Thrown Amidst Chaos

Thrown Amidst Chaos

(The sequel to As Promised..., which is the sequel to The End of Unimatrix Zero)

by Eydie Munroe

December 2000

Disclaimer: Paramount, Paramount, Paramount ...

Can't we talk about something else for a change?

Note: This story takes place between the episodes Unimatrix Zero II and Drive. It completely precludes Imperfection, which is ironic because I actually liked that one.

Please send comments and feedback to eydiemunroe@hotmail.com

When Kathryn awoke the next morning, an odd sense of calm filled her. There had been no nightmare to startle her in the middle of sleep, and the only thing that she retained was the wonderful residual sense of happiness. She wasn't sure why, but she wasn't about to dismiss it when she reflected on how irritable she had been the last two weeks.

The trip to the replicator for coffee was instinctual, so much so that she hardly even realized she was doing it anymore. When the cup was in her hand she turned around and stared out into the length of her quarters. They weren't typical starship quarters – a design like this was a singular entity on any ship. The captain's quarters. A large, deceptive mix of living room and working space, which was much like a captain's life itself. And being holed up here for nearly seven years gave this room's occupant license to dress it any way she felt. Kathryn was never much in the way of materialistic pursuits, but she did keep the things that were dearest to her out where she could see them.

There had been very few things that she had actually taken the time to remove from her house to Voyager before they left Earth. Pictures were the most abundant, particularly of her family, Mark and Molly. As the years wore on, the pictures of Mark had been replaced by pictures of diplomats and her crew, taken at various functions throughout their trip. There was even a picture that Phoebe had sent from her wedding, complete with her newly adopted family.

Another copy of the photo that had been in the holodeck study sat on the shelf behind her desk, and she went over to take a good look at it. She was seated on the small table that accompanied the couch in the mess hall, with Neelix next to her. The others were lined up behind them – Harry and Chakotay holding their champagne glasses, Seven with her hands clasped behind her back as she always did. The only exception to the otherwise stalwart pose was Tom and B'Elanna, who were demonstrating the loving relationship that they had.

Then she sat down at her desk and called up the series of pictures that she kept in her personal database. As she scrolled through them, she saw herself posing with a lot of her crew, as singles or in pairs. But it suddenly dawned on her that there were no pictures of her with Chakotay, unless there were other people with them. And those people were usually separating them. In the back of her mind she wondered how they had ever let that happen when it seemed she had time to pose with almost anyone else. She looked around her quarters again, noting to herself that there were none there either. Kathryn sighed as she sank back into the chair. She would have to rectify the situation – if she ever saw him again.

The conversation with Nacheyev played over again in her mind, and Kathryn wondered what particular set of circumstances would persuade Starfleet Command to utilize two men that they had felt the need to arrest on sight. Something just didn't add up. Then she remembered something that B'Elanna had said – at least we know they're safe – safe being a relative term. It could have worried Kathryn if she'd let it, but she was working so hard on her own recovery that she didn't give it a lot of thought. Which was not to say that she didn't think about him – she did almost constantly. But she had finally progressed enough that she was able to give herself the luxury of professional detachment.

The passing stars beckoned her to the window, entrancing her as they always did. This was not going to be an easy day. Janeway had been carefully considering the options of what to do with the bodies of the more than six thousand drones that still filled the cube. There were so many species, and through her collective knowledge she could not only identify them all but also recite their particular burial rituals. But the effort to follow the specific sacrament of each person would take them nearly a year. So after much deliberation, she decided that the best course of action would be to simply beam them into space and disburse their atoms so that no piece of Borg technology would be left for passers-by to glean. And a simple ceremony would ensure that their burial would be dignified – at least to her standards. But she also thought that her most spiritual friend would approve.

Her hand reached out to touch the stars as she silently told him, God, I miss you.

On the other side of the galaxy, the subject of her musing was doing much of the same. He stared out the window of his new quarters, trying to combat his loneliness and failing miserably. They had never been separated for more than a week or two at a time, which was not entirely painful in itself. But Chakotay being Chakotay, he was trying to accept the possibility that he might never see Kathryn again – and it was killing him.

The doors to the corridor slid open, reminding him that he wasn't the only one that was slated to sleep in the room. It was late, and he hadn't seen hide nor hair of Tom Paris for hours. Without leaving the window he said, "It's about time you turned up."

"I didn't know you cared."

He turned, following the voice until he discovered Commander MacCalister standing a few steps inside. "Sorry," he grinned, "I thought you were Tom Paris."

"Thankfully not," she replied, her hands clasping together at her waist as she laughed. "He's a nice guy, but I just don't see what the appeal is." She could see that he didn't understand what she was getting at, so she added, "Female cadets walk out of my warp history class with stars in their eyes. It's not every day they study a living legend."

"You teach at the academy?" he asked, gesturing for her to sit down.

MacCalister nodded as she perched herself on the edge of one of the nearby chairs. "I started a few months after the war ended. First through fourth year Federation history and I'm also the head administrator for first year cadets."

"That's quite the workload," Chakotay marveled, sitting down on the other side of the table.

"Well there's plenty of time to sleep when you're dead." Her tone changed to one much like she had used the day they all met. "I must say that I was surprised when you agreed to this mission. I was expecting you to accept the prison sentence instead."

His eyebrows raised a little. "Really?"

She nodded. "Captain Janeway has described you as a peaceful man, one that tries to avoid conflict whenever possible." When she saw his questioning look, she couldn't help but smile a bit. "My security clearance gives me access to all of the records from Voyager."

Chakotay regarded her for a minute, then finally asked, "How old are you?"

"Twenty-nine."

The flush of embarrassment that colored her cheeks surprised him. He said, "You must be something."

MacCalister laughed, erasing her momentary tension. "So I've been told."

He grinned, glad that she was loosening up a bit. "Nobody makes lieutenant-commander by your age, let alone a full commander. How did you do it?"

"I don't know. Guess I wasn't afraid to offer an opinion, got noticed by the right people ... I can't really say." She thought for a moment. "It's a lot less interesting than saying I slept my way to the top, isn't it?" He chuckled, and she pulled a data chip from the pocket over the left breast of her shirt. "This is all of the official background information that Starfleet Command has approved for you and Paris. I expect you to be familiar with it by morning."

She was about to leave without another word, but he caught her when he questioned, "And the unofficial version?"

It took her a moment, to decide whether she could trust him that much or not. But eventually MacCalister turned around, and stepped all the way back over to him before she leaned down and quietly said, "We've been sent by the Council itself to discover which members of Starfleet are backing the new resistance movement. There's a power struggle going on – a lot of people opposed Nacheyev's promotion to fleet commander. And the president thinks that this could be a means to discredit her. But I have to confirm my suspicions before we can take any action, so this mission is strictly reconnaissance." She reached into the opposite pocket and produced another data chip, announcing, "The unofficial version."

Chakotay nodded, and this time she did leave, saying hello to Tom Paris as they passed at the doorway. He came in and asked, "What's up?"

"I think we've just been thrown into something very dirty," the other said, rising in order to pace the short length of the room. "There's so many agendas flying around that I really don't know who to trust."

"Me either," Paris agreed. "Every admiral seems to suspect the other. I'm surprised that anything gets accomplished by that group at all." Chakotay stopped to silently question him, and the pilot added, "My father gave me an update before we left, and a lot of warnings and speculation as to who it could be."

"Nacheyev did the same thing. She thinks that it's Connelly."

Tom nodded. "Dad thinks it might be Bullard, or some of her underlings."

Chakotay resumed his pacing as he worked the situation in his head. "Something doesn't add up. Why would a Starfleet admiral start secretly supporting a guerrilla faction that really has no reason to exist? There's nothing left to fight."

"And why would a young, very prominent Starfleet commander be given the covert mission to discover the backer?" the other added.

"She simply sees it as an assignment from the Council."

Paris folded his arms across his chest. "She's not seriously that naive."

Chakotay shook his head, his gaze heading back through the window. "I hope not, Tom."

***

"All stop," Voyager's new first officer ordered.

Just as Ensign Mulligan brought the ship out of warp, the captain stepped out of the turbolift. "Report."

"We have reached the moon's coordinates," Tuvok responded, vacating the captain's seat and moving to the tactical station.

"Good." She took her seat and called, "Bridge to Engineering."

"Torres here."

"B'Elanna, we've reached our hiding place. Get started on securing the cube into orbit."

"We're on it, Captain."

"Let Ensign Mulligan know as soon as you're finished. I'm eager to get working on that exoskeleton."

"It will be done before you know it. Torres out."

***

With Tom Paris' skillful attention, the small, junky freighter Mariana set down just on the outskirts of a village known as Home Base to all who lived there, with about as much grace as a puppy sliding out of control across a hardwood floor. A group of a dozen residents stood just outside the area that was being kicked up by the freighter's engines, their leader at the head of the pack. He was a tall, lanky man with barely existent brown hair, and an agenda on his mind. His scowl was quickly covered when the hatch opened, and the three undercover Starfleet officers stepped out.

The woman had a no-nonsense air about her, taking only the briefest of moments to examine her new surroundings before striding over to the group. "I want to talk to whoever is in charge," she said, giving the distinct impression that she would not take no for an answer.

"That would be me," the man said, stepping forward in confrontational mode. "What do you want?"

"We need repairs," she lied smoothly, gesturing back toward the freighter, where Chakotay and Paris were making a show of arguing over what exactly was wrong with the ship. "There's a problem with our primary power grid. Everything's gone dead."

"I'm afraid we won't be much help," he told her. "We don't keep a lot of spare parts around here."

"Well what exactly can you do for us?"

Her persistence was unnerving, if not somewhat naïve. But he was an experienced liar, and was not easily thrown. "Look lady, we don't just stop on this world because somebody decides that we have to."

"Not even somebody with latinum that she's willing to part with?"

His head cocked to the side. "How much latinum are we talking about?"

MacCalister grinned and extended her hand. "Joanne Anderson."

"Ian Teramore."

In a few minutes they were all moving toward the centre of the village, where the newly arrived trio were to be offered a meal and a chance to have on-world engineers take a look at their vessel. The group walked through the narrow stone streets, MacCalister flanked by Teramore and Chakotay, and Paris slightly behind as he spoke with another pilot who was grilling him with questions about the Mariana. Despite the easy nature that everyone was trying to convey, an incredible amount of tension existed between all of them.

The village was a broad mixture. Some old buildings had managed to survive unscathed through Cardassian raids, while others right next to them hadn't been so lucky. Scaffolds framed them as residents gradually restored their crumbled sections. And then, more than anything, there were brand new ones that had been defiantly built on the ruins of what had been destroyed. And as the group passed each building, they could feel the cold stares of residents who clearly didn't want them there. Chakotay glanced warily around, trying to assess any potential threats.

MacCalister was growing anxious – she could sense something coming but it was taking its time. She unconsciously fingered the hilt of the phaser hidden in the inner pocket of her jacket, disguising the movement as her hand lifted to pull away hair that had been blown into her face. As soon as she did that, her unwitting wish was answered. Teramar whirled round on her, disruptor drawn, and a dissatisfied grin on his face. "You just made this too easy."

***

After making Harry Kim promise to take good care of her ship, Captain Janeway was joined by Tuvok and Torres in Transporter Room Two. Along with their survey equipment, the chief sent them to the surface.

On the bridge, Lieutenant Parsons felt a vise press on her heart when the readings came across the main Tactical console. She called down to the chief, which immediately drew Harry's attention. He questioned what was going on, the blood drained from her face when she told him, "The away team never reached the surface.

Tuvok was the first to appear, his position shifted from what it had been on the transporter pad. He turned around just in time to see B'Elanna materialize, and the captain a few seconds later. Janeway's expression twisted into a frown as soon as she saw him staring at her, and then her gaze moved past him to where they had landed. It was a small park in the middle of a community, and one that had obviously seen better days. "Any guesses as to where we are?" she mused.

"Definitely not where we should be," Torres muttered, scanning around them with her tricorder. "There's no signs of the minerals we came here for."

"Question is … where is here?" Janeway took a few wandering steps around as she watched the buildings around her. "Are there any people here?"

"There are scattered life signs," her security chief reported. "Only about three dozen, mostly human."

"Are they aware of us?"

"Not that I can see. They appear to be moving about their normal business."

"Something's not right," she muttered, her eyes scanning the buildings. "But what?"

***

Teramore was fast, but in a surprising rush of fury MacCalister leapt at him, giving Paris and Chakotay the chance to snatch weapons away from his stunned associates. Unable to keep his footing, Teramore tumbled to the ground with the commander mercilessly pummeling at him, stopped only when her companions tore her off of him and started to back their way down the street. They broke out into a full run when the greeting party started to fire heavily on them, and took cover behind the crumbled half walls of what had originally been a large home.

Janeway's group whirled around at the sound of disruptors, diving for cover and returning fire the second that the beams started to shoot out in their direction. The away team scattered, with the captain heading for a small, but sharp rise in the grass, Tuvok behind a large statue on the other side of the walkway, and B'Elanna stuck down behind a line of decorative boulders that marked off the park's border. It put her perilously close to their new aggressors.

Janeway fired from behind her cover, exposed more than she should have been. A shot sliced through the air just above her head, and it was so close that it would have burned her hair if she still wore it up. She cursed under her breath, ducking down a little further when another shot went past above her. "I really don't need this."

From a hidden place in the building directly in front of them, a strong female voice hollered, "Tom get down!"

B'Elanna's head snapped around, but she was distracted by a disruptor bolt that blew half of her cover into fine dust. She glanced around, keeping her panic at bay when she saw no nearby hiding places. Another shot obliterated more than half of the remaining boulder, forcing her down onto the sandy soil.

"B'Elanna," Tuvok called through her communicator, "head for the captain's position. We will cover you."

Torres saw Janeway, who was carefully timing each precise shot that she let off toward their unseen enemy. The captain had heard too, and she risked a glance over the top of the rise before turning back to conference with Tuvok. With a nod they started their barrage, and Torres raced toward her new place of safety, weaving between the shots that were coming very close to obliterating her as well. One final dive put a barrier back between her and death, and it took a moment for her to get her breath back. When she did, the first thing she spat was, "I thought this planet was supposed to have a pre-industrial society!"

"I thought so too," her friend replied, sliding back down behind the protection of the rise.

In the centre of the battle, Tom Paris was slumped against the stone wall that he had been running for. He was bleeding from a gash just above his ear, not from the phaser blast that hit him in the shoulder, but from the force that caused him to slam into the structure. His head was swimming, and every time he tried to shake the fog away he was rewarded with a stab of pain through his temple.

Anna was trying to get him up onto his feet to move, and she draped his arm over her shoulder and pulled. "Come on, Tom, we've gotta go!" she told him firmly.

"Go where?" he said, desperately trying to get oriented again.

"Back to the ship." They managed to make it about three paces before his knees went out from under him, sending both of them crashing to the cobbles. She glanced behind her, seeing that Chakotay was firmly entrenched in the defensive position he had taken when the shooting started. "Chakotay!" He was so involved in their protection that he didn't hear, and she quickly switched to a parade square voice that thundered, "Chakotay!"

Even though he didn't move, she could see that he had heard this time. A shadow moved in the far end of his field of vision, and it suddenly occurred to him that the onslaught behind them was a familiar one. The dark form moved almost too fast for him to recognize it, but he did. "Tuvok..." he gasped under his breath.

MacCalister frowned, then told her charge to stay put before she joined the commander at the corner of the building. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "We've got to get out of here."

"I just saw Tuvok," he told her, his eyes fixed on what was unfolding a few metres away.

The focus of fire shifted to criss-cross the space solely between the colonists and Voyager away team. Tuvok pressed himself down into the grass beside the captain, slightly out of breath when he told her, "I believe I just heard someone calling for Commander Chakotay."

"I did too," she replied, cautiously, relieved that she wasn't losing her mind.

"If he's here, Tom might be too," Torres added. "What do we do now?"

The captain tapped her communicator. "Janeway to Chakotay."

There was a long pause, but eventually, "Chakotay here," came back at them.

Kathryn's heart leapt into her throat, though years of practice made it nearly impossible to tell. "What's your position?"

Chakotay peered around the corner and into the fray. "We're pinned down between you and Teramore's group." Beside him, MacCalister wasn't sure what to expect next. "Got any bright ideas?"

"How many of them are there?"

"About two dozen," the female voice that had shouted after Paris answered. "If you can get to the west side of the village, Captain, our ship is only a short distance beyond that."

Tuvok immediately scanned the buildings with his tricorder, then without looking held the readings out for the other two to see as he continued to fire. "We're going to need a diversion," the captain told her counterpart.

"Standby." Chakotay looked to MacCalister, who had taken a few cautious steps away from him to check out their available routes. They were cornered, but after scaling a crumbled wall, she saw the opportunity they needed. She nodded to him, and returned to check on Tom before they moved. "We'll meet you at the ship," Chakotay said, the volume of his voice growing low. "Good luck, Captain."

"Be careful, Chakotay."

He severed the link, then collected the others before they started to climb their way into the next street. They then left a slowly wearying Paris behind in a sheltered alcove, where they could let him rest and would be able to collect him on their way out. After a few minutes they were in place at the far end of a narrow street, but too far away to mount an effective attack. Anna motioned for him to take the left side, and with phasers drawn she darted across to the other walkway, thankful that the undercover nature of their mission allowed her quiet, civilian shoes.

Another volley of shots headed for the Voyager trio, who buried down even further. "I wish they'd hurry up," Torres muttered, squeezing the handle of her phaser just a little more tightly.

Her words were prophetic, and the beams over their heads ceased as they were shifted in another direction. The three of them risked a glance over the rise, and saw that their way was clear to head for the better position on the west side of the park. They sprinted across the relatively open expanse, finding refuge in an abandoned half-building on the west side of what was once an elegantly appointed courtyard. "Can you tell where they are?" Janeway demanded.

Tuvok scanned again and said, "They are moving in our direction."

The second that MacCalister opened fire, they were bombarded by Teramore's soldiers. They maintained a position as long as they could, but disruptors eventually disintegrated most of their cover and forced them to retreat. Chakotay made it back to Tom's hiding place a few steps ahead of his partner, but Paris was nowhere to be found. "Tom?" he called, racing around the confined space. "Paris!"

MacCalister stumbled back into sight, gasping for breath when she asked, "What's wrong? Where's Tom?" She didn't bother to wait for an answer. "Paris!"

Chakotay tapped his communicator. "Chakotay to Paris." No answer.

"Oh no," she muttered.

A shot split the space between them. Chakotay grabbed her arm and started off toward the west. It didn't take long before they reached the courtyard where the others were, with Teramore's men hot on their heels. "Get down!" Chakotay shouted as he leapt over a large pile of debris. But as he came down, a bolt hit him in the left shoulder and sent him tumbling wildly across the cobbled stones.

When his motion finally stopped, he looked up to find Kathryn hovering above him, unchecked worry plain in her face. Somehow she found the strength to drag him behind a partial wall for some cover, and he slumped his upper body against the bricks, staring at her for a moment before mumbling, "I'm dead."

"Not quite." He winced as she examined the burned flesh of his shoulder. "How bad is it?" she asked.

His eyes squeezed shut, and without examining his wound he told her through gritted teeth, "Not as bad as it looks." He gasped, trying to get his breath back and concentrating on shutting out the burning pain his arm. "How did you get here?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing," she replied, a gentle smile creeping into her expression as she brushed some of the grime from his forehead. "Q picked a hell of a time for a reunion."

He returned her grin. "Doesn't he always?"

Commander MacCalister was a few feet away, pinned behind an insufficient cover just as B'Elanna had been a short while before. Bolts were raining down on their position, and even with the five of them firing, they were still having problems finding their attackers.

"Cover me," MacCalister ordered, just a moment before she risked all to race out across the open space between her and Chakotay. The breath slammed out of her lungs as she landed on the paved surface, but it didn't slow her momentum as she clambered up to take a defensive position between the two of them. "There's a fourth one up there," she whispered, pointing to a rooftop corner with the tip of her phaser.

"I don't see it," Janeway countered, squinting to find what the mystery commander was referring to.

"There." The other woman was about to explain, but opportunity cut her off and she fired. To prove that she was telling the truth, the upper level gunman tumbled off the edge of the roof and down to the street below.

Janeway exchanged a shocked glance with Chakotay, who simply hauled himself up to watch the area before them as he said, "Captain Janeway, Commander MacCalister."

Another disruptor bolt slammed into the side of the building behind them, showering them in debris. "Welcome back to the alpha quadrant," the commander muttered before squeezing off another shot.

A barely audible transmission sounded through the communicator that had been hidden inside MacCalister's jacket. "Paris to MacCalister."

"MacCalister here," she called back over the din. "Where are you?"

"I'm about seventy metres to your west. Head for the street exit and my position – it's clear."

With some coordination, the group did as he directed and headed out into the next street. They only managed to travel a short way toward their ship before they were pinned down again, this time in a small alcove formed by the haphazard joint of two separate buildings. Their location gave them no vantage, and firing blind they only managed to fell one or two of their attackers. But the enemy had other things in mind, and instead of concentrating their attack on the six Starfleet officers, their fire focused on the stone below. The ground opened up under them, and in a split second they were all tumbled into a black void below. Dust flew up as bodies dropped down, with a lot of bruises gained in the process.

Janeway was the first one to force herself upright. "Anybody hurt?"

There was a consensus of murmurs and affirmative grunts, save for a sharp gasp of pain. Paris had landed in a heap, half-covering both Tuvok and MacCalister, and in bracing himself to sit up, pushed his hand against her now-broken ribs. It prompted momentary clarity in his foggy mind, and he rolled off with a start and an apology.

"Anna?" Chakotay questioned, slowly climbing to his feet.

"I'm alright," she told him. Then she sat up, and immediately regretted it. Wishing to dispel everyone's concerns she mumbled, "What the hell happened?"

"Concentrating their fire at our feet destabilized the rock below," Tuvok said, making sure that all team members were more or less standing.

"You think they dumped us down here intentionally," Paris added.

With a solemn nod Tuvok stated, "Undoubtedly."

To confirm their fears, the voices of their attackers could be heard from above, barely distinguishable from one another. But though they were difficult to understand, their meaning was clear. "We have to find a way out of here," Janeway ordered, leading them away from the hole and starting to scan the area around them.

"Where are we?" MacCalister questioned, tightly holding her left side.

"We appear to be underneath the main lodging complex," Tuvok reported as he swept his tricorder across the large, mostly empty chamber. "There are several access ports leading to both the streets and the interior rooms of the building."

"Anything we can use, Tuvok?"

"I do not believe so, Captain. The hatches and tunnels are magnetically sealed and protected by forcefields."

"It was to protect them from sneak attacks by the Cardassians," Torres added, stopping suddenly when a small rodent skittered across their path. "Either that or the rats."

"Can we bypass them?" Chakotay asked, inwardly shivering at the furry creature as it disappeared though a small hole in the cave's wall.

"I'll try." She handed her phaser off to Paris, then started working at the panel next to the hatch that Tuvok indicated. He then turned his back to her, watching the area around them for any followers.

Janeway took over scanning the dusty cavern, which was littered with old crates and abandoned machinery, much of which had taken heavy damage in Cardassian raids. Chakotay stood close behind her, assuming his old role as her bodyguard. "You alright?" he asked in a hushed tone.

"Fine," she nodded, her voice matching his. "You?"

"Better now."

Kathryn allowed herself a small smile as she concentrated on the readings. "This looks like a whole series of tunnels. We could be down here for days."

He briefly took his eyes off their surroundings in order to check her tricorder. "Do you think you can find us a way out of here?"

"With a little time, maybe…"

An electric spark lit up the air, accompanied by sizzling circuitry and a loud Klingon curse. Torres stepped back, trying to rub the sting out of her fingers while she glared at the now-blackened panel. "We're not getting out that way."

MacCalister had lingered behind, and her breathing hissed through clenched teeth as she looked up to examine their entry point. The hole was jagged in the rock, but there was something uniform about its shape – something she found particularly unnerving. A faint click sounded, and from a distance they could hear the whir of old machinery starting to function. Her suspicions were confirmed when a flat, solid wooden door started to slide across the hole. It was far beyond any of their reaches, so the group had no choice but to merely watch as they were sealed in.

Paris sighed as he stared through the dark, a bright purple block in his vision from the sudden light deprivation. "What next?"

His answer came in the form of a shot, one that hit MacCalister squarely in the shoulder, and she was spun to the ground with a sickening thud. The group dashed for her in the residual light that instantly faded, forming a human barrier between the commander and her attacker, their phasers drawn. Knowing they were near a wall when they fell, the officers formed a half circle that kept their backs to the rock and their weapons forward.

Behind them, Tom was kneeling at the commander's side, trying to offer the comfort that was his only tool at the moment.

"We have to put some light in here," Chakotay quietly suggested.

"They'll know where we are the second we fire," Torres countered.

"They know where we are anyway," Janeway surmised. "Some light may give us a chance to find cover. Tuvok?"

"Now." As he laid a wide dispersal of blind fire out in the direction of their new assailant, Janeway directed her phaser out toward the right, searching for the abandoned excavating vehicle that she knew was there somewhere. Chakotay and Torres joined Tuvok's attack plan, and the darkness was gradually driven back as the metal of the excavator was heated to a red glow. But the enemy, in turn, laid out fire all around them, and effectively set fire to any storage containers and crates that could have served as their shelter.

Janeway reluctantly ceased fire, then held the tip of her deactivated phaser upward so that the others would do the same. Looking around her, she could tell that it wouldn't be long before the smoke overtook them all. Beside her, Chakotay's brain was grinding for a solution that could save them all now. He hadn't been in a situation like this for a very long time, and somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered if his senses hadn't been dulled by his time on Voyager. Torres' gaze was darting around the room, and she was the first to see the figures as they emerged from their own cover, mere metres across the way. "There!" she pointed, keeping her phaser trained on the right flank.

In front of them a series of small lights snapped on, blinding everyone just as they had become accustomed to the distorted orange glow of the fires. Taking a stab at diplomacy, Janeway slowly stepped forward and raised her hands as she said, "I'm Captain Kathryn Janeway…"

"I know who you are, Captain," a familiar voice thundered back at her. "Drop your weapons." All eyes were on her, and with a nod she ordered them to do as she did, and dropped her phaser to the ground. She couldn't see who it was, but the animosity in the voice was clear when he snapped, "Get up, MacCalister!" Anna was staring at the lights, dumbfounded by who was speaking, and so his raspy voice echoed through the cavern when he reminded her, "I said get up!" Her sense of Starfleet training, and nothing else, was the only thing that managed to get her onto her feet, albeit with the help of the steadying arm that Paris offered. Once vertical, the man ordered, "Front and centre."

Anna slowly made her way from behind the group, using the back of her hand to wipe away the blood that had trickled down her chin when being fired on made her bite her lip. It was easy to see the storm clouds gathering around her as she stalked toward their assailant. Chakotay felt a protective instinct to join her, but Janeway stretched an arm out across his chest to hold him in place. They watched in silence as she moved in on their adversary, slowly stepping out of their reach. "You son of a bitch," she said slowly, her voice barely more than a primal growl. "You were behind this all along. Was this all for my benefit, Admiral? Or was the resistance movement just a convenient opportunity for you to kill me?"

"You're very bright. Come with me." As soon as he said it she stopped. "Or would you rather I killed you here, along with all your friends."

For the Voyager crew, confusion reigned supreme. But they were quickly putting it all together. "Admiral Hayes, what grievance do you have against Commander MacCalister?" Tuvok inquired, his voice instantly issuing a small measure of calm across all assembled.

"Were you only after MacCalister," Janeway followed, "or was getting Chakotay and Paris here just coincidence?"

The admiral laughed. "Never look a gift horse in the mouth." Without a word of warning he fired again, hitting the young woman with a low-level blast that was definitely not on stun. She cried out, doubling over slightly as she absorbed the energy. The two men that had accompanied her here started toward her.

"Don't," another voice instructed, "or she dies now."

The pair screeched to a halt, but Chakotay challenged, "What's your justification for killing her?"

"What do you think I am, the villian in some juvenile holodeck novel that will explain my evil plan?"

"It's a legitimate question," Janeway replied, stepping forward to join Chakotay where he stood, and instinctively laying her hand down gently over his wounded arm. "We deserve to know what reason we have to die."

"She has to be killed before she becomes too powerful."

"What kind of answer is that?" Torres spat, assuming a similar position to the captain's.

MacCalister drew enough breath to straighten up, her hand still clutched at her side. "Killing me is not going to help you steal Nacheyev's job."

Hayes grinned. "No … but one thing at a time." He fired on her again, this time sending her into a black oblivion. But this burst was cut short by the sound of phasers being fired from behind his group. His men turned too slowly to defend themselves, and were felled in a matter of seconds. "Hold your fire!" a new voice called out over the din, and once all weapons were silent, Hayes was the only one left standing.

Paris cautiously made his way to MacCalister, keeping a wary eye on what was going on in front of them. From what he could tell with no instruments, she was still alive but in bad shape. B'Elanna quickly joined him, with Tuvok at her side. A short distance away, Kathryn surreptitiously displayed her fear by tightly clutching Chakotay's hand, which no one could see because they were standing so close together. Though the smoke was making it difficult, they could see that a landing party of about thirty men had entered the cavern from the other side, with a Starfleet captain in the lead. "Stay where you are," he ordered the admiral.

"Who are you?" the admiral spat.

The man in the lead answered him over the tip of his rifle. "Captain Anthony Maxwell, U.S.S. Pearson. And you're under arrest, Admiral Hayes."

Hayes glanced around him, seeing his anesthetized men sprawled all around him, which Maxwell's men stepped over in order to surround him. "On what charge?"

"Treason." He motioned toward the doorway with the tip of the rifle. "Now move."

Prodded by the guards behind him, the admiral reluctantly started to ascend to the surface. As soon as he was out of sight, what was left of the new away team rushed over to the former captives. "Come on," Maxwell urged. "Let's get out of here."

They all started off to their new escape route, the Pearson's security chief indicating for one of his men to pick up MacCalister's unconscious form. But what everyone had failed to see was that a small row of fuel had streaked across to a gigantic stack of discarded machinery. It blew in a huge fireball, throwing most of the people against the far wall like rags and spraying them with shrapnel. The new captain was the one that called for their emergency beam-out, but when they re-materialized in the Pearson's sickbay, only Paris, Chakotay and MacCalister arrived safely along with the rest.

"Where's B'Elanna?" Paris instantly questioned, panic flashing through his voice.

"Maxwell to Transporter Chief."

"Chief here."

"Do you have the rest of the Mariana's away team?"

"No sir. They were all beamed to Sickbay."

The crew of the Pearson searched in vain, but there was no sign of Janeway, Torres or Tuvok. Chakotay felt his knees go out from under him, latching onto the corner of the nearest biobed to avoid collapsing to the deck. Not again, he silently moaned, I can't lose her again. There was no sign of them, and the inevitable conclusion that their patterns had been scrambled in the emergency evacuation was finally entered into the official records an hour and a half later. Captain Kathryn Janeway, Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres, and Lieutenant-Commander Tuvok were all officially declared dead, victims of a transporter malfunction.

"Voyager to away team – please respond!"

Janeway scanned the new landscape around her, and it took a few moments for their shift in position to register. Once that occurred, she finally heard the panicked call from Harry Kim. The captain tapped her commbadge, and with a resigned sigh replied, "Janeway here."

There was an audible pause in the communication, before Harry managed to stammer, "Are you alright, Captain? We lost you in mid-transport…"

"We're all here," she confirmed, gently cutting him off. "How long?"

"Half an hour. We detected a massive explosion back at the cube's location – that's when we lost you."

"The cube?"

She looked to B'Elanna, who murmured, "Oh god…"

"Harry, beam us back and set a course of the cube," Janeway ordered, "maximum warp."

The trio shimmered and disappeared from the planet's surface, and as soon as they were securely on board Voyager jumped to life. Even at top speed, it would still take them two hours to reach their previous position. The captain remained in the command chair, using any little distraction to keep her mind from wandering back to Chakotay, and the remarkably intense hour that she had just spent with him courtesy of Q. She was successful enough that Harry's announcement of their arrival actually startled her a little.

"Where's the cube?" she questioned, her hands planting down on her hips when she stood.

Harry worked the controls until he got the answer, and his expression turned grim. "It's crashed in the northern hemisphere of the moon."

"Onscreen." She tried to find something in the nondescript, cratered surface that flashed onto the viewer, but nothing obvious presented itself. "Magnify."

The scrolling image switched to a more detailed scan, and a collective gasp could be heard across the bridge when the wreckage appeared. It looked as though the cube had been slammed into the surface, point first, and then flattened from the force of the impact. Debris was scattered for kilometres, with some faintly glowing elements being the only indication that this vessel had ever been spaceworthy. "Oh my god," Parsons gasped, speaking the thoughts of everyone there.

"What happened?" the captain questioned.

"I am detecting residual weapons signatures," Tuvok reported, his voice unfaltering despite the tension around him. But there was a small pause before he announced, "They belong to Species 8472."

Janeway whirled around, her eyes wide in disbelief. "What?"

"Confirmed," Seven added from the aft station. She thought for a moment, then said almost to herself, "It would appear that Axum was successful in contacting them."

***

Chakotay sat in the Pearson's forward observation lounge, staring silently out at the stars. He had hardly spoken a word since Kathryn's death, and at Tom's request the ship's counselor was steered directly away from him by Captain Maxwell. It left Chakotay in a uneasy silence, one that allowed him to try and grieve like he knew he should. But for some reason he couldn't – couldn't cry, couldn't scream, couldn't throw a chair across the room. All he could do was sit in front of the window, stare out at the passing stars, and review what had happened to him over the last three months.

First he had allowed the woman he loved to be voluntarily assimilated by the Borg. Then he had been lucky enough to get her back – but not whole. So as they tried, unsuccessfully, to restore her to her former self, their resident omnipotent being decided to see just how much he could mess things up. But fate was playing into their hands, as they had the cube to bring them together again. Judging by her letter to him, she was making progress, even though Voyager and the cube weren't. Then Anna MacCalister, the step-niece that Janeway never knew she had, came into his life and offered him a way out of jail. Oddly enough, that escape from prison landed him back together with Kathryn Janeway, only to allow him to be present at the moment of her death.

It made no sense to him. He didn't believe in things as futile as fate or destiny, only that life unfolded universally as it should. But there was a tiny part of Chakotay that hoped in things such as luck and karma, and at the moment it was the only part that felt anything at all. And the more he thought about it, the more the anger built, almost to the point that would let him start to grieve.

That was when a flash of light behind him lit up the small room. A sigh escaped through suddenly clenched teeth, but Chakotay didn't flinch. Instead he remained focused on the passing stars, momentarily stunning the new visitor. Finally Q said, "I'm disappointed in you, Commander."

"Is that so?"

There was a resignation in the human's voice that set Q back. He had seen what he had assumed to be every facet of the human race – from triumph to tragedy, and from murder to fear for one's life. But the constant in all of them had been the indomitable spirit that had intrigued him in the first place. And this spirit was completely absent in the commander. "Not even a single, solitary tear for the woman that you loved?" This time Chakotay didn't answer him, and for once in his existence it made Q uncomfortable. He disappeared without so much as another word.

***

Torres came in quickly, but was filled with apprehension as she handed over the padd. In a single sentence she summed up her report. "We're on our own."

The captain looked up sharply, then took the report from her friend and glanced through it. "Weapon systems are heavily damaged," she recited, "transwarp coils are fused, communications destroyed..." With a flick of her wrist, the small device skidded across the surface of her desk until it stopped up against the computer.

B'Elanna glanced nervously around the room. "What do we do now?"

"Destroy what's left," Janeway said after a long pause, rubbing at her temple. "And then we move on." The pained look on her engineer's face said it all, and Kathryn found herself flashing back to the day she obliterated the Caretaker's array. "At least we covered some distance," she added, trying to make both of them see the bright side. She did not want to let herself think about another loss – not yet anyway. "We've only got twenty years to go now."

Torres recognized the attempt, thought it was not enough to make her smile. "Somehow I don't think Tom will wait that long." She knew that this was going to weigh heavily on her friend, and she quietly offered, "I'm sorry."

The other nodded. "So am I." Then as she rose to get more coffee she said, "Will you send Tuvok in here on your way out?"

"Of course, Captain."

After destroying what was left of the cube, Janeway set a course for another nearby planet where they detected both edible plants and minerals that they would need to collect before starting their new push for home. Then she retired to her quarters, losing all semblance of emotional control once the door closed behind her. She didn't cry, but was overwhelmed by utter defeat.

Kathryn wandered aimlessly around her quarters, dropping her uniform jacket across the surface of the desk when she stopped to stretch the aching muscles between her shoulders. As her head rolled from side to side, her gaze fell on her sister's wedding picture. Something piqued her interest, and she moved to the shelf and took the frame down to examine its contents. Her eyes widened when she recognized someone other than her mother and sister. "MacCalister…" she breathed. Sure enough, standing to the left of Pheobe's husband, was a slightly younger version of the woman that had been with Chakotay. "Anna MacCalister."

***

Almost a week passed before the Pearson returned to Earth, where Admiral Hayes was turned over to Starfleet Security, and Chakotay and Paris were absolved of any remaining charges. Commander MacCalister was transferred to Starfleet Medical for continued care - she had slipped into a coma almost immediately after their arrival on the Pearson, and had only returned to the land of the living the day before. The news of Captain Janeway's death, after being so close to home, spread a sombre tone throughout the ship, as well as Headquarters when they reached orbit.

The Pathfinder team sent out the next data stream two weeks later, with files specifically addressed to Harry Kim, who was assumed to be Voyager's new commanding officer. Needless to say there was shock, and guarded celebration between Chakotay and Paris. B'Elanna and Kathryn were indeed alive, but were still two decades away. Tom toyed with the idea of catching up with the deep space vessels sent to meet Voyager – the Galek Ren and the Thompson – but even he knew when he would have to concede defeat.

A letter was delivered to Chakotay late on Thursday, and though he knew who he hoped it was from, he had been getting so many communications since word got out of his return to the alpha quadrant that he wasn't sure until he started reading.

Dear Chakotay,

I'm alive - with a little help from Q.

The three of us were pulled back into the delta quadrant during mid-transport and put back on the planet we were originally beaming down to, albeit half an hour late. Poor Harry thought he lost us for sure.

While Voyager was searching for us, Species 8472 decided to fire on the cube, which we had left behind so as not to scare the planet's inhabitants. The cruelest irony of all was that they couldn't have actually destroyed the cube themselves. They left it up to me. I flashed back to our first days together, and how I sealed our fates by destroying the Caretaker's array. It killed me to have to strand us here again, even if it was fifty-five years closer to home than when we started.

I'm still twenty years away from you.

I don't know what to think right now. Wishing you were here won't make it happen, but wishing is all I seem to be able to do right now. And you know me – I couldn't allow myself to dwell in self-pity even if I wanted to. So I'm sending this in the hope that you're safe, and that Starfleet will know where to find you to deliver it. Q has suddenly become unavailable, so I fear that yet another hard reality is upon us.

But for now, just remember that I love you, and I miss you.

Always,

Kathryn

He glanced up from the padd, now looking out at the slightly hidden view of San Francisco that his new quarters afforded him. It was a bright, sunny day, in direct contrast to his melancholy mood. He felt no need to go anywhere or do anything, and since nobody had decided his next move, his quarters were exactly where he intended to stay. At least for the day.

"MacCalister to Commander Chakotay."

"Chakotay here," he instinctively responded.

"Could you please join me in my office?"

"I'll be right there."

Chakotay strode down the corridors of Starfleet Command half an hour later, and was quite surprised to find Tom Paris standing just outside the door to his destination. Once Paris noticed him approaching he commented, "I was beginning to think that they arrested you again."

"Fortunately, they don't want to feed me anymore. How's your head?"

"Better, thanks." As they turned toward the door Paris added, "I can't believe that she's back at work already."

Chakotay couldn't help but chuckle. "Even if it's not by blood, she's still a Janeway." He reached out and activated the door chime.

Inside the office, Anna glanced at the chronometer in her desk when the chime rang. "Well that didn't take long," she commented softly to herself, slowing lifting herself out of her chair with her arms and making her way around the desk as she called, "Enter." The doors opened to admit her new guests, and her face lit up in a smile as soon as she saw them. "Come in gentlemen, please."

The pair walked in, Chakotay stopping when he spied the major difference in her, other than the fact that it was the first time he had seen her vertical in weeks. "It's good to see you up and about, Captain."

Paris questioned, "When did that happen?"

She laughed, a bit of blush coloring her cheeks. "Admiral Nacheyev decided that exposing Hayes' plot was reason enough for a promotion. Defending her honor didn't hurt either. But after this experience, I'm not sure that I like being on the 'fast track to the admiralty'." Turning back to the desk, she retrieved a pair of padds, which she then handed to the two men. "Your new assignment offers," she explained, sitting back on the edge of her desk. "And something special for you, Chakotay."

With slow, stiffened steps, she walked over and stopped directly in front of him. "Anna?" he questioned, when she reached up and removed the rank bar from his collar.

MacCalister held up the first of three gold circles. "These are my old pips. I thought you might like to have me 'pin' you."

"Pin me?"

"It's an twentieth century tradition," Paris helpfully added. "Rank then was signified by fabric symbols. Some organizations held a tradition of having a loved one or friend pin the new rank onto the uniform the person wore."

"Just be thankful that I'm not out for blood," she told him, affixing the second pip. Then she laughed again when she saw the disbelieving look he was giving her. "Trust me," she assured, putting the last one in place, "it's in the bag." Once she was done, she stepped back and extended her hand to him. "Congratulations, Commander."

But before he could shake her hand, both he and Paris disappeared, leaving in a bright flash of light. They were replaced by Q, who stood where Chakotay had been. "Good morning, Captain."

***

Half a dozen away teams beamed down to the surface, which put them all into a lush landscape. They split up, Torres leading a rather large group of engineers on foot across the rolling landscape as they scanned to pinpoint the mineral deposits that would hopefully be large enough to keep Voyager operational for another few months. Janeway and Neelix headed down into a nearby valley in pursuit of edible plant life, and their team divided into smaller splinters to increase their effectiveness.

B'Elanna walked briskly at the head of the group, her tricorder in her outstretched hand. It sounded a rapid series of beeps when it located its target, and all set out in a rush. They were out of breath as they climbed the large slope in front of them, but Torres reached her arms out and stopped them all when they reached the crest. She stared intently down in the small coulee in front of them, her eyes wide and unflinching as she gasped, "Oh my god..."

She stopped so fast that Joe Carey practically ran into her back. He grumbled, "What?" when he regained his balance. His boss didn't answer, so he followed her gaze down below them. It took a few seconds for recognition to hit, and he murmured, "I don't believe it."

The subjects of their attention sensed the presence of the team behind them, and both knew exactly who they were before they even turned around. Tom gaped, while Chakotay simply tried to figure out whether or not he was hallucinating. "B'Elanna!" Paris shouted, charging up the hill toward her.

She led the pack down the hill, and her laughter filling the otherwise quiet countryside when she leapt into his arms. He spun her around and kissed her, and then simply held her as tight as he could. Chakotay had settled for a fast walk to meet them all, but he too was mobbed by the engineering team as soon as they met. He hugged B'Elanna as soon as her fiancé released her, and she mentioned, "Kathryn is going to be so glad to see you."

"Where is she?" he asked as he straightened up again.

"Collecting plants." Then she turned around and addressed her team. "Come on. We still have deuterium deposits to find."

"Hang on a second," Carey interrupted, ignoring the scowl that Torres was wearing just for him and gently taking the tricorder from her hands. "We can handle everything here. You two go get acquainted again." Then he handed the tricorder to Chakotay. "Their team is west of here, only about a kilometre or so."

The group broke up and armed with the tricorder, Chakotay set out to locate the food gathering team. Carey was true to his word, and he found the first of them just over a kilometre from where he and Paris had appeared. The pair of stunned ensigns then directed him further along what had opened into a long, deep valley that had a great concentration of edible vegetation. Eventually his wandering led him to a small grove of trees, and he finally spotted them when he slowly walked around it.

She was working matter-of-factly, dictating a list of plants for Neelix to catalogue and then retrieve when he returned with the whole team. Her companion scanned in half a circle, and his expression lit up as soon as he saw the commander. Chakotay quickly put a finger to his lips, and Neelix grinned and nodded. He waited until there was a sufficient lull in the captain's orders, then managed to sneak off and pass the new arrival on his way out. Chakotay crept up behind her, but kept silent.

A sigh was the only sign of Kathryn, unintentionally escaping after having been the captain for more days in a row than she really cared to count. Other than her talks with B'Elanna and meditation sessions that Tuvok badgered her into, she couldn't remember the last time she had been anything other than Voyager's commanding officer. She took a few minutes to look around, remarking how this area mirrored the Rocky Mountain foothills back on Earth in autumn. Earth... Her recollection stopped short when her thoughts returned to the home that they might reach in twenty years. And to the man that she knew would have moved on by the time she got there.

She shook her head, forcing herself back to the work at hand. "I guess that we should take an extra few kilograms of those berries," she said quietly.

"Yes ma'am."

Kathryn froze. She was hearing things – she was sure of it. "Neelix?"

"He's not here right now," he said, struggling to keep from laughing. "Want to leave a message?"

She wanted to turn around, desperate to see him and touch him and make sure that he was real and not some figment of Q's imagination. But she also felt the need to play along. "Yeah." After a moment's thought she added, "Tell him I won't be needing him for a while."

Kathryn drew a sharp breath when she felt his arms wrap around her waist from behind. His breath was warm against her ear as he whispered, "I'll make sure he gets the message."

Chakotay's hold on her tightened when she settled back against him, closing her eyes and sighing again when he kissed her temple. "God I've missed you," she breathed. Then she turned around to face him and grinned when she said, "Where have you been?"

In spite of having been separated from her for basically the past two months, his patience and humor were endless. "I was getting everything ready for you," he told her, resting his forehead against hers. "Headquarters was a mess. You wouldn't believe what they get away with when you're not around."

Her patience at an end, Kathryn kissed him, and when they broke apart she couldn't help but grin. "You're too good to me."

"Never," he denied. "I could never be."

She kissed him again, and her arms wrapped around his neck as she did so. Her left hand rubbed at his ear, and then slid down his neck. Her intention was to lay her hand on his chest, but the three circular pips on his collar stopped her. "What's this?"

For a second he didn't know what she was referring to, but then he felt her fingertips running over the small gold circles. "Surprise."

Kathryn stared at the pips for what seemed to be a very long time, and then she mumbled, "I'll be damned." Between them her commbadge jumped to life, and she sighed, "Just once I'd like to throw this thing into a river."

"I could arrange it, you know."

She fixed him with a look. "Very funny. Janeway here."

"Captain, Lieutenant Paris has reappeared on the planet's surface," Tuvok reported, "as well as Commander Chakotay."

He shook his head and chuckled, while she rolled her eyes. "I am aware of it, Mr. Tuvok. The commander and I will return to the ship as soon as we're finished here. Janeway out."

She cut the connection, and he pulled her tight to him. "Just what did you want to finish, Kathryn?"

"Stop it," she laughed, unwilling to push him away just yet. "There's plenty of time for that, Chakotay."

Her words echoed the past, and he simply murmured what she had then. "Plenty of time."

She remembered too, and with a kiss assured him that the wait wouldn't be nearly as long this time. Kathryn let herself just be held for a few seconds more, but the captain inevitably returned to take charge. "You want to help me with the shopping?"

"Sure." He reluctantly let her go, but held tight to her hand as she moved away to resume the plant life she had been cataloging.

Hours later, everyone returned to the ship and completed the task of filling the stores as Voyager started for home. Despite the destruction of the cube, a sense of hope spread through the crew – part of which was the sudden return of the two officers that they all had assumed they would never see again. Once all away teams were aboard, Tuvok set them back on their course for Earth, and resigned himself to postponing the security meeting that the captain had wanted to have with his entire department. She didn't know it, of course, but his staff had convinced him to convince her to take the time off.

For once Kathryn didn't argue, instead opting to concentrate on catching up with what Chakotay, and the fallout after Hayes' capture. They ate in the mess hall, desperately hungry after spending hours together on the planet. Both kept remarkably good humor as person after person stopped to say hello. It wouldn't have been nearly as intense if Tom had been there too, but he and B'Elanna had disappeared the instant that Carey sent them off to get 'reacquainted'. But even Chakotay's patience had its limits, and he leapt on a convenient pause in the parade to get to his feet. Offering Kathryn his arm, he led the way out of the mess hall and strolled with her to her quarters.

She let them inside, and found herself on the receiving end of a fiery kiss as soon as the doors were closed. They let themselves act like a couple of teenagers for a while, but she had to eventually push him away. "Wait a minute!" she laughed, leaning back to get away from him. "Wait a minute!"

Chakotay knew exactly what was going on, but he wasn't ready to relinquish her just yet. "I've been gone for months, and you say 'wait a minute'?" She fixed him with a look, and he started to laugh. But the laughter stopped when he saw her brow furrow. She was scrutinizing him closely, eyes narrowing as she regarded him. "What?"

"Your pips."

Not understanding what she meant, he reached down to run his fingers across his collar. The three pips that had been pinned by MacCalister were gone, replaced by the rank bar that was there before. Once he realized it he breathed, "I don't know..."

"Well I do."

The couple didn't even so much as flinch, knowing that since Chakotay and Paris were returned unharmed, this visit would be inevitable. Her eyes drifted from the man she loved to the one she despised, and after a badly-disguised sigh she asked him, "What took you so long?"

Q shrugged. "I didn't want to intrude."

"You're always intruding."

"Okay," he agreed with a shrug. "Then I didn't want to interrupt anything." He looked at Chakotay. "Don't fret about your little bits of jewelry. I took care of them."

The object of his taunt was keeping infinite patience. "What do you mean?"

"Well it wasn't official yet, now was it?" Q shook his head when he saw the look Janeway was giving him. "Oh relax, Kathy. His promotion is resting safely in the hands of Captain MacCalister until you reach Earth."

"Captain MacCalister?" she echoed.

"The very same." The couple looked to each other, but didn't get to say a word before Q continued with, "Well, I have to be going now. It's my turn to teach little Q his dimensional shifting lesson. But you have to admit that my timing for your reunion is a lot better this time." He raised his hand to snap this fingers, but stopped in mid-air and eyed them. "I trust that I won't have to come back here again."

Kathryn shook her head, but not without a grin. "Q, I will do almost anything to keep you from appearing on my ship again."

He grinned, and then finally disappeared in a flash of light.

Kathryn turned to Chakotay, who grabbed her by the waist and pulled her close again. "Just what are you willing to do to keep him off the ship, Kathryn?"

She pushed him away with a laugh, and said, "Tell me all about my niece."

And after replicating a bottle of wine, they sat down, and that's exactly what he did.

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