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In the Arms of Family

Chapter Text

In the Arms of Family

Story by jamelia and Christina
Written by jamelia, Christina, CyberMum, DianeB, Julie, monkee, Penny, and Rocky

Compiled by jamelia

Prologue

The question and answer session had been going on for far too long already, and Kira Nerys, the current commandant of Deep Space Nine, was rapidly running out of patience. She very pointedly ignored the hand waving energetically in her face for the umpteenth time. Kira wondered how the woman could manage to continue doing that, virtually without a break, for over an hour. Her own shoulder muscles ached in sympathy.

She saw others in the small gathering, mostly Bajorans, who had barely asked any questions at all. She recognized Tal Ceres, Tal Luji, and Tal Sheron, mother and sisters of the Bajoran engineer, but had not heard anything at all from any of them. Gerron Malyn, the grandmother and last living relative of the young Maquis, had been just as silent; Kira could hardly be surprised at that. Still, she'd love to respond to someone else's question rather than subject everyone to another from the petite Earth woman in the first row. Fortunately, the mother of one of Voyager's engineers chose that moment to raise her hand.

"You have a question, Tabor Audran?" Kira asked.

"Will we have time to hold this memorial service for Liberty's lost Bajoran crew members before Voyager is ordered to return to Earth?" she asked.

"Yes, we will. We've been assured by Starfleet Command that Voyager will remain at the station long enough for the planned memorial service, as well as for a big celebratory parade on Bajor. Vedek Capril will conduct the memorial service at the station’s shrine." Kira gestured toward the  vedek to her right. The vedek took his cue and bowed formally to the group. "Establishing a firm date and time for both of these events are at the top of the agenda. As soon as we know when it will be, I'll have it posted to the newsnet. I'm sure you won't be able to escape that news even if you tried!"

Kira looked around again as the crowd chuckled, trying to find someone else to call upon besides the mother of Harry Kim, who was still waving her hand as energetically as a teacher's pet. That didn't surprise Kira either. Mary Kim had informed everyone who stopped to listen to her for five seconds that she was a fourth-grade school teacher on sabbatical, touring Bajor and DS9. Since the area's tourist trade had hardly recovered from the impact of the Dominion War, Mrs. Kim's true motive was transparent--not that she withheld that fact from anyone, either. Since DS9 had been the last port of call before her son Harry Kim and his crew mates on Voyager landed in the Delta Quadrant, Mrs. Kim thought it only logical the ship would return to the station before flying home to Earth.

Mrs. Kim's vigil for her son was truly touching, although Kira would have been far more sympathetic if the woman hadn't shown up at Ops, or Kira's quarters, or the security office daily over the past two months, wanting to know if anyone had heard when Voyager would arrive. Kira had been ready to strangle Mrs. Kim on more than one occasion.

Two weeks ago, Kira had been informed that Mrs. Kim's assumption had been proven correct. Voyager was to stop at DS9 on its way to Earth, with an ETA of one week. Kira also knew the starship's delayed arrival was due to damage sustained when Voyager had come out of the slipstream drive at the wrong coordinates, in the Badlands. Why they had arrived at this location instead of the general vicinity of DS9 was a mystery. All Kira knew at this point was that she wasn't supposed to say anything about it to anyone, particularly the voluble Mrs. Kim. If anyone Kira had ever encountered was more likely to be a security risk, she couldn't think who it might be at the moment.

Kira sighed as she exchanged glances with Lieutenant Ro Laren. The station's current security officer was standing to her left. Ro shrugged her shoulders, and Kira caved in; she couldn't avoid responding to the woman from Earth any longer. "Yes, Mrs. Kim?"

Mrs. Kim opened her mouth to ask, for what Kira was sure would be the one hundred twenty-third time: "When Voyager arrives, when will the families be able to go on board to be reunited with their loved ones?"

To which Kira would respond (for the one hundred twenty-third time), "I don't know. That's up to Captain Janeway, and she hasn't let me know yet." Kira's combadge sounded, however, cutting off Mrs. Kim's "Wh..."

"Excuse me," Kira replied, with a Cheshire Cat smile, "I need to answer this."

"Saved by the beep," Ro murmured softly as Kira turned away to respond to her hail.

"Colonel, we're in contact with Voyager. Captain Janeway wishes to speak with you" said Lieutenant Tovan from Ops.

"Excellent. Patch me through."

"Colonel Kira? Captain Janeway here."

The eruption of applause in the background prevented Kira from answering until the noise subsided enough for her to say, "Welcome home to the Alpha Quadrant, Captain! I'm with a group of your crew's relatives. They're all extremely glad to hear from you. May I help you with anything?"

Janeway's pause before answering this simple question was long enough to tip off Kira that Voyager's captain was not pleased Kira had a crowd near her. "Nothing comes to mind at the moment. I just wanted to inform you to expect us in about eight more hours..."

Over the groans of disappointment from the relatives standing behind her, Kira replied, "Understood, Captain. I guess you can hear I've got some very impatient people here waiting for you."

"As long as they've been waiting, they deserve to feel impatient. They're no more impatient for us to get home than we are."

"I'm certain that's true. Is everyone well?"

"Everyone is very well, I can assure you of that. I've sent some additional messages to your Ops officer for you to read at your convenience, Colonel. I'll contact you again as soon as a more precise arrival time can be established."

"I appreciate that, Captain. It's good to hear your voice."

"Good to hear yours as well, Colonel Kira. Janeway out."

A spontaneous celebration broke out among the relatives as Kira broke the connection. A few non-relatives, mostly news media representatives, ran out of the room, undoubtedly hoping to "scoop" their compatriots on the story: "Voyager's Captain Contacts DS9--Crew Doing Fine and on Their Way Home!"

Kira waited for the commotion to die down a bit before finishing her address to the group, all the while wondering what was in those private messages. Confidential missives sent out via subspace just before a happy homecoming usually contained bad news. The existence of these messages was especially disturbing, when the still-unexplained delay in the ship's arrival was factored into the equation. Janeway had specifically reassured her everyone was all right, but Kira had to hear those messages to be sure, immediately, if not sooner.

"Well, everyone, I think that does it for now. Thank you for attending this..."

"Colonel Kira! My question! You haven't heard it yet!" Mrs. Kim broke in.

"You're right, Mrs. Kim," Kira acknowledged, bracing herself for the onslaught the woman from Earth was bound to unleash. "I know I said I'd ask Captain Janeway when you could meet with your son on Voyager as soon as she contacted us, but I'm sure you noticed I didn't have a chance..."

"That wasn't my question, Colonel. I wanted to ask about the memorial service on the station. Why is it that only the lost Maquis will be remembered? What about the Bajoran crewmen who lost their lives on Voyager, and on Equinox, too, when they were dragged into the Delta Quadrant by this Caretaker being? Shouldn't they be memorialized, too? In fact, what about all of those lost in the Delta Quadrant, of any species? Why can't the memorial service remember them all?"

Kira stood there, stunned to silence by the very appropriate questions that, to Kira's knowledge, no one else had broached.

Ro was Kira's savior. "Interesting points, Mrs. Kim. I'm sure Vedek Capril will be happy to speak to you about them." Mrs. Kim's head swiveled to follow Ro's pointing finger. Vedek Capril again bobbed his head to draw the attention of the Earth woman to him. Mrs. Kim began to walk in his direction.

Just when Kira thought she had the woman figured out...

And then Mrs. Kim halted in her tracks, craned her head back over her shoulder, and said, "But next time you talk to Captain Janeway, you will ask her when the families will be able to go on board..."

"Absolutely! First question!" Kira whipped out as rapidly as she could.

"That's one hundred twenty-one," Ro mumbled through her grin.

"Twenty-three," Kira corrected automatically.

"Not that you're counting, of course," Ro replied.

"Of course not," Kira sighed wearily.

She couldn't wait for Voyager to get here--so it could go away again--so they all could get on with their lives.


Chapter Text

Act One

"Docking clamps engaged, Captain," Harry Kim called out, his voice several decibels louder than usual. "Voyager has arrived at Deep Space Nine!"

Tom Paris didn't need to swivel his head around to know the reactions of the bridge crew. His grin broadened as they hooted, called out, clapped, and in one notable case, laughed out loud behind him. There was only one throat that raspy, almost evil, yet still feminine sound of glee could have come.

His fingers sped over the controls, closing off circuits and navigational sensors. With every tap of a digit upon smooth surface, Tom felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through his body. Deep Space Nine. Back where they began. Full circle.

Well, not exactly. Not for Thomas Eugene Paris. It seemed a lifetime ago a certain "Starfleet observer" was told by Captain Kathryn Janeway she was offering him a place on her ship--but not at the helm. Oh, no. His pleas that he was the best pilot she could ever have had fallen on deaf ears until fate snatched them all 70,000 light years away--or at least, those who had survived the trip. Sadly, the original pilot, Benara Stadi, was not one of the fortunate ones, giving Tom his chance to take the helm, to be the one sitting here now as the starship Voyager reached the point from which she had flown off and into adventures in the Delta Quadrant.

Tom's hand paused a moment, hovering over one of the pads that Stadi's fingers had stroked eight years before. He visualized her as she'd looked during the last leg of his trip from Earth to Deep Space Nine. God, he'd always had a weakness for dark-eyed brunettes! Tom could still remember the way he'd hit on her in the shuttle. At least she'd shot him down very gently. He'd been such a dog in those days!

At the time, he would have pretended it didn't hurt even if she'd been vicious about turning him down, but the Betazoid pilot had been a good soul, with a playful sense of humor. Stadi had probably known what he was going to say before he'd opened his mouth. Finding her broken body slumped next to the helm after they'd been dragged to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker had been the first death to bring pain to him during Voyager's journey, if far from the last. To be perfectly honest, Stadi's death had been the first to pierce the walls of brittle indifference he'd so carefully built during the years of his disgrace, the first to touch his heart for a very long time.

As Tom shut down the last operational control, he felt her immaterial presence, even if it were only in his memory, and embraced it.

His reverie was broken by a shadow falling over the helm station. "You're uncharacteristically silent for such a momentous occasion, Mr. Paris," Kathryn Janeway teased lightly. "No words of wisdom?"

Tom opened his mouth, ever ready for a glib bon mot, but he hesitated before actually speaking. Maybe that was why he discarded the quick joke he was about to utter and admitted what he was really thinking. "I was thinking about the first occupant of this chair, Captain. We've come full circle--some of us, that is."

Janeway gently patted Tom on the shoulder. "I'd say it was more like a hundred and eighty degrees of a circle in your case, Tom."

He chuckled lightly. "Thank you, Captain. But you know, despite everything, I wish Stadi were here with us to enjoy this moment, too."

"As do I." She gave Tom one more tap on the upper arm, a little brisker than the previous one, adding, "Since you won't be performing any more navigational duties for tidat, would you care to be one of the senior staff members accompanying Commander Chakotay and myself out to the docking bay? I understand you might be familiar with one of the Deep Space Nine staff who will be coming to meet us."

An image of his father leaped into Tom's brain, but he suppressed it immediately. Admiral Paris, coming all this way to meet Voyager, when they'd be going to Earth and see him there as soon as repairs to the ship were finished? Not likely! He pushed away the inclination to speculate any further. He'd be better off just going to the station instead of imagining who it might be. "I'd love to, Captain, but I want to check in with B'Elanna first. Not that I'll be able to pry her out of Engineering for hours, but..."

Janeway nodded understandingly. "We won't be leaving for about five minutes. You've got time."

"Thank you, Captain," Tom said with a sincere smile. Although she could take these simple words on their surface, simply for giving him permission to speak to his wife, or even because she'd asked him to accompany her to the docking ring, in his own mind they resonated as a broader expression of gratitude. Between the time of that last visit to Deep Space Nine and this one, Tom Paris had changed his life completely. He owed more than he could ever say to the captain who had helped him make that personal about-face in his life.

Now, as long as his captain wasn't the only one who held that opinion in Starfleet, his "one hundred and eighty degree change" might hold up once he got home to Earth.

*

Harry Kim and Tuvok were remaining on board to supervise the skeleton bridge crew. B'Elanna Torres and her engineering staff were also not disembarking at this time. They were bound and determined to get Voyager's engines back in shape, now that they could be shut down completely for repairs. Many of the other department heads gathered around Kathryn Janeway near the main entry hatch, however, ready to disembark, with all due ceremony, at their first port-of-call in the Alpha Quadrant. A whole list of clichés, including such gems as "This is it," "Back where we started," "We're home, Commander" and the ever-popular, "Home again," popped one after the other into the captain’s mind. She discarded every one of them. Instead, she settled upon a simple nod to her first officer, who did the honors and gave the order. "Open the hatch, Mr. Ayala."

As Tuvok's second in command in the Security/Tactical Department did as instructed, Janeway and Chakotay stood quietly as the heavy door glided out into the sizable docking ring air lock. Janeway led the group out of the ship and into the airlock, followed by Chakotay, Megan Delaney of Astrometrics, Samantha Wildman, who was representing the sciences, Lieutenant Rollins, the EMH, Tom Paris, and Ayala. The iris separating the rest of Deep Space Nine from the air lock opened. Two orange-clad figures stood in the pylon corridor.

"Welcome to Deep Space Nine," one of the women said, holding out her hand for Janeway to shake.

"Thank you, Colonel," Janeway replied. "It's very very good to be here."

Colonel Kira turned and introduced the woman to her left. "My security officer, Lieutenant Ro Laren of the Bajoran militia." That name was not unknown to Janeway, of course, but she shook the lieutenant's hand firmly. "A pleasure."

Ro crinkled her brow, but any comment she might have made in response was drowned out by Paris' shouted, "Ro? Ro Laren! I can't believe it!"

"You don't have to shove me back inside Voyager in your haste to depart," the Doctor sniffed.

"Sorry," Tom mumbled as he stepped between Megan Delaney and Rollins.

Chakotay took back the hand he was about to offer Lieutenant Ro as Tom rushed past him.

"It's good to see you, too, Tom," Ro said, making a stab at maintaining appropriate protocol by shaking both his hands before shrugging and giving him a quick hug instead. Kira took a step back, the look of astonishment on her face matching that of the rest of the onlookers, with one notable exception.

"Lieutenant Paris and Ro were at the Academy together. I understood they were quite close friends there," Janeway explained, rather smugly. Her love of research had paid off again.

Ro and Tom stepped back from each other, both saying, "Sorry," to their respective commanders at the same time.

"No apologies needed, Lieutenants," Janeway said. "I think we're going to have to throw protocol to the winds for a while, all things considered. Our reunions are bound to stir up strong emotions, now that we've come back home to the Alpha Quadrant. Now, that has quite a nice ring to it, doesn't it, Commander?" She grinned broadly at her first officer.

"It certainly does," Chakotay said, as he introduced the rest of the assembled officers to Kira and Ro while the party began a slow stroll towards the Promenade, the heart of Deep Space Nine. Janeway could see the smile pasted upon Chakotay's face was not quite as dazzling as many others she'd seen over the years. She understood; her own feelings were far more unsettled than she was willing to show.

She had no personal feelings one way or other towards Lieutenant Ro, who had been tossed out of Starfleet and later brought back into the fold by Captain Jean-Luc Picard, only to turn her back on Starfleet and join the Maquis. She had survived the decimation of the Maquis during the war due to the fact she'd been injured and recuperating on Bajor at the time. Her history mirrored that of her old friend Tom Paris in more ways than one, and here she was, holding a position of responsibility on Deep Space Nine. She had survived and rehabilitated herself through courage and more than a little luck. That Janeway recognized and accepted Ro's transformation was telling. The captain who had left Deep Space Nine eight years ago in hot pursuit of Chakotay's Maquis ship would have had a very different, far more judgmental attitude towards the Bajoran, if they'd met back then.

Now, as she overheard Tom Paris relating Miral's latest antics and promising he'd drag his wife away from her engines that night, somehow, so Ro could join the family for dinner, Janeway found herself hoping desperately that Ro Laren's presence today, greeting Voyager's crew, was a good omen. If Ro Laren could win respect, despite her many missteps, couldn't--shouldn't--her own crew be well-received as well? Starfleet, Maquis, and Equinox survivors alike?

She would like to think so, yet in her heart, she feared the Bajoran government had been considerably more forgiving than Starfleet and the Federation were likely to be. Still, she had to play out the entire act, follow all the procedures, fight as hard as she could if need be, and hope for the best. For Kathryn Janeway there was no other alternative.

*

Ro had instructed her station security forces to keep the main corridor of the pylon where Voyager had docked, including the area where it emptied out into the Promenade, as clear as possible. Although Kira had asked the Ops crew not to publicly announce that Voyager had reached the station, anyone looking out of the observation ports could watch the docking procedure. There was no way to anticipate how quickly the word would spread. The pylon corridors were too narrow for her staff to permit them to become clogged with crowds of curious bystanders. Considering how feelings might be running for--or against--the returning Maquis on Voyager, impeding the ability of those whose ships had docked further along the same pylon free access to their own ships was not something Ro or Kira wanted to risk. Adding a large dose of high feeling into overcrowded conditions was the recipe for a riot.

Fortunately, Ro's staff had done an excellent job. When the small clump of senior officers from Voyager and the station reached the corridors immediately outside the Promenade, there were only a few people standing in small groups. Her people unobtrusively passed through, gently asking the onlookers if they needed any assistance to get where they wished to go, to encourage the clots of people to disperse. Ro waved a few times to her people in approval. She was proud of her staff. It wasn't easy finding people with the experience and skills needed to work on the busy station, and Ro appreciated their high levels of performance. Her predecessor Odo had done a terrific job training them, and she had made maintaining such lofty standards a priority ever since she had assumed the position as security chief.

While Kira and Ro had expected the group to keep moving along to Kira's office at Ops, the reaction of Janeway and her officers at the first sight of the Promenade altered her plan. "It's so...familiar!" Tom said, as he halted in front of the first storefront next to the corridor.

"Oh, there have been plenty of changes. Garak's shop is closed, of course; and I don't remember if the Qapla' was open yet the last time you were here," Kira remarked.

"I remember that bar over there very well," Tom laughed. "That's where I met Harry for the first time. Had to rescue him from the proprietor."

"I spend a lot of time rescuing people from Quark's schemes," Ro agreed. "Too much time! I think he sets some of them up just to get me in there so he can flirt with me."

"Lieutenant Ro," the Doctor said brightly, "would you like to hear about the time I transformed Neelix into a Ferengi so he could go...Counselor Troi! And Commander Riker! How lovely to see you again so soon."

Ro turned her head. Deanna Troi was, indeed walking towards them, next to a very tall, very bearded, and very familiar first officer. "It's wonderful to see you here, too, Doctor."

Troi walked over to the Doctor and gave him a quick hug, as everyone else--almost everyone else--exchanged greetings.

"Do you know everyone here?" As he released Counselor Troi, the Doctor surveyed the group expectantly, looking for someone to introduce. "Colonel Kira? Lieutenant Ro?"

"Doctor," Janeway warned, with a touch of the glare Kira had told Ro about, when they'd first heard that Voyager was to dock at Deep Space Nine.

"Oh, sorry. Introductions would be your prerogative, Captain, or Colonel Kira's."

Riker had halted his progress a little distance from Ro, with Deanna safely between them. He was stroking his beard, a broad, if slightly contemplative smile upon his face, as the EMH took a step backward, ceding the center of the group to Janeway. The silence of the group continued for an awkward length of time before Ro tossed her head slightly and explained, "Commander Riker and I are well acquainted from my days of service on the Enterprise-D."

"Ah, then, you're old friends and shipma..." The EMH looked at Tom, who was clearing his throat emphatically. The EMH could not fail to notice that the rest of the group were all pointedly avoiding meeting each other's eyes. He finally said, "I, uh, stand corrected. You must not be old friends, precisely, but you still are old shipmates..." Tom's rasping became even louder. "Hmm. Kes must have missed this scenario when she programmed my old lessons in social situations."

It's remarkable. The EMH sounds so much like Barclay, Ro thought. Must have something to do with the effects of spending so much time on the holodeck. She decided to rescue him again. "Doctor, Commander Riker and I are old shipmates. It's just been a while since the Commander and I last were together--and that time, I had the business end of a phaser aimed at his solar plexus. I was defecting to the Maquis. Not the best way to say 'see you later,' if you know what I mean."

As she finished her explanation, Ro took a very deep breath and turned to face Riker. One good thing about the Doctor's good natured blundering was it gave her a chance to say something she'd been wanting to say for a long time. Before she could say anything to Riker, however, he interrupted her. "Lieutenant, in the interests of maintaining the present good relationship between Starfleet and Bajor, let's just say we've both had cause to wish certain past decisions never were made-- or were made very differently--and leave it at that. I'm certain Captain Picard would say the same if he were here."

Riker respectfully tipped his head in Ro's direction. She returned the gesture. Kira jumped in, quite literally, stepping between Ro and Riker, saying, "Well, now that we've reminisced about the good old days, shall we go to Ops? I have several things I'd like to go over with you in a less public place."

Ro looked around again. While she and Riker were having their uncomfortable moment, the group had drawn quite a crowd, exactly what she'd hoped to avoid.

As the group began to move towards Ops, Ro's security forces slowly moved into position around their perimeter to keep the outsiders at bay. Janeway used the buzz of the crowd around them as cover to ask, "Colonel, have you had an opportunity to speak with a Commander Craig about what we can and cannot discuss?"

Neither Ro nor Kira could completely contain the small groan that escaped from their lips. "Via subspace, yes. How did you manage to keep him from coming out of Voyager along with you?"

"We had communication problems during the last stage of our trip. At the last minute he discovered he had a large number of priority messages from Starfleet Command to review," Chakotay answered, his face held in a perfectly serious mask. Ro would have taken the comment at face value if Tom hadn't sniggered immediately afterwards.

*

Chapter Text

*

The small woman spotted the group she was looking for almost immediately upon entering the Promenade. They were at the far end of the rotunda, having just exited the docking link, and although they were obviously deeply involved in conversation, Mrs. Kim didn't hesitate for a moment. She clutched the precious parcel she had been carrying almost constantly for the past few months to her breast and made her way towards them, with the same determination she had exhibited ever since she'd found out Voyager and those upon her had somehow survived the disaster in the Badlands and were on their way back home. As far as she was concerned, his ship was finally home, and she was going to see her Harry. Now.

"Excuse me, please," she said, as she brushed by a young Bolian woman carrying a small child and shouldered her way through a group of cadets walking four abreast down the center of the Promenade.

"Lieutenant Laren, Colonel Kira," Mrs. Kim called, waving and gesturing almost before she was within earshot.

"Oh, no," Kira sighed in resignation. "I should have known."

"Is that who I think it is?" Ro sighed without turning around.

Chakotay, who was facing the Promenade, raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Mrs. Kim," Kira greeted her, trying to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

Mary Kim ignored her and moved into the midst of the group of officers and stood directly in front of Kathryn Janeway. She set her package down at her feet and proffered a hand to the captain, who took it and shook it firmly.

"Mrs. Kim, it's so good to meet you at last," Janeway said. "I know how anxious you must be to see your son. I'm sure we can arrange that fairly quickly."

"Captain!" Mrs. Kim continued shaking Janeway's hand vigorously. "Captain, you've brought my Harry back to me."

"Mrs. Kim..." she started to say, but Mary Kim, who was obviously in a highly emotional state, suddenly let go of Janeway's hand and engulfed the astonished captain in an enthusiastic hug.

Megan Delaney, who was standing directly behind Janeway, snickered.

Michael Ayala stood at attention and averted his eyes.

Tom Paris, who thought he'd seen just about everything, knew he would never forget the look on Janeway's face. He wished with all his heart B'Elanna was there to share this particular moment with him.

Chakotay, who realized anything he did or said would only make matters worse, showed admirable restraint. With great difficulty, he suppressed the laughter that threatened to overwhelm him. The glare Kathryn shot his way did not help his self-control in the least.

The EMH fumbled with his camera; but upon catching a glimpse of the captain's face, he decided that perhaps this particular scene was one which would remain unrecorded.

Ro clutched at Mrs. Kim's elbow and tried to remove her; but to everyone's surprise, once the initial shock had worn off, Kathryn Janeway waved the lieutenant away and returned the woman's hug with--if not quite the same enthusiasm--genuine warmth.

Finally, after what seemed forever to those surrounding her, the captain gently removed herself from Mrs. Kim's embrace. She tapped at her combadge.

"Janeway to Lieutenant Kim."

"Yes, Captain?" Mrs. Kim put her hand over her heart at the sound of her long lost son's voice.

"Please join us on the Promenade just outside the docking link."

"Yes, Ma'am," Harry responded immediately.

Janeway turned to Mary. "He'll be here in just a moment. In the meantime, I'd like to introduce you to Commander Chakotay, Lieutenant Paris..."

"Tom Paris!" Mrs. Kim interrupted her. "You're Harry's good friend. It's a pleasure to finally meet you. How is your excellent wife? And your lovely daughter?" She greeted Voyager's pilot, who, although speechless, reached out and shook the hand she offered him.

"Commander Riker, Deanna Troi." Mrs. Kim smiled at them. "I have seen both of you many times on the newsvids." She studied Riker for a moment. "You know," she continued, "you are much better looking in person, Commander."

"Thank you..." Riker replied. "I think," he added almost under his breath to Troi, who choked back her laughter with difficulty.

"And you," she turned to address the EMH, "are the hologram." She moved forward, not, he suddenly realized, to shake his hand, but to touch him, obviously wanting to see if he was solid. The Doctor jumped back quickly, managing to avoid the contact.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Madam. I, too, assure you your son is most anxious to see you." He said, echoing the Janeway's earlier words. "As a matter of fact," the Doctor gestured towards the corridor leading from the docking pylon, "I believe I see him now."

Mary Kim turned around to face in the same direction as the Doctor and caught sight of her son at almost the same time he spotted her.

"Mom. Mom!" Harry shouted, and broke into a run, waving and grinning at his mother, who, to the surprise of all those around her, stood rooted to the spot, unwilling--or more likely, unable--to utter a sound.

Harry arrived at the group, and without giving thought to protocol or procedure, lifted his mother off the ground in an embrace that she returned with great fervor.

"Harry. Oh my. Harry." Mrs. Kim, finally overcome, burst into tears.

"Mom." Suddenly remembering where he was and who was watching, Harry valiantly tried to comfort his mother. "Mom, it's so great to see you. Please stop crying."

Mary Kim nodded and took a deep sniffling breath. "I'm all right now, son. It was just the moment, you know," She said, in explanation to the others, who had remained standing quietly during the reunion.

"We understand completely Mrs. Kim," Janeway said, obviously touched. "Take your time."

Mrs. Kim, nodded, and suddenly started to look around frantically. "Where, is it? Where...? Oh. There." She bent down to retrieve her bundle, which had ended up behind her in the melee. She handed it to Harry.

"I've been waiting for eight years to give this to you, son. You forgot it when you left."

Harry took the package from his mother, his eyes suddenly glistening. "Mom. It's not...?"

"Open it, Harry." She stood and waited as he did as he was told.

"My clarinet. The Clausen-Wang." Harry fingered the keys gently. "You had it oiled."

"The keys and the bore. And there are three new reeds in the bottom of the case," Mrs. Kim replied.

"Why don't you take your mother on board Voyager, Lieutenant," Janeway suggested. Mrs. Kim nodded enthusiastically at the suggestion.

"Oh, yes, Harry, I want to see Voyager. I want to see where you work, and Neelix, and Naomi, and your room and..."

"Yes, ma'am." Janeway wasn't quite sure which "ma'am" Harry was answering at that point. She suspected he wasn't sure either, but she nodded at him in response.

"Well, then, you are dismissed, Lieutenant," she said, doing an admirable job of maintaining her composure.

"Ummm. Yes. Thank you, Captain. Come on Mom, let's go." Harry bent down and gently replaced his clarinet in its case. He picked it up, and took his mother--who was still talking--by the elbow, turned her around, and almost frog-marched her away from the group of officers, who at this point were all on the verge of laughter.

"Oh my," Kira said when she'd regained her composure. "That poor young man. How long do you think it's going to be before he applies for another deep space mission?"

"I don't know," Chakotay responded. "But I have a feeling Harry's going to get himself put on the fast track...."

"Fast!" Ro finished for him, to another round of laughter.

"We're laughing now," Janeway finally observed, "but perhaps we should also remember that within the next few weeks, most of us will be experiencing reunions very similar to that one. And who knows how we'll react?"

Kira smiled wryly. "As a matter of fact, a ship from Earth will be arriving within two days. I have it on good authority that the ship's passenger log includes a Mrs. Paris..." Tom winced, but his smile was broad, "and Mrs. Joseph Carey and her three sons..."

"And her two sons," Ayala corrected. "The third boy is mine!"

"That's wonderful!" Kira agreed, catching the tall man by the elbow. "I didn't realize that. Why don't you tell me all about him on the way to Ops."

"Very task oriented, isn't she?" Tom whispered to Ro as they squeezed through the loudly-buzzing crowd surrounding them.

"The good ones always are," Ro replied.

*

Chapter Text

*

She'd found an upturned storage barrel on a platform overlooking the Promenade. For well over an hour, she had watched the goings on below her. She'd arrived on Deep Space Nine on one of the earliest transports. Starfleet had had the courtesy to notify her that Voyager was on the final leg of her journey home--as well they should, she thought wryly--and accepted their offer of immediate transport without hesitation. She'd also realized 'Fleet wanted to make sure she was "unavailable to the press"; having her on the station and under their watch, so to speak, was most likely their primary motivation for making such an offer. But she had no cause to complain--she was exactly where she wanted to be at this moment.

The increased activity surrounding the prodigal ship's return had afforded her, a civilian, an unusual degree of freedom to roam about the station. When she noticed the raised area at the back of the mezzanine, she had decided it would be an excellent place to wait. After climbing up the rather rickety stairs at the back of the platform, she had pushed the barrel as far forward as she could. Shortly after she had settled herself into her current position, a young ensign had spotted her. Without asking her, he had brought a large mug of tea and handed it up to her wordlessly, smiled, and quickly headed off to continue with whatever it was he had been assigned to do.

She'd recognized a few faces from the newsvids; Kira Nerys and Ro Laren were familiar, as were Riker and Troi, of course. And there were several Voyager people as well. She watched scene after scene unfold, some predictable, others unexpected, and one or two almost comical. She'd seen the paper pushers, the publicity people and the 'brass'. She'd seen one particularly warm reunion between a mother and son. But the figure she watched most--could barely take her eyes from, in fact--was Voyager's captain.

Kathryn Janeway was totally focused--meeting and greeting, conferring, supervising, directing, comforting, ordering, and even, she thought at one point, doing a bit of reprimanding. Kathryn was smaller than she remembered (and she thought she remembered every detail). At first glance she even appeared a little frail; yet she also seemed almost larger than life. She obviously commanded great respect, even love, from the crew who had served her for the past eight years. For the woman who watched her, this in itself was a reward beyond price.

She closed her eyes for a moment or two, reflecting upon the lost years and the great gift this ship's return had given her. When she opened them the figure she had been watching so carefully had disappeared. She sighed, knowing she should get up, climb down from her perch, and search out the proper authorities who would no doubt make sure she was afforded the treatment they thought she merited. But she didn't move, except to take a sip of her now almost chilled tea.

Finally, she straightened her shoulders and set the mug down. As she did she felt the platform shake almost imperceptibly beneath her. She didn't turn around, even when she heard the light step of someone approaching.

The bustle below faded instantly, every fiber of her being was focused on the presence just behind her.

A hand--she knew it before she felt it--reached out and brushed her cheek as gently as any touch she'd ever felt.

"Mother?" Kathryn Janeway's voice was soft and full.

Gretchen turned and took her daughter into her arms, their tears mingling and falling unheeded on the cold metal floor.

*

Chapter Text

*

Harry fell against the door to his quarters as it closed, heaving a sigh of relief. He was finally alone. No reporters, no curious onlookers, no officious Starfleet liaisons, and no inquisitive and over-protective mothers.

"Make way! Give my son room. He's a hero! Make way!"

Harry closed his eyes, remembering his mother's voice on the Promenade earlier, when the crowd had made it difficult for them to pass. She meant well, and he loved her dearly. Almost nothing in the past eight years had felt as good--as right--as hugging her to him when he'd stepped out of the docking corridor and found her waiting on the Promenade. His heart had nearly overflowed with gratitude. He'd missed her, and his father, unbelievably.

He loved both his parents. Talking to his father via subspace and knowing he was so close now had been almost as emotional as hugging his mother. They'd been the best parents a kid could ever hope for, but he'd forgotten how persistent they could be-- especially his mother. She'd ferreted out information from the VFA and other sources and had come to a conclusion few others had--that Voyager would be arriving in the Federation via Deep Space Nine.

Harry chuckled wryly. He couldn't help but admire his mother's amazing tenacity. He imagined there were admirals from here to Earth who knew her name now--and shuddered when they heard it.

"Gilmore to Kim."

Harry smiled, happy to hear Marla's voice. "Kim here."

"I heard you were back on board Voyager."

"Yeah. I have some Ops reports to finish."

"Right."

There was a small pause. They both knew everyone except the handful of officers manning the bridge was officially off duty for the rest of the day and evening.

"Okay, I had to get away from my mother for a few minutes. I already feel guilty."

"Why?"

"Why?" Harry shook his head. "I deserted my mother on Deep Space Nine!"

Marla laughed softly. "Harry, you showed her around Voyager, and you've been with her for the past several hours. Besides, she had the ingenuity to get to Deep Space Nine before we even arrived. I'd say she can take care of herself."

"She was striking up a conversation with a Lurian named Morn when I left her." His mother could strike up a conversation with a rock. If the conversation was one-sided, that was okay with her; but Harry did worry about her sometimes. He remembered now how trusting she could be around strangers, believing everyone was as straightforward as she was.

"Harry, your mother is obviously a very resourceful woman, and both your parents were terrific at their job. After all, look how you turned out."

Harry chuckled at that. "You only met her for a minute, Marla. She hasn't had the chance to grill you yet."

He was joking, sort of, but the moment he said it, he regretted it. He didn't want Marla to think his mother would judge her by her past and find her wanting. He didn't want to think it either. "Not that my mother will grill you, exactly; she's just the curious type. You don't have to answer any questions you don't want to--"

"Harry, it's all right."

Marla didn't sound worried, though she could hide her feelings very well. "Are you sure you're up for dinner tonight?" Harry asked.

"Absolutely. I've always wanted to try real Klingon food."

"My mom is looking forward to it too. Despite her presence here, she doesn't get off Earth very often." Harry frowned. "I still feel bad leaving her on the Promenade. I was so glad to see her here, but I was starting to feel smothered by her attention. I think she still sees me as a kid."

"Harry." Marla's voice had that reasonable tone she sometimes adopted. "You were, what--twenty-two when you left on Voyager? So you were pretty much a kid when she last saw you. She just needs to get used to the fact that you've grown up."

Maybe that was it. He'd spent all these years so desperate to get home and see his parents again. But it was different than he'd expected. The parents he'd left behind, who'd loved and supported him every single step of the way, who'd focused all their attention on him and had willingly made sacrifices to help him achieve his dreams--they hadn't changed. He had. Happy as he was to be home, much as he felt immense satisfaction knowing they were nearby, he didn't need them to guide him or run interference for him. He was his own person now, in a way he hadn't been when he'd left eight years ago.

As Marla had said, he'd grown up.

"Hey, Harry. Still there?"

"Yeah, I'm still here. Just thinking about your words of wisdom. Thanks for giving them to me."

"Any time. I'm still waiting to talk to my sister. The subspace channels to Earth are so clogged right now, I'll probably be here for another half hour. Have you made your call?"

That was the other reason Harry had returned to Voyager. He wanted a little more privacy than the communication booths on the station's noisy Promenade provided, and here he'd be able to use his senior officer status to get through directly to Earth. "I'm waiting too, but it should come through any minute."

"I won't keep you then. I just called to say...hello."

Harry smiled. He liked that reason. "I'm glad you did."

"I'll see you in front of Qapla' at nineteen hundred hours."

"Okay, but if you want to come to my quarters before then to escape all the pandemonium on the station..."

"You can't possibly be referring to all these polite and respectful reporters?"

Harry laughed at Marla's incredulous tone. They'd been warned not to talk, especially about the incident with the Romulans. Although he'd wondered briefly about Starfleet's paranoia, he'd managed to evade the very dogged reporters who'd gotten word of Voyager's arrival and knew Marla would have no trouble fending them off either.

"Anyway, I have a meeting with Lieutenant Torres at seventeen hundred hours to discuss repair procedures."

Trust B'Elanna to keep on top of things, Harry thought, special day or not. "Okay, I'll see you in a couple of hours. I love you."

"I love you, too."

There was a soft click as Marla disconnected. She'd sounded almost carefree, maybe because she was focusing on her reunion with her sister. Harry knew they had to talk soon about their future. Marla wanted to wait until they got back to Earth and found out just what Starfleet had in mind for them, but Commander Craig was being vague at best regarding when and how that might be decided. Harry didn't want to wait that long, and he couldn't see any reason why they should.

"U'Lanai to Kim."

"Kim here," Harry answered the crewman currently manning the communications station on the bridge.

"I have your subspace reply coming in."

"Put it through," Harry said as he moved to his desk console. "And thanks, U'Lanai"

"You're welcome, sir."

A subspace origin identifier appeared on the screen--Copenhagen, Earth--and a moment later a fifty-ish woman with blonde hair appeared on the console screen. Her blue eyes held curiosity and a bit of trepidation. Clearly she hadn't expected the call. Her voice was soft and low as she spoke. "I'm Irene Hansen."

Harry smiled at her. "Hello, Mrs. Hansen. I'm Lieutenant Harry Kim."

Irene Hansen relaxed a little and smiled back. "Ah, yes. Annika--Seven, I mean--I'm afraid I still have trouble remembering her new name...she spoke of you in one of her letters. She said you were a fine young man and an excellent officer."

Once he would have blushed at the compliment, but now he just said, "Seven was becoming a fine officer too, and she was a great asset to Voyager. Mrs. Hansen--"

"Please, call me Irene."

"Irene," Harry amended obediently, "I know you haven't heard from Seven in quite some time."

"Not for over a year now. She sent me a brief letter in the datastream right before she left Voyager, informing me of her decision. Though I'm sorry she didn't come home with you, I know she made the choice she felt was right for her."

Harry saw both regret and acceptance in Irene Hansen's gaze. "She did make the right choice." He believed that absolutely.

Irene's brief smile was grateful and a bit wistful. "It's good to know you think so. I so much wanted to meet her--to know her again--my brother's little girl. But if she's happy, that is a comfort. Have you spoken with her since she left Voyager?"

"Yes. She contacted Voyager several times while we were still in range. Unfortunately, after we went back--after we had a slipstream mishap, we had a lot of communications problems and weren't able to reestablish contact."

"I do recall hearing Voyager was out of contact with Earth for several weeks."

Harry nodded. "Since that time we haven't heard from Seven. During our last communication with her, she told us the colony was prospering. She also knew we expected to be home very soon, and she transmitted a letter for me to give to you."

"To me?"

Harry smiled at Irene's astonished look. "Yes. As much as you regret that you weren't able to meet her, I know she's also sorry she didn't get to meet you."

"I...didn't know. She was always so formal in her letters. Very polite, but she didn't reveal much of her feelings."

"It was difficult for her," Harry agreed. "It still is, but she's learning to embrace her humanity." The vid of that last transmission flashed in his mind; Seven with her hair loose, and her expression relaxed in a way it had rarely been on Voyager, as if she was truly comfortable with herself and her surroundings.

"I know she had a rough time. She was such a little girl when the Borg took her..." Irene paused, and shook her head as if to chase away that unpleasant thought. "I'm very eager to hear about her new life."

Harry nodded. "I can transmit the letter now, and you'll receive it in a few minutes."

"I'd like that, but I'd like it even better if you'd read it to me."

Harry's brow furrowed. "Are you sure? It's meant for you--"

"I can't imagine my niece saying anything inappropriate...or maybe I can." Irene shared a smile with Harry. They both knew Seven had often paid little attention to the human concept of propriety. "In any case, I would like you to hear what she has to say, from you."

Harry saw the entreaty in Irene's gaze, and her hands that were carefully folded in her lap tensed. Maybe she wanted company, someone to share this last letter from the niece she would probably never see again. After only a moment's hesitation, he brought up the text file on his PADD.

"Hello, Aunt Irene..." Harry began, then paused, surprised by Seven's casual address. From Irene's expression, he assumed Seven hadn't previously addressed her aunt so informally.

He continued, "I have asked Lieutenant Harry Kim to deliver this letter to you. Besides being a trustworthy officer, he is a friend, and I know he will see that you get it.

"I regret we will not have the opportunity to meet. I also regret in my earlier letters that I was hesitant to 'express myself.' That is an expression Axum defines as relaying not only the bare facts of one's existence, but also what one feels inside. I wish now I had relayed more than the bare facts, and shared myself with you as you attempted to share yourself with me. But I have only learned recently how much is inside me to express.

"Axum has taught me much. However, I could have acquired none of that knowledge without my years on Voyager, and the tutelage of Captain Janeway, Harry Kim, the EMH, Commander Tuvok, B'Elanna Torres and so many others. Even when I resisted or disparaged their advice, it changed me. They changed me.

"That is why I arrived at my decision to leave Voyager and join Axum with such difficulty. I viewed the Voyager crew as my family--or, when I still relied on my Borg thought processes, as my Collective. Yet I believe I always knew Voyager was not my final destination--the place where I fit best and was truly meant to be. Nor is the Alpha Quadrant. Such insight without a foundation in logic was uncomfortable to experience, but there came a point when I could no longer ignore it.

"I do not dismiss my genetic connection to you, nor to my uncle and cousins. You are family to me, as I still feel a bond of family with those on Voyager. But I have found that my truest 'family' is in the form of a single person.

"I never considered it reasonable that two individuals could form a fully inclusive unit within themselves, despite the fact that Lieutenants Paris and Torres manifested such an attitude, with little concern over their futures as long as they faced them together. Since reuniting with Axum, I understand.

"No doubt I am over-analyzing what humans simply, if vaguely, refer to as 'love.' I once believed that condition to be primarily physiological--a simple hormonal response. It is not so. Though I still have little understanding of its poetic substance, I know how it feels. With Axum, I am complete. Whether we agree or disagree, whether we are sanguine or experiencing a period of annoyance with each other, it does not matter. Even when I am performing an individual task that gives me great satisfaction, such as assisting the former Borg on our colony adjust to their new lives, that completeness is inside me, strengthening and supporting me.

"Our colony is growing daily, and more have recently joined us, seeking a safe haven. The former drones I assist are sometimes children, liberated from their existence as drones but inexperienced with any other existence, and fearful of their future. Axum believes that I am able to reach them with more success than most of the others here because I was a child when I was assimilated. When I was liberated I felt much as they do, though I was no longer biologically a child. My work with the children has brought me gratification, as well as an unexpected emotional response. I find I desire a child of my own, with Axum."

Harry paused, and shared a surprised look with Irene. He'd never imagined Seven wanting her own child, though she'd cared for Icheb, Mezoti and the twins as if they were her own. She'd claimed she was simply performing a duty, but Harry knew better than most that Seven had formed a strong emotional attachment to them.

At Irene's nod, Harry continued, "I do not know if that desire will be fulfilled. For the Borg, reproduction is a non-biological process, and my Borg implants compromised my fertility. The EMH on Voyager offered to perform several procedures that would improve my likelihood of conception should I so desire, though I naively declined his offer at the time. On New Pojzan we have begun to combine the medical information we attained as Borg into one comprehensive body of knowledge, with the goal of creating a medical center staffed by those who are most proficient in the field. Once that is accomplished, perhaps my situation will improve.

"I do not wish you to feel pity for me as you hear this."
Harry glanced at Irene, whose gaze held not pity but sympathy. "I do not know where the future leads, and any attempt to predict it is a fruitless endeavor. I do know, from the course of my own life, that anything is possible. I may have a child one day. When the galaxy is safer, and we are no longer required to safeguard our existence here, you and I may meet again. I would greatly welcome such a development. Then you can tell me about an image I sometimes recall, of wearing red mitts too large for my hands, and removing freshly-baked cookies from an antique oven."

Harry looked up. From Irene's reflective expression, it was clear Seven's memory meant something to her. "Before I left Voyager, Lieutenant Torres expressed the opinion that the datastream would one day become a permanent method of communication between the Alpha and Delta quadrants. When that is achieved, I hope you will continue to send me letters about your family and your life in the Alpha quadrant; and I will send you letters about my life here on New Pojzan.

"If that happens, there is one request I wish to make. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct to Unimatrix One is an appellation I gladly disavow, though I cannot erase it from my life. My existence as Seven, recently of the starship Voyager, is of great value to me, but that is an existence now in the past. To Axum I am Annika, and to you I have always been Annika. If it is acceptable to you, I wish you to call me by my birth name."

Harry could see Irene would like nothing better. "In closing, Aunt Irene, I want you to know that I am content here. Salea--a Betazoid rescued from the Borg who has become a friend--insists with great firmness that I am 'happy.' Perhaps she is correct. My life here is fulfilling in every sense. I hope you will feel happiness for me, and experience the same in your life.

"Respectfully, your niece, Annika."


Irene remained silent as Harry shut off the PADD, her eyes moist, and her lips curved in a tremulous smile. It was several moments before she spoke, her voice steady. "Thank you for reading it to me, Lieutenant Kim."

"Harry."

Irene smiled. "This means more to me than you will ever know, Harry."

"You're welcome. I have one more item Seven wanted you to have." Harry held up a second PADD. "Her personal logs. She recorded quite a lot of them during her four years on Voyager."

Irene looked less surprised this time. "I suppose she didn't need them to remember her time on Voyager, since she informed me she has a perfect eidetic memory."

Harry grinned. "Yes, she certainly does. A few have forgotten that, to their dismay."

"I'll treasure them," Irene said softly. "Even if we never meet, they'll help me to know her again."

"I think you've already started," Harry said. "By the way, Seven was right about the datastream. Starfleet plans to expand it and refine it to reach specific locations within the Delta Quadrant. Very soon you may be able to exchange letters again--"

There was a shrill beep from the console, a beep that meant their subspace time was about to end. "Our time is up," Harry said, with true regret. "I'll send the letter and logs right away, but if you ever want to talk about Seven, I'm available. So is anyone else from Voyager. We'll be happy to answer any questions, or just talk about our experiences with her. The Doctor--our EMH--asked me to extend that offer from him specifically, though I warn you--he can talk indefinitely."

Irene laughed, a happy sound. "If it's about Annika, I'll listen indefinitely. Thank you, Harry Kim, for everything."

The transmission ended abruptly, and the screen went blank. Harry stared at it thoughtfully. He'd been surprised Seven had chosen him to deliver the letter to her aunt. Perhaps she'd thought he would be able to provide a sympathetic and human perspective. Whatever the reason, he was glad he'd had the opportunity. And glad to know that Seven was discovering her own happiness.

"U'Lanai to Kim."

Harry hadn't expected to hear from the bridge again. "Kim here."

"I have a call for you from the station. I believe it's your mother."

Harry managed not to groan out loud. For a second he envied Seven her peaceful colony life. But only for a second. His lips quirked as he wondered what his mother was up to now. "Put her through."

This time it was audio only, and his mother's voice filled his cabin.

"Harry, dear, I just wanted to check and make sure you got to your ship safely."

"I did, Mom." He'd found his way back to Voyager from dozens of Delta Quadrant planets, even when he was occasionally less than sober, or bruised from a friendly altercation. But never mind mentioning that...

"That's good to hear."

Harry almost missed her words, since there was a lot of background noise. As if she'd heard his thought, his mother said in a slightly louder voice, "I'm on the Promenade, just outside Quark's Bar."

"You might not want to go in there, Mom. It can be a pretty rough place--"

"Nonsense. Well, perhaps it is a bit rowdy, but the proprietor is quite nice. He's a Ferengi, you know. I'm generally not fond of Ferengi, but Mister Quark has certain charm about him."

Charm? Harry recalled the toothy Ferengi proprietor who'd nearly fleeced him until Tom Paris had come along. "Mom, you should be careful--"

"Did you know Mister Quark owns part of a diamond mine in the Corvalis asteroid belt? Diamonds are of little interest to Ferengi, but he knew they are considered quite valuable on Earth, so he's offered to sell me his shares for a very reasonable price. In fact I'm meeting him in just a few minutes to..."

"Mom!!" Harry groaned for real this time. "Don't do anything until I get there!"

"Harry, I'm sure you have important things to do before dinner-- "

"Mom, just..." Harry sighed. "Wait for me, okay? I'll be there in five minutes."

"If you insist, dear, I'll stay right here."

Harry closed the link, then jumped up and grabbed his uniform jacket from his bed. It was draped over his clarinet--the prized Clausen-Wang clarinet he'd never been able to replicate quite accurately. His mother had brought it all the way here, for him.

He touched the polished wood, and he knew that later tonight, after this long, exciting, but exhausting day was over, he'd play it for the first time in eight years, his fingers caressing the familiar surfaces, and all the tension in his body would melt away into the soothing music.

Harry smiled and stroked the clarinet one more time, then rushed out to rescue his mother.

*

Chapter Text

*

The comm officer on the USS Halcyon was very young; Samantha Wildman thought that he was probably just on his first Starfleet posting. Nevertheless, he was the epitome of professionalism as he said, "Lieutenant Greskrendtregk is off-duty, ma'am. I'm rerouting your call to his quarters."

"Thank you, Ensign," Sam replied. She shot a quick glance at her daughter, whose eyes were shining in anticipation. Naomi reached over and squeezed her hand.

"Isn't this exciting, Mom?"

"It certainly is. Your father will be so happy to know that we're finally home." Home. The word echoed in her mind. Deep Space Nine certainly did have connotations of home to her. This was where she and Gres had been stationed together, where they'd fallen in love and decided to get married. This was also where she had transferred to Voyager for what was supposed to be a three week mission, leaving her husband behind.

Her musing was interrupted by the abrupt shift of the image on the screen. Her eyes took in the familiar cranial ridges on the center of his forehead, the almost feline eyes glowing with love as he looked at her.

"Samantha, Naomi!" His voice was deep and warm. "It's so good to see the two of you!"

"Yes, it's really us, Dad!" Naomi exclaimed. "We're here, I mean back in the Alpha Quadrant." At his calm nod, she said, "You don't seem very surprised to see us."

"That's because my captain contacted me a while ago and told me that Voyager was docked at Deep Space Nine," her father said, laughing. "Believe me, my reaction when I heard the news was exactly what you'd expect. You could have knocked me over with a kiva feather. As soon as I recovered, I came back to my quarters to wait for your call."

Naomi sighed in relief. "So we didn't wake you up--I was a little worried when they told us you were off duty."

"And even if I was sleeping, this is certainly worth getting up for." He hadn't taken his eyes off either of them for even an instant. "How are you doing?"

"We're fine. The ship needs some repairs, but all of us are OK." Naomi turned to Sam, a bit concerned. "Mom, why aren't you saying anything?"

Sam dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a tissue. "Sorry, I'm just feeling a little overwhelmed. Gres, I'm so happy to see you."

"So am I."

Naomi glanced from one parent to the other. "Well, these calls have a time-limit, so I'm going to go and let Mom have the rest of the time for herself. Dad, when can we expect to see you? Are you coming to the station?"

Gres shook his head. "It's easier for me to get to Earth. Captain Samuels has been very accommodating. Our ship is due to rendezvous with the Hood in 18 hours, for the sole purpose of transferring me and one other officer. The Hood in turn will take me as far as the Ramot system, where I'll be picked up by the Cygnus. That ship will take me the rest of the way to Earth. "

"Sounds pretty complicated to me," Naomi said, wrinkling her nose. "I hope you make all your connections."

"Don't worry about it, Naomi. I wouldn't miss your homecoming if I had to walk all the way myself! "

Naomi smiled. "Well, I'll leave you two alone now. Can't wait to see you, Dad!"

"Same here, Naomi." As soon as the door closed behind her, Gres said, "She's grown up so much. She's not a little girl anymore. "

"Not by any stretch of the imagination, even if chronologically she's only about seven years old," Sam agreed. "You can thank those Ktarian genes of yours for that."

Gres smiled at her lovingly. "And I can thank her mother for doing such a wonderful job of raising her."

"She is pretty great, isn't she?" Sam deftly turned the compliment around, but inwardly she was quite pleased.

"She looks a lot like you, Samantha."

"And I always saw so much of you in her...having her here made our separation a little easier to bear, because I felt like I carried a part of you with me, through Naomi." The tears which had been threatening brimmed over. "Oh, Gres..."

He leaned forward, as if he wished he could reach right through the screen to her. "Shh...it's all right, Samantha. It's been a long haul, but it's almost over. The Spirits willing, we'll be together soon."

"I know." She smiled tremulously. "I don't know why I'm being so emotional now."

"Don't apologize," he said. "The way you feel so deeply is one of the things I love about you. That and your strength. I'm so proud of you for everything you've accomplished. A lesser woman would never have done so well."

"Knowing you would still be there waiting for me made it a lot easier," she said softly.

"Even if it wasn't the custom of my people to mate for life, I'd still be here," he said emphatically. "I waited a long time before I chose, made very sure that I had found the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I would never let you go so easily."

A sudden beep made her jump. He reacted instantly. "The time for the call is up, isn't it?"

She nodded regretfully. "I'm afraid so. There are so many people waiting to contact their families, and the subspace broadband can only handle so much traffic at a time."

"I'll try and contact you again while I'm en route to Earth. Should I call you through the station, or on Voyager?"

She considered a moment. "Probably the ship. As soon as repairs are completed, we should be on our way."

"All right. I'll call you from the Hood, or at the latest when I reach the Ramot system. I love you, Samantha."

"I love you, too, Gres."

His smile was the last thing she saw before his image faded and was replaced with the official Federation seal. She took a deep breath, then went into the small bathroom to make herself presentable before heading out of her quarters.

Chapter Text

*

Crewman Darren Pierce nervously shuffled his feet as he waited outside the public comm booth. He wasn't sure if he wanted the booth's current occupant to hurry up already, or to take as much time as she wanted. But within a few moments the door opened and a teary-eyed but smiling Trish Gallagher came out.

"All yours, Darren," she said over her shoulder.

"Thanks," he said, his mouth suddenly dry, though he didn't know why he felt so anxious. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd spoken to his parents, after all. But somehow, just the fact that he knew he'd be seeing them soon made his heart beat just a little faster. He stepped into the booth, closed the door firmly behind him, and punched in a familiar code. After a long pause the image of a young girl, barely into her teens, appeared on the screen.

Before he had a chance to say anything, she burst out, "Darren! Where are you?" Without giving him a chance to respond, she called out, "Mama! Pick up the 'comm--it's Darren!"

"Hey, Peanut, how are you doing?" Darren grinned at the girl who'd been little more than a toddler the last time he'd been home. "I mean, Sami."

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "My name is Samantha," she informed him in her best grown up voice. "Sami is a little girl's name." Her demeanor left no doubt that the nickname by which he'd called her was beneath the dignity of a response.

"Sorry," he said, amused and at the same time a little saddened by the evidence of how much she'd changed, all seemingly in the last year. He was saved from anything further by the arrival of his mother. "Hello, Mama."

"Oh, Darren, how wonderful to see you!" the older woman exclaimed. "Your father's not home now--he'll be so mad to have missed your call. Where are you?"

"I'm at Deep Space Nine," Darren answered. "You know, the Starfleet post right near Bajor."

His mother nodded. "When did you get in?"

"A little over a day ago," he said. At the frown forming on his mother's face, he quickly added, "Sorry, Mama, this is the first chance I've had to call. Our arrival was a little on the 'dramatic side', if you know what I mean."

"Well, you can tell me about all that another time. What I'm more interested in is hearing about you--how's your head, honey?"

"My head?" he asked in surprise. "What about it?"

"You sustained a serious head injury fighting the Borg," she said, apparently incredulous that he didn't know what she was talking about. "You were in a coma for days, nearly died! Don't tell me that's slipped your mind!"

"Oh, Mama," he said with some exasperation. "That was more than a year ago. I'm perfectly fine now."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," she said, somewhat distractedly. "Old injuries have a way of causing problems when you least expect them. Remember your ankle? And your arm? You always were accident prone as a child."

"Papa says you weren't accident-prone, just liked to get into fights with anyone who looked at you sideways,"
Sami put in. "And that joining Starfleet was probably a 'good outlet for your aggression,' " she recited carefully.

Darren groaned. This call wasn't quite going the way he'd expected.

"Now then, honey, when can we expect to see you?" his mother asked quickly, perhaps seeing his distress.

He gave her a grateful look. "I'm not too sure, Mama. The ship is undergoing some repairs. That last exit from slipstream, and uh, a few other things, banged us up pretty badly. But I'm sure we'll get the official OK from Starfleet to head for Earth as soon as we're space-worthy."

His mother beamed. "That's good. Darren honey, we've missed you so much, you have no idea."

He smiled. "I've missed you, too, Mama." He glanced at his little sister, who was waiting expectantly. "All of you."

"We can't wait to see you," his mother went on. "Just give me a couple hours' notice and I'll have a welcome home feast ready the likes of which will make you never want to set foot in space again!"

"Well, I don't know about that," he said teasingly. "But it will be great to have some of your home cooking again."

"In the meantime, honey, I want you to promise me that you aren't going to do anything foolish, that you'll try to keep out of trouble--"

"Oh, Mama, we're in the Alpha Quadrant!" he said in exasperation. "At a Starfleet space station! What could possibly happen--"

"Now you just promise me, Darren, that you'll be careful and won't do anything dangerous that might aggravate your injury."

Darren had the strongest urge to bang his head against the nearest wall, but he didn't even want to think about what his mother's reaction would be. Hastily, he said, "Look, Mama, it's been really great talking to you, but there's a whole line of people waiting to use this comm booth. And I've only got a few more minutes till I'm due to start my shift."

"Well, if you have to go, I guess I understand," she said, though clearly she hadn't said everything to him that she wanted.

"Give my regards to Papa. Love you," Darren said quickly, and signed off. He leaned against the darkened screen for a moment and exhaled deeply. Then hastily straightening his uniform, he exited the booth.

"All yours, Harper," he said to the next person waiting in line.

Chapter Text


"I still can't believe it."

"Hey, Aunt Marla, you didn't think I'd stop growing until you came back, did you?"

"No, I didn't expect you not to grow, but did you have to get so tall? You're going to tower over me!"

Her nephew's eyes glittered with pleasure. "Yeah, I ..." The rest of her nephew's response was drowned out by shouts emanating from the booth next to hers, even though sound dampers were supposed to be in use at all times, per Captain Janeway's strict orders.

"What was that again, Ricky?" Marla asked. She realized her mistake as soon as it escaped her mouth. "I mean...Rich."

Her nephew's pained expression sweetened immediately. "That's okay, Aunt Marla. I was still Ricky when you were home last."

"Well, I remember what it was like to be your age..." The cacophony in the next booth was deafening again, almost drowning out the chime that Marla's call was almost over. "Oh, dear, Ricky, my time is about up."

"I know Mom and Dad are going to be really upset they missed your call, but they'll both be out of touch for the next couple of hours. You'll be in DS9 for a few more days?"

"Yes, two or three more, at least. We have some repairs to do. Have them call me on Voyager when they're free? I've got to go, Sweetheart..."

"It's really great to hear from you, Aunt Marla..."

The blue Federation logo replaced her nephew's face as the connection was broken. Marla sighed. She'd hoped to be able to speak to her sister as soon as she got into DS9--to hear the latest information Kaylyn had been able to ferret out of Starfleet about Marla's rank. They had all agreed that would be the bellwether; if Starfleet were to confirm Janeway's reinstating her as an ensign, the "Equinox Five" would have a great chance of being pardoned. Perhaps it was better, this first time, just to talk to "Rich" again. He was so different, so grown-up--but not so grown up she would want him to hear about the whole Equinox mess.

Maybe it was just as well Kaylyn would be calling her back in private, when she was in her quarters on Voyager, Marla considered.

Although she had moved quite far away from the booth where Billy Telfer was, Marla could distinctly hear a last burst of voices calling "bye" from that direction. She turned around just as Telfer bounced out of the booth and ran in her direction.

"Hey, Marla! It was great! My whole family was there with my parents, waiting for me to call home! All twelve of them! Can you believe it?"

"Actually, yes, I can believe it," Marla replied with a grin that she tried to keep completely free of irony. Apparently, she did not succeed.

"Oh, we were pretty loud, weren't we? We didn't interfere with your call, did we?"

She shook her head. What good would it do to tell the truth now, when the call was over? "It was fine. They're all well, I take it? You sounded like you were having a really good time."

"We really did have a good time. And they're all doing great! My parents hardly said anything, of course. Mom was crying too hard. But the others were so excited I'm so close to home. All twelve of them were there!" Telfer was grinning widely, obviously pretty excited himself and oblivious of the fact he was repeating himself.

Marla paused at the stairway. "Let's see, how many of their names can I remember? There's Christopher, Sara, Jeannette, Carl, Julia, Maria...Dianne, Anthony...and...um, your brother Rocco...Tony..."

"Tony and Anthony are the same brother."

"Oh, yes, now I remember. The twins are Jack and Jacqueline, right? How many is that?"

"You got eleven of them, I think. That's really good. You forgot my baby brother, E.J. That's short for Edward, Junior--he hates being called Eddie, but he says being 'Junior' is even worse!"

Marla laughed. "Well, Billy, I'm glad you got a chance to speak to all of them--although I guess you didn't get a chance to actually speak to any one of them all that much, did you?"

"That didn't matter. Just seeing them and knowing I'm going to be with them soon is enough. Was your call home good, too? Is your sister okay?"

"It was fine. I spoke with my nephew. He's such a big young man now!"

"You didn't talk to your sister?" Telfer looked stricken by the very thought of someone not communicating with a sibling.

"She was out of communication range on a suborbital flight, now, of all times! But that's okay. My nephew will let her know I called, and she can call me on the ship. I can wait a little longer."

Telfer took her hand. "That's good. I hope all that commotion didn't bother you too much."

Marla was touched by his obvious sincerity. "You were happy. That was good to hear."

"Well, Marla--I mean, Ensign Gilmore--I've got to get back to my quarters to get some sleep if I can. I'm pulling gamma shift duty today."

"It should be a lot easier manning a gamma shift here than the ones we've had for the last eight years," Marla said, bidding her crew mate good-bye.

After Billy had run off, still burbling with enthusiasm over his subspace family reunion, Marla's buoyant mood ebbed away and threatened to slip even further into depression. Confirmation of her rank...what a pipedream! As much as she wanted desperately for it to happen, not only for her sake, but also for Harry's, in her heart she knew it was a vain hope. Slowly ascending the stairway to the upper level of the Promenade, Marla moved slowly along until she found herself with her face pasted against the viewport, gazing at the stars and barely imperceptible mists which marked the location of the wormhole. As she stared in its direction, a great light suddenly pulsed through the area, brightening into a whirlpool of multi-hued energy, which disgorged a small ship traveling from the Gamma Quadrant into the Alpha Quadrant.

After several seconds, Marla realized the spacecraft was anything but small. It had simply been dwarfed by the vast scale of the wormhole. As she watched the ship approach the station, Marla's raw emotions jumbled within her. After trying for so long to get home from the Delta Quadrant, the Gamma Quadrant was looking better to her all the time.

"No satisfying me," Marla whispered to the bejeweled black velvet depths of space.

The fact she'd spoken out loud startled her a little bit. Abashed, she backed up from the viewport--even though the view truly was glorious--and started to make her way further down the platform towards the docking ring area where Voyager was docked.

As she passed by the next to the last viewport before entering the corridors, she noticed a figure standing in much the same position as the one she had assumed a couple of minutes before. The posture and silhouette were very familiar. "Angelo?" she called out tentatively.

His head turned towards her. "Marla? Hi," he answered.

Marla walked over to where he was and stood next to him, facing the glory of the stars, and asked him, "I thought you were going with Celes to meet the Tal family?"

There was no mirth in his laughter. "Oh, I did. They're very nice people, but not thrilled Celes has brought home a human fiancé. Especially one from the Equinox."

Marla felt a sudden chill. "Why not from the Equinox?"

"There've been rumors, Marla. Somebody connected with Starfleet must have been talking. I can't believe any of our families would have said anything--not that that's a problem for me."

The bitterness in his voice was understandable. The entire Tessoni family, apart from a few distant cousins and great aunts and uncles, had been killed in the infamous attack by the Cardassians on Brolar III in 2363. Just two weeks before, Angelo had boarded a ship bound for a prep school on Regulus III, intending to beef up his resume in scientific subjects in hopes of enrolling at Starfleet Academy. He had just turned sixteen years old. When he got to Regulus, he managed, somehow, to obtain false documents showing his age as eighteen and for the last three years of the Cardassian War he fought on the U.S.S. Kearsarge. Ironically, being assigned to the science vessel Equinox under Captain Ransom had been the culmination of a dream he'd cherished since he was a young boy. What a nightmare it had turned into!

Angelo needed comforting, not reminiscences about what had gone so wrong in his life. Marla decided to ignore the comment.

"I don't think anyone who knows us would say anything about what happened to us in the Delta Quadrant. Maybe they're just a little protective of Celes. They haven't seen her in eight years, either! And a lot of terrible things happened here while we were gone."

He sighed deeply, glancing at her briefly before looking out into space again. "I'd be a lot more acceptable to them if I were a Maquis, I know that."

"Who says you aren't? An unofficial one, at least," Marla pointed out with a grin. Angelo had actually had that as his nickname on the Equinox, and unsurprisingly, given his history, Angelo had always had an affinity for the Maquis on board Voyager. It was no mystery why he might be romantically attracted to a Bajoran woman, although his love for Tal Celes was much more than a simple infatuation.

"They'd prefer an official Maquis for Celes," he answered, with more than a touch of a smirk flickering across his face.

"Give them time to get used to your charm and savoir faire," she suggested.

"Ha!" he laughed. "And how about Harry's mother? How is she treating you?"

"She's wonderful. What dedication!"

"She'd be quite a mother-in-law to have," Angelo pointed out shrewdly.

"Please! I'm not ready to talk about marriage yet! Not like you are."

Angelo turned to face her, his lips moving as if he were trying to express something his mouth would not permit him to say. Finally he managed, "Let's not talk about mothers-in-law or anything else, Marla. Why don't we find Harry and Celes and have a nice time at Vic's Place, inside Quark's."

"The holographic singer's club? That's a great idea, Angelo. It's time we had some fun for a change!"

She didn't have to add, "While we still have a chance." It went without saying.

*

Chapter Text

*

"Mom, it's okay, I'll do it." Harry tried to get up to help his mother clear his tray from the table, but she immediately pressed him back into his chair.

"No, son, leave this to me," she told him, and proceeded to stack the dishes, glasses and whatever else remained from their meal onto the tray. She swept it out from in front of him, and without another word trotted off to the recycler. Harry watched her go with a combination of amusement and frustration.

They were in the Mess Hall on board Voyager. Harry had decided it was far too dangerous to allow his mother anywhere near Quark's, Morn, or any passing Ferengi and had managed to get permission for her to remain on the ship with him until they reached Earth. Her offer to help supervise the Carey boys during the trip had been eagerly welcomed by Joe and Anne. When the idea had been presented to Janeway and Chakotay that way, they couldn't help but agree to Harry's request.

Besides, he really hadn't been able to spend much time with her yet; and he was, when all was said and done, extremely glad to see her. He was only sorry his father wasn't there as well. They had spoken to his dad earlier in the day. Harry was pleased to see that although his father had aged a bit over the past eight years, he was still just as he remembered him--a small man with a delightful twinkle in his eye. Harry had always loved his father's sense of humor. Some of his fondest memories were of the jokes they had shared. He also realized his father's finely tuned sense of absurdity was probably one of the key ingredients of his parents' long-lasting and happy marriage.

Harry leaned back into his chair and watched as his mother stopped on her way back to him to chat with Ensign Potter and wave to Crewman Sneap. He had to admit that with Mary Kim--to coin one of Tom Paris' phrases--what you saw was what you got. She was a genuinely warm and friendly individual. Stubborn and annoying and extremely outspoken, for sure, but there was nothing she wouldn't do for him. Or any family member or friend, for that matter.

"Mom," he reached over the table to grasp her hand when she finally sat down across from him once again, "Have I told you just how happy I am to see you?"

"Harry," his mother's return grip was strong and warm, "the day your father and I heard that Voyager had disappeared, a part of us died." Her eyes clouded at the memory. She squeezed his hand again and smiled. "And when Starfleet notified us that the ship had been found, and that you had survived, it was as if we had been granted another life. If you think you're happy to see me..." Her voice broke.

"I know, Mom, I know."

"Enough of that now," Mrs. Kim said, with a quick shake of her head. "I want to talk to you about that lovely young woman."

Harry sighed. His mother was nothing if not predictable. He had been gearing up for the 'Marla conversation' ever since her arrival.

"I like her, son. I like her a lot. She's got kind eyes." Harry was encouraged; this was one of Mary Kim's highest compliments.

"She's got a kind heart too, Mom," he said.

"But I'm worried, Harry. She's got a difficult time ahead of her, doesn't she? After all, she comes from that criminal ship."

"What have you heard, Mom?" Harry asked quickly, obviously upset she'd heard anything at all about the Equinox.

"Nothing specific, Harry. Just that Voyager picked up five people from a ghost ship and they were demoted. If they were all demoted, then they must have done something very wrong."

Harry just gazed at her.

"Don't forget, I'm a fourth grade teacher, dear," she explained. "I'm very good at figuring things out."

"I don't know what they did, Harry," she continued, "but it must been very bad for Captain Janeway to have done something that drastic. And I imagine your Marla is not going to have an easy time of it when she gets back to Earth."

"You're right, Mom," he sighed. "Don't you think Marla and I haven't discussed it? Over and over." He added, almost to himself.

"What about your career in Starfleet? Have you discussed that? You're a lieutenant now, and I think you could be a lieutenant commander very soon. Captain Janeway told me she thinks you have command potential."

"She did?" Harry was surprised that Janeway would have been that forthcoming.

"Well, not in so many words, but she did say that you have shown yourself to be a fine young officer. And if you tie yourself down to someone whose record is questionable at best, and will possibly spend time in jail at worst, it won't be very good for you, will it?"

"Mom, no matter what happens to Marla, I'll be there for her. It doesn't matter what they do to her. And by the way," Harry's voice rose slightly, "I know that Captain Janeway has recommended clemency for all the Equinox crew members. She's said over and over again she'll support them all the way. Marla--and all of her shipmates on Equinox--have been exemplary members of Voyager's crew ever since we took them aboard. We're all hoping that they'll be pardoned." He paused for a moment. "And if Starfleet has to look to my significant other's record rather than mine in order to determine whether I'm worthy of them..." He paused for a moment and then continued forcefully, "Well, then...they're not worthy of me."

Mary stared at her son--studying his face carefully. After a moment she nodded.

"You love her." It was a statement, not a question.

Harry nodded. "I love her Mom." He said quietly, "And I want to spend the rest of my life with her."

Once again Mary Kim took her son's hand and squeezed it. "You're a fine young man, Harry," she said slowly. "And I think your Marla is a good woman. And if you love her as you say you do, then as far as I'm concerned, you should be with her. And you can tell her I said so."

Harry looked down at their joined hands and thought about how lucky he was.

"I will, Mom. I promise you I will."

"Now, show me where I'm supposed to sleep, Harry. I'm tired. I've been running around that space station all day. And I'm sure," she said as she disengaged her hand from his, gathered up her bags and stood up, "that you have other, very important things to do besides sitting and gabbing with your old mother."

*

Chapter Text


*

Noah Lessing's legs were aching, which they had started doing in recent months whenever he was under stress. The Doctor had told him it was psychosomatic, and on that he figured the Doctor was exactly right. Ever since his rescue from the ruined Bridge of the Equinox, his legs gave him trouble of one sort or another. Since he knew for a physical fact his legs were in perfect shape, then it stood to reason that, yes, the pain was all in his head.

If that turned out to be the only price he'd have to pay for all that had transpired aboard the Equinox, he'd gladly live with it.

But for now, real or phantom, his legs were begging him to find a seat. Given he had been standing in line on the Promenade for the better part of an hour, waiting his turn for a comm unit, he couldn't blame his beleaguered limbs. Nevertheless, he stayed in line another two minutes and was rewarded. A unit opened, he was next up, and he slipped gratefully onto the seat in front of it.

Now that he was here, he hesitated, even though he knew he did not have an unlimited amount of time to make his call. The area around the public comm units was still packed with people waiting to make calls, not all of them Voyager crewmembers. Deep Space Nine was a busy place, even without the addition of Voyager and all the media.

Before he could hesitate himself right out of making the call, he entered the codes and waited. Neither he nor any of the lower decks crewmembers had been permitted much datastream time beyond several text-only letters. There just hadn't been enough room, and then they were home and it became unnecessary.

While his mind wandered, his call was answered, and there she was. His precious little girl. Not so little now, of course--she was ten--but to see her sweet face and know he would soon be seeing her--really seeing her--and hugging her, made his eyes fill. He blinked and smiled, trying to find his voice. Luckily, he didn't have to. She recognized him at once.

"Daddy!"

He coughed to clear his throat. "Hi baby. It sure is good to see you. Look at you, all grown up."

She dropped her eyes shyly, but was clearly pleased with his observation. "Am not."

"Are, too. So how's the mailbox?"

At this she giggled, remembering their new special joke. In a singsong voice, she recited the words she had learned from him. "Daddy went vroom and the mailbox went crack. It was a sad day for the mailbox." She paused and looked hard at him, switching gears so fast he wondered what she was going to say. He didn't have to wonder very long. "When are you coming to see me? I want you to see my room and my brother and my adoption papers and my stepdad."

She said all this in a great rush that caught him completely off guard. He had known the adoption had gone through--had even encouraged Sam and Ginny to go ahead with it--but still, it threw him to hear Hannah say it out loud like that. It would take a bit of getting used to, he admitted to himself, just like everything else.

He must have had a strange look on his face, because Hannah suddenly asked if he was okay and repeated her question about when he was coming to see her. That question, at least, was easy enough to answer.

"Honey, I don't know yet. The captain is still waiting to hear from Starfleet about when we can leave for Earth. But I promise I'll be there as soon as I can." He changed the subject to get out from under her stern stare. "Is your mom around?"

"Yes, she's outside. I'll go get her."

Hannah didn't put the transmission on hold, so Noah could see into the living room. It was obvious his neat-as-a-pin ex-wife had to give up a little of that neatness for the new baby. There were blocks, balls, and other assorted toys strewn all over the floor. It looked like a happy mess, and for one fleeting moment, he hated the cards he'd been dealt. But the feeling passed as quickly as it had come.

If he had learned nothing from his time on the Equinox and on Voyager, he had learned that the universe was a big, strange place, and even when you thought you had reached the end of your rope, you were sometimes given another length, whether you thought you deserved it or not.

Ginny had by this time slipped into the chair in front of her unit, just barely holding onto a squirming little boy.

"Noah. Welcome home. You look good. A little tired. What's going on? When do we get to see you?" She sounded like her daughter.

"Cup!" This from the toddler on her lap, at top volume.

Ginny held one finger up to the screen, turned her head and called to her daughter, who was out of sight somewhere. "Hannah, honey, get me his sippy cup, would you? It's in the cooler unit. I just filled it." She turned back to the screen, sighed heavily enough to raise the hair off her forehead, and began to bounce the child on her knee in an effort to distract him from his intent to get off her lap.

Noah watched this scene with growing amusement. Hannah had been no problem at this age--or at least not nearly as feisty and demanding--and Ginny looked a little worse for wear. He couldn't hold back a chuckle.

"Handsome boy, Ginny, but he looks like a handful. What's his name?"

Ginny stopped bouncing her son and instead wrapped her arms around him and gave him a quick squeeze, looking for a moment like she might start to cry. But she quickly recovered, and resumed her bouncing. "Oh, Noah, I was wondering when you'd ask. You know what I named him. How could I name him anything else?"

There was a small moment of silence until understanding dawned, and with it came a flood of jumbled emotions that caused his throat to tighten. "Abraham," he rasped softly. It was his father's name. It would have been Hannah's if she'd been a boy.

Hannah chose that moment to arrive with her brother's cup, happily unaware of the emotional state of the adults or that her presence was just the diversion they needed. She bent at the waist and presented it to him, wiggling her backside and puckering her lips, in preparation to talk to him. "Here's your sippy cup, Abie-baby. Now c'mere."

Smiling broadly, showing tiny white teeth, Abraham eagerly took the cup, stuffed the tip into his mouth and held his arms out to be taken. Hannah hefted him into her arms, staggered a minute under his weight, and then walked him over to his mass of toys in the middle of the living room.

Ginny followed her children's progress for a moment and then turned back to Noah. "She's so good with him, Noah. Never once has she displayed even the remotest hint of jealousy. She's the best babysitter we could want, and doesn't even ask for an increase in her allowance credits for watching him."

"Well, she had a good upbringing."

Ginny looked ready to cry again, but she caught herself once more. "Noah, I'm sorry I didn't--"

He cut her off with a sharp shake of his head. "Gin, no, we've been through this already. You thought I was dead--you had a memorial service for me, for crying out loud--you don't have to keep apologizing for going on with your life. Besides, you've got a great husband and a wonderful family now, and it's all I could have ever wanted for you.

"Do you think I'd have been happy knowing you were waiting for me? None of us knew what the hell had happened when the Caretaker's Array dragged us to the Delta Quadrant. When we finally figured it out and realized how far away from home we were, we knew that little science vessel would never get us back inside of a hundred years, if then. I hoped right then you wouldn't ruin your life by waiting for me, and I'm glad you didn't."

His speech left him winded and his legs twitching. He leaned back in the seat, unable for a second to think of another thing to say. He glanced at the timer; his time was about up. Then something else came to him, something blessedly neutral, that would take the edge off their emotions.

"How's life in Luna Colony?"

Ginny looked grateful. "Things are going really well, even out here in the sticks. Or should I say out here in the dust? But, you know," she said, her voice becoming lighter with her thought, "that reminds me. Sam said the other day that one of his clients has a florist's shop and greenhouse he wants to sell."

Noah perked up immediately, ignoring the rapidly-blinking timer on the console. "Oh yeah?" In the short time he'd been on Voyager, he'd done wonders with hydroponics, creating paths lined with roses and Talaxian tomatoes of gargantuan proportions. He'd had little interest in horticulture before then, but he did not question his good fortune, not just in being able to make himself useful aboard the starship, but to do something he found he enjoyed. He'd told Ginny about it in his last letter.

"When you get here, we'll all go and take a look. How's that sound?"

Noah sighed. "When he got there" could be any time from two months to twenty years, depending on Starfleet's decisions regarding the Equinox, as well as the question of how he would handle what Janeway had done to him, if he would ever be able to handle it at all. He knew Ginny knew all this but was keeping a bright face for Hannah. He looked down at the console, and as he did, the timer beeped sharply. If he didn't sever his connection in the next 30 seconds, it would be severed for him. He looked back up at Ginny and spoke rapidly.

"That sounds great, Gin. My time's up. I've got to go. I figure I won't get another chance to call before we're summoned to Earth. Keep watching the FNN newsvids, as they'll probably carry word of our departure to Earth. But keep away from the tabloids. The press is everywhere around here, good and bad; but as you might imagine, we're not allowed to talk to them. So whatever the tabloids are printing, it's all fabrication." He raised his voice a little. "Goodbye, Hannah. Take care of your little brother. I love you."

"I will, Daddy," Hannah yelled from across the room. "I love you, too! Bye!"

The screen went blank. Noah lifted himself slowly to his feet, turned from the comm unit and walked down the Promenade, stopping at the first florist shop he came to.

*

Chapter Text

*

"Captain's log, Stardate 55919.4. It's impossible to describe the mood of my intrepid crew. In the past thirty hours, we've felt every possible emotion. Fear, relief, joy...trepidation. We're home, and still Starfleet has not said anything--except to send Commander Craig to control the news. This is somewhat unsettling, since the very first thing he said was 'don't talk to anyone--especially the press.'

"B'Elanna has already started repairs. Commander-- soon to be Captain Riker, has offered any assistance we need..."


"Captain," Chakotay's voice said. "There's an incoming message, from Admiral Hayes."

"Patch it through to my Ready Room." About time, she thought. "Admiral Hayes, it's good to hear from you," she said.

"Captain Janeway, welcome home," he said.

"Thank you, Admiral." Janeway shook her head. "It's good to be back in the Alpha Quadrant, but for me, home is Earth. When are we to report there? We're anxious to find out what's in store for us." And no one has told us anything about what to expect yet, she added silently to herself.

"I understand your frustration, Captain. You will be receiving your orders shortly. In the meantime, enjoy the hospitality of the Bajoran government. They've requested that your stay be extended long enough for them to express their gratitude for bringing their lost people back home to them. For the first time in eight years, you and your crew have an opportunity to spend a pleasant shore leave in friendly environs. Take advantage of it. Have a good time."

She maintained a cool exterior, but she wanted to glare down the admiral and get those answers they'd been after for a year now. "And then?" She knew her voice had descended into dangerously low levels. She'd tried to keep the growl out, but she wasn't sure she'd succeeded.

"Again, congratulations. Hayes out."

Janeway leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes stifling her need to scream. Perhaps that message she'd received from him before their last jump, when it didn't sound like he had been listening to her, hadn't been tampered with at all. He'd just done it in this message, too; and this time, she was quite sure the communication was legitimate.

She sighed and tried to pick up where she'd left off. "Log, continue entry..."

"Captain," Chakotay's voice interrupted her again. "Commander Craig is here. He wishes to speak with you."

She opened her eyes and grimaced. "Very well, send him in. Computer, close log."

Commander Craig entered. He waited quietly for her to acknowledge his presence.

"Commander?"

"I have been in contact with Admiral Necheyev. This incident with the Romulans is being dealt with, I can assure you. The Romulan government is extremely embarrassed by the actions of a few rogue officers."

"Of course," Janeway said in a neutral tone. She still wondered just how innocent the Romulan government was.

"We would like to avoid embarrassing them further..."

"I understand. And let me guess, some in our own government would like an excuse to break the treaty?"

Craig face crinkled in disgust. "Absolutely not. The Federations stands behind the treaty. Admiral Necheyev is insistent upon this. Please inform your crew that they are not to mention this incident to anyone."

This was something she hadn't missed in the Delta Quadrant. "So, we're to pretend it didn't happen?"

"Exactly--at least for the moment. Any damage can be explained by problems with the slipstream."

"Of course." She worked to maintain a neutral expression. "And the prisoners will be returned to the Romulans?"

"Already done. Starfleet Intelligence has taken the ship to a secure location."

"Any idea on how they arranged all this?"

"Starfleet Intelligence is working on that. They suspect others were involved."

"Who?"

"I am not at liberty to say."

In other words, she thought, they haven't told you.

Commander Craig smiled patronizingly. "Please remind your crew about what they can and can't talk about while on Deep Space Nine."

Once he was gone, she buried her head in her hands, stifling the urge to scream. Or, better, toss him into space.

"You all right?" Chakotay asked. She looked up, wondering when he'd entered and what he'd overheard. Enough, she supposed.

"He's an officious prig..."

"Kathryn!" Chakotay shook his head as he started massaging her shoulders. "What did he say?"

"The Romulan incident didn't happen."

"It didn't? How are they managing that one? Our crew and the Enterprise's crew know."

"I have no clue. Starfleet is going to come up with some statement that will avoid embarrassing the Romulan government."

He gave her shoulders another squeeze. "You really think they pulled this off without the backing of the Romulan government?"

"We'll probably never know."

"Welcome home," he whispered. "What did Hayes say?"

"We're to stay here, waiting for further orders."

His hands stilled. "I see."

She rolled her eyes. "Chakotay, it won't be that bad," she said with a lack of belief.

He kissed the top of her head. "If you say so. What will happen, will happen."

She nodded, reluctantly. She still wanted answers. She wondered how long she'd have to wait before she received any.

"Well,  are you ready?" he asked after a long silence. "I did promise you dinner--and can I tempt you with the finest cup of coffee they have available?"

"From the way things are going, I'm going to need an entire carafe! But I'll wait for that first cup until we're in Earth orbit. I wouldn't be averse to some champagne, though. Maybe a lot of champagne!"

They entered the bridge together. The image of the symmetrical station was wonderful--despite all her doubts. But the feeling of victory was fast being lost in a pile of paperwork and red tape.

Chapter Text

*

Chakotay's throat tightened. Although he had received several recorded messages from his sister over the datastream, Starfleet had not been able to connect Dorvan to the FTL communication link. This was the first time in more than eight years that he and his sister had seen each other in real time. Now she looked eagerly at him through the monitor, her long dark hair tied back loosely with a red silk scarf. The carefree baby sister he remembered had been transformed into a woman of substance. The hardscrabble years of fighting the Cardassians showed in small lines around her mouth and a touch of sadness in her eyes. As he gazed at her, he suddenly was incapable of speech. The most he could do was reach out and touch the screen.

Maya seemed just as moved. Her eyes glittered suspiciously even as her smile deepened. "Chakotay," she said, her voice thick. "Suku'un ."

He finally recovered his voice. "Look at you," he said. "You're so beautiful."

She laughed, and wiped her eyes. "You're a liar, but I love you. I'm fat and I waddle." She smoothed her hand over her very pregnant belly. "And your nephew has a tendency to kick when I least expect it. Esteban says he's sure to be a forward on the soccer team." She paused. "I wish I could be there to greet you."

"So do I, but you have to take care of that baby. If the doctors tell you to stay in bed, then you need to stay in bed. I just wish I could fit a trip to Dorvan in before we head for Earth. But I'll be there in time for the naming."

Her smile faded. "I hope so. Oh, I wish I could change your mind. If you don't want to accept the Bajorans’ offer of sanctuary, then at least come home. The Tribal Council  hasn't established an extradition agreement with the Federation yet. You'd be safe here."

"I can't do that. I owe it to this crew and to Kathryn to see this all the way to the end. We've been through too much together for me to abandon them now."

"And what do you owe to me?" she asked, with a flash of temper. "I'm your sister, the only one you have left. What do you owe to yourself, Chakotay?"

He understood her anger. Sometimes he still felt it himself. "I owe myself respect. If I can't keep my promises, what am I? And I promised my crew and my captain I would go home with them." Forcing a smile, he changed the subject. "Has Cholo arrived yet?"

Cholo--the pet name of Koltec, the oldest son of their cousin Tervan, was on his way to Dorvan, experiencing not only his first trip off planet but also his first visit to Dorvan. Chakotay knew from Tervan's letters how much the young teen had been looking forward to it and from Maya's letters how excited she was to have him. She allowed the diversion, at least briefly. "He's due tomorrow. That's another reason you should come here. He can't wait to meet you."

"Maya, I can't. Leave it at that."

Her eyes began to glitter again. "I'm afraid for you. I keep having nightmares that they arrest you and drag you off to some dark room and I can't find you."

"It's not going to come to that."

She shook her head. "They've tried all the former Maquis who made the mistake of returning to a Federation world."

"Yes, but many of them received probation. I think it's likely we would, if they bothered to arrest us." He smiled encouragingly. "We put together a pretty good record on Voyager, you know. They might just decide it's time to put all that behind and move forward."

"I don't trust them." She frowned, and he caught his breath. At that moment, she looked exactly like their mother when she knew that an argument with their father would be useless but she disagreed with him anyway. "So. Will I ever get to meet this Kathryn of yours?"

He relaxed. The argument was over. "Yes. She's going to come with me. I honestly expect we'll be there for the naming. And I want to meet this Esteban of yours. And I want to see the progress you have made in rebuilding Dorvan."

Her entire face lit up. "It's taking longer than we like, but in all honesty, it's coming along faster than we expected. The pueblo and plains settlements are almost completely rebuilt. Reforestation is going to take years, but we're already seeing some sprouts in the northwestern forests and in the subtropics. We expect to be ready to import animal stock in five years. Our village may not be the same in our lifetime, but our children and grandchildren will see it."

"That's wonderful. You've found your life's calling, haven't you? You glow when you talk about it."

"I hadn't thought of it that way before, but yes. I just wish..." she let the sentence trail off, but he knew what she meant. She wished there had been some other way to find her vocation.

He glanced at the chronometer. "I'm almost about out of time. They're asking us to keep this short because the demand is so high. I'll call again before we reach Earth."

"Please," she said. "And keep me informed, all right? I don't want to rely on the news services to find out what happens to you. Give my best to Kathryn, and watch yourself. I worry about you."

"You stole my lines. Take care of yourself, Maya--in yaabilmech. And have fun with Cholo."

He reached to touch the screen again as it faded.

*

Chapter Text

*

When Tuvok stepped out of his cabin, Neelix came bounding up to him with such alacrity, the security chief suspected him of lying in wait. "Yes, Mr. Neelix, what can I do for you?" He did not wait for an answer, but continued down the corridor.

"Did you speak to her yet?" Neelix asked, hurrying to match his steps with Tuvok's.

Without breaking his stride, Tuvok said, "If you are referring to my wife, yes, I have just finished my call."

Neelix beamed. "That's wonderful! How did it go?"

"This was no different than any of the previous times we have communicated, " Tuvok pointed out. "I exchanged several messages with T'Pel via the datastream. And with the advent of the FTL communication, once we reached the Alpha Quadrant, I have spoken with her 'live' a few times as well."

Neelix waved his words away. "That's not the same thing. Now we're really close by--wasn't it different knowing you'll be with her soon?"

Tuvok considered the hopeful expression of the man standing before him. "Perhaps it was."

They reached the turbolift and both of them entered. "Deck 4," Tuvok said. It was a short ride; almost immediately, the doors opened once more. Tuvok exited, and then raised an eyebrow as Neelix followed him. He had assumed Neelix was heading to the Mess Hall on Deck 2. Deck 4 housed the torpedo launchers as well as the shuttle and docking bays. "I am going to the station," he said bluntly. "What is your destination?"

"Why, I'm going there, too!" Neelix said cheerfully. "We can walk together." He waited for Tuvok to key in the code on the wall panel. "I simply must go back to that Klingon restaurant and ask him what he puts into his rokeg blood pie. It didn't taste at all like I expected it to--certainly not like the version I whipped up for B'Elanna that time for her 'Day of Honor' celebration. And the gagh--how does he manage to keep them wriggling even after marinating? I can't quite..."

Tuvok allowed the sound of Neelix's voice to fade to a soothing hum in the background as they passed through the airlock connecting them to Deep Space Nine and began the relatively long walk down from the docking pylons toward the habitat ring. Not surprisingly, his thoughts went back to his conversation with T'Pel.

It had been extremely...gratifying, to speak with her, to see her image on the screen. Despite his answer to Neelix, in the privacy of his own mind he admitted that he did feel a difference concerning the marital bond. The vast distances separating them during the Delta Quadrant years had caused a discernible weakness in the mental link he shared with his wife, a weakness that had troubled him greatly. Now that they were both within the same quadrant, the bond had strengthened. He could 'feel' her in his mind once more, a comfortable presence instead of a faint shadow. A complete and permanent loss of the bond was something he did not even wish to contemplate.

There had been two separate occasions in the past when he was sure the link had been severed: the time a transporter accident caused him and Neelix to be combined in the entity known as Tuvix, and during his assimilation by the Borg. Though his individuality had been submerged, he had still been conscious of a vast emptiness--the absence of the bond. But once restored to himself, it was very reassuring to be able to sense it once more.

Neelix's voice broke into his reverie. He looked up to see the Talaxian's smile. "I'm sorry, Mr. Neelix, would you mind repeating that?"

"Daydreaming about your wife?" Neelix said with a wink. Tuvok opened his mouth, but Neelix went on, "So, when do you get to see her in person?"

"I expect that will be when Voyager arrives at Earth."

Neelix was shocked. "Do you mean to say that T'Pel isn't coming to the station?"

"It would not make sense for her to do so," Tuvok said. "Our ship will be leaving shortly. It would be inconvenient for T'Pel to travel first to Deep Space Nine instead of going straight from Vulcan to Earth."

"But what if there are delays?" Neelix said indignantly.

"If there are, I assure you, I will have no difficulty waiting a little longer for our reunion." Tuvok nodded a greeting to a passing Starfleet officer and then remarked, "It almost appears as though you are more eager to see my wife than I am." He paused. "If I did not know better, I might suspect you have an ulterior motive."

Neelix chuckled. "Nothing illicit on my part, I promise! I just want to see my favorite Vulcan happy."

Tuvok was touched at Neelix's concern. He also realized, somewhat belatedly, that having left everyone and everything he cared about behind when he decided to join Voyager years ago, Neelix was looking to him to vicariously experience a reunion with loved ones. He felt a stab of sympathy. For all his cheerful bluster, Tuvok suspected that Neelix was sometimes intolerably lonely.

They emerged into a broader corridor; and all at once, more people were in evidence all about them. Starfleet officers, Bajoran militia and civilians--the station was teeming with life. Everyone seemed to recognize them, as he caught the word "Voyager" bandied about in several conversations. A few individuals smiled in their direction but did not attempt to engage them in conversation. Tuvok was not entirely comfortable with his newfound "celebrity" status; but as long as his privacy was respected, he had no grounds for complaints.

"I can't tell you how exciting it is to finally be here and getting the chance to meet some of the people and see the actual institutions I've heard so much about," Neelix said, looking all around with delight and waving his arms enthusiastically.

"What are your plans for the future?" Tuvok asked, remembering that the last he'd heard, Neelix had spoken about possibly opening a restaurant.

Neelix dragged his attention away from a display of unfamiliar spices in a shop window. "It'll probably take some time for me to get settled, so I don't want to jump into anything," he said. "But I think I'll offer my services to Starfleet's diplomatic corps. I have all those years of experience on Voyager, after all. Who better to guide your ambassadors in dealing with the natives of the Delta Quadrant?"

"Indeed," Tuvok said. "And Sarexa--what will she be doing? Does she wish to enter the diplomatic corps as well? Or will she be pursuing something in engineering, perhaps?"

Neelix looked at him in surprise. "Why, um, I don't exactly know. She hasn't said anything, but I just assumed..." his words dwindled away. Clearly, it hadn't entered his mind that Sarexa would not be with him, sharing in whatever experiences he would have.

"Neelix, have you discussed any of this with her?" Tuvok asked.

"I've told her the various ideas I've had."

"And did she say anything in response?"

Neelix frowned. "She did suggest I wait and gauge the restaurant business carefully before making any substantial investment...but other than that, no."

"Has she said what she wants?" Tuvok pressed. At Neelix's quick shake of the head, Tuvok halted and looked at him for a long moment. "Neelix, I do not wish to pry, but would you please define for me the nature of your relationship?"

"The nature of my relationship?" Neelix said, flustered. "You mean, with Sarexa?"

Tuvok bit back a sigh. "She is the subject of this conversation, and if I am not mistaken, the only female you have expressed a serious interest in since Kes."

Neelix's face changed, and for a moment Tuvok wondered if it had been the reference to Kes that was responsible. Neelix had loved the Ocampan with all his heart, but for reasons Tuvok was not privy to, the two of them had grown apart, even before Kes underwent her mysterious transformation and left Voyager. He waited.

"I care about Sarexa very much--who wouldn't? She's a wonderful woman," Neelix said at last. "Of course, I'll look out for her, make sure that she's all right. I can't imagine not being with her. I would certainly never just go off and leave her! She's one of my closest friends, like a sister to me." He shrugged helplessly. "Well, maybe 'sister' is not exactly what I mean..."

Tuvok studied him carefully, hearing more than the words Neelix was actually saying. He caught Neelix's gaze in his own. "Perhaps you should give some more thought to the future," he said gently. "At the very least, talk to Sarexa and hear what her plans entail."

*

Chapter Text

*

Jenny shoved Megan into the booth. "I don't care if it's two in the morning where he is."

"But Robbie doesn't like anyone to wake him up this early."

"And we may not get a chance later on." Jenny sat down at the comm console and entered in the information. "I hope he's home."

A rather sleepy red-headed male appeared on the image screen. "Just what do you think you're doing...?" His eyes opened wide. "My god, where are you? Do you know what time it is?"

"We're at Deep Space Nine, and yes, we do know the time," Jenny said laughing.

"Don't tell me phuds don't have to get up at two in the morning?" Megan asked. She giggled. "And it's good to see you, too."

"I...I hadn't heard you had returned. Have you told Mom and Dad?"

"They're on vacation. We were hoping you could let them know," Jenny said.

Robbie yawned. "When are you coming to Earth?"

"We..." Jenny looked at Megan. "Robbie, we don't know. It's a mess, almost like Starfleet isn't sure what's going on. We're not supposed to tell anyone anything; the press is all over..."

"I know how to contact our parents, I just would like to tell them when. They'll want to rush home and tell the entire family."

"Soon, is my guess. Repairs are completed, so my guess is very soon."

"Repairs? Meg, what happened?" Robbie was frowning.

"Yet another thing we're not supposed to talk about." Megan shrugged. "Our homecoming was far more interesting than we expected."

"That's an understatement," Jenny agreed. "But our three week mission is now complete. And have we got stories to tell." She smiled. "Wait until you see our Astrometrics facilities! Even you will be impressed."

"I've heard about it. I can't wait." His grin grew.

"Robbie, our time is running out. Expect us when you see us Take care."

"You, too." The two sisters reached out to touch the screen. "Bye."
 
*

Chapter Text

*

Ensign Trish Gallagher walked past the door, stopped, continued walking, stopped, turned around and repeated the process two more times before finally deciding to  signal for entry. The door slid open, and Deep Space Nine's Chief of Security glanced up at her.

“Hello. May I help you?”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come. I don’t want to disturb you.”

“Sit down, Ensign…"

“Gallagher, ma’am. Of Voyager.”

Lieutenant Ro nodded. “Of course. Sit down, Ensign Gallagher.” Trish sat down in the chair by the desk.

“You aren’t the first Voyager crewmember to seek my help. You want information on somebody in the Maquis, I presume?”

Trish nodded. “Several somebodies...” She took a deep breath. “When my sister died--as a result of a Cardassian raid on Morcatia--my family fell apart. My father and two older brothers may have joined the Maquis...I don’t know for sure. Mom didn’t want to know,  and after I eventually joined Starfleet, I didn’t...well, you know.”

Ro inclined her head. “I understand. Starfleet had a very...well, actually, many of the brass still have very negative attitudes towards the Maquis. You want me to find out about your father and brothers?”

Trish hesitated. “I...umm...Yes,” she forced herself to commit to finding out. At least the lieutenant didn’t laugh at her indecisiveness. She held out a PADD. “This is the information I have. I wouldn’t have asked you, but my Maquis friends on Voyager are also looking for friends and family...and I didn’t want to add to their burdens.”

Ro took the offered PADD and looked through it. She frowned. “Paulo Friis?”

“My father. Mom went back to her maiden name after the divorce. You know him?”

“I know of him. I’m sorry, Ensign, but he died eight years ago, leading a rather spectacular raid on Cardassia Prime itself.”

“Oh.” She took several deep breaths. “Thank you for telling me.” She hesitated again. “My brothers?”

Ro shook her head. “I don't know about them, but I can check the various databases on the Maquis on the computer. But don’t get your hopes up. Thousands died unknown, and more just...vanished.”

“Isn’t there any way to trace them?”

“You can authorize Starfleet to release your DNA profile. Bajor maintains a DNA database, but it was primarily set up for orphans looking for relatives who could provide a home for them.” Ro smiled weakly. “Look, Ensign. There's still a lot of animosity toward Starfleet among the Maquis survivors. If they are alive, do you want to try to contact them? You must understand, they may not want to talk to you.”

Trish nodded. “Yes. And I know enough about that animosity. It took a couple of years before our two crews began to form real friendships.” She smiled reminiscently, remembering the bizarre friendship that had started right off the bat between Tom Paris, B’Elanna Torres, and Harry Kim. And all those rumors about the captain and the commander. “With a few exceptions, that is. Thank you, Lieutenant Ro. I really appreciate this.”

Ro smiled. “I’m happy to help.”

Ro watched the ensign leave, then entered the names of the two brothers into the computer. She’d contact some friends in other organizations--and hope.

*

Chapter Text

*

Nunk lifted his tankard of Ferengi ale and nodded at the proprietor. "This ale is excellent. You are extremely well supplied."

"Thank you," Quark answered. "Is this your first visit to Deep Space Nine? I don't remember seeing you here before."

"My brother and I are covering the arrival of Voyager for the Fereginar Daily Business News. Our editor is especially interested in business opportunities in the Delta Quadrant--and the various alien technologies they discovered."

"Ahhh. So there is profit in Voyager?"

Nunk hesitated a second. "I'm sure there is, but whether Starfleet will share with anyone is the question."

"Starfleet doesn't believe in profit."

Nunk nodded in agreement. "They work against the Ferengi businessman."

"You should have seen the pile of paperwork I was required to fill out just to run this modest operation when Starfleet was in control. At least with the Bajorans, there's less. And the taxes I have to pay!" Quark moaned. "They cut into my profit."

Nunk agreed with the proprietor, then raised his hand when he saw his brother arrive. Blont smiled. "Brother, there you are. Have you forgotten Voyager is here?"

"How could I forget? They took longer than we expected."

Blont hand moved in a silent warning. Nunk realized that Quark was still standing nearby, waiting. He pulled a latinum chip from his pocket and tossed it. Quark caught it easily. "Have a good stay on Deep Space Nine," Quark said as he left.

"You overpaid him."

"I did not," Nunk retorted as he slid the second tankard toward his brother. "Drink to our success. We’re going to earn millions in profit."

"Not if you keep wasting our funds." Blont picked up his drink and gulped it down in three swallows. "Now come, we need to get started." He took Nunk’s half full tankard away and placed it on the table.

“I’m not finished yet,” Nunk protested.

"Yes, you are,” Blont said firmly. “You drink too much anyway."

*

Blont shoved Nunk toward the human female officer. "Ask her some questions," he whispered.

"She's not from Voyager. She's wearing the gray uniform."

"So, I'm sure Voyager will be wearing them now, too."

Nunk didn't even bother to continue arguing. "I'm Nunk from the Fereginar Business Daily. Welcome back to the Alpha Quadrant."

She laughed. "I'm stationed on the Enterprise." Nunk smiled. Not that he would say anything, but he loved it when he was right and Blont was wrong.

"Ah, so you were there when Voyager arrived?"

"Well, not exactly," she said with a bit of hesitation. "We met up with them about 30 hours after they returned. If you would excuse me?" She walked away, leaving Nunk shaking his head.

"Well?" Blont asked.

"She's from the Enterprise. But did you see her long luscious fingers?"

"Nunk, keep your mind on the job. Did she say anything about the Romulans?"

"She didn't mention them. Do you think Voyager recognized the Romulan ships, back in the Badlands?"

"Don't be stupid, of course they did." Blont frowned. "Try talking to that Vulcan over there. And pay attention to who you approach. The Voyager crew are still wearing the older style uniforms," Blont said, shoving his brother toward the male ensign.

"I'm Nunk From the Fereginar Business Journal," he said. He waited, but the Vulcan didn’t speak. “And you are?”

"Ensign Vorik. I am under orders not to talk to the press. If you would excuse me."

"Wait! We understand you had dealings with the Ferengi in the Delta..." Nunk stopped speaking as Ensign Vorik moved out of range.

"That was smooth, Brother," Blont said with a snarl. "Let me try." Nunk watched and listened as Blont approached a human male with blond hair.

"My name is Blont, I'm from the Fereginar Business News."

"I’m Lieutenant Tom Paris," the man answered. "I didn't know the Ferengi had reporters."

"Yes, we do, sir," Blont replied. "May I ask you some questions?"

"Sure, but don't expect any answers," the lieutenant laughed.

"What was your job on Voyager?"

"I am...was...the chief pilot."

Nunk wondered if this Tom Paris had been the one piloting the Delta Flyer. His brother didn't delve into that. "You must have a lot of stories to tell. Would you consider going back to the Delta Quadrant one day?"

"In a flash," Tom responded, "Assuming there was a way we could return safely and quickly."

"Why do you want to go back? Is there profit in the Delta Quadrant?"

"Profit, shmofit. Starfleet is looking for new worlds to explore...Excuse me, but I see my wife."

Blont watched the human go and then turned to Nunk. "See, it wasn't that difficult."

"You gathered no new information."

"Yes, I did. You just didn't pay attention. You did notice that while there are numerous station security personnel in the area--not one bothered to ask for our credentials? And no one recognized us, despite the fact that your bumbling a year ago put us in the intergalactic Most Wanted database." Nunk didn't bother to say anything, and Blont just continued on. "You should have also noticed that the Voyager crew seems to be under orders to not talk much." Blont grinned, showing his pointed teeth. "We'll just have to try other tactics."

"Can't we just go home?" Nunk ducked when Blont swatted at him.

"No. When all else fails, try offering to buy them a beer--a disgusting drink the hew-mons seem very fond of."

Nunk just nodded, wishing once again he dared to stand up to his brother. He ignored what Blont was saying and watched the passing people. A tall young man, with what looked like the remains of Borg hardware on his face, walked by. He was accompanied by two females. Nunk hit his brother hard. "Look," he hissed.

"Ahhh. The Borg male. Come, brother, let us go meet him." They trotted after the trio.

"Hello," Nunk said after Blont shoved him forward. "I'm Nunk from the Fereginar Business Weekly."

"Ferengi?" The younger female asked. "Didn't Uncle Neelix impersonate a Ferengi once?"

"Yes, he did Naomi," the older female said. "But remember, we aren't supposed to talk to the reporters."

"Yes, Mom." Naomi reached over and grabbed the Borg-man's hand. "Come on, I want to see this place." Nunk glanced up. The Borg-man was much taller than he was.

"Mrs. Wildman, is this okay with you?" the man asked.

"Fine. I'll catch up with you later. Icheb, be careful. This place is noted for its criminal element."

Nunk turned to face his brother after the Wildman party had walked away. "That one was too big, anyway."

"But he would be an excellent source of Borg nanoprobes. There must be more of them in him because he is so tall."

"We should try and find the Borg female. She should be easier to catch. And maybe not so tall." Nunk knew he was whining, but he didn't really care. Deep down, he was secretly starting to hope Blont would send him home if they didn’t have any success.

"We will...but I still think the male is a better candidate." Blont started to walk very fast down the main corridor.

"Wait, Blont!" Nunk growled, then took off running.



End Act 1

Chapter Text

Act Two

 


Janeway looked around the Ready Room of her ship and smiled crookedly at her guest. "Compared to the Enterprise, Voyager must seem tiny."

"The trend is for smaller ships these days. I guess I'll just have to get used to tiny," said Riker. They both laughed; the Archer had a crew complement of just over 500.

"Will you miss the Enterprise?"

Riker nodded. "The Enterprise has been my home for a great many years, but I'm looking forward to captaining the Archer."

"Nice of them to finally name a ship after the first Enterprise's captain," Janeway said.

"Yes, it is," Riker said, as she sat down on her couch and he took a seat across from hers. "Thanks for the tour. And before you ask, I have no clue what is going on. Captain Picard contacted me this morning. Starfleet is sending him to meet us here at Deep Space Nine."

"Oh." That was an eight day trip, which meant their short stay on Deep Space Nine wasn't going to be so short. There had to be more to this situation than the Enterprise's captain wanting to return to his ship before Enterprise escorted Voyager home. "Starfleet is not telling me anything, either.” Janeway paused. “Call me crazy, but  the closer we got to home, the more it sometimes felt they didn't want us to return."

"That's not true,” Riker said immediately. “Of course they wanted you back. You’re heroes, for starters. You singlehandedly eliminated the Borg as a major threat for years--if not decades--something even the Enterprise couldn't do."

Janeway appreciated the sentiment, but couldn’t help adding, "Maybe, but according to  the VFA..."

"Excuse me, what’s the VFA?" Riker asked.

"The Voyager Family Association--I guess you could call them our lobbying group,” Janeway replied. She took a deep breath. “They say that a couple of the admirals are upset with our attempt to create an alliance with the Borg."

"That would be Admiral Blanc,” Riker said. “Don’t pay much attention to him. Blanc should have retired years ago. He's never recovered from the loss of his son at Wolf 359."

She raised her eyebrows. "You'll fit right in with the captain's circle--already critiquing the brass. Or are you looking forward to being an admiral someday?"

Riker laughed. "Captains have more fun. I'm not the type to sit behind a desk and watch someone else explore the galaxy, and I suspect you aren’t either. Whatever you do, don't let them bump you upstairs."

"Fat chance of that."

"Don't dismiss the possibility,” Riker said seriously. “It would be a convenient way for the Admiralty to get you out of the public eye. At least Starfleet won't be so stupid to throw you or your crew in jail."

“I'd like to think so, but I have to admit, that has crossed my mind once or twice,” Janeway said. “Though my first officer says I have a tendency to be too pessimistic.”

"I don't know how much the VFA has told you, but when we discovered that you were alive, four years ago, the press became fascinated with anything and anyone associated with Voyager. Trust me, your return will trigger a media feeding frenzy."

"And that's why Commander Craig is along," Janeway said, nodding in understanding.

"To control how much the sharks are fed and what they are fed."

She attempted to change the subject. "Another thing I don’t understand is just why is everyone so keen on keeping the Romulans happy? Their attack on us was completely unprovoked. And we’re supposed to believe it was a few rogue ships?” She shook her head in frustration.

When Riker frowned, she wondered just what else Starfleet had forgotten to include in the intelligence communiqués she’d received  over the past year. "Well," he said, "it’s not public knowledge, but the treaty with the Romulans--they were sort of tricked into it. I don't know all the details--I'm not sure if more than three or four people know the whole story."

"I see. So by ignoring the attack, we don't give the Romulans an excuse to break the treaty?"

"That's as good a reason as I've heard. The Romulan political picture is pretty dicey at the moment. The new Emperor is struggling to maintain control--and there are rumors of a Tal Shiar coup attempt."

"Nothing new there." She stood. "It's the waiting around that’s getting to me the most, I think. I just wish they would let us know something, anything..."

"Perhaps Captain Picard will have more news or orders for you."

Janeway nodded absently. They had been at Deep Space Nine for three days, and the only answer Starfleet had for her was 'soon.' She wanted more than that. Damn it, they deserved an answer--good or bad.

Perhaps she should have Chakotay check out the rumors that the Bajoran government would offer the Maquis sanctuary. They deserved their freedom--they all did. Even the Equinox survivors. They had proved themselves many times over.

Riker stood as well. "Deanna and I enjoyed the meal, but I do need to return to my ship. Oh, do you think Neelix could find some leola root for us to try? I've heard about this Delta Quadrant wonder plant."

Janeway chuckled. "Wonder plant indeed: it looks like a cross between potato and paste, but the flavor defies description. You’d really have to try to it for yourself. Unfortunately,  our supplies eventually ran out and poor Neelix was never able to get the replicators to recreate it. Some sort of glitch in the programming."

I see," Riker said with a conspiratorial wink.

"It was nice seeing you, Will,” Janeway said. “Tell Deanna I wish you both good fortune with your upcoming promotion and marriage."

"Thanks." He paused. "Captain, just remember: you survived. That counts for a lot."

*

Chapter Text

*

Normally, the happiness of the proprietor of Quark's was in direct proportion to the number of people who crossed his threshold on a given evening. The problem tonight was that virtually everyone who marched through his door was just passing through, on their way to the holosuite where Vic Fontaine's program was running.

"How does he do it? The most exquisite creatures on the station, and they're all in there with him tonight!" grumbled Quark to the two men slumped against his bar. Morn had been his usual chatty self all night, but since the hew-mon stranger had had so little to say, Quark didn't really expect much of a response from him. He was not disappointed.

At Morn's astute observation that the Ferengi was still pocketing a pretty pile of latinum, thanks to his share of the proceeds paid by Vic to "rent" his place, Quark shook his head vigorously in denial. "It's not Vic I'm talking about! It's that Paris guy in there!" Quark's sense of the injustice of it all was magnified by the identity of the man who was cozying up to all the women. Paris had history with the barkeep.

Quark never forgot a lost sale--not that he ever forgot a successful sale either, but they didn't rankle like the futile ones. He could still remember that hew-mon, ruining one of his favorite sales pitches for young and naive officers just out of Starfleet Academy. At least that guy wasn't in there, too, schmoozing with his buddies, with a bodacious hew-mon female draped over his arm.

"Why does he need Colonel Kira in there, and our deliciously tart-tongued Constable Ro Laren--now that's one position on this station that has definitely been upgraded since the War, Morn, even if she is a little too perceptive for my tastes--and, okay, Deanna Troi does have her fiancé Riker in there with her--but why does Paris need so many lovelies at his table? With that luscious wife of his, what does he need with Kira and Ro, too?!"

At the mention of the beauteous B'Elanna Torres, Quark sighed deeply, leaning forward so he could catch a glimpse of her through the doorway. Those saucy forehead ridges beckoned to him. That rapier-witted tongue entranced him. He'd met many a hew-mon woman whose body and dexterous fingers could bring him bliss, and his Grilka had been incomparably lovely; but the very idea that this Paris had managed to snag a woman who epitomized the best qualities of both hew-mons and Klingons in one, adorable little package...Oh, the injustice of it all!

"It's not fair!" Quark moaned. "He's a tall, skinny guy. He's got feeble little lobes and water-colored eyes. He's a nothing! It's a perfect example of a male getting lucky, Morn, just because he got thrown into a quadrant where there's a shortage of real males. Too bad Lieutenant Torres settled for him out in the Delta Quadrant. She could have had her pick of the crème de la crème once she got back here!"

Morn's response to Quark's tirade was to belch noisily, while the hew-mon leaning against the bar--no doubt the only way he could hold himself upright--slurped noisily at his drink and peered at Quark with his eyelids slit, piercing the drunken haze that was obviously obstructing his vision. Morn and the hew-mon had eschewed synthehol in favor of the hard stuff all evening. Quark noted that both were well past the stage where they could actually taste their libations.

"Excuse me," Quark said, nodding to his two customers, and casually strolled over to his assistant Laria to instruct her to water down the pair's drinks for the rest of the evening. They'd thank Quark for it in the morning. Their hangovers wouldn't be nearly as severe. And why waste good liquor on nausea?

Just as Quark, his conscience salved by his compassion, started to cross back to the bar, another group of people filed through the doorway. Julian Bashir, who had Ezri Dax on his arm, waved a greeting, while Ezri cheerily called out "Hi, Quark!"

"Well, well, well! I see the Defiant is back! And where is my nephew?"

"Right here, Uncle," Nog answered, trailing in last of the half-dozen officers from the ship assigned to DS9. "Where's the Voyager party?" he asked excitedly.

Quark pointed wordlessly towards Vic's and watched sourly as all six of the officers, his nephew included, trotted inside the club. He turned back towards the bar once more, but he hadn't taken two steps when a familiar voice said brightly, "Mr. Quark! Good evening! Have you met my son Harry and his girlfriend, Ensign Marla Gilmore?"

"Why, yes, yes I have," Quark answered. "How nice to see you again so soon, Lieutenant Kim."

While Quark had managed to paste his smile back on his face, he had less success keeping the chill out of his voice. Mr. Kim had been a key figure in two failed transactions, the first of which was the very one Mr. Paris had thwarted eight years ago, when he prevented the younger officer from purchasing several high-quality gemstones from Quark as gifts for his mother; the second occurring only the day before, when the now not-so-young officer had convinced his mother not to buy some perfectly good shares in a diamond mine. Quark was never going to forget Harry Kim.

He was not likely to forget Marla Gilmore, either. While Quark had a weakness for the fiery brunette or redhead type, the demure blonde's delicate beauty was something he wouldn't mind getting used to. "I don't believe I have had the pleasure of meeting you, Ensign Gilmore." The Ferengi smoothly glided towards the two females, his elbow extended for the shapely blonde to hold.

Harry Kim slipped his left arm protectively around Marla as Quark suavely picked up her hand. He was about to give the hand a kiss but stopped, deciding it was no use. From the amused glance she shared with Mr. Kim, it was clear: this one was already spoken for.

"Is this the way to Vic's Place?" Harry asked blandly.

Since the entrance to that holosuite was brightly outlined by a neon sign flashing "Vic's" in fuchsia letters; clusters of people were laughing just inside the doorway; and Vic's voice was sailing out of the room, flying him to the moon so he could play among the stars--or some such nonsense; Quark took this question to be disingenuous at best. He was ever the gracious host, however, and politely waved them towards Vic's door.

"Oh, Harry, I see B'Elanna and Tom in here," Marla said.

"I might have known," Quark muttered.

As Lieutenant Kim steered his girlfriend towards Vic's he called, "Come on in, Mom. The party might break up when they go to meet the ship from Earth."

"Oh, you go right along, Harry dear. I want to have a word with Mr. Quark first."

The lieutenant whispered a few words into the ensign's ear, and she resumed walking into the club. Harry hung back, warily eyeing Quark.

The Ferengi smiled broadly at the young man. He wasn't about to ruin his relationship with the mother by being rude to her son, no matter how insufferable he might be. To do that would be to dash any hopes he still might entertain for making further sales to her. "Yes, Mrs. Kim? What can I do for you today?"

"I didn't actually want to ask you to do anything for me, Mr. Quark. I wanted to thank you for being so kind to my son the last time he was on this station. You know, he's brought me some lovely presents from the Delta Quadrant--pretty stones and gifts from markets he collected along the route home--and he told me just today that you were the one who suggested he might want to bring some souvenirs from his first mission home to me! It was so thoughtful of you. Thank you so much."

The woman was beaming, with no hint of sarcasm in her smile. A quick glance in the son's direction confirmed Mrs. Kim's sincerity. Surely, that look of acute embarrassment on Mr. Kim's face could only mean he wanted to sink through the floor of the bar rather than be reminded of the time he was rescued by the equally insufferable Lieutenant Paris, who was prancing around the dance floor with his daughter in his arms while Vic Fontaine sang some execrable verse about doing it his way.

Quark bestowed one of his most dazzling smiles upon Mrs. Kim. "No thanks are necessary, Mrs. Kim. I have always felt a special affinity for our brave young officers at the very beginning of their careers. They do so need to be nurtured appropriately during their first missions in order to learn how to surmount all the challenges they will face with complete self-confidence."

While Mrs. Kim apparently did not hear the groan issuing forth from her son's throat when she reached out and warmly embraced the Ferengi, Quark's sharp hearing detected it easily. With a flourish, he slipped his hand beneath Mrs. Kim's arm and escorted her to her son and tipped his head upon delivery. "Have a wonderful evening, Mrs. Kim. Come back later and tell me all about it," he called after them as they escaped into Vic's.

The spring had returned to Quark's step when he paced back to the bar where his hew-mon and Lurian customers were still ensconced. He may not have made a sale tonight, but knowing with certainty that neither Mrs. Kim nor her son would ever forget Quark made it a little easier to bear. And there was always a chance he would get to move some more merchandise tomorrow. Mrs. Kim loved to shop.

*

Joe could barely contain his excitement. He would be seeing Anne in less than an hour! It was a good thing they'd decided to move their vigil into Vic's place. Bouncing around on the dance floor was a socially acceptable way for Joe to expend all the nervous energy that threatened to make him either burst at the seams or totally embarrass himself by dissolving into tears. To be so far away, and now so close, yet still not be together...Joe was agonized and ecstatic at the same time.

He didn’t think he was the only one. B'Elanna was having a very tough time keeping Tom from pinging around the room like a cue ball. Bringing baby Miral into the nightclub had seemed like a crazy idea at first, but everyone agreed that Tom's parents couldn't be denied seeing their granddaughter for even the amount of time it would take to go back to Voyager to get her. From the looks B'Elanna kept shooting in Joe's direction--when she wasn't huffing in exasperation at her husband--the chief engineer apparently had more regrets allowing Tom into the club than she did having her daughter there. Miral had been amazingly angelic the entire time, probably because the Doctor had surrounded her with gentle background music during her nap, prolonging it well beyond its usual hour-and-a-half length. She was lively, sociable, and hadn't cried even once. How long that would last was anybody's guess, as it was 2200 by ship's time and soon, long nap or no, she would need to go to bed.

That ship from Earth had better arrive soon!

The music from the bandstand stopped right after several members of the Defiant's crew, closely followed by Marla, Harry, and Mrs. Kim, joined the party.

"Hey, there, everyone. Having a good time?" Vic asked as he approached the group. Everyone agreed that they were, indeed, having a great time. The hologram turned his attention to the baby in her father's arms next. "And your little missy, here, what a trouper! I haven't heard a peep out of her all night. She's really going to be some looker, there, Tommy. You're going to have to beat the boys away with a stick!"

"Knowing Tom, it will be a bat'leth," B'Elanna shot back, to general laughter.

Tom laughed along good-naturedly. "If she takes after her mother, I'm not going to have to worry. She'll be able to take care of herself."

Joe wondered how B'Elanna would take that, but from the way his boss glowed, she obviously considered it a compliment. Thinking back upon Tom and B'Elanna's courtship, Joe ruefully had to agree. Joe caught himself as he was about to rub his formerly-broken nose. Now he could chuckle about how intense she'd been—truthfully, how intense everyone on the ship had been eight years ago. So much had changed. Now, everything was about to change again. Sometimes he still didn't know what he was really feeling. The only thing he was certain would bring him complete and unalloyed joy was being reunited with his family again.

The group happily "schmoozed" with Vic for several minutes. Tal Celes and the Delaney sisters asked Deanna Troi about her upcoming wedding. "Are you going to do a traditional Betazoid wedding? Will everybody be naked?" Joe overheard Jenny ask Troi . From the sparkle he noted in Jenny's eye, Jenny seemed just a little too fascinated by the concept for Joe's comfort. Of course, the liquid refreshments imbibed by the entire party could be the reason Jenny was acting that way.

The rest of the group seemed reserved in comparison. Riker discussed his upcoming transfer to his own command with Kira and Ayala. Harry danced with his mother to what Vic referred as "canned music," while Brian Sofin, Marla Gilmore, and Angelo Tessoni spoke softly together in a corner. Samantha Wildman chatted with Rollins, Neelix, and Sarexa next to the dance floor. Sam's voice was uncharacteristically high-pitched as she described her conversation with her husband.

The Defiant crew was circulating among the tables, introducing themselves and congratulating everyone on Voyager for making it home. Meeting the young Ferengi lieutenant named Nog had been a real shocker to Joe. He never thought he'd ever see the day when that would happen. Vic, who referred to Nog several times as his "partner in crime," was seemingly unaware, or didn't care, that Nog was mingling with the crowd as if he owned the place. Joe had a hunch there was a story there he wouldn't mind hearing, but he didn't know if he would get the chance.

Anne and his boys were coming. They would be here in half an hour. Maybe less!

Once Vic strolled back up to the bandstand, Joe didn't think he could stand waiting any longer. When Ro Laren got up and said she had a stop to make before the ship got in, Joe thought about going along with her. Tom stopped him.

"Joe, could I ask you a big favor?"

"Sure, Tom. What is it?"

"I'd like to take a turn on the dance floor with my wife, but my 'little missy' here needs a dance partner. Would you...?"

"I'd be delighted. Come here, Darlin'. If the music is lively enough, we'll do a jig. How about that?" Joe said to the bright-eyed little girl in his arms.

The music didn't cooperate; it was a slow number. Vic's mellow voice delivering the lyrics caressed the crowd. Even though Miral was just shy of her first birthday, somehow she understood what was happening--or maybe she was finally getting tuckered out enough to relax in his arms. She leaned her shiny cap of curls against Joe's cheeks while Joe glided around the floor with her. He passed Jenny Delaney dancing with Jimmy Morrow; Megan with Hugh Murphy; Naomi with Icheb; and Mulcahey whirling Golwat around without any regard for the music's tempo, and neither one caring a whit. Joe thought the words--longing for adventure, breaths of springtime, and angel's wings--were all weirdly suited to the evening.

Even though only a few members of the crew would be meeting their loved ones this evening, the large group had spontaneously come together to celebrate their arrival. It was as if, by proxy, everyone was meeting family tonight. They wanted to be with their Voyager crew mates to share their joy. Not many were missing. Tuvok was on bridge duty, and a skeleton crew manned Voyager's stations, but just about the only others unaccounted for were Captain Janeway and Chakotay. And Joe had a hunch they were celebrating, too, in their own way. The thought brought a smile to his face.

As the song ended, the entire dance floor hushed as Colonel Kira responded to a signal from her comm badge. "Thank you, Tovan. Kira out." She turned to the center of the room and announced, smiling, "She's here! The ship from Earth will dock in ten minutes! Paris, Torres, Carey, Ayala--let's go!"

Cheering crew mates surrounded him, patting him on the back, telling him he needed to hurry! It's time! That's what he knew they had to be saying. The buzz around him was so intense it turned to white noise. His senses were overloaded. The baby, so solid in his arms, suddenly clutched his neck as if she were unwilling to leave him. Tom's face, then B'Elanna's, swam into view. Miral released her hold upon Joe, yet she didn't leave his embrace. Instead, Tom and B'Elanna and Miral all gathered around and hugged him.

And the tears came.

*

Most of Voyager's crew had remained in Vic's, as Ro had requested. The pylon corridors weren't wide enough to accommodate a crowd. That didn't mean Ro didn't understand any disappointment the ones left behind might feel, for she couldn't suppress the flush of excitement she felt herself. It had been a long time since any of Ro’s blood relatives had been alive; her adopted families on Enterprise and in the Maquis had ended badly. And while she was a little apprehensive about meeting with Admiral Paris again, she looked forward to seeing Tom's mother. Mrs. Paris had been so kind to her when Ro had been a lonely student at Starfleet Academy, Ro had always wanted to remain in touch with her. Circumstances had prevented that for many years, but now, perhaps, they could make a connection again.

When the iris to the airlock opened, Ro stepped aside to let the true family members surge forward to greet their loved ones. Alicia Paris was the first one in view. "Tom! Oh, Tom!" she called out and ran out to greet him. Ro felt a vicarious rush of joy as Tom wrapped his mother inside his arms. They hugged each other powerfully for a few seconds, but then Mrs. Paris took a step back and asked, "B'Elanna! And Miral! Oh, she's so precious. And Icheb? Oh, it's wonderful to finally meet you. I don't know what else to say! I'm so happy...!" Tom opened his arms to allow his wife, daughter, and soon-to-be brother inside the family circle. Ro shivered with delight at the sight of the expression on Tom's face. It was good to see her old friend so happy. He deserved it.

After several older adults who were apparently unconnected with Voyager came through the iris, a teenaged boy appeared. He was red-haired, looking so much like Lieutenant Carey that Ro wasn't surprised at all when he squealed "Dad!" in a little kid's voice and launched himself into Carey's arms. He was followed closely by another teenaged boy and a tearful woman, who also rushed into Carey's arms. Their muffled sobs of joy and the overwhelming emotions so vividly shown on their faces made Ro feel like a voyeur; she had to look away.

Several more people walked through, pointedly ignoring the two family groups as they walked around them. Because of the crush of people in her way, Ro couldn't catch any sight of Admiral Paris coming out of the doorway. Moving out of the way of the passers-by, she bumped against the man standing beside her. "I'm sorry...Ayala," she said, when she realized who it was. "I didn't mean to step on you."

He nodded wordlessly, distracted, as he looked over her head. Ro turned back, wondering where his son was, when she saw a boy who had to be Luis.

Ayala shouted the boy's name at that very moment. Heedless of other passengers trying to pass through, Ayala covered the space between them in three long strides and held out his arms. The boy croaked out, "Papa!" and returned Ayala's crushing, almost desperate embrace.

Ro stared at them, unable to tear her eyes away. When she met him, she had thought Ayala a nice looking man who, from his coloring and the sharp crease across the bridge of his nose, could have a little Bajoran blood in him. This boy resembled his father, but Ro was stunned to see, from his nose, there was no doubt about this boy's heritage. Luis was part Bajoran.

So intent was Ro upon the reunion of the father and son, the sound of a voice calling her name didn't register at first. When it did, she turned to find Alicia Paris standing in front of her, holding out her arms for a hug. "Ro Laren! Oh, it's so good to see you! I can't tell you how worried I'd been about you until we heard you were here on DS9!"

Ro was tempted to say something sarcastic about Alicia being just about the only one who would have been unhappy if she were lost, as she was usually inclined to do, but she couldn't do it. Not this time. This was Tom's mother, the woman who had opened her home and her heart to her when she had no place to go during the holidays on Earth, who always had treated Ro like a third daughter. So Ro simply said, "It's good to see you, too, Mrs. Paris...I mean, Alicia."

The woman laughed. "You remembered! I wondered if you would."

"I remember, I just can't seem to get it out right, as often as you've corrected me. And Admiral Paris? Where is he?" Ro looked around for him, but she realized her mistake when she saw the stiff way Tom's mouth was pursed.

"Oh, Ro, I'm sorry. I thought you'd seen the ship's manifest. Admiral Paris couldn't get away. He was heartbroken, but you know how it is in Starfleet. Duty calls sometimes."

While Ro knew Mrs. Paris sincerely meant what she said, Ro couldn't meet her eyes, nor did she dare look at Tom. Instead, Ro and B'Elanna exchanged glances--more like stares--and Ro felt even more like a spiritual sister to Tom's half-Klingon wife than she had when they had first met. Was it really only four days ago now? It seemed as if they had always known each other--or maybe it was because, as strong women who had always felt like outsiders, they had led lives that were similar in many ways. Whatever it was, Ro resolved to talk to B'Elanna later on, to see if there was anything she wanted her to say or do for Tom...but Admiral Paris, staunch supporter of the Pathfinder Project, not able to find the time to greet the ship--and his only son--who was lost for eight years? Whatever could she say about that to make Tom feel better?

"Should we go back to Vic's, to the party?" Carey called over. "Everyone should still be waiting for us. They all wanted to meet you."

Ro looked over at B'Elanna's assistant engineer, grateful for his intervention at such a sticky moment, even though he probably had no idea about what had transpired.

As they filed down the corridor, Ro found herself falling into step behind Lieutenant Ayala and his son. The man walked with his arm on his son's shoulder. Neither one said a word, but Ro took this as a good sign--of hearts too full for words rather than because they had nothing to express.

As she walked, Ro found her concern for her friend Tom superseded by something else, a problem that had haunted her for the past four years. Resolving it might be just as difficult for some people to deal with as anything that had happened to the "Voyagers" so far, if her suspicions were correct. She'd just have to find out if she was right and then act on that knowledge in the best way for everyone concerned.

It was all in Ro's hands now.

*

Chapter Text

*

The Doctor stood just inside the entrance of Vic's and looked around. Vic himself had contacted him and asked him to stop by. He couldn't imagine why. Despite his confusion, he was impressed by what he saw. This was a sophisticated program--easily the equal of Lieutenant Paris' best efforts. He flagged a passing waiter.

"I'm looking for someone named Vic," he shouted over the din.

The waiter turned and gestured toward a man in a tuxedo who was chatting with patrons at a nearby table.

"Someone asking for you, Boss,' the waiter said, as the man approached, smiling in recognition.

"Hey, you must be the Doc," the man said, extending his hand. "I'm Vic. It's great to meet you--one light bulb to another."

The Doc bristled. "Speak for yourself," he said. "I am not your ordinary hologram."

"Hey, that's what they tell me, too," Vic said, grinning. He slapped the Doctor on his shoulder, and began steering him across the room. "Listen," he said. "I hope to get a chance to chat with you later, but right now I have customers to take care of. Besides, there's someone here to see you."

"To see me?" the Doctor said, perplexed.

"Yep," Vic confirmed. "A dame."

"A dame?" the Doctor repeated, starting to feel a little foolish.

"And she's a long, cool drink of water, too," Vic added, conspiratorially, "if you know what I mean."

The Doctor didn't, but he opted not to admit it. They reached a table in the corner, and a statuesque blond woman in an evening gown stood up and smiled broadly.

"Haley!" the Doctor exclaimed.

Haley hugged him, and the Doctor returned her embrace. Up until this moment, he hadn't realized how unsettled he'd felt since Voyager docked. His shipmates' reunions with loved ones just emphasized how uncertain his own future was, and he was starting to realize that here in the Alpha Quadrant, he might be looked at as more of an oddity than anything else. On Voyager, he'd been a team member--part of a family. Here...it was difficult to say. Yet here was someone who was genuinely happy to see him. It felt good.

"How did you get here?" he asked, as they pulled apart.

Vic interrupted. "You two enjoy yourselves. I'll check back with you later." With a wave, he was off.

The Doctor pulled a chair out for Haley, then sat down next to her.

"It was Lewis," Haley said, responding to his earlier question. "He keeps in pretty close contact with Reg, so he knew Voyager was on its way to Deep Space Nine. He really wanted to be here, himself, but he couldn't get away. So he sent my program to Dr. Bashir in his stead, to welcome you home."

"Excuse me." A waiter appeared out of nowhere, and gestured gruffly towards the chair on the other side of the table. "I'm sorry, but we don't serve iguanas in here."

The Doctor peered over the table at the chair in question. "Leonard!" he exclaimed. "You, too?"

Haley turned a dazzling smile on the waiter, and touched his arm. "Oh, it's all right," she said. "He's here as a personal guest of Vic's."

The waiter looked Haley over, clearly impressed. "Well, if it's okay with the boss, it's okay with me," he smiled. "You just let me know if you need anything. Anything at all."

"Will do," she said, sweetly, waggling her fingers at him as he left.

"Jerk," Leonard said, to the waiter's retreating back.

"You tell him, Leonard," the Doctor said. As he turned back to Haley, she picked up a cigarette that had been smoldering in an ashtray next to the small lamp on their table. With her wrist bent back in a picturesque way, she lifted it to her lips.

Horrified, the Doctor yanked it out of her hand. "What are you doing?" he asked, vigorously stubbing it out. "Smoking is an unhealthy, disgusting habit!"

Haley blinked. "It's a holographic cigarette," she protested.

"It...well..." the Doctor blustered. "That's irrelevant," he finally blurted out. "It sets a bad example. Besides, it will make your holographic breath smell like an ashtray."

Haley stared at him for a moment, then picked up the ashtray and gave it an experimental sniff. She wrinkled her nose. "I see what you mean," she conceded.

"What's gotten into you?" the Doctor asked. "You seemed like such a sensible person on Jupiter Station."

Haley sighed. "I don't know. I've been watching the people here. The women with the cigarettes looked so sophisticated and sultry. This is all just...incredible. I mean, look at this place! It's wonderful! I've never been out of Lewis' lab. Not once since I was activated--that's almost twelve years!"

"Ah," the Doctor said, finally understanding. He remembered his own first ventures outside of Sickbay fondly.

"But enough about me," she said, smiling and returning her full attention to her companion. "What were we talking about?"

"You were saying that Dr. Zimmerman was sorry he couldn't come in person, something which, frankly, I find difficult to believe. The last time he saw me, he told me I was arrogant and irritable. He also mentioned that I shouldn't expect him to put me in his will."

"Oh, but he did put you in his will!" Haley said. Then, grimacing, she added, "I guess I shouldn't have told you that."

"Well, since you did, what am I getting?" the Doctor asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

She nodded towards Leonard, her eyes twinkling.

The Doctor smiled, and peered over at the sluggish iguana again. "How about that, Leonard?" he said. "At least I'll be a familiar face."

"A familiar face," Leonard said, sagely.

"Seriously," Haley said, sobering, "Lewis is really quite proud of you, although he'd never admit it. He's written several papers about your adaptations and accomplishments in the Delta Quadrant. And he's trying to get the other Mark-1's off of the waste barges. He says he gave up the fight too soon."

"We could work together on that!" the Doctor said, with real enthusiasm. He didn't know exactly what he wanted to do in the future, or what he'd even be 'permitted' to do, but holographic rights was still a cause near and dear to his holographic heart. Despite the prickliness of their prior interactions, he liked the idea of fighting this particular battle alongside his creator.

"Count me in, too," Haley said, as if reading his mind.

"Wonderful!" the Doctor said. "How about you, Leonard?"

But Leonard wasn't listening. Instead, he was staring intently at the piano player up on the stage, bobbing his head slowly up and down to the rhythm of the music.

Vic suddenly appeared, and gave the iguana an approving glance. "He's got the beat," he said. "I should put him to work up there. How's everybody doing?"

"Just fine," the Doctor said. "We were talking about organizing a fight for holographic rights. Do you want in? You're articulate and intelligent--not your ordinary light bulb. I'm sure you would be more than a suitable spokes-hologram."

Vic tilted his head, considering. "I don't think so," he finally said. "I've never had a problem with rights, so I have no stories to tell. And I think I can do more good right where I am--changing minds one customer at a time."

The Doctor smiled, and nodded. "That's probably true," he said. "The organics won't truly understand our plight until they've gotten to know a few of us."

Haley agreed, too. "I'm sure anyone who comes into this place leaves with a good impression of it, and you," she told Vic. She looked around again, almost wide-eyed with awe. "This is just incredible."

Remembering again how fortunate he'd been in so many ways, the Doctor suddenly had an idea.

"Haley," he said, "How would you like to see the rest of the station? You could use my mobile emitter and take a look around. The Promenade is really something to see, even for a jaded old space traveler such as myself."

"Could I?" she asked, so excited that she half rose out of her chair. "That would be wonderful! Are you sure you don't mind?"

"Of course not," he said. "As long as you give it back," he added, with a somewhat nervous laugh. Then, because it would be rude not to, he asked, "How about it, Vic? Would you like to 'take a spin,' too?"

Vic chuckled and waved him off. "Not me. I've got everything I need right here. But thanks for the invite, Doc." After glancing up at the stage, he added, "As a matter of fact, I've got a set to do. I'll catch you all later. It was great meeting both of you. And you, too, Lenny."

He left them and strolled up to the stage. Once he stepped into the spotlight, the crowd began to applaud. The Doctor was somewhat relieved, because, if the truth be told, he did mind sharing his mobile emitter. Not with Haley so much, because she was a friend and colleague, but if he starting lending it to just anybody...well, who knew what might happen? The power grid might go down, and his very existence would depend on strange DS9 holoemitters, bartenders and engineers. He nearly shuddered.

But Haley looked so enthusiastic that he swallowed his reluctance; and, with a few quick taps on the controls of the mobile emitter, downloaded his file into Vic's Place. He removed the emitter, and put it on Haley's arm. "Why don't you take a walk around the station. I'll have Voyager upload me back to my Sickbay, and you can join me there in a little while." He leaned onto the table and tried his best to look suave and debonair. "I'd really like to show you...Doc's Place."

She smiled warmly, and as she did, Vic began to sing. It was something about a knife named Mac; the Doctor couldn't quite figure it out. He and Haley watched as people began to congregate on the dance floor.

"That sounds like a perfect plan," Haley said. "But before I go..." She stood up and reached out a hand. "Would you care to dance?"

The Doctor smiled. "I'd love to," he replied.

*

Chapter Text

*

"I'll answer the door," Tom said, unnecessarily, as it turned out. His mother and his wife were too busy trading pregnancy and childbirth stories while Miral was playing the "I'll jump to her, now let me jump to you" game, alternately squealing and giggling all the while.

"Enter," he called out. The door slid back, to reveal Ro Laren.

"Hasn't that baby been put to bed yet?" Ro exclaimed as she stepped inside, to the chorus of hellos from the Paris family.

"Oh, we know we should. She's about to crash any second, but she's so wired from being overtired, we hate to fight with her about it." As if to confirm her father's comment, Miral began rubbing her fingers clumsily over her eyelids.

"Dear me, Daddy knows best," B'Elanna said, glancing sharply up at her husband.

"Is that another twentieth century 'telly show' joke?" Alicia Paris asked.

"Yes, it is. He's got a million of them."

"More like a thousand," Tom corrected, "but someday, maybe I can get it up there, if only I can find an undiscovered cache of vids..."

"Do you still have that same obsession, Tom?" Ro asked.

"Yes, he does," B'Elanna answered firmly for him, as she took to her feet.

"Oh, my, yes. Internal combustion engines, rock music, 2-D videos...Tom's always loved the twentieth century. I can't imagine living in such a primitive time, but Tom was always prepared to go back to that period." Oblivious to the amused glances her son and daughter-in-law sent each other, Alicia gave her granddaughter another hug and passed her to her mother.

"I don't mind all his twentieth century holoprograms," B'Elanna admitted. "The movie theater one is fun. It can be so nice and cozy to cuddle up in the dark, watching a romantic movie...right, Sweetling?" B'Elanna tried to prevent her daughter from squirming her way down to her grandmother, who was slowly getting up from the floor. "Miral really is going to melt down any minute. I really should get her ready for bed."

"May I help you, please? I never get tired of helping give a baby her bath."

"I wasn't planning on giving her another bath, but it might relax her and help her get to sleep, considering how much her routine has been broken today," B'Elanna said.

"Whenever Tommy got overtired I would give him a bath to calm him down; but with Tommy, I also had to..." Alicia's voice trailed off as she followed her daughter-in-law into the Paris family dressing room/bath area.

Shaking her head as they left, Ro collapsed on the sofa next to Tom. "You know, your daughter is going to be spoiled rotten by her grandparents."

"My daughter is already spoiled rotten by everyone on Voyager. She thinks everyone should adore her. And everybody does. Even Vic Fontaine, your holographic entertainer, was totally smitten," Tom replied with a grin.

"You're right about that. Vic is always charming, but I haven't seen him gush like that over anyone before tonight," Ro answered.

What he wouldn't give to spend more time in that program! Talk about wallowing in the twentieth century! Tom wondered if he could convince the captain to download a copy into their database...but no, there wasn't much reason to do that. He probably wasn't going to be on Voyager much longer anyway. He sighed a little for the lost opportunity, but to Laren, he said, "Of course, most of the 'dames' walking into his place don't look anything at all like Miral."

"No, that's true. They're a little taller!" Ro laughed.

"Give her a few years, though, and she'll be just as beautiful as any of them." Tom said confidently.

"Not that you're prejudiced, or anything..."

"Not at all. She's gonna be a real 'looker,' just like Vic says! But enough about my spoiled-rotten daughter. What brings you here so late in the evening, Laren?"

"I wanted to speak to you in private about something. I should have called first," Ro said. "I didn't think your mother would still be here."

"No problem. What did you want to talk about?"

Ro hesitated a moment, taking a breath before plunging in. "I've heard you're a full-fledged field medic now, Tom."

"You have need of my expertise?"

"I have a few samples of DNA I'd like compared to those of your crew."

"Is there a reason you want me to handle it, instead of the Doc?"

"No offense to your Doctor, but I know you, Tom. You like to give the impression of someone who is a real blabbermouth, but you can keep your own counsel if you need to. And for various reasons, I don't want this to get out to anyone until there is a need for it to get out--assuming there even is a need for that."

Tom immediately flashed upon Ro, uncharacteristically staring at Ayala and his son as they were reunited. "This have anything to do with...some missing Maquis family members?"

"It might," she said blandly. In other words, absolutely.

"I'm sure I could slip into Sickbay and run DNA scans...I assume that's what you want me to do, as a field medic."

"You won't even have to. I've got a complete genome report I can upload to you. All you have to do is compare it to the crews' genomes and see if there's a match."

"I can do that. I could probably do that from here."

"Good. I wouldn't want to cut into your family time, though."

The pang in his heart couldn't quite be suppressed. "No problem," he said, probably a little too quickly, slipping on the Paris mask of unconcern. Laren had always had the disconcerting ability to see right through him, however; even B'Elanna had needed time to develop that. Ro tilted her head and gazed at him shrewdly.

"Okay," she drawled. "So how are you really? I was a little disappointed at first when I heard your father couldn't come. I'm sure it was worse for you."

"Nah, not at all. It's par for the course."

"Oh, please, don't give me that! It had to be a...what did you used to call it? I think Vic says it sometimes--a 'bummer'?"

He was unable to hold back a sigh. "Okay. I was disappointed he didn't make it. Of course I was. But it's a fact of Starfleet life. I know it; you know it; we all know it. I'll get over it."

"I hope you mean that, Tom. What your mother said about the admiral being heartbroken when he wasn't able to come--I think that's true. Your mom wouldn't have said that if it wasn't. Maybe getting away now, just when the Pathfinder Project is so close to being completed, is impossible for him. Sometimes we should take things at face value, you know?"

"Yeah, sure."

She didn't respond with anything but one of her deep, deliberate stares. It was a cross between B'Elanna's and Janeway's glares.

Tom was not unaffected, although he strove not to show it. "Look, I do mean it. I'll get over it. And if you want me to do that little project you want me to do, I'll need the data file."

Tom was sure she was perfectly aware of why he had suddenly changed the subject, but she said, "All right. I'll take my own advice and take that at face value. But I'll listen if you want me to...or better yet, talk to your wife. I'm sure she can pound some sense into you if you need it."

That brought a genuine smile to his face. "You like B'Elanna?"

"Very much. She's almost frighteningly smart--and tough. Despite your taste for the 'dames,' I always thought you would never be satisfied with anyone who didn't have a lot more to her than just looks. I'm glad to see I was right."

"I've always had great taste in women."

Ro rolled her eyes and groaned, but she let it stand and took to her feet. "I should go now, but I'll make sure to clear some time so we can all get together for dinner and a nice long visit before Voyager leaves."

"Definitely. Best to check with B'Elanna about when. Until the engines are in perfect working order, she's the one with the tighter schedule." Tom got up and walked with Ro to the doorway.

"I'll do that. Say good-bye to B'Elanna and your mom for me. Good night, Tom."

With a wave, she stepped out into the corridor. Tom stood, staring at the closed door, lost in his own musings--or more properly, riding that emotional roller coaster of his. The ride never seemed to end, even when he thought it was almost over.

"So, what's this project she wants your help with?" B'Elanna said, startling him out of his reverie.

"Oh, um," he mumbled, stalling for time so he could remember what it was B'Elanna was referring to. Yeah, right, something Ro didn't want anyone to know about, including B'Elanna. "Just a few pieces of data Ro wants analyzed in our Sickbay. She didn't want to bother the Doc about it, so she asked me since she knows me."

"I should think she'd have let Doctor Bashir ask the Doctor to do it," B'Elanna said mildly.

He should have known he couldn't have gotten away with his dissembling, but it had been worth a try. He'd have to tell B'Elanna as much of the truth that he could and still stay true to his promise to Ro. "Ro asked me not to say anything about it to anyone until she had the answers she needed. I don't know for sure what she's looking for, although I have my suspicions. I'll tell you as soon as Ro tells me I can. Is that okay with you?"

"Okay." B'Elanna took his hand and pulled him back to the sofa. As she sat, she dragged him down next to her. Once he had a lap, she climbed onto it with a suggestive wiggle.

"Don't you think Miral might need that lap?" he said, his leer totally belying the surface meaning of his words.

"Not anytime soon. Her grandmother is too busy ooing and ahing over her perfect little toes and skin--which is going to be all wrinkled up like a prune before she lets her out of the tub," B'Elanna sighed. "I'm sure she'll be happy to do the cuddling and story-reading tonight, too."

"Big of you, to share the wealth," he remarked.

B'Elanna leaned next to his ear and whispered, "Miral is in good hands. I need to make sure you are, too."

Tom chuckled lightly. "Didn't trust me with Ro? You don't have to worry about her. If you heard about 'my project,' you heard what she had to say about you."

"Oh, I heard her. I like her, too. I wish she had been on the Liberty instead of Seska! We'd have had a lot less trouble with the Kazon--even if I would have had competition for you."

"Nah. You and I were meant to be," Tom said softly, meaning it with all his heart.

B'Elanna gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. "I know. But what I meant was, I saw you staring through the closed door after Ro had left, lost inside your head. I'm going to repeat Ro's question...How are you, really? And I want an honest answer--or I'll pound it out of you, like Ro said I would."

He didn't smile at the softening joke at the end. The ache in his heart hurt too much for a smile just then. Joke or not, though, he knew she'd never let it go until he was honest with her. "I can't help it, B'Elanna. Every time I think I've gotten over what happened between my father and me in the past, something comes up to slap me in the face with it again. I really thought...well, I thought that this time, I had earned his respect. I expected him to be as excited by my homecoming as I was. But it wasn't enough for him to meet us here. Hell, I've come a lot farther than half way! Have I deluded myself into thinking anything has changed?"

"Tom, just because he isn't here doesn't mean he doesn't care!"

"He's the head of the Pathfinder Project! If he couldn't get away, who could?"

"Hey, do you see anyone directly connected with Pathfinder here? I don't!" B'Elanna pointed out. "Ro said it--and I agree with her: there may be things that have to be done connected with our return that we know nothing about--things he simply cannot leave in the hands of anyone else. Accept that!"

In his heart, he just couldn't wash away the feeling that his father could have come, if he really wanted to, but Tom said, "Maybe you're right."

"I am right. Do you know why Anne Carey and the boys are here?"

"She's the head of the Voyager Family Association."

"She is, but that's not how she got here. Your father pulled the strings to get all four of them on the starship from Earth because at the last minute, he couldn't come. In fact, your parents were supposed to be on the ship with Gretchen Janeway so they'd be here before we were, but your father had to cancel because he couldn't get away when that ship left Earth. They rescheduled to travel on this one leaving a few days later, but when he still couldn't come, he made arrangements to squeeze Anne and the boys on the ship to keep your mother company. That doesn't sound like he didn't want to come to me."

"Where did you hear all of this?"

"Anne told me at Vic's tonight, before we came home."

Tom shrugged his shoulders. Maybe she was right.

"Hey, do you see any sign of my father here? Fat chance!"

At the bitterness in her voice, Tom closed his arms around her tightly, hugging her as close as he could. Here he was, wallowing in his own pain, when B'Elanna had her own troubles. At least his mother was here, whereas B'Elanna's mother was in Sto-Vo-Kor. And if John Torres had tried to contact them via subspace to welcome his daughter home but had missed them, they'd surely have gotten a message to call him back. "I'm sorry, B'Elanna. I'm an idiot."

"No, you're not. You're just pig-headed sometimes."

"At least it's only my head that's a pig now," Tom said lightly, making B'Elanna laugh.

"Yeah, well, it depends on how often I catch you in Vic's program before I can be the judge of that," she said, but her smile was genuine, and his own mood lightened measurably.

His mother's voice made both Tom's and B'Elanna's heads whip around. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said hesitantly.

"Not at all," B'Elanna said teasingly. "I was just keeping Tom's lap warmed up for Miral. She likes to 'hog' it all the time."

"Touché," Tom said, as B'Elanna slipped off his lap and his mother carried a chortling Miral to his outstretched arms.

As Miral settled into her father's arms, Alicia remarked, "Has Ro gone?"

"Yes, a while ago. She said to say good-bye," Tom said.

"I should be going, too. Gretchen will wonder where I've wandered off to."

"I'm sure she'd know right where to find you, but I'll walk you to the guest quarters," B'Elanna said. "It's Tom's turn tonight for 'bedtime duty', and it's get-ting...ve-ry...late."

"Yes, ma'am!" Tom said, a salute implicit in his tone. "So, Miral, what will it be tonight? You want 'Green Eggs and Ham'? Or 'Hop on Pop'?"

"G'eenEggs!" Miral said, pushing herself out of her father's arms to run and get the book on her shelf.

"C'mon, Alicia. They won't even notice we're gone," B'Elanna said.

Alicia stayed at the doorway, smiling at Tom as he read the opening pages of the story to Miral, before moving through the door with B'Elanna. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his mother slip her arm around his wife's shoulder and just barely heard her say, "I never thought I'd see the day...I'm so happy to see Tom so happy. And you, too, B'Elanna."

He didn't hear his wife's reply, as the door slid closed behind them, but he was certain he would be gratified by her response. It was wonderful to see how quickly his mother and B'Elanna had taken to each other--not necessarily something that happened between mothers-and daughters-in-law, from what he'd heard. He would take comfort from that, just as he did from the very presence of his precious little girl, who was starting to rub her sleepy head into the side of his chest as he read the line, "I do not like them, Sam-I-Am," for the fourth time.

He would take what comfort he could in that and ignore the dull ache in his heart that had lived there, for as long as he could remember, whenever he thought of his own father.

*

Chapter Text

*

Commander Craig took the menu the Bajoran waitress offered him and glanced at it. He didn't feel like hesperat tonight, but he would ask about the special. He pulled out his PADD and activated it, but he turned at the sound of voices. It was Lieutenant Paris and his wife, who apparently didn't notice him as the hostess escorted them toward the back.

He didn't start reading. Two male voices from the booth behind him caught his attention. "Aren't they from that Voyager ship?"

"Yep. Big heroes. Did you see the shipload of reporters that arrived today? Shit, after we beat the Breen in the Glaroom sector I didn't see one reporter."

Commander Craig bit his lip in complete frustration. Just which admiral had authorized this ship of family and press? He guessed it was Paris. It was bad enough that Voyager had been intercepted by Romulans and that Mrs. Kim had somehow guessed Deep Space Nine would be Voyager's final destination. She was outspoken and tended to talk to the wrong people. He frowned at the sight of Mrs. Kim talking to two Ferengi, whom he'd been told were representatives of some Ferengi paper. He hadn't granted any Ferengi reporters press passes, but that meant nothing on this station. He glanced down at his PADD again. His main goal was to make sure Captain Janeway and her senior staff did not talk to any press.

He understood why she was annoyed with Starfleet admiralty, but orders were orders.

"Claude Jean!" a voice said.

"Yes? Oh, hello, Ms. Newton." He maintained his professional smile at the sight of the reporter from the Federation News Network.

"Why is Voyager still here after five days?"

"Repairs, Cassie," he said. "Once repairs are complete, Voyager will return to Earth."

"And what then?"

He hesitated. "I believe Christmas. Though the Voyager crew has their own festival, something called Prixin."

"Come on, Claude Jean, that's not an answer."

"Cassie, you know better than that. Questions will be answered at the press conference when Voyager returns to Earth." Well, so much for a quiet dinner.

"It was worth a try. I was hoping for an exclusive. But we need something to report. Since you don't want to answer questions about Voyager, perhaps you can answer this one: why are more resources being sent to Cardassia than to Bajor?"

Why the hell had that question come up? She raised an eyebrow, fully aware she’d touched on a sensitive subject. "Or should I talk to Colonel Kira, perhaps?"

"Federation policy in this region is for the betterment of all inhabitants," Craig said, quoting the oft used phrase.

"I'll get a better answer from the Bajorans--and you have no control over them," she smiled knowingly. "Unless Starfleet is keeping you in the dark, too?"

They were, but he wouldn't admit it. "Excuse me, but I need to return to my work." He contacted Enterprise as he stood up in front of his table.

"Commander, I would like to ask some more questions. Why is Mrs. Kim..." She ran after him. "--Wait!"

He smiled as he felt the transporter beam. When he rematerialized on the Enterprise, he hit his combadge. "Commander Craig to Commander Riker, I need to contact Starfleet, Admiral Hayes' office, immediately."

*

"Admiral Hayes, may I ask what exactly is going on?" Craig asked the image of the man.

"You are assigned to Voyager to..."

"Sir, I know my assignment. But why has no one been told what is going on? I'm being asked questions I can't answer, and, with all due respect, sir, that is not a good way to keep the press quiet. And Deep Space Nine was a poor choice to have Voyager stay for a prolonged period of time. It offers the Bajorans on board easy access to the press–and to a sympathetic audience." Was it his imagination, or did Hayes seem pleased with that? "Sir, what is going on?"

"Any decisions–and I’m not saying any ones have been made yet–will of course be confidential until a formal announcement is made."

Craig swallowed, sure that Hayes could only be referring to one thing. "So, you are planning to prosecute?"

"I didn't say that either,” Hayes said sharply. “Just keep the Voyager crew away from the press. If anyone asks, just say that a thorough review is standard after any lengthy mission."

"Yes, sir." Craig closed the link, feeling even more frustrated than just five minutes ago.

*

Chapter Text

*

Mariah Henley walked down the main corridor of the Promenade level, her mind intent on doing some long-overdue shopping. Lora Jenkins, Jamie McMinn, and Julia Harper had been raving about a particular dress boutique, and after seeing the clothes they'd purchased, she made up her mind to take a look for herself.

Like the other Maquis, she'd lost all her personal possessions at the beginning of the journey, when the Liberty was destroyed, so she was determined to replenish her wardrobe now that they were back in the AQ. Somehow, not very much of what she'd seen on the journey had appealed to her sense of style. The rest of the crew seemed to have no problem. The Delaneys, for example, were constantly picking things up at the various stations and planets of the Delta Quadrant, but Henley had privately decided to wait.

And now the time had come to indulge herself. In a brief burst of extravagance, she decided money would be no object, though according to Lora, Jamie, and Julia, the boutique's merchandise was not only elegant, but also reasonably priced. She certainly hoped so. Until her back pay from Starfleet came through--if it ever did, she reminded herself wryly--she certainly couldn't afford to splurge too much.

Intent on following the directions she'd been given, she almost didn't notice when she passed by the row of public comm booths. But something made her look up just then, and almost involuntarily, she halted. She'd already spoken to her family--those who'd survived the war--a few days earlier, but now she knew there was one more call she needed to make.

She tapped a request for general information into the comm unit's data banks, and after a bit of searching, she found the name she was looking for, as well as a current access number. And then she hesitated, and almost immediately cursed herself for being a coward. This wouldn't be the most pleasant conversation she'd ever had in her life--in fact, it would probably be extremely awkward-- yet she had no choice. She punched the call through. There was quite a delay until someone picked up, and during those interminable seconds she almost hoped he wouldn't be in, that she could discharge her obligation by simply leaving a message. And then his image appeared on the screen.

"Mariah?" Mitch Dalby said incredulously.

"Hello, Mitch," she said quietly. "How are you?"

The look of surprise faded quickly, replaced by the intensity she'd always associated with him. His dark eyes burned, as if he could see deep inside her. A wave of regret passed through her, catching her by surprise. She and Mitch had called it quits years before, and she didn't expect any of the old feelings to surface, let alone so quickly. But when he looked at her that way...

"I'm good," he said, and smiled. "Keeping out of trouble, at any rate."

"Good," she echoed.

"And you?"

"I'm fine." She cast around for something to say. "Voyager made it back. We're docked at Deep Space Nine."

"I heard."

"From the news reports," she said. Doubtless Voyager's return was pretty big news.

He brushed an errant lock of hair out of his eyes, a mannerism she remembered of old. "No, from Anne Carey. She called me before she left."

"Anne...you mean, Joe's wife?" He nodded. "I didn't realize you knew her."

"We've become pretty good friends, actually, working together on the Voyager Family Association newsletter, and other activities." Mitch studied her carefully. "A lot of the families have become close. Shared situations and all that. It's been a comfort, let me tell you."

She nodded. That made sense. Except..."But why would you--" She caught herself before she could finish the sentence. "Sorry."

He smiled mirthlessly. "You wanted to know why I bother, now that Ken is gone."

Mariah flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry, that was pretty insensitive of me." He opened his mouth, but she went on, "Actually, Ken is the reason I'm calling."

"I see." His expression was unreadable. She couldn't tell if he was disappointed or not. Had he hoped for a different reason on her part?

"Yes, I wanted you to know that Ken really made something of himself, out there in the Delta Quadrant. There were some adjustment problems, of course, in the beginning--" she paused, remembering how Tuvok had selected her and Ken, among others, for some "remedial training"--"but once that was past, Ken became a valuable member of the crew. And he died bravely, helping to retake Engineering from the Borg. You can be proud of him." Despite her best efforts, her voice shook slightly on the last phrase.

"I am," he said quietly, looking at something out of her field of vision. "I appreciate your taking the time to call and tell me this yourself."

"I cared about him very much, you know. He was a hell of a good friend, and we'd been through a lot together."

"Yes." He met her gaze squarely once more. "And it means a lot to me that you're the one telling me."

She shook her head sadly. "Mitch..."

"Don't say it," he interrupted. "I know. You and I, we ended a long time ago. But I want you to know that I still care about you. When I heard that the Liberty had vanished, and so had the Starfleet ship sent to capture it, I was sure you were all dead. And I mourned for all the good friends I'd lost. Then, a few years later, the news came that you were still alive. The first person who came to my mind, after Ken, was you." He cleared his throat. "I'm glad you've got your second shot at life, even though Ken no longer does."

She didn't know what to say, felt the tears welling up in her eyes. "Thank you, Mitch." She took a deep breath. "I also wanted to tell you that I saved Ken's personal effects. I'll drop them off as soon as we get back."

"I appreciate it." The silence fell between them once more.

"Well, I have to get going," she said, a bit awkwardly.

He nodded. "Take care of yourself, Mariah. I'm very glad you called."

"So am I," she answered, and suddenly realized that it was true.

*

Chapter Text

*

Vedek Capril picked up a single taper and lit it from the flame above the alter. His lips moving soundlessly, he touched the flame to a tall white candle. It sputtered for a moment and then took hold. Without pausing, he proceeded to light the rest of the candles before him. Janeway thought the arrangement vaguely resembled a double trapezoid; she had seen that shape elsewhere, in the pattern of the murals along the walls, and guessed that it had a symbolic meaning. The air was thick with the smell of incense.

The small Bajoran shrine on the station was filled to overflowing. Not only was the senior staff and several of the crew of Voyager present, but also a number of Bajorans--and not just station personnel. Celes, Gerron and Tabor stood with their relatives, close by the sides of other families who had not been so fortunate as to see their loved ones return. In addition, there was a sizable crowd on the Promenade outside, watching on the numerous viewscreens that had been erected for the occasion. The ceremony was being broadcast to Earth as well.

His task completed, the Vedek turned to face the assembled throng. His billowing robes were the color of flame; the carefully draped folds seemed to rise and fall in time with the fires burning at the altar. The tight orange skullcap he wore gave his head an oddly elongated shape, accentuated by the fact that his face was mostly hidden in the shadows. Janeway suppressed a shiver.

"All that was, is. All that is, shall ever be." His rich baritone echoed in the confined space. "To the Prophets, the passing of a millennium is but a single instant, and yet a single instant lasts for eternity. All of life is a continuous chain, with those who came before and are no more, and those who are yet to be. For those who have ended their journey, as well as for those who still tread upon an earthly plane, we say: Terse Polder impart Bern. Bengal veteran Ulan steno. Walk with the Prophets."

Janeway bowed her head as the Vedek continued. "We mourn today those who gave their lives so that others might live." Originally intended just for the Bajoran dead, the memorial service had been expanded to include all of those who had lost their lives in the Delta Quadrant, whether Maquis or Starfleet, Equinox or Voyager. "We consign these souls to the Prophets, that they may help them find their way."

He began the death chant, pausing periodically in the liturgy to include the names of the dead. "John Cavit, Henry Fitzgerald, Benara Stadi"--members of the Voyager senior staff who had died en route to the Delta Quadrant. "Bond Loran, ullon, Michael Blacken, Tri Kendall"--crew from the Liberty who had not survived the Caretaker's wave. So many dead before the journey could properly be said to have begun. "Lynn Sanders, Iota Katchatori, Sergei Bratsilov, Kale Mikov, ullon"--from the Equinox crew.

Among all three ships were a fair number of Bajorans, easily distinguished in the chant by the special honorific added to their names. Ullon--with the Prophets. After a long recitation, the Vedek then began the even longer list of those who had died in the Delta Quadrant itself. So many names, spoken in the order in which they were lost. The Vedek's voice droned on and on; occasionally a name or two would intrude upon her consciousness with greater clarity.

"Kurt Bendara. Peter Durst. Timothy Hogan. Michael Jonas. Lon Suder."

Janeway, listening impassively to the recital, had a bad moment when she wondered if Seska would be among those mentioned--how many of those present knew of her subterfuge, that she was really a Cardassian spy masquerading as a Bajoran? The captain relaxed marginally when Vedek Capril moved on to the casualties of their third year. Seska had not been mentioned at all.

"Mantor Katzav, ullon. Dorrance Lem, ullon. Ahni Jetal. Marie Kaplan."

Janeway glanced around the room. Most of those present had their heads bowed; with some surprise she spotted other Starfleet officers, including some from the Enterprise. She hadn't noticed them earlier, as their gray uniforms blended into the shadows. The Voyager crew by contrast stood out, their old-style uniforms incongruous notes of color in the dimness. Earlier, Janeway had thought long and hard over what to wear to this ceremony. As the majority of those being commemorated had died in the line of duty--Starfleet duty--civilian clothes hadn't seemed appropriate, although Chakotay and B'Elanna and many of the other Maquis had chosen to wear their old Maquis-style garb to honor their fallen comrades. The new Starfleet uniforms were still too alien for her; better to wear the clothing which for eight long years had been the symbol of Starfleet in a far-flung region of space. Commander Craig shot her a look of disapproval when she happened to look in his direction, but Janeway found that for once she did not care about the 'proper' protocol.

"Lindsey Ballard, Amanda Crag, Timothy Lang, Honto Zielan."

Avoiding Craig's baleful glance, Janeway turned away, her gaze falling on the two highest ranked Bajoran officials present: Colonel Kira Nerys and Lieutenant Ro Laren. She had met Kira briefly years before, when Voyager left for the Badlands. Janeway respected the Colonel for her years of service on the station--first as second in command, now as commander--and for what she had accomplished during the recent war, but Ro was an unknown entity. Voyager's captain knew her only by reputation, that Ro had been a Starfleet officer who'd abandoned her commission to fight for the Maquis, and now, years later, had risen to be Chief of Security on the station.

Janeway studied the two women more closely. They were of a similar height and build, had roughly comparable coloring, but there the similarities ended. It was more than a difference in features, or the fact that Ro, unlike other Bajorans, wore the traditional earring on her left side. Kira's emotions could be seen clearly, the look of compassion etched upon her face as each name was said. Her lips moved in silent sympathy, uttering the Bajoran honorific--for all the dead, not just her fellow countrymen. Ro, on the other hand, was stoically silent, her posture rigid, her expression unchanged. Janeway guessed that Kira was of a more religious nature, a true believer, whereas Ro gave the appearance of a hard-bitten cynic, though she was undoubtedly remembering losses of her own. How could she not?

"Mortimer Harren, Kenneth Dalby, Elizabeth Ashmore, Pablo Baytart, George Redman."

So many memorials, Janeway thought, suddenly wanting to scream, to do anything to blot out the doleful recital. How many times over the years had she stood in this same position on Voyager, commemorating the dead? Too many, and yet she could never, would never, get used to it. She was grateful that this time she was a mere spectator, not the one who was conducting the ceremony, bearing the weight of everyone's emotions. So many funeral services, they each stood out starkly in her mind--whether it was conducted by a cairn of rocks on an alien world, or in front of a shiny duranium tube about to be launched from the torpedo bay. And then each year the communal memorials, during the Prixin celebrations and the Days of the Past.

Yet this ceremony was different. This service at the station shrine was the first of many that would undoubtedly be held now that the ship had returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Meetings and memorials--that was what she could look forward to, over the next several weeks. Endlessly repeated on a score of worlds, encompassing countless traditions and beliefs. But all with an underlying similarity of purpose. Despite the repetition, she knew it would not get any easier to bear.

At her side, Chakotay was lost in his own thoughts, his head unbowed, his eyes fixed unseeingly at the reflection of the flames dancing on the walls. She knew he grieved just as deeply as she, if not more so. Not for the first time she envied him for his ability to let go, to allow himself to feel, to not be afraid to express his emotions publicly. Her own "captain's mask" was firmly in place. Later--when she was alone--she would allow herself to grieve.

Out of the corner of her eye, Janeway noticed Commander Troi giving her a sympathetic look. Janeway looked away quickly. In a corner of her mind, however, the thought arose that many of the crew might possibly benefit from talking to a counselor, if not now, then in the weeks to come. After the "circus"--as she was starting to privately refer to their upcoming arrival at Earth and the publicity it would undoubtedly generate--was over. But she herself didn't want to think about the kind of in-depth soul-searching that would require. That was a luxury she didn't have time for right now. Her ship had come home; but as she was beginning to realize, her task was not yet over.

"Bental vetan ullon sten. Walk with the Prophets." Capril's deep-set eyes met hers for an instant. "Our paths have been laid out before us; we follow where they will lead."

End Act 2

Chapter Text

Act Three

"Bloody hell," Kira muttered, using one of the epithets so favored by the station's former Chief Engineer, Miles O'Brien. By the Prophets, she missed Miles! He'd only returned to Earth a short while ago, but it seemed like decades since she'd seen him or his family.

Instead of succumbing to musing about the past, she gave herself a mental shake and dragged her eyes back to the vidscreen on her desk, to the list of messages waiting there for her, the top one flagged "high priority" and blinking rapidly.

Pointedly ignoring the screen, she grabbed Sisko's baseball off its little stand, leaned back in her chair, and began tossing it into the air and catching it.

The docking clamps had barely been secured around Voyager before chaos hit her station. Subspace communications were still off the scale; Quark's was standing-room only; and in an astonishingly short period of time, the press had descended in their usual predatory fashion, trying to get the scoop on the mighty starship that had returned from the dead. Not that she wasn't glad to see Voyager back, but her cynical mind couldn't help but grouse about the timing. "You had to wait until after the war, huh?" she said, speaking aloud as she usually did when alone in her office. "You couldn't have made it a few years earlier?"

She sighed and returned to the unavoidable, reluctantly opening the first message, which was another terse recording from Commander Claude Jean Craig. She recognized the shops in the background as those near the wall of public vidphones on the promenade. There were people everywhere. The ID line on the message named him as Press Liaison for Starfleet's Department of News & Information. He had said he was supposed to be in charge of containing the press, but from what she could see, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.

"Colonel Kira, this is Commander Craig, with the Starfleet Department of News & Information," he began, identifying himself unnecessarily. "I wish to remind you that Voyager crewmembers have been ordered not to speak to the press. While I cannot order you or anyone else on Deep Space Nine not to talk to the press, I can suggest you take it under strong advisement, since I'm sure you know as well as I do how rumors and innuendo can too often be mistaken for truth. Thank you." The screen froze.

Yeah, right. Like she could stop Quark--or Mrs. Kim, for that matter--from talking to some guy from the FNN or even the Risian Ribald Daily.

"Bloody hell," she repeated, leaning forward and whipping the baseball across the room. It hit the door with a satisfying thump and flew immediately back toward her. She snatched it from the air in a well-practiced move, placed it reverently back onto its stand, and stood, addressing the vidscreen.

"Commander Craig, Mister Press Liaison, I wish I had ten minutes with you to explain just what it is we're trying to do around here--which is not playing wet nurse to some prodigal ship that didn't even have the decency to be around when we needed her..."

Kira stopped and blinked at the screen. What in the Nine Orbs was she going on about? She didn't have to explain anything to Craig, nor did she have to pay any attention to his precious suggestion. The station was crawling with media of every size and species! This was her chance to explain to the entire Federation and then some just exactly what it was they were trying to do around here. She slapped her combadge.

"Kira to Ro."

"Yes, Colonel?"

Ears less trained than Kira's might not have picked up the moment's hesitation. Ro was preoccupied, something Kira recognized well from her days working with Odo. She hated to disturb the Lieutenant, given the way things were progressing on the station, but she needed her. Not for the first time, she felt a stab of sympathy for what Sisko had had to go through as captain. "You got a minute?"

"I'll be right there."

*

Kira barely allowed Ro to enter the office before she started talking. Now that she'd had the idea, she felt like the clock was ticking.

"Is the lecture hall on the habitat ring available? The one with the newly upholstered seats? How fast do you think you can set up an "unofficial" press conference?" She paused for a breath and noticed with some chagrin that Ro was still standing by the door. She waved her in. "Sorry. Sit down."

Amused, but obviously curious about her superior's line of questioning, Ro fell into the chair opposite Kira's desk and answered her, without having to check the calendar. "Yeah, it's available. An "unofficial" press conference, huh?" She eyed Kira suspiciously. "But we're not supposed to be talking--"

"No," Kira cut her off. "It's been 'suggested' that we not talk to the press about Voyager, and, believe me, that had better be the closest Starfleet comes to dictating how things are done on this station. But the way I see it, there's no reason we can't talk to the press about other things. Don't you see? We can use the hell out of this! We can tell the whole quadrant what's been going on out here. Resources are scarce, even though the war’s been over for a couple of years already. Some may question why the Cardassians seem to be getting preferential treatment when Bajor still needs so much help recovering from the Occupation. The press'll eat it up."

Ro nodded. "Sounds good to me."

Kira's voice softened. "And we're going to do one more thing. We're going to remind them about the Maquis--not just the ones on Voyager, but all of them. Remind them the Occupation is over, the war is over, and that these people need to have their lives back, that children need to have their mommies and daddies back."

Ro shifted in her chair at this, but did not say anything. Kira pretended not to notice. "We can use this whole mess to our advantage, but we've got to move quickly if we want to be heard. The instant Starfleet sends for Voyager, our time in the spotlight is over. The media will move on to the next story."

Ro leaned forward in the chair and snickered. "Funny you should mention that, Colonel. It's been a week, and there's still been no word from Starfleet about getting Voyager's crew back to Earth. I mean, there's been plenty of subspace communications, but it's all personal, mostly Voyager crew talking to family. I noticed one communiqué, to Janeway from Hayes, but that's been it. And since Janeway didn't turn around and give us a departure date, I guess that wasn't the summons to return. Wonder what's going on?"

Kira paused a moment to consider Ro's words, and then shook them off. She stood, and Ro stood with her. "Doesn't matter. Get out of here and grab as many press reps as you can on the way to the hall. Tell them you've got a story for them. Oh, and Ro," Kira paused and smiled wickedly, turning the vidscreen around so Ro could see it. "Be sure to keep clear of Commander Craig, Mister Starfleet Press Liaison. I have a feeling he won't take kindly to what we're doing."

Ro glanced at the screen and huffed in amusement. "I have a feeling you're probably right." She turned to leave and then turned back, pausing uncharacteristically. Kira knew the move.

"Something more, Lieutenant?"

Another hesitation and then, "Ah, no."

Kira knew whatever it was, it was probably far from "Ah, no," but she wasn't about to press her. If it was station business, Ro would advise her whenever she felt it was time. And if it wasn't, then it wasn't any of her business. Either way, she trusted Ro, and that was all that mattered. "All right then. I'll meet you in the hall in ten minutes."

*

Chapter Text

*

"Damn them all anyway," Janeway said as she threw her jacket on the bed. "All I want is answers." She turned to face Chakotay. "A few little answers, is that such a horrible thing?"

He shook his head. "No, it's not."

"We've been here eight days. Surely, by now they must have some idea what they plan to do with the Maquis and Equinox survivors."

"They probably do." He was giving annoyingly short answers.

"Maybe I should promote you to Captain and you can deal with the bureaucracy."

"That wouldn't be a good idea." He walked behind her and started to rub her shoulders. "It's bad enough that you made me first officer."

"Best decision...well maybe second best decision I made in the Delta Quadrant."

He leaned down to whisper in her ear. "Yes? So what was the first?"

She grinned. "I'm sure if I think long enough, I can come up with something..." Her smile faded. "I don't like not knowing."

"Neither do I, but getting mad isn't the answer." He sat down beside her jacket on the bed.

There was a long silence, and then she nodded. "Good," he said with a smile. "That's better. Now, have you had a chance to contact Daeja Thev?"

"No. Between the arrival of my mother, and Alicia Paris, and everyone else, I've been too busy. Anyway, should I be contacting a lawyer now? It feels like borrowing trouble."

"She did offer her services, and she's in a much better position to learn what is going on." Janeway walked over to her window. Deep Space Nine filled the view. Daeja had been her friend from back during her Academy days, and had been in frequent contact as Voyager drew closer to the Alpha Quadrant. More than once, she'd offered to help Kathryn with any legal difficulties, should the situation arise. "I'll talk to her," she eventually said with a sigh.

"Good."

"What about the Maquis?" she asked. "How are they handling the continued suspense of not knowing?"

"Reasonably well, considering," Chaktoay answered. "You did hear that the Bajor government is offering sanctuary for the Bajoran and Maquis members of our crew, didn't you?"

"Commander Craig mentioned it to me. I think he's terrified some of the crew might actually stay."

"They might," Chakotay said softly. She turned to face him. He raised a hand to stop her from interrupting him. "Kathryn, all of us lost friends and families during the war. Staying on Bajor means that we can start looking for them. Find out if they are dead or alive."

"What about you?" she asked. “What do you plan to do?”

"I...I'll stay with you, see what the Starfleet brass has to offer."

She didn't voice her growing doubts about just what the Admiralty would offer. "Thank you," she said instead. His answering smile warmed her. "Thank you for everything."

"Kathryn, please, contact Daeja."

She sat on the bed with a resigned sigh. "Because you insist." She shook her head. "I still expect to wake up and find myself in the Delta Quadrant."

He took her hand. "When you wake up, we'll still be in the Alpha Quadrant--and probably still on Deep Space Nine. Even if Starfleet is being stingy with the ticker-tape."

"The what?"

Chakotay chuckled. "In the twentieth century, apparently they tossed small pieces of paper at returning heroes."

"I bet Tom told you this? It sounds messy."

"It probably was. But the Bajorans have invited us down for a parade and celebration."

"I bet Commander Craig will love that."

Chakotay shrugged. "This from the woman who took on the Borg...and won. You're going to let a press agent defeat you?"

"Put like that, I have no choice." She leaned over and kissed him. "We just won't tell him."

*

Chapter Text

*

"Hello. I'm Nunk from Daily Fereginar News."

The two Talaxians greeted him warmly. Nunk continued to grin as he invited them for drinks. "My brother and I have traveled far to meet you."

"You have?" Sarexa asked as she glanced at Neelix. Nunk studied the Borg female. She was definitely a better choice than the tall young man he’d seen earlier. Her ears might be small, but she wasn't bad looking.

"I’m told that you two are natives of the Delta Quadrant,” Nunk said. ‘Why did you decide to come back with Voyager?”

 "Fereginar...” said Neelix thoughtfully. “I met some Ferengi once. Sarexa, you remember, I told you about that time..."

"I remember," Sarexa interrupted, "I have to say I’m surprised that the Ferengi have reporters. They are usually known to be..." she paused, "umm...businessmen."

"That's correct, ma'am," Nunk said. "We are. But journalism is just another type of business. Give people information they need to make a profit...while making a profit by doing it.”  He frantically tried to think of other questions that a real reporter would ask. “What is your home world like?”

Neelix  clapped his hands together in delight. "You're the first reporter to ask about Talaxia. The others keep asking about Voyager and what Starfleet has planned."

"I'm looking for a different angle," Nunk said, pleased with this response.

Sarexa smiled. Nunk decided she had a nice smile. Maybe, after they'd finished extracting nanoprobes, she would perform oo-mox. Her fingers weren't as long and dainty as the Romulan officer, though. He glanced up when he realized she was speaking.

"The reporter from the Risian Ribald was looking for a different angle, too," Sarexa said. "She wanted to know if Voyager was anything like the ‘love boat.’ "

"She had a lot of pointed questions about Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay," Neelix added.

"And you answered her question, brilliantly." Sarexa reached over and patted Neelix's hand. The male Talaxian practically glowed. Sarexa took a sip from her drink. "We've become Voyager's unofficial liaison with the press. I know Commander Craig is the official liaison, but really, I think this idea of not talking to the press is..." Neelix hissed at her in alarm. "Well, I think it's stupid. Which is why we're talking to you now. Neelix here is the Talaxian ambassador to the Federation..." Nunk leaned back and reached into his pocket. The vial fit comfortably into his hand.

"So, Ambassador Neelix," Nunk said, trying to regain control of the conversation, and in the process, cutting Sarexa off. "I hear you were a trader?" Maybe he could learn something about the market potential of the Delta Quadrant.

"Trader, ambassador, smuggler...not to mention chief cook! You name it, I've done it."

"What's business like?"

Neelix snorted. "OK, as long as the Kazon don't steal your ship and leave you floating in space."

"The Romulans can be like that, too." Nunk maintained a neutral expression. Both Talaxians reacted to the name, but didn't respond. He changed the subject. "So, what do you think of the Alpha Quadrant?"

"I haven't seen that much of it yet," Neelix responded. There was a shout from the other side of the bar. When the pair turned to look behind them, Nunk quickly opened the vial and dumped an equal amount of the pale tan liquid into each of the Talaxians' drinks. About time Blont created the diversion. Any longer, and these two would begin to suspect he wasn't really a reporter.

"Exciting place," Sarexa said as she turned back.

"It's like bars across the galaxy. Probably someone discovered their purse had been cut," Neelix said.

"Here's to your new life in the Alpha Quadrant," Nunk said as he lifted his tankard. The two Talaxians lifted theirs in response. Neelix took several deep swallows, but Nunk winced when the female grimaced after only a couple of tiny tastes. "So, what are your plans?"

Sarexa continued to take several more tiny sips, while Neelix answered. "As the new ambassador from Talaxia, I could meet with the Federation president. Or I might open a restaurant: the Talaxian Tap and Grill? Or Chez Neelix? I haven't come up with the perfect name yet."

Sarexa giggled suddenly. "Neelix was Voyager's cook. I helped. The Zornon...no that wasn't the name." She leaned over and tugged on Neelix's whiskers. Neelix's eyes opened wide, as did Nunk's. Oo-mox in public?

"Sarexa, I don’t this is the place for..." Neelix took her hands in his.

"You have cute whiskers," Sarexa said, freeing her right hand which she used to continue tugging.

"Not in public," Neelix whispered. Nunk stared, The dealer had told him that the tranquilizer would work in minutes. These two didn't seem anywhere ready to sleep. She leaned closer to Neelix and whispered something. "Now?" Neelix asked. He giggled as he clumsily stood. "Excuse us."

"But..." Nunk banged his head twice on the table as they hurriedly walked away.

"That was brilliant brother. Once again, you blew it," Blont said as he sat down.

"It's not my fault you bought a subpar tranquilizer--"

"Shut up," Blont hissed. "Everyone doesn't need to know. Follow them. I'm going to talk to that dealer about getting our latinum back. The tranquilizer was obviously faulty."

"Maybe we should capture the Borg male instead?" Nunk asked, hoping Blont would deem it too risky. That was fine with Nunk; his next suggestion would be that they just go home.

"No." Blont pointed toward the bar. "It seems he's going to be adopted by some Starfleet admiral. He would be missed."

"And the female wouldn't? It seems to me..."

"She is a useless female. No one cares about her." Blont pulled his brother to his feet. "Follow them!"

Nunk did so reluctantly. Fortunately, he could still see the two Talaxians out on the promenade. The ear rubbing–and whisker tugging--was becoming more pronounced. "Don’t worry, brother. They won't go far."

*

Chapter Text

*

"Ah, Commander Craig," Admiral Nechayev's image said. "You asked for guidance on what to tell the press."

"Yes, ma'am," Craig said, not sure if he was relieved or not that someone in the Admiralty was willing to talk to him.

"I understand your predicament, but there are reasons that we are still unwilling to announce anything." Craig grimaced at those words, as his favorite Shakespearean quote leapt to mind. 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...' He'd once considered a career in xeno-mycology--it was chance and the war that had landed him in his present position.

"Yes, ma'am. Colonel Kira is taking advantage of the press that showed up to cover Voyager." He had to admit she was doing a pretty good job.

"My aides have shown me some of the coverage. We're trying to leverage the Bajorans into cooperating..." She didn't need to finish the sentence. Ever since the war, the Bajorans had done little cooperating--especially since the Federation had seemingly realigned themselves with the Cardassians.

Craig nodded. "The crew is anxious to tell their story."

Nechayev glanced away and nodded, then returned her attention back to him. "I'm sure they are. But we're trying to avoid them being tried publicly in the media. It’s for their own protection. You've seen some of the reports. Prime Directive violations, the Borg, and the whole affair over the Equinox. And there are some who think Voyager is receiving too much attention, at the expense of the true heroes of the Dominion war."

Craig took a deep breath. "Admiral, ma'am, with all due respect, it would be best to order Voyager to leave Deep Space Nine as soon as possible."

"That's not possible--we're not ready for them to arrive at Earth. Outside of having them return to the Badlands, we can no longer keep Voyager in isolation. You'll just have to keep up the good work, and try to keep Voyager from having any more adventures."

He groaned, quietly of course. "Speaking of adventures, ma'am, what about what happened with the Romulans? I don’t know how much longer you can cover up the unwarranted attack on Voyager."

"The circumstances surrounding that unfortunate incident have been dealt with, or so I am assured by the Romulan government."  She hesitated. "Starfleet Intelligence is hinting that these rogue Romulan elements had outside help. We're still waiting for confirmation--but the conspirators apparently fled before the Romulan ship was captured. There are indications they may be the same two Ferengi brothers who managed to evade capture after they hijacked a hologram out of a datastream transmission to Voyager two years ago."

"Ferengi?" He stopped. There were those two Ferengi reporters flitting about the station.

"You know something?" she asked.

"Not really, ma'am. Just something I need to investigate further.”

"Admiral Hayes or I will contact you if there are any further developments. Good day, Commander."

"Ma'am." Craig sighed when the connection was cut. "Computer, where is Captain Janeway?"

"Captain Janeway is in a meeting with Colonel Kira"

"And Commander Chakotay?"

"Commander Chakotay is on board Voyager."

*

Chapter Text

*

Chakotay smiled as Mrs. Janeway sat down across from him. Voyager's Mess Hall was empty, since most of the crew preferred to eat on the Promenade and explore Deep Space Nine. He was on duty and had stopped by to have a light meal mid-shift.

"Hello," she said. "Do you mind if I join you?"

"Not at all, Mrs. Janeway, but weren't you supposed to meet with Kathryn?"

Kathryn’s mother raised an eyebrow as she sat down. "Unfortunately, she had to cancel."

He wondered just what had come up this time. Their return seemed to be turning into a bureaucratic nightmare. "So you decided to eat here instead, Mrs. Janeway?"

"Actually, I was hoping to run into you."

He nodded, realizing immediately what she wanted to talk about. He and Kathryn had, so far, avoided making any public references to their relationship, knowing that while the press would love it, Starfleet might not.

"You know, Chakotay, since you seem to be on a first name basis with my daughter, perhaps you can call me Gretchen?"

"Um, maybe give me a few days on that one, okay?"

Gretchen nodded. "I'd like to thank you for taking care of my daughter--and if you ever tell her that I said that, I'll deny everything."

"Understood, Mrs...Gretchen." He smiled. Kathryn didn't like being taken care of.

"And now," Gretchen said as she leaned forward. "What are your intentions?"

Chakotay hesitated--wondering just how much Kathryn had told her. He decided on the safer answer. "First, find out if Starfleet plans on throwing me in jail."

"Chakotay," she said with a laugh. "I'm a mother. When my girls start mentioning the same man in every sentence, I pay attention. How long have you been together?"

"Eleven months, five days."

"That's all?"

"That's all. We did a lot of dancing around each other for seven years. But it was definitely worth it." He smiled at the memories. "It’s not public knowledge yet. The crew knows, but we haven't told anyone else."

Gretchen nodded. "What are your plans?"

"I'm in limbo. We still haven't heard anything about what Starfleet wants to do with the Maquis...or with Kathryn."

"Do you think she's in trouble?" Gretchen asked, concerned.

"No, not really. She did, however, make some decisions that many at Starfleet HQ may not agree with. How much has she told you?" He didn't want to worry Mrs. Janeway--Gretchen--more than necessary.

"Some." Gretchen paused slightly. "Chakotay, I've been involved in one way or another with Starfleet for years. Something going on. Anyone can see that. The silence is worrying Kathryn--and me. She's worried about the Maquis and Equinox survivors--but she seems unconcerned about herself."

"So you’re worrying about her,” Chakotay acknowledged. “On the plus side, Kathryn promised to contact a lawyer–an old friend of hers, Daeja Thev."

"Daeja? I remember her from Kathryn’s days at the Academy. Sensible and Andorian. An excellent combination." Gretchen smiled as she started to stand. "Take care of my daughter, Commander--although it seems you've done a good job, so far."

"Always," Chakotay said. He watched her leave, his thoughts returning to their homecoming. Romulans, lawyers, and admirals...

"Commander Chakotay! I need to speak to you immediately!" Chakotay closed his eyes at the sound of Commander Craig's voice. Just what had happened now?

*

Chapter Text

*

Trish Gallagher stared at the wall of names in the Bajoran Temple. When Ro had tried to tell her what she’d found out about her family, Trish had declined discussing it with the station security chief. Ro had then simply handed her the PADD and suggested she read it privately. Ro had also mentioned that Trish’s father’s name was on the shrine's Memorial wall, and so she had come here to learn the truth at last.

She reached out and traced his name with her fingertips. “I’m sorry, Father,” she whispered. “I should have followed my heart, not Mother’s wishes.” He’d died eight years ago, just months before Voyager was sucked into the Delta Quadrant. She was almost afraid to look for her brothers’ names.

The temple was empty, except for a few Bajorans who were meditating or praying. It was surprising how little she knew about Bajorans, even though Tal Celes had been her roommate early on. Trish knew she hadn’t been a very good roommate. She had been very reserved and never spoke about herself with anyone, including Tal Celes. The Starfleet crew's prejudices against the Maquis had been so strong back in the beginning, she feared that if she'd opened up to anyone, the word would get out, and someone would confirm that her father and brothers had joined the Maquis. That was a major reason she’d never tried to find her missing family. It hadn’t just been her mother’s insistence on not knowing--she hadn't really wanted to know, either.

Trish found a quiet corner and sat down with the PADD in her lap, but it took her several minutes to actually activate the file and begin to read. Her brother Brian’s name leaped out at her.

“Brian Friis, last seen on Quint Marna, Stardate 49635: presumed dead along with his 5 year old son Patrick...”

Trish felt the tears well up. She had a nephew and didn’t even know it...Past tense, she’d had a nephew. She wondered if Brian had had any other children. She quickly skimmed ahead. Lieutenant Ro had thoughtfully included a link to the Orphan’s DNA Database. There were no listings under the name Friis. Ro had also asked other groups for information, but she'd been unable to find out anything more.

That left her oldest brother, Paolo Junior. PJ. He’d always disliked the “junior.” She half smiled at that memory.

She continued to read. Here Ro had included an additional note.

“Your brother Paolo is still alive, but he doesn’t want you to contact him. He’s living on Bajor and was adamant about not talking to anyone from the Federation or Star Fleet.”

Trish wondered just what adamant sounded like. She remembered him as having what her mother had called “a potty mouth.” She closed her eyes and let herself remember the last happy moments when her whole family was together, at her sister Carla's wedding. Before Carla had...had committed suicide.

“Trish?” It took her a second to realize someone was talking to her. Lieutenant Torres was standing a few feet away. “Are you all right?”

Trish shrugged her shoulders. “I’m...” She wanted to say fine, but she started crying instead. She felt Voyager’s Chief Engineer place a hand on her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re dead. My brother and my father.” She nodded her head toward the memorial wall.

“Oh. I’m sorry, Trish,” B’Elanna said, her sympathy evident. I never knew you had family in the Maquis.”

Trish took several deep breaths before she was able to answer. “I never told anyone on Voyager. Years ago, my sister was attacked by some Cardassians...and then she killed herself. My family fell apart as a result. Father and my two older brothers joined the Maquis. Mother, my little brother Simon, and I returned to Earth. I never spoke to my father or older brothers again. And now I can’t.”

B’Elanna stared at the wall, and mouthed something, then turned to Trish. “Do you remember the words the vedek said at the memorial service?”

Trish nodded tersely.

B’Elanna held out a hand. "Come with me.” Trish stood and joined her in front of the wall. B’Elanna took a taper from the holder and lit a new candle She handed it to Trish. “Place it in a holder near their names.”

“My father’s name. I didn’t see my brother’s on the wall.” Trish placed the candle in a nearby holder and watched the flickering flame for a few seconds.

B’Elanna’s voice lowered in pitch as she chanted, “All that was, is. All that is, shall ever be. All of life is a continuous chain, with those who came before and are no more, and those who are yet to be. For those who have ended their journey, as well as for those who still tread upon an earthly plane, we say: Terse Polder impart Bern. Bengal veteran Ulan steno. Walk with the Prophets.” She took Trish’s hand. “Today we remember a much loved father and brother...”

“Paolo, Brian, and Patrick Friis,” she glanced quickly at B’Elanna. “Patrick was my nephew. I never even knew my brother Brian had a family.” There were a few seconds of silence.

“Paolo Friis was your father?” B’Elanna asked.

Trish nodded. “You’ve heard of him?”

“He tried to recruit part of the Liberty’s crew for his crazy plan to...I mean...”

“Lieutenant Ro told me he led an attack on Cardassia Prime. I’m guessing that wasn’t a good idea.”

“No, it wasn’t,” B’Elanna said succinctly. “He did manage to destroy some of their technical support capabilities, and for a while the Cardassians pulled back some of their ships to protect their planet.”

Trish suspected there were probably some nasty reprisals too, but she didn’t want to know. Not today anyway. She reached out and again touched her father's name. B’Elanna let go of her hand and nodded toward the PADD.

Trish handed it to her. “Brian and Patrick were last seen on someplace called Quint Marna. Do you know of it?”

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”

“I’d lost contact with them years before. There’s now just me and my youngest brother, Simon. My oldest brother, Paolo Junior, doesn’t even want to see or hear from me.”

“Send him a letter anyway.” B’Elanna said a few choice Klingon words as she read some more on Trish’s PADD. “I’ve heard that some of the Starfleet officers think very poorly of our crew, but I didn’t expect to hear that some of the Maquis are upset with us, too.” She frowned. “Apparently, your brother has expressed his disdain at the Maquis on Voyager for not being here and not upholding Maquis values. It's not like we had a choice. We were swept off to the Delta Quadrant by the Caretaker’s waves!” B’Elanna took a deep breath. “But family is still family. No matter what he thinks, you should write him. Someday he’ll appreciate it.”

Trish felt tears threaten and couldn’t answer.

 “Come, I’ll buy you a drink,” B’Elanna said. Don’t worry about leaving your candle burning. The vedeks will take care of it when it burns down.”

Trish noticed there were almost a dozen lit tapers along the memorial wall. A lot of memories were represented here, and now, some of those memories were hers. She would come by again later.

“Father, Brian, I always loved you, even if I wasn’t brave enough to find you and tell you when you could still hear me," Trish whispered. "And I wish I’d known Patrick.” Teary-eyed, she turned and followed B’Elanna out of the temple.

*

Chapter Text

*

"Enter."

"Hi, there, Honey," Tal Celes said as she walked into the quarters Angelo Tessoni shared with James Morrow. "I thought you were going to meet me in the Mess Hall."

Angelo sat up from his bunk and stretched. "Sorry. I fell asleep. Must be all that hesperat somebody fed me for lunch."

"Now, you said you liked them." Celes sat down next to him.

"Oh, I do. I just should have stopped after the first dozen. They're heavy little suckers when you eat as many as I did."

"Oh, poor dear, let me rub your tummy and make it all better," Celes crooned.

He quickly grabbed her hand. "Oh, no, you don't! As full as my stomach feels, that's the last thing I need. Come back in a couple of hours, okay?"

She wrinkled her nose in the way that had charmed him from the first day he laid eyes upon her. "Wasn't the parade nice, Angelo? All the music, and everyone cheering as we led the procession down the street to the reviewing stand?"

"You Bajorans put on a nice show. A lot better than I have any right to expect on Earth."

"Angelo, please, I'm sure it's going to be all right."

Suddenly feeling like a boiler about to explode, Angelo jumped to his feet. He began to pace, but it didn't make him feel any better thanks to the heaviness of his belly--he really had gulped down way too many of the spicy Bajoran dumplings.

"I wish I could agree with you, Celes, but it's not going to be like that on Earth. I hope it is for the original Voyager crew, and the Maquis, too. But the five of us from the Equinox--no, we don't have any chance of being forgiven."

"Janeway hasn't said anything yet..."

"That's exactly right. She hasn't said anything, because they haven't told her she could, and that's because they're going to throw the book at us. And I can't say I'd blame them if they did."

"Angel!"

"Tarnished angel, maybe." He stopped his restless pacing and leaned against the bulkhead next to the doorway, his back towards his fiancée. She deserved someone better than him. He knew it, but he'd never had the guts to cut it off in the beginning, when he should have. He'd been weak from being revived from the dead, for pity's sake. He'd told himself over and over that that was the reason he ever let it get started. Of course, he knew the real reason was that he'd fallen in love with her long before that fateful mission to the damaged "derelict" vessel, loaded with refugee children and their caretakers who were fleeing from the Borg.

He felt her body leaning against his back. His resolve to break it off with her withered away again, just as it had every other time he'd tried it. Too late--way too late--even if her family probably wanted them apart, too.

When he turned to face her she fell into his arms, just as she always did. "Angelo, it's going to be all right. I just know it. The Prophets know you're a good person, with a warm heart. You've done things you wish you hadn't--who can't say that? I know I can't!"

"You haven't committed murder--not that I know of, anyway."

"Anyone who serves on a starship shares responsibility for any deaths caused by weapons on that vessel," she pointed out.

"Not quite the same thing as capturing innocent aliens and using their bodies for fuel," he replied dryly.

"Angelo, you were under orders from your captain and first officer..."

"C'mon, Celes. That defense never works. We're supposed to be ethical folks, us Starfleet types. We're supposed to obey our superior's orders without thinking--except when they're unethical, in which case we can refuse to obey."

"Right. At the risk of a captain's mast in which he can hand out a life sentence in the brig or exile you on a planet on the other side of the galaxy. All perfectly legitimate, official sanctions," she said savagely. "Oh, but, then you do have the right of appeal. And who, by the Celestial Temple, were you supposed to appeal to out there? Were you supposed to ring up Starfleet Command on your combadge and say, 'Oh, sirs, oh sirs...Captain Ransom is giving us unethical orders, and we need you to make him stop?' Let's be honest here. You had NO CHOICE but to follow those orders."

"When we ran into Voyager we could have said something to Janeway. We kept our mouths shut, but it wasn't only because we were ordered to. We were ashamed because we knew what we did was wrong.

"By the Prophets, Celes, I can't tell you how often I wished I'd been one of the ones that got killed when the Caretaker first pulled us into the Delta Quadrant. They were the lucky ones. No black mark next to their names."

She hugged him desperately. "Please, Angelo! Don't talk like that. You frighten me."

He leaned his head upon hers and stood silently for several moments, gathering his thoughts and his courage. Finally, he related, in a deadly serious, quiet voice, "I can't even begin to explain how horrible it was, right from the beginning. I know Voyager didn't have it easy, but for us...I really don't know how we survived long enough to find out those poor alien beings could help get us home quicker, let alone meet up with Voyager. I walked around Equinox, trying my best to do my duty, in a fog of fatigue and depression every day. Never a day off; we didn't have a big enough crew for that. Our EMH was happy to shove 'mood elevators' and antidepressants down our throats to keep us going after good ol' Max 'adjusted' his ethical subroutines."

Angelo looked down into his lover's eyes. "The only good thing about being one of the survivors was meeting you. I got a chance to know you. I bless you for your patience with me, my ever faithful, 'Celes-tial' Celes. I'm grateful for every day I've spent with you."

"And there will be many, many more days together, I promise you," she said fiercely.

He broke eye contact with her, breathed deeply, and then met her eyes again. "Maybe. Maybe not. Celes, if they throw the book at us, it would be exactly what we deserve. I may be given that exile you spoke of, except on Earth. You know, I talked to Paris about New Zealand a while ago. From what he said, life imprisonment there wouldn't be that terrible..."

"No! It's not fair! You weren't the captain, or the first officer, or any sort of officer at all! You had no power to do anything else! And don't think for a moment that Noah or Marla deserve to be punished like that, either, even if they were officers. What else could they do?" She broke down. Angelo found himself leading her to his bed to sit down, drying her tears and comforting her the best he could.

"Look Celes, I know your family doesn't know the details, but they've figured out there's a cloud over me and the rest of the Equinox people. There are lots of rumors out there. People have heard about Noah's demotion, even if they don't realize that Marla lost her rank, too, but was reinstated. Your parents and sisters have made it clear they don't care for me. Maybe it would be better to..."

"You stop that, Angelo Tessoni! I'm not giving you up now, not after all we've been through. We'll just have to face up to whatever else they're going to throw at us. If you get life imprisonment, then I'll spend the rest of my life on Earth, or wherever else they send you."

"But your Starfleet career..."

"My Starfleet career is over, Angelo. I was never cut out for Starfleet. I joined up ten years ago because my prospects on Bajor were so bad. I can't say I'm sorry. Ever since Captain Janeway took me in hand I've been a decent crewman. I learned a lot about myself out in the Delta Quadrant, and I've got plenty of self-confidence now. I've learned a lot about engineering and maintenance systems--enough to earn my own way once I've resigned from Starfleet. And that's going to happen after Voyager returns to Earth, no matter what happens to you."

"Why don't you just accept the offer of asylum on Bajor from the government and stay here, with your own people?"

"No, I'm going to see this through. For the first time in my life, I'm going to see the end of something I started. But Angelo, why don't you take the offer? I'll be back in a few months, I bet--maybe even weeks. You could wait for me here."

"Oh, sure. I could bunk with your parents. 'Hi there. I'm your soon-to-be son-in-law, just a little bit tainted by being one of those murderers from the Equinox. Mind if I stay with you?' That would go over great."

Celes couldn't help herself, she had to laugh. And, laughter being contagious, Angelo ended up laughing, too, at the sheer absurdity of the situation and the irony of finding the woman of his dreams when he didn't know if he had a future to offer her.

Finally, he fell back on the pillows and caught his breath--and Celes, too, when she fell down on top of him.

As soon as he caught her, she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Angelo. Did I hurt your stomach?"

"No. It doesn't feel so bad now."

She turned on her side and cuddled up beside him. "So, I guess you'll be going back to Earth on Voyager, then."

"I will."

"And you're going to accept whatever punishment they might want to dish out--no matter how much you've been punished already?"

"Yes, I am, Celes. I've got to do it for the same reason you're going to Earth. I've got to see it through to the end. I owe that to Captain Janeway and Chakotay and everyone else, for all they've done for me...for the five of us, ever since we became part of Voyager's crew."

"Okay," she whispered. "And if they decide not to imprison you? If they decide you've been punished enough? What will you do then?"

"My Starfleet career is over, no matter what. Just like you said. I couldn't stay in. I could never look my cousin Giovanna in the eye again if I did. It's going to be hard enough as it is, let me tell you. I found out she's a captain now. The last thing she needs is someone like me turning up on her doorstep."

"So, after it's all over--and it will be all over someday--should we come back to Bajor?"

"If the offer to settle down here still holds--after they've found out the truth about what happened on the Equinox--yeah. I'd like to come back."

"You still want to build some houses?"

He smiled. "Yeah. I'd like to build something up instead of tearing it apart. Maybe I'll even volunteer time helping to rebuild homes for people who lost everything in the war, in the DMZ. Chakotay's sister is part of a group that's trying to reclaim Dorvan. I wouldn't mind helping them build some houses." He turned his head away from her. "Maybe then I could look in the mirror again, look at myself, and see the decent man I thought I was instead of the bastard I turned into on the Equinox."

Celes raised herself onto her elbow. Pinching his chin lightly, she pulled his face so it faced hers. "Look into my eyes, Angelo. You'll see yourself reflected in them. You don't need a mirror to see yourself as a decent man. I know your heart, Angelo Tessoni. You may not be perfect--nobody is. But you're a good man."

"You're sure about that?" he said offhandedly, although he hoped he could feel it was true someday.

"Hey, are you saying I have such bad taste I could love someone who had the heart of a pah-wraith?"

"Oh, never, my love! Never!"

He leaned towards her and kissed her, gently at first, then more passionately as she responded to him. He put his arms around her and held her close, embracing her love as she embraced his.

Celes had always told him that if you have family who loves you and you walk in good faith with the Prophets, you can face anything. Whatever he could do to make reparations for the mistakes he'd made, Angelo Tessoni was prepared to do. Hopefully, that was what "walking in good faith with the Prophets" meant.

Angelo did not know what the future might hold for him, but at least he was sure he wouldn't be facing it alone.

*

Chapter Text

*

Tom glanced toward the bar and laughed. "So, why do you think our favorite press agent looks so glum today?"

Chakotay shrugged. "Perhaps he’s trying to figure out how to improve the ‘spin’ on the reputations of some of the Voyager crew. Not all of the Maquis turned out to be heroes, as you know.”

Tom nodded. "Jonas, for example. I don’t know why he decided to throw in his lot with Seska. He had every reason to hate the Cardassians."

"Seska could be very persuasive," Chakotay said sharply. “No doubt she convinced him she was a better bet to keep him alive, let alone get him home again, than Janeway was.”

Both men looked up when Craig approached. "Good morning, Commander Craig," Chakotay said.

"Commander, Lieutenant."

"Is there a problem?" Chakotay asked, wondering at the expression on the press liasion’s face.

"A problem? Hell, there is a problem." Craig tossed a PADD to Chakotay, who nearly dropped it.  "Did you know that the Romulan ale industry was nearly destroyed by our brewer's yeast? The whole quadrant is going to hell and nobody gives a damn."

Tom stared as Craig stalked out of the bar. "Brewer's yeast? Did I miss something? What's gotten him so upset?"

Chakotay showed him the PADD.

"What the hell is The Risian Ribald?" Tom asked. "It sounds like a bad pleasure palace."

"Yellow journalism at its finest--or worst--depending upon your point of view," Chakotay said. "What do you think of this headline? 'Pon Farr-Inflamed Vulcan Fights hotshot pilot for Favors of the Passionate and Beautiful Maquis Princess.' "

"WHAT!?" Tom shouted, grabbling the PADD from out of Chakotay's hand and quickly scanning down the open page. He alternately grimaced and groaned, but finally he admitted ruefully, "You know, they have pretty good sources. They almost got it right, but B'Elanna's not going to be too happy finding out I was the one who 'beat the Pon Farr out of the Vulcan.' And when she finds out who made her a 'princess'...Well, I'm glad it wasn't me." Ignoring Chakotay's impatient tapping on his shoulder, Tom tabbed down to skim a few more articles before saying, "Ah. Now here's an interesting one. 'Starfleet Captain and Maquis Warrior and Their Deadly Secret Love Nest on Planet X.' We always did wonder what happened during those three months you were alone on New Earth."

Chakotay snatched the PADD away from Tom and read for a few moments. "I think I understand now why Craig is in such a bad mood. This is complete rubbish--there's even a quote from me that I know I never even thought, let alone said! Everyone will think this is the truth when it's so far from it that..." He forced the PADD back into Tom's hands.

"Excuse me," a voice said. Both men turned around.

"He's some Ferengi reporter from the Daily Business Journal or something like that," Tom whispered.

"My name is Nunk, and I'm with the Ferenginar Journal of Weekly Business News," the Ferengi said.

"Well, I was close." Tom grasped the PADD tighter in his hand.

"Why don't you ask him how they found out about deadly secret planets," Chakotay said as he stalked towards the door.

“No comment,” Tom said as he abruptly turned away from the Ferengi reporter. For good measure he got up and went to another table at which several of his crewmates were sitting. He leaned close to Hugh Murphy and said in a low voice, "Have you read this?"

"The Risian Ribald? Yeah. I've just glanced at the headlines, but that's why Tal here is so upset."

"Commander Craig isn't too pleased either," Tom said.

"I bet he isn't," Tal Celes said angrily. "Did you see page six?"

Tom scrolled through the journal quickly to the sixth page. "Science Vessel and Their Bloody Hell from ..." He gasped, unable to read further. "Hugh, has Harry seen this? Or Marla or Noah?"

Hugh shrugged. "I don't know," Tal said. "Who put out this trash? Don't they realize they’re spewing rumors and worse about real people? I have to go to Angelo..." She walked away.

Tom swore under his breath in frustration. "I'd better warn them, and all the others. Reporters! Damn them all anyway."

*

Chapter Text

*

"Do you wish to claim a final nay'mey?" the waiter roared.

Alicia would have been mortified if any of the other diners had turned around to look at them, but in the Qapla', service at a high decibel level was a given. No one even noticed.

"Yes, I do,” Tom said, amused at his mother’s reaction.

“B'Elanna, are you sure you don't have time for dessert?" Alicia inquired.

"No, I really can't,” B’Elanna said regretfully. “I gave my word to Joe I'd get back to Engineering by 2100 to take over for him. He promised to take Anne and the boys onto the Promenade tonight to get some souvenirs. I really have to get going."

"Actually, I'm pretty full. That boqrat chej Qevlu'pu'bogh was really good,” Tom said. “I have room for a raktajino though."

"Good. You've had more than enough IwHIq already," Alicia reproved.

"Mom! I'm a big boy now. And I'm not piloting tonight!" Turning to his wife, Tom asked, "Are you sure you don't have time for qa'vIn or Dargh?"

B’Elanna wavered, and then gave in. "Oh, all right. I'll have some qa'vIn. With a shot of prune juice."

"Excellent choice! And you?" Davulth, their jabwI', shouted to Alicia.

"I'll try the naHlet yuch chanDoq. I don't think you can go wrong putting chocolate and nuts together--it's always good. And I'll have some Dargh with lemon. Oh, wait, make that with na'ran. It's so much better that way.” Alicia turned to her newly adopted son. “Icheb? Would you like something, dear?"

"vIychorgh na'ran on ice, with a bowl of naHletmey," Icheb stated firmly.

"In the shell, or out?" Davulth sneered, showing teeth which appeared sharp enough to crush any number of nuts, in or out of the shell.

"In the yub," Icheb replied.

Tom nodded his approval, murmuring, "Great accent, Icheb."

"Excellent." The server turned and yelled out their order to the cook, who repeated it, vigorously, to confirm the orders. It was bad form, Alicia had learned, for a server to fail to memorize an order and write it down instead, but the consequences for claiming what was brought to the table were in error frequently were so severe, it was better to eat what was brought you, no matter what it might smell or taste like, than ask for the mistake to be corrected.

After the food and drink order had been accepted by everyone, the jabwI' disappeared inside the corridor built of synthrock which led to the kitchen. The back wall of the restaurant was decorated with a multitude of wicked looking daggers, swords, and weapons from various worlds. Every blade had been carefully polished and honed to an edge so sharp, it practically disappeared when seen straight on. Weapons from Earth included a medieval battle axe, a Roman trident, and an Arabian scimitar, but the most numerous and prominently displayed blades were of Klingon origin.

Tom had admired a bat'leth and Daqtagh the first night the family had eaten at the Qapla', which had led to the offer from their server Davulth for a little combat the next morning. The Klingon restaurant's tables were arranged in two concentric circles around a large central area which served as a stage or arena for all sorts of events. Before lunchtime--and sometimes after--the restaurant doubled as a Klingon martial arts academy. The clash of weapons simply added to the ambiance of torches flickering in a smoky atmosphere, casting shadows against craggy rock walls, with ruddy mood lighting designed to resemble the glow of fire pits.

When B'Elanna had entered the Qapla' for the first time, she'd commented, "It's a cave. What a surprise," in such a world-weary voice that Alicia suspected there must be quite a story connected with the remark. And if she hadn't suspected it, the sparkle in Tom's eyes as he added, "Perfect, isn't it?" would have clued her in immediately. From the expression on Tom's face, the story was probably courtship related.

Alicia was resigned to the likelihood she would never find out what that reference to a cave was all about. Courtship stories were seldom shared with mothers, Alicia had found.

This evening, the Paris family group dining at the Qapla' was reduced by one. When they ate at the Klingon restaurant on the second night after Alicia's arrival, little Miral had been with them. Tonight the Doctor and his friends Haley and Leonard were babysitting on the holodeck. Alicia had met Haley--a most charming hologram--but she had yet to be introduced to Leonard. When she'd asked her son to tell her a little about him, Tom had said only, "He's short." Since Leonard was also traveling back to Earth on Voyager, Alicia was sure she'd eventually learn what Tom meant by such a cryptic description.

When Davulth, the jabwI', returned with their coffee, tea, raktajino, and fruit juice, he told them Alicia's and Icheb's desserts would take a few more minutes. "No problem." Tom replied. "We can settle the bill now. Stay as long as you want, Mom. Okay with you, Icheb?"

"Acceptab... yes. That will be okay."

"Good!" Davulth said, as Tom made arrangements for the credit transfer. He slipped away as quietly as a huge man could. When he came back, carried a tray with the two desserts--a massive concoction of chocolate and a pecan-like nut, pungent with the fruity marinade the dish had been soaked in; and a second plate heaped with various kinds of nuts in the shell. Both desserts were crowned by a cup made from a hollowed-out na'ran rind, filled with a flaming, oil-soaked husk of some sort. "Klingon dessert flambeau," as Tom dubbed them. With a flourish, the waiter set the fiery dishes in front of Icheb and Alicia for all to admire.

"Delicious," Alicia said. "I mean, DuQ Soj. Is that right, Tom?"

" 'The food stabbed you.' Yes, it really was good," agreed Tom.

The jabwI' beamed. "It is an honor to serve such knowledgeable customers. I must tell you, when I first saw you, Paris, I questioned if you were worthy of your striking wife; but you have surpassed all my expectations. Your skills with the bat'leth are improving daily. Already you are worthy of most opponents. If you continue to practice, you will be a master of the art in no time."

"I thank you, Davulth. You are an excellent instructor. Voyager has a great Klingon battle program, but nothing beats having a true master for a teacher."

Davulth joyfully showed his teeth again. "So, Paris, will we meet again tomorrow on the field of battle?"

"Sure, if we're still on the station. Voyager should be leaving any time now."

"Understood. Duty always comes first. If you remain here on the morrow, I look forward to our combat. If not, you have only to look at the sign in front of our establishment to know my message to you! HaHaHaHaHahahahaHAH!" Tom stood up and clenched forearms with Davulth, grimacing sharply to approximate a Klingon smile.

B'Elanna cradled her forehead upon her hand for a second, stroking her ridges in a circling motion as if trying to banish a headache. Sighing, she rested her elbow on the table, moving her hand a few centimeters to enable her fist to support her chin. Upon making eye contact with Alicia, she murmured, "Bet you never expected your son to turn into 'Mr. Klingon,' did you?"

Alicia laughed lightly. "Oh, B'Elanna, I learned long ago the only thing a mother should expect from her children is the unexpected. That way, you're never truly disappointed. You'll see. Miral will teach you all about th...oh, dear."

"What's the matter?" B'Elanna asked.

"I promised myself I'd never fall into that old mothering trap of giving unsolicited advice to a daughter or son-in-law, and here I go, doing it anyway."

"You're forgiven," B'Elanna laughed. "Compared to the way my mother gave advice, I never noticed that you were doing that."

Alicia patted B'Elanna on the hand resting lightly on the table, thinking what a shame it was she would never get to know the woman for whom her granddaughter had been named. "Well, I'll still try to remember to keep my place."

"Keep what place?" Tom asked as he took his seat at the table again.

"Trying not to be a mother-in-law who butts in all the time," Alicia said, eyeing Tom, who was rubbing his forearms lightly. "You're going to have bruises all over your arms again, Tom. You really should be more careful."

"People will think I'm beating you," B'Elanna observed.

"Nah. They'll think our daughter is. And they wouldn't be far wrong. She pounds on me all the time." Tom sipped his raktajino. "Whew. Strong stuff. Just the way I like it."

B'Elanna rolled her eyes but spared everyone at the table any more comments.

"Well, I really have to get going now," B'Elanna said, draining her mug of its last drop of prune-flavored coffee. "I've got to go. Dinner was great. I won't be home too late, Tom, but don't wait up if I get held up by something."

Tom gave her a quick buss on the cheek as she scurried away. "I really should be going, too," Tom said. "The Doctor hinted he wanted to favor Haley with an aria or two, and Miral always cries when he sings." Tom winked at Icheb, who smiled back. "Stay as long as you like. Davulth will bring you a refill of your juice and tea if you want. They're on the house. On the 'House,' get it?" Tom chuckled at his own joke.

"I got it, head of the House of Paris," Alicia said, unimpressed. "Now you just hurry off and pick up my granddaughter. I'll want to play with her for a little while later, if she's still up when I get home from my date with my second son."

"Yes, ma'am!" Tom grinned at his mother and gave a hearty clap to Icheb's shoulder. "Oops. Sorry, Icheb. I get that way when I'm in here. See you later."

*

Chapter Text

*

Once Tom was gone the restaurant seemed quieter, even though the restaurant's clientele and employees were interacting as they usually did. Alicia didn't try to strike up a conversation with Icheb immediately, however; his mouth was too full of nuts for him to respond. Icheb was following Tom's advice on how to eat nuts the culturally correct Klingon way: naHletmey should be chewed in their shells until the nutmeats melted away, at which point any remaining shards could be spit out. Icheb was using his service plate to dispose of the spent shells, Alicia noted. Bringing an extra dish for the cast offs wasn't the Klingon way.

After Alicia finished her dessert--it really was difficult to ruin a dessert made with pecans and chocolate, she decided--she sat back contentedly, dabbing a bit of chocolate from her chin, until Icheb could answer her. "If we're here tomorrow night, maybe we can try that Andorian restaurant. There's one in San Francisco. I'm curious to see if this one is as good."

Icheb shrugged, spit out the last of his nut shells, and said, "If we're still here. We should be leaving any day. Like Tom said."

"We should be leaving, but who knows? It's up to the admirals in Starfleet. They can take their time when they want to."

"You should know. You're married to one," Icheb said with a smile.

"I certainly am. And if there's one admiral who is loudly insisting to everyone he meets that Voyager should be ordered home immediately, it's Owen!"

Icheb, his mouth full of juice, shrugged again in response.

"I guess you haven't had Klingon food too often, Icheb," Alicia said.

"No, it wasn't easy for Neelix to prepare gagh in the Delta Quadrant, although he tried."

"It must have been impossible to find the ingredients."

"It was, but even if he had the right worms, it wouldn't have tasted like this. He likes to add Talaxian spices to everything. A little taste of ‘home’--as long as home is Talax." Icheb's smile was as sly as it was shy. Alicia smiled warmly back at him. One thing Alicia and Owen had worried about when they first discussed adopting Icheb was that the young man and former Borg might not have a sense of humor. Tom had assured them that he did, and it had proven to be so. Icheb's humor was subtle and dry, but it was a pleasure to witness whenever it slipped out.

"Besides," Icheb went on, "B'Elanna isn't too fond of Klingon food."

"She seems to have enjoyed the food here."

"She says it's a lot better here than she remembered--or maybe her tastes have changed. She's not sure which."

"Klingon food is an acquired taste," Alicia admitted.

"Klingons like to be challenged by their dinner," Icheb observed. "It seems like everything either wiggles away from you, throws sparks, or tries to bite you back."

Alicia laughed heartily, with Icheb chuckling along with her. She wanted to throw her arms around him and hug him right there, but it didn't seem to be something she could do in any restaurant, let alone one catering to Klingon tastes. Not until she knew Icheb wouldn't be embarrassed by it. Young men could be so touchy about being touched sometimes! Even Tom had gone through a "no hugging" period.

When she got her laughter under control, Alicia said, "Maybe not everything, but some of it certainly is a challenge. There are a few Klingon restaurants on Earth, but this one has the best Klingon food I've ever tasted off Q'Onos."

"You've been to Q'OnoS?"

"I've been to a lot of places, Icheb. An admiral gets to travel all over, and an admiral's wife needs to be ready to do her duty, too, even if it means traveling light years away from home as part of a diplomatic mission. That's the way life is in Starfleet. You need to understand that if you're going to be in the command track at the Academy."

"You'll be able to help me understand things like that," Icheb said earnestly. "Admiral Paris will, too."

"I'm willing to teach you anything I can, Icheb. It will be a pleasure. I'm looking forward to showing you all sorts of places on Earth. I'm glad you'll be so close to home at the Academy. You can come home any time you like, even just for dinner if you don't like what they're serving in the Academy Mess Hall. You can bring your friends, too. I got used to having a houseful of cadets around when Tom was there."

"Like Lieutenant Ro?"

"Oh, yes, like Ro. I always liked her. She's had so many sorrows early in her life--and I'm sorry to say her sorrows didn't end then, but continue to this day--but she never seems to lose heart or stop fighting. That's always impressed me."

"B'Elanna is like that."

"I think she is, too, Icheb." Alicia hesitated, not sure if she should say anything to him, but it slipped out anyway. "And maybe you're like that?"

"I would like to think so." As he answered her, Icheb's expression was at once hopeful and wary, not that Alicia blamed him. It was understandable, after his experiences with his birth parents, that he would have trouble trusting anyone saying they wished to be his mother and father.

Alicia couldn't help thinking what a nice boy he was. He'd made an excellent impression upon her, and she knew Owen would be thrilled with him. How his birth parents could give him up twice as a sacrifice to the Borg was completely beyond her understanding. The first time, perhaps, Alicia could accept they could have set aside their love for their son and gone through with plans which, from what Tom had told her, apparently were the main reason he'd been born. After their first attempt failed, though, and by a miracle Icheb returned to them, how could they possibly have been willing to try it again? The only conclusion Alicia could come to was that they really didn't love Icheb for himself. He was only a means to an end, a weapon.

It was one thing for a person to knowingly sacrifice their own life for a cause, but to place your own child into jeopardy, not once but twice--no, that Alicia could not accept.

All of this flashed through her mind as she watched Icheb solemnly drink the last of his juice of the na'ran fruit and set the empty glass upon the table. He licked his lips and then leaned forward. "Mrs...Mom." Alicia had insisted Icheb should call her either "Alicia" or a variant of mother, not Mrs. Paris. "I'm very grateful to you for all your kindness to me, but you know...you don't have to adopt me."

"Why not?" Try as she might, Alicia could not keep the hurt out of her voice at his unexpected statement.

"It isn't necessary," he said quietly. "You have already made me feel at home and welcome in your family. Tom and B'Elanna have, too. But I know you always made Lieutenant Ro a member of your family during the holidays. You can do the same for me, if you want."

"Don't you want us to adopt you, Icheb?"

He was silent for a several seconds, but finally, he said, "I don't want you to feel you are obligated, just because Tom asked you to."

"Tom never suggested anything at all to us about adoption. That was my idea, and Owen's. I'm not sure who actually brought it up first, but it doesn't matter. We really want you to be our son. You know, I always hoped to have a bigger family, but after Tom, somehow we got swept away with other things and it never happened. Now I wonder if I didn't have any others because you were always meant to come into our family."

Icheb said nothing; he didn't seem to know what to say. Alicia wasn't sure she could say or do at that moment to convince him of her sincerity, either, until she recalled something she'd meant to tell him when she first came to Deep Space Nine, something that had totally left her head in the excitement of meeting him and seeing Tom and the rest of the family. She knew it was time.

"I know I told you there was going to be a court hearing in February about the petition for adoption. Did I also tell you that you'll be interviewed by people from the courts before the hearing?"

"No."

"Well, you will. It's a rule. You're not a little baby--you're grown up, really. You have the right to express your opinion about whether or not you want to be adopted by us, and the adoption can't take place unless the courts are assured it's something you do want." Knowing how important it was for him to understand how much this meant to her, Alicia said, "I want you to be my son, Icheb. Owen does, too. I wanted it before I met you, and now that I have..." Alicia felt tears sting her eyes but plowed onward. "...now that I have met you, I want it even more, if that's possible! But if you don't feel you wish to...to be our son...officially...we'll still love you anyway."

Icheb picked up her hand, which she had unconsciously stretched out towards him. "It's not that I don't want to be your son. I just don't want you to feel forced into doing anything."

"Oh, Icheb! Nobody forces Owen Paris to do anything. Orders from a superior officer to send out a ship, maybe, but never anything as important as adopting someone into the Paris family! And nobody tells me to do anything like this, either!"

"Isn't an admiral the most superior officer?" Icheb said, a hint of his sly smile coming back to his lips.

"There are admirals over admirals, Icheb...but wait, you've been studying under Commander Tuvok for long enough to know that..."

He nodded his head shyly. Alicia squeezed the hand she held and threw her other arm over his shoulders. "Let's get this straight, young man. No one, not even Tom, told us we should adopt you. We thought that one up all by ourselves. Now it's up to you. Are you with us? Or agin' us?" Even as she said it, she knew, with an overpowering feeling of joy, what his answer would be. She refused to believe it would be anything else.

"I guess I'm with you then...Mom..."

Alicia put both arms around him and hugged him within an inch of his life. The scamp! Or perhaps he had to test the depths of her feelings, which really were even greater than even she had suspected.

She couldn't help thinking how wonderful it would have been if Icheb had been with them when Tom was growing up. The pressure to be a Paris would have been so much easier for her sensitive Tom to bear if it had been shared with a brother. Owen had accepted his daughters making plans for futures that did not include becoming Starfleet officers, but Tom had always accepted his father's expectations.

If there was one thing about Tom's childhood she regretted now, it was not being more vocal when Owen came down too hard on Tom. Discipline is all well and good--essential to the development of self-direction in a person--but at times there was too much focus on discipline and not enough on letting Tom be his natural, humorous, caring self. Fortunately, she didn't worry about Owen making the same mistake twice. Icheb would have it easier--as the youngest child always seemed to. It wasn't fair, but there it was.

Alicia loved seeing how easily Tom had adapted to the role of Icheb's big brother. Her family was complete in the way she had always wanted but had been denied until now, with a pair of daughters and a pair of sons. Alicia hoped they would always care about each other and support each other, from one generation to the next, too.

She wasn't sure how long she wallowed in her happy thoughts of the expanded Paris family, but when her eyesight cleared, she looked up to see Davulth staring at them. She didn't know what to say at first, but then she scolded, "This is my son, and I love him! So I'm hugging him! Is that all right with you?"

She was afraid her tone was a little belligerent until she realized, almost to the point of laughter, that it was very difficult to be too belligerent around Klingons.

Sure enough, Davulth grinned at her proudly. "Of course it is 'all right' with me," he said. "He is your son! No other explanation is necessary!"

*

Chapter Text

*

As they walked out of the Qapla' and ambled down the Promenade towards Quark's place, Icheb said, "I was really nervous about meeting the admiral. Now I can't wait to meet him--but I'm still a little nervous."

"You don't have to worry about the admiral--your father--he will be as happy to see you as he will be to see Tom. And that is very VERY happy, Icheb. Losing Tom taught Owen to treasure every moment with his family, something it's too easy to forget when we get caught up in daily life. Finding out Tom was alive made a tremendous difference in him. He's really looking forward to having you be part of our family, too."

"I am...relieved. Do you think the admiral would mind if I called him?"

"Of course he wouldn't mind! He'd love to hear from you again. You know, you never told me what he said when you and Tom called the first time."

"First time? You mean from the Delta Quadrant?"

"No, I mean, after I arrived at Deep Space Nine and told Tom how upset Owen was that he couldn't come. Weren't you there when Tom called his father then?"

"I don't think Tom's called him yet. I know he hasn't when I've been with him," Icheb replied.

Alicia strode down the Promenade for a few minutes, her short legs keeping stride with Icheb's long ones far better than they normally would. She tried to control her agitation. It was difficult. Fortunately, by this time Icheb was comfortable enough to keep his end of the conversation going with minimal input from her. He chatted amiably, pausing only when he took the time to wave at several members of Voyager's crew passing them on the Promenade.

When they arrived at Quark's, Icheb reminded Alicia he was supposed to meet Naomi and Sam at Vic's. "Do you wish to come, too? Vic is a very good singer. The Doctor doesn't think so, but I think it's because he's jealous of Vic."

Alicia tried to make her laugh sound natural. "No, dear. I have something I need to do. Run along and have fun."

The crowd inside Quark's seemed to be getting rather raucous. Alicia almost decided to go into the club for a short time with Icheb after all. From where she stood by the door, however, she could see Icheb disappear safely into the holographic nightclub. As soon as Icheb was gone, she bolted for a comm booth.

"B'Elanna?"

"Yes...Alicia? Is something wrong?"

"You'll have to tell me. Has...are you alone?"

"For the moment. What's the matter?"

"Has Tom called his father yet?"

The pause gave Alicia her answer before B'Elanna said, "Not that I know of, and I'm sure I would."

"Why hasn't he called him? I gave Tom some very broad hints about what prevented his father from coming to Deep Space Nine! I'm not even supposed to know some of this stuff! Tom's been around Starfleet long enough to know how to read between the lines!"

"I wouldn't be so sure of that."

"Really?" Alicia was flabbergasted. How could someone raised in a Starfleet family not learn how things were done? But then she stopped and considered her son and his nature. "That's hard to believe..." she added, but her voice wobbled uncertainly.

"Believe it. Tom is great at nagging at you until you break down and admit something is bothering you. He tells you the truth the way he sees it--which is usually pretty accurate. And he's always sharing those little 'life stories' of his that make you feel you weren't the only one who was on the outside looking in. He's really good at that."

"Life stories..."

"Yeah. You know. About spending a lot of time in his room when he was a kid, reading books--crashing the family flyer into Lake Tahoe because he was joy riding--hiding his head under hats because he hated how short his hair was cut--the time his father let him take over the controls of a ship for the first..."

"Haircuts? He's still talking about the haircuts? I only let Owen scalp him for two summers before I put my foot down! Isn't Tom over that yet? It was only hair! It grew back!"

"It's about a lot more than just hair. Tom thinks his father feels he's never measured up to his father's expectations, especially after Caldik Prime."

"Ah," Alicia sighed, "Owen may have made things worse for Tom at Caldik Prime. He was so adamant about finding out the 'true cause' of the accident that almost killed his son, I was amazed Tom was ever able to admit it was through his own error. By then it was too little, too late. And Owen definitely overreacted to Tom's joining the Maquis."

"And now he's got a Maquis for a daughter-in-law. I'm sure he's thrilled..."

"B'Elanna, I must tell you, Owen now sees Tom's joining the Maquis--for whatever reason Tom may have thought he was doing it at the time--as the initial stage of Tom's redemption after he was forced out of Starfleet. For the first time in a long time, he wasn't only thinking of himself. Since the outbreak of the Dominion War and all that's happened in the DMZ, Owen's told me many times how sincerely he regrets his own position early on concerning the Maquis. The Federation should have listened to what they were saying, he says now."

"I'm glad he can finally say that, even if it is a little late for too many people." From her tone, however, B'Elanna was somewhat mollified.

"That's a subject we're sure to discuss, ad nauseum, once Voyager gets home, B'Elanna."

"I'm sure. Is there anything else you want to ask?"

Alicia was reminded that B'Elanna was on duty and obviously unable to talk for much longer, but it was just as well. B'Elanna wasn't the one Alicia needed to speak with anyway. "Do you know where Tom is?"

"He's in our quarters, taking care of Miral. Do you want me to contact him?"

"No, that's okay. I'll find him. Thank you, B'Elanna--I'd...well, I'll tell you later, when it's just us."

"Good idea. Torres out."

*

Chapter Text

*

"Enter."

Alicia stepped inside the door and surveyed her son's quarters. The vista outside their viewports was magnificent. From the way Voyager was oriented while docked at Deep Space Nine, Tom and B'Elanna's quarters faced out towards Bajor and the center of the galaxy, thick with glowing stars.

Miral was curled up in her bed asleep, a stuffed targ clutched in her chubby fingers. Tom was sitting at the computer terminal, his head haloed by the star field behind him. He was working on something, probably the flight plan to Earth--assuming they ever received clearance to leave the station. "Hi, Mom," Tom whispered. "I'm afraid you're too late to play with your granddaughter. She went down early tonight."

"That's not why I'm here. Tom, call your father."

Tom's face froze into a mask.

"Tom!" Alicia hissed. "You have to understand. I told you your father was upset because he couldn't come to Deep Space Nine to meet you..."

" ‘Heartbroken’ was the word you used, I believe."

"Well, I lied. Try devastated. Inconsolable. Not to mention furious. Because all of them are true. He didn't dare come, Tom. He's still fighting to get Voyager's crew home, but I hope the fact Voyager's still here means he's scaring the pants off certain people--who shall remain nameless but who have 'admiral' tacked in front of their names--who are afraid of what the court of public opinion may decide about them if they try to stroke their egos by being hard-asses towards your crewmates. They'd rather look good to the public. Too many people would resent it if they came down as hard as they'd like to."

"After all that's happened, are you telling me there are still some admirals who are afraid of a handful of Maquis who've been lost on the other side of the galaxy for eight years?"

"Yes, because they don't want anyone to think of the Maquis at all. The spin doctors want to make believe they never existed; never told us what was happening to them; never asked for our help when they were being slaughtered; never warned us the same thing was going to happen to us--but of course, it did. If we'd listened to the Maquis and stopped the Cardassians earlier, maybe a lot of people who died in the DMZ, on Betazed, on Earth--all over the quadrant--would still be alive."

"But now someone is speaking up and shining the lights on their hypocrisy..." Tom said, as the light of understanding dawned in his eyes.

"Of course. Since they aren't sure what to do, they'd rather do the same thing they did to the other Maquis--ignore you and hope you go away."

"We've been gone for eight years! We're not going to be put off forever...although they have managed to put us off for quite a while. So that's what's holding us up here?"

"You didn't think it was because they hadn't rounded up enough confetti for the parade, do you?"

Tom leaned back in his chair with his eyes shut, the color draining from his face. "And my situation? I don't suppose you've heard..."

Alicia grabbed her son's right hand in both of hers. "No. And your father has been asking them over and over again. No one seems to know anything. If they do know, they aren't telling us."

To stood up and turned towards the viewport, watching the stars outside, or pretending to--Alicia couldn't be sure which.

Miral's curly head suddenly popped up from her crib. Although Alicia and Tom's whispering had become increasingly intense when they were speaking about Voyager's situation, both were completely silent at the moment Miral awakened. Perhaps the silence was what woke her. Whatever the reason, Miral called out "Dada" in the drawn out, reedy tone of a child awakened when she was still tired.

"I'll get her, Tom. I want to spoil my granddaughter a little."

Tom shook his head and sat down again. Out of the corner of her eye, while Alicia picked up Miral and crooned softly to her, she watched Tom as he finally took the hint and contacted Ops.

"Please put a call through to Admiral Owen Paris. From his son Thomas Eugene Paris. I'll be right here until you make the connection."

*

"Dad. Hi!"

"Tom! Oh, Tom, it's so good to see you. How is your mother? And B'Elanna and Miral?"

"B'Elanna's in Engineering, but Mom is here, busy spoiling your granddaughter."

"Good, good. I can't wait to do some spoiling of her myself."

From the joy lighting his father's face, Tom felt ashamed he had put off this call for so long. Why did he still continue to doubt his father? All the signs that his father cared for him and wanted him home had been present for a long time. There was no hint of ambivalence in his father's beaming smile. "Dad," Tom gulped, "I'm sorry I didn't call you before. I guess...well, I'm an idiot..."

"Son, stop right there. You're not an idiot, you're just like your old man. We've both made mistakes, and we've both had trouble admitting it. Scratch that. I have trouble admitting them. Son, a long time ago, when you were willing to step forward and admit..."

"Dad, what's past is past. That's something I don't want to dwell on any more. We can't change what happened; we just have to go on the best we can."

"I guess we're both too pig-headed for our own good..."

"Now that I can agree with. B'Elanna would, too."

"Your mother would also probably agree."

"She does," Alicia called out, loud enough to be heard clearly over the comm. His father's quick smile confirmed it.

"Well, anyway, I just called to say I wish you were here, but I understand why you're not--thanks to Mom."

Owen's image leaned in closer to the screen. "I wanted to come, son, but I'm afraid to leave. Even if a ship bound for Deep Space Nine were leaving today, I wouldn't feel right about getting on it. I need to be here, doing what I can for your shipmates."

"It's that bad, then?" Tom had hoped his mother had been overstating the case. Obviously, she hadn't been.

"Son, the hell of it is, I can't tell. No one is saying anything. I've got a 'conflict of interest' so I'm not part of their inner circle. I suspect much but can't prove a thing. I can't be sure of anything right now except we can't trust certain people who are in positions of power. They could have far more influence than is healthy for a lot of your people unless there's a gadfly around here ready to ask the tough questions."

"You always were good at asking the tough questions, Dad."

His father laughed. Before either of them could say anything more, a door opened behind Tom and B'Elanna came in.

"So, you're sneaking off and calling people behind my back," B'Elanna sniffed, but with a smile that confirmed she was pleased to see them speaking to one another.

"Is that your lovely wife? Hello, B'Elanna. Get within range so I can see you. And Alicia? You, too! Let me see little Miral's face!"

Hastily, Tom pulled everyone close to him, so that the mini-sensors could pick up all of them at once. B'Elanna was subdued. Alicia hugged Miral close to her as the warning chime went off, but no one said a word during the few seconds that were left to them, preferring just to gaze at each other. Just as the connection was about to end, Tom saw Owen's hand float out towards them in an illusion, as if it could emerge from the screen on Voyager's side and grab Tom by the hand. Tom could imagine what it would feel like so vividly, it was almost as if their hands were touching, despite the many light years between them.

As the light began to fade from the screen, Tom started to reach out to touch the spots where his father's hand and face had been. He caught himself and smiled a little. Tom folded his fingers into a fist and bumped it against his breastbone, not in anger, but more like a salute one Klingon warrior would give another. Owen smiled broadly and returned the gesture, just as the image faded away.

Tom felt B'Elanna hand on his shoulder comforting him as he said sadly, "We only had time to say a few words."

"You took a first step towards your father. He did the same towards you. That's what counts," Alicia said, depositing Miral into his lap.

"That's what counts," Tom agreed, as he gave his daughter a kiss. And the ache in his heart that had dragged at him for more than a week was finally gone.

*

Chapter Text

*

"Sarexa, Sweeting...I mean Sarexa..." Neelix stammered her name a few more times, further increasing her fear that everything would only get worse.

"It's all right, Neelix," she said, forcing herself to keep her voice in a Borg monotone. "I don't understand what happened either. It must have been something we ate."

"I'll talk to the Doctor." They both glanced back at the room they'd rented on the spur of the moment. She flushed as she remembered what they had done.

"Perhaps that would be best." She heard her voice crack and saw Neelix look over at her.

"Sarexa," Neelix said, "I respect you too much to let this. . ." His voice trailed off as he looked away.

Finally, she took a deep breath and spoke fast, knowing her courage might fail if she waited. "Neelix, we need to talk..."

"Hello, again," Nunk said cheerfully from behind them. "You disappeared so fast, we didn't get a chance to finish our interview." He motioned toward Quark's.

"Not now," Neelix said angrily.

"Neelix, there's no point in being rude." She smiled at Neelix, then nodded her head. "We would be happy to finish our interview. Where were we?"

"Discussing your adventures in the Delta Quadrant. Let me get you a drink?"

"No," Neelix said sullenly.

"Two lemonades," that was a drink they'd had frequently on Voyager with no interesting side effects.

"Lemonade?" Nunk responded.

"If they don't have that," Sarexa said, "water will do." She motioned toward a table. "Will your brother be joining us?"

"Perhaps later. You mentioned that you were the cook," Nunk said to Neelix as they sat.

"Cook, ambassador, morale officer...whatever needed doing," Sarexa answered after several seconds of silence. "Neelix is the new Talaxian ambassador to the Federation."

"I might open a restaurant," Neelix said quietly.

"Sounds interesting, let me get our drinks." A few long, silent minutes later, two glasses of lemonade, and a glass of some dark brown liquid were placed on the table. "And what is Talaxian food like?" Nunk asked as he sat down. He took the brown liquid.

"Quite good," Neelix said. Sarexa smiled at him again, but Neelix just clasped his glass with both his hands and stared at it.

"The crew found it to be an acquired taste," Sarexa said as she sipped her lemonade. "They never did learn to like leola root." She put the drink down. It wasn't as sweet as she remembered from Voyager.

"Isn't your lemonade good?"

"It's fine," she said. "May I ask you a question?" She didn't wait for Nunk to reply. "Why are you so interested in leola root?"

"Ma'am, getting information about Voyager or any of her crew has been difficult. I'll have an exclusive interview with you. Perhaps my article will be picked up by the Federation press." Nunk leaned back and patted the top of his head.

"I'm sure you'd do better with someone else," she replied. The noise from the bar increased.

"I'd sure like to meet this passionate and beautiful Maquis princess. A pleasure cruise for Starfleet screw-ups and traitors?" a raucous male voice said. Sarexa glanced quickly behind her. The speaker was a short human in a Starfleet gray uniform.

"Shut up, Philip," the woman beside him said.

"I won't shut up. See them there. Like they own the place--where were they when we were fighting the Dominion? Where were they during the Breen attack on Earth? Some heroes." The woman tugged at Philip's arm. "While they were having their beautiful and passionate princesses, we were fighting and dying to save the Federation." A half dozen Starfleet officers and some civilians seemed to nod in agreement.

"And Voyager's captain," a very tall alien--Sarexa didn't recognize the species--said something that prompted laughter mixed with rude noises. She didn't hear what he had to say about Janeway, but she didn't think it was anything nice.

Sarexa noticed Ayala and four others from Voyager were discussing something at another table. She waved. Hugh Murphy raised his tankard high in acknowledgement. She shook her head. From the way Hugh was smiling, he must not have noticed the awful comments coming from the people in the bar. Sarexa had always expected everyone would be happy that Voyager's crew had made it back alive, but it seemed not everyone was. This was not the vision she'd had of the Alpha Quadrant. And Neelix. What was she going to do about Neelix?

She watched as Philip marched over to Ayala's table. Darren Pierce stood to face him as Philip sneered, "Cowards. You ran to the Delta Quadrant. Now the war is over, you decide to come home."

"We don't want any trouble," Pierce said.

"Coward!"

She jumped when Nunk tapped her on the shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said. "What was the question?"

There was a shout. They turned in time to see Darren Pierce punch Philip. Ayala attempted to grab Darren, but two others jumped them, and threw them to the floor.

Neelix stood quickly. "They've been drinking! We must stop them." He started to hit his combadge, but a chair flew toward them. Sarexa dove under the table.

"Neelix! We have to stop this." Someone slid, head first, across the floor. "It's Hugh!" she shouted.

"Don't worry, Sweeting..." she could barely hear Neelix's response as he stood and ran over to assist their comrades. She started to stand, but someone grabbed her.

"Got her," a voice said. Nunk raised his head from the floor and sat up.

"Good. We'd better be going."

"Come on, female," Blont said as he pulled her up. She managed to reach out with her free hand and grab the glass of lemonade.

"I am not going anywhere, especially with someone who calls me female," she snarled as she threw the glass at Blont's face. It hit him squarely on his left lobe, giving her a chance to make her escape. Blont's screams were almost as loud as the brawl. She turned at the sound of security rushing into the bar. She looked around, the place was suddenly quiet. Ayala stood up, shaking his hand. Neelix was helping Pierce stand.

"Are you all right, ma'am," a Bajoran soldier said. "I'm Officer Mil."

She nodded. "Fine...The two Ferengi, Nunk and his brother! They just tried to kidnap me." She pointed toward Blont, who was holding his hands over the wound and crying. She caught him say something about oo-mox. Mil pointed his phaser at the two brothers as he ordered them to stand.

"It's a mistake," Nunk said. "We were trying to protect her. Blont was afraid she might get injured in the fight."

Sarexa shook her head. "That is not what happened."

Mil nodded at her as he spoke to someone through his comlink. "Lieutenant Ro is on her way. It seems she is particularly interested in these two." Mil nodded toward the brawlers, now standing around and looking rather subdued. He spoke to them. "Quark will itemize the charges you are responsible for. Take them to the brig."

"Bloody Voyager," the instigator, Philip, said as he was led away. "Wanna bet they get preferential treatment." He stumbled at the door. A female Bajoran entered.

"Lieutenant Ro," the officer said. "Sarexa here claims that these two Ferengi tried to abduct her."

"Blont and Nunk," Ro said with a big smile. She turned to look at the pair. "It seems Starfleet Intelligence is most interested in questioning these two." She looked toward the groups of prisoners. "Escort the Voyager crew to my office. Captain Janeway is on her way over. I'll notify Starfleet that we have their two Ferengi."

Blont started to shout. "I need to see a doctor! A doctor qualified in Ferengi neurophysiology! I'll sue if my ability to have oo-mox is permanently impaired!"

 "Get them out of here, place them in maximum security," Ro said in disgust.

"We have information," Blont shouted, "about how the Romulans..." He screamed when the guard bumped his lobes.

"What was that about?" Sarexa asked as the prisoners were marched out. She noted that Neelix wasn't one of them.

"Starfleet Intelligence didn't say anything other than they were after Borg technology. That must have been why they tried to abduct you."

Sarexa shivered at the thought.

"Sarexa?" Neelix said. "Are you all right. If I had known, I wouldn't have left you like that..."

“I’m fine,” she said. “Really, I am.”

He took her hand. "We need to talk."

"Yes, we do. But right now, we have to help our friends.”  

Neelix nodded. She caught his sleeve before he headed over to see how Hugh was faring. “Neelix, you’re also my friend. What happened earlier between us…that doesn’t change it.”

He smiled, clearly relieved. “So you’re still in, if I decide to open that restaurant after all?”

Her smile matched his. “Yes, Neelix, I am.”

*

Chapter Text


*

When they'd met for dinner after the memorial service at the station shrine a few days ago, Tom and B'Elanna had described Janeway's "death glare" to Ro. She had had a good laugh when B'Elanna demonstrated it for her. Tom claimed B'Elanna's was a pretty fair imitation of the original.

Not even close, Ro thought, as she watched--and listened--while Voyager's captain tore into her crew.

"Mr. Murphy! It doesn't matter what they say about us! We know the truth! Striking fellow Starfleet officers and civilians in a public place is not the way to convince anyone of that truth!"

Hugh Murphy flinched, looking like he would be happy to sink through the deck, until Janeway stalked past him and turned her attention to the next two unfortunates in line.

"Michael Ayala! Julia Harper! You are security officers charged with keeping the peace, not breaking it! Not to mention breaking chairs, Ms. Harper! What do you have to say for yourselves?"

"In all fairness, Captain, both Lieutenant Ayala and Crewman Harper were trying to stop..."

"MR. NEELIX!!!! Am I speaking to you?!!"

"Well, no, Captain, but..."

"SILENCE!!!"

Ro decided she knew how Janeway got that husky voice of hers.

"Mr. Sofin! Did it ever occur to you someone might have an ulterior motive when he tells you that you shouldn't put up with name-calling? Like, when a Fe-ren-gi starts whispering drivel like that in your ear?"

Ro rather liked the way Janeway snarled out "Ferengi." She'd have to remember that the next time she needed to chew out Quark.

"Now, since you've been so vocal, Mr. Neelix, perhaps you can explain to me how you could be lured into a fight from across the room, leaving Sarexa vulnerable to a kidnap attempt!"

"I...uh..." The Talaxian was driven to speechlessness, unable to meet the eyes of either his captain or Sarexa, who was shaking with frustration but wise enough to keep her mouth shut while Janeway was so angry.

Ro considered intervening at this point, especially if Sarexa should be included in Janeway's ranting. Officer Mil had obtained several statements from witnesses which made it clear that Sarexa was defending herself against the kidnap attempt--and that, in fact, none of the Voyager crew had been doing anything but defending themselves in the fight, at least, initially. That was why Ro had dealt with the others swiftly, incarcerating the civilians and sending the other Starfleet brawlers to their own brigs for confinement, before allowing Janeway to pick up her crew. However, no one was more aware of the need for discipline than Ro Laren at this point in her career; and as Janeway turned her attention to the final person in line before her, Ro relaxed, confident the captain knew exactly how to handle the situation.

"And you, Crewman Pierce! Whatever possessed you, of all people, to start throwing punches in a common barroom brawl, considering your medical history! What were you thinking? Obviously, you weren't thinking at all, were you?"

At close to two meters in height, Darren Pierce could not see any part of Janeway without looking down, since she had planted herself directly in front of him and was glaring up at his chin. The young man, to his credit, remained silent and at rigid attention, his eyes fixed upon the opposite wall, as his captain berated him.

As she turned away from Pierce, Janeway shook her head in dismay and breathed in and out in a deep cleansing breath. The action calmed her visibly, although not one of the crew did more than blink while waiting for what was to come next. Facing the Bajoran constable, she said, "You may tell Mr. Quark that reparations for damages done by my crew--but only my crew--will be made promptly, as soon as I receive the necessary paperwork. If you feel you can release my crew to me now, Lieutenant Ro, I will accept full responsibility for them. They will be confined to quarters until Commander Chakotay and I decide what to do with them--which may not be for several weeks, I can assure you."

Ro sincerely doubted they would be punished for more than the rest of the evening--or, at most, for the rest of the time Voyager remained at Deep Space Nine. Hopefully, for all their sakes, that would only be for a day or two more at most. Voyager had already been hung up here for almost two weeks. Ro knew the entire crew, by this time, was on edge because the welcome from Starfleet they had had every reason to expect didn't seem to be forthcoming. Those feelings of uncertainty had to be a factor in this blow-up in the bar. However, Ro had her "constable's face" on, and she replied gruffly, "I can release them to you, Captain, but first, I'd like a minute of your time. I have something to discuss with you...in private."

That should throw a bit of fear into them, too, although Ro was a little sorry about it. Under the circumstances, it couldn't be helped. Ro hadn't had a chance to tip off Janeway about the information she'd received about one of her crew members before the captain had started verbally ripping the combatants to shreds.

Janeway withdrew to the corner, where Ro had been standing while Voyager's captain had lambasted her crew. Ro could feel all their eyes upon Janeway and herself as she told the captain, as quickly and succinctly as she could, the bare bones of what she had to impart.

Ro had only relayed a few sentences before Janeway winced, as if in pain. She looked down at the deck and began to nod in response to what Ro said. From the crew's vantage point she must seem to be in total agreement with the Bajoran. Finally, after Janeway shook hands with the Bajoran constable, she turned back to those caught brawling. They were all still at attention and appeared puzzled by what they'd just seen. Ro was satisfied. She hadn't wanted anyone to overhear what she'd had to say. They would all know what it had been about soon enough.

"Lieutenant Ro has released you into my custody. I want everyone but Lieutenant Ayala to report back to Voyager immediately. No stopping for anything. No speaking with anyone!"

The abashed crew shuffled out in single file, followed by Sarexa, who spared a sympathetic glance in Ayala's direction before exiting Ro's office. Ayala himself remained rigidly standing at attention, although he had a puzzled look on his face. Ro felt sorry for him; she was sure he could have no idea why he had been singled out from his shipmates. Ro wasn't looking forward to the next few minutes herself, but she had to do what she had to do. As Ayala would have to do as well.

After the rest of the crew had left the security office, Janeway said to him, in a markedly softer voice, "Mr. Ayala, Lieutenant Ro wishes to speak with you privately. You are on your own recognizance. Since you yourself are a security officer, I'm sure you can be trusted to contact me afterwards immediately to advise me of your location?"

Ayala nodded mutely.

After the captain left, Ro gestured to the chair next to her desk. "Please, take a seat, Lieutenant."

"I'd prefer to stand."

"Please, be seated," Ro said again, taking her own advice and sitting down at her desk, folding her hands together in a gesture that echoed a previous occupant of that desk.

He remained on his feet. At his continued hesitation, Ro said, more roughly than she'd intended, "Sit down, Ayala! I don't want you keeling over on me when I tell you what happened to your family!"

He sat.



End Act 3

Chapter Text


Act Four

Ro cleared her throat, took a deep breath, and said, "I'm sorry to tell you this, Lieutenant, but your wife Ayala Marit is dead. Your son Raul is alive and well, however, and..."

"My son's alive? Where is he? When can I see him?" The tall man grasped the arms of the chair as if he would zoom into the air if he didn't hold on tightly.

"He's safe, on Bajor. We can take a runabout to get to where he is in a few hours. Captain Janeway gave me permission to bring you to him."

"Why can't we leave now?"

"It's past midnight where he lives, and the person who's been taking care of him still has to tell him that you're alive. If we leave in three hours, or maybe four, she'll have a chance to let him know you're coming."

"Why didn't she tell him when Voyager came back? And why didn't you tell me about this as soon as I got to the station?"

Ro sighed deeply. "It's a long story, but the short version is, I didn't know Ral--I mean, Raul--was your son until after Voyager came back."

"You didn't know he was my son?" Ayala glared at her, incredulous.

"No. I didn't know his correct name, you see. But when I saw you with your other boy Luis last week, it struck me how much both of you reminded me of Ral--Raul. Sorry. Old habits die hard. It's going to take me a while to get his name right. Anyway, after I suspected he was your son, I had to be sure. I didn't want to get his hopes up--or yours--and then turn out to be wrong."

Ayala nodded gravely. "I understand. But why did it take so long?"

Ro chuckled mirthlessly. "Until today I couldn't reach Kajee, the woman he lives with. She'd gone camping in the highlands with her daughter and...Raul to keep them away from all the hubbub over Voyager's return. Homecomings and family reunions have always been tough for them."

"I can imagine that," Ayala said, unable to erase the bitterness from his voice. "But you're sure my wife is dead? Since you didn't even know she was my wife?"

"Yes. I'm sure. There's no doubt she's gone."

Ayala's dark eyes bored into hers, not precisely disbelieving, but wanting to be as certain as Ro was that he had lost his wife. Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, he asked, "How did she die?"

Ro had hoped this question wouldn't come up so soon. "Like I said, it's a long story."

"If we can't leave for Bajor yet, we've got the time."

"That we do," Ro acknowledged grimly. "Okay. I'll tell you if you really want to know."

"Yes, I really want to know." The words blistered with intense, barely withheld emotion.

Ro took a deep breath, then plunged into the story in a matter-of-fact voice, the only way she knew she would be able to get through a recitation filled with memories so painful for her to recall. "Jelzin II--you know of it?"

He thought a moment. "The planet with the primitive reptilian culture? A long way outside the DMZ?"

"That's the one."

"Nobody was supposed to land a ship there because of possible cultural contamination."

"The Maquis got a lot less picky about things like that after Liberty and Voyager disappeared, Ayala. Because Jelzin's overall climate is so warm, it's temperate enough near the poles for our species. The indigenous reptiles all lived in the northern hemisphere, but they didn't have the technology to cross a large river, let alone sail across the ocean all the way to the south polar continent. It was unlikely their stone-age way of life would be corrupted even though the Maquis had sought refuge in their Antarctic region. And a lot of Maquis families did seek it, when things got really bad. That far outside the DMZ, as you say, everyone thought it would be safe there. "

Hoping Ayala would say he could figure out the rest without Ro having to tell him all the details, she stopped to catch her breath, but he stared at her expectantly. Ro sighed deeply, stood up, and began to pace.

"I did supply runs to Jelzin from time to time. Marit was the quartermaster at one of the camps there. I got to know her slightly, but not very well. I'm afraid I never learned her whole name. I thought Marit was probably her family name, as a matter of fact, since that's the only name I ever heard anyone call her.

"When the Jem'Hadar and Cardassians put on the final push to eliminate the Maquis, they started attacking us without worrying about where the camp was. Forays into Federation space, or in the Romulan zone? No problem. They'd go anywhere the Maquis were reported to be. Lots of times, their information was wrong, but that didn't seem to bother them. They killed without making sure the report was correct. Finally, when things really seemed to be falling apart, we decided it would be better to evacuate everyone on Jelzin to Bajor. As soon as we managed to get hold of eight transports--two for each of the camps--we went. We got to Jelzin one day too late."

Ro stared at the floor, unable to see the deck plates or even her own feet; she was too busy visualizing images from the part of her memory she preferred to ignore as much as she possible. "We were loading the transports when sensor readings showed five Jem'Hadar and three Cardassian ships entering the system. We rushed the people on board as quickly as we could and told them to leave their possessions behind. People tried to hurry, but it was utter chaos. Babies screaming. Old folks wandering around confused. Frantic shouts from people, calling for family members who had been separated from them.

"I was rounding up a group of youngsters, trying to push them onto my transport. Suddenly Marit was right in front of me, shoving her little boy into my arms, and shouting she had to go back to look for her other boy 'Luee.' She'd lost him somehow. I never even had a chance to ask her the little boy's name before there was a terrific explosion. The concussion threw me down onto my back, with Marit's little boy on top of me, screaming--I guess he was screaming. I couldn't hear a thing. I'd been deafened by the blast. When I got up on my feet, I saw that a chunk of the hillside had been blown onto the crowd that had been running towards my transport. One glance, and I knew a lot of them were never going to get up again. Marit was one of them." Ro looked over at her listener, about to ask Ayala if he really wanted to know any more, but from the intent way he was staring at her, she knew he did. "Marit was lying next to--well, under, actually--a boulder that had been kicked down the mountainside by the blast. From the way she was...lying there...there was no doubt she was gone. I..." Ro gulped. "You don't need every detail, do you?"

Ayala shook his head and looked away, slumping further forward, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped together tightly into a ball.

Ro shook her own head to dispel the horrible image of Marit's crushed body before continuing. "Well. I got the little boy and as many others as I could onto my transport. Most of them were really young kids. When I couldn't see anyone else moving towards me, I figured my ship was as full as it was going to be and I managed to lift off. Of the eight transports that left Bajor, only two made it back.

"When I got back to Bajor, I went to the home of Kajee Harrel. He was the pilot of one of the transports that didn't make it, and he'd been a friend. I owed it to him to bring the sad news to his wife myself. She took it as well as could be expected under the circumstances. They had a little girl who was barely three. Since I wanted to hunt for Marit's relatives, Kajee Narel offered to take care of her little boy for me.

"I hadn't really had time to ask him his name on the trip to Bajor. At first I couldn't hear him anyway, and when my hearing started coming back, I could tell he was still in shock. He wasn't much better at Kajee's, and he was little--barely four years old, I know now. He looked older. I guess that's because he takes after you. The only name we could get from him was 'Ral.' So I looked on every missing person's list I could get my hands on, trying to find someone looking for a little boy named Marit Ral. When I came up empty, I remembered Marit was going to look for 'Luee,' so I looked for a boy named Marit Luee. I came up empty again. Then I started looking for anybody who knew Marit. By that time, it was difficult to find anyone who knew the woman I was talking about, let alone anything about her kids. I found old people who said they didn't know her, or little kids who knew the same names I did, nothing more.

"Several months passed. The trail was cold. I took a sample of Ral's blood and filed it with the Bajoran genetics archives, with instructions to compare it with that of anyone looking for a boy about his age. I admit, I was surprised when I got the results and saw he was half-human. He doesn't look it. That sent me back to the lists, looking for a human family searching for a half-Bajoran, half-human boy. Still nothing.

"Nothing, until I saw you with Luis last week. I took Raul's genome report to Tom Paris and asked him to compare it with the crew's. I told him I'd been looking for someone for a long time, and I wanted to see if there was a possibility the child's relative was on board Voyager all along. Tom contacted me less than an hour later with the proof. I was with him when you greeted Luis, so I think he might have suspected the same thing I did, from the way I reacted to seeing the two of you together. We've been friends a long time. I told him not to tell anyone, not even B'Elanna or Captain Janeway, until I could warn Kajee. She'll be devastated to lose Raul. And then I couldn't find her until today!"

As Ro finished her recitation, Ayala's eyes went out of focus. She'd seen it before, when she was in the Maquis, and ever since she'd taken over as constable on Deep Space Nine. A grief too great for tears or anger could freeze the bereaved. He looked dazed, as if he couldn't find words to express his feelings. Then he surprised her, saying softly, as if to himself, "I tried to explain it away, but when we started getting regular communications from the Alpha Quadrant and I never heard from her...I knew she was gone. Even if Marit had been in hiding, she would have found a way to contact me."

"I'm sorry I couldn't notify you. It would have helped if I'd known Ral's family name was Ayala. I checked Voyager's crew manifest long ago, after we found out the ship was in the Delta Quadrant, but I didn't see anyone with the name of Marit. Raul had been traumatized; he didn't seem to know his whole name. Maybe it was because he was so very young, but Marit might have been reluctant to use the name Ayala after you disappeared. It would have caused problems for her in many places because you were a known Maquis. I don't know if we'll ever be able to find out. Once, Kajee and I got 'Uleeya' out of Raul, but I swear, I thought he was mixed up and talking about his brother! So I gave up looking. Kajee and I applied to the courts to be appointed Ral's co-guardians under the provisions of the 'Custodian in Absence of Parents' Statute. You know about that law?"

Ayala shook his head.

"It's a leftover from the Occupation. Any orphaned Bajoran child, or one whose family is missing, can be given a court-appointed guardian until a blood family member is located, or if the child reaches the age of majority. I took being named his guardian seriously, I want you to know that. Since I've been on the station, I've visited Ral--Raul--at least once a month, more often when I can. Even when I was with the irregular Bajoran militia--what was left of the Maquis, actually--I visited him whenever I could. Kajee very quickly came to love him as much as she did her own daughter Lajen, so I didn't let myself worry about what would happen to him if something happened to me.

The last time I visited her, she asked me if I'd allow her to adopt him. I almost said okay, but something held me back." She stopped her relentless pacing and stared down at Ayala. "I probably should have said yes, but I didn't want to stop having responsibility for him. He's the closest thing to family I have, Ayala. I want you to understand that. I care about him." Her voice broke. "I don't think I'd have ever let you know he existed if I hadn't seen how wonderful you are with Luis."

Ro Laren seldom cried. She'd seen too much, lived too long with excruciating pain, to feel the need to give in to her emotions very often. She was blinking back tears now. They were nothing compared to those streaming out of Michael Ayala's eyes, however. Wordlessly, he stood, grasping her hands and squeezing them tightly in his. Even if Ro hadn't already done her homework, she would have sensed the basic goodness of the man as they stood there, both awash in grief: Ayala, for learning of his wife's death and mourning the years of his son's life he could never share; and Ro, for the imminent loss of Raul as her ward, now that his father had returned from the dead. Yet, through her pain, Ro was also reassured they would share a lifelong connection, forged through their mutual love of Raul. Somehow, she was sure Ayala realized it, too. They were linked as members of the same family, not one of blood, but of spirit.

Ayala was the first to be able to speak. "Thank you for keeping my son safe."

She nodded her head, finally managing to answer with something totally inadequate to the circumstances, but the only thing she could think of to say: "You're welcome."

"I've got to tell Luis about his brother."

"Raul still talks about his brother all the time. Luis could come with us to Bajor."

"I should tell Anne Carey and her sons, too."

"Yeah, I think so." Now that she was starting to recover from the trauma caused by her revelations to Ayala, Ro began to think her extended family of the spirit had just gotten even bigger, thanks to Anne Carey's care of Luis Ayala. Life could be very strange.

Ayala took a step towards the door. Stopping, he turned back to Ro and smiled at her. "I can never thank you enough, Ro Laren."

"I just did what anyone would do," she demurred, following him to the door.

"Maybe so. Maybe not. But thanks, anyway." He reached out for her hand and shook it again before striding into the corridor.

She watched him as he walked away from her, his shoulders squared, his head held high. Once he'd passed by Quark's and the Klingon restaurant, disappearing behind a curve in the Promenade, Ro sat down at her desk. Plunking her elbows on the top, she clasped her hands in front of her chin and covered her face with her hands. Although no more tears came, she felt a little weak from the intensity of her emotional reaction to Ayala.

Gradually, the ache in her heart from revisiting memories she wished she could forget began to ebb. She replaced them with images of the intent way the tall, quiet man had listened to her horrific story, and of his jubilance when he heard the news of his second son's survival. He had expressed gratitude for what, to Ro, was the only way she could have acted in this situation. The more she thought about him, she found her respect for the man growing. He was, truly, a very good man.

Chapter Text

*

"Captain Janeway, a word," Commander Craig called out.

Janeway halted but didn’t turn around. "Commander Craig, as you are probably well aware, I'm rather busy."

"I heard. But we’ve got a public relations debacle on our hands. I've been asked about two Ferengi and their involvement with the Romulans, apparently the same ones who tried to waylay Voyager upon your return."

Janeway reluctantly turned to face him. "As I’m sure you’re well aware, Commander, the Promenade is not the place for this type of discussion.”

“I agree, Captain, but it’s imperative I speak to you at once.”

Janeway sighed but allowed him to draw her into a side passageway, out of public view or hearing. “I understand the two Ferengi made a very public attempt to kidnap one of my crew. And they've started talking to everyone about their past history with Voyager after their arrest.” She glared at him. “This is your fault, you know. If we weren’t forced to stay at the station past reasonable expectations…My crew has lived within the ridiculous constraints placed upon us by Starfleet for far too long."

"Be that as it may, we still need to discuss how we’re going to deal with the news about the Romulans becoming public knowledge." The corners of his mouth turned down. “And your crew becoming involved in a bar brawl is not going to help your cause.”

Janeway gave him an incredulous look. "Commander Craig, for nearly eight years we struggled to make it home. On our own, I might add. My crew has every right to want to tell their stories, especially to their own families. Damn it Commander, we deserve it. I'm not sorry we can't be pigeonholed into some tidy Starfleet cubbyhole. You’ll have to figure out how to deal with the issue of Romulan duplicity on your own." She took a deep breath. "As for the brawl, the crewmen responsible for the fight have been confined to quarters." 

"Captain Janeway, I know you haven't wanted me here. I also know that we've both being stonewalled by Starfleet command, but the reasons I am here are legitimate ones. You've seen how the press can misinterpret events."

"Are you talking about the Risian articles?" She'd only heard about them, she hadn't read them--nor did she want to read them. Unfortunately, she probably would have to.

"Yes, I am,” Craig said, his tone leaving no doubt how he felt about them. “There are enough people who willingly believe such trash and are eager to learn the seamier details about your journey through the Delta Quadrant. The assumption is, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Like it or not, whether they’re true or not, the very fact that those articles exist has sullied your image and harmed your reputation.” He paused. “And there are some in Starfleet who aren’t willing to give you the benefit of the doubt – about anything.”

"Because we weren't here for the Dominion war? Because we weren't here when the Breen attacked Earth. Damn it, I know we weren't here. At the same time the Alpha Quadrant was endangered, we were facing the Kazon, the Hirogen, species 8472...alone, without allies or support of any kind." She clenched her fists. It was so frustrating. They had returned home--but home was no longer what it used to be. They'd missed so much, and not just the war.

Craig gave her a crooked smile. "Look at the bright side. Maybe when you finally get a chance to tell your story, it will be a bestseller."

"I'm not writing a book."

"Maybe you should. It would help the press conferences anyway."

She waved his words away. "Right now my responsibility is to my crew, making sure they are given the respect they deserve." She glanced around the station. "Commander Craig, we will continue to avoid talking to the press about ourselves, no matter what we privately think is appropriate. But that doesn't mean the press won't talk about us. They smell a story--lots of them, as a matter of fact."

"Thank you, Captain.” Reluctantly, he added, “It's only going to be for a few more hours. Once Captain Picard arrives, we'll be leaving for Earth."

And maybe we'll finally get some answers, she hoped. But despite that, not to mention the knowledge that Craig would be coming with them, she knew they were all anxious to return to Earth to be with their families. "I need to meet with my engineering staff," she said as an excuse to end the conversation. She turned to go, but before she took more than a step, her combadge chirped. "Captain Janeway here," she said without stopping.

"Lieutenant Ayala. Captain, request permission to go down to Bajor to see my son?"

"Granted, but Lieutenant, remember that you need to be on board Voyager in ten hours."

"Thank you, Captain. Ayala out." She smiled. At least this lengthy stopover had some positive benefits, for some of her crew anyway.

"Captain Janeway," Craig said from behind her. "You just allowed one of your crewmen to go down to Bajor?"

"Yes, I did." She grimaced. Craig would now remind her that they were supposed to avoid any additional diversions--and all crew were to remain on Deep Space Nine.

He did just that.

Janeway attempted to reason with him. "Commander, consider it compassionate leave."

"Captain Janeway, Admiral Nechayev specifically gave the order..."

"I take full responsibility--but I am not going to deny Lieutenant Ayala the chance to see his son. A son he'd thought was dead." Her steely tone left no doubt she would change her mind.

Craig nodded slightly. "Perhaps it would be better if the boy came to Deep Space Nine?"

"The best interests of the boy are not served by doing that--just Starfleet's." She hastily called for beam-out. Right now she was getting tired of Starfleet--and the bureaucratic nightmare they'd returned home to.

Chapter Text

*

"Another Sangria, Mister Torres?"

John Torres looked at the Ferengi bartender's ingratiating smile, and shook his head. He downed the last of the drink he'd ordered and set the glass on the bar.

"We have a wide selection of drinks from every planet in the quadrant, and if we don't have it I can replicate it," the persistent Ferengi said. "Or you might want to try your hand at one of our Dabo tables..."

"No, thanks." John had gotten the information he wanted. He nodded to the other patrons at the bar, picked up his duffel, and made his departure before the bartender could offer him anything else.

He stepped out into the Promenade, where it was nearly as crowded as the bar. Interspersed among the local Bajorans and traders of various races were uniformed Starfleet officers, some of them from the Enterprise, he'd been informed. Several of those dressed in civilian clothing had that calculating, hungry look that identified them as reporters. They'd found their way here right after Voyager's arrival.

John, on the other hand, had arrived less than an hour ago, on an Andorian freighter. It was the only transportation he'd been able to find on such short notice that could get him to Deep Space Nine quickly, though he was probably too late.

He stopped as he spotted a blonde woman wearing an outdated Starfleet uniform. She was leaving the Promenade, moving toward the docking rings. According to a talkative Lurian at the bar, most of the Voyager crew were still wearing those uniforms, perhaps out of a sense of solidarity, or simply because they hadn't had time to replicate the newer ones. Another Voyager officer, this one a redheaded man with a sturdy build, was strolling along the row of portable merchant kiosks nearby. A woman walked at his side, her hand on his arm and her face wreathed in a wide smile. Following behind them two gangly boys, one redheaded and the other, dark-haired like the woman, surveyed their surroundings with lively curiosity.

John had followed Voyager's story closely ever since the ship's EMH had reestablished contact with Starfleet over four years ago. He would have recognized Joe Carey, B'Elanna's second in Engineering, even without the fact that he'd spoken with Anne Carey when she'd added his name to the Voyager Family Association mail list. Most of the friends and family of Voyager's crew had remained on Earth awaiting the ship's arrival there, but a few had made it here. He'd heard a Mrs. Kim mentioned in Quark's Bar, and Joe Carey's family had obviously decided not to wait, aided perhaps by Anne's involvement with the VFA.

John watched the family stop at a kiosk, where Anne picked up a crystal and examined its surface. The younger of the boys edged in for a closer look. Joe tousled his hair and shared a knowing grin with the older boy. They all seemed completely at ease with each other, as if eight years had been little more than a few days' separation.

He envied them, and he wondered again why he'd given in to impulse and rushed here, when no such happy reunion awaited him. He'd left an unfinished project outside Beijing, along with an unhappy business partner; and now his rash decision to come here was for naught. Voyager would be leaving in just a few hours, headed to Earth with the Enterprise as an escort.

Someone bumped into him and muttered a quick apology. John pulled his duffel a bit closer. Better safe than sorry in these crowded environs. He hadn't checked into a place to stay yet, which was just as well. He'd most likely be taking the next ship back to Earth again. Even if B'Elanna had been willing to see him when he'd arrived here unannounced, she was probably already on Voyager, preparing for departure. He doubted calling the ship and demanding to speak to his daughter would go over well with her. It would probably be better to do what he should have done in the first place--wait until Voyager arrived at Earth to arrange a meeting, with B'Elanna's consent.

John was about to turn away when another Voyager officer approached Joe Carey. The man was tall and blond, and carrying a small child who appeared to be asleep on his shoulder. He recognized them even before the man turned and gave him a better view of their faces, and his heart skipped a beat.

Tom Paris, his son-in-law. And Miral Paris, his granddaughter. He'd seen them both during the real time connection of the FTL call, when he'd asked B'Elanna for another chance and she'd agreed to write him. He'd exchanged nothing more than a polite greeting with Tom then. His granddaughter, who wasn't old enough to understand his betrayal, gave him a cursory look with her dark eyes before occupying herself with her father's uniform pips.

Tom said something to the Carey boys, who smiled at him, then turned to speak to Joe. Though they were too far away for John to hear what Tom was saying, it was doubtful his son-in-law finished before another voice called his name.

Frozen in place, John watched his daughter stride toward her husband. He couldn't help staring, drinking in the sight of her. He'd looked at photos of her over the years, along with recent newsvids, even talked to her over a video connection, but this was different. She was here, just meters away. She moved with the same graceful economy of her mother, her body radiating with barely leashed energy, even when she paused to speak to Anne Carey.

When she turned to Joe, that intensity was even more visible. She punctuated her words to him with the movement of her hands. Whatever the subject of discussion--probably something about Voyager or her engines--B'Elanna was clearly passionate about it. Tom put a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it away, giving him an irritated look. Tom didn't back away, but said something while young Miral slept on.

John watched the two as they interacted for several seconds, speaking animatedly and then nodding in some sort of agreement. Then B'Elanna turned and resumed her conversation with Joe, who smiled at his colleague with almost brotherly fondness. After her initial greeting to B'Elanna, Anne Carey had resumed studying the crystal display, and the two boys had wandered to the next kiosk, where a variety of items more to their interest were displayed.

John studied his daughter with the all-encompassing intensity of someone who'd been exiled for years, even if it had been self-imposed. His heart filled with pride and regret. His little girl had grown into a beautiful, talented woman, surrounded by people who loved her. And he'd had nothing to do with that, except to make it harder for her.

A couple of minutes ago he'd been ready to turn and leave, sure he'd missed the opportunity to meet his daughter with Voyager about to leave. Now, here she was, just a few dozen steps away. There was no reason he couldn't walk those steps and tell her how much he'd missed her, that he'd never stopped loving her, and that he'd do anything to be a part of her life again.

His heart thudded in his chest, and his palms went damp. No reason at all.

Except that she obviously was busy. Involved in a discussion with her fellow engineer, trying to prepare Voyager for its trip to Earth, and, now that he thought about it, probably anxious about her reception from Starfleet. He'd heard the speculation about whether the Maquis on Voyager would be prosecuted. His heart denied the possibility; he knew from the VFA newsletters that public opinion was strongly against any prosecution. B'Elanna's father-in-law was a high-ranking admiral, one who, rumor had it, was not officially involved in any decision-making, but who surely could wield some influence over the future of his son and daughter-in-law.

Now that he thought about it, this really wasn't the time to add any more tension to B'Elanna's life. It would be better to wait, and let them get everything else settled. Then he would find the right time to approach her...

Something told John he was being watched, and his eyes shifted to find Tom Paris's fixed gaze locked on him. He had no idea how long Tom had been watching him while he'd been focused on B'Elanna, but sheer instinct, honed from a lifetime of avoiding confrontation, prompted him to slip out of sight behind one of the large support beams. He cursed himself immediately for not leaving sooner. Then he cursed himself once again. What the hell was he doing, going through another mental list of pathetic rationalizations?

When he'd first left his wife Miral all those years ago, he'd started letters to B'Elanna, but he'd never finished them. He'd initiated subspace calls to her, but he'd disconnected before they could go through. With each month that passed, each year, it got harder and harder to reestablish his connection to his daughter, until he'd convinced himself she wouldn't want him around, and that she was better off without him. He'd let the opportunities repeatedly slip away, assuring himself he was doing the "right" thing. B'Elanna had seemed to be surviving fine without him, even thriving--winning a variety of engineering honors in school, and being accepted into Starfleet Academy. By the time she'd quit the Academy and drifted into the Maquis, he'd been out of her life so long, he told himself it was too late to change anything, even while he was haunted by what his abandonment might have done to her.

John snorted softly with self-disgust. He was sick of justifying his lousy choices, of burying himself in work to forget what he'd done, of denial and self-recriminations. He'd made a promise, and he wasn't going to let himself weasel out of it. If he was going to make things right, he was going to start now.

Resolved, he stepped from behind the support beam-- and was startled to find himself face to face with Tom Paris.

"Mister Torres." Tom Paris's voice was soft, his blue eyes cool, as they assessed John. "What a surprise to find you here."

John's gaze was drawn to the baby sleeping against Tom's shoulder. He knew his granddaughter was about to turn a year old. He stared, entranced, at the dark lashes brushing her rosy cheeks, her full red lips, and the soft, dark curls framing her face. She looked angelic, and the faint ridges on her forehead only added to her beauty. He spoke distractedly, "Yes, I wanted--"

"To see B'Elanna?" Tom finished for him. "From a distance, before running away again?"

John frowned. For all he'd heard about Tom Paris's own troubled past, this man was staring at him with a hard and not particularly forgiving expression. But he couldn't fault that, considering the circumstances. John glanced past Tom and saw that B'Elanna was still engrossed in her conversation with Joe Carey. "I did come to see B'Elanna. I heard Voyager was delayed here for repairs, and I thought I could make it before you left for Earth. I should have let B'Elanna know I was coming, but--"

"B'Elanna can probably spare a couple of minutes," Tom said, cutting him off. "Maybe she'll be impressed that you came all this way to see her."

Tom didn't sound as if he thought so, and John didn't expect it. "I didn't come to impress her. I came because..."

Tom's eyebrows rose, waiting for John to finish. At that moment Miral shifted suddenly and whimpered in her sleep. Tom stroked her hair lightly with his free hand as she resettled herself against his shoulder. "S'okay, sweetie," he murmured, his lips pressed to her forehead.

Despite the noise and bustle around them, Miral slipped her thumb into her mouth and immediately stilled, once again asleep. John felt a sudden ache in his chest watching her. She looked just like B'Elanna when she'd been that age. He remembered the feel of holding his own baby daughter, snuggled warmly in his arms, exuding clean baby scent, full of unquestioning trust.

John blinked quickly and looked at Tom. "She's beautiful. She looks like her mother."

There was a flash of pride and affection in Tom's eyes. "For which I'm extremely grateful."

"You obviously love her very much." Both of them, John amended to himself.

"Of course I do. She's my daughter."

And he'd never walk away from her, no matter how hard things became. Tom didn't have to say the words; his expression was enough to convey the message to John. "Whatever my weaknesses as a father, I do love B'Elanna. That's never changed. But I don't blame you for hating me."

"I don't hate you," Tom said. Then his lips quirked wryly, the first break in his defensive demeanor. "I'm sure you've heard about my past. I spent a good part of my life destroying my relationships with just about everyone around me. I almost did with B'Elanna, and we barely made it past my hang-ups, and hers. So I'm in no position to judge you."

"Thank you for that."

"Though that doesn't mean I trust you," Tom added, glancing at B'Elanna. John followed his gaze and tensed. She appeared to be finishing her conversation with Joe Carey, and Anne was joining her husband again.

"Look," Tom said, his sharp tone recapturing John's attention. "I don't care about the past. God knows, I have one for the books. What matters is now. B'Elanna's managed all these years without you. She has me now, and Miral, and her family from Voyager. Though she might not be immediately receptive, I think she'd eventually welcome a father in her life--a real father. What she won't welcome, and I won't welcome, is any half-hearted gestures, or any temporary efforts at salving your conscience. So, either you mean what you said in your letters and during the FTL call, that you're prepared to be in B'Elanna's life, and our daughter's, completely and for good--no ifs, ands or buts--or I want you to leave now and never come back."

John knew in that moment he could turn around and disappear into the crowd, and Tom would never mention that he'd been here. Or he could commit heart and soul to renewing his relationship with B'Elanna, no matter how long it took or how difficult it might be to win her trust and love again, if it ever happened.

That moment seemed to stretch endlessly, between his past and future, between the man John Torres had been and the man he could be. The moment passed. He didn't move. B'Elanna did, and her smile for her husband faded as she spotted the man standing with him.

John saw Tom tense, not with apprehension, but with watchfulness, perhaps ready to step in front of B'Elanna if she took a swing at her father. Or maybe Tom would stand his ground, since John deserved that and more.

When B'Elanna reached them, her expression was composed. Or, as composed as someone with her temperament could make it. Her dark eyes flashed as she spoke. "What are you doing here?"

John couldn't answer for several seconds. She was so close he had to fight the urge to hug her, despite her belligerence. She'd worn that defiance like a shield, even as a child. Once her mutinous expression had filled him with a sense of inadequacy, but now it seemed so dear to him...so B'Elanna. "When I saw on the news vids that Voyager had arrived at Deep Space Nine, I booked passage on an Andorian freighter headed here. The captain charged me double fare for a closet-sized room with a cot, and it was the noisiest ship I've even been on, but at least it got me here. Better..."

John paused. He'd been about to blithely say "Better late than never" but B'Elanna probably didn't see it that way right now. He'd intended to state his case and speak from his heart when he faced her again. Instead, his nervousness had prompted inane conversation to come out of his mouth.

B'Elanna finally spoke, breaking the awkward silence. "We leave in three hours, and we have to get back to the ship. Looks like you wasted your time."

Her tone was dismissive, but John wasn't deterred. "I know we'll have to wait for a real talk until you're back on Earth..."

"There will be a lot of ceremonies, and briefings, and...other things."

"I can make time whenever you're free."

B'Elanna made a noncommittal sound. "We have to go." She turned and took Miral from Tom's arms, though the baby fussed at being moved. Tom hadn't said anything, and he didn't say anything now. He just watched calmly.

"B'Elanna, I didn't waste my time coming here. I wanted to see you, even if it was only for a couple of minutes. I meant what I said when we spoke three months ago. I want that second chance, even if you regret offering it, and I'm going to take it. I know you need time, and I'll give it to you. But I'm going to be around for good, whether it's here, or on Earth, or wherever you and Tom decide to settle. Industrial engineering is a wide-open field. I'll move, if that's what it takes."

B'Elanna turned back abruptly, her eyes blazing with anger. "Even if I believed you, what makes you think you have the right after all this time?"

She practically snarled those words in his face, any pretense of indifference gone. John hoped that was a good sign. "I don't have any right. I know that. It's ultimately your decision. I don't expect you to believe me right now, but however long it takes you to forgive me, and for us to know each other again, I'll wait."

"Mama?" Miral was awake, aware of her mother's agitation.

B'Elanna visibly calmed herself, and stroked her daughter's cheek until Miral settled her head in the crook of her mother's neck, her eyes wide and focused on John.

John smiled at Miral. He ached to hold her, but he knew that would have to wait. "She's beautiful, B'Elanna." He'd said so during the FTL call, but he said it again. "Just like you've always been."

B'Elanna gave him a smoldering look, her temper now under tenuous control. He'd already told her how proud Miral would have been to know her granddaughter bore her name. He hadn't had time to tell her that he'd talked to her mother when Voyager had disappeared, and again after Starfleet had announced Voyager's safe status in the Delta Quadrant. Despite their past differences, they'd both remained focused on B'Elanna and her safety. He had a lot to tell his daughter.

"You wanted to stop by Ro's office," B'Elanna said to Tom, avoiding her father's gaze.

"I'll be on Earth when you get there, B'Elanna," John said. He'd find another ship going back. He'd make sure he was there by the time they got finished with the Starfleet ceremonies and briefings. Waiting.

B'Elanna looked at him briefly. "Suit yourself," she said with a shrug, then turned and walked away.

It wasn't exactly an invitation, but it wasn't a rejection either. John knew it was the best he would get for now. It was a beginning, and that was enough.

Tom gave John a quick nod. For the first time, a genuine smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and a glimpse of the roguish pilot showed through. "See you on Earth."

John watched as Tom caught up to B'Elanna, resting his hand lightly on her back. It was a natural gesture, but a protective one. He'd heard the popular theory that their relationship was a tempestuous one, and that they'd had a volatile courtship. Tom had implied as much, and John didn't doubt it. Tom had also implied he wasn't like John, and that John didn't doubt either.

He'd never been good at confrontation, and the truth was, he and Miral hadn't been suited to each other. She'd been too strong-willed, and he'd been too weak-willed. He didn't sense any lack of will in Tom Paris. Whatever the mistakes or regrets in his past, however difficult it had been to turn his life around, it was clear that Tom had chosen his path this time and was embracing it. John had always let himself be dragged along, first by his youthful emotions, and then by whatever was easiest, whether it was deferring to Miral or running and never looking back.

He regretted that, especially the way he'd walked out on Miral and B'Elanna, severing every tie, as if that would also sever his feelings, his mistakes, and his weaknesses that had contributed to a failed marriage. Instead, in abandoning his daughter, he'd cut off a part of himself. He'd learned his lessons too late, but he suspected Tom had learned them in time.

He wondered if B'Elanna knew that Tom would never walk out on his little girl in a million years. He hoped his own example didn't live as doubt in her mind.

As if she sensed his attention on her, B'Elanna glanced back, just as she and Tom exited the Promenade. It was a quick glance, and she turned away the moment their eyes met, disappearing down the corridor. John suspected it was an involuntary action. She was probably kicking herself for looking to see if he was still here. He knew it would be a long time before she'd trust that he would be.

His emotions were caught between relief, joy, and trepidation, but mostly he felt joy. B'Elanna, his little girl, was okay. Better than okay.

"She's doing great, Miral. You'd be so proud of her." John spoke in a low voice, ignoring the curious looks as people passed by, watching him talking to empty air. "She's not just alive, she's living her life unafraid, taking everything offered to her, including love. She's found true honor. And your granddaughter is beautiful. You'd probably even tolerate Tom Paris, because he loves them both without reservation, and he'd stand up to you."

He smiled. Miral had always admired that in a person, even in her own daughter, when she wasn't exasperated with her. "I know I failed B'Elanna once, but I won't fail her again, or our granddaughter. This time, I'll keep my promise. So, you can get on with your afterlife, and swing your bat'leth all over Sto-Vo-Kor with abandon. I'll be here to watch after them."

"Excuse me!"

John looked at the young Bajoran woman rushing toward him, her eyes alight with curiosity.

"I saw you talking to the couple from Voyager a minute ago. Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres. Do you know them?"

Her voice was eager, as if she sensed a scoop in the making. He hated to disappoint her, but he didn't give out information to reporters, not even when they were pretty. "Sorry, I don't know them. I was just wishing them a good trip home."

She clearly was disappointed. "Oh. I thought maybe...well, thanks, anyway."

He watched her move away, glad that she was inexperienced enough to give up so easily. And he hadn't lied to her. He didn't really know Tom or his daughter B'Elanna, not anymore. But he would.

Smiling, and feeling pleased with himself for the first time in a long while, John slung his duffel over his shoulder and went in search for a ship to take him back to Earth.

*

Chapter Text


*

"Admiral Nechayev for you, sir," Commander Riker announced.

"I'll take it in my ready room," Picard acknowledged, exchanging faintly amused glances with his first officer and Counselor Troi. Will had sworn they'd hear from her within the hour, as soon as their new course was known. The Enterprise, accompanied by Voyager and the Defiant, had left Deep Space Nine barely forty minutes ago.

Slowly, Picard walked to his desk in his ready room. He deliberately sat down before opening the channel. "Admiral Nechayev, to what do I owe the pleasure of this communication?" he asked smoothly.

"Jean-Luc, you know very well you were expected to proceed immediately to Earth after rejoining the Enterprise on Deep Space Nine."

"We are returning to Earth, Admiral."

"Not directly. Your course has deviated considerably from what was anticipated."

"My orders did not specify any particular route."

"It was certainly implicit in those orders for you to take the most expeditious route possible, since you were asked to leave as soon as you rejoined your ship at Deep Space Nine!"

"The arrival time of the Enterprise and Voyager to the Earth system will not be compromised in any way by this very slight course change. A negligible increase in our average warp speed is all that will be required to make up lost time."

"What about the stopover at your intermediate destination?"

"We will be there an hour, perhaps two, at most. Captain Janeway has asked for the opportunity to hold a short memorial service at a gravesite on Jelzin II..."

"A planet which is interdicted because of its pre-warp culture."

"The damage to that culture appears to have already been done by the Dominion during their attack of several years ago," Picard pointed out. "In any case, there will be no further cultural contamination. The gravesite is nowhere near where any of that population lives, and we will depart as soon as the service is over."

"Voyager has been in the vicinity of Jelzin for almost two weeks. Why didn't they hold this service long ago?" Nechayev asked rather waspishly.

"The fact that the body of Ayala Marit was among those interred at the cairn on Jelzin II was not known either to Captain Janeway or Michael Ayala until yesterday evening. They could not reasonably be expected to make a trip before knowing it was something they would wish to do. I'm sure they would have been happy to have done so, had they known. They'd become rather bored with the charms of Deep Space Nine for the past week or so, since their ship had been fully repaired but they had not been given leave to return to Earth." After a slight pause, he added blandly, "Surely they hadn't needed to wait for my presence to find the proper heading for the last leg of their trip home, considering how far they'd managed to come on their own--and were more than ready for something else to do."

Nechayev stared stonily back at him.

"Besides which...Permission to speak freely, Admiral?" It was rather late to ask for this after his previous statement, but he knew he'd pushed her quite far enough already.

"Granted."

"I find it difficult to believe you would have been any happier about Voyager taking such a side trip a week ago than you are now. It was my understanding that Voyager has been held within the Bajoran system on your personal orders for the past two weeks."

She pursed her lips tightly before replying, but since she'd given him leave to speak, she chose to refrain from taking umbrage at his comment. "This is a volatile situation, Jean-Luc; you know that. The consequences of any action regarding Voyager required careful deliberation. And as far as your 'side trip' goes--while I can understand why Ayala would want to go to where his wife's body is at rest, why did the entire crew of Voyager have to go along with him?"

"Any starship crew which serves together for a long period of time forms a sort of extended family. It's a well-established phenomenon. When one considers the extraordinary journey of Voyager, as well as the personalities of its captain and crew, how much more powerful must be the bond between them! The entire Voyager crew felt the need to offer their support to Mr. Ayala in his time of mourning, not only because of his grief when his worst fears for his wife were confirmed, but also because of their own. The entire crew of Voyager is in mourning for a way of life developed over the past eight years, a community which will be shattered by their return to a less isolated, more ordinary existence. When Captain Janeway explained it all to me, allowing the gathering appeared to be the only rational course."

"So you approve of this memorial service?"

"Having heard the whole story, yes, I do. I would not have given permission, of course, if everyone on Voyager--Starfleet crew, the Maquis, and the Equinox survivors alike--would be free to return to this place together as a group to hold one in the near future, after Voyager's triumphant welcome home. Given the nature of the discussions I was privy to while I was on Earth, I did not assume this likely to happen. Was I in error?"

Nechayev gritted her teeth. "Your compassion is commendable, Jean-Luc, but if the media should get wind of this, we will have a 'situation' on our hands, according to Commander Craig. And since Captain Janeway did little to help control the press on Deep Space Nine, it could turn into a very messy situation."

"When the media is denied a story, they find another any way they can--even if they have to manufacture one. We've seen a perfect illustration of that on Deep Space Nine over the past several days. In this instance, the media has been handed a bittersweet family reunion story, with a Bajoran connection that Colonel Kira will be most eager to use to her advantage. I suggest it may be far better for everyone concerned that the story of a reunited father and his sons is the one to be spread by the media, rather than the sensational and scurrilous tales they've been publishing. If nothing else, allowing the service to proceed, under these circumstances, is excellent public relations."

Alynna Nechayev seemed perpetually peeved whenever Picard had to deal with her. Perhaps he brought out the worst in her--although he sincerely doubted it. Her expression was even more sour than usual as she considered the ramifications of any actions that could be taken at this point. Finally, looking grim, Nechayev pronounced, "We shall allow this stopover."

"I'm sure the crew of Voyager and Captain Janeway will be most grateful to you, Admiral."

"Two hours on Jelzin, Picard. Not a second more. And make sure your ETA is the same as it would have been without the stopover. Don't make me regret this."

The Federation logo appeared abruptly, leaving Picard to wonder again about Starfleet politics. Perhaps Will's contention that Voyager had returned two years too early was spot on.

Fortunately, Admiral Nechayev apparently had not been told of Michael Ayala's acceptance of the Bajoran offer of political asylum. Ayala may have done it for the best of reasons in the galaxy: to keep his already sadly truncated family as intact as possible for the rest of his children's youthful years; but Picard doubted Admiral Alynna Nechayev would see it that way. With any luck, Picard and the Enterprise would be off on another mission before she learned of it.

Thinking of family matters reminded him of an impending loss in his own "family" on the Enterprise. Two losses, in actuality, with Deanna's pending transfer onto Riker's ship. Picard wasn't looking forward to losing either of them, not to mention that he still had to find a wedding present. The task had proven more difficult than anticipated.

Well, then, perhaps he should take up Beverly Crusher on her offer of helping him choose something which would coordinate with the present she was planning to buy the couple.

Picard arose, a slight smile lighting his face. He was not entirely conscious that he tugged the front of his uniform automatically to straighten it on his body when he stood to signal his chief medical officer: "Picard to Crusher."

"Yes, Jean-Luc?"

"About that tea service you were thinking of buying for Will and Deanna..."

*

Chapter Text

*

A crisp breeze whipped Ro's hair around her head, jangling her earring like a miniscule wind chime. While her snugly-fitted Bajoran militia uniform defied the wind's chill pull, it tugged on the clothing of others standing near her. Some gusts were strong; the flapping they caused was loud enough to momentarily drown out Vedek Capril's voice as he intoned prayers of remembrance for those buried beneath the cairn of large stones. Ro shivered as much from deja vu as from the cold.

The sun was low on Jelzin's horizon, although it was still fairly early in the afternoon. The autumnal equinox soon would bring very short days and extremely long nights to this arctic region. If the planet weren't so near its sun, the climate in this subarctic region would be unbearable, a frozen waste. As it was, the land was raw and bare in many spots. Sparse vegetation struggled to reclaim its hegemony over scarred hillsides and stream banks clogged with boulders, many marked with the tell-tale fissures and burns of blaster fire.

The last time she'd been here, it had been high summer, but far less vegetation had been visible then. In the intervening years since a meager handful of Maquis warriors had slipped back to this world to raise rock cairns over those bodies that could be retrieved, Jelzin had followed the pattern of many worlds throughout the quadrant. Within the rhythm of seasons and the cycle of growth from one year to the next, Mother Nature--or the Prophets--had begun to repair  the damaged land, bringing forth new life to replace that which had been lost.

Humanoid life could not be replaced the way the plants had reclothed the hills and valleys, of course. Those souls were gone forever from this plane of existence, to live on only within the memories of those who had known them.

Each of the bodies she had helped carry to their final resting place, not to mention those which had been totally erased by powerful plasma weapons, had once been a unique individual, with thoughts, dreams, and hopes for the future. They all had been crushed out of existence because of the inability of other beings to learn the simplest of lessons: live and let live.

The cairn before Ro matched four other piles of stone in other locations. There was one for each of the destroyed Maquis camps, along with another on the northern continent. A group of reptilian bipeds indigenous to Jelzin had inexplicably suffered the same fate as their uninvited Maquis neighbors hiding far to the south. Although no contact had ever been made between the technologically advanced visitors at the pole with the native nomadic beings, the rain of fire had descended from the sky and destroyed their encampment, too. A simple sensor-sweep would have shown the Cardassians and Jem'Hadar they were not the enemies they sought, but the Dominion warriors apparently had not bothered to find that out. They had attacked and killed them anyway.

Earth had its stories of ancient deluge; Bajor, its legends of the Pah-Wraiths. Ro idly wondered if the survivors of the attack upon that northern camp might tell stories of the day the sun reached down to scorch the land, killing those who must have done something wrong to have been punished that way. It was not something she would find out. After today, Ro Laren would never step foot upon Jelzin II again if she could help it, although she knew she could never forget this planet.

Nor would she forget this day. One hundred seventy-three people, standing in an irregular circle around the large pile of stones, bowed their heads in respect for people that virtually none of them had ever met. Some held the hand of a significant person, others remained solitary and alone, as if to touch another would bring pain rather than comfort. All listened as Vedek Capril blessed the stone they had brought to Jelzin to be erected upon this mass grave. There were names engraved upon it, those of the known dead such as Ayala Marit, but these were pitifully few in number. Most of the slain could be commemorated only with the words, "and those whose names are known only to the Prophets."

The entire crew of Voyager was here. Picard and Riker had sent volunteers from the Enterprise to man Voyager's stations so that everyone could go down to the surface. Picard, Riker, Troi, Crusher, and a handful of other officers from the Enterprise were there as well. Surprisingly, after having kicked up a fuss about the stop at Jelzin, Commander Craig had also chosen to beam down to the cairn. He stood a little apart from the others, but from the shocked look upon his face when he first surveyed the site upon his arrival and his chastened visage now, the scope of the massacre had affected him deeply.

The civilians who had flown to Deep Space Nine to meet their loved ones, who had been given permission to travel to Earth on Voyager, were all present. Alicia Paris held her granddaughter Miral in her arms, while Gretchen Janeway stood between Mary Kim and Anne Carey and her sons.

Kira held her arms around the shoulders of Kajee Narel and her daughter Kajee Lajen, to support them during the ceremony. The most significant of all the civilian attendees,  however, stood next to Vedek Capril. Luis and Raul Ayala flanked their father Michael, Luis to the left; Raul to the right. The former Starfleet officer and former Maquis had his arms over the shoulders of his sons as they all remembered Ayala Marit, wife and mother, who had never fought in any battles but lost her life in one, killed along with thousands of others who had been massacred simply because they had been related to those who had. As they stood with their father, both boys looked a little stunned by the rapid chain of events that had brought them here as a reconstituted family, although it could never be completely whole again.

Ayala had given them the choice of whether to transport down to the surface to the cairn or not for the service. They had been here before; terrible memories of the day their mother had died could be rekindled by going there again. Both boys had chosen to go. At least they achieved some closure this way, knowing what had happened to every member of their family. Ro shuddered to think of how many families--or even whole settlements--had been so completely wiped out that no one remained to mourn the lost. As bad as things could be in this post Dominion War era, at least that was no longer happening--at least, not that Ro had heard.

After Vedek Capril spoke the closing words of the simple memorial service, finishing with the traditional words, "Walk with the Prophets," he walked over to the family Ayala Marit had left behind, lightly touching the heads of the three in blessing before pacing back through the crowd. The circle broke up then, with the crew of Voyager backing up to form an aisle through which Ayala and his sons could walk.

After a few more minutes of silent prayer, the Ayala family turned away from the cairn, walking gradually up the pathway created by their shipmates. Ro shook her head in wonder as she watched the spontaneous outpouring of affection for the tall, quiet man and his boys. Their pace was slow, for every person they passed had a word of comfort to share, a hand held out to shake, a pat for a shoulder, or arms held wide for a hug. Ro saw Ensign Trish Gallagher reach out and grab Ayala by the hand. After communing silently with him for a moment, the young woman turned to Voyager's Mark-1 EMH, who held her in his arms and supported her as she wept.

Ro didn't know how many others were aware of the reason the young woman was in such deep mourning. She knew, of course, why this had been so hard on Trish. She hoped the ensign would have a chance to heal now, too, since she finally had been able to participate in what amounted to a mass funeral service. That's something Trish had never had the chance to do before, since she'd only just learned of the fates of her father, brother, and nephew.

Caught up in the moment, Ro was startled when a resonant, very familiar voice spoke in her ear, "Remarkable, isn't it? They're more like a family than a starship crew."

Ro steeled her resolve and met the eyes of her former captain. "Not when one considers what they went through together."

"You would know quite a lot about that yourself," Picard noted.

"More than I ever wanted to know," she agreed.

"From what I hear, you're still helping out your former Maquis."

"You heard about Ayala, then?" Ro asked.

"Taking up the offer of asylum? Yes, it's the main topic of conversation on Enterprise, just as it is on Voyager. I must say, I'm rather surprised he's the only one of Janeway's crew that did so, under the circumstances."

"I'm not. They're all fiercely loyal to her, and they want to stand with her and their crewmates until the very end. It's only different for Ayala because he has his boys to consider. When we were heading to Bajor to see Raul, he told me he never wanted to be separated from them again. If he goes on to Earth, who knows what may happen?"

Picard smiled slightly. "So you offered him a job?"

Ro's smile matched Picard's. "Yeah. I like his style. He's a tough guy when he needs to be, but most of the time he's a very gentle giant. That's not a combination that's easy to find. I was really impressed by the way he treated Raul at Kajee's. He didn't force Raul to come to him--just waited until he'd stopped hugging his big brother--and let Luis take the lead and bring him over for an introduction. He was very sensitive to Kajee and her daughter's feelings, too. So, when we were returning to the station, I offered him a post with station security."

"He has abundant experience as Commander Tuvok's second in tactical."

Ro snorted back a laugh. "The references he gave Ayala were so glowing, I was amazed they came from a Vulcan."

"Richly deserved, I hear. So, thanks to you and the Bajoran government, Michael Ayala will follow a different path in life from the rest of the crew of Voyager."

"I might be able to tender a few more job offers, if anyone is really interested."

At that, Picard laughed out loud. Ro's heart lightened at the sound. She could never have imagined being able to laugh with Jean-Luc Picard a few years ago, not after the way she had disappointed him. It seemed the right time for something she had longed to do for quite a while.

"Captain Picard," she gulped. "There's something I want to say to you, about that time I...left..."

He put a hand on her arm and stopped her stumbling address, his eyes piercing deeply into hers. "There's nothing more to be said, Lieutenant Ro, than for me to tell you how very glad I am that you helped build this cairn, rather than being one of those interred beneath it."

Ro could find no words with which to respond. Accepting the hand he offered her, she squeezed his fingers as tightly as he did hers. Perhaps he needed her forgiveness for what had transpired at the time of her defection as much as she needed it from him. Although Ro could never imagine Jean-Luc Picard hugging her the way Kathryn Janeway was fiercely hugging Ayala good-bye in the center of the crowd, the clasping of Ro's and Picard's hands may have soothed the two of them as much as any embrace.

After several seconds Picard cleared his throat, although he did not release his hold upon Ro's hand. "I know Admiral Nechayev will be extremely unhappy with Captain Janeway and me if our ships don't get underway very shortly. And if I'm not mistaken, Colonel Kira and you will be missed if you don't return to Deep Space Nine soon. It's time we all got underway. Shall we offer our own farewells to Ayala and the others?" Picard asked.

Ro nodded her head. "Yeah, I think so. It's time."



End Act 4

Chapter Text


Epilogue

After the memorial service, no one seemed ready to disperse. Perhaps the solemnity of the moment simply demanded they remain together for a while longer, to offer comfort to their Voyager family; or perhaps it served to remind everyone that their time as a single crew was coming to an end, and they wanted--no, needed--to stay together as long as possible.

Kathryn wanted to stay there with them, but she had an appointment to keep. After whispering her intention to Chakotay, she slipped away and returned to Voyager. As she entered her ready room, Kathryn said, "Computer. Engage privacy lock. No interruptions." The command was sufficient to assure that no one would barge in for anything less than a full scale attack on the ship. She wanted privacy for this transmission.

Sitting at her desk, she activated the computer and punched in a few quick commands. Almost immediately, she found herself looking at the logo for the United Federation of Planets, and then Owen Paris appeared. "Captain," he said evenly. "It's good to see you again. Are you alone?"

"I am. And you?"

He relaxed into a smile. "Yes. My God, Kathryn, it is good to see you. I wish I were there to give you a proper hug."

She smiled. "You'll have a chance soon. We're scheduled to leave for Earth in less than an hour."

"I know." His happiness faded. "I can guess why you're calling."

"You probably can. Admiral--" she paused and leaned forward--"Owen. What is going on? Why won't anyone tell me what's going to happen?"

He cleared his throat, and then folded his hands together in an oddly formal pose that was, even for Owen, stiff and unnatural. "I can tell you what will happen in the short term. Enterprise will escort Voyager back to the Sol system, where you will be given final instructions. So far, they can't decide whether to have you disembark at Spacedock or at HQ. Whichever, you will receive the red carpet treatment and full honors--bands, color guards, even the President of the Federation will be there. The speeches will last at least an hour. Your crew will then be asked to report to Starfleet Medical for a once-over before letting everyone meet their families. Apparently there is still some fear that your EMH might have missed something and you are carrying some Delta Quadrant contagion. I know, I know--it doesn't make sense to do medical clearance after you shake the President's hand. You've all been checked out by your own physician and at Deep Space Nine. The exams here are just perfunctory.

"After medical clearance, all of your crew except you and your senior staff will be given two weeks of leave. They want about three days of preliminary de-briefing with your top people before they release you for the holidays."

There was something about his voice, a flatness in his tone, that alerted her. He knew something he hadn't told her--something he didn't like. "What happens after that? What happens to Chakotay and the rest of the Maquis?"

"I don't know, Kathryn, and that is the God's honest truth." He paused, and she realized how much he had aged in the years of Voyager's absence. For the first time, he looked old to her. He went on, "The reason I'm here and not there is that I have been trying to find out. I don't think anyone knows for certain yet."

She frowned. "That's hard to believe."

"Only because you've been away for so long. It's an odd time. We're at a political crossroads, in my opinion." He shook his head. "If you'd made it home two years ago, there would have been no doubt. Your Maquis would be facing certain conviction and prison time. If you hadn't shown up until two years from now, I think nobody would care that they once opposed the Federation, and you all would simply be welcomed home. But at the moment, things are in flux."

"We came home too soon?" She glared at him, not caring about his rank. "Do you have any idea how outrageous that statement is?"

"Yes, I do." His face hardened a little, a sign that he was displeased. "But I have no voice in this. Everyone knows I've got a conflict of interest. Kathryn, you do realize what a great thing you’ve done, getting back in only eight years?"

She shook her head, and waved a hand in the air to brush off his words. "My crew did a great thing."

"We don't need modesty between us. A crew lives up to its captain's expectations. Wasn't that one of the first things I taught you?" He glared at her so fiercely that for a moment she felt like a green ensign again. "And greatness is best appreciated in the history books. In real time, it has a tendency to make people uncomfortable."

"I don't think of myself as a hero..." she began.

"Just listen," he snapped, teacher to student. "In his day, James T. Kirk was called a renegade, a one-shot wonder and just plain lucky. It wasn't until decades after his death that he received the respect he deserved. Jean-Luc Picard spent virtually all of the Dominion War patrolling the Romulan border. The Romulans were our allies. Do you know why they wasted the flagship of the fleet on such a mundane task? Because greatness scares the snot out of the little people who know they can never be great themselves."

"I don't understand," she said slowly.

Owen leaned toward the screen, his gaze intent on her. He was in full professorial mode, just like the days when he had been her thesis advisor at the Academy. "There are plenty of people back here who feel threatened by you. Some because they see independent thought and courage as a threat to the chain of command. They will call you a maverick and unreliable. Others fear you because they know they could not have made the hard decisions or endured the privations that you did, and they don't want to be eclipsed by you. Still others don't understand the agony of deciding how far to compromise morals in the name of survival. They've never been in a situation more hazardous than a clogged toilet and tend to see things in black and white."

He paused, arching his eyebrows for emphasis. "And some of these people are admirals."

"Oh." She settled back in her chair. "I'm in trouble, aren't I?"

"I don't know." He looked frustrated. "That's the hell of it, Kathryn. I don't know. But I think so. Those damned scandal sheets haven't done you any good."

She looked away from the screen, drawing a long, slow breath. "I did the best I could. I wasn't perfect, but I never gave it anything less than my best."

"You did great," Owen said with surprising force. "For what it's worth, I'll tell anyone who asks that I couldn't ask anything more of any of my students. You have become a remarkable commander, and if I had any small part in that, I am proud."

If her own father had said that, she could not have been more grateful. Owen Paris had been her advisor, her first commander, her mentor and her role model. For all his flaws and mistakes, he was still the officer who, after Edward Janeway, had influenced her the most. Her heart swelled. "Thank you. It's worth a lot."

"If things go badly, I won't be much use to you except as moral support, but you've got that," he said. "Even if we didn't have as much history as we do, I would owe you my life for what you've done for my son."

"It wasn't me," she said, struggling to keep her emotions under control. "Tom turned himself around."

"Yes, but he had a lot of help from you and that rather intimidating young woman he married." Owen grinned suddenly, and it made him look a decade younger. "I do have a bit of good news, if you wouldn't mind passing it along. I finally heard from the New Zealand Outmate Board. It's set to rule on Tom's status. They have to wait until he's back on Earth, but they are going to declare he has served his time and is free to go."

Her smile threatened to split her face. "That is good news. I'll tell him right away."

"And tell him that we'll have a birthday party for Miral as soon as we can. I want to see that little miss blow out her candle."

Kathryn started to tell him that there would be a party on Voyager on Miral's actual birthday, while they were en route to Earth, but she caught herself in time. Owen probably knew that and didn't care--he had every right to throw another party if he wanted. Despite all the reunions, she was still operating in Delta Quadrant terms. She had to get used to being home again, and remembering that family beyond the ship's bulkheads were once again active participants in their lives. "Of course you do. Don't worry. I'll tell him."

"Damn, the timer is blinking at me." He touched some control, then looked at her again. "Kathryn, stay focused on what's important. If they start picking on the minutia, don't lose sight of the big picture. You have done something no other Starfleet captain has ever done and they can't take that away. Don't forget that."

"I won't." She nodded. "See you at HQ, Admiral."

"Count on it, Captain. Count on it."

His image was replaced by the UFP laurel wreath, and then the screen went dark. She sat still, thinking. For some reason she had always thought things would be clearer when they got back to the Alpha Quadrant, that the future would sort itself more quickly and she could plan her strategies with confidence. It seemed that was a pipe dream, and life was just as unpredictable here as in the Delta Quadrant.

"Well," she said aloud, "if there's one thing we've learned in the past eight years, it's how to prepare for the unexpected." Then she stood and smiled. If the here and now were all she could control, she'd do so--including (finally!) having a nice quiet dinner with her mother and Chakotay. Whatever else was waiting for them, it was waiting on Earth.

It was time for Voyager to go home.