Perhaps this was the point she should have walked into the sunset and lived happily ever after.  But Kathryn found herself in cold, hard reality.  It was no fairy tale.  Life was unforgiving.

            The late Jonathan Durant was exposed, tarnished for the quadrant to see, and in the eyes of many, so was Kathryn Janeway.  Their names, linked together for so long, remained tied even after the reality of their union (or a convenient variant of it) was known.  She found herself the target of public resentment.  How far and how thoroughly people had bought into the image of John Durant!  And they all were wrong.  They were suckers, fools, and they hated that the wool had been pulled over their eyes.  Durant was not there to resent, but his wife was.

            The looks she received on the street, in headquarters, were judgmental, callous, haughty.  Everyone claimed to have seen Janeway for what she was before the whole Durant fiasco.  "When Voyager returned, I recommended a prison term for Janeway!"  a proud Admiral Hayden proclaimed in an interview.  "I was never fooled by those two scoundrels."  The media hounded her relentlessly, trying to make the public forget that they themselves were Durant's original heralds.

Starfleet did not entirely abandon her. She was not forced out-- the facts were on her side-- but emotions were raw whenever she was present, and thus she was ostracized even without any official decree.

            But the scorn didn't hurt her.  It didn't even touch her.  Kathryn was numb and utterly unaware of the life around her.

            In the very beginning, she put in a half-hearted effort to restore her life.  She tried to revive her friendship with Admiral Paris.  They were both nervous; their words were diplomatic and tentative.  Owen Paris did not blame her.  He was one of the few who knew the true situation, and he understood her behavior.  He felt for her.  He made friendly overtures and invited her over frequently for stiff dinner parties.  But Kathryn couldn't fight her anxiety around him.  Every time she spoke with him, she wanted nothing more than to escape. 

She knew Durant was dead.  He wasn't around to be enraged at her for speaking with the Admiral.  Empek would not be waiting to pummel her as soon as she returned to her apartment.  There were no consequences now for speaking with Admiral Paris.  It simply made no difference.  She was terrified when she was with the elderly admiral, and she was ashamed that she was still afraid, because every rational part of her being decried herself a fool for fearing a dead man.    It was absurd.  It was laughable.  And although she recognized the absurdity of it, the terrible fear was very much real and undeniable.  She avoided Owen Paris.  She could always come up with some pretense to beg off his invitations.

Her avoidance of Owen Paris quickly extended to his relatives.  She begged off frequent invitations from Paris and Torres.  Paris seemed to get the message.  Unfortunately, Torres was slightly more stubborn than the rest.  She'd barge in uninvited and unexpected to check up on Janeway a few times a week, and snap at her as though she were some errant child if she felt Kathryn wasn't taking care of herself.  Janeway might have been touched at one time, or she might have snapped back, if only she'd had the energy.  It was now simply an inconvenience.

            And Chakotay.  She avoided Chakotay like the devil himself.  Just sitting in the same room with him choked her up with emotions, emotions that shamed her now that she knew they would never be reciprocated.  He was with Seven again, and probably for good this time.  His rebuff of her affections on the shuttle... It still mortified her to think of it.  She tried not to.  It was easier to forget him if she never thought of him, and it was easier not to think of him if she never saw him.

            He pressed himself on her very frequently early on, fussing over whether she was taking care of herself, urging her to see a counselor.  She tried eating, even remembered it upon occasion.  Kathryn tried the counselor, too.  The man was infuriating and she stormed out after two sessions, but she didn't tell Chakotay.  Why worry him needlessly? Especially now that he had Seven to focus his attentions upon.  He was probably only focusing on her out of some sense of obligation, or perhaps some benign pity.  Either way, she would have none of it.  Chakotay had freed her from Durant, and now Kathryn resolved to free Chakotay from her.  Having Chakotay tied to her out of pity was worse than not having Chakotay at all. 

She grew cold around him.  She did not return transmissions, she did not accept or extend invitations.  He seemed baffled, and not a little hurt by her actions, but what else could she do?  She couldn't be around him, couldn't bear to feel this way knowing he loved Seven.  She'd rather forget about him than punish herself with the repeated sight of the love she'd destroyed.

            Kathryn tried to distract herself from these depressing thoughts by reminding herself that she was free, truly free for the first time in a decade.  The first night, after all the mess had died down, when she found herself alone in her apartment, she'd thrown herself out into the world, exultant, feeling the wind against her cheeks and the streets alive all around her.  She basked in the freedom as the night wore on and until the sky brightened with early morning, feeling herself tremble with a myriad of excitement and anxiety every time she reflected, yet again, that there were no consequences for this.  No curfew, no angry Empek waiting to beat the living shit out of her.  It should have made her happy.  When she returned to her apartment, however, she felt consumed by a deep emptiness that did not leave her the next day.

            Freedom.  It meant nothing.  It was worthless.  She spent most days and nights staring at the wall of her apartment, unthinking, too exhausted to do anything but sit there.  Sometimes she'd get the energy to turn on the viewer.  But the silence was full enough without the buzz of irrelevant noise from the small screen.  Sometimes her attention was caught by a disparaging news report about herself.  These she'd watch with a sort of masochistic satisfaction, relishing every hateful word of slander about her, disgusted by the sight of her own ghastly image on the view screen.

            Kathryn finally took leave from active duty.  It relieved her coworkers to be rid of her, she was unsurprised to notice.  It relieved her as well.  Away from her duties as an officer, she had twelve more hours to sit in her apartment staring listlessly at the wall, marveling at how pathetic she'd become.  Her thoughts were scattered and increasingly bizarre.  In the unstructured chaos of her new life, she never exactly thought of her days with Durant with fondness, but sometimes she almost missed them.  At least under Durant's control she'd had her hatred to propel her through the day.  At least then she had some structure and direction to her life, rather than this drift less sleepwalk through a foggy twilight.  At least then she could fool herself into thinking only circumstances stood between Chakotay and her, and not a genuine lack of affection.  

More often than not, Kathryn simply wished she'd perished in the Delta Quadrant.

            It was perhaps four months before Kathryn dragged herself from the apartment, compelled by some intellectual if not emotional knowledge that she could not remain hidden away all day.  It surprised her that very few people noticed her as she passed them on the street.  It was one thing to see Janeway on a view screen, but now that she hadn't been in the news a few months, she could disappear like any other woman into the crowds.  The anonymity brought an incredible sense of relief.

            During the fist of her outings, it was just the alcohol she relished.  Kathryn had never been much of a drinker.  Even the few jaunts she had during her time with Durant had failed to truly register as more than a temporary escape.  Now, she found something more.  When she drank excessively night after night, week after week, the hangovers lessened, the periods of horrible lucidity blurred.  The alcohol became a comfortable, swollen blanket, stifling her from the world, filling the distance between her emotions and her shredded life.  She forgot the pain, blurred the memories.  It enveloped her intellect in the same sluggishness that weighed down her spirit, and though it did not feel good, the important thing was-- it did not feel bad.

            And then she allowed a man to buy her a drink.  She didn't get a good look at his features; she couldn't recall his face once his dark head turned away from her.  But that night had found her spread cross his bed, and he wasn't gentle enough to break her long period of celibacy without pain.  It didn't last very long, just a few blind minutes as she lay there crushed beneath him, hearing him grunt in her ear.

            She expected to feel ashamed when she returned to her apartment, but she felt nothing.  It burned between her legs, and for some reason, her ribs were bruised.  She knew the sick feeling as she stood beneath the rumbling sonic shower was entirely unconnected with her one night stand.

            A few days passed before she went home with another man.  And then another.  Then more.  It just kept going.  Kathryn could never remember faces; she'd stare at them through blurry eyes, trying to burn their features into her memory, but her mind was blank the next day.  She never remembered the physical sensations either.  She might have climaxed, she might not have.  She'd feel the tell tale bruising of sex the next morning, but that was the only physical sign of her activity.  She would never sleep with them, she'd never allow them to sleep with her.  Just sex, then departure.  It continued that way for an interminable period of time until one night she was with a man in her apartment, and she looked up into his face in the middle of the sex.

            Durant's eyes were unfocused on her face, sweat trickling down his forehead and flushed cheeks as he concentrated on thrusting into her.

            A scream ripped from her lips, and Kathryn fought wildly at the man's grip on her.  She heard him snarl at her to shut her mouth as she tried to crawl away from him, pinned in place by a bruising grip on her shoulder.  A heavy hand clamped over her mouth, muffling her screams, a hand not thrown off by the thrashing of her head.  He held her still until he emptied himself into her, and she was sobbing hysterically by then, recoiling and curling into a ball as soon as he slid his sweaty weight from her body.

            She crouched there a few moments, weeping, trembling, her hands clenched convulsively across her bare knees as she heard him dressing.  It took her an effort to look at him through her tears, and she saw the face of a man that was not Durant gazing back at her with irritation.  "The hell's your problem, lady?" he asked as he yanked on his pants.

            Kathryn had no words; her tongue felt like a thick mass, heavy in her mouth.  Her surprise blotted her thoughts.  She sat there numbly as he left her apartment.  Her hand trembled violently as it found its way between her legs, feeling the sticky, nauseating fluid there, and then her body was wracked anew with painful sobs.

            Through blind anguish, she rushed into the sonic shower, then ran a bath, back into the sonic shower.  She burned the sheets in a pile on the floor of her apartment, let out a cry of terror when the smoke alarm sounded.  Fresh tears leaked from her eyes, and she reached with blind fury into a drawer and shot the smoke alarm from the wall.  It hit the floor of the apartment with a thwap, sputtering little yellow sparks.  Kathryn sank to the ground, her hands clamped over her face, weeping piteously.  She was still that way when B'Elanna found her.

            The half-Klingon spoke words she didn't listen to; Kathryn didn't want to hear anything.  The other woman urged her to calm down.  After blurs of B'Elanna's soft voice, strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her up and over to the sofa.  A tank top was eased over her head to cover her body, a garment once tight, now sagging over her frame.  Hands eased her down onto her side, and she was still weeping when a blanket was tucked around her body.  A soft palm brushed over and over again, easing her hair back from her forehead, pressed a glass of water to her lips.  Kathryn wasn't aware of the point when B'Elanna's hand became Chakotay's, but he ended up being the one she leaned against during one of her trips to the lavatory.

He released her just outside the door, and she nearly stumbled inside, clutching her balance on the sink, hearing the door slide shut behind her with a soft hiss.  She pressed the button and activated the faucet, simply watching the clear water rush into the black drain for an interminable period of time before she turned it off.  When she looked up and saw herself in the mirror, she was struck with a sudden jolt of shock.

            She looked like a corpse.  Kathryn turned her head this way, that, her mouth dry, gazing in morbid fascination at the way her head looked like little more than a skull with some gray skin and lank hair plastered over it.  Her eyes, dark and lifeless, the shadows beneath them dark like hollows.  Eyes red and lifeless.  Her lips were pale and thin, and the entire impression of her appearance was one of extreme fragility.  A woman on the verge of shattering.

            She raised a shaky hand to finger her jutting cheekbone, and realized that, although she'd gazed in the mirror many times recently, this was the first time she'd actually seen anyone looking back at her.

            Kathryn was struck with the horrified realization that she did look like a victim.  The woman in the mirror looked weak, frightened, vulnerable.  She'd wondered on her few jaunts under Durant, and now her frequent ones on her own, why she seemed to draw the attention of predators, and now she knew why.  They looked at her and they saw someone too frightened, too depressed, too ashamed to defend herself.

            And they were right.

            The marble sink felt cold against her palms as she leaned against it.  She reached out to touch the control of the sink, to flip on the clear stream of water again, but stopped herself.  To what?  Watch the water flow into the drain for a few minutes more?  How long had she done that already?

            When Kathryn walked out of the lavatory and saw a concerned Chakotay waiting for her, her face crumpled.  He drew her towards him, she buried her head against his chest.  She shook with tears, even as she was horrified by the feel of her own bony form trembling as weakly as a sick child.  Gods, but she was sick.  She was dying.

            A few minutes and they were sitting together on the couch, Chakotay sadly fingering a bruise staining her pale arm.  A question flickered through her mind, momentary confused at how she'd come by the mark.  The faint imprint of fingers...  Oh God.

            Kathryn covered her face again, hiding herself from Chakotay's gaze as she said,  "I don't know what's wrong with me.  I just can't stop… with it."

            He nodded slowly.  He seemed to understand what she was saying, and she felt a new stab of shame at the knowledge.  Kathryn's fingers tightened around her face, and his hand stroked lightly over her back.

            "Listen to me, Kathryn," his voice was soft and gentle.  "The counselor-- have you been seeing him?"

            "No," she replied harshly, suddenly defensive.  Her hands slipped from her face and balled into tight fists.  "I hate that man.  I'm not going back to him."

            "Fine," Chakotay said appealingly, and she didn't want to meet his gaze.  "No one is going to force you to go back to him.  You should choose someone you feel comfortable with."  When she remained silent, his hand stopped mid-stroke, resting heavily on her back.  "Kathryn, you are going to see a counselor, aren't you?"

            "I guess I have to now."  Her voice sounded more bitter than she intended.

            "Kathryn," Chakotay said to her quietly.  "What you've been through-- it would do this to anyone.  You're hurting."

            She laughed harshly at that.  "We both know the more apt word would be 'whoring'."

            "No," he said firmly, and when she looked away, he touched her chin lightly with his fingers, but did not turn her head.  "No, you're hurting.  You saw your world stolen from you, not once, but twice.  You were forced into marriage with a man intent on using you for his own ambitions.  You lost your family, your independence.  And he did everything he could to prevent you from regaining that.  Don't you see, Kathryn?  You were strong, you fought him, but it took a toll on you.  He made you loathe yourself.  You're not eating, you don't look like you're sleeping, and what you've been doing with these men--"

            "Please don't talk about that, Chakotay," Kathryn pleaded in a small voice.  She didn't want him to think about that; she couldn't bear it if he gave more thought to that.  He must already think she was so--

            "He hurt you.  He hurt your perceptions of the world, and he hurt your perceptions of yourself.  I think, somewhere in there, you feel you deserved what he did to you; I think somehow he managed to cut you that deeply.  And you act upon it.  He's not here to harm you anymore, he can't humiliate you.  But you're ashamed, and you've been doing his job for him...  You've been hurting yourself."

            Kathryn said nothing when he paused, a weighty silence hanging between them as tears streaked down her cheeks.

            His voice continued softly,  "Kathryn, it's a compulsion, like any other.  It's not the end of the galaxy, it doesn't make you a bad person.  You can work through it."  His hand paused a moment, then tentatively ran his fingers down her back.  "We can work through it."

            Kathryn suddenly felt herself go cold.  His words, so easy before, unraveling her psyche the way she hadn't yet managed to...

Up until that word, that 'we'.  We.

            There was no 'we'.  If there was, it existed only in her memory.  Chakotay and Seven.  That was 'we'.  Chakotay and Kathryn?  Nothing.  Unravel the mess in her head with him?  How could she, when he was the core of so much of that pain?  She couldn't do this.  She couldn't.

            This was a mistake.  What was the point of this?  Words.  Words had no power.  It was hopeless.

            "Actually…  I think I'll be fine."  Her voice sounded slightly strained as she rose to her feet.  Inside, she felt glacial as she met Chakotay's incredulous eyes with her own.  "I'm glad we had this talk, Commander.  I'll certainly take your words into advisement."

            Janeway started to turn from him, but he suddenly lanced from the couch and grasped her arm.  "Why are you doing this now, Kathryn?" he asked intently, his voice colored with distress.  "What happened?  Why are you shutting down on me?"

            She met his stare without discernible expression.  Her heart felt strangely cold.  "I've heard your advice, Chakotay, and now I'm tired.  I'll be fine, and I'd appreciate it if I could have my apartment to myself for a while."

            Chakotay stared at her through dark, dismayed eyes as she slowly extricated her arm from his grip.

            "Don't do this, Kathryn."  There was a note of pleading in his voice.

            A smile crossed Kathryn's face.  It didn't touch her eyes.  It felt plaster, as though someone had pulled up the corners of her lips with puppet strings.  "Thank you for stopping by, Chakotay.  Excuse me.  I think I'm going to go to bed."

            Chakotay stood there a beat, staring at her helplessly.  She waited expectantly until his shoulders sagged, and he turned with resignation towards the door.  "If that's the way you want it, there's nothing I can do, Kathryn."

            Kathryn watched him walk towards the door.  "Thanks again for visiting."  Her voice sounded hollow.  As the door slid open, she gave in to a sudden, malicious impulse and added spitefully,  "And give my regards to Seven of Nine."

            He paused in the doorway, his back to her, large shoulders drawing up like an alert bear.  Kathryn immediately regretted her words and wished she could take them back.  She spun around to bolt out of sight before he could deride her for them, but Chakotay whipped around, arresting her movement with his intent gaze.

            "Seven?  What do you mean, Kathryn?"

            Kathryn fumbled for words, opening and closing her mouth a split second before saying in a disjointed tone,  "Look-- Chakotay, I-- don't bother.  I know.  It's okay.  I'm happy for you," the smile felt fake on her lips, and her voice rang false.  "Really."

            "What are you talking about?" Chakotay's voice sounded incredulous.

            "I know you're with Seven, " she explained.  She flashed him a false, uneasy grin.  "It's okay, I saw you two together—on the shuttle.  But it's fine, I won't…"

            Her voice trailed off as his expression came alive before her eyes.

"Kathryn," Chakotay sputtered, the white-toothed grin playing across his handsome face one of genuine amusement.  "Seven of Nine's with the Doctor."

            There was a beat of silence.   Janeway stared at him dumbly.  Then,  "What?"

            "She goes by Annika Hansen now," Chakotay elaborated, taking a step from the doorway back into the room, gaining confidence.  "She's been involved with the Doctor over a year now, and they're getting married next February.  She wanted to invite you-- she misses you-- but she wasn't sure how to go about it.  She wanted my blessing for the match.  That's all we were talking about."

            That was all.

            Thoughts flew through Kathryn's mind, puzzling out his words, her mind flashing back to the embrace she witnessed and his shattering words—he'd 'settle the matter' with her.  She had assumed he intended to reveal to her his affection for Seven.  But all this time, it was just about Seven's wedding.  Seven of Nine's goddamn wedding.  Chakotay didn't love Seven.  Nothing was there between them!  That meant…

A brief moment of hope flooded through her before she suddenly realized the real truth with sickening clarity.  And she felt doubly humiliated now. 

            His rebuff had nothing to do with Seven. He'd rejected her out of genuine disinterest, not out of affection for Seven.  He simply didn't want to be with her!  He could that never have occurred to her?  Was she an imbecile, or simply that arrogant that she couldn't possibly have conceived of that reason?

Stupid.  How egotistical to assume his only reason for rejecting her was founded in love for another woman.  It wasn't that Chakotay loved another woman, it was just that he didn't love her.

            "I'm sorry," the words flew out of her mouth as her shame grew.  She couldn't meet his eyes.  She felt sick.  "It was presumptuous of me to assume you had to be involved with someone else.  When I—approached you--  I understand completely… In your place, I wouldn't either--"  The words were too hard for her, and she turned away sharply, her eye stinging.  Chakotay was at her side quickly, turning her to face him.

            "Is that what this is about?"  He asked incredulously.  "The shuttle?"

            Her laugh was false and brought tears to her eyes.  "I know, you don't have to explain, now please go--"

            "Kathryn," his warm palm against her cheek tilted her face back towards his.  "When I said I didn't think the time was right, it wasn't a... reflection of my feelings for you."

            Her brow furrowed in confusion.  "Then, what-- I don't understand..."

            "Kathryn," Chakotay's voice was soft.  "Look at yourself, look at--"

            Her lips twitched with new pain.  "Of course.  I know... I look hideous --"

            "No," Chakotay said firmly, momentarily tempted to make a joke about her repeatedly twisting his words into disparaging remarks, but instinctively knowing this was too fragile a moment for anything but the utmost delicacy.  "I'm not talking about looks.  You're beautiful, you always have been.  I'm talking about...  It's that you look like a woman who is in pain.  This apartment, this..."  he fingered the bruise on her arm sadly.  "You've been through something traumatic.  I've waited for you nearly a decade; I can't take advantage of you when you're still vulnerable.  That was my belief in the shuttle, that is my belief now.  Kathryn, I love you.  You know that.  I will never stop loving you.   And before you and I ever take this friendship to another level, I want to know that you are entirely sure of yourself, that you won't later have cause to regret becoming involved with me.  I don't want to hurt you."

            He paused, taking a steadying breath, before continuing,  "And Kathryn, even if, when everything is clear for you again, you decide you'd rather be with someone else--"

            "I'd never want that," Kathryn cut in with sudden emotion.

            "But even if you did," Chakotay said firmly, holding her eyes,  "I would respect your wishes, and I would never stop caring for you.  I don't want you to feel pressure about this, about me.  I will always be here.  Right by your side."

            Like the last time? Janeway thought sourly, her mind flashing to those months after their arrival in the Alpha Quadrant, the months Durant had slowly entangled her in his web while Chakotay danced around the galaxy with Seven.

            But that wasn't fair, and she knew it.

            "Can you let me help you, Kathryn?  Can you trust in me?"

            Swallowing hard, Janeway felt herself nod.

            His palm, soft against her cheek.

            "Can you trust in yourself?"

            She found she couldn't answer that.

*          *          *

            The worst was over, but the road ahead was not without difficulty.  Kathryn butted heads with two different counselors before she found one that inexplicably managed to worm her way into Kathryn's trust.

She spent hours with Chakotay every day, often sleeping over in his apartment (all innocent, of course) out of a strange unease attached to her own.

            Chakotay was concerned at first at Kathryn's constant need for his company.  He certainly didn't mind being around her for so much of his time, on some level was even gratified for it, but he wasn't certain this was beneficial for her.  He found himself revisiting old fears that he might be harming more than helping Kathryn by letting her develop this dependence on him, and a few concerned hails to the counselor to communicate his concerns quickly found him expressing his own fears to the counselor, his own doubts about his ability to help her.  He learned to differentiate between Kathryn's situation and his mishaps with Seven, the differences between allowing dependence in a fully self-aware adult who had been shattered, and dependence in an emotional adolescent who hadn't known her own identity in the first place, who needed someone to help define her.

            They attended the wedding of Doctor "Joe" (they'd both snickered privately at his choice of name), and Annika Hansen.  Kathryn had been unusually tense before the occasion, fearing that she'd be subjected to the same scorn regarding the Durant fiasco at the hands of the crew she cared about, as she had at the hands of the general public.  However, when they arrived at the wedding, she was confronted with nothing but good will and affection, a crew—a family—who cared about her too much and held too much loyalty for her to believe the slander, or to trust that the scandal was actually the real story.

            Kathryn didn't have to explain herself to them.  They accepted her.  They smiled knowingly when she arrived with Chakotay, and when she left the wedding, she was buzzing with happiness and something like elation, Chakotay knew for sure then that things were going to sort out for Kathryn after all.

            Shortly after that, she grew restless.  She wanted her space.  When she insisted on going to a science conference and balked at his idea of accompanying her, he felt reassured rather than rebuffed.  Each instance where her independence reasserted itself raised his confidence in her a notch more, and when she finally stated her desire to approach something more than friendship again, he had no fears of a dire outcome.

            It started slowly.  Dinners grew slightly more intimate, touches slightly more personal.  Then they kissed, and slowly became accustomed to the higher level of intimacy.  They touched freely, learning each other's bodies, but still refraining from that final step.

            Chakotay would see a mischievous spark in Kathryn's eyes sometimes, and he had a creeping feeling that she was planning something special.  When the next Voyager reunion approached, he realized that he had been right.

*          *          *

            "We were originally planning to wait," Harry Kim was saying, standing on the podium before the Voyager crew in the elaborately decorated banquet hall.  His eyes found Janeway and Chakotay again, seated towards the front of the stage, the only two in the audience not expressing some show of pleasure or anticipation.  Harry grinned at them, and he saw the two exchange puzzled glances, as though realizing there was something the rest knew that they hadn't caught on to yet.

            "We were planning to wait until the fifth reunion to give you two this.  It seemed more symbolic, somehow, a much more special occasion," Kim said lightly.  "But after giving it some thought, reunion number four seemed pretty damn good after all."  He winked at Janeway.  "You always liked things early, Captain."

            Janeway felt herself smile, barely noticing the slip.  Technically, she was not a captain.  But she'd long since realized that the Voyager crew would always think of her that way.  Their Captain.

            "Harry!" Janeway heard Torres call out from the audience, somewhere behind her.  "Just give it to them!"

            Laughter filtered through the ranks, and Janeway felt a pleasant flutter of anticipation.  Chakotay's hand squeezed hers.

            Harry grinned sheepishly, inclined his head towards Torres.  "Yes, ma'am."  He drew back a step, raising his eyebrows.  "You two ready for this?"

            At the urging of the crewmembers around them, Janeway and Chakotay rose to their feet.

            "Ready as we'll ever be, Harry," Janeway said confidently.

            Kim shrugged, tapped his communicator, and called,  "Energize!"

            At Janeway's feet materialized a book.  She bent down and picked it up, found herself looking at a hardcopy text of Starfleet Regulations.

            "Oh," Janeway said, trying to muster some enthusiasm in her voice, feeling the eyes of the crew upon her.  "Starfleet Regulations.  This is… wonderful."

            When more laughter echoed around her, she knew she'd been had.  Harry was smiling fondly again.

            "All right, but seriously this time,"  He tapped his communicator again and called for transport.

            Just a few feet before Janeway and Chakotay, now dominating half the room, materialized a powerful, sleek little vessel.  Kathryn stared at it in shock for a long moment, wondering first how they'd afforded the credits to purchase something like this, second, how they'd acquired the credits to transport something this size, and then feeling herself break out into a delighted grin.

            "My God," Chakotay murmured, stepping out from beside her to tentatively approach the ship.  "This is… for us?"

            "Joint ownership," Harry Kim replied, stepping out from behind the podium and jumping down to join him on the floor.  He approached Kathryn then, and smiled knowingly at the rest of the crew as he added,  "We thought you two might be… friendly enough to share it."  His dark eyes found his former captain's.  "Do you approve?"

            Janeway, still gazing fondly at the gift, could only nod in wonderment.  Then, tears in her eyes, she reached out and pulled Harry into an embrace.  "Thank you!"

            The former crew again broke into applause, and Kathryn drew back from Harry and added amidst the racket,  "Thank you all!"

            She felt Chakotay approach beside her, extending his own thanks, slapping Harry's back.  As his warm presence touched her side, and the love and affection of the former crew around her penetrated her awareness, Kathryn knew this would be one of the happiest moments of her life.  All those dark years were over, all her work to save her crew paying off in kind.  She smiled up at Chakotay, and he returned it with equal warmth.  With love.  Her hand found his, and she knew finally that nothing would tear them apart.

            A few minutes found them staring at the shuttle together, left to themselves to marvel at the gift.

            "It's truly incredible of them," Chakotay said, awed.

            "It is," Kathryn replied.  Then, she added a little darkly,  "But it interferes with my plans."

            "Your plans?" Chakotay asked, looking at her with a grin.  "And what were they?"

            Kathryn returned his grin with a beautiful one of her own, and glanced coyly back to the shuttle.  "I reserved us a hotel room.  In Italy.  The very same one from that night."

            Chakotay caught his breath.

            "Kathryn," he began,  "If that's the issue, you know I am more than willing to come back for this ship tomorrow—"

            Her finger touched his lips, stilling his words.  Her eyes glittered warmly into his, and her grin sent a shiver of anticipation down his spine.

            "No…"  Kathryn said in a husky voice.  "I just mean, with a private space of our own, I don't see why we should wait until we're in Italy."

*          *          *

            He was holding her later in the shuttle, having christened it with her twice already that evening, and probably not for the last time.  She drew out of his arms, absently holding a glass of champagne, marveling at the interior of the vessel.  The crew of Voyager had banded their credits together to buy this for them, and they'd certainly gone all out.  Even Tom Paris's vessel paled in comparison.

            Kathryn walked to the conn and admired the shiny control panel, running her hand across the smooth surface.

            "This is really an incredible ship," she said to Chakotay, her eyes flickering around the interior.  "Chakotay, I could honestly see us living here long-term."

            Chakotay cocked an eyebrow at her, approaching the front and lowering himself into the chair across from her.  He tugged at her hand to urge her into his lap.  "You sound like you have a plan," he said softly.  "Something I should know about?"

            Kathryn gazed searchingly into his eyes, raising her hand to caress his cheek.  "Would it really be so bad, Chakotay?  If we just left?  If I returned to Starfleet, I would be stuck behind a desk, and as for you, I know there are more stimulating things out there for a paleontologist than teaching."  She smiled, and he found himself returning it.  "Think of everything out there for us to explore…"

            He reached up and ran his fingers through her hair, twirling a few locks absently between his fingers.  "I'm game for it if you are," he said with a grin.  "But where were you thinking of heading?  Are we going to venture around Federation space, or—"

            "No," Kathryn said, her eyes alive with the possiblities.  "I was actually thinking we could go back to the Delta Quadrant."

            "The Delta Quadrant?" Chakotay exclaimed.  It was amazing that after all these years, and especially the past intimate months, she still managed to surprise him.  "Why would you want to go back there?  You hated the Delta Quadrant."

            "I hated that I'd stranded my crew there," she admitted.  "I hated that I couldn't rest until I returned all of you home."  She looked down at the console before her.  "But I never really had a chance to see it.  Not as an explorer."  Her eyes returned to his.  "And what are we leaving behind?  The crew can get by without us now, and your sister would understand… There's a whole new frontier to explore out there."  Kathryn shifted on his lap to face him completely now.  "What do you say?"

            Chakotay was still reeling in surprise.  He'd never even considered returning the Delta Quadrant, had never thought of it in simple terms of exploration.  It had been a challenge for them to overcome, once, a long time ago on Voyager.  But it had never been merely an object of fascination.  The possibilities intrigued him.

            "How would we get there?" he asked her.

            Janeway shrugged.  "Same way we returned, I suppose."

            He frowned.  "I don't know if I approve of you traveling through time again—"

            She hit his chest, and he broke into a grin.  "No, you doofus," Kathryn laughed.  "I thought we could simply set a course for the Delta Quadrant, and have some adventures along the way."  She paused a moment.  "Well?  Are you with me?"

            "I suppose I'm your man, Captain," Chakotay replied, drawing her in for a kiss.

            She reached out and pressed her fingers over his lips, blocking the kiss for a moment.  Her blue eyes sparkled meaningfully into his.  "No Captain.  No Commander.  No rank.  Just you and me.  Chakotay and Kathryn."

            Chakotay smiled again.  "Then I suppose I'm your man, Kathryn."

            He kissed her this time, and she pulled back millimeters to grin against his lips.

            "And don't you ever forget it, Mister."