Transmission J.28-1-S99224

Recipient: Inmate C-75435.m
Origination: STR.001; SHQ


I wasn't certain at first whether you would want to hear from me again, being that we had been on opposing sides. But since our contact had not been disagreeable, considering, I thought you might want to know what's happened since we saw each other last, over two years ago.

You and I parted ways on the Liberty, when you so honorably turned your ship over to Admiral Dernas. I knew then that you carried a large burden, however, a conscience for your crew, and particularly regarding some certain decisions you were forced to make.

I got to thinking about you today, so I thought I'd take the chance and bring you up to date on the result of one of your actions. You see, I've had a bit of news on our "projects."

I'll cut to the chase and start from the beginning: About twenty-one months ago, your former engineer was released after serving her nine month sentence...

She pulled a loose curl of hair behind her ear and leaned into the power assembly. A simple snip with the laser fitter and that part was done. Getting in there was the difficult part. The rest was routine.

That was a switch.

Pulling herself out, she flipped on the power. The generator whirred to life without a hitch. Nodding to herself, she turned the unit off again put the laser away, glanced at the sunset. She would be able to run a few efficiency diagnostics the next day.

The work was simplistic, but it was work. Anything, even drudgery, was better than boredom in that place. She still didn't like the nights there, or meals. She tolerated Caruthers.

As if on cue, a soft-toned alarm sounded for a few seconds.

She pulled off her tool apron, set it in the case then tucked it all away in a nearby bin before hurrying out of the gully she'd been working in. She didn't want to be late.

All but bi-monthly, she often was - so distracted in her work that she didn't hear the evening alarm. They had an hour to walk the court before reporting for dinner. After that came bed rest, or so they called it. It was more like pacing herself to a half sleep, wishing she'd done more in the day to tire herself, cursing herself that she hadn't.

"Hey Torres, off for more official business? Give the administrator my regards."

She smirked, not stopping as she brushed off her gray issue uniform and climbed the steps to the main walk. "Screw off, Atrel."

The Maquis prisoners liked to give her hell. They knew she'd been separated and tried apart from her crew-and they knew what that meant. At the same time, they didn't know anything. She didn't care to tell them, either. She stopped caring months ago.

She sifted her fingers through her hair, knowing it was a mess that couldn't be helped. She knew she needed a haircut. She often forgot about that too, but it didn't bother her. She knew nobody there gave a damn what she looked like.

Wiping her face, chewing her lips a bit, she brushed at more dirt. It'd been dry that week.

Nine months ago, it'd been a rainy season in that part of New Zealand, and Inmate Torres, B'Elanna, had spent her first two weeks there under rain clouds and gloom and cold. She believed at the end of that time that she was close to completely losing it.

Shivering, lying open-eyed on the bunk of her silent cell, she tried desperately to distract herself. Eventually, she gave up and thought herself into tears or fits of anger, or periods of anxiety that left her gasping for breath, needing to get out of that place. Her nerves, once like iron, were so pitifully raw some mornings that the doctor had to come to administer a mild sedative - a humiliation she cringed and snarled through as the doctor ignored her - to get to breakfast safely, which she barely ate.

She looked at her assigned busywork and barely knew what to do with it, she lost a few kilos for but picking at her meals. She even stopped caring for herself, her distraction became so prevalent.

At one point, she actually asked for a counselor, though she immediately retracted the request.

That was her initiating time, the first few weeks, when they settled her into "the routine:" wake, eat, inmate education, eat, solitary, eat, retire. Gradually, solitary work replaced education, and outside work replaced solitary. If she stepped out of line - and she certainly did a few times (everybody did at least once, she learned later) - solitary replaced everything for a few days.

She became a model prisoner after three ventures there.

Her nights remained impossible.

With the good behavior, however, and her increasingly diligent work, she was given more liberty and things to do. Graduating to model prisoner also gave her an hour off each day after her outside work to go where she wanted on the grounds and later an opportunity she'd been far too pessimistic to expect at the time.

Of course, she had known from the start that he still came there for his appointments...and when.

After resolving herself to meet with the "counselor from hell," her further good behavior gave her yet another huge liberty, a deal agreed on by all three involved after that privilege had in fact been threatened.

As dusk began to fall over the grounds and the other inmates made their way to the court, she hurried herself in the opposite direction, to that arranged meeting, dusting herself off and cursing the dirt all the while.

She never forgot Janeway's words, that dealing with it would be the hardest thing she would ever do. Every day, despite the benefits of her cooperation, it was.

And embarrassing, frustrating, infuriating, painful...

Examining herself, such as she was, was a constant struggle, and harder still that she actually began to do it. Every time she thought she'd realized something that would help change her, settle her, help her move forward, she found another layer to hurdle and another right behind it.

It was enough that she just wanted to throw up her hands and just keep busy. But she knew all the good that did. She'd done that her whole life and wound up living her days to the cue to annoyingly gentle alarms, mindless work and periods of maddening isolation, desperately trying to stay occupied all in between.

Not to mention, Doc Caruthers would give her hell. He didn't take excuses from anyone - certainly not some cute, snotty prisoner with a bad mouth and enough insecurity to write a book about. But then, that was probably why she'd benefited from his services, much as she fought with him, cursed him outright, told him he was a glorified hobbyist-and even when she dented his wall in a few places.

But then she got to "think" about that too, when she was sent to repair the damage.

She cursed the wall the whole time she re-plastered it.

It was difficult, her perceived Klingon side, with which she'd never come to terms, who manifested her fiercer nature, her outbursts, her penchant to hurt and be hurt much as often as it gave her the strength to just keep going, especially in the beginning.

Doc Caruthers, however, could give "a rat's ass" if she was "half Klingon or half Chihuahua," which eventually - eventually - was good to know.

On the other hand, there was her more "intellectual" Human side-whose cowardly reasoning she blamed often for all the stupid overanalyzing, silly fantasizing and insecure holing up that'd been an equal curse to her.

She knew after a while that she'd simply have to stop separating her genome and just accept that she was screwed up overall.

It was easier to categorize her self-blame, though.

She had given it some genuine effort, though. She did, if not at first spitefully, want to try. She wanted desperately to work her way out of that pit she'd gotten herself in, laser-sealing rudimentary machinery for her "living," spending over a third of her day with only her contemplation as company...and also sometimes the insane screams of those who hadn't coped at all. That was harder to hear than her thoughts.

So she did what she needed to. She worked to the alarm, moved on cue, even walked into her bunkroom at night without complaint. She forced herself to eat a full meal, did what was assigned to her, put up with the counselor from hell. She used her time and what that earned-an hour or so every other week being able to share the time with someone she wanted to see for a change-and didn't waste a moment of it.

She had no choice but to take Janeway's challenge for what it was worth. Otherwise, she'd have no excuses later-soon...very soon, when she would have her final pre-parole hearing.

She grinned just to think about it. Parole wasn't freedom, but it was out of that place. As scared as she was of leaving there not knowing what she would do with herself, how she would cope, she did know that she never wanted to feel that slight reverberation of the forcefield behind her ever again.

Parting from the main path of the work site, she started across the park trail, striding through to the main walkway. She knew there was only an hour before she would be contacted to return for dinner...then sleep.

Only a week more of that, she reminded herself, and then... Well, she didn't know what to do next, but what she had planned was a damn sight better than Auckland, easier as it might have been with the help she'd been given.

Moreover, at least she knew she had a place to go. That idea alone had kept a tiny smile on her lips since she accepted the offer to search for a little place. It wasn't a difficult decision, either, when the suggestions were brought back to her. She'd always loved the sea.

Skipping down the last hill to the pavement, she suddenly hoped that hewasn't late that time: That bi-monthly trip to the facility gates took a while as it was-and often more for the welcome distraction that accompanied her.

Stopping at the gray stone road, she saw the door that led to Dr. Caruthers' office slide open, and she cursorily primped back her hair again, drew a quick breath and pulled her posture straight as a tall, neatly-dressed form exited.

Then she rolled her eyes at her own maneuvers. She knew she looked lousy, but she always did. He was used to that. So why bother?... Well, she knew why, but it still didn't make a difference. Not there.

"You're late," she called out.

She smiled when Paris turned and found her in his eyes.

"Don't blame me. Blame the doc. It's easier that way."

The grin upon his lips, curled in a way she'd come to know well over the months, said instantly that he'd survived another round with Caruthers, whom he returned to talk with every other Thursday afternoon. In fact, the day's session seemed to have gone well.

That wasn't always the case.

The same went for her.

She crossed her arms as he approached. He held his hands behind his back, still returning her welcoming grin. A pause, a blink of a hello, and they turned together on the road. Falling into a natural pace beside each other, they began their walk towards the entry gate on the other side of the facility.

It seems that Ms. Torres did very well there. You might like to know that Mr. Paris has also improved notably since his release.

"Everything's all set up," he told her as they rounded the first turn.

"What is?" she asked.

He laughed. "Your apartment, remember? I've got the entry card waiting for you and all the furniture you need. I might have missed some-"

"I'm sure you didn't." She shook her head immediately, pulling her stare up from the gravel. He was being too nice again. "I could have picked all that up when I got there."

"You'll be busy and tired when you get there," he said. "It's just something you won't have to deal with. Really, B'Elanna. It's not too much and I don't mind."

She couldn't help but smile at his sincerity. He was being her friend, and he wasn't doing it for any reason but that. But she'd become unaccustomed to free favors...or maybe she never had been used to them, or trusted them.

Tom enjoyed his generosity. It was obvious from what he had told her about his life, how miserable he made himself when he failed people. He needed to do, and know he had done. It was half the reason she sometimes told him he didn't have to. But that time, he'd been in earnest, and he expected nothing in return. She believed that.

She knew she should do something in return someday. She did owe him for that one.

More than often, she couldn't believe she'd had such luck in getting to know him...and then she was amazed how much her opinion of him had changed. How could something like that happen with such good timing for a change? she often wondered. Yet knowing what a friend he'd become to her, she didn't wonder for long, but just let it be.

"Thanks," she said. "I really appreciate it, Tom. You know you don't have to do any of this."

"I know."

She grinned. "One more week, right?"

"Just one more," he confirmed. "You really did great, you know. Your last pre-release hearing and all. I told you it'd be okay."

"Yes, you told me," she replied, "-at least fifteen times."

"And I was right," he droned, just in that way that both annoyed and amused her so faithfully. "One more week, Torres."

She couldn't look at him just then, shining like that. She knew she shouldn't be too excited, too happy. Eighteen months of parole still followed her release with at least another year with Dr. Caruthers, per her deal with him.

But if there was one thing Tom Paris could do, it was make her feel like everything really was on the upswing. Over the months, he had somehow developed-or she had finally picked up-an undeniable charm and straightforward optimism about him. Much as she tried to resist it, she couldn't help but think that maybe it was all right. She knew well that she wanted it to be - just that she had so much experience otherwise.

That wasn't to say he wasn't pessimistic, either. In the beginning, he could be much darker, far more cynical, than she had ever been. Sometimes, he still was. More deeply than she could have imagined before of any pilot, he felt and internalized and had let it out in every way but well, until he learned not to.

Looking back, she could see him in Voyager's briefing room, bearing small pieces of his soul to her, and she didn't even see it then. In hindsight, it was so clear, everything he said about himself - and everything he'd said about her.

She'd come to appreciate his honesty even more when she began to recognize it for what it was. When he was cheerful, as he was at present, he usually had a real reason for that, too. It wasn't just pleasantry. She'd learned not to ignore that...even if she didn't show it all the time.

"Aren't you happy to be getting out?" Tom said, breaking the silence in his usual roundabout way, eyeing her askance.

"Is that supposed to be a joke?" she grinned. "I'm too anxious."

"No such thing," he returned.

"Well, at least in a week I'll have the time to figure out what in the world I'll do with myself," she said, light with some effort.

"I think I can start you off," he returned playfully, seemingly unbothered by her straightness. "What's the first thing you want for dinner?"

She knew he had purposefully sent a thousand delicacies spinning into her quick mind. Not that she resisted the renewed rush of excitement. "God, I don't know," she breathed then bit her lip to think.

"How about braised shrimp in linguini, baby leaf mesclun and asparagus salad with a balsamic vinaigrette, a fine wine-"

"Tom, shut up! You're making me drool!"

His smile grew even further. "Well, start thinking about it, and I'll make sure you get it."

She laughed, shaking her head. "I guess you just devoured everything in sight when you got out?"

"Actually, I didn't-though I won't deny I enjoyed eating real food again." He looked ahead to the bend in the road. "No, this time around, we'll definitely celebrate. Whatever you want, you just name it."

She peered up to him. He hadn't celebrated his own release, probably didn't even know where he'd be living when he was released. Just found himself a place to sleep, a replicator he could order from. Just thankful to be out...wondering where to go next.

She knew him well enough by then to be able to picture it, and she felt for him. He'd worked hard to start something for himself since his release. At first, she knew, he'd gone in circles and might have given up if he'd been any less stubborn to get it right that time. Finally, almost by chance, he'd found some direction.

His company, his friendship, during that time had grown more appealing to her - more meaningful as well. Seeing his confidence strengthen gave her something to hope for too, too, especially while she was finally starting to sort out a few things of her own.

"What I'd like," she finally told him, "is a quiet dinner, somewhere comfortable with some good company-and yes, a really nice wine. I've never really gotten to enjoy one before."

"Oh, then I'll have to procure an excellent one in that case," he enthused, his smile lighting further as he considered the sky. "Hmm... Something to compliment the meal, which you still need to decide on before I let my own great taste in cuisine do the job for you." He turned a look of mock apology to her. "Now, the company might be harder to come by."

She snickered, shook her head.

At that, he gave it up, leaned a little towards her as he spoke again. "We'll have a good dinner, B'Elanna. Nothing too much. But if you want to go out, I know some good places. Any way you want it, it'll be good."

"You've got yourself a date," she told him, pinning her gaze on the horizon of the trail. "Don't be late."

But she couldn't keep her face straight for too long. Even that damned grin of his was infectious.

Now, before you start believing too soon that there's something terribly wrong with this, I think we would both have to recall exactly whom we're dealing with...

Janeway laughed aloud when she read the last lines in the file.

"Captain, we will be in orbit of Earth in ten minutes. McKinley Station has cleared our coordinates an-."

"Thank you, Commander. Proceed." Her voice was etched with another chortle when she spoke, causing Cavit to pause. Before he could be tempted to ask, she added, "Janeway out" to cut the comm.

She couldn't help but laugh at what she was reading. If anything, it made good distraction. She needed one.

Several months ago, Mark had finally thrown up his hands and proposed to her in front of both their families, giving her no option to put him off again. Increasingly since then, she had been a strange bundle of nerves, which rose to taunt her attention every time she wasn't busy enough to counter it.

Her first-to-last-minute cold feet was typical for a bride, her mother had teased her in their last communiqué. When it wasn't that, Janeway was equally anxious that nothing would come along - as things often did, she knew painfully well - to disrupt it.

But that was tomorrow - the wedding, the party, the honeymoon. Today was still just that and not over yet, she told herself again and again, as she willed down her "shakes" with a little success. Enough success, anyway, that she allowed herself a big smile at that very helpful distraction.

She leaned back into her seat and took up her coffee-which she knew she definitely didn't need at that point. But what she read was good enough news to sit and savor, read over a few times, mentally fill in the blanks where the text did not elaborate.

The report did certainly look promising.

Even so, Janeway seriously had to wonder about what else it lookedlike, hearing it second hand as she was.

Though she was confident in believing that it'd crossed their minds, it also seemed right to believe they didn't care too much.

True to his hesitant promise, Tom Paris had indeed gone to a psychologist, and did so without her having to push it. But she already knew he would. A few months after leaving the Badlands, she'd sent a brief inquiry to see if Paris had gone through with her advice, and to see if B'Elanna Torres had settled into Auckland well. Thankfully, neither of them seemed to have ignored her. They were both acclimating, Torres with a little more ease, it seemed.

Each of them had intrigued her in a way, struck a cord that had always been there, but had usually gone unrecognized with their sort. Though always so protective of her crew, she had never felt so...unwillingly needed. The fact that both of them were so troubled, so cynical, criminals, conflict waiting to happen, only made her own turn of heart more miraculous - at least to her.

They had indeed needed someone to give them a choice, lay down a line that wasn't either impossible for them to follow, nor abandoned once laid.

That was precisely what Janeway had done, the least and the most she could do for them, really: Empowering them to help themselves; making them see she did believe they had a chance at a future, if they really wanted it. Having taken those extra steps, she was naturally curious if it had made a difference.

Occasionally they, Paris more often, came to mind when she watched her crew deal with other peoples, watch how her first officer handled getting them out of tight spots, how he handled pressure situations. Cavit was good at his job, a fine and dedicated officer. But there was a hard line in him that ghosts of his own had probably etched, something very unforgiving, even bitter. He tended to go to the extreme, come down a little too hard, hold a grudge even when he used his manners.

A fine officer, he was, but what had kept him on the straight and narrow when others like Paris could not? The thought had intrigued her from time to time.

Necessarily, Cavit's style had altered her own leadership a little, brought her down from the very hard lines she'd always drawn, particularly on people who couldn't keep themselves on the right side of Federation law. Of course, at that point, Cavit did that work for her. She only had to decide whether his hard line was correct or not. In a way, that made her job more difficult.

She grinned to think about it. Some people had been convinced-still were at times-that she was made of nothing but steel and slate, thinking point "a" to point "b" much of the time. Maybe they were right, though she knew she'd become much less stringent over the ten months she'd been captaining the Voyager.

Even so, she never had let up on herself.

She wondered what might have been if, so hard on herself, she'd made a fateful mistake like Paris'? Or if she'd drifted into the terrible situation that Torres had? She could imagine how that might have dragged her down. She knew the haunt of depression well, how easy it was...

But people change, she knew. People grow and learn, sometimes the hard way. Indeed, at times she had, and had been lucky to have gotten through it well enough, to have great timing perhaps, a family that came after her when she needed it, forced her to snap out of it when personal tragedy threatened to consume her. Once she saw the same sensibility, she forced herself as well.

What had been the difference between herself and them? Maybe she had been stronger-but in their situations... Paris had been there, and he'd watched Torres begin the same route he'd taken. His own conscience was spiraling him downwards again, she was stuck in the rut of a confused morality. Both of them were going nowhere fast.

It could have just as easily been her, had the conditions been right...or wrong, as it were.

It was not a pleasant thought, but she still considered it sometimes, when her mind was idle enough to recall their pained, lost expressions. She'd dealt with so many people in her years as an officer. Theirs were among the faces that stuck with her.

She had realized the week she'd come to know them that people like that could not just be "cut loose," as Janeway had said and, yes, meant - so blase, so professional - in the park at Auckland. They needed to know there was something for them in the future, that they could be forgiven and might someday be content. They needed the chance to forgive themselves most of all.

When she watched each of them being led off her ship, she had honestly hoped they would be strong enough to do that, to accept themselves and grow from their mistakes.

Judging from the report she'd been sent, she was pleased. It'd take time, but both seemed to be working on it.

It was a lot better than the nothing they'd both expected.

But even as she came to this conclusion, she glanced through Torres' parole statements and saw the docket bearing the parolee's new housing location. Janeway couldn't help but laugh as she let that thought fester.

How strange life is, indeed, she thought, finally putting the PADD aside to get back to the pile of work and preparation she still needed to finish before transporting to Indiana.

Cold feet or no, she wasn't about to make herself late for her own wedding because of paperwork. Mark would never let her live that one down.

How well, after all, did we know them? I can say I thought I knew Tom Paris - or at least his sort...

"What about you?" she asked, leaning well back in her chair as she peered across to him.

Tom shrugged as he collected the rest of the utensils. He'd considered it a hundred-thousand times by then-and much preferred to talk about B'Elanna's hopes and possibilities, as she did know what she wanted to do. His own attempts at finding something had only produced a resolution based on alternatives. Not many people were ready to trust a formerly incarcerated pilot. He knew he shouldn't cling to unlikely luck in that department.

Regarding her again, he found her happily fed for the first time in at least nine months and left with a small, slightly anxious grin on her lips. He knew it well from his own first day of release from Auckland, being totally unsure but glad to be there. But unlike him, she had company on her first night of freedom, and she did look curious to know how it was going. So, he indulged her.

"I've still got another couple semesters of engineering before I find out if they'll take me for graduate study," he said, taking the dishes away to put in the little refresher in the tiny corner kitchen he didn't bother complaining about. He ate out most of the time, anyway. "I have a degree in astrometrics with minors in navigational engineering and biochemistry. Starship development isn't all that foreign."

"Well, you should decide you really want to do that before going into a graduate program," she told him.

"I know. I think the coursework's been interesting enough to take it further. -And it is something I've thought about: If I can't fly them, why not design them, right? I'd always wanted to when I was behind the conn... You might try classes, too, you know. There's a great engineering program at Tours that's worth looking into."

B'Elanna's grin grew. "Hmm, I might find a way to get kicked out of another school," she said lightly.

Tom chuckled. "You'd better not." But again, he shrugged, neatening the counter with quick, careful hands. "Anyway, whatever it is I decide to do exactly, it'll be because I want to, though. I want to love it."

Turning again, he saw her nodding, standing with her wineglass in both hands. Finishing it off, she handed it to him to add to the refresher.

She caught his eyes, still smiling a little - a little knowingly, it seemed.

He felt his blood rush for her attention. She was his friend, sure, the best damn company he'd had since he could remember - and that during their hour-long walks across the Auckland facility every other week for seven months. She was tired from the work detail. He was fresh from a session with Caruthers. They still made the effort and the energy.

Kindred spirits meeting in hell, working their way out.

Just trying to get it right.

For all the anger that she spewed and lashed, his equal temper and self-pity had been left to eat him alive, chew away at his strength and better senses. He let his bitterness take over when nothing miraculously appeared to save him. His months with Caruthers-whom he'd chosen with a shrug while undergoing the final throes of his parole hearings and regretted immediately - helped him see that, even if he really didn't want to face up to it.

But he'd made his promise to Janeway, and for once, even if he never met her again, he was going to keep his word, which he'd so shamefully made into nothing with his raging self-consciousness, his burial of feeling and truth. If anything, he would at least try to make his word a good one again. She'd put a little faith in him with her challenge; he wanted to prove to someone that he wasn't a total waste of time.

So he kept on with the counselor, let the old man pick at his brain and make him yell, make him defensive, make him feel like shit, make him leave the office wishing the door was the kind he could slam. The predictable consequence was that Doc was also making him mull it to death for the next two weeks, stew and digest it until he went back, knowing that Doc was...right. The jerk.

But he did always go back, and maybe that was something in itself. He didn't have that much pride to lose, he figured. For that matter, Caruthers always took him, welcomed him to sit and waited for him to speak. Tom was a little grateful, but still hated it when Doc did that. Eventually he started talking again, even about nothing, about anything, just to kill the silence.

Thankfully, Caruthers talked back, and some days, they would just converse like two men playing checkers in the park.

Soon enough, though, Caruthers would find something else to poke at that Tom didn't want to go near, and the conflicts would start all over again. Still, Tom did return, kept it up, made himself face up to it. He no longer sought to get away. He'd done enough of that. He knew that had to change.

Actually, what had to change was his sitting on his ass about being a loser, coward, cynical, bitter, waste...

He'd been getting sick of feeling like that.

It felt good to get sick of it.

On those Thursdays, he started meeting B'Elanna on the road outside the offices. For her good behavior, she'd been granted an hour to herself after the work detail. It meant she didn't get to grab a seat in the dining hall with anyone else because she'd be a little late reporting in, but she didn't care-and said so. He'd felt the same when he'd been there.

Their first conversations usually concerned similar topics - "the routine," one he knew very well and had found her still adjusting to speak. She looked like hell, but seemed to be trying to pick up her pieces, get acclimated. He had finally determined the same for himself.

After a while, they would "happen by" each other, on her way to wherever, on his way out. Soon, their subjects became more meaningful, more personal.

Why he confessed as much to her was still a mystery to him. There was something about that pretty, dark-eyed woman who'd once hated the sight of him, something that told him she'd listen, she'd understand. Much to his relief, her responses grew more familiar as well, not only of him, but of herself, too. He had a feeling that it was worth a lot more than face value; he found himself wanting to know more.

He began looking for her when he left his "sessions" with the doc.

She began to meet him outside, trying to make it look incidental.

But it wasn't necessarily permitted. Some ass of an official somewhere called it a visit. Tom immediately plead his case to Caruthers: There was no harm, since he and B'Elanna were essentially in the same boat - and from it, too. He assured the man it was only friendship, and that he wasn't after her. He told him they could talk to each other, relate to each other. It was the truth.

But he left believing he'd just wasted his time and walked to the gate painfully alone.

Two weeks later, he and Caruthers talked, as usual, maybe a little quieter, but nothing too unusual. When the time was up, Tom left as he always did...and found B'Elanna waiting outside for him.

He stared at her, not knowing if...

She shrugged, arms crossed, eyes on his, smirking slightly.

He grinned like an idiot.

She explained the rule: No touching, no displays of any kind, just walk to the front gate. No more.

Tom hopped down the steps and fell in line beside her, holding his hands behind his back to stave off the temptation.

Who was he to complain about such a big favor, after all?

Maybe Caruthers wasn't such a bad guy after all.

Naturally, they filled the time talking.

As the weeks passed, they talked about even more, about everything, anything, whatever came to mind. Soon enough, they spoke of what really was in their minds. Or maybe she talked just to have an ear besides her shrink. Maybe he did because he was fresh from all those new and improved soul-scrapings with the doc.

No. Tom knew it had been her, too. She somehow knew what he was getting at, even when he didn't want her to. More and more often, Tom found himself distracted at times from his studying, or his walks through town, hearing her words mulling around in his head, or even the words he told her.

It became more normal, meeting her each time. He expected and looked forward to that every other Thursday despite their turns of mood, which were common even within a long period of strangely easy talk about themselves, their childhoods, their growing up and eventually the mistakes that brought them to that paved gravel path.

It seemed to pass without notice - at least for him - all those months spent gradually coming to know each other. He did have a life, so to speak, outside of that.

His classes were going well, and he had made some friends among a few of the professors there. Several weeks after his release, he'd met with one of his sisters again, going out to lunch, where she pressed him into staying a weekend at the beach with their mother, who missed him sorely. He finally did and was glad he'd been encouraged after all. Not to say it was easy - there was more uncomfortable silence than honest conversation - but it didn't go badly.

Just like B'Elanna had once reminded him, it was a start. That in itself was a good thing - and, true, he shouldn't have expected everything to be perfect. The fact that he wanted to keep trying was the important part.

Still, that was only a glimmer in the life he was trying to build for himself. At least he was able to get used to the small routine of his life, including his trips back to Auckland, which ironically also helped him put that past behind him. Even his conversations with B'Elanna, varied in topic and increasingly intimate, made the time that had brought them together seem like another life altogether.

Well, of course, they had talked about that time, about what had brought them to the Voyager, what points they had been at. But after a few conversations, it came up less and less, replaced by other topics that seemed more...pertinent.

Such as the future.

Then, just as suddenly as he had seen her outside on the path, waiting for him, B'Elanna was there in his kitchen, standing near to him. Shed of her prison uniform for a casual outfit and heeled shoes, her newly trimmed hair curling around her pretty face, she was looking up to him with those big, dark brown eyes, both wise and anxious at the same time.

So complex, so full of her heart and mind...yet another puzzle he could spend eons figuring out.

Of course, he knew he had puzzles of his own to figure first.

Or at least that'd be the first thing Doc would remind him.

"I won't go back to doing things I don't love again," he softly reiterated, lost in her piercing stare.

He took her glass for her, barely touching her. He didn't dare touch her.

Her eyes diverted. "Well, that's good," she said quietly. "You'll be happier."

"I think so," he agreed, moving to finish cleaning the kitchen, accepting her help when she offered it. "I'm pretty sure I like what I'm doing now."

In more ways than one.

For the first time in his life, he had somebody who knew him near him - having dinner with him, taking about whatever came to mind, just like they had for several months by then. Only that time, she was free, too, and readying to get on with her life. They continued the same conversation on the balcony, watching the sea beyond them ripple in the slim moonlight, shimmy in the breeze until a light rain started, sending them inside again...

She was someone who knew him possibly better than any person had, better than anyone he'd allowed so far. For some reason, he wasn't scared out of his skin.

Well, maybe he felt a little awkward. He just fought it well.

But they didn't talk about that. They spoke of what they'd do with themselves. As always, both of them wanted work of some kind, and Tom told her what he knew about what was out there. She suggested to him some more specific fields he might like. They were very good suggestions, and they talked about that for some time. He invited her to lunch with his mother the next week. She tried to be polite, but he really wanted her to. His mother was very kind and might have some connections she would find useful. B'Elanna finally accepted.

He forced himself not to seem too happy when she did.

He couldn't believe he had gotten so lucky...or maybe, somehow, he'd earned it? Maybe his efforts had finally begun to pay off?

One thing was certain: Harry Kim was right after all. He had indeed met someone who gave a damn.

This time, he wasn't about to take that for granted.

It seemed so long ago, that conversation - further still, the numb, dull pain that followed him every day, haunted him in everything he did and every stare he felt sawing into him. Since that fateful "assignment," those feelings had gradually eased, that feeling of necessary isolation had been replaced by a more sincere want for closeness.

Or at least he wasn't nearly as afraid of it as he had been. He had accepted the fact that he needed to move on, had come to want to.

He certainly remembered the bitterness of purposelessness well, though, still felt it crawl on his skin when he failed at even simple things. But it was better, and it was getting better still.

It was strange, as his more sardonic side resisted such hope. But for the first time in years, he actually felt some confidence that things might turn out okay if he only stopped getting down on himself so damned much and tried again. It had worked with his studies, with his mother and sisters...with B'Elanna.

He had to push himself some days, but it was working. Finally.

He looked at his friend. She was yawning, speaking quietly, if not still a bit nervously; her bare feet were curled up on his couch, her posture was relaxed. She was almost ready to go back to her own place, a nice flat he'd found for her on the west side of town. Ready to get some rest in her own bed, in a quiet room all her own for the first time in nine months.

Gazing at her, Tom sincerely hoped that his actions had indeed made the difference.

He was more than willing to keep going if what he had, there and then, in himself and in the friendship he'd gained, was any evidence of the consequences...

If so, he did want that to continue.

...and I knew very well that Ms. Torres had been both your comrade and friend. But I think we had seen them, come to know them, in a relatively short amount of time, and during a low point at that.

I have to say, it wasn't too much of a surprise to me to see they kept in touch, seeing how their friendship began. It might even be my doing, recommending Ms. Torres to Auckland as I did, and wheedling Mr. Paris into counseling. In any case, they were ready for change.

Somewhere along the line, things finally began to improve for them both. Maybe it was therapy, or maybe they finally just grew out of it. But judging from their records alone, it's clear they purposefully began working to enrich their lives, make something out of themselves. Moreover, somewhere along the line...

B'Elanna jumped up to her elbows, gasping hard, heart skipping.

Then she froze.

Since her release from prison nine months before, since starting her life all over again and trying to move on, this was not unusual.

She was in a warm, comfortable bed. Her eyes turned to the nearby display of a sunny morning, the warm breeze wafting in the windows. She could hear people on the street below, pleasantly moving along their way.

Another day to them, and she'd woken up as she always did.

This time, however, she was in Tom's bed.

A year and a half ago, she despised him, and now she was in his bed.

He wasn't there, but she heard him shuffling around in the kitchen.

Her heart slowly calmed, and she exhaled.

Then, she quickly recalled that at least she did actually get some sleep-sleeping with her friend. Taking the risk of accepting his approach and winding up closing her eyes a couple hours later, safe in a warm pair of understanding arms...

With her closest her lover.

Just kissing him...finally kissing him on the step of his building...sliding her arms around his strong, warm shoulders, feeling his hand take her waist, his other hand thread into her hair, cup her head...

He needed to study, she was on her own way home to prepare for her practical exams. There, they tacitly decided what they wanted: Looking at each other in a strange, knowing silence for nearly a minute, they slowly gravitated into each other's embrace, into a kiss...then more into it and gradually up the stairs, to his apartment, to his bed...into each other...

B'Elanna had to grin at the images and feelings that met that recollection. She'd wanted to make love with him since before she left Auckland (or at least she had considered wanting it), more since being paroled, and then more and more seriously every time they met over lunch or the occasional dinner, or walked together through the city or along the water, even shared their studies. He had become completely comfortable with her - comfortable enough to argue as well as he bantered with her. She rose to every challenge, egging him on even when they disagreed, leaving her fascinated by him as much as he was obviously engaged by her, and always there, no matter what.

It had come to the point where she had ached for his caresses, imagined his soft, warm hands touching far more than her hand or her arm, his pleasant mouth exploring her, tasting her skin... His searing gazes had come to practically beg for her closeness, and she did everything but give it to him...for a time.

Finally, she let that happen, as did he...

Only to wake up with her heart pounding. As usual.

She wondered if she would ever sleep again, really sleep again, without waking with a jolt.

She'd forgotten the last time she actually had slept without disturbance.

She looked to the window again, the breezy curtains, the sounds on the street below. Turning away from that light, she shivered into a stillness, unable to break her stare from a particular roll in the blanket, losing focus...

Tom came in then, a tray in hand with cups and a decanter, pausing soon inside the door. He knew, looking at her, approximately where she was. She was pale. Her eyes were wide. Hell, she wasn't even in the room.

"Morning," he said quietly.

Snapping her attention up, she quickly propped herself up on the pillows against the head of the bed, ghosting a smile his way. "Good morning."


He still knew mornings of waking up like that.

He had that morning, too.

He moved to place the tray on the bed stand, moving his chronometer aside. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "I ran down and got some decent coffee. We can have breakfast there later. Capel's?"

"Sounds great." A little quick, that.

"One teaspoon?" he asked, turning a cup up.

"Yes," she answered.

He did not pour, but sat at her side, turning a little to face her.

"It takes time, doesn't it?" he said gently, hoping that didn't come off as condescending. She had admitted to her occasional insomnia since her parole. They had talked a little about it. Never right after waking up, though. That was definitely new.

"Everything takes time," she replied, but then she shook her head at her words.

Tom nodded. He knew it wasn't him, or their lovemaking the night before, which had inspired more contentment in him than he'd felt in years. Though, he couldn't put his finger on what it was...except that he'd never felt so close to anyone, especially a woman, so connected. When he was with B'Elanna, it was very, very different. Making love to her had sealed that. Maybe there wasn't supposed to be a word for it.

Anyway, he knew it wasn't about him, her tension.

She sighed, tried again. "I guess you've had a lot more time to get used to it."

"A little," he said.

B'Elanna regarded him again. He was always so concerned about her, while she was at Auckland and well after - to that day. He was so different than how she had once perceived him to be...another lifetime ago. For seeing his eyes, so gentle to her there, she did manage a little smile. That look of his never failed to warm her, remind her, as if she'd forgotten, how much she had come to feel about him.

"I enjoyed last night, though," she said softly. "A lot."

"I did, too," he returned, bent to press his lips to hers.

There, he lingered, feeling his blood rush when she pressed easily into their kiss, her full lips warming quickly on his as their mouths moved together. He felt her place her hand on his leg, so naturally, soft and small. Pulling back a little, he kissed her again, gently.

Parting, his gaze was tender, and she was thankful for it. Gradually, her nerves of a minute ago passed a bit.

A bit.

She wasn't nearly stupid enough to expect it would just go away.

She opened her mouth to speak, closed it again, darted her eyes to the coffee - away from him - then growled at that move, too, slumping. "I'm sorry, Tom. Sleeping is still hard sometimes."

"I know. You start wondering if it's an evil plot after a while." He caressed her hand, still laid on his leg, warm there, a little tense. "It gets easier, if you let it. It'll get better."

"Well, I'd be pretty crazy not to let it, right?" she smirked. "I'm okay."

He assented, turned to finally pour their cups.

Maybe it was crazy. Maybe all of it was, right as it felt to him. But he knew... Maybe he should go ahead and get it out of his system. It would be easy just to let things be, not say anything. But he'd been doing that for more than a year by then, and he knew pretty well what withholding in other matters had done for him...

She watched him, watched his eyes fill with some sort of struggle as he carefully poured their coffee. He did that a lot - let his mind wander into decisions and indecisions while otherwise silent and busy. His eyes could hold so much behind...

"I want to keep being with you, B'Elanna," he said quietly as he poured some cream into his cup then looked back for her reaction. "I know we've just...well, started out. But we're friends - more than that, really - and... I don't want you to leave."

"That might be the best arrangement, actually," she replied. "I'll never get this good service anywhere else."

He laughed a little at that, turned back to stir some sugar into her coffee.

She grit her teeth at her own sudden need to evade his sincerity, much less her own feelings-feelings she knew she had, wanted to have, had shared with him only the night before.

Evasion was a bad habit, she knew, and one she knew could definitely be his, too. For a moment, she almost blamed him for influencing her. But he had dropped his own offhandedness for a moment to be real with her...essentially proposition her. She'd been the one to deflect him for the nervousness still crawling in her.

He was being so damned nice about it, too.

She almost wished he would call her on it.

At the same time, she knew that wasn't really up to him to.

He was being so damned nice about it, too. She almost wished he would call her on it. Inwardly she cursed her stupid awkwardness, but then she stopped again, knowing it would go nowhere, her usual stewing and misdirection. Moreover, it wasn't his job to baby-sit her moods.

Then, she smirked to think she was starting to sound like the doc.

With a conscious effort, she sat up, reached out and touched his face. He turned to the contact and she laid her palm on his cheek. Meeting his gaze again, her smile turned as gentle as his had been before, and as unwavering.

She meant it to be both.

"I'd like to stay, Tom," she told him.

That time, he smiled and reached up to take her hand.

"I'm glad."

Mind you, I wouldn't say they're cured. Even these near two and a half years later, there are still shades of what we saw in the Badlands, that bitterness and insecurity. But that's natural. We all have them. They just have to work a little harder to fight that off, maybe accept help they wouldn't have otherwise considered.

I think it's shown well on them. They look to be starting to put the past behind them and moving forward with their lives. I suppose you could call it successful rehabilitation, in more ways than one...

"You're done already?" The inmate looked predictably surprised. He'd been fumbling with the thermal wires, just untangling those salvaged parts while his counterpart had already finished setting up the unit they would be connected to.

"It gets easier," the other man encouraged. After almost thirty months in the Federation Penal Facility at Nevra-two, he'd gotten that work down to a simple routine. He couldn't say he'd never had trouble with it, and had given up on recycling wire bundling as soon as he'd earned the privilege of delegating it. "Just don't pull on it - just makes the knots tighter. Ease the knots apart from the middle, and it'll loosen up."

The younger inmate nodded, clearly tired but trying. He wasn't used to the days there - yet. "Thanks, Captain."

The older man grinned and picked up another tray of parts. "It's just Chakotay: big Indian who can't manage knots to save his life. Welcome to hell."

The man grinned and got on with his work.

In truth, Chakotay didn't like them calling him "Captain" anymore. Even if it did bring him a wistful smile, he always corrected them, quietly, usually trying to find something wry to say in return. There wasn't much time to smile, after all. Even sarcasm had its benefits there.

But the smile made of that memory... No, that he couldn't let continue.

They called him captain, anyway.

Even if he had been successful with one, there'd always be someone else arriving at their first detail with twice the stubborn memory of the last inmate he'd corrected. He wondered sometimes why he bothered.

He had promised himself he would move on, even if moving on would have to begin there on Nevra-two, surrounded by Maquis who remembered his name all too well, even though they had come there much later than he had.

Or perhaps he should hold on to a little.

The last of his own crew had been released about a year before. For them, he had been the strong one, as he had been before. Some only got a few months as they were just one-timers (he'd explained it carefully to the JAG overseeing the trial), most got six. A few got a year. Others were extradited to the Bajoran government.

For however long they were there with him, though, he made himself an example, digging into his work assignments without shame or anger. He tried hard not to think about how the rebellion was faring without them; he looked forward with his comrades to the day they might meet again and look back on their fight as something long past, but something they could be proud of.

He knew, though, they would never meet-and maybe that was for the best, too. They needed to get on with their lives, as best they could. He would, too.

He still had another few weeks in his term, and then a year and a half of parole, the location still to be decided on. He knew they had been gracious with him, only giving him two and a half years. Other Maquis captains had gotten twice the time for similar charges. Then again, they hadn't been very cooperative.


He turned his head from the next piece of work in his hands to the guard, who motioned him to come with him. Setting aside his piece carefully, he stood and followed without compliant. "What is it?"

"Administrator Ograla would like to speak with you."

Chakotay nodded shortly. The request was nothing new, really. He was a frequent guest to the warden's office. Ograla and Chakotay had met often, especially in the beginning, as they worked to mete out a good way to handle his people and the other Maquis. They formed a strange friendship in the process. Though she was known, particularly to him, for her note of steel, she had been willing, patient and plainly spoken when it came to the practical matter of making that rehabilitation site a better one for its inmates.

That was all Chakotay could ask for - more, even. It had helped him with the guards, who instantly distrusted him when they learned of his former rank. It had helped his people, who had enough to deal with.

He entered the warden's office, not too briskly, not straying in the jamb. Ograla grinned briefly at him from the center of her usually busy day. "Here," she said, pushing a PADD across her desk. "But don't tell anyone. The last thing I want is every prisoner on base clamoring for outside contact from non-family members."

Curious, he moved to take the PADD. "Who's it from?"

"Why don't you read and find out?" she replied, standing to leave him to it. "I'm going to lunch. Clear it and leave the PADD when you're done. Bomaro will take you back when you're ready."

"Thank you."

He took a seat on a plain bench by the windowless wall.

He activated the letter...and blinked.

For a moment, he felt like someone was stepping on his grave.

In truth, though, he had been curious, had wondered from time to time, in little flashes when he let himself look back. He seriously tried not to remember too often, though.

But how could he not? He was surrounded by his past, faced his bitter yet conceded defeat with every beaten, angry Maquis that came through that place. He wondered where they had been, how the war fared; who was alive, who had perished. He wondered if anything they had done, sacrificed, still fought for, had even made a difference, or ever would in the end.

He resisted every day the temptation to ask the new inmates. Then again, he didn't have to. They spoke of their struggles and outside news freely enough. As he expected, it didn't look good. The reminders of the increasing violence spun in him, a vicious combination of pride and despair, of purpose and uselessness...of anger.

His time in the Maquis was hard, but it had been a life of his own choosing, when he felt no other option but to fight, to vindicate his people, to protect his quickly dwindling home sector. It was his doing, his making a crew, training them...and enlisting-something he knew he was very good at.

He'd forgotten along the way, however, what he might be doing to their lives. As an old Earth expression went: "I would never wish this on my worst enemy." But he had, unwittingly, wished it upon countless trainees, had needed them so much that he didn't think about how he'd bestowed upon them the hell and pain and fury that he had suffered and endured.

It was a war. It was for the cause, the better good - an old, staid rationalization, but a believable one.

It didn't make it right. Nothing would.

So, yes, he looked upon the letter with great anticipation, reading every line and in between them, trying to see beyond the simple words and subtle lines.

As he read, he nodded, glad to see what he was... His brow furrowed.

He blinked and read the paragraph over again. Then, he considered the opposite wall, feeling a stab of protectiveness for his former engineer, that young, bright woman he'd ruined and hoped would turn out all right in spite of him. But now, according to what he'd just read... He almost turned the letter away. He couldn't believe to believe that B'Elanna Torres would actually choose to involve herself with that careless waste of a pilot. It was almost too hard to read. But by that point, he had to, if only to make sure he got it right.

Chakotay glanced through the paragraph again. He'd read it correctly, so he forced himself to read the remainder, make himself at least try to see that other point of view.

He was glad he did. He still didn't like it, but...

...I remember you telling me, Chakotay, why you had done what you had. You said you'd had to cut the cord, for Ms. Torres' sake as well as the crew's.

By the look of things, maybe it was all right after all.

...I thought at the time it might not work out for her. I think you knew you had no other alternatives but to send her away and wish for the best. Whatever we might have thought at the time, it did work. It worked for Mr. Paris, too, I think, giving him the impetus to cut his ties with the past...

Janeway certainly seemed assured in her statements, perhaps for good reason. She had been the one to feel them out, who proposed their punishments when it was time to mete them out. She had essentially made the final judgment for them.

...I think we both helped them begin anew, in our different ways. I hope you read that well, Captain. You acted rightly. At the same time, I also believe that they needed some investment in the future. Thus, I intervened with my recommendations. Thankfully, the Rehabilitation Commission listened and kept a steady eye on their progress...

It was a good one.

I was glad to read how quickly they had fulfilled their promises to me. Almost immediately, it seemed that they both found direction and acquired the confidence they had needed to take those first steps. They took every advantage of what was there for them and made it work that time...

Maybe he had gone off on Paris too rashly. He had no idea what the man had been through - not really. He certainly hadn't experienced prison as Paris had - then - and he'd never had his family's reputation to deal with at the same time.

Through his bouts of bad sleep filled with his conscience, the tedious work and days filled with the reactions of his crew and other inmates in captivity, coupled by the stigma of being a traitorous Starfleet officer, he did feel at least a little sorry he hadn't stopped to check his resentment. On Voyager, he only knew he had every right to despise that treacherous pilot, who turned out not to be as much the traitor to the Maquis as he'd believed.

That, Chakotay came to realize, had been another spot of poor, quick judgment on his part. Paris' attitude had done the initial damage, but Chakotay knew the rest was his problem.

So maybe Paris wasn't the fool Chakotay had thought he was. He did seem to have taken care of himself in the end - and B'Elanna, too, in a way she'd needed it.

As for that other traitor, his trainee, his victim, the friend that he had banished for doing what she was taught to do. B'Elanna would always make her own choices, it seemed, make up her own mind. That was her right. Her choice. Chakotay was glad she was still alive to have it, even with Tom.

Sighing out his breath, he grinned to himself. The path had indeed been humbling. It had taken his freedom, had left him with little to go to once he was freed. But it had also led to the better end for those involved, as he had wanted it to be, even if he was still resolving it.

Even though he might have to continue resolving it for the remainder of his life - as they might, too - he'd done the right thing.

The souls of his ancestors might well have agreed.

The trails had diverged, though two chose to walk on one together.

Perhaps winning was relative, too.

Ironic as it may seem, I think Ms. Torres and Mr. Paris compliment each other. They certainly seem to have progressed more than I'd expected, both personally and professionally, and probably did better for themselves than you imagined, too. Their efforts were personal, but their friendsship and their understanding of one another must have helped, too, considering...

Well, perhaps now I'm a little behind myself. I might have started by telling you how I came across my most recent update of their situation...

"Are you sure she'll like the tomatillo preserves?"

She straightened at the picnic table where she and her husband shared their lunch, hearing the familiar voice from behind her and to her left. It couldn't be...

"Tom, your mother likes everything we bring her," was a female's reply.

Her fork slowly dropped into her salad.

"...Besides, she told me she wanted something new to go on the roast this year," the female continued. "This is it. It's not too spicy, it has just the right amount of sweetness, and you'll do just fine with the toast and your dad will love the Chesterfield replica. No holiday nightmares this time."

She felt herself begin to smile from deep within.

Kathryn Janeway - Kathryn Johnson as she went on layover - had been granted leave after a long three months in an increasingly hateful war she honestly didn't want to go back to. Of course, it was nice to come home to Mark, too, who was patient and worried, encouraging her to come home sooner, perhaps start "considering a few other options" still open to them. He was really starting to tempt her there.

Thankfully, he was proving as persistent a husband as she was an obstinate career officer.

"Okay," the man's voice said behind her. "I'm sorry, but you know how it can get... Okay, how I get. I somehow always expect the worst when we go over there."

"I know," came the woman's reply, gentler that time. "But that's why I bring the mobile transporter."

They both laughed as they appeared in the corner of her view, walking on the nearby path by the rippling bay. Judging by their direction, they had come from Headquarters, just north of the park. She had likely just missed them there, having dropped in for a quick meeting and to meet her husband.

Kathryn sighed through her smile to see them. En route to his parents, it seemed, they strolled along alongside each other with a few packages and bags hanging from their fingers.

Like anyone.

"You didn't - did you, B'Elanna?" he suddenly asked, wondering.

She snickered. "Of course I didn't."

A small spray shot up from the rocks, misting the air. Neither seemed to notice. Instead, the young woman, but a gamine beside the tall, fair man, stopped and knelt to hunt through the bags they were carrying.

They looked somewhat the same as Kathryn remembered, though attractively dressed, hair neatly done; both were in far better health. The young woman's face was made up attractively. On their way to some occasion... Admiral Paris' birthday?

Her brow rose with the thought, and then she quickly held her fingers up to her husband, who'd noticed her distraction.

"I wouldn't worry about your dad," the dark-haired woman said, back on their original topic. "He is getting better about you-"

"After you nearly tore his throat out," the man smirked, watching her shift through the bags.

"It was just a...heated discussion. Anyway..." She finally pulled a PADD out of the bag and reached out to drop it in her companion's suit pocket. "'ve got some good news to soften him up." She stood again, her posture proud enough to nearly meet his height as she smiled up at him then patted his pocket. "You aced your thesis. I know it, and so will he."

He smiled widely. "Yeah, I guess I did."

Kathryn smiled, too. She hadn't read it, but she'd heard of some very interesting work on his part. His name somehow popped out from a list of many whose propositions and research group works were open to public knowledge and she perused from time to time. As good a pilot as his reputation once boasted, it wasn't too shocking to know he'd taken to design engineering as well as he had. She made a note to herself to read his work over when or if he published.

"And now his boy's 'mate' doesn't have to hit any more outmate hearings," the young woman added and bent to get their packages together again. "I'm glad it went as smoothly as it did."

"I was just as nervous," he nodded. "I remember thinking they'd find a reason to keep me."

"I did, too," she agreed. "It was bad enough just going into Headquarters this time. Creepy."

"Let me get that one," he said, but didn't pick up the bag right away. She was rearranging the contents. He licked his lips while she wasn't looking, drew a long breath, turned his attention back down to her. "You're probably going to hate me for this, but..."

She looked up, her eyes widening as he took the bags she handed him. "What did you do this time?"

"Well," he said, purposefully offhanded, "while I was waiting for you downstairs I met with a lady called Ann Stravesi. She's the chair of the engineering-tech branch of the University of Novaspol. It's in Odessa-"

"I know where it is," she cut in. Her stare had become like pools of black lava. Apparently, she knew where he might be going with his confession.

He continued despite her reaction. "Well, she's looking for interns, and I gave her your qualifications."

"You told her about me?" That time, her voice had turned a bit shrill. "Did you tell her I'm an ex-convict?"

"Yes - and she doesn't have a problem with that," he pressed. "B'Elanna, you know that's a rare thing. I wouldn't take that for granted."

It was good to hear that he hadn't, Kathryn thought. Particularly with the struggle in the DMZ worsening, she knew how a couple former Maquis convicts might meet more than a few obstacles trying to make a career.

"Anyway, she needs a good engineer who's willing to learn and maybe earn their degree while interning on some development projects."

"And so you..." She was shaking her head, staring downwards. She looked as though she'd either smile or smack him. "I haven't worked on a real ship's engine in over two years - and that thing was forty years old! I haven't even finished a degree yet."

He sighed shortly. "I know. B'Elanna, it's a chance. I know how much you want to get back into what you love doing, stop fooling around with that basic coursework that makes you nuts. Stravesi and her department work closely with Daystrom, and I know you'd love to have your hands on the newest ideas and technologies. You can't tell me you're not interested."

Her eyes rose to meet his again, and her mouth curled into a tacit acceptance of a not so unwilling defeat. Even at that distance, Kathryn had noticed the young woman's eyes lighting up like a child's on Christmas at the mere mention of the illustrious Daystrom Institute - and well they should have.

"Okay," she said, peering up to him with a grudging smirk, "you're right."

He smiled, a damnably boyish smile. He looked perhaps sixteen years old and getting his first permission to take the family land cruiser out by himself at night. "Just think, B'Elanna," he said, "your ideas and work could go to Daystrom. Imagine that."

"Why would Daystrom take anything of mine?" she challenged dourly. "Some ex-Maquis, fresh from parole?"

"Maybe because you're sharper than the whole bunch of them?" he countered. "And there's only one way to find out, you know."

She shrugged then paused. For a moment, she seemed to be figuring a series of calculations behind her eyes as she regarded her boyfriend again. "How did you manage a connection to Stravesi, anyway? I don't remember you going to any seminars lately."

A slow, sheepish grin crossed him again, betraying once again his every manly feature. "I met her over a game of dom-jot in the rec room."

Suddenly, she laughed-aloud and freely, shaking her head at the sky. "I should have known!"

"Well, it's not like she lost a bet," he complained, snorting at her unspoken accusation. "She won five out of eight rounds. I need to play more often. I'm losing my touch."

"You're crazy, Paris," she told him.

"I won't deny that. So, will you talk to her? I swear, all I did was tell her about you - no tricks, no strings. You know I wouldn't do that to you."

There, he was totally sincere. It was plain in his tone, in his expression.

She looked at him askance a moment. Obviously, she wasn't in the habit of letting him off the hook that easily. After a moment, she did assent, however. "Okay."


The young woman gave a sharp, single nod. "Yes. I'll talk with her."


"Yes! -God, don't look at me like that. I'll do it, okay?"

Suddenly he moved and embraced her, plucking her off the ground as if she were a twig. "Great! Doctor Torres! I can hear it already."

"Tom, you act like I've already been accepted!" she laughed, holding tightly on to him.

"I'll just take it as a good omen." Setting her back down, he released her enough to eye her expression. "And don't you look at me like that. You won't know if you don't try. You're the one who taught me how to do that again."

"Yeah, and look where that ended you up," she pointed out wryly.

"I'm not complaining," he said softly, his eyes still lit as he neared her again. "Besides, if this works out, it'll be all the more worth it for putting up with me this long."

"I can't imagine if it doesn't," she replied. "If I don't go through with it, you'll have even more excuse to keep crawling up my spine."

His grin grew clever as he collected two bags on one of his wrists. "Well, I still mean to do that, Torres," he purred. "I think I'm pretty good at it."

The young woman's smile turned smartly to the side. "Well, you've come along pretty well with practice. You have potential."

"Shut up, jail bait," he rejoined, bending to kiss her.

Grinning with promise of further retaliation, she returned it.

Their arms wrapped around each other for a moment then slid back down to the other's waist as they parted. She scooped up the last bag and they started off again.

"You'll do great, B'Elanna," he assured her.

She leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked away. "I hope so. I still think you will, too."

Kathryn grinned, watching as the two, unstopped in their conversation, continued their stroll down the walk, moved on with their own lives, their plans, each other...their future.

Those same young people had once been homeless, purposeless, incarcerated, sitting in solitary confines on her ship. Moreover: Solitary themselves. Those two, so scared to make a move for the threat of further failure and disgrace, locked in their own stifling self-judgment, much less that of others'.

Two and a half years to assuage all that suddenly seemed too short. Where had the time gone?

Ironic. Or maybe what she'd seen was just the result of a hell of a lot of effort.

Yes, that was probably it.

She thought at first to go say hello to them, but decided against it. They were busy, on their way somewhere else.

They had their own lives to live, as did she.

Suddenly, it occurred to her that Captain Chakotay might be permitted a letter. She was a captain, after all, and he just might like to know whatever became of his engineer.

Blinking herself out of her thoughts, Kathryn turned a quick smile to her husband and returned to her meal. His eyes went from her to the couple and back to her. She knew he'd ask...

"You know them?"

She glanced down the path once more. Arm in arm, the young couple turned on the winding trail, into the woody shade and towards the exit of the park.

Walking easily away.

"Not anymore."


© D'Alaire M., 1999 - 2011