WONDERS OF THE HOUSE PRESBA

Book 4: Reflections

Part 2

by

Katrina and Llachlan

Contact: the authors can be reached at bearblue1@yahoo.com or llachness@gmail.com

Series: Wonders of the House Presba
Book 1: Modifications
Book 2: Transitions
Book 3: Encounters
Book 4: Reflections Part 1 | Part 2
Book 5: Diffractions
Book 6: Prisms

Appendix

TV Series: Voyager (with DS9 and ST:TNG Crossover)

Summary:In an infinite number of Universes, it is possible to get lost. And found.

Code: Slash Multiple. F/F/F... M/M. Alt/Het (7/J, T/J, 7/T etc.)

Rating: NC-17 (alternative situations).

Dialog Key: Double quotes and italics denotes Presban fingertalk, or, of course, communication over the commlink. Double angle brackets, 〈〈Words here.〉〉, denotes mind-to-mind communication.

Disclaimers: The Thank you and Disclaimer Bit

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19 | Chapter 20 | Chapter 21 | Chapter 22 | Chapter 23 | Chapter 24 | Chapter 25 | Chapter 26 | Chapter 27 | Chapter 28 | Chapter 29 | Chapter 30 | Chapter 31 | Chapter 32 | Chapter 33 | Chapter 34 | Chapter 35 | Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Chapter 40 | Chapter 41 | Chapter 42 | Chapter 43 | Chapter 44 | Chapter 45 | Chapter 46 | Epilogue |



Chapter 22 | Unknown Alternate Universe: USS Voyager | Bookmarks



The truth was, the mates were more aware of being torn asunder than they were of how it was happening. The scream that burst from all of them was raw, primal and devastating. It seemed to float through the membrane of the Universes they traversed.

They did not know it could happen, but the shuttle had been close enough to be carried in the equivalent of a wake. A ripple of change flowed through the enveloping space surrounding Voyager and dragged the shuttle along, simultaneously spinning it out in a different direction.

Thus, Voyager arrived at one place and the shuttle at another.

Not that it mattered to those in the shuttle. By the time they arrived in the Delta quadrant of another Universe, they were barely conscious.

==^==

Voyager skidded to a halt, unknown Universes away, in an unknown system, in an unknown location. Those of the Prime who had been through the shock of separation before clung to consciousness, but were swamped by the pain of the loss. Those who had not were unconscious.

During that chaotic time, Commander Deanna Troi made decisions as best she could: on-the-fly. She felt the echo of their pain and knew how deep it ran, yet was able to shunt it away from herself, largely out of necessity. Survival commanded that she stay alert. She felt Asil's support and so leaned heavily on her mate's strength.

In relative terms it did not take long to figure out what had happened. The perpetrators had been stunned and were presently being carried to the brig. Figuring out exactly where they were in relation to their own universe was going to take more time.

The good news was that, while they had come out close to a star system, they had not actually come out within a star. Nor, apparently, was the system occupied. The bad news was that they did not appear to be in any known quadrant.

It would take Astrometrics hours to pin down, if possible, their current location. But they were not going to linger to find out. On the other hand, they knew exactly where their previous location had been.

Deanna Troi turned to Lieutenant Sayr. "Get us back." Then she tapped her communicator, "Voyager, please transfer the Prime according to Prime protocol alpha-three." The protocol had been established based on past experience. It had been one of the first things of which she'd been apprised. Now she understood why. She also knew now why Ezri Dax had had to be replaced as Voyager's First Officer. The top five officers in the chain of command could not all be insensate at once.

She watched as her parents were sparkled away and was surprised to find that it was a little easier to breathe. Deanna wasn't sure how her mother had coped with it, and suddenly she knew why Lwaxana had understood her pain; the elder Troi had lived through much worse.

Deanna tapped her communicator once more, "Commander Troi to Dr. Zimmerman, the Prime has been split."

There was a moment of horrified silence on the other end. Then the Doctor replied, "Acknowledged. Voyager and I will begin observation."

==^==

It took a half an hour before the Trans-Universal Engine was ready again. It seemed far too long. Data began arriving from Astrometrics. First indications seemed to be that they were actually in a completely different arm of the Galaxy, an arm far beyond which anyone had ever traversed. It would have been a historic moment, if it hadn't been so painful and unintended. They still weren't sure how many Universe variants they had hopped.

Voyager had yet to answer queries with her usual verve. Deanna understood that it must be very difficult for the living ship, but she was functioning and the First Officer did not have time to engage in counseling. What she did do was visit the brig once the prisoners were conscious.

She only asked them one question. "Did you do it on purpose?"

The reactions of the mercenaries were diverse. One claimed it had been deliberate, while the others claimed it was an accident. She knew the truth and she left without responding to their mewling questions about what would happen next.

She had to go back to the bridge, and though she knew there were those who were suffering on board, she firmly set aside her mental picture of herself as a counselor in a temporary command role, and accepted that she was a commander with a counseling background. The only way she could really help them was to get them home as soon as possible, and that required she command.

When it was time, Lieutenant Sayr signaled the First Officer.

Deanna, who had only had a sketchy introduction to the procedure, took a calming breath and did her best. "All hands prepare for transition in thirty seconds. Mr. Paris, on my mark bring us to warp one. Mr. Sayr, begin countdown as soon as we hit speed."

"Aye, ma'am."

The countdown was conducted and suddenly they were moving between universes again. This time, Deanna was conscious that there was more in the membrane between the universes than what she was seeing and used to experiencing. She could swear she heard singing.

It didn't last long and she was too upset to interpret things correctly. She was, however, completely grateful when they arrived in the Presban System. She knew they were successful, because there was immediate communication from both the Titan and the Orantho. "Where did you go?"

Her hopes of a full restitution of the Prime, however, were dashed. Deanna felt it before Dr. Zimmerman contacted her. "The Prime are still affected. I believe they are still split."

"Thank you, Doctor," Deanna had replied evenly. She knew then, that their journey was only beginning.

==^==

Kate knew she was considered gruff. She hadn't been deaf enough, even before the rejuvenation treatments, not to have heard herself described as acerbic and irascible in polite company, and as a bitch otherwise. It was a necessary demeanor, one she didn't regret in the slightest. But, oh how, she wished it were true. There was no way to curb the rending ache that tore through her mind. No way to pretend that the loss wasn't hers and that it didn't affect her.

They were gone.

She would find no physical release to tame or soothe the hurt this time, and knew only too well that she would rise again from the oblivion of alcohol, only to find the pain waiting.

They were gone.

And she was not.

Vaguely, she was aware of skin on hers and she moved into the comfort the touches promised. She was not alone.

〈〈We are here.〉〉

More aware, she was able to follow the thread that was Kathryn's, and then those of T'Pel, Tuvok, and Lwaxana. Ezri's was there, but indistinct, not as solid, and when she tried to hold it, the pain that roared back in her direction nearly overwhelmed her again, but the others reached back. 〈〈We are here.〉〉

"What happened?" Her lips were dry, and she tried to lick them. Someone, she wasn't sure who, held a straw for her.

"There was an accident. Voyager went one place, the shuttle Laren, Seven and B'Elanna were in went to another." Kathryn's voice was raw with pain, and Kate knew that it was taking a toll on her mate to be calm.

Kate burrowed deeper into them, and let her tears flow. They were there, and she was not alone.

==^==

Pain. So very much pain. Ezri, who knew the pain of deaths violent and natural, quick and slow, agonizing and merciful, knew only that none of it prepared her for the awful realization that she was still alive. She was torn asunder, and nothing would ever, could ever be right again. Struggling, she fought the return to consciousness; did not want to face the reality starkly written in her psyche. They were gone. And she was not.

A whisper of thought ghosted through her body and she fought to pull it into focus. Dax.

Without the agony ripping through her soul, she might have let out an astonished, "Oh." They were many made one, but Dax had never had a pure separate voice. Even now, it wasn't words or a tangible thread of meaning. It was an idea of an emotion. She reached for it.

Emina.

Suddenly, she was fighting for consciousness as desperately as she had been fighting it. Through the levels she became aware that she was not alone. Other bodies were pressed around her, she just couldn't hear or feel them; all awareness of them was buried by the overwhelming grief. "Lwaxana," she tried to force a thought with the words.

〈〈I am here. We are here.〉〉

Ezri cried out in denial. "They are not."

〈〈No. They are not.〉〉 Like the dead their names were not spoken, and she felt a horrible crash of guilt. The shuttle. She had gotten them killed. A fresh wave of pain rose to greet the one that already burned her soul.

This time it was Tuvok who touched her mind, and T'Pel who wrapped her body tightly. 〈〈It was not the shuttle. It was not you.〉〉 They opened to her then. The memories hinted at during the bonding spilled from all of them into her, and into Kate. It was agonizing anew, this remembered pain borne and lived through. It also carried hope: the promise of a return.

The same odd mental twinge tugged at her again, more strongly than before. Emina. Azan. Rebi. Mezoti. Icheb. She remembered now. "Lwaxana. The children."

"The children are with Samantha and Neelix."

Ezri shook her head. "Look." Words refused to form from the chaotic set of signals her mind was trying to process. Without thinking about it, she grabbed Tuvok, and thought with everything she had.

A flicker of understanding passed between them and Ezri passed out.

==^==

Tuvok made the logical decision even as his heart followed his mate into oblivion. He reached out with his hands, anchoring himself in T'Pel, as he gathered his thoughts. "Voyager, transport Emina, Azan, Rebi, Mezoti and Icheb to us." He paused. "And Barin."

"Acknowledged."

He forced himself upright. The children would need to see strength, even as they needed to see the reality of the loss. He did not need to look to see that Kathryn had also summoned the strength of will to stand. Lwaxana had fresh tears running down her face as she communed with the inbound children.

Icheb materialized on his knees, Emina screaming into his chest, while Barin clung to them, valiantly trying to soothe his sister. They were quickly enfolded into Lwaxana's warmth, and T'Pel placed her hand on the toddler's cheek. Azan and Rebi were standing, facing one another, identical looks of despair and confusion on both their faces. Tuvok, reached for both of them, seeing in the periphery, Mezoti caught up in a hug by Kathryn.

By mutual agreement they moved the children to the center of the Nest and gathered them in closely. Ezri, still unconscious, and Kate, more aware than the Trill, but still insensate, were brought with them. One by one, the mind of each child was touched. One by one the explanation given. One by one they were held and loved.

One by one they cried. Their link to Seven of Nine had been severed.





Chapter 23 | Alternate Universe: FSS Voyager | Bookmarks




There was a ping from the navigation console, and then buttons began to blink. Seven of Nine fought her way up from near unconsciousness to stagger over and look at the navigational message, barely able to read it. The only word she really tracked was Voyager. She slapped an acknowledgment in an effort to get the horrible ringing tone out of her system. It didn't work.

The autopilot, which detected Voyager two point one light years from their current point, responded by setting a new course. The feature that their children had added for their Seus' convenience now served their other mothers.

Seven of Nine slid down onto the floor and had managed to bring herself into physical contact with both of her mates when she finally gave in to unconsciousness.

==^==

Despite all it had been through, the Federated Planets Starship, FSS Voyager, still maintained its original shine. True, there were a few scuff marks and scars aplenty on the Intrepid class ship, but that was to be expected; the vessel had been traveling for almost eight years through dangerous alien territory. The Delta quadrant was not a peaceful place.

From Captain Janeway's perspective, her crew exemplified what it meant to be Starfleet. They were bright, capable people who did their duty and continued to pursue life with gusto. They continued to uphold the precepts of the Federated Planets in the face of everything that had happened to them.

"Captain Janeway."

"Yes, Tuvok?"

"There's a blip on our sensors."

The Captain looked interested. "What kind of blip, Commander?"

"It is..." He paused, "…an unknown class of shuttle."

"Can you get me any more information?"

"The vessel is heavily shielded, but I will try."

Kathryn smiled ruefully as she stood to face him. They were all trying.

"I read three life forms. They do not appear to be moving." He made adjustments on his console then looked up, both of his brows raised. "Captain, these readings are singular. Perhaps you should come evaluate them also."

Deciphering that Tuvok was surprised by what he had seen, she lift a brow of her own in silent question. When he nodded, Kathryn walked to where he was standing. Then she did a double take. "Impossible."

==^==

The shuttle came to a full stop once it neared Voyager. There was no action on its part, no reaction to hails. "Tractor it to the docking bay," commanded Kathryn. "Tuvok, you have the conn."

Janeway contacted the Doctor on the way and debated whether to contact her Chief Engineer. Ultimately, she decided to wait, since she did not know what they might actually be encountering. The scans provided general details, which were provocative enough, but there had been anomalies in the data too.

She watched as the craft was brought in and docked by maintenance. Then she grabbed a tool designed to crack open doors and rapidly made her way to the vessel.

The Doctor joined her. "What is the emergency?"

"We have…guests and they're unconscious."

"Ah, well, why didn't you beam them directly to sickbay?"

"Because there is evidence that this ship has been in a fire fight and we wanted to make sure that other types of evidence were not disturbed."

"I see." His brow wrinkled in thought.

They stepped closer to the shuttle and there was a flash of light. Then a warning bleat. "Halt! This shuttle has engaged a first level safety protocol. Scanning."

Another light flashed over them, and there was another, unidentifiable, noise before the computerized voice spoke again. "Captain Kathryn Janeway, alterations indicated. Please identify yourself."

"I am Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship Voyager."

"Processing."

Kathryn looked at the Holodoctor. He shrugged, just as baffled as she was.

"Genetic variant detected. Password needed. Password choice: Question, Identify or Personal Detail. Choose one."

Kathryn took a chance. "Identify."

A small three-dimensional image flashed before them. The video displayed a ten second clip of an animal racing after a disc in flight. Kathryn's expression tightened, but she knew the answer. She did not know how the shuttle managed to have that particular clip. "Molly."

"Password accepted. Privacy settings have not been encoded. Captain Kathryn Janeway and Guest, you are permitted to enter."

The door of the shuttle opened and drifted to the floor like a clamshell. Captain Janeway ascended the ramp.

==^==

Nudity, per se, was not an issue in the twenty-third century, but that did not mean it wasn't a surprise to encounter it in unexpected places, and Kathryn Janeway was very surprised by what she saw. She didn't let that stop her. Though a part of her wanted to survey the ship, she was more concerned with the people in it and she raced over to the prone figures. The EMH followed quickly and began running a scan.

"Are they?"

"I know this sounds odd, and there are definite genetic differences, but, yes, Captain. This is Lt. B'Elanna Torres. This is Seven of Nine. This is Commander Ro Laren. Or at a version of them."

"They look so young."

"Captain, they are young. They all appear to be in young adulthood for their respective species."

The Captain reached and touched B'Elanna's cheek and brushed away the moisture. Then she knelt, observing that Seven of Nine's hands were on Laren and B'Elanna both. She looked up at the Klingon, whose fingers were entangled with Seven's.

And stranger still, they were unconscious, yet all of them were weeping.

==^==

Awakening was a painful experience. B'Elanna resisted it, knowing how much it was going to hurt before she was even conscious. Still she gasped awake, tears streaming down the sides of her face. The curses she spewed were a glorious mix of languages, including the Presba Tongue. She finally ended with, "Shit. Kathryn is going to kill us."

A familiar, smoky voice, responded. "Now why would I do that?"

The words came with the warmth of a hand familiarly shaped and placed on the Klingon's shoulder. For a moment, B'Elanna had hope.

And then, she realized the pain was still there. "Oh...Kahless."

B'Elanna didn't want to do it, but she opened her eyes anyway. There was Kathryn, as she used to be. She even wore the old Starfleet uniform. She was a handsome forty-something with medium length auburn hair and beautiful blue-grey eyes, which gazed down with bemused concern at B'Elanna.

The Klingon quivered in sorrow. One of the consequences of taking the trip through Maze had been the reward for succeeding. An energy field had covered them, literally transforming ship and crew to younger, healthier versions of themselves. Many of the crew looked like they'd just hit adulthood, including B'Elanna's mate Kathryn Janeway, and seeing the woman in front of her was like viewing a ghost. "Oh, I wish you were her."

She closed her eyes again, unable to stop the tears that flowed.

"Lieutenant..."

Kathryn's address petered out. She actually wasn't sure what rank this woman held.

"I know. You want to comfort me. But you can't." The Klingon sat up, slowly. Then she swiveled as if she intended to jump off the bed.

Kathryn held her back gently. B'Elanna looked at the Captain. "I need to be near them. We need proximity. We're mates."

"Mates? Seven of Nine and Ro Laren are your mates?" She and the Doctor had pulled the records of the shuttle in order to try and determine what might have caused the loss of consciousness. It had been an eye opening experience, and she even now had lingering physical and emotional reactions to what she had seen. Some images she would hold in her heart for years to come. But Kathryn felt the need to test the information; to make sure what was witnessed was true.

B'Elanna looked at Kathryn. "They are. Seven and Laren are my mates. We are separated from our other mates. This severing is why we ache."

"Other…" Multiple partnerships were not unheard of, but it was unusual enough that Kathryn was having difficulty with the idea. "I don't understand."

"It was the Pon Farr."

Captain Janeway was honestly trying to keep up, to comprehend. She was always a quick study. So she brought up the one example most related to B'Elanna she could think of. "The one with Vorik?"

"No. Tuvok's."

Kathryn digested the new information and extrapolated from what she knew of the Pon Farr. "Tuvok is part of your mate group." As off-kilter as she felt, she also felt a flash of amusement thinking of her stalwart Vulcan friend with multiple wives.

"He is."

Confusion followed the amusement as her knowledge of the Pon Farr, and its consequences came fully to the fore. "But Tuvok, he handled that with..." She wasn't sure how much she should share, but if they were mates, then they must know. She completed her sentence in low tones. He was her friend and she respected his privacy. These circumstances, however, were unique, "...with a hologram."

B'Elanna stared at Kathryn, appalled. Then she shook her head, "Oh. Poor Tuvok, and oh, Kahless, T'Pel." Now that she understood more about Vulcans, she appreciated how awful that must really have been for them. Pon Farr was much more than just a physical and chemical drive. She grimaced, the memory acted as a trigger and her need washed over her. She ached for him, for them. "We went through an anomaly." She knew it was necessary to explain, but there was too much talk. B'Elanna forced herself to concentrate. "We are House Presba. We formed the House because the Zakeeri were attacking and it was the logical thing to do. The Zakeeri were clan-based. Kathryn thought..."

It was a motivation that Kathryn could understand. "You thought if they could see that you formed clans too, they'd be willing to talk." She put aside her sudden realization that she, or at least an alternate version of herself, was part of the mated group, and that there was a universe where she was bonded not just to Tuvok, but to Seven of Nine and Ro Laren.

"Yes."

It sounded exactly like a strategy that she would come up with. Kathryn scowled, and rapidly found herself believing the Klingon, even if it sounded outrageous. Perhaps specifically because it did sound so outrageous.

"When we hit the Anomaly the adults of the House gathered. It had forced Tuvok into early Pon Farr. He needed us and we needed him. We needed each other."

"And you were bonded."

"Yes."

"I see." Kathryn had so many questions, but could see that it was perhaps not a good time for them. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Guest quarters together. Soon." B'Elanna groaned and answered one of the captain's unspoken questions. "My Kathryn, she is going to be very upset."

"As upset as you are."

"Yes. It is painful for us to be separated this way. She'll come after us, when she can. But they'll need time with each other too."

"I think I understand." And the more information she gathered, the more that statement was true. Kathryn wished, in some ways, that she could have kept certain events in the shuttle private. She'd felt the need to bring in someone who might understand the physics of the phenomenon that had obviously catapulted the three into her universe, however, and she'd known that the expert she'd chosen would have cracked any blocks she might have used to filter the content. Then again, Seven of Nine could absolutely be trusted not to share what she had learned. "We pulled the records of the shuttle and Seven of Nine, our Seven, has been investigating what happened." She had not yet had a chance to consult with the ex-drone, but Kathryn anticipated it would be an interesting, if somewhat uncomfortable conversation.

B'Elanna's expression lightened a little and she glanced at Kathryn with some amusement. "I bet that shocked the hell out of you."

Kathryn inhaled before replying. "That's one way you could phrase it." She quashed her own reaction, and patted B'Elanna's shoulder. "It will be alright."

"She'll come get us." It was spoken with absolute faith. "But if we can get back sooner, it would be good."

"Never abandon a member of your crew," Captain Janeway said softly to herself. Then, more firmly, she said. "If we can find a way, we will. I'll make arrangements for temporary quarters. We don't have a lot of..." She remembered who she was speaking to. As youthful as the Klingon might look, and as different as some of her mannerisms might be, the DNA claimed this was B'Elanna. And, she was inclined to believe it.

"I know." B'Elanna appeared to be calming. "Thank you, Kathryn."

==^==

"Where's Doc Zimmerman?" B'Elanna moved off of the Bio-bed.

"Zimmerman?"

"Your EMH."

"The Doctor picked a name?"

"Yeah, but only after Dr. Pulaski made him." B'Elanna couldn't help the fond twist her mouth took as she recalled some of the arguments in sickbay that she had walked in on.

"Admiral Katherine Pulaski?"

B'Elanna sighed, every question she answered led to more, and she wasn't sure how much more energy she could spare. She wished that Seven were awake to help. "There was a spatial rift. Kate was on the way to the front when the Orion Syndicate decided to try out a new inter-universal transportation unit. The USS Steele and a Klingon ship were making a break for it, when we rescued 'em. Now she's head of the Medical Department and one of our mates." That her Kathryn had been married to Katherine Pulaski in another timeline, long after returning from the Delta quadrant, she left out.

Kathryn's eyebrows rose. "Wait. How many?"

"There are nine of us total."

"Nine. You're saying that there are nine of you?" Kathryn was astonished and shocked. "How does that work?"

B'Elanna made some manual adjustments and began moving her bed. "Kathryn, do you really want to know all of this now?"

"I… No. I suppose not. But it must be explained to me later."

"Agreed." The bed clicked together with Ro Laren's unit. Then B'Elanna went to examine Seven of Nine's bio-bed. "You have her on a regenerator? This...is good. It will help." The Klingon bent, took Seven of Nine's hand in her own and whispered something into her mate's ear.

Then she went back to Ro Laren's bed, unclamped the stationary controls and began pushing her bed and Ro's toward Seven. All without any apparent physical effort. The beds clicked together. Ro Laren instantly turned and clasped Seven of Nine to her.

"She...isn't awake."

"She knew. We always know where we are in relation to each other."

"So it's a telepathic bond."

"It's more like an empathic bond. But Tuvok and T'Pel are Vulcan. And Lwaxana is Betazoid. And then there was what the makers of the Maze did to us. It was...inevitable."

"I..." Kathryn realized she had no possible answer or comment to make to that. But she did have an immediate question. "Who is the ninth?"

"Ezri Dax." B'Elanna felt a tiny smile tug at her lips. "She's a Trill."

Kathryn had no idea who that was, though the name also sounded vaguely familiar. "How did you all get together?"

"It's a long story, Kathryn."

"Right. Right. Sorry."

B'Elanna hopped back on the bed and looked at Kathryn with a deep, dark vision. "You never did answer my question. Where is the Doc?"

"I asked him to give us a little privacy. I wanted to see if you were really..."

"We are. Just not of this universe."

"I gathered." Kathryn snorted in amusement.

"I'm glad to hear he's okay. He's one of the godparents of our children after all." B'Elanna closed her eyes and began to lie back down.

"Children?"

"Another long story, Kathryn." The Klingon rolled closer to her mates, clasping Ro Laren tightly to her, and reaching to touch Seven. The Bajoran appeared to be trying to blend herself into both Seven and the Half-Klingon.

"You...rest up. I'll take care of the rest."

"Thank you, Kathryn. I'm glad you found us."

"As am I."

==^==

They were awake. The alertness came upon the completion of Seven of Nine's regeneration cycle hours later. As soon as Seven's eyes opened, theirs did too.

The Doctor fussed around them, running his medical tricorder over them. "Hmm."

No one commented on his failure to communicate. They simply continued their process of helping each other from prone to standing. When he finally spoke, it was with concern. "Indications are that you are functional, but I'd prefer it if you took a few days to recuperate before trying to solve your…problem."

Seven turned a dark azure gaze upon him. "We will comply."

He noticed then that all of them were looking at him with that same pain filled intensity.

Truthfully, he hadn't expected them to say yes. Normally when he gave advice everyone tried race back to work. He finally cleared his throat. "Well, good. I have some news about the guest quarters, which I hope you won't take amiss, but we wanted to be sure that Seven of Nine had access to the regeneration alcoves. With the permission of our Seven of Nine, bunks have been set up in cargo bay two. Captain Janeway has given you permission, as you're able, to adjust your living circumstances since they are quite primitive at the moment." He looked apologetic. "Unfortunately, while you were unconscious, we were attacked and did not have time to…"

B'Elanna raised her hand. "You don't need to explain. I just can't believe we slept through an attack."

Now the Doctor looked somewhat sheepish. "I felt you needed the sleep. I spiked your punch, so to speak."

They looked at each other, and then said the most amazing thing. "You were probably right."

With that astonishing statement, they debarked from the bio-beds. They noticed that they had been given robes, and began helping each other into them. Then they shocked him again. "When would you like us to come back for check ups?"

His first thought, before he answered was, these people really are from another universe.

==^==

They stood in front of the alcoves, just looking at them. B'Elanna finally commented. "I cannot believe that we let you live like this for as long as we did." Her fingers caressed Seven of Nine's back.

Seven looked over at the bunks and then at her mates. "This is unacceptable."

"However," said Laren, "We probably shouldn't change anything until we've had a chance to coordinate with this Universe's Seven of Nine."

"Agreed."

B'Elanna tapped the communicator on her robe. "Lt. Commander B'Elanna Torres of the House Presba to Seven of Nine"

They were amused when Seven's badge chirped in response. They were even more amused when the other Seven of Nine's voice responded. Apparently the computer simply chose to split the difference. "I am here. How may I assist you Lieutenant Commander?"

"We are about to change around the cargo bay. Would you like to have some say in things?"

"Clarify?"

B'Elanna flashed a look at her mates. "How big do you want your room? And with how much soundproofing? I'm sure by now you realize my mates and I are not celibate."

There was a pause. "I will be right there. Seven out."

"You are a cruel, cruel woman, B'Elanna Torres." Laren shook her head in admiration.

==^==

By the time Seven of Nine arrived to join them, The Mistress of House Presba had commandeered the console and was quickly developing schematics. B'Elanna and Laren stood close by, observing with quiet intensity. They looked up when the other blonde arrived. Their Borg wife did not. However, being naturally polite, she did greet the other woman. "Seven of Nine, thank you for coming."

The other blonde slowed to a halt and finally stopped, dropping naturally into her at ease stance. "You wished to have my input?"

"Indeed. We are currently in the process of planning, would you join us?"

B'Elanna Torres moved until she was standing beside Laren, which allowed her to still be able to see the console, but also made room for the other Seven.

"So, tell me, Chesei, is there any chance of getting a bed like yours?" Laren casually asked, "Or at least like the one you made for Ezri?"

Seven raised her ocular implant and looked over at the stacked bunks. "It would be more efficient to create only one bed."

B'Elanna laughed. "That's what I love about you, Be'nal. Your incredible capacity for efficiency in the service of hedonism."

Seven merely smirked, and continued to input data in the console. In the reflection on the console, she became aware that her counterpart was looking at B'Elanna and Laren with a distinct air of curiosity. It was quite illuminating. Was that how she appeared when she had wanted to ask a question but was unsure as to the receptivity of the other party?

She weighed her options, and then signaled to her mates. "I require a moment with my counterpart, perhaps you could check the status of the shuttle since we will undoubtedly utilize it today? Fifteen minutes should be sufficient."

Both mates regarded her somewhat oddly, but nodded, B'Elanna doing the actual responding. "We will comply." Cheekily, she blew a kiss to the Borg and joined her hand with Laren's, tugging the taller Bajoran along with her.

The doors had slid shut behind her banished mates, Seven turned to back to the console. She worked steadily for several minutes, and waited for her counterpart's body language to relax. A minute after that, she stated, "You wish to ask me a question."

"Define the term chesei."

"It is a Bajoran affectionate designation meaning sweetheart." In her mind she felt she knew what the next line of query would be, and decided that she had an opportunity to direct the conversation. "My mates are fond of affectionate designations, and employ several. Some are used only among certain individuals, for example, B'Elanna Torres is the only one to whom I refer as Bang'wI."

"It seems inefficient."

"When Laren referred to me as chesei, everyone knew whom she was addressing. Had she referred to me by my correct designation the possibility for confusion existed."

"May I ask another personal question?"

"You may." There was a pause, and a familiar tilt of a head, and Seven smiled slightly. When the question was not immediately forthcoming, she continued as though it had, all the while making calculations and entering data. "You wish to ask about my relationship with B'Elanna Torres."

"That is correct. But I am unsure how to proceed."

Seven smiled softly to herself. "You are attracted to your B'Elanna Torres."

"Affirmative. But our relationship is antagonistic, whereas yours is romantic in nature. I wish to know how you achieved that state."

"It required much effort on my part."

The doors slid open, Laren and B'Elanna returning from their errand. B'Elanna smiled softly, "I looked at her one day, and knew. She was my whole world, my universe. I realized that I would know her anywhere, find her anywhere. I was hers." Her grin grew more full. "Resistance was futile."

Seven met her gaze warmly, but remained silent, knowing that B'Elanna would become embarrassed if she responded verbally. Instead she used their bond to embrace her mate, and fingered, "I love you, Bang'wI."

"Have you taken the Oath?"

"We have." Seven was pleased, the brief absence of her mates had allowed her counterpart to become comfortable in her presence and she was now conversing adequately. "Is this an acceptable design?"

Her counterpart took a moment to study the design, and lifted her ocular implant momentarily, then nodded. "Affirmative. That is why your designation includes House Presba?"

No one seemed disturbed by the multiple thread switches in the conversation.

"It is. I am the Mistress of the House."

"Explain."

B'Elanna noticed Seven's discrete request for her to answer so she did. "I am the Epatai of House Presba. Seven of Nine is the Mistress of House Presba."

"And Ro Laren?"

"I'm a sex slave."

"Laren," there was just a hint of reproach in Seven's voice, "…is our beloved Mate."

"You are involved in a plural marriage, are you not?"

"That is correct. We have other mates who are not here."

Laren thought she understood what her mate was up to, so she continued her teasing comments. "The lovely Lady Seven has been most efficient in assimilating Voyager's senior staff."

B'Elanna laughed.

Seven created a three-dimensional image, and moved so that her counterpart could see it more clearly. "I was merely efficient in my dating protocols."

"You can accomplish that design?"

The Mistress of the House Presba raised her brow and said, "You would be very surprised at what I can do."

==^==

The problem with cargo bays and other large storage areas was that such places easily fell into disorder. The area immediately surrounding the Borg alcoves and the small workspace next to them was, as always, pristine, but this did not mean that the rest of the area was. Whenever Seven of Nine did try to organize the space she was often chastised for the effort by maintenance, engineering and whomever else thought it was their business. It was, however, never the Captain. Captain Janeway had other things to think about than the cargo bay. Seven had learned to adapt.

The Seven from the other Universe, on the other hand, did not care if she was going to be chastised or not. It was inefficient to wait. And thus, she, her mates and her counterpart, began the process of setting the cargo bay into a new, more efficient pattern, one that included two decks, both for their personal quarters and for the compartments and components that would be utilized in the cargo bay for organizational purposes.

"I do not know if Captain Janeway will appreciate your methodology."

"What Kathryn does not know will not hurt her," said Laren.

"Besides, she told us we could set it up how we desired. It's not the method, it's the result." B'Elanna waved a spanner in the air.

Laren noticed the other woman was staring at B'Elanna at that moment as if she had grown two heads. "Given the way she's looking at you, I'm guessing we should expect a visit from the Chief Engineer at some point."

"It is certain. B'Elanna Torres has strong opinions in matters of ship construction." Seven of Nine paused. "And in the order of approval versus implementation."

"I just bet," laughed the Klingon, not surprised in the least that she would have that in common with her counterpart, or that this Seven of Nine's humour would be as dry as her wife's. "Well, if she bothers you about this, you send her my way. We'll get that issue solved real quick." Then she spoke in Klingon, "Do not tell others what cannot be done while they are doing it." She grinned and spoke in standard again. "It's an old Klingon saying."

The work continued apace. When some of the crew wandered in, obviously taking the chance that a certain Borg beauty would be regenerating, a Bajoran took their intrusion quite personally. Laren confronted them.

"Exactly what purpose brings you here?" Aside from the unfriendly body language, the growl that accompanied that question was enough to set anyone's hair on end. It also forced an answer from the surprised visitors. Those individuals that indicated that they had previously had nothing better to do except to stand around and Borg-gaze, were roped into the habitat building and cargo bay renovation.

Seven of Nine, who was used to hiding her innate strength from her crew mates so as not to intimidate others, gave up the effort as futile when she observed that the other women deemed it irrelevant as to whether other people were aware that they could lift things that were incredibly heavy.

In the end, and in an unexpectedly short period of time given the extensiveness of the procedure, the cargo bay was partitioned in such a way as to be habitable, enjoyable, and useful. Even those who at first had participated unwillingly were proud of the accomplishment.

==^==

The trio followed Seven of Nine to the mess hall, lingering a step behind to converse, and also because this was her ship. So when the doors slid open, they were not immediately visible to the other occupants, and Seven was able to clearly discern the responses her counterpart's arrival provoked. B'Elanna felt the change in her mate immediately, and realized exactly what had happened. Her own Presban-enhanced, Klingon hearing allowed her to catch a couple of the comments before the entire room fell silent as they came into view.

Laren, her hearing not as acute as that of her mates, needed only her intellect and her time spent among the denizens of the lower decks to know what had just happened. The hurt radiating from her mate had to be nothing compared to what this universe's Seven of Nine was enduring. Striding forward, she came abreast of Seven of Nine, and placed her hand on the small of the blonde's back. "Where would you like to sit?"

"I do not require a nutritional supplement at this time."

Laren smiled, "That is not what I asked. How about we sit over here." In Presban, she addressed her mates. "My beloveds, if you would be so kind?"

Seven exchanged a glance with B'Elanna, and raised her eyebrow.

B'Elanna sighed heavily, and slid her arm around her mate's waist. "You know. I think she's even more isolated than you were." Together they walked to the kitchen service window, continuing to converse in Presban, since Laren obviously had chosen it over finger speak for a reason. She looked down at the offerings, and tried to block the unappetizing smell. "I miss Icheb."

Seven smiled. "You miss his cooking." Her smile faltered as the conversational buzz increased again, and a new round of jokes and innuendo was directed at her counterpart, and that now included them. "This is unacceptable." She clenched her fist.

"You know what, Be'nal? If you can't beat them, join 'em." B'Elanna spun Seven toward her and drew her mate's head down so that their lips met. She held nothing back, nibbling, licking and teasing the soft, succulent flesh, allowing their tongues to meet and play. B'Elanna let the kiss taper off, her breathing somewhat ragged, and guided Seven to where Laren waited with Seven of Nine. She took the seat next to the Bajoran and forcefully pulled the blonde onto her lap, kissing her again hungrily. With her free hand she pulled Laren to them and included her in the embrace, all three of them pressing into the exchange of velvety kisses. When B'Elanna judged there had been a sufficient period of silence, she pulled back, but did not completely disengage from the contact.

Across the table from them, Seven of Nine's eyes were wide, her skin slightly flushed, and the Klingon winked at her, before turning her head in the general direction of the rest of the mess hall. "Now I believe you have something to talk about." Then she growled.

==^==

The Doctor, who had heard a rumor of a great deal of activity happening in the cargo bay made his way there. He entered the facility to find that it had been completely renovated.

Where there had been chaos, there was now order. Walls, walkways, and well-organized bins had also been added, while the console had been removed from its previous location and relocated closer to the entrance. He spotted the living space quickly because there was the recognizably familiar quarter's doorway and there were walls which rose from floor to ceiling. The alcoves were no longer open to public view.

He approved.

But, at the same time, he had a word or two he wanted to say to those who were supposed to be resting.

==^==

Lieutenant B'Elanna Torres woke from what had been a fairly restorative sleep to find that a great deal of power had been re-routed to Cargo Bay 2, and that the ship's energy stores had taken a large hit.

"God damn it. How many times do I have to tell you to ask first?" Her unintentionally loud snarl woke Miral, and she took a deep breath to calm herself before picking her daughter up from her crib.

"Hey, joq'wI" She kissed the tiny forehead ridges and watched as her daughter blinked the sleep from her eyes. "Let's get you some food, before I take you to Neelix."

She had the routine down pat. In short order, Miral was fed, bathed, dressed for the day and they were on their way to the mess hall.

The doors parted, and she was immediately aware that the room was unaccountably quiet. A quick survey gave her both the likely reason and a near coronary.

B'Elanna didn't know whether to shield her daughter's eyes, or rub her own in disbelief at the sight of her counterpart providing seating for, and hand feeding a very content looking version of Seven of Nine.

"Hello, little one." Neelix greeted her daughter, and B'Elanna gave her to the Talaxian, her eyes still locked on the show.

And it was a hell of show. She swallowed, and decided not to let the presence of the alternate Universe women deter her, stalking over to their table. She had no difficulty identifying which of the blonde ex-drones to address. B'Elanna picked the one not ensconced on a Klingon lap. "What have I told you about re-routing power without proper authorization?"

"On one thousand and fifty-nine occasions you have indicated that it is not acceptable." Seven of Nine's tone was chilled, her back a fraction stiffer than it had been.

"Then why the hell do you still do it?"

Seven of Nine had thought that would have been obvious. The reason rarely changed. "Because you are in error."

"Listen you arrogant Borg…" She stopped mid-invective. Her alternate universe counterpart and companions were laughing. "What in Kahless' name are you laughing at?"

"You two." The more youthful version of herself answered. "Shall we Be'nal?" After a small pause, and a seemingly unspoken communication, she spoke again, loudly. "This ship is not your personal playground. If you want resources, then god damn well put a request in through proper channels!"

"Inefficient."

"I don't give a damn about what you think is efficient. You can't just go around taking what you want. Oh, wait. That's exactly what you do, and it has to stop."

"The Captain authorized the expenditure."

Both women were standing now, facing each other, and Torres had no idea what to say, it was like she had fallen into a bizarre dream or weird alternate reality. Which, she realized, was pretty much what had happened, only it had happened to them, not her. It didn't change how utterly surreal the whole thing was. She looked over at her Seven of Nine, and wasn't the slightest bit surprised to see the ocular implant had nearly disappeared into the blonde's hairline.

A set of insults were exchanged in Klingon and in a language the translator was unable to decipher, so she didn't get the exact meaning of all the words, but the tone clearly conveyed that they were superlative insults.

The next thing Torres knew, her counterpart and Seven of Nine's were smiling; the Klingon more fully than the Borg. But it was unmistakably a smile gracing the blonde's lips, and it took her from beautiful to stunning. She wondered what this ship's Seven of Nine would look like if she smiled.

"Was it good for you, Be'nal?"

"Most invigorating, Bang'wI. Perhaps we should retire to our quarters and continue the discussion there?"

Without a further word, they turned and left the mess hall.

B'Elanna watched them leave, and then turned back to the table. "What the hell just happened?"

The Bajoran, who had stifled her own laugher with great difficulty, looked between the two women, trying her best to give them a look that was both knowing and meaningful. "Foreplay." Then Laren got up and followed her mates from the hall, aware that she had left some very pensive women in her wake.

==^==

"Captain Janeway to Lt. Commander Ro Laren."

Two strides from the turbo-lift, she stopped and hit the communicator on her jacket lapel. "Ro Laren here, Captain."

"Would you report to my ready room, please?"

"On my way." The device chirped and the channel shut down. Laren entered the lift, trying to puzzle out the tone and words, which had both been mild, and somewhat non-informative. A combination that spelled trouble with her Kathryn, but one which she had no data for here. "Deck one."

Exiting the turbo-lift on the bridge, she faltered in her stride. Tuvok met her gaze and nodded, and she nodded back, taking unexpected solace from his silent acknowledgment. Another half-step and she stopped altogether.

Her counterpart sat in the Captain's chair wearing command red, three solid pips affixed to her collar, long brunette hair hanging around her shoulders. "Commander." She said the greeting and felt ridiculous, unable suddenly to fathom how both Seven and B'Elanna had managed to deal with alternate versions of themselves without apparent difficulty.

A small smile, and a bob of a head communicated that her counterpart found it just as awkward, and not a little amusing. "Lt. Commander. The Captain is expecting you, go on in."

"Thank you." She turned toward the ready room, and got another shock. Lt. Stadi, who had died in the initial incident with the Kazon, was sitting at the helm. Laren decided the first thing she was going to do when she got back to the cargo bay was to check the crew roster.

The door opened and she stepped inside, taking instinctive note of the similarities and differences. "Captain." In front of the desk, she stood at ease, hands behind her back.

"You are the ranking officer among your companions, are you not?"

Laren thought about that, and decided, somewhat gratefully, that no, she wasn't. "No, Captain. Lt. Commander Torres is the senior officer." She played a hunch that this Kathryn was as resistant to being called sir or ma'am as hers.

Janeway stood, and then moved to the replicator. "Coffee, black. Anything for you?"

"A Bajoran ginger tea, please."

Her tea was handed to her and she took the seat she was directed to. "Thank you."

"You might not be the senior officer, but since I have you here, I'm going to gamble that you, like my First Officer, are a reasonable, even-tempered woman."

Laren grinned. "I can be."

Janeway produced her familiar half-smile, and Laren felt her heart clench even though she knew, on many levels, that this was not her mate, not her Kathryn.

"I'm not completely sure what the standards of behaviour are on your Voyager, but on this one, what happened in the mess hall this morning is unacceptable."

Laren felt her even-temper slide to rough. "So caring, loving, respectful behaviour between individuals is not allowed, but referring to a fellow crew member as a fuckcicle is? " She leaned forward, "If you don't mind the impartial observation, that's beyond screwed up."

Janeway blanched, and then the command mask slammed back into place. "You will keep any overtly sexual behavior to private spaces, is that clear?"

"Yes, Captain." Laren took a long drink of her tea. "Did you know that eight crew members made it a point to enter Cargo Bay 2 during the night specifically to observe Seven of Nine? They made a most…opportune workforce."

The only immediate response was a darkening to grey of Janeway's normally blue eyes, followed by a long sip of coffee.

Perhaps this universe's Kathryn Janeway wasn't so different from her own after all. She recognized the pensive look and the flash of guilt, and Laren settled back, fully prepared to listen to whatever came next.

==^==

Despite appearances in the mess hall and the deliberately provocative behaviour, their exit did not immediately lead to passionate lovemaking. The desire was, as always, an ever present undercurrent, but also present was the painful awareness that they were incomplete.

The doors to their new quarters parted, and they took the lift to right, touching lightly, each locked into thoughts of their own. Together they disrobed, and then crawled onto the large bed. While it was neither as luxurious as Ezri's, nor as large and decadent as Seven's, it was still a wonder.

They lay wrapped together, idly stroking each other, soothing as yet unspoken hurts, and healing wounds old and new.

"What happened in the mess hall, it's like what happened the night Tom punched the marine isn't it?" B'Elanna knew the rough details of the altercation, and felt that it was something they needed to talk about directly.

Seven considered her response. "It was similar." She tried a distraction technique. "Your solution was more efficient than that of Tom Paris."

B'Elanna propped herself up on both elbows, and looked directly into Seven's eyes. "I am so sorry. I know a lot of it was my fault." A mesh tipped finger touched her lips and stilled her speech.

"It is in the past."

"But it was still wrong, and I'm sorry."

Seven gazed at her mate, able to feel B'Elanna's sorrow and guilt, surprised to feel an unquantifiable lightening in her mind, along with a constriction in her throat. The first, she put aside for later; the second she let run its course, burying herself against B'Elanna, and for the first-time in her adult life cried for her own pain.

==^==

It had been an astonishing couple of days, full of revelations that were, as of yet, incomplete, but which nonetheless affected her greatly. Maybe that was why she did what she did next, or maybe it was the familiar shades of who was sitting in front of her. Regardless, Kathryn didn't stop to think about it, and she just pushed on, letting the words spill out. "There's no home to go back to. No Federated Planets, no Klingon Empire, no Romulan Oligarchy. Nothing. It's all been obliterated by Dominion forces."

Laren swallowed her own reaction. "You haven't told them have you?"

The Bajoran's words were even, the tone non-judgmental, and she fully understood why the other Janeway had married her. That she had married Seven of Nine also made perfect, though painful, sense. The others much less so, at least from her current perspective. But Kathryn doubted that the other Janeway felt the need to hide things from her spouses, even if they were a large part of her senior staff. "No."

"Your Seven of Nine knows though, doesn't she?" Laren made a guess, based partly on intuition and partly on her understanding of procedure.

Kathryn exhaled sharply, the sound almost, but not quite, a laugh. "She decrypted the final message from the Pathfinder project." Janeway took a gulp of her coffee, surprised that it had gotten cold. She changed the subject. "If you're not the senior officer, what do you do?" The woman was not in uniform, and it occurred to the Captain that perhaps the Bajoran was a counselor in the alternate universe, an occupation that would put an immediate end to this conversation.

When the other woman raised her eyes, her nose ridges lifted at the same time, and Janeway realized that this Ro Laren was also much less reserved, and much more animated than her counterpart.

"I'm Commodore Janeway's adjutant." Laren smiled. "Which is a fancier way of saying I'm Captain Janeway's lead administrative assistant."

"Lead assistant?"

Laren allowed the change in topic, seeing an opportunity to plant some seeds of her own. B'Elanna shouldn't be the only one having fun.

==^==

Seven of Nine, late of the Borg Collective, and currently exploring humanity as the Astrometrics Officer aboard the FSS Voyager, proceeded, with precision, to navigate from the mess hall to the cargo bay.

Despite her apparent precision and orderly progression, her internal state was neither orderly nor precise.

Much new data had been presented to her and she needed to process the information and conduct research into the relevant topics.

In particular, she very much desired to comprehend why Ro Laren had designated the verbal confrontation between her mates as foreplay, and why, in turn, Lt. B'Elanna Torres' body temperature had elevated by one point three degrees Celsius, while her heart rate had increased by two hundred and eleven percent.

She also wanted to know what the Epatai and Mistress of House Presba had found so humourous.

Perhaps she would be able to inquire of Lady Seven directly. Her counterpart had indicated a willingness to answer her questions, and though she could tell they were very different individuals, she was also aware that they communicated with each other efficiently and directly.

It was pleasant to converse with Lady Seven. Philosophical discussions with her counterpart would not be irrelevant.

Arriving at her destination she entered first the cargo bay, and then the interior doors to her private quarters. Unsure of what to do in the unfamiliar setting, she stepped onto the lift that was to her left, and rode it to the next level where her rooms were located.

On the way up, she looked down through the grill-like grating of the lift and could see the alcoves that were tucked away in the common area of the first floor. Two had been rendered functional, and she wondered if, when they regenerated simultaneously, there would be a link between their neural transceivers, or if the technology would be function in an unexpected manner due to its origins.

She mentally added it to her task list, and crossed to her new desk. A chair was tucked discretely to the side, in the event of a guest, but the console had been laid out and designed to be worked at in a standing position.

Seven paused in mid-entry. The acknowledgment that she preferred to stand was what she knew was referred to as a considerate gesture. She reflected back over the last twelve hours and made note of the instances of consideration she had received from the trio of displaced officers.

Putting aside her personal queries for later, she accessed the Borg database on dimensional mechanics.

Consideration was not irrelevant.

==^==

Laren paused at the door to their bedroom, then leaned against the frame, eyes and ears drinking in the sight and sounds within the room. Through their bond she could feel the wash of passion. It wrapped around her with its warmth, including her, but not pulling her in with them.

This moment was theirs and she was their witness.

As though they had been awaiting her arrival, Seven rose from B'Elanna's arms, her paler thighs straddling the Klingon's duskier ones.

Seven felt B'Elanna's hands move her waist, encircling her with their rough heat, guiding her motion. She rose with their urging, and fell with her own, setting a slow, rhythmic pace, that brought them deeply into one another.

She tilted her head back, felt her hair fall over her shoulders and brush the edges of the implant that still wound its way around her torso, pressing into and onto B'Elanna as she arched. Her feet were parallel to her mate's legs and she reached back, grabbing her own ankles for leverage, needing to be fully possessed even as she fully claimed her lover. "jIH dok."

B'Elanna lifted her hips from the bed, translating her mass into momentum as she tried to drive them together; tried to make true of the flesh what was true of the mind and soul. Seven's finger's left their impassioned circling of her breasts, but left behind the touch of her mind, and she rose even higher from the bed as Seven arced her back and pulled them both toward perfection. "maj dok."

They moved in opposite directions, but still in tandem and slammed back against each other, both breathing the words as exhalations of pleasure. "Tlinghan jiH."

Still moving together, they shifted suddenly, Seven pulling B'Elanna upright, their mouths meeting for a long electric instant before lips became cheeks. Teeth flashed and flesh parted, warmth and life spilling into and out of them as they crested, howling, pulling Laren along, commanding her to follow, to see, to feel.

The fire within them ignited.

They burned.

==^==

Deciding it was high time to see what had been wrought in the cargo bay during her off-duty cycle, Lt. B'Elanna Torres, gamma-Voyager's Chief Engineer stepped through the automatically triggered doors and stopped in astonishment.

Astonished enough she forgot to be angry, and had to settle for impressed.

And, if she were pressed, on pain of death, she would admit to a certain amount of relief that the alcoves were no longer open to public view.

The ex-drone's near death had made her aware that many crew members spent an inappropriate period of time in the cargo bay during the blonde's regeneration cycle. Unfortunately, that same near death experience had also stripped the Borg of the presence of the one individual whose clandestine nocturnal visits to the cargo bay acted as a deterrent to the less scrupulous.

B'Elanna sometimes wondered if Seven regretted the cost. One of their few civil conversations had been about death, and she knew that the Borg had not wanted to die, but she had admired the grace with which Seven had faced the possibility.

She'd never told the woman that she had heard the argument with Janeway, and had heard the promise to take her home. After that she had expected that Janeway would finally do what everyone had assumed would happen almost since the day Seven had arrived. She hadn't.

Instead, the life Janeway had taken to save Seven's had come between them, and they no longer interacted socially at all. Not that she had thought that bothered the ice queen in the slightest. Love was an emotion. An irrelevant emotion according to Seven of Nine. One she hadn't had the slightest doubt that the drone was incapable of feeling. Until this morning.

Watching the alternate universe versions of herself, Ro Laren and the Borg interact in the mess hall, not to mention the wild stories about what had happened before she arrived, put a dent in her theory. Assimilated was assimilated. And no matter how confusing the end of the encounter had been, the scene she'd walked in on made it blatantly obvious. The AU version of Seven of Nine was loved, and loved deeply in return.

"Lt. B'Elanna Torres, how may I be of assistance?"

"God damn it, Seven! Don't sneak up on people like that."

"I will comply."

B'Elanna looked at her suspiciously, trying to decide if this was her Seven or the other one. "You do that. Where are you going in such a hurry, anyway? I'd have thought you'd be decorating or something."

"I am required to be elsewhere."

Before B'Elanna could rib the ex-drone about her lack of precision, it became obvious why Seven of Nine felt the need to be elsewhere.

It also became apparent why the crewmen on deck 9, section 12 complained about noise. B'Elanna could feel her cheeks redden, even though she knew it wasn't her.

She looked at blonde, who raised her ocular implant. "Your counterpart appears to have superior lung capacity."

There was another long drawn-out moan, accompanied by a sharp demand, or what she supposed would have been a demand if it had been translatable.

B'Elanna folded her arms over her chest. "Yeah, well, yours ain't no slouch in the decibel department either."

"I believe that is an accurate observation."

They stood together for a minute, in fascinated thrall.

"Lt. B'Elanna Torres?"

"I swear, Seven, if you ask me if you can ask a personal question right now, I'm going to fire your Borg ass out of the nearest airlock."

"I was not."

B'Elanna sighed. "What do you want, Seven?"

"I was merely going to suggest that now might be an appropriate time to engage in an alternate activity. Elsewhere."

B'Elanna looked over at Seven again. Was she blushing? She shook her head to clear the thoughts playing havoc with her imagination. "That's the first thing I've heard you say all day that made sense." Jerking thumb in the direction of the door, she said, "C'mon, I'll buy you nutritional supplement pi theta four."

"That would be acceptable."

They turned for the door and exited one after another. B'Elanna tapped her communicator. "Computer, place a level four privacy seal on Cargo Bay 2, authorization Torres omega eta three." Noticing the odd look the Borg was giving her, she waved her hand at the door. "Can't have Naomi wandering in there looking for a game of kadis kot."

Seven looked at the Klingon, and raised her implant. She had not been aware that B'Elanna Torres knew of Naomi's visits.

"After you."

"Indeed."

==^==

It was fortunate that the Doctor had indicated the necessity for rest, as it meant no one noted their absence. The mating fire which claimed them roared through them at its normal pace. They were able to satiate its burn enough to enter the common area, dressed in robes, so that they could eat and refresh themselves. On the dining table they found a precisely and carefully worded note requesting that their quarters be improved with more soundproofing. It was already pre-authorized by the engineer.

"I thought we installed your decibel suppressor?" B'Elanna looked up from the note in confusion. She was positive she'd built one.

"We did. We failed to turn it on."

Laren had to laugh, "Oh Prophets. Poor Seven of Nine. We're going to have to do something special for her."

"We shall," agreed Seven. "We will help her acclimate. She is still ingesting supplements when she should be enjoying her meals."

"Well, I can't say I blame her. They're still, ah, not quite cooking things well around here."

"Have we accumulated sufficient replicator rations to prepare a meal?" Seven checked with Laren, who had an incredible knack of tracking such essentials.

"Yes, and I also cheated a little. I've replicated each of our preferred uniforms from the replicator in Kate's shuttle. That way we can wear our uniforms and not draw on Voyager's supplies too much."

"I take it you don't feel like blending in?"

"After the mess hall incident? No." B'Elanna turned to Seven, her tone gentle, but firm. "I don't want you going back to those bio-suits."

"I will not." In truth, she had not intended to, but she knew B'Elanna was merely expressing a concern disguised as an order. It was an easy enough one to obey. Seven paused, as if adding a new thing to her mental to do list. "But I will also make some adaptations to the replicator, if you do not mind, my mate."

"Be my guest, Be'nal. This isn't my ship."

Laren shook her head. "You're terrible."

"I know."

"But, building on that thought, I do have something that needs to be discussed." Laren interjected.

"During dinner perhaps? I'm starving." B'Elanna looked about. "Oh, and I suppose we ought to contact Seven of Nine and let her know she can come back. We'll put the suppressor on this time."

"Agreed."

==^==

They sat around the table, which was set for four in case Seven of Nine chose to join them, and enjoyed their meal. They went with Italian, with a communal salad bowl, spaghetti bowl, carafes of compatible drinks and a large bread basket from which to draw. The dessert was in an opaque, square stasis-container. Clever use of rations and alternation between replicator libraries had produced everything they needed.

Then, speaking in Presban, Laren brought up the realities of this particular Universe.

"Completely destroyed?"

"They utilized biogenetic warfare on top of their usual methods. They wiped out the quadrants. There is nothing to go home to and whole sectors are completely poisoned, possibly for centuries."

"Kahless."

"Captain Janeway hasn't told anyone. But Seven of Nine knows."

"It would be a heavy burden."

"It has been." Laren paused. Then she said, "We had an interesting discussion. Janeway has authorized me to build her a team."

B'Elanna grinned. "What would she do without you?"

"Well, in this universe, she would have been dead many times over. Apparently my alternate was in command of the Maquis ship. Chakotay died during that first battle with the Kazon, as did Seska."

"Well, thank god for small favors."

Seven of Nine looked at the Klingon. B'Elanna, unrepentant, painted her bread with butter. "What? I was talking about Seska. She was nothing but trouble."

"I thought you were her friend."

"When she was Bajoran, I was."

The Borg managed not to roll her eyes. "I love you, my mate, but your ability to carry two conflicting beliefs about the same person continues to astound me."

The Klingon set her bread down and leaned over and kissed Seven. She pulled back and said, "It's just part of my charm, Be'nal."

That was when Seven of Nine re-entered their quarters.

==^==

"Would you care to join us?" Laren stood up and indicated the place setting. The Borg glanced at the women, who were sharing their meal and understood the offer.

"I regret to say that I have already had my nutritional intake for the day." Despite her words, Seven of Nine did not appear particularly regretful.

Laren smiled then, "Well, come join us for some talk and maybe a little dessert."

"I will comply."

Laren held the extra seat out for Seven of Nine and then took her own. Then, she said, "We talked about several things while you were away."

The Borg woman sat somewhat stiffly, but there was still a spark that they all recognized as humor in her expression. "I do not believe what you were doing was entirely composed of talking."

B'Elanna laughed outright. "Ha!" Then she grinned. "Well, that would be true and we got your note. We'll take care of it before we continue later."

"You are not finished?" Seven of Nine was obviously appalled.

Seven answered, "You will not have to exit the premises again. But no, the mating fire still burns us. We are merely taking a break."

"The mating fire?"

"It is a physical and psychic compulsion that is a result of the bond."

"Explain."

Seven did so, providing practical details, without being overly prurient, to the fascinated Borg. But it did lead to more questions, which led to more answers. Before long, Seven of Nine knew of the story of the Maze of Mines.

"It explains the divergences. We never traversed that sector. Our journey took us in a different direction." Seven paused, and then opted to choose a different topic. "Captain Janeway authorized access to your shuttle's records. I witnessed certain conversations and your copulation."

"We were aware."

The Borg woman let some of the tension in her body ebb away. "There was mention of children. B'Elanna Torres has a child, but only one."

Seven nodded. "Our children are a diverse group. My children are liberated Borg like ourselves. They originate from several species. I adopted them before the bonding. Also, my mate Lwaxana's son is part of our immediate family unit. The other children of our mates are adults."

"You miss them."

"Very much."

"I would like to know more."

B'Elanna shot a glance at her Seven and smiled softly, "Well, now we know Mezoti comes by it honestly."

==^==

The conversation continued and took several turns. "We would like to, at another time, discuss the possibility of borrowing on your expertise. We have a way to get back, which needs approval from Captain Janeway, but we already know it is an effective method." Seven asked her counterpart.

Seven of Nine's ocular implant rose. "I am currently investigating Borg data and related theories on dimensional mechanics. Have you advanced theory into practice?"

Laren answered. "Yes. Our Voyager has a Trans-Universal Engine."

"Intriguing. Do you wish to adapt your shuttle?"

"We did. But now we wish to equip Voyager with a TUE."

Now they unequivocally had Seven of Nine's complete attention. She looked at them very intensely, then relaxed yet another notch. "You know."

==^==

They spent some time discussing the situation and the options that were originally available. "I comprehend her reasons. Events have not conspired for an appropriate time to make the announcement. The crew, however, are aware that a significant amount of time has passed since the last Pathfinder message was received." She paused "I believe that Commander Ro Laren suspects, but I can not confirm it."

"Do you think Janeway would be open to the idea?"

Seven of Nine looked inward for a moment and asked, "You believe it will succeed?"

"Even if it doesn't, our Kathryn will find us." Laren assured.

The Borg considered, and then her expression lightened. "I will help you compose the presentation."

"Excellent."

"Now that we have reached an agreement," Laren said, smiling. "I want you to try something." The Bajoran lifted the lid off of the dessert platter.

"Brownies. I have seen these. They are avoided in the mess hall."

"That is because they are not being cooked correctly. This, however, is Gretchen Janeway's recipe and we plan to offer them as a bribe to Captain Janeway." Laren grinned as she lifted one free and then handed it to the doubtful Borg. "Try one."

B'Elanna and Seven took the opportunity to snag one for themselves. They bit into their treats as one and hummed appreciatively. The Klingon said, seconds later, "Well, if she won't take them, I will."

"You will not eat the full platter by yourself, Epatai Torres."

"Well, I did plan on sharing."

Seven of Nine did not point out the illogic of Seven's statement. The platter would no longer be full at that point. She did, however, look at the brownie and decide that it would be rude to fail to at least take a bite.

She directed the brownie to her mouth and Laren said, "Not a nibble. A bite."

"As you wish."

She did as directed, taking a good sized bite, then paused and chewed and chewed some more. Seven of Nine looked at them in amazement. Then she said, "We will use these during the presentation."

==^==

Afterward, they parted ways and, as promised, they made sure that the suppressor was set and switched on. But even so, because Seven of Nine was aware that they were engaged in non-reproductive sexual activity, her thoughts were somewhat disturbed. Her perfect memory would contain certain images from the shuttle forever.

She knew that she felt stimulated, and also knew that there were options available. She even, for the first time, had the privacy necessary to experiment, if she cared to.

And she realized that she did.

There had been a time when she had been exploring romantic and sexual interaction in others, though not necessarily with others. She had been at a point of being open to the possibility, but circumstances did not lend themselves well to the option. The adventurous choice of research topic partially had to do with understanding B'Elanna Torres' surprising selection of dating partner and the other, as per usual, was about trying to understand the social underpinnings of her current collective.

Eventually, she determined that such interactions seemed to be superfluous, at least as far as she was concerned. No one had evidenced more than hostility. Except for two. He had died, and she was unavailable.

But, now she understood that her counterpart did not believe such interactions to be irrelevant. In fact, she deemed them most important.

Seven of Nine looked at the bed that had been provided for her by her roommates and realized that it was quite beyond design specifications. She was aware that it was also most likely to reflect a preference of her counterpart, which meant she might find it enjoyable; unlike bio-beds, which she found somewhat uncomfortable, though they were efficient.

She wondered if this bed was efficient.

The blonde leaned forward and stroked her hand over the surface of the sheets and the cover and found them pleasant to the touch. So she pulled it back to reveal the sleeping surface.

Seven of Nine paused, since she usually did not sleep, but regenerated. However, the other Seven had indicated that she used a mixture of methods to remain at her peak. Implied, though not explained in detail, was the belief in sexual self-care. The blonde smiled, remembering the brownie and decided she could trust her counterpart and her mates.

She undid her bio-suit and divested herself of her clothing and shoes, until she was naked. Then, purposefully, she slid onto the silky surface of the bed. The sensation was sensually alerting. Seven looked down at herself and realized that her nipples had hardened with anticipation. She touched one gently, curiously, and stroked it. Pleasurable phenomenon connected the dots of her need.

She had always been aware that she had a number of erogenous points. It was one of the reasons she wore the bio-suit. The suits helped to ease the constant stimulation. But now…

She brushed her fingertips gently over an implant's extrusion and felt the response curl right through her. She gasped, thinking of her counterpart, and the way her mates had lavished attention on those points. She understood such memories to be part of the process of fantasizing, which was also part of the process of self stimulation. It was, according to her studies, permissible. She did not think her counterpart or her mates would mind.

Moisture gathered and her hand drew a slow line downward, crossing her abdominal implant and lower, until her fingers were located where she recalled the alternate B'Elanna had touched the other Seven. She mimicked the movement, and suddenly understood why the other Borg woman had spread her legs so widely.

With her other hand, she touched her other implants, sparking more pleasurable sensations. As she slid on the bed, she half expected to feel waves of incredible physical bliss. But she realized that Seven must have known, must have replicated the sheets from the material that allowed her to just enjoy the feel and texture, without the constant arousal.

Consideration, again.

She felt heat rising on her skin and a kind of deep, sweet tenseness rose within her. She recognized this as another level of arousal and continued what she was doing. Her hips began to move as her fingers strummed more of that feeling into being. She decided to test the premise of fantasy and imagined, just for a moment what it would be like to have this Voyager's B'Elanna touch her in this way. She pressed in, feeling that it would be like the Klingon to want to claim her sexually, while at the same time her thumb continued to stimulate certain nerve bundles. The brief pushing brush of her fingers against the tiny implant within, combined with that moment of fantasy, sparked off a powerful wave of erotic energy that roared through the young woman and claimed her utterly.

She wept for the beauty of it and wondered that she thought for even a moment that it was irrelevant.

==^==

"This is getting ridiculous." B'Elanna exhaled in frustration.

Laren lifted her head and looked over fondly. "What is?"

"I believe, B'Elanna is having trouble with designations, since we have a number that differ only by a rank or not at all."

"No way is anyone calling me Belle."

Seven could not help it; she smirked, honestly unable to imagine using that name to address anyone else except the one-eyed Klingon General, who, in an ironic way, suited the feminine sobriquet.

"I'm not averse to letting Seven complete her assimilation of me, at least while we're here." Laren tweaked on of Seven's nipples.

"Explain."

"I will comply." Laren poked Seven. "Lt. Commander Hansen Laren, at your service."

B'Elanna laughed. "That won't work for me. We'd still have two people on the ship that could be addressed as Commander Hansen."

"Perhaps we should alternate designations." She did not wish to be addressed as Annika Hansen, but she was not averse to using the surname of one of her mates, temporarily or otherwise. Nor did she believe it was reasonable to ask Seven of Nine to alter her designation.

This time B'Elanna smirked. "Explain."

Seven allowed a smile to form, enjoying the banter, no longer feeling set apart by her speech, but loved for it. "I shall assimilate the name Torres."

"What does that leave me? Janeway, Pulaski, Troi, or Dax." B'Elanna finished enumerating the remaining choices and looked at Seven. "Do Tuvok and T'Pel have last names?"

"They do. And even if Lt. Commander Tuvok did not exist aboard this vessel, you would not be able to say it."

"Figures."

Laren was chuckling lightly. "I vote for Dax."

"I concur."

"Oh you do, do you?" B'Elanna pounced on her mates. Her solid weight landed just to the right of the Borg, putting them all on the same side of the bed.

There was a small creaking noise, and then a larger snap.

The bed broke.

==^==

The door chime to her quarters rang, and Janeway looked up, uncertain as to whether she wanted to open it, or pretend to have already retired for the night.

With a sigh, she stood up and retrieved her tunic. "Come in."

She wasn't sure why, but she was surprised when her First Officer stepped into her quarters.

"Captain."

"You used to call me Kathryn, Commander."

"You used to tell me what was going on. I guess times change."

Kathryn studied the brunette for a moment. "Have a seat, Laren. This could take a while."

==^==

"Nothing? There's nothing left?" Ro asked, her tongue thick in her mouth. She had slowly, over the last few months, gotten used to the idea that the Maquis were gone, but that the Dominion had so decisively ended the Federated Planetary Alliance was unbelievable.

"Nothing. They used a scorched earth policy. What isn't occupied is useless."

Ro Laren didn't want to be sitting, but she wasn't sure that she could take standing, not just yet. Not when there was one more question to be asked. Not when she knew what the answer would be. "Bajor?"

"I'm sorry, Laren." Janeway's tone was even, but she could see the tumultuousness in the dark grey pupils.

"The Klingon Empire too?" She couldn't seem to stop asking questions.

"Yes, along with the Romulan Oligarchy." Her voice grew quieter. "Earth too."

Ro looked up, Janeway's family had been on Earth, and an 'I'm sorry for your losses,' didn't seem to begin to cover it. Instead she reached over and squeezed Kathryn's hand.

"I'm going to tell the senior staff in the morning. We've got some decisions to make."

"Wherever you lead, I'll follow."

"And if I still want to go back?"

Laren stared hard at Janeway, trying to decipher the body language, since her expression was non-revealing. "We can't Kathryn, we can't fight a war. Not by ourselves." Then she grinned, her own expression suddenly feral. "At least not yet."





Chapter 24 | Universe Alpha, Alpha Quadrant: Bajoran Sector, B'hava'el System | Bookmarks




Terok Nor was still a busy place. Tourists now came to see where the judgment battle had occurred, to watch the wormhole open, or to see the woman who had been brought back from the wormhole. The lines to see the Kai were longer on the station. An office had been given to Opaka to help facilitate her efforts. She still roamed the station, where security gently enforced a no-bother policy. If she stopped to talk with someone, it was one thing. But if she was stopped on her way, the person or persons making the disturbance would be discouraged. The station simply could not have passages blocked by over-eager groups of people.

It was possible that Jerrod could simply have moved to the head of the line by mentioning that he was her financial advisor and flashing his credentials. However as his purpose was not business, but curiosity, he simply did not feel it was appropriate. He got in at the back of the line and waited and made plans for tomorrow for a similar effort if that was what it took.

What impressed him the most was that there was a line. After all, what did Bajor need of spiritual counseling? They were a secular world. Still, here he was, along with many others, including unexpected species such as the Klingons.

He noted the Humans among the group, quietly keeping their heads down so no one would note their visible differences. He was sure he was not the only one who spotted them. Yet, no one pushed anyone away.

They were also all oddly quiet, perhaps hoping for an oracular experience. He just wanted to see what it was like. Others, he thought, might be there to test her. He wondered how that was going.

An hour and a half later he was finally at the door. The security man pointed at the person just in front of Jerrod and spoke gruffly. "Your turn. Everyone else go home. She is done for the day."

The line began dispersing. The noise in the station increased as people who had been silent suddenly began talking to one another

"To bad, eh," the person who was behind him said and then moved on.

Jerrod considered his options and then turned away. He was a few steps away when he felt his shoulder clamped strongly. He turned to protest and saw that it was one of the guards. "You. I know you. You're her manager. You come in. Next time don't stand in line. You come to me."

"I didn't want to interrupt."

"Do you or do you not want to see the Kai?"

"I do."

"Then come."

Giving up his effort at anonymity, he followed the guard into the office space. Once inside, he was left to stand at the front of yet another door. The Bajoran who sat in a desk in front of it said, "It will be a few moments. Please sit and be comfortable. She is with someone now."

"Of course."

A few minutes passed and then the door opened. The secretary nodded. "You may go in now."

He realized then, that those whom the Kai greeted must have exited a different way. He had never seen anyone leave. Yet, they must have, unless she was keeping a secret collection.

Amused at the thought of a motley group of people stored in a cubicle, Jerrod stood up. His head filled with whimsical mysteries, he entered Kai Opaka's realm.

==^==

The room had only three soft chairs. Kai Opaka was standing in front of one, dressed in maroon and saffron robes. Her hair was unadorned, but she wore an elaborate D'jarra earring on her right ear. She bowed very slightly to him, equal to equal. "Winn Jerrod, how may I be of service?"

He supposed this was where he was supposed to ask the question in return, but what came out of his mouth was this, "My mother sends her regards. She wished me to convey that she has been…" His voice trailed at the Kai's expression, but he pressed on, "…thinking of you." He wasn't quite sure what to make of it, whether it was happy news or not to the Kai. She looked both pained and at peace about it. It was odd. "She wishes you to know that upon your next visit to Jalanda City she would be honored to have you visit with her." He brought his hands to the front and clasped them lightly in an unconscious defensive motion. "I have come here for a purpose other than business, though, if you need, we may discuss whatever issues may be on your mind."

The Kai, whose attention had seemed far away for a brief heartbeat or two, returned her focus to him. She smiled at his choice of words, finding them familiar. She indicated a chair beside her own. "Please, sit down. Tell me what you would like to discuss."

The chair was placed close, almost intimately so. He sat down, but not back, and felt slightly embarrassed about what he was about to say. "I…" He laughed a bit, then tried again. "You recall when we saw you first, that I was with my mother."

The Kai nodded. "Yes."

"Well, you touched her ear. I realize that it must seem like all anyone must want is an oracular visitation, but I was curious as to what you saw."

Kai Opaka said, "Would it help you if I explained what the Pah is?"

"What is Pah?" He looked slightly confused.

She began to explain.

Later he said, "So it is not the future that you read?"

"No, just lines of possibility and the strength of one's soul."

"Has the…" he considered the choice of his words, "…have you ever been in error?"

Now she sat back and considered. Then she responded, "I have made many mistakes in my own lifetime. But the Pah is always truthful, as it is based on that person's individual path. It may be that a person's path may change, but the Pah will provide the clue."

He nodded. "My mother wants me to take over the company some day."

It might have seemed like a diversion off topic to anyone else. But it made perfect sense to Opaka. "Is it what you want?"

"I do not know." He looked away, then back at her. "I have sometimes felt drawn to something that calls, yet does not exist. I thought, perhaps I was an adventurer."

"You tried the wormhole."

"Yes, with the same results as many, except for those who found you."

She said, "When young, there are many paths to choose from and no single path stays the same all the way through one's life. Perhaps you are meant to do both. To manage the business and yet pursue this unknown path."

"Which is why I am here. I realize now that you are not an oracle. But, would you consider, perhaps…"

She smiled gently. "I will." She scooted forward in her chair and leaned toward him, lifting her hand. She saw his nod. Then she clasped his ear.

As usual there was a thrill of energy through her palm. Her eyes were opened to seeing on another level. She noted that his energy held similar patterns to his mother's. She recognized the influence of Winn Adami right away, yet it was surprisingly gentle in impact. She looked further, following the lines and paths that made themselves available from this point.

It was intense, quick, but unlike with Adami, she let go of his ear gently. She looked at him with something that was akin to affection mixed with sorrow. "My child…," she paused as if pulling her thoughts together. "…I see three paths in sequence. The first involves a journey and at testing that will take you to your limit. The second involves choices you must make that will affect many in your care. The third is a promise of home and return, from there your path will change again and that far I can not see."

He sat back. Then he smiled ruefully. "I am not sure how much that actually helps."

She shook her head lightly, "It probably won't help until later. It is not the future I just told you."

"Just a possible path."

"Yes. You could step out that door and that whole possibility may change."

He nodded, considering. "Kai, you mentioned scriptures earlier. Were you…did you bring any with you?"

"Only what is in my memory, Jerrod."

He said, slowly, "Perhaps you ought to consider writing some of that down."

"Then how will your people be able to make your own?"

"But, Kai Opaka, you are our people too, yes? And the Prophets, they sent you. We may not need every single word of your past. But, it would be nice to have more than Ferengi philosophy to draw upon."

She blinked at him, then said, "My son, you have a great deal of wisdom for someone so young."

Neither commented on her use of the term. It just seemed natural in the conversation. He smiled at her praise.

==^==

There was a gathering of Cartels where the merits of continuing their vengeance on the House Presba were being argued by the heads of those Cartels.

"The truth is we shouldn't even be engaging them. We only got involved with House Presba because Tarn frakked it up. They should have taken the fine that was going to be handed down and moved on. The House Qualon in that Universe wasn't worth saving anyway."

"So you say, but I had business with them, legitimate. And now it's gone."

"Which brings us to opportunity. Now that the House Qualon is gone and our obligations with it, I say someone sends a peace offering and negotiates with the House Presba."

"It won't work. It's a Klingon thing."

"Nonsense. That House is composed of mostly Federation types. If we send the right someone they'll negotiate."

"The Federation hates the Orion Syndicate, legitimate business or no. We're going to have to cut our losses and just lay low awhile and hope they forget about us."

"They won't forget. Klingons remember."

"Look if we--"

"Enough! The Capels have an interest in the demise of the House Presba in both Universes. We want Voyager. Either that can be accomplished or it cannot. We have placed what we believe to be a reasonable war prize on their heads. If you want it, go after it. If not, then don't. I don't want it brought up in this meeting again."

A murmur of acknowledgement traced the room and the Cartel leaders bowed toward the head of table, where their leader sat. Her word was law, and they waited to hear what it would be.

==^==

In general it took either bravest soul or the craziest to enter into the heart of Hive Space. But there were those who found the lure of possible riches or amazing discoveries or even daring adventure impossible to resist. Some, on the other hand, just went there because they were tired of life and wanted respite. Others had different reasons.

One was never more alone than in Hive space, for no one would come to the rescue if the Hive found you in their space. The Klingon Empire defended its borders and sometimes even made incursions to claim space back, but they did not waste their efforts by conducting suicide missions.

The Orion Syndicate found this arrangement to be one with potential. It was decided by those in charge that they would make an attempt to find a livable location that wasn't too near occupied Hive Space, nor too far from it either. Colony planners would have advised against it all, if they had any say. But these Cartels hoped to establish a base of operations where they could begin building a fleet of ships and recruiting for their unintended war and there were those who believed that the Hive was just a boogeyman developed by the Klingon Empire to keep its population docile and its military strong anyway.

With those plans in mind, ships were sent out by their masters to find habitable spaces that met the requirement.

Some came back. Some did not. But the Syndicate was able to make some choices based on those who managed the feat.

No one commented or thought about the ones who did not return. Space was hazardous and the players had known the risks.

One event stood out during the search. There was a report by one of the captains of the discovery of remarkable debris of what looked like a space battle with three participants. There were no survivors to enslave and the debris of the ships with the markings of the Hive were recognizable. The other two were not. No real retrievable technology remained, but the captain brought back samples of what they could.

The Borg would have recognized the samples quite easily. That debris belonged to a Borg cube. The captain had not been able to retrieve the other samples without losing more people. Whatever it happened to be, was anathema to cellular structures.

The Cartel management determined that such material might make a useful weapon, so agents were dispatched to procure what could be gathered.

By the time those agents arrived, all evidence, aside from the decimated Hive ships, had been removed.





Chapter 25 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks





Deanna settled Voyager into orbit, and then began the task of putting as much to rights as she could. She had no idea how long it would take the Commodore to recover, but she would do her best to handle what she could, and, at the least, have a list of those things she couldn't.

"Lt. Sayr, you have the conn."

"Aye, sir."

"Anderson, please call Commanders Sofuru, Veckma, and Tucker along with Lt. Commander Troi, Lt. Kim, Lt. Carey and both Delaneys to the main conference room. Oh, and have Leah Brahms report too."

"Yes, Commander."

In less than five minutes, those summoned had reported. "As most of you are aware, there was a hostile incursion, which has since been repelled. What you may not know is that the Prime has been split. Lt. Commanders Torres and Ro, along with Seven of Nine did not make the transition to the alternate universe with us, nor are they in this one. Kim and Carey, I want a complete status report from Engineering and Operations. Jennifer, Megan, I want you on the trajectory calculations, Dr. Brahms, if you'd be so kind as to assist them?"

"Of course."

Deanna paused, and then made a decision. "If it would help to have Dr. Kahn assist, have her brought on board."

Leah nodded. "It would."

"Make it so." Deanna turned to Tucker next, "Commander Tucker, take a team to Presba, make sure that everything is secure and have all captured combatants from all battle zones confined and prepared for questioning by Truth Seekers. Lt. Commander Troi will accompany you." She really didn't want to be apart from Asil, but she needed someone she trusted absolutely on that planet. "Asil, while you're there, coordinate with the House Guard, make sure Presba is locked down, and get any personnel we left behind on board as fast as possible, but vet them first." She had already communicated more specific and private orders to her wife. In particular, a sensor net would be deployed around the planet, and Auloh would receive a personal visit from her parent.

"Aye, Commander." Tucker acknowledged the order, and then stood. As had the others before her, she left the room on being dismissed.

Asil merely nodded.

"Commanders Sofuru and Veckma, please coordinate on escort flights. Voyager is not at her best right now, and I want to take some of the burden of watching out for us off of her."

"Understood." Veckma stood and then left, and suddenly she was alone in the room, with Sofuru.

The Zakeeri regarded her with warm, knowing eyes, and she was suddenly glad for his presence. He knew and understood far more about the mating bond than she did.

"The Prime are strong, and none are alone."

"They are in such pain."

"The pain is part of the price of the joy. We Zakeeri willingly pay it, and would not wish its absence if the price would lessen the bond. It is the same with The Prime."

Deanna looked at him then, letting her own tears fall for the first-time, knowing he would not see them as weakness. "It's not just the Prime. The children were linked with Seven of Nine."

He sat back in his chair and briefly covered his face with his palm as the full import of the situation became clear. Then he uncovered his eyes. His tears added to her own, but there was strength in his next words. "We will find them."

She believed him.

==^==

The next time she awoke, the sharp pain had been replaced by the ache of absence. Ezri could feel a weight across her chest, and didn't need to open her eyes to know that Emina was lying on her, head centered, as usual, over Dax . Slowly she blinked her eyes in openness, taking time to adjust to the light. Ezri didn't have a chance to shift position or to sit up before Lwaxana was visible in her line of sight. "How long?"

"Eighteen hours."

It seemed longer.

"I need to get to the bridge." She brought herself to her feet, not letting go of Emina, and took a shaky breath. Ezri realized that the other body she had been in contact with was Kate's. T'Pel reclined next to the beautiful human, stroking her blonde hair lightly. Things seemed slightly out of focus, as though she weren't quite in phase with the people or the room they were in. It was strangely reminiscent of space sickness, and she dealt with it the same way: by pretending it wasn't happening. Later she'd find some medication or a drink.

Lwaxana studied Ezri intently, and then nodded. "Kathryn will be glad of your presence."

Still carrying Emina, Ezri stepped from the Nest into Seven of Nine's room, looking for the hip-sling she knew had to be there. She quickly located it, and then froze as her hand brushed the supple leather of the weapon harness she'd given Seven for the axe. Quickly, Ezri pulled her hand back, as though burned, and squelched the fresh round of tears that threatened to spill anew. She'd shower and change at Deanna's.

==^==

Phoebe stroked Hov gently. The puppy was still small enough to be settled in her lap and its nearly silver colored fur was incredibly soft to the touch. Hov closed its eyes contentedly. Phoebe's eyes were not closed.

She sat on a chair on one of the porches, one that gave a clear view of the night sky. Above her, somewhere, was Voyager. Her family was up there, gripped tight in the vise of grief and shared pain.

Despite their agony, she was grateful. It wasn't the agony of death, but of separation. Phoebe thought about that moment, when Asil had tested the resolve of herself and Vrald, and she had been forced to own up to the truth.

She had been glad when Asil understood, and had allowed them both to be part of the boarding party that captured the Titan.

Vrald was simply not someone whom she could do without. He was just going to have to live longer than she.

Guinan slid into a seat beside Phoebe, smiled easily. "Feeling introspective today?"

"Well, it's either redecorate or it's ponder. I thought I might go with ponder."

The El-Aurian smiled. "Our guests are completely settled now that all the excitement is over."

"Do we know what happened?"

"According to Asil, both Section 31 and the Orion Syndicate launched separate attacks, and screwed it up."

Phoebe couldn't help the laugh. "Well, things to be grateful for. So is there any plan of retaliation yet?"

"I don't know. It doesn't feel like it."

"Nothing in the wind then."

"Well, there is something, but I wanted to talk to you about it first."

There was something in her voice that caught Phoebe's attention. "What can I help you with, Guinan?"

The El-Aurian's smile deepened. "I want you to know I plan on returning home…" Phoebe's breath caught. Not at the implication that Guinan was leaving, but that the wise-woman thought of their home as her home. "…but I feel the need to go to the Alpha quadrant."

"Would you like us to arrange a ship for you?"

"Arrangements have already been made. I will be going with Dr. Crusher."

==^==

Beverly and Tasha walked arm in arm. The words had all been said, but they weren't quite ready for final farewells. Nor would either of them make any promises.

So they wandered, enjoying their remaining time together and the companionable silence while they could.

"I'm glad you came back." Beverly finally broke the silence.

"Me too."

"When the border opens?"

"I am sure my husband will be very interested in meeting Captain Picard." Tasha smiled, not saying that she too wanted to see Picard.

Beverly laughed. "Among others."

"Stay well."

"And you." Okay, so she did want one promise. "And…don't leave. Not until I have a chance to see you again."

They stopped at a flowering bush and kissed warmly. "I'll do my best, Beverly."

"I know." What she meant was, I love you.

==^==

Commander Sarah Tucker stared out of the elongated port window in the mess hall. She wasn't the only one. Others aboard the Titan had gathered silently, to bid farewell to the ship that had been home as they pulled away from Voyager and began the journey back to the Alpha quadrant.

She spent a few moments studying their companion vessels. They were Klingon ships, acting both as guard and escort. This time she appreciated how savvy Commodore Janeway had been. The Titan, she knew, would arrive exactly where it was supposed to in Alpha quadrant space. Once there the real prisoners would be exchanged, and set on their way to the penitentiary. The crew would then split up to go to their various assignments. She would head to earth, to begin the process of clawing her way to a state of Grace again.

She turned her attention away from the convoy and looked back at the silver ship, which once more orbited Presba. What she regretted most, was not that she lost her command. It was that she was leaving Voyager during a time of trouble. They needed her and she needed them. She just hadn't realized it until it was too late. "Voyager," she whispered, "I'll be back."

==^==

The mood on Voyager wasn't funereal, but neither was it festive; it was purposeful. And there were happy people on board. Two of them people had recently been reunited.

Dr. Lenara Kahn and Dr. Leah Brahms had formed a bond that was originally based on admiration for scientific process and then later on a personal admiration for each other. Both were aware of the other's quirks.

Their reunion had been abundantly tearful and joyful, interspersed with a few moments of, "From now on…" finger-waggling from Lenara. But the after the reunion part was the best. Leah had not been at the bachelor party for a reason. She had been at the resort with Lenara, spending quality time with her lover and friend.

The time together had been light and honest, the beauty of the reunion marred only by the inexplicable delay in the acceptance of Lenara's request for a transfer. But, from another point of view, it was a good thing, since it got Leah planet side for awhile.

The problems with the transfer seemed to wash away after the crisis on Presba. Dr. Lenara Kahn was invited aboard Voyager officially, both to join the problem solving and as a member of the engineering staff. Her transfer had finally been approved.

Leah had introduced her to everyone, proudly and with a great deal of affection. Then, once the introductions were in place, she had whisked Lenara away; not to bed her, since they now shared quarters and they had already indulged themselves to a wonderful satiation on Presba, but to take her to the extraordinary Astrometrics Lab, where Lenara was introduced to the new Trans-Universal Astrometrics section.

Then, with the help of the Delaney twins, Leah explained what it was exactly that they were trying to do.

The Trill managed to fake sober consideration of the matter, given that there were tragic reasons for the necessity of tracking an Astrometrics path through an unknown amount of Universes, but the honest truth was she was nearly faint with delight. This was the kind of thing that she lived for.

Leah, of course, knew how her lover felt, it was easy to take the excitement she had felt and multiply it by the new circumstances to see how excited Lenara would be. When they had a moment where the others were distracted, Leah said, "Just wait until I take you to the Long Table."

"Is that some sort of special corridor?"

"No. It's the dinner table."

==^==

The Prime and their children climbed their way past the pain, slowly. There was no true escape, but they drew comfort from one another and from their friends. Naomi was a tower of strength for the younger siblings. Tal was there for Icheb. Counselor Orsas was there for all of them.

Comfort came from the oddest places too.

"You'll find them, Kathryn," Admiral Paris had said. His eyes darkened with concern. "But I do wish you'd stop losing your mates this way. I hate seeing you like this."

Kathryn had managed a laugh, but had to choke back the tears.

They went back to their various tasks, finding some refuge in the doing. Lwaxana and T'Pel took official leave in order to take care of the children and make sure that they were available for their mates. It was a necessary choice, one based on the notion that tangible connections were what was needed.

Tuvok returned to security. There he worked closely with Asil, as she took on completing the training of those new recruits from Voyager's Rest, and with Deanna, who was settling more and more into her role as First Officer. Old crew mates from previous postings might have expressed surprise at how well Deanna had fit into her new billet. But no one on Voyager doubted her abilities; she had shown that she was more than capable.

Meanwhile, being Voyager's CO was a good fit for Ezri, she was able to lose herself in the details, picking up some of the slack Laren's absence created for Kathryn, and gathering the threads of the new entity Voyager was becoming as old crew departed and new crew arrived.

If anyone thought it strange that she was rarely seen without Emina nestled at her side, no one commented on it. And if she no longer had her hand thrust in the social pulse of the ship, they understood that too.

Megan and Jennifer Delaney kept their worry to themselves, though they missed their friend and were concerned with the changes they saw. Silently, they took turns monitoring her late night haunting of Voyager's corridors, ready to assist if needed, but careful not to intrude.

No one said anything, but all efforts were turned outward toward finding those who were lost.





Chapter 26 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant: FSS Voyager | Bookmarks




Seven of Nine stood, hands clasped behind her back, ocular implant raised, head tilted slightly, examining the varied packages that had been placed on, and next to, the small table adjacent to her replicator.

The replicator was locked with Borg ciphers along with a second, unfamiliar encryption, which doubtlessly, she could have overcome in a few hours. However, she did not have a few hours. Her presence was required at the senior staff meeting.

Seven of Nine tried again, then cocked her head in puzzlement. The replicator was functioning. It would produce a variety of items, it would not, however, produce any of her bio-suits, or even her velocity outfit.

"This is unacceptable." She lifted her left arm, her assimilation tubules already snaking out, and then stopped. The top package was labeled, 'To Seven of Nine, From Epatai Troi and Family'.

Curious, she picked up the package, and carefully slit the wrapping paper. It was a long rectangular box and she removed the lid. Inside was a knife. She searched through her memory until she found the designation for the item. It was a Qis. Next to it lay a folded slip of paper and she opened it up.

Hey Seven,

My Be'nal figures this other stuff might help discourage (her word, not mine) the jerks (I'm paraphrasing here) on this ship. I think this will be more effective. Qapla.

B'Elanna

p.s. Laren agrees with me, but don't tell Seven.

Now eager and even more curious, she began to open the other packages, no longer caring if the covering paper remained intact, and so entranced that she failed to notice when she had migrated to sitting on the floor.

The item that intrigued her most was obviously modeled on a Starfleet uniform, but had clearly been designed for greater efficiency, as well as her specialized requirements. The blue shirt felt pleasant against her arms and settled nicely over her skin. Speedily fastening its catches, she then donned the black sleeveless vest, noting with interest that each lapel of the half collar was decorated with the logo of the Science Division.

Standing, she put on the matching black pants, pleased by the feel of the material as she pulled up them past the implant that spiraled around her leg and foot. They rested comfortably on her hips, and she fastened them with satisfaction.

Seven selected a pair of shoes from the collection that had been provided, all of which appeared to be regulation. With some amusement, she hesitated over the box marked, 'barefoot', and wondered for an instant if that had also been a contribution of B'Elanna's, but put on the shoes she'd originally chosen.

With the small smile still on her lips, she attached the Qis, in its sheath, to the clips on her pants.

==^==

They awoke and, somewhat unusually, but in the interest of actually leaving their quarters, utilized the refresher in turns. Seven used it last.

"She's taking a little longer than normal."

B'Elanna straightened her jacket and felt along their family line. "Well, whatever she's doing, she's very focused at the moment."

A few minutes later they found out why.

Their mate strode into their room with complete confidence, as usual. But that did not mean that her entrance was without effect on them.

Laren was the first to react. She stepped close and touched the shortened locks. Then she smiled. "Blue suits you."

==^==

There were mixed reactions to Seven of Nine's new attire, in the sense that some were nonverbal, while others were definitely verbal. As she walked down the hallway she observed that, as usual, people were aware of her presence. And, as usual, there were comments.

The divergence was that it seemed the comments were directed at her, and most were complimentary. A few lamented the loss of the view.

She logged the feedback, along with the visual cues and the social indicators, for later review and simply nodded her acceptance of the compliments. She was not sure how otherwise to reply.

The Captain, while not verbally complimentary, did appear receptive to the change and offered unnecessary refreshment, a social gesture that had been absent in their interactions for some time.

Then the arrival of her roommates provided an additional opportunity to observe different responses. She knew the Captain could not be surprised by the outfits since she too had observed them during review of the shuttle records. However, the responses of the others ranged between surprise and cautious approval.

She noted that the other women also wore weaponry, some of it more visible than others. The staff responded on several levels to the display, from astonished vigilance to disapproval. Tuvok did not so much as raise a brow. He was unmoved one way or the other. A response she interpreted as approval.

She saved her queries for later and the Captain called for the meeting to come to order and began to tell them why they were gathered.

==^==

The senior officers were stunned. Shocked silence filled the conference room. The Captain continued. "Commander Ro and I have been discussing our alternatives. We believe that we will probably need to consider colonization as an option. Seven of Nine..." Captain Janeway directed her glance at the blonde, "... will you begin the process of finding habitable systems?"

The Borg nodded. Before she could reply verbally, the Captain continued.

"There are other options. We can try to join a compatible civilization. We can continue on, but if we do, we will have to try to find planets that have not been previously occupied for settlement and we will have to consider what we will do as far as resistance or non-resistance to the Dominion."

Seven listened to the whole discussion and finally decided that neither her mates nor her counterpart would mind her usurping their presentation. "There is an alternative."

"What would that be?"

"Come home with us."

==^==

The explanation was brief, but the arguments both for and against took some time. House Presba reassured the crew that their Universe was incredibly similar to Universe Gamma, with the distinct difference being that Universe Alpha was still engaging the Dominion in battle.

"Then they haven't enacted the scorched earth policy?"

"Nor has our side been allowed to enact such a policy in return. The battle is being fought, as the Klingons would say, with honor. But it is still a war. There are losses on both sides."

Lt. Commander Hansen Laren added, "The problem, however, is that, from a certain perspective, the Dominion's manpower is a renewable resource. They grow them faster and stronger than we can. The Federation, Klingon Empire and Romulan Star Empire are struggling."

"So we could go back only to find out that it has happened in your Universe."

The mates looked at each other and Seven Torres answered. "It is possible, but highly unlikely. The Dominion has been successfully blockaded at Bajor."

"I believe that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages," Tuvok opined.

Then the other staff began adding their opinions.

In the end the Captain said, "I will be the one to make the final decision. Thank you everyone for your input. I will let you know. You are excused. Commander Ro, you're with me.

==^==

The building of the Trans-Universal Engine would take two weeks, the integration of the unit would take at least another two weeks, and the testing of the unit would take two to four additional weeks as they worked out the bugs. Astrometrics and a lab adjacent to main engineering immediately became a sudden hotbed of activity as the process of planning and beginning implementation was begun. Some of the raw materials would need to be sought out before the components could be created. Voyager in this Universe had not recently had an opportunity to restore stocks. Nor did they have an official supply officer whose job it was to specifically acquire such materials. Neelix was, as in their universe, the jack of all trades.

Hansen Laren quietly added two potential candidates to her assistants' roster. Then she began interviewing. The first person she snagged was Ensign Celes Tal.

The Bajoran was shocked. "Me. Really? Wait. You aren't from this ship, so I think it's only fair to warn you…"

Laren raised her hand. "Tal, you are exactly who we need. You are conscientious, capable and you won't be required to do too many calculations. You will make a great assistant to the Captain."

Tal was shocked. Commander Hansen had used her correct name. The error had occurred so long ago with her first professor who could never get it right and then, somehow it moved to the Federation Database. But Commander Hansen knew, somehow. Which, meant… Her expression turned hopeful.

Laren smiled. "Welcome to the team."

The other interviews went equally, though oddly well. This time she even included Naomi Wildman in the process. In a few hours, Laren had a solid team. From there it was a matter of organizing them into an effective force. Janeway would wonder how she ever lived without them.

==^==

Captain Kathryn Janeway paused when she saw the second desk that had been discreetly added to the side of the ready room. She noted that the casual discussion area remained and the positioning of the desk insured that she would be able to get the other person's attention as immediately as needed. It also was not, as she feared might be the case, going to act as an unofficial blockade to the space. A retracting partition had also been set up to allow for privacy when needed.

A cup of coffee, with heat vapor wafting from it, sat waiting on her desk, along with several PADDs. She picked one up, blinked and then looked at it again. Several paperwork items had been completed and were awaiting her signature. She grabbed the coffee and sipped it while she took a moment to go through all of the PADDs. Each one contained unique, complete information. Paperwork that had been languishing for months was finished.

Oddly, she found comfort in the completion. There might not be a Federation to return to, but paperwork formed a kind of anchor and its own kind of notation on history. She began the process of signing.

As she did, Commander Ro entered with Ensign Anderson following closely behind, obviously finishing up notes from a conversation. "Captain, Lt. Commander Hansen has asked for a portion of cargo bay two to be re-assigned as storage for materials that will be garnered from negotiations with the Quana. I have approved an away mission for the new Supply and Procurement Officer and his department.

"Supply and Procurement?"

"Ensign Tom Paris has been assigned the position."

"Tom? He's agreed?" Kathryn couldn't quite believe it.

"I don't know how she did it. But Hansen convinced him to take the position and I authorized it."

"If it works, it's a damn sight better than what he has been doing." Tom had retired from navigation and had all but given up on participating in life aboard Voyager. Grief had waylaid him hard and he had never quite recovered. He had taken on maintenance duties, finding the distance from everyone there to be exactly what he wanted.

"I agree. Hansen also told me that she would personally see to it that if he failed to perform to her expectations she would handle it in such a way as he would wish he was breathing vacuum instead."

"Oh my." Somehow, knowing Commander Ro, Captain Janeway suspected that Lt. Commander Hansen would follow through on the threat.

==^==

B'Elanna Torres was the first one to fling a wrench. Fortunately it was away from people. The heavy object clanged against the wall.

"Is there a problem?"

The frustration in her voice was a near snarl. "The coupling won't couple."

Her counterpart stopped what she was doing and stepped around and then examined the piece. "Hm. Looks faulty. We'll replace it."

B'Elanna's hands raised in frustration. She looked at the pile of couplings, also bad, at her feet. "How can you be so calm?"

"Well, I have two Vulcans as mates. It was bound to rub off. But the real reason is that I have been where you are, and Tom is off on a procurement run with some rather specific instructions. We'll have what we need. It's just a matter of time."

Lt. Torres stared at the other woman. She hadn't quite heard the finish of the reply. Her voice was somewhat shocked, as she asked. "How many mates do you have, Troi?"

B'Elanna, who had taken the name Troi to avoid changing her initials, was aware of other curious listeners in the lab. She smiled and lifted her hands, with the thumbs folded in. "Eight. So that makes nine of us total." While the other woman was spluttering, she searched through a box of couplings and found one that did not look too bad. She handed it to the still goggling woman. "Here you go."

"How do you...? How do you manage them all?" She rushed through the words the second time, and managed to get the question out.

"Manage them? Do you think I'm insane? I let the Mistress of the House do it."

B'Elanna glanced at the coupling and lifted it, suddenly interested in the condition of the object. Then she had to ask, she couldn't not know. "Okay. I'll bite. Who is the Mistress of your House? But what I really wanted to know was about the uh…" Now she realized how bad it was going to sound.

Her counterpart grinned. "Lady Seven is the Mistress of House Presba. And, again, I don't try to manage anything except my engines and crew."

"She handles…uh..." Now B'Elanna Torres made a kind of waving motion, coupling in hand. "…that detail too?"

"What? No. Well sometimes. But mostly we just know. And we handle our own details. Somehow it all works out."

"Really?"

Troi turned back to the bones of the engine. "Really."

"Okay, you know. You can't just leave it like that."

Now the other woman grinned and stuck her head through one of the many openings and said. "You just gotta know the juicy details. Don't you, Torres?"

"Kahless, yes. I'm dying here. Tell me. Besides, I figure we're going to be spending a lot of time together and we have plenty of it. Might as well tell our stories."

"Fair enough. I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours. But it has to be full disclosure, no matter who is in the audience."

B'Elanna looked at the other engineers who were trying to act as if they weren't listening, but were obviously engaged in the interaction. Then she agreed. Engineers needed something to pass the time. "Agreed."

"Where do you want me to start?"

"How did it begin?"

"Like you, our ship had been dragged into the Delta quadrant by the Caretaker's Array. Ro and Chakotay's ship…"

==^==

With the Captain's approval, Hansen Laren took advantage of the fact that Neelix was on the away mission to make a few changes to the mess hall with the help of Commander Ro, Seven of Nine and Lady Seven. Laren justified the request by pointing out that it would improve morale, which would increase efficiency on the project in the long run.

Seven Torres agreed. "We will be able to conduct adequate planning while engaged in the update."

They first attacked the flow-through of the mess hall, which had been designed for those who use replicators, not for those who had to stand in line to get a meal. Now it was accessible for both purposes, and the kitchen was expanded to make room for the new staffing. Neelix would still be nominally in charge, but his position as Morale officer was made official, to be confirmed upon his return, and he would get his own office. One thing Hansen Laren had learned to do while being Crewman Ba was utilize the spaces that might not be considered otherwise. Meanwhile, there would be another small organizational shift. She showed Commander Ro a short list of people who could actually cook.

After their first encounter, Lt. Commander Hansen and Commander Ro had fallen on professionalism to get them through the awkward initial phase of their points of connection. However, working with the two Sevens did not allow for a long bout of non-communication. Seven Torres, who was now used to leading conversations, in her own inimitable style, simply began to talk and Laren, who was used to hiding nothing from her mate, responded. The rewards made it worth it. It was nice to be able to simply kiss her mate on passing, or be kissed in turn.

"I'm curious about something. Other than the hair, how do you know it's her? I mean its not like you and me. Those two look virtually identical, but you haven't once missed a beat."

Laren glanced at the two Sevens and then at the other Bajoran. "What? You can't see the difference? My Seven is at least two feet taller."

"Laren. We are exactly the same height." Seven Torres corrected her mate, though she knew Laren was joking.

The Bajoran laughed. "Actually, it's the bond."

"The bond?"

"We have an empathic connection. What do you really want to know, Ro Laren?"

There was silence from the other woman. Then she said, "I guess I want to know what our differences are."

"Well, unlike you, I spent six years of my time on Voyager, as my alter ego, Crewman Ba, working in maintenance swabbing out conduits."

Commander Ro, who was crouched down over an open panel, said, "Maybe you better start from the beginning."

Laren paused, and then said, "Chakotay was determined to save me from myself…"

==^==

Kathryn Janeway stepped into the mess hall and stopped. The first thing she noticed was the smell. It was glorious. She took another deep inhalation, and then stepped further into the room, which she noticed was surprisingly crowded.

She took another sniff and realized it wasn't so surprising. In fact, one could say it was outright logical. She spotted Tuvok, who was sitting with both Sevens and engaged in what must be a very rational discourse. But for all that, she thought he looked much less pained than usual as he partook of his soup. Not that an average observer would have noticed, but she and Tuvok had been friends for a very long time.

The thought, and the presence of Seven Torres, led her to remember that in another universe, she and Tuvok were married. It boggled her mind. She knew that there was a story behind it. And she realized she now had a perfect opportunity to find out more details. No one was going to tell the Captain she could not sit with them.

With that idea in mind Kathryn stepped into the line. The person in front of her turned to greet whoever was in the back, then noticed it was the Captain. "Please, you first."

Kathryn smiled with some amusement, but decided to exercise her prerogative. The next person turned to see what the small exchange was about. Their eyes opened wide and then they too stepped out of the way. "Captain."

From there, it was but a few more moments and Kathryn was at the front of the line. She looked at the offerings as she picked up the tray. Then she pointed. "I think, today, I'll start with the dessert."

==^==

"May I join you?"

Seven Torres turned toward her, smiled warmly and with pleasure. It about took Kathryn Janeway's breath away. "Please do, Captain." Seven then stood up and held the chair for her. Kathryn set her tray on the available space and then sat down, accepting the courtesy. Seven Torres then retook her own seat.

"We were discussing inter-dimensional physics, Captain. Would you care to continue that topic, or did you have another topic in mind," Seven Torres commented.

Kathryn glanced at her dining companions and then chuckled. "Well, I admit I did have an ulterior motive for sitting with you and it wasn't to discuss physics. I hope you don't mind if commandeer your conversation."

Tuvok replied, "Not at all Captain."

She smiled at her friend, and then said, as she picked up one of two brownies, "I know you've probably spoken with Seven of Nine about this topic, but I am curious. B'Elanna Troi gave me a very brief rundown on the events that led you to form a mated union. I'd love to hear your perspective on it." She took a bite. Then closed her eyes and hummed.

When she opened her eyes again, prepared to speak on the wonders of the taste of the brownie, she was caught by the quiet devastation in Lady Seven Torres' expression. The Borg woman looked down at her own plate and picked up her fork. Kathryn reached forward, and touched the other woman's hand. "I'm sorry. Perhaps…"

"Kathryn… may I call you Kathryn?"

The Captain hesitated then said, "Yes. You may, when not on duty."

"Thank you." Seven Torres returned her attention to the Captain. Her expression, though more neutral than it had been mere seconds ago, was not as completely closed off as Kathryn had feared it might become. The Mistress of House Presba said, "It began when we were being attacked by the Zakeeri."

==^==

It was a completely fascinating story, mesmerizing. Kathryn ate as if she were watching a holo-vid, interrupting only for clarification. She noticed that Seven of Nine interrupted for similar reasons, while Tuvok never did. He would only occasionally nod his head, or raise his brows.

She was not unaware of the audience that had formed on the periphery, but as long as no one else hopped in to change the direction of the story, she wasn't going to tell them to go away. It would, the Captain considered, pave the way for better understanding of their guests and their motivations. And, perhaps, it might provide more understanding for Seven of Nine in the process. Out of the corner of her eye, she took a look at her own Seven, studying the blonde to see how she seemed to be handling the information, and was pleased to see that the Borg appeared to be at ease.

Lady Seven, Kathryn decided, was a more than adequate story teller and she wondered where the woman had picked up the skill. On the other hand, there was much to tell and the time got away from many of them.

It was close to the chime for the start of Gamma shift when the Captain interrupted. "Wait a minute. Wait a minute. My mother is mated with B'Elanna's?"

Seven did not comment on the shorthanded way of asking the question. She knew that Kathryn was aware that Gretchen was an alternate. "Yes. They are currently in Universe Beta, and are acting as a judiciary team. Their actions have been pivotal in creating a more positive environment for Humans and other displaced species, as well as encouraging honesty in the judicial system."

"That's…" Actually, Kathryn decided she really didn't have the words. But she did have a question. "That's illuminating. You mentioned, during your presentation of trans-universal theory, that in order to move to a specific point in a universe we would need first need exit the universe and enter a new one and then re-enter at the desired point."

"That is correct, with the TUE we can go straight from this Delta quadrant to the alpha-Universe Alpha or Beta quadrants, but we cannot move between points in the same universe, that must be done with standard propulsion technology. The TUE essentially creates folds that enable exiting and entering at desired points. It is similar to how folding a two dimensional object into a three dimensional one, allows a point on the two dimensional object to be translated a short distance on the three dimensional object, but to have traversed a great distance on the two dimensional one."

Kathryn blinked, then thought about it. Mentally, she envisioned an ant at one end of a strip of paper, then folding the paper into a ring. With a couple of steps the ant would, in effect, be at the other end of the strip of paper when it was laid flat again. Her mathematics was a bit rusty, but she could see how that theory would scale. She had a more important question. "So we could also visit the beta-Universe, entering their Beta quadrant and then transition to the alpha-Universe and enter the Alpha quadrant there?"

"We could. Yes." Seven Torres nodded, and made note that this universes' Kathryn Janeway was equally scientifically inclined.

Captain Janeway looked thoughtful and then the chime for shift change rang. She looked at her long empty plate and cup and smiled. "Well, that is my cue. I have a busy day tomorrow. As do you. Thank you, Lady Seven."

"You are very welcome, Kathryn."

==^==

There were no counselors on board the ship. No one had stepped in to fill the gap, though there were occasions when the Doctor or Security had to manage. The news of the Federation's demise hit the crew hard, but it was somewhat ameliorated by the hope of crossing over to a compatible universe where they could integrate with cultures that were already somewhat known. Yet, at the same time, it did not change that there were losses.

Some handled it better than others, because they had already been lost in the Delta quadrant and had accustomed themselves to the idea that a return would be long term journey. But even then, they had hope of something to return to. Family, friends. Loved ones. That hope was now dashed.

Those that could, set aside their woe and worked more fiercely towards the future. Those that could not, suffered.

The Doctor did what he could to help, offering consolation and what guidance he could. He did his best. Grief was something with which he actually had great familiarity.

The next patient arrived, crying, and he turned to greet her.

==^==

Lady Seven made her way back to her quarters, anticipating the opportunity to spend time with her mates. Seven of Nine had some other business to attend to for the moment, but would be following soon after. They had agreed that at some point they might choose a Gamma shift as an opportune time to use the alcove and test out the results of the activity.

Tonight, however, it was unlikely to happen.

The majority of the ship's population was, by Gamma shift, either in bed or preparing for it. Ship time on Voyager used a three shift rotation each of ten hours. Most individuals worked a full ten hours, either during the day on Alpha shift, or the Beta swing shift. Gamma was the night shift, which meant that the corridors were much less populated.

Because it was ship's night, the corridors were set at three-quarters light. The purpose was that it saved on ship's energy. The psychological reason was that there were those who simply slept better because of the settings.

There were also those who found the setting enjoyable for walking in, letting it serve as a differentiation between night and day.

Some used it as cover.

Seven spotted the individual before he saw her. He was waiting by the cargo bay door, his expression determined and somewhat unpleasant. She registered several biological signals that warned her that his presence might constitute a security threat.

As he had not seen her and was still at some distance, she tapped her communicator and addressed the signal to one of her mates and then spoke in Presban at their response. She then continued walking as if nothing unusual had just taken place.

He eventually spotted her. The ensign raised his hand, pointing, and snarled. "You. It's your fault."

She tried logic. "If you have a complaint about something you believe I have--"

Logic was wasted on him. Her lunged at her and was suddenly choked off by the woman grappling him from behind. She brought him to as standstill.

"Now," whispered B'Elanna, "You were not seriously attempting to accost my mate, were you?" She wrenched his arm up and he gasped in pain. She continued. "I am going to call Tuvok and he is going to take you away so you can grieve at home for whatever it is you think you lost. I am, however, only going to warn you once. You come near me, my mates or Seven of Nine aggressively again, I will make you regret it." She growled in his ear. "Believe it."

==^==

Tuvok's security team led the man away to spend some cooling down time in the brig. The Vulcan remained behind. "Your handling of the situation was effective and non-violent. Thank you, Lt. Commander Troi."

"Well, it helped that I was able to threaten violence, Lt. Commander Tuvok. I have a feeling, though, that he may not be the only undirected soul who misses their visitation times with Seven of Nine."

Tuvok nodded an acknowledgment. "I will ensure that there is a security alert system in place. Is there any other way I may be of assistance?"

"If I told you what that brings to mind, it would make you blush. You bear a striking resemblance to our husband." B'Elanna raised her hand and her fingertips were met by Seven's.

This time Tuvok's brow did rise.





Chapter 27 | Alternate Universe, Alpha Quadrant: Cardassian System | Bookmarks




It had not been a pleasant few weeks for Yun Capel. His reputation had taken a great hit with his capture by the Presbans, and had gotten worse with the failure to properly disrupt the trial on Terok Nor. His eventual rescue and return home aside, it had not been a happy experience. At the last meeting of the cartel leaders, his fall from grace was such that he had been forced to remain silent while the Doamnă had spoken on behalf of the Capels.

Like other species, the Cardassians had more than one type of familial leadership; most followed a patriarchal model, some a matriarchal one. His family, for instance, boasted the nominal leadership of a male, for the sake of appearances, but was actually run by the female.

He still bore the marks of punishment under his clothes. His father had administered them himself, which did not bode well at all for the state of mind of his mother. Yun dreaded what that might mean, but had determined early on that as a son of his family line, he would face whatever came his way with a measure of bravery. Thus, when he was summoned to the great table to relay the details, and account for his actions, he committed to doing so with as much dignity as he could muster, even if his mantle showed the white of fear on his forehead.

The hall of his family was dark with age, lit by the bioluminescent bulbs that had been grown for such purposes an eternity ago. He wondered if some of those ancient life forms had achieved sentience, because they seemed to flicker in sympathy at his passing. Certainly they had seen him rise from babe to adulthood. It was not beyond possibility.

It was also a way of distracting himself as he walked toward the table, where the tall backed chairs hid their occupants from view. The only one he could see clearly at this point was the empty chair, his, which was lit with a brighter light than the others.

Yun gulped and almost wished that he had been allowed to simply go to trial and die. That was not to be, however. He had his duty and he would perform it.

He stepped forward into the brightness.

His mother began speaking while his eyes adjusted. "My son, you honor us with your presence."

"It is my honor, Mother, to be here."

"It is good to know your priorities are correct. Sit. Be comfortable."

Yun did as directed, the fuzz of the light and shadow began to take coherent pattern. "Thank you, Mother."

"Now, my son, before you begin your report, I have news to share with you. Your Uncle Shar has married."

Yun began frantically scraping his memory and came up with a vague image of a slightly overweight man, always smiling and barely interested in the family's business. The last time he had seen Uncle Shar, the man had been traveling as a food critic. Yun had thought that his uncle was surely dead, given the advent of the war. Food critics were not exactly in high demand during a war.

Yun managed a polite, "Oh." He was focusing better and could make out the features of his mother. Now that he knew who he was looking at, he attempted a smile for her sake. "I will be sure to congratulate him."

"I am sure that his wife will accept your offering on his behalf."

"Wife?" The word trailed, even as she lifted her hand and directed his attention to a seat by her left. The Cardassian felt his skin flush coldly and he turned even whiter. His uncle had married the Doamnă.

The woman in the chair gave him a crooked smile and lazily lifted a glass of something amber to her lips. Then she said, "Just call me, Aunt Kathy."

==^==


They kissed each other in passing, a light buss on the cheek rather than on the lips. Shar's skin was cooler than hers, but his body was actually quite comfortable to lean against at night. She had gotten used to it.

Shar bid her farewell, before heading out on another small, personal junket. He was trying to find the places that, to him, made life livable. She couldn't begrudge him that.

Besides, it kept him out of her hair, short as it was. It was cut close to the scalp, which made it easy and quick to care for. She didn't even really have to brush it, but did, just for form's sake. The cut lengthened her face, and highlighted the scarring, but she remained recognizable. She was getting used to that too.

Shar, however, did not seem to worry about what she looked like or how she spent her time. He only cared that she was happy. She was forced to conclude that the man might actually love her. He was a true oddity among Cardassians, a throwback to kinder, gentler times.

It was a shame that she could not return his feelings, though she did try to at least be sensitive to him. She had taken vows, after all, and she was a woman who did respect the power of keeping one's word.

Perhaps that was the reason she had been enfolded so quickly into the Capel clan, despite her Humanity, and her origins. Of course, she had also laid the ground work, proven that she could do what it took to be one of their number. It served her purpose for the moment to join them. They did not need to know the reason, only that she would do what she said she would do. It was enough, it seemed. She was slowly, but surely earning their trust.

==^==


"It won't happen again, Doamnă Red, I swear." The Orion had been caught embezzling from the Syndicate's coffers, despite the fact that he was amply paid. He suffered from gambler's illness.

Shar Capel's wife was not appeased. She hated the nickname Red. But apparently she was going to have to live with that too. She stared implacably at the man, who would have been intimidating to any one else. Her mind was racing, considering her options, and she realized she only had one. He had already had his second chance. Finally, she said, "You are right, it won't."

She nodded to the people who flanked the captive. "Get him out of my sight."

No particular order had been given, but then there didn't need to be. In some ways that made it easier. In others, well, what was one more life? The blood of so many, so much more precious than that Orion's would ever be, was on her hands.

Unbidden, her mind called up a flash of gold and silk, a breathy kiss and the surprisingly tender touch of another woman. She tried to cast the thought out, which caused her expression to tighten fiercely. The expression caused those looking to quail, but the thought did not abandon its track.

Images of a tall, buxom blonde poked at her, flayed her. Of course, it had not just been her wife who had lost her life that fateful day, but it was the sharpest cut. She let the memory of Annika's death burn a little deeper, taking more of her heart with it, and used it to harden her resolve.

After indulging in the flash of memory, she cast it out, like she cast out the Orion. She had other things to do now.

==^==

It took awhile to piece together what happened during the thwarted attack on the Presbans. Red had poured over the reports, making notations throughout the files. Shar had observed her sitting in their front room, thoroughly occupied. He had brought her dinner, something to drink and then when the hour for sleep came, he had brought dessert and a kiss on the forehead. "Don't stay up too long. Those files will still be there tomorrow."

She looked up at him, surprised. His gaze held understanding and a softness. His smile held a quirk of something mischievous and knowing. "I have lived a very long time with my family. They can call upon all of your energy if you let them. You are a woman of great intellect and capacity. They will consume you if you are not careful."

"And I should be careful?"

"Outside of our home, yes. Inside? This is our home. It is sacrosanct. Nothing that is yours will be touched without your permission."

She inhaled at the depth of the promise and lifted her hand to his face. "I'll be in soon."

He nodded, accepting. Then with another tender touch, he exited and left her to her work.

She looked back down at the datatablet in her hand and continued reading. Then she stopped and tapped her chin with a forefinger. "I think, Red, that it is time to make a war plan."




Chapter 28 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant: Presban System | Bookmarks




Voyager did not land on Presba again. She refused to give up her maneuverability advantage in space while there was even a chance that their enemies might dare another attack. Now that the border between Federation and Klingon space was, at least symbolically, once more open, the plans for picking up newly assigned crew and their families were adjusted accordingly. They would come to her while the repairs to her body were made.

She helped the scientists and Astrometrics officers ascertain possible directions of travel for the shuttle, analyzing and accessing all the data her sensors had recorded automatically. What they all wished now, was that they had a concrete means of determining a trail. Instead, all they had were crumbs, in the form of the engine signal from the shuttle, some evidence of variant shifts that allowed for some statistical analysis and a few other signs.

It would be, Voyager supposed, like tracking a particularly elusive wild beast. Doable, but only if one did not lose the trail. And the trail was so light to begin with that she held a touch of fear in her warp core.

The fear motivated her to do more.

It was her mate who stayed strong and logical, and Voyager leaned on that wisdom. Stinging Sparrow pointed out that it was likely, if they survived, that the missing members of Prime would build a TUE. There were two absolutely known Universal Variants, which could now be thought of as constants, that they could travel to and know that they would be found. It was only a matter of time.

But, as Voyager watched her Prime adjust around the new wound, she knew that the ability to shorten that time would make all the difference for herself and the mates.

Then there was the guilt and the grief, which was like a crushing weight. She was aware it was hindering her usual interaction with the crew, but did not know how to overcome it.

==^==

Deanna woke up, knew that her mate was aware of her wakening, and soothed that knowledge with a brief kiss before she got out of bed. She spent some time in the refresher and, when she came out, had a robe on. She was slightly more awake than she wanted to be at this time of the morning, but the emotional resonances hammering at her psyche prevented her from a sound rest.

It was not an unusual sensation; it was just that it was odd that much of the emotion was coming from the ship herself. It reminded Deanna just how very different Voyager was from the average Starfleet vessel.

The Betazoid replicated a cup of cocoa. She took it and sat down on the long settee that had migrated from the living room to the window. Sipping the hot drink, Deanna allowed the warmth of it to ground her contemplation and let the emotions surrounding her wash gently over her mind. Sometimes, to deal with the emotions that weren't hers, she had to distinguish them from herself. It was a trick she learned while counseling and with training. She meditated while she drank, closing her eyes to the solid physical images in order to absorb and process the emotional ones.

She spent twenty minutes, parsing each thread until it was all finally unraveled and she knew what parts were herself and what parts were others.

Deanna opened her eyes, took a breath, and then tapped her communicator. "Voyager, do you have a moment?"

"Yes, Deanna?"

"Would you mind playing a small game with me?"

"It would be my pleasure. What game would you like me to set up?"

"Actually, it's not that kind of a game. It's more of a…counseling game."

"Oh."

"It's called, 'What if I was blameless?" Are you ready to play?"

"Deanna."

"You already consented."

There was a pause. Then Voyager responded. "I did, didn't I?"

"Yes."

"Tell me how the game is played?"

"It starts with the question."

Voyager said, gently and probing. "If I play it, daughter, will you play it too?"

Deanna was a bit thunderstruck. Then she nodded her head. "I will."

"You first then."

"What if I was blameless? I would recognize the fact that I was defending my friend." Even as she spoke, Deanna realized the truth that Voyager had seen; she had yet to internalize her own acceptance of her actions on the Titan.

"What if I was blameless? I would recognize that we were under attack and my processors were occupied."

"What if I was blameless? I would recognize that…"

==^==

Kate returned to work, which acted as a balm of sorts. The true comfort lay in her connection with her mates, and that was what kept her from retreating into drink the way she would have in the past. She couldn't help but to think that this was definitely worse than the Kal'Hyah and that she was glad that they had gone through it. She had learned during those four long days to rely fearlessly on her mates. It was their strength she drew on to bolster herself into functioning. It was their courage that upheld her own.

Dr. Dezhe prescribed half-days during the first week for her, and followed that prescription up with a threat to remove her from duty if she was ignored. The Klingon knew things were bad when Kate didn't offer any argument. On the other hand, she knew Kate was handling it, when she observed that the other woman with her patients. Her boss remained kind in bedside manner, but brusque in daily dealings.

Kate, meanwhile, recognized she would probably have done the same thing, and truthfully, in hindsight, she realized that, as soon as she came aboard, she should have enforced such a rule on the mates while they recovered from the loss of Lwaxana and T'Pel that first time. Now though, they had learned to adapt to living with grief and they carried her with them. At moments when she felt faint with the loss, all she had to do was reach and they were there.

The half-days made a difference. She spent time with the children, recognized that new a bonding was taking place and, despite the grief in them, she knew it was a good thing.

A very important conversation occurred during that terrible time. It took place between herself, Lwaxana and Mezoti. The Sochling expressed, finally, what had been rending the children inside. It was the usual. Guilt. Mezoti said, "It is our fault. If we had not--"

Lwaxana drew the young girl to her and looked at Kate. Then at the Borg child. "Mezoti, did you hire the mercenaries?"

The girl looked at her Betazoid mother and said, "No."

"Did you order the Orion Syndicate to attack Presba?"

Again she had to answer, "No."

"Is there evidence that Seven, B'Elanna, and Laren are alive?"

"Yes."

"Then let go of the guilt, my child. And tell your siblings to do the same. You were not the cause, nor the agent. Nor was anything that you did the cause or the agent of this grief. This time is only change which we go through, and soon we will all be reunited with those we love." She lifted the child's head to look directly into her eyes. Then she said, "Comply, my young Mezoti."

The girl's vocalization was tiny. "I will comply."

Lwaxana kissed the top of Mezoti's head and she and Kate hugged her between them, until the tears were finally gone.

==^==

Ezri thought, perhaps, if she kept some distance, worked away from them, she might spare them and hence, spare herself. Another lifetime, bare weeks ago, and she would have pushed herself farther away, perhaps right into fleeing from Voyager. But she didn't have the strength and couldn't live without them. They were a stinging solace, wounding and healing at the same time.

Emina wasn't the only one holding to Dax. Ezri found herself clinging to the being inside her like a life raft. She drifted, like a survivor at sea trying not to drown. Her Dax selves rose to the surface, the constant flood of memories and lives walked her through the day, speaking to her.

==^==

Deanna wasn't sure what alerted to her to go to the holodeck, other than a vague sense that something wasn't right, and that another thread was unraveling. She stepped through the doors, surprised to see that the majority of the large space was simply the normal grid. A haunting melody filled the room, and at a piano sat Ezri.

She walked toward the Trill, trying to put her finger on what was disturbing. The first thing she noticed was the absence of any of the Hansen children. It was the first time she'd seen Ezri without at least Emina or Azan, and the sling she used to hold the toddler to her hip was lying discarded on the floor. Deanna looked closer at her friend. Ezri's skin had taken on a pallor, and her spots seemed like angry stains instead of the normally elegant adornments. Her hair was still blue, and while not unkempt, was not in its accustomed style either.

The melody changed and Deanna listened to the haunting sub-harmonies, not recognizing the piece, but appreciating its complexity.

"Emina napping?" She could feel the unfocused rage washing outward from Ezri, and it seemed like a safe opening.

"The child is with its parents." The words were flat, their cadence unfamiliar.

Deanna stopped, if nothing else had alerted her to the fundamental wrongness in her friend, that sentence would have. Extremely worried, she reached outward with her mind, pushing past the rage trying to get a better sense of what was happening. She found nothing to grab onto; Ezri's thoughts were jagged and unordered, unrecognizable.

Vibrant blue eyes turned toward her, the madness in them far beyond the madness she'd seen reflected from the Trill after the splitting of the Prime.

That's when it hit her. Ezri didn't know how to play the piano. Whoever was playing the piano was not Ezri Dax.

==^==

It hadn't taken much time to pull up the information on the Dax symbiont from Ezri's Starfleet medical records, and Deanna quickly realized what was happening. Ezri hadn't been coping at all; she'd just sublimated herself under one of the previous hosts of the Dax symbiont. The Betazoid shut down the terminal and headed for sickbay.

Kate looked up as the doors swished open, the habit no longer necessary, but it continued to be a deeply engrained response to the sound. "Deanna," she smiled in greeting, still very much amused that she was technically this woman's mother. Then she saw the look on Deanna's face. "What's wrong."

Ordinarily, Deanna would have tried to couch her fears or downplay them, but she wasn't sure how much time they had to act. "How well can you sense Ezri?"

Touching the fledging bond, Kate tried to sense Ezri, but it was too new to get a firm sense of her, other than that of her presence. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Deanna thought about how to translate her suspicions into tangible questions. She wasn't sure it was even possible to for Hosts to fully re-emerge unless guided by a Guardian, and even then, they were, in turn, hosted by a volunteer to allow the current Host to interact with them. "I think Ezri is manifesting a previous Host."

Kate nodded. "She does that sometimes," she paused, "She lets Curzon surface briefly, I know." Curzon Dax had been consoling Kate, holding both her and Ezri in those moments. Kate had known, because she knew Curzon, and she knew Ezri.

Deanna looked solemn. "I think that's how she's been coping. One of the others is almost always in control. And right now it's Joran Dax."

Kate tried to order the images she had gotten from Ezri during the mating, and combine them with information she had gleaned from Curzon, years ago. "I don't remember a Host named Joran. Curzon was sixth, Jadzia seventh, then Ezri."

"Curzon wasn't the sixth host, and Ezri is the ninth host, not the eighth. There was a host before him, Joran Belar, who had the symbiont for six months. Kate, he was very unstable and violent. He murdered three people. "

Kate hit her communicator. "Voyager, can you tell me where Ezri is?"

==^==

When Kate arrived in the holodeck, the piano was still there, but Ezri was no longer playing. Taking a chance, she wrapped her arms around her mate from behind, and whispered in her ear, "Ezri."

Ezri let herself rise to the surface and tried to pull away, but Kate stopped her. Not for long, however.

"You can't keep running from it, my Ezri. This wounds us all. Let us be here for you."

She remained mute, unable to convey the dizzy ache that never seemed to leave. She needed to hold Kate, but at that moment, could not.

Would not.

And that scored them both in ways that outsiders would never understand.

"Go then," Kate said, without heat. "Hide from it while you think you can. But the fire, Ezri…" She spoke from the memory of her mates, but the smoldering intensity in her gaze was her own, "…it will burn."

The Trill turned and fled the truth, in need of distance.

==^==

Kate had already alerted her mates. Lwaxana and Kathryn were waiting for her when she entered the Nest. Both women were already exploring each other. Instead of joining them, she moved toward Tuvok, divesting herself of her clothes as she did so. Firmly, but gently she pushed him to the floor, and immediately lowered herself onto him.

She could hear Lwaxana speaking to them all, her delicious thoughts and suggestive words designed to arouse. Designed to call the fire.

They hadn't done that before, hadn't consciously called the fire, but they knew they needed to, needed to strengthen the newer, still tenuous mating bond, needed to pull Ezri into them.

==^==

The blaze thrilled through Ezri on the way to her quarters. It was more than desire; it was a summons and a command.

She leaned against the wall, only a small distance from the entry point to her quarters, and closed her eyes.

Then she felt the warmth of another near. "T'Pel." She opened her eyes, felt the swim of her vision adjust.

"Ezri." The Vulcan stepped closer, resolutely taking up that empty space between them and blocking the Trill's view of everything else around her. "I will carry you."

That wasn't a command. It was a promise.

T'Pel dropped a little lower and wrapped her hands around Ezri's waist. Then she lifted the smaller woman up.

With a sob, the Trill wrapped her legs and arms around her Vulcan mate, surrendered to what was needed. Their faces pressed together and T'Pel spoke to her gently, in Presban and Vulcan. Each utterance was a purr and benediction, a claiming and a calming.

Then, together, they went to the Nest.

==^==

They stepped onto the heart of the Nest and were surrounded. T'Pel began, finally, kissing Ezri - deeply and lovingly. She lowered herself to the ground, still holding to her mate and then eased the Trill down. She avoided pressing heavily onto Ezri, but did not cease kissing her.

〈〈We are here,〉〉 T'Pel affirmed. Her words were taken up by Tuvok and Lwaxana and the strength of the bond during the mating fire allowed Kathryn and Kate to join in the truth. 〈〈We are yours. You are ours.〉〉 It wasn't just words, it was meaning, context, desire, love; all of which wrapped her into more safety than she could ever have expected. She was not lost. They were not lost to her. As long as there was any one of them with her there would be a way.

They undressed her, taking their time about it, though there was urgency in them. T'Pel's kisses drew out the fire in Ezri and she alone - not any other Dax - flew up to greet them. Heat suffused her body, darkening skin and spots. T'Pel drew urgent kisses along Ezri's skin and the younger woman became more aware of the pressing need behind the touches.

Ezri felt T'Pel's celebration as the Vulcan drew her palms along Ezri's skin surface. The sensation was intense, comforting and arousing at the same time. Kathryn kissed Ezri, drawing her attention back up as T'Pel continued the tender retreat down the length of her. Lwaxana joined in those kisses and they both began layering attention on the Trill's spots and sensitive places. Kate and Tuvok were near, and she could see them when she turned her head. The Human stared at Ezri with that same burning intensity from earlier as Tuvok pushed into her.

Kate closed her eyes then and tilted her head up as she rocked with him. Ezri watched as her mate flushed with desire, causing the freckles on her body to stand out in exciting ways. The Trill heard the echo of Curzon's delighted chuckle, Jadzia's own sudden interest. The mates heard them too.

Their pleasure and desire and love for Ezri washed over all of Dax, embraced all of Dax and the Hosts, but firmly placed Ezri centrally. Lwaxana's sultry comments, directed at all of them, for all of them, summoned the fullness of joy. The mates called, made their claim. All of Dax was theirs. Ezri was theirs. No one was lost. All were recognized, valued and wanted. All.

Hiding was not necessary. Loving was.

That reassurance allowed Ezri to truly surrender to the moment. Then, T'Pel was finally where she needed to be. Her arms wrapped around Ezri's thighs, compelled the Trill's hips to arch, while long fingers separated tender folds. Then her mouth began hungrily exploring that which was hers, theirs.

Ezri responded, kissing back fervently and strongly. It was like being held aloft and brought to shore. They carried her with them.

She felt the pulses in her that meant her time was close, felt the reflection in Kate. She escaped the kisses long enough to look again at the Vulcan male and the Human female. Kate, she knew, was also near her peak.

She was instantly aware of the moment Kate ignited the fire, saw it light in the back of her eyes, in the way her whole body rolled in shocking ecstasy.

Ezri witnessed it and then, as if inspired, her own release raced through her. She cried out, sailed with it and was caught on the return - captured in their loving embrace. 〈〈Beloved.〉〉

==^==

And again, it was Kate's analytical, questioning nature that led to the next discovery. Seven and T'Pel had explored and experimented with the physical and psychic nature of the bond, while she wanted to understand the genetic and biochemical aspects. Lying next to Kathryn, with a sleeping Ezri's head in her lap, one hand running through the Trill's hair, the other tracing the skin between Kathryn's collarbone and breast, her fingers lingered on the faintly raised scars of the mating bites.

Tracing over the one she knew that she had left, she amused herself trying to identify which of her mates had left the others. She touched her own chest, and traced B'Elanna's mark, using it as a frame of reference to identify the matching mark on Kathryn. Intent on her exploration, she shifted slightly, allowing Kathryn to cradle Ezri, completely missing the fond smiles bestowed on her by her watching mates.

Still tracing Kathryn's skin, her hand brushed across a scar on the opposite shoulder. She compared it to the ones she bore, and then to the ones she could see on Ezri. Ro Laren, she decided, since it matched one of hers, but it didn't match one of Ezri's. Seven of Nine's mark was, likewise, easy to identify on all three of them. A tingle skittered through her body and she sat up more fully. Pointing at the remainder of the marks, she asked. "Kathryn, whose marks are these?"

Curious herself about what had put the excited gleam into Kate's eyes, and more than willing to indulge her mate in her never ending quest to know more, Kathryn pointed to them, one by one. "B'Elanna, Seven, Lwaxana, Laren, T'Pel, Tuvok." She leaned into Kate kissing her gently, "and yours."

Kate got to her knees and motioned to Lwaxana. "Yours?"

"B'Elanna, Seven, Kathryn, T'Pel, Tuvok, Laren, and you, beloved."

"Tuvok?"

He looked at her, trying to follow her line of thought, fascinated by her intuitive leaps, but answered her question rather than seek clarification. "B'Elanna, Lwaxana, T'Pel, Kathryn and Seven."

She didn't need to ask T'Pel, didn't need to know that her bites encompassed a range of those present and absent, but for the sake of completeness, she made the inquiry. "T'Pel?"

"B'Elanna, Tuvok, Lwaxana, Kathryn and Seven."

Kate nodded, and then pointed to her own marks. "B'Elanna, Kathryn, Lwaxana, Laren, Seven."

T'Pel understood the implications immediately. She moved next to Kate and brushed her long fingers against Ezri's much more recently acquired marks. "B'Elanna and Seven," she confirmed.

Kate looked back at the Vulcan, and spoke her thoughts aloud. "That's why you came out of it faster this time, why I recovered faster than you did the first time and faster than Ezri. We all have secondary bonds to each other, and have all been through the fire several times. She has only the original mating bond, and no consolidation of a mating fire until now."

Kathryn saw the tears form on Lwaxana's lashes and reached out with her hand, pulling the Betazoid into a firm embrace.

Kate continued thinking out loud, "I've had the Kal'Hyah, and the mating fire."

"She is unanchored." Tuvok spoke.

"Exactly. And I could be wrong, but her deepest emotional ties are to Seven and Laren." Kate paused, searching for a term or way to explain what she thought happened. "I think she feels adrift, and doesn't have the deeper affirmations with any of us yet to help her stay connected. There just hasn't been enough time. I can feel all of you, all the time. But there is more to it." She looked at the Captain and at the Betazoid and stroked the marks on her shoulder absently, "It's easier for me to reach Kathryn and Lwaxana, because the blood bond is there. We have...," Kate searched for the words to explain. "We've exchanged our genetic addresses, our full communication pattern. But Ezri doesn't have that with one of us here in this Universe."

They all looked at the Trill, who was blissfully unaware of their conversation. Kate touched Ezri's marks. "Those with whom she established that connection, are in that other Universe, wherever they are. Ezri feels us as hers, because of the mating bond, but the full benefit of the..." Again she searched for the right way to say it. "...the deeper bond is not there. I think...I think we've just seen the consequences of not completing the connections between us. It's like a short in the system or an incomplete operation. We couldn't know. Because this is all new to us. We're the first ones." She looked at Kathryn. "There may be more serious results, if we don't do something. But, without the others here..." Her voice trailed off. It was unnecessary to continue.

Kathryn looked around at her mates, and then spoke for them all. "My ship, please open a channel to Commander Troi." She'd leave the ship in Deanna hands, and concentrate on her Family. Getting Seven, Laren and B'Elanna back meant nothing if they lost Kate and Ezri in the process.

==^==

"What do we do?"

"The bond of blood may remain incomplete while our other mates are absent," considered T'Pel. "But the mating bond is already complete in all of us. She is our mate." She lifted her hand and touched it briefly to her heart and to her temple. "Or we would not feel her with us. It must simply be deepened, for her and for Kate." She looked at Lwaxana and then at her husband. Her expression turned speculative.

"What is it you wish me to do, T'Pel?"

"There are ancient rites, husband."

He didn't quite scoff. "They are primitive and not founded on any science."

"But their purpose is explicit, to bond."

"Semen is not a bonding fluid."

"It is not the semen, it is the mental effort that accompanies the ceremony. We have already established that the blood bond is genetic in nature. We have already established that we are already bonded as mates entire, but that she needs an anchor."

"I have already been through Pon Farr, sai Aduna."

"It is not Pon Farr that I speak of, sai Adun."

"Ezri and I have already engaged in copulation, T'Pel. If such a thing were possible by the mere action of it, it would already be done."

The other mates were all listening to this with rapt attention, curious beyond words. After all, this was the closest they'd ever seen their Vulcan mates come to arguing. It was a fascinating glimpse into a seventy year marriage.

"However, Tuvok, you were not, at that time, attempting to anchor the link through an effort on your part. More," she raised her hand so he could not head her off in the conversation, "We will join you in this. So it will be all of us. The act will be symbolic, but our purpose will be one." Then, she reached out to him and touched his chest. "Be logical, Adun. How is this any different than the other times that you have been with us?"

"It is inescapably basic."

She arched her brow at him. "As it is always."

He very nearly rolled his eyes.

"Oh, my god," said Kate, catching on and feeling no small amusement about it. "This is like an ancient, ancient rite we're talking here, aren't we? The kind that gets ridiculously messy, because they thought you could plant gardens with cum back in the day."

Lwaxana couldn't help it. She started chuckling. "You know, on Betazed we still practice some of those rites."

"The practice has been refined over time," T'Pel said. "It was for those who had difficulty forming the bond during Pon Farr. Not all have been as successful as we."

"Understandable."

Kathryn who was still stroking Ezri's hair gently, and who had not yet smiled, looked at them, then lifted her hand away from Ezri's hair and engaged in finger speak. "Wouldn't it be simpler to do what we just did and trigger the mating fire, again?"

Kate looked at Kathryn, then at Tuvok and T'Pel and couldn't help the laugh that escaped. "Well, sure. Spoil the plotting. I was kind of looking forward to seeing this ceremony."

Tuvok merely looked relieved.

==^==

They began.

Kathryn remained where she was, but her rhythmic strokes moved from Ezri's hair to the small rosettes on her temples and down her neck. T'Pel, Lwaxana and Kate seemed to descend upon Tuvok, but it wasn't really so. Tuvok and T'Pel found themselves pressed together between the other two women, who began caressing both, kissing both.

It was teasing at first, with light touches, flirting kisses and words. The spark had been so recent that they weren't sure it would ignite again so soon after. But that did not mean that their desire was erased. And they were rested.

Kathryn enjoyed watching them interact, watching them begin the seduction anew. She smiled when Lwaxana was brought to the middle, placed between Tuvok and T'Pel. She felt excitement build within her at her mates' responses to one another. She loved the contrasts of them, blonde, brunette, redhead, dark, light, tall, short. They were, she thought, so incredibly beautiful and the sight of them loving one another caught her breath.

"Laren was right. You all do like to watch."

Kathryn looked down. "Ezri."

The Trill smiled and reached up. She drew the other woman down, intending a long kiss. "Kathryn," she replied softly.

Their lips touched and a spark shocked through them all.

The mating fire.

The Blood Fire.

Without hesitation, Kathryn lifted the Trill more fully up, kissed her with abiding hunger. She purred out the name of her mate, longing for her in ways that could only be shown. "Ezri. Ezri."

The brunette pressed against her, rubbed body to body, until she was slightly higher than Kathryn. Not standing, but kneeling. The red-head kissed Ezri's neck and chest and belly. Her fingernails rasped along the Trill's side.

Kate was suddenly there, holding onto Ezri from behind. She cupped Ezri's breasts, brushing her palms against the stiffness there. Then one hand went sliding down and down the woman's flat belly, through silky curls and down further. She stroked along Ezri's inner thighs and then back up. "Ours," she purred. "Ezri Dax." She slid her fingers into that slick space, caressing but not yet filling.

Ezri reached and cupped the back of Kate's neck. They kissed fiercely, hungrily. "Mate."

"Yes," they all responded. She felt them then, felt them reach toward her and she returned the effort, reaching back. The mates encouraged the connection, drew their own in parallel. Ezri's other hand roved along Kathryn; her Captain, and her mate, rose up to kiss her sharply, deeply.

Ezri felt herself growing closer, knew that she was being called to pleasure again. She noted when Tuvok, T'Pel and Lwaxana moved and knew it was just so she could see them. T'Pel lay on the ground, legs up and against Tuvok, with the Vulcan plunging into her while she clung to Lwaxana and tasted her.

Lwaxana turned her head, and for a moment her expression was so intense. So on fire, Ezri felt it. Kate did something with her hand and then it was as if Tuvok was plunging into Ezri, Kathryn, Kate, T'Pel and Lwaxana all at the same time. 〈〈Ours.〉〉 Lwaxana meant it; it was a bone deep claim. They all meant it. Ezri could feel the heat of that declaration coming from all of her mates and then there was the push to something that was only moments away from cresting. But Lwaxana wanted her to know it was coming, wanted her to feel that spark in them start with her.

Ezri was catapulted and the cascade rolled hard through them, like energy funneled through the proper channels at last. It claimed them, tossed them into the higher stars and reminded them who they were to each other.

==^==

The project may have played to Dr. Kahn's forte, but that did not mean she didn't feel like she'd been dumped into the deep end of the Purple Sea.

She, Leah, Sayr, the Delaneys, along with dozens of other scientists and Astrometrics officers pulled at strands of details, and dug deeply into what they knew. Even though there was a lab dedicated to the new Trans-Universal Science and Engineering section, whole other labs were taken over and sectioned out to aid in the search. They made dozens of discoveries, some helpful, some not so helpful. At some point, the theory would advance to meet the practice, but their efforts weren't to try and advance theory. It was to enable Voyager to find her missing family members.

Eventually millions of possible trails were extrapolated, then they began narrowing them down into manageable bits. Maximally, they could cover, if the schedule went well and they took care of the engine, ten universes a day. Barring surprises, it was doable, if daunting.

==^==

Kathryn stared at Dr. Kahn and Dr. Brahms. "So you're telling me that we have to come back here, every time?"

The Commodore was obviously incredulous, and not a little impatient, and Lenara thought about how to explain it, without insulting Janeway's intellect. "Let's call this Universe, variant 0, now if we jump to some unknown Universe, say eta, we know its absolute variation from ours, but if we then jump to another Universe, say phi, all we know is its variation from eta to phi, and that tells us nothing about the variation from phi to ours. Do that enough times, and you get lost."

"Why can't we just calculate offsets?"

The Trill scientist smiled, the question meant Janeway understood the basics of her explanation and she could proceed with the rest of the information in a little more detail. "Because that's not how dimensionality works at that level. The distance between them, so to speak, is not continuous and not really truly discrete either, sort of like a number line, with some universes as rational numbers and some as integers. They don't have evenly spaced gaps between them, but the cardinality is aleph-0, so they are countably infinite."

Kathryn stared at Lenara for a long minute, her agile mind trying to construct even the beginnings of a rudimentary proof for that cardinality. Cantor maybe, or would they have started with von Neumann and a transfinite hierarchy? "Did you get that from transfinite recursion and the union of all the possible V-stages of the limit ordinal, or use a straight forward Cantor diagonalization?"

The eyes of both scientists grew wider and Kathryn favoured them with a wry grin. "What? You didn't think they give the keys to these things to just anyone did you?"

Lenara and Leah exchanged looks, and it was Leah who answered. "No, Commodore."

She laughed at their discomfiture, and then focused on what was important, paraphrasing the Trill's earlier words to make sure she understood the problem fully. "So just because the variation might be 0.67 from 0 to get to eta, and 0.13 from eta to phi, it's not necessarily 0.8 back to here because we aren't dealing with anything remotely linear."

"Pretty much. Everything is so folded at that level that we need to be very careful." Confirmed Lenara.

Kathryn leaned back in her chair, trying to weigh the analogy and having a very difficult time grasping the physical mechanics of actually doing it, though the mathematics was clear. Her throat constricted and she realized how much she missed Seven's intellect along with her steady presence. She hardened her resolve. They would do nothing to jeopardize finding them.

She turned to Deanna, who had been listening quietly. "Make it so."

==^==

Kathryn waited for the two scientists to depart, and then turned to her First Officer. "A word, please, Commander." She tried to keep her tone level and her thoughts guarded, knowing that Deanna was more than capable of discerning more than she wanted to reveal.

"Certainly, Commodore." Deanna came to stand in front of the desk, and waited. She knew Janeway was angry, but she deliberately refused to untangle the rest of what was being projected.

"In the future, if I refuse to embark a civilian or other person on this ship or any other under my command, you will respect that decision. Is that clear?"

Deanna nodded, startled, but holding to her refusal to look below the surface of Janeway's mind. "Yes, Commodore."

Kathryn relented somewhat. "Deanna, I know you did the best you could, and ordinarily, Lenara Kahn would be not only an asset, but a downright coup to have on my ship. Unfortunately, she shouldn't be here."

She didn't need to look to put the pieces together, or, at least, to deduce that it had something to do with Ezri, which made it a problem. Deanna wondered what she'd say to Jean-Luc if he had made the same decision, for personal reasons. It was time to find out if she was the First Officer in name or substance. "She's the best person for the job, her relationship with Ezri is a personal, not professional consideration."

"Believe me, Deanna, I am very well aware of that. All of it. But there are other factors." She stared out of the view port, and knew that her daughter wasn't wrong; it was just a great deal more complicated. But then again, with so many family members on board, a possible nightmare of conflicting personal interests waited around the corner for all of them. "Would you still make the same decision?"

"Yes." It had been the right decision, and even knowing that Kathryn was angry didn't change it.

"She can stay, but you will explicitly inform Dr. Kahn that the Dax symbiont is aboard Voyager, and that she is to ensure at all times that she does not come into contact with Ezri. If Dr. Kahn wants to remain aboard Voyager, since I understand she and Leah Brahms have a significant romantic attachment, the onus is on her. One inadvertent meeting and she's off the ship."

Deanna nodded, but was confused. "I don't understand. I thought Ezri went to find Leah at the specific request of Lenara Kahn. I wouldn't have expected bad blood, at least not from Ezri, to the degree you're indicating."

Kathryn sighed. If Deanna were only her First Officer, she wouldn't have explained, but she was not only family, she was one of Ezri's closest friends. "It would be so much easier if bad blood was the problem. You can ask Ezri more, I'm sure she'll tell you the rest, but essentially, a previous host of the Dax symbiont and a previous host of the Kahn symbiont were married, and Lenara Kahn was briefly involved with Jadzia Dax. Re-association strictures aside, we can't risk anything that pulls a previous host to the surface. She's had a hard enough time fighting down Joran Dax."

Deanna nodded, and realized that for all the benefits of being a Joined Trill, there were some tragedies too. And even worse, she realized that Kathryn was having to balance what was best for one mate, with what they all needed: the return of Seven, B'Elanna and Laren. "I"ll make sure that she understands."

"See that you do, Commander. Dismissed."

She turned to leave, but was stopped by Kathryn speaking.

"I can think of someone who might like a visit and some chocolate."

Deanna smiled. "I can too."

==^==

Any location in the alpha-Universe would have been fine as a calibration point, but Presba was designated as the check-in point. Every Alternate Universe they would spend at least a half an hour discovering what they could and determining whether the mates were present. Then they would go back to Universe A-0 to calibrate. After a maximum of ten alternate universes, they would refine the information, recuperate and plan for the next session, gather any of the new recruits who made it to them and do whatever else needed doing at that time.

In three months, if the search was still on, they would go back to Voyager's Rest, establish the base there and begin importing the scientists, inventors and engineers that Starfleet wanted to hide away for awhile. It would give the Federation a necessary edge and the Voyager crew a small break.

Then they would begin again.

==^==

"It's not fair." The doors had barely shut behind Commander Troi before Leah let loose the angry response that she'd forced herself not to hurl at the First Officer.

"It has nothing to do with fair, love. It has to do with Trill custom. We're lucky that Captain...Commodore Janeway is even letting me stay here."

"I don't understand."

"I know. But trust me, this is what's best for all of us." Lenara knew only too well the potential disaster waiting for them in the person of Ezri Dax. Even across a subspace link, she'd felt something, and knew by the other Trill's immediate response to her plea for help to find Leah, that some fragment of what had been between Torias Dax and Nilani Kahn, and between herself and Jadzia, lingered still.

Leah took a breath, "I could try to talk to the Commodore."

Lenara gave her sweetheart an affectionate look. "Leah. This is a big ship and we are both smart women. Surely we can manage. Besides, we have a secret weapon."

She tapped her communicator. "Voyager, this is Dr. Lenara Kahn. Do you have a moment?"

"How may I assist you, Dr. Kahn?"

"Your Commodore has given me a challenge that involves avoiding random contact with Commander Dax. Has she forbidden you to help me?"

"Of course not, Dr. Kahn."

Leah suddenly began to smile.

==^==

In their quarters, Deanna sat curled against Asil. "Do you think they'll notice Qul?"

"They will notice, but not until they are out of the Nest."

Deanna chuckled. "By then it will be too late."

"Then you plan on starting without them?"

"We must. It will be days, my Asil, before they are able to join us in any coherent way."

"You feel them."

Deanna laughed. "How can I not? On Betazed, children know from an early age about the facts of life. We learn to block. But even so, we are not blind. And our parents, in particular…"

Asil cocked her head and Deanna found her irresistible. She leaned forward intending to kiss her mate lightly.

The power of the call thrilled through them. She pulled back, laughed. "Well, I should have seen that coming."

Asil near-smiled. She scooted forward and, lifting, took herself and her mate to bed.

==^==

Deanna was curled on the couch in the Family quarters, telling stories to Barin and Emina, when Asil called her.

〈〈Would it be possible for you to come home, sai Aduna?〉〉 Asil's voice was clear and solid, no longer mere echoes of sound, but as real as if spoken aloud.

〈〈Yes, my love.〉〉 Deanna answered, and smiled. The bond between them had deepened and changed again, and she wondered if Asil had realized it yet.

The answer came as a tickle of happiness rippled through their connection, and she knew that the sound equated to laughter, if Asil had been given to expressing such emotions verbally. She returned the sentiment, and marveled that Asil knew when to respond to her mental musings and when not to. With Asil, it never felt as though her privacy were being invaded, but rather as if there was a constant dialogue between them that was sometimes silent, but always ready to resume.

"I need to talk to Asil for a few minutes. I'll be right back, okay?" She waited for both children to acknowledge her request, amused to see them check with each other first, then stepped through the door dividing the two sets of quarters, setting it to remain open to allow the children access.

"Commander." Asil dipped her head.

Deanna smiled as the low tones vibrated through her. Her mate meant to signal this was a matter of ship's business, but instead Deanna wanted to close the door and go back what they had been doing earlier. "Lt. Commander." She purred the rank deliberately, delighted to receive a tiny quirk of Asil's right brow in response.

A PADD was offered to her and she began to read. When she finished, she looked up at her mate. "Commander Troi to the bridge."

"Bridge here, Commander." Lt. Kim answered the hail.

"Harry, send a priority message to Worf, request that the Titan to come to a full stop, and contact me as soon as you have a channel."

"Aye, Sir."

Asil was regarding her warmly, and Deanna moved into the physical contact. "How did you know?"

"I was aware of your desire to make Ezri's marriage unique to the individual she is, and searched for relevant information. Trill culture appears to have levels for public discourse, but the deeper, more private, ones that include information with regard to joined Trill are very difficult to access. Instead, I was forced to seek information about the Hosts themselves. I found nothing of use for the Trials, but I did come across several references to the zhian'tara, or Rite of Closure. When you told me of what happened in the holodeck, I was reminded of what I had read. Ezri Dax has not undergone her zhian'tara."

"Bridge to Commander Troi."

"Troi, go ahead."

"I have an open channel to Ambassador Worf."

"On my way. Troi out."

==^==


"Jadzia did not perform the zhian'tara for more than four years after her joining." Worf looked both thoughtful and pained.

"She'll be fine, Worf." Deanna offered the reassurance to the fear he would not voice. "Her mates have things under control. This will just make it easier for Ezri."

"Very well. I cannot bring the Titan, but I will have Lt. Commander Ranul Keru head back immediately."

"Thank you, Worf." Experimentally, she reached out. Having touched him once in this way, it was easier to find him this time, and she smiled as he twitched in response to the contact.

"You are welcome, Deanna." He paused and then grinned, as if he'd won a battle. "Tell her, jachchoHmeH 'Iwraj penaghtaH."

Deanna blushed, and realized, looking at his now neutral expression, that that was exactly what he had intended. "If Ezri doesn't appreciate being told to mate until her blood screams, I know my Mother will."

His face darkened and his eyes widened fractionally.

"Voyager, out." She closed the channel, letting herself chuckle.

==^==

The next day, Commander Troi nodded to everyone gathered on the command deck. "Lieutenant Sayr?"

The Vulcan said, "Everything is in order, Commander. The plot has been established and the TUE maintenance is complete."

"Excellent, thank you." She turned her attention to the helm. "Lieutenant Paris, what is our status?"

"Engines are hot and ready to roll, Commander."

She smiled lightly at the extravagance of his reply. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Warp One, if you please."

"Aye, Commander."

She took her place and then made the announcement. "All hands, prepare for transition on my count."

==^==

Once again they passed through the membrane that separated the universes. It was a smooth transition and, again, there was a hint of something on the outer edges of the ship. Lights seemed to catch rides on the wake of the ship and frolicking beside Voyager like dolphins. Voyager, who was still a bit heartsick about her lost Prime could not help but be uplifted and her song strengthened, which in turn pleased her mate. Then Stinging Sparrow's siblings and cousins took up the song that delighted the little lights, which caused one or two of them to dare entry. This time, when the walls faded on Voyager, some of those sparkles floated into the ship and had a good look around at the beings within. The beings within were somewhat surprised by the visitation, but no one resisted.

Then, as the walls started fading back into visibility again, the lights fled back into their own realm.

Voyager came out on the other side, into the Presban sector of another universe. Quick checks on ship and crew conditions were done. Deanna checked with her mother. The mates were not in this universe.

They stayed at warp one, exploring. For the next thirty minutes information was gathered about this universe. Notations were made about the variant and logged.

They picked up signals at a distance, but the Klingon Empire had not extended this far. All in all, for a first run, it was not bad.

==^==

The move back to the alpha-Universe resulted in the visitation of light beings that were brave enough to investigate while the ship and her people were in transition. The first event had been noted and the second event was noted too. Again the crew did not do anything to avoid the creatures. Voyager had shared that they did not appear to be violent, only curious. So the crew, while in transition continued in their business - either staying put or engaged in those necessary ship's processes that kept everything running. Again, just before end of the transition, the light beings hurried away and dispersed.

In the alpha-Universe, while the engine cooled down and was checked, black-box information was collected and compared against known data for calibration. Those who were new to the transition, and who weren't sick the first time, were sick the second time. Sickbay was busy.

A half an hour later, they moved to the next universe.

The second universe was similar to the first one and the missing mates were not there either. Not that anyone truly expected them to be. The process was one of elimination. As with the first universe, they explored and made notations about what they observed. Then, in a half an hour, they moved back to Universe Alpha - Zero.

==^==

The mates were in various states of rest and reflection. Kathryn was finally sleeping, using the meditating Tuvok as a pillow. Kate was cuddling T'Pel, caressing her Vulcan as they affectionately watched Ezri and Lwaxana.

The Trill was on the Betazoid's lap, rocking lightly. The smaller brunette's legs were wrapped around the redhead's waist and they were pressed close together, engaging in long, slow kisses. One of Lwaxana's hands was actively touching Ezri intimately, stirring the nerve sheaths within, and playing lightly with the newly trimmed curls.

In a moment of whimsy, and oneness, all the women had decided to get decorative. Ezri had chosen to take the blue in her hair lower, and then had gone for a simple stripe that left enough to play with. And Lwaxana did so enjoy playing.

Ezri's spots were changing color as her arousal increased. Erotic noises, profound in their authenticity, gently filled the room.

The walls faded away again, but the women were so engaged in each other that they did not notice. A few lights, three at most, entered the room. Ezri was right on the cusp of her orgasm, and oblivious to everything but her mates.

Kate whispered the command. It was barely audible. But it was heard. "Now."

Pleasure rushed through the Trill, pulsed in powerful waves. The lights moved close to them and seemed to respond, brightening and lingering almost too long, as the walls started to coalesce, gaining opacity. Then, as if remembering themselves, they appeared to flee away.

Ezri's arc of Eros finally let her loose, and she rested against her mate in quiet bliss.

It wasn't until the fourth or fifth transition that it occurred to the Trill that she had not once been space sick.

==^==

Deanna made her report to the Commodore about two hours after the final transition back to Presban space. It was, perhaps a more informal reporting atmosphere than usual, since Kathryn was dressed in a robe and they were in the family room on a couch, but it was an effective one. The twins were to either side of their mom, listening quietly while they rested against her. Mezoti was playing with Emina and Barin, who, in turn, were playing with Qul.

Kathryn had not mentioned the puppy once, but Deanna sensed amusement about the topic. So she took a don't-rock-the-starship approach and chose to ignore the creature she gave her report. If Kathryn wanted to know, she would ask.

"We're encouraged on the whole. The engine never failed and the reset period remains constant."

"And the inhabitants of the Membrane?"

"They seem content to watch. Curious and alert, even playful. But not dangerous."

"Let's keep an eye on them anyway. If one should try to make further contact than observation, I want to know about it immediately."

"Aye, Commodore."

"Also, I'd like to make a small adjustment to our scheduled journeys tomorrow. I realize that our scientists are interested in the new, but I'd like to visit Universe Beta and inform them."

Deanna caught on immediately. "Would you like to set up a check-in schedule?"

"Yes. Say, once a week. We can establish that as a contact time for our Ambassadors and family."

"Prudent. I'll make arrangements with our TUE staff." Deanna paused and then said, "On a different note, Lt. Commander Ranul Keru will be in Presban space in eighteen hours."

Kathryn nodded. They had already discussed the purpose. "Let us know when the commander is settled and ready."

"I shall."

"Also, please find out if there are any particular preparations that we should make."

"I will."

"Thank you, Deanna."

"It is my pleasure."

"Why don't you go get a little dinner, while I talk with my younger children about the care and feeding of puppies and the terrible burden of responsibility when it comes to pets."

Deanna grinned.

==^==

Kathryn weighed and balanced telling Ezri about the presence of Lenara Kahn, then decided that Ezri must have already known as Deanna had not necessarily kept it a secret. It was, therefore, Ezri's choice not to pursue that information, which said quite a bit about her mate's growth and sense of self-preservation.

She stepped into the Nest.

Ezri was seated on the edge of the perimeter of the heart of the room, her legs dangling. Her hair was wet and there was a towel beside her. She was looking into the centre with a bemused expression on her face.

Kathryn looked, felt, and had to grin. T'Pel was conscious, but on the razor's edge of sleep. Everyone else was deep in the grasp of slumber, and as soon as T'Pel felt Kathryn's presence, she drifted off.

Kathryn stepped up to and sat beside the Trill, not yet touching her. "You wore them out, love."

Ezri turned enough to look at Kathryn and smiled whimsically. "Well, technically, you all have worn me out several times."

"True. Fair in love and war and all that." Kathryn reached and stroked her Trill's naked back.

Ezri leaned into the touch. She grinned, "You know, the counselor part of me loves all of this. Assuredly, I've had my touch need filled to overflowing. It's very healthy."

Kathryn chuckled. She caressed Ezri's face and said, "That would be the point, Ivaya."

"You've been learning Trill." The endearment crawled deep inside and warmed her in ways that even their touches hadn't.

"It's a beautiful language. And you speak all of ours."

Ezri leaned forward, her smile still warm, but her gaze was intense. "Thank you, Kathryn."

They kissed and Kathryn drew her close. "Now do you believe?" Kathryn whispered in Ezri's ear.

"Yes."





Chapter 29 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




They entered Universe Beta the next day. The Commodore had authorized the use of extra time, however much it took, for contact and planning. In this transition, they would try to contact General Torres and Judge Torres.

What they found upon entering Presban space was that it was quite busy. There were several ships in transit and the planet apparently had a thriving colony. They also had loyal guardians.

The Klingon captain, without even checking the type of ship that entered his space, hailed the intruder. "State the nature of your business."

He received an answer right away and once the visual hit, he paled several shades. Before he could respond, Deanna began.

"I am Commander Deanna Troi of the House Presba. I am authorized by Warlord Janeway of the House Presba to make contact with our family. Would Judge Torres happen to be around?"

==^==

It turned out that Judge Torres was in the Presban system. They were taking a break from judicial duties to oversee some of things going on with building the colony.

"SosnI! It is so good to see you."

"And you, my granddaughter." Miral peered at the view-screen. "Your uniform looks good on you."

Deanna smiled warmly. "And you look … radiant."

"Ah, so politic. I look pregnant is what I look. Remind me to tell you how I got this way. It's very important detail and Dr. Kate will want to know." Miral sat back in her seat. She was taking the call in her quarters. She cocked her head. "Something is bothering you. Tell me."

The Betazoid nodded, remembering that her grandmother was quite to the point about everything. "The Prime were split again during a battle with the Orion Syndicate and Section 31. B'Elanna, Seven and Laren were traveling in a shuttle and caught up in a transition wake. They are now in an unknown universe. We are currently in the process of searching for them. However, we believe they would waste no time in trying to return to either the alpha-Universe or the beta-Universe if they were able. We were wondering, if they should happen to show up, would you please keep them here? It seems that trans-universal mechanics can be somewhat messy and we don't want to lose them unnecessarily."

"Did you defeat the Orion Syndicate and this…Section 31 group?"

"We did."

"Contact Belle immediately and let her know. I will contact your counterpart here. She too is of House Presba." Miral looked thoughtful. "Would you like to meet her?"

"We do plan on establishing regular visits. If my…sister… should happen to be available at one of our next visits, I am sure I would enjoy meeting her."

"You probably would. It is something I appreciate about you."

"Thank you."

"So, I take it all of your parents are too busy to talk to their mothers?"

"Commodore Janeway will be available in a few minutes."

==^==

Kathryn was open-mouthed with shock. "But, that's impossible."

"You," chided her mother, "are using the word impossible? When we are all Presban?"

Kathryn tilted her head. "Point. Kate will love it. Did you figure out…how?"

"No. We decided to leave that to your people, but we also felt you should know. Any one of you could be affected." Now her mother looked closely. "Are…"

"What? No…I mean, Dr. Zimmerman noticed that our original implants tended to disappear after a mating bond and so we've all been inoculated."

"And the orders to increase the House Presba?"

Now Kathryn grinned. "Phoebe is pregnant."

==^==

When the hail came, Belle reluctantly left her quarters and a, finally, peacefully, sleeping Annika. Once in her office, she switched the communication to visual.

"Hello, Belle." Kathryn smiled warmly.

"Kathryn! Back so soon?" She watched, concerned, as the smile faltered and faded. It was the flicker of devastation that told her everything she needed to know. "Who?"

"B'Elanna, Seven and Laren." Kathryn took an unsteady breath and continued. "We're searching for them, but its slow going, we need to return to our universe after every jump. We're pretty confident that wherever they are, they're trying to get back. Seven knows how the TUE works, B'Elanna's already built one, and Laren will make sure they get what they need to do it."

Belle let out a wry chuckle, hoping to make Kathryn feel better. "Looks like you lost the right three." A new flash of pain showed in Kathryn's eyes, and Belle held her hand up. "I'm sorry, I only meant to reassure."

Kathryn took a deep breath. "I know. It's just..."

"You miss them and need them. I understand. If they find their way here, I'll hold on to them for you."

"Thank you." Kathryn leaned forward, almost conspiratorially. "Have you spoken with our mothers recently?"

"No. I've been busy with Orions."

"My mother got your mother pregnant."

Belle sat down.

"Belle?"

"How?" Belle was trying wrap her mind around several ideas all at once, not the least of which was how strange having a little sister the same age as her own children would be.

"They don't know, and don't seem all that phased by it. Kate's going to have a field day trying to figure it out. We're all going to have our implants updated just in case, especially since Tuvok has already proved admirably fertile in the past."

Belle snorted. "Tuvok has nothing on a friend of mine. Annika and I are both expecting."

Kathryn's jaw dropped. "Definitely getting those implants updated."

Belle laughed.

==^==

Annika looked up from the pile of chips and circuit bridges spread out on the table as Belle entered their private quarters. She smiled brightly, then raised both eyebrows as she noticed her mate looked slightly shell-shocked. "Beya?"

"My mother is pregnant."

Annika laughed. "Perhaps we should call Deanna."

"That's not as funny as you think. It's Gretchen's baby, unassisted. Kathryn and the rest of the Prime are in hyper-vigilant mode getting new contraceptive implants." Her mention of the Prime, sobered her and she gentled her tone and knelt next to Annika. "Be'nal, Seven, B'Elanna and Laren have been separated from the others."

Annika sobbed, and buried her face into Belle's chest. It was awhile until the immediate sorrow passed. But eventually the Human pulled back and queried, "What happened?"

"There was an ambush, and the TUE was accidentally engaged. Seven, Laren and B'Elanna were in a shuttle that got pulled into the wake, but didn't make the transition with them. Kathryn and the others are searching for them, but its slow going, between the need to return to their own universe and the engine cool down."

Annika sat up, and set her shoulders. "There must be something we can do. Somehow...maybe." She looked at Belle, "You said the shuttle got pulled along in the wake?"

Belle nodded her head in confirmation.

A faraway look came into Annika's eyes, and one hand began to sketch an erratic pattern in the air.

Belle recognized the expression and fetched a handful of datatablets, as well as paper and a stylus. Pulling up a stool, she sat back to watch fascinated. She had no doubt that whatever Annika was thinking about would be phenomenal, and beyond any chance she had of comprehending it. Beyond a doubt, this woman was the most intelligent one in this Universe, and possibly several others. Even more amazing, Annika loved her, Belle.

She continued to watch, as without seeming to be aware she was moving, Annika made her way from the table to the porthole and after staring outside for a minute, rested one hand on her abdomen and with her left, began writing equations across the window.

Oh yeah, thought Belle, this was going to be good.

==^==

Kathryn entered the Nest again. T'Pel was there to greet her with kisses and to help her strip down. Between kisses and being drawn back to the bed, she gave them the news; starting with the fact that the contact had been successful and their mothers and sister-in-laws wished them joy.

"Oh, and by the way, Miral, Belle and Annika are pregnant."

The responses ranged from merriment to genuine pleasure. Once on the bed, she received kisses from each of them. Then she knelt back as she was not quite finished. She gazed warmly at Kate. "Ah, but there is more. While Belle and Annika happened by their little miracles the usual way, apparently and without the assistance of a medical professional or technology, Gretchen made Miral pregnant."

The consternation rippled through the room. Kathryn grinned at Kate. "They thought they might gift you with the mystery. They haven't even tried to figure it out."

Kate guffawed, unwilling to hide her delight in the puzzle. "Well, it will certainly give me something to think about."

"I thought so, too." She leaned over and kissed her mate warmly. Then she sat back again and said, "Well, and the hints were there, weren't they. Since the original mating bond does seem to dissolve the implants, I'd say that we were fortunate that the Doctor caught the changes. Fortunately, we all have updated implants."

There was a spike of emotion that all of them picked up on. Ezri blinked as their attention was suddenly focused on her. Then she said, "Trill don't have implants. It's standard procedure. We don't…uh…see, it's not possible. The genetics are such that there has never been a Trill hybrid without a great deal of medical intervention. Ever."

"Ezri," Kathryn began slowly. Then she stopped. She opened her arms. "Come here."

The Trill accepted the invitation. Kathryn kissed her warmly and pressed her lips to Ezri's temple. Then she said, "Beloved, given the unusual circumstances which make us who we are, perhaps we must consider the possibility that you may need an implant."

"Yes, Kathryn."

==^==

The real world business of being The Truth Seeker dealt with for the day, Deanna had retired to her quarters hoping to find her mates in a state of dishabille. She entered the room and smiled, seeing all that all three women were, in fact, very much less than decently attired.

Before she could join Jadzia in the bath, or join Ezri and Nerys, who looked to be playing an interesting game with chocolate, the comm unit chirped. "Yes."

"Incoming priority communication from General Torres."

"Put it through."

She sat at her comm unit, Belle appearing on screen almost immediately.

"Hello, Deanna."

"Belle, to what do I owe the pleasure?" She dipped her head respectfully. Jadzia had left the bath and was kneeling just out of view, one hand tracing along her thigh comfortingly.

"Annika seems to think that things between you and the Intendant are serious enough that a bonding might be in order soon, and thought we should warn you."

Deanna sat upright, trying to use the visual clues and Belle's tones to decipher what kind of warning was in order, and why Annika of all people thought it needed to be said. "Regarding?" She tried to keep her tone neutral.

"My Mother is pregnant by her mate." Belle said.

"But isn't Gretchen…" she didn't finish the sentence, instead changing tack, since the implications were now clear. "Are you suggesting there's something about a Presban mating bond that made that possible?"

"I don't know, Mother seems not to care, and Dr. Kate hasn't reported back yet, but Annika thought you should know."

"I, and my mates, are grateful you thought of us." Deanna used the cover of courtesy to reveal that she had, in fact, undergone a bonding.

Belle looked uncomfortable, and then gave a shy half-grin. "We're family. And congratulations to you and your new mates. Torres out."

Deanna was dead certain she wasn't pregnant, but she took a cursory look just in case, and then looked at Jadzia, who smirked.

"Not likely, Deanna, Trill don't hybridize well. At all, actually."

Deanna laughed and nodded to confirm Jadzia's belief, but looked deeply within Ezri anyway, since despite Jadzia's flippant denial, they had two Trill in the group.

Nerys was languidly enjoying having Ezri finger-paint a long path of chocolate spots down the length of her body, and anticipating having her mates thoroughly remove them. "I don't know, I think you and Deanna would have beautiful babies."

"I think a baby with Nerys' Bajoran nose ridges and Deanna's Betazoid black eyes and hair would be stunning."

Ezri grinned. "Wouldn't that just shake the Empire?"

Jadzia laughed and become aware that Deanna wasn't laughing but was staring at Nerys. She too turned to look at the Bajoran, as she heard Deanna move to the refresher and return with a med-scanner. In her mind she heard the echo of Deanna laughing. 〈〈Shhh.〉〉

Just at that moment Nerys looked up, and saw the matching shocked expressions on Deanna's and Jadzia's faces. One glimpse of the scanner and she knew. "Oh no. No way."

"Hold still." Ezri was still adding to the trail of spots, once more completely absorbed by the task.

"This is not funny. I can't be pregnant. Unh-unh. No way. Not me."

Ezri looked up. "Nerys is pregnant? That's great. Weird and, very, well, weird. But good, right?"

Deanna and Jadzia started laughing, and Jadzia managed to choke out a few words. "It's good. And even better you think so."

Nerys shot two dagger glares at the women, then her eyes widened as she registered what Jadzia was implying. She rounded on Ezri. "You got me pregnant!" She lapsed into Bajoran, and they all lost the thread of the imprecations.

Ezri blinked, and then a slow grin spread across her face. "I think, my love, that makes us even."

"Even? You. Got. Me. Pregnant." Each word was punctuated with a light swat.

Ezri winked at Deanna and Jadzia, who oddly, winked back. "You tried to kill me. Call it even?" Then she stood up, gentling her voice, but unable to hide her amusement completely. "Ivaya, I love you. And I'll love the baby. Spots and nose ridges sound damn cute to me."

Nerys looked at Ezri, then at Deanna and Jadzia trying to figure out what to say. It was Deanna's complete inscrutability and Jadzia's barely restrained mirth that twigged her suspicions. "Give me that." She grabbed the med-corder.

"Nerys?" Ezri peered over her shoulder and read the text on the screen, then started to laugh.

"Oh, so you think its funny do you?" Nerys growled and advanced on the younger Trill, who speedily backed away and ducked behind Deanna.

"Yes?" Ezri pulled her head completely behind Deanna.

Jadzia started laughing again. "If you could have seen the look on your face…"

"You. Got. Me. Pregnant." Deanna repeated Nerys' verbal attack, joining in the teasing.

Nerys folded her arms, but couldn't hold her anger. It was funny, she just wasn't quite ready to admit it, and part of her was surprised to feel a sense of loss. "That's a dangerous game. What if it had been true?"

Deanna sobered and answered for them all. "Then we would be having a baby."

As though sensing they had pushed the merriment as far as they could, they all moved toward her.

Nerys could feel it palpably, their love wrapping around her and with it the echoes of joy and acceptance. It didn't matter when or if, they would love her regardless, just as they did now. Nerys sank into Deanna's arms needing to be grounded for an instant, and then looked up at them, joining in their play. "Yes, well remember, revenge is the best revenge."

==^==

The Nest was quiet, its occupants sleeping or nearly so. Ezri was curled up against Lwaxana, idly playing with the Betazoid's long red curls. A tentative exploration of their bond and a quick glance for confirmation revealed that Lwaxana was just as awake as she was. Amused, she looked at the spent heap that was Tuvok, T'Pel and Kate, secretly chortling that she had outlasted the Vulcans, and somewhat impressed that Kate had worn them out.

She stretched and shifted so that she could see more of Lwaxana's face, studying its planes and lines, drinking in the dark irises turned coal in the light. "It's so strange to me that you're Deanna's mother."

"How so, beloved?"

Ezri blushed. She hadn't meant to speak aloud to begin with.

Lwaxana laughed, delightedly. "You are not the first person who's been attracted to my daughter, who I also found attractive."

Now Ezri laughed, then swung around so they were facing. "Worf." She guessed, grinning.

"He does have a nice sword." Lwaxana leaned forward and gently kissed the Trill. They exchanged pleasant kisses and light caresses for several minutes, neither trying to arouse the other, but merely enjoying each other's company.

"This is nice," said Ezri, when the kisses tapered off, though they continued to stroke and brush against each other.

"In what way, Darling?" Lwaxana actually had a good sense of what Ezri meant, but wanted to hear it from her mate, wanted to form a more tangible real-world connection to the woman. Making love was wonderful, but she wanted Ezri to know her.

"I think this is the first time you and I have really been alone together." Ezri let a mischievous curl grace her lip. "Usually, I'm thoroughly engrossed in watching you and Laren, or you with T'Pel."

Lwaxana took the opportunity to deepen the conversation, feeling strongly that Ezri needed to talk about the last few days and the impact of joining the Prime only to have it split almost immediately. "And it was Seven you fell in love with, then Laren."

"I have loved Laren for a long time, since I met her almost. And yes, I'm completely nuts about Seven, and I do love you all." She paused to consider what she was going to say. "What happened this time was not like before when I was scared that this wouldn't happen, and I was getting in too deep. It was more like, losing them tore away my foundation, and I was so numb and raw, that the memories and patterns of my previous Hosts took over, probably to protect Dax. And well, Joran and I have history." It had probably not been a good idea to undergo the Rite of Emergence with Joran Dax before the Rite of Closure, but it was too late to worry about it now.

"You seem more settled now."

"I think that's true. But then you're right about part of it too. I may have feelings for you all, but I didn't know you as well separately as I do now, and without Seven, and Laren..." Ezri winked at Lwaxana, "...and B'Elanna, just don't tell her I said it, I wasn't sure how to grab hold. I wanted to, but I couldn't seem to."

Lwaxana sensed there was more there, and when Ezri turned to look at Kate, she didn't need to read the Trill to know she was conflicted about something to do with the blonde Human. "And Kate?" She prompted.

"It feels like Kate and I have this long history. But some of that started with Curzon, and some of it is from when I was a Tigan and not a Dax. I just needed to know it was me, first. And," Ezri paused, and looked away. "I don't think she's going to get anymore visits from Curzon for awhile."

Lwaxana used the brief lull to lean over and kiss the whorl of spots on Ezri's shoulder, carefully maintaining the intimacy of the moment. "It should only be a matter of days before you can do the zhian'tara, beloved. All will be well."

Ezri took a deep breath and met Lwaxana's eyes, trusting her mate to understand what she was about to say. "Except that I won't be doing it. Not until we get them back." Deliberately, she dropped her guards, yielding herself to Lwaxana, trying to convey over their bond that she was open and ready.

A rush of images tugged at her and Lwaxana heard Ezri's request and silent plea, so she honoured it and looked. Impressions of the seven zhian'taras previous and an assortment of Rites of Emergence flitted through her mind and she drank the imagery along with the emotion. Leaning forward again, she pulled Ezri close, and laid a new path of kisses along her forehead and eyelids. All she could do was nod in acquiescence.

"Eight hosts, eight of you. Unless one of you refuses, I won't share this with anyone but you." But Ezri knew, they loved her, all of her. They would say yes, and would know her even as she became known to herself. Slowly, she increased the urgency in her kisses, until she could feel Lwaxana's desire through the touch of her skin, her mind and their bond. Then she whispered in Lwaxana's ear. "Make love to me."

"Always, and forever, beloved." Lwaxana promised. She had seen it. Everything they were, all that they felt would go on, preserved and enshrined in the memory of Ezri Dax.





Chapter 30 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




In the gamma-Universe, Captain Kathryn Janeway was aware that until the last few days, she had not truly considered the impact that a single individual could have on a vessel; only in this case it was three very singular women. It wasn't just the sense of renewed purpose that pervaded the ship, there was also an amelioration of the subtle psychic wounds that had been sapping the strength of the crew in subconscious, but profound ways. Her mind instantly grabbed that thought and an image of the two Sevens walking together down the corridor, engaged in animated and smiling conversation, flashed to mind.

Their conversation was several levels above what the average eavesdropper could have followed. However, what stood out was the completely comfortable casualness in which they walked, barefoot and dressed quite informally. Seven Torres' hand movements had been expressive; while Seven of Nine's facial expression had reflected positive regard for her counterpart.

What had been eye-opening, however, was the difference in body language of those who happened to flow around them. Yes, there were those who turned to look and appreciate, but there was a whimsy in the expressions, which had replaced the hardness and suspicion that had been there in the past.

Kathryn's expression changed from amusement to a personal despair and she wondered, not for the first time, how she could have let it get so bad, how she could have failed Seven of Nine so completely.

Her lips quirked, in self-effacing humor, as she lifted the fresh cup of coffee for a sip. Of course, it helped that right now - on her ship - there were two Sevens, two B'Elannas and two Larens. All of whom had made it a personal goal to not only build the engine that would rescue them, but to improve the personal circumstances of Voyager in all ways reasonably possible.

Captain Janeway smiled at Ensign Celes. "Tal, I'm going to go to the lab and check on their progress. Please hold the fort."

"Aye, Captain." The Bajoran smiled warmly as Kathryn exited the ready room, then continued working on the hefty stack of paperwork left to do. Not once had Kathryn had reason to criticize Tal's effectiveness or work ethic. She took to administrative assistance like a duck to water.

Sometimes, thought Kathryn, it really is good to get an outside perspective.

==^==

The engine was taking shape nicely. What Kathryn recalled as mere framework, had quickly gained body and line. It was obviously not complete, but she could perceive the pattern of it.

She was surprised by how mundane it looked. It would not be out of place on any starship, let alone Voyager. If she were to stumble on the engine on an alien ship she would have assumed that it was an ordinary part of a vessel.

Kathryn smiled at the engineers in the area and then exited the lab in search of Lieutenant Torres. She entered engineering proper and spotted Lieutenant Ballard. "Where's the Chief?"

The engineer, who was looking a little rumpled and harried, pointed upwards. "They're all up there. Some sort of efficiency upgrade."

"Is it working?"

She considered and then said, "I think, given who's making those changes, yeah. It'll work."

"Thank you, Lieutenant."

"You're welcome, Captain."

"Carry on."

The engineer passed by her and she continued on her way, eventually mounting the stairs that led to the secondary level of engineering. Sure enough, she spotted four figures gathered around one console station. They had obviously taken it apart and were putting it back together again, all while in animated conversation.

As she drew closer, she was suddenly aware that the conversation was in no way related to engineering, astrometrics or anything even mildly scientific. "So, then Belle said…"

B'Elanna Troi was partially tucked underneath the console and could not possibly have seen Kathryn, but she stopped in the middle of what she was about to say and said, "Oh. Hi, Captain." Then she scooted out and sat up so that her arms were resting around her knees.

The others greeted the Captain too, in a strange kind of tandem.

"Ladies. I see you are making progress."

"When we have finished, your maximum safe warp capacity up will increase from 9.2 to 9.33 without increasing the power requirements."

Now they had her attention. That was an increase of point one three, and quite a boost at that end of the scale. "Without touching the warp engine?"

"The warp engine is functioning as it should," Seven said. She gazed at the bright column for a moment. Then she added the qualifier. "It also could be improved. However, that would not maximize efficiency at this time. It would be better to get to a functioning space station, where the capacity for immediate departure would not be a necessity."

"Meaning, you can't work on it like it needs while we're on the go. But you can take apart consoles and rewire them." Kathryn translated.

The Sevens looked at each other, then at Kathryn and said, at the same time, "Precisely."

"And you two have just gone along with it."

"Well, I don't know about your Chief here, but when my Be'nal says fixing some programming and a few circuits will improve something by that much, I'm going to try it."

"And I…" B'Elanna paused and said, "Why did I say yes again?"

"I promised to tell you about how our sister lost her eye to the Hive."

"Oh, right. I'm just here for the story."

Bemused, Kathryn looked at the four women, and then looked at the console. Finally she said, "As you were. Please let me know when the improvements are in place. I am sure Lt. Stadi will want to try it out."

"Will do, Captain."

==^==

Meeting the four women caused Kathryn to wonder where a certain Bajoran was located. She knew where Commander Ro was. She tapped her communicator "Computer, please locate Commander Hansen Laren, please."

"Lt. Commander Hansen Laren is located in Cargo Bay 2 on storage level two."

Curious, and because she hadn't approached cargo bay since its recent transition, the Captain opted to go see the new layout for herself. Finally.

She had been avoiding the area; partly because she had been genuinely busy, but also because there had been a time when nocturnal visits to the space had been a common past-time for her. Not recently. She had given up those visits, just as she had distanced herself from the young woman who was the reason for those visits.

Now though, Kathryn realized that the avoidance had been a mistake. She had, essentially, deserted Seven of Nine just when the Borg needed someone most.

With a sigh, Captain Janeway headed for the turbo-lift. It was time to face what had changed.

==^==

It was fantastic. The cargo bay was actually quite busy and Captain Janeway recognized the individuals who were part of Tom Paris' team transporting and carrying what looked like large, heavy, supply crates. She looked up and spotted Hansen.

She made her way up to the second level and, again, before she could say anything, she was greeted. Laren turned around and smiled, "Hello, Captain."

"Commander." She looked about the rapidly filling space. "This is quite impressive."

"Tom did a good job. We have pretty much everything we need, as well as a few other supplies that might come in handy, just in case."

"Aren't you confident the TUE will do its job?"

"Oh, the TUE will work. It's the getting where we want to go that will be tricky. The mathematics are the Prophet's Test themselves." Hansen shrugged, it was her job to get the supplies, she didn't need to understand the math.

"I see." Kathryn looked over and down at the other side of the cargo bay. "Those are the quarters?"

"They are. Would you like to see them?" A look flashed over Kathryn's face that was enough to cause the Bajoran to touch the Captain. "Perhaps another time."

Kathryn gave her a slightly wilted smile. "Perhaps." Then she regrouped. "Well, I see you are well occupied. Please tell Tom that I'm happy with the progress."

"I will, Captain." Concern was still on the Bajoran's face.

Kathryn retreated to formality and tugged down her jacket. "As you were."

==^==

The boisterousness from engineering had carried over, and the four of them were draped over various cushions on the floor of B'Elanna Torres' quarters, and she was enjoying the company. It was good to be social again. "You should probably just call me Lanna, I'm starting to get a headache trying to figure out if someone wants you or me."

B'Elanna Troi regarded her thoughtfully, and then nodded. "I was just getting the hang of figuring it out by context."

Lanna laughed and the two former drones exchanged raised brows.

Miral was crawling around on the floor, eagerly searching for any of the forgotten bits of brownies that were left from their earlier snacking.

Seven studied the little girl intently, noting her pale blue eyes, and the delicate brow ridges that were less distinct, but, like her colouring were a perfect match for her mother's. The child, as if sensing the scrutiny, made a bee-line for her, and she let Miral hoist herself up using her body as support.

Smiling faintly, she noticed B'Elanna watching her, and felt the strong blanket of love and pleasure that her mate sent along the bond.

"When we get back home, Be'nal."

Seven signed back, "I love you."

The baby chose that moment to transfer her interest to Seven of Nine, clearly fascinated by the long blonde hair that fell over her shoulders.

Lanna watched anxiously as her daughter moved between the two ex-drones, oblivious to what had passed between B'Elanna and Seven.

Seven of Nine fought down her anxiety, but she held out her right hand and allowed Miral to get a grip, assisting the child to find enough purchase to scramble closer to her goal. Surreptitiously, she looked to see if Lt. Torres would react negatively.

It still confused her, most of the time the four of them interacted with a great deal of harmony, but, occasionally, B'Elanna Torres would rebuke her or be curt in a way that she never was with Lady Seven. She half expected the engineer to rip the child out of her arms.

Knowing herself, and who she used to be, and more, willing to admit it and learn from it, B'Elanna interjected, with a smile. "Must be the hair, Be'nal. Though, if she knew what I know, I bet she'd crawl back over to you."

Seven raised her ocular implant, appreciating the innuendo, but at a loss as to why B'Elanna had felt the need to engage in it. "Indeed."

B'Elanna smirked. "Yep. All the best toys blink and light up."

Seven understood then exactly what B'Elanna was doing, as all eyes turned her way, and the presence of Miral tugging on Seven of Nine's hair was relegated to the background.

Lanna took a long pull of her drink, and laughed. "Kahless, Lady Seven. You're an engineer's wet dream."

B'Elanna swatted her counterpart with a pillow. "Mine."

Having been knocked backwards, Lanna used her arms to help her return to a sitting position. She was still chuckling. As she sat up, Seven of Nine and Miral came back into her field of vision.

Miral was now cradled, contentedly, against Seven of Nine's chest, one hand curled in her hair, the other balled in a fist in her mouth. And was that humming?

B'Elanna tapped her on the shoulder and helped her up. Reluctantly, Lanna stood and followed the other woman to the kitchen.

"You program the drinks, and I'll do the food."

She nodded her agreement, but didn't take her eyes off the sight in the living room. The two blondes had their heads tilted toward Miral, and there was a distinct sound of singing, too low for her to make out the words, but definitely singing.

"That's how it started for me too." B'Elanna said.

"Hunh?"

"They had just finished their quarters, and I was nosy and wanted to see what they'd done."

"They?"

"Seven and her children. They pretty much kept the whole thing top secret."

Lanna nodded. That part, if nothing else, seemed in character for the Borg.

"Anyway, Seven was busy with Emina, only they hadn't named her that yet, and the rest of the kids were entertaining me. Then I heard the lift. I can still remember standing there watching it descend. Seeing her bare feet, and then the length of her. She didn't know I was there, and she was just staring down at Emina with such adoration and joy. And I knew that I was seeing her, the way she really is, for the first time. Everything slowed down and stopped. I knew exactly who she was to me."

"Yours is at least Human." Lanna tried to distance herself from what she was feeling, taking refuge in familiar approbation. Busy dealing with the conflicting emotions tearing through her, she never saw B'Elanna move, and the next thing she knew she was pinned to the back wall, her mouth covered.

"You had better pray to Kahless that with her Borg enhanced auditory acuity she didn't hear that, because I swear to Kahless, the Prophets, and every other deity in the Universe, I will defend her honour with my bat'leth. Now I'm going to take my hand away, and you are going to listen to me." The growl that punctuated her command was low and feral, and Lanna flinched. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes."

"Get over it. Whatever jealousy you have over Kathryn, over Seven of Nine, the hurt from your father, your mother, whatever it is, let it go." B'Elanna felt a tug on her bond, and looked over enough to see that the other two had left the quarters, and she relaxed her hold, not wanting to provoke the other Klingon into a pitched battle by restraining her too long. "It's not helping, but it sure as hell is hurting you and the people around you."

Lanna was about to scream back, then stopped. B'Elanna wasn't some Starfleet counselor, or do-gooder trying to reclaim the wayward Klingon. She was Lanna herself, under slightly different conditions. And given what she'd said, those conditions hadn't been too dissimilar. "She confuses the hell out of me."

B'Elanna surprised her by laughing. "And if you're a tenth as lucky as I am, she'll confuse the hell out of you for the rest of your life."

"She really blinks?"

"Like fireworks on Zephram Cochrane Day." B'Elanna saw the brief flash of speculation, and decided to push the envelope just a bit farther. "Of course, some of those implants also vibrate."

Lanna turned several shades of crimson, and B'Elanna thought the woman might stop breathing altogether. She grabbed one of the drinks Lanna had replicated and lifted it in silent toast, thinking Ezri would be damned proud.

==^==

Bottle of spring wine, and two glasses in hand, Laren let herself into holodeck two. She wasn't the least bit surprised to find her counterpart running a simulation of home, she was surprised to find that instead of Bajor itself, it appeared to be a version of Deep Space 9. "I can't believe this place exists here too."

Ro Laren looked up from were she was watching holo-characters bustle about on the promenade. "Cardassians build yours?"

"Yeah. But there's another Universe, not quite a mirror of ours where the Humans ruled through cruelty, blew it and were conquered by their slaves. Now the Klingons rule. Bajor was never subjugated by Cardassia, because they're too busy cleaning up political messes in their sector. The station is there, though. Terok Nor. It's just as damned ugly too."

"You come to offer me a drink and a shoulder?" Ro turned and leaned back against the rail.

"Yes to the drink, no to the shoulder. Do you need one?" Prophets, Laren wondered if she were this hard to talk to. Probably.

"No. You?"

Laren considered. "Sometimes." She handed Ro the glasses, pulled the cork, which she'd already loosened from the bottle, and poured each of them a full glass.

"Toast?" Ro asked.

"Doesn't seem to be one appropriate enough."

"Prophets, isn't that the truth." She stared at Hansen, and then shrugged. What the hell. "You married Janeway?"

Laren took a sip of her wine, and leaned against the railing, sideways to her companion. "Well, my mates and I formed the House as an act of marriage. But it wasn't a traditional kind of thing. In fact, other than T'Pel and Tuvok, who had a time-honored Vulcan wedding, the closest we came was with Ezri." She heard her voice catch, and she wondered how Kate and Ezri were faring.

"Ezri Tigan?"

Laren snorted. "You too?"

"Oh, yeah." Ro Laren actually smiled. "She get cold feet?"

Not given to laughter normally, Laren couldn't help laughing now. "Just the opposite. She met us stark naked, flanked by Worf and the Emissary of the Prophets, and announced we were eloping."

"The Emissary is in your Universe?" Her face clouded over.

Laren nodded. "He is."

"Not here."

The stood together drinking the wine and ruminating. Laren had never considered herself particularly religious. The camps beat that out of most Bajorans, and those that ended up in the Maquis were an even more secular lot. The Emissary had never mattered much to the people of Bajor, only to the Kais and Vedics. "That just seems wrong." Judging by the spectacular earring the other Bajoran wore, the Bajor here had been very devout.

"You mean there are things that seem right?"

Laren wondered what they were talking about now, but it didn't matter, not for her, not any longer. A day by the lake with Seven had changed that forever. "There are."

"The wine is good." Ro offered, noncommittally.

"You can thank the apprentice hedonists of House Presba for that. Kate's shuttle is better provisioned than a Risan resort."

Ro didn't respond and had turned back to face the Promenade below. Laren debated whether to say anything else or let it go, and leave. After a long minute, she reached over and poured more wine into her counterpart's glass, before joining her in watching the bustle below. Much could be said in silence.

==^==

Kathryn entered Astrometrics. Megan Delaney immediately stood at attention, though Lady Seven did not, nor did she look up from her work. The Captain's expression quirked and she said to Ensign Delaney, "As you were."

The young woman relaxed and turned back to her panel. Lady Seven greeted Kathryn pleasantly, if somewhat distractedly. Then, when she was finished inputting data, she turned to the Captain. "How may I be of assistance?"

Kathryn waved a PADD lightly. "I was wondering if you had a little time to go over some of these specs with me. I'd like some clarification before I approve."

"Of course, Kathryn. Would thirty minutes from now be convenient?"

"It would. You mind if we talk in my ready room? I'm having lunch delivered from the mess hall." Kathryn had never bothered to enforce her rule about being called by her given name while on duty.

"It sounds quite adequate."

"I'm glad you approve." Kathryn smiled. Over the past few days, lunch or dinner meetings had become a common occurrence between them. Their discussions did cover the important topics of the day, but also ranged in flavor and she had come to appreciate the Mistress of House Presba in her own right. "I'll see you in a half hour."

"I look forward to it."

==^==

Finished with lunch as well as their ship related business, they were taking a few minutes to converse before Ensign Celes returned from her own lunch break.

Kathryn sat back in the chair and tucked her legs underneath her as she relaxed into the moment. She lifted the cup and sipped, then said. "I'm curious about the Zakeeri. You mentioned that there are quite a few on board. How did that happen?"

"Before we encountered the Zakeeri, my Kathryn had already decided to implement changes that she felt would be beneficial for the ship," Seven began. "She arrived at the conclusion that it was time to consider adding crew after, of course, the appropriate training and indoctrination into fleet ideals."

"Fascinating."

==^==

Seven Torres and B'Elanna Troi entered the turbo-lift on the way to their quarters. It had been a long day, fruitful in its work but challenging too. They were both looking forward to seeing Laren, deciding what to do for dinner, and relaxing in each other's company.

B'Elanna was still reading about some new specifications on her PADD and pondering what to do about them as the door the lift closed. She heard, peripherally, Seven state their destination.

She smiled, realizing just how much she loved her Be'nal's voice. The lift began moving at its usual swift speed. B'Elanna decided that she had enough of schematics and tucked the PADD in her jacket. Then she turned to speak to her mate.

There was a sound, grinding and harsh, then some electronic noises. Seven reached over quickly, pulling B'Elanna close. She lifted her mate slightly, and then set her down gently so that she was standing on Seven's feet. Then the Borg wrapped her arms tightly around B'Elanna. This all happened in heartbeats, mere seconds before the lift abruptly halted.

Both Seven and B'Elanna remained standing, but pieces of panel took their leave of the lift.

As the dust settled, B'Elanna said, "You know. I'd almost forgotten what it was like."

Seven was looking up at the ceiling, and then she looked down. "The safety mechanisms are working correctly. There should be no more shocks. But there are several items that will need to be replaced. While we can repair the minor damage, we will probably have to wait for engineering."

"Damn. How long?"

"Three hours, if they come right away."

"Oh, they're coming alright…" Then she remembered. Not her ship. She gave her mate a sheepish smile. "Perhaps you had better make the call. I don't think I can be civil to anyone but you or Laren at this moment."

"As you wish, Bang'wI." Seven tapped her communicator and contacted engineering. She explained their dilemma.

"We'll be there as soon as possible, Seven, but it might be a half an hour," said the engineer on duty.

"Understood. Lady Torres out."

B'Elanna snickered. "I see you found a rank you liked."

"We could request transport." Seven suggested, ignoring the conversational gambit.

"No, we can't. This isn't an emergency, we're not in any danger. Wanting to go home to ravish you and Laren thoroughly isn't reason enough to burn energy on a site-to-site."

Seven looked at B'Elanna who appeared even grumpier, despite her even response. She made a decision and tapped her communicator to contact their mate. When Laren answered, she explained and said, "It will be some time before we are able to return to our quarters, beloved. Perhaps you ought to carry on without us."

"It won't be the same."

"No, but enjoy yourself anyway." B'Elanna interjected, speaking into Seven's communicator.

"Love you."

"And we you. We will be there as soon as we are able. Seven out." Seven looked at her mate, then rather than say anything, she began carefully picking up the debris and moved it to the side of the wall.

Then, when she was satisfied, she sat down and leaned against the wall herself. B'Elanna was still glowering. Seven finally said, "Bang'wI, may I have a moment of your time?"

It took a moment, but the Klingon shook off what was bothering her and looked at her mate. "What can I do for you, my love?"

Seven patted the ground and said, "Come sit beside me." She flavored the request with emotions of warmth and love.

B'Elanna chuckled, knowing what her mate was doing, and did as requested, settling in close as Seven wrapped an arm around her shoulder. She snuggled in a little. "At least I didn't throw a spanner."

"Nor a PADD."

"I didn't even rip off one of the handrails."

Seven looked surprised. She glanced at her mate. "You have done that?"

"Oh, several times. I figured I could always put them back."

Seven felt a chuckle of her own rise.

B'Elanna smiled, gratified. "These poor turbo-lifts. They serve so many, for so long. And we keep demanding they continue on, even as their bolts and gears give out."

"Turbo-lifts do not have gears."

"Figure of speech, Be'nal."

"It reminded you, more than anything else, what it used to be like."

"Yes. And I guess I was a little furious that my …uh…other sister was still dealing with it."

"She has been more than adequate to the task."

B'Elanna grinned and leaned in closer. "Yeah, she has. I have to give her that. She's dense about what matters, but is otherwise smart and capable."

"And what matters?"

"You." B'Elanna paused, and rephrased. "Well, always you, to me. But I was referring to this universe's version of you."

"They will figure it out for themselves, when it is time."

"You believe that?"

Seven contemplated for a moment and said, "The statistics support it."

"All two universe's worth, eh."

Seven smiled and said, "Three universes. They are, after all, engaged in pre-mating ritual. It's enough to begin the theory."

Now B'Elanna laughed fully. "Oh, I love you, my Lady Seven Torres. I love you more every day."

"And I you."

There was another pleasant length of silence between them. Then Seven said. "Bang'wI."

"Yes?"

"This is a turbo-lift."

"I am aware of that."

"In another Universe."

"I think that's been established."

"On Voyager."

"Seven…."

"I believe this qualifies as one that we have never …"

B'Elanna interrupted by sitting upright and turning and staring at Seven. Then, she grinned. "Kahless. You're right." She leaned forward and kissed her mate hard. Her eyes were alight with mischief. "Tell me, my mate, would you like to play turbo-lift strip?"

"A new game, invented by you, I take it."

"Yes. It begins like this. I take all your clothes off and then make love to you."

"I am intrigued by this new game and would like to play it."

B'Elanna leaned forward again and grasped the collar of Seven's jacket. "Oh good. Because I want to play it too."





Chapter 31 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




In Universe Beta, Sela had come to a resigned appreciation of what Priam referred to as the long distance relationship. The calls they exchanged at designated times had become something she anticipated with great enthusiasm. She missed them when events prevented them from happening. She embraced them whenever they were possible.

She greeted the Betazoid warmly. "Hello, Priam."

"Sela. As usual, it's a delight to see you."

"You look as if you've had a difficult day."

"Old habits can be challenging to overcome. We've started a new semester, which means new students. Some who understand they must earn this degree and others who do not."

"And your Orions?"

Priam had come to treasure that Sela was one to get right to the point. "They cope very well. They use it as an opportunity." Then she grinned. "They're making the first semester students train the second."

"A venerable strategy."

"I am realizing. I just… I don't like it when my people do not get the respect they deserve."

"And the consequence for disrespect?"

"The students fail. We lost half the cohort this last go around."

"Yet, you kept half." Sela sat back, smiling. "Did you get any re-applications?"

Priam looked thoughtful, then said, "Actually, we did have quite a few."

"Then it is working. I advise patience."

Now the Counselor grinned. "You do?"

"Oh, yes. It seems that is all I have been learning lately. It does have some side benefits."

"Oh?"

Sela winked, "Well, it certainly builds anticipation."

Priam hissed a little. "Oh, I know. I truly know. It's been the full moons here. If I haven't been working, every other thought has been…" She blushed. "About you."

Sela leaned forward. "Really. And what have you been thinking about me?"

The Betazoid leaned forward too, reflecting Sela's posture. Her expression was very near feral. "I have been thinking, that if you were here, you would not have to worry about leaving the room for days."

Sela laughed in delight.

Yes. She really looked forward to these calls.

==^==

Chakotay had found, once he arrived at Qo'nos, that things were very different for him. He wasn't sure what he expected, perhaps that he would be out wheeling and dealing, but it wasn't that he would be attending Operas, House Parties, ad hoc committee meetings, or sessions of the Unified Planets of the Empire, which had a quite unexpected number of delegates. Of course, the UP council did not rule. They were ruled. But that didn't mean the Chancellor wanted to hammer out every detail and every bargain for himself, and so there was a hierarchy.

Not that he was having much success in unraveling the levels of precedence. At one end there were the Intendants of the various sectors, who visited now and then, or the delegates and Ambassadors, of the respective Intendants or their planets. At another level entirely there were the judges and lawyers, and then there were truth seekers. A striking number of truth seekers were present in those ambassadorial meetings, and as he watched the political wrangling, he understood why. It kept people marginally honest.

On the other hand, he realized that he should have expected that an Empire as vast as that of the Klingons would have more sophistication to it than just warriors who battled over territory. The territory was already won and it was now a matter of keeping things running in such a way as to benefit the Empire and keep it growing.

Not to say that Klingon directness was not used in the UP Embassy. A battle circle featured prominently in the very center of the wide auditorium. It wasn't just a place for speeches; there were blood stains on those floors.

It made him grateful that he had listened to Kathryn and had let his team of Klingons train him in some of the intricacies of interaction in Klingon Society. In fact, because of his Oath to House Presba, he was considered Klingon and fully expected to behave in a manner that would uphold the honor of the House, which meant, that if it came to battle, he must conduct it, one way or the other.

Fortunately, no one had yet challenged him. Partially because he was still staying behind the scenes, trying to learn his way. But, as Ambassador for Universe Alpha, he was given up to five votes. This allotment gave him some marginal affect on the outcome of certain decisions. Thus, ironically, he was wooed by those who had an interest in seeing him use those votes in ways that worked for them.

It made for interesting times.

==^==

Fascination gave way to concern as more than a day after she'd begun, Annika showed no signs of slowing down. All three large windows were covered with diagrams and equations, and Belle had merely sighed as her mate began to write on the walls.

Despite her growing concern, she was pleased with herself. She had no idea what Annika was doing, but had a very good idea that the outcome would result in the retrieval of the missing members of the Prime. To that end, she had, in lieu of understanding or scientific knowledge, employed her tactical experience.

Before fighting any battle, you had to have information, and no piece was too trivial in the planning stages. By that logic, she had gone for information, sending a request to Leah Brahms to transmit everything they had before Voyager left.

She had uploaded the information into the main computer, and spread it across several tablets. For good measure she had hard copies made of some of the more obvious schematics and had tacked them to the wall, though she suspected that Annika had most of them memorized.

Annika just seemed to accept the presence of the diagrams, making notes on some, and ignoring others. Nor did she question the appearance of data in the computer core.

Belle decided that the degree of distraction might work in her favour, so she began setting out small bowls of fruit and vegetables, along with platters of cheeses and the weird little meat pastries Annika liked.

She watched the blonde move from diagram to table, amazed at how graceful her mate was. Generally, Annika moved almost hesitantly, as though each step she took was the result of inaudible permission being given to move. True, she had become much less tentative since joining the ship, but the mannerisms hadn't completely faded away.

Watching her now, Belle could almost forget that Annika had ever been a slave. And in seeing the difference, her heart ached.

The main replicator began to spit parts onto the floor, bringing her back into the moment, and she looked up to see that Annika had wired a tablet to the main panel of the unit.

In awe, she watched as the dispensed circuits and housing were swiftly assembled. Annika stood back up from where she had been sitting on the floor, a small, black box with two connecter ports, in her hand. From the table she picked up a tablet and turned for the first time in almost a day to Belle.

"Call Kathryn." She held them out.

Belle took them reflexively, and then had to juggle them in order to catch Annika, as the blonde's reserves seemed to fail and she sagged toward the floor. Putting the items aside for a minute she lifted Annika and carried her into their room.

Annika stirred briefly. "Tell them…"

"Shhh, Be'nal. You can tell them yourself. Rest now." She kissed Annika lightly and pulled the covers around the exhausted woman.

Returning to the main room, she picked up the tablet and turned it on. Her eyes widened as she read the first lines, and she looked in the bedroom stunned, as the meaning of it sank in.

Variant 752.

==^==

Commander Vah had a few spare moments to contemplate the radical changes in his life. At one time he was a minor warrior in a minor tribe of a minor Kazon clan. Now he was the commander of one of the finest fighting forces in a universe that was not his own.

Warlord Belle Torres of the House Presba had asked him, and his people, to take a select group of people and make something new out of them. Some began as slaves, some began as free beings. Some were male, some were female. Those who had striven and succeeded were to be Marines. Those who washed out would be given both their freedom, if needed, and other duties to serve the Empire.

He smiled fiercely at the weary, panting and pained group who appeared to be stunned that they were even still standing and remembered the day of his own pinning. He thanked the Gods daily for that encounter with Voyager.

Commander Vah nodded to the Shaman, who said a few traditional words. If General Torres found them foreign and odd, she gave no hint. Rather her fierce, stern expression and nod took him to the next step. He didn't even have to read from a list. He knew who his Marines were.

The Kazon called the first name. "Asil."

==^==

Before the advent of the House Presba into her life, there were very, very few people that Deanna Troi could call a friend and mean it. She had many who were loyal to her. She had many who would lay down their lives for her. But there were few who were just friends.

Perhaps it had to do with status. The rank Deanna held was singular and peculiar. It was nearly as high as the Chancellor's in its general impact within the quadrants. She counted as one of the Chancellor's personal advisors. Which meant, that when visiting on Qo'nos, she often visited him and his family personally. It had started as soon as she had become The Truth Seeker of Truth Seekers.

Now she and her mates had a genuine dilemma and there was only one person of whom she could think who had the ear of both the people who were most likely to respond strongly.

Not that marriage wasn't Deanna's prerogative. Everyone, except for slaves, had that right. It was a case of who she mated with. Intendant Kira had duties, just as Deanna had duties. They could not be two places at once, however. Jadzia being a member of House Martok added another layer of complication. She understood then, why her alpha-Universe parents had waited before taking the oath with Ezri Dax. Regular Klingon politics were difficult enough terrain to navigate, but they had nothing on House politics in the Empire.

Deanna made a call.

==^==

"Deanna," The Klingon woman on the view screen was genuinely happy to see the Betazoid. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"K'Ehleyr, you know I just like to call you now and then."

"Ah, but in your eyes I see that something is different."

Deanna leaned forward. "You always were an observant woman." Then she smiled. It wasn't the smile she had been giving her followers lately. It was the one that her mates had seen, the one bright and white, and dangerous.

"Deanna Troi, what a…lovely smile you have."

The Betazoid laughed. "And I have a story to go along with it. Do you have an hour or two?"

"For you. Oh, absolutely I do. Are you coming to visit me?"

"We're five light years away from Qo'nos."

"Wonderful. I shall tell my people to be prepared." There was a pause, then Klingon woman said, "Wait, you said we…"

"Which brings me to the reason for my visit. My mates and I need your advice."

"Mates." K'Ehleyr's gaze sharpened. "Now I really am curious."





Chapter 32 | Universe Alpha | Bookmarks




Once Voyager returned to the alpha-Universe, they continued their search as planned. On the fourth day of the renewed search, they encountered people during their journey. The Klingons were both ferocious and charming and knew of a Federation far away; one that had grown in the opposite direction and had never threatened their borders.

It could have gone differently, but Commander Troi had been frank with them. "We only have fifteen more minutes and then we'll be gone. It wouldn't be a proper battle at all. Perhaps another time." Her words had amused and intrigued the Klingons and a dialog had begun.

They were curious about a Betazoid that was of a Klingon House and even more interested when they met the Human Commodore who was also a Warlord. By the time the small cultural exchange was really getting started, Commodore Janeway had bid them farewell, warned them not to come too close because of the wake, and Voyager had simply disappeared from view.

Back in the Universe Alpha, Kathryn said, "That went well. Good job, Deanna."

"Well, I can't guarantee success every time, but I thought you might like to be part of the first encounter."

"Good call." Kathryn looked torn. "On the one hand, I'd love to stay and join you in all the first contacts, but…"

"I understand." Deanna paused. "The TUE team believes that we have a strong statistical chance of encountering Klingons again after this. Perhaps I should call you if circumstances prove to be unique."

"I think that would be good. Also, I will talk with the Prime. I think…I think we are close to ready, but I must confirm before I commit."

"Of course, Commodore."

"Record our encounters. I am interested in the cultural divergences, if there are any."

Deanna grinned. "Me too."

==^==

At the end of the fourth day, the Prime discussed and felt around their options. Ezri explained her choice about the Rite of Closure, and, as hoped, the others understood.

"However, it cannot be delayed indefinitely, my Ezri," said Kathryn gently. "I will see if Lt. Commander Keru can be seconded to Voyager."

"I understand. But it is my preference."

"And mine too."

Ezri took a deep breath, she'd considered the matter very carefully, and despite her nervousness, decided now would be a good time to ask. "Kathryn, I need to ask you something."

"What?" Kathryn studied Ezri, searching for a clue as to why the Trill had paled and her eyes had shifted from an electric to almost navy blue.

"Would you be Host to Audrid Dax?"

She didn't even need to think about it. "Of course I will." Kathryn dug into her memories of her recent research. "She was Dax's fourth host, the one that was head of the Trill Symbiosis Commission?"

Ezri nodded. "Yes. She was also a brilliant scientist. I think you'll like her."

"I know I will."

Ezri smiled at that and the discussion continued on to another topic.

It was decided that those that who were not on sabbatical, would resume their full duty rotation again. Ezri and Kate were both feeling more grounded, as were the other mates. They would do what was needed to see that the healthier state continued. Part of the plan included a retreat to the Nest at night. For the time being, no adult of the Prime would sleep alone.

They exited the Nest and rejoined the rest of their family, who were very glad to see them.

==^==

The ship continued to transition from one variant to the next. On one such transition, Tom Paris was startled to see a ship hanging directly in from of them. He was reminded briefly that just when you thought everything was routine, a twist reached out and readjusted what you thought of as normal. He was looking at what he took to be a Klingon ship, the design of which hadn't been in use in his universe for almost fifty years. But there it was, a Bird of Prey, with Federation markings. Before he could comment, they were hailed.

Though the vessel appeared Klingon, the hail contained recognizable Federation signatures that reinforced the registry of the ship. The voice of the person who answered was also very familiar. "This is Captain Worf Rozhenko of the USS Ro'keg. Identify yourself."

Amused by the twists of Inter-Universal First Contact, Commodore Janeway nodded to her First Officer to take the lead. "I am Commander Deanna Troi of the House Presba and First Officer of the Federation Starship Voyager."

"Impossible. Commander Deanna Troi, my wife, is of the House of Martok and is currently serving on this ship. You are an impostor posing as my wife."

"Perhaps if we opened up the visuals, Captain Rozhenko, we might avoid conflict? I assure you, I am who I say I am, and I disagree completely that I am posing as anything other than who I am." Deanna knew from Worf's tone that this this version of the burly Klingon was as by the book as hers, and that that might very well spell trouble.

Communications ended abruptly.

Lieutenant Kim said, "They're raising shields, Commodore."

Deanna turned to the Commodore, "Just a moment, please. I am contacting my counterpart."

Kathryn nodded, but signaled, "Please hurry."

Deanna reached, unsure of what the reception would be. She had not made the attempt in the beta-Universe since her sister was quite a distance away. Here though, it was as nothing to reach across to her other self. She kept the message simple. 〈〈I am Deanna Troi of the House Presba. We come from another Universe. Would you mind asking your husband not to fire upon us?〉〉

There was a sense of shock, of a kind of blind feeling along the senses and Deanna remembered what it was like to only have the feelings of others to rely on, the effort it required to make sense of it all. So, deliberately, she thought warm, receptive thoughts - along with a sense of urgency, which increased when Harry Kim suddenly said, "They're arming weapons."

Commodore Janeway said, "Raise shields."

Deanna heard, as if on a double broadcast, 〈〈Why do I suddenly hear two daughters?〉〉

〈〈Mother?〉〉

〈〈Hello, dear.〉〉

〈〈Please wait. Don't go away. Wait.〉〉 There was hope and urgency in the request.

==^==

Worf looked like he would rather be eating glass. "I apologize for the misunderstanding. We have been battling an Empire called the Dominion. They are shape changers."

Commodore Janeway raised her hand. "Say no more. Our Universe is currently engaged in a similar battle. We also understand the dilemma of doppelgangers." She placed her hand on her hips and offered a smile. "My mate, Lwaxana Troi, has asked me to invite you, your wife, and your children, to dinner. She wishes to meet our grandchildren."

His eyes bulged outward perceptibly. "Your mate?"

"We are the Prime of the House Presba. If you come to dinner, I'll be happy to explain what that means." Then she paused, "On a different note, is this a safe location for you? We can always transition out, if necessary."

"The Dominion have not yet made it to this point. We were considering using this system as a refugee site."

"Well, tell them to beware of the Presban Chaser."

"The what?"

"We'll tell you at dinner."

==^==

Asil, Deanna, and Lwaxana waited in the transporter room for their guests. The communication between Lwaxana and her daughters had been nearly non-stop. The Deanna of this Universe knew what to expect when she and her family arrived.

Thus, nearly as soon as the transporter had delivered them, Deanna Troi-Rozhenko was stepping off the platform and straight into Lwaxana's arms. The two children, Shannara and Eric-Christopher, stood beside Worf watching in rapt attention. Like their father, they had a wonderful crown of forehead ridges, and, like their mother, they had the Betazoid eyes.

Deanna smiled warmly at the niece and nephew that could have, at a different time, been her own children, and then at Worf. "Welcome to Voyager."

==^==

Half of the fun came when introducing the children. "Eric-Christopher and Shannara, these are your aunts and uncles. This is Emina, Barin, Mezoti, Azan, Rebi and Icheb. Children of House Presba, this is your niece and this is your nephew."

The children looked at each other, communicating in the silent way that all children had. Then Barin went and grasped Shannara by the hand, while Mezoti took Eric-Christopher's. Rebi said, in passing, as he took Emina's hand, "We have been working on a project designed to help find our mothers. We have been creating a holographic inter-dimensional map. Would you like to see it?"

It was the first adults of the Prime had heard about it. Commodore Janeway stopped them before they could head off. "My darlings, I would, at some point, like to see this project."

Mezoti smiled slightly, "Of course, Mom. We planned on showing it to you when it was finished."

"I'm sure you did. Have you been working with anyone else?"

"Well, just Naomi."

"And Tal," added Azan.

Kathryn's brow rose at that. Tal was swimming in deeper waters than she claimed to be able to handle. "Ah. Well, all I ask is that none of you try to develop a separate engine at this point."

The flash of looks between the Sochlings set more than one of their parents' hair to stand on end.

T'Pel spoke firmly. "None of the Children of House Presba are to attempt inter-dimensional travel without our supervision, at this time or for any time foreseeable. Understood? Comply."

Again there was that silence. Then there was an almost group sigh. "We will comply."

Ezri added. "We applaud your desire to help, but we can not lose you too. We will discuss this again later. Icheb, why don't you go get Tal so she can join us for dinner. The rest of you are dismissed."

The children did not exactly scurry away, but they also didn't stick around long enough to be told not to go either.

Deanna Troi-Rozhenko said, "Surely they wouldn't…"

"Our children?" said Kate. "Oh, they would and they probably could."

"They would justify it by saying that one ship searching was inefficient," said Kathryn as they moved the discussion to the larger family room.

"Then they would attempt to," Tuvok chose his words carefully. "…borrow a shuttle craft. It is possible they already have and have been working on modifications for it."

Lwaxana said, "Now that they have been caught at it and have promised not to go universe hopping without us, they won't. Our children are precocious, but fortunately well behaved."

Ezri grinned, "Well, not too well behaved. That would be boring."

==^==

The initial conversation largely centered around sharing information. In this universe, the Dominion had conquered a good half of Federation Space. The Federation of Planets, of which the equivalent of the Klingon Empire was a member, had finally created a stable border. It had taken time to find the best strategy. Meanwhile, the Romulans had decided to go their own way. They at least, however, had agreed to a ceasefire in hostilities. The Rozhenkos were part of a team assigned by Admiral Picard to find safe locations at the outskirts of both the Beta and the Alpha quadrants for those individuals who were making an escape from Dominion rule.

The Lwaxana Troi of this universe did not have a son, and had been on Betazed when the Dominion arrived. She had not escaped and they had not heard from her. Indications were that the world had been decimated, but no Betazoid had escaped to tell. Only those who had been off world at the time had been spared. Lwaxana squeezed Deanna Troi-Rozhenko's hand.

Kathryn said, "I'm sorry that we can't stay to help." She looked at her mates and they signaled their agreement. Family was family. "But we would be happy to do an information exchange, if you would like. I believe my Federation and both of my Empires would approve."

"Both of your Empires?"

"Kathryn is a Warlord in the Klingon Empire of two Universes, as is our Epatai."

Worf wouldn't have said it, but he was impressed. This amused his wife, so she asked on his behalf. "How did that happen?"

"It began the first time the Prime were split. Your mother and T'Pel were stolen by the Orion Syndicate and taken to an alternate universe. Naturally we had to find them."

==^==

Their dinner was convivial and amusing. Conversation took many turns as there were many persons to keep it moving.

Mezoti inquired about the status of her niece and nephew's personal weapons training and that led to a philosophical discussion about age limits and bat'leths. The Sochlings were thoroughly disgusted to find out that neither Eric-Christopher nor Shannara were considered old enough for the training. However, they conceded that different cultures had different ways and were somewhat mollified when Worf promised that both would learn when the time came.

Then Barin began tucking into the spiced gagh that was passed around, he was followed by Emina and then, to Worf's great surprise, his own children, who, until that instant, had refused outright to even try the delicacy.

It was at that point that Worf decided he really, really liked this side of Deanna's family.

==^==

Deanna Troi made her way over to corner of the large living room. Ezri looked up at her and grinned, then parted her legs and motioned for Deanna to sit between them. She sat down and leaned against the Trill's shoulder, wrapping her own arms over Ezri's and tucking them against her chest. "It's not like you to hide in a corner during a party."

Ezri's warm breath tickled the side of her neck as a snort of laughter escaped. "All I've been doing lately, it seems, is hiding. Thank you, by the way."

She nodded, not needing Ezri to elaborate. "So, why are you hiding over here?"

There was another laugh and she was squeezed affectionately. "I could have sworn Orsas is the Ship's Counselor."

"She is. And as a counselor yourself, you know what she, I, and you would say to a patient so obviously avoiding the question." Deanna registered Ezri's surprise, and leaned back, settling even deeper into the embrace.

Ezri rested her chin on Deanna's shoulder, weighing her thoughts. "I wasn't hiding, I was observing. And thinking."

Ordinarily, Deanna would have carried through on the family joke and asked if they should be worried, instead she prompted Ezri to continue. "About?"

"I was watching Worf and Deanna T-R, and how terrific they are, and in our Universe you and Worf were good once, and you still have this really amazing friendship. At Kate's oath taking, Chancellor Worf kept pretending to watch Lwaxana, but he couldn't keep his eyes off your counterpart. I thought he'd leave with Jadzia, Nerys and that Deanna, instead of Belle and Annika. And look at Belle and Annika, Seven and B'Elanna, in both Universes there's something really unique there. Even me, with Chancellor Worf and our Worf, or me and Ezri Tigan with Intendant Kira. It's got me thinking about the levels of connection across Universes. Like no matter what Universe I go to, those connections will be there, almost reflections in a prism. Maybe not exactly the same, but there, and solid. Comforting even." Ezri drew in a breath, and decided that she had expressed as much introspection as the occasion would permit, and opted for levity. "Of course, there's probably some Universe where you got stuck with me."

The self-effacing humour was back, and Deanna relaxed, knowing Ezri had come through the sudden changes of being mated and separated in quick succession intact. "That Universe wouldn't know what hit it." She paused. "We'd most likely be in charge of a Risan Empire."

Ezri laughed. "I think you'd have to be willing to get out of bed to conquer an Empire."

"I've kissed you. You most certainly would be able to conquer an Empire from your bed."

"Sex as the ultimate weapon. Surrender or orgasm."

Deanna burst out laughing, drawing the attention of the other adults.

"Do we need to separate you two?" Kathryn asked, eyes twinkling.

"No, Commodore." They said in unison, once again surrendering to their laughter.

"You are both incorrigible." Lwaxana said fondly, and then nudged Asil. "Go save your wife from my wife, before Ezri corrupts her completely."

Asil crossed the room, but instead of helping Deanna up, she sat on the edge of the chair and folder her body around both women. "I believe the expression is, if you cannot beat them, then join them."

The entire group, save Worf, T'Pel and Tuvok, looked startled and then began to laugh.

==^==

Lwaxana handed her daughter two disks. 〈〈This you may share with anyone. It contains information about the Penetrator Shield and many other modifications to weapons, shields, armor and uniforms, which you will find useful. This is a family disk. It is only for those who are family.〉〉

〈〈Thank you, Mother. We do appreciate it.〉〉

〈〈I know, Darling.〉〉 Lwaxana drew Deanna in for a long hug. 〈〈We will be back when we can, to visit. But it will be awhile.〉〉

〈〈I understand. We are...〉〉 Deanna choked up a little. 〈〈We are just glad that you came and that we were here to see you.〉〉

〈〈Me too.〉〉 They hugged one more time. 〈〈Be well, my Darling. Live long and prosper.〉〉

〈〈Peace and long life.〉〉 Smiling through her tears, Deanna returned the ritual Vulcan salutation and choked back a laugh that was half sob as she saw the brows of T'Pel twitch in surprise.

As Deanna Troi-Rozhenko took her place beside her husband on the transporter pad, Lwaxana couldn't resist. 〈〈I always thought Worf was the better choice of the two.〉〉

Both Deannas responded. 〈〈Mother!〉〉





Chapter 33 | Universe Alpha | Bookmarks




In the Alpha quadrant of Universe Alpha, Captain Picard greeted both new arrivals warmly, clasping their hands in his, one woman after the other. "Beverly, Guinan welcome back." His smile broadened. "And well done. You may have just saved the Federation."

"I wouldn't say it was us, Jean-Luc. But it was good to be there. We bring news, of course." Beverly said.

He nodded. "I heard about Will. It is most regrettable." Quiet grief showed in his eyes. "Is there any chance of recovery?"

"Honestly, Jean-Luc, I don't know. I've turned over the data to Starfleet Medical in hopes they'll find something, but that poison was very effective. Corvalis very nearly managed to wipe away all the evidence. Forever. Fortunately, the House Presba is prepared to take care of him for as long as it takes. He's in good hands."

"Speaking of House Presba, I understand the Prime of the House were instrumental in negotiations."

"You could say that." Guinan said. "Or you could say they married a Daughter of the House Martok and suddenly negotiation became possible."

Picard was startled, but it took only a few seconds to regain his aplomb. "I will send felicitations."

"They'll appreciate it. They're very... " Beverly didn't quite have the word. She looked over at Guinan and then shrugged, "...unusual people. But you'd like them."

"You would. Very much. I do." Affirmed Guinan. She decided that Jean-Luc had had all the shocks he could absorb for the moment with more still to come, and so she didn't mention that Lwaxana Troi was among their number.

Again the Captain was startled, but Picard couldn't help the smile. "High praise, indeed."

"Oh, speaking of..." Guinan reached into her robes and pulled out a long, thin clear bottle. The liquid within was a clear light blue. "You will appreciate this. This is Voyager's House Wine. Commander Steve Magnum produced a limited run of this vintage before we left. So here you are, from me. To you." There was a hint of amusement and something else warmer in her gaze.

Picard's brows rose, but he accepted the bottle graciously. One didn't reject a gift from an old friend. But he was curious about what he saw in her gaze. He would have to ask later, when they had time. If he remembered. "Thank you." He meant it. For so many things. He then added, turning back to business, "The Titan has yet to cross the border, but I understand that…," now his lips quirked into a somewhat sardonic expression, "…Warlord Janeway's terms were quite reasonable."

Guinan informed him, "Fleet Commodore Janeway could have asked for more and received it." She smiled more as she watched Picard's expressions take on a new cast.

He replied, "Fleet Commodore?" He glanced back at Beverly, who merely nodded. She too understood the implications. "They haven't had one of those in decades."

Guinan shrugged. "I suppose they think it's time to bring them back. Given the war. Commodores are very useful in times like these. Or so I've observed. Much less likely to lose valuable Admirals at the front this way."

"Indeed." Picard wasn't sure what to make of Guinan's amusement, but he could feel the change in the proverbial wind given the way she was looking at him. He shifted uncomfortably. "And Janeway..."

"...They were attacked without provocation by…" She knew that Picard was aware of who had done the actual acting, and chose a euphemism, "…misguided parties. Moreover, it was done in your name. Deanna boarded the Titan because she believed you requested it."

Now Picard's brow narrowed, and his gaze hardened. "My name. Perhaps we ought to talk about this more in my ready room."

"I think that would be good," said Beverly. "Ambassador Yar sends her regards."

"Ambassador Yar?" He looked blankly at the Doctor. Then his eyes widened. "Yar. Ambassador Tasha Yar?"

"One and the same."

"I would dearly love to hear this news."

Guinan grinned at his sudden enthusiasm. "On a different topic, would you be interested in an El-Aurian bartender for a few months?"

"Guinan, it is always an honor to have you on board. The bar is yours."

"Good. Because I recently received some drink recipes that will almost literally blow your socks off. The crew will love them."

==^==

The corridors of Voyager seemed to be both longer and darker when one was forced to move slowly and with caution. Though, logically, that perception could not be the literal fact, and Tuvok dismissed the thought out of hand.

Ezri Dax was behind him, and they both had their phasers out. They were one team of many who were scouring the ship for the elusive intruder.

The alert had sounded almost as soon as they transitioned back into the alpha-Universe. Voyager was able to spot the invader in flickering passes, but then it would disappear only to reappear elsewhere. There was urgency in their efforts. They knew what the intruder was.

It was a Changeling.

It also appeared to be moving with definite purpose, from deck to deck. It was heading toward the bridge.

They were determined not to let it get there.

At the moment, they believed they had it cornered in one of the science labs that had an obstructed Jefferies tube access point. It could not get out, unless it had some transporter technology, which it might.

They approached the door of the lab. Asil was on one side, while another officer was on the other. Asil nodded briefly at Tuvok and Ezri. Tuvok tapped his communicator. "Engage forcefields."

The forcefields sparkled whitely for a moment, and then became invisible. They, along with the foreign being were now trapped in that small section of the ship. Tuvok nodded to his daughter. "Open the door."

The door slid open. They waited a moment, and then when signaled, Asil slid into the room.

Communication also came from another source. Deanna had been tracking the being in her own way, and passed what she had gleaned on to Asil. 〈〈He is afraid. I don't think he means harm. But he fears being sent back.〉〉

It gave the Vulcan a possible working point. Still holding her phaser at the ready, she said, "I am Lieutenant Commander Asil Troi of the House Presba. I give you my word that it is not our intention to harm you, but you must reveal yourself now or we may be forced to engage you physically."

Tuvok and Ezri stepped into the room, also ready for any reaction. The other security guard remained outside in order to guard the door, waiting. Tuvok activated his tricorder. The tool ran its programs and scanners for a moment, and then he pointed with it. "There."

Now Ezri spoke. "I am Commander Ezri Dax of the House Presba. We know you are here, you have nowhere else to go. There are two Vulcans watching you. They can stand here, awake and alert, for hours. I suggest following Asil's advice."

No response was immediately forthcoming. Then, there was a slow movement and the alien transformed; changing from what appeared to be a random box, into a bipedal kind of being. He looked much like a Changeling she knew, only incredibly haggard. The Changling leaned on the station beside it and flickered in and out of cohesive solidity. The effect was to make the being resemble a candle left too close to heat.

Tuvok conveyed his findings, and his resulting conclusion. "The Changeling appears to be experiencing difficulty. I believe he is injured. We should take him sickbay and see to his care." He trusted in Deanna's assessment of the being's gender.

"And what kind of care would that be, Vulcan? I know your kind. You torture my kind for fun."

Tuvok raised his brow. "I assure you that my kind does no such thing."

"I think he means the Vulcans from his Universe." Ezri made the intuitive leap. "You took a chance, didn't you? Coming to our ship."

"I heard your introduction and it was so outrageous, I had to see for myself." He closed his eyes, obviously in pain. "You see, it couldn't be any worse. They were letting me rest, for their next experiment. I knocked out my guard, got to the transporter just before they raised shields. I honestly didn't think I would make it. But death would have been better."

"Commander Dax to Voyager."

"Voyager here."

"Please disengage the forcefields and transport Asil, Tuvok, myself and…"

"Odo." The Changeling supplied.

Ezri did not even blink. She'd known, somehow. It was his eyes. "Odo to sickbay."

"Engaging."

==^==

Ezri, Deanna, and Kathryn gathered in the ready room. Tuvok was guarding the Changeling in sickbay, while Asil was doing an evaluation of the performance of the crew during the search.

"We weren't able to get a whole lot out of him before he was forced to take his fluid form. But, as you know, our ability to gather data from all available streams while in a new universe has improved exponentially over the last several days. First reports about the universe we just exited indicate that the major governmental entity is the Romulan Oligarchy."

"Interesting."

"It does shed some light on some of the comments that he made about Asil and Tuvok," commented Ezri. "It was the declaration of House that caused Odo to decide to trust them. Honor in that universe is also considered a very big deal." Ezri settled more comfortably into her seat. "Though I note that Asil was very careful in what she promised the Changeling."

"How did he get aboard?" Kathryn stared at the OC, and First Officer, who in turn flicked glances at each other.

Ezri answered. "He didn't register as a life form, or recognizable threat under the new shield harmonic. That has been rectified."

"Do you mean to tell me, that in the middle of a war with the Dominion, and a known previous incursion by Changlings, we failed ensure they couldn't get aboard just by deciding they wanted aboard?"

"That is correct, Captain. Our new harmonics are an enhancement of the standard Starfleet ones." Ezri held her hand up to indicate she needed a minute. Her brows furrowed, her tongue creeping out between her lips and tongue for an instant, as she thought about something."

Kathryn waited.

Ezri folded her hands in her lap, twisting her fingers together, and then continued. "I suspect that Starfleet simply never thought that the Changelings would operate that way. They are not front line troops, they operate by infiltration not invasion. That's what the Breen and Jem'hadar are for, and the harmonics account for them plus the Vorta clones."

"That might be true of how Starfleet thinking, but it shouldn't be true of us. Send a message to Starfleet at the new available opportunity, and get Harry out of Ops and send him to Seven of Nine. If there is a species designation for it, and we are even remotely likely to encounter them, I want an augmenting harmonic. Clear?"

"Yes, Captain." Ezri answered but she looked over at Deanna and nodded, transmitting her order non-verbally.

"Now that we have the how he got aboard, why did he come aboard?"

Deanna said, "Recently the Oligarchy and the Changelings have come into conflict. Odo was serving aboard a space station in the Alpha quadrant when it all started. He was taken by Romulan Security Forces when the conflict escalated. They believed him to be a spy."

"Was he?"

Deanna answered with the absolute confidence of someone who could read another. "No."

Ezri shot her a look. "That's new."

Kathryn looked between them, confused. "What's new?"

Deanna resisted the impulse to actually kick Ezri under the table. She and Asil were still figuring out some of the changes that their bond and the Anomaly had caused in them as individuals and as a couple. "Until recently, like most Betazoids, I could only read those whose brain structure was humanoid in nature. I was unable to read Ferengi, for example, and, in theory, shouldn't be able to read Odo either."

Sensing Deanna's discomfort, Janeway moved the discussion back to where it had been before the digression. She leaned back in her seat and pressed her fingertips together. "I note that you did not say that the Romulans were engaging the Dominion."

"Good catch," said Ezri. "That's because they aren't. The Dominion, as we know it, does not exist in that particular Universe. This is purely a race war."

Now Kathryn grimaced. "Ugly."

"The terrible thing is that the Oligarchy is winning."

Kathryn looked at Ezri and understood the implications. She didn't want to ask. She really didn't. She knew, however, that she must. "How are they winning?"

"They seeded several Changelings with a virus and then sent them back to their homeworld. It's likely that the majority of the population no longer exists." Now the Commodore looked alarmed, so Ezri hastened to reassure Kathryn. "Odo is as clean as a whistle. They were trying different techniques on him. Molecular reconstruction being one of them."

"Molecular reconstruction?"

Deanna answered, "They were trying to force him into a state of permanent solidity. It would be somewhat like a combination of sleep deprivation, starvation, rolling waves of electric shock and forcing complete physical alteration on one of us, all without painkillers. It's amazing he is even alive."

Kathryn considered that answer. Then asked, "What is his current attitude toward…" She thought carefully about using the word, "…us solids."

"Well, I can't say that he is happy. But Odo has never been a bigot. It's not in his nature." Ezri couldn't imagine any version of the Constable she had known on Deep Space 9 being any different.

"Is he a threat to this ship?"

"No, Commodore, I don't believe that he is." Deanna confirmed.

Kathryn looked at her officers and said, "I do not think we will be visiting that universe again. We may want to win the war, but there are just some things the Federation and the Empire won't do."

"Agreed."

"Now, we've visited several universes other than this one. Did we learn anything unique?"

==^==

"Commander Voyager to Commodore Janeway."

On hearing Voyager use her rank, and speak through a communicator, Kathryn nearly choked on the mouthful of coffee she had just taken in. She swallowed carefully, and glanced over at Tal, who also looked confounded. "Commodore Janeway here, go ahead Commander."

"I take full responsibility for the Changeling being able to come aboard, and present myself for the appropriate discipline."

Kathryn watched Tal viciously bite down on the inside of her cheek to keep from evidencing her amusement, and winced in sympathy. "You're dismissed, Lt. Celes."

"Aye, Commodore."

Her assistant now safely rescued. Kathryn turned her attention back to the matter at hand. "Tell me, Commander, what were you doing when the Changeling transported aboard?"

"Monitoring weapons and defensive systems, actively engaging the enemy vessel, by assisting Tuvok with pin point weapon fire, assisting helm and navigation by--"

She interrupted Voyager. "Tell me, how many simultaneous tasks were you engaged in during the operation?"

Dead air reigned for a second before Voyager replied. "One hundred and forty seven active tasks, three hundred and twelve secondary monitoring tasks."

Kathryn lifted her cup to her lips and took a drink. "I was doing four and thinking about a handful more." She gentled her tone. "My ship, you are only..." About to say only Human, she smiled and choose a different expression, "...one person. If you could or should do everything, you wouldn't need me."

"I will always need you, you are my Captain."

"And I you." Kathryn grinned. "Dismissed, Commander."

"Aye, Commodore."

She leaned back in her chair, and shook her head. What was that quote? There are more things under Heaven and Earth, Horatio. Kathryn smiled and saluted the air with her cup. More things, indeed.

==^==

Commodore Janeway looked down at the small tub. It was lightly heated for comfort and contained the Changeling who was still in liquid form. She noted the monitor that was connected to the device. It indicated that Odo's vitals, the baseline of which had been taken from the Starfleet Medical records of his counterpart, were stabilizing.

Kate said, "They were literally tearing him apart molecule by molecule. Then reconstructing those molecules. But it was an unstable construction. So he would revert. They may have told him that they were going to keep him solid for the rest of his life. But they were just playing with him. The evidence is all here in the data." She showed Kathryn a PADD. "They were deliberately shocking him back and forth, just to see if it would kill him."

The Commodore's expression was grim. "Will he recover?"

"His nutrient store is completely depleted, so we'll be feeding him regularly, in either state. Pushing him back and forth like that sapped all the good stuff right out of him."

"I thought Changelings didn't eat."

"They're biological creatures. They may not eat the way we do, but even they have to have something to pull from when they repair themselves."

"And the tub?"

"Icheb designed it. It will help keep Odo comfortable and warm, while he recovers. It's got plenty of room for him to expand and contract as he needs. We plan on utilizing a kind of sun-lamp to help regulate his system. They need a moderate amount of light, but with the hurt he's been given, he needs a little more. When he's better, we can move it to some quarters, after he's cleared, along with the monitor."

Kathryn's expression turned pensive.

"What?"

"I really don't want to ask this."

Kate reached out, physically and mentally. "What don't you want to ask?"

"Were there any other Changelings on that ship?"

Kate was quiet and then said, "We have no way of knowing. It's likely the ship will have moved on by the time we recover enough to go back after them."

"Yet if there are survivors, even if they are our enemies here, they need to be rescued. And Voyager is faster than that ship is."

"We can't solve every problem in every universe, Commodore." This was a professional discussion and Kate kept it as such.

"No, but we can try to fix what we can, if it doesn't take to long. A rescue operation…would only be hours." She looked at her CMO, hoping that Kate would understand. It was a Captain thing, a Commodore thing. "If there are survivors, we need to find out and go get them now. While we still can."

"And if they go back to the great link and join their side?"

"It will still have been the right thing to do." Kathryn looked at the golden liquid in the tub and said, "Is there a way to ask him?"

"I don't even know if he is conscious, Commodore. They hurt him bad. And the truth is, I don't want to use any stimulant on him in this state. It would further rupture his…"

In the bucket, there was movement. It was slow and obviously agonizing. He managed to form an almost discernibly humanoid form: a face on a neck and shoulders. His eyes opened to look at them.

"Please," he said. His expression was wounded for more than himself. "Please go back."

"How many, Mr. Odo?"

"I don't know. But I know they were there. I could feel them scream. We were separated so we could not link."

"Damn it." Pulaski swore. She knew they were going back.

"You understand the link?"

Kate and Kathryn looked at each other and touched their fingertips together. "We do."

Odo grunted. "Perhaps you do."

"Thank you, Mr. Odo." Janeway paused, "We'll get them back for you. Rest now."

He wasn't quite ready to thank anyone for anything. If he lived maybe he might. But he was, by nature, polite. "Commodore Janeway, I hope you succeed."

"So do I."

Odo faded back into the tub and Kathryn looked at her mate. Then, without saying another word, she stalked out of sickbay.

==^==

"You just can't help it, can you? You have to pick up the strays," Ezri commented with some amazement. Though she wasn't arguing the logic of the decision. They needed to go back. Technically, she supposed, even she counted as one of Janeway's motley collection of strays, vagabonds and miscreants. It was a nice feeling.

"I don't rescue everyone."

"But it doesn't change that you've got that hero quality. No wonder…." Ezri stopped. It wasn't an event that she had talked to Kathryn about very much since the events with Kahless had predated her arrival. Not that the topic was forbidden per se, but there was too much at stake to make public mention of it casually. "Anyway, the TUE is ready to go and I've called a staff meeting to start in five minutes."

"Five minutes?"

"Yes."

There was quiet. "Ensign Anderson, you're excused for five minutes."

"Aye, Commodore."

They waited until the ensign was out of the room and then Kathryn stood and Ezri moved towards her. The hug that followed was natural, lengthy and solid. "Thank you for understanding."

"Of course, I do. Let's go kick some Romulan butt." Ezri gave Kathryn's shoulder one last squeeze.

"At least it's not Sela."

"Small graces. That would have been hard."

==^==

The staff meeting was relatively quick. Those that knew, understood. Those that didn't, soon did. No rationale was given, none was needed given the facts. Plans were made to begin immediately.

The Marine Special Task Force would prepare for the boarding and rescue, while the scouts and the Zakeeri planned assaults to act as a distraction. Voyager, the scouts and the Zakeeri would fire on the other vessel in an effort to drain its shields so that the Marines could board. Security and Operations would scan the other vessel and find the location of the other prisoners.

With the plan solidified, the crew of Voyager actively prepared for what was to come.

Less than thirty minutes later, a cloaked Voyager stealthily returned to the Romulan Universe.

The target ship had, as expected, moved on, but they found its trail relatively quickly. Commodore Janeway sat back in her seat. "Let's go get 'em, Tom."

Voyager sped on her way and chased the other vessel down like a hound on the hunt.

Forty minutes and several parsecs away, they caught up with the other ship.

"Are their shields on?"

"Deflectors only, Commodore."

Kathryn Janeway had a flash of inspiration. "Target their shield generators and weapons."

"Targeting."

"Contact Asil. Let her know we're ready to send the troops, on her mark. I want her on the bridge of that ship."

Tuvok's brow raised and then he nodded his head, understanding.

"Aye, Commodore."

"Harry, where are those prisoners?"

"I'm working on it." There was a long pause and the normal noises of the ship seemed slightly louder. "Commodore, I've found four Changelings in various conditions and in different locations. I've also established the location of their brig. One Cardassian is located there. Life-signs are weak for all of them."

Kathryn looked at her OC, and her First Officer. They both nodded. "Contact sickbay and alert them." She opened a channel to her Marine Commander. "Asil, Execute the boarding so that the bridge, engineering, the weapons cache, the brig and the four prisoner locations are covered. Transmitting co-ordinates to you now. I want at least four people at each location, more if we can manage it. Execute that order on my mark."

"Aye, Commodore." Asil acknowledged the order. If the instructions meant rearranging her own tactics, she gave no indication of it.

"Launch the scouts, and make sure they're all in stealth mode. They are only to fire on the other vessel if the shields go up."

"Aye, Commodore. Scouts away." Tuvok replied.

"Lieutenant Sayr, put the TUE on standby. It is not to be activated until all ships are back and cleared in the docking bay."

The Vulcan acknowledged the order.

Commodore Janeway stared out at the unsuspecting vessel on the view-screen, waiting.

Tuvok said, "The scouts have signaled that they are in place, and Lt. Commander Troi reports the boarding party is ready."

"Thank you, Commander Tuvok. Execute boarding."

It became silent on the bridge again, as they awaited the results. Deanna's gaze turned inward and far away. Tense moments later, Deanna said, "Asil reports they are engaging those on the bridge."

More moments passed. There was a communication. Asil reported. "The Romulan Vessel is secured. We have had four casualties, two severe, one fatality."

Commodore Janeway grimaced. "Thank you Asil. Have the wounded transported to sickbay. Disable warp, weapons, transporters and shields. Secure persons located in quarters, labs and other work areas. Gather the others into a storage bay and set the door to release via a timer. Make it an hour. No. Make it two hours. It'll give them time to stew and plot revenge. Let us know when that is accomplished."

If there was amusement in Asil's tone, only Deanna could tell. "Aye, Commodore."

Commodore Janeway contacted Commanders Sofuru and Veckma. "Sorry gentlemen. I'm afraid you'll have to wait for another party to attend. Come home."

"Kahless' Beard. Not one shot fired. Well, I guess it's not so bad. I'm sure another battle will find us."

Kathryn's lips quirked. "I dare say that is true, Veckma."

==^==

A half an hour later, Asil and her marines returned to Voyager. They decided not to leave a message and simply went on their way. Half a light year out, Voyager transitioned back to the alpha-Universe.

==^==

Sometime later, Kathryn was in the main sickbay. She noted that there were three full bio-beds and that the tub had been expanded. She took a moment to visit her officers, one of whom was conscious. Then she paused by the Cardassian's bed. He was not conscious. She felt Kate approach her and commented. "I know him."

"That would be because you've been to DS9. That would be Elim Garak, the Tailor." Kate supplied.

"Rumor has it he was a Cardassian spy in our universe. Perhaps he was in his too." Kathryn mentally went through what she knew of DS9 until she was able to match a security record to the name.

"That may be, but it's not why they beat him up."

"Why did they do it?"

"He tried to defend Odo." Kate unconsciously waved in the direction of the Changeling's bucket.

Kathryn closed her eyes in sympathy and said, "Go on."

"We've stabilized him and right now he's sedated. He should be awake in another eight hours if you want to talk to him."

"I will." She turned and looped her arm though Kate's. They walked to where the Changelings were resting. There were five separate monitors, indicating that there were five separate beings in the slowly shifting pool of golden liquid. But it was impossible for the mere eye to tell.

"Icheb again?"

"With the help of Voyager. We thought they might have a better chance at recuperating if they could support each other."

Kathryn patted Kate's hand. "Something we completely understand. Were any of them contaminated?"

"No. Each of them was being used in a different experiment. I can't tell you what those experiments were for, only show you the results. You won't like it."

"Send the results to me anyway." Kathryn steeled herself for the report to come.

"I will." Kate paused. "Also, I may have to ask Deanna a favor. All of these people need counseling, but none of the Changelings are in any shape to converse verbally for more than a minute. They're going to be that way for a few days. It would help…"

"It will have to be her decision. As long as it doesn't interfere with her other duties, I'm not opposed." In sign she said, "Love you, my wife."

Kate's eyes brightened. "Love you too."

==^==

Deanna, who had always been a generous woman with her time and skills, agreed to help out with the counseling. They did make one small adjustment. Orsas would also participate. As head of the department, she could present herself with authority and would be able to continue their care if Deanna needed to step away. This arrangement would provide a foundation for later, when the Changelings were able to assume a solid shape.

Commander Dax approved the arrangement, and she and Commander Troi went over the schedule, as well as the duty roster, since they were due to visit Universe Beta the next day. "This is good news. It'll be nice to go to another universe where their first thought isn't to fire at us."

"Well, if they're not Orion Syndicate that is." Deanna pointed out wryly.

Ezri looked up thoughtfully. "You know, I still wonder why all this started."

"Other than Miral running a simple trial? Nothing that I know about. If House Qua'lon hadn't brought them in, we'd have never pursued them."

"But why bring them in at all? Why not just pay the fines. Miral would have passed judgment, a notation would have gone to the Hall of Records and we would not have gotten involved." The Klingon justice system was very orderly, and Ezri knew the intricacies of it better than most.

"But then, you also wouldn't have been rescued from your side trip to Universe Beta, or found your mates."

Ezri snorted. "May I point out that I did not need to be rescued? I had the Orb. And for the record, I'm not complaining. I'm contemplating. There's something deeper going on there. It's like they wanted us to go after them." She also had a suspicion that if she hadn't crossed paths with Seven of Nine that day in that universe, they still would have met. It had that feel to it. Curzon had often admonished a young Ben Sisko to look between the notes to find the truth of something, and she couldn't help but feel that the same held true here.

"Maybe. Or perhaps Baron Tulek just over reacted and hired the wrong goons. Either way, our family is involved now."

"We most certainly are." Ezri grinned and changed the subject, wanting to let her subconscious niggle at it. "I hear it's Lwaxana's turn to cook tonight. Guaranteed chocolate something. See you at dinner?"

"I wouldn't miss it."

==^==

It was Lieutenant Carey who brought the next crisis to Commander Dax's attention. "She's been running through some of the reserves fairly quickly. Base minerals mostly. Some elements. And, recently, she was uh…Telling me…that the nebula in the last universe we visited sure looked tasty. I don't think she'd mention it to you, because, well…. It's a ship thing, I'm sure. But I think…"

Ezri was suddenly amused. "She's having cravings."

"Yes. And we should look and see if we can't meet some of them. We've got the Penetrator, we could probably cut a swath through some of the asteroid fields in one of the empty alt-Universes that we've been passing by and fill her reserves back up fairly easily."

"I'll talk with the Commodore about it." Ezri was actually looking forward to that discussion. She hadn't missed her mate's reactions to the thought of being pregnant.

"Thank you. I appreciate it." He rubbed his hand through his hair. "I just dread the notion of handing over a depleted Voyager to the Chief. She'd tear my hide off and use it as an eraser for the engineering board."

"That's a bit of an exaggeration."

"Not when it comes to her ship it isn't."

Ezri's lips twitched. "Thanks for the report, Carey." Then her tone changed slightly, "How's your family?"

"Adapting. They love that they can be with me on Voyager. The kids adore school, and who ever heard of that, I ask you?"

"Well, they have some uniquely skilled teachers."

Carey grunted positively to that. Then he slapped the PADD he was holding in his palm and said, "Well, I better get back to engineering. We've got some new kids from Starfleet who need to learn how to get dirty."

Ezri grinned. "Make 'em rise to our expectations."

"It's not our expectations they have to meet. It's the Chief's."

Ezri watched as he left and drew comfort from his manner. Joe Carey was genuinely convinced B'Elanna was coming back and, somehow, that just made her feel better too.

She tapped her communicator. "Ezri to Voyager. It's time to have a little talk."

==^==

Kathryn went to visit Garak near the appointed time. The lights were dimmer and sonic feedback lowered. She was approached by Dr. Zimmerman. "Hello, Kathryn."

"Hello, Dr. Zimmerman. How are you?" She touched his shoulder and smiled at her friend.

He smiled back. "I'm fine. Our patients on the other hand have seen better days."

"So I hear. Is Mr. Garak awake."

"He is, but not for long. He's just finished his meal."

"May I see him?"

"Of course, Commodore. If you'll follow me? Do you mind if I do the introductions. He's really quite a nice fellow."

"Oh, well, then how can I say no?"

Together they walked to the bio-bed. A viewing station had been brought to Garak's side and he was viewing the ship's channel. He looked up, his expression friendly, and then he blanched - making him appear even whiter than normal.

Oblivious, Dr. Zimmerman began his introductions. "Garak, I have someone I'd like you to meet. This is Commodore Kathryn Janeway of the House Presba."

Garak who had been unconsciously crawling back away on his bed, stopped. "Commodore, did you say?"

"Yes. Kathryn is the one who gave the order to go back and rescue you."

The Cardassian took a moment to straighten his tunic and gather himself together. He was aware of the woman's intense gaze, but also noted that she gave him the chance to adjust to the news. He looked at the Human before him. "Well. Commodore. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"And it is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Garak. Are you comfortable?"

He started to reply and then obviously changed what he was about to say. "I am, Cap…Commodore. Thank you."

Kathryn would have noted the change in phrasing, but her people were still making that slip up, so she unconsciously discounted it. "Do you feel up to a few questions?"

He blinked, as if surprised. "Do I feel up to…?"

"Perhaps we should keep the dialog to only fifteen minutes, Commodore," Dr. Zimmerman recommended. "He is still recuperating after all."

"Of course."

Garak looked at the Doctor and then at the woman, as if pleasantly surprised. "I suppose I am feeling up to a few questions then."

"Thank you, Mr. Garak. Doctor, if you don't mind?"

"Oh. Right. Let me know if you need anything."

Janeway smiled warmly at her friend. "We will."

The Doctor excused himself and then Kathryn returned her attention to the Cardassian.

"Mr. Garak, have you been informed of where you are?"

Garak considered his reply. "I am on a Federation Starship called Voyager. This ship is currently in…" He looked at the display on the station as if he couldn't quite believe it, but was beginning to. "…Universe Alpha and tomorrow you will be in Universe Beta."

"I'm afraid I must inform you of something, which I hope you will not take amiss. You will not be going back to the Universe from which you came. At least not any time soon. This ship is currently on an assignment, which could take several months, maybe even years to complete. We simply don't have time to go back."

He blinked at her. "Are you saying that I am…"

"I am afraid you are stranded with us. Now you do have several options. You are welcome to stay on board, if you like. Or you can disembark and go wherever you would like within the alpha-Universe. I would have to clear a few things if you chose to reside in the beta-Universe, but I don't think my contacts would be opposed. You are, or rather your counterpart is, a known entity in our universe, but you have demonstrated by your courage that you are a man of values."

"I don't understand. Are you offering me asylum?"

"Is that what you need, Mr. Garak?"

He looked the wide tub on the other end of the sickbay. "…and my friend?"

"If they need it, it will be offered."

His demeanor suddenly changed. "What would you like to ask me, Cap…Commodore?"

"Why are the Romulans and the Changelings in your Universe at war?"

"Now that," he said, raising his finger for emphasis, "is a question I can answer. I don't know why they kept asking me questions I could not."

Kathryn did not consider the irony of how she learned what she said next. "It's because their purpose was not to get answers, but to break you."

He looked to the side, as if pained. "It was working."

"I know." She said it sympathetically and reached out. He flinched when she touched his shoulder, and then relaxed into the comforting grip. She let go and he looked up at her in wonder.

"You really are quite different, you know?"

Garak could see that she wasn't quite sure what he meant and he considered the situation. It wasn't just the age difference; this incarnation of the woman in front of him was, fundamentally, a different person. He decided to treat her as such and to trust her, but didn't elaborate on his comment. Instead he answered her original question. "The reason the Romulans and the Changelings are at war is that the Romulans discovered that the Changelings were spying on them."

Now Kathryn looked surprised. "But Romulans are always spying on everyone else. It's a game with them."

"Not my Romulans."

"Ah. Good point. Please continue, Mr. Garak."

"Apparently a few Changelings had taken the shape of some gardeners maintaining the building of one of the High Council members…"

==^==

Kathryn returned home, which was quiet for the night. She stopped a moment to look out the window and contemplate the planet they orbited. Thoughts of Ensign Grant were on her mind.

She had already composed the letter for his family and visited the body. It never really got any easier. But at least, this time, she did not have to do it alone.

She felt a bump at her feet and looked down. She smiled at the small creature. "Hello, Qul."

The firedog pup never barked, but it made a chirpy little noise of reception. Kathryn crouched down. She petted the soft red fur and enjoyed the connection with the latest addition to their household. Qul abandoned itself to puppy joy and rolled over and Kathryn obliged the unspoken, but definite request.

She patted its belly before finally standing upright again. "Well, Qul, tomorrow is a new day. I hope it brings better things. But," she looked out at the stars, "We did some good today."

"Yes, we did."

She turned and accepted the embrace of Ezri. They kissed warmly. "I thought you would be asleep by now."

"Ah, you forget, I have certain duties now. One is to see to it that the Commodore gets her," Ezri's gaze raked Kathryn up and down in one sultry, delicious motion, "…rest."

Kathryn chuckled. "Well, forefend I should keep you from your duty."

Ezri pulled back and took Kathryn's hand in her own. "Come to bed. We've been waiting."

==^==

Deanna crawled into their sumptuous bed. Asil opened her arms and the Betazoid slid into that ever-wonderful clasp. She was kissed by her mate, wonderfully and deeply.

Her hands trailed lightly over the Vulcan's skin and then stopped. "You did not go to sickbay."

"It was unnecessary. It is only a bruise, which will heal."

Deanna did not respond verbally. Instead she slid down out of the hug, and looked closely at her lover's dark skin. Other eyes might not have noticed, but Deanna could see. She leaned in and kissed the wound gently.

Logically, Asil was aware that it should have had no effect, but the Vulcan felt a flash of warmth and affection that spread through her. "Deanna." She hadn't intended the purr. It simply, naturally followed as she said her wife's name.

The Betazoid looked up with those beautiful deep eyes and Asil couldn't help herself. She leaned over, ignoring the twinge. They kissed and the heat that spread through them was so strong that it took her breath away.

Asil dragged Deanna up and then flipped her lightly over, until she was on her back. She pulled back from the kiss and looked down at her mate. Again words failed her.

She leaned in, purred deliberately into the Betazoid's ear. Deanna's fingertips pressed into Asil's shoulders sharply. The Vulcan only felt it as pleasurable. She dragged hot, hungry kisses and nips along Deanna's jaw and neck, while her hands searched hungrily along her mate's body and down. Deanna's touches and kisses were reflections of Asil's desire.

The urgency built in them quickly, as they communed deeply. Deanna was more than ready when Asil finally was stroking inside of her, filling her. Their thoughts mingled erotically, spiraled up and bound them tightly as their arousal combined into something edgy and urgent.

〈〈Mine. Beloved.〉〉

〈〈Yes.〉〉

It mattered not who said what. The words were simply true. And then suddenly, the truth expanded for them, tossing them powerfully into the depth and the height of it and each other.





Chapter 34 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




Lady Seven stared down at the struggling plant-life in the airponics bay of gamma-Voyager. She didn't touch the green leaves, but she found that of of all the differences between the two Voyagers, this was the one that truly stood out for her. Where her Voyager had thriving gardens and The Park, this one had only the one small lab. And, now that she had something to compare it to, she realized the lab as a whole suffered from having been poorly designed; as had the mess hall, which had already been addressed.

She also knew from experience that there were various parts of the ship that could be better utilized. The crew of this Voyager, however, were too close to the situation to make an adequate analysis of their resources. Then there was the compounding factor of an established routine, which often carried one through a day, but often obscured possibilities.

Mentally, she added a notation to her list of things to do. Seven turned away from the shelf and continued her perambulation. It was a pale substitute for the Park, but for her purposes it was better than a holographic simulation. Seven had come to appreciate that it was the life within The Park that made it special. Thus, when she indulged in walks as a method of distraction, she made it a habit to visit airponics.

She was about to exit the area when Neelix and the Captain entered. Neelix smiled affably as he greeted her. Kathryn said, "Ah, Lady Seven, just the person I need to see. Neelix, you don't mind?"

"Of course not, Captain. We can continue our discussion later." Neelix smiled again.

Kathryn patted his shoulder as she thanked him, and then turned to the taller woman. "Seven, do you have a moment?"

"I was about to go to engineering." Seven's expression lightened. "But I was also going to take the long way around. You may accompany me, if you find it convenient."

Kathryn did a small double-take as it seemed suddenly that their roles had been reversed, and then nodded. "I think I do. Would your long way around happen to include a stop at the mess mall?"

"I am not opposed."

They exited the lab together, walking in tandem. Seven, who was as direct as usual said, "You mentioned a need to see me?"

"Well, I was hoping for a bit of clarification..."

==^==

Seven of Nine said, "Lt. Torres, this design is flawed." The ex-drone had finally figured out what had disturbed her about the schematics for the Trans-Universal Engine. Though she was confident in her analysis, she was not as confident in the reception her results would be given.

"If by flawed, you mean not efficient enough, that's not a problem." Lanna shot back, careful to keep any personal attack out of her reply, cognizant of the warning couched as advice B'Elanna had given her.

"The engine is inefficient, but that is not the problem." Seven of Nine consciously unclasped her hands from behind her back and brought them around to her front, and shifted her stance slightly.

"Alright then, your Highness, tell me what you've figured out that Lady Seven and B'Elanna haven't."

"The engine is designed to fail." Seven of Nine reached toward a console, but stopped her motion. "May I?"

"May you what?" Lanna was confused.

"May I access your console? Please."

"Unh, sure."

"Here." She brought up the relevant portions of the schematics and pointed out the part of the design she felt to be flawed.

Lanna studied the diagrams and read the notations the Borg had added. "Damn me to Gre'thor, you're right." She smiled. "Good catch."

Returning the smile with a small twitch of her own lips, Seven of Nine refrained from pointing out that it was frequently the case that she was correct. It had gone much better then anticipated, and Lt. Torres had smiled at her. Perhaps manners were not inefficient after all.

==^==

Once again the four of them were gathered in engineering, this time they were reviewing the schematics Seven of Nine had prepared.

"This doesn't make any sense. Why would you design an engine to break? What the hell were you guys thinking?" Lanna slammed the side of the console.

"I believe, given who designed the engine that the flaw was deliberate, and achieved its intended purpose admirably." Seven looked up as she finished speaking, amused to see identical looks of interest and confusion on the faces of the two Klingon engineers, as well as her counterpart.

"Explain." There was a small pause. "Please."

"Bang'wI, how would you proceed if you were required to produce something for those who held you captive, but with whom you disagreed?"

B'Elanna nodded as she realized what had happened. "Annika designed it, but reduced its efficiency and that's why the Orion engine was dead when we found it. It was a one shot deal."

"Precisely, she prevented the deaths of herself and those working with her, and thwarted the Orions in the process."

Lanna looked between the two Presbans, then asked what she thought was the obvious question. "So how come Seven of Nine figured out it was broken, but none of you did?"

"B'Elanna did not work on the actual engine design, she handled the installation and integration into Voyager's systems." Seven faltered slightly, then straightened her shoulders. "Annika Hansen is capable of things that I am not. I adapted her design to work with Voyager. I adapt, analyze, augment, and enhance. I do not create. I could not have, as she did, designed it as a mental exercise. Seven of Nine fully analyzed the design, I did not."

B'Elanna felt the faint glow of sadness from her mate despite what she knew was Seven's best effort to hide it. She looked over, intending to catch Seven's eye but was struck by the utter desolation she saw in Seven of Nine's eyes. Before B'Elanna could ask if she was okay, Seven of Nine was gone, fleeing engineering, without a word.

"What the hell?" Lanna made to move after her, but was stopped by a mesh wrapped hand. She looked at Lady Seven questioningly.

"I will go." Seven made to follow her friend out of engineering, but was, in turn stopped by B'Elanna.

"Be'nal?" B'Elanna studied Seven's eyes, noting their colour had paled, and that very little was coming through the link.

"It will be fine. I will be fine."

"And, Seven of Nine?" B'Elanna had grown very fond of her, and was worried.

"She has just learned what she has lost. She will adapt." There was another pause, as uncharacteristic as the last, and more poignant for it. "I have."

B'Elanna nodded and released Seven's arm, signing her love as she stepped back and watched her mate leave.

"What did she mean?" Lanna asked after the door had closed behind Lady Seven.

B'Elanna considered whether or not to answer, and decided that if Seven had meant the information to be secret, she would have spoken in Presban or with fingertalk. "Your Seven of Nine now has an idea now of what the Borg really took from her and what it means."

"But when she finishes becoming Human, she'll get that back right?"

As gently as she could, B'Elanna corrected her, trying to give her counterpart for free, a lesson she had learned at great cost. "She will never be Human, Lanna, any more than you, or I, will be. She is Seven of Nine."

Lanna turned away. Klingons did not cry. Even half-Human ones.

==^==

Kathryn had just rounded the junction of the corridor leading to main engineering when she saw Seven of Nine exit the area and open an access hatch to the Jeffries tubes.

It was clear that the woman was upset and was intent on hiding. Not long ago, she would have gone after her. Without thinking about the reasons not to, she walked over to the hatch and opened it.

"Kathryn?"

Startled by Lady Seven's greeting, Janeway stood, dropping the access hatch; barely remembering not to let it clang shut, and turned to face the speaker. They had spent enough time together since Seven's arrival from the alternate universe that Kathryn was able to see that the woman was also upset. She stepped back. "She's in there."

"Thank you." For an instant, Seven debated letting Kathryn go after her counterpart, but realized that the strain in their friendship would make it impossible for Kathryn to bridge the gap. "I will convey your concern."

She lifted the hatch and crawled inside. Between her hearing and visual acuity it did not take long to locate the correct Jeffries tube. Moving swiftly, Seven had found her quarry before she had even formulated a plan, and found herself at a loss for what to say, so she just sat down.

"I will never be Human. I cannot reclaim who I was." Seven of Nine had lost the inflections to her tone that had begun to warm her normal speech.

"No."

Seven of Nine digested the confirmation. "This has all been in vain."

"It has not. You are no longer a drone. You have choices and free will."

"What are you?"

Seven turned the question over in her mind, never having been asked so bluntly who and what she was. "I am Borg, I am a person, and I am loved. I do not need to be Human, it is enough that I am me."

"And Annika?"

"Annika is Human, but she is not without her own scars. I would not wish to be her for all of her Humanity."

Silence fell between them again, but the air had lost some of its tension, so Seven settled her frame against the wall of the tube, prepared to stay as long as necessary. She was, after all, also a friend.

==^==

Kathryn walked slowly around the docking bay. It had been a long day, but she wasn't quite ready to give herself over to sleep yet. She paused awhile to wander around the sleek shuttle that was berthed next to the Delta Flyer. The two vessels had some lines in common and she found that appealing.

She looked up at the sound of someone else's steps. "Ah. Lady Seven."

"Kathryn. You are still awake."

The Captain waved off the concern. "Too much coffee today. I'll be asleep in a couple of hours. I just thought a walk would help."

"I understand. I too take walks, though I have other means of achieving rest when desired."

"It's tough when things weigh on the mind."

"Yes."

"You know, I could go for some warm milk and cookies. I hear they made a fresh batch today. All this walking has given me a modest appetite. Can I entice you to join me?"

Seven studied Kathryn carefully, and weighed her words with equal gravity. "I am not her."

"I'm very aware of that." Kathryn's lips quirked. "And of your marital status."

"My marital status is irrelevant to our interactions, my identity is not."

Kathryn turned so that they were facing. "Even without your hair being blue, I know exactly who you are and who she is."

"In that case, I could be convinced." She held her arm out to Kathryn to show there were no hard feelings, and was relieved when it was taken in a light clasp.

Kathryn chuckled. "Good. Then I can continue winding down. You can tell me how your projects are going, and you can explain the irrelevancy of your marital status."

==^==

There was, thought Laren, a curious comfort in attending a morning staff meeting. It was familiar, and routine. If she closed her eyes, she could almost imagine she were back on her Voyager. Almost. The ache in her soul made it impossible to forget.

From her seat in one corner, she watched and listened with interest as the meeting began. Her counterpart was sitting almost directly opposite where she was seated, and Laren could clearly read the annoyed expression as the First Officer stared at the empty chair allotted to the inexplicably absent Astrometrics Officer.

Holding her hand out of sight of gamma-Voyager's senior staff, she signed to her mates. "Where's Seven of Nine?"

B'Elanna shrugged, but Seven signed back, "I believed her to already be here when we left our quarters."

There was no further need for discussion as the doors to the conference room slid open and the missing senior officer entered, but Laren couldn't help raising her brows and looking at her mates for their reactions. Seven, as expected, was inscrutable, but she was amused to see that B'Elanna had turned to see how Lanna was going to react.

Seven of Nine had her hair down, and was barefoot. "I am sorry I am late."

Eyebrows went up around the table.

"Seven," The Captain put her hands on the back of her chair, not yet having taken a seat, "where are your shoes?"

"On the third shelf of my closet, in my quarters." Seven of Nine sat in her chair as she answered.

Laren watched, amused, as Janeway looked nonplussed, and Seven of Nine carefully tucked one leg up under her on the chair. The scene she had witnessed coming home last night suddenly made sense. Seven of Nine had been practicing sitting.

"Why aren't you wearing them?"

"I do not wish to."

Janeway knew she should let it go and get on with the meeting, but she was too damn curious, especially after yesterday. The last she had seen, the blonde had been upset; something had definitely changed. "Seven, shoes are a required part of a duty uniform. Civilian or not, you are on duty."

"Uniforms are often modified to respect cultural differences are they not? For example, Bajorans are allowed to wear their earrings despite Starfleet's regulations regarding personal adornment."

Laren noted that even Tuvok had taken an interest in the conversation, and her familiarity with her version of the Vulcan let her see just how intrigued he was. Ro Laren's head had snapped up and she was also looking at the blonde intently.

"That's true. But you aren't Bajoran, and we're talking about shoes." Janeway couldn't help it, she felt compelled to keep asking questions. Sooner or later it had to make sense.

"I am Borg." Seven of Nine stated simply, as if that was a sufficient explanation.

This time, Laren glanced at her own Borg mate to see if Seven had an idea of what was going on. Apparently not, since her face bore a look of respect and curiosity that was ably telegraphed by the raised ocular implant and a hint of a smile.

"I see." Janeway paused. "No, I don't."

"Captain, have you ever seen Borg wearing shoes?"

"No." She allowed, dreading even as she spoke where this was headed.

"While Borg technically do not wear clothing, I have determined that it would cause an undue disruption for me to fully adopt that mode of cultural expression. Therefore, I am availing myself of an appropriate one. I trust that you will not object."

There was a snort from the far side of the room, and Laren smiled as a force ten glare was directed in the culprit's direction. Unsurprisingly, it was Lanna Torres who hid her grin behind her hand, and tried to look somber.

"Ah. No. But you have to wear appropriate footwear on away missions." Janeway felt she had to regain some control of the situation.

"Understood. I will comply."

Janeway sat back in her chair, and grabbed her coffee cup. "Glad to hear it. Report, Mr. Neelix."

Laren met Seven of Nine's eyes, and raised her brows. She received a small smile in return from the amused Borg. She very much wished at that moment that Seven of Nine had taken them up on their offer to join the House. Finger talk would be incredibly handy right now.

Maybe they could teach her. She was Borg, after all.

==^==

Kathryn Janeway fought to keep from pinching the bridge of her nose, all too aware of what the gesture tended to signify, and, with at least three people in the room who had unparalleled insight into her mannerisms, she wasn't keen on having her mood read just yet. The staff meeting was winding down, and she listened with half an ear as the Doctor finished his report. Finally, it was over and she stood, visually signaling the end of the meeting even as she issued the vocal command. "Dismissed." She paused. "Lady Seven, if you have a moment?" Kathryn indicated that the woman should remain behind.

Seven watched everyone file out, and quickly signaled to her mates not to wait for her, and for them to reassure Seven of Nine, who looked apprehensive that her counterpart had to remain. She walked over to stand next to the Captain, and waited, deeming it prudent to allow Janeway to offer the initial explanation rather than err by presuming.

"Dinner?"

"Yes." Seven nodded. It was far from the first time they'd shared a meal since her arrival though the invitations were generally sent by comm.

"1900?"

"Acceptable."

Janeway grinned. "Mine?"

"Yes." Seven suppressed her smile. She knew what question would be asked next and she was intrigued to see if Janeway could find a one word means of asking her to do the cooking.

"YI-vut?" Kathryn growled, then smiled.

Seven raised her ocular implant, then nodded. She probably should have expected Kathryn to cheat, and in Klingon no less. Amused, she didn't point out that Kathryn had issued a command for cold food preparation rather than a request to be cooked for.

"Great. Now that we have the important stuff out of the way, care to enlighten me as to any other cultural allowances I'm going to be making?" The Captain pointed downward. "I can't help but notice you are wearing boots." Unlaced and somewhat scruffy - surely they weren't replicated that way - but footwear nonetheless.

"I am a guest on your ship. I have merely adapted. This is Seven of Nine's home, should she not be allowed to express her culture if there is no danger in doing so?"

Now Kathryn did pinch the bridge of her nose, but this time it was out of a need to hide the blatantly amused smirk threatening to steal her command mask permanently. "Your Kathryn lets you run around barefoot?"

"Yes. Within certain parameters. I wear these in engineering, and often while traversing public areas of the ship. In Astrometrics only the staff who wish to do so retain their footwear."

"And do they?" Kathryn asked dryly, already suspecting she knew the answer.

"Ensign Mortimer Harren prefers to remain shod."

Kathryn snorted. "I think you can take your victory in getting him out of his room, and away from disproving Schlezholt's Theory of Multiple Big Bangs."

"I believe you are correct, Kathryn." Seven gave the woman a small smile and accepted the condolences she could see in the Captain's eyes. Mortimer Harren was not an easy individual to work with in either universe it seemed.

"Now about those other Borg customs you've corrupted my Astrometrics officer with?"

"Assimilation day is in a month."

Kathryn felt her eyes widen, and was powerless to stop the shock from registering.

"A joke, Kathryn."

"I see. I have to adapt to Borg cultural expression and their sense of humour? I'm not sure I'm up to it."

"You are a resourceful individual, Kathryn. You will adapt."

"Resistance is futile?" She met the blonde's eyes, and quirked her own eyebrow.

"Merely unnecessary. Until tonight." Seven turned and left the room, enjoying the quiet chuckles that followed her out.

==^==

Out in the hallway, Seven found both of her mates as well as Seven of Nine and Lanna Torres waiting for her.

"You don't look any the worse for wear." Lanna noted.

"I am not." Seven turned to her mates. "Do not wait for me before consuming your evening meal. I will be dining with Kathryn."

B'Elanna grinned. "She's so mad, she's going to cook for you?"

"On the contrary, I will provide the meal. It seems safest."

Laren laughed. "I'm not sure what I would do in a universe where Kathryn can cook."

"Eat." Seven said.

"Wise ass." B'Elanna poked her mate.

"Indeed."

B'Elanna snickered and noticed that though she was quiet, Seven of Nine appeared to be greatly amused by the exchange. Before she could pull the blonde into the conversation, Captain Janeway emerged from the conference room and walked past them.

"Ladies." Her tone was neutral and she never looked directly at any of them.

Laren waited until Janeway had stepped into the turbo-lift and the doors had slid shut behind the Captain, then nudged Seven, teasing her mate with the memory of a shared adventure in dress shopping. "You might want to consider a slinky dress along with the food."

Seven, who knew that Janeway had only refused to look at them to keep from laughing, merely gave her mate an enigmatic smile and did not comment, though she was well aware from the raised brow of her counterpart that she would be called on to explain the reference later. She began to walk in the direction of the turbo-lift, knowing the others would follow.

"Wait." Lanna looked between them. "Let me get this straight. Seven is going on a date with the Captain, and you're going to let her?"

Seven held back her reply when B'Elanna quickly signaled. "Let me handle this, Be'nal."

"It's not a date. We're teasing her. But yes, I would. But let's not have this discussion here, c'mon, I'll buy you a beer."

Lanna grunted. "Going to take more than a beer for you to explain how you can tolerate her fucking around."

Laren immediately grabbed Seven of Nine's and Seven's hands and pulled them toward the turbo-lift. "Let's go find some lunch of our own." She knew from the tension in both women and the firing of the link, that Lanna was very, very lucky that she wasn't being ripped apart at the moment, and despite removing herself and the two Borg from the situation there was no guarantee that that wouldn't still happen. "Hasperat and some spring wine?"

The doors to the lift slid shut.

==^==

No sooner were they through the doors of their shared home, than Seven of Nine stopped allowing herself to be led. Out of respect for her friends she had followed Laren's lead, but now she required an explanation. "Explain."

Laren looked back at her and Seven of Nine could clearly tell that the Bajoran was trying to decide what to do.

"I'll start lunch."

"I do not require a nutritional supplement at this time." Her reply was automatic. She did not wish to be be distracted from having her question answered.

"None of us do, not really." Laren smiled. "I'm making a polite excuse to leave my darling mate to explain, without making it seem like I'm sticking her with the task, just why B'Elanna might murder your Chief Engineer."

"I see." And she did. The longer Seven of Nine spent with the castaways, the more she understood the behavior of those around her as well as her own behaviour. "There is no need to dissemble on my account, but I appreciate the effort."

Laren gave Seven a wry look before replying. "Actually, this time I was dissembling for Seven's benefit."

Seven interjected. "I believe, Chesei, you were fleeing for your own benefit."

"True." Laren responded then headed for the kitchen.

Seven of Nine watched her leave, noting the economy of motion that Bajoran employed in her movements no matter what the occasion, and when Laren had disappeared from view, she turned to her counterpart. Wordlessly, they communicated, and Seven of Nine marveled at how easily she read the other woman. If she could so easily read Lady Seven's request for moment to think, and the silent promise to proceed, why did so many other individuals on Voyager have difficulty with her expressions?

"I require clarification. What do you wish me to explain?" Seven finally spoke.

Seven of Nine considered the question. That it was being asked implied that there were several aspects of the verbal altercation and attendant scenario that were eligible for explanation. Which did she require be answered first? As she thought, they moved toward the living area, Seven giving her the same courtesy of time to reflect that she had been given. Neither of them sat, but neither felt the need to.

Finally, she thought she had an idea of what she really desired to know. She was only beginning to understand why she wanted to know. "Is your dinner with Captain Janeway to be a social event of a romantic nature?"

"It is not." Seven answered immediately, and then felt compelled to amend her statement. "At this time."

"Explain."

"I do not harbour romantic feelings for Kathryn, and at this time have no romantic interest in her. However, in theory, I am not adverse to a non-permanent social interaction that includes physical intimacy. It is not outside the boundary of my friendship with her."

"You are mated in a permanent union, are you not?"

"I am." They had discussed the forming of the Prime, and Seven thought that her counterpart had understood the ramifications of how Ezri had been drawn into the bond. Now she was not so sure. She was surprised to find that she felt a sense of discomfort at further broaching this topic, though she could not very well stop now that it had been started. Seven wondered if that was how her Kathryn had felt during some of their philosophical discussions: a sense that the conversation verged on the edge of repercussions she was unprepared to deal with.

From the edge of the door frame that led to the dining room, Laren could hear the discussion and had only barely held in an explosion of amused breath as Seven circuitously told the other Borg that she wouldn't object to a one-night stand with the Captain. Seeing that Seven was having some difficulty proceeding, she took pity on her mate and on Seven of Nine, and asked at least one question that she suspected was on the agenda. "You want to know why B'Elanna, and by extension, the rest of us, have no problem with Seven engaging in recreational physical intimacy outside of the confines of our marriage."

"No, what I wish to know is why Lady Seven would want to do this. Would it not be an inferior experience?"

If Seven were as surprised as she was, her mate didn't let on, and Laren watched with interest to see how the question would be fielded. Fidelity had been an issue for Seven early in their marriage when she had held herself back from Ezri, but the rest of them had recognized that they were asking something of her that Seven was not socially equipped to provide. To Seven, physical intimacy was merely one form of communication among many. And so, lovingly, knowing that nothing could diminish their emotional connections, they released her from her promise.

"You are attracted to this universe's B'Elanna Torres and wish to share physical and emotional intimacy with her, correct?" Seven asked.

"That is correct."

"You are also still attracted to your Kathryn Janeway, and would engage in the same activities if the option had or would present itself, correct?"

"Yes."

"Do your feelings for either woman prevent your attraction to the other?"

"They do not."

"Does what you feel for B'Elanna Torres diminish what you feel for Kathryn Janeway?"

"It does not."

Seven gentled her tone, aware that they had both lapsed into the more rigid vocal patterns and inflections of the Collective. "I have made love outside of my marriage because there were feelings and a desire for a connection that could not be expressed efficiently or adequately in another manner. I did not plan to do so, and as we have discussed would not have done so, without the consent of my mates, because I had promised fidelity. My mates," she paused and touched her fingertips to Laren's moving closer to where the Bajoran sat perched on the arm of a chair, "recognized that I was unaware of the implications of what I had promised, and released me from that promise. The experiences may be different, but that does not lessen the value of the gift being given, or received."

Seven of Nine listened and tried to ferret out the meaning of what was being said, but she did not completely understand.

Laren, so used to reading the micro expressions of her mate, easily discerned Seven of Nine's continuing confusion. "Seven owns herself. That means none of us have the right to dictate how she thinks, or feels, or even what she does with her body." She had another thought, triggered by something Seven had said about her lack of jealousy during the original conclave to set up the House. "When Kathryn praises Lanna, how does that make you feel?"

"I am pleased for her when the Captain recognizes her achievements."

"You don't wish she were praising you instead?"

"I do not."

Laren looked at her mate, and seeing the small nod, continued. "Have you ever wished for something someone else had?" She could have sworn Seven of Nine coloured briefly before the faint pink disappeared. "Did it make you angry that they had it, and you didn't, and make you want to take it away?"

"No." Seven of Nine straightened her shoulders and looked at her counterpart. "I wished that I could acquire it for myself, but I did not wish for them lose it or their happiness. Perfection would be diminished by doing so. One does not subtract from perfection. It must be added to."

Laren sat up, suddenly understanding her mate in a whole new way. She had been merely trying to explain to Seven of Nine that her mate lacked the capacity for jealousy, instead she gained a perspective that moved her from accepting Seven's needs to comprehending them on a gut level. "The Borg took you so young, that you were never socialized to be jealous, and in the Collective there was no concept of fair, and thus no concept of unfair. You might envy others, Seven of Nine, but to your enormous credit, you are not jealous of them."

"Envy and jealousy are not equitable conditions?"

"They are not." Seven confirmed. "And you have answered your own question in a manner, short of engaging in a neural link, superior to mine. There is however, something you need to consider. The circumstances that led to the formation of the Prime, and their acceptance of my polyamorous nature were unique. You need to be aware that Lanna Torres, should she continue to accept the changing character of your relationship, may not accept less than your complete physical and emotional fidelity."

Seven of Nine looked at them both. "It is not in my nature to deliberately harm her. I will adapt if our relationship progresses."

Laren smiled, not doubting the woman at all. She almost wished she'd be around to see how it all worked out, but at the pace the two of them were moving it would be a decade before anything happened. "I have no doubt. You are Borg."

"I am Borg." Seven of Nine smiled.

==^==

Epatai B'Elanna Troi took a deep calming breath and mentally recited one of the sonnets she'd memorized in Klingon. It was difficult to remain out of control when comparing Seven to a summer's day. "qaDelmeH bov tuj pem vIlo'choHQo'. SoH 'IH 'ej belmoH law', 'oH belmoH puS. jar vagh tIpuq DIHo'bogh Sang SuS ro'.'ej ratlhtaHmeH bov tuj leSpoH luvuS."

At the end of the first verse, she stopped, only wanting to dull her anger, not kill it outright. "Computer, two for site to site transport, my location to B'Elanna Torres' quarters." She considered incipient murder an emergency.

"Acknowledged."

B'Elanna was pleased, apparently she had enough rank, or at least her counterpart did, to have the computer obey without question. The alternative would have been embarrassing, and for an instant she found herself fervently missing her own ship.

"What the hell?" Lanna demanded as soon as they had completed transport.

"I lied. I'm not buying you a drink. Grab your bat'leth, your knife, your phaser, whatever."

"Why?"

"You're the one raised and educated as a Klingon. You figure it out." B'Elanna snorted in disgust. It astounded her that the woman in front of her had managed to do what she couldn't, but seemed to have the self-control of an adolescent in a room full of Deltans.

"You want to fight me to the death?"

"Not particularly. There are two people on board who would miss you. But I am going to beat some sense into you since talking to you doesn't seem to work. Whether you die or not is up to you." B'Elanna crossed the room and ripped the bat'leth off the wall and then shoved it at the other Klingon. "Here or the holodeck?" She could see that she was putting the fear of Kahless into her counterpart and was perversely pleased to see the other woman not back down. If nothing else, at least she wasn't a coward.

Lanna found herself holding the bat'leth and trying to figure out how she'd gotten herself into this mess. One second they had all been bantering in the hallway, the next she'd been shoved into a wall and transported back to her quarters to face an irate Klingon who was more than her physical match. "You can try." She swung.

She didn't even come close. Instead, she was whacked on the back by the flat of Troi's blade. "What kind of weak plumeless beq bird of an Epatai surrenders her name, Troi?" There was more to a Klingon fight than the physical aspect.

B'Elanna hid her smirk, but didn't reply. Thanks to Kathryn and Ezri, she knew lots of Klingon curses and insults, but to deliver them would mean she thought of Lanna Torres as her equal. Casually, she made a reverse sweep with her blade, then used her left foot to hook her opponent's feet out from under her. Laughing, she stepped back and waited for Torres to regain her footing, making it very plain she was toying with her.

They continued for some time, B'Elanna not caring that Lanna was beginning to feel the pain of accumulating bruises and at least one broken bone. Finally though, when a third gash in as many swings opened on Lanna's ribs, she decided to wind things down.

Lanna grunted and took an underhand swipe at what appeared to be an unguarded thigh. Her stroke was met and the blades locked, bringing them face to face, and she realized her counterpart wasn't even sweating. "If I apologize, will that be enough or do you need a limb?"

"If I wanted a limb, I'd already have it."

"Alright then, I'm sorry."

B'Elanna wasn't going to let it go that easily. "For what?" She knew if Lanna didn't know why she was apologizing, they'd be back in another confrontation in short order, and frankly she had better things to do.

"For implying that yours or your Mistress' behaviour is or was, in anyway, less than honourable." Lanna took a step back. "I still don't understand it though."

B'Elanna exhaled. "You don't need to, it doesn't concern you. But if you wanted to know, I'd have told you. We all would have."

"So it wasn't that I asked, it was how?"

"I'll tell you what. You explain to me how, exactly, you controlled your mouth long enough to graduate from Starfleet Academy, and I'll explain to you how I learned to deal with irrational jealousy."

"You're buying."

B'Elanna laughed. Her counterpart was bleeding and bruised, but still trying to dictate terms. It was a point of commonality she could work with. "Yeah. I'll buy."

==^==

Laren didn't need their bond to know that Seven was upset; her ears were sufficient. She and Seven of Nine were ensconced in the living area, she on the couch and the Borg in a chair. When music began pouring down a level and filling the house, Laren had looked up, but seeing that her companion was unfazed, she opted to give Seven some time before she went and checked on her mate.

"What composition is that?" Seven of Nine suddenly broke the silence.

Sighing, she realized her reprieve was up. She'd end up talking to one of them, no matter what. "Das Valkyrie. It's part of an opera by a Terran composer. Wagner I think." Laren stood up.

"She is disturbed."

It was not a question, and Laren noted the look of concern, but waited, not wanting to make an unwarranted assumption.

"Have I damaged her?"

Laren walked over and squeezed the Borg's shoulder and then dropped a kiss on the top of the blonde head. "No. It wasn't you. That piece of music reminds her of someone she misses."

Seven of Nine nodded, apparently satisfied, and Laren walked toward the lift.

It didn't take long to ascend, and she entered their bedroom. Seven was standing in the center of the room with her eyes closed, hands at her sides. "Are you okay?"

Seven opened her eyes and turned towards her. "I am fine."

"You miss Ezri." Laren knew that Seven missed them all, but that she was especially missing the presence of the Trill.

"Yes."

Laren moved to enfold her mate in a hug. "She'd sort Lanna out pretty fast. Prophets, you should have been in the ready room when she took down Chakotay, and that was before she joined us."

"I am unsure as to how to proceed."

"With KJ?"

Seven leaned back. "Yes."

"Because of Lanna?"

"Yes."

"Lanna has major issues, and I suspect a hefty case of postpartum something. Whatever it is that Klingons get that makes them extra bitchy, she's got it."

That teased a small smile out of Seven and Laren kissed her lightly.

"Perhaps B'Elanna should not be permitted to bear our offspring."

Now Laren returned the smile, imagining a very pregnant B'Elanna. "To be fair, Lanna is raising Miral on her own. That would wear anyone out. Remember when the Sochlings first came aboard?"

"Yes. It was difficult to maintain order."

Laren held her a little longer, enjoying the quiet communion, then when she sensed the tension slid out of her mate, she picked up the original discussion. "Don't worry about tonight. I love you, B'Elanna loves you, and even though she's not here Ezri definitely loves you. We all do, Jalat. Don't let Lanna make this into anything other than what it is."

"I will not."

She decided that Seven could use a little more grounding. "Ezri would have a field day making observations on this crew. She'd christen the ship the USS Repression. My counterpart is so tightly wound I'm surprised she hasn't taken a shuttle and left. The Captain can't decide if she can even talk to her crew, much less form enough of a relationship to preserve her sanity. There's some major bottling of feeling going there. In fact, watching her and Ro, I get the feeling that something happened between them on their version of New Earth, but I'm not sure how it played out once they were back on board. No one says Harry Kim's name. Tom Paris seems completely unaware that Miral is his child, Lanna seems just as content to ignore it. Tuvok wants to approach Seven of Nine romantically, but won't. The Delaneys don't speak to each other. Samantha Wildman is sharing physical intimacy with Neelix at night, but is barely civil to him during the day. Lt. Stadi hates being on helm, and Lyndsey Ballard wants out of engineering, but every time they're asked about rotations neither of them say anything."

Seven raised her ocular implant, impressed with the data Laren had gathered. "I understand now why Kathryn threatened to make you a counselor or a chaplain."

"One thing is certain, this ship could use a few of either." Laren kissed Seven again, lingering this time to enjoy the feel of the soft lips against hers, reluctantly pulling away as Seven began to respond with enthusiasm. "Go on, get ready, or you'll be late."

"I have one point seven hours before I am required to report to Kathryn's quarters."

"True. But you haven't cooked anything. And I haven't chosen a dress for you yet."

==^==

They had consumed the better part of two dozen bottles of beer, both of them more than capable of forcing the replicator to produce alcoholic versus sytheholic beverages, and were now thoroughly enjoying the fruits of their labour.

"You know what?" B'Elanna was slurring her words slightly.

Lanna lifted her head. She was lying on her back on the floor of the shuttle next to the bed. "What?"

"I just figured it out."

"Figured what out."

"It's not that my Be'nal might or might not want to fuck the Captain. It's that the Captain might want her."

Lanna wisely chose not to point out that B'Elanna's language had gotten significantly cruder with every bottle of beer, and that if she had said Seven wanted to fuck the Captain, B'Elanna would have cut off her head instantly. Complete double standard. "You're insane. Why should I care who the Captain sleeps with."

B'Elanna was feeling a surge of pride. Introspection and self-examination were not her strong suits, but she thought she had it nailed and wasn't about to let it go. She'd long since figured out that Torres and the Captain didn't have the same interaction that she and her Kathryn had had. This version of her had never been Maquis, had from day one been under Janeway's command, and there had been no serious conflict to spark desire. That didn't mean the jealousy wasn't there, only this time it had a different form. "You care because, if Janeway is intimate with my Seven, then that implies she wants the same thing from Seven of Nine."

Lanna forced herself not to react. "So what?"

Rolling over on the bed in order to look down at her counterpart, B'Elanna knew by the non-reaction that she'd scored a direct hit. "Somewhere along the line you quit being jealous of the attention the Astrometrics Officer got from the Captain, and started being jealous of the attention Kathryn got from Seven of Nine. I'm not sure you even noticed. I know I didn't when it happened to me." She deliberately separated out the ranks and roles from who they were as people. "Professional jealousy gave way to personal jealousy."

"Yeah, well. I already know the Captain wants Seven of Nine. The whole ship knows it." Lanna laughed, it was too painful to do anything else.

B'Elanna met her counterpart's eyes. "The real question is, do you?" she asked softly.

"I think so. Sometimes. Mostly." Lanna swallowed. There was no maybe, the last couple of weeks had changed that, she was all too aware that her physical reactions, always easily contained because they lacked any emotional connection beyond the desire to conquer Seven of Nine, had deepened. She just didn't know into what, or if she was even prepared to find out.

"It's a start."

Lanna smiled. "I guess it is."

"Now, how the hell did you keep from getting booted out of the Academy?"

==^==

At some point they had run out of amusing anecdotes, and fueled by alcohol they had turned their attention inward. For B'Elanna it was a less painful journey than she'd expected, other than a few lingering regrets for her behaviour, she was, for the first time in her life, genuinely happy. Their mates would soon find them, or they would find their mates, either way the world would right itself again, and she was actually glad for the lessons learned here.

The tension in the figure reclining next to her told a very different tale, and B'Elanna did the only thing she could think of, given how conditioned she'd become to expressing herself physically; she pulled Lanna into a hug and let her counterpart nestle in against her. If she had needed to cry, she would have done it then, in the safe presence of someone who knew intimately the challenges she'd faced, and so it didn't surprise her when Lanna buried her face deeper in the embrace and began to shake, her tears absorbed by cloth, the sounds muted by flesh.

With one hand she stroked her counterpart's hair, the other she used to trace small circles in the small of Lanna's back, being careful to only hit the surface muscles and not the deeper ridges. When the wracking motions had all but ceased, she tightened her arms around Lanna and hugged her gently. "Tell me."

For a brief moment, after the woman stiffened, B'Elanna didn't think Lanna would, but a minute or so later, her counterpart shifted slightly, and nodded.

"Harry had no business in that race."

B'Elanna heard the unspoken, 'it should have been me', but didn't interrupt. She'd walked through the fire of her own survivor's guilt, only she'd had Kathryn and Chakotay to help her deal with it. Lanna, it seemed had had no one. When a greater length of time had passed than she knew should have if Lanna intended to continue, B'Elanna decided to share her own private reservoir of guilt. "About four years in, we got word from Starfleet. The Maquis had been hunted down. Exterminated by the Cardassians. All I could think was that I should have been there, that somehow if we hadn't rammed the Val Jean into the Kazon ship we could have made a difference."

A few minutes later, Lanna spoke again, resuming her story. "He should have been safe on the Flyer, with Tom. It was such a fucking mess. Tom had this notion he wanted me, I tried to keep it afloat because I couldn't admit it had failed, and Harry...Harry stood back and pretended to fall in love every other week to keep anyone from seeing who he really loved. The real irony is, he wasn't even the Harry Kim we'd left DS9 with, but we all expected he would be the same regardless of what had happened to him, and so he tried."

B'Elanna placed another kiss on Lanna's head and tightened her grip a little. "Is Miral, Tom's?" She knew the answer, but wanted to keep the conversation progressing.

"Not officially." The words were blunt, but there was a hint of a smile in the tone.

"She's beautiful."

"She is."

"Then that's something, isn't it?"

"It is, isn't it."

"I know I would think so." B'Elanna raised her hand and tilted Lanna's chin so that she could make eye contact. "And I know that Harry would make the exact same choice today, even knowing what happened, if it meant Miral's being born. He bought her life with his, and I know he would have thought it a small price, Lt. Starfleet is like that."

"You call him Starfleet?"

"Oh yeah. He was so earnest when he came on board. The way I heard it, he nearly sprained his back the first time Janeway walked on the bridge."

Lanna laughed, unexpectedly. "He actually did here. Had to go to sickbay."

"Oh, Kahless." B'Elanna rolled over so that they were facing one another. "His first chance at command, he was so by the book and micro-managed so much that the crew mutinied, and it took Seven to help him sort it out."

"Not the Nightingale Incident?"

"The one and the same." B'Elanna confirmed, suspecting that if it had been named the Nightingale Incident, it had gone much worse for Harry here that back home. "What happened?"

"He didn't take Seven of Nine. Ro made him take Vorik."

B'Elanna nodded and let herself listen, unaccountably warmed by the fact that Harry and she had been close, even in these incarnations. Maybe a child with hers and Harry's genes wouldn't be so bad. But damn, Miral was cute with her green-blue eyes. She missed part of what had been said, the alcohol and lateness taking their toll, but she replied anyway, profoundly grateful that she had handled things appropriately. "Seriously?"

"Oh yeah. The whole hangar."

==^==

"So. How about you tell me what happened that had my Chief Engineer and your Epatai initiating site to site transports and stealing dermal regenerators from sickbay?" Kathryn leaned back into the couch, but turned her head to face her guest. Any other movement would have disturbed the wonderful meal she had consumed rather too much of.

Seven looked over, brows raised. B'Elanna should not have had to steal a dermal regenerator, they had one in their quarters and there was one in the shuttle. "I believe they were bonding. As Klingons." She stretched her legs out in front, and took a small sip of her wine.

"I see. That explains the medical equipment, and why they are holed up in your shuttle."

Privately, Seven suspected that the patterns for alcoholic beverages were the reason the two had retired to the shuttle, but she kept that to herself, much more interested in why Kathryn seemed so aware of events on her ship, but so unaware of the actual meanings of those events. While she pondered how to raise the topic, Kathryn continued.

"Do you like the wine?"

"I do." Seven confirmed.

"I thought it interfered with your cortical node."

Seven smiled lightly, and took another small sip of the clear, sweet wine. "I have since discovered that it is supposed to interfere with how I function. It is part of the experience."

They sipped their drinks in comfortable silence, and though she was enjoying the evening, she was aware that Kathryn was skillfully avoiding truly revealing her thoughts or feelings. Over the last few weeks, they had grown closer, but the wall that Kathryn kept between herself and everyone else was still there; maybe not as high or thick, but still there. Seven took another small sip and rolled it around her tongue, enjoying the way the flavour spread across her palate as the wine warmed in her mouth.

The direct approach would more than likely cause Kathryn to withdraw completely, and politely, but firmly refuse to participate in any more conversations on topics that Seven wished to discuss. Her own Kathryn was much like this one in that regard, and she stifled a small sigh. Then, fondly, she realized she wouldn't be having this problem with her mate; even without the revealing nature of the bond, the Prime had learned early to exploit the openness of afterglow until Kathryn no longer even attempted to hide from them. Seven still found that some of her most enjoyable conversations with her mate occurred in the sated warmth of each other.

She looked back over to find Kathryn studying her intently.

"You're so very different."

"Laren says we are like the same side of two different coins. I am not exactly cognizant of the reference, but I interpret her statement to mean that we are fundamentally alike, but two distinct individuals." Here perhaps was the opening she needed.

"I can see that. It's astonishing really." Kathryn's voice deepened. Her eyes became a little less open.

"Do not blame yourself, Kathryn. Not everything was your responsibility."

"Even after the alliance succeeded, even when we could have just walked away, I gave the order that stranded her here. Then I failed her."

"You did not."

Kathryn snorted. "Until you arrived, she had a cot and a box in a cargo bay."

"That was Ro Laren's failing, not yours. The First Officer assigns crew quarters."

Janeway laughed. "Once it was me trying to find the best spin for Seven of Nine's behaviour, now you're trying to excuse mine." She patted Seven's thigh, somewhat surprised when the Borg covered the hand with her free one, and squeezed it lightly, not releasing it. The warmth was nice and she decided not to pull away.

"What happened between you? What altered? She believes you no longer care for her."

Now she did pull away, sitting up and leaning forward, wrapping both hands around the barrel of her glass. "Did your..." she stopped not sure how to proceed, maybe the wounds were as deep for Seven and her Kathryn as they were here.

Seven suddenly understood what the question would be and where it would lead. "Icheb does not exist here. He was unable to provide a replacement node for Seven of Nine."

"She was dying."

"And you couldn't accept that, anymore than my Kathryn could. In her timeline, she was very angry with me for accepting the situation, and I had told her that I believed she was angry was because I was incomplete, and that my death would mean I had failed her."

"And now?"

"I understand her reaction was because she loved me, and she felt she had failed me."

"I loved her so much, I killed for her. I violated every principle I had, and took the life of someone as innocent as she was to save hers. I really have failed her."

"You believe she is unaware of this?" Once again, Seven was astonished by Kathryn's capacity for self-deception and lack of awareness, the only thing that surprised her more was that the Captain had yet to connect what happened to a weakness in her command or a perceived dereliction of duty to her ship.

Kathryn looked over sharply, eyes gone stormy gray. "She's not?"

Seven spoke as gently as she would to Barin or Emina. "She asked about my node the second day we spoke. Seven of Nine is aware of how her implants function, and, indeed, since the node failure, has made a concerted effort to understand how to perform her own routine maintenance, as well as to familiarize herself with the full range of possible impacts to her health. Kathryn, she has always known that the new node came from a living drone."

"Oh." Kathryn leaned back into the couch, suddenly feeling small and lost. Seven of Nine had known all along.

"Do you love her still?" Seven watched Kathryn with interest, wondering if the Captain would lie to her, or, tell the truth.

"It's different now." She considered how to explain. "I love her very much, and I could be in love with her again, very easily. Especially as I watch the amazing person she's becoming emerge. I wanted to laugh out loud today when she announced that being barefoot is a Borg cultural custom. But I can't, or rather won't."

"The ship." Seven's tone was flat.

Kathryn put her hand back onto Seven's and smiled wryly. "Actually, no. If I'm being honest, I'll admit that's one of the reasons I didn't act on my desires before, mixing business and pleasure is not a good idea, no matter what your Kathryn has achieved. It has not escaped my notice that my Chief Engineer and my Astrometrics officer have begun to alter the parameters of their relationship. I think they can be for each other, what I can never be for her."

"I have underestimated you. I apologize." Seven was all the more impressed because she recognized that Janeway was not hiding from what she felt, but putting what she believed to be Seven of Nine's needs ahead of her own, even if she was in error by making that decision on Seven Of Nine's behalf. "However, Seven of Nine does not need to be coddled by you, and is more than capable of saying no on her own."

The words hit and Kathryn laughed, stunned at both the insult and the compliment. "Well, the Borg bluntness is the same."

Seven smirked. "It is cultural."

Kathryn laughed again, low and throaty, and once more they were face to face. Seven read the ache behind Kathryn's eyes and knew that the gulf between what Kathryn needed and what Kathryn would allow herself had grown so vast, she was afraid it would never be bridged.

She hadn't intended what happened next, but she knew at the same time there was a certain inevitability to it, and she knew that her mates had known it long before she had. Moving slightly, she kissed Kathryn, felt the beginning response, and then the sudden jerk away from the touch.

It had been the last thing she'd expected to happen between them, but Kathryn felt like her body was suddenly on fire. "Seven?"

"Allow yourself this, with me."

"And your mates?" Kathryn thought she understood, but she needed to be sure.

"Would begrudge neither of us this."

Their lips met again; Kathryn's hungry, devouring a Human contact too long denied. Seven's more gentle, offering a solace, a healing and a haven; if not forever, then at least for tonight.

==^==

"Hansen Laren, may I be of assistance?"

"What?" Laren realized that she'd been staring. "Sorry, I was just thinking. And you really can call me Laren."

"Very well."

Laren cursed softly to herself, belatedly recognizing the question as an attempt to make small talk, or at least to start a conversation. Seven and her counterpart were so much alike that it startled her sometimes, when she hit a glaring point of difference. This woman had not made inroads into the ship's social community and still spoke with clipped tones designed to hide her discomfort. Laren said, "I was thinking that I've been privileged to meet a version of you in three Universes, and in every one, you are a remarkable, beautiful, intelligent woman. I was wondering if there exists a Universe where you were never assimilated or enslaved, Bajor was never occupied, and you and I spend our spare time sailing on the lake in Jalanda."

"What activity consumes our," there was a pause, "non-spare time."

Laren felt a blush rise, but she saw the humour in the Borg's eyes. "Many things," she purred.

Seven of Nine met Laren's eyes, and decided that possible repercussions to her next question were an acceptable risk. "Laren, may I ask you a personal question?"

"Always, Chesei." Laren was curious, Seven of Nine had never phrased a request to ask a question so formally, generally the Borg just asked.

"Would you..." Seven of Nine paused for a second and found the term she wanted in her memory of their earlier conversation. She started over. "Would a non-permanent social interaction that includes physical intimacy be outside of the bounds of our friendship?"

Laren swallowed her shock, and forced her voice to be steady, even though she knew the Borg was aware of the physiological manifestations of her reaction. "For me, yes. I'm sorry, Chesei. I don't...I mean it's not something I ever thought about."

"It is alright. I will utilize the holodeck." Seven of Nine began to stand.

It was the utter impassivity of the words that struck Laren like a physical blow. She could not bear for Seven of Nine to learn about something so fundamental and important from a hologram. Laren reached over and prevented the Borg from getting up. Carefully, she studied the younger woman's eyes. The slight apprehension and vulnerability in them suddenly brought to mind another night, almost a year ago, and another chance taken. She moved closer, and placed her fingertips over the blonde's lips in reassurance and question both. "Seven?"

"It is what I want. I wish to learn this from you. Tonight I want to be in your Universe."

They were sitting side by side, and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world when she closed the distance between them. It was like falling into an unexpected bliss. The kiss was tentative, but grew in fervor and skill. Laren turned her body fully and wrapped both arms around Seven of Nine, drawing her even closer.

==^==

As they stepped into the Prime's rooms, a realization flashed through the younger woman. "Laren, I would like to…"

Their journey had been interspersed with languorous, steamy kisses and drawn out, stimulating touches. The Bajoran had let Seven of Nine set the pace, not wanting to rush her and willing completely to stop at any time. Thus, she held back and listened. They were, at the moment, separated by centimeters. The pause was long enough that she prompted gently, "You would like to what?"

The blonde's brow knit and her expression was hesitant. "I do not know what the proper protocols are for this. I have experimented. I now know what an orgasm feels like." And this was where Seven of Nine knew she was most likely to lose Laren. Others rarely understood her motivations. "I have conducted copious research. I understand the fundamentals…"

"Seven?"

"Yes?"

"Do you want me to let you lead?"

"Yes."

Laren twined her fingers through the other woman's and then walked with purpose toward the other room in their quarters. She went directly to the bed, without speaking, and then sat down on the edge of it. She tugged at Seven of Nine's hand, prompting the blonde to sit also. Then she took that hand and placed it on her breast. She took Seven's other hand and placed it on her other breast. "Tonight I am yours, Seven of Nine. Touch me where you want to touch me. Kiss me, where you want to kiss me. What have you fantasized about doing?"

The ex-drone gazed at Laren with wonder, then, impulsively, she leaned forward, kissing Laren strongly. Laren caught the kiss, returned the heated pressure of it and let herself be carried back until they were reclining. Even here, Seven of Nine was careful. She leaned slightly away so she wasn't completely on top of Laren, just enough to provide a wonderful compression, but the slide of skin on skin was enough to cause the Borg very pleasurable sensations. She began, then, to seriously explore the Bajoran, with hands and mouth and the length of her body. She moaned into the deepening kisses, drew her hands along Laren's skin, quickly assessing and evaluating each response and changing her progress and choices with each.

What amazed and gratified Seven of Nine were Laren's responses. They were genuine and sensual, deeply pleasurable to observe. She rose to meet the blonde's touch, gasped when the ridges of pleasure were stimulated. The sexual markers, heightened coloration, pheromones, a sexy silky wetness were there. The signals were verbal and non-verbal, sometimes direct and sometimes indirect. Yet somehow all of it combined into a delicious perfection, which then got better.

Seven pressed inward with her hand, two fingers plunged into warm depth. Laren rocked up to meet her, cried out in pleasure. Seven flushed with desire and success. She wanted this. She moved her hand, establishing the pace and Laren joined her in it, surrendering totally to Seven's need.

Seven wanted to taste. She wanted to know. She made slow, seductively torturous progress down. She stopped to suckle, suddenly understanding the appeal as Laren arched to her mouth here, to her mouth there. Each was a reflection of what was to come and that excited her more.

Finally she arrived at her destination. She drew her tongue through the tender cleft. It was surprisingly pleasurable, not quite as she expected, yet exactly as described. There was something sweeter to it and a part of her evaluated the chemicals, seeking out what it was that prompted the urge to taste more and more. Eventually she forgot to be consciously analytical and focused, losing herself in the task, except for that part of her that was never lost to any thing.

She knew. She knew when Laren was about to experience physical release. It was more than the basic signals of sight and sound. And then, like a flash-fire, Laren flexed around her, cried out.

Seven of Nine gasped too, embracing the sensations, continuing to stroke until Laren's orgasm soothed itself into completion. Then, when it was time, she withdrew her hand and moved to hold the Bajoran.

Laren gazed at Seven of Nine with satiated affection. She smiled softly as the ex-drone covered her breast with a still wet hand. "Was it good for you?" She had not thought she would ever step outside of her marriage, but at the same time, she knew, that for this, there would be absolution.

Seven of Nine's eyes glowed with satisfaction. "Yes."

"Do you need--" Gentle pressure from a mesh tipped index finger stopped her question, and Laren squeezed the blonde's shoulder, already knowing both the answer and the reason.

"No, I do not."

Laren pulled Seven of Nine snugly against her body. "Good night, Jalat."

Seven of Nine did not wonder at the new endearment, and did not search her memory for a translation. She did not need to know its meaning to know that the Collective would have discarded it as irrelevant, and she needed only the existence of the word to know they were wrong. "Good night, Laren."

==^==

The blinking lights were fascinating, and Kathryn studied their pattern avidly. With one tentative finger, she traced a path along one line of pulsing light, unsure if, now that the heat of the moment had passed, her touch wasn't too intimate a gesture. The dancing colours had intrigued her from the very beginning of Seven's arrival in her universe. She'd just never expected to be playing with them. And, she realized, that was exactly what was happening. As she moved her hands, the lights responded. It was an incredibly heady, not to mention, erotic experience. She suspected Seven was awake, not sure exactly how she knew, but there seemed to be a presence to her companion that indicated contemplation rather than slumber. She tested her hypothesis. "I love these. Do they glow and blink all the time?"

Seven shifted slightly in the bed, exposing a length of silver traced leg, and additional lights, to view. "They do not."

Kathryn raked her nails across the broad span of the abdominal implant and watched the results. "Thank you."

"I believe the correct response is that it was my pleasure."

"Was it?" Kathryn propped herself up on her elbow. "I mean, if I understand what you've told me about your mati--" a mesh tipped finger touched her lips, stilling her speech.

Seven was surprised that the beginnings of doubt and what would inevitably become self-recrimination on Kathryn's part had taken so long to begin to manifest. She had expected the older woman to pull away immediately on waking. "It was very pleasurable," she affirmed. "Kathryn, there is no shame in this. No guilt to be manufactured. You needed and wanted this. I wanted it. I found our encounter pleasurable, and I believe you also found the experience adequate." She let a small smile form, but didn't remove her finger until she had finished.

"More than adequate, Seven." It struck her then that she had been on the verge of sinking into introspective despair. "How did you know?" Kathryn laid her head back down on Seven's shoulder, wanting to hear the answer but not particularly wanting to be examined by those knowing blue eyes.

"It is your way, Kathryn." Seven decided to take advantage of the fact that the topic had come up calmly, and that they were still enjoying the lingering closeness of their lovemaking. "I believe that is why you and Ro Laren no longer share an intimate relationship."

Kathryn rolled away, separating their bodies, and stared out of the window into the passing star field, blood gone cold.

Seven sat up and swung her body around so that she could observe Kathryn's facial expressions. "Do not hide from me, Kathryn."

Kathryn heard the sharp bark and realized that the sound had come from her. "Hiding is futile?" she asked, acerbically.

"No. Hiding is pointless." Then to ease the tension, she continued. "It is resistance that is futile."

Her laugh was more genuine this time. "Your jokes are improving."

"You are attempting to change the subject."

"It's not one I want to discuss."

"You must. Separating yourself from your collective is inefficient. It diminishes you."

"And not separating myself immolates me."

Seven knew then, that there was a deep unspoken hurt, and that this Kathryn's issues were not quite the same as those that had driven her mate to hold herself apart, and alone. "Does it hurt you less to be alone?"

"No. But alone, at least my command remains intact."

"Tell me about Ro Laren." Seven brought the conversation back to where she wanted it, trusting that her mate's intuition was correct.

"You are relentless."

"I am concerned." While they were talking, she moved her body, bringing her leg into contact with Kathryn's side, and took the red-head's hand in her own, Human, one.

"I take it your Captain and your First Officer had a planet bound experience?"

"Yes, but Kathryn and Chakotay did not become intimate. He wished to alter the nature of their relationship. He built her a bathtub." Seven paused. "It was insufficient incentive."

Kathryn laughed, then sobered, eyes softening. "Laren and I built a tree house. Well, more like a tree fort. It took us almost two weeks to stop the roof from leaking." Kathryn's voice softened.

"You did not have a modular shelter?" Seven stretched back out as she spoke, lying on her stomach, still facing Kathryn.

"We did. We built the tree house for fun." Kathryn watched Seven's eyes light up, curiosity blazing from the blue orbs, and she smiled in return. "I'll show it to you sometime." And maybe she would, though she hadn't been in the program she'd made for quite sometime, not since Seven of Nine had come aboard, in fact. It had been a wonderful place to escape, despite the painful reminders of what had been the most idyllic period of her life.

Seven wanted to ask a number of questions, but restrained herself, all too aware that her questions often derailed a perfectly productive discussion. "How long were you on the planet?"

"Five months, eighteen days, six hours."

That time frame explained much, Seven realized. It had been much longer than Janeway and Chakotay had spent on New Earth. It also accounted for some of the differences in the events encountered by this universe's Voyager. They had traveled that same basic route for most of the journey, but in an altered period of time. "That is a significant period."

"It was." Kathryn turned her head away, and Seven leaned down to place a kiss on her shoulder. In spite of her impulse to withdraw, she turned her face back, drawn by the acceptance in the touch. "And then it was over."

Seven understood then. It had not ended badly. They had simply stopped. "You put the ship ahead of yourself."

"We both did. My command wasn't settled, the crew was still having trouble adjusting to being combined. Laren was struggling with some of the more vocal Maquis. What stability we had gained was undermined by our absence." Kathryn looked away again. "And it's what you and I will do tomorrow."

Seven resisted the urge to sigh. She could feel the first tendrils of anger creep into her rationality, and she suppressed those too. "Why?"

Kathryn realized that the version of Seven of Nine in her bed may be more comfortable with societal norms, may have embraced aspects of humanity fully and with a unique vim, but that did not mean she was any less direct, nor any more inclined to leave things she did not comprehend unchallenged. Kathryn suspected that this Seven just merely picked her battles with more discrimination, and that for whatever reason, she, Kathryn Janeway, had become the current target. As though they were on a velocity court, she simply handed it back, hoping that she would force an end to the discussion, preferably by having Seven leave. "Why what?"

Ignoring the question, Seven continued as though Kathryn hadn't spoken. If tonight were to have any lasting value for Kathryn, it could not be permitted to descend into an argument. "If you choose to pretend that tonight did not happen, I cannot prevent that. However, I will not engage in the same unproductive behaviour, to do otherwise would diminish me, and what we have shared." It was amazing to her that she was once again in the position of having to explain basic Human needs. "Simply because when the day begins we will not have a romantic affiliation does not mean that tonight is not an appropriate expression of our friendship. Do you intend to no longer be my friend?"

Kathryn turned her head sharply, Seven's eyes were slightly different shades of violet, her countenance calm, but the undercurrent of hurt was palpable. "Of course not."

"Good. Then accept this." Seven stretched and captured her lover's lips, slowly and patiently maintaining the gentle pressure until Kathryn opened to her. When the first soft moans trilled into her ears and mouth, she pulled back and moved her kisses along the firm jawline until she came level with a delicate ear. "Accept that you are loved. That you are worthy of being loved." To keep Kathryn from protesting, she moved back to kissing her lips, nibbling and taking the time to thoroughly explore the velvet depths. And again, when she judged the time to be right, she whispered. "Accept that you are a woman, as well as a Captain. Remember that you need to touch and be touched. Do not cut yourself off from what is possible in your future because of the Captain or because of the past." This time she moved her body over Kathryn's, pressing her flesh against her lover's slightly warmer skin, and began tracing small circuits with her fingers. "Promise me." She said the words hovering over Kathryn's mouth, and then kissed her again, more hungrily than before.

Kathryn couldn't help it, her body responded to the kisses and caresses even as something much deeper responded to the warm burr of Seven's voice in her ear. She should have been terrified, the words ripping through her soul should have shut her down. Instead, she clutched her hands around the strong back and poured herself into the contact, anchoring who she was and would be to this moment. From somewhere much deeper still, she felt Seven pull her release, and arched fully into the demanding strokes, not holding anything back as her entire being seemed to coalesce as her orgasm swept through them. She heard her own voice, uncertain if the words were vocalized or echoes from her soul. "I promise."

==^==

"Can I ask you a question?" Kathryn rested her chin on her hand, which, in turn, rested on the silver implant just below Seven's breasts. The morning alarm had gone off, but she saw no reason for haste. A soft exhalation of air that was the immediate response of her companion revealed that she had amused Seven in some manner. "Actually, now I have two questions."

"You may ask me anything, Kathryn."

She reached up and traced Seven's left biceps, high-up on the muscle, where the implant was artfully worked into a tattoo. "I'll admit I never expected to see a Borg with blue hair and a tattoo." Kathryn felt the tension thrum through Seven's body, and realized that she had touched on a topic that brought to mind her separation from her loved ones. "I'm sorry."

"It is alright. The tattoo represents my House rank, B'Elanna and Kathryn also have unique marks. In the beta-Universe, it was a matter of safety, and of honour."

"Because Humans are slaves?"

"Yes."

Kathryn moved her hand from skin to hair and took a moment to delight in the feel of it in her fingers. "And the blue?" She pressed the question because, just as Seven had forced her to talk about things she couldn't talk about to anyone else, Kathryn felt that it was important to their friendship that Seven be able to talk to her about her mates and how much she missed them.

"Sometimes one needs to introduce chaos into order to assist perfection." Seven smiled slightly, though her eyes showed a true measure of pain. "Ezri Dax is exceptionally skilled with the application of chaos."

Janeway laughed, low in her throat. "I take it your Ezri has blue hair."

"When we left she did. It is possible that it has returned to its natural state." Seven relaxed and gathered Kathryn in a little closer. "During her preparations for joining the House, Mezoti and Naomi convinced her to allow them to dye their hair. The girls have since returned to their natural colours, but Ezri and Emina have retained the blue. It suits them, but do not tell her I approve."

Kathryn laughed again, very much enjoying the camaraderie. "I think when she sees you, she'll know." She tilted her head so that Seven could see her face. "I'm very much looking forward to meeting them, but I think I'm especially going to enjoy meeting your Lady of Chaos and Lwaxana." She stopped, and then continued. "And T'Pel. Actually all of them. They sound like wonderful people, and they must be, since they love you so much."

The computer chimed again, more loudly than the first time, and Kathryn knew it was time to rejoin the real world. Mindful of their earlier discussion, she resolutely pushed aside any temptation to second guess events. "Come on, I'll wash your back, and you can cook me a wonderful breakfast."

Seven smiled, a bright, true upturn of her mouth that spread to her eyes. "I will comply."

"That's all it takes to get you to comply? Washing your back?" She crawled off the bed and stood, shaking her head in mock self-disgust.

"Yes. But do not tell Kathryn. It would not do for her to become complacent with respect to my compliance."

"My lips are sealed." And then they really were as Seven kissed her again. It was some time before breakfast was completed.





Chapter 35 | Universe Beta, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




Afterward, Gretchen considered that it might have been inevitable.

Miral had been experiencing bouts of extra energy, which the Human suspected would normally have been funneled toward nesting and house preparation. However, as it was not something that was needed on a well kept ship, that energy had only a few places to go. For awhile, it was directed fully at Gretchen, which she enjoyed entirely, but as one could not live on lovemaking alone, some of it was re-directed at dealing with the trials that they took on. But, even then, Miral still had extra energy.

So she had ordered Nelav to find something fun. And Nelav, being who she was and what she was, found an event that any true Klingon could appreciate. It was a celebration of one of the Klingon Heroes and would prominently feature boasting, mayhem and drinking, though in Miral's case it would be prune juice instead of bloodwine.

Then, just before they were to about to go participate in this celebration they found out that B'Elanna, Seven and Laren had gone missing.

Miral had opted to attend anyway. Her justification was that, once the news was passed on, there was nothing they could do about it. The reality was, she wanted to punch someone in the face.

And she did just that. In fact, Miral managed to clobber several someones, all in the name of fun and games.

Now Gretchen had to find a place for the trophy.

She looked at the hefty latinum plated item and gazed around their quarters.

There was no help for it. She was just going to have to order special reinforced stasis shelves for their quarters. Gretchen had not the slightest doubt in her mind that more would follow this one, and in short order at that. Miral had already ordered Nelav to find another "fun," place to go to after they visited Presba. Then they would go to the B'hava'el System and visit Bajor.

It was nearing time for Voyager to return and they wanted to actually meet their new financial manager.

==^==

Chancellor Worf's mate looked at all four of the other women assembled in her greeting room without making an immediate comment. She stepped over to Deanna and they clasped each other warmly. Then she stepped back and looked at the other three women, more specifically at the Intendant.

K'Ehleyr arched her brow and finally said, "Well, Deanna, it seems you solved one of the Empire's problems." She then moved to where the Intendant stood. The Klingon was very aware of her greater height, but she noted that the Intendant was not intimidated, merely hesitant. She couldn't help the grin and just because she could, with complete impunity, she chucked Nerys' chin lightly. "Now we know for sure that a certain Bajoran will not be trying to take over the Empire anytime soon."

The Intendant made an annoyed noise. "I was never going to try that. I don't know why you people thought I had the intention to do so. I only had three ships. Three. How exactly would I have managed a coup, I ask you?"

K'Ehleyr smiled, her own expression amazingly impish. "Ah, but the company you kept, now…that had some interesting implications." She looked back at her friend. "But I see you have since picked better companions. Wise of you."

Nerys looked at Deanna, who nodded. "Well, it wasn't so much that I picked her, as she picked me."

K'Ehleyr let out a genuine burst of laughter. "Did she now?" She patted Nerys' shoulder lightly and moved on down to look at the other two women. "And you. Jadzia Dax of the House Martok. Sirella is going to have a fit that she didn't get to make the choice for you." She leaned forward. "But she'll come around. Deanna Troi of the House Presba, Daughter of the Fifth House of Betazed, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, and Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed, is a great coup. And Deanna Troi, The Truth Seeker is an even greater one for the House."

Deanna's shock outweighed her embarrassment at having her titles enumerated. "How did you know?"

"Deanna, my very good friend, I have people watching out for you. Of course, I know. It would be bad for the Empire if I didn't take care of its Truth Seeker of Truth Seekers, and worse still if I failed to care for my friend. Yes?"

The Betazoid couldn't argue with the logic of it.

K'Ehleyr then stood in front of the smaller of the two Trill women. "Ezri Tigan. Trill for Hire. Your business, I'm afraid, is to be to be monopolized by the Empire. I strongly suggest that you and Jadzia combine your forces. I understand that Jadzia already has a fledgling fleet of merchant ships." That she could have used the term assassin or mercenary, instead of Trill to address Ezri, was no longer relevant.

"I only have two ships…." Jadzia corrected.

"Yes, and what are you going to do with those two ships?"

Jadzia suddenly knew what the answer had to be. "Serve the Empire."

"Good choice. Because Deanna Troi is The Truth Seeker and her duties will require you to be somewhat…more circumspect…in the commissions you accept. Are we clear?"

Ezri wasn't sure how K'Ehleyr had managed to go from genial to frightening instantly, but it was an ability she respected, and she knew higher truth when she heard it. She and Jadzia answered at the same time. "Clear."

"Good. The Empire is proud that you are of its people."

Now K'Ehleyr turned to the Intendant. "And as for you, my dear, there is no conundrum. You will continue as the Intendant of Bajor, because your sector is thriving under your care. And my husband would not have it otherwise. We need a strong Bajor. Since Betazed is so distant from Bajor, Terok Nor will thus, officially, be Deanna's home away from home. She will be allowed to travel to anywhere she desires to go, because she is The Truth Seeker and her obligations come before yours, Intendant. Are we clear?"

"Yes." Nerys would have agreed to anything at this point.

Now the Klingon woman smiled. "Good. Now that's all settled, Mates of my friend, you may call me K'Ehleyr." She waved her hand towards a door which suddenly opened. "Let us go eat and get to know one another. I want to hear all about how you came together." Again her expression became impish and she grinned at Deanna. "And by all, I do mean, all."

Deanna laughed and a feeling of reassurance spread through the mated bond. It was going to be alright.

==^==

General Torres' ship arrived in Presban space nearly twelve hours early. She definitely wanted to be there when Voyager arrived.

Annika had recovered well from her intensive exercise of intellect, and was looking forward to seeing their relatives, so they could give them the news. She continued to cook and their diet had taken on a strange mix of Klingon-Human sensibilities. Somehow, though, it all worked.

Their need and urgency for each other continued unabated, and delightful interludes filled the intervals between war plotting and strategy sessions.

Oddly, her crew seemed the most relaxed they'd ever been. If Belle had not been so happy, she might have considered shaking them up via a journey through Hive Space, however, it would have been unnecessary excitement at this point.

They had whittled down the Orion Syndicate in part, but also knew that the remainder had simply found new and better places to hide. Belle had tasked her best minds, including Annika, with the search but so far there had been nothing new.

But that suited the General for the moment. It gave them time to see the results of her other plans come to fruition. The new marines appeared to be more than adequate. There was an unexpected ferocity to the troops, nearly Klingon in attitude, but more disciplined.

The General had no doubt that they would pull through for her personally, if not for the Empire. Commander Vah had trained the troops well and exactly as she had needed. The question was, could they take on the threats that were coming.

Only time would tell.





Chapter 36 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




In the alpha-Universe, Commodore Janeway beamed down to the Estate briefly to talk with Ambassadors Kasala and Yar and to accept any messages that they might wish to be conveyed back to their Universe. A part of her was amused that she was playing messenger, but before Voyager got lost in the Delta quadrant it was a task often assigned to Starfleet vessels, including science and scout ships like hers.

Tasha smiled as she handed the packages over. "This is for General Torres and this is for Sela."

"I'll see to it that they get them."

"Thank you, Commodore."

They spoke a few more pleasantries afterward, with Kathryn inquiring about their state of comfort. Tasha was very complimentary, if slightly worried. "Kasala joined the Duras sisters on a hunt today."

"What are they going after?"

"A chaser." Tasha smiled at Kathryn's wince. "But barring that, they will accept any other species of your dangerous wildlife as worthy. B'Etor got her eyebrows singed off the last time. She loves Presba, just for that."

Now Kathryn had to laugh. "Well, I'm glad that they are finding some enjoyment here."

"Ah, I should mention that they have been working on convincing your sons to import targs."

"Vedor and Tuvon?"

Tasha nodded. She then grinned and placed her hand on one of Kathryn's forearms and leaned in as if sharing a secret. "They have been working on their arguments, trying to make them logical. It's been very entertaining."

Kathryn's lips twitched. Then she couldn't help it. She started to laugh. "Well, you know, if they manage it, more power to them. I'll have T'Pel talk with our sons. If the Duras sisters succeed, it will be their job to see that the stock is managed so they don't overrun the local fauna."

"Practical."

"I have a Klingon mate, and Klingon kin. Targs are inevitable additions to the plate, so to speak."

Tasha looked startled, then laughed.

==^==

Voyager's voice was stronger in her song. Her mate and mate's kin also sang with greater harmony. Voyager did not know this, but it was a new thing they did. Living ships had always communicated. They burbled, beeped and made sundry noises that counted as song, but now their noises were changing, becoming more ornate, intricate and melodious with every transition.

They surfed through the membranes of the universes with growing confidence. Over the many transitions the crew had gotten used to seeing the blue creatures, which they dubbed sprites, flow in and out of the transient space. Some had even come to look forward to it, enjoying the small, bright creatures' company during their travels.

The sprites who did not enter the vessel continued to coast and leap in Voyager's wake, dancing around the ship in rhythm to the new songs. They were now a regular part of the visuals of the inner-membrane and, oddly, the crew drew comfort from the antics of the beings. Benjamin Sisko continued to enjoy their company, finding their unique perspective on the passage of the ship in and out of the universal membranes, intellectually stimulating.

Those who were sensitive to such things, reported their awarenesses of the creatures. They were intelligent, observant, non-hostile and very interested in what was happening with Voyager and her crew. There was a sense of anticipation that was growing of late. Deanna said to the Commodore at their last discussion about the phenomenon, "Have you ever skipped rope?"

"It has been some time, but yes."

"Well, it's as if there are some of these beings waiting for the right moment, when they understand the rhythm, wanting to join in the game."

Kathryn had felt a brief thrill travel up her spine. She asked carefully, "Are they able?"

"They don't know. Therefore we cannot know either."

"Is there anyway to communicate back to them that we wish them to be cautious? It would…Tell them, if you are able, it would wound us if there were an accident."

"I will do my best, Commodore. But I don't know if it will stop them. They are very curious beings."

Kathryn smiled ruefully. She was quite aware of how curious the beings were. Certainly they had no concept of privacy. She and her mates had had audiences more than once during their time in the Nest.

True to her word, Deanna attempted communication. She closed her eyes and sent out the message. 〈〈Careful. Caution. We care for you. We wish your well-being.〉〉

Because her eyes were closed, she didn't see the sudden gathering of lights around her person.

Everyone else on the bridge did, however. Commodore Janeway, like everyone else was suddenly very attentive. She said, "Everyone as you were. She's fine." At least she hoped Deanna was. "She is merely engaging in an attempt at communication." Her expression turned rueful. "Apparently with great success."

The others around, settled back, but Commodore Janeway and Commander Tuvok continued to monitor the situation.

The lights dispersed almost as quickly as they gathered. All but one.

Deanna opened her eyes and turned her deep, dark eyes on Kathryn. "Commodore, this one conveys a request to attempt the transition. They are willing to take the risk."

"And if they should be hurt along the way."

"Voyager and its people would be blameless."

"We can't afford to become an inter-universal bus if it succeeds either."

"It is understood that this is an experiment."

The transition was closing in on the finish stages and Kathryn knew she had a decision to make. "Tell it, I need time to think about this. I don't want it to try to attempt this now. It knows we will be passing through again. It would be better if…it waited."

"It understands Commodore." They watched as the blue light floated away from their view, and Kathryn couldn't help but perceive its body language as being reminiscent of a disappointed teenager. She only hoped that it would take their warning seriously and not try to stow away.

"Thank you, Deanna."

"It was my pleasure."

==^==

Voyager had barely crossed the membrane into Universe Beta before they were hailed by the Tor'Stag. The hail hadn't surprised Kathryn in the least. What had surprised her was that the hail came from Annika, and not from one of the ship's officers or from Belle.

"Annika? Is everything okay?" Had Belle been injured?

Annika suddenly looked nervous and glanced to the side. Belle came into view, and Kathryn paradoxically found herself both relaxing and growing immeasurably more concerned.

"Go ahead, Be'nal." Belle put her hand on Annika's lower back and rubbed in slow circles.

Annika swallowed. "Variant 752."

Kathryn felt her breath catch.

"That is, I checked the trajectories and used the data from Leah and then cross-referenced with the--"

Belle held her finger up and stopped her mate. "Slowly, love. Breathe."

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Kathryn had both hands wrapped around the railing in front of her chair. The rest of the bridge staff had fallen into complete silence. To her side, she could feel that Ezri had moved up to stand next to her, and was waiting with equal intensity.

"They are in universe variant 752, calculated from Universe Alpha." Annika looked down at the PADD in her hands, and then back up. "It's all here."

Kathryn sat down in her chair, stunned.

"I'm sorry."

The quiet despair cut through her shock and she looked up at the screen. "There's nothing to be sorry for Annika. This is amazing."

Annika looked on the verge of tears and Kathryn was confused.

Now Belle's voice cut back in. "It's okay, tell her."

"It's my fault the engine overheats. I didn't want the Syndicate to kill anymore of the scientists so I made sure that they needed all of us." She took a small black rectangular box from Belle and held it up. "This will fix part of the problem. I put the instructions for how to connect it to the TUE and the corrected design specs on the tablet."

"Annika." Kathryn made her voice as gentle as she could, and tried to convey all of the affection she had for the young woman with her tone. "Thank you for caring enough to find them, for caring enough to protect the people around you and for caring enough to find the solution. You are an amazing person and I love you. We love you." She pulled Ezri forward and motioned to Tuvok and Laren. Kathryn turned slightly so she was facing the portion of the screen where Belle was standing. "Bring her over, Belle."

"I will, Kathryn. Unfortunately, I won't be able to join her. I have other obligations."

"Understood." Kathryn smiled whimsically, "But we'll miss you."

The Klingon grinned back. That wasn't something that had often been said to her.

==^==

The quickest way to have a limited amount of time seem interminable is to have someplace that one wanted to be that was elsewhere from the place one was. Fortunately, there were family things to occupy the Prime and their children, while they waited for the engine to cool down and the equipment checks to begin. Miral showed off her new trophy and entertained her grandchildren, while Gretchen, Icheb and Annika exchanged recipes. Interestingly, each of them came out of it thinking they'd gotten the better of the deal.

Lwaxana asked Nelav to make contact with the Truth Seeker's Assistant and relay a message. She knew that attempting to make personal contact, even if Rynb currently acknowledged that she had a relationship with the Truth Seeker, would result only in stalls and obfuscation. He guarded his mistress' time with the ferocity of a loyal bulldog. Lwaxana did not begrudge him his joy in his duty, only his failure to understand that she was no threat.

The message to be given was a simple one. "Congratulations and felicity to your union, my daughter. Your sister sends her greetings. We look forward to seeing you again when we are able. With much love, Mother."

That exact wording gave the Betazoid a secret chuckle. That one word at the end was sure to give Rynb conniptions. The inclusion of sister would give him hives.

==^==

Because Belle had not actually boarded Voyager and because she had only spoken to Deanna and not to Deanna's mate, she remained oblivious to the knowledge that she had met Asil's counterpart. Therefore she did not convey the information as a matter of family discourse. Nor did she realize that Deanna Troi, Truth Seeker, had taken three mates, not two, so Belle did not know to tell Ezri Dax that her counterpart had reconciled her differences with the Intendant, and had married into the House.

What she did pass on, during a brief exchange about the state of the Universe, was that Commander Vah had successfully trained a new cohort of marines and had started on the next batch. The new marines had been integrated into his ship, for extended training. The next few sets of trainees would also be integrated, and then they would begin spreading those who were veterans throughout General Torres' growing fleet. By the time they were done, troop strength would be the highest it had been in more than two hundred years.

"I am growing more confident that we will be able to face what is coming our way with fortitude and a measure of success. Given what I have seen of the Borg, we will need all our tricks and our strength"

Commodore Janeway sympathized. "I admit one of my not so secret fears is that there's always someone better and stronger out there. We may be big fish in our pond, but…"

"… there's always the killer whale in the deep waters." They looked at each other with identical worried gazes. Belle finally continued, "We will keep you apprised."

"And we you. And if we find something to help out, we'll pass it on."

They smiled at each other with genuine affection.

"Farewell, Warlord. Bring the Pride of Kahless on our House and bring my sister home."

==^==

The Transition back to the alpha-Universe contained the usual events, but none of the sprites tried to hitch a ride into it. Apparently the message had been effectively conveyed. They did, however, continue their observation and play. The sprites' attitude, on the whole, remained genial and it reassured the Commodore that her decision had been respected.

Once in the alpha-Universe, it was again matter of waiting. This time, however, there was a deep sense of anticipation. Annika's calculations had been shared with Dr. Brahms and Dr. Kahn and both had confirmed, with a great deal of awe, the potential accuracy of the variant number.

"Frankly," said Dr. Kahn over the view-screen, "I don't see how it could be any other variant. It's obvious once you break it down." Again her expression was one of true amazement. "Commodore, I must meet Annika the next time we are in Universe Beta. She is the only one who can answer my questions."

"I will see what I can do, but I can offer no guarantees." Kathryn wasn't sure that she wanted to unleash the intense Doctor on her reticent sister-in-law, but she suspected that if she did, the Universes would never be the same.

"Thank you, Commodore."

==^==

The tension within the Prime was almost unendurable. Within them, there was an urgency of purpose, a hope that quivered at the possibility of being dashed. Lwaxana and T'Pel played gently with Emina and Barin, while their other children attended classes or, in the case of Icheb, his duty shift. Kate was in sickbay, while the other adults of the Prime were on the bridge.

It was better this way, that they should be occupied and doing. Otherwise it would have led to hand wringing on the parts of those who were more emotional, and distancing on the parts of those who were more logical. This way, despite the physical separation, they maintained the actual closeness between them.

Dr. Zimmerman was already on alert to watch out for Kate. Deanna was given a similar charge. The Prime remembered what it was like when they had rejoined the first time and opted to be well prepared.

Commodore Janeway nodded to her First Officer, who gave the command. "Lieutenant Sayr, engage."

==^==

Past the first edge of the membrane itself, there was no hint of way lay before them. The sprites were there, and as joyful as ever. The cloaked Voyager swam through its currents with blithe familiarity, and the sprites ignored the walls to join with their friends on their short journey. A few of them seemed to hover around Deanna, expectantly, and Commodore Janeway realized that they were waiting for her answer. "Not yet," she had told Deanna.

The Betazoid had relayed the message. A sense of slumping disappointment, almost an aw-dang in the sprite's movement, pricked at Kathryn's sensibilities, but she feared for the small beings, since she did not know what they were actually composed of, and so held to her refusal.

Were they like the Bajoran Prophets, who were direly affected by chronotons? Were they like entities of nebulas she and her people had encountered before, reliant on the gases and fugue of the star to live? There was no way to know.

Yet, at the same time, these were the adventurers of their kind. And she knew what that was like, since she too was of that mold. Kathryn realized it was not a decision she could put off forever.

So she said, as the lights sighed by, not sure if it would translate, "Soon. Not now. Not next time. But soon."

The little beings stopped, brightened. And she hoped, desperately, that she had made the right choice. She had not lied when she had said it would wound her if the sprites were hurt.

==^==

They glided into open space in the Presban system of Universal Variant 752. In the Prime, the instant they crossed the membrane, there was a sliding home of presences lost, a resonance of unspeakable joy. This time, those who had been through it before did not collapse. Those who had not, were caught on the way down and settled into chairs, where they could weep freely.

In them there was light. And it was good.

==^==

Their joy, though full, was marred.

It was Harry Kim who brought the situation to their attention, mainly because of his shock. "My God. Oh, My God." He looked up from his console, in unbelieving anguish. But he couldn't deny the data that was being streamed. And there were messages from other departments whose job it was to gather data, who were also in states of agonized realization.

It had to do with the beacons, or that was what they determined later. Beacons that relayed information all the time, conveying a message of before and after for all the worlds in the two quadrants. They showed a demonstration that there once was life, and then the record of the attack and the devastation, with the final words of, "Thus to all who defy the Dominion."

If the Prime had not been fully aware that their mates were alive, the Commodore's reaction might have been completely different. "Tuvok, get security to sickbay right away. Don't let anyone in, besides first tier officers and the medical team. Have Dr. Dezhe treat any transition sickness in holodeck three for the time being. Someone's bound not be rational about this. Protect the Changelings."

"Aye, Commodore."

"Deanna, contact Orsas, make sure she has teams available. This is bad. Also, we don't know if there are other ships out there. Find out. You have the conn." She stepped closer to her daughter and finger spoke. "There is no way of knowing how long this will take. Do your best. If you absolutely need to, contact us. We will try."

"Aye, Commodore."

"Commander Dax." Kathryn deliberately appealed to Ezri's training, knowing how difficult this moment must be.

The Trill wiped her eyes, strove to pull herself together. The symbionts were gone. Every Trill, joined or not, adhered to the sacred duty: Protect the symbionts at all cost. Memories of the pools that nurtured those that carried the legacy of their joined races were overwhelming her ability to respond coherently, but finally, even through the grief, she was able to find her voice. "Yes, Commodore?"

Kathryn's voice gentled. There was no hiding the love in it. "Ezri, Tuvok, you're with me." She extended her hand to the Trill. "We'll contact our mates on the way. It is time."

Ezri looked at her sharply and then nodded, suddenly understanding. She grasped Kathryn's hand and stood up. "Aye, Commodore."

Now Kathryn had time to think. "Harry, coordinate the data gathering and get us a better picture of what is going on. Let's find out what we're facing. Make sure Deanna has all the information she needs."

"Will do."

"Thank you. Carry on."

With that, Kathryn purposefully exited the bridge with her mates.

==^==

In the turbo-lift Kathryn turned to her shell-shocked mate. Ezri's pain and desolation radiated as clearly along the bond as it did from her face and body. "We cannot."

Ezri jerked her head up. "Why not? You went for the Changelings." But even with the question, she knew why not. The risk was too great, the chance of success too uncertain. She slumped against Tuvok, who silently supported her.

"You know why not. I can't risk the whole ship."

She nodded. "I know." And then she let Kathryn hold her too.

==^==

It was something they had discussed, after things were more settled with Ezri and Kate, and the healing had really begun. They had known they would need some sort of method of finding their mates quickly, once they found the correct universe. Bouncing back and forth between universes, knowing that it would rip them asunder each time they were separated, was not something to be undertaken lightly.

They had established that there was a way that would allowed the minds of the telepaths of the Prime to cross the great distance. But it required more than just the power of the Mating Fire, even as fierce as it was. That was, so far, a mostly physical phenomenon, even with the building flavors of empathic skill. The Mating Fire was only a beginning and needed to be augmented before it fully could rise to occasion.

It was the Battle Flame that had allowed the mental crossing of distance the second time. The Battle Flame, however, had kept their contact short and to the conveyance of concepts rather than extensive directed speech. Expressions of love and need, acknowledgment of contact, that was possible with the Battle Flame. But they needed more. They needed the Blood Fever.

It was the pon farr that allowed the crossing the first time. That powerful blending of mind, will, power, and body had allowed for extended conversation, days of connection. They had been able to plan, review, analyze. They had communicated on a level that was almost unheard of anywhere else.

They needed the plak tow of the pon farr again or something equally intense, if not exactly the same. If there was another means, they did not know of it. They also did not have time to try find a different one.

In theory, they understood what they were trying to accomplish. The methodology, however, was not on firm territory. Deliberately inducing the Blood Fever had simply not been done before.

But they needed. And their mates needed.

The mates gathered in the Nest and formed a standing circle. Kathryn said, "Lwaxana, I think, by necessity, you must lead." There was agreement along their empathic link.

They lifted their hands, turned them towards each other, and their fingertips touched. That connection formed an unbroken link. Lwaxana said, 〈〈We begin with the first incantation.〉〉

==^==

When they began discussing the possibility of trying this method, Lwaxana had taken up researching the endeavor with the help of T'Pel. They investigated, together, ancient rites; not necessarily of Vulcan, because such things were simply not contained within Federation Starship Databases, but other rites with similar intent. Lwaxana had been entirely serious when she had said that Betazed still practiced rituals of a similar kind.

They discussed some of the options with Dr. Kate, who said they possibly could induce the plak tow artificially and trigger pon farr, "…as a last resort, but I hate the idea of chemically altering one of our mates in this attempt. It's not even that it's not safe. For Vulcans it could be deadly." Even so, sequestered safely in the Nest were a set of hyposprays that would possibly induce the pon farr. They hoped not to need them at all.

Lwaxana and T'Pel had also spoken with Inan, but she felt that they would not need her help. "You have the power in you," she said with absolute confidence. "Your desire for one another is already strong. You already send profound signals to one another. You do not need me." But she gave them, as a belated wedding gift, a PADD filled with Orion Pleasure techniques.

That had ultimately led to more research, which, in due course, had led to their chosen strategy. Kathryn, in a moment of almost juvenile humour, wondered what Surak of Vulcan would have thought of the uses to which the meditation chants were being put. She felt Ezri's guffaw of delight at the sacrilegious bent of her thoughts, felt Kate's tickled pleasure at her lack of mental decorum, and surprisingly caught an edge of fond tolerance from Tuvok.

By the time they hit the third incantation, the Prime were deeply connected and attuned.

Lwaxana, who had kept a part of herself separate, for the purpose of leading the chant and guiding them to this new state of awareness, began very deliberately to alter it. Word chains, concepts of logic and reason, began to change their focus. She began to weave in other systems and ideas. She filled their minds with an eroticism flavored with the primal memory of what it was like to be in the state of pon farr, that fierce, terrible and irresistible urge to mate or die trying.

She caressed them, invited them to caress her, invited them, like a siren calling, to join her in the madness of it. Lwaxana stroked, not just the Vulcan's minds, but the Human's, the Trill's. She pushed at what was hinted at in them, the constant holding back they engaged in, so they could function. On a level deeper than she was even aware, Lwaxana set the chaos loose, laughingly cut the strings that controlled their most primitive of impulses.

They should have realized it would be T'Pel.

Tuvok, after all, was the one who had gone through his pon farr. No one had thought to ask about when T'Pel's might be. They'd all assumed it was at the same time as Tuvok's.

T'Pel's eyes flashed open and she growled. In another time and in another place, she would have sought sanctuary.

But she was already safe.

Another time and place, she would have gone through the exertion of trying to control the impulses. But their need for their mates had stripped T'Pel of the luxury of denial.

The Vulcan howled, broke the chain of their physical connection, and rushed at Lwaxana, in a mix of rage, pain and need, so powerful that it flooded all of them, poured through all of them. They burned.

==^==

They had known. Seven had been engaged in a dialog with Seven of Nine in Astrometrics. Laren had been assisting the Captain. B'Elanna had been working on the adaptations to the TUE with Lanna.

It had caught them off guard, but, fortunately, not in a harmful way. It had simply left them breathless and astonished.

"What? What's going on?" Lanna demanded.

B'Elanna grinned. It was so bright that it almost made Lanna's cheeks ache and she couldn't help but smile in return. B'Elanna replied, "They're here. Our mates are in this universe."

"Really? You can tell that?"

The Klingon turned an almost feral grin on her counterpart. "Oh, yeah."

A communications chirp cut into the charged air. "Seven Torres to B'Elanna Troi."

B'Elanna responded. "Yes, Be'nal. I know."

Infinite patience carried through in the tone of the reply. "That is not why I called. You must come home, Bang'wI."

Now B'Elanna was confused. "Why? We've got two more hours on shift."

"I anticipate an effort on the part of our mates to contact us. We should be ready to be receptive."

"Be'nal, not even Lwaxana can reach this far." B'Elanna felt a prod along their connection of a delicate hint of a memory of fire and the her brows rose, melding her ridges together. "Oh! Oh Kahless. Right. And they'll be trying to contact us."

"Yes. They will. They will not delay. We would not."

"I'm on my way." B'Elanna started down the ladder, then stopped and looked back up, and said, complete with the cheekiest grin she could manage. "Okay, so a lot of the time Seven arranges...things."

In the ready room, Laren had suddenly gasped, then dropped the PADD she and Kathryn had been working on.

Concerned, Kathryn asked Laren, "What is it? You're crying?"

"They're here. They made it."

"Who…Oh. They're here?" Understanding hit suddenly, the joy at reunion was a great as the devastation of separation.

"In this universe," Laren qualified. "Not in this quadrant. At least I don't think they are."

"But they will be."

"Yes." No hesitation, no doubt; they had been found, and they would be reclaimed. It was only a matter of time.

Laren's comm badge chirped. "Seven Torres to Hansen Laren."

"Laren here."

"Come home. Our mates will attempt contact."

"But wouldn't you require a communications station?" Kathryn asked, confused.

Laren wasn't one to blush when it came to her mates, but this was a delicate detail. "In this case, no. We don't require a communications station. We require a bed and a sonic suppressor."

"I…Oh." After that, there wasn't much Kathryn could think of as an appropriate reply, so she remained quiet.

Laren smiled warmly. Then, on impulse, leaned over and kissed the startled Captain on the cheek. "Soon, KJ. Very soon."

"Keep me apprised."

==^==

They were proactive. They prepared themselves and their room and made sure to set the suppressor. They also didn't wait.

No reason existed for waiting. Even if their mates did not succeed in the attempt, it was a logical guess that the Mating Fire would occur, it had the last time the split Prime were reunited. In Seven's eyes that was both a worthy and sufficient motivation.

They piled onto the bed, kissing and touching erotically, with the Mistress of the House in the middle. This too was worthy motivation from Laren and B'Elanna's perspective. Therefore they focused true sensual attention on it. Happiness lent delight to the process.

Seven of Nine of the House Presba was already sparkling and throbbing when the wildfire need arced through them. It caught their collective breaths, and flung them out to greet and join their mates.

==^==

Instantly, as if they were suddenly plugged into a greater communion, one that sparked across vast distances, they could sense their mates, hear them, feel them. The Prime in the Nest knew that the Prime Elsewhere were gripped by the fire just as entirely and completely as they were. Seven, B'Elanna and Laren were suddenly there with them, mind and spirit. As the others were with them, mind and spirit.

〈〈We have come!〉〉

〈〈Beloveds!〉〉

This happened quickly, at the same time as Ezri stepped in front of the rushing Vulcan, and caught T'Pel in a full on body slam that carried them back into Lwaxana who caught and held them both.

The Betazoid pushed them together, growled in their ears. "Ours." Then, she kissed them both, long and hard, until they were kissing her, kissing each other and kissing her again. Ezri turned in her arms, wrapped herself around Lwaxana, growling needfully as T'Pel raked her fingers hotly down the Trill's sides, moving her hands to where they wanted to go.

Kate, Kathryn and Tuvok converged upon them, drew near. Tuvok reached and turned T'Pel around. She snarled at him for distracting her. He lifted her and she wrapped herself onto him, around him, taking him deeply into herself. Demanding that he fill her. T'Pel lost herself to the kisses of her mates, as Kate embraced her from behind.

Kathryn, in turn, took T'Pel's place. Now it was her hands roving the skin of the Trill. Her fingers which found the wet and receptive places to stir into readiness. They moved together, dropping in gentle speed, onto the soft cushion of the Nest. Ezri stayed in the middle, while Lwaxana's hand joined Kathryn's then went deeper. She bucked against the deep thrusts, unconsciously timed them to T'Pel's urgency.

There was beauty in the roughness, rediscovery as they were known to each other again, even more fully than before. Ecstasy was rapidly approaching for three of them: Seven, Ezri, and T'Pel.

Then, as a command and summons to complete the full power of the call, Lwaxana ordered them into higher union.

None of the three hesitated. Seven reaffirmed her connection with B'Elanna. T'Pel's teeth sunk deeply into Tuvok's shoulder. He barely managed to control himself, but held on, waiting for the song to arrive.

Ezri whipped forward, striking fast and thoroughly. Lwaxana yowled, caught off guard by the choice, but understanding almost immediately why as she felt Ezri's joy.

As soon as the bite was done, Lwaxana reciprocated, with just as much verve. It was, she realized, afterwards, as amazing sensations rushed through her, the bite of completion. Light seemed to flow through her as the awareness of a fundamental change raced through her. She embraced it in full and pushed, casting Ezri into bliss, which shocked sweetly and powerfully through first T'Pel, then Seven, and finally, yanked the rest of them into the erotic cascade.

The Prime were One.

==^==

Kate now understood on a visceral level the difference between whole and divided; between complete and parted. If someone asked her in the future if she knew what it was like to lose a limb, she could honestly answer that she did. The wound had been that deep and true.

It was a joy to hear and speak with her mates again. She now realized that their mates' distinctiveness, as Seven of Nine would say, contributed much to their collective. Even at the great distance that stood in the way of physical presence, she felt the soothing of those terrible wounds of the last few weeks by her mates.

She was equally aware that Ezri was having similar revelations. That awareness was the result of their current state of deep, telepathic connection and the fact that she now bore Ezri's mark. As Ezri also bore hers.

She grinned up at her mate, who was doing wonderful mysterious things to her. She hadn't quite figured out how Ezri was doing it, as both hands were where she could see them, one holding the Trill up as support and the other occupied with caresses, but Kate was enjoying herself. Being who she was, she had to ask. 〈〈How are you doing that?〉〉

Ezri, amused, asked innocently, 〈〈Doing what?〉〉

Kate deliberately pressed upward and was very aware that something was definitely connecting them because Ezri pressed downward, and she felt the motion deep inside. 〈〈That. I didn't see you pulling out any toys.〉〉

〈〈I'm not using a toy.〉〉 Ezri was smiling, kissing her.

〈〈I know. That's why we're having this conversation. How are you doing this?〉〉 Again there was a deepening of the thrust and her answering receptivity.

〈〈Not telling. But it feels good, doesn't it?〉〉

〈〈Very.〉〉

〈〈Do you want me to stop?〉〉

〈〈Don't you dare!〉〉

There was communal laughter and delight. Their conversation was not one that had happened secretly, and they were all enjoying the rare chance to truly hear one another.

〈〈Seven did that to me once,〉〉 said B'Elanna. They could feel her pleasure along their link and witnessed the memory in a brief flash.

Now Kate was intrigued.

〈〈How?〉〉

Seven also had an answer. 〈〈I am Borg. I adapted.〉〉

It was not exactly a clear answer, but it provided Kate with a clue. She was very near to noodling at it, when Ezri said, as she began kissing Kate senseless again, 〈〈Focus, Dr. Kate. The how of it can wait.〉〉

Kate had to agree. Some things were much more important.

==^==

It was reminiscent of their first time, only now it was Lwaxana who carried her distant mates to their children. They needed, as much as their parents, to know that they were all in the same universe. Lwaxana gathered Barin and Emina to her, while the other Sochlings gathered around her and physically leaned against her, as if they could, by mere dint of pressure, somehow bring their mothers even closer.

〈〈Soon,〉〉 was the promise given. 〈〈All will be well.〉〉

〈〈Will we hear you again?〉〉 Mezoti queried, worried in ways that could not be formulated verbally, but were passed on very easily on the current level of discussion.

It was the first awareness that B'Elanna and Laren had that Seven had suffered on a whole different level than they had realized. They chided her gently. 〈〈You should have told us.〉〉

〈〈I have been through it before,〉〉 soothed Seven of Nine. 〈〈I could not change it. I knew I would survive it. I knew our children would too.〉〉

〈〈But it was not the same as when we were severed from the Collective,〉〉 countered Rebi.

〈〈No. It was not. This hurt more.〉〉

〈〈Yes.〉〉 Azan contributed somberly.

〈〈This is because we are more perfected than our cousins in the Collective.〉〉

The Sochlings had to smile at that comment. They too considered it true. 〈〈Our feelings are relevant.〉〉 Icheb confirmed.

〈〈Yes,〉〉 affirmed their mother. 〈〈They are.〉〉

==^==

It was a switch. A worn out T'Pel now rested in Kathryn's arms. There was a deep serenity in the Vulcan's expression, a stark contrast to the wildness that had composed it before. Tuvok spooned against Kathryn's back, caressing them both gently and soothingly. Their familial bond, he knew, had been strengthened in profound ways. To that end, he felt that their experience had been to the good.

As he learned more about the differences between the two star-faring vessels, he could only conclude that the choices made by his Kathryn had been several levels better than the other.

"Ah, beloved, I have made comparable and equally mentally challenged decisions in my time."

A burst of laughter from Kate and Ezri punctuated her admission. They too were resting while they awaited the return of Lwaxana.

Kathryn pressed against Tuvok, and kissed him warmly. "She, however, has not had my great good fortune to have you as a mate. Between you all, I had no choice but to improve in my decision making process."

"We are all the better for it." Tuvok responded firmly.

Kathryn grinned, then she reached back and clasped him intimately. "Oh, I most heartily agree." There was a subtle signal between them and Ezri and Kate were suddenly feeling quite rested enough. Lwaxana and their distant mates would understand.

==^==

The communion was winding down, but vital information had been passed on and three possible destination points determined. They were all aware that there would be a time of separation, which would be intense, and then a return. This time, however, they were much more prepared for it. Kate actually used the term, "Inoculated."

Kathryn grunted in return. "Inured, is more like it."

The Prime who were on Voyager had gone through the process of making sure that all of them had deepened the bond through genetic exchange. Meaning, all of those on Voyager were bearing bite marks from each other. Only one pair of marks remained to be exchanged among those present in the Nest. After that, they would have to wait until they were physically reunited with the others to complete the full bond.

Ezri had saved Kathryn for last.

It was partly as a joke and partly because, from a certain perspective it was special. Ezri would be Kathryn's final joining. They now understood, at least in theory, why B'Elanna, of the three on gamma-Voyager, had awakened first and been able to function at such a high level. She had been completely grounded in their bond. It was also why Seven had been able to acknowledge the navigation alarm in the shuttle before she succumbed to the effects of the shattered bond. Kate speculated that without the additional strain of losing her connection to the children, Seven might well have recovered at the same time as B'Elanna.

It had become an unconsciously ritualistic. Ezri straddled Kathryn and they were both in the middle of the Nest. Their mates were seated around them and touched them with slow, lingering caresses and kisses. Seven, Laren and B'Elanna joined in those touches from afar and received reciprocated caresses.

Those touches could have gone on in that leisurely fashion, warm and tender and no one would have complained. It was good to be with one another this way.

But there was a point where Kathryn's gaze met Ezri's and there was a potent flash of need and desire that sparked between them. Kathryn abruptly pulled Ezri into a powerful embrace, surrendering to the passion that welled in them like an everlasting spring. Their kisses sharpened, deepened.

Ezri's hands gripped Kathryn's head, her fingers spread through silky hair. She guided those kisses, groaning into them, while Kathryn's touch flowed over her in delicious tactile harmony. Ezri's kisses moved lower, while the others' touches stirred them both, summoned their arousal to the higher, deeper points. They knew who touched them and where. They knew who called them to their joy. Their mates, individually and as one, joined in the song of it: the purring, growling hum. Their fingertips set the tempo, as their nips, kisses and bites melted into the syncopated rhythm.

Once again, Lwaxana became the conductor, orchestrating them into the final action. But this time she was joined in the guiding song by her mates. This time they all made the command to deepen the union. When lips were placed in perfect places, and scent had guided them to the point most worthy and teeth were unavoidably tempted, their mates pushed them forward. The naked exigency of them all called the pair to feel the higher truth.

Ezri and Kathryn bit each other at the same time and felt the profound knowing sparkle through like tidal wave. The release that immediately trailed the event thrilled through them all. It was, as always, surprising and intense and beautiful.

Kathryn felt something within slide home, but if someone were to ask her what it was, she could not have described it. It was a golden sensation, a locking in of "this is it."

These were her beloved mates and she was theirs without doubt, and if this were the only side benefit, it was good. It was right, as it should be. It was priceless.

Ezri kissed her fiercely, smiled and raised her fingertips. Kathryn met the touch with her own and smiled back. Their foreheads touched and they heard each other quite clearly and independently of the others, though they too were there. 〈〈Mate.〉〉

==^==

They knew they would soon be cut off from one another again, but that it would only be temporary. They did not know if it would throw them into unconsciousness again, but realized they must prepare for it anyway. Knowledge might not be enough of a preventative.

Laren, as promised, had kept the Captain apprised and did so again, informing her of the possibilities ahead. "We think it would be good if we stayed in our quarters during this time. Kathryn intends to have Deanna transition them to a pre-planned location whether we are conscious or not. Dr. Zimmerman concurs that a swift return to this universe will probably aid in recovery. Our only regret is that we won't be able to see your faces."

Kathryn's lips twitched into that quirky grin of hers. "Well, fortunately, you can always look at the ship's records afterwards."

"We look forward to it," riposted Laren. "Is there any message you would like us to convey to our Kathryn."

"Tell her...," Kathryn paused. "…Tell her to hurry."

Laren's smile gentled. "I will."

==^==

There were last minute details. Commodore Janeway spoke with her First Officer and her Special Forces Commander.

"There may be survivors." Deanna said somberly. "If they exist, however, they have hidden themselves very well. We did not risk trying communications. But we draw the conclusion, because there are signs that the Dominion still patrol the quadrants. We are of a consensus that there would be no purpose to these patrols unless the Dominion too suspects that there are survivors."

Kathryn nodded. "I don't know that there is anything specifically we can do. But we'll take this information back to Starfleet. They will have to determine the priorities here."

"Agreed." Deanna looked at Asil. "Also, we let the Changelings know about the situation and they are just as livid as we are. Possibly more so. It goes against some very fundamental beliefs that they hold. One may defend, but this clearly goes beyond self defense."

"We are of an accord on that." Kathryn said firmly. Then she said, "I take it that they are feeling better."

"They are, though they are still very much in the process of healing. Dr. Zimmerman reported that during transition, sickbay was visited by several sprites who took great interest in the Changelings. The interest was reciprocated. If nothing else, they provided a positive distraction."

"I imagine they did." The Commodore changed the direction of the dialog. "Thank you both, for keeping watch while we were…indisposed."

"It was our pleasure. I take it we now know where Seven, Laren and B'Elanna are?"

"That would be correct." Kathryn pushed a PADD in their direction. "These are the coordinates. Please pass them on to Lieutenant Sayr. Our intention is to bounce back to Presba. Then, as immediately possible, go to these coordinates."

Deanna glanced with concern at Kathryn. "It is doable, but are you sure?"

"It will be like tearing off a bandage. The quicker it's done, the better."

"Horrible analogy."

"But true." Kathryn smiled at her daughters and unselfconsciously straightened her robe. These days it might as well be her official uniform. "Make it so, Deanna."

"Aye, Commodore. I'll signal you when we're about to transition."

==^==

"Kathryn?"

"Yes, my ship?"

"I'm excited."

"Me too. You've missed her."

"I miss them all. You are my family. It doesn't feel right when you're not home."

"Yet we all have duties."

"Not the same."

"No it hasn't been." There was a pause. "Are you feeling better about things?"

"I am. Deanna is very good."

"Yes. She is. Fortunately for all of us. Love you."

"Love you too."

==^==

Kathryn paused to watch the children play, and to speak with Neelix and Sam. "You two deserve a medal of commendation. You have gone beyond the call of duty of late."

Sam grinned. "Thank you, Kathryn. But it truly has been a pleasure and no duty at all. After all, we're family and you have done the same for our daughter." Sam snagged Neelix and kissed his cheek, causing the Talaxian to blush.

"Sam's right. We're glad to do it. Besides, it gives us quality time."

Now Kathryn smiled. "I have come to appreciate the value of that. Well, Uncle Neelix, Aunt Sam, as you were."

"Aye, Aunt Kathy. See you on the other side."

==^==

The announcement about the transition went out over the ship wide intercom. The Prime relaxed, talking with one another. They were as ready as they could be.

Ten seconds later they were in brutal agony, which was thankfully alleviated by the quick oblivion that followed.

==^==

Voyager monitored them through the transition and witnessed as the Prime were surrounded by a multitude of sprites. The beings hovered around them, obviously concerned. Then they moved, quickly out and through the walls of the Nest, straight to the bridge, where they promptly surrounded Deanna.

The last thing the First Officer had expected was the need to answer the queries of worried and traumatized sprites. Deanna did her best, striving to convey what it was that they were attempting to accomplish, and that, in the end, all would be well.

On the other hand, she was aware that the sprites were beginning to understand what the Commodore meant when she warned them.

Sometimes moving between universes could have real, and unexpected, consequences.

==^==

A half an hour later, Deanna signaled the transition and at a count of ten, they moved through the universes once more. It seemed as if it were quicker this time, perhaps because they were so intent on their destination. Sprites visited in sickbay and in the Nest, hovering protectively over the injured and the incognizant during the transition, then, as they crested into the next universe, the sprites dispersed heading in a multitude of directions at once.

Enough of them had scattered over the ship, that even with the complex surveying skills of Voyager, it was easy to miss when one of them entered a Jeffries Tube and stayed.

==^==

Deanna looked askance at the space surrounding them. She had thought, given the exactness of the coordinates, that they would have immediately found a vessel there. However, they entered a sector in space that was devoid of anything for thousands of kilometers. Deanna realized what had happened. The coordinates had been for a safe entry point, not a rendezvous.

She had Harry conduct a scan immediately.

It took a few minutes, but then the Operations Officer grinned fiercely. "You won't believe what we just found."

Deanna grinned back. "Try me, Lt. Kim."

"Astrometrics reports that long distance scans indicate an Intrepid class vessel th…"

Voyager, who had access to those same files, dropped her cloak and moved, turning rather firmly in the direction of the other vessel. The movement was sharp enough that the inertial dampeners had some trouble keeping up, so anyone standing or sitting, suddenly found themselves leaning to the side for a little while.

Harry couldn't help the chuckle as he finished his sentence. "…three light years away."

Deanna managed to maintain her composure. It was all that command training. But she too experienced a jolt of humor. Her reply, however, was completely even in tone. "Thank you, Lieutenant." She looked down at the data flying across her console. In twenty hours and fifty eight minutes the Prime would be reunited. If the distant ship plotted a complementary course it would be much sooner.

"Mr. Paris, confirm Voyager's course, ahead warp eight point five, engage." The command was somewhat redundant, as Voyager herself was headed in the right direction at that velocity, but she felt it necessary to let the helmsman know precisely what she intended, in the event that Voyager got a little over eager.

"Aye, Commander. Warp factor eight point five, course laid in." Tom Paris acknowledged the order and confirmed his compliance. He knew what was at stake.

==^==

Dr. Zimmerman's theory about the effect of the secondary transit was accurate. The Prime quickly became coherent enough to gather themselves together and exit the Nest. Kathryn, Ezri and Tuvok made their way to the bridge. T'Pel, Lwaxana and Kate began the process of preparing their children for the next obvious step, which was both reconnection with their other mothers and the real possibility of guests in their home.

Fortunately, young Borg and Betazoid telepaths could be very efficient in picking up their toys, resting, and then getting dressed more formally; especially when properly and lovingly motivated. Even Qul was cleaned up and made presentable. The firedog was combed until its fur seemed to flicker in the light with every movement.

Icheb returned home from duty in sickbay to begin food preparation. No one commented that it seemed that he was a little early. His motivation was clearly understood.

==^==

In their quarters on gamma-Voyager, Seven Torres, B'Elanna Troi and Hansen Laren, also recovered. They dressed in loving silence. Words were unnecessary as they helped each other into their uniforms. Kisses, on the other hand remained an absolute necessity.

But they didn't linger. They had things to do.

They exited their bedroom and turned the suppressor off on the way out. Then they took the lift down. Seven made the first contact, tapping her communicator. "Lady Torres to Kathryn Janeway."

"I'm here, Lady Seven. How are you?"

"We are pleased to say we are functional. Our mates are on their way. Expect contact soon."

There was a pause as Kathryn digested that declaration. Then she replied, "That is good news. Thank you. Janeway out."

==^==

On the bridge of gamma-Voyager, Lt. Commander Tuvok looked up from where, for several hours, he had been monitoring the space ahead them for any sign of Voyager's approach, announced, "Long range sensors indicate a rapidly approaching vessel, matching the class and specifications of Commodore Janeway's ship. They are one point seven six light years out. At our present course and speed we will intercept them in approximately seven hours fifty-two minutes and thirty-eight point eight seconds."

Captain Janeway briefly shared an amused glance with Commander Ro Laren, and then said to Lieutenant Stadi, "Stay on course, Lieutenant, maintain speed. We've got some friends to meet."

"Aye, Captain." Stadi acknowledged the order. Given how much extra effort she had had to make to shield herself during the stay of three of the Prime aboard her ship, the Betazoid couldn't help but wonder what the psychic bandwidth would be like with all nine of them together.

==^==

If there had been any outside witnesses to the event, they might have considered the scene one of incredible beauty. Against the background of a yellow and purple nebula, two sleek vessels slowed to a halt. They were shaped similarly to one another; one larger and one smaller. They both shone silver against the dark.

Captain Janeway watched as the other ship pulled gracefully into view. The size of the starship was quite impressive. Seven Torres had told her to expect the difference and explained why it had happened, but seeing the reality of it was still quite astounding.

They had not contacted each other yet. Kathryn supposed she shouldn't have been surprised that they had not been hailed. She would have waited too. For a few minutes she drank in the sheer beauty of the scene, content to let events unfold in their own time, confident that a great deal of communication was happening between the small shuttle and the large starship.

"Captain," said Commander Ro, "We are being hailed. They are asking for you."

Kathryn stood up, needing the movement to ground the sudden case of nerves. She tugged down her jacket. "On screen."

The large central screen at the front of the bridge brightened and the interior of the other ship's Bridge came into view. In the center of that scene stood a youthful-looking auburn haired woman who managed to look very formidable anyway. It wasn't just the uniform. It was something in her eyes, and the set of her jaw. However, she was smiling slightly and her hands were propped on her hips in a most familiar way. "Captain Janeway," said the other woman. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you."

"It's a pleasure to meet you…" Kathryn's gaze narrowed and it took her a moment to recognize that odd looking pip. "…Commodore."

The other woman grinned and nodded in a familiar gesture. "I am Starfleet Commodore Kathryn Janeway of the United Federation of Planets, Warlord of the Klingon Empire and of the House Presba. They keep handing me titles like they were candy."

Captain Janeway drew immediate comfort from the humor, even as the other woman's expression became more serious. She'd known the facts, of course, had even been told that her counterpart had been promoted, but they seemed much more mind-boggling in reality than in bland recitation.

"The Prime of House Presba owes you a debt. You rescued our mates. We thank you."

Captain Janeway had no way of knowing how seriously the other woman was speaking. Unconsciously, however, Kathryn propped her hands on her hips. The reflection was not lost on those around her and even caused a smile or two. "There is no need to thank us. Especially since they have been working with us to provide a means to go home."

An unreadable expression flickered across Commodore Janeway's face. Then settled into something that wasn't quite neutral. "Captain Janeway, there is…there is something you should know."

Kathryn saw the deep compassion in the Commodore's eyes and was gratified that her other self cared so much. She raised her hand though and said, "Commodore…" Her own expression changed, matching the bleakness she saw in the other woman, "…we know." She paused. "I only meant…"

Now the Commodore nodded. "Ah. I understand. Forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive."

They looked at one another, both understanding the burdens that must be carried at times. "Captain, I hope you don't mind, but my mates and I, we would urgently like to see Seven, B'Elanna and Laren. Politeness, however, has kept us from just whisking them away. My First Officer thought perhaps we ought to talk to one another first."

Captain Janeway responded warmly to the flash of humor. Her own tone was wry. "We appreciate your consideration." She leaned forward a little. "However, I personally know they have been equally looking forward to seeing you. They have boarded their shuttle craft and, I believe, are simply awaiting permission to leave."

"Excellent. We're ready when you are. I understand that the TUE is unfinished. My people will be happy to help with its completion. Also, we have several services that your people might find useful at this time. We also have plenty of supplies. We could discuss your needs further over dinner if you are interested."

Kathryn looked over at Ro Laren who nodded assent, and then returned her attention to the Commodore. "I'm interested."

==^==

The Prime and their children gathered in the docking area of the shuttle bay. They watched as the shuttle, which still looked new, despite all it had been though, came to a smooth landing, almost as smooth as one of the living ships. Ezri leaned over and said to Kate. "Has to be Laren driving."

Kate hummed in response and reached over and ran her hand soothingly along Mezoti's hair. "It's a beautiful ship."

"It is yours, Seus. We designed it for you. We are aware of your preference not to use the transporter." There was a slight catch to Icheb's voice, "We hope you find great enjoyment in it."

Kate smiled at her Brunali son. "I am sure that I will. It is a wonderful gift and I am proud of all of you."

Icheb smiled, reassured. Hugs would come later.

They all began walking toward the shuttle, not waiting a moment longer. The shuttle door opened wide like a bird's beak and their paced hastened.

No one ran, not until Seven of Nine stepped out. Then the younger children, save for Emina, who was being carried by T'Pel, raced forward. Tears flowed without reservation. Not the wailing kind, but ones of relief and overwrought joy. Laren stepped onto the gangway, as Seven was being embraced by Mezoti, Azan and Rebi. By that time, the adults had reached them, and B'Elanna was stepping out and walking down the ramp of the Shuttle.

"Well," Ezri said cheekily, even as the tears wet her cheeks, "I'll give you this, Epatai. When you test a shuttle, you really test it."

B'Elanna laughed and grabbed up Ezri and Kate into a big hug and kissed them both until they were dizzy with it. "Do it right or not at all." She kissed Ezri again, punctuating their now private joke.

Laughter was peppered with the hugs and kisses that were passed between the Prime.

"Okay, new rule," said Commodore Janeway, "No getting lost in other universes. Either we all go, or no one does."

"We shall certainly do our best to obey the new stricture, Kathryn," Seven said as she pulled her mate in for a long kiss. They both sighed in quiet relief afterwards.

"I am so glad to be home," said Laren, leaned against Lwaxana as they kissed warmly. Then she took Barin in her arms and cuddled him, much to the youngster's delight. "It feels so much better here."

"I concur," affirmed Seven, after she kissed T'Pel and Tuvok warmly. She took Emina into her arms, kissing her on the forehead and cradling her. "Excuse us just a moment, beloveds. Hansen children attend me."

They were, of course, already there. But the purpose of the call was understood. The Borg children gathered loosely around Seven of Nine. Seven said, "Are you ready?"

The children all nodded. They all closed their eyes. With no apparent difference, except the broad sense that they had relaxed by several increments, they opened their eyes and smiled. Together.

==^==

They arrived in a sparkle of blue.

Captain Janeway gazed briefly around the transporter room. Longtime practice with situational awareness had her immediately evaluating the location and its occupants. Thus, it wasn't just the side arms, but the body language that told Kathryn who the security officers in the room were.

They were very short, but she had no doubt that they were also very good at their jobs. These people, she suspected, were Zakeeri. It was with great effort that she quelled her curiosity and focused on the welcoming party.

"Welcome, Kathryn and Seven of Nine," said a statuesque and gorgeously shaped red-headed Betazoid. Her long hair was piled in a decorative tower of curls. She wore a teal-green sheath of a dress, which sparkled as she moved. "I am Lwaxana Troi of the House Presba, Ambassador of the United Federation of Planets, Truth Seeker. I have other titles, but we will dispense with them for the sake of simplicity and family." She smiled warmly and raised her hand in a now familiar gesture. Her fingertips were touched by another set of fingertips. "You know my mate, the Lady Seven Torres, Mistress of the House Presba."

Kathryn spoke for both herself and Seven of Nine. "We do. Hello, Lady Seven." The difference in the beautiful Borg's eyes, the set of her shoulders, and even the way she stood, was very apparent to Kathryn, now that she had come to understand the other woman's body language on a deeper level. Seven too was dressed quite beautifully, reminiscent of, but different than the other night. Kathryn's breath caught. She wondered if perhaps she ought to have worn something other than her uniform.

Until Seven replied with a warm smile. "Hello, Kathryn. Seven of Nine. We thought you might like a tour of the ship before dinner in our family quarters."

Then the Lady of House Presba kissed each of them in turn; Seven of Nine on the cheek, and Kathryn lightly on the lips. Her message was clear, and Kathryn relaxed a little more.

The two guests looked at one another and then at their hostesses. "We would."

==^==

After a certain point, Kathryn surrendered to the surprises. Her intention had been to stay as separate as possible, but that resolve had crumbled with the Prime's strategic choice of Hosts. Lwaxana looped her arm through hers and set a comfortable pace. The two Borg walked behind, and Seven Torres seemed content to let Lwaxana do most of the introduction. Kathryn, after she got used to the strange sensation of security walking before and behind them, found herself quite fascinated by what the Betazoid was telling them.

The corridors, despite the larger size of the ship, were busy; not necessarily crowded, but there was a constant flow of people and most paused long enough to smile at the group and greet them in one form or another. There was a wide mix of individuals, including several familiar, if more youthful, faces.

They even had the astonishing, yet pleasant, experience of an Ylfian Mob, who not only started to pass by, but stopped long enough to converse with the Mistress of the House Presba to welcome her back. That was, oddly, when Captain Janeway felt the stiffness in her body start to slide away.

She looked at Seven of Nine, who, following her counterpart's example, looked completely at home. No one even flickered a glance at their bare feet. It was simply accepted. All those differences were not just accepted, but celebrated. She was surrounded by Aliens, but it felt like home. Kathryn realized that she really was on a Federation ship, even with those different uniforms.

She caught Lwaxana's knowing gaze and couldn't help the sheepish nod and smile. They had, without her even knowing she needed to be convinced, eased her worries.

==^==

The Park was everything that Lady Seven had said it was. They spent a little while enjoying it and walking along one of the shorter lanes. They were on their way out, when Seven of Nine drew to a shocked stop. The other women had first looked at her oddly, and then, just as quickly, looked back in direction Seven of Nine had initially been facing in an attempt to see what had unsettled the young woman.

Harry Kim and Tom Paris, who were talking animatedly and hadn't quite noticed the group, stalled long enough to pause and say hello to Xepal, who demurred conversation by saying, "I am on duty," and then indicated the others.

"Oh. Sorry to interrupt Commodore…" Harry looked suddenly confused. Then he understood. "Oh. Uh. Welcome aboard," he corrected. "Captain Janeway. Seven of Nine."

If Kathryn's return greetings were a bit watery, they either didn't notice or were too polite to say anything about it. Her voice had an extra burr to it, "Harry. Tom. It is good to see you…" she paused, trying to find the words, "…looking so happy."

Tom grinned and grasped Harry's hand in his. He beamed with pride. "Harry and Steve agreed to marry me."

"Harry and Steve?" Inquired Seven of Nine.

"Steve's meeting us for dinner. He's running late."

"I see." Seven of Nine looked slightly confused herself. "Are multiple partnerships common in your universe?"

"Well, I don't know about that. I mean," Well used to his Seven's conversational quirks, Tom didn't hesitate to answer. He suddenly grinned, "…you'd have to survey the whole universe and who has time for that?"

Kathryn couldn't help it. She laughed. "I can see where that would be time consuming."

"Seriously though," Harry said, taking time to answer Seven's real question. "There's maybe a little more than a third of the population on Voyager who have more than one partner. It's unusual on board a ship like ours. But not unheard of. It depends, I guess on a ship's culture. After the Maze of Mines, well…" He looked at Tom and shrugged. "It was inevitable. Some of us are…more inclined that way than others."

"Interesting. Would you say this inclination is innate or…"

"Seven," said Kathryn, "perhaps you can save this for another time. I'm sure there will be other opportunities to visit Tom and Harry and…Steve?"

Harry smiled warmly. "We would like that very much, Seven. You're welcome to come talk to us any time." Tom nudged Harry. And the young man blushed. "Well, let me rephrase. Almost any time. You better call first."

Seven of Nine said, "I shall."

Kathryn couldn't help the grin as she said, "As you were gentlemen. I hope you enjoy your dinner."

"Thank you, Captain. Ladies." Tom replied. The two men continued on their way to the Golden Bough.

Seven of Nine watched them walk away with wonder in her gaze. Then she turned to her counterpart, "That was not an exact number."

"It does fluctuate. As in other relationships, individuals terminate and initiate situations on an ongoing basis." Seven Torres was about to deepen the answer when her mate caught her attention. She took a breath and said, "We will continue the discussion later."

"Good," said Lwaxana. "Because I'm starving, and Icheb is cooking."

==^==

It was ordered pandemonium when they entered the family auarters. "Welcome to our humble abode," said Lwaxana as she guided them further inside toward the soft seating.

"Ah, they're here," said Kate, who happened to be walking in the same general direction with two glasses in her hands. She looked Seven of Nine and Kathryn up and down, and abruptly handed one of the drinks to the Captain. "You look like you need this more than her."

"Hey," protested her mate genially. The Commodore was seated on the couch, legs tucked to her side, with Laren reclining against her. The Bajoran smiled warmly at their guests.

"Hello, Seven of Nine. KJ."

"Laren," the Borg acknowledged warmly.

Kathryn tilted her drink in greeting, and then took a healthy swallow. She gasped as it went down. "Oh. That was the real thing."

Kate grinned, but made no excuse for it. She merely handed her Kathryn the drink she originally intended for herself. Then she leaned for a kiss and received one.

The kiss she witnessed was potent enough that Kathryn took another swig, just to ground herself. As she brought the cup down she was ready to face that she did, in fact, recognize some of the others in the room. Though, they too had apparently been transformed by that mysterious event. "T'Pel. Asil. How unexpected. It is a pleasure to see you." She almost said again, but then remembered that she had never met these versions of the Vulcan women. She had been to Asil's Kolinahr, but had no idea if this universe's Asil had completed the rigorous training to attain the state of pure logic. "Where is Tuvok?"

"Oh, he's with the Sochlings right now. He'll be back in a moment," said a brunette Betazoid who happened to be passing by. "I'm Deanna Troi."

"My daughter," explained Lwaxana.

Deanna approached the Vulcans, and Tuvok's daughter raised her fingertips to meet hers.

"And Asil's mate." Lwaxana finished.

Now Kathryn had her own burst of curiosity to rival any of Seven of Nine's, but she held her tongue. She was sure, if it were important, she would find out.

Seven of Nine, who was exercising no such restraint, asked. "Sochlings? These would be my…" she looked at Seven Torres, who nodded. "My nieces and nephews. I would very much like to meet them now."

Seven Torres took her counterpart's hand in her own. "They would very much like to meet you." She turned her gaze to Kathryn, "And also you. If you are ready?"

Kathryn looked at the drink in her hand and considered. Enough liquid remained for another swallow. A hand covered hers. Lwaxana said, directing her attention to Seven, "The Captain and the Commodore have things to discuss first, Darling."

Seven Torres nodded serenely and then the two women exited the family room, heading toward wherever the children were currently located. Kathryn felt an easing in the back of her mind.

"Come, Kathryn, sit and join us." Lwaxana gently guided the other woman to a comfortable chair, one that allowed Kathryn a good view of the whole room and set her back to the wall.

She sat down, and wondered for a moment why she felt better. Then she smiled ruefully and lifted her cup again in salute to the Commodore.

Kathryn Janeway of the House Presba saluted back.

Kathryn Janeway of the lost Voyager tossed the last of the drink back, feeling the heat of it rush through her. Then she set the empty glass down on a nearby counter and smiled pleasantly, fortified. "I'm ready."

==^==

The first stop the two Borg women made was to the kitchen, where Icheb was actively engaged in the final stages of preparing the meal he had begun hours ago. He had become, ironically, a very traditional cook. When asked about it, he merely commented, "Certain flavors only come by certain methods. Replicators may duplicate many types of flavors, but some are not exact."

Without turning from his current occupation he said, "Hello Mother. Aunt Soch."

"Hello Icheb," said his mother evenly. "Are you at a point where you could join us?"

Now he turned, and smiled. "Unfortunately, if I leave now, several items may burn. May I join you via the link?"

"Your Aunt has not yet decided whether she wishes to join us."

He did not have to be told why. He understood. Only too recently they had gone through separation. He looked at his mother, then at her counterpart. Then he turned back to his cooking, and stirred briefly. He said, "Cooking is considered both a science and an art, because there are many variables that affect it. Some variables are controllable: temperature, vessel type, measurement. Some," he grabbed a pinch of some herbs, seemingly throwing them randomly into the pan, and then began to stir quickly, "variables can not be controlled. But one takes the risk," a new odor began to fill the room, one that was extraordinarily pleasing, "in order to achieve perfection. My grandmother Gretchen says that love is one of those variables, and that it makes all the difference between an average meal and an extraordinary one - a perfect one."

Icheb smiled and lifted the pan. "I sorrow that I may not join you, just yet. But hopefully we may converse more at another time, Aunt Soch?"

Seven of Nine, who was still absorbing Icheb's demonstration cocked her head slightly, then nodded. "I look forward to it."

"As do I."

==^==

Tuvok rose easily from his cross-legged sitting position and stood when the two women entered. There was an intricate three dimensional game on the floor. Barin and Emina were occupied playing with it together, but at his movement, their attention was drawn upwards. In another part of the room, Mezoti and Rebi were paying rapt attention to Azan as he fanned out a deck of cards.

Without thought, Seven Torres extended her fingertips and was touched in return. Though Tuvok's gaze would have seemed completely serene to most, Seven of Nine was able to discern an unexpected intensity in their brief union. That sense of ambient heat was still there even after the simple touch ceased and the blonde was almost surprised that neither one had been immolated in front of her.

Tuvok turned to his mate's counterpart and nodded evenly, with respect. "Seven of Nine. Welcome."

"Thank you, Tuvok." She had so many questions she wanted to ask him, but held them back. It was a long formed habit and only recently had she begun to curb it.

There was a flicker of fingertips, which Seven of Nine had come to recognize as a language, but had not yet learned to interpret. Tuvok, arched a brow, then made the slightest of nods. "It seems that I am needed elsewhere. If you will excuse me."

Seven of Nine nodded, and watched him briefly as he walked away. When her gaze returned to center, she realized that she was surrounded by smaller people. They all looked at her with frank curiosity.

Mezoti spoke. "You are Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero. Inhabitant of Universe Gamma. Borg."

"I am."

"We are also Borg. Except for Barin. He is from Betazed and a telepath. It is equivalent. He is part of our link. Also, there is Naomi. She is Ktarian and not yet able to link with us without a cortical node. We are working on it."

Seven Torres' brow arched a notch. Her children were constantly surprising her. Even with the advantages she had. She was unreasonably pleased by that. But she knew she would have to talk with her children about their plan and the implications of it.

Seven of Nine, who was oblivious to her counterpart's reaction, was busy being charmed. "Has your Commodore raised any objections to your attempt?"

Mezoti suddenly realized what she had let slip. Borg, however, were honest to a fault. "She is unaware of it at this time." She flickered a brief glance at her mother. "However, we do not believe she would be opposed so long as there is no fundamental change to Naomi's internal structure, and she is not damaged. We merely wish her to have the advantage of a secure communications tool, as we do."

"I see." Seven of Nine thought it was an efficient, if unorthodox plan.

"You will not assimilate Naomi Wildman under any circumstances. Not until she is five years past the age of consent. Is that understood? Comply."

There were flashes of looks passed between the siblings. "But what if she died and it was less than seventy two hours."

"That is an unlikely scenario. Nor are you allowed to attempt to create it in order to circumnavigate this rule."

"But…"

"If it were a real emergency, falling within certain parameters, which we will agree to at a later time, and no other alternative presents itself, the option will be considered by Naomi's parents. Comply."

"We will comply," said Rebi, agreeing for them all.

Seven of Nine looked back and forth between the children and their mother. Her eyes widened as she noted Seven Torres' satisfied expression. It was a strange and illuminating moment as she realized that no other parent would have had that kind of discussion with their children.

These beings were unique.

"I wish to be part of your Collective."

She felt her hands being clasped and looked between Barin and Emina. Barin said, 〈〈But Aunt Soch, you already are.〉〉

Now she was sure. "Lady Seven, establish the link."

==^==

"Let me see if I understand this," Captain Janeway said, lifting her hand slightly in emphasis. "You're saying Voyager is welcome to visit Universe Beta, but we'll need to go in as vassals to the House Presba."

Laren's nickname for gamma-Janeway had been adopted, and accepted, albeit somewhat reluctantly by the Captain. Kathryn said, "KJ, those are the only options if you don't want to find yourself engaged in a battle and then enslaved. On the other hand, if it's just a matter of wanting to visit with mom, why not just return to the alpha-Universe and then hitch a ride with us on the next journey."

Of course, Kathryn knew the answer, which was why she was keeping her expression so carefully neutral.

KJ, looked at the semi-full glass in her hand and considered. Then she smiled impishly. "But it wouldn't be as fun. And I'd like to visit at least one universe aside from Alpha, before giving up the engine."

"Understandable. You do understand, why we are warning you, however?"

"I do. I just... Do we have to get tattoos?"

==^==

Dinner was served and it was an extraordinary repast as far as the visiting Captain was concerned. KJ knew she had been scenting something delicious, but hadn't quite pegged what it was until the side dishes were passed around. One of her favorites had been included in the meal.

The conversation, which had been serious, and probably counted as ship's business, changed and became lighter and warmer in tone. Stories were offered and exchanged. It was a profoundly comforting experience.

KJ looked to see how Seven of Nine was doing. She had been seated between Laren and Ezri Dax, and across from Lady Seven. Ezri was extending a spoonful of something to the Borg with a "try this," grin on her face. Seven of Nine, who looked the most relaxed that KJ had ever seen her, accepted without hesitation. Then she had closed her eyes and simply absorbed the experience.

She was suddenly reminded of how difficult it had been for the ex-drone. Nutritional supplements did not make a meal. But then, neither did Neelix's cooking. With a whimsical smile, KJ decided to just surrender to the moment and be grateful. She was among friends. No, she corrected herself as she looked at Seven Torres. She was among family.

And it was good.

==^==

The after dinner conversation was equally congenial, though it did include a bit more planning for the future than had the dinner conversation. By the time they were done, most of the necessary decisions had been made, including arrangements for supply and staff sharing that would help get gamma-Voyager prepared. The counselors, scientists and engineers would begin visiting the other ship the next day as, once again, would B'Elanna and Seven. "It just happens that you lucked out to have the right people for the job this go around."

KJ merely laughed. "You're telling me. Though what I really regret and don't take this the wrong way, is losing Laren's amazing talents. Are you sure I can't lure you away."

Kathryn growled lightly and wrapped her arm around the Bajoran. "Mine."

KJ was startled, but then Kathryn winked. Which led to the two women chuckling.

Then Kathryn stopped laughing. "Seriously though, she's mine." She then drew Laren in, kissing her like she meant it.

Laren, who looked as if it had taken extreme will power to draw away from that kiss, chuckled and turned so that she could speak with KJ. "Tal will do an excellent job as your assistant. She has been trained well. She knows which coffee to produce for what circumstances. You're all set."

Now KJ laughed more heartily. Then she said, "I'll miss you though. Between you, B'Elanna and Lady Seven…things got much better...for everyone." She smiled at the Commodore. "You are one lucky woman, Kathryn."

"I know."

There was something in the Commodore's eyes that caught at KJ's breath, and she couldn't quite find the right riposte.

It wasn't important, though, and the conversation turned to other things.

Later, the farewells were not too extended, since they knew they would be seeing each other again the next day. However, Seven chose to accompany KJ and Seven of Nine back to the transporter room. Once there she pressed a kiss on Seven of Nine's cheek. It was obvious from KJ's body language that she was about to resist the goodnight kiss she knew was coming. Seven refused to allow it. She leaned in and whispered. "Remember your promise." Then she gently placed a brief kiss on the startled woman's lips.

KJ nodded, understanding that the arrival of her mates changed nothing in Seven's mind. The small measure of guilt she'd felt tugging at her all evening vanished with the reassurance.

Seven of Nine and Seven Torres looked at each other intensely for a brief time and KJ couldn't help but think that things were being said, but how she did not know positively. Whatever it was, they were comfortable with it.

"Ready?" KJ asked, and resisted the sudden impulse to hold out her hand.

"I am," Seven of Nine affirmed.

"Until tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow."

In a sparkle of blue, they were returned home - both much more changed than KJ realized.





Chapter 37 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




T'Pel was waiting for Seven when she returned home. It had, in the short interval she'd be gone, become quiet and serene. The lights were at one quarter, more than enough for her to see by. There was great intensity in their shared gazes, but no words were exchanged, merely touches.

The Vulcan led her to the children's rooms first. They were all quite tired from the excitements of the day, expressed and unexpressed, and each had descended easily into an untroubled slumber. Seven applied the universal kiss of Mothers, one per forehead, to each child, before coming back out to rejoin a patiently waiting T'Pel.

Their fingertips touched, but Seven did not leave it at that. She leaned forward and was equally, powerfully met by T'Pel. They were both breathing like marathon runners afterwards, but they were also able to move forward now that the intensity of the moment had been addressed.

Then, they made their quiet way to the Nest.

==^==

They were met at the door by Ezri and Lwaxana, who helped them undress, hurriedly peeling back the layers that separated them from each other.

It was pure relief to be in her skin, to be touched by her mates. They led Seven further in, where Laren and B'Elanna were already being loved and received into their mates' arms and new memories created.

She was drawn down to the surface by ferocious, hungry kisses from Ezri. T'Pel's guidance continued until Seven was laid back onto the cushion. Finally there were words, though still unspoken. Lwaxana said, as her hands skimmed luxuriously along sensitive skin and sparkling implants, 〈〈By Imza, we have missed you.〉〉

The feeling was completely mutual.

==^==

They reclined together, legs lightly entwined and bodies touching. They held each other in an easy embrace. Lwaxana's free hand lay comfortably on Seven's waist. Kisses had given way to smiles. The Betazoid drew her hand slowly up the length of the Borg, and she cupped Seven's face gently before gently running her fingers through silky hair.

Their silent conversation had been a delightful revelation, a sweet catching up in the afterwards. The mating fire allowed only truth - and love. However, truth sometimes needed to be illuminated and deepened. The conversations that it led to were something special and enjoyable for the Prime.

Seven leaned in close, hiding a little in the space between her mate's shoulder and neck as she finished her tale. ⟨⟨Then I asked Kathryn to promise.⟩⟩

⟨⟨Did she?⟩⟩

⟨⟨She did. And, I believe she is adapting.⟩⟩

⟨⟨You did not wish her to go through what our Kathryn did.⟩⟩

⟨⟨She would not, regardless. We would have been bringing them home. But...⟩⟩

⟨⟨But, she would have kept up the habit of distance, long after.⟩⟩

⟨⟨Yes. And Seven of Nine can not wait that long. Or Ro Laren, whomever Kathryn eventually chooses.⟩⟩

⟨⟨Both, if she's lucky. You, my darling Seven, are a meddler.⟩⟩ Lwaxana's smile took on a particular warmth.

⟨⟨I do not know that anyone has ever used that word to describe me before.⟩⟩ Seven considered the context. ⟨⟨I believe I shall take it as a compliment.⟩⟩

Lwaxana's voice was tinged with good will and amusement. Her hand stroked back down Seven's side, pausing to trace around softly pulsing implants. ⟨⟨Good. That is how I meant it. A Lady of a House knows when to stir the pot and when to step back.⟩⟩

Seven gazed with respect at her mate, as she was reminded that Lwaxana was quite familiar with matters of status and presentation. ⟨⟨I believe that knowing requires practice.⟩⟩ The Borg leaned in and kissed her mate warmly. The kiss sparked into something deeper and the meaning, the context of her words suddenly altered. ⟨⟨Much more practice.⟩⟩

⟨⟨Oh, I quite agree, beloved. I quite agree.⟩⟩

==^==

The Prime knew how intense it would be, but were equally aware that the separation was a necessity. Thus, they did their best not to invoke the fire. It seemed, however, they had less control over that aspect than in the summoning of it. The need raced through them like a swift storm and they surrendered to it, knowing they would burn later if they did not.

At the beginning of the Alpha shift, the adults of the Prime, having met the basic call and rested afterwards, all reported for their duty shifts. Seven of Nine and B'Elanna were going to join the others who would be transporting over to gamma-Voyager, but B'Elanna planned to visit her own beloved engines first. If there was a greater physical distance than normal between the two as they walked together, no one commented on it.

Now that the Prime were once more complete, Lwaxana and T'Pel went back to work. By consensus, they had decided that there was a need to create resource packages for their sister ship. The first would be about protocols for the beta-Universe and the second, which would be more extensive, would be protocols for the alpha-Universe. The third would be general information about what to expect during transition.

Neelix happily assisted them in this project, since he was the Morale Officer and this was definitely an issue of Morale. It would be he who would deliver the packages to gamma-Voyager for distribution. It would also give him a chance to meet his counterpart.

==^==

B'Elanna entered engineering with a sense of relief and gratitude. The feeling carried her toward the man who had kept her ship afloat while she was gone. She said his name with a smile in her voice as well as her expression. "Lt. Carey. It's good to see you."

The engineer turned from the assignment board and grinned. "Chief! Welcome back."

She glanced at the board. "Lot of new names up there."

"Well they just came streaming in when they heard there was a job opening."

"Hah. So did you move into my office, Joe?"

"No, I made Vorick give me one of the smaller labs."

Now B'Elanna began to chuckle. "That must have taken some convincing. Keep it," she said to her second in command. "If we need a lab, we'll commandeer it. Hope you don't mind."

"I'll just make sure that my desk is in a corner where it won't matter much." She looked at him through the side of her eyes and caught the grin.

"Never mind about me…" Joe started.

B'Elanna finished the quote. "I'll just sit here in the dark."

They began to chuckle together, reminded of a long, terrible work day that had devolved into jokes about engineers and the life support systems.

She patted his back. "Well, I need to go catch up on the mail before I go back to gamma-Voyager. Let me know if you need me."

"Right, Chief."

B'Elanna entered her office, pausing to take in the familiar room. She turned to the side wall, and took a long look at each of the holo-images that hung there, and literally felt her shoulders relax. Things were where they ought to be. She was where she should be.

She did notice that there were small packages on her desk, gifts from her crew for the return, she guessed. B'Elanna walked to the desk, briefly lifting the packages and guessing what might be in them before setting them down unopened. Then her gaze fell upon a rectangular object wrapped in a great deal of red cloth. The heavy fabric was crisscrossed with a variety of thick and thin blue and black stripes.

Curious, she undid the fastenings, which revealed a standard PADD. She turned it on and the first words she read were, "Welcome back, MacDuff. Love MacBeth. p.s. It's a kilt."

==^==

Almost as soon as it was announced that counselors would be coming aboard, the appointment books began to fill. Orsas made a special request and a table was reserved in gamma-Voyager's mess hall, on behalf of the department. It not as long as the the Long Table, but sufficient for those who were more comfortable expressing themselves in a group setting.

As on most ships of the fleet, there were always people in the mess hall. Three overlapping shifts and a wide assortment of species guaranteed a variety of schedules. Thus, despite the early hour at which she arrived, there were a number of individuals present to experience a moment of pause as a tall green woman, wearing the colors and sigils of Starfleet medical, strode confidently into dining area.

Inan nodded easily at the gawkers and strode to the replicators, where she placed a few orders for finger friendly foods and some drinks. She gathered the items together and went to the table that had been amusingly and prominently labeled. After she set the food down, Inan took down the sign, preferring to use her own. With a bit a chuckle, she fished in the pocket of her jacket and pulled out a small placard. It only had one word on it. "In."

It was a very old, very traditional, counselor's joke.

She placed that on the table in front of the seat she intended to use and then she waited, like a flower for honeybees.

Inan was slightly surprised that it was a female who approached her first, but hid it with a pleasant expression. The female, dressed in operations gold, was carrying a tray. She looked briefly at her friends who were trailing behind her, curious.

She blurted, "You're an Orion."

Inan nodded evenly, smiling slightly. "I am."

"There are Orions in Starfleet?"

"There are on Voyager."

The young lady cast a glance back at her friends and then the beautiful green woman. "And you're a counselor."

Now Inan let her smile grow. "And a shaman. And a truth seeker." She did not mention that she was matriarch of her clan. That was a sacred duty and not one to be shared with those outside of her House or ship on a first greet.

The young lady gazed at her, stalling a little. So, the Orion woman decided to help her. "I am Inan. Please sit, join me. You do not have to discuss anything you do not wish to. In fact, you do not have to discuss anything at all. This is an open table."

As if she were a skittish animal, the young woman hesitated. Then curiosity overcame her fear and she sat down. "What's a truth seeker?"

Now Inan knew she had them. The young lady's friends were edging closer, waiting for the answer. Inan picked up a cookie and examined it. She replied somewhat cheekily, "Someone who seeks and finds the bottom line truth of something."

It was, of course, more than that. But it was enough of a description that they had more questions for her.

Which meant she could ask questions of them, in fair exchange. They would not even realize they were being counseled, until later.

Then they would be back for more.

==^==

Lanna had the scare of her life when a small head popped out of an opening on the TUE housing. After the yelp she heard, "Oh, hey, Sorry about that." The words came from the small vaguely humanoid shaped being, who had been tinkering on something on the inside of the engine. Its head was perfectly proportioned to the small, four armed body. Its eyes only seemed large because of their brightness, but were also perfectly sized to the creature and its pointy ears were likewise appropriate to the form, spaced at the top of its head like a cat's. The tiny being was wearing a tiny uniform, holding even tinier tools in three of its hands and anchoring itself to a part of the engine with its tail. "Should have let people know I was coming out."

Lanna, who was still listening to her heart beat loudly against her chest, managed, despite the adrenaline rush, to be polite in return. "Apology accepted, Ensign." She had been too surprised to stay mad. "As you were."

"Thanks, Chief," said the Ylfian as it finished crawling out. The creature smiled and made a prodigious leap, which carried it toward the exit. Lanna didn't see where it was going, because she turned only to be confronted by the tallest being she'd ever seen. The memory of a snippet of conversation with B'Elanna, identified the person being a Kutwutchu.

She greeted the ensign politely. The lavender being, who had its silver hair cut at fleet length, smiled back. "Hello, Chief." Then it went back to what it was doing, which was actually quite impressive, given the application of skill involved. She could have stayed and watched, but she did have her own errand, so she continued on.

Then she spotted B'Elanna leaned over, looking slightly overbalanced as she worked on a set of relays. "Hey, Troi."

"Torres. What can I do for you?"

"I am going to have to bow out tonight, too."

B'Elanna unbent so that she could stand upright and look her counterpart in the face. She examined the other woman closely and said, "Lanna…"

"It's not what you think. Miral has just been very fussy lately and I don't want to inflict her on you all in that state." She'd already pled a need to rest to get out of dinner the previous night, and Lanna knew any other reason wouldn't wash.

Now B'Elanna grinned. "Is that all? Lanna, we have six kids. One of whom is less than two years of age. Come home with us tonight and let us give you a break."

"But uh…I thought…," she leaned in. She wasn't sure how much the of the Prime's needs were public knowledge, and she tried to be discreet. "I thought you guys would want to…you know."

"Oh, we burn alright. But some things are more important."

"Still. What if we gave it a couple more days?"

B'Elanna wiped her hands with a cloth and considered, "Let's make it three days from now. That should give Ezri time to convince Ro Laren she wants to come."

"Oh." Lanna gave her counterpart a rueful look. "Good luck with that."

"I'll pass it on, but Ezri generally gets what she wants. Ro will just have to decide if she wants to comply the easy way or the Ezri way."

==^==

Ensign Tom Paris and his crew were led to the supply office by a team of security guards who were taller and, in his estimation, looked much more Klingon than they were. They grinned easily, almost affably as they greeted the supply officer. "Welcome aboard, Ensign Paris and friends. If you will follow me?"

The greeting was his first concrete indication that this Voyager was a very different kind of ship from the one he served on. The second indication was the sheer diversity of people on board. He had heard rumors about it. Someone had insisted that there had been an Orion counselor in the mess mall earlier this morning. But he had dismissed that as just a rumor; at least until he saw a bulky, well armed, marine walking by. A marine who happened to be green.

He flashed a look at his compatriots and they too were slightly flabbergasted and equally intrigued. Orions were so rare on Federated Planets, that they might as well have been mythological beings.

Paris asked about the holo-images on the wall and they stopped and watched one. It depicted a boarding of Voyager by the Hirogen and the ensuing battle. It ended with a list of the honored dead and then went still again.

As he looked down the hallway he began to realize how many adventures this ship had been through.

He was impressed.

Eventually, they arrived at the supply office, which was huge. It also seemed to be more than a cargo bay where things were stored. "Are those stills?"

One of the men, who Tom had learned along the way, really was, despite the lack of brow ridges, a Klingon answered, "We have a ship's wine, ale and liquor, yes."

"You can do that?" Tom knew the still on gamma-Voyager was well hidden on the lower decks.

"We are doing it." A shrug accompanied the confirmation.

"And the Capta…I mean the Commodore knows about it?"

"It has been approved, with certain stipulations. The ship's original still is now located here, under a protective shielding, and is still operational. It's is considered a good luck item and the liquor created from it is being saved for the Homecoming."

"Homecoming?"

"When we return to Voyager's Rest."

"Or to Presba," the other guard added. "Or some other very important party."

"Well, if there is a celebration on Presba. We haven't really had a chance to have a good one yet. Well, unless you count Dax's bachelor party."

Before Tom could ask any more questions, a brightly smiling man walked forward and said, "Tom!"

Steve was about to embrace the his lover when he caught the subtle head shake of one of the guards. The informant pointed to his collar, leading the man to look more closely, and he realized that he had only seen what he expected to see, not what was really there. The man in front of him had the same boyish face, and the same sandy hair, but the cut was different and there was a dullness to his eyes that Steve had never seen in his Tom's.

"Ah. I see. Ensign Paris." His smile didn't quite change, but was perhaps not quite as blinding.

"Right. I'm the supply officer for gamma-Voyager."

"Well, then you've come to the right place. Why don't you gentlemen come with me to my office and we can begin."

==^==

They were in the midst of discussing the transportation of one of the larger storage bins when Harry entered the office. As natural as breathing he stopped behind where Tom was sitting, leaned over the top of his head, kissed a very shocked Ensign Paris, and then repeated the gesture on a not so shocked Steve. "Hi, sweethearts. I thought I'd stop by before lunch and see if you were available."

Tom was still trying to breathe, trying to stay steady in a world that was suddenly swaying. Steve answered. "Hon, this is Ensign Paris."

"Ensign? Did the Commodore bust you down again, Tom? What happened?" Harry moved around to the side of Steve's desk, and perched against it.

Steve couldn't help chuckle. "No. This is Tom from gamma-Voyager."

Harry blinked at his fiancé, and then did a double take, having finally taken a moment to look at the man he'd assumed was his Tom. "Oh. Oh! I…um. I'm sorry. I…Wow. Didn't mean to…"

Tom reached out and grasped Harry's forearm and hand. "It's okay, Harry. Really. A surprise. But…" He looked intently at the other man's face and saw the familiar innocence and determination that had always been there. His heart beat hard, but he found he could face it. "It's very good to see you. You have no idea." He looked at Steve. Then at Harry. "You mentioned lunch. Would your…other Tom… would he want to have lunch, too?"

"It's that time of day, and Tom can always eat, so I think he would." Harry paused, sensing something from the other man, but unable to identify what it was. He asked anyway. "Are you sure?"

Tom considered and smiled, a little weaker than normal, but an honest one. "Yes. I am. I'd love to get to know the guys lucky enough to win you, a little better."

==^==

Kathryn sat at her desk and strove desperately not to think lustful thoughts about her assistant.

She was failing.

She clutched the coffee mug in her hand and reconstructed her equanimity on a foundation of its dark, bitter flavor. The process became a meditation. One sip, one vivid image behind her eyes. Sip. Another one.

Kathryn was unaware that she was growling and drinking at the same time. Vaguely she heard a discussion in the distance.

"Ensign Anderson, it is time for your break." Laren instructed the young assistant.

"But…"

Laren put an edge of steel in her tone. "Go. Now."

The door to the ready room swished open, then shut. Kathryn vaguely heard something about "…by my authority…"

"Kathryn." She felt a tug, as if she had not been paying attention for some time. But it was the first time she heard her name.

Kathryn held onto her mug like a lifeline. The Bajoran reached over and gently pried it from the Commodore's grasp. "Laren."

Her mate set the cup aside, off of the desk and on a completely different flat surface. Then she shrugged out of her jacket and laid it neatly over the top edge of a chair. Laren leaned toward Kathryn. Her own expression was intense.

"We agreed to--."

Laren silenced her with a brief kiss, then pulled back. "We agreed to go on duty. There was nothing said about what we did while on duty."

"Laren…"

The Bajoran simplified things by undoing her belt, then sliding it out of its loops and away from her body. She laid it on the Commodore's desk and stepped around the obstacle, all the while undoing the clasps of her slacks.

Kathryn stood up, intending, vaguely, to stop Laren. But those were her hands pulling at other woman's shirt. Those were hands sliding up warm skin, to cup firm globes. The meditation suddenly took on new life.

She purred into the heated kiss that followed. "My God, Laren. I love you." That she had missed her mate was understood.

Laren purred back, allowing herself to be settled on the desk, knowing what was coming and rejoicing. Kathryn grabbed the edge of her slacks and pulled them down and off. Laren chuckled, even as her mate removed another bit of clothing in such as a way to require its complete replacement.

They kissed again, melting into the heat of it, and as Kathryn began moving her way down, Laren remembered that she had reason to really adore this desk. There were simply some perks that she had missed so much while on that other Voyager. She finally replied to her mate, as Kathryn at last was able to taste what she really wanted, answering with a hungry growl of her own. "And I love you."

==^==

Ezri knew it would be difficult. She planned for it. She even had a couple of secret weapons she planned on using.

But it required being able to find her quarry.

Commander Ro Laren was being particularly elusive, which she knew to expect. Her Laren had warned her. As had B'Elanna. And Seven.

Not that the Commander was impolite about it. No, she answered hails and she was always cordial. She simply avoided answering the question that was posed, usually by finding some other event that immediately required her attention.

Ezri considered that it was probably a good thing that B'Elanna had given them three days to work this out. She had already spent over half of a day playing comm tag. She, however, was a master at running and hiding. She had earned her diploma at it over the last couple of months and had only recently shredded it in favor of something better.

She was going to help Commander Ro do the same.

With a determined tilt to her walk, Ezri started toward the turbo-lift and entered it. She gave it the deck she needed and waited. Then she felt a rush of pleasure wash over her like silk and fireworks. She leaned against the wall, unable to hide the flush or the smile.

"Well, at least some of us are having a good time."

==^==

Astrometrics on gamma-Voyager was a space transformed. The room currently had three occupants; Seven of Nine, Lady Seven Torres and the gamma ship's Megan Delaney.

Megan was in her bare feet and she was enjoying the tutorial in Inter-Universal Astrometric Calculation as given by Seven Torres to herself and to Seven of Nine.

They too were also without footwear. The shoes had been stored neatly at a location near the door.

At the moment, Megan and Seven of Nine were sitting. The Astrometrics Department Head's posture was absolutely perfect and her hands were still, but there was an intangible quality to her manner that made her seem completely relaxed. As a result, even though the computational details Lady Seven was presenting were very complex, Megan found she was also able to relax, and follow along.

She wished, and not for the first time, but rather surprisingly given their conflict, that Jennifer were here to listen too. It would have been nice to ask her opinion. Plus, she knew that her sister had to be getting a kick out of watching Seven of Nine find her style. Megan certainly was.

"Lady Seven," said Megan, "Would you go over that last bit, about the fluctuation, again. I am not sure I understand."

The blue-haired Borg nodded pleasantly and repeated her demonstration. Then she faltered and flushed slightly. Lights began to sparkle along her ocular implant. She abruptly stopped talking.

Seven of Nine checked, silently. When reassured, she turned to Megan, who appeared concerned. "She is alright. Merely…occupied, for a few moments."

Seven took a few steadying breaths and then said, "I apologize for the interruption. It was…unavoidable. Now, shall I continue?"

Megan was all kinds of curious. If she'd had to identify what she'd just seen, she would have called it an orgasmic moment. Of course, she'd had those while working on complex equations too. It was the weirdest thing.

She had simply assumed she was the only one to find a turn on in numbers.

Megan smiled companionably at the Borg women, suddenly feeling even more at home. Yes, things were definitely taking a turn for the better in Astrometrics.

==^==

Tuvok placed the rifle into the security device and closed it. Several weapons packages were now neatly stacked in equally precise rows ready to be delivered to gamma-Voyager. He had yet to meet his counterpart face to face, but had spoken with him briefly about the security measures that would be in place for the transfer.

He had also taken the time, as per his mates' request, to ask gamma-Tuvok to come on board three days hence. His counterpart had agreed; a logical choice, since it would allow him to evaluate and tour Voyager. It would also allow Tuvok and T'Pel to address, in a more private way, the possibility that his counterpart's neural peptides were also degenerating and would need immediate treatment.

Tuvok labeled the last device and stacked it on top of the others. He turned and began to walk toward the exit. Then he stopped as a powerful, erotic sensation washed through him. It was, as usual, quite intense.

And he was very grateful to be alone.

With a sigh, he looked down at himself and the readiness he displayed. His trousers only covered, they did not hide. Tuvok had learned, early in his new marital arrangement, to find a means to stand behind things when this happened. One had to be strategic. It was the logical thing to do.

At least, he had discovered, it was only a first level rush. In a moment his mind would assert itself and his body would let go of the preparatory status. He had two more levels, one if he wanted to be cautious, before he absolutely had to be home, because the result would otherwise be very inconvenient. Usually by that point, however, there was someone with him who appreciated the consequences of these communal experiences.

For that, he truly considered himself very fortunate.

Very fortunate indeed.

==^==

"Are you okay?" Gamma-Voyager's holographic Doctor asked the Chief Medical Officer of Voyager.

Kate, who was more than okay, nodded shortly. "I'm fine."

The Doctor, who wasn't so sure of that answer flipped on his tricorder and was about to run it, when his hand was grabbed with shocking quickness and a strength, that had he been organic, which might have broken bones. Kate's glare was as formidable as her grasp. "Don't. Do Not. Doctor Zimmerman has my baseline."

"I see." He glanced to the side at his counterpart and noticed that Dr. Zimmerman appeared unperturbed. "I take it, this is a common occurrence."

"Not common, per se, but not unusual in the Prime's case."

"The Prime?"

"I'm afraid I must invoke doctor-patient confidentiality." Zimmerman and Pulaski spoke over one another, though their words were identical, and Kate growled more than enunciated. Amused, they looked at one another for a second before Kate was forced to put her attention elsewhere.

"Interesting. Well, I suppose if you need my opinion, you will ask for it."

"We always welcome expertise, of course," soothed Dr. Zimmerman. He had come to understand some of his personality quirks a little better and so recognized the best way to handle his counterpart.

Pleased at the description, the other holographic Doctor dropped the issue.

"Now that we've got that covered," said Dr. Pulaski, "Please continue with your report, Frank."

"Frank?"

"Yes. I'm not going to keep calling you the Doctor, and I'm fond of the name Frank, though I could use Francis if you'd prefer." Kate actually hated the name, and she was pretty sure that the EMH would too, but if it helped him choose one of his own, she'd deal with it.

"I'm not sure if I like that name, either version." His face took on the holographic hue that meant he was about to take umbrage with something.

"Well, until you pick one, that's what you're stuck with. At least when I talk with you."

Zimmerman, well aware of what the good doctor was up to, chimed in. "She's entirely serious. She called me Hector for days."

The holographic Doctor looked appalled. "Frank it is. Alright then, to continue. Ensign...."

==^==

B'Elanna Troi was in the midst of reading the visual workflow planner in engineering. She grasped the edge of the panel and quivered. She somehow managed not to vocalize, but the panel now contained the indentation of her grip.

She took a few deep breaths, allowing the afterglow to work its magic. Then, she pondered what to do about the prints.

Her own stripe of devilry reared its head and she grinned, and decided to leave them. It would give the other engineers something to think about while they tinkered. She knew she would be.

With that happy thought in mind, she picked up a random spanner, and whistling, made her way back to work on the new navigation console for the TUE. Between Seven of Nine's analysis of its flaws, and the schematics to correct them provided by Annika, things were proceeding smoothly.

==^==

T'Pel and Lwaxana were sitting across from one another, working in their customary, companionable silence. Stacks of PADDs that were already prepared sat on the table, along with several other resource materials. Neelix was away on an errand.

Lwaxana had stopped writing and set her PADD down.

T'Pel cocked her head in a silent question.

Lwaxana, ever practical in her Betazoid way, stood up and made her way to T'Pel. Then she sat in the Vulcan's lap. Lwaxana wound her arms around T'Pel's neck and proceeded to kiss her mate with deliberate heat and tenderness.

It was no surprise at all to them when the rush of total pleasure splashed through them.

Afterward, they looked at their progress on their project and decided that it was sufficient for the day. They gathered the PADDs, put them in a storage case for carrying, and took it with them when they went home. They would probably get more done that way.

==^==

"Voyager? Are you listening?"

"What? Of course, Deanna. I heard every word."

"Hearing is not the same as listening. You seem farther away than normal."

"Oh. I guess I am a little distracted."

"Distracted."

"Yes. There is this…" Voyager sought for the word she wanted and could only approximate it. "Tickle in the back of my throat."

"You don't have a throat." Deanna said with some amusement. It actually astonished her how, if she shut her eyes, she could easily, based on speech patterns and word choices, think she was talking to an organic being raised on Earth or an Earth-like planet. Even after years around humans neither Data nor Seven spoke regularly in idiom, and neither used contractions: Data because he couldn't and Seven because she wouldn't. In her more fanciful moments she was reminded of her mother.

"No. I don't do I?" Again there was that sense of not quite being present. Then, as if changing the topic, Voyager said, "There are two nebulae close by. Well, relatively. Do you think the Commodore would mind if I just…"

Deanna heard the thought before the action and managed to say and strongly vibe back. "She most definitely would. We have obligations here."

"Obligations."

"Yes. To helping your sister ship."

"But she is neither sentient nor pregnant. I am."

"Yet, she is in need, as you once were. As is her crew. Would you deny her crew our help?"

"Well. No. But I'm hungry Deanna. And there is this tickle..."

"I'll see what I can do."

==^==

The little blue light had nothing to compare its current situation to. The sensations it was experiencing went against all known elements. It did not even have a vocabulary with which to express its dilemma.

For a while, an eternity, it had felt flattened, crushed, elongated. It had taken ages to resume something approximating its own tiny shape. It had to rest on the surface of the Jeffries tube plating, and where it rested, there was a glow.

It did not know this. It was the substance and essence of light. Everything glowed in its view.

At the moment it was trying to fly again. What it was managing was hops.

It would start upon the ground, sliding for a moment, as if it were a plane getting ready for take off, and then it would leap. For a moment, it would seem the support was there. But the familiar essences that supported it in flight was gone. So now it struggled against unknowable things.

But it was an infinite creature of incredible power. It would find a way. So it hopped and knew, at some point, it would fly.

==^==

It was like looking into a mirror of what could have been. Tom, who agreed to be called Thomas to help avoid confusion, couldn't decide whether his heart was rending or exploding. On the one hand, there was Harry, alive, his eyes flashing with humor and love. On the other, there was his other self with those same flashing glances, almost shy but definitely happy.

It was moving and terrible at the same time.

Yet it was a torture he would endure again, just to know it would have been possible. Could have been.

If he hadn't been so fucking blind.

It had been awhile since Thomas had faked smiles, no one had expected him to smile after the explosion, and so he hadn't. He fell back into the habit easily. Though, he honestly couldn't call them fake, just torn. Like he was.

Steve wasn't fooled, not completely, but he didn't say anything. He sat in the middle, letting his lovers tell their stories, with his arms around both of them. His blue eyes held Thomas' secret carefully.

Tom continued blithely. "Well, and it might have worked for awhile with B'Elanna, but truthfully, we were better as friends. Not that," he boasted lightly, "I couldn't handle her."

"Be glad she's on another ship right now," Harry quipped. "Or she'd show us just how much you could really handle. Or are you thinking you stack up to Seven in the endurance department?"

"Hey. I am faster and stronger than I used to be, Starfleet." Tom protested.

"Flyboy, she would have you down on the ground, if her mates left anything of you to throw, before you could say Uncle."

"Speaking of Uncle, have you seen Neelix lately? He's looking pretty happy these days." Tom decided to change the subject before his ego could be thoroughly flattened.

"Neelix is your uncle?"

"No, he's the kids' uncle. Well, the Prime's uncle." Tom briefly looked confused, then grinned. "Something like that anyway. The name just kind of stuck."

"He formally joined their family eight months or so ago, not too long after he and Sam finally got together." Steve decided to clarify before either of his lover's could send things off into waters that Thomas might find painful.

"Do they fight all the time like…"

"Fight?" Harry looked confused. "Those two? Not likely. They're positively gooey."

"More than us."

Now Thomas was seriously bug-eyed. "That's just…" Thomas stopped and thought about his pile of regrets. "Kind of cool actually."

"I know. He really loves her." Tom said.

"And Ge.. uh.. Grek..something. What about him?"

"You know, they still haven't heard from Greskrendtregk. No one has been able to find him. Samantha thinks he went home and found a new mate."

Tom and Thomas both snorted at the same time. Of course Harry would not only know the man's name, but be able to say it.

"Oh. Poor Sam." Thomas finally said.

"Well, you know, she's happy. So it worked out for the best." Steve reassured him.

"Yeah. I suppose it did."





Chapter 38 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




It was hard to believe that it had only been a few days since his rescue. The strictures that had himself and the Changelings being guarded had loosened. Now they were being interviewed about their preferences for quarters by the lovely First Officer, who introduced herself as Commander Deanna Troi.

"We recognize that you will not necessarily be staying with us, but there are at least four more weeks before we leave this Universe and we'd like you all to be as comfortable as possible. Dr. Dezhe says that you, Garak, are definitely fit for release. Our Changeling friends are a little less fit…"

A wry chuckle, and combined voices, rose from the pool of gold. Oddly, Garak drew comfort from the sound. If they could still laugh, there was hope.

Deanna smiled, "… however, the doctors are willing to allow their release, so long as they are willing to rest at appropriate intervals. I have been doing some research and have come up with a possible plan for quarters."

Deanna nodded to Ensign Hughes, and he moved the view screen so that it was centered over the pool and facing down. At the same time, she flicked on a view screen for Garak.

"We tend to believe that individual quarters are generally beneficial for most beings, but understand that Changelings have unique needs. Therefore, what we suggest is an adaptation of family quarters for you, with a central pool for communal rest, guest accommodations for when you have visitors, and individual quarters for privacy. The ambient temperature and atmosphere would reflect your optimal needs, while at the same time being adjustable. Furnishing would include the standard issue, plus any adaptations you might need to help you feel more comfortable."

Deanna could feel the questions emanating from the pool. They wanted to know why they were being so well provided for, but were afraid to ask, lest someone change their mind. Since they said nothing, she made the choice to go on. Some answers would become known in time.

"Now you, Mr. Garak, would be located next door to your friends, in individual quarters, which you also may adapt for your needs. You will see that there are several options for personal design available. Maintenance will be happy to assist in changes, so long as you notify them with enough time. Changes we can do, but we're quick, not instant."

Garak laughed, "Thank you, Commander. This is much more accommodating than I believe we expected. And certainly more comfortable than a Romulan cell." He paused and then asked. "I take this to mean that we will be allowed free access to the ship."

"As much as any guest, Mr. Garak. Though, I am sure you will be able to stretch that access more than others. We only ask that you do nothing detrimental to us, our friends, or yourselves while in our care."

He chuckled, caught but not harmed. "Well, I can't speak for my friends, but I shall be the very model of discreet and careful."

"We would appreciate that, Mr. Garak. It seems to me that you and our friends have been harmed quite enough lately."

Garak nodded an acknowledgment. "I could not agree more."

==^==

While the Sochlings and Naomi were less likely than most to avoid school as a result of not wanting to go, they were also more likely than most to make the choice to not attend if they felt the situation merited the decision. Thus, at the mid-day break, a note was left for their instructor, and the younger children sans Barin and Emina, who were at home and now in the care of T'Pel and Lwaxana, excused themselves in favor of their new errand.

This event was not an entirely uncommon occurrence. Classes on board the ship were not regimentally required for the younger Borg or Naomi, and make up work was acceptable, given the quality that was normally delivered. What was uncommon, however, was the destination of the youngsters.

They were headed to the transporter room.

Voyager was not so distracted that she did not realize something was out of the ordinary, and which fell within her allowed parameters for intervention. She, who was savvy to these youngsters, put a lock on the unit before they even arrived. When they did enter the room, she inquired, "Going somewhere?"

"We wish to see our sister."

Naomi corrected Mezoti immediately. "Cousin."

"We are still dialoging about her status with us."

"My sister, your cousin." Naomi asserted again.

Rebi looked at her. "You are our sister, therefore she is too."

That stopped Naomi before she could even formulate a response. She'd felt like a sibling, she just hadn't thought they felt the same way. Naomi thought about it for a second, and realized that they never acted like she was anything else. She smiled. "Fine. Sister."

"You have not answered my question."

"We intend to visit the other Voyager and meet Naomi."

"And you have, of course, cleared this with at least one parent in all households?"

There was silence.

"Please wait. I am engaging in some communication protocols."

In a few moments a view screen was displayed on the wall. It contained a split view of three persons: Voyager's Sam Wildman, T'Pel, and Samantha Wildman of gamma-Voyager.

T'Pel spoke first. "You wished to speak with us?"

A brief flurry of silent communication followed, then Naomi stepped forward. "We are interested in meeting Naomi Wildman of gamma-Voyager. We thought it would be easier if we went to see her, rather than have her come to us at this time. We," she paused, "probably should have mentioned it, but we only planned to be away for a little while."

Sam Wildman, hiding her amusement as the Sochlings closed ranks around her daughter, responded. "Yes. You should have. There are reasons, very sound safety related reasons, for the protocols that are in place. I have explained before that the great latitude which you benefit from by being aboard a starship, also comes with some absolute rules."

Naomi looked somewhat sheepish, and said, "I know Mom, but…"

"There are no buts. We ought to just ground you, because you know better." Samantha looked at those others on her view-screen. "However, you have a valid point. Naomi might want to meet you. Samantha, what do you think?"

After a moment of hesitation, gamma-Voyager Samantha answered. "Sam, I think she would love to meet other children. However, perhaps it would be better if she visited on your ship. It's chaos over here. Actually, how would you feel if…both of us…came on by?"

T'Pel said, "I believe it would be appropriate. The children may then access the Park. If you are willing to supervise, Sam?"

Sam smiled, accepting the responsibility. "I'd be happy to."

"Thirty minutes?" inquired Samantha.

"That will be sufficient. Mezoti, Rebi, Azan, please come home. Lwaxana and I would like to speak with you."

"And I would like a word with you, Naomi, if you please."

Even though it was a win, the kids acknowledged the gentle command and prepared to face the consequences.

==^==

Standing in the corridor of deck 6, outside of the two holo-suites, Ezri took a few moments to compose herself, and another couple to review her plan of attack. For an instant, she wished she were on her Voyager, and in The Park. Of course, if they were on her Voyager, there would not be a problem, and she would not need to seek out gamma-Voyager's First Officer like she was hunting targ in the mountains on Qo'nos. She wondered idly if Ro Laren could be tamed with a Klingon Opera.

Playing Counselor instead of Officer Commanding for a couple of days, she wasn't wearing her uniform, opting for loose brown trousers and an equally flowing shirt layered atop a dark tank top. She thought she looked particularly non-threatening, though Kate had raked her up and down with her eyes and made a comment to the effect of that being battlefield dependent. When she deemed her heart rate, respiration and the colouring of her spots had returned to normal, she entered an override on holodeck one, and entered.

Ezri blinked.

Laren had told her of the accuracy of the simulation of Deep Space Nine, but that did nothing to stop the rush of emotions that swept through her. She was standing in virtually the same place she'd stood and taken one last look back the day she'd disembarked and headed off to a new life. Terok Nor hadn't been the same, the differences in universes and purposes altering the textures, sounds and smells in ineffable ways. But this. This ersatz clone was DS9 as she remembered it. Again, she was astonished by the weird synchronicity between some of the universes. Did a version of DS9 exist in every one? Were there really constants in the universes, or were there transitive strings of them, chains of similarities that would give way after enough transitions till they were utterly unrecognizable?

What would a universe that didn't border on their own be like?

She didn't have time to think anymore on the subject, since a steady stream of footfalls alerted her that Ro Laren was nearby. Another stray thought struck as she got her first, in person, look at the Bajoran Commander. Had this Ro known her counterpart in this universe, and would that make things easier or more difficult if it were the case? Certainly, Ezri Tigan's relationships in Universe Beta had proved an unexpected complication. "Commander Ro." Her greeting was polite, but not effusive.

"You overrode my privacy seal."

"You've been ducking me." Ezri let her body language remain open, and, in fact, she turned away slightly, looking over the edge of an elevated walkway that she knew concealed the bar that had been Quark's.

"Not you, in particular." There was a trace of humour in the husky tones.

Ezri laughed and started to walk along the corridor, half expecting to see Nog, or Jake round a corner.

Ro Laren watched the Trill walk away from her, and curious despite her intentions to leave, followed. It became readily apparent that the woman was intimately familiar with the station, and she trailed along, a step behind. Being a step behind, she was in a perfect place to see the sudden tension that whipped through the gamine form as they came level with a meditation room. "Commander?" It was as close to asking if the woman was okay as she would permit herself.

"It's nothing."

"Didn't look like nothing." The words were out, and Ro tried not to look surprised at having spoken.

"You're right, but it's nothing I'd really like to talk about."

"You've spent time here."

"I was stationed here, as was the Host before me."

Ro had suspected as much. And she realized in that instant why she had so assiduously avoided any of the other Voyager's crew, along with Lt. Commander Hansen. "It's a strange thing to believe in something, to anchor yourself in faith, to fight for that faith, only to find out you had it all wrong."

The Trill remained facing the temple room, but her reply was distinct. "Or worse, to find you were completely right."

Ro moved then, needing to see Dax's face as they talked. "You were the one who traveled to the beta-Universe with Orb of the Prophets."

"Yes."

"You've traveled the wormhole."

Ezri forced a laugh and wrapped her hands around her arms. "I have."

"Are you sure you're okay? You look as though you've seen a Pah-Wraith." Ro meant the comment to be flippant, but Dax paled visibly and looked ready to pass out. "Ezri?"

Ezri felt a warmth pulse through the growing bond she shared with her mates, and while she couldn't yet tell from whom the support came, she gripped it gratefully. "I'm fine. Really. I think I just realized how much of my life has been entwined with the Prophets." She wasn't prepared to share that she'd just been flooded with a memory of being killed in this room by a Pah-Wraith.

"Mine too." Ro Laren studied the shorter woman, trying to see if she was telling the truth, or if she would need to be caught before tumbling over the railing.

"We've shaken your faith." Ezri had heard an edge to the tone, and listened to what hadn't been said.

Ro inhaled. The Trill might be shaken, but wasn't giving an inch. She was on the verge of denying the assertion when she realized that if half of what she had read of the crew of alpha-Voyager was true, and if even half of that half was true of Commander Dax, the Trill could answer some very fundamental questions. Questions that she knew couldn't remain unanswered if she stood any chance of putting her life back together. "Yes."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Ezri knew without needing to be told that anything less than full disclosure of her purpose would irreparably damage any possibility for communication between them. "I technically don't have an office with the requisite couch, but I can offer you a walk in a park to die for."

"I'll skip the dying part if you don't mind, but I think I'd like a walk in your park."

Ezri nodded, it was start.

==^==

Naomi Wildman of gamma-Voyager was tremendously excited. She was also very nervous. Despite what an outsider might think, she had been around other children before. Just not for extended periods of time. She imagined that this would be no different, but it would still be fun.

Still, she held onto her mother's hand up to the point where they stood up on the transporter pad. Or maybe it was her mother holding on to her. It was somewhat hard to tell.

They arrived in the customary whirl of blue.

Four people stood waiting excitedly for them. Naomi felt her mom pause, but she knew she already had permission so she stepped off the platform. She was met halfway by someone who was her height and coloring, and had the same horned spikes in the center of her forehead.

The other Naomi was cheerful, blithely smiling. "Hi!"

Her waiting companions were smiling too. Another young girl stepped forward and was introduced to the new arrival. Meanwhile, the Talaxian and the other Naomi's mother strode forward, extending helping hands to the suddenly stock still Samantha.

"Greetings," said the Talaxian. "I am Neelix of the House Presba, and this, of course, is Samantha Wildman of the House Presba."

"You can call me Aunt Sam or just Sam. Call him Uncle Neelix. It'll help keep things from getting too confusing. Besides, these days, everyone calls us that when we're off duty." She noted that her counterpart shrugged away from Neelix, but took her hand in an overly firm grip. She cast a brief glance at her beloved, but he remained his usual affable self. "We're glad you could come aboard."

Samantha's smile was brief, but there. "So am I. We're looking forward to seeing The Park, aren't we Naomi?"

The Ktarian was only half listening. She was involved in the fascinating occupation of noting differences and similarities. Of course, they wore different outfits, but there were small things that made it easier for her to tell. But only up close. Otherwise, they might as well have been twins.

They grinned at each other and Samantha's question remained unanswered.

"Well," said Uncle Neelix, who had become more sensitive to these kinds of moments over time, "I need to head off. It was a pleasure to briefly meet you, Samantha. Enjoy yourself." He paused long enough to unselfconsciously kiss Aunt Sam. It was a tender, sweet buss; not too long, not too possessive, but a definite expression of caring. "I'll see you later," he said, with a sparkle and a smile at his mate.

Sam smiled with equal joy at him, releasing him to his path. She then took Samantha's hand and said, "Come on, kids. It's time to go." She looked meaningfully at her counterpart. "There are things to do, people to see, things to talk about…"

==^==

The sprite wasn't exactly flying high off the ground. Nor was it flying fast. But it was flying. And thus, on the whole, it felt better - one might even say accomplished.

Once flying, it was able to maneuver more quickly through the maze of Jeffries tubes that comprised the innards of the starship. By now, because of its numerous visits to the ship, it had a good idea of where it was and so made a decision to visit a place that was nearby and intriguing in its own right.

The vibrant little being journeyed to what it perceived as an opening and flew at it with determination. It bounced off the wall like a tiny ball and landed against the other one with perhaps the tiniest thud that had ever been heard in that particular universe.

It was tiny, but Voyager heard it. "What?"

"What?" replied Stinging Sparrow.

"I heard something."

"I didn't hear anything."

"Shh. Listen. It's somewhere in my systems."

"What is?" Stinging Sparrow was having trouble following the conversation.

"The tickle."

"Dear…" Stinging Sparrow did her best to keep her tone even. But lately her Voyager had been…hormonal. "I'm sure it was nothing."

"I heard something." Voyager was adamant.

"You have crew and passengers on board. They probably just dropped something and you felt it. Right now, I wouldn't be surprised if your internal sensors are on high alert. It is common."

There was a barely perceptible undercurrent of amusement in Voyager's reply. "Are you saying I'm behaving like a pregnant Human?"

Stinging Sparrow may have been a sentient ship, and not an organic being, but she knew there was absolutely no correct way to answer that. She opted not to answer the question at all. "I love you. I adore you." She vibed the feeling along her sensors toward her beloved mate.

It wasn't quite successful as a distraction, but Voyager accepted that she wasn't going to receive a direct answer. "I love you too."

Meanwhile, in Voyager's depths, the sprite shook it off the effects of the collision, and floated again, curious as to what it had encountered. It began hovering near the wall it wished to exit from and followed it. Then, like a miracle, there was a burst of light. The sprite watched as, oblivious, a person entered the Jeffries tube. The hatch remained open as they headed in the opposite direction from the sprite.

The sprite was free.

==^==

The middle Sochlings were in the Park, waiting. They had Qul with them, and the firedog was happily sniffing and gamboling around their feet. She moved to greet Naomi, and then stalled, confused when she saw two of them.

"Don't worry about it," said Naomi, "Qul will figure it out. She's a very smart firedog." Qul heard the praise in Naomi's voice and made a yipping noise, but wasn't quite ready to make the approach. Naomi said, "The trick is to not look at her, and let her come to you."

"Well, she doesn't look too dangerous," commented Samantha.

"She's not very old. But when she reaches her full growth she will be able to spit fire." Mezoti said, with more than a little pride.

Mezoti looked at the two Naomi's and decided that they had a problem. Discreetly, so as not to hurt their visitor's feelings, she signaled her siblings and her Naomi.

"Do you still wish to alter your designation?"

"Yes." Her reply was emphatic. Like a lot of children Naomi thought her name was less than wonderful, but her mother had refused to shorten or change it.

"I believe now is the optimal time to do so." The twins and Barin nodded their agreement to Mezoti's observation.

Naomi took a deep breath and turned to her counterpart. "Just call me Spike. That way we'll know who's talking to who." Her counterpart shot her an envious look, and she gathered that she was not the only one of them to want a different name.

"Rock, paper, scissors for it." Naomi asked, her expression hopeful.

She laughed. "My idea, my dibs. Besides, it wouldn't be fair, I could just have Barin tell me what you were going to choose."

Her mother's look had been less approving, but the way she shook her head told the young Ktarian she'd get away with it.

Serious business settled, the children gathered together, separating themselves from the adults. Azan slapped his side once and Qul turned towards him and immediately went to stand by his side. Then he and Rebi began explaining. "We are teaching Qul appropriate interactions." He made a signal with his hand and the firedog sat down. "She is young, but learns quickly."

Naomi said, "I thought dogs had to be a little older to be trained effectively."

"Earth canines perhaps," confirmed Mezoti. "But this is a firedog from Presba. She is not really part of the canine species, though they do share some qualities in common." She then indicated her youngest brother. "Plus, Barin is able to convey information quite effectively to her."

The young telepath smiled shyly at the Ktarian and stood close to Rebi.

"Where is Presba?" inquired Naomi. The kids started walking, with Azan making another signal, so that Qul followed.

Spike began to explain.

The two mothers followed behind, letting the distance grow between themselves and the children, until they could safely hold their own conversation and yet still monitor the youngsters.

"So. Neelix." Samantha said, her tone somewhere between accusing and curious.

"Mmhmm. He's a good man and a good match." There was a sigh, and Sam could see the other woman wrestle with what to say next.

Samantha opted for a less dangerous topic. "It's a beautiful park."

Sam considered whether to let her counterpart get away with it, and then decided that the subject was unavoidable. They would come back around to it. "Thank you. It was a group effort. It acts as both a recreation facility and a natural air scrubber. There are a few other side benefits too." She began to explain how The Park came to be.

==^==

Again the sprite followed a wall. This time, however, there was a sense of openness, and its mastery of movement in this space continued to improve. It clung, in some senses, to the ceiling, following the flow of traffic and picking familiar persons to follow as it learned its way about.

It had already learned several new things about openness and containment. It considered that the place that it had been was contained. Where the place where it was in now, was open. Comparatively speaking.

It followed someone into a turbo-lift. And was startled to find that the turbo-lift moved. Contained. Moving.

It followed that person out, then, distracted, followed another person down a different corridor. Open. Stable.

It explored several decks this way, mastering a method of using the turbo-lift, by 'listening', to the destination request of the beings within: deck 1, deck 13, deck 15. These were all unique locations, with unique functions. Such wisdom, it recalled, had been imparted earlier in the home-space, but took on a new meaning in this other-space.

It began listening more to the conversations around it, realizing that such conversations contained information. Names for things, people, places. It understood that these things were all unique, meaningful and incredibly fascinating. Slowly it built up its understanding of how the sounds connected to meanings.

Someone mentioned hunger and another mentioned something called a Golden Bough. The being did not know what a Golden Bough was, but it did identify hunger. Hunger was a state of emptiness, a need for filling and revitalizing. It had been hungry before. But filling was always possible in its own place. Here, it did not know if filling hunger was possible.

That was when it realized it might have made a grave mistake. And that it probably should have waited until the Commodore had given them permission.

Fighting its sudden gargantuan panic, which pulsed needed light from its body, it decided that it must find this Golden Bough and discover how hunger was satisfied in this universe.

==^==

"Hey."

"Hey, what?"

"I wasn't finished."

"Looks finished to me."

"Haha and all that, but I was looking forward to this. Put it back."

"Put what back?"

"My steak. You know, the lightly braised four ounces of wonderful."

"I didn't take it."

"Sure you didn't."

"No. Really. It wasn't me. I don't know what happened to your steak."

"You really don't?"

"Maybe it was flawed and they decided to make you another one. Let me go talk to someone."

"Okay."

==^==

Admittedly, the incredibly pleasant interlude with Laren did help. Commodore Janeway, aside from being in much better spirits afterward, was able to focus on the files that they had picked up during their last visit to the alpha-Universe. The files contained more comprehensive plans and information needed for the building of the base at Presba. They were comparing it, now that they had the data, to the site information from Laren, Seven and B'Elanna's investigation.

Even with that erotic delay they were making good progress on the project. One might even say better progress, since Kathryn was less distracted than she had been. Her one regret was that she hadn't been able to convince Laren that they didn't need to invite the ensign back in. So now, once again, she and her mate were parted by a short distance.

She looked up, not really expecting Laren to notice. But she found the Bajoran already glancing back with some amusement. Kathryn shrugged, realizing that she was the one who had insisted that they ought to all work if Seven and B'Elanna had to. So, essentially, her current state of mind was her own fault.

She glanced briefly at the time-stamp on the PADD and sighed. Only a few more hours.

==^==

Commander Ro Laren was a little nonplussed to find herself drifting through the halls of a ship that was at once both familiar and completely alien. It was creepy. Her companion, allegedly the ship's Officer Commanding, Commander Ezri Dax, appeared to take no notice of her discomfiture, but seemed to have plenty of attention to spare for the varied multitude of beings that claimed portions of her time during their trip. She still hadn't quite worked out how that arrangement actually functioned, since Commodore Janeway appeared to be the one giving orders, and Commander Deanna Troi, the First Officer, was the one who had handled the contact between the ships. Other than amble through the hallways of whichever ship she felt like, what was Dax's job?

Everything was bigger on this ship. The corridors were wider, the walls taller, the ceilings higher, the crew more numerous and diverse. A Ylfian scrambled by, partially using the wall and partially the roof, and she amended her observation, a least one thing was smaller: some of the crew.

Ro looked back from watching the six-limbed Ylfian scamper away and nearly jerked her head in shock, though she was careful to maintain the outward stoicism. Dax had come to a halt and both Megan and Jennifer Delaney had their arms wrapped around the Trill's waist and the trio was laughing about something. None of them were in uniform, or at least none of them were wearing anything she had come to associate with being a uniform, so she supposed they were off-duty. She had no idea if Dax was on duty or not, but she gave up speculating about that, and turned her attention to the Delaneys, who, on gamma-Voyager, didn't get along well enough to work together, never mind to be gregariously social together.

"Lunch tomorrow?" Dax asked, and got an affirming nod as well as a light kiss from each twin, who then departed.

"Interesting command style." Laren commented.

"Sadly, it doesn't work on everyone. Security would rather be punched on the arm."

Laren had no reply for that so she merely kept pace with the shorter, but faster Trill. A quick ride up a few levels in the turbo-lift and the doors hissed wide, opening to the most incredible panorama. "Prophets." When Dax had suggested a walk in the park, she'd thought maybe a tiny airponics garden or an overly detailed holo-program, but certainly not this. There had been nothing like this on any starship she'd ever been on, not even the Enterprise.

Ezri smiled, "That's as good an explanation as any. Welcome to The Park."

==^==

It was decided by Commanders Sofuru, Veckma and Asil Troi, that this current cooperative stillness would be the perfect time to train their newer recruits. All of them had relatively new people, some who had been involved with the ship's functions longer, such as those from Voyager's Rest, and some who were very recent arrivals, such as just posted in from the Federation, as well as the odd addition from Universe Beta, on their teams. True coordination required practice and all of them, who had been involved in battle, believed in the process. The Commanders met together to plot out the next few weeks, to plan the testing crucible for those who had not yet passed training and become Marines in more than name, and to work out the alternative work schedules, since their people also had to do other kinds of tasks on the ship.

Veckma was the first to bring it up. "Perhaps we ought to consider a cooperative effort with gamma-Voyager. Their security forces might be interested in joining us in this training."

"Our security forces would then want to join."

"It would be good for them. Keep them from being bored."

Asil arched her brow. "Perhaps we should contact the Commanders Tuvok and invite them into this conversation."

==^==

Commander Tuvok, Asil's father, was available immediately to join in the ad-hoc meeting. Tuvok agreed that it would be an effective use of time and considered that it might also be of benefit for the newest members of the staff to run through the confines of the smaller ship, just to gain an appreciation for the divergences of experiences. His counterpart was otherwise engaged, but would review the proposal later.

"Well, now there is an idea. We could also offer to do training in certain fighting styles and invite those who are interested to participate. You know, Zakeeri, Klingon, Kutwutchu and so on."

"The Kutwutchu have a fighting style?"

"Yes," said Veckma, completely deadpan. "They call it Taller-Than-You."

Commander Sofuru laughed.

==^==

As promised, Deanna spoke with the Commodore about Voyager's craving. "I don't see why not," said Kathryn. "Both ships have warp capability and it would give us a chance to practice coordinating for Universe Beta. Check with B'Elanna about the adaptation needs. If we can travel, check with Captain Janeway and see if she'd like to join us on this jaunt. Oh, and I guess, check with Voyager about her," Kathryn found herself experiencing a bit of internal comedy at the thought, "favorite flavor."

Kathryn was profoundly glad she'd had a heads up on the issue from Ezri, and had gotten all of the laughter out of her system before having to deal with it in an official manner. Even so, she couldn't completely keep her amusement from leaking through into her tone.

Deanna managed to keep her expression straight and said, "Thank you, Commodore. I'll let you know what I find out."

==^==

"A nebula?"

Deanna, who wasn't sure how much information KJ had been given, said, "There are some basic elements, which our vessel needs stock up on at this time."

"So you're inviting me on a fishing trip."

"It is an apt analogy, yes." The Betazoid's expression was as affable as her body language was comfortable. Deanna shifted in the Captain's chair. "It is also possible that your ship might benefit from some of the elements. I'm sending over a basic evaluation of the nebula now, for your perusal. We expect to leave in a half an hour, if you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested." She wouldn't miss this for the world.

==^==

Voyager's nebula of choice was an expansive red and purple cloud of swirling energy and composite materials. She practically hummed with anticipation and only held back on diving right in because of her people and a sensitivity to the location of the other vessel. She waited patiently for gamma-Voyager to find her own part of the nebula to begin fishing. She wanted there to be plenty of space between them, because Voyager had no intention of fishing. She intended to wade in and begin to eat, no pickiness, just voracious consumption.

Fortunately for all of them, this Nebula was vast, non-sentient, and there were plenty of proto-materials for everyone.

"Activate the Penetrator," Commander Troi ordered. The only other time she'd seen this shield in action was during their battle. She looked forward to seeing how it worked as a collecting agent. "Take us in. Quarter impulse."

Voyager entered the cloud slowly, but cheerfully. And, there was a definite change in her thrum, as the specialized shield began to do its work.

Onboard gamma-Voyager, they used a different means to capture the elements they needed, but the Bussard and other collectors were equally effective. For them, it really was a matter of extending tools out and capturing those elements in the quantity needed and then storing them in a more manual kind of way. Either way, both ships benefited from the expedition.

==^==

A few hours later and several of Voyager's supply packs were completely filled. The oddity noted by those who were following her processes was that, they were actually completely filled twice. The first time, it was as if it were sucked right back out. The second time, the elements, energy and basic content were stored exactly as they should be.

Lt. Carey made a report in the logs, forwarded a copy to B'Elanna and to Commander Dax, and then made a personal note for himself to check on the status of the packs in a day or two. If whole storage cells could be sucked dry in such a short amount of time, they would need to keep on top of it.

==^==

The beautiful thing about nebulae was that even if one went in and sipped it as if it were milk, there was plenty of essence left to float and spiral back into place. There was not so much as a hole when the sister ships withdrew. It was like water in a spring-filled pond.

This particular nebula has been somewhat friendly in more than one aspect. There had been no transcendental storms, no shocks to bounce the ships around. All in all, it was, as KJ would put it, a good fishing trip.

==^==

Ezri was content to amble along, unspeaking, to allow Ro Laren time to take in the extents of The Park, but she was also very aware that her time was not unlimited, nor was her stamina. Sooner, rather than later, she was going to have to yield her will to the delightful call of her mates. While Ro Laren was staring at the surface of the lake, she sat on the grass to remove the light sandals she wore, and wriggled her now free toes in happy enjoyment. Seven, she decided, had really been on to something. Tapping her comm badge, she had them transported to her office.

One of the numerous rocks that helped the illusion of reality in The Park rested next to her hand and Ezri scooped it up, along with a few others. She stood back up and joined the Bajoran at the water's edge. "Here." She offered up half of her stash, and rather than explain their purpose, threw one of her own across the surface. It made a small splash and generated an impressive set of ripples.

"You didn't invite me here to throw rocks." Laren threw a rock.

"You don't like to throw rocks?"

Another couple of rocks plunged into the water, as Ro tossed some of hers. "I didn't say that."

"But you're waiting for me to say something." Ezri flung her last rock into the depths.

"Pretty much." Ro Laren turned to face the Trill. "But you're not going to, are you?"

"No. I brought you here to meet someone." With that, Ezri started walking toward the far side of The Park, angling away from where she could see her children and the two Wildman girls playing, not wanting to interrupt their time. He was exactly where she expected to find him at this time of day. "Hello, Ben."

"Hello, Old Man." Bald pate glistening in the artificial sun, his wide smile showed a full mouth of white teeth, and his dark skin contrasted nicely with the tan shirt he was wearing.

"Ben, this is Commander Ro Laren, from this universe's Voyager. Laren, this is my friend, Captain Benjamin Sisko, The Emissary of the Prophets." Standing on tip toe, she stretched up to kiss Ben on the cheek, then turned and left the duo.

Stunned, Laren watched the Trill walk away, her shock at the casual introduction to the Emissary gave way to further surprise when instead of leaving the park, Dax disappeared into a large tree. Still trying for some equilibrium, she said the first thing that came to mind. "That is one very strange woman."

A rich, mellifluous voice answered. "She's a Dax."

The words had sounded fond, and full of humour, and Ro felt a measure of safety in the unexpressed emotion. "So, how does a Human, Starfleet Captain become The Emissary?"

==^==

T'Pel and Lwaxana did manage to get quite a bit done of work done, even with watching, playing with, and letting Emina help. Lwaxana had even affixed the small gold pip to the toddler's jumper. Emina was after all, the OC's official envoy to the DoD. As the Alpha shift neared its end, they had a solid beginning to the information packets and were confident that, by the time they were complete, those who needed them would find them informative and handy.

They had managed much of this productivity by the simple expedient of keeping a certain physical distance from each other and resisting the temptation to mind-play. Though, Lwaxana had found, that was also very, very tempting. It had been difficult, but they had managed.

Now that the shift was reaching its close, however, the incentive to wait was diminishing geometrically.

Lwaxana, recognized that they needed a time frame. She reached out and asked her mates their expected time of availability. The times, naturally, had a fair range. But it gave them the flexibility they needed to wait.

Mostly.

==^==

"B'Elanna Troi, you appear to have lost your way." Seven Torres made the comment while finishing a computational adjustment. Then she turned around.

The Klingon stood only a few feet away. She was smiling. "Did you get Lwaxana's message?"

"It was not a message, it was a request."

"Well, I heard a message. Do you want to know what it was?"

"I can guess. And, though you may be fortunate enough to be able to end your duty shift early, I still have an hour's worth of work to do."

"You can't save it for tomorrow?"

Seven looked at B'Elanna as she walked to another console and said bluntly, "Not today."

B'Elanna changed topics, "Do you know what this Astrometrics Lab is missing, Megan?" Thanks to Ezri, she had finally figured out how to tell the twins apart. Megan had the dimple.

Megan, who had been listening, but studiously pretending not to, was startled to suddenly be included in this conversation. "What? I'm sorry. Uhm." She paused and then looked between the three other women in the room. Seven of Nine had one console opened up for adjustments, but she too had paused in her work to watch the interplay. Curiosity was in her gaze. Megan finished her reply. "No. I don't."

The Klingon wasn't looking at Megan when she said, "It's missing an office. Offices are wonderful, multi-purpose rooms." In fact, her gaze held a certain purposeful intensity to it. "Isn't that right, my Lady Torres?"

The other Borg woman's fingers did not falter, but there was a definite flush to her skin that had not been there before.

Well, that would be incorrect. Megan had seen that coloration briefly once before.

Seven did not look up, but she did answer. "This Astrometrics Lab is perfectly functional without an office. Though you are correct, there are many things that can be done," Now she turned. And her gaze also had an intensity equal to that of the Klingon's in them. "In an office."

B'Elanna's skin tone darkened, as Seven's words ran through her, and she licked her lips before answering. "Well, too bad we don't have one here on this ship."

"It is," confirmed Seven. "You should leave." said the Borg. "Now." It was a crisp order, an unexpected pronouncement between the mates.

B'Elanna shivered lightly. "Agreed. Hurry."

"I will."

The Klingon exited Astrometrics a little more quickly than she had entered. Seven Torres returned to her work. While her back was turned, and while she had Seven of Nine's attention, Megan mouthed, "What was that about?"

Seven of Nine appeared thoughtful, then mouthed back, "Foreplay."

There was a pause, and then Megan grinned and turned back to her work.

Yes. Astrometrics was getting more and more fun these days.

==^==

It was just one of those welcome coincidences. Dr. Pulaski was in the turbo-lift that stopped at B'Elanna's deck. They looked across the short distance between the portal and inhabited space.

B'Elanna said, "Dr. Kate." She drew out the syllables, rolling the 'r'.

Kate's eyes had turned a vibrant shade that signaled her desire almost instantly at the sight of her mate. But she didn't rush forward. She lifted her hand, extending her fingertips.

It was, even then, a highly charged action in front of those who did not know. The turbo-lift wasn't empty.

B'Elanna stepped in and their fingertips brushed and connected. "My mate," burred the Human. There was enough of a sonic difference that the other occupants felt shivers up their spines. Not that the mates even noticed them. Their gazes were firmly tied to one another.

"Where are you going?"

"To the transporter room."

"I'll go with you."

"Is that wise?"

"No." B'Elanna stepped forward, until her body was a mere hair's breadth from being pressed against Kate's. She gave her order to the lift and it began its journey. Their fingertips remained their only other contact. But the gazes they exchanged were fiery.

B'Elanna tried for conversation. "Where is Doctor Zimmerman?"

"He's staying aboard to help Frank with the compilation of data. As ranking medical officer I have to review it all."

"But not tonight." She was burning too hotly to even ask who Frank was.

"No," said Kate slowly, leaning forward to inhale her mate's delicious scent. "Not tonight." Somehow she resisted the urge to lay her lips on the skin that called her. She wasn't sure how.

"Good," purred B'Elanna.

The resistance was melting fast. Kate tried to think of a reason not to do what she really wanted to do. "There are other people on this turbo-lift."

B'Elanna cast a glance at them and growled.

A sudden shift of bodies ensued. They all stepped carefully away from the Klingon and her mate. It was enough of a gesture that Kate found herself occupied with the amusement factor of the moment. It didn't really cool the building heat, but it allowed her to look into her mate's eyes with a degree of equanimity.

The turbo-lift announced its stop, and B'Elanna decided she didn't want to wait that long.

She leaned in and kissed Kate, hungrily and needfully.

The kiss was returned in full, with just as much heat.

A throat was cleared, pitched just right to catch their attention. They managed to pull away from each other. Barely.

"So. I'll see you when you get home." B'Elanna managed to sound much more unconcerned with the response than she felt.

"Yes."

==^==

At exactly the mark of the end of Alpha shift, Tuvok logged out and stepped away from his station so that another might take his place. The Vulcan nodded at Deanna Troi who would be relieved from duty at the half-way point of the Beta Shift. She nodded back.

He then exited the Bridge without haste, though internally he noted that Kathryn and Laren were obviously delayed.

The turbo-lift ride was completely without event, hazard or accompaniment. He found it pleasant and ran a few lines of meditation through his consciousness.

It helped.

He entered the family quarters and was immediately aware of the care Lwaxana, Kate, and T'Pel were taking in order to avoid tipping the scales of desire too soon. They were making dinner, a cooperative effort that involved a touch of play on the Betazoid's part. Emina, with the help of Kate, was aiding in the preparation.

Kate looked up, smiled warmly at the sole male of their adult collective, and invited him to sit down. Her eyes held a promise of things to come later and if he had been Human, his throat might have gone dry. But, since he was Vulcan, he merely accepted, warmed by thought of her desire for him, and his for her.

Briefly, they all exchanged touches. It was almost too much, but the contact was equally necessary to their carefully crafted equilibrium.

"The Children?"

"Still in the Park. They'll be home soon. Uncle Neelix and Aunt Sam will watch them tonight."

"A practical arrangement." Tuvok approved.

"Necessary." Commented T'Pel. She might be moving about with the smoothness of perfect composure, but she was equally aware of the escalating tension between them all.

"It is at that. Though you know, Voyager could probably also watch them tonight, should he need a break." Kate handed another root vegetable to Emina, who was carefully stacking them into a pyramid shape. "What about it Voyager, are you feeling up to helping watch our passel tonight?"

Tuvok arched his brow at Kate's choice of words, but kept his curiosity to himself.

Voyager replied, sounding much better than she had a few hours ago. "I believe I'll be quite able to accomplish the task, yes."

Kate flashed a smile. "Well, that takes care of that, then. Thank you, sweetheart."

"You are welcome, Dr. Kate."

==^==

Laren and Kathryn made their way home. They had only just entered when Lwaxana and Kate began to chuckle and point at them. "I told you," said Kate.

Kathryn stuck her tongue out at the physician. Laren's expression was one of amused acceptance. Like Tuvok, they too exchanged touches only, keeping from the impulse that might pull them further into the flame.

"Have we heard from B'Elanna and Seven, or Ezri?"

"They will be here soon," Lwaxana said as she carried a large platter filled with food to the family table. "They're on board and on their way."

==^==

As Lanna Torres of gamma-Voyager prepared to step into the turbo-lift she nodded at the other occupant. Seven of Nine was dressed casually; very casually. She wore a simple white shirt and a pair of trousers and, as had become the rule, her feet were bare. Lately the Klingon was becoming more and more viscerally aware of the attractiveness of the Borg, and this moment only added to that growing awareness. The blonde's hair was down, loosed from the usual bun in a glorious fall of gold. She found herself thinking that it added to the perfection.

Lanna's heart beat faster and she nearly let the turbo-lift continue on without her. But she had business to attend to. She opted for politeness. "Seven of Nine."

"Lieutenant Torres."

Lanna stated her destination and stood on the opposite side of the turbo-lift.

The lift started. The Klingon fully expected the normal silence that happened when they both used the unit. Thus, she was surprised when Seven of Nine spoke.

"Lieutenant, since you are available, may I have a moment of your time?"

Lanna spent precious seconds deciding. Then realized she was honestly curious. Besides, with all the socialization that they had been engaging in, it didn't seem right to ignore the request. "Sure."

"Thank you. I wish to compliment you on your appearance today."

"Oh. Uh. Thank you."

"You are welcome. I also wish to let you know that over the next few weeks, I will be occupied with many tasks and my recreational time with therefore be reduced. However, I will notify you of my availability for social interactions, if you care to have such information." She had practiced the words with Laren's aid. At first she tried to sound more like the Bajoran, but Laren had finally convinced her to just be herself.

"Oh. I...wait. Why are you telling me this?"

The blonde stepped very close Lanna. Disturbingly close. Wonderfully, erotically close. It took everything Lanna had not to grab the other woman and kiss her way up that long, beautiful neck to that incredibly sensuous, plump mouth.

Seven of Nine said, "When I stand near you, your heart-rate increases. Your pupils dilate. I have seen what is possible between my alternate and yours. We have had many philosophical discussions about what composes attraction. I watched you in the past with Ensign Tom Paris. Your heart-rate stayed the same with him, unless you had done something deliberate to raise it. In comparison, all I have to do is stand near you to achieve that result. The evidence indicates that you are attracted to me."

The blonde took a breath and continued. "You too have had contact with our alternates. You are a woman of great intelligence and capability. I know you must be aware of what the potential there might be in relating to each other on a romantic level."

"And Kathryn?"

Seven of Nine acknowledged the Klingon's perceptiveness. "She is also a worthy choice. But, she has made herself unavailable at this time," Now she looked directly at Lanna. "…for reasons that are important to her. That may change in the future. But now is now. I have, through observation, come to the conclusion that relationships with others are not a futile or worthless venture. And there are options and levels to relationships. If you do not desire me as a mate, perhaps you would desire me as your friend. I would strive to be worthy of you in either type of relationship."

"Seven..." This conversation was far too direct and moving far too fast for Lanna to have achieved any manner of equilibration.

"I am aware that not everyone is able to interpret my physical mannerisms correctly, and that what I am feeling is not always obvious to others. It is a failing of my socialization to this point. Thus, I must resort to practicality. I wish you to know that I am drawn to you, so that you may know...your options."

Seven of Nine leaned in, and hesitated just long enough to give Lanna an out. Then she pressed her lips against the Klingon's. The kiss wasn't very long, but it was powerfully, deliciously intense.

When she pulled away she whispered in Lanna's ear, "If you want me, you know where to find me."

Then she stepped away from the staggered Klingon and started the lift again. Lanna was still standing in the same place, with a shocked expression on her face, when Seven of Nine exited the lift.

==^==

The Klingon was so turned on that it took over ten minutes for her to gather herself together. Passengers had gotten on and off the turbo-lift, barely sparing a glance in her direction. She had no idea what they must have thought and truthfully didn't care.

The place on her cheek where Seven of Nine had once bitten her throbbed as though it were fresh, and despite the Doctor having sealed the wound with a dermal regenerator. In her mind, she could feel it, along with the kiss she'd just received.

Lanna changed her direction, and went straight home. Miral would not be there, as she had not yet retrieved her daughter from Neelix. Normally that was one of her favorite tasks at the finish of the day. For now it was a relief. Passion burned in her. She carried the flame of it with her to her quarters. She half expected her bed to be ablaze, but it wasn't.

She stripped out of her clothes, practically ripping them off. Lanna pressed her hands to her breasts, kneaded them harshly, felt their strong points rough against her palm. All she had to do was think of the statuesque Borg and she throbbed.

Her mind tried to be rational, only for a second. Was it love or was it desire?

Then her mind cast it off like an unnecessary burden. It didn't matter. Right that moment, all she could think of was the sensuous press of Seven of Nine's body against her own and that kiss...

Oh, that kiss.

Seven of Nine said she wanted Lanna. Friend or lover. It was something that until that moment in the turbo-lift she'd never seriously considered or dared to hope for. After all, there was so much history between them, so much pain.

How could Seven of Nine set it aside?

Lanna remembered her counterpart's actions, the way B'Elanna Troi fought for Seven of Nine any time that Lanna let the past get in the way. And the Klingon suddenly understood then. Seven of Nine saw the same potential in herself as was in the other B'Elanna. And abruptly Lanna wanted to be that person for Seven of Nine.

Because she too had seen what could be possible. And she wanted it so much.

Lanna put one foot up on the coffee table and let her hand drift down, until she was pressing her fingertips against her own dark curls. She skimmed the crease of her sex and felt the wetness there. One kiss was all it had taken. Oh, Kahless. Was it possible. That only happened in novels, right?

One kiss and she burned.

Lanna pressed, pushing her fingers a little deeper. She touched herself, circled the dual points of pleasure that were uniquely hers, seeking release. Her other hand she used to continue to stimulate her sensitive breasts and nipples. She arched, aching at the thought of Seven of Nine, what she must look like, whether she would light up, what she must feel like and taste like. She could hear the echo of what she sounded like. The mere thought of it made her shiver.

She increased the speed of her touch, summoning what she knew would be a spectacular burst of pleasure. Lanna dug her fingernails into her own skin, pushed against her own hand. All she saw was Seven of Nine. She heard her whispered offer over and over and she suddenly knew it was true. Klingons didn't choose their love. Their love chose them.

And there it was, the supreme rush. It flowed over her like a temporary balm. She surrendered to her truth with a howl.





Chapter 39 | Universe Beta, Border of Alpha and Beta Quadrants | Bookmarks




Just on the cusp edge of the Alpha and the Beta quadrants of Universe Beta, a score of ships slowed to a stop. More than a hundred of those same types of ships, in varying sizes and able to accommodate crews numbering in the thousands, waited for their arrival. It had been a long journey; a year plus of travel, with few stops.

Many of those who arrived in these ships were young. Though there were more mature clansmen who were there to guide, counsel, and watch their charges as they strove to accomplish their rite. The purpose of this mission was not to conquer the worlds that were before them, at least not in the traditional sense, it was to hunt. It was to pass from childhood to adulthood. It was to further enhance the glory of their families and tribes. It was to scream to the quadrants the might of the Hirogen.

The quadrants were divided into sectors and portions, by the elders, over the course of a meeting that lasted several hours. Then, these portions were assigned to each tribe, to be distributed evenly among the clans in each.

No thought or consideration was given with respect to who might be civilized and who was not. Histories were not explored. Backgrounds were not distributed. Information was not shared about the people. It didn't matter. The more intelligent the prey, the better the hunt.

All they needed to know was whether there was a population, and whether the people was worthy of the chase. And the hunters would have to find out that information for themselves. After that, all points of civility and commonality were moot. Those who would be captured were either trophies, food, or slaves. In all cases, all beings were subservient to the Hirogen. As it should be. As it was.

After the great meeting, after the speeches of the elders, after the blessings of the shamans, after the boasts and after the final preparations, the numerous ships of the Hirogen set on their way. They scattered like sand tossed to the wind, heading in every possible direction within those two other quadrants, to face their destinies.

==^==

It was a dusty, hot planet. The heat from the double suns scorched the sand and sucked the windy air dry. There were living things on the planet, flora and fauna had adapted as they always do, to the extremes of their world. Thus, there was an atmosphere and there was life. But there were no people.

Once there had been.

Commander Vah and his officers were stationed on a hill, watching as marines slowly canvassed the devastated city. All participants wore camouflage uniforms, though they were adapted for personal preference and species necessity. Most wore masks. The air was dry enough to suck the moisture from one's mouth, making it hard to communicate. Commander Vah was of a tribe of the desert, so the heat didn't bother him, but he liked wearing the goggles, which gave him a fully adaptable panoramic view of what his troops were doing, without letting the sand scratch his eyes.

He listened to the reports as they came in, and used the information to assess progress, make relevant notations and give orders to his subordinates to pass on.

So far they had found nothing, and no indications of sentient activity. The Hive, though, were notorious for their ability to fool sensors. Thus, they were taking the time to do a slow, thorough, progressive search. If there were any of the Hive left behind on this world, Commander Vah wanted to find it before it found them, and if there wasn't, he wanted to do right by the world's previous inhabitants.

Vah heard a comment; something quietly said and probably not meant to be conveyed to those up on the hill. He tapped his badge. "Bravo-8, say again, please."

He waited, halfway expecting to receive a denial that any resend was necessary. Not all Marines wished to be heard in their conversations. Certainly he had overlooked certain kinds of discussions in the past. But this small observation had his undivided attention, and he wanted to be sure that he understood it correctly.

"This is team bravo-8, Lieutenant Rawk speaking, Commander Vah. Ensign Asil was merely articulating a thought."

"Well, tell it to me. What did she just say?"

A moment of hesitation stretched out to a minute but just as Vah was about to make his request a direct order, the Lieutenant said, "She said we were unlikely to find any more sign of the Hive above ground at this time of day, and that we would be better served if we either waited till nightfall two days hence, or, ah, well, we start digging."

"How far."

"Excuse me?"

"How far down does she think we need to dig?"

Another pause followed his question, but it was much shorter. In the background he could make out a murmur that indicated Rawk was checking with Asil. Finally, the Lieutenant conveyed the requested information, "Ensign Asil says that digging is merely another way of getting underground and it might be useful to try examining a well for off-shoot tunnels. But if we were to start digging, she said 5 meters at least, to start. They're probably even deeper in than that, if they've gone underground."

"Find the nearest well and report back to me."

"Aye, Commander."

==^==

It was one of those decisions that looking back, was either the best one or the worst one he had ever made. The truth was, he hadn't actually expected to find Hive. He had expected, perhaps to find more sign of the Hive, but not a whole nest of them.

Now, as he and his people battled for their lives, Vah had cause to consider that maybe he should have left well enough alone, so to speak. After all, there had been no evidence of people to rescue, no obvious life signs. They could have left the planet no wiser and he would not be far underground in a chamber too small to allow an orderly advance, with his rifles hot in his hands.

On the other hand, this was what he lived and trained for. It was what every Kazon knew in their blood.

With a howl, he ordered his people forward into the depth and the dark and they went, following their Commander into the fray.

==^==

They found carnage, and caused carnage of their own, It was with them in the with fire, blood and mayhem that poured through from tunnels, holes and side pits. The Marines moved forward, powering their way in with machine, muscle and determination. The mechanized troops made the difference in the end. They waded in and matched strength for strength with the biggest of the Hive, while their compatriots fought with what they had.

The Hive, answered the attack with a ferocity that had to be respected, even if it was not wanted. They cried out in a language of chatters, chitters, never howling, yet making a noise in a sonic range that caused the hair of those who had heard it to stand on end. They fought claw to mandible; biting, sheering, and where able, using technology. They too had blasters and marks of rank.

Both groups fought until the ground was running with the sap of life of many species: red, green, violet, black. It all soaked into the ground.

Marines lost lives and lost limbs, their ranks dwindling dangerously. The Hive, though, had not left behind a whole colony. They had not meant to stay. So their numbers had a limit. It meant, that this once, they could be beaten.

The Marines pressed forward, despite their losses. They continued the advance, moving the front inexorably forward, focused on the surviving and the fighting, not interested in the why. They had been asked to fight and so they did.

Yet, there in belly of the enemy's den, the reason for the necessity of the battle became clear. As they cleared out the last of the Hive, the Truth Seekers found their Truth. They found survivors.

==^==

Commander Vah hobbled through the crowded and busy med-bay. Those that could be released to their quarters already had been. Those who were healthy enough and had not yet received quarters, were assigned to the barracks. Everyone else needed to be there. Including himself. Technically, he should not have been out of bed. But, as he still had two legs, he used them.

His second in command acted as navigator, guiding him and naming the people he encountered. Commander Vah had been trained by the best. He knew now why they stopped and honored the wounded, the living dead. He followed their example, greeting those of his people who were conscious and speaking with them for a few short minutes or however long their strength supported the brief contact.

His one regret was that he could not, at the moment, reach out to them. One arm was completely gone. It had been torn off and eaten during the battle. It would be fixed with a vat grown replacement, one enhanced with cybernetics, when they had time. The other arm was in a sling and to be kept immobile for a day or two while the replacement ligaments set and healed. That one arm had been enough to save his life. While the Hive warrior had tried to also wrench it from his body, he'd managed to blast a hole in its head before it could finish its terrible meal.

Vah had one person whom he wanted specifically to meet again. If she was still alive. The lists of casualties were being compiled. Asil's name was still not on that of the dead, so he had hope.

He was walking past body lying supine on a cot, and paused. Vah looked back, and said, "I know that face."

"It's one of the survivors we brought back from Kt'skil."

Commander Vah grunted. The term survivor in this case only meant that the person had lived. That was no guarantee of anything else. "Lift the sheet. Let me see the damage."

His assistant paled slightly, but nodded and did as commanded. Commander Vah, who had just seen walls, ceilings and floors splattered with blood and gore, viewed the man's wounds impassively. Like all the others they had rescued, he retained the tubes that had been threaded through him to keep him alive in preparation for being devoured. Unlike many, he actually still had most of himself. Apparently he had been being saved for last. "Lucky bastard," Commander Vah commented. Like himself, the man's pieces and bits would be replaced, better than ever.

"I doubt he thinks so."

"No. But there are the others that prove it, so…"

His assistant gulped, forcing bile down. The Commander did not need to say anything else.

Vah said, "Let me know when this one is out of med-bay. I know his counterpart. Harry Kim is officer material."

"Aye, Commander."

==^==

They found her and she was alive.

Commander Vah looked down at the face of the woman who had saved him. When he had fallen, she had been there. Asil had caught him, lowered him to the ground, and then like a hero from the myths of his boyhood, had stood over his half conscious body, fighting with all that she was.

She too had, in the end, been torn, cut and bled.

But she lived.

The side he could see looked perfectly peaceful in sleep. He gave an order to his assistant. With two fingers, the Human turned the woman's face.

It was not as bad as he had feared. They had used regenerators. He wondered if they had saved the eye, or if it had been replaced. But her face was beautiful again. The scar that ran its length added to her fierceness but did nothing to take away from the balanced planes.

Vah shivered then, feeling as if the hand of the Gods had just stroked down his back.

"When she is well enough, have the Lieutenant sent to me."

"But, the records say she is only an ensign."

Commander Vah's expression was fierce and he said nothing at all. The glare, however, showed all that was needed.

"Right. Lieutenant Asil to be sent to Commander Vah." The assistant cleared his throat and the Kazon nodded. He looked down again at the Vulcan and then turned around, exhaustion suddenly slamming into him.

==^==

General Torres was furious. She was outraged that the Hive had managed to infiltrate so far past their borders, and madder than tap dancing targs in Gre'thor that her people had taken such huge losses. A fourth of them gone. Just like that. Seasoned and unseasoned warriors dashed against the walls.

How was she going to explain that to the Epatai? To Janeway? To the families of those who were not Klingon?

She knew Kathryn and B'Elanna would understand. They were Warlords. But Kahless' and his swinging Bat'leth, why hadn't Vah called for back up?

Belle knew the answer without having to really ask the question. She knew Vah and his Marines. These were the same people who surrounded her and her guard like trained, vicious targ on chains when she went someplace where she might remotely skin her knuckles. What was amusing was that her guard let them do this, welcoming the added protection. Not because they shunned the fight, but because it was her. The same iron shield extended itself around Annika.

She also knew that there was a second reason. One that meant greatness in his future, if he lived long enough. The one thing Commander Vah had was an intuitive understanding of what to do and when to do it.

Viewed in that light, Vah had assessed his situation and decided that they hadn't needed back up. And if he didn't feel they needed back up, they didn't. Even if they lost men like water, if the outcome was that they won, then it had been the right choice. The victory would be sung throughout the fleet, and would add a layer of might by virtue of its impossibility. They had beat the Hive once, and so would believe they could do it again.

Belle realized why she was really angry. They had nearly lost Vah, that young, but blooded officer. He had become invaluable over time and it would have been too soon to lose him.

Yet, she couldn't hold him back. It would be like trying to hold back a river once it flooded. He was a warrior born. His people were her warriors. They were her Marines and she howled those that died to the gates. Celebrated and honored their valiant deaths while at the same time cussing their losses.

They had won. She had to give them that. They had won, with probably fewer losses than would have been incurred by a traditional Klingon military force. That mechanized armor was good for something, even if it all was banged up and crushed at the moment.

They had won, which meant medals and honor and people rising in the ranks. She ordered a celebration, swearing during the whole command. The poor officer who received it, had laid his ears back, her words had been so virulent.

But they had won and her Marines had proved themselves and Vah was alive. It was a good day.

"Who was it again?"

"Asil. She's a Lieutenant now. He made it so." Sela tapped the tablet in front of her.

"Good. Make sure she gets the best medical attention we can give. And Vah too, that fortunate son of a targ. Tell him not to scare me like that again." The name twigged at her memory, but she decided it was because she knew so few free Vulcans, that it had stuck in her mind when she'd reviewed the troops at their commissioning.

"Aye, General. Anything else."

"Tell him no more running into Hive nests without direct permission from one of us."

"That ought to slow him for about thirty seconds." Sela gave her a rueful grin. She knew how well she would have obeyed such an order. Death before the dishonour of cowardice. She also knew what order she would have given if Vah had sought permission.

Belle looked sharply at Sela. Then she laughed. It was true. She would have told him to go. It was the right thing to do.





Chapter 40 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




They met just outside of the adult entry of the family quarters. "Ezri," B'Elanna greeted her mate. There was a slight unstoppable purr to her voice.

"B'Elanna," husked the Trill. "Seven."

An infinity of emotion was held in the pauses, where so much was unsaid, yet conveyed.

The door opened automatically. Laren stood in the doorway, and without preamble, she reached and pulled Ezri close. "Neelix is here." Then she kissed her mate, meaning every precious second of it.

"Oh, thank Kahless," B'Elanna said.

==^==

Hours later, when they were able to be coherent and the burn had settled back to something that wasn't scorching, they talked.

"We can't go on like this. We must do something." Kathryn said, firmly, a lifetime of sensibilities reasserting themselves, though not as strongly as they once would have. In the time before, she would have walked away, now she only wanted to find a better way to handle the fire.

Kate laughed, "We are doing something." She ignored the arch look, and continued. "More, it is consistent with what is established about our particular biology. You realize, the more we ignore it, the longer it is going to take. Whereas, if we simply acknowledged that it might take us a week to get back on our feet, we'd be done and ready to function."

"Yet, we have obligations," said Kathryn.

"I am aware. I'm just saying, this is normal for us. Perhaps we ought to take that into consideration."

"What do you suggest?" inquired Tuvok.

"Schedule it in. Recognize that it's going to be more debilitating if we don't, and plan for it."

"We can't schedule in multi-hour breaks."

"Why not? Just because it doesn't quite match with ship's standard three-shift schedule it doesn't mean it wouldn't be effective, and it might actually make this more doable. We would only maintain the schedule until the drive naturally worked itself out of our systems or until we finished what we need to do. Then we could accommodate it. Either that, or one of us is going to have to get pregnant."

Everyone but Seven stared at her with varying degrees of surprise, and Kate just shook her head. "What do you think these mating fires have been about? Though, I think, technically we still have several points of completion that need meeting."

"We're waiting for…"

"I know what we're waiting for. I'm explaining the facts of Presban life to you, my beloveds. There are only a few ways to deal with the drive at this time, accommodate it by whatever means necessary, or allow it to do what it is designed to do: bond or breed. Bonding means time, which we do have, and which we should have allowed for, given that our mating is still, technically only a few weeks old and we've recently gone through separation and pon farr in rapid succession. But at the moment the bonding mode is inconvenient to other practical necessities. Breeding would be instant, I can almost guarantee it. It would also probably quell the fire for the time being, which would be convenient right now, but have consequences later."

"Your logic is flawed. Annika and Belle, and Gretchen and Miral, all report increased libidos."

"But we are talking about how to solve our problem now. Their libidos increased over time, but the blood fire became more manageable almost immediately. Making love became a matter of choice versus absolute necessity."

"No one is getting pregnant this go around." Kathryn said the words with authority. "We would need to deactivate the implants anyway." There was a pause and Kathryn suddenly looked abashed. "On the other hand, that decision is not up to me." She grinned wickedly at her mates. Then turned her attention to Seven and B'Elanna. "The final call belongs to the Epatai and the Lady of the House. What do you say? Is it time?"

B'Elanna looked as if she had been struck by a plank, then waved in the Borg's direction.

Seven merely appeared serene. "I believe, Kathryn, you would be correct. I have considered this matter and have established the protocols necessary to participate in such procedures as both a donating and carrying parent."

B'Elanna's shocked expression suddenly took on another flavor as she turned to look at the Mistress of her House. Seven continued blithely. "I believe, and Kate could possibly confirm, that more of us may also experience an adaptation. Fortunately, I believe our implants are operating effectively, or, as Kate has suggested, we would likely not be having this discussion for another two or three weeks. Or rather, we would be having a different one as we acclimated to the realities."

"Which brings us back to the, what is your will, Lady of the House?"

"We will wait. For the moment. But," now she looked at B'Elanna very closely, "I do not care to wait too long. I believe that we should try to accommodate the Chancellors' wishes in the matter as soon as convenient."

She raised her fingertips and B'Elanna touched them. They looked at their mates together. "Soon. But not yet."

Kathryn said, "Tomorrow morning I will speak with Deanna about rearranging our schedules. Do you think three hours will be enough?"

"Let's try it. If not, we'll bump it up to four."

==^==

Finished with replenishing some much needed resources, and pleased with the end results, even if her ship had to use a more manual means of acquiring the materials, Captain Kathryn Janeway left the bridge in Ensign Culhane's capable hands. "Deck 8," she instructed the turbo-lift. More than just the bridge crew had performed well, the telemetry and data from Astrometrics had allowed for a very, Kathryn smiled, efficient collection.

She hadn't thought through what precisely she would say, but she had prepared before leaving her ready room. In one hand, dangling unobtrusively at her side, she held three long stemmed roses, thorns and all. The doors slid open, and, for a brief moment, she was uncertain if the room was empty, since they were well into beta shift. But off to one side, staring intently at the wall to the left of the entrance, was Seven of Nine.

"Captain Janeway."

Kathryn smiled. Four years and Seven of Nine's ritual no-look greeting still hadn't lost its effect. "Hello, Seven." With her left foot, she leveraged her right boot off, then followed suit with the left one. Her stockings she left on, but she figured it was the gesture that mattered.

The tall blonde turned to face her, and Kathryn nearly laughed at the surprised expression so ably telegraphed by the optical implant and curled lips.

"How may I be of assistance?"

"You can put these in some water." Janeway held out the roses.

"Why have you brought me flowers?"

Kathryn left her arm extended, not sure if she were relieved or dismayed by how quickly Seven of Nine chose to get to the heart of things. "To say I'm sorry. To ask for a chance to get to know you again." She took a deep breath, deciding to go all in. "To ask you if you'd have dinner with me, tonight."

Seven of Nine studied the Captain carefully, trying to judge her sincerity. She was aware that her counterpart and Janeway had shared a physical interaction before the arrival of alpha-Voyager. "That is a lot for three roses to accomplish."

"I suppose it is." Janeway's laugh was low and husky, and she stepped forward holding the blooms at a height where Seven could smell their aroma.

"Do the colours aid in the task?" She didn't tell Janeway that she knew of at least one significance of a yellow rose, Hansen Laren had given her one; rather, she wanted to know if Janeway was acting deliberately or on impulse.

"They do. The white is to signify the purity of my intentions. No matter what else, I am sorry. The yellow is for friendship. One that I have missed sorely, and would very much like to find again." Janeway looked down.

"And the red?"

"Is for love."

Seven considered that. "I am not her."

"I know you are not. I don't want you to be. I'm very fond of the you that is standing in front of me." Janeway had lifted her head, no longer hiding.

Mere months ago, those words and the flowers would have been enough, but much had changed. She had changed. "I do not know what to say."

Kathryn let out her breath, all things considered, it was more than she deserved, even if it was less than she'd hoped for. "Say, thank you for the flowers, Kathryn, and say, yes, I'd like ingest my nutritional supplement with you this evening."

"There is something you must know."

"Then tell me."

"I have indicated to B'Elanna Torres that I wished to alter the nature of our relationship to a romantic one."

"And her response?" It took all of her will power to keep her voice even, and accepting. But no matter what, she was determined to at least salvage their friendship.

"I believe the correct word would be noncommittal."

"So she didn't dismiss you out of hand?"

"No, she did not."

Kathryn gave a small smile. "Thank you for your honesty." She turned, and was about to leave, then straightened her back and once again faced Seven of Nine. "But she didn't say yes either."

Seven of Nine thought that that was exactly what she had indicated, but did not correct the Captain. "She did not."

Kathryn thought about how to respond, aware that this was a delicate moment. It was very likely that she would end up on the losing end if B'Elanna did express interest, but she wasn't willing to give up so easily now that she had finally mustered up the courage to approach Seven of Nine. "Then I would like to inform you that I would like to alter the nature of our relationship, and that in the event that B'Elanna decides to say yes, I will understand. And that no matter what you decide, I want us to be friends. I've missed you."

Seven reached out for the flowers, and gently took them in her right hand. "Thank you for the flowers, Kathryn, and, yes, I would like to ingest my nutritional supplement in your company this evening."

Janeway laughed. "May I pick you up at your quarters at 20:00? We'll eat at the Golden Bough if that's okay with you."

She hid her slight surprise at the public nature of the venue, but decided she wasn't adverse to the development. "That would be acceptable."

Seven watched as the Captain nodded, gave her another of the full genuine smiles she had seen so rarely of late, and walked confidently out of the room. Silently, she counted, reaching seventeen before the doors slid open and a less confident, almost bashful, Janeway re-entered, picked up her boots, and then left again.

==^==

Ezri wasn't sure what exactly woke her, but she blinked and let her eyes adjust to the lowered light level in the Nest. When she sat up, she dislodged the thin blanket that had been resting across her hips. A quick survey of the room revealed the still sleeping bodies of her mates, except for one. Seven.

As though the mere mental whisper of the name was enough to conjure up reality, Ezri felt the sure touch of her lover ghost across her skin, nerve endings suddenly afire, and she understood exactly what had awoken her.

Reaching the doorway to Seven's room, she stopped on the threshold, deliberately making them both wait.

"Ezri Dax."

"Seven of Nine."

"Your presence is required." A small smile crested perfect lips. "Comply."

Ezri laughed. "I will not." For a second, she thought her uncharacteristic reaction had stymied Seven. A second later, she knew better: Seven was advancing slowly and precisely. "Seven..." It came out as a plea, Ezri just wasn't sure what she was begging for, and when Seven lifted her effortlessly, she decided it didn't matter in the least.

She wrapped her legs firmly around Seven's waist and let her mate carry her to the bed, head buried against the pale chest, tears falling freely. Long minutes later, she brought her emotions back under control, and moved so that she could see Seven's face. "Did you have fun?"

Seven expelled a long breath, amused even though she would find it difficult to express why. But then she often felt on the edge of grasping humour when she was with the Trill. "An adequate amount."

"I heard you had way more than an adequate amount."

Seven quirked a grin. "I was inspired."

"Ah. That explains the blue hair."

"Indeed."

"Seven of Nine?"

"Yes, Ezri Dax."

"Grow it out again?"

"I will comply."

Ezri swung her body over Seven's until she was straddling her hips. "Good, because I've missed the way it brushes across my spots when you do this." She leaned forward and captured a pink nipple in her mouth, not stopping suckling until the flesh was taut and Seven began to growl lightly. Lifting her head, Ezri met indigo irises that matched her own, though she was unaware of it. "I missed you."

"And I you."

Tears began to fall again, and Ezri wiped at her eyes in vain, unable to hold them back. Instead, she let them fall, knowing that Seven understood. "Seven of Nine?"

"Yes, Ezri Dax."

The banter was familiar and warm. It was safety and home. It was them. "Make love to me."

==^==

"I have missed this." They were walking aimlessly through the Park, lingering on after finishing their meal, in no hurry to end the evening or return to their ship. Seven of Nine looked at her companion, very much enjoying the company.

"Me too." Janeway admitted, then boldly took the Borg's hand in her own, not drawing them together, but more as a gesture of genuine affection. "I can be unbelievably stubborn."

"Indeed. I had not noticed." Seven was pleased that her tone conveyed the amount of dryness she intended. She decided she liked sarcasm.

"Yes, well, I do believe I'm in good company."

Seven raised her ocular implant, pleased that they had reached the level where the gentle teasing had returned. "I had an able instructor."

At that, Kathryn let out a snort of laughter. "I think you've had a few of them. I don't remember you being quite so caustic."

The Borg considered the statement, and realized that she was not being criticized, but that the opposite was true. "Thank you." They fell silent, still joined by their hands, and continued to walk.

A half an hour later, Kathryn sighed knowing she had to end the evening, but reluctant to do so. She was even more reluctant to say what she knew she had to. "Seven."

"Yes, Kathryn."

At that she smiled, surprised by how much she like hearing her name in those cool, even tones. "You need to be as honest with her as you were with me. Before she hears about tonight in the mess hall."

"You are correct." Seven turned that thought over in her mind, and decided that it had been meant in her best interest, though she understood that it ran contrary to Kathryn's. It was not the first time the Captain had surprised her over the course of the evening, and she also knew that that had always been part of the attraction: Kathryn, in any guise, was never quite as expected.

Kathryn decided that sleeping was less important than rebuilding their relationship. "Have you ever climbed a tree?" She dropped Seven of Nine's hand and put both of her own against the trunk of a large tree, whose species she was unfamiliar with but whose beauty was undeniable. As undeniable as Seven's. "This one is almost as beautiful as you are." She was not going to leave important things unsaid any longer.

Seven started to speak, and then stopped. Finally she settled on advice from the Doctor. "Thank you. And no, I have not."

Kathryn grinned. "Want to?"

Seven met the vivid blue-grey eyes of her date, and smiled. "That would be acceptable."

==^==

She could have, as Captain, used the privileges of rank to have them transported directly from The Park to cargo bay 2 on her own ship, but she had made the effort not to hide behind her rank all evening, and she didn't want the gesture misinterpreted. Kathryn also admitted to herself that she was prolonging the evening.

Their hands were joined again, and they strolled along deck 8, headed for the lower entrance to the cargo bay and Seven of Nine's quarters. The first set of doors slid open, and they entered the interior. Kathryn looked around, impressed with the order and organization of the once chaotic space. At the doors to Seven of Nine's personal quarters, she paused. "I believe this is your stop."

Seven looked down, and then back up. The emotions were easy to identify, she had detailed data on physiological responses. She just hadn't expected to experience the mix of anxiety and anticipation now threatening to make her forget to breathe. "I believe you are correct."

Kathryn stood as tall as she was able, and placed a kiss on Seven's cheek, all too aware of how easy it would be to turn the friendly gesture into one that neither of them was prepared for. "Goodnight, Seven of Nine."

"Goodnight, Kathryn." She turned to the door and triggered it to open. Behind her she could hear the Captain's receding footsteps. "Kathryn."

The footsteps stopped. "Yes, Seven?"

"There is something else that I have missed." She turned around but clasped her hands behind her back.

Kathryn walked closer, but stopped less than an arm's length away.

"I am required to regenerate." Her customary directness eluded her, and she trusted that the Captain would understand what she intended.

It seemed she did, as Kathryn nodded and held her arm out toward the dwelling. "After you."

Seven entered her quarters and walked under the metal gantry of the second-story, heading directly for her alcove. She stepped up onto the dais, coming face to face with Kathryn, who had a small smile on her face. It made her look more real somehow, bathed in the green glow of the only lighting in the space. "You are a remarkable individual, Kathryn."

"Thank you." Kathryn smiled again, more fully, then reached up to the controls. "Initiate regeneration cycle." Then just before the chirp that signified the cycle was about to start, she said the ritual words they had both missed. "Sweet dreams, Seven."

==^==

Ezri had no idea how long she had dozed in the warmth of Seven's bed and arms, and, truth be told, had no interest in finding out, though she knew her lover would be able to tell her down to the nanosecond. They could be bonded a lifetime, and she doubted she'd ever privately think of Seven of Nine as anything but her lover. Lover: a person who loves or is loved. No other word was needed or wanted, it was more than sufficient. The Borg's heartbeat was strong and even, and Ezri counted its pattern, delighting in the steady thrumming. "Par'Mach'kai," she breathed the syllables across Seven's chest, softening the almost guttural sounds until they were a caress, and almost as elegant as the woman to whom she spoke them.

"Yes." Seven lifted into the sobriquet, the claiming tones pulling a response from her body. "Par'Mach'kai." She repeated the word, made it promise and oath both.

For the second time in the space of a few hours, Ezri straddled Seven's hips, and placed her hands on the flats of the elegant, pale shoulders. She let her need and want show on her face, giving the incipient passion free rein as Seven's eyes darkened and her expression became almost feral. "I love you, now fuck me."

The casual wantonness of the electric demand cut through Seven and she flipped them over, pinning Ezri's hands above the Trill's head with her left hand, immediately moving her right to cover the tiny stripe of electric blue curls that barely concealed Ezri's mons and labia. Without waiting for any further urging she pushed one, and then another finger inside. Her calves, she hooked around Ezri's ankles, holding her in place, giving her purchase to thrust upwards.

Ezri reared and flexed, catching Seven by surprise, turning them neatly over again, not surrendering the penetration, but deepening it as she rested her weight on a now trapped hand. "Seven..." The sensations were almost overwhelming, but it was not enough. She needed more.

"Tell me." Seven commanded, head lifted, her eyes firmly on Ezri's. With a thread of their bond, she teased Ezri's flesh, hitting all the spots at once in an onslaught designed to arouse, not to release or soothe. "All you need to do is ask." She knew what was wanted, but just as Ezri needed to be taken, Seven needed to hear the demand.

When it came, it was almost incoherent; a mix of Trill, Presban and Klingon. It took more concentration than she thought to focus her mental caresses and bring them into tandem with her physical ministrations as Ezri sank onto her, as deeply as possible. The nerve sheaths that lined the insides of her lover fluttered against her, forcing her to inhale deeply to maintain control.

Then, with a sudden spasm, Ezri pressed them fully together and Seven lost any desire to hold back, meeting her lover thrust for thrust, each driving the other higher until the end was inevitable. In her thoughts, Ezri's voice sounded as clearly as if they were linked neurally. "Now."

"Yes." Seven answered silently, thought to thought, and let the pounding release guide their mouths, as once again they tasted of each other, sounding together the affirmation along with the passion.

"Par'Mach'kai."

==^==

It was nearly morning watch, and Ezri stretched her arms fully above her head, and pointed her toes as far down as she could force them, attempting to force the last vestiges of lethargy from her body before beginning her day.

"Good morning, Ezri Dax."

Ezri turned her head and smiled. "Good morning to you too, my Valkyrie."

"I thought I was your par'Mach'kai."

"Oh you are. You are my lover, my mate, my friend, my par'Mach'kai, my playmate, and always my Valkyrie." She accompanied each title with a soft kiss. The teasing words reminded her of something more serious and she rolled onto her side. Head propped on one hand, she reached for Seven's mesh covered one with the other. Momentarily distracted, she studied the silver and flesh limb. "One of these days, I want to know what this feels like inside of me."

Seven raised her brow, intrigued and instantly evaluating the possibilities.

Ezri saw the determined and sultry expression garnered in response to her request. "I love that all I need to is ask, and you find a way. But hold that thought, or I'll be late for my first solo-drive staff meeting. Also, I need to ask you something."

Seven shifted so that they were both on their sides facing, but did not let go of Ezri's hand. "I am listening."

"Do you know what the zhian'tara is?"

"Yes. It is the Rite of Closure for joined Trill." Seven accessed more detailed information. "The joined Trill meets with the previous hosts of their symbiont. This ritual is facilitated by another Trill acting as Guardian, and is considered a mandatory ritual performed within the first few years of joining."

Ezri blinked, then smiled. "I'm a little overdue." Of course Seven knew what the ritual was.

Seven almost, but not quite, rolled her eyes. "That does not surprise me."

"Lt. Commander Ranul Keru is aboard Voyager, and it's time."

Seven nodded, this was not entirely new information, but she was content to let Ezri Dax proceed at her own pace.

"There have been eight hosts before me, and there are eight of you. I'd very much like it if you would all participate, but I need you especially."

"I will participate. I could do no less, Síobhean."

Ezri took a deep breath, then kissed Seven lightly before pulling back to speak again. "I need for you to be Host to Jadzia."

Seven nodded, knowing enough about Ezri that this would be the toughest meeting for her to endure. "I will Host Jadzia."

==^==

"How do you know it was our Seven of Nine? It could have been the Commodore and Lady Torres."

If the subject matter hadn't touched on such personal issues, Ro Laren would have been amused at the possessive tone and pronoun the Operations Officer, Culhane, had taken over the Borg. Aware of the maxim that one never heard anything good eavesdropping, she nevertheless continued to listen to the morning gossip. It wasn't eavesdropping if the conversation was occurring in plain sight and on the bridge.

"I wonder if Paris still has a pool on who does the--"

Ro literally barked her words. "Ensign, that's enough." She moved around from her chair and climbed the steps to loom over the young man. "The personal life of your fellow crew members is not to be discussed on the bridge, and, in particular, I had better not find out that there is any sort of betting pool with respect to any aspect of Seven of Nine's humanity. Am I understood?"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Good." Over the Ensign's shoulder, she was surprised to see Tuvok watching calmly, but when he dipped his head, she knew if she hadn't interceded, he would have. At least some things never changed.

Ro went back to her seat, and wondered what other chaos the day would throw her way. If nothing else, dinner tonight would most likely be interesting. If she had been a betting woman, given the way things had been developing she would have bet on Lanna Torres. If she had been a betting woman.

==^==

Arrive first or last? Ezri was trying to decide what would be the best approach to her first official staff meeting as Voyager's Officer Commanding without the Commodore there to direct things. It should have happened sooner, but between mating fires and the debilitating effects of the separation from Seven, Laren and B'Elanna, she'd been in no fit state to be more than an observer.

In that awful time of separation, it had finally made sense to her why Janeway had appointed her to the First Officer's post originally, and why it had been necessary to replace her with Deanna. Her own tenure as Janeway's exec had been uneventful by comparison to Deanna's trial by fire, and she was very glad that Kathryn had had the foresight to make the necessary change. Ezri knew very well that Kathryn hadn't wanted to.

Introspection and fence sitting not being two of her strengths, or flaws, depending on who you talked to, Ezri guessed, she gave up and simply headed for the conference room to the left of the bridge.

The first thing she realized on entering the room was that they would need more chairs. At least the room had gotten proportionately bigger when Voyager had morphed during the Anomaly. She walked the length of the room and stood behind the chair that had been Kathryn's and it dawned on her that, except for Laren, who wasn't present, and Seven, who was already seated, no one else knew that she was officially assuming the full range of her duties as of today.

It amused her that Tom Paris, and, by some kind of osmotic extension, Harry Kim shot questioning, expectant glances at the doorway.

B'Elanna, running late, as usual, paused briefly when she saw where Ezri was standing, and waggled her fingers. "Having fun, oh fearless leader?"

"All in good time." She signaled back, keeping her amusement off her face.

Deanna was more direct in her encouragement; Ezri felt the light brush across her mind and gave permission for further contact.

〈〈You'll do fine. Or better than you do at poker, at least.〉〉

Ezri took her seat, and leaned back, waiting patiently for the room to quiet down, pleased when one by one, led by Seven, Deanna, Kate, Tuvok and B'Elanna, the senior staff fell silent.

"Shall we begin?" She didn't wait for an answer. "Everyone gets five minutes to detail anything urgent we need to know about their departments or any outstanding tasks, then we'll round robin again on any needs or wants. Then I'll detail anything that hasn't been covered or that is new. Any questions?" Ezri expected a couple, since this was a fairly radical departure from the way these meetings normally ran.

Tom Paris looked at the door again. "Aren't we going to wait for the Commodore?"

"No." Ezri grinned. "At least that's not in the plan, but you never know. Lt. Commander Troi, let's start with you."

Asil Troi and B'Elanna Troi looked at each other, and then back at her. "Oh this is going well," Ezri muttered to herself. "Engineering, then Supply, Dr. Pulaski, Operations, Astrometrics, Commander Tuvok, the Marines, Commander Veckma, Commander Sofuru, Mr. Paris, Mr. Neelix, Dr. Brahms, Commander Deanna Troi, and then myself."

Nothing unexpected came from Engineering, the TUE was almost finished, and with the increased labour force, repairs to gamma-Voyager were nearly complete. Departure to the beta-Universe was forecast to be a maximum of two weeks away. Supply had dispatched the Delta Flyer to locate a few items that were want-to-haves instead of must-haves. Pulaski and Orsas were concerned about the mental health of both crews, but were optimistic that having concrete goals, and a solid counseling plan in place would be enough to get them through the worst.

Things were winding down, with only her final instructions to be given, when Harry asked the question she had expected much earlier. "I'm still confused."

"What about, Mr. Kim?"

"How is being the Officer Commanding different from being the Captain?"

Ezri leaned back in her chair, and gave him a sardonic grin. "I get to do the paperwork, the planning, and sit in the big chair most of the time. I don't get to make things go boom." She smiled again. "You didn't think the Commodore was going to give up the best parts, did you?" Becoming serious, she stood up and placed her hands on the table, bracing herself. "When things get hot, Janeway will be right there to haul our asses out of the fire, same as always, only now she's got even more of us to worry about. The station we're building on Presba, Voyager's Rest, and our own growing complement, for example, plus the whole Warlord bit. So for the foreseeable future, it's my privilege to shoulder the more routine elements of being a Starship Captain, while she bears the larger burden of trying to keep the Federation and Empire safe."

She looked around the room, meeting everyone's eyes but those of her mates, afraid if she looked at them, she'd end up laughing, and that would totally spoil the effect. For good measure, she also avoided looking at Deanna. "Remember, the party is for both crews, make sure your departments are able to rotate through, and make sure they know participation is strongly encouraged for the whole crew, they're long overdue for it. Dismissed."

Everyone stood, and she spoke again, this time in Presban and sat back down. "Could the Commanders Troi remain behind please."

Ezri waited for everyone else to leave, and for the doors to slide shut. Choosing her words very carefully, she addressed the three women, but really was speaking to B'Elanna in an oblique fashion as suddenly, she was unsure if she were about to intrude on House matters, or if she were within her rights as Voyager's OC. "I understand how this happened, but I can't have all three of you as Commander Troi, suggestions?"

"Logically, it would seem efficient if I returned to the Vulcan naming convention." Asil offered.

"No, Asil. I'll change back to Torres."

Deanna sighed. "That might help in the long term, but it's not going to make things easier short-term, which is why you changed it in the first place. Asil's solution, at least on duty, is a good one."

Ezri watched and listened, letting them work it out.

"But you don't like it." B'Elanna said to Deanna, and then looked over at Ezri and smiled. "You know, Laren and Seven both voted that I take Dax as my surname."

Ezri lifted her brow.

"Don't look so shocked. I would have, except all of my tools have BT on them."

Asil looked between them, but kept Deanna in her peripheral view. "On marriage, a spouse of a joined Trill does not take the symbiont's name, but rather that of the Host, as do any of the children born to the union."

It was Deanna's turn to laugh. "And Tigan starts with a T."

Dax leaned back in her chair. "Of course, you could simply drop the Torres altogether. Except for you, Miral, Belle and occasionally Worf, I don't know of any other Klingons with a patronymic. Lt. Commander B'Elanna, Epatai and Warlord has a nice ring to it."

B'Elanna grinned again, showing her teeth in a genuine, and very Klingon, smile. "True, but my tools would still be mislabeled. Lt. Commander Tigan it is. Or at least until we get out of this universe." She turned thoughtful, and then because they were all family, voiced her thoughts aloud. "But I think maybe it is time to talk about surnames, especially if we plan to add more children to the family."

Ezri realized she was grinning stupidly, and had missed something when she noticed the others staring at her. "Sorry. I was just thinking about how Seven would handle it."

B'Elanna snorted. "Ask Harry about that. He spent some time as Six of Ten until Seven demoted him to Two of Ten, and assigned him to chamber maintenance."

"Lt. Commander Asil seems acceptable now."

"I bet." B'Elanna and Deanna were both laughing.

Ezri shook her head, and rolled her eyes. "Go on, get out, before I demote one of you and solve my problem that way." She wasn't the least surprised that B'Elanna was the last one through the door, and that she stuck her tongue out on the way.

==^==

On an average starship the only thing faster than a warp core breech was the velocity of gossip; on a ship like Voyager, lost seven years in an unforgiving and unfamiliar quadrant the dissemination of rumour had become an art form. The news that Seven of Nine had gone on her first date was only superseded in speed by the information that it had been with the Captain. As a result, a great deal of replicator rations were being reassigned, many hours of holodeck time were rescheduled under new names, and a surprising number of credits and personal items changed hands.

Originally unaware of the tempest, Kathryn settled into the desk in her living room and began to scan the reports for the day. As had become the norm since taking on an assistant, there were fewer of them, however, this morning seemed to bring a barrage of personal memos. Curious, she opened one, then took a gulp of coffee. It was a politely worded dinner invitation from her head of geology. Swiftly, she declined and opened the next one, which, to her dismay, was more of the same, only from a different crew member. Scanning down the list of senders she found one name that made her smile, and opened the note from Seven of Nine. This particular invitation she was pleased to accept.

Shutting down her terminal, Kathryn headed out for her morning walk around the decks. She hadn't made much progress before she became aware of just how quickly news of the change in her social status had traveled. Honestly, she marveled, how in the world had they kept the Dominion's victory secret for so long?

"Captain Janeway."

Kathryn glanced at the dark-skinned man who had fallen into step with her. "I suppose you have some suitably dry comment to make about this?"

To his credit, Tuvok didn't feign ignorance, but merely dipped his head. "It is my understanding that any such exclamatory comment would be premature."

She shook her head, once again amazed at Tuvok's capacity for wit. Now on deck two and in need of more coffee to shore up what was certain to be an eventful day, she motioned for him to accompany her in to the mess hall. Suppressing her sigh, Kathryn supposed she had only herself to blame for the sudden onslaught of silence.

"As you were." She tackled the issue head-on, or relatively head-on.

"A shame. The silence had its merits."

==^==


Seven of Nine tapped the commands to access her morning log, and was surprised to find a number of personal communications awaiting her attention. Generally, there was one every few days; most typically from Naomi Wildman or the Captain, but occasionally one from B'Elanna Torres requesting that she cease doing whatever she was doing in engineering, or, even more rarely, from the Doctor.

Half way through the first message, she realized that her presence was required on deck 9, section 12. Immediately. B'Elanna Torres was exceptionally skilled at ferreting out the latest scandal, and she did not want word of her date with the Captain reaching the Klingon by any means other than personal contact. It would not be honourable, or, considerate in any way. She did not wish for B'Elanna Torres to think she was less than honourable in her intentions.

That would be unacceptable.

==^==

Lanna Torres was a woman torn. One part of her, the very Klingon, very angry part, wanted to swing her bat'leth at the person who was ringing the admittance chime even as the door opened, and thus spare her any need to interact with the object of her ire. The other part, the very Human, very angry part wanted to throw every item within her reach at Seven of Nine.

The door slid open and, still torn, she did neither. "Something you want to tell me?"

The blonde slid her hands behind her back, and raised her ocular implant. "I believe you have already been informed, but yes, I did wish you to hear from me personally that I had dinner with Kathryn last night."

Lanna crossed her arms, letting her anger drive her belligerence. "I heard candlelit dinner and a long stroll in The Park."

"That is correct."

"That's all you have to say?" She took a step forward without realizing it. She couldn't believe the audacity of the Borg to come to her quarters.

"No. But I am uncertain as to how to proceed. You are angry and irrational. I do not believe you wish to listen."

"Ding. Ding. Ding. Score one for Borg intellect. You're god damn right I'm angry. How dare you?"

Seven had no idea of what she was daring, but trusted her instincts and ignored the baiting. B'Elanna Torres was still in what Hansen Laren had termed the blustering phase. She would monitor the Klingon's vital signs for an indication of escalation. "Kathryn indicated a desire to rebuild our damaged friendship, and also presented herself as a potential suitor. I then informed Kathryn that I had indicated to you that I wished to engage you in a romantic relationship. We proceeded to spend an enjoyable evening as friends. You should also be aware that she advised me to tell you of our date as soon as possible. I did not anticipate that information on this ship travels faster than transwarp, but I would not have withheld this information from you regardless."

"Are you done?"

It was Seven of Nine's turn to move forward, and she could feel the heat radiating from the brunette, they were now standing so close. "No. I am not."

Despite herself, Lanna let out an amused snort. "By all means, continue."

"I said nothing to you yesterday that I did not mean, and I said nothing that was not true. You know my intentions, you know Kathryn's intentions. The only one whose intentions are unknown are yours." Seven of Nine stepped back. "I will wait, but I will not wait forever."

As suddenly as she had arrived, Seven of Nine was gone, and along with her, the anger that she'd felt hearing about their date. Kahless in a Gret'hor bound rowboat, how in the nine hells was she going to compete with Kathryn?

Seven of Nine's words replayed over and over in her mind, mixed with the ones from the turbo-lift and the with the memory of that one soul claiming kiss. In the midst of folding one of Miral's blankets, it hit her. One, she was thinking about competing with Kathryn, which meant that she had already made peace with her decision to pursue Seven of Nine. whether she had realized it or not, and two, if she wanted Seven of Nine she needed to state her intentions. Immediately.

Just how did one woo a Borg ex-drone anyway?

==^==

Veckma's fighters spread out like a fan. They had a destination target and the goal was to get there. Sofuru's team had left the docking bay a half an hour previously and had scattered to distances where surprise would be effective. Their job was to tag Veckma's fighters and keep them from arriving at the goal. The security detail of both vessels would act as neutral observers, and keep score.

That small war game was just the beginning, as the instructional and preparatory plans of Asil, Veckma, Sofuru and the two Tuvoks were enacted. Gamma-Voyager's holodecks were suddenly more crowded than was the norm, as any crew who were not busy due to the current state of the ship, were suddenly volunteered or, actually volunteered on their own, for the training. Fortunately for them, Asil's mandate was not to make Marines out of them, merely to train or refresh them with some useful and current skills and protocols. They were, after all, going home to quadrants that were at war. The classes on martial arts were started with a bang, as Commander Xepal took someone taller and from the other ship down to the floor in a matter of less than five seconds.

That was when the crew of gamma-Voyager knew they were going to enjoy themselves.





Chapter 41 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




As a Vulcan, there were certain experiences that the species were simply not afflicted with. For instance, where a human might have felt nervous or an anxious awareness that they were going to meet an alternate self, Tuvok felt only calm. Logic was a choice, and a philosophy, rather than something that was completely innate, but because it was striven for from early age, it became almost second nature. Thus, rationality became the first arm of defense in emotional times.

Tuvok dressed casually for dinner. He understood that this would be a family event, rather than a formal one. Thus he chose an outfit accordingly.

He was not quite sure what to expect upon boarding the other ship, though he had run several scenarios through his mind. However, as he had incomplete information, he could only speculate so far. Still, he felt moderately prepared for the experience. He nodded to the officer at the station and stepped onto the transporter.

Heartbeats later, he materialized into a room the was familiar, but of different proportions. Tuvok began to get a sense of how different this ship was from gamma-Voyager.

Asil, who was also out of uniform, raised her hand in the traditional Vulcan greeting, saying the words that were so familiar. He returned her greeting, glad for the time to gather his thoughts. "Welcome, Uncle."

"Thank you, Asil."

"My Father and Mother thought you would perhaps prefer to meet with them in private first."

"I believe that would be acceptable."

The Vulcan woman who was not his daughter, yet was, nodded her head graciously and indicated the path to take.

Together they exited the transporter room in silence.

==^==

The differences between those of alpha-Universe and of his own family, were more striking in person than over a view-screen. The features of his counterpart had been refined, and T'Pel, who had always been beautiful, was much more so. The lines of their faces were more aesthetically pleasing than his and his T'Pel's, yet they were not radically different either. The same was true of his…niece. But clearly, the essence of who they were, remained.

Asil left him in their company, in a room in that was labeled as part of the Department of Diplomacy. The room, it was explained, was private and would allow them to speak without inhibition.

He found the choice to call him Uncle Tuvok logical and reasonable. It established that they were related, bonded by blood, but not necessarily from the same line. It made what could have been a relatively uncomfortable situation more tolerable.

He had, in an odd way, expected that there would be unnecessary silence. He realized that it had been an inaccurate conclusion. Instead, they spoke with ease, starting with topics that were important, but innocuous, and eventually arriving at their true point.

They knew.

They knew what he had been hiding. Knew that without a return home, he would descend into a mental fog that could not be lifted.

"We offer ourselves to you, as your kin, to aid you in reclaiming that which is yours. Our mate, Dr. Pulaski has been informed of the necessities and would supervise the healing. If you are willing, we may begin tomorrow. Or, if you prefer to wait until we return to our universe, our sons would also be willing."

"You would do this for me."

"Yes," said Tuvok of the House Presba very firmly. "We are your family. To do anything else is not logical, nor does it serve the many. We would be diminished by your loss."

==^==

B'Elanna raced into the transporter room and slid to a halt beside her mate. "You are late," said Seven with just a trace of amusement.

"Would you believe it? The turbo-lift conked out on me."

"I would believe it, but I admit it does surprise me." Seven lifted her brows, Voyager was generally very protective of the Chief Engineer and very little in the way of unwelcome malfunctions occurred to thwart the Klingon.

"We got it worked out." B'Elanna shrugged.

There was a familiar hum, and they both turned to watch as Lanna and Miral arrived.

The Klingon mother looked slightly harried, but pleased to be there. Miral looked as if she was ready for something, but wasn't quite sure what it was. "Well, Tia B'Elanna," said Lanna, prepending the Spanish honorific to her counterpart's name. "We made it."

==^==

Lanna knew she should have realized it. After all, she had heard the story. She thought she knew what to expect, but it was one thing to hear of it. It was another to see and experience.

The children introduced themselves with the ease of having practiced the rite many times. What really astonished her was how Miral, who sometimes reacted to strangers in a Klingon, and thus, less than friendly manner, was suddenly comfortable and toddled to Barin without so much as a look back.

Azan reassured his Aunt. "Me'nal Lanna, she will have a good time. She is very bright and agile for her age. We will accommodate her needs."

It took a second for Lanna to find a suitable reply to having the young Borg refer to her as his aunt. She finally chose, "Thank you." Then she strove for humor. "All I ask is that you don't let her blow up anything."

The children looked at each other, then back at the adults. "That is not currently in our plans. We will inform you if that changes."

"Please do," replied Lady Seven, as if it were the most normal request in the Empire for a mother to make.

Lanna had a momentary heart palpatation. "Should I worry?"

B'Elanna grinned. "No. We set some rather specific rules down before you arrived. They should be okay."

Lanna found she was not particularly reassured by that statement.

==^==

Ro Laren had half expected it to be Ezri waiting for it on the other side of the transport, but it wasn't. Instead, it was someone else she knew. Or rather, the counterpart of someone she once knew. "Deanna," she greeted the other officer pleasantly.

"Ro Laren. It is good to see you. Welcome aboard."

She was as friendly and outgoing as ever, even as a First Officer. Of course, that made the next topic easy to pick. "So. You went into command."

Deanna smiled. "It was the logical choice."

"Tell me about it?" They started walking towards the exit together, their steps harmonized, in a typical, military fashion.

"Well, it started when…"

==^==

Benjamin Sisko liked Voyager's Park. In fact, it could be said, he existed in The Park. When he wasn't existing elsewhere, that is. There was something about it, something more than what was seen by the eyes. Lines of construction, invisible to most, but still very clear to him, surrounded the space. It was as if…well, he hadn't quite identified it yet. But he wanted, when they returned to Universe Beta, to bring the Kai here. She might have the words.

As it was, he simply enjoyed the sunshine, the comfortable breeze and the non-illusion of grass under his feet.

He was looking out at the water when he spotted it. The sprite bobbed on the surface of the lake, moving with the gentle waves.

"Now what," said Ben, "Do we have here?"

He waded into the water fearlessly, not at all worried about effect of the liquid on his clothes. They would dry, if, in fact, they were actually wet.

Ben cupped his hands and scooped them under the water and then up, capturing the little being in his palms. The water spilled out of his hands, drained through the gaps in his fingers, until the sprite rested against his skin.

Ben let himself See.

"Ah." He looked down with amused affection at the sprite. "I think we shall take you to sickbay. They know what to do for tummy aches."

==^==

Dr. Dezhe, who had seen many things in her life, had never seen an ailing light being. Dr. Zimmerman, however, was still on board gamma-Voyager and Dr. Pulaski had family business to attend to. And Dr. Dezhe wasn't someone to just give up because she'd never seen something before.

"Please set the patient on the bio-bed."

Ben Sisko carefully set the creature on the surface of the unit. As with other patients, statistical information began flowing immediately into panels around it. Dr. Dezhe ignored those for the moment, choosing instead to run her tricorder.

There were a series of hmms and one ah. Then she said, "If I am reading this correctly, the sprite is suffering because it consumed something which disagreed with it."

"I believe that would be correct, yes."

"Well," said the Doctor, "I can try to administer a hypo, but I don't know what the effects might be. Or, we can let nature take its course. Despite its discomfort, the creature is, in fact, successfully digesting what it ate."

"Do you know what it was?"

"Not in its current digestive state, no. Right now it is simply registering to the equipment as undigested components, though there seems to be a high protein level."

"Well, is there any way we can help?"

"You say it was floating in water?"

"Yes."

Dr. Dezhe considered and then walked to another part of sick bay. After a several minutes, she returned with a covered bowl. The cover was see through and there was a generous opening at the top.

"What is that?"

"Understand, I am not Icheb. This is as good as I can do, until he arrives."

"But what is it?"

"It is a light pool in a bowl with a zero gravity setting. I thought that, as the entity is a light being, it would prefer to sleep in light, but still float. At least until it felt better."

Ben grinned at the Doctor, unable to help himself. "I knew you could help."

==^==

KJ stepped off the transporter, and was greeted by Ezri. As the Trill was still in uniform, the Captain of gamma-Voyager allowed the habit of protocol to guide her. "Commander Dax. It's a pleasure to see you again."

Ezri smiled warmly. "And you, Captain. Welcome back." The younger woman nodded at the door. "If you'll come with me?"

Their pace was easy, unhurried. "I understand you've invited Tuvok."

"And Lanna, Ro and Seven of Nine."

"It should make for an interesting meal."

"Speaking of interesting meals, what did you think of the Golden Bough?" Ezri looked straight ahead, but there was a twinkle in her eye.

"Charming, amazing place and The Park…"

"I know." Ezri grinned and looked at KJ. "It has real trees."

"Big ones."

"Worth climbing."

"Indeed." KJ realized she had just walked into being teased.

"Did you find my tree house?"

Now KJ paused. "There's a tree house?"

"The kids built me one, sort of a welcome to the family thing. They built Kate's shuttle for the same reason. Remind me to take you and Seven of Nine there. You'll like it."

"And Ro Laren."

"Really?"

"Yes. Maybe not all at the same time. But…" Kathryn nodded firmly. "Yes. Definitely. She would appreciate it."

Ezri grinned. "I'll keep that in mind." The she decided to see if she could crack KJ's command mask as easily as she could Kathryn's when she was trying. "Seven never mentioned it?"

The look KJ shot her would have made Kathryn proud, Ezri thought, then laughed.

==^==

The Prime's quarters appeared roomier than they had on her last visit. The furniture had been rearranged to accommodate their guests in comfort and to provide conversational pools. As soon as she had walked in, someone had placed a drink in her hand. KJ caught a flash of blonde, and then the person was gone, but she suspected the culprit was Kate.

She sipped lightly. This time it wasn't whiskey, but some other, softer liquid fire. It was an unexpected flavor, but she liked it.

A definite sense of relaxation and comfortable conversation ruled the atmosphere. She spotted her Seven of Nine, who was moving in her direction. The blonde's expression was friendly, welcoming, and there was an assertiveness to her walk that gave her grace, without making her seem haughty.

Without thinking about it, KJ accepted the extended hand and the kiss on the cheek, and was led to a seat. Ignoring the surprised glance of Lanna, and the speculative one of Ro Laren, she sat down and took another sip.

Seven of Nine said, as she retook the seat she had vacated, "B'Elanna Tigan was just telling us about the time she was split into two beings."

"Wait, Tigan?" Whose last name was that? KJ mentally listed off the ones she thought she remembered in her head, but drew a blank.

B'Elanna grinned. "There were three Trois in the staff meeting this morning, two of us with the same rank. And I'm not prepared to change my initials just yet. Though B'Elanna Janeway has a nice ring to it."

KJ grinned. "I see. Well, please do continue."

"So he strapped me to a table…"

==^==

Kathryn freshened her drink, and with the one she'd poured for her counterpart in hand, she sidled up to where the Captain was observing the people around her.

She held the drink out, nodding and holding up her glass in a silent toast.

It was accepted with a simple, "Thanks."

"Well, consummate hostess that she is, my Lady Seven would be displeased if I let her favourite starship Captain go thirsty." Kathryn held in her wicked chuckle as her companion's eyes boggled slightly before returning to their infamous neutrality.

"I'm pretty sure I'm not her favourite starship Captain."

Kathryn grinned. "Sure you are. Ezri's not technically a Captain, I'm a Commodore. Who else would it be?"

"Who else, indeed." KJ tilted her chin in the direction of the large sitting room. "Voyager's OC certainly seems to get along with her First Officer."

Ah. So that's what her counterpart had been watching. Ezri and Deanna were sitting together, talking intently and animatedly about something. The realization that there was someone smaller than Ezri made Kathryn's smile deepen. The Betazoid was straddling the Trill, facing Ezri, whose hands rested lightly on Deanna's waist. Kathryn leaned in, conspiratorially. "Lwaxana thought we'd finish the Kal'Hyah only to find Ezri had left us for Deanna."

"And that doesn't bother you?"

Kathryn had thought they were alluding in their own circuitous way to Ro Laren and KJ, but now she wondered if there was more going on. Perhaps they were referencing Seven and KJ after all. Stifling her need to know, she put her curiosity aside, and decided to answer as honestly as possible. No one else deserved the truth from her more.

"No. I mean look at them. They're very close and they are a lot of fun to watch. They have an amazing chemistry personally and professionally. They happen to have a very physical dimension to their friendship. I'm not concerned about it, however, because while it has sensual, and physical elements, it's not a sexual or romantic relationship. Ezri is just one of those affectionate, flirtatious people; Deanna too. It's to be envied really. You can only be that way when you are secure in who you love and who loves you." She paused to consider. "Though I have learned that a good relationship doesn't need to be a sexual one, and I've learned that an outside sexual relationship doesn't necessarily harm a good relationship."

"That must have been some thirty years."

Kathryn looked over into the other room, unconsciously finding her Seven's eyes and holding them for an instant. "It was."

==^==

Lanna wasn't sure why she growled. She was only aware that it had happened and now people were staring at her. And she couldn't very well give as the reason the fact that Hansen Laren had touched Seven of Nine in a very intimate way.

KJ was someone Lanna was prepared to accept, even deal with. It was a field of battle she could understand. But she was not prepared to deal with random people touching her Borg that way. At least not yet. Not until things were settled between them.

Hansen, apparently oblivious to the Klingon's seething regard, gazed affectionately, and all too personally into Seven of Nine's eyes before moving on.

Lanna grimaced, not sure how to address the issue, since she had yet to formally tell Seven of Nine about her decision, and it seemed that everyone, save for the Vulcans, were determined to push her buttons.

Damn it, they treated Seven of Nine like they….

Loved her.

Lanna experienced a mental pause, and then felt a hand gently come to rest on her shoulder. She looked up to see the amused and understanding gaze of Lwaxana Troi. The Betazoid stroked her fingers down the Klingon's face gently. Then she turned and spoke to Kate briefly in that mysterious language of theirs, before kissing the Human warmly and moving away.

The Klingon looked around and spotted KJ, who may not have been a mind reader, but knew her people. The Captain raised her cup at Lanna, winked and took a lazy sip.

Lanna felt her shoulders settle a little and realized no one was playing for any stakes tonight. It was a family dinner, meant to bond, not to challenge.

That was when it hit. She, KJ, Seven of Nine and Ro Laren and their Tuvok…

In her hind brain, there had been a niggling worry about the future, about the relationships that were in front of herself and her daughter. She actually tried not to think about going to the Alpha quadrant in the alpha-Universe. She had no one there that she had wanted to know, or contact, or to be connected with. All her people…all her relatives…they were on her Voyager.

She was with her family, and it had just gotten bigger.

Lanna looked again at KJ, who looked completely different out of uniform - personable, relaxed, and unconsciously powerful - and realized that Seven of Nine had meant what she said. KJ wanted, needed her friend. And she wanted, needed family. As did Seven of Nine.

And Ro Laren. All of them.

Her mind tripped over the thought, then embraced it: Uncle Tuvok.

Lanna wasn't sure where her thoughts were going, and certainly it wasn't going to stop her from announcing her intentions to Seven of Nine. But it could wait until tomorrow. And the lovely Borg could be with whomever she needed tonight.

Even if it did mean she'd have to tear down a turbo-lift and rebuild it. Several times.

Lanna lifted her cup in return to KJ and took a drink of her own.

==^==

It was an unexpected calm in what had been a sea of connections and jovial chaos, and B'Elanna took an instant to observe her family. And they were hers, all of them, in one way or another. She hugged the warm glow that formed with the thought and tucked it away to share with her mates later.

Her keen intuition had picked up on varying layers of tension earlier, but those had smoothed away before she'd had time to figure out any of the sure-to-be-interesting developments. She had figured out that Lanna still hadn't summoned the courage to approach Seven of Nine, but that hadn't taken any great efforts at sleuthing, her eyes had been enough to see the faintly bewildered and yearning looks being cast at the Borg. Of course, hearing Lanna growl at Laren had been hilarious in a, cute, please don't start an argument here, kind of way, and had been revealing in and of itself. To Lanna as much as anyone, she guessed.

Looking around the room, her glance was drawn to where her Seven stood, and she took an involuntary breath in reaction. Blonde hair, thanks to Kate's medical intervention, once more cascaded over her shoulders, though it was still tipped with a few centimeters of blue at the ends; soft folds of deep green fabric draped her lithe form; Seven was stunning. Breathtaking. Then B'Elanna followed her Be'nal's line of sight and saw what was holding Seven entranced. Across the room, Seven of Nine had Miral lying face-down along one arm, cradled into her chest, and was talking quietly with T'Pel.

Silently, B'Elanna came up behind Seven, and placed a kiss on her shoulder before whispering. "You don't want to wait, do you?"

"No. I do not." The words were even, but B'Elanna had long since learned to read more than the Borg's voice.

"Then we won't."

Seven leaned back into her. B'Elanna encircled the blonde's waist, and waited for the rational reasons that Seven would use to thwart her own desires, sublimating her needs and wants. "We cannot."

B'Elanna used one hand to redirect Seven's focus to T'Pel, who had been joined in her conversation by Lwaxana. The Betazoid had her fingers pressed against T'Pel's and with the other hand was drawing small circles on the small of Miral's back. To anyone outside of her children or the Prime, the Vulcan would have looked inscrutable, but B'Elanna could see the longing in T'Pel's expression. Longing she saw mirrored by Lwaxana. "It need not be us yet. Ask them, Seven, if they want it."

"And if they do not?"

B'Elanna turned her mate to face her, kissing Seven deeply before resting her forehead on Seven's chin. "Then it will be us."

==^==

The event had taken a bit of getting used to. Ro Laren originally planned on merely suffering through the dinner, out of politeness, and then finding a corner to sit in until she could leave at a decent time. She had not been prepared to be joined in that corner by two Vulcans, one surprisingly, saucily, opinionated Human, or her own counterpart. Nor had she planned on being so thoroughly and subtly drawn into the conversation.

The puppy might have helped. Hansen, without so much as a here-hold-this had placed the creature in her lap. At that point, Ro figured she had only four things she could have done. Two of them would have resulted in her being summarily ejected from the family event, and have unwanted repercussions. The third was to ignore it, which was practically impossible given the obvious age of the creature. The fourth, which is what she ended up doing, at least for a while, was to pet the thing until it had had enough, and by that time, she was too involved in the conversation to really notice when it left.

Later, she wondered if Ezri had put the other Bajoran up to it, or if it was something Laren had thought of herself. Certainly it had garnered results, which, no doubt was the intention.

It was sneaky enough to have been the Trill. But worthy, all the same. She even decided she rather liked being called Ro, instead of Laren or Ro Laren. And though she wouldn't have said it out loud, she really didn't think Hansen Laren had a particularly nice ring to it, so she didn't begrudge her counterpart the use of their first name.

==^==

The dinner wound down, as such things do. The two groups amicably parted ways in bits and pieces, as the conversation spilled out into the corridor, into the turbo-lift and they all drifted in different directions. Not everyone headed immediately home, but the Prime were still under the aegis of their fire, and it had been gradually warming under their emotional feet through the night.

But they were loath to hurry things unnecessarily, and they knew they would have their time, so they lingered in the farewells, letting things end naturally. It was time well spent. By the time the others left, the beginnings of a genuine bond were well sown.

==^==

Kate waggled the hypospray. "There's no going back. Well, at least not after twenty minutes." She put on her best professional expression and looked firmly at the two women. "Are you sure?"

They didn't even have to consult each other. Lwaxana was too emotional to speak verbally, but her thoughts carried. 〈〈We are.〉〉

Kate now looked at the Epatai and the Lady of the House. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Seven confirmed. Absolute serenity ruled her expression.

The blonde physician smiled, feeling the sense of rightness that was emanating from her mates and she felt great reassurance about it. They were doing it for the right reasons.

That was enough for her.

"Well, then, here's to the future." With that, she stepped forward and pressed the hypospray first to Lwaxana's neck. Then, after reloading it, she pressed it onto T'Pel's. "In twenty minutes the residual chemicals of the implant will be rendered completely inert. Your ability to conceive should be almost immediately active thereafter."

"Thank you, Kate," said T'Pel.

Then Kate grinned and kissed her mate.

==^==

Before the stipulated period of time was up, the bond of the Prime was complete. Their original intent had been to wait until Ezri's ritual, but that changed in favour of something equally important. It was, perhaps an unintentional result of the choice to have a child. But the theory was that it was needed to ensure viability and conception. They did not wish to risk anything that might cause them to fail in this endeavor.

In a way, though, the experience intimated a ritualistic one. There was the kiss and then the bite and then the incredible flood of awareness. The lovemaking, they knew, would happen afterward, so they bore with the pain, because in the scheme of things it was a tiny moment, soon to be soothed.

If there had been any doubt at all, it was completely wiped away in one breathless moment. There was a sense of destiny, of compelling match and something deeper, which they could not yet comprehend.

When it was done, there was a moment of awed silence between them, because there had been a sensation that had run so deep, so powerfully through, that it had been a cause for pause.

The quiet did not last long.

They flowed into each others arms, embracing and kissing in holy connection. They were, for the first-time, complete, and they knew they were, at last, truly One.

Prime.

==^==

Like a conductor at an orchestra, Kate, who would have been otherwise occupied except that she was intensely interested in the process, began early in the attempt to make suggestions about positions to try. Lwaxana and T'Pel, with great amusement on the part of the Betazoid, began by trying the suggested connections, since, of course, there wasn't a single one that was not enjoyable.

Certainly the remainder of the mates found pleasure in the exercise, and in watching, but at, Kate's fifth suggested position, the two women separated long enough to pull the blonde into their arms and settle her firmly in between them.

Then, with loving kisses, and deliberate intent, they began the not at all displeasing task of distracting their Dr. Kate and bringing her more fully into their joy.

After all, there were other, simpler ways of accomplishing their desire for a child. And some things should be done just for fun.

==^==

"Hey." Ezri stayed at the entrance to the bedroom.

"Hey, yourself." B'Elanna looked up from the bat'leth she was honing the edge on.

"Couldn't sleep?"

"Something like that." The Klingon's attention went back to the metal blade.

Stymied for a moment on how to proceed, Ezri decided to move into the room. She triggered the door to shut, and then moved over to sit on one side of the bed, her back against the headboard, one foot dangling off the side, the other stretched out in front. When, after settling in, she still had had no brilliant flash of inspiration, Ezri went with the tried and true. "So, Be'Dun, want to talk about it?"

B'Elanna's head whipped around. "You're not going to start calling me that in public are you?"

Ezri grinned, but didn't say anything.

"Ezri." B'Elanna drew the name out, menacingly.

The consonants made for a delicious sounding growl, and Ezri almost forgot that she was trying to bait B'Elanna into talking. "You'd rather a bang pong like Be'Hom?"

B'Elanna realized she wasn't going to win this one, Ezri still knew far more Klingon than she did, and really, if she had to have a pet name, she'd take being called wonder woman over scrawny any day. "Fine, but just remember, we have another holodeck adventure coming up, and revenge is like gagh."

Ezri felt both brows lift involuntarily, she was so curious.

"Serve it hot, while your victim remembers what they are being punished for."

Laughing, Ezri sank a little lower onto the bed. "Damn, someone went and made a Klingon out of you while you were away."

B'Elanna set aside the sharpened bat'leth. "You know, I think that's true." She settled on her side into the bed, and rested the side of her head on one propped up hand, so that she could see her mate.

"Lanna?"

She snorted. "Not Lanna exactly, but meeting her, yeah. It sort of firmed up a bunch of things that I had already been thinking about or already changing. Do you know what it was like being the only Klingon kid where I grew up?"

Ezri just shook her head, not wanting to stop B'Elanna from talking by sidetracking or interrupting her.

"Neither did I, and so I made it up as I went along. I was meaner, angrier, and shorter-tempered than anyone else." B'Elanna exhaled. "But you want to know something? I actually had to work at it. Kahless, you pissed me off that day in the holodeck. I mean who were you to tell me I had no idea about being a Klingon?"

This time, Ezri stayed silent out of a desire not to answer the question.

"You know what I learned reading all that Klingon history?"

"That Molor the Tyrant should have retired to Risa and not fought Kahless?"

B'Elanna laughed, "Other than that?"

Ezri started to say something else equally absurd just to hear B'Elanna laugh again, but when the Klingon's expression sobered, she rolled over a little, so they were facing. "Tell me."

"I learned that if we were nearly as hot-tempered and irrational as everyone makes us out to be, we wouldn't rule an Empire whose written history spans almost four thousand Federation standard years. Most of my life, I got a free pass, 'Don't mind her, it's a Klingon thing,' and the more my petulance and temper was excused the more I indulged it. Became my own legend."

Reaching out with her free hand, Ezri lightly traced lines on B'Elanna's arm.

"Seven wants to have a baby. My baby." B'Elanna smiled at Ezri. "And for the first time in my life, I think a baby with my heritage would be..." She faltered, not quite having the words to express how wonderful it would be.

"Ku'," Ezri supplied, not having expected the turn the conversation had taken, but then not really surprised either. She'd known something was bothering B'Elanna, but had gotten no sense over the course of the evening that B'Elanna was anything but supportive of Laren and Seven's choices, and the reasons behind them.

"Yeah. Ku'. You know standard should have a word that means wonderful, awesome, splendid, beyond great." B'Elanna smiled at Ezri. "So, Counselor, did you get what you needed? Or are we required to process my supposed need to be irrationally jealous of KJ?"

"I'm more concerned that your new found peace with the softer side of Qo'nos might deprive me of the much desired and loved rougher side of you."

B'Elanna growled ferally, but couldn't hold it, and began to laugh, the sound filling the room.

==^==

Garak entered the main sickbay for his check up. He was greeted by Dr. Dezhe, whom he had really come to enjoy as both person and a physician. She had a unique take on life, healing and humor that appealed to the Cardassian. It made for easy conversation and he always enjoyed his discussions with others.

He noticed that there were others in the area. Two women were discussing something with Dr. Zimmerman. One was Vulcan, which made his heart stop for a moment. The other was Betazoid, which made his heart stop for a different reason. He nodded in their direction.

"Who are they?"

"They are T'Pel and Lwaxana of the Prime of House Presba."

"Ah, mates to the good Commodore."

"Yes." Dezhe confirmed.

"It is such a strange universe you come from, where Betazoids and Vulcans are married to each other. In mine, they fight like…well…targ, I believe is what you would say."

Dr. Dezhe helped him onto the bio-bed, saying, "Do you find the idea unpleasant?"

"To the contrary. I just…I worry some times about losing my paranoia around you people. In my universe it could get me killed."

"Fortunately for all of us, it seems you are in ours for the time being. My suggestion? If you intend to go back, rest while you may. If you do not…"

"I'll talk with one of the counselors."

"Good. It is their forte. I heal broken bones, mend torn bodies." She looked directly at him. "They mend the heart. And to fight and be strong, you need a whole heart. Don't you think?"

Garak looked at the two women again. The Betazoid had her hand on the Vulcan's belly and was smiling. He watched as they kissed, tenderly. Then he returned his attention back to Dr. Dezhe. "Yes. I do think so."

==^==

After Garak left, Dr. Dezhe decided it was time to check on their tiniest patient. Icheb, as she had suspected, had made a few improvements to her contraption. A few more components, which she did not recognize, but suspected performed useful functions had been added to it, and it seemed less flimsy.

She raised her tricorder and took some basic readings. Then, because it was habit, she started speaking with the patient. "Your vitals appear to be good. I believe your process of digestion is nearly complete. Your color is definitely brighter." She stopped the tricorder and wondered if the creature understood her. She decided to continue. "I have informed the OC of your presence. An announcement about your arrival has been placed on the ship's channel, so others will be aware of you. You are not to leave the ship without informing someone. If you need further sustenance, if you are able, please consult with me, so we can create a better diet for you. We will be returning to Inter-Universal Space, that is, the Membrane where your kin exists, in approximately five days. We assume you would not wish to miss that. If you find this container comfortable, you are welcome to use it as your quarters. We can, if you need privacy, provide guest quarters, though I would think it would be a little large for you. The Emissary is also willing to allow you to stay with him if you would prefer."

She thought, perhaps, that waiting for a reply would be futile and prepared to go. But the creature spoke. Or rather, the container did. "Thank you." It was a mechanical reply, nothing as sweet as the tones of the ship. However, it was clear and to the point.

Dezhe decided to test the sprite. "Have you understood everything I have just told you?"

There was another pause. Then there was another reply. "Yes."

"Do you agree to the conditions of your stay?"

"Yes."

"Good. The OC will be pleased to hear it. Consult with Icheb if you need help." Well, she knew now the purpose of some of the additions to the bucket.

"Yes."

"The container is open, should you wish to explore further."

"Resting. Later. Access to Ship's Channel?"

"I'll have Icheb set it up." Dezhe half-suspected the young ensign had already done so. It would be typical of his foresight and generous nature.

"Thank you."

"You are welcome."

With an amazed shake of her head, the Doctor walked away.

==^==

The ladder dropped from the underside of tree house, and Ezri grabbed the rung with one hand. Ordinarily, she would have climbed the tree itself, then entered the structure via one of the small balconies or windows. Today though, she had a pack full of stuff, as well as a few other items clutched in her left hand, and so it was the ladder or a transport.

She reached well above her head for a rung, then moved her feet up a couple. Balancing carefully, she let go of the rung she had drawn nearly level with, and, one-handed, grabbed another one. For a second she wished she had thought about a lift mechanism, but until now it hadn't occurred to her that she would ever be in a situation where she would be unable to risk using the transporter.

Ezri arrived at the top and with her arm now hooked through the rungs to allow her to hold items with it, she began transferring the contents of her hand to the deck. Once finished, she climbed the rest of the way up and went inside.

The opulence of the tree house never failed to impress her. She could stand fully erect in all of the rooms, there were plenty of windows, the roof made the most wonderful noise when it rained, and a small rope walkway led upward to two additional rooms. One, a small chamber, had a section of the roof that could be pulled back so that occupants of the room could see the stars or the sun. The other led to a small meditation chamber.

She could easily have lived here if she so choose.

The PADDs she locked in a small weapons locker and she took the backpack with her to the meditation room. She settled into a spot in the middle of the soft flooring, and began to breathe slowly, letting the hyper-activity of the last week slide out of her body.

She moved backward over the week, an hour and then a day at a time, leaving behind supply reports, personal evaluations, the family dinner and the joy of reunion until she found the well-spring of desolation that sprang from the discovery of scale of the devastation wrought by the Dominion. She allowed it all to wash over her, feeling everything, hiding nothing until she was able to shed the sharp pain and find a new equilibrium.

Ezri opened her eyes and took another deep breath. Swiftly, before she could change her mind, she set the small triangular alter up to her front and kindled the small flame. Then, with deliberate care, she filled the vat at its center. The whitish-blue liquid bubbled just as she remembered it.

"Inora, ja'kala vok'za. Ezri zhian'tara rek pora'al. Zheem Dax, Audrid Tanas Rhem. Vok Ezri Audrid Tanas Rem."

"Hello, dear."

"Hello, Audrid."

==^==


B'Elanna dug through her room, trying to remember where the bowl and knife had ended up after they had performed the House joining ceremony for Ezri. It was nowhere to be found, and it wasn't like they could replicate another one. She tried to remember what exactly had happened that morning, but the details seemed to elude her, though she could effortlessly picture a naked Ezri, blue hair aflame in the sun, spots made ruddy in the golden glow.

"God damn it, Dax." She cursed, though it was said fondly.

"What has Ezri Dax done?" Seven asked after entering B'Elanna's room and kissing her.

B'Elanna gave a sheepish grin. "Nothing. Habit."

She received an arched brow, and a thorough kiss in response. Another kiss later, Seven spoke, "We will be late."

"Yeah well, if I can't find the bowl and knife, it won't matter how late we are." She had been trying to find it for the last week, but one thing after another with the new TUE had thwarted her, and, honestly, she hadn't wanted to admit that she had misplaced them.

Seven walked to the side of the room, opened the recessed closet, and then reached to the top shelf, removing an ornately carved box. Face impassive, but eyes twinkling, she handed it to B'Elanna, and then walked out of the room.

B'Elanna looked down at the box, then at the empty doorway. "Of course she knew where it was."

==^==

"Are you sure you don't want anyone else here?" B'Elanna waved her arm at the holographic simulation of the monastery that they'd been forced to transfer to gamma-Voyager since the holodecks on their own ship had been commandeered by Ezri and the Delaneys.

"Is it required that I do so?"

"No, Soch-vad. You can do this with or without anyone you want." Her mate cocked her brow at the endearment, but didn't seem displeased, merely curious, so B'Elanna just shrugged, and smiled.

"I am sure." Seven of Nine replied firmly.

Seven looked at her counterpart and whatever passed between them must have satisfied her, because she gave a small nod to B'Elanna, and moved to stand next to Seven of Nine.

Adhering to Seven of Nine's request for a private ceremony, Kate had prepared a vial for their use, and B'Elanna withdrew it from her pocket. She poured the contents into the bowl being held by the Mistress of House Presba. Tucking the empty container away, she dipped the blade into the bowl, then lifted it to slice a thin furrow across Seven's palm and then her own.

Holding Seven of Nine's eyes, she asked one more time, to be sure. "Is this what you want?"

"It is."

"Seven of Nine, do you accept that you are a true sister of Lady Seven of Nine, Mistress of House Presba?"

"Yes."

"And do you wish to truly be of House Presba?"

"Yes."

B'Elanna smiled at that, having expected at least one acceptable or an affirmative. She gently took Seven of Nine's left hand in her own, the gesture not entirely symbolic, but intended to be one of ultimate acceptance. Finding a long space uncrossed by the tracings of mesh or cybernetics, she made a shallow cut. Tiny drops of blood splashed into the bowl, the nanoprobes acting to seal the gash almost instantly.

She completed the ritual, placing a smear of the blood across the palm before it could fully heal and again onto the Borg's cheek.

"Welcome to House Presba, Seven of Nine."

"Thank you." Seven of Nine looked over at her counterpart. "I do not feel any difference."

Seven stepped in front, and switched her communication to the fingerspeak. "You are. You are now of us."

For an instant she was confused, but the language had always been the first sign of the change. The process of acclimation was sped along by the pre-existing efficiency of Seven of Nine's nanoprobes, which, before they could fight the transition, were overtaken by the power of the blood and transformed. Heartbeats later, the gestures resolved into a language. Seven of Nine lifted her own hand. "I am." Then she smiled.

==^==

As she made her way to the Golden Bough for an early dinner, KJ couldn't help wondering if there was an Anomaly in her Universe that would reward them with a bigger version of Voyager. Not that she didn't love every square meter of her ship, she just wished it had, among other things, a park.

"Captain Janeway, Commander Ro, if you'll follow me."

KJ exchanged a wry grin with her First Officer, but followed the steward to a well-appointed private dining room, which, despite its privacy, still had a spectacular view of The Park.

Ezri stood up from her seat as soon as they entered, and, without seeming at all ridiculous, managed to pull out their chairs and seat them.

"Seven is running late, something came up, but she'll join us shortly." Ezri lifted a wine bottle from the bucket where it was being chilled. "Wine?"

Ro slid her glass over and nodded affirmatively, still trying to decide if accepting the invitation had been a mistake.

"Kathryn?" prompted Ezri.

"Please." The glass was lifted and filled. "That's the strangest thing."

Ezri lifted her brow, "What is?"

"I just realized that when you say my name, or my counterpart's, I can tell which one of us you mean." KJ shook her head.

The Trill grinned, cheekily. "I have a secret weapon."

Ro leaned back in her chair, able to observe Ezri without being obvious she was doing so, since the Trill's attention was on Janeway.

"Do tell."

"Nope. Or it wouldn't be a secret weapon would it?" Ezri took a sip of her drink, then ran her finger along the top of the glass, as though making a decision. "I can give you a hint."

Intrigued, KJ leaned forward, the scientist in her delighting in the mystery. "Please."

"Laren." Ezri said.

Janeway lifted her brows, and pursed her lips slightly. "That's your hint?"

"She said my name, not Hansen's." Ro knew instantly what the difference was, but then she'd heard her name spoken by that voice, if not actually by the woman across from her, enough times to pinpoint the difference. She would wager that if she put her hand against Ezri's throat when the Trill said any of her mate's names, she'd even feel a vibration.

"Is she right?"

"Yes."

KJ held her hand up, "No, don't tell me. I'll figure it out."

Ezri's eyes gleamed. "Would you care to make a wager on that?"

Before she could reply, Seven entered the room and spoke. "No, she would not. And you would lose, Ezri Dax. Kathryn is a very resourceful individual."

KJ laughed, not offended in the slightest. "If you are so sure that Ezri will lose, maybe I should make a bet."

Seven smiled lightly, then gave her mate a look of fond exasperation. "Yes, but Ezri Dax is also a resourceful individual who does not always count victory by winning." She moved around the table, and leaned down to kiss Kathryn on her cheek, just at the corner of her mouth. "Hello, Kathryn." The Borg straightened, and tilted her head at the Bajoran. "Ro Laren."

Hiding her reaction under the same chivalry that Ezri had employed earlier, Ro stood and pulled out a chair for Seven, and then gently pushed it in when the woman had seated herself. "So, what was it you wanted to see us about?"

"Good food and company isn't enough of a reason?" Ezri poured a small amount of wine into Seven's glass, but it was nowhere near the size of the portions she served herself or their guests as she topped up everyone's glasses.

"No."

KJ looked sharply at Ro, but not seeing a particularly hostile look on the Bajoran's face, she didn't comment directly. "I admit, I am curious, since we were just all together."

"That was exclusively a family event, this is professional stuff."

Seven cut in. "I believed that you would rather receive this information in private, rather than at a large gathering, as was originally planned."

Ezri shook her head, but smiled as she passed over two PADDs, each with identical information, giving one to the Captain, and one to Commander Ro.

Ro spoke first, her voice flat but the bunched muscles at her jaw revealed that she was not at all impassive. "She can do this? She has this much authority?"

"And more if she chose." Ezri answered, and looked at KJ to see her reaction. From her pocket she pulled a small box, and slid it across to Ro, but continued to watch the Captain, who had not yet given any indication of what she was feeling.

"The box." Seven signed.

Ezri stood and stepped to the corner. She lifted a mid-sized box from the floor, and placed it on the table in front of the Captain. "They're all in here. Commissioning scrolls, pardons, pay, promotions and pips. No one has been left out or forgotten, and any of them are free to take service with Starfleet or Empire when we return, whether or not they choose to accept their commissions now." She sat down and waited.

KJ still hadn't spoken, but she did stand and reach into the box. Neatly affixed to a scroll, was a small bag with two gold senior lieutenant's pips, and a data chip. Carefully, she removed the fastening and unrolled it. It was for Bobby Ayala, who had once been Maquis, but who had served Voyager with unswerving loyalty. Without a word, she put the scroll down and walked out of the room.

All three remaining women stood at once. Seven moved to the door, but a hand on her arm stopped her.

"I'll go." Ro traced her fingers lightly over the small box and its three gold pips that Ezri had given her, and then slipped it into her pocket. "We'll be back shortly."

==^==

It might not have been her ship, but Ro Laren knew precisely where the Captain was headed. What she was less sure of was which deck the observation lounge was on, since it was obvious there had been some renumbering. A quick check of the computer yielded the correct deck, and she quickly made her way to the room.

As expected, KJ was standing at the window, forehead almost pressed to the glass. What was less expected was the tumbler of amber liquid in the glass she held in her left hand. Despite her worry, a tiny smile creased her lips. The Commodore was right handed, KJ was a lefty.

"You didn't fail, Kathryn." She used the more familiar name deliberately. Only the two of them were here, and Ro sensed Kathryn needed it.

"Didn't I?"

"No. One hundred and fifty-eight, men, women and children are safe, and alive, because you kept us that way." Ro leaned her back against the window, taking detached note that even with the amazingly frigid vacuum of space just outside, the surface felt warm through her shirt. "Kathryn, I'm alive because you kept us that way."

Kathryn stayed silent, she knew the anger was petty, and it was barely offset by the relief that it was real. They were going someplace that could be home, if they wanted. A place where everyone had a future.

"She should have asked you."

Starfleet habits died hard and she reacted before she'd even thought it through. "No. The Commodore didn't need to ask. Once I agreed that Voyager was going with her, we became part of her chain of command." But damn, it stung. Not only had her counterpart come and rescued them, but she was also taking care of the futures of the crew. "How did you do it, Laren? We never really talked about it. One day you were Maquis and had the Val Jean, the next you were my First Officer. How did you handle surrendering the welfare of your crew to me."

"I never looked at it that way."

Janeway turned her head and stared hard, then dropped her eyes, waiting.

"There was nothing else we could have done. It was the right decision. When you suggested combining the crews, it wasn't a surrender, it was a victory."

A soft snort of disbelief mixed with the clink of ice in KJ's glass as she took a drink.

"Yes, Kathryn, a victory. We had fought, and lost, but in the end we made a difference, maybe not to the people we were originally fighting for, but to people who needed our help every bit as much. And then, we had help. I didn't care that it wasn't Maquis help, I only cared that it came from someone honourable enough to leave behind her whole life because it was right. Does it really matter who brings us home?" Ro Laren was not surprised to hear that the guilt still threatened to overwhelm Janeway, and that more than seven years had done nothing to mitigate it.

"No." Janeway whispered.

Ro reached out and tucked a lock of hair back out of Kathryn's face, her touch lingering on the pale cheek for the barest of instants. "It's all in the hands of the Prophets anyway."

"You really believe that?"

"I do. How else do you explain it?"

"Kathryn would say Kahless."

Ro smiled gently and took the glass away, putting it on a table behind her. "Does a name matter?" Her afternoon with Benjamin Sisko had taught her much, renewing her faith in many things, not just the Prophets.

It had the desired effect. KJ straightened her shoulders and took a deep breath. " A rose by any other name?"

"More or less. On Bajor we say a jumja fruit of a different colour is still a jumja fruit."

"But does it taste as sweet?" KJ smiled, and headed for the door.

"Yes." She followed KJ out of the room and back toward the turbo-lift and their waiting dinner companions.

"Promise?"

"Yes."

==^==

"Can I ask you a question?" They were walking through The Park, enjoying the early evening before the hectic social function of the coming night claimed them. Ahead, KJ could see Ro and Seven talking intently, heads bent in toward each other as they walked.

"Sure. I might not answer though."

Janeway shot the Trill a suspicious look, and wondered if she were being teased, but decided that the similarity in phrasing between Seven and Ezri was just an indication of similarity, not deliberate impudence. "Other than Lady Seven, did you love them before?"

Ezri considered how to respond, very aware that her answer would shape things beyond her control to rectify if she got it wrong. "I need a minute, and it might come out a bit disjointed. I never really thought about it before."

KJ nodded. "Fair enough."

"Divided over a couple of Hosts, Dax and I have known Kate Pulaski for almost half a century. I fell in love with her when I was Ezri Tigan, just as Curzon Dax had. Falling in love with her as Ezri Dax was inevitable, and like admitting something that had always been true." She paused, not wanting to descend into the rambling that it was so easy for her to fall into when she started following the memories of Dax's previous Hosts. There were connections and more connections between them. Emony Dax and Kate's Starfleet medical nemesis, Dr. Leonard McCoy. Curzon Dax and Kathryn's father, Admiral Edward Janeway. Ezri stopped, and shook her head, aware that she'd done it anyway. She looked over, but her companion seemed to be waiting patiently for her to continue. "Sorry about that."

"It's okay." KJ reached out and touched the Trill's shoulder. "You don't have to say anything else."

"I just got a little lost for a second. I'm fine." Ezri smiled, in a strange way she was glad she'd decided to answer KJ. "I had already had a brief, but intense affair with Laren, years ago. I was half in love with her already. I didn't have far to fall. And B'Elanna, well B'Elanna and her, too tough for my Klingon leathers, attitude made falling for her a foregone conclusion. I seem to have a thing for Klingons with bad attitudes. As for the others, I loved things about them. I wanted them. I felt a very strong, compelling need for them. It was sometimes almost like...like a biological drive. I wouldn't call it romantic even, though it was..." Now Ezri's smile was almost ferine, "...very erotic. There were all sorts of reasons to connect with them, but we didn't have a chance, really, to woo one another. So, no, I can't say I was in love with each of them, separately."

"And now?"

"Now." Ezri considered. A part of her wanted to chop off the conversation right there. She decided to try a different tangent. "What would you say if I told you, no?"

KJ looked up at the sky and then back at the Trill, "I'd be a bit shocked. I'd wonder how it could possibly work."

"If you knew that the mating bond was one of deep emotional and contextual ties, and you knew that you were in love with at least four members of a blood bonded, empathic group, and you knew that a romantic attachment to all of the members of that group was an inevitable outcome, and, at the same time you were experiencing a...a genetic drive...to join that group and it did not care how little time you had to get to know them as individuals, would you have waited?"

"Well, when you put it like that. No, I guess I wouldn't."

"I know I didn't. I'm a Dax. We don't really think sometimes, we just do."

"But it doesn't answer the question. Are you in love with them now?"

"In love... I'm still working on that part. I'm not sure."

"Not sure?"

"Well, I love them. I like them. I enjoy being with them. I know a great deal more about them. But I don't know if it's my emotions, or the bond. If it's me, then, I'd have to say I'm still working on it. I happen to think that falling in love takes a little time to get really good. If it's the bond, then I am urgently oriented towards them and it can sometimes feel very much like love. But it's not the same as romantic love, which is why this is a difficult question to answer."

Ezri let herself think about how to say the next part for a minute, and how to explain that joined Trill didn't look at romance the same way Humans did. They walked along together for a few steps before she continued. "Part of it for me, is that I see a distinction between the distraction of full on romantic love driven by hormones, and the deep love that forms in a relationship that is the product of passion, and of knowing the other person. And," Ezri stopped and turned to KJ, who had also stopped. She wanted to get this right. "I was Seven's lover before I got involved with the Prime, and, since if I'm going to answer the question, I'm going to do it fully, my intimate experiences with them, except for Laren, were all in Seven's company. My relationship to them was an extension of my relationship to her. I guess what I'm trying to say, is that I'm still learning to really know them as people, and not just as my mates. In an ironic way, despite the pain, the last month or so has helped with that, but no, I'm not in love with them all. But I will be."

"This isn't a problem for them?" KJ thought it would have been a problem for her, but then again, she was examining a lot of her assumptions about herself, so maybe it wouldn't have been an issue. It did surprise her that she was more interested in the idea that not everyone had to be head over heels in love to make a multiple partner relationship work, than she was by the idea of loving more than one person romantically. KJ had no doubts that their relationship worked, even if she didn't understand the nuances.

"No. Nothing is hidden in us. They know how I feel about them, and, just like me, they're not worried by it; we know it is only a matter of time. Tell me, KJ, what's the fleeting first blush of romance stacked against trust, safety, warmth, tenderness and a sense of belonging that transcends anything I've felt in over three hundred years?"

"Agape over eros?"

Ezri laughed. "Well, I wouldn't say, over exactly. But never discount the role of friendship in erotic love."

Janeway looked ahead. "And desire?"

"Cuts across all the definitions." Ezri pointed to the side. "By the way, that's the tree."

KJ nodded, and noted its location. She had one more question. "Can I ask you one more question?"

Ezri looked up ahead, and saw that Ro and Seven were still talking amicably. "Why not."

"If you had to choose, to pick one of them, who would you choose?" This time it was she who turned, and stopped walking. KJ watched as Ezri's eyes went from nearly purple to vibrant blue, and was suddenly reminded that, as Human as Ezri Dax sounded and looked, she was not.

Ezri let a brilliant smile show. This was the easiest question she'd been asked all night. "I wouldn't choose. I may love them all in different ways, but I do love them all. We're one. There's no choice to be made."

==^==

"You should ask her. It is not logical to act without all the information."

Ro looked at Lady Seven, thoroughly confused by the familiar directness combined with an uncanny perceptiveness. But then, since when did inexperience equate to a lack of knowledge? She'd seen some things from her own Seven of Nine that made her believe they had seriously screwed up their responsibility to the Borg. "And if I asked you?"

"I would not tell you."

"You started this."

Seven said nothing, continuing to walk along the path, trying to find the correct way to say what had to be said without betraying any confidences. Her eyes swept over the trees, appreciating the aesthetics of the blooms nestled into the trunks and the glint of the end of day light on the canopy. "No, you and Kathryn did, but you never finished it. Ask her." She noted a particular tree. "That is a particularly interesting tree to climb."

Ro felt like shaking her head swiftly, afraid that she'd fallen into a bizarre alternate universe between the restaurant and the edge of the Park. "You like to climb trees?"

"No. But I enjoy watching others climb them." She gave a small smile. "And I enjoy the sound of rain on the roof of Ezri Dax's tree house."

So that's where the tree house was. Ro mentally marked the tree, and made a note to ask Ezri's permission to visit it. She looked back at the Borg and thought about what hadn't been said, as much as what had been. "What happened to your Kathryn, in the before?"

An answer was not immediately forthcoming, and Ro, noting that behind them, KJ and Ezri had stopped again, also stopped to let Lady Seven take her time answering. Finally, eyes as pale as winter ice turned in her direction, and she was sorry that she had asked the question. She didn't think she'd ever seen eyes reflect that much sorrow, and Ro knew intuitively, that Seven's sorrow wasn't on her own behalf, but on her Kathryn's.

"She was alone."

With a flash of insight, Ro understood the source of the sorrow. To one who had been Borg, who had heard the voices of millions, the deepest pain of all would come in the knowledge that someone she loved had been utterly alone. Instinctively, she reached up and ran her fingers along one high-planed cheekbone. "She's not alone anymore."

"No, she is not."

And just as instinctively, Ro knew they weren't just speaking of Kathryn.





Chapter 42 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




According to the Ship's Channel, the party was open to anyone. This situation did not mean that the security guard in front of the Changelings' abode was not surprised when the door whisked open. However, he was not there to keep them inside. He was there to keep others out, if necessary.

The bulky ensign, who only recently joined Voyager, but who had been to Deep Space 9, and who had duly been kicked out of Quark's for over-imbibing an unfamiliar Ferengi drink, became flustered. "Constable Odo, I mean…Uh…Mr. Odo, sir, How may I help you?"

The Changelings glanced briefly at each other. "We understand that there is a ship-wide function that begins soon. We would like to attend."

The ensign, who had heard of the damage the beings had incurred, asked. "Are you sure, sir, that you're able. I mean are you up to it?"

"Yes. Now, if you don't mind."

"Oh. Right. I…should take you there, shouldn't I?"

Odo, who wasn't a constable in his universe, but who had also had ample time to research his counterpart, thought perhaps, that if he had been a constable, he would have had a few choice words to say at this moment. But, as he was not, and as the young man was obviously trying, he merely answered, "We would appreciate it."

"Oh. Okay. Just a minute." The ensign slapped his comm badge and there was a bit of communication. By the time he was done, he was looking less off kilter and more confident. "If you will follow me?"

"Lead on."

==^==

Megan, Jennifer, Ezri and a few chosen others had planned the event with great care. They anticipated that there would be the majority population of the two ships in attendance at one point or another. While it would not be minimal crew at stations, it would be a rapid rotation. The transporter rooms had teams assigned for the duration. All three of Voyager's holodecks had been dedicated to the event, as had the Golden Bough and The Park. The Park and the Golden Bough had gone neo-traditional with a barbeque set up on the patio portion of the restaurant, and more specialized cuisine on the inside. The only location that had not been dedicated to the event was the original mess hall, and that was because it was pretty social on its own, and a place was needed so that those who did not wish to attend any of the mixer would still be able to eat, as well as to have a social space available to them. Counselors would be stationed, as usual, at the long table, because it was inevitable that someone was going to need another person's shoulder to cry on.

Voyager would help oversee the event. She wanted her people to enjoy themselves thoroughly, but safely. She also wanted to assist her friends in making things go smoothly.

It would be an exciting time. For everyone.

==^==

"Have you been to holodeck three yet?"

"No, what's going on in there?"

"A Carnival. A life-before-your-eyes rides, lose-your-money-yet-sometimes-win games, street performers, the works, kind of carnival. It's kid safe, and boy there are plenty of kids there. Including a few adults we know."

"Well, I can tell you there are no children in holodeck two. That's adult only. The performers are wearing next to nothing and I don't think all of them are holograms. I'm fairly sure I've seen some of them on our ship."

"Holodeck one?"

"Straight-up party. Nothing too scandalous. Somewhere between holodeck three and holodeck two, leaning to the well within regulation."

"So where do you want to go next?"

"I hear The Park is something special."

"Oh yeah. Barbeque. Let's go, I heard a rumour that someone managed to get Hansen to give up his grandmother's barbeque sauce recipe."

==^==

The door stopped chirping, after Lanna had resolutely ignored its call for the umpteenth time. For an instant, she thought it might begin again, and that not only would she'd be forced to answer it, before it woke Miral, but that it would be Seven of Nine. Coming face to face with the object her desire before she had worked out exactly what she wanted to say and how she was going to say it, was a replicator pattern for disaster. The Borg simply left her too flustered these days to wing it.

Instead of the door chime sounding again, her comm badge came to life.

"Seven of Nine to Lt. B'Elanna Torres."

Resigned, she tapped the communicator and answered. "Torres, here."

"I am informing you that I have no social obligations this evening and that I will be attending the party on alpha-Voyager. Seven of Nine, out."

"Son of a targ."

The communicator chirped to life again. "Seven of Nine to Lt. B'Elanna Torres."

"Torres, here." She responded cautiously.

"I neglected to inform you that, regardless of whether you accept my offer, Uncle Neelix has offered to care for Miral for the night. He will be located in holodeck three from 1800 until 2000. If you wish, Miral will then be able to sleep over at her cousins, until such time as you retrieve her. Seven of Nine, out."

This time Lanna grinned when the channel closed. It didn't come as any great surprise that Seven of Nine would be as efficient at dating as she was at anything else.

==^==

Miral was with her cousins, who were being watched by their Uncle Neelix. They were all in holodeck three, having what appeared to be the time of their young lives. Lanna tried to remember the last time she had seen so many kids in one place on a starship. It had been awhile, but there was something truly refreshing about it.

Neelix promised to keep Miral safely and sanely occupied. She was not the only toddler he was managing, and he had quite a few assistants, most of them very tall. Kutwutchu, it turned out, loved kids of all kinds and ages. Of course, there were plenty of adults enjoying the theme park scenario too. She, on the other hand, had heard rumors about the other holodecks and it wasn't often that she had a chance to cut loose.

She stood hovering between holodeck one and holodeck two, considering which one to dip her toes into first, and wondering which one possibly held Seven of Nine. Of course, it might not matter. It seemed people were wandering back and forth between the two with equal enthusiasm. She decided that, if they could do it, so could she, and if Seven of Nine wanted to find her, she would.

Holodeck two was a whirl of light, energy, talk, laughter and dance. Lanna made her way to the bar, where a suspiciously familiar Irishman served the drinks, but did so without making a single garrulous comment about her choice. She didn't linger by the bar, but continued on, looking for someplace where she could sit back and take it all in first.

She eventually found an empty seat and a low table that was close enough to a wall and far enough from the crowd of dancers for her comfort. A part of her brain was simply enjoying the rhythm of the blended crews enjoying themselves.

The movements on the dance floor were almost hypnotic, and Lanna was somewhat lost in the haze of it, when she saw three men. They were dancing close together, obviously enjoying themselves. Each was half naked, wearing pants and boots and not much else. They were also glistening with sweat.

It took her a moment to realize that it wasn't her Tom Paris, but it wasn't hard to figure out. For one thing, Tom had never danced with Harry like that, though he probably should have. For another, the men all had the mark of the House Presba on their shoulder blades. Plus they were all armed. It was one thing she noticed about this Voyager. They never went without some means of defending themselves. It was so second nature that she wondered if they slept with the weapons under their pillows.

She watched them for a few moments longer, trying to come to grips with seeing these three dynamos gyrating in the way that they were, and sipping her drink. She wondered where the Paris from her ship was, and was caught up in a short contemplation of whether she ought to try and find out, when she realized her cup was empty.

Lanna stood up, turned and stopped, unable to hid her startlement. "Oh, Kahless on a pogo stick, don't do that to me!"

"Do what, Lanna Torres?"

Lanna didn't note that Seven of Nine had not used her rank, or that she had used the diminutive form of her given name. She was still trying to stop her heart from coming out of her ribcage. "Sneak up on me like that."

"I was not sneaking. But I will endeavor to comply in the future." The cybernetically enhanced woman cocked her head, and continued. "I came to ask if you might be interested in joining me on the dance floor."

"You're asking me to dance?"

"Yes."

Lanna caught herself before she asked a stupid question, and was quite proud of herself for the restraint. Instead, she set her empty cup on the table. "I still haven't declared my intentions."

"I do not see why that should stop us from dancing. Do you?"

"No."

"I promise, I shall not step on your toes."

"Oh, trust me. That's not what I'm worried about." Lanna shut her mouth before she could say more, unable to quite believe she'd said that much.

"Good." Seven of Nine grabbed her hand, holding it firmly, but not tightly. Then she led Lanna out to the floor.

==^==

By 19:03:32 the party was in full swing. Even at that relatively early point in the event, there were those who had passed from mildly buzzed right into completely soused. Voyager's processors were being heavily used, so where she might normally have substituted less potent fare for those who were already drunk, she did not. She had other things to concern herself with, including outdoor security. Veckma and Sofuru were aiding her in that task, by having their scouts fly regular patterns. So far there had nothing, but as this was the Delta quadrant, nothing could instantly become something, and it did not hurt to be at least marginally prepared.

Internal security was also heavily in action. It wasn't a lack of trust for the other crew, but rather an awareness of the nature of most people. Vulcans were not likely to over-do it, but other species? Aside from the potential problems with over imbibing, the potential for cultural misunderstandings increased dramatically at events like this. The OC, and the First Officer, had tried to minimize those risks by having each holodeck clearly themed and marked, so that those from worlds and cultures that had nudity, religious, or other strictures could enjoy themselves equally to those, like the Betazoids, Bolians, Trill or Orions, who did not. But, of course, no plan was ever perfectly executed, and thus, security officers were present in all the holodecks, The Park, and, of course, at all of their normal duty stations. Their role was primarily to guide those who needed to go back to their quarters, or their vessel, where they needed to go. They were also prepared to handle any incidents, calmly and efficiently.

Voyager set aside a portion of attention for her guests, in particular, Garak, the Changelings, and the sprite. The sprite seemed content to relax in its light bath, while Garak and the Changelings had decided to take part in the celebration. It was inevitable that at least one of them would encounter Ensign Too Drunk.

==^==

"You!"

Yara turned toward the belligerent summons. She knew that she should have ignored it. Certainly the person she was conversing with was charming, friendly and interesting. But there was something in the other man's tone of voice, which warned her, albeit too late.

She turned just in time to see the fist rapidly approaching her face. There was no time to duck. Normally, she would have done what came naturally, and shifted out of the way instantly. However, there were a lot of factors that contributed to a Changeling's ability to shift quickly and well. The first factor was knowledge. One had to know what one was mimicking. A real artist could take basic features, and create a completely unique self. The second factor was age. The older a Changeling was, the more easily they could change, and the more powerful they became. The third factor was will. A Changeling had to want to alter. The fourth factor was health. Healthy Changelings found alteration easy. Wounded Changelings had more difficulty.

Yara, like all the rescued Changelings, was younger and wounded. She managed some features adequately, but there was no shifting quickly. She wasn't even really capable of getting out of the way. More, if she did shift, she might as well head home, because there would be only the no-shape that could be held after that.

She wasn't ready to go home. She had been having an enjoyable time.

Fortunately for her, she was not alone. The person, who had been talking and flirting with her, literally picked her up and moved her out of the way so quickly that all she felt was air.

However, that meant that the ornery ensign's fist connected with something more solid, more permanent, and much less yielding than his Changeling target.

Ensign Booker looked down at the smaller man and literally growled. Then, with one large hand, he lifted the other man up into the air by his shirt. "You would hit a guest and a woman?" To him there was nothing archaic about chivalry when done properly.

"That's no woman. That's a Changeling."

Now Booker shook the sloshed ensign lightly, "And that means what?"

It took a moment for the other ensign to find his coherency over the sudden bout of nausea. "Their people destroyed the Alpha quadrant and you're going to just let them in here?"

Now Yara was feeling less overwhelmed. She remembered something Odo had heard and shared with them and stepped out where the dangling ensign could see her. "They were not my people."

The ensign received, with each word Booker spoke, another shake. "See. Not her people. Yara and my other friends aren't from this universe."

The shaking served to increase his nausea, but he'd had too much to drink to think about backing down, though all he could manage was a slurred, "They're Changelings."

Alerted by Voyager, The First Officer, with all of her attendant authority, stepped in next to them. Deanna took a couple of seconds to assess the true severity of the triggered emotions, and to decide what, precisely to do. At short length, the dark-haired Betazoid said with great gentleness, "You are correct. They are Changelings, but like you, they lost their world. Their whole world. Their whole universe. There is nothing for them to go home to, except that, like you, they have found a way with us. Will you, of all people, deny them that right?" There was an intensity to her gaze, as if she were conveying more information than what was spoken.

The ensign wilted in Booker's hand, like a flower without water.

"Booker, set him down, please." She then spoke to the two security officers who had accompanied her. "Gentlemen, please escort Ensign Garvey to sickbay and then transport him to gamma-Voyager."

The Marine set the ensign down gently. Garvey wobbled on his feet, but was instantly supported by two others and led away.

Deanna turned to Booker and Yara, "I apologize for the disturbance."

Yara lifted her hand, "There is nothing to apologize for. I understand."

Deanna smiled, "Thank you. Please continue to enjoy yourselves. Ensign Booker, thank you for not hitting Ensign Garvey."

"My pleasure, ma'am." Yara touched Booker's shoulder and the ensign blushed.

Deanna really tried not to smile. It wasn't time for it yet. So she nodded her head and then turned around and walked away. Then when she was far enough away that no one would know except for Voyager and her mate, she laughed.

==^==

It was in everything. The beat pulsed around light, sound and moving bodies. It was so intense that it could be felt thrum through flesh. People were dancing so closely together that it could be felt between their bodies, and this was just in holodeck one.

Kate's prediction about the mating fire had, so far, held true. They had all known the minute that T'Pel had caught, without Lwaxana having to tell them. Though she did anyway.

They knew, because the burn loosened its grip. It didn't let them go entirely, but there was roomy stretch in their desire for each other. Thus, any of the Prime could dance with each other, kiss and touch one another, without immediately needing to rush home.

They celebrated their happy event quietly among themselves, but let their joy carry out into the public. Thus, those who attended saw a pleasantly boisterous Commodore and her mates. It made the party even more enjoyable, allowed others to loosen up, where they might have been more reticent.

KJ stood beside Hansen Laren briefly. They watched as the Commodore raised her hand in farewell to some crewmen, and then walked away with her arms around the waists of B'Elanna and Seven. They were heading to holodeck two, and the more adult venue.

"Well," said KJ. "I see now that you were entirely serious about Kathryn being okay with public displays of affection."

"She's still hardcore about job performance, mind you. If it interfered in anyone's ability to function, they would hear about it in no uncertain terms, but…"

KJ smiled slightly. "Do you happen to know where Ro went?"

"She's talking with Deanna at the moment, should be right back."

"Would you care to dance?"

"A year ago, no. Today. Yes. Let's go." With that, Laren grabbed KJ's hand and dragged her to the door, following her mates to the other holodeck. "Besides, this way we can spy on Lanna and Seven of Nine a little easier."

"Ah, you understand my motivations."

"Yours? I was talking about mine."

KJ laughed, got into the groove, and showed that a Captain could surrender to the beat with the best of them.

==^==

On first glance, when one stepped into holodeck two, it was equally pulse pounding in theme and content. Then Kathryn spotted where the music was coming from, and noticed the first difference. There was a stage where live, or what passed for live, performers were going all out, gyrating and otherwise inspiring the crowd. Other stages, high above the dance floor, also featured dancers. She spotted one or two of her Orion crewmen dancing freely with nothing at all on, except sparkles and smiles. Most of the performers, she suspected, were holographic, yet all were equally rousing.

Out on the dance floor things were even looser than they were in holodeck one, where there was a clearly defined standard of behaviour, and of dress. In here, there were no such limitations, other than those arising from whatever natural inhibitions one might have. Plenty of the people dancing had obviously shed some clothing since the start of the party, and she was reminded what a healthy, virile crew both ships had. Thank God they had fertility inhibitors.

It also occurred to her that having a sanctioned outlet for such frivolity could only improve morale, since only those comfortable with the standard for the room needed to enter it; anyone else, had a selection of places to go and be.

As they absorbed the atmosphere, and before B'Elanna and Seven could drag her onto the dance floor to dance with Lwaxana and T'Pel, Kathryn had an opportunity to spot some crew persons slipping away, not out of the holodeck, but deeper within it.

Seven, noting her interest, explained, using fingertalk, since simple speech was contraindicated by the sound. "The program is based on two major convention hotels. Everything is here. Rooms, spas, a giant swimming pool."

Kathryn nodded in amusement. "I take it said inspirational hotels are located on Risa?"

Seven didn't reply directly, but Kathryn was immensely pleased to note that her mate had very nearly rolled her eyes. Someday soon, though. She figured, it was only a matter of time before the Borg assimilated that particular mode of expression.

Honestly curious, she asked, "How is the holodeck coping with such a large influx of people?"

"Not everyone is in here or is using all options at the same time."

"Makes sense."

"Less talk," demanded B'Elanna, "More dance."

"I'm staying dressed. A Commodore really can't be seen without her shirt tucked in." Well aware of just how few inhibitions Seven, Lwaxana and T'Pel had, she felt the need to state her boundaries, just for the record.

Seven merely smiled. Then she led Kathryn up to Lwaxana who was most definitely not a Commodore and who was most definitely a very beautiful woman. The Betazoid drew Kathryn in for a warm kiss, before surrendering Kathryn to T'Pel, who kissed her with equal fervor.

"Don't worry, Kathryn," said B'Elanna. "We'll still respect you in the morning."

==^==

Garak realized that he was truly enjoying himself. He had visited every event at least once and finally settled on holodeck two, because of the hot tubs. There were several, decoratively spaced around a swimming pool, and which were filled with people enjoying themselves. It was easy to forget they were on a ship.

It wasn't so easy to forget how foreign it all was, though.

On the other hand, he was the warmest outside of his quarters that he had ever been and quite comfortable. People joined him in the pool and they talked, sharing their experiences with one another. A few took a second look at him, but since he was fairly certain that he was the only nearly naked Cardassian they had ever seen, he attributed it to curiosity, rather than any ill will.

Odo even stopped by, and while he didn't join them in the pool, he sat down on the edge and looked as comfortable as he ever did. They hadn't had a chance really to talk and Garak knew the conversation would be brief. Odo wasn't necessarily a conversationalist, but a lack of words did not mean that nothing was being said. Odo's presence said much on its own. "How are you, Garak?"

The Cardassian leaned back in the pool and stretched out. "Much better, thank you. And you?"

Odo's non-lips quirked up in a brief flicker of a smile. He was always so serious. "Better. They treat us much better on this ship."

"Oh, I completely agree. Fascinating, isn't it?" The observational humourist in him noted that, given how cruelly they had been treated on the Romulan ship, it was likely much less work on Janeway's part to treat them well.

"It is. Have you given thought as to where you would like to settle?"

"I'm waiting for inspiration. I understand we will be visiting both universes and Commodore Janeway does not seem the type to just dump us off for not making an immediate decision."

"Hmmm. Understandable. It's not the best scenario either way, since apparently my people like to stir up trouble in all universes."

"You were innocent in ours."

"Innocent? Hardly. We brought it on ourselves. We knew the dangers."

"You did nothing. Your government, well, that had nothing to do with you or your comrades, now did it? They just happened to pick the wrong side of the Empire to test."

Odo stared off at nothing in particular. Then he grunted and stood up. "Enjoy yourself, Garak. I'll stop by tomorrow and see if you are recovered."

"Thank you. I admit I intend to over-imbibe and over-indulge tonight. Enjoy yourself too, Odo. Can't be serious all the time." Garak gave the Changeling a winning smile in farewell. Odo walked away and the smile faded into an expression of concern.

"Now that is a man who really needs to talk."

==^==

At the carnival, Icheb and Tal took a few rides with his younger siblings, a few with just the two of them, danced a little, and were on their way to dine in The Park. They walked arm in arm, talking warmly with one another. They ignored the crowd around them, in favor of each other.

They were almost there when they watched a fight spill out of The Park and into the hallway. Icheb, from a natural streak of nobility, stepped in front of Tal and gently pushed her back. He tapped his comm badge, though he knew it was probably redundant. No doubt Voyager was aware of what was going on. "Ensign Hansen to Security. There is a fight just outside of the Park."

That was really all he had time to say. Multiple people were involved in the fight and the fists were flying, requiring him to shift his attention. Icheb lurched back from punches that weren't really aimed at him, then, when he saw an opening, he applied something he learned from his father. The nerve pinch dropped the assailant into Icheb's arms. He transferred the person to Tal, who lowered the man to the ground. Then, he stepped forward two steps, and applied the same technique to the next person who came within his range; for the sake of both safety and diversity, he ducked in a variety of ways. He was, he had to admit, having a curious kind of fun. The sense of satisfaction lasted right up to the instant someone landed a lucky blow, and punched him in the eye.

"Damn Borg!" had been the epithet.

But someone else, one of the group who had spilled out of The Park, but not one who had been fighting, shouted, "Holy shit, you slugged the Commodore's son!"

The assailant was still grinning at his success in knocking Icheb down, until the words penetrated, then a brief expression of horror crossed his face, only to disappear into the haze of unconsciousness as another person, not Icheb, administered a Vulcan nerve pinch of his own. As the other members of the security team gathered the other rowdies together, Tuvok reached down and touched his son's face gently. The bruise that had formed, was already being healed by the young man's nanoprobes, but it would take a few seconds for Icheb to regain consciousness.

Tal, who had kneeled down next to Icheb, looked up and said, "I'll take care of him for you."

Tuvok arched one of his brows and assented, "Then I will leave him in your care." The Vulcan then stood up and began directing his team. By the time Icheb came around, almost fully healed and functional, the space had been cleared, and those attending The Park for less exciting reasons had turned their attention to other things.

Icheb noticed that he was resting against Tal. She smiled at him. "You were very brave." Then she kissed him warmly.

Somehow, that made everything better.

==^==

Thomas Eugene Paris attended the party for about ten minutes and then he was ready to leave.

He supposed he should have expected that they would be there. Certainly they had the right and they were a unit. It was just that he felt it like a stab to the heart this time, for whatever reason. Maybe it was all those crazy times when he and Harry had been the ones making the holodeck scenarios, suddenly coming to the fore.

Thomas wandered out of the holodeck, drink in hand.

He couldn't leave the ship. He didn't want to see The Park. He didn't want to see the other holodecks. So he walked and drank, grabbing other people's drinks while he waited out his next twenty minutes.

He did not make it to the transporter room.

==^==

The supply office and cargo bay were dark when Thomas entered the area, but it lit up at his slurred command. His gaze followed the lines and shapes of the area until he spotted what he was looking for. He walked forward, letting his free hand slap against random objects on his way.

The ship's still was standing innocently in the center of a protective shield. It was nothing to deactivate it, since it wasn't meant to keep people out. He placed his cup under the spigot and pressed the button.

Nothing came out.

He considered a moment, checked the couplings and lines and investigated the mash. Then Thomas tried again.

Nothing.

It didn't occur to him that it might have been emptied for the party. But the emptiness frustrated him, reflected too much of what was going on in himself.

He pressed the button several times to no avail. Then he stepped back, inordinately angry. He looked around, spotted a likely looking object and grabbed the rod.

Thomas lifted it and prepared for the swing, his arm actually moving forward. But when he completed the swing his hand was empty. He looked around the room, and the floor, trying to spot the impromptu club, but it was gone.

His mind skipped past wonder into the symbolism of it. The cup he was holding, fell to the ground and he began to weep. He pressed his hands against face until his eyes were hidden.

Thomas sank to the ground and curled in on himself.

==^==

Deanna knelt over the prone figure. Thomas was sound asleep. "Thank you for notifying me."

"It was my pleasure," said Voyager. "So, shall I just send him home?"

"No," said Deanna thoughtfully. "He just needs to be reminded of what is good in life." She fished a hypospray out of her pocket and pressed it against his neck.

He startled awake, groaning and wiping his eyes. "Where am I?"

"You are on Voyager, in the supply office." He looked puzzled, as if unsure of how he got there. Deanna smiled at him and continued her thought, "And far from the party."

She extended her hand to him and he looked at it briefly before taking it. Then, together, they stood. She said to him, "I have some people to whom I'd like to introduce you. I think you'll enjoy their company."

==^==

Fireworks blazed in the holographic sky. Kate, who happened to love light shows, enjoyed the display. She stood, along with many others, in the courtyard of the Theme Park and enjoyed the communal experience.

Kate felt her mate before she saw her, and turned her attention to something more important than the lights in the sky. She smiled warmly. "Ezri."

The Trill stepped up behind the blonde, and wrapped her arms around Kate, clasping their hands together on Kate's midriff. Both of them settled into the embrace, taking a minute to enjoy the connection between them, and then they both turned slightly and looked up.

Kate commented, tilting her head back to whisper in Ezri's ear, trusting that she would be heard. "You've done an outstanding job. They'll write about this in the history books. It'll be required reading for Morale officers everywhere. I saw Neelix and half the DoD taking notes."

Ezri laughed and pulled Kate more closely against her. Another sparkle of lights exploded overhead. It illumined them as they kissed, seeming to make manifest and reflect the light that sparkled within them.

==^==

Looking above her on impulse, Kathryn realized that the wrought iron gantries over their heads were not for show, or mere decoration, and were, in fact, fully functional parts of the room that were meant to be used. Question was, how did one get up there? Analyzing the room in much the same way she would assess target terrain, she quickly spotted several recessed spiral staircases.

Getting to the staircases was an entirely different challenge. Eyeing the teeming mass of bodies, she charted the path least likely to add being pressed against the gyrating flesh of her semi-naked crew to her list of transgressions, and headed for the one just behind the bar.

The view from the top was spectacular. From the dance floor or the tables you could only see a tiny fragment of what was happening, but from up here she could see more of the whole. And what a whole it added up to. From here, there were no individuals. Couples, trios, singles and groups flowed in and around each other, the dances and interactions seamlessly undulating from person to person, indivisible parts of an incredible sum.

"I might have known I'd find you up here." Ezri came to stand next to her, bringing the lengths of their bodies into gentle, and welcome contact.

Kathryn laughed. "Point. I, on the other hand, wouldn't have expected to find you here."

"Can you see it?" Ezri tilted her chin in the direction of the floor below them.

"Yes."

"Then you know why I'm up here." Ezri paused, and then veritably purred. "Or at least one reason."

The mischievous glint that had been turned on the revelers earlier was now directed her way, and Kathryn felt her pulse jump in response. "Ezri." It was meant as a half-hearted warning, but it was clear from the answering grin that it had been read as a challenge. Her own contrary streak reared itself, and she leaned in and allowed the kiss.

It felt like a hundred sets of fingers were brushing and stroking every nerve ending, and she moaned into Ezri's mouth, escalating the kiss. Ezri moved her explorations to her waist, tugging her shirt from her pants, and then sliding under the edges, coming to rest on the skin of her sides, not pressing to move further. Ezri's hands were cool against her heated skin; the contrast to the heat she felt from the press of their bodies sent an electric jolt straight to her center, and she shuddered into the embrace. At that, the kiss slowed, Ezri taking control of the contact and diffusing the rising passions.

"I was wrong earlier." Ezri's forehead was resting on hers, and she tilted into another tiny kiss.

"You?" She received the expected swat on her bottom, and a kiss that would have sent them spiraling into a mating fire only yesterday. When they finally broke apart it took several seconds before she could muster any coherent thought, and judging by the still closed eyes of her mate, Ezri was in the same condition. "About what?"

"Mmm." Ezri finally said. "I knew I loved you, but I just realized that I'm crazy about you too." Her eyes opened, a vivid, deep blue, magnetic in their intensity. "I love you."

Kathryn swallowed as she sensed Ezri had just let herself step over a barrier that the Trill hadn't even known was there. "I love you too." And then, to lighten the mood, because they both needed it, she added. "And you, my Lady Chaos, still baffle the hell out of me."

Ezri laughed.

==^==

Honouring and understanding the unspoken, mutual covenant, Lanna didn't mention any of the outstanding issues between them. Instead, she just focused on enjoying the experience. At some point, or rather sometime after she stopped counting her drinks, they had been joined by a majority of the Prime, along with Ro and KJ.

She took another drink and let her vision drift over the dancers she could see. Ezri, who seemed, along with Deanna, to be splitting her focus between being guest and host, was dancing with a Delaney, and she could honestly say she only knew they weren't gamma-Voyager's set of twins because they were armed. Lady Seven was pulled into the group and she noted that while the Borg seemed perfectly comfortable in the sensuous tangle that developed, there was a sort of distance maintained by the others with Kathryn, who was part of the group, but not in an overly familiar sort of way. Lanna supposed it meant that the Delaneys on this ship were part of the social circle that included Ezri and Lady Seven, but not part of the larger one that included the Commodore. She smiled: Familiarity without contempt.

Not for the first time Lanna found that she was envying B'Elanna's life.

Pulling herself out of her reverie as Seven of Nine, finished dancing with the other Delaney, approached the table and lifted an imperious brow invitingly, she toasted the blonde, and stood as required by the silent command.

They moved onto the dance floor and she lost herself in the increasingly graceful movements of her dance partner. Over the course of the evening, mounting experience, aptitude and an oft hidden natural grace had come together and the results were nothing short of erotic and breathtaking. One such new move was employed and Lanna let Seven of Nine turn her so that her back was to the blonde's front and their bodies were in almost full contact as they moved. Facing away from her date, her attention was caught by Deanna Troi taking the shirt of a Delaney twin, and follow that up by handing over the one she had been wearing.

"What in the world?"

Seven heard the question but did not understand to what it referred. "Could you clarify?"

"Over there. Deanna took the brunette's shirt, handed over hers, and now it looks like Dax is taking the one Deanna just put on." She couldn't help smiling up at Seven. "Which seems inefficient. She should have taken it before Deanna put it on."

Seven watched for a minute, then swept her eyes around the room picking out particular individuals to confirm her hypothesis. Tilting her head, she focused her auditory acuity on what was being said by the group. "They are playing a game. And it would violate the rules to take a shirt before it has been donned."

"A game? Looks a little inappropriate for public." But then again, she thought, even with their shirts off, the women involved were still wearing more than most of the rest of the occupants of holodeck two. It certainly helped explain why there was an adults only holodeck.

Seven turned Lanna back around and moved them together again for a few beats of the song. "I require you to lighten up." Then she stepped back, and moved toward the group.

Intrigued, shocked at the idiom, and not a little concerned for what might happen, Lanna trailed along in her wake.

Lanna watched, not a little astounded by how easily Seven of Nine folded into the group of women. She felt the astonishment explode into something she couldn't even name, as her date leaned toward Asil and spoke. "You are wearing Megan Delaney's shirt. I now require it."

Her few working brain synapses threatened to fuse as the Vulcan was divested of her shirt, and began removing Seven of Nine's, exposing a mix of creamy white skin, grey metal bands and silver starbursts.

A drink was thrust in her hand and Lanna reflexively gulped it, trying to draw her eyes from the tantalizing view, but unable, or unwilling, to look away. Her brain finally mastered her body, and she turned to her benefactor. "What in Kahless' name have you done to her?" The question came out as a mix of disbelief and reverence.

"Nothing." B'Elanna sounded amused.

Lanna shook her head and turned back in time to see Asil fasten, with some difficulty, the last of the buttons on Seven of Nine's new shirt. The blonde then turned, and moved back in her direction.

"Lanna Torres, are you prepared to lighten up now?"

She couldn't help it, she laughed. What the hell. "You are wearing Megan Delaney's shirt. Hand it over, Borg."

"I will comply."

==^==

Ro Laren decided she might as well heed Lady Seven's counsel. She took a seat next to KJ and reclined in it, watching and waiting for her moment.

KJ was the first to break the companionable silence. The other woman said, "It was the right thing to do."

She didn't have to be told to what KJ was referring. Ro hummed, not necessarily in agreement, but not denying it either.

She was surprised, however, when the KJ continued on. "But, after some time had passed, I should have…"

"If it was meant to be, it would have been."

"Look at them. You tell me." KJ nodded in the direction of her counterpart. Kathryn was leaning against an obviously comfortable Bajoran.

"And Seven of Nine?"

"Well, let's just say, I had my reasons."

"I know. You always do." Ro Laren winced slightly at the words, if not the tone. She perhaps could have phrased the truth differently, but Lady Seven had been right, she needed to know, and KJ was the only one with the answers. "And now?"

KJ didn't respond immediately, and Ro thought that it was likely that the barrier had grown too high.

"I don't know." KJ finally said, and her voice was low, almost raw; the tones of it perhaps more honest even than the admission.

Ro looked around the room, found the exit with her eyes.

"Don't run away." The words were said gently, non-threateningly.

"What else can I do?"

"Stay."

"Kathryn..." Damn. She was still getting used to all these name changes. "KJ. I…"

"Stay. There's something I want to show you. Tomorrow, we'll talk. When I'm less soused. Let's see what's meant to be."

==^==

The party was nowhere near winding down when Kathryn had to call it quits; not that she was without the necessary stamina to continue. The beauty of the Presban experience was that one had plenty of that. But she did have responsibilities, and wanted to be fresh for them.

Somehow, probably because her mates really did respect her, she had remained fully clothed; even while in holodeck two. On the other hand, her shirt had not remained tucked in under Ezri's theory that she was there to loosen up.

She had heard rumors of a few problems, but had promised Ezri that she would let her OC and First Officer deal with those. It was an excellent command decision on their parts. They had thrown the party, and set the boundaries for acceptable conduct. To preserve their authority, they then had to be the ones to mete out the punishments. Thus, as she exited holodeck two for the final time, she did so with peace of mind. She also tucked in her shirt.

A decision she was glad of the when she entered the corridor.

Captain Janeway and Commander Ro looked at her. They had exited at virtually the same time as she. From the way Ro Laren was looking at both of them with amused affection, she realized that she and her sister had just exhibited signs of commonality.

Kathryn's mouth twitched up into her quirky grin, and it widened as she saw it reflected back by her counterpart.

Without really saying anything to each other, they fell into step, heading for the turbo-lift. It wasn't until they were safely in the relative privacy of the lift that KJ spoke. "I'll give you this. Your people know how to throw a shindig."

Kathryn started to laugh.

==^==

Those who had reveled themselves into bad behavior found themselves in one of four places; the brig of Voyager, the brig of gamma-Voyager, sickbay, or in their quarters. It depended on the severity of their infraction, and on their degree of inebriation.

Statistically, they fell within the range of expected numbers. Deanna and Asil, being who they were, had planned for the scenarios, some specific individuals, some statistical probability, and anticipated the necessities. Many of those ensconced in the brigs had had their punishments already assigned. They just didn't know it and were simply being allowed to stew in their own juices until such time as those in authority were prepared to deal with them.

While most gamma-Voyager hoodlums found themselves back home, in their brig or quarters, there were a few who had earned the terrifying pleasure of being located in one of Voyager's seven holding cells. One of those individuals had risen back into consciousness with a terrible feeling in his gut. The feeing was not the result of drinking; though his carousing had been.

Ensign Jonas watched people come and go, processed in and out by security. He did have company. They were mostly young, but he had heard that the majority of Voyager's crew appeared to be younger than they were, due to some event about a year or so ago. He had also heard that some of the crew were new, and Jonas suspected, though he couldn't have proved it, that most of the occupants of the brig were not original Voyager crew of either universe - except for himself and his companions from earlier.

The one thing that disturbed him, and he could find no rational reason for it, was the way Tuvok had stared at him the first few times he had come in to process individuals. But then the Commander had abruptly stopped looking in his direction, and now he didn't know what to make of that.

Finally he had to ask. His cell mate had been sitting as far from him as possible, as if he had suddenly sprouted something catchy. "What's his beef?"

His cellmate had looked at him as if he were insane. "Are you kidding? Everyone knows you hit his kid. You're lucky he didn't space you. I would have."

"His kid?"

"Didn't you read the channel before coming over here? There was a whole briefing on who's who. Commander Tuvok is one of the Commodore's mates. Lady Seven of Nine, who happens to be...you know...Borg, and incidentally, the kid's mother, is also married to Commodore Janeway."

"Oh, shit."

==^==

Lenara's communicator vibrated again. She stopped dancing and caught her partner's attention.

Leah leaned in. "Dax is on the move again?"

"She is. Two buzzes."

"Oh good. She's not coming here." Then Leah paused, "Wait, why did you stop dancing then?"

"I was thinking it might be nice to cool off."

"The Park?"

"How about the mess hall?"

Leah considered the option for a moment, and then smiled. "It might actually be less crowded than usual, and one place we can probably count on not running into Dax." Lenara seemed to have accepted the strictures with little difficulty, but the unfairness of it was beginning to grate on Leah, especially on nights like tonight. That damn Trill had been everywhere, seemingly all at once.

"That's what I was thinking."

Leah grabbed Lenara's hand and they started walking.

Lenara tapped the communicator with her free hand. "Hallway status?"

"Clear."

"Thank you, Voyager. We couldn't do this without you."

"You're very welcome, Dr. Kahn."

==^==

Asil decided that one of the side benefits of being Presban that she honestly appreciated was the ability to track down her mate. She merely had to focus and, like aligning oneself with a guiding star, she knew where Deanna was, if not always in exact lineal measurements, then at least with respect to her general location.

It reminded her of the Human game she played with her youngest brothers and sisters: hot and cold. From that perspective, she was somewhere in the vicinity of warm to hot. Deanna was not far. She was also not in holodeck one, which meant that she was likely in holodeck two.

Asil wandered away from the dance floor and out into the hallway. As she did, her search went instantly from warm-hot to broiling. "Deanna Troi, you missed the juggling."

"Ah. I know. And I wanted to see it too."

"I had Voyager make a recording."

"You did?"

"Yes."

"Asil Troi, there is not a day passes that I do not thank Imza and the Four Deities for you. Are you up for more dancing?" She brushed back a loose curl and looked up at her taller mate.

"Yes."

Deanna smiled. Their fingertips touched. It amazed her how such a gesture could be so intimate, so beautiful.

Asil leaned in and kissed her mate gently. "Then again, sai aduna, this is good too."

The Vulcan didn't smile, but Deanna was supremely aware of the affection of her mate. Asil continued the thought, "But then, so is dancing. Let us go."

==^==

Like all the great parties, this one crossed the borders of beta and gamma shifts, until it made a full circle, and hit the beginning of the alpha shift. Thus everyone, if they were interested, had an opportunity to participate. But eventually it had to end.

Some space traffic had been detected, but at a great distance from the two ships. The scouts had recorded the live vessel activity from several light years away. They noted that it was some sort of convoy, but whoever and whatever it was, seemed to pass by without noticing them. It probably helped that both vessels were as still as the non-existent air in a vacuum.

Patrol sizes were increased, just in case. Veckma decided that it was a good exercise for those who needed to practice being on task no matter what their condition. It helped to be Klingon when driving under the influence.

Not that they had to be. After all, there were easy cures. The transporter rooms and the holodecks had all had a crewman with the appropriate hyposprays for each species of celebrant available if needed. But it was one of those not-so-secret stamina tests that Klingons liked to indulge in every now and then.

Sofuru and his people, who were no slouches in the imbibing department, had less invested in such trials. They made sure they were sober while flying. Their ships weren't replaceable machines, they were family.

There were no crashes, random phaser fights or greasy moments. They all managed to fly. Some, though, were a little more graceful than others.

==^==

Pumped full of energy, and more than a little bloodwine and bourbon, Lanna grinned at her companion, marveling again that somehow she was on a date with Seven of Nine. An awesome date. They were in the hall outside of Ezri Dax's quarters, having outlasted both the party and the after party.

The wall suddenly became very appealing and she turned her body, guiding the taller woman against it. The fact that she was even able to move Seven of Nine was all the permission she needed. The blonde could have easily prevented the motion, and Lanna wasted no time in capturing Seven of Nine's lips.

All evening they had flirted around actually kissing, with touches of hands and bodies building the anticipation. Lanna felt as though there was nothing in the universe except the soft velvet and moist heat of Seven's mouth. She was surprised when Seven skillfully induced her to part her lips, and increased the tempo of their movements. Pulling back slightly, Lanna looked up. She heard her voice and realized she was speaking. "Did you kiss KJ?"

"I did not."

"Mmm." She nibbled along the edges of Seven of Nine's chin before kissing her again. A few seconds later, she completed her thought. "Well, for a beginner you have wonderful technique." She was expecting a flatly delivered rejoinder about the Borg having assimilated the mating habits of thousands of species, and so when Seven stiffened and pulled back, Lanna was at a momentary loss, but couldn't block the sinking feeling in her stomach. It was happening again.

Seven stood, aware that she could leave the statement as it was, or correct Lanna's assumption. Too many seconds ticked by and the choice was no longer hers, as Lanna moved back forcefully.

"Who?"

"It is irrelevant."

"One of them? Or did you get to have a Janeway after all?" Too much drink had stolen her carefully cultivated think-before-speaking plan, and Lanna spit the words out almost before mentally forming them.

"What occurred prior to my informing you of my interest and declaring my intentions is not relevant." Her own anger rose to match the implied challenge and derision in the Klingon's tone. Seven of Nine forced herself to hold back words that would only inflame the situation, but it was clear that Lanna had no such restraint.

"Did your little turbo-lift number work on them as nicely? Who the fuck did you assimilate that romantic drivel from anyway?" The dispassionate Borg tones and precise diction were back and Lanna grabbed the familiar irritations and used them to ground her anger, intent on making Seven of Nine react.

Hurt by the biting anger as much as the words, Seven of Nine froze. To her right she could hear the doors of the turbo-lift open, and knew they were no longer alone, but still could not find the words that would end the confrontation.

"Seven, are you okay?"

She whipped her head up from staring at Lanna, and turned to face the Bajoran. "I am functioning within acceptable parameters." The response was delivered before she could reframe it, all too aware that the phrasing told the opposite story to her friend.

Lanna looked between the two women and instinct kicked in, everything making sense; Hansen's solicitous behaviour and touches. The attention and caring hadn't been about family at all. "Tell me you didn't sleep with Hansen."

"I will not." This was not the time to pretend she didn't understand the question. So far honesty had been the best course of action and Seven of Nine held to it. She would not lie, but she owed Lanna no explanations, even if she had felt the Klingon was in a state to listen.

The white-hot rage that flashed through her nearly overwhelmed Lanna's ability to control it, but the only outward sign of her distress was the clenching of her fists. The act though, was enough to spur action from Hansen, and the Bajoran stepped protectively in front of Seven of Nine. The anger was yielding to the first tendrils of hurt, and Lanna knew it was only a matter of seconds before her career followed her love life. She turned fully toward Seven of Nine. "You are nothing to me."

Then Lanna turned and walked away.

==^==

Laren took in Seven of Nine's rigid stance, her nearly blank expression, the paleness of her eyes, and knew that, in this case, even if she had them, any words she could say would fail. "Come with me." She wanted to hold her hand out, but knew it would not be taken, and so spared Seven of Nine the necessity of rejecting the gesture.

She led the way into the family quarters, and headed for the unoccupied guest room. Or she thought it unoccupied. Deanna and Asil had moved out of it and into Ezri's old quarters, and while she wasn't positive Ezri had moved out of those quarters in turn, she didn't think her mate was using the guest room on an ongoing basis.

Once in the room, Laren took a closer look at her friend and interpreted the distant gaze as one of analysis. Seven of Nine was playing back the event in her mind, and trying to understand what had happened. Not knowing enough of what had transpired, other than the Borg was paying a price for their single night together, Laren held back from offering empty reassurances. She did not know if it would be alright, and would not make a promise, implicit or otherwise that it would. "Come sit with me."

"I have failed." Seven of Nine turned to look at her as if making a realization for the first time. "And when this ship returns to the Universe Alpha, I will again be one among many. I do not wish to leave."

"You do not need to, Chesei. We are your family, and the choice to stay or go is yours and yours alone." Laren knew it was more complicated than that, and that the immediacy of Seven of Nine's pain was clouding her reactions and judgment, but this was a promise she could make. A promise that cost her nothing and gave Seven of Nine the choice and control that the situation had so apparently robbed her of.

Laren drew Seven down onto the bed, once more fitting the blonde to the crook of her shoulder, and let the taller woman's weight settle onto her. Sensing how over wrought Seven was in danger of becoming, she moved her head closer to a delicate ear, just above the starburst and whispered. "Though if you stay here, you are really going to have to give some thought to altering your designation."

A short exhalation of breath rushed across the skin on her neck, and Laren lifted her head slightly. She couldn't help but smile at the startled look on Seven's face. Unlike her mate who appeared to revel in the absurd, this incarnation of Seven of Nine was clearly amused by observational humour, and quite likely by sarcasm.

"Secondary Drone of Voyager Alpha One, is not an acceptable diminutive?"

Laren winced, unhappy to be right about the sarcasm, and even less happy that it seemed that whatever happened in that hallway had sent Seven of Nine back to feeling like a drone. "No, it is not."

==^==

Laren stepped out of the guest room, and took a deep breath. When she looked up from calming her anger, Seven was standing in front of her. "You know?" She asked her mate.

"Yes. We spoke across the link."

She reached out and touched her fingers to Seven's. "B'Elanna is not going to take this at all well."

Lwaxana entered the room. "Laren, my love, you have a definite gift for understatement."

Laren sagged against Lwaxana. "This is all my fault."

"No, Darling. You honoured her right to choose how, and from whom, to learn what she wanted know."

"But I didn't make sure she understood--"

Lwaxana put her finger on Laren's lips, silencing her mate. "Just as the choice to act was hers, so is the pain of learning from those actions."

Seven tilted her head, then looked down at Laren, her gaze soft and understanding. "She should not be alone."

T'Pel wandered in, and moved to join them. "She is not. We are here."

Seven looked around at her mates, and then smiled. "We are."

==^==

"Ezri." Deanna let herself sink more fully into the soft surface.

"Hmmm?"

"No more parties."

Ezri grinned weakly into the pillow, dreading that she had to be on duty again in a half hour. "Okay."

Deanna called her on it. "You're lying."

"Asil?"

"Yes, Ezri."

"Stop telling Deanna what I'm thinking."

"Certainly."

"You're lying." Ezri wasn't convinced.

"Vulcans do not lie."

"Right. And I'm not having anymore parties."





Chapter 43 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




Ensign Jonas stood up from his spot on the floor when the doors to the security office opened for the eighth time that morning. He was the only person still being detained in the brig. Each time the doors slid open, one occupant of the brig was processed and then lead out. Not once had any the officers entering the brig looked at him. Not the tall, impassive Vulcan female who came for both his cellmate and the Bolian who hadn't spoken to him all night, but who seemed pleased to see the woman. Not the pretty Betazoid, who, one by one, took the rest of gamma-Voyager's crewman away with her; and not a single one of the security officers who had escorted the departing detainees.

So he was understandably confused and a little afraid when the fully armed Trill who walked, unaccompanied, through the doors, came to a stop just inside the brig, and stared directly at him, meeting his eyes with hers. He had paid enough attention to the briefing to know who she was, and why it was a bad thing that she was here.

It was never good when the officer in command of anything came to see you in the brig. That it was Voyager's Officer Commanding only made it that much worse. In fact, about the only person worse that he could think of, other than Commander Dax, would have been for his Captain to have come herself.

Slowly, Dax advanced across the room, not once taking her eerily luminescent blue eyes away from his. When she reached the cell doors, she deactivated the forcefield with a curt command in a language he didn't recognize, but that he had a sinking feeling was Klingon. Whatever it was, his communicator didn't translate it, but then, it hadn't been responding to anything since he'd been locked in the night before.

And still, her eyes were still fixed on his, and he swallowed, reflexively. The woman was slight, not very tall, and hadn't said a word to him, but Jonas was more scared of her than he'd been of the Tuvok-clone whose kid he'd hit.

Then she did something even scarier. She smiled. "Good morning, Ensign Jonas. It's time for you to go home."

"Wait. You're just letting me go?" He stared at Commander Dax in astonishment.

"No. You are to report to Commander Ro before your next scheduled duty shift. You are to read the instructions on the PADD she gives you and follow them."

"But I thought..." He stalled in the thought, because truthfully, he wasn't even sure he could imagine the worst. He just knew it would be the worst, unequivocally the worst.

"Thought what?"

"Uhm. Nothing. Uh, Sir."

"Why do I doubt that?"

"Well, I guess, you know…" He made a stabbing motion with his hand. She raised her eyebrows at him and shook her head.

"You would be dead if we intended to kill you."

"Uh, well, not kill, kill."

"We are professionals. Do you doubt our ability to be fair and impartial?" Her gaze was intense, penetrating, and he could have sworn he heard a growl. It was apparent that there was only one correct answer.

"Uh. No, Sir."

"Then what is the problem?"

He leaned in and said, "I decked the Commodore's son."

"Yes, you did. And, not incidentally, since my recent marriage, my son too. You should really watch where you put that fist." Ezri took a step back, then spoke as if as an afterthought. "By the way, the Lady Seven will want a word with you. It's a Klingon Honor thing. But really, you should read the PADD."

"Klingon Honor?"

"An assault on our son is an assault on the House, which is a Klingon House. We are obliged to respond. But, you are also a Federation Officer, as is our son. You struck a fellow officer. Thus, you will speak with Commander Ro to deal with the military issue, and then the Lady Seven of Nine, Mistress of the House Presba, for the other. Good luck with that."

Dax turned away from him, then spoke again in the language he didn't understand.

Jonas felt a bit like he couldn't breathe, and that probably saved him another set of black marks in his file. Because it wasn't until he unexpectedly materialized in his own quarters that he started swearing a long, wide, blue streak.

==^==

Commodore Janeway sat back in her chair and looked out the of view screen. From it she saw a panorama of stars providing a backdrop to the sleek, silver lines of gamma-Voyager. It was a beautiful sight.

Though there were a few obligations that Commanders Troi and Dax were attending to this morning, they were, for the most part, off duty for the rest of the day. The event, she knew, had taken a great deal of energy to keep running smoothly and without any major incidents. Thus, she was enjoying a rare sojourn in the captain's chair, watching over her ship for the Alpha shift. Harry Kim would take over for the Beta shift, and then it would fall back to the normal Gamma shift crew.

Despite some of the crew looking a bit more sleep deprived and haggard than others, there was a sense of a night well spent. The phrase, "World of good," kept going through her head.

Now it was a matter of working through the next week and then the two Voyagers would transition, one at a time, to account for the wake, into the beta-Universe. They were still debating which ship should go first, but the Commodore was inclined to have Captain Janeway go first, if only so Drs. Kahn and Brahms could watch the event unfold, and perhaps use that data to prevent other trans-universal accidents from happening.

With that thought in mind, she turned her focus to the PADDs that Ensign Johnson had so thoughtfully conveyed to her and went back to work.

==^==

"Any thing exciting happening?" Captain Janeway asked as she sat down in the captain's chair, as Ro smoothly vacated it and moved over to her own seat.

"Exciting might not be the word for it, but there were a few disciplinary actions from last night you might want to review. In particular, you might want to look at Ensign Jonas' conduct and service record. But we should probably discuss that in the ready room at your convenience. Also, security is really itching to run another trial boarding with Voyager's Marines."

"This time they can't use all of the turbo-lifts. Lanna nearly spit targ teeth last time."

Ro's lips twitched at the casualness of the commentary, but she merely said, "I'll see to it."

KJ reached over and gently patted her hand, then just as casually removed the touch. "I know you will." She looked out at the beautiful stars and the shiny serenity of the other Voyager. "How do you feel about dinner tonight?"

"Are you cooking?"

"Do you want me to?"

"Honestly? No."

"Then, no."

Ro kept a straight face. "Then I feel fine about dinner tonight."

"1800?"

"Better make it 1900."

"Done."

==^==

Entering Astrometrics, Ezri paused inside the door and took advantage of what little time would pass before her arrival was noted to watch Seven work. Even if Seven hadn't had enhanced auditory perception, the mating bond had rendered any possibility of watching her mate without being noticed a permanent impossibility. The slight straightening of Seven's graceful form told her that her time was indeed up.

"Commander Ezri Dax."

"Astrometrician Seven of Nine."

"How may I be of assistance?" The use of her title signaled this was to be a professional visit, and Seven responded in kind.

"Do you have a moment?"

"Yes." Seven turned her attention to Megan Delaney, who appeared to still be in the process of catching up with her day. "Megan, you have the floor."

"Aye, Seven. I have the floor. Can Jennifer come up and help?"

"If you wish."

"Thanks, Boss."

Seven suppressed her smile. B'Elanna was the Chief to her department, and somehow she'd become the Boss for hers. "Commander, if you would follow me?"

The Trill nodded and appreciated the view as Seven guided her into the Astrometrics Chief's office. She loved that there was still no desk in sight, and that the holes B'Elanna had made were still in the wall. By the Creator, she adored this woman.

"Would you care to sit or stand?"

"Would you mind if we sat first, talked, and then took a personal minute?"

Seven's beauty was once again transformed into glory by a smile. "I find that acceptable."

They sat facing one another; Seven with natural good posture and Ezri a bit more casually. Both, however, were angled toward one another, the genuine intimacy of their relationship evident in their body language.

"I hesitate to bring this up, since it is, essentially, a House matter. But I would feel remiss if I did not at least address the topic, since the party no doubt contributed to the event."

Seven was instantly aware of what the conversation was about. "It was not the party, but the over-imbibing of Ensign Jonas. The statistical majority managed to attend without such conduct."

"True, but he wouldn't have become so drunk if the opportunity had not presented itself so overwhelmingly."

"I would again have to disagree, but I understand that you feel somewhat responsible. I will take it into account."

"Which brings up the real topic. Ensign Jonas will be coming to see you at some point. He has been informed that he is dealing with a Klingon House, and that it is a matter of honour, but I doubt that he understands the implications completely."

"Are you asking for leniency?"

Ezri considered what she was about to say carefully, "Not exactly. Icheb took a good one, but he knew the risks when he waded into the fight. I do not think it was overly personal, though the ensign did insult him for being Borg. I suppose, I am saying that the incident needs to be considered in context when you decide what to do."

She had had sufficient time to process her anger that Icheb's status as a severed drone had been used to hurt him, and by extension Celes Tal, so she was able to discuss the matter dispassionately. "I understand. I will consider carefully the information available and, if it makes you feel better, I will speak with the ensign before tailoring a specific consequence." Then, there was a sparkle of amusement that emanated from her. "I promise not to out and out space him."

"Oh. You heard that, did you?"

"Laren finds the idea quite comedic in a gruesome way."

"Well, there is a certain elegant efficiency to that solution. It's just that it's so..."

"Permanent. Plus, it would likely upset Captain Janeway."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that." She'd actually been thinking that it would be both messy, and a little too barbaric, but not by much.

"Ezri Dax?"

"Yes, Seven of Nine?"

"Is this conversation concluded?"

"I believe it is."

"Good. Come here."

Ezri grinned. "I will comply."

==^==

It was on days like this that Lwaxana thought she ought to take up art as more than a mere hobby, if only so she could capture scenes like these. A holo-camera never did justice to them.

Perhaps it was the fall of light over dark skin, or maybe it was the serenity with which T'Pel was sitting and working. Or, maybe it was just her own fanciful vision.

Whatever the reason, she was finding great beauty in simply watching her mate work.

T'Pel looked up, aware of the Betazoid's rapt gaze. "I believe that I may be causing you to be inefficient."

"Considering we've been much more pre-occupied in the past, I cannot complain."

"I did not say you were complaining."

"No. I like the view."

Vulcans did not blush, but Lwaxana always found that extra unacknowledged hint of color quite attractive. T'Pel slid a data disk into a PADD with the ease of long experience and without looking at it. "As do I."

Now it was Lwaxana's flesh that altered in color. She was amazed that she could still flush, considering how familiar they were to one another. "How much longer until we are done?"

"At this rate, twenty five hours."

"And at a more efficient rate?"

"An hour and a half. Perhaps less."

"I feel suddenly productive."

"Indeed."

==^==

Finally able to catch up on regular correspondence, having already dealt with anything marked urgent or from security, Ro made note of an unexpected memo from Seven of Nine, and sat back in her chair. Seven never sent memos; instead she hand delivered reports, or routed them through engineering. Urgent issues resulted in a imperious summons to Astrometrics. Seven of Nine was a face to face kind of woman.

She tapped a button and brought the text up onto the screen. Her eyes scanned the words and she knew she paled, she could feel the heat draining from her face and hands. "Captain, may I see you in the ready room?" She transferred the memo to a personal PADD and stood.

Janeway had a brow cocked in curiosity, but Ro maintained her calm expression and just nodded toward the starboard side of the bridge with its requested destination.

The doors had barely slid shut before KJ spoke. "Laren?"

Instead of replying she held out the memo, knowing that she would never be able to actually hear her voice tell Kathryn Janeway that Seven of Nine had resigned her post.

If she had ever doubted how the Captain felt about their Astrometrics Chief, it was firmly laid to rest in reading the confused and devastated expression on Janeway's face. "Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine is not aboard Voyager."

"I don't think she came back last night." Ro moved forward. "You need to go get her."

"No, it's different this time. This was her choice."

"How do you know that?" Ro bent leaned in, and placed a light kiss on now pale lips. "Go."

The gentle command woke something in her, and KJ looked at Bajoran intently. "Why?"

"Because no matter what we had, or will have, the moment she came on board she became someone you couldn't live without. Now go, before my 'Human' nature reasserts itself and I become a jealous harridan and tie you down."

"1900." Janeway said, and then left the room.

Ro quietly accepted the promise and logged the Captain off duty for the remainder of the shift. On a hunch, she queried for the location of Lt. Torres. "Lt. Torres is in main engineering."

Maybe she'd put engineering first on her list of stops during rounds.

==^==

Thomas, who had grown quite used to waking up alone, realized that something was different before he even opened his eyes. He processed the available information. Someone, a female, was spooning him from behind and he was holding someone male. His mind blanked on the names, but he recalled instantly the beautiful green faces.

"Sana," he whispered, remembering one name.

She hummed and hugged him closer. Her hand drifted across and down his hip. "Good morning," she whispered.

He replied sleepily, with a touch of awe. "Good morning."

"Dav still sleeps?" Sana asked.

The person in question rolled over, and then brought them both into an embrace.

Dav was not a small man. But, Thomas found great comfort in that. Among other things. He was aware, with that movement, of a simple, primal stirring.

The muscular male Orion replied, kissing him warmly before kissing Sana. "Dav is now awake. What time is it?" Humour coloured Dav's voice.

The computer replied. "09:32 hours."

Thomas was settling back in, when the time announcement penetrated. He sat up, looking much more rumpled and relaxed than normal. "I've got to get to work."

"No," said Sana. "You are off duty. Commander Ro says."

"She did?"

"Yes. You are to take the rest of the day with myself and Dav. It should be three, but needs must."

"Wait, I don't understand. Three days for what?"

"What is to understand? You have free time. We have free time. It will be healing and good. You do remember what Commander Troi said, do you not?"

A vague memory stirred in the back of his head, but it was very fuzzy. "Wait. Are we married?"

"Contract marriage, for 30 hours." Dav answered.

"Uhm…"

Sana smiled slightly. Then she leaned forward and kissed him warmly. "No worries, Thomas. Today we are yours and you are ours. Tomorrow you will be free and return to work and it will be better. You'll remember soon enough when it is important."

"Well, when you put it that way, who am I to say no?" And just then, three days didn't sound like it would have been so bad either.

==^==

Icheb entered the holodeck, bat'leth in hand. "You will not interfere?"

Voyager paused, her concern almost overriding the realization that he was an adult and no longer needed to be coddled. "I will not. But if your vital signs fall below acceptable levels for an extended period of time, you will be transported to sickbay immediately." She paused, and then made the gravest threat she could think of to ensure his caution. "And I will notify your Mother."

"Acceptable." Icheb turned to the arch. "Computer, begin program Torres theta two."

A stone and wood amphitheater appeared, with a long gravel walkway between him and the entrance. Along each side of the path were pairs of armed Klingon warriors, twenty in all.

Icheb squared his shoulders and began the walk.

==^==

Kathryn knew it was coming, made the leap and bounced off the wall with her feet. She twisted in the air and fired, blasting at the velocity disc. She missed. It too hit a wall, then careened in a new direction. She didn't pause to watch. Her mind and body were already moving, making ready to cover the next possible point of intersection, and trying to second guess the choices that Seven would make.

That was getting more challenging with each new velocity match, and not just because of the adjustments in speed settings or even the random addition of an agility course to keep them on their toes, but because Seven was becoming more clever with each game.

Kathryn grinned, because she loved it. She had loved the physicality of the game from the start, but it had taken them a little while to make the best adjustments for their enhancements. Now, however, it was as challenging and frustrating and wonderful as she remembered it. In other words, it was fun.

Plus, there was always the side benefit of watching Seven move.

Seven no longer held back, and that alone was a thrill. Especially now that Kathryn realized that Seven had always been holding back in their games before. But now all was fair. So they both used every advantage. Whatever the course presented to them, they jumped, ran, and frequently collided with one another.

Kathryn felt there was much to be said about ending up in a tangled heap with Seven of Nine, and not one whit of it was bad.

She grinned as she saw the blonde actually stop and track the velocity disk like a perimeter phaser. Kathryn was on the move, knew that she had one chance, so she ran and slid, like a baseball player, through Seven of Nine's open stance. Then, she whipped her phaser in the direction of the disk and, with hardly a thought about how she knew, fired.

The disk rammed into the wall, rebounded perfectly, much like a pool ball from a side rail, and bounced off of the shelf of Seven of Nine's ample, beautiful chest.

"Impact Janeway, point Janeway. Round to Janeway, ten points to eight. Janeway wins three rounds to two."

Seven just looked at her, her expression equal parts consternation and rueful awe. "How do you do that?"

Kathryn grinned, shrugged. "Experience." She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and sighed happily. Her grin widened in further satisfaction when she registered the look that Seven gave her in response. "Another game?"

"Yes. And this time I will win."

"I look forward to seeing you try."

Seven mock grimaced at Kathryn, who blew her mate a kiss; one with an erotic caress behind it.

The Borg look startled, and then her expression softened. Kathryn had turned such kisses into a true art. Seven gazed with affection at the other woman before determinedly saying, "Computer, reset match."

Then, with the sound of the buzzer, they were off and running again.

==^==

The engineering teams of both Voyagers had learned the skills needed to relate to their respective Chiefs during their off days. Mostly that meant, if the Chiefs were staying in the area, that those who could flee to the Jeffries Tubes and places beyond, did. And those who couldn't, maintained a good two meters between themselves and whichever irate Klingon they worked for.

Aboard the alpha-Universe Voyager, Lt. Commander B'Elanna Tigan, Epatai of the House Presba, was not in a good mood, and the whole of engineering knew it. She was so angry she wasn't even speaking Federation Standard while swearing, or even during most of her unbroken monologue.

Though occasionally, she would break out into coherent speech for a few bright seconds to express sentiments that might best have been kept to Presban. "…and we are a week away from transition and she picks now do to this..."

Several new dents appeared in the walls, and on one console where she'd bent it out of shape, then bent it back into shape - the hard way - several times.

Those dents were already recorded on the assignment board under her name, since the Klingon fully expected a clean, functioning working environment, but did not expect her crew to do her work for her.

Fortunately, work did tend to be a genuinely soothing action for the ingenious woman, so the crew only had to stay out of her hair and eventually she wouldn't be breathing fire.

The engineers aboard gamma-Voyager, were also having one of those days. The only real difference was in the clanging of hardware against the walls that was used to punctuate the Klingon-studded Common that flowed outward in a gloriously incomprehensible tangle of vocalized wrath. And there too the work board listed a number of items that needed to be repaired by the Chief.

Another board, on the same ship, but not located in main engineering, and accessible only from specific terminals, or with a special set of regularly changed ciphers, had also begun to stretch its alloted capacity. That board, due to the party, was filled to overflowing with all manner of juicy tidbits. As a result, one that was indirectly aided by the fact that the discussion tangents specifically about Seven of Nine and her love life had become mysteriously inactive recently, what ordinarily would have been amazing news about Seven of Nine's evening, and subsequent resignation went practically unnoticed. An even less intended corollary of which was that any information that might have explained their Chief's unusual level of irascibility was also overlooked.

The board dedicated to the Chief, however, was picking up speed, as rumours, facts and innuendo were collated and further disseminated. It wasn't long before it began to be filled to bursting and the true speculation began.

==^==

Dressed in civilian attire, and sans her Captain's pips, Janeway literally prowled into engineering. The majority of the occupants fell silent at her arrival, but her quarry did not. Economical in her motion, she moved to within a half meter of her Chief Engineer. "Your office. Now."

She didn't wait for a response, or to see the expression her words had left on the Klingon's face, and headed for the office immediately, leaving Torres to follow.

Two strides into the room, Janeway turned and waited for the other woman to move far enough inside to allow for the door to be sealed. As the engineer walked past, seemingly stoic, though the earlier tirade of words the universal translator wouldn't even touch belied the true state of affairs, Janeway granted that she was pleased that she hadn't been forced to say more in public than she already had. "Computer activate privacy seal, authorization Janeway gamma ten." The only person capable of breaking through that level of seal was no longer aboard the ship, so she knew that whatever was said in this room, no matter how loudly, would stay there.

In the short span they had been in the room, Lanna's stance had gone from wary to belligerent, and Janeway pinned her with a calm glare. "Remove your pips."

Now she could see the edges of fear in the Klingon, and her heart sank; for Lanna to be afraid it meant that Seven of Nine's absence was not an overreaction to whatever had happened. She watched, eyes narrowed, as the pips were removed one by one.

Another flash of anger darkened Lanna's brown eyes, and she lifted her head, once again defiant. "You're demoting me because I had an argument with Seven of Nine?"

Janeway laughed, the sound harsh and not at all amused. "No. But this is personal, and not a place for rank." She stepped forward, surprising the engineer into taking an involuntary step backwards. She lifted the PADD she'd been holding and thrust it at Lanna, who took it. "Read it."

Lanna read the text, not comprehending it the first time, and then the full meaning sank in. Before she could put her reaction into words, Janeway ground out, "What did you do to her?" The accusation tangled in the anger was plain.

Lanna brought her hands up from her sides and crossed them over her chest. She was trapped and couldn't back down. "Me? Nothing. Now Hansen on the other hand." The attack was a mistake, she saw it instantly. She had gone too far.

"You drove Seven of Nine off this ship because of your petty jealousy?"

Janeway moved forward and Lanna scrambled back, reflexively putting the desk between them. She knew that she was bigger and stronger than the Captain, but the coldness on Janeway's face turned her stomach with genuine fear. Worse there was nothing to say.

"Tell me, B'Elanna Torres, after four years on this ship, do you really think it was either of us who brought out the woman who danced in the holodeck last night? I may have severed her from the collective, but they freed her, and you have no right to judge the how of that. Unless it wasn't you who dubbed her the Ice Princess?" Janeway walked toward the door, but only took two steps before turning back around. "And if you know for a fact that she was intimate with Laren, it's because she told you. It's not in her nature to be less than honest, but I'm beginning to wonder if the same is true of you. Tell me, B'Elanna Torres, daughter of Miral," Her name this time was tinged with disdain, Janeway's lips almost set in a sneer. "Did you ever get around to stating your intentions?"

The irony of the phrasing was not lost on her, and Lanna vaguely registered the command to unseal the doors. The sound of them opening and then closing were muted in her hearing, as though the other end of the room were miles, rather than meters, away. Bonelessly, she sank to the floor and gave into the despair.

==^==

Two Changelings and a Cardassian stood outside of holodeck two, not quite ready to go in. "Are you sure about this, Yara?"

"Well, honestly, no, Garak. I'm not sure. But Booker says it is worth the experience and I would like to try."

"I don't know," said Odo. "We weren't exactly invited."

As he was speaking, two other people walked up and paused before entering. They were dressed in leather outfits - jackets, pants and boots - and were holding helmets. There were patches on the jackets, including one labeled clearly, GDRC. One of the individuals said, "Oh, hey. Are you here for the tour?"

"Yes." Yara spoke before any of the others could mumble a denial.

"That's great. We're actually expecting a few other folks. They may be in there already. Come on in. It'll be fun."

Garak shot an amused glance at the still cautious Odo, and then he smiled and said, "Thank you. I believe we shall."

==^==

Thomas grinned and gunned his bike, causing it to speed forward down the long path. There was noise and wind and all sorts of wonderful sensations to go with the passing scenery as they rode their way through one of the more popular tours. Sana and Dav were on their own vehicles which they had, through various tours, tailored for themselves. Sunlight glistened off the bikes, shining them without blinding.

It wasn't an experience he had anticipated having, but now that he was here, he was having a marvelous time. He enjoyed the commentary and banter that was streaming through the speakers in his helmet. Sometimes he would contribute a thought or two.

What amazed him, other than the fantastic, swift journey, was that he was having such a good time. It was as if someone had designed the scenario just for him. Which, given what he heard about its history, was not the case. But still, there was a hint of everything he liked: freedom, history, danger. All of it rolled into one thrilling scenario.

Frankly, he loved it. And he was already plotting on how he could snag a copy.

==^==

Captain Janeway materialized in the main transporter room aboard her counterpart's ship and stepped off the dais, radiating more calm than she felt.

"Hello, KJ." Lwaxana's smile was warm, but there was clear tension in her bearing.

"That bad? They sent an Ambassador?"

"No. They sent an empath."

She nodded, understanding exactly what that meant. The Prime viewed her presence as a possible threat to Seven of Nine. "May I see her?"

Lwaxana looked at her for much longer than felt comfortable, and she tried to let go of everything except her concern and sense of loss.

"I think she would like that." Lwaxana's smile had gentled along with her tone, and her eyes reflected understanding.

Relief washed over her and she took comfort in Lwaxana's gentle touch to her back as she was guided out of the room, and toward the woman who was her heart.

==^==

"Captain Janeway."

She shook her head. "Not here. It's just Kathryn or," she smiled faintly, "KJ. It doesn't sound so bad when you say it."

It was plain to see she'd startled Seven of Nine. "I have never addressed you by that designation."

Janeway raised her brow, and deliberately invoked a speculative expression, made unaccountably happy by the answering twitch of the blonde's lips as the implication was clearly understood. "You may."

"Very well." Seven of Nine shifted her stance, and indicated a chair, but did not add an appellation. "Would you care to sit?"

"Do you plan to?"

Seven's shoulders almost jerked into stiffness and she rounded on Janeway. "I will sit." She perched on the edge of the bed, leaving the offered chair free.

She was aware that Seven of Nine had intended to say something else, and equally certain that it would be said eventually, so she sat on the bed, next to the blonde, and waited. When almost ten minutes had elapsed, she chose among her questions and picked the easiest one. "Are you okay?"

"No, I am not." Seven continued to look straight ahead. "Are you angry with me?"

"Why would I be angry?"

"You are not angry that I copulated with Laren?"

KJ blinked, not having expected that response. "No. If I told you that I had been intimate with Lady Seven, would you be angry with me?"

Blue eyes turned her way, and she thought she could see a glimmer of humour in them. "You do not need to tell me. I already know."

"And are you angry?"

"I am not." Seven's organic brow furled along with the metal one. "I am supposed to be, am I not?"

She understood what Seven of Nine was trying to puzzle out. The Borg was trying to frame Lanna's reactions in terms of the new data and her own revelation. "I don't think there are any rules for how to feel in this situation. I know that I believe anything you did prior to our altering the parameters of our interaction is solely your own business. Do I wish I had been the one? Yes. Am I glad to know that you had what I hope to have been a positive experience with someone I know cares for you? A bigger yes."

"Lt. B'Elanna Torres does not feel the same way."

"I'm not here to plead Lanna's case. I'm not that noble, and I'm far too angry." She looked away, then back up, meeting Seven's wary eyes. "But I think you should know something about Human beings. We often run hardest from what we are afraid of losing." As she said it, she knew it not just for Lanna's truth but her own as well. Wasn't that why she shut Seven of Nine out after her cortical node failed? At the time she'd thought it was the act of murder it took to get the replacement node. But that hadn't been it at all.

"That is illogical." Now it was Seven's turn to look away for an instant. "And it hurts."

"Yes. It does. And I deeply regret that I did that to you too."

"You were afraid of losing me?"

Unable to keep the sardonic tone from her words, she answered. "Many times. You don't think that I would have taken on the Borg queen for just anyone, do you? You know, I have another regret over that too."

Seven did not ask, but the question was clear in her expression.

"I never hugged you and told you how happy I was that you were safe."

"You did not need to. I knew. Just as I knew that you would come for me, even if you should not have."

"I will always come for you." Her words hung in the air between them, her reason for coming stated as baldly as she could.

"I cannot return. The ship is too small."

"And I'm not enough." The realization slammed home; her culpability in that truth and the attendant guilt made her throat close. Tears were close to overwhelming her ability to hold them back.

"Once you would have been, but now I know what it is like to not be alone, to not be isolated for being myself. I cannot go back to that. I will not." Seven's voice rose in anger and then broke on the last syllable.

"It won't be like it was before. Too much has changed." She could sense an even deeper fear under the surface, and she was at a loss as to how to get Seven to express it. "You have friends on board. More than you know."

"Not as many as Lt. Torres. And I am still too Borg for her."

There it was. "At the risk of sinking my own ship, I think you are the perfect amount of Borg for her, she's just entirely too Human for you right now."

"This is not funny."

"No, it's not. But you can get past it."

"I do not believe I can. I forgave her for the manner in which she treated me previously, and trusted that we had come to an understanding. I am now unwilling to trust or forgive her."

"There's something else you should know about Human beings: our capacity for forgiveness is only surpassed by our ability to love. Unwilling is not the same as unable."

"You are being..." Seven faltered, unable to find the word she wanted. How did one express surprise at the conduct of another without insulting their capacity for that conduct? "...unexpected."

"Truly, Seven? I was your friend long before I became your suitor."

Janeway looked slightly hurt, and Seven wanted to erase that expression. "Yes. You were. Even when you were being my Captain, you were still my friend."

"And now?"

"Now you are no longer my Captain. Do you intend to cancel our date?"

"No."

"Then you are still my suitor."

It took a second to realize that Seven of Nine was teasing her, so subtle was the hook. "If your sense of humour gets any drier, your blood will turn green."

"Thank you." Seven dipped her chin, a nascent smile playing at the corner of her full lips. But the flash of red only highlighted how wan the blonde appeared.

With one hand, KJ reached up and trailed the backs of her index and middle fingers across Seven's cheek. "You really should regenerate."

"I am not ready."

"I know." She mulled it over. "I will have your alcoves brought over. Tell B'Elanna she can bring or commandeer whomever she needs." Another thought, one with a less permanent outcome, bloomed into awareness. "Or, I can arrange for site to site transports, off the logs, to your alcove, and while you regenerate, so that no one disturbs you, I'll spend the time in your quarters. I never did get the tour. Your call."

Seven of Nine knew her eyes widened at the offer, in fact, she knew exactly by what percentage they had increased in size; it was the reason they did so that made it hard to formulate a response. "You will respect my choice?"

"Yes."

Though Janeway had allowed what Seven knew to be her command mask to settle over her features, she was easily able to detect the changes in respiration and heart rate that revealed the Captain was not as unconcerned with the outcome of that choice as it appeared. "I will come." She paused. "But no one must know that I am there, I do not wish to interact with Lt. B'Elanna Torres or any other member of the crew. You may, however, inform Commander Ro Laren."

"About Commander Ro."

Seven of Nine watched, curious to hear what the normally direct Captain would say.

"I'm having dinner with her in my quarters this evening. At 1900."

"Are you and the Commander resuming your previous relationship?" Amused, and aware that her amusement might be considered inappropriate, she kept any trace of it from showing in her expression.

"You knew about that?" Janeway sighed. "Of course you know about it. Half the ship probably knows about it."

Seven of Nine did not correct her; she was certain that nothing would be served if Captain Janeway knew that the percentage was considerably higher than half. "You did not answer my question."

"I don't know, Seven." Ironically it was the same answer she'd given Ro Laren when asked about Seven of Nine.

"You will inform me when you become certain?"

"I will. I promise. You're not angry?"

"I am not. You have not lied, and you promised to tell me if something occurs that changes the nature of how we must interact. That is sufficient."

"Then, I'll see you tomorrow, and you can come back with me afterwards and regenerate." Janeway stood to go and Seven stood with her.

"I will comply," a tiny pause, "KJ." It had the intended effect and she received a genuine smile in return.

==^==

The Emissary enjoyed the walk. More he enjoyed the way he was seeing his walk. There was familiarity to it, a balance between then and now.

His companion floated along beside him, encapsulated by a more refined and smaller container. The container utilized tiny thrusters and specialized tools. It was reminiscent of technology developed for persons whose limbs failed to function, but was much more perfected and, which allowed the sprite to communicate and travel in a much more comfortable environment.

The sprite loved the vessel. The creature was also feeling better and was more ready to see this new environment on its own terms, now that it was understood more correctly. Also, the sprite now had a place to call its own, a small place, true, but quarters all the same, just like any other guest. Those quarters were situated across from Benjamin Sisko's and had one large room for guests and a tiny compartment for the sprite.

They entered the DoD. The sprite went in first, followed by the Emissary. An ensign stood up. "May I assist you?"

"I would like to introduce you to Ambassador," he paused for a moment and looked at the small being, then smiled. "Ambassador Blue. It is very interested in Starfleet and in the Federation, and would like to know more."

"Yes," chimed the newly named Ambassador of its people. "More."

The ensign only blinked for a second. Then replied, cordially, "Of course. If you'll follow me?"

==^==

"What's wrong?" Kathryn leaned across the table, and touched her mate's hand, feeling the anxiety through their bond, even as she saw the worry settle over Seven's features. They had been enjoying a light lunch in the Golden Bough after their earlier velocity match, and she had a feeling it was about to come to a premature end.

"Icheb." Seven appeared to be looking inward, and then she relaxed her posture. Her right eye darkened, the artificial one followed suit, and anger replaced the worry in her expression. "Lady Torres to Epatai B'Elanna Tigan."

"Tigan here. What's wrong, Be'nal?"

"Your presence is required at holodeck one, Seven out." Even as she spoke, she was moving out of the restaurant and toward her destination.

Kathryn had listened with concern; it had been a long time since she'd heard that tone, or such an imperative summons from the Borg. She looked up out of habit and addressed her ship. "Voyager, what is Icheb's status."

The hesitation in reply, though barely appreciable, told her more than she wanted to know.

"Icheb is injured, but not badly. He has succeeded in his task." Voyager paused again. "He asked for privacy."

Far from reassuring her, the information made her more concerned.

Now in the turbo-lift, Seven looked directly at her and entwined their hands, but spoke to Voyager. "What program is running in holodeck one?"

"He was running program Torres theta two."

Seven looked at her for clarification, and Kathryn bit back her curse, not wanting to add her reactions to her mate's fear. "It's B'Elanna's Rite of Ascension Program."

By some miracle of timing all three of them converged on the holodeck at the same time. Before more could be said, the doors opened and Icheb stepped forward. He was covered in blood, and his garb was torn in several places. Through the gaps and blood, Kathryn could clearly see the burn marks left behind by the pain sticks.

He straightened his shoulders, and turned to B'Elanna. "Epatai, my name is Icheb Hansen and today I am a man."

B'Elanna stepped forward, and put one hand on his shoulder. "You are Icheb Hansen. Today you are a Warrior. Qapla." She stepped back and thumped her chest.

Kathryn didn't know whether to cry or to shout with joy. How like him. She remembered very clearly the boy who had come to manhood in her eyes the day he had removed his own cortical node to save the life of another, and though that necessity had been prevented by the alteration in the timeline and the gift of the Anomaly, he was clearly the same quietly determined man. "Qapla, Icheb."

"Thank you, Warlord Janeway."

There was one last reaction to come, and she wondered how Seven would respond.

"Mother." Icheb's shoulders were squared and he was clearly prepared to accept whatever came, but it was equally obvious from the expression in his eyes that hers was the approval most important to him.

"You may address me by my designation. You have earned that right." Seven moved forward and rubbed his cheek, and then kissed his forehead. "And I am proud of you."

"Thank you, Mother." Icheb turned again, only showing his pain briefly, then masking it. "Epatai. Lady Seven. I formally request that the House's handling of Ensign Jonas be left to me."

"No." Seven's response was swift and sure.

Kathryn was forced to smile. He had out maneuvered them all, B'Elanna would have no choice, not now that she had acknowledged him.

"Why?" B'Elanna asked, clearly unwilling to go against her mate, but needing some reason to deny him.

"Though the Honour of his House is paramount, a man's honour is his own, and this task should be mine."

And with that, Kathryn knew B'Elanna's decision was made, her hands tied, but she could also see that Seven knew it too.

"Go with honour." B'Elanna thumped her chest again. After a few beats she moved forward. "But for Kahless' sake, come back in one piece or your Mother will kill me."

He smiled, and nodded. "Yes, SoS."

==^==

They were tall, powerful and innumerable. The Holographic enemy warriors swarmed Lanna, and forced to her to find a high point, rock at her back, to defend. She had originally begun the fight with her bat'leth, but that had fallen onto the ground somewhere below the increasing pile of bodies. Now she was forced to holdfast against the brutal onslaught in the most primal of ways: flesh on flesh. For fleeting moments, she would manage to disarm one, and to grab their weapons, delivering death with the borrowed steel, until once more falling back on tooth and fists.

She was a bloody mess, lost in the haze of a terrible battle lust that had been carrying her through these last moments. She couldn't be everywhere at once, however, and the creatures who assailed her had no limits to their stamina, methods, or their numbers.

Thus, though she had the high ground and was temporarily sheltered, it was inevitable that she would be flanked, as the AI in the program adapted to her tactics and the warriors began to climb over the escarpment. They were not worried about their losses in the effort, merely the eventual success of it. She was aware of it, but there was simply nothing she could do about it. All she could do was fight those that stood before her.

So she did, not surrendering even a clump of the ground she held, determined to fight to the very last. Then she was struck from behind, and she felt blackness descend. Through the haze of blurring vision and fading consciousness, she saw the long dagger descend toward her in time to join her own horrified awareness of just how permanently fucked up the whole thing was about to be.

She did not hear the snapped command, "Holodeck, end program!" She did not feel herself lifted. Nor did she hear the worried instructions, "Emergency site to site transport, two to beam to sickbay."

==^==

Lanna groaned in powerful ache. She did not want to open her eyes, and hoped for the oblivion of unconsciousness to reclaim her.

"Lieutenant Torres, I know you are awake."

The Klingon groaned again. Her eyes squinched, her face becoming pinched with reluctance, but she knew she must face the inevitable. "Commander Ro."

"You left the safeties off."

"Are you going to report me?"

"I don't need to. It was the Captain who found you."

"Shit."

"She was unavoidably detained, or she would have been here to greet you herself."

Lanna knew a line when she heard it. "Right."

Commander Ro was not interested in playing games. She leaned in, grabbed the Klingon by the collar and lifted the other woman with surprising strength. "By the Prophets. You will listen and cut the crap. When I say the Captain was detained, that is all I mean. Are we clear?"

It hurt. Sitting up hurt. Everything hurt. "Clear," Lanna managed to reply.

Commander Ro settled her back down more gently than she had brought her up.

"Now. Listen up, because I'm only going through this once." The glare would have done Janeway proud. It certainly caused Lanna to flinch. "You are restricted to quarters for thirty hours. After which, you will resume your duties during your regular shift, still limping or not. Your failure to follow protocol will not be marked against you, because the Captain thinks you've managed to punish yourself enough. I, on the other hand, think you were a boneheaded targ and ought to be in the brig for the usual allotted time. Fortunately for you, you have a friend in the Captain."

"And you aren't my friend?"

"Don't be an ass."

"Sorry."

"You should be. What the fuck were you thinking?"

"I'm Klingon, remember?"

"It's not an excuse. It never was. You forget. I know Klingons."

"Laren, I…"

"Don't even. I thought you were my friend. As I recall, we had an agreement."

"Laren…"

"Prophets! I don't want to hear it. Get some rest and get your fucking head on straight." Ro pulled back, inhaled. "I don't have that many friends and you nearly cost me one tonight. You nearly cost Miral her mother. When you're ready to talk for real, without the targ-shit, you contact me."

==^==

With one hand, Kate ran the dermal regenerator slowly over the gashes and bruises accumulated by her mate. The bone knitter had also been used and set aside on the tray by the bio bed, which B'Elanna occupied. The only available physician, she had asked no questions about how the wounds were gained, but had simply and skillfully repaired the damage.

It had been, B'Elanna had found, soothing. It was probably the best visit to sickbay she had personally had after one of her more strenuous work outs. No demands to be careful and no lectures had accompanied the treatment. Instead there had only been that careful attentiveness that the Klingon had come to associate with Kate.

She was reminded, again, that her mate was very good at what she did. Her manner, outside of her demesnes might be brusque, but while practicing, there was a delicate caring to her touch. B'Elanna didn't think it was unique to their relationship either. It was simply Kate doing what needed to be done, in a way that was uniquely Kate.

Kate ended with B'Elanna's hands and the brunette watched as the wounds over her knuckles closed. Then she gasped a little, as she felt the merest flicker of a kiss along those same vanished wounds. She looked up, spotted the warm amusement in her mate's eyes and smiled.

Some things were worth coming home to.

==^==

Tuvok studied B'Elanna's affect carefully, and stretched his growing telepathic sense of her to its limit, gauging how prepared she was for the meditation. The edginess that had been in her demeanor for most of the day was gone, and he sensed that she was centered within herself. He nodded his approval, and allowed that he was pleased by the quicksilver grin that flashed across her face before it once more settled into relaxed impassivity.

Much had changed within them all. Himself included. "You have achieved a great deal of mastery over yourself, my mate. It is well done."

B'Elanna swallowed, almost unable to flex her muscles around the lump that formed in her throat. Rather than reply verbally, she smiled slightly and tilted her head in silent acknowledgement of the compliment.

Tuvok felt the mix of surprise, joy and pride that flowed outward from her to him, and realized that logic was not the only path to perfection. Passion could just as easily carry one the distance. It merely needed to be tempered and directed.

Ruminating on that thought, he left his mate to her own mental journey and leaned forward to light the candles.

==^==

Ezri stood in the hallway on the adult level of the family quarters and pondered the unexpected situation. No one was in the Nest, and she didn't particularly feel like trying to sleep alone in the large room, despite its extraordinarily comfortable surfaces. The guest room had acquired an actual guest, and wasn't an option at the moment either.

The day had been fraught with enough tribulations that she was loathe to disturb any of her mates who were already asleep just so she could drop into a weary slumber herself. She grinned, shrugged her shoulders, and decided that it might be worth her while to raid the kitchen.

Before she could act on the thought, the exterior door at the end of the hall opened, and Kate entered the dwelling.

"Hello, Dr. Kate." She watched, delighted, as Kate sauntered the length of the corridor and closed the distance between them.

"Ummm." Kate kissed her thoroughly and companionably before pulling back. "Is there a chance I won the lottery tonight?"

Ezri laughed. "There might be. Of course, it's an even bet that you lost."

"I'll take those odds." Kate stole another kiss, then gently pushed Ezri backwards in the direction of her room. "And that reminds me. I want to ask you something as soon as I whisk myself through a shower."

"Can I say yes now?" The door slid open as she spoke. Entering a half step behind Kate, Ezri peeled off toward the bed and flopped down onto it, while Kate entered the refresher.

"No." Kate threw the comment over her shoulder just before she stepped into the sonic shower.

Laughing lightly, she took a moment to enjoy the multi-coloured display of lights in the fountain that served as the room's centerpiece, and then sat back up to divest herself of her vest. She hung it from the bedpost, then unbuttoned her shirt and discarded it a little more carelessly. With her feet already unshod, sliding her pants off was easy, and she crawled under the covers just as Kate emerged from her shower. "That was fast."

"Well, it was either the lack of inspiration in there, or the lure of inspiration out here." Kate fitted her body next to her mate's as she sank into the welcome warmth of the bed.

"Now what did you want to ask me?" Ezri snuggled in more deeply.

"You enjoy games of chance and strategy, correct?" There was always a slight buzz in Kate's voice, but when she was around one of her mates it tended to vibrate more overtly.

"I do."

"Would you consider playing poker with me?"

"Poker." Ezri considered the question and then said, "Can I invite Deanna?"

"If I can invite Kathryn."

"Deanna will invite Asil."

"Then I'll be sure and invite T'Pel."

"Would Tuvok play?"

"I don't know. He might, but he'd be murder to play against."

"So would T'Pel."

"She'd lose deliberately if she thought it would forward her agenda."

"Whereas Tuvok hates to lose."

"Now, Ezri, you're implying emotion where some exists."

Both women began to chuckle.

"Think Lwaxana would want to play?"

"Either that or she'll want to watch."

"Now, Kate, everyone knows it's me who likes to watch."

That brought out another series of chuckles.

"Seriously though," Kate said, "I think it would be fun to play a game or two now and then, when the kids are asleep."

"Or with the kids. Rebi would keep us on our toes, and don't let Azan deal if you want any shot at winning."

"I take it that's a yes."

"Oh, definitely. I wouldn't miss it. What are the stakes?"

"Haven't decided yet."

==^==

Laren rolled over for the fourth time in as many minutes. It had been a long time since the mixed memories of past and present collided to spark a restless night, and not since her Maquis days had they thundered so relentlessly through her mind, pulling into focus the horrible dream images that castigated her in ways in which reality never could. Vivid colours and impressions of muted sounds served to paint stark reminders of internment camps and sniper's outposts. Imagery that had been soothed into quiescence by the love of her mates, and their compassion for her experience.

The ordinariness of the day, despite the attendant pains and pleasures of the night before, had been shattered by the news of Lanna's catastrophic trip to the holodeck.

She had guilt of her own with more than enough to spare, and so was not normally one to take on the guilt for another person's choices. Free will was something she understood and believed in implicitly. She also had a growing belief in the nudges of fate and chance. But she could not escape the knowledge that her actions had an impact on others and in Lanna's case, it had not been for the better.

With a sigh she rolled over again, pulling the sheets over the top of her head to add to the already near complete darkness. On a starship, safety and expediency both dictated that there was always some form of illumination in halls and quarters, but on her worst days, it wasn't light that called to her, and she craved instead the strange comfort and silence of utter dark. She wasn't quite ready to intone the command to deaden the glow of the guide lights, but she was close to it.

Aware that most of her mates were sleeping and therefore not subject to them, Laren allowed herself to feel the harsher edge of her emotions. She turned on her side, and let herself cry. The tears for both Seven of Nine and Lanna, who were her friends, cascaded like a gentle waterfall along the ridges of her nose.

From the Nest side of her room, a chime sounded at the door. At the same time, there was a gentle reaching along her bond, and Laren recognized that she was not alone in her introspection or her sorrow. "Come," she called, grateful that there was no quaver in her voice to give away her inner turmoil.

The door slid open, spreading light past the tall, darkened form of her mate. "Seven."

The Borg strode into the room and the door shut behind her. Laren didn't bother calling for the lights; Lady Seven of the House Presba did not need them. She did, however, sit up in the bed and moved the covers away, before she stood.

It was a timely motion.

Seven pulled her into a tender hug, and then unerringly kissed her. Laren felt both the love and the condolences wash over her and, in that moment, she recognized her emotions as not just ones of guilt, but ones of grief.

They sat down together on the side of the bed and Seven spoke without preamble. "Lanna's choices have been unfortunate, but they are not your fault."

Laren sighed. "I know. In my head, I can completely see that she is the one who disabled the controls. I can believe that she did so out of her own need to prove something. But I can also see that I am the one who chose to sleep with Seven of Nine."

Seven ruminated on that, and then said, "Laren, you do not regret sleeping with my sister."

A spike of surprised humor flashed through Laren. Sometimes word choices had unexpected results. "Well," said the Bajoran slowly. "That is true."

"Nor does she regret it. It is an experience she treasures."

Laren could feel her mate watching her and now wished she had turned on the lights. Seven's eyes were well worth looking into, even on the hard days. Maybe especially on those days. "Computer, lights one eighth." She took a moment to drink in the warmth and understanding she could now clearly see, as well as feel. "How do you feel about it?"

The question could be interpreted many ways, but Seven thought she understood what was being asked. "I am sad that Lanna failed to ask Seven of Nine the most important question."

"And what was that?"

"Why."

Laren sagged, and lean into her mate, grateful for the physical, as well as emotional closeness. "I don't know that Lanna would have understood anyway. Not in that state."

Seven nodded. "No, but later, when she was engaging in self-recrimination for having dallied with that Borg, the explanation would have come back to her, and Lanna might have made a better choice for herself."

"Oh." Laren thought about it, and decided not to add that it might have made it worse for Lanna in a different way, and the outcome would have been the same. Lanna's emotional wounds ran very deep, and short of turning back time, she wasn't sure that events could have ended in any other manner.

The blonde's tone was firm. "It will work out, my Laren. Lanna will recover. Deanna and Ezri will help them, and they will eventually talk it through or start from a new point. Seven of Nine will eventually forgive her."

"You're saying she won't be able to help herself?"

"I was never able to. B'Elanna in any form is a challenge to understand, but well worth the battle." Seven gently squeezed Laren, "As are all my mates. I love you, Laren of mine."

"And I you, Jalat." She reclined against the headboard, and drew Seven in against her, reversing their positions somewhat. When they had settled into a more comfortable repose, she spoke again. "What about you and KJ? The wheel has a way of turning, and the same thing could happen."

Seven considered the question, and understood Laren's underlying worry. "Any connection we make is a calculated risk. I did evaluate the data before I made my decision. Your comments were factored in, as was the potential for Kathryn herself to withdraw from me as she had the others."

"I did push you a little, didn't I?"

"No, beloved, you did not. You merely allowed me to see my way clearly."

"I was cavalier."

"I disagree. You were confident, in me and in my choices. And I was aware of who might be affected by the decision, including Kathryn. It was a logical outcome of the evening, necessary even, I believe. It might not have been the only way to breach the walls she had built, but it was the most efficient, and the one with the most chance to have a lasting impact."

"And should Ro come barging onto Voyager demanding satisfaction?"

"I will tell her that I require fine dining and an intimate atmosphere first."

There was a pause and Laren began to chuckle. "No regrets then?"

"No. It was good for Kathryn. She is much more her true self now. She was losing herself. They all were. The only one still trying to find herself was Seven of Nine, but she too was struggling. Thank you."

"For what?"

"For being someone safe and someone Seven of Nine could let go of afterward. If Lanna had been the first and then had gotten this angry afterward..."

"Seven of Nine wouldn't have recovered."

"No, she would not have." Seven paused, her voice becoming grave. "My sister believed herself to be non-functional. Before we arrived, her only friends were a child; a hologram; Kathryn, who withdrew from her; and Ensign Kim, who died. She had ceased to make outside connections with others." Seven stopped speaking.

Laren read the turmoil along their link, and turned her head so she could better see Seven's expression. She inhaled sharply at the sight of how pale her mate's eyes and skin had become, and how haunted she looked. "What is it?"

"She had prepared protocols to terminate her existence. It was only that she had not finished her final map in Astrometrics, and that she did not wish to distress Naomi without saying goodbye, which prevented her from enacting them." Seven turned her head to look at her mate, and her voice unconsciously dropped to a whisper. "The map would have been complete less than two weeks after our arrival."

Rocked, Laren tilted head back and closed her eyes against the sinking pull of shock. Had Seven entertained the same thoughts at one time? Or had the reset changed that possible outcome? Fresh tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She simply couldn't imagine her life without Seven in it, and knew that without her Borg mate, she would not have begun to heal her own wounds. She tightened her arms around Seven, and kissed the top of her head, secure in the knowledge that, in this here and now, in this reality, this Seven knew she was loved and that she was not alone.

Seven continued. "We gave her a different perspective, proved that she could function as part of both community and family. At the same time, she was growing more aware of the potentials of relationships and her sexuality. Who else could she go to? She could not approach Lanna, because Lanna is not ready. She could not approach her Captain, because Kathryn was no longer there for her. B'Elanna would have been too much like Lanna. I am her sister, but had she approached me, I would have been willing. I am aware, however, that social protocol would find that kind of tutorial inappropriate and so is Seven of Nine. The only other choice, beloved, was you."

Quiet reigned as Laren digested the analysis. Perhaps she had done more good than harm. In any case, it mattered to her only that her mates understood, and that Seven of Nine herself had no regrets. A soft kiss was placed at the base of her throat, and the soft exhalation of air that she had come to recognize as a form of laughter from Seven sounded in her ear, even as it tickled across her skin. "Hmm?"

Seven shifted and turned so they were facing. Her lips were curved in a knowing, and rueful smile. "I believe however, that I will not necessarily employ such tactics in the future."

The wry humour triggered a laugh of her own. "I'm glad you were awake."

She could hear the smile in Seven's response. "I was not. I was dreaming of you."

==^==

No matter how many times she sat in the Captain's chair, Ezri was certain that she would never get used to the idea the she was entitled to sit there. It usually took her the first half an hour or so of the Alpha shift to get used it. This morning was no exception. She shifted in place, and her glance fell on the woman in the first officer's chair next to her. Using fingertalk, she sought input. "Any ideas?"

"For which one of them?"

Ezri nodded and sank back into thought. She and Deanna worked well as a command team, but people tended to forget that they were also both highly trained counselors, with more than their share of experience treating wounded psyches. She felt a tingle, almost a silent echo cross her thoughts, and she nodded at Deanna, once again giving permission for contact. The Betazoid had, in a manner of speaking, knocked on her mental door.

〈〈I have an idea for how to help Seven of Nine, but the one I'm most concerned about is Lanna.〉〉

Ezri held her hand up to reply, but Deanna shook her head.

〈〈Focus. Like you were talking to yourself. I'll handle receiving.〉〉

This time she spoke in Presban, mostly because if they sat silent for much longer, they'd attract attention by virtue of the uncharacteristic silence. "I thought we had to be touching for that to work?"

Deanna gave a light laugh. "We get away with a lot, but I think holding hands on the bridge would get us hauled into the ready room."

"True."

〈〈Trust me.〉〉

Ezri took a deep breath, then exhaled. She talked to herself all the time, and often got an answer of sorts, so this shouldn't be too different. 〈〈Deanna?〉〉

〈〈I can hear you.〉〉

Momentarily distracted by how absolutely amazing it was to be able to hear Deanna, and have Deanna hear her, she almost lost sight of something she'd meant to ask much earlier. 〈〈This is another new skill. How are you doing with all of this, yakiri?〉〉

〈〈Better than fine. Mostly we don't notice one of us is doing something new, and when we finally do realize it, it seems natural.〉〉

〈〈Good.〉〉 Ezri moved the conversation back to the original topic. If Deanna wanted to talk more about the effects of her bond with Asil, or of being Presban, she'd ask. 〈〈Why Lanna?〉〉

〈〈I read something from Thomas Paris that made me think that this isn't about Seven of Nine at all.〉〉

Ezri digested that, putting the information she had about Lanna together with what had transpired the previous evening. 〈〈You take Thomas and I'll go talk to Lanna. And whatever you have in mind for Seven of Nine, you should start immediately, she's stretched pretty thin. Go ahead, I'll start the department reports all by myself.〉〉

〈〈That's not much incentive to come back.〉〉 Deanna stood, stretched, and then moved for the turbo-lift.

〈〈If we can't hold hands on the bridge, then any incentive I may have to offer would land us in the brig.〉〉

Deanna was still laughing when the turbo-lift doors closed.

==^==

The Borg's expression remained non-revealing as Deanna Troi made the introductions. "Seven of Nine, this is Inan. She is a Truth Seeker and a Counselor. She is also a friend of mine."

Seven of Nine nodded, acknowledging the Orion woman. Then she looked at her niece, "You wish me to speak with her."

"Yes. But only if you feel up to it."

Inan said, "Sometimes it is helpful to have a third party view, someone who is not involved with the situation or who has had a similar experience."

Seven of Nine looked doubtful, but there was part of her that was intrigued by the idea of an even exchange. She was perceptive enough to understand the implicit admission of the Orion. "You will share this experience with me?"

"Yes."

Seven of Nine didn't even take half a minute to consider it. At this time any extra data would be helpful. "I would be interested in sharing information with you and gaining your opinion on certain social behavior protocols." Then she said, "Thank you, Deanna."

"You're welcome. Now. If you will excuse me, I have another errand." With a courteous nod, the Betazoid took her exit and left the Borg and the Orion to themselves.

"Why don't we sit down over here. It will be more comfortable, in general. Though we can stand if you prefer."

They settled in and Inan considered how they might begin. She thought of the other six liberated Borg she knew and realized where they might find value. "What would you like to know?"

==^==

With just over half of the reports completed, Ezri picked up the one from the Department of Diplomacy, and stood up, stepping away from the chair. "Mr. Kim, you have the bridge. I'll be in the DoD." She left no further instructions; he didn't need them.

"Aye, Commander." Harry Kim moved smoothly from his regular post at operations to the command level and took the now vacant seat, then set the console for his preferred layout.

Maintaining station-keeping was mind-numbing, and Ezri was very glad that she'd had the reports to occupy both her mind and her time. Not that she would ever admit that Kathryn or Deanna; she smiled to herself as the lift moved swiftly through the decks.

Entering the offices that were the domain of Ambassadors Troi and T'Pel, she couldn't help but whistle appreciatively at the decor and design of the space. She could very well be standing in a building on Betazed. She nodded to the ensign on duty and used spousal privilege to move deeper into the suite of rooms to where her mates were located.

"Hello." As she greeted them, it occurred to her that she really hadn't interacted with them often as people outside of their personal relationship. Usually, one of her special envoys ran reports for her, meaning that the children spent more duty time down here than she did. Ezri held up the report. "Barin and the Twins have another obligation today, so I'm delivering my own report."

"You need no reason to visit us." T'Pel came to her feet and held out her fingers.

"No, you two would be reason enough, but I actually do need to talk to you about a couple of things." She touched her fingertips first to T'Pel's and then to Lwaxana's.

"Come, sit by me." Lwaxana reclined on the settee, and patted a spot.

She took a minute to settle in, basking in the warmth radiating from the other two women. Definitely a welcome balm for a difficult day. "I need to talk to you about my zhian'tara."

"You're concerned about the baby."

Ezri looked over and raised her brows, used to Deanna being able to read her, but not having felt any sign that Lwaxana had done so.

"It is the logical presumption." T'Pel commented, noting Ezri's surprise.

"Yes. Or rather, no. I already talked to Ranul, and there is no apparent danger or at least there wouldn't be with a Trill, or most Humanoid species."

"But T'Pel is a telepath." Lwaxana supplied.

Ezri laughed. "I suspect she is a great deal more than that. Prophets, we know she is. And yes, I am worried, because the baby is probably a telepath as well. You both know way more about this than I do, so you need to decide if you still want to participate." She made it plain by her body posture that she was talking to both of them; they would have to decide together if T'Pel would take part.

She watched, fascinated and awed as usual, by the almost tender expression that settled onto T'Pel face as she and Lwaxana conversed in their own unique way. Lwaxana's face flushed, and it seemed to Ezri that her pupils dilated slightly, but with both the irises and pupils naturally black it was difficult to tell. A moment later her suspicion that they had moved beyond the original purpose of their discussion was confirmed as she felt an erotic tug along the mating bond. "I swear a polar ice cap couldn't cool you two down."

"Sorry, Darling, we got distracted." Lwaxana did not look the least bit repentant, and having been on the receiving end of T'Pel's considerable gifts, Ezri understood completely.

"I will still be Host to Lela Dax."

Ezri didn't ask if T'Pel was sure, the fact she had spoken meant that the decision had been carefully weighed. "Thank you."

A few beats passed in unspoken acknowledgement of the import of both the zhian'tara and their decision, then Lwaxana stretched and purred. "Is there anything else, or can you stay and play for a minute."

The purr shot straight down her body and settled into the ridged nerve bundles that lined her major erogenous zones. "Believe me when I say that I want nothing more than to play with the two of you right now, but I actually have a ship's business matter to bring up."

Lwaxana's eyes twinkled, and both she and T'Pel drew their hands along the length of her body, not touching it physically, but brushing her nerves regardless. Lifted up on the touches, she experienced an explosion of pleasure, then surrendered to a few more minutes of restful bliss before her mind cleared.

"Now what did you need to talk to us about, beloved?"

It was clear that Deanna and Asil both came by their mischievous streaks honestly, and Ezri shook her head fondly, then leaned closer and, in slow succession, kissed them each thoroughly. Breaking away reluctantly, she indicated the nearly forgotten report. "How would you feel about arranging an officer exchange between the two Voyagers?"

==^==

"Thank you for meeting with me," Deanna said and she indicated a chair.

"Thank you for everything that you've done for me." Thomas smiled warmly, accepting the invitation.

When they were both comfortable and a few more pleasantries were shared, Deanna decided it was time to bring the conversation around to its purpose. "I do have a few things I would like to talk about with you, before you leave Voyager. They are personal things, but I believe, necessary. Are you willing to speak with me about them?"

Thomas looked at one of the holo-paintings on the wall of the office. It was an outdoor scene of some far away place. He didn't recognize it. Deanna let him have the moment of contemplation and choice.

He looked back at her. "If you had asked me that two days ago…"

"You would have used 21st century vernacular to tell me to leave you alone."

He laughed, warmed by her insight. "True." His gaze turned inward for a second. Then he smiled. "But today is different."

She smiled back slightly and said, "I know." Then her expression turned serious. "Thomas, I need your help. And for you to do that, I must share some information with you. You would probably find out anyway, once you boarded gamma-Voyager. Rumor does fly on any starship. But I want to give you some background for why I am asking you in particular, and would appreciate your discretion in the matter."

"Okay. Shoot." Deanna Troi had been more than fair to him, and if all he had to do to even the scales was keep his mouth shut, then he could do that.

It amazed her that this laconic man was the same individual who she had seen curled on the floor of the cargo bay. Though maybe it shouldn't have. He would have healed much sooner if gamma-Voyager had a counselor on board. He was a naturally resilient man. Though his wounds did run deep.

"Last night Lanna Torres was found unconscious and nearly beaten to death in a holodeck. She had taken the safeties off and went beyond her limits. As per usual, there are always reasons that a person makes those kinds of choices."

"And you think this has something to do with me?" Thomas' eyes had widened, and he sat upright, as though responding to a shock.

"Partially. There were definitely other factors that led to her to make the decision she made, you were not the cause. But there is some history there, and it would be helpful if you would allow some exploration of that."

His expression turned pensive. He brought his hand up and unconsciously nibbled at his knuckles before setting his hand back down on the armrest of the chair. He took a deep breath, looked directly at her and said, "Where would you like to start?"

"Tell me about Harry Kim."

Thomas looked thunderstruck - as if she'd taken a knife to him. She experienced a flash of worry that perhaps she had been too direct, too soon, but she hid that from her expression. Again she waited, hoping.

The next breath he took was shaky and he couldn't look at her. So he stared back at the painting. He began. "Harry was my best friend."

"And?"

"B'Elanna got him killed." The words were bitter, but seemed to lack any real weight, as though it were a practiced mantra and not a true sentiment.

"Tell me about it." Deanna settled in to listen on more than one level, as Thomas began filling in the broader picture for her.

"There was a race. Harry and I had been prepping the Delta Flyer when B'Elanna decided she wanted to come along. Well, right then I should have gone with my gut. It was telling me no, but B'Elanna can be pretty persuasive when she wants to be…"

==^==

"May I ask you another question?"

"Yes."

Deanna thought about how to frame the question. She opted to push a button, and use his reaction to decide how to proceed. "It must have seemed selfish of B'Elanna to refuse to let you and Harry have some time alone. How did you stand it?"

"What? No. It wasn't like that at all. Harry wasn't just my best friend, he was hers too. We were all friends, and I was dating B'Elanna at the time. I hadn't planned on it, but there was room for her on the Flyer."

"But, under normal circumstances, it was likely it would have just been you and Harry in the shuttle."

"Well, yeah."

"So, it must have been very important to B'Elanna for her to want to be there."

"I suppose. I think she just wanted to spend some quality time with me, something about sharing my interests. But I never asked her to do that."

Deanna left the end of that comment alone for now, and continued with her original line of inquiry. "Was Harry aware that B'Elanna was pregnant before she asked to come on board?"

"I'm sorry. What?"

"B'Elanna was pregnant at the time of the race. You were aware of that, weren't you?"

"I…" His expression went blank as he searched his memory, and sought flashes of discussions and moments of contact. One stood out.

He had been tinkering with the shuttle. "Tom, I need to speak with you. Do you have a moment?"

"Sorry, B'Elanna, I really don't. The Delta Flyer needs a few adjustments before the race. Is it something that can wait?"

"I suppose so. But, we really do have to talk." She gazed at him with an unusual intensity and he interpreted that to mean that she was serious. So he stood up and went to her, wrapping his arms around her.

"We'll have plenty of time to talk after the race. It'll be just you and me then." He kissed her warmly before letting her go. "Does that work?"

"I guess so. Promise?"

"Sure."

Thomas sank back in his seat, covering his eyes with the palm of one of his hands. "She tried to tell me. There wasn't time."

"But Harry knew."

He thought about it to a greater extent, and remembered a bit more. He remembered the way Harry looked at him - at them. At the time, he'd taken it as just part of an intense friendship. Now he realized there had been longing. "He tried to tell me too. But the race had me occupied. I should have seen it."

"You weren't ready."

The tears came anyway. "No. I wasn't."

"And then it was too late."

He gasped as the wound hit him fresh and the weeping began again. But this time it felt cleaner, deeper. "The alien came. She took him."

Deanna leaned forward slightly. "Did she take him, or did he go?"

"She took him." But that wasn't quite right. Harry had instantly stepped in front of B'Elanna and offered to go.

"He saved your lives." Deanna said gently.

"Their ship blew up."

He felt Commander Troi move closer, wrap her arm around him. "It wasn't anyone's fault. Not even your own."

"I should have been the one."

"Really? You, the flight controller, would have left your post and abandoned B'Elanna?"

"B'Elanna should have…"

"Oh, believe me, she feels the same. But her perception is a mistake too. She had her assignment, didn't she? Just as Harry did. But was it in Harry's nature to let them take B'Elanna…Or you?"

"No."

"Harry took on that responsibility. He took it for the very same reasons that caused you to love him from the beginning. He was noble and caring and he loved you and B'Elanna enough to make the sacrifice. Or it would have been the Delta Flyer that exploded and all three of you who were killed." She told him the rest of what she learned from the database. "The Flyer had been rigged to explode as it crossed the finish line. The only reason it didn't was that the ship Harry was on exploded first, and the race was stopped."

"We should have let him in."

She squeezed his shoulder gently. "Perhaps. But none of you were ready. That conversation wouldn't have happened until after the race anyway." It was plain that Thomas wasn't ready to acknowledge the larger truth, and she didn't push, not yet.

"Oh, god."

"They both loved you."

"I pushed her away. I couldn't do it. I couldn't be with her, couldn't even look at her after that, and I couldn't talk about it. I broke everything. And I couldn't fix it."

"I know, Thomas. I know."

Deanna held him, until he stopped shaking and his tears began to ebb, and then, for good measure, she held him a little longer still.

==^==

As many members of the Prime as possible had made the effort to be at home for their mid-afternoon meal. Icheb had consulted with Laren and prepared a selection of dishes they could all share, but which were not too spicy or rich. The chairs around the table were all occupied, and Seven of Nine found that she was slightly overwhelmed by the apparent effort to make her feel at home and welcome.

It had been more than she'd anticipated.

The beginnings of her unexpected happiness abruptly evaporated as Kate began telling another anecdote about her recent trip to gamma-Voyager's sickbay and its physician. She hadn't realized that her feelings were evident, until she heard her name being said with concern and Lwaxana touched her hand lightly.

"What's wrong?"

Mindful of her social lessons, she attempted to deflect the inquiry but could not keep her tone from revealing her anger. "There is nothing wrong."

Kate looked at her. "It doesn't sound that way."

Seven of Nine stood, social lessons discarded. "So now I may not choose how I describe my emotional state? Just as the Doctor may not choose how he is to be addressed? You are a guest in his sickbay, but you do not accord him the right as a sentient individual..." her tone was laced with venom, "to decide on his own name. Did you force Dr. Zimmerman to accede to your wishes as well?"

Kate was so stunned, she couldn't begin to find her voice, and the Borg continued.

"You and Dr. Dezhe have names as individuals, it was not necessary to rob him of the choice. There would have been no confusion, unless having a hologram referred to by a title you share offends you." Seven of Nine clenched her fists and walked away from the table.

"Where the hell did that come from?" Kate finally found her voice.

Ezri looked over Mezoti's head and met Seven's eyes, seeing the total understanding in them. "I think," she said slowly, speaking as much to her Borg mate, as to the rest, "that that's been a long time brewing."

==^==

Icheb stood by the lake, and stared out over the water, mentally calculating the equation that would produce similar ripples in a more viscous fluid. His shoulder ached, his nanoprobes not yet having repaired all of the damage, and he had refused to go to sickbay. He had earned the wounds and would bear the scars, or at least as many as his system would allow to form.

Jonas would be brought to him soon, and he weighed his decision. Starfleet had made him a soldier and a healer. One family had made him a farmer and discarded him as a biological weapon, the other family had made him a true son and brother, but it was what he made of himself that would matter most. Yesterday he had made himself a Warrior, and today he would go into battle.

"They are on their way."

"Thank you, Voyager." He turned and walked around the edge of the lake and waited. When the far doors to The Park slid open, he knelt and picked up his sister. The boys understood without needing words, the twins flanking him, Barin in front.

The security detail marched up and came to a halt six paces away, bodies erect, expressions stern, but Icheb could see that Booker was amused. "Ensign Hansen of the House Presba, this is Crewman Jonas."

Jonas looked confused, and a thin sheen of sweat formed along his brow. "Sir."

"Mr. Jonas." He kept his tone neutral for the greeting, then softened his voice. "This is my youngest sister, Emina." Emina did her part and looked at the crewman intently. "These are my younger brothers, Rebi, Azan and Barin."

The confusion on Jonas' face deepened and he looked to the two security officers, then back at Icheb. "Look, I'm sorry I insulted the honour of your House, and I'm sorry I hit you."

Icheb ignored his apology. He put Emina down, making sure that Barin had hold of her hand, and kissed her forehead. The twins, having been warned in advance, guided the pair a short distance away and resumed their game. In seconds they had the baby laughing as she tried to catch the bubbles being blown for her.

He let the silence between himself and his guest continue until the crewman stopped shifting on his feet and began to watch the children play. When Icheb saw Jonas' expression soften, he waited a minute more then spoke. "Do you hate Emina for being Borg? Or Azan? Or Rebi?" he left himself out for now.

"No. Of course not, they're just children." Jonas looked horrified.

"And Seven of Nine? Or Myself?"

Jonas started to answer and then, showing more sense than he had in two days, stopped.

"Seven of Nine, and my Mother, were children when they were taken. The Brunali gave me to the Borg." Icheb signaled the security detail to step back, and he moved closer to Jonas. He allowed silence to reign again.

"What do you want from me?" Jonas finally asked.

"I want you to understand who your hatred really affects."

At that, Jonas had the grace to look abashed. "Look, I was drunk, I didn't mean nothing by it."

Icheb turned and met the taller man's eyes, no longer appearing as easy going as he had been. "That is precisely the problem. From now on, Mr. Jonas, I expect that if you have the intent to insult someone, that you mean it, and that you understand exactly what you have done, what you are saying, and exactly who it might unintentionally hurt." He held the gaze until Jonas coloured and looked down. "For the remainder of the afternoon you will assist me with caring for my siblings. You may begin by retrieving the boat from the lake."

Jonas nodded and walked to the edge of the water, and then removed his shoes and socks. Gingerly, he stepped in to the lake and began to wade out to the forlorn toy sailboat.

"That was well done." Tuvok appeared from behind the tree where he had been waiting at Icheb's request.

"Thank you, Father."

Tuvok clasped his arm then moved away. Icheb watched him go for a bit, then returned his attention to his siblings and guest. He straightened his back and went to join them. It wasn't often he had a sanctioned day off to play.

==^==

Things certainly hadn't gone as planned the last little while. KJ was glad she had thought to check on Lanna before heading to dinner. She would have deeply regretted the loss, no matter how angry she was. But a part of her wished the Klingon woman had waited one more day to scare her to death. On the other hand, dinner would have been interrupted anyway. So perhaps it was for the best.

The alien convoy had moved on once it had satisfied its curiosity and had discovered the functioning conditions of the ships and crew. It had been fun to watch the DoD in action, but odd to have company while diplomacy was practiced.

They had garnered some useful supplies and it was obvious that Commodore Janeway was of a similar mindset. One had to experience famine to truly appreciate storing away for feast. Plus, half the fun was discovering something new and useful. For instance, they had discovered that they were near a regularly traveled caravan route. One, alas, that did have those who preyed upon it.

Thus the kindness of the aliens who stopped by.

Commodore Janeway did not appear overly worried about the news, but she did take it into account and a new security schedule was established. Unfortunately, they were at the point where they were simply going to have to wait it out a few days and hope that no one showed up during them. If someone did drop by with nefarious intent, however, Voyager would be the one to handle it.

She would have to be. Since gamma-Voyager's drives would be returned to operation in stages. Thus their current state of enforced rest.

It was a worrisome thing, but, for once, they were not alone.

And that reality, made a great deal of difference.

Now all she had to do was reschedule dinner with Ro, and figure out what to do about Lanna.

==^==

The warp core hummed under her feet, in her bones, and tingled through her body. She was often peripherally aware of it, but since she rarely had cause to visit engineering, Ezri hadn't felt the effect quite so strongly in a while. Sometime since her last visit, she noticed that her picture had been added to the others on the wall, and she smiled. It was such a sentimental display.

Her smile died away as B'Elanna continued to glower at her. "Don't make me do this, B'Elanna."

"God damn it, Dax." A twisted hunk of metal thundered into the wall.

"Are you going to make me give you a direct order to stay away from her?" Ezri spelled it out.

"Look, I warned her what would happen if she ever pulled that shit on Seven of Nine again, I have to go over there."

Ezri leaned forward, both palms flat on the desk. "No, you don't. Not if you want this to get better. She tried to kill herself last night. You know the routine - safeties off, dozens of badass armed warriors, no communicator." Her words hit the mark, and her mate's olive complexion paled. "She's damned lucky KJ found her when she did, and luckier still that KJ gave enough of a damn to check up on her."

"Too damn lucky if you ask me."

She knew B'Elanna was venting, but the words shocked her all the same. Quickly sealing her own response away, she calmly probed the statement. "It's a pretty horrific way to die. Cut to ribbons, alone, with no honour in the dying."

B'Elanna closed her eyes and then opened them again. "You don't need to give me an order."

Ezri moved from the front of the desk and sagged into a chair, using her body language to signal a shift in the tone of the conversation. "How are you doing with all of this?"

"I'm fine. Angry and disappointed but fine. It's Laren and Seven of Nine I'm worried about." B'Elanna stared at the wall, her eyes finding the picture of the Bajoran. A minute later she looked back over. "And I think I'm sad too. As Epatai, my choices are limited. Seven of Nine is a Blood Presban and a member of the House, Lanna is not."

"And now you have to take sides."

B'Elanna sighed, and leaned back in her chair staring at the ceiling. "Yeah. And it sucks." She blew air forcefully from her lungs, disturbing her bangs.

"We'll figure it out, Enaid'wI."

"That's not a real Klingon word." B'Elanna felt her spirits lift. It might not be a word she knew, but it was clearly an endearment, meant to reassure and not to tease.

"No, Neshoma, it isn't." Both words meant the same thing, and maybe, one of these days, she'd tell B'Elanna what they meant; but not today.

B'Elanna nodded, accepting the intent behind both the words and the reassurance. Straightening in her chair, she flipped the lid of her work station open pulled up the revised specs for the TUE.

Honouring the silent request to stay for a while, Ezri wiggled until she was comfortably sprawled out and pulled a PADD from the cargo pocket on her pant leg. Turning it on, she shifted her attention from her mate to the material on transference that she wanted to review. A few seconds later, she looked up to find that she was being watched intently.

"I love you."

Ezri smiled. "I love you too."

==^==

Commander Ro entered the ready room. Then paused mid step. Spread out on the floor was a white and red striped blanket, a basket and utensils. KJ was kneeling, not quite finished with her preparations.

"KJ?"

"I thought, given our recent luck, that I might circumvent the potential losses incurred by scheduling a date. And just go for surprise."

The Bajoran chuckled, understanding the reasoning. "I take it, this is for me?"

"Well, plus I wanted to make it up to you for missing dinner."

"That would not be your fault."

"Still…"

"I accept."

"Oh, good."

Ro strode forward and sat down, cross-legged. "Would you like for me to seal the doors?"

KJ paused, considered. "No. We better leave them. It might surprise a few people, but honestly, they can't deny us lunch can they?"

"No. I don't suppose they can." The Bajoran felt her smile deepen. "I will say this, Captain Kathryn KJ Janeway, you have managed to surprise me."

"Oh, good. Then I haven't lost my touch." She finished what she was doing and leaned back. "What's Lanna's condition?"

"She's alive, able to move about. Sore. I confined her to quarters for thirty hours. I figured that would be what it took to get her to actually rest."

"Well, we both know she'll figure a way around it. But it's a good try." KJ gave a lopsided grin. "Now, I'll have you know I spent absolutely no hours on making this, and I fully expect that someone will interrupt us and want some when they see it, so we better dig in while we may."

At that, Ro let out a light laugh, and it was like music to her ears.

==^==

The transporter hummed and deposited the three of them intact, into transporter room two on gamma-Voyager. B'Elanna rolled her shoulders and fought the bizarre desire to duck. It wasn't like the ceilings on her ship had ever been short enough for her to need to crouch, but every once in a while she had an unthinking reaction to the differences in the two ships, and this room was a great example of how much roomier her Voyager had grown.

At the doorway she let go of Seven's hand, giving it a light squeeze before she did. Unaccountably, she felt better knowing that if she couldn't pound some sense into her counterpart, then at least Lanna was going to have to face the Mistress of the House. She looked at the third member of their party. "Don't be too nice, hunh?"

Ezri leaned in, kissed her, and then whispered. "I'll save the nice for later."

B'Elanna felt her skin darken. Ezri didn't often flirt with her, but when she did, it was incredibly effective. The Klingon stood back and admired the retreating view; suddenly she felt a pang of sympathy for Lanna. Ice burned as badly as Fire, and both were on the way.

"Is she still watching?"

"Yes." Seven confirmed. "You do not approve?"

"Oh, I approve, I'd be standing there doing the same thing if it was you walking away."

"Ezri Dax, I believe you are either terminally obtuse, or being facetious. She was watching your ass as much as mine."

"Cute is not an option?" She knew Seven expected her to comment on the profanity, so she refrained.

"You are too dangerous to be cute." Seven linked her fingers with Ezri's. "Where did you plan to sleep tonight?"

She smiled. Not yet having her own room had become an unexpected source of joy, and somewhat of a family joke, as she rotated freely among her mate's rooms and the Nest. "Is that an invitation?"

"That depends on how nice you plan to be to B'Elanna."

"Why don't you tell me how nice that has to be." Ezri put as much heat into her words as she could summon.

The turbo-lift doors opened on deck nine, and they stepped into the hallway, banter forgotten as the reason they were here reasserted itself in their minds.

Together they closed the distance to Lanna's quarter's and Ezri rang the chime, stepping back slightly so that Seven would be the first person Lanna saw. She wanted to see how the Klingon reacted in that unguarded instant before realizing who was at the door. The difference between anger and remorse held the key to everything.

It was better than she hoped for. Shock, then shame flashed across the engineer's face and she looked down for an instant before looking back up. Ezri moved into view, and spoke. "With your consent, Lady Torres is here to provide care for Miral while we talk, or we can call someone else."

"Why the hell do I have to talk to you? I've already been disciplined."

The question was not unexpected, but she was glad of its temperance. It was resistance for the sake of resisting - for the form of it, not the substance. Taking Lanna's silence on the matter as consent, Seven had already moved into the quarters and was efficiently packing up the few items that would be needed while caring for her niece. "Because a Commodore outranks a Captain. You graduated from the Academy, you know as well as I do that any officer that tries to commit suicide is obligated to see a counselor before returning to active duty."

"Look I wasn't trying to get myself killed. It just a Klingon thing. I had to blow off steam."

Ezri waited until Seven and the baby had cleared the room and were halfway down the hallway, then she growled, and, in perfect Klingon, ordered the engineer inside.

"Fine." Lanna went back in.

Ezri growled again, this time in self-sympathy. It was going to be a long afternoon.

==^==

Lanna jabbed her thumb in the direction of the chairs in a rough indication that Ezri should take a seat, and then went to her replicator. There was no way she was going into this conversation without some fortification. She did not offer anything to the Trill, who, she felt, had essentially forced her way in on a technicality. She saw no need to polite.

Ezri did head to the seating area, but did not immediately sit.  She spent a few moments, scanning Lanna's home, trying to glean clues for possible directions to guide the conversation that would inevitably follow, no matter how challenging the beginning. By the time the Klingon had turned back around, Ezri had a few ideas. She had also moved some of the furniture, so that two chairs were facing.

She heard the Klingon's tiny snarl, hid her smile, and sat down in her chosen seat. The arrangement was conducive to encouraging Lanna to face Ezri or the port window, rather than the exit. The chairs were also set a little closer than she normally would place them, but this was not her office, nor was it her intent to make the Klingon comfortable. The more off kilter Lanna was, the more honest in her reactions she would be, at least to start with.

Ezri observed Lanna conducting an evaluation of the seating arrangements. She could take the chair facing Ezri, or the couch to the side of Ezri. The Klingon held a glass of ruby red liquid. She had yet to partake of it. There was a third, subtle option. Lanna could move the chair, but Ezri was certain that it wouldn't be taken; Lanna was simply not equipped at the moment to be that flexible, or to offer more than token resistance to the situation.

"Aren't you going to ask me questions?"

"Eventually. I'm waiting for you to decide what kind of dominance game you want to play so we can get that out of the way."

"Dominance?"

"You're the one who claims that you are so Klingon you forgot to turn on the safeties." She replied, in Klingon.

Lanna's grip tightened on the glass, and Ezri worried that it might break. It didn't. Instead, the Klingon chose the chair, and sat down. She took a falsely insouciant sip of her drink and stared at Ezri, unconsciously beginning the game at the same time as she said, "Fine. No dominance games. Got it."

Ezri connected her hands, palm to palm and lifted them up, maneuvering them so her fingertips briefly swung up to meet her chin. Then she broke the clasp and laid her hands on the armrests. Lanna's intense gaze broke to follow the movement. At that precise moment, Ezri responded. "Good. So, this wasn't the first time you've taken off the safeties, was it?"

Lanna looked back up at Ezri. "No." It was a matter of record that she had done it before.

"When was the first time?"

"The Academy. I needed some way of venting and they always had the safeties set too high."

Ezri's expression became one of interest, and she let her body language deliberately relax. "It must have been a challenge to come up with the way to break the protocols there."

"It was," Lanna took another sip and decided the current direction of the conversation was safe enough. This too was old news, already in her file and at least the Commander wasn't asking her why she did it. "I spent weeks, trying to break into the security system. I remember thinking how hard it was compared to home, but you know, they had kids like me trying it all the time…"

==^==

Lanna wasn't even aware of when things changed. One topic led to the another in a gentle succession, drifting and colliding like waves on the shore of a beach. The Klingon, in order to turn the tables, attempted to turn the conversation away from herself. "They teach Klingon on Trill now?"

Ezri considered the progress they had made and decided that she could make more by seeming to play into Lanna's tactics. "Did you have a QI'tomer here?"

"Yes." Lanna's expression revealed a mix of wariness and confusion.

"Curzon Dax negotiated the accords in my Universe, and Jadzia Dax married Worf of the House Martok. I had a head start. It's a joined Trill thing." Ezri shrugged far more diffidently than the flash of memory made her feel. "Personally, I never understood the attraction. Ferengi are much more fun and less predictable."

Lanna narrowed her gaze, and asked a more pointed question, still hoping to force a deflection. "What is your interest in this?"

"You're family."

"Bull. I don't have any family."

"Ah, so Miral is…" Ezri kept her smile of satisfaction from showing. Lanna had taken the discussion in the direction she had intended it to take.

"That's not what I meant."

"Yet, you'd deny her a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins in a fit of pique. She is amazingly lacking in relatives. That can't be healthy." Ezri lifted a cup to her lips and took a sip of water. She had gone to get her own drink when the time seemed appropriate for it.

Lanna's nostril's flared.

Ezri said, "Tell me about her father."

"There's nothing to tell. I dated someone on board. I got pregnant. I had Miral."

"Your implant ceased to work?"

"I had it deactivated."

"Why?"

"I thought…," a new light of pain flared in Lanna's eyes.

Ezri rolled slowly to a more accessible position and rested her forearms on her knees. "You thought what?"

"We were together, Tom and I. We were together. And he and I talked about having children, about getting married and how Harry would be a god parent, and maybe Kathryn too."

"And so you both decided…"

"No. I decided. I made the choice."

"When did you find out?"

"Just before that damn race. I went to talk to him about it, but you know Tom. He gets so involved in his projects. Sometimes he gets so driven everything else just sort of fades away. I know how that can be."

"One of the reasons you loved him." And one of the reasons Lanna was attracted to Seven of Nine, Ezri realized.

"Yes."

"So what happened next?"

"Well, I knew I needed to talk to him. And since he wasn't listening, I went to the only other person who might get through to him."

"Who?"

"You know who."

"How can I? You haven't told me."

Lanna suddenly looked stricken. She said his name in a whisper. "Harry."

Ezri realized that Lanna needed a prod. "I'm sorry. I didn't hear that. Is that a name I should know? Is that how you celebrate the life he gave for you? In whispers? By hiding him away?"

Lanna stood up and shoved her chair away, outraged.

Ezri stood up, not aggressively, but just to keep the balance. "Why can't you say his name, Lanna? Surely of all the people on this ship, his story was worthy to carry on." She grimaced. "So, what did he do that was so terrible in your eyes?"

"Nothing. Harry was a good man."

"Well, that was stronger. I almost caught that. Who was the only other person you knew could talk to Tom?"

"Harry."

"So, you went to Harry, because…."

"He was going with Tom on that damn trip. And I needed to be on it."

"I thought you said you went to see him because he was the only other person that could get through to Tom when he was distracted."

"He was." There was that snarl. Ezri pressed.

"Really. So, he could get through to Tom when you couldn't. You must have had to beg to get him to help you."

"It wasn't like that!"

"What was it like?"

"I went to Harry," Lanna deliberately emphasized the man's name and continued on, "Because I knew he would help me. He was our friend."

"So you told him you were pregnant."

"Yes."

"And he agreed to..."

"He had agreed to join Tom in the race. They were working together. I didn't think I'd have time for it, but the news about Miral changed things. I told him that I could take over, and it would give me a chance to talk with Tom."

"But, once you told him about the baby…."

"He wasn't about to let Tom and I go alone."

"Why was that?"

"Because he was an honorable man. He loved us." She ground the words out.

"A man who loved you, whose name you remember in whispers." Ezri stepped closer, "What happened during that trip, Lanna? I'm not talking about his abduction. What aren't you saying? Why are you so mad at Harry?"

"I'm not mad at Harry."

"Really? You're doing a good impression of it." Ezri stepped closer. Her voice was very gentle, "Tell me. What happened?"

There was a moment, where it could have gone either way, with Lanna either backing completely off or choosing to trust Ezri. The sound Lanna made was half sob, half growl. "I was…I was psyching myself up to talking with Tom. I had stepped away from my post for a moment to take a few breaths, you know. When I went back, Harry was at his station and answering a hail. Tom had turned around, to look, but not at me, at Harry. When the alien came to get one of us, it was all there in Tom's eyes…."

She laughed a little. "I don't think he even realized. I don't think he even realizes now. And Harry, Kahless, he loved us both, but Tom really had him by the heart. And I realized what I had taken away from him, from them. He was my friend, you know, and he deserved a little time with Tom. I could have given him that. I should have stayed home, and waited. We could have talked about it when they got back. But there they were and I knew then, I knew…that everything that I thought was solid about me, about Tom, Harry and I, had to be talked about, but…there was that alien and then there was no chance at all. None. He promised he would be back. He promised. And when the ship blew up, Harry was gone…just…gone. And Tom went away too and there was no one. And it was my fault. And I wasn't enough, I wasn't enough for Tom to come back to." Lanna's voice cracked. "It was Harry. It was always Harry."

Ezri, wrapped her arms around the Klingon, understanding more than she ever expected.

==^==

At the appointed hour, KJ rang the chime on the door of the Prime's family quarters. The door slid open, but no one greeted her, and she took it to mean that she was free to enter. As she descended the short set of stairs into the main living area, Kate, then Kathryn waved at her, and she smiled back. Kathryn then got up and, rather than moving in her direction, peeled off toward the dining room.

Moments later, Kathryn reappeared and thrust a medium sized bundle at her. "I'm to give you these, see that you put them on, and direct you to holodeck three. You can change in the guest room."

"Yes, ma'am." In keeping with the satirical dryness with which she'd spoken, she turned smartly on her heels and marched to the indicated room, ignoring the laughter that followed her. So much for her carefully chosen outfit.

Unwrapping the bundle, she found a gorgeous silk dress in a blue so dark as to be almost black; a pair of black boots, with six buttons up the sides; and a cloak the same colour as the dress. At least Seven of Nine didn't intend for her to parade through the ship in archaic clothing in too obvious a way.

Laying her own clothing aside, she slipped the dress over her head, appreciating the simplicity with which she was able to don it, despite its being intended to mimic a far more complicated fashion era. Borg ingenuity strikes again, she supposed. Curious, she looked around the room in search of a mirror, and finally located one on the inside of the nearly invisible closet.

The dress was stunning. Much more revealing than she'd expected, but maybe that was a promising sign. Laying the cloak over her arm she stepped out into the main quarters to a healthy round of appreciative comments and whistles. "I don't suppose any of you can shed some light on this." She waved her hands down her body, indicating the outfit.

Kathryn quirked a grin. "All I can tell you is that Seven of Nine saw no point in maintaining an inane level of accuracy in what is a historical fallacy."

Now, what was that supposed to mean? "Oh, that's helpful."

Lady Seven approached and lifted the cloak from her arm and settled it about her shoulders. "You will be late, and my sister will be displeased."

KJ laughed. "Well, we wouldn't want that would we?"

"No, we most certainly wouldn't." Kate chimed in, her tone odd, but KJ shrugged it off and moved toward the stairs, finding that she was eager to see what was in store for her.

==^==

The doors to the holodeck opened and she stepped immediately onto a busy street and into the path of an oncoming carriage. Desperately, she flung herself to the side, and narrowly missed falling into the churning dirt and muck. What saved her was a pair of strong hands and firm tug away from the roadway.

"Thank you."

"My Lady."

The hat being doffed prevented her immediately from being able to see her rescuer in full, but the blonde hair gave her a clue. "Seven?"

"The hour is only recently past six, Miss."

KJ bit down on her lip to keep from laughing. Obviously, Seven of Nine was intent on remaining in character, and had improvised a response to her query with much more aplomb than she would have guessed. Either that or the question had been anticipated and the response prepared. Irrespective, she was impressed.

"Again, thank you, Sir." Both the way she had been addressed and Seven of Nine's clothing revealed that the Borg was playing a role designed to be perceived as male, and KJ was beginning to suspect just what game was afoot.

"Say nothing of it, now I must needs be on my way, my new governess is also disembarking and it would not do to leave her too long alone." Seven's tone was formal, but not cold, and she once more dipped her hat politely.

Suspicions confirmed, KJ smiled broadly. Seven of Nine had programmed in one of her historical dramas. Her heart seemed to thud in her chest as she finally allowed herself to examine her companion's outfit. Well polished black boots gave way to dark tan trousers, which, in turn, were partially concealed by a stylish, unbuttoned topcoat layered over a brocade vest and a white shirt. Seven of Nine had also taken some liberties with her costume, the shirt was not fully fastened and the cut of the coat flattered her more feminine form. The overall effect was magnetic.

"Are you functioning?"

She smiled, this time trying to be more coy than previously, though she had obviously taken too long to formulate the correct response, causing Seven to be concerned. "I am fine, Sir. The trip was long and arduous, and I am looking forward to finding my employer."

Relief showed clearly on the blonde's face, and she realized that Seven of Nine had been unsure of how the scenario would be received.

"If I may be so bold as to inquire, is your designation Miss Emma Woodhouse?"

Once again, she found herself fighting to keep her initial reaction from showing on her face, and curtsied. "It is indeed." KJ couldn't wait to hear what name Seven had borrowed from old English literature to go with the one she'd stolen from Jane Austen.

"My designation is Captain William Darcy. You may call me Mr. Darcy."

That did it. Bending double to keep from suffocating, KJ laughed, incredibly delighted and amused. Finally, she struggled upright to meet the indulgent, slightly annoyed gaze of Seven of Nine. "I'm sorry, Seven."

There was an almost sigh, and the annoyance vanished. "It is not part of the scenario but I find I am gratified to hear you laugh. I had hoped you would find this an acceptable date." The inflection on the 'this' left no doubt that Seven was still somewhat skeptical about the value of the holodeck.

"I can't believe you did all of this for me." KJ looked around, fascinated by the level of detail. Even the air smelled of mud, dung, and people.

"I was contemplating the development of our relationship and I discovered that while we had engaged in many pursuits that you found enjoyable, they were also ones that you had chosen with the hope that I would also enjoy them also, or ones which I chose. We have never engaged in a recreational activity purely for your benefit. I wished to do so for our date."

Touched beyond measure, she couldn't help but to reach out and wrap her arms around Seven of Nine, drawing her into a hug. "Thank you."

"This manner of contact is not permitted in this time period for persons of our social positions. I researched that quite thoroughly." Seven pulled her head back and looked down at Janeway, who had not yet released her hold. "Though I believe the purpose of these stories is to facilitate such contact."

"Indeed." She felt the heat in her cheeks. Looking back up, she was again struck by how pale Seven was, and she took a minute to study the younger woman's features, noting the lines of tension and the uncharacteristic lack of colour in her lips. "You look tired."

For an instant it looked as though her observation would be refuted, then Seven of Nine dipped her head. "It was a difficult day."

"Well, as much as I would love to get to the end of your bodice ripper, would you rather we did something less strenuous?"

"You would not be disappointed?"

"Heavens, no. Just the fact that you went to all this trouble is enough for me. And, I'll look forward to the fun of finishing it when we both have more energy."

"In that case, could we..." Seven hesitated, then regrouped. "I have missed our philosophical discussions."

"Me too, Seven." She rubbed her hand along Seven's side, before resting it over the implant that twisted around from front to back. "How about we go some place we can be comfortable. We can talk, have dinner, whatever you'd like."

"This is not how I anticipated the evening progressing, but I would like that. Where should we go?"

KJ smiled. "I can think of one place that no one will look for us, and if you're really good, I'll let you in on a secret I've been keeping for a while."

"Very well, proceed."

Not needing to tap a comm badge to implement her plan, albeit earlier than originally scheduled, she simply spoke. "Voyager, we're ready."

"Acknowledged, Captain."

Even as they sparkled away, she maintained her hold on her date.

==^==

Voyager deposited them in cargo bay two of her own ship, just outside the door to Seven of Nine's quarters. Even though the plan had always been for them to return here at the conclusion of the evening, KJ didn't want to risk presuming that beaming them directly into her date's home was appropriate. She had become painfully aware of just how many assumptions they'd made about Seven of Nine's needs and wants. Silence in this case wasn't complicity, or agreement, on the Borg's part. It was a reflection of lack of knowledge.

Knowledge that it had been her responsibility to impart. Choices that it had been her province to offer.

"Aren't you going to invite me in?"

"Of course." Seven of Nine paused at the door, and turned back around. "Why did you not have us transported directly inside? It would have been more efficient."

"It might have been more efficient, but it would not have been respectful. This is your home."

Seven of Nine's eyebrows rose and she bowed slightly at the waist and tilted her jaw to the side. "Thank you."

"Well, better late than never."

"Yes. I believe that is true."

The blonde's gaze was intent, and KJ swallowed, realizing that they were no longer discussing personal privacy. A pair of name plaques to the side caught her attention and she gratefully focused on the near one. Seven of Nine, Primary Astrometrics Officer of Voyager Gamma One. She couldn't help it, she laughed. "You changed your name."

"My previous designation no longer seemed appropriate."

Neither of them stated the obvious. Seven of Nine was no longer gamma-Voyager's Chief of Astrometrics, that role was now being temporarily filled by Voyager's Megan Delaney.

"I have been thinking of altering my designation further."

"Really? In what way." She followed Seven of Nine inside and into what seemed to be the common area between the two sets of quarters.

"The recent confusion regarding myself and Lady Seven has resulted in my examining how I wish to express my individuality. I wish a unique designation. It would be more efficient."

"But why you? Why not Lady Seven?" KJ was honestly curious. It seemed to her that Seven of Nine had begun to assert herself in a way that she wouldn't have predicted leading to a change of name. She had even, in a lighter moment, wondered if Seven of Borg was in the offing given Seven of Nine's recent embracing of Borg culture.

"The Lady Seven is Mistress of the House, she has precedence over me, therefore I will alter my designation."

KJ blinked, sorting through what hadn't been said in the last exchange, and she debated which line of inquiry to follow: the House, or the implied rejection of her birth name. She went with the more pleasant topic, they were on a date after all. "You joined the House?"

"Yes." Seven of Nine's head lifted and pride coloured the affirmation.

"Congratulations. Seven of Nine of the House Presba." KJ touched the Borg's arm as she had so many times before, but this time she felt the heat flare between them as the contact lingered from gesture to caress.

"Thank you." Seven didn't pull away.

"Where's your replicator?" KJ let her hand slide down and wind into Seven of Nine's.

"In the kitchen. That is the room with the sink and cabinets."

"Oh, ye of little faith." Not dropping Seven's hand, KJ moved in search of the kitchen, which she found almost immediately. Gently, she guided Seven to a chair around the table, picking one with a view into the kitchen. At the family dinner, she had paid very close attention to the foods Seven of Nine had eaten. She was fairly certain that her selections would be well received. And if not, she was more than a one trick Ferengi.

Swiftly, she entered the parameters for the meal, and began to remove the dishes as they appeared, placing them one by one on the table, lids in place to preserve the secrecy of the contents. Catching the skeptical look on Seven of Nine's face, she chuckled, and then moved back to requisition the appropriate cutlery and dishes.

When she turned back around it was to find Seven of Nine hastily replacing one of the lids. Her expression of guilt was adorable in its total candor. "Well? What do you think?"

"Is this the secret to which you were referring?"

"It is."

Seven of Nine's eyes twinkled. "I shall protect it with my life."

"See that you do." KJ lifted all the lids from the serving dishes. "Mashed potatoes?"

"Please."

KJ finished serving the meal and sat in her own chair. The look of curiosity on Seven of Nine's face made her very glad that their original plans had been interrupted. "This is a traditional Indiana Sunday dinner."

"And the dessert?"

"I'm sure we'll think of something suitable." Once again they were having a conversation within a conversation and KJ again found herself in awe of the subtle, and not so subtle changes the last few weeks had wrought in Seven of Nine.

"Acceptable."

==^==

It started with a drop of gravy.

Without thinking of what she was doing, KJ reached over and used her thumb to wipe it away. They had ended up sitting perpendicular to each other, she at the head of table, Seven of Nine to her left, and it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. Equally natural had been the impulse to brush her thumb over Seven of Nine's full lips. It seemed to happen in slow motion, one second the warm gravy was on her thumb, the next Seven of Nine had parted her lips slightly and gently cleaned it away.

She was lost, couldn't look away and didn't want to. With her thumb still in contact with Seven of Nine's lips, she brushed lightly over the alabaster cheek and the tips of her fingers ghosted along the edge of the starburst that decorated the right side of the blonde's face. KJ watched as Seven of Nine's right eye, then left, deepened in colour, and felt the shiver that crested under her touch.

The next thing she knew she had moved her hand to the back of Seven's head and pulled the woman closer. Inches before she crossed the line, she realized what she had been about to do, and stopped.

Seven of Nine did not.

Seven saw the exact moment Kathryn stopped reacting on instinct, and she decided to stop thinking for both of them. She gently wrapped her right hand around Kathryn's wrist, preventing the redhead from pulling away, and closed the distance between them.

Even as the kiss began to take form, she felt the rush through her body, noted the spike of nerves, and then the nervousness dissipated, washed away in the sensations that spread out from the tiny plane of contact. She heard a soft moan, and then a deeper one, but even with her eidetic memory, Seven was hard pressed to identify who had made which sound. To her surprise, she found she had no interest in pursuing the information when, instead, she could concentrate on the heat and silk of Kathryn's mouth.

When the pressure at the back of her head increased slightly she dropped her hand away from Kathryn's wrist and moved it instead to the fall of soft hair. Carefully, she combed it through her fingers. It felt nothing like her own, and nothing like she had imagined it would. Kathryn's hand seemed to mirror her actions, tangling in her longer, blonde hair, as though she were the Captain, and Kathryn following her.

Experimenting with the thought, she used her lips to tug at Kathryn's top one, and moaned again as a second after releasing her caress, it was matched, her own lips now being tugged and nipped. Seven reciprocated the gentle nips, then brushed her tongue against Kathryn's.

She was sure that later she would be able to recall how long they kissed in the dining room, and how they traveled from there to the couch in the common room. At the moment the information was irrelevant. She was lost in the explosions of pleasure and the tingles that ran outward from her implants whenever Kathryn brushed against them. One part of her took interested note that the sensations Kathryn pulled from the grey metal bands and starbursts felt nothing like the ones her own explorations of her body had produced. And then she stopped thinking about that too, as her hand began to play with the toggles on the front of Kathryn's dress, and the other woman curved her back, moving them closer together.

KJ tilted her head back as Seven of Nine's kisses moved from her mouth to her neck, and she shuddered lightly as the blonde nipped at the pulse points before rising back up to reclaim her lips. She couldn't remember the last time she had just enjoyed kissing someone. They were changing the lead between them, first her following, then Seven.

She felt as though her whole existence was encapsulated in the play of their lips and tongues. KJ let her hands run along Seven's sides and arms, delighting in the freedom to explore the firm muscles, even the feel of the linen shirt Seven wore was a feast for her fingertips. Enough rationality remained that she did not advance her caresses above or below the swath of the abdominal bands, or dip her lips further than the base of Seven's throat. The heat of the body wrapped around hers was driving all thought of restraint out of her head, and when Seven's fingers toyed with the toggles holding the bodice of her dress closed, she couldn't remember why she was trying to restrain herself. "Seven." she breathed out the syllables, tasting the weight of them on her tongue, moving upward into the blonde's delicate touch.

When her name broke across Kathryn's lips, Seven felt the husky trill run through her, and without fully pulling back from the small hollow of Kathryn's neck, whispered, "Kathryn." She felt the shiver run through the smaller body, and nuzzled against the skin where jaw met throat. "Kathryn." she repeated, drawn by the power of the name to make its owner respond.

It had been nothing like this when she and Laren had kissed. With rare intuition, she understood that kissing B'Elanna and Kathryn was different than kissing Laren because one experience was an exercise in Humanity, and the others were distillations of how she felt. Love was not irrelevant.

Shocked as the thought formed and made its way through the haze of erotic pleasure, she stopped and lifted her head. Seven of Nine saw confusion, and then the concern flash across Kathryn's face. She was reassured by the concern.

"Seven?"

Seven of Nine shifted slightly, and Kathryn moved in turn, no longer half-reclining but sitting. She was careful not to end their physical contact though she could not articulate, even to herself, exactly why that was. Nor could she find the words to express the realizations that had begun to coalesce from half-formed impulse into thought.

"Seven, are you okay? I'm sorry, I didn't mean--"

Kathryn's words cut into her fugue and she quickly lifted her hand to stem the flow of unwarranted apologies. It took her another three point seven two seconds to speak. "I am fine, Kathryn. I wanted this." She stopped and considered. "I want this. But I cannot."

"Seven--"

"Let me finish." Once again she stopped for a second. "Please." She amended, and saw Kathryn's lips twitch.

"I'm listening, sweetheart."

The endearment nearly derailed her ability to articulate what she was thinking. It meant exactly the same thing as Laren's affectionate designation, but it had a vastly different effect. Resolutely, she put it aside to think about later, and focused on what she needed to say. "I erred in my interactions with Laren. I believed the physical to be separate from the emotional. They are not. I can see this now. If I allow this to progress, I cannot take it back. I will not be able to forget. And I do not know all of the rules by which I must play. I do know I do not wish to be hurt, or to cause pain." Seven turned her head so she could fully see Kathryn's face, and also track any physiological signs that she was not explaining matters correctly. "There is too much at stake for all of us. For you, for me, for Ro Laren and for B'Elanna Torres. I do not wish to do anything that cannot be undone." She looked down, not wanting to see disappointment or anger from Kathryn.

"Seven, sweetheart, look at me. Please." KJ waited until Seven of Nine acceded to her request. "It's okay. I love you. That isn't going to change because we stopped. And I might have to learn to love you differently, but I meant what I said when I told you I wanted my friend back. If this is meant to be, it doesn't need to be rushed, it will happen if and when it's right."

"Thank you." Seven felt the tension lift, and knew she'd made the right decision.

KJ smiled, struck by the earnestness in the blonde's voice and eyes. "For what?"

"For being you. For loving me."

"You're welcome. I'm sorry it took me so long to say it." She discarded all of the self-effacing and disingenuous remarks she could have made to mitigate the intensity of the moment, and simply returned Seven's honesty as fully as she could.

"Kathryn?"

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"Would it be alright if I kissed you again."

"That would be acceptable."

==^==

One nice thing, Kathryn noted wryly, about having children whose misbehaviors tended to explosions and propulsion experiments was that it meant not having to lock up the alcohol, which in turn meant that it also didn't have to be stored at a level she couldn't reach without assistance. A long forgotten memory of an Indiana field, and Phoebe struggling to move, flared into consciousness. Her poor sister had been green for days after their adventure with their father's Andorian whiskey. Kathryn put the pleasant memories aside and retrieved the carefully hoarded bottle of whiskey from the side cupboard. Two replicated tumblers later, she made her way out of the kitchen and toward the exit, nearly colliding with Seven.

"Should I be worried?" Kathryn smiled and indicated the door, and her mate's extremely casual manner of dress. "Secret rendezvous?"

"I believe it is I who should be concerned. Two glasses, Kathryn?" The blue eyes twinkled and the tone conveyed gentle teasing.

Kathryn gestured Seven to go ahead of her. "You know, you have really gotten so much better at that."

"Self-defense."

A full laugh escaped before she could call it back, and she looked guiltily over her shoulder afraid she might have woken someone. When the last of her chuckles died away, they were already in the corridor headed for the turbo-lift. "Deck 4." She instructed, then looked at Seven expectantly.

"That is my destination as well. I am joining Seven of Nine for the remainder of her regeneration cycle."

"Why?" She paused. "I mean, why are you regenerating at all right now? You're okay, right?"

Seven reached out and took Kathryn's arm, mindful of her cargo and pulled her into a loose hug. "I am fine, Kathryn. We are just experimenting with our communication during regeneration." Kathryn was still overly sensitive to any hint that her Borg systems were not functioning properly, and Seven let her lips linger on the auburn hair, until she felt Kathryn relax. The change to the timeline might have removed the actual danger, but it had done nothing to quell the fear that came from memory: what was anecdote for her had been reality for Kathryn.

"I don't know where that came from." Kathryn straightened. "Thank you, darling."

Seven had a very good idea of where it had come from, but knew that the turbo-lift outside of the transporter room was not the place to discuss Kathryn's recent experience with once again facing not only the loss of herself, but also of B'Elanna and Laren. She would schedule another block of private time for them, and let the solid friendship they shared renew Kathryn's faith. "You are welcome."

They entered the transporter room side-by-side and, still in tandem, stepped up onto the transporter pad. "Two to transport to gamma-Voyager."

"Co-ordinates locked in." The young ensign on duty verified the co-ordinates.

"Energize."

==^==

The hiss of the door sounded in the background, the noise registering a magnitude of order louder than normal as it shattered the quiet that had been ruling the common area.

"KJ?"

"In here, Kathryn." As she spoke, KJ swiveled on the sofa in order to face the entryway and her guest. When she spotted Lady Seven a half-step behind the Commodore she smiled, and stood up. Since this was still technically Presban family quarters, it explained why the chime hadn't sounded - the Mistress of the House could come and go as she pleased. "Hello, Seven."

"Kathryn." KJ felt the slight shiver along her spine. Seven very rarely used the shortened version of her name, and had simply refused to address her as Captain.

Watching her spouse greet KJ with a light kiss and a warm embrace, Kathryn felt her stomach tighten momentarily, then as quickly as the feeling had surfaced, she dismissed it; her reaction was unworthy of either of them. "Ice?" She asked, holding the bottle and tumblers up to view.

"Right over there."

Kathryn walked to the stasis container and unsealed the lid. Putting a few chunks of ice into each glass, she followed them up with healthy portions of the whiskey. Re-sealing the device, she then reached for the soda and added an appropriate amount to each serving. She noted with amusement and respect that there was a second, unopened bottle of whiskey on the table. Apparently, tonight was not a night for moderation.

She wandered back over to KJ and Seven, handing KJ a glass and raising her own in salute. The first swallow, as always, burned its way over her palate and down her throat before igniting a warm fire in her belly. Kathryn savoured the aftertaste, and then put her glass onto a small table next to one of the chairs. In finger speak, she addressed Seven. "May, I?"

Seven smiled. One of the rare, full ones and nodded. Kathryn thought her heart was going to stop in that instant, Seven was so beautiful. Then, because she had promised not to leave undone the important things, she said it aloud, the Presban flowing unabashedly. "You are so beautiful."

It should have been impossible, but the smile brightened, and the blue eyes softened. "Thank you." Seven turned and walked toward the alcoves.

Kathryn followed, enjoying the sudden call on her memories. She occasionally watched Seven regenerate, if she happened to be sharing Seven's room on one of her rare regeneration cycles, but doing it this way was different. It was something that had been uniquely theirs. Seven's eyes met hers, the Borg-enhanced eyebrow raised slightly, and Kathryn knew that Seven understood completely. Delaying the start of the cycle, she stepped onto the riser and brought her mouth to Seven's waiting lips. "I love you," she whispered before stepping back.

"And, I love you." Seven murmured the words in to another sweet, lingering kiss, then lifted her head, settling into position. "Enjoy your recreational intoxication."

Kathryn laughed. "I will. Computer, begin regeneration cycle." And then, just as the hum of the alcove indicated the start of the cycle, she spoke the final words of the ritual. "Sweet dreams."

==^==

"So," said Kathryn as they settled into the cushions on the couch. "That's some dress you're almost wearing." She had the satisfaction of, in her peripheral vision, seeing KJ blush, as her doppelganger looked down and was forced to refasten a skipped toggle. Apparently the command mask wasn't proof against digs that came essentially from yourself. She pressed a little harder. "Though, I have to say, I'm rather partial to that number Seven of Nine is wearing. Breeches suit her. Must have been some date."

KJ rotated her head and lifted both her brows in time to match a half grin. "It was."

Kathryn grinned and took another swallow. It was obvious that they had been involved in some period piece, and she wondered if she would be able to convince her Seven to participate in one. Perhaps as a pirate.

"Tell me more about the beta-Universe." KJ refilled their glasses.

"Well, you know that Human and Vulcans were on the losing end of a rebellion, but I think the part I've found the most intriguing is what I've learned about Orions."

"Really?"

"They are nothing like I'd been taught." Kathryn proceeded to relate much of what she'd learned, and just how wonderful she'd found the species.

"It sounds to me like the Orion syndicate may have originally had some very valid beginnings."

"I know. That's one of the things I worry about."

"But you haven't shared that worry."

"I just did." Kathryn lifted her tumbler again.

KJ snorted.

"By any means necessary. That's the blanket order I have from Owen and Necheyev."

"And while part of you wants to wipe them out for what happened to you all as a result of the TUE, there's a small part that wonders if there isn't another way."

Now Kathryn snorted. "It's a very small part."

"But it doesn't take the burden away."

"No. It doesn't." They fell silent at that, and Kathryn reflected that she was talking to the one person who understood her tendency to second guess herself ad infinitum and how susceptible she was to becoming depressed as a result. Her mates accepted it, and didn't judge her for it, even loved that part of her as they did the rest. But they didn't really understand it. Sometimes she thought Seven did, she'd catch that look of quiet solidarity and it would warm her again. "You seem to have adjusted to all this pretty quickly."

"Resistance is futile." KJ smiled, wryly, and Kathryn was startled by seeing exactly how that expression must have looked on her own features before the changes wrought by the Anomaly. It was amazing how much sarcasm a simple upturn of the lips could convey.

"Still." Kathryn considered how to say what she was thinking, and then decided subtlety was lost on both of them this far into the whiskey bottle. "You're dating."

KJ looked down into her drink, searching for a reply that would cover everything. "I had an epiphany of sorts."

"An epiphany?"

"Hmm. There was this woman from another universe. She did everything by the book. Put the welfare of her crew above anything she wanted or needed. But there was no happy ending, no reward for all the self-sacrifice, in fact, there was nothing and no one left. And then, someone hit reset, and the woman still did what was best for her crew, for the Federation, but she let herself be one of the crew she cared for. The world didn't end, the crew didn't rebel, and Starfleet didn't court-martial her. I know which one of those women I'd rather be."

Kathryn met KJ's eyes, identical in their grey tones. Kahless hadn't just given it to her to do over again. There were ripples.





Chapter 44 | Universe Alpha, Beta Quadrant | Bookmarks




In Universe Alpha, the acting head of House Presba, Phoebe Janeway, was ranting in an extremely vocal fashion. "I've put a to-do request in Seven of Nine's inbox, for when she gets back." She and the Lady of the House Martok were walking in one of Presba's Gardens, saying their farewells.

"You believe the Lady Seven of Nine can manufacture an inter-univesal communicator?"

"It's intolerable. They can figure out how to move to another universe, but they can't figure out how to let us know what happened. I want it fixed."

Sirella glanced at her artist friend with amusement. "Perhaps you ought to do a painting, one of K'tam and put a little note of warning on it for your Warlords."

"K'tam?"

"It was the Battle of Tl'gnan. The peace treaty had been negotiated, but the communications system was down. The other side were unaware of the treaty and assailed his estate. The battle raged for three days and K'tam and his people fought to the last one standing."

"Sounds to me like I'm going to be doing a painting."

Sirella grinned suddenly. "Give them a copy. Send me the original. I know just where to put it."

==^==

"You know, there's been something I've been meaning to ask you." Phoebe slowed her pace to allow Sirella to remain even with her as they walked. It always caught her off-guard the first few minutes of one of their walks: for a woman who barreled through most of her life, Sirella had the most sedate walk of anyone she knew except Guinan.

"Go ahead."

Phoebe took a deep breath and hoped that nothing she was about to ask would offend the most powerful woman in the Empire. "Well, if I understand correctly, Ezri Dax was the one who was a member of the House with the higher ranking right?"

"Correct."

"And the Kal-Hyah is normally performed by the male partner, if it's done at all."

"Yes." Sirella thought she could see where this was leading, but just in case she refrained from admitting anything just yet.

"But, this technically was a same-sex bonding, since it involved the Epatai of the House, who is female. Shouldn't Ezri have had to do the Kal-Hyah? She was the higher ranked prospective spouse?"

How should she answer that? The inclusion of Tuvok would make a passable rationale. Or the fact that the Prime were not joining House Martok, but Ezri was joining House Presba. There were myriad justifications. Sirella smiled and replied enigmatically. "You did not enjoy depriving your sister of coffee for four days?"

Phoebe stopped short and turned to stare at the Klingon, respect clearly on her features and in her tone. "I am not worthy."

Sirella laughed.

==^==

"I don't know how I am going to explain this to Asil. I don't think she expected Auloh to be going off to grand Klingon balls this soon." Phoebe remarked. She handed Auloh a chain with the replicator card that had all of the young girl's worldly belongings on it. "You know she is coming back, right?"

"My mother will return and she will understand. We do have other obligations, do we not, as House Presba?" Auloh's preference may have been to stay home, and thus out of space, but she knew that one simply did not say no when the Lady of the Chancellor invited one to travel.

"Yes, but…"

"She will be fine, Be'nal," said Vrald with affectionate confidence. He watched as Phoebe straightened Auloh's outfit.

"You will be careful. You will call home every night."

"Every three nights."

"Every night."

"I have already said that I will watch over her," said Sirella with amusement. She did understand it was the combination of pregnancy hormones and natural mothering instinct that was driving Phoebe's hovering.

Phoebe glanced at the Mistress of House Martok and said, "Then you call. And she'll call me once a week."

Sirella looked startled. Then laughed and wagged a finger at the worried aunt. "Very clever. Done. I want to hear as soon as they get back."

"I'll be sure to let you know. If they ever come back."

Both women fell silent.

Vrald bravely stepped into the conversational void. "They are fine. She will be fine. We will all be fine. It is time for them to go."

Phoebe's lower lip quivered, but somehow she held back and tears that would embarrass Auloh. " Okay. Okay." She leaned forward and kissed Auloh's forehead. "Take care. Have fun. Come back."

Auloh nodded. "I will bring honor to the House."

"Oh, that I have no doubt about. Qapla, Auloh."

"Qapla, Aunt Phoebe."

==^==

"Would you like to go?"

"You're asking me?" Tasha stood and looked back at her husband.

"You are a free woman, are you not?" Kasala said the words gently "Able to wield a weapon of your choice. Able to hunt or roam freely, if you choose."

His wife looked up at him, slightly confused and he drew her towards him. "Do you remember, my Tasha, how I found you? I do. Blood on your hands, wildness in your eyes. Your previous master dead at my feet, and a gh'tak bleeding its life out on the ground at yours. You grabbed the spear and hefted it, and I saw my life flash before my eyes. Two lives. One without you. One with you."

"Kasala…"

"Come hunting with me, my mate. I know the fire runs deep in you."

She rested her head on his chest, looking away at the distance. His heart was lower on his body than hers, but she could still hear the rhythm of his breathing, the depth of his voice; the warmth and love in his thoughts.

"No chasers. They're too big. Even for the Duras Sisters."

"Agreed."

"You deal with the Ferengi diplomat."

There was a longer silence. Then he said, with tender amusement, "Agreed."

"I'll come." He squeezed her gently and Tasha finally tilted her head up and looked at him. She said as she traced his side where the scar still existed, "I admit, I am glad I only wounded you."

"As am I." They kissed warmly, embracing the promise of tomorrow.

==^==

Captain Picard sat down at the bar and waited, knowing that Guinan would pick the right drink for him. A few minutes later the El-Aurian smiled at him as she set a tall glass of something green and swirling in front of him.

"No wine?"

"You need something a little more fun than that tonight, I think."

"You are probably right." He ran his fingers along the tall glass, not quite ready to drink it. "How have you been settling in?"

Guinan looked out at the people gathered in the communal space and contemplated her answer. "It's been good to see everyone. Very comfortable."

"But you miss them."

"I missed you."

He acknowledged the compliment, smiled whimsically. "And I you."

The was a soft strum of tension in her, something that wasn't quite her usual merry self. "You're listening," he said.

"I have been, since I got here. There's something…" Her gaze drew back away from him, from the ship. He had no idea how far she searched when she got this way. And the answers always came in their own time.

"You may be seeing Presba again sooner than you think."

"Have you received orders then?" Guinan picked up a glass and wiped it, before putting it back on the rack.

"No. Just rumors."

"Ah. You've been listening."

"Not as deeply as you."

The El-Aurian smiled, "Well, you're making progress."

Captain Picard chuckled, then lifted his glass and tasted the drink. It was unusual, as he expected, but it also tasted wonderful, filling. "This is very good."

Guinan grinned. "I know."





Chapter 45 | Universe Beta, Alpha Quadrant: Bajoran Sector, B'hava'el System | Bookmarks




In Universe Beta, the Marine Commander sat, waiting. His posture was stiff, observant, but not hostile. Vah of the House Presba was not obviously favoring his new arm, but his movements were not yet entirely natural and his palms stayed on his thighs.

Belle recognized he was just being attentive. He had received her orders without comment, calmly saying, "Yes, General," in acknowledgement. It was one of the things she had come to appreciate most about the Commander. He was almost serene outside of battle, but put him into the fire and there was no one fiercer. She wasn't sure if all Kazons were like Commander Vah and the few others she knew. Then again, it seemed to be a feature of the House Presba's Marines.

"You said you had a request?"

"Yes, General. We have gained from our experience with the Hive, and understand now what you have been up against. We would like to request that the Tam'Jonwi' be allowed to help with the new Hive Killer suit designs."

Belle blinked her good eye. It took a second to translate the name and title into the person. As the actual words, rather than the request for Annika's help, penetrated her mind, she said, "Your people have been developing new mech units."

She didn't realize that it was possible for a Kazon to go even more red. But Belle held her peace.

"Yes," Vah admitted, realizing that he probably should have mentioned something sooner. But the ideas had been flowing fast and freely after their battle.

Belle sat back in her chair, and clasped her hands. "Klingons prefer face-to-face battle, which is why I liked your previous suits. Will that change?"

"There will be one unit which is more tank-like, but no, General. Most suits will follow the one man, one suit convention. We simply wish to make them less likely to be opened like a tin can."

"Tin can?"

"Human euphemism for a metal object easily opened."

"Interesting." She lifted the datatablet in front of her then said, "Send me the schematics. I'll share them with Annika. But she has other…projects that she is working on. Do not expect anything soon." She hadn't realized that Annika's projects had become famous enough that even Vah's Marines held the Human in respectful awe. The Silent Engineer, indeed.

Vah acknowledged the comment.

"Is there anything else?" Belle inquired.

"Yes. I have officers that I would like to recommend for the Star of Kahless."

Now Belle leaned forward. "Anyone in particular?" She had already submitted his name, but hadn't told him about it.

"Yes. I would begin with Asil."

==^==

Annika had kept her promise not to go to engineering. She had been many other places on the ship, however. Parts of the vessel had been dismantled and fixed on the fly, each of the victims always improving in function afterwards. The Chief Engineer had gotten used to her ways, but had finally, finally convinced her to at least tell him when she was going to be tinkering.

Lately she had not forwarded any messages to him, nor had Durn come across any pieces of the ship strewn unexpectedly about a room. He had heard rumours that she had sequestered herself, but no one seemed to know for sure. It had worried the engineer, but it wasn't his place to say anything directly. Thus he had a fresh ro'keg blood pie, his mother's recipe, delivered.

As it was not sent back, he was relieved.

Annika, meanwhile, was enjoying the meal and eating as she worked. Despite the perception of her mate, she did stop and stand back from the process; when she thought about it. But there were so many things going on in her mind and she was driven.

She had realized a horrible truth almost immediately after Voyager had departed the last time. They would find the universe that their mates were in, but it didn't mean they would find them immediately, or be able to reach them quickly; not without great suffering. The TUE allowed rapid travel between universes, but did nothing to solve the problem of traveling between systems, sectors or quadrants.

As the days passed, she imagined what they must be going through, what it would be like for her and Belle to be separated and her heart wept.

Thus, her efforts now.

The fact that she'd come out with interesting secondary results didn't matter. She must find the fix. And she prayed that her kin would think to come back before wounding themselves irretrievably.

==^==

Belle found her mate working, as per usual. She noted that the remnants of a meal lay on the side table, and a wall of almost comprehensible equations that, after hours of study she might begin to understand. "Annika. It is time."

It was as if Annika had become tuned to listen for those words; Belle had said them so often. The pen dropped from her hand and she turned. "Beya."

The Klingon stepped around the table that stood between them, until there was only a short distance that parted them. "You've worked very hard today, my infamous Tam'Jonwi'. Come. Rest. That way you'll be fresh for tomorrow."

The startled blush on her mate's face was adorable, and Belle stretched up to kiss her. She enjoyed the pleasantly building fire between them for long moments, then stepped back and held out her hand.

Annika looked back at the wall, and fixed its contents in her mind. Then she took the hand Belle had offered, and allowed herself to be led away.

==^==

Sela adjusted the holo-camera and walked slowly around the room, capturing everything and anything she could. She could not believe what she was seeing. Every part of the wall was covered. "This," she said, "is impressive."

"It is, isn't it?" said Belle. "Now you understand why I wanted you to do this." They had about another ten or so minutes before Annika emerged to begin her day, and, having covered all the available wall and window space, she would simply wipe away a section and begin all over again.

"Well, it's a good thing I know how to do this correctly. I can't even fathom what would happen if I missed something."

"Oh, you may be sure the incentive would be appropriately painful."

Sela shot her friend a scathing look and continued the slow scan. "She's been at this every day?"

"She's very motivated. I think she may be seeking the solution to three different problems, one of them for family, but I'm only guessing based on the drawings. At least it keeps her out of engineering. But, I do get her to stop at night. Different motivation."

"I'll bet."

"Notorious are we?"

"Your people love you. It just adds to your legend. They know a blood bond when they see it. And they envy it, in a good way."

"Speaking of bond."

Sela winced. There was just nothing she could say. The Hive had awakened. That came first.

"I've spoken with Deanna. It turns out that your Priam Nael will be joining her at DS9. I've asked Commander Vah to send a small group of troops to act as a guard force for…" It still took her aback to be able to make the claim. "…my sister-in-law. Would you be interested in seeing to it that they arrive on time."

Sela paused the camera and turned attentively to her friend. "Are you sure?"

"Yes. I am sure. And I would send you regardless. I have a secondary reason. I want you to put your very long ears to the ground while you are there. The Hive haven't been this active in years and while we hadn't negotiated a real border treaty, there was a respect for what was there. Someone has stirred their nest and I want to find out who. If it is some greedy corporation…" The angry glare in Belle's expression said it all.

Sela shared the sentiment. "General Torres, I can honestly say that I would be happy to do that service. But what about this?" She indicated the camera.

"I will do it."

Sela looked at Belle in disbelief. "Oh. No. Let me show one of the marines, or Annika how. She can handle this."

"I am technologically competent…"

"With weapons of destruction or datatablets, and I think you may have a knack for building things. You can code like a dream. But filming?" Sela began to laugh, not even trying to hide her amusement.

"It was not that bad."

That only made Sela laugh harder. "My dear friend, you left the cap on. Twice. You forget the settings and the color has never once been right."

"We all have our talents."

"Yes. And holography is not one of yours."

Now Belle began to laugh. She said, "Show Annika."

==^==

"Ambassador Chakotay. Thank you for meeting with me."

"It is my pleasure," said the ex-resistance fighter. Chakotay invited his visitor to sit, and took a chair himself. Behind him, his guard shifted attentively. He found himself warmed by their diligence.

"The Andorians are interested in purchasing your vote."

It was a blunter statement than most. But it was not the first time such an offer had been made. He considered how best to respond. Chakotay decided that the bluntness probably hid some other motivation. Now he wished he hadn't sent his Truth Seeker on an errand. But it was part of the job, weighing and balancing what was important. He considered what he knew about Andorian culture and flipped a mental coin. "My vote isn't for sale. It is not mine to give."

Now the Andorian seemed to relax into his chair. His antennae moved gently. "Ah. A man with honor. Good. Good. This we can deal with. If you will not accept a bribe, will you accept an argument?"

"As long as you don't expect me to make any guarantees."

"Good. You continue to meet our expectations. Here is what my people desire me to convey…"

==^==

Gretchen looked at the wall. Five tournaments, five trophies. All well earned.

She shook her head and watched as Miral set the final trophy on its stand. "That's quite the collection."

"It's a start." Miral stepped back, cocked her head, then adjusted the trophy to center. It had looked fine to Gretchen, but lately Miral had been…touchy.

It was understandable. Gretchen was worried too, but she had long ago learned to channel that energy into other things, like the new quilt she made for their quarters. It was white with gold trim and a gold-threaded outline of the family crest. It was also comfortable and warm.

Miral had taken to wrapping herself in it on nights she couldn't sleep and did not want to disturb Gretchen.

The redhead would have preferred it if her mate would just wake her. She liked the way Miral disturbed her.

The desire was there, as always, and in spades. But Miral was feeling more sensitive by the day to the absence of word from their children.

Which meant there was a need for distraction. "We're not far from Bajor," Gretchen commented. "Maybe we ought to go see what they've done with the station."

==^==

Miral had learned the trick of whistling from her ex-husband, John Torres. It wasn't a skill she used often, but she had found that it expressed something that words alone could not cover. Nelav had delivered the fourth message from Lord Akkihar and reading it had been quite instructive. She had actually learned new words this time. But so far, all of his words had only been directed at herself and, as scathing as they were, not one of them were worth the life of her child and the potential scarring it would cause her mate if Miral somehow lost.

Not to say that Miral had been avoiding fights; she had merely been choosy or following the obligations of state or the rules of championship. Eventually, as she showed more, she would have to step out of the ring and let a champion take her place or else take a few months off.

And it was not that she was worried. Klingons were not famed for fearing death. Dishonor was worse. As she had not ignored Lord Akkihar's demands, but simply chosen not to fight, she had not lost honor. The replies had always been courteous, if curt. She had taken the time to get to know the facts that surrounded Akkihar. In other circumstances, they might even have been friends, or at least friendly adversaries. One couldn't have too many of those. She'd even come to admire him for his cleverness in the insults alone.

She did make a decision. She turned to Nelav. "Please inform Lord Akkihar of when we will be at Bajor and invite him to speak with me then, face to face, if he cares to. Have him make an appointment, since our time is precious. He'll take great offense of course, so be prepared to stand your ground. I do personally outrank him, though his House is slightly larger."

"Yes, your Honor."

"Also, please inform Gretchen."

Nelav hesitated. "Are you sure?"

"I hide nothing from her."

"Yes, your Honor."

==^==

The absolutely beautiful thing about being the Intendant on Bajor, was that if she said she wanted a makeover for her quarters on DS9, she got them. Nerys had called ahead, given specific instructions along with their intended date of arrival, and her will was done. As it had been and always would be.

The drawback was that the position also came with responsibilities. They planned for them.

Ezri, who sat on the edge of the tub, stroked the sponge slowly along Nerys' arm. It was a symbolic act. Her Bajoran was already clean. But it was comforting. Her lower legs were wrapped around Nerys' edges and the Intendant leaned easily against the Trill.

Their position was reflected by that of Deanna and Jadzia. Except that those two had given up the sponge and were actively engaged in kissing.

"It's an unfair advantage. We have to focus, while you get to talk while kissing."

〈〈I recall you enjoyed the ability earlier.〉〉

"Oh, did I sound like I was complaining? I was merely commenting."

Deanna laughed into the kiss and she and Jadzia pulled slowly away from each other. "I admit, there are certain benefits to being a telepath."

"And we love every single one of them. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were stalling though."

"Oh, I am."

"We don't have to separate until later, beloved. We're just planning."

Deanna raised her hand and clasped one of Jadzia's. "I'm usually so good at planning."

"We all are. Which is why we get along so well. But…" Nerys only had to look up and Ezri was there. Her mouth was covered and she lost herself in the kiss, nearly forgetting what she was trying to say. But the Trill pulled back and then prompted her.

"But…"

"We have responsibilities. It is inevitable that we will," Nerys gazed at Deanna and Jadzia, already feeling the burn of it, "need to separate. If we plan it will be easier."

"I know."

Jadzia grinned and splashed a little water at the Intendant. "Normally it would be Deanna advocating the responsible thing."

"It's all that Betazoid repression. She has discovered liberation with us." Nerys flicked water over at them.

Deanna was amused. "Betazoids are not exactly known for our inhibitions or for being repressed."

"Ah, so it was just you then." Jadzia nuzzled into Deanna's side as she spoke, not needing to look to see that Ezri would be grinning and Nerys would be trying not to.

Deanna continued as though Jadzia hadn't spoken. "Truth Seekers on the other hand…"

"Point. But you have had years of no fun."

"Point. This has been bliss." She settled in more. "But duties will call soon. You're right, Nerys. I'm putting off the inevitable."

Nerys looked back at Ezri and then Jadzia before facing Deanna. "On the other hand, look, we have two Trill."

"Oh my god, Ezri, we're interchangeable."

"But not expendable." Ezri tweaked one of Nerys' ridge-ringed nipples to highlight her point.

"No. Never that, Chesei." Nerys reassured. "However, it does hold the answer. Every other time."

"I'm sorry what?" Ezri blinked.

"We exchange. Jadzia with me, and Ezri with Deanna. The first time. Then when we meet together we celebrate. Then when we part again, Jadzia with Deanna and Ezri with me." Only the fact that Ezri and Deanna's relationship was the newest factored into her suggestion and she marveled that she was not jealous of any of them. It was, indeed, true love.

"And Nerys with Deanna. Jadzia and Ezri."

"When duties allow."

"But all of us together as often as possible." Deanna asserted. It sounded like a workable solution, but given how driven she'd been to seek them out the last time they were separated, she was not sure how long or frequent the separations would be able to be in reality.

"Gods, yes. I am not thrilled about this separation thing."

"None of us are, love. But we will accommodate the wishes of the Chancellor and we will succeed in what we are called to do."

"I'm just glad we're almost there. You don't have to rush off, do you Deanna?"

"I haven't had a real vacation in five years. Even that time with my parents was a working event. My schedule, however, is cleared for another two weeks. I can extend it to six, but after that…"

"We will work it out."

==^==

"Did you tell my son that he was going on a journey?"

"No," said Kai Opaka to the person on her view screen. "I said that it was possible that he might, and if he did, he had a destiny regarding it."

Winn Adami's jaw clenched in surprisingly familiar way, and Opaka felt her heart pulse oddly. "If you wish to discuss it further…"

"No. Don't bother. Jerrod will do what he does. But I will thank you not to make any more predictions on his behalf."

"He is in his majority, is he not?"

"Yes. But he is also impulsive. Just because he is old enough does not mean he is mature enough to make those kinds of decisions."

"Yet you let him try to go to the Gamma quadrant."

"I'm his mother. It is my right. You, on the other hand…"

"...am Kai Opaka."

There was something in the way Kai spoke, and Adami felt the incipient rant die out before it even started. She didn't know what being Kai meant exactly, but there was power behind it. She could feel it. "I apologize, Kai Opaka."

"You are forgiven." Again there was that pulse, a fierce awareness that there was a shared destiny and that she honestly did forgive Adami. She looked away from the screen briefly, then said, "Are you still in charge of my welfare, Winn Adami?"

"I am."

"Is your offer relating to visiting Jalanda City still valid?"

Adami paused, considered. Then she nodded her head. "It is."

"Perhaps, with your permission, I might come down and speak with your son. Destiny is not something that is forced."

A new awareness shone in Adami's face. "I would appreciate it."

==^==

Jerrod, of course, was glad to see her and enthused about his new travel plans. "We intend to tour the Beta quadrant and visit the holy sites of other cultures." He then went on to describe the ship, his companions, and the itinerary, continuing enthusiastically almost without pausing.

When he stopped for breath, and long enough to drink something his mother set before him, the Kai said, "You are aware that this may not have been the journey foretold by your Pah?"

"Oh. Yes." He looked briefly at his mother, and then returned his attention to the Kai. "It's just that after you and I spoke, my friends and I got together and started talking about notions of spirituality. We simply decided we wanted to see what was out there."

Winn Adami looked surprised, as if this was the first that she had heard of it. Kai Opaka realized it might well have been.

"And your other obligations?"

"Mother has plenty of assistants. I've arranged for my own assistants to make themselves available as needed. Also, not all of my duties must be conducted on Bajor."

The Kai looked over at Winn. The other woman grimly plowed her fork into the salad before her and said nothing.

"Is this a journey that you feel must occur now?"

"Kai Opaka, this may not be about my destiny, but it is something that I wish to do." He wasn't even really sure why he was explaining all of this to her, but the conversation flowed naturally so he followed it.

The Kai looked down at her own meal and then back at him. "May I?"

He looked startled than nodded. She stood up and walked to him. She touched his ear, gripped it and closed her eyes. Adami watched her.

The Kai let go of his ear and said, "Wait a week. Do not go tomorrow."

"You think I will change my mind if I wait a week?"

"No. I think you won't die if you wait a week."

"Oh."

==^==

In the dark depth of Hive space, far beyond the borders and far from the new, thriving Orion Syndicate colony, a gigantic ship appeared. It was not a vessel designed for landing. It was one designed for dominance and perfection. The Cube slowed to a halt then, seemingly at random, picked a new direction.

Hours later, in the middle of that same entry point, light sparkled into existence and expanded. It was brief, but by the end of it, several smaller ships appeared. They were shaped like the tips of Klingon knives and blended into the dark of space.

They darted off, following after the cubic ship.





Chapter 46 | Universe Gamma, Delta Quadrant | Bookmarks




In the gamma-Universe, Seven of Nine entered the sickbay at her usual stately pace. Over the last few days she had gotten more and more acclimatized to the atmosphere on Voyager and had grown to appreciate the synergy of the efforts of its crew. Today, she was about to add another level of commonality to the mix. She would be receiving the mark of the House Presba, with a family rank.

She was spotted as soon as she entered. Voyager's Medical Hologram, Dr. Zimmerman, stepped forward to greet her. "Seven of Nine! Just on time. It is good to see you. Come on in."

"Doctor," she acknowledged. He began speaking to her sociably, a patois of caring chatter, as he led her to the bio-bed. She listened as she gazed around the larger version of the sickbay on this ship. It was hard to fathom it being filled with people, but she had been told by various members of her family that there had been times it had been filled to overflowing, due to battle, and had required a second sickbay in holodeck two.

The atmosphere between them edged into one of professionalism, as they settled into the examining area. Dr. Zimmerman drew a privacy curtain and she looked at him in surprise. He caught her glance and said, "Ah. You noticed. It took me awhile to understand that many people prefer to have a barrier between themselves and the rest of the world when they visit a physician. Especially when there is more than one person in the vicinity. It affects their comfort level."

She cocked her head, puzzling out this new information while he ran his tricorder just above the surface of her skin and remaining implants. The need of Humans to have strictures regarding nudity and privacy had always confused her. Lately, she had begun to understand that one might wish to not to be observed by others at certain times. Inan had indicated that Humans often felt vulnerable in certain situations, though she did not understand how clothing could make one less vulnerable to serious injury. She was still considering what Inan had said about emotional vulnerability.

He hummed a few times, then nodded his head. "You're looking healthy. I think it is safe for us to proceed. Did you have any particular location in mind for the mark?"

"You are asking my opinion?"

The holographic entity looked startled that she was surprised. "Of course. It is your body is it not? And I'm almost fairly sure that you have thought about it. Knowing your…" He paused, considered the gossip he had heard on the ship recently, and decided to confirm at least one of the rumours for himself, "…sister, she would have already formed an opinion. I expect you share similar qualities."

There was a pause as she absorbed his observation. Then she replied. "You would be correct."

He smiled at her.

==^==

The House tattoo was on the verge of completion when Seven of Nine heard familiar, confident, footsteps cross the sick bay and then stop just outside the curtain. "Dr. Zimmerman," Kate queried from outside the barrier, "Are you at a place where I could consult with you for a moment?"

"I'm almost done here, Kate. Can you give me five minutes?"

"Sure. Just come by the office, William." The Chief Medical officer wandered away.

Seven of Nine arched her brow at the Doctor. "You have chosen a primary designation."

"Yes. What do you think?"

She paused, considering the name, but was unsure how to assess its suitability. Seven of Nine considered the designations of others she knew, and why certain of them held more appeal for her than others. "The cadence of the syllables is aesthetically pleasing."

He smiled. "Well, that's a ringing endorsement if I ever heard one."

"And the Doctor?"

"My brother decided he wanted to keep Frank and he also to wanted to honor our father."

"Dr. Lewis Zimmerman." She stated, familiar with the being, having conversed with him directly. Mentally, she tested the designation Frank, and decided that while it might be the Doctor's choice, she did not find it as pleasant as she realized she found Kathryn, B'Elanna Torres, Ro Laren or even Kate. In its own way, stripped of its Borg connotations, she decided that Seven of Nine had an aesthetic appeal. She especially appreciated the way that it sounded when spoken by Kathryn Janeway. She tucked that line of thought into the background, and returned her full focus to Doctor Zimmerman.

"Yes."

"Do you," Seven of Nine tried to find the right word choice, considering, "…like your designation?"

"I do. I don't know why it took me so long to realize that I'd already decided. But, thanks to Kate, I was able to find some clarification."

"You did not find her methods intrusive?"

"Intrusive? Of course they were. But they were also effective. She's a doctor. We do what we must to help our patients heal. Are you friends with my brother?"

Seven of Nine said, "Yes."

"Then you know how it was. Every day, tortured with indecision, until finally I just gave up. I wanted a name, but the decision was killing me a little inside. There was too much information. And maybe a little fear." He mistook her skeptical expression, partly because he was still doing the finishing touches of her mark. "Okay, there was a lot of fear. It's a commitment to take a name. Like claiming one's sentience. Kate, you know, she helped me work through that by not backing down when I wanted to give up."

"You discussed your choices with her?"

"Daily. Hours worth of name choices. You have no idea. I'd throw a name out, she'd offer an opinion."

"I am sure that was a unique experience."

"You mean illuminating and somewhat sarcastic." He chuckled, then pulled back and analyzed his effort. He smiled, pleased. "My best work to date, I think. Very nice. Care to look in a mirror?"

"Yes."

==^==

"Dr. Kate Pulaski."

"Seven of Nine, how may I help you?" the tones were cool, not entirely unpleasant, but they had never reached that same level of warmth that had been there before the confrontation at lunch.

"I would like your opinion on Dr. Zimmerman's application of my House mark. If you would?"

"Alright."

The doctor stood and Seven of Nine promptly disrobed to reveal her arm and shoulder blade. Kate, carefully examined what she saw, touching the surrounding skin gently. She hummed after a moment, and said, "I think it may be his best work yet. Beautiful clean lines, good use of color. William has got a real eye for this. It looks good on you." Unknowingly, she echoed William's own assessment.

"Kate?"

"Yes?"

"I erred in my assessment of your behavior in regards to the Doctor." Seven of Nine now realized why Dr. Pulaski had needed the holographic men to change their designations. She rephrased, "To William. Your communication with him would not have been as efficient."

Kate, gave her an amused, somewhat sarcastic glance. "Just figured that out did you? Don't worry about it. You've just never been in a sickbay during an emergency event where there is more than one doctor and everyone is needing help at the same time. The first word out of everyone's mouth is Doc or Doctor. We have to have a way of telling each other apart, quickly. Names help." She kept her explanation to the surface cause of the incident, quite cognizant that the argument hadn't been about the Doctor and his name, but rather it was something deeper and involving Seven of Nine herself that had triggered the reaction. Not that the knowledge had made it any easier to forgive and forget. The blunt apology, however, did.

"I understand."

Kate gently helped Seven of Nine restore her clothing, and said, "I know you do. So are we square?"

The ex-drone realized then that Kate was not one to hold a grudge, not now that they had come to an understanding. Being Borg, she instantly understood that the use of the word square indicated a restoration to alignment. "We are square," she acknowledged, liking the phrase even more as she replied, and decided to add it to her vocabulary.

Kate offered the first real smile to Seven of Nine in days. "Good."

She began to turn away and the taller blonde said, "Dr. Pulaski. Kate."

"Yes, Seven of Nine?"

"A change to my designation has been upon my mind for some time now. Annika is not a name that I am comfortable with. I am not that child, nor am I that person. Seven of Nine, is no longer accurate and is already in use by my sister." She adjusted her stance, unsure of how to proceed, but wanting to continue. "I have spoken with Doctor Zimmerman and he has expressed confidence in your assistance with such matters."

Kate thought it was fortunate that she had long ago learned how to retain a neutral expression in the face of death or humor. "Go on."

"Would you assist me?"

Kate looked at Seven of Nine closely. Then she said, "Sure. Do you plan to integrate any numbers into your name?"

"No."

"Good. That's one set we won't have to worry about. I expect you have a large database of names to try."

"I have narrowed it down to a thousand potential choices, some based on my birth name, some on features that I appreciated."

"Makes sense. Your name should be your own, especially if you're going to choose it."

"Thank you for understanding."

"You're welcome, Sugar. Do you plan on utilizing a patronymic or matronymic?"

"Not at this time."

"Fine, then I won't call you Sugar Hansen. Though I think it has a nice ring to it."

Seven looked startled. "You have already chosen a temporary designation for me?"

"I don't like to linger. Some decisions take time, others should be made as quickly as possible. Besides, once I get in the habit of calling someone something, it tends to stick. I figured you'd rather Sugar than some other less appropriate name."

"You consider Sugar appropriate?" Seven of Nine found she was slightly appalled by that possibility. It had the same number of letters, the same pattern of syllables, but was, somehow, wrong.

"It operates as both a description and a term of endearment."

Seven of Nine blinked at the doctor and then said with a touch of wonder, "Dr. Zimmerman said you were efficient."

Kate grinned suddenly. "From you, that is a compliment."

==^==

Ambassador Blue had become a well known entity in the DoD. The sprite visited daily, floating from The Park, to the mess mall, and to the DoD. In the DoD it would visit with whomever was available, usually the ensign at the watch desk. The daily event had become somewhat of a crash course in diplomacy for whichever ensign happened to be assigned to the desk. As the sprite had no difficulty asking innumerable, sometimes unanswerable, and often baffling questions about the Federation, Starfleet, and temporal reality. Occasionally, the ensign would send Blue down to Science for its answers, most typically to Astrometrics, if they didn't happen to be busy. Sometimes they had to call on the higher grade officers or, when it got really sticky, Voyager's official diplomats, the Emissary or even a Counselor. Frequently, the counselor was for the ensign that had been on desk duty that day.

Thanks to Ambassador Blue, the Emissary's presence had also become more visible in the DoD. Captain, now Commander, Sisko did not appear to have any problem responding to the fundamentally unanswerable questions with information and other questions, none of which were necessarily conventional. Yet, Blue always seemed satisfied with what it learned from its not quite Human, not quite Bajoran friend. They were, it seemed, relatives; very distant cousins, but still, related.

The Emissary was also helpful in discussions with the Changelings. In fact, Yara, Odo and the others offered their assistance with the informational tracts that T'Pel and Lwaxana compiled. Thus the final packages provided to gamma-Voyager had been through a rigorous process of editing for first time visitors.

Neelix was the first to say it. "Oh, I wish we'd had this when we first went in to that universe."

They knew then had succeeded beyond their initial goals.

The packets were distributed upon the Commodore's review and approval, along with replicator patterns for House uniforms, patterns for the pips and marks, and the sundry rules of survival that would require strict adherence if they were to thrive instead of merely survive. Gamma-Voyager would be going into the beta-Universe as a vassal of Warlord Janeway, and as a vessel of the Commodore's fleet.

==^==

"What do you want?" Lanna's tone hadn't improved over time, Commander Tigan noted. Her alternate was still in the old uniform, apparently out of sheer stubbornness. She and Lanna had managed to achieve a professional detente, which allowed them to work on projects together, but the friendship that had been growing between them was slowly reversing itself.

B'Elanna very nearly turned right back around, but considered her recent conversation with Ezri and Seven. Instead, she said, "I wish to invite you to the holodeck."

"What, now you're inviting me out on a date?"

The Klingon held tight against releasing the natural growl of frustration, and managed, somehow, not to whack Lanna on the back of the head with her isolinear remodulator. "No. I'm inviting you, as family member and colleague, to get some exercise and have a little fun. Klingon style." She grimaced, and it almost approximated a smile. "Unless you're not up for it."

Lanna wasn't even looking at her now, instead focusing on the wires in front of her. "You'll have to clear it with Commanders Ro and Dax."

"Already have. Ro thinks it will be good for you. Pent up rage and all that." She didn't say that it had been Ezri's idea in the first place.

Now Lanna snorted. "Fine. If she says it. I'll go. What time?"

"1730 too soon?"

"I'll call Neelix."

==^==

The holo-program had been adapted from a Universe Beta simulation that the marines had been training in of late. The settings allowed for a moderate level of danger, nothing that would kill them, but they would definitely be bruised, bloodied and out of breath by the end. They faced a small boarding party of creatures from the Hive in the corridors of gamma-Voyager.

"If you intend to talk," said Lanna as she swung her bat'leth up, and through, the chiton armor of one of their assailants, "I don't think this is the program for it." A part of her was aware that B'Elanna must be holding back. She had taken time, when she'd had plenty of it, to review some of the records of Voyager, and its altered crew. She ignored that, however, in favor of enjoying the moment.

"Talking only works if someone is listening." B'Elanna was splattered with holographic gore. "Besides, we'll go have some bloodwine afterwards, share some stories. Then we'll talk."

"I have nothing to say about her."

"Did I say that would be the topic?"

Lanna sliced her blade through another attacker's neck and sighed. "No."

"Good. Because I'm not ready to talk about that either. Bad words would be exchanged and you'd get pissy, and then I'd have to explain to Ezri why I messed you up on your path to healing."

Lanna was startled, and used the reflexive momentum to plunge the bat'leth deeply into the Hive soldier in front of her. "Oh. Well," she said as she pulled the curved sword out again, "that's good then. What are we going to talk about?"

"I told you. We're going to share some stories. Then, whatever we talk about after, that's what we talk about."

"So…we're friends again." Lanna didn't want to admit how much she already missed the easy and entertaining dialogs they had had in the past. It wounded her too much to think on it.

"No. But maybe later. If your stories are any good."

"Hah! I'll show you."

"Less talk, more fight." B'Elanna let loose the growl she'd been holding in, and swung the mek'leth in her right hand in a vicious arc.

==^==

Commander Ro, Commander Dax and Commander Troi met on alpha-Voyager.

"In essence," said the Bajoran, "the TUE on our ship is complete, and the majority of tests have been satisfactory. The crew are still adjusting to the uniforms."

"So bitching about the change, but wearing them."

Ro smiled slightly at the Betazoid and continued her report, "And the majority have gotten temporary marks, including all the Humans and Vulcans."

"And the ship's disguise?" Ezri had pointed out that if she had known instantly, the first time she'd viewed Voyager's registry numbers, that they were from her universe, and given that the syndicate appeared to be doing universe hopping of their own, then it would not be inconceivable that gamma-Voyager would be recognized immediately as being displaced.

"Coming along. The supply and design teams have been working together. Our ship is fast approaching the beta-Universe standard." She paused. "There has been a surprising side benefit."

"More pep to the crew's step?" Deanna ventured.

Ezri grinned and matched the idiom. It always astonished her how many euphemisms, platitudes, and affirmations there were in Human vocabulary. They could say anything a thousand different ways. "Cock to their walk."

Ro briefly grinned at the other two commanders before returning to her normal stoicism. "I believe that acknowledging that they have lived through quite a few adventures has been a positive incentive."

"They have reason to be proud. Your people have done more than survive. You have done a lot of good along your whole journey," Deanna said.

"Thank you. I used to say that we'd like to think so. But now I know we did."

"The evidence was always there."

"I guess it was."

"So, what's next on the agenda?" Ezri didn't need to have Deanna's empathic skills to know they'd taken the discussion as far as Ro would be comfortable with.

"Establishing a timetable, and a choice of location. Both Astrometrics teams recommend we choose at least three possible points. Our preference would be the inside the B'hava'el System, as close to Bajor itself as possible, but final decision on that is up to the Commodore."

Ezri picked up the PADD and glanced over it. "I'll see that she gets the recommendation. It's likely that she will agree with you. The last time we stopped by Presba, but really, it was luck of the draw that any of the family was there. It's been a few weeks, people will have shifted around by now. Bajor may be on the outskirts, but it's also a natural location for a meeting."

"Anything else?" Ro asked.

"One thing. The DoD has finished briefing the officers involved in the exchange, so as of today, in addition to Lt. Megan Delaney who's already taken over your Astrometrics Department, Ensigns Hansen, Booker, and Alept; Lieutenants Nicoletti and Mek, along with Counselors Sana and Dav, will be going to over to gamma-Voyager, while Ensign Jennifer Delaney, Lieutenants Arkinson, and Stadi, plus the civilian scientist, Seven of Nine, who's already on board, will come over here." If the phrasing of the name and title of the last member of the exchange group surprised Ro Laren, Ezri couldn't detect it.

"I'll see to it that quarters are ready for them when they arrive." Ro's voice was as inscrutable as her expression.

"Anything else?" Ezri looked at Deanna, who shook her head.

"I believe you bribed me to come over here with a promise of a meal?"

==^==

Dr. Brahms took the seat opposite to Commodore Janeway, and accepted the offer a drink with gratitude.

"So how is she doing?" Janeway paused. "Actually, how are they doing?"

"Well, all the data indicates that Voyager's doing fine, and, according to the Zakeeri, the baby is progressing normally, so everything is fine there too. We can probably expect several more episodes of cravings, as the baby develops. It might be good to top off at the Nebula before we go."

Kathryn chuckled, remembering an adventure in the twenty first century, and understanding the reference. She was also getting a very different view of cravings, thanks to T'Pel's pregnancy. "I believe we can arrange that. I'll talk with KJ and see if she's interested in another fishing trip before we go."

"Fishing trip?"

"Personal joke."

"Ah, well, it makes sense in context and it would probably profit gamma-Voyager too."

"What do you think of the changes they made to the TUE?"

"Well, considering we helped them with the adaptations and plan on utilizing the new information with our own after all of this is resolved, I think that great progress has been made."

"Will it work?"

"Of course it will." She raised her hand to forestall comment. "I say that with no pride. This is and was Annika's baby. But I've evaluated the adaptations and they're a legitimate direction for the unit. And considering what Seven of Nine was able to do with it on her own before we arrived, I don't have the slightest doubt about it. To get an engine in perfect working order, we'd have to rebuild from scratch; Annika's dongle and Seven of Nine's changes only correct part of the problem. We can probably even take some of the data gathered and apply it elsewhere."

"Transwarp?"

"Maybe. We already know the TUE should not be a replacement for warp or even a slipstream drive. If we're truly going to be adventuring through the galaxies, we'll need both."

"Galaxies…" The Commodore sat back, realizing, suddenly the potential of what they'd done. She quipped, suddenly whimsically, "Now I understand why we needed a DoD."

"That too. When we get back to our universe, Lenara and I would like to stay with you on Voyager, but we may need to have central locations in which to explore and store data."

"Of course. We can set up a central lab on Presba and make sure there's a duplicate on Voyager's Rest."

"Thank you."

"You're very welcome." Kathryn picked up her coffee cup and finished the last of the now tepid brew. "Anything else?"

"Are you still mad at us?" Now that Janeway had given her an opening, Leah decided to tackle the issue head on. She was tired of peeking around corners, and Lenara hadn't filled in any of the gaps, apparently content with the arrangement.

Kathryn paused. "I was never mad at you or Lenara, Leah. I know that you are aware that this is a Trill cultural issue, and it affects Dax as much as Kahn. Anything more than that I'm not at liberty to divulge. The protocol seems to be working. I hesitate to change it until certain criteria are met." She really wasn't sure how much Brahms knew and so she kept the discussion as general as possible, having learned that the Trill Symbiosis Commission guarded a lot of the information about symbionts and their hosts very closely. In fact, the Federation had only learned that some Trill even had symbionts a little over ninety years ago, though they had been interacting with Vulcans and other member species for well over two hundred years before that. "I can tell you that I am very happy to have you both onboard, and I very much appreciate your work and research. Voyager would be all the poorer for it, if you weren't here."

Leah sighed. "Well, as a side comment from a non-Trill, it would be nice for both of us to be able to come to the bridge when the staff meeting is called."

"I understand and I'll take that into consideration, though generally, only department heads and senior officers attend staff meetings, and Lenara is neither."

"Still glad you're not mad. I admit to wondering."

"I'm sorry if there was that perception. There's been so much on the plate lately." Inwardly, she was a little concerned that Lenara Kahn had not given Brahms enough background to feel comfortable with the situation. She did have to admit though, that most of what she knew about Trill, hadn't come from Ezri herself, but through Kate, via Deanna and Asil, and through her own research. She supposed it to be a Trill thing, and was careful how much she pressed Ezri for information, waiting instead for her mate to reveal things in her own time.

"And more to come."

Kathryn lifted her mug in acknowledgment and drank her coffee. "Dr. Brahms, you have said a mouthful."

==^==

"Commander Dax?" The door slid open, triggered from outside, and the tousled haired head of Ranul Keru appeared, as the lanky man leaned forward hesitantly.

"Ah, come in Ranul. Thank you, for coming. I'm sorry for the formal setting, but there's a starship-load of paperwork to do before we go." Even as she said that, Ezri set aside the PADDs she had been working on.

"Then this must be about your zhian'tara."

Ezri grimaced and pointed at a chair. "Have a seat."

The other Trill did so without hesitation. "I take it things are in order."

"As much as they can be at this point. Our next jaunt takes us into the beta-Universe. We expect to be there at least a couple of weeks."

"You would like to conduct the zhian'tara there. In that universe."

"Weird, I know."

"I do not think so. It will provide a unique setting and I am sure that the other Trills there go through a similar ceremony."

"No proof though." Ezri hadn't thought to ask Jadzia.

"No, but for them have a similar ceremony is a logical outcome of what it means to be a Host; particularly since for us, it's an absolute necessity. They would have had come up with something. I can't imagine them having symbionts and having a different brain chemistry." Ranul waited a beat, then continued, not wanting to sound like he was admonishing her. "You have gone much longer without one than most."

"Too many life events."

"Indeed. Or it simply wasn't time."

"You sound philosophical about it."

Ranul smiled easily. "I am. And Dax's Hosts have always chosen their own times. So. When would you like to conduct the ceremony?"

"I was thinking three days after arrival. That should give us time to meet and greet the family, and I can almost guarantee that if we go to Bajor we'll be able to find a holodeck."

Now Ranul nodded, understanding. "Have you found a Host for Joran Dax, or will Benjamin Sisko perform that role again?"

Her expression clouded, her eyes darkening, but she nodded. "Tuvok has agreed to Host him."

Now it was his turn to nod. He thought that, all things considered, it was a very wise choice to use the Vulcan.

"So, do you think you'll be available three days hence?" She smiled knowing full well that he was, for the most part, almost on vacation as his sole purpose for being on Voyager was her zhian'tara, though he had been running simulations with the marines.

"I shall make myself so." He too grinned.

"Excellent. Thank you."

==^==

KJ surveyed the holographic representation of Starfleet Headquarters. It was the one holographic program that every Federated Planets starship had, and it was specifically rendered to serve the educational and morale needs of a deployed vessel. In this case, the holoprogam featured a specific hall, well known to those who attended functions there as cadets. It was tricked out in banners with fleet colors, there was seating for those who were able to attend and a simple podium and desk at the front. This ceremony was for the whole crew, but not everyone could make it to the holodeck; someone had to watch the bridge.

The occasion was, however, something that she deemed important enough that time was set aside for the ceremony, and a holo-recording would be made of the event to go with the live broadcast being piped through the ship. She wore, for this particular function, her old dress uniform. It wasn't that she didn't like the new one, but she felt that should be saved for the beta-Universe and, this was something special for her people. More, it was something that would be just between herself and her crew. Commodore Janeway had the right to attend and, honestly, any other official would have. But she knew. She understood. And that had warmed KJ in ways that could never truly be expressed except in terms of loyalty. Where kinship did play a role in their relationship, that single act of consideration cemented the bonds of honest friendship.

Thus, she was alone on the stage and was able to watch, as in slow progression, her people, who had not been apprised as to the purpose, but only that their attendance was required, began to arrive. Her senior staff took their places at the front, while the more junior officers and crewmen began taking the other seating. As she looked out at the well-known, treasured faces, memories briefly flickered in and out of mental focus, and she felt an upwelling of affection for them: her beloved, faithful crew.

When it was time, there was a rolling beat of drums and a brief piping of a naval whistle. Captain Janeway stepped forward to the podium, then, changing her mind, she stepped in front of it and the desk, which had spanned across its surface, the pips, commendations and various medals that were to be awarded.

It was hard for her to find the words, hard to articulate what she knew in her head and heart, especially past the emotion that threatened to clench her throat tight. Breathing deeply, she managed to hold her emotions at bay. The words were there after all and, once started, she found that she had to fight to keep it brief, there was so much she wanted to say, but time was precious.

She began to call each of her crew to the front, one at a time. She took their hands and pinned medals, and pips to chests and collars in unhurried succession. Each moment was ingrained on her heart like a stamp, a memory of perfection. Tuvok. Celes. Ayala. Stadi. B'Elanna Torres.

The two women looked at each other, both remembering that moment in engineering when Kathryn had demanded that B'Elanna take off her pips. Now, the Klingon's eyes were wide as if this were the last thing she expected would happen. Kathryn affixed the new black rank pip, to go with a medal of honor, and smiled at her Chief Engineer. Then their hands connected in a warm, firm clasp. She said, "Congratulations, Lieutenant Commander B'Elanna Torres."

Lanna swallowed back a rush of sensation and ignored the watery edges that blurred her vision. "Thank you, Captain. It's been a true honor."

==^==

"I realize that many of us have adopted shorter, or in some cases longer versions of our names," Janeway looked at the newly minted Lt. Thomas Paris, and smiled. "To help avoid confusion with our alternates. With the name changes, the new uniforms, and the tattoos that some of us now wear, it might seem like we have made all of the adjustments. But there is one more I'd like to make before we enter Universe Beta, and I couldn't be prouder to do so."

"There is much to be said, and much I could say, but I'm going to turn instead to a Terran writer who offered these words centuries ago." She looked around the room, seeking out as many eyes as she could in that brief journey, and met those of Ro Laren last, not looking away as she spoke. "Peril, loneliness, an uncertain future, are not oppressive evils, so long as the frame is healthy and the faculties are employed; so long, especially, as Liberty lends us her wings, and Hope guides us by her star."

Janeway paused again to let the sentiment filter through the minds and hearts of those present, both in person, and who were watching from elsewhere. "When we were flung to the far recesses of the Delta quadrant, two crews became one. Necessity and circumstance dictated that we became a Starfleet crew, but in the course of becoming one crew, we became something more: A family, and I value those of you who were Maquis, as much as I value those who came to use from Starfleet, Talaxia, Ocampa, or the Borg."

She let her words echo in the hall, and once again found Ro's eyes, again not looking away as she spoke. "Ms. Wildman, if you will."

"Aye, Captain." Naomi stepped forward, gold-rimmed black pip in place, and triggered a control at a station that had been unobtrusively placed to one side of the stage.

At the same time a large view screen opened behind her on the stage. KJ took a step to the side, her lips twitching in a small smile as she watched Ro's eyes widen in curiosity. The image on the screen resolved into a view of the outside hull of the ship. "On your mark, Commander Ro."

Laren met her eyes for a long moment and then nodded, before her brow furrowed slightly. KJ watched amused, as the Bajoran hesitated over what exactly she was supposed to say, since she had not told her first officer what was about to happen.

Finally, Ro offered a light smile, and straightened her shoulders, coming to her full height. "Do it."

As soon as Ro spoke, the view zoomed, and KJ offered a silent thanks to Seven of Nine, who, from the Astrometrics lab on Voyager, was controlling the visual feed. A tumbling bottle moved from right to left across the screen.

"For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see; Saw the Vision of the World, and all the wonder that could be..." The bottle was nearly at the hull, and she paused again, the final words of the dedication plaque on the bridge echoing slightly in hall. Just as the bottle was about to hit the ship, KJ spoke again, timing her words to the splash of liquid over the proverbial bow. "It seems only fitting then, as we once more fling ourselves on the winds of change, that we do so aboard the USS Val Jean."





Epilogue | | Bookmarks




The turbo-lift doors slid open with a hiss, and curious, Captain Jean-Luc Picard turned in his chair to see who was entering the bridge. Intense brown eyes met his as Guinan stepped forward, and he knew instantly that whatever had lured the El-Aurian from ten-forward would impact them all.

Tall, and stately, she stared at the forward view-screen for a long moment and Picard merely waited, one hand motioning the bridge staff to remain quiet.

"Stop the ship." Guinan spoke without turning, and he did the only thing he could do.

"Helm. Full stop."

"Aye, sir."

As implicitly as he trusted her, the crew trusted him. He stood from his chair, tugged his tunic into place, and moved so they were standing shoulder to shoulder. Guinan half-turned and studied him a moment before turning back to the screen.

"Something is going to come through the rift that's about to form. And when it does, you need to lock on and beam it on board immediately."

Now it was his turn to study her. Looking closely he could see the tension threaded into her posture. He stared out into space and tried to see what she was reading in the blanket of black. "Data, start enhanced sweeps. Transporter room, stand-by." The chorus of ayes was enough to assure him that they were as ready as possible.

"Captain."

He saw it just as Guinan spoke. "Get a lock on it, send it to hangar bay two." He tapped his communicator badge. "Med team to hangar bay two, unknown emergency." He wasn't sure why he made the call, but somehow he didn't think Guinan had come on to his bridge to have him retrieve a twisted hunk of metal. Guinan was already headed for the turbo-lift and moving swiftly he joined her. "What just happened?"

"The end of a universe, Captain."



End of REFLECTIONS. Thank you very much for reading.


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