The crowd around him was in a state of perpetual motion, filled with a fevered energy as people moved about excitedly, eagerly seeking reconnection with the pieces of their lives that had been missing for so many months. The sounds of laughter and an occasional shriek of glee layered over the buzzing conversation that surrounded him. Soon the periphery of the vast ballroom began to fade as everyone clustered closer and closer together. The giddiness was infectious, and soon Chakotay felt his apprehensions dissolve away, replaced with vigour and enthusiasm that had been missing for far too long. With his target locked in, he slowly began inching toward the centre of the room, only to be stopped every few paces to share a happy greeting with another comrade.
Waving at a departing Naomi Wildman, he straightened at the sound of his name. Turning his head, he scanned for the source of the familiar voice. "Chakotay!" He heard it again, this time closer and with more enthusiasm, and before he could react, her arms wove around his neck, pulling him into an embrace. "It's so good to see you," B'Elanna's voice hovered beside his ear as she squeezed him tighter. "How are you?"
"I'm good," he chuckled before kissing her cheek. "How've you been, B'Elanna?"
"We're fine," she answered with a watery smile before stepping back, allowing space for Chakotay and Tom to shake hands. She looked around, taking in the room, "All this sentimentality is having an effect on me."
"She just can't admit that motherhood is softening her tough Klingon disposition." Tom laughed, and without trying, he dodged a jab from B'Elanna's elbow as his hand shot up, waving to a friend in the crowd. "Is everyone here?" He asked, gazing around curiously.
"I think so," Chakotay answered. "Harry introduced me to his parents earlier. Mike's here somewhere, and I was just talking with Samantha Wildman."
Tom nodded as he continued scanning the room. "What about Tuvok? And Seven?"
At the mention of her name, everyone's eyes fell on Chakotay, who simply shrugged. It was true he hadn't seen Seven, but more than that, he had not spoken to her since the day she was dismissed from the primary debrief and sequestered to Command for further inquiry, a sin he had yet to atone for. Next to him, Sekaya shifted.
"I'm sorry," Tom grinned, instantly turning on his flyboy charm. "How rude of us. I'm Tom Paris and," tilting his head, "this is my wife, B'Elanna Torres." He captured Sekaya's hand and asked, "Chakotay, who's your friend?"
With a warning glance, Chakotay answered. "My sister."
"Of course you are!" B'Elanna quickly switched places with Tom, practically pushing him into Chakotay. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"You too!" Sekaya smiled graciously at B'Elanna, "I've heard so much about you. Chakotay tells me you have a little one, is she here?"
"NO!" Tom and B'Elanna answered quickly in unison.
"She's got the same temperament as her mother." Tom smirked, then added dryly, "And she likes to demonstrate it when she isn't the centre of attention." B'Elanna fired a look of warning at her husband, who held up his hands in surrender, reminding Chakotay of the couple's many romantic squabbles in the Delta Quadrant.
A server carrying a tray laden with sparkling champagne flutes floated next to them. "A toast," Tom proclaimed as he passed out drinks. "To friends and family," and they raised their glasses.
"And the way home," Chakotay whispered before taking a sip.
Without missing a beat, B'Elanna and Sekaya quickly struck up a conversation leaving Tom and Chakotay suspended in awkward silence and, after that, painfully superficial small talk until, eventually, Tom took half a step toward Chakotay. Dropping his voice, he quietly asked, "Have you seen the Captain?"
Something about the tone of Tom's voice made him uneasy, and Chakotay lifted his eyes, pretending to search for her amongst the crowd. "I'm sure she's around," he lied as his eyes drifted over where she stood, embedded in a group of flag officials, including Admiral Blye, who was standing far too close for comfort.
Tom nodded and glanced around quickly before taking another half-step closer. "My father says that they're still questioning her." Chakotay's head snapped, returning his full attention to Tom. "The secondary debrief was supposed to be over weeks ago. Apparently, Starfleet is fixated on the Borg and, of course," Tom gave a lopsided shrug, "the violations of the temporal prime directive." Uneasiness fizzled in Chakotay's chest. Casually he glanced over Tom's shoulder and watched as the man next to Kathryn placed his hand on the back of her arm, claiming her attention. "He says she's taking it like a champ, though," Tom continued. "And that she is flat-out refusing to bring any of the crew back into it."
"Really?" Chakotay watched Kathryn smile and nod as Admiral Blye stepped away from her, his hand falling from her arm in a way that sparked an oddly familiar feeling deep within him, a sensation that resided somewhere between possession and jealousy. "Some things never change," he mumbled, pulling a laugh from Tom.
Beside them B'Elanna and Sekaya clinked their glasses together, toasting some other acclamation.
"Look, there she is." Chakotay looked back to Tom, who had his head turned, pointing with his champagne flute. "She's with my dad and…. half the brass." Reaching out, he touched B'Elanna on the arm and, ignoring her glaring response, gestured over his shoulder. "We should go say hi."
"Hello." An amplified voice called out. "Can I have your attention?"
"If I can have your attention."
Chakotay furrowed his brow before turning his head toward the distinct "hem-hem" sound of a throat clearing. "Excuse me, please."
"If I can have your attention," Admiral Blye called out from across the room. "We should get started; there's a lot to cover today." Chakotay watched Blye fidget with his fingers, forcing the knuckles to snap. "We're nearing the end of this portion of the debrief. Captain Janeway has requested that once all necessary information has been obtained and reviewed, her crew is dismissed, thus releasing them from all obligations related to their commission." Confused, he scanned the nearly empty room, glancing at Kathryn and wondering why only the two of them were there.
Kathryn looked up from her PADD, a press in her brow. "Excuse me, Sir, aren't we waiting for..."
Admiral Blye held up his hand, silencing her as he continued to speak. "We'll be doing things a little differently today, Captain." He sat up straight, his uneasiness quickly turning to apprehension. Blye made a fist, forcing another knuckle to pop; a gesture Chakotay had come to learn was a sign of the Admiral's discomfort. "As you are both aware, these proceedings will become public record. However, this committee has the authority to sensor information that is deemed classified or considered sensitive." A flutter of agitation began to swirl inside him. "And certain elements, specifically as they relate to the Federation's charter and subsequent directives and regulations, should be thoroughly reviewed by this committee and submitted to council for consideration, prior to dissemination into public record."
Next to him, Kathryn leaned back in her chair. Her rigid posture told Chakotay she was uncomfortable with where this conversation was headed. Irritated by the notion of being blindsided, he leaned into the table and opened his hands. "And is there something specific?" His voice held an edge, "some element that requires review?"
The Admiral cleared his throat, "Yes."
In his peripheral vision, Chaktoay saw Kathryn cross her arms over her chest, bracing her discomfort. "And?" He demanded, his patience waning.
"Excuse me," a familiar voice called out over the chatter. Chakotay blinked again as his memory faded, and his surroundings became focused. "If… If I could interrupt for a moment." Turning to the front of the room, Chakotay noticed Lt. Barkley standing on a stage, beaming at the crowd before him and calling for everyone's attention. "We would like to begin in a few minutes, starting with dinner." Untangling his wringing hands, he gestured to the tables before him. "If you could all find your seats.