Disclaimer: CBS owns all things Trek. No infringement intended.

Author's Note: Written for the 2009 VAMB Christmas exchange.

Summary: Kathryn Janeway's life experiences have taught her to give up hope for her personal dreams. That's when a friend steps in to help her see that the future can be the realm of hope.

The Realm of Hope

By mizvoy

"PRESENT, n. That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope." Ambrose Bierce "The Devil's Dictionary"

Part 1

May 2347 At the Janeway home in Indiana (Kathryn Janeway is twelve years old)

If ever there was a day that Gretchen Janeway detested being a Starfleet wife, this was the one.

"Darling, wake up," Gretchen said as she sat down on her daughter's bed. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, sending rosy shards of sunlight into the room. "I heard from your daddy last night after you went to bed. I'm afraid something has come up at work, and he won't be able to come to your birthday party this weekend."

Kathryn, who was turning twelve years old in two days' time, sat up in bed and blinked back the tears that threatened to well up in her eyes. She knew this news wasn't her mother's fault, and she was determined to do everything she could to avoid making her mother feel guilty. Brushing her hair out of her eyes, she gave her mother a brave smile. "It's okay, Mom. I knew it was a long shot all along."

Gretchen smiled sadly and put an arm around her daughter's shoulders. "If I were you, I'd be terribly upset. This is the third year in a row that he's broken his promise to be here."

"We're a Starfleet family, Mom, and so we can't be surprised when something like this happens." She leaned into her mother's embrace. "Daddy has a new ship he's trying to finish, and it's going to be the best one yet."

"Even so, he promises to be here next year."

"I know he does, and I really do understand. I hope you told him it would be all right."

Gretchen bit her lip, remembering how upset she'd been when Edward had called her, how she'd lost her temper and said some hurtful things. With a sigh, she decided to protect her daughter from the stress that her marriage underwent on a daily basis. "He's very proud of you, Katie, and he loves you dearly."

"Sure, I know that. I love him, too." Kathryn shrugged and glanced at the clock.

Gretchen hugged her again. "It's time to get up for school. Get dressed, and I'll have your breakfast waiting for you. But, first, I have to wake up your sister."

Kathryn sat on her bed until she heard her mother rattling pans in the kitchen. Then her face crumpled and she collapsed face down onto her pillow where she could let the tears of frustration fall. She had had a good cry before she got dressed, and by the time she sat down for breakfast, she was once again her normal self, smiling bravely and talking about her day's schedule. While the tracks of her bitter tears had been washed off of her cheeks, they had burned deeply into her heart, and Gretchen was well aware of the burden her daughter willingly shouldered.

Starfleet brats like Kathryn Janeway learn early about the harsh realities of life. Their lessons come from a series of disappointments and letdowns that gradually create in their lives a tone of despair and resignation. They soon expect to be dismayed and to have to make do with less than the ideal, as if that is a normal part of life.

The unlucky children are those who have both parents as Starfleet officers; they learn early that there is no such thing as nuclear Starfleet family and that grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and close family friends step in for their frequently absent parents to provide them with some semblance of stability. They receive birthday greetings by subspace from duty stations that are light years away or exotic gifts that arrive days or weeks after the celebrations have ended. Their artwork and perfect test scores become the wallpaper on their parents' computer screens instead of the kitchen fridge. Someone else kisses their boo-boos, reads them bedtime stories, and wipes away the tears of a broken heart.

Luckier children have only one parent who is a Starfleet officer. Their nuclear family exists, but always with an absent principle member. They are so seldom together as a family that they never really expect both parents to attend their band concerts or cheer them on in an athletic competition. The absent parent is rarely involved in their day-to-day lives, yet the child fixates on gaining his or her praise and approval. Sadly, these children's self-esteem has a direct correlation to the amount of time that the absent parent spends with them and by the way their other parent handles the task of rearing them alone.

Kathryn and her sister were fortunate to have only one Starfleet parent, a mother who was a stoic and uncomplaining spouse who never visibly complained about parenting alone. However, she was unlucky that her father's career was so successful and his expertise in starship design so much in demand that it kept him away from his home in Indiana for many months at a time, much longer than was the average among officers of his rank and position.

The end result was that, by the time Kathryn was twelve, she had learned that there are no happy endings in real life, no fairy godmothers to make sure a young girl's dreams came true. Her father, now a Starfleet admiral, would miss her birthday for the third year in a row, even though he'd solemnly promised he'd be there every year.

Each year, Gretchen watched Kathryn stoically accept her lot. One year, her husband hadn't warned them that he wouldn't arrive in time, and Kathryn had spent the entire celebration with one eye on the door, sure that her beloved father would arrive with his usual fanfare, smiling and laughing, bringing gifts for all of his "girls," but especially for Kathryn, his Goldenbird, who was the one celebrating her special day. Throughout the elaborate meal, prepared by her mother's loving hands, throughout the singing of "Happy Birthday" and the cake and ice cream, throughout the opening of a half-dozen brightly-wrapped packages, Kathryn watched the door, and her mother watched her.

Kathryn believed it was wrong, even selfish, to be upset with her father, and yet her heart was breaking. He had missed her mother's and her sister's birthdays, too, and countless wedding anniversaries over the years, and so no one treated his absence like a terrible tragedy. Was it wrong to want to tell him in person about passing the fifth form in math when her peers were still studying the third? About joining a calculus class in which she was at least three years younger than anyone else?

This time, when the weekend arrived, Kathryn smiled bravely through the party and then dutifully helped clean up after the party ended. Her mother worked quietly, having apologized repeatedly for Edward's oversight. They stored the leftover food and took their normal spots at the sink, with Gretchen washing dishes and Kathryn drying them and putting them away. When the last of the pans had been put in the cabinet, Kathryn reached for the wet dish cloth so she could wipe down the dining room table. To her surprise, her mother grabbed her hand.

"I was just going to wipe off the table, Mom." When her mother didn't reply, Kathryn looked up to see tears on her cheeks. "What's wrong?"

"I know how much you wanted your father to be here today, and I know he had every intention of coming. I'm so sorry that he let you down again."

"He didn't let me down," she replied, embarrassed at the tears that burned behind her eyes and at the strangled sound of her voice. She stood, holding her mother's hand in the soap suds, remembering how hard her mother always worked to compensate for Edward's absence. "The dinner was great, and I got lots of thoughtful gifts. I'm sure he'll send me a nice message when he gets the time. Something more important came up, that's all."

"No, sweetie, you're wrong," her mother snapped, her eyes flashing with anger. "Nothing is 'more important' to your father or to me than you and your sister are, and I don't ever want you to think that isn't true. Something more urgent happened, something that made it impossible for him to be here or to call you, but nothing more important."

Kathryn was shocked by her mother's vehement tone and by the tears that spilled down her own cheeks. She took a deep breath. "Starfleet families have to be brave, Mom. They have to make sacrifices for the greater good."

Gretchen gave her a wistful smile. "You sound just like your father. I wonder how many times he's used that excuse with you girls?"

"It's not an excuse! It's the truth!" She pulled her hand out of her mother's grasp and fished in the water for the dishtowel.

"We do what we have to do, even when it isn't what we want to do, I suppose. What worries me, Katie, is that you accept this kind of disappointment as if it's what you deserve. I wouldn't blame you if you felt angry and resentful."

"But, Mom, what good would that do? It would just upset you, and I wouldn't enjoy my party. Right?"

Gretchen just sighed and finished cleaning out the sink, unable to think of a proper response.

Her father's birthday wishes had arrived a week late that year and, looking back on those days of quiet desperation, Kathryn knew that she had, in fact, been conditioned to accept disillusionment as her lot in life and that, at some point, she'd given up on seeing her dreams come true.

She'd lost her father and her fiancé in a terrible accident that had nearly taken her own life, first in the crash itself and then in the depression that followed. She'd fought the odds to become a successful Starship commander, only to find herself 70,000 light years from home without any hope of assistance from Starfleet. She'd lost the second man she loved because of her disappearance, and, although her mother and sister would be there to greet her, there would be no lover to hold her and comfort her if and when she brought her ship and crew home.

She would be touted as the Marco Polo of the twenty-third century, but Captain Kathryn Janeway would always feel bittersweet about her accomplishment. She would remind herself of the many members of her crew who were lost. She would fret over the many poor decisions she'd made along the way. She would rejoice in the happiness of her crew who were met by loved ones, but grieve with those who found that their previous lives had evaporated in their seven-year absence.

But, worst of all, she would believe that she got what she deserved.

* * * * *

December 2377 (Voyager, days after "Endgame")

"Captain?"

Janeway looked up from the PADD she'd been staring at blindly to find Seven of Nine standing before her. Kathryn had been relaxing in Voyager's nearly-deserted mess hall which was lit by the Earthlight that poured through the windows, and she had been gratified to bask in the seclusion and the view.

"Seven! I didn't hear you come in."

"I wanted to let you know that I'll be leaving the ship in about an hour. I didn't want to leave without telling you goodbye."

Kathryn blinked in surprise. "You're leaving already? I feel like we just arrived home."

"Because you've been so busy. We've seen very little of you in the last two weeks."

"I'm sorry about that." She sighed as she remembered how many of her crew had beamed away in her absence and how she hoped to reunite them for a proper farewell in three week's time. "Are you going to Sweden to meet your family?"

"Eventually, yes, but first Chakotay wants to go to Ohio and see his cousin."

The same, familiar feeling of disappointment washed over Kathryn, the same one she'd experienced so many times in her life, and, for a moment, she struggled to school her features and hide her grief. She didn't ask herself what the source of that feeling was, whether it was Seven's departure or whether it was that she was leaving in Chakotay's company. She didn't ask, because she didn't want to know the answer. She simply moved on.

If she had been facing any other member of her senior staff, she probably would have stood up and hugged them, but her relationship with Seven had never been an easy one, and she had never felt comfortable initiating any kind of physical contact with the former drone.

"Well, just remember to keep in touch, okay?"

"Of course, Captain."

Kathryn glanced past Seven's shoulder to see Chakotay entering the Mess Hall. A second wave of dismay assaulted her and, for a panicked moment, she thought she might run away rather than witness the two of them together. Then, to her relief, her commbadge chirped.

"Kim to Janeway."

She tapped her badge and turned away, so that the two lovers were in the very fringes of her peripheral vision. "Janeway here."

"Admiral Paxon would like to speak to you," Harry informed her. "Do you want to take it at your location or come to the bridge?"

"I'll take it here, in the Mess Hall, Harry." She nodded at Seven and Chakotay as she stood up and moved toward a communications screen. "If you'll excuse me."

"Of course," Seven replied. She offered Chakotay a brief explanation in subdued tones.

Janeway ignored the couple talking quietly behind her and concentrated on Paxon's instructions for the upcoming transfer of command. She drew out the conversation for as long as possible, hoping that the duo would tire of waiting for her and move on. She would track them down later to say goodbye, when she had time to prepare herself emotionally.

Paxon was a blowhard, like most admirals, and she found it easy to keep him talking about a dozen different topics of concern. When he finally signed off, she called up her personal calendar and made some changes based on the finalized plans. She heard no voices behind her and assumed that her plan had worked, and so, when she turned to leave, she was surprised to find Chakotay sitting at a nearby table.

"Chakotay," she exclaimed, looking around for Seven.

"Captain."

"I thought you got tired of waiting for me."

For a moment, they stared at each other as her words seemed to echo between them, multiple meanings to the phrase bringing a blush to the captain's face.

"Seven left to say goodbye to Naomi Wildman. I assured her that you wouldn't let her leave the ship without a proper adieu."

She hesitated a moment and then began to move past him toward the door. "In the meantime, I'll be on the bridge."

He snagged her arm, bringing her to a stop. "Not just yet."

"What do you think you are doing?" She tried to pull her arm away, but he had her wrist caught tightly in the circle of his fingers and thumb. "Let me go."

"I'm asking you to stay here and talk to me."

"I have things to do." He took her hand into his and shifted to look at her more directly.

"You've been avoiding me since we got back, Kathryn, and I'm tired of it."

"I've had a lot to do, Chakotay, and most of it took me off of the ship." She looked down at their hands, relaxing her arm. "I'm being pulled in a dozen directions at once."

"I know that. I'm the one who's been keeping the home fires burning, remember?"

"And I appreciate all that you do." She sat down at the table, absently rubbing her wrist when he released her hand. "I've kept you posted on what's happening—with Voyager and the crew."

"Officially, yes, in formal meetings or quick messages recorded when you come back in the middle of the night." He studied her face, his eyes troubled. "The problem is that I've missed my friend."

Kathryn wilted, letting her head fall forward to hide her eyes from him, afraid that he would detect the aching sense of loss that threatened to suffocate her. She reminded herself that her emotional reaction to his words was her own fault, the natural result of her own decisions along the way to limit their relationship. He was offering her the same friendship that she had given him over the last seven years, making the choices in his personal life that were right for him. It would be wrong to do or say anything that made him feel sorry for her despair and sorrow, since she had brought it on herself.

After an agonizing moment, she looked up and focused her mind on his worried face, pushing the feeling of despair away. "All of us have been swamped with work, overwhelmed with unexpected emotions. I've neglected you, and for that I apologize. Never doubt that your friend is still here for you—and always will be."

"I didn't doubt your friendship, Kathryn. I just missed you." He relaxed a bit and gave her a wistful smile. "There were times when I thought you might be angry with me."

"Whatever for?" She detected a slight blush coloring his face and panicked again, certain that he was about to mention his budding romance with Seven of Nine. That particular bit of gossip had raced through the crew like wildfire and had left her feeling morose and abandoned, even though the admiral from the future had given her fair warning. While she knew she would have to discuss Seven with him sooner or later, she was determined later would be much better than sooner. Before he could speak, she said, "You've done an exemplary job of 'holding down the fort' in my absence, so much so that no one at Starfleet blinks an eye when I describe you as the perfect first officer."

"You're saying that my checkered past has been forgotten?"

"I hope so. It will be if I have anything to say about it."

"I imagine you will." His smile was warm as he covered her hand with his, but then he frowned. "The ship is practically empty, you know."

"I do know. Many of the crew left while I was away." She sighed and looked out the windows at Earth. "I just hope they all return for the celebration."

"I don't think they have a choice. They can't leave Earth until Starfleet releases them, and that won't happen until after the great welcome home party is over, not to mention a long period of debriefing."

"Of course. I hadn't thought of that."

"Besides, the crew wouldn't think of letting you down, Kathryn. When they left, they all told me how much they wanted to thank you for keeping your promise to get them home. Even Mortimer Herron."

"I'm glad," she replied, grinning. "Knowing I can say goodbye properly lets me feel a little less guilty."

The silence between them stretched. Kathryn gazed out at the planet that filled the mess hall's windows, and Chakotay watched her, trying to imagine what she was thinking. She'd seemed even more remote since their return and since she'd found out about his budding relationship with Seven of Nine, and he had not been able to bridge the widening gap between them.

"What are you doing tomorrow?" he asked her.

"I'll be right here."

"You're taking the ship out to Jupiter Station?"

She nodded. "The replacement crew is beaming aboard tomorrow morning, and then we'll leave around midday."

"I thought you'd stay on Earth, like the rest of us."

"Actually, I won't be back for a few days. Dr. Zimmermann has decided to champion the EMH's right to continue his existence as an individual, and I'm going to meet with him about that while I'm out there." She gave him a wink. "But I'll be back soon. Starfleet won't let me get too far away."

"I thought you'd want to spend time with your family."

"Actually, I've seen them quite a bit while I've been away from the ship. They usually came to San Francisco or Paris to participate in all of the many dinners and receptions I had to attend." She stood up and stretched a bit, bringing the interlude to an end. "This is nice, Chakotay, but I really do have to go to the bridge. I'll stop by the Wildman's quarters on the way to tell Seven goodbye."

"All right—but I'm only saying 'see you soon.'" He stood up, as well, and considered giving her a hug, only to stop when he sensed the despair and loneliness that radiated from her. He'd hugged every member of the crew when they'd left the ship, including a rather prickly Mortimer Herron, and yet he hesitated to put his arms around his best friend, the one person from Voyager that he would miss the most. The awkward moment passed, and she gave him a tentative smile as she turned to leave. Once again, he stopped her by catching her wrist. "Kathryn, what's wrong?"

"Nothing. I'm just tired, that's all." She didn't try to pull her arm away, nor did she turn to face him. "And I'm a little unsettled to be losing my first officer."

"I won't be far away."

"Far enough." She laughed and turned to him, and apologized. "I'm sorry to be so melancholy. I promise I'll be better after a good night's sleep."

He slid his hand down her arm until their fingers laced together, not about to let her get away with a half-truth. "You can tell me."

For a moment, she seemed ready to protest, but the earnest look in his eyes and the comfort and warmth of his hand in hers forced her to relent. She took a deep breath. "Nothing ever lives up to our hopes, does it? Not even our arrival home." She looked up at him with a vulnerability he'd seen few times in their years together. "Nothing ever works out the way we hope it will."

"No, I guess it doesn't."

"Story of my life."

He watched her a moment, picking up on the tone of despair, and then sat back down, pulling her down into the seat beside him, this time on one of the sofas. "Are you thinking about the crew we lost along the way?"

"That's part of if, of course." She studied their interlaced fingers. "I grieve for them and for their families, just as I have done since the moment they died. But, it's more than that." She looked up at him, shaking her head slightly. "Many of the survivors have come home to find that it's impossible to resume the lives they left behind. Those lives are simply gone, and there's not a damned thing that anyone can do about that."

"That's happened to some of the crew, yes. And it's happened to the captain, too. There's no Mark Johnson waiting to greet you."

"No, there isn't." Kathryn pulled her hand from his and rubbed her temples with her fingers. "But, that's not important. I didn't expect him to wait seven years for me to return."

"Not important? You can't admit that you're hurt by his disloyalty? By his marriage?"

She rolled her eyes. "And fatherhood. Don't forget the darling twins." She sat back on the sofa. "I can admit that it hurts, I suppose, but I know I shouldn't resent it."

"Why not? You're as much a victim here as any other member of the crew." He stopped her protest with a wave of his hand. "Don't tell me that you can't feel hurt because it's your fault we were stranded out there. You made the best decision possible when you destroyed the Caretaker's array—we agreed on that years ago, and Starfleet does, too."

"I suppose."

"You have as much right to grieve as anyone else."

"I'm alive and well, Chakotay. Why isn't that enough?"

"Because you're disappointed? Because, after all these years of hope for the future and sacrifice of the present, you would love to simply walk off the ship and take your life back? Because it is simply unfair to have to start over?" He gave her an understanding smile. "You have every right to feel just as frustrated as anyone else."

"Sorry to disagree." She shrugged. "The captain doesn't have that right."

"But the captain is a human being, too."

Inexplicably, his sympathy only made her feel worse. She was flooded with the familiar feelings of dismay and sadness that had tainted so many traumatic milestones in her youth. Overwhelmed, she stood up and walked to the huge window to hide the tears that filled her eyes. "Human or not, as a lifelong Starfleet brat, I know better than to expect things to work out in my favor. I know I have to accept good enough and go on with life."

Chakotay stared at her back, amazed to hear the hopelessness in her voice. Through the years, she had always been optimistic and able to find humor in most situations. "What's happened to cause this bad mood?" he wondered aloud.

"Oh, it will pass soon enough," she assured him, glancing at him over her shoulder, imagining Seven at his side, as she would be from this day forward. "It's just the letdown of finishing a task that has possessed me body and soul for so long." She turned and smiled, her old self again. "Once I have another goal to focus on, I'll be fine."

"You're a survivor," Chakotay agreed, joining her at the window and taking her by the shoulders. He smiled down at her, studying her face closely before he said, "And, if you ever need to talk, you know you can call me."

She nodded, even though she knew she would never do so, never risk having Seven answer the comm or seeing them together in a homey environment. "I'll keep that in mind."

He quickly pulled her into an embrace, wrapping his arms around her before she could pull away. "I can't thank you enough for all you've done, Kathryn. You're the best captain I've ever seen, and a great friend."

Unable to breathe, she simply nodded, embarrassed by the tears that spilled onto her cheeks. She wished that she could quickly brush them away, but her arms were pinned to her sides by Chakotay's bearlike hug. She was relieved when the intercom interrupted them.

"Bridge to Janeway."

She pulled away, looking down to hide her wet cheeks from his view. She tapped her commbadge and then hastily brushed the tears away. "Janeway here."

An unfamiliar voice said, "Captain, we have an incoming message from Admiral Hayes. Do you want me to forward it to you?"

"No, Ensign, ask him to wait. I'm on my way to the bridge, and I'll take it there."

"Yes, sir."

Chakotay laughed at Kathryn's pained reaction when she heard the new crew member use the male pronoun. "Don't worry, Kathryn. You'll get the new crew broken in before they know what hit them."

"I suppose so." She hesitated and then ducked her head with a shy grin. "If I'm tied up when you and Seven are ready to leave, don't wait for me. You deserve to have some time off and reconnect with family. I don't want to make a big deal of a brief absence when we know we'll be together again in just a few weeks. And, besides, we'll keep in touch."

"I hope you mean that," he answered, suddenly apprehensive about their separation. "I want to keep our friendship alive."

"Of course." Janeway nodded and stepped away, anxious to leave. "I have to go."

He watched her leave the Mess Hall without looking back, and he knew in his gut that, in spite of her reassurances, everything had changed between them.