Disclaimer: See part 1.
A/N: I just couldn't get the conclusion of "All the Way" out of my mind, so I decided they needed to go "All the way back," as well. A continuation of the story "All the Way," this is post Endgame. J/C
All the Way Back
The first message arrived on Kathryn Janeway's console at 1400 hours, just minutes after the Maquis had been pardoned and released from duty. She didn't hear the chime when the message arrived, because she was on the other side of the compound, celebrating with the former freedom fighters, congratulating them on their exoneration, and thanking them for their loyalty and service over the last seven years.
Nearly an hour later, when she returned to her office, she found the red flashing light on her console and checked her messages, focusing on one that seemed unusual.
From Chakotay and text only, the message read: "Midnight tonight. On Voyager. My quarters."
"That's odd," she muttered. She spent a few minutes attempting to trace the message's source and verify the time it had been forwarded to her. When her efforts failed, she decided that the engineers at Utopia Planetia who were gradually disassembling Voyager had probably dislodged an old, undelivered message that had become lost in the ship's computer. "What else could it be?"
Chakotay couldn't have sent it-she knew that. It had arrived at 1400 hours, when Chakotay and the rest of the Maquis were still inside the justice center, so there had to be some logical explanation for its odd appearance on her screen. With a shrug, she put the mysterious message out of her mind and focused on the work that she needed to take care of before the end of the day.
She had a mountain of reports to finalize on Voyager's upgrades, on the hundreds of first contacts she'd made, and on the reasoning behind her more problematic decisions. Then there were over a hundred crew evaluations to complete, plus recommendations for new postings for the members of the Starfleet crew.
In addition to her "official" duties, there were the more problematic private ones: answers to countless messages from the family members of deceased crew; from her own relatives, friends, and colleagues; and from innumerable well-wishers that ranged from distinguished diplomats to youngsters caught up in the romantic notion of Voyager's predicament and miraculous return.
What made the work seem insurmountable was the fact that she had to do all of it without the help she usually received from her first officer and the Maquis members of her senior staff. She was just beginning to grasp the magnitude of that calamity.
Starfleet had refused to recognize the Maquis as "real" members of her crew from the first, removing them from the ship as soon as Voyager entered orbit without listening to a word of her protest. She'd limped through the first weeks of the debriefings by believing that their absence would be temporary, a delusion that had been obliterated by the court's release of them today. They would be on the fringes of Voyager's debriefings from this moment on, and she would see them infrequently, if at all.
Her reaction to the pardon was ambivalent, at best. She was glad that they no longer had to worry about possible prosecution for their actions before the Dominion war, but she was also frustrated by the fact that she wouldn't have their input and support as she completed the mountain of work facing her. It was more than the workload, though. She was going to miss them terribly, especially the ones who had been on her senior staff. They had become as dear to her as members of her family.
She wondered what Chakotay and the rest of them were doing on their first real day of freedom. Had they gone somewhere together? Was there a wild celebration underway? Were they relieved to have their long trek behind them? Were they as sad as she was that their collaboration was over?
Janeway blinked back tears and put aside her self-pity. There was work to accomplish, and she was determined to get as much done as possible before the weekend arrived. For the next forty minutes, she focused on her work, oblivious to the passage of time, when the chime of an arriving personal message caught her attention. She turned in her chair and looked at the computer screen.
From Chakotay, text only, the message read: "Midnight tonight. On Voyager. My quarters."
"Strange." She made another futile attempt to find out when the message had been written and what its source had been. All she could verify was that it was not a repeat of the earlier message, even though the text was identical. It was a new message.
She established contact with the shipyards at Utopia Planetia and spoke to the engineer in charge of Voyager's dissection.
"I'm sorry, Captain. We have been fiddling with the main computer core today. Perhaps we did shake loose a lost message or two. I don't have time to look into it today, because we were about to shut things down for the weekend."
"Don't worry about it," she assured him. "I was just curious."
The communications link ended when she noticed something strange about the message. She said to herself, "If this was a lost message from the past, why did he say to meet him on Voyager? Where else would I have met him?"
She glanced at the time the message had arrived—1500 hours, exactly sixty minutes after the first one, and her curiosity grew.
The work she'd been doing seemed dull and unimportant now that her concentration had been broken, and so she decided to take a break, stretch her legs, and get a cup of coffee at the cafeteria on the building's ground floor. Stopping to let her assistant know where she'd be, Janeway looked up to discover Seven of Nine striding toward her office.
"Seven, what are you doing here? I thought you'd be celebrating the Maquis' liberation."
"You were incorrect." Seven paused, unsure of what to say next. "Were you leaving your office? I was hoping to talk to you."
"I was going to take a walk and find some unreplicated coffee. I'd appreciate some company."
"I will go with you."
In the weeks since Voyager's return, Seven had reverted to an earlier, more formal and insecure version of herself. Janeway hadn't been surprised by the retreat and expected it to be short-lived, but she couldn't help but smile at the amazed look on her assistant's face.
"We'll be back soon," she told her as she led the drone down the hallway.
They chatted about inconsequential things as they walked—the speed with which the Maquis had been exonerated, the current condition of Voyager's deconstruction, the temporary, and barely satisfactory arrangements that had been made for Seven's regeneration needs. Seven took a seat near the windows while Janeway procured a large mug of coffee.
"Are you sure you don't want something?" she asked as she took a seat at the table. "Some tea or fruit juice?"
"I don't require refreshment at this time," Seven answered, hesitating as she remembered her manners. "Thank you, anyway."
"You're welcome." Janeway frowned at the woman's obvious discomfort. She'd hoped they'd put that uneasiness behind them for good after four years. "How are you doing, Seven? You seem troubled."
"I am attempting to adjust to the many changes that have happened since our return."
"We all are." She studied the young woman, detecting a crack in the Borg's façade. "But you said you're 'attempting' to adjust. Are you having problems?"
"I'm finding the adjustment more difficult than I expected it to be, and, as you know, I expected it to be quite difficult."
"How can I help?"
To Janeway's complete shock, Seven's eyes filled with tears. "I knew you would ask that," she whispered, picking up a napkin and dabbing at her eyes. "You have always been so patient with me."
The sight of the usually reserved, even stoic former drone in tears rattled Janeway to the core, and she silently reprimanded the EMH once again for tampering with the drone's emotional dampener at the worst possible moment. Reaching across the table, she put a comforting hand on Seven's arm and said, "What's wrong?"
"I don't feel at home here."
"You didn't feel at home on Voyager, at first, remember? You are still recovering from a terrible violation of your humanity."
"That was four years ago, Captain."
"I thought you understood that your recovery would take time and that there will be set-backs along the way."
"Yes, but now I fear I will never fully recover my humanity, that I will always be a misfit."
Janeway sighed and sat back in her chair to think about what she could say to comfort her protégé. She couldn't lie to her and say that she would fully recover, because it was becoming more obvious that there would be certain aspects of her assimilation that would never disappear. And yet, she didn't want to add to the former drone's depression and pessimism by discouraging her, either.
"Seven, you are not a misfit, you're unique. In time, you'll understand that your differences are blessings, not hindrances, to your value here—just as they were on Voyager."
"Perhaps, in time."
Janeway gazed out the window at the cold February weather, remembering how reserved Seven had been at the Maquis hearing, how she had stood apart rather than participating actively. "As I said earlier, I thought you'd be celebrating with the Maquis."
Seven arched an eyebrow. "I was present at the announcement of their release, as were you. Should I have done more than that to display my support?"
"No, of course not, I just assumed that they would move the party elsewhere and that you would accompany them."
"You didn't accompany them," she replied, looking confused.
"I wasn't invited."
"Neither was I."
Janeway's eyes widened in surprise. "I don't understand."
"I was never particularly close to the crew."
"I thought … that you and the commander … that you'd be with him." Janeway hated that she sounded so unsure of herself and took a deep breath. "Aren't you two dating?"
"We had five dates while the ship was still in the Delta Quadrant, but our precipitous return necessitated a reassessment of that relationship."
Janeway nodded and tried not to stare at the woman in disbelief. "Frankly, I'm surprised."
"The arrival of the admiral made me realize that our possible return to the Alpha Quadrant would involve the dissolution of the crew and require another difficult adjustment to a new environment."
Janeway nodded. "I know that you always worried about how you would be received if we returned to the Federation."
"I tried to terminate the relationship before we entered the transwarp hub, but Chakotay insisted that we remain within transporter range of each other, to use his terms." She paused a moment, and then said, "I'm relieved to say that he has since changed his mind. What made sense to me as a likely pairing on Voyager seems unfeasible on Earth."
"And so you aren't together."
"No. I'm surprised that you were aware of our brief connection. Did the commander inform you of it?"
"No, I learned it from someone else."
"Icheb? Naomi? Perhaps Neelix?"
"It doesn't matter," Janeway replied with a wave of her hand, not wanting to mention the admiral's name. "You can trust me to protect your privacy, and the other party, as well."
"Tuvok, then." Seven decided and pursed her lips. "Not that it matters."
Janeway hid behind her coffee mug and let the drone believe that the Vulcan had detected their relationship and reported it to the captain.
"I thought that the commander might be able to help you adjust to Earth, that's all."
"I'm afraid not."
"Then, let me help you. What do you need?"
"Someone to listen to me and provide advice. Someone I can trust."
The captain smiled. "You can trust me."
They talked a few minutes more, and then Seven announced that she was expected to spend a week or so with her relative in Florida. "My aunt Inga spends the winter there and has invited me to stay for awhile. The doctor has fashioned a portable regeneration unit for me to use while I'm there."
"That sounds wonderful, Seven. Florida is nice this time of year."
"I will keep you posted about my location."
"Please do. And feel free to contact me if you need to talk."
"Thank you, Captain, I will." She stood up to leave.
"Call me Kathryn, won't you? We aren't on the ship anymore."
"Kathryn," the former drone pronounced, sounding out the name carefully. "It seems strange to say your name when I have only heard the commander use it."
They said their goodbyes, and Janeway watched as Seven sailed through the cafeteria, oblivious to the stares her statuesque build and blonde beauty received. Once the young woman disappeared, Janeway sat back down to think about what she'd just heard.
When Admiral Janeway had informed her of Seven and Chakotay's marriage in her time line, Janeway had resigned herself to the inevitability of the pairing, not letting herself consider the possibility of them breaking up. Now that it had happened, however, a panoply of alternative futures unfolded before her, most of them fueled by long-repressed memories of the doomed affair that had started on New Earth and ended just over a year later.
Shaking her head to chase the daydreams away, she made her way back to her office where her assistant was preparing to leave for the day.
"Unless you need me, Captain, I thought I'd beat the five o'clock rush at the transport station."
"That's fine. I'll be leaving soon, too."
Relieved to have a few quiet hours to work, Janeway sat down at her desk just as a personal message chime sounded, exactly at 1700 hours. She held her breath as she opened her messages and was not surprised to find that it was from Chakotay, text only, "Midnight tonight. On Voyager. My quarters."
A quick check showed that the same message had arrived at 1600, as well, while she and Seven had been talking at the cafeteria.
"What's going on here?" she wondered aloud. "This can't be some 'lost' message from Voyager's computer core."
She frowned and then decided to take action.
"Computer, open a link to Commander Chakotay."
The computer replied, "There is no Starfleet access for a Commander Chakotay."
"That was fast," she muttered, shaking her head. He'd been released from Starfleet just a few hours earlier and had already been deleted from the roles. "Scan civilian contacts for Chakotay and open a link."
"Access for a civilian named Chakotay is not available in current records."
Janeway growled in frustration and spent the next several minutes trying without success to find contact information for any of the Maquis crewmembers. She finally realized that they were no longer active on Starfleet's roles and had not had time to establish civilian contact files, and so she gave up and went back to work, trying to put aside the mystery of the hourly messages.
She picked up a report and started reading, but paused every few minutes to check the time. At 1758, she laid down the PADD and turned to watch her view screen. Sure enough, precisely at 1800, the personal message chime sounded. She tapped a key.
From Chakotay, text only, "Midnight tonight. On Voyager. My quarters."
Now, her curiosity was bubbling, and she actually considered taking the next shuttle to Mars to follow up on this mysterious message. If she left on the 1900 shuttle, she'd have plenty of time to board Voyager by midnight.
"What a complete waste of time that would be," she laughed, imagining herself walking down the echoing passageways of her ship to an empty set of quarters, since the Maquis had cleaned out their things the day before.
Midnight at Chakotay's quarters. She smiled at the memory of their first few months after New Earth, when they'd tried to keep their star-crossed affair alive. Oh, how she'd lived for those infrequent trysts, how she'd looked forward to having him in her arms and making love to him in the quiet of night watch. How quickly those stolen hours passed and how essential they'd been to her mental health and well-being as she adjusted to her return to duty as Voyager's captain.
Her eyes filled with tears. She tried hard to repress the memory of those days, and especially of the days and nights of paradise that they'd shared on New Earth. They were precious moments, but the pain of losing Chakotay had never really diminished with time and still reminded her of the high price her duty had demanded of her. Now, today, he was truly gone, released from Starfleet, and free to pursue whatever job, whatever location, or whatever woman, for that matter, that caught his fancy.
Overwhelmed with loneliness and regret, Janeway crossed her arms on her desk and buried her face in them, letting the sleeves of her uniform absorb the hot tears that spilled from her eyes. She was relieved that her assistant was gone, that she wouldn't hear a Starfleet captain sobbing over an affair that had ended badly more than three years earlier.
Once the storm of tears passed, Janeway sat at her desk for a long time and stared out the window before she got up to wash her face and repair her makeup. She was too emotionally drained to get much work accomplished, and so she methodically closed the open files on her computer and tidied up her desk, taking her time to leave things clean so that she could start the next week without leftover clutter from the week before.
She put on her jacket and turned out the lights, trying to decide whether she should stop and eat dinner at a local restaurant or just replicate some soup once she arrived at her quarters. Then she noticed that it was nearly 1900 hours. She stood at the door, waiting to hear if another message arrived, and turned in amazement when the computer chimed again on the hour. She returned to her desk and pulled up her messages.
Chakotay. "Midnight tonight. On Voyager. My quarters."
"Oh, hell, why not go out there?" she muttered, checking the shuttle schedule to Utopia Planetia. She'd missed the one at 1900, but reserved a seat on the next one at 2000 and notified the dock master of her intention to visit her ship upon her arrival. She wondered whether the individual in charge would think she was insane, because she felt a bit out of control. "I'll think of a reason for visiting the ship on the way out there."
She found the wait for the flight interminable, even though she spent some of the time at the snack bar having yet another cup of coffee and a salad for dinner. Afterward, she found herself pacing and nearly changed her mind a dozen times, only to remind herself that the next day was Saturday—her day off. She could sleep in her own bed and, since there would be no work done on the ship over the weekend, stay in her quarters all day without being disturbed. Suddenly, she was anxious to be on her ship, no matter whether she solved the mystery of the recurring messages in the process.
Once the flight was underway, Janeway accessed her mail, on a whim, and found another identical message had arrived at 2000 hours. She wondered if it might be a prank devised by Tom Paris to embarrass her—or perhaps a surreptitious get-together they'd planned to celebrate the Maquis' pardon. But, if they'd all been released from Starfleet, how would they gain access to the ship?
She shut down her PADD and tried to doze, closing her eyes and leaning her head against the bulkhead for the duration of the three-hour trip. She felt sure that she could get from the spaceport to her ship in the hour between their arrival and midnight.
She was wrong.
"I'm sorry, Captain," the transporter chief apologized. "I could transport you to most ships in dry dock, but not Voyager. Its classified upgrades mean that it has a dampening field set up to prevent unauthorized access. You'll have to be shuttled out there."
"Damn. I forgot about the dampening field. How do I get a shuttle?"
"At this hour, ma'am, our pilots are off duty for the night."
She made a face and then said, "I don't need a pilot, Chief. I can fly a shuttle all by myself."
"Yes, ma'am. Since you're still in command of the ship, you might be able to take a shuttle out there."
"How do I go about it?" She blushed. "I've come this far on a whim. I might as well go all the way."
He reminded her of the location of the shuttle complex, and she hurried there as quickly as possible. Time was passing and her deadline of midnight was quickly approaching. The chief in charge of the shuttle bay was not immediately receptive to the idea, however.
"Why do you need to shuttle out to your ship?" she wondered. "Environmental controls are shut down. It's barely habitable."
Janeway found herself at a loss for words, her mind sorting through a number of excuses and tossing them aside before she blurted, "I just miss my ship, Chief, and I have to check on her."
The woman actually smiled. "You know, that's probably the only reason that I'd find acceptable. You wouldn't believe how many captains visit their ships like this—as if they think of their ship as a living being."
"They're alive to their captains, I suppose." She blushed again. "I haven't seen Voyager in over a month, and I just have to spend some time with her before she's taken away from me for good."
"Just so you have the shuttle back first thing in the morning." She took Janeway's thumbprint for verification. "The skeleton crew on the dry dock itself has been informed of your intention to visit the ship. Your command codes are still active, so the automated shuttle landing program will respond when you contact the ship."
"Thank you, Chief. I can't tell you how much this means to me."
Ten minutes later, Janeway settled into the pilot's seat of a tiny type-fifteen shuttlepod and forced herself to go through the pre-flight checklist, even though she was only taking a ten-minute trip to Voyager. The chief had already approved her departure, so she was quickly on her way toward her beautiful ship which was trapped in the claw of the Starfleet dry dock.
While en route, she accessed her messages again, confirming that the same cryptic message had arrived every hour on the hour since early that afternoon. She was anxious to find out what the message meant.
Voyager responded at once to her command codes. The lights in the shuttle bay flashed on as the huge doors slid open, the usual arrows on the floor guiding her into the empty and echoing shuttle bay. She hurried through the shut-down sequence and stepped out of the shuttle into the icy cold air of the ship.
"Computer, activate turbolift for access to deck three and bring environmental controls to normal for the captain's quarters and the first officer's quarters."
"Acknowledged," answered the familiar computer voice.
It was 2350, leaving her just about ten minutes to get from the main shuttle bay on deck ten to officer's quarters on deck three. She boarded the turbolift, taking in the familiar feel of her ship and discovering that she missed it almost as much as she missed the crew.
Starfleet was focusing their study on the upgrades in engineering, shielding, and tactical, which meant that the other areas of the ship remained largely untouched. While the Maquis and the Equinox five, as they were called, had cleaned out their quarters, the Starfleet crew had yet to return for a final visit. Most of Janeway's belongings were still in her quarters and the Ready Room, so she would feel right at home if she decided to spend the night.
Out of curiosity, she queried the computer about the number of individuals on Voyager, to which the computer replied, "There is one human on board."
"Then what am I doing here?" she mumbled to herself as the turbolift opened on deck three. She walked down the passageway of the part of the ship that had served as her "home" for seven years and was struck with a wave of nostalgia. She wondered how many times she had hurried down this corridor in response to a red alert or strolled back to her quarters after averting yet another disaster. How often had Chakotay walked beside her, his calm, generous nature giving her just the right amount of support and reassurance?
Janeway walked slowly, her mind going over countless memories, and she realized that she was glad that she'd come to the ship, even if the trip turned out to be a wild goose chase, glad to have Voyager to herself for a last, poignant farewell. She arrived at the door to her quarters and hesitated, thinking that she might as well forego the last few steps, let herself into her rooms, and crawl into bed. She'd had a long, stressful day and was suddenly exhausted.
The PADD in her hand vibrated with the arrival of another personal message, but this one was early, at 2358. She looked down at it and saw that it, too, was from Chakotay:
"My quarters, Kathryn. At midnight."
She felt her heart skip a beat. Could it be possible? Could Chakotay actually be waiting for her in his quarters? She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and walked the rest of the way to his door, pausing at the entry with her hand hovering over the chime. Before she could sound it, the doors swished open revealing a totally dark room—all of the lights off and the windows blacked out.
"Computer, ambient lighting," she ordered as she stepped over the threshold. When the lights revealed a familiar figure sitting at the dining table, she stopped in surprise. "Chakotay!"
"You . . . you can't be here."
He smiled, putting his devastating dimples on full display. "All evidence to the contrary."
"The computer said there was only one human on the ship."
He shrugged. "The computer and I are old friends from way back, and it owed me a favor."
"But there was no other shuttle in the shuttle bay, and the dampening field prevents anyone from beaming onto the ship."
"Yet I got around it." He gave her a level look. "Do you want to know how I did it?"
She frowned for a moment and shook her head. "Maybe I'm better off not knowing."
"Let's just say that when I was here earlier in the week, I knew I'd be back at least one more time."
"And that's when you set up the messages I've been receiving."
He shrugged. "Maybe. I wanted to make you curious enough to come out here and check things out."
"Well, I almost didn't come."
"Almost?" He laughed. "I'm sure you had second and third thoughts along the way, but when push came to shove, you had to know."
"I'm that transparent to you."
"I know you well." He gestured at the seat near his. "Won't you sit down?"
She noticed that there was food on the table. "What's all this?"
"I didn't think you'd leave yourself much time to eat, so I replicated some sandwiches and lemonade. Help yourself."
She pulled out the chair around the corner to his right and sat down, their knees almost touching under the table. "I thought you'd be celebrating your freedom with the rest of the Maquis."
"We didn't have time to organize a proper party. I think Tom and Chell are working on a get-together for Sunday. I'm sure you'll be invited, if you're interested."
"Of course, I'm interested." She studied the plate of sandwiches. "Are those egg salad sandwiches?"
"And lemonade." He filled their glasses. "It's way too late for coffee."
She looked up in surprise, wondering if he remembered serving her the same food during another late-night meeting years earlier, the night that she'd ended their affair. She could feel her heart pounding at the memory of that sad event.
Oblivious to her distress, Chakotay kept talking. "You left in such a rush after the briefing today, I had to wonder what was wrong. I thought you would stay around to congratulate us."
"I'm sorry. It's just that I have so much to do."
"Still being the captain twenty-four/seven?"
She blushed and reached for a sandwich. "I guess I need to work on that particular bad habit."
"We all have to rethink our choices."
She swallowed hard, nearly choking, and took a long drink from her glass. "I'm not sure there are that many choices to be made. I'm still burdened with the onerous task of ending a mission and breaking up a crew."
"I wish I could help you."
"So do I." She gave him a weak smile and then studied the contents of the sandwich. "Strange that I never have egg salad unless you fix it for me. I've missed it."
"Choice number one: more egg salad." He gave her a wink as he bit into his own sandwich.
She laughed and took another bite, chewing it slowly. "I should have had something to eat on the way out here, but I waited so late to start that I didn't have time for anything but a salad."
"You came out of curiosity, right?"
"I suppose so. At first, I thought the message was a malfunction of Voyager's computer, but then the message kept repeating every hour, on the hour." She tore the crust from the remainder of her sandwich. "And then, it was from you."
"I would have been terribly disappointed if you hadn't come," he admitted. "And lonely."
"Unless you were taken into custody for trespassing."
"It was worth the risk."
"The real question is why you didn't just come right out and ask me to meet you here."
"Because you wouldn't have agreed to meet me out here, Kathryn. You would have insisted that we meet in your office or your quarters, someplace neutral, someplace unfamiliar." He put down what was left of his sandwich and leaned toward her. "Voyager is what brought us together all those years ago, so it's only right that we meet here when we are facing a permanent separation."
"Not permanent," she shook her head. "We can stay friends, even if we aren't serving together in Starfleet."
"Choice number two: stay friends." He watched her finish the first half of the sandwich before he added, "We made that same choice right here in this room three years ago. Remember?"
"Yes, I remember." She gazed at the other half of her sandwich. "You finished my sandwich that night."
"You weren't going to eat it. You were too anxious to break up with me and fly away." He grinned.
"I'm grateful that you let me go."
"I decided that the important thing was to help you carry out your duty to the ship and to the crew, to put aside my personal wishes and dreams. It was a major turning point in my life, Kathryn, and I can't say that I regret it. I can say that I wish that circumstances hadn't forced me to make that choice."
"Oh, I understand that feeling." Janeway began to tear the crust off of the rest of her sandwich, her eyes unfocused. "Ironic, isn't it? To be able to point to a certain moment and say, 'This is where the direction of my life changed-while I was eating an egg salad sandwich.'"
He chuckled. "I suppose we could go back in time, like your counterpart from the future, and change our decision, if we wanted."
"But that decision wasn't a mistake, Chakotay, and you know it. We barely managed to salvage our friendship and maintain our working relationship, even after we stopped seeing each other."
"Okay. We don't change the past." He leaned forward again, and their eyes locked. "But we could change the future."
Janeway caught her breath. "After all we've been through, is there enough left to build on?"
"I'd like to think so. Unlike the last time we were here, our choice depends solely on our own wants and needs." He watched her push the rest of her sandwich aside as she considered his words. "In your heart of hearts, has anything between us really changed?"
She looked up at him with a heart so full that she found it difficult to breathe. "I suppose not."
"And if you could have anything you wanted, anything, what would it be, Kathryn?"
"I want peace. And contentment. And . . . well, it seems so absurd."
"To wish for something I pushed away."
"Does that something involve me?" At the sight of her blush, he continued, "You came out here because the messages were from me. Weren't you hoping to find me here, waiting for you to appear?"
"I don't know what I hoped for, Chakotay. I've worked too hard to leave my hopes unacknowledged and to live with whatever I have left."
"I guess I understand that. We both had to accept certain limits if we hoped to keep our sanity. However, as of this afternoon, we don't have to balance our personal and professional lives anymore." He reached across the table and took her hand. "We can choose to be more than friends."
"I thought it was too late," she whispered. "I thought you'd moved on."
"Oh, I tried to move on," he admitted, aware of the fact that the admiral had informed her of his recent decision to start dating Seven of Nine. "I picked the worst possible moment to do that, and I hope Seven of Nine understands that our successful return changed everything."
"I talked to her earlier today, and she didn't seem upset with you."
"Good. I'm relieved to hear it." He smiled and looked away, embarrassed. "Once we were home and I realized that you and I could rethink our choices . . . well, I knew that I didn't want to move on, after all."
"So you recreated this moment," she looked around the room and at their unfinished meal, "this pivotal juncture in our lives, as an effort to bring us full circle?"
His smile widened. "More or less."
"I forget what a romantic you are." She gave his hand a squeeze. "Or, more accurately, I've refused to remember how romantic you can be."
"We've repressed too many memories during the last few years, don't you think? But now that I'm not your first officer, we're free to remember everything." He lifted her hand and kissed her palm, his warm breath sending a blaze of fire up her arm.
"Chakotay." She took a shaky breath and pulled her hand away. "How could this happen so fast? Your first message arrived just minutes after the hearing ended."
He leaned back in the chair with a wicked grin. "Let's just say that I made some plans when I 'cleaned out' my quarters."
"So this is an ambush?"
"Oh, yes, and you walked right into it," he said, giving her a wink.
"You'd think maybe I wanted to be ambushed, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, Kathryn, I hope so."
Janeway shivered and said, "I feel as if I'm the victim of a stalking."
"You are, definitely." He leaned forward and captured her hand again in both of his, caressing her palm and running his fingers up her sleeve. "I've been stalking you for years, Kathryn, waiting for the moment when I could approach you again."
"Even after all our problems?"
"You know what problems. I relieved you from duty once, remember? We had some spectacular disagreements. There were a lot of things I did out there that I regret."
"I'd say we've both done things that we probably wish we hadn't done. What we need to do is focus on the good things and let the bad things fade away."
"I like that idea." His hands were warm as they caressed hers, and she remembered how many times he'd shared his warmth with her, both spiritually and physically. The thought of those times made her pulse jump. "What good things did you have in mind?"
"A gradual return to what we shared on New Earth and just after."
"Gradual?" Her eyes were luminous with tears.
"I want to continue to lighten your burdens—but not as your first officer. I want to enrich your life and make you anxious to come home at the end of the day. I'm thinking of nightly dinners together, daily comfort for the pressure of your career, frequent nights—"
"Yes." She leaned forward and cupped his cheek with her right hand, brushing her thumb across his lips as she studied his face. "Yes, I'd like that very much."
"I'd hoped so."
"But to hell with the 'gradual' part."
His smile nearly blinded her. "I forgot that I was dealing with all-the-way Janeway."
"That's exactly what I want, Chakotay. With you, I want to go all the way."
He stood up and pulled her toward the bedroom. "Time's awastin'."