Star Trek Voyager: Lower Decks

Author's Note: I would like to thank the editors, Cassatt and Shayenne, for the opportunity they afforded me by inviting me onto this project. My disappointments over the ending of Voyager were greatly alleviated as we all worked feverishly to answer the questions most prominently posed in the last half-season of the show. This aptly named Fixit is like mental therapy that you can read! As always, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my Collective--Barb, BR, and Liz--who not only convinced me I had to do this despite my time constraints, they also sat up many a night waving the "Go, Girl!" banners when I was flagging! I've polled their opinions at crossroads, sipped their cyber-coffee at "crunch times", and trusted their impeccable betas always. Look for them between the lines, because my words are woven through with their care and concern. Thanks, ladies--humble and heartfelt.

Tying The Threads

Chapter Three: Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

by LA Koehler

Tom ran from the bridge with his new title.

Someone's father.

At first, in the turbo, he wasn't sure he could stand properly. So much had happened in the last half hour! Despite attaining the goal they had fought, worked, and sweat so hard for over seven years—shattering all odds—Tom was surprised to find his mind fixating on the one twist that fate had flung his way without warning.

He could not reconcile the images, within himself, of the father he had just seen and the father he had just become. God! What were the chances that after a decade's time he'd have to deal with the man and all their combined baggage again at this very moment? About as slim as the chance that Voyager would ever make it home again, he laughed aloud into the descending lift, so there you go!

There was a strange, quiet fellow in their old Maquis cell—what was his name?—that had that stock phrase whenever anything went wrong at the worst possible time. He'd wait for the cursing to die down, then his soft lisp would waft across the room. "And the gods laughed," he'd say. Tom never understood that guy. Until now. He shook his head to clear it.

He couldn't worry about his father right now. He couldn't spoil the moment. Tom smiled then. The moment. Could it have finally come, for real? After all those false starts, even after hearing her tiny voice—his eyes welled up at the thought, insanely proud that all their friends had heard it, too—he still couldn't picture it yet.

A father.

It was so unreal. Your wife gets bigger, and she seems to sense things about the soggy little person hiding out inside her that you just don't feel for some reason. And it's alive, for certain, because it kicks your arm half the night while you cuddle with your spouse. At least, until the warpcore-like heat radiating off her drives you away. And you name it, and scan it, and see it in holos...

But just like when you were a kid, the birthday present wasn't real until the wrapping was torn off and you held it. The same giddy rush of excitement came back to Tom Paris, only a thousand-fold because this joy was shared, and when the turbolift doors opened onto Deck 5...

Tom ran.

One step into sickbay, he found himself unable to move. He was vaguely aware that the doors closed behind him. He felt his hand come up to his mouth which was hanging open, and heard the whir of a holoimager capturing a scene—several whirs, several scenes. He heard a sigh that must have been his own.

And his heart took a picture.

B'Elanna sat cross-legged on the biobed, her flushed face a mirror of the giddiness he knew well from the turbolift. She looked...incredible! Her sweaty hair had begun to dry, frizzing slightly on the ends. The skin beneath her eyes formed dark circles of weariness, and her eyes themselves were bloodshot from the tremendous exertion of birthing a baby. Their baby.

But the diffusion lighting in the bay behind her refracted through the frizz, forming a halo around her and putting Tom in mind of the famous Madonna paintings. And her face shone with the rush of the occasion, making her seem to glow like the ancient Vulcan Truth Goddesses. And in that moment that he would carry with him forever, she was all those things, and more. She looked...incredible!

A startled mewling broke his spell as B'Elanna tipped the blue bundle toward him. A tiny, wet arm shot out, causing the swaddling to fall away from the most perfect thing he had ever laid eyes on.

"Tom, look what we did!" B'Elanna said with awe, smiling excitedly.

"Aww, she's perfect! I-I mean...she's just perfect!" he hurried to sit on the bed beside them both, one hand reaching to cradle the baby's crown, the other catching onto the flailing fist. B'Elanna reached out to run her palm across both sides of Tom's face tenderly, wiping at tear tracks he hadn't even been aware of.

B'Elanna giggled conspiratorially. "Can you believe this?"

"What I'm believing right now is that I love you, B'Elanna." He leaned forward to kiss her firmly, letting go of the baby's fist to cup the back of his wife's head. "I love you, and I love you, and I love you," he smooshed against her mouth as she laughed.

Suddenly, they felt two hands remove the baby from between them.

"Be careful—you're going to drop her!" The Doctor pulled the small body to his chest. He looked up to see identical neutral expressions staring at him and belatedly felt embarrassed by his exaggerated concern. "I'll just...hold her while you two...continue with your happiness," he finished lamely.

Tom and B'Elanna exchanged a meaningful glance.

"Sam warned us about you, Doc," Tom admitted, but warmly. "You gonna let her old man hold her sometime today, or what?"

"Give me the baby back and no one gets hurt," B'Elanna monotoned, but her eyes shone kindly.

"Ah, yes—I forgot," he smiled gently passing the infant back to her mother.

"Forgot what?" Tom asked, trying to be patient and not snatch the baby from his wife's arms right then and there. As it turned out, his wait was not long.

B'Elanna held the baby out, leaning in close to her husband. Tom kissed her tiny ridges; they were so much softer than he had imagined! "We haven't spoken her name yet. I wanted to wait for you to be here." They both smiled.

As was the Klingon tradition to scream an honorable death to Sto-Vo-Kor to announce the arrival of a warrior, it was also the ritual to announce a noble birth to one's friends and enemies. Though not overly religious, both Tom and B'Elanna had liked the idea enough to modify it to fit their personal needs.

"Would you...?" Tom offered. B'Elanna smiled and finally, finally handed his daughter over to him.

"I'm too tired to make such a big fuss—go ahead," she leaned back against the headboard the doctor had quietly attached while they spoke. She smiled, and Tom hit his commbadge.

"Paris to the bridge." There was a considerable pause.

"Go ahead, Dad," Janeway's voice drawled. They could hear laughter ripple across the excited hubbub in the background, making B'Elanna chuckle.

"Captain, I, ah..." Tom started, but looking at his beautiful daughter, he found himself too choked up to continue. B'Elanna reached out to squeeze his wrist and nod to him.

He took a deep breath. "We know you're all a little busy up there right now. But, B'Elanna and I would like our friends and loved ones to join us in the naming of the baby." He cleared his throat and spoke loudly to the comm system.

"Welcome to this world," for the traditional ‘honorable warriors', Tom substituted, appropriately, "of epic Voyagers, Miral Kathryn Paris, daughter of B'Elanna and Thomas. A worthy addition to our House!"

"Here, here," they heard Harry exclaim, followed by raucous cheering. "And, judging by the look on her face," their best friend continued, "I'm betting you never informed the captain of your final name choice."

"Tom, B'Elanna, congratulations. And on behalf of Voyager and the crew, I welcome Miral Kathryn...into our ranks." Her voice caught on the pronunciation of her own name then the commlink went quiet. After a brief pause Harry came over once again.

"She went to the briefing room, guys. Between the excitement up here and naming the baby after her, I think you guys got to her," he said with understanding. "I'll be down as soon as I can. Hey, B'Elanna—I can almost see my parents' house from here!" he joked. The commlink closed.

B'Elanna turned to her husband, mouth hanging open. "You mean we made it all the way? Sector 001?" The Doctor joined them at the bedside now, as interested as his patient in the answer.

Tom had rested his cheek on Miral's head during Harry's pronouncement and he rocked her gently, forward and back.

"One lightyear from Earth itself," he finally said, strangely crestfallen. He pulled the sleeping baby off his shoulder to look into her face, and smiled. "God, B'Elanna, she's amazing." His smile faded slightly.

"Too bad getting home had to go and ruin a perfect day."

One-handed, Tom opened Miral's file in the Doc's database.

"Bowel functions normal, first stool 1900 hours," he looked resignedly at his other hand. One down, the christened new father thought, only about 5,000 more to go before potty training. B'Elanna laughed to herself as she lay the baby on the biobed between her legs in order to clean her.

"What a beautiful present, sweetie! I'm sure your Daddy appreciates it," she enthused to her oblivious daughter.

"Yeah, but you could have started with something smaller—Daddy wouldn't have minded. In fact, it's the thought that counts, Miral," Tom shot back, and they both laughed, not realizing they were being observed.

"So, she's giving you both crap already, huh?" the deep voice rumbled from the office doorway.

"Chakotay!" B'Elanna held out her arms for her friend and he moved happily toward her. He clapped Tom on the back as he passed.

"I'd shake your hand, Big Guy, but..."

"Oh, rest assured, I would never accept that gift from you, Paris," he joked, though with a hint of truth, and the laughter renewed itself. He leaned down to hug B'Elanna gently, but firmly.

Miral made a tiny guttural noise beneath their arms. The new mother leaned back from her friend. She smiled proudly and nodded down to her daughter in invitation.

"Well." He sighed softly over the wriggling form. "B'Elanna, you always told me you were no artist; I have to dispute that. This is some masterpiece you've made here."

"Thank you."

He reached to pick her up but B'Elanna interrupted him. "Unless you want a present too, Uncle Chakotay, you'd better wait for me to put this on her." She held up a swatch of cloth smaller than a standard tissue.

"Wow. So tiny."

"As long as it's bigger than my hand, we're alright," Tom called from the recycler.

"You're our first visitor—how did you get the captain to let you go?" the new mother asked.

"I piped up the quickest and took advantage of my rank," he deadpanned. "That means I asked first and was the most expendable right now," his eyes danced as he clarified.

"I think you were probably expendable long before now," B'Elanna returned his jest. "I understand Tom had to fly this crate through the conduits, but why weren't you at least here to help me? I mean, what good is the First Officer to operations when the only order was probably, ‘Hang on!'"

"Oh, I'm betting the orders down here would have been pretty much the same. At least on the bridge, nothing got broken," he waggled his fingers lithely. "But I do regret that we all couldn't be here for you—then, and now."

"Yeah, well, I had expected to see you last week, too, bearing some secret tribal remedy for my screaming back pain."

"I said I'm sorry B'Elanna," he replied, a small grin playing on the corners of his mouth.

"Yeah, well, maybe it's just not enough. I think you might have to give up some time and babysit or something to make up for it," she mumbled over her task, though Chakotay caught the edges of her grin.

B'Elanna finished diapering and lifted the baby gently into the large hands of her oldest friend. A sense of contentment swept over her to watch the quiet man's huge paw rub the tiny back tenderly.

They traded barbs a bit longer and everything seemed fairly normal, though subdued. Then Tom brought up the question of Admiral Janeway's motivations. It was innocent speculation, the same that everyone had been intent upon the last several days, but Chakotay seemed bothered by it, his eyes shifting aimlessly as if the it were all new to him, somehow.

Never one to mince words well, Tom used the word ‘apologize' when suggesting that Chakotay hadn't been terribly attentive to command matters, or the captain, during recent events. For a moment, B'Elanna thought she sensed fear in her friend, defensiveness. But just as quickly as it had come, it vanished, and the mask he had worn recently as his normal mein was once again in place. He seemed flat and listless to B'Elanna.

"B'Elanna, Tom, you take care of your lovely daughter. I have something I need to go do. And maybe I'll be able to find out some answers for you."

He kissed B'Elanna's forehead, and she was tremendously touched when he reached a giant palm down to scrub Miral's ridges in instant familiarity. But that distraction was there still. The steady calm that normally emanated from him was dissonant, and it cast a pall on B'Elanna's happiness in the wake of his departure.

They didn't say anything for a moment after the door swished closed. B'Elanna had that look on her face, the one that says she's been proven right, or has determinedly made up her mind.

"Did you see? Did you see him? Still think we're over-reacting?" They had spent more than a little of their quiet time lately pondering the strange behavior of the First Officer. B'Elanna had become mildly concerned about him shortly after their return from Quarra.

His affect seemed to be off, she had said—she no longer felt the warmth that he exuded naturally in the presence of his friends.

Then she saw and heard about Jaffen and she became downright worried. In fact, her quiet but gregarious friend seemed to avoid any meaningful interaction with anyone whatsoever. She and Tom paid attention to his dealings with Janeway. If you didn't know them well, you could assume that everything was business as usual.

If you didn't know either of them well. But between B'Elanna and Tom, they had the market cornered on the command team. They agreed that both parties had been very distant to each other in recent months.

"Something's wrong, Tom—I'm telling you, he's not right. I should have made you scan him for drugs, or something," she mumbled and began to do arm curls with the baby cradled on her forearms, little head in her hands, feet by her elbows. Miral was becoming fussy. Her mother knew the feeling.

"Forget drugs. Remember that movie I made you watch a while back, about the ‘pod people'?"

"Don't even joke like that. After all the things we've seen on Voyager, that's well within the realm of possibility."

Tom shook his head. He plunked down on the bed next to his wife, watching the baby gently rise and fall.

"I don't know what we can do about it, B'Elanna. Every time you've broached the subject of Chakotay with Chakotay, he clams up. Then he does just enough to get us off his back—like come to dinner. Then the next day, it's ‘business as unusual' again on the bridge."

"I know. I just...when I was depressed he knew just how to draw me out. I feel like I'm failing him somehow now, not being able to reach him."

Tom looked down as she spoke of the depression. It was still a difficult period in their relationship for him to dredge up. He felt he had failed her by not noticing her injuries sooner, by missing the symptoms of mental distress. By not being the one to drag her back into the light, to acceptance.

That was part of the reason for his instant support of her concerns about Chakotay. He never wanted her to feel as paralyzed and helpless as he had been then. And he still felt he owed the Old Man a debt of gratitude for facing B'Elanna and all her furies head on then, without flinching.

He squeezed her shoulder. "You can't make someone stop lying to you, B'Elanna. First, he has to stop lying to himself."

"Don't I know it," she murmured darkly.

Janeway sneaked in through the lab entrance. It was, after all, the middle of the night. Her tour of the ship turned up more activity than usual, understandably, but for the most part everyone's adrenaline rush had worn off and they slept. ‘In peace, finally', she silently thanked her future self.

She crept through the office toward the darkened sickbay. She only wanted to see them, B'Elanna and the baby, to study the little girl in the dark and decide, ‘whose eyes, whose chin?' To walk close to B'Elanna's bed and look at her for a moment, to be with her now the way she couldn't be earlier. To catch up with Tom if he were still awake, enjoy the glow on his face as he talked about his new family.

Gliding silently through the doorway, Janeway smiled broadly, because she had forgotten one simple fact. She forgot that babies don't wear chronometers.

B'Elanna was sitting up in bed with a boneless chicken on her lap. Miral was leaned forward drunkenly, prevented from falling by her mother's hand beneath her chin, half-encircling her neck. The other hand patted her back rhythmically, filling the room with a low thrumming sound.

"Oh, B'Elanna!" Janeway whispered, mindful of the snoring father on biobed three.

B'Elanna just smiled, her hands being occupied at the moment, and accepted the ‘group hug' Janeway bestowed on them.

Janeway let them go and leaned back, gasping anew at the sight of Miral. Miral Kathryn.

"B'Elanna—look what you two did!" she murmured in awe, smiling. B'Elanna tossed her head back and laughed.

"Bet you never thought you'd ever say that sentence in relation to Tom and me and mean it in a good way!"

Janeway admonished her with a glance, but laughed just the same.

"I was surprised when the computer told me you were still here. I had expected you would want to sleep in your own bed and put her in the cradle her father fussed over so much." Janeway couldn't seem to stop smiling.

"Yeah, well, with her mixed heritage, the Doctor wanted to monitor her for a few hours. It just seemed less disruptive to stay the night after that. It doesn't really matter which bed I'm not sleeping in anyway, does it?" They chuckled some more together.

The captain ran the back of a finger gently down one soft cheek as B'Elanna continued her ministrations. She felt the loss, now, of having missed the birth. Everything came at a price, she thought wearily. And everything lately cost too much.

"I'm so sorry Tom couldn't be here, B'Elanna. I knew what I was asking him to miss, and it killed me to have to do it." She looked so regretful that the engineer couldn't even work up any resentment.

"Hey, we're alive, so...I understand." Janeway didn't look placated, just worse for the concession. More drastic measures were called for. "Your tactical timing was pretty shitty, though," she bobbed her head to catch the captain's eye. Janeway blinked in surprise, then smiled once again.

"Agreed! But it looks like you did well."

"I've definitely had more fun times in my life, but the Doctor was actually wonderful. You should have seen him!" She sobered a bit. "It was definitely not what I expected. Not the birth itself, I mean, but...Tom and I both had looked forward to having the family present—you, and Chakotay. Harry, if he could have stood it," she added jokingly. "I'm just kidding—he would have been great, I know it; head cheerleader of the Delta Quadrant!"

"Next time," Janeway promised.

"Oh, go to Gre'thor!" B'Elanna shot out in shock. "Give me some time to adjust here!"

"While we're in this frame of mind," the captain said mischievously, "speaking of births, I have something to tell you that you may appreciate. Since time and distance are immeasurable in the conduits, we couldn't ascertain for you exactly where Miral was born, though half the bridge crew tried a bit ago. So we decided that, for the record books, Miral may claim the longest birth canal journey in all of history," she smiled wickedly.

"Well, it certainly felt like it!"

B'Elanna finished burping the baby and without preamble handed her over to the captain. Janeway called for a holographic lounge chair alongside B'Elanna's bed, then promptly curled up in it, facing her ship's chief. They looked like matching bookends, which was appropriate. Janeway was the brains of Voyager, but B'Elanna was her heart. Janeway looked out for the welfare of Voyager's crew, but it was the chief who looked out for Voyager herself.

"Well," Janeway finally murmured, looking into the little face in her lap. "First night sitting up with your baby."

"And maybe your last, with yours" B'Elanna said sympathetically. Janeway smiled, a little sadly.

"Yes." She felt anxiety clutch at her, then. The end of her command. The thought that they could all be home, perhaps as early as tomorrow night, both thrilled and frightened her. She worried about what would become of her Voyager, who had done whatever she had begged of the old girl, and often so much more. She wanted to gather the crew to her like she held Miral now, because at least in the Delta Quadrant they faced their dangers together. For the ex-Maquis, for the five people from Equinox, this was no longer the case. They would be alone.

"We'll be fine," B'Elanna read her thoughts. "What are they going to do—throw the book at us? I think they're going to consider time served aboard Voyager as a special punishment in its own right and then slap our wrists. To them, this was the ‘ship of the damned'." They both snorted half-heartedly at the jab. But Janeway saw through the new mother.

"Good try, but I'm not buying the cavalier act. I know you consider Voyager your home, with Tom. You had both begun to look forward to raising your own little voyager here, and now at the moment of your greatest personal triumph," she raised the little fists that held her thumbs into the air slightly, "fate throws you back to the wolves, so to speak. I know you B'Elanna; you won't go into the good night so easily."

"You're right about that, Captain—if they want me they're definitely going to have to work for it at the prosecutor's table. But you're also wrong about something else." She smiled honestly. "I don't consider Voyager to be my home, with Tom. I consider Tom to be my home, on Voyager. And I'm going to miss the hell out of my family here—the only one I've ever had that remained true to me—but wherever I go with Tom, and now Miral, I will be home."

Seven years ago—hell, two years ago—B'Elanna would have felt embarrassed to express herself that freely. And she definitely would have been at a loss to see Kathryn Janeway so close to tears. But she had grown so much in that time, spiritually and emotionally, that both events simply made her feel alive, and secure.

"'Lanna, you deserve so many good things in your life. I think...despite what happens over the next few months, you're going to find that the tide has turned for you, from now on."

"Yes, Ma'am," she used her husband's favorite phrase of affection.

They sat in companionable quiet for some time then, letting the atmosphere settle. Miral, who had fallen asleep, reawakened, but seemed content for the moment to stare at her secondary namesake. Janeway spoke foolishly to her, as grown people are wont to do, and quietly expressed how humbled she was to hear the baby's name on the bridge.

B'Elanna's face remained serious. "She was named for the two most important women in my life—the one who raised me, and the one who gave me a second chance. And Tom feels the same. There was never a question about the ‘Kathryn' part." She hesitated momentarily, loathe to intensify emotions again. She looked into her deflated lap. "I just wish my mother could have known everything."

She felt a hand caress her forearm. When it reached to her wrist, she turned her palm up and let Janeway place hers atop it. They both smiled lightly. "It's okay. You know I've made my peace with her," B'Elanna reassured.

B'Elanna had been strangely calm when she received the news of Miral's death during a senseless terrorist attack at her research laboratory on Qo'noS. Janeway had been informed of the message's content before her engineer was called in—standard procedure for relaying a death in the family—and had stayed with her and Tom to offer them support. The younger woman's control as the messenger droned on with the details had disturbed Janeway, and upset Tom greatly. He worried that she was in a dangerous denial that could lead her to depression, an enemy she had battled in the past. She even thanked the representative on the link, then asked Janeway for a little time to adjust to the news.

They followed her back to Tom and her quarters, trying to draw her out, but she seemed tranquil. At the door, she turned to her protectors and took Tom's hand.

"Check the stardates," she had said into her captain's eyes, then entered her quarters with her husband.

Minutes later in her ready room, Janeway had found herself chilled to the bone, having discovered that Miral's death occurred the morning they nearly lost B'Elanna in a shuttle accident—a time during which she claimed to have met with her mother on the mythical Barge of the Dead. ‘Mythical' suddenly became a term open for debate.

The heat from the half-dozing baby in her lap was lulling Janeway to sleep herself. She shifted in the chair.

"You can put her down, you know. I think she's ready for good snooze now, can hope," B'Elanna half-smiled.

"Oh! That reminds me!" Janeway placed the baby in the monitoring isolette by her mother's opposite side and poked into the office quickly to retrieve the bundle she had dropped on the desk. She spoke softly as she walked back to the bedside.

"On Naomi's, I stitched daisies and plinkorels and other flowers from Earth and Ktaria. But somehow, I thought your daughter might need something a little different," she chuckled lightly.

The homemade blanket was luxuriously soft and satiny, B'Elanna noticed first. As she unfolded it, she was greeted by a parade of teddy bears and protective-looking targs marching dutifully around the border. They were all heading for one location. In the top left corner, surrounded by planets from both the Sol and Qo'noS systems, was an embossed Voyager, sleek-lined, all silver and blue, making B'Elanna gasp softly.

"Shining Voyager, close to home."

"Yes. But now Miral will always have her, won't she?" Janeway whispered. B'Elanna didn't thank her; she didn't need to. It was written nakedly on her face. They covered the sleeping infant with the captain's creation. "Let me know if I can do anything," she said, turning to leave.

Perhaps it was the personal gift, or the equally intimate company. But of all the worries she had been contemplating when the captain arrived—the troubles in engineering, the impending break-up of the crew, her criminal responsibilities or Tom's—she risked bringing up the one topic the captain might have some control over.

"Chakotay's been off, lately. There isn't...anything you'd want to tell me, is there?"

"Like what?" Janeway almost froze but tried to answer the way she would have without the cursed knowledge of him and Seven.

B'Elanna's disappointed eyes told her she hadn't entirely succeeded.

"Fine. I won't pry. But you two are running out of time. You should solve whatever the problem is. Don't think Tom and I haven't noticed."

The irony of that, Janeway thought to herself, was that she would never have seen it, if not for the Admiral. She wanted to tell B'Elanna that her and Chakotay's time had passed without warning them. A decision had now been made.

‘Kathryn? Are you all right?'

‘An empty life ahead of me. Still in love with you.'

"While he was here," the engineer continued on relentlessly, "we asked him why the Admiral felt that now was the time to do this, but it was obvious he hadn't considered the question yet," she shook her head. "Did it have to be today of all days? We can't believe that in seven years of travelling we haven't passed other hubs we could have used, especially when we were in the heart of Borg space. Is there something crucial to this time period? For instance, did she need to ensure Miral's conception? Was it necessary that we contact one of the species that we did in the last three years?"

‘To answer that, I'd have to tell you more than you want to know.'

‘It's almost as if there were some other reason to do it. At least that's how it looks in hindsight.

"I'm sure she had her reasons." Janeway answered, uncomfortable in the extreme with this turn in the conversation.

She had started to rise to take her leave, when B'Elanna lamented, "You know, I know it's selfish but a part of me is angry with her for not getting here in time to help Joe. The timing was so close; what difference could a couple of weeks have made?"

‘Of course, if I hadn't miscalculated...'

And in a blinding flash, Kathryn Janeway understood it all, everything. The technology the Admiral had not been fully familiar with. The attacking Klingon vessels, introducing stray energy into the space. The sheer complexity of the calculations that she would have had to make alone, to avoid implicating anyone else.

A month's time would have prevented Joe's death. A month's time, she realized, seeing the missing piece clearly now, would have allowed her to circumvent Chakotay and Seven from ever forming a bond. A month's time would have allowed her a chance to soften up her younger counterpart.

The month's loss had accelerated the Admiral's plan of action considerably—she'd had no time to spare on too many niceties. Three weeks of planned work crammed into three days. What difference, indeed, Janeway thought bitterly!

She had a lot to contemplate.

"We could both use some sleep. I'm sure you'll want to be back in the thick of the repairs tomorrow morning, but just promise me you won't overdo it. I've made arrangements for Tom to assist you until further notice, so just relax and enjoy your new family, ‘Lanna."

"Kathryn," B'Elanna called quickly. Janeway turned, trying to hide the surprise she felt at hearing her given name.

"I just want to tell you...despite's been a pleasure serving with you." She stared at her captain.

Janeway crossed back quickly and hugged B'Elanna with feeling. "B'Elanna, I'm so proud of you." Then she smiled crookedly and added, clarifying the conference room discussion they had had the day her mother ‘died', "For more than your engineering skills." And B'Elanna smiled back, confident.

"Then we'll see you on Earth?"

"You'll see me on Earth."

Kathryn Janeway managed to make it out to the passageway before she began to shake.


"There are my girls," Tom sidled up to B'Elanna in the darkened mess hall, his mushy tone of voice conveying how totally besotted he was with the very idea. His girls. B'Elanna rolled her eyes, but had to smile. The fool.

"You know, you've been walking around this ship lately—no, make that floating—like you are doped on euphoria; it's embarrassing. I'll give you until we get to Earth, then that's it—you'll have to get over it," she stifled a squeak and scrunched her head to her shoulders. Tom's nose tickled the back of her neck as he stole a quick kiss on her nape. He simply pushed his face more firmly into the fortress she had erected.

"I've got a news flash for you—I am never going to get over this." He nipped her once, lightly, and hopped over the back of the sofa, falling in close to her. He bumped her forehead with his own and planted a proper kiss on her lips before glancing at his daughter.

"What—she eating again?!"

B'Elanna was stoic. "Every hour, on the hour practically, which is why you take the night feedings, which I'd like to remind you start after this one ends. Or is that why you tracked us down?"

‘Tracking down' was a stretch of the imagination, really. ‘Light duty' and the hubbub and the excitement of their return vied for the chief engineer's attention. She felt isolated in their quarters, but was able to keep up with the action and happenings nicely from her office in engineering, and here on the corner couches in the mess hall. In fact, other than sleeping, she could generally be found in one of those two locations.

"I don't need an excuse to spend time with my family!" he said with mock insult. This was true—he had sought them out every odd moment of the day he could. The captain had made him the glorified errand boy for the bridge, and he loved every second of freedom, cheerfully doing the captain's bidding, when not with his wife, and coming and going as he pleased, keeping his combadge open for the occasional request.

Manning the helm was another stretch of the imagination. The autopilot could be engaged as they limped along in a straight line to Earth with their ever-changing compliment of ‘fleet ships and runabouts providing honor-escort. But that worked to their advantage—Tom spent the majority of his time helping B'Elanna by day in engineering and sleeping in the rocking chair with the hungry baby half the night.

And one would think he was Master of the Universe to see him do it, too. Actually, B'Elanna was a bit concerned by his boundless happiness, considering what lay at the end of the trip, when they did arrive at Earth. She desperately hoped he wasn't hiding his fears again, for her sake.

Tom half-turned toward her, crossing his legs and putting his left arm across the back of the couch, over her shoulders. He absently scrubbed the baby's foot between his palm and fingers. "Harry's in the big chair right now. We were chewing the fat before I came off-shift, and he got a request for docking, from a shuttle of ‘fleet engineers. Looks like the ‘dog and pony-cart' show is about to begin," he finished, with resignation.

"Well, what do they want—to help with repairs? At this hour it can't be good. Question us about the systems? Like we have the time right now—" she began to get heated.

"Calm down. I didn't wait around to find out; I wanted to get down here and give you a heads up."

"You could have done that over the comm," she smirked at his transparency.

"Ah, but I would have missed the chance to see my girls," he finished with the same foolish mush-voice the conversation had started with. She thought of John Torres as she looked at her husband, and had second thoughts about having Tom ‘get over it'.

"You're an idiot, but I love you." Her softened features belied the harsh word. "Now, I'm calling Nicoletti. I may need you to take Miral sooner tha—"

Tom gasped, so softly she nearly missed it. But there was no missing the look in his eyes, or how his face paled as if he would faint. He gripped her right hand tightly with his and pulled her shoulder closer to himself. She felt him tense up.

"What?" she blinked, turning to see where he stared.

She hadn't heard the door swish open. In the entry, silhouetted by the passageway lighting stood Harry, off to the side...and three women. Two younger ones flanked a diminutive older woman with copper colored hair that was run through with silver. The younger pair pressed against her back; a necessity it seemed, as her shaking was visible from across the room. There was something familiar about them, B'Elanna thought...

"Mom!" Tom whispered hoarsely.

"Moira. Kathleen," he tried to say, but his breath caught in his throat and all he could manage was strangled syllables.

For several seconds no one moved. The two parties stared at each other, each content to drink in the other for a moment, savoring the view. But the moment passed and everyone seemed at a loss.

It had been so long. The sisters hesitated, not wishing to usurp their mother for the first hug. Tom rose slowly on gelatinous legs, helping B'Elanna as she struggled to rise with Miral and break the nursing suction of the sleeping infant at the same time.

The sight moved the older woman into gear. Before the young couple could take a step, she was standing before B'Elanna, a hand cupping the engineer's forearm gently. Tom didn't move.

"B'Elanna, I'm Anne Grace Paris. You call me whatever you're comfortable with, but I hope someday you'll find me worthy of calling ‘Mom'."

Years of speculation about what happened in the Paris household, and this woman's role in those events, went out the window as B'Elanna looked into her waiting gaze. She didn't feel that the introduction was a rehearsed bit of diplomacy, aimed to put the ‘new Klingon family member' at ease. Anne was being earnest.

A furtive glance around told her some response was needed to break the spell. She smiled carefully, but genuinely. "Mrs.—Anne, I'm very happy to meet you."

And with that, Tom seized his mother up in a tremendous hug, lifting her clean off the floor. The laughing began, and then it was hard to stop.

Smiling to himself, Harry stepped back to let the doors to the mess hall close. He'd get the full story from his friends tomorrow. He had to get back to the bridge.

Introductions were made with Moira and Kathleen, and the women took turns admiring the baby and hugging their brother.

The sisters made fun of Tom's newly forming wrinkles, his increased girth, and his receding hairline. Apparently, he was beginning to look like ‘Uncle Don'.

"You should be talking, Kathleen, the String Bean. I'm gonna have to find a new nickname for you!" Tom exclaimed, attempting to hug around the pregnant bulge in his eldest sister's middle. "Now, what did you write me again—October, right?"

"The third. We're hoping it's a girl," the fair-haired, friendly Kathleen turned to B'Elanna excitedly. "It better be a girl, so these two can counterbalance Moi's monsters." She indicated her belly and the sleeping Miral. B'Elanna noticed that nobody stared overly much at the baby's ridges. They didn't avoid looking at her, quite the contrary. But none of the women stared abjectly.

Moira laughed along with her sister and rolled her eyes. "What a couple of birds they are, Tommy. Those two boys of mine are worse than the three of us used to be together, right Mom?"

Anne considered, smiling lightly. "Mmm, I can't decide if that's true or if I'm just less tolerant of all that chaotic energy at my age," she said diplomatically.

Kathleen leaned into Moira, grinning demonically. I'll bet you they'll give Tommy a run for his money," she said conspiratorially.

"I bet he's learned a trick or two in the Delta Quadrant. What odds will you give me?" the lithe brunette asked.

"The Borg have nothing on Britt and Corey. But Tommy was a pretty creative brat himself, so...even money."

"Uh, so this gambling—it's a family thing?" B'Elanna smiled.

"Where do you think a ten-year-old learns statistics and playing the odds if not from his math-whiz sister?" Tom shoved Moira sideways onto the couch. "And you bring those boys on—I'll take them with one whoopee cushion tied behind my back!"

"May I hold her?" Kathleen asked about Miral hopefully, and the conversation turned through a myriad of topics relating to Earth and Voyager, fired shotgun and answered accordingly by whomever was addressed, or not. They knew they would only scratch the surface now, in this public place, but they were all content to wait for a more details until they could manage a longer visit. They were more than content just to be together again.

The baby was thoroughly loved all around and returned to B'Elanna only when she became hungry. She slumped back into the couch to nurse Miral and realized that she felt very comfortable and unselfconscious in the presence of this clan. She smiled to herself as she noticed subtle gestures and turns of phrase that were her husband's. They knew each other and accepted themselves as they were. And they seemed to accept her, too, without pause. The family seemed happy together. But of course, the family wasn't complete at that moment.

What was it with the men in this family, and her own? Anne was talking to her, she realized suddenly.

"I've seen your father, B'Elanna, in the families' waiting areas—"

"I don't have a father," B'Elanna shot out, regretting her tone instantly.

Anne knew of B'Elanna's recent loss of her mother, and her estrangement with her own father—she had made a point to learn all she could about her daughter-in-law. She wondered idly how much of their shared broken trust had played a part in this young woman's romance with her son. Did each of them understand the pain the other one bore from their insufficient fathers?

But John Torres had seemed very quiet and polite to others whenever she had seen him, not righteous or hardened at all.

"Oh, honey." She touched B'Elanna gently. "Never close the door on the face of another person. And if you are the one to do the leaving, never slam it in anger," Anne leaned forward in honest intensity.

Tom dropped his head, eyes tightly closed, a long-buried despair skyrocketing to the surface. He knew that was exactly what he had done—literally, not figuratively—all those years ago, when he left his father's house for good. His mother had never deserved that. And yet here she was—forgiving him.

He felt her light hand slip into his and looked down on his mother's concerned face. He flicked his eyes back to B'Elanna and saw her quiet understanding, drew from her pool of support. She came to his rescue.

"You know, we each have holoimage albums back in our quarters, covering the last seven years." Her glance took in all the women. "You could take them with you when you leave, hold on to them for us. Until we come home." Tom's gaze held his wife's.

Suddenly, the prospect of a home other than Voyager was less daunting. He silently thanked the stars around them for how cool his sisters and mom had been, accepting his wife so unconditionally. And for B'Elanna, he said nothing, as the stars already knew his profound gratitude. They knew.

"Tom, why don't you go dig them out and we'll follow you as soon as this bottomless pit finishes up," B'Elanna jiggled the little auburn head in her arms. Her joke served two purposes—to break up a moment that was threatening to spill tears, and to set the Paris sisters off on another round of merciless remembrances.

"Hey, remember when Tommy was in puberty and mom used to squawk at him for using the replicator repeatedly—" Moira started.

"And mom would say, ‘Why don't you make yourself one serving of something very nutritious instead?'" Kathleen imitated their mother eerily, despite the giggling.

"So Tom would go over and order himself some cereal—" Moira rejoindered.

"—in a PUNCH BOWL!" both of them finished, dissolving into quivering puddles of laughter. Tom mimed the gesture of ‘mooning' them on his way out the door, causing renewed shrieks of merriment. His mother swatted at him as she followed.

"I'm telling them about you and Harry and the infamous twenty-course dinner after Akritiri!" he heard his wife yell as the portal closed.

"Why don't we talk about what's really been on your mind since the moment you saw us," Anne asked with quiet confidence from her spot on the corner of Tom and B'Elanna's bed. "Where's Dad?"

Tom slowed his rooting in the storage drawers for the photos. He looked down for a moment, then back up, full of bravado.

"You know, Mom, I wasn't really sure he'd show up anyway. He was always great at putting on the public display—‘Tell my son I'm proud of him'. Right. Like he could ever forget how I disgraced the Paris name—"

"You stop it, Thomas Eugene! I won't have you dismiss him that wa—" The words died in her mouth when she saw the terrible agitation he was trying to cover up.

Because she saw that her son had believed Owen when he had spoken of his pride. He had let Owen's words be a balm in his heart since that day, and the thought that he had been mistaken—had been played for a fool by his father—would be the shock in a week of shocks that would crack him. Anne felt her own heart break all over again.

He was a new father himself now, she thought. He needed Owen; he didn't need to think that his own father—.

"Tom, he is proud of you! He told you so despite the two audiences that heard him, not because of them!"

"He's always been proud of me, Mom—as long as I was doing what he wanted!"

"Tom, Tom, he loves you, and he's afraid, honey! He's so—"

"He ought to be afraid! Dead son—well, even with the bad rap sheet, that's got to elicit some sympathy, huh?" the words shot from Tom at warp speed. "Suddenly and unexpectedly—here he is again!" He spread his arms wide, his grin false and angry.

Annie tried to take his hands. "Honey, he's—" He pulled into himself, one hand on his hip, the other to his forehead. He scrubbed his face then, thinking.

"God! The probation board's probably already convening for me. He oughta love that publicity all over again."

"Tom, he—"

"And when they're done, they can trot me over to Fleet Judicial, for the who-knows-how many PD violations we committed trying to stay alive and help people along the way. But that's okay, Mom—I'll have B'Elanna along with me, because your granddaughter's mother was a Maquis rebel!"

"We'll deal with this as a family, Tom—a family," Anne hurriedly filled in between his thickening sarcasm that she recognized for the rising panic that it was. "Your father—"

"My father," he spat out. "I'm surprised he hasn't shipped out for deep space yet to avoid—"

"He's on the shuttle right now!" Anne finally barked passionately. "Not a hundred meters from where we are!"

Tom gulped in several gasps of air, waiting for the chill to leave his spine. His mother took the opportunity to pull his face to hers, sandwiching it between a warm hand and her own cheek.

"Oh, honey, there are no engineers, just us. He couldn't wait for you to get all the way back—he'd waited far, far too long already to make amends with you, don't you think? Far longer than seven years." Her voice was sad, but excited at the same time. Tom must have looked like he would fall down. She pulled them both to the sofa and they sat. She did not let her hand leave his face.

"Nobody knows he's here, not even your Captain Janeway. He didn't want this to be official; he didn't want to suffer any fanfare. This is our family, honey. This is private."

"But Harry—"

"Harry is family now, too, I have a feeling," Anne smiled. "We've read your letters. The ship's logs, the shore leave rosters—Captain Janeway has spoken of her crew to your father, privately. I think you'd be surprised at how warmly she feels about you all."

"Doubt it," Tom cocked a quick, lopsided grin.

"Well, your father knew Harry would understand. He purposely waited for the shift change to make our approach."

"Then what the hell is he doing in the shuttle?"

Anne smiled. "Waiting."

"For what?" Tom's voice took on a hard edge once again. "For the latest communiqué from ‘fleet? Are we supposed to just hang around while he finishes up business, like we always did?"

Anne stared at him without comment for a moment, wanting to be sure to say the right thing. She had to reach him; it was imperative that she reached him, right here, right now.

All those years watching Owen agonize, then slowly find resolution within himself, all while she herself suffered their marriage-shaking rage over the estrangement. Suffering the guilt that came from thinking she could have done more for them, saved the family such regret. She sighed carefully.

"For my ‘reconnaissance report'. He's afraid, hon."

"What's he afraid of?"

"That his penance for failing you at Caldik Prime, and all the years afterwards, might be to have you back in body but never in spirit, never here," she put her palm over his heart. "He is so ashamed, Tom, of having abandoned you when you needed him that he thinks you could never forgive him."

Tom closed his eyes, relief flooding him. His old man had taken the first step forward, leaving the ball in his court. The decision was his to make.

In his best dreams he always thought he would feel the most gratifying sense of satisfaction, seeing his father humbled like this. He could practically see him, begging for Tom's forgiveness, apologizing for his abandonment. He was mistaken, he saw, in real life. He felt ashamed, now, for his whiny comment a minute earlier, but he could see that his mother had understood.

"I...He's not the only one with ghosts, Mom. With regrets."

"Oh, believe me, you are definitely responsible for your own actions, too. But a man knows how much of the son the father himself makes. Your father knows that the brunt of the responsibility for what happened lies with him—he didn't stop you when you left. He didn't ‘just love you' enough in the moment when it mattered.

"When your father thought you were lost, there was no threat anymore—no one to defend against. He was forced to re-examine and confront his own disgraceful part in the unraveling of your relationship, not unlike the way you came forward about the accident even though it couldn't change anything. The irony wasn't lost on him."

Tom looked away, clearly hurt. It seeped into his voice.

"All that wasted time on the Links, with the damn small-talk. Why he never said anything to me when he spoke to Janeway—I was practically sitting in his lap at the helm. I thought he was ignoring me purposely. It never crossed my mind that he was..." the rumination petered out.

"Scared?" She brought the real crux of the matter into the light by saying it aloud.

She touched a finger to his temple, gently caressed down his sideburn. "Listen to me, Tommy. The Cardassians, the Dominion, the War, the Shapeshifters, the attack on Earth itself—none of it ever had Admiral Owen Paris as fearful as he is right now, sitting in that shuttle, waiting to find out if there is a chance for forgiveness from his child."

She paused, an acquiescent grin playing around her mouth, and raised her eyebrows questioningly. Tom's haunted gaze continued to stare at her.

"Seven years changes a man so much, honey," she whispered.

A smile began in the corner of his mouth. He reached out to take her hand—softer and more wrinkled than he remembered.

"Yeah, Mom. Tell me about it."

The wait was going to kill him. He expected that Annie and the girls would be at least several hours, but knowing that didn't help any. He paced the shuttle restlessly. He had tried soothing music, but it only irritated him. He couldn't give a flying fig about playing a game, and the shuttle's maintenance was up to schedule.

He had long ago given up on following the latest reports to his in-box. At this hour, he would normally be deep asleep. Nobody would need a reply before the morning, no one was missing him at the moment. That had been part of the allure of sneaking in at this time.

He was going to develop an ulcer; he could feel it forming as he waited—

He squared his chin. Well, then, so be it. Maybe the answer was "no" today; maybe the timing wasn't right yet. Tom had so much on his plate right now—maybe this was just another thing he could do without until things quieted down. He would accept that. He had already made up his mind to accept it.

He told Annie that he would live with the consequences of his past actions. He would follow Tom's lead on this one. That wasn't to say he'd be passive. He laughed at himself—some habits you just couldn't break, it wasn't in his nature to ever give up.

This time, though, he would be using his powers for good and not evil, he humored himself. He sobered. He would be at the trials this time, Tommy willing or not. If he did nothing more than sit silently and hold Annie's hand, he'd be there for him.

The dinner dishes from before the girls received clearance still sat on the pullout table in the aft section. It was something to do. Owen stacked the plates and balanced them in the recycler for re-conversion. He replicated a clean-all and set to scrubbing the table and chairs.

Tommy'd probably be all right with the law. Past experience and the scuttlebutt from Judicial seemed to indicate that he had done time served on Voyager. Add to that the citations he'd received, the incredible accomplishments he'd been a part of—breaking the warp barrier, Christ—then subtract the demotion, for which he'd also paid his debt...pretty even call.

B'Elanna would pose the bigger problem. She had been in the Maquis nearly as long as her mentor, Chakotay, and had allegedly engineered some interesting solutions to some of the Maquis' problems during her time with them. Having the brand new baby was either going to make the decision easier for the hearing board, or all that much more heartbreaking. Either way, Owen would be there. It wasn't a question.

He heard the whine of the transporter forward, in the cockpit, and looked at the chronometer. Short, he thought, but hopefully sweet. Despite the outcome for himself and his son, he knew Tommy would be thrilled to see his sisters again, and the Admiral looked forward to hearing their (no doubt giggle-ridden) tales. He took a deep breath to steel his fear and stepped into the hatchway.

"Annie, you're early. Is everything all..."

The three of them had beamed in, but it wasn't Annie and the girls.

B'Elanna's face was a study in stately calm as she took a small step back, his sleeping granddaughter tucked in the crook of her arm. He knew from the look on his son's face that no words were necessary. Gingerly, the two men took the one forward step needed to bring them together. Owen reached up to grasp Tom's elbows in his hands, feeling euphoric as Tom's face flooded with relief.

And with feelings that had lain dormant for too long, father and son embraced.

Powerful as Owen Paris was, his reach was insufficient to protect Tom or any of the other criminally accused members of Kathryn Janeway's crew from the authorities. The instant Voyager was secured in berth, Starfleet Security calmly but firmly stormed the little vessel, removing all the former Maquis, Equinox crewmembers, and one Thomas Eugene Paris for transport and processing at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco.

Silently, B'Elanna and Tom followed the aide assigned to show them to their "temporary housing", apparently the euphemism to be used instead of "holding cell". The woman chatted excitedly about the wonder of Voyager's return. She gushed enthusiastically over Miral and the pleasure she felt being assigned to assist them both. B'Elanna noticed that she was a member of Security.

She glanced sidelong at Tom, on whom that fact was not lost. If it hadn't been for his hand pressed comfortingly to her back, she was sure she would have torn through her own skin.

They stopped in front of an open door and the aide urged them to memorize their unit number, adding, with a shrug, "Everything kind of looks the same in this area." Looking up the corridor they noticed other open doorways, the outside light from each room's far wall streaming through onto the deck. Or floor, B'Elanna corrected herself.

They entered together and came to a stop. The aide continued to prattle on with instructions, reminding them that they were free to use all of HQ's facilities, to beam in any personal touches they'd enjoy, from Voyager or otherwise, to call her if they needed anything. And, of course, that they were prohibited from leaving the campus and would be monitored in any areas that also supported civilian traffic. She said the last quietly and appeared genuinely apologetic, so Tom dismissed her politely, with thanks.

B'Elanna stepped forward slightly and began a slow pivot around the room. With the exception of the bathroom, it was indeed only one room, but far more spacious than the quarters on Voyager. It was even far bigger than the captain's ready room, she noticed, though the layout wasn't too different. There was a receiving area where they stood, large enough for some living room furniture, which led to a raised platform that filled the remainder of the room, ending in a cubicled corner that held a small cooking facility. The far wall faced east, toward San Francisco proper. B'Elanna couldn't help but think that somewhere down there was Tom's family home and the hotel rooms and guest facilities of all the friends and family who had come to greet their loved ones' returns.

She noticed the gravity felt slightly heavier on Earth.

Clutching her new infant daughter to her chest, she completed her turn to face Tom standing mutely in the center of the empty unit.

"Welcome home," she whispered with more acid than any tantrum could muster.

Several days later, the place looked moderately better with their furniture and wall hangings from Voyager. Neither of them had any possessions in storage elsewhere so what they had was...well, what they had. And each other.

They had quickly discovered that Tom was not included in the prison-like restrictions. The authorities seemed confused about how to classify him in relation to the others. He was not Maquis, nor was he an original member of Voyager's crew. He had been a conditional observer, but not only had his original prison sentence expired while in the Delta Quadrant, he had managed to comport himself with bravery while out there, too. He also was the son of an admiral who had only become more powerful in the ranks during the Dominion War.

So they had asked him to observe the gag order imposed for reasons of security, gave him the escort status enjoyed by the non-restricted Voyagers, and hoped that his imprisoned wife and newborn infant would be a satisfactory curb to any untoward activities. Chakotay had commented that, once again, Paris proved that he was a thing that defied description. And grudgingly admitted that he had the luck of the Ancestors.

Tom took full advantage of his nebulous status to help the others arrange the transport of their personal goods. He had tried to gain access to Harry, then the Captain, then anyone not restricted, only to be rebuffed with the excuse that they were ‘in debriefing'. Twenty-four hours a day? Paris knew a scam job when one was going down, but he accepted the limit of his leash cautiously.

Now, less than a week later, the length of that leash was in serious jeopardy. With a kiss for luck and an adjustment to his dress uniform, B'Elanna had sent her husband off for an unexpected hearing with the JAG office to discuss issues that had been left purposely vague. Tom pretended to take it in stride—she saw through his false nonchalance but kept quiet for his sake—but B'Elanna was nervous.

The hearings would all be starting soon, and everyone was tense. Chakotay seemed confident that things were above-board, but a decade of command had made her friend a terrific liar where his people's worries were concerned. She couldn't be sure he wasn't putting on a good face for the crew's sake, nor could she ask. She sensed he was particularly worried about her and she wanted to allay his own fears by appearing placated. Two could play his game, she thought with satisfaction. Besides, it was something to do.

She felt like a caged animal. It was almost intolerable. She was on edge and found herself prowling the perimeter of their quarters or the rec area frequently—it made her feel better, though intellectually she knew it did no real good. She also knew that her wildly fluctuating hormones and lack of decent sleep were contributing factors to her sense of unease.

Miral was a fairly standard model as babies went, if the Doctor's training and parenting classes were any indication, but learning to care for someone helpless was more daunting than she or Tom had ever imagined. Chakotay and the rest of their incarcerated friends helped them out just as they would have on Voyager, but the uncertainties involved in their return complicated everything tremendously. And now, this summon for Tom to appear for a special chat with JAG...give her an enemy she could see instead, any day, B'Elanna thought. She hoped her nerves would survive the next few months.

Just as unexpected as Tom's citation to this meeting was the sound of the door chime, and B'Elanna raced to answer it. It was far too early to be Tom again, but perhaps Chakotay had heard something and had come to share it with her. The door swooshed open as she keyed it.

And she froze.

He wasn't as amazingly tall as she remembered, but maybe that was because she didn't slouch or skulk anymore. The uniform design had changed while they were gone, but he still had the quirky habit of wearing his professorial pin to the left of his turtleneck. He was still the richest shade of brown a human could be without crossing into actual black, but the gray curls at his temples were new. So were the wrinkles around his inquisitive eyes, the very short-cropped beard and the pencil-thin mustache. And none of it mattered a whit, because B'Elanna could never forget the commanding presence of her former professor and foil, Commander Josiah Chapman.

"Lieutenant." He bowed his head fractionally in honor. "Ah, I do like the sound of that, don't you?" He waited patiently for B'Elanna to offer some reaction—any reaction—to his introduction, but was disappointed. Evidently, more drastic measures were necessary.

"Well, fire a synapse, would you? You gonna invite me in, young lady, or kick me in the ass, like you always wanted?" the tall, dark man barked kindly.

"Professor Chapman?" B'Elanna said aloud, still in denial of what her senses were clearly telling her. "I can't believe this! Um, come in, please."

He waltzed past her and surveyed the quarters cursorily. His eyes lit on the cradle near the couch and he walked over, cocking his head to look directly into the tiny, wakeful face inside. He turned back to B'Elanna solicitously and raised one palm in indication.

"May I?" he asked casually. At her dream-like nod, the skinny, graceful hands reached down and scooped the yellow-swaddled bundle up to his chest. He smiled at Miral, then sniffed deeply in appreciation.

"I just love that smell of new baby—nothing else like it. Even when they're dirty, they smell great," he enthused. "Say something," he commanded after another waft of soft skin.

She remembered her time at the Academy, how he had made her fight to defend every contradictory view she ever had in his engineering class. She fell in now with practiced ease to his game—and with a decade's worth of life experience for added kick.

"Well right now, this seems more like those really vivid dreams you have in sickbay coming off serious hallucinogens than it does reality. But I know I'm awake, so that's not it. And you would never have gained access to us without someone's permission, and a damn good reason. And though I don't know why, I suspect your mission today is not to sniff newborns." She raised an eyebrow and folded her arms, waiting.

He peeked at her over the top of Miral's fuzzy head and smiled significantly. "You were a phaser pistol then, and I see you still are. No matter, a bit of fire could be a good thing now." He tucked the baby under one arm and pulled himself tall and square to her. "Young lady, you left here making hell's own trouble, and you're not back here a week and you're at it again."

"What are you talking about?" B'Elanna asked, beginning to feel some of that fire he had expressed admiration for. Part of her didn't want to know; she didn't think she was ready for yet another thing to obsess over while she went slowly stir-crazy in confinement.

"First things first." He ambled slowly over to her and looked down, gauging. "I've been assigned to the command teams who have been charged with figuring out your unique engineering systems."

Her heart ached at the mention of her engines. She had kept her pain to herself—what was her yearning in comparison to everyone's loss of freedom? But she noticed that he purposely said ‘your systems' and not Voyager's. Knowing Professor Chapman, it wasn't accidental.

Miral made a nondescript gurgle and B'Elanna resisted the urge to pluck her out of Chapman's arm and clutch her close. It wouldn't do to operate from a position of perceived weakness—whatever operating they were doing.

"Alright, you have my attention."

"Good." He nodded at her reaction. "I see you don't disapprove of me in that position." Another careful choice of words, B'Elanna noticed. "Your first choice, though...would be you, yes?"

He didn't need an answer. He walked up and over to the transparent aluminum and glanced out over the city. She followed. "There are others who would agree," he squinted into the early sun. He took a deep breath.

"But there are others who feel very differently. They want the Maquis imprisoned. I don't need to tell you that these are the hardcore Starfleeters—once the Cardassians showed their true colors the general public turned fairly sympathetic toward the Maquis. And what the hardcores really want is for any former officers to pay for the sin of betraying the uniform and defying principles more than any actual crimes they might have committed as a rebel..." he trailed off distastefully. He sighed again determinedly. "But my engineers want you on board, explaining your wizardry," he nodded, as if that were that, "which is what brings me here today."

B'Elanna held her breath. "Have you been authorized to gain me access to Voyager, then?"

"No," he answered directly.

"Well, then..." she trailed off, confused.

"I have some pull with the people in charge. Some. I wish it were more. For instance, your staff is very knowledgeable, obviously, about the ship's systems. Originally, though, if I were curious, say, about your original theory of integration of a certain system I would be allowed to submit a question to you for a considered answer."

She waited for him to continue. Surely that wasn't the end of his thought? Big deal, what did that have to do with him being here now, she thought, then said as much.

"I'm a little...confused here," she admitted.

"Oh? There's a first," he needled, looking out the wall as he absently rubbed the soft head of Miral, tucked firmly under his left arm like a loaf of bread. The snug space and repetitive motion of the warm hand seemed to hypnotize her, and her eyes were half-closed.

"Do you have something for me, or not, Professor Chapman?" That was as politely direct as she could be. After this, she thought to herself, that ass-kicking will be looking better and better. What can they do to me—have me arrested? The thought of a possible fight actually made her feel giddy.

"It broke my heart when you dropped out," he tossed down, an apparent non sequitur. He deftly swung the bundled Miral out from under his arm and onto his shoulder. She drew in a ragged sigh, but immediately drifted to sleep in her new position. "You had, hands-down, the most natural talent of any student I've ever seen. But it was evident in every biting comment and surly insight that you had a different path to follow than your standard Starfleet career."

"Well, I hope you bet serious credit on it in the faculty lounge, because the paths I found were certainly different," B'Elanna admitted grudgingly. But it was a stall tactic; she had lost any semblance of a hint where his train of thought was heading.

"Mm-hm, yes they were. Evidently you learned the lessons you needed to along the way, because the girl I knew whose talent was phenomenal and whose skin was paper-thin would never have done well in the situations into which you were thrust! I didn't know enough about your past then to speculate on why you acted the way you did, but I knew you had your reasons—you weren't a garden-variety complainer, Torres.

"And I know that you didn't get the position you held on Voyager by picking straws, but there is more to the position of Chief than talent. The most talented boob in the world wouldn't get that job without some people skills—and that was never your forte, eh?" He grinned at her, then raised his eyebrows at her lack of response, pleased. The grin broadened into a small smile. "I found out you held the position for seven years. And you married—all the others managed to avoid that, given Voyager's unstable circumstances." He leaned his cheek onto the now sleeping infant on his shoulder, rosebud mouth hanging limply open in secure peace. "Then this wonderful creature here...the Cadet Torres I knew could never have pulled off any of these feats successfully."

"What is your point?" B'Elanna asked in frustration.

He switched to his lecture tones then. "My hypothesis was that you finally managed to centrifuge all that sludge and oil inside yourself and distill out the highest grade petrol, as the old saying goes. And someone along the way took a chance on you, cocksure sass that you were."

"My—the people on Voyager. They had a lot to do with that," she put in carefully, but he heard the wistfulness behind the words.

"You miss them now. And Voyager," he murmured. It was a statement. He seemed to understand.

Her eyes smoldered. "I put seven years of everything I had into that ship. Just when we needed something critical or we thought we'd never get a system repaired and running again, another idea would crop up. Or some sideways piece of alien technology that we could adapt with some creativity. No matter what we did to her or for her, Voyager gave us everything that she had, too, and more. I honestly don't know how she survived some of the scrapes we were in. And now, to not even know what is happening to her, who's ripping what out—"

He pointed skyward with his free hand. "I've seen your talent expressed all over the ingenious designs on that ship and if it weren't for your troubles all those years ago, you'd be enjoying the admiration that you deserve, right now."

The games were over, B'Elanna decided calmly. He had evoked enough feeling from her for one day. "Why are you really here, Professor?" she asked quietly. He turned to her, earnest now.

"I wanted to meet the person I always knew you could be. I had to find out if my hypothesis was correct—if your magnificent talent had lost that rotten attitude." He stared at her.

B'Elanna had never forgotten Captain Janeway's revelation so long ago, when they were trapped in the shuttle, in the singularity. How Chapman had filed a recommendation for her readmittance to the Academy should she ever reapply. How that one act of faith, written in the margins of a discharge report, from a man she would probably never see again had shaken some of the bad apples from her tree and helped give her the confidence she needed to assume the difficult path of command.

He came to see the woman she had become, because he had appreciated her before she even existed. And he had no idea that he had helped create her. B'Elanna felt herself warm to him, and she smiled.

Their eyes locked over the small auburn head on his shoulder and a connection was made. Professor Chapman's firm nod told his former student that he had gotten what he had come for.

"I could get used to that," he stated with mock surprise at her relaxed mein.

"You know," B'Elanna couldn't help laughing lightly, despite her true words, "you are really starting to annoy me." The situation was truly ludicrous, she felt—but what the hell! Professor Chapman's straightforward affect was refreshing to the B'Elanna who was comfortable with herself—a far cry from the girl she used to be.

"Now, having seen her," he roused them both from their sentimental reverie, "this is what I have to offer." He turned all business. "I've spoken with your staff, obviously, and surreptitiously with your captain. I don't think they want her having contact with you people, whether for her sake or yours, I can't speculate. But she's very worried about you all and is doing what she can to help you. In your case, that meant convincing the brass that it would be in their best and fastest interest to allow you consulting status while we examine Voyager and make our reports to Fleet. The authorities won't even consider allowing you out of restriction, so this would all be done over the comm."

He saw her slump slightly in dejection, so he immediately dipped to catch her eye and continued encouragingly. "It would allow you to have input into what we were doing on a daily basis and visual access to all happenings as they were occurring—if we rip out a vital circuit, you can verbally rip us a new asshole, no waiting," he offered. She growled lightly to let him know his humor wasn't appreciated, but he waived it off. "Listen to me. We could do this without you but the brass doesn't know that, I don't want to, and your staff is willing to play along if it means helping you be there again.

"I'm offering you some control over what we do to Voyager. It's a bit of an illusion, I'm afraid— in the end, Starfleet will do whatever they want with their ship," he emphasized the word, "but she's your ship, too, in her soul. And one person can make a difference in the outcome of events, don't you think?"

He was talking about her, but she couldn't help looking at him, and smiling.

"I'm grateful, Professor. That sounds inadequate, but I am," she answered gracefully.

"Here's your beautiful baby back. Thank you for the privilege of letting me borrow her," he said significantly as he expertly handed B'Elanna's second baby over to her mother. She walked him to the door and he stepped out.

"Thank you, sir" she smiled respectfully up at him.

He was caught somewhere between delight and a grimace, and the image tickled B'Elanna.

"Now, don't go and get totally soft on me. This isn't gonna be all pretty. You may have to show some backbone to the nay-sayers." He leaned back in the door, almost touching her nose to nose. "If you still have one."

"Fuck you," B'Elanna dropped with blunt clarity, her amusement barely veiled.

"Perfect," he smiled, "I'll be in contact shortly."

The door closed behind him without another word, and B'Elanna allowed herself to feel a surge of giddiness. She could be allowed to work on Voyager for the duration of her incarceration! Even if the best they were able to finagle was a telecommute from these facilities, the professor was right—it was one helluva sight better than wondering and worrying what was happening to her ship and receiving information second-hand stale.

Yes. Definitely better. She couldn't wait to tell Tom her news! She held Miral before her and scrubbed her cheek on the tiny forehead affectionately before putting her in her cradle. "Things may be looking up for mommy, sweetie."

The door chimed again, evoking the image of a major transporter hub. Feast or famine, she thought, raging boredom or too much excitement—no in between. She glanced around quickly; could the professor have left something behind? He couldn't have gotten far up the hallway.

"So, what now? Did we forget to argue about the weather?" She keyed the release and the door opened.

John Torres, hesitant and uncomfortable, stood in the opening.

"They said...that families could come visit..." he trailed off.

It wasn't that it was unexpected. Of course she had known he would come. She actually had known; Anne Paris had said he was on Earth and waiting. It was just...everything. Everything, too much, too soon.

He had said families. She couldn't decide whether to scream or sing inside. Somewhere inside herself, she wanted to attack him...

But the emotions evoked by the smell of him were so powerful! The oldest parts of her brain remembered so many pleasant memories from that smell. Her instincts were so overwhelmingly conflicted on this; she would have to make a conscious decision.

She dropped her head to her chest and raised an arm, beckoning him inside.

He practically ran in, hesitating as he passed her as if a cohesive force of some kind was drawing him to her but he resisted its pull.

"Is—is Tom home?" he blinked convulsively. "I was hoping to meet him properly, in person."

"No, I'm sorry. He was called to a hearing," B'Elanna said neutrally.

"Well." The salt-and-peppered stranger that had been her father smiled nervously. "Maybe that's for the best this first time," he stuttered out. "You know, just the two Torreses?" He knew it was the wrong thing to say as it left his lips, she could see that, but she didn't care. He had hit the wrong trigger.

"It's Torres-Paris now. Actually, on duty I prefer to just use Paris." This wasn't the truth, but it did thrill the Admiral to think he might have another Paris back in the ranks again, so she might do it for him. She didn't care one way or the other what she was called, as long as it was spoken respectfully.

"Oh. That's nice. Old Starfleet name, honorable men and women, the Parises," John nodded agreeably, nervous.

B'Elanna's stomachs ached. Had she honestly believed that hurting him with words would make her feel any better? It hadn't; it only made her feel unworthy of all she had become while on Voyager. What was going to be accomplished by ripping open twenty years of bad scar tissue?

She fumbled with her wedding band for courage, equally nervous. "Look, um...would to see your granddaughter?" she asked.

He sighed as if deflated, relieved at her quick recovery of the situation. "I would like that very much, thank you," he quirked a grin. He walked over to the chair by the cradle and sat before he peered in. While his back was turned, B'Elanna unconsciously backed up several paces. The hand she put to her mouth began to shake. She was thunderstruck with the realization that she feared he would in some way reject her daughter. She forced an even breath as John reached in for the baby.

"Ohhh," he sighed audibly as he picked the little girl up. The motion startled her awake again but she just looked him, unfocused. He studied her carefully for several moments, smiling.

"I'm surprised she doesn't look more like you," he finally said with a grin. B'Elanna blinked, shocked.

"What do you mean?" she asked cautiously. Her father took it as disapproval of his declaration.

"Please," he entreated, "don't be upset. I see plenty of you! Here, in the shape of her eyes. And definitely around the mouth." She supposed the forehead ridges were too obvious to mention. "But she's very fair—not dark like you were, like the House of B'Kor and the Torreses. And these eyes are beautiful!" he sighed with sincerity. "What color are they, though? Not brown," he examined them.

Watching him intently, B'Elanna realized that he wasn't being judgmental, just genuinely appreciative of the baby's uniqueness. She was struck with a thought.

Perhaps he had always felt the same about her, too. Her feelings about that fateful camping trip and her father's departure had changed mysteriously since she had given birth. As if the love of a child could open doors into pools of perception that would otherwise remain barred from the mind's eye. It felt like a wonderful gift of clarity, but also, like a betrayal.

The emotional barricade that she had been hauling around since that time—it had affected everything in her life. Everything! It had poisoned her relationship with her mother, now beyond anything more than the mystical redemption they had achieved in the shadow of Gre'thor. There had been no meaningful connection to anyone, anything—on Qo'noS, at the Academy, in the Maquis...

Until Voyager. Captain Janeway's unblinking trust. Harry's steadfastness. And two special men who changed her: the friend and the lover. Chakotay's immutable faith had convinced her that there was a place for her, somewhere. And Tom's unshakeable love and acceptance of her as she was proved that the place was at his side.

As B'Elanna watched, John Torres' face relaxed and he raised the pitch of his voice as he talked to the baby. B'Elanna felt her heart slam into her ribs as she had a flashback—the Vidiian caves! She had stood in the sickbay bathroom for the longest time and memorized that face—her human face—before the procedure to re-integrate her had begun. And looking at her father now was like looking into that smooth, weak, coveted face!

She looked harder. His face appeared tired, though, more resigned somehow. Perhaps this was where the incredible weakness she had felt came from, though it hurt to think that. Her childlike eyes had painted a very different picture of that face in her mind long ago. Looking at him now, she realized with her adult's eyes that he wasn't apathetic or hateful as she had thought during that camping trip—just weak.

They had too much to talk about.

I don't expect to be able to make up for twenty years in one conversation.

"Tom insists that they're purple," she offered.

"You know, I think that's it! Dark, but still..." he nodded agreeably. Head still bent over the baby, John Torres raised his eyes to study his daughter from under his brow. He caught her studying him, and B'Elanna startled guiltily—but did not look away.

"She's as beautiful as you were. And still are," he choked out resolutely.

Truth is, when your ship disappeared I thought I'd lost you.

As they continued to stare at one another emotions charged the air with their mutual desire to break through to the other.

John had taken the wrong initiative twenty years earlier, and his ill-timed abandonment had had disastrous consequences. This time, he would make the right choice. He carefully put the baby down in the crib beside him and stood, arms hanging limply by his sides, palms turned outward in surrender.

"B'Elanna. Please. Let me hug you." The tone was even though the yearning in it was excruciating. But he didn't move. The choices would be hers now, and he would abide by that.

I don't expect you to forgive me...

She wondered if the terror she could see in the depth of his eyes as he waited was mirrored in her own. She wrung her fingers together, her face a controlled mask.

She made her choice.

One tentative step toward him was all she needed to open the floodgate. Her footfall stumbled then, each step faster than the last until she fell, spent from the emotional effort, into the eager embrace.

"After this," his quavering voice rumbled through his chest wall, "it will get easier than it is right now, than it has a long, long time." The quaver increased. John Torres hugged her more tightly. "Now that we're both here, we'll take it slow. I'm willing to take it slow, B'Elanna."

"I never wrote you, like I promised," she sobbed stupidly, but she didn't care. She had a chance to fix everything—to repair what was wrong all her life, and still keep what was so very right. There was no way she was going to blow it.

And then her father laughed shakily. "B'Elanna. I would much rather have what you're giving me now, any day of the millennium."

...but I hope, maybe, we could try to get to know each other again...

The next four months passed in a flurry of busy activity that worked out better than Tom or B'Elanna could have hoped. Professor Chapman returned with a dedicated audio-visual link to Voyager and B'Elanna began to lead a dual life. She performed the mundane functions of living in the housing unit in HQ while carrying on engineering conversations day and night on the portable unit that never left her side.

The day B'Elanna gained some freedom from the professor was the day that Tom lost his—his restriction to the housing area turned out to be fairly temporary, however, as sanctions and all charges pending were lifted, with time served. But even when sanctioned, Tom Paris had a way of finding unique activities to stave off his worry and restlessness.

On the recommendation of several crewmates, he was approached by a publishing company that wanted to mass-produce some of the crew's personal holodeck programs. Tom had been responsible for the matrixes of many of them and he was able to offer them technical advice on specific pieces of work or recommend others that the publishers may have overlooked. Though the work was offered gratis by Tom—he was grateful to be able to do something, especially since he enjoyed it so much—a seed was planted that began to take root.

When not consulting, and at the conclusion of his trial, he took Miral out most days for short jaunts to his parents' house, or his sisters', though often he would prepare to leave only to find one or another of them at the door, seeking visitation themselves.

Anne Paris especially was very helpful. Relatively unobtrusive by nature, though certainly no pushover, she slowly drew B'Elanna out of her natural reticence. She was helpful with Miral without seeming pushy or making B'Elanna question her own competence. She always acted as if she were a guest in her children's home instead of a visitor in the prison unit they couldn't leave. She allowed them their dignity, especially important to the sensitive, new mother.

And she allowed B'Elanna to talk by being interested and inquisitive. The women talked of the baby. Both Tom and B'Elanna grieved the loss of their Voyager support system, but expressed their gratitude that the child wasn't in danger on a daily basis. The women regretted together the absence of Miral Torres at this momentous time in B'Elanna's own life. They discussed John Torres and B'Elanna's ambivalence to move too quickly back into their relationship, which conflicted with her desire to have the repentant man back again, especially in her own daughter's life. Anne supported them during their respective trials, brought them gifts for their ‘apartment', and argued with the young ‘security aides' about the quality of their bed linens.

John Torres began visiting weekly, more or less, based upon his work travel schedule. He showed up religiously ‘when he was in the area' and stayed only a few minutes to hold the baby and see if Tom or B'Elanna needed anything. No matter how often they answered in the negative, he was unfailingly cheerful and always asked again on his next visit.

Tom began to feel so sorry for him that he invented small needs for himself—a special confection from the Wharf, dim sum from Old Chinatown, special-cut boots from Bogota—to make his father-in-law feel needed. He discovered that they both loved sports and before long John was staying longer to view the daily match-ups of Parrises Squares or kor beng on the satellite feeds B'Elanna had programmed into the old television set. Tom provided the buffer his wife and her father needed to trowel a foundation of normalcy on which to build a new relationship.

After one particularly comfortable visit with her father, and an easy day from Miral, B'Elanna had made love to her husband from one end of their quarters to the other like starving people. During a lull in their hungry re-acquaintance, B'Elanna had thanked him for the peace he brought through his kindness to John.

"You can never have the father-daughter relationship that you had before; you know that," Tom had said sadly. He could never work up a good anger at what the man had denied B'Elanna—without John's absence, Tom would never have known B'Elanna's love for himself—but he felt an overwhelming pity for what John Torres had denied himself. "He screwed himself when he left you along with your mother. I think he knows that—has known that for some time. He pays, B'Elanna—just like you, he pays every day of his life, only he's got nothing to show for it." He kissed her softly to illustrate what she did have. "You can't have a new beginning, but you sure as hell can make a new ending, right?" he had whispered tenderly. And the lull in their lovemaking had ended.

Though more subtle, B'Elanna's presence in Tom's life provided the same service in the reconciliation of the Paris men. Despite his original squeamishness at the thought of the sullen-looking rebel-fighter-turned-brevet-Chief-Engineer, Owen Paris could do nothing but like his half-Klingon daughter-in-law. They were both too much alike for comfort.

Strong, direct, and expert in their chosen professions, neither B'Elanna nor Owen suffered fools gladly. They discovered they had similar senses of humor as well as duty. And they both loved Tom, though neither had made it easy for themselves for a long, long time.

She was irritatingly unintimidated by the Admiral. She fought toe to toe with him on any issue for which she had strong feelings—which were all of them. And as the department reports on Voyager's enhancements and repair alternatives began to grow, so did his respect for her talent and adaptability. And, he just plain liked her.

The second half of the one-two punch was Miral, who had quickly and expertly wrapped the old man around her fingers. She had spunk that the Admiral loved; little as she was, she seemed to know her own problems and wasn't shy about telling the world her troubles. But like her father, Owen remembered, she was easily soothed once her needs were met. He saw in her someone who would make it far in life, whatever she chose to do. And, he realized, he had missed having a baby around.

Tom found himself watching his father with Miral, seeing what he and his father had lost along the way. In the way men will, neither one of them brought up anything too deep in their visits—generally there were plenty of legal issues to discuss, or Voyager findings, or the baby. But it didn't seem to matter. The respect each man showed the other seemed to be enough for the time being.

As each Voyager inquiry ended and each crewman in turn was released from the housing units there was trepidation as well as the joy one might expect. Not everyone departed right away from their unit. Even when they knew where their next assignment would take them and they were excited, they were reluctant to break the last daily connection they had to the huge chunk of their lives that was Voyager. The ‘home life' in the common areas became quieter, more introspective. Emotions ran higher than in the beginning, when they first arrived, but even the tears were backed by hope and anticipation.

Eventually, more and more doors remained open, pouring their empty room's light into the hallway once again. Mealtimes condensed down to fewer tables and became more intimate as the diners truly began to feel their limited numbers. By the time B'Elanna was released, they were eating their meals lounging around their quarters, or Chakotay's, talking about everything and everyone that came to mind and mulling over their respective futures during desert.

There was one topic, one person who was never mentioned. They had heard through public sources that she was living in Indiana, had recently received a job offer from Utopia Planetia, and was coming up for inquiry shortly after them. They knew her distance was in everyone's best interests, but her complete silence for nearly five months still hurt.

It was simply a given that Tom and B'Elanna would remain in their quarters until the end of Chakotay's trial. They would not leave their friend alone in the cavernous wing of HQ housing. But the day he was cleared and released, they were in England on a visit to Kathleen, who had just given birth to a healthy baby girl, much to the delight of the Paris clan. Not wanting to disturb them, Chakotay didn't bother to contact his friends.

He should have known better. B'Elanna heard the news not long after the fact when she called HQ to check in on Voyager. Her disappointment in not being there for him in person was mitigated by her engineering prowess, however. Along with her congratulatory note, she programmed him a Poker Night Special meal-pizza and beer. Though she had raised her eyes at her husband's selection, Tom had insisted, calling it "manly comfort food".

By the time Tom and B'Elanna returned to San Francisco, it was to a quiet corridor with light streaming in through the open doorways. Unlike when they had arrived, though, there was no escort to help them with the few remaining possessions that required transport to the real home they had secured while keeping vigil with Chakotay.

And as they stood in their unit one last time turning a slow circle to be sure they had missed nothing, it was with a peculiar sadness that they realized they had some good memories of their time there. For better or worse, they had begun their lives as a family unit in that room. For better or worse, they had dissolved their Voyager family there, also.

They knew there would be reunions and regular visits from certain friends—in fact, they had jokingly made up the ‘Harry Kim Guest Suite' for their best friend, which had tickled him even though he had rolled his eyes. Chakotay had promised to bring a moving-in dinner later that week. But it wasn't the same as being an interdependent community anymore.

Truly alone as a couple for the first time since they met, they hooked an arm around each other comfortingly, and with a slow but purposeful gait, headed for the nearby transport hub.

Kathryn leaned forward on the porch steps, elbows to knees, carefully cradling her warm mug. The paint was peeling slightly on the balustrade, she noticed idly; perhaps she would take care of that for her mother when things settled down more.

Free. She was finally, untouchably free. With the end of the trials, she had decided to come home and think. Plan. Prepare for...what? She wasn't sure yet. That was part of why she felt the need to be here, from where she had started; home.

She sighed contentedly. The flowering vines on the sunward face of the farmhouse smelled wonderful and looked stunning, even in the fading light of the day. The setting sun brought the soft pinks, purples and blues out of the white paint and burnished the blossoms themselves with ruddier hues. She glanced up and noticed the sun release the stars as it retreated below the horizon. It turned her mother's hair golden again.

Good after-dinner coffee. Stellar view. Companionable silence. Only the companion had changed. ‘My choice,' she thought, ‘I made my choice about that.' She sighed with resignation and turned her thoughts in more productive directions.

"What's going on with Mark, Mom?"

"We lost touch with him after the wedding. We went, you know—your sister and I—out of respect. But after that..." Gretchen shrugged philosophically.

Kathryn could imagine it. It must have been difficult to watch your missing daughter's fiancé marry another woman.

"I understand."

"Why are you wondering?"

Kathryn drained her mug and rose from the porch, along with her eyebrows.

"Because I'm meeting him in town tomorrow for coffee." She brandished her mug in the air and strolled to the kitchen. Gretchen remained uncharacteristically quiet.

"The last thing I heard," her mother finally blurted through the screen door after Kathryn was inside, "was that his marriage suffered after you contacted us through the array. You be careful tomorrow."

Kathryn rinsed her mug in cold water.

He saw her long before she reached him—that purposeful gait, all angles and curves, was unmistakably Kathryn. Mark smiled and opened his arms wide to accept her in embrace.

"Right on time, as usual!"

"Oh, but the entire Federation begs to differ with you!" Kathryn retorted and entered his arms, a large happy laugh bursting from them both.

They hugged soundly. Mark kissed her firmly on the cheek, then the base of her neck, lingering there. He exhaled forcefully as he scrutinized her for longer than seemed necessary.

"Kathryn. You are more beautiful than ever," he sighed sincerely. She caught her breath. He was wasting no time, she thought.

"You look wonderful yourself," she said, and she meant it. But then, men always did manage to get more distinguished with the passing of the years. She looked at him a second time.

Could she do this, she wondered? Should she? She was emotionally precarious right now, at best. The huge life changes, the trials...Chakotay still invading her thoughts. It all came back to that, to Chakotay. She tightened her jaw.

She had made her decision about him, about them. But that didn't mean she had to accept the cynical future that the Admiral represented.

She needed to know if she could feel anything for another man again. If she wasn't safe exploring that avenue with a childhood friend/ex-lover, then whom could she take this first risk with? She needed to feel something.

She heard nothing in her heart so far, but the day was very young, she reasoned.

They began to enter the coffee shop, but at the last minute, Kathryn balked. The sky was stunningly blue and a balmy breeze strolled the town square where they stood. The park ran the entire length of the street to the west, and they headed in that direction. After crossing the street, Kathryn passed right over the sidewalk, but then paralleled Mark several yards away.

"Why are you way over there?" Mark asked, amused.

"I," Kathryn threw her arms in the air and twirled once, gaily, for punctuation, "am walking on the grass! And I intend to do so for the rest of my life!"

Mark laughed. He spread his hands in surrender and hopped off the concrete path.

"So what do we talk about first—Voyager or Voyager?" Mark joked. He knew she must have told her stories hundreds of times by now—the press, the dignitary parties, the local organizations; at the market, the transporter hub, the public restrooms, probably...

"Very funny," Kathryn smiled. "Neither of the above! Anything you want to know about Voyager you can learn from our cache of soon-to-be-released holonovels! On second thought..." she belayed that, thinking of the Doctor's personal creative touches. And Captain Proton.

"Well, they won't tell me what I really want to know, which is how you've faired personally," his lyrical voice rumbled. "Perhaps Tuvok would know. Or Chakotay?"

Being a civilian associated with Starfleet, Mark would have contacts in the psychology departments there. Knowing of their past relationship, it wouldn't be beyond belief that a sympathetic friend might give him access to the lengthy and thorough debriefings over the last several months, or that someone would drop innuendoes indiscreetly. She had told the examiners only enough to allay their speculations about her relationship with her First Officer, no more.

She was once again aware of how very little ‘more' there was to tell. Another choice, too late for regrets, she forced herself to think stoically.

"I would prefer not to talk about Chakotay, either. He was one of my officers and a good friend, but that's part of Voyager and we're not talking about Voyager, remember? Let's start smaller," she joked, hoping to direct his attentions anywhere else.

"Smaller than Voyager, huh? Easy enough. Well, what if we talk about my marriage."

Had they divorced and she hadn't known it? He had mentioned in his message to her that they could ‘meet Cathy in the park afterwards.' That was different than saying ‘my wife', she now realized. At the time, she had been too shocked to learn of the woman's uncomfortably similar name to think clearly. Kathryn was uncertain how to take his statement and wisely remained quiet.

"Kathryn...ever since the alien array I've spent a lot of time contemplating."

"I would imagine that's what philosophers do best," Kathryn smiled, gracious.

"I've never doubted you'd get back home, not after we found out you were alive. I've known you too long, Kat—there's no stopping you. So...I've had to give serious thought to my feelings for you, all these years—"

"Mark." Knowing about the troubles her existence caused for him and Cathy (yes, that was awkward), she was no longer sure she wanted to go here. But wasn't this the conversation she had wanted, dreaded? How would she know if she could feel something for him without hearing his feelings first? And what had she thought they would talk about, the weather? She needed to know where their relationship stood. Their boundaries.

Fuck boundaries. Where had they gotten her? She had seen where boundaries would lead. Empty personal space.

"You were always a special love to me, Kat, since we were children practically. It just took me awhile to convince you, of course..." They laughed carefully.

"I came around, though," Kathryn tried.

"But part of that package was always worship, too—you were always something so special, I would have followed you anywhere, protected you at all costs, I think. Do you have any idea how fiercely you engender loyalty, Kat?"

Tuvok, and Chakotay flashed behind her eyes. Grateful and awed by their fidelity, she had never truly felt deserving, not to the degree that they bestowed it.

He continued, his face softening now. "I could argue that we're not the same people who were engaged seven years ago, especially you. Buuuut, I think we both know that the qualities I love most about you are the timeless ones," he grinned fractionally.

"Yes, and I could say the same for you," she smiled. It was true. All the qualities that attracted her to him were still there. He was quiet and hard to ruffle, intelligent and stable. He had a dry sense of humor, and strong roots that balanced her wanderlust well. None of that had changed, she saw.

He studied her critically for a moment, his face unreadable. But a small smile played at the corner of his lips. "I would have thought you might have found someone—no specific names mentioned," he put his hands up. "It's been seven years, and you've known about my situation for nearly four of them. Gods, Kat, you might have been out there most of your life. Couldn't you have—"

"It was not even a consideration, Mark. And with whom? All of them served under my command. Protocol—"

Mark barked out a sharp laugh and looked away. He mumbled a curse, so unusual for him that Kathryn was surprised.

"Protocol...arbitrary rules to fit all occasions. And you're so strong-willed you would have followed them for the full seventy years, too, to do your duty. But your situation was so unique, Kat, so unique.

"I knew there was a reason why I never considered Starfleet as a career choice. I'm a tailor-made kind of guy, myself. The willow bends," he ended metaphorically.

"Why are you so upset?" she asked, uncertain of his motives.

"Because I'll always love you, Kat, I thought we already covered that ground! I don't want to think about what might have happened to you if you had stayed out there, following your path and your protocols! I'm glad you made it home so you can give and receive love the way I know you can—the way you deserve!" He ran his hands through his hair while he calmed himself, steadied his breathing. He was compassionately shaken. Kathryn's eyes misted to see it. He hugged her then, just appreciating her presence and she sank into it. He loved her unconditionally, and on so many levels. It had been so long since she had let herself...

"You deserve it so much, Kat...even if it won't be with me."

It was unexpected. After the build-up that went before, Kathryn didn't know what she felt.

"What do you mean?" she asked carefully shielding her feelings. He moved from their embrace to wrap an arm around her—Kathryn felt it as solicitous now—and they began walking toward the fountain down by the grove of weeping willows. Quite a few people were nearby. The playground was liberally sprinkled with children and their caregivers. There were small boat rentals and food kiosks. A marshal arts class practiced by the pond, floating ethereally across the grass in slow motion. Why such a public place, Kathryn wondered, for she knew Cathy would be down there.

"I was still mourning you when I met Cathy. She knew my situation and didn't pursue me, but she felt from the start that she and I had something together." Kathryn noticed he didn't use the word love, or magic. "Eventually I came around to see it, too."

They continued on slowly in the dappling of the sunlight through the leaves.

"And then you heard from us through the alien array," Kathryn spoke softly. Mark didn't answer right away, and she didn't push him.

"It was very difficult for her. We hadn't been married all that long when suddenly Starfleet called wondering if the Captain's fiancé would like to send her a letter because, surprise! She's alive. Cathy got the message, alone, while I was attending a conference in First City, on Mars."

Like her mother and sister attending the wedding, she tried to imagine what it must have been like for Cathy.

"It was a very difficult year for us. We got into mediation. Eventually, I took some time off from work. ‘Contemplated', as I said. It was about then that I heard about the Pathfinder project," Mark put his hands in his pockets, then, and shrugged.

And Kathryn saw her. A woman in a white dress, directly facing her and Mark. She might have shared a similar name with the woman, but that was about all. She had blonde hair pulled neatly back. She was stockier than Kathryn, and much taller. But her face seemed kind, though her expression as they approached was pensive. She kept glancing nervously away.

Suddenly, she grinned, and appeared to be tracking something. Kathryn turned in time to see a blur blindside Mark, who scooped up a young boy, laughing.

"And about that same time, I heard about this guy being on the way." He respectfully turned to his wife first but Cathy interrupted him gently.

"There's no need for introductions, Mark. Captain Janeway, I'm very pleased to meet you. And in light of the awkward situation, I want to add that I really do mean that." She smiled carefully and stuck out her hand. Kathryn took it, though she wasn't aware how.

"And this," Mark crowed proudly, " is Hobbes."

Kathryn felt herself go onto autopilot. This was alien for her—as alien as anything in the Delta Quadrant. First contact. First contact.

She smiled crookedly at the boy, but Mark saw past the facade. He put two and two together and frowned, mortified.

"You didn't know, did you? I-I had thought you knew; when you first got home, I sent you a message and mentioned the children—"

"Children?" Kathryn was afraid she was going to be ill.

"Yes—we found out we were expecting our second child the day after you got back. We thought you had brought us luck," Mark stated numbly. Cathy touched her belly even though she was not showing much yet and smiled, tried to be encouraging.

"There were so many messages then. I didn't expect to hear from you there. Often, I'd just erase them..."

The silence sat there, cloying to them all. Fortunately, Hobbes was not much for silence. "I-ceem," he asked happily, pointing to one of the vendors. Cathy looked relieved.

"Mark, do you want me to take him..." Mark kissed the toddler and handed him over to his mother, who headed for the kiosk under a willow, holding the little hand. Mark's child...

"How old?" Kathryn finally said.

"Twenty months soon. Kat, I would never hurt you this way; I just assumed—"

"Not your fault. Please, don't." She grinned in sympathy for his mortification, but she needed to get out of there.

He couldn't stop apologizing. He was quiet about it, but it only made things worse.

"So. You named him Hobbes?" she tried for humor, dredging up the connotations of Mark's childhood nickname with her tone.

"Well, it helped that Cathy's maiden name is Hobson. What was so horrible in childhood looks more attractive as you get older. I have some fond memories of being called that now, by at least one person," he grinned. They smiled into each other's eyes then. Kathryn saw little Hobbes start back, Cathy right behind with napkins. She had laugh lines, Kathryn noticed. She addressed Mark while continuing to watch their approach.

"Mark. Just tell me you love her. You never said that you loved her earlier."

"I love her for herself. For who she is and how good she's been for me. We've worked out our problems in the last year and we'll be good for each other from here on out." He smiled genuinely at the dubious look on her face and put his hands on her shoulders reassuringly. "I wouldn't have agreed to make another baby if that weren't true, and you know that. You know me."

"I do, Mark. Thank you for not making me wait to find out," she grinned ruefully.

She agreed, in a dreamlike state, to have dinner with them the next time they were in town visiting Mark's father. They could catch up on...what were they saying? It didn't matter. With her best negotiating face on, she offered her heartiest wishes and made her excuses. With a wave, she turned her back and began the difficult walk away.

She realized with a start that he had stirred feelings within her after all. She felt a strong affection for Mark. And she felt relief and happiness for him that things had worked out well, despite losing his fiancé seven years previous. And she felt an icy numbness at the thought that, perhaps, her elder self had tried all these things, too, along her way.

Kathryn stepped reluctantly onto the concrete path and slowly started back toward town.

He had thought to surprise her but perhaps he should have known better where Sveta was concerned. Chakotay felt a nostalgic grin form despite the gravity of his visit.

He waited in the dry heat outside the New Mexico rehab facility as she approached him with her regal grace that the years had only embellished. So swiftly and silently had the remaining imprisoned Maquis been released on the heels of the Voyagers' trials that there had been no time for Chakotay, relatively newly released himself, to obtain a permit to enter. In fact, if not for a courtesy call from Commodore Salada, he would never have known until the deed was done.

No matter, he thought. It was fitting that they reunite outside anyway.

Very little had changed, he was pleased to note. Her nearly transparent hair was much longer. It swayed hypnotically behind her as she moved toward him as if guided by sensors. She was sallow, her cheeks a bit more prominent than when he had last seen her, in a Maquis contact barfront.

Without a word or break in stride the svelte woman approached until she stood toe to toe. Then she grinned serenely and enveloped him in a hug, which he gratefully returned.

"I'm tremendously sorry." It was a declarative statement, as if in answer to an unspoken question. The tranquil hum in her voice had always been there, but it surprised him pleasantly again all the same. She hadn't lost the soft Russian trill in her speech.

"I don't understand," Chakotay followed, trusting her.

"For not contacting you to offer my support since your return. I wanted to. But you and Voyager's Maquis were our only way out of Rehabilitation anytime in the near future. I wouldn't risk upsetting your pardons, though really they were just a matter of form, by allowing the highest-level Maquis Coordinator," she indicated herself with suppressed humor, "to contact the glory-cloaked Maquis Captain."

They both knew that ‘our' was the surviving Maquis still kept imprisoned in various facilities on Earth, and Chakotay understood. But the comment about the Voyager pardons being a ‘matter of form' caused his brow to furrow. Sveta had always seemed to be in charge of things, especially herself, but not without reason. Could she—even from prison—have had information he and his people lacked?

His people. He realized with a sense of satisfaction that he had instinctively meant all the imprisoned Voyagers, not only the Maquis. He had indeed grown past that simple designation long ago and proudly led all of Kathryn's people as well as his own. But the Maquis had been everything to him at one time so he had to know. That was why, ultimately, he had come—because there were things he had to know.

And Sveta had answers of all kinds, it appeared.

Before stepping back and starting out down a side street, Chakotay's old friend and lover surprised him by running a quick hand over his brush cut. She grinned mysteriously as he caught up with her.

"What?" he chuckled.

"No gray," she declared.

Chakotay smiled at their old familiarity, which picked up right where they had left off.

"Well, that's temporary. I stopped those treatments when I left Voyager." It was a simple enough intermix with his boosters. He had casually agreed to it one day, early on in their trip, when the Doctor was on a solicitous streak to improve his interpersonal skills. Frankly, encouraging the Doctor's attempts at altruism had been more important than what color his hair was. Well, mostly anyway, he admitted ruefully. It had been a bit uplifting to turn back the clock in his morning mirror.

But no longer. He found with every passing day that he was very much looking forward to seeing more and more of his father there in the near future.

His friend turned purposefully onto a street that led into the city proper, though it was still some distance off. It gave Chakotay the impression that she had a specific destination in mind. Hadn't that always been the way with Sveta though, Chakotay reminded himself?

"Where are we headed?" he asked.

"That depends," the lithe woman answered immediately.

"On what?"

"On how much we need to discuss," she replied perceptively. She moved closer to her former comrade-in-arms until their shoulders bumped as they sauntered.

Evening was approaching, and the day's heat had gathered heavy and still before the cooling breezes from the sun's passing would wash it away. There was an oppressive quality to it and Chakotay could feel his thin cotton shirt stick lightly to his chest.

"I need to know," he began quietly, "what happened to us, Sveta, to the Maquis. How could we start out so right about everything—and we were proved right, in the end—only to become..." he hesitated, unwilling to compare his dead friends to their treacherous enemy, even if it was true. "I mean, Sveta—poisoning water supplies? Irradiating populated atmospheres to force enemy colonies out? You only spiting yourself in the end if the planet is near your own sector of space—" he began to try and rationalize, then stopped when he saw how daunting a task it would be once he got started.

"Chakotay," she spoke sadly. She knew that he wanted some complex answer that would explain how something so noble could tarnish the way it did. She also acknowledged that at one time, he had placed so much of his own personal identity into who the Maquis were that their fall—not to their enemies but to an evil within—felt like a betrayal of his own instincts.

But it wasn't like that at all. There was only one real answer that summed everything up for him neatly, concisely.

"Chakotay—nothing happened to us that didn't happen to the Federation first," she stated, every word steeped in conviction.


"I know you've seen the timeline of events, if not on Voyager then in the last four months—ignorance never suited you."

"Yes," he admitted. "It was sent to my captain who shared it readily with the rest of us." Chakotay snorted to himself. He didn't bother her with the irony he had uncovered. That on the day their friends were being massacred in the Badlands, Voyager's mixed crew was fighting tooth and nail to save two of their own—Tom Paris and Tuvok—from dead Cardassian agent Seska, and her treachery on the holodeck. Working together—with both Federation and Maquis tricks—they had succeeded in overcoming their enemy.

"The War took its toll on common sense and compassion early," Sveta murmured, whisper-soft. "Paranoia about Shapeshifters quickly made people less trusting and less forgiving. Even when the Cardassians showed their true colors by allying with the Dominion, the Federation chose to continue our condemnation instead of lauding us for the courage and insight we had exhibited. We could have been useful to the Federation. We were them, once," Sveta shook her head sadly at the waste of it all.

Chakotay thought again about how Voyager's solution—to combine forces and celebrate the diversity two different crews possessed to achieve a goal—had saved Tom and Tuvok's lives. Proof that perhaps Kathryn Janeway, with her wisdom and faith, was smarter than the entire Federation Council.

"I can understand what betrayal makes sane people do," Chakotay conceded, Seska still fresh in his mind. "Tell me what happened when the Cardassians attacked. What about Briggsy; was he still your First Off—"

"I won't tell you specifics."

Chakotay blinked. "What?"

"I will reminisce with you, Chakotay, but I won't rehash the details that are best left unknown."

"Sveta, I just need to—"

"Need to what, Chakotay? Torture yourself with the ugly details of everyone's death so you can feel some visceral connection to what you were lucky enough to avoid? Honor them nightly in your nightmares that you would have me supply? There is no need." She hurried on to interrupt his objections. "Chakotay, you have the heart of a warrior but the soul of a poet. But the warrior is only a front, to protect the true you, the poet—why tarnish him with images that you were spared in the first place?

"There are so few of us left, Chakotay. I think the dead would like to know that they would be remembered for who they were and what they did rather than for how horribly they died, don't you?"

She looked into his face to be sure he would acquiesce to her logic. Though his jawline tightened, he nodded. Then, she began to speak.

As they reached the town limits they talked at length about certain people they had known individually—the quirky ones and the frightening ones. Chakotay told her the amazing story of Suder. They passed two transportation centers while they discussed the ones they barely knew and the ones they could never forget. They remembered the friends who were the finest people they would ever know, now gone forever.

Chakotay closed his eyes and dipped his head at the pain of the losses, new to him. But Sveta was right—he would keep them now in his memory, alive and vital. Real people who had chosen a difficult path in order to do what they felt was right.

LePaz, Meier, Nelson, SaReen—he remembered vividly the litany of names he had shot off at B'Elanna the year before last, when she had ‘killed' them in her holoprogram in an attempt to make the news of the Maquis' holocaust real. Her simulations weren't real, but still Chakotay could see the burnt, raw faces his friend had been ill enough to create on the cratered floor of the holographic cave.

Well, there was one bright spot Sveta had been willing to share: B'Elanna's creation wasn't prescient in any way. LePaz and Nelson had both survived the War and would no doubt be experiencing their own releases soon from another rehab facility in Europe. And while Meier did die on Tevlik's moon, SaReen perished in an accidental munitions explosion aboard his ship several months before that.

"I don't understand fully anyway why the Maquis were still in these facilities," Chakotay jerked his head back the way they had come, "or worse, up to now. The War ended ages ago, and those we fought against turned out to be traitorous long before that, just like we in the Maquis had always advocated!" The emotion-packed visit was beginning to show on Chakotay. Sveta quietly reached up and took his forearm in her hands and gave a quick squeeze to calm him. She had had several years to plot out the situation; it was old news to her.

"We should have been released long ago, if ‘rehabilitation' meant what it was supposed to," she rolled her eyes in mild disgust, almost dismissively. How does she do that, Chakotay thought, remain so calm about all this? How can she not feel anger?

"When the War ended, and the Cardassians were hoisted by their own petard we ceased to be a threat—to anyone, let alone any society. But the end of the War also brought an end to public interest in our case. This world saw battle, Chakotay, for the first time in centuries—it was frightening, and people just wanted to move past it quickly.

"Cardassian pride was the only thing left that maintained any interest in the Maquis. The anguish of losing so much of their culture has caused their politicians to focus on ‘the little things'. Keeping us imprisoned through petitions to our own court systems satisfied some vengeful little need on their part, and provided the Council with a political bargaining chip for Cardassian agendas.

"Such a polite little arrangement, so difficult to end," her low voice hummed, and she shrugged. "Then came Voyager. It was past time to end our usefulness to politics. Someone was smart enough to use the Voyager Maquis trials as an excuse to let us go, finally." Chakotay was appalled, but he could see the elegance of the whole thing, too. The Maquis had fallen through the cracks just far enough to be out of general sight, but not far enough that evil couldn't still find and use them.

"What will you do now?" Chakotay asked.

"I have many offers from many sources," she half-smiled.

"I'm betting Starfleet isn't among them."

"You'd be surprised." She didn't elaborate, and Chakotay idly wondered exactly how high up her ‘contacts' and ‘supporters' were in rank. He thought about how prepared they were in their efforts to recruit him in any capacity that they could. Sveta had talents any organization would love to harness. He wouldn't put it past Starfleet to have some covert position or other they could offer, even to an ex-Maquis coordinator and convicted criminal.

"But like you," she read his mind, "my sense of honor forced me to politely decline." He turned a big grin to her which she returned, blinking contentedly. For eyes such an icy shade of blue they were inexplicably warm to look at, Chakotay remembered. Her calm was infectious. Strange how it used to annoy him. He had been too angry and insecure to appreciate her timeless qualities when he had the chance.

Kathryn flashed in his mind. Well, that was one mistake he wouldn't be making again.

Sveta sighed suddenly and looked up, as if searching the heavens. After a time, she spoke. "The Maquis made a difference, Chakotay; I will continue, I'm sure. Many of our reclaimed worlds are still rebuilding. New Murmansk. Urek...Dorvan?" she asked provocatively.

A small chuckle escaped him at the utter reversal of his recent fortunes. Everything seemed to be going his way now. ‘May this streak hold out until I can make it to Indiana', he prayed fervently to the Spirits.

"Perhaps I'll see you there. Someday," he said as a wish more than a promise.

"You won't be alone," Sveta answered instantly, with conviction. At her walking partner's careful surprise, she added definitively, "I've seen pictures of you and the woman you love. You compliment each other."

Chakotay's surprise turned to embarrassment. He also had seen the surveillance holo-stills of himself and Seven when they had been removed from Voyager. The bridge crew had clung together for moral support as they were herded—politely, but herded nonetheless—off the ship and down to the processing area cordoned off by the brass. To his great chagrin the picture of the senior staff—he and Seven prominently fixed center-still—had been picked up by the press and used repeatedly in broadcast all during the trials.

It was visually striking; he was tall, dark, and earthy looking in the shot, she was slight, flashy, and...well, technically enhanced. He could see where Sveta might be led to believe things that simply were not. He had no desire to embarrass her over her mistaken impression, but even less to allow her to continue on with it.

"I'm sorry, I'm not with her anymore. It, uh, it was all a mistake," he said quickly and casually, hoping to put an end to the unexpected topic. But Sveta frowned and paused in her step, the first time since they had set off together.

"You have found peace since you've known her; you're not the angry, damaged man you used to be. Whatever problems caused you to separate from each other, you must solve them." She pierced him with her scrutiny. "Being with Kathryn Janeway was no mistake for you, Chakotay."

Chakotay was rocked to a complete halt by her conviction as much as the statement.

"What do you know about Kathryn?" he asked sharply in his surprise. "I thought—"

"That I meant Seven of Nine?" She grinned lightly and plucked some dried leaves off an overstressed brush as she continued on. "Really, Chakotay, it's not an unflattering picture that the media has plastered everywhere, but it doesn't tell a story—not the kind I look for, in any event," she offered.

"Where did you get pictures of Captain Janeway and me that told you ‘a story'?"

"Is it Captain or Kathryn? You see, there's the problem right there. That question screams ‘standing on protocol'. Was that her idea, or yours, all this time?"

"You didn't answer my question."

"I know." She smiled cryptically. "We both know there are plenty of shots of the command team in the public domain, but you didn't automatically assume I'd seen one of those. I'm certain that you've quietly figured out by now that my contacts are current in Headquarters and other places... I think what you're really asking is if I've heard anything specific, something more than the impression I have, because you are the one who is unsure about things."

She had cut to the quick of him but—typical Sveta—without an iota of pain. Sveta reached inside people only to help them, never to hurt. He wondered if she had had cause to compromise that talent when everything else about the Maquis was being savaged. She seemed at peace with herself still so perhaps not. He was glad.

"I'm uncertain," he began hesitantly, "about what I deserve from her still. But not about my feelings—never about my feelings," he ended firmly.

She studied his eyes, drew in a breath. "I don't know Kathryn Janeway in any way, Chakotay, but I do know you. Your accidental journey has brought you a wonderful peace that you always deserved but were too contrary to allow yourself." He grinned at the use of the word this time. Twenty five years earlier, it had hurt him to be so classified. "Your loyalty is dogged, but it isn't this mission that has sustained you all these years, it's her.

"All of you sacrificed in your travels, but we both know firsthand that the captain suffers the most. If she has any feelings at all for you, she will seize the moment, because she has already paid her dues and owes no one anything, anymore."

She exuded a confidence that Chakotay basked in, hoping that some of it would rub off onto him. She walked into the next transport hub as if she'd been there before and stopped a discrete distance from the idle operator.

"I know there is no one at home for you right now. Will you be coming with me tonight?"

"Why are you asking me this?"

"Because it makes a difference where I transport to," her eyes crinkled in amusement. "I have an offer to stay with one of those ‘supporters' we've been not-talking about. He's taking enough risk of exposure as an ex-Maquis sympathizer by putting me up until I decide what to do; I don't think he'd be too thrilled if both of us show up tonight. If you come with me for tonight," she took one of his hands in hers, "I have access to other, more private locations."

Emotionally, he was tempted, to stave off the loneliness he was beginning to feel as he settled into his new life. But physically, mentally? He couldn't muster the interest.

There were two things that Chakotay had ever committed himself to with his whole heart. One was the Maquis. The other was in Indiana.

He took Sveta's other hand, grateful to her beyond words for bringing some closure to such an important chapter in his life.

"I don't need to explain to you why I did what I did recently, with Seven of Nine—you've seen enough stress in the last seven years yourself to know temporary insanity when you see it." His grin was wan. "But succumbing to weakness and putting some noble label on it is what's put me in the predicament I'm in right now," he admitted. "Being with you...I want to, tonight. But it would be wrong now that I know where I'm heading, and I won't do that."

Sveta tipped her head and grinned mysteriously, with understanding.

"You will be able to find me should you need to; I've no need to hide anymore. In fact, I daresay I intend to become quite prominent on behalf of reclamation efforts for our friends' worlds." Pulling on his hands, she tipped herself upward to kiss him, with surprising fullness. But Chakotay knew it said goodbye, and good luck, and a thousand other things that meant she was glad for him that he was still alive and well. He felt tremendous gratitude that the same was true for her, too. Then she pulled back.

"Go to Indiana, Chakotay. You spent seven years trying to get home. Don't waste another minute in achieving that goal," she hummed convincingly.

"Thank you, Sveta."

"It's what friends are for," she shrugged. "Do svidaniya." She walked up to the operator and whispered her destination to him before mounting the platform. She did turn to him with that smile of hers before disappearing, and Chakotay headed back out into the cooling relief that evening brought to the desert.

A nice night for a walk, he thought. He had some planning to do. Hands pocketed in his khakis he ambled contentedly toward the next transport hub, savoring the gentle, spicy breeze that was like nothing in central Russia, but would forever remind him of it.

Owen Paris stood immobile by the transparent aluminum wall of his home office, watching the late autumn rain fall lazily over the hills of the Bay Area. The season was full of its usual turbulent weather this year—ominous clouds and unpredictable winds and rain, rain, rain. Contemplative weather, he considered it, and took full advantage, though he should have been working. He glanced backward at his desk.

Mahogany furniture, all of it, antiques passed down from father to child for six generations that he knew of. For some reason his mind pictured Tommy slumped resignedly in the winged armchair. He spoke to his son in ways he would never consider addressing Britt and Corey now, all the while worrying that the dirt on the boy's seat might grind into the chair's fabric.

Mahogany furniture. He had always thought it was so elegant and stately. How imposing all that dark wood must have seemed to a young boy.

Thoughts bring about events, or so went the hypothesis in the new Temporal Theories division. Unexpectedly, he heard the thump of footfall on the front veranda steps and the screen opened. He leaned back from the window to see his grown Tom stomp his wet feet on the throw rug at the door and drop Miral's carry-all bag. He threw off his hood and began removing the baby's rain slicker. Owen put down his coffee and walked out to take Miral so his son could hang up his own coat.

Huge purple eyes stared at him, and he made his usual faces.

"Hey there, precious! Give Grampa big kissies," he said before giving her raspberries on her moist neck. She giggled, then squealed with delight as he held her sideways and growled into her belly.

"You spoil her, Dad," Tom shook his head, bemused, and walked the baby bag into his father's office.

Owen sputtered, affronted. "Oh, like you don't? Besides, no harm ever came from loving a baby," he sighed, heading back into the warm light from his work area.

Tom finished spreading Miral's Voyager blanket on the floor along with a few toys. Her grandfather deposited her on it with one last growl, and stood to face Tom.

"What are you doing here at this hour? Not that I'm complaining, mind you."

"They scheduled that meeting about Voyager today, but the museum people were only available after two, so B'Elanna won't be home until late. And I've got to go contact some of the crew with the list of the specific holoprograms the publishers want from each of them. Mom's only working until four—she said you wouldn't mind watching Hotshot, here, until she got back home." Both men looked down. At the sound of her father's nickname for her, the baby turned a four-toothy smile up at them, drooling.

"Like I'm going to say no to that?" Owen asked his son superfluously. Miral slapped at the floor with a happy squeal, then found herself intrigued by the speckled targ Harry had recently sent, much to B'Elanna's chagrin.

Owen retrieved his coffee, turned back to his somber window view. He listened to Tom fix himself a quick raktajino for warmth while he thought about his daughter-in-law and the museum project.

"B'Elanna has cut a swath through the ranks since she's been freed from confinement, apparently," the admiral finally said to the window. "She's wasted no time ‘defining her parameters' where Voyager is concerned, with everyone from the cadet-assistants to the future museum curator, to ‘lowly' Starfleet admirals," he indicated himself with amusement.

"She's pissed, Dad. Voyager was her first baby and she's still the only person alive who knows every little quirk about her. Yet she spent five entire months relegated to the position of glorified encyclopedia, basically. And now that she's out and working directly, some people treat her like an interloper on their turf! Thank god that Professor Chapman, thanks to the Captain's tap, was so considerate of her feelings all that time or I would have seriously feared a jailbreak."

Owen's eyes darted in Tom's direction fractionally at the mention of jail, but it was enough to let his son know what he had been thinking. Tom smacked his lips at the possible insult, but kept quiet otherwise.

Owen flashed him a quick grin, hoping to reverse the temperature drop that had occurred in the room. "Well. One Paris and her knowledge are so impressing the ‘fleet that some of my colleagues are wondering when the second one might come back to fly for them. I told them I hadn't spoken with you about it, but I thought your family had more leave coming to them."

Tom began to answer matter-of-factly, but Owen noticed how his son paced over to the shelving and fiddled with the antiques there.

"Yeah, all our personal leave privileges were put on hold while B'Elanna was awaiting trial. Now that that's all behind us, we still have a handful of months coming to us that we intend to take."

"Of course."

Tom seemed to change tack then. "Do you know much about what I'm doing with all this free time I have?" Tom continued nervously. "Apparently, there's plenty of interest in the holos we made during our little tour of the Delta Q. People want to play the games we played, go walking in the places we recreated out of boredom...homesickness." He paused, thinking of some of his friends who had left behind families when they became stranded. Now that he had a wife and child of his own, he had a new appreciation for the pain they suffered through, all the while chatting about dense matter particles, or Neelix's latest creation...he would have gone mad. He shook his head.

"Anyway, as the publisher approached various people about their programs, my name kept coming up. I'm consulting casually with them right now about other people's stuff, but they're using quite a few of my works, too—I hear Captain Proton is very popular!" he chuckled awkwardly. Tom picked up an old phaser casing, put it back down without really looking at it. "I really like it," he declared, carefully neutral.

His back to Tom, Owen closed his eyes to finally hear what his son didn't say. A half-smile played at his mouth's corner. He knew it would be a lie to say there wasn't an old part of himself that wasn't disappointed. But it was a part that no longer controlled him, no longer drove him.

He walked over to the mahogany wainscot, took out a PADD, and tossed it on the desktop. Tom turned at the sound.

"What's this?" he asked. Owen grinned sadly.

"My wake-up call. It's your letter from that month you were in solitary in Voyager's brig. Apparently, you encoded it for delivery when the ship achieved contact with Earth. It was auto-activated when Katie downloaded her packet into the first Pathfinder transfer." Tom's mouth hung open—he had had no idea. In the hubbub of the last year and a half that was his personal life, he had forgotten about it almost entirely.

"I know we've both been too busy to have this talk, but maybe now is the time," Owen ducked his head, hesitating, then picked up his coffee again.

"Three years ago, when I received this, I was already deep into my recriminations I was tired of feeling bad about where I went wrong, and ready to forgive myself and go back to my old life—it was easier that way; you were dead. I was never going to see you again, so what was the point?"


"No. I know we've forgiven each other and have been moving forward nicely, but I need to say it, and you need to hear it. So let me." Tom ground his teeth together, thinking. But he was drawn to his father at the window, the pattering of the rain becoming a roar as the storm intensified. The rivulets washing down the transparent wall danced frantically in a panic.

"Then I get the letter, telling me that you were alive! It also told me that you were in prison again; I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," he said nonchalantly. Tom almost laughed despite the gravity of the talk. He could picture the old man in the throes of apoplexy.

"But I couldn't stop reading it, couldn't stop listening to you. And I mean really listening to you. I could see with my hindsight that I did too little of that when you were younger. Everything you ever were was right there in that letter, and I never saw it before."

Tom's stomach tumbled, but with excitement, not nerves.

"Maybe that's why I wrote it—the situation just brought up so many old memories," Tom murmured. "I couldn't stop thinking about you. About us. At the time I had no clue why I was even bothering."

"I had so many expectations for you," Owen spoke to himself now. "You were such a happy-go-lucky kid—so compliant. But I mistook easy-going with easy-to-manipulate, and pushed you to my personal advantage. Maybe if I'd pushed less you'd have done what I wanted on your own. Maybe not.

"So I read and read and read that letter. I always had so many expectations of you, and you know what that letter told me? That you always had only one expectation of me: Understanding." He shot out the last word roughly. Tom could feel the pain in his words and knew the courage it took for the Admiral to say them. He wanted to comfort him somehow, but didn't interrupt for fear of making it more difficult than it already was.

His father dropped his head slightly and tipped his chin in Tom's direction. His voice was gravelly and very quiet.

"Tommy, you never had too much trouble expressing who you were; I had the problem paying attention. I agonized so much about all the things you weren't that I never stood back to appreciate all the great things that you were. You've become so much more than I ever expected of you. And all it took was falling from grace and getting away from me to do it."

"No, Dad, it wasn't all like that—"

"And irony reared its head again, didn't it? Because the protégé that I hand-picked and raised well in the Starfleet tradition turns out to be the one who could give you the rein I was never able to." He snorted out a bitter laugh. "I owe Katie a debt I can never repay."

"Don't we all," Tom whispered, fearing for his full voice at that moment.

Owen sighed, spent. The rain slacked as abruptly as it had begun, his words falling crisply into the quiet.

"I was never a stupid man, Tom, just awkward in affairs of the heart, I guess. But I'm learning," his serious eyes lightened then. He turned abruptly to face his son directly.

"So what am I trying to say here? Take the job with the publishers if that is what makes you happy. Give yourself the rest of your leave, though—don't be hasty about it! Giving up your commission is a big step and you want to be absolutely sure before you relinquish it.

"But flying isn't your only unique skill. You're a talented man in many areas, and maybe...well, perhaps it's time for piloting to step aside and give some of those other talents a chance."

He reached up intending to grasp the scruff of Tom's neck in approval, but found he couldn't stop there, and he pulled his son into a firm embrace. He had forgotten the profound comfort in the feel of his own flesh and blood. Both men breathed in deeply several times. Neither wanted to shed tears on what was a happy occasion. Owen thrummed Tom on the back twice, then turned back to the window in time to catch a patch of sunlight break through the low cover and stream onto the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Thanks, Dad," Tom whispered

"For what?" the Admiral asked. "I didn't give up anything—I can still boast about tradition and the fine family name over in Engineering!"

Owen studiously avoided Tom's gaze but could still tell he was grinning from ear to ear out of his peripheral vision.

"By the way, your sister wants to thank you so much for giving the boys your jukebox of ‘dense metal'—that discordant stuff you call music." His tone was gruff, but Tom saw him grin as he put his coffee cup to his lips.

They both stared out the window at the view. Without a word, Tom put out his palm, and Owen casually slapped him five in implicit approval.

=/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\= =/\=

"Mom!" B'Elanna called up the stairs. "Kathleen just called to say they'll meet you in the grandstands—Kaley had a containment breach and ruined her dress. And Moira and Teddy and the boys just pulled up—they're setting down on the front lawn, okay?"

"Okay," Anne shouted back, sounding like that was the least of her worries at the moment. "Right now I'd just like to finish putting on these sheets without Miral's help!" she ended with a laugh, punctuated by someone's gleeful squeal.

"Blame your son," B'Elanna rolled her eyes. "He plays parachute with her all the time; she thinks bed-making is the greatest chore in the world!" A harried admiral swept up to Voyager's Chief Engineer at the base of the stairs as she finished.

"What that woman's doing making a bed when we need to be somewhere in a few minutes, anyway, is beyond me," Owen, struggling with the rank bar on his dress uniform. "Give me a hand, would you, Chief?" B'Elanna took the bar and grinned at his term of affection.

"I heard that," Anne suddenly appeared at the head of the stairs and rushed down, carrying Miral under one arm. She waited on the second step while B'Elanna adjusted the errant piece of metal on her father-in-law's collar.

"You know perfectly well that John Torres will be coming back here with us tonight! I won't have another chance to fix up that guest room if I don't do it now." She addressed her third daughter, then. "I wish you'd talk him into spending more than one night with us, B'Elanna. You could leave the baby here with us overnight and John could have more time with her—and you and Tom would get a night alone." She grinned.

"Much as he'd like to he can't, Mom. He told us that he has clients coming Monday morning and he'd just as soon be back Sunday night to prepare for them. He's just thrilled to have enough time to be able to stay for Miral's party tomorrow." Annie clucked in sympathy.

"Mama." Miral peeked out from beneath her grandmother's arm with a sly smile, and B'Elanna scooped her up. "Who's my pretty birthday girl? This time last year, you were making your record-breaking journey of 30, 000 lightyears, weren't you?"

"Excuse me—first record-breaking journey," Tom corrected as he glided up from the back kitchen area to join the conversation. "She's got piloting talent to spare, I can smell it."

"I think you better take another whiff, Flyboy, and go handle that, before we have the same problem as Kathleen does," B'Elanna said with a kiss and a handoff.

Much to the delight of the little girl, Tom flew her over to the changing table that had been pulled out of storage now that Paris Headquarters had two babies in and out again regularly.

Moira's boys burst up the veranda steps and through the screen door, though the noise of them arrived much sooner.

"Hey, Gramma! Hey Grampa Sir!" Owen gave each boy an affectionate conk on the head as they raced by to kiss their grandmother, smiling at the name that Britt had hit upon as a toddler that had somehow stuck. He would be hearing that four-fold now, soon, once the girls started talking. He could already get a "gm'PA" out of Miral...had a nice strong Klingon sound to it.

He shook his head to clear it. Waxing poetically when he had a huge operation to help coordinate today! What the hell was coming over him lately, he wondered with amusement. He continued his search for the PADDs he needed for the ceremonies.

"Uncle Tom, Aunt B'Elanna, this is a museum opening, not a masquerade ball—what's with the costumes?" Britt joked. He was becoming quite sassy, as befitted his age, but lucky for him, he had the Paris smile and ‘baby blues' as a shield against offense. Still, his observation was correct—while his grandfather wore his gunmetal-gray-and-red dress duster and corafram shoes, the two Voyagers-emeritus wore the outdated working uniforms that had taken them with pride across three Galactic quadrants and seventy thousand light years.

"Admiral—I mean, Captain Janeway's orders. She said that ‘this is how we served Voyager for seven years, and this is what Voyager will expect today'," Tom grinned, putting his newly freshened daughter down to scoot over to Corey.

"Can she do that?" Britt asked the room in general, scrunching up his face questioningly.

"Today, son," Owen called out from above with authority, "Kathryn Janeway can do whatever the hell she pleases!"

Tom sought out B'Elanna's eyes, and they smiled. Their sadness and fear a year ago over leaving Voyager was transformed today into excitement and happiness that the old girl would never be forgotten. It was tempered in the absolution of the court system and the resolution of familial strife. It was salved over with a year of childcare and career upheavals that tested their marital bonds and left them stronger for the experiences. And while all this occurred, roots had taken hold and begun to run deep.

"Alright, Paris household, let's move out," Admiral Owen Paris bellowed, reappearing from upstairs, briefcase in hand and feet beating a path to the front door. He scooped up Anne along the way, his hand draped with familiar ease around her waist. The strain their marriage had operated under for so long that it had become like the air they breathed was gone, replaced with a new, comfortable familiarity. Tom's return had given Owen the opportunity to behave in a manner that raised him in his wife's esteem, bringing with it a playful contentment that the entire family benefited from.

An excited cacophony rose as everyone exited, checking that holoimagers, water containers and diaper bags were in hand. Tom bent down to scoop up Miral from Corey's care.

"Oh! I almost forgot!" the young boy exclaimed as he reached into his back pocket and produced a small, chunky black tube and handed it solemnly to his uncle. "This is for Miral's birthday, Uncle Tom. It's a telescope, so she can see the stars! It's all one piece, and plastic, so it's safe. I bartered for it at the goods warehouse all by myself!" he stated proudly.

"I'm impressed, Cor—she'll love it, thanks." Tom started to put the instrument to his eye.

"Ah-ah-ah—mom said to tell you it's for Miral only, not you. Keep your grubby paws off the baby's toys," he giggled.

"Oh she did, did she?" he raised his eyebrows imperiously, further instigating the laughter. Corey ran down the front path to catch up with his family. Tom kissed his smiling wife happily, then glanced upward, pensive. They both seemed reluctant to follow.

"Duty calls one last time," Tom whispered almost shyly.

"You two going to be okay?" Anne solicited kindly, holding the door open for the Paris, Junior trio.

"Annie, Annie—they're going to be great," Owen offered kindly, giving his wife a quick kiss. They had worked out all the logistics of meeting up after Voyager's flight, and every other detail, so with a kiss to Miral, the elder Paris couple followed after Moira's family.

Tom and B'Elanna stood on the porch for a moment with the baby, the spring breeze promising Voyager a grand day. Miral chattered to herself and tried to take her gift from her father's hand. Tom grinned tenderly.

"Should we drop the bomb about the new baby to everyone today?"

"No!" B'Elanna admonished. "No, today belongs to Kathryn, and Voyager. I'll pull the Doc aside at Miral's party tomorrow for a quick scan, for confirmation. The news will be through this entire house before we come out of the bedroom, I'm sure." She harumphed. "Bet he finds a way to take credit for it somehow, too." Tom howled at the truth in her jest.

"Well, we'll just be sure to tell everyone the real truth—that we're blessed."

Their kiss was interrupted by the determined grunt of a young lady still trying to reach her toy.

"Hold your horses, Hotshot—let your former test pilot dad check it out for you first."

B'Elanna tisked. "Tom," she scolded mildly.

"What? I'm looking for Voyager with it!" He put it to his eye, looking skyward.

Shrieks of laughter suddenly echoed off the house's facing, and they looked down the walkway to see that Moira, Owen, and the boys had reappeared through the trees to point at them.

Or at Tom, specifically. He turned to B'Elanna. She opened her mouth to say something, but swallowed the words and smiled instead. She pantomimed a circle around her eye. Tom daubed his socket and came away with fluorescent green paint. The telescope eyepiece had a pressure-activated dye pack imbedded in it.

Moira was shaking her head slowly. "Oldest trick in the book," she drawled.

"I warned ya, Uncle Tom," Corey giggled. The boys high-fived their mom, and then headed off once again.

"Sleeping with the enemy, I see!" Tom shouted after his sister and wiped at his eye with a cloth from Miral's bag.

"If you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em?" B'Elanna asked with a hug around her husband's middle. Tom tossed the cloth on the veranda, contemplating. He returned the hug, encompassing both his ‘girls'.

"Hey, don't knock it! Look what it did for Voyager, ex-Maquis." They swayed back and forth lazily, enjoying the moment before B'Elanna responded.

"Shut up and kiss me again, ex-Starfleet."

He obliged his wife's request, and they hurried off for the transport hub to join their families—both the one born of blood, and the one forged through an act of fate.

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