WATCHING THE STARS

By Shayenne

Disclaimer: Paramounts. Not Mine. Unfortuanatly.

Rated PG

"Excuse me," I said, "but aren't you Captain Kathryn Janeway?"

The elderly lady looked at me in surprise, twisting one side of her mouth into a crook-corner smile. Her long hair was twisted into a loose bun on the top of her head, streaky gray tendrils escaping from confinement. Piercing blue eyes regarded me in amusement.

"And why would you think that?"

The tone was not unfriendly, but it was not particularly encouraging either. If this was Kathryn Janeway, I would have to tread carefully. She was known to value her privacy above all else.

"If you'll pardon me, ma'am, it's just that you look slightly familiar. And you have..." I hesitated, unsure of whether to continue.

"Please continue, Ensign."

"You have an air of command. As if you are used to people obeying you." The use of my rank suddenly sunk in. Our positions, naked in a hot spring meant she couldn't be counting my pips. "How did you know I was an ensign?"

This time the smile was genuine. "It's nice to know I haven't lost my touch. You called me ma'am. That alone marks you as Starfleet. You have a curiosity about you and an intelligence that makes me think you are more than an ordinary crewman. You are too old to be a cadet, but still a little too young to be a lieutenant."

She settled back in the steaming water. The county-run hot springs on the edge of the desert were known to be popular with older people. The therapeutic waters eased a variety of the aches and stiffnesses that come with advancing age. Surprisingly, we were alone in the women's bathhouse and I wondered if this accounted for her openness. Everything I had heard about the legendary Kathryn Janeway indicated that she hated to be approached, hated answering probing personal questions, and was likely to simply leave with a terse comment if anyone intruded upon her privacy.

It was early in the morning. She and I were the only people to be awake in the darkness before dawn, floating and drifting in the hot, heavy, amniotic waters. I laid my head back on the rough concrete step and closed my eyes. I was dying of curiosity. If this was Kathryn Janeway, my childhood heroine, the legendary explorer of the Delta Quadrant -- to date the only Federation explorer of the Delta Quadrant -- then I was burning to ask her questions. What was it like? Being so alone out there. Wondering if you would ever see Earth again. Facing every day as if it would be your last. Seeing the unfamiliar stars from the viewport everyday. First contacts, battles, the Borg...

Voyager had arrived back in Federation space nearly thirty years ago. Before I was born. The journey had taken fifteen years. Captain Janeway brought back one hundred and forty-three people, Federation and Maquis, against incredible odds, only to face a second, harder battle to get the former Maquis exonerated. Once she achieved that, she resigned from Starfleet and disappeared. Many said she went away with Chakotay, her former first officer. I had seen his picture too, a handsome man with soulful eyes and a distinctive tattoo.

I studied her through half-closed eyes. She would be over eighty by now. Her face was lined but serene, her hair was long, gray streaking through a faded red-brown. Her nose was sharp, and her eyes, when she swiveled her head and caught me studying her, were ice-diamond blue and clear.

"Science." The word, dropped into the muted sounds of the predawn, surprised me.

"I beg your pardon, ma'am?"

"You're a science ensign. And, I am no longer with Starfleet. And even when I was, 'ma'am' was for crunch time only."

"Yes, ma'am, I am in science..." The words trailed off, I didn't know what else I could call her, this embodiment of adventure.

I listened to the gurgle and suck of the spring water refilling and draining the pool instead. The slight current and mineral-laden water made for a weightless lethargy of body. Limbs drifted slightly in the current.

"What is your ship?"

"The Excalibur."

"Harry's ship." She nodded to herself, slipping slightly lower in the water, absently massaging one shoulder.

"Yes. I serve under Captain Kim."

I watched her rub her shoulder. The impulse to massage the stiffness away for her was strong, but I didn't think she would appreciate knowing I had witnessed her physical weakness, so I did nothing, just watched her rub her small, frail shoulder.

"Harry was such a baby when we were stranded in the Delta Quadrant," she said. "So naive and trusting. But genuine. He was the first person to see through the cocky exterior and befriend Tom Paris. Tom was an arrogant bastard in those early days."

I nodded, not wanting to break the spell her words were weaving.

"Harry is a good man. Fair. Do you like working with him, Ensign?"

"Yes," I replied. "In fact..." I hesitated wondering if I should confide my dream.

She appeared not to notice my pause. "Harry has been selected to captain the New Voyager and the first expedition to the Delta Quadrant since our return. Do you know about it?"

"I do. In fact, I have applied to go." The words came out in a rush. My secret, concealed from my family and friends, was spilled into the sulphur-laden air to a stranger. "Please, Captain..."

"Kathryn," she said. The sharp old eyes regarded me closely. "My name is Kathryn."

My lips wouldn't form the word. This woman was my heroine, the inspiration for my Starfleet career. My desire to explore and tread uncharted space like this woman had done, had left me with an awe for her achievements that couldn't easily be overcome.

"Will you tell me your name?" She was smiling the twist-corner smile made famous in a million telecasts from Voyager's return.

"Ensign Williams." I still couldn't bring myself to say her first name, so I settled for the old fashioned, "if you please."

"Your given name, Ensign?"

"Ginevra."

She nodded. "Thank you, Ginevra. You were going to ask me something?" She closed her eyes and rested her head back and mused almost to herself. "They never call me Kathryn. They didn't then and they still won't now."

I understood. The cliché of the loneliness of command suddenly became clear. On her return, Starfleet had praised Captain Janeway for her detachment from her crew. Many people, her crew included, denied that emotional distance, saying that the captain was always there for them, was close to her crew, cared about them. The words, 'one big family' were bandied about and ignored by Starfleet who preferred the picture of the aloof, correct captain.

"Did they all call you Captain?" I asked. It wasn't my intended question, I still wasn't sure what impulse had brought the words to the edge of my tongue.

"No. Chakotay called me Kathryn. And many of the others after a few years. But it took persuasion. A pedestal is a lonely place. But I always had Chakotay by my side."

She said his name in a soft voice, a momentary softening of her decisive tones. Something else that Starfleet suppressed maybe. The official version had them as the perfect command team. Rumors and innuendos abounded about their true relationship, stories that grew fiercer when they both disappeared after the Maquis were cleared. Her crew, her loyal crew, never said a word.

"So you want to travel the stars in the New Voyager, Ginevra." It was a statement not a question.

I nodded mutely.

There was a silence. She laid her head back on the rough edge of the pool, looking up and out, past the old walls of the county baths to the sky beyond. Dawn was coming, creeping through the fabric of the sky. It was that perfect moment of transition when the velvet indigo night slides into the violet of dawn. A few stars still shone as points of light in the weave of the sky.

"This is one thing I missed on Voyager," she said eventually. "Sunrise and sunset. On short missions you don't think about it; the excitement of the journey compensates for the absences of everyday things. But on such a journey as you are considering you will find the things you miss the most are the things you took for granted. Seasons, rain, the ten o'clock news, real coffee. Harry knows well what to expect. But for the crew, ah... it will be hard. It will be endurance, not excitement."

Silence fell again. I didn't know how to answer her, indeed if an answer was required. I didn't have to convince her of my sincerity, but I wanted to. I wanted the object of my idolization to pat me on the head and give me her blessing.

The springs were hot and we had been in there for quite some while. She stood up, and let the frigid outside air move over her skin. The springs, a gift from the American Indian people to the county allowed nude bathing only. I watched the water run in rivulets down her crepey breasts and steam from the wrinkled age-spotted skin. Even naked and well past her physical prime, she was a commanding presence.

"Tell me what you will leave behind, Ginevra. Do you have family, a lover?"

"I have family, Kathryn, but no lover. I will leave behind the places on Earth I love, but I will take the memories of places and people. " Suddenly it was easy to use her given name, as she used mine. In this place where the waters sprang from the earth we were equals.

"I will miss my family, but hope they can understand that this is something I have to do. I will miss the wave of ripening corn on the prairies, the ozone in the gulf of Mexico and Louisiana crawfish dripping with butter and garlic."

"You can replicate that," she said, "but it won't be the same."

I smiled at her. "I know. But what I will gain will make it worth the deprivation."

"What will you gain?" She asked the question as she sank back down into the waters, her eyes once again fixed on the sky above my head, watching the stars. Always watching the stars.

"I will gain knowledge, new experiences, a sense of accomplishment, achievement. I will be part of a team..."

"A family," she interjected quietly. "Harry will not settle for just commanding a team."

"A family," I acknowledged. "And I will see, will feel, will really experience my life, not just a shadow of what might have been, vicariously through second-hand experience. And maybe, if I am lucky, I will find a lover with whom I can share all of this."

"You will," she said with quiet assurance. "Those who are born to roam gravitate together. You will find your soulsease on board, I am sure."

"Did you?" I hardly dared voice the question in my head. Everything I had read or heard about Kathryn Janeway indicated that any gentle prying into her private life was not tolerated. But, somehow I knew that she would answer me, and that she would tell me yes, she had found her peace with Chakotay amid the turbulence and uncertainty of Delta Quadrant life.

She was looking at the fading stars again, her face wreathed in steam from the pool.

"Yes. Eventually. It was an arduous road." There was a pause before she continued.

"I think you will go, Ginevra. You are an explorer, I think. But there will be times when you will regret your decision, when life in the Delta Quadrant becomes tedious, hard and dangerous. When you are scared to the bone for yourself and your loved ones, and you are so tired that death is preferable to staying awake another second. When the taste of Louisiana crawfish is a distant memory; then you will wish for that second-hand life you are quick to pass over now."

"Is that how you felt?"

"Occasionally. But looking back, I wouldn't have exchanged those Delta Quadrant years for anything."

The sound of hurrying feet outside the bathhouse disturbed us. The door flung open, admitting a young, part-Klingon woman and a blast of cold air.

"Aunt Kathryn," the young woman said. "Are you gonna stay here until you shrivel? Mom and everyone are waiting for you."

Kathryn rose to her feet and waded to the steps. "I'm coming K'taan," she said.

She paused momentarily on the steps. "Goodbye, Ginevra. May you get what you desire, and when you do, may you still desire it above all else."

* * *

I left the springs a few minutes after her. As I crossed the dirt lot outside the bathhouse, I saw her for a final time, standing in front of the desert salt pans. She was standing with a tall man, lean and slightly stooped with age. His hair was thick and salty, long and pulled back in a queue secured by a leather thong. He held her against the curve of his body, and she fitted herself to his side with the ease of long practice. As he turned his head to kiss her, I saw the faded blue lines on his brow.

I passed close enough to hear their muted talk.

"Why were you so long, Kathryn? I missed you." His lips caressed her streaky hair.

She slipped her arm around his waist. "I was talking to myself," she said. "My younger self. And I was watching the stars as she was."

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