'You need a swift kick up the rear end.'
The voice startled Chakotay, causing him to drop the padd he had been holding as he turned around. 'Mac? What the hell are you doing here?'
'Guess,' she said, lifting a foot threateningly.
He looked warily at the heavy hiking boot she wore. 'I'd rather not,' he said. 'How did you find me?'
'A certain cousin of yours.'
'I'll kill him,' said Chakotay grimly, 'But Gorya wouldn't talk to you - he hates Starfleet almost as much as I did.'
'You forget, 'Kotay, that to Gorya I'm not Starfleet. To him I'm still your ex.' She sat down beside him. 'It might be coming up to thirty years ago, but Gorya's got a good memory.'
Chakotay smiled. 'Not too good, if you ask me. I told him not to tell anyone where I was.'
'So, what are you doing up here?' asked Mac, picking up the fallen padd from beside Chakotay's feet.
'What sort of answer do you want to hear? That I'm escaping? That's certainly true.'
'Stop it, Mac. You know exactly what I'm 'escaping' from. Kathryn and Starfleet, in no particular order. And if you're not careful, I'll add you to the list as well.'
'Why here?' persisted Mac. 'I'll admit that it's lovely, but….'
Chakotay looked around him. Above him, the sky was a beautiful deep blue, and the valley stretched out in front of him before dropping away sharply. To his right was a bubbling little stream that wound down the valley, and to his left were masses of squat, spidery eucalypts, their trunks as white as the snow that covered these plains in winter. Opposite where he stood rose another mountain, and behind that he could glimpse the cleared farmland that surrounded these heritage areas. A few low-flying clouds had gathered between the two mountains, but apart from them the sky was clear and the surrounding hills deserted. 'It's wilderness, Mac. There's no one else around - or at least there wasn't until you showed up. Isolated and alone - that's how I work best.'
'Grow up, Chakotay.'
'You heard me. At the moment you're acting like a first year cadet. I've already seen you as a first year cadet - I don't need a repeat performance.'
'You're starting to sound like…' he trailed off.
'Like Kathryn? There's a reason for that.' Mac looked at him sternly. 'Look, you've been up here for a week. I know Owen gave you all a month off, but that doesn't mean you can run away without telling anyone where you are. How is anyone supposed to tell you what's happening in the real world?'
'You found me.'
'I know the way your mind works. And with Kathryn in the state she's in, I'm the only one who does. You're scared - you're scared of Kathryn, and you're scared of Starfleet.'
'Why are you here, Mac?' asked Chakotay, refusing to confirm her statement.
'You need to get back to San Francisco. The debriefs have to start, and the memorial service is scheduled for the week after next. They need you there, 'Kotay. And you need to be in a good frame of mind, too.'
'So you thought you'd come and sort me out, huh? Thanks, Mac, but I don't need your help.'
'Are we going to go back to the beginning of this conversation? You might not need my help, but you need someone to tell you just how stupidly you're acting. Why the hell did you walk out on the victory party? That party was being held especially for you.'
'It was a sham,' he said bitterly. 'A roomful of Starfleet Admirals congratulating and cajoling B'Elanna and me, and everyone else, when an hour before they'd wanted to lock us up and throw away the key.'
'It was a roomful of your families and friends, wanting to congratulate you and B'Elanna, and Kit and Kathryn, for winning the case.'
'We shouldn't have been on trial in the first place. Isn't that what the trial proved?'
'Maybe,' Mac was non-committal, 'but you ran out on your own celebration. It was noticed by a lot of people.'
'Tell them to mind their own damn business.'
'These are the people who are going to give you a job, Chakotay. You don't tell Starfleet to mind its own business.'
'I'm back in Starfleet by default, Mac. They don't owe me any favours.'
'Have it your own way,' said Mac. They both fell silent. Mac began to read the padd she had picked up. When Chakotay noticed, he reached for the padd, but she held it out of the way and kept reading. 'Who wrote this?' she asked.
'It's an old book,' he replied, giving up his attempts to get the padd away from her. 'Early 21st Century.'
'The "High Country"? That's what they call this place? Hadn't she ever been to the Rockies?'
'Compare it to the rest of the continent, Mac.'
'That's true - but still…hang on,' Mac stopped reading. 'It's here, isn't it? She camped right here.'
Chakotay nodded. 'I only got to that part of the story this afternoon. I thought the descriptions sounded familiar. Of course, the hut was newer, then,' he said, gesturing to the wooden hut behind them.
'Don't be ridiculous, Chakotay - it was a different hut back then. Same place, though. What's the book about?'
'I think you'd call it unrequited love. It's one of Kath's favourites - I took it with me when Starfleet arrested me.'
'Unrequited love - how sweet,' said Mac. 'Ah, I see what you mean. It is possible to be friends, and just friends, with someone you love. It hurts like hell, but it can be done. I know - I've done it,' Mac read. 'I can see why you like this book. How does it end?'
'I haven't finished it yet.'
'But Kathryn told you, didn't she?'
'The main character realises that the romance was all in her head, and felt much better as a result.'
'Classic anti-romance of the early 21st Century,' said Mac. 'Those stories were typical then - especially from women trying to deal with society's expectations of marriage and family.'
'You've studied 21st Century Literature? But you're a lawyer!'
'Is there any rule that says lawyers can't read books?'
'I suppose not. Finished?'
'I want to read it. You can cook dinner.'
'Sun's almost set. I'd say that means it's time to eat.'
'Mm-huh,' Mac replied, already immersed in the book. Without raising her eyes she gestured back to the hut. 'I brought my camping gear. I figured I'd have to give you one last night out here. There's a transport out of Sydney tomorrow afternoon I want to be on.'
'What's the hurry?'
Now Mac looked up. 'Don't get angry again, Chakotay. We've had enough of that this afternoon. Like I said. You need to get back to San Francisco. Kathryn needs you there for the de-briefings, and Admiral Kelson wants to discuss your next assignment with you, sooner rather than later. You can't put this off, Kotay.'
'Fine,' he said, less than enthused. 'You enjoy my book. I'll make dinner.'
'Kath's book,' said Mac.
* * *
In spite of Chakotay's protests, he found himself sitting next to Mac on the 1500 hours atmosphere shuttle between Sydney and San Francisco. He was beginning to remember what had annoyed him about her - the fact that she always won arguments, for starters.
'Anne and Irving have gone back to Minnesota,' Mac told him, 'and Kit has gone with them to rest up and study for her exams. Anne has everything set up for you to take over their apartment. Paris and the rest of the Pathfinder team will want to start your de-briefs this week, and you and Kathryn have a pile of crew evaluations to do.'
Chakotay leaned back against the headrest and shut his eyes. 'Please don't tell me I'm going to have to work with her this week?'
'Of course you are. She's still the Captain, you're the first officer. You have to be able to work together.'
'This is what she was worried about,' he said softly. Mac didn't answer. Instead she jumped in with a totally different question.
'What are you going to tell Owen Paris?'
'You've got to give me more than 24 hours!'
'You've had a week,' said Mac in frustration. Then she calmed down. 'Owen will understand,' she admitted.
'Owen Paris? Admiral Paris will "understand" that I can't make up my mind about Starfleet?'
'He's not the boogeyman, Chakotay.'
'No? His testimony almost sent me to prison. He does not like me.'
'Fine,' said Mac. 'Don't go to see him until after Tom and B'Elanna get back from their honeymoon. Between Roberta, Maddie, and Tom and B'Elanna themselves, they'll manage Owen.'
'B'Elanna and Tom are on their honeymoon? Where did they go?'
'So you are interested in gossip after all?'
'Mildly,' said Chakotay, smiling for the first time in at least twelve hours. When he'd woken up that morning, Mac had already packed up her tent, eaten breakfast, and was looking at the map, planning their route back to the transport site, partway down the mountain.'
'We've got a long way to go, Chakotay,' she said. Then she held out the padd with Kathryn's book on it. 'Here. I finished it this morning. It's good - you ought to finish it.'
'Thanks - I intend to.' He ran a hand through his hair and then stretched. 'What's the rush, Mac?'
'Like I said - we've got a long way to go, and it's getting late.' She looked up from the map and snapped at him. 'Wake up, Chakotay. It's almost 0800.'
Now he was awake, and he snapped back. 'Wake up? This goes with "grow up", does it? Since when did you start giving me orders?'
'Since the first day I met you, 'Kotay - the Quad senior in charge of four raw young cadets, and three upperclassmen. And one of those cadets was an obstinate, pig-headed kid from Trebus, determined to outshine everyone at the Academy. Including me. Well, I didn't let you get the better of me then, and I don't intend to now.'
'I never bested you?' asked Chakotay, with an attempt to lighten the mood.
'Maybe once or twice,' said Mac, with a ghost of a smile. 'But that's not the point. Now, look here,' she returned to the map, 'we've got to get down to the township by 1400. We'll go out the way I came in - past Nelse and down Heathy Spur.'
'Fine,' he said, pulling his pack onto the grass and beginning to dismantle his tent.
The walk out wasn't as hard as Mac made it sound. He'd walked in along an aqueduct, past a number of other huts. It had taken him a number of days, but he had moved slowly. Mac forced the pace, and most of the time, he forced the conversation away from Starfleet and Kathryn. Unfortunately, until her comment about Tom and B'Elanna once they were on the shuttle, Starfleet and Kathryn were the only topics Mac seemed to want to talk about.
'So, where did they go?'
'You think Tom and B'Elanna were going to tell me?' Mac laughed. 'I heard whispers about Risa, but I honestly have no idea.'
'They get back at the end of the week?'
'Right. Give Owen a couple more days after that…I'll let Pete Kelson know that you're still considering your options.'
'And then you'll lay off me?'
'I'll do my best. Now - the memorial service is set for late next week. Kit will be coming back from Minnesota for that. Everyone is expected to be there. Then the next week is the Galaxy Ball.'
'That's what it's being called - a Starfleet and civilian reception to celebrate the return of Voyager's crew from the other side of the Galaxy.'
'An official function?'
'I hope not! I'm looking forward to a chance to get dressed up.'
'Then I'm looking forward to it, too.'
'I hope you're looking forward to seeing Kathryn dressed up, not me. I'm your ex, Chakotay. She's the one you love now.'
'I'm fully aware of that, Mac. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate other beautiful women.'
'Okay, now, that's getting to be just a little too much. What happened between you two, anyway?'
'I was stupid. That's all there is to it.'
'No it's not - you gave her a letter at the party, didn't you?'
He turned towards her, stunned. Then he recovered. 'I should have known. You and Kit and Libby were watching us.'
Mac nodded. 'Why a letter, why not just talk to her? It's the best way.'
'Says the woman who left a note on my console.'
Mac shrugged in resignation. 'I've learnt since.'
'It was hard enough to write it down, Mac. It would have been ten times harder to say.'
'Let me guess - something along the lines of I can't live without you, freedom won't be the same without you by my side?'
Chakotay grimaced. 'Saying it like that, it sounds pretty dumb.'
'And damn close to emotional blackmail.'
'Look, I know I was stupid. Do you have to keep rubbing it in?'
'Yes. In my experience men never get anything into their thick heads unless you point it out to them numerous times. And you are one of the worst I know. Which is proven by the fact that you waited almost ten years for Kathryn.'
'Okay, so "waited" might be a bit strong,' said Mac, with a glint in her eye. Seeing Chakotay's expression, she continued, 'Ship's gossip, Chakotay. You think a certain Bio-med Tech and her friend the Chief Engineer didn't know what was going on for ten years? Not to mention Paris and the EMH? He's quite knowledgeable, in fact.'
'No, the EMH. Kit's got me working on the brass to get him released as a fellow member of the Voyager crew. I wasn't sure until Kit convinced me to 'visit' him and have a talk. He's sentient, all right. I'm going to get Phillipa on the case.'
'Nothing like going to the top?'
'You got it. If she isn't careful, Kit will end up as some Admiral's aide - between her legal training and her grasp of Fleet politics…well, most of the time, anyway.'
'You've lost me now.'
'Mac,' he said, warningly. 'I've just poured my heart out to you about Kathryn - the least you could do is explain your cryptic comments.'
'I didn't want to get into this yet.'
'There was something wrong with the trial, Chakotay. I don't know what it was, but it just didn't feel right.'
'You're not saying we shouldn't have won?'
'Of course not. I meant that it shouldn't have happened in the first place. Think about it. We'd been in contact with you for four years. Why go all legalistic now?'
'Because we were back. They couldn't do anything while we were in the Delta Quadrant.'
'They couldn't do anything then because you had Kathryn Janeway backing you to the hilt. You still do - that didn't change when Voyager pulled into spacedock. And four years is a long time to hold a grudge.'
'Have you talked to Kit about this? Or Kathryn?'
'Kathryn, yes. Not Kit - she's liable to…well, she's still young.'
'Go "off her rocker" - to use one of Paris's expressions? I agree. Though it's not so much youth as a lack of objectivity when it comes to Voyager.'
'You couldn't expect much more from a group of people who've been together for ten years. Kathryn's nervous. She doesn't want to push things until everyone is settled in their new postings.'
'She doesn't want to risk reprisals.'
'Exactly. Kit isn't quite as experienced in the politics and will want to rush right in. Besides, she's back at home right now. I don't want to disturb her.'
'Fair enough.' But Chakotay was unsettled by the possibility that the trial wasn't quite what it had seemed. Both he and Mac lapsed into silence for the rest of the trip. It was a pleasant silence, however, in comparison to some of the silences over the past day.
Chakotay had changed back into his uniform before boarding the shuttle, in case Starfleet grabbed him for debriefs as soon as they arrived. He looked down at the uniform, representing an organisation he had loved, then detested, then grown to respect. But now he doubted Starfleet, and himself. Did he really want to stay in Starfleet? Commit himself to an organisation he didn't think he could trust? That didn't trust him?
'By the way, Chakotay,' said Mac as they were about to disembark in San Francisco, 'you'll be needing this.' She pinned a new insignia onto his uniform collar. Chakotay fingered it, and pulled his collar out to see what it was. He stared at Mac without speaking. 'Congratulations, Commodore,' she said.
* * *
No one seemed to be all that certain of just what a Commodore was supposed to do. Captains, it was clear, commanded ships. Tuvok was slated to command the newest Enterprise-class Starship. Commanders were first officers, or commanded non-essential Starbases. B'Elanna was to become Associate Chief Engineer of Deep Space Nine, with a view to taking the post over entirely from Miles O'Brien once she had accustomed herself to the work. Kit, also now a full Commander, was waiting for her appointment to JAG headquarters to be confirmed. Admirals sat behind desks and decided what everyone else would do, unless they were Kathryn Janeway, who had been promoted to Admiral anyway. But there didn't seem to be a defined role for a Commodore.
It didn't help that he hadn't yet made up his mind about Starfleet. Admiral Kelson was impatient, but true to Mac's advice, Owen Paris had loosened up, and insisted that Chakotay be left alone and given a good chance to think about his future. Except no one told Gretchen Janeway.
Gretchen had become a fixture at Headquarters. Even Admiral Kelson's young aide recognised her. Chakotay had brought a report in for Admiral Kelson, and was trying to explain to his aide that no, he did not want to see the Admiral.
'Is Pete Kelson giving you a rough time, Chakotay?' said Gretchen from behind him, nodding to the aide.
'No, Gretchen,' Chakotay said as he turned around and bent to kiss Gretchen's cheek. 'I was just bringing over the last of the crew evaluations. We finally finished them this morning.'
'Yes, I know,' said Gretchen. 'My daughter is trying to catch up on her sleep.'
'So you knew I'd be here…I'm assuming that's why you're here.'
'I haven't seen you since you ran out on your own party.'
'Not you as well, Gretchen!'
'What?! I just wanted to catch up with you. Do you have time for an early lunch?'
'For you, Gretchen? Of course.'
'How did you two go with those evaluations? Kathryn was too tired to tell me.'
'But you're worried about her, aren't you?' asked Chakotay as they made their way out of the building into the beautifully kept grounds.
'I'm her mother.'
'Well, I know she's exhausted, but you don't need to worry about her mental state. We managed to work together after New Earth, after Kashyk, after Riley. We managed to work together this last week.'
'Kashyk?' asked Gretchen.
'Hers,' Chakotay replied shortly. 'If she hasn't told you, I'm not going to.' Gretchen raised her eyebrows and Chakotay caught the expression. 'Hey, you do a pretty good Tuvok.'
Gretchen shook her head. 'I like you, Chakotay. You are a fine young man.'
'I'm not young.'
'Don't be ridiculous. People live past 120 now - so being in your 50s isn't even middle aged.'
'Whatever you say, Gretchen. I won't argue with you.'
'Is that your approach with Kathryn?'
'When she's my Captain, yes. I argue with her plenty the rest of the time. It's for her own good, of course.'
'Of course,' said Gretchen. 'I know what you're saying. My daughter is stubborn - but I have the feeling you can be, too.'
'Once I make up my mind I stick with it, you mean? I guess that's fairly true. But I have to make up my mind, first.'
'Is this about whether or not you stay in Starfleet?'
'Do you want my advice?'
'If you're willing to give it,' he replied.
Gretchen grinned. 'I'm always willing to give advice. But you've got to be willing to share with me.' They had reached a small café, nestled in the corner of one of the Headquarters buildings. Here, too, Gretchen was well known, and they were shown immediately to a vacant table. Gretchen ordered for both of them, and then they were left in peace. 'Now, tell me,' she said, 'other than your longstanding problems with Starfleet, what else is influencing your decision? What's keeping you here?'
'Circumstances have changed in the past ten years. There's no more Maquis and the Cardassians have supposedly changed their tune. There's no one to fight against now.'
'Do you have to fight?'
'I'd rather not. I've always thought of myself as a man of peace.'
'Then why not just resign, build yourself a cabin in the wilderness, build a boat and explore the river.'
Chakotay studied Gretchen's face and saw the twinkle in her eye. 'I tried that once. I loved that life - but that isn't possible now.'
Gretchen smiled by managed to look stern at the same time. 'Don't stay in Starfleet because of Kathryn. It's not a good idea.'
'I won't deny it's at the back of my mind,' he replied, 'but it's not why I can't just cut my losses and leave. I've invested ten years of my life in Starfleet, even though for six years they didn't know it. I want to make this work, Gretchen, but I'm not sure I can trust Starfleet to have the same commitment.'
'You've been talking to Mac, too, haven't you?'
'Mac's been talking to my daughter, she's been talking to me.'
'It's all the same thing.'
'Well, I can tell you this - you talking to me is not the same thing as you talking to Kathryn. What do you think?'
'Oh, about Mac's suspicions - I'm scared that she might be right. And that's why I'm not sure I can trust Starfleet.'
'Look at it this way, Chakotay - and this is all I'm going to say about this today - if there was something wrong, it's not with Starfleet as a whole. You were acquitted by a jury of fellow officers. They wouldn't have acquitted you, and surely not as quickly as they did, if this was an all-pervasive conspiracy. If you feel like giving Starfleet a chance, then do it. There's nothing to say you're locked in for the next five years if you accept whatever assignment Pete Kelson has got up his sleeve.'
Chakotay didn't answer, and soon after the waiter arrived with their lunch.
'Oh, good!' exclaimed Gretchen. 'I'm hungry. By the way,' she said, as Chakotay took a forkful of salad, 'where would you like to be assigned? If you stay, that is.'
The fork stopped halfway to his mouth. 'Would you believe I haven't really thought about it?'
'Well - do you want your own ship? A starbase command? You're a Commodore now - you're not going to be a first officer any more.'
'Do they let Commodores command ships?'
'In some circumstances - with special ships, and special people. Jean-Luc Picard kept the Enterprise for an extra couple of years as Commodore.'
'Voyager's headed for the scrapheap, I'm sure.'
'There are ships other than Voyager.'
'I don't know about that,' said Chakotay, 'And I'm not sure I'm cut out for command. Short term, while the Captain's on an away mission or off duty, that's fine. But full time? That I'm not sure about. And commanding a starbase? I don't think so - too much administration and not enough contact with people.'
'Would you mind a planetside assignment?' asked Gretchen. Again Chakotay studied her expression carefully, but all he could see was innocent curiosity.
'I don't know,' he said, slowly. 'I've thought about teaching at the Academy again, if they'll accept me, but I can't imagine staying on Earth long-term. Gorya - that's my cousin - has his own life, and my friends from Voyager will soon be scattered all over the quadrant. But if I could be away from Earth, somewhere interesting, maybe working planetside could be enjoyable.'
Gretchen nodded slowly. 'I'm sure it could be.'
'What's Kathryn going to do?' he asked, hoping to be given some time to eat without endlessly having to answer Gretchen's questions.
'Well, they've made her an Admiral - you knew that, didn't you?' Chakotay nodded. 'I don't think she quite knows what she wants to do, and Pete Kelson doesn't know what to do with her. She won't accept an assignment until the rest of the crew are fixed - and that includes you, Chakotay - and she isn't your typical desk-jockey Admiral. She's not going to be content unless they give her a ship and let her roam about the quadrant.' Gretchen stopped to take a bite. 'And if she leaves this quadrant by any more than a millimetre, I'll come chasing after her this time!'
'I'm sure you would,' said Chakotay. 'Do you think she might?'
'I think the Delta Quadrant suited my girl,' said Gretchen. 'She tells me she works quite well in the midst of bureaucracy, but I think she thrived out there on her own.'
'I think you may be right,' said Chakotay. 'In fact, I think that's true of the entire crew. We had ten years of being on our own, more or less - now we've got to re-adjust to living under Starfleet's thumb.'
Gretchen nodded. 'I think you've hit the nail on the head - but if you realise it, you've got a better hope of dealing with it.'
'Well,' Chakotay shrugged, 'I'll do my best.'
'Does that mean you'll be telling Owen you'll stay?'
'For now,' Chakotay said, looking out the window over the expanse of the Headquarters grounds. 'For now.'
* * *
In the week after the Galaxy Ball, with the debriefs over and the month-long 'leave' complete, Chakotay reported to Headquarters to help the team analysing the mountains of data brought back by Voyager. Admiral Paris had received Chakotay's decision in the spirit in which it was made, accepting that it was not final. Admiral Kelson was not quite so accepting, and had initially offered Chakotay a long-term assignment. The whispers around Headquarters were that Gretchen Janeway had stormed into Kelson's office and told the Admiral off roundly. The assignment had been withdrawn the next day, whether Gretchen had been involved or not. Kelson's aide had caught up with Chakotay after the Memorial, and told him to join the analysis team while Kelson tried to come up with a suitable assignment. Chakotay knew from speaking to others that Seven, accepted by Starfleet as Lieutenant Seven Hansen, would be a long-term part of the team. Her knowledge would be invaluable to Starfleet, and Seven herself was possibly glad to have a break from her new family.
The team had been given a full floor of the Sulu building in which to work, and Chakotay grinned as he saw the large holo-image of his sponsor's grandfather in the foyer. It really was quite bad, compared to the smaller images Hiromi had shown him years ago. How dreadful to be immortalised in a bad holo-image, he thought, though Chakotay supposed it had happened many times before.
The third floor, home to the analysis team, was a flurry of activity. This was the first day the Voyager personnel were supposed to be present, but the rest of the team had been working for more than two months, ever since the ship had arrived in space dock. As soon as Chakotay stepped out of the lift, he was approached by a young ensign.
'Commodore - we're glad you're here. I'm Ensign Louda. I'll be acting as your aide while you're here.'
'Nice to meet you, Ensign Louda. Now - do you know what I'm supposed to be doing?'
'We'll be working with the Systems analysis team for now, sir. But Captain Tuvok asked if you would go and see him as soon as you arrived.'
'Is that all right with you?' asked Chakotay.
'You're the Commodore, sir,' said Louda, with a cheeky smile.
'Then where would I find Captain Tuvok?'
'He's working with Tactical,' said Louda, leading Chakotay down a corridor. 'Just in here, sir.'
Chakotay entered the large lab, Louda waiting outside in the corridor, nodding and chatting to those passing through. Chakotay had the uncomfortable sensation that Louda was basking in the reflected glory of her celebrity charge - him.
'Commodore.' Tuvok was walking towards him from the other end of the lab.
'Tuvok - I really didn't expect you to be here.'
'I was originally told I would be teaching at the Academy until my new ship is completed, but apparently I can be of help here.'
'I'm sure you can. My enthusiastic aide said you wanted to speak to me.'
'I merely wished to let you know that I was here. I heard that your assignment was held up and that you would be on the analysis team.'
'You aren't able to get used to being away from Voyager either, are you?'
'I have naturally been gratified to be back with my family, but yes, I will admit that, even though at times it was less than comfortable for me, I do miss that closeness.'
'Not as many late-night Kal Toh games with Harry Kim, huh?'
'That is regrettable,' replied Tuvok. 'He had improved significantly, too.'
Chakotay noticed that Louda was looking into the lab impatiently. 'It looks like I'd better get moving, Tuvok.'
'There is something you ought to be aware of, Commodore.'
'Yes?' Chakotay turned as he had been on his way out the door.
'The Captain will be working with the team from time to time.'
'Thank you for letting me know, Tuvok,' he said without a pause. 'I appreciate it.' He nodded at Tuvok, who returned the gesture, then joined Louda in the corridor. 'Well, where to now?' he asked, with a lightheartedness he did not feel.
'Systems analysis. This way, sir.'
'Tell me, Louda, how did you get this assignment?'
'Luck, I guess.'
'Luck? Following an out-of-touch Commodore around trying to knock some sense into him?'
Louda laughed. 'Look at it this way, Commodore. This may be my only chance to order a superior officer around.'
Chakotay grinned back at her. 'Well, order away, Ensign Louda.'
As Louda led him around a corner, Chakotay looked back towards Tuvok's lab. A large group of officers was entering, but Chakotay thought he saw a short woman with dull red hair at the heart of the group.
This was not going to be easy.
* * *
'Commodore - I haven't seen you for a while,' said a voice from the doorway of Chakotay's new office. Chakotay didn't even need to look up to know who stood there. Even if he hadn't recognised the voice immediately, Ensign Louda's reaction - she had stopped in the middle of the room and only just held on to the pile of padds she had been bringing him - would have been a good indication. After a pause, she suddenly collected her thoughts and snapped to attention.
'At ease, Ensign,' said the newcomer
Chakotay stood up. 'Ensign,' he said to Louda, 'I'm sure you recognise Admiral Kathryn Janeway. Admiral, this is Ensign Beci Louda, my new aide.'
'You must be pleased to have someone to hand the admin off to,' said Kathryn, smiling at the Ensign.
'After ten years of doing all your unwanted administration work, I think I'm entitled to an aide of my own.'
'You're probably right. Well, Ensign, what do you think of working for the Commodore?'
Louda seemed to have lost all ability to speak.
'It's possibly too soon to say, Admiral,' said Chakotay. 'We've only been working for about four hours.'
'In that case, could you use a break, Chakotay? I'm heading out for a coffee and I'd like to have a word with you.'
'That's fine with me. Take a break, Louda. Go and catch up with your friends - tell them you've met the great Admiral Janeway.'
'Aye, sir,' said Louda, beginning to regain her composure. She put the padds down on a table and left the room, looking at Janeway in amazement as she edged past her.
'I think she's got a crush on you, Kathryn,' Chakotay said.
'Impossible,' she replied. 'It's more likely she has one on you. Young Ensign, handsome senior officer.'
'I don't think so. Her favourite name for me appears to be Commodore Daffy.'
'Daffiness is all the more appealing to some women.'
'What did you want to see me about, Kathryn? Or did you really just want to check out my aide?'
'We don't talk business until I have my coffee. There's a nice café just around the corner.'
'The one in the Janeway building? How appropriate.'
Kathryn laughed. 'It's named for my father. I had no idea it was even there - it's fairly new.'
'But I'm guessing it was your mother who decided there ought to be a café in it.'
'Ask her, not me.'
Chakotay was trying hard to keep the conversation light, but he found it more demanding than any of the work Louda had found for him during the morning. After his last encounter with Kathryn at the Ball, he really didn't know how to approach this 'talk' she wanted to have. He decided it would be better to wait for her to start.
When they sat down at an outdoor table to enjoy the mild weather, Kathryn had the largest mug of coffee the little café could find, while Chakotay had a more moderate serving.
'Almost three months and I still can't get used to having coffee whenever I want it,' said Kathryn, relishing the first sip. 'Okay - now we can talk. I know you haven't been assigned yet. I know I've told Pete Kelson that I won't formally accept assignment until everyone else is settled, but I haven't had the slightest inkling of an assignment. Kit's having trouble, Tom's finally been sorted out, and Tuvok has been reassigned three times.'
'Three times? He didn't tell me that! All he said was that his new ship wasn't ready yet.'
'That's because they keep changing which ship he's going to get. Then there's all the trouble with the Doc. I don't like this, Chakotay.'
'Well, you're not the only one. Oh, I have no problem with working on the analysis team, but I don't want to be here forever. Do you think Admiral Kelson is behind this?'
'No, I don't - because Kit's trouble has nothing to do with him. Owen Paris was able to weigh in for Tom, and if it was just a matter of Pete Kelson, he could have done that for all of us.'
'True,' said Chakotay. 'Owen's already pulled a few strings for me.'
'I have the feeling that someone is pulling even harder from the other side.'
'That's the same sort of thing Mac told me.'
'Yes, she said she'd had to drag you back from Australia. At least she was able to do it. She may have been the only one who could.'
'Well, I wasn't planning to stay there indefinitely. But yes, I suppose I came back earlier because she forced me into Sydney to catch the shuttle.'
'So what is your history with Mac? How come you never told me about her?'
'I don't know - it was years ago, and after I left Starfleet I never expected to see her again. Then she turns up as the officer in command of JAG and I almost fell through the floor.'
'That's the why, Chakotay, but not the what. Come on.'
'When she turned up at my campsite in the High Country, she called herself my 'ex'. We were pretty serious there for a while. She was my Quad senior my first year at the Academy.'
'What is it with Quad seniors?' Kathryn interrupted. 'Mac was yours, Kit was Harry's…'
'Well, Paris says it's an Academy tradition. Who was your senior?'
'It wasn't a question in my case,' said Kathryn. 'I was too busy studying.'
'Besides,' said Chakotay, as Kathryn trailed off, 'there was Cheb, wasn't there?'
'You've got a good memory,' said Kathryn, surprised. 'But go on about you and Mac.'
'Well, nothing happened while we were in the same Quad. Protocol, you know,' said Chakotay lightly. 'Later, after Sveta had left the Academy, well, things grew from there. For a few years we were almost inseparable. Gorya, my cousin, still remembers her and considers her part of the family.' Chakotay shook his head. 'He told Mac where I'd gone, after I'd told him not to tell anyone.'
'It sounds to me like your cousin Gorya would get along well with my mother.'
'No, don't inflict your mother on poor Gorya. She bailed me up a week or so ago - I'm still recovering.'
Kathryn shared his smile. 'You can see where I got my tenacity, then.'
'Certainly. But, Kathryn,' he said, careful not to call her "Kath" when the balance was so delicate, 'what are we going to do about these suspicions?'
'Nothing yet. We can't - not until we know more.'
'How are we going to do that?'
'I honestly have no idea. You and I and Tuvok and Seven are all here, but most of the others are in all parts of the Quadrant, or will be soon enough. I'll keep in touch - maybe we'll come up with something.'
'I hope so. Kathryn - I really want to trust Starfleet enough to stay on. But it's not looking good at the moment.'
'I know, Chakotay.'
* * *
'Permission to speak freely, sir?'
'We've been working together for almost two weeks now, Beci. You ought to know by now - if I'm in a good mood, you can assume you have permission.'
'Thank you sir - are you in a good mood, sir?'
'Beci, you are incorrigible.' Particularly as he always had the feeling that she wanted to say 'Chief' instead of 'sir.' And he had the feeling he wouldn't mind as much if that name came from her rather than from a certain irritating omnipotent.
Beci smiled at the backhanded compliment, as he had known she would. 'You two should never have broken up.'
He wasn't expecting that. Kathryn had just left the Systems lab after he'd called her in to confirm some data he was less than familiar with. It turned out to be some early data collected while he had been on the ex-Borg colony with Riley. While neither of them had particularly wanted to remember that, he had been able to see that Kathryn was finding it very hard to rein in her temper - whether against the long-gone Riley or against him, he wasn't sure. He hadn't thought that she would hold a grudge this long, but possibly in the wake of the trial and his stupidity, she was finding it easier to drag up old transgressions to fume over.
In the end Kathryn had completely frozen up, talking to Louda instead of to Chakotay, and then rushed out of the lab without any of the usual pleasantries for which she was known throughout the analysis team. Leaving the analysts to complete their work, Chakotay and Louda had gone back to the office to continue sorting though old reports and write new ones. They were barely inside the door when Louda had made her comment.
'Is that so, Ensign?' said Chakotay.
'I overstepped the mark, didn't I, Commodore?'
Louda's sudden formality pulled Chakotay up short. 'Sorry, Louda,' he said. 'I guess that wasn't quite what I was expecting you to say. Go on.'
'It was your fault, wasn't it, sir?'
'Where did you get that from?'
'Rumour around HQ, sir, is that you broke it off with her when you were arrested. Rumour also is, in doing so, you broke her heart.'
'And what do you think, Louda?'
'Well, I guess I can see why you did it - but if you did that to me, I'd never forgive you.'
'Thanks for your candour, Ensign. I hope she doesn't feel the same way.'
'She'd be dumb to stay mad at you for too long.'
'Well, what would you do in her position?'
'I don't know.' Louda leaned against the window, looking out of it. 'I think I'd be wanting a bit of space first, to let me get over it. Then later, once I was almost ready to forgive you, then I'd want the romantic gestures - flowers, chocolates, chocolate covered coffee beans. But I'd keep it gentle, sir.'
'I'll keep that in mind. You do realise the Admiral thinks you have a crush on me, don't you?'
'There, that proves it, sir!'
'She wouldn't think that I could have a crush on you if she didn't like you herself. It's classic jealousy.'
'Were you a psychology major, Ensign?'
'No sir. My major was navigation and systems. Psychology was my minor.'
'Well, I told the Admiral that you had a crush on her. What does that say about me?'
'That you are relatively perceptive, sir,' said Louda politely. 'But it's not so much of a crush as simply hero-worship. I had just begun at the Academy when word came out that the Pathfinder project had finally made contact with you. The Admiral had always been a hero of mine, but then we started getting bi-monthly reports of what was happening. No one could quite believe it.'
'You did a field placement with Pathfinder, didn't you?'
'Yes, sir. You've been reading my file.'
'All good commanding officers should, Ensign.'
'My second year field placement was with the Pathfinder project. It was cut short when the project was taken over, but I loved every minute of it.'
'And now you lose your voice every time Admiral Janeway enters the room.'
'I'm getting better, sir. It comes back after five minutes, now.'
'Another few weeks, and you'll be able to have a real conversation with her. Now, Ensign Psychology Minor…,' Louda giggled at that, '…do you have any idea how long the Admiral will want to be given space?'
'No idea at all,' said Louda. 'But if you want to, I'll keep an eye on her and let you know.'
For a moment her offer was tempting. But slowly he shook his head. 'I can't ask you to do that, Louda.'
She regarded him thoughtfully. 'No, I didn't think you could.' She smiled. 'Now, sir, let's get back to those reports. Admiral Novap will come looking for them if they aren't filed by the end of the day.'
'Spirits forbid!' replied Chakotay. 'All right, lead on, Louda.'
In the back of his mind was the fact that she had never actually denied that she had a crush on him.
* * *
After three weeks in the analysis team, even with the mischievous influence of Beci Louda, Chakotay was almost desperate to get away from Earth. Between Admiral Kelson, Admiral Novap and the ever-present Admiral Janeway, Chakotay was suffering from having too many superior officers. Janeway he could tolerate - he was used to her and how she worked. And he knew how to stand up to her where work was concerned. But Kelson and Novap were entirely different. Beci Louda, showing a protective side along with her mischief, had taken to running interference for him, delivering reports and screening messages for him. Admiral Novap, who was in overall charge of the analysis team, was a hands-on supervisor. He roamed the halls of Sulu, poking his nose into the various labs and chasing after team leaders for incomplete reports. The gossip was, Louda had informed Chakotay, that Novap was hoping to be promoted to the Executive ranks of Starfleet on the strength of his work with the analysis team. Louda had also said, derisively, that Novap had the same chance of promotion as a Breen had of surviving the Bajoran firecaves. But that didn't prevent Novap from keeping a chokingly tight hand on the reins.
So when Kelson called Chakotay into his office on the Friday afternoon, Chakotay was hoping that a suitable assignment had finally come through.
'Chakotay!' said Kelson, heartily, as Chakotay was shown into his office. 'Take a seat. How's life treating you?'
'Well, thank you, Admiral,' replied Chakotay, inwardly uneasy and surprised by Kelson's friendliness.
'Adjusting all right to being back in Starfleet?'
'I believe so, sir.'
'Nothing in the question, Chakotay,' said Kelson. 'Novap has given me some outstanding reports on you…ten years in the Delta Quadrant has done you a world of good, if you don't mind my saying so.'
Chakotay gritted his teeth. 'Not at all, Admiral.'
'Well, it seems we may just have something for you, Chakotay. Tell me, what do you know about the Inged System? By the way, would you like some tea?'
'Thank you,' said Chakotay. 'The Inged System? It was one of the disputed territories before the signing of the treaty of Tukon. Two M-class planets, less Maquis influence than a lot of the DMZ colonies, mostly because of a strongly pro-Federation government. After the treaty was signed, a party of Cardassian colonists were fought off by the existing colonists, who had refused aid offered by the Maquis. The colonists reached an agreement with the Cardassians whereby the Federation colonists retained Inged II, where they had all been living, and the Cardassians colonised the other m-class planet in the system, Inged IV, which had been visited but not populated. Generally the communities on each planet ignored the other, and to a certain extent, ignored their 'home' governments as well. The ex-Federation colony, in any case, was declared utterly independent when the treaty was signed. We always assumed that something similar happened with Cardassia Prime, as there was never any real trouble.'
Kelson nodded. 'Yes, that's about where things were when you left the quadrant. But it's been ten years since then, and Inged has changed quite a bit.'
'Were there problems with the Cardassian homeworld?' asked Chakotay.
'Not as such,' said Kelson. 'Inged was one of those places the Federation and Starfleet held up as an anti-Maquis example; they managed to live in peace with the Cardassians so why couldn't everyone else? What we didn't realise at the time was that the Cardassians on Inged IV were not your typical Cardassians, which was probably the only reason the planet-sharing concept worked. But not being typical Cardassians, their ties to the homeworld were tenuous, and they resisted the Cardassian-Dominion alliance.'
'So when the Dominion came in to wipe out Inged II, they wiped out Inged IV as well,' said Chakotay.
'Exactly,' said Kelson. 'The few survivors fled, and the Dominion found that while the extra territory was nice, they didn't really need Inged for anything. So it was pretty well abandoned. Since the overthrow of the Dominion, all our work has been put into the homeworld and the major colonies. Now we want to revitalise Inged.'
'Have the border disputes been resolved, sir?' asked Chakotay.
'To some extent they have,' replied Kelson, 'and as far as Inged is concerned, yes. Relations between Cardassia Prime and the Federation have improved significantly since the end of the Dominion War. That's why Alynna insisted your trial go ahead - the relations might be good, but they're not what you could call solid yet. But what we have been able to agree is that Inged will operate as a joint colony. The Federation command team will be stationed on Inged II, with a significant liaison group from the Cardassian team. And naturally there will be a liaison group on Inged VI with their command team. Once the planets are ready for the colonists to return, we are hoping that the two planets will have mixed populations.'
'It all sounds a bit ambitious to me, sir.'
'Ambitious, yes, but we think it's doable. Neither team will have a military focus - you'll have the science vessel Marajone at your disposal, and a team of anthropologists as well as agriculturalists and infrastructure specialists.'
'Yes,' said Kelson. 'You'll be commanding the team on Inged II.' Kelson spoke as thought that had been obvious all along. When Chakotay thought about it, maybe it had been. But still…
'I'm sorry to question you, sir, but you're assigning me to a post where I'll have to liase with the Cardassian Central Command? Sir, I thought I was a war criminal to them.'
'The Central Command no longer exists, Chakotay. I know this is not the sort of assignment you were expecting. But we've thought about this, and we think it would suit you. Here,' said Kelson, handing him a padd. 'Read up on Inged and the changes on Cardassia. The mission briefing is there, too. Talk to Owen Paris and Gretchen Janeway. You don't have to decide today,' he finished.
'But you'd like my answer by the end of the weekend, right?' asked Chakotay. 'What does Gretchen Janeway have to do with this?'
'She's one of the people who suggested you for this assignment.'
'I should have known.' Chakotay sat staring at the deactivated padd in his hands. 'All right, Admiral. I'll take this under advisement,' Both men grinned at the bureaucratic phrase, 'And I'll get back to you in the next day or so.' He stood up.
'All we ask is that you give this your full consideration,' said Kelson.
Chakotay nodded and left the room. Outside the sun was shining, and it was a beautifully mild day. But Chakotay wasn't in the mood to take much notice. He activated his commbadge. 'Chakotay to Louda?'
'Louda here, sir.'
'All right if I take the rest of the day off, Ensign?' he asked, keeping his tone light.
'Nothing I can't handle. What did Admiral Kelson have to say?'
'I'll fill you in later. Work hard,' he finished, trying to sound paternal.
'I'll have to do twice as much now,' Louda joked back.
'See that you do. Chakotay out,' he laughed.
He activated the padd Kelson had given him and began to scroll though the contents slowly as he wandered through the grounds of Headquarters. In a large square outside the Administration building, bordered on one side by the monorail station and on the other by Starfleet Medical's San Francisco headquarters, was a fountain. Multiple sprays of water arched over a low pond, dug into the ground so that the water level was flush with the pavement. The designers had either been utilising the supposed calming effect of water for the benefit of those on their way to the Admin building, or were catering to those who, on leaving whatever Admiral they had been summoned to see, felt the need to literally 'drown' their sorrows.
Chakotay wasn't yet at the point of wandering into the fountain, never to be seen again, but as he was reading the material Kelson had given him, he purposely avoided the explanation of Cardassian governance, in case it provoked him into something similarly foolish. Instead, he studied the written mission briefing. He…the mission commander, Chakotay corrected himself… would have, in addition to the Marajone and a skeleton crew for her, teams of civilian and Starfleet land rehabilitation specialists and a number of anthropologists and archaeologists. Chakotay was puzzled by this until he read the explanation.
…while the witnesses to the Dominion action on Inged are mostly dead or reluctant to speak, Starfleet is committed to discovering how the original settlement on Inged II functioned, and how the settlement was taken over by the Dominion. To this end, the three mission goals, 1) to rebuild the infrastructure and quality of the land, with a view to recolonising along the lines of the Inged Agreement; 2) through the Inged Agreement, to further Federation/Cardassian Reconciliation, and 3) the ongoing investigation, are all equal and should not be re-prioritiesed.
Reconciliation - interesting word, mused Chakotay. Was it possible to 'reconcile' with Cardassians? The people whom you held responsible for the death of your family, the people you'd given up your career to fight? The brief went on to talk about the Cardassian liaison. It was as extensive a liaison program as Kelson had said. The goal of the Inged project was to have two fully-integrated, fully active colonies. Models of what Starfleet were calling 'reconciliation'. Cardassians and Federation members living side by side, without killing each other.
If it worked, an achievement like that had to be worth something, right?
He flipped the padd display to the Cardassian governance file. The first section listed the projected Cardassian liaison team to Inged II. Most of the names were followed by a list of positions in the civil service section of the Cardassian government - they were relatively young, and seemed to have risen through the government in the five years or so since the overthrow of the Dominion. The rest of the document explained, or rather tried to explain, the new system in place in Cardassia. The old system had been complicated enough, thought Chakotay, but this one was even more confusing. The replacement for the Cardassian Military was an organisation military enough to satisfy the Federation, but civilian enough to placate the Cardassian public, who, between two invasions and a previous government that had been little short of a dictatorship, wanted peace, and were willing to have a less than militaristic defence force in order to be more certain of peace. But Starfleet was obviously having trouble coping with the concept.
Chakotay, on the other hand, was beginning to feel more accepting of the assignment. Reading between the lines, he guessed that the new Cardassian Civil Defence Force was formed mostly from members of the resistance movement that grew up during the Dominion Occupation. They had worked closely with members of the old Bajoran resistance. His kind of people.
Chakotay stared across the water. He listened to the splash of water from the fountain on the surface of the pond. He closed his eyes and just listened. And thought. Could he do it?
And then he remembered a saying Tuvok had told him. It was an old Vulcan saying, but Chakotay had the feeling that it had been more to do with Earth history than Vulcan history, which had confused him even more. Something about the most unlikely emissaries being exactly right for the job. Prejudices being preferable to absolute objectivity, maybe. Someone who is so adamantly opposed to what is happening that they won't let a defect in the process occur. If that was so - wasn't he the best possible person for the job?
Chakotay did something he didn't tend to do all that often. He made a list. He opened a new text file on the padd, and listed the pros and cons of taking the Inged mission command. He looked at it for a long time.
And then he made up his mind.
'You look about as bad as I feel, Commodore,' said a voice from the door of the nearby Starfleet Medical building.
'Kit! How are you? Obviously not too good.'
'Oh, I'm all right,' she said. 'At least, I'll manage. How about you?'
'I survived the Delta Quadrant, didn't I?'
'That bad?' Kit sat down beside him.
'Not really. I was given my assignment today - making nice with Cardassians.'
'Ouch. That explains the expression on your face.' She gave him a sidelong glance. 'I don't mean to pressure you, but are there any plans to make nice with the Captain?'
Kit grimaced, then chuckled. 'All right, I meant the Admiral. Janeway, Kathryn M.'
'Oh, her.' Chakotay stared at the fountain.
'Well?' asked Kit.
'What was the question?'
Kit laughed and punched Chakotay lightly on the arm. 'You do know how to cheer someone up, don't you?'
'I do my best, Lieutenant - sorry, Commander.'
Kit smiled. 'So are you going to answer my question?'
'Have you met Ensign Beci Louda?'
'I don't think so,' said Kit.
'She's my new aide. Cheeky brat. Kathryn thinks she has a crush on me. Ensign Louda thinks that Kathryn is jealous.'
'Oh, does she?' said Kit, beginning to grin.
'She says that Kathryn needs space from me. Eventually, I can start sending her flowers and chocolate covered coffee beans again.'
Kit was nodding. 'This Ensign Louda might be a cheeky brat, but she sounds like a smart cheeky brat.'
'Maybe I should see if she has a sister on the Enterprise?'
Kit's smile immediately disappeared.
'Oh, I'm sorry, Kit. I shouldn't have mentioned it.'
'Don't worry.' She sighed heavily, then smiled as though her life depended on it. 'It was partially my fault anyway.'
'With all the stress you've been under? Who could blame you?'
'And you didn't blame Kathryn? Come on, Chakotay. Let's both admit it. Neither of our lives are going all that well at the moment. Cardassians, doctors…'
'Well, let's look on the bright side, then, Kit. You may just have a chance to get one particular doctor out of prison, which sounds like lawyering to me.'
'And you have a chance to make peace with your greatest enemy - which sounds pretty good to me.'
'How did you know I was going to take that assignment?'
'I know you pretty well after ten years, Chakotay. Not as well as Kathryn, maybe not as well as Mac, but I know you pretty well. Besides, there's a Klingon saying 'Lana once told me - only Kirk could extend peace to the Klingons. Maybe it's the same here.'
Chakotay was puzzled. 'Tuvok told me something similar once - but it was an old Vulcan saying, about Earth.'
'"Only Nixon could go to China"?' Kit asked.
'Same sort of thing,' said Kit. 'Well, if you've made your decision, I'm sure Pete Kelson wants to know.'
'I guess I'd better go tell him, then.'
Kit stood up. 'I'd better get back. To my "lawyering".' She went back up the steps of the Starfleet Medical building. Just before she went through the doors, Chakotay called out.
'Good luck, Kit.'
'You too,' she replied. 'Oh, and the chocolate covered coffee beans are a great idea.'
He watched her, then instead of heading back into the Admin building, walked purposefully towards the Sulu building. He knew that Louda would have taken over his office for the afternoon, so he went straight there rather than looking around Sulu for her.
'Two questions, Beci,' he said, as soon as he walked in the door. Louda barely had time to look up from Chakotay's desk before he plowed on. 'Firstly - this 'give Kathryn space' idea. Would accepting an assignment to the old DMZ be giving her too much space?'
Louda considered. 'Is there a decent comm system between here and there?'
'Yes, and part of the mission is to improve it.'
'How long would you be committed for?'
'Minimum of six months,' said Chakotay. 'After that, as long or as short a time as I want.'
'What's the travel time?'
'One week. And Risa is pretty much smack in the middle of Earth and Inged.'
'Inged?' asked Louda, then shook her head. 'Never mind. Well, I think it sounds all right. But I expect you to keep in touch.'
'Don't worry, I intend to write to Kathryn while I'm gone. We are still friends after all.'
'What about me?' asked Louda, looking hurt.
'That's my second question,' said Chakotay. 'How do you feel about becoming the second-string navigator on the Marajone, and counsellor and commanding officer's aide on Inged II?'
'Who's the commanding officer?' asked Louda, deadpan.
'I am,' said Chakotay, in much the same manner of surprise Admiral Kelson had used earlier. Except he knew Louda was joking.
'How much time do I have to pack?' asked Louda.
* * *
There was a substantial crowd at the transporter site, especially considering the short notice of the Marajone's departure. Chakotay and Louda, the last two members of the team to be added, had been given four days to prepare. As well as packing belongings and informing friends and family, their preparation had also involved a day-long briefing. In the end, most of the farewells had to be done either by comm or in the last few minutes before the beamed up.
'All the best, Mr Chakotay!' said Neelix, giving Chakotay a crushing handshake.
'You too, Neelix. Let me know how you're doing.'
'Don't worry about me,' said Neelix. 'Things are much better now.'
'Good. I hope they stay that way.'
'Tom and B'Elanna send you all their love,' said Owen Paris.
'They also expect you to drop in for a visit within the month,' added Roberta.
'I'll do that,' said Chakotay. 'I don't dare risk B'Elanna's anger.'
'Good idea,' said Owen.
'Poor thing,' said Gretchen, patting Owen on the back. 'He's obviously had some experience. Now, you,' she turned to Chakotay. 'Look after yourself.'
She hugged him, and he whispered to her, 'Take care of her.'
'I will,' she replied. Letting him go, Gretchen summoned Louda. 'Ensign!' She took Louda aside. Watching them warily, Chakotay noticed both their faces light up with mischief. He didn't want to know what they were planning.
'Take care of yourself, Chakotay,' said Kit, turning his attention away from the conspirators.
'Don't let 'em get you down, Kit. You're strong - make sure everyone knows it.' He leaned down to hug her. 'Keep in touch.'
'I will. I may just need your advice one of these days.'
'Between you and Beci Louda, you'll turn me into a wise old sage handing out fatherly advice.'
'I've got news for you, Chakotay,' said Kit, kissing him on the cheek. 'You already are. Blessings go with you,' she finished simply, and moved aside for Tuvok.
'And the Spirits with you, Kit.'
'Commodore,' Tuvok began, then stopped. 'Chakotay. I find that over these many years I have come to regard you as a close friend, and although it is somewhat illogical, I deeply regret this parting.'
Chakotay became similarly solemn. 'I honestly found it hard to understand Kathryn's friendship with you for a long time. But, as you know, I now value your counsel highly, friend. I hope that it will still be available to me at the other end of a subspace transmission.'
'I will do my best. Live long, and prosper, Chakotay.'
Chakotay returned the salute, and then was astonished to see Tuvok reach out and clasp his shoulder. Chakotay reached up and covered the Vulcan's hand with his own. 'Thank you, Tuvok.'
Tuvok nodded slowly, then stepped away.
'You've made the right decision, Chakotay,' said Mac, putting a hand on his other shoulder. 'Are you glad I came and dragged you out of the wilderness?'
'Partially,' said Chakotay. 'But the High Country is still on the list for my next leave. I didn't get to see anywhere near as much of it as I would have liked to.'
'I have a feeling you'll be going somewhere far more interesting on your next leave,' said Mac. 'Somewhere where hiking is not the main form of transportation and bathtubs actually exist.'
Chakotay grinned. He couldn't help it. He hugged Mac and then realised there was only one person left to speak to him.
'Kathryn,' he said. He honestly didn't know how to do this.
She was smiling. 'You'll love it, Chakotay,' she said. 'You'll be back in command again, after ten years of having to buckle under to me. You'll love it.'
'Who are you trying to convince?' he asked.
'Maybe both of us,' she said, her reply as soft as his question had been.
'Commodore!' called Ensign Louda. 'We've got to beam up, now.'
'All right, Chief,' he called back to her.
He hugged Kathryn, a hug no different than the one he had given her mother. She kissed him on the cheek, a kiss no different than the one he had received from Kit. As he pulled away, they clasped hands. 'Goodbye, Kathryn.'
It might have been wishful thinking, but he was sure he saw a single tear slip down her cheek as the transporter effect took hold.
'All of a sudden, Beci,' he said to his aide when they materialised on the Marajone, 'I'm not so sure that giving Kathryn space is what I ought to be doing.'
'Trust me, sir,' Louda replied. 'Trust me.'