DISCLAIMER: All characters from Star Trek belong to Paramount and use of them here is not intended to infringe, nor to make any profit. This story depicts a loving relationship between women. If you have objections, don't read it. You have been duly warned.
NOTE: This story is a sequel to Truly Free and The Razor's Edge, so you might want to read them first since they establish a number of post-delta quadrant events and introduces many new characters. I used names for Bajoran characters that come from the world of Star Trek but the reader should not associate the Trek characters' histories with the characters here.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
RATING: 15. Some discussion of violence.

Flashes of Fire
By Weejee

Chapter 6

"We will take a fifteen minute recess and then the prosecution will call its next witness," Judge Selek announced.

At the crack of the gavel Stephen Reyes released a sigh of relief. He sat in his chair for a moment, vaguely aware of clamor around him of the guards removing Cole from the courtroom, of Nora MacKenzie at the table next to him gathering her things, and of the crowd in the room milling about. Jocasta Lakar passed him as she breezed off the witness stand and did not stop to look at him. **Well, it could have gone worse,** he thought. Although Jocasta had become the heroine of the story in her own elaborate and ridiculous version of events, he had been successful at getting her to relate the basic elements that the jury needed B that she and Annika Hansen had been kidnaped and that Cole had stolen her ship, the Sphinx. There had been a histrionic and altogether false-sounding detour during which Jocasta had wailed for the lost life of her pilot but Judge Selek had ruled this part of the testimony to be inadmissible since Cole would be tried separately on the murder charge. He was glad to have the most annoying testimony over with but was concerned for Seven's ability to testify with the threats that Cole's man had made hanging over her head.

Reyes stood up and touched Nora's arm as she passed him. "Mac, may I speak with you for a moment?"

"Sure, Stephen," Nora replied, following him to a secluded corner of the courtroom.

"I just wanted to inform you that Annika Hansen was assaulted last night by a man who threatened to kill her and her aunt if she testifies against William Cole," he said softly but firmly. Reyes could see the muscle in Mac's jaw pulsing as she bit down on her anger. He regarded her highly as an attorney and often wondered about how she stomached defending people like Cole. Reyes certainly respected her commitment to the rights of defendants - of all defendants - but imagined that some of the people on whose behalf she had worked must haunt her. He wondered how she dealt with it all, if there was someone . . . . *Oh, hell, this is not the time for that, Stephen!* he chastised himself. Nora sighed and met Stephen's eye.

"I hope that Ms. Hansen was not seriously injured," she said sincerely.

"No, she'll be fine. Just shaken up a bit and frightened for her aunt."

"Witness tampering is a serious charge, Stephen," Nora continued. "Yes, it is," Stephen nodded. "Since we can't prove that Cole instigated the incident, I've decided not to pursue this for now. We've instituted security procedures and Ms. Hansen will testify this morning."

Nora nodded. "I'll just go have a talk with my client. I'm sure he'll deny any knowledge," she added with a note of sarcasm.

"Nora," Stephen started but stopped for a moment when she raised her hand. "But . . . ."

"Please don't, Stephen. I couldn't bear to see that look of pity that I see on all the prosecutors' faces on yours - poor Mac, defending the scum of the galaxy."

"That's not where I was going at all," he said, emphatically. AI have so much respect for you, Nora," he continued softly.

"Thanks," she replied, patting his arm before she headed off to find out what Cole knew about the attack on Annika Hansen.

"What's so amusing?" Kathryn asked B'Elanna as the two sat waiting in the corner of the witness room. For the first hour or so, B'Elanna had been completely silent and sullen, trying to avoid looking at Seven and Irene who sat in the opposite corner, but now she had a strange, subtle smile on her face as she looked off into the distance.

"Not so much amusing as satisfying," B'Elanna responded, drawn out of the mental exercise in which she had been engaging in order to keep herself from focusing on the fact that Seven was sitting across the room from her. "I was just going over the specs for a new ship we're designing for a multi-world peace keeping patrol. It'll be something like the Norway class that Starfleet started building a few years ago. Its going to be a beautiful thing, Kathryn," she continued, smiling. "We're experimenting with multiphasic shields and weapons systems."

"On a ship that small?" Kathryn asked. "How will you be able to power them?"

"That's the beauty part," B'Elanna said, her smile growing. "I'm completely rethinking the relationship between the matter / antimatter injectors and the power transfer conduits. I think I can reclaim a huge amount of energy there and direct it to the weapons systems. The ship can remain small and maneuverable, able to be manned by a small crew and be relatively inexpensive for the patrol force to run."

Kathryn and B'Elanna turned their heads suddenly as they heard Seven's voice. "Would you not have to account for the limitations in the current configuration of reactant injectors?"

"That was actually the first wall I hit in the design," B'Elanna responded excitedly, "but I'm pretty sure that I solved it with a converter interface." She went on the describe the new component.

Seven thought for a long moment as the other three women regarded her. Finally, she nodded her head. "An elegant design. Impressive."

Kathryn expected B'Elanna to jump right back in and engage Seven in an extended conversation about the ship's design but, turning back to look at her former Chief Engineer, found the expression of satisfaction on her face gone, replaced by one of sadness. The women in the room fell silent again, Seven and B'Elanna holding one another's gaze for an extended moment, until one of the court officers entered.

"Court is in session again. Ms. Hansen," the woman said, looking at Seven, "please come with me."

Seven and Irene stood and followed the officer. Kathryn rose as well, having been released by Reyes from any obligation to testify. She patted B'Elanna's shoulder before leaving her alone in the witness room.

The next few hours were almost intolerable for B'Elanna. Tuvok had elected to spend the time waiting to see if he would be called to testify outdoors, and Kathryn and Irene had remained with Seven after she had testified. When the court broke for lunch, B'Elanna left the courthouse and took a seat on a bench under a tree. At a distance she saw the three women and could tell by the way that Kathryn and Irene hovered over her that Seven was upset. Resisting the urge to go over and to gather Seven in her arms was eating B'Elanna alive - not that Seven would have let her offer any comfort, a fact that also gnawed at her gut. She saw Seven shoo the two women away and stalk off into the park next to the courthouse, trailed by the guard assigned to her. Kathryn and Irene stood, somewhat stunned, and then noticed B'Elanna in the distance. They exchanged a few words and headed in her direction, also accompanied by a guard.

"I take it things didn't go well," B'Elanna said when Kathryn and Irene arrived, each taking a seat on the bench and flanking her. Irene took her hand.

"Mr. Reyes said that Seven did a good job and got the most vital information across to the jury," Kathryn told her.

Irene jumped in, "There's no way they could doubt that she was held against her will or that that man . . . ." Her voice broke and she squeezed B'Elanna's hand.

"That he what?" B'Elanna whispered, turning to look into Irene's eyes.

"He tortured her, B'Elanna," Kathryn answered, aware that it was too difficult for Irene to say the words. "For profit and for pleasure."

B'Elanna pulled her hand away from Irene, stood up, and began to pace before the bench. "What, exactly, did he do?" B'Elanna asked slowly, through clenched teeth.

Kathryn and Irene exchanged a glance and Kathryn opened her mouth, wondering how to begin.

"What did he do, Kathryn?"

"I don't think she told everything in her testimony, B'Elanna, but it seems he kept her in a darkened room from the time Jocasta was ransomed. She was strapped to a bed and he performed 'surgery' without any anesthesia. You and Tuvok saw the state she was in when you found her . . . ," Kathryn concluded.

B'Elanna nodded, her fists clenched at her sides. "But I had no idea he did that to her while she was conscious," she said, incredulous that anyone could be so cruel and inhumane. "He did it himself?"

"He did it himself," Irene confirmed, "without anesthesia or anyone with any medical training present. He just . . . tried to cut her up. And he was smiling as she told the story from the stand."

"I think it was more than the physical aspects that affected her so deeply," Kathryn offered softly. "As he assaulted her, he also abused her emotionally, telling her that the implants in her body were worth more than her life and that's why no one had ransomed her."

The three women remained silent, contemplating the impact that such emotional abuse must have had on Seven's psyche. As physically strong and imposing as she was, Seven was often emotionally unsure of herself and sometimes easily rattled in difficult situations. No one could blame her for withdrawing into herself in the face of Cole's assaults.

Irene reached out for B'Elanna's hand but was able only to make the most fleeting contact before B'Elanna pulled away and stormed off into the park.

"Seven," B'Elanna called out, nodding to the security guard who was standing off to the side of the bench where Seven sat.

Startled, Seven stood and turned around. "B'Elanna," she exhaled, taking a step back from the bench.

"I . . .," B'Elanna started. She had considered asking the guard to move even farther away so that they could have some privacy but did not want to frighten Seven. In truth, she had no idea what she was going to say but had felt an irresistible desire to be near this woman she loved, having finally learned some of the details of what had happened when she was being held by Cole. She shook her head and smiled slightly, feeling like an idiot. "I just wanted to make sure that you're okay."

"I am functioning acceptably," Seven replied, standing in the rigid fashion that had been customary in the past. "I am relieved to have concluded my testimony," she continued.

"Good," B'Elanna said, nodding. "I'm glad you're done too." She stood there, still not knowing what else to do. "I'll see you," B'Elanna finally whispered, dejectedly, and walked away.

For the thousandth time since she had determined to guard herself from the pain she had decided was the inevitable result of desire for life, Seven of Nine questioned her ability to remain steadfast.

Chapter 7

B'Elanna felt as if she were moving in slow motion as she entered the courtroom and walked up the center aisle to the witness stand. The blood was pounding in her ears and she couldn't quite tell whether the room was filled with sound or completely silent. As she walked, she saw Tuvok seated in one of the rows, having gotten word earlier that he would not be testifying. In the brief glance, she noted that he seemed to be assessing his surroundings and the potential threats to Seven and Irene. B'Elanna looked at the judge, who then nodded at her. She also could not help but notice the man she knew must be William Cole, restrained and seated beside a striking woman whom B'Elanna took to be his attorney.

Despite the degree to which Cole had occupied B'Elanna's energies– first as he and his men terrorized the Free Haven colonists, then when he took the equipment that the Federation had given the colony and, finally, when he had kidnaped Seven – B'Elanna had never been able to look closely at the man before yesterday. Even though she had seen him when she and Tuvok had rescued Seven, it was merely a fleeting glance as he scurried away like a coward. She hadn't know what to expect but, after some consideration, had to admit that he struck her as a disgusting, miserable coward. An image of herself slicing his throat flashed through her mind but, as she reached the witness box, B'Elanna realized that she needed to focus on the task at hand. As much as she wished she could drain the life from him herself, she knew that her job here was to testify so that he would be punished under Federation law.

Standing in the box, her eyes scanned the courtroom, resting on Kathryn, on Jocasta, then on Irene, and finally on Seven. Their eyes locked momentarily and B'Elanna wondered what Seven was thinking and reflected on the courage it must have taken for her to stand in the witness box and testify about being tortured -- and under the disgusting gaze of the torturer himself. B'Elanna shook herself from that thought, focused her gaze on Stephen Reyes, and concentrated on his face as he began to question her.

"Please state your full name," he began, stepping out from behind the prosecutor's table.

"B'Elanna Torres, Daughter of Miral of the House Kasara, Daughter of John Torres."

"And your current place of residence and occupation."

"I'm the Chief Engineer at the Jalaran Institute for Technological Development," she replied. "I reside there – in the town of Ilvia."

Reyes nodded at her in encouragement. "And how do you know Annika Hansen?"

As hard as she tried, B'Elanna could not stop herself from looking at Seven, who met her gaze. "I . . . we . . ." B'Elanna swallowed and dragged her eyes away from Seven's, looking again at Reyes. "Annika Hansen and I were crew mates aboard the Federation Starship Voyager and for part of the past year have been colleagues at the Institute on Jalara."

"But you are more than crew mates and colleagues, correct?" Reyes continued as Nora MacKenzie got to her feet.

"Objection, Your Honor," MacKenzie interjected. "I fail to see the relevance of this information."

"Your Honor," Reyes shot back, "It is crucial that I establish the reasons for Ms. Torres' participation in the rescue of Annika Hansen."

Judge Selek thought for a moment. "I will provide you with a small measure of latitude, Mr. Reyes, but do not stray far."

"Thank you, Your Honor," Reyes replied, turning back to B'Elanna, who had been dumb struck by the question and wasn't quite aware of what had transpired between the attorneys and the judge.

She was drawn out of her dazed state by Judge Selek's voice. "You may answer the question, Ms. Torres."

"Um. I'm sorry, could you repeat the question?"

"Is it not the case that you and Ms. Hansen are not simply colleagues?" Reyes asked.

"No, we are not *simply* colleagues," B'Elanna responded.

"And what is the nature of your relationship beyond the professional one?"

"We're . . . that is, we were . . . until three and a half months ago, we were romantically involved. We lived together on Jalara," B'Elanna managed to choke out.

"And is that why you went in search of Ms. Hansen when you received news that she had been kidnaped?"

"Yes," B'Elanna acknowledged, drawn to look at Seven once again.

"But you are not currently living together or romantically involved with Ms. Hansen, correct?"

"That's right," B'Elanna said, looking down at the floor near Reyes' feet.

"And why is that?" Reyes asked softly.

"I don't know," B'Elanna whispered. "After we freed her from Cole, she was different . . . cold, scared and refused to come home."

"Your Honor," Nora said, standing again. "I object most strenuously. The question is irrelevant and the answer is speculative and assumes facts not in evidence."

"The objection is sustained," Judge Selek responded. "Both the question and the answer will be stricken from the record. Please move on to another line of questioning, Mr. Reyes."

"Yes, Your Honor," said Reyes, a bit upset with himself. He looked apologetically at B'Elanna. "Please tell us how you came to find Ms. Hansen after you had received word that she had been kidnaped."

"Well, we learned from Jocasta Lakar, after her father paid her ransom, that William Cole had been the one who had kidnaped them," B'Elanna began.

MacKenzie interrupted again. "This is nothing more than heresay, Your Honor."

Judge Selek was swift in his response. "I'm going to allow it only to establish the motivation for Ms. Torres' actions." Turning to the jury, he continued, "You will not consider the statement as fact but simply as constituting a belief upon which Ms. Torres acted. Please continue, Mr. Reyes."

Reyes nodded and turned to B'Elanna. "And by *we* you mean?"

"I was aboard Voyager and Captain Kathryn Janeway and Commander Tuvok were assisting me," she explained.

"And what happened next that led you to Ms. Hansen?"

"Well, actually before . . . . Because Laertes Lakar had refused to pay Seven's . . . Annika's ransom and I didn't have the money, we decided to track his ship's movements to the rendezvous point where he was to retrieve his daughter. When we later learned that Cole was involved, Tuvok and I used the information Ms. Lakar provided, then charted a search radius and eventually found his temporary base on a station."

"And in what condition did you find Ms. Hansen?"

"She was weak and had lost a good deal of motor coordination because of lack of access to the equipment she needs to support the Borg implants that remain in her body. They had shackled her to a bed . . . there was blood from the cuts . . . . ." As much as she tried to deliver the account as simply objective testimony, B'Elanna could not and her voice broke when she continued. "For some time after that, Seven . . . Annika didn't seem to know what was going on around her. She wouldn't make eye contact and wouldn't speak to anyone."

Reyes took a step closer to the witness box in an attempt to get B'Elanna to focus on him so that they could push through to the end of her testimony. He nodded at her in encouragement. "I have only two more questions for you, Ms. Torres. When you and Mr. Tuvok gained access to the quarters where Ms. Hansen was being held, who did you find there?"

"There were three men there. We engaged in a brief struggle with two of them while the other ran off. We were able to hold the two for the authorities but the other got away."

Reyes turned to catch the jury's attention for his final question. "And do you see that third man here today, Ms. Torres?"

"Yes. The defendant is that man," B'Elanna said through clenched teeth and pointing at Cole for emphasis.

"Thank you, Ms. Torres," Reyes said and, looking at the judge, concluded, "I have no further questions, Your Honor."

Judge Selek nodded. "Ms. MacKenzie, you may question the witness."

As Nora MacKenzie stood, B'Elanna tried for a brief moment to muster animosity for this woman who could defend the likes of William Cole but quickly found that she could not. From everything Reyes had told her about "Mac" and the descriptions that Kathryn and Irene had given her of what had gone on in the courtroom, she knew that MacKenzie had behaved honorably – providing a fair defense for Cole but not seeking to lay any of the blame for what had happened on Seven. She took a deep breath and focused her attention on the woman standing before her.

"I won't keep you long, Ms. Torres," MacKenzie began. "I know this has been difficult for you," she continued with compassion. B'Elanna nodded to indicate her appreciation for MacKenzie's humanity. "You were not present when Ms. Lakar and Ms. Hansen were kidnaped, were you?"

"No, I wasn't."

"Nor were you present when Ms. Hansen received her injuries."

"No, but . . . ."

"So, you did not see Mr. Cole inflict the injuries on Ms. Hansen, did you?"

"No, I didn't."

"Thank you, Ms. Torres. I have no further questions."

Seven stood in the living room of the hotel suite she shared with Irene and gazed idly out the window. It had been an almost overwhelmingly emotional day with the experience of testifying, of hearing B'Elanna's testimony, and of being so near to B'Elanna all day. She felt some small measure of relief that the trial would probably be completed within another day or so, according to Mr. Reyes. Only the verdict would remain after that. Reyes had told her that it would not be necessary for her to stay for the rest of the trial after she had finished testifying but Kathryn and Irene had made it clear that they thought she should. Although she certainly preferred to return to the quiet of her room at Irene's house, Seven had decided to comply in this case. All in all, it just seemed easier than fighting with them.

Reviewing the day's events in her mind, Seven was drawn repeatedly to the image of B'Elanna in the witness box explaining – or trying to explain – how and why they were no longer together. Seven was still holding to her decision, but it shamed her to have caused such a strong and honorable woman to face such a public humbling.

Looking down into the courtyard of the hotel, which had been empty moments before, Seven was suddenly frozen at the sight before her – B'Elanna, seated on a bench with her head in her hands. As much as she knew her recently-chosen path required that she remain where she was, Seven could not. She wondered whether Cole's men had retaliated against B'Elanna for her testimony.Taking off into the hallway, she took a moment to explain the situation to the guard assigned to her and cautioning him to keep his distance from the two women once they reached the courtyard. From there, Seven fairly flew down the four flights of stairs and shortly found herself kneeling in front of B'Elanna.

Grasping B'Elanna's shoulders, Seven whispered, "B'Elanna, are you damaged?"

B'Elanna looked up, her eyes glistening with tears. Saying nothing, she took the opportunity of Seven's proximity to memorize her features, imagining that she truly might never see her again once the trial was over.

"B'Elanna?" Seven tried again, bringing one hand to her former lover's cheek.

B'Elanna turned her head to increase the contact with Seven's hand and closed her eyes. She felt the caress deepen as Seven moved her thumb to brush away a tear. When B'Elanna felt Seven's thumb move across her bottom lip, she released a deep breath and, opening her eyes, began to push Seven away.

"B'Elanna?" Seven asked for a third time, holding B'Elanna by the shoulders again.

"Please, don't, Seven," B'Elanna whispered, putting her arms out and succeeding in gaining some distance between them. "You can't . . . ," B'Elanna faltered.

"I simply wanted to comfort you, as you did for me earlier today," Seven responded, not understanding what was going on.

"And I appreciate it, Seven. I do," B'Elanna said, standing now. "But you can't touch me like that. I can't have . . . ."

"I do not understand," Seven insisted, standing up as well.

B'Elanna crossed her arms as if trying to protect herself. "I know you don't," she sighed. "I want you to know that you can count on me for as long as I live. If there's anything you need, I'll be there. I would die for you in an instant," she continued, her voice growing softer. "But unless you can be with me and commit to us and to a life together, we can't do this."

Seven remained silent, as comprehension dawned on her.

"I love you, Seven. I was never happier than when we were together and I can't imagine finding that again with anyone else. But more than anything, I want *you* to be happy, even if that means that we're to remain friends and nothing more." B'Elanna wiped a lingering tear from her cheek and continued, "But I'll need some time to figure out how to live with it."

Before Seven had time to collect her thoughts and respond, B'Elanna was gone.

Chapter 8

"For the tenth time," Nora MacKenzie sighed, shuffling the paper on the table in front of her, "it isn't necessary and, more than that, it just isn't a good idea."

"But I must have the opportunity to declare my innocence," William Cole said, pacing around the small conference room where the two were meeting. "I have a right to testify, don't I?"

"Of course you do," Mac responded, "But it isn't in your best interest to do so."

Cole stopped abruptly, turned to regard his attorney and narrowed his eyes. "You don't believe I'm innocent," he put forward flatly.

"That is of no consequence," Mac insisted. "My job as your appointed lawyer is to provide you with a thorough and vigorous defense and I have done that. Look, a number of the prosecution's witnesses have placed you at the scene of the kidnaping. The victims have identified you as the kidnaper and Annika Hansen has testified that you harmed her."

Cole rolled his eyes.

"You don't have any credible witnesses to counter their testimony," Mac continued to explain.

"I can counter it," Cole insisted.

"I really don't think the jury will see you as particularly credible at this point and, if you take the stand, you'll open yourself up to all sorts of other questions from the prosecution. I think we should rest the defense here and be satisfied with the progress we've made in the cross examinations. I've done all I can do, given the circumstances," she concluded. Mac continued organizing the papers before her, preparing to end the meeting and get back to her office.

Cole moved to the opposite side of the conference table, placed his hands on it, and leaned forward to meet Mac's eye. "You better have done all you can," he hissed, "or you'll be sorry."

Mac shoved the papers into her briefcase and stood quickly, noticing that Cole straightened up, startled by the sound of her chair squealing as it scraped the floor. She looked him square in the eye, unflinching in her gaze. "I assure you that I have given you the best defense possible and I promise you that I do not respond to threats. Your men are already under watch for that stunt they pulled with Annika Hansen. Don't try anything with me."

"Oh, I'd be much more creative with you, counselor - that is, if I had had anything to do with whatever happened to the Borg, which I didn't," Cole smirked. "But that won't stop me from spinning a few fantasies about the fun I could have with you."

Mac crossed the room and banged on the door to indicate her readiness to leave to the guards in the hallway. She turned and addressed Cole cooly before leaving. "I think you'll be the one to regret it if your fantasies become anything more than that."

Cole sat down and put his feet up on the table. "Delicious," he thought, smiling.

Kathryn and B'Elanna sat next to one another in an outdoor coffee shop, watching passers by and taking quiet comfort in the companionship. Closing statements had been concluded that morning and they were now released to wait for the jury's verdict. Having heard what had transpired between her two friends the night before, Kathryn had sought B'Elanna out, hoping to provide some support. While Seven was justifiably the focus of everyone's concern, Kathryn feared that B'Elanna might not be getting the emotional support she needed and thought that simply being with her would be a good start. She glanced over at her friend who seemed to be looking through instead of looking at the people on the street before them.

Sensing Kathryn's regard of her, B'Elanna turned and met her friend and former captain's eye. Sighing, she thought about the solace she had always drawn from Kathryn's strength and felt tremendously grateful for it. "I'll be okay, you know," she said finally.

"I know you will," Kathryn reassured her, smiling. "You don't need to tell me how strong and amazing you are. I know you, remember?"

B'Elanna shook her head and couldn't help but smile a bit. "I'm not amazing. I've just become more adaptable in my old age, I think."

At that moment, neither woman could keep their thoughts from another who claimed to adapt readily. Kathryn could see the tiny bit of mirth she had provoked fade from B'Elanna's face and reached out to take her hand.

B'Elanna sighed again and spoke so softly that Kathryn had to lean in. "It's just that I had gotten used to things being so much more than just okay."

"I know," Kathryn said, feeling frustrated at not finding anything more comforting to offer her friend, so she simply stroked the hand she held.

Seven of Nine looked up from the bench on which she had been sitting and reading to see Nora MacKenzie standing before her.

"May I join you for a moment?" Mac inquired.

Seven nodded her assent and Mac sat down close to Seven but still far enough not to make the young woman uncomfortable.

"I just wanted to make sure that you understand that what I said in my closing statement was true only in a narrow legal sense," Mac began.

"To what, specifically, are you referring?" Seven asked, not eager to review the events of the day with William Cole's defense attorney. She relaxed somewhat, however, when she saw the muscles in MacKenzie's jaw tensing, indicating to Seven that this was not an easy conversation for the woman.

"When I said that the emotional impact of Cole's actions on you were inconsequential, I meant it only in a legal sense - only that the jury could not consider it as part of their deliberation about his guilt or innocence."

"I understand," Seven replied, even though she didn't really. "Thank you," she concluded and turned her attention again to what she had been reading when Mac had interrupted her.

"Anni . . . Seven," Mac said. "What I mean to say now is that the impact of what he did to you *is* important. In fact, it's the most important thing of all - no matter what the jury decides."

Seven looked up, her eyes narrowed and her voice cold. "Do you expect the jury to set him free?"

"No, I don't actually. No one would be more surprised than I if that happened," Mac assured her.

"Then why are you attempting to divert my attention from verdict in this case?" Seven asked, frustrated and becoming agitated.

Mac fixed her gaze on Seven and leaned forward to make her point, "Because even if you win and he is convicted, I'm worried that you'll still end up the loser in all of this."

"I do not understand," Seven whispered. "What do you want from me?"

"It's what I don't want," Mac answered, feeling that she had finally begun to break through the distancing mask that Seven wore. "I don't want him to succeed in destroying your life. He failed to destroy your body but you're in danger of giving him another kind of victory."

"Why does this concern you? You are *his* attorney, are you not?"

"Yes, I agreed to represent him because I believe in the system and that everyone deserves a defense, but I was very moved by Ms. Torres' testimony about how the kidnaping has changed you and changed your life," Mac said gently.

Seven stared at her feet, wanting to leap up and tell this woman that her life and actions were none of her concern but she remained rooted to the bench, something deep inside her wanting to hear this.

Mac regarded Seven, riding out the play of emotions on the younger woman's face, expecting her to run away at any moment. Finally convinced that Seven was still open to listening, she continued. "I can tell that you're a strong person, Seven. You'd have to be to come through everything you have in your life. You need to find the strength to defeat him here and take possession of your life again."

Seven looked up and into Mac's eyes. "You have no idea how difficult it is to let go of my life."

"It may well be," Mac conceded, wondering whether she should use the final tactic she had up her sleeve and deciding finally to forge ahead. "But I suspect that giving into your fear of living takes less courage than actually living."

The two women remained seated there in silence for a short time until Mac finally stood. "Thank you for hearing me out," she said accepted Seven's silent nod before walking away.

"The Court thanks the members of the jury for their service," Judge Selek said loudly so that he could be heard above the din of the murmuring in the court room. Turning to the court officers, he commanded them to take hold of Cole. "William Cole," he said, addressing the man before him, "Having been convicted of kidnaping and attempted murder, you will be remanded to custody to await sentencing. Our business here is concluded," he finished, banging the gavel and standing to exit.

As the court officers removed Cole, he made sure to cast a menacing glare in Mac's direction.

Chapter 9

"Just a minute," Kathryn Janeway called out in response to the knock on her hotel room door. Voyager had been given an assignment and she had found herself needing to pack up and leave Penthara IV a bit earlier than she had planned. She hated having to rush and having to run out on B'Elanna and Seven without having helped to resolve the stalemate, but duty called. Pulling on her boots she headed to the door and, upon opening it, found Seven standing before her, the security officer assigned to her not far behind.

"I hope I am not disturbing you, Kathryn," Seven said, the rigid form of the drone she had been forming an exterior shell but the warmth of the woman Kathryn had come to love still seeping through in her manner.

"No, of course you're not disturbing me, Seven," Kathryn replied, ushering her into the room and gesturing for her to take a seat. "I had hoped that we could spend a bit more time together before I had to return to Voyager but, unfortunately, that's just not possible." Joining Seven on the couch, she continued, "I'm very sorry to have to leave so soon."

Seven looked down at her hands for a moment and then raised her head to look into her friend's eyes. "I do not believe I can convey adequately how much it has meant to me to have you here during this difficult time. I am sorry that you must leave as well," she said hesitantly. "I will miss your presence . . . very much."

Kathryn felt a deep rush of emotion come forward and became aware of her eyes becoming wet with unshed tears. **Finally,** she thought, relieved to at last see some hint of Seven coming back to life. "I wouldn't have been anywhere else when you needed me, Seven. I'm so proud of how well you handled yourself through all of this."

"Thank you, Kathryn. I do not think I could have done this without you and Aunt Irene present . . . or B'Elanna." This last bit Seven breathed out in a whisper so that Kathryn was not even sure she had heard correctly.

"So what are your plans now?" Kathryn asked gently, not wanting to press Seven on her admission of need for B'Elanna's support.

Again, Seven sat in silence for a moment, trying to gather her thoughts and grateful for the opportunity to solicit her friend's advice. "I was wondering if you thought B'Elanna might be open to me returning to the Institute."

Kathryn tried to maintain an impassive front but knew by the look on Seven's face that the disappointment she felt to her core had shown itself.

"Kathryn?" Seven inquired. "Have I said something wrong?"

"No . . . no you haven't. It's just. . . ." Kathryn sighed, uncertain about how to continue. "It's just that I expected so much more of you, Seven."

Seven stood abruptly and began pacing before the couch. "I am very grateful for everything you have done for me, Kathryn," she ground out in frustration, "but I do not understand what you expect of me or why everyone persists in tormenting me."

"I'm not trying to torment you, Seven, Kathryn insisted, trying her best to rein in the situation and calm her friend. "I care about you deeply and consider you family. You don't owe me anything -- not a thing. The only person you owe anything to is yourself." She paused for a moment to take stock of Seven's emotional state. "You owe it to yourself to make the best life for yourself that you can. I just want to make sure that you understand that and that you realize how much you deserve to have that for yourself – whether that life is with B'Elanna or not."

"I have made a decision about what is best for me. Why can you not accept it?" Seven shot back.

Kathryn sighed, feeling at wits end about how to make Seven understand the consequences of cutting herself off in this way. "It would help if I knew why you had decided to change your life so suddenly," she said softly.

Seven stood rigid, uncertain that she could ever make Kathryn understand why she had chosen the path that she had or how difficult a choice it had been. As much as she wished the conversation to be done with, she knew that her friend would never let the issue alone until she was satisfied. She turned to face Kathryn and spoke haltingly. "This has not been easy for me, Kathryn, but I have decided that the risks involved in emotional entanglements are too great and that I cannot continue to invest in relationships when human life is so fragile and easily terminated."

"Of course there are risks involved," Kathryn responded, "but it is a fundamental part of what it means to be human to venture forth and make those connections despite the risks." She paused for a moment and then pressed ahead. "I thought that you had discovered that with B'Elanna."

Seven turned away, almost overcome with the emotional burden of her conflict. When she spoke, it was in the formal tones of the woman she had been years before. "I cannot deny that I experienced the positive elements of humanity and individuality in my relationship with B'Elanna but my encounter with William Cole made very clear to me that the more I desired of life, the more I had to lose. And so I decided that it would be best to be self sufficient and to have nothing to lose."

Kathryn was dumbstruck at finally having a clear sense of Seven's logic and of what had motivated her to isolate herself from those who loved her. "So you've given up on your humanity then?" she asked in disbelief.

"I can be no more than what I am," Seven replied cooly.

Kathryn stood up, moved to stand right in front of Seven and looked into her eyes. "If I had believed that, I would never have risked bringing you aboard Voyager."

The two women stood with gazes locked for a long moment before Seven finally spoke. "Thank you again for your presence during this ordeal, Kathryn," she said and quickly left the room.

Sweaty and exhilarated from an hour's run, B'Elanna finally reached her small house in Ilvia. It had been lonely since Seven had left for Earth but for a long time she had been able to persevere in the hope that the woman she loved would change her mind about isolating herself and return to their life together. Since returning from Penthara IV and William Cole's trial, it had become lonelier still as she had begun to come to terms with the fact that she had lost Seven as her life's partner. Deep in thought about how to continue as Seven's friend and still maintain her sanity, B'Elanna didn't notice the woman sitting on her front porch.

"Hey," Dar'el, a new engineer at the Institute said, jarring B'Elanna from her rumination. The young woman from Pollux had only been working for a few weeks but had made a noticeable contribution to a number of especially difficult projects. Her enthusiasm had been contagious, prompting others around her to work even harder, and B'Elanna couldn't help but notice her. Of course, she also noticed that Dar'el seemed to have a crush on her, which also likely motivated her to work as hard has she had these past weeks. Since she had gotten back from Penthara IV, B'Elanna had actually enjoyed Dar'el's attention, bantering with the young woman - perhaps even flirting a bit - but being as careful as possible not to give her wrong impression. She wasn't sure what Darel knew about her history with Seven but B'Elanna knew herself well enough to know that she was nowhere near being able to get involved with anyone else. Even though it was fun to have someone interested, most days B'Elanna felt that she would never be able to get over Seven.

"Hey," B'Elanna said, wiping the sweat from her brow with her arm. She nodded at the piece of equipment in the young woman's hand and raised her eyebrows. "Must be serious to bring you out here after hours."

"Uh, yeah," Dar'el replied, standing up and holding out the equipment awkwardly and trying hard not to look so closely at B'Elanna's body, especially not at the tattoo that decorated part of her pectoral and shoulder and peeked through the tank top the woman wore. "I had an idea about how to boost the strength of the new ship's multiphasic shields."

B'Elanna entered the house and Dar'el trailed behind. "I hadn't realized that that was part of the current work plan," she said getting herself a drink of water.

"It wasn't," Dar'el admitted, "but I thought that it might be possible to get another ten percent without any additional power expenditure."

"Well, it isn't a priority, but I'd be happy to take a look at your plans. When Seven . . . when the Director arrives tomorrow, we'll have to review the specs and work plan for the ship in relation to what the peace keeping force's leadership wants. We may not be able to accommodate everyone's ideas," B'Elanna explained and then taking a long drink.

"Well she can't just trash our plans," Dar'el exclaimed. "We've been working so hard on this for weeks!"

B'Elanna put her glass in the recycler and looked at Dar'el, trying her best to keep her tone even, despite the fact that Seven's impending return had her stomach in knots. "She's not going to trash our plans but she is the Director and I trust her to do what's best for the Institute and for the project."

Dar'el looked as if it took all her will power not to respond but she succeeded in holding her tongue.

Pulling her running shoes off, B'Elanna began to head toward her bedroom. "Let me shower and change and we'll have a look at your idea."

"Okay," Dar'el said, somewhat dejectedly.

While B'Elanna cleaned up, Dar'el took the time to have a look around her supervisor's living room. There were various items and images clearly from B'Elanna's life on Voyager on display, along with holoimages of the children Dar'el had learned belonged to B'Elanna's friend Ven. Next to the console on the desk sat a holoimage of B'Elanna with Seven of Nine. In the image, B'Elanna sat on the front steps of her house and Seven sat behind her, embracing B'Elanna and nuzzling her neck. B'Elanna looked so very happy and the love and devotion that Seven of Nine felt for her was evident. She also noticed that B'Elanna's striking tattoo was absent when the image had been captured. Dar'el was startled by B'Elanna's reappearance in the living room.

"Sorry," Dar'el said, moving away from the desk. "I was just looking at some of your holoimages. "I didn't mean . . . . I didn't know you and she . . . ."

"It's okay," B'Elanna said. "I can't believe you hadn't heard already. Anyway, someone would have told you sooner or later."

"You're not still . . . um . . . together?" Dar'el asked awkwardly.

"Nope," B'Elanna said, picking up the data padd that Dar'el had brought with her and taking a seat on the couch.

"But you're still working together?" Dar'el said, joining her on the couch.

"Yep," B'Elanna replied.

"Interesting," Dar'el muttered.

"Let's have a look at this idea of yours," B'Elanna said a bit gruffly, , trying hard to turn her attention to technical matters and away from the fact that it was going to be incredibly difficult to have Seven back as a colleague and nothing more.

Part 10

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