It’s about the fifteenth welcome home Voyager party B'Elanna has had to endure and it’s definitely the worst so far. The air is filled with the polite clink of wine glasses and even politer chatter: Starfleet never did learn the art of making a room feel like anything other than a waiting room, sparse and neutral, and the new uniforms make even the groups of people standing around look bland and boring. She’s armoured herself in her old dress uniform, a tiny act of defiance, and it should be reassuring, the familiar weight and fabric of it just slightly tight around her shoulders, but it's not.
Across the room, Miral is working up to scream. She can hear the signs this far away, can picture exactly how her little face will be all red and screwed up, how she’ll have gone rigid in her grandma’s arms just waiting to make everyone know just how grumpy she is. Tom says their daughter has a temper; B’Elanna just thinks she’s communicating the only way she knows how.
Tom’s parents had all but begged to look after her tonight. They’d said it was so she and Tom could get some time together, but it’s obvious they’re dying to spend more time with their granddaughter. Turns out all it takes to bring Starfleet Admiral and decorated war hero Owen Paris to his knees is the toothless smile of one tiny quarter-Klingon – who’d have thought it.
Well. She would, but she just can’t tell Tom how obvious it is that his father isn’t the hard-ass he remembers from his own childhood. That’s his own realisation to have, somewhere down the line.
Besides, she and Tom don’t need to spend time together. Not like that, not any more.
Miral will be just fine with her grandparents, screaming or no screaming. B’Elanna skirts the function room, smiles at the clusters of friends and former shipmates without stopping to chat. A red alert would really, really brighten things up about now, but even after only three months on Earth Voyager feels like a distant dream. She’s not sure where she’s going, no way out this reception if she wants to keep her options open for her next posting, but a sudden breeze ruffles her hair, bringing with it the faraway salt-soft scent of the sea into the stuffy ballroom. To her left the doors to the balcony are open, long curtains swaying gently in front of them.
With a quick glance around the room to make sure nobody’s watching her, she slips quietly through the curtains and out into the warm evening air.
The balcony is occupied. For a second her heart sinks in disappointment, but even in the half-light the silhouette of Captain Janeway is completely unmistakable. No - Kathryn Janeway: she's been on at B'Elanna to stop using her title ever since she was relieved as captain of Voyager. She’s looking out at the impressive view over San Francisco Bay, the breeze tugging at her picture-perfect hair, and she looks like a painting, caught quiet and reflective in the evening light. B’Elanna clears her throat: there’s only so long she can stand and stare before it gets seriously awkward. “So this is where you’re hiding.”
“Oh!” Captain- Kathryn jumps, turns, one hand pressed against her chest. “You startled me,” she says, half-laughing.
“Sorry.” She smiles, moves to stand next to her. “So. Are you as bored of these as I am?”
Kathryn considers her for a moment and she’s all elegance where B’Elanna feels awkward, leaning gracefully against the balcony railing like some sort of statue come miraculously to life.
The breath catches in her throat.
“I’m dying for a red alert,” Kathryn admits, laughing, and the sound breaks through the spell holding B’Elanna breathless and still. “Although I wouldn’t admit it to anyone else.”
“I’m glad it's not just me.”
“It's not just you,” she confirms wryly, gestures in her general direction. “Oh, and I like the uniform. Almost makes me feel like we could be back on Voyager.”
B'Elanna looks down at herself. “Is it bad that I sort of wish we were?”
“It’s a tough adjustment.” She speaks slowly, thoughtfully. “It is good to be back. But….”
“It’s not the place we left,” B’Elanna says in a small voice.
Kathryn's sigh is audible. “The world has changed,” she says wearily. “I don’t know why I expected otherwise. Hope, I suppose.”
“I guess coming home wasn’t what any of us thought it would be.”
“I guess not.” Janeway gives her a soft smile, eyebrows furrowed in that particular way that means she’s more emotional than she’d like to let on. “You’ve got a whole new life ahead of you though, B’Elanna, with Tom and Miral-”
“I haven’t,” she interrupts. She doesn’t mean to say it, but the gentle mix of concern and affection radiating from her captain is as irresistible as ever. “Tom and I, we’re- we’re not-” She breaks off, stares out at the twinkling lights across the bay. “He says I’m angry.”
“You don’t look angry.” Kathryn rests a hand on her shoulder, reassuring and strong in the way that somehow only she can manage, and the echoes of a hundred late nights in engineering, a thousand problems solved by dumb luck and ingenuity, come flooding with it. She has never been one to ignore her duties, no matter the temptation. “You look tired, B’Elanna.”
It’s said softly, genuinely, and B’Elanna can’t help but hold her gaze. The light spilling out from the doors behind them plays in her hair and turns it into a halo of copper and gold, and the new uniform makes her look sleeker, more commanding. Dangerous. But after seven years B’Elanna knows this woman almost better than she knows herself. Knows her tricks, the myriad ways she buries herself down deep beneath the façade of what she wants people to see, knows that of all of them who returned disbelieving and delighted from the Delta Quadrant, Kathryn Janeway is the most exhausted of all. She knows too that this truth wouldn’t be well received. Not here, not now.
“I think we’re all tired,” she offers diplomatically. “You must be too.”
“I don’t have a three-month-old baby at home,” Kathryn counters with a smile. “At least I get to sleep through the night.”
Her eyes flick away to the expanse of water flowing quietly below them, and B’Elanna knows it’s a lie. The urge to call her out on it tugs at her, strong enough to consider it, not strong enough to actually open her mouth. Besides, she’s sure that Kathryn can see the disbelief on her face, raises one sceptical eyebrow to make sure. They’ve always understood each other – except when they haven’t, of course.
Kathryn is obviously not bothered by her incredulity because her hand is still on B’Elanna’s arm, stroking gently. She covers it with her own, briefly, just too long to be dismissed as an empty gesture and too brief to be completely inappropriate.
A tiny smile flickers across Kathryn’s lips. “Is it really over between you?” she asks, reclaiming her hand as if distance makes the question any less loaded, any less fraught.
“Yeah.” She hesitates, reaches for the right words rather than just letting everything spill out into the warm San Francisco air. “On Voyager, I- Tom’s a good guy, you know? He’s great with Miral, and Kahless knows he’s put up with a lot of bullshit from me over the years. I thought he made me happy. And then we left Voyager and I realised it wasn’t being around him that was making me feel good.”
B'Elanna stares at her, and Kathryn stares right back, and the warm air is suddenly stifling, sitting hot and solid against her throat as she inhales: "No."
“What are you trying to say, B’Elanna?” There’s tension in her voice, and for once, for all the years the two of them have existed side-by-side on one ship, she can’t tell if it’s good or bad.
“You’re not my captain any more,” she says plainly.
Kathryn straightens, looks at her with that curious expression that means she’s figuring out a particularly fiendish puzzle. “I guess I’m not.” She says it like it’s a loss, doesn’t realise that B’Elanna meant it as a gift.
B’Elanna nods, steps closer. For all the years they’ve spent on each other’s precise wavelength, solving and saving and fixing, this needs to be spelled out, no room for doubt. “It’s over with Tom,” she says, “because he’s not you.”
Kathryn looks down at the floor, and when she looks up again a tiny smile is pulling at the corners of her mouth, just enough to make her hope, almost believe, that this isn't the most ridiculous thing she's ever done. “B’Elanna-”
“I’m not saying right here, I’m not saying right now.” She takes Kathryn’s delicate hands in hers, knows she’s being too earnest, doesn’t care. Takes a deep breath and gathers all her bravery. “I just wondered whether, maybe, you might want to…give us a chance?”
The expression on Kathryn’s face melts into radiant disbelief, strong fingers squeezing hard around B’Elanna’s. “You’re sure?”
Another raised eyebrow and Kathryn laughs, a relieved sort of music. “Of course you are,” she says, apology in her voice. She takes a step closer and B’Elanna is surrounded by her perfume, something clean and fresh and not a million miles away from plain soap. Her heart is in her throat, eyes glued to Kathryn’s face, to the wonder and anticipation and affection that flits across it.
They’re hidden from the view of the ballroom by darkness and shifting curtains and in the end it takes no bravery at all to set her palm gently against the softness of Kathryn’s cheek, to press their foreheads together, a stolen moment of intimacy right in the middle of Starfleet Headquarters itself. B’Elanna almost laughs at the absurdity of it, giddy with joy. She’s got a whole life to sort out – a divorce to finalise, a new Starfleet posting to decide on, a daughter to bring up – but this, here and now, feels like a promise.
“Getting home seems to have another upside,” Kathryn says, and her voice is low, inviting.
B'Elanna kisses her. Seals the promise.