The final explosion that forced Voyager back into the Alpha Quadrant had significantly damaged the warp core, rendering it offline and leaving only impulse engines to carry them home. A flux of excited energy consumed the crew as they inched closer to the finish line. Flanked by more than a dozen fleet vessels, one light year felt like a hundred as the ship limped towards Earth. The Captain and the Commander continued to work together, supporting the crew and overseeing systems and operations, all of which were essential for getting them home. But now there was a distance, a rift, a tear in their once seamless unity. Grateful for her shield, Kathryn was able to hide behind her commission and was kept mercifully busy with a barrage of transmissions and comm calls—spent significant time coordinating with Starfleet Command, planning their next steps and waylaying their fears about the Borg, offering reassurances that everything would be covered in her report.
But where to begin? Her report had to be meticulously crafted, disclosing enough detail to implicate a breach in the temporal prime directive and simultaneously withholding enough information to maintain it. It was daunting, and every time she approached her task, trying to find a way to explain the origins of their return to the Alpha Quadrant, she found her mind wandering, drifting to Chakotay and the countless ways she had failed him.
The pain buried in the Admiral's eyes matched the ache that flooded Kathryn's chest; the declaration hit its mark, striking her in the heart with a single, expertly executed blow. Their shared affinity for Chakotay was palpable, and the younger had to turn away, unsure how much more her fractured psyche could take. All her training in diplomacy and neutrality obliged her to compartmentalize yet another reaction and temper her response. With a breath, a wave of emotion surged through her and faded, leaving her bereft.
Suspicion had plagued her for weeks, wondering if someone had captured his attention, but she dismissed the rumours that raced around the ship and took comfort in her ignorance; as long as Chakotay wasn't saying anything, it couldn't be true. But it was. And with a sobering awareness, she knew that she had taken him, and their relationship, for granted. The crux of the Admiral's admission, temporal disruptions be damned, was that their heart continued to beat for one man alone after so many years.
She once told Chakotay that she couldn't imagine a day without him, and now that irrevocable truth paralyzed her. Having spent years bending and flexing herself around opaque perimeters, she felt they had carved out a relationship that was uniquely fulfilling and safe, and honest. His omission had shattered her resolve, and Kathryn found herself drowning in confusion. Chakotay was still the same man, calm and steadfast by her side, challenging her in ways that made her better, and yet she despised him and the way her emotions were caught on a pendulum, shifting from joy to sadness to anger. Around him and their crew, she could turn off every feeling part of herself, maintaining the image of a capable and confident Captain Janeway. Yet she found herself longing for solace, saying anything to escape, anything to protect the integrity of her faltering heart. Their homecoming had begun to feel like a double-edged sword, pain laced with relief, cutting both ways.
Once docked with McKinley, the itch to get off the ship became palpable. A restless agitation spurred her on and made Voyager feel like a cage. With the clamps in place and the propulsion system offline, the crew was ordered to begin the tedious process of disembarking, and Kathryn was grateful for another round of distractions.
"Katie!" Admiral Paris strode onto the ship; arms stretched out for a welcoming embrace. "I can't tell you how good it is to see you." He whispered into her hair.
She squeezed a little tighter as a watery smile washed over her lips. "You too," she choked out and wondered what it was tugging at her composure; the Admiral's touch, his familial presence, their success, her exhaustion, Chakotay's ever-close proximity-the list was endless. "We have an incredible homecoming gift for you," she leaned back in his embrace with a smile.
The older man dropped his arms and sheepishly tugged his jacket back into position, a proud smile pulling into his cheek. "Yes, I've been talking with Tom." Owen Paris looked over to Chakotay, recognizing him as the former Maquis Captain and the man responsible for bringing Tom and the mother of his first grandchild together, and nodded. "I look forward to meeting the baby and B'Elanna, too, of course. But before I do that," he turned to acknowledge the officers that had fallen in behind him. "I'd like to introduce you to Admiral Blye." A younger, uniformed man stepped forward. "He and his team will be conducting your debrief."
Captain Janeway offered her hand. "A pleasure to meet you, Sir."
"It's an honour, Captain."
After a perfunctory shake, she let go of the young Admiral's hand and extended her arm, her fingertips blindly catching Chakotay's shoulder. "My first officer, Commander Chakotay." Without hesitation, Chakotay extended his arm and then carried on the gesture pumping hands with a few other officers who had joined them in the shuttle bay. And just like that, after days of pulling away from him, she slipped back into their familiar routine, with Chakotay just a breath away from her shoulder, strong and supportive, her fearless protector.
A brief tour of the ship led their small group to her ready room for a cup of (hopefully her last) replicated coffee and an informal chat. "Well, it's clear to see," Admiral Blye smiled at them both, "we've got a lot of ground to cover. I suggest we finish offloading the crew and then begin powering down the ship in order to start downloading the systems for analysis. The ship will be sealed at 1600, re-entry with your clearance or higher Captain." Kathryn nodded. "I'd like the opportunity to introduce myself to your crew. I'm sure they're eager to get home; however, I have some unfortunate news." The Captain and Commander gave each other a passing glance. "Command has requested a two-week quarantine to observe for any latent pathogens that might have travelled with you from the Delta Quadrant. During that time, we'll also complete full medical and psychological evaluations on your crew before granting them leave."
Kathryn felt Chakotay's eyes burning into her, and she wondered what he was thinking; it was hard to tell these days. "Perhaps," she sighed, rubbing at her forehead. "It would be best if we told them together. Tonight, before dinner." The Admiral nodded, seeming to appreciate the added toll this placed on her and the crew. Looking down at the PADDs in her hand, Kathryn considered the weight, the burden of another two weeks; how would her wounds ever begin to heal? A bitter taste filled her mouth.
"Commander," she spoke directly to Chakotay for the first time in hours. "Will you get these manifests to Commander Tuvok? Update him with the plan for relocating the crew over to McKinley. Tell him I'd like a deck-by-deck sweep of the ship beginning at 1500." Lifting her chin, she forced a smile to the brass, comfortably scattered about her ready room. "And will you show the Admiral and his team back to the shuttle bay?" Turning, she handed the Commander a stack of PADDs and then pushed herself up from her perch on the edge of her desk. "Gentleman." Captain Janeway extended her arm, graciously gesturing to the door where Chakotay was already waiting. A dismissal if she had ever given one.
The Captain's presence in the dining hall helped soften the blow delivered in the Admiral's greeting. She was able to temper the groans and pacify any mutinous thoughts, reminding everyone of the patience and perseverance they had all demonstrated up until that point and how she hoped their exemplary conduct would continue to see them through this final stage of their journey. "You've got quite a presence with your crew, Captain." Admiral Blye commented as they sat down to dinner, "they're loyal to you." The notion of loyalty made her cringe as the tendrils of betrayal tightened around her shoulders. Offering a humble smile, she demurred the compliment with a polite shrug. Slowly the chatter surrounding them returned to its jovial tempo; the Admiral picked up a bottle of wine and offered to fill her glass, and she nodded. "Wouldn't Commander Chakotay prefer to sit with us?" He asked, following her gaze.
Kathryn held her breath as she watched Chakotay make his way toward a table across the room. Reaching for a chair between Harry and Seven, he looked up and magnetically, their eyes locked. Regardless of his motivation for sitting with the crew, she was grateful for her freedom and turned her attention away before his smile could affect her. She exhaled and reached for her glass, "not tonight."
The meal was wonderful, filled with homegrown flavours and hearty sustenance that a replicated meal simply could not offer. A soft, wistful smile lifted her cheek as she watched the crew begin to let go, easing into the security of the Alpha Quadrant and relishing in their success. They toasted their safety. They toasted their survival. They toasted their accomplishments. And they toasted their Captain, who graciously played along. However, as the night wore on, she grew weary, and her feeble attempts at conversation became futile. She was exhausted and desperate for solitude, a chance to let her guard down, allowing Kathryn some room to breathe and adjust, and reconcile with herself. With all official business concluded for the night, she finished her wine and stood. "If you'll excuse me, I still have a lot of work to do." Smiling politely to the uniforms around the table, she waved off their protests. When Admiral Paris insisted on one more drink, she used the excuse of her mother, his dear friend, who had waited long enough for her turn with the Captian.
A few crewmen caught her on her way to the door, inebriated by alcohol and emotion, encouraging her to sit and reminisce and join them for a drink. Ensign Palmer even pulled her into an awkward hug before she could reach the exit. Once in the corridor, she was free and began picking up speed, hoping for no more interruptions as she searched for her quarters. Rounding a corner, she feared she had made a mistake and turned the wrong way, "damn," she cursed aloud, suddenly frustrated with her agreement to relocate everyone, herself included, onto the station. Aware of the approaching footsteps behind her, her fingertips ran across her forehead, pressing gently at the knot above her eyes. She yearned for Voyager; her Starship turned safe haven and a chance to hide.
"Kathryn," Chakotay caught up to her, a little breathless.
"Yes, Commander," she answered without turning around. "What is it?"
"You left without..." He started and then stopped himself, falling into step beside her. "You seem like you're in a hurry. Is everything alright?"
"I still have a lot of work to do, Chakotay," turning her face away from him, she began reading the door numbers, slowing just a little. "For such a small space station, it's quite difficult to navigate," she mumbled before glancing back at him. The concern etched into his features caused her to falter slightly, and she quickly looked ahead.
"I suppose it is," Chakotay answered carefully and then hesitated. "Is there really something you need to do right now? If I didn't know any better, I'd say you left because you're avoiding something."
Her restraint cracked, and a sarcastic laugh huffed from her chest.
"Are you trying to avoid me, Kathryn?"
She stopped dead in her tracks. Chakotay had an uncanny ability to read her, interpret her mood with a look, to decipher her thoughts with a word. He was perceptive, and it scared her to be near him, knowing he sensed her absence in the same painful way she felt his. Without turning, she spoke, her tone schooled to mask any emotion. "I'd like you on the first shuttle for Earth tomorrow morning. 0800." She felt his body tense beside her, protesting her suggestion. "I think it will help the crew...to have someone they trust..." She faltered, "to help them settle."
"Send Tuvok!" A demand wrought with supplication. "I prefer to stay here." His indignation softened, and she felt it in her heart, the angry warrior.
"Commander Tuvok and I will be in the final shuttle," she choked. Desperate for an escape, she started moving again; tears burned her eyes as she scanned the corridor, hoping she was moving in the right direction.
Hearing her name, pleading from his lip, was provoking and reignited her frustration, and instantly she was seething. Without looking back, she called over her shoulder, "and take Seven with you."
That was it; the fine line they had been walking for years was now clearly drawn.
"Captain!?" Chakotay's voice was loud, louder than it should have been, and the anger in his tone slammed her in the back. Anger at the realization that her decision was personal. She spun around, ready to attack, only to find that he was right there, his face inches away from hers. He grabbed her upper arms. "Don't do this." He whispered – pleading.
She faltered for a moment, silently challenging him with her eyes, the voice in her head screaming at him, you did this. But now was not the time for blame, so instead, she buried those words under her heart, alongside everything else she had never told him. Rolling her shoulders, she fought against his weak grip and easily broke free. Backing away, she spoke, her tone dangerous. "0800. Your names are at the top of the manifest." Chakotay's mouth twitched, about to offer a challenge, but she beat him to it. "That's an order, Commander."