Fostering

by J.A. Toner, a.k.a. jamelia

"You know, you are such a charmer, I may have to kiss you right this very second."

These words, spoken in warm smoky tones, were the first that greeted Ensign Kim's ears after the doors of sickbay swished open to allow him to enter. Unfortunately, the pretty blonde woman pacing in his direction wasn't speaking to him. The object of her attention was the squirming little bundle of as yet undetermined species who was fussing rather noticeably, despite being cuddled and patted on the back by the human who held her.

"Or maybe you'd prefer to have this tall, dark and handsome fellow do the kissing?" The blonde smiled up at Harry and presented the baby to him. With such a broad hint, Harry willingly planted a gentle kiss on the baby's face, in the slight depression that ran up the middle of her slightly bulging forehead. The touch quieted the baby only momentarily before she began to keen again in a pathetically low wail.

"I guess she doesn't want me, " Harry said in a rueful tone.

"She's got to work on her taste in men, then," the blonde replied with a quirky smile.

Harry accepted the compliment with a raised eyebrow and a grin as he fell in step beside his fellow crewman. "How's she doing, Marla?" he inquired with concern. "Has she been crying a lot?"

"I don't think so, but the Doctor tried a new formula tonight. He thinks she needs a little more protein in her diet. It doesn't seem to have made her too happy."

"He doesn't know what race she is. Even Seven doesn't know! Is it a good idea to fool around with what she eats?"

"I'm sure he can tell what she needs from his studies of her cellular makeup, especially now that she's been with us a while."

Harry shrugged. "I'm sure that's true. I just wish we had some sort of medical history on her. Her cry is so weak."

"The Doctor says he can't find anything wrong."

"Babies used to die of immature lungs all the time on Earth when they were born prematurely. She would have stayed in the maturation chamber for quite a while yet, if it hadn't broken down."

"She seems to be taking in enough oxygen now. There isn't any evidence of lung damage," Marla replied mildly. "This could be the way all babies of her race cry."

"Maybe so. I'd still feel better if we knew something about her folks and could find out for sure."

Marla gave the fussy baby a quick kiss on top of her head, quieting her for a minute, saying softly, "Her parents are probably dead. If they weren't killed when she was taken, they would have been turned into drones. And if they were on the cube where we found our little sweetheart, here, they must have died with all the rest of the adults."

"You're probably right. Still the Doctor shouldn't have . . ."

"I'd be careful what I said around the Doctor, if I were you. He hasn't been in the best of moods, especially since she's been so irritable after he gave her the new formula," Marla advised Harry softly.

Harry glanced towards the Doctor's office. Sure enough, the EMH was standing in the doorway, a disdainful look on his face, with his mouth opening as if he were about to make a clever-or critical-comment. The next sound to reverberate around the room, however, was the very loud belch issuing forth from the rosebud mouth of sickbay's smallest inhabitant. The baby gasped audibly at the sound after she made it, but then she sighed and began to bounce her face against Marla Gilmore's shoulder.

"Is she okay?" Harry asked.

"Oh, I think so. She just had a little gas, right, Doctor?" Marla said innocently, her eyes very carefully fastened on the baby. The Doctor hrummphed but said nothing as the young woman, with Harry at her side, began to pace slowly across sickbay. Marla rubbed the baby's back in a circular motion, which seemed to soothe her even more. After a noticeable yawn, the infant began to rub her eyes with her tiny hands.

"Lullaby time, I think," Marla said.

"Let me think about those I have in my repertoire . . ."

"Please, Doc!" Harry said, rolling his eyes. "Why don't we let Marla do the lullaby? She's got the perfect voice for it."

"Thank you, Harry," Marla said with a smile. Harry grinned back to her. It was nice to see her smile. She so seldom did.

"And you've been spending too much time with Mr. Paris, Ensign. You're beginning to sound just like him," the EMH muttered.

"Doc, I've got something I want to talk to you about, in private. I didn't come here to hear your glorious singing voice tonight," Harry said, in an attempt to placate the Doctor.

"Too late to repair the damage now, Mr. Kim," the EMH sniffed, although he seemed somewhat mollified. "But come into my office and we'll talk."

Marla nodded an acknowledgment of their leaving before she turned away. As Harry entered the office with the Doctor, the beginning strains of the old American folk song, "All the Pretty Little Horses" floated gently in the air.

Pretty gruesome words, if he remembered them right, but then, for someone who almost became a Borg, a lullaby with lines about plucked out eyes might be weirdly appropriate. Harry had always thought the melody was lovely. Melancholy. Very appropriate for Marla Gilmore to sing to the baby in her mellow alto.

The pretty former ensign always projected a solemn aura. After what she'd been through on the Equinox, who could be surprised? Harry sometimes wished he'd become acquainted with Marla at the Academy. He would have liked to have met her before the Delta Quadrant and Captain Ransom's ethically compromised influence had scarred her personality so badly. She struck him as a gentle, fundamentally upbeat soul who was still recovering from a sojourn in hell. Now that he thought of it, maybe that was exactly what she was.

"Mr. Kim, you had a matter you wished to discuss? I don't have all day."

Harry reacted with a start as the Doctor's question broke into his thoughts. "Sorry, Doc. I guess my mind wandered a little. Marla does have a beautiful voice, doesn't she?"

"She does indeed. I don't suppose you came here to talk about singing, however." The Doctor's expression was sympathetic. "Is this about your reaction to our second loss of Ensign Ballard? You're not getting a relapse of that glowing condition . . . "

"No, Doc. This isn't about Lyndsay," Harry said, perhaps a little too abruptly. Realizing he might be communicating just how much he actually was hurting, Harry admitted, "I have been thinking about her a little, but I'm okay, Doc. Really. And I'm not getting any more Varro after-affects, either. I'd tell you if I did. Honestly."

The EMH's raised eyebrows transmitted his true opinion about the degree of honesty to be expected from Ensign Kim concerning his emotional and physical state at the loss of his two most recent girlfriends, but he said nothing and allowed Harry to continue.

"This isn't about me at all, really. It's about the baby. What's going to happen to her, Doc? We don't know what species she is, so we can't return her to her people. I doubt the captain is going to leave her on some planet for just anyone to raise. When she's well enough to leave sickbay, where will she go? Who will take care of her?"

"Are you volunteering, Mr. Kim?"

"Oh, well, uh, no, not really . . . I don't really know much about . . . uh . . ."

"Don't worry. I wasn't seriously suggesting you were ready for fatherhood just yet." The Doctor's brow furrowed more deeply. "I have been thinking about the very same thing myself, however. 'Littlest of Five' is ready to leave sickbay now. She doesn't need intensive treatment at this point, only a parent's loving care. I would be willing to provide it if I were free, of course, but my sickbay duties seem to divert my attention from her at the very times she needs me most."

"Tom doesn't help during his shifts?"

"Mr. Paris does what he can when he's here, although he's inclined to be much too rough with the child. Bouncing her around the way he does. Why, he's even threatened to throw her up in the air when she gets bigger." Harry smiled as the Doctor huffed again.

"Most babies don't mind a gentle tossing up in the air. My uncle used to do that to my cousin when she was a baby. She loved it. As long as Tom doesn't want to play catch with her, I wouldn't worry, Doc!"

"Maybe you wouldn't worry . . ."

Harry said quickly, to switch the subject away from the Doctor's love-hate relationship with Tom Paris, "What about Sam?"

"She has her hands full with Naomi. She's been having some difficulty adjusting to our sudden population explosion- particularly since her former playmate has become the de facto mother of our young refugees. She's been needing considerably more attention from Ensign Wildman."

"I hadn't thought about how that would make Naomi feel. I assumed she'd be happy to have other children to play with, after being the only kid here for so long."

"At the moment their play skills are sadly deficient, despite Seven's attempts to introduce them to the concept. Perhaps Naomi will enjoy their company more in the future, if they should stay on board."

"I guess it would be difficult to get close to someone you expected to leave at any time," Harry reluctantly agreed, even though it was looking more and more like all five of the formerly Borg children were destined to become permanent residents of Voyager.

Harry didn't think they were ever going to find any of their parents, even though Captain Janeway had been searching avidly for their relatives. As Marla had said, it was hard to figure out how they could have been assimilated unless their parents had been, too, as had been the case with Seven and her family.

The best they could expect was to find grandparents or perhaps a distant relative. But the twin boys were, like the baby, of a species unknown to any of the databases currently on file in Voyager's computers. The first assimilation date for their race must have occurred after Seven's last contact with the Hive. Mezoti's people, the Norcadi, had been ostensibly cooperative with the search for her relatives, but the government had been extremely cool to a suggestion from the captain that Mezoti be returned to her home world while the search took place. Mezoti's residual Borg features may have put them off, perhaps not surprising when the Borg's depredations against the Norcadi and their neighbors were considered. And they'd yet to locate any of Icheb's people, the Brunali.

Harry's reverie about the children was interrupted, as his previous one was, by the Doctor. "Frankly, I'd hoped to arouse Captain Janeway's motherly instincts, but while she visits the baby daily, it's clear the captain believes she is too busy to become her foster mother."

"She *is* too busy for a baby, Doc. Besides, she isn't done raising Seven yet!"

"Well, I'm not about to suggest that Ensign Wildman take on the job. Naomi doesn't need any more competition for her mother's attention. And I'm sorry to say there has been a marked lack of enthusiasm for foster parenting from any of the established couples."

Harry had no doubt at all which "established couple" the Doctor was referring to. "Tom might be willing, even though he pretends not to be, but you know B'Elanna. Her engines are her babies." As he spoke, Harry strolled towards the office doorway to look out the curved plastiglas pane separating the EMH's office from the rest of his domain.

"That may be true, but it's not as if anyone else has much spare time, either. We don't seem to have anyone willing to devote the time and effort needed to rear an infant on board this vessel."

"You sure about that, Doc?" Harry asked, staring at the tableau visible to him now that he could see most of sickbay.

The lullaby had ceased. The blonde crewman still paced slowly from one end of sickbay to the other. Her head was bent so that her cheek rested lightly upon the fuzzy head of the peacefully sleeping infant still cradled in her arms.

=/\=

Reluctantly, Marla lowered the baby into the small crib tucked in one end of sickbay. Sometimes the little one would wake up, softly crying as soon as her cheek touched the mattress. Not tonight, though. Marla allowed her hand to remain on the baby's back, making sure she stayed on her side, until the little burrowing movements the child always made when settling herself down to sleep ceased. The usually pensive face of Crewman Gilmore, previously an ensign assigned to the Federation science vessel Equinox, was lit by a fond grin.

She sighed as she carefully lifted her hand away from the baby. She really had to get down to engineering before Gamma shift began. Lieutenant Torres had been very lenient with her, knowing that Marla spent most of her off duty waking hours in sickbay, caring for their littlest stowaway. She didn't want to push it, though. Marla Gilmore had amends to make to those who lived on Voyager. Sometimes she wondered if everything she had to give would be enough-if her life was even worth the effort.

Hell, Marla had long since decided, was not a place but a state of mind: specifically, the torture inflicted by a guilty conscience. Marla's had had plenty of ammunition with which to assail her even before she had ever heard of Voyager; it had even more to work with now. She had plenty of time to think about all she'd done since arriving in the Delta Quadrant. It wasn't going into turbolifts that she dreaded anymore; it was being off duty with hours yawning before her, waiting to be filled with activities which Marla seldom wanted to participate in but did-partially out of duty, and partially in an often fruitless attempt to keep from thinking too much about her past.

Marla went to the gym and worked out religiously; she had to keep her muscles in shape for any tasks or missions the captain or Lieutenant Torres might ask her to undertake. She didn't really like to exercise any more than necessary, however. As much as she tried to keep her mind clear while she was working out, unpleasant memories always seemed to break through, as if the rhythmic physical activity conjured them up more readily the harder she tried to block them out.

Visiting the holodeck might have been a diversion, but she never felt really comfortable there. She didn't have much in the way of surplus replicator credits to spend developing and running her own programs. In the public programs such as Sandrine's or Fair Haven, Marla always felt the eyes of the rest of the crew upon her, in silent reproof for her interloping presence on Voyager when so many others had given their lives to get the ship closer to home.

Marla wasn't sure she didn't feel the same way sometimes. As one of only five who had survived from the Equinox, she often asked herself, "Why me?" Why had she lived when so many others had died? Sheer luck? Or was her life destined to have some purpose other being a source of suffering for others, humanoid and alien alike?

On the rare occasions that she could get together with Noah Lessing, her fellow officer from the Equinox, they discussed their deliverance-and the price which they were paying for it- without ever answering the question to their satisfaction. The others-Jimmy Morrow, Brian Sofin, and Angelo Tassoni-had always been crewmen on Equinox and kept to themselves most of the time. When the five did get a chance to talk with each other, there was an awkwardness, as if the three crewman didn't feel comfortable speaking as equals with those who had once been their superiors. They, too, were working hard, trying to earn a place amongst the crew and to expunge their guilt by doing everything they could to help Voyager get home. Marla could hardly blame them when she was doing the same thing.

Going to bed wasn't much more successful. She tried to tell herself she'd been under orders when she'd done what she did on the Equinox, but even if this were so, she knew she hadn't protested as much as she should have. Once the crew of the Equinox found safe harbor on Voyager, that excuse had evaporated. Marla tossed and turned much of the night, often waking in a sweat, sure she'd heard the tell-tale sound of aliens from another dimension breaking through to attack her on Voyager, as they had so many times on the Equinox. Intellectually, she knew it wasn't likely, but knowing that didn't comfort her.

She hated feeling jumpy all the time; it wasn't at all characteristic of her. Coming to the Delta Quadrant had transformed her into a shrinking violet, dragging the tiniest of her insecurities from out of the recesses of her personality. She felt as if she'd been changed into someone who was afraid of her own shadow, let alone real dangers like the Borg. Marla would have liked to confide her hopes and fears to someone, but while she didn't feel comfortable bothering the Equinox men with it, she didn't feel she knew anyone else on Voyager well enough she would be willing to burden with her unwelcome, newly discovered cowardice.

Even though she shared her quarters with two of Voyager's original crew members, Marla always felt alone there. The other women had been civil but not particularly welcoming when Marla was assigned to bunk with them. She later learned her bunk had belonged to a young woman who had been killed by invisible alien researchers who had used the crew of Voyager as guinea pigs in medical experiments. This tragic loss hit uncomfortably close to home for Marla, in view of her own experiments on the Equinox.

It would have been even worse if the extra empty bed had ever been occupied by Antonia LaSalle, who had been killed by the aliens who had bedeviled the Equinox and followed them to Voyager. Fortunately, Antonia had never actually been assigned to these quarters. Unfortunately, her two best friends on the ship, now Marla's bunkmates, had wanted her to move in with them. They hadn't had the chance to broach the idea to the captain before Antonia's death. Marla doubted the captain would have billeted her with them had she known. Perhaps Marla felt the sorrow of Ginni Brock and Cheryl Perkins more keenly because they always went out of their way not to talk about their dead friend. Their profuse apologies whenever they slipped and mentioned her may have created more of a barrier between Marla and them than indifference might have done.

Marla often lay awake for hours, wondering how things might have been different for everyone-especially Antonia-if only Captain Ransom and First Officer Burke had been willing to abandon the Equinox . . . if only she hadn't helped steal the shield generator that could have saved everyone on Voyager and Equinox alike, ending the need to harvest alien bodies for fuel . . . if only . . . .

Going on duty had become Marla's preferred activity. Marla could concentrate totally upon her job in engineering. Chief Engineer Torres knew how to keep her staff busy; but since she was as hard on herself as she was on everyone else, no one really minded. Having been forced to become the head engineer on Equinox by default, Marla was actually grateful to become a grunt again, following orders instead of giving them out-not that she'd given out many on the Equinox. Virtually all of the engineers had been killed during the first week of their journey; there had been virtually no staff left for Marla to order around.

Marla knew she was competent. She could take pleasure in a job well done without having to be the boss. Lieutenant Torres ably filled that position here. While the chief was not effusive in her compliments, Marla had received her share. That was fine with her. Marla often felt it was more than she deserved.

Then this poor orphan, partially transformed into a Borg before she was even ready to be born and barely alive, came as another refugee to Voyager. The child was an innocent who had nothing-no parents, no name, not even a known racial heritage. Most of the crew clucked in sympathy and went about their business. Marla felt herself drawn to sickbay, spending as much time as she dared doing what needed to be done for the infant.

She found that taking care of the little one, exposing her to language to help develop her young mind, monopolized all Marla's attention. What stray thoughts did come to her were more likely to consist of contemplations about the baby's future rather than her own past transgressions. And after a challenging day in engineering, followed by a few hours spent in sickbay when the Doctor needed an extra hand with the baby, Marla usually was too exhausted for her bedeviling conscience to rouse her fears and wake her. She slept soundly-appropriately enough, like a baby.

Realizing that leaning against the sleeping baby's crib was not a very productive activity, Marla gave the baby the lightest of pats on her diapered bottom before straightening up to leave for her shift. She needed to get down to engineering before Lieutenant Carey had cause to contact her over the comm to remind her to come on duty.

That was when she realized she wasn't alone.

=/\=

"Crewman Gilmore."

"Yes, Captain?" Marla answered hesitantly, following her commanding officer to the Doctor's office, where Ensign Kim and the EMH were sitting.

"I have something to ask you, about the baby."

"Yes, Captain."

"Would you be willing to become the baby's foster parent? For as long as she's here on Voyager, that is . . ."

"Yes, Captain. I was hoping you'd ask me."

The captain's lips drifted upwards and a little to the side as she said, "You were hoping I'd ask?"

"It's just . . . well, I'd been trying to get my courage up to ask you if I could take care of her when she was ready to leave sickbay. I'm glad you thought I was worthy of taking on the responsibility."

From behind the captain, Marla could see the Doctor and Harry Kim exchange solemn glances. Captain Janeway leaned forward and spoke earnestly, "Of course you're worthy of the responsibility. You've never given me a minute's cause to regret taking you aboard Voyager."

"That's a relief, Captain. I didn't want to presume."

"Marla . . . "

Before Janeway could say any more, Marla interrupted. "When can I take her home?"

The EMH answered. "As soon as we can replicate you some supplies, Ms. Gilmore. And as soon as the captain decides on where your 'home' with the little tyke will be. You've taken on responsibility for her care, but I doubt Crewmen Brock and Perkins would thank you for it when the baby wakes in the middle of the night for a feeding."

"She's a little too small to fill that fourth bunk anyway," Harry said with a wink.

"True. I think it would be better to move the two of you to something a little more private. There are quarters on Deck Nine that would be suitable. It has a small alcove off the main room that would be big enough for a baby's crib and paraphernalia. There's a lot of that with a baby."

"Thank you, Captain. That's very generous."

"You know, Crewman, this is a pretty big step. We can assign helpers to provide care for her while you're on duty, but it's not easy being a single parent."

"I know. I remember it was hard for my sister when my nephew was born, even though she had his father to help her out. We'll manage, Captain."

"It's settled then. You'd better get down to engineering now for your shift. We'll make arrangements for you to move into new quarters tomorrow morning."

Marla's smile glowed more brightly than any she had been able to muster since leaving the Alpha Quadrant. As she started for the office door, however, she swung around. "One more thing, Captain, if I may? Would it be all right if I gave her a name to call her by? I've heard some of the crew have been calling her 'the Borglet' or 'Littlest of Five,' but I don't want her to go on without having a real name."

"Not having a name isn't so unusual in here!" the Doctor grumped.

After giving the Doctor a look sharp enough to disrupt a few of his photons, Janeway said, "Have you something in mind?"

"Aimee. I'd give her my last name, too, but maybe that would be presumptuous."

"How about Aimee Voyageur?" Tom Paris suggested, as he entered the Doctor's office to begin his shift. "It's French, like her first name. And it seems appropriate. She'll be doing plenty of traveling as long as she's on Voyager."

"I like that, Mr. Paris. What do you think, Crewman Gilmore?" asked the captain.

"I think it sounds wonderful!"

"Well, then, Crewman Gilmore, the name Aimee Voyageur shall be added to the official crew manifest, effective tonight."

=/\=