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Galliforms and Heroes

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Damn it, Kathryn. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Phoebe whispered the question to the empty room.

With her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of coffee, she watched from the kitchen window as Kathryn swung a pickaxe with unerring accuracy into the frozen ground of their mother’s backyard. Each resounding thud pounded like a slow, dull pulse; almost hypnotic in its steady and unrelenting rhythm.

It was back-breaking work and Phoebe couldn’t help but marvel at Kathryn’s unflagging resolve as she prised chunk after icy chunk from the unforgiving earth.   

She’d been at it for days, doggedly chipping away at a patch of ground near the garden shed.

It was going to be a vegetable garden – her vegetable garden - and nothing and no one was going to stop her from planting her tomato vines. She’d made this startling declaration after lunch one day – a little over a week ago – and then she’d promptly stomped off through the backdoor and started to dig.

She’d been digging ever since.  

Phoebe leaned forward and peered up past the eaves at an ominous looking sky. Gun-metal grey clouds loomed low over the Bloomington landscape for as far as the eye could see. The weather reports predicted snow and it was going to be a heavy fall. She didn’t hold out much hope for those poor beleaguered seedlings.

She’d already warned Kathryn that it was too early to begin planting - an Indiana spring invariably arrived later than in southern climes - and that trying to till the soil while it was still frozen solid was a lesson in frustration.

But she may as well have been talking to the pickaxe.

Her proffered words of wisdom had been ignored and all she’d received for her trouble was a gruff, “It’ll be fine. I’m busy, that’s the main thing.”

That last sentence had screamed, ‘poke her’ to Phoebe but she’d restrained herself.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that something was very wrong with her sister - the stalwart Captain Kathryn Janeway of Voyager fame.

Brow pleating into a frown, Phoebe shook her head in worried consternation before taking another sip of coffee. After seven years stranded in the Delta quadrant it was no surprise that Kathryn was having difficulties acclimating to life back on Earth – her, and one hundred and forty seven other returnees, Phoebe would wager. The traumas they’d suffered and the shock of their sudden return had left many of the crew floundering – the transition from lost to found creating its very own host of problems.

Phoebe could understand why.

In deference to the Janeway family’s Starfleet connections, Gretchen and Phoebe had been given access to several redacted log entries of Voyager’s less alarming adventures. But an Admiral’s wife and daughter had no trouble reading between the lines of ‘Fleet-speak’ and it didn’t take much to extrapolate the grisly truth from those diluted and sanitised versions of Kathryn and the crew’s experiences. It was clear that their survival had been nothing less than miraculous.  

The dilemma Phoebe now faced was whether or not to do something about Kathryn’s aberrant behaviour.

On the one hand, there was probably no harm in allowing Kathryn to unleash some of her pent up energies and emotions – she’d been holding onto them for long enough, in Phoebe’s opinion – and digging holes and cursing a few lumps of frozen dirt was a fairly benign form of anger management.

On the other hand, she knew her sister well – they’d been through this before – and Phoebe would hazard a guess that there was more going here than met the eye. Instinct compelled her to try and ferret out the reasons behind her sister’s disquiet.

Besides, she was the pesky younger sister - it was expected - and, if that failed, there was always the ‘bucket of iced water’ therapy that had worked so well all those years ago.

She was here at her mother’s behest. Gretchen was at her wit’s end and Phoebe agreed that something had to be done. Her mother had graciously volunteered to spend the day corralling her grandchildren, while Phoebe was left the more onerous task of bearding the lioness in her den.

Inhaling a fortifying breath in lieu of carrying a whip and chair, Phoebe placed her empty cup on the sink and strode out through the back door to do battle.

It was a daunting prospect, but she was well armed. Her sister might be a renowned tactician, but Phoebe had three kids under six and her negotiating skills were, by necessity, next to none. Kathryn had hopefully met her match.

The back door clattered shut and Kathryn looked up as Phoebe approached, but she didn’t say anything. Turning back to her task, she slammed the pick into the ground with renewed gusto.

Phoebe cringed inwardly but didn’t check her stride. Kathryn was pissed off but not homicidal – she hoped.

“It’s looking great.” Phoebe offered jovially, looking around her. “How big is it going to be?”

Levering a hefty lump of dirt out of an impressive looking hole, Kathryn stood up, arched her back and, resting the pick end on the ground, leaned on the handle. She shrugged, avoiding Phoebe’s gaze. “I don’t know. As big as I can make it, I suppose. Any objections?”

Hmmm, tetchy and belligerent – Phoebe should have guessed - but she refused to take the bait. “Nup, no objections. You’ll be the one in a body-brace by the time you’ve finished, not me.”

Kathryn’s brow slanted into a frown and she grunted an ambivalent ‘harrumph’.

Trying again, Phoebe jabbed her thumb back towards the house. “Join me for a cup of coffee?”

She saw Kathryn’s back tense, but pushed ahead undaunted, “I know where Mom stashed the caramel brownies and I’ll even take the blame. You won’t get a better offer than that.”

Phoebe waited, trying not to look too hopeful as she toed a wedge of frozen mud with her boot. She could almost hear the cogs grinding in Kathryn’s mind as she considered the potential pitfalls of having a heart to heart with her nosey sister.

Finally, she sighed in resignation and let the pick fall against the shed. Pulling off her gloves, she slapped them against her thigh as she strode past Phoebe towards the house. “You’re not going to leave me in peace until we do this, are you?”

Glaring at her sister’s back, Phoebe was tempted to snap back, but instead answered with an upbeat. “Nope, ‘fraid not. It’s long overdue.”

She saw Kathryn’s shoulders slump and her heart ached for her. She hated seeing her usually indomitable sister in such a state.

Voyager’s homecoming had been an unexpected but intensely joyous event – an unforeseen miracle that ignited hope within the Federation and profound relief to the families of the Voyager crew. But the jubilation hadn’t lasted long. Those initial starbursts of happiness had fizzled all-too-quickly into the ashy remains of fatigue, disorientation and melancholy.

The Janeways weren’t the only family dealing with the sudden arrival of long-lost loved ones as they blindly navigated their way through the treacherous aftermath of seven years of constant stress, isolation and countless traumatic experiences - most of which were beyond the imaginings of mere mortals.

Phoebe wasn’t sure if she could do anything to help Kathryn, but she had to try. If not for Kathryn’s sake, then for Gretchen’s. It was breaking their mother’s heart to see her beloved eldest daughter so bewildered and lost. So far, all her strategies to deal with Kathryn’s erratic bouts of moodiness and despondency had failed. It was up to Phoebe now.

Leaning against the open door, Kathryn kicked off her boots, hung her jacket on the hook and nodded to her sister as she headed inside. “You find the brownies, I’ll get the coffee.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Kathryn baulked for the briefest of moments but it was enough for Phoebe to see that she’d hit a sore spot.

Noting Kathryn’s reaction, she filed the information away for later.

While she hunted through the kitchen cabinets for the soon-to-be purloined brownies, Kathryn brewed a pot of coffee.

“Ah ha! Found them.” Phoebe held the tin aloft like a trophy and she could have sworn she saw the glimmer of a smile on Kathryn’s lips. It gave her the encouragement she needed to continue.  

Once the coffee had brewed, Kathryn took a seat, placing two mugs on the table along with the coffee pot.

Phoebe brought plates and the brownies, and taking the chair closest to Kathryn, opened the tin and offered her some.

Kathryn took one and nibbled at the corner of it before taking a hearty sip from her steaming mug of coffee.

She gave a weary sigh and without meeting Phoebe’s eyes, placed her cup on the table next to her barely-touched brownie. “Mom’s been talking to you, hasn’t she?”

It wasn’t as though Phoebe could deny the accusation. They were worried – it wasn’t a secret.

Kathryn was home – something neither she nor her mother had ever expected in their lifetimes – but the woman who’d returned was but a shadow of the one they’d said goodbye to all those years ago.

Phoebe gave a shrugging nod of acquiescence. “She’s worried about you.”

Contemplating her coffee, Kathryn remained unnaturally still before she whispered, “I’ve been a bit worried about me, too.”

That admission jolted Phoebe more than she cared to admit and instinctively, she reached across and laid her hand over Kathryn’s. “I was expecting you to bite my head off and tell me to mind my own business. In fact, I think I’d prefer that to this. What’s happening, Kathryn? Is there anything I can do?”

Looking up at last, Kathryn gave her sister a sad smile. “No, but thank you for the offer. I’ll get over it, eventually – I have in the past. It’s just that….”

Her voice trailed off and Phoebe had stop herself from prodding her to continue. Instead she waited – an anxious portrait of impatience – but she waited.

At last, Kathryn spoke. “It’s not that I’m not glad to be home – it’s what we dreamed of for all those years, it’s only that….”

Again she drifted off topic and Phoebe wanted to scream in frustration but instead she squeezed Kathryn’s hand.

Kathryn looked so sad and defeated. It was so unlike her. One would think after all those years of carrying the onerous weight of her crew’s survival, to have achieved the goal of bringing them home, Kathryn would be content, but it was the opposite. She’d never seen her so restless and troubled. Suddenly, a light went on inside Phoebe’s head and it all started to make sense. Why hadn’t she realised before now?

“You miss it.” It sounded like an accusation but Kathryn didn’t seem to notice.

Kathryn barked a caustic laugh. “Miss it? God, yes. Isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?! I miss everything about it.” She shook her head as though trying to rattle her unruly thoughts into order. “For seven years I spent every spare moment dreaming of home and wishing I was here but out there I had a purpose, a mission, and now, all of a sudden, I have nothing to do and nowhere to go – all I have is time to think and that’s the last thing I want to do. I miss it – it’s like an ache in my heart. I miss the ship, the crew, the adventure – God, I even miss the stress – sometimes.” She took a deep breath and her voice turned husky with emotion. “I feel like I’ve been stranded again, only this time it’s somewhere familiar but I’m still just as lost.” She glanced up, a worrying glint of near-panic in her eyes. “It’s nuts and I should have my head read – except I can’t bring myself to go anywhere near another counsellor.”

The flood gates had opened and Phoebe had to stifle an inappropriate urge to laugh. Relief made her giddy. But there was still a lot of ground to cover. She scoffed. “Who could blame you? The one they assigned you was an idiot. You’d have been better off talking to my dog for all the good he did you.”

Kathryn grunted a laugh. “I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor man – he was way out of his depth. He had no frame of reference and no possible means of comprehending what we’d been through. I’m pretty sure I scared the hell out of him. He’s never even been off-world and, after hearing of my exploits, I doubt he’ll venture anywhere soon.”

Phoebe rolled her eyes. “A good thing too, in my opinion – God knows what sort of damage he could cause out there with all his do-gooder pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo.”

Kathryn stared at her sister. “Not a believer in ‘talking it out”, huh?”

Phoebe shrugged. “A big believer, but just not with someone with no life experience and pimples.”

Kathryn’s mouth twitched again and a quiet moment of camaraderie settled over the sisters before Phoebe asked another question.

“Have you spoken to Chakotay about all this?” She made a sweeping gesture, encompassing Kathryn, outside and everything in between.

“Briefly.”

“And…?”

A one shoulder shrug appeared be the only answer she’d get until Kathryn looked her in the eye and admitted to something that Gretchen had already hinted at. “He’s part of the problem.”

“I thought as much.”

“Mom again?”

Phoebe shrugged and gave a wan smile – there was no point denying it. She was a terrible liar and Kathryn would know she was hedging.

Kathryn rolled her eyes. “She’s not very good with confidences, is she?”

“Not with me – or you – but we’re family, so the rules don’t apply.” She reached over and tucked a stray lock of hair behind Kathryn’s ear. It wasn’t something she’d normally do, but their roles had reversed over the last few weeks and she was filled with a welling sense of protectiveness for her big sister.

Kathryn had always been the strong and stubborn one – their father’s daughter – but Phoebe had a suspicion that the innate doggedness she’d inherited from Edward Janeway was part of the problem. She was tougher on herself than on anyone else and still driven by a desire to live up to his exacting standards.

There was, however, someone else whose role in this was pivotal. “Do you still love him?”

That jolted Kathryn. “What?”

“Are you still in love with Chakotay?”

“He’s in love with Seven.”

There was no hint of inflection in her voice, and Phoebe marvelled at her self-control but she wasn’t going to let her get away with so obvious a deflection.  “No, he’s not – he never was. That’s old news. Even I know they broke up months ago – and so do you. What I want to know is, are you still in love with him?” Phoebe was on a roll and decided to stay with the pointy-ended questions. 

“I don’t know.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Tough. It’s all you’re going to get.”

“Ouch! So, you’re still in love with him.” It was as plain as the nose on her face.

Kathryn frowned but she didn’t deny the assertion.

She avoided Phoebe’s gaze by glaring at the tabletop. “Whether I’m in love with him or not is immaterial. If he landed on the doorstep this minute and professed his undying love for me, I’d still feel…. I don’t know… wary, uneasy, or maybe incredulous. I don’t really know how to describe it.”

‘Wounded and vulnerable.’ Phoebe silently filled in the blanks. As tempting as it was, she didn’t press for more – Kathryn was getting snarky and there was a very real possibility that she’d clam up if pushed too hard. They could come back to this later.

She took a different tack. “Why the garden?”

Kathryn heaved a weary sigh. “It’s the tomatoes. I vowed years ago that when I got home, I’d finish what I’d started.”

The enigmatic words meant nothing to Phoebe but she could see that they held deep meaning for Kathryn. Before she could question her further, Kathryn explained.

“It’s all tied up with Chakotay, as well.” Her mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “I’ve got a bit of a theme going here, haven’t I?”

“Tied up? Interesting segue.”

Frowning, Kathryn shot Phoebe her patented death-glare but her look softened after a few seconds and she smiled wryly. “Mind’s still in the gutter, I see.”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”

This time Kathryn’s smile was genuine and she turned her hand over and grasped Phoebe’s in a fierce grip. “God, I’ve missed you. You’re obnoxious and a pain in the ass, but you don’t take my crap. No one on Voyager was ever brave enough – except Chakotay.”

“Bold man.” Phoebe gave Kathryn a loaded look and her hand an answering squeeze. “Can you tell me about it? The significance of the garden and what happened with Chakotay.”

Kathryn sighed and released Phoebe’s hand to pick up her cup and take a fortifying sip. “There’s not that much to tell, really. We never moved beyond ‘friends’, but we both wanted to.” She breathed deeply and her gaze turned inward, remembering. In a husky whisper, she mumbled, “Oh, God, how we once wanted to.”

Phoebe had an overwhelming urge to fan herself but she didn’t dare look away. The sizzle between Kathryn and Chakotay must have been something to behold. She wondered what the crew thought of it and if there had been any chatter. Tom Paris would be a useful resource – she’d have to call him and find out.

Kathryn shook herself loose of her too painful memories and looked back at Phoebe, her expression regretful. “That was a long time ago now – things changed.” She shrugged. “As for the tomato plants; they’re significant because of New Earth – the planet on which Chakotay and I were marooned for several weeks early in the journey. While we were there, we became close but, before anything could happen, the crew found a cure for the virus that stranded us there and, within days, we were back on Voyager and entrenched in our old lives.” She sipped her coffee and looked dismal. “I’d started a garden to supplement our rations. It was my first real step in accepting the reality of spending my life there with Chakotay.”

“It held a great deal of significance for you?”

Kathryn nodded and huffed a breath. “But I had to let that go too.”

She breathed a sigh that tugged at Phoebe’s heart. It seemed that the last seven years of Kathryn’s life had consisted of one loss after another – from the trifling to the heartbreaking.

Kathryn broke off a small piece of brownie, considered it for a moment before dropping it back on the plate. She took another sip of coffee before continuing. “Just before we beamed back to Voyager, I remember standing outside our cabin amongst our packed cargo containers, staring at the thriving tomato plants in my garden. I was wearing my uniform for the first time in months and could already feel the strictures of command tightening about me like a straightjacket. Everything Chakotay and I had been to one another had to end there. The old rules and protocols were already creating walls and barriers between us. He called me ‘captain’ for the first time in months and I was devastated, but all I could think about was those damned tomatoes and that I would have to leave them behind. It was insane.” She glanced at Phoebe and shrugged. “I’m well aware that the tomatoes represented a whole lot more than a few wasted vegetables.”

“Fruit.”

Kathryn turned to her sister in confusion. “What?”

“Tomatoes are a fruit not a vegetable.” Phoebe waited for the whiplash retort that would usually follow one of her pedantic and annoying comments, but it didn’t happen. Damn it!

Kathryn frowned and shrugged. “Whatever. I knew I could never be with Chakotay while I was captain. That sort of emotional commitment spelled disaster for me. If I’d lost him…” She shook her head, unable to articulate what that would have meant to her.  “I couldn’t risk that sort of emotional mayhem, but I did make a promise to myself.”

She took another sip of her coffee – a well-practiced delaying tactic, Phoebe now realised.

“From that moment onwards, I would direct all my energies towards getting the ship and crew home, but once we got here, then all bets were off. I just didn’t take into consideration that by the time we got here, he wouldn’t be a part of my life anymore.” She shrugged. “It was a stupid idea.”

“Not stupid but perhaps unrealistic. He’s not with Seven now, though, so I don’t see the problem. Surely, you can talk to him, and see how he feels. There’s always a chance that something will come of it. Don’t give up hope just yet.”

Phoebe had no doubts about how the man felt – she’d seen how he looked at her sister but it was Kathryn who needed convincing, not her.

Kathryn appeared unconvinced. “Maybe you’re right, but so much of what we strived for out there was predicated on hope. Hope that we would succeed, hope that we wouldn’t get killed, hope that we wouldn’t destroy the ship, or some planet or civilization along the way. Hope that we wouldn’t cause some disastrous glitch in the timeline – let me tell you, the potential was there on more than one occasion. The burden was overwhelming at times and it seems foolish now to have set so much store in something so intangible. I wonder if I hoped too much.”

Phoebe opened her mouth to say something but Kathryn held up her hand to stop her.

“I know that hope is important – sometimes it’s all we had - but it can kick you in the teeth just as hard as despair can. Besides, it’s too much to ask of anyone to wait for something that might never happen. He did the right thing by moving on.”

“No one asked you to wait, but you did.”

“I didn’t have an option. I was the captain.”

“I’m starting to really dislike this captain of yours.”

“Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. She’s not my favourite person at the moment either - which is slightly iffy from a psychological standpoint.”

“True but understandable.” Phoebe frowned. “Errr, and insightful - probably.”

Kathryn’s mouth twisted into the semblance of a smile. “Hmmm, yes well, just don’t tell Mom – she’ll have it headlining the Fed news if you do.”

Phoebe chuckled. “Yes, well, discretion has never been her strong point. But at least you can see the funny side of it. I was worried you’d lost your sense of humour entirely. Now that would have been a tragedy.”

“I’m not sure sarcasm counts.” She sighed again and looked bleak.

This was starting to become maudlin and it was so unlike Kathryn to wallow. She needed to be shocked out of this pity-fest and Phoebe was just the one to do it. “Come on, Kathryn. So far, everyone has been too kind to point this out to you, but you’re in imminent danger of turning into one of those self-focused, self-pitying people nobody likes to be around. Chakotay will run a mile if he sees you like this. Enough already.”

Kathryn shot her an annoyed look. “You get an ‘F’ for psych 101. I don’t remember, ‘buck up and take it on the chin’ as being part of the program.”

“Well, maybe it should be, but point taken.” Sure, she was no psychiatrist but hearing Kathryn talk this way was as worrying as it was annoying. Her stubborn refusal to crawl out of this mire of self-pity required swift and brutal action. If their roles were reversed, Kathryn wouldn’t let Phoebe get away with such self-indulgent crap.

Anger would be better than this… this…. pathetic mess of emotions.

Time to poke the tiger – again. “So, you’ve given up. I’m disappointed. I expected more of you. But then again, there’s not a whole lot of the old Kathryn here that I recognise.” She wondered if she’d said too much but she had to catapult Kathryn out of this spiral of misery. They weren’t going to achieve anything if she pleaded defeat before they’d even begun.

A flash of anger sparked in Kathryn’s eyes as she glared at Phoebe. “Why don’t you say what you really feel?”

Phoebe shrugged and, leaning back, crossed her arms over her chest. “I can sit here and stroke your ego with trite sayings and ‘poor old you’s’ but that’s not going to help. Didn’t you just say that you missed having me around to ‘tell it how it is’? You can’t have it both ways, Kathryn.”

“Who says I can’t?”

This made Phoebe laugh. “Oh, very mature. You’re almost as contrary as your namesake – but she’s only five, so she has an excuse. You don’t.”

Kathryn turned to her, her eyes bright with what Phoebe suspected were unshed tears. “I must have picked that up from Chakotay – a more contrary man, you’ll never meet. And as for your Katie – she’ll be outsmarting the lot of us in a year or two.”

Phoebe smiled, a touch indulgently – she couldn’t help it. “She’s a lot like her auntie and already has her father wrapped around her little finger. She’s her daddy’s girl, just like you were, Kathryn. What do you think Dad would have said to you about all this?”

A look of sadness fleetingly crossed Kathryn’s features. “Who knows? Probably something about sticking to my principles and confronting my fears.” She shrugged. “But I’ve been doing that for years now and I’m exhausted. It hasn’t brought me any closer to happiness.”

“Oh, bullshit!”

Kathryn blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Bullshit! What the hell is with you, Kathryn? Happy, schmappy! This isn’t you. Okay, so you’ve had a terrible seven years but it wasn’t all bad – you wouldn’t miss it so much if it was. And you’re not the only one who suffered. It hasn’t been a picnic here for us either. For God’s sake, we thought you were dead for nearly four years – have you considered that?”

Kathryn’s eyes widened with shock – this obviously hadn’t occurred to her – and it wouldn’t hurt for her to look outside herself for a change.

Phoebe jabbed a finger on the table to make her point. “A ‘straightforward three week shakedown cruise’ is what you told us and I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye.” Phoebe’s voice hitched a bit and she swallowed before continuing. “When we got news of Voyager’s disappearance, we nearly went crazy and Mom was a mess. Mark was here every day – not helping, I might add - but we grieved for all those years.”

Phoebe dug in, she was going to rattle Kathryn out of this maudlin state if it was the last thing she did. “When we found out you were alive, it was like a dream come true. We were so relieved and happy. But then the reality set in. You were thousands of lightyears away and not likely to get home in Mom’s lifetime - if at all. It was a sobering and painful realisation. Then there was the Dominion War. We lost far too many friends during those years of conflict and, when San Francisco was decimated during the Breen attacks, almost every Starfleet family was touched by the devastation – directly and indirectly.”

She took a deep breath and reined in her temper. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to get angry – but, well, sometimes it’s hard not to. I understand – I really do. You’re dealing with enormous upheavals, unresolved feelings of grief, guilt and loss, but despite everything that’s happened, we are the lucky ones. You’re home, we’re alive and we’re okay – we have so much to be thankful for. Being stranded in the Delta quadrant was a terrible thing to happen – as unlikely as it was traumatic. It happened, though but not just to you. We bore the brunt of it as well.”

Kathryn leaned forward to say something but Phoebe held up her hand in the same way Kathryn had stopped her earlier. “I’m not finished yet. I think what Dad would say is to look outside yourself, Kathryn; take a step back and get some perspective. You accomplished something extraordinary, and, okay, not everything came up roses in the end, but look what you did achieve under the most extreme of circumstances. There are a lot of people out there who are alive thanks to you. If you need something to hang your hat on, that’s it. Now, stop being a pussy and go and get your man.”

Phoebe took a deep breath and then gestured towards her sister. “Okay, done. You can rip my head off now.”

Kathryn stared at her for a full minute before she threw her head back and laughed, then leaned forward and wrapped her arms around her sister.

Phoebe was flummoxed for a second or two, but then grinned and returned Kathryn’s hug. “Are you going to kill me now or are you lulling me into a false sense of security before you strike? It’s just that I’m a bit concerned about that large hole in the backyard.”

Pulling back, Kathryn’s eyes shimmered with tears. “I should damage you just a little but then I’d have to explain it to Mom.”

Shoulders sagging in exaggerated relief, Phoebe huffed out a breath. “Oh, phew! I really thought I was done for.”

“For speaking the truth and pounding it through my thick skull? No, and thank you.”

“Anytime. I’m also good for weddings and bar mitzvahs.”

Kathryn laughed again.

It was a wonderful sound but strangely Phoebe could feel the sting of tears burning at the back of her throat. She’d missed Kathryn so much – her grief at her loss had been a living thing - but for Gretchen’s sake, she’d had to be strong. She’d sublimated her bone-deep sorrow and donned a mask of good cheer and bravado. When Kathryn returned, she thought everything would go back to the way it was, but it hadn’t – too much had changed – her life, Gretchen’s and most of all, Kathryn’s – and in a way, she’d missed her even more. The loss of the woman she’d known had seemed more acutely tragic than imagining her on the other side of the galaxy. To at last see these familiar glimmers of the feisty sister she remembered were a much-needed balm. They could forge a new relationship from here but for now, it was enough to give her hope that everything would be all right in the end.

It was odd, she thought, how grief, joy, anger and hope could all get so tangled up together that it was often hard to tell one from the other.  

Phoebe swallowed back her tears and smiled. There was so much more to talk about but, for now, she just wanted to revel the moment. 

Kathryn must have felt the same and, glancing at Phoebe, she smiled – her old Kathryn smile. “How are the children and Leo?”

Phoebe’s heart leapt with joy, as it always did when she thought of her husband and children. “They’re great, and will be even greater after today. Mom’s there, whipping them into shape and setting order to chaos. It doesn’t last long, but they’re always glad to see me after a day with Grandma. I’m a pussycat compared to Field Marshall Gretchen. I’m sure she does it on purpose. Poor Leo.” She laughed but caught a look of something in Kathryn’s expression. Could it be longing?

Phoebe’s priorities had always been different from Kathryn’s. Starfleet had never featured in her dreams of the future. Her husband and children, and her art were the driving forces behind her existence, and she was fortunate to have both. She was a lucky woman – something she never let herself forget.

The younger, less-jaded, Kathryn Janeway had wanted both a career and a family, back before life had dealt her those cruel and unforeseen setbacks of losing her first fiancé, Justin, and then the momentous life interruption of being tossed into the Delta quadrant for seven years.

Kathryn had told her once that Starfleet officers don’t choose their missions, the missions choose them – the words rang of Edward Janeway’s Starfleet zeal and no doubt formed part of Kathryn’s motivation to live up to the lofty ideals of her long-dead patriarch. But now Phoebe wondered if the Delta quadrant had changed her and she yearned for something simpler.  

She’d have to risk her heart again to get what she wanted and Phoebe could understand Kathryn’s guardedness – her heart had taken some severe knocks over the years. But she would never be content unless she took those risks. It was going to take courage – which she had in spades – and humility – a trait that, in Kathryn’s case, was a little less abundant. 

Phoebe decided it was time to take the bull by the horns. “You should call him. Ask him to visit you or meet him somewhere – see how things stand.”

Kathryn blinked and looked puzzled. “Who? Leo?”

“What? No. Chakotay.”

“Oh.” Her shoulders stiffened. “I guess I could, but I’m not sure he wants to see me. I haven’t spoken to him in ages and no doubt he’s busy.”

Phoebe thudded her elbows on the table and, leaning forward, gave Kathryn the ‘Gretchen gimlet eye’. “Really? You’re going with that pathetic excuse, and here I was thinking we’d made progress. Can you hear yourself? If you can, you should be appalled.”

“Hey, you’re supposed to be making me feel better, not worse.”

“I didn’t think it was possible to make you feel worse. Come on, Kathryn. Just give it a try. As far as I know, there are only about one hundred and fifty people in the known galaxy who can truly understand the challenges you’re facing, and he’s one of them. What have you got to lose?   ”

Kathryn glared at her sister and Phoebe wavered for a moment. Truth be told, she had a lot to lose but the loss was a certainty if she didn’t at least try.  

Meeting that ice blue stare, Phoebe steeled her heart against the niggling feeling of looming disaster. But she and Gretchen would be here to pick up the pieces if it all went to hell. She knew though, without a doubt, that if Kathryn wanted to move past all this, she needed to give it one last go around before she waved that white flag of surrender.

Phoebe sat up a little straighter. “I’ll even contact him for you, if you can’t bring yourself to do it.”

The offer sounded like the essence of kindness and thoughtfulness but Phoebe knew Kathryn would see it as the goad it was and, if there was even a skerrick of the old Kathryn lurking beneath this brow-beaten woman before her, she’d rise to the occasion and refuse the offer.

“Oh, no you don’t. Not in this lifetime!”

Oh yeah! Phoebe was tempted to fist pump the air.

Kathryn looked horrified. “I don’t trust you as far as I could kick you not to tell him everything we’ve talked about today under the guise of ‘doing me a favour’.”

She’d even made the gesture for imaginary quotation marks and Phoebe wanted to whoop with joy.

Kathryn was back.

Keeping as straight a face as she could, she relented, “Okay, but the offer stands. Why don’t you go and do it now, and then I’ll make myself scarce.”

“He’s not going to come over now, even if I do call him.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“I, umm… no, of course I’m not sure but… I’ll just have another cup of coffee and then call.”

Phoebe gave her a dubious look and shook her head. “You’re procrastinating, Captain Galliform!”

“I’m not being a chicken.” She shot a belligerent look at her sister. “And don’t you dare start clucking like one.” She took a deep breath. “I just need another cup of coffee – I worked hard this morning.”

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, Phoebe poured them both a cup and munched her way through another brownie – promising herself that she’d do an extra ten minutes on the treadmill that evening. They chatted about this and that. Kathryn asked Phoebe about her latest paintings and the dates for her upcoming exhibition, all the time making the appropriate sounds of interest. But Phoebe could tell that her mind was miles away from acrylic abstracts and hors d'œuvres selections for gallery openings. Finally, she put an end to it.

“Okay, Kathryn. You’ve delayed long enough. Go and call the man. Now!”

“God, you’re as bossy as Gretchen.”

“Hush your mouth. No one is as bossy as Gretchen.”

Almost as bossy as Gretchen.”

“That’s better. Now move.”

Phoebe grinned at Kathryn as she grimaced and reluctantly pushed her chair back and got to her feet. “I could really hate you for this.”

“You could, but I know you love me.”

Kathryn tried to look stern but her eyes softened and she touched Phoebe’s cheek as she walked past.

Phoebe swiped tears from her eyes and then smiled as she watched her sister trudge towards the office.

********************************************

Kathryn stared at the blank computer console and her heart did a weird flip-flop and lurched against her sternum. It felt like someone had landed a trout in her chest.

He was on his way over.

Now!

How had Phoebe known?

Damn her sister.

She wasn’t ready to see him yet. Her fingers hovered over the comm. unit – she could call him back and postpone the meeting. But she wasn’t a coward even if she could hear the distant echo of a clucking chicken somewhere in the back of her mind.

Glancing at the time, she figured she had half an hour before he’d be knocking on the door. Her gaze shifted to the liquor cabinet and she toyed with the idea of having a large brandy – ‘guts in a glass’ as her Aunt Martha would say. As tempting as it was, she would probably need all her wits about her for this reunion. Being three sheets to the wind wasn’t a good idea – regretfully.

She heard Phoebe at the door. “So?”

Donning her most stoic mien, Kathryn swivelled in the chair, and faced her. “He’s coming.”

“When?”

“Now.”

Phoebe looked so smug, Kathryn wanted to slap her but it would only be taken as more evidence of her feelings for Chakotay.

Not that she was wrong. Kathryn loved him – she’d loved him for almost as long as she’d known him. It sounded pathetic when she thought about it but it was true and so had been her hope that once they were home, they could recapture the feelings that had wedged themselves so tenaciously in her heart during their stay on New Earth. But too much had happened in the intervening years. Too many disagreements, too many disillusionments, too much time passing them by. They weren’t the same people they were five years and 70,000 lightyears ago. But she’d never forgive herself if she didn’t try and Chakotay had a right to know how she felt about him, even if he didn’t feel the same way now. He had once, and it was important that he knew that she’d returned those feelings.

“Are you going to change?”

“Into what? A confident, middle-aged woman with no hang ups? Wouldn’t that be nice!”

Phoebe snorted a laugh. “Glad to see you’ve got your chutzpah back. My work here is done.” She brushed her hands together in a smug gesture of ‘job done’.

Kathryn rolled her eyes. “Your cheque is in the mail.”

“If only that were true. But seriously, you probably should at least scrape off some of the mud.”

“Shit!”

“And yeah, that too.”

Goddamn it, she’d forgotten. Taking a quick glance down at herself, she almost cried. She was wearing a tattered pair of dirt-spattered overalls, a torn plaid shirt and there were holes in her socks. “Why didn’t you say something?!”

“I just did. Do you need a hand?”

Kathryn glared again. “I can dress myself.”

“Yes, I can see that.”

Shooing her with one hand, Kathryn dashed past her, making a beeline for the stairs. “Go! And can you stall, Mom? I’ll call you later to let you know how things went and when the coast is clear.”

A knowing smirk spread across Phoebe’s face. “Yeah, sure.” She shook her head and laughed to herself as she picked up Gretchen’s overnight bag and headed for the front door.

She called out as she was leaving. “Watch out for those galliforms, Kathryn.” Then muttered under her breath. “and try not to be too dignified.”  

*********************

As she reached her bedroom, Kathryn heard Phoebe call out something – probably unsolicited advice that she’d be wise to ignore - just before the front door slammed behind her. A small smile teased at Kathryn’s lips. Bless Phoebe and her annoying and relentless badgering – she didn’t know what she’d do without her. There was nothing like family to slam your feet firmly to the ground when you needed it most.

She stripped off her gardening clothes and dove into the shower. Standing under the warm water, she tried to think what she would say to Chakotay as unwanted doubts began to inveigle their way into her thoughts. She took a deep breath and told herself to get a grip. Perhaps Phoebe’s psych basics held merit. But this was Chakotay and she knew she had nothing to worry about. He was her dearest friend and closest ally. He knew her better than almost anyone in the known universe – hyperbole was acceptable under the circumstances, she reasoned – and she silently chided herself for being such a ninny about the whole thing.

Even if nothing more came of it, than they simply remained friends - that was okay. Friends were good, and she’d missed him – more than she’d cared to admit. They’d begun to drift apart in the weeks leading up to their arrival on Earth. He’d been busy with Seven and she’d been preoccupied with the rather abrasive version of her future self.

She heaved a sigh as she stepped out of the shower; she really didn’t want to think about Admiral Janeway right now – there was confronting and then there was downright terrifying. If only that alarming glimpse into the crystal ball of her future hadn’t come to visit. She shuddered – forewarned was forearmed and she would make sure she didn’t finish up like the Admiral.  

Casting thoughts of her older doppelganger aside, she stood in front of her spartan wardrobe and ran a critical eye over the slim pickings in her closet. The few clothes that had survived Phoebe’s ‘crimes-against-fashion’ cull, were depressingly plain and utilitarian – and that was being generous. But there was no time to replicate anything new and she knew that the more trouble she went to, the more nervous she’d be.

Selecting a pair of inoffensive tan pants and a cream top, she pulled them on over her serviceable underwear and gave herself a quick once over in the full length mirror. She looked like Kathryn Janeway on leave from her position in Starfleet – boringly efficient and sadly true – but if nothing else, digging frozen earth for endless hours each day had melted away a few stubborn pounds and she was taut and toned in all the right places.

She looked passable, but she was no competition for the statuesque Seven of Nine. But who was?

She shrugged, there was no point second-guessing herself now. Besides, over the years, Chakotay had wittnessed her in various extremes of dishevelment. He’d seen her covered in grease, grime, blood and God-knows-what; unconscious, dead, nearly-dead and sprouting Borg implants. In light of that, dreary clothing was the least of her concerns.

She quickly applied her makeup and combed her hair, creating maximum effect in minimum time; years of rushing to the Bridge had taught her that.

She took one last look in the mirror and nodded. Done.

Taking another deep breath, she slipped on a pair of shoes and headed out the bedroom door.

At the bottom of the stairs, she had a moment of indecision. Whether to wait in the lounge room or fortify herself with another cup of coffee? She scoffed. As if that was even a question - she headed towards the kitchen.

A few minutes later, she stood by the window sipping slowly on a strong cup of coffee as she surveyed the muddy disaster she’d made of her mother’s once pristine back yard. No wonder Gretchen and Phoebe had been concerned. If only she could explain, but it was difficult to articulate what she barely understood herself. All she knew was that it had something to do with tying up loose ends and vanquishing as many of her regrets as possible.

Phoebe understood to a degree – she knew how Kathryn ticked - but like her too-young, too-inexperienced and too-pimply counsellor, no one could possibly comprehend the emotional havoc the traumas of her time in the Delta Quadrant had left in their wake, nor the disorientation she’d felt on arriving home.

After Quarra, she’d finally inured herself to the reality of living out her life in the Delta quadrant. She’d had no choice. How many times had they almost made it home, only to have their hopes dashed and their optimism crushed? It was too cruel to keep living with that hope, so she’d locked it away so it couldn’t hurt her anymore. Quarra hadn’t been home, but it had almost been worse. For the first time in over six years, she’d been free of the burden of command and able to pursue a normal life. Poor Jaffen. With the return of her memories and the knowledge that those suffocating Starfleet strictures and regulations would once again rule her existence, Kathryn had been swamped by a wave of such profound regret, it had almost destroyed her.  

An overwhelming sense of hopelessness had eaten its way into her heart and, although she was more determined than ever to complete her mission, she slowly began closing herself off from those emotions that were so detrimental to her survival. But the losses didn’t stop. Joe Carey’s pointless death, saying goodbye to Neelix, Chakotay’s relationship with Seven – the hits just kept coming and she hadn’t been sure how much more she could take.

Even after putting Admiral Janeway’s plan into action, she’d been highly sceptical of success and hadn’t dared hope that they could beat both time and space to achieve their ultimate goal. That disbelief continued even after their rather ungainly tumble into Federation space. For months, she’d been terrified that Ducane and the Relativity would pop out of nowhere and whisk them back to the Delta quadrant.

Phoebe had nutted out some of the reasons for her disquiet but there were so damned many of them, even Kathryn was hard pressed to list them all.

Taking a deep draft of her coffee, she closed her eyes and tried to centre herself, using the techniques Tuvok had taught her all those years ago – breathing deeply to find that core of calm within and encouraging it to expand outward. She concentrated on her breathing, visualising each slow inhalation and then letting it envelop the burning tangles of tension before she exhaled.  

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe…

‘Bang, bang, bang!’ A loud knocking on the window brought her back to the present with a nasty jolt. 

Fear ripped through her, her eyes sprang open and she almost spilled her coffee down her front.

“Shit!”

It took her a split second to get her bearings before her brow shuttered into a frown.

“Chakotay?!”

He was a foot away from her – if that – on the other side of the window.

His voice was muffled through the glass. “I knocked on the front door but no one answered. I came around the back.”

Obviously, Kathryn thought mulishly.

He’d scared the living daylights out of her and what was worse, she’d been caught red-handed steeling herself for his visit. This wasn’t how she’d planned to begin this reunion. Blinking away her irritation now that her heart had started beating again and dropped from her throat to its usual position; she pointed to the back door. “I’ll let you in.”

She dumped her cup in the sink and opened the back door.

He waited on the threshold. “Sorry I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

She tried to smile, but she had the awful feeling it looked more like a bout of dyspepsia. “I didn’t hear you knock. Mom’s at Phoebe’s and I’m the only one here.”

She almost rolled her eyes. There was a load of superfluous information that he didn’t need to hear.

He nodded as he glanced past her, taking in the homey ambience of the country style kitchen. “It smells like coffee and cookies in here – why am I not surprised.”

“I was just having a coffee.” More superfluous information. She wanted to kick herself but instead, gestured for him to enter.

There was an awkward moment as he passed her and stopped to hang up his coat.

She wasn’t sure what the rules were now – did they shake hands, kiss cheeks – lips or more – or did they maintain a business-like demeanour. This was so far out of her usual experience, she was floundering. 

He didn’t seem to know either so he nodded awkwardly as he met her eyes. His were dark and intense. “How are you, Kathryn?”

“Fine.” Liar! “And you?”

“Fine.”

It was hard to tell if he was lying too; his expression was as implacable as ever and she couldn’t get a handle on him - yet another reminder of this new distance between them. They’d always shared an uncanny connection and to find that it was gone and their conversation was so off kilter – clunky and forced – made her feel sad.

She had to do something with her hands, so she pointed to the coffee pot. “Would you like a cup?”

He shook his head. “No, thanks. I’m fine for the moment.”

A pregnant pause followed this and Kathryn felt as though half a dozen elephants had just stampeded into the room and were jostling to find the best vantage point from which to watch this awkward exchange. It felt too crowded in here, so she pointed towards the door leading to the hallway and the living room beyond.

“There’s a fire in the living room. Shall we sit in there?

“Sure.” He gave her a ghost of a smile. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one feeling the strain.

Kathryn started towards the door, assuming he would follow but, when she turned around, he hadn’t moved. He was peering into the tin on the kitchen table.

He looked up and smiled – it was close to genuine - and some of her tension eased at the familiar expression.

“Are these the famous Gretchen Janeway caramel brownies I’ve heard so much about?”

She moved back towards him and nodded. “They are. Help yourself.”

“Now I’ll have to have a coffee.”

“I have tea, if you prefer.”

He shook his head. “No, coffee would be great, thanks. I’ve been developing a taste for it over the last few months.”

She looked at him, puzzled by the admission, but didn’t say anything as she put the pot on to brew and placed several brownies on a plate. The silence was oppressive, so she filled it was meaningless chatter. “Mom hides them, you know – the brownies. She has done since we were kids and it’s become a bit of a game. Phoebe sees it as her challenge to find them and then we share the spoils. It’s almost as though they taste better because they’re forbidden fruit.”

He didn’t comment and she glanced at him only to find herself looking into familiar dark eyes that smouldered with a heat that she hadn’t seen in years. Was that how he’d thought of her? As forbidden fruit? A throb of answering heat began to warm her belly, and willing herself not to put too much stock in what could simply be wishful thinking, she busied herself with gathering up cups, milk and sugar and placing everything on a tray.  

Lifting the laden tray, she turned and nodded towards the hallway. “Shall we?”

Instead of heading in that direction, he came towards her and reached for the tray. “I can take that.”

It wasn’t a question and she felt a frisson of pleasure shiver down her spine as his hands pressed over hers to wrest the tray from her grasp. He was too close, or not close enough, she couldn’t decide.

Kathryn relinquished the tray and strode towards the door, intent on putting some distance between them until she could get her unruly heart and body under control. This time he followed and she could hear his footsteps behind her. His familiar footfalls awakened a rush of memories. How well did she know this man that she could discern the cadence of his footsteps from everyone else’s? It had to mean something, surely.

She hated feeling so uncertain of herself and of her connection with Chakotay. Until recently, she’d never doubted their innate understanding of one another. It was something she’d relied on and selfishly guarded while he’d been her second in command. It had never occurred to her that they could lose that precious connection. Even during the throes of their worst arguments, the robust thread that wove them together was always comfortingly present.

But so much had changed over the last several months, it stood to reason that their relationship would change as well. The direction it took now would be entirely up to them – their future was theirs to dictate – but there was no guarantee that it would take the path of least resistance.

She glanced at him and, suddenly, the Seven of Nine elephant came tromping into the room after them and Kathryn knew that before he left today, she would have to broach the subject with him – if she could find the gumption to do it. The sound of Phoebe clucking like a chicken played in her mind’s ear – yes, well, there was that too.

“Will here do?” He was standing over the coffee table in front of the fireplace with the tray still in his hands.

“Perfect.” Kathryn moved a PADD out of the way and he put the tray down, before taking a seat.

Kathryn sat opposite and leaned forward to pour their coffees. “Milk and sugar?”

He nodded. “Sacrilege, I know, but I’m still training my palate.”

Her mouth twitched into a smile. “Training?”

“Destroying, might be a better word.”

She laughed. “You have a way to go then before you can appreciate the subtlety of a rich Arabica?”

“Hmm, yes, well, my insides aren’t duranium-coated like yours – yet. I can’t drink it without milk and sugar. Slow and steady wins the race, as they say.”

She frowned. “It’s a beverage, not a marathon.”

“That’s a matter of opinion. It’s an acquired taste and I’m still learning.”

Kathryn chuckled and her heart lightened. The rhythm of their banter was returning to its usual easy ebb and flow but she was still perplexed and frowned across at him as she handed him his coffee. “It’s lovely to see you, Chakotay, but I didn’t expect you to drop everything and come when I called.”

His eyes met hers. “I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do, and well, I’ve missed my friend.”

‘Friend.’ That was a small dagger through the heart and it stung, although it shouldn’t. She smiled gamely and nodded. “I’ve missed you too.”

His eyes held hers for a long moment before he blinked. “It’s good to see you, Kathryn. It’s been too long.”

She gave him a grim smile and then took a sip of coffee. If she didn’t, she was at risk of surrendering to tears or blurting out something that was best left unsaid.

He seemed to sense her discomfort and deftly changed the subject by gesturing towards the back of the house. “I see that someone’s been digging out the back.”

Kathryn’s heart did a little somersault in her chest but she kept her expression neutral. She wasn’t sure why she felt so defensive about her garden. It wasn’t that unusual for people to have a vegetable garden, especially in the country.

She thought to brazen it out and avoid any unwieldy questions but she told him the truth. “I’m digging a vegetable garden. I wanted to do something constructive with my time.”

He nodded – but there was no indication that he equated it with New Earth and the time they’d shared there.

“I’ve started building that boat I’d always planned.”

Or did he?

She looked away from him, and muttered a quiet, “Oh, really.”

He nodded. “Unfinished business, is how I think of it. Is that why you’re doing the garden?”

How had he managed to hone in so accurately on her motivation. She sipped her coffee, trying to formulate an answer that would give her room to manoeuvre. She was feeling more and more hemmed in by his almost preternatural understanding of her motives. Inhaling deeply, she prepared to give him a vague answer but something stopped her and she nodded. “Yes, I think that’s it. I feel compelled to do it. It’s probably not necessary but I can’t help myself.”

“I figure it’s a form therapy.” He’d finished his coffee and devoured two brownies in as many bites. Placing his cup on the tray, he leaned forward and touched her knee. She had to steel herself not to jerk away – the heat of his touch seared at raw nerves – but she yearned for it as well.

A brittle smile graced her lips. “You might be right.”

The awkwardness of their earlier conversation had returned. She huffed an irritated breath and he withdrew his hand. She wanted to beg him not to and to keep touching her, to love her, but she kept silent.  

He gave her an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

He was so damned understanding. It made her want to scream. “I’m not uncomfortable.” Even to her ears, she sounded defensive.

With a shrug, he leaned back in his chair, creating even more space between them and changed the subject. “It’s good to be home but it isn’t what I expected.”

Trust him to hit the nail, smack-bang on the head. She heaved another deep breath. “It was bound to be different to what we imagined. Everyone’s lives have moved on without us.”

He nodded. “Are your family well? Your mother?”

This was slightly less treacherous territory and she nodded, somewhat relieved. “Yes, everyone is well. You just missed Phoebe. She was here this morning giving me a pep talk.”

A smile of understanding curved his lips. She wanted to sigh again – those lips. Blinking, she dragged her eyes up to meet his and gave him an answering smile.

He reached for his empty cup but before Kathryn could offer him a refill, he poured himself another and topped it up with milk and sugar. Stirring it slowly, he looked up. “Sekaya has been offering her ‘constructive criticism’ as well. Irritating, isn’t it?”

A laugh bubbled up from somewhere and Kathryn met his smiling eyes.

“Yes, and Phoebe’s not one to mince words. She takes no prisoners.”

“Sounds like someone else I know.”

Kathryn shook her head. “It’s a bit of a Janeway trait, I’m afraid. She calls Mom, the Major General, and the moniker fits like a glove.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a strong woman.”

“It never entered my head to think there was.”

He tugged at his ear and chuckled quietly before looking up. “I’ve missed this.” His smiled faded. “I’ve missed it for a long time.”

Those dratted tears burned in her throat but she willed them away. “We shouldn’t have let it happen.”

“No, we shouldn’t.”

The silence became heavy between them – laden with regrets and unfulfilled hopes.

Chakotay leaned forward again – close enough to touch. “Do you think we can ever get it back?”

“Nothing stays the same – things change, circumstances interfere.” She shrugged, not entirely sure that they were talking about the same thing.

He looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry, Kathryn.”

“Whatever for?”

He huffed a bitter laugh. “So many things. The distance I let come between us, giving up, Seven of Nine…everything.”

“So you’re taking the blame for all of it? How convenient for me.”

There was a bitter edge to her voice and his head whipped up, and he stared at her.

“I was your second in command. It was my job to protect you.”

“Even from myself?”

“Especially from yourself.”

She shook her head. “You didn’t stand a chance.”

“Maybe, but I gave up and I’ll never forgive myself for that.”

Bitterness again edged her voice. “Do you get some sort of thrill from being a whipping boy?”

“What?” His brows snapped together in a frown. “I’m making a genuine apology here. I don’t want to fight about it.”

“Well, if you keep this up, that’s exactly what you’re going to get – a fight. We were a team, Chakotay. We’re both responsible for what happened.”

His mouth tilted sceptically and one eyebrow rose. “You can’t take the blame for my misguided liaison with Seven.”

She answered with a wry smile. “Well, perhaps not that but, if I’d been less of a stickler for the rules, things might have been different and neither of us would have been so lonely.”

His slightly puzzled eyes were fixed on hers and a warmth crept into their depths that, in turn, ignited a small fire of hope in her heart.

She wondered what he would do if she told him everything. It irked her that he was so willing to take the blame for the deterioration of their relationship – both professional and personal. There was nothing as tiresome as a martyr – and she should know - she’d spent the last seven years doing a bang-up impersonation of one and all it had led to was a mountain of regrets.

She hoped Phoebe would be proud of her because she was about to jump in, boots ‘n all. “How about we agree to share the responsibility? I’m willing to confess to my part in what happened and when I’m done, you can explain what possessed you to think that you and Seven were compatible.”

She waited for his reaction but instead of the anger she expected, he simply shook his head and looked mildly befuddled. “If I knew that, I would be a much wiser man. I have no idea except that she was there and interested, and I was lonely. But it’s your turn first.” He raised his brows in challenge.

So he didn’t think she’d be forthright with him. He was in for a shock. She decided that she’d start with the biggest bombshell of all and go from there. “I fell in love with you sometime during our first year.”

She heard his sharp intake of breath but barrelled on regardless.

“I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but I remember waking up one day and the knowledge was simply there and that’s where it stayed.” She reached for her coffee, took a sip but it was cold and she grimaced. His eyes hadn’t left her face but he didn’t say anything as he reached over and refilled her cup. She nodded her thanks and took another sip before she continued. They were both remarkably calm. Too calm, perhaps.

“New Earth was where it became problematic and I couldn’t deny my feelings anymore. I want you to know, that if we’d stayed there much longer, I would have slept with you. I was devastated when we had to leave but also torn – I wanted to get home but having to re-establish the old command structure was a brutal dose of reality. But, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t risk having a relationship with you while I was captain of Voyager.”

“Parameters and protocols – I understand.”

She huffed derisively. “Great excuses, weren’t they? No, it wasn’t parameters, protocols or Starfleet regulations. How many of those did I break, bend and torture without a qualm during our time out there?” He opened his mouth to say something but she shook her head to stop him. “Don’t even try to count – there were far too many. I wasn’t as wedded to Starfleet rules as I led everyone to believe, but that’s another story. It was simply easier to let you think that rather than to try and explain that I couldn’t risk losing you. I wouldn’t have survived the loss, and I owed the rest of the crew my undivided loyalty. I had a job to do and that was to get home with Voyager intact and as many of the crew alive as was possible. But as time went on, I found it harder and harder to separate my feelings for you from the mission, and so I decided to distance myself. It was a conscious decision and I knew I risked losing you to someone else but I had no choice. I tried to fill the void with other things and in the process, made some rookie mistakes trying to compensate for my lack of a private life – Michael Sullivan was one such mistake – I made a prize fool of myself and I still cringe to think of it.”

He leaned forward and she was sure he was going to deny her foolish behaviour but it seemed that honesty was the catchword of the day. “I personally couldn’t see the attraction and you always seemed a little uncomfortable when the crew were around. I think that’s what made everyone wonder.”

“I reconfigured his parameters.”

“Ahh,” He looked mildly amused. “That explains the missing wife.”

She shook her head, stifling her embarrassment. “I deleted her. The Doctor thought it was a good idea.”

He gave her an aggrieved look. “Why am I not surprised? Whatever possessed us to think that The Doctor was an acceptable barometer for social behaviour? My relationship with Seven was an extension of his socialisation lesson plans. I mean, a hologram guiding an ex-drone through the intricacies of intimate relationships – what could possibly go wrong?” He laughed and shook his head.

“His intentions were always good.”

“Hmm. The road to hell and all that.”

The corner of Kathryn’s mouth kicked up in a smile. “I’ve spoken to Seven. She seems to be fine.”

He nodded. “I have too, and yes, she’s resilient to a fault. I don’t blame her but, between the two of them, they more often than not left a trail a destruction in their wake.”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”

“I’m sorry you think that.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Do you want an honest answer?”

“Of course.”

He looked past her shoulder towards the windows, his gaze turning inwards as he mused, “I’d hoped that when you found out, you’d be heartbroken.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No.” His eyes met hers and she could see that he was sincere. “Once I realised that Seven’s and my relationship was doomed, I wanted to speak to you, gauge your reaction and perhaps test the waters again.”

“Oh.” She smiled and then frowned. “But the relationship wasn’t doomed. In the Admiral’s timeline, you married Seven.”

He huffed a laugh. “That’s what she says. I’m not sure I believe her.”

“Why would she lie?”

“Why?” He looked surprised by her question. “For all sorts of reasons, but primarily it was a means to an end. She wanted us to follow her plan. She was you, and you have been known to manipulate situations to your advantage on occasion.”

Kathryn silently thought that this was an understatement but she was reluctant to add fuel to that particular fire. “I’m not proud of it.”

“I know but it saved us more often than not - The Kazon, Gath, Kashyk.”

All shining examples of her manipulative magic, but her thoughts had honed in on his blithe accusation that the Admiral had manipulated and lied to her. Did his suspicions hold water and what if they were true? Had she been played? Not just played, but finessed by a master flimflam merchant – herself. Now that she thought about it, it made a good deal of sense. She ran through the entire scenario in her mind. During that impromptu meeting outside the Astrometrics Lab, the Admiral had manoeuvred her like a pro, first hitting her with the shocking news of Seven of Nine’s impending death. It had hit her like a knee to the solar plexus and hot on the heels of that bone jarring revelation, came the equally shocking disclosure that Seven would ‘die in the arms of her husband, Chakotay’. Another gut punch. And while she was still reeling, she’d been bludgeoned with the potential loss of twenty-two more crewmen, and then the coup de grace of Tuvok’s illness – the only verifiable claim. Once that had been confirmed with the Doctor, she’d swallowed the rest of it whole without even considering that she was being manipulated and played for a fool.

Damn it! He was right and she’d been so blinded by shock and disappointment that she hadn’t seen the gaping holes in the Admiral’s story. She hated being suckered and if she could get her hands on the woman, she’d…. she’d…. She wasn’t sure what she’d do, but her anger would make the Borg Queen look like Tinkerbell by comparison.

“Are you all right, Kathryn?”

She glared at him and almost yelled as she jagged to her feet. “No, I’m not all right. That conniving old biddy. You’re right. She lied. Now that I think about it, it was so obvious. She was desperate for us to follow her plan and like me…” She met his eyes for a moment. “she would do anything to achieve her goal. Lying and manipulating were a means to an end. Apart from Tuvok’s illness, there was no way to verify her claims – other than the fact that you were dating Seven at the time – and that, as it turned out, meant nothing.” She looked at him. “Sorry – I didn’t mean it like that.”

He shrugged. “It’s okay. It kind of didn’t.”

“I’m livid.”

He was smiling.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s hard to believe that you were outmanoeuvred by yourself and didn’t realise it.” He chuckled quietly. “It is kind of funny when you think about it. No one else ever managed to hoodwink you but… you.”

“Laugh away, but she had an unfair advantage. She knew me better than I knew myself - she’d known me for longer.” Her eyes met his, all humour gone from their depths. “And, she knew how I felt about you – it made me an easy mark.”

“We all were. We were so desperate to get home.”

She slumped back into her chair. “Well, she got what she wished for. We’re back.”

Again, he looked past her to the windows and the view beyond – the stark winter landscape was spread before them. “Is it how you imagined it would be?”

She shook her head. “No, but my memories were of a world untouched by tragedy – we missed an entire war while we were gone. I hadn’t really occurred to me until Phoebe mentioned it this morning. It changes things.”

He gave a curt nod. “I think it would be different anyway. I’d unwittingly idealised my recollections of home and the reality could never live up to the fantasy.”

“I think we were all guilty of that – sprinkling fairy dust on our memories – I know I did.”

He gazed at her for a long moment and then pivoted to his feet, holding out his hand to her. “Will you show me the garden?”

“It’s not much of a garden yet. It’s mostly mud.”

“I don’t care, it’s a beginning.”

She slipped her hand into his and let him pull her to her feet, his eyes never leaving hers. He guided her around the table and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. The heat of his body seeped like warm honey down her side and the familiarity of it awoke something inside her. It was a warmth of feeling she’d been missing since she’d set foot on terra firma – the comfort of the familiar. She’d thought that home would give her that but the opposite was true. Instinctively, she squeezed his arm and he smiled down at her.

Something inside her gave way and a great wash of peacefulness edged out the tension. She felt at ease for the first time in months.

At the backdoor, they let go of one another to don their coats but then she wove her arm through his again and felt him relax against her. They needed this and each other – it was one of the constants in both their universes. Kathryn smiled.

Moments later, they were surveying the disaster zone that would eventually be her vegetable garden. Her pickaxe was still leaning against the shed and Chakotay glanced down at her. “You’re doing it by hand?”

She nodded. 

“It looks like hard work.”

Kathryn shrugged. “That was the idea. Physically tiring but mentally undemanding. It let me… forget.”

He nodded and she knew that he understood. Phoebe had been right – again – she was going to be insufferable once she knew.

“I’d like to help, if that’s okay?”

She nodded, knowing that the offer was for more than just digging the frozen dirt. “I’d like that.” Maybe together they could heal and learn to live in this strange but familiar world that was now home.

She slowly turned to him and in a moment of perfect unspoken accord, he leaned down and kissed her. A simple brushing of his lips over hers but it was enough – for now. She reached up and cupped his cheek and then ran her fingers over the dark lines of his tattoo. Her fingers had itched to do that for years.

She smiled. “Would you like to see the rest of the farm?”

He nodded and sliding his hand down her arm, he wove his fingers through hers and they toured the farm hand in hand. Kathryn pointed out her childhood haunts – her thinking tree, where the old swing had been, where she and Phoebe had played hide and seek as children. She showed him the places she’d gone to such pains to describe to him while they were on Voyager, and they’d marvelled at how the reality had differed so markedly from his imaginings and her memories.

As they wandered from place to place, she became reacquainted with her home and her old life. It would never be the place it had been in her memories or the home she’d yearned for during those years she’d been lost in the Delta quadrant. But by the time they arrived back at the house, she felt a sense of belonging that had eluded her since her homecoming.

They were in the kitchen again and she reluctantly relinquished his hand.

“Another coffee… or tea?”

He shook his head. “No, thank you.”

Before any awkwardness could creep in and destroy their fragile connection, he turned to her. “Kathryn?”

“Yes.”

“You told me earlier that you fell in love with me during the first year of our voyage.”

She nodded. “Yes.” Her chest tightened suddenly and it was all she could do to squeeze that one word past the building pressure.

“Do you still feel that way?”

This time a whisper was all she could manage. “Yes.”

His eyes closed for a moment and she could see his entire body slump in relief as though a huge burden had been lifted from his shoulders. She wanted to fling her arms around his neck and kiss him and kiss him until they couldn’t breathe.

He opened his eyes; his relief was palpable but there was also a welcome gleam shimmering in their depths. It made Kathryn’s blood thrum in her veins.

“When is your mother due home?”

She swallowed. “I said I’d call when the coast was clear.”

His eyebrows rose and slow knowing smile curved his lips. “Would you show me the rest of the house?”

Her mouth tilted into a wide grin and she wanted to shout. ‘Just try and stop me.’ But instead, she took his hand and wove her fingers through his.

They slowly mounted the stairs but only made it as far as her bedroom – not that she was surprised. It would have taken a strength of will she didn’t possess to go any farther.

And from there, it all happened so easily and simply.

One minute they were standing inside the door of her room and the next they were tumbling onto the bed, their lips fused together and their arms wrapped around one another, hands grasping and stroking, tugging at stubborn buttons and clasps, each of them trying, without success, to climb inside the other’s body.

They made love in a frantic, clumsy rush to completion – seven years of foreplay didn’t allow for much finesse or gentleness.

Kathryn moaned as Chakotay’s hands stroked over her, dragging down over her breasts and belly, kneading her bottom and delving into the damp heat between her thighs. He claimed every inch of her with his touch and as his lips closed around one nipple, then the other, her gasps fuelled the fire blazing between them.

 When he entered her, he heaved a toe-curling groan and she sank her teeth into the tendon that marked the spot where his neck met his shoulder. It was over in moments. Kathryn had been in a state of humming arousal most of the afternoon and Chakotay’s control had been teetering on the edge for almost as long. Arching in climax, they shouted their joy to the world and together fell headlong into oblivion.

Lying beneath him, hot, damp and feeling deliciously sated, Kathryn gasped for breath and laughed. She was bursting with happiness and couldn’t contain it any longer. Chakotay leaned back when he heard the first quiet rasps of her laughter and with a broad grin of delight, he’d rolled her on top of him and together they laughed until they were breathless. Their love-making had been joyous and life-affirming, and a testament to a love that had survived the travails of time and drastic change. 

Chakotay held her close, not willing to let her go, kissing her, whispering his love against her secret places and Kathryn revelled in the awakening of her long-denied love and desire. He told her he loved her over and over until there was no room for doubts and she breathed the same words into every kiss and wrote them over his heart.

The second time they made love, they explored - hands, mouths, fingers and tongues mapping the hills, valleys and plains of their bodies. For two people who knew each other so well, but as lovers they were strangers, it was a deeply moving and liberating experience. When he finally entered her, tears leaked from the corners of her eyes and he kissed them away, crooning words of love and longing against her hair and the damp skin of her neck. They came together in a fierce flurry of throbbing need and release and still joined, fell into a sated slumber only to wake a few hours later as the sun was setting and the snow had begun to fall.

They lay together, Kathryn’s head on his shoulder, their legs tangled together under the covers. She’d forgotten what it was like to wake up in someone’s arms and she relished the sensation.

Finally, she rolled up onto her elbow, her hand brushing his hair back from his forehead as she kissed him. “I should call Phoebe. They’ll be expecting to hear from me.”

He nodded. “I’ll come down with you.”

“You don’t have to. I’ll be right back.”

He smiled. “I don’t want to let you out of my sight. Not yet.”

She knew exactly what he meant. A lifetime would be too soon.

Chakotay sifted through the discarded clothes on the floor and pulled on his trousers and shrugged into his shirt but didn’t do up the buttons.

Kathryn grabbed a t-shirt and loose fitting pants from her drawer, and slipped them on, running her fingers through her hair before she turned to Chakotay. “I’ll quickly call Phoebe if you can put the coffee on, then we’ll replicate something for dinner. I’m famished.”

He stood in front of her, a broad smile on his face as he nodded towards her t-shirt. Emblazoned across the front were the words ‘Quantum Physicists do it at Warp Speed.’

“Nice sentiment.”

Kathryn looked down and then rolled her eyes. “Phoebe.” That seemed to explain it all, and she laughed – she couldn’t seem to stop.  

Arms around one another, they made their way downstairs and Chakotay kissed her deeply before she reluctantly left his arms and headed into the office. He padded barefoot towards the kitchen.

“Hey, Kathryn.”

She turned. He was standing in the doorway looking good enough to eat and she was hit by an overwhelming urge to forget about Phoebe, her mother and the rest of the known universe and simply tackle him to the ground and have her way with him right there on the kitchen floor. She smiled to herself and stowed the thought away for later.

She smiled. “Yes.” 

“I love you.”

Before she could say a word, he turned around and disappeared into the room.

She whispered the words, her heart full to the brim. “I love you too.”

**************

Sitting at the desk in her father’s old office, Kathryn turned on the comm. system. Two messages blinked on the console. She opened them and smiled, before sending brief messages in answer.

She could hear Chakotay in the kitchen and leaned back, a wonderful sense of wellbeing seeping over her. Her toes curled and she wanted to dance for joy but there was a man in that other room whom she needed to see about coffee and some love-making. Probably in that order but it wasn’t written in stone.

When she entered the kitchen, he was pouring the coffees and setting a couple of bowls of soup on the table. He looked up and they gazed into each other’s eyes for a long breathless moment.

Kathryn desperately wanted to make love to him again but they’d need fortifying if they were going to last the night. So, she took a deep breath, shook her head and laughed. “That only proves that I made the right decision on Voyager. We would never have gotten anything done if we’d started this out there.”

“Good things come to those who wait… and wait… and…”

She took a threatening step towards him but he only laughed and caught her up into his arms and kissed her until she couldn’t think. He carried her to a chair and pulled his lips away from hers with a smack as she plonked onto her seat. “Hey.” She would have complained but she was distracted by a steaming mug of coffee.

She took a dredging sip and sighed, while he sat down beside her. “Did you talk to Phoebe?”

“There were two messages for me when I turned on the comm. unit.”

“And?”

“One was from my mother telling me she won’t be back until tomorrow, which is excellent news.” She took another sip of coffee, her eyes on his over the rim of her mug. “The other one was from Phoebe.”

He shot her a questioning glance.

She shrugged. “It was short and to the point – just like Phoebe. It was a question. ‘Galliform or hero?’

“Your answer?”

She smiled. “Hero.”

He grinned and reaching for her hand, kissed her knuckles and then gestured towards the soup. “Eat up. We’re going to need it.”

Without another word, she ate every bite.

 

 

Epilogue.

 

The sound of laughter lured her away from the sink to the window overlooking the backyard. They were picking vegetables for lunch from Kathryn’s lush, tumble-down garden.

Kathryn and Chakotay, Phoebe and Leo and the children. Her beloved family.

Gretchen Janeway smiled. Well, part of her family. Tom, B’Elanna and Miral, Harry Kim and a handful of Voyager’s old crew would be arriving soon. The number expanded each time, as did the fun and joy of sharing time together. They were Kathryn’s family and had become her family too.

The wide blue sky of the late Indiana summer stretched above them, the sun shone and a few wisps of cotton-ball clouds drifted overhead. It was a beautiful day and Gretchen sent a silent message of thanks to Admiral Janeway – the woman who’d orchestrated this miracle and whom Gretchen suspected knew exactly what she was doing when she set this all in motion.

Not only had she sent Voyager and her crew home, but she’d saved Kathryn from a lifetime of loneliness and regret. The laughing, free spirited woman outside was barely recognisable as the care-worn, guilt-ridden creature who had returned from the Delta Quadrant a little over eight months ago. They owed a great deal to that old woman who had seen her way to righting a wrong and who wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

Perhaps age was the common denominator but Gretchen felt a deep and abiding solidarity with the woman whose motives Kathryn still doubted, but whom Gretchen believed was as close to a Fairy Godmother as Kathryn was ever likely to get.

Life had been kind to them since the day she’d sent Phoebe to bully Kathryn into contacting Chakotay. Smiling to herself, she wondered what the Admiral would have thought of her less than subtle mode of coercion. She had a feeling, she would have approved.

Phoebe and Gretchen’s interference had been so successful that Kathryn and Chakotay had been married in a simple ceremony a few weeks later, much to the delight of the entire Voyager crew.     

They now lived at the farm, a gentle and uncomplicated existence that suited them both. A constant stream of Voyager crew came and went; the farm becoming a central hub and a place that they knew they would always be welcome.

With time and patience, most of the crew had reintegrated and resumed their lives. For some, it had been a bumpier road than for others, but, with the endless patience and support of their fellow crewmembers and their families, life had slowly found its rhythm for all the returnees.

Kathryn had been offered a promotion to the Admiralty but after some deep soul searching, she’d declined the promotion in favour of a teaching position at the Academy - there would be no Admiral Janeway in this Kathryn’s future. Chakotay had already taken up his teaching position and their combined chairs of Delta Quadrant Studies and Anthropology were now amongst the most popular subjects being taught at the Academy. Kathryn was thriving in this new environment – she’d taken to it like a duck to water, as Gretchen knew she would. She had never seen her eldest daughter so content.   

As she watched, the situation in the garden began to deteriorate – thanks to Phoebe. Gretchen rolled her eyes and waited while her younger daughter crept up behind Kathryn and squashed a tomato on her cheek. An indignant shout followed and then it was on for young and old. Arms waving, Phoebe screeched and, made an ungainly hurdle over the cucumbers and broad beans, taking off up the yard with Kathryn in hot pursuit.

The children watched on in jaded indifference – how many times had they seen this sort of behaviour from their mother and aunt over the last few months? Too many times, but it still made Gretchen smile.

Chakotay and Leo swapped glances, smiled and with children in tow, gathered up the baskets of vegetables and began moving back towards the house leaving the sisters to their fun.

Gretchen shook her head and laughed to herself. Time for some coffee and brownies to placate wounded pride and feed ravening beasts.

Phoebe was the first to barrel through the kitchen door – leaping up the steps past Chakotay and the children.

“Protect me, Mom. She’s going to bury me in the compost.”

Kathryn was right behind her and skidded to a halt just inside the door. “Look what she did.” She was wiping tomato seeds from her cheek and chin but she was grinning and not looking at all homicidal.

“Coffee, girls?”

Kathryn pointed at her sister. “You find the brownies, but I get first dibs.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

Kathryn poked out her tongue at Phoebe – a very childish but delightfully different reaction to the one from five months ago.

Grinning, Phoebe returned the gesture, and then headed towards the large bank of kitchen cupboards to start her systematic search for the elusive brownies. “The tomatoes are delicious, by the way.”

“They’re not bad, even if I do say so myself.” Kathryn was busy setting the table.

Chakotay, Leo and the children had made it inside and unloaded their baskets.

Katie rushed to her mother’s side. “I want to look too.”

“Have at it, champ. Try those cupboards there.”

Two minutes later there was a squeal of delight and Katie was holding the brownie tin aloft; looking very much like a miniature of her mother.

“I found them, I found them!”

“Ah, chip off the old block.” Phoebe gave her a quick kiss on the head and let her carry the tin to the table.

Kathryn poured the coffee and passed the mugs around the table. All the time, she and Phoebe sparred with one another, each jibe lobbed accurately but with love. There was a surfeit of laughter and so much joy.

Gretchen stood back for a moment and surveyed the faces of the people she loved best in the world and marvelled at the unexpected twists and turns life could take. Out of unbelievable sorrow and grief had come this astonishing tableau of happiness and delight. If Kathryn hadn’t been lost in the Delta quadrant, she would not have met Chakotay and they wouldn’t be sitting here at the table, his arm draped around her shoulder as she fed small amounts of brownie to Phoebe’s youngest who was sitting on his lap. Perhaps things did happen for a reason.

She smiled as she watched Leo negotiate a truce between Katie and her younger brother by moving one and sitting in between the two - much to their displeasure. As they complained, he stuffed half a brownie in each of their mouths, and they were momentarily appeased. He looked up, found her eyes on him, grinned and shrugged.   

Gretchen laughed. Life couldn’t get much better than this.

Kathryn gestured for her to join them at the table and, with her heart full and a cup of hot coffee waiting for her, Gretchen didn’t hesitate.

She took her place at the table with her family and happily joined the fray.

 

fin