Voyager and her crew are not mine. Many thanks to the writers of "Caretaker" and "Parallax" for the borrowed dialogue.

...takes place at the beginning of "Parallax" with flashbacks to "Caretaker" and earlier

"The problem? The problem was a system that didn't give anyone a chance to breathe."
B'Elanna Torres, "Parallax"

It had nothing to do with the engines, with plasma conduits or overloads. It never did.
Within the mechanical, pieces fit together. Problems can be solved. Somehow, the rest has never worked out like that.

"Two sons, eight and ten years old. We had talked about having a third but the timing was never right, you know? I would have liked to have had a daughter."

She gripped the console hard, damning the perfectly smooth and rounded Starfleet edges that denied her the satisfaction of cutting pain to distract from the conversation overheard. She stared at the numbers before her, willing herself to get lost in them.

"Miss them? Sure. But I trust the Captain to get us back home," the response as even as those damned corners.

"Mr. Tuvok, ready the tricobalt devices."

"Aye, Captain."

Halfway across the galaxy, she found herself on a Starfleet bridge surrounded by Starfleet uniforms. Her throat constricted, and she knew it wasn't the fumes that filled the damaged ship that suddenly made it difficult to breathe.

An alien of a species she didn't recognize, arrogant and cruel, filled the viewscreen: "Be advised, Captain. I have called for additional ships."

And the Starfleet captain, matching her opponent's arrogance with Starfleet self-righteousness: "I'm calling to warn you to move your vessels to a safe distance. I intend to destroy the Array."

No explanation.
No apology.
No regret.

"What are you doing?" Her own voice. Demanding what no one else would. Of course not. They were Starfleet. "That array is the only way we have to get back home." A hand on her arm, commanding, holding her back. "Who is she to be making these decisions for all of us?"

"She's the Captain."
Not mine.

There is blood on her uniform. It must be Carey's which means she hit him even harder than she thought. She looks down at it, surprised that it was able to stick to the cloth that seems to shed any blemishing crease or stain.

"Torres, you are going to want to be careful of those plasma conduits. If you push them too far, we'll end up with an overload."

The same voice, now coming up behind her. Professional, even friendly. After all, they were all one team. All one happy crew. "I know what I'm doing," her voice, snarling, discordant.

She wished the uniform would chafe. It didn't. And the continued constriction in her lungs had nothing to do with the fit.

The upper doors of the bridge opened and Tom Paris entered, two shiny new pips on his collar. She caught his eye and raised a contemptuous brow. He merely mirrored the gesture and gave her uniform-clad body a long look that managed to be both pointed and suggestive. petaQ .

Paris took his station at the helm as Janeway arrived, Starfleet personified, confident and commanding. With an unfaltering smile, she buoyed the crew - "One crew. A Starfleet crew." The crew that she had chosen to strand. Words echoing adolescent daydreams: "To seek out new worlds and explore space."

She wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or scream.

When he was away, she used to pull out one of his shirts and snuggle into the fabric, so silky, so clean. The uniform didn't hold his scent; it didn't hold any scent. But in a house filled with ritual incense and pungent cooking, that very lack of smell meant him.

The last time, she had snuck into her parents' room and pulled open the drawer, but he had left nothing behind.

To seek out new worlds. But it had been something much closer that she had been seeking.

"Here, let me show you. I know our Starfleet systems are different than what you are probably used to." He was oblivious to the rawness of her tone, to the tension of every muscle. Of course. You wouldn't find those in Starfleet systems.

She had gone down to the planet with the Maquis captain to repay a dept, agreeing to lend her expertise in repairing the colony's recently damaged systems. She had been unprepared to find the land torn apart, open, gaping and wounded. Its people in little better condition.

"Starfleet did nothing to help them?" she had considered herself jaded, cynical. She could not hide her shock and horror.

"The colony is on the wrong side of a line drawn on a map. I'm sure Starfleet would say there was nothing they were authorized to do."

No, of course not.

"B'Elanna!" She paused and turned as Harry Kim jogged down the corridor to catch up, smiling widely. She felt her face tug into a grin, an unfamiliar sensation over the last few days. The young ensign's friendliness was hard to resist. "How's everything going?" The question was concerned, genuine, layered.

She had the fleeting thought that she wished she had known him at the Academy.

"It's going," her answer less guarded than simply noncommittal. "This," she indicated her uniform, the ship, the quadrant, "wasn't exactly in the plan."

"No, I guess it wasn't." He put a hand lightly on her arm, a request, not a command. She paused again and turned to face him. "For what its worth, I'm glad you're on board."

It was heartfelt and authentic. Not a protocol or politeness. "Thanks, Harry." She looked down for a moment then back up at him. "That means more than you probably know."

He smiled again, nodded, doubled back to head up to the bridge.

She squared her shoulders and continued toward Engineering, a shadow of a smile remaining. Maybe this could work out after all.

"I said I've got it," a growl now – how could he not hear the threat? How could he not feel the coil ready to snap?

"Let me just..." reaching. She pushed his hands away and the console glowed red as a warning screeched to life. "Damn it!" His mass shoving her aside. She stumbled and there was no conscious thought as potential energy exploded into kinetic until she felt bone crumble beneath her fist and he was sprawled on the ground.

No one moved. What could they do? This wasn't in the protocols.

She didn't know if she should laugh or scream.

With two quick taps, she silenced the console's alarm. "Sorry. Maybe you should go to sickbay."

Shoulders back, eyes ahead, she strode out of Engineering.

She catches movement out of the corner of her eye and spins to see her own reflection in the mirror. Eyes, nose, mouth, ridges – her features float above gold and black. The pieces don't fit together. They never have.

When her fists meet the mirror's surface, it doesn't shatter. Of course not. It's Starfleet.

The door chimes, and, with a snarl, she hurls the nearest object at the sound.

It doesn't shatter either. Just bounces off the opening door and rolls to stillness, unaffected.

Of course. It's Starfleet too.