Chakotay was seated at the desk in his office, pouring through the status reports that had been supplied by each department

NOT QUITE AS IT SHOULD BE

By Eydie Munroe

July 2000

Disclaimer:

Paramount? Who's Paramount? Oh yeah, them. Bow on your knees before the great and powerful god who has destined us all to drown in sweet hell for the sake of ratings.

Please let me know what you think at eydiemunroe@hotmail.com

Chakotay was seated at the desk in his office, pouring through the status reports that had been supplied by each department. He had been using the information in them to form his final report to the captain regarding the leap home that Starfleet had suggested.

The quantum slipstream drive. As far as he was concerned it was dangerous, more than any other method that they had tried over the years. The proof of Harry's changes from the future was enough to convince him. But Starfleet wanted to take another look at their research, and one of the monthly communications from Earth centred solely on the research sent by warp theorists and engine designers. They had a high opinion of the revolutionary propulsion system, and they very strongly suggested trying it again. Torres herself, a brilliant engineer in her own right, had immediately voiced her reservations. But after pouring over Starfleet's research, even she was impressed.

As he read through the data his opinion started to formulate, and with a good degree of caution he had decided to endorse the plan and make his recommendations for their safety during the trip. Now it was just a matter of putting it all down for reading, and reviewing the status reports to make sure that he hadn't missed anything.

The sound of an electronic chime filled the air, lifting his eyes from the computer screen to the door when he beckoned, "Come in." He smiled when the captain stepped inside, and as soon as she saw him her expression briefly changed to match. They were long past the formality of him getting up when his superior entered his office, but he did slide the terminal off to the right side of the desk so that she would have his undivided attention. "Captain," he greeted.

Her pleasant facade dissolved as soon as the doors closed behind her, replaced by weariness that had become her trademark the last month. "How's it looking?" she asked, reaching out for a padd as she approached the desk. Once in her hand, she scanned through the bulk of his report in only a few seconds, already pretty sure of what it was going to contain.

"I think we're going to have a pretty rough flight, but I do think that this method of opening the slipstream will get us to Rhoteria," he confirmed, watching her as she skimmed through the information he had just given her. "According to Tom's flight plan, we should be back in the alpha quadrant in just under three days." She nodded slowly, still engrossed in her reading. Chakotay watched her for a moment, leaning back in his chair when he observed, "You don't seem convinced."

Her eyes flicked up at his suggestion, but he was right. "We've tried so many times before," she said, turning and sitting on the front edge of his desk. "Borg transwarp conduits, time ships from the future, the original slipstream drive..." She sighed as she put the padd down. "I don't think I could bear disappointing this crew again."

Her first officer got up and walked around the corner of the desk. "You don't think this is going to work?"

"It's not that," she said quietly.

Chakotay fixed her with an inquiring look. "Only what?"

Janeway took a moment to order her swirling thoughts. "I guess it's getting home." She saw the shift in his expression. "Don't get me wrong, I'm ecstatic about getting back to Earth," she explained. "I guess I've become accustomed to being on our own out here, without Starfleet to guide us or keep us under orders."

"You've kept this a Starfleet ship," he reminded her. "And an ideal one at that. I don't think that there's a lot they will find wrong with your conduct out here." They lapsed into silence for a while, each thinking about the change that they were all about to encounter. "I am going to miss it though," he said after a long pause.

"Do you think they'll arrest you?"

He nodded. "I'm still an outlaw, missing or not." He laughed a little. "Put in a good word for me?"

Now she started to laugh as well. "I could probably arrange a nice easy job in the penal colony if things don't work out."

The laughter quickly dissolved into the air, but the intensity between the two of them suddenly rose. After their two month exile together five years before, neither had allowed themselves to think of the other as more than a friend. But with the possibility of reaching home now being very real, it unexpectedly presented them with an opportunity that hadn't been available to them since then. Their eyes locked, saying a million different things without actual words. His head tilted forward, and with gentle passion he put his lips to hers. It was a gradual progression for them to wrap their arms around each other, until Kathryn suddenly broke it off and took a step away from the desk. "We – we can't do this," she gasped, suddenly uncomfortable.

Chakotay looked at her, unable to hide the surprise in his frown. "Why not?" he questioned.

Her eyes flicked around the room briefly before landing on him again, and she reminded him, "You're my first officer."

"So?"

"I can't get involved with a member of my crew."

He heaved a frustrated sigh, and fixed her with an unflinching stare. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't we going to be back in Federation space in three days?"

"The way our luck runs on this ship?"

He folded his arms across his chest. "Just answer the question."

"Theoretically," she replied, matching his stance.

"Then it will take how long, three weeks for us to reach Earth?" He paused, but not long enough for her to answer. "We're going to be home, in less than a month. Kathryn, we'll have someplace to go other than this ship. We won't be the only people in existence anymore."

"So what are you saying?" she questioned, taking a few carefully measured steps toward him.

"I don't know what's waiting for me. Most of my friends and family were killed by the Cardassians. There's nothing there for me to look forward to." For the first time since she'd entered his office, he couldn't look at her when he told her, "Everything that's important to me is here." After that, he wandered over to look out at the passing stars.

Janeway looked at him, trying to concentrate on the matter at hand rather than to allow herself to get swept into the moment. "What if we don't make it back in three days?" she reminded him softly. "What if this plan doesn't work, and we still have to spend the next thirty years traveling home? How am I supposed to run this ship if we did this, and it didn't work out? You're my first officer. And you're my friend." She looked at him for a moment, her expression riddled with remorse. "I can't afford to lose the relationship we already have." He sat down on the couch underneath the window, rubbing at his temple. "I'm sorry," she whispered. Without another word she walked out, momentarily letting a small block of light from the corridor into his office.

Chakotay stared at the closed doors for a long time after she left, his head spinning. She had been here, he had kissed her, and now she had walked out and once again left him with the impression that the ship's command structure was more important to her than his feelings. He shook his head, then turned around to watch the stars. For the first time in quite a while, he was inconsolably frustrated. The reason for her resistance was clear, and to be fair he couldn't really blame her as much as he wanted to. After long, hard consideration, he was forced to finally agree with her. They couldn't get involved, as long as Voyager was still in the Delta Quadrant. But he had never managed to resign himself fully to that fact, no matter how hard he tried.

For her part, Kathryn paused outside the doors to his office after they closed, silently cursing herself for letting that moment just happen. Out of all the scenarios that she had imagined their first kiss being, this was definitely not one of them. She had been the most surprised when she actually just rejected him, coldly calling it a command decision. The woman inside her had often doubted that she would ever be able to refuse him if the need arose.

At 0800 the next morning, the senior officers were all assembled in the briefing room for one last meeting before getting the ship underway. Their biggest obstacle on the trip was going to be turbulence within the slipstream, but they had no option other than to ride it out. Projections indicated that they would take on a substantial amount of damage before they reached their destination, so all precautions were being taken to minimize crew casualties. Once they were underway, there was no turning back, and as the days wore on the integrity of the outer hull lessened and lessened until the point that minute fractures were starting to threaten the structural integrity of the ship.

A spray of white hot sparks flew across the port side of the bridge when a power conduit exploded, just as they neared the outer rim of Federation space. "Rerouting power through secondary systems," B'Elanna reported, working to find a way to keep their bridge power running.

Janeway was planted firmly in her seat, knuckles white on the arm rests as she tried to keep the turbulence from throwing her from it. "Distance?" she barked.

"Two light years," Tuvok's even voice reported from the tactical station.

"Speed is holding," Paris reported from the conn.

"Structural integrity is down to twenty-six percent," Ensign Kim added, "and dropping fast."

"Reroute power from environmental control to structural integrity," the captain ordered.

After a few moments, Kim reported, "No effect."

"One light year," Tuvok said.

"A turbulence wave is approaching," Seven announced, infuriatingly calm. "Seven seconds."

Chakotay quickly activated the ship-wide comm. "All hands brace for impact."

"Three seconds," Seven added. "Two ... one ..."

With precise timing, Voyager ran headlong into the last turbulence wave that separated them from the alpha quadrant. The ship may as well have run directly into a planet for the massive impact force it received. Despite efforts to hold on, the crew was thrown about without effort, some flying clear across the bridge. Voyager tumbled end over end, adding to the crew's troubles when the inertial dampeners failed. Smoke filled the bridge, but after what seemed like an eternity, the turbulence was gone, and the dampeners returned.

Tuvok was the first to return to his station, a large green gash across his forehead. He was slightly out of breath when he reported, "We have left the slipstream."

Crew members that were able to move climbed back up to their stations as fast as physically possible. Tom Paris had been thrown over the conn and was slowly able to get back on his feet, carefully cradling left arm in his right when he returned to his chair. Harry had been slammed into the displays behind Ops, but was fortunate enough to have fallen and rolled down underneath the console where he couldn't be buffeted around too much, so he only suffered a couple of bruises.

Chakotay and Janeway had both been hurled forward into the conn, but while he had been able to hold onto the console she had slid back into the bulkhead that ran underneath their seats. He reached toward her as she started to sit up, and offered a hand to help get her back onto her feet. "Where are we?" the captain demanded, picking herself up off the floor before her first officer reached her.

Agonizing seconds of silence filled the bridge until Harry was able to answer her. "Captain," he breathed, a heartfelt grin lighting his expression, "we're home."

"The Rhoterian system, to be precise," Tuvok added.

"Let's see it," Chakotay snapped.

A dead silence washed across all of them as they waited with baited breath. The slight sound of the viewscreen being activated was all anyone could hear as the brown-green sphere that was the Rhoterian homeworld floated in space before them, complete with its busy space port in orbit. It took a moment for it to sink in, and then a cry of delight filled the bridge, matched by a similar shout that rumbled through the decks below. Janeway collapsed back into the command chair, a wave of emotion threatening to consume her. Her eyes flicked over to her first officer, who gave her a relieved smile before he turned back to the viewscreen. "Tuvok, contact the Elitorial palace," Janeway ordered.

"Aye Captain."

A few moments passed before the viewscreen switched to a room inside the palace. An old man grinned at them, his sky-blue hair framing his deeply lined face. "Captain Janeway," he greeted, using his hands in front of him to form the sacred greeting of his people.

"Elitor Stephran," she responded as she stepped up to the railing that ringed the command centre, returning the greeting. "It's good to see you again."

"Let me be the first to welcome you back to the alpha quadrant, Captain."

"Thank you Elitor. My crew and I would like to spend some time here before we proceed back to Earth, in order that everyone may contact their families. Three days at most."

The Rhoterian leader raised a hand to stop her. "Kathryn, you know that you and your crew are welcome to spend as much time here as you need."

She nodded with a small smile. "Thank you again, Stephran. I appreciate it."

"You're welcome. Can I expect a visit from you?"

"As soon as we're in orbit."

"Very well. I shall make preparations." The old man smiled once again, then reached forward to terminate the communication.

Janeway nodded, then looked down at her helmsman. "You alright Tom?"

"Yes ma'am," he responded. "Just a little beat up, that's all."

"Do you think you can put this ship in orbit?"

"I wouldn't miss it."

"Good." She clapped a hand on his good shoulder, then turned back to step back up into the command centre. To Chakotay she said, "Start working on a communications schedule for the crew. I'm sure they're eager to contact a few people. And dispatch repair teams."

"Already done," he replied.

"Good. I'll be in my ready room." She stopped to take a look around her damaged bridge, filling with a sense of pride that up until now she hadn't dared to let herself experience. Her eyes fell on Chakotay, and she was keenly aware of the sense of awkwardness that now existed between them. She nodded and announced, "You have the bridge, Commander," before exiting into her ready room.

The next afternoon, Janeway sat on the couch that lined the outer wall of her ready room, gazing out at Rhoteria as it spun below them. She had just returned an hour before, after spending the morning with her old friend Stephran. There was an indescribable joy to returning to familiar surroundings – she had spent many shore leaves here visiting with Stephran after he assumed the ruling position of Rhoteria. They had gone to the Academy together, their mutual love of coffee being what initially brought them together.

The sound of the door chime shook her from her thoughts, and she turned toward the sound when she said, "Come in."

Chakotay stepped inside, taking a second to find her when she wasn't behind her desk. "I just thought you wanted to know," he announced as he stepped up to her, "the elitor has invited the entire crew for a banquet in our honor."

The captain scanned over the information that was in the padd that he had just handed to her. "Stephran is requesting the favorite dish of every crew member," she read aloud. "No matter what it is, they will prepare it for each person." She handed the padd back to him with a smile. "Well that's Stephran. Though it's going to be hard to adjust to something other than Neelix' cooking."

He laughed before he confirmed with her, "Dress uniforms?"

"Absolutely." He was almost out the door before she called after him to stop him. "Chakotay..."

Her first officer stopped just before the door's sensor would have allowed him to leave, and turned back to face his captain. "Yes?"

"I've been thinking about what you said the other day," she said softly, "and you were right."

His curiosity piqued, Chakotay went over to her again, this time sitting down next to her. "About what?"

"About everything important being here. On Voyager." She suddenly switched subjects and asked him, "What's the first thing you're going to do when we reach Earth?"

He lapsed into thought. Eventually he said, "I guess I'll try to track down a few people. I have an uncle who lives in South America." He shrugged a little. "What about you?"

She leaned back against the thick green cushions behind her. "Debriefing ought to keep me at Headquarters for at least a month. After that, I'm going to spend a lot of time with my mother. And my sister is going to meet me there."

They dropped into an uneasy silence, both acutely aware of the other's presence. Eventually he said, "Sounds like you've got everything planned out."

"Not everything." Her eyes fell on him when she said, "I still don't know what to do about you." He just looked back at her, watching closely as she sat back up beside him. "You were right about that too."

Chakotay smiled again, his eyes flicking down as he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "So what do we do now?"

"It will take another three weeks to reach Earth," she said, her voice quiet. "Maybe we should just let things develop naturally."

He sat back up and offered his hand to her, which she carefully took. Their fingers intertwined, and their eyes glued to that particular aspect of this conversation. After a while she broke the silence. "Can I tell you something?" He nodded, and she whispered, "I never would have got Voyager home without your help." She looked up at him.

Not really knowing what else to do, Chakotay kissed her. A kiss that held more passion and knowledge than the one a few days before, one that he knew she would approve of now. For her part, Kathryn finally allowed herself to become lost in the moment, now truly realizing that this is what she wanted, and that she could have it. She felt his other hand come up to caress her cheek, and her own hand instinctively covered his. When they parted she suggested, "I guess we should get back to work."

He nodded, and kissed her once more before getting onto his feet. "I'll see you at dinner tonight." He stopped at the door again, but this time on his own accord. "Kathryn?" he called as he turned back to face her.

Janeway's eyes had never left him as he moved across the room. "Yes?"

"In between the time you spend at Headquarters and your mother's house, do you think you could squeeze in some time for me?"

A smile spread across her lips. "Just watch me."

He nodded and left, leaving the captain alone again. She turned back around to take another look out the window, but now found that in her mind she would relieve the last five minutes again and again.

Two and a half weeks into the three week journey to their final destination, Voyager was joined by a three ship escort, the leader of which was none other than the Federation flagship, the Enterprise-E. After hearing about him for most of her career and researching him extensively during her dealings with the Borg, Kathryn Janeway was honored to meet Captain Jean-Luc Picard. But the honor was bittersweet, as it was then that Captain Janeway was informed that all remaining members of Chakotay's original Maquis crew were going to be taken into custody upon their arrival at Earth. The admiralty had decided that it was most humane to let them stay with their crew, in familiar surroundings, until they could be dealt with at Headquarters.

Once he had learned that the captain's private dining room on Voyager had been converted into a mess hall, Picard took the liberty of inviting his counterpart to an intimate dinner aboard his own ship. Janeway sat in the chair nearest the door, at the opposite end of the dinner table from her host. Between them stretched a simple, hand prepared dinner, something that the Enterprise's commander had found out had become a staple for the newly returned ship. A pair of servers brought in the last of the dishes, then retreated back into the galley as per instructions. Both captains picked their napkins off the table at the same time and laid them in their laps. "I understand that you've been brought somewhat up to speed about Federation happenings in your absence," Picard said to start the conversation.

She nodded. "We did learn about the Cardassian war about five years ago, but any contacts we had with Starfleet between then and now were too short to relay any information other than our condition and Starfleet's promise to get us home."

"And here you are," he agreed as he handed her a dish of vegetables. "It is an amazing feat that you've managed to get back in one piece. No support, no other ships..."

"One other ship," she corrected. "We also found the Equinox in the Delta Quadrant."

"The Equinox?" he mused aloud. "I remember hearing that it had been lost. That was just after I had met Captain Ransom at a scientific conference at Kittomher."

Just the mention of the man's name was enough to make Janeway's skin crawl with revulsion. But it was distasteful to speak ill of the dead, so she let it go. "I must say, Captain, I'm quite impressed with your new Enterprise. Commander Riker tells me that it's the prototype for the..."

"Sovereign class," he finished for her as he poured out from the bottle of wine that he had personally provided for the occasion – one of the last bottles from the family vineyard that had been made before Robert's death. "She's seen a lot of action for only being four years out of Spacedock. Tangling with the Borg..."

Janeway's eyes flicked up from her wine glass. "The Borg? They've come back to the Alpha Quadrant?"

"Only once." He retold the details of the attempts of the Borg queen to assimilate Earth during the twenty-first century and their meeting with Zephram Cochrane. This in turn brought Janeway's recount of their meeting with the next Borg queen and her own assimilation, and as the evening progressed the two captains swapped stories of their respective adventures over the last seven years.

The information transfer that had happened when the Enterprise and Voyager had first rendezvoused had been strictly one-sided, as Janeway had immediately been put under orders by Starfleet Command not to divulge any of their stored information until debriefing was completed. The Enterprise had provided them with a complete rundown of all Federation history for the time that Voyager had been in the Delta Quadrant. But as the two continued to converse over dinner and the wine, Janeway discovered that Picard was the type of person she could trust as being the sole of discretion. So she felt free to talk about the delta quadrant up to a point, where she knew she might be pushing her luck. Voyager's conduct while it was gone had been mostly exemplary, but she still was not comfortable with the idea of being in such close proximity to Starfleet Command again.

As the evening was ending, she told him, "It was very good of you to volunteer to escort us back to Earth."

"You'd be amazed how many people wanted the honor for themselves," he said with a slight grin. "According to Admiral Paris, there were at least a dozen starship captains willing to do the job, half of which had family members on your ship. I understand that his son is a member of your crew?" Janeway nodded, and Picard continued with, "However, he felt that it was best for a neutral party to meet you. Less pressure that way."

"Believe me, we are very grateful for that." She took some time to consider her wine glass, before she asked him, "Will you be candid with me, Captain?" He nodded, and she continued with, "You seem to have the ear of a few admirals. How intent are they on prosecuting members of my crew?"

His expression was unreadable. "Your Maquis crew?" She nodded, hiding the distaste she had come to feel every time B'Elanna, Chakotay and the others were referred to in that way. "Dealing with the Maquis situation took a back seat to the war for nearly two years. And the Dominion wiped out most of them. But once the treaty was signed, certain members of the Federation council remounted the cause with a vengeance."

"Making up for lost time?" she thought aloud, her lifting eyebrow betraying her wish to hide her emotion on the subject.

"Indeed." He set his wine glass back down on the table. "I empathize with you, Captain. These people have no doubt become invaluable members of your crew. Unfortunately, the Council has taken a rather apathetic view of the situation. Your reports of their exemplary performance during your time in the delta quadrant may fall on deaf ears."

"I see." They filled the next few minutes with idle chat, until it was quite obvious that the evening's conversation was finished. Janeway got up onto her feet, a slight feeling of lightheadedness flitting across her vision. She was not accustomed to consuming real alcohol, and made a mental note to herself as a reminder of why she never did touch it.

Picard escorted her back to the transporter room, said goodnight and that he would see her at their meeting the next afternoon. When she dematerialized from the pad, he headed back to the bridge to check in with Commander Riker before turning in for the night.

Janeway, for her part, made a quick stop at Sickbay to take care of the alcoholic difficulties she was having before making her own trip to Voyager's bridge. Harry Kim was seated in the command chair, now dressed in the drab grey uniform that Starfleet had adopted. With his still youthful exuberance was onto his feet the second the turbolift doors opened to admit his captain. "Captain on the bridge," he announced.

"At ease," she said, smiling as the bridge crew went back to their tasks. She stopped at the railing that ran across the back of the command centre, her hands pushing against the metal as she addressed the ensign. "There's no need to be quite so formal, Mr. Kim."

He was going to say something, and was almost able to switch gears without her noticing when he said, "We're holding steady at warp five, all systems operating within normal parameters."

The corner of her mouth pulled into a smile. "Understood Ensign." She took a step to leave, then turned around and waved him to her so as to provide a little privacy between them. "Just remember, Harry – the conduct of this crew and this bridge has not strayed from what you learned at the Academy. Let's stick with our standard operating procedures, huh?"

Harry returned her smile, a little sheepishly but not nearly as much as it would have been when he first arrived on her ship. "Yes ma'am."

"Good." Janeway straightened up and announced, "You have the bridge, Ensign."

"Goodnight Captain," he responded, standing and watching her until she disappeared into the turbolift next to Tactical.

Kathryn stepped into her darkened quarters, seeing that the Enterprise was very prominently displayed through her windows as they traveled together at warp. As soon as the doors closed she stopped in her tracks. On the couch underneath the window that contained the image of the other ship, a dark red Irish Setter was curled up into a ball, its eyes flicking around the room in boredom. Its gaze fell on the woman in the doorway, but didn't pay any attention until it heard its name called.

"Molly," Janeway breathed, scarcely believing her own eyes. When she saw the dog respond to its name, she called again, "Molly! Come here, girl. Come on." Kathryn sank to her shaking knees as the Setter ambled over to her and started to lick at her human's face. Tears started to roll down Kathryn's cheeks, laughter filling the room around her. "What are you doing here?" she asked as she took the dog's face into her hands. "How did you get here?"

"I brought her here."

Kathryn turned back to her left to see that Chakotay was standing just at the entrance to the bedroom, where he had been hiding in wait. She shook her head a little, still not believing what had happened. "How...?" she gasped.

"It wasn't easy," he explained as he stepped over to the pair, "but a friend of mine on Earth owed me a favor. So I contacted your sister, and she put me in contact with Mark. After that it was just a matter of getting permission to transport her onto the Enterprise." He knelt down beside her and reached out to pet the dog. "I'm told that she has adjusted quite well to space travel."

"Of course she did," she said to the dog. After a few moments of talking to Molly, Kathryn turned back to look at Chakotay, tears still shimmering in her eyes. "I can't believe you did this."

He smiled and simply said, "You're welcome," before he kissed her. At that precise moment Molly decided to separate them with her snout and a snort of disgruntlement at their lack of attention, sending both into a peal of laughter. They sat there on the floor for more than an hour, Kathryn reveling in the presence of her long-missed companion while Chakotay proudly observed how truly happy he had made his friend with the gesture. After that they moved to the living room furniture, where they sat over coffee into the late hours of the morning as they had so many times in the years since they met.

This time she settled in beside him, taking the opportunity to lean back against his chest and stretch her legs out over the length of the couch. He was glad to be able to be next to her, with his arms finally around her, but it didn't take long for Chakotay to ask what was weighing so heavily on her mind. "I'm beginning to wonder if I actually will be able to get you that easy job in the penal colony," she said quietly. "According to Captain Picard, Starfleet has taken a pretty dim view of any Maquis that are still left to prosecute."

"Some kind of vendetta?" he suggested.

"I don't know yet. But this has been bothering me ever since Admiral Hayes started asking about you last year." She took a swallow from her cup. "I wish I could handle this news a little more like you have."

He squeezed her a little tighter in an attempt to relay some comfort. "Try looking at it this way. We may not have much choice."

She turned around to look at him. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

He shook his head. "I know that you'll fight for all of us, just like every other member of this crew will. But the fact of the matter is that we are criminals in the Federation. We are going to be arrested as soon as we reach Earth, whether we've been gone for seven years or not. If they decide to convict us, they'll convict us, and we'll have to serve our time like anyone else."

"I know. I know." She laid a hand over his and said, "I guess I'm trying to justify it in my own mind, trying to find a way to make the Council see that you're all more than just the bunch of outlaws they think you are." After settling back into her previous position Kathryn told him, "We still have two more days to mount a defense."

"We'll think of something," he agreed, kissing the top of her head.

Voyager's crew continued to become more highly strung with each passing day, a lot of them running an emotional gambit that they really weren't prepared for. As each of them received more news from home, they started to discover that many of their friends had been killed during the Dominion war, not to mention the changes in their families. Harry found out that Libby had only waited a year before she fell in love again and married. Samantha Wildman was experiencing a great deal of anxiety over the impending meeting between her husband and Naomi. B'Elanna finally found out that her visit to the barge of the dead had actually been true, and that her mother had in fact died three years before. Others were having doubts and trepidation over not having anyone waiting for them at all, and though Neelix and Seven were both aware that their reputations had preceded them, they were still wary of their impending arrival. And everyone was concerned for Icheb, Mizoti, Azan, Rebi and the baby, who had been named Delara. No one was sure who would take care of them.

The morning of their arrival, all senior officers were assembled on the bridge for the same duty shift. Though everything was running smoothly, everyone was forcibly holding down their excitement in order to attend to their duties. They slowed to impulse when they reached the outer edge of the Terran system, at which time they were hailed by Starfleet Command. The captain took a quick breath to steady herself, then got onto her feet. Chakotay also stood up, and waited for the captain to order, "Onscreen."

They had just been passing Saturn at the moment, and the icy colors of the rings were quickly replaced by the image of no less than four Starfleet admirals – Paris, Nacheyev, Hayes and Griffin. She could see Owen Paris' reaction to seeing his son's image in the communication from Voyager. But it was Nacheyev, who had recently become the head of Starfleet Command, that directed the conversation. "Welcome home, Captain."

"Thank you Admiral," Janeway replied. "We're glad to be back."

"We have cleared a docking port at McKinley Station," Nacheyev continued. "Your crew is to remain on board Voyager until Security has been able to clear both you and your vessel."

"Of course, sir."

Hayes spoke up with, "It is at that time that the Maquis crew members will be taken into custody."

A few of the bridge crew exchanged glances, surprised at the directness of the admiral's approach. Janeway merely nodded when Chakotay responded, "We'll be ready, Admiral."

Nacheyev shot a spiked look at Hayes, wordlessly telling him that he was out of line. She turned back to the screen and directed, "As soon as you're cleared, we have made arrangements for you to land Voyager – in Golden Gate Park, Captain."

Janeway was starting to feel a little overwhelmed, and an eyebrow lifted at the idea of putting her ship down in the middle of San Francisco. But she simply responded, "Yes Sir."

Nacheyev nodded. "Starfleet out." The screen switched back to their path toward Earth.

The captain turned around and addressed her entire bridge crew. "Prepare for docking. Tuvok, you have the bridge. Commander Chakotay, I'd like to see you in my ready room." He followed her off into her office, having a fairly good idea of what they were going to talk about. As soon as the door closed behind them, she turned around to face him. "Have you talked to the others?"

He nodded. "Everyone knows that I spoke with Captain Picard yesterday. We're to meet him in the mess hall exactly two hours after we dock. After that we'll be shuttled to San Francisco to await the first hearing." Chakotay could see the concern in her eyes, and he put his hands on her shoulders when he reassured her, "We're going to be okay, Kathryn."

"Of course you will," she told him, lifting his hands off her shoulders and grasping them tightly. "I'm going to do everything I can to get you out."

They kissed, each briefly landing on the thought that this could be the last time they did for a very long time. When they parted, he couldn't help but grin when he asked her, "If you can't, will you at least wait for me?"

"Stop it," she laughed, kissing him again. "You'd better get going," Kathryn finally said, not really wanting to send him out. But she did tell him, "I'll be there when Picard comes aboard."

He nodded slowly, kissed her once more and then quickly made his way back out onto the bridge to start assembling everyone that was going to be arrested. Janeway reappeared a few moments later to oversee their docking at McKinley Station.

***

Golden Gate Park was filled with faces, and Kathryn strained to find at least one familiar one. There were so many - family and friends that had come here to get their first glimpses at the triumphant crew of Voyager. Along with them was almost the entire admiralty, a good number of the headquarters staff, and a throng of well-wishers and curiosity mongers. She stopped a few metres from the edge of the ramp, and waited until the rest of the crew filled the space behind her. For what was quite probably the last time she would lead the family, but this time she would lead them home. A wry smile played at her lips, but it was tinged with animosity. She was acutely aware of the emptiness just behind her left shoulder.

She had been there when Picard had arrested her Maquis crew, barely managing to restrain the surge in her anger when the security detail from the Enterprise started to march them to the transporter room. In a show of solidarity arranged by Harry Kim, the rest of her crew lined each side of the corridors between the mess hall and Transporter Room Two, stiffly at attention as the prisoners passed. She walked beside Picard, steely and silent, wrestling with the emotional outburst that was boiling just under the surface. But she locked eyes with Chakotay just before he left, and it tempered her anger. She reminded herself that she would see him again – perhaps not in the way that she wanted, but their separation would only be a temporary one.

Taking a breath to steady herself, and noticing that she was now flanked by Tuvok and Harry Kim, she started to stride forward toward the crowd. The rest of her family fell into step behind her, and electricity filled the salty air along with the building anticipation of the people waiting for them.

Their target was lined at the front by a solid row of admirals, and Nacheyev decidedly marked the centre. She stepped forward to meet the captain, extending her hand in greeting. In her pointed way, she recited, "Welcome home, Captain Janeway."

"Thank you, Admiral," the captain responded, grasping her hand in a firm grip. She looked into her superior's eyes, and saw the warmth and appreciation that was usually belied by the woman's cold exterior. She had never understood why so many people had taken a disliking to Nacheyev – she found her perfectly acceptable. Then again, Kathryn also found that her perspective was usually different than most.

They had barely got the words out of their mouths when a shout from a few rows back echoed though the park. "Celes!" All eyes turned to see an older Bajoran man pushing his way through people, impatience getting the better of him. From where he was he could see her, standing beside Harry Kim.

Tal Celes looked shocked, her eyes widening at the sight. Her eyes flitted nervously to her captain, silently asking permission. Janeway grinned brightly as she nodded, and then watched as her 'lost sheep' raced through the distance that separated her from her father. They united in the large space that had separated both parties, the father lifting his daughter up into his arms and spinning around in delight. It opened the floodgates, and both family and crew started to find hurriedly find each other.

Janeway looked to Nacheyev, who only shook her head. "This could take a while," the admiral commented.

"Agreed," the captain responded, unable to hide her pleasure anymore as she watched. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Tom approach his father, and her smile brightened. When she turned her attention back to Nacheyev, they made arrangements for a meeting later on that day. Then the admiral moved on to personally welcome Tuvok, who she had worked extensively with in his days before he was put under Janeway's command.

Kathryn was surrounded by a flurry of activity, and she watched with great interest as families and friends were reunited everywhere around her. It filled her heart, especially when she saw Harry's tearful hugs with both his parents. For the moment it stopped her from thinking about the problems that were waiting for her after this.

Her reverie was broken when she heard her given name. A hand on her shoulder turned her around, and her jaw dropped in shock. She was a little older, and a little more grey had streaked through her hair - but it was still her mother. Gretchen Janeway regarded her daughter for a moment, noticing the changes in her as well. After what seemed like forever, the two of them threw their arms around each other. Despite her best efforts, Kathryn couldn't help the tears that started to roll down her face. And her mother, the woman from which she had inherited her fortitude and stubbornness, found herself in the same predicament.

***

After reuniting with her family and starting the initial debriefings, Captain Janeway's first goal was to secure the release of her incarcerated crew. She had not seen them since their arrest back on Voyager, and she longed to see one of them particularly. She would start with Owen Paris in the morning, then move on to Admiral Harris before finally confronting Nacheyev that afternoon. There had to be someone that would help her.

The door chime sounded through her temporary San Francisco quarters, forcing her to glance up from the padd in her hand. "Come in," she called, returning to her work.

The door opened on the other side of the room, and a tall figure stepped through. Noticing the silence, she looked up over the edge of the padd, seeing a pair of dark grey shoes. Her gaze followed the legs up, her heart starting to pound when she started thinking about who it was. But about halfway up his body the anticipation disappeared, and when she saw his face her eyes widened in utter shock. "Mark?"

His smile was warm – he had fully expected to surprise her when he came to see her. "Hi Kath."

"Oh my god." She made her way over to him and hugged him. He was so familiar, and it was such a comfort to see him again after all these years.

His arms wrapped around her as he kissed her cheek, holding her close to him and reveling in the notion of having her back. When they parted he held her at arms length. "You look great."

"So do you," she grinned, stepping back to invite him in. She gestured to the couch, then stepped to the replicator. "Can I get you anything?" He shook his head, and she replenished her coffee before joining him. "What are you doing here?"

"I called in a few favors, and found out where you were," he explained. "It wasn't easy though." He sat back, regarding her for a moment. "You really do look great."

The cup lowered from her smiling lips. "Yeah, well just wait till all these stress lines disappear, and then I'll look fantastic."

"That good, huh?"

Her lips pursed, and she blew a huff of air out between her teeth. "You'd think I've been gone for seven years or something." She laughed at her own joke, noting with some satisfaction that her absent sense of humor hadn't been lost on him over the years. This was the man that, with the exception of Chakotay, knew her better than anyone else. Even with their separation, that was something that she was sure would never change. "How have you been?"

"I'm alright. Busy." He spent the next two hours relating some of the things that had happened after she disappeared, brought her up to date on their mutual friends, and ended by telling her, "Marian and I separated just over a year ago."

Her coffee cup had been at her lips, but no liquid washed across them. "You're not married anymore?" she asked, lowering the cup back to her lap.

"It will be final in a few weeks," he confirmed with a nod.

She wasn't sure of what she should say. Truthfully, she was amazed to discover that the news hadn't impacted her the way she once thought it would. "I'm sorry," Kathryn finally settled for.

"Don't be. It's not your fault." He remembered something that she had said in her last letter, so he wanted to know. "Do you think," he said, "that there's any possibility of us getting back together, Kath?"

Brightness filled his voice, and she knew by experience that it wasn't a very serious question. Mark had always had a way of asking something without ever actually asking it. It was one of the things that had won her over after so many years of despising him. Kathryn regarded him with a sympathetic smile. "I'm flattered, but that's just not feasible. I'm with Chakotay now. I love him."

He nodded. "I had to know." His eyes lifted to meet hers, and he couldn't help but shrug with a grin. "You can't blame a guy for trying."

Kathryn laughed. She had missed his sense of humor. "Will I see you back in Indiana?"

"I could probably arrange it." He got onto his feet. "Contact me when you get to your mom's. I'd love to meet this guy."

She also got onto her feet, this time to usher him out of her quarters. "I will," she promised. They gave each other one last hug before he disappeared, leaving her standing alone. After a moment's thought, impulse got the better of her and she strode out into the corridor, but not with the intention of following Mark.

They had brought him to a private conference room, usually used between attorneys and their clients. Windowless, it was safe. Dressed in the plain grey clothes of a Federation prisoner, it took every ounce of Kathryn's inner strength not to frown at the image. But as soon as she had pushed that impulse away, her reason for coming returned, and the smile came naturally to her.

For his part, Chakotay was stunned. The guards hadn't told him who had summoned him, but of all people she was the last he expected. He stood just inside the door, barely giving the guard behind him enough room to stand. When she ordered the guard to stand outside and leave them, the young woman stiffly reminded the visitor that she only had ten minutes before the prisoner would have to be returned. The door closed, and they were alone.

In an uncharacteristic move, Kathryn raced across the small distance between them. He welcomed her into his arms and kissed her with fiery passion, now realizing just how distant his incarceration kept him from her. He was overwhelmed, but now he felt safe ... and it was in that moment that he realized the reason for his current brooding. Women often spoke of feeling safe in the arms of the men that they loved, but it also was true in the reverse. And if anything, she had always made him feel safe.

She pulled away, leaning back far enough to look into his eyes. "Are you okay?" she questioned, her hand reaching up to hold his cheek. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm okay," he assured her, covering her hand with his own and pulling it against his chest. His forehead rested against hers when he asked, "What are you doing here?"

"I had to see you," she told him softly, her voice filled with delight.

Chakotay was flattered, and more than a little curious at her mood. He had never seen a swing like this from her. And he had managed to see all of her moods, at least twice each. She was elated, but he was pretty sure that his presence wasn't causing it. It was puzzling. "What brings you here, Kathryn?" he finally asked her, unable to wipe the grin from his face.

"I just had an epiphany." He straightened up, perplexity filling the look he gave her. "Yes, it's possible," she joked brightly, gently breaking away from his grasp and pacing around the small room a little. Even her pacing was elated. "Mark came to see me tonight." Chakotay was not accustomed to letting his jealous pangs out in public for anyone to see. So with the carefully constructed facade he adapted for times like this, he folded his arms over his chest and just watched her. Seeing this, Kathryn shook her head and playfully warned, "Don't give me that look."

He instantly relaxed his features, and sat down on the edge of the small table. "So how did it go?"

"Well, he came to say hello, and to see if I was alright. He had heard about you being arrested, and he was curious. He told me that he was divorced, and ... he had to see if there was any possibility of rekindling our relationship."

He had been paying attention to every word, but the last three were ones that he hadn't expected. "How did he take it?" he questioned.

"Oh, he took it fine."

What he wanted to know couldn't be avoided any longer. "Kathryn, why are you so happy?"

She continued to pace, unconsciously relieving the energy that her revelation had filled her with. "I realized for the first time that I'm allowed to say I'm in love." Then she stopped just across from him, her eyes flashing. "I didn't have to worry about protocol or protecting any of the people around me from an emotional state that I couldn't control. I wasn't worried about anything. The only thing that occupied my thoughts at that exact moment..." Her voice trailed off for a moment as she locked her eyes with his. "...was that I love you."

He knew it was coming, but finally hearing her say it was something else entirely. "I was beginning to think I would never hear you say it," he breathed, his eyes never leaving hers.

"Well now that I've said it," she said softly, moving forward to stand directly in front of him, "what do you think?"

Chakotay reached forward and grabbed her hips, pulling her close. "I think..." He leaned forward and kissed her. "I think that I'm truly happy now."

She laughed a little, her eyes shining at him. "I just had to tell you." One more kiss was all they would be allowed, she was pretty sure that her time was up. "I have to get going." He nodded and let her go, standing up fully as she headed for the door. But before she could leave she turned around to address one more thing. "Chakotay, what would you say to .... when," and she stressed when, "your charges are dismissed ... to marrying me?"

A month ago, this boldness of heart would have stunned him cold. Today, it was almost expected. His answer was immediate. "Just watch me."

"Good." She winked, then quickly exited before they could say anymore. She wanted him to remember this night, these last few minutes, perfectly. Because Kathryn knew that she would - for the rest of her life.

***

The room that would serve the purpose of the Maquis trial was stark white, filled with simple furniture and a large wall of displays. The seats in the gallery were completely occupied, with a number of people lined up at the back of the room to stand through the hearing. Most of the gallery was comprised of Voyager's crew, along with officers from the Enterprise and from headquarters. Among the observers from the flagship was Deanna Troi, who had been joined by Reginald Barclay and Doctor Louis Zimmerman, who had made the journey from Jupiter station, and on their way had stopped on Voyager to collect the Doctor and bring him along.

Captain Janeway was seated in the front row of the gallery, with Tuvok on her right. As they waited for the hearing to begin she was reviewing the past few days in her head. She had spoken with both Admiral Paris and Nacheyev, but she soon discovered that most people in the command hierarchy were reluctant to do anything to help her.

Picard had come on board Voyager and arrested the Maquis crew just as he had been ordered. However, once the prisoners were transferred to Security on Earth, he related to Janeway just how unfair he found Admiral Hayes' overzealous pursuit of the matter. So it came as no surprise when he showed up at the hearing and took a seat beside her. He hadn't come out and openly defended her crew members, but he was there to lend his support.

A tall, lanky ensign walked in through the side door and rang the brass bell. The gallery rose to its feet as the board entered, immediately followed by the fourteen defendants from Voyager. To Janeway's surprise, they were dressed in their uniforms of wine, mustard and teal over black, making a statement of unity and loyalty to their captain and ship.

The hearing moved on at a rapid pace, and soon it was time for Janeway to address it. She stepped up to the display board, which lay just behind the designated position for anyone to testify. After starting off with the formalities of the court she said, "I am here to defend my crew, but in a much different way than they are accustomed to. These people were the reason that Voyager was lost in the Delta Quadrant, but they are also the reason we've come home. I have to admit that I had my doubts when Commander Chakotay and I combined our crews seven years ago."

As she spoke, the captain exchanged glances with each of the defendants, people that she had come to know and trust over the years. "But it didn't take long for me to see that this had indeed been the right decision. These people not only became members of my crew, they became part of a family. And each and every one of us owes our lives to these people. Knowing them as I do, I cannot, in all good conscience, allow them to be imprisoned when I have seen the exemplary members of Starfleet that they have once again become."

"Captain Janeway," Hayes interjected, "are you trying to tell this hearing that you don't believe criminals should be punished?"

She replied calmly, "No sir. I am saying I believe that the conduct of these people should be taken into account when their fates are being decided by a tribunal that has no relevant means of comparison for their situation."

The comment stunned Hayes into silence, and sent murmurs rippling through the gallery. Nacheyev tapped her gavel on the table to silence the gathering, then said, "Thank you, Captain." She clasped her hands together on the table in front of her, and her cold blue eyes watched until Janeway had returned to her seat before she addressed the court. "I have reviewed Voyager's logs," she began, "so I have some idea of this crew's conduct during their time away. It is quite obvious that Captain Janeway holds her crew in very high regard, and that they revere her in the same manner. In my interviews with the remaining Maquis, I have found that the majority have once again embraced the ideals of the Federation. Unfortunately, this cannot exclude them from the crimes that they have confessed to."

The admiral took a moment to survey the people around her. "However," she continued, "in the aftermath of the war, the Federation has found it essential to welcome new citizens, or in this case, to welcome them back." She nodded to Chakotay, who prompted all of the defendants to their feet. "It is the decision of this court," Nacheyev announced, "that the charges against the defendants be dismissed. A recommendation will be made to the Federation Council to forego any further prosecution. This court is adjourned."

The room erupted into noise as soon as the gavel dropped. Once B'Elanna had made her way into the gallery, Tom quickly embraced her in a very public display of emotion. Degrees of congratulations varied from person to person. Picard shook Janeway's hand before departing for a meeting. Tuvok and Chakotay merely exchanged nods. In an uncharacteristic break of character, Nacheyev made a point of briefly addressing Voyager's captain before heading off to attend to her own matters. Now with the trial out of the way, everyone could prepare for the ceremonies the next day.

The captain returned to her quarters late in the evening, after having attended a reunion in the Captain's Lounge. A large number of her comrades had made the journey back to Earth for the homecoming ceremony, so she had spent the evening catching up with old friends. But though she was thoroughly exhausted by the time she reached the barracks, she was unable to sleep and instead spent the next hour working on her speech for the morning. Just as she was ready to call it a night the chime for the outer door rang. "Come in," she called from her place at her desk.

Chakotay stepped inside, immediately seeing her as she again scanned through the composition on her computer screen. "Am I disturbing you?" he questioned.

"Of course not." She couldn't help but smile, her eyes flicking back and forth between him and the terminal. "Been quite a day, hasn't it?"

"It has. We all just got into our temporary quarters," he nodded. They looked at each other for a while before he said, "Everyone wanted me to thank you ... for what you said today."

Now he had her undivided attention. She turned in her chair to face him as she reminded him, "I don't know whether what I had to say made any difference. It sounds to me like Nacheyev had made up her mind long before anyone was in that hearing room."

Chakotay came up beside her and sat on the edge of the desk. "I know that you talked to her before the hearing," he said. "I think you probably had more to do with her decision than you think." Her response was just a smile, and he glanced down at the terminal. "Is this your speech?" She nodded, and he asked, "Do I get to read it?"

Kathryn tapped the button that turned the screen off as she stood up to him. "No," she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his waist. "You have to wait until tomorrow like everyone else." She kissed him, and after she pulled back she added, "Whatever will we do until then?"

He grinned. "I could probably think of a thing or two." They wrapped each other up into a passionate embrace, one that now held no reservations or questions. There was no hurry to move, just to start a slow and loving exploration of each other as they were now finally able to allow themselves their feelings.

An electronic chirp sounded through the dead silence of the captain's quarters, startling her out of what had been an extremely restful sleep. She tried to ignore the call, but her eyes were forced to open when it continued to ring. "Computer," she called out in a hard voice, "delay alarm ten minutes." The sound obediently stopped, leaving her in silence once again. She had just started to drift off to sleep again when the alarm tried to get her out of bed the second time. Again she ordered, "Computer, delay alarm ten minutes."

From behind her, an equally groggy voice told her, "You can't put today off, you know."

Kathryn rolled down onto her back, and through sleep-laden eyes saw that Chakotay had propped himself up onto his elbow to talk to her. "I'm not trying to put off today," she told him. "I just want to get some more sleep."

"You'll have lots of time to sleep later." He laid his arm over her stomach and pulled her a little closer. "Besides, you're the one who called for a Janeway family breakfast."

She received his morning kiss, her fingers instinctively raking through his hair and ruffling it more than it already was. "I'll remember not to do that anymore." He settled back down beside her, his chest pressed against her back as he pulled her even closer. They laid together until the alarm rang again, but this time he was the one that delayed getting up for the third time. Kathryn turned over to confront him, her eyebrow lifting in question. "Now correct me if I'm wrong, but did you not just tell me we had to get up?"

"No. I said that you had to get up." He grinned at her, his eyes shining in the limited light. "I didn't invite your relatives to breakfast."

"Nice try," she laughed. They shared one more kiss, and then she told him, "If you don't get up, I'll put you in jail myself this time."

He nodded. "Yes ma'am."

Molly jumped up on the bed between them, not caring whether she landed on anybody in her pursuit of attention. "Hey, what are you doing up here?" Kathryn tried to scold her, but her mood was too good to get angry with her pet.

"Does she normally do this?" Chakotay asked, scratching the Setter behind the ears.

Kathryn shook her head, her smile deepening. "No, she must have picked it up from Mark." She continued to stroke Molly until the alarm rang again. "Computer, deactivate alarm." To the dog she ordered, "Get down, Molly." The dog obediently, though slowly, jumped down onto the floor, followed by her human, who stopped to look at the animal as it ambled on into the front room. "My poor old girl," she murmured, putting on her robe. Her eyes never left the dog when she decided to address some ship's business. "Did all of you get the new dress uniform specifications?" she asked.

"Yes. We'll all be dressed nice for the admirals." She shot him a reproachful look and made him laugh as she stalked around the foot of the bed to sit beside him. "Am I in trouble?" he asked.

She caressed his cheek in her hand. "No more than usual."

He watched her for a moment, flickers of sentimentality rippling through her ivory features. Her caress never left him, but her eyes flitted as she examined every detail of his face. There was something weighing on her mind, but not heavily as things usually did. "Hey," he finally whispered, "you still there?"

As soon as he said it she was shaken from her private musings, and a smile lit up her face. Her hand migrated down to rest on his chest, the endearing gesture having the same effect on his as it did the first time, years before. "I was wondering something," she said, her voice filled with confidence.

He grasped the hand with his own, still trying to figure out what she was about to say. "And what's that?"

Kathryn's immediate reply was, "Marry me?"

His smile widened to match hers, and he responded, "You already asked me that. Now it's my turn." In a flash of movement he wrapped an arm around her waist, pulled her across him and flopped her down onto the bed beside him. She let out a squawk of surprise, followed by her own version of giggles. "What do you say, Kathryn?" he teased, pulling her close to him. "Marry me?"

She grinned. "Just watch me."

His fingers started to tickle her at her side. "When, Kathryn?" he bugged. "When will you marry me? When?"

She was still laughing, barely able to spit out the words, "September 16th!"

He stopped torturing her, leaning close to her again. "Why then?"

Kathryn kissed him, then answered, "Sounds like as good a day as any."

***

It was indeed an incredibly long day for the reunited crew, and the final official phase of the celebrations was actually quite intimate. Only Voyager crew members, along with a dinner companion, were invited to attend the special banquet, a favor to Captain Janeway from Admiral Nacheyev. The admiral knew that it was a highly emotional time for all of them, and she wanted to grant them the opportunity to spend one last evening together before duty and their lives pulled them in infinite directions. There were no uniforms, and absolutely no others allowed - a directive from the head of Starfleet Command.

When dessert was done, it wouldn't be long before they broke up for good. This was the place that the captain's customary speech was usually inserted into the festivities, but this time, Chakotay beat her to the punch. He stood up from his place beside the captain, using one of the spoons from his place setting to tap against his champagne glass. The conversations around the room quickly faded, and he cleared his throat. "A toast," he proposed, then waited for everyone to raise their glass before continuing. "Seven years ago, a twist of fate landed most of us in the delta quadrant. Over those years, we all grew together in our common goal to get home. Along the way we met friends who joined on our journey, and they too were welcomed to Earth as part of our family."

"Every family has a leader," he said, changing gears slightly, "and we had the strongest, most dynamic leader anyone could ask for." He looked over at the subject of his toast, who was shooting him a look of disbelief and mild warning over the rim of her glass. "You promised to get us home, and you made good on that promise." Chakotay looked to the assembled again. "A toast to Captain Kathryn Janeway," he announced. "Our captain, our guardian ... and our friend."

"To Captain Janeway," Neelix chimed from the other side of the table.

Everyone's cheers filled the hall, and Chakotay couldn't help but laugh when he saw the expression on her face. She smiled fully now, giving her glass a slight tip toward him before taking a sip.

The glass stayed firmly in her hand as she stood up, waiting until he sat down. But the adulation continued until she raised a hand to quell them. "I know that you're all accustomed to hearing me make the obligatory 'captain's speech' at this point in the evening, so I'm not going to disappoint you." Small bits of laughter filtered to where she was standing. "However, I am going to take a slightly different approach to it this time. As hard as it is to believe that we are actually here on Earth, together, I can't help but reminisce about our years together. You have been the most dedicated crew, and the best possible family to each other, and especially to me. We got home." She lifted her glass. "To all of us."

The toast took a few seconds, and she watched with pleasure as everyone gave a little more into the celebration. "There is one more thing," she added when it quieted a bit. "Every Starfleet captain knows that gossip and speculation are two things that fuel a starship just as much as dilithium. And this crew has certainly had its share of both. Now seeing as this is the last time we are all going to be together for a while, I wanted to finally address this issue."

She looked over at Tom, who looked stricken. He had foolishly convinced himself that this was something that had never reached the captain's attention. "I especially heard about one particular subject," she taunted, "and so you all know, whoever guessed September 16th won the pool." Instant recognition hit everyone. After all, almost everyone had put their two cents in on the subject at one time or another. No one knew who had actually won, but they were sure they would find out soon. Tom Paris would never get away without letting them know.

Satisfied with what she had said, Kathryn reached for Chakotay's hand. He took it into his firm grasp and stood up to join her, knowing how proud she was to be able to say this to everyone. "Thank you for the most memorable seven years of my life." With that she turned to him, feeling completely free to kiss him. And as soon as she did, a deafening cheer surrounded them. Everything was now as it should be.

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