DISCLAIMER: The ship, the characters, and the stars, in fact everything but the inviolability of the human heart, all belong to Paramount/Viacom. The characters were used solely for the amusement of the author. No profit was made, no disrespect was intended. This story is the property of the author.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is dedicated to Elizabeth for lessons learned. Special thanks go to AbyKitten for her help and support.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Nature of Love
By Fewthistle



The market itself seemed to be an entity, inhaling, exhaling, expanding, contracting, spreading its arms wide in a welcoming embrace. Taking a simple breath drew in a lungful of sounds and tastes and smells, some familiar as a baby's cry, and others whispering of mysteries yet to be discovered. The market showed the truth of the Lom world; its incredible bounty and its astonishing lack. The finest of fabrics hung in splendor next to the simple cloth of the poor. Booths filled with handmade goods, clothing, food, supplies of every variety, stood, row upon row. The noise was a constant, steady hum, a pulse thudding ceaselessly, weaving itself into a syncopated rhythm that sounded in time with the visitor's own heartbeat. People, huge masses of them, moved as part of the entity, traversing the narrow passageways as if life-blood flowing through its veins.

The boy stood in the shadow of a vendor's cart, eyeing the fruits displayed with such basic hunger, his eyes darting from the food to the face of the vendor, waiting for an opportunity. If he could manage to get two of the larger fruits he would be able to sell one and have enough to feed himself for at least three days. He just had to wait for the right moment, when the vendor was distracted. He didn't have long to wait.

"Lt. Torres. We are supposed to be searching for a plasma conversion conduit, not local vegetation. We will be late for our rendezvous with the rest of the Away Team," Seven of Nine, Voyager's Astrometrics Officer urged, attempting to capture Torres' attention.

"Seven," B'Elanna Torres replied, turning for a moment from her contemplation of the exotic fruits and vegetables to regard Seven with a touch of annoyance, "I realize that you don't have to actually consume solid nutrition, as you so charmingly put it, but the rest of us do, and if there is anything here that might improve Neelix's cooking, I intend to find it."

"Very well, if you insist. However you will be the one to explain to the Captain why we are late."

" As long as we find a conduit, she won't care that we made a few side trips. Jeez, Seven I would have thought that being, well, being with the Captain would have improved your sense of adventure a little," B'Elanna teased, only the slight edge to her voice belying her comfort with the thought of her Captain and this walking glacier.

"I do not understand the correlation between my relationship with the Captain and purchasing vegetable matter."

"You wouldn't. Look, just let me find something appetizing here and then we'll look for the conduit, OK? You agree, don't you, Ensign?" B'Elanna said, glancing at Ensign Samantha Wildman for support.

Sam Wildman had begun to edge away during the conversation, feigning interest in some ridiculously ugly pots that stood in a booth nearby. She had not been thrilled when she had first learned of her assignment to help Lt. Torres and Seven find a replacement conduit. The two women had a reputation on Voyager for being highly incompatible and for a tendency to erupt into loud discussions when they disagreed, which was often. At Torres' words Sam glanced over, a tight look of trepidation on her face.

"If you say so, Lieutenant." Sam smiled back, rather unconvincingly.

The vendor, who had been monitoring the conversation, decided that now was the time to intercede, before the tall blonde with the metal face jewelry convinced the smaller brunette with the intriguing ridges to walk away with his profit.

"Ladies," he began, a wide smile revealing the two rows of small, pointed teeth that were characteristic of the Lom, "Please, take your time. I offer only the very best selection of delicacies. I am sure that we can find just what you are looking for."

As he spoke, the vendor turned toward the three women, leaving a portion of his cart out of his direct line of sight. This was the opportunity for which the boy had been waiting. Shooting out from behind the ragged flap of tent that covered the next booth, he snatched two of the larger fruits and turned to make his escape. He almost made it. Glancing back to see if anyone was following, he didn't see the large mass that suddenly loomed in his path. Two hands grabbed him roughly and he looked up into the slightly cruel features of a member of the Lom Security Police. As the hands pulled him forcefully back toward the cart, a small cry of pain escaped his throat.

The hands pushed him forward, the force throwing him to the ground at the feet of the three women from Voyager. What happened next was a bit of a blur to the boy, each moment rushing past in rapid succession. He heard a voice raised in outrage and anger, directed not at him, but at the Security officer. From there more voices chimed in, rising and falling in a sort of chaotic symphony of sounds, increasing steadily in volume, until, with a resounding thud, the Security officer fell to the ground, blood pouring from his nose. The melee continued to grow, blows being exchanged, people falling. At one point the boy watched as the tall blond alien picked up a member of the Police force and tossed him, effortlessly, as one would throw a clod of dirt, across the narrow street, where he landed amid the ugly pots.

Finally, as more police arrived, the Voyager crewmembers were subdued and lead away. The boy had taken the opening, and escaped, running madly through the streets of the market, the fruit clutched tightly to his chest.

For a society capable of warp travel, the prison was something of an anachronism. It was a squat, ugly building, containing a seemingly endless maze of dank corridors. There were no force fields, no ambient lighting; only holes carved into the walls and ceilings to let in the light, and bars of simple metal. The cells were small and dim, with only the light coming in through the slanted shafts in the ceiling to illuminate them. Along three of the walls stood bunks of what appeared to be wood of some sort. The floor, the walls, even the ceiling were made of stone, great blocks, dark and roughhewn, crumbling in places. The air was damp and smelled vaguely of mildew and age. Yet, in spite of the damp and the lack of light, they weren't unpleasant rooms, as prison cells go. The cells were clean and reasonably well maintained; a hopeful sign that their captors would provide at least the semblance of humane treatment to the three women who now occupied one of the cells. Three women who were decidedly less than pleased with their current accommodations.

"I fail to understand why it was necessary to punch the security officer," Seven of Nine stated somewhat acerbically, her left eyebrow and ocular implant nearly touching her hairline.

"You know Seven, just because you are now the Captain's girlfriend doesn't stop you from being next," Lt. B'Elanna Torres growled menacingly, advancing toward Seven.

"I will be sure to inform the Captain of that at the earliest possible opportunity," Seven responded, the hostility in her voice a match for Torres'.

"Lieutenant. Seven. Please, isn't this situation bad enough already without you two getting into another fistfight?" Ensign Samantha Wildman pleaded, her wide blue eyes moving back and forth between the two women. Sam was pretty certain if she actually had to attempt to stop a physical altercation, she would be in need of medical attention.

"Please. Can we just try to make the best of this?"

Both B'Elanna and Seven turned to glare at her, making it quite clear that to them there was absolutely nothing good to make of the predicament in which they found themselves. The fact that it was a situation entirely of their own making, or rather of Lt. Torres' making, only served to rub salt in fresh wounds.

"Fine. You stay on that side of the cell and I'll stay on this side and we'll just try and remain calm until the Captain can bail us out. OK?" B'Elanna stated, moving to sit on one of the bunks that lined the walls of the small prison cell.

"In order to remain calm, is it not necessary to have been calm to begin with? If you had been calm Lt. Torres, we would not be in this cell nor would we find it necessary to remain calm until the Captain arrives." Seven noted, still glaring at B'Elanna.

Two months ago, Seven and Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the USS Voyager, had embarked upon an intimate relationship. Given the demands of both of their positions aboard Voyager, the couple had found that their time together was a little more limited than either wished. The stop here on Lom for supplies and shore leave had seemed like the perfect opportunity for some time alone. However, because of responsibilities of rank and circumstances, Kathryn and Seven had not been able to truly take advantage of their time on the planet.

Seven and Janeway had had plans for a quiet, and hopefully, undisturbed, evening. It was the last night of shore leave and they had planned a romantic dinner under the pale blue glow of the Lom moon. However, even if the Captain did manage to free them from the Lom prison before nightfall, there was no way that Janeway would be in the mood for romance tonight. In fact, if she even were speaking to Seven, she would count herself fortunate. Because of this Seven wasn't feeling at all charitable toward Lt. Torres. After all, if Torres had not felt it necessary to become involved in a fracas with a member of the Lom Security Police, Seven would right now be finishing her preparations for her date with Kathryn.

B'Elanna rose menacingly from the bunk, growling low and deep in her throat. The hairs stood up on the back of Ensign Samantha Wildman's neck. Sam would have given anything to be back on Voyager right now, fixing dinner for her daughter Naomi, listening to the child tell her all the adventures she had had that day. Instead she was stuck here in a prison cell with the two people voted "Most Likely to Kill Each Other" in the current ship's betting pools. It seemed that there was no way the situation could get any worse.

Then from the doorway of the cell came a voice that all of them recognized instantly. A rich, husky voice, pitched right now at its lowest possible register.

"Well, ladies, consider yourselves fortunate that the Lom insist on keeping you. I assure you that you will find the next few days in this prison cell far preferable to being on Voyager with me."

To say that Kathryn Janeway was annoyed would have been a vast understatement of the situation. Two hours ago she had been sitting behind the desk in her Ready Room, happily contemplating a marvelous evening with the woman she loved. It had been two months since Voyager had left behind the devastation on the Ti'Niri world, two months since Kathryn admitted to herself that she was in love with Seven. In the time that had elapsed, she and Seven had moved cautiously into this new phase of their relationship. After all, this was new ground for both of them, and it seemed prudent to try and take it slow, to learn all that they could about each other, about what it meant to be in love. This had also allowed the crew to get used to the idea of their Captain not only being involved with a member of the crew, but one who just three short years ago had been a member of the Borg Collective.

Of course the duties of being Captain kept Kathryn from spending the amount of time she would have liked to spend with Seven. This stop here on Lom seemed a perfect place to make up for lost time, a beautiful, romantic setting. The Lom planet was exotic and charming, as were the people. So charming and sociable in fact that Kathryn had been unable to free herself from a majority of the receptions and parties held in honor of the Voyager crew. While she and Seven had both been present at the functions, it wasn't the same as a solitary, leisurely stroll through the forest primeval that lay just beyond the city limits. So, it was with great anticipation that Kathryn had been looking forward to this last night of shore leave. She had made it clear to Chakotay and to the Lom officials, that tonight it would be just her and Seven.

The best-laid plans..., she thought to herself.

Now she stood at the entrance to a prison cell, her expression inscrutable, surveying her recalcitrant crewmembers. B'Elanna's uniform was torn across her left shoulder, and there was the beginning of a bruise just starting to show under the smooth, olive skin of her cheekbone. Samantha Wildman looked worse for the wear, her hair mussed and tangled, her uniform showing stains of dirt and what appeared to be blood, probably resulting from the narrow cut that graced her forehead. Only Seven appeared to be unmarked by the recent foray, the stray strands of silver-blonde hair that fell around her face serving as the only tell-tale sign that just two hours ago she had been responsible for placing four Lom Security Police officers in the hospital.

None of the three women responded. The silence dragged on for a small eternity until finally Janeway spoke again, with a voice that could shatter ice to splinters.

"I want someone to explain to me what happened. I don't really care which one of you it is. I simply want to know why you found it advisable to engage in a street brawl with the Lom authorities."

Two pairs of eyes, one brown, one cornflower blue met Janeway's briefly before sliding away. B'Elanna and Sam both glanced quickly at Seven and then at the grayish stone of the prison floor. Kathryn focused her attention on Seven, who had obviously been chosen by B'Elanna and Sam as spokesperson for the three, whether she was aware of it or not. It was clear that they assumed that Seven's relationship with the Captain might be used to their advantage. Kathryn however was quite determined that that wouldn't happen. This would be the first test of her ability to separate her personal and professional lives and she was adamant that she would not allow her feelings for Seven to cloud her judgment. When she spoke again her voice was even colder, almost harsh.

"Seven. Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain this incident to me. Now."

"As you wish, Captain."

As she listened to Seven recall the events of the afternoon, Kathryn could feel some of her initial anger begin to ebb. It appeared that her crewmembers had been acting in the best traditions of Starfleet in trying to protect a young boy from unduly harsh treatment. However, as was often the case when B'Elanna was involved, instead of relying on logic and reasoning, Torres had resorted to anger and fists.

Sighing deeply, Janeway leaned on the side of the cell doorframe and closed her eyes for a moment. Taking a deep breath, she could almost taste the damp, moldy air of the prison. The thought of having to leave her crewmates here, especially of leaving Seven here, depressed her greatly. But the Lom had been insistent, and rightly so, that the three be punished in some way for the injuries inflicted on the members of their Police force.

Janeway had already made arrangements to pay for all the property that had been damaged or destroyed. The Lom magistrate had at first handed down a sentence of thirty days. Since that was entirely out of the question for her ship, Janeway had offered instead to pay a considerable fine for her delinquent officers, doing away with any prison time. After much debate and concession on both sides, a fine had been agreed upon, with the inclusion of a two-day sentence for the Voyager crewmembers.

Opening her eyes, Kathryn found herself staring into the concerned and contrite blue orbs of her new lover. Torres and Ensign Wildman had moved toward the back of the cell, leaving she and Seven as alone as was possible, given the circumstances.

Seven spoke softly, her eyes never leaving Kathryn's.

"I am sorry, Kathryn. I was unaware of Lt. Torres' intentions until she had actually assaulted the officer. I attempted to intervene but I was unsuccessful."

"I know Seven. Once she reached that point there wasn't much that anyone could have done."

"We will be confined here for how long?"

"Two days. They wanted thirty but I told them that it was unacceptable for my ship to stay here that many days. I talked them down to two. Besides, I pointed out that unless they wanted us beaming down Borg technology onto their planet, that they could only keep you forty-eight hours."

The corners of Seven's mouth twitched slightly, as she acknowledged the cunning tactic of her Captain. Blue eyes twinkling, she wished for what seemed like the hundredth time, that she and Kathryn were back on Voyager, safely ensconced in Kathryn's quarters, the lights dimmed, soft music swaying gently through the room.

"I will miss you," Seven almost whispered.

Kathryn's face took on that fond expression she used when something touched her deeply.

"I'll miss you too darling. But it won't be too long. You watch, the time will just fly by," Kathryn answered, the doubt that drifted across her eyes repudiating the confident tone of her voice, "I promise."



The boy lay on the soft, yielding ground, the rich, redolent scent of the earth rising up to embrace him. The underbrush surrounded him, enclosing him in its own safe hold. This was his place, his prison, though one of his own choosing. Here he was safe, protected from all but the elements. Looking up, the boy could see the last light of the sun fade away, the sky slipping silently into shades of blue.

Against the changing light of the sky, the branches of the ancient tree stood out, dark and skeletal. Through the twisted limbs, the boy began to pick out the stars that had always graced his heaven. He knew that out there somewhere, just beyond the upper reaches of the atmosphere, a starship floated. The boy had heard from many in the market that the aliens who rescued him were from a ship in orbit of Lom. People said that they were travelers, lost an incredible distance from their home. So many times the boy had dreamed of stowing away on one of the ships that came to his planet. To be free, to roam the stars, to learn the secrets of the universe, not the secrets of survival. As the sky faded finally to black, the boy wondered, as he drifted off to sleep, which of the small points of light in the vast dome above him would soon be gone, moving swiftly through the stars.

The small white ship hung gracefully in space, dangling above the spinning world like a baby's mobile: enticing and fantastical. The ship seemed fragile and ephemeral against a backdrop of boundless black cloth, punched through with holes. Far in the distance of space, the cloth was patterned here and there with brilliant, swirling masses of purple and red and gold, bejeweled with spinning globes of green and blue and white.

However, from the viewport of the darkened Mess Hall of her ship, all that Kathryn Janeway could see were a few scattered constellations and the green and yellow sphere of the planet below. She clasped the cup of coffee she held a little tighter between her hands, willing the warmth of it to steal up into her body, erasing the chill that had settled into her bones in the damp Lom prison. She had returned to Voyager, promising that she would personally return to retrieve her three incarcerated crewmembers. The Lom had mandated that Janeway be allowed only one visit to the jail, so for now, all that she and the rest of the crew could do was wait. Waiting was not something that Kathryn did well.

She had tried to sleep, but the cold, empty expanse of bed next to her had only added to the icy nip that seemed to pervade her very soul. After only two months, she had grown so used to the feeling of Seven's warm body, curled gently around her in sleep, that the thought of getting into that lonely bed had been almost more than she could bear.

"I managed to sleep alone quite nicely for six years," she thought, "I guess I can make it through two nights."

One and half-hours later she had given up the battle, dressing quickly in a new uniform and leaving her quarters. She walked aimlessly through the deserted corridors of her ship. It was the middle of the Gamma shift and aside from those at the various posts few others were awake. She consciously avoided both the Astrometrics Lab and the Cargo Bay. Her empty bedroom was reminder enough of Seven's absence. Finally, she entered the darkened Mess Hall. A hot cup of coffee would warm her up. Four cups of coffee later and Kathryn still felt chilled and restless.

Two months ago she had stood in this same room and waited while her crew attempted to make sense of a senseless act. The massacre and loss on Ti'Niri had shocked her to the core of her being but had brought with it, in the strange balancing act of the Universe, a blessing, the priceless gift of love. Now she stood here again, in orbit of a strange planet, waiting, this time for a few wayward sheep. Kathryn shook her head in disbelief and amazement, still marveling at the fact that she had sent an away team down on a simple errand and ended up with three members of her crew causing a major diplomatic incident and landing in jail.

"Maybe, I should try to take something positive from this," she murmured softly to herself, "Perhaps being apart will give me a bit more perspective. After all, things have changed so much."

Kathryn knew that it would take time for she and Seven to settle into their relationship. When Seven was there with her, all of the doubts, all of the questions, just dissolved like dew off the grass in the light of the morning sun. Holding Seven in her arms, seeing the love that stood in her eyes, made all those insecurities vanish, shadowy phantasms meeting the cold light of day. It was only in moments like these, alone with her thoughts, that all her fears and uncertainties came surging back, threatening to overwhelm her.

Kathryn Janeway was not a woman who easily gave in to her emotions. She had spent the last six years subverting them, closing off a part of herself, and now that she found herself in the position of having to knock down those walls she had built, she wasn't quite sure that she knew how. Worse still, she was more than a little afraid to try. After six long years, there was a certain comfort to be found within the sanctuary of her denial. Prisoners released after serving long terms often return to jail, needing the security and familiarity of their prison.

Kathryn worried that she would not be able to offer Seven the complete devotion that she deserved. After all, no matter what Kathryn might feel for Seven, Voyager came first. Her first duty was to her ship and crew, to get them safely home. She couldn't allow anything to change that fundamental fact; not even this woman who had returned her heart to her. At least that was what Kathryn kept telling herself. To believe anything else would crumble to dust a huge part of the foundation of her life. The idea that anything or anyone might be more important to her than her ship and crew was an admission that Kathryn Janeway was not prepared to make, not yet.

Adding to her fears and doubts was the fact that Seven was so young, so unformed in many ways. While she acknowledged Seven's ability to decide for herself what was right for her, Kathryn couldn't help but wonder if, given a wider selection of potential mates, Seven wouldn't have chosen someone younger, smarter, freer.

Sighing deeply, Janeway turned away from the viewport and sank onto the cushioned seat of the bench that ran along the wall beneath it. The sound of the doors sliding open startled her back to reality.

"Captain," came Neelix's voice across the darkened room, "You're up early today."

"Actually, I haven't been to sleep yet," Janeway replied wearily.

In the light that filtered in through the viewport from the ship's running lights, Janeway could see Neelix's ever-cheerful countenance, clouded a bit with concern and sympathy. Despite his ebullient exterior, Neelix had known a great deal of tragedy in his life and he had a tender and loving heart. Crossing the room to stand beside her, Neelix stood for a moment gazing out at the same stars that Kathryn had been memorizing and mapping for the past two hours. When he spoke again, his voice was softer than Janeway had ever heard it. It wasn't the voice of Voyager's Morale Officer, but of Kathryn's friend.

"You miss Seven, don't you, Captain?"

Glancing sharply at him, Janeway debated for a moment simply telling him that that was not a topic she was going to discuss, and returning immediately to her quarters. Yet, even in the dim light, she could see the hint of sadness that clouded his eyes. He must have sensed her indecision.

"I'm sorry to sound intrusive, Captain. I know I have no business sticking my nose where it doesn't belong. It's just that I know a lot about missing people."

The last words were spoken in such soft tones Kathryn had to lean closer in order to hear them. A melancholy smile graced Neelix's face as he spoke the words. It occurred to Kathryn that so often she and the rest of the crew lamented the long journey home, mourning their inability to see their families and loved ones, never considering when they turned to Neelix for comforting words that he was the one in need of consolation. His entire family, his whole planet, had been destroyed. He had no home to return to, and he had lost the one soul that he had chosen to love.

"Yes, Neelix, I miss her more than I thought possible," Kathryn admitted ruefully, "It is only for two days, but it feels more like two years."

"It will be over soon and all three of them will be home safe and sound."

"How's Naomi doing? I know it must be a little frightening for her to have her Mother in an alien prison. I hope that you reassured her that they are being treated very well by the Lom?"

"Oh, I did, Captain, not to worry. Naomi is a very bright child and she knows that you would never leave her Mother and Seven and B'Elanna down there if they weren't safe."

"Naomi is very lucky to have you, Neelix." Kathryn said sincerely, smiling gently at him.

"Thank you, Captain," Neelix responded humbly, "Actually, I think I am the lucky one."

For a long moment the two sat in silence, until Janeway spoke again, her voice gentle and sad.

"You miss Kes a great deal don't you?"

"Every hour of every day, Captain."

"Neelix, forgive me for prying, but, I would like to ask you something if I may?"

"Captain, you should know that you can ask me anything."

Neelix waited expectantly for his Captain to continue. She seemed lost in thought and he was hesitant to interrupt. At length, she looked up, uncertainty evident in her blue-gray eyes.

"Do you ever regret it?"

"Regret what, Captain?"

"Loving Kes. I guess I am wondering if the love that you shared for that short time was worth the pain that it caused you to lose her?"

"I could never regret loving her. She was the most wonderful, extraordinary thing to ever happen to me and I will treasure that gift for all of my days. I knew from the beginning that we would only have eight or nine years together at the most. The fact that it was far less than that didn't change the way I felt about her. If I regretted, for even a second, the time I spent with her, then I would be diminishing the sincerity of the love we shared. That's something I would sooner die than do."

"It's just that, I worry sometimes, that I am not going to be able to be all that Seven deserves and that she will eventually find someone who can give her all the things that I can't," Kathryn stated quietly.

"Whenever I start to really miss Kes, I think about what she became, how she transformed into this entirely new being. You see, Captain, I know that I am part of that new being. If it hadn't been for me rescuing her from the Kazon, Kes would never have come on board Voyager. She would never have studied with the Doctor, never learned from Tuvok, and from you. She might never have evolved into who she is now, if it hadn't been for me. And to know that I am a part of that, because I loved her and I saved her, is enough for me."

Janeway regarded him in wonder for a long time, amazed at the depth of feeling and understanding contained in that trader's heart. She felt awed and a bit chastised by his confession.

"You know, you did the same thing for Seven, Captain. You saved her from the Borg, helped her to learn and grow and recapture her humanity. You are part of the new being she has become. It seems only fitting that you should love her. No matter what happens between the two of you, you will always know that, always know that you helped her to become who she is, and trust me, Captain, that will be sufficient."

Kathryn could feel the tears against the back of her eyelids. She was determined, however, not to cry. A little admission of insecurity was one thing, but crying in front of her crew was something Kathryn Janeway did not and would not do. Finally managing to get her emotions under control, she raised her head.

"Thank you, Neelix. You are a truly dear man, and I am very fortunate to be able to call you my friend." Janeway pronounced, the sincerity evident in her voice.

"You're welcome, Captain."

"I think I might try to get some sleep before Alpha shift begins. I don't want my crew to have to suffer because I didn't get any sleep," Kathryn said with a little half-smile.

"I hope that you get some rest, Captain. I have breakfast to get started myself. Talaxian Porridge."

"I won't keep you then." Janeway said briskly, heading for the door.

She paused in the doorway, looking back at Neelix, who had already begun to get the Mess hall ready for breakfast.


"Yes, Captain?"

"Thank you."

Walking onto her bridge, Kathryn Janeway glanced around, noting that everything appeared so normal. Tuvok stood stoically at Tactical. At Ops, Harry Kim looked up at her entrance, offering a little too cheery, "Good morning, Captain." Obviously her crew were aware that recent events were undoubtedly going to affect their Captain's mood, and they seemed intent on not making it any worse.

Chakotay regarded her sympathetically as she lowered herself somewhat wearily into her chair. Kathryn had found upon returning to her quarters after her conversation with Neelix that sleep was even more elusive then before. Her mind continued turning over and over the things that Neelix had said to her. She had finally fallen into an exhausted, but fitful sleep, only to be awakened what seemed like mere minutes later by the lights signaling the beginning of morning watch. A semi-cold shower had done little to energize her and Kathryn thought with a sense of dread, that it was going to be an unbearably long day.

Glancing over at her First Officer, Janeway felt a sudden touch of irritation. She could almost feel the waves of sympathy being directed her way. She was determined that she should not be perceived by the rest of the ship as an object of pity. After all, it wasn't as if this was a permanent situation. By tomorrow afternoon her crew would once again be whole and intact and Voyager would be back on course for the Alpha Quadrant.

At the Helm, Tom Paris turned to give her a wry, conspiratorial smile. While he and B'Elanna had been a couple for some time now, it was still difficult to be forcibly apart. However, instead of making Janeway feel better, the gesture only increased her feeling of irritation. She was the Captain, not some crewmember to be commiserated with, or worse yet, pitied. Rising abruptly from her chair, Janeway moved briskly across the bridge to her Ready Room, tossing over her shoulder, "Commander, you have the bridge."

Once in her Ready Room, Janeway attempted to go over the monthly personnel reports, but she had difficulty keeping her mind on the task at hand. Since she had made the decision to become romantically involved with Seven, Kathryn had worried that the relationship would have an adverse affect on her ability to lead and on her crew's conception of her. A good Captain leads not through fear but through gaining and maintaining the respect of her people. They have to want to follow her orders because they believe in her and in her leadership, not simply because that is what is expected of them. For six long years, Kathryn had cultivated that respect, knowing that her crew looked to her for her strength and her determination and her judgment. How could she expect them to continue to do that when that wall of privacy and reserve had been breached, when they began to view her not as Captain, but simply as another fallible, needful human being?

Rising from her desk Kathryn crossed the floor of the Ready Room, climbing the few stairs to the sitting area. A pensive and slightly disgruntled expression settled over her elegant features. This was the first real test of her resolve. She had been pleasantly surprised to discover that most of the crew were very accepting, even pleased, at her involvement with Seven. Kathryn sensed that for the most part, her crew wanted their Captain happy and if being with Seven produced those results, then they could accede to that graciously. Even now, the problem lay not with her crew's perception of her, but in her willingness to accept that that perception had altered, and in her opinion, altered negatively.

The chime to her Ready Room door sounded discreetly.

"Come," Janeway said with a small sigh. She wasn't really in the mood for company. She would simply send whoever it was swiftly on their way.

The door slid open silently to reveal her First Officer. Chakotay took one look at the expression of annoyance and discontentment on her face and began to smile a bit. Of all the responses Kathryn had been expecting to receive, amusement wasn't one of them.

"Can I help you, Commander?" Janeway asked a bit peevishly.

"You really hate this, don't you?" Chakotay responded, his grin growing a bit wider.

After glaring at him for a long moment, Janeway turned and walked back over to the sitting area, throwing herself somewhat unceremoniously onto the sofa that ran under the length of the viewport.

"I have no idea to what you are referring, Commander," she retorted, her blue-grey eyes throwing daggers his way.

Chuckling softly, Chakotay moved across the room to seat himself on the sofa opposite her. He sat for a few minutes, simply staring at her, that odious grin still firmly in place, until she couldn't stand it anymore.

"What is it that you think I hate?" Kathryn threw at him, irritation coloring every syllable.

"Being the object of empathy and, Heaven forbid, pity, by the crew. You can't stand the idea that for the first time in six years, Kathryn Janeway is revealed to her crew to be dare I say it? Human? The very idea that they might have an inkling that you are just as prone to emotional need as they are, that you are capable of the same longings that they have, really rankles with you, doesn't it?"

Even the full force of her famous glare, known to reduce Ensigns to paralytic terror, failed to remove that infuriating grin from Chakotay's face. Finally, sighing deeply, Kathryn was forced to give a somewhat rueful grin herself.

"I'm the Captain, damn it. How can I expect to maintain the respect of my crew when I appear to them to be a lovelorn kid, moping around till Seven comes home? At least eight different people have asked me, sympathy just dripping from the words, how I am today. How can I be an effective leader when my crew's perception of me has altered so radically?"

"You're right, Kathryn, it has altered. But not in the way you seem to think. By allowing the crew to see that you are just as human as they are, that you have the same needs and desires and faults as they have, you have, in essence, given them permission to not only respect you, but to love you as well. It is hard to feel affection for someone who is so removed, who appears to be almost god-like in her ability to forge ahead, alone and distant. By granting the crew a glimpse into who you really are, by letting them see that you love Seven and that you miss her, you have managed to engender honest affection for you."

"For the first time, you are one of them, and they have taken you into the fold. They unreservedly respected you before, even liked you, but now, since you became involved with Seven, I honestly think that the crew has developed a very fond affection for you that was missing before. If you want to perceive that change as bad, that is entirely up to you." Chakotay finished earnestly, the sincerity of his feeling evident in his honest brown eyes.

Chakotay watched the emotions flit across the beautiful features of his Captain and friend. Her basic instinct to balk at the familiarity of her crew knowing so much about her warred with the impact his words had made upon her. Kathryn Janeway was a very private woman and to feel that her feelings and personal life were on display chafed at her sense of privacy and decorum. Yet, the truth of Chakotay's statement seeped through her reserve. For better or worse, this was the way things were, and it would serve her well to simply learn to accept this fondness her crew seemed intent on exhibiting, graciously and with good humor.

"You're right, I suppose," she admitted grudgingly, "I guess it is just going to take some getting used to. I must admit that there are probably worse things then being regarded by your crew with somewhat amused affection. What those things might be I couldn't tell you right off the top of my head, but I'm sure that there are some."

Laughing, Chakotay rose to his feet and moved toward the door.

"I'm sure that, given enough time, you'll come up with a long list," he rejoined, his amusement evident. He was almost to the door when Kathryn called to him.

"Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that I wasn't always beloved by my crew?" Janeway questioned jokingly, the actual disbelief in her voice only evident to someone who knew her well.

Turning his head to grin at her, Chakotay continued on his way out the door, wisely choosing to let that particular question go unanswered. He had learned long ago that the secret to having a serious conversation with Kathryn Janeway was knowing when to leave.

After the conversation with Chakotay, the day had been a little more bearable for Kathryn. The longer she considered his words, the more comfortable she began to feel with the response she was receiving from the crew. She found, as she walked to her quarters at the end of her shift, that the "Good evening, Captain. How are you?" that she was greeted with by more than a few crewmembers filled her with a sense of contentment that was marred only by the fact that she knew when she reached her quarters, they would be empty and that a long, lonely night stretched before her.

She ate her dinner quickly and with little interest, consuming the small salad for the nutrition, not the enjoyment of the food. Once she had finished her meal, she undressed, slipping on a pair of cream-colored silk pajamas. Kathryn wasn't much of a drinker, but tonight she hoped the whiskey and soda would help her get some much-needed sleep. Taking her drink from the replicator, she settled on the couch that lined one whole wall of her living room. Sipping slowly, the warmth of the liquor traced paths down her throat, into her chest, fiery rivers that melted away some of the chill she still felt. From her viewport, Kathryn could see the planet below, the green and brown continents girdled by oceans of ochre and bronze. It seemed so surreal to think that three members of her crew were incarcerated down there on that globe, spinning so indifferently in space.

Tomorrow, the knitted-locks would be opened, and then Voyager would be free as well to continue on her journey home. Knitted-locks, Kathryn thought, a line from a poem darting teasingly through her mind. Rising from the sofa, she crossed the room to the small bookcase that stood along the opposite wall. Studying the titles for a moment, she took a thin volume from the shelf and returned to the couch, curling up at one end, her bare feet tucked up underneath her. Before long she found the poem she had been thinking about, the words of it reaching up to wreathe around her heart. It was called "The Last Invocation", by a 19th century poet named Walt Whitman.

At the last, tenderly,/From the walls of the powerful/ fortress'd house,/From the clasp of the knitted locks,/ from the keep of the well-closed/ doors, Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;/ With the key of softness unlock/ the locks- with a whisper/ Set ope the doors O soul.

Tenderly, be not impatient,/ (Strong is your hold O mortal/ flesh, strong is your hold/ O love.)

Kathryn read the poem through once more, a half-smile of rueful acknowledgement stealing across her face. The poem wasn't about a real prison of thick wall, and unbreakable bars of steel. It applied far more to Kathryn than it ever would to Seven, despite the physical jail that currently surrounded her. Kathryn had built a prison of her own, enclosing her heart within walls she had built, unaided, brick by brick. It hadn't been obvious at first, so subtle was the laying of the foundation. Over the past six years, she had built the walls high and stalwart, using the weight of the four pips on her collar to reinforce them. However, unlike the poet, Kathryn had the opportunity to be free of her prison before her last invocation had been pronounced. She had been granted the possibility of rebirth through love, not death.

Kathryn realized that instead of trying to tear down the walls she had erected, she had merely opened the gate a bit, allowing Seven in, but refusing to step outside. The chinks in the walls that appeared here and there she shored up with all of the doubts and insecurities she harbored about loving Seven, and about Seven loving her.

The question remained though, of whether Kathryn was strong enough, fearless enough, to topple the ramparts she had constructed. She wasn't sure she knew herself. She wanted to believe that she could, that loving Seven and desiring to make things work with her would be a powerful enough incentive. Kathryn realized that by heeding Chakotay's words today that she had at least allowed her crew a glimpse through the open gate inside their Captain's enclosure. It wasn't much, but it was a significant step toward one-day razing her personal palisade to the ground.

The chimes of the small grandfather clock against the far wall sounded. It was a family heirloom, a reminder of home and the past. Still set to old Earth standard time, the sonorous tones of the bells resonated in the semi-darkness of the room. When the twelfth chime had sounded, Kathryn rose slowly from the sofa. Calling for the computer to lower the lights, she crossed to her bedroom. The soothing qualities of the whiskey and the calm that had come with her realization made the prospect of sleep a little easier tonight. By this time tomorrow, Seven would be back on board Voyager, and no doubt safely settled in Kathryn's bed, her soft, lanky frame wrapped around Kathryn. Thinking of all the things with which she had in mind to welcome Seven home, Kathryn Janeway slipped off to sleep, a wistful smile gracing her lips.



The boy wove his way through the labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys. He could hear the sounds of laughter, the clinking of silverware and dishes, as families gathered for the evening meal. The windows of the houses were left open to capture the slight breeze that made its way down the side streets, weaving in and out, like a rabbit searching for the end of the maze. A particular scent caught the boy's attention, so that he lingered in the shadow of a doorway, breathing in the familiar aroma. He remembered his Mother cooking that dish for him, remembered standing at her elbow in their small, cramped kitchen, both of them giggling and out of breath, laughing over some shared joke. He would watch her hands as they kneaded the dough, the same strong hands that labored long hours over the patterned rugs that she created, the same hands that nightly pulled his covers up around him and tenderly brushed the hair back from his forehead.

The boy jerked himself out of his reverie, moving swiftly on down the alley. If he was to eat tonight, then he needed to keep moving, to stay alert to any opportunity. This wasn't the time for daydreams. His mother was gone, his father he had never really known, and the boy had only himself on which to rely. A few people, merchant friends of his mother's, had offered to take the boy in, to provide him with food, with a roof, and with love. It was this last commodity that made the boy run away from their offers. He would never allow himself to love anything again. He had learned in his brief twelve years that everything you love eventually leaves you. To save him from feeling that pain again, the boy had begun to construct barriers; walls that kept out all that might wish to love him. It was safer that way. Journeying on through the dingy streets, the boy disappeared into the settling gloom.

It was patently clear to Samantha Wildman that the cell in which she and Seven, and B'Elanna found themselves had never been intended to hold three people. Especially when two of those people were a six-foot, former Borg, and a slightly more diminutive half-Klingon who insisted on prowling restlessly around the cramped space of the cell. Since the Captain had left, there had been little in the way of conversation. Before departing, Janeway had informed all three of them of the length of their incarceration, and assured them that they would be well treated by the Lom. She had also assured them that once they were back on Voyager, they could expect some additional punishment, this time from their Captain.

"Damn it, Seven, could you please get out of my way?" Torres snarled.

"If you would not insist upon pacing around the cell this would not present a problem," Seven retorted, standing in the very center of the cell.

"I'll pace if I want to. I can't stand being stuck in this dinky little hole. The least they could do is put us in separate cells."

"Perhaps the Lom felt they were being thoughtful in placing us together," Sam interjected, trying for the umpteenth time to keep the two other women from erupting into one of their infamous arguments.

"I could live without their thoughtfulness," B'Elanna stated sulkily.

"I could also live without their pitiful excuse for dinner, too. Here I was complaining about Neelix's cooking. Little did I know that I would be ecstatic to have some of his leola root stew right about now."

"Is there anything in our current situation, surroundings, or circumstances that you do not wish to complain about, Lieutenant?" The derision in Seven's tone was quite clear.

"Look, Seven, I'm sure that because you have a vast amount of experience being cooped up in small places with lots of other people, you're probably enjoying this, but I can assure you, I'm not. So lay off, OK?" Torres knew her reference to Seven's past as a Borg drone was hitting below the belt, but she was tired and hungry and worst of all, well aware that their current predicament was entirely her fault.

Seven regarded Torres evenly for a moment, determined not to disappoint Kathryn by becoming involved in a second altercation, this time with one of her own crewmates. Out of the corner of her eye, Seven could see Samantha Wildman seated on one of the bunks, her eyes flitting nervously back and forth between the two women. While she did not know Sam all that well, Seven was very fond of Samantha's daughter Naomi, and she had no wish for the Ensign to be frightened of her.

"Very well, Lieutenant, I will sit on this bunk. Will that provide you with the necessary amount of space to prowl the cell like a caged animal?"

Torres' glared at Seven for a minute, suspicious of her sudden acquiescence. Seven's face was void of expression. At length B'Elanna turned away, muttering a grudging "Thanks".

Samantha let out the breath she hadn't known she had been holding, feeling some of the tension ease from the room. Since it appeared that Seven, at least, was making an effort to get along with Torres', it looked a little more hopeful that all of them would manage to survive the two days intact. That brittle hope seemed destined to snap at Seven's next words however.

"I am not enjoying this experience. Having been a drone for most of my life, I find I do not like small, cramped areas, nor do I like being surrounded constantly by people. While there are only three of us in this cell, I am feeling somewhat, uncomfortable."

"Great, stuck in a brig with a claustrophobic ex-drone," Torres muttered, the sarcasm evident in her voice.

Something about the expression on Seven's face and the slight waver in her voice pulled at Sam's heart. She still had her misgivings about the former Borg drone, but the love that her daughter and her Captain held for the woman went a long way toward breaking down Sam's reservations about her.

"Would you like to sit on this bunk closer to the door, Seven?" Samantha asked, smiling tentatively at her.

Seven regarded her for a moment, a quizzical look in her blue eyes. She seemed uncertain of Samantha's motives. However, the kindness and warmth in Sam's eyes shone through and to Sam's amazement and delight, Seven rewarded her with an answering smile.

"Thank you, Ensign Wildman, I would appreciate that."

"Please, Seven, since we're going to be stuck in here for a few days, I'd like it if you would call me Samantha, or Sam."

The smile that was offered in response to her statement was the genuine article this time, full and bright, and for a brief instant, Sam and B'Elanna got a fleeting glimpse of what Annika Hansen might have looked like had she never encountered the Borg.

For that ephemeral instant, her smile stripped away the mask that Seven placed between herself and the rest of the universe. In that transient moment the two other women knew what it must have felt like to stand in the Sistine Chapel, in St. Peter's Basilica, and gaze heavenward as the drop-cloth was removed, revealing the wondrous beauty of Michelangelo's creation.

The astonishment and surprise must have shown on their faces, for Seven abruptly turned away. Sam was unwilling to lose the tenuous connection that had been forged. Rising from the bunk, she moved to Seven's side, unsure of how to maintain the momentary affinity. In that flash of revelation, the evanescent smile that graced Seven's face, Sam had experienced a moment of epiphany. She realized how incredibly lonely it must be for Seven on Voyager, even after three years.

With only a child, a hologram, and a busy Captain for company, Seven existed on the periphery of Voyager's inner life. Because of the initial fear of her, and compounded by her less than welcoming personality, the crew of Voyager had largely avoided Seven. To have gone from an existence that included millions of voices, to days when three or maybe four people spoke to her, most be the loneliest of realities. Sam knew that she herself had remained wary of the former Borg, even after her own daughter had reached out to Seven. Samantha Wildman had been taught from an early age to make the best of even the most trying situations. She had been offered an opportunity, a chance to learn and change and she wasn't about to let it pass by.

Reaching out gingerly, Sam placed her hand on Seven's forearm, expecting Seven to withdraw. Looking up into Seven's eyes, Sam could easily read the questions found in the azure blue depths.

"Seven, I just want to apologize to you. I know that I haven't ever put forth the effort that I should have to make you feel welcome on Voyager and I am very sorry for that," Samantha explained, her hand remaining on Seven's arm.

"It is...all right, Ens..Samantha. I realize that many were and continue to be discomfited by my presence. I am aware that I will never fully be a member of this Collective," Seven responded, her voice hesitant and a bit unsure.

"That's not true, Seven. You are a part of our collective, a very vital part," Sam assured her, the sincerity in her voice matched by the honesty in her eyes.

"You are simply attempting to be kind. It is quite clear that many members of the crew still dislike and distrust me. Lieutenant Torres is a prime example."

At the mention of her name, Torres turned from her examination of the abbreviated skylight. Seven regarded her evenly.

"You do not like me, correct Lieutenant?"

"Honestly? I'm not sure. I know that you constantly irritate the hell out of me. You are arrogant and overbearing and always convinced that you are right and everyone else is wrong. But, you're also extremely competent, smart, inventive, and incredibly loyal. Add to that the fact that, for whatever reason, the Captain loves you. Still I'd have to say that no, I guess I don't really like you. I do however, respect you, and maybe in its own way, that's better."

"Agreed. I must say, I regard you in the same manner."

B'Elanna and Seven considered each other for a long moment. The admission of mutual respect seemed to have taken both of the women off-guard and they appeared unsure of how to proceed.

At length B'Elanna spoke. Her demeanor had altered, the restless hostility replaced with an uncertainty that was out of the ordinary for the normally overconfident Chief Engineer.

"Why did you help me? I mean, when I started the fight with the Security officer, why didn't you just call for a beam out and leave me to handle what I started?"

Seven didn't reply immediately, staring at Torres as if she didn't understand what she had asked. After a few seconds, Seven spoke, her inflection less Borg and more human than usual.

"While you may not like me or consider me to be part of your collective, you are part of mine. Regardless of any personal feelings concerning you or your decisions, it is my obligation to come to your assistance. You are my crewmember. There was nothing else for me to do but aid you in your fight with the guards. The Captain would expect nothing less of me and I would never willingly disappoint her."

B'Elanna's expression grew pensive as she stared back at Seven. The absolute sincerity in the former Borg's voice and her words themselves caused Torres a certain amount of consternation. It was clear that she had been misjudging the reasons for great many of Seven's actions. It had never really occurred to B'Elanna that Seven might be acting out of a sense of belonging, not simple duty.

"You mean you helped me because you consider me to be a part of your family?" Torres inquired, her tone for once soft and non-belligerent.

"Yes. An overbearing and often obnoxious older sister, perhaps," Seven replied, only the hint of a smile playing at the corners of her generous mouth.

B'Elanna lowered her head quickly so that Seven couldn't see the answering smile that she couldn't quite prevent from stealing across her face. Apparently she had been underestimating Seven, failing to see the progress she had made over the past few years. While it was still quite indisputable that she and Seven would never be the best of friends, Torres couldn't help but feel a grudging admiration for this woman. Perhaps there was something to the Captain's affection for her after all.

"Families are important. Especially the ones we make for ourselves. Believe me, I know. The family we have all built on Voyager is the most important thing in the universe to me. And though you may not believe me Seven, I do consider you to be a part of that family."

Caramel brown eyes bore deeply into eyes of clearest blue crystal, sincerity and respect shining brightly out of both.

"Why did you strike the guard?" Seven asked, honest interest in her tone.

Torres moved across the cell to settle herself on the bench opposite Seven. Night had fallen on the planet, but the lights surrounding the prison provided ample illumination, streaming brightly through the slanted holes in the ceilings. Sam Wildman made herself as comfortable as possible on the bunk at the far end of the cell. It seemed that a truce had finally been reached between Torres and Seven and Sam allowed the tension that had been like a vice across her neck and shoulders to ease a bit. B'Elanna still had not answered Seven's question. She appeared deep in thought, frown lines evident along the ridges of her forehead.

"That boy couldn't have been more than eleven or twelve. Even though he had done something wrong, he's still just a child. Children should be protected and loved, not manhandled and treated like nothing more than a sack of garbage to be tossed to the ground. From the look of him, the boy didn't have anyone else to stand up for him. So I did."

Seven raised her eyebrow and ocular implant, plainly considering Torres' words. A small frown line appeared on her smooth forehead as she processed the information.

"You wouldn't want anyone to treat Naomi that way, would you?" B'Elanna prodded, providing Seven with an example she knew would elicit a response from her.

"No, I would not. I would make every effort to see to it that Naomi Wildman was never treated with such careless disregard," Seven stated quite emphatically, looking to Samantha for her approval.

Sam smiled at Seven again, this time with genuine affection. Obviously Naomi had far more sense and much better taste in friends than her own Mother did.

"I know you would protect her, Seven."

"So adults, and parents in particular, are supposed to protect children, keep them from harm?" Seven's expression had changed in some subtle way, as an obviously unpleasant thought made its way through her mind.

"Yes. I guess it's just something inherent in our genetic makeup. Well, actually in the genetic makeup of most species. The young are guarded and protected at any cost. For humans, the addition of unconditional and abiding love for our children, can make the most mild mannered of us fierce and unrelenting when it comes to protecting children from being hurt," Samantha replied.

"I see." Seven said, her voice clipped. From her expression, it was apparent that she was upset.

"What is it, Seven? Something's obviously bothering you," Sam asked, a frown of concern on her face.

"Nothing. Thank you for your concern, Ensign. I am fine."

"Come on, Seven. Tell us what's upsetting you," Torres urged, her curiosity peaked.

Seven hesitated, unsettled by not only her thoughts but by the prospect of revealing those thoughts. Confiding in others was not something that came easily or quickly to Seven. However, the honest concern on Samantha Wildman's face induced Seven to make the attempt to share her feelings.

"Very well. You say it is the nature of parents to love their children, to wish to protect them from potential harm. Yet, my parents did not do this. Not only were they unable to save me from the Borg, they were themselves responsible for placing me in harm's way. Their love of their research was clearly greater and more abiding than their love for me."

Before either B'Elanna or Sam could respond Seven continued on, a frown of bewilderment and distress sullying the perfection of her lovely face.

"I do not claim to understand what it means to love. I do not know if I am capable of providing the love that Kathryn requires. I cannot understand how one can merely love "a little" or how the supposedly unconditional love of parents or lovers can have conditions imposed upon it. Or how it is possible to stop loving someone. I fail to comprehend how love, pronounced by all to be the most powerful force in the universe, can be destroyed. I do not understand how loving someone can be insufficient," Seven poured out, her voice unsteady, her eyes perplexed and uncertain.

The two other women sat, almost in state of shock, overwhelmed at the floodgates of emotion and doubt that had opened up before them, like water rushing, torrential and engulfing , down a dead-end canyon. These were plainly things that had been troubling Seven for some time now, and the combination of circumstances had finally allowed her to feel able to reveal them. Glancing over at Torres, Sam wondered how one went about answering questions that had no answers.

Seven looked down bleakly, her blue eyes clouded with uncertainty. She didn't know what had come over her, what had possessed her to bare her soul like that, to reveal things to these two relative strangers that she had never even told Kathryn. Yet, perhaps that was part of it. Seven had never before had the opportunity to talk like this, to share her thoughts and feelings and doubts with friends. So many things had been troubling her recently. The past three years had been somewhat overwhelming and she found it almost impossible at times to process and adapt to all of the changes that had transpired.

Of all of the emotions that had trampled through her heart and mind, she found love to be the most incomprehensible. Hatred, anger, compassion, even the evil they had so recently encountered, was simple and straightforward compared to love. Seven knew that she loved Kathryn Janeway. When she catalogued and identified all of the feelings and sensations and thoughts that Kathryn provoked in her, Seven could easily label the all-encompassing emotion as love.

Yet, she still didn't know what love was or what it meant to love someone. There had been no instructions provided to her, no manual or guide to tell her how to love Kathryn. All of her research had proven to be contradictory and convoluted, a mass of useless information. In the end, Seven had found that she had more questions now than she had before she and Kathryn had admitted their love for each other, and worse, that she had no one to talk to them about.

How could she possibly tell Kathryn that she was uncertain about love? That she wasn't sure that she knew how to love her? Kathryn deserved a partner who could love her completely, and competently, without reservation or hesitation. How could a former drone be all that Kathryn needed her to be? Seven had considered consulting the Doctor, but he had no practical experience, nothing more to draw on then the gigaquads of information stored in the ship's computer. So, now Seven found herself here in this cell with two people she barely knew, one of whom didn't even like her, pouring out a litany of doubts and questions, hoping against hope and common sense, that they would be able to help her.

A shadow fell across the bunk on which Seven was sitting. Seven looked up slowly, part of her rational mind expecting to see Samantha Wildman's kind face. Instead Seven found herself staring once again into B'Elanna's caramel colored eyes. For the first time in the three years she had known Lt. Torres, Seven found that those eyes held only kindness and compassion.

"Scoot over," Torres said brusquely, motioning with her head for Seven to move over and allow her to sit next to her on the wooden bunk.

"Why, do you wish to have this bunk now? I fail to see that it is significantly different than the one you were occupying," Seven rejoined, a puzzled frown marring her perfect skin.

Sighing deeply and rolling her eyes, Torres took a moment to reconsider whether she actually wanted to offer her help. Sometimes the former Borg could be so damned obtuse.

"No, Seven, I don't want this bunk. I thought, that if you wanted to talk, I could sit a little closer. That way you wouldn't have to yell across the cell. Unless of course, you don't want me to sit here."

Realizing that B'Elanna wished only to help her, Seven moved to one side of the bunk, allowing Torres to lower herself carefully onto the other end. Samantha rose from her seat and tossing her blanket on the floor, settled down cross-legged on the hard stone in front of Seven's bunk. For a long moment the three women remained silent, the distant rumble of thunder the only sound in the small cell. As the sound of rain beginning to fall, beating steadily against the material covering the shafts in the ceiling, filled the expansive silence, B'Elanna began to speak, her voice low and gentle.

"If you were hoping that one of us might know the answers to any of those questions, Seven, I think I can safely speak for both Sam and me. We don't know the answers. In fact, I am fairly certain that there are no answers to any of your questions. At least no answers that aren't arbitrary and tractable. You could spend a lifetime searching and still end your days knowing no more than when you began."

"Explain. I do not understand. You have both been in love, both known the affection of your parents and families. Samantha, you have a child, therefore you must know what it means to offer unconditional love. You should be able to explain these things."

Samantha paused, overwhelmed by the idea of trying to explain love. Looking up into Seven's eggshell blue eyes, Sam realized that despite the gorgeous body and formidable mind, Seven was very much like Naomi, innocent and unformed.

"Seven, love is the most transitory, nebulous, indefinable thing in the universe. It's not something that you can pin down, or take apart like a warp engine and find out how it works. It comes in an incredible myriad of forms, in the most outrageous of disguises and no matter how long or hard you try to discover its secrets, it will elude you," Samantha found her saying, startled by the eloquence of the words fallen unbidden from her lips.

"The very best that you can do, is simply to welcome it when it comes. Invite it in as an honored guest and pray that it decides to stay with you a while. You will never be all that it wants you to be. You will never know all the things it requires you to know."

"When Naomi was born, and Kes placed her in my arms for the first time, I knew that I would spend the rest of my life learning how to be her Mother, learning how to love her. I was absolutely terrified. Here I was, half the known galaxy away from her Father, from all the rest of my family. I was alone and I knew nothing about being a Mother. But, you know what? I learned. With a lot of help from the Doctor, and Kes, and Neelix, and, even though I doubt she knows it, the Captain."

"The Captain? Kathryn does not have any children. How could she have taught you about being a Mother?"

"She is in a way though, Seven. As the Captain, she is like a parent to everyone on board Voyager. She protects us, makes decisions concerning our welfare. She pampers us at times, and punishes us at others. We are her first priority, and Kahless help the aliens who try to harm Kathryn Janeway's ship and crew," B'Elanna interjected, a slight smile playing at her lips.

Seven pondered what had been said, her eyes thoughtful.

"Did your parents love you unconditionally, Lieutenant?"

B'Elanna stared down at her hands, examining them intently. She wondered how she had managed to end up in this situation. Stuck in a jail cell with Sam Wildman and Seven, discussing love, of all things. Sometimes fate just throws you such a curve ball that all you can do is swing and hope for the best.

"I think they tried to. But I think that they got so caught up in hating each other that loving me became a second priority. I don't believe that either of them intentionally hurt me. It just happened. Parents are just people with children. Having their kids didn't make them stop being the people they always were. They made some horrendous mistakes and I paid the price for a lot of them," B'Elanna shrug slightly, "The thing is, I decided just a short time ago, to let go of those mistakes. After all, I'm the one who decides whether or not I hang onto them. Having Tom helps. He's the first person since my parents that I really felt loved me just the way I am."

"What will happen if the love you share with Ensign Paris does not last? How is it possible to stop feeling what you now feel? I do not understand how an emotion this strong can wither and die, and yet it can. I find I cannot imagine not loving Kathryn. Nor can I imagine the pain I would feel were she to suddenly stop loving me."

"I don't know what would happen," B'Elanna answered, a distant look on her face, "I suppose I would just deal with it and move on. It's not like I haven't been hurt before. It's just a chance you take. Love isn't a shield Seven. It won't protect you from pain or harm. It's not a balm either. There are some kinds of pain that only love can cause and some kinds of pain that even love can't heal. Yet, as far as I have been able to tell, it makes you feel better than anything in the universe does. So even if it only lasts a little while, it's worth the price."

As the rain beat a restless staccato on the roof overhead, the three women continued to talk. Sam told them of meeting her husband, Greskrendtregk, of falling in love with the handsome Katarian. She told them stories of the first few months after Naomi was born, of how lonely and scared she had felt. Sam shared her fears and worries about whether it might not have been better for their families at home to think that they were dead.

"It seems unfair to expect Gres to keep waiting for me out of some sense of obligation. I don't mean that I don't love him. I do. I just feel selfish wanting him to keep loving me, when no one knows how long it will take us to get home. I guess I wonder sometimes if it wouldn't have been kinder not to have sent those messages through the Hirogen array. Then he could have moved on, built a new life for himself."

"That's what I've had to do. I have a whole new life, a new family really. I wonder if what I felt for him when we got married, will still be what I feel for him when we finally get home. And if it's not? If the love has simply abandoned us because we are no longer those two people who fell in love, then what? You see, Seven, it is not really that love dies. It just changes from what it was, because we changed."

B'Elanna shared stories of various failed romances, one with a fellow cadet while at the Academy, which elicited a small chuckle even from Seven and had Samantha doubled over with unconfined laughter. It felt good to talk about Tom, about how he made her feel adequate, just the way she was, without trying to make her into someone else.

For the most part Seven simply listened, being wary of sharing too much about her relationship with Kathryn. Kathryn had been quite clear about what could and could not be discussed concerning their private life and Seven was determined to honor her requests. Still, the two others didn't appear to mind her silence, content that they had helped in some small way and in so doing, had forged a tenuous bond between the three. Even if it was merely a bond of respect for each other's experiences and feelings, it was a start. Seven and B'Elanna had learned that perhaps they could trust each other after all, even if they didn't really like each other.

As the desultory light of morning began to seep into the small cell, the three women finally retired to their bunks, determined to get a few hours sleep before the guards woke them for breakfast.

The trio spent the rest of the day and the next evening trying to keep themselves amused. They talked and dozed, even going so far as to play an old word game that Samantha remembered from childhood. The conversation remained light, never regaining the intensity of the previous evening, but the atmosphere was free of tension and for that Sam was incredibly grateful. As the appointed time for their release drew near, none of them could contain the excitement and relief they were all feeling. Though Janeway had made it clear that some sort of punishment awaited them, all three were anxious to return home.

At the scheduled time of release, one of the guards appeared at the cell door. However, instead of freeing them, he informed them that due to pending charges, they would be remaining in the prison for an indeterminate period of time. He wouldn't tell what the charges were or how much longer they would be held. Their demands to see the Captain were ignored. Angry and apprehensive, they had no choice but to sit and wait.

Kathryn Janeway stood impatiently in the office of the Lom magistrate. She had arrived, accompanied by Tuvok and two members of his Security team, almost an hour ago, at the appointed time, to retrieve her three crewmembers. An aide to the Magistrate had instructed them to wait. Waiting was not something that Kathryn Janeway did well. She was anxious to get her crewmen and return to her ship. Voyager had been in orbit long enough, and it was time to resume their course for home.

Pacing restlessly, Kathryn tried to occupy her mind. She had spent almost all of last night making preparations for a romantic and uninterrupted evening with Seven. Dinner in one of her favorite restaurants in Paris, courtesy of the holodeck, a stroll down the lamp-lit esplanade that ran along the banks of the Seine, then back to her cabin for coffee and brandy. The piece-de-resistance of course, would come later, when after an exhaustive night of making love, Kathryn would slip off to sleep, Seven's warm body curled around her.

Kathryn's pleasant reverie was broken by the sound of voices outside the door to the antechamber the Voyager away team now occupied. The heavy wooden door was flung open and the Lom Magistrate stood, framed for a moment in the doorway, the light from the hall pouring in all around him. He strode in to the room, followed by two of his aides and several members of the Security Police. His expression grim, the Magistrate crossed the room to stand in front of Janeway.

"Magistrate," Kathryn greeted him, nodding her head briefly, "I was beginning to become concerned by the delay. Where are my crewmembers?"

"In their cell, where unfortunately, they will be remaining." The Magistrate declared forcefully.

"I am afraid I have some very bad news for you Captain Janeway. One of the members of my Security Police, who was involved in the altercation with your crewmembers, has died from his injuries. You will, of course, understand that this is no longer a case of simple assault. It is now one of manslaughter."

"Until we can ascertain which of the three is directly responsible for the death, we will be detaining all of them. As Magistrate of Lom, it is my sworn duty to see that justice is served. I expect to receive your full cooperation in this matter. My aide will be in touch with you, as soon as we are able to make a determination. At that point, the other two women will be free to leave Lom. However, the one responsible for the death will be tried and sentenced. On my planet, we do not believe in showing mercy toward murderers, Captain."

Kathryn Janeway stood quietly during the Magistrate's recitation, her mind reeling from the devastating news. Pushing aside the feelings of terror that clutched at her heart at the thought of leaving behind one of her crew to rot in a Lom prison cell, Kathryn forced her mind to concentrate on what needed to be done.

Gesturing toward Tuvok, Kathryn stated to the Magistrate, "This is Lt. Commander Tuvok, my Chief of Security. I am certain that he will be of great assistance to you in endeavoring to determine what happened."

"We know what happened Captain. One of your crewmembers inflicted fatal injuries on a member of the Lom Security Police. The only thing left to determine is which crew member is guilty." The Magistrate intoned, his voice firm and unrelenting.

"First, let me offer you and your people my deepest sympathies on the death of your officer. I know how painful it can be to lose a friend and colleague. That is exactly why I hope that you will understand why I will be making an inquiry of my own into this situation? I trust that you will make all of the pertinent evidence available to us. After all, the life of one of my crew hangs in the balance. No offense, Magistrate, but I couldn't, in good conscience, simply leave that to your, or anyone else's, determination. I also want to see my crewmembers. Now." Kathryn's voice was low and intense.

"I am afraid that is impossible today, Captain. The prison functions on a very strict schedule and the hours allocated for visitation are over for today. You may of course, visit them tomorrow. You have my word that they are safe and well. But then, using your technology, I am sure that you are aware of that. You have been monitoring their status, haven't you Captain?"

"As for information, it is at your disposal, Captain Janeway. We have nothing to hide. We are only interested in justice. As are you, I hope. We are aware that with your transporter technology, there is nothing that we could do to stop you from simply beaming your crewmembers from the prison and being on your way. However, having had the pleasure of spending time with you and your crew while you have been visiting us here on Lom, I know that you have an equally high regard for morality and ethics. We trust that you will wish to see justice done for this poor man and his family. I sincerely pray that you will abide by whatever decision is made in this matter. But I can only rely on your word and your own sense of honor in this case. Any information you wish will be made available to you. You have my word, Captain."

Throughout his little speech the Magistrate stared meaningfully into Kathryn's eyes, attempting no doubt to make his sincerity clear. Something about the whole performance gnawed at the back of Kathryn's mind. Perhaps that was it. It all seemed too rehearsed, too perfectly staged for full effect. From the theatrical throwing open of the door, to the mournful tones used by the Magistrate, there was something of a production to the scene that perturbed Janeway. After all why couldn't the Magistrate have contacted her before she left the ship? It seemed that all of this had been carefully arranged for the maximum effect. Glancing over at Tuvok, Kathryn tried to determine from his ever-present stoic demeanor, whether he shared her doubts about the Magistrate's veracity. A slight quirk to his eyebrow was all the indication Janeway needed to assure her that her questions were valid.

"Very well, I will return in the morning to see them. I do not expect there to be any problem at that point, Magistrate," Janeway declared, the veiled threat hanging in the air between them.

For now, however, the most important thing was finding out exactly what happened and finding a way to get her three crewmembers back on board Voyager. Tapping her Comm badge, Janeway ordered, "Janeway to Voyager. Four to beam up."

"Four, Captain?" Harry Kim responded, puzzlement evident in his tone. The Captain had left to retrieve B'Elanna, and Seven and Sam Wildman. There should have been seven people to beam back up.

"Four, Mr. Kim. Energize."



As soon as the transporter beam faded away, Kathryn Janeway was off the transporter pad, moving quickly toward the Bridge, Tuvok keeping pace by her side.

"Gather as much information from the Lom as you can get. I want to know which one of the guards died, the exact cause of death, the time of death, any other pertinent information. Find as many witnesses to the altercation in the market as you can, find out what they saw, if they could testify that the guard's injuries weren't serious. Use any and all personnel that you need, but I want results in twenty-four hours."

Stepping into the Turbolift, Janeway barked out, "Bridge."

Alone in the lift with Tuvok, Kathryn felt the hand of fear she had pushed aside earlier slip its skeletal digits around her heart, the fingers squeezing tightly, causing an answering ache to spread across her chest. The thought that she had been trying to avoid came slithering back as well, twining snakelike through her brain, and refusing this time to be pushed aside.

"Tuvok, find out who they're accusing. I need to know which one of them may have inflicted the fatal injuries." Kathryn almost whispered, her eyes a flat, dark grey.

"If indeed, these injuries were the result of a blow or blows, then it is highly unlikely that Ensign Wildman could be responsible. She lacks the physical strength necessary to strike an opponent with sufficient force to kill. Therefore, it seems reasonable to assume that either Lieutenant Torres or Seven of Nine was responsible. Both women possess ample strength and skill to incapacitate or eliminate an adversary." Tuvok stated calmly, knowing that his words were exactly what his Captain did not want to hear.

Kathryn stood silently, her expression one of deep concern and melancholy. It seemed that once again the fates or the gods, whoever or whatever controlled the minute workings of the Universe, had chosen to test her and her crew. It didn't seem too much to ask sometimes, just to have things go right every once and a while. A line from an ancient proverb drifted through her mind. "That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." After all of the travails and tests that they had been subjected to over the last six years, the crew of Voyager should be able to weather any storm, conquer any enemy. They certainly should be able to make it home.

"Find out what can, Tuvok. I want answers as soon as possible," Janeway said finally, turning to look at Tuvok with eyes dark and clouded the color of a stormy winter sky.

"If I do determine that one of our crew is responsible for the death of the officer, what then?" Tuvok asked, a subtle trace of sympathy threading through his normally impassive voice.

He knew how much every member of her crew meant to Kathryn Janeway, from the lowliest crewman to her Senior Staff. To have to decide whether to adhere to whatever sentence the Lom handed down, and in so doing, leave one of her crew behind would be a tortuous decision for the Captain in any circumstance. Especially with the knowledge that, as the Magistrate so innocuously pointed out, nothing stood in the way of simply beaming all three women to safety and leaving this system. Nothing that is except every principle that Kathryn Janeway held dear. To be forced to reconcile her principles with the life of B'Elanna or Sam Wildman or Seven, seemed a cruel twist of fate.

"I don't know. I guess I'll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it, won't I?" Kathryn responded, the awareness of the immensity of the decision clear in her voice and her eyes.

"Also, Tuvok, find out what you can about the Lom Magistrate. Maybe it was just me, but that whole scene seemed a little too staged for my taste. I think that there's more to this then meets the eye. I want to know what it is before I make any decision."

As the doors to the Turbolift opened onto the Bridge, Janeway braced herself, bringing down the full force of the command mask, covering any vestiges of doubt or concern that she may have shown alone with Tuvok. She pushed the feelings of apprehension and dread back into their box, knowing that right now, Seven needed her Captain, not her lover. If Kathryn was going to make certain that all three women were released, then she needed to be able to think clearly, to make snap decisions. There would be time to worry, time to commiserate later. Right now, she needed to be Captain.

Word of the death of the officer spread like wildfire through the market. The guard had been greatly feared and despised by the vendors. So it was with a sense of celebration and relief that the news was received. The boy overheard the tale being told, including the fact that the aliens who were responsible for his freedom, were being held responsible for this death. The boy knew, as did all the merchants and vendors, that this particular guard would never have been involved in something so lowly as catching a common thief. No, this guard reported directly to the Magistrate, and was in charge of collections.

The layers of corruption in the Lom government ran deep. This Magistrate had been elected on his promise to help the common people, to get rid of crime and poverty, to make the lives of the citizens of Lom better and more prosperous. The only one who had grown more prosperous was the Magistrate himself, creating a protection ring that garnered an immense amount of currency, money that the people were assured would be used to benefit all of the citizens of the Lom capital. The Security Police were in charge of collection from the merchants, guaranteeing them in return, protection from the ever-soaring crime rate. The guard who had died had been the most cruel and malicious of the collectors, rising quickly to a position of power. It was inconceivable to believe that he would have been involved in capturing a shoplifter, or in the fracas that ensued. If he was dead, it had been at the hands of one of his own people, not those of an alien visitor.

The boy knew that he shouldn't care, that he would only bring trouble on himself if he tried to help. The mere fact that the women had been acting on his behalf wasn't enough to warrant placing himself in jeopardy. The boy had labored too long, trying to stay relatively free; free from hunger and cold, free from the harsh hands of strangers. Lying back, once again enclosed in his safe haven of undergrowth, the tall trees rising above him, the boy could see no reason to even care what happened to the aliens.

Scrutinizing the sky overhead, the boy remembered gazing up at these same stars with his Mother. He had asked her if, on one of those bright points of light, glimmering so complacently in the vast heaven above, other people dwelled? His Mother had replied, yes, they did. She told him that on one of those planets, other children lived and grew up without want, warm and fed and happy. He had asked her when that would happen for their people. Her reply had stayed with him, all these years. "When we learn to live in love. Until then, this cycle will continue. Only love can save us, only love can conquer the hatred in our hearts and the meanness in our spirits."

The boy rolled over on his pallet of blankets and leaves. In the morning he would go to his Mother's friend, a humble carpet seller, and together, they would contact the alien ship and tell them all they needed to know to free their people. A monumental task, but one the boy knew he must at least attempt. For his own sake, as much as for theirs.

The chime to Kathryn Janeway's Ready Room sounded, startling her from her contemplation of the planet spinning in orbit beneath the hull of her ship. She had been sitting on the couch, staring out the viewport for hours now, too tired to sleep. Tuvok's investigation had hit roadblock after roadblock. The information provided by the Lom had been sketchy at best. The death certificate had been vague as to the exact cause of death, merely listing it as "Due to injuries sustained in the line of duty." There appeared to be no corroborating statements from any witnesses other than fellow Security Police, and the Medical Examiner was unavailable, having just left with his family for an extended vacation.

Tuvok had attempted to interview several of the merchants and vendors in the market, but had meet with a standard response of, "Sorry, I can't help you. I wasn't (there) (paying attention) " or Kathryn's personal favorite, "It happens all the time. I wasn't really interested." It was apparent to the Voyager crew that there was something stopping the people of the market from helping them, and Kathryn was willing to bet it was fear.

Fear was an emotion that Kathryn found herself very familiar with these days. They had yet to receive word from the Lom as to which of the women they would be charging with the crime. Kathryn tried not to let herself think about it, but the thought kept creeping back like a wayward child, insistent and needy. Unless Tuvok could manage to come up with some information that would clear all three women, Kathryn faced the very real possibility of having to decide whether to go against everything she had been taught as a Star Fleet officer, against everything she believed in. If the choice became leaving one of her crew to spend the remainder of her life alone in a Lom prison or violating her own principles, then Kathryn knew that she would choose the latter, without hesitation. She prayed that she wouldn't have to make that choice. Especially if the choice involved Seven.

Kathryn had been hit rather forcefully with the knowledge that no matter how hard she tried to separate her professional and personal lives, when it came to a situation like this, her heart seemed determined to emerge the victor. The idea of leaving Seven behind was simply incomprehensible. Kathryn knew that if it came to that, she would turn over control of Voyager to Chakotay and remain behind on Lom, visiting Seven every day, and doing everything she could to get her released. The fact that the Lom's lack of technology in their prisons made that choice unnecessary, did nothing to lessen the impact of that knowledge.

To realize, after all of these years, that there was something, someone, more important to Kathryn Janeway than her ship or her career, was a devastating and soul-blistering insight. A line or two from a poem she had read last night came back to her, bringing a self-deprecating smile to her beautiful face.

"That Love at length should find me out and bring/ This fierce and trivial brow into the dust,/ Is, after all, I must confess, but just;/ There is a subtle beauty in this thing/ A wry perfection."

She wondered briefly if Seven would appreciate the irony of the situation. For some reason it seemed appropriate that the Borg should have an appreciation of irony. As the chime sounded again Kathryn gathered up her wayward thoughts.

Rising from the couch and ruefully massaging the muscles at the back of her neck, Kathryn moved over to sit behind her desk. She should at least give the appearance that she was working.


Ensign Tom Paris came slowly into the room, none of the usual cockiness evident in his step or demeanor. He had been quite subdued since the Captain and Tuvok had returned from the surface without the three women. The idea that B'Elanna or Sam or Seven might be charged with manslaughter and sentenced to a long prison term, had taken the wind out of his sails. For the first few days of their captivity, he had made jokes about his "jailbird" girlfriend, making references to 20th century slang that left most of the crew bewildered. Now, however, Tom was serious, offering to assist Tuvok in his investigation in any way he could.

"Any word, Captain?"

"Nothing new I'm afraid. Tuvok has beamed back down. He's going to try to meet with some of the other guards, get their version of the story. He also wants to see if he can locate the boy who started the whole thing, in a manner of speaking. He may be able to tell us something."

"It's not looking good is it, Captain?" Paris' voice sounded unusually restrained.

Moving around her desk, Janeway placed a comforting hand on Paris' shoulder. Smiling her best "I'm the Captain and everything is going to be all right" smile, Kathryn gave his shoulder a light squeeze before responding.

"I promise you, Tom, we will find out what happened and we will get them out of there. You have my word on it."

Hesitating for an instant before he spoke, Paris took a deep breath and finally voiced the words that so many of the crew had been thinking.

"Why don't we just beam them out of there right now and get the hell out of here? They're not our laws, and it's obvious that something fishy is going on. Why even wait around and give them the chance to move them somewhere we can't get to them or worse?"

"Tom, you know the answer to that. You don't need me to tell you. That's not who we are. That goes against everything we have been taught to believe. We need to make the effort to adhere to their laws, to follow their regulations until we have good reason not to. I swear to you, we will not leave here until we find a way to clear all of them of these charges."

"And if we can't? If it comes down to leaving one of them to rot in jail or violating our regulations and beaming them out, what then, Captain? Are you willing to leave B'Elanna here? Or tell Naomi that we had to leave her Mom behind? And what about Seven? Are you willing to give her up after finally finding each other?"

"You are so out of line, Ensign," Janeway responded, her voice as cold as liquid nitrogen.

"I'm sorry, Captain, it's just that..."

Raising her hand to forestall any further comment from him, Kathryn moved back around her desk and sat carefully in her chair. She contemplated the top of her desk for a few moments, tracing the lines in the veneer of the wood, patterns that twisted and turned, offering no answers. Finally she raised her eyes to his.

"We will not leave anyone behind," she said slowly, emphasizing every syllable.

"Are you saying that we will beam them out if it becomes necessary?"

"You heard me, Mr. Paris. We will not leave anyone behind." Kathryn repeated, her dark grey eyes never leaving Tom's.

"Go and see if you can help Tuvok with his depositions. I'll let you know as soon as we hear anything."

Tom opened his mouth to respond, thought better of it, opened it again, and finally, simply nodded his head in assent.


"Aye, Captain."

"And, Captain? Thanks."

Kathryn's visit to the prison had been without incident. Well, almost without incident. B'Elanna had not taken the news of their continued incarceration in the spirit that Janeway had hoped. After listening to Torres rant and curse for about ten minutes, Kathryn had informed her that if she didn't at least attempt to behave in a manner befitting a Starfleet officer, that when they returned to Voyager, B'Elanna would be looking back on this experience with fond memories. The Magistrate had only allocated twenty minutes for the visit, explaining to Janeway that he had to consider the ramifications of too much information being shared in light of a future trial.

Kathryn had been able to talk to Seven in relative privacy for a few minutes. She attempted to reassure Seven, as she had with all of them, that she would find a way to get all of them out of there, even if it meant the possibility of compromising her principles and beaming them out. Mostly though, she tried to simply relish being near her, their fingers touching through the cold metal bars of the cell door. Whispering, "I love you," Kathryn had left the prison, a fracture forming, gaping and raw, in her soul at the parting sight of Seven, standing behind those solid bars, a small reassuring smile on her full lips. The incongruity of her beauty, the silver-blonde of her hair, the piercing blue of those lovely eyes, set against the backdrop of dark gray granite walls seared the image into Kathryn's mind.

Now Janeway sat once again in her ready Room, waiting for Tuvok to return to the ship. He had beamed back down to the planet, resolved to obtain any information he could that would clear his crewmates. So far, his investigation had yielded nothing but the certain knowledge that things were not as they should be on Lom. Kathryn was convinced that some sort of cover-up was being perpetrated. If they could simply discover a way to uncover what it was.

"Come," Janeway responded as the chime to the door sounded.

Tuvok came slowly into the room, the pace of his steps giving a clear indication that the news was not good. He came to a stop in front of Kathryn's desk.

"Well? Anything at all?" She asked somewhat brusquely, the strain of the past few days evident in her voice.

"I have interviewed all of the merchants and vendors in the immediate area of the fight. I have also conducted several interviews with shoppers who were in the market that day. Combined with the information provided to us by the Lom Magistrate, I must confess, Captain, I have been unable to discover any persons or information that will contradict the official charge levied by the Lom."

Sighing deeply, Kathryn swiveled her chair, turning to her right to face the viewport along the far wall. She had been hoping that Tuvok would be able to come up with some information that would justify a decision to simply beam her people out of the prison. Anything that might show that the charges being made against them were false or misplaced would allow her to make the decision with a relatively clear conscience. It appeared that she would not be afforded that small measure of justification. She would have to make this decision to violate her principles without the benefit of actual evidence, only with conjecture. Janeway wondered if that would be enough to let her sleep at night, knowing that not only had she deprived the family of the dead guard of a measure of justice, but that she had caused one more chink in the foundation of everything she believed in.

Tuvok remained standing, something in his manner alerting her that he had further bad news.

"You found out something didn't you? What is it?" she asked, not really certain she wanted to know.

"I encountered the Magistrate in the course of my investigations today. He informed me that the Lom have ascertained to their satisfaction which of the three was responsible for the death."

Kathryn ran her tongue slowly over her suddenly dry lips. She knew that Tuvok was waiting for her to ask which one it was. It would be easier not to ask, not to know. Kathryn Janeway however, never picked the easy choice.

Looking up at him, her eyes a steely grey, her face expressionless she asked the question.

"Who are they charging?"

Only someone who had known her as long as Tuvok had would have picked up on the slight waver in her husky voice.

"Lieutenant Torres."

Kathryn felt some small part of her release, an inner sigh of relief so profound she could feel it in every part of her body. She had been trying so hard not to think about it, not to consider the very real possibility that Seven would be the one charged. If she didn't allow herself to consider it at all, then she could close off that part of her mind that prayed that it wouldn't be Seven, that part that even now was awash with relief. That part of herself of which Kathryn was acutely ashamed. She was the Captain. She should not feel relief that any member of her crew had been charged with killing a man. It went against every instinct, and, yet, there it was. She was allayed by the knowledge that the woman she loved was free.

With a sigh of self-disgust, Kathryn rose from her chair, moving swiftly over to the replicator.

"Coffee, black."

Cup in hand, she returned to her desk. Sitting down, she looked up meet Tuvok's impassive gaze.

"I want to meet with the Magistrate again. I need to know exactly what their intentions are in this matter. Make arrangements for him to meet with us at sixteen hundred hours. In the meantime, have Harry step up his research on Lom law and jurisprudence. I want to be fully prepared to defend B'Elanna against this charge."

Nodding briskly to her, Tuvok turned and left the room. Alone with her thoughts, Kathryn felt once again the waves of relief wash over her. That they were followed quickly by waves of disgust at her selfishness was only slightly soothing to her. This is what Kathryn had worried about, this desire on her part to protect Seven no matter what, even going so far as to feel relief that another of her crew had been charged with this crime. She had kept from becoming involved with a member of her crew, fearing that loving one person would run the very real risk of placing the rest in jeopardy. Now, it seemed, her fears had been at least partially justified. B'Elanna was her Chief Engineer and her friend, and yet, all that Kathryn could feel in those first moments after Tuvok's announcement, was assuaged.

Pushing the thoughts away for now, Kathryn rose, moving across the Ready Room, out onto her Bridge. She had preparations to make before she met with the Magistrate and she was determined that she would be ready for anything he had to throw at her.

As she moved toward the Turbolift, Harry Kim looked up from his console.

"Captain, I have a message coming in from the planet. It's a man named Nolan. He says he has information about the guard that was killed."

"On screen." Kathryn ordered, the excitement manifest in her tone.

"It's audio only, Captain."

Nodding to Harry, Kathryn said, "Patch it through."

"This is Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the Federation Starship Voyager. You have information regarding the death of the Lom Security Police officer?"

"My name is Nolan, Captain Janeway. I am a rug merchant in the market on Lom. We have learned that a member of your crew has been charged in the death of the guard named Jerrin. I wished to tell you Captain, that your crewman had nothing to do with Jerrin's death."

"How do you know this?"

"Jerrin was a very powerful member of the Lom Police. He reported directly to the Magistrate. He was too powerful to have been involved in the capture of a petty thief. The boy, who was caught stealing? I have known him all his life, and he came to me this morning to convince me to contact you, to tell you what I know."

"What do you know?" Kathryn asked gently, trying to draw the information out of the obviously hesitant messenger.

"I don't know what your homeworld is like Captain. I pray that your people have somehow avoided the trap of greed and corruption that is a way of life here on my world. Crime and poverty are prevalent and our leaders have become infected with avarice, though they attempt to disguise it by appearing concerned for the welfare of the people. Our Magistrate is such a man. He has instituted a system, designed he says, to provide income to reform. The Police force regularly demand payment from the merchants in the market. They tell us that if we pay them, they will make certain that we are protected from the rampant crime. The money, we are told, goes to help the Magistrate clean up our streets and provide services to those in need. From what we can see, the only one in need on Lom is the Magistrate himself."

"This guard, Jerrin, was the cruelest and most unrelenting of the collectors. He demanded not just our money, but food, clothing, jewelry, anything he fancied. Most of us are too afraid of the Police and the Magistrate to do anything but give them what they want. Two days ago, Jerrin went too far. He went to collect from a man named Calan, a humble seller of scrap metal. Calan didn't have the money. Jerrin demanded that Calan give him his daughter instead. What parent would give their child away, allow their daughter or son to be abused and discarded? To protect his family, Calan stabbed the guard. That is how he was killed, Captain. Not by a misplaced blow by one of your crew."

"Would you be willing to testify to this?" Janeway queried, a smile of relief coming unbidden to her face. Glancing over at Paris, Kathryn could see that his expression mirrored her own.

"No, Captain. I can't do that. I, too, have a family to protect and provide for. I cannot jeopardize them. I am sorry. I did wish for you to know what really happened. Perhaps you can locate someone who has less to lose."

"That may not be necessary. Tell me, Nolan, do you know why the Magistrate would attempt to charge one of my crew with this crime?"

"I can guess, Captain." Nolan replied, with a snort of derision. "Money."

"Money? I'm afraid I don't understand," Kathryn responded.

"After keeping you and your ship here for an extended trial, drawing it out for months, the Magistrate would no doubt, in a gesture of magnanimity, offer to accept a very large sum of our currency in exchange for leniency, shall we say."

"So he's been blackmailing us. This has all been a scheme to extort money to fund his corruption ring." Janeway stated, her grey eyes as hard and cold as the granite walls of the Lom prison.

"That would be my guess, Captain. I want you to know that he does not represent who we are. My people have made tremendous advances, some say too quickly, our morals and culture not yet as advanced as our science. The reason our prisons are primitive is that the money and science are diverted to more "worthwhile" projects. We will one day be able to rid ourselves of this corruption. One day perhaps, when the boy is grown, our people will have brought our conscience in line with our ambitions."

"If the rest of your people are like you, I have no doubt that you will succeed in that goal. Thank you for your assistance, Nolan. If there is anything that we can do for you before we leave orbit, then please contact me."

"Thank you, Captain. I wish you a safe journey."

Kathryn stood quietly after the connection was terminated. Her elegant features were set in a mask of anger and distaste. Drawing in a deep breath, she turned to Tuvok.

"Are we scheduled to meet with the Magistrate?"

"Yes, Captain. He seemed eager to speak with you."

"I'll just bet he did," Kathryn replied, her voice laden with scorn, "Meet me in Transporter Room one at 1550 hours. It's time to bring this little production to an end. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't be the ending the Magistrate has in his script."

The Magistrate stood gazing out the window, the market, a constantly changing mass of goods and people, spread out before him like a sumptuous banquet, prepared only for him. In a few minutes Janeway would arrive, no doubt anxious to do whatever was necessary to free her people. A smirk of amusement and satisfaction slipped across his face, unpleasant and presumptuous.

The sound of voices heralded the arrival of the Captain and her rather stoic aide. The Magistrate pasted on a false expression of sympathy and concern, a player, as well as the director, in this morality play.

Crossing the room to take her hand in his, the Magistrate was so intent on his own part, that he failed to appreciate the look on Kathryn Janeway's face. Pulling away the hand he had grasped as if she had been in contact with a Venuvian Slime Monster, Kathryn rounded on him, her voice clipped and frosty.

"You've been lying to me, Magistrate."

"Captain, I have no idea to what you're referring. I can assure you that I have been completely up-front and honest with you from the outset," he replied, sincerity fairly oozing from his lips.

"Spare me the rest of this drama you've cooked up. To tell you the truth, it's badly written and even more poorly acted," Kathryn drawled derisively.

"Again, I must profess my ignorance, Captain. I was hoping to be able to offer you and your crew member some assistance, some leniency perhaps."

"In return for a modest fee of course?"

"Well, I was thinking that it would serve justice and my people more to collect a large fine from you, a sort of settlement if you will, rather than incarcerating your crewmember for years. That would only cost my people money for food and housing. However, collecting a sum of our currency would allow me to continue in my efforts to fight crime and poverty," he finished sanctimoniously.

"By increasing the number of collectors?" Janeway asked, a look of distaste curling her lip.

"Collectors, Captain?"

"For your protection ring. You know the one. Where your thugs go around, extorting money from innocent, terrified merchants," Kathryn drawled, the corners of her mouth turning up ever so slightly.

She could see the indecision in his eyes. He was debating whether to continue to profess his innocence and ignorance of the situation. Slowly, a snide grin made its way across his face. Chuckling softly, he raised his hands in mock surrender.

"You win, Captain. But, you are mistaken in your assessment of my motives. I do these things for my people, to help do away with the crime and poverty that plague this planet. We all must pay for our collective freedom, Captain. We all must play our part. The money that is gathered from the merchants helps me tremendously in my efforts to raise Lom to the position she deserves to hold in this system. You may not approve of my methods, but you must agree that my goals are admirable. I love my people, Captain Janeway, and I will use whatever means I deem appropriate to insure their continued safety and prosperity."

"You don't love your people. Loving people doesn't allow you to terrorize them, to harm them for your own interests. Love means that you protect them, that you use your wisdom to guide them. That you use your strength to support them and help them grow. Frankly, Magistrate, the only person you love, is you. I only pray that soon, your people will realize that. I hope they show you more compassion then you have ever shown them."

"I'm beaming my people out of your jail and then Voyager will be leaving orbit. I wouldn't advise you to try and hinder us in any way," Kathryn said softly, just a trace of menace in her tone.

Tapping her Comm badge, she ordered, "Harry, beam up all members of Voyager's crew currently on the planet."

"Aye, Captain."

As the transporter beam gathered her up, Kathryn offered a silent prayer that the people of Lom would soon be free of despotism.

Stepping off the transporter pad, Kathryn asked the ship's computer, "Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine is in the Captain's quarters."

Smiling to herself, Kathryn tapped her com badge. "Janeway to Chakotay."

"Welcome back, Captain. I understand your negotiations were a success." Kathryn could hear the smile in her First Officer's voice.

"Very much so. Get us out of here, Chakotay. Back on course for the Alpha Quadrant. You have the bridge for a couple days, if you don't mind."

"Say hello to Seven for me, Captain."

Shaking her head at the familiarity she had allowed to creep into her Senior Staff, Kathryn walked swiftly down the corridors of her ship, now safely back on course for home.

Arriving at the door of her quarters, Kathryn paused for a moment, willing the tension that had been her constant companion for the past week to leave. So much had happened, so many beliefs had been shattered and a good portion of Kathryn's citadel lay in ruins at her feet. There would be time to begin to reevaluate, to talk about all that had occured. For right now though, all that Kathryn wanted to do was wrap her arms around Seven's slender waist and bury her face in that long, lovely neck and forget about the rest of the universe, even for just a few short hours.

Activating the panel on the door, Kathryn crossed the threshold to find Seven standing in the center of the room, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. Without a word, Kathryn moved into the circle of her arms, breathing in the wonderful, familiar scent of her skin and hair. They stood there for a long time, conscious only of the beating of their two hearts, that, together once more, fell into a timeless rhythm with each other, unchanging and constant as the movement of the stars. After a long while, Kathryn looked up into Seven's eyes, feeling, as always, as if she had boldly dived into water of the clearest blue, fathomless and glacial, sinking without struggle into their depths.

"You were incorrect, Kathryn," Seven said, those eyes holding a distinct twinkle.

"Well, that definitely isn't the first time I've heard that from you, and I doubt it will be the last," Kathryn replied with a chuckle,"What, exactly, was I wrong about this time?"

"You stated that the time apart would, I believe you said, fly," Seven responded, the twinkle having moved to her lips, which curled in a teasing smile.

"You're right. I was in error. I don't suppose you can think of some way for me to make it up to you, do you?"

"In fact I have spent approximately 83% of my time for the past three days, contemplating a variety of ways for you to make amends," Seven said, grasping Kathryn gently by the hand and pulling her slowly toward the bedroom.

"Only 83%? What did you do with the other 17% of your time?" she replied, allowing herself to be lead, quite willingly, in the direction of the double bed.

"I conversed with Samantha and B'Elanna. I considered several methods of escape, should it have proved necessary. I slept," Seven rejoined, her voice somewhat distracted as she efficiently rid Kathryn of her uniform.

"What did the three of you talk about?" Kathryn asked breathlessly, the feel of Seven's hands sliding along her arms, skittering across her ribcage, making conversation and rational thought increasingly difficult.

"Love," Seven replied, her mind focused completely on the satin smooth feel of Kathryn's skin beneath her fingers.

"Love? You and B'Elanna Torres discussed love?" Kathryn couldn't quite keep the note of astonishment from her voice.

"Darling, maybe you should go regenerate. It has been four days," Kathryn said suddenly, her concern for Seven's welfare cutting through the pleasant haze of sensations.

"I am fine, Kathryn. I will regenerate tomorrow."

"Are you sure? Really, Seven, we can wait.."

"I see that I am going to have to resort to physical measures to get you to stop talking, " Kathryn heard her say, before any other thoughts were banished from her mind at the feel of Seven's full lips covering her own possessively. Kathryn felt herself being pulled down onto the bed, the soft, supple curves of Seven's body breaking the fall quite nicely. Apparently, Seven had decided that conversation was highly overrated. At that particular moment, Kathryn couldn't argue.

Seven rolled Kathryn over in one, quick motion, lowering her head to claim Kathryn's mouth again before she could protest. It had been four days since they had last made love, and Seven was determined to take her time, her kisses languid and feather-soft, teasing across Kathryn's lips. Moaning in protest, Kathryn reached up and captured Seven's face between her hands, pulling her head down to snare Seven's ample bottom lip between her teeth, until, with a small growl, Seven kissed her completely, thoroughly, erasing any further objections from Kathryn's mind.

They made love deliberately, hands and mouths seeking out all those places they had learned so well. When Kathryn finally cried out, her body taut, glistening with sweat, Seven held her close, somehow not surprised or apprehensive at the tears that poured down over elegant cheekbones, forming a small pool in the hollow of Seven's neck.

"Do you wish to talk Kathryn?" Seven inquired gently.

Kathryn drew in a ragged breath. Seven barely heard the whispered, "No, not tonight. We can talk tomorrow."

"I love you, Kathryn."

Tightening her arms around Seven's neck, Kathryn murmured, "I love you, too, darling. I love you, too."



The boy lay back against the pillows of the bed. Moving and searching for a comfortable spot, he finally pulled the blankets onto the floor under the window. From here he could see his stars, distant and unconcerned, their light having left some of them long years before the people of his planet even existed. The merchant and his wife had convinced him to come and stay with them for a while. The boy was still uncertain about this decision. He tried to remain aloof and apart from the merchant and his family, imagining himself as one of those stars, distant and removed from the everyday troubles of the world. Still, when the merchant and his wife had come to his room to say goodnight, brushing the hair off of his forehead, the boy had felt a small stone fall from atop the barrier he had constructed against love.

He wondered what would become of the aliens who had saved him, and who he, in return, had helped save. As he drifted to sleep, his head pillowed on the blankets, his face turned toward the window full of stars, the boy imagined the starship, sleek and white and graceful, sweeping through a sea of black waves, stars all about. He imagined all the wondrous sights it would see, all the visions of beauty and dread it would encounter on its journey through the galaxy. The boy's last thought as sleep claimed him, was a hope that on that distant world the travelers called home, the people had learned his Mother's lesson. That they had learned to live in love.

The End

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