** H **


Having discarded my clarinet some time ago, I stare out at the chestnut tree in the front of the yard. A little frustrated, if I'm honest. After everything that's happened over the past two weeks, I'd felt like I might be getting back into some sort of groove in the settling dust of the aftermath. Apparently not, as the damned ending still won't quite come to me.

But maybe that's to be expected. I mean…I did sort of have my whole life turned upside down in the span of just a few days. Maybe in just hours. Finding out that Chakotay hadn't really resigned had lifted a heavy burden off my heart in itself…even if I'd been too angry at the deception he and the admiral had played out for the rest of us to realize it immediately. I've had some time with that now, and I definitely forgive them for it. Maybe seeing the admiral phasered on the deck of the Flyer had helped a little to forgive her. I don't know. I do know that being mad at Chakotay, despite his threats against Seven, became more out of the question the instant I was forced to phaser him at point-blank range.

That wasn't speaking to how pissed off they were at us, when they woke up. I half grin, half shudder at the remembrance of that. Of standing over the two of them lying side by side in the aft section and watching them regain consciousness together. Watching them slowly sit up and remember everything that had happened to lead them to waking up there, and then especially watching the two of them exchange a single wary, confused glance and then stare back at Seven and I standing over them. As they gaped up at us in absolute, undeniable awe.

And when the necessary recriminations, the outrage at our (arguably treasonous) actions finally dimmed and passed, after Seven and I calmly explained ourselves several times over and stood by our decisions even in the face of their wrath, they gave over and admitted we'd done the right thing.

Well. Chakotay admitted it. Mostly for the admiral's sake, I think. He was glad we hadn't let her come down there by herself. I still don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face when he fully realized what he'd done down there. That he'd been convinced the admiral was the one on that compound, and that he'd let those operatives loose after her to try and bring her in. That he'd held a knife to Seven, and threatened her with bodily harm, all to convince the admiral to come join the Alliance. They'd definitely planned on bringing her there to force her into joining their sinister organization like they had Chakotay, and he'd been willing to let it happen at the time. Not only that, but he'd apparently been instrumental in forming the plan to draw her out in the first place. It was his intimate knowledge of the way her mind works that had enabled the Alliance to manipulate her into biting at their bait, and his idea to use Seven to further ensure her compliance.

I can't think about the picture I walked in on in that room. Not without my heart rate skyrocketing into the next stratosphere. It's a picture that's going to be hard to get out of my mind, though. At least not anytime soon.

It took a while for Chakotay to even play at being able to interact normally with the rest of us, to think about forgiving himself for that. Knowing him, he probably won't. Not completely. It's understandable. If that had been me, I doubt I'd be able to forgive myself. Seven was classy about it, of course. Wouldn't hear his apologies and informed him that his guilt was "erroneous". She assured him that she didn't hold him accountable for his actions while under the Alliance's control and that neither should he.

On the surface, Chakotay's mind alteration was pretty easy to take care of – thank the stars. The majority of what had been done to him was actually mechanical. An implant embedded into his hippocampus was controlling his memory center. The Alliance had simply rewritten history for him. Suppressed his own long-term memory of events and given him a slew of new, false memories. Memories that incited anger, rage. They had been the basis of the psychological manipulation that the Alliance members had put him through, were the framework of his ability to think and behave they way he had. For two years, he'd believed the lies that had been put into his mind, had bought into the warping of his personal history with Starfleet. It was a lot to take in, to reconcile for did the best we could to help him accept what had happened, but mostly, he's going to need time with it. Especially since it's not exactly the first time his brain has been royally screwed with like that.

He was lucky, in spite of it all. The false memories hadn't been integrated into his memory organically; the Alliance didn't seem to know how to do that. Which meant that deactivating the implant before waking him had been all it had taken to restore him to his former self – more or less. It was tricky to do, but with Seven's help I managed it. His true memories came back, at least. He knew what he'd done and realized what had happened to him. But he still has no memory of those first few weeks of having reached the colony. He only remembers being stunned on arrival, and waking up an indeterminate amount of time later – much like what had happened to Seven, plus the mind alteration. He was able to confirm that the same alterations had been intended for the admiral and that he'd been ready to argue using it on Seven.

The other Alliance members had toyed with the idea of just killing her. Of taking her implants and trying to figure out how to use them on their own. They'd been afraid that her own Borg implants would work to circumvent the memory implant's pathways. Seven tells me they were right.

The wind ruffles the leaves of the tall chestnut, and I suppress another shudder. I force my mind to turn to more pleasant reflections, and there are some from that flight back to Earth.

After things had settled down and we'd had some time to reflect on the new information we'd gathered from Chakotay – once he was able to start reconciling everything that had happened and started to come out of his shell the tiniest bit – we all spent a good full two days just enjoying the hell out of being alive. Especially of being alive and together. I think even Chakotay had enough sense of the uniqueness of the opportunity the four of us had on that shuttle to not be completely immune to it. And I don't think the admiral, Seven and I were as worried about facing the music back home as we should have been, but after everything that had just happened, everything that had almost happened, the three of us had decided we'd take the repercussions of our actions with clear consciences.

That's really the most important thing. In the two days that followed, I came to some realizations aboard the Flyer. Some realizations about the way my life has been going and the fact that it's at odds with the way my life should be going. About the quality of the life I want to lead, and about the people I want to be in it.

Which reminds me. I only have a little bit of time left before Seven stops by to go to dinner. We're supposed to be meeting Tom and B'Elanna at some pizza place he's found and always raving about recently. And rumor has it that Chakotay and the admiral…Kathryn…will be there, too. It wouldn't surprise me. Not since I offered Chakotay a temporary place to stay a few days ago (knowing he hadn't gotten a chance to get a new place when he's only been back a few days). He informed me that he'd already been offered room and board at a modest local apartment whose sole occupant desperately needed a live-in chef.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me a full minute to get what he meant – where and with who he meant – but after watching the admiral turn a shade of red I've never really seen her turn and then catching Chakotay's broad smile breaking out across his face as he winked at her, it hit me what had happened. It was faster than I expected, but I think I've decided that the two of them had simply come to the same sort of realizations I'd come to on board the Flyer. And, looking back over the past nine years...it really was about damn time.

I'm happy for them. And I do hope they come tonight. It'll be nice to see them…the two of them…happy. As happy as I've been very recently. If someone had told me a week ago that any of this would be happening today, I'd have told them they were out of their minds.

Interesting times.

But I wanted to talk to my mom tonight before going out. The conversation I'm looking at having isn't going to be any easier for waiting to have it. And since she's usually the one to determine how things go down with my parents as a unit, it's best to start with her, get her on my side – and then tell Dad.

She's not going to like it. But it's time.

"Harry, drink your tea. It'll get cold."

She startles me with her voice but not enough to make me jump. I make a noncommittal grunt of a reply as she comes up next to me to stare out at the scenery, too. And I could sugar coat this, try to make it softer for her, but…my mom hates that. She likes to be told how it is, and she certainly could never be accused of not doing the same – much to my chagrin on several past occasions involving friends and colleagues who've been around to witness her directness over the years.

I clear my throat. "Mom."

"Hmm?" We keep looking out at the trees.

"Let me ask you something."

"You know you can ask me anything."

I do know. I just also know that half the time I'm not going to like the answers. I swallow. "If I went out on a deep space mission soon…a much longer one…would you be okay with it? Really okay with it?"

Her reply shocks me, as she turns abruptly to look at me and I regard her a little nervously. She only smiles. "Well, now, I am relieved."

I stare at her and wonder if the Alliance somehow got to her brain, too, like they had Chakotay's. "What?" I croak out disbelievingly.

Her smile widens. "I've been waiting for that question for some time now," she explains – with the distinctly satisfied aura of someone who's been in on a secret they're about to let you in on. "I'd almost given up on ever hearing you ask it. But now that you have, I can stop worrying about you."

"I don't understand." I really don't. "I thought you'd be nervous about letting me go off planet again. You…you aren't?"

This time she chuckles as she smoothes her hair. "Nervous? Oh yes. I'll be a basket-case the entire time you're gone." She lifts her hand, brings it up to my face the way she does sometimes. And confesses, "But, Harry. You're an explorer. A scientist. It's what you were born to be, and it's always been who you are. It may have skipped a few generations, but it's clearly in your blood. It's a part of you. I could no more ask you to stay home on Earth for the rest of your life than I could find it in my heart to ask you to give up life in Starfleet entirely. I accepted long ago that you would be going back out again. We've only worried about how long it's taken you to get back out there and try."

"We". Meaning she and my dad have been up late at night, in bed, talking about this for months. Meaning he's apparently been in on this little theory, too. And…damn them all…but coupled with the admiral's hints on the Flyer that first time…it gives me a lot to think about. Normally, this kind of thing would annoy the living daylights out of me. The two of them…I turn green…hell, maybe the three of them for all I know…sitting around plotting my future for me, whispering their conspiratorial concerns, but this time, I'm too relieved to care much about that aspect. This time, I find I can only be grateful that this conversation isn't the tearful blow-out I'd worked myself up into dreading it would be.

Well…damn. As she pulls me down for a huge bear hug, my eyes are burning with gratitude. With regret and realization, as I have to accept that it possibly wasn't my parents holding me back here, all this time. That they're always ready to support me, and that all I had to do was to make the decision to actually go. But now's not really the time to dwell on it. Later I'll sit with it, try to come to terms with why I might have been so…nervous…about going out on another mission.

Right now is just a time to be grateful.

"Which assignment will you take? Do you know?" she asks.

She's referring to a list of about twenty I've been offered since we got back. There's one that takes top priority at the moment, though, and it's one I can't get into much detail about.

They're putting together a team to go back out to meet the Nyberrite Alliance. They'll be expecting us now, but the longer we wait, the more time they have to prepare an adequate defense. Starfleet can't afford to miss the opportunity to get out there now, before they have a chance to reinforce themselves. Or even to move their colony completely. To my mother, I say only, "It's related to where we went last week. And what we had to do there."

She nods thoughtfully. Knowing enough by now not to press me for more details than I'm giving. "It's still lucky the three of you got off as lightly as you did," she points out.

I was able to tell her enough of the basics to let her know what I was charged with, and as she refers back to last week, I wince. Her statement is true enough. As soon as we'd gotten back to Earth, we were detained and boarded by a full security team. And aside from the tiniest flicker of relief in Admiral Paris's eyes as they passed over Chakotay, the hard look that descended over his features didn't leave the entire time he stood there, reading the charges against us – and they were vast. Stealing a classified project like the Delta Flyer comes with about twenty inherent sub-violations alone, but the list continued on. Demonstrating intent to fire on another Federation vessel. Disobeying the direct orders of a superior officer. Interfering with classified, covert operations. Interfering with an undercover operative of the Federation. And in my case the charges were later amended to include phasering a senior officer, which amounted to physical assault. It would have been mutiny, if this mission had been in any way sanctioned by Starfleet Command – which it fortunately wasn't.

What the three of us had done was no light matter, and at first, the brass saw it as anything but justified.

The admiral got us out of most of it. She took full responsibility for our actions. It wasn't enough to spare me the worst dressing-down of my life – with the exception of just one that I can think of – but I got out of it with a reprimand. They couldn't do much to Seven because she's not even officially in Starfleet, but in the beginning they were talking about criminal charges in civilian court…the whole nine yards. Mostly, I think they were trying to scare the you-know-what out of us. Hoping to do what they could do discourage us developing rebellious traits like the admiral's. It was her they tried to throw the book at, really. Since she'd taken full responsibility for the entire thing, they went for her pretty hard. And I wasn't there for it, because I wasn't allowed to be, but the way she tells it, the only reason she got out of that hearing with her pips intact was because of Chakotay. Apparently, he strolled right into that hearing and all but blackmailed them into dropping the charges against her, using the fact that he was the one with the crucial information about the Alliance's activities. And while he hadn't outright threatened them with withholding it, he'd nonetheless made it clear that if they wanted his help with neutralizing the threat, he was only going to give it with the admiral standing by his side, rank and privileges intact.

He earned himself a reprimand for that little maneuver. Fortunately for all of us, Starfleet just plain needs us too much for the upcoming mission they're sending back out there. The surviving members of the Alliance blames the Federation, and especially Starfleet, for not backing them up more during the Dominion war. For allowing their planet to be decimated by the Dominion. Those core surviving members have latched onto bitterness, hatred, as their lifeline to survival, and the target of their wrath is Starfleet itself. Every bit of mind control they've done to their new recruits seems to have centered on whipping up the same kind of frenzied aggression against Starfleet that they have naturally.

They're definitely coming for us, sooner or later. And even if his mission wasn't strictly a success, if Chakotay hadn't gotten in there to begin with, we'd probably never have seen it coming before it was too late. Starfleet had had suspicions, but nothing so concrete as to be able to guess at the truth of it all. And once they'd calmed down enough to realize that the four of us were going to be crucial to the front lines of defense against the Alliance's intentions, the brass did calm down somewhat nicely.

Simply put, they need us.

"Starfleet Command asked me to be involved in a tactical mission," is all I can tell my mom, though. "It leaves in about a week."

She winces a little at the close time frame, but recovers quickly. Nods. And then gets that sly look on her face. "And is Seven going to be included in this mission?"

I roll my eyes. "Yes. As a matter of fact, she is."

"We've been seeing a lot of her this week."

And it's been heaven, I don't say aloud. Instead, I just grin, and my mom smiles. It had taken a few visits to get her used to the implants and all. I think they put her off, but Seven's been developing social skills. That's something I've been learning about her lately, and watching her in action around my parents as she's been slowly winning them over has been gratifying.

"Do you think it's serious?" she asks.

I swallow. It's already way past serious. But I'm not ready to admit it out loud to my mother yet. She's only just getting used to the idea of Seven and I.

"Harry?" My dad's voice breaks over the internal comm. system. Saving me from having to come up with an appropriate response. "Seven's here. I'm sending her up."

My mom clears her throat. Collecting herself and heading for the door. "I'll leave the two of you to…whatever it is you might want to talk about before leaving," she explains.

I'm grateful, even as I turn to cap the mouthpiece of my clarinet, preparing to leave it for a while. "Thanks, Mom."

"Mrs. Kim," I hear Seven greet my mom.

"Hello, dear," my mom returns politely – almost warmly – on her way out the door and I turn to look at Seven for the first time this evening.

My mouth drops open. She's wearing the same Maquis-inspired pants suit that she selected to wear on the rescue mission. Well…it can't be the same outfit as that last one got pretty banged up, but it's a perfect replica of it. It fits her perfectly, showcasing but not broadcasting her goddess-like, statuesque figure. And her hair is in the same soft, alluring style, with the curls framing her face. As I stare at her in a little bit of awe – and a lot of pure desire – it occurs to me that I'm going to be the envy of every man in that bar tonight. Or, just as likely, in more than one fight by the end of the night.

I've had a lot of practice at that lately. Fortunately. And Tom will back me up. Not to mention Chakotay… Hell. What am I talking about? We'd have to elbow B'Elanna and Kathryn out of the way, and that's if Seven didn't just handle it herself with her usual "efficiency"…

"You do not approve of my attire?" she teases, in a lighter tone than before when she'd said these words to pull me out of my gawking.

I'm staring.

I close my mouth a little. Grin. "It's perfect," I correct. Pulling myself together, snapping out of it and slowly approaching her. "You're beautiful, Seven. You do know that, don't you?"

Right now, I want nothing more than to kiss her, and more than chastely, but I don't want to rush this. If a fraction of the sparks I can feel sizzling through the air between us now remain after a few months' time, then what we have building here is something too special to risk screwing up. So instead, I lean over to kiss her cheek, containing myself.

She surprises me by turning into the kiss, so that her lips plant firmly on mine. And at the slight pressure of her soft mouth parting ever so slightly under mine, I automatically pull her to me, pressing her up against me and losing myself in the feel of her. In the taste of her. My hand comes up to cup her face and then through the hot arousal in both of us, a melody suddenly explodes through my conscious awareness. One I've never heard before, but one I recognize immediately. It's lilting and teasing, but strong and solid all throughout.

It's my ending. And it, like her, is perfect.

I'm not actually all that surprised that it was she who inspired it. But I don't want to lose it now that I have it. I pull back, leaving us both breathless, pressing my forehead to hers and beg, "Seven. This is going to sound strange right now, but…just…give me one second, could you?"

"Of course." She looks confused, for which I don't blame her, but as I rush over to the music stand and pick up my clarinet, pressing the button to open the recording program and bring the mouthpiece to my lips, the notes come easily and fluently. I think she'll recognize it when she hears it, and as I turn to her on the last note, I can see the broad smile on her slightly swollen lips.

"You've finished it," she declares, as I place the clarinet back on its stand. She approaches me, looking over my shoulder to the piece of music, watching the notes appear based on what I've just played. I like it. I'm not only satisfied with it, but I like it. I hope she likes it, too. As I turn and look into her eyes, I can see that she definitely does, that she's not just being polite.

"It is appropriate," she proclaims, giving her final seal of approval. "It concludes the piece with grace and elegance."

I grin at her choice of vocabulary. At her. "Grace and elegance, huh? Well those are at least two words you must know a little something about. Considering the fact that you have both of those qualities in abundance."

Sappy, yeah. I'm working on it, okay?

I'm getting lost in her eyes again. They're so blue. So much softer these days than I ever remember them being back on Voyager, and it's a dangerous combination, I decide. A little thrilled about it. My eyes slide down to her lips, and the hell with it. I start to pull her back to me–

"Harry."

Damn it. We jump apart, and my mom pretends not to notice how close to having our tongues down each others' throats we were when she interrupted. It's still embarrassing as hell. Not to mention plain awkward. "Tom's on the comm. line," she informs. "He says you're late. They've already ordered. And he says to tell you that if you don't get there in five minutes, they're eating your food."

He'd do it, too. I consider just not caring, saying to hell with it and letting him, but since my mother is still standing there watching us, I figure it's best to leave now – while we still can. I offer Seven my arm. "Shall we?"

She links her arm through mine without hesitation. "Tom did promise that this particular bar would be…interesting. Although I'm still not certain how Kathryn and Chakotay will feel about being forced to 'karaoke'."

I laugh freely at the mental image that idea invokes in my brain and shake my head as I guide Seven towards the door, giving my mom a quick kiss on the cheek as we pass. She frowns. "Are you sure you won't stay for dinner instead?"

I roll my eyes. "As…thrilling as that offer is, Mom…no. Thank you. I'll see you later. Don't wait up."

She takes it well enough. Nodding us onward, even if I know she's probably going to get me back for that little crack later. "Have fun, you two," she orders after us as we start down the stairs.

"Thanks," we call over our shoulders automatically without thinking.

It's only as we're well on the way to the front door that I swear can hear her murmur sweetly, "And may you live in interesting times."