Out of the Ordinary

By Jade East (jadetrekeast@yahoo.com)
© January 2011
Rating: PG
Series: Star Trek: Voyager

Years of voyaging through the Delta Quadrant can be ordinary and tedious. It only takes a small visitor to change all that.

I receive no money from this. The series is Paramount's. The story is mine.

Acknowledgements: Thank you 50 of 47 and Aria for your beta work and Jemima for both your beta and your web hosting.

The day was utterly ordinary as were the sights and sounds on the bridge. Kathryn Janeway spent her shift doing routine tasks and wondered if the mundane activities were responsible for the discontent that rumbled through her. She hoped she wasn't heading into another bout of depression.

She found relief only when she interacted with Chakotay. His dimples and nova-watt smiles burned off her malaise like the Indiana sun dried up the morning dew. Her first officer's rich baritone reminded her of warm, rich, and creamy mochas on a blustery day in San Francisco. Just by being with him over time, it'd become more difficult to hide behind the protocols that had been her shelter for so long. The temptation to allow free rein to her feelings for the man she'd once been sent to capture enticed her from all sides.

Giving herself a rough mental shaking, Kathryn turned her attention to her computer screen and the everyday engineering report she'd been reading. With only thirty minutes left on her duty shift, she decided not to retreat to her ready room. In fact, she began to consider leaving early. Maybe she would run one of her holo-novels.

Just as Kathryn opened her mouth to hand command over to Chakotay, Ensign Kim spoke. "We're receiving an automated signal."

"What's the message?" Janeway put away all thoughts of leaving the bridge.

"The computer can't decipher it. There's not enough to translate, just one long blast of sound, followed by five symbols." Harry frowned as his fingers flew over his console.

"Could be a kind of SOS," Chakotay suggested.

Kathryn nodded to the commander before she asked Kim, "Can you tell where it's coming from?"

"Long range sensors have picked up a small ship, stopped in space. We'd have to be closer to tell more," Kim explained.

"Hail them, Ensign, after you send the coordinates to the helm. If there's no response, keep trying to translate the message."

"Aye, Captain."

Janeway settled back in her chair. Her restlessness vanished and a sense of anticipation took its place. She didn't understand how, but she knew was experiencing a premonition and fully expected this encounter to significantly impact her life. She'd had the same feeling one other time in her life -- when she first viewed Chakotay's personal file after receiving the order to bring him in.

After several minutes, the beta shift arrived, but most of the alpha crew stayed on the bridge, as if they too felt something unusual was about to happen. The replacements busied themselves while the ship cruised toward the signal's coordinates.

"Captain, the vessel is within visual range now," Harry informed her.

"On screen," she ordered. The ship that appeared on the viewer in front of her was too small for details. "Magnify."

At the highest magnification, Janeway could finally see a boxy, dirty gray-green craft with no visible weaponry. She wondered what such a small ship was doing alone in this part of space.

"We're close enough now to do a sensor sweep, Captain."

"Do it," Captain Janeway declared impatiently.

A few second later, Kim reported, "There's only one life sign on board, and it's pretty weak. The hold is full of some sort of mineral. It must be a cargo ship of some kind."

"Is there any indication of damage to the ship?" Chakotay asked.

"Not from preliminary scans. All systems seem to be working." Harry's fingers flew across the console once more.

"How soon will we be within transporter range?" the captain questioned.

"Ten minutes, Captain."

Kathryn leaned back in her chair for several minutes. Try as she might she couldn't relax. Finally in frustration, she pushed to her feet. "Keep trying to hail that ship. If you can't reach it, as soon as we're in range, transport the person to sickbay, and have a security team meet me there."

Glancing down at Chakotay, she caught his eye and cocked her head toward the turbolift. "You're off duty, too. Come with me."

Once inside the lift, Chakotay spoke. "Just when I thought we were going to have another ordinary, boring day. . ." He let the sentence drift off.

"The word is routine, Commander," Kathryn corrected with a half smile. "We never have boring days."

"Aye, Captain." He grinned back. "If you say so."

During times like these, Kathryn truly despised protocols. The very air in the turbolift's tiny space swam with tension and energy that drew her to Chakotay. To keep from giving in to the pull, she forced her mind to focus on what might be waiting for them in sickbay.

They arrived there a few minutes later and passed two guards at either side of the sickbay doors. Captain Janeway didn't realize the transport from the cargo ship had taken place until she saw the Doctor leaning over one of the bio-beds, working on a patient. A soft, whimpering cry startled her.

Hurrying to the Doctor's side, both the captain and commander stared at the tiny form on the examining table. There lay a toddler, not much more than a baby. His tangled mop of black hair nearly covered his tightly closed eyes. Tears ran down his dirty cheeks, leaving clean streaks on his face. Although he wasn't fighting the Doctor's attention, he'd pulled himself into a tight ball as he rested on his side.

"Is he okay, Doctor?" Kathryn asked as she gazed down at the small boy, compassion flooding her heart.

Before the Doctor could respond, the little boy opened his eyes and stared at her in blue-eyed amazement before he shouted, "Baba!" and launched himself into her arms. He buried his face into her neck and held on with surprising strength, all the while repeating the words, "Baba, cai ip Tepa. Nie Tepa."

Kathryn wrapped her arms automatically around the child. She reeled with surprise, both at his reaction and to her response to it. The initial shock wore off quickly as she realized how right it felt to hold him. Pushing those feelings down, she forced her herself to ask, "Why isn't the universal translator working?"

"I believe it's because he's using baby talk, and the computer can't make sense of it yet," the EMH offered as a possibility.

As she rubbed the boy's back in soothing circles without really thinking about it, she ordered, "Chakotay, I want the translator working right away. We don't want to frighten our little visitor any more than he already is. He needs to understand us as much as we need to understand him. Check to see what we can find out about his family, too."

"Aye, Captain," Chakotay agreed. He moved toward the door as he slapped his commbadge.

Captain Janeway was only vaguely aware of Chakotay leaving to obey her orders when the Doctor commented tersely, "Captain, I need to complete the examination."

Startled out of her single focus on the boy by the Doctor's words, she wondered why such a strong maternal instinct was suddenly surfacing at this moment. As she tried to lower the boy on to the bio-bed, he fought to stay in her arms.

"It's okay, little one," she whispered while smoothing his hair away from his face. "The doctor needs to look at you to make sure you're well."

His wide, tear-filled eyes searched hers, as if trying to understand what she was saying. After a few seconds, he stopped struggling and lay back. He whimpered again, flinching as the doctor moved the tricorder over him again.

"There, there, I'm right here," she hushed him, lightly caressing his cheek as she took note of the tiny ridges that started at his earlobes and disappeared under his shirt on each of his shoulders.

The Doctor lifted a brow as he watched how the captain soothed the child but said nothing as he continued his examination.

The toddler closed his eyes and leaned into her hand. "Baba, cai ip Tepa. Nie Tepa." His repetitions of those words faded and eventually stopped as he fell asleep.

"Is he okay?" Kathryn kept her hand against the little boy's cheek as she questioned the Doctor.

"Other than being obviously frightened and dirty, he's in good health." The EMH smiled down at the child. "All he needs some good food, plenty of fluids, and a bath after he wakes up. I just wonder how a little guy like this ended up drifting alone in space."

"I'm sure that we'll know soon enough," she responded.

As if in answer to her comment, she heard. "Chakotay to Captain Janeway." The sound from her communicator made the toddler flinch in his sleep.

"One moment, Commander," Kathryn spoke quietly as she touched the child's hair again. She turned the Doctor. "Are there some kind of rails for this bed? I don't want him to fall off."

"Of course, Captain," The Doctor huffed, affronted by her question as he raised bars on either side of the bio-bed.

After assuring herself that the little boy was safe, Kathryn slipped outside the sickbay doors. She finally responded, "What is it, Chakotay?"

"The translator is working now, although we still might not understand the boy's version of the language. Also Harry found out that the child's name. It's Tepa. He's an orphan from a mining colony. Both his parents died in an accident there. The ship belonged to an old man whose body we found on the bridge, dead for several days. He was probably the one who sent the distress signal."

Kathryn sighed in sympathy. "I'm going to stay in sickbay until Tepa wakes up."

"He seemed taken with you." Chakotay commented.

"Yes, and to be honest, the feeling is mutual," Kathryn said softly. She abruptly cleared her throat. "Beam the freighter captain's body into a medical stasis unit. I want the doctor to do an autopsy. Have the cargo ship tractored into one of the shuttle bays. I'll start reading through the ship's logs myself while I'm here."

"Aye, Captain."

"And Chakotay," she added. "Make sure you pass on these orders to someone else. You're off duty now."

"Yes, Captain. Chakotay out."

Kathryn heard the grin in his voice and her mouth lifted in a smile of her own. She returned to sickbay and found the EMH in his office.

"I'm going to stay here until the boy wakes up. He seems to feel safe with me, so I want him to be able to see me," Kathryn informed the Doctor. "If you don't mind, I'd like to use your computer to read through the cargo ship's files.

"Not at all, Captain," he replied benevolently. "I wasn't going to be using my office for a while anyway. I have some experiments to tend to."

As Kathryn perused the logs of the freighter, she found that the ship serviced the trade between several mining colonies and their home planet, Lafra. The captain had been excited about his good fortune. The small planetoid from which the freighter was coming, RT4, held rich deposits of a choice ore. The shipment he procured was pure and certain to bring him and the company he worked for a nice profit, plus RT4's authorities had given him the orphan to take back to the main planet. Orphans, while a liability on RT4, brought a good price on Lafra, and healthy boys fetched a premium. The freighter's logs showed the old man's delight over the money he would make when he reached his home world.

Pounding her fist on the desk, Kathryn seethed at the greed and cruelty of this race of aliens. Frustration wrapped around her as she realized that the Prime Directive prevented her from interfering with this barbaric practice. Federation rules often seemed more confining than they were worth.

Kathryn gulped down the rest of the coffee she'd replicated and slammed the cup back on the desk. Unable to read any more of the avaricious captain's personal log, she searched for information about Tepa's parents. Soon a file with a few photographs appeared on the screen.

Pictures of Tepa's parents, though grainy and of poor quality, showed why the little boy seemed to recognize Kathryn. His mother could have been mistaken for her twin -- hair and eye color, body type and size so close to her own. The Lafrian race very closely resembled Terrans.

She also understood where the boy got his black hair and tawny skin tone. The father's features were swarthy, and though he wasn't a tall man, he towered over his petite wife. Kathryn found what looked like a wedding picture. There was no doubt that they were happy and in love.

More sympathy for the orphaned child washed over Kathryn. Somehow she needed to find a way to keep this little one from the life waiting for him on his home planet. Try as she might, she couldn't help but remember how sweet it felt to hold him close and to know that he trusted her so completely. Her throat felt thick and her eyes stung as tears threatened.

Shaking her head, Kathryn banished those feelings to the same place she kept her longing for Chakotay. She was a starship captain. How could she even think about a strange child in such a maternal way?

Pushing herself to her feet, Kathryn stretched her back while rubbing the tightness in her neck. She looked at the time and found she been reading for over two hours.

A sudden worry nagged at her. Was there a problem with Tepa that he napped so long? No, the medical equipment would have sounded an alarm if something was wrong. She knew nothing about what was normal daytime sleep for a toddler. Still, unable to keep from doing so, Kathryn moved to where he lay.

The first thing Kathryn noticed as she arrived at the side of the bio-bed was how vulnerable he looked. Curled on his side with a thumb now in his mouth, he slept soundly. His thick, dark lashes rested against his still grubby cheeks.

When Kathryn leaned over the safety railing and smoothed his hair off his face, he sighed contentedly and suckled his thumb a few times before settling deeper into his rest. Not wanting to disturb his sleep, she moved back toward the office.

"What will happen when he wakes, Captain?" the EMH appeared at her side and asked softly.

"I'm off duty, so I'm going to take him to my quarters to feed and bathe him," she explained what she'd just decided. "I'll search the freighter's replicator database for something that he could eat. I'll replicate clothing for him."

The Doctor searched her face before responding. "Children take significant care. Perhaps I can contact Ensign Wildman for you or maybe Seven since they both have experience with children?"

Kathryn bristled for a moment before replying, "Thanks for the offer, but I'll handle everything."

"Yes, Captain." The Doctor's brow furrowed, but he acquiesced.

A few minutes later, Kathryn heard a soft cry. She rushed to Tepa's bedside as he searched the room in wide-eyed fright.

The translator was apparently working when Tepa cried out, "Mama!" smiled broadly, a tiny dimple flashing. "You not go from Tepa, you stay with Tepa."

Kathryn caught him just as he began to climb over the railing. Once again, Tepa burrowed into her neck, patting her hair and repeating, "Mama, stay with Tepa."

"It's okay, sweetie," Kathryn crooned as she held him tightly. "It's okay."

"The captain is not your m. . ," the Doctor began before Kathryn cut him off.

Turning to the EMH who'd joined her at the side of the bio-bed, and lowering her voice, Kathryn said, "He's been traumatized enough. I'll explain it to him after he's feeling safer. Is he well enough to leave here?"

Just to be sure, the Doctor ran his tricorder over the child once more. Clucking to himself, he shook slightly his head. He adjusted the controls and scanned Tepa again.

"What is it?" Apprehension gripped her.

The EMH scanned the boy's head, before he turned the instrument off. He reassured her, "I'll analyze this data. I'm sure things are fine. You are free to take him with you. Did you send the files you needed for him to your personal computer?"

"I'm afraid I didn't have time." She started for the office again.

"I'll have your replicator programmed with food and clothing for him before you reach your quarters," he offered.

"Thank you, Doctor," Kathryn answered.

Patting Tepa's back, Kathryn turned her attention to him. "Shall we get you some food and a bath?"

"Bath? With water?" Tepa lifted his head and gazed at her, his eyes sparkling with eager anticipation.

"Yes, Tepa, with lots of water." Kathryn laughed as she carried him out of the medical quarters.

As she traveled the ship's corridors, Kathryn watched Tepa's reactions. At first he merely rested his head on her shoulder, but soon he straightened and looked around with open curiosity. When a member of the crew stopped to say something to him, he hid his face from everyone but Naomi, to whom he gave a shy smile.

Kathryn also met with curious stares from those they passed. She even heard several speculative whispers about her and the little boy. Kathryn couldn't help agreeing that it was a unique sight for her crew.

Arriving at her quarters, she hurried in and put Tepa on the floor. When she tried to move to a chair, he held tightly to her leg and cried, "Mama, hold me."

"Come on, Tepa," she said, prying his hands loose from her pant leg. "You're a big boy and I'm not used to carrying you." Starfleet fitness training didn't prepare her for walking to her quarters with a wriggling toddler in her arms.

Kathryn sat in the nearest chair and pulled the toddler onto her lap. "As soon as I rest a minute, I'll see what I can find you to eat."

"Nop?" His face lit with eagerness.

"We'll see." Kathryn grinned at his enthusiasm.

After standing and convincing Tepa to stay on the chair, Kathryn checked the replicator for nop. She found that the EMH had kept his promise. The replicator had some simple Lafrian food programmed in it, including what Tepa mentioned. Also, the Doctor had downloaded specifications for several articles of clothing.

After placing the replicated food--nop, some buttered bread, and a glass of juice--on the table, Kathryn called to Tepa, "Come, let's wash your hands and face."

The toddler was so enthralled with the sink and the abundance of water that Kathryn found it difficult to pull him away.

"Once you eat your dinner," Kathryn offered, "you can have a bath in that tub. Your food is waiting on the table."

Tepa grabbed her hand and pulled her back toward the table as fast as his short legs could go. He grinned as Kathryn lifted him onto the chair on which she'd placed a thick cushion.

"I'm new at this, Tepa," Kathryn told him as she put the bowl of nop in front of him. "Do you feed yourself?"

As if to demonstrate his answer to her question, Tepa grabbed the spoon in his fist and shoveled the oatmeal-like substance toward his face. He managed to get a reasonable amount of it into his mouth.

Kathryn lifted a piece of bread and offered it to him. "Eat some of this, too."

Tepa opened his mouth and leaned toward Kathryn. He took a big bite from the piece she held in her hand. While he chewed, he lifted his spoon, filled with nop, and offered her some.

Her first reaction was to refuse, but the enthusiastic look in Tepa's eyes stirred something elemental in Kathryn's heart. Unwilling to disappoint the boy, she took a small bite from the spoon.

"Yum," Kathryn responded as a taste reminiscent of bananas and pineapple burst on her tongue. "Thank you, Tepa."

Tepa lifted the spoon to offer her more.

"No, sweetie, the nop and the bread are for you." Kathryn slid the plate of bread closer to him. Lifting the small glass, she asked, "Do you want something to drink?"

Grasping the glass with both hands, Tepa was able to drink most of the juice, spilling only a little in the process. Once he finished with his drink, he ate more bread, dipping it a few times in the nop.

"Yum," he crowed, flashing a messy, pleased-with-himself grin.

Soon Kathryn noticed that he was no longer eating, but had begun to play with the food. "I think it's a good thing we waited to give you a bath until after you ate."

Tepa clapped his sticky hands together and proclaimed, "Tepa want water bath."

Kathryn chuckled. "I thought little boys didn't like baths."

Setting Tepa on his feet, she took his small sticky hand in hers. "Let's fill the tub and get your water bath going."

Kathryn led him into her bathroom, programmed the temperature and depth of the water, and started the flow. Tepa squealed with glee as he leaned over the edge of the tub to watch.

"Let's get you some clean clothes while the water's running." Kathryn pulled Tepa away from the bathtub. She didn't know what trouble he might get into if left alone by the tub.

"We'll come right back," she promised, stopping his protest.

After replicating everything Kathryn could think of that she might need for his bath, she undressed Tepa, fully expecting him to be as filthy under his dirty clothes as his face and hands had been. However, she found very little of that grime, and his diaper, though soiled, wasn't overly so. She wondered if these diapers had some special ability to contain messes. She wondered if the EMH would know and determined to ask him about it the next time she talked to him.

Setting Tepa's clothes aside for cleaning, Kathryn turned to see the boy leaning over the side of the tub, trying to reach the water and laughing.

"I think the water's ready for you," Kathryn said and smiled as she lifted the eager little boy into the tub. "There's no doubt that you're ready for it."

Thirty minutes later, a happy and cleaner Tepa stood on the bathmat in front of Kathryn. She toweled him dry while he squirmed and giggled. She could hardly believe how much water the boy had splashed on her. Her jacket lay on the floor where she had discarded it. It was the only part of her clothing that wasn't soaked.

Kathryn decided to dress Tepa in the living room, so she grabbed the clothes and picked up the boy and carried him out of the bathroom. It took several minutes to dress him. She'd just finished fastening his shirt when the door chime rang.

"Come in."

Samantha Wildman entered carrying a bundle. Naomi followed her mother in with her hands behind her back.

"Sam, Naomi!" Kathryn exclaimed from her position on the couch. "What a nice surprise! Please, come and sit down."

Tepa tried to climb onto Kathryn's lap when the visitors arrived. He seemed torn between shyness and curiosity. She didn't want his new clothes to get wet, so she sat him next to her on the couch.

"Tepa, you don't have to be afraid of Ensign Wildman, and you know Naomi," Kathryn coaxed. "Remember, you met Naomi earlier today."

"Hi Tepa," Naomi knelt in front of them. "We brought you some things. Mom has your bedding. I replicated a small Flotter for you. I have one just like it, only bigger." She handed the little boy the blue doll she'd been hiding behind her.

"Hi Omee." Tepa turned and smiled at Naomi. He squealed and pointed at the doll. "Blue!"

The others laughed and Naomi agreed, "Yes, Flotter is blue."

Naomi tried to hand the doll to Tepa. He touched it lightly but didn't take it. Gazing into Kathryn's eyes, he seemed to ask permission.

"You may have it, but say thank you to Naomi," Kathryn instructed.

Tepa grasped the doll and mumbled something they couldn't understand. Kathryn figured the translator couldn't pick up the toddler version of "thank you."

"Captain, I brought Tepa's things. Commander Chakotay said that they found his few belongings on the freighter. I cleaned everything since they were really dirty." Sam laid the bundle on the coffee table. "He slept on the floor on this blanket and pillow, and this little jacket and toy was on top of bedding. Poor little guy didn't have much."

Kathryn lifted the light brown stuffed toy from the top of the bedding. It had the face of a teddy bear, floppy ears of a rabbit, and a long furry tail. "Is this yours, Tepa?" she asked gently.

Grabbing the toy, Tepa hugged it close, all the while crooning, "Gar, my Gar."

He stopped and sniffed the stuffed animal. "Gar clean. Gar have bath?"

"Yes, Tepa," Sam answered. "Naomi and I gave him a special bath."

"Water?" he asked excitedly.

"Not with water. It was a special kind of bath just for Gar." Sam couldn't help but smile.

"Naomi, would you like to show Tepa the book you liked so much when you were little?" Kathryn asked. She'd read the book so often to a much younger Naomi that that the captain kept a copy in her quarters.

Ever the captain's eager assistant, Naomi offered to help him to the floor and lead Tepa to the bookshelf.

When the little boy demurred, Kathryn said, "I'm sure that Flotter and Gar will enjoy seeing the pictures." Without waiting for his response, Kathryn lifted him to the floor and watched as he held the toys in one arm and grabbed Naomi's offered hand. The pair quickly settled on the floor, their heads together over an open book.

Kathryn's heart swelled with love for the child. From deep within, the realization struck that she couldn't leave Tepa on Lafra. She had to find a way to keep him on Voyager. I could adopt him, she thought. Try as she might, she couldn't stifle the idea once it surfaced.

"Captain," Sam said, interrupting Kathryn's contemplation. "Are you okay?"

Kathryn smiled at Sam's concern. "I'm fine but, as you can see, I'm wet," she said as she pulled the drenched material of her shirt away from her body. "Would you mind watching Tepa for a few minutes? I need to change into dry clothes." She could see that Tepa was occupied with Naomi for the time being.

"Not at all, Captain." Sam chuckled and added, "May I suggest you wrap up in a large towel or bathrobe the next time you bathe him? I had to wear my biggest bathrobe for a long time with Naomi. It saved me from needing to change so often."

"That's good to know." Kathryn nodded at Samantha, then stood and left the room.

When Kathryn returned wearing a long-sleeved emerald-green tunic with matching leggings, Tepa looked up and grinned, "Pretty mama."

Kathryn sat down again next to Samantha. "I look a lot like his mother did," she explained.

Sam looked as if she wanted to ask a few questions, but thought better of it. Standing, she said, "If you will excuse us, Captain." She turned toward the children. "Naomi, you promised you would finish your homework if I let you come here first. It's time to go."

The sigh Naomi made was loud and long, but she got up and put the book away.

"Sam, before you go could I ask a favor of you and Naomi?" Kathryn asked quickly.

"Of course," Sam said, giving her captain her full attention.

"Would you allow Naomi to help me with Tepa in my office for a few days? It would be just until I can make other arrangements. She could bring her homework with her and be free to leave when Tepa takes a nap."

Kathryn watched as Naomi's eyes brightened with excitement. "Please, Mom? I would love to do it."

"If you think Naomi will be able to do the job, I have no problem with it," Samantha agreed. "I'll see if I still have some of toys left from when she was a toddler. It will be a big help."

Pleased relief flowed through Kathryn. "I really appreciate it, both of you. I'll see you, Naomi, tomorrow at 0800. Tepa, thank Naomi and Ensign Wildman for the doll and for bringing your things," she coaxed softly.

He smiled shyly and muttered something that might have been thank you, followed by, "Omee and Enen Wiman."

"You're welcome, Tepa," Naomi replied. "Good night, Tepa, Captain Janeway."

Once the door slid closed, Tepa turned to Kathryn. "Mama read book?"

Kathryn's heart warmed again with love for the boy. It was obvious that he thought she was his mother, and Kathryn had done nothing to correct him. She shoved aside a small pang of guilt. The more she spent time with Tepa the more she knew that she wouldn't let him go.

In that moment, she understood why some of the famous and "infamous" captains of history, ones such as James T. Kirk, bent and even broke the Prime Directive. There were many times in military history where common moral decency screamed for orders to be disobeyed. Tepa needed to be surrounded by people who would treat him humanely and love him. It was cruel to even consider any other option. However before she made a final decision on the matter, Kathryn wanted to discuss it with Chakotay. He could be trusted to see the situation with clarity.

When Tepa repeated his question, Kathryn smiled. "Go get the book and I'll read to you."

Ten minutes later, Tepa began to fidget. "Tepa read book to Gar and Fotter." He slipped off the couch and tugged the book from Kathryn's grasp.

"Okay," Kathryn replied. "You sit on the floor and read to your friends."

He grinned and nodded as he pulled the toys next to him. Opening the book on his lap, Tepa began to jabber on about each page. The story he told was filled with indecipherable words mixed with the actual story. Occasionally he glanced up at her to smile.

Kathryn leaned back to watch Tepa. Contentment filled her. Never before had she thought she'd enjoy just being with a child so much. There was only one other person in her life that she felt this comfortable with - Chakotay.

Scolding herself for the pointless sentimentality, Kathryn decided to review one of the status reports she'd been putting off, but before she could rise from her seat, the door chime rang.

"Come," Kathryn called out.

The door swooshed open to reveal Chakotay.

Tepa looked up. "Papa!"

Chakotay stood momentarily stunned at the sound of "Papa!" from the child. He sighed inwardly. If only Kathryn and I could have a family.

Noticing Chakotay's demeanor, Kathryn answered quickly, "Tepa, say hello to Chakotay."

"Hello, Chotay," Tepa tried to pronounce the name.

"Hello, Tepa." Chakotay smiled broadly at the toddler's version of his name, then he squatted down next to the boy. "I see you've met Flotter, but who's your other friend?" He pointed to the other floppy-eared toy.

Tepa grinned as he lifted the animal. "Gar, Gar is clean."

"That's good," Chakotay said as he winked at Kathryn as he reached for a pouch he'd brought with him. "Would you and Gar like some blocks?" He opened the bag and poured the colorful contents onto the floor.

Tepa's eyes widened with delighted surprise. "Look, Mama, Papa Chotay bring pretty blocks."

Chakotay opened his mouth to correct him but decided he liked it too much to do so.

"What do you say to Chakotay?" Kathryn prompted him, trying to gently keep Tepa from calling Chakotay, Papa.

Tepa thought for a few seconds, his brows furrowed. Then, with a big smile, he threw his arms around Chakotay's neck whispered into his ear.

"You're welcome, Tepa." Chakotay chuckled as he began to show the child how to stack the blocks.

As Kathryn gazed at the two on the floor, a joyous feeling of déjà vu flowed through her. She struggled to understand why she felt this had happened before. After a few seconds, she remembered a recurring dream, one that she rarely allowed to occupy her conscious mind. In the dream, they'd somehow circumvented the protocols, married, and had a child, one who looked very much like Tepa.

Maybe I'm asleep now. Maybe this is all in my mind. Fear that it might be the case gave her a jolt, but unlike when she dreamed and something frightened her, she didn't waken. She sighed with relief and then with longing. Enough wishful thinking, she scolded herself.

"Chakotay, would you like some tea?" Kathryn offered and began to rise.

Rising from the floor, Chakotay smiled. "You stay there. I'll get us both something." He ruffled Tepa's hair before crossing the room and replicating the hot drinks.

"Sit here," Kathryn said, patting the sofa after he handed her a cup of coffee. "I need to discuss something with you, concerning . . ." She nodded toward Tepa who was carefully setting one block upon another.

As soon as Chakotay sat down, Kathryn spoke in a hushed voice, "Did you read about his situation?"

"I scanned the captain's logs," Chakotay admitted.

"You'd think that I couldn't be surprised by what we find in the Delta Quadrant anymore, but this buying and selling of children, it makes me so angry!" Kathryn resisted to the urge to get up and pace.

Chakotay reached out his hand and gently covered her clenched fist. "If only the Prime Directive didn't prevent us from taking him and leaving this area of space," he mused. "Those on Lafra would never know."

"I'm not going to leave him on Lafra," Kathryn stated emphatically. She grasped her mug with both hands and took a bracing swallow.

Chakotay stared at her. "I don't understand."

"I'm thinking about adopting him." Kathryn stared down at Tepa, who continued to pile blocks around his stuffed toys. "This is what I want to discuss with you. I need your opinion and advice. What do you think?"

Chakotay tugged on his ear as he, too, watched the toddler play.

Kathryn leaned back against the sofa. She knew that Chakotay would be forthright in his opinion, even to the point of bluntness. It was only one of the many attributes she admired about her first officer. At times like these, she fought against her private desires as they tried to compel her to act them out.

A frustrated sigh escaped before she knew it.

"I'm sorry, Kathryn," Chakotay apologized quickly. "I was just trying to consider all the angles before I answered you."

"It's okay," Kathryn responded. "I wasn't trying to rush you. My mind just wandered."

After another moment of silence, Chakotay said, "I agree with you." He lowered his voice and turned toward her. "It would be inhumane to leave a child where he could be bought and sold. I know that there aren't any Starfleet regulations against a captain adopting. My only concern is that you might not have thought about the implications for you personally. Adopting a child isn't like getting a pet. You'll be a parent and that is a full-time job."

Kathryn felt insulted. How dare he imply that she couldn't handle parenthood? She opened her mouth to object.

Grinning as if he could read her thoughts, he held up his hand. "You asked for my input. Let me finish before you start to refute me."

Forcing herself to relax and listen to the rest of what Chakotay had to say, Kathryn nodded for him to continue and took another sip of her coffee.

"I have no doubt in the universe that you will make a wonderful mother." Chakotay nodded toward Tepa. "He obviously thinks so too. The crew will support you, just as we did when we took the Borg kids on board."

Chakotay stared down at his hands. After a moment's pause, he continued, "What I'm trying to say is, despite the changes being a parent will bring to you and whether or not you've considered all of the implications, I know you can and will handle it. All I want is the honor of helping you. Promise me when things get tough for you that you'll ask me for assistance. Don't let your pride get ahead of his needs and yours."

A slow smile graced Kathryn's face. She should have known that Chakotay would support her decision while wanting to help in any way he could. Reaching out, she covered one of his hands with hers. "It's a deal, Chakotay." Kathryn winked as she squeezed his hand. "You'll probably have to remind me a few times before I remember to ask for help."

"Don't I do that already?" Chakotay chuckled as he turned his hand over and laced his fingers with hers. "Seriously, Kathryn, I'll do anything to help you with Tepa, anything."

"Thank you, Chakotay," Kathryn sighed. Until she accepted his offer of help, she'd felt the full weight of responsibility for Tepa's welfare. As in so many other matters, she relaxed, knowing that Chakotay would share the load.

"Papa Chotay," Tepa piped up, "look at blocks."

Chakotay smiled and shook his head at Kathryn when she looked as if she was going to correct Tepa again.

Chakotay gave the boy his full attention. "Good job, Tepa."

Tepa beamed proudly as he surveyed his handiwork. "Gar likes blocks."

Both of the adults chuckled softly at the toddler's declaration.

"I had another objective when I came here," Chakotay confessed with a grin.

"Oh, you did?" Kathryn's eyes sparkled as she smiled at him.

"I wanted to escort the captain and our newest crew member to the mess hall for dinner."

"Tepa had something to eat about an hour ago," she explained. "And I'm not in uniform."

Tepa, obviously having heard part of the conversation, jumped to his feet, left the toys on the floor, and hurried to Kathryn. "Tepa eat?"

"Would you like to come with us to have some dinner?" Chakotay lifted the child onto his lap.

"Gar, too?" Tepa asked eagerly.

"If your mama says so," Chakotay answered, putting emphasis on Kathryn's new relationship with the boy.

Both males turned their hopeful smiles on her as if they had planned the move.

Kathryn's heart constricted and then swelled with emotion it couldn't contain. The two looked so much alike; the only real differences were their eye color, Chakotay's tattoo, and Tepa's Lafrian features - the tiny ridges that started at his earlobes and disappeared under his shirt on each of his shoulders.

"I'm still out of uniform," she protested weakly.

"You aren't on duty." Chakotay winked as he continued, "Besides I think you look lovely in green. Right, Tepa?"

"Mama pretty in green," Tepa agreed, nodding his head vigorously. He paused a second, then asked, "Eat now?"

"Okay, you two flatterers." Laughter tempered her scolding tone. "I hope you won't gang up on me too often."

When the three entered the crowded mess hall, all eyes turned on them, and the usual din of voices quieted. Not often did they see the captain out of uniform, though curiosity about the little boy motivated the perusal.

Walking to the counter, Kathryn greeted Neelix, "Good evening, Mr. Neelix."

"Good evening, Captain, Commander," Neelix returned her greeting with his usual enthusiasm. "And who is this young man?" The cook's question caused Tepa to hide his face against Chakotay's shoulder.

"This is Tepa," Kathryn introduced him. "Tepa, this is Mr. Neelix. He cooks most of our food."

The boy's face lit with interest at the mention of food. "Tepa want food!" he declared.

"Well, you have come to the right place." Neelix chuckled. "What would you all like?"

"I'll have a little of tonight's special, but I think that Tepa would enjoy something mild," Kathryn answered.

"Of course and I think I have just the thing," Neelix enthused. "Several of the crew asked for 'comfort food', and Mr. Paris explained that there is nothing more comforting than macaroni and cheese." The cook leaned closer to whisper, "He made me promise not to change the spices. Apparently, this kind of 'comfort food' must be bland."

The captain only smiled as the short Talaxian filled plates for them and a glass of milk for Tepa. All while he chatted on in his usual friendly and verbose manner. Neelix helped carry one of the trays since Tepa refused to relinquish his place in Chakotay's arms.

Once they reached a table and were seated, Neelix hurried back to his kitchen and quickly returned with a deep, flat-bottomed pot and a large towel. "Young Tepa can use this to sit on," Neelix explained as he placed the kettle on a chair. Handing the towel to the captain, he continued, "And this will keep his clothes clean."

Kathryn watched as she watched Chakotay set the child on the chair prepared for him. "Tell Mr. Neelix, thank you," she instructed.

Grinning as Chakotay tied two corners of the towel around little boy's neck in a makeshift bib, Tepa said, "Tank you, Mr. Neenix."

"You're welcome, Tepa," Neelix answered with a chuckle in his voice. Turning to the adults, he said, "I have work to do. Enjoy your dinner."

As the three started to eat, the crowd of diners resumed their previous conversations.

"Yum!" Tepa crowed as he tasted his first bite of macaroni and cheese. When he lifted his second spoonful from his plate, he paused and offered it to Chakotay.

"Thank you, First," Chakotay smiled as he shook his head. "You eat your food. I have mine."

Kathryn wondered at the name Chakotay had just used. However, she dismissed the thoughts for another time and a more private setting.

The toddler quickly looked over the full plates of both adults before he shoveled the cheesy bite into his mouth, grinning all the while. After a few more spoonfuls, he reached for his milk and took a long swallow.

Chakotay had to keep Tepa from spilling his half-full cup when the little boy reached for a bowl of vanilla pudding Neelix had added to the tray.

Both Kathryn and Chakotay stifled laughter when, after taking a taste of the pudding, Tepa made a face of disgust. He pushed the bowl away and cried, "Not yum!"

"You don't like pudding either?" Chakotay asked as he handed Tepa his milk cup. "Here, drink some milk. That will wash away the taste."

Tepa eagerly finished the rest of his milk and smiled as he set the empty cup on the tray.

"Would you like some of my dessert?" Chakotay lifted a plate full of various sliced fruit.

Tepa eyed the proffered food for a moment before he nodded enthusiastically.

Chakotay slid several pieces of fruit onto an empty dish. He smiled as he watched Tepa's first tenuous bite of a purple plum. The child's grin of approval lit up the room.

In a lowered voice, Kathryn said, "He certainly has a mind of his own."

"I think that goes with the age," Chakotay answered before popping a bit of Nagarian apple into his own mouth.

Kathryn's idea as to the source of Tepa's single mindedness was curtailed by Tom Paris' voice.

"So this is our visitor," Paris stated as he grinned down at the boy.

"Cute kid," B'Elanna said, her hand clasped in the pilot's.

"Yes, this is Tepa." Kathryn's smile brightened with affection. "Tepa," she interrupted the boy's eating. "Say hello to Lieutenants Paris and Torres."

Although he leaned a bit toward Kathryn, Tepa looked up at the standing pair. "Hello."

For a long while, the boy watched in silence as the adults talked. Suddenly he spoke again. "Torres pretty."

He looked confused when the four adults laughed, but after a second, he joined in with his own infectious giggle.

Tom wiped at his eyes and leaned close to Tepa. In a stage whisper, the pilot said, "Yeah, she's pretty, but she's off limits to you, kid. She's my wife."

The little boy's brow knitted again in puzzlement, but Chakotay's smile made Tepa laugh again. He pointed at B'Elanna and nodded. "Pretty wife."

B'Elanna tousled Tepa's curls. "You're a charmer, that's for sure." She turned to Tom and batted her eyes. "Let's get some food. It's hungry work being so pretty."

Soon, when Tepa became restless, Kathryn decided to head back to her quarters. "I think that someone may be tiring," She told Chakotay as he lifted the slightly out-of-sorts little boy into his arms.

"Is Gar ready for bed?" Chakotay asked Tepa neutrally.

Tepa sighed and rested his cheek on Chakotay's shoulder. "Gar sleepy. I not want bed."

Smiling over Tepa's dark head, Chakotay winked at Kathryn as he answered, "When we get back, I think it would be a good idea if you got ready for bed and lay down with Gar. He might want you to be with him when he sleeps."

"Just when Gar sleeps." Tepa's sleepy sigh was deeper this time.

Back in Kathryn's quarters, the two adults worked as a team to get Tepa ready for bed and a bed ready for him.

Chakotay finished unfolding the cot. "I think this will work for now." He pulled cushions for the sofa and set them on the floor next to each side of the cot. "These are just in case he hasn't slept on a cot before. I don't want him to hurt himself if he rolls off during the night. "Tomorrow, I'll make sure he has a proper bed." Chakotay straightened to look at his work.

"I don't know where to put him. He might get scared if he wakes in a room by himself," Kathryn worried out loud as she surveyed the little bed next to her bedroom door.

"Just leave your door open," Chakotay advised. "He'll find you easily. First is pretty self-reliant."

Kathryn looked at Chakotay in surprise. He'd used that nickname again. She was about to ask him about it when Tepa yawned loud and long. "Okay, Tepa, it's time for Gar to climb into to bed." She guided the boy to the cot and settled him and his two toys under the covers.

Leaning down to kiss Tepa, Kathryn smiled as he wrapped both of his arms around her neck. "Sleep sweet," she whispered.

"Papa Chotay, hug?" Tepa's voice slurred with sleep.

Chakotay knelt beside the cot and pulled the child into his arms. Almost before the hug was finished, Tepa fell into deep slumber.

"Wow," Chakotay whispered past the thick lump in his throat. He coughed and swallowed to clear the obstruction. "He sure is something, isn't he?"

"Yes." Kathryn tugged at his arm. "Let's talk for a few minutes."

Since Kathryn sat on the only cushion left on the couch, Chakotay pulled a chair close. They sat for a few moments watching the toddler sleep peacefully.

"Why did you call him First?" Kathryn broke the silence.

Chakotay's color deepened and he tugged at his ear. "Just a bit of fancy, I guess. Tepa sounds like the word 'first' in my native tongue. My father often called me First or rather Tépa since I was his first son. When I reached the age of ten I was no longer considered a child so the nickname was retired."

"How odd that his name would sound like that nickname of yours," Kathryn said absently as she continued to stare at Tepa. She watched him suckle lightly on his thumb as he burrowed deeper into the blankets.

Pulling her attention away from the sleeping child, Kathryn turned toward Chakotay. "From what I've read of the Lafrian society and their customs regarding orphans, we're going to need to be prepared if we have to deal with them."

They spent the next hour discussing the merits of various courses of action.

Kathryn yawned as she reached the turbolift doors. She'd slept well until 0400 when Tepa crawled, whimpering, into her bed. He'd dreamt that she was gone, and despite her reassurances that she wasn't going anywhere, he'd clung to her, patting her cheek.

She tried briefly to settle him back on the cot and even pulled it into her room, but he wouldn't have it. When Tepa started to cry for Papa Chotay, she gave up and allowed him to stay with her. The child's warm, squirming body kept her awake until she dropped into a brief nap before her wake-up call.

Once they reached the bridge Tepa stared wide-eyed around the room while holding tightly to her leg as Kathryn listened to gamma shift's reports. Finished with that duty, she walked Tepa to her ready room. Promptly at 0800, the outside door chime sounded and at her welcome, Naomi entered, followed by her mother carrying a container.

"Captain's Assistant Wildman, reporting for duty," Naomi stated, her voice and stance at full attention.

"At ease, Naomi." Kathryn smiled down at the girl before looking at Sam. "Good morning to you both. And thanks again for your help."

Sam set the container on the steps that led to the sitting area. "We found several things that Naomi is sure will entertain Tepa this morning. I packed a lunch for them both. I didn't know if you would have time to go to the mess hall today."

"Thank you so much," Kathryn replied. "I can see I have a lot to learn about caring for children."

"Don't worry, Captain," Sam reassured her while grinning knowingly. "I have no doubt you'll do fine."

While the two adults stood talking, Tepa overcame his shyness and moved to inspect the container. Naomi watched him, unsure how to proceed.

Kathryn glanced from Naomi to Tepa. She lifted her voice enough to capture his attention. "Tepa, Naomi is in charge this morning. I'll be busy working here." She pointed to her desk. "So you are to listen and do what she says. Do you understand?"

Tepa gazed up at Kathryn and nodded, his eyes serious before they swept back to the box of toys and Naomi standing near it. "Yes, Mama, Tepa listen and do."

Samantha shot a quick glance at her captain to see her reaction to the little boy's greeting. As before as Janeway didn't seem to mind, in fact she looked to encourage it. Wildman tried to puzzle out the reason, the captain was treating this child so differently. Could it be because of his outstanding resemblance to Chakotay?

"Is something wrong, Ensign?" Janeway asked when she noticed the look on Sam's face.

"No, Captain," she responded, deciding to mind her own business.

After Ensign Wildman left, Kathryn stood for a moment watching the two children kneeling together as Naomi showed Tepa the toys. He seemed to notice her scrutiny because he stood and walked to her.

"Mama," Tepa said, his tone hesitant. "Not go away again. Gar and Tepa promise listen and do."

Tears stung the back of her throat as she squatted in front of Tepa and drew him into her arms. "Sometimes I have to be gone for while, but if I go, it'll never be because you didn't listen or do the right things. Okay?"

Tepa stared intently into her eyes. He sighed deeply, in and out. "Lady only let me see you a little. Tepa alone lots of time."

"Lady?" Kathryn asked. "What lady?"

He shook his head violently. "No talk about lady. She take you away again." He nestled back into her arms, held tightly to her neck, and sobbed quietly.

"It's okay, Tepa," Kathryn soothed. "We won't talk about the lady. It's time to play with Naomi. She's brought lots of toys to share with you."

"Okay," he sniffed. Pulling out of Kathryn's arms, Tepa swiped at his tear-stained face with the back of his hand.

Kathryn grabbed some tissues and wiped his nose and eyes before giving him a drink of water. Her mind raced, trying to understand what Tepa might mean by the "lady." Her heart ached at the shadows in his wide eyes.

Suddenly Kathryn remembered how her own mom had helped to banish her tears when she was a child. Lifting the boy up, she twirled in a tight circle for a couple seconds before she stopped and nuzzled her lips to his neck and blew noisily against his throat.

The sudden movement and the noise caused Tepa to squeal and giggle with delight while Naomi watched with a delighted grin on her face. When he begged for more, Kathryn set him on the floor again. "Maybe later, sweetie. It's time for me to work and you to play with Naomi."

His eyes bright with renewed happiness, Tepa hurried to join Naomi again.

Even though her morning hadn't been free of distractions from Tepa and, indirectly, from Naomi, Kathryn managed to accomplish more than she'd expected. She glanced up at the children who were seated on the floor in the middle of the sitting platform chatting quietly while eating their lunch.

Samantha Wildman had even packed something for the captain, as Naomi told her when she put the turkey sandwich on Kathryn's desk. The girl even brought her a fresh cup of coffee from the replicator before returning to the sitting area and Tepa.

Kathryn pondered the changes that would take place - which were already taking place - in her life because of Tepa. A smile curved her lips as she took a bite of her sandwich. The love that continued to grow in her heart for the small boy amazed her. She couldn't let him go, would everything necessary to keep him.

With a sudden jolt, a question pierced though her reflection. Why wasn't she willing to do the same for Chakotay? Rarely did she admit the strength of her feelings for her first officer, but now with her defenses down because of Tepa, she was forced to consider what she'd fought so hard to conceal even from herself.

Was it possible that she'd been wrong to deny what she felt for Chakotay? Oh, maybe not at first. She'd been engaged to Mark, in love with Mark, or so she thought. Now being honest with herself for perhaps the first time in years, she could examine her feelings for both men.

The emotions she experienced for Mark were pleasant, warm, and completely safe. He never asked for more than she wanted to give. If Voyager hadn't been pulled into the Delta Quadrant, she probably would be comfortably and contentedly married to a man who wouldn't challenge her.

Kathryn tried to imagine not knowing Chakotay and his crew, tried to view her life without experiencing the last seven years. Her heart clenched in pain at the thought. No arguments about the crew or missions, no dinners in her quarters, no knowing looks between them when Tom teased Harry or Tuvok, no debriefing after a particularly difficult away mission, no friendship with a man she'd been sent to capture and who instead had captured her heart. There would be nothing but years and years of boring calm.

However, Voyager had been pulled into the Delta Quadrant along with Chakotay's ship. The memories that filled her heart and mind weren't necessarily calm or comfortable, but Kathryn cherished them. She wondered what come next, what the next memory in her vast store might be.

A small whining voice interrupted her musings. Kathryn glanced up to find Tepa rubbing at his eyes and yawning. He fussed at Naomi's suggestion that she help him wash up.

"No, Tepa wash!" he demanded petulantly, stomping his tiny foot.

Kathryn could read the signs of tiredness in the little boy. She moved to the base of the sitting platform. "Tepa, that's not the way to speak to a friend. Tell Naomi that you're sorry."

Tepa pouted for a moment. "Tepa can wash."

"Yes, you can," Kathryn agreed while fighting a smile. He looked so cute with his face scrunched up in an irritated frown. "But you didn't ask nicely, and you hurt Naomi's feelings. She was only trying to help."

The toddler seemed to puzzle over what Kathryn said. Finally he sighed, "Sorry, Omee."

"It's okay, Tepa." Naomi smiled as she reached out her hand to the boy. "Would you like me to turn on the water for you? So you can wash?"

"Yes," he said. Tepa took Naomi's hand and let her guide him to the bathroom.

As Tepa splashed in the sink, Kathryn spoke to Naomi. "He needs a nap. I'll see if he needs changing. Then you can settle him down on the sofa with his Gar and read to him. I think he'll fall asleep quickly."

In less than ten minutes, Kathryn prediction became fact. The little boy, thumb in his mouth, lay soundly asleep.

Naomi walked to Kathryn's desk. In a low whisper, she asked, "Should I stay while he sleeps?"

"No." Kathryn laid a hand lightly on Naomi's shoulder as she replied, "I'll be here and I promised your mother that you'd have the afternoons free. You're dismissed, and thank you for your assistance."

Not long after Naomi left the ready room, the Doctor contacted Janeway.

With her back to Tepa and her voice low, Kathryn answered, "What is it, Doctor?"

"I need to speak to you." He paused for a few beats before continuing. "It concerns the boy."

Immediately on alert, Kathryn straightened in her chair. "What's wrong? Is he all right?"

"I would rather speak with you in private, as soon as you have time."

Kathryn rubbed her hands over her face, as if to wipe away the anxiety. "I'll be there in ten minutes, Doctor."

Severing the connection, she quickly tapped her commbadge to reengage it. "Commander Chakotay, my office, now." Getting to her feet, she moved straight to the platform, staring at the sleeping toddler. She forced the fear from her mind. Soon enough she would have her answers. No need to borrow trouble.

"Come," Kathryn called out quietly at the chime. She met Chakotay in the center of the room.

One look at the worry on Kathryn's face made Chakotay's heart jump. "Tepa," he choked out, "Is he okay?" He searched the room swiftly before sighting the boy's sleeping form.

"He's just napping." Kathryn reached for Chakotay's hand, needing the contact. "The Doctor asked me to come to sickbay. He wants to talk about Tepa in person."

Chakotay wrapped Kathryn's small hand in both of his and moved closer to her, as if to add his strength to hers against an unseen enemy. "I'll go with you."

As much as she wanted him with her, Kathryn knew she couldn't. She felt better now that he was there, like she could face whatever came. Lifting her eyes, she gazed into his which were dark with concern.

What would it be like to be able to step into his arms and let go of her control just for a moment? The thought that rose unbidden to her mind shocked her into awareness of how close they were and how their hands were so tightly entwined.

Abruptly she pulled her hand free and stepped away. "No," she said with a sharp exhale. "I need you to stay here with Tepa while I go. I sent Naomi home and promised that her afternoons would be free, but Tepa had a nightmare or something last night. He's afraid I'll 'go away again.' If you're here when he wakes up, you can reassure him I'll be back."

"Of course," Chakotay agreed warmly.

Chakotay paused for a moment as Kathryn moved to the outer door of her office. "Kathryn," he called out softly.

Glancing over her shoulder, Kathryn questioned, cocking her head, "Yes?"

"You'll let me know what the Doc has to say?"

Kathryn nodded once and left the room.

When Kathryn arrived in sickbay, the place was empty but for the Doctor who sat studying his computer screen. He stood when she moved into his office. He offered her a chair that he'd moved close enough for her to see what he was surveying. However, the monitor was turned so that the data was hidden from her view.

"Before I explain the outcome of my tests, I want you to know that I've examined this data and rerun the analysis three times. The results remain the same. There is no mistake in my findings." His hand rested on the top of his monitor as if reluctant to turn the screen toward her.

"Doctor, I trust your abilities, especially in the area of research and diagnosis." Kathryn swallowed against the fear that threatened to choke her. "If there is something wrong with Tepa, I'm sure you will do all you can to help him."

The expression on the Doctor's face softened when he followed her train of thought. "Captain, you don't have to worry. Tepa's a healthy little boy."

"He's not sick?" The relief that flooded over Kathryn weakened her and made her glad that she was already seated. "Then why the rush to talk to me?"

The doctor slowly moved the screen so that she could view the data. When she didn't seem to understand, he decided to walk her through his process.

"After my initial scans, which gave no indication of problems other than those we discussed yesterday afternoon, I noticed something vaguely familiar about one of the readouts."

He rubbed his chin as he scrolled through the data on screen until he came to the one he wanted. "Right here, that faint blur."

Kathryn felt a tingle of awareness, but she merely said, "Go ahead."

"I'd seen that once before when our crew had unknowingly become lab rats to those 'scientists'. Just like that time, I found a microscopic, slightly out-of-phase tag on a base pair sequence of his DNA samples. I, also, found evidence of genetic tampering. His DNA has been manipulated. Some of those changes made fairly minor adjustments of his physical attributes, but more major ones include the falsifying of his actual parentage. He isn't Lafrian. He's human."

"I don't understand." Kathryn's face showed her bewilderment. "How can he be human and have parents who are from Lafra?"

"I can't tell you how." He took a deep holographic breath. "I am, however, able to tell you who his real parents are."

As she waited for the Doctor to continue, Kathryn held her breath even though she already knew the answer.

"You are his mother and Commander Chakotay is his father," he whispered the words as if to soften the blow.

"That's impossible," she protested. "We never... How could it be?"

The Doctor shook his head. "I don't have any answers for you. As I told you, I have run the tests three times. They all show without a doubt that you and the commander are Tepa's parents."

For several thundering seconds, Kathryn sat, not moving as the truth settled in. At first, her mind swam so much she nearly bent to put her head between her knees. Next, a joy never known to her before swamped her. Clasping her hands together, knuckles white while tears stung her eyes, she blinked rapidly and smiled. She was a mother; her heart had known long before her mind understood. Her son, her little boy lay sleeping in her office while his father, his papa watched over him.

Kathryn jumped to her feet. She couldn't wait one minute longer to see them both. "I need to think about this and I'll likely have more questions, but I have to see Chakotay. He must be told."

"I understand, Captain." The Doctor smiled, recognizing that his news thrilled the captain, not traumatized her. "Congratulations to you both."

Her eyes filled again with more joyous tears. "Thank you, Doctor. It's a lot to take in, but 'congratulations' is the perfect thing to say."

Nearly running through the corridors and to the lift that would take her back to the bridge, Kathryn ignored everyone and everything around her. She didn't notice the crew member's questioning looks as she passed them. Most of them merely shrugged, with some whispering amongst themselves, wondering if their newest passenger was the cause of the captain's atypical behavior.

When she finally stood breathless outside her office, she was suddenly afraid to take the final step inside. What if Chakotay wasn't happy about the news? What if he turned away from them both?

"No!" she said out loud, startling herself with the exclamation. Once Chakotay had promised her that she wasn't alone. He'd kept that promise countless times, even when their opinions were in opposition. He already cared for Tepa. Somehow they would work together as his parents.

Her heart rate returned to normal, as did her breathing. Kathryn keyed in her code and walked through the opening door. She smiled briefly as Chakotay put down the PADD he'd been reading, rose from the chair on the platform and joined her by her desk.

Chakotay's gaze swept over her face and found evidence of tears. His heart froze with fear and his eyes reflected that fright.

Kathryn's smile widened even as tears filled her eyes again. She recognized the course his thoughts were taking. Resting her hand on his forearm, she whispered, "He's fine, Chakotay. In fact, he's perfect. He comes from good stock."

He started to speak, but Kathryn slipped her hand down his arm to take his. Tugging him toward where Tepa slept. She kissed the tips of her fingers and then touched the child's forehead.

"I've loved him since he first threw himself into my arms yesterday," Kathryn sighed. She looked up at her first officer. "He's beautiful, just like his father."

Chakotay glanced quickly back to her face. Her words seemed far so personal, far so intimate. He held her gaze while he asked, "What are you trying to say, Kathryn?"

"He's our child, Chakotay," she said, her voice husky with emotion, and in a few short sentences, Kathryn relayed everything the Doctor said.

At first because his thoughts and emotions were legion, Chakotay's mind couldn't settle on a single one. He merely stared at her, examining her face, taking in her look of utter joy.

Slowly, as if awakening from a dream, the truth, the wonderful knowledge, that he had a son and shared him with Kathryn struck him with such force that he stumbled back into a chair.

"We have a son. Tepa is our child," Chakotay said, his voice deepened with awe. He dropped his face into his hands.

When he didn't lift his head, Kathryn began to worry. She watched him in silence for several moments, willing him to tell her that he was as happy as she was.

Finally she couldn't keep quiet a single second longer. "Say something, Chakotay. Tell me what you're thinking. I know this is all so sudden, but I thought . . ."

Chakotay dropped his hands and lifted his eyes to hers. As he stood and moved closer to her, his face glowed with pleasure, his smile wider than she'd ever seen. "If Tepa weren't sleeping, I'd whoop so loud they'd hear me on deck 15." Grinning, he took a huge gulp of air. "We have a son," he forced out the words through a throat constricted with wonder.

"We have a son," Kathryn repeated in the same reverent tone. "Now we have to decide how to proceed."

However, for several minutes they both simply stared in awe at the little boy as he slept, unaware of their adoring scrutiny.

Kathryn moved to her replicator with the intention of ordering them both something to drink when she heard Ensign Kim hail her.

"Ops to Captain Janeway," Harry spoke in his official bridge tone.

After a quick glance back at Tepa to assure her he hadn't awakened, Janeway answered, "Go ahead."

"I've been going through the freighter captain's navigational logs. I've found some odd data I think you'll want to see."

"Come to my office," the captain ordered.

Motioning for Chakotay to join her, the captain walked to the door and stopped a few feet away to meet Harry before he chimed for entry.

After Harry entered, Janeway spoke. "Let's keep our voices down." Then she ordered, "Report."

"As I told you, I've been looking through the navigational logs. I decided to do so after I programmed the route to Lafra as you ordered."

Janeway nodded for him to continue.

"That was when I realized how far out of its way the ship had travelled. In fact, if the freighter captain had set a normal course from RT4 to Lafra, we'd never have met up with him." Harry rubbed his chin. "He'd been travelling a straight line to his home planet. According to the ship's data, he set the ship on auto just before he died. The ship would've arrived at Lafra within seven days of his death. At first I thought the ship's navigation system had run into ion storms or some other ships that caused the change in course, something that would bring it to this part of space, but there was nothing of the kind on its sensors. I looked a little closer and found this." Kim lifted a PADD and showed the readout to his commanding officers.

Harry waited while Janeway and Chakotay finished reading. When they looked up, he asked, "Did you notice when the last course change was made? I translated the time to ours."

"Five days ago," Chakotay answered with puzzlement evident in his voice.

"How is that possible?" Janeway inquired. "The captain died several days before that. Are you sure of your time conversion?"

"Yes, Captain," Harry said, his voice tighter. "I checked my calculations thoroughly."

Kathryn rubbed her temples to ease away the tension that tried to gather there. "Do you have a plausible explanation, Mr. Kim?"

"Someone besides the freighter captain changed the coordinates," Harry said sheepishly, nodding toward Tepa's sleeping form. "And I doubt it was that little guy."

Kathryn smiled. "I agree with you." She turned to Chakotay. "I think I know who's behind this. Tepa mentioned seeing a 'lady.' I want to have Voyager and the freighter searched for a stowaway."

"I'm following you, Captain." Chakotay nodded. "Don't use the comm system, Harry. Go to astrometrics. Have Seven meet us in sickbay. I'll explain when you both get there."

"Aye, Commander." Harry left to follow his orders.

Chakotay laid a hand on Kathryn's shoulder. "No matter what," he said with his voice low and forceful. "We'll take care of Tepa, of our son. We'll find the woman."

"That won't be necessary, Commander." A soft voice sounded behind them.

At the sound, both Kathryn and Chakotay tensed and spun around to see a woman near the door, obviously one of the scientists who'd once experimented on Voyager's crew. Her skin was pale and her face drawn, with a sad smile on it.

Chakotay pushed Kathryn behind him and tried to block the woman's view of Tepa as well. "What are you doing in here?"

As Kathryn struggled to see her, the woman coughed and cleared her throat. "It has been years since I have talked to an adult of any species. I rarely spoke to Tepa. He was too frightened of me. I am not sure why."

She sighed heavily and rubbed her face. "I am sorry. You may call me Eti. I would like to sit down, if I may. My story is a long one, and I am not well."

Janeway nodded to Chakotay who warily retrieved the desk chair and brought it for Eti to sit in.

Wearily Eti slumped into the chair and took several deep breaths. "Thank you. I do not think I could have stood up much longer."

Noticing the frailty of the older woman, Kathryn lost some of her anger. "I'm surprised that you're unwell. Your leader told me that science had extended your people's life and improved your health."

"But at what cost?" Eti snorted then waved her hand dismissively. "However, I do not wish to discuss the ethics of our science at the moment. I know you want an explanation which I am ready to give."

"By all means, go ahead." Kathryn sat on the edge of her desk, facing Eti with Chakotay taking his usual post next to his captain.

"I have been a reproduction scientist for more etoms than I want to think about. When we first encountered your ship, I was given the usual orders, which were to harvest reproductive material, either ovum and sperm or DNA, so as to procreate examples of any species new to us. Because of my seniority and rank in my field, my overseers left me to my tasks unmonitored."

Eti began to cough again. "Water please," she croaked through the spasms.

Chakotay after receiving the captain's nod, moved to bring her a glass of water.

"Thank you," Eti said gratefully after she drank deep and long.

Eti glanced up, catching the captain looking down on her unsympathetically. Sighing she continued, "Without going into detail right now, I will tell you that I, along with a group of others of my people became tired of our species-centered experimentation. Our group formed with the intention of stopping the wholesale use of other peoples for our selfish benefit. I had no plans to obey my usual orders this time. I was going to make it look like I was fulfilling our directives, but my assistant, the overcaptain's lover, began the harvest before I could falsify records."

After fighting her battle in her mind between the anger she still harbored from being the subject of the "scientist's" experiments and the budding sympathy for the woman whose principles had led to her illness, Kathryn was unable to stay still for a moment longer, she moved to pace the area from her desk to the seating platform and back again. She turned again to the fragile looking woman, finally giving in to the tug of empathy.

Eti fell silent at Kathryn's abrupt movement. She rubbed away the sheen of sweat from her forehead. Guilt and regret rolled in her belly. She would have to live and die with the blame. At least she had done one thing right.

"Captain," Chakotay couldn't no longer deny his feelings compassion for the obviously gravely ill woman. He entreated, gently. "Please let Eti finish."

Kathryn nodded and leaned against her desk once more.

"Per our set procedure, we identify our subjects by hierarchy. Harvest is made in the order, from the top down. Once I discovered my eager assistant's actions, I sent her to help another scientist aboard Voyager." Eti sipped more water. "She only had time to begin the reproduction process once. Tepa was the result. I falsified the records to show that the other outcomes, which were faked as I told you, had failed. I was given orders to take my specimens back to our home world."

Looking up, Eti held Janeway's gaze. "You and your crew found the others and dispatched them. My deception turned out to be unnecessary. Unnecessary because from what I have been able to discover from the few communications I received, our world is in uproar because of what happened between Voyager and our expedition. All scientific forays were recalled, and all the experiments cancelled until the matter of our type of experimentation could be discussed and a compromise made. I made my decision. I put the embryo in stasis, but I did not return home."

Eti took a deep breath. "Cancelling was merely a fancy way of saying 'destroy the evidence.' I could not bring myself to obey that order. That is another reason I didn't go back. I thought it would be better for the child if he was born to parents who wanted him. After searching for quite a while, I found a Lafrian couple who most resembled the two of you and implanted the embryo in the female. It was easy for me to alter his DNA and appearance enough for no one to be the wiser."

"You kept an eye on him ever since?" Chakotay asked.

"I suppose I should have come back to Voyager," Eti mused to herself, ignoring his question. "It was cowardly of me not to, but I was in communication with alpha lab and heard the screams of my fellow scientists when you pushed through that pulsar. I was not sure you would listen to me."

The scientist glanced toward the upper level and sighed out a whisper, "I should have been braver." Eti sat straighter and continued, "But to answer your question, Commander, I did keep watch on Tepa. I even secretly worked on his foster parents to pick out his name. The word is close to a Lafrian one, so it was easy to do."

At Chakotay's questioning look, Eti replied, "I had plenty of time to read up on all things Voyager, including your heritage, Commander."

Kathryn interrupted, "Are you the one who changed the freighter's course after the captain's death?"

Eti nodded. "I know the fate of an orphan on Lafra. Because Tepa's Lafrian parents had no kin, I thought it was time to unite him with his biological parents with whom he should have been all along. My ship's propulsion needs repair beyond my skill, so I couldn't merely bring him to you after the mining accident that killed them both. I projected a holo-matrix of you both into the area of the freighter where Tepa was kept which is why he recognized you so easily. The freighter's captain did little but eat and drink. He only checked on Tepa twice a day when he brought food and changed him.

"I used to the holograms to care for the child so that he would know you. I would have liked to leave them with him constantly when the captain was alive, but the security system on the ship swept through several times a day, so I had to keep the visits brief.

"I adjusted the course of the ship several times, making subtle shifts to bring his ship closer to Voyager. The old sky sailor was drunk so much of the time he didn't seem to notice the changes. From what I could ascertain, he finally drank himself to death."

Lifting her gaze to Kathryn's, Eti said, "I have no words to express how sorry I am. In fact, I fear that you will never forgive me. However, I know that you love that little boy. I have watched you. I am sorry for that too, but I needed to be sure of his care before I..."

Swallowing back another cough, Eti finished off the water and hand the glass to Chakotay. "You are already good parents. I have no doubt that Tepa will thrive here and have a far better life than on that mining colony."

"Kim to Commander Chakotay," Harry's voice interrupted the conversation.

"Go ahead, Harry," Chakotay answered.

"Seven and I are in sickbay per your orders, sir."

Chakotay started and then smiled. "Return to your duties."


"Do as you're told, Ensign," Chakotay commanded.

"Yes sir, Kim out."

When Chakotay refocused his attention on the alien, he watched what little color she had left drain away as she slumped down. He caught her before she reached the floor.

Eti protested, barely above a whisper, "So much to say. Must not...can't stop now."

"Emergency transport to sickbay," Kathryn barked into her communicator. "Commander Chakotay has the patient. Beam them both."

As they dematerialized, Janeway contacted the Doctor. "I've sent you a new patient."

"Yes, Captain," the Doctor agreed. "She just arrived. I must see to her now. Sickbay out."

Kathryn moved up to the side of the sofa, again watching her son sleep. She fingered his soft black curls, wanting to scoop him into her arms. How was it possible to care so much for Tepa in such a short period of time?

She shook her head, reminding herself she that was still on duty. As much as she wanted to be there to see how Eti was faring and to hear the rest of what she had to say, Kathryn had to stay. Besides, Tepa needed her too.

Forcing herself to walk back to her desk, Kathryn sat and tried to read the latest status report. She couldn't focus properly. All she could think about was the shock and the joy of this new information. Tepa was her flesh and blood, hers and Chakotay's. How would they manage to care for him on Voyager? It might be difficult, but they together would work it out.

She loved Tepa so much. What if Eti hadn't brought the child to them? What if he'd had to live his life as a slave? "No!" Kathryn cried out loud against the very thought and then quickly covered her mouth as Tepa whimpered. She sat still, hoping he wouldn't awake.

However, the little boy sat up and frantically scanned the room as he called for her. "Mama?"

When he saw her, he launched himself off the sofa and down the steps, his arms open wide. "Tepa thought Mama gone again."

Kathryn got to her feet and lifted him into a hug. "I'm here, sweetie. I'm here."

"Where Papa?" Tepa asked after giving her cheeks several noisy kisses.

"Your papa is working," Kathryn told him as she sat at her desk. She caressed his sleep-wrinkled cheek. "Just as I should be. We're going to have to come up with someone to watch you when I have to work."

"Omee?" Tepa stared unblinkingly into her eyes.

Kathryn smiled at him. She hadn't realized that she'd spoken the last part out loud. "I'm sure that Naomi will be on the list."

After changing Tepa's diaper and setting him down with his toys and a cookie, Kathryn went back to read the reports at her desk. She succeeded in finishing two by the time Chakotay chimed for entrance.

Tepa squealed with delight and ran to hug Chakotay's legs. "Papa! Tepa ate cookie and played. Mama worked."

Chakotay tossed the little boy into the air, eliciting another squeal, before he hugged and kissed Tepa. "You've been busy."

Turning his attention to Kathryn, Chakotay said, "Eti is stable but unconscious. The doctor says she's gravely ill."

"Papa?" Tepa interrupted, putting his tiny hand on Chakotay's cheek so as to bring his father's attention back to him. "Play blocks?"

Kathryn's heart warmed as she watched Chakotay smile at Tepa. She could almost feel the vibration of his chuckle as he answered the child. "I'm still on duty. We'll have to wait for blocks until I'm finished."

Though Tepa's face puckered into a frowning pout, he didn't speak. He merely laid his cheek on Chakotay's shoulder for a moment, then, lifting his head again, he sighed, "Yes, Papa."

"Good boy," Chakotay praised Tepa, setting him on his feet. "Go play with Gar while I talk to your mama."

As Tepa toddled off to do his bidding, Chakotay moved closer to Kathryn. "Harry was leaving sickbay when we arrived. He recognized Eti as one of the scientists. I didn't tell him who Tepa really is, but I did say that she had been watching him since the freighter captain's death."

"I suppose we'll have to tell the crew soon, since once we have the Doctor reverse the changes Eti made to him, even a blind man could see his resemblance to you." Kathryn smiled wistfully as her eyes wandered to gaze at Tepa, who was busily chatting to his toys. Her heart ached for the time she missed with her little boy.

"Harry reminded me of something." Chakotay brought her back to the subject at hand. "After Naomi was born, the crew worked out a child care schedule. One of the crew was especially good with kids, Ensign Campbell."

"The transporter chief?" Kathryn seemed surprised. "Why don't I remember that?"

"There was a lot going on right after Naomi's birth. We had to get out of Kazon territory after we defeated Kazon." Chakotay didn't remind Kathryn that he'd tried hard to make things easy for his captain partly because of how guilty he felt for having trusted Seska as a member of his Maquis crew. He grinned disarmingly. "Lyssa turned out to be so good at juggling her schedule that I doubt many knew what was going on."

Kathryn blew out a breath. "I hate to give up having him around, but realistically I can't. I'll talk to Ensign Campbell to see what we can work out."

"Why don't you go down to talk to her now?" Chakotay suggested, "since I'm back to take the bridge."

Kathryn shook her head. "I have work to do, and he isn't causing trouble at the moment. I'll go if he gets bored."

"Okay." Chakotay nodded and turned to glance at Tepa. "I wish. . ."

"I understand, Chakotay. I know you want to have time with him, too." She reached out the pat his arm.

Chakotay blew out a breath as he turned to go back to the bridge. "Let's discuss this tonight after he's asleep. Those little ears are pretty sharp."

"Yes, we'll do that."

Kathryn grinned as she walked with Tepa through the corridors and turbolifts to the transporter room where Ensign Campbell was still at work. The little boy seemed to have lost his shyness and greeted every crew member they passed. Refusing to be carried this time, he held her hand as he paused to call out another greeting.

"Come on, little man," she urged him. "I'd like to get there today."

Tepa smile up at her and moved his little legs faster, tugging her hand. "We get there today."

The transporter room doors slid open as they approached them. Ensign Campbell bent over her console, running a scanner over the panel. At the swish of the doors, she glanced up and straightened to attention.

"May I help you, Captain?" she asked quickly.

"At ease, Ensign," Kathryn said with a smile on her face. "I hope you can help me." Lifting Tepa into her arms, she introduced him, "I'm sure you've heard about our newest crew member. This is Tepa."

Turning her attention to the boy, Janeway said, "Tepa, this is Ensign Campbell."

"Hi, Ennen Camel," Tepa grinned as he fumbled the pronunciation.

Campbell chuckled. "Hi, Tepa."

"Commander Chakotay told me that you helped Samantha Wildman with Naomi when she was little," Kathryn explained.

"I did, and organized some others, so that Sam would have child care when she was on duty." Lyssa's eyes brightened when she understood what the captain had in mind. "You'd like me to help with Tepa's care too?"

"Exactly," Kathryn said.

After discussing the possible child care candidates with Campbell, Kathryn left her to the planning. She could tell by Tepa's response to the younger woman, he would be happy. The thought of leaving him in the care of others still ate at her. She understood for the first time the quandary of working mothers and why her own mother stayed so close to home during her and her sister's childhood.

Since her shift was over, she walked back to her quarters after notifying Chakotay of her plans. They agreed to meet in the mess hall for dinner.

When they arrived, they found that Neelix had a table ready for them complete with a highchair for Tepa.

"Neelix, where did you get the chair?" Kathryn asked.

"Sam used it for Naomi, and after she outgrew it, I stored it in the cargo hold," Neelix informed her as he dished food onto their plates. "I was sure that someday it would be needed again."

Settling against the back of the sofa, Kathryn watched as Chakotay helped Tepa into his pajamas. The child chattered cheerfully about his day while his papa finished buttoning the top.

"Please read story, Papa," Tepa pleaded winningly when he reached for a book near the child-sized bed Chakotay had somehow managed to find.

"Okay but just one story." Chakotay carried the boy and the book to a chair and began to read.

Kathryn enjoyed the familial sight and sounds. Chakotay's rich baritone voice made the story more interesting than when she'd read the same book to Tepa.

When he smoothed back Tepa's damp hair, Kathryn chuckled as she remembered his turn at bathing the little boy. Although he didn't end up as wet as she had, Chakotay's turtleneck was taking a quick turn in the refresher.

Tepa's eyelids drooped as the bedtime story worked its magic. Chakotay closed the book when he noticed the boy was asleep.

"He doesn't take long to fall asleep, does he?" Chakotay asked, grinning.

"Not at all," she agreed as she walked to Tepa's bed and turned down the blanket.

After tucking him in, Kathryn and Chakotay took turns kissing Tepa. "I'm sure he doesn't know I've kissed him," Kathryn explained. "But I can't seem to help myself."

Chakotay's laughter was soft as he admitted. "I thought it was just me."

As they moved away from the sleeping boy, Kathryn spoke. "Make yourself at home, and I'll get us something to drink while we talk."

He watched as Kathryn ordered beverages from replicator. The fact that in a short time Chakotay would have to leave both her and their small son made the brief domestic vision a bittersweet one. More than anything he wanted to be a family, and not just for the sake of the child that he'd come to adore for with an unexpected intensity. He'd loved Kathryn almost from their first meeting. That affection had grown through the years. However, seeing her tender care for Tepa deepened that those feelings caused him to yearn painfully for the impossible.

"Chakotay," Kathryn spoke, her voice echoing the concern on her face as she stood in front of him, steaming mugs in hand, "Is something wrong?"

Chakotay concentrated upon taking one of the cups from her as he worked to keep his voice and his expression neutral. "No, I was just thinking about us, you, Tepa, me." He gestured toward the sleeping child. "We've missed so much. I guess I'm angry off at how we were robbed of knowing him from the start."

Settling down beside him, Kathryn patted his arm before taking a contemplative sip of her coffee. "I feel the same way," she sighed, "But I don't suppose that will do any good now."

He tugged his ear and grinned. "No, but I feel like I should go a couple rounds in my holo-program to work off the steam."

His grin worked its magic on her once again, as did the thought of him in the boxing ring, his muscles gleaming and straining as he pummeled an opponent. Kathryn shook herself mentally and pushed those thoughts away so she could talk about their child. She reined in her wayward mind and told him of her visit with Ensign Campbell.

"That sounds good, but I have a request," Chakotay stated when she finished speaking.

"Oh?" she replied.

"I've given this quite a bit of thought," he began. "I would like to have a part in caring of Tepa as well."

"You know that you can see him any time you'd like," Kathryn interrupted.

"I know, but I would like to suggest that a flex schedule -- one where I spend half a shift on the bridge during my usual time and the other half after he's asleep. That way, I can spend time with him while you're still on the bridge." Chakotay lifted his hand when she started to speak. "I don't even expect to do it all the time. Even a couple shifts a week would be great. I just want to spend more time with our son." His voice sounded huskier than usual.

Kathryn glanced over at the sleeping child. Her throat clogged with emotion as she empathized with Chakotay. There was nothing she wanted to do more than to be with her little boy, to somehow make up for the time lost. "I don't see why that can't be arranged. You're in charge of the duty roster anyway. See to it. Take a few days a week for now, to see how it'll work."

Gripping her hand, Chakotay smiled broadly. "Thank you, Kathryn. I'll start tonight with another half shift, if you approve the schedule I've already worked out."

"You’re not letting moss grow," she laughed softly. "Did you bring the PADD with you?"

"As a matter of fact, I did." He rose quickly to retrieve the PADD from his discarded jacket.

After adjusting the childcare schedule to include his flex shifts, Chakotay sent a copy to Kathryn's computer.

They sat in comfortable silence for several minutes as they watched their son sleep.

"Well, I need to get on with my duties," Chakotay stood and retrieved his jacket. "Good night, Kathryn, sleep well."

"Thank you, you too." Kathryn walked him to the door.

Kathryn sat at her computer and sent off the final schedule to Ensign Campbell. She wished that Tepa could spend the whole day with her, but as the captain of Voyager, she had obligations to fulfill, obligations that didn't always allow for a toddler's constant presence.

Stretching as a huge yawn worked its way through her, Kathryn went to get ready for bed. Since her previous night's rest had been interrupted by Tepa's restless fears, she knew that she must try to make up for the lack of sleep. She kissed Tepa lightly on the forehead before going to bed.

Four hours later, a terrified shriek wakened her. "Papa!" Tepa cried from his position at the side of her bed. "Where Papa?"

Tossing back her blanket, Kathryn jumped out of bed and lifted Tepa into her arms.

"Hush, sweetie," she soothed, "your papa is working."

This time the child wouldn't be comforted. "No, Tepa want Pap!. Don't want Papa die again."

Kathryn struggled ass the frightened little boy thrashed his legs and feet. Sitting on her bed, she rocked him, trying to convince him that Chakotay was okay.

"Papa gone," Tepa wailed and shook his head. "Papa!" Tears streamed down his cheeks, and he lifted his red face to hers. "Mama, find Papa. Want Papa here."

Kathryn started to worry when his crying turned to wracking, inconsolable sobs. She had to do something. What kind of mother couldn't get her child to stop crying? She would have to contact Chakotay. Kathryn checked the time. He would just be off his half shift. Reaching for her commbadge, she tapped it. "Janeway to Chakotay."

"Yes, Captain?" Upon hearing Tepa's sobs, his voice filled with concern. "What's wrong with First?"

"Come to my quarters. He needs to see you," was her urgent reply.

Without acknowledging her, he closed the comm and was at her door in mere seconds. Chakotay overrode the code on her door and hurried inside to find Kathryn walking through her bedroom door, carrying the weeping child.

Kathryn's expression was filled with concern and a look of defeated failure. "He woke up and came to my room. He couldn't find you and woke me by screaming for you."

Hurrying to her, Chakotay touched Tepa's head. "First, why all the fuss? I was only away, working. You're supposed to be in bed."

Upon hearing his father's voice, Tepa turned and flung himself into Chakotay's arms, sending Kathryn back a few steps.

"Calm down," Chakotay crooned as he took Kathryn's arm and led her to the couch.

Setting the still-hiccupping boy on his lap, he asked, "Why did you wake your mama like this?"

"Tepa ... thought ... you ... gone," the child hiccupped through his explanation. "... thought ... Mama ... not ... know ... you died."

The child leaned against his father's chest and reached for Kathryn's hand. "Papa working. Mama right."

"Yes, sweetheart," she agreed. "Your papa was working."

Chakotay stared down at the swollen and tear-stained face of his son. After kissing the top of Tepa's head, he whispered to Kathryn, "Please get a damp cloth for his face, and a drink of water." He reached for tissues and wiped the boy's eyes and nose.

After a wash and a drink, Tepa's eyelids began to droop. Chakotay noticed and took him to his crib. However, as soon as he laid him down, Tepa began to cry again.

"No, Papa," he cried as he tried to scramble back into Chakotay's arms. "Papa, no leave."

"You need to sleep and so do I," Chakotay tried to reason with the crying child, lifting him up again.

"Papa died when Tepa sleep." His little arms wrapped tightly around Chakotay's neck. "You sleep here where Mama sleep."

Kathryn wasn't sure if this would help matters in the long run or not, but she knew they all needed to sleep. "Chakotay, why don't you sleep on the couch for the rest of the night? Tepa will be able to see us both if he wakes again."

"Do you think that's a good idea?" Chakotay asked while Tepa quieted once again, safely tucked in his father's arms. "It isn't a good long-term solution."

"No, but we're all tired," she sighed. "Maybe the answer will come to us when we're more rested."

Chakotay nodded and spoke gently to their son. "For tonight, I'm going to sleep on the couch. I'll be very close and Mama will be just in there. You need to go to sleep now."

Tepa looked at the sofa, at his bed, and through the door. He sighed, closed his eyes, and rested his head on Chakotay's shoulder. Soon his breathing slowed as sleep overtook him once more. Only a few soft sob echoes remained of his fit of weeping. This time when Chakotay lowered the toddler to his crib, he didn't awaken, but with his thumb in his mouth, he snuggled close to his Gar.

"I can just go now." Chakotay shifted his feet nervously. He didn't want to cause Kathryn any discomfort. "I'm sure he won't wake until morning."

"No," Kathryn injected, "we told him you would be here, and we need to keep our word. He won't believe us in the future if we don't. I'm sure that we'll be able to come up with a better solution tomorrow."

She hurried to a closet and took out a pillow and some blankets. "Here you are."

Chakotay smiled as he thanked her, and said, "Sleep well, Kathryn."

"Thank you, you too," she repeated her earlier statement. "Hopefully this time we all will."

Tepa woke the next morning with no after-effects of the night before. He greeted his parents with cheerful affection, running to where they sat drinking coffee. After he told them he was hungry, they worked together to feed and dress him.

"I won't have time for another cup of coffee since I have to take Tepa to the sitter before I head to the bridge," Kathryn lamented. However, the morning with Tepa and Chakotay energized her more than a strong jolt of caffeine.

"Tepa go work with Mama?" He looked up from his toys.

"Not this morning, sweetie," she answered with a grin. "You're going to play with Naomi in Ensign Campbell's quarters."

Tepa frowned at the information, but before he could protest, Chakotay said, "Your mama and I will pick you up at lunchtime and take you to the mess hall to eat."

"Tepa like food," he chirped happily.

His parents smiled, and Chakotay said, "You need to get Gar and Flotter. It's time to go."

Kathryn found it hard to concentrate. She missed having Tepa around. Hoping that eventually she could work without constant thoughts of how her son was doing interrupting her, she picked up an engineering report and forced herself to focus on it.

Some minutes later, her commbadge beeped. "Sickbay to Captain Janeway."

"Janeway here," she answered.

"My patient is conscious and would like to speak to you."

"How is she doing, Doctor?" Kathryn asked quickly.

"She is not well. Her vital signs are weak, but she insists that she has information you need concerning Tepa and the Lafrians."

"I'll be there as soon as possible. Janeway out."

Kathryn contacted the bridge. "Commander Chakotay, my ready room."

Within seconds, Chakotay entered. Speaking without preamble, Kathryn told him what the Doctor had said.

"Since things are quiet on the bridge, I think we should both go," Chakotay said quietly.

Kathryn nodded. "Yes, I'll turn the bridge over to Tuvok."

When they arrived in sickbay, they were surprised to see Eti propped up with pillows her bed. Her face was pale and drawn, but her eyes brightened when she noticed the command team walk through the door.

"Oh good!" she exclaimed. "You're both here. I don't know how long I can talk. Come closer. I won't have to raise my voice that way."

Kathryn led the way to Eti's bedside.

"Are you sure you should be doing this right now?" Chakotay asked before turning his attention on the Doctor. "Is she well enough?"

"Actually, I advised her against it, but she is determined to speak to you." The Doctor's tone was stern.

"Never mind that." Eti waved a hand dismissively. "I have to help you avoid a violent dispute with the Lafrians. Tepa is in danger as long as he is considered an orphan and a Lafrian one at that. The Trade Consortium that old captain worked for will want both his cargo and the child. They are able to track his ship; there's a device I haven't been able to turn off. They have weapons, and since they will think you stole both, there is every likelihood that they will try to take both back by force."

Panting, Eti laid her head back against the pillows, her eyes closed. In a weakened voice, she continued, "I had plenty of time to learn about the Lafrian customs. In my ship's computer, you will find my research."

She opened her eyes and looked at Kathryn. "You have found my ship, haven't you?"

"I didn't even think to look for another ship. You told us that the propulsion system was down. I thought you abandoned it," Kathryn explained.

"It is attached to the freighter," Eti sighed, "hidden out of phase."

Obviously in pain, she rubbed her temples. "I'll give you my command codes, so that you can normalize the phase and open my files. All of the data you will need is in the file named Tepa-Voyager. Please retrieve and read it as soon as you can. I don't think you have much time before the Consortium ship arrives." Eti started to cough, long and hard in wracking spasms. She tried to speak but failed.

"Captain, I must insist that Eti rests," interrupted the Doctor, running his tricorder over her. "She is much too fragile to continue."

"Doctor," Kathryn whispered in his ear. "Can you do something about her cough so that she can give us the command codes?"

Heaving a holographic sigh of resignation, he went to retrieve some medication. Helping Eti to raise her head, the Doctor held a small cup to her lips so she could drink. Within a few seconds, her coughing ceased.

"Thank you, Doctor," Eti rasped out before reaching out for Kathryn's hand. "I'm so sorry that I didn't come to you immediately. I beg you to forgive me."

Chakotay moved to take Eti's other hand. "We do wish that you had come to us in the beginning, but you protected our son. You did what you thought was best to keep him safe. You have my gratitude for that. I'm sure that I speak for the captain when I say that you are forgiven." He glanced over at Kathryn.

She nodded since tears of empathy threatened. Finally Kathryn cleared her throat and said, "We need your codes so that we can retrieve your notes and decide the best course of action."

Kathryn and Chakotay sat in her ready room reading the files Eti had prepared for them. Silence reigned as the reading engrossed them.

Finally Kathryn sighed and lowered her PADD. She glanced at Chakotay to see if he was finished reading. When he nodded, she burst out, "I can't believe these people! How can they place such low value on life? If the Lafrians get their hands on Tepa, he could be trained as house slave at best or dead in a few years from hard labor at worst."

She stood and started to pace. "There is no way in hell he is going to be taken from us!" she cried out with vehemence.

"Of course not, Kathryn." Chakotay strode to her side and stopped her movement. "But we have to be careful that we don't give them an inch of wiggle room. We have to get the Doctor to reverse the DNA tampering immediately. He must be totally human if they demand a medical scan. Hopefully that will be enough, though Eti doesn't seem to think so."

Kathryn slapped her commbadge. "Janeway to Ensign Campbell."

"Campbell here, Captain."

"Have Tepa ready. We'll pick him up in five minutes." She closed the comm.

After swiftly turning over the bridge, the command team hurried to Ensign Campbell's quarters to retrieve their son.

Less than ten minutes later they reached sickbay. Tepa seemed confused. After all they had told him earlier that they would come at lunchtime.

"Mama, this not mess hall," he complained.

"No, sweetheart," she agreed. "This is sickbay. The Doctor needs to take care of something first. We'll have lunch later."

Kathryn had asked the Doctor to erect a privacy screen around Eti since Tepa was frightened of the woman. She knew sickbay could be intimating to a child -- better not to expose him to more scary situations.

After directing Chakotay to lay the boy on the main treatment bed, the Doctor administered a mild sedative. "He needs to be still and quiet for this," he explained. "It won't take long, but it is a sensitive procedure."

Kathryn and Chakotay stood to the side, their eyes never leaving Tepa. In the next half hour, they saw the little boy's Lafrian features disappear.

Tears welled in Kathryn's eyes as she watched Tepa become even more like his father. In that moment, she was even more determined to take every precaution that Eti had listed in her research. They had to make sure that he and the ship would be safe.

"Well, Captain," the Doctor preened, "my technique is still quick and efficient." He began to put away his instruments. "He will sleep for another thirty minutes. You may take him to your quarters now."

As Chakotay lifted Tepa from the bio-bed, Kathryn heard a coarse whimper from behind the screen on the other side of the room.

"Wait a minute, Chakotay." Laying her hand on his arm to stop him, Kathryn moved to the screen and peered around it. "What is it, Eti?" she asked softly.

"May I see him again?" Eti begged, barely above a whisper. "Just this once, since he is asleep and can't see me and be afraid."

Kathryn hesitated for a moment as she searched the older woman's face. It dawned on her that Eti loved Tepa in her own way. For a long time, she had dedicated her life to his well-being.

Knowing that she couldn't deny Eti what could be her dying wish, she motioned for Chakotay to come to her. "Eti wants to see Tepa."

Chakotay nodded and drew close to the bedside and lowered Tepa so Eti could see him comfortably.

"He is a lovely child." Eti tried to swallow back the tears. "I don't regret caring for him. I do wish he hadn't been so frightened of me, but I deserved it, I suppose." She touched his hair lightly before she let her hand drop back to her side. "Thank you both. I'm very tired. I'm going to sleep."

They were quiet as they made their way quickly back to the captain's quarter, but as soon as the door closed behind them, Kathryn spoke. "We're going to follow the plan outlined by Eti. She knows the Lafrians and the Consortium better than we do."

"I agree." He frowned. "If we had a little more time, the senior staff might come up with something else that would work, but since we don't have that option..."

Turning around, she saw that he was still holding Tepa. "Put him on his bed and sit down. I'll get us some coffee. Or do you want tea?"

"Coffee, please, I need the jolt," he answered.

Kathryn joined him on the sofa a moment later and handed him a mug. "So, do we go ahead with all of Eti's plans?"

Chakotay took a large gulp from his cup before he nodded. "Yes, we do."

The rest of the day saw a great deal of activity on board Voyager. The command team made the announcement. They explained about Tepa before outlining the plan for dealing with the Lafrians. Everyone had their assigned task and stations.

The crew didn't seem to be surprised to find out that Tepa was the captain's and commander's son. Just as Kathryn had predicted his likeness to Chakotay was too obvious to be missed. Also, it seemed no one believed that even an alien scientist would pair anyone else with the captain.

The next two days fell into a new routine, nothing ordinary about it. Chakotay worked his new split shift, spent his afternoons with Tepa, and spent his nights on Kathryn's sofa since Tepa still awoke in the middle of the night and screamed if he couldn't see Chakotay in the room.

Kathryn woke early on the third day and pulled on her thickest robe. She opened the bedroom door, tiptoeing to the replicator for her first cup of coffee. The noise of the replication didn't wake either of the men, so she took advantage of the chance to watch them both sleep.

Chakotay lay flat on his back, his left arm over his head. This position caused the gray t-shirt he wore to stretch tight over his muscular chest. Kathryn enjoyed the view for a few moments before she realized what she was doing and turned her attention to her son. I have no right to sit and ogle Chakotay. He deserves his privacy while he sleeps.

A smile spread across her face as she noticed that Tepa was sleeping in an almost identical pose to his father. His right arm held Gar tightly. Flotter lay face down on the floor.

A large lump formed in Kathryn's throat. Love for both Tepa and Chakotay welled up so rapidly that it nearly overwhelmed her. She remembered that her mother always said that sometimes the most painful things in life can bring forth unspeakable joy. When the scientists experimented on her, the pain had been close to unbearable, but little did she know at the time that one of those experiments would result in such a gift. If only this could be permanent, with only slightly different sleeping arrangements.

Sighing, Kathryn finished off her coffee. She'd just stood to get another cup when Chakotay whispered, "I could use some of that too." He stretched and yawned as he sat up, lightly punching the sofa cushion. "I'm afraid I might be getting used to this hard old thing. I slept pretty well."

Kathryn ordered a coffee for Chakotay and another for herself before turning to answer him. "I'm glad you did."

Chakotay accepted the cup she handed him and sat in the chair Kathryn had just vacated. "I could get used to someone making me coffee in the morning." He grinned as he sipped the brew.

"I was just thinking I could get used to someone making breakfast for me so that I wouldn't have to go to the mess hall." Leaning against the counter, Kathryn grinned back at him over her cup.

Chuckling softly, Chakotay looked into his mug. "I could do that this morning, but I need a shower, a shave, and a clean uniform first."

Later, after a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and fruit, the command team left the captain's quarters for the bridge, with a detour to leave Tepa with Ensign Campbell on Eti's ship which was to be taken out of phase at the call to yellow alert.

As they walked out of the lift onto the bridge, Tuvok spoke, "Captain, long range sensors have picked up Lafrian ships, one large and two smaller. They are on an intercept course with our location. ETA three hours."

"Acknowledged, Commander," Kathryn answered before giving the order for yellow alert. She sat in her chair, staring at the view screen. She asked for a status check on all systems while they waited. All departments reported that everything was set; shields up, weapons online, warp drive ready.

"We're going to make this work, Captain," Chakotay murmured softly.

Turning, she caught his eye and held his gaze for a long moment. "There's no other choice. They aren't taking our son."

The next few hours passed quickly. Kathryn wanted to check on Tepa, but she knew they were safely out of phase for the time being. She spent part of the time in her office pacing off the jitters. Maybe she should've dumped the Lafrian freighter and warped out of the area. No, they'd discussed that option and decided it left them without a bargaining chip if the Consortium's leader came after them, as Eti was certain that they would.

When the Lafrians were finally in contact range, Kathryn was seated back in her chair as calm as a Starfleet officer should be.

"The Lafrians are scanning us," Kim reported from ops.

"They are trying to use their transporter. Shields are preventing any transport," Tuvok added from his station.

"The Lafrian ship is hailing us." Harry Kim's voice was tense.

"Red alert," Janeway ordered. "On screen." She steeled herself for one of the most important confrontations of her life.

On the view screen appeared a man with now-familiar Lafrian features. Silver hair flowed back from a sharply angular face exposing the hard lines of his neck ridges. "I am Commodore Ligtar Zxet, leader of the Lafrian Trade Consortium's security. We aren't intimidated by your battle-ready stance. I demand that you hand over our freighter and those you have taken as prisoners." The boom of his declaration nearly shook the bulkheads.

Janeway and Chakotay stood and came together just behind the conn. "I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager."

"Now, as to your accusations." After waiting a beat, Janeway continued, "We have taken no prisoners. Your freighter captain was already dead when we discovered the ship. We took the freighter and its contents into our hold for safekeeping."

The commodore's face reddened. "You have taken the freighter's one passenger, a young Lafrian orphan. You will release him and the freighter immediately."

"The only child who was on board that ship when we found it is not Lafrian. He's human." She lifted her chin. "In point of fact, he's our son." Kathryn grasped Chakotay's hand. "This is Commander Chakotay, my first officer and Tepa's father."

"Your kind allows that kind of relationship with an under-officer?" Commodore Zxet interrupted. "Lafrians would never permit such a thing."

"It's not usually permitted, but our situation is unusual, Commodore. We have been stranded in this quadrant for seven years, thousands of light years away from our home. We had to adapt."

There was something about Kathryn's gesture and words that caused longing to run through Chakotay. If only, he thought.

Kathryn brought the discussion back to the topic on hand. "Our son was taken from us when he was very young. You're welcome to take your cargo and ship, but you will never take our child."

"Preposterous!" The Lafrian pounded on his desk. "The boy was born to two Lafrian on our mining colony RT4. He has no other relatives. He now belongs to the Consortium." A mocking smile spread over his face. "As you can see, we outnumber you three to one. As we do not want to harm you and only want our property, you only need to hand it over. There will be no reprisals if you cooperate."

Kathryn dropped Chakotay's hand and put her hands on her hips, staring levelly at the alien. "The boy isn't property; he's human and our son. I will send you a copy of the DNA tests our physician performed, and before you scoff at that, I'll remind you of your own anti-slander laws. If you accuse me of lying during a business dealing, and later what I say is proven to be the truth, I will, at the very least, own your ships, maybe even the entire Consortium since you represent it. You will be worse than out of a job I have no reason to lie since I do have the proof to back me up.

"Secondly, let me warn you against attacking Voyager. We have scanned your vessel, and I happen to know that my ship would easily defeat your three in a fight. We've defeated far more formidable opponents than you. If you even look like you are going use force on us, I will jettison your freighter and torpedo it before I turn all our fire power on you. You would be out your cargo and end up with a great deal of damage to your ships and yourselves." The steel in her tone brooked no doubt.

Commodore Zxet's mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water until finally he turned to the men who stood behind while ordering the sound cut. The group gestured wildly in agitation for several minutes before each nodded in agreement.

Zxet re-established the audio. "You have the child. We are willing to pay handsomely for his return." This time Zxet's smile was oily, his tone slickly ingratiating. "In fact, we will even allow you to keep the freighter's cargo."

Anger began to roil in her belly, but Kathryn glanced at Chakotay and shrugged, in perfectly feigned nonchalance. "It would seem that Commodore Zxet either wasn't paying attention to me, or he has a poor memory. Perhaps you could remind him what I said at the beginning of our conversation."

"Of course, Captain," Chakotay answered with a cocky grin. "You said, 'You're welcome to take your cargo and ship, but you will never take our child.'"

"Excellent recall, Commander," she complimented him as she lightly touched his arm before facing forward once more.

"I know you scanned our ship before you hailed us, Commodore Zxet." Janeway paused as she waited for his nod. The knowledge that Tepa was safe from detection on Eti's ship and hidden out of phase kept her calm and focused. "You didn't find a child, Lafrian or human, did you?"

This time the alien answered in the negative.

"Nor would you find him even if I allowed you access to my ship," she said narrowing her eyes. "Tuvok will send you the DNA findings on the boy. Have your medical personnel review the data. And before you make your decision, remember that I am a woman of my word and a mother who will fight to keep her child safe from slave runners like you."

Again the aliens had a conference which was muted to those on Voyager. After they scanned the Doctor's report, there looked to be much shouting and shaking of heads with even more hand and arm gesturing. When the Lafrian leader finally signaled for sound again, he looked dejected as he spoke. "We will accept your terms."

"You don't know all of our terms yet." Janeway stood ramrod straight, confidence radiating from her face. "First, we will jettison your freighter. The body of your captain will be on board in a stasis pod. On the freighter, we've placed several explosive devices. If we detect you following us, we will detonate them. The devices are especially complicated to deactivate. However, since only we have the means to detonate them, you will be safe as long as you stay away from my ship." She paused to glare at the view screen before she asked, "Do I make myself clear, Commodore?"

"Yes, Captain Janeway," Zxet replied with a sigh. "We won't come after you."

It didn't take long for Voyager to rid itself of the freighter and to warp away from the Consortium security force. As stars streaked by the view screen, Kathryn dismissed the red alert. "Good job, everyone! Harry, monitor them as long as possible. Tuvok, don't hesitate to detonate the explosives if they start our way."

The two men acknowledged her orders and busied themselves over their individual consoles.

"Kim, tell Ensign Campbell to turn off the phase shifter on Eti's ship and that we'll be there in a few minutes. Tuvok, you have the bridge." Kathryn ordered.

She reached for Chakotay's hand. It held felt so good to hold it before when she needed his strength. Now she merely needed to have the connection and didn't care who knew or saw. "Let's go get our son."

As they travelled to the shuttle bay, Kathryn experienced the rightness of the moment. She was walking hand in hand with the man she loved above all others and who happened to be the father of her only child. They had worked together to defeat a threat to the well-being of that child. Why couldn't they defeat the protocols that prevented them from being a family in every way? She'd told the Lafrians that things were different in this quadrant; that they'd had to adapt. Hadn't she tweaked the rules through the years? It was time to adjust them once more or lose something wonderful.

As the shuttle bay doors opened, they heard a squeak and watched as Tepa tear down the ramp from Eti's ship. Ensign Campbell and Naomi followed at a slower pace.

"Mama! Papa!" Tepa cried as he tried to wrap his arms around both Kathryn and Chakotay at the same time. "Tepa not see you for long. I miss you."

Chakotay lifted the child and kissed his cheek. "We missed you too, but it hasn't been so long. Didn't you have a good time with Ensign Campbell and Naomi?"

Tepa kissed his father before leaning toward his mother to give her hug and a kiss. "Oh yes, Ennen Camel and Omee played with Tepa and Gar. We read books and ate nop and Tepa took nap." He laid his head on Chakotay's shoulder and whispered, "But I wanted Mama and Papa, too."

Kathryn smiled as she pulled Tepa to her for another hug. "Of course you missed us and we missed you too."

After thanking Campbell and Naomi and dismissing them, Kathryn said, "I think it's time to go home."

Tepa was finally tucked into bed, soundly asleep with his two stuffed friends after Kathryn and Chakotay had enjoyed reading to, playing with, feeding, and bathing their son.

"I don't think I'll ever get tired of looking at him." Kathryn whispered as they stood shoulder to shoulder watching Tepa sleep.

Chakotay slipped an arm around her waist as he turned to grin down at her. "He is as wonderful to look at as his mother."

Smiling, Kathryn said, "Thanks for the compliment." After pressing her cheek against his arm for a brief moment, she moved away from Chakotay. Kathryn didn't want to be distracted by his nearness. She owed him the full treatment. "Let's sit down." She motioned to the chairs on the other side of room.

Holding back a sigh, Chakotay took a chair. The captain was back and he had to get used to it. He needed to move back to his quarters. Every day he stayed here was torture of the cruelest kind, knowing he was only a guest, as well as being the purest form of joy, being able to spend more time with Kathryn and Tepa. How could he leave his family every night? He was afraid he would be the one to wake up screaming.

"Chakotay, I think we need to change the sleeping arrangements." Her voice was soft and breathy. "I know my sofa is hard."

"Of course, Captain," Chakotay interrupted as he stood, his back rigid, his face blank. "I'll just retrieve my things and go back to my quarters."

"No, you don't understand." Kathryn's eyes stung as she realized what he thought she meant. "Please sit down. I have something important to say."

He sat stiffly on the edge of the seat. Confusion raced through his mind. What could she possibly have to tell him?

Kathryn didn't speak for several seconds, fighting to find the right words as long-observed protocols pushed into her thoughts. She reminded herself of how much time had been lost already. A bent regulation wouldn't harm her ship or her crew. It might even help the morale on board. A soft smile graced her face as she won the battle and dropped to her knees in front of Chakotay. Taking one of his hands in hers, she asked, "Will you marry me?"

Chakotay stared at her, robbed of speech. Joy warmed his heart.

"I know this isn't what you expected me to say, but I want Tepa to have a permanent family with two full-time parents, not part-time ones," she started to explain.

"Kathryn, we don't have to get married for Tepa's sake," he interrupted as the flame of joy went out.

Leaning closer, Kathryn touched his lips with her fingers and smiled. "You didn't let my finish. Tepa helped me come to this decision, but the most important and really the only reason I would ask you is that I love you. I've loved you so long and so deeply that I nearly broke through the protocol barrier a long time ago. But now, after that little bout with the Consortium when I wasn't completely sure things would work out like they did, I realized that we've already lost so much time because, in this matter, I wouldn't adapt."

She took his hand again and kissed it. "Please tell me I didn't wait too long."

Chakotay's expression had changed from one of utter dejection to utter delight. He quickly lifted Kathryn up from her knees onto his lap and kissed her, trying to make up for lost time.

When Kathryn finally pulled back to look at him, she arched her brow and her eyes twinkled. "Was that a yes?"

Chakotay couldn't hold back a shout of laughter, but why should he? Kathryn wanted to marry him. She loved him! If this was a dream, he never wanted to awaken. "It definitely was a yes." He kissed her again.

The kiss would have lasted longer, but they heard a tiny voice say, "Gar look, Papa and Mama kissing. I like it." Tepa's happy giggle bubbled out as he jumped out of bed and ran to his parents. "Mama, you sitting on Papa," Tepa informed her. "Me too?"

Kathryn lifted him to her lap and hugged him tightly. "I'm sorry we woke you, sweetheart. You need to sleep."

"He can stay up for a few minutes more, don't you think?" Chakotay grinned at his happy family.

"Yes, I think we could all use a family snuggle."


Shortly after 0700 the next morning, the Doctor contacted Janeway. "Eti doesn't have much time left, but she's asking for you and the commander," he told her grimly.

"We'll be there as soon as we can." Kathryn turned to Chakotay. "Eti deserves to know that her plan worked and what's happened between us, but we need to find someone to watch Tepa while we go."

"I agree that we should go, but I think Tepa should go with us. She will die happier knowing that he doesn't fear her anymore." Chakotay reached for her hand.

"How can we make sure he isn't frightened?" she asked anxiously.

After a moment's contemplation, Chakotay said, "I have an idea." He turned to lift Tepa from the floor where he had been playing with his blocks. "I want to tell you an ancient legend of our people."

Tepa grinned and snuggled close to his father as they sat on the sofa. Kathryn joined them and listened as Chakotay wove another tale.

"Once long ago there was warrior who was brave and fierce in battle. He loved a woman warrior who fell in love with him after she captured him and his tribe. The tribes joined forces in peace, but the two warriors didn't speak of their love." Chakotay gave Kathryn a sad smile over Tepa's head.

"One day a lady of magic found the boy who belonged to the two warriors but who was very far away. This lady of magic wanted very much to bring the little boy back to his mama and papa, but while she worked to take him back to his family, she frightened the little boy. She didn't mean to, but he was very afraid of her."

Trembling slightly, Tepa stuck his thumb in his mouth but kept his eyes trained on Chakotay's face.

Chakotay smiled and continued, "She asked forest creatures to help her with the boy while they traveled the long distance. Since the little boy wasn't afraid of the flotter and the gar who took started to take care of him, the lady stayed close by but mostly out of sight. She loved the child so much that even though she was lonely and wanted his company, she didn't force him to talk to her.

"By the time the boy and the lady of magic came to the place where the two warriors lived, the lady was very sick. The warriors tried hard to make her well again, but she was going to die. Her last wish was to see the little boy so that she could know that he was finally happy with his mama and papa.

"The two warriors finally spoke of their love and became a family forever with the little boy."

Tepa's eyes grew big as he popped his thumb out of his mouth. "The lady, she not a bad lady? She bring Tepa to Mama and Papa?"

"Yes, sweetheart," Kathryn said as she stroked his hair back from his face. "The lady was very good to bring you to us. Papa and I want to go and tell her how thankful we are. Will you come with us? I know she will be happy to see you once more before she dies."

Tepa searched both their faces before asking, "You not die?"

"Oh no, we aren't going to die. We are going to be a family for a very long time."

Sliding to the floor, Tepa reached for his mother's hand. "I go see lady. I say tank you."

Kathryn's heart swelled with pride over the wisdom of her soon-to-be husband and the sweet, little-boy bravery of their son. As they made their way to sickbay, she watched as Tepa greeted each of the crew they met without any of the old timidity.

Squeezing Chakotay's hand, she whispered, "You are an amazing father. You certainly know the power of a legend."

Chakotay smiled at Kathryn and winked. "It made it easier to say."

Inside sickbay the lights were dim and only the slight hum of a monitor could be heard as the three entered.

The Doctor met them in the middle of the room. "She's resting as well as is possible. She asked to be awakened when you came." He moved to the side of her bio-bed and touched her arm. "The captain and commander are here. They've bought Tepa with them."

Eti's eyes shot open at the mention of the boy. She searched the room until her gaze rested on Tepa's face. "Come closer if he won't be frightened."

"Is it okay if we go closer, Tepa?" Chakotay asked as he lifted him into his arms.

Tepa nodded solemnly. "We go closer."

With Kathryn's arm in Chakotay's, they moved as one unit to Eti's bedside.

Kathryn was the first to speak. "I can't thank you enough for taking such good care of our son and for giving us the knowledge we needed to get away from the Consortium without a fight. Also, we wanted you to be the first to know that Chakotay and I are going to be married."

Eti's gaze still hadn't left Tepa's face. Her eyes filled with tears. "I'm glad it helped."

"Thank you, Eti," Chakotay said softly, his heart's joy shown on his face.

Tepa stared at the invalid for a moment before he spoke. "I tank you too. You a good magic lady." He nodded for emphasis.

Eti raised her hand to caress Tepa's face. "You're welcome, Tepa. You are a lovely child. I can go in peace knowing that I have righted a great wrong." Dropping her hand, she smiled once, sighed, and was gone.

Without speaking, Kathryn and Chakotay took Tepa from sickbay and moved quickly back to their quarters. Once inside, they went to the sofa and merely sat, taking in the sadness and the joy of the moment.

Kathryn laid her head on one of Chakotay's shoulders as Tepa leaned on the other. She felt a contentment and well-being that she'd never felt before. This was her family. She'd fought a many battles to get to this place. Family hadn't been on her map for a long time. The goal of Earth and the Alpha Quadrant had been her only aim, but now she knew that she had finally arrived home.