Disclaimer:  All characters belong to Paramount.  What I've done with them belongs to me.
Rating:  PG-13
Summary:  Sam and Naomi Wildman bring Icheb into their family as they wait for Starfleet Command to decide their futures.


Copyright September 2001



Naomi Wildman stood in the middle of the quarters she had shared all her life with her mother, Samantha. They weren't just quarters but home – the only one she had ever known. All this talk of 'getting home', she thought. It had been a recurring theme for as long as she could remember, a constant goal never to be forgotten or pushed aside, the ultimate answer to all their troubles. "When we get home…." her mother would say wistfully, and go on to talk of something or someone that meant very little to Naomi. Once or twice she'd had to remind her mom that she was home. Voyager was not only her birthplace but where she wanted to be. The only people who seemed to have the slightest inkling of how she felt were Seven of Nine and Icheb. Two ex-Borg drones trying to regain their individuality. At least she didn't have that problem on top of everything else.

And now, here they were – suddenly in orbit around a blue and green planet, which looked, in Naomi's opinion anyway, just like a lot of other planets she had seen in her short life. Everyone was running around excited and disorganized saying wasn't it wonderful to be home! No one seemed to remember that it wasn't her home. She surveyed the piles on the floor – all their possessions, sorted into what they were keeping and what they would recycle. Several large storage containers were stacked along one wall. She was supposed to be packing her things, but she just couldn't bring herself to start. Somehow, she felt that if she did, she would be abandoning her whole life – all that she'd ever known and done.

She sighed heavily and stared out the viewport, wishing Neelix was still with them. She missed him desperately, although she was glad he had made a new life with his own people. He had always found a way to make her feel better when she was upset about something. She tried to think what he might say to her now, but her brain couldn't get past the misery that she felt right down to her toes.

She heard the door hiss open.

"Naomi," called her mother. "How are you getting on….?" Samantha's voice trailed off as she came into the room and saw the piles just as she had left them an hour before. She stared at her daughter.

"Sweetheart, we have to get this done! We're supposed to be moving in three hours and you haven't even started! Come on! We can't be late!"

Samantha lifted down a container as she spoke and began to fill it from one of the piles – her clothes as it happened. Naomi picked her way to her side reluctantly.

"Mom, do we really have to go? I mean, couldn't we stay here for just another day or so?"

Samantha stared at her in shock. "Naomi! No, we can't! Starfleet has ordered all personnel off the ship by 1500 hours today, and it's already 1100. Besides, I can't wait to actually set foot on Earth! It's been so long!" She was grinning in anticipation. "So many times, I wondered if we'd ever see home again – and here we are! As if we popped out of a bottle!" She finished the first container, tagged it, and pulled down the next.

"Mom," said Naomi softly, trying not to whine. "I…..don't want to go."

"Sweetie, we have to. Besides, you'll like it, really you will. And you know what? I forgot to tell you in all the excitement. Icheb is coming with us!"

"He is?!"

"Yes. I've just come from a meeting with Captain Janeway. She asked me if I would look after him for a while until his admission to the Academy is sorted out. We came home so fast, you see, that we caught Starfleet quite by surprise. They haven't had time to notify any of the families yet, or to decide when Icheb can be admitted."

"You mean my father isn't here?"

"No, darling, he's not. But I'm sure he will be soon."

"Where is he?"

"I don't know exactly. I was told he's on some sort of diplomatic mission, but that was all I could get from Command. They're very busy." Sam's voice held a wistful note, and she looked away, trying to hold back sudden tears. She had been upset, if not entirely surprised, to learn that her husband, Greskrendtregk, was not on Earth.

Voyager's sudden, spectacular return to Earth had caught officialdom quite off guard, and these first few days, the bureaucrats were scrambling to get all the paperwork completed to allow the crew to disembark. The ship had to be put in drydock, families notified, housing organized – the list went on and on. As well, command decisions had to be made, and made fast, about the various fates of the Maquis, the former Borg drones, and the holographic doctor. The captain was doing her best to help Starfleet Command sort through the complicated relationships that had formed, so that disruption of the crew could be kept to a minimum. Maquis and Starfleet – forced together in desperation, now inseparably intertwined, a hologram who had far exceeded his programming, attaining sentience in the process, two ex-drones both well on their way to achieving their individuality, to the point where one was involved in a serious romance with the former Maquis captain.

Then there was Icheb, whose feelings had been badly hurt when Seven unceremoniously brushed him aside in her almost indecent haste to unite with Chakotay. And buried deep down, where she could pretend to ignore them, were Janeway's own unresolved feelings about her first officer.

Samantha had seen a look of misery flash across the captain's face, just for the merest second, when the latter mentioned that she didn't know what to do about Icheb, now that he and Seven had apparently come to a parting of the ways. But it had been enough for Sam to know that the captain was hurting a lot more than she would ever admit. On impulse, and in an effort to help in any way she could, she had volunteered to take Icheb with her until his future could be decided. Janeway had thanked her gratefully.

Naomi's voice broke into her thoughts. "I'm glad Icheb is coming with us. Then it won't be quite so lonely." She picked up her old, ragged Flotter and popped him into the container, feeling a little happier. "Maybe if we can get finished here, we can help him pack. Okay, Mom?"

"Sure. Actually, that reminds me. I better talk to the doctor, find out just what he needs….."

Three hours later, the Wildmans and Icheb stood on the transporter platform. Somewhat surprisingly, Seven was there to see them off. The farewell was more than a little strained and Samantha wasted no time in requesting transport. She knew Icheb was upset enough as it was, no thanks to Seven, and didn't want him to suffer anymore than he already had. Naomi, unhappy to be leaving Voyager for good, wasn't any better. Best to get both her charges into their new quarters, where they would have lots of distractions. She couldn't wait to get off the ship.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Over two weeks passed with nothing beyond vague, meaningless words of reassurance from various staff at Starfleet Command. Try as she might, Sam could not get any fresh news either on her husband's whereabouts or when they might expect to see him. The situation on other fronts was no better. There had been no further word from the Academy regarding Icheb – for the moment he was in limbo. As well, she had no idea if she could expect leave and for how long. Personnel were being particularly obtuse, and Samantha, normally a gentle, mild-mannered woman, was becoming quite annoyed.

Finally the call she had been hoping for came from the Federation Diplomatic Office. Greskrendtregk was presently located on the other side of the quadrant, assisting 'fleet diplomats in delicate negotiations with a strategically–placed neutral planet. Talks were at a critical point. His presence was regarded as essential for the team's success. In short, no matter how urgent the reason, he couldn't leave for several weeks at the very least. Sam tried to be philosophical – after all, she explained to Naomi, he had waited for them for seven years. Surely, another month or two wouldn't kill them. Naomi, nervous about meeting her father, was both impatient and relieved at the same time.

A day later, an aide to Admiral Muir contacted Sam to inform her that a Board of Review would be examining the ship's logs and interrogating the crew about their experiences in the Delta Quadrant. She was scheduled to testify the following Monday at 0900 and could expect to be questioned for two to three weeks, possibly longer. She was to bring with her all her official logs, as well as such personal ones as were relevant to ship's operations, plus copies of her reports.

Sam spent the intervening days ensuring that all her logs and records were couched in official Starfleet prose, and were as detailed and up-to-date as possible. While she was occupied, Naomi and Icheb were left pretty much to their own devices. Trying to find some way to keep themselves occupied, Icheb suggested they resume her lessons. Although at first Naomi scorned the idea as boring, he was quick to point out that they could include exploring their surroundings, under the heading of geography, as part of her curriculum. Suddenly, she was much more enthusiastic, and with Sam's cautious approval, the two set off.

Each morning they headed out after breakfast to spend the day discovering a different part of San Francisco and the surrounding area. They made an unusual pair, even in that cosmopolitan city. Although Naomi was big for a six-year-old, she looked quite diminutive next to tall, thin Icheb. Her sprightly manner was a complete contrast to his grave, slightly pedantic air. More than one passerby stopped to watch the child with waist-length red hair chattering away to the solemn young man beside her, at times grasping his hand to tug him along at a faster pace.

They climbed up one side and down the other of Russian Hill, meandered along the preserved area of the Embarcadero and Fisherman's Wharf, and took a tour out to Alcatraz. Another day, they walked across the Golden Gate Bridge and back, and on still another, they boarded the local hoverbus for the coast, in order to stroll along the beach and admire the long rolling waves which had crossed the Pacific Ocean unbroken by any land. By the end of a week, both were feeling quite at home in the Bay Area and were missing Voyager far less than they would have believed possible.

Sam, meanwhile, was spending hour after hour at the end of a boardroom table facing a whole flock of admirals. She was doing her best to answer all their questions, but some of them were just downright silly. As the days wore on, she tried to keep her voice calm and even, but she knew that once or twice, her irritation had slipped through. There were a lot of questions about Neelix and the role he had played on the ship and, in particular, in her life. Then there were the ones about the captain and commander – did she know if they had indulged in a personal relationship? The admiral asking that one got a very hard stare and a dignified "no, I do not" in reply. As if realizing they were pushing her close to insubordination, they backed off and asked no more about her commanding officers.

By the end of each day, she was exhausted and able only to eat a bit of dinner and collapse into bed. Knowing that Naomi and Icheb were keeping each other well entertained was a great relief to her. More than ever, she blessed the impulse that had made her take him under her wing. He was repaying her casual kindness a hundred times over.

Then, finally, it was over. The board announced that it had no more questions at the present time, although she was advised to keep herself available in San Francisco.. Sam stood at attention, nodding her head obediently. She missed half of what the admiral was saying. All she wanted at that point was to get out of there – the sooner the better.

She strolled out into the sunshine and looked around, able for the first time to just enjoy being home. On impulse, she tapped her commbadge.

"Wildman to Naomi Wildman."

"Naomi here. Hi Mom! Are you finished?"

"I am indeed. Where are you?"

"We're back on Fisherman's Wharf, at pier 39, watching the sea lions."

"Don't move. I'll be there as quickly as I can. Wildman out."

Naomi and Icheb were quite content to sit on the pier, watching both the animals and all the different forms of sentient life strolling by. Even with their large experience of different species, they were fascinated by the tremendous variety of forms in which Federation citizens came. They spent a considerable amount of time trying to guess the name and home planet of each one. Some, like Deltans or Andorians, were easy. Some, such as Bajorans and Bolians, they already knew.. But there were so many others, like those green ones over there for example, about which they had no idea. Sam found them swinging their legs over the edge of the pier as they debated the possible origin of their latest subject of scrutiny – what looked like a mobile rock.

"Hi Mom," shouted Naomi. "Over here!"

As she came up to them, they both scrambled to their feet.

"Ens….Sa….Samantha," stuttered Icheb, still uncomfortable using her given name, although she had told him several times that she wanted him to. "Do you know the name of that species over there? The one that looks like a moving stone."

Sam turned around to see where he was pointing, then began to smile. "That's a Horta, Icheb. A very old race, even for the Alpha Quadrant. They come from Janus VI, and are renowned for their mining ability. They can eat and digest solid rock. Every fifty thousand years, they all die except for one. That one looks after the eggs, caring for them until they hatch, and start the cycle again. You're lucky to see one. They don't often leave their homeworld. Travel is not easy for them."

Both young people stared in awe. Naomi asked the next question. "Are there many more races as strange as that one?"

"Who knows? 'Strange' is a relative term, isn't it? I mean, to them, we're the ones who are strange. If you mean – 'different from us', then yes, there probably are. The Alpha Quadrant teems with life, all kinds of it."

"More than the Delta Quadrant?" asked Icheb quickly.

"In some ways, yes, but we didn't see all the Delta Quadrant, after all. It's hard to make a true comparison."

The boy nodded thoughtfully.

Sam glanced at him, curious. "Don't you remember from the Collective? Seven could always tell us whether or not the Borg had ever encountered a species."

"Not since I removed my cortical node," he replied. "It allowed me to retain all the knowledge I gained as a Borg. Without it, that knowledge is gradually disappearing."

Sam stopped dead in her tracks. "Icheb! How do you know?!"

"It's very simple. I can no longer name all the species which the Borg have assimilated, something I should be able to do easily. As easily as you can recite the alphabet."

Naomi was intrigued. "Does this mean that you can't learn anymore because you'll forget it all?"

"No, not at all. I can learn just as I always have. What it does mean is that the knowledge I acquired while in the Collective is now disappearing. I do not know how to stop it."

Remembering Seven's periodic guilt trips, Sam rather thought this wasn't necessarily a bad thing, and said as much. "It may be just as well, you know. You can avoid a tremendous amount of self-recrimination."

"Yes, no doubt you are correct." He didn't sound too sure.

At that moment, they chanced upon an ice cream stand, and the discussion was put aside while they each armed themselves with a large cone. They continued to meander along the walkway, the conversation wandering into other channels. Finally, at the foot of Market Street, they found the public transporter and in no time, were whisked back to their quarters. Sam came to the conclusion that she had just spent the best two hours since returning to the Alpha Quadrant, and resolved to do it more often.

As soon as they walked in the door, Icheb was at the console, but the message light remained irritatingly dark. Still nothing from the Academy. Although he tried not to show it, he was starting to get very worried.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Another two weeks passed with no word from either Headquarters or the Academy. Samantha was starting to wonder if she should enrol Naomi in a regular school. But the uncertainty of their situation mitigated against it. The girl had been abruptly torn from the only home she had ever known. Sam didn't want to take the chance of having to uproot her again. She decided that teaching her at home would be just as effective and a lot easier, emotionally. Besides, she found herself thoroughly enjoying her company. On the ship, Sam had always been on duty for a good portion of each day. So often, she had missed the little moments, the small accomplishments, of her daughter's life. She felt now as if she were making up for a lot of lost time.

Naomi and Icheb took Sam on several tours of the Bay Area, covering their favourite spots. While she enjoyed the unaccustomed freedom, she was beginning to experience an ominous feeling of dread, that something dire was about to happen. It took a while before she realized that for seven years, she had never been able to totally relax, that in the back of her mind, she knew she always had to be at yellow alert. She would never have believed how difficult it could be to completely shut down her 'alarm system', for lack of a better term. She actually discussed it one evening with Icheb, after Naomi had gone to bed.

"I feel almost silly, you know," she began. "I mean, we're perfectly safe here. And yet, I just have this feeling."

Icheb tilted his head to one side, analyzing her remark and what his response should be. Sometimes, Sam could swear she saw the nanoprobes spinning.

"I believe you are experiencing an autonomic response. After such a long time, your body cannot instantly make the transition from a state of constant awareness to one of complete rest. It will take time."

"I realize all that. But it's been – how long? Over eleven weeks. I should be settled in by now."

"You were in the Delta Quadrant for seven years, Samantha," he reminded her firmly. "I believe you are trying too hard to adapt to life here now. Perhaps, if you could be more patient….."

She sighed. "I guess so. And it doesn't help that we're existing in a sort of limbo right now, not knowing what's going to happen. Without even a husband."

"Do you miss him?" Icheb was curious.

"Just as much as I have for seven years. In some ways, perhaps, even more, because I had assumed he'd be here waiting for us. This delay doesn't help."

"I'm sure he is making every effort to get back as quickly as he can."

"I know he is. And at least we can communicate now and then – more than once a month, anyway. But it's not the same as having him here. And I know Naomi is anxious about him. It's hard on her, wondering what her father is like, hoping he'll like her, not knowing." She smiled gently and caressed Icheb's hair. "I could not have managed these last weeks without your help. Whatever the future holds for us, I want you always to be a part of this family. I've grown much too fond of you to say goodbye for good."

A very rare smile flitted across his features. "Thank you, Samantha. I….feel ….the same. Separating from Voyager and everyone there has been much easier for me than I believed it would be, thanks to you and Naomi. If your husband agrees, I would like to remain 'part of the family'."

"He will, don't worry about that. He's a very kind, giving person." Rather like Commander Chakotay, she had been about to add, but stopped herself in time. Not a good place to go right now, she reminded herself. She rose to her feet. "I'm tired. See you in the morning. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Samantha."

Ten days later, they finally received a message from Starfleet Command, but it wasn't what either of them wished to hear. The review board wished to question Icheb about his experiences, both as a Borg and afterwards, on Voyager. The admiral's aide, who visited them to make the request in person, was careful to point out that, as a civilian, Icheb could refuse to say anything, but the board was anxious to hear his testimony. Would he be agreeable?

He looked to Sam for guidance, but she just shrugged her shoulders. She couldn't advise him – it had to be his decision alone. He stared unseeingly for a minute or two, then nodded his head. The aide thanked him, adding that he could expect to be called in two days time.

After the man had left, Icheb turned to Sam for guidance. What would they want to know? Where would he be questioned – in someone's office, in a courtroom? What would he need to prepare? He was as nervous as she had ever seen him.

"Icheb," she finally broke into the barrage of questions. "They won't eat you, I promise!"

"I know, but they could decide I cannot be admitted to the Academy. Perhaps that is why I haven't heard anything."

"It's possible, I suppose, although one should not affect the other. I think that, more likely, the Admissions office at the Academy is still trying to work through your rather unorthodox education. It's hard for them, you know. They've never had a former drone apply before. I honestly think they're not quite sure what to do. Give them time."

He took a deep breath, obviously forcing himself to relax. "You're right, of course. I should not let my fears colour my perception of reality."

"That's it. Now, let's go out for a while and find some ice cream. I think we all need it."

She retrieved Naomi, who had been trying to remain quiet despite her own questions and concerns, and they all headed out to spend a day down on Fisherman's Wharf – a spot which they had mutually decided was their favourite.

Two days later, at 0900, Icheb presented himself in front of the Board of Review. He held himself well in check, determined to show no outward sign of nervousness. His calm demeanour and grave air made him seem much older than he actually was, a fact that was brought home to the board when the first admiral began to question him in depth about his relationship to Seven of Nine.

"Mr. Icheb," began the man in a cold voice. "I would like you to explain, in full detail, your connection with the other drones on board the ship. Were you relaying orders from the Collective to Seven of Nine? Did you plan to assimilate the crew? What about the drones who were brought on board with you? What happened to them? Where are they now? Are you still part of the Collective at this time? Can you hear their thoughts?"

Icheb sat silent under the torrent, stunned not only by the number of questions, but the man's obviously hostile attitude. He didn't know that this particular admiral had lost his only son and daughter-in-law at the Battle of Wolf 359. Even though years had passed since that massacre, and the admiral had honestly believed he had overcome his feelings of hatred and revenge, the actual sight of a drone, even an ex-drone, served to revive his revulsion. It was all he could do to remain in the same room.

Admiral Muir, aware of the circumstances and chastising himself for allowing the man to sit on the panel, leaned forward to reassure the young man. "Icheb, if you could answer the questions, please. Take your time."

The latter pulled himself together. "Yes, Admiral." He began the tale – of how he had been sent by his own family to infect the Borg with a deadly pathogen, his eventual rescue by Voyager with four others from the infected cube, how he had been reunited with his parents only to have them send him back to the Borg as soon as Voyager was gone. For over an hour, he continued the story. How the ship's crew had rescued him a second time, how Seven, in particular, had acted as his mentor, teaching him how to regain his individuality as she had regained hers. And how he had repaid her by donating his cortical node when hers had failed beyond repair, thereby saving her life. By the time he finished, the entire board was sitting perfectly still, mesmerized by his astonishing narrative.

Admiral Muir was the first to recover in the silence that followed. "I….I honestly don't know what to say. Young man, I have seen some amazing things in my life, heard about even more, but your experiences leave me stupefied! Quite stupefied!" He paused to draw breath. "I'm sure there are more questions to be asked," there was a general nodding of heads, "but I think we can get to those later. For now, you're free to leave, but I would like to see you back here tomorrow morning. Agreed?"

"Yes, sir," replied Icheb, relieved to be allowed to go so soon. "I'll be here."

"Excellent. The board is now in recess."

Everyone rose, chatter breaking out as they began to move towards the exit. Icheb hesitated, unsure just what he should do next. To his surprise, the first admiral, whose name he'd learned was Perkins, came toward him with a warm smile on his face.

"I would like to apologize for being so rude to you earlier on. I….it's a long story. I hope you can forgive me."

Icheb was genuinely surprised. "Yes, sir, of course."

"Are you busy now, or would you care to join me for lunch? I'd like very much to hear more about your people. The Brunali, is that correct?"

"Yes, it is. Thank you, I would like that."

"Excellent. Come this way."

The two headed out the door, as Muir watched, relieved. Like everyone else, he had been far more moved by Icheb's story than he had let on. Aware of his hopes, he resolved to light a fire under the Admissions office of the Academy. They would be completely insane to let such a promising candidate get away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While Icheb was testifying before the board, Samantha decided now was a good time to fulfil a promise she had made to an old friend. Along with Neelix, Joe Carey had been one of her closest friends on the ship. His death had hit her hard, especially in light of their return to the Alpha Quadrant so soon afterwards.

Several years earlier, right after the altercation with the Hirogen when she and Naomi had come very close to dying, she and Joe had promised each other that in the event of the death of one of them, the survivor would visit the other's widowed spouse.

She remembered the evening well. They had enjoyed a quiet dinner, as they often did, and Joe had read to Naomi until the child finally fell asleep. Neelix had popped in for a while and the three had chatted about several random topics, staying away from discussing the terrible abuses they had suffered. After he had left, Joe and Samantha had fallen silent, each lost in thought, trying to come to terms with all that had happened. It was then that Joe had voiced his idea. She never knew what prompted it, although she could guess. It made sense, and she had agreed at once.

As the years passed, and it seemed more and more sure that Voyager would return to the Alpha Quadrant, their promise had been put aside, not forgotten precisely, but not likely to be needed.

And then, suddenly, he was gone. No goodbyes, no last words for his family – just gone in a burst of phaser-fire.

Sam recalled all too well the first paralyzing horror she had felt when she heard the news. She kept thinking there must have been a mistake, that it couldn't have been Joe, not after all this time. Only when she actually saw his body in sickbay was she able to accept that it was true. Joe wouldn't make it home. And she had a promise to honour.

After considerable effort, Sam located Sarah Carey and her sons, Hunter and Joey, in an older part of Los Angeles. At first, she was hard-pressed to recognize her. The woman on the screen bore little resemblance to the laughing figure in Joe's holoimage. That person had been full of life and joy, her pride in her handsome family evident. This sad, bitter creature staring at her couldn't be the same person, could she?

She repeated her question. "Are you Sarah Carey, Joe's widow?"

The woman nodded, unsmiling. "Yes," she replied shortly. "Who are you?"

Sam took a deep breath – this wasn't going to be easy. "My name is Samantha Wildman. I served with Joe on Voyager. He and I were friends, good friends. I was hoping I might be able to visit you."

She tried to sound friendly, but the other woman wasn't giving an inch.

"Why?"

"It was something Joe asked me to do, if anything ever happened to him. I promised him I would try to find you. He made the same promise to me, to contact my husband if I didn't get home."

Sam saw Sarah relax slightly at the mention of 'husband'. She went on. "When would be a good time for me to come and see you?"

"Well…..I guess tomorrow would be okay. It's my day off."

"Good. I'll come by in the morning."

She signed off, wondering what on earth she was getting into. It struck her that something here did not add up. Well, whatever it was, she would find out soon enough.

With Naomi in tow, Sam set off via public transport for Los Angeles shortly after breakfast. She hadn't planned to bring the child, but had decided that perhaps Naomi could help break the ice, maybe make conversation a little easier. She also had with her several holoimages taken over the years on the ship. Possibly Joe's family would like to have them.

Finding Sarah's place took some time as they worked their way through a rundown, seedy neighbourhood. Sam hung onto Naomi's hand tightly as they walked down yet another street littered with bits of trash and several dubious looking characters propped up in doorways, watching them pass. Finally they came to a four-story apartment building in need of a coat of paint, with a few weeds near the door masquerading as a garden.

They climbed up two flights of stairs, then down a dimly lit hall to number 304. The door opened before she could ring the chime. "Ms. Wildman?" asked the woman standing there.

"Yes. I'm Samantha Wildman, and this is my daughter, Naomi."

"I'm Sarah Carey. Please come in."

Sam was relieved to find Sarah somewhat more cordial than the day before. 'Perhaps I caught her by surprise yesterday', she thought. 'That would explain it. It doesn't look as though she's had an easy time.'

They followed Sarah into the living area and sat down. A bouncing puppy tried to climb up on their laps, before his mistress retrieved him and shut him away in another room. "Sorry," she apologized. "He isn't very well trained as yet."

Sam smiled and began. "Thank you for seeing us. Naomi and I were very fond of Joe. He was a good friend to both of us. We wanted to meet you, maybe tell you something about his life on the ship, if you'd like. He talked about you and the boys so much, I feel as though I know you."

Sarah sat forward stiffly. "I….I'm sorry, I find this difficult. You see, you and Naomi are the first ones from the ship to come and visit me."

Samantha was shocked. "You mean nobody else has come?! Not one?! But – that seems very surprising! I would have thought Captain Janeway would have been in touch….." Her voice trailed off at the look of anger transforming Sarah's face.

"Don't speak that woman's name to me! It's all her fault!"

"I'm sorry, I don't understand." Sam was very puzzled, but tried to keep her voice calm. Beside her, she could feel Naomi tense at the fury in Sarah's voice. She put a hand on her arm, stilling her.

"Surely I don't have to explain it to you! That woman was responsible for getting you all stuck out there in the first place! And then, she got my Joe killed!"

"No, that isn't true. I don't know where you've heard that, but it's not. Granted, it was her decision to destroy the Caretaker's Array which led to our exile in the Delta Quadrant, but she was – is – the captain. It was her decision to make. We never questioned her on that, none of us. Well, almost none of us," amended Sam, remembering rumblings among the Maquis.

She continued, "And as for the mission when Joe died? He volunteered to replace Lieutenant Torres. She was well along in her pregnancy, and the doctor was concerned about her leading an away mission. Joe said he would go, that it had been too long since he'd been off the ship anyway, and he wanted a change of scene. I'm not sure the captain even knew until afterwards that he was on the away team. Please don't blame her. She felt dreadful, you know. At the funeral service, she was in tears. I wondered if Commander Chakotay would have to take over. And the captain is a tough woman, you know. She never cries."

Sarah looked doubtful, but let the argument go. "Tell me about Joe. How he lived, what he did in his spare time, what he was like." She bit her lip, fighting back tears, then straightened her spine. "I have so little of him from the last years of his life. It's like….being married to a stranger, almost!"

Before Sam could move, Naomi was at Sarah's side, one hand on her knee. She peered earnestly up into her face. "You know what I remember best about Joe, Mrs. Carey? Every time I saw him, he would smile at me. He had such a nice smile, didn't he?"

Sarah stared down at the little girl in surprise. "Yes, he did," she replied softly. "Did you know him well?"

"Oh yes, he would often come and play with me, read me stories – that was his favourite, or just talk to me about Hunter and Joey. He missed them a lot, you know."

Sam interjected gently. "Joe often said that being with Naomi made the separation from his own children a little easier to bear. He would bring her little presents sometimes, things he'd made when he was off-duty. You remember that beautiful toy shuttle, Naomi? He spent hours building it for her – said he felt closer to his boys while he was making it. And when Naomi was still very small, he would babysit for me every Thursday night so I could have a break, go out with some of the other crew. He said I shouldn't be expected to spend all my down time with the baby. He was so kind that way. Sometimes, I wouldn't even go out, we'd just have dinner and talk instead. He was a very easy person to talk to."

Sarah nodded wistfully. Now, Sam could see traces of the woman she had known from Joe's holoimage. She reached into her bag. "I brought some holoimages from when we were on the ship. I thought you might like to have them."

The other reached for them eagerly. "Ohh, these are wonderful! Thank you."

Sam cleared her throat, not sure if she should broach the topic on her mind, and yet, she figured Joe would want her to.

"Sarah, I get the feeling that your life has been pretty hard while we were gone. Harder than it should have been. Is that right?"

"Perhaps, I don't know." She sighed heavily. "A little over a year after Voyager disappeared, Starfleet suspended the search for her and declared her officially lost. I couldn't accept that. I couldn't believe that she wasn't out there somewhere, crashed on a planet maybe, her crew stranded, whatever. If we had known anything, no matter how awful, maybe I could have dealt with it better. But the uncertainty, the not knowing – Samantha, you have no idea how that can eat at your soul! So I kept the search going, using up all the credits I had, and borrowed more, until finally even I had to stop. We'd never had a lot, but we were comfortable. Now? Well, we're managing, but credits are tight, you know. All of Joe's back pay went towards repaying a debt, but it wasn't enough. I still owe quite a bit." She fell silent for a moment, as if debating whether to go on, but clearly the need to finally unburden herself to another adult won out over her reserve.

"I guess, in hindsight, I was a little foolish. You see, I borrowed a lot, over a hundred thousand credits, from some rather unscrupulous individuals. When I was late with one repayment….." she paused. "Well, let's just say they weren't very nice. I know most people would have given up, but – Samantha! He was my husband, the father of my boys! I couldn't just abandon him, could I!"

Sam was appalled. "Sarah! That's dreadful! Hasn't Starfleet helped you at all?!"

"No. They didn't seem very interested. Told me if I kept searching, it was on my own time and credits. They wouldn't take any responsibility for it."

"That's outrageous!" Sam was quite indignant. "Does anyone else know about this?"

"No."

Sam sat lost in thought. "There must be someone who could do something. Let me think about it." She looked at her hopefully. "Would you let me tell the captain?"

But Sarah's face closed down. "No, I don't want her knowing, feeling sorry for me, for us."

"Sarah, she wouldn't, really. I know she'd want to….." She stopped at the look on the other's face. "All right, I won't contact her if you would rather I didn't."

"Thank you."

"We have to go now, but I'd like to see you again. We're sort of at loose ends at the moment, waiting until my husband can come back."

"I'd like that, yes." Sarah smiled shyly.

"Good. How about next week?" She and Naomi rose as she spoke.

"I'll be here."

They reached the door, and Sam turned. On impulse, she hugged Sarah gently. "Don't worry. Everything will be all right."

"Thank you, Samantha. And Naomi, thank you, too. I wasn't sure I wanted to meet you, but I'm so glad I have. I feel a lot better now."

They waved goodbye, then picked their way carefully through rubbish-strewn streets back to the transport station. Both breathed a big sigh of relief once they returned to San Francisco.

As they walked back to their quarters, Naomi began to talk. "Mom, Mrs. Carey doesn't seem to like the captain, does she?"

"No, she doesn't. I think she's wrong, but there isn't too much I can do beyond telling her. I hope, in time, she'll come to see that."

"She sure doesn't look like her holoimage, does she?"

"No, and that's sad. She's had a hard time since we were lost, you know."

"Yeah, she looks a lot older than I thought she would."

"I think, if we can help her out, that maybe she'll start to feel better again. And she'll look more the way she did when we left."

"I hope so." Naomi was distracted by a welcome sight. "Look! There's Icheb! Come on." She dashed forward, anxious to hear all about her friend's day and to tell him about hers. Samantha sighed gratefully. Despite all the ups and downs of their life in the Delta Quadrant, she was beginning to think she had had an easier time of it than Sarah Carey.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Another seven weeks passed – much too slowly for Sam, although Naomi was enjoying having her mother's undivided attention. It had been over five months now since they had returned, and still her poor husband was stuck way out near the Neutral Zone, or somewhere anyway. She wasn't even sure where anymore.

Ye gods! How much longer could these negotiations take, anyway? If these people had been in the Delta Quadrant, they would have been either assimilated, or blown into a thousand pieces long ago! Voyager had never had the luxury of prolonged discussions. It had always been either agree to terms as expediently as possible, or take off at maximum warp because the alien of the moment was making every attempt to blow them out of the sector.

Sam was trying very hard to remember that they were no longer in the Delta Quadrant and that she would have to reaccustom herself to the Federation way of doing things. But her patience was wearing thin.

Finally, Icheb finished his testimony and was dismissed with the proviso that he keep himself available in case the board wished to question him further. That evening, Sam suggested they celebrate with a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant. All three had a most pleasant meal, although Icheb was somewhat stumped by spaghetti – he asked several times just why Naomi would wish to eat something that was so messy and difficult to handle.

Naomi, trying rather unsuccessfully to stop pasta sauce from dripping down her chin, declared it was fun – and wasn't that reason enough. Icheb shook his head, but refrained from further argument.

They returned to their quarters to find a message from Starfleet Command. All three groaned, sure that it was from the review board with more questions. But they were to be surprised. An unknown lieutenant addressed them in a pre-recorded message.

"Ensign Samantha Wildman, Naomi Wildman, Icheb. My name is Lieutenant Anderson, aide to Admiral Cogley, head of the Institute of Starfleet History at New Stanford University. As you may have heard, the USS Voyager is to be retired with full honours. However, in light of its extraordinary journey, the ship will not be scrapped but will instead be rededicated as a living museum, one in which visitors can participate in interactive tours of the ship as well as some of the events which you experienced. To this end, we are asking each member of the crew to make available to us every scrap of data that he or she is able to locate. Official logs, reports, personal logs if possible, particular memories – whatever you can do. We want to make this as detailed and accurate a representation as possible of what life was like for those seven years in the Delta Quadrant. We want everyone to know just what an amazing group of people you are. Starfleet believes that, in this way, we can best honour all your achievements.

"I will act as the liaison between the crew and the Institute. If you have any questions, please contact me. I am looking forward to getting to know all of you individually. Thank you for your time. Anderson out."

Sam, Naomi and Icheb sat and stared at each other in stunned silence. It had never occurred to any of them that the ship might be decommissioned and certainly not that it would be turned into a museum, living or anything else.

"Mom?" Naomi was the first to find her voice. "Do we have to tell them everything? I mean like the time I set the forest on fire in Flotter's program? Or when Neelix got sick and thought he was in a war and I was hurt? Remember? When we found that memorial thing? Or how scared I was when you were trapped in that asteroid? Do we have to tell them all that?" She didn't sound too happy.

"Well, I guess so. That's what this Lieutenant Anderson says, doesn't he?"

"Ye…yes."

"Don't you want to talk about those times?"

"No. I only want to talk about the good times. About playing with Seven and Icheb and Mezoti, and when the captain let me be her assistant, and stuff like that."

Sam looked at her daughter carefully. She seemed rather uncomfortable. "Naomi, for most of our journey, you were the only child on the ship. And I think most people would really like to know about what you did and how you felt, in the bad times as well as the good. You were in a very unusual position. Children especially will want to be able to experience life on Voyager the way you did. They'll want to know what it was like, growing up as the only child, not having any friends to play with, all those things. They're going to ask how you felt. Did you like it? Were you ever scared? Did you have to go to school? All sorts of things. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Naomi nodded slowly. "Yeah, I guess so."

Icheb leaned forward. "I'll help you, Naomi. After all, we did lots of things together after the others left. And maybe you could help me, too. I'm not very good at – telling a story, making it interesting for people. Perhaps you could write it so it sounds more exciting."

She grinned at him, suddenly much more enthusiastic. "Sure, I can do that." She turned to her mother. "When do we start?"

Sam smiled at her eagerness. "No time like the present. Here, let's each get a PADD. Maybe if we start with one event and see how each of us remembers it."

"Okay. Which one?"

"How about the Antarean race when Tom and B'Elanna nearly blew up the second Delta Flyer?"

They continued long into the night, way past Naomi's bedtime, as one topic led to another. Finally Samantha happened to catch a glimpse of her chronometer.

"Good heavens, look at what time it is! Naomi, off to bed at once!"

"But Mom….!"

"No buts! It's my bedtime, for goodness' sake! Now, off you go, miss. We'll have lots of time to work on this. We don't have to finish tomorrow, you know."

Icheb rose as well. "Come on, Naomi. Goodnight, Samantha. See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight, Icheb," called Sam, gathering up the PADDs. "Sleep well."

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Another eight weeks went by. The three had fallen into a routine now. Half the day, usually the mornings, would be spent on Naomi's lessons. Sometimes, these would take the form of field trips to one place or another, in which case they might be gone all day. Samantha and Icheb took turns accompanying Naomi on these outings, although occasionally, if the trip was to somewhere really significant, they would both go. On those days when she stayed behind, Sam worked on her notes and logs, writing official reports on the various projects in which she had been involved.

By the same token, Icheb spent all his spare time preparing as if he had been accepted at the Academy. He was currently involved in a detailed study of the history of the Federation and all the various worlds and races with which it was comprised.

If their afternoons were free, they would go off on an expedition somewhere for fun. Once a week, Sam and Naomi would go to visit Sarah Carey and her sons. Sam had tried unsuccessfully to get Sarah to bring the boys to San Francisco, but she seemed reluctant and Sam hadn't pushed the issue.

Evenings were often spent working on the museum project. All three were amazed by how much their memories varied when recalling the same incident. PADD after PADD was filled with their recollections, supplemented by portions of their personal logs. Inevitably, Seven's name came up often – she had been so close to both Naomi and Icheb. At first, he seemed to withdraw from the conversation when she was mentioned, but later, Sam noticed that he seemed much more comfortable talking about her. 'Thank goodness', she thought. 'He's getting past her.'

And then their lives changed again. They had all been to Paris that day to tour the great art museum at the Louvre, and had just come in the door, laughing over Icheb's run-in with a French waiter at a sidewalk café, when Naomi spotted the message light on the console flashing.

"Mom," she called. "There's a message. Shall I open it?"

"Sure," replied Sam from the bedroom. "I'll be right out."

The girl activated the terminal to see an admiral's stern face filling the screen. "This is a message for Icheb formerly of the starship Voyager. I am Admiral Paxton, head of Starfleet Academy." The man paused for a moment.

"Icheb!" shrieked Naomi. "Come quick! It's the Academy!"

Icheb scurried out of his room faster than Naomi had ever seen him move before.

The admiral continued. "I am pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Academy as a first-year cadet. You will begin your studies in two weeks at the start of the next term. Report to the Admissions office as soon as possible for a list of your course requirements, and for your room assignment. Welcome to the Academy, Cadet. Paxton out."

Sam had come into the room at Naomi's cry. Now she turned to the boy and hugged him. "Icheb! This is wonderful news! I'm so pleased for you!"

Naomi jumped up and down excitedly. "This is great! You can tell me all about it so I'll know what it's like when I'm old enough to go!"

Icheb stood silently with an enormous grin covering his face from ear to ear. Suddenly, as if he couldn't control himself, he grabbed Naomi and swung her around in glee. "It's true! I'm going to be in Starfleet!"

The others laughed as he set Naomi back on her feet. Sam had an idea. "Let's have a party – to celebrate! All your closest friends from the ship! Would you like that?"

"Yes, indeed I would."

Naomi chimed in. "That's a wonderful idea, Mom! We've hardly seen anyone!"

"I know, dear. It's been so difficult, with a quarter of our crew imprisoned, the rest scattered who knows where, and all of us under orders to minimize contact with each other. But we're past that now, thank goodness." She reached for a PADD. "All right. To business. We'll start by making a list of who we want to come….."

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

The following morning, Naomi and Icheb sat working on the latest set of quantum physics problems he had devised for her, while Sam went about contacting their shipmates. 'Might as well start with the captain', she thought, composing a short message to be routed through the Personnel office at Headquarters, and promptly got a shock when the computer politely informed her that Captain Janeway had become Admiral Janeway. Her exclamation of surprise caught Naomi's and Icheb's attention and they quickly moved behind her to see what had prompted her bemused expression.

Naomi was the first to recover. "Hey, Mom, that's great! Do you think I can get promoted to Admiral's Assistant?"

Sam chuckled. "I guess you'll have to ask her, honey. That's a pretty high-ranking position, you know."

Icheb frowned. "Now that we are on Earth, wouldn't the cap- admiral already have an assistant, possibly several?"

Naomi looked worried. "You mean she might not need me anymore? But…" her voice trailed off uncertainly as once more the realities of their return crashed over her. She turned away but not before Sam caught the glint of tears.

"Honey," began Sam, "maybe the admiral does have lots of assistants here on Earth, but she might be willing to make a special place for you. Don't jump to conclusions until you've had a chance to talk to her. The captain, uh admiral – this is going to be hard to get used to – has always had a soft spot for you. Give her a chance, okay?"

The child nodded, her face clearing, before turning back to the puzzle of quantum physics.

Sam worked her way down the list – the Parises, and the baby of course, Commander Chakotay – question mark, Crewman Tal Celes if she hadn't gone back to Bajor, the doctor – another question mark. Then there were the Careys. She really wasn't sure how well they would fit in, simply because inevitably the talk would turn to the Delta Quadrant. On the other hand, they might enjoy listening to the personal reminiscences. Well, she would have to think about that. Let's see, who else? Oh yes, Gerron, mustn't forget him.

That particular friendship had caught Sam by surprise, she remembered. Icheb and Gerron – on the surface, it had seemed that the two could have nothing in common. However, when she'd thought about it, she realized that both were quiet, unassuming individuals who much preferred to listen to Bajoran fugues or play chess than indulge in vigorous games or noisy parties.

While she organized her notes, in the back of her mind, she pondered what to do about Seven

There was no doubt Icheb had been closest of all to her, but Seven's treatment of him in those last days before they all were separated had been almost cruel. In her apparent hurry to take off with Chakotay, she had brushed him aside, as if he were the merest acquaintance. Sam had gotten to know him pretty well, and she knew that he had been badly hurt, a lot more than he had let on. No, she thought, she didn't want Seven around upsetting him again. Which would mean that she wouldn't be inviting Chakotay either. Oh well, better to have a smaller guest list than risk more hurt feelings.

Her console beeped with an incoming message. She activated it to see Admiral Janeway's smiling face.

"Sam! How nice to hear from you! How are you?"

"I'm well, thank you, Admiral." Sam grinned at her. "We're all very pleased to hear of your promotion. Congratulations!"

"Thanks, Sam. That's very kind of you. Now, how's my assistant? Is she enjoying getting to know her dad? How does she like Earth?"

"She's fine, and she likes Earth very well. Unfortunately, my husband hasn't been able to come back yet."

"Not yet?! Good lord, Sam, it's been seven months! What on earth is he doing?!"

"I wish I knew. The Diplomatic section is very vague about his activities – they just keep saying he's involved in delicate negotiations and can't leave. It's getting very frustrating, as you can imagine."

"I'm sure it is. Would you like me to see if I can do anything?"

"Certainly, if you wish, Admiral. I'd be grateful for any help. But that isn't why I called. Icheb has been accepted into the Academy and I'm having a little party for him next week to celebrate. We're hoping you can come."

"Oh, that's wonderful! He must be very pleased! Yes, I'll be there, you can count on it. Can I speak to him? I'll get Chakotay – he'll want to congratulate him, too."

"The Commander is with you??!" Sam squeaked, utterly astonished.

"Yes," grinned Janeway almost smugly. "He and I – well, we found our way to each other, Sam. And I'm very happy. I know he is, too."

Sam stared at her, then shook her head, a smile breaking across her face. "That's great, Admiral, just great! I am really, really happy to hear that! Please tell him that I hope he will come, too. I'll fetch Icheb."

While the latter was exchanging greetings and congratulations with the admiral and commander, Sam went to fill in Naomi on the latest news. Quantum physics was pushed aside as they speculated about what could have possibly happened with Seven.

"You know what, Mom? Maybe they just couldn't find much to do together, away from the ship, I mean. Do you think that was it?"

"Could be, honey. I guess we'll never know."

"I hope she's all right," murmured Naomi. "She's still my friend. Even though she was mean to Icheb, I don't think she meant to be. Do you think we'll ever see her again?"

"I don't know, maybe."

"I hope so."

They were interrupted by Icheb, who came in to say that the admiral needed to know the day and time of the party.

Sam was kept busy the rest of the morning talking to various members of the crew. The only one who refused was Sarah Carey, who stated bluntly that she just couldn't feel comfortable yet around Voyager's crew. She hoped Sam would understand. The latter had nodded her head and promised to see her the following week as they had scheduled.

By lunchtime, plans for the party were finalized and Sam was able to spend a pleasant afternoon with Naomi and Icheb, enjoying a stroll through Golden Gate Park.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

By the evening of the appointed day, Naomi was nearly bouncing off the walls with anticipation. Sam called her several times to come and help with various preparations, but the child was too excited to concentrate on how to set out the assorted hors d'oeuvres and delicacies which Sam had replicated.

"Naomi!" she finally shouted in exasperation. "They're not going to get here any faster because you have your nose glued to the window!"

"I know, Mom, it's just I want to see them so badly!"

Sam shook her head in defeat. "You've missed them a lot, haven't you?"

"Yes, I …..Mom! They're here!" She flew to the door, yanking it open, and tore out to throw her arms around Kathryn Janeway in a big hug.

"Captain! Oops! – I mean Admiral! I'm so glad to see you!" Naomi was ecstatic, her face one big grin from ear to ear.

Kathryn held onto her for another minute. "I'm very glad to see you, too. I've missed you so much, all of you. And you know, while it's just us, I think I'd prefer it if you called me Captain. I'd feel a lot more comfortable."

Naomi's smile got even wider. "Okay. And can I still be your assistant, even if you really are an admiral now?"

Kathryn hugged her again. "You bet you can, sweetheart. I don't know how I've managed without you."

Naomi laughed with relief as Chakotay called from behind. "Hey! Don't I get a hug, too?"

She was a little uncertain how to react. The last time she had seen him, he had had eyes only for Seven. Now, here he was with the captain. He read her expression easily and held out his hand.

"Please? I know I didn't say goodbye to you properly, but it's still me and I've missed you." He gave her his special smile, the one she was quite unable to resist. She took his hand and let him swing her up into his arms, hugging him tightly around the neck and whispering into his ear how glad she was to see him with the captain. He whispered back that he was glad, too.

Meanwhile, Kathryn had stepped forward to greet Sam and Icheb affectionately, her joy and pride in his accomplishment evident in her sparkling eyes and delighted smile. Sam was struck by how much more relaxed and warm her captain had become. When Kathryn turned to reach for Chakotay's hand, leading him forward, Sam knew why. This woman had found her way home in more ways than one.

Before they could all step inside, Tom and B'Elanna Paris, laden with baby and bags, trooped up to the door. More hugs and exclamations were exchanged as everyone slowly made their way inside. Tal Celes, with Harry Kim in tow, was the next to arrive, again to everyone's surprise. 'Very few had seen the potential for that romance' thought Sam as she bustled about getting her guests settled. And just a few moments later, Gerron appeared, looking much happier and more relaxed now that the 'Maquis business' was finally settled. With the doctor's arrival shortly after, their numbers were complete.

The room bubbled with talk and laughter as everyone tried to tell everyone else about all the changes in their lives since they had gotten home. Naomi was in her element, darting about trying to hear all the conversations at once. 'She's really missed them', thought Sam sadly. 'I hadn't realized how hard it's been for her. Icheb, too, look at him – more excited and animated than I've ever seen him.'

She felt a presence at her elbow and looked up to find Chakotay smiling down at her. "You look pensive, Sam."

"I was just thinking." She nodded toward Naomi and Icheb. "Those two look happier than I've seen them since we landed. I keep forgetting that Voyager was their home."

"It was home to all of us for a long time." He sighed slightly.

"Commander?" she ventured softly. "How is Seven? I think they both would like to know, Naomi anyway."

"As far as I know, she's fine." He bit his lip, looking down for a moment. "It wasn't going to work, Sam. In hindsight, it's obvious. I guess, those last days on the ship, I wasn't seeing very clearly. And then, well, it's a long story that I won't bore you with. Suffice to say, that I was able to put all the past aside and find Kathryn again. And we're very happy."

She smiled gently. "I'm very glad for you both. I think you were always meant to be together, you know. That's what the crew used to say. We understood all the reasons why you couldn't be, in the Delta Quadrant, but I can't imagine anyone not being delighted now."

"Thanks, Sam, that means a lot."

His attention was caught just then by a shout of laughter from B'Elanna, and he said no more.

Shortly after, Kathryn got up, following Sam into the kitchen. "Sam, I wanted to tell you. I talked to Starfleet, then worked my way through several back doors into the Diplomatic Office. I don't know for sure, but I think your husband is going to be free pretty soon. I told them that in this day and age, there really is no reason for him to be tied down out there for so long. I have a feeling there are some power politics being played behind the scenes, but of course, no one will admit anything. Anyway, once I explained who I was and just why I was so interested in his whereabouts, the tune changed quite dramatically. I'm very hopeful that you'll be seeing him shortly."

Sam was ecstatic, her face wreathed in smiles. "Admiral, that's the best news I've had in – I don't know how long! Thank you so much! I couldn't get any answers at all beyond vague platitudes and pats on the head. Do you think it's safe to tell Naomi? She's been quite anxious and all this waiting hasn't helped the situation."

"Hmm," the admiral was hesitant, "maybe not just yet. I wouldn't want to get her hopes up too high in case something else goes wrong."

"Then I won't."

Just then, they were called back into the main room by Tom Paris, who announced that he wished to propose a toast, several in fact. However, before he could begin, the doctor neatly cut him off.

"Fellow crewmembers," interposed their favourite hologram, rising to his feet "before Mr. Paris gets started, I wanted to say a few words to honour our captain."

Tom sat back, prepared for a lengthy speech, but to his and everyone else's surprise, the usually longwinded doctor kept his remarks short and to the point.

"I imagine by now that everyone here is aware of the captain's promotion. But, as this is the first time we've been together since that happy occasion, on behalf of the entire crew, I would like to offer our sincere congratulations. To Admiral Kathryn Janeway, the best captain any ship could ever have."

"Hear, hear!" echoed from different parts of the room, as everyone rose to their feet.

Kathryn smiled and thanked them, then called on Tom to continue with what he had been about to say. He nodded to her and remained standing as the others sat down.

"Raise your glasses, folks. First, I want to congratulate Icheb on his admission to the Academy – and remind him not to spend all his time with his nose in his books. There's more to life than quantum mechanics."

"And you should know," came irreverently from B'Elanna.

"Thanks, dear. You're a never-ending pillar of support," retorted Paris, before going on. "Next, to our captain, pardon me – Admiral – and commander who have finally settled my betting pool. Too late for me to cash in, mind you, but there you are."

"Who won, just out of curiosity?" asked Harry.

"Now that's the funny thing. It was Kes."

"You're kidding! Really?"

"Yeah. Of course, she was telepathic. Guess she knew something the rest of us didn't."

"Dear Kes," reminisced Kathryn. "I still miss her."

"I think we all do," replied Chakotay softly.

"Three more, then someone else can have a turn. To my best friend Harry and the new love of his life, Celes. B'Elanna and I are so very pleased that you have found each other."

"Hear, hear," was heard again throughout the room, as the pair tried unsuccessfully not to blush.

Tom continued. "To those members of our crew who are now finally free to go on with their lives without having to look over their shoulders. I give you – the Maquis."

The three from the Liberty all looked a little surprised at that one – Chakotay wondered if Paris was rather putting Kathryn on the spot, but she seemed comfortable enough, raising her glass without hesitation. He decided he was overreacting.

"And finally, the most important of all. Please raise your glasses to our ship and her crew. The best that ever was or ever will be. To Voyager."

They all rose and repeated his words. "To Voyager!"

As everyone settled back in their seats, Kathryn rose to her feet.

"Tom, that was very well done. Thank you. I have a toast as well. To this family, our Voyager family. We have shared so much together and forged ties that will never be broken. Icheb, remember this when you are at the Academy. You have a family to support you – all of us. And we will be there whenever you need us. To our family."

Again, they all stood. "Our family."

As they sat once more, Icheb remained standing. He looked around at each face, remembering how he had first encountered them, how they had taken him in and made him part of their whole. And then he smiled, a very rare Icheb smile.

"Thank you for all your good wishes. These last weeks, Samantha, Naomi and I have been writing down all our memories for the museum project. And doing that has made me realize, again, how very special all of you are to me. I know I will be representing not only the Delta Quadrant at the Academy, but Voyager as well." He paused, then took a deep breath and straightened to his full height. "I promise you all that I will do my very best to uphold the honour of our ship and her crew."

"We know you will," replied the admiral.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

Two weeks later, a gray, soggy day found Naomi standing at the window, staring out at the rain pouring down in torrents. The wind was gusting hard, at times blowing the rain almost horizontally. The scene matched her mood. Icheb would be leaving the following day for the Academy, and even though he would be back at the end of term, that was a whole four months away. Might as well be forever, as far as she was concerned.

Samantha came in to fetch a PADD and noticed her miserable expression. She came over and put her arm around her shoulders. "Don't be sad, honey. He'll be back before you know it."

Naomi sighed. "Yeah, I know. It's just…..I was thinking, Mom. About how everyone's gone – first Neelix, then all the crew, now Icheb. It kind of feels like we're the only ones left." She looked up at Sam. "You know what I mean?"

Sam hugged her. "Yes, honey, I feel that way, too. But it will get better, I promise." She sighed and looked out at the drenched landscape. "It's so hard, this waiting. Sometimes, I think we've been waiting forever." She tried to force a laugh, but it came out as more of a sob.

Naomi didn't answer – there really wasn't anything she could say. After a moment, Sam turned away to retrieve her PADD. The child continued to stand at the window, watching raindrops chase each other down the pane, and trying to swallow the lump in her throat.

Idly, she noticed a figure scurrying down the street and caught a glimpse of his face as he looked up, apparently trying to get his bearings. 'He looks Ktarean', she thought, pressing her nose against the window to see better, but the man had disappeared.

'I wonder. No, couldn't be. Mom would have heard something. It was probably just someone running down the street, trying not to get wet.' She went back to watching the raindrops just as the door chime sounded. She heard Sam go to the door and a second later, her exclamation of joy and disbelief.

As she turned, Sam came into the room, her face alive, leading the same man Naomi had seen in the street. She recognized his coat, and he was Ktarean. Sam called her forward, tears starting to run down her face, barely able to speak.

"Naomi, this is your father."

Greskrendtregk stared at her, his face awestruck with wonder. "You are my daughter, my little girl?"

Naomi nodded solemnly, feeling a bit nervous. He fell to his knees, holding out his hands. She glanced up at Sam, who inclined her head. Slowly the child moved to stand in front of him.

"You're my father?" Her tone made it a question.

"Yes," he whispered, tears sliding down his cheeks now as well. "Yes, I am." He didn't move, letting her get used to him.

She looked him over carefully from head to toe, then broke into a huge smile. "That's good. I've wondered what it would be like to have a father. I think I'll like having you."

She took his hands, then stepped close and put her arms around his neck, brushing her cheek against his. He hugged her back gently, afraid of frightening her, then looked up at his wife.

"Samantha, she is beautiful, just as I knew she would be." He stood, holding Naomi's hand and put his other arm around Sam to hug her. "After so long, I have my family."

A small sound caught Sam's attention and she turned to see Icheb standing in the doorway, looking somewhat uncomfortable. She held out her hand, drawing him to her side.

"Greskrendtregk, this is Icheb, whom I told you about, from the Delta Quadrant." Now came the bit she hadn't mentioned to him in any of her communications. "He's part of our family, too."

Greskrendtregk didn't bat an eye, letting go of Naomi to shake Icheb's hand. "I am delighted to meet you. And to know that not only do I have a beautiful daughter, but a handsome son as well. Come, let's sit down, I have so much to tell you, and I'm sure you have even more to tell me."

He hugged them all again, as they settled down to catch up on the last seven years and all that had happened to them.

=^= =^= =^= =^= =^= =^=

That evening, after Naomi had fallen asleep exhausted from the day, and Icheb had gone to finish his packing, husband and wife sat curled up together on the couch, each holding a cup of tea.

"I am so lucky to have you back," whispered Greskrendtregk. "All those years – first when I thought I'd lost you, then when they told us you were alive but so far away you might as well be dead. And now, here you are. Oh Samantha, I have missed you! From now on, I'm going to treasure each and every moment I have with you."

She buried her head in his neck, trying not to cry again. She shouldn't have any tears left. "When times were bad, and they often were, I hung onto my memories of you. I'd tell Naomi over and over, about you, about our life together. Greski, I couldn't have survived if I hadn't had her! And I came so close to not having her. She is a miracle."

"Indeed she is," he answered, having heard the story of the day of Naomi's birth.

They remained sitting there, huddled together, relishing the joy of hopes fulfilled.

Finally, Sam chuckled softly.

"What?" he asked.

"I'm just remembering how Neelix always insisted every story has to have a happy ending. And you know what? Ours does."


 

On to Chapter Nine:  Chatter In The Ranks

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