoughtful gesture he would make."

"I didn't expect you to react the way you did when you saw her," said Chakotay.

"I didn't think she would remember me, Chakotay. The only thought in my mind at that moment was of Argo, the old dog in Homer's Odyssey. He recognized his master from a distance after twenty years' absence, wagged his tail, and then died."

"You're not saying…"

"Molly's fine, Chakotay – she's just old. Mark and his family have her. When I saw how attached to her his son Kevin was, I didn't have the heart to separate them. Mark kept track of who'd taken the puppies and he and Carla offered me your new best friend over there when we were all still in Academy housing at Christmastime. They had me over for dinner right after I got back from Italy, and Erin was there, waiting to come home with me."

"So his wife had no problem socializing with the famous ex-fiancée?"

"No. She's a lovely woman, Chakotay. I'm glad Mark found her."

"You seem fine with it."

"I made my peace with Mark's decision to move on years ago, and there's no point in getting bogged down in 'might have beens.' Mark and I are still friends." Janeway paused for a moment. "Look, why don't we move into the living room," she said, hoping to change the subject. "There's a nice fire going, and you still look pretty frozen from your walk in the snow."

"I wasn't going to say anything, but yes, I'd enjoy some time in front of the fireplace," said Chakotay.

"Go ahead, then. Shall I bring you coffee or tea?"

"Tea, please."

"Tea it is."

With that, Chakotay got up from the kitchen table and walked into the living room, where he made himself comfortable on the couch in front of the fire. After a few minutes, Janeway brought his tea and settled herself on the other end of the couch.

"So you were in Italy?" he asked.

"Siena. There was a little café there that I liked to visit in the da Vinci holoprogram on Voyager, and I wanted to find the site where it had stood during Leonardo's time."

"And did you?"

"Actually, I found the café itself," Janeway said with a smirk.

"You didn't!"

"Apparently, there's been a café on that spot in one form or another since the early Renaissance. The natives will tell you that da Vinci ate there, but they can't seem to agree on whether it was during his Nomadic Period, when he lived in Florence for the second time, or when he was passing through on his way to or from Rome. It's probably just something they say for the tourists."

"Does it work?" asked Chakotay.

"Seems to," said Janeway. "The place was pretty crowded when my mother and I were there."

"How is your mother, Kathryn? I spoke to her briefly at Prixin."

"She's fine, Chakotay. She's with Phoebe and the grandchildren for another few days."

"Ah."

After that, an awkward silence descended as the two sipped their beverages and tried to think of another topic to start. Janeway finally broke it when she said, "Chakotay, you didn't walk through a snowstorm just to catch up on what I've been up to. You could have done that over a com link."

Chakotay looked uncomfortable for a moment. "We never did get a chance to sit down and talk, Kathryn. I know you were sequestered longer than any of us, but when you left town without a word, I was sure you were avoiding me."

"It's a little more complicated than that, Chakotay. I needed to get away from everything Voyager-related for a while," said Janeway.

"Oh?"

"A Board of Inquiry grabbed me the morning after we landed and raked me over the coals about the Admiral. To be honest, I would've been a little surprised if they hadn't."

"Kathryn, that wasn't you – certainly not the you from this timeline. You've never lived that life."

"Try telling that to Admiral Montgomery. The Board spent the day before and after Christmas grilling me about the technology the Admiral brought with her, among other things. I gave them all my reasons for going along with her plan -- I explained about Tuvok's illness and the 22 crewmembers we would have lost if we'd remained in the Delta Quadrant. I told them I considered that to be an unacceptable waste of experienced people in view of the personnel losses from the Dominion War. I pointed out that our knowledge about the Borg and Delta Quadrant was extremely valuable. I reminded them that I was at Wolf 359, and then said that the deciding factor for me was the opportunity to cripple the Borg and save millions of lives if we used the transwarp hub to get home. That seemed to satisfy everyone, so we moved on to the scheduled debriefing on the 27th, and wouldn't you know it, Montgomery waited weeks until the very end to bring it up again. If I thought he was bad the first time, I was in for a shock."

"What's his problem, Kathryn?"

"He's one of Fleet's most notorious hardliners. It wasn't anything personal, at least not at the beginning."

"What did he say to you?"

"It was more his attitude than his words, Chakotay. Maybe he lost a family member or someone else he was close to in the Dominion War. I really don't know, but the longer he questioned me, the more wound up he became. By the time he accused me of destroying 26 years of Federation history just for my own personal gratification, I'd had enough. I stood up and demanded to know if the Board was going to hold me responsible for the actions of every permutation of Kathryn Janeway in the entire multiverse, and at that point, Nechayev stepped in and declared the debriefing to be at an end. In her judgment, I'd been pushed too far and needed time to decompress while the next Board of Inquiry prepares its case. Starfleet Medical implanted me with a subdermal security transponder, and here I am."

"That was generous of them," Chakotay said with a touch of sarcasm. He paused for a moment to absorb her words fully, and then positively cackled with glee.

"What's so damned funny?"

"The mental image I just got -- you standing with your hands on your hips, facing down that roomful of Admirals the same way you took on Maj Cullah." He looked at Janeway with pure mischief in his eyes as he imitated her: "You know, I'm really easy to get along with... most of the time. But I don't like bullies, and I don't like threats, and I don't like you, Admiral Montgomery."

Janeway laughed in spite of herself.

"You must have really been a terror for Nechayev to stop the show," said Chakotay.

"I guess it's pretty funny when you put it like that," she said with a chuckle. "It wasn't at the time, though. It's amazing what a couple of weeks off will do for your perspective." Janeway sobered. "I'm just worried I might have cause to regret my words if they decide I'm too much of a maverick to ever command a starship again."

"Then it's their loss, Kathryn. And lest you forget, Kirk was quite the maverick."

"True, said Janeway, her voice trailing off slightly, "although I don't know that I'd stay in Starfleet if the Admiralty decided to put me in a gilded cage."

"Meaning?"

"Oh, you know – promoted to a demanding desk job with enough substance and prestige to interest me and take up all my time, and meant to distract me from the fact that I'm not on a ship out in space, where I belong. Chakotay, I'm a scientist and an explorer," said Janeway. "Taking that kind of position so I could remain in Starfleet would mean trading away my explorer's soul and talent as a captain just so the Admiralty could keep me under their control."

"Wasn't it Socrates who said 'beware the barrenness of a busy life'?"

"Yes, it was," said Janeway, "and the only 'busy' I understand at this point in time is starship life."

"True, and anyone who understood what our little seven-year adventure in the Delta Quadrant was all about would never describe it as barren," said Chakotay. "I've spoken to a lot of our crew since we've been back, and they've all commented on how dull the Alpha Quadrant seems after Voyager and all our adventures, good and bad. I think after some time catching up with friends and family, many of them are going to want to go back out into space."

"Maybe we've all become adrenaline junkies," Janeway said. "I sacrificed everything for seven years to get us home, just so I could do the little things again like visit my mother whenever I wanted to, and all I've felt since we've been back is one gigantic letdown." She leaned forward, intensity written on her features. "We were explorers in uncharted space, Chakotay, just as much as Jonathan Archer was when deep space exploration was just beginning. We were out there doing something new and exciting and vital, even if we were lost."

"Exciting was certainly the word for it, and not always in a bad way."

"You know, I've always treasured the stability and structure Starfleet provided," she continued, "but I'm not so sure it's enough any more, not after the Delta Quadrant."

"You sound like you're a little soured on the service."

"I knew there would be significant changes when we got back, especially once Headquarters began sending reports in the monthly datastream about the recovery efforts after the Dominion War, but I never expected Admiral Montgomery to hound me as if I was a common criminal. He actually thought I was capable of tampering with the timeline the same way the Admiral did," she said, appalled. "Chakotay, my career always came first, but if this is what 'Fleet has become..."

"Past tense?"

"Maybe."

"You're not seriously thinking about leaving Starfleet, are you?"

"That depends on how next Board of Inquiry rules. The decision may not be mine to make," she said, looking down at her hands. "I've certainly bent the rules often enough. I think I can justify most of it, but we both know there were times when I stepped way over Starfleet's line."

"Then you're not out of the woods yet, so to speak," observed Chakotay.

"In more ways than one," Janeway said. She looked across the room at the falling snow outside the window opposite the fireplace. Chakotay's words brought a passage from one of her favorite books to mind. In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself astray in a dark wood, where the straight road had been lost, she thought. Janeway sighed and turned back to meet Chakotay's eyes. "I've always been so certain that Starfleet knew best. I still believe that holding fast to that structure is what held us together long enough to reach home, but now that there isn't a constant threat hanging over my head, I can't help but see how regimented 'Fleet is. For once in my life, I don't have a clear vision of my future."

"You don't have to decide anything just yet, Kathryn," said Chakotay. "There are other things besides a desk job. The Delta Quadrant taught you to come up with innovative solutions on a moment's notice. You have years of command experience combined with the ability to think on your feet, better than anyone else I can think of. Starfleet could use some of your fresh ideas."

"I doubt the Admiralty would agree with you," she replied.

"Well, don't be so sure about that, Kathryn," Chakotay said. "Admiral Patterson made me an interesting offer the other day. It seems we brought back so much data that Starfleet Research can't manage it all. Headquarters is in the initial stages of setting up an Institute of Delta Quadrant Studies as a joint venture with several universities. Its purpose is to act as an umbrella for all the research studies Voyager's databanks are sure to inspire. If I accept his offer, I would be teaching tactics and anthropology at the Academy a couple of days a week, in addition to doing some field work -- mostly researching the Sky Spirit influence on Earth's evolution for now, but Patterson said that he expected my duties to change as the Institute grew. He told me they were very interested in researching the hadrosaur/Voth connection at some point in the future, which would obviously include space travel if we were to trace their migratory route in the direction of their homeworld."

"Chakotay! That sounds perfect for you."

"That's why I'm probably going to accept the offer. They're going to need more researchers and people to oversee the scientific and technological disciplines. That's only one possibility for you, Kathryn. There's a lot of private sector work in the sciences that would include space travel as part of the job."

"I know the future isn't quite as bleak as it seems right now," she answered, "but what's bothering me the most is that very few of my perceptions of Starfleet seem to hold true any more. It feels like the solid ground I've stood on for my entire adult life is shifting under my feet. I'll wait to see how the next round of hearings goes, and if they offer me anything worthwhile before I start considering alternatives."

"When do you have to go back?"

"Week after next," she said. "That's when the new Board of Inquiry begins."

"Oh, let me guess," said Chakotay. "Equinox, Omega, and giving holographic technology to the Hirogen."

"And you got it in one." She thought for a moment, smiled, and then said, "Although as far as Equinox is concerned, I have a very unlikely ally in my corner."

"Oh?"

"Would you believe Noah Lessing?"

"Really!"

"I made a point of speaking to the former Equinox crew at Prixin to let them know that I'd been negotiating on their behalf with Headquarters, and that I had no intention of allowing them to be thrown to the wolves. The five of them met after they were discharged and appointed Noah as their spokesman to go to Admiral Paris and offer to testify on my behalf. They felt the Board wouldn't have the slightest idea of just how deadly our encounter with the 'spirits of good fortune' was, and that it wouldn't be fair for the Admiralty to judge my actions by comparison to any Alpha Quadrant species they might be familiar with." Janeway reached over to set her cup of coffee down on a nearby end table and turned back to Chakotay. "I fully expected Noah to file attempted murder charges against me when we got back, negotiations or no negotiations. I apologized to him for my behavior just before I left for Italy, but all he would say about it was that my actions were extreme, but that he had come to believe they were understandable under the circumstances. I never expected that."

"Forgiveness sometimes comes from unexpected places, Kathryn."

"I guess." She continued, saying, "We talked for a while. I said that the only explanation I could offer for how I had treated him was that it had been so hard for us trying to hold everything together over the years that I finally lost it once I realized what Ransom had been doing while Voyager's crew was struggling to remain true to its principles. I told Noah that he became the unfortunate focal point for my anger and frustration, and that I would regret it for the rest of my life."

"I'm surprised that you would admit that to him."

"I owed him the truth after what I tried to do, otherwise my apology would have meant very little," she said. "Noah told me that the five of them felt they wanted to support me. They hadn't expected to be integrated into the crew or that I would fight for them, and they figured that since Noah got the worst of it from me, he'd make the most effective spokesman," said Janeway. "All of them felt they had been treated fairly on Voyager, and they appreciated the chance to go on with their lives when Headquarters decided not to press charges, based on my recommendation."

"I'm glad you went to bat for them, Kathryn."

"So am I. Thinking about what they went through for all those years made me realize how lucky we really were out there, Chakotay. Ransom said it best when he told me it was easy to stick to your principles when you were on a ship with intact bulkheads and a crew that wasn't starving. He was right, you know, even though I wouldn't admit it in the heat of the moment. I wonder what we would have done had we been in his place."

"We were in his place -- a couple of times, Kathryn, but we held to our principles, so that's in your favor."

"I hope it's enough," she said. "As for Omega, I don't think the directive was written with hundreds of particles in mind. I definitely broke regulations by involving the senior staff in the crisis, but the amount of Omega we had to deal with could've made warp travel impossible in half the quadrant."

"That's a hell of an extenuating circumstance," said Chakotay. "I don't think they can really expect you to have handled that one on your own."

"I hope you're right. Looking back on it, there's no way Seven and I could have neutralized all those particles without help. As for giving technology to the Hirogen, that was another breach of regulations, but I don't think there was any other realistic way to get Voyager back, considering the odds were four heavily armed ships against our one. Do I give them Federation technology, or let them take the ship and get even more Federation technology?"

"Those are both judgment calls, Kathryn, and if the Admiralty can't understand how extreme the circumstances were, maybe you'd be right not to stay in Starfleet."

"We'll see. I don't have to worry about any of it until week after next." Janeway stood up and stretched. She turned to him and said, "I've enjoyed this conversation, Chakotay, even though you still haven't told me what was so important that you felt it necessary to walk though an Indiana snowstorm to talk to me."

Chakotay grew noticeably uncomfortable and tense. He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh before plunging ahead. "I wanted to explain about Seven and myself, and maybe talk about us."

Janeway stiffened. She walked a few feet to an armchair located next to the fireplace and sat on the arm facing Chakotay. Well, I asked for it, she thought. Letting out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, Janeway said, "I see."

"I tried to straighten things out between us a couple of times while we were still aboard Voyager, but you always had something to do. I could understand that, but when you disappeared before the briefings, I was convinced you were avoiding me."

"I told you, Chakotay, a special Board of Inquiry was called, and they only let me out of sequestered quarters on Christmas Day so I could spend time with my family and attend our Prixin celebration," Janeway said. "The sheer number of people in the crew I needed to speak to that day made it impossible to spend very much time with any one person."

"I know that now, Kathryn, but I'm just telling you how it looked, especially coming right after you invited Tuvok to spend time with your family and left me to my own devices. Did it ever occur to you that there might be no one there for me either?"

"Chakotay, both your cousin's and Sveta's names were on the list Headquarters sent me of the people who would be meeting us at the parade grounds. I also recognized the names of a few of the remaining Maquis, so I knew you wouldn't be alone. I probably should have said something to you, but when I saw Irene Hansen's name on the list as well, I assumed you would want to meet Seven's aunt. You'd clearly moved on, and I didn't want you feeling obligated to spend time with me when you should have been with Seven and what little family she has left."

"Kathryn, I don't know what you think is going on, but Seven and I are not a couple and never have been. The Doctor asked me to help him with her social lessons. He was concerned about her after she collapsed in her holodeck simulation."

Janeway stood and began to pace. "Collapsed? What are you talking about? What simulation?"

"Nobody told you?"

"Told me what? Do I have to say it? Report, Chakotay."

Chakotay rolled his eyes at the "order" and began to explain. "Seven wrote a holographic program to practice dating skills. She created quarters for herself, and I was her holographic partner of choice."

"What?!"

"Believe me, I was mad as hell when I found out. The Doctor showed it to me when Seven told him she didn't want to continue exploring that aspect of her humanity. He thought she might resume her dating lessons if she practiced with the real life version of the partner she'd already picked out for herself."

Janeway was appalled. "Was this the reason she was spending so much time in the holodeck when we were under attack in that alien munitions range? I meant to look into it further, but we were still getting back on track after Quarra. Then Q paid us a visit, and then I had the literary negotiations with the Doctor's publisher, and after that, the Friendship One crisis. It was one thing after another, so I just let it go. I should've followed up."

"You didn't miss much, Kathryn. Seven had my holographic double eating lamb and spouting lines out of what had to be the grand prize winner in the Bulwar Litton contest for bad holonovels. She had programmed me as the kind of guy who kept trying to look down the front of a flimsy low-cut red dress that was her idea of appropriate first date wear. It was all pretty juvenile stuff, but it overtaxed her Borg emotional failsafe."

"Borg failsafe?"

"The Doctor told me that apparently the Borg fit all of their drones with an emotional dampening system that shuts down their cortical node if the drone begins to experience strong emotion. It's supposed to make them easier to manage. Seven had an argument with holo-Chakotay and that triggered the failsafe."

"And that's why she collapsed in the simulation. Why wasn't I told about this?"

"Honestly, I don't know, Kathryn. You'll have to ask the Doctor. My guess is that Seven asked him for doctor/patient confidentiality. Anyway, I was so damn incensed that he would even consider asking me to participate in her little social games after what she'd done that I refused."

"What changed your mind?"

"The time we spent trapped with the Ventu behind that forcefield on Ledos. Seven started the mission as her usual prickly self, but she really opened up when she became attached to one of the native girls. That's when I finally saw the same things in her that you have all along. The Doctor came to me about three weeks after that and begged me to reconsider helping her. He told me he'd said something to Seven that made things so awkward between them that it was impossible for him continue as her social coach."

Janeway laughed and said, "That would have been when he thought his program was going to decompile."

"Oh?"

At Chakotay's quizzical expression, Janeway smirked and said, "It happened right after the Hierarchy aliens kidnapped the two of us and demanded the warp core as ransom. They downloaded so much additional data into the Doctor's program that the compression algorithms started to break down."

"And where was I during all of this?"

"Covering the bridge. The rest of us were in the holodeck, trying to stabilize his matrix. The Doctor was convinced he was destined for holographic oblivion and went around the room making a series of what he thought were deathbed confessions. When he got to Seven, he dropped to one knee and declared his undying love."

Chakotay guffawed. "And what did she do?"

"Well, you know Seven, Chakotay. She just gave him one of those long looks of hers and raised the implant covering her left eyebrow. Then she told him point blank that his cognitive algorithms were malfunctioning."

"She didn't," gasped Chakotay between fits of laughter.

"Oh, it gets better. He fritzed out for a moment when B'Elanna deleted the excess data, and then came back online. The look on his face when he reappeared and realized that he wasn't going to decompile anytime soon was absolutely priceless. Leave it to Tom to pick that moment to ask him if he had anything else he wanted to confess. I thought I was going to rupture something trying to keep a straight face," Janeway said with a laugh. "He was even more humiliated than the time he had to ask me for his job back after he left Voyager to be with that woman on Qomar, and she rejected him for an upgraded version of himself."

"No wonder he wouldn't tell me what he'd said to Seven," Chakotay said, once he was able to stop laughing. "I thought that maybe I could sit the two of them down in my office and work things out, but he wouldn't hear of it. That's when he begged me to reconsider my earlier refusal to help with the social lessons. He was so upset that I felt sorry for him and agreed."

"This is the first I'm hearing about it," Janeway said.

"The Doctor wanted to keep it private, especially after all the snide comments from the crew when Seven tried dating Chapman. Frankly, I'm a little surprised your protégé didn't mention it."

"No," said Janeway. "Not a word."

"I'm sorry, Kathryn. I should have said something to you instead of just assuming Seven would."

"I wish you had. It certainly would have saved any misunderstanding on my part."

"There was nothing to misunderstand, Kathryn. The lessons were a series of role-playing scenarios in aces like the mess hall or holodeck. After each session, Seven was supposed to go over her behavior with the Doctor. If it had started to cut into our time together, I definitely would have said something, but as it turned out, I put a stop to time alone with Seven just after the Admiral arrived."

"Oh?"

"The Doctor laid down very specific parameters so there wouldn't be any sexual involvement, but Seven decided to push the envelope. She came to my quarters one evening with a bouquet of flowers and some nonsense 'about anticipation of the first kiss often being uncomfortable,' and how she wanted to relieve the tension. Then she grabbed me and kissed me."

Janeway was dumbstruck for a moment, and then asked, "What did you do?"

"Disengaged myself as gently as possible before she noticed my reflexive physiological response."

Janeway's mouth hung open.

"And then I got incredibly lucky – you called all the senior officers to the bridge because the rift that the Admiral's shuttle was about to come through had started to form. After all the initial excitement from her arrival died down, I went to Sickbay and told the Doctor I was finished with the dating lessons."

"What did he say?"

"He explained that he'd performed surgery on Seven to remove the Borg failsafe that had caused her collapse, and that she could now experience genuine emotion. Chakotay saw the look on Janeway's face and said, "I know. Chalk that one up to doctor/patient confidentiality, too. The Doctor said this was the reason for Seven's schoolgirl crush on me, and he asked me to stay with the lessons long enough for him to figure out a way to let her down easy."

Janeway walked over to the window opposite the fireplace and turned her back to Chakotay. She stared out at the snowstorm, very uncomfortable at the direction this conversation had taken. "And obviously, you agreed," she said. "I saw the two of you come into Sandrine's for the homecoming party. She was all over you, and I know how you feel about the Borg. That wouldn't have happened if you hadn't allowed it."

"That's why the Doctor was there as a chaperone." Chakotay thought for a moment and then said, "And that's why you left so quickly and why you avoided me while we were still on the ship and once we landed."

"Well, I don't know what you expected, Chakotay. It seemed obvious to me that you'd moved on. I couldn't stay and watch the happy couple, not after what the Admiral told me."

"The Admiral? What does she have to do with any of this?"

"She told me that you and Seven had married on her Voyager. I know that things wouldn't necessarily play out as they did in her timeline, but when I saw the two of you together and the way Seven looked at you…"

It was Chakotay's turn to be dumbstruck. "Kathryn, the Admiral had an agenda! You even said so yourself. How could you even think Seven and I were a couple?"

Janeway whirled to face him. "Because the Angry Warrior broke his promise." She burst into a flood of tears as the emotions that she had managed to suppress during the past several weeks of debriefings abruptly surfaced. She sobbed once and said, "You promised me that you would always be by my side, and you were beside someone else on the day we came home." Janeway turned back to the window and rested her head against the cold glass as she struggled to get her feelings back under control.

Chakotay was horrified at the depth of the pain his sin of omission had caused his beloved. After a moment's pause, he moved up behind Janeway and gently took hold of her arms as he said, "Kathryn, I am so sorry." Janeway turned into him and wept against Chakotay's chest as he did his best to comfort her.

After a while, Janeway's tears slowed and then ceased. She pulled back to look deeply into Chakotay's eyes, and he was astonished at the depth of the feelings he could read there. "I'm here now," he said. "I'm sure that if we really thought about it, we could come up with an entire litany of regrets for everything we left unsaid or undone, but the Angry Warrior would like to set all that aside and take up the broken promise instead."

"So you're saying that you're not in love with a certain Borg of our acquaintance?" she asked.

"Absolutely," said Chakotay. "And I can tell you firsthand that nothing kills romance quicker than the feel of Borg exoskeleton scraping against your face."

Janeway laughed delightedly and said, "I can see where it might." She reached up to cup his face with her hand and stroked his cheek with her thumb.

"Much better," Chakotay said with a dazzling smile.

They drew closer together and as Janeway felt Chakotay's soft lips gently brush against hers, she knew in an instant what she wanted her future to be.

--

"My guide and I came on that hidden road to make our way back into the bright world and with no care for any rest, we climbed – he first, I following – until I saw, through a round opening, some of those things of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there that we emerged, to see – once more – the stars." -- Dante

10 months later:

Delighted applause and a standing ovation greeted a very pregnant Kathryn Janeway as she waddled into Voyager's first annual reunion on the arm of her husband and research partner, Professor Chakotay.

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