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 Five

Sam looked up in surprise as the entry chime to her quarters sounded for the second time that evening. Wondering who her second visitor was, the blonde woman called out permission for the person to enter. "Seven," she exclaimed. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What's wrong?"

"I require Naomi Wildman's attention," Seven stated firmly.

"Er, she's asleep." Sam got up from the couch where she had been reading. "Come in, Seven," she invited.

The tall blonde stepped through the entrance elegantly and hovered hesitantly. "I believe I have inadvertently caused Naomi distress. I need to rectify the situation immediately."

Instantly, Sam realised that Seven had been talking with B'Elanna. "This is to do with the Darelghians, right?" she confirmed.

The tall Astrometrics officer shifted nervously. "I suspect Naomi drew a number of incorrect conclusions when she saw me escorting two Darelghian engineers to the Mess Hall," she conjectured.

"And you want to make things right," Sam concluded.

"That is correct, Ensign." Seven nodded sharply to emphasise her words. "That she is asleep is irrelevant."

"Not to a seven year old girl. Or to me for that matter," Sam replied firmly. Seeing the taller woman frown at her words, she sighed. "Seven, no matter what's happened, or how Naomi interpreted it, she's asleep now. She's had an emotional few hours and is exhausted." She smiled slightly. "B'Elanna had to carry her back here for me," she revealed.

Seven raised a Borg enhanced eyebrow, yet found she wasn't all that surprised by B'Elanna's actions. However, the momentary distraction from her desire to set things straight allowed the tall ex-drone to put things in perspective and she nodded slowly. "You are correct, Ensign Wildman. I should not disturb her."

"There is nothing you need to say that can't wait till morning," Sam stated assuredly.

"I am sorry to have disturbed you," Seven turned to leave Sam's quarters.

"Seven, you're never a disturbance," the ensign demurred, smiling wryly. "Do you want to sit down and talk about it?"

"I am not sure there is much to discuss," Seven replied slowly. She did however halt her exit from the room. "I have been ordered by Captain Janeway to work with a group of people who have an illogical fear of interspecies breeding. Despite my attempts to point out the weaknesses in their arguments, they remain dogmatic in their opinion. I find their attitude.. uncomfortable, and yet appear to have no choice but to continue working with them until the modifications have been completed." The tall blonde sighed uncharacteristically.

"No choice?" Sam frowned.

"Lieutenant Torres stated that the Darelghian's time on board would increase significantly should I withdraw from the project. She found that to be an unacceptable alternative and I concur."

"Are you worried that Naomi will think less of you for working with them?"

"It is a possibility," Seven admitted, realising for the first time that much of her anxiety had originated from that thought.

Sam looked at the young woman sympathetically. "I think that if you have breakfast with us tomorrow morning and tell Naomi what you have told me, she will understand the situation you're in." She sighed. "Seven, Naomi loves you. You're her idol. I very much doubt that anything you do would mar her opinion of you."

Seven looked at the biologist in surprise. "I have done nothing to merit such an opinion," she refuted.

"Try telling a seven-year-old that," Sam's smile turned into a frown as she witnessed a glimmer of distress ghost over the ex-drone's features. "What's wrong?"

Seven hesitated, uncomfortable with her own thoughts. She looked imploringly at Samantha. "I am finding it difficult to deal with the Darelghians rationally."

"You're not the only one. I've been livid ever since I spoke with B'Elanna, and not just with those bigots," the other woman replied forcefully. "I fully intend to make sure Captain Janeway is aware of my feelings about her own actions in even allowing them on board."

"Captain Janeway has to consider the welfare of the entire crew and Voyager's ultimate mission," the tall blonde replied automatically.

"Not at the expense of my daughter," Sam retorted, her voice thick with anger.

"Naomi Wildman will adapt. You have confirmed that yourself." Seven paused a beat. "It is my feelings over Lieutenant Torres that bothers me," she admitted finally.

"What?" Sam had no idea where that comment came from. She knew that the two women had an adversarial relationship at best, but the grapevine hinted that their arguments were no longer as vitriolic or likely to spill blood as they used to be.

Seven studied Samantha for a few moments, wondering if she should reveal her personal demons. Samantha was the closest person she had to a confident that she could trust; the Captain and the Doctor were friends but she was uncertain how much she could safely tell them. She licked her lips nervously before continuing. "When I spoke with Lieutenant Torres today regarding the behaviour of the Darelghians, I was outraged at the thought that Naomi could be hurt by their opinions and actions. But at the same time, I could not help but feel some sort of satisfaction that Lieutenant Torres is being treated this way."

"What?" Sam repeated, not sure if she was following the conversation correctly. "Why?"

"Lieutenant Torres has exhibited similar behaviour towards me in the past." Seven shifted her weight before elaborating. "I was often designated simply as `Borg' by her, and she gave me no opportunity to demonstrate that I was no longer part of the Collective. I find myself conflicted by her treatment. Logically, the behaviour of the Darelghians is flawed and distasteful. I have no desire to work with them and will be glad when the assignment has finished. At the same time, a part of me believes that Lieutenant Torres deserves the treatment she has received. I cannot explain my thought process, but I cannot deny that on some level, I believe it is warranted."

"As punishment for the way she treated you?" Sam probed gently.

"Yes. No." Seven shook her head slightly. "I do not know. I know it is wrong to feel that way. No one should be treated in that manner."

Sam sighed, uncertain how to broach the topic. "Seven, not all aspects of humanity are logical or reasonable. When we're hurt, we often want to exact some sort of punishment. And feelings are immune to logic and sometimes reason." She touched the taller woman's arm gently. "Your feelings aren't unusual. You've just discovered that humanity isn't all about the ideal or perfect way of doing things. I suspect that the guilt you're experiencing over those conflicted emotions is just as strong as the desire to have B'Elanna experience some of your discomfort."

"I cannot justify my feelings, Ensign Wildman. They are illogical. I am irrationally glad that B'Elanna has been hurt by the Darelghians' principles and at the same time angry that they have treated her in such a manner. I cannot deny that I am reluctant to work with such narrow-minded individuals." A look of genuine pain flashed across the Astrometrics Officer's face.

"Don't compare yourself to them, Seven," Sam told the younger woman assuredly. "The very fact that you recognise an internal conflict and understand how others are affected by these actions raises you above them and their twisted principles. I'm not going to pretend that this situation is easy to deal with. You're uncomfortable about working with them. Just do your job and keep your distance. Don't get sucked into arguments about their tenets and beliefs. From what I've heard so far about them, it would never make a difference no matter what you said. Just remember who is important to you and why. That'll steer you in the right direction as far as your humanity is concerned."

"Thank you Ensign Wildman. Your advice is duly noted."

"Are you sure you don't want a drink, or something to eat?" Sam offered again, sensing that they had gone as far as they could with that particular thread of the conversation.

"I do not require nutritional supplements at this time," Seven replied automatically. "I have duties to attend to." She turned to leave Sam's quarters once again.

"Don't forget breakfast tomorrow morning," the biologist prompted. "Be here for 0800."

"I will comply." Seven fell back on standard speech patterns, still ill at ease with her feelings and reactions to the Darelghians.

Sam shook her head slightly as she watched the young woman leave. She wondered when it was exactly that she had turned into the ship's counsellor.

B'Elanna hurried onto the Bridge of Voyager, nodding at Chakotay as she strode over to the entrance of the Captain's Ready Room. The raven-haired Klingon forced herself to stop and signal her presence by punching the entry chime to the room. She crossed her arms and fidgeted as she waited for the Captain's permission to enter.

She propelled herself through the doors and began to speak before they had even finished closing behind her. "Good morning Captain, sorry to disturb you but I've been looking..." The Chief Engineer broke off when she realised that she was not alone with Captain Janeway.

"Good morning B'Elanna. Grevis and I have been discussing the progress on the integration. Things are proceeding nicely," the Captain enthused.

Torres nodded curtly at the Darelghian delegate and was surprised to see him flinch slightly in response and sink back in his chair. She had supposed that they did not like inter-breeding, but his reaction seemed to indicate an almost fearful distrust of her. The engineer frowned slightly. "Seven showed me her reports last night," she told the red-haired woman. "There's a significant amount of time taken to test the circuitry. I think I've come up with a way to reduce the time the tests take without affecting the procedures."

"Sounds interesting. Go on," Janeway invited, nodding approvingly.

B'Elanna took care to speak only to the Captain, not wanting to include Grevis in the conversation. "I've made a series of adjustments that has reduced the consolidation phase by 20% without losing any of the checks the Darelghians want to perform."

"Well done," Janeway commended, holding out her hand to obtain the data padd B'Elanna was holding. Privately, she was intensely proud of the young woman. Despite being unfairly discriminated against, B'Elanna had focused on her responsibilities and continued to assist Voyager. It was testament to her character that she had not simply given up and slunk into the background during the Darelghian visit.

The auburn-haired woman scanned the padd briefly but thoroughly, ensuring that she understood B'Elanna's proposals in full before extending the idea to Grevis. "Excellent work Lieutenant. Grevis, would you like to take a look?"

Grevis looked slightly uncomfortable. "I am sorry Captain, but we have a quite specific routine for technology integration. It ensures a 100% success rate. I know your engineer might consider some of our methods superfluous but why change a successful operation?"

"Are you not even interested? Sharing information and techniques is just as important as sharing technology." Janeway was astounded by the refusal and her eyes narrowed as Grevis shook his head for a second time.

"Even if I were to approve the plans, I would still have to seek authorisation from the head of technology and other various parties. Quite frankly, it would take just as long to approve the changes as it would to just carry out the methods we utilise anyway." Grevis dismissed the proposal out of hand.

B'Elanna had the distinct feeling that the changes had been rejected due to who had proposed them and not what the alterations entailed. "It wouldn't hurt to try would it? Perhaps when they saw that the improvements were beneficial to all parties, the decision would be made that much more quickly."

"I can try," Grevis conceded reluctantly. "But if you're really interested in reducing the time my team is on Voyager, perhaps we should increase the numbers of engineers working on the project. If I treble the team, the installation time will reduce significantly."

"That's very generous of you," Janeway began diplomatically. "But surely your teams have other projects and work to do."

"Our primary project is one that your Doctor is already assisting us with. Everything else is of lesser importance. My engineering teams would be delighted to assist."

"I'll make the necessary arrangements to get your teams on board then," the captain conceded, mentally making a note to ensure Tuvok was apprised of the increase in alien activity.

"Captain," Torres interjected, amazed that more Darelghians would be permitted to work on Voyager.

"I know things might be a bit awkward B'Elanna," Janeway responded quickly. "But you've already expressed a desire to speed up the process. If your plans get approved while the Darelghian engineers are on board, then the project will be completed well ahead of schedule."

Grevis shifted nervously. "Your engineer's concerns are valid, Captain," he admitted candidly. "Most of my people have heard that you have hybrids on the ship. There may be a certain reluctance for them to board."

"Then we'll just have to try my solution," B'Elanna interjected, smiling acidly at the tall man.

"I know that you won't object to any measure to hurry things along. My teams will be more than happy to assist your crew, if they can have an assurance that they will not be working with any hybrids."

"Captain, this is ridiculous," the brunette objected. "It's bad enough that I've been exiled from the engine room..."

"That will do Lieutenant," Janeway warned, stopping the younger woman in mid tirade. She stared at Grevis carefully. "You've obviously thought about this Grevis," she acknowledged. "How do you propose to overcome your peoples' predicament?" She picked her words carefully, hoping that Torres would pick up on where she firmly placed the root of the problem.

"In past encounters, hybrids wore a distinct badge, declaring them for what they were."

"No way!" B'Elanna crossed her arms across her chest to stop herself from physically harming the delegate. Her eyes blazed with fury at the suggestion.

"I have to agree with my Chief Engineer I'm afraid Grevis. That solution is wholly unacceptable." Janeway kept her tone neutral, though inwardly, she too felt outrage at the suggestion. She was beginning to doubt her wisdom in dealing with these people in the first place.

Grevis nodded quickly. "Having taken the time to get to know you, I realised that this would be unacceptable." He smiled warmly at the captain before continuing. "Would it be too much to ask if your engineer and the other hybrid kept a timetable of their movements? For example, if we knew when they frequented the dining area, we would ensure that none of our people took their breaks. Is that too distasteful?" Grevis kept the tone of his voice reasonable and placating.

B'Elanna was having none of it. She hadn't missed the way Grevis refused to use her name or even rank and she was beginning to feel like a third-class citizen. "It's just segregation under a different veil."

Janeway sat back. The engineer was right; what Grevis was suggesting was a deliberate attempt at exclusion. But Janeway could see no alternative if they wanted to complete the installations as quickly as possible.

Conscious of a potential diplomatic clash, the auburn-haired woman stood and led B'Elanna to one side, hoping for a small measure of privacy. "B'Elanna, I understand how you feel about this, but we're in the middle of the installations now, and the Doctor is still working with their medical teams. Once the technology integration has been completed, there will only be a need for the Darelghians to be present in Sick Bay and associated research areas."

"You're going along with this?" B'Elanna's voice was hoarse with barely constrained emotion.

"It will only be for a few days," Janeway reasoned.

"And then there'll be shore leave and other delays while the Doctor is working with them. Captain, it's not just going to be for a few days," the brunette disputed hotly.

"All I'm asking is for you to follow a time table. It's something that you do anyway. You start your shift at a certain time, and generally finish at a set time. For a few days, it will just be a bit more formal. No one else needs to know about this. No one else will think that there is any segregation going on."

"Except Naomi and Sam," B'Elanna pointed out furiously. "Are you expecting a seven year old girl to follow a rigid time-table?"

"With your help, yes," Janeway responded quietly.

"What?" B'Elanna was astounded.

"You're right; she's going to find it difficult to understand what is going on. I need you to speak with her and explain that this does not reflect our tenets on Voyager."

"And how do you propose I explain to her that it's only happening because we want some technology? How do our tenets stand up to that?"

There was a discreet cough. "Perhaps I should leave," Grevis offered when the two women spun round to face him.

"That won't be necessary. I still need to discuss the work you are doing with the Doctor. If you could just give me one moment?" Janeway queried, raising her eyebrows slightly.

Seeing the delegate nod acquiescence, she turned away quickly, hooking an arm through B'Elanna's elbow and pulling her with her. "I know that this is difficult, but I would appreciate some co- operation. We have an opportunity to take years off our journey time. Now I know that you and Naomi have already been affected by the Darelghians being on board. There will be no change in interaction with the rest of the crew. No one who matters will treat you any differently."

"Captain, it all matters," the half-Klingon pointed out. "But you've already made up your mind." She ran a hand through her hair distractedly. "I don't know if I can explain this to Naomi. I don't understand it myself. Are you expecting me to change my routine completely?"

"Definitely not," Janeway refuted quickly. "If the Darelghians don't want to work with you, then they will have to work round you."

B'Elanna nodded at the concession. "Nice thought but it would disrupt too many others for me to carry on as normal. I'll base myself in the Science lab for the time being. I can re-route all the command systems I need access to there and it will be out of the way enough for the rest of the crew not to worry about bumping into me. I'll speak to Naomi and tell her that she's stuck with me as a dinner guest for the next few days and we'll let you know where we are. I have a feeling she's going to be the Chief Engineer's assistant for a while."

"We won't be staying for shore leave," Janeway told her firmly. "As soon as we've finished what has to be done, we'll leave. It will only be for a few days," she repeated, wanting to show her support of the Chief Engineer.

B'Elanna shrugged slightly, indicating that she wasn't completely convinced but turned away before the auburn-haired woman could say any more. "You'll have your time table in a few hours," she told Grevis, struggling to keep her tone civil. "Captain?" she enquired, indicating her desire to leave the Ready Room.

"Dismissed," Janeway acknowledged. She watched the raven-haired woman stride through the doors. Short of withdrawing completely from the Darelghian projects, there was little she could do to make things better. Mentally making a note to see Naomi in person, Janeway turned and smiled at Grevis, though it did not reach her eyes. "Shall we continue?" she invited.

Part Six

B'Elanna looked round the Mess Hall and sighed. It was almost empty, with the exception of half a dozen couples scattered randomly at the tables. It was quite clear from their body language that they were sharing precious time together, so the Klingon hybrid made no attempt to join them.

Selecting an empty table adjacent to one of the large view-ports and well away from anyone else, the dark-haired Klingon sat down and set the tray on the table carefully. She took the time to look round the Mess hall again, identifying the couples talking quietly to each other as they ate their evening meals, feeling an unexpected stab of pain as it finally sunk in that she would no longer be doing the same with Tom. The engineer then glanced over to the galley and watched Neelix hurrying round and fussing over several large pots. It was clear that he was expecting a lot more people soon. B'Elanna suspected that people would time their break to coincide with the Darelghians. Only the engineering team and those involved with the medical project had had any real contact with the visitors so far, and there would be a natural curiosity for finding out more about them.

B'Elanna prodded at the slowly congealing mass in front of her as she considered what possible outcomes might occur as the crew continued to interact with the Darelghians. Already, she was beginning to feel isolated. She knew that her feelings had been exacerbated by her break-up with Tom but the knowledge did nothing to allay them. B'Elanna wondered if the aliens would try to influence the crew's opinions by making insidious comments about her heritage or if they would simply continue with the project now that they had their own way and she was no longer working with them. Either way, there would be questions asked about her exclusion and Janeway's acquiescence to the Darelghians' wishes. People would come to their own conclusions, and while B'Elanna had always been confident in her position as Chief Engineer on board, she was less sure of her standing as an individual. She was the first to admit that she was an intensely private person, and found it difficult to make friends. That trait made her a difficult woman to get to know, and now that Harry, the Doctor and even Seven were tied up with projects, she had a depressing feeling that her only friend for the next few days would be the seven-year-old Kataarian Naomi Wildman.

She stabbed at one of the solid masses on her plate but did not lift her fork to eat the morsel. Her lack of appetite merely served to focus her thoughts on what else had been bothering her that day. In her rush to leave the Captain's Ready Room that morning, she had forgotten to tell Janeway of her split with Paris. Not wishing to return and talk in front of Grevis, B'Elanna decided to speak with the Captain later in the day. However, after sorting out a timetable that could pretty much coincide with Naomi and then burying herself with routine maintenance, the engineer had discovered that most of the day had gone by. When she requested an audience with the Captain, Janeway declined, stating that she had already made arrangements to show the Darelghians the holodecks but she would see her in the morning. Somehow, B'Elanna suspected that the news of her break-up would have reached Janeway by then, but there seemed little she could do to rectify matters.

A shadow ghosted over her table and distracted her from her thoughts. B'Elanna looked up and saw the small yellow eyes of Neelix looking at her with concern. "Hey," she acknowledged quietly.

"Good evening B'Elanna," the short Talaxian responded, his usual joviality somewhat muted. "Would you like me to get you something else?" He gestured at her now cold dinner.

The brunette shook her head quickly. "I'm not hungry." She put her fork down and pushed the tray away from her dejectedly. "I'm not even sure why I'm here."

"Are you alright?" Neelix asked.

"I've been better," B'Elanna admitted candidly.

"Want to talk about it?" Neelix had always had a soft spot for the fiery engineer. He sat down opposite the brunette and waited patiently.

B'Elanna hesitated. "Have you got time? Looks like you're pretty busy." She nodded over to where several pots were still noisily bubbling.

Neelix shook his head dismissively. "A few minutes extra cooking won't ruin the taste," he remarked confidently.

B'Elanna couldn't help but look down at the congealing goo on her plate and secretly concurred. "Have you spoken much with the Darelghians?" she enquired, trying to keep her tone neutral.

"Why yes. I had a long talk with Grevis last night. A most interesting man," the small Talaxian enthused. "They have a fascinating social structure and place a great deal of respect on scientists and engineers. You should get on well with them."

B'Elanna barked a short stab of laughter. "They aren't all that happy about my presence actually," she corrected.

"What?" Neelix sat back in confusion. "But what with you being Chief Engineer and them being so interested in technology, if anything, I'm surprised that they've given you a moment's peace to eat dinner."

"I'm not involved with any of the projects going on," B'Elanna explained. "They would rather not work with half-breeds," she clarified.

The Talaxian's gaze became one of surprise. "Did they tell you that? I can't believe it. Their culture seems so civilised."

"Civilised?" B'Elanna retorted incredulously. "Tell me, how `civilised' is a culture that demands...?" The engineer stopped herself from telling Neelix about agreeing to provide a timetable for the Darelghians. He would inevitably ask about how Naomi might be affected by the arrangement and, although B'Elanna knew that Neelix shared a special bond with the young Kataarian and her mother, she was not sure if Sam would want everyone on Voyager to know about the bargain Janeway had struck with the aliens. If it became common knowledge, it might accentuate the problem.

With a visible effort and deep sigh, B'Elanna contained her outburst. Perhaps Janeway was right. It might be better to keep quiet about the arrangements in place to segregate the two hybrids and just sit tight until they left the ship. The half-Klingon baulked at the idea but she had to consider Naomi's feelings and reaction to the situation. "I'm sorry Neelix, I'm just a bit upset," she told him, hoping the cook would not probe any further.

The small Talaxian nodded, satisfied at the explanation to her outburst. He was amazed by B'Elanna's claims concerning the Darelghians; Grevis had appeared so charming and open when discussing diplomatic issues. If he had managed to conceal such an unpleasant social principle as B'Elanna had mentioned, he truly was a skilled ambassador. Neelix knew the engineer had no reason to lie to him, but he wondered if her naturally sensitive nature had perhaps over- exaggerated the situation. The Talaxian knew that he had a propensity for seeing the good in people, but he was sure that he would have been able to detect the dark undercurrents B'Elanna had been suggesting and there had been nothing but genuine and open curiosity from Grevis.

B'Elanna missed the emotions flitting across Neelix's face as she had returned to her previous task of prodding her food with a fork but looked up again when Neelix spoke.

"It must be quite frustrating not to be in the thick of things."

"That's not really what I'm upset about," the brunette pointed out curtly.

"Well at least it will give you an opportunity to do all the things you don't usually have time to do," the small man pointed out reasonably.

B'Elanna couldn't help but let out a short stab of laughter. "Your cup is always half full isn't it," she commented, shaking her head slightly at the perpetual optimism of the Talaxian.

Neelix sat back and smiled. "Why yes, I suppose it is." He laid a hand on top of B'Elanna's and stilled it gently. "Make the best of the situation, B'Elanna. Getting angry and upset over something that's beyond your control will only affect you."

"That's easier said than done Neelix," the Klingon responded. "It's not easy to just accept the situation."

"It's not accepting the situation. It's working with it. And it's not for long."

B'Elanna snorted. "I'm getting a little sick of that argument," she told him.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, the Captain told me that it would only be for a few days, and then allowed Grevis to bring even more engineers on board so that the alterations can be completed within a few days."

"What's the problem with that? Once they've gone, you won't have to deal with them anymore," Neelix pointed out reasonably.

"Now that there are more of them on board," B'Elanna began but then stopped and looked up as the doors to the Mess Hall opened. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise as she saw Tom Paris enter the hall accompanied by Jarlai and followed by the Doctor and Collis. "Damn, they're early," she muttered.

She returned her gaze to the yellow-eyed Talaxian. "I've got to go Neelix. Thanks for the chat." She stood up suddenly, wanting to get out of the dining area as quickly as possible.

"But we haven't finished yet. Surely..."

His objection was halted as B'Elanna interrupted. "You've got customers," she told him, nodding towards the counter.

Neelix looked up and then scrambled to his feet. "Oh my, so I have." He looked at B'Elanna affectionately. "Come back and talk later if you want. I'm sure I'll be able to rustle up something a little more edible for you next time."

B'Elanna nodded. "I will," she promised. The engineer spun on her heel and strode towards the exit purposefully. She looked at Tom and watched his interaction with the young Darelghian research assistant. He stood close to her and she was clearly comfortable with the attention he bestowed upon her.

When Tom looked up and noticed her presence, he unconsciously increased the distance and looked somewhat apologetic. "Hey B'Elanna," he greeted almost nervously.

"Tom." The brunette stopped to acknowledge his presence.

Jarlai frowned as she shared her looks between Tom and B'Elanna. "I thought it was our time to eat now," she stated, her voice laced with confusion.

"It is. You were hungry and there was a natural break in your research so it seemed like the perfect time for a break. And Neelix started serving meals over an hour ago, so don't worry about having to wait," Tom replied. He frowned when he saw a flash of anger cloud B'Elanna's features, and unaware of the timetable that had been set in place, misconstrued it as jealousy. He stood slightly taller and glared at the half-Klingon. "You haven't got a problem with who I eat dinner with have you?"

B'Elanna bristled instantly. "As a matter of fact..."

"Typical." A fresh voice interrupted the argument and B'Elanna twisted to see Brin entering the Mess Hall. She looked imperiously at the shorter woman. "Can't even keep to an agreement. It doesn't exactly inspire trust does it?"

Tom narrowed his eyes, confused not only by what was said, but by the tone Brin used. It almost sounded threatening. "What agreement?"

The instant the helmsman queried the inference, Brin's countenance changed and she smiled charmingly. "There's been a difference of opinion," she explained fluidly, speaking before B'Elanna had an opportunity to state her case. "And it was agreed that it would be beneficial to minimise contact."

Tom couldn't help but consider B'Elanna's acid temper, but was surprised that such a drastic step needed to be taken.

The Doctor seemed to have no such qualms about commenting on the move. "Arguments already, Lieutenant? That must be a new record," he commented imperiously.

"If you could clear your head of your inflated sense of self-worth, you might recall the reasons behind our opposing views," B'Elanna growled, infuriated by the EMH's insensitivity. He had been present when the Darelghians had first boarded and heard their outburst about hybrids. B'Elanna was horrified to think that he had appeared to have forgotten the incident so soon.

Annoyed that he may have lost face in the presence of a medical researcher he had come to admire greatly, and noticing that Collis appeared to be shocked that B'Elanna had spoken to him in that way, the Doctor bristled. "And the conflict just keeps continuing."

"I'm surprised she is allowed to speak with you in that way," Collis commented disdainfully.

"Lieutenant Torres is a law unto herself," the Doctor replied testily, hoping to gain some high ground.

Almost involuntarily, B'Elanna took a step toward the bald medical officer but halted when she heard Tuvok's voice.

"Lieutenant, continuing this conversation now will simply extend your time in the Mess Hall. Perhaps the matter should be pursued in a less public area," the Chief of Security suggested mildly.

"It's still my time." B'Elanna knew she sounded petulant, but she was damned if she'd be told to leave the Mess Hall early.

"I understand that, Lieutenant, however there would appear to be a misunderstanding or this situation would not have arisen. The easiest way to resolve this error is to resume the original arrangement. I concluded from your stance that you were about to leave the Mess hall so logically, your departure would be the simplest solution."

B'Elanna glared at the three Darelghians before returning her gaze to the tall Vulcan. "And that's it? I get the wrong side of the stick again?"

"The matter will be investigated so that there are no further infractions, and no unnecessary discomfort to either party," Tuvok assured her. The dark man looked carefully at the half-Klingon and waited for her to come to her own conclusions. He had a healthy respect for the engineer's self-restraint after performing a mind meld with her some time ago. He was also well aware of her sense of honour and was certain that she would not renege on an agreement unless there was good reason to. He would check the logs for evidence, as he did not believe in `hunches', but background and circumstantial evidence often provided a good basis for early hypothesis.

B'Elanna struggled to hold back the anger she felt at what she believed was another clear injustice, but she told herself that Tuvok had a job to do and had to admit that had she been in his position, she would probably choose the path of least resistance on this occasion. She also knew that the Vulcan would keep his word and look into the matter. Perhaps once Janeway knew that the Darelghians were pushing their limits, she would reconsider the bargain she had struck with them.

Steeling herself not to look at anyone else, the brunette nodded curtly at Tuvok and left without saying anything else. She did not trust her voice enough to make any further comment without betraying the hurt and fury she felt for being put in such a situation.

"It seems she can obey some orders at least," Brin commented to the woman's back.

"I don't understand. What's going on here? Is B'Elanna not even supposed to be in the same room as you?" Tom frowned and looked at the Dareghians expectantly.

Jarlai stepped in closer and rested her hand on the helmsman's elbow gently. "Tom, I'm hungry. Let's talk about this once we've got our food," she suggested softly.

The pilot looked at the research assistant and could detect no sign of guile or subterfuge. Unable to come up with a reason not to follow her idea, he nodded and led the woman over to the counter. "I just hope you like it," he commented worriedly.

"I'm sure you won't let me make a bad choice," Jarlai replied confidently, retaining her grip on Tom's arm.

Suddenly feeling protective of the smaller woman, Tom grinned. "No, I won't. Let me check this all out first and I'll tell you what to pick."


Hoping that her taste buds were not overly sensitive, Tom made his selections and then took both his and his companion's trays over to a vacant table, waiting until Jarlai sat down before placing the tray in front of her and sitting himself. "Dig in," he prompted.

Jarlai smiled shyly at the sandy-haired man and daintily picked at her food, nodding approval at some items and fastidiously picking out other bits that she was not quite so keen on.

"How is it?" Tom asked worriedly.

"It's wonderful. Don't mind me. I've always been a fussy eater. Thank you for getting me something that I generally like." She speared another tiny portion onto her fork before deftly popping it into her mouth.

Tom attacked his own plate with more vigour but as he did, he couldn't help but compare the dark research assistant's habits to those of his ex-partner. Jarlai had worked hard in the Medical Research area, rigorously checking and re-checking results and swiftly and competently moving each stage of the study on. Tom had difficulty keeping up with some of her methods, but she patiently explained each experiment in a soft, steady tone. Her enthusiasm for her work was evident but in an understated way. Her voice remained soft and she was quick to stop and listen carefully to instructions from Collis or the Doctor. Her dark brown eyes reflected an almost childlike fascination for her work and Tom had become enchanted by her.

Having spent the night on Harry's couch in fitful slumber, Tom had been prepared to be bored and irritated by the project he had been assigned. Instead, he too had been sucked into Jarlai's research and her demeanour had allowed him to discuss his relationships with various crewmembers on Voyager, including B'Elanna.

He was not sure about the security officer Brin, but he was certain that Jarlai would be unable of clashing with B'Elanna without provocation, and he had plenty of past experience to know how B'Elanna often reacted confrontationally. The engineer's passion and self-confidence had a tendency to spill out as aggressive arrogance. Jarlai stated her case in a muted way. Had they disagreed about something, B'Elanna simply would not have listened to her argument.

Perhaps the Darelghians were protective of their staff. Brin's clear confidence was typical of a security officer, but perhaps atypical of the Darelghians' usual behaviour as Collis too had been ingratiating and attentive to the EMH.

Tom simply didn't know what to think. However, he was certain that the longer he stayed in Jarlai's company, the more enchanted he was becoming with her. And as they shared their dinner, his concern for the way B'Elanna was being treated faded as he and Jarlai spoke in hushed tones about their backgrounds and interests.

To be continued

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