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Saving Strangers

By janezy. Send Feedback to janezy@yahoo.com

Rated: NC-17

Completed: July 2002

VOY -- J/C

This is a slightly grittier Endgame. Life has some surprises up its sleeves for Chakotay and Kathryn . . . and Kathryn.

No amount of time would allow him to get over this. Chakotay stared back and forth between the Captain Janeway he'd known for years and the admiral she'd one day become. Despite the fact that the admiral had been on board for several days, Chakotay couldn't help but be fascinated by the similarities, and the differences, between the women. Although he sometimes thought the captain the most confusing and unpredictable person he ever met, she was also the most intriguing. He liked to think that he knew better than any other in the galaxy knew her, that he had come closer than any before him to unraveling the enigma of Kathryn Janeway.

Their leisurely dinner was nearly over. He suspected the captain had invited him to serve as a buffer between herself and her other self. He knew the younger Kathryn didn't always quite trust her own self, so she probably put even less stock in an externalized version of herself whose thoughts and plans, and even memories, were a mystery.

He'd been hard-pressed, however, to come up with any good conversational points. It was just too much fun watching them bandy stories between them. When the captain began to yawn, he knew it was time to take his leave.

"Let me walk you back to your quarters, Admiral," he said, crooking his arm for her in that old familiar way.

She smiled as she leaned into him. "I think I know the way."

"Oh, I'm sure you do." He leaned down to whisper in her ear. "I'm just trying to keep you honest."

She mocked offense as the two bade the captain goodnight and passed into the hallway.

The admiral slowed as they passed his door and he paused to look down at her. This woman was even more of a mystery than his own Kathryn. "Not ready for bed, yet?" he asked, punching in his own door code.

"Not just yet. Do you mind?" She looked into his deep brown eyes and saw his puzzlement.

"Not at all." They stepped into his quarters and he called for lights. "Can I get you something to drink?" he asked, making a move for the replicator. She didn't let go of his arm, though, and he didn't get very far.

"I'm not thirsty," she said, pushing her body closer to his.

"Well," he said, tugging on his ear with his free hand, "should we sit, then?" He was having problems looking at her and instead focused his gaze on the wall he shared with his captain's quarters.

"I don't think so."

The moment's silence stretched as each waited to see who would be the first to break. Chakotay knew normally it would be Kathryn. She'd always had a need to color between the lines of the silences. But something was different in her now. Something that went beyond the gray in her hair or the wrinkles on her face.

He was the one to smile as he finally looked down to her. "Must everything be a contest with you?"

"Sometimes, there are no winners," she said. She moved her hand to stroke the blue lines of his tattoo.

He drew in his breath quickly and grabbed her hand away. He wanted to distance himself, but was met with the wall against his back instead. "Kathryn, what are you doing?"

"What do you think I'm doing?" Her coy smile, treasured for its rarity, made an appearance.

Several thoughts about how to answer that question ran through his head. But he didn't know how to flirt with Kathryn. Not anymore. So he said nothing at all and let his eyes drift back to his captain's wall. Really, all of these walls were hers. The ship was hers. He lived inside of her, as they all did.

"Is it Seven?" she asked.

He was surprised she knew about that. His Kathryn didn't, he was certain. He'd been so careful. He shook his head and tried to swallow. What he was trying to swallow he wasn't sure, since all the moisture had left his mouth minutes ago.

"It's her then," she said, motioning her head backwards to indicate the captain.

"I don't even know you," he protested. He simply didn't understand this woman. "And you don't know me. You know some version of me. Some older, wiser version of me who understands you."

She gulped momentarily at the mention of that older Chakotay, who never did seem to get much wiser, no matter how hard she tried. But, that Chakotay's loss would be this one's gain. She had to stay on task. "Oh, I remember you. And I remember her. Both so stubborn, and strong, and so very right. You think you know her, better than she knows herself. And you think she would never come here, never break the Temporal Prime Directive. And you're wondering what could happen between the Kathryn she is and the one I am to make me so determined."

"You were always determined. That's no mystery. And you never had a problem with breaking the rules to save your crew. Hell, even to save strangers."

"But never myself, right?"

"No," he shook his head in agreement. "Never yourself."

"You're right. There's things she won't do. But I will." She reclaimed her hand from where he still held it away from his face and began stroking his tattoo again. "She would never do this. Or this," she said, moving her fingers to brush over the curves of his lips. "Or this." She began unbuttoning his shirt.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall, imagining it was his Kathryn taking his clothes off. This was so unfair, to both of them. He once again grabbed this Kathryn's hands to still her progress, this time as she smoothed her hands over the muscles of his chest. She looked up to him and he slowly shook his head.

She had tried not to think of this option, this rejection. She knew she was old and unattractive. But, somehow, she thought he'd be able to see past it. She couldn't help the lump forming in her throat, just as she couldn't help herself from bringing voice to her fears. "Too old for you, am I?"

"Gods, no," he reassured her. He hadn't meant for her to cry. "Would that I were as old, that we had grown old together." He ran his hands over her hair. "That's all I ever wanted."

"Hardly," she said, chuckling humorlessly. "You wanted it all -- the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth. The very air she breathes. She can't give you that. She won't. But I . . . I can be anything you want."

He was floored by this. How could she go from the determined tigress she was just moments ago to this pleading figure before him. He was torn between being disgusted by her and being disgusted with himself for enjoying it. Enjoying her sadness. Reveling in her piteousness.

This time it was Kathryn who couldn't stand the silence. "I'm sorry," she said, turning for the door. "I'll just go."

He grabbed her around her waist and held her to him, breathing her in. She smelled of Starfleet's unique synthetic fabric, layered with hints of roses and coffee. He was somewhat relieved that it was the same scent he'd caught in stolen moments as he'd leaned in too close to deliver a report or whispered confidences in her ear.

He couldn't let her leave. This was his Kathryn, plus something extra. This was a new woman to learn and puzzle over. A new mystery to solve. He couldn't stand the thought of letting any Kathryn leave him without at least trying to understand her. He might not agree with everything his own Kathryn said or did, but at least he felt he knew where she was coming from.

And there were things about this Kathryn that were better than the other. This one was here, for one, in his rooms. Kathryn never came here. He went to her. And this Kathryn wanted him, badly. Finally the tables were turned. He'd spent the last seven years begging for the attentions of his captain. Now she would beg for him. There was some justice in that.

He leaned into her ear to whisper. "I just want you to be yourself. Donít put on a show for me." She shivered as his hot breath hit her sensitive ear. When he sucked the lobe into his mouth and bit it gently, she couldn't help but raggedly exhale the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.

He continued to kiss beneath her ear, where gravity and time had begun to pool the soft skin in a small mass of wrinkles. He ran his tongue slowly through the grooves. He'd meant what he said before; age was not an issue for him. The women of his tribe were seen to grow ever more beautiful with age. Anyone could carry off beauty with pert breasts and smooth skin. But to be glorious now was an achievement. He was only sorry that he missed the aging process with her.

He was proud of himself, of the effect he was having on her. He rejoiced in her uneven breathing and small gasps. The little noises she made excited him and she rubbed her ass up and down on his growing erection.

He released his hold on her waist so he could free her from her uniform. One upside to small breasts, he thought offhandedly, was that they were still remarkably firm. He fingered the puckered nipples until she whimpered. Finally, he turned her around. He had to see her.

She was a bit frightened of his scrutiny and drew her shoulders together to hide her nudity.

"No," he said, straightening her shoulders. "Never hide from me. You're beautiful." He took her face in his hands and kissed her until she almost believed he was telling the truth. At the very least, she could forget her age. Besides, she thought, trying to instill herself with bravery, a woman my age is at her sexual peak. Peaks are good, as long as you forget that it means it's all downhill from here. Instead, she threw herself into the kiss and steadfastly refused to look down.

Chakotay could tell the exact moment she changed. She went from merely accepting his kiss to ferociously returning it. She steered him into his bedroom and down onto his bed without ever taking her lips from his. He wondered briefly when he'd lost control and decided he didn't care, allowing her to strip the rest of his clothes from him until he was as naked as she.

She'd seen her Chakotay like this only once. She couldn't help but think of the moment she rubbed down his lifeless body with oils to smooth his way into the spirit world. He'd known he was dying and had asked her to learn the ritual. She'd refused, denying that it was necessary until the last moment. She'd always thought the doctors would find a cure. He was only 70, after all. People didn't die at 70 anymore. It was just unheard of to die so young. How could he survive all the dangers of Starfleet and the Maquis and the Delta Quadrant, only to wither away from some stupid disease whose name she could barely pronounce?

His body had been cold and pale. The skin had hung loosely on his bones and had given no resistance to her hands. But the worst part were the eyes, which he'd said had to remain open. They had stared at nothing, as if just to prove he was gone.

She forced herself to examine this body, clothed in the assurances of youth. He was dark where the other was pale. He was warm where the other was cold. His muscles sprang back from her touch; his heart beat strongly beneath her palm. And the eyes looked at her, into her, with sympathy and kindness and love.

"What is it?" he asked. "What's wrong?" Her moods were as changeable as the desert winds, uncovering one treasure only to bury another.

"Nothing," she said as she shook her head. "Nothing at all." She bent to kiss him again.

He flipped her under him, longing to be in the dominant position. She raised her knees around his hips and arched into his fingers as they explored her slick folds. He fit one finger into her, then a second, as his thumb circled her clit. She closed her eyes and imagined herself a younger woman.

"Stay with me," Chakotay said, snapping her back. She opened her eyes to see his own piercing into her. "Stay with me." She nodded.

He brought her to climax and slipped inside while the aftershocks still rippled through her. He rubbed forward until his head hit her cervix. She mumbled her pleasure as he slowly inched out, only to ease back in. She wanted more and tossed a knee over his shoulder, grateful she'd never stopped her morning yoga. Limber was good. She licked the beads of perspiration from his forehead and he stilled his movements, his face the picture of concentration. "God," she muttered, arching her hips into him. "Don't stop."

"So demanding," he said, thinking of his own Kathryn with a smile. But, this Kathryn was his now, too. Maybe more than the other had ever been. "Your wish is my command." He moved her leg off his shoulder to wrap around his waist as he began a faster rhythm.

A keening wail began in her toes and found its way out her mouth. Her walls contracted around him and Chakotay forced himself to hold on. "Chakotay," she screamed, over and over. Hearing her voice say his name so passionately, as he'd always dreamed, broke the last shreds of his resistance and he finally spilled into her, calling her name in return.

They lay alternately gasping for breath and burying their faces in one another's necks. She held him firmly when he made a move to slip out of her, but allowed him to flip them over so she could have his fullness inside of her while feeling his chest heaving beneath her. She looked up into his face and stroked his cheek with the backs of her fingers.

"Have we done that before?" he asked, irrationally scared to hear the answer. He wanted to be her first Chakotay. He wished he could go back in time to erase all the other men in her life and replace their presence with his own.

"No," she said, smiling and cupping his cheek, "although I think you could pound the memory of anyone else right out of me."

He smiled at that thought as well. She settled her head onto his chest and they both fell into a deep sleep.

~*~

Kathryn Janeway was not a happy captain the next morning. She'd been just on the edge of sleep when she'd bolted out of bed in response to a noise next door. It sounded like someone was in terrible pain. She realized as she was putting on her robe that the sounds were of pleasure, not pain. It took a few moments longer before she recognized the voice as her own, tempered with age.

She didn't get much rest the remainder of the night and, instead, steadily fueled her anger with coffee and imaginary confrontations with one or the other delinquent. In her head, she cornered the admiral in hydroponics or Chakotay in her ready room, calling them to task for misconduct.

Her anger only burned brighter when she walked the unusually full corridors to the mess hall the next morning and saw every conversation stop as she stormed past, only to be started again in excited whispers seconds later. Not a single crew member would meet her eyes. She felt her cheeks redden in shame -- and she hadn't even done anything. She grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the bridge without eating, unable to stand the thought of sharing a meal with these people staring at her.

She seethed in her command chair until Chakotay and the admiral appeared, chattering conspiratorially. She couldn't help but notice his hand on the small of the older woman's back, guiding her off the turbolift.

"Commander," the captain snapped, "nice of you to join us. My ready room. Now."

As she marched into her ready room, Chakotay and the admiral shared a knowing smile, much like children being called into the principal's office. They knew they'd been naughty, but somehow didn't care a whit.

Chakotay changed his mind and decided to care at least a little bit when he entered the captain's ready room to find her pacing a hole in the floor. She spun at the sound of the door to stab him with eyes of fire.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked in a low voice.

"I don't know what you mean," he said, playing dumb.

"I mean breezing onto the bridge half an hour late when everyone on the ship knows damn well what you've been doing, and who you've been doing it with."

"We're ten minutes late," he corrected in a calm tone to counter her own, "and I still don't know what you're talking about."

"I don't know what you were doing to her, but I've *never* been so vocal during sex. I can't imagine there's a person on our deck who didn't hear you. It's certainly all they can talk about this morning."

His face reddened slightly. "You're paranoid."

"I can't believe you," she spat. "She's been on this ship less than a week. What kind of inferences do you think the rest of the crew will draw from you hopping into bed with her so quickly?"

"I don't really care," he said, letting some of his own anger come out to play.

"And what about Seven?" she asked.

So she did know about him and Seven -- half the story at least. "What about her?"

She rolled her eyes at his seeming denseness. "Aren't you seeing her?"

"No, I'm not *seeing* her, which you'd know if you'd bothered to ask. Two dates, Kathryn," he said, holding up two fingers as support. "Two dates. Certainly less time than you spent with that Michael Sullivan -- something the crew couldn't stop talking about for months, I might point out, since you seem to be so worried about what they think all of a sudden. So what's really bothering you?"

She exhaled loudly in frustration. The conversations in her head went much better than this. She always won. He wasn't allowed to make good points and throw off her concentration.

"What's bothering me is that your behavior is extremely unprofessional."

"Unprofessional how? I don't see how what I do in my personal time is any of the crew's concern, nor yours, Captain. Nothing I've done in any way endangers the ship or anyone on it. Now, if you want to ask me questions as my friend . . ." he drifted off, allowing her the option of jumping in.

An option she couldn't help but take. "Why, Chakotay?" she asked, looking at him through pools of blue.

"Why what? Why her? Why now?"

"Why any of it?"

"If the person you cared for more than any other finally came to you to admit her feelings, would you turn her away?"

"If I felt it were my duty to do so, yes. Sometimes sacrifices must be made."

"Ah, yes. The duty, the sacrifices," he said with a hint of bitterness. "Well, you've always had much more resolve than I."

"Damn it, this isn't some contest," she said angrily.

He couldn't help but laugh at the echoes of the conversation he'd had with his lover the night before.

"And it isn't a joke," she said, even more angrily.

"Not to you," he agreed, still trying to force back his smile.

God, the man was exasperating. "Do you love her?" she asked.

"I think you know the answer to that," he said, giving her a look which told her trained monkeys and infants were quicker on the uptake.

"No, I don't *know*. That's the whole point, isn't it?"

"You know how I feel about you. I've -- "

" -- You've cloaked your every emotion behind stories and longing glances," she interrupted. "You've said that you cared for me with your actions, but never with your words."

"I was trying to help you. To allow you an easy out."

"Just keep telling yourself that, if it helps you sleep at night. We both know that it was an easy out for you, too. You can't get rejected if you never ask the question, can you?"

He turned from her for a moment, his face wounded. "I don't think you know," he said quietly, "how much you can reject someone without ever saying the words."

When she failed to respond, he took that for yet another rejection and quickly left the room. Kathryn stared after him, wondering where the conversation had gone so horribly wrong.

~*~

Admiral Janeway closed her eyes and focused her other senses. She breathed deeply, filling her lungs with the smell of roses. She tuned out the light classical music playing in the background and instead listened to the steady breathing of Chakotay behind her and the sound of the faucet as it dripped into the already-full tub.

"You're not falling asleep on me, are you?" he asked.

"Of course not," she replied, relaxing further into his arms and reveling in the feel of his hands possessively stroking her stomach. "But how can I help but relax into this little seduction scene you've set up?"

"It's supposed to excite you, not put you into a coma."

"It's doing both, I assure you," she said, and turned her head to kiss him.

"So, how's the refit going?"

"Excellent. Between B'Elanna and Seven, we'll be ready to destroy the hub." She crinkled her nose slightly. "If that's still what she wants. She's so fickle, that woman."

"Yourself, you mean?" He still didn't quite understand the animosity between the Kathryns. He knew they both wanted what was best for the ship, but couldn't quite agree about what that entailed. Kathryn the Elder had entered the Delta Quadrant with full knowledge of the Borg transwarp hub. It had been her plan to somehow convince the captain to use the hub to get Voyager home, thus causing much happiness for everyone on board. Kathryn the Younger, however, felt that if they sacrificed their principals to get home, they'd never be happy again. And she was also quite upset that her older twin had tried to deceive her.

It had been four days since the captain had ordered Voyager into the nebula, expecting wormholes, and was immediately forced to beat a hasty retreat. Since that time, the captain and the admiral had not really been on speaking terms. The captain had been working feverishly with the senior staff to devise a plan to destroy the hub. She had ignored the admiral's attempts to change her mind and had steadfastly refused to listen to anything the older woman had to say about the future, insisting that after she'd spoken so many lies, she could hardly be trusted now. The captain had essentially stripped the admiral of her rank and power, ordering the senior staff not to listen to her.

At least one member of the senior staff had difficulty following that order. Despite B'Elanna Torres' desire to obey her captain, she was having a hard time separating the admiral from the captain in her mind. When the admiral invited her to lunch, she couldn't help but agree. Over that lunch, the admiral convinced the engineer that she needed the older Kathryn's help to modify the systems she'd brought from the future. B'Elanna agreed and, after a few days, so did the captain. As long as B'Elanna and Seven agreed to keep a tight reign on the woman to ensure she wasn't trying to sabotage their mission, they would use whatever knowledge the admiral wanted to offer.

Chakotay had tried his best to stay out of the battle. He agreed with his captain that she had a right to feel betrayed. But he also wanted to see the best in the woman he loved. He wanted to believe that she was merely doing what she thought was best. Often, he'd been forced to follow his captain with only a small bit of knowledge regarding her motives. That had always turned out for the best, and he had to believe this would too. He'd not mentioned anything to his captain, knowing she would suspect he was thinking with some part of his anatomy other than his brain. A suspicion which was not entirely untrue.

"It's your own fault she's mad at you," he continued, tightening his grip on her waist. "How would you feel if someone tried to trick you into making what you felt was a bad decision?"

"I'd be pissed," she agreed grudgingly. While she had thought for years that withholding information would be the best way to manipulate the situation to her ultimate advantage, she'd realized the error of her ways. In fact, she desperately wanted to make up with the captain. If only the younger woman would let down her guard long enough for the two of them to have a civil conversation. "But let's not talk about her, or business."

"Okay, what should we talk about?"

"Dogs," she said firmly.

"Dogs?"

"Yes. How do you feel about them?"

"They're okay, I guess. I've always been more of a cat person, myself."

"No," she said in disbelief, turning to straddle him. "How did I not know this?"

"It never really came up, I suppose. Why?"

She avoided that question with one of her own. "But, you think they're okay. You wouldn't mind having one or two."

He took her face between his soapy hands. "If it will make you happy, I'll have a dozen. I'm more than used to bowing to your infinite wisdom."

He'd meant it as a joke, but could see immediately from her expression it hadn't been received that way. She thought about all the fights she and her other Chakotay had had regarding this very topic. "This isn't about ordering you around, Chakotay. I didn't mean -- "

" -- No," he interrupted. "I didn't mean anything by that. We'll be equals."

"Well," she said, a bit of a grin crossing her face. "Not entirely equal."

"No?" he asked, smiling to himself in relief that they seemed to easily skirt that fight, at least for now.

"No. You'll do 100% of the cooking."

"Oh? And what do I get in return?"

"A very grateful woman," she said, leaning in closer to him, "just dying to even the score." She brought her lips to his and began a passionate kiss.

~*~

The admiral stared at the ceiling, cursing her insomnia. She'd hoped that, after the workout Chakotay had given her, she'd be tired enough to sleep though the night. But, she couldn't really remember the last time she slept through an entire night. Some nights, she could just reposition herself and fall back to sleep. Tonight was not one of those nights.

A part of her wanted to just stay in Chakotay's warm bed, listening to him snore. But a larger part was beginning to feel trapped, and horribly guilty. She'd known when she'd come to Voyager that she wouldn't be able to stay for long.

Time and bitterness and all her intense planning had clouded her mind slightly. She'd thought that, perhaps, she'd be able to convince her younger self to just seize the opportunity to save herself and those 150 members of her crew she'd grown to love. But the admiral had always known in her heart it was not to be.

No matter how much she appeared to protest the captain's decision, she knew that no version of her could really just use that hub and continue on her merry way. No version of her would be able to pass up an opportunity to wound the Borg. At least, no version that, like she, had lived through the cleanup at Wolf 359. With every body she'd beamed out of open space or salvaged from the wreckage of a ship, only to put in a body bag and ship off to mourning relatives, she'd made a vow that the Borg would never do something like that again. She knew at the time that she had very little control, really, over whether the Borg attacked Earth or not. But she would never allow them to flourish if she could help it.

And now, she could help it. Of course, during these last years of intense planning, she'd come up with a back-up plan. More than one, in fact. Now was the time to put one of them into effect. She kissed Chakotay on the cheek and slipped soundlessly from the bed, smiling at the way he nestled into the warm dent she left behind.

After donning her uniform and moving out into the dimmed corridor, she requested the captain's location from the computer.

"Captain Janeway is in the mess hall."

"There's a surprise," she whispered sarcastically to herself. The mess hall had always been her favorite midnight haunt when she couldn't sleep. And she was sure the captain would not be able to sleep now, with visions of the Borg dancing behind her eyelids.

Once she reached the mess hall, the admiral ordered a coffee from the replicator and made her way to the couch near the viewport to talk to her counterpart. She noticed that the younger woman also had a cup of coffee, but hers was most definitely laced with Irish whiskey.

The captain glanced at the admiral as she sat, but went immediately back to staring at the stars warping by.

"Feeling guilty?" asked the admiral. The captain questioned her with a look, so the admiral continued. "I always used to drink Irish coffee when I was feeling guilty. I've had to switch to unleaded, now, though," she said, holding up her mug. "Whiskey doesn't agree with me anymore."

The captain remained silent, lost in her own thoughts, so the admiral continued to speak. "I imagine you're blaming yourself for once again dangling the carrot of home in front of the crew and then pulling it away."

"We'll get home someday," she replied, a bit defensively. Of course, that was precisely what she'd been thinking. But she could hardly allow this smug woman the pleasure of knowing she was right. "You're living proof of that."

"My timeline has been eradicated. I'm living proof of nothing. If you move forward with this plan, there's a good chance you'll never see the Alpha Quadrant again."

The captain rolled her eyes. "We're not having this discussion again, are we? I've already made up my mind."

"I know, and I think you're right." The captain finally turned to face the older woman, her face the picture of disbelief. "I know it's hard to imagine, considering how much I've protested, but I want to deal a blow to the Borg just as much as you do. There just must be some way to have our cake and eat it, too."

"I suppose you have a plan."

"Of course," said the admiral, drawing a small vial from her pocket.

"What's that?"

"Just a little something the Doctor invented, or will invent," she said, shaking her head slightly at the paradox. "As I said before, I met up with the Borg several more times before my journey came to an end. I needed an insurance policy."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"The Doctor modified some of Icheb's genetic sequences into a biological weapon against the Borg. All of the crew was implanted with a device which would deliver this into their bloodstream, if necessary."

"It's poisonous, I take it."

"Yes, but not just to us. To the Borg, too. If someone is assimilated while this poison is in his bloodstream, the drone responsible, and a good many of those in the immediate vicinity, won't be around long to enjoy it."

"And neither will the person with the poison in his blood."

"If the Borg get close enough to assimilate you, you may as well give yourself up for dead, anyway. At least this way, you take some of them down with you. The Borg have enough protocols set up that they can cut these wounded drones off from the collective before too much harm is done."

"So, what's the point?"

"What's the point of locking your doors if you know any thief worth his salt could break right in? It's a deterrent, and a rather effective one, at that. After the first time, the Borg were a lot more careful around us."

"That's a marvelous story, but I'm still not sure where you're going with all this."

"I'm saying that, if the Borg were properly distracted, it's quite possible that you could both destroy the hub and use it to return to the Alpha Quadrant."

"I thought they had protocols which let them easily work around the damaged drones."

"The damage would be much more severe if the focal point were a more important member of the collective. Say, the Queen."

The captain's mind was reeling. This just might work. If the Queen were destroyed in that manner, there's no telling how many drones she would take with her. Entire cubes could be devastated. There was just one sticking point. "The Queen never stoops to assimilating herself. She orders her drones to do it."

"True, unless she has a personal score to settle."

"A personal score," began the captain, just as she realized what the admiral meant. "You?! You want to go off and let the Queen assimilate you?"

"I'm the only one she hates enough to want to dispose of herself. Besides, I've been assimilated before," said the admiral, attempting to maintain an offhanded attitude she definitely didn't feel.

"But you thought you would come back. There's no coming back from this."

"I'm aware of that. I don't really belong here."

"But, Chakotay . . ." The captain drifted off, unsure how to address this particular issue.

The admiral wasn't sure herself. It was this guilt that had kept her up. This guilt which had driven her from Chakotay's bed. For who was she to love him, and ask for his love in return, when she knew full well that she intended to be dead within a week? Who was she to start up discussions about dogs and living arrangements? She was a selfish brat, that's who. Before she died, she needed to live out some of her fantasies. And those she hadn't time to actually experience, she wanted to talk about. That way, she could pretend that, one day, she and Chakotay would wed and have the happy life some part of her had always wanted. It hadn't been right while she was captain, and somehow it never seemed to work when they made it back to Earth. But, she could dream about it now.

"Chakotay will get over it," said the admiral in a low voice. "And I want you to help him."

The captain was startled by the older woman's presumptuousness. "I hardly think -- " she began, but was soon interrupted.

"Don't even try it, Captain. I was you once, remember? I know what you're thinking, what you're feeling. I know you love him."

The captain shifted uncomfortably. "It doesn't matter how I feel about him. I can't have him. And, besides, right now he's a hell of a lot more interested in *you*. Do you think so little of him that you believe he could transfer his feelings just like that? He'll be devastated."

The admiral laughed cynically at that. "He'll get over it," she repeated. "He only feels something for me because I am you. At least in a lot of ways I am. And in his mind I definitely am. I don't delude myself. It's not my wrinkled old body he's dreaming of. And when he's screaming my name, our name, it's you he's imagining."

Turning her face, the captain tried to ignore the heat rising on her cheeks. It had been such a long time since she'd allowed herself to think about Chakotay in that way. Her conflicted mind in one instant told her she didn't deserve him and in the next told her that was the stupidest thing she'd ever thought.

"If you saw someone who was wounded and in great pain, would you help him?" asked the admiral, disturbing her reverie.

The captain collected herself and turned to face the older woman, confusion evident on her brow at the apparent non sequitur. "If it was within my power to do so, of course."

The admiral lifted her hand to her other's cheek. They had been careful not to touch thus far, as if a touch from the future alone could cause some paradox. "Look in the mirror, Kathryn. You're so busy helping everyone else, you never bother to help yourself. You're important, too."

"Is that why you came here?" asked the captain, "To save yourself?" She was more than a bit offended at the thought that she could become so selfish.

"Of course not. We'll always save our crew. We'll always save strangers. But, if it's possible, I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to save ourselves. Consider it a bonus."

The captain nodded slightly and took the small vial from the other woman's hand. "So tell me again how this works," she said.

The women began their plans and neither noticed a buxom Borg, eavesdropping from the kitchen. Neither had noticed her cleaning up from her latest culinary attempt. Neither had noticed her closely observing their entire conversation. And neither noticed her leave.

~*~

After some argument, the admiral and the captain had agreed to a tight timeline for the mission. The admiral was in favor of keeping silent until the last moment, mostly so that no one would have time to object. She was certain that the others would only want to attempt to come up with alternate plans. The admiral knew the futility of the alternatives. She'd lived with this decision for years and knew what had to be done.

The captain wanted, at the very least, to include Chakotay in their planning. But the admiral knew Chakotay in particular had always felt obliged to try to talk her out of her somewhat rash decisions. This was one decision she didn't want to be talked out of. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her newly formed intimate relationship with Chakotay, she was desperate *not* to talk to him first and to instead inform him at the same time as the rest of the senior staff. A confrontation would be forthcoming, but she wanted to have it out in a forum where he wouldn't be able to make it too personal. And she wanted to do it in such a narrow timeframe that she could simply plead that they were falling off schedule and leap to her death before anyone had the time to stop her. It would be easier for all concerned if it happened so quickly that no one felt they had failed in their duty to protect her.

The captain was in a rather odd position, disagreeing with herself yet again. She was seeing herself from an angle impossible up until now. She began to realize that this was exactly the behavior she herself had demonstrated on more than one occasion. She thought of the way she had often put together plans in the past and executed them with only the most minimal of involvement of her staff -- particularly when she was putting her own life on the line. Her new perspective allowed her to see why everyone had been so angry over her attempt to leave the ship and destroy the entrance to the Void so the Malon could no longer use it as their personal garbage dump. She remembered the pain in Chakotay's eyes as she delineated her hurriedly-conceived plan to allow her own assimilation so she could free a handful of dissatisfied Borg from the grip of the Collective. She thought of all the times she'd put her own life on the line for the good of the ship. Whenever danger was involved, she was the first in line. It was her right, her duty as captain. How could she ask any member of her crew to do something she was herself unwilling to do? She would always be the one ultimately responsible, the only one allowed to make the greatest sacrifice.

The captain acted on her new-found wisdom and tried to convince the admiral that consultation with the senior staff could only be a benefit. But the admiral was adamantly against it and in the end, the captain conceded grudgingly. After all, the older woman -- her other self -- was the only other the captain could really allow to make that extreme sacrifice. As such, she could do nothing but grant this, her final wish, even if she disagreed.

So they decided to inform the senior staff of the plan at 0800 during the morning briefing. By 0830, the admiral would be in her shuttle, flying off to meet the queen. If everything went according to plan, Voyager would be back in the Alpha Quadrant before 0900.

At 0800, the entire staff was waiting in the conference room, except for one person. "Has anyone seen Seven?" asked the captain.

Normally, the captain would begin a staff meeting without a missing member and would discipline her later for tardiness. But this mission was going to depend heavily on Seven's knowledge of the Borg and the briefing would be useless if she were absent.

"I saw her at breakfast," offered Harry Kim. "She said she'd see me here."

The captain was just about to ask the computer for Seven's location when Lieutenant Rollins' voice rang out over the comm.

"Senior officers to the bridge."

Everyone hurriedly filed out of the conference room and Rollins relinquished the center seat to the captain.

"It's Seven," he said. "She's trying to steal the admiral's shuttle."

"What?!" said both the captain and the admiral at the same time.

Harry Kim relieved the officer at his station and quickly made some inquiries to the computer. "She's locked down the shuttle bay with a Borg encryption code of some kind."

"Get her out of there," ordered the captain.

"I'm trying, but there's multiple layers to the encryption. Just when I think I've got it, it changes."

"Shuttle bay doors are opening," reported Tuvok in his emotionless voice.

"Close them," said the captain.

"I am attempting to do so."

After a few futile moments, the admiral's shuttle appeared on the view screen. "Get a tractor on it," said the captain.

"It appears I've been locked out of those systems as well, Captain," said Tuvok.

"Can we at least hail her?" she asked sarcastically.

"Aye, ma'am," said Kim, bringing up a picture of the interior of the admiral's shuttle.

"Seven," said the captain harshly. "What in the hell are you doing?"

"I know what you and the admiral were planning, Captain," said the ex-drone calmly. "I believe it is a worthy strategy. However, I have made a slight change in the bait. After my dealings with the queen this week, I've determined that she's much more likely to attempt to assimilate me than the admiral."

The older Kathryn stepped forward. "That's not your decision to make. Get your ass back here right now."

"I will not comply," she said, and flicked off the communication.

"What does she mean 'bait?'" asked Chakotay, looking quickly between the Janeways.

The women each pleaded with the other to answer his question. The captain gave in and turned to her first officer. "We were going to discuss it at the briefing. The admiral was going to distract the Borg while we destroyed the hub."

"Distract them how?" he asked, although he was fairly certain what the gist of the answer would be. Something about Kathryn, no matter which one, always seemed to cause her to want to sacrifice herself for her crew, even if it wasn't necessary.

"She was going to inoculate herself with something which would paralyze them when they assimilated her."

"When they assimilated her?" he repeated angrily, turning to his lover. "When were you planning on telling me about this?"

The admiral was relatively paralyzed, herself. This was not her plan. Her head was spinning, trying to understand the ramifications of Seven's act. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing seemed to come out.

"It doesn't matter right now," interrupted the captain. "Seven's already injected herself. We have to follow her or we'll lose our chance. Tom, plot a course for the nebula."

"Aye, Captain," he responded numbly. His mind had been only half on his work since his wife had begun labor earlier that morning, and he was even more confused by Seven's actions and the command team's response to them.

The captain in Kathryn Janeway took over as she began quickly ordering her staff to their assigned spots for the mission. "Samantha," she said to Ensign Wildman, who was filling in for the Doctor while he dealt with the birth of B'Elanna's child, "I need you to begin watching Seven's biosigns and let me know when she's assimilated. Tuvok, prepare the transphasic torpedoes and fire on my mark to the weak spots we've already determined. Harry, use our heightened sensors to try to keep us out of the Borg's way as long as possible. I don't want them to detect us too soon. Admiral, you'll have to take Seven's spot and get us through the hub."

The admiral was still dazed, only partially paying attention to the buzz of activity around her.

"Admiral," said the captain, looking at her older double. "Do you understand?"

That finally broke through her haze and she nodded, heading up the ramp to Seven's bridge console.

"All right," said Captain Janeway briskly. "Let's do this, people. We'll only get one chance."

~*~

"I will not comply," Seven of Nine said simply and clicked off the link with Voyager. She couldn't afford to be distracted right now. And she refused to let either Kathryn talk her out of her mission.

She flew the shuttle directly to the cube she knew contained the queen. The cube ignored her for a few tense minutes, until she began firing on it and the larger vessel engaged its tractor beam. She immediately felt the tingle of a transporter, which she was not surprised to find brought her directly to the queen.

"Seven of Nine," addressed the queen, slinking forward with that odd, mechanically-encased sensuality which only she possessed. "I'm surprised to see you. Shouldn't you be exploring your humanity?" The queen wrinkled her nose in distaste. "What you see in them I'll never know."

"I have failed," replied Seven simply. "I will never truly be human. I will never be one of them. I seek to rejoin the perfection of the collective."

"Why?" she asked, cupping the former drone's chin in her hand and looking into her eyes.

"As I said, I have failed." Seven was not able to meet the queen's gaze and instead focused on the floor grating.

"Isn't that part of humanity? The failure?"

"If that is humanity, I want no part of it. It is too difficult." Her eyes began to well with tears.

"Ah, the truth comes out. Jilted by that lover of yours?" asked the queen in knowing tones.

"Yes," agreed Seven quietly.

"Don't worry," said the queen, tubules snaking out of her wrist. "The pain will be gone soon."

"Yes, it will," said Seven as her neck was pierced. This assimilation was different than the last. The pain was welcome and the fear was absent. Since she already possessed a cortical node, she was immediately connected to the hive mind. She could hear the drones as they went about their daily business. She could feel the queen probing her mind, uncovering all of her secrets.

Suddenly the queen gasped, both in pain and understanding. She stumbled to the ground, as did Seven. "What have you done?" asked the queen between shaking breaths.

"I'm sorry," said Seven. And she really was. "I've only done what needed to be done." The voices of the drones became erratic. Jumbled. Some of them began to scream in pain. "Don't worry," she assured them over the link. "The pain will be gone soon."

~*~

Everyone on the bridge was silent for what seemed like hours before Ensign Wildman's voice rang out. "Seven's life signs are destabilizing."

"That's our cue," said the captain. "Take us in, Tom. Tuvok, engage the armor."

The hub appeared in the shrouds of the nebula, surrounded by cubes and spheres, all sparkling like fireworks as parts of them exploded -- evidence of the success of Seven's sabotage. Some of the ships were not completely damaged and began closing in on the comparatively small Starfleet vessel.

"Fire," said the captain, smiling inwardly as torpedoes shot out of Voyager's belly and made short work of the encroaching Borg vessels. "Tuvok, aim at the hub and fire at will."

Tuvok responded with several well-placed missiles, each hitting its mark. The shower of sparks satisfied the captain immensely. Each piece of damaged Borg technology, each destroyed drone, brought her closer to peace.

For her part, the admiral was focused on her goal of determining which transwarp conduit would lead her people home. She tried to ignore the disaster her mission had become. She'd lost one crewmember, but she had so many more to save. She had to continue. She chose a conduit and fed the coordinates to Paris' console, where he instantly made the necessary course corrections. Soon the small ship was inside the glimmering tunnel.

It was Harry who noticed the apparently undamaged sphere following closely behind. "Captain, we've got company."

"Tuvok," began the captain confidently, "you know what to do."

"Captain, we have only two transphasic torpedoes remaining. If we use them to destroy the ship, we will be unable to finish demolishing the conduit."

The captain hung her head briefly. They'd been so close. They'd almost had it all. She had already begun imagining their heroic return. She would taste the sweetness of victory. The Borg would be beaten down and she and her long-suffering crew would be home at last.

But if she could see only one of those dreams fulfilled, she knew which one it would be. She said a silent plea for forgiveness to her crew and turned to her tactical officer. She supposed this was the price she had to pay for her arrogance. "Then destroy the conduit."

"Aye, Captain," he said, nodding and targeting the junctions binding the network of tunnels together.

As the conduit began to destabilize around them, the captain knew they had one last chance to get out of there before the tunnel collapsed and crushed Voyager in its gravimetric grasp. "Admiral, we need an aperture."

"There's one directly ahead, but it leads back to the Delta Quadrant."

The captain began to order Tom to take that way out. She was certain that the sphere would follow and engage them there, but what choice did she have? At least if they were annihilated, she and her crew would be spared having to restart the long and treacherous journey through the Delta Quadrant from the beginning.

No one was more surprised than she when the sphere behind them suddenly quickened its pace and swallowed them whole. "What just happened?" asked the captain, staring at the blackened viewscreen.

"We're inside the sphere," said Harry.

"Options?" said the captain to her collective bridge crew, confident that, although they would be ultimately unsuccessful, each of them would fight to the bitter end.

She was not disappointed as they each shot out suggestions.

"They are not operating at peak efficiency," said Tuvok. "Our standard torpedoes may be sufficient to create a hole."

"And kill ourselves in the process," disagreed Harry.

"You are forgetting, Mister Kim, that our armor is much stronger than our typical shielding would be. There is a 30% chance we would survive intact."

"Some odds. We may as well set the self-destruct. At least then we'd be sure to take them with us."

The captain longed for Seven's intimate knowledge of Borg weaknesses or B'Elanna's understanding of Voyager's own systems and what the battered ship was capable of. She looked to her older counterpart, who was totally non-responsive and seemed barely on the edge of keeping herself together. Finally, she looked to her left, where Chakotay stood, ready to support whatever decision she made. She cocked her head and he knew the answer she was looking for.

"Sometimes," he said with an ironic smile, "you just have to punch your way through."

She nodded in agreement. "Tuvok, fire torpedoes."

The missiles shot out, and the bridge crew collectively held their breath in anticipation. Voyager was rocked by a series of explosions as brilliant clouds of red and yellow obscured the viewscreen.

Then all was silent. The viewscreen cleared and offered up a view of a random starscape, littered with other vessels.

The captain turned to her operations officer. "Where are we?" she asked tightly, still gripping the arms of her chair.

Kim's fingers danced over his console and he looked at his captain in dawning amazement. "We're in the Alpha Quadrant," he told her. "Less than a light-year from Earth." Somehow, he hadn't really thought they'd survive the mission and, if they had, that they'd really make it home. It was almost too good to be true. "And we're being hailed."

"Onscreen," said the captain. She was surprised at her own calm voice, although it was belied by the shaking of her hands and knees.

The viewscreen was filled with the shocked visages of several admirals, including her old mentor, Admiral Paris, and the leads of the Pathfinder project, whom she'd met recently. Both Commander Harkins and Lieutenant Barclay looked to the admiral for their cues on how to deal with this unexpected situation. When he smiled, albeit a bit unsteadily, they both felt it safe to do the same.

"Welcome back, Captain," said Admiral Paris.

"Sorry to surprise you, sir. Next time we'll call ahead."

His smile widened, finally becoming genuine. "How did you -- "

" -- It will all be in my report," she said, cutting him off. She knew she'd have a lot to answer for soon enough. She wanted to savor this moment for as long as she could.

He nodded. "I look forward to reading it." He looked over the members of the bridge crew he could see, his heart lightening as he looked at his son, alive and well. The captain knew the moment he recognized the older version of herself standing on the upper deck of the bridge. She noticed the shock on his face and quickly redirected his attention.

"If I may, sir. My crew and I have a lot to discuss. And I'm sure you have arrangements of your own to make. Let us know when we're cleared to set a course to Earth."

"Agreed," he said. "I'll be in touch." He was just about to close the link when he heard the Doctor's voice over Voyager's internal comm system, as well as a strong baby's cry.

"Sickbay to Lieutenant Paris. Tom, I think you'd better get down here. There's someone who'd like to say 'hello.'" The helmsman looked to his captain for approval, which she readily gave. He bolted excitedly from his chair, but was stopped by his father's voice.

"You tell my granddaughter 'hello' from me as well," Admiral Paris said, pride evident in his voice as his eyes filled with tears.

Tom hesitated a moment before he answered. He and his father had such a checkered history together. He was still getting used to this new peace between them. "You got it, Dad," he said, and strutted off to the turbolift, receiving many congratulatory pats on the shoulder on his way.

As soon as the link with Paris was severed, the captain opened a channel to the entire ship. She was hardly in the mood to be a cheerleader, but she knew it was her duty to inform the crew of their status. "All hands, this is Captain Janeway. I know you haven't really been sure what's been going on out there. You probably thought it was just another battle. Far from it. Let me be the first to welcome you home. We left the Delta Quadrant in a blaze of glory and dealt perhaps the most devastating blow to the Borg ever delivered by a Starfleet crew. We are now less than a light-year from Earth. We've already communicated with Starfleet and begun the process of dealing with all the bureaucratic nonsense that goes along with the end of a journey such as ours. You'll be seeing your friends and family soon. Details will be given out as soon as I know more. In the meantime, I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you for always giving your all to this ship. We never could have come this far without you."

Riotous cheers broke out all over the ship, the bridge included. "Before we celebrate," the captain continued, "I want to let you know about the sacrifice that made this extraordinary event possible." The bridge crew quieted, the only crewmembers on the ship aware of the announcement that was coming. "While every member of this crew has operated with honor, it was Seven of Nine who was instrumental in our ultimate success. She sacrificed her life to distract the Borg and allow us our victory. I think you'll all agree that, without her, we never could have made it so far in our journey through the Delta Quadrant. And without her, we would not be home right now. Let's all take a moment of silence to reflect on that."

All over the ship, crewmembers fell silent. They reflected on the mystery that was Seven of Nine. There were those who had never gotten over their fear or apprehension of the drone. They chided themselves for their lack of trust and thanked Seven for bringing them home. There were those who had been jealous of her beauty or her intelligence or her special Borg abilities. They were disgusted with their own envy and thanked Seven for bringing them home. There were those who had admired her from afar but had never gathered the courage to tell her so. They were dismayed that the drone never knew of their admiration and thanked Seven for bringing them home.

Then there were those few who considered her a friend. Those closest to her were proud of her achievement. They were saddened by her loss. And they were pissed. Why had she gone off and gotten herself killed? What right did she have to remove herself from their lives when they were not yet ready to let her go?

The captain handed the conn to Tuvok and called her double and Chakotay into her ready room. The admiral gave no response to her order, but mutely allowed Chakotay to guide her off the bridge.

Chakotay and the admiral sat dumbly on the couch as the captain went about the mindless task of ordering them drinks from the replicator.

"I don't understand," said the admiral, finally breaking the silence. "I'm not supposed to be here."

"That's right," said Chakotay bitterly. "You're supposed to be dead, assimilated. What the hell is wrong with the two of you?" he asked, including the captain in his question.

The younger Kathryn began to respond indignantly, but was cut off. "I blame myself. I should have seen this coming from a hundred light-years away. The two of you must just feed off each other's crucifixion complexes. Let me guess: 'It's for the good of the ship.' Did either of you ever stop to think about including me in your little scheme?"

"We were going to tell you at the briefing," said the captain, her own ire coming to the fore.

"Sure, when it was too late to do anything about it. Why do you feel like you have to sacrifice yourself for this ship, either of you? If we had discussed this earlier, maybe we could have come up with a better plan. One that didn't involve anyone dying. And how the hell did Seven find out?"

"I'm not sure," said the captain. "We didn't tell her. She must have overheard us talking about it. I just don't understand why she did this."

"Because she loves you," he said. "I mean, loved you," he corrected. It was difficult to think of the strong woman in the past tense. "She believed in you. She wanted to protect you, whatever the cost. We all do."

The captain bent her head in shame. It was her job to protect the crew, not the other way around.

The admiral was still stuck in her denial. "But I'm not supposed to be here," she repeated. It was all she could think about. She'd never planned for this. It was supposed to be a one-way trip. "I don't belong here."

"Yes, you do," Chakotay said firmly, grasping her chin. "You belong with me. I'm here, so you belong here as well. What was all that talk of setting up house? Just trying to distract me long enough to make your escape? Just wanted a quick tumble in the sack to see you off?"

"No!" the admiral disagreed, just as firmly. "It wasn't like that."

The captain backed up, trying to blend into the gray walls behind her. She felt awkward intruding on this private moment, but was riveted to the frank discussion between her other self and the man they both loved.

"So what was it like?"

"I love you. I needed to be with you."

"Then be with me."

"It's not that simple."

"Yes it is," he said, and swallowed any more arguments she might have had by placing his lips over hers.

She clutched him desperately as she began to cry. The denial was over. This was her life. She'd expected to die a hero and now she'd be forced to live. She mourned the loss of her control. She mourned the world she'd created out of her expectations, only to watch crumble now.

The captain watched, torn between jumping in to offer comfort and leaving the two to their privacy. Her overriding need to ease the pain of others won out and she sat on the couch next to the admiral, placing a hand on her shoulder. This only caused the older woman to cry harder. Both Chakotay and the captain tightened their grip on her, trying to infuse her with the confidence of their love. The three sat locked together on the couch until the admiral's sobs turned to sniffles and the three of them began to breathe evenly in concert.

"We're allowed to save ourselves, remember?" said the captain, finally breaking the silence. "It's a bonus." The admiral turned to look at her.

"Some bonus," scoffed the admiral. "And what about you?"

Another piece clicked into place for Chakotay. He suddenly understood one of the reasons why the two of them felt okay about letting the admiral die. To their minds, one Kathryn would simply replace the other in his heart, and in his bed. They thought he could switch between them as easily as he changed socks.

"I'll be fine," said the captain. "I always am."

"It's thinking like that that turns you into me. You've got to give in to your desires every once in a while. At least admit them to yourself."

"All right. I admit it. This is not a best-case scenario. But we'll figure something out." The captain somehow doubted her words even as she spoke them. However, it was important right now to get the admiral thinking good thoughts.

Unfortunately, Chakotay didn't seem to share her opinion of the situation. "Wait a minute," he said, standing. "What are you two going on about? What do we have to figure out?"

The admiral was in no shape to defend herself, so the captain jumped up to confront her first officer. "Obviously, having two Kathryn Janeways is going to cause some difficulties."

"I don't see how," he said. Although in the back of his mind he knew she was right, he couldn't help his desire to contradict her every word. He wasn't sure what was causing the desire. Irrational contrariness was a demon he thought he'd finally conquered.

"It will be confusing to us, to those around us," said the captain, surprised as Chakotay's usually calm demeanor seemed to crumble.

"I'm not confused," he insisted. "Our universe was wondrous with only one Kathryn Janeway. With two, it will be even better."

The captain blushed a bit under his compliment, but it served only to anger the admiral. She stood to face the other two.

"How can you say that? You're confused right now."

"I'm not," he said again.

"Do you love me?" demanded the admiral.

"Damn it, I just told you I did," replied Chakotay in an exasperated tone which was anything but loving.

"And how do you feel about her?" asked the older woman, pointing to her younger counterpart.

"I . . . I . . .," stuttered Chakotay, unable to lie and say he felt anything less than love for his captain, but equally unable to admit as much to the admiral. "You're the one I want."

"You're only saying that because you think that's your only choice. For the love of Kahless, I'm old enough to be your mother."

"I keep telling you, the age difference doesn't bother me. What do I have to do before you believe me?"

"It might not bother you, but it bothers me. It was selfish enough of me to steal a few days with you when I thought I'd be gone soon. I'm not nearly selfish enough to bind you to me for the rest of my life. You have your whole life ahead of you. I'm not about to take that away from you."

"My life won't be anything if I don't have you to share it with. I love you."

"Get over it," she said sharply, and walked out of the room.

Chakotay stared at the closing door and tried to determine what was expected of him. Was he to follow her? Right now, he couldn't imagine them having any kind of rational conversation. Maybe if he left her alone, she'd change her mind and ask for his forgiveness. What was he saying? Stubborn woman that she was, she'd go to her grave before she asked his forgiveness. He had to go after her.

The captain stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Let her go," she said. "She just needs a few hours to let all this settle."

He turned to her angrily. "The two of you are such fools."

Kathryn flinched under his icy stare and removed her hand from his arm, placing it on her hip in her usual defensive stance.

"Glare at me all you like," he said. "You're the ones in the wrong. I can't believe you thought I could hop from one bed to the next and never miss a step. You disgust me."

Kathryn was rather disgusted herself. She knew he was right. "I tried to tell her that. I know -- "

Her words were cut off as Chakotay brought his mouth to hers for a bruising kiss. He didn't know what he was doing, but he couldn't stop himself. It was as if he were possessed. He did love this woman. He couldn't ever really be disgusted by her. Disappointed, yes. Angry, yes. Confused, spirits yes.

He suddenly broke off the kiss and jumped away. "I'm not about to prove her right, either," he said, and bolted from the room.

"And he says he's not confused," she said to the empty room, laughing a bit at the absurdity of it all.

~*~

Chakotay allowed himself a few hours of stalking around the ship before he admitted to himself that the best course of action was to pretend nothing at all had happened and become once again the consummate first officer.

Normally, denial was something he avoided. He'd done many things in life he was not proud of, but they joined together with all of the other the things he'd done to make him who he was at that moment. And, for the most part, he'd finally gained enough peace of soul to like the person he was. But if he didn't block out the last three hours, he wasn't sure he'd be able to make it through the next couple of days.

He made his way to sickbay to greet Voyager's newest arrival and to congratulate the happy parents. He walked in and took in the picture-perfect scene. B'Elanna lay propped up on a biobed, smiling more broadly than he could ever recall seeing from her. A light seemed to shine out of her very being. He'd always heard about women glowing after giving birth and thought it was a crock. How could anyone glow after going through such pain? Wouldn't she be tired, both physically and emotionally? But he believed it now. B'Elanna was beautiful.

In her arms lay a small bundle, staring adoringly at her mother. Tom stared with just as much love and wonder, alternating his gaze between his new daughter and his wife.

For a brief moment, Chakotay was jealous of them all. But he quickly pushed that aside and reveled in the joy his friends felt.

"How is everyone?" he asked, smiling as he walked up to the bed.

"It's about time you got here," said B'Elanna in a mock angry voice.

"I had things to do," he said defensively.

"Of course," she said, surprised at his offense. "It was only a joke. There must be a million things to do now that we've made it home."

"Yes," he agreed.

Tom thought there was something a bit off about Chakotay. Usually, he was so peaceful and centered. The man before them was a flustered mess, like Tal Celes on an off day. Or Harry when he was still fresh. "How's it going up there?" he asked, scrutinizing the commander. "How are the captain and the admiral?"

"As good as can be expected," Chakotay said hurriedly, looking around. "Where's the Doctor?"

"He's in the back, grieving over Seven."

"Oh," said Chakotay, aware that he felt relatively little grief himself.

"Why do you think she did it?" asked Tom. As much as he sometimes disagreed with the former Borg, he had been very surprised by her actions.

"I don't know," he admitted. "I think she was just trying to help us. She loved this ship."

That comment caused a chuckled from B'Elanna. Both the men turned to stare at her. "What? I think she loved the ship, too. But I can't help it that part of me never really trusted her. I can't help feeling she'd done it intentionally to hurt us, to hurt the captain somehow. To compensate for whatever wrongs she felt we'd perpetrated against her by severing her from the collective."

"Bitter much?" asked Tom. "I know the two of you didn't always get along, but I don't think we should talk ill of the dead. For whatever reason, Seven helped our mission become a success. Besides, I think she was just scared."

"Of what?" asked B'Elanna, somehow unable to believe that the Borg she knew would be scared of anything.

"Of Earth. Of losing her small Voyager collective. Of the thought of trying to fit in in a world full of people who were at once frightened of and disgusted by her. Of failing to meet the lofty standards the captain always set for her. She never did feel human enough. And your reaction is proof of what was waiting for her on Earth."

"Or maybe," said the Doctor from the doorway, looking a bit haggard, "she was running away from something on Voyager."

The three turned to him, surprised and a bit ashamed that he'd heard their conversation. "Maybe she was running away from you," the Doctor continued, looking pointedly at Chakotay.

"I . . . what?" he replied confusedly.

"She was torn up over your rejection. She'd come to me early last week, so full of hope, and had me remove the fail-safe on her cortical node, so she would be capable of experiencing the full range of human emotions. Two days later, she was late for a follow-up appointment. I found her in the cargo bay, crying her eyes out, over you."

"We'd only been out a couple of times," Chakotay stammered. "It was barely anything more than friendship. An hour on the holodeck. A picnic lunch. Certainly nothing more than a fling."

"Not to you, no. You obviously were blind to her devotion to you," said the Doctor bitterly. "Although why she chose you, I'll never know. You're far too wrapped up in yourself and the captain to ever truly care for anyone else."

"Hey," said Tom, stepping in to defend Chakotay, "take it easy, Doc."

"Well, you'll never have her, you know," said the Doctor. "She'll never give in to you and you'll both live a long life, alone and unhappy. Serves you right."

"Doc!" chastised Tom sharply. "Come on," he said, steering the obviously distraught hologram back into the rear of the sickbay.

Chakotay was still dazed. He really didn't need this guilt over Seven, on top of everything else.

"He didn't mean it, Chakotay," said B'Elanna. "He's just really upset. You can't help it if Seven felt something for you that you didn't for her."

Just like Kathryn couldn't help it that she couldn't return his feelings for all these years. The guilt he felt now was probably the same guilt she'd been feeling. The same guilt which led the admiral to his bed. Because she pitied him. He had to get out of there. He turned to leave.

"Hey, don't go," said B'Elanna. Chakotay didn't stop his slow walk toward the door. "Don't make me get up and stop you, Old Man," she said in an angry tone. "I don't think you'll like the results."

"I'm sorry, B'Elanna. It's just . . . I've got a lot of thinking to do."

She sighed as he walked out the door. "He's got a lot of problems, that one," she said to her newborn daughter. "He didn't even ask your name, my beautiful Miral." She stroked her daughter's head and thought about her old friend. "I just hope he's going to be all right."

~*~

The captain sat in her chair on the bridge, filling out paperwork. Really, it was Chakotay's job. But she was certainly not going to find him to tell him so. Besides, it was nice, brainless work. She needed something brainless to do. After all, she had a feeling that she couldn't scrape together four working brain cells right now if she had to.

"Captain," said Harry Kim, "we're receiving a hail from Starfleet."

The captain did not respond.

"Captain," Harry called a little louder. When she still showed no recognition, he tried even louder. "Captain Janeway."

"Yes?" she finally replied, shaking her head.

"We're receiving a hail from Starfleet," he repeated. He had no idea what was wrong with her. He could not recall a single time she'd ever seemed not to have it all together. She got angry. She went a bit over the top at times. But right now she seemed almost drugged.

"Oh, yes," she said, then paused just a few moments too long. "Oh, on screen," she ordered.

Once again, Admiral Paris' face filled the viewscreen. "You've been cleared to dock at Utopia Planitia, Captain," he said, smiling. When she didn't seem to respond to his comment, he got concerned. "Are you all right, Kathryn?"

"Yes, of course," she replied automatically. "Utopia Planitia. That's marvelous. Will there be shuttles to take us to Earth, then?"

"Not right away," said Paris a bit evasively. He knew Kathryn would be very angry when she found out it would be weeks before she and her crew made it to Earth. "The admiralty feels it would be better if we debrief you on Mars. Starfleet Headquarters has already become a media circus since news of your return has spread."

"Okay," she said calmly.

A bit too calmly, thought Paris. This was not the Kathryn Janeway he knew. "You're not angry?" he asked in disbelief.

"Should I be?" she asked and looked up.

She looked tired, he noticed. Very tired. "Of course not. We will be transporting available family members to Mars to join you. You'll get to see your mother."

The thought of her mother brought a brief smile to her lips. "Good then. I'll see you soon. Janeway out."

Paris began to protest, but was quickly cut off from the screen.

Tuvok knew something was dreadfully wrong. He suspected that the captain was simply overwrought. As per her usual routine before an important mission, she'd barely been sleeping or eating over the past few days. And the return to Earth, while not unwelcome, must have come as quite a shock. Humans were so fragile.

Tuvok left his station to stand next to the captain. "Perhaps," he said in a low voice, "it would be best if you retired for a few hours. I can handle the trip to Mars and the docking procedures."

"I'm perfectly fine," she disagreed out of habit. Actually, she was exhausted and she knew she'd be better off in her quarters.

"I must insist," said Tuvok, preparing to battle her if he had to.

She looked up at him, ready to play her part in their old game. She'd work too hard. He'd tell her to rest. She'd insist she wasn't tired. He'd tell her she was being illogical. It was much more fun when she played with Chakotay. He'd always try to bribe her with wonderful, home-cooked meals and give her a glass of wine. He'd play beautiful music and talk to her softly until she dropped off accidentally, only to find herself warm and cozy in her bed hours later. He'd have removed her boots and her jacket and loosened her pants. All very decorously, of course.

Somehow, she didn't quite feel like fighting with Tuvok right now. "You're right, Commander," she said, rising from her chair. "Call me if you need me."

He settled himself in her chair as she walked slowly off the bridge. This was worse than he thought, and certainly due to much more than being a bit overworked. He'd have to be sure to keep his eye on her during the debriefings.

~*~

The admiral was hiding. Admirals do not hide, she corrected herself. I've simply removed myself to a place where I'm capable of contemplative thought. She stared around her at the insides of the Shannon O'Donnell, the small captain's yacht tucked in the belly of Voyager, never finished since Voyager had left spacedock several weeks ahead of schedule.

The crew at Utopia Planitia had let her name the ship, and she'd chosen to memorialize the woman who had been an idol to her. She laughed a bit at the irony. Shannon O'Donnell turned out to be nothing like Kathryn had always thought. She hadn't been instrumental in building the Millennium Gate. She hadn't been part of the Mars project.

Much like this shuttle, those stories her Aunt Martha had told her long ago of her twentieth-century relative had turned out to be empty and unfulfilled. Half-truths and assumptions, passed down through the generations and distorted by the mirror of time.

B'Elanna had always wanted to finish the yacht, but they'd never had the resources and had instead cannibalized it for parts to use in the other faster, larger shuttles. This was to be a show piece, an elegant way to transport dignitaries. And it was entirely impractical in the reality of the Delta Quadrant. It went the way of the captain's dining room and was sacrificed for the greater good.

Kathryn had had no yacht. No dining room. Very few of the privileges of captaincy, actually. But all of the responsibilities. More, even. She'd had to make decisions no admiral had to make alone. And she'd had to live with the consequences.

Most of her crew loved her. Adored her. Idolized her, even. Still, she couldn't help but feel that she was empty inside, like this yacht, like the stories of her long-dead ancestor.

She couldn't even die right. She was supposed to be dead now. She would have had a moment of triumph, staring into the eyes of the Borg queen. She'd even practiced what she'd say. The queen would be coughing and sweating. She'd be dying. Kathryn would smile wryly and say, "Must be something you assimilated." Oh so witty.

She was supposed to sacrifice herself for the greater good. She'd been prepared. And, instead, she'd lost another crewmember. Seven was one of those she'd come to save. She couldn't save everyone, she knew. But Seven. She was so smart. So beautiful. She could have had anything. All the limitless possibilities of life on Earth were stretched out before her.

Maybe that's why she'd gone. Too many choices. The possibilities were overwhelming.

Not like me, thought Kathryn. At the end of my life. No choices left. Starfleet will never want me now. And I've ruined my chance with Chakotay. But it's for the best, she tried to convince herself. Better he get over me now.

Her head snapped up at the sound of someone entering the shuttle. Tom Paris walked in, ducking so as not to hit his head on the low ceiling.

"Hiding," he said. It was not a question.

"Thinking," she contradicted.

"Moping," he said.

"I don't know who the hell you think you are -- " she began, but was swiftly interrupted.

"What have you done to them?" he asked.

"What? Done to who?"

"The captain and Chakotay. They're walking around like a pair of zombies."

"Zombies?"

"You know, dragged from the grave. This should be the happiest day of their lives. At least of the last seven years. But I've never seen them more miserable."

"I haven't done anything to them."

"Doubtful," he said, scrutinizing the older woman before him. He'd had years to study his captain. Generally, he was not so forward with her. But he usually felt like he knew what was going on in her head. He prided himself on it. No self-respecting bookie could run a collection of pools on his captain and not know when he had to pay out. "We all know about you and Chakotay. He's been so self-satisfied this week that it's been hard to miss. Why aren't you with him now?"

"He doesn't want me." She wasn't sure why, but Tom Paris' insubordinate attitude, while irksome, always seemed to make her incapable of hiding the truth.

"What kind of maudlin shit is that? Of course he wants you. He's waited for you for years."

"He's waited for *her*."

"Ah," he said knowingly. "You've a complex about your age."

"What?" she cried. "How can you make a connection like that?"

"It's obvious. You and she are much the same. Chakotay clearly thinks so as well, since it's *you* he's been sleeping with the last week without missing a beat. My guess is if it was up to him, he'd be sleeping with you right now. So, it must not have been up to him. And if it wasn't up to him, it was up to you. You must have turned him away out of some misguided sense of self-sacrifice or punishment or some such nonsense."

She stared at him, mouth agape. "My Tom Paris would never -- "

" -- Aha," he interrupted. "Your Tom Paris. I bet you have a Chakotay of your own too, huh?" She flinched a bit at the mention of that version of Chakotay. "Or you don't. Which is why you needed this one. Come from the future to steal the captain's boyfriend?"

"I didn't mean to stay."

"Of course not. You meant to go off and get yourself assimilated. Seven just beat you to it."

"I'm not supposed to be here," she said, repeating once again that old familiar theme. She hadn't been able to remove that thought from her head for hours. It felt like years.

"No, you're not," he agreed. "You don't belong here."

She was shocked. He wasn't supposed to agree with her.

"But the fact remains that you are here," he continued. "You've screwed with the timeline and now there are two Kathryn Janeways. Stranger things have happened. Get over it."

She closed her eyes and laughed as she heard her own words to Chakotay from a few hours before played back to her. "And just how do you propose I do that?"

"Go find Chakotay and screw him senseless, for starters."

"As you've pointed out so eloquently, he's the captain's boyfriend."

"Yours too."

"We can't both have him."

"Of course you can," he said. At her dumbfounded expression, he continued. "Don't be such a prude. Don't you think a person is capable of loving more than one person at a time?"

"I guess so."

"You guys are like twins, now. Ask the Delaneys. They share *everything*, if you get my drift."

"I think I do, Mr. Paris. Thank you," she said harshly. "Now leave."

"All right, already. I'm going," he said, holding up his hands. "I've said what I needed to say. If you change your mind, you'll find Chakotay on Holodeck Two. Most of the crew is celebrating our return. He's in the corner drinking himself into a stupor."

"Chakotay doesn't drink," she said. A glass of wine or two with dinner, but that was it. He hated feeling like he was losing his faculties. It made him think of his grandfather, and the possibility of his own insanity looming up in front of him.

"Tell *him* that. You know, you all have a right to go a little crazy. This has got to be confusing for the three of you. But, sooner or later, one of you is going to have to grow up," Tom said, once again ducking out of the shuttle.

~*~

"You don't drink."

Chakotay watched as the glass of whiskey talked to him, then got smaller. Wait, it wasn't getting smaller. It was getting further away, as a small, well-manicured hand pushed it across the table. And it was someone else doing the talking. Probably the owner of that hand. He looked up and saw the admiral's unsmiling face.

"Cadmiral!" he exclaimed joyfully. "I mean Admitain. I mean, Kathryn. What're you doin' here?"

"I heard you were making a drunken spectacle of yourself and just had to come." She drew a hypospray from her belt and injected him in the neck. His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "It's just a detox hypo," she assured him. "It'll take a little while to kick in."

"I'm not makin' a skeptical of myself. I'm a quiet drunk." This last was whispered in a range just slightly louder than his normal speaking volume.

"I can see that," she said, clearly humoring him. "Why don't we just get you back to your cabin?" She began pulling him up by his arm.

"Uhn-uh," he said, shrugging her off. "I don't need your piddy."

"My what?"

"Your piddy," he repeated. "Pi - dy."

"Ohh, pity," she said in understanding, then frowned. "Why do you think I pity you?"

"'Cause that's why you came. Why you let me, you know," he said, looking around for eavesdroppers.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said, finally deciding to take a seat across from him.

"'Poor Chakotay,'" he said, trying to imitate a woman's voice -- badly. "'He's all alone. Follows the captain around like a puppy dog, but she doesn't love him.'"

Kathryn's frown deepened. It was a little difficult to follow his train of thought. It obviously had something to do with the captain, and by extension herself, and love. "You think I came from the future so I could sleep with you? You think awfully highly of yourself."

"No, no, no. You came from the future for them," he said, waving his arm about the room wildly. "But you prolly thought to yourself, 'Hmm. Look at Chakotay there. He's a sad sack. I should tie up those loose ends.'"

She was finally starting to get it. He thought she slept with him out of pity. He thought she lied to him when she told him she loved him. "If you weren't so drunk right now, I'd slap you for that."

"Go ahead. I prolly deserve it. I can't believe I was so . . . " Gullible. Naive. Foolish. "Stupid. Seems every time some pretty girl tells me she loves me, it's a trick. A quick sis-boom-bah and you're off, leaving me feeling like maybe I'm not so bad after all. So . . . ," his sodden mind searched for the right word, "pathetic."

Kathryn leaned into the table to hiss at him. "If you think I told you I loved you because I pity you, you really are pathetic. If anything, it was the other way around."

It was Chakotay's turn to have his face graced with a frown. "What?"

"We both know you could do far better than me. Someone more attractive. Someone younger."

Oh no, he thought. Not this again. "I don't care how old you are," he yelled at the top of his lungs.

Every animated conversation in the room stopped. Every dancing couple, every smiling face, turned to look at the two officers in the corner. For several seconds, they stared. Then each awkwardly turned back to what he or she was doing and tried to pretend the two in the corner didn't exist. The captain -- or this admiral person -- and Chakotay had done a lot for them. Allowing them the illusion of privacy was the least the crew could do in return.

"But you *should* care. You should think of yourself, not me. Not feeling sorry for me."

"I am thinking of myself. I love you. I want you to be with me. Me, me, me. It's all very selfish."

The admiral could tell his muddied brain was starting to clear. His pupils were constricting and gaining a sense of focus. His speech was not as slurred. She'd done what she'd come here to do. It was time to go. "Fine. You're right. You're selfish," she said, clearly agreeing with him only to stop the argument. "I'll see you later."

She rose to leave, but didn't make it two steps before Chakotay jumped out of his own chair and wrapped his arms around her. "You have to be selfish, too," he whispered into her ear. "Do what *you* want. Have your way with me."

She turned in his arms to look him in the eyes. "What makes you think that's what I want?"

"Either you slept with me because you felt sorry for me or because you wanted to. Which is it?"

"What if it was just convenient? What if it was a mountain to climb, just because it was there? Well, now I've been there. Done that. Don't need to do it again."

Chakotay felt the sting of her words, but was happy his drunkenness was passing. He was just aware enough to see the words for the lies they were, and to see the truth underneath. He tightened his grip on her. "I don't believe you."

"Why not?"

"Because you're trembling." He smiled confidently. "You want me to kiss you."

"I do not -- " she began, trying to look away. But her protests were covered with his lips. After a few moments, she returned the kiss fervently. When they broke apart to breathe, she couldn't help but laugh.

"What?" he asked.

"You think that's the answer for everything, don't you?"

"Not everything, no. But there is a wide range of situations where it's applicable. As Tom would say, let's make love, not war."

"When did you start listening to Tom?"

"About half of what he says is garbage," he admitted. "The other half is gospel. It took a while for me to learn to distinguish between the two. But now that I have, I always listen to him. You never know what's going to pop out of that smug little mouth of his."

She thought of Tom's proposal that she and the captain share Chakotay. Was that garbage, or gospel? "He told me that I was a prude."

"See, garbage," he said, and kissed her nose.

"Hmm," she said. She wasn't entirely sure that it was garbage. She'd have to think about it. Later. She focused on Chakotay's eyes. "Are you still certain you don't want to go back to your cabin?"

"Perhaps I spoke too soon on that point. I can definitely see the wisdom of getting me into bed."

"Let's go then," she said, grabbing his hand and walking toward the door.

~*~

Captain Janeway sighed and pulled a pillow over her head. As glad as she was that the admiral and Chakotay seemed to have made up, couldn't they take it someplace else? She sighed, admitting to herself that she would be getting no more sleep tonight. Chakotay seemed to have a limitless source of energy. He could just go on and on. Her groin twinged a bit at the thought, which she was able to quickly put out of her head. She was more than used to putting those thoughts out of her head by now.

Besides, she had debriefings to prepare for. She had to make sure her crew was taken care of. She thought of what she'd already learned of the debriefing period to come. No final decisions had been made yet on the Maquis, or on the former Equinox crewmembers. She could tell from her last battle on behalf of the Doctor that she still had a ways to go regarding holographic rights. The conversations she'd had with Starfleet and reports she'd written and read up until now left her hopeful. But only time would tell.

She arranged for a morning meeting with Chakotay and the admiral and settled onto the couch to read reports until she could show her face on the bridge without earning disappointed looks from Tuvok. After a few hours, she donned her uniform and made her way to her ready room. She was already finishing her third cup of coffee by the time Chakotay and the admiral showed up for the meeting.

"Good morning," she said to the pair. "I trust you've gotten over your differences?" she asked pointedly.

"Yes, Captain," said Chakotay quietly.

"Good. Coffee?"

"I'll get it," said the admiral, walking to the replicator.

Chakotay examined his captain a little more closely. For someone who just got home and fulfilled seven years worth of promises, she didn't seem very pleased. The dark circles under her eyes proved she had been up all night, drinking coffee and reading. Or thinking over something. He hoped his sneak-attack kiss hadn't kept her up. He moved in a little closer.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes, perfectly fine," she said, smiling. Her act had definitely gotten better than the previous day, so he almost believed her. Almost.

The admiral returned with three cups of coffee, handing one to Chakotay and the other to her double. The captain nodded her thanks and was about to take a sip when Chakotay took the cup from her.

"I think you've had about enough of that stuff, don't you?"

She frowned. "If I thought so, I wouldn't drink it. Does he ever give up this obsession with my coffee intake?" she asked, looking to the admiral.

The older woman focused on some unseen point far away and smiled wistfully. "No. Why do you think I gave it up?"

"See," said Chakotay, trying to ignore the way his lover's eyes focused on the past, and on someone else -- even if that someone was him. "I'm going to wear you down eventually, so you may just as well cave now."

The captain rescued her cup from his clutches and took a hearty sip. "Someday, maybe. But not today."

Chakotay gave an exaggerated sigh. "Fine. But that's it until after lunch. You did at least eat breakfast, didn't you?"

The captain rolled her eyes. "Would you stop being such a mother hen and sit down?"

He did, and stole a glance at the admiral, who still seemed absorbed in some memory long past.

"Well," said the captain. "Let's get started. We've got a lot of work to do."

The admiral finally snapped back into the conversation. "What work?"

"First off, families are starting to arrive from Earth. We need to work up a schedule so people can beam down to visit. Perhaps Admiral Paris can arrange for some temporary help up here so more of our crew can leave."

"I'm on it," said Chakotay, grabbing up a PADD and entering a few notes.

The captain smiled, thinking how he always seemed to know what she was thinking, sometimes even before she did herself. "Secondly, we need to go over our defenses, for the debriefings. Protect the former Maquis, the Equinox crewmembers."

"It's just a bunch of worrying over nothing," said the admiral with a dismissive flip of her hand. "It all turns out fine."

"It turned out fine in *your* universe. But you didn't get home for another sixteen years. The Federation was in a different place politically then. And they were probably much more willing to go easy on you after a twenty-three year journey than they'll be willing to go on us after only seven."

The admiral obviously took no stock in the captain's concerns. "They're reasonable people. Who's coming, anyway?"

"It's a mixed bag," said the captain. "Paris is definitely on our side. Ross could go either way, although I'd say that he'd be leaning towards us considering his dealings with the Cardassians and the Dominion. Hayes, I'm not so sure. I haven't been getting very good vibes from him in the conversations we've had in the last year. And then there's Nechayev."

Chakotay flinched a bit at the mere mention of her name. "That woman is the personification of everything I hate about Starfleet."

The captain was surprised at his outburst. While she knew Chakotay had problems with some Starfleet policies, he'd been wearing the uniform for seven years now and had dutifully served on a Starfleet-operated ship. 'Hate' seemed such a strong word.

"None of them were still around by the time I made it home," said the admiral, "so I'm not sure I can offer much help."

"But what kinds of questions did they ask in your debriefing? Was there anything that surprised you?" asked the captain.

"No," said the admiral. "Nothing. We'd had a Starfleet escort for the last 14 months of our trip and they took care of everything then. By the time we made it back to Earth, we were treated to a huge celebration. Fireworks. A flight display. Then we landed on the grounds of the Presidio and there was a huge party. I really don't see what all the fuss is about now."

"Obviously, things are different this time around. We've come much sooner, and very unexpectedly, carrying with us all the evidence of how we've shattered the Temporal Prime Directive, from that armor on our hull to you sitting right there."

"I still think you're making too much of this," insisted the admiral. "We've just destroyed a Borg transwarp hub -- one of only six in the galaxy -- and countless Borg ships and resources with it. We'll be heroes."

"Nechayev won't care about that," said Chakotay bitterly. "She'll look at us and see people who broke the rules. Her precious rules." He bent his head. The captain reached over and took his hand in hers. He looked up and saw her support in her eyes. He felt her strength become his, and he smiled sadly.

"She was instrumental in the creation of the Federation-Cardassian Treaty, you know. She signed away my homeland, then spent years trying to take down the Maquis for defending it."

"I know," said the captain simply.

They stared at each other for several moments before the captain suddenly stood and walked away. It wasn't really her place to comfort Chakotay anymore. That was the admiral's job. Although, the older woman didn't seem to be in a very comforting mood today.

Was this how it was to be, then? She'd lost the chance of having Chakotay as her lover, her husband. Would she now lose his friendship as well?

Chakotay watched as the captain stared out the viewport at the red planet beneath them. She brought her hand to massage her neck, another sure sign that she hadn't been getting enough sleep.

The admiral looked at them both, watching as they tried to avoid their attraction to one another. She thought more about what Tom had said. One of them had to bring this up. And neither Chakotay nor the captain ever would. Maybe she could manipulate them, just a little.

"Chakotay gives wonderful neck rubs, you know," said the admiral, throwing the tidbit out almost like a trivial piece of information.

"I seem to recall," said the captain, turning with a faraway smile.

Chakotay couldn't believe it. He was jealous of himself for the second time in less than half an hour. But at least he could share in this memory. Besides, he had no place being jealous over anyone the captain should choose to think about. He was with the admiral now.

"Why don't you give her one," said the admiral, pushing Chakotay off the couch.

"But I . . . " began Chakotay.

"It's really not necessary," said the captain at the same time.

"Nonsense," said the admiral. "We're all friends here. Take off your jacket." She was smiling, but there was a definite tone of command in her voice.

The captain was tempted to disagree, just to prove that she didn't take orders from this woman. But why? It was something she wanted, anyway. She unzipped her jacket slowly and laid it carefully on the back of a nearby chair, then sat in it.

Chakotay was drawn to her almost against his will. He couldn't help feeling the admiral was trying to gather evidence against him of his attraction to other women. But this was her idea. If he protested, would she only say that he was protesting *because* he was so attracted to the captain? Spirits, sometimes he hated the mind games she played. He was never quite sure when he was being tested, or what the right answer was.

Chakotay put his hands to his captain's small shoulders, and they both felt like it was coming home. As he slowly kneaded out the tension of the past week, she closed her eyes and parted her lips, her breath coming in short gasps. Both seemed to forget the presence of the admiral in the room.

For her part, the admiral was really not testing the captain or Chakotay, but herself. Was she jealous? No, oddly enough. What she was was incredibly aroused. Watching Chakotay with this younger version of herself was in no way better than having him, but it had its own advantages. The guilt over 'stealing the captain's boyfriend,' as Tom had said, was slipping away.

Chakotay's hands had slipped down and he was now working on the captain's lower back. She was making slight mewling sounds, and he felt incredibly proud of himself for being able to generate them. He began experimenting with different levels of pressure and rhythms on other spots of her back to see what other noises she could make.

The admiral remained completely silent, unwilling to break the mood. But she wanted to make sure that they knew she was okay with what they were doing. "Why don't you move to the couch? It'll be more comfortable."

The spell was broken. Both the captain and Chakotay leapt apart as if the other were fire embodied. "Oh, no, really," said the captain quickly. "I'm fine."

"Yes, quite," agreed Chakotay just as quickly, looking to his watch. "And I've got to put together that schedule."

"Yes, can't forget that," said the captain.

"See you later." And with that he rushed out the ready room doors.

"What just happened?" asked the admiral.

"Nothing," assured the captain. "Nothing happened."

"No, I mean, why did you stop?"

"Well," said the captain awkwardly, "we were done. Very . . . done." Her brain was searching for intelligent thoughts and failing miserably.

"I didn't have a problem with anything you were doing. You could have done . . . more."

"Yes, well. Wait a minute," the captain said as her enfeebled brain attempted to make sense of it all. She gave up. "What?" she asked confusedly.

"You wanted him. It's obvious he feels the same way."

"But he's with you."

"He could be with both of us."

"At the same time?" asked the captain incredulously. "I certainly hope you don't expect me to . . . you know . . . with you."

The admiral rolled her eyes. "And Tom says *I'm* a prude. No, I don't expect anything of you. But, you know, he's got a lot of energy."

"I've noticed that," said the captain sarcastically, thinking of all the times she'd been awoken over the past week.

"Frankly, he's wearing me out. I'm not as young as I used to be. As you are," said the admiral pointedly.

"Oh, don't start that again." The captain knew that whatever problems lay between the admiral and Chakotay, the age difference was key among them, at least on her side.

"I'm not. I'm just stating a simple fact. I get tired before he does."

"And I'm sure Chakotay will agree to this little scheme of yours, no question." The captain was laying the sarcasm on pretty thickly.

"There are many cultures which practice polygamy."

"Not mine. And not his. And what makes you think *I'd* agree anyway? Why would I want half a man?"

"Because half of Chakotay is better than none at all."

"He's just a man. An attractive, sensitive, intelligent, wonderful man. But just a man, nonetheless. They're all over the place. You've got him. I'll get my own."

"They're not as easy to find as you'd like to think. Don't you think I tried?"

"You're just obsessed. Maybe I won't find someone I like as well. But it will be someone who is mine and mine alone."

"Like Mark was yours and yours alone?"

"Yes," said the captain defensively. "What of it?"

"If that relationship was so great, why didn't you marry him? Why did you string him along for ten years?"

"It was just timing. I was busy with my career, and he with his."

"Oh, he'd have thrown it all away in a second if you asked him to and you know it. He'd have stayed on ships with you. Cared for the children. But that wasn't what you wanted."

"I -- "

" -- You tried to escape every chance you got. Took every deep space mission you could lay your hands on. And spent what few nights you had with him staring at the ceiling, wondering if there wasn't something more to life than this."

"So, fine. Mark wasn't the one. I'll find someone, on my terms. Or I won't, and that's fine too. I've been alone all these years. I don't need some man to define who I am."

"You've been alone too long already. We, all of us, are defined by our relationships with others. If you stay alone too long you stagnate. Wither. Fester. You'll die inside."

"I refuse to accept that this is the answer."

"And I refuse to accept that it's not."

The two stood chin to chin, staring into each other's eyes. Finally, the admiral decided to table the discussion, for now. "You will change your mind," she said, and turned on her heel, exiting the ready room with a sharp snap to her gait.

"Oh, God," said the captain, holding her hand to her head. "Now *I'm* confused."

~*~

Once the admiral had gone, the captain concentrated on all the reports she had already been asked by Starfleet Command to fill out. It wasn't until Chakotay commed her five hours later that she noticed how much time had passed. Chakotay told her that her mother had arrived on Mars.

Kathryn was filled with mixed emotions. This was one of the moments she'd been waiting for. Seeing her mother, being able to touch her once again, would make everything real. The last few days seemed a dream. And, as when she was a child and suffered nightmares, only her mother's comforting embrace would make her believe she was truly awake. At the same time, she knew she had some strange news to deliver to her mother and she wasn't looking forward to it in the slightest. She wondered how Gretchen would deal with her newest daughter.

The captain gathered her courage and coordinated her visit with Chakotay. She would beam down first and prepare Gretchen, then the admiral could join them.

Kathryn stared down the length of the drab gymnasium Starfleet had chosen as the reunion site. She wrung her hands as her eyes flicked about in nervous anticipation. Finally, she saw her mother entering the room some twenty feet away.

"Mom," said the younger Kathryn, rushing forward and grabbing up her mother in a tight hug. "I'm so glad you could come."

"Of course I came, Katie. After seven years, I had to see you with my own eyes. You look wonderful," she said, kissing her daughter on the cheek.

"I've missed you so much."

"I've missed you, too, sweetheart. Now, tell me about your trip home. How did you get here so fast?"

"I'm sorry. That's classified."

"I understand," said Gretchen Janeway. As the wife of an admiral, she should have known better than to ask in the first place. She steered them both to a nearby bench. "How does it feel to be home?"

"It feels . . . strange. I mean, a good strange. But, it was all so unexpected."

"Isn't that your Chakotay over there?" asked Gretchen, looking where the first officer stood with B'Elanna and Tom talking to Tom's family.

Kathryn looked over her shoulder. "He's not *my* Chakotay, Mom."

"What do you mean? Every letter, every com call, he was all you could talk about. The two of you ate your meals together, spent your off time together. And he's very handsome." Gretchen wiggled her eyebrows.

"Yes, but he's not really available. Extenuating circumstances." That reminded Kathryn of the other Kathryn, waiting on Voyager above them for the cue to beam down. "Mom, I have to tell you something."

"So serious," said Gretchen a bit laughably. Her daughter had always taken herself so seriously, maybe too much so. At Kathryn's penetrating stare, Gretchen schooled her features. "Sorry. What is it?"

"There's someone you have to meet."

"Oh?" said Gretchen in a leading tone. "Is this a male someone?"

"No, it's nothing like that. It's . . . me."

"You're right here," said Gretchen confusedly.

"But, there's more. There was an . . . accident. So now there's two of me."

"Twins? I always did want twins."

"Not exactly," said Kathryn. "She's a little . . . older." She stood and walked away a few steps, hitting her combadge. "Janeway to Janeway."

"Go ahead."

The younger Janeway paused. It was still odd hearing her own voice through the combadge. "You're clear to beam down."

"Okay. See you soon."

"How much older?" asked Gretchen, coming to stand next to her daughter.

"Significantly," admitted Kathryn.

Just then the older Kathryn appeared in a shimmer of blue lights and the truth was revealed. The admiral stared at her mother. She hadn't seen her in thirty-two years. By the time she'd made it back from the Delta Quadrant, her timeline's mother had died in a hovercar accident. She'd had com calls with her before that, of course. But this was different. Her eyes filled with tears.

Gretchen stared at this Kathryn just as unabashedly. Shocked would have been an understatement. This *was* Kathryn. But, she looked older than Gretchen herself. I can't have a daughter older than I am, she thought. It hurts my head just to think about it. She brought her hand to the bridge of her nose in the characteristic 'Janeway time paradox' position.

"Mom," Kathryn said mournfully.

This *was* her daughter. There were no two ways about it. "Baby," said Gretchen soothingly, opening her arms as she walked forward, "it's going to be okay."

"Oh, Mom," was all Kathryn could reply, as she grasped her mother desperately. Both remained locked in a tearful embrace, much longer than that shared by Gretchen and the younger Kathryn. It must have been the astonishment of the whole situation.

After a while, both began to dry their eyes and back away. "There's someone you have to meet," said the admiral.

"There's not another one of you, is there?" asked Gretchen in amazement.

"No, no. Nothing like that," she replied. She turned and called Chakotay over.

"Hello, Mrs. Janeway," he said, politely shaking her hand.

"Gretchen, please," she said automatically.

"Of course," he said with a smile, sliding his arm around the admiral's waist.

So these were the extenuating circumstances? This was all too much. Her long-lost daughter returns home completely out of the blue. Then she finds out she has another daughter, probably older than herself -- with a boyfriend at least twenty years her junior. Damn Starfleet. This kind of thing never happened to people with normal jobs.

"Are you okay?" asked Chakotay. The woman before him seemed about to faint. He led her to the bench and sat her down. "You don't look so well."

"Really? I feel great!" she said sarcastically.

He turned to the Kathryns. "Is this where your bitter tongue comes from?"

They both nodded.

"Great God in heaven!" she exclaimed. "Will one of you at least admit this is the weirdest thing that's ever happened?"

"We're in Starfleet, Mom," said the captain. "Weird is part of the job."

"I have another daughter. I have another daughter," she began repeating over and over, more to convince herself than anything.

"Is she going to be all right?" asked Chakotay, concern netting his brow.

"I think we should call Phoebe," said the captain, moving toward the public com terminal. The admiral made a move to follow, but the captain held up her hand. "You stay here. We don't need to give Phoebe a scare before she even gets here."

The admiral sat down on the bench next to her mother. "It doesn't seem weird to me," she admitted quietly.

Gretchen looked at her in disbelief. "How can it not?"

"Isn't it every person's fantasy to have a second chance at life? Undo the mistakes of the past?"

"And be young again, yes. Not like this. What's next? Will you go back to the Academy and be the oldest person ever to graduate?"

Kathryn flinched at the mention of her age. Gretchen brought her hand up to her daughter's face. "I'm sorry, sweetie. I'm just surprised is all."

"No, you're right. But I don't feel old if I don't think about it. Inside my skin, I'm the same woman I always was. And I look at my friends in their youth, and feel that youth living in me as well."

"They say you're only as old as you feel," offered Gretchen.

"That they do."

Kathryn patted her mother's knee and both stared in silence at the wall, each watching the motion picture of her own life. The admiral had led a full life, even before going back in time. But things would be different this time around -- for her crew, for Chakotay, for her younger double. But most of all, for herself.

This time around she'd be with Chakotay, the way it was supposed to be. She'd do things right. She'd do the things she'd always wanted, but never had time for. She'd finally save herself.

Author's Notes:

A third of the way through writing this, I realized I had way more to say than I wanted to try to fit into one story. I just kept going until my beta and I decided I'd reached a logical breaking point of sorts. So, there will be sequels . . . someday. I tend to be a rather slow writer. Up next, how will the Voyager crew deal with coming home, and how will home deal with them?

This is my first long, serious story which went through a beta reader. I must say, the whole process was really enjoyable. For that, I have only my beta to thank. So, thank you Mia Cooper. I feel like I'm a better writer because of your assistance. I'm so glad you feel comfortable enough to get beyond talk of grammar and delve into continuity and character motivation. Constructive criticism about fanfiction, given and freely received, is way more fun than any criticism has a right to be. And Mia is an excellent writer herself. Check it out!

Like it?  Hate it?  Drop me a line and let me know.  janezy@yahoo.com

Entered but did not place in astrogirl's Captain's Yacht contest.  Be sure to visit her sight to read all the entrants.

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