DISCLAIMER: All characters from Star Trek belong to Paramount and use of them here is not intended to infringe, nor to make any profit. This story depicts a loving relationship between women. If you have objections, don't read it. You have been duly warned.
NOTES: I used names for Bajoran characters that come from the world of Star Trek but the reader should not associate the Trek characters' histories with the characters here. I've also invented a "Bajoran" word toward the end of the story.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Truly Free
By Weejee

Chapter 7

At first light the next morning, Seven and B'Elanna rose and prepared in relative silence for the difficult task ahead of them. They dressed in simple dark clothing and sturdy boots, took a small meal, and downloaded the intelligence about Cole's base that Tom had dug up for them. When they were almost ready to meet the rest of the team at the landing strip, B'Elanna turned to Seven.

"Seven, I know you're willing to come with us but I want to say again that you don't have to. You could lose your job or get into other trouble with the Federation and I don't want to see that." She continued more softly, "You could get hurt."

Seven looked B'Elanna squarely in the eyes. "I appreciate your concern for my position but I would never value employment over the needs of a friend."

The women locked gazes for a moment, each deep in thought about the variety of possible consequences of their actions, and then both chuckled, thinking of the place they had found themselves. B'Elanna finally gave voice to what they had suddenly found so funny. "It *is* strange to think, isn't it? But we are, aren't we? We're more than crewmates thrown together by chance. We *are* friends," she said definitively now.

"Yes," Seven said, still smiling. What both women wanted to say but which neither had the courage to at this point -- the coming ordeal still at the back of their minds -- was that they were, indeed, *more* than friends.

Seven turned the conversation serious again. "Could we not ask Captain Janeway for assistance? I am sure she would help."

"I'm sure she would too," B'Elanna agreed. "But I *really* don't want her to get into any trouble. Starfleet has chosen to leave this situation as it is and hasn't taken action against Cole so I don't want her to have to do anything that Starfleet wouldn't sanction. She's worked too hard to get where she is and I wouldn't want to be the cause of her losing her position. I couldn't live with that."

"I understand," Seven replied.

"I'm going to ask you one more thing, Seven, and then I'll leave it alone. OK?" B'Elanna said with utmost seriousness.

Seven nodded, uneasy about what B'Elanna might ask.

"I just want to know that you're feeling healthy enough to go through with this and don't give me any of that 'I am Borg' stuff. If you feel ill at all, then you shouldn't risk yourself or this mission."

"I feel entirely well, B'Elanna, and fully capable of handling this."

"OK, then," B'Elanna said, accepting Seven's response and giving her a quick kiss. She knew that even if Seven were not completely recovered, their chances were infinitely better with her than without her. Still, she needed the assurance that Seven wasn't taking any unnecessary risks. "Let's get to it, then," B'Elanna continued, putting on her game face.

B'Elanna and Seven met Falor, Sul, Jack and the others selected for the team - Jadis, Tamon, and Seali - at the landing strip where the group was already preparing one of the colony's ships for the mission. Entering one of the shuttles, they found Falor, Sul and Jack running a systems check and B'Elanna handed Falor the PADD with the information that Tom had sent. Jack contacted the others and asked them to come aboard so that they could plan their strike on Cole's base together.

B'Elanna was all business, having put aside her fears about Seven's health and having decided to trust that Sul would do her job on the mission. Seven, however, while fully prepared to handle whatever might come their way, was still leery of Sul and somewhat jealous of her past relationship with B'Elanna. She knew that she couldn't afford to let these emotions cloud her judgement and tried her best to keep them at bay.

B'Elanna began. "I think we should take two shuttles and a cargo carrier for the equipment, once we locate it." The others nodded in agreement.

"How will we approach the base without being detected?" Jack asked.

Seven weighed in. "According to Mr. Paris' intelligence, we can remain outside the base's sensors and hide within a group of nearby asteroids. With minor modifications to the shuttles' transporter systems, we should be able to beam down and beam the equipment out without our ships being detected, assuming we can penetrate the base's shields."

"Good, very good," Falor nodded.

"The real question," B'Elanna continued, "is how *are* we going to get inside their shields. This has to be a stealth mission if we're going to be able to carry it off."

"We can scan their defenses once we're there and see if we can find a weakness and transport through," Sul suggested.

"That's a good idea," B'Elanna agreed, "but we'll have to have a back up plan too. I suppose we can be prepared to beam down on the asteroid's surface and Seven and I can try to find a way to bring down part of the shield grid to get us inside."

"It isn't a very concrete plan," Jadis mused, "but I guess it will have to do."

"Yes, I guess so," Falor concurred with her.

"We'll also need to be sure that we have some explosive charges in case we need them to disable Cole's ships in a hurry," B'Elanna continued.

"I'm prepared for that," Sul said, gesturing to a bag on the floor, "and any other of your demolition needs."

The members of the team then spent some time familiarizing themselves with the layout of the base, hoping that Tom's information was accurate. Once they felt certain that they knew enough to make their way around the base, Falor took over. "Okay, then. Seven and B'Elanna, you get started on the transporter modifications. Jadis and Tamon, run a systems check on the other shuttle. Jack, make sure the atmosphere suits in each ship are ready to go in case we need them. Sul, stock the weapons lockers and Seali and I will prepare the cargo transport."

Everyone sprang into action.

As Seven sat at a console and surveyed the systems of the colony's shuttle - a craft that resembled a Starfleet runabout - she and B'Elanna planned how they would extend its transporter range.

"B'Elanna," Seven exclaimed with wonder, "this shuttle's shields are remarkable."

B'Elanna beamed with pride, knowing that the brilliant former Borg did not bestow compliments lightly. "I adapted some of the things we . . . you . . . developed for the Delta Flyer and made a few additions of my own, given the differences in technology." B'Elanna always regretted that her response to finding out about the death of most of her friends in the Maquis had kept her from becoming a full member of the group that had participated in the design of the Flyer. Instead of helping Tom, Seven and the others, she had acted out her anger through using dangerous programs on the holodeck and, when she became severely injured, Captain Janeway had removed her from the project. Working on the Free Haven shuttles had been a good experience for her and, even though she still had regrets, she had come to feel some measure of redemption for her past actions.

"Remarkable," Seven repeated. "Why have you not done the same for the weapons systems? I see only simple phaser banks and a small battery of half-sized photon torpedoes."

B'Elanna leaned over to speak with Seven confidentially. "I know. I wanted to upgrade them, believe me, but I was voted down. Everyone wanted enough fire power to defend the ships but not so much that we'd be taken as an offensive threat. I was able to convince them about the shields and I figured that it would be enough in most circumstances."

Seven nodded in understanding of B'Elanna's situation. "Well, we do not have time to make any changes at this point."

"Let's hope we won't need any serious fire power," B'Elanna replied, unconvincingly.

An hour later, with all systems at go, the team conferred for one last time before heading out. Falor spoke privately with B'Elanna for a minute and then gestured for her to speak. She began hesitantly, "Look, we're all in this together, and that's what we've been about all along, but someone needs to take the lead here and Falor has asked me to do it. If it's okay with everyone else, I will take on the responsibility. If anyone else would like to do it or thinks someone else should, please speak up. I won't take it personally."

B'Elanna waited and when no one spoke up to oppose her leadership, she continued. "Okay, then. I think we're ready. Seven has adjusted our communicators to a frequency that should keep us from being detected but we'll keep communications to a minimum anyway once we're inside the base. Falor has loaded the manifest of equipment we received. Be sure to familiarize yourself with it so that, when the time comes, we take only what belongs to us."

"Yes," Falor interjected. "We don't want to profit from Cole's thievery."

"Jadis and Seali, you take the cargo transport," B'Elanna continued. "Seven, Sul and Tamon, you're on the other shuttle. Falor and Jack, you're with me." She had chosen Seali, Tamon and Jack to pilot the ships and, although she preferred to have Seven near her, B'Elanna knew that each craft needed a technical expert and Jadis, Seven and herself were the best among the group.

As everyone prepared to move out, Seven took a moment with B'Elanna. Because they could not speak in private and because she did not want them to become too emotional with everything still ahead of them, she simply put her hand to B'Elanna's cheek and spoke softly with a small smile on her face. "I look forward to the next time we eat strawberry tarts together."

"Me too, but you can have mine. You know I don't even like them," B'Elanna whispered, smiling and pressing her face into Seven's caress. She looked deeply into the riveting blue eyes before her. "Please be careful, Seven."

"I will be careful. And you as well, B'Elanna."

"I've got visual on the asteroid field," Jack reported.

"On screen," B'Elanna instructed. She saw an unappealing array of asteroids of various sizes. A superstructure that marked Cole's base was apparent on the surface of one of them, X573. "An appropriately gruesome hideout for these guys," she muttered. "Bring us into transporter range."As soon as they were in range, B'Elanna began scanning the base's shields, hoping that she would be able to find a way for them to beam in undetected.

"Seven of Nine to Torres."

"Give me some good news, Seven," B'Elanna responded, still concentrating on the readings on her console but wondering how Seven could have figured anything out so quickly.

"I'm not sure that I will be able to comply."

"Well, I guess I'll have to take whatever you've got, then" she said, pausing in her calculations.

"It appears that Cole's base has a fairly complex internal and external shielding system. It will be impossible to locate the equipment from anywhere outside of the external shield. Once inside I believe that we will have to find and disable the precise section of the internal shielding that surrounds the room containing the equipment in order to beam it out."

"Great," B'Elanna said with frustration and trading glances with Jack and Falor. "What's your evaluation of the external shield?"

"Here is where I may be able to provide some 'good news.' I have located a slight fluctuation in a portion of the shield. It is near an airlock not protected by the internal shielding. We should be able to beam through it if we proceed one at a time."

"That does qualify as good news," Falor chimed in.

"Will we need the atmosphere suits in the airlock?" Jack asked.

"No," Seven replied. "The airlock is fully oxygenated."

"Good work, Seven," B'Elanna said. "Transmit the coordinates to Jack." She stood up and moved to the weapons locker. Addressing her team mates in her own shuttle as well as those in the other ship, she continued. "Sul, Seven, and Falor, you're with me. Lock and load." Falor joined her at the locker and each took a hand phaser and a phaser rifle. B'Elanna checked the small blade - a Klingon Kut'luch that her mother had left her - which she had strapped to her boot before leaving home that morning. "Everyone else, do your best to monitor our situation. Any questions before we get on with this?" Everyone murmured their understanding of their orders. "Jack, send me down first." She continued over the comm system, "Tamon, when I give the all clear, you beam in Seven and then Sul from your shuttle." Turning back to the pilot of her own shuttle, she said, "When they're through, Jack, beam Falor in."

"Okay," Tamon acknowledged from the other shuttle.

"Got it," Jack acknowledged. "Good luck."

"Thanks," B'Elanna replied, phaser rifle at the ready. "Energize."

B'Elanna materialized inside an airlock in Cole's base on X573, pulled out a tricorder, and checked the situation in the room just beyond the airlock. It seemed to be a cargo hold but, unfortunately, did not appear to contain any of the equipment that they were looking for. **That would be too easy. At least there's no one in there,** she thought. "Torres to Tamon and Parker. All clear."

"Acknowledged," came Jack's reply.

"Acknowledged," came Tamon's as well and he prepared to beam the next team member from his shuttle. "Engergizing."

Seven of Nine appeared before her and the two were soon joined by Sul and then Falor.

When Sul arrived from the second shuttle, she found B'Elanna and Seven deep in conversation over their tricorders. She watched the two women as they looked from the tricorders to the panel on the wall and spoke to each other in hushed tones. She knew that they were using words to make a decision about how to deal with the internal shields but it seemed as if they also had some sort of secret, silent language. Sul had recognized that there was something between them the moment she had seen Seven at the party in the town hall. It was certainly difficult not to notice the tall, striking woman and Sul had been taken aback by the longing evident on Seven's face as the newcomer watched B'Elanna on the dance floor. Seeing them together, being around them, it was hard not to feel the electricity between them, even when they were in conflict. She could tell that B'Elanna was struggling against it still, afraid of something, but Sul knew that Seven was in up to her neck. Sul shook her head to clear it when she realized that the two women had come to some sort of a decision and were ready to move on.

Seven raised her left arm to the panel on the wall where the two women had removed the covering but B'Elanna stopped her. "Are you sure there's no other way?" B'Elanna asked anxiously.

"I do not believe so," Seven responded, frustration evident in her voice. "In any event, this will certainly be the most efficient course of action. I should be able to download the access codes for the shields and we can then proceed. I do not see any other way of getting this information, B'Elanna."

"Are you sure it's safe?" B'Elanna asked, also clearly frustrated.

"No, but the risk is an acceptable one. The longer we linger here, the greater our chances of being detected."

"All right," B'Elanna said sighing, concern still evident in her eyes. "Do it," she added with a smirk and was met with one from Seven as they both enjoyed B'Elanna's imitation of Captain Janeway.

With that, Seven's Borg tubules emerged from her hand and entered the panel. A minute or so later she withdrew them and then used them to interface with the tricorder. That accomplished, she copied the information she had downloaded from her tricorder to B'Elanna's.

"I have acquired a set of access codes but we will not know which ones apply to the shields around the cargo and storage areas until we reach them," Seven informed the group.

B'Elanna was engrossed in performing some operation on her tricorder and, when she finished, exchanged it for Seven's and continued working. "I've set up a recursive algorithm that should make it possible to come up with the correct code for each door's shield in a relatively short time," B'Elanna said finally.

"Impressive," Seven responded with genuine admiration for the engineer's creativity and efficiency.

"You know me - always a trick or two up my sleeve," B'Elanna quipped.

Falor and Sul observed the exchange between the women with amusement.

"Okay," B'Elanna said, looking at Falor and Sul, "let's get going. Seven, Sul, I want you to work through the small storage areas along the corridor that leads to the shuttle bay. Check each room and beam up anything you find. When you've reached the shuttle bay, try to make it impossible for them to follow us if we're discovered. I'll leave it up to you how to accomplish that. Falor and I will make our way to the large cargo bay at the other end of the base and check the storage areas along the way."

"Got it," Sul responded. Seven simply nodded and watched as B'Elanna opened the door that separated the airlock and the cargo hold ahead. The group moved through cautiously, emerged in a corridor, and the two teams went in opposite directions to accomplish their respective tasks.

"What kind of stupid pirates steal this kind of crap?" B'Elanna whispered to Falor. They had made their way past a number of empty rooms and had entered a small storage area. The recursive algorithm that B'Elanna had programmed into the tricorder had worked, even though it had taken more time to find the access codes for the shield than she had hoped. The last few minutes had been wasted plowing through piles of junk and scanning for any equipment on their manifest. "Even during our most desperate times on Voyager I would never have taken this junk, even for free."

"All right, B'Elanna," Falor hissed. "If none of our equipment is here, let's move on, then."

They peeked into the corridor, saw that it was clear, and set the shield back in place before moving on. When they reached another storage area at the junction of two corridors, B'Elanna began to search for the right access code and Falor kept watch.

Falor heard voices before he could even determine where they were coming from. Listening for footsteps to ascertain the direction in which Cole's men were moving, he realized that he and B'Elanna were in immediate danger. "Hurry," Falor whispered to B'Elanna. "There are at least two men at the end of the next corridor!"

"Okay, okay. I've almost got it," B'Elanna shot back. The shield came down and B'Elanna quickly opened the door, allowing them to make it inside undetected.

Falor released the breath that he had hardly been aware he had been holding. "A better class of junk?" He asked, trying to lighten the mood.

"Better, but still not ours." B'Elanna closed the tricorder and tapped her comm badge twice to send a barely audible signal to Seven, requesting a response. Seven would be able to detect the signal but it was so soft that, should she and Sul be in proximity to any of Cole's men, the communication would not tip them off. Unfortunately, the system would only work in one direction as it depended on Seven's enhanced hearing.

"Seven here."

"Tell me you're having some luck," B'Elanna said.

"We have found a number of smaller pieces of equipment and have transported them out." Seven listed the items so that B'Elanna and Falor would not continue to look for them. "There is only one small storage area left before we reach the shuttle bay. Although there may be more equipment there, as well as some in the bay, I suspect that the majority of the items are in the large cargo bay to which you are heading. We will need to disable the external shields in order for you to transport the larger equipment. I will attempt to do so from the shuttle bay."

"Acknowledged. We're on our way there now. We'll let you know what we find when we get there. Be careful you two. Torres out."

"I strongly suggest that you not touch that item, Varis Sul," Seven said with all the arrogance that had typically driven B'Elanna into a blind rage when they had been crewmates on Voyager.

"Why not?" Sul asked, pulling her hand away from a strange device sitting on a table in the last storage area that she and Seven needed to search before moving on to lower the external shields and disable Cole's ships.

"It is activated by body heat and I am certain that you do not wish for this to happen."

"Look, Seven," Sul blurted out as the other woman ran her tricorder over the piles of equipment in the room. "I know you don't like me and you have every reason not to, but I am genuinely sorry that I acted like a jerk at B'Elanna's house the other night."

"You are incorrect, Varis Sul," Seven responded, not looking up from the tricorder. "I have no feelings for you as I do not know you. However, because you have caused B'Elanna distress, I do not I trust you."

"Well I hope that we will get to know each other and that I'll be able to earn your trust. I know you have strong feelings for B'Elanna and that she cares for you deeply. I want her to be happy, even if I can't be the one she's with."

This caused Seven to look up from her work and meet Sul's gaze. "I do not see that this is any of your concern and I do not believe that this is an appropriate time for such a discussion."

"Okay, okay. I just wanted to say that I see how much B'Elanna feels for you. She's the strongest, most loyal, most courageous, and most stubborn person I've ever met but she's also vulnerable in ways that she might never admit. She has a powerful need to love and be loved. Needing someone is probably the only thing she's afraid of and it will take a person with the tenacity of a targh stalking its dinner to make her give into her need."

"I *do not* wish to discuss this with you. We must move on to the shuttle bay," Seven said, clearly annoyed at the liberties Sul felt entitled to take.

"Right," Sul conceded, hoping that Seven had taken in what she said and would think about it later.

Seven scanned the corridor for life signs and, finding none, motioned for Sul to follow her. She knew that it had been unlikely that they would encounter any of Cole's men in this corridor of storage areas but felt certain that the shuttle bay would be much more dangerous. The bay had multiple points of entrance and it would be difficult to monitor all of them and accomplish their tasks at the same time. Once they reached the cargo bay, Seven disabled the shield and the two women entered to find five mid-sized shuttles and two cargo transports. Taking a quick look around, they determined that none of their equipment was in the shuttle bay.

"You work on disabling the ships while determine how to lower the external shields," Seven instructed and Sul snapped into action.

Sul approached one of the shuttles and attached three small explosive charges on the port nacelle, expecting that the blast would effectively disable the ship's propulsion. For good measure, she placed an addition charge on the shuttle's main hatch, just where it met the rest of the outer hull. **"That should keep them grounded,"** she mused.

Seven moved to a large console and, in short order, had figured out how to lower the base's external shields. **"A rudimentary defense system after all,"** she thought. Not having anything else to do but wait for B'Elanna to contact her, she decided to assist Sul in setting the explosives. Suddenly, a door at the other end of the bay opened and three of Cole's men entered, chatting amiably. Seven moved to crouch behind one of the shuttles, hoping that she had not been seen and that Sul had been able to hide as well. For what seemed like an hour (although her Borg chronometer told her otherwise), Seven waited, hearing little more than the men's breathing and their footsteps echoing on the metal floor of the shuttle bay as they went about their business.

When the shuttle bay door began to open, Sul had just finished setting charges on the third of the five ships docked in the bay. She was in full sight of anyone entering by that door and had to dive to the floor and crawl underneath the shuttle. Quietly and as quickly as she could, she inched her way under the bottom of the shuttle and emerged on the other side, out of sight of the men who had just entered. She held her breath, hoping that they hadn't seen her or Seven.

When the pirates continued their conversation, Seven concluded that her teammate must have been able to hide safely. She wondered how long it would be before one of them was discovered. To her right, she soon saw Sul creeping toward her, staying hidden behind the row of shuttles.

A moment later, Seven heard her comm badge beep twice and she tapped it twice to indicate to B'Elanna that she had received the signal but could not respond verbally. She could only assume that Falor and B'Elanna had made it inside the cargo bay and were waiting for her to lower the shields to allow the equipment to be transported out. She looked at Sul, who had seen her tap her comm badge, and moved her head to indicate that she was going to make her way back to the console. Sul nodded, readied her phaser rifle, and moved closer to Seven to be able to protect her if need be.

"I sure hope the take from this Free Haven stuff is good," one of the men said. "I'll be needing lots of money to wine and dine the women when we get our vacation on New Reno -- 'the vacation planet for the rest of us'," he said, reciting the recreation planet's advertising slogan.

"Yeah, right," another man jeered. "You don't have what it takes to have fun on New Reno. Those women won't give you the time of day."

Seven crawled behind the console then stood up quickly to key in a combination that would lower the base's external shields. She crouched behind the console again hoping that Falor and B'Elanna were safe and that the signal she had received had indeed meant that they had found the rest of the equipment.

"What do you mean I don't have what it takes?" the first man responded. "When I get there, I'm gonna . . . Ouch!" He looked down to see what his foot had bumped into and found a large bag lying on the floor. "How did this get here?" he asked his comrades.

"I don't know. It doesn't look like our stuff," the third man said, rifling through it. "Explosive charges? How did this get here?"

Sul exchanged a glance with Seven, silently attempting to apologize for having left her equipment bag in plain sight. They both prepared mentally for whatever might come next. They did not have to wait long as one of the three men came around the side of the shuttles and saw the two women. Seven and Sul both quickly fired at the man and moved around the shuttle to put themselves out of view. The pirate's return fire barely missed Sul's shoulder.

While Seven continued to fire to keep the men on the defensive, Sul came to a decision. "Sul to B'Elanna."

"B'Elanna here. What's up? We've transported the equipment up and are ready to go."

"We've been discovered and are pinned down in the shuttle bay. We didn't have time to lay charges on all the shuttles," she whispered, not wanting to expose their plans to Cole's men."

"We'll have to live with it," B'Elanna responded. "Torres to Tamon."

"Tamon here."

"Beam Seven and Sul back to your shuttle and then detonate the charges. Cover the cargo transport and head for home. We'll be right behind you."

"Aye aye. Tamon out."

Before they knew it, Seven and Sul had dissolved in the sparkles of the transporter and found themselves back aboard their shuttle and heading for Free Haven. While Seven understood that B'Elanna wanted to give them and the equipment a head start to safety, she was uncomfortable with having left the other shuttle lagging behind. Checking a console, she was relieved to see that B'Elanna's shuttle was, indeed, behind them and heading for home but was distressed to see two of the pirates' shuttles in pursuit. If she and Sul had had the time to set all the charges, they would not be in this situation, she thought. She knew that it would not be wise to leave the transport unprotected, and B'Elanna had expressly ordered them not to, but Seven desperately wished that they could go back to provide support.

"Shields down to 82%," Falor informed B'Elanna and Jack.

"I'll try to get you more power to reinforce them if they fall below 75%," B'Elanna replied. "Right now, we need all we can get for the engines. Keep firing."

"Aye, aye."

"Evasive maneuvers, Jack. We need to distract them long enough to give the others a good chance to get away."

"I'm doing my best," the doctor replied, more than a little bit out of his element.

"Brace for impact," Falor warned them. "There's a torpedo on its way." Just as he finished, the small ship rocked and sparks flew from consoles and panels." Falor picked himself off the floor and looked at his console. "Shields down to 68%"

"Shit!" B'Elanna exclaimed. "Diverting power to the shields. Jack, come about and try to move above the ship to our port. The other ship probably won't want to fire on us for fear of hitting their own. Falor, ready torpedoes. When we're in position, fire on their nacelles. Jack, get ready to move out as soon as the torpedoes are away."

"Understood," Jack replied and maneuvered them into position.

"Torpedoes away," Falor informed them. As the small shuttle moved away from the pirates' ship, they saw the explosion that indicated a direct hit.

"Their propulsion is off line," Falor announced.

"Yes!" Jack exclaimed.

"We're not out of the woods yet," B'Elanna responded, trying to figure out what to do next as Cole's other ship headed for them. "Evasive maneuvers. Falor, ready another battery of torpedoes."

"I'm picking up a ship on an intercept course," Jack announced.

"More of Cole's people?" B'Elanna asked, knowing that they were done for if they had to defend themselves against a third ship.

"Federation!" Falor exclaimed. "They're hailing Cole," he said, tapping in to monitor the communication.

"This is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation starship Voyager to unidentified ships. You are firing on a vessel under our protection. Stand down immediately or we will be forced to retaliate."

"Bring us around behind Voyager," B'Elanna ordered Jack, never happier to see her beloved vessel on the viewscreen. They watched as the second pirate shuttle continued firing on them, forcing Captain Janeway's hand. With a few well-placed blasts from Voyager's phasers, Cole's ship was easily disabled.

"Voyager to Free Haven shuttle."

"Keeve Falor here, Captain," he responded enthusiastically upon seeing the bridge of Voyager on the viewscreen and Captain Janeway standing at the center. "We cannot thank you enough for coming to our aid."

"I'm glad that we arrived in time, Mr. Keeve, B'Elanna."

"I don't think I've ever been so happy to see Voyager, Kathryn," B'Elanna said, a huge smile on her face.

"I think you're forgetting all those close calls we had in the Delta quadrant," Janeway responded, her smile matching B'Elanna's. As much as she wanted to maintain her anger at B'Elanna's disappearance these past years, she simply couldn't. She had missed her too much and was too happy to see her again. Becoming serious, she continued, "Mr. Keeve, I need to discuss a number of things with your council. With your permission, we'll accompany you to the colony."

"Permission granted. We shall see you in Ilvia, Captain."

"Do you need assistance getting back?" Commander Tuvok inquired. "Your ship seems to have sustained some damage."

"We'll be fine, Tuvok," B'Elanna responded. "We'd prefer to return on our own power, if you don't mind."

"Understood," Janeway responded, well aware of the significance of the group's arrival in Ilvia in their own ship. She would never stand for Voyager to be towed anywhere if she had a choice. "We'll see you shortly. Janeway out."

Chapter 8

Seven of Nine emerged from the shuttle along with Sul and Tamon and stepped down on the landing strip just in time to see Jadis and Seali exit the cargo transport. The two ships had arrived considerably ahead of the group's third shuttle, which had been damaged in the exchange with Cole's ships. Although the team members who had made it back congratulated one another on their success, they were also anxious for Jack, Falor and especially B'Elanna, their team leader, to arrive. Seven was particularly reserved in her celebration, wanting to see for herself that B'Elanna was uninjured.

Seven turned around at the realization that someone had transported to the surface and saw Captain Kathryn Janeway and Commander Tuvok standing at the edge of the landing strip. Although she saw her two mentors occasionally since she had begun working at the Federation's Institute for New Technology, their active status on Voyager meant that they were often away for long stretches of time and Seven found that she missed them. In fact, it was not until she had made the decision not to continue on Voyager that she had first come to understand this particular emotion of longing to see someone with whom one had a close relationship. She crossed the strip to greet her former ship mates, her brisk pace and relaxed body language revealing her pleasure at seeing them and her gratitude for the aid they had tendered the colonists.

"Captain, Commander. It is very good to see you. And I must admit, your timing was impeccable."

Janeway smiled, happy to see the woman she had worked so hard to rescue from the Borg and who had become a good friend to her. "Glad to be of service. You're looking quite well, Seven," she continued, placing her hand casually on the younger woman's shoulder.

"Indeed," Tuvok joined in. "Have you recovered from your illness completely?"

"Yes, I have. Thank you for asking." Suddenly their attention was caught by the appearance of the third of the colony's ships that had participated in the mission and the three turned to watch as it set down on the landing strip. Her hand still on Seven's shoulder, Janeway became aware of a tremendous energy building in the woman's body and noticed a look of anticipation on her face.

"Excuse me, Captain, Commander," Seven said as she walked briskly toward the shuttle, almost breaking into a run. Janeway and Tuvok exchanged a glance, both surprised at the enthusiasm that the normally reserved Seven was exhibiting. Of course, only a few people -- and Kathryn Janeway being one of them -- would recognize an expression of surprise on Tuvok's face. And, of course, Tuvok would never admit to such a thing.

When the shuttle's hatch opened, the small group of Free Haven colonists who had already returned from the mission stood just outside and were forced to step back as smoke billowed out of the main cabin. Falor emerged coughing and Jack followed right behind, carrying his medical equipment. Sul, Seven, Jadis, Tamon, and Seali each greeted the men and congratulated them on a job well done.

Finally, B'Elanna emerged, coughing and carrying a piece of equipment from the shuttle that had been damaged in the brief battle. "Well, I guess we'll have to get a new one of these," she joked, jumping from the top step of the small ladder to the ground. She turned and flung the damaged equipment back inside the shuttle. Jadis and Tamon welcomed her back with slaps on the back and big bear hugs and then headed over to the cargo transport to begin unloading the equipment the group had retrieved from Cole's base, while Jack and Falor went to greet Janeway and Tuvok.

"Good work, Sul," B'Elanna said, grasping her by the shoulders and pulling her into a brief hug.

"But, I messed up. They wouldn't have found us if I hadn't left my equipment bag on the floor of the shuttle bay," she said, clearly distressed. "You and Jack and Falor could have been killed!"

"Sul," B'Elanna said, looking her squarely in the eye and with utmost sincerity, "you didn't mess up. We don't know that they wouldn't have found us anyway. All that matters is that we worked as a team, got the job done, and we made it back. You *did* a good job."

"I must concur, Varis Sul," Seven interjected. "You cannot be held responsible for what occurred and you accomplished your assigned tasks to the best of your ability, under the circumstances."

Sul nodded to indicate her thanks for Seven's reserved support. "Thanks," she said, hugged B'Elanna again and walked away to join Falor and Jack, who were now engaged in an animated conversation with the officers from Voyager.

"B'Elanna Torres, explain yourself," Seven said rather sternly and standing, hands clasped behind her back, aloof from the woman for whom she had developed such strong feelings of late.

B'Elanna, expecting a more tender welcome, folded her arms across her chest in her customary defensive posture. "What do you mean, explain myself?"

Seven could no longer keep her distance from B'Elanna, nor hold on to her brief anger at the danger her beloved had just faced, and embraced her tightly.

"Seven?" B'Elanna queried, still uncertain about the cause of the veritable emotional rollercoaster she had just witnessed in the former drone and waiting for what the next turn might bring.

"I've only just found you," Seven whispered into her ear. "I could not bear to lose you again . . . now. Why did you have to take such a risk?"

"I'm right here," B'Elanna comforted her, now hugging her tightly. "I couldn't think of any other way, but we're all safe now."

Kathryn Janeway stood at the edge of the landing strip conversing with Keeve Falor, Jack Parker and Varis Sul about the events that had led up to the colonists being forced to retrieve the stolen Federation equipment by covert means. As Commander Tuvok, her tactical officer, inquired about what had taken place when the group was inside Cole's base, she listened but also glanced over to observe the exchange between her two former crew members. She was not surprised to see familiar body language between them - B'Elanna's arms crossed and Seven's hands clasped formally behind her back, her body rigid, their facial expressions indicating some small measure of conflict. **Oh, no,** she thought. **I know what comes next with those two.** With all her experience as a starship captain, charting territory in the Delta quadrant unknown to anyone in the Federation, Kathryn Janeway prided herself on the fact that it was now quite difficult to surprise her. And so when she witnessed the two women clinging to one another for an extended period of time and B'Elanna obviously comforting Seven with soft words and a caress on the cheek, she had to admit that she was surprised. **My, but Seven works quickly,** she thought, her eyes widening as the tender exchange continued. She was shaken from her reverie by a question directed at her.

"Would you like to meet with the members of the Council today, Captain?" Falor inquired.

"Uh, yes, I would, if possible," she replied, hardly able to tear her eyes from B'Elanna and Seven. "Yes, I'm sure we can arrange that within the half hour," Falor informed her. "If you'll follow me to the town hall. . . ."

"Of course," Janeway acknowledged. "I'd just like to say hello to B'Elanna first."

"Oh, yes, naturally," Falor replied, looking over at B'Elanna and Seven. Aware of the developing relationship between the two women (none of B'Elanna's friends in Ilvia could fail to notice the change in her) and deciding that they seemed unlikely to join them any time soon, he decided to hurry things along. "B'Elanna," he called and watched as the women spoke briefly to one another again and then headed in his direction.

"Why don't I go ahead and arrange things," Falor said to Janeway, "and B'Elanna can escort you to the town hall."

"That would be fine," Janeway responded.

Feeling satisfied that Seven was no longer upset, but fairly certain that she hadn't heard the last of Seven's concerns about the risk she had taken, B'Elanna bounded across the landing strip to greet her former captain. Seven followed behind and moved to speak with Tuvok while B'Elanna and Kathryn met in person for the first time in three years.

"Kathryn!" B'Elanna said, pulling her into a tight embrace. "I don't know how to thank you. I guess Tom couldn't keep his mouth shut," she said, laughing. Becoming serious, she looked Janeway in the eye and said, "I hope you won't get into any trouble. I mean, that's why I didn't ask for your help to begin with."

"Don't worry, B'Elanna. Tom simply wanted me to know that these pirates had stolen the equipment the Federation had allotted to the colony. I took the opportunity to take it up with Starfleet and encourage them to permit us to assist in its retrieval." She put her hand on B'Elanna's shoulder. "I *can* be persuasive, you know."

"Yes, I'm aware of that," B'Elanna said with a smile.

"And I've also been authorized to open negotiations with the colony to formalize a relationship with the Federation, now that Free Haven is about to become independent of Bajor."

"I think Ilvia's council would be open to that," B'Elanna told her. "I'm not sure about the other towns but Falor will be able to handle that." The four began to walk back to town, Kathryn and B'Elanna walking in front and Seven and Tuvok following behind.

When they reached the town hall, they found large numbers of Ilvians gathered to congratulate the team for bringing home the equipment and returning safely. Ven and the children, along with Jaxa, rushed over to them.

"Thank the Prophets," Ven exclaimed, his arms around B'Elanna. "I'm happy that you were successful in getting our equipment back, B'Elanna, but all I really care about is that you all returned safely." He looked over her shoulder to catch Seven's eye to let her know that he included her as well in his concern.

"Well, we have to thank Captain Janeway for our safe return," she told him, breaking the embrace and turning to introduce him to her former captain.

"Captain Janeway, this is Jomat Ven, Free Haven's most renowned novelist and my very good friend. And these are his children, Anara and Bemar. This is Sito Jaxa, the director of our school system."

As Ven, Jaxa and Janeway exchanged pleasantries, B'Elanna turned her attention to the children. They were standing slightly behind their father, peeking out from behind his legs, shy of Starfleet officers and not wanting to embarrass their father with their usual rambunctious behavior. B'Elanna squatted to their level, a playful glint in her eye. "Hey, little ones. Did you miss me?" The two children flew at her and each threw their arms around her neck in a smothering hug. "I guess so," she laughed. "I wasn't gone for very long."

"You're not going again, are you, B'Elanna?" Bemar asked quietly, his hand on her shoulder.

"Don't leave us, B'Elanna," Anara joined in.

B'Elanna kissed Bemar's forehead and then the tip of Anara's nose, her heart swelling with love for these two who had become such an important part of her life. "I'm not going anywhere. Don't you worry about it for another minute. Okay?" The children nodded. "Must be serious for me to get away without you two teasing me," she ribbed them.

"Oh, Belly Button," Anara said, finally smiling.

The adults standing nearby could not help but observe the exchange between B'Elanna and the children and each allowed a moment to reflect on the emotional reunion. Ven found himself again thankful for B'Elanna's presence in the lives of his children and hoped that she would remain with them in Ilvia. Kathryn Janeway marveled at the tenderness and affection between her friend and Ven's children, pleased to see B'Elanna allow herself such intimate relationships. Seven of Nine's thoughts were not so concrete as she found it increasingly difficult to find language to match the depth of feeling she experienced about B'Elanna. If her brain was able to form any concrete thoughts, they were focused on anticipation of the next time she could be alone with B'Elanna.

Their musings and B'Elanna's discussion with the children were interrupted by Keeve Falor informing them that the other members of the council were ready to meet with Captain Janeway. As Falor, Ven and Jaxa began to escort Janeway to the conference room, B'Elanna caught Kathryn by the arm. "How long will you be able to stay, Kathryn?"

"I'm not sure. It depends in part on what happens in this meeting, but it will be at least another few days. We want to make our presence known to Cole in case he gets any ideas about retaliating."

"Can you and I have dinner later?" B'Elanna asked somewhat shyly, a bit anxious about being alone with the imposing woman after having acted so immaturely for such a long time. But she pressed on, knowing that she needed to apologize properly. "If you're feeling courageous, I can cook for you at my place."

"I would like that very much, B'Elanna," Kathryn said, placing her hand over the hand that B'Elanna had laid on her arm. "I've got to go into this meeting but I'll contact you when I'm done."

"Great," B'Elanna responded, and watched her former commanding officer retreat into the conference room.

Some hours later Kathryn and B'Elanna were relaxing on the front porch of B'Elanna's small house, having eaten dinner and worked through most of a bottle of Bajoran spring wine. The conversation had been light and relatively impersonal with Kathryn asking questions about Ilvia and Free Haven and telling B'Elanna what she was permitted to reveal about her meeting with the town council. With Free Haven about to become independent of Bajor and in the process of selecting a new name and forming a centralized government to oversee interplanetary relations as well as a number of domestic issues, the Federation was interested in paving the way for future relations. Ilvia's town council was very receptive, particularly given the Federation's favorable response to the proposal for assistance with technological development, and the meeting had been a productive one. Janeway had laid the ground for further discussions and was hopeful that whatever came of the negotiations would benefit both the Federation and Free Haven. The small colony's difficult encounter with Cole had finally motivated the Federation to take a stand on protecting the region from his pirates.

For her part, B'Elanna had also been happy to keep the dinner conversation light, inquiring about life on Voyager these days and about the kinds of work that Starfleet Headquarters had assigned the captain. But she had invited Kathryn to dinner with the hopes that she would have the courage to initiate a more personal conversation.

"Sounds like things are going well, then," B'Elanna said. "You seem happy, Kathryn."

"Yes, things are going well and, in general, I am happy."

"Only 'in general.'?"

"Well, you know what the life of a starship captain is like . . . ," Janeway replied vaguely.

"You mean you haven't made time for relationships," B'Elanna countered with a slightly chastising tone.

"It's complicated," Kathryn said, standing and walking over to lean against the porch rail. "Of course I have relationships of a variety of sorts - I'm thrilled to have my family nearby and to be in touch with some of my old friends - but getting on with the rest of life has been more difficult than I imagined."

"I know what you mean."

"We all changed so much, endured so much, and were forced so far beyond the limits of what we thought ourselves capable of in trying to survive and get home. I find that most people can't comprehend what we went through." She took a sip of wine. "I'm grateful to have Tuvok still with me on Voyager, as well as some of the other original Starfleet crewmembers. And Chakotay has been wonderful but, more than anyone, he's been able to put everything in perspective and get on with his life."

"I spoke with him recently and could tell how well he's doing and how much he likes teaching. Chakotay's always been maddeningly normal - emotionally speaking," she joked.

Kathryn laughed at the emotionally-vibrant woman's characterization of Chakotay and then sighed. "I've missed you, B'Elanna. I understand completely why you chose not to join Starfleet and, although I knew that I could never find anyone good enough to fill your shoes in the job, I realized that it was the right decision for you." She turned her back to B'Elanna and looked out on the road that led to town. "It was so hard for me to have normal friendships when we were all together, given my duties and responsibilities. I thought at least that if you weren't going to stay on Voyager, I would have you as a friend, as a real friend."

B'Elanna ran her fingers through her hair, silently cursing herself for having hurt this woman who had done so much for her. "Kathryn," she began softly, causing the older woman to turn and face her. "When we finally made it back, after everything, after all the effort and the lives it cost, I felt completely lost. I know it sounds unbelievable but I felt more lost in what was supposed to be my home than I had ever felt in the Delta Quadrant - except maybe for that first day when I wanted to kill you for stranding us." Looking down at her hands, she continued, "I guess I thought that, since I couldn't be who I had been on Voyager, I needed to leave that part of my past behind." She expelled a sardonic laugh. "That was one of the most idiotic ideas I've ever had." B'Elanna stood up and moved to stand near Kathryn. "I know I can't make up for the past but I'd really like to try to go on from here. I know I don't have any right to think that you might be open to it, but I want to be here for you as a friend."

Kathryn pulled her into a hug. "I'm so relieved that you're alive and well and I'm so happy to have my friend back."

The two women broke the embrace, each wiping the moisture from their eyes and ready to return to less emotionally-wrenching topics.

"So," Kathryn said, moving to refill her wine glass and sit down again. "What's the story with you and Seven?"

"From the frying pan into the fire!" B'Elanna exclaimed. She too refilled her glass and then leaned against the porch rail where Kathryn had been standing moments earlier. "You know, I've been so happy here in so many ways. I feel useful as an engineer and as a person - those kids have brought something incredible into my life - and I've got people who care about me." She downed a large gulp of wine. "I wasn't even aware of an emptiness in me until Seven showed up. At first I thought it was just seeing someone from Voyager that was drawing me to her but now I know that that's not it. She's just . . . I don't know how to describe what I feel when I'm around her. She's changed a lot, but she's still very much the same. She's just so . . . unexpected."

Kathryn smiled. "She has changed in important ways. I think that Seven has been almost as successful as Chakotay in putting the past behind her and moving on to try and get what she wants out of life. I'm very proud of her." She paused. "So what do you think is going on with the two of you?"

"Honestly, I don't know. I know that I care about her and that she has feelings for me. Everything happened so fast and then all hell broke loose here. We haven't had time to talk, let alone do anything else about it."

Kathryn smiled and motioned toward the road. "Maybe you'll have the time now." B'Elanna turned her head to see Seven walking leisurely toward them. Kathryn noticed the slight flush to B'Elanna's complexion when the younger woman turned back to face her. "I should get back to the ship," she said, standing up. "I hope she's what you need, B'Elanna. I know that you'd be good for her."

A moment later, Seven joined them on the porch and Kathryn bid them both goodnight, leaving the two women gazing at one another as she disappeared in the sparkles of the transporter beam.

Chapter 9

**Kahless, she's beautiful** B'Elanna thought. Among the many changes B'Elanna had noted in Seven were the obvious ones in how she dressed - in casual, looser fitting clothes than the biosuits she had worn on Voyager - and in her hair, which she had cut to just above shoulder length and wore down. But there were less obvious ones as well. The stiff formality had given way to an easy manner, a grace that radiated from Seven and seemed to envelop those around her. It was one of the characteristics that made B'Elanna want to be around her. But, despite the changes, Seven also had the same intensity about her that B'Elanna knew so well from days past.

"Did you have a good time with Tuvok?" B'Elanna asked, breaking from Seven's intense regard of her and gathering up the empty wine glasses and bottle before heading inside.

"Yes, I did," Seven replied, following B'Elanna into the house and to the kitchen. "I always enjoy his company. We have a great deal in common and I have missed the opportunity to interact with him on a regular basis."

B'Elanna deposited the glasses and the bottle in the recycler and stood for a moment, frozen in thought. She made a conscious effort to prevent what she was feeling from registering on her face but suspected that she hadn't been entirely successful. How could Kathryn think that she'd be good for Seven? What did she have to offer a woman as eminently rational, graceful, and self-possessed as Seven? She knew that Seven and Tuvok *did* have so much in common and saw why Seven would enjoy being with him. Not that she thought there was anything going on between the two of them - Tuvok was a married man - but Seven probably needed someone who would bring stability and order to her life, not a crazy half-Human, half-Klingon who was always either getting into trouble or running away from something.

In her first few years aboard Voyager, Seven had come to believe that B'Elanna Torres had only two emotional tones - barely concealed anger and openly-expressed rage. Then, after she had gotten to know the engineer better and had established a more amicable relationship with her, Seven began to see the much more complex and compelling emotional life behind the armor. Now, she had become so attuned to B'Elanna that she could not help but see the brief flash of distress that crossed her beautiful features.

B'Elanna shook herself from her negative thoughts and looked briefly at Seven. "Do you want to sit for a while?"

Seven nodded and followed B'Elanna into the living room and watched as she sat on the couch. "B'Elanna," Seven began, joining her. "When my body began rejecting the abdominal implant and it became clear that the Doctor would have to remove it, I asked Kathryn to try to find you so that you could assist with the procedure." She saw the muscles in B'Elanna's jaw tighten and knew that she was compounding the woman's distress by talking about this but felt that it was, ultimately, the only way to move forward. When B'Elanna opened her mouth, no doubt to apologize, Seven raised her hand to stop her. "Please, let me finish. I am not saying this to make you feel guilty. There is something I need to explain." B'Elanna nodded and leaned back on the couch to let Seven continue, still nervous about what she might say. "Lieutenant Kim is extremely competent with Borg systems and he is a good man. I was certain that he would do a good job." She paused, thinking of how to continue. "I also wanted you there because of your extraordinary engineering skills and, as the time for the procedure drew closer, I became . . . extremely saddened about your absence." B'Elanna looked away from Seven and studied her hands in her lap. "Kathryn helped me to realize that there was more to my distress than concern about the technical aspects of the procedure. Over time I came to understand that I needed *you* - that having you there would make me feel safe, not only because of what you can do, but because of who you are."

"Seven," B'Elanna said quietly, "I'm so sorry I wasn't there."

Seven moved closer to B'Elanna and took her hand. "B'Elanna, I told you, I do not require an apology. I simply want you to understand how you make me feel."

B'Elanna looked up to meet Seven's gaze and shook her head. "I don't get it. I don't see how . . . You . . . you should be with someone who . . ."

Seven moved yet closer to B'Elanna, stroked her cheek, and fixed her with a piercing blue gaze. "I should be with someone who makes me understand the meaning of words and concepts that I had thought simply the product human inefficiency and exaggeration. With you, I understand what beauty is." She ran her thumb across B'Elanna's lips and heard her breath catch. "With you, I understand the power and the pleasure of the unexpected." She brought her other hand up to B'Elanna's face. "With you," she continued softly, "I understand desire." Seven brought her lips close to B'Elanna's but did not touch them. "I desire you, B'Elanna Torres."

B'Elanna was reeling from everything that Seven had said and could not form a coherent response. She felt a charge running between Seven's body and her own, like a magnetic force drawing her in. No one had ever spoken to her like this; no one had ever made their way so deep inside the fortress she had erected around herself. So B'Elanna responded in the only way she could - she made first contact, her lips meeting those that hovered tantalizingly before her.

Their kisses were soft at first, with Seven still holding B'Elanna's face in her hands, but soon B'Elanna brought a hand up and tangled it in Seven's hair, urging her on, their tongues meeting with an electrifying effect. In response, Seven ran her hands down B'Elanna's back and pressed their bodies together. B'Elanna soon found herself lying prone on the couch with Seven on top of her, lavishing kisses on her neck, making the blood thunder in her head and causing her breath to come in ragged intervals. When Seven resumed her attention to B'Elanna's lips, running her tongue across the lower lip and then biting it, B'Elanna thought she would explode.

Suddenly Seven stopped what she was doing and met B'Elanna's eyes with a gaze that radiated desire. Slowly she disengaged her body from the tangle they had formed on the couch and stood up. She held out a hand to B'Elanna and said softly but with clear purpose, "Be with me, B'Elanna."

B'Elanna stood and took Seven's Borg-enhanced hand, bringing it to her lips and then stroking it along her cheek. She nodded, finding it difficult to find the appropriate words. Kissing the hand again, B'Elanna then looked up into Seven's eyes and said, "There's no place else . . . no one else. . . ."

With the greatest of effort, B'Elanna Torres lifted her arm from where it rested as if protecting the beautiful blonde who slept sprawled across her body. Spent and exhausted from the most intense and erotic experience of her life, B'Elanna absent-mindedly moved her hand across the soft skin of Seven's back. She wondered what she had done to deserve to be here with this incredible woman, what she had done to deserve finding someone who touched her - emotionally and physically - as no one else ever had. B'Elanna's touch brought Seven back to life and she rolled over, turning onto her back and pulling B'Elanna close so that her head rested on Seven's shoulder.

B'Elanna nuzzled Seven's neck, inhaling the scent of her skin. "Seven?"

"Yes, B'Elanna," Seven replied, running her hand lazily down B'Elanna's back.

B'Elanna pushed herself up to lean on her elbow so that she could look at Seven. "Why did you choose the word 'unexpected' when we talked earlier?" The expression on Seven's face made B'Elanna realize that the woman was replaying the conversation word for word in her head.

"I cannot say precisely why. It seemed the appropriate word to describe something I feel only in your presence. As you know, I generally prefer order and predictability in my life and I find uncertainty and change . . . distressing." She paused, thinking, and continuing her caress. "With you, I often do not know what will transpire next and yet I find it exciting and exhilarating. Why do you ask about this?"

"Well, it's just that I used the same word when I was trying to describe to Kathryn what it felt like to have you here."

Seven looked at B'Elanna, some small measure of Borg arrogance apparent in her expression. "This seems perfectly logical to me. Since you did not know that I would be the Federation's technical advisor, then my arrival would, therefore, have been unexpected."

"True," B'Elanna said with a small smile on her face, unable to fail but note that Seven's superior attitude did not affect her the way it had in the past. She wondered how much of herself, of her feelings to risk in this conversation. Seven had found a way inside her fortress but the walls were undoubtedly still up. She felt so strongly about Seven but was still afraid that she would do something to mess it up or that she would wake up to find that this was all a dream. She looked at Seven, falling into the blue eyes before her, and forged ahead. "But what I really meant was that . . . you open me up in ways that I could never have predicted." She ran her hand down Seven's arm, taking pleasure in the feel of soft skin and taut muscles. She devoted particular attention to tracing a vein that ran down Seven's bicep. B'Elanna looked up again, "I've been running away from things my entire life, thinking that this would make me feel free and independent or believing that if I could only find the right place, I'd finally feel free. Being with you has finally made me see that I've been doing it all wrong. It isn't *where* I am that makes me free, it's *who* I am." Seven reached over to brush an errant strand of hair behind B'Elanna's ear. B'Elanna continued with her explanation, "What I meant when I said that you were so unexpected is that I never anticipated feeling completely comfortable and free to be myself with you. I've never felt so free." She shook her head, "I never thought the answer would be so easy . . . and yet so terrifying at the same time."

"B'Elanna," Seven whispered, leaning in to place a soft and loving kiss on B'Elanna's lips. "There is almost nothing you could say that would mean more to me." Of course, Seven could think of one thing that B'Elanna could say that she would do almost anything to hear and that she would want to hear from no one else. "Do not be afraid to be yourself. I see you. I see who you are and it is only you who can make me feel this way."

B'Elanna returned the kiss, determined to show her affection for this surprising woman. For her part, Seven seemed entirely willing to comply with the demonstration.

B'Elanna awoke to find herself alone in her bed and threw on shorts and a shirt before going into the living room. There she found Seven sitting at the console at her desk, absorbed in work and oblivious to B'Elanna's entrance. She crossed the room and finally caught Seven's attention.

"I hope I did not disturb you," Seven said, looking up from the console.

"Nope," B'Elanna replied, leaning down to kiss her. "Good morning. Couldn't sleep?"

"I find that I feel strangely invigorated, despite the amount of energy I expended last night," Seven said with a smile on her face.

"I know what you mean," B'Elanna said, her smile matching Seven's. "I feel pretty good myself."

"There is a message for you," Seven said, getting up from the desk. "I will prepare something for us to eat while you read it."

B'Elanna kissed Seven once again, feeling the impending loss of her lover's presence, even though she knew that they would only be apart for a moment. And, indeed, a few moments later B'Elanna and Seven were sitting before a breakfast of banana pancakes and raktajino. "The message was from Kathryn," B'Elanna informed Seven between bites of her breakfast. "She invited me to come up to Voyager to see what the Starfleet engineers did in the overhaul at Utopia Planetia."

"That should be interesting and enjoyable for you," Seven commented.

"Mmmh. Yes, but a little difficult to see someone else running my engine room," B'Elanna admitted. "You know I could never stand that."

"I recall full well, B'Elanna. I can understand how you feel about it,"Seven agreed, "but Voyager's engine room would not be there for anyone to run if it had not been for you."

"Wow. I never thought I'd hear you say anything like that."

"It is the simple truth. Despite the difficulties I caused you, you did an excellent job."

"Thanks," B'Elanna said shyly, taking in the compliment from the staggeringly intelligent and competent former Borg. "So . . . I told her that I'd come up this afternoon. This morning I need to brief the crew that's going to work on the energy grid upgrade and, if everything goes well, they'll get started this afternoon. What did you have planned for the day?"

"I would like to accompany you this morning and participate in the briefing." B'Elanna nodded to indicate her interest in having Seven there. "I will also need to go to Voyager today. I have arranged for the Doctor to examine me to make sure that I have suffered no damage from the infection."

"Good," B'Elanna said. "I'm glad you'll be able to help me with the briefing and I'm happy that the Doctor will be able to check you out."

They finished their breakfast, chatting about the plans for the energy grid upgrade and the work on the water reclamation system that would follow. B'Elanna cleared the table and put the dishes into the recylcer. With that done, she pulled Seven into her arms and commented, "After Cole's raid and our rescue of the equipment, things are going to seem pretty boring around here."

"Somehow," Seven said, slipping her hand under B'Elanna's t-shirt and running her thumb across the muscular abdomen and up to her breast, "I doubt that."

Chapter 10

B'Elanna materialized on the transporter pad aboard Voyager and saw a senior officer standing before her. As she oriented herself, the tall, handsome, dark-haired man stepped forward.

"Welcome aboard, Ms. Torres. I'm Antonio Navarez, Voyager's First Officer."

"Good to meet you, Commander," B'Elanna replied, stepping off the transporter pad and grasping his outstretched hand.

"Captain Janeway asked me to escort you to her Ready Room, although you certainly don't need a guide."

"No," B'Elanna said, laughing. "I was called on the carpet in Captain Janeway's Ready Room more times than I care to count."

"Well, the Captain has nothing but good things to say about you," he told her, escorting her into the hallway. "Many's the time she has given the Engineering staff hell, informing them that if you could make things happen in the middle of the Delta quadrant with no support, then they should certainly be able to meet her exacting standards."

"I'm glad to hear my reputation's intact," B'Elanna said, laughing, "but I had a great staff who made it possible for us to get through everything we had to deal with."

Commander Navarez ushered B'Elanna into the turbolift and the two soon emerged on Voyager's bridge, B'Elanna sporting a grin. Kathryn Janeway was not in her ready room but standing at the science station, in conference with an ensign. Janeway could never be charged with lacking confidence in her officers - B'Elanna knew that she would never have developed her engineering skills to the degree that she did while aboard Voyager if her captain had not trusted her to run her department - but Janeway was also a hands-on Captain, in many ways. She loved discussing the various issues that the science officer in particular faced, and generally found that her curiosity motivated her to become involved her in ship's business more than many other captains. This involvement energized her crew and intensified their commitment to their work.

Janeway looked up when she heard the swish of the turbolift doors and returned B'Elanna's smile, clearly excited to have her former Chief present on Voyager once again.

"Permission to come aboard, Captain," B'Elanna said, waiting for a response before stepping down onto the lower level of the bridge.

"Permission granted. Welcome back, B'Elanna," Kathryn replied, moving over to her former Chief, silently noting the way in which her bridge crew straightened their backs at their guest's arrival. She had made very clear the importance of making a good impression on the visitor and they were obviously taking it seriously.

"Wow," B'Elanna said, surveying the redesigned and renovated version of the bridge she had come to know so well in her years on Voyager. "Nice." The various stations - Engineering, Tactical, Operations, Science - had obviously been revamped and B'Elanna assumed that the technology had also been updated. In addition, instead of the one small console positioned in between the Captain's and First Officer's chairs, each chair had its own console, placed to the right and left respectively.

"They did do a good job, didn't they?" Janeway responded. "Lieutenant Green," she said, turning to her Ops officer, "please give Ms. Torres a run-down of the bridge and general systems upgrades."

"Aye sir . . . I mean, Captain," the young woman said, stumbling over her words. She was not an inexperienced officer and was a capable one, but the presence on the bridge of one of the legendary senior officers from Voyager's years in the Delta quadrant, combined with Captain Janeway's refusal to permit her crew to call her "sir," had rattled the officer. B'Elanna smirked as the Lieutenant tried to compose herself and began to review the changes that had been made to ship's systems and to the bridge.

When the young officer had finished B'Elanna turned back to Janeway. "Like I said, wow."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Janeway said to the Ops officer and she nodded in reply, not wanting to make another mistake.

Laying her hand on B'Elanna's back, Janeway began to usher her to the turbolift. "I thought we would collect Seven from Sickbay and then move on to tour the ship and give you a look at Engineering."

"I appreciate that, Kathryn," B'Elanna said as the two women entered the turbolift. "Dr. Parker seems pretty sure that Seven has recovered completely, but I'll feel better knowing that the Doc has given her a clean bill of health."

"I understand, completely," Kathryn said, pausing to indicate to the computer their destination. "Seven tells me that you two have had a chance to . . . talk."

B'Elanna crossed her arms and leaned against the wall of the turbolift, trying to look nonchalant but blushing furiously. "Yes, we talked."

"I'm glad," Kathryn replied, smiling slightly, her eyes betraying her amusement and pleasure at the budding relationship between these two women about whom she cared so much. "It seems to have to been a productive conversation."

"Very," B'Elanna said, still blushing and trying not to meet Kathryn's eye.


"Yes, very."

When the turbolift doors opened, Kathryn decided not to tease B'Elanna any further about her newly-inaugurated relationship with Seven. The two walked the short distance to Sickbay, chatting idly about the upgrades to Voyager's systems, B'Elanna still blushing as she drew nearer to the woman who made the blood rush through her veins like no one else ever had.

Upon entering Sickbay, the two women found the Doctor just finishing his examination and consultation with Seven.

"Captain, B'Elanna," the Doctor greeted them.

"How is she, Doctor?" Kathryn inquired as B'Elanna crossed the room to stand next to the examination table on which Seven sat.

The Doctor looked to Seven to get permission to make her medical information public, not failing to note that B'Elanna held Seven's hand in her own. Seven granted permission with a nod. "She's fine," the Doctor continued. "The infection has left no lingering effects and, in general, Seven is adjusting as expected to the removal of the abdominal implant."

"That's wonderful news," Kathryn said, meeting Seven's eye and smiling.

"Indeed," Seven responded, getting down from the examination table and accepting the hug that a relieved B'Elanna, who had yet to say anything, offered her. "Thank you, Doctor," Seven added.

"Any time, Seven. B'Elanna, may I speak with you for a moment," the Doctor said, gesturing to his office.

"Uh, sure."

Kathryn and Seven tried to engage in conversation but both found themselves drawn to observe the conversation between the Doctor and the engineer, hoping that their recent acrimonious relationship would not become manifest or escalate. After a few minutes, during which the women could not tell what was going on, B'Elanna touched the Doctor's arm and turned to join them in the main room of Sickbay. The Doctor returned to some reports that were sitting on his desk.

"I don't know what you said to him," B'Elanna declared to Seven, "but whatever it was, I must thank you for it. He seems to have gotten over his anger pretty quickly."

"I said nothing but the truth," Seven insisted. "I told him that you mean a great deal to me and that if he did not desist in blaming you for things for which you were not responsible, I would alter his programming in ways that he would not appreciate. He seemed to find this argument persuasive."

"Well, thanks again," B'Elanna said, touching Seven's arm gently. "He seemed to be genuinely interested in more than saving his programming." Seven smiled, happy to know that her friend and her lover would not continue to be at odds with one another.

"All right then, ladies," Janeway interrupted, "let's get on with the tour. I believe that Engineering was to be our next stop."

"Right," B'Elanna agreed, and the three women headed out of Sickbay and made their way to Engineering.

B'Elanna entered a sensory realm entirely distinct from that of daily life when she walked through the large doors of Engineering. It had been more than three years since she had been surrounded by the relentless activity, the hum of the warp core, the particular combination of semi-darkness and the blue glow of the core that so characterized the nerve center of this ship. It had been a long time and it all rushed over her immediately. The sights, sounds, the vibrations of this place were so familiar that the very breath in her body was in tune with them. B'Elanna walked forward and surveyed the territory over which she had exercised control - albeit with the regular interference of Seven of Nine - for seven years. She was aware of Kathryn introducing her to a Lieutenant Sachs, the new Chief Engineer, and she forced herself to greet the man but her attention remained elsewhere, with something nagging at her. She shook her head to clear it and turned her attention back to the briefing that Lieutenant Sachs had just begun, showing her the upgrades to the warp core and to other engineering systems.

Seven stood back a bit from the introductions, having met Sachs on a number of occasions when she had visited Voyager, and having been kept up to date by Kathryn on the ship's overhaul. At this moment her attention was directed entirely at her lover. Seven knew that this would be an emotional experience for B'Elanna and could see that the former chief was struggling a bit with the reality of a stranger in charge of Voyager's engine room. But Seven also recognized something that she had not seen in years and realized that she had not been entirely aware of its effect on her own emotions. It was almost as if B'Elanna's body and energy had changed gears upon entering Engineering and that she had become completely attuned to the rhythms of the ship. And it dawned on Seven that she had always been attracted to B'Elanna Torres, that she had always recognized this peculiar energy in the woman and been drawn to it, that she had always found this woman to be powerfully sexy. Seven had simply not had the experience to identify or understand her feelings, nor the vocabulary to interpret or express them. The sight of B'Elanna in "her" engine room made Seven realize the degree to which her feelings for B'Elanna had grown very slowly during their years on Voyager. Seeing B'Elanna in her element again helped Seven to make sense of why she had needed to have the engineer present during the removal of the abdominal implant. B'Elanna had worked her way into Seven's being long before that event had come to pass.

Seven watched as B'Elanna ran her hand along the rail that ringed the warp core and listened to Lieutenant Sachs talk about the ship. She didn't think that B'Elanna was even conscious of her actions but Seven couldn't help but notice. How often she had stood beside B'Elanna in Engineering as the two worked together on some project - admittedly not always collegially - and observed how confident and commanding those hands were in carrying out their tasks. Seven now knew from direct experience about B'Elanna's hands. . . . She was jolted from her musings when B'Elanna turned in her direction and caught her eye. Seven blushed at the exchange, wondering if her lover had any idea that she had just been replaying moments from the previous night when B'Elanna's hands had revealed a world of experience to her that she could not ever have imagined existed.

Seven tuned back in to hear Lieutenant Sachs describing how the enhancements to the dilithium matrix increased its efficiency and meant that the quality of the mixture was much purer, thus requiring less of the energy source.

"Is that why you're running the core at 70%? B'Elanna asked , looking up at the warp core and suddenly realizing what had been nagging at her.

"Excuse me?" Sachs responded.

"I asked if the purer mixture means that you don't need to keep the core running at the old recommended level of 85%," B'Elanna continued. "We used to try to keep her at at least 95% efficiency or better."

"85% remains the recommended level and WE keep Voyager at recommended efficiency or better," Sachs asserted, somewhat indignantly.

"I was only asking whether procedure had changed," B'Elanna replied, crossing her arms and leaning against a console, "since you ARE down at about 70%."

Sachs moved over to another console to check the warp core status. "Reed," he called out, "run a diagnostic on the warp core and find out why it is operating at 72% efficiency. And find out why no one was monitoring it."

Seven smiled with pride and looked over to see Kathryn trying not to smile and add to the embarrassment her Chief had just suffered. No one knew better than these two how well B'Elanna understood this ship.

"How did you know?" Sachs asked B'Elanna, eyeing her with wonder.

"I can't say exactly. I spent seven years eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing Voyager. I guess I'm just extra sensitive to her personality, to her being."

Sachs was speechless. Janeway interrupted the exchange to ensure that she would have some more time with her former crew members and leave the Chief to work out his department's problems. As they made their way out of Engineering, Sachs spoke up.

"Sorry, Captain," he said. "We'll get the core up to recommended levels right away."

Although she felt sorry that her Chief had been shown up, Janeway was also disappointed and angry that the officer was less than fully attentive to his duties and to his department's needs. Putting on her patented glare, she replied, "I'll accept 90% and nothing less, Lieutenant. See to it immediately and I'll expect a report explaining how this happened." With that, she turned and swept out the door, along with B'Elanna and Seven.

After showing B'Elanna and Seven a number of the other changes that had been made when Voyager was overhauled, and sharing a light lunch, Kathryn escorted them to the transporter room, sadness at the impending separation creeping up on her.

"Kathryn," B'Elanna said, as they stepped onto the transporter pad. "Will you come down for dinner tonight? Ven has invited us over and I'm sure he won't mind if you join us."

"I wouldn't want to impose," Kathryn insisted.

"You would not be imposing, Kathryn," Seven chimed in. "Jomat Ven is extraordinarily generous and welcoming person and he considers B'Elanna to be a member of his family. He treats everyone she cares about as family."

B'Elanna smiled, so happy to know that Seven recognized how wonderful Ven was and how important a part he played in her life. "Besides, Kathryn," she continued, her voice soft, "I couldn't bear to miss out on any time with you, knowing that you'll only be here a few days."

Kathryn swallowed, tears coming to her eyes. "Well, you've persuaded me. I'd be honored."

"Great," B'Elanna replied. "We'll see you later."

Chapter 11

B'Elanna leaned back and settled into the warm embrace of Seven's arms. The two women were sitting in a large, comfortable chair in Ven's living room - B'Elanna between Seven's leg and Seven's arms around her - as they reviewed a PADD containing the latest information on the progress the construction crew had made on the energy grid upgrades. B'Elanna held the PADD so that they both could read it but Seven was demonstrating her ability to multitask to a degree that was making it impossible for B'Elanna to concentrate. In her cool, authoritative voice, Seven had been engaging B'Elanna in a debate over the appropriate configuration of a particular component of the grid, insisting on the benefits of immediate efficiency over long-term operating capacity. B'Elanna disagreed with Seven, something not at all unusual given their very different approaches to just about everything, but found her ability to respond effectively compromised by the sensation of Seven's nose moving along her neck, her jaw and up her cheek. It was a good thing that the children were so absorbed in the game they were playing and that Kathryn and Ven were off at the other end of the room discussing contemporary literature, she thought. **I can just imagine what color my face has become.** Her heart was pounding and her head spinning as Seven inhaled her scent, traced her nose along the most sensitive parts of B'Elanna's neck and, quite maddeningly, continued to make the case for taking her own desired approach to the energy grid.

"Seven," B'Elanna whispered, "you're driving me crazy. If we want to get ANY work done tonight, you'll have to have mercy on me and stop what you're doing."

Seven continued, adding the light touch of her lips to her attentions. "I thought we were making significant progress this evening."

B'Elanna faltered for a moment, processing the many possible meanings of Seven's statement. "Yes, I will admit that you are making progress, but I don't think we're getting much work done." B'Elanna could feel Seven smiling into her neck and then felt those luscious lips barely touching her ear.

"I can think of no more important work to be done at this moment," Seven whispered into B'Elanna's ear, her voice so seductive that B'Elanna thought she would melt into a puddle on the floor.

B'Elanna leapt from the seat, her sudden movement catching Kathryn and Ven's attention. "Kathryn, Ven would you like some coffee?" B'Elanna said, a little bit too loudly.

"No thank you," Ven replied.

"Well, you know me," Kathryn said, "I'm always up for coffee."

"Great, I'll be right back," B'Elanna said starting for the kitchen.

"I will assist you," Seven said, getting up from the chair and trying hard to keep a straight face.

"No, that's okay," B'Elanna said, holding out her hand to stop Seven from following her. "I can handle it."

"That is quite all right. I would like some tea," Seven countered, passing B'Elanna and entering the kitchen.

*Tea?* B'Elanna thought, having no choice but to follow.

Upon entering the kitchen B'Elanna found herself immediately in Seven's embrace once again and Seven's lips approaching her own. Eventually able to pull away from the searing kiss in which Seven had engaged her, B'Elanna gazed into the blue eyes before her. "God, I have thought so many times in the last weeks that I must be dreaming. How did I get so lucky?"

"I do not believe that luck has anything to do with it," Seven replied, running her hand across B'Elanna's cheek. "But YOU have everything to do with it. When I saw you in your engine room earlier, I realized that I have been attracted to you for a very long time, B'Elanna. I simply did not know what I was feeling."

"Well, I was too much of an idiot to have done anything but the absolute wrong thing in those days," B'Elanna said, resting her forehead against Seven's shoulder. "There's no guarantee even now that I won't screw up and hurt you."

Seven pulled back and lifted B'Elanna's chin so that B'Elanna could not avoid her eyes. "The only way you could hurt me would be if, now that we have begun to explore our feelings, you decided that you did not wish to be with me and could not be honest about it. If we go forward from here and you change your mind, I will be hurt - but I will adapt. Short of that, being with you can be nothing but a gift."

B'Elanna gripped Seven's shoulders and looked her squarely in the eyes. "I'm not playing with your feelings, Seven. I would never be that kind of dishonorable petaQ. I'm not fooling around," she continued. "I swear." B'Elanna swallowed, her heart pounding with the portent of the moment. "I'm in love with you. I feel things for you, with you, and about myself when I'm with you that I never thought possible. Your happiness means everything to me . . . but I don't have a very good record in relationships."

"Perhaps you have never been in a relationship with someone as stubborn and irritating as I. This could be the right formula," Seven joked, even while her heart leapt at finally hearing these words that she had so longed to hear these past few days.

B'Elanna could not help but laugh, thankful for a bit of levity following her admission, despite the fact that Seven had not given any indication of reciprocating her feelings.

"Perhaps," Seven said softly, running her thumb across B'Elanna's bottom lip and fixing her with a searing blue gaze that seemed to pierce her very soul. "Perhaps you have never been in a relationship with someone who loves you as much as I do."

**Kahless, I have died and gone to heaven** B'Elanna thought, pulling Seven to her and kissing her with hopes of giving this woman an indication, however inadequate, of how she felt.

Kathryn interrupted Ven's engaging summary of a recent Vulcan novel as something occurred to her. "Do you think they're growing the coffee beans themselves?" she asked, smirking.

Ven smiled and laughed. "Young love."

"Indeed," Kathryn concurred.

"I'm very happy for B'Elanna," Ven continued. "Seven has brought something into her life that I know she has long resisted. B'Elanna has tried so hard to keep everyone at bay for as long as I've known her and I knew that it would take an extraordinary and determined person to break through. Seven certainly is that."

Kathryn laughed. "Well, I'd have to say that you and your children accomplished lots of the advance work. She cares about you all so much."

"I don't know what I would have done without B'Elanna these past few years," Ven said wistfully. "When Luson was killed, I was no good to anyone for a long time. All my friends rallied around us but it was really B'Elanna who kept me going."

"I'm so sorry," Kathryn said. "I didn't know that your wife had been killed."

"She was a doctor," Ven informed her, "and was working with refugees on a nearby world when some raiders came through. There was so much chaos in the region after the war and lots of unscrupulous and dishonorable people tried to take advantage of the situation - people like Cole and the various other groups of pirates and raiders who prey on us. In a strange way," he continued, "the raiders and pirates are what brought B'Elanna to us. The few stray Maquis who had survived the Cardassian attacks had tried to help refugees during the war and brought some of the people here. B'Elanna came to Ilvia to pay her respects to three Maquis who died in one rescue attempt and are buried here. I'm glad that B'Elanna and Luson were able to know and love one another before Luson died." Ven searched Kathryn's eyes and found deep sympathy there. "It is difficult to find meaning in such events or to know what purpose the Prophets have for us in such confusing times."

"I didn't mean to upset you, Ven," Kathryn said, putting her hand over his.

"You did not upset me, Kathryn," Ven insisted, putting his other hand on top of hers. "It helps to speak about it, especially to someone with as fierce and tender a soul as yours."

Kathryn was frozen for a moment, surprised by the strong connection she felt to this man whom she had only met the day before. She could understand why B'Elanna was so attached to him and why Seven, normally so reserved with her affections, had quickly come to consider him a friend. **Don't make a fool of yourself, Kathryn,** she chastised herself. **You just met the man.** "You are very kind. Thank you, Ven," she said softly.

Just then, B'Elanna and Seven emerged from the kitchen, B'Elanna carrying a cup of coffee and Seven with no sign of tea anywhere. B'Elanna noticed their clasped hands and wasn't at all surprised that these two people whom she loved so dearly had connected but also sensing that the mood had grown somber.

"Here you go, Kathryn," B'Elanna said, handing her the coffee and beginning to think about what might be possible for Kathryn and Ven.

Sometime later, when Kathryn had gone back to Voyager and B'Elanna had tucked Anara and Bemar into bed and bid Ven good night, she took the short walk from Ven's house to the guest house. Seven had gone ahead to take care of some business and to retrieve a number of expected messages - one from Naomi Wildman who now lived with her parents on DS 9 and one from Icheb, who was posted to a research vessel and had been on a deep space mission for some time. Entering the small house, B'Elanna did not see Seven anywhere and eventually found her sitting on the veranda out back.

"Its cold out here, sweetie. Why don't you come inside?" B'Elanna said.

Seven nodded and joined B'Elanna inside. Without a word, she swept B'Elanna up and carried her to the bedroom.

B'Elanna awoke to find Seven lying on her side, her head propped on her elbow and looking at her. B'Elanna took a moment to explore the eyes before her and found something there that troubled her.

"Are you okay, Seven?" B'Elanna asked, the concern apparent in her voice.

"I am functioning adequately," Seven replied, attempting unsuccessfully to approximate her typical Borg calm.

"What's wrong, my love?" B'Elanna said, sitting up.

"I . . . This evening I received a message from the Institute. There is an emergency with the air filtration system that our people installed recently on Cirrus Alpha 3 and I have been instructed to report there. I leave with Voyager tomorrow."

"But I thought you had been assigned to Free Haven for three months!" B'Elanna said, becoming agitated.

"It appears that I am the staff member who can respond to the emergency most easily and quickly. The Institute's directors have been very pleased with the progress we have made here and have every confidence in your ability to continue without me." She looked away.

B'Elanna swallowed, trying to hold back the tears. She reached up and ran her hand through Seven's hair, their eyes meeting. "I may be able to continue the work without you, but I don't know about the rest of life."

B'Elanna Torres heard voices calling her name in the distance and stood up to wipe the dirt off her pants and hands. She knew who it was coming for her and hoped the change would bring some distraction. As much as she loved to garden, not even this indulgence offered her comfort in the weeks since Seven had left Ilvia.

"B'Elanna! B'Elanna!," the new arrivals shouted.

"Hello my little ones," B'Elanna said standing and looking at the siblings.

"Father would like you to come to dinner," Anara informed her, standing just far enough from the garden to be sure not to trample on anything as she knew that would upset her friend.

"Oh, he would, would he," B'Elanna laughed, happy to see the two.

"Yes, but we would like you to come too," Bemar interjected. "Please."

B'Elanna ran her hand over the boy's hair. "Hop on," she said, bracing herself for the impact of the two small bodies on her own.

"B'Elanna?" Anara asked, climbing into B'Elanna's arms.

"Yes, my love."

"Will Seven be coming back? I miss her."

"I hope she'll be back, little one. I miss her too."

Chapter 12

Varis Sul walked hesitantly into Ilvia's laboratory, the operations center for the ongoing Federation-supported project to upgrade the colony's technology. Although an artist by profession, Sul had put in a long day's work volunteering on the team that had been laboring to rebuild and upgrade the water reclamation system, the second phase of the redevelopment. She was at the lab now because her team members had selected her to deliver the daily progress report to B'Elanna, who was there drawing up plans for the third and final phase of work. This assignment was not in acknowledgment of a job well done or because Sul had taken any particular leadership role with the team. Simply put, the other members of the team were afraid and they figured that it was Sul's turn to take the heat. When she arrived she found B'Elanna completely absorbed in her work and couldn't help but notice how tired and thin her former lover looked. Sul hadn't seen much of B'Elanna since Seven had left to deal with an emergency on Cirrus Alpha 3 and knew that she had thrown herself into the work with a vengeance.

"Uh, B'Elanna?" Sul said with some uncertainty.

B'Elanna looked up from her console. "Hey, Sul. Have you guys finished already?"

"Yes, we're done for the day." She handed over a PADD with the progress report. "Everything went well and I think we got lots done."

"Good," B'Elanna responded, looking over the report. "Thanks, Sul. I appreciate your help," she added, turning back to her own work.

"No problem. I'll be able to give you some more time later in the week."

"Great. Thanks," B'Elanna responded, not looking up.

"Um, the team's going out for a beer now. Want to come along? I haven't seen much of you lately."

"No thanks," B'Elanna said, still not looking up. "I've still got a lot of work to do here."

Sul hesitated a moment but decided to forge ahead. "Look, I know you miss Seven. Hell, even I miss her. But you can't stay holed up here forever. Take a break and come out with us." B'Elanna looked up from her work and Sul swallowed when she saw the anger in B'Elanna's eyes.

"Leave it alone, Sul. It's none of your business."

"I care about you so I'm making it my business. She loves you, you love her. Now what are you going to do about it?"

B'Elanna stood up and began to pace around the lab. "I don't know what to tell you, Sul. She has responsibilities and people's lives depend on the work she's doing for Cirrus Alpha 3." B'Elanna's voice grew softer. "People here are depending on me too. I have to get this work done"

"But hiding out isn't going to solve anything," Sul said with compassion. "Come have a beer with us."

"I can't, Sul. There are things I have to finish here." B'Elanna sat down and turned her attention back to her console.

"Okay," Sul said, resigned to the fact that she would not be able to convince B'Elanna. "Good night."

B'Elanna didn't respond but continued with what she had been working on before Sul had interrupted her. Several hour later, she finished her tasks, laid a PADD in the middle of her desk, turned out the lights and locked up the lab.

Ven pulled the door to his children's bedroom closed and walked through the living room to the console at his desk. Just as he sat down, it beeped, indicating an incoming message. He pressed a button to activate the screen and Kathryn Janeway's face appeared before him.

"Hello, Ven."

"Kathryn. Right on time, as usual," Ven said, smiling.

"Starfleet captains are punctual, if nothing else. It would take something quite out of the ordinary for me to miss our weekly chat," she replied, sitting down at the desk in her ready room. "How is everyone?"

"I'm fine, as are the children. We've been very busy here with the work on the upgrades and on negotiations with the Federation, not to mention the work of establishing the new governmental structure. It looks like Keeve Falor will be Ilvia's representative to the new Parliament."

"I'm sure he'll make a wonderful representative," Kathryn replied, picking up the coffee mug from her desk and taking a sip.

"I agree," said Ven. "We're also preparing to establish a number of new settlements for people displaced by the war. I think this will be good for us." Kathryn nodded. "Everything's gone well thus far. The only controversial issue has been deciding on the planet's new name."

"Really? Why so?" Kathryn asked.

"Well, everyone agrees that Free Haven remains too tied to our former status as a colony of Bajor and most people still want a name that connects us to the home world, but we haven't reached an agreement on what that will be. The most popular name so far is Jalara, which means 'Land of Hope.' This would be my choice," Ven concluded.

"I can see how finding a name that will speak to the planet's identity and values would be difficult," Kathryn conceded. "I like Jalara. It sounds lovely and I like what it means." She paused for a moment. "How is B'Elanna? I haven't heard from her in days."

"Not well, I'm afraid," Ven responded. "She has cut herself off from almost everyone and works like a woman possessed. Only the children seem to have any luck drawing her out of her mourning but we haven't seen her in a few days either. For how much longer will Seven have to be on Cirrus Alpha 3?"

"When I spoke with her last, she said that five or six days should do it. Then she must report back to the Institute to update the Federation on the situation."

"It just breaks my heart to see B'Elanna like this," Ven admitted.

"Seven's not in much better shape," Kathryn informed him. "I hope they can work something out - long distance relationships can be wrenching."

A silence fell over the two as each turned their thoughts from B'Elanna and Seven to their own, unspoken, hopes for the future.

Varis Sul pounded on Ven's door. "Ven, open up. Come on!"

Ven opened the door, breathing hard from having rushed from the other side of the house. "What is it? What's wrong, Sul?"

Sul handed him a PADD. "I went in to the lab this morning to get a work assignment from B'Elanna and found only this. I read it before I realized that it was addressed to you."

Ven activated the PADD and read the message. "Dear Ven. I hope that someday you'll forgive me for not having had the courage to say this to you in person but I knew that I wouldn't be able to do what I have to do if I allowed myself to see you and the kids again. By the time you get this, I'll be gone. I'm not much good to anyone and I just can't be here right now. I've left instructions for the final phase of the upgrade so the work can be completed on schedule. I'll be in touch when I can, I promise. Please tell Anara and Bemar that I love them. Don't hate me, Ven - I have to do this. I love you more than I can say. B'Elanna."

"Oh, B'Elanna," Ven whispered. "I could never hate you."

B'Elanna Torres sat at one corner of a large lab, surrounded by three men and two women, all engaging her animatedly as she examined some small piece of technology she held in her hand. The members of this group, including B'Elanna, were all obviously enamored of, even devoted to, technology. They gazed at the piece of equipment with wonder. But, unlike B'Elanna, the rest of the group looked as if they had not set foot outside of the lab in years. Moreover, they seemed more comfortable engaging technology than interacting with other life forms.

"Very pretty, boys and girls," B'Elanna said, "but you put this thing in your little toy ship and you'll have fried plasma conduits all over the place. Big, big mess."

"Oh, come on, B'Elanna," one of the men exclaimed, his body twitching with agitation. "You've said that about five different components in the last three days. And, for the last time, we're not building a 'little toy ship.'"

"Look, I'm just telling you what I know. You can't design these components in isolation from one another because out there in the real world, things don't always work like they do in the lab or even in your initial field tests. If you can't create compatible components, it won't be much better than a toy."

"But we're right most of the time," one of the women whined.

"Well, it seems to me that 'most of the time' isn't good enough. Who's going to risk their lives in your ship? Maybe you should stick to designing the stuff you're best at," B'Elanna chastised them.

"We had some extra time and wanted to give it a try," the first man offered.

"Jeez, you guys need to get out of this lab sometimes. What do you say tonight we . . . ." B'Elanna's plans to get the group into some good old fashioned trouble were suddenly interrupted.

"B'ELANNA TORRES, explain yourself."

"Uh, oh. She's back," one of the men whispered, to no one in particular.

"Seven," B'Elanna exhaled, getting up and rushing over to embrace the woman she loved. She pulled up short, however, when she met with an impassive wall of Seven of Nine, arms crossed and jaw tight. B'Elanna had never seen Seven so angry.

"Where have you been for the past four days? Do you have any idea how worried Ven is? How upset the children are?" Seven exploded. Her coworkers at the Institute, who had only moments before been happily engaged in discussing technology with B'Elanna, backed away and quickly found other things to occupy themselves.

"I've been here," B'Elanna said, sheepishly.

"And why is it that Kathryn and I have been searching the quadrant for you?" Seven roared.

"I wanted to surprise you?" B'Elanna responded, even more sheepishly, if that were even possible. She opened her arms, hesitantly, and took a step toward Seven.

Seven held out her hand to stop B'Elanna's approach. She narrowed her eyes. "My presence is required immediately in a meeting concerning the emergency on Cirrus Alpha 3."

"Oh," B'Elanna said dejectedly.

Seven picked up a PADD, made some entries, and handed it to B'Elanna. "Here is my address and the access code to my residence. I will see you there after my work day is concluded." And, with that, she turned and stormed out of the lab.

B'Elanna stood, frozen in fear of having already ruined her relationship with the woman she now knew formed the core of the only future she wanted.

Seven entered her apartment late that evening to find the lights low, candles all about and burned down to the wick, and dinner cold on the table. Her meetings had taken much longer than she had expected and, although she could have contacted B'Elanna to let her know that she'd be late, Seven had still been too angry all day to want to ease B'Elanna's discomfort.

Descending the steps into the living room, she also found her beloved lying on the couch, fast asleep and her resolve to remain cold and distant crumbled immediately. Seven knelt in front of the couch and gazed intently at the beautiful face before her. It had been indescribably wrenching to have had to leave B'Elanna and, although they had been able to be in fairly regular contact with one another, the uncertainty of the future had upset Seven deeply. She had not hesitated for a moment to risk her job to aid B'Elanna and the other residents of Ilvia recover the equipment that the Federation had provided them, just as she had not hesitated to respond to the call for her assistance on Cirrus Alpha 3. Now she felt profoundly torn between her love for this extraordinary woman who made her feel things she had never imagined possible and the deep satisfaction she derived from her work and from the concrete ways in which it allowed her to help people in need. She had been struggling for weeks with how to solve this dilemma when B'Elanna disappeared and Seven had been forced to conclude that B'Elanna had given up. But here she was. Seven caressed the soft skin of B'Elanna's cheek.

"Seven?" B'Elanna said, opening her eyes. "Kahless, I've said your name every morning for weeks, praying that you'd be there when I opened my eyes."

"I am here now."

B'Elanna sat up and fixed on the blue eyes before her. "Seven, I . . . ."

Seven interrupted her immediately. "B'Elanna, I must apologize for being so harsh with you earlier. I am truly sorry that I acted so badly but I thought that you had left us . . . left me."

"I'm so sorry that you were worried, love. I just thought that, since you were in transit, I'd have time to be here before you were even aware that I had left Ilvia. I hadn't counted on you getting here a few days late."

Seven took B'Elanna's hand and brought it to her lips. "But why did you not tell Ven where you were going?"

B'Elanna motioned for Seven to sit on the couch and then took the place that Seven had occupied moments before, kneeling down. She took Seven's hand. "I didn't tell anyone because I had to speak with you first and I had to do it in person."

"I do not understand," Seven said.

B'Elanna thought for a moment and then began speaking, deliberately and with the utmost conviction. "I love my life in Ilvia. I love the work I do there, the town, the people. And Ven, Luson, Bemar, and Anara were like a gift from the Prophets or Kahless, or whoever. Meeting them saved my life."

"I know all these things, B'Elanna," Seven responded. "I have seen how happy you are there and understand why you love living there."

"I know you do, Seven. But what I came here to say is that, as much as I love my life in Ilvia, I love you more. The only future I want and need is the one that happens wherever you are." B'Elanna pressed on, afraid of her courage flagging. "If it doesn't scare you to death, I'll move here. I'm so proud of everything you've accomplished here, Seven, and of the work you do. I want you to continue doing it and I'll find something that I can do too."

Tears welled in Seven's eyes and she pulled B'Elanna into a tight embrace. "You would be willing to do this for me?"

"In a nanosecond," B'Elanna whispered into Seven's ear.

Six months later . . . .

B'Elanna knocked on the door of Seven's office, which was located on the left side of the large lab space. Seven looked up and smiled at the sight of her beloved.

"Almost done? We're expected for dinner soon."

Seven stood up and straightened up the PADDs she had been working with. "Some days, I feel as if I'll never be done."

"Setting up a new shop is always difficult," B'Elanna reassured her lover. "But you can handle it."

"I do not believe that I enjoy being in charge," Seven said as they entered the lab and she pulled her office door shut.

"You're kidding, right?" B'Elanna exclaimed. "How many times on Voyager did you forge ahead with your own plans as if you were in charge?"

"Many times and, usually, with complete justification," Seven pouted and B'Elanna laughed. "But organizing a staff is very different from making decisions for myself."

"I know precisely what you mean. But no one thought I would be able to run Engineering on Voyager. Even I didn't think so at first. It all worked out eventually."

The two women emerged on the street and Seven locked the main entrance to the building. B'Elanna turned to read the sign above the door - "Jalaran Institute for Technological Development." "It'll all work out here too. We're so lucky to have you, sweetie," she insisted, putting her arm around Seven's shoulder.

"Will you be able to begin work here next week as planned?" Seven asked as the two began walking.

"I think so. We're pretty close to finishing up negotiations for admission to the Federation and I don't think they'll need me much longer. I'll be happy to be able to get back to what I do best - diplomacy is not my strong suit," B'Elanna laughed.

"I cannot think of anything at which you would not excel," Seven said, sincerely.

"Flattery will get you everywhere," B'Elanna replied in a seductive voice. "But, Kathryn and Ven are expecting us for dinner and this is our last chance to see her before she takes off on her next assignment."

"I understand," said Seven as they arrived at Ven's house. She stopped B'Elanna from opening the door by kissing her passionately. "We will continue this discussion later."

"I will hold you to that," B'Elanna said, breathlessly. She opened the door and they were met with the incredibly heart-warming sight of the children playing in the living room and Kathryn setting the dining room table in defiance of Ven's attempt to distract her by kissing her neck. B'Elanna turned to Seven and they both smiled. She thought again about how lucky she was and took a silent vow to do everything in her power to keep her loved ones safe and happy.

The End

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The Razor's Edge

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