(PG-13)

by Delta Story
January 2010


Written for VAMB's 'Secret Santa' Exchange - 2009


Many thanks to Gates for the terrific beta read, to elem for being a researcher extraordinaire and to Camryn for her amazing-as-always fiddle!

=^=


01 January 2378


It was the start of a new year and the start of a new era for the crew of Voyager. And today it was the time for long-awaited family reunions.

Ten days earlier, Voyager had returned to Earth after her almost seven-year odyssey, only to have her crew hustled off behind closed doors for debriefings by Starfleet that would make Borg hospitality seem like a visit from Santa at Christmas. And Christmas - it had come and gone during those ten days with absolutely no break for celebration or thanksgiving; the holiday in the year of 2377 would be memorable to Voyager's crew as the Christmas that wasn't. The only gifts they received were eighteen-hour days filled with impersonal and perfunctory questions, debriefings and medical pokes and probes.

While the one-hundred and thirty-nine returnees to the Alpha Quadrant had been allowed audio and video communications with their families and friends, they had yet to feel the warmth of hugs and the welcome of kisses; to be able to share touches and tastes and smells almost forgotten after seven years and seventy-thousand light years of travel. Now, in the great auditorium at Starfleet headquarters, electricity from high emotions zapped the air in anticipation of greeting the welcoming crowd on the other side of the four sets of double doors. Security personnel were strategically placed to try to keep the expected mayhem from flying out of control, but they realized any attempt at trying to control the crowd would probably be for naught. Even dividing the crew into four separate groups, based on last names, probably would be a futile effort.

At last the signal was given and the doors opened. The ensuing stampede rumbled throughout the building; even the walls seemed to shift with the momentum generated by the rushing horde of humans and humanoids, all trying to reach their loved ones first. Shouted names gave way to cries of joy and muffled tears; bodies meshed into one another as they met and embraced.

Kathryn Janeway felt shocked and embarrassed by her own naked emotions as she saw her sister, Phoebe, and her husband and two children pushing though the crowds towards her, ignoring poor Gretchen Janeway who wasn't moving as fast as they did. In spite of telling herself she wasn't going to cry, tears ran rivulets down Kathryn's face as her mother approached - the woman looked frailer than Kathryn had remembered.

But Gretchen radiated love and happiness, belying any fleeting idea of fragility. "We've held Christmas for you," she smiled, not willing to let go of Kathryn. "These Scrooges here at Starfleet have had you long enough and now they have promised us that we can have you for the next week."

"Even though it's the new year already!" Phoebe laughed. "We've gone ahead and had Christmas with Joel and Hannah," she continued. "After all, even mighty Starfleet can't keep Santa away!"

Kathryn beamed looking at the niece and nephew whom she was meeting for the first time. Joel, at five, was all-boy, wanting to know all about her adventures without waiting for any of the mushy stuff. Hannah, a shy two, clung to her mother, wary of this stranger who had burst into their lives.

Kathryn was overwhelmed by everything coming so fast; her split-second bridge decisions on Voyager didn't come close to being this besieging. But unlike those times of turmoil, this was a time of pure joy; her smile seemed to be glued onto her face. "Sounds great, Mom; of course I'll need to get permission..."

"Already done," a baritone voice interjected. Kathryn turned to her seemingly ignored brother-in-law, Phillip Carnes, as he held out a padd to her. "Your orders, Captain Janeway. Signed by Admiral Montgomery." He faked a passable salute before laughing. "I think he's seen enough of you for awhile."

Kathryn reached for the padd with one hand while pulling down Phillip's head with the other, planting a warm kiss on his cheek. "Now I know why Phoebe married you - you know just how to make a woman happy."

Happy. A quiver ran through Kathryn as she made a scan of the room and noted the obvious absence of several families, families who had no one to greet. What were Lyndsey Ballard's parents doing right now? How were Darma Carey and her two sons holding up knowing that Joe Carey had almost made it home? How long had Emma Stadi's young husband mourned, or was he still waiting for closure? So many deaths - some senseless, some heroic, but all on her watch. Would the guilt ever leave her?

Out of the side of her eye, she saw a couple talking with an older woman. The younger woman's arm threaded through his and she leaned over to him, whispering something into his ear. He looked at her and then the older woman who had obviously come to meet them. He nodded and offered his other arm to the older woman and the trio walked towards one of the open doorways. The guilt pangs Kathryn felt suddenly melted into feelings of another form of loss as she watched Chakotay leave with Seven and her aunt, Irene Hansen. Kathryn had suffered loss, too, only her loss still was still alive and well.

"Kathryn? Are you still with us?" Phoebe's voice broke through Kathryn's melancholy. "I've made reservations at Scoma's down at Fisherman's Wharf and you know that place fills up if you're not there the minute of your request. Besides, you wouldn't want to see these kids get hungry - it's not a pretty sight and I want you to go on believing that they're perfect."

Kathryn shook off her mood, wanting to enjoy every moment she could with her family. "Sounds great, Phebes! I've dreamt about their crab chowder for seven years; let's go!" She smiled as the family gathered together to make their way out through the throngs. There would be no good-byes to any of the crew tonight; this was their time and they more than deserved it.

=^=

Kathryn failed to notice that Chakotay had stopped for a moment and turned back to look at the exuberance within her family gathering. He caught her smile and laughter, none of her fleeting despondency. His gut twisted as he saw how happy she was while he only feigned it. He had made a decision and he knew that it was the wrong one; but he was a man of honor and he vowed to himself that he would forget her... that he would forget those past seven years and all they had meant to him.

=^=

06 January 2378


"And just why did you come home for a belated Christmas?"

Kathryn's eyes quickly adjusted from their concentration on the padd she held and opened wide with surprise at Gretchen's question. "That's a fine question for a mother to ask of her daughter, especially a daughter who has been away from home for the last seven Christmases." She tossed the padd aside and pulled herself out of the comfort of the sofa where she had been seated. As she began to take the few steps towards her mother, the older woman turned and walked back into the kitchen. "What brings this on?" Kathryn continued as she followed her mother.

Gretchen turned her back on her daughter and picked up one of the carrots by the sink and began to peel it. "Well, with all the work you brought with you, it seems that you are needed more back at Starfleet," the older woman snipped. "Oh, I know, I know - duty and all that. Heaven knows I should recognize the signs of 'married to my job'; I lived with it for many years with your father. I just thought that with a daughter it would be different."

Kathryn went over to her mother and wrapped an arm around her. She was smaller now than Kathryn realized; a lot had changed during those years while she was in the Delta Quadrant. Gretchen Janeway was far from being frail, but there was something fragile about her appearance and her once bright blue eyes seemed to have lost some of their luster, as if a curtain tried to keep some of the worry and concern away from anyone around her. Gretchen had always been the strong one in the family. Kathryn's mind raced back to those frequent absences of her father when she and Phoebe were growing up, of how her mother valiantly - and successfully - played the dual roles of mother and father; of how she put her own grief on the back burner when her father and Justin had died at the same time and how she spent her small reserve of energies on trying to get Kathryn through the grief and guilt that rampaged her for so long after the incident.

No, her mother was not a frail person, even as she approached eighty; she probably had at least another twenty to twenty-five years of active life ahead of her. Yet there was something definitely bothering the woman. Kathryn had been around too many people in close quarters for too long not to be able to spot someone who had a problem. Kathryn's face formed its typical lopsided grin as she saw that her mother was not just pealing the carrot but paring it completely away.

Kathryn placed her hand over her mother's. "Mom, what do you have against that poor little carrot? It doesn't stand a chance against you and your paring swivel."

Gretchen looked up, her thoughts obviously somewhere other than paying attention to her chore. "Wha... what?" She looked down at the mound of parings in the sink. "Oh. That! I'm... I'm making a carrot cake for dinner and that's just the way I wanted them."

Kathryn stifled a chuckle. "Mom, I'm no cook and even I know that you grate carrots for a carrot cake, not peel them into thin slices. Now... out with what you have been wanting to say to me!" Kathryn hoped her voice hadn't taken on too much of her captain's orders timbre.

Gretchen swept the yellow orange remains of the poor carrot into her kitchen compost container. "Never could keep much from you, could I?" she sighed. She turned and wiped her hands on her apron as she leaned back against the kitchen counter. Following up Kathryn's commanding tone, Gretchen's voice took on its own firmness, the type that only a mother knows how to use. "I want to know what is going on between you and Chakotay," she stated without blinking an eye.

Kathryn's face slackened as her jaw dropped with the bombshell demand. "Mother! That's out of line and really quite none of your business!" She felt the flush heat up her face and knew that there was no way to back out of the inquiry.

Gretchen's eyes never wavered as she absorbed every nuance of Kathryn's body language. "Maybe not, but whenever something - or someone - affects one of my children, it quickly becomes my business. And it's obvious that there is something between the two of you that has you upset." She reached over for her food processor and began in earnest to prepare carrots for the carrot cake. "So, are you going to level with me or am I going to have to contact him myself to find out?"

"You wouldn't!" Kathryn seethed. "Mother, I'm begging you... please, just let this go."

But it was obvious that Gretchen knew she had her daughter. Kathryn watched her mother's head nod as she continued. "That bad, hmmm?"

Kathryn braced herself on the counter next to her mother and drew in a breath. "There's nothing to tell you, Mom, because nothing has ever happened between Chakotay and me," she stated emphatically.

"That was a mighty big denial for something that never happened," Gretchen said, her voice straining against the whirring of the food processor. "Nothing? Ever?"

Kathryn shifted from one foot to the other and suddenly became interested in staring at a crack in one of the ceramic tiles on the kitchen floor. "No, not really. Oh, there were a couple of times when..." She stopped short and was surprised to feel the sting of tears welling up in her eyes. "Well, you know, Mom; command structure and discipline and a long mission." She quickly sniffed back the moisture before her mother noticed.

Gretchen stopped the food processor and scraped the carrots into a bowl. "Yes, I know. And I also know that things were quite different during those years. You and your crew had to implement and improvise in many ways to survive. I know that it's no fun to try to survive alone and I know your father would have understood, too."

"But I don't love him!" Kathryn blurted out. "That's what's missing."

"Is it?" Gretchen turned and looked at her elder daughter. "Is it still missing? Kathryn, I haven't been your mother for forty-five years without knowing when my daughters are in love."

Kathryn shook her head sadly. "Okay, maybe I was in love with him, once upon a time. But that was years ago. Circumstances change; people change; we aren't who we were then."

Gretchen added the eggs, spices, sugar and oil to the carrots and began stirring them together, each beat in rhythm with her words. "Humph. Any idiot can look at the pair of you when you're around one another. My dear daughter, nothing has changed -- nothing! Not for either of you. I think you're just trying to run away from it."

Kathryn had had about enough of her mother's meddling for one day. "Mom, you are not me; I'm an adult woman with responsibilities that most women wouldn't have in a hundred lifetimes. I can decide how I want to live my life."

Gretchen turned, her face speckled with the flour she had just sifted into the carrot mixture, and smiled. "Then you wouldn't mind if I asked him to come visit?"

"Yes I would," Kathryn blurted out. "I mean... no, I wouldn't." She shook her head in confusion. "You know what I mean!"

"Oh, I don't mean to ask him when you're here, dear. If you don't care for him anymore, I'd ask him when you're not here!" Her face took on a wistful look as she sighed. "He can put his slippers under my bed anytime."

"Mother!" Kathryn yelled, her face about to explode with embarrassment.

"Mothers are only human, too," Gretchen smiled, going back to her cake. "Besides, sometimes I like to live vicariously through my lovely daughters; it's one of the perks of being older."

Kathryn's face reddened and twisted briefly as she tried to judge just how much her mother knew... if she knew. Another look at her mother as she turned back to her chore confirmed the suspicion: oh yes - Gretchen Janeway knew, and she was probably cooking up something else in addition to that carrot cake.

=^=

Gretchen Janeway's living room was a disaster. No plasma storm could have wrecked more havoc than that which had hit when Phoebe and her family arrived, including their rambunctious Golden retriever. In spite of the children having received gifts on Christmas Day, a recently returned doting aunt made sure that they were showered with lots of presents to make up for lost time with her. Now, the remains of the wrappings and ribbons decorated tables and lamps and chairs, not to mention a certain barking dog that romped behind them with every move they made.

The dining room wasn't much better, as the remains of Gretchen's post-holiday feast remained on the table, their aromas fading and cooling along with the leftover food and drink. Everyone had settled into the overstuffed comfort of the living room sofa and chairs with assorted mugs of coffee, tea and cider.

Phoebe shook her head at the disaster area. "I hope this isn't going to continue, Kathryn - you are going to spoil them more than Mom already has."

"Well, they're my only grandchildren," Gretchen grumbled in defense. "Of course I'm going to spoil them!"

Kathryn sighed and shook her head. "Let's not go there, Mom. I'm not that old; there's still time."

Gretchen's face reddened. "I'm sorry, Katie; I promised myself that I wouldn't ever say anything like that and here I've made a fool of myself." She looked over at Phoebe whose face had taken on a rather hurt expression. “And before I dig myself further into this hole,” she continued, “Phoebe, your children are more precious than anything I could have imagined.”

Before the situation could deteriorate further, the children and Bosco, the dog, gamboled back into the room with a chorus of whoops. Joel raked together the remains of the wrappings into a big pile and made a running leap into the center of things, followed by his sister and the dog. Phillip jumped up to stop them but Gretchen put up her hand and nodded 'no'. It was obvious that she was delighted to have her life interrupted by all the youthful energy and joy.

Suddenly, Hannah let out a cry and Phoebe raced to her daughter. "Ouchie, Mommy," Hannah whimpered as she turned and plucked a box out from underneath her.

Phoebe hugged Hannah and checked the reddened area of her arm where the corner of the box had dug in. Ascertaining that the damage was more due to surprise than any real injury, Phoebe planted some motherly kisses on the spot. "All better?" she smiled down at Hannah, who had now recovered and took off after Bosco and her brother. "All better," she said grinning back at her mother as she rounded the corner into the hall.

Phillip nodded his head towards Phoebe's hand. "What's that that she hit?" he asked. "Looks like a present that we must have missed."

Phoebe looked at the simply wrapped item in her hand. "It is - and it's for Kathryn." She scrambled up and took it over to her sister. "Don't know how we missed this, although it is small compared to all the things for the kids."

Kathryn took the present from Phoebe, examining the label. "It doesn't say who it's from. Mom?" she asked, looking over to her mother.

Gretchen held up her hands. "It's not from me! It came via Starfleet transport yesterday. At first, I thought that they had sent you a work package, but when I saw that it was wrapped like a gift, I figured I'd hold it for you for today."

"So open it already!" Phoebe exclaimed with as much excitement as the children had demonstrated earlier.

Kathryn busied her fingers in pulling apart the red and green wrapping. Devoid of the decorative outside, there still was no indication of the giver. She cautiously removed the top of the box to find a folded piece of paper on top of a rather large, definitely antique pocket watch. She unfolded the paper, looking around at the three pairs of eyes just as anxious to know more about the contents. She let out a small gasp as she glanced at the signature before looking up. "It's from Chakotay," she half swallowed.

"And it looks like he has something to say," Gretchen commented, glancing over her daughter's shoulder.

Kathryn's face became puzzled as she began to read the words written by her former first officer. "I really don't understand this."

"What?" Phoebe prodded.

"What he's written here. He says this about the watch:

    'Kathryn - I saw this watch in a store close to Starfleet shortly after our return and when I learned its story, I knew that it was meant for you. It dates back to the nineteenth century and has a mechanical movement. It's a replica of the chronometer worn by Captain Cray of the British Navy. His ship was hit by a typhoon in the Pacific and everyone back in England thought they were killed. But eight months later Cray sailed his ship into London harbor. There wasn't much left of it, a few planks, half a sail, but he got his crew home.

    'Just like Cray, you brought us home, Kathryn. You never wavered in your faith that we would make it, even though we would be tattered and worn. Voyager survived through your hope and determination. You promised us that just as you promised something else to me. I hope that Voyager isn't the only thing that has survived difficult times and can be repaired.

    Chakotay'


Kathryn looked up, still perplexed. "See? What is he talking about?"

Phoebe and Gretchen exchanged knowing looks but Phillip's expression told Kathryn that he was as confused as she was.

"Do you two know something that I don't?" Kathryn stated with exasperation. A horror dawned on her, stemming from the conversation with her mother the day before. "Mom, you didn't invite him here, did you?"

Gretchen's head shook with firmness. "No, I wouldn't intervene that way, dear. But I really am surprised that you haven't heard..." She shot another look towards Phoebe.

"Heard what?" Kathryn began to fume.

"That Chakotay and Seven are no longer together," Phoebe blurted out.

"Tom Paris called me four days ago," Gretchen continued with the story. "He wanted to let me know before you arrived, just in case you changed your mind about coming here."

Kathryn began picking up all the wrappings strewn about, working off some of her sudden nervousness. "And what does all this have to do with me? I don't give a Klingon ghay'cha about what is going on in his life," she huffed. "It's none of my business... or yours!"

Phoebe grabbed Chakotay's discarded note and waved it in front of Kathryn's face. "Good God, woman; for someone who masterminded a starship's survival in an unknown part of the galaxy for almost seven years, you are really, really dumb!"

"Phoebe!" Gretchen shouted.

"Well, she is, Mom." Phoebe looked over to Phillip. "I'll bet that even you can read the obvious in this note."

"Thanks, dear," he squirmed. "But leave me out of this." He stood and went towards the other part of the house. "I think I'll go look for the kids; it's too quiet."

"Chicken!" Phoebe called out after him, tossing a bunch of the wadded up wrapping after him before continuing her scolding. "I agree with Mom in that each of you looks as if you're afraid of stepping on the other's toes. What is it with you two? It's obvious that there's something that's been simmering for a long time and that you're just afraid to admit it."

Kathryn finally regained her voice. "But there's much more to it than that, Phoebe. You can't make any assumptions on something you've seen for only a few days."

"I think I've seen enough to know," Phoebe retorted. "The man is in agony, Kathryn; he loves you!"

Gretchen reached across and patted Kathryn on the knee. "Phoebe is right, dear. A bit impatient in her call to action, but I'm sure you'll do the right thing. He's not the only one hurting."

Kathryn sighed and picked up the watch, examining its ornate design. "Once, many years ago, we agreed that we had plenty of time." She fingered the etchings in the tarnished silver of its casing. "So much has happened since then - so many incidents, so many places, so many people." Her fingers found the mechanical stem on the side and she smiled as she successfully wound it and the watch began ticking as if it had never stopped.

"Well, would you just look at that," Gretchen chimed in. "That watch is working again! "

=^=

Silence wrapped itself around the Janeway house like the blankets that engulfed its sleeping occupants in the cold winter night. Just like the children mentioned in the old Christmas poem, they slumbered peacefully smiling with dreams of sugarplums or other pleasantries dancing in their heads. Save for one person, who had tiptoed down the stairs and now was hunched in front of a communicating monitor in her study.

"You were right, Tom," Gretchen whispered to the image of Tom Paris on the other end. There's no doubt that Kathryn still has feelings for Chakotay. I think her entire life on Voyager passed before her eyes as she opened that present from him - and I don't think she was remembering anything about her crew."

Tom shook off the sleep as he listened to Gretchen's report. "I'm pretty certain that's what Seven discovered about Chakotay. Even she saw this in him, as naïve as she is about human nature. Talk about the captain being in denial." He paused as another thought ran through his mind. "Do you think Kathryn communicated with Chakotay about the gift? You know... to thank him?"

"Oh, I'm sure she did; I brought her up to be nice even when she didn't feel like being nice," Gretchen chortled. "But, also knowing my daughter, it probably was a short text-only message that carried about as much emotion as a memo from Starfleet about faulty replicators."

Tom sighed. "Well, that's better than nothing. I doubt that there's been any sort or communication between them, other than what was necessary formally, since our return."

Gretchen jumped and looked around her as she heard a sound, but breathed easier when she decided it was just a branch hitting the eaves. "Kathryn is returning to San Francisco the end of the week. I'd better soft pedal the subject, as I think anything more in the way of a push right now might disturb a very delicate state. But it's more than obvious that something dormant is awakening. The ball is in your court now, Tom."

Gretchen and Tom made their goodbyes. Gretchen yawned and turned off her monitor, watching until its fading light darkened the room. Smiling smugly, she headed back to bed.

=^=

19 January 2378


Kathryn opened the door to her apartment and sighed as she looked around at containers that still needed to be unpacked and Starfleet issue furniture that she desperately wanted to replace with pieces that would bring a little bit of 'her' into the large area. But sixteen to eighteen hour days left her with little time but to come home, flop into bed into comatose sleep and wake up groggily only to begin the cycle again. Thank God she at least had real coffee now to sustain her through the long days and nights!

Today had been no different from any of the others since her return from Indiana. The glowing digits on the chronometer on the entrance area table read 2230 as she entered. She still had yet another lengthy recommendation to read and sign off on before a much-anticipated soak in her tub and then some blessed sleep.

She pealed off her jacket and sat down to pull off her boots while commanding something from her replicator. "One turkey sandwich, wheat bread and a dash of mayonnaise," her eyes gleaming wickedly as she added the rich condiment. She sighed with relief as she made her way to the replicator and wiggled her toes, now freed from the confines of her boots. The requested sandwich materialized and she added another order. "One glass of chilled Chablis." If she was going to have the mayonnaise, she might as well wash it down with something good, too.

With the late-night fuel in her hands, Kathryn plopped down on the stiff sofa, placing her food and drink beside the ever-waiting computer on the low table in front of the sofa. She took a long sip of the wine as she logged in to the files she knew were waiting for her.

The words on the monitor scrolled past her tired eyes like background noise as she read the latest log of recommendations for new assignments for her crew and nodded in agreement at most of them. In spite of her frequent tirade of Starfleet not knowing much about the people behind names, for once they truly seemed to be studying the strengths of her 'family' and assigning them appropriately.

There was reference to a new document towards the end and as Kathryn read the opening lines, a mouthful of Chablis spewed over the screen. She hastily tried to wipe the liquid with her sleeve but only managed to make it worse. She ran to the kitchen area, fumbling through drawers and boxes to find a cloth of some kind to clean up the mess before it caused permanent damage to the monitor. But even wiping it clean didn't change the words in front of her eyes:

    "The Joint Chiefs of Starfleet command recommend that with the promotion of Voyager's captain, Kathryn Janeway, to the rank of rear admiral, that Lieutenant Commander Chakotay, acting first officer on Voyager,, be promoted to the rank of Captain and with that rank, be assigned to supervise the renovation of the starship, Voyager, and subsequently command said ship."
Chakotay? Commanding Voyager? Well, he was the obvious choice, she thought. But now, seeing this in writing, awaiting her signature of approval, she suddenly felt loss like she had never felt it before. Voyager would no longer be 'hers' but would be 'his'. Did he know and love the ship as much as she did? Would he show her the same concern and respect as she had? Well of course he would. Hadn't all those years bonded him as much to the ship as she had been? This was absurd; she was acting jealous! But jealous of whom, the ship or of him? It wasn't as if this move was totally unexpected. Who better to oversee Voyager's refit and re-launch than Chakotay? He had certainly earned the position and the responsibilities.

Kathryn glanced back at the document. To her horror, there was an addendum, addressed personally to her:

    Kathryn, I'm presuming that it is a given that you will sign off on this action and we would like to move ahead with all due expediency. A tentative date of this coming Friday, at 1000 in the Starfleet Grand Hall, has been set for an official transfer of duties to Captain Chakotay. Please report to my office thirty minutes prior to the ceremony to go over the proper protocol. Best regards, Owen Paris

She had managed to avoid being within several kilometers of Chakotay for the past few weeks and now they would have to go through this very public ceremony, in front of a crowded room. They would have to smile and be civil; they would have to feign a dignified relationship. She had written him a perfunctory thank-you note for his gift the earlier part of the month, but had not heard from him since. Maybe the response was icy enough for him to understand.

Kathryn's hand shook and she let out a huge sigh as she leaned forward to write her signature and leave her identifying thumbprint on the official document. She had chosen to accept the new duties she had been given; why shouldn't he be offered something equally suited for him?

What little energy she had left escaped from her exhausted body as soon as she sat back and turned off the monitor. She looked at the sandwich beside her, with only one bite taken and now it was drying out; it looked about as appetizing as insulation from a Jeffries tube. Slowly, she got up, took the food remains to the recycler and moved over to the replicator. "Computer, a bottle of Chablis." That should get her through a bath and knock her out for a few hours.

=^=

23 January 2378


Chakotay approached Kathryn at the podium and spoke the words of the ancient ritual. "Admiral Janeway, you are relieved."

Kathryn extended her hand to his, following the cue. "I am relieved, Captain Chakotay." And with that, Voyager was officially no longer under her command. She surprised herself as she suddenly felt a great sense of lightness, almost happiness. It wasn't that she was happy about losing Voyager, but she actually felt happy that it was Chakotay who was receiving the command. She nodded and smiled then quickly closed her eyes against the tears that had unexpectedly welled up in them.

Kathryn tried to pull her hand out of Chakotay's grasp but as soon as the words had been said, whoops from all over the room, coming from former Voyager crew and Starfleet administration alike. They roared out of their seats like a tsunami, and the wall of flesh converged on the pair before they could pull apart. She saw his lips moving, as if he were trying to say something to her but she couldn't hear about the roar of voices. As she began to respond, the mingling crowd broke them apart and engulfed each of them within their own admiration society.

The reception following Voyager's transfer of command took place in a smaller room next to the large auditorium, a room frequently used for a variety of social functions. The crowds had thinned somewhat, as only a fraction of those attending the ceremony had the luxury of being away from work for an extended period of time. Kathryn herself should have been in that group, as she was scheduled to speak at a seminar that afternoon and was far from being prepared. She knew she could probably wing it, but at this stage in her new position, she wanted to appear to be planned and organized. Then again, part of being an admiral was socializing and networking, the part of the job that she knew would prove difficult for the goal oriented person that she was.

"Kathryn, could we talk for a moment?" The soft baritone voice startled her as much as the tap on her shoulder.

Chakotay! She couldn't put it off any longer; she was going to have to acknowledge him.

She half-forced a smile onto her face as she turned towards him. "Captain Chakotay. My, that does have a nice ring to it, doesn't it?" She surprised herself in that the title did fit him well and her smile relaxed somewhat into the real thing.

Kathryn caught herself looking at his face a second too long as a burnished blush further darkened his olive skin. He was darker than she had remembered, like he was renewing an old relationship with the sun. His face looked a bit fuller, too - Earth food was agreeing with him. But he still had those dimples when he smiled, which he was doing now. She realized it had been a long time since she had seen him really smile. For that matter, she hadn't been doing much of it lately, either.

Before Kathryn realized it, she had taken his hand between her two hands. She quickly tried to pull away as soon as she realized what she was doing but the movement became a sudden jerk and one of her elbows flew back, right into the lean body of a waiter behind her. The young man held a full tray of filled glasses of champagne and the nudge from Kathryn's elbow was enough to throw the tray - and him - off balance. In the next split second, glasses and champagne went flying and the waiter, in an attempt to prevent all of the glasses from falling, slipped on some of the spilled wine. Kathryn turned towards the young man's outcry, bumping into him as he fell.

"Kathryn!" Chakotay cried out, making a feeble grab for her as she followed the waiter's slippery slide to the floor. She reached up for his outstretched hand as the waiter attempted to slither out from underneath her. Her grasp didn't quite connect with Chakotay's hand but it was enough to throw the large man off balance and before either of them could react much more than let out pitiful little sounds, he came tumbling down on top of her.

By now, everyone in the room noticed the commotion and like lemmings drawn to the sea, they quickly congregated at the disaster scene.

"Careful of the broken glass!" Admiral Ross's voice boomed out. "It's all over the place. You two better stay as you are until we can get some of it cleaned up."

The poor waiter had scrambled up unscathed and he grabbed a couple of napkins and began to try to pick up some of the glass. Others of the wait staff skittered towards the serving area to look for more efficient ways to clean up the mess.

Admiral Ross rushed over to the prone figures of Janeway and Chakotay, all the while trying to stifle a laugh. It was quite a scene to behold - two Starfleet officers in their finest dress uniforms, floundering like fish in a lake of champagne glistening with glass shards. Chakotay's body lay on top of Kathryn's with one hand on her shoulder and the other one buried somewhere between their two bodies. Their legs intertwined like a human Celtic knot. Kathryn's hair, soaked with the spilled wine, lay flat and plastered against her face. She tried to move her hands from the floor but they had begun to stick in place.

Chakotay struggled to disengage his trapped hand but in his attempt, he had to pull it over one of Kathryn's breasts; his fingers couldn't help but stop momentarily in their escape efforts. "Sorry", he whispered, as they both reddened. But she saw the twinkle in his eye and knew there wasn't too much of an apology behind his words. She made an effort to reply to him but when she opened her mouth, she was met with a thick hank of champagne-soaked hair.

Soon the crowd parted as brooms and vacuums appeared to clean up the mess and Ross led several bystanders in helping Kathryn and Chakotay get up. The clean up crew took small vacuums to their wet uniforms as a final step of their duties.

"You really should get out of those clothes," Ross declared. "But carefully - we don't want you to get cut on any hidden broken glass."

Kathryn wiped a hand across her face. "What I really need is a shower. I think I've got champagne in places where it was never meant to be!" The words came out of her mouth before she realized how it sounded. "I mean..." she blushed.

"We know what you meant, Kathryn," Ross guffawed. "I know I speak for all of us when I say that we'd like to continue our celebration, but given the circumstances... well, let's just say you certainly know how to break up a party."

Chakotay offered a sticky hand to Kathryn who looked and smelled as if she had run a gauntlet course at a vineyard and helped her regain her balance. "I just hope this doesn't become the next headline for the Starfleet newscast," he groaned, shaking his head at the way each of them looked.

Of course, it did, and the headline didn't help. The 'breaking news' ribbon scrolling across the bottom of the screen with a vid filling the rest of the screen read: "New Captain falls for Admiral in big way!"

=^=

Thankfully Kathryn had her regular uniform at her office; she had changed there into her dress uniform right before the ceremony. And thankfully, one of the advantages of her current rank was a small bathroom with a shower connected to her office, so it didn't take long for her to wash and regain some semblance of dignity. But the scene kept playing over and over again in her mind, especially that brief moment when Chakotay had touched her. She shook her head, trying desperately to erase the thoughts; it had to have been an accident but then there was that look in his eyes. She felt herself flush as she held the moment in her mind's eye.

As if on cue, her aide, Lieutenant Chambers, rushed towards her as Kathryn exited the bathroom part of the suite. "Admiral, Captain Chakotay just contacted you; he says he would like to speak with you."

Kathryn's face turned all the more red at the mention of his name on top of her daydream. "Uh... give me a couple of minutes and transfer him to the monitor in my office," she managed to get out. Hopefully, she would have settled down by then.

Kathryn took several deep breaths as she crossed the distance to her desk and sat down before answering Chakotay's call. There, that's better. "Chakotay," she smiled as she activated his communication. From the way he looked, he had done a quick clean up somewhere, too.

"Thanks for being there today, Kathryn; it meant a lot to me to have you make the transfer official. I'm just sorry that everything took such an... awkward twist there at the reception." He barely looked at her and kept his eyes lowered avoiding any hint of looking straight at her.

Likewise, Kathryn's gaze wandered off center, too. "Don't worry about it, Chakotay; it was just one of those things. Besides, champagne baths are supposed to be good for the skin!"

"Yours looks just fine to me," he smiled. A brief awkward pause punctuated the conversation and he chewed his lower lip. "Uh, Kathryn, there's something I think we need to talk about..."

Buzz.

Kathryn looked over at her communication counsel. "I hate to say this, but it's Admiral Montgomery and I really need to talk with him."

Chakotay nodded, his face slackened into a defeated look. "I understand. Call me, won't you, Kathryn?"

"I will," she answered, but her voice and image disappeared before the words were completed.

=^=

26 January 2378


"Come on in, Kathryn; I'm glad you could make it," Tom smiled as he opened the door to the spacious apartment that he, B'Elanna and Miral now called home.

Kathryn had been there only once before, but that was shortly after they moved in when most of the decorative items had been stacks of unpacked containers and unwrapped baby presents for the new Paris grandchild. Now, it had the comfort and warmth of a place where a family was well settled, albeit baby items still accentuated the décor. She grinned as she looked around, nodding at what she saw. "This is quite a bit different from those cramped quarters you and B'Elanna shared on Voyager, Tom - lovely!"

Tom took her elbow and guided her further into the roomy living area. "Let me show you around. Unfortunately, B'Elanna, my mom and oldest sister discovered that they had similar tastes, and with all the back-pay credits that Starfleet owed us, they went on a decorating spree." He guided her past an arched opening on the left, through which Kathryn saw a room that obviously was a combination of a joint office space and a library for the couple, with the outside wall almost floor to ceiling windows. "No missing what that area is," he laughed. "Perfect for a Starfleet couple."

Kathryn sniffed the air. "And I would say that the kitchen and dining areas are just beyond it, judging by the aromas. So... does B'Elanna do the cooking or do you?"

"Most of the time, neither of us; we usually grab something to bring home with us. Most of the nutritional items we keep on hand are for Miral."

"And where is she, Tom? I haven't seen her for almost two weeks and at the rate she's growing, I probably won't even recognize her!"

"Aw, come on, Kathryn; it hasn't been that long! And after all, she's only two months old!" Tom huffed, feigning a hurt look. "She's with my folks tonight, but I can show you her room," he continued, guiding his former commanding officer down the hall towards the bedrooms.

Kathryn stopped suddenly, a shocked look taking over her face. "What? You invited me over without letting me see my godchild?"

"You wouldn't be saying that if you were the one staying up half the night with her," Tom answered wearily. "I love her but sometimes..."

"Sometimes what?" Another voice added from the subdued darkness of the baby's room.

Kathryn jumped back a step as a familiar face emerged from the shadows. "Chakotay - what are you doing here?"

"I was invited to dinner, as I presume you were, too," he smiled back.

Kathryn's eyes darted back and forth between the two men before settling into a steely stare at the younger one. "Tom..."

"What? Can't B'Elanna and I invite two friends for dinner? It's been a long time since it's been just the four of us together and given your tough schedules, we were lucky enough to find an opening to accommodate the two of you at the same time." His eyes danced with a glee, as if daring her to say anything about the arrangement.

Chakotay walked all the way into the hall. "And Admiral, I think you owe me a return call from a couple days ago."

Kathryn rubbed her hand across her face and groaned. "I guess I do. I'm sorry, Chakotay; it's been just one thing after another."

He moved a step closer to her, placing his hand into the small of her back as they walked back towards Miral's room. "It's almost as if you were trying to avoid me."

Flustered, Kathryn looked over to Tom, her eyes silently pleading with him to help her. He shrugged but managed to come to her rescue. "Here - you want to see Miral's room."

The computerized lights adjusted to a midlevel and Kathryn gazed around the room. The room reflected the baby's mixed heritage, with wallpaper that featured flying creatures from all over the galaxy, including some very strange faeries in Klingon armor. The mobile that Tom had made aboard Voyager took its place of honor over Miral's crib. Kathryn smiled as she picked up the small blanket she had knit for the baby, now draped over one edge of the baby's bed. "It's lovely, Tom," she sighed, patting the small quilt back into place.

Tom turned towards the small chest in the room and picked up something. "Got to show you this," he smiled turning back to her. His hands reached out and cradled within them was a small replica of Voyager. "And look," he continued with glee. "It lights up - it's a night light!" He continued with a nod towards Chakotay. "Beauty and practicality - it's the perfect gift, Chakotay!"

"That's from you?" Kathryn exclaimed. "Where on earth did you find it?"

"One of the perks of being the head of Voyager's refit," Chakotay beamed. "It was a model at one of our planning sessions and I asked if I could have it. Little did the chief engineer know that by adding a light sensor to it that it would be part of a baby's room."

Kathryn fingered the model and turned it over in her hands. "Nicely done, Chakotay."

"Hey - where is everyone?" B'Elanna's voice boomed down the hall. "Everything is ready for dinner except for the participants!"

""Participants?" Kathryn's brow became deeply furrowed with her question.

"Oh. Didn't I mention that we're doing a fondue dinner tonight?" Tom mentioned as he led his two guests back towards the living area.

Chakotay and Kathryn looked at each other, each as puzzled as the other. "What exactly is a fondue dinner?" Kathryn finally asked.

"It's something that gained popularity on Earth back in the twentieth century," Tom began.

"We should have guessed," Chakotay grinned.

Unperturbed with Chakotay's aside, Tom continued. "The oldest form is cheese fondue that's made from local cheese. It's melted together with wine, a bit of flour and some other seasonings. The concoction is kept warm by serving it in a pot over a low flame. Various other foods are served that are dunked into the melted cheese using a long narrow fork."

They arrived in the dining room, just as B'Elanna brought in two large bowls, one with cubes of bread and the other with vegetables. "Here... you can see how it's done now."

Tom motioned to their guests to take a seat and picked up a long-handled fork next to his plate. He speared a bread cube on the narrow tines of the fork and dipped it into the fragrant cheese sauce. Moving quickly, he deposited the cheese-covered bread onto his plate before using another fork to eat it. The gratified expression on his face indicated that the morsel was more than good. "Delicious! B'Elanna, that cheese you found is perfect!"

"And there's more!" B'Elanna chirped as she made a return trip to the kitchen. She came out with another fondue pot and a second heating unit. "We'll set up another pot with a court bouillon for cooking small pieces of seafood. Then, if there's room left, we'll finish everything off with a dessert version that's made from chocolate and brandy - we'll dip fruit and cake into that."

"Sounds divine," swooned Kathryn. "But after all this, I'd better really get serious about getting back into a fitness program!"

"Aw, you'll work it off," Tom said. "There's a lot of moving around in this, trying to beat others to the cooking pots and dodging being stabbed by the forks!"

It didn't take long for Kathryn and Chakotay to catch on to how the meal was eaten. Like a pack of famished jackals, the foursome made quick work of the two pots and their accompanying trays of food to be dunked. Tom made certain that their wine glasses were never less than half-filled and by the time there were only crumbs left, the foursome was mellow and content.

"And now for dessert!" B'Elanna said, pushing her chair back with effort.

"I don't think I could eat another bite," Kathryn groaned. "This is probably more than I've eaten the rest of this week combined."

"All the more reason for you to have some," Tom grinned. "Both of you are working too hard; it's time for you to unwind some." He picked up several of the many plates on the table and carried them to the kitchen, leaving Chakotay and Kathryn alone.

Kathryn rested her chin on her hands, feeling a bit more comfortable around Chakotay. "Now... you said there was something you wanted to talk about."

"I... I don't know if here and now is the right time," Chakotay fumbled.

"Nonsense! Tom and B'Elanna are two of our dearest friends. What is it that you can't say..."

"Chakotay!" B'Elanna's voice called out from the kitchen. "We're bringing in everything for dessert. Can you please check the flame in that warmer still on the table for the chocolate sauce?"

"Sure thing," Chakotay called back. "I've got the lighter right here beside me." With that, he picked up the long wand and checked the wick and fuel in the warmer. "At least this is one fire I should be able start!"

After several attempts with nothing to show for his efforts, Kathryn couldn't resist. "Are you sure, Chakotay? Maybe you need some of my hair again."

The flame leapt up as soon as she spoke. "Aha!" exclaimed Chakotay. "See? Nothing to it!" He wound back the wick a bit to keep the flame low.

Tom and B'Elanna came through the kitchen door laden with plates, bowls of food to be dunked into the chocolate and yet another pot of something smooth, melted and delicious.

"I really shouldn't be eating anything more," Kathryn said as she readied her fork for another round.

B'Elanna stirred the steaming chocolate goo with a grimace. "Uh, oh. I just remembered - it needs one more thing." She turned to the serving table behind her and grabbed a large bottle of brandy. "The flavoring!" she grinned, pulling the stopper out and wafting a whiff under her nose.

Chakotay missed her actions as the flame was sputtering and he concentrated, determined to get it going again. He flicked the lighter several times but as before it seemed reluctant to light - until B'Elanna began to pour a big glub of brandy into the pot.

Foosh!

In one split second but what seemed to have been an eternity, the flame leapt up and gobbled its way into the flowing brandy, sending a curtain of bluish fire all around the pot and down onto the table.

B'Elanna screamed and jumped back, dropping the brandy onto the table and providing more fuel for consumption. Tom reached across her to the edge of the tablecloth, hoping to get it up and over to smother the rapidly spreading flames. Kathryn grabbed a tumbler of water but it was far from enough to prove effective on the rapidly spreading fire while Chakotay managed to find the lid to the fondue pot and attempted to get it on the pot to extinguish that source of fire.

The flames circled higher and the temperature rose; finally the danger was detected by the environmental system. The sprinkler in the room kicked in and brought a dousing rain down onto the room, it contents and its inhabitants, preventing any further damage or injury to the foursome. The blast of water from the sprinkler blinded all of the humans and soon they were flailing about trying to see their way through the mess. Someone managed to knock over the fondue pot and the cooling chocolate sauce began oozing all over the table and onto everyone.

Only about two minutes had passed from start to finish of the fiasco but the dining room of the apartment looked like it had been hit by a tornado and doused by a torrential rain.

The quartet stood in silence looking around and assessed the damage.

"Everyone okay?" Tom finally uttered, wiping his face only to find that his hand was covered with chocolate.

"I... I think so," Kathryn managed to stammer. "B'Elanna? Chakotay?"

"What in the galaxy happened?" B'Elanna sputtered.

Chakotay looked around sheepishly. "Guess I'm to blame. I was working so hard to light that burner that I didn't realize you were pouring something flammable. I am so sorry, B'Elanna... Tom..."

Tom thumped Chakotay on the back. "Aw, it's okay. Look, we've been through worse times and I'm just thankful that Miral wasn't here."

B'Elanna was already starting to clean up the mess. "All I'm going to say is that this is absolutely the last time I ever ask Chakotay to play around with fire."

"I knew I didn't need any dessert," Kathryn laughed in her husky voice.

Chakotay wiped a finger through a rivulet of chocolate oozing down her cheek and licked it. "Nope, you don't, because you're sweet enough already."

Kathryn froze as she felt his finger touch her cheek. Her eyes met his for just a second and what she saw frightened her. She knew that it wasn't just Chakotay who was playing with fire and if she let herself, she would be the one who came away burned.

About a half an hour later, everything had been cleaned up and the fire damage was judged to be much less than everyone thought. Kathryn muttered that it was a work night for all of them and they should probably say their goodbyes.

"May I take you home?" Chakotay asked her as they exited together.

Kathryn hesitated for a moment. "That's kind of you, Chakotay, but I've buzzed for my transport and he should be here in about two minutes."

Chakotay's face clouded over. "You know, I've been trying to talk to you now for over two weeks. It's almost as if you're trying to find ways to put it off."

Kathryn looked down and studied her hands. "I'm sure I know what it's about and maybe I just don't want to hear it," she muttered. "Besides, lately it appears that we're destined to bring disaster whenever we're together." A glint of a smile twisted on her face.

"Maybe we should work on that," he whispered. "And don't be so sure that you know what I want to talk about."

A land transport slid into view. "Here's my ride," Kathryn said, relieved with the young crewman's excellent timing.

=^=

January 27, 2378


The following morning, Tom contacted Gretchen Janeway. After convincing her that the fire hadn't been all that bad, he closed with some news that he hoped might make her more optimistic. "But I think there might be another fire that's still smoldering. Although Kathryn and Chakotay weren't lovey-dovey or anything like that last night, they at least seemed more at ease being around each other. One of them is going to break soon, I'm sure."

"I certainly hope so, Tom. I'm getting too old for all this clandestine activity. I swear I don't know where Kathryn got her proclivity for being so bullheaded."

Tom had to stifle a laugh. Or not be able to see it in herself, just like the person I'm talking to. "Must come from her father," he managed to smirk.

Gretchen nodded in serious agreement. "Oh, most definitely; it's got to be the Irish from Edward's side of the family."

=^=

January 29, 2378


Kathryn rushed into the Starfleet Academy building that housed the holographic labs for simulated flights. A meeting with Reg Barkley had run late because he wandered off into several others areas in addition to the topic at hand. Poor Reg! she thought - would he ever learn to be direct and succinct? Now she was late for the demonstration she and Tom were scheduled to give to an Academy class about adapting Borg technology for the Delta Flyer.

Kathryn found the designated cavernous room at the far end of the building. As she entered, the class of about ninety eager cadets swarmed around a holographic version of the sleek shuttle, their voices abuzz with excitement and anticipation. She smiled at their enthusiasm and tried to picture their youthfulness in some of the traumas the Flyer had faced in the Delta Quadrant. She stood back and watched them for a few moments, feeling a sense of hope for the future of Starfleet. While monitoring the situation, she wondered where Tom was and then chuckled - probably in the midst of all of them, egging them on.

A sudden hush came over the crowd as several of the cadets on the outer perimeter saw her and began nudging the others, hastily calling for attention to the admiral's presence. Their ranks split like water around an oncoming ship as she resumed her approach.

"At ease, cadets," she grinned at them.

But Kathryn's smile quickly morphed into a scowl when she saw who had been the center of the students' attention. Tom wasn't standing beside the holographic Delta Flyer, but Chakotay was. "Where's Commander Paris?" she asked with more brusqueness than she had intended. "I thought he was the person I was to be working with today."

"Sorry for the disappointment," Chakotay said as he approached her. "Tom got called away at the last minute by Admiral Montgomery. They thought that since I'm working with the refit of Voyager and the Flyer that I could fill in for him."

Kathryn couldn't say anything because she knew that next to Tom, Chakotay probably did have the most expertise regarding the spacecraft. "Agreed," she nodded. "So how do you want to do this? The way Tom and I had discussed things, I would describe the various functions and he would do a hands-on display of how they work."

"Sounds fine with me," Chakotay nodded as he opened the entry hatch of the shuttle.

With that, Kathryn launched into her prepared comments, with Chakotay doing the 'show' part of their tag team show-and-tell presentation, interspersed with ample periods of exploration and hands-on efforts by the class. Three hours later, the cadets left the hall, thrilled with excitement and wonder of the Flyer's capabilities.

Kathryn sighed and leaned against the hull of the Flyer. "Well, overall I think that went pretty well. What do you think?"

"Considering your disappointment of a last-minute change in partners? Yes, I agree that we got across the main points." Chakotay turned and clamored into the shuttle. "I'm just going to shut down all the systems and we can go."

Kathryn began following him inside. "Chakotay, that's absurd. This is a holographic simulation; all we have to do is close the program."

But Chakotay was already underway, following the shutdown checklist. "I guess it's just force of habit. Anyway, some of the functions have a different layout in this model - it'll help me remember the changes."

Kathryn settled down into the co-pilot's seat next to him. "I don't remember your being this precise when we were on Voyager," she smiled as she stretched out, relaxed now that the demonstration was over. "In fact, I can recall some near catastrophes with you at the helm of a shuttle or two."

Chakotay's fingers flew over the panels as he tried to stifle a laugh. "I always got a bad rap with that. Tom's record was worse than mine."

"But Tom flew shuttle missions more frequently than you did," Kathryn smirked. "Percentage wise, he..."

Kathryn's words were interrupted as suddenly anything that wasn't attached to or buckled down within the shuttle began flying - and that included her and Chakotay. "What the..." she exclaimed with shock as the two of them careened through the shuttle.

"I accidentally must have turned off the gravitational system; I'll get it back," he answered, trying to reach back to the main control panel.

"But we're on Earth - we should have gravity, Chakotay!" Kathryn cried out, grabbing for the back of a seat to stabilize herself. "And the safety protocols should be on here in the holodeck; they certainly were when the cadets were in here." With that, she called out her order. "Computer, are safety programs currently in effect in here?"

"Negative," the monotone voice answered.

Kathryn and Chakotay exchanged shocked expressions. Why would they be off now when only minutes before everything had been functioning?

"Computer, run diagnostics on safeties," Chakotay barked, trying to anchor himself back into his seat.

"Unable to comply," the computer droned in reply.

Kathryn's face turned to steel. "Computer, this is Admiral Kathryn Janeway. By authorization Starfleet order delta-tau 729, I order you shut down this program."

"Authorization does not include cessation of this program" came the response. However, a sudden thump and force within the shuttle indicated that the anti-grav systems had been turned off.

Chakotay landed on his back with a muffled 'Omph!' Before he could catch his breath, Kathryn's body thumped down on top of his, her torso perpendicular to his and her arms splayed wide. The next sound that came from Chakotay was a groan.

The couple lay in shock for a brief time as they readjusted to their surroundings becoming stationary again. Suddenly, Chakotay squirmed, trying to extricate his body out from underneath Kathryn but he seemed uncomfortably trapped. "Uh... Kathryn, you might want to move your right hand to another place."

Kathryn looked down at him, her eyes dazed and uncomprehending. Following his orders, she moved her hand, squeezing it to see if she had injured herself.

Chakotay let out a squeak and jerked, causing her to further tighten her fingers. "But you might not want to do that!" he finally managed to moan.

Kathryn bolted upright as the meaning of his words transcribed themselves in her brain. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Chakotay!" she said softly as she instinctively administered a comforting pat to the afflicted area. He groaned again and she pressed herself back, her face purple with embarrassment. "Sorry; I'm so sorry!" she kept repeating.

Chakotay tried to compose himself and finally let out a low whistle of relief. "Well, now we can at least get out of here and get a team to check out this holodeck." He shifted himself over to the door of the shuttle only to discover that it wouldn't open. "Damnation!" he blurted out uncharacteristically. He fumbled with the manual release and even it would not budge. "What the hell is going on?" he yelled in frustration, slamming into the door with his fist.

"I'm going to have someone's head for this," Kathryn fumed as she scrambled to make her own attempt to open the door; she hit her comm badge at the same time. "Janeway to building maintenance. We need you in hololab number three."

No response.

She hit it again. "Janeway to anyone answering this channel - I have an emergency."

Again nothing from the other end.

Kathryn glared at Chakotay. "Are you playing games with me?"

Chakotay threw his hands up in mock surrender. "Not me! Why would I risk being on the opposite end of your temper?"

"I don't have a temper!" Kathryn snapped back. A warm blush rose in her cheeks as she realized how she must sound. "All right, so I'm a bit impatient. But you've got to admit that it's quite peculiar that you're always around lately when all these calamities occur."

"So are you," Chakotay retorted with a chuckle. "But I agree that there's something a bit more than coincidence involved."

Suddenly all support around them disappeared in a quick poof as the Delta Flyer disappeared into nothingness and they tumbled through a couple of meters of space to the floor of the hololab. Their landings were softened by what appeared to be a lush carpet of grass, with tall trees in the background.

Kathryn and Chakotay opened their eyes to find themselves sprawled in the deep lawn.

"What happened?" Kathryn asked as she clamored to sit up.

Chakotay pulled himself onto all fours and shook his head before looking around. "I think the room has switched programs; it looks like we're in the middle of a forest of some kind."

"Flotter's forest!" Kathryn said, her eyes becoming large with recognition. "We're in Flotter's forest."

Chakotay crawled over to her and heaved himself into a seated position. "Now why would it do that? Why would an Academy training hololab have a program for Flotter's forest?"

Kathryn struggled to get to her feet and breathed a sigh of relief in that it didn't feel like she was injured in any way. "Beats me but we're going to find out." She extended her hand to Chakotay and tugged him; his large frame rose from the ground. "Let's get out of here before anything else happens."

Fifteen paces through the small copse of trees and they were at the portal to the lab. Chakotay punched in the code to open the large doors but they remained immobile.

"Override door closing codes, authorization Janeway theta-delta 32," Kathryn huffed in disgust but she wasn't surprised to hear the now familiar words: "Unable to comply."

"I'll make you comply," Chakotay growled as he found the master control panel on the lower wall close to the door. He dropped to a prone position and jerked open the covering of the panel, his hands lunging into the box. But as soon as he reached out to override the panel's functions, an invisible force snatched them and whisked them into the middle of the immense room as it changed its physical form again.

Kathryn and Chakotay stood back to back as they surveyed their new surroundings. No more grass or trees, but a darkened, smoky room that smelled of stale beer and wine. Chakotay rubbed his eyes and blinked. "I think we're in Sandrine's, Kathryn," he whispered aside to her. "The pool table is right in front of me."

"And the bar is close to me," Kathryn answered.

Each of them continued their visual scan of the place. "But I don't see anyone else," Chakotay responded. "Hello!" he called out. "Anyone here?"

Only silence answered him.

"I think we're here alone," Kathryn commented with a sigh as she turned back towards him.

Chakotay swiveled at the same moment and they found themselves mere millimeters from each other's face. Kathryn felt the warmth of his breath heat up her cheeks, already reddening by the sudden proximity of their bodies. There was nowhere for Chakotay to put his hands in the sudden uncomfortable position except on her shoulders and the action pushed their bodies even closer. Kathryn flushed all the more as she realized that it wasn't only Chakotay's breath that was warm. She pulled back a bit and his hands slid off.

"Let's try that panel one more time," she smiled as she tentatively moved away towards the hololab wall. "Third time is the charm."

Kathryn squatted down to the glowing panel and keyed in a coded signal. The lights of Sandrine's flickered and faded in the background and she turned to face Chakotay with a look of accomplishment. However, by the time she rotated her head, she felt herself thrown against him once more, as both of them became encircled within the close confines of a Jeffries tube.

Unable to stand upright, the pair sat down with a defeated groan. "Look at it this way, Kathryn," Chakotay said, trying to raise their spirits. "It's late in the day and our staffs will wonder where we are. They'll check with the hololab people who will certainly have us out of this mess in just a short time."

"You're right," Kathryn sighed. "But I'm at a loss as to why we're going through all these programs. We better not get too settled because it will probably change again. I'm just hoping we don't end up in B'Elanna's day of honor ritual with the Klingons in the cave - I didn't bring my bat'leth.

Chakotay suddenly bolted into a ramrod position and grabbed Kathryn by the shoulders. "Kathryn, I think you might have hit on something!" he exclaimed.

"Really? What are you thinking?" Kathryn pulled herself to attention. "All of these programs that have been playing out - they're from Voyager, " he said excitedly. "I think someone from Voyager has done this as some sort of a joke."

"Some joke!" she snorted. "I think we're past playing games, Chakotay. We've got some serious times and rebuilding ahead of us." She looked at him with a glaring stare. "Are you sure you didn't do this?"

"No, but maybe I should have," he answered seriously as he took her shoulders. "Look, Kathryn; we've been trying to find some time alone together..."

"For that talk," she finished as she swallowed hard. "I guess we have it now while we wait for our rescue. But I really don't know if I can..."

"Shhh," he whispered, putting a couple of fingers to her lips. "It's not going to be hard."

Kathryn hesitated for a moment and then steeled herself. "That's easy for you to say; you're not the one on the receiving end of bad news."

"Who says that it's bad news? Look, Kathryn, I wanted to explain to you about Seven." He wrapped his arm around her, but she pulled away. "It's not what you think."

Kathryn's eyes and voice hardened. "What's not to know? Two months ago, you two were head over heels in love with each other. Now you've split, but I understand that it's because you wanted to accept the captaincy of Voyager and she wanted to do scientific exploration. I can understand that - I know what's it's like to love your ship."

"Yes and no," Chakotay answered. "Yes, I was more than happy with Starfleet's offer of Voyager's command, but it's also 'no' because I realized that Seven had come along all too well in her lessons in how to be human - she used me, plain and simple. She used me to activate her emotions and she used me to get her the position she wanted once we settled back into the Alpha Quadrant. She manipulates people just as she manipulates data, with pinpoint accuracy and as a means to the end. She certainly made a fool of me in clouding my judgment over the last few months. She saw that I was unhappy and felt underused aboard Voyager. Playing on my despondency, she learned all my weaknesses and used them to play up her own agenda."

Kathryn let the words digest for a little while. "In other words, you let another part of your anatomy lead you rather than your brain."

The hurt puppy expression on Chakotay's face told her that she'd boiled down his long speech to its essence. "That's putting it a bit crudely, but yes; I guess you're right. It had been quite a while since I'd had that much of an ego-boost and I'll admit that I let myself succumb to her tactics. Now I know what an absolute fool I let myself become."

Kathryn remained silent as his confession began to sink in. Still without speaking, she reached inside her jacket and pulled out something. She opened her hand to show him the contents. "This watch, Chakotay - the one you gave me for Christmas."

"Yes?"

"On the card, you wrote that you hoped that Voyager wasn't the only thing that could be repaired. I know you meant us, hoping that our relationship could be revitalized, too." Kathryn felt a sting rise in her eyes but she fought back the tears. "You know that it can't ever be exactly like it was before, Chakotay."

He pulled her close and this time she didn't move away. "Of course not and I wouldn't expect it to be. We've each got a lot of scars that will be with us forever. Every bump and bruise of yours has been one for me, too. But I want you to know that I love you more now than I ever have, Kathryn Janeway."

Kathryn ran a finger along the curve of his chiseled cheek. "Every single one of them? Even the stubborn arguments and equally stubborn one-sided decisions?"

Chakotay grabbed her hand and began to nibble her fingertips. "Hmmm. Can I think about that for awhile?" he teased, his eyes dancing.

Kathryn pulled her hand away in feigned anger. "And you expect me to say I love you after that kind of a comment?"

"So you do love me!" he grinned.

"Of course I love you - and here's how much." She grabbed him and pulled him down to her, searching for his mouth.

As their lips and mouths met, sparks and sputters disintegrated the confining environment around them. Only when they pulled apart did they realize that they sat in the middle of the floor of the grid of the bare hololab.

"What the...?" Chakotay muttered as he looked up and saw their surroundings.

"Huh?" Kathryn shook her head and joined Chakotay in his disbelief. They rose stiffly from their entwined position and surveyed the empty room and began walking towards the large door. Suddenly, the doors opened, as if there had never been a problem. "It's as if one of us had said 'open Sesame' or some other magic words."

"May we did - maybe we did say the magic words," Chakotay said incredulously. He took her hand and led her out into the hall of the huge Starfleet building. Just then, their communicators chirped, another improvement over their previous situation.

"Janeway here," Kathryn responded.

"Admiral? Are you all right?" came the voice from the other end. "This is Commander Tegrim in the security office. We've been trying to figure out how to open the hololab and get you out."

"We're fine, Commander; you did an excellent job in rescuing Captain Chakotay and me."

"Uh, that's just it," came Tegrim's voice. "We couldn't get anything to work. I was just about to contact Admiral Ross for his override code. Then, everything just sort of... happened."

"Sort of like 'magic'," Chakotay reiterated.

"Yes sir," Tegrim confirmed. "Like magic! But my crew and I are still going to check out that hololab - something strange happened and 'Fleet is going to want some answers."

"Maybe this is one time they'll just have to settle for no answer," Chakotay smiled as the communication ended.

The deserted hall was silent around them. "So what are we going to do now?" Kathryn whispered, not wanting to sound like a loud speaker in the huge emptiness. "I really need to get back to my office and finish up some things."

Chakotay wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "Don't you think that those things can wait? I believe we have some much older unfinished business to take care of."

"But Admiral Ross expects us to..." Kathryn interjected.

"Ross expects us to finally admit what most of Starfleet knows already - that you and I need to address our personal issues before we can perform our best for Starfleet."

Kathryn's eyes lit up. "Ross! You don't think that he..."

"It wouldn't surprise me. But then, I can think of at least a hundred more people who might have been in on this plot."

"Waiting for us to say the right words," Kathryn nodded, finally understanding.

=^=

Gretchen jumped and dropped the book she was reading when the breep sounded from her communication monitor. She had been sitting by it almost continuously for the past three days, waiting to hear again from Tom. "Well?" she asked breathlessly almost before she activated the screen.

"Mission accomplished," stated a beaming Tom Paris. "Although I was beginning to wonder if we were going to have to configure those walls of that hololab into a garbage compactor and squeeze the words out of them. But as soon as they each said the words... poof! Everything disappeared and they were free to go."

"I must say that you and Tuvok came up with quite an ingenious if not convoluted holodeck program," Gretchen said in congratulations. "I thought that I was going to have to come out there and drag Kathryn by her ears to get her off her duff. But you say that everyone you asked for cooperation was behind our little scheme?"

Tom bobbled his head in disbelief, a look of astonishment covering his face. "That's the amazing thing - everyone responded, to the person! We probably had half the admiralty in on the plan. Even my dad was asking what he could do to spur things along. When Tuvok signed on, I figured that it was a done deal."

"It's miraculous that neither Kathryn nor Chakotay caught wind of it," Gretchen added.

"I think they both have been so absorbed in their own little private worlds of misery that they never noticed. All that matters is that it worked. Of course, B'Elanna and I have to redo our dining room and buy furniture for it just a month after we bought the dining set."

"Let me take care of replacing everything for you," Gretchen laughed. "It's a small price to pay for such an outcome. Thank you again, Tom."

"Sleep well, Gretchen," he smiled back. "Its' been a good day."

Gretchen's face beamed with happiness. "Yes, it has. Except... I wonder why I haven't heard anything from Kathryn yet?"

"I think we both know the answer to that question!" Tom laughed as the link closed.

=^=

EPILOGUE - 07 February 2378

Chakotay rolled onto his side, propped himself on his elbow and looked down at Kathryn. Her hair lay feathered over the pillow like an opened fan and her blue eyes were glazed from too much time in bed. "I hate to say it, but we really should think about getting up and packing. We've got to be heading back to San Francisco in three hours."

"Spoilsport!" she smiled lazily, reaching up to trace the deep blue of his tattoo.

He leaned down to kiss her eyelids. "We were lucky to get an entire week for a honeymoon with all the assignments and deadlines on our schedules."

Kathryn's eyes opened again; this time they were glistening with merriment. "Nonsense - Starfleet just didn't want us to cause any more incidents that would make all the tabloid news!"

"Well, maybe that, too," he grinned, his lips marking a trail down her neck and around to her ear.

Kathryn's moan told him that he'd found 'that' spot again. He paused momentarily to ask a question. "So - do you think your mother and sister minded putting together a wedding in just two days?"

Kathryn's husky laugh echoed through the room. "Did they mind? Chakotay, I think they had all their plans in place from the day after we landed! Not even Neelix could have whipped up such a wedding celebration on such quick notice. What I'm still wondering about is how the whole plan got spurred into action in the first place."

Chakotay laid back into the softness of the bed, obviously taken by Kathryn's question. "I know it seems silly and rather obvious, but my first bet would be Tom. He's a better judge of human nature than most people realize."

"Except when it comes to his own life," Kathryn chortled.

"I think that we all fall into that trap," Chakotay countered. "And your mother is pretty good about catching nuances in tone and reading body language. I'm sure that in your messages to her via the Pathfinder array she could tell without your uttering a word."

Kathryn nodded in agreement, her demeanor taking on a half-serious look. "All too true. For as far back as I can remember, she's always said to Phoebe and me that 'Even after I'm long dead and gone, I'll still be your mother.' Or maybe that was more of a threat," Kathryn grinned, remembering years long gone. "She once told a childhood friend of mine that the reason she always knew when we were up to mischief was because she had eyes in the back of her head. I think from that time forward, Moira honestly did believe that my mom had that extra set of eyes! And she's never let them stray far from me, even when she didn't know where - or if! - I was."

"I think and feel the same way about my father," Chakotay added.

"Do you think he would have approved of me?" Kathryn asked, pulling Chakotay down to her.

"I know he does; he and I came to that agreement a long time ago," Chakotay answered, wrapping his arms around her and pushing her down onto the bed. "Now - where were we before we started to get so maudlin?"

"You had just told me the unpleasant news that we had to give all this up in three hours," Kathryn eyes gleamed with impishness as her hands began exploring his body.

"Maybe we'll have to give up this place, but we'll never give up what we have now," Chakotay said, returning her caresses.

"I'm sorry it took me so long to say the words, Chakotay. They had been in my heart for many years."

"Shhh - that's all in the past," Chakotay answered with a deep kiss. "The important thing is that we finally reached the right time, in the right place, to say them. And when we did, magic happened. Now we can say them whenever we want, wherever we want. Just like we can do this..."



=^= The End =^=


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