DISCLAIMER: Yes, Paramount owns it all - I am just having some fun with their characters.
ARCHIVE: Caro, Damon and Rach - help yourselves. Anyone else - please ask :o)
FEEDBACK: Yes please, I wouldn't post otherwise.
THANKS: To Rach - for her brilliant beta skills and suggestions.
RATING: PG-13 although that might change
PAIRING: B'Elanna/Seven

Justifying the Means
By Rebelgirl

Part Three

"This is excellent," Collis lauded as he forked another portion of food into his mouth and chewed rapidly.

The EMH smiled and raised his eyebrows in faint surprise. "I'm glad you like it. I always get mixed messages regarding Neelix's culinary skills."

"Are you not eating, Doctor?" Jarlai asked quietly, eating at a far more restrained pace than her colleague.

"Er, no. I'm not hungry," the Doctor replied. After the ruction B'Elanna's mixed heritage had caused in the transporter room, the Doctor decided not to reveal his holographic status. Particularly as Captain Janeway made no reference to it during her introduction. Besides, technically he hadn't lied. He really wasn't hungry.

"Do send my compliments to the chef," Jarlai continued softly, dark eyes looking up from under her lashes shyly.

"I will," the EMH assured. "So are you pleased with the progress we've made?" He directed his question at Collis, who had almost finished his plate of brightly coloured vegetables.

"Absolutely. Your knowledge on haploid and diploid genetic development is simply outstanding. We have done a considerable amount of research into genetic sequencing and cell division. Many hereditary conditions have been eradicated amongst our people and technically, we should be a healthier species than ever before." Collis spoke between mouthfuls, but the enthusiasm for his research was clearly evident.

"So what's the problem?" The bald doctor easily picked up the slightly negative slant to the medical researcher's statement.

"Our life expectancy has dropped dramatically," Collis revealed. "Our people simply aren't living as long. There are less occurrences of certain disease, but we appear to be less capable of dealing with what used to be non life-threatening illnesses." The researcher appeared totally baffled by the situation.

"And you think that the solution is a genetic one?" the Doctor probed, his interest piqued.

"Definitely. We've made such fantastic leaps with medical advancement through genetic enhancement. It's only logical that we continue down that road. Now that we can expand our knowledge base by working with you, I'm confident that a solution is not too far in the distance."

The Doctor frowned. "There are some aspects to genetic modification that Starfleet has declared illegal. I may not be able to offer as much assistance as you think," he warned.

"Doctor, we are not in Starfleet. I am asking you to share your knowledge. Surely that does not break the Starfleet ethic?" Collis enquired.

The EMH hesitated for a fraction, looking at both researchers steadily. He certainly was not above using other specialist knowledge in order to get results. In fact, he had utilised a holographic image of a Cardassian doctor in order to help him with an ecto-parasite that had attached itself to B'Elanna in an effort to stay alive. "I may have to check certain aspects with the Captain," he warned. "But I don't see why I can't share knowledge."

Jarlai smiled widely. "Thank you."

"I might have known we'd find you stuffing yourselves," a voice interrupted them from across the mess hall. The medical team looked up to see Brin stride over to their table, with Grevis and Captain Janeway close behind. Both Darelghians held trays of food and the occupants of the table made room for them to sit down.

"How did you get on?" Grevis asked conversationally, attacking his food with the same vigour Collis had exhibited.

"Very well. I think we make a very good team," Collis commended the Doctor. "And with a bit more work, we should be able to get some positive results."

"Excellent. It's good to know that everyone will benefit from this meeting, Captain." Grevis smiled warmly at Janeway who had remained standing.

"I agree. Now if you must excuse me, I have business to attend to. Harry Kim will meet you here shortly and conduct the rest of your tour. We'll convene later to discuss the rest of the arrangements during your time on Voyager."

"You've been more than generous with your time, Kathryn," Grevis replied, standing up to shake the captain's hand formally before she left. "I look forward to spending some more time with you."

Janeway smiled. "So do I," she replied honestly. Nodding at the other Darelghians, Janeway turned and headed for the Mess Hall exit, encountering Kim on her way out and directing him over to where their guests sat.

"You and the Captain seem to be getting on well," Brin teased lightly.

"She's a remarkable woman," Grevis praised. "She has some interesting viewpoints on a number of subjects, but she is courteous enough to listen to my views. In some aspects, I think we're beginning to reach common ground."

The Doctor wondered at what they were referring to. There was a hidden agenda running under their apparently light banter, but he could not determine what it was.

"Hello, I'm Ensign Kim." Harry stood over the table and introduced himself formally.

"Greetings. Please sit with us while my colleagues finish their meal," Collis invited cordially.

Harry grabbed a chair and sat next to Jarlai. "Will you all be coming with me on the tour?" he asked hopefully. He thought the young chestnut-eyed woman was simply beautiful.

"Unfortunately not," Jarlai responded regretfully. "We still have much work to do with the Doctor." She saw the man's face fall slightly. "Perhaps you would do me the honour of showing me around later, if you're free?" she suggested hopefully.

Harry grinned widely. "I'd be delighted." Any further arrangements were thwarted as Tom Paris propelled himself through the doors and into the eating area.

"Harry, boy am I glad I found you."

Harry looked at Tom and then looked pointedly at his guests. When Tom appeared not to take the hint, he spoke up. "Tom, this is the Darelghian delegation. I'm supposed to be showing them round Voyager."

Tom looked apologetically at the aliens before facing Harry again. "B'Elanna threw me out. I've got nowhere to go. Can you help me out?"

"What happened? I thought things were going so well." Harry was astounded. He had been delighted that his two best friends had finally got it together, but always knew their relationship would be bumpy. He expected the occasional fireworks, but always thought that they would be able to sort things out.

"I made a mistake and then she wouldn't listen to me. You know she can be stubborn at the best of times. I couldn't explain what happened. She just wanted me to leave."

Harry had the distinct impression that there was a lot more to the argument than that, but did not want to embarrass Tom in front of the Darelghians. "Put your stuff in my quarters. Maybe once you've had some time apart, she might cool down enough to listen to you."

"Thanks Harry, you're a lifesaver. Sometimes I wish she'd just balance her Klingon pride with a bit more human reasoning. It's so hard to get through to her."

Brin cocked her head at the two men, suddenly interested. "You are talking of B'Elanna Torres, the engineer?" she asked.

"Yeah. Oh, you've met her already," Tom recalled, though he could not remember why B'Elanna had come back to their quarters in such a foul mood.

"I find it interesting that you find it difficult to reconcile the aspects of her nature. Is her temperament significantly influenced by her heritage?"

"Her heritage *is* her temperament," Tom replied. "One day she's the aggressive, impatient Klingon; the next she's sweet and loving. There are times when I can't keep up."

"Tom, that's not fair," Harry chided.

"Would you say that her mixed heritage has made it more difficult for you?" Grevis asked innocuously.

Tom thought about the question for a moment. "I'd say it almost made us not get together at all. She's stubborn and proud. Won't let anyone get close to her. But behind the bluff is a beautiful, intelligent and caring woman," he answered honestly.

"You make it sound as if it would have been easier to get to know her if she was fully human or fully Klingon," Jarlai surmised.

"I'd never have gone out with her if she was fully Klingon. Too dangerous." Tom cast his mind back a number of years when he had seen B'Elanna in her truly human form. The Vidiians had perfected a genome divider that had separated her from her Klingon half. "I know she's beautiful," he sighed wistfully.

"But it's a shame she has a dual background," Jarlai finished for him. She smiled softly at the tall lieutenant. "Don't you agree?"

Tom looked into deep brown eyes that reminded him of B'Elanna's. The Darelghian arguments were persuasive but there was something wrong about them. He wasn't sure what to think. "I think I'd better let you get on with your tour, Harry. I'll see you later." He looked steadily at Jarlai again for a long moment, a small smile twitching on his lips before turning away from the group.

"Mr Kim, we've delayed you long enough. Would you be good enough to show us around?" Grevis requested, his voice slightly louder than the others had been.

The strange atmosphere that Harry had felt wrap round him at the table lifted immediately and he nodded enthusiastically. "Certainly. Follow me," he invited, noting that it was just Grevis and Brin that stood.

"We must get on too. Are you ready to continue work?" Collis asked the EMH.

"Definitely." The tall bald physician stood up and waited for his guests to stand before he led the way back to Sick Bay.

"Honey, are you okay?" Sam Wildman sat down opposite her daughter and placed a tray of food in front of her. She grabbed a fork and began to eat daintily.

"I'm not really hungry," Naomi confessed, using her cutlery to push the food around the plate but not making any attempt to eat it.

"But you were starving when we left the holodeck," Sam pointed out. "What's happened?" She had left the young blonde girl sitting at the table and spoken with Neelix for a few minutes before heading back with food. She hadn't been gone that long, but something had upset her daughter.

"Nothing. Well. I don't know, maybe something." Naomi clearly wanted to say something, but was having difficulty expressing herself.

"Sweetheart, whatever it is, you can tell me. You know that." In Sam's experience, it was always best not to push the little girl into revealing what was bothering her; she would come round to it eventually.

"I know. It's probably nothing." She looked at her mother suddenly. "Do you have difficulty with my dual heritage?"

"What?" Sam was shocked. She had no idea where that thought had originated.

Naomi wasn't sure what to make of her mother's reaction. She had overheard the entire conversation between Lieutenant Paris and the aliens regarding Lieutenant Torres. If they were bothered about B'Elanna's background, would hers bother them? No one had ever discussed her father with her. Her only knowledge of Kataaria was what she had read on the ship's database. Her mother had always told her that she would wait for her father to tell her about her Kataarian heritage, and before it had always felt okay to wait, because it would be something special she could share with her father when she finally met him. But now, Naomi wasn't so sure. Perhaps her mother had avoided the issue because she was ashamed of that side of her. Perhaps she couldn't talk to Naomi about it because she reminded her of something or someone she would rather forget. But how could she ask her mother that and get an honest answer? Naomi was confused and hurt and did not know what to do.

"You just never talk about my father. Do Kataarians have traits you'd rather I didn't know about?"

"Oh honey, I love you totally. The only reason I don't talk about your father is because I miss him so much. But I love him. We would never have had you if we didn't love each other. I'm sorry sweetheart. I didn't mean to ignore that part of your heritage. We'll talk about it whenever you want," Sam vowed. Her mind was racing. Why was Naomi suddenly questioning her worth? It was quite alarming and confusing.

Naomi nodded. "Is it alright if I skip dinner? I need to go and find someone."

Sam's heart fell slightly. She knew exactly where the young girl was headed. "You want to speak with Seven?"

"We haven't played kadis-kot for a while. I thought I'd challenge her to a new game."

"Off you go honey. I'll save you something for supper." The blonde biologist sighed inwardly. She was eternally grateful that Naomi had struck up a friendship with the tall ex-drone but it sometimes felt as if Seven had usurped her position as mother. She reminded herself that she should be grateful that Naomi trusted someone enough to confide in them, even if it wasn't her. Miserably, she ate the rest of her meal in silence.

Naomi hurried down the corridor towards Engineering. The computer had told her that Seven was located there, and although she knew Seven was probably still working, Naomi was certain that the Astrometrics officer would find some time for her.

Her hopes crashed to the floor as she turned the corner. She saw Seven marching towards her, flanked by two more of the aliens. She knew she shouldn't prejudge, but Naomi was certain that they too would worry about heritage and background. She was surprised that Seven tolerated that sort of thinking, surely she would tell them that it was illogical. Her heart sank further. Unless it wasn't illogical, and there really was a problem with having a dual familial history.

"Naomi Wildman, can I be of assistance?" Seven had halted in front of her.

"I just wanted to know if you wanted to play kadis-kot," Naomi answered truthfully. From the quick glance Seven shot at her company, the young girl knew that she would decline the invite.

"I cannot comply Naomi Wildman. I am occupied with engineering duties. When this mission has been completed, I will accept your challenge." Seven hated turning Naomi down. She wanted to spend some time with her young friend in order to explain the aliens' behaviour in case the young half-Kataarian came across any bigotry. However, duty came first. Once the technology exchange was in full swing, she should have enough free time to speak with Naomi. Yet it still worried her when she saw how crestfallen the girl looked.

"It's okay Seven. I understand," Naomi answered. She stood to one side and watched Seven walk away from her. She noticed both aliens turn round to glare at her in a way that made her feel extremely uncomfortable.

Not wanting to go home, but at a loss as to where to go, Naomi took a gamble. "Computer, locate Lieutenant Torres."

"Lieutenant Torres is in Shuttle Bay Four," the resonant tones of the computer replied promptly.

B'Elanna could feel the cold seeping up from the hard floor of the shuttle bay and through her legs. The numbness it caused wasn't enough to take away one fraction of the pain of betrayal she felt. Tom had betrayed her by sleeping with someone else. And then tried to explain it away by brushing the incident aside. That betrayal sat on top of Captain Janeway's inaction in the transporter room. She had always thought that Janeway had higher values than that. Apparently, she really was married to her ship and her dedication to get home.

The engineer sighed. At least the shuttle bay was quiet. No one had disturbed her in the far corner of the bay and she felt safe enough to shed the tears she had been holding back. She hadn't cried since she'd been told that all her friends in the Maquis had been massacred. And even then, she'd cried in private. Then, she felt like she had lost the security of the one family where she felt she belonged. Now, both Tom and Janeway's actions had removed the new security she had felt on Voyager. She had been stupid enough to listen to Chakotay and let people in. Began to trust them and love them like the family she had lost. And now she was alone. Again.

She felt a cool air current pass over her face, accentuated by the tears that were staining her cheeks. Someone had entered the shuttle bay. Quickly, she rubbed her face with her sleeve, and silently hoped that whoever it was would just do whatever task they had to do quickly and then leave her in peace.

"Lieutenant Torres?" Naomi's voice was soft and tentative.

B'Elanna spun her head round and looked at the young girl. Her face was stricken with unvoiced pain, and instantly, the Klingon knew that Naomi had sought her out for a reason. "Come here, Spike," she invited, opening her arms and allowing the child to climb onto her lap before wrapping her arms round her and resting her chin on top of her head.

Naomi couldn't help it. The gesture of support tipped her over the edge and she began to cry. She had seen the engineer's face and knew that B'Elanna had been crying too. Somehow, the Klingon hybrid had known exactly what it was that was bothering her, and had instantly wanted to comfort her. At least she wasn't alone with her feelings she consoled herself as her body wracked with sobs.

B'Elanna held onto the girl tightly, allowing her own tears to fall again. If only Janeway could see how upset Naomi was, it might shake some sense into her. But B'Elanna would no more display Naomi's feelings in public than show her own. But Naomi's plight had given her a purpose again. She had to fight for what was right for the young half-Kataarian's sake, as well as her own.

She rested her head back against the bulkhead and closed her eyes, weathering out the storm of Naomi's emotional outburst. At least she was no longer alone.

Part Four

Sam Wildman looked up from her work when she heard the door chime and called out for her visitor to enter. When the door hissed open, her eyes widened slightly as she saw B'Elanna Torres cradling a sleeping Naomi in her arms.

"I think this belongs to you," the dark hybrid whispered, a small grin on her face.

"Thanks for bringing her home. Where was she?" Sam was confused. It wasn't that late, Naomi didn't usually go to bed `til later.

"We spent some time in the shuttle bay talking. I think it wore her out. You want me to put her to bed?" B'Elanna continued to whisper, not wanting to awaken the young girl.

Sam nodded and showed the engineer into Naomi's bedroom, pulling back the covers and then helping B'Elanna to remove her shoes. When the blonde girl was safely tucked in, she placed a gentle kiss on her forehead and reduced the illumination in the room. She smiled when B'Elanna smoothed the child's hair back affectionately before following her out of the room.

"Thanks for spending time with her. I thought she was with Seven," Sam admitted as she gestured for B'Elanna to take a seat. "You want something to drink?"

B'Elanna nodded. "Water will be fine, thanks." She waited for Sam to prepare the drinks and then continued. "Have you spoken with her much today?"

"Well, she was upset at dinner," Sam replied. "She asked about her father and why I didn't speak of him."

B'Elanna sighed. "Our guests the Darelghians have a dislike for `non- pure' species," she told the biologist.

"And Naomi heard them talking about that in the mess hall. Damn. No wonder she asked about Greshkrendrek." Sam put the rest of the jigsaw together, her voice tight as she tried to suppress her anger. "And because I haven't told her much about him, she thought that they might be right." She rubbed her temples and closed her eyes, furious with herself for unwittingly making life difficult for her daughter.

She looked up suddenly when a thought flashed through her mind. "Did they say anything to her?" Immediately, Sam's protective side took charge of her emotions.

"I don't think so, I'm sure she would have told me if they had." B'Elanna hesitated for a fraction as she took a deep draft of water. "Sam, I would never dream of telling you how to bring up your daughter. God knows I certainly don't have any experience in it. But every day I've lived with... actually, it doesn't matter about me." B'Elanna corrected herself automatically, uncomfortable about revealing her own experiences. "Just make sure Naomi's proud of who she is. And proud of *all* aspects of her nature and heritage."

"Thank you," Sam replied simply. She guessed that B'Elanna was uncomfortable about her own background and didn't want Naomi to suffer the same conflict. So far, it had been easy aboard Voyager. People were accepted for who they were, not what they were. A thought struck her suddenly. "Wait a minute. Aren't you supposed to be overseeing the technology integration in Engineering?"

B'Elanna grimaced. "Not any more. Apparently it would offend them if they had to work with me."

"What did Janeway say about that?"

"Told me to remember that with their help, we'd cut five years off our journey." B'Elanna tried, but failed to keep the bitterness from her voice.

"So we're still working with these bigots?" Sam's voice rose incredulously.

"Well, some of us are. I'm persona non grata. All the technology will be integrated into Voyager without me overseeing it. Which is kind of ironic considering I'll have to pull it all apart in order to know how to repair and maintain it." B'Elanna shook her head tiredly.

"So what are you going to do while they're here?" Sam just couldn't picture B'Elanna hiding away from the aliens.

"My job. I'm still Chief engineer. There is still loads of work to do within Engineering, without getting involved with the Darelghians. If I have to put up with their presence, they can put up with mine." She grinned wolfishly.

"Good for you," Sam commended. "But I'm not sure if Naomi's mature enough to do the same." She looked worriedly at the door to her daughter's bedroom.

"You don't give her enough credit. She's got an old head on those young shoulders," B'Elanna replied, thinking back to the conversation she had shared with the young half-Kataarian in the shuttle bay. It had been surprisingly easy to relate her own unhappy childhood memories to the girl, along with the reassurances that it was not the norm. Naomi had shown wisdom beyond her years when they had discussed attitudes and B'Elanna had marvelled at her ability to see things so plainly. She was relieved that Naomi's exposure to the Darelghians could be limited though. There was no need to subject her to suspicious looks and blind prejudice. "Naomi won't need to have much contact with them, thankfully. And I'll make sure I have time to spend with her, if she wants the company," B'Elanna offered.

"That's very generous. But you need to have some free time too. It wouldn't be fair on you or Tom for Naomi to monopolise your time." The blonde woman frowned when she saw B'Elanna wince at the helmsman's name. "Have I said something wrong?"

"Don't worry about it, Sam. I just thought the ship's grapevine was more effective," she answered.

"What happened?"

"I kicked Tom out. I suspect there will be a dozen different reasons as to why already flying around on the gossip circuit."

"I'm sorry to hear that. I always thought that you two made a good couple," Sam returned genuinely.

B'Elanna shook her head slightly. "I'm not so sure about that. We spend more time arguing than enjoying each other's company. And I spend far too much time working. I know that goes with the territory of being chief engineer, but I should have been able to schedule my time to coincide with Tom's off duty."

Sam narrowed her eyes with keen insight. "Don't you dare blame yourself for the break up, B'Elanna Torres. If Tom decided to entertain himself just because you're working, he's to blame for not making the effort to sort things out with you first." She wasn't certain exactly what Tom's transgression was, but she was fairly sure that he'd been caught with his pants down. She knew that Tom and B'Elanna had had their problems in the past but had managed to work through them, even if some of their spats had been explosive. But B'Elanna was an intensely proud woman, and there were some things she simply couldn't tolerate. Infidelity was one of them.

The Klingon smiled thinly. "I'd better go," she decided, changing the subject swiftly. "You tell Naomi she can come and see me anytime. I promised her that she could teach me how to play kadis- kot."

"I will. And thanks once again for looking out for her. I appreciate it."

"She helped me just as much as I helped her," B'Elanna confessed cryptically.

Sam frowned. "What do you mean?"

The Klingon shook her head. "Doesn't matter," she replied, dismissing the enquiry. "I really should be going." B'Elanna put her glass on a nearby table. "See you later." The dark-haired woman stood up quickly and headed for the door.

Sam watched the engineer depart and wished that there were something more she could do for her. It was well known that B'Elanna had few friends, and volunteered little information about her background or private life. Yet she was prepared to look out for Naomi and wanted to protect her from the hurt and injustice she had obviously experienced as a child. It must have been difficult for her to deal with the arrival of the Darelghians. To discover Tom breaking her trust must have been almost intolerable on top of that. The blonde biologist shook her head in frustration. Somehow, she would look out for the Klingon. It was the least she could do in return for assistance with Naomi. She also promised herself that she would have a long conversation with her daughter regarding her heritage and Kataarian background. B'Elanna was right. The girl should be proud of her lineage.

A quick glance round her quarters confirmed that Paris had indeed removed his belongings and B'Elanna sighed with relief. After the emotionally draining discussion she had had with Naomi, she was in no mood for an argument with her now ex-partner. The dark Klingon mulled over her options as she ordered a hot ratkajino from the replicator. Robotically, she took her drink over to the couch and sat down to contemplate the situation. Returning to her quarters made the whole situation real and if she was honest, B'Elanna felt lost and alone, despite what she told herself when Naomi sought her out in the shuttle bay. The next few days were going to be extremely difficult, and now that she was partially excluded from Main Engineering, her usual trick of becoming entrenched in work would not be so easy to accomplish. The brunette was determined not to become a pariah in her own domain, but frankly did not enjoy the prospect of working anywhere near them, despite her bravado in front of Sam. At least it would only be for a couple of days. Once they left she would only need to deal with the whispers and curious looks from the crew who would speculate on the nature of her break-up with Tom. And that would only last until the next gossip topic emerged.

B'Elanna's train of thought was broken by the entry chime of her door sounding. Her initial reaction was to ask the computer to identify her visitor, but then she realised that it would not be Tom. She had not yet changed the door entry system and they would have opened automatically for him. "Come in," she invited, not bothering to get up. The brunette raised her eyebrows when she saw Seven of Nine step through the entrance.

"Good evening, Lieutenant," the tall ex-drone addressed her formally, recalling that the crew liked to be greeted before the main point of a conversation was broached. "I have brought the modifications and specifications for the Darelghian upgrades for your attention." She held out a data padd and continued speaking. "Some of the integration requires quite extensive.." She was stopped by an outstretched hand from B'Elanna.

"I'm off duty Seven. And in case you hadn't heard, I'm not working with the Darelghians."

"I am aware of that. But you are still head of Engineering are you not?"

B'Elanna frowned. "I thought I was," she muttered cryptically. "How come you've got all this data?" she continued more loudly.

"Captain Janeway assigned me to work with the Darelghians. Nothing was mentioned about your absence so I assumed that you still required information about the project."

"You're in charge of the technology integration?" B'Elanna exclaimed in surprise.

"Yes." Seven straightened her back slightly. "Do you not think me capable of the task?" she challenged.

B'Elanna brushed the comment aside with a wave of her hand. "You're more than capable of doing that, Seven. I'm just surprised that they're working with you, that's all." A short while ago, B'Elanna knew she would have exploded had Seven been given a task in Engineering without her express permission. But after working with Seven, she had to admit that her skills were superior to every other engineer she had. The ex-drone still had to learn the intricacies of working as part of a team and how her actions might affect other work, but after B'Elanna gave her a number of practical examples where tasks had become unnecessarily protracted, Seven had come to realise that communication wasn't always inefficient.

"You are referring to their attitude towards hybrid species," Seven confirmed.

"Well, they didn't waste any time, did they?" the Klingon mused quietly.


"Sorry Seven. It's probably me being paranoid. So how come you're in favour and I'm not?" B'Elanna took a draught of her ratkajino suddenly as she heard the bitterness return to her voice.

"Apparently, having 18 percent Borg integrated circuitry in my body is not the same as having a gene sequence combined from two different species. I pointed out the illogical reasoning behind the Darelghians' opinions but they took exception to my argument."

B'Elanna stared in amazement at the blonde before emitting a short bark of laughter. "Thank you Seven."

"What for? Their position is flawed. It would be wrong of me to not comment on the situation." Seven was surprised at the engineer's words.

"Not everyone would do that," B'Elanna explained. "Do you want to sit down? You're making my neck ache," she grumbled, knowing that Seven would not sit unless there was reason to do so.

Seven nodded, realising that the conversation was about to become protracted. It was rare for B'Elanna to share a conversation with her that strayed beyond science or engineering, but Seven had enjoyed the few occasions when they had. B'Elanna had a sharp wit, and her passion and verve was not reserved for technology. She glanced round and elected to sit in the chair opposite the couch the brunette was occupying.

"Do you want something to drink?" B'Elanna was delighted that the Borg had taken the hint and sat down, and decided to see if the offer of a drink would be declined.

"I do not require.." Seven pulled herself up short and a small grin graced her face. "No thank you, Lieutenant," she replied, testing the unfamiliar but more accepted practice of simply turning the offer down. Her grin widened when she saw B'Elanna smile at her use of vernacular.

"More lessons with the Doc?" the Klingon teased lightly.

"I suspect that I will never have a natural ease with the social protocols that I should have learnt as a child," Seven replied ruefully. "But the Doctor insists that I continue to try."

"Don't be too hard on yourself. I've got used to your way of speaking now. It's not much different to talking with Vulcans. Just takes a bit of adaptation on everyone's part."

"And yet it was you who pointed out that I was rude," Seven replied, though there was no accusation in her voice, she was simply stating a fact.

"And you were. But a `please' and `thank you' doesn't suddenly make a sentence polite. Speaking or acting without consideration is rude. And I've been just as guilty of being rude to you," B'Elanna answered, brutally honest as always. She exhaled loudly. "But I think we're just about past that now." The Klingon grinned again. "Well I hope we are, anyway."

Seven nodded in agreement. "I believe you are correct. At least our confrontations are now purely focused on operational issues as opposed to personal shortcomings."

B'Elanna frowned as she interpreted the cryptic comment. "Does that mean that you argued because I didn't meet up to Borg standards?"

"In essence, yes." Seven continued rapidly before B'Elanna misunderstood her meaning. "When I first came on board, I had no other way of measuring the crew's worth. Most people accepted that my methods were sound and well proven due to their originating in years of Borg assimilation. You challenged every method and because I had no exposure to your style of innovation or intuition, I considered your techniques crude and inconsistent. It took some time to accept that your approach produced satisfactory and, in some instances, better results. I suspect that some of your challenges were purely wilful, but you too have come to accept my methods as sound and do not object automatically."

B'Elanna sat back and smiled slightly. "I had no idea you were so insightful," she remarked softly. "And, I admit, you are right for the most part. I did argue for the sake of it on many occasions." She paused as the statement triggered a number of memories surrounding the arguments with the taller woman. She shook her head slightly before continuing. "So how are the modifications going?"

"Not to schedule," Seven replied, unable to stop a moue of disgust forming. "The installations are taking far longer to implement than your predictions suggested. The Darelghians have a substantial amount of redundancy in their routine checking, and each adaptation is subsequently taking approximately 2.7 times as long to be validated."

"Are you telling me that they're running tests for the sake of running tests?" B'Elanna interjected, leaning forward to grab the data padd from the ex-drone.

Seven suppressed a smile as soon as she saw the brunette leap into action. She had predicted that it would not take long for her to become embroiled in the installations, even if it was only from the sidelines. "In my opinion, yes. They are adamant that the routines are necessary and I have been unable to convince them otherwise."

B'Elanna studied the padd voraciously, looking for evidence to back up Seven's statement. "I can see what you're saying, Seven," the Klingon concurred after a few seconds. "But I'm not sure we can justify bypassing their methods in order to hurry things along. Each test contains cross-checking and supplementary back-filtering alongside the verifications for new work." She rubbed her neck tiredly. "I can't see them deviating from their routine."

Seven nodded. "Their routine is inefficient. I have produced a modified program that enables all checks required to be performed in a fraction of the time, but they are uninterested in my approach. I find it quite frustrating to be working with them."

B'Elanna grinned. "It almost makes me glad that I'm off the project," she remarked casually.

"Lieutenant, I do not wish to offend, but why did Captain Janeway agree to your removal from the project?"

"For the good of the rest of the crew, you should appreciate that," the dark engineer replied.

Seven raised her borg enhanced eyebrow. "Explain."

"They didn't want to work with me as I'm a `filthy mongrel'," B'Elanna began, recalling the words that had been bandied round the transporter room easily. "But if Janeway refused to work with them altogether, the opportunity to take five years off the journey time back to the Alpha Quadrant would be lost."

"Superficially, that is a reasonable conclusion. But the Captain has put the needs of the individual before the needs of the crew on many occasions. What makes this time any different?" Seven was confused, recalling how Janeway had come after her and rescued her from the Borg Queen, despite putting the rest of the crew in danger.

"You'd have to ask her that. But I'd guess it's because Naomi and I aren't in any direct danger, so there isn't any real conflict. As she told me, we travelled through a large part of space hiding those with mental powers away from Kashyk. There isn't much difference."

Seven stiffened. "Naomi? Why would Naomi be affected by this?"

"Because she is a hybrid too. We'll just do our own thing `til they go and then things can get back to normal." B'Elanna winced at her own words, knowing that it would take a long time for her to get her life back to any sense of normality.

"Has Naomi already heard about the Darelghian principles?" Seven queried, her voice strained.

"She overhead them talking in the Mess Hall. It was all about me, but she was hurt by it just the same."

"This is unacceptable. Naomi should not have to be exposed to derogatory and unfounded comments." Seven was outraged, and suddenly made sense of the look of hurt the young girl had given her when she saw her earlier. Seven looked abashed as she realised the implication of her words. "Neither should you."

"Thank you for that. But I can look after myself. You're quite right about Naomi however. We'll just have to make sure she doesn't come into contact with them while they're on board."

Seven was already thinking ahead. "I will tell the Captain to discontinue the modifications. They will have no choice but to leave Voyager."

"And she will tell you that the modifications are for the good of Voyager, and that it is her decision to make, not yours," B'Elanna countered easily.

"Then I will withdraw from the project. Naomi appeared upset that I was associating with them. I will not upset her further by working with them." Seven was determined to do something.

"Don't do that, Seven," B'Elanna demurred. "You're the fastest engineer on this ship. If they work with anyone else, they'll be on board for a damned site longer than I want them to be. Better for you to supervise and speed things through as quickly as possible."

"I will need to explain this to Naomi," Seven mused quietly.

"She'll understand," the engineer assured her softly. "She was just feeling insecure when she saw you with them."

"It is a feeling she should not have to experience," Seven replied grimly.

B'Elanna sighed. "I know." She ran a hand through her thick hair. "Naomi's asleep now. Go and see her tomorrow first thing, and have a chat with her. I'll speak with the Captain and see if I can get her to convince the Darelghians to cut out some of the testing. And make sure you spend some time with Naomi during this refurbishment. Even if it's just a few minutes, it'll make a difference." B'Elanna hadn't realised how much Seven valued her relationship with the young Kataarian. She suspected that Seven could somehow capture the essence of growing up through Naomi, after having had her own so cruelly snatched away from her.

"Thank you for your assistance, Lieutenant. And my apologies for disturbing your evening." Seven stood fluidly.

"You only disturbed me drinking a cup of coffee. Thank you for keeping me in the loop on this." B'Elanna stood as well, and returned her cup to the replicator.

"I hope I have not disrupted any plans you had with Lieutenant Paris," Seven continued as she headed for the door. She hesitated when she saw B'Elanna grimace. "I obviously have."

"No, you haven't," contradicted B'Elanna. "Tom and I have split up," she told the taller woman. "So I don't have any plans whatsoever for any free time I might have in the near future."

"I see." Seven suddenly felt awkward. She had little experience with personal relationships, her last romantic encounter having ended disastrously. She felt strangely inadequate and could think of nothing suitable to say to B'Elanna. She had always been of the opinion that the helmsman and engineer's relationship had been a massive mismatch. However, she had learnt enough to know that to voice that opinion now would not help matters. She resolved to research the problem and see if she could assist the half-Klingon when she was better prepared.

B'Elanna sensed Seven's discomfort and could empathise with her. There was nothing anyone could say without falling into clichéd statements about time healing the pain and finding someone new. She didn't want to hear that right now and was grateful that Seven appeared to have the sense not to iterate those sentiments, even if she was struggling to say anything appropriate. "Don't worry Seven. There's nothing anyone can say to make things better at the moment. But I'll get there in the end."

Seven nodded, appreciating B'Elanna's defusing the tension that had suddenly built. "I will see you in the morning, Lieutenant."

"After you see Naomi," B'Elanna reminded. She smiled when she saw the blonde nod determinedly and watched Seven leave her quarters. She returned to the couch and sat down, tucking her legs up and hugging her knees tightly. The short period of time she had spent with Sam and Seven had managed to keep her mind busy and away from her break-up with Tom. Now she was alone again, she knew she was in danger of wallowing in the pain of betrayal. She did not want to allow herself that overindulgence. It would only develop into self- destructive feelings of worthlessness and shame. She was not prepared to open up to those feelings again after so long. Sighing cathartically, she snatched the data padd from the table and began to study it again. Perhaps she could find a system of testing that the Darelghians might find acceptable.

Part 5

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