"Catching up on some engineering reports?"

B'Elanna looked up sharply, wondering how she had missed the Captain's approach. Annoyed, she tightened her expression, erasing the last traces of the smile that she had allowed herself in what had been the solitude of the deserted mess hall; after Neelix's visit, she had begun to venture back out to the public areas of the ship but only in the later hours of the night or early morning. Surreptitiously, she thumbed off the PADD in her hand.

"Mmm hmm..." It was only a partial lie.

"Mind if I join you?" Janeway indicated the now cold mug of coffee on the table in front of them and her own still steaming cup.

When had that become an odd request? The two of them had once shared late night coffee and conversation in the mess hall regularly, the Captain gently, subtly mentoring her young engineer through the challenges of her new position. Had the last time been their conversation following B'Elanna's escape from the Pralor vessel? For weeks after that, her nights had been taken up by the warp ten shuttle project with Harry and Tom – and then the Captain had been marooned on "New Earth". And, between those, Janeway had sent Tom on his little suicidal espionage mission... One way or another, they had fallen out of the habit.

The Captain was still standing, and B'Elanna realized that she hadn't answered the question. Saying 'no' likely wasn't a real option, but with each passing second it became harder to say 'yes'.

"I was going to turn in before too long," she tried at last.

"Just for a few minutes then," Janeway assured, sitting and sipping at her coffee, her intent eyes prohibiting her engineer from returning to her reading. Well, that's what you get for being a cowardly petaQ, B'Elanna chided herself.

The seconds drew on again in marked silence. Despite the distinct feeling that she was giving away some advantage by doing so, B'Elanna finally asked impatiently, "Is there something I can help you with, Captain?"

The Captain's eyes narrowed a touch, and B'Elanna had a flash of fellow feeling for a fish caught on a hook. "I thought it might be a good idea for the two of us to clear the air about a few things before tomorrow."

B'Elanna felt her jaw tighten. "Just which 'things' were you thinking of, Captain?" Somewhere, some part of her that had actually spent the last four years becoming a good officer warned that they were in a public area, abandoned though it might be, and that her tone was more than bordering on insubordinate.

Janeway seemed unfazed, however, no doubt for reasons of her own. "I can only assume that you don't agree with my recent decisions regarding Mr. Paris."

Ensign Paris.

"That's putting it mildly." The cautioning voice turned to a klaxon that went unheeded as her free hand balled into a fist against her thigh.

"I couldn't ignore what he did." Always so self-assured, undoubting. Her throat tightened against the suddenly too heavy air.

"I wouldn't expect you to." Her teeth ground together, and muscles tensed across her shoulders and back.

"He stole a shuttlecraft, disobeyed a direct order and broke the Prime Directive."

"I know all of that." She could hear her own voice, coiled and strained.

"Under the circumstances, loss of rank..."

And then the dam broke: "It's not about the bloody pip!"

Neither of them could pretend that she had just done anything less than shout at her commanding officer.

Her commanding officer who still sat across from her, unmoving, unyielding, giving nothing away.

B'Elanna felt a trickle of warmth on her palm and realized that the nails of her clenched fist had punctured the skin.

She closed her eyes.

"It's not about the demotion," she repeated, reopening her eyes and defiantly meeting that inscrutable grey gaze. "Or about the brig time, excessive as that might have been."

Janeway let that go. "Then what?"

"You shot at him, Captain."

"Not to hit him."

"Harry didn't know that. He was on the bridge, watching, helping, while he thought you were trying to shoot down his best friend." And I sat in my quarters, thinking the same...

"Ensign Kim was doing his job as an officer of this ship. He had all the information he needed."

"Even you can't think that makes it right."

"Not right, B'Elanna: necessary."

The air around her constricted yet further.

The same mess hall, the same chair, a cup of coffee, freshly poured, in her hands. Hands that had so recently created a life – and ended it.
"I don't know what to say."
The Captain's voice, soft with understanding: "As far as I'm concerned, you did what you thought was necessary to ensure the safety of this crew." And then, "It must have been difficult."
"To destroy what you created."
Her hands clenched around her cup. "It was necessary."

For all her effort to keep her face impassive, she knew that Janeway would see that her shot had hit home.

"Fine. Call it necessary. That doesn't mean I have to agree with you."

"No, it doesn't," the Captain conceded, leaning an elbow on the back of her chair and propping her head against her hand. "But the real question is – has always been – can you accept it without agreeing with it? Can you continue to serve under my command?"

More memories and more words -

"Who is she to be making these decisions for all of us?"
She's the Captain."

"The problem? The problem was a system that didn't give anyone a chance to breathe."
"We work under that same system on this ship."
"Then I guess maybe this is just a bad idea."

"So what would you have had me say, B'Elanna?"
How about telling her 'no'?"

Every atom in her body screamed it, but the word choked in her throat. Why was it so damned difficult to breathe?

B'Elanna looked up and away, to the bulkheads of the ship that she had come to think of as home. Fifteen decks. Computers augmented with bio-neural circuitry. Top cruising speed, warp nine point nine seven five.

She had fled from her mother's home to the Academy and then from the Academy to the edges of space. This time, she had nowhere to run.

"I don't really have much choice, do I?" And then it was time to end this. "I can do the job, Captain." And losing me is 'unacceptable', remember?

She glanced back at Janeway and caught the trailing edge of...something as it flashed across her expression: some look of loss, or simple weariness. B'Elanna dropped her eyes, biting at her lower lip, but she let her statement stand without amendment.

"Very well then, Lieutenant. I believe you have a shift on the bridge tomorrow morning. You might want to get some rest."

She bit back an adolescent retort, staring out at the star trails now, giving the slight nod required to win her release. She heard the sigh, not quite stifled, and then she was alone again.

B'Elanna turned her attention back to the PADD still in her hand, thumbing it back on and looking down at the file that she had been reading when Janeway arrived. The smile drifted back onto her face. The report was an aberration, having been addressed only to security officers and the command team, that had somehow made its way into her daily queue of engineering reading. Signed off by the chief of security, it gave the exact time of release for the only current occupant of Voyager's brig, early the following morning.

Or a little later this morning actually. A quick calculation negated the possibility of a visit before her shift started, but a well-timed comm should be possible. Her smile twitched into a satisfied grin: there were more ways to stake a claim than just a bite on the cheek.

The stars outside the mess hall continued to trail by with those particular patterns created by starships traveling at faster than light speeds. All those stars, all that open space, and she had nowhere left to run.