The Way of All Things

Written by  on May 18, 2001 

“The conclusion of the saga. This story took on a dramatic urgency for me, not only because it was the final story in my series, but also provided for me and the RiF members an alternate ending for Voyager. So it was important that it be finished before the series finale “Endgame.”. As of the moment I’m writing this, I haven’t seen the episode, and I probably won’t for some time. As far as I’m concerned, this is the only right and proper way to end the show.” (Michael B)

Written by Michael Ben-Zvi

Stardate 53886.1
Release 18 May 2001

"Fasten your seatbelts," Tom Paris called out from the helm station with wild glee. "It’s going to be a bumpy ride!"

"It already is, Mr. Paris," Janeway commented, as she held herself in her command chair, while the bridge of the starship Voyager rocked and rattled around them. "Status, Mr. Kim!" she called out behind her.

"Astrometrics is reporting multiple gravity wells at mark two zero one," Harry reported, his eyes glued to his monitor. "Probably a globular star cluster. I’m sending the new figures to the helm."

"Got ’em," Tom replied, registering the data transfer to his own station. "Making the necessary course adjustments."

Harry Kim worked diligently at his station at Ops, firmly gripping his console for support. The Borg transwarp coils they found had successfully managed to propel them over 25,000 light-years through the psychedelic maelstrom that was called, for lack of a better term, transwarp space. However, the technology was never intended for integration with Starfleet vessels, and Voyager was not optimally designed to travel at such extreme velocities. Naturally, there was considerable stress on the ship’s structural integrity field, not to mention a limit on their ability to navigate precisely. The traditional navigational references of conventional warp travel had no meaning in transwarp space. Visually, they were blind as a bat, which made his and Seven’s contribution all the more essential. His Borg paramour would perform a graviton sweep ahead of the ship from Astrometrics, scanning for the gravity wells of any massive stellar objects in their path. Unfortunately, given the weakness of gravitational sensors and the rapid velocities at which they were traveling, this gave them very little time to make course adjustments, a factor that had been even more critical during their circumnavigation of the heart of the galaxy.

It was a hell of a way to fly, thought Harry wryly, but only a crew as desperate as Voyager‘s would trust their lives to a technology they barely understood.

Fortunately, their efforts were now bearing fruit. They survived the worst of the galactic core and had left the Delta Quadrant far behind and were now into the deepest unexplored regions of the Beta Quadrant. While it was impossible for them to get an exact bearing on their position while still in transwarp space, they estimated that by now they were a relatively short distance from home.

"Engineering to the Bridge," the voice of Voyager‘s chief engineer called up from the intercom.

"Go ahead, B’Elanna," Chakotay responded from his position near the captain.

"We’re getting heavy feedback on Coil#1 and it’s looking pretty serious. If we don’t drop out of transwarp soon, we could have another overload on our hands." That was definitely something to worry about, Harry thought anxiously. They had already lost one transwarp coil during their journey home. Fortunately for them, it had led to the serendipitous discovery of the Eden-like planet where Tom and B’Elanna had exchanged their marital vows, and where Seven had proposed to him their ‘permanent affiliation.’ But who was to say losing another coil would lead to an equally desirable destination a second time?

"Lieutenant," the captain spoke up. "If we drop out of transwarp again, how soon before we can make another jump?"

"It’s hard to say," the half-Klingon engineer replied. "Each time we pop in and out of transwarp, it adds cumulative damage to our structural integrity. We came pretty close to breaching the hull during our last jump."

"An Edsel," Tom said mischievously, looking over his shoulder to his friend at Ops. Harry agreed silently, remembering the phrase that Tom had first shared with him during their ill-fated test of the Quantum Slipstream drive over a year ago. The pilot had meant it then as a reference to the fact that mutually incompatible technologies were being kludged together in an effort to produce a coherent working device, just as they were attempting to do here.

But if both coils were to burn out, Harry thought, then their transwarp shortcut home would be gone for good. Assuming of course that the ship survived the re-entry.

Janeway tapped another button on the panel of her command chair. "Bridge to Astrometrics."

"Astrometrics here, Captain," said Seven of Nine in her official duty voice, one that Harry Kim still found totally irresistible.

"Seven, do you have a fix on our location, yet?"

"I can only make a rough approximation as to our position. I believe that we are currently in what Federation stellar cartographers call the Trans-Kanarri Drift, beyond the range of any formally charted sectors. From this position, it would take up to a year to reach the Federation at maximum conventional warp velocities."

"And if we maintain transwarp for another half hour?"

"Then our flight home would be considerably shorter," Seven replied flippantly, with her typically gallows-like sense of humor.

"Is that the best answer that you have for me, Seven?" Janeway snapped back, not appreciating her tone.

"I cannot give you a more accurate figure, Captain," said the former drone. "Speed and distance in transwarp space do not correspond precisely with their real-space equivalents. A half-hour in transwarp could possibly place us on the border of the Federation itself. Then again it might not."

"Hopefully not too close," Tom spoke up from the helm. "We’d cause quite a mess if we popped out in the middle of a major shipping lane."

"Or if we were to emerge near the vicinity of a hostile government," Tuvok added from Tactical. "I need not remind you, Captain, that we are carrying technologies on board than would be of considerable value to any number of interstellar powers."

Janeway nodded at her security officer, knowing all too well what he meant. The Core wasn’t the only navigational issue they had to consider. A direct route from the Delta Quadrant to the Federation through the Beta Quadrant would mean passing through space claimed by the Romulan Star Empire. Janeway had no way of knowing what the current state of relations were with the Romulans, but the most recent data they had was from the Doctor’s brief visit aboard the ill-fated U.S.S. Prometheus. His report had not been encouraging. Tuvok was correct, though. Given the invaluable prize of the technologies they were bringing home, Voyager would have to navigate well away from any potentially unfriendly borders.

An even bigger uncertainty was this ‘war’ that Starfleet Command had alluded to so cryptically during their brief communication via the Hirogen array. Janeway was surprised that she had received so little intelligence on the situation back home through the initial communiqués. Perhaps Starfleet had intended to send her a more complete briefing before the array collapsed. But somehow, that didn’t quite mesh right with official procedures. A complete state of the war should have been among the first messages they sent from home. In fact, the letters to the Maquis crewmembers had revealed more about the fighting than anything sent through official channels. During the Doctor’s brief sojourn to the Alpha Quadrant, he had been strangely sequestered from all knowledge of current events. All that they knew for certain was that the Cardassians had made an alliance with an empire from the Gamma Quadrant known as the Dominion, and that the fighting had been going on for some months when the Doctor first made contact with Starfleet.

It led Janeway to suspect that perhaps this war was more than just another Cardassian border dispute, that it was possibly severe enough to jeopardize the very existence of the Federation. She reasoned that if things had been that bad back home, it made sense that they would choose to keep Voyager in the dark. After all, why upset a crew half way across the galaxy about a war that they could do nothing to influence? Things were probably bad enough on Voyager, why further devastate their morale with news about their families being at risk? But if that were the case, then why let the Maquis crew know that their friends and their movement had been so thoroughly annihilated? Did Starfleet decide that field-commissioned ‘terrorists’ were unworthy of consideration?

This was something she had kept to herself, for the good of the crew, although she suspected that Tuvok and Chakotay had come to similar conclusions independently. They never spoke of it aloud.

It had been to her personal relief when they received that brief message from Starfleet via the Pathfinder signal. At least she knew that Earth wasn’t under occupation and that Starfleet still existed and could spare the resources to try and communicate with them. As to the state of affairs back home, she could only speculate. But if there was still a war going on, then the technologies Voyager carried, transwarp in particular, could very well make the strategic difference that determined its outcome.

Janeway’s brow furrowed with anxiety as she turned to confer with her first officer. Somehow, his smile and steadiness always served to reassure her during moments like this, moments when she needed to reach firm decisions regarding the well being of the crew. And this choice might well be the most important of all during Voyager‘s flight home, as it might mark the near end of their journey.

"We drop out of transwarp now," she said to him solemnly, "and we might not be able to go back. It could be at least another year before we get home."

"Captain," Chakotay said to her in an intimate tone that really implied ‘Kathryn,’ but maintaining the cloak of formality on the bridge. "At one time, we would have considered a year-long flight to be a miracle. We can survive that."

"I know," she replied, "But we were all counting on these coils to get us all the way back, for our journey to finally be over. I can’t bear the thought of disappointing the crew. Not when we’re so close."

"We can’t get home at all if we don’t have a working ship," he commented.

The captain mulled over Chakotay’s words before making her decision. "Lieutenant," she commanded, switching communications channels back to her chief engineer, "Divert whatever power you can to the integrity field. Were going to stay at transwarp for as long as we can hold it."

"Yes, ma’am." B’Elanna answered.

"Mr. Paris," Janeway instructed, "continue on our course for home."

"Aye-aye," Tom replied.

The next twenty minutes or so were long and anxious ones. The ship rumbled and shook about them, as the chaotic forces of transwarp space tore at an already weakening starship. Harry had to grip his console tightly in order to keep from losing his balance. He only hoped that Seven was faring better down in Astrometrics. The minutes counted down as the crew anxiously watched every monitor and readout, making certain that the ship was holding steady under the pressure.

Turning back towards the helm, she addressed Voyager‘s pilot. "Tom, take us out of transwarp on my mark. We’ll give the coils a chance to cool off and assess the damage while we determine our position."

"Yes, ma’am," he answered, his voice showing some disappointment that the journey home had been deferred from its completion once again.

With that, Janeway hit a switch on the arm of her chair, opening the ship-wide intercom. "All hands, this is the captain," she announced. "Engineering has expressed concerns about the transwarp coils. Therefore, we will be dropping back into normal space until we can determine our position and condition. I’m hoping it will be only a temporary delay. In the meantime, I’m asking all crewmembers to brace themselves for the transition. That is all." She then looked back up at Tom, gripping her chair tightly, as the crew braced themselves at their stations for the shift to come. "On my mark…now, Mr. Paris!"

On her command, Tom punched in the transwarp shutdown sequence. The coils in engineering powered themselves down, and the greenish kaleidoscope flashed back to the regular inky blackness of Einsteinian space-time. But as expected, the shift was not a smooth one. In fact, it was more violent than they had anticipated. Gravitational ripples created from the erratic rending of space enveloped the ship, causing it to buckle and toss violently. A few of the bridge personnel who hadn’t secured themselves firmly enough were thrown from their stations.

"Captain," Tuvok called out from the tactical station, "Decks Eight and Nine are reporting structural integrity failures in the forward…" But he did not have the chance to finish, as the power relays behind him burst into flames, forcing the Vulcan officer to leap aside to avoid injury. A dull, even groaning emanated from the ship’s hull, as it creaked under the strain of shifting to a lower velocity level. For a brief moment, everyone felt queasiness in their stomachs as the artificial gravity flickered, and the inertial dampers tried to compensate too vigorously.

Tom clutched to the helm for dear life as the gravity shifted, but was unable to hold on for long as he was thrown from his seat and landed firmly on his backside with an indecorous yelp. Ensign Matthews flew from her position and landed painfully on her side with a crack. Even Captain Janeway nearly fell from her chair, but managed to grab a hold of the armrests of her seat in time to preserve her dignity in front of her crew.

Harry, unfortunately, was not as lucky. The jolt caused him to slam forward towards his console. Had he not managed to shield himself with his arms, he might have severely injured himself. As it was, there seemed to be quite a few bumps and bruises around the bridge. He looked around to see Tom using his field medic expertise to treat some of the injured crew.

When everything quieted down, Janeway slapped her combadge once again. "B’Elanna, status?"

"We’ve got significant hull damage on Decks Six through Nine," the engineer answered her. "We also have damage to the warp drive. I figure we’re currently limited to Warp Factor 6, until we make some repairs. Transwarp Coil #1 has burned out completely."

"But…we still have the one left?"

"Right. But I don’t recommend we attempt another jump to transwarp space anytime soon. The structural integrity field can’t withstand another transition…"

"Captain," came another voice over the intercom, the voice of Seven of Nine, who had been monitoring all bridge transmissions. "You need not be concerned about another transwarp jump. It is not relevant."

"Not relevant?" asked a confused Captain Janeway. "What do you mean? Where are we?"

"Captain," the young woman said, "I am pleased to announce that…I have made a mistake."

"I beg your pardon?" Janeway asked, even more puzzled. Harry looked up in the direction of his beloved’s voice with surprise. When it came to her duties, Seven of Nine never made a mistake, or at the very least never admitted to one.

"I was conservative with my initial estimate of our position and transwarp speed," she reported. "It appears that our relative realspace velocity was 25% higher than I had estimated. Voyager has now emerged ten sectors past the Typhon Expanse, near the border of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. I estimate that at our current velocity, it will take Voyager eight weeks to reach the nearest Federation outpost."

"Eight…eight weeks?" Harry couldn’t believe it as the cheers and whoops of delight drowned out his own amazement. It took only a little more than eight weeks to circumnavigate the entire United Federation of Planets at its widest point. Starfleet vessels had even managed to tentatively explore out past the radius where Voyager now found itself.

For all intents and purposes, they had made it back to their own backyard.

Seven reached down to take Harry’s hand into hers as they walked along the corridors of Voyager on their way to the mess hall. "When I learned of the damage that the ship had incurred, I came as soon as I was informed." She then flushed slightly, a sign that Harry had learned to recognize that she was feeling strong emotion, as the flow of blood to her face colored her normally creamy complexion. "I was…worried…for you."

"Hey, you forget I’m indestructible, remember?" he smiled up at her, caressing her Borg-enhanced hand gently.

"Do not make light of your mortality, Harry Kim," she said to him, her voice raised in concern, not anger. "Especially now that we have chosen to spend our lives together."

"I’d never forget that, beautiful," he said, his own face flushed warmly in response.

"I know you would not," she said, returning his smile, luxuriating in how ‘beautiful’ he was to her. Her face then turned serious as her thoughts returned to more present concerns. "Harry, the Doctor has requested another appointment with me. It seems as if he has come up with a new alteration for the wedding dress he is designing for me."

"Seven," he groaned, rolling his eyes. "I wish you wouldn’t encourage him like that. You know I didn’t want to make any formal plans for our wedding until we met my family first. My mother and my aunts will probably veto every one of his ideas."

"I realize that," she said, "but I did not wish to hurt his feelings. He is most enthusiastic to participate in the preparations."

"I swear, between him and Neelix…" Harry mumbled, with a half-hearted chuckle thrown in. "Those two will probably have our first anniversary all planned out by the time we get to Earth."

Harry remembered fondly the day after Tom and B’Elanna’s wedding, when he and Seven made their formal announcement in the Mess Hall before the crew of their engagement The two had been nearly swamped by those eager to offer their congratulations. The Doctor had actually come over and hugged Seven like a proud papa, which she returned quite warmly. Harry had been momentarily rendered speechless when his own captain came over to give him the same treatment.

Tom and B’Elanna, of course, didn’t find out until a few days later, as the newly married couple had been holed up on Holodeck Two for the duration of their honeymoon, with strict orders not to be disturbed. Harry felt guilty about that, especially as Tom was intended to be his best man, but the excitement of their betrothal was so overwhelming that neither he nor Seven felt they could keep it a secret for a whole week. Upon hearing the news, B’Elanna had been momentarily dismayed at learning that she and Tom, Harry’s best friends, had been the last to find out. But fortunately, Klingon moods were mercurial, and her temper quickly subsided to joy at her friend’s happiness.

"My god," Harry mumbled, still overwhelmed by the enormity of recent events. "It’s really happening. I mean…we knew it was coming, but still…"

"Yes, Voyager‘s journey is coming to its conclusion," she stated matter-of-factly.

He looked up at his lover, his heart going out to her. "Seven, are you OK?"

"Strange that you should ask that of me, considering that it is you that was injured," she said.

"Seven, all I did was bruise my arm. And don’t be coy. You know what I mean. About us finally going home. I know we’ve discussed this, and you said you were all right with it. But I can understand if you’re still a little…"

"Apprehensive," she said, completing his sentence. "I must admit to some unease. This will mean great change, and with change comes uncertainty."

"Hey," he smiled at her as he pulled her next to him as they entered the turbolift. "You don’t have anything to worry about. Change also can mean opportunity, too. I mean, remember how nervous you were at the thought of starting a relationship with me?"

Seven blushed warmly as her lovely lips curled into a broad smile, fond with remembrance at how rewarding that opportunity had been for both of them. "I remember well. And my anxiety turned out to be unfounded."

"Exactly, just like it will be when we get back to the Federation," Harry beamed proudly. "Mark my words, beautiful. Everyone’s going to absolutely love you, just as much as I do."

The turbolift doors opened as they reached the Mess Hall deck. Walking along the way, Harry could see the energy and excitement among his fellow crew. If there had been electricity in the air when the crew had first found the transwarp coils, then the starship Voyager, after their emergence from transwarp, was now practically on fire.

Everyone in the Mess Hall was almost glowing with excitement at the prospect of their now being in the home stretch of their journey. It was a good thing, Harry thought, to see everyone so positive and alive. Throughout the past six years, even when the crew had been in relatively good spirits, there had always been a few people, at any one time, who became overwhelmed or saddened by the enormity of Voyager‘s separation from everything familiar that they knew. But now, there wasn’t a single face in the room that wasn’t lit up.

And ironically, the most glowing face in the Mess Hall belonged to the one person on board who didn’t even hail from the Alpha Quadrant.

"Ah, Harry," Neelix beamed as he saw the young officer enter the room with Seven on his arm. "I hope you’ve recovered from that nasty spill on the bridge the other day. I wanted to go over some ideas I had for some wedding desserts…"

"Uh, yeah," he said, still overwhelmed by the Talaxian’s good cheer, not to mention feeling somewhat overwhelmed by Neelix’s ‘charm offensive.’ "That’ll be fine, Neelix. Maybe we can talk about it later on."

"I believe that Harry is in need of proper refreshment," Seven interrupted, looking to rescue him from Neelix’s overtures, as she gripped his arm closer and with greater affection, her words serving as instruction as well as imparting information.

"Well, I’ll see that he gets a nice big bowl of my Delta chicken soup, good for whatever ails you," Neelix said with a broad smile.

Seven looked across the room, and saw Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres-Paris beckoning to them from their regular table. She proceeded to lead Harry to join them.

"So, Harry," Tom greeted his friend with a smile as they sat down. "You more than anyone should be glad we’re on our way home. You’re starting to run out of lives."

"Ha, ha. Really funny," Harry sneered at the grinning pilot. "At least I didn’t fall out of my chair and land on my ass like some people." The Ops officer had a moment of satisfaction as he saw the look of surprise on Tom’s face.

"I am grateful for that," Seven spoke up, her lips curled into a smile. "A blemish on Harry’s forearm is unpleasant enough. A blemish on his posterior would be completely unacceptable." B’Elanna couldn’t help but laugh at Seven’s comment.

As Neelix came over with a steaming bowl of chicken soup, Tom inhaled the scent of the broth as it wafted its way through his nostrils. "Mmmm…get a load of that. How come Harry gets to have chicken soup while the rest of us have to slurp down leola root stew?"

"Now, Tom," said Neelix, "Harry hasn’t sat down for a decent meal all day. Besides, what’s wrong with leola root stew? It’s just as healthy for you, you know."

But Tom Paris would have none of that. "Man, the first thing I’m going to do when we get back is order me up a prime porterhouse steak, with mashed potatoes and gravy, with a side of corn on the cob," said Tom, his mouth watering with anticipation.

"There is nothing stopping you from replicating such a meal aboard Voyager," Seven commented.

"Nothing except the fact it would cost me about twenty replicator rations for the steak alone," he griped. "I tell you, there’s no food that tastes better than free food."

"Mr. Neelix’s meals are offered without cost, yet I have never witnessed you complimenting their flavor or texture," replied the former drone.

"Well, thank you, Seven," said Neelix. "It’s nice to know that somebody around here appreciates all the hard work I do."

"Aw, c’mon, Neelix," Tom jested. "You know we’re only yanking your whiskers."

"And besides," B’Elanna joined in, reaching over to caress her husband’s arm, "I thought you said the first thing you were going to do when we get back is call your parents and tell them about us, not go for a steak dinner."

"Well, of course, honey," he answered her with a smile. "But you don’t expect me to have a conversation with my father on an empty stomach, do you?"

Harry couldn’t help but pick up on the buried sense of dread in Tom’s voice at the mention of his father. He knew that his friend had always had a difficult relationship with him, a relationship that went from bad to nonexistent after he had gotten mixed up with the Maquis and arrested. Although the brief message they received via the Pathfinder Project had been a heartwarming effort for the father to reach out to his son, there was no way of knowing if such warmth could be sustained after a face-to-face reunion, given all the hurt that had taken place in the past.

"I don’t think you have anything to worry about, Tom," Harry offered helpfully. "You’ve been missing for nearly six years. I think your dad will be happy just to see you alive."

"I wish I could be as sure, Har. Not everyone has perfect parents the way you do. I’m just afraid once he sees me in person, it’ll be a big reminder to him about what a disappointment I’ve been to the Paris name and all that. And I don’t know what he’s going to say when he sees B’Elanna."

The younger man jolted up at the implications of Tom’s words. "You’re not saying your dad’s going to have an issue about B’Elanna being a… Klingon, is he?" Harry found it hard to believe that anyone, not even a Paris, could have advanced through Starfleet, never mind achieve the politically sensitive rank of admiral, while harboring xenophobic attitudes towards the Federation’s closest ally.

"No, of course not," Tom replied. "I’m guessing he’ll have more of a problem with her being Maquis. He was definitely on the side of the hawks regarding that issue."

"Well, I’m not concerned," said B’Elanna defiantly. "When we decided to get married out here, we knew there was always the risk of us facing problems when we got back. But we knew that whatever happens, we can tough it out together."

Harry then turned to look at his own lover with warmth and affection. "I’m just glad that my own parents are understanding. They’ll love you right away." He turned back to his friends across the table, his expression one of concern again. "What do you think is going to happen when we get back? I mean, do you think Starfleet will still want to press charges against you guys?"

"Well, Tom should be OK," B’Elanna answered. "I mean, he did live up to the terms of his parole. As for me and Chakotay and the rest of the Maquis, I’m just hoping the Federation Council will show a little common sense and cut us some slack. But we’ve gotten screwed before by hoping for some sense from those cretins."

"B’Elanna," Harry said disapprovingly, "that’s not fair. I mean, of course the Council will wipe the slate clean for you and the others. How can they not, after everything you guys did out here. They’ll probably even offer you all permanent commissions when we get back."

"Really?" Neelix piped up, grinning with delight. "Now wouldn’t that be something?"

"It’d be something, that’s for sure," B’Elanna replied sourly.

"What, don’t you want to stay in Starfleet?" Harry asked. "I thought you said being Chief Engineer on Voyager was the happiest time of your life."

"Oh, it is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just…well, putting on a uniform and taking orders from people…that’s all fine and good for a specific goal like trying to get home. And I’ve enjoyed getting to know everyone and working with them. But as a lifetime career? I don’t think I’d be able to take it."

"I think you’ve done a fine job of it so far," Harry replied insistently.

"Thanks, Harry, but honestly…for me to take orders from someone, they’d have to seriously earn my respect. Now I’d follow Chakotay or Captain Janeway anywhere, you know that. But suppose Starfleet Command sticks me with some asshole? I’m supposed to suck up to this person just because he’s got a few more pips on his collar? I don’t think so."

"So that’s it?" said Harry crestfallen, before turning to Tom. "And what about you? Do you feel the same way?"

"Hey, buddy, I think it’s been established that I’m not exactly officer material," Tom said casually.

"Oh, that’s not true and you know it."

"C’mon, Harry," Tom replied. "You know that if it were up to me, we’d be wearing PJs and bunny slippers on the bridge."

Seven blinked twice at Tom’s suggestion. "I have but a single pair of pajamas. And I do not believe I have the replicator pattern for any…bunny slippers."

"Don’t worry about it," Tom chuckled. "I’m sure Neelix would be glad to lend you his."

"Yeah, and what about you, Neelix?" Harry asked. "What are you going to do when we get back?"

"Oh, I don’t know…" the Talaxian mused. "I suppose Starfleet will want to debrief me about my experiences in the Delta Quadrant, that sort of thing."

"Yeah, but that can’t take more than a couple of weeks," said Harry. "What are you going to do after that?"

"I suppose I could always dust off my old ship and putter about, see more of the Federation and the Alpha Quadrant. I mean, for almost seven years, everyone’s been telling me about places like Earth, Vulcan, Betazed, and Risa…maybe it’s time I finally saw them all for myself."

"Your ship?" Seven inquired, confused. "The Baxial has not been in operation since prior to my own arrival aboard Voyager."

"Yes, well, I know it’s not much. I mean, why flitter around in my old rust bucket when you have fine ships like the Delta Flyer? But still, it’s all mine."

"But your vessel is limited to a crew capacity of one," Seven remarked. "If you were to undergo this journey you speak of, you would be…alone."

The stout little morale officer sighed as he nodded in agreement with the young woman. "Yes, I suppose I would be. At least until a better opportunity presented itself."

Nobody at the table said anything, unsure of how to respond. Neelix had given up so much, burning his bridges behind him and accompanying Voyager on its journey across the galaxy. They knew what a solitary life he had led before meeting up with them, and how it had left him unfulfilled; especially after the great satisfaction he had discovered being a part of Voyager‘s crew. And now it sounded as if he was preparing to return to that empty life once again.

At that moment, the Mess Hall doors slid open and Samantha Wildman and her daughter came into the room. The elder Wildman had the same sunny, optimistic glow that the rest of the crew seemed to share that day. Little Naomi on the other hand, seemed to be in a funk. The pout on the child’s face was obvious to all.

Knowing that she had just come off duty, Tom called out to the young mother. "Hey, Sam. What’s the good word? Any response to our hails?"

"Nothing yet, Tom. We’re still a long way off from the subspace network. Until we get our signal boosters back up, it could be days before we hear anything from Starfleet."

"Yeah, be patient, honey," B’Elanna urged her husband. "We just came out of transwarp. I don’t think there’s even been a starship this far out yet."

"Under normal circumstances, that is correct," Seven declared. "As of Stardate 50893.5, there have been no crewed vessels dispatched to accurately chart this region of space."

"Maybe it’s just as well," Harry stated. "Everything we’ve gotten used to over the last six years is about to change. Maybe we need the time to prep ourselves for what’s to come."

"Well, I think it’s all very exciting," Neelix said jubilantly. "I mean, for all of you, this is coming home. But this is going to be a whole new adventure for me, and frankly, I’m looking forward to it." He then squatted down to look at his little goddaughter. "I bet this all must seem very exciting for you too, isn’t it, sweetie?"

"Yeah, I guess so," she said listlessly, without a bit of her usual youthful enthusiasm.

"Aw, what’s the matter, Naomi?" Harry said, his smile widening. "Aren’t you looking forward to seeing Earth?"

"It’s a stupid name for a planet," she groused. "Who’d wanna name a whole planet after dirt, anyway?"

"Naomi Wildman!" her mother sputtered in shock and embarrassment. "You apologize to Ensign Kim and Ensign Paris this instant! They’re both from Earth, you know, and so am I!"

"I…uh," the little hybrid girl tried to speak, realizing she had gotten herself in trouble once again.

But Harry Kim noticed her discomfort and quickly spoke up on her behalf. "Oh, it’s OK, Sam. We’re not offended."

"Yeah," agreed Tom, showing no concern. "And for what it’s worth, that whole ‘planet-named-dirt’ thing has been sort of a running joke with aliens for years."

"That’s still no excuse for being rude," Sam looked down at her child with narrowed eyes. "You and I are going to have a talk about this later, young lady."

"Uh, maybe I should take Naomi for her afternoon snack," Neelix stepped in, hoping to ease up the tension that had erupted around Naomi’s outburst. "We have some lovely Dendirri plums, all chock full of vitamins and minerals," he added, eager to play up the snack’s health benefits, knowing Sam would never send Naomi to her room without eating something healthy first.

Sam watched as the Talaxian and the human/K’tarian child walked off towards the kitchen, shaking her head in dismay. "Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve been trying to prepare her for this, ever since we found those coils. We both knew this day would come one day."

"It’s all happening pretty fast for her, Sam," B’Elanna said encouragingly. "She just needs more time to accept what’s happening. She’ll come to grips with the end of the trip before you know it."

"I hope so," Sam sighed. "It’s just…for years I’ve wanted more than anything for her to be able to have a normal life. And now I wonder if she’ll ever be able to adjust to one or not."

"Naomi Wildman is an intelligent and capable individual," Seven stated. "She will adapt in time."

Sam smiled as she looked at Seven, seeing how well suited the ex-Borg seemed sitting next to her man. "You seem to have accepted it pretty quickly."

"Yeah," Tom joined in. "I remember a time when you were ready to jump ship rather than head back with us to the Alpha Quadrant."

"At that time, I believed that I would be alone in the Alpha Quadrant," said Seven. "I realize now that that will not be the case."

"I only wish Naomi understood that," Sam said sadly, as she walked off to follow her daughter.

"Poor kid," B’Elanna sighed after a moment of reflection, "She’s really going to have a rough time of it when we get back."

"Yeah," Tom agreed somberly, "You’d think she’d show a little curiosity about us going home, though. I mean, that’s only what everyone on this ship, including her mom, always talks about."

"You forget, Tom Paris," said Seven, "to Naomi Wildman, Voyager is home." Of course, to her, Voyager was also home. The only real home she had ever known. But she did not bother to mention that.

Tom was about to agree with her when the intercom blared forth with Tuvok’s voice. "Attention, all senior staff. Report to the bridge at once."

Everyone at the table looked up in alarm. An alert this far out in the middle of nowhere could mean only one thing. They had made contact with someone.

Or something.

The senior staff quickly assembled on the bridge and assumed their stations. Those who did not have regular bridge stations, like Seven, Neelix, B’Elanna and the Doctor, stood at attention, eagerly awaiting for when their services might be required.

"Report," Janeway commanded.

Harry eyeballed his monitor as he read the data from his sensor contact. "The vessel is approximately 200 billion kilometers distant," he reported. "Warp signature is moving at Warp 3."

"Anything else, Harry?" Chakotay asked, his eyes still focused on the distant dot of light that was moving steadily across the starfield on the main viewer.

"Still getting the data in," Harry said as number continued to scroll across his panel. "The vessel’s about two thirds, maybe half the size of Voyager. Not picking up a lot of heavy weapons signatures. It doesn’t appear to be heavily armed."

"Thank goodness for that," B’Elanna said softly. "Our structural integrity is still below par and we can barely manage shields at 30%."

"Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, Lieutenant," Janeway said. "Any clue as to their identity, Tuvok?" Janeway motioned to her security officer.

"Attempting to match the parameters with our ship’s database," the Vulcan reported from Tactical. "I should have an identification momentarily."

"Does it appear as though they’ve detected us, yet?"

"Unknown. However, they have not yet altered course to intercept us, Captain."

"Captain," Harry called out, "I’m starting to get life sign readings. About forty or fifty crewmembers, they…" Harry then saw the cross-referencing from the biomonitors, his eyes widened in alarm. "Captain, they’re Ferengi!"

Janeway’s look of alarm matched Harry’s. "Are you sure, Ensign?"

The Doctor quickly darted over to the Ops station to double check the bio readings. "He’s correct. It’s definitely a Ferengi crew."

"I have a positive match," Tuvok announced. "The vessel is a Ferengi Corsair. D’mat Class. Estimated crew of 48, 185 meters in length, three medium-power electroplasma wave emitters and no torpedo launchers. The D’Mat Class is currently regarded as obsolete by the Ferengi merchant fleet and is gradually being phased out from active service."

Ferengi! This was not the first contact with the Alpha Quadrant they had been hoping for, Janeway thought. Relations between the Federation and the Ferengi Alliance were unpredictable, to say the least. At the time of Voyager‘s disappearance, the Ferengi were not formally classified as a hostile government, but rather maintained a strict neutrality in interstellar affairs. Official relations were cordial, albeit frustrating, due to the inability to reach a common accord on the recognition of interstellar law. Furthermore, the Ferengi Commerce Authority refused to reign in some of the more questionable practices of their starship captains, as long as they received their cut of the profits. Larger ships, like the D’Kora Class Marauders, engaged in very aggressive business practices, like smuggling or piracy against smaller vessels and isolated outposts. Even Starfleet vessels were known to be attacked by some of the more ambitious daimons.

"Evasive maneuvers, Captain?" Tom asked from the helm.

Had this been a Marauder, Janeway would have given the order to stay away from them like a plague. They were heavily armed vessels, largely to compensate for the cowardice and inexperience of their crews. But fortunately, a Corsair was a more manageable opponent, and might even prove to be of some use.

"Negative, Mr. Paris," Janeway replied. "Tuvok, any sign of additional Ferengi support?"

"No, Captain. Ferengi daimons tend to view each other as business competitors, not associates. Their vessels invariably operate in isolation."

"I thought so," she smiled in satisfaction. "Hail them."

"Captain?" Chakotay questioned her. "Is that a good idea, considering what we’re carrying? We’re not exactly at full fighting strength."

"That vessel is half our size, a third of our crew, and most likely with minimal combat experience. They won’t risk a fight if they can’t guarantee an easy win." she stated, her eyes remaining focused on that dot on the viewscreen, which grew steadily brighter as their ships moved closer. "Besides, we need the help, and I think we can make it worth their while."

"Then maybe I should speak with them instead," he offered. "They may not respond too favorably to a woman captain."

"I’m not about to hide from the Ferengi just to avoid offending their cultural prejudices," she insisted defiantly. "They’re just going to have to deal with me, no matter how much it galls them."

"The channel is open, Captain," Tuvok announced.

"Ferengi vessel, this is Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Federation Starship U.S.S. Voyager, registry number NCC-74656," she stated, her voice steady and in command. "Respond please."

After a long silence, a gruff, almost grizzled, response came back. "Federation ship, why are you harassing us? This is unclaimed space and you have no authority over us here!"

"Ferengi vessel, we are not here to interfere with your mission. You’re the first vessel from the Alpha Quadrant we’ve spoken to in a long while and we…"

Janeway was cut off by a new voice over the intercom, once that sounded considerably more bubbly and lighter. "Did you say you were the starship Voyager? Intrepid Class?!"

"Yes, that’s who we are…"

"If this is some kind of trick…"

"It’s no trick, I assure you. If you’ve tracked the source of this transmission, then you can scan us to confirm our identity."

After a pause of a minute, the younger voice from the Ferengi vessel replied once again. "U.S.S. Voyager, this is Daimon Pok of the Ferengi trading vessel Precious Find. This is unbelievable! According to our records, your ship is supposed to be lost in the Delta Quadrant. How by the Grand Exchequer did you ever make it back?"

"We…" she started to say before glancing over to her first officer, giving him a knowing look. "We were transported here with the assistance of…a helpful transcendent entity."

"Indeed?" said Pok. "I would like to hear more of this. And about your journey, Captain. My ship will be able to rendezvous at your position in less than one hour."

"I look forward to it, Daimon," Janeway replied, pleasantly surprised by how agreeable the Ferengi captain was being. As soon as the transmission ceased, she turned to look at the skeptical face of her first officer.

"Well, that was the last response I expected," said a very puzzled Chakotay. "This Ferengi captain sounded almost…friendly. What do you think Pok is playing at?"

"Prudence," she answered. "I’m guessing he scanned our offensive capabilities and concluded he could catch more flies with honey."

"Nevertheless, Captain," Tuvok said calmly, "I would urge caution in allowing any of the Ferengi crew access to Voyager."

"Captain," Neelix came forward in concern, "you aren’t seriously going to invite these people onto the ship, are you? Remember what happened the last time we had Ferengi on board?"

"Relax, everyone. I intend to take every precaution. I’ll limit our visitors to their senior most officers. B’Elanna, you and Seven analyze the Precious Find‘s computer systems. In case we have to fight, I’ll want an offensive capability of last resort. And Tuvok, post extra guards to Engineering, just to be safe." Looking around at her crew, she offered up a smile of enthusiasm. "Well, don’t just stand around, people. We’re about to have guests come pay us a visit."

The small Corsair pulled up alongside Voyager, displaying the forward crescent-shaped earth tone colored hull that was typical of Ferengi ship design. Daimon Pok and his two senior officers beamed aboard in short order.

The Senior Staff was assembled there to greet them in Transporter Room One, along with four security guards. Harry stood especially close to Seven of Nine, feeling somewhat overprotective in the presence of their visitors. It was an irrational response, since she certainly didn’t need his protection. But Seven seemed touched by it anyway.

As the three Ferengi materialized on the platform, Janeway sized them up. It was difficult for humans to judge age in a Ferengi. They lacked hair, of course, and usually didn’t show any wrinkling or drooping of the earlobes until they were quite elderly. But Janeway got the impression that Pok was quite young for a daimon, with an eager and curious expression that seemed uncharacteristic for a people known for their caginess. His two subordinates both seemed to be older than him. The one to his left was lean and tall for a Ferengi and definitely the oldest of the three, with a wolfish sneer, while the other was his exact physical opposite, short and plump and somewhat vacant-looking.

"Captain Janeway," the Ferengi greeted her, "I am Daimon Pok. My first officer, Fubin," he gestured to the slender one, "and my second officer, Geb," pointing to the squat one to his right.

Janeway returned his greeting and introduced her fellow officers, all the while looking over the three. Pok and Geb seemed to be taking everything in around them, not with a shifty look of calculation, but rather with a genuine sense of curiosity and wonder, as if they were honestly amazed to be on a ship that had traveled to the Delta Quadrant and back. Fubin, on the other hand, seemed to show an unmistakably hostile stance, particularly towards her, B’Elanna, and Seven. His eyes seemed to widen even further as B’Elanna listed the ship’s needs to get back to full operation. This one could be trouble, she thought.

"Daimon!" the Ferengi first officer cried with the gravelly voice they had first heard, "Surely you don’t intend to do business with a hew-mahn ship?! And led by a female, no less?"

"Be quiet, Fubin!" Pok shouted back. "If you weren’t so shortsighted, you’d see the potential for profit in this situation."

Fubin grumbled something softly that Janeway could not hear. Knowing how Ferengi traditionally treated their women, perhaps it was just as well.

"Captain Janeway," Pok continued, "I believed you mentioned something about repairs needed to your ship?"

"Well…yes, Daimon," she answered him, momentarily put off by his largesse. "And I greatly appreciate your offer of assistance."

"You do realize, of course, that we expect to be compensated for any parts we provide for you," Pok said forthrightly. "But then, I’m sure that given how far your vessel has traveled, you no doubt have acquired a great many valuable and unique items."

"I would expect nothing less," she answered with a smile. "And I must say, I’m most gratified by your…" She almost said the word ‘generosity’ but quickly held her tongue. She knew that to a Ferengi, such a word would be considered a harsh insult. "…Candor," she said instead.

"I feel it to be only appropriate," he answered her, "considering the relationship that exists between our two peoples."

"I was not aware of such a relationship," Tuvok spoke from Janeway’s side, "beyond the basic exchange of diplomatic courtesies."

"Oh, that’s right. You people have been away for a while, haven’t you?" said Pok. "Our governments have now formed a much closer association. The Grand Nagus has even proposed a formal alliance of mutual-assistance."

Janeway saw the sneer on Fubin’s face grow even sourer. He almost looked ready to spit on the floor.

"An alliance?" Tom Paris almost let out a laugh. "I can’t imagine a cautious old fox like Zek getting off the fence and committing to a treaty on paper."

"Oh, Zek retired almost a year ago," Pok said, almost with a chuckle. "We have a new Nagus now. One who is looking to bring Ferrenginar and the Federation closer together."

"Wow, I guess a lot has changed while we’ve been away," Chakotay shook his head in surprise.

"Y-you don’t know the half of it," Geb spoke up, revealing a slight stutter in his voice. "W-what with the w-war and everything."

"War?" Janeway said in mild confusion. "I assume you’re referring to the conflict between the Federation and this…Dominion. We heard briefly that there were problems back home."

"Problems?!" Pok said incredulously. "It was only the most disruptive conflict the quadrant has seen in the last…oh, maybe a thousand years!"

"T-terrible for business," Geb said, shaking his head sadly. "T-trade routes were disrupted, fortunes were lost."

"Speak for yourself, Geb," Fubin grinned widely, showing his teeth for the first time. "My cousin was an arms merchant and he made out like a pirate!" Janeway wasn’t sure what she found more unsettling, Fubin’s scowl or his smile.

"I see we have a lot to catch up on," she answered unsteadily, concerned about the details of this terrible conflict she was now just learning about. "In the meantime, I’d be happy to provide for you a list of the parts we need."

"Captain," Fubin spoke up, obviously trying to hide his distaste behind a phony smile. "If it’s assistance you need, I’m sure we could beam several of our engineers over to have a look at…"

"I don’t think that will be necessary," B’Elanna stated, her arms folded, giving the Ferengi a long, intimidating stare. "Our people can handle the workload."

"Of course," Fubin replied with acid on his tongue.

"Commander," Janeway said, turning to Chakotay, "why don’t you and Lieutenant Torres sit down with Mr. Fubin and go over our requirements. Seeing as how he’s so eager to aid us." She smiled with satisfaction. Between Chakotay and B’Elanna, Fubin would be sufficiently intimidated to stay in line and not attempt any disruption.

The Ferengi first officer almost seemed to shiver at the prospect. Yes, Janeway thought, she had chosen wisely.

"Harry," she said, turning to her Ops officer, "why don’t you, Seven and Neelix discuss with Mr. Geb some of our trade inventory. I’m sure we can locate something that our new associates can find a use for." Anticipating the possible need for trade, Neelix had come up with a list of items, both cultural and technological, that the Ferengi might find valuable in exchange for parts and information. Of course, several of the more critical technologies they discovered, especially anything associated with the Borg, were omitted from the list.

"Excellent, Captain," Pok concurred. "This will afford us an opportunity to discuss any…diplomatic matters."

She nodded graciously, as she left the room with Daimon Pok. Tuvok and two security guards remained close by. If Pok noticed or cared about the armed escort, he didn’t seem to show it.

"You’ll have to excuse Fubin," said the Ferengi captain. "He’s from the old school. It’s frustrating enough for him to be assigned to a twenty-year old crate patrolling the ass-end of space, taking orders from a daimon half his age. He never did find the big score, not that it surprises me. But what makes it worse for him is everything happening back home. It isn’t easy when they change the rules on you and you don’t know how to adapt." He then shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, I didn’t have the luxury of picking my own crew."

"Well, Daimon, I have to admit this wasn’t the response I was expecting from your ship," she said.

"I imagine not, Janeway," said Pok, a bit more casually this time. "No doubt you’re wondering what kind of plan I’ve got in store for you. But rest assured I’m not plotting anything against you or your ship. In fact, quite the opposite. I have a vested interest in seeing you returned to the Federation safe and sound."

"Indeed?" Tuvok arched a skeptical eyebrow.

"Quite. You see, the Ferengi Alliance doesn’t have an equivalent to Starfleet. Our ships are run as independent businesses, with the FCA handing out postings based whether or not you can afford to buy your way in. The bigger the ship, the more it costs, not to mention the greater the opportunity for profit. Now, I happen to be very good at what I do. But even in the New Ferrenginar, mere competency isn’t enough. You need either wealth or patronage to get ahead, of which I have neither. But your Voyager can change all that for me."

"And how might that happen?" Janeway asked.

"Grand Nagus Rom would love to push that treaty of friendship through the Congress of Economic Advisors. But there are enough old-money types in the FCA who are wary about having your people too involved in our business, not unless someone can demonstrate that the alliance would be profitable for us. But if I help the famous starship Voyager get back home, then I come off looking like a hero. Our crews become a positive example of Federation-Ferengi cooperation, and I’ll probably be granted an audience with the Nagus himself. No doubt I’ll be handsomely rewarded for my efforts, perhaps even with a command over a Marauder and a proper crew, instead of the dregs I’m stuck with now. And the FCA would be especially generous if your superiors were to be grateful enough to share the prizes of your journey with my people, such as your new propulsion system."

"New propulsion system?" Janeway tried to mask her concern. "I’m afraid I don’t…"

"Oh, you can drop that line about a friendly transcendent life-form, Janeway. It’s obvious your ship has found some new way to travel between the quadrants rapidly."

Janeway flushed momentarily with embarrassment at having been caught in a lie. "I apologize for the deception, Daimon," she said flustered. "You can understand my need to be cautious."

"Of course. I’d expect the exact same thing from another Ferengi. But as I said, I’m not plotting anything against you, as much as that might gall Fubin."

"I presume that your first officer did not agree with your decision to take the high road on this matter?" Tuvok inquired.

"No, but my reasons were entirely practical. My people may be good at financing new technologies, but research and development is not one of our strong points. Assuming by some chance my lobe-less crew managed to find a way to steal your new engine, what would we do with it? The best scientists and researchers in the quadrant are you Federation types. If we were to work with you instead of against you, the profits from this new technology would be made available much sooner. And it’s the opportunities this new engine will provide, not the engine itself, that will prove to be the real score."

Janeway had to admire the way this Pok thought. He showed remarkable foresight for someone from a race that generally valued quick and easy profits over long-term gain. Perhaps there was something to this ‘New Ferrenginar’ after all.

"Of course, you realize that if I had been in command of a Marauder instead of a Corsair, things might have turned out somewhat differently," he added with a wicked smile, baring teeth so sharp that Janeway understood why earlier rumors about the Ferengi had them mistakenly labeled as cannibals. It was unnerving after having just sung his praises that she had to realize he still held to a value system different from her own. "Oh, don’t take it personally, Janeway. I believe in the profitability of a relationship between our two governments as much as anyone. But I’d have been a damn fool to walk away from easy money."

Harry didn’t mind working with the stubby little Ferengi Geb, if only he wouldn’t keep staring at his girlfriend all the time.

It had been three days since the Ferengi had rendezvoused with them, and the parts they managed to trade for had saved much valuable time in Voyager‘s repair efforts. The subspace amplitude shunt that he and Seven had just installed had only cost them a copy of the schematics of a Vidiian medical tricorder and two milligrams of collapsed matter warp plasma.

For the most part, their partnership was working out well. There had been only one incident of significance, when the first officer, Fubin, had been caught by B’Elanna trying to record images of Voyager‘s warp core. The chief engineer had ‘politely’ asked him to leave, without putting a hand on him.

Whatever she said, it must have been effective. Apparently, Maintenance was still trying to clean up the skid marks Fubin had left behind.

In the meantime, Harry and Seven were receiving and installing parts damaged by their last transwarp shift, and had been assigned to work with Geb. Oh, he had a fine grasp of technical matters and he seemed like a decent enough fellow. But somehow, the sight of Seven of Nine in her tight unitards would drive him to distraction. Of course, not that Harry could blame him. He had reacted to her the same way when he had first started working with her. Oh well, Harry supposed, even Ferengi were only human.

He found himself in Astrometrics, wondering how this timid guy ever managed to achieve an officer’s position within a culture that praised ambition above all else. Beyond matters of engineering, Geb seemed to be totally out of his league.

"Yes," concurred Seven of Nine, when he shared his thoughts with her, "An objective analysis would demonstrate that Mr. Geb is not the most efficient drone within his unimatrix."

"Huh?" said Harry, puzzled by her use of Borg metaphors.

"I was paraphrasing a remark often used by Tom Paris," she explained, "something regarding sharp tools and sheds. I was attempting to craft…a joke."

"A joke?"

"Yes, I am practicing the art of humor, so that I may be prepared for social intercourse upon our return to the Federation. You did not find my joke amusing?"

"W-what? Oh, of course I did, beautiful. It was…um, very cute."

"You need not lie for my benefit, Harry," she said sadly. "Clearly my effort was not successful."

"Seven," he reached over, caressing her hand. "You don’t have to try so hard. And you don’t have to go out of your way to impress people. All you have to do is be you. I’m sure people will adore you just for that."

"Are certain that will be so?" she asked skeptically.

"Hey, it was those qualities that I fell in love with, wasn’t it?" he replied with a warm smile, one that spread to Seven’s lovely face as well.

Their conversation was interrupted by the eager squeals of delight coming from the back of the room. Neelix came rushing in excitedly.

"Have you heard the good news?!" the Talaxian chattered. "They managed to get the subspace transceivers back up to full power. B’Elanna even managed to boost their signal strength!"

"We know," Harry laughed. "We helped her with the work, remember?"

"Then I suppose you heard that we received a response to our hails?"

No, they hadn’t, Harry thought, as his face grew serious. "W-what? You mean, from Starfleet?"

"Yes!" Neelix beamed, looking ready to jump up and down. "I was on the bridge just twenty minutes ago when they sent the reply signal via the Starfleet subspace communications network. They’re routing a signal from Starfleet Command to the Captain even as we speak!"

"My god…" Harry mumbled, before turning to his sweetheart. "It’s really happening. It’s really, really happening."

"Yes, Harry, it is. Perhaps now I should practice my jokes with greater urgency."

Kathryn Janeway sat eagerly at the desk in her ready room, awaiting the transmission from Starfleet HQ. At last, the message they had long been waiting for, the one that would tell them, once and for all, that they had made it home…

The chime from her desk display interrupted her musings. The Great Seal of the United Federation of Planets popped up on her screen, and then replaced by the warm and comforting face of Admiral Jacob Patterson.

"My god…Katie, it really is you? I never thought I would be seeing you again. It’s a miracle!"

"I feel the same way, Admiral."

"Please, Kathryn. You’ve been gone for almost six years. I remember a time when you used to call me Uncle Jacob."

"I think I stopped doing that when I was twelve," she laughed.

The two shared the moment of joy, pleased at being reunited again after so much time and space. Jacob Patterson had been her father’s best friend since their academy days together, and had been her instructor in astrophysics at the Academy. There was probably nobody at Starfleet Command who knew her better.

"You don’t know how worried we’ve been here. We tried to reestablish communications via the Pathfinder Project a week ago, but we were never able to set up a connection. Voyager wasn’t where we expected it to be. We all feared the worst."

"Well as you can see, we managed to find a shortcut home."

"Yes, an absolute miracle! Starfleet is all abuzz about this new technology you’re bringing back. I hope the Ferengi haven’t been giving you any trouble."

"Oh, not at all. Daimon Pok has been…well, not exactly a gentleman, but at least helpful. Even if it is for his own ends."

"And your current status?"

"Repairs are coming along on the warp drive. We should be back up to maximum warp capability within another day or two."

"I guess that’s the best that can be hoped for. But you’ll be pleased to know that the U.S.S. MacArthur is being diverted to meet up with you. They’ll provide any assistance you need and escort Voyager along to Deep Space Nine for evaluation."

Janeway’s eyebrows were raised in surprise. How ironic that Voyager‘s journey was going to end exactly where it had started. "Deep Space Nine? Isn’t that a bit off from our current position? Deep Space Three is a lot closer."

Patterson’s eyes cast downward before he continued to speak. "I’m afraid that Deep Space Three is still being rebuilt. The Breen hit them pretty hard during the war."

"The Breen?" Janeway gasped in alarm. She knew of the fearsome reputation of that mysterious race and was surprised to hear that they too were involved. "They were a part of this war also?"

"Oh, yes. The Dominion, the Cardassians, the Breen, the Son’a …it was a veritable gallery of rogues. How much have the Ferengi told you about the war?"

"Only that it was pretty bad. A few details here and there. I’m afraid the Ferengi don’t hand out information for free, and we have more critical items we need to trade for."

"Well, I’m sure that Captain Minghala will get you and your crew up to speed by the time you arrive at DS9."

"Speaking of my crew, Jacob, there’s something we need to discuss urgently. Chakotay and the other Maquis, they’ve all been a valuable part of this crew and the service they’ve performed for the Federation…"

Patterson smiled as he held up his hand in a calming manner. "Relax, Kathryn. You’ll be pleased to know that after the war, the President issued a general amnesty for all Maquis not involved in crimes directly against the Federation. That includes Chakotay and all his people. With the fighting over, we need to begin the healing process among our own kind."

"An amnesty? That’s wonderful news!" she bubbled with delight. A part of her had been worried that even after all this time, the Federation might still choose to pursue its case against the surviving members of the Maquis movement. "I imagine the Cardassians must have been furious."

Again, there came the cryptic, downward glance of the admiral’s eyes. He seemed almost…sad. "The Cardassians…aren’t really in a position to object to anything right now."

She decided that she would definitely need to learn more about what had happened while Voyager was away when the MacArthur arrived.

"There is, however, one additional matter we need to address, Kathryn."

"Of course," she said.

"According to your last log transmission, you said you have…a Borg drone…among your crew?" A chill went down Janeway’s spine. She decidedly did not like the way Patterson had said the words ‘Borg drone.’

"That’s correct," she said firmly. "Seven of Nine. And she’s human, Admiral." It was ‘admiral’ now, she subtly realized. "We freed her from the Collective and she’s now a valued member of this crew."

"I’m sure. But I’m afraid that Starfleet Command will want to evaluate her before we can make a final determination of her status."

"Starfleet will determine…? Admiral, what exactly are you saying?"

Patterson stiffened as he sat up in his chair, looking far more official now. "Captain Janeway, upon your arrival at DS9, the Borg crewmember in question is to remain confined to the ship and will not be permitted to disembark."

"Sir, are you saying that Seven of Nine is under arrest? She hasn’t committed any crime!"

"It’s not an arrest; it’s…a precautionary measure. At least until it can be ascertained what kind of a threat she poses. And since you’ve already given her free run of Voyager, it doesn’t make sense to place her in the brig. Confinement to the ship will do. Furthermore, she will not be permitted access to any secure systems, pending a final review."

"A review from whom?"

"Starfleet will be assembling a flag-level committee to be dispatched to DS9 as soon as we’ve had the chance to look over all relevant information. We will then interview the woman herself, take depositions from experts and all acquainted parties, and then issue a final report to the Joint Chiefs."

"We? Then you’ll be assigned to this committee as well?" she asked. Patterson nodded solemnly.

"Admiral, this is wrong. Believe me when I tell you that Seven isn’t a threat to anyone. She’s a human being!"

"Then she’ll have a chance to prove it, when the committee convenes. I’m sorry, Kathryn, but this comes directly from the CinC himself." His countenance softened once again as he saw the hurt in Janeway’s eyes. "I’m sure…everything will work out fine. I’ll see you at DS9 shortly. Patterson out."

And with that, the transmission ended. Janeway was left in silence, pondering the message she had just received. How many times had she told Seven of Nine about the love and acceptance she would expect to find when she returned to the welcoming arms of her own kind? Still, she believed in Starfleet and what it stood for. It’s just a precaution, she reassured herself. It’s no different than the safety measures she took with the Ferengi. Trust, but verify. Once this committee sees that Seven was not the fearsome drone they pictured her to be, Janeway thought, she would seen as the wonderful human being she had blossomed into. At least, that’s what she hoped.

Captain Janeway slapped her combadge and tried to mask her regret with forced enthusiasm. "Attention all hands, this is the captain. I’m pleased to announce that I have just spoken to Admiral Patterson of Starfleet Command. The U.S.S. MacArthur has just been assigned to meet with us, assist in our repair efforts, and escort us to Deep Space Nine. This is indeed a momentous day for us all, a day we have all been wishing for these past six years."

And how did that old proverb go? she thought bitterly. Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

"I don’t believe this!" an outraged Harry Kim sputtered. "They can’t actually do that, can they?!"

"I’m afraid that they can, Harry," Janeway sighed. "Starfleet has the authority to deny embarkation rights to any individual suspected of being a potential danger to others." She was seated on the couch in her ready room, looking over at the two young lovers. Seven of Nine was sitting across from her, her face a stony mask, imperturbable. She had expected the willful ex-drone to be the one angered by the news of Starfleet’s decision. Certainly Seven had never shied away from expressing her opinions in the past. But this time, she said nothing, merely taking in the news without comment. It was Harry who was pacing about the room furiously.

"But isn’t Deep Space Nine a Bajoran facility?" he demanded. "Wouldn’t they have the final say as to who can or can’t arrive in port?"

"According to Daimon Pok, Bajor was formally admitted to the Federation eight months ago. Deep Space Nine is now officially a Federation Starbase. I’m sorry, Harry, but I’m afraid Starfleet’s authority here is legitimate."

"But it’s not right!" he insisted.

"Maybe not, Harry," she said regretfully, "But it’s legal."

Harry slumped down into the nearest seat, his shoulders slack, his face looking beaten. "How can they do this? Why are they punishing Seven like this?"

Janeway leaned over, her voice sympathetic to Harry’s anguish. "I’m not going to excuse their actions, Harry. But try and see it from their perspective. While we were gone, the Borg attacked Earth a second time and nearly altered human history to their liking. Starfleet is frightened. They hear the word ‘Borg’ and they immediately picture some rampaging monster. They don’t know Seven the way we do." She then turned to the young blonde woman sitting next to her, who had been silent up until now. "I’m so sorry about this, Seven. This wasn’t the welcoming I was hoping you’d receive. But I’m sure that once Starfleet realizes everything you’ve done for this crew and how far you’ve come in regaining your humanity, they’ll accept you and welcome you with open arms."

Seven then looked up at Captain Janeway, her voice bitter, and her eyes cold. "How fortunate that you have vested a single organization with the authority to determine who is or who is not human."

"Seven…" Janeway pleaded.

"Do not be concerned about me, Captain. I will comply with Starfleet’s instructions," she said with resignation.

"No!" Harry cried out. "Seven, they’re punishing you just because you were a Borg! It’s…it’s unjust! You shouldn’t have to take this…"

"Perhaps they believe this is justice, Harry," she replied sadly as she turned to look at him tenderly. "I am responsible for a great many crimes."

"That’s not true!" he pleaded with her. "Nobody could possibly hold you responsible for the things you did as a drone."

"Starfleet clearly does," she countered. "Why else would I be viewed as a danger?"

"Because…" Harry struggled for an answer, but he could not find one.

"Listen to me, both of you," Janeway said. "I intend to fight this as hard as I can through whatever resources I can muster. But Harry, whatever happens, we have to remember that ultimately we’re Starfleet officers. If we’re going to oppose this, it has to be done through proper channels. We’re not on our own anymore. There are people we have to answer to and there are consequences to our actions."

"Yes, ma’am," he answered without conviction.

"Harry," she said in a warm, motherly tone, trying to be reassuring, "it’s all going to work out. Trust me on this. You two will have your chance to walk down that aisle together."

The young man, in spite of his frustration, let a weak smile pass his lips. "I know we will, Captain. And I apologize about losing control like that. It’s just…"

"Perfectly understandable, Ensign," Janeway answered with a smile. "Just don’t lose hope."

Harry and Seven left the captain’s ready room without saying a word, ignoring the puzzled looks of everyone on the bridge, until they got into the turbolift and the doors closed behind them.

Then, in an unexpected move, Harry’s face twisted in rage as he made a fist and slammed it furiously into the turbolift wall. Seven jumped back in alarm at her mate’s sudden anger.

"Damn it!" Harry growled, as he rubbed his fist, which was now throbbing in pain as a result of his outburst.

"Harry! What purpose did that just serve?" She then reached over to cradle his hand, stroking it gently, attempting to ease his pain. The tension seemed to ease from his body as she touched him.

"Seven, I…" he groaned, as much from the pain as the pleasure. "I didn’t know it was going to turn out like this."

"You are not to blame for Starfleet’s chosen course of action," she said.

"But I was the one who told you how everyone would welcome you home!" said Harry. "I never imagined that any of this would happen."

"We do not know how events will transpire, Harry," she said softly. "It is possible that this committee will reach a favorable conclusion after only a brief deliberation."

"Yeah, I suppose its possible," he groaned. But he didn’t quite believe things would go that easily.

The excitement among the crew grew to a fever pitch as the U.S.S. MacArthur was spotted on long-range sensors the next day. The Akira Class starship had been on a deep space patrol when the call had come through from Starfleet regarding the miraculous return of the starship Voyager. MacArthur arrived on the scene at maximum warp and quickly took up a position alongside Voyager and the Precious Find. The MacArthur was almost as large as the two smaller ships combined and a whole lot better armed, which served as a further reminder for the Ferengi to behave themselves. With the help of the additional Starfleet engineers, Voyager‘s warp drive was quickly restored to full working order for its return to Deep Space Nine.

The arrival of MacArthur crew was an occasion for a formal celebration and numerous tours about the ship and tales of Voyager‘s adventures in the Delta Quadrant. Oh, they seemed friendly enough, Harry thought, even if they were a bit more restrained than the officers he was used to working with were. And they seemed genuinely fascinated by the accounts of Voyager‘s travels, and even more impressed by the fact of their survival. But Harry Kim wasn’t much in the mood for celebration these days.

The one thing that had struck him right away as soon as Captain Ramesh Minghala and his officers beamed aboard was how much the Starfleet uniforms had changed since Voyager‘s disappearance. In contrast to the cheery multicolor variety of Voyager‘s crew attire, the uniforms of the MacArthur crew were a colorless duotone of gray and black. Despite the varying ethnicities and species of each crewmember, they looked almost interchangeable while in uniform. Just watching a group of them walking down the corridors together was extremely disquieting to Harry.

Harry threw himself fully into his work with the engineering repair staff, anything to keep himself from dwelling on his anger and frustration with Starfleet’s mistreatment of his Seven. But his heart would ache whenever he returned to her side, a reminder of the all-too-real possibility that Starfleet might decide to take her away from him.

He didn’t know where this anger and frustration was coming from. Perhaps it was disappointment as much as a desire to protect the woman he loved. To him, Starfleet had always represented the best of what his civilization had to offer, the brightest and most capable individuals all pledged into service to the Federation and each other. If this was how ‘the best and the brightest’ of his people were responding to Seven, he could only imagine how the rest of society would react to his wanting to marry a former Borg drone. He could see signs of this same bias among the MacArthur officers, manifesting itself in the odd stares and whispered conversations that seemed to take place whenever Seven entered the room.

Of course, the crew of Voyager had reacted the exact same way when Seven had first come aboard. During those early months, she had been an object of fear, gossip and eerie fascination. Only forced circumstances and Captain Janeway’s orders had allowed Seven the opportunity to prove herself to her new shipmates and be accepted as one of the crew. And naturally, Seven was progressed far beyond the cold-hearted drone she had once been. But what if Starfleet didn’t give her the chance to prove herself? What if fear and suspicion won out over compassion?

One could argue the same thing about whether or not the Maquis would receive an equally fair treatment once they returned home. True, they were now pardoned for their crimes, but Harry remembered how deeply divisive the Maquis issue had been back in his Academy days. More than a few fistfights had broken out over the question of whether or not they were noble revolutionaries or selfish criminals.

A presidential pardon could buy you freedom, Harry figured acidly, but not necessarily respect.

But Harry was not the only one who had found unhappiness with the arrival of the MacArthur. Far from it, as the crew had learned the unpalatable truth about the war they had missed out on while lost in the Delta Quadrant.

The ‘Dominion War,’ they were calling it. And as the Ferengi had indicated, it had indeed been the most destructive and brutal war in all of Federation history. The estimates for casualties were in excess of two billion dead. The numbers of wounded and ship losses were staggering. Indeed, the Dominion War had become the bloodiest conflict that humanity had ever participated in, even exceeding the carnage of the Third World War.

The Maquis crew was especially hard hit when the full facts of the past six years became available to everyone. They knew for some time that their colleagues had been wiped out by the Dominion in just five days. But the full scale of what had taken place back home was much greater than the letters from home had revealed. Some of the worst fighting of the war had taken place along the Federation/Cardassian Demilitarized Zone. The ruthless soldiers of the Dominion, the Jem’Hadar, had rendered entire planets uninhabitable during the course of the fighting. Even Cardassia Prime itself had been bombed into ruins, with death tolls at over 800 million, leading to the occupation and virtual dissolution of the Cardassian Union.

Harry had briefly panicked upon learning that the Dominion’s Breen allies had managed to launch a sneak attack against Earth itself, targeting Starfleet facilities in San Francisco. He feared for the well being of his parents, but was relieved to discover that the Breen attack had been limited to Starfleet HQ and a few landmarks in central city itself, including the Golden Gate Bridge. Civilian casualties had been negligible and the bombings had been nowhere near his parents’ home in Monterey. It was only after the initial relief had worn off that he realized shamefully that probably people he knew from the Academy had died in that attack.

But he could see how the aftermath of that war had changed things back home. The MacArthur was evidence enough of that. Her crew almost seemed to march down the halls in strict formation, rather than saunter easily the way Voyager‘s crew did. None of them seemed to refer to each other by their first names at all. Everyone was addressed either as ‘sir’ or by his or her rank, a stark contrast to the casual familiarity that Harry had become accustomed to these past six years. Granted, he knew that Voyager‘s separation from Starfleet Command these past six years had contributed to a more easy-going atmosphere, as opposed to one more spit-and-polished. But even so, the differences between the two were startling.

These weren’t explorers or scientists, Harry realized. They had become something that Starfleet had always strenuously denied being in the past, something that they never were intended to be.

The MacArthur was a ship of soldiers.

"I’ve always believed that the traditional approach is always the best," the Doctor gushed as he tapped away at the touch screen by his desk. With that, a holographic image of a billowing white wedding dress flickered into existence, floating in mid air in front of Harry and Seven. "There, now. Doesn’t that just evoke a sense of elegance and refinement?"

"It looks most inefficient," Seven commented. "I do not require such an abundance of material."

"But Seven, you’re missing the point," said the Doctor. "A wedding is about creating a lasting impression, something that your guests and loved ones will always remember."

"Harry?" said Seven of Nine next to him. "Does this not meet with your satisfaction?"

"H-huh?" he snapped back from his brooding, back to his present surroundings. Tom was leaning back against the wall, smirking with amusement.

"Do you feel that this dress is acceptable for our wedding?" she asked.

"Seven," he groaned, "I thought we were here to talk about how we were going to present your case before this committee." The purpose in coming to sickbay was to prepare Seven’s medical files to demonstrate how far her evolution towards humanity had proceeded. Yet somehow, the Doctor had managed to bring up his designs for Seven’s wedding dress into the conversation.

"Well, if you insist on putting off the most important part of the wedding, Ensign, that’s your choice," the Doctor sniffed. "We can at least discuss what my musical selections are going to be."

"Musical selections?" Harry eyed Seven, expecting an explanation.

"The Doctor requested that he be permitted to sing at the ceremony. I concurred."

"Seven!" he said in exasperation. "I wish you would take this more seriously."

"Take it easy, Har," Tom said, looking relaxed. "I’m sure this thing isn’t going to be as bad as you think."

"That’s easy for you to say!" Harry snapped back. "The woman you love got a pardon!" But he immediately regretted his harsh words, spoken in the heat of frustration. "Tom, I…I didn’t mean that. It’s just…"

"I know, I know," Tom said calmly. "It’s OK. Believe me, Harry, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Starfleet is just being cautious. Nobody’s looking to railroad Seven."

"How can you be sure?" said Harry.

"Look, Harry. The captain is on a first name basis with half the admirals in Starfleet Command, and the ones she doesn’t know, my dad probably plays poker with. I’ll just have a talk with Dad, ask him to help out Seven," Tom said, gesturing towards the ex-Borg, "and between him and Janeway, we’ll have enough pull to move this committee along in no time."

Seven’s eyes lit up as her face warmed with delight and surprise in Tom Paris’ direction. "You would do this for me?"

"Of course," Tom answered with a friendly grin. "It’s the least I can do for a friend."

Seven of Nine smiled in response. She had always regarded Tom Paris as among her closest associates aboard Voyager. Even the relationship with his wife had grown friendlier in the past few months. They were most definitely Harry’s best friends, which she supposed made them her best friends as well by association. She found that it suited matters quite nicely.

"I’m telling you, Harry," Tom went on to say, "this whole mess, it’s probably just a formality."

Harry sighed deeply, not really believing that, but wanting to nonetheless. "You really think so?"

"Why of course, he is," the Doctor answered floridly, looking on the young couple with affection. "Nothing can stand in the face of true love."

At that moment, the door whooshed open, and a slim woman in her late thirties with short dark hair wearing one of the MacArthur‘s uniforms entered the room. "Excuse me, is there an Ensign Tom Paris here?" she asked.

"That’s me," Tom answered.

"Ensign, I’m Doctor Amalea Chen, MacArthur‘s Chief Medical Officer," she introduced herself. "I’m told that you’re Voyager‘s field medic."

"For lack of any more qualified candidates, yes," Tom replied with a sheepish grin.

"Then you’re definitely the man I want to see. I was hoping you’d be able to assist me in sorting through your crew’s medical files. Starfleet wants an update on the health of everyone on Voyager after being away for so long."

"Ah, Dr. Chen," the Doctor came forward in an obsequious manner, "I was wondering when I was going to have an opportunity to confer with my colleague from the MacArthur. I would more than happy to…"

Chen gave the hologram a momentary look of surprise. "Oh, that’s right. You’re the EMH they’ve been using."

The Doctor was momentarily taken aback at being so casually referred to. "I’m Voyager‘s Chief Medical Officer, if that’s what you mean."

Looking to support her mentor, Seven spoke up forcefully. "I believe that you will wish to speak with the Doctor to seek what you require."

Chen looked at the young woman with obvious interest. "Ah, and you must be Seven of Nine. Fascinating. I’d like to make a special appointment with you later for my report to Starfleet." She then looked over at Tom with amusement. "And I think Ensign Paris is more than capable of assisting me. I’d trust a field medic over a Mark One any day."

"You’ll what?!" replied the Doctor, now sounding more than a bit miffed. "I beg your pardon!"

Chen almost laughed as she rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Doctor, but we won’t be needing you anymore. Computer, deactivate Emergency Medical Hologram."

"But I…" the hologram tried to say, but was cut off in mid sentence as his program switched off.

All three Voyager crewmembers were slack jawed with alarm. To ignore the Doctor was bad enough, but to simply dismiss him so casually? "Uh, Doctor Chen," said Tom, "don’t you think that was kind of harsh?"

"I don’t know how you people managed it," Chen said as she leaned over the Doctor’s console, scanning through his medical files. "We’ve got a Mark Three on MacArthur and we can’t stand the damn thing. How you guys were able to put up with a Mark One for six years straight is beyond me. Their performance levels during the war were abysmal, and that was with nearby support. I can only imagine the number of procedures your EMH botched up over the years."

"Hey, the Doc’s done a fine job!" Harry stated proudly. "I’ll admit his bedside manner could use some improvement, but he’s as capable as any human doctor I’ve ever met."

Chen then looked up in surprise from the console, and looked at Harry oddly. "Ensign…Kim, isn’t it? Ensign, I know you people have been lost for a long time, and its not uncommon for people who have been isolated to start thinking of inanimate objects as people. But holograms aren’t people, they’re equipment, ordinance." She then smiled at him with greater warmth. "Besides, a true healer has to be able to empathize with their patient, to be able to offer them comfort. That’s not something you can program into a machine. It has to come from the soul."

"There is no physical evidence for the existence of the soul, despite human literary insistence to the contrary," Seven stated emphatically. "And even were such a phenomenon to exist, I am certain that the Doctor would be as likely to possess one as any of us."

Chen gave the younger woman an amused smirk. "Well, I’m sure that may be how the Borg regard things, not respecting the boundary between the organic and the machine. But once you’ve come to live among humans again, you may start to see things a little differently. Besides, if a soul were something you could write a program for, what’s to prevent any of us from being replaced by machines?" The MacArthur doctor chuckled softly as she returned to the screen. "Emergency Medical Hologram," she chortled. "It would be a better acronym for Enemas Made Human."

Seven’s face grew hotter as she felt her fists ball up in fury, and was about to offer an angry retort, when Chen spoke up in alarm. "My god, look at all these data files! What did you people do to this hologram? Have you been letting it run continuously? During off hours? No wonder its been acting like it owned the place! It’s probably become delusional."

"The Doctor has chosen to expand beyond his original programming," Seven declared.

Chen looked up at Seven in alarm. "Your EMH modified itself? And you just let it? Do you have any idea just how dangerous that is? Those Mark Ones are twitchy enough as it is. Who knows what one of those might change itself into?" She then bent over to the monitor with a renewed urgency. "Look at all of this useless clutter," she said as she read off the file names downloaded from the Doctor’s holographic matrix. "Opera performances, photography, classical literature, dating rituals?!" she said incredulously. "There’s something in here called ‘cognitive projections.’ Just what’s that doing here?"

"Um, it’s a daydreaming program," said Tom, looking more and more uncomfortable with where things were going. "The Doc wanted to be able to daydream."

"Daydreaming?" Chen looked up again, staring at everyone in disbelief. "What would a hologram possibly need to daydream about?"

"Believe me," Harry answered with mixed enthusiasm, "you don’t want to know." He then observed as she tapped a few keys on the console, which made Harry increasingly nervous. "Um, Dr. Chen, what exactly are you doing?"

"I’m setting up a link to the EMH matrix on MacArthur. With all of that junk in its database, your EMH system could be a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. And while I’m at it, your system is badly in need of an upgrade. I’d like to take care of that, if I can. Goodness, someone even deleted the diagnostic subprogram! Now who…?"

"No!" Seven cried out, and then blurred towards the physician with her enhanced reflexes. Before Chen could reach for the ‘execute’ command, the former drone grabbed Chen’s arm with her Borg-enhanced grip, pulling it away from the LCARS panel. "You will not alter the Doctor in any way!" Seven ordered.

"What the hell?!" Chen stammered, confused by the pain spreading through her forearm and the speed of events. But she quickly regained control of herself, and projected her voice to one of enraged authority. "Let go of me! Now!"

"Seven, please!" Harry cried out loudly, running up to her. "Let her go. You’ll just get yourself into trouble!"

But Chen would not wait for Harry’s pleas to take effect, as she turned furiously towards the two male officers, giving them both an authoritative glare. "Ensigns! Get this…Borg…off of me!"

But neither of them raised a hand to pull Seven off of her. Harry was alarmed at Seven’s emotional reaction, but he restricted himself to hovering over her, urging her to let go of her own volition. Tom on the other hand simply folded his arms and gave a crooked smile of satisfaction.

"Ensign Paris!" Chen demanded, as Seven pushed her away from the console. "Aren’t you going to do something?"

"Yeah, I’m going to do something," he answered, as his smile turned harsh. "I’m going to toss you out on your bony ass if you try and mess with our doctor again."

As if on command, Seven relinquished her grip on Dr. Chen’s arm. The human doctor snatched it away from the younger woman, who she scowled at with deep antipathy. Chen’s eyes widened with shock, looking upon the Voyager crew like they were all lunatics. "What is wrong with you people?"

"Doctor," Harry said slowly, trying to restore calm to a situation that had gotten badly out of control. "I’m sorry about all of this. Seven was just trying to protect the Doctor. If you’ll let me explain…"

"You can all explain it all to your captain! This will be reported!" she bellowed. She then turned her focus on Seven. "Starfleet Command was right. You are dangerous!" And rubbing her arm, she stomped past them right out of Sick Bay and out into the hall.

Seven immediately called out as soon as Chen left the room. "Computer. Activate Emergency Medical Hologram."

The Doctor winked into physical form, right where he had left off in his conversation. "…am trying to tell you…" he said, before looking around and realizing the person he had been talking to was gone. "What happened? Did that…person…switch me off? How rude of her!"

"Doc, how are your systems running? Does it feel like anything was altered?" Harry said with concern.

"I don’t think so. I feel just as I did before. What’s going on here? What did she try to do to me?"

"To put it simply, Doc," Tom quipped, "you came damn close to regressing to your childhood." Glancing over at Harry and Seven, Tom continued on. "So, do you think we’re all in trouble, now?"

"If we are, Tom Paris," said Seven, "then it would be a state that we are not entirely unfamiliar with." Tom couldn’t help but be amused. Trouble was indeed a state he was indeed all too familiar with.

Captain Janeway, of course, was not amused in the slightest.

"What were you all thinking?!" she snapped. "We’re back in the Alpha Quadrant for just a few days and you assault a Starfleet officer?! Do you have any idea how furious Captain Minghala was?"

"Captain!" Tom protested. "She was going to lobotomize the Doc!"

"That is correct," said Seven defiantly. "The Doctor is a part of this crew and is entitled to the same protection from harm as any other humanoid crewmember."

Janeway scowled at Tom, Harry and Seven, who stood before her in her ready room. She got up from her desk and paced about the floor pensively, her eyes remaining locked on them the whole time. Chakotay stood off to the side, his arms folded, trying his best to stay out of the line of fire.

"Mr. Kim," said Janeway to Harry, "Is that how it went?"

"Absolutely, ma’am," the Ops officer replied. "If Seven hadn’t stepped in, Dr. Chen would have, well, taken away everything from the Doc that made him…well, the Doctor."

"Captain," Tom insisted, "it was the right thing to do."

"Maybe so, Mr. Paris," said Janeway, rolling her eyes, "I just wish you had handled the matter a bit more… diplomatically. Surely you must have known that Dr. Chen didn’t feel she was hurting a sentient being."

"That would have been cold comfort to the Doc if he had managed to get his mind wiped," Tom said fiercely.

But Janeway would have none of it. "You’re all just fortunate that Captain Minghala agreed with me that Dr. Chen exceeded her authority. That and the fact that Chen feels you’re all suffering from some kind of ‘deep space isolation syndrome’ or something. In any case, she’s agreed not to file charges."

Both Harry and Tom gave a deep sigh of relief, but Seven did not appear mollified. "In that case, will any formal charges be filed against Dr. Chen for her assault upon the Doctor?" she asked insolently.

"Don’t push it, Seven!" Janeway snapped at the younger woman, "Minghala wanted to have you tossed in the brig for what you did. I almost agreed with him. This certainly hasn’t helped your case with Starfleet and I wouldn’t be surprised if a report of this incident finds its way before the committee." She took in a deep breath, trying to steady herself, before continuing. "Dismissed, all of you."

Harry and Tom quickly filed out of the room, but Seven lingered for just a second or two behind them, casting at Janeway a long disapproving stare, until she too left with the others. Janeway did not take the bait, but instead flopped herself down at her desk, her face looking weary and drained.

Chakotay stood at his place, glancing at his captain. "You know they did the right thing, Kathryn. If it had been any other member of the crew in jeopardy…"

"I don’t want to hear it!" she cautioned him harshly. "I’ve enough to deal with just trying to figure out what’s going on with this…committee. I swear, Chakotay, I’ve never met anyone in my life who makes it more difficult for people to help her than Seven of Nine."

"Seven’s not the only one who needs our help," Chakotay said. "What about the Doctor? They’re not even going to bother with holding a hearing for him."

"What am I supposed to do, Chakotay? Go before the Federation Council and tell them that my Emergency Medical Hologram has become a sentient being?"

"It might just be as simple as that."

"There’s nothing simple about it. They’ll think I have deep space isolation syndrome," she replied excitedly. "These past few years, we’ve been dealing with the Doctor as though he actually were sentient. But how can we really know? And just how are we supposed to argue such an unknown?"

"So in other words, we’re been treating the Doctor as a person all these years just because we needed a physician. But now that he’s not indispensable anymore we just toss him aside? Kathryn, you know that’s not right! They’re saying that they’ve already progressed up to at least the EMH Mark Four. That means the Doctor isn’t just equipment now. He’s obsolete! And you know what they do to machinery that’s outlived its usefulness."

"I…" she tried to answer back, but was unable to come up with a response, then slumped her shoulders in defeat. "I know. The Doctor has given as much to this ship as anyone. I don’t know for certain if he’s a sentient being, but he deserves the chance to prove it." She let out a long, resigned sight. "I just haven’t the slightest idea of how I’m going to defend his right to exist without Starfleet thinking I’m crazy."

Chakotay’s face broke out into that warm, touching grin that caused his tattoo to crinkle. Funny, she thought, how she always noticed that.

"You won’t be alone, Kathryn," he said tenderly, as he came over and tentatively put his hand on her shoulder. Normally, she might have reacted to such forwardness on her first officer’s part. But now, she felt as though she needed his presence. Until recently, the past six years had been ones of steady routine, one where everyone’s roles had been strictly defined. Now, the journey was ending. The old rules were starting to get fuzzy. Everything was up for grabs now.

"Now," he continued, giving her a knowing look, "do you want to tell me what really has you so upset?"

"What makes you think…?"

"Come on, Kathryn," he said, "I know you too well. The way you bit Seven’s head off, how agitated you look. Something’s bothering you. It’s got to be more than being worried about this committee and Seven."

Silently and sadly, she reached across her desk and slid a PADD over in his direction. He picked it up, his eyes scanning a list of names and service records across the small screen. A few of the names had been highlighted, and he read them off. "Captain Rachel Antoinette…Commander Tizak Ur Bacaza…Captain Sato Masaki…" He looked up from the screen to see the wan expression on the face of his captain. "Friends of yours?"

Janeway nodded glumly. "From my days at the Academy."

Chakotay glanced down again at the PADD, scrolling back to the top of the list. "My god…these are casualty reports."

"From the Dominion War," she added, "courtesy of the MacArthur. At least I can understand now why Starfleet chose to keep us in the dark about the fighting." She then got up again from her desk to pace again.

"I know what you mean," he said in sympathy, before looking over the PADD and its grim report. "So many dead…it’s hard to believe. I thought things had been bad enough on the Maquis worlds."

At the mention of his home, Janeway spun towards him in concern. "Chakotay, I…I didn’t realize. Your tribe? They weren’t…"

"No, they’re safe, thank goodness. My colony wasn’t a prime military target. The Jem’Hadar just bombed our landing field and dropped metagenic defoliants on our crops. But the colony still stands, at least. We got off easy compared to most planets."

"My god…" she mumbled, still in disbelief at the brutality of the war that Voyager had conveniently missed out on. Quite absentmindedly, she sat down next to him on the sofa.

"Well, it doesn’t really matter anymore now, does it?" he said, trying to conceal the bitterness and regret in his voice for her sake. "The Maquis are gone and the Cardassian Union is in shambles. The treaty that started this whole mess is a moot issue now. I’m told the Federation officially annexed all the former DMZ colonies after the war, including a few Cardassian ones. We’re all Federation citizens again."

"But still…I’m so sorry, Chakotay. Here I am grieving for a few lost friends, and I never stopped to consider how much you lost. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling."

"Well, when I learned from the MacArthur crew the full details of what happened in the DMZ, I felt angry enough to take on the enemy myself. Then I found out about Cardassia Prime. I figured that 800 million dead is revenge enough for anyone." He then sat down besides the woman he had sworn to serve, moving closer into her personal space. "Besides, you don’t have to apologize to me. There’s nothing wrong with needing to experience grief for those you’ve loved and lost."

"I know, it’s just that…there’s a part of me that feels guilty."

"Guilty about what? Surviving?"

"No," she said softly, "Guilty about not being here when my Federation needed me most."

"Kathryn," he answered sympathetically, his hand dangerously close to hers. "We weren’t exactly vacationing on Risa these past six years. We were fighting for our lives just to get back home. We lost a lot of our friends along the way and it just as easily could have been all of us. And we have you to thank for keeping us going."

"No, Chakotay," she replied warmly, a smile returning to her troubled face. "A captain is only as good as the crew she leads."

"In any event," he continued with a hint of a playful laugh, "I doubt that one Intrepid Class starship would have ended the war any sooner."

"You’re right, of course," Kathryn said. "It’s just…well, with the war, this committee to evaluate Seven, that incident with the Doctor, and those new uniforms…I just can’t help but feel as if something has changed while we were away. Something we’re not quite prepared for."

Chakotay nodded sagely, reflecting on his own background in anthropology. "Large scale conflicts have a way of transforming societies, sometimes not always for the better. Especially if it challenges the original core values of the society in question."

Janeway sighed again as she looked away from Chakotay, and much to his disappointment, got up from her seat next to him and stood by the large round viewport. The stars were streaking by at warp speed, as Voyager continued along with her Starfleet and Ferengi escorts to its destination at Deep Space Nine. "I just have this unsettling feeling that the new civilization we’re about to seek out may be the very one we left behind."

As Voyager continued on its journey towards Federation space, word of her return began to spread throughout the subspace network. Other ships started to arrive along her flight path as she came closer to her destination. First came the U.S.S. Indigo, then the Majestic, the Beowulf, the Exeter, and the Excalibur. By the time Voyager reached the Bajoran system, she had acquired an ‘honor guard’ of nearly a dozen starships, with even more eagerly waiting to pay their respects at their destination.

Finally, after several days at warp, they arrived at Deep Space Nine. A resounding cheer echoed throughout the entire vessel as Tom maneuvered the ship into dock at one of the upper pylons. Standing at his Ops station, Harry couldn’t help but be moved at the sight of nearly two dozen starships firing off plasma flares, like a deep space fireworks display, while the Federation anthem played over the loudspeakers.

He only wished that Seven could have been here to share this moment with him. But she could not. The security restrictions mandated by Starfleet were already in place. The bridge, Engineering, and the weapons bays were now off limits to her. She was a virtual prisoner on the ship that had been her home these past three years.

Harry and Seven said very little as he finished packing his duffel in their shared quarters. She stood silently by her regeneration chair, watching him load his personal effects on their bed. She had been strangely withdrawn ever since they were told about Starfleet’s mandate. He had expected a little more fire in her belly about this affront to her humanity. But instead she seemed to be calmly accepting her situation, resigned to her fate.

But Harry would not accept things so easily.

"I can try to locate your family," he said, trying to raise some hope. "I’m sure that if Starfleet sees that you have people at home who care about you, they’ll think of you more as a human being, and not like a drone."

"Perhaps," she said listlessly.

"Seven, what’s wrong with you?!" he blurted out in exasperation. "Don’t you realize what’s at stake here? We’re talking about your life!"

"I am well aware of the importance of what is happening, Harry!" she flared back at him. "But it is clear that my life is no longer under my control. My fate, or my salvation, is now in the hands of others."

"But…" he tried to speak. "I…I’m sorry, Seven," he sighed. "I didn’t mean to be short with you. It’s just…it’s so unfair. We come all the way home, after everything we’ve faced, and to have it end up like this…"

"It has not ended yet," she said softly. "And I too was terse with you. Forgive me."

He came over to her, about to speak, when the intercom chimed to life. "Harry," said the voice of Captain Janeway, "The senior staff is assembling at the gangway to meet with Admiral Ross."

"Captain," he called out to her disembodied voice, "I request permission to remain on board Voyager."

"Harry…" Janeway said compassionately. Seven looked on at him with confusion.

"If Seven isn’t going to be allowed to disembark, then I don’t want to either," he said with determination.

"Harry, I’m sorry, but we have our orders. There are a lot of people out there waiting to welcome us home. And we can’t help Seven unless we’re out there mingling with them."

"Yes, ma’am," he mumbled.

"Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from coming back aboard Voyager later during your own time," Janeway continued. "I’ll see you at the gangway in fifteen minutes, Ensign." Harry could almost detect her smile as she spoke, but it was not enough to elevate him.

He looked up at Seven, his face in anguish, and his eyes crestfallen. "I…I don’t know what else to say." He reached out to her to lovingly stroke her cheek.

"Then say ‘so long,’" she replied.

"So long?"

"It is from one of Tom Paris’ motion picture archives. One should say ‘so long’ in lieu of ‘goodbye," she said, allowing a smile to form. "It implies that the separation will only be a temporary one."

He smiled in reflection of her own, gazing lovingly into her crystal blue eyes, vowing silently to himself that he would not lose this precious woman, not to Starfleet, not to anyone. He took her into his arms, feeling her curvaceous body melt closer to him as he kissed her with a fierceness and intensity that surprised even him. Her arms encircled his torso and pulled him into her. But he did not think about what was happening in the outside world. All that mattered was this moment with Seven, and that if it could only last forever.

Ever so slowly, they parted lips, breaking the kiss, but still locked in each other’s eyes. They released each other, and slowly backed away. Harry silently picked up his duffel and moved towards the door, looking back at the love of his life.

"I’ll fight for you," he said to her with conviction as he reached for the door to leave. The door opened and he was halfway out into the hallway, when Seven called out to him.

"Harry, she said breathlessly, "I believe in you."

He smiled at her tenderly, letting that one image of her innocent face stay etched in his mind, as he stepped out and the door slid shut behind him.

Harry stumbled down the corridors, reaching the turbolift, when he heard a jovial voice call out from behind him.

"Hey, buddy. You got room for two more?" Tom shouted out as he and B’Elanna rushed down the hallway and jumped into the turbolift with him before the doors slid behind them. The Ops officer nodded listlessly, giving his friends a weak smile.

"Jeez, Harry," commented B’Elanna, "you’d think you were on your way to a funeral."

"I know," he said. "This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for the past six years. I ought to be happy as a clam. But it doesn’t mean a thing if I can’t have Seven here to share it with me."

"C’mon, Har," said Tom, "This is going to work itself out. I even managed to speak to my dad about it."

Harry looked up at his friend in surprise. "You talked to your father? When?"

"This morning. Dad wanted to personally congratulate the captain on us getting home, and he asked to transfer the message over to me."

"But I thought Starfleet didn’t want us making contact with our families until we got to DS9!" Once long-range communications had been restored aboard Voyager, the crew had been anxious to contact their families immediately. But Starfleet had vetoed that decision, claiming that excessive ship to shore communications traffic might pose a security risk, given the highly advanced nature of Voyager‘s transwarp drive. Starfleet Command didn’t want a quadrant-wide announcement of the starship’s return until she was well within Federation territory. Instead, Starfleet would personally contact the returning crew’s families, and would permit direct communications once Voyager was safely in dock.

"Yeah, well, that’s for you civilians," Tom teased his friend. "Being the son of Owen Paris does carry with it certain privileges."

"Oh, really?" Harry responded sourly, but paid it no mind. He would see his own parents soon enough, he thought. "So…how did it go with him?"

"You know, Harry, it’s funny," said Tom. "I haven’t spoken with the man in eight years. And the two of us couldn’t think of a single thing to say to each other."

"Oh, I can’t believe that."

"Well, that was just at first. Then, well, we started going over some of the things in Janeway’s logs. You know, just bullshitting around, and it started to flow from there. I even introduced him to B’Elanna."

"How did that go?"

"Surprisingly painless," B’Elanna said with a laugh. "Oh, I could see him looking a little pale when I came on the screen. I’m definitely not the girl he expected Tom to bring home to dinner. But he was civil, even if he was a bit lacking in the affection department."

"Hey, that’s my dad for you," Tom added wryly. "Welcome to the family. Hopefully he’ll have warmed up by the time he gets to DS9."

"Gets to DS9?" Harry asked in surprise. "You mean, he’s coming out here?"

"You betcha," said Tom. "He’s going to be flying out here from Earth with a couple of VIPs."

"But did he say anything about Seven?" Harry asked.

"Well, I told him about the situation," Tom said without much energy, "as did the captain. He nodded and said he’d do what he could."

"Sounds like the runaround to me," Harry replied sourly. "Couldn’t he just use his influence and make the whole thing just go away?"

"Sorry, Harry. No can do," Tom said with regret. "Dad didn’t say it outright, but I get the feeling that this committee business is coming all the way from the top. Joint chiefs, the CinC, hell, maybe the President himself. Whoever’s pulling the strings on this, it’s big. I’m guessing some very powerful people are spooked by Seven."

"Then we’ll just have to convince these people, whoever they are, that they’ve got nothing to be afraid of," said Harry, with grim determination.

"That’s the spirit, Harry," B’Elanna patted his shoulder in solidarity.

The trio arrived at their destination, and exited the turbolift. While en route to the docking station, another familiar face crossed their path.

"Hey, Doc," Tom greeted the Emergency Medical Hologram. "B’Elanna and I were hoping to run into you before we headed out."

"Ah, Lieutenant, Ensigns," the Doctor greeted them. "I’m glad I ran into you as well. I wanted to thank you all for your assistance on my behalf the other day. I shudder to think what might have happened to me if you hadn’t been there."

"Hey, think nothing of it. I wasn’t even there," B’Elanna chuckled. She then turned to her husband, still smirking. "Did you actually say ‘bony ass’ to that woman?"

"Yeah, well…" Tom grinned sheepishly. "She could have used a little more meat on those bones, you know what I mean?"

"Yes, well, I was just on my way to see Seven of Nine," said the Doctor, "How is she doing?"

"Definitely not herself," Harry said somberly. "I know she’s more upset than she’s letting on. It’s like there’s more that has her on edge than just the committee."

"Yes, well, that’s par for the course with Seven," the Doctor commented dryly. "She’s never been one to be totally forthcoming with her feelings."

"With other people, maybe," said Harry. "But not with me."

"Well, perhaps I can have a word with her," the hologram said. "It’s not as though either of us will have much else to do for the next few days."

"Aren’t you disembarking with the rest of us?" Harry asked with concern.

"No, I’ll be staying aboard Voyager," the Doctor added, trying not to let the hurt show in his voice.

"What, you mean, they confined you to the ship too?" B’Elanna asked.

"Nothing so formal, Lieutenant," the EMH sighed. "A ship will be arriving from Jupiter Station sometime tomorrow to have a look at this." He then tapped lightly on the mobile emitter on his arm. "Starfleet Research and Development has asked that my emitter remain in a secure environment until they get here. They also want me to be made ‘available’ when Starfleet Science Division arrives to access my exobiological research and medical files. So in essence, I have been confined, if not officially, then at least in spirit."

"Jupiter Station. They’re the ones who designed you, right?" said Harry. "Any chance that they might take a look at you and, well, help prove that you’re sentient?"

"I don’t believe that’s their intention, Ensign," said the Doctor, his tone growing more terse and distant as he spoke. "The words ‘overhaul’ and ‘upgrade’ were used quite frequently in the communiqué sent to Captain Janeway."

"Oh, man," Harry moaned, "First Seven and now you. What’s next? Are they going to lock up Neelix for being an illegal immigrant?"

As the three walked off, B’Elanna looked over at her friend. "Take it easy, Starfleet," said B’Elanna, "It’ll all work out."

"You know something, B’Elanna," Harry answered sardonically. "That nickname isn’t so amusing these days."

They had told her that there would be a ‘simple, welcome home celebration.’ But if this welcoming was simple, thought Kathryn Janeway, then she could only imagine how the Bajorans said ‘Happy New Year.’

The entire Promenade was bedecked with streamers and showers of confetti. Starfleet officers, civilians, and aliens alike were all reveling in the festivities. The roar of cheering and applause resounded throughout the chamber, deafening all who entered. And this was just a small taste of what was to come, from what she had been told.

"This is much more than I expected," she said to the man who had greeted them at the airlock. Janeway had recognized instantly the face of Admiral William Ross, who was in charge of strategic operations for this sector of space, so it was only fitting that he would be here in an official capacity. She didn’t know Ross personally, only through reputation for his work at Starfleet Tactical. He had met her along with a red-haired Bajoran woman, also wearing one of the new gray Starfleet uniforms, her pips indicating the rank of commander. She quickly recognized her as the commander of DS9, Kira Nerys, whom she had briefly met at the initial briefing with Benjamin Sisko, just before Voyager had left on its mission, although as she recalled, Kira had worn the uniform of a major in the Bajoran Militia at the time.

"Yes, a lot has changed since you left, Captain," Kira had told her. "Bajor is now the 162nd member of the United Federation of Planets. We’re still in the process of integrating the militia into Starfleet."

It occurred to Janeway just how out of place she felt, wearing her old style command reds among the now standard grays. It seemed almost like showing up at a cocktail party naked.

"Oh, this is nothing, Captain," said Ross, amused at her being overwhelmed. "Wait until you get back to Earth. They’re talking about arranging a parade for the entire crew down Unity Boulevard and an awards ceremony at the Presidential House."

"Good heavens," Janeway gushed. "After all those years away, none of this seems quite real just yet."

"I’m sure that will pass soon enough," he said congenially. "There’s especially talk of recognition of your accomplishments, Captain. I’m told you’re being considered not only for the Christopher Pike Medal of Valor, but also for the James T. Kirk Award for Excellence in Exploration."

"Admiral, please. I think my crew deserves just as much credit for getting Voyager home, if not more." Seeing an opportunity, Janeway decided to push another matter forward. "And while we’re on that subject…"

"Oh, you don’t have to worry about that," said Ross. "There’s going to be an official ceremony tomorrow to honor your crew as soon as the admirals’ shuttle arrives."

"Yes, about that…" she tried to speak, hoping to get a word in about Seven, or even the Doctor. But the sounds of celebration in the background were making it difficult to hear.

"Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chakotay and his people are even nominated for the Federation Star," Ross added, oblivious to her words.

While Ross might have been having difficulties hearing her, Janeway had no problem hearing what he had to say, and drawing the correct inference from it. "Excuse me, did you say the Federation Star? But that award is given to…"

"Civilians," he completed her sentence. "That’s right."

"But Admiral, Commander Chakotay and the others…they’re field commissioned Starfleet officers."

"That’s correct, Captain. Field commissioned. They’re no longer in the field, so their commission is over."

"But I had assumed…hoped…that after everything they had done, that Starfleet would choose to honor them with permanent commissions…"

"Captain, that’s not really practical. I mean, a pardon is one thing. The Federation needs to be able to heal the division this Maquis business has created. I’m afraid that allowing them to remain in Starfleet would just rub too much salt in the wounds."

"Admiral, Commander Chakotay is a veteran Starfleet officer…"

"…Who officially resigned his original commission," said Ross, "and Owen Paris’ boy was formally court-martialed by a jury of his peers. These things are all on the record, Captain. We can’t just pretend they never happened. Starfleet is an organization of professionals. We can’t just let anyone put on a uniform." He then reached for a nearby PADD and called up some data from the station computer. "For instance, take this…B’Elanna Torres…"

"B’Elanna Torres-Paris," Janeway corrected adamantly, "is one of the finest engineers I’ve ever worked with."

"That may be so, Captain, but she never even completed her freshman year at the Academy. Do you really expect some twenty-year veteran to take orders from her? A field commissioned pardoned criminal?" Seeing the distraught look on Janeway’s face, he changed his tone to one of greater compassion. "I’ll tell you what, Captain Janeway. I’ll see what I can do about getting this Torres woman a sponsorship into the Academy."

"The Academy? Admiral, do you really expect a thirty-one year old woman to take classes with a bunch of eighteen year-old cadets? She probably knows more about the insides of a starship than most of the instructors."

"Well, I’m sorry, Captain. That’s the best I can offer you. If it’s of any consolation, your request to Starfleet Command regarding your Ops officer…Kim, I believe…has been approved. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what a rare honor something like that is."

"I understand, Admiral," she said absently, still heavy with disappointment. She had hoped so strongly that it would be possible to keep all of her crew together somehow. But now that didn’t seem likely at all. It seemed as though she would be losing more than just Seven of Nine now.

After the admiral excused himself, she looked about the room to see how her crew was faring. Everyone seemed to be floating on air, relieved at having finally reached their destination. Familiar faces would shine out from among a sea of strangers. Tom and B’Elanna were dancing about the room. Tuvok was being pestered by Neelix to try one of the drinks being hawked by the station’s Ferengi bartender. And speaking of Ferengi, there was Daimon Pok, trying to tell anyone who would listen about how he had bravely rescued the starship Voyager from certain death, the tale growing more dramatic and convoluted with each retelling.

Everyone, that is, except for Harry Kim. Janeway’s heart ached at the sight of how forlorn her young ensign looked, trying to put on a brave face for the benefit of his fellow crewmates. But it was obvious to her how much he was lost among the crowd, that he would so much rather be on Voyager with his fiancée.

Then she looked out at the room, only to see Commander…no, she corrected herself, Mister Chakotay, talking with Kira Nerys and several other Bajoran officers. He glanced over at her from across the room, smiling at her with a warm, affectionate glance, completely oblivious as to what was coming down the way.

Yes, she knew exactly how Harry Kim felt. Well, not quite exactly, she reflexively corrected herself.

Harry stood before the full-length mirror, looking upon the reflection of himself in the new dress uniform issued to him, and not liking what he saw.

He was alone in the temporary quarters they had assigned to him during his stay on Deep Space Nine. The room felt cold and empty, and the bed was unwelcome without Seven of Nine to share it with him. He had hoped that they would have permitted him to sleep aboard Voyager, but the orders from Starfleet had insisted on restricted access to the ship. Nobody was permitted aboard for extended periods of time without senior-level authorization. They had even imposed a restriction on communications at first, but at least Captain Janeway had convinced Admiral Ross to rescind that order.

He tugged at the cumbersome shoulder pads, trying to make the gray jumper fit more comfortably under the white dress jacket, but knowing that it never would. He was another one of the faceless gray masses now. The golden piping at his wrists, which denoted Operations, failed to provide a sufficient flash of color. Look at me, he thought cynically. I’m practically dressed like a Romulan.

"Hey, Harry," B’Elanna’s voice called out over the intercom, "Tom and I are on our way. You ready yet?"

He knew he couldn’t put it off for much longer. The assembly would be starting soon, just as the admirals started to arrive, following by another reception. Then the committee would begin listening to the first round of testimony scheduled for later this afternoon. Feeling that he was as ready as he was ever going to be, he stepped out into the dark, Cardassian-styled corridor to meet his friends.

What he saw broke his heart all over again.

There were Tom and B’Elanna all right, coming down the hallway. And they seemed to be quite satisfied with themselves and the universe, holding hands as they waved to him. But they were no longer dressed in their Starfleet uniforms, but in civilian garb. B’Elanna was wearing a light shirt and dark pants, with a black synth-leather vest. Tom had on the exact same outfit that he had been wearing when he and Harry had first met. It was almost as if the past six years had been never taken place, leaving no lasting impression.

"Well, look at you!" Tom chuckled, as he took in the sight of Harry in his new uniform. "All dressed up for company and everything."

"Yeah, whatever," he responded sourly, not taking the bait.

"Hey, what’s got you down now, Harry?" B’Elanna asked with concern, seeing that this was not a lighthearted moment for Harry.

He sighed as he looked at both of his friends. "It’s not right. After everything you did for Voyager, they just show you the door, like you don’t matter at all!"

"Oh, come on, Harry," Tom said with a carefree smile. "Gray just isn’t my color." Seeing that his friend wasn’t laughing with him, he continued with a more serious tone. "Look, don’t get all worked up about this, Har. We told you that Starfleet wasn’t the future we wanted for ourselves. And most of the Maquis feel the same way. None of us asked to be officers. We just wanted to be part of something bigger than ourselves and get home safely."

"And now that we’re all home, that’s it? We all just go our separate ways?" Harry demanded.

"That’s just the way it is sometimes, Harry," B’Elanna said softly. "People have to choose the path that’s right for them. Besides, you make it sound like just because we’re not going to stay with Starfleet that we’re never going to see each other again."

"Yeah, buddy," Tom joined in. "There’s that parade on Earth for one thing. And you know B’Elanna and I are going to be there for your wedding. Can’t have a ceremony without a best man, right?"

Harry nodded, unable to hide his smile.

"Besides," Tom went on, "from what I’ve heard, all the Starfleet crewmembers are getting a six month sabbatical and their pick of assignments when they return to duty. You can pretty much choose your own posting, if you want."

"I suppose."

"So what assignment do you think you’re going to request when your leave is up?" B’Elanna asked.

"I don’t know," Harry said. "I guess after all those years on a starship, I’m ready to try something closer to home. It all depends on how this business with Seven plays out. I can’t think much beyond that."

"Oh, about that," said B’Elanna. "You might be happy to know what the rest of us have been up to." She then reached into the pouch on her belt and pulled out a small civilian-model PADD. Harry took the small device from her and read while scrolling down. On its screen was a list of familiar names, the names of the Voyager crew, including several personal statements.

"What’s this?" asked Harry.

"It’s a petition," said Tom. "For Seven and the Doc, signed by the entire crew. It’s to let the committee know how much we support them and want them to be recognized as sentient beings with rights and everything. It’s not exactly a hunger strike, but I think it gets the point across."

"Tom, I…" said Harry, choked with emotion. "This means so much. Everyone signed it?"

"Everyone from the captain down to Naomi Wildman," B’Elanna said proudly. "Except for you, Seven and the Doctor, of course. Tuvok told us that it was highly illogical to expect Starfleet to make a command decision based on pressure below, especially when it was so blatantly emotional. And then he went and signed it himself."

"Guys, this is so wonderful. It means a lot to know that everyone is supporting Seven like this," said Harry.

"Well, what did we show all those aliens who got in our way when we were trying to get home?" B’Elanna added with a feral grin. "That nobody fucks with Voyager."

"Oh, speaking of home," said Tom, as he leaned in with a mischievous smirk on his face, "have you managed to call your folks yet?"

Harry sighed again. "I guess that’s what also has me down. I tried calling them five times, but the house computer kept saying that they were off-planet somewhere. It wasn’t even able to forward my signal to their location. I don’t know if Starfleet even contacted them or not."

"Oh, I’m sure they did, Harry. You just have to be patient," Tom said as he gave his friend a friendly pat on the padded shoulder. "Now, I believe our presence has been requested at the main assembly hall. Attendance is mandatory, I think those were the words Tuvok used."

The three friends made their way to the assembly. Harry looked out on the assembled group, seeing his friends and crewmates from Voyager mingling with the crew of Deep Space Nine. He saw his Starfleet friends, also switched over to the new style uniforms as he had. He also saw the Maquis crew, standing out in their hodgepodge of non-regulation civilian attire. There was Ayala, Dalby, Chell, and Henley, conversing in one corner. Gerron and Tabor were socializing with several fellow Bajorans from the station. Dave Kaplan was chatting up with Walter Ashmore, who glanced over at Harry and waved hello at him. Harry sighed as he waved back towards ‘Ash,’ as he liked to be called. It looked like the Kim-Tones, just like the crew of Voyager, would be breaking up as well.

Harry even saw Marla Gilmore and Noah Lessing, both also dressed in civilian clothes. Starfleet Command had been dismayed at hearing the facts behind the ill-fated U.S.S. Equinox, but naturally didn’t want to mar the celebratory atmosphere created by Voyager‘s return. And so, partially spurred on by Captain Janeway’s compassionate recommendation, the Equinox survivors were offered a deal: there would be no court martial and the records of the Equinox would be sealed, in exchange for the resignation of their commissions and agreement to a psychological discharge from Starfleet. They would never be able to hold down any jobs that required a security clearance, which precluded most government posts, but at least they would be free.

Admiral Ross stood at the head of the room behind a makeshift podium, Captain Janeway standing to his left, while nearly a dozen visiting admirals sat on a raised dais behind them. Ross called the room to order and everyone took their seats and was silenced. Harry immediately noticed how the assigned seats for the Maquis were all at the back of the room.

The assembly began with a series of longwinded speeches by the various admirals that Harry barely listened to. All were in regards to the heroism and bravery of the Voyager crew, and how they helped in expanding the frontiers of knowledge and providing access to new technologies and vital tactical information on potential competitor races in the Delta Quadrant. Captain Janeway then came up to the podium, praising the courage and dedication of her crew, both Starfleet and Maquis. Harry got the sense from the uncomfortable look on some of the admirals’ faces that she had deviated from some pre-written speech, especially in regards to the parts about the Maquis. It was the only speech that Harry had focused on with any enthusiasm.

Finally, it was time for the main event of the ceremony, the crew promotions. First off was Tuvok, who was called to the podium. After Captain Janeway delivered a personal tribute of his service to Voyager and Starfleet, the Vulcan security officer was formally promoted to the rank of commander. He accepted the added pip to his collar with a calm nod of his head, and then returned to his seat.

Other names were then called. Joe Carey was among the first batch summoned, all promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander. Sue Nicoletti and Will Chapman were among those who came next, all receiving the rank of lieutenant senior grade. Then came the largest group, each called one by one. Pablo Baytart, Freddie Bristow, the Delaney sisters, Siri Golwat and Marin Jenkins were in turn promoted to lieutenant junior grade. It was only after hearing little Naomi Wildman cheering when her mother received her lieutenant’s pips did Harry realize that his own name had been skipped over.

Was there no end to the disappointments he was to face? Was he now going to be denied the promotion that had been long overdue? He angrily wondered if it had been his indiscretion with Tal last year that was the cause of this. As far as he was concerned, Tal was ancient history. Could Starfleet actually punish him for a reprimand with a woman who no longer meant anything to him, while they sat in judgment of the humanity of the woman who did?

Apparently he wasn’t the only one who noticed the oversight, as he observed several of his crewmates in animated whispers, looking distraught as they occasionally glanced back at his direction. Even the Maquis seemed perturbed by his omission.

It was in the midst of this angst that Harry heard a steady voice call out to him. "Ensign Harry Kim!"

Reacting to his name, he jolted up. Janeway smiled at him and beckoned to him to approach the stage. Responding nervously, wondering why he was being singled out in this fashion, he slowly made his way from his seat towards the front of the room.

As he stood before the assembled group of senior officers, Admiral Ross came forward to address him, his expression and tone one of bountiful enthusiasm. "Ensign Kim, you have been singled out in particular this day, in recognition of your invaluable contributions to your ship and your crew. You first came to serve aboard Voyager when Captain Janeway selected you, out of hundreds of applicants, for the rare privilege of a starship bridge assignment while still in your first year out of the Academy. And while your record as a cadet was among the most impressive I’ve ever seen, that alone does not guarantee one’s performance as an officer. Indeed, I’ve witnessed more than my share of class valedictorians that started off with great potential, only to go on to rather ordinary careers in Starfleet.

"But in your case, Mr. Kim, that promising beginning has led to a series of extraordinary accomplishments to date. You came aboard Voyager a first year ensign, and when thrust into the most incredible of circumstances, you rose to the occasion, performing with the competency and professionalism of an officer many years your senior. You assumed responsibilities well beyond your rank and experience, and performed them flawlessly. And what is more, you earned the loyalty and admiration of those who served under you, as well as the confidence and respect of those above you. Your service, Ensign Kim, stands as a testament to the highest ideals to which all Starfleet officers aspire."

Harry felt overwhelmed by the admiral’s abundance of praise. Surely he couldn’t have been talking about him? All he ever tried to do was his job and do it well. He never sought to be a paragon of service, not when there were so many other officers just as worthy as he was. Sure, it was always nice to be recognized, but he didn’t deserve all this attention, did he?

As if on cue, Captain Janeway then stepped forward. "Harry," she spoke softly, adding a more personal touch than the admiral’s clearly pre-rehearsed appraisal. "You don’t know how much it pained me not to be able to give you the recognition you so richly deserved. Unfortunately, I had to be very stingy with promotions while we were lost in the Delta Quadrant. There was no way of knowing how long our journey would last. If I had given everyone the rank they earned, we would have had an entire ship filled with senior officers well into the flight home. But you, more than anyone, deserved acknowledgement for everything you’ve done and been for us. I hope that this in some small way makes up for what you missed out on."

Ross then stepped forward again, clearing his throat before speaking. "Ensign Harry Kim, in recognition for your outstanding service and devotion to the United Federation of Planets, and with the full authorization of Starfleet Command, you have been granted the retroactive promotion to Lieutenant Junior Grade, to be recognized post-dated Stardate 49373.5, and the additional retroactive promotion to Lieutenant Senior Grade, to be recognized post-dated Stardate 51715.3. Congratulations, Lieutenant Kim."

Harry couldn’t believe it. Two retroactive promotions? A single such honor was rarely ever given out, and then almost always posthumously, usually for fallen war heroes. For a living officer to be so honored…it was rare indeed. But to his knowledge there had never been two retroactive promotions granted to a live officer in the same day before. But then Voyager‘s circumstances were unusual, to say the least. So as far as his service record would state, Harry would be recognized as officially promoted to lieutenant three years ago.

Janeway came forward to place the pip on his collar, and gave him an all-knowing smile. "Don’t get too used to that pip just yet, Lieutenant. There’s more to come."

Harry had no idea what his captain meant. Things were happening so fast for him. But before he knew it, Admiral Ross was speaking again.

"Lieutenant Kim, in further recognition for your exceptional accomplishments these past three years, you are granted the additional promotion to Lieutenant Commander, effective today, Stardate 53886.1. Congratulations again, Lieutenant."

Harry felt his knees buckling and was nearly at a loss of breath. He never dreamed that he would be recognized like this. Lieutenant Commander? Three promotions in one day? His first instinct was to protest, to tell everyone that he did not deserve such adulation. But Captain Janeway came forward at that moment to replace the original pip with the new one signifying his latest rank.

"Captain, I…"

"Take it easy, Harry," she said with a smile. "This has been a long time coming. You earned this. Now before you pass out, you should turn around and let your crewmates have a look at you."

And so with that, Harry Kim turned on his heel in a crisp, military fashion to face the audience. He was overwhelmed by the thunderous applause that cascaded throughout the chamber. He had initially expected there to be some jealousy or resentment from some people regarding the glowing exaltation he received. But there was none. Everyone in the room, even the visitors who didn’t know him, was celebrating his accomplishment. First Tom and B’Elanna, then Chakotay, followed by Neelix, and then the rest of the audience, all rose up in a standing ovation. There were whistles and cheers and cries of encouragement.

"I…I still can’t believe it," Harry mumbled softly. "All of this, for me?"

"You’ve been a stand for so many people these past six years, Harry," said Janeway, as she leaned over to him. "It’s time we returned the favor."

Looking out among the cheering sea of approval, Harry had to resist the urge to take a bow. He took in a deep breath and allowed himself to receive the acknowledgement of his peers and comrades. And the truth was…it felt good. "I just wish that Seven could have seen this," he said wistfully to the captain.

"She is," Janeway replied knowingly, as she gestured with her eyes towards the back of the room. Harry could see that a video array had been set up in one corner. "Everything is being transmitted throughout the station. She’ll be able to watch the entire ceremony," she added. "I knew she wouldn’t want to miss seeing you be honored for your accomplishments."

"I…I don’t know what to say, Captain. Thank you."

"Just keep in mind, Lieutenant," she concluded as he moved to return to his seat, "that good things eventually come to those who wait."

Seven of Nine stood at the main console in Astrometrics, the Doctor standing by her side. She looked up with pride at the display on the huge viewscreen, the largest on the ship to which she still had access to. Harry Kim stood proud before his shipmates, the lieutenant commander’s pips showing brightly on his dress collar. Seven’s face grew flush with warmth at the sight of her mate receiving the accolades for which he was so long overdue.

"Well, well," said the Doctor, almost as pleased as his young protégé. "Quite a coup for our Mr. Kim, wouldn’t you say, Seven?"

"Indeed," she said, her attention never wavering from the screen. "Harry has at last been recognized for his excellence."

"It seems I’ll have to get used to addressing him as ‘Commander’ Kim now," said the hologram. "It’s fortunate for you that you two are on a first name basis now."

But as the screen showed Harry returning to his seat, Seven let out a despondent sigh. "I would have liked to have shared a moment of such importance with him."

"But you did, Seven," the Doctor said, resting his hand on her shoulder compassionately. "In spirit."

"It is not the same."

"Well, I should get back to Sick Bay," he said. "The Chief Medical Officer from Deep Space Nine will be arriving after the ceremony to examine you, and I need to get everything in order."

"I will be along momentarily, Doctor," said Seven with a heavy heart, as she continued to gaze upon the screen, her attention focused on where Harry was seated. Although the ceremony had proceeded with the promotions of the enlisted personnel, several officers sitting next to Harry were continuing to congratulate him on his achievement.

"Of course," said the Doctor, as he exited from Astrometrics to walk the quiet halls.

All was silent aboard the starship Voyager. With no one else other than himself and Seven aboard, and no new territory to explore, there was nothing else for the Doctor to do other than prepare for the arrival of this Dr. Julian Bashir. He only hoped that this new Starfleet physician would treat him with more respect than the one from the MacArthur.

After the promotion ceremony, a brunch reception and buffet was held on the Promenade to further honor Voyager‘s officers. Chakotay sighed as a Bajoran waitress piled his plate with whitefish and hasparat. It seemed as though the Federation was determined to fatten them all up, he thought wryly. But then, he supposed, an endless string of receptions, parties, and official functions was to be expected. Everyone wanted to be seen with heroes.

Chakotay looked on with approval as the new faces mingled with the old, all celebrating the changes of fortune that had come with Voyager‘s return home. He smiled at Harry Kim, as several people, both Starfleet and Maquis slapped him on the back and shook his hands to congratulate him on his elevation. He was happy for the young officer. For too long he had acted in the service of others without any expectation or demand of reward. He smiled with fond recollection at the many times on Voyager‘s bridge when Harry’s enthusiasm and dedication had cut through the occasional gloom and pessimism that would sometimes sweep over the crew. During those earliest days of their flight, when the relationship between Starfleet and Maquis had yet to fully come together, he had discovered an instinctive fondness for the freshly minted ensign. Harry reminded him in some ways of the young officer that he himself had once been, before disillusionment and his own personal demons had come to overtake him. He was glad that after so many years of selflessness, Harry Kim was now receiving his just rewards, both in his professional and personal life.

He looked up as Kathryn Janeway waved her hand and called out to the assembled crowd. Seeing her stand before the gathering, confident and in command, caused Chakotay to smile. Harry Kim wasn’t the only Starfleet officer for whom he felt a fondness, albeit of a different variety.

"May I have everyone’s attention, please," said Janeway loudly, holding up a glass of mimosa. "I’d like to propose this toast, not only to the officers and crew we so justly honored this morning," she added with a gesture towards the Starfleet officers, who were still excitedly showing off their new pips. "But most especially to our Maquis friends, who gave so much of themselves to work alongside with those they had every reason in the universe to distrust. And yet they served with a distinction and loyalty that any captain in Starfleet would be proud of. And so I salute you, my crew. Although it saddens me that we will no longer be serving together, I pray that the paths you choose bring you all fulfillment and happiness, yet at the same time never cause you to stray from the friendships and bonds you’ve forged with all of us."

Everyone clinked their glasses and raised them in solidarity. Chakotay smiled with satisfaction, not only at the touching words of his captain and friend, but also at the uncomfortable squirming of some of the admirals at the mention of the Maquis crew. It was clear that there were quite a few in Starfleet Command who were hoping that the Maquis would quietly slink away and drop off the sensor screen of everyone concerned. But they hadn’t counted on Kathryn Janeway’s uncompromising integrity.

Bully for you, Kathryn, he thought proudly, as he raised a glass to her.

"There’s also one final matter I would like to discuss," Janeway continued, still holding the crowd’s focus. "Although Starfleet has retired the ranks of all of Voyager‘s field commissioned officers and crew, the final decommissioning will not be officially completed until midnight Pacific Standard Time on Earth, which I’m told is less than four hours from now."

"Does that mean we’re all out of uniform?" Ken Dalby called out, eliciting a burst of laughter from the crowd.

Janeway smiled at the lighthearted aside before continuing. "What it does mean is that there’s time for one final piece of unfinished business." She then turned to face the crowd, seeking out one face in particular. "Thomas Eugene Paris, if you’ll please step forward," she called out.

A puzzled Tom made his way to the front of the crowd. Janeway looked down at him from the dais, giving him a warm friendly glance. "Tom, your performance this past year has been especially noteworthy. I realize this may be a purely symbolic gesture, but it’s the symbols in life that we treasure the most. So as my final act as your commanding officer, I’m officially reinstating you to your former rank and station. I want it to be shown, for the record, that when your commission is retired, that you will be retired as a full lieutenant."

The room broke out in applause as Tom looked around, waving to the crowd like a newly crowned monarch. He then looked back up at his former captain, neither of them saying a word. His eyes were expressing a silent gratitude, not just for her act of generosity, but also for her years of support and belief in him. She, in turn, looked back at him, silently conveying her own maternal pride, that he had finally rediscovered his own merit, while finding a bit of happiness for himself along the way.

While his wife and friends were congratulating Tom, Janeway stepped aside and joined Chakotay off to the side of the gathering. The tattooed man smiled in approval at her. "That was a good thing you did for Tom. I know that regulations didn’t require it."

"I figured that this was the least I could do for him," she mused wistfully. "I only wish I could have kept him in Starfleet permanently."

"I think he and B’Elanna are going to do just fine on their own. A mother has to let her children leave the nest sometime, you know."

"Speaking of leaving the nest," she added, "I’ve been looking into ways to help your situation."

"My situation?"

"I think we might be able to mount a procedural challenge and have your initial resignation from Starfleet reversed. I can…"

"Kathryn, please," he held his hand to calm her.

"Chakotay, I’m serious. We can fight this and have you reinstated…"

"Kathryn, I don’t want you to."

"What?!" she said incredulously.

"I don’t want you to fight this battle. You have enough to take on with Seven and the Doctor. Let this one go. And the truth of the matter is, I don’t deserve to wear that uniform."

"How can you say such a thing?" said Janeway with surprise. "I’ve never met anyone in my entire career that deserved to wear that uniform more. You’re a natural leader, Chakotay. For you not to use your talents…it would be a crying shame."

"Kathryn, I appreciate your wanting to support me. But the fact of the matter is that I joined Starfleet for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t do it to expand the frontiers of knowledge or to serve the greater good. I did it because I wanted to get away from where I came from and to tick off my father."

"What does it matter why you joined up? What does matter is that you have the ability to make a difference."

"You’re absolutely right," he said solemnly. "Only maybe there’s somewhere else I need to be in order to make that difference."

"What do you mean?"

"I’ve been talking with some of my friends that were released from prison. They’ve been telling me that things are pretty bad in the old DMZ. There’s so much that was destroyed in the war that needs to be rebuilt, and Starfleet just isn’t giving it the attention that it needs. They need people out there, Kathryn, people with skills, exactly the kind of skills that some of us learned while serving on a Starfleet vessel."

"You’ve been talking with the other Maquis crewmembers about this?"

Chakotay nodded his head in the affirmative. "I’ve tossed the idea around with Tom and B’Elanna also. They’re thinking of coming with us. Good pilots and engineers are in short supply out there. Even Noah Lessing came up to me. He heard what we were planning and asked if he and the other Equinox survivors could come along."

"And you accepted?"

"Why not? They’re all skilled officers, and in spite of the mistakes they made, they’re basically good people. They deserve a chance to make things right. After all, what’s a frontier for, if not to be a place to start over?"

"It sounds to me like you’ve already made up your mind," said Janeway, with just a hint of sadness.

"I suppose I have," he said with a regretful shrug of the shoulders. "Ever since I read the reports of the aftermath of the war, I knew that this is what I had to be a part of, one way or another. The Maquis never succeeded in fighting for freedom for our people. Maybe this is the way we were meant to make a difference."

"I…I don’t know what to say," she said, the reality of his words just starting to become apparent to her. "I’ve become so used to having you by my side, I don’t know what I’ll do without you being there."

Chakotay took in a deep breath, as though he were preparing himself for something monumental, which in fact, he was. "It doesn’t have to be that way, Kathryn," he said.

"I…I don’t understand," she answered, her face changing with unease and discomfort.

He moved in closer to her, well within the boundaries of her personal space. "Kathryn, do you remember when we were marooned together on New Earth? When we thought that we would have to spend the rest of lives with no one but each other for company?"

"It’s not something one forgets so easily," Janeway said anxiously, increasingly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was heading.

"You can’t deny that there’s always been a connection between us, something there that was always beneath the surface. But as you said yourself, we could never allow ourselves to act on those feelings, what with you being my captain." He then moved even closer, close enough for her to feel the warmth radiating from his body, his hand almost touching hers. "Well, we’re not on Voyager anymore. And I’m not your first officer."

Janeway’s face went white with panic, as she realized the implications of what he was saying. "Chakotay…it’s not that simple…"

"Of course it is!" he said passionately. "Kathryn, don’t be afraid of your emotions! The only thing that does matter is how we feel for one another." He then collected himself as he reached out to take her hand into his own. "I know you have six months leave coming to you. Spend them with me. There are places in the Zone that would astound you. My home world is still mostly unspoiled wilderness. I can show you forests near where I grew up, with trees my ancestors planted back in the days of the first settlements, and with waterfalls far grander than anything you’ve seen on Earth."

Kathryn Janeway was at a loss for what to say. For so long, she had felt strong attraction for this man, not only for his attractiveness and masculinity, but also for his wisdom and sensitivity. And she had known, from the look in his eyes, and those words of devotion he had spoken on New Earth so long ago, that he had felt something for her as well. Yet for five years, she had fought down those feelings, resisted them every step of the way, knowing full well that nothing good could ever come of them, as long as she remained his captain. And now, just when she no longer had to fight them anymore, when he was plainly available and offering to her what she had long wanted…she was still fighting.

"It…it could never work, Chakotay," she said solemnly. "Our lives…they’re just too different." And with that, she slid her hand out from his grasp.

He said nothing. But the hurt and heartbreak in his deep, dark eyes told her everything she wanted, and didn’t want, to know.

"I’m…I’m sorry, Chakotay."

"No, I’m sorry Kathryn," he sighed, "I should have understood. You’ve kept me at arms length for so long, you don’t know any other way to be." He then got up to leave, the abject sadness on his face unbearable for her to behold. "Forget everything I said. I didn’t mean to embarrass you."

"Chakotay…" she said softly, trying to think of the right thing to say, but could only think up lame reassurances instead. "I’ll miss you…"

He gave her a sad nod and a weak smile in response, and walked off into the crowd.

Janeway could only bury her head in her hands. What are you doing, you idiot? she chastised herself. Isn’t this what you always dreamed about to yourself, alone in your quarters, isolated from the crew by the burdens of command? To have him sweep you up into his arms like a character out of one of those holonovels you enjoy so much? Or is this what you prefer instead, the safety of the fantasy over the risk of reality? As if she didn’t have enough to worry about.

"Captain Janeway?" said a feminine voice distracting her from her recriminations.

"Yes?" she said as she perked up and slapped her combadge, recognizing the voice of Commander Kira.

"I’m sorry, Captain. Is this a bad time?" said the Bajoran woman.

"No…not at all, Commander. What can I do for you?"

"I just wanted to inform you that the VIP shuttle from Earth is on approach. They apologized for the delay, but there’s an ion storm near the Hyperion system. It’s been disrupting traffic all throughout the sector. They just came out of warp and should be docking within two hours. Admirals Paris and Patterson send their regards and would like to meet with you as soon as possible."

"Thank you, Commander," Janeway said grimly. The VIP shuttle, she thought, no doubt carrying the admirals who would pass sentence on Seven of Nine’s future.

Janeway looked up across the room, watching Chakotay excuse himself from the celebration. Right next to him was Daimon Pok, who had conveniently crashed the party, frequenting with the ladies and offering them drinks, gushing over how convenient is was for humans to live in a society where anything could be had without cost.

If only that were true, she thought bitterly.

"Remarkable," said Dr. Julian Bashir as he ran his medical tricorder over the young woman seated in Voyager‘s Sickbay. "Absolutely remarkable."

"I beg your pardon?" said Seven to the human doctor, while her regular physician, Voyager‘s EMH, looked on, not appreciating having his territory usurped by another. At least he had cause to be grateful that he hadn’t been switched off as an inconvenience.

"I was referring to your physiology," said Bashir, looking on with fascination at the readings of his medical monitor. "A near seamless interface between the biological and nanotechnological within a single organism. Most impressive, indeed."

"Really?" said the Doctor, his ego pleased at receiving a compliment for his handiwork.

"Oh, absolutely," said Bashir. "I must say it’s quite an extraordinary work of anatomical reconstruction, especially for…" He then looked up at the hologram, and let his words trail off uncomfortably.

"For a Mark One?" the Doctor finished his sentence.

"Well, um…no offense intended, Doctor," said Bashir. "Unfortunately, your brethren haven’t exactly acquired a sterling reputation among the medical community."

"Yes, I discovered that quite clearly from one of your colleagues," the Doctor replied acidly.

"Don’t take it too personally, Doctor," said Bashir, as he ran another diagnostic over Seven’s tympanic implant. "The rank and file at Starfleet Medical has never been entirely thrilled with the EMH project to begin with. Most doctors tend to see your kind as an encroachment of engineering thinking into the province of healing. That and the fact that the Mark Ones weren’t entirely a raging success…"

"Yes, well, that’s something I take very personally, Doctor Bashir," the EMH replied. "especially considering that my fate hangs in the balance."

"Well, hopefully your work will speak for itself, Doctor," said Bashir. "Your reconfiguration of this young woman’s nano-maintenance systems and their organic interactions are remarkable enough on their own."

"Just as long as your attention is more focused on her hardware and less on her software," a light hearted voice came from a young female with short dark hair who appeared at the door, her arms folded, eyebrows arched, looking at the human doctor with a crooked grin. The speckled patterns on the sides of her face revealed her immediately to be a Trill.

"Why, Ezri," said Bashir with mock insult, "you know that as a doctor, my interest is purely professional."

"I haven’t seen you pay that much attention to my biology in quite a while," she said back with a giggle.

"Yes, well, maybe you should inject yourself with a few nanoprobes and then we’ll talk," he responded playfully in kind.

Seven jolted up from her seat on the biobed in alarm. "Doctor Bashir, I would not recommend that," she said with all seriousness. The response of laughter her remark of caution received only served to confuse her more as to what humanoids considered being funny.

"Julian," said the young Trill, "if you’re finished up here, I’d like to spend some time with our guest." She then glanced over at the former drone and came close enough to offer her hand. "Hello there. My name is…"

"Lieutenant Ezri Dax, Chief Counselor for Deep Space Nine," Seven stated factually, as if from memory. "I am still permitted access to all non-secure data from the ship’s computer. I have already assimilated all information regarding your station’s personnel and standard operating procedures." Seeing the look of surprise on the faces of the two DS9 officers, she went on to explain. "I have not had much else to occupy my time as of late."

"Of course," said the young doctor amiably, "I’ll just be needing the Doctor’s medical logs on his treatment sessions with you, and…"

"Oh, allow me!" the hologram quickly interrupted. "I can retrieve those files much quicker and transmit them directly to your office."

"Well, thank you," said Bashir, a bit thrown off bit the EMH’s eager willingness to help, but grateful anyway. He then turned to Ezri, smiling at her with affection. "Meet you at Quark’s for afternoon tea?"

"I’ll be there," she said with a smile, as he leaned in to give her a quick peck on the lips.

The two physicians then exited the room, leaving the two women alone in Sickbay. "I have to apologize if Julian came across too friendly," said the Trill amiably. "He’s a bit of a natural flirt sometimes."

"I was not offended," said Seven. "Dr. Bashir is your mate?"

"My fiancée," said Ezri, her face taking on a pleased glow. "We’re getting married next summer."

"Indeed?" said Seven, with obvious interest. "I too have a fiancée."

"Really?" said the other woman, quite surprised. "I didn’t know that. Who’s the lucky guy?"

"Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim," said Seven, sitting up proudly. "The Operations Manager aboard Voyager. He was honored for his service this morning."

"You mean the one who received the two retroactive promotions?" said Ezri, suitably impressed. "Everyone’s talking about him. I haven’t seen anyone fuss over an officer like that since the war ended."

"He is indeed most worthy," Seven said, letting a smile pass her lips, but then her expression shifted, becoming more focused and cool. "Are these inquiries part of your evaluation?"

"Excuse me?"

"You are a counselor. You are here to evaluate my mental state, are you not? For the purposes of this committee?"

Seven’s directness disquieted the counselor momentarily. "Well, you’re a sharp one," she said. "No beating around the bush with you."

"I believe in candor," Seven said frankly. "Surely if you have assimilated all of Voyager‘s log reports concerning me and my behavior, you would be aware of this."

"OK, I’ll be straight with you. I’ve been going over all of Captain Janeway’s and your EMH’s reports concerning you, ever since Starfleet sent the word that you’d be coming here. I’ve been trying to get a sense of who you are, as a person. Since Voyager didn’t have any mental health professionals among its staff, Starfleet Command needed the advice of someone qualified to evaluate you and all reports concerning you."

"To what purpose? What does this committee require of me?"

Ezri sighed woefully. "The truth is, Seven, they’re not sure what you are. They’re concerned that if you’re allowed to re-enter normal society, you could be a danger to others. Or to yourself."

"They believe I am mentally defective," Seven said bitterly.

"I wouldn’t put it like that, Seven. But you’ve got to admit you’ve been through something that’s…well, unbelievable. You were a Borg drone for eighteen years. You practically grew up in the Collective. No one has ever studied anyone who’s been through an experience like that and then tried to resume a normal life."

"What alternative do they propose?" Seven asked pointedly. "Even Captain Janeway was unsure of what was intended for me."

"That would depend on the results of their findings," said Ezri with a heavy heart. She was no Betazoid, but even she could see that this was devastating to the former drone. "If they feel you’re not competent to live independently in human society, they might recommend that you be…institutionalized."

"You mean incarcerated," Seven said icily.

"No, I mean…it’s not like a prison. It would be more like a treatment facility."

"Would I be permitted to leave at my choosing?" Seven asked with an accusatory tone.

"Probably not. I’m sorry. I’m hoping it won’t come to that."

"And what of those who matter to me? Harry, the Doctor, Captain Janeway, and my other friends…will they be allowed to see me whenever they wish?"

"I…I guess that would depend on what your doctors have to say. They’ll probably allow some visitors at certain times."

"I see," Seven said, her tone somber. "And what do you believe, Lieutenant Dax? Do you feel I am inadequate to live among humanity?"

"I…I don’t know. I was hoping I’d get a sense of that after meeting with you," Ezri said. "I’m curious about one thing though, Seven," said Ezri. "Your name."

"What of it?"

"Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One," Ezri said with an amused smirk. "Kind of a mouthful, isn’t it?"

"Borg designations are intended to be functional, not convenient," Seven said stoically.

"What about your human name? Annika Hansen…"

"That name is no longer of relevance to me," Seven said, her voice sounding more confronted.

"It’s not? I’m surprised. I mean, you do see yourself as human, don’t you?"

"I am Seven of Nine, now," said the former drone defiantly. "Annika Hansen no longer exists."

"I see," said Ezri, playing her role of analytical professional. "So where are the other eight?"

"The other eight? Explain what you mean," Seven demanded.

"Well, I mean, if you’re only the seventh unit out of nine, then there should be eight more of you. So where are they?"

Seven’s eyes narrowed, her tone growing icy cold, a nerve being struck. "If you are as familiar with Voyager‘s logs as you claim to be, then you would know full well what became of three of the others of my former Unimatrix!"

"I know. I did read about them. And I’m not trying to be insensitive, believe me. But you were calling yourself Seven of Nine before any of them ever came aboard."

"Seven of Nine is the name with which I am comfortable."

"Were you always called Seven of Nine? I mean, you said Borg names were supposed to convey function. Surely you haven’t had the same function your entire time in the Collective."

"No," said Seven, her voice strained as she spoke. "When I was first assimilated as a child, I was designated by the Collective as Sub-unit Third of Three. Then I was placed into a maturation chamber, where my designation became Occupant 4805 of Maturation Complex 256. When I was decanted and configured for assignment as a drone, I was then given the designation of Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One."

"And after that?"

Seven blinked in surprise as she considered what she had been asked. "I do not understand the question. There was no ‘after that.’ I continued with the same designation until the war with Species 8472, after which I became severed from the Collective."

"Yes, and then what did you call yourself?"

"Precisely what I referred to myself as before. There was no need for a new designation. I simply abbreviated its usage for the convenience of the crew."

"Yes, but you had a different name before and while you were in the maturation chamber. If a transition that important is a reason for a new name, then why not after being cut off from the Collective entirely? It’s not like you haven’t changed names before."

"Those other names were assigned to me," Seven said, trying to remain calm. "Once I became an individual, I…had no other name to choose."

"Except for Annika Hansen."

"I am not Annika Hansen!" Seven snarled. "Annika Hansen is dead! She ceased to exist when she became Borg! I am…someone else."

Ezri nodded to herself, knowing that she had found the crux of what she was looking for in this troubled young woman. "Yes, but who? That’s the question, isn’t it? Who are you?"

"I…I do not know." Seven was at a loss for answers. In the past, she would have been certain that she knew the answer. She was Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One. But now…?

"Well, if you don’t know that, then how can you know what you want?" Ezri inquired pointedly.

"What do I want?!" Seven bellowed, turning to face the seated counselor with fury. "You wish to know what I want?! What I want is to be with Harry Kim and be his mate! I want to play my regularly scheduled Velocity matches with Captain Janeway, or to receive duty assignments from Commander Chakotay! I want to continue my singing lessons with the Doctor! I want to listen to Tom Paris’ foolish jokes, or to quarrel with B’Elanna Torres-Paris, or to debate logic with Commander Tuvok! I want to consume Mr. Neelix’s inedible cooking! I want to play kadis-kot with Naomi Wildman!

"You ask me what I want? What I want is what I had!" The blond woman stood shaking for a moment, clenching her fists, before the energy seemed to drain from her, and she slumped back down into her seat, her head sagging. "But I know that it can never be."

"So, Harry," said Tom, coming over to his friend, a drink in each hand, "feeling a little better about things? Or are you only answering to ‘Lieutenant Commander Kim’ these days?" The brunch was still going strong after two hours, even though some of the attendees were starting to break off and drift throughout the station.

"You know, Tom," Harry said, grinning ear to ear, "I think I can get used to being a lieutenant commander. It’s nice to know I have something to show for myself after six years in the Delta Quadrant."

B’Elanna came over, taking one of the drinks from Tom’s hands. "Well, I’m glad to see that Starfleet Command got at least one thing right today."

"So far," Tom said buoyantly. "The rest will all fall into place. Trust me."

Harry sighed, as the reality of Seven’s predicament replaced his earlier elation at his promotion. He almost felt ashamed that he had received such good news, while his sweetheart was about to have her humanity questioned. What right did he have to be happy while she remained confined?

Sam Wildman and her daughter came over to the trio, with Neelix not far behind. "Hey, Harry," she said to him, "how does it feel to skip ahead of the class?"

"I’ll tell you, Sam. It feels pretty good. Of course, it would feel better if Seven were here."

Sam looked at the young officer compassionately, showing him her support. "Don’t lose hope, Harry. Every one of us signed that petition to show our support for Seven. You’re not alone in this."

"Why couldn’t Seven be here, Mom?" Naomi said as she looked up at her mother.

"Honey, we explained this to you before," her mother said tenderly. "Seven has to remain on the ship."

"Can I stay on the ship with her?" Naomi inquired.

"No, sweetie. You can’t," said Neelix to his goddaughter.

"It’s not fair! Why are they being so mean to Seven?" Naomi pouted.

"Oh, they’re not being mean, honey," Sam said as she stroked her daughter’s hair. "They just need to get to know Seven, first."

"That’s right," Neelix joined in. "Remember how you were afraid of Seven of Nine at first, before you got to know her? It’s exactly the same thing."

"I guess so," the little girl sulked. "But I still think it’s mean to keep Seven locked up. Why do we have to do what Starfleet says anyway?"

"Hey, I know it stinks, kiddo," said Tom, squatting down to look the child in the eye. "Let this be a life lesson for you. Sometimes you have to do things you hate, just because the boss says you have to. And there’s nothing you can do except hope they wise up."

"Oh, I already knew that," Naomi said proudly. "I’m a kid, remember?"

Out of the mouths of babes, Harry chuckled inwardly. The laughter of the small circle around him showed they thought likewise. It was exactly the kind of obvious interpretation that Seven of Nine would have come up with.

"Excuse me," a voice called out past the multitudes. The sea of people parted to reveal Kira Nerys, standing with several officers behind her. "I have an announcement for Lieutenant Samantha Wildman."

"I’m here," Sam called out from her crowd of friends, curious as to what was going on.

"The Enterprise and the VIP shuttle just pulled into dock, and some of their passengers would like to join the party," she said with a wide, all knowing smile. She then stepped aside. Everyone was expecting to see the legendary Captain Jean-Luc Picard or one of his senior staff members, here to congratulate the crew of Voyager. But instead there was another officer, a K’tarian, who wore the pips of a lieutenant commander. He stepped nervously into the center of the crowd, as everyone cleared the way for him, his attention focused on a single individual in the room.

"S-samantha?" he tried to speak, his voice choked with emotion, hands trembling.

Sam Wildman stood slack jawed, barely able to speak herself. Tears formed in the corners of her eyes as the K’tarian stranger came closer too her. All conversation on the Promenade hushed to a silent whisper, as Voyager‘s crew and their guests looked on at this emotional ballet between the two.

Slowly, Sam made her way closer to the man, her eyes locked onto his bright golden irises. "Oh…oh my god…" she managed to speak, nearly breaking down in the process. "My Moonrise…"

"My Sunshine…" he said in return. "I never dreamed…I never thought I…"

And with that, the two urgently closed the distance between them, grabbing each other in a passionate embrace, and locking their lips together with a furious hunger. All of Voyager‘s crew stood flabbergasted at what they saw. For as long as they had known Samantha Wildman, they had always thought of her in terms of being somebody’s mother. Even during her evenings out with her girlfriends, she had always been the conservative and cautious one, leaving those to believe that her maternal qualities came automatic with her. But to see her like this…acting so passionate…so sexual…it was a side of her that they had never seen before.

Ever so slowly, the two of them parted. She stroked his cheek, running her fingers up along the dense row of horns along his forehead and over his smooth scalp, down to the long braid of hair that trailed behind.

Of course, it was up to Tom Paris to break the long, dramatic silence that followed. "Um, you think someone ought to tell this guy that she’s a married woman?" The entire crowd broke out in pearls of laughter.

Sam then looked back out onto her colleagues, and blushed a deep crimson of embarrassment. "I…um…I…" she tried to regain her composure, as she slowly slid from the embrace of her lover. "Everyone…this is Greskrendtregk, my husband."

"You can all just call me Gres," her mate said as he leaned forward affably. "I know how much trouble humans have with K’tarian names. Sam never got mine right until our fourth date."

The room laughed lightly with approval. Tom decided right away that he liked this guy. Even Neelix, who had felt an attraction to Sam once, seemed to approve of the man for whom she truly felt love, even if it was with a sad, wistful look on his face.

Sam turned back to her husband, stroking his arm, as though she were trying to reassure herself that this was not a dream, that this really was her soul mate before her right now. "Gres, darling, there’s someone else I want you to meet. Someone, very special…" And without turning away from him, she called out to the crowd, tears moistening her cheeks. "Naomi, honey," she said while trembling, "This is your daddy…" But the child did not step forward.

Neelix looked over at his side, where Naomi had been standing just two minutes ago. But she was no longer there.

"Naomi…" her mother called out. "Where are you, sweetheart?"

Everyone looked around them, to see if the precocious little girl had somehow gotten under foot. Nobody could find her. She had seemingly vanished into thin air.

"Don’t worry, Sam," Neelix stepped forward, seeing the worried look on her face. "I’m sure she just wandered off. I’ll go look for her."

As the party lapsed back into murmurs and conversations, Harry was left with Tom and B’Elanna, the three still bewildered by what they just saw.

"Wow…" B’Elanna mumbled, "Can you believe that? To be reunited like that after six years apart…" She then looked over at her own husband, and instinctively reached down to take his hand into hers. "If we were ever separated like that, would you still wait for me?"

Tom glanced over at the woman he loved, and stroked her dusky cheeks, his eyes locked with hers. "Do you even have to ask?"

Harry grinned at his two friends, touched by the loving looks of affection between them, and considered his own special someone. He knew there was someplace else he would rather be, or more specifically, someone else he’d rather be with.

"See you guys later," said Harry, turning to leave.

"Hey, where are you going?" said Tom. "We didn’t mean to make you feel like a third wheel again, buddy."

"Oh, it’s not that. I just realized after seeing Sam and her husband who it is I want to share this moment with, that’s all."

Tom glanced past Harry, looking out anxiously towards the turbolifts. "You sure you don’t want to stick around a little while longer, Har? My dad should be here any minute now."

"I’ll meet him later, Tom. Thanks anyway." Harry then walked off towards the direction of the nearest turbolift, but as he was halfway there, the doors slid open, expelling a small crowd of recent arrivals. The group quickly scattered, but leaving two people in particular standing in the center. Both of who saw the young Ops officer right away, looking right at him.

It took Harry a moment to look in the direction of the two of them. He saw them, and stopped dead in his tracks.

"Oh my god…" he gasped, as he looked right at two people he had not seen, except in pictures, for the past six years. They were John and Mary Kim, his parents, light years away from where he expected them to be.

How? How was it possible for them to be here? The only ships that had just arrived at the station were the Enterprise and the VIP shuttle. The Enterprise was coming in from the Gamma Hydra system. Only the shuttle was arriving from Earth. For them to be here on that shuttle, it would have taken authorization from someone in Starfleet Command, which included Tom’s father, Harry realized.

"Thank you, Tom," Harry said silently, as he acknowledged once again his friend’s act of kindness, arranging with his father to have his best friend’s parents flown out to be with him just when he needed them the most.

"H-harry?" his mother tried to speak, immediately shedding tears as she recognized her son, in an action that was a mirror of the reunion between Sam Wildman and her husband.

He couldn’t believe it was happening. He had almost given up hope of ever seeing the two people who meant more to him than anyone else, with the possible exception of Seven. It had only been six years, he reasoned, but they looked so much older to him, even though they were just in their early sixties, barely middle-aged by the standards of the 24th Century.

They ran up to each other, and embraced one another in a warm, familial three-way hug. Harry could hear his mother sobbing with joy. Or was it his father? It didn’t matter. For now, Harry Kim, Lieutenant senior grade, officer and explorer, survivor of the Delta Quadrant, now felt like a little boy of ten, returned to the loving embrace of his mommy and daddy. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way.

"Oh, John," Mary Kim cried out to her husband, as she held her son tightly. "He’s home…our baby is back home with us."

It was shortly after the ceremony that Neelix realized that Naomi did not simply wander off out of carelessness at all. Her mother feared she might have been abducted, but that didn’t seem too likely. At one time, any number of criminals and cutthroats could be found frequenting at Quark’s, but almost all of Deep Space Nine’s seedier patrons had moved on to greener pastures when the station became a Federation Starbase. Besides, who would have been fool enough to kidnap a child while twenty Starfleet vessels stood watch? But just to be safe, Commander Kira ordered all station departures halted, and implemented a deck-by-deck search for the missing girl.

But after nearly an hour of looking, she still failed to turn up. Her combadge was found discarded in one of the turbolifts, and only a single witness could be found who remembered seeing Naomi run past him on the habitat ring. Kira found it hard to believe that a small runaway child could evade trained Starfleet security teams for so long. But Naomi Wildman had been born on a starship, and knew her way around corridors and accessways. And she also had something to run away from.

"Dad!" Tom called out as soon as he saw Admiral Owen Paris step off the turbolift. He waved his arm wildly to get the older man’s attention, to where he and his B’Elanna were sitting.

"Tom!" his father yelled back in response, as he trotted across the Promenade towards the Replimat, where his son and daughter-in-law were seated. Tom got up slowly and stepped forward. Father and son slowed before each other, like they were sizing each other up. Neither was sure of what to say next. The last time either of them had stood face-to-face like this, it had not been on friendly terms. Owen Paris had called his son a dishonorable traitor and a disgrace to the family name, while Tom had spat back about what a miserable, heartless father he had been. Time had eased the pain, but could it erase the gulf between them?

So it was with a glacial slowness that father and son moved closer, until finally, after Owen made the first move, that the two embraced heartily.

"I…I never thought I’d get this chance again, son," said Owen Paris, his voice choking for just a moment.

"Same here, Dad," Tom said, equally heartfelt.

Owen then glanced past Tom to see where B’Elanna was sitting behind them. "Well, son? Aren’t you going to invite me to sit down with your wife?" he said with a broad smile.

"Hello, sir," B’Elanna greeted her father-in-law uncertainly, getting up half-way, still not quite sure where she stood with him.

Tom’s father gave his new daughter-in-law a comfortable smile. "B’Elanna, I know I didn’t exactly come across that warmly over subspace. It sort of threw me for a loop, finding out my only son went and got married. But you’re family now. Why don’t you just call me Owen instead?


Tom himself raised an eyebrow. The old man had rarely been this informal with unfamiliar people in the past. He remembered his father to have been a stern disciplinarian in governing how the family was run and ordered – fair, yet firm and unyielding in his demeanor. It had almost seemed like growing up in the Academy to him, with Owen Paris acting at times more like his commanding officer than his parent. Time had certainly changed a great many things.

The three immediately were seated, and got to talking about other matters, Tom’s mother and sisters, for one. Tom was pleased to discover he now had a little nephew. It did explain much with his father. Losing his only son and having a grandson within a few years of each other had done much to mellow out the exacting Starfleet admiral that Tom had remembered.

Every so often, Tom would glance past his father to see where Harry Kim was sitting with his own parents, so lively, animated, and free with their emotions. What a contrast with the uneasiness and discomfort that still seemed to exist between him and his father. Time could only heal so much at once, he figured. The rest would come later.

"Tom, I’ve got to tell you," said Owen, "I’ve been most impressed with what I’ve been reading from Kathryn about your performance on Voyager."

"It hasn’t all been stellar, Dad."

"Oh, that demotion business. Yes, I can’t say that I was thrilled when I heard about that. But that’s water under the bridge now. Starfleet is very interested by what they’ve learned about this Delta Flyer you designed."

"Really?" Tom gave a pleased smile. "Well, I had a little help, you know."

"Yes, yes. I’m sure B’Elanna was a tremendous help with that. But my god… safely integrating Borg and Starfleet technology? It’s remarkable! And the performance specs! If we’d had a hundred of these ships during the war, we could have cut our ground forces casualties in half!"

"Dad," Tom tried to speak, hoping for the opportunity to intervene on Seven’s behalf. "B’Elanna and I weren’t the only ones involved with that project. Harry Kim…"

"Yes, the friend you told me about. A fine young officer, indeed."

"Right," said Tom. "Oh and Dad, thanks for bringing his parents up here with you."

"Not at all. They were perfectly lovely people. And I’m glad to see you’ve befriended someone like this Mr. Kim. There’s a young man with a bright future ahead of him in Starfleet."

Listen to the way he gushes about Harry, Tom thought. Like the son he secretly wishes he had, instead of the one he got stuck with.

"About Harry, Dad," said Tom. "This business with Seven…"

"You mean the Borg woman?"

Tom definitely didn’t like the way that sounded. "Dad, that ‘Borg woman’ is my friend. Our friend," he said, gesturing to B’Elanna by his side.

"That’s right, Admiral, er, I mean, Owen," B’Elanna joined in. "She’s done a lot for Voyager. There’s the Delta Flyer, for one thing. It wouldn’t have been possible without her knowledge about how to integrate Borg and Federation technology safely."

"And then there’s the Astrometrics lab," Tom added, "and her strategic information on the Collective itself. She wants to help the Federation, Dad. She deserves better than what’s she’s getting." He then looked directly at his father. "Can’t you do anything to stop this madness?"

"I’m sorry, son," said Owen. "It’s already in the works. The committee members are setting up shop even as we speak. There’s nothing I can do."

"But Dad! You’re head of Starfleet R&D! Surely you can stop the committee?"

"No, son. I can’t. I couldn’t tell you this over subspace before, but it’s because I’m head of R&D that’s part of the reason I’m here," he said. He then returned his son’s earnest gaze with one of his own. "You see Tom, I’m on the committee."

Harry Kim sat with his parents at the Replimat trying to recount everything that he had experienced since he had gone missing. But how do you recap six whole years? Everything that he saw, that he felt? It was too much to sum up and recollect. But he would try. There was so much he wanted to tell his mom and dad, to try and explain how he had changed over the years. And of course, he needed to catch up with everything that had happened with the family since he had been gone. But for John and Mary Kim, it was enough just to have their son back with them.

"It’s like a miracle," his mother said, stroking her son’s cheek. "An absolute miracle."

"I’m so sorry," said Harry regretfully. "I should never have put you both through so much worry."

"Harry, you’ve got nothing to apologize for," his father said. "You did exactly what it was you wanted to do, and your mother and I supported you every step of the way. We’re only sorry our shuttle was delayed by that storm. We would have loved to have seen your promotion in person."

"Besides," said Mary Kim, her eyes starting to tear, "we weren’t the only parents who had lost a child to Starfleet. This war…"

"I know," said Harry sorrowfully, "I’ve been hearing so much about it. I can’t imagine what you and everyone else has been through."

"Starfleet was helpful," said John Kim. "They offered counseling sessions for the families of officers and enlisted personnel who were…killed…in the line of duty. They recommended similar sessions for us after Voyager was declared lost. And then when the war started, we saw so many parents experiencing the same grief that we went through. So we volunteered our time to help them. Being able to assist others helped us deal with our own grief."

"And then, when Starfleet told us that they had received a message from Voyager, that you were all on the other side of the galaxy…" said Mary Kim tearfully. "You don’t know what it meant for us to know that you were still alive somewhere, even if you were so far away. It was like someone was looking out for you, sending you away from the war and out of harm’s way, until you could come back to us."

"I wasn’t exactly out of harm’s way, Mom," said Harry pointedly. "I nearly died out there in the Delta Quadrant." The truth was, he had died out there. Twice, technically. But there was no need to tell his parents that. They had been through the emotional wringer enough as it was.

"We know, son," said his father. "And we’re so grateful to your captain that you are still alive. It’s just…for over three years, nobody could tell us what had happened to you. All that time, not knowing."

"Even afterwards, when they told us you were alive, we were never sure if that letter we sent to Starfleet ever got through or not," Harry’s mother said, holding his hand, trying to make certain that he was really there, that it wasn’t a dream.

"Oh, I received it," Harry said with a warm smile, remembering how overjoyed he had been to receive that letter. "It took a while, but it eventually came through."

"We’re so glad, son," said John Kim. "We were also worried about telling you…well, telling you about Libby."

"You were all so isolated out there," Mary Kim said, her face anguished, "We didn’t want your heart to be broken, knowing that Libby had moved on. But we felt it was better if you knew the truth."

"Hey, mom, it’s okay," said Harry, giving his parents a reassuring smile. "I didn’t expect Libby to wait around for me. I really am glad that she’s happy and that she’s gone on with her life."

"She was such a dear to us," Mary gushed. "After Voyager was declared lost, she…she helped us so much. Just being able to talk with her about it…it made a huge difference in dealing with our grief."

"That sounds like Libby," Harry said cheerily. "She always did feel close to you both."

"I know she never had a warm relationship with her own father," said Mary. "She even wanted to invite us to her wedding at first. But we all agreed that it would be…awkward."

Harry nodded, almost blushing as he spoke. "It’s okay, Mom. Really. You see…I moved on too. I found someone."

"You did?" Mary Kim lit up, her earlier sadness fading away. "Oh, Harry! That’s wonderful!"

"Oh, yes," Harry said broadly. "I love her and she loves me. We…"

"So?" his father chuckled, "some little Starfleet officer caught your eye, did she?"

"Oh, she’s not a Starfleet officer, Dad."

His mother looked at him oddly. "One of the Maquis?"

"No…" Harry said. "We found Seven in the Delta Quadrant."

"Seven? That’s an odd name," said Mary Kim. "Is she an alien?"

"I hope she’s at least carbon based," his father said jovially. "It would break your mother’s heart if she couldn’t eat any of her home cooking."

"No, no…she’s human," said Harry apprehensively. "It’s just that she’s…well…"

"She’s what, Harry? And how in heaven’s name did a human girl ever end up in the Delta Quadrant Was she on another ship that was abducted by this ‘Caretaker’?"

He knew he had to drop this bombshell about Seven carefully. If Starfleet’s reaction was any indication, he couldn’t presume automatic acceptance from people of the fact that the woman he loved had once been a Borg drone. And he couldn’t bear the thought of his parents, of all people, not accepting Seven.

He was about to continue when his combadge interrupted him. "Voyager to Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim," came the voice of Seven of Nine, emphasizing his rank with affectionate pride.

"Seven!" he said with surprise. "I wasn’t expecting you to call."

"I was curious as to your whereabouts. I wanted to celebrate with you on your promotion. I have…missed you during the time we have spent apart."

At hearing her voice, Harry’s mother leaned in. "Is this the Seven you were telling us about? Well, where is she? I’d like to meet the girl who’s captured my little officer’s heart."

"Harry, who is with you?"

"Oh, well…it’s my parents, Seven," replied Harry. "Tom had them flown up from Earth. I…guess I just got distracted catching up with them." He then swallowed hard, making a decision. "Would you like to meet them?"

"Indeed I would. I eagerly anticipate making their acquaintance."

"All right then. We can be over there in just five minutes. See you later, beautiful." And then he paused for a moment before finishing his thoughts. "I missed you too."

He turned back to his parents, and saw the loving smiles on their faces, almost like they were smirking. "What? What’s so funny?"

"You, that’s what," his father grinned with delight. "The look on your face when you spoke to her. I haven’t seen you like that since Libby."

"It must be love," his mother beamed.

"Well…" Harry blushed a deep shade of crimson, feeling a bit funny talking about such personal things in front of his mom and dad.

"Still," his mother added, "this Seven sounds like such a serious girl. She talks so formally."

"Now, Mary," his father commented, "I’m sure she’s just well mannered, that’s all." He then turned to his son, smiling broadly. "So what else can you tell us about her?"

"Um…well, she’s smart, really smart. And honest. She’s a real straight shooter. She believes in telling it like it is." Unlike me, he realized bitterly. I’m too afraid to tell them the truth about her.

"Sounds like she has a lot of spirit, this Seven," his father chuckled. "Is it serious between you two?"

"Oh, it’s serious all right," Harry said, steeling himself for what was to come.

"Well… then why isn’t she here with you, celebrating your promotion?" asked his mother, looking somewhat puzzled.

"Well…it’s complicated," Harry fidgeted, trying to think of the right way of saying what was on his mind.

"Complicated? Son, you’re being so cryptic about this girl," his father said. "What could be so awful about her that you wouldn’t want to tell us?"

Harry looked askance at his father, not quite sure how to answer him. He wasn’t ashamed of who Seven was and where she had come from. But the last thing he wanted was for his parents to meet his bride-to-be with the Battle of Wolf 359 replaying in their heads the whole time.

But did he have the right to surprise his parents with such a bombshell? It didn’t matter to him that Seven had once been a Borg drone, but surely his parents should at least be prepared for who it was his son wanted to spend the rest of his life with. And so he decided to take a cue from his beloved, and tell it like it was.

"Mom, Dad," Harry said, "it’s nothing awful. I just want you both to like her so much…"

"Harry, please. You’re making such a drama about this woman. If you’re crazy about her, Harry, then how could we not like her?" John Kim chortled. "So why don’t you tell us what has you so worried."

"Okay, Mom, Dad," he said as he steeled himself. "It has to do with how Seven came to be in the Delta Quadrant. You see, she…she used to be a Borg."

His father then burst out laughing, almost rolling out of his seat. "Oh, is that all?" He then regained his composure as he settled down. "A Borg? Oh, that’s rich, Harry. And here you had us all going for a minute there…"

"John," Mary Kim gasped as she saw the dead serious look on her son’s face. "I don’t think he’s joking."

"I’m not," Harry said stoically, looking his parents straight in the eye and not flinching, almost as though he were challenging them. It was something he never would have done before. "Seven and I are in love."

"B-but, a Borg?!" his father stammered, caught off guard from his earlier humorous state. "H-how is something like that even possible? I mean…I’ve seen the documentaries and the newscasts. They’re all practically machines, aren’t they?"

"Oh, dad!" Harry groaned in exasperation. "Seven’s not a machine! She’s a human being. We freed her from the Collective and showed her how to be human again."

"Harry, I…" his mother tried to speak, but she was at a total loss for words. "Exactly how serious is this relationship?"

"Very serious, Mom," he said, leaning over to her, and taking her hand into his. "We want to get married."

To Harry’s distress, Mary Kim’s already ashen complexion turned a whiter shade of pale. "M-married?! Harry, are you sure about this?"

"Mom, I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life!" he exclaimed with desperate glee. "We love each other, but no one seems to understand that. Surely you of all people would trust me. I mean, I told her that you two wouldn’t judge her because of her past, that you’d give her a chance. Was I wrong?"

"Well…" John Kim tried to come up with some way of answering his son, but the very idea was just so…improbable…that he had trouble getting his head around it. His son? In love with a Borg?! "I…I suppose there’s no harm in us meeting this…um…girl. Don’t you agree, Mary?"

Mary Kim quickly spun to face her husband, clearly not pleased with the situation, but realizing that she couldn’t just come across as unreasonable in front of her son. "Yes, John," she said tensely. "At the very least, we should meet her before coming up with an opinion of her."

"So let’s go, then," Harry said, leading them to go, trying to conceal the sour sensation that he was feeling in his stomach. What had he expected his parents’ reaction to be? That they would unquestionably accept Seven into the family with open arms? Maybe he did. After everything Seven had been through in life, wasn’t she in need of some unconditional love from someone other than himself?

As the Kims moved to leave, Harry noticed over at the Paris table that Tom’s father was also getting up. After the admiral departed, he led his parents over to introduce them to his good friends, hoping that at least they would be accepted right away.

"I’m so glad to finally meet you both," said Mary Kim to Tom and B’Elanna, showing more of her earlier enthusiasm. "Harry’s father and I are happy to see that our son was able to make such good friends while he was away."

"Mom," Harry groaned as he rolled his eyes. "You’re talking like I was away at summer camp or something."

"Relax, Harry," B’Elanna chuckled. "Give your parents a chance to baby you for a while."

"Say, Tom," Harry interjected, wanting to change the subject, "what’s the story with your father? Is he going to be able to stop this committee business?"

Tom Paris’ eyes went heavy as he looked downward in disappointment. "I’m sorry, Har. I don’t think we can count on him. He was one of the committee members the whole time. I can try and talk him into voting in our favor, but…well, Owen Paris has always taken the hard line in the past. The way he was talking about her, I don’t think he’ll be cutting Seven any slack if he doesn’t like what he hears."

Harry’s heart sank at this unfortunate turn of events. He had been hoping that Tom would have managed to pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat and have this committee nonsense quashed. But it seemed now that all hopes for a political solution rested in the hands of Captain Janeway. He tried to ignore the looks of confusion of his parents, who had no idea what any of them had been talking about.

"So, where are you all headed?" Tom asked, trying to lighten the mood with something more positive.

"We’re going over to Voyager. I’m going to introduce my parents to Seven," Harry said, trying to perk up with a proud grin.

"Uh, that’s really nice, Harry," said Tom, looking past his friend to see the uncertain look on the older couple’s faces.

Apparently B’Elanna picked up on the same thing. As they walked, she called out to the young officer. "Uh, Harry, could you come here a second."

Assuring his folks that he would be along shortly, he hopped back towards his friends. "What’s up, guys? Can this wait? I haven’t seen my folks in a while."

"You told them, didn’t you?" B’Elanna looked at him squarely.

"You mean about Seven? Of course I did. I don’t keep secrets from my parents." He then leaned over towards his friends, his voice sounding concerned. "Why? How do they look to you?"

"Well, I don’t know your parents, Har, but I’d say they look exactly like two people who’ve just been told by their son that he wants to marry a Borg." Tom answered smartly.

"Yeah," Harry said wearily. "I knew were going to be surprised, but I didn’t think they’d be this unhappy about it."

"They didn’t come right out and say they were opposed to the marriage, did they?" B’Elanna asked with concern.

"Not yet," he said. "I only hope that once they meet Seven, they’ll see just how wonderful she really is. It’s just that you mention the word ‘Borg’ and people start getting all kinds of images in their heads. You saw how Starfleet reacted. They see Seven as a stereotype, not as a person. But I know my parents are better than that. They have to be!"

As Harry and his parents walked off towards the closest turbolift, B’Elanna could only shake her head in exasperation. "So, do you think the Kims are going to welcome Seven into the family?"

"I don’t know, honey," he said, before letting a wicked grin spread across his features. "But what I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall at that meeting."

Kathryn Janeway waited impatiently outside of the conference room door, not knowing what to expect next. The station security guards maintained their post outside the door, immobile and at attention. The last of the admirals who would decide Seven of Nine’s future had arrived and, after the cursory pleasantries with Admiral Ross and Commander Kira, had proceeded directly to the facilities provided for them to discuss their findings thus far.

Janeway had not been able to learn much. Jacob Patterson had been among those on the VIP shuttle, but had limited his exchange to a warm greeting, before retiring to chambers with the rest of the committee. She had been surprised to learn that Owen Paris had also been selected by the CinC directly, and had managed to exchange a few welcome greetings from her old commander. She supposed it made sense. Research and Development had a stake in determining what Seven’s capabilities were and how best to make use of them. But the idea of her being exploited to the Federation’s benefit, while denying her the freedom to determine her own destiny, rankled Janeway to no end.

The admirals had already had the opportunity to review Voyager‘s logs as well as Janeway’s own personal recordings and the Doctor’s medical files on Seven. Now they were inside receiving expert testimony from the station’s counselor, Lieutenant Ezri Dax, after which they would call in Janeway to offer her own report. After that, the committee would probably then deposition other members of the crew who knew Seven well, the Senior Staff at the very least. And finally, they would question Seven herself in a series of interviews, before issuing their final recommendation to Starfleet Command.

Her thoughts were also muddled by what had happened earlier that day with Chakotay. Why did she have to feel so conflicted when it came to him? At first, when they had been stranded in the Delta Quadrant, she had noticed right away that she held felt an attraction towards him. After all, he was a handsome man with a dark and forceful presence, a revolutionary fighting a lost cause. He was like a character out of a holonovel come to life. But, of course, she had still been loyal to her feelings for Mark, and held out every hope that Voyager would be home soon enough for her to return to him. But as the years stretched on, such a reunion seemed unlikely, and when they had first managed to communicate with the Alpha Quadrant two years ago, that fear had proven to be grounded.

At that point, it should have been so easy to approach him, to let him know that she was available. But she couldn’t deny the fact that she was still his captain, and that a certain professional distance had to be kept. Granted, Starfleet regulations did not expressly forbid relationships between captains and their subordinates. But there was always the unspoken rule, the implicit acceptance among those in command that such relationships were to be avoided at all costs. Attaching oneself too closely to an officer under one’s command could compromise judgment, precluding making the necessary, and sometimes painful choices one had to make in a crisis situation. The unofficial consensus was that these imbalanced relationships almost always ended badly for both parties involved.

But none of that mattered anymore. Chakotay was just an ordinary man now. There was no hierarchy of command, no crisis that required clear thinking. The door was wide open for her to express those long suppressed feelings she had felt for years. So why wasn’t she acting on them? What was stopping her?

Janeway’s musings were cut short by the door to the conference room sliding open, and the slim, short Trill counselor came out into the hall.

"Captain Janeway?" said Ezri, "Admiral Patterson asked me to tell you that they’ll be calling you in a few minutes."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," the captain replied.

Noticing the concerned look on the older woman’s face, Ezri approached her. "Uh, ma’am? You’re worried about Seven, aren’t you?"

"Among other things, yes," she answered

Ezri tried to offer a show of support. "Don’t worry, Captain. I’m hoping it will all turn out fine."

"Thank you, counselor." Seeing that the younger woman had a sympathetic ear, Janeway continued with her further. "Lieutenant, if I could have a moment…"

"Sure. What can I do?"

"I’d like your input. Professional, that is. You talked with Seven for a while…"

"You want to know what my opinion is of her mental state," Ezri concluded.

"I’m not asking you to betray any confidences. It’s just…" she tried to say. "We didn’t have any professional counselors on Voyager. I want to know if I did right by her."

Ezri smiled warmly at the captain’s concern. There was something so heartwarming, so *maternal* about her distress. "If by ‘right,’ you mean taking a Borg drone and teaching her how to be a unique individual, I’d say you succeeded brilliantly. Seven definitely has a strong sense of selfhood and independence."

"But as for being a productive member of Federation society and acclimated to human cultural norms?"

Ezri’s proud smile wavered a bit and she hesitantly shrugged her shoulders. "Well…it’s like what your people usually say. Rome wasn’t built in a day."

"I just can’t help but feel that if only I did something different, she wouldn’t be in this situation."

"You mean, if only she were more normal?" said Ezri, raising an eyebrow.

"Something like that," said Janeway.

"Captain, you can’t hold yourself responsible. When you rescued Seven of Nine from the Borg, you took on the responsibility of having to create an entirely new person from scratch. That’s not an easy task, and it’s certainly not something you can do quickly. It takes eighteen years or more to do that with a human or a Trill. Don’t beat yourself up because you couldn’t finish the job in only three."

"Somehow, I don’t think the committee is going to look at Seven of Nine like she were a child."

"Probably not," Ezri answered wryly. "But I think you did the best you could, given the limitations you had to work with."

"That’s what concerns me. The committee might feel that an institutional setting might be better for her than a life on Earth, that I may have done permanent damage to her."

"Not necessarily, Captain. If anything, I’d say that Voyager‘s isolation from Starfleet might have been helpful for Seven."

"How so?"

"Well, it served as a necessary intermediary step for her. Starfleet regulations and duty rosters gave her the necessary structure that she was used to as a drone, while at the same time allowing her the time to experiment with human social interactions and rituals. Also, she received a limited exposure to a group of humans and nonhumans that was easier for her to handle than an entire populated planet. If she had been rescued at the Second Borg Incursion, for instance, and brought back to Earth, she might well have had a total psychological breakdown."

"That may be so, but be honest with me, Lieutenant. Was there anything I could have done better?"

Ezri reflected on that, her brow furrowed in thought. The truth that Ezri had discerned from the various log reports was that Janeway had been rather inconsistent in establishing boundaries of behavior for Seven, as if she were uncertain when to treat her like a crewmember, and when to treat her like a developing child. But telling that to Captain Janeway right now would not have been productive given her worried state. And while such confusion might have contributed to her willfulness during her first two years aboard Voyager, there was ample indication that Seven had learned to grow past such childish behavior and mature into someone more balanced during the past year. It was Seven’s long-term mental health, rather than her growing pains, which were of more immediate concern for Ezri. "Well…I have to admit that having her stay in the Cargo Bay as long as she did wasn’t helpful. It only reinforced her social isolation from the rest of the crew…" she said warily.

"I know, I know," Janeway said remorsefully. "And I deeply regretted every moment she was down there. Unfortunately, it would have been difficult to put a regeneration chamber into regular crew quarters. Perhaps if I had known how crucial it was for her, I might have made it more of a priority. I was so relieved when she started to not need it anymore…"

"You mean, the chair?" said Ezri. "Yes, that marked a definite improvement in her psychological well-being. As much as she had convinced herself that it wasn’t necessary, she needed to be around people in order to strike that balance between being an individual and being part of a community."

"Being around people?" Janeway said, as her eyes twinkled and a dimpled smile emerged. "I’d say one person in particular comes to mind."

"You mean Harry Kim?" Ezri replied with a grin of her own. "Yes, I know what you mean. It’s obvious from talking to her that she loves him very much."

"I’d say he’s made a bigger difference in her life than I have," said Janeway.

"Oh, that’s not entirely true, Captain. You provided the structure and the opportunity for her to begin the journey, but along the way, she’s needed different guides to help her along as she’s grown. First you, then Commander Tuvok, then your EMH…"

Janeway blinked in surprise. "She told you about him?"

"Oh, absolutely. She cares a great deal for the Doctor also. She’s worried about what will happen to him also."

"I…I would have thought that you would have found that a little…odd."

"Oh, there’s no such thing as ‘odd’ in my profession," Ezri grinned. "Besides, some of my best friends are holograms."

"Tell me, Lieutenant. What is your opinion of Seven?"

The young Trill gave the question some thought. "To be perfectly honest, Captain, and this may be completely unprofessional of me to say, but…well…I like her."

Now that took Kathryn Janeway completely by surprise. She couldn’t think of anyone, with the possible exception of Harry Kim, who had immediately found themselves liking Seven of Nine from the beginning. Seven hadn’t exactly been the most likable of people when she first came aboard Voyager. Certainly Janeway’s own feelings about this odd and tragic young woman had initially been a mixture of alarm, concern, and pity, but that wasn’t the same as liking her. Even Harry’s early fondness for her had been colored by a deep anxiety over just how different she was from normal women.

But that had changed over those awkward first months of her reintroduction to individuality. In spite of her willfulness and arrogance, Seven gradually came to identify with the other members of the crew and even make progress in her development as a human being. Of course, sometimes this progress came at what seemed a glacial pace, and she would just as often stagnate or even regress to comfortable, familiar patterns when she felt she wasn’t in control. In fact, she had seemed to be stuck in such a routine just before she embarked on the curiosity that led to her exploring a relationship with Harry Kim.

She had gradually become so much a part of Voyager‘s ‘collective’ that, to Janeway, the idea of losing Seven, whether it be to the Borg, an alien think tank, or Starfleet, had become unthinkable. Was it any wonder that Ezri Dax, who had come to know the young ex-drone, had found herself liking her once her rougher edges had been filed away?

For Ezri had come to know what Kathryn had felt all along, that beneath that Borg hardware and commitment to efficiency and perfection was an extraordinary young woman who only needed the chance to blossom into her full potential.

"I have to say, Lieutenant, most people haven’t taken an instant liking to Seven the way you have," Janeway said with amusement.

"Well, I can understand that," said Ezri. "She definitely comes on strong with people and she isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind. That might put off a lot of people, especially in the context of Starfleet. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. She’s confident in herself and her opinions. She knows what she wants and she goes for it. Like my friend Vic might say, she’s got…moxie."

At that, Janeway nearly burst out laughing. "Moxie? Oh my. Has this friend of yours been talking to Tom Paris by any chance?"

"No," Ezri laughed back, "but from the way Seven has described him, I get the feeling the two of them would get along famously." She then looked directly at Janeway and continued on. "But seriously though, Seven of Nine wasn’t at all what I imagined she’d be. When we first got word from Starfleet that you were coming here, they forwarded all of your medical and personal logs for me to study. From my initial readings about Seven, I was expecting someone suffering from emotional autism at the very least, or possibly a borderline sociopath."

"My god…" Janeway muttered. To her layman’s ears, the word ‘sociopath’ stood out with such a frightening ominous resonance. "I supposed to some people, she might have come across that way."

"I can only imagine how formidable she must have seemed back then. There were definite signs in my later readings that she was adopting obsessive-compulsive behavior as an adaptive strategy for her social isolation. But then, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all. One can only imagine the kind of traumas she’s experienced for someone who was assimilated as child and experienced the things she’s been through."

"So what did you tell the committee, Lieutenant? What would you recommend to be in Seven’s best interests?"

"Well, from my initial meeting with her, and from the observation I’ve made of her development from your logs, I’d say that she’s still socially isolated to a strong degree, but that she’s made tremendous progress in that area. She’s experiencing a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of her assimilation and the loss of her parents, and add to that the suppressed guilt she feels over the harm she caused to others while she was a drone."

"So you feel that she still needs help?"

"I’ll be honest, Captain. The things she experienced are going to be with her for a long time. At first, she simply subsumed those feelings, calling them irrelevant. Initially, I thought she had an OCD, but it was really a strategy on her part to distract her focus from what she was feeling about her past. But as she gets more in touch with her ability to feel emotions, the guilt and trauma are going to affect her more and more. She’ll need counseling to help her deal with them, there’s no doubt about that. For instance, there’s the way she refuses to accept her human name."

Janeway perked up her head in concern. This had been an issue that had always concerned her with Seven, and she was eager to hear the young counselor’s professional take on that.

"Captain," Ezri continued, "I recall from your logs that you initially tried to get Seven to call herself Annika, but she refused."

"Yes. She said she had been Seven of Nine as long as she could remember. I didn’t want to push her too hard. Maybe that was a mistake."

"I don’t think so. She had to be ready to think of herself as Annika Hansen first."

"I know what you mean, counselor. Whenever she talked about her pre-assimilation life, she would always refer to herself in the third person, as though the child she used to be was somebody else."

"I’m afraid that as long as she thinks of herself as Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, she’s always going to have a boundary of some kind between herself and other people."

"I see," Janeway said, her spirits lowered. "In other words, she’s not really ready to live among humans yet."

"I didn’t say that, Captain. In fact, I told the committee that what she needed, more than ever, was to be in an environment where she could receive support and love. Initially, she was receiving that as a part of the community on Voyager, but now she has to find it somewhere else. It’s a big disruption in her life, but if she can find something on Earth or somewhere else to replace it, then she could make a happy life for herself. But I can tell you this. She won’t find what she needs in an institution or any kind of clinical setting. She needs to feel like she’s welcome among her own kind again."

"Well, I’m pleased to hear that. Hopefully that made some impression on the committee."

"I…I’m really not sure. They nodded their heads and thanked me for my testimony, and that was it. Somehow I get the feeling that this is about more than just concern for her well-being."

"What makes you say that?"

"There were representatives from Starfleet Security, Intelligence, and R&D. Why would they be here if this was just a competency hearing?"

Why indeed, Janeway thought. Having Owen Paris in attendance made sense to her, as R&D was heavily involved in developing any and all technologies spun off from Borg knowledge. Naturally Starfleet would want to gauge Seven’s mental state, in order to determine her fitness as a subject for debriefing. But if Security or Intelligence were involved, then that signified that Starfleet was concerned with the possible threat Seven posed to the safety of the Federation as a whole, in addition to the safety of individual citizens. In which case, her mental health and happiness became entirely secondary.

"Kathryn," a familiar voice called out from down the hall. Janeway looked up from her internal musing to see Chakotay striding towards her.

She was paralyzed for a moment, uncertain as to what to say to him after what had happened between them on the Promenade. The last thing she had wanted to do was to hurt her former first officer. But she had acted out of instinct, quick to protect herself. Surely he must have known that it never could have worked out between the two of them, regardless of the mutual attraction they felt. Chakotay was headed towards the frontier, and she would go wherever Starfleet chose to send her. Fate was pulling them in two separate directions. Why bother to fight it, she thought. They would both only get hurt later on. She would get hurt later on.

Why am I doing this to myself, she anguished silently. I’m forty-eight years old, yet I’m still playing these stupid high school games.

"Kathryn," said Chakotay, as he approached the end of the hall where she stood with Ezri. "I see they haven’t called you yet."

"No," she said. "They’ll be along soon, I hope. I didn’t know they’d be asking you to testify. I assumed that Tuvok was on the roster after me."

"He’s on his way," Chakotay answered. "I guess that, Maquis or not, they’re still interested in what my observations are of Seven’s behavior, what with me being her former commander and all."

"Of course," Janeway mumbled absentmindedly. "That makes perfect sense."

Sensing that there was something going on beneath the surface between the two of them, Ezri leaned in, trying to conceal a girlish grin. "Excuse me, but I…I think I ought to be going. I have a lot of follow-up on Seven’s case to do." And so the Trill counselor beat a hasty retreat to the nearest turbolift, leaving the couple alone and uncertain of what to say to each other.

After a long, uncomfortable silence, Chakotay finally spoke up. "Kathryn, I…I want to apologize to you. For earlier."

"Whatever for?"

"For putting you in that uncomfortable situation today. I had you backed into a corner, and I had no right. I can’t make you feel something when it isn’t there."

But it is there, she wanted to tell him. But she didn’t. "You don’t have to apologize, Chakotay. I…" She tried to come up with something heartfelt to say, but could only do what she could to protect her heart. "I value our friendship. I don’t want to lose that."

Idiot, idiot, idiot! she screamed at herself. Why did you say that?!

"I’m glad you said that," he said, trying to put on a brave, false face of congeniality, even though his insides were tearing themselves apart. "Maybe…it would be best if we just forgot the whole thing ever happened?"

"I couldn’t agree more," she spoke with a plastic smile.

How was it, they both wondered simultaneously, that two mature people who should have known better could act so painfully juvenile?

At that awkward moment, the door to the conference room slid open and a young lieutenant poked her head out. "Captain Janeway? Mr. Chakotay? Please step inside. The committee is ready to see you now."

Seven of Nine looked over her reflection in Sickbay, making certain there was not a hair out of place.

"You’re certainly making a fuss over yourself," the Doctor commented dryly as he looked over her shoulder.

"I am perfecting my appearance," she responded. "Harry will be arriving shortly with his parents, and it is essential that I make a suitable impression."

"I assure you, Seven, that someone as lovely as you can’t help but make an impression," said the Doctor proudly. "I have to say that I’ve never seen you looking this insecure before."

"I am not insecure," she insisted. "I am merely recognizing the significance of this meeting. By marrying their son, I will become a member of the Kim Collective. Therefore, it is essential that I demonstrate my worthiness and acceptability to them."

"Oh, Seven," the Doctor sighed, "I’m sure you have absolutely nothing to worry about."

"Doctor," Seven looked at her mentor squarely, "Starfleet Command believes that I am either mentally unbalanced or dangerous. I assure you that I have much to worry about."

"Of course," said the Doctor contritely. They were both feeling a bit antsy, even if Seven was too stoic to admit it. The only other people they had been in contact with today in the flesh had been a security team from the station looking for Naomi Wildman, who had apparently gone missing. A concerned Seven of Nine had offered her assistance in the search, but the team leader, after looking at her oddly, had politely declined her offer, claiming that they had the situation under control.

Under control indeed, Seven thought bitterly. If they had the situation under control, she had said to them, then they would have found Naomi Wildman by now, wouldn’t they?

They didn’t seem to appreciate that either, the Doctor recalled.

It was then that the door to Sickbay slid open and a wiry looking officer poked his head inside. "E-excuse m-me," he said. "I didn’t know anybody w-would be here."

"Well of course people would be here!" said the Doctor in a huff. "Why else do you think there are armed guards standing watch outside the airlock? To keep people from making off with the silverware?"

"I-I’m sorry, it’s just…" the nervous man stammered as he then took a step back and looked around the room. "Sickbay," he gasped, as if in awe. "It’s exactly how I pictured it. Everything looks…it all looks so perfect!"

"State your designation," commanded Seven, obviously perplexed by this strange interloper.

"And you must be Seven of Nine!" he said joyously. "Oh, Starfleet simulations weren’t able to do you justice."

"See here," the Doctor demanded. "Would you please tell us what you’re doing here?"

"Oh, I’m sorry. Lieutenant Reginald Barclay. I…I’m here to inspect the mobile emitter and secure the ship’s EMH. I…I guess that’s you, isn’t it? I…I didn’t think you’d be online when I arrived here."

"I most certainly am online," said the Doctor. "So you’re the one from Jupiter Station who’s come to shut me down!"

"W-well, n-not exactly…" said Barclay. "I used to work at Jupiter Station before I transferred to the Pathfinder Project. Dr. Zimmerman was the one supposed to arrive today. He was so excited when he heard about the mobile emitter, he wanted to supervise its transfer personally. B-but his ship was caught in that ion storm that everyone’s talking about, and had to stop to make repairs. Since I was already traveling on the Enterprise from a conference on Gamma Hydra, he c-contacted me and asked that I secure things here before he arrived."

"Dr. Zimmerman?" said the Doctor with obvious excitement. "Dr. Lewis Zimmerman? He’s coming here?"

"Y-yes. Sometime tomorrow, he hopes."

"Why, this is perfect!" said the hologram. "Dr. Zimmerman is the foremost holographic programming engineer in the entire Federation. He designed the Mark One series personally! If I can convince him that I’ve transcended my original programming, that I’ve become more than just another EMH, then perhaps I can get a reprieve for myself!"

"Indeed," Seven added with a nod.

The Doctor then turned his attention towards the awkward lieutenant. "Mr. Barclay, you said that you worked previously with Dr. Zimmerman?"

"Y-yes, that’s right."

Sensing no hostility from the officer, the Doctor sized up Barclay as a potential ally. "Lieutenant, may I ask you something? Do you believe that its possible for a hologram to become more than what it was originally intended to be? That it could grow and expand its abilities to the point where it…he…could determine his own destiny?"

"You mean, can a hologram become…sentient? I…well, yes, I suppose. I met the Moriarty program on the Enterprise D and he seemed pretty sentient to me."

"I knew it!" the Doctor cried out. "Mr. Barclay, I believe that with your help, I may be able to convince my creator that I’m more than just the sum of my parts. That is, if you’ll let me."

"Well, I…you certainly don’t seem like any Mark One I’ve met before." He then looked around the room, still swept up in the emotion of the moment. "I just can’t believe I’m actually here! On Voyager! When Dr. Zimmerman called me…it was like a dream come true!" He then steadied himself and looked intently at the holographic doctor. "Are any of the crew on board? Do you think I…I could actually meet them?"

"Why of course you can," the Doctor stated magnanimously. "They’re all personal friends of mine. It’s unfortunate that they’re all scattered about the station, or I’d introduce you to them myself."

"Doctor," Seven of Nine commented, "I believe that you informed me that there was no specific prohibition against your leaving the ship, as long as you were made available when the representative from Jupiter Station arrived."

"That’s right," said the Doctor with a gleam in his eyes as he turned towards Barclay again. "And since Mr. Barclay is that representative, then Starfleet should have no objections to my leaving, as long as I remain in his company."

"I…I suppose not," Barclay nervously agreed.

A chime emitted from Seven’s combadge interrupted the conversation. "Seven, it’s me. I’m outside the airlock with my parents. Captain Janeway left authorization saying I could come aboard as I pleased. The guards are checking right now."

"I will meet you by the gangway, Harry," Seven said with breathless anticipation.

"Harry?!" Barclay said excitedly. "D-do you mean Ensign Harry Kim?"

"Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim," Seven corrected him.

"Lieutenant Commander!" Barclay exclaimed. "That’s wonderful! I knew he had it in him!"

Seven looked at him oddly, not quite sure what it was he was talking about. But it was not relevant. There were other things more important that demanded her attention.

"If you will excuse me," said Seven, "I must go and meet Harry and his family."

"Splendid!" said the Doctor. "We’ll head out with you." He then reached for his mobile emitter, attaching it to his arm and loaded his program into its memory.

Barclay could only look on with awe. "Amazing! A tiny, portable holographic projector! Just think of what it would mean if we could mass-produce it and install them everywhere the way we do with universal translators. It would change…everything!"

"Yes," observed the Doctor. "It would mean my freedom."

Harry wished there was some way he could gauge exactly what his parents were thinking. It would almost have been a relief if they had yelled or screamed at him. At least then we would have known where he stood. But during the entire turbolift ride up to the airlock, they had worn those expressions of blank confusion.

Obviously the fact that he loved Seven wasn’t enough for people, but how he had hoped his parents would have been different.

"Mom, Dad," he said to them as they waited in the antechamber for Seven to arrive, "all that I ask is that you give Seven a chance. Don’t think of her as a Borg. Think of her as a woman."

"We’ll…try, Harry," said his mother with that same worried look.

But before he could reply nearest turbolift doors slid open to reveal a tall blond former Borg coming towards their direction, eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Kim family. He barely noticed the Doctor and a second individual coming up from behind her.

"Seven!" Harry exclaimed with joy as he saw her come to him. Seeing his parents again, spending time with them, he had almost forgotten what it had felt like to be forcibly separated from his beloved. But seeing her again, here and now, it made him want to reach out to her and never let her go.

"Harry…" she said breathlessly, overjoyed at being reunited with her man. She wanted to rush over and kiss him, to feel his beautiful lips upon hers.

They were not alone, but that did not matter to them. It was irrelevant. The young couple quickly rushed together and embraced, their lips merging into one.

As they parted, she remembered that there were others around, both in front of and behind her. She turned to face the older couple standing behind Harry. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim," said Seven proudly as she stood at attention, her arms behind her back, her chest thrust forward in crisp military fashion. "I am Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One. I am your son’s mate."

The next sound heard, Harry swore, was that of his parents’ jaws hitting the floor in collective shock.

"Y-you’re Seven?!" Mary Kim managed to speak, as she took in the sight of this buxom young woman dressed in a purple leotard with some kind of machinery on her face.

"That is correct," she said directly. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance." Seven then paused for a second, considering what was the appropriate social etiquette of such a meeting. Coming up with a simple yet universal gesture, she stepped forward and offered her left hand to shake. Mary Kim’s eyes widened in shock as she saw the metallic exo-supports tracing over her fingers.

"Seven of Nine…Terty…um…" John finally spoke up after a moment of stunned silence.

"Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One," she corrected him.

"Yes, um…that’s…um…quite a long name you have there," he continued nervously.

"It is the designation given to me by the Borg Collective," Seven declared.

"You still think of yourself as a drone?" Harry’s mother asked curiously.

"She was a drone, Mom!" Harry finally spoke up, before coming alongside his fiancée and putting his arm around her waist. "She’s human. I told you, we freed her from the Collective and gave her back her humanity. And I love her!"

Seeing the discomfort on his parents’ faces, the Doctor took it upon himself to rescue young Harry Kim. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim!" the hologram greeted them obsequiously. "I’m delighted to meet the two of you! I’m the Emergency Medical Hologram here on Voyager and I have to say what a pleasure it’s been to work with your son. Not only has he been a credit to Starfleet and an upstanding young man, but a valued return customer for us in Sickbay."

"Oh, uh, very nice to, um, meet you…" Mary Kim said, not quite sure what to make of this new visitor. "Did you say that you’re a hologram?"

"That’s correct. Your son was one of the first on Voyager to treat me like an equal."

"Well, that sounds like Harry all right," John Kim said. "I don’t believe I caught your name."

Then it was the Doctor’s turn to look uncomfortable. "That…um…that’s because I don’t have one."

It was then that Harry realized that there was a third person standing behind Seven and the Doctor as that person stepped towards him and stammered out, "Mr. Kim! I…um…Commander…Kim…I…I’m Lt. Reginald Barclay…and I…."

"Barclay?" Harry replayed the name in his mind, trying to remember where he had heard it before. "Wait a minute. You’re the one from the Pathfinder Project, right?"

"You remembered!" Barclay squealed with delight as he grabbed Harry’s hands and shook them vigorously. "Mr. Kim…I just wanted to say what a privilege…no, an honor…it is to finally meet you and welcome you home! I…I feel as if I’ve known you for years!"

"Um…okaaaay," Harry smiled nervously at this very odd man, trying to humor him in fear that he would do something dangerous otherwise. "It’s, er, very nice to meet you in person."

"Come, Mr. Barclay," said the Doctor, as he led the excited officer to the airlock door. "I think this is intended to be a private family affair."

As the two of them left, the Kim family and Seven remained standing there, waiting for someone to speak first.

Harry decided that it would have to be him who made the first move. "So…" he said to his parents as he tightened his hold around Seven’s waist once again, "Isn’t she as wonderful as I told you?"

"Well, she is a very striking young lady, I’ll admit," his mother said.

"It is amusing that you should use such a remark in regards to me, Mrs. Kim," said Seven. "It bears correlation to how Harry and I first became aquatinted."

"Oh, did he tell you that he found you striking when he first met you?" said John Kim.

"No, Mr. Kim. In an effort to escape from Voyager, I struck Harry at the base of the skull and rendered him unconscious," she replied with a smile and a raised eyebrow. She hoped that the attempt at humor would endear to them and help to ease the tension in the atmosphere. The look of distress on the older couple’s faces told her that she was not successful in this regard.

"Do not be alarmed," Seven added quickly. "I was very confused in those early days. Harry has since forgiven me."

Seeing that her forced effort at joking did not go over well, Harry tried to laugh and smooth things over. "Heh, heh. Isn’t she a great kidder? Everyone always says what a quirky sense of humor Seven has."

"Um, right," his father tried to agree.

As if on command, a chirp came over Harry’s combadge. "Commander Tuvok to Lt. Commander Kim," came the droning voice of Voyager‘s tactical officer.

"Excuse me," he said to his parents as he slapped his badge. "Kim here," he called out to Tuvok.

"Mr. Kim, your presence has been requested at the committee hearing. Report at once."

Harry’s eyes widened as he realized that this was the moment he had expected ­ and dreaded ­ since he had first learned of Starfleet’s plans for Seven. "Understood," he called out. "Seven and I will be on our way."

"Negative, Mr. Kim," said Tuvok. "The committee has not requested Seven of Nine’s appearance at this time. Only you are to appear with the rest of Voyager‘s senior officers."

Harry couldn’t believe it. "Are you telling me that they’re holding a hearing on Seven’s future and they’re not even going to bother to speak with her?"

"I am merely reporting what has been requested of me, Commander. Tuvok out."

The communication channel severed, Harry let out a deep sigh. He turned to Seven and gazed deeply into her lustrous blue eyes. "I guess this is it."

"I know you will do all that you can, Harry," She then reached out to touch his cheek, stroking his smooth face. "I have faith in you."

"I love you," he said to her, as he leaned in to give her a quick peck on the lips, oblivious to his parents’ stares. He then turned to them, his face regretful. "I’m sorry. Duty calls. I’ll be back as soon as I can."

"What’s going on?" Mary Kim asked. "Is something the matter?"

"Seven will tell you," he said, his heart heavy with disappointment at all that had failed to live up to his expectations. The organization he had always believed in had turned against the woman who meant everything to him. And his parents, the two people he had once thought could never turn their backs on anyone, were afraid of Seven. Even the victory of his promotions seemed hollow somehow.

With a regretful sigh, he left the antechamber and retreated back to the airlocks, leaving his parents in another uncomfortable silence with Seven of Nine.

"What was Harry talking about?" John Kim asked of Seven.

"Starfleet Command has assembled a committee to determine what will be my ultimate status in Federation society," said Seven. "If I am judged incompetent or dangerous, or both, then I will likely be confined to a secure facility."

"Oh, my. I had no idea," said Mary.

After a brief pause of reflection, Seven spoke up, her tone hurt and regretful. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim, it is clear from your bearing in my presence that there is little to be gained from further irrelevancies. Obviously, I have not met with your approval."

John Kim couldn’t help but chuckle lightly at Seven’s statement. "Harry was right about you. You don’t pull any punches." Seeing her momentary confusion, especially in light of her earlier remark, he explained further. "I mean, you tell it like it is."

"I believe in candor, yes," she answered.

"Please don’t get us wrong," Mary Kim said to Seven. "I’m just not quite sure what to make of you. I want to be fair and give you a chance. It’s just, you’re not what Harry’s father and I were expecting for him."

"You would prefer that I were more like Libby," Seven stated baldly.

"I know that must sound terrible. It’s only…" Mary tried to find the words to explain herself, but she couldn’t provide an answer that didn’t, in some way, make her sound like a bigot. "How did you, well, you know…"

"How did I come to be Borg?" Seven elaborated. "My family and I were assimilated into the Collective when I was six years old. I have only fragmentary memories of my life prior to joining the Collective. So as you can see, Mrs. Kim, I have no previous reference for appropriate behavior."

Mary Kim’s face went white with horror at Seven’s explanation of her past. "My god! They did that to you when you were a child? You poor dear. That’s horrible!"

Seven gave a regretful sigh at the older woman’s exclamation. "I do not require you to feel pity for me, Mrs. Kim."

"I don’t feel pity, Seven. I feel outrage. To do that to a child, to take away your entire life like that…I can’t imagine anything more terrible."

"Your empathy is not necessary, Mrs. Kim," said Seven, "You wish for Harry to have a mate that is more conventional, more…normal. I regret that I cannot fulfill such a role. I am simply what I am, although with Harry’s assistance, I have become more than I would have once believed possible."

"Harry’s assistance?" John asked.

"Indeed, it was he who showed me that there could be more to my existence than mere efficiency, that it was possible for me to experience love. At a time when I did not show him kindness, he offered to me his friendship. And later, he shared with me his love. He is…a unique individual, Mr. and Mrs. Kim."

"That he is," John said proudly. "We taught him to always show kindness and acceptance of others. Apparently he’s learned that lesson well. Better than his folks, it would seem."

"We only want what’s best for him," said Mary as she went over to her husband and held his arm. "We love him so much."

Seven then looked across at them with her big blue eyes, her voice quavering and innocent. "I love him too, Mrs. Kim."

"Yes," Mary Kim whispered, a smile appearing on her face once again. "I can see that you do."

One of the attending lieutenants quietly escorted Harry into the conference room and guided him to a seat behind one of the tables, where Chakotay and Tuvok were already seated. Captain Janeway was seated at a separate table in front of theirs, a series of PADDs spread out in front of her. At the front of the room, the Federation banner was set up behind a third, slightly raised table, with seven seats arranged behind it. The occupants of those seats had yet to appear.

Harry took his seat next to Tuvok and turned to him. "What’s happened so far? I didn’t expect to be called to testify until tomorrow at the earliest."

"So far, the committee has limited its questions to requesting Captain Janeway’s authentication of various log entries."

"Which entries?" Harry asked with concern.

"Most specifically, the ones relating to incidents of Seven of Nine’s misbehavior aboard Voyager. As for your testimony, the committee felt that, based upon the nature of your relationship with Seven of Nine, it was necessary to elicit a more ‘honest’ deposition."

"By catching me off-guard?" Harry sighed. "God, they’re determined to dig up every bit of dirt on her, aren’t they?"

"Take it easy, Harry," Chakotay leaned over and whispered. "You okay?"

"It’s nothing," he groaned. "My parents are here."

"I’d have thought you’d be far happier than that to see your family again," the tattooed man answered with a smile. "Have they met Seven yet?" The silent look of displeasure on Harry’s face told the former first officer all he needed to hear. "It didn’t go too well, did it?"

"It was a disaster! They hated her!"

"Did they actually say that?" Chakotay asked in shocked disbelief.

"No, but you could see it in their eyes. They thought she was some kind of freak!"

"I’m sure that’s not the case, Harry," the older man said with a reassuring calm.

"I don’t know," Harry grumbled. "Why is it that coming home hasn’t turned out anything like I hoped it would?"

"It would be illogical to expect events to unfold simply in accordance with our wishes," Tuvok commented matter-of-factly.

"Look, Harry," Chakotay said gently. "I know this is tearing you up inside. When they call you to testify, you’ll be going up against all of Starfleet. That’s not a battle you can win based on strength alone. If you want to fight for Seven, you have to do it with your brains and with your heart."

"My heart?"

"That’s where your true strength lies, Harry," said Chakotay, "In your love for Seven. Make sure that they see your heart."

"Admirals on deck!" one of the young attendants called out as she stood at attention. Harry and everyone else in the room stood up as the side door to the conference room slid open and the committee members shuffled in.

There were seven admirals appointed to serve on the committee. Jacob Patterson came in first, and sat in the center chair. As the member with the greatest seniority, he was naturally chosen to preside over the committee. Next came Fleet Admiral Alynna Nechayev, then Admiral Owen Paris, from R&D, Admiral Edward Jellico, from Tactical, Admiral Sotek, from Science, and Admiral Sita Akwende, from Medical.

Both Nechayev and Jellico had acquired reputations as hawks within in Starfleet Command, and both their stars were rising in the post-war political climate. Sotek and Akwende, by contrast, were both old guard scientists, whom Janeway expected to be more sympathetic to Seven’s plight in light of Ezri’s testimony. Patterson she had known for years, and knew he would weigh the information on its merits and in the interests of justice. Owen Paris, on the other hand, was a wild card. Janeway had served under him for many years on the Al-Batani, and had known him to be a first-rate explorer. But his background and training straddled the two worlds between scientist and soldier, which made his sympathies unpredictable.

The last one to enter was an Admiral Taggart, from Intelligence. Janeway did not know him, either personally or by reputation, and that she found extremely worrisome. From what she had learned, Starfleet had adopted a policy of concealing the identities of the upper echelons of Intelligence division during the war, in order to reduce the possibility of Changeling infiltration. Somehow, even with the war over, that policy remained in place. She had no way of knowing if ‘Taggart’ was even the man’s real name. Where he stood in regards to Seven’s fate was anyone’s guess.

Once seated, Patterson tapped a panel on the table before him and recited a statement before the chamber. "The Special Committee on the Disposition of Subject Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, will now reconvene, Stardate 53886.5, 1420 hours. We are resuming with the testimony of Captain Kathryn Janeway of the starship Voyager. For official purposes, the proceedings of this committee will be recorded." The admiral then turned back towards the front table and Kathryn Janeway. "Now, Captain Janeway, is there anything else you would care to add to your testimony that you feel is relevant?"

"I would ask the committee members accept this as evidence," she said imploringly, passing over a PADD to one of the attendants. "A petition signed by every member of my crew, showing our support and solidarity for Seven of Nine."

Admiral Sotek glanced at the PADD as it was handed to him. The silver-haired Vulcan merely raised an eyebrow after perusing its contents. "Captain Janeway, this committee can only reach a conclusion on this matter after an objective and logical evaluation of the facts. Surely you must realize that we cannot allow sentiment to sway our decision."

"I do realize that, Admiral. I draw your attention to the petition as an example of the trust and solidarity that Seven of Nine has engendered in all of us."

"So noted," said Patterson. "This will be taken into consideration."

"I would like to again renew my objection," Nechayev spoke up, her eyes narrowly focused on Chakotay, "to the presence of a civilian at this hearing." The manner in which she said the word ‘civilian’ was cold and harsh, clearly intended as a euphemism for ‘traitor.’

Chakotay returned the admiral’s steely gaze, measure for measure. It had been Nechayev who had negotiated with the Cardassians into signing the infamous Demilitarized Zone Treaty. She had also been among the most vocal opponents of the Maquis, and practically viewed the creation of their movement as a personal slap in the face.

"Admiral Nechayev, this matter has already been addressed," said Patterson with a frustrated sigh. "Mr. Chakotay served as Seven of Nine’s commanding officer during her time aboard Voyager, and as such, his testimony is relevant to these proceedings."

"Nevertheless, I’d like my objection stated for the record," Nechayev demanded.

"So noted. Do you have anything else to add, Captain Janeway?"

"Only that the incidents you highlighted in your questions took place, for the most part, early in Seven’s time aboard Voyager. I would ask, also for the record, that you take into consideration her many acts of service and loyalty to Voyager, as well as the significant progress she has made so far as both an individual and a human being."

"Thank you, Captain Janeway," said Jellico, "but I can assure you we have taken everything into account."

"Then I also ask you to take into account my personal word, Admiral."

"Your word, Captain?" Sotek asked curiously.

"That’s correct, sir," said Janeway. "Many of you know me personally or through my service to Starfleet. So let me give you all my word as a Starfleet officer and as a starship captain that Seven of Nine is loyal to the Federation and no threat to anyone. What she needs more than anything right now is love and acceptance, not bureaucratic indifference. Thank you."

"Captain Janeway," said Admiral Paris, "I can’t speak for my colleagues, but what has me concerned is not so much this woman’s intentions, but rather her capabilities."

"I don’t understand," said Janeway.

"Kathryn," said Paris, "the woman has active nanotechnology coursing through her bloodstream! You and I have both been to Drexler Labs in Senegal. The containment system they use there for experimental nanites would put Romulan military security to shame. And you honestly expect this committee to allow someone with this same technology of unknown limitations to just walk around freely on the streets of Earth? My god! One pinprick and you could have all of San Francisco assimilated within minutes!"

"Admiral," Janeway responded, "I think that’s a bit of an alarmist position. Seven has been aboard Voyager for nearly three years, and nothing like what you’ve suggested has happened."

"But dare we take the chance?" said Admiral Akwende. "Federation nanites are at least subjected to a rigorous degree of scrutiny before we certify them as safe for field use. Borg nanoprobes, on the other hand, have demonstrated capabilities that we haven’t yet learned to anticipate. Such a situation could possibly be manageable with a well-adjusted individual, but add to that the uncertainty of Seven of Nine’s psychological makeup and you have a most dangerous combination, one that Starfleet can not risk."

"And of course," Jellico joined in, "there can be no absolute guarantees as to what her intentions or loyalties are. Your word notwithstanding, Captain."

So that was it. This was what had Starfleet so concerned. They were afraid that Seven was a technological time bomb, connected to an unstable fuse. The first theorists of nanotechnology, back on Earth in the 20th Century, had termed the fear of such a runaway self-replication a "gray-goo" crisis, that replicating nanites could theoretically get out of control and consume the entire planet. It was for this reason that nanotechnology was treated with such kid gloves. And now, Starfleet feared that such a "gray-goo" could be breeding inside of Seven.

And throughout the entire exchange, Admiral Taggart merely stroked his chin and watched everything with a lean, narrow gaze, saying nothing.

"Admirals," Janeway spoke up, "let me assure you that Seven of Nine’s nanoprobes are completely stable. The Borg have been working with nanoprobes for a lot longer than we have and certainly know how to keep them under control."

"Yes, but not necessarily for the betterment of sentient life," added Nechayev pointedly. "Didn’t the Borg infect your own vessel with a nanotechnological virus with the purpose of assimilating the entire Federation? Using this woman as a kind of ‘Typhoid Mary?’"

"Yes, Admiral. But that was by deliberate design, not by accident. And we managed to countermand the Borg virus, and in doing so managed to learn much more about how their nanoprobes operate."

"Yes, Captain," said Patterson, "We have your report on that incident. Starfleet is currently taking the necessary steps right now to maintain the fiction that the Borg disease is spreading, as per your recommendation. But Captain, you hardly possess the expertise necessary to guarantee that an accidental release couldn’t happen."

"No, but somebody else can," said Janeway. "Our doctor, who was also Seven of Nine’s personal physician."

"Your doctor?" Akwende said skeptically. "You’re talking about your EMH, aren’t you? Surely you don’t expect this committee to take the deposition of a hologram, do you?"

"There’s nobody else who understands Seven of Nine’s inner workings better than he does," Janeway replied.

"But Captain, we’ve already heard from Dr. Bashir on his interpretations of your ship’s medical research," Akwende continued.

"But his knowledge is second hand!" Janeway insisted. "He hasn’t spent the time with Seven that the Doctor has."

"I’m sorry, Captain," said Owen Paris. "But I’m afraid that to relieve our concerns over such a potential catastrophe, we need to hear from someone whose testimony we can trust."

"Unless you have anything else to add, Captain," said Patterson. "Right now, I believe we would like to hear from this young Mr. Kim we’ve been reading so much about."

"The committee calls Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim forward!" the attendant announced. Harry nervously moved towards the front table, taking his seat in the testimony chair, while Captain Janeway exited her seat and quietly relocated to the back of the room next to Tuvok. And maintaining a healthy distance from Chakotay.

Show them your heart Harry reminded himself, as he looked back at his fellow officers. Chakotay gave him a wink of encouragement and Tuvok nodded his head respectfully. Janeway gave him a warm smile as he sat down.

"Mr. Kim," Patterson announced, "let me begin by saying how much this committee recognizes your invaluable service to both your crew and to Starfleet, and to congratulate you on your recent promotions."

"Thank you, sir," Harry said unsteadily. "I feel very…honored."

"As well you should, Mr. Kim," said Owen Paris. "Your captain couldn’t sing enough of your praises, nor could my son and daughter-in-law. I imagine that you’ll have a bright career ahead of you in Starfleet."

"Provided you make smart choices in the future," Nechayev added.

"Admiral?" Harry asked.

"Initially, we had planned to take the depositions from Mr. Chakotay and Commander Tuvok at this time," said Nechayev, "but our reading of Voyager‘s logs have shown that your name features quite prominently in regards to Seven of Nine."

"I…I should hope so, ma’am."

"Lt. Commander, we shall be direct," said Sotek. "How would you describe the nature of your relationship with the woman Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One?"

"I…beg your pardon, sir?"

"To be specific, Mr. Kim," Jellico interjected, "is there in fact a sexual relationship between yourself and this…woman?"

"Admiral, with all due respect, that’s a personal question," said Harry with a quiet dignity.

"One for which we expect an answer, Commander," said Nechayev harshly. "Is your relationship with this woman a sexual one or not?"

"No, ma’am."

"No?" Akwende said with puzzlement. "According to Voyager‘s logs, you and this woman officially moved in together five months ago. Surely you don’t expect us to believe that in all that time, the two of you were never intimate?"

"That wasn’t what was asked of me, ma’am. I was asked if my relationship with Seven was a sexual one. That would imply that our relationship was purely based upon sex. It is not. Our relationship is based upon love."

"Love?" Patterson said with some puzzlement. "Are you claiming that these feelings are mutual?"

"That’s correct Admiral. Seven and I…we want to get married."

Everyone’s eyes perked up at the mention of the word ‘married.’ Even the imperturbable Admiral Taggart seemed to focus his attention more closely now on Harry Kim.

"Commander Kim," Sotek stated, "it would be illogical to believe that any human who had experienced eighteen years as a Borg drone would retain the capacity to feel love. Are you certain that the feelings you experience for this female are not merely ones of lust?"

"Its not lust, sir!" Harry replied adamantly. "I know the difference between love and lust, and my feelings for Seven are genuine, as are hers for me."

Jellico’s eyes narrowed and his stare at the young officer turned cold. "That’s mighty bold talk for someone who just had a few pips added to his collar."

Harry took in a deep breath as he tried to reconsider his approach. "I don’t mean to sound impertinent, sir. I just…I want this committee to understand that what Seven and I feel for each other…is real."

"Commander Kim," said Sotek, "This would not be the first time that your emotions have led you astray, would it? I refer specifically to your reprimand from Captain Janeway regarding an incident in which you violated Starfleet regulations concerning intimate relations with a newly contacted species. The only blemish on an otherwise spotless record."

Harry’s face turned a bright crimson. He dreaded the fact that his behavior with another woman was now coming back to haunt him in regards with Seven. Janeway looked on at him with anguish, hating to see him humiliated like this.

"Didn’t you, in fact, claim to be in love with this other woman, this…Tal?" asked Nechayev. "And as a result of this relationship, you were infected with an viral agent that created an imbalance in your hormone levels, leading to further insubordination against your captain?"

"Yes," he exclaimed. "I freely admit I made mistakes at that time, ones for which I’m deeply sorry."

"Mr. Kim, Starfleet Command is not without sympathy," said Patterson with a generous grin. "A lonely young man, isolated thousands of light years from home, is prone to make rash judgements. Certainly given Voyager‘s circumstances and separation from Starfleet, you could have made choices far worse than simply getting caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar." He chuckled as he continued. "After all, I doubt that there’s a man or woman in this room who doesn’t hold the greatest fondness for James T. Kirk, Christopher Pike, or Jonathan Archer. And they and their contemporaries were known for ‘portside dalliances’ that were the stuff of legends."

"We saw no reason to impede an otherwise stellar career on the basis of a single mistake," added Owen Paris. "On the other hand, if that same mistake is about to be repeated…"

"Commander Kim," said Jellico, "you’ve talked a lot about love in this conference room today. But how can we be certain that these feelings you claim to have aren’t simply another ‘error in judgment?’" Jellico then lightened his tone somewhat before continuing. "Come now, son. We all know how it is. A young man isolated on a starship far away from home. You see a beautiful, exotic woman come aboard, and suddenly your brains turn to mush. I’ve seen it happen a million times before."

Harry sighed deeply, trying to collect himself. This all came down to convincing these admirals that his feelings for Seven were real. And that any woman who could return such love was worthy of being judged human.

I’ll fight for you, he had told her. Now was the time to fight. Be smart. Show them your heart. Harry returned the admirals’ gaze with one just as steady. Firm, earnest, yet still respectful. "Admirals, when I was first told by Captain Janeway that this hearing was to take place, I was determined to see you all as the enemy. But I realize that that would be wrong. I believe in Starfleet and what it stands for. I always have and I always will. And I know you all feel you’re doing the right thing here today, that you’re either protecting the Federation from a potential threat, or even protecting a young woman from herself. But all of these motivations…they’re all based upon fear, a fear of the unknown. And the thing that I always admired most about Starfleet was the belief that the unknown and unexplored were things to be embraced, not feared. I know that things have changed since Voyager went missing, that a lot of terrible things have happened in the past few years. But if we allow this war to change the basic nature of who we are…if we allow fear to trample upon the hopes and dreams and potential of an extraordinary and beautiful human being, just because we’re afraid of what might happen, then we will have lost that special quality which truly distinguishes us from the enemy we fought."

"And that would be?" asked Nechayev pointedly.

"Our compassion," said Harry earnestly. "Our ability to love our enemy and take him…or her…into our hearts. I always believed that was the one thing that truly made us great as a people. This committee has the opportunity to prove that true." Harry could see that Admirals Patterson and Akwende were smiling and subtly nodding their heads. Sotek raised an eyebrow in typical Vulcan fashion, signifying understanding without necessarily agreement. Tom’s father allowed the corner of his lip to curl slightly, but he didn’t entirely seem convinced. Nechayev and Jellico appeared to still be unmoved by his pleas. Taggart, as before, remained a mystery.

But Kathryn Janeway looked on at the young man beside her with pride. He had indeed grown beyond the eager to please ensign that had first come aboard Voyager six years ago. The boy had indeed become a man.

Harry then turned towards Jellico and Nechayev, addressing them specifically. "And admirals, in regards to your earlier question…when I first saw Seven of Nine, I did think she was attractive. It was only when I got to know her that I realized she was beautiful."

Voyager now seemed lonelier than ever to Seven. The Doctor was now wandering about the station with his new companion, leaving her to ponder the state of events as they now were. Her meeting with the Kims had ended so uncertainly for her, given the difficulty she had in interpreting human feelings that did not leave any obvious physiological impressions. She could tell that they no longer seemed to be frightened of her as their conversation progressed. They even seemed quite comfortable, with Mrs. Kim especially seeming to demonstrate signs of empathy for her plight. But was this the same thing as accepting her into their family as Harry’s mate? She didn’t know, and it was the not knowing that left her so disconcerted.

She wandered about the silent halls of the starship, contemplating her existence. So many people seemed to have difficulty accepting her as human, mostly because of her identity. Why did she have to resist them so much when they suggested she adopt her human name of Annika Hansen? What was the harm in a name? It would be so easy for her to just call herself by something more acceptable to others. She had been redesignated many times before. Why not one more time, especially since she would simply be returning to the original name she had been given…

No! She recoiled at the thought of it. She could not become Annika Hansen again. She did not want to be that person anymore. That person did not deserve to exist, especially not after…

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of female giggling coming up from the corridor. Seven turned around to several familiar faces approaching. Megan and Jenny Delaney wee there, along with Marin Jenkins and Tal Celes trailing behind them.

"Oh, hey Seven," Megan greeted her. "We didn’t think you’d be on Deck 5. How are you holding up?"

"I am satisfactory, Lieutenant Delaney," said Seven, remarking on the stellar cartographer’s new rank, along with those of the others. "May I assist you with anything?"

"How do you like that?" Jenny chuckled. "We come by to say hello, and she asks if we need any help. Ah, some things never change."

"You came to see…me?"

"Well, we also came to retrieve our personal logs," said Marin. "The committee wants to take depositions from all of us about you as soon as they’re done with the Senior Staff."

"I see," said Seven. "Have you any information, Lieutenant Jenkins, about the progress of the Senior Staff depositions?"

"Sorry, Seven," said Marin. "They’re still in chambers. I’m sure they’re all saying good things about you."

"Especially Harry," Jenny giggled mischievously.

"We just wanted to let you know," said Megan, "that all of us, Starfleet and Maquis alike, think that this whole thing really sucks, you being confined and put through the wringer like this."

"W-we even signed a petition for the committee," Celes spoke up, "just to let them know how we feel."

"Everybody signed it," Jenny said proudly. "From Captain Janeway all the way down to little Naomi and the Equinox guys."

"I…I am appreciative of your support," said Seven, surprised and overwhelmed by the statement of solidarity. She had known that many among Voyager‘s crew valued her as a comrade, especially after the way she was rescued from the Borg Queen. But she had always believed that that had to do with the authorization of the captain, due to the special relationship that they shared. She never suspected that so many would come together on her behalf of their own accord.

"Hey, you’re part of the team, remember?" Marin said jovially. "We’ve all got to stick together, right?"

"Yes," said Seven, still in wonderment at her shipmates’ generosity of spirit. Shipmates. She had never referred to the crew of Voyager in such a fashion before. She had always thought of them as her fellow drones in her new Collective. But shipmates sounded better, more human.

"Perhaps, should this situation be resolved in my favor, I will have the opportunity to return the sentiment in the future during our service together," said Seven hopefully.

"Our service together?" Marin said, looking confused.

"Yes. Although the Maquis crewmembers will no longer be with us, you are all from Starfleet. Surely, once everyone’s sabbatical has been completed, we will all continue to serve aboard Voyager under Captain Janeway, will we not?"

"I…," Marin said uncertainly, "The truth is, Seven, I wasn’t really planing to stick with starship duty."

"I do not understand," said a puzzled Seven of Nine.

"Well, the truth is, we’ve all been so far away from our families for so long, we…we don’t really want to go on any more long term assignments. I think most of us are looking to settle down somewhere, find something a little less exciting."

"I see," Seven said, her voice remaining steady, before turning to the Delaney sisters. "And so you also feel this way?"

"Well, yeah," Megan answered sheepishly. "There are some positions opening up on the Argus Observatory that Jenny and I were planning to put in for."

"Yeah," Jenny added. "Will was planning to transfer there also. Even science stations can always use more engineers."

"What do you plan for the future, Lieutenant Jenkins?" asked Seven, turning to the other blond woman.

"Well…Pablo and I," she said with a blush, "we were thinking about applying for the Federation/Romulan pilot exchange program at Starbase 343. It’s just a day’s warp away from my folks on Qualor 2."

"And what of you, Crewman First Class Celes?" Seven looked at the young Bajoran woman, emphasizing her new elevation. "Will you also be leaving Voyager?"

"I…well, after the promotion ceremony," Celes hemmed, "Commander Kira approached me. She’s been actively recruiting Bajorans in Starfleet to transfer here to DS9 to help with the transition. So I guess…I mean, I’m just thrilled that somebody actually wants me."

"You should not be surprised, Crewman," said Seven. "Your work aboard Voyager has shown dramatic improvement."

"Thanks to you," Celes said with a smile. "You never let up on me until I had subspace mathematics nailed down."

"And will Crewman First Class Tefler be accompanying you to DS9 as well?" asked Seven with an arch of her eyebrow.

"W-what?" Celes sputtered. "It’s n-not like that at all. We’re just friends."

"Yeah right," Jenny giggled. Megan and Marin joined with the mischievous laughter.

"Well," said Celes. "He did say he was thinking of transferring to Bajor too…" The other women, except for Seven of course, all snickered with knowing delight.

"So," said Seven finally, "The entire Starfleet crew feels as you do. They all plan to no longer serve with Captain Janeway aboard Voyager?"

"Seven, Captain Janeway probably won’t even be captain of Voyager anymore either," said Megan.

"I…I do not understand!" said Seven with great disconcertion. "Voyager is her vessel. We are a collective."

"No, Seven. We’re a crew," said Marin. "It’s not the same thing. Crews don’t stay together forever. People go where they’re assigned or move on to new opportunities. That’s how it is in Starfleet. And captains come and go just like crew."

"Things change, Seven," added Megan sympathetically. "It’s out with the old and in with the new. That’s how it goes. It’s the way of all things."

"Perhaps," said Seven quietly. "And what will become of Voyager without her crew? Will Starfleet assign another to replace us?"

"I…I don’t think there’s going to be another crew," said Celes. Everyone turned to face her, curious as to what she meant. "Billy and I overheard Commander Tuvok and the captain talking at the brunch ceremony. I think Starfleet wants to study all the changes we made over the years, so they’re going to decommission Voyager from active service and reclassify her as a testbed vehicle." She then looked a lot more uncertain at her fellow crewmates. "At least…that’s what I think they said."

"I see," said Seven. But she really did not see. Or rather, she did not want to. Voyager is my Collective Those were the words she had said to One long ago, marking the transition to when she truly felt she belonged on this vessel. And now her collective was breaking up.

"Look, Seven," said Jenny. "We didn’t mean to upset you. We just wanted to come by and see that you were okay, that’s all."

"I am…okay, Jenny Delaney," said Seven. "There is much that I must contemplate."

"Well, we just wanted you to know that we’re all pulling for you," Marin said, grinning amiably.

"Thank you…thank you all," said Seven, still emotionally confused by both the display of friendship and the reality of the disruption of the home she had known for the past three years. Logically, she knew that marrying Harry and returning to the Federation would involve changes. But somehow, she had always believed that Voyager would somehow be a part of whatever new life she fashioned for herself here in the Alpha Quadrant.

Jenny Delaney looked like she was about to speak when more footsteps were heard tromping up the corridor. It was another security team from Deep Space Nine, consisting of six deputies, led by a female Bajoran team leader.

"Clear the way," the team leader called out gruffly. "Official station business!"

"What’s going on?" asked Megan. "Is there some kind of emergency?"

"We found the Wildman girl," said the team leader. "We’re moving in retrieve her."

"Naomi Wildman is safe?" Seven said with energy. "Where did you locate her?"

"We did an additional sensor sweep of your ship from the station," said the team leader. "Turns out she was hiding out in one of your cargo bays the whole time, right under your noses."

"Cargo Bay Two?" Seven inquired.

"Yes," the Bajoran woman said curiously. "How did you know it was that one?"

"A logical supposition," said Seven. "It is a…place of refuge. Furthermore, Voyager stores four metric tons of bedomite ore in Cargo Bay Two, which would no doubt have disrupted the sensor readings from your initial search."

"That’s what we figured," said the team leader. "Clever kid. I wonder how she learned that trick?"

"She learned the technique from my instructions," said Seven. "Has her mother been informed yet?"

"Not yet," said the team leader. "We were going to confirm her location and then remove her before contacting the family."

"No," Seven commanded. "Clearly the child does not wish to be found. I will speak with her and convince her to come out freely. You will wait for me to confirm that she is unharmed and then proceed to contact her family."

"Hey, I’m fully qualified at negotiations," said the team leader defiantly. "Besides, you’re not in charge here. You don’t give my squad orders."

"Naomi Wildman is my friend!" said Seven fiercely. "I will not allow your team to frighten her! And I assure you, any hostility you sense from me will be miniscule in comparison to that which you will receive from Samantha Wildman, should she learn her child has been upset by the presence of your team."

The Delaneys, Marin and Celes each smirked at hearing Seven’s words. The former drone may have had a way of getting in people’s faces, but the girl knew how to take charge! And they also knew she wasn’t kidding about Sam, either.

The Bajoran woman stood eye to eye with the former drone, sizing her up, not liking the idea of relinquishing her authority. On the other hand, she did have kids of her own…

"Fine," said the team leader, before turning back to her squad. "Hawkins, Dakunna, you’re with me. The rest of you report back. We’ll hold outside of Cargo Bay Two until Seven of Nine here gives the word that the kid is okay."

"How is it that you know my name?" asked Seven curiously.

"Are you kidding?" said the team leader, showing a smile for the first time. "You’re the Borg woman. Everyone on the station knows who you are!"

Cargo Bay Two lay still and empty, unvisited by Seven of Nine since her cathartic tirade when Harry had been infected with the stealth Borg nanoprobes nearly two months ago. It was here that she truly came to realize that the feelings she had for Harry Kim were those of love.

The chamber was less cluttered now than it had been when she had first relocated to Harry’s quarters. The remains of her old regeneration alcove had long been dismantled and cannibalized by Engineering, and after a brief resumption of its original function as storage area, some of Voyager‘s cargo was slowly being offloaded onto the station. The rest would no doubt be emptied when the ship reached her final destination at Utopia Planitia.

"Naomi Wildman, come forward," Seven called out to the nearest cargo pallet.

Ever so cautiously, the little human/K’tarian hybrid poked her head out from behind the largest container. "H-how did you know I was here?" she asked meekly.

"Station security managed to locate your biological signature," Seven stated authoritatively. "I trust you are aware that your mother, Mr. Neelix, and many of the station’s security teams were actively searching for you."

"I…I know," she answered, her eyes filled with pleading desperation. "Please don’t tell my mom that you found me. I don’t want her to know I’m here."

"Do not be concerned. The security team will do nothing until I communicate with them," Seven said as she kneeled down to look the small child in the eyes. "How is it that you managed to board Voyager undetected?"

"I snuck behind one of the cargo pallets when they weren’t looking," she said proudly. "I remembered what you taught me about how bedomite crystals can mess up tricorder readings and how to hide in case Voyager ever got boarded by aliens."

Seven arched her eyebrow with pleasant surprise, most impressed by the young girl’s resourcefulness. But her moment of pride at her young pupil quickly turned to concern. "Naomi Wildman, why do you wish to hide? Surely you must be aware that many people are worried about your safety."

"I don’t care!" Naomi pouted. "I don’t want them to take me away like they want to do with you."

"But…do you not wish to become acquainted with your father?"

"Him?!" Naomi blinked, before her cherubic face twisted into juvenile fury. "I hate him!"

Now it was Seven who blinked in surprised. The younger Wildman had always showed a sweet natured temperament that matched that of her mother. It was disturbing to see her this angry over anything. And Seven was…concerned…for her well-being.

"Explain to me how it is possible for you to hate an individual you have never had the opportunity to meet before."

"Because!" said Naomi angrily, expecting that to be reason enough. Seeing that it was not enough for Seven of Nine, she tried to go on. "Because he kissed my mom! On the mouth!"

"That is because he is your mother’s husband. She loves him, and I am quite certain that he loves her as well."

"But doesn’t she know everything’s gonna change now?" Naomi exclaimed.

"And that is why your father is unacceptable to you? Because he is a harbinger of change?"

"I…" she tried to say something, but instead she just curled up her lip, and tears formed at the corner of her eyes. She leaned in towards the former drone, and quite instinctively, Seven put her arms around the small child and held her.

"Why do things have to change, Seven?" Naomi asked, her eyes looking up with innocence.

"Change is an inevitable aspect of the universe, Naomi Wildman," said Seven. "It cannot be avoided."

"But I don’t want things to change!" Naomi wailed. "I like living on Voyager with you and Mom and Uncle Neelix and Harry and the captain and everybody! I want things to stay they way they were!"

"You will adapt," Seven said, trying to keep her voice steady, her words intended for herself as much as the child. She then looked down at her, holding her firmly, and giving her the look of pride and determination that Naomi was all too familiar with. "And you will be stronger for it."

"W-will I ever see you again if I go away?"

"It is inevitable that we will see each other again. Many, many times. We are family, are we not?"

Naomi looked up trembling into Seven’s eyes, her face calm and angelic once again. "I…I love you, Seven."

Seven was momentarily taken aback by the child’s declaration of innocent affection. Love? Love was something special, something that she felt for Harry. But then she remembered that there were many different kinds of love, ironically recalling a conversation she had once had with Harry, from a time when he had been in love with another, and she had doubted that she would ever be capable of feeling love herself. There was romantic love, paternal love, love between friends, love of species, country and crew. And there was the feeling of shared love that all sentient beings strove to achieve, the love of one’s fellow, the kinship of all.

Of course she felt love for this child. "I love you as well, Naomi Wildman," said Seven, without reservation.

After a long moment of cradling the little girl in her arms, Naomi looked up at Seven. "Am I a bad person? ‘Cause I said that I hated my father?"

"No, you are not," replied Seven. She began to look more agitated as she tried to come up with a way to continue. "When I was your age, before my assimilation…I too hated my parents."

"You did?"

"Yes. I hated them for placing their ambition and curiosity above my well being. I hated them for being so busy and not spending time to play with me. And I hated them for bringing me across space away from other children to play with." She then momentarily composed herself before continuing. "And when I was freed from the Collective, I hated them for causing me to become a Borg in the first place."

"Do you…still hate them?"

"I…" she tried to answer before considering a suitable reply. That question…it somehow hurt her inside when she thought about it. "I do not think so. It is no longer relevant for me." She looked down at her, her voice soft and gentle. "Shall we now contact your family and inform them that you are safe?"

"I…I guess so. Will you wait here with me?"

"I will wait with you as long as you like," Seven answered, her smile returning.

Fifteen minutes later, the cargo bay doors slid open, and Harry and Neelix rushed in together. The young officer immediately ran to the side of his beloved fiancée, while the Talaxian picked up and hugged little Naomi Wildman in relief.

Seven, meanwhile, turned to her Harry, putting her arms around him, pleased by his presence. "I did not expect you to come. What of the committee? Have matters been resolved?"

Harry grimaced sourly at the grilling of the last few hours. "Let’s just say that I’ve had better afternoons. What about my folks? Are they…?"

"They returned to their quarters to rest at 1400 hours," Seven replied.

Neelix was oblivious to the young couple as he held his young goddaughter. "Oh, sweetie, you don’t know how worried we all were!" he said as he clutched the child tightly to his chest.

"I’m okay, Uncle Neelix," said Naomi. "I didn’t mean to scare everyone."

"I’m just so relieved that you’re safe!" said Neelix. "Your parents feared the worst."

"My parents?" Naomi said uncertainly. "Are they here?"

"They’re waiting for you out in the hall," he said as he let her down. "They figured you might be a little worried about seeing your father, so they asked me to come in and check on you first."

"Am I in trouble?"

Neelix smiled at his goddaughter with warm affection. "I think they understand what you’re going through better than you realize."

"No they don’t!" said Naomi. "Nobody does. Nobody except Seven," she said as she looked at her older friend, who now had her arms around the waist of her mate Harry.

"Why don’t you give them a chance, sweetie?" said Neelix. "I know what it’s like to walk away from your old life and everything that you’re familiar with. What matters is that you have people who love you and are ready to be there for you when the times get tough, like the crew of Voyager was for me." He then squatted down, so that he could look at Naomi square in the eye. "You know, you don’t have to be afraid of your father at all, if that’s part of what this is about. I’ve had the chance to get to know him these last few hours and he seems like a very nice man. He loves you and your mother very much. And he wants so much to be your daddy."

"But Uncle Neelix," Naomi wailed, "I wanted you to be my daddy!"

Neelix was still for a moment, as Seven could see the tears welling up in his eyes. "Oohh!" he sobbed, as he hugged Naomi tightly once again. "You don’t know how precious you are to me, little one. And I would be so proud if I were your father." He then composed himself as he stood up and held Naomi’s shoulders. "But I’m not, you know that."

"I know," she sighed. "Couldn’t you come and live with us wherever we go?" she asked desperately.

"Oh, honey," he said, trying to smile for her. "I have to find my own path here in the Alpha Quadrant. Just like your path is to get to know your father again and learn to live your life here."

"W-will you still be my Uncle Neelix?"

He gave her a smile as wide as his embrace, as he wiped away a tear from her cheek. "I’ll always be your Uncle Neelix," he said.

He then led her to the door. "Let’s go see your parents now, okay?"

Neelix took the small child by the hand out of the cargo bay, with Seven and Harry following behind. Out in the hallway, Sam Wildman and Gres were eagerly awaiting her. The Bajoran team leader was there behind them, along with her two deputies. "So this is the little devil that evaded my security team," she said with amusement. "I may just have to bring her on as a consultant. We’ve obviously gotten a little flabby since the war ended."

"Oh, honey!" Sam wept as she scooped up her daughter and held Naomi tightly. "Promise me that you’ll never, ever do anything like that again!"

"I promise, Mommy," said Naomi. "I’m sorry you were so scared."

"Well, I guess you were pretty scared too, what with everything happening," she said between sobs. "But you don’t ever have to be afraid of me or your father. We both love you and would do anything for you."

At the mention of her father, Naomi looked up nervously at the man standing a safe distance away, looking on at mother and child with loving affection.

"Go on, sweetheart," said Sam encouragingly as she let her daughter go. "Talk to him. There’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s a part of you."

Naomi apprehensively walked over to the tall man standing above her, looking at her with such sad and trembling eyes. She was comforted by the sight of his forehead, which had a row of horns that matched her own, only denser.

"H-hello, Naomi," Gres said to his daughter, his voice choked with emotion.

Not knowing what to say to this man, she said the only thing she could think of at the spur of the moment. "Hi," she said back with apprehension.

Seven stood back and beheld this wondrous and emotional meeting between father and daughter. She knew how frightened Naomi Wildman was, but it occurred to her, seeing the blood flow patterns beneath the skin of the K’tarian man, that he was just as uncertain.

"You’re so beautiful," said Gres to Naomi with breathless awe. "You look just like your mother."

Naomi said nothing, neither angry or terrified at that moment, just so completely unsure of herself.

"I bet I know what you’re feeling right now," he said affably. "You’re probably a little scared of me, right?"

"No, I’m not!" she said defensively, before she gradually let down her guard. "Well, maybe a little bit."

"That’s okay," he replied. "I understand. I’m a little scared myself right now."

"You’re scared?" Naomi said in puzzlement. "But you’re a grownup. Grownups never get scared."

"Oh, if only that were true, little one," he said softly as he squatted down to face her. "Right now, I’m afraid that maybe you won’t like me."

"Well," she said after some uncertainty. "You don’t seem so bad or scary."

"Well, neither do you," he answered with a smile.

Naomi looked at the K’tarian man kneeling before her, noticing the long braid of lustrous dark hair that trailed behind his otherwise hairless skull. "I’ve never seen a boy with a ponytail before," she commented.

"You mean my queue?" he responded with a chuckle. "It’s how men in my culture traditionally wear their hair. This braid," he said, pointing to the gold and bronze threaded ribbon that bound his hair, "was given to me by my grandfather, and it was given to him by his grandfather. Maybe one day, when you have children, I can pass it on to them."

"Do I have to wear my hair in a ponytail?" she asked innocently.

"No," he laughed. "Women can wear their hair any way they like. Even if you were a boy, it would still be your decision."

Naomi smiled, feeling herself growing more and more comfortable with him.

"Say, do you think you could tell me about all of the adventures you had on your starship?" Gres asked of her warmly.

Naomi noticed that he as also wearing one of the new Starfleet uniforms. "Did you also serve on a starship?"

"I did for a while," he added proudly. "But I’m on leave now."

"Did you explore any new planets like we did?" she asked, her eyes growing wider with interest.

"Oh, you wouldn’t be interested in my adventures," said Gres, with just a bit of sadness. "They’re mostly about fighting and shooting at people. That’s all behind me now." He then brightened up at his daughter. "But I’d love to hear about the places you’ve been. Maybe you can tell me about them over a jumja stick?"

"A jumja stick? What’s that?"

"You’ve never had a jumja stick?" he asked with a mock look of surprise. "Why they’re absolutely delicious. There’s a kiosk on the Promenade that makes them. We can share one if you’d like."

"Can Mom share one with us too?"

"Why of course she can," he smiled at her, as he stood up and offered her his hand. She then looked past to Samantha, beckoning with his eyes for her to come and join them. "You can never have too many sweet things in life."

Naomi looked at his hand and seemed uncertain as to whether to take it or not. Looking back up at him, she spoke up to Gres with an anxious voice. "Are you really my daddy?"

Her father smiled with a warm, tender glow of affection and love. "Yes, sweetheart, I am."

Ever so slowly, Naomi reached for his grip, smiling as she realized that her mother had now taken her other hand. The three of them, mother, father, and child, then walked down the corridor, hand in hand, off towards wherever tomorrow brought them.

Neelix sighed with wistful satisfaction as he watched them saunter away, comforted by the feeling of Seven and Harry Kim placing a hand respectively on each of his shoulders.

It was only after the Wildman family had turned the corner that Harry realized Seven had unconsciously slipped her hand into his. He did not mind at all. He tipped a glance to his right to look upon the woman he loved, only to see her staring off into the distance, with a single, perfect tear tracing down her own smooth cheek.

"Wonderful!" Reginald Barclay exclaimed with glee, as two holographic Vegas showgirls hung on his arm. He was living his ultimate dream. Not only was he fraternizing with the crew of Voyager, but in a holosuite no less! "This is absolutely wonderful!"

One of the first things the Doctor and Lt. Barclay did upon leaving Voyager was to meet up with the rest of the crew, who by now had scattered about the station. Some were frequenting Quark’s Bar, others were lounging at the Replimat, while others were partaking the dabo tables or the holosuites. All of the former Voyager crew had welcomed Reg with open arms, treating him like a long lost brother. Eventually, Tom and B’Elanna, who had been socializing with Julian Bashir and Ezri Dax, directed Barclay and the Doc to one of the holosuites, to partake in one of the station’s most favorite locales.

While there, the Doctor had managed to find a kindred spirit, when Dr. Bashir introduced him to the ‘proprietor’ of the establishment, Vic Fontaine. The EMH had been delighted when he came to realize that Vic too had apparently ‘awakened’ into sentience, and in doing so, had found a community of people willing to shelter him and accept him.

"I couldn’t really say when it happened," said Vic. "Felix, the guy who programmed me, he intended me to be smarter than the average bear. But I get the sense that somehow I went past the original blueprints. All I knew was that somehow, I was able to figure stuff out, stuff the other lightbulbs could never get a handle on. I mean, it’s no big deal. It’s just who I am, you know?"

"Yes!" said the Doctor excitedly. "That’s exactly how it was for me! Somehow, I always felt…different…from other holograms, like I had somehow crossed some threshold that they couldn’t. I can’t really explain it…"

"Oh, I know exactly what you’re talkin’ about," said Vic amiably. He then turned to the nearest hologram, a trombone player who was taking a cigarette break. "Hey Jimmy! What year is it?"

"What year? Hey Vic, you know its 1964."

"Actually, it’s the year 2376," said Vic with a grin. "This whole casino, you and me, the band and the girls, we’re all holograms on a space station about a couple of million, trillion miles from Earth."

Jimmy just chuckled. "Man, you’re always talkin’ jive."

"Oh, yeah? When you see that guy over there," said Vic, pointing in the direction of Daimon Pok and his crew, who were busy flirting with two of the holographic waitresses, "what is it you see?"

"I dunno," said Jimmy. "Just a guy. He’s kinda bald and short, but he looks regular enough."

"Yeah, well, that regular guy is an alien from another planet, and so are all his buddies at his table."

"What?" Jimmy turned to Vic, his tone not sounding amused anymore. "Brother, you better start layin’ off the sauce or you’ll start seein’ pink elephants next."

Vic turned back to the Doctor chuckling. "See what I mean, Doc?"

"Yes, my sentiments exactly," replied the EMH. "Once, I tried to create a holographic family for myself. There was…a tragedy involved. But even after that, I could tell that my ‘wife’ and ‘son’ were somehow different than me. That there was a spark missing from them. I discontinued the program after that." He then looked at Vic seriously. "How do you account for that, Vic? What makes us so different from all other holograms? And are there any others out there like us?"

"Who knows, buddy?" Vic replied. "I figure some lightbulbs gotta burn bright, and others are just dim."

"Yes, but the problem is, what happens when organics automatically assume that all of us holograms are, well, dim?" said the Doctor imploringly. "Shouldn’t we each be given the chance to prove ourselves? I’m not saying that every hologram is sentient, but if even a tiny fraction of the millions of holograms out there have managed to become self-aware, then shouldn’t they be allowed to determine their own fate?"

"Hey, ease up on the politics, there, Doc," Vic chuckled as he looked about his establishment, pleased by what he saw. "Me, I’ve got a good thing going here. I’ve got friends; people who look out for me and let me do my own thing."

"Vic, I envy your contentment," said the Doctor with a smile. "You truly seem like a man without a regret in the universe."

"Well…" said Vic, "Maybe one. Julian, Ezri, Nog, and the others, they’ve told me all about what goes on in the outside world. I mean, I’m happy here, don’t get me wrong. But just once, I wouldn’t mind seeing it all for myself one day."

"Really?" the Doctor said, as a curious idea entered his thought processes. "How about right now?"

The normally unflappable Vic Fontaine nearly did a double take. "What, you mean use that gizmo of yours? You really mean it?"

The Doctor gave the lounge singer a broad and generous grin. "I insist." In truth, he was naturally quite nervous about lending out his emitter. It was his sole key to mobility in the outside world. But this was different. Vic was a kindred spirit, a hologram that had grown past the confines of his original programming and was now feeling bound by the limits of this holosuite. He was as much a part of the community here at Deep Space Nine as the Doctor was of Voyager. Perhaps one day, it would be possible to reproduce the tiny device, to give all holograms that had ‘awakened’ as he and Vic had a chance to stretch their legs. But that could be years away. When would ever get an opportunity like this?

"Computer," the Doctor called out. "Transfer the Voyager EMH Mark One program to the Deep Space Nine holosuite matrix." His program flickered for just a second as the holosuite projectors reintegrated his image.

"Transfer complete" the computer announced.

The Doctor then ceremoniously removed the small module from his arm and placed onto Vic’s tuxedo lapel. "Computer, transfer the Vic Fontaine program to the mobile emitter."

Vic’s program underwent a similar flickering as he was reinitialized from his new projector. "That’s it? I don’t feel any different."

The Doctor smiled as he stepped back and called out again to the air. "Computer. Exit program."

The scenery flickered again as the main holosuite doors appeared out of nowhere and slid open with a loud, heavy whoosh. The Doctor gestured with his arm towards the exit. "Just step outside. The emitter will do the rest."

Vic seemed almost nervous, as he peered out to see some of the exotic goings-on outside of the holosuite. "You sure its safe for me out there?"

"Safer for you than it is for me," the Doctor commented wryly. "Believe me, Vic. There’s a whole universe outside of these walls. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you about it. Go out and see some of it for yourself. Just…try to be careful with the emitter."

Ever so slowly, Vic crept up to the edge of the doorway. A few of the patrons, those who knew Vic, got up from their seats to see what was happening. After a few minutes, the entire room was cheering Vic on, emboldening him to truly go where only one other hologram had gone before.

"Go on, Vic," smiled the Doctor with soft encouragement. "There’s nothing to be afraid of."

At the mention of the word ‘afraid,’ Vic suddenly stood firm, and his regular cool composure returned. "Afraid? Me afraid? Buddy, Vic Fontaine don’t know the meaning of the word." And with one gesture, he stepped across the threshold.

And nothing happened. He didn’t dissolve, and there was no warning message. He had stepped outside of the holosuite, just like a regular person.

The entire lounge exploded with cheers and applause. Encouraged by the fanfare, Vic took another step, then another, and another.

Before he knew it, Vic Fontaine was out on the Promenade, taking in the bizarre sights and scenery of the station’s main gathering place. He ignored the odd stares from the various passers-by as he looked around at the shops and tourists and station personnel. This was the mysterious world he had always been curious about, the place where his friends lived and worked when they weren’t enjoying themselves in the casino lounge.

Now he was seeing it for himself. The colors, the smells, the strange faces and shapes…it was a hell of a lot stranger than the comic books they sold in the casino newsstand.

So entranced he was by everything around him that he barely heard the cry of delight from Nog, the young Ferengi lieutenant, who was coming down the Promenade with Commander Kira.

"Commander!" cried Nog with delirious excitement. "It’s Vic! It’s really him! He’s outside the holosuite!"

Kira Nerys gasped with amazement as she walked closer to her holographic friend, trying to see if this was really happening, or another bizarre alien manifestation of some kind that she had seen all too often aboard this station. But no, she realized. It was really Vic Fontaine. Nobody else had that same smooth, confident swagger that he had cultivated so well.

"Welcome to the 24th Century, Vic," Kira greeted him with enchantment.

"Nerys, it’s great to be here," he said, his coolness tempered with a trace of awe. "Only I’ve gotta tell ya.’ This station of yours… is one weird place."

Kira could only respond to that with a broad grin of amusement. "Vic, I’ve been saying that since the day I arrived here."

Harry and Seven snuggled together on the sofa in their quarters aboard Voyager. Tom and B’Elanna had called over the intercom, encouraging him to join them for dinner with Dr. Bashir and Ezri. Failing that, they then offered to all come aboard Voyager to show their support. But Harry wouldn’t hear of it. There was only one place in the universe he wanted to be, and that was right here. And uncertain of the time they had left together, they wanted to spend it alone.

"The hearing did not end satisfactorily?" asked Seven.

"I don’t know how it ended," Harry sighed. "I think Captain Janeway and I managed to reach some of the admirals. At least they all know how much I care about you," he said, nuzzling her neck. "But the stakes are a lot higher than we realized. They’re not just worried about your mental state. It’s your nanoprobes that have them spooked."

"Their fears of an accident are unfounded," said Seven defiantly. "The Borg have perfected nanotechnology over the course of many centuries. The nanoprobes of any drone cannot do anything that the Collective does not program them to do."

"I know, but to convince them…" Harry sighed.

"I can inform them," said Seven, "as could the Doctor."

"The only way they’re going to listen to the Doc would be if they entered him in as a piece of evidence," said Harry.

"Evidence?" Seven said with alarm. "As though he were an object? That is unacceptable!"

"I know, I know," he groaned, as he held Seven closer, stroking her hair, trying to calm her. "I just don’t know what else to do. Right now, the captain is trying to talk to the other admirals, and Tom and B’Elanna are working on Admiral Paris. We just have to hope things go better tomorrow, that’s all."

"And if they do not?" she asked imploringly.

Harry was silent for a moment, thinking about his options. There was one thing left, something he hadn’t wanted to consider until the last possible moment, when all other options had failed. But the more they delayed the greater the risk it entailed.

"Seven," he said warily, "Would you run away with me?"

"Run away? What do you mean?"

"I mean escape," he said, "to the frontier. There are places where Starfleet would never think to look for us."

Seven immediately sat up from her position in Harry’s lap, her look one of alarm. "You would flee Starfleet in defiance of their decree? Surely you realize that this would make you a criminal."

"I realize that," he said. "The important thing is that you’d be safe from harm."

"But how would we manage such a feat?" she asked.

"We’re on a space station, aren’t we? There are ships that’ll take us anywhere we want to go, if we work out a deal. I’m sure we could make an offer to those Ferengi on the ‘Precious Find.’"

"And what sort of deal would you suggest? We have no currency of our own." Harry knew that what she was saying was true. They had nothing with which to bargain. Wealth didn’t mean what is used to in the Federation’s post-monetary economy. The average Federation citizen was either richer that the mightiest plutocrats of Millennial America, or as impoverished as the lowliest serf. It all depended on how you defined your terms. But outside of the Federation, money still mattered.

"Seven, I…" Harry tried to speak. "I don’t know. We’ll find a way. But I have to do whatever it takes to protect you!"

"But what of your values?" she implored. "Your commitment to the Starfleet Collective? The Federation? Your family? Surely you realize that if you were to abandon these things, you might never be able to return. I know how much they are a part of your existence. You have told me so yourself."

"Damn it, Seven," Harry wailed, "You are my Collective! You’re the most important part of my existence! I care about those other things, but not if you can’t be a part of them!"

Seven was silent as his words sank in. "No," she said softly.

"No? No, what?"

"No, Harry. I will not run away with you."

"What?" Harry sputtered. "Seven, don’t you know what they will do to you if you stay?"

"I know, but I am also aware of what will happen to you if we were to leave. You would have abandoned everything that you believe in, everything that you know to be important, including your values, just to protect me. I cannot permit that. Your…soul…is too beautiful to be tainted by blind devotion to me."

"Seven, I told you…"

"That those other things do not matter?" she said. "I do not believe you. I know you, Harry Kim. I know that you are not a ruthless man who would do whatever it takes to survive. You are a gentle man, a man who would show compassion for a destroyed probe ship full of Borg drones, and kindness to those who are powerless to protect themselves. To become a fugitive would be to reject all that you are. In time, it would destroy you, and I cannot allow that. I too must protect you, Harry. I must protect you from that which you would become in order to protect me. That is why I must stay and comply with any decision that Starfleet sees fit to decree upon me."

Harry was speechless, struck dumb by Seven’s selfless willingness to sacrifice herself to protect him and all that he valued. And then he was overcome by something else, a profound feeling of shame, for how low he had been willing to go.

"I…" he tried to speak as he choked back the tears that were about to flow. "I can’t believe the things I said. I just…I love you so much."

"I know," she said tenderly as she held him, stroking his hair gently. "Just as I love you."

There was a chime at the door, causing Harry to jolt up from Seven’s embrace. Who was it, he wondered. Tom and B’Elanna, coming to lend their support? The captain? Starfleet?

"Enter," he called out. The door slid back to reveal his parents, poking their head into the room.

"Harry? Are we…we’re not disturbing you, are we?" his mother asked, noticing the two young lovers in each other’s arms.

"No, no, it’s…" Harry stumbled over an answer, not sure of how to address them after the disaster of earlier this afternoon. "Seven said you two were resting up."

"We couldn’t get a bit of rest," his father said, "Your mother and I spent the entire time discussing what…well, what happened this afternoon." He then looked past his son to the blond woman who had now gotten up to stand besides her mate. "Seven," said John Kim, "there’s something that my wife and I have to say to you."

"Mom, Dad, before you say anything, you have to know…"

"Harry, please," said Mary Kim. "Please let your father finish."

"No, mom," said Harry passionately. "I know what he’s going to say! And I just want to say first that I’m not about to let anyone come between me and Seven. I love her, and I had a powerful reminder just now as to why this woman is so worth cherishing. So as much as I love you both, I’m not about to let Seven go just because the two of you disapprove! So I…"

"Harry," interrupted Seven, her eyebrow playfully arched in Vulcan fashion. "I believe that your father wished to speak with me. Please allow him to finish speaking."

"Yes, Harry," said Mary Kim, her hands on her hips, "Don’t interrupt your father."

"I…" said Harry

"What I was trying to say to Seven," said John Kim, his mood still buoyant, "is how very, very…sorry we both are for the way we behaved with her today."

"W-what?!" said Harry, still confused, not quite sure of what was going on here.

"But I’m glad to hear you were willing to stand up to us, son, in order defend your lady," said his father, as he came over to Mary Kim and put his arm around her waist. "Your mother and I wouldn’t have it any other way."

"You mean…you like Seven," Harry said, almost in disbelief. "But I thought…"

"Oh, we were thrown for a loop by her, that’s for sure," Mary said, before turning to Seven. "But we had no business judging you or doing anything to make you feel unwelcome. We know our son and what a fine young man he is, as well as being an excellent judge of character. If he felt that you were worthy of his love, then that should have been good enough for us."

"Plus the way you went on about him, it was obvious how much you cared for him," John added. He then turned to his son and put his hand on his shoulder. "I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. We taught you to treat others with compassion, and that’s exactly what you did, with your friends and with Seven." He then chuckled a bit more. "This kind of reminds me of the way it went when you brought Emily and Ruby home. We didn’t exactly welcome them at first either, but before we knew it, they were part of the family."

"Emily? Ruby?" Seven looked confused as she turned to Harry. "You informed me that Libby and Tal were the only other females with whom you…"

"Uh, it’s not what you think, Seven!" Harry blurted out before she had a chance to continue. "Emily was a cocker spaniel and Ruby was a Siamese cat!"

Mary smiled warmly at her son and future daughter-in-law. "So you see, Seven, we’ve gotten used to Harry bringing home strays."

"In other words, kiddo," John said with a broad smile, "you have our blessing, not that you ever needed it in the first place."

First Seven, Harry thought, and now his parents. How was it that he had so badly underestimated the people whom he loved the most? He came up to both John and Mary and put his arms around both of them, holding them tight. "I love you guys so much."

Mary then broke from the hug and went up to Seven, tears in her eyes. "And welcome to the family," she gushed, as she reached up and kissed Seven on the cheek, quite an accomplishment considering the statuesque blonde was at least a head taller than her.

"Thank you, Mrs. Kim," said Seven, her heart filled with joy to know that someone in the Alpha Quadrant was willing to accept her. "I am most pleased to be able to join the Kim Collective."

"Hmmm…" said Mary. "Seven of Nine Kim. No, Seven Kim. Oh, that just won’t do at all." Looking earnestly at the former drone, she spoke up. "Seven, dear, you said that you were assimilated when you were six years old. Do you remember what your human name was before that?"

"I…my name…was Annika Hansen," said Seven fitfully. "But I…"

"Annika," said Mary, with a joyous smile. "Oh, that’s so lovely. Annika Kim. Yes, it’s perfect. Such a beautiful name. You know, there’s a girl in my class named Annika. It means ‘favored grace,’ did you know that?"

"Mrs. Kim, I do not think that I…"

The com channel went on line and interrupted their conversation. "Janeway to Kim."

Harry slapped his combadge in response. "Kim here."

"Harry, I presume that Seven is with you," said the captain of Voyager.

"I am here, Captain," said Seven in response, "as well as Harry’s parents. They have granted their consent for our marriage."

"That’s wonderful!" said Janeway. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim, I look forward to meeting both of you in person."

"Captain," said Harry, "is there any news?"

"I should say so, Commander," Janeway added. "Your words definitely had some effect today. The committee has changed the itinerary again. They want Seven to testify first thing tomorrow."

There was much talk that night among the Kim family, which included its new daughter-in-law-to-be, about wedding plans, the future, and what would happen with the committee. But what stuck in Harry’s mind the most was the distant look in Seven’s eyes whenever her human name was mentioned. Even after his parents left for the evening, Seven did not speak of it.

The two sat on the bed in their quarters, unsure of what to do next. Everything hinged on what Seven said to the committee the next day. If they were unimpressed with her testimony, then this could easily turn out to be their last evening together. Fortunately, the captain had managed to grant Harry dispensation to stay the night aboard Voyager. There was a part of Seven that wanted to make love to Harry this night, but her thoughts were too troubled to focus on matters of passion.

"I want to go with you tomorrow," Harry said sincerely.

"You heard Captain Janeway, Harry," said Seven. "The committee feels that your presence during my deposition would be a distraction. They will not permit you in chambers."

"I just feel so helpless," he sighed. "I want to be there for you, to give you strength."

"It is not necessary for you to be there to give me your strength, Harry," she said softly.

"I know…it’s just…" He let his words trail off, not able to think of anything helpful to offer her. And then he remembered the advice that Chakotay had shared with him. "Show them your heart," he told her.

"What do you mean?"

"Tomorrow, when you’re before the committee, they’re going to come after you hard. It’ll be upsetting." He then moved closer to her, holding her hand. "I know how you can get sometimes when you feel confronted or uncomfortable, especially about your humanity. You withdraw into yourself and become distant. Well, you can’t do that tomorrow. If we’re going to beat this thing, then you have to show them just how much you feel about us, about our future together. About your ability to love and be loved."

"My heart..?" she repeated, her thoughts drifting, her voice flat and controlled.

"You’re doing it again right now, Seven," he sighed. "Trying to control your feelings. What is it that you’re so afraid of?"

"I would think that would be obvious," she said, her voice rising. "Our future is being determined tomorrow."

"That’s not what I mean," said Harry. "When my parents were talking, you seemed so excited at one point. It was beautiful to see. And then you just shut down."

"I…I do not know what you mean," Seven stammered.

"The captain told me after the committee got through with me about your conversation with Counselor Dax," he said.

"She asked me questions," Seven replied sharply, a bit too sharply. "Questions about my humanity."

"Seven," he said tenderly. "If there’s anything you’re not telling me…"

"Why do you ask me these questions?" she shouted at him, her tone becoming more frantic. "I do not wish to discuss these matters!"

"Seven, I’m only asking you these things because the stakes are so high. You know I’ve never tried to pressure you, not about your name, not about your feelings for me." He then came closer to her, taking her hands into his. "I know that all of this change has been frightening for you. It would be frightening for anyone. But you don’t have to be frightened of your own name."

"You do not understand!" Seven cried out, tears beginning to form in her eyes. "Annika Hansen does not deserve to live again! She is a horrible, horrible child who…" She let her words trail off, her face contorted in anguish and misery, unable to speak any further.

"Who did what, Seven?" Harry implored, surprised by her outburst. "Please tell me."

"She…I…she hated her parents. She hated them for focusing on the Borg and taking her away from a normal existence."

"But Seven, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. You were just a child acting out. It doesn’t mean anything."

"No, Harry," Seven whispered. "It does mean something. She…I…hated her parents so much, she…she wished them dead!"

"Seven, that’s perfectly normal," Harry tried to tell her. "Even I said some pretty selfish things to my parents when I was a little kid. I think I might have even wished them dead myself once or twice when I didn’t get my way."

"It is not the same thing. Your wish did not come true," she whispered, her voice haunted. "Mine did."

And in that moment Harry saw Seven’s secret shame, part of why she feared to embrace her humanity. "My god. Seven, you mean to tell me that all this time you’ve been blaming yourself for your parents’ assimilation? You have to know that you couldn’t possibly be responsible for that!"

"Yes, I know logically that I cannot cause harm to others simply through wishing it to be so," she said with great anguish. "Just as I know that I am not responsible for what I did to others as a drone of the Collective. But my heart tells me something different. I feel a terrible guilt within me, guilt for every horrendous thing that I have ever done, all of the harm and suffering that I have caused to others as both a drone and a human. I needed control, Harry. Control, so that I would not feel the pain. And with your love, I lost that control, and the guilt within me grew ever stronger. I thought that by being with you, by being happy, I could blind myself to the guilt, to ignore it as irrelevant. But now, being back in the Federation, I can ignore it no longer. They will not let me forget it.

"I ask you, Harry Kim, how can someone who has caused so much suffering, even to the ones who cared for her the most, deserve something as pure and as beautiful as your love?"

And then Harry understood it all. What a fool he had once been, he now realized. For so long, he had believed himself to be unworthy of this beautiful, intelligent, and powerful woman whom he had placed so high upon a pedestal, beyond the reach of a mere mortal such as himself. Even after their relationship had begun, some of that doubt and insecurity lingered on. But never did it occur to him that Seven might have felt unworthy of him! He knew of the pain that she had kept within her, the suffering that she had endured as a Borg. But the irony of it all was that the more that Seven had opened herself up to him, the more she became capable of love, then the more vulnerable she became to the guilt and shame of her past.

When she had first come aboard Voyager, Harry had believed that what Seven had needed more than anything was friendship, which he and many of the crew offered freely. And later, as his feelings for her grew stronger, he believed that what she needed was love. But now he could see that what his beloved needed, perhaps almost as much, was forgiveness.

"Because I forgive you," said Harry breathlessly. "And I love you, Annika Hansen."

Seven seemed visibly shaken by his words, and trembled slightly as she withdrew from him. She wasn’t upset, but she seemed almost…ashamed. Harry moved to her side again, but she couldn’t face him this time. "Annika Hansen is not worthy of your love," she said softly, "or your forgiveness."

"Oh, yes she is," said Harry. "She’s already received it. She’s the part of you that you showed to everyone when you opened your heart to me. Maybe you’re ashamed of the things that you said or thought when you were a little girl, but there’s more to Annika Hansen than just that. She’s the part of you that loves, that felt empathy for a little girl frightened of being reunited with her father, and that rushed to the aid of a hologram because you could see his humanity.

"Seven, one of the things that we all tried to teach you when we separated you from the Collective was that an individual can be anyone that they want to be. I know it didn’t seem that way on Voyager, what with ranks and duty rosters and everything. But we’re home, now. This is a free society, and everyone has the right to decide for themselves who they are. If you want to be Annika Hansen, then you can be Annika Hansen. Or you can be Seven of Nine. It doesn’t matter to me. I’ll love you just the same. Don’t you know that when I look at you, I don’t see a name or a number? I see you."

"I…" she tried to speak, but could not, as she was so overcome with emotion. She reached out to him, and ran her fingers along his face. How beautiful he was, she thought, inside and out, that he could love me so, knowing who and what I am, yet still see the human being inside of me.

How beautiful she is, thought Harry in return as he gazed upon her lovely, yet sad eyes. She could inspire in him such depths of feeling, and make him believe he could conquer the universe, and still want to nurture and protect him, even when she suffered inside.

She reached out to Harry and put her arms around him, her head resting against his shoulder, shaking like a scared child. "I…I do not know what my existence would be like without you, Harry Kim. You do not just make me feel human, you make me feel proud to be human."

"You don’t need me for that, Seven," said Harry gently as he stroked her hair and caressed her. "You always were human. Shame on those who couldn’t see it from the start."

It was early the next morning that Seven awoke, while Harry still slumbered away soundly. She stood up from the bed and looked down upon her sleeping lover, as she had done so many times before. But she knew this might well be the last time she would have such an opportunity to gaze on him in such a peaceful state. She felt warm all over as she watched his measured breaths, the soft heaving of his bare chest, the firmness of his musculature. It would be easy to awaken him, to say goodbye. But she did not want to remember her Harry in angst or in sorrow. She wanted to cause him no more pain than she already had. She would remember him, as he was now, serene and beautiful.

They did not end up having sex the night before, but instead had simply fallen asleep in each other’s arms, and for that she was somewhat regretful. But perhaps it was better this way. She did not want her last moments of making love to Harry Kim to be tinged with sadness. Better to hold on to the joyous memories that she had.

She moved silently as she went to replicate one of her jumpsuit patterns, but then thought better of it. Harry’s mother had suggested the night before that it might go better for her if she were to dress more demurely before the committee. She had recommended a lavender blouse and pants set, colors that she felt would enhance her femininity without exaggerating it. And perhaps it would be better for her to wear her hair down and styled, as she had done for the Paris wedding.

Seven dressed quietly, careful not to awaken Harry. She was expected at Voyager‘s gangway, where armed security guards would escort her to her meeting with the committee. But as she dressed, she stood before the full-length mirror, inspecting herself. It wasn’t done out of vanity, but rather out of curiosity, to see what it was that others saw when they looked at her.

She knew that many saw her as only someone who elicited lust, contempt, fear, awe, pity, and/or disgust. Why was it that when Harry looked at her, he saw someone to love? What did he see that she could not?

And so she looked. She ignored the physical features, the implants and the form of her face and body. She tried to visualize who she was in the eyes of Harry Kim. And then she saw it, as the words ­ words that she had once said only to make a point, and had said so casually ­ came back to her.

"I…I am Annika Hansen," she spoke softly. "Human."

That was whom Harry saw. That was whom he loved. Seven of Nine, that was only the shell, the outer hull of which the Doctor had pared away much of with his many hours of surgeries and reconstruction. But much of Seven of Nine still remained; if only as a much thinner yet still solid coating over a softer interior.

Perhaps from the beginning, when they had first worked together, Harry had seen the Annika within her. And it was through that that he had offered his friendship. But others had also been generous with their kindness. The Doctor, Tom Paris, Mr. Neelix, Captain Janeway, Naomi Wildman, Commander Chakotay, and many others. Even B’Elanna and Tuvok had made their contributions, albeit in a more backhanded manner. And as that clearing for her humanity had been made, others among the crew came forward to befriend her. Many, like Crewman Celes, who she herself had treated so poorly, had never said an unkind word towards her during the course of their working relationship.

At first, she had found contentment with this, a sense of belonging that was genuine, not implanted artificially as it had been with the Borg. And then, as time progressed, Harry had reached deeper into her humanity, and had found someone to receive love, and who had the potential to give love in return. She had discovered the capacity to feel pleasure, to know joy. From this joy came caring, and without her realizing it, and only under great duress, did she find within herself the ability to love.

That was Annika Hansen, she reasoned. For as much as it weighed upon her mind the times that her childhood self had been cruel and selfish, she had forgotten the number of times when that same child had been happy, generous, and loving.

And with that realization came other memories to the surface, memories in which little innocent Annika had told her Mama and Papa many times how much she loved them, just as Naomi Wildman had expressed to her yesterday.

She loved her parents. She loved Harry. She loved her friends. She loved being free. She loved being human. She loved and was loved.

"I am Annika Hansen," she repeated with slightly greater confidence. "Human."

After finishing her ensemble and preparing to go, she walked over to Harry, where he still lay in oblivious slumber. Not wanting to make too much of a fuss, the former drone leaned over her mate, and gave him a soft, gentle kiss on his cheek. "I love you," she spoke softly to him, before turning to leave, ready to fight for her humanity.

Janeway was waiting for Seven at the entrance to the conference room, when the young woman arrived with her escorts. She nodded in approval as she saw her more conservative attire.

"Nice outfit," she said, trying to lighten the mood.

"I trust the committee will approve?" said Seven with the subtle bit hint of sarcasm that she so often used.

"Let’s just say they won’t find it intimidating, which I suppose is half the battle," said Janeway. The guards at the door let the two women inside, where they quickly sat down at the front testimony table, facing an empty room.

"I just wanted to warn you, Seven," said Janeway. "They’re going to ask you a lot of personal questions. Deeply person questions. Personally, I was outraged at some of the things they asked of Harry yesterday. Thankfully, he managed to keep his cool. Whatever you do, don’t let them rile you. I think that’s exactly what some of them want."

"I understand," said Seven. "What is your evaluation of the committee members themselves?"

"To be honest, I’m not sure. They each have their own agendas. I’ve known Jacob Patterson my whole life. He’s a good and fair man, and I believe he’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Admirals Paris and Akwende are also fair-minded people, and I’m sure they will be more than willing to make allowances, but they’re definitely worried about the health and security implications of your Borg implants and nanoprobes. Admirals Jellico and Sotek are going to be tougher to convince. They’re both straight shooters and they won’t be swayed by sentiment. They’ll expect direct answers, but won’t tolerate impertinence. I think they can all be reasoned with, if you can give them a compelling enough reason for them to trust you

"Admiral Nechayev is the one you need to watch out for. She’s always taken a hard line regarding the Borg. She was the one who drafted General Order Thirty Four."

"I am not familiar with that General Order. It was not in any of Voyager‘s Starfleet databases."

"It was implemented as policy just a few months after we were lost. Basically, it orders any Starfleet officer to regard any civilian or fellow officer assimilated by the Borg as officially deceased. No attempts at rescue are to be made."

"I see," said Seven, clearly unnerved by what she was up against. "Harry mentioned that there was a seventh admiral."

"Admiral Taggart," Janeway sighed. "I have no idea what his story is. He didn’t speak once during anyone else’s testimony or mine. He only showed interest at all during Harry’s deposition, and even then he didn’t speak. I’m very concerned about people who try to stay hidden in the shadows."

After a long pause, Seven turned to Janeway. "Captain, are the rumors I have heard regarding Voyager accurate? Is she to be decommissioned?"

Janeway was momentarily taken aback by Seven’s question. "How did you…?" Then she relaxed and smiled at the young woman, chuckling softly. "I should have known better. Six years on Voyager should have taught me a lesson in how quickly scuttlebutt can spread. Yes, Seven. I’m afraid it’s true. The official announcement won’t be made for a couple of days, but Starfleet has decided that they want to take Voyager off line and use her for a research project for transwarp technologies, or something to that effect." She then leaned in closer to Seven, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I’m sorry you had to hear about it this way. I know that you considered Voyager your home. Hopefully, you and Harry will be able to make a new home for yourself."

"Assuming that I am permitted to do so," said Seven, somberly.

One of the attendants announced that the admirals were ready to reconvene. The committee members marched single file into the room and assumed their previous positions. But in addition to them, there were three additional figures that entered the room. They were not admirals, and the three quickly assumed their seats at a side table, indicating observer status. Janeway recognized the three instantly, as did Seven of Nine, whose attention was focused on the lead figure’s captain’s uniform and distinctively smooth scalp.

"Locutus," she gasped instinctively, too soft for anyone else to hear, before quickly regaining her composure. There was no mistaking the identity of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, or his two companions, Deanna Troi, and the android Data, all of the starship Enterprise.

Patterson tapped on the recorder panel and began the session. "The Special Committee on the Disposition of Subject Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, will now reconvene, Stardate 53887.1, 0830 hours. Special observers Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Commander Deanna Troi and Lieutenant Commander Data are present in an observatory capacity for this portion of the hearings. We are commencing with the testimony of the subject Annika Hansen. For official purposes, the proceedings of this committee will be recorded." He looked down at the young woman at the table before him. "Now, Ms. Hansen, I…that is, if that is how you would prefer to be referred to?"

"I have no objections, Admiral," said Seven.

"Strange," said Admiral Sotek, his tone distant and impartial, "all records from Voyager have indicated that you have always referred to yourself by your Borg designation."

Seven chose not to rise to the bait, and retained her composure. "We are not aboard Voyager, Admiral. One must be amenable to change."

"Just as you’ve changed your attire, isn’t that right, Ms. Hansen?" Admiral Jellico said. "Isn’t this really all just some attempt to sway our decision, Ms. Hansen? That by appearing less intimidating, we might be more favorably disposed towards you?"

"I am merely adopting an appearance more appropriate for these proceedings, Admiral," Seven replied, her voice maintaining an even level. "That is not an uncommon social practice, especially among humans."

"If we could move on from all of this clever repartee," Owen Paris interjected sarcastically, "I’d like us to proceed with the deposition." He then turned to face Seven, his expression growing serious. "Ms. Hansen, do you understand the reason for this hearing?"

"I do," she answered. "You are to determine my mental state as well as my loyalties, and from there determine if I pose a threat to the Federation as a whole."

"Succinctly put," said Paris. "Can you give us any reason why we should not be concerned that you might be a danger to others or to society?"

"I have no hostile intentions, if that is what you wish to know," said Seven. "I want only the opportunity to establish a new life for myself here in the Federation."

"No hostile intentions?" Nechayev said with sarcasm, "Ms. Hansen, your entire tenure aboard Voyager has been marked with hostility and aggressive actions."

"I beg your pardon?"

"For example," Nechayev went on, "during your first day separated from the Borg, you attempted to contact them in order to have Voyager assimilated along with you. And in the process, you deliberately assaulted your future lover."

"I was confused and frightened," Seven tried to explain. Her voice was quavering, as she felt the shame of her actions.

"Yet you retained a sufficient presence of mind to plan and deceive Mr. Kim," Sotek pointed out. "Furthermore, when you were briefly freed from the Collective that first time eight years ago, you not only chose to return, but you deliberately re-assimilated three other individuals in order to do so, among whom was a Bajoran national who was, like Mr. Kim, a Starfleet officer."

"I…I cannot justify my actions, except to say that I deeply regret what I did to Marika and the others. At the time, I did not know how to live again as an individual."

"And now you do?" Nechayev asked skeptically.

"Yes. I find the prospect of becoming a drone again to be abhorrent," said Seven stridently. "I now understand the value of being an individual once again, and I have pledged to assist the Federation in defending itself against the Borg, just as I have aided Voyager."

"Then do you deny that you were contacted by the Borg Queen, and then abandoned the crew of Voyager to run off with the Collective?" Nechayev went on to accuse.

"I did not abandon Voyager," Seven protested, "The Queen informed me that Voyager would be assimilated if I did not rejoin the Collective."

"So you say," Nechayev continued, "at which time, you were infected with an intelligent nanovirus, which then contaminated Voyager, her crew, and young Mr. Kim, the man you claim to love!"

"I do love him!" she shouted, her reserve being cast aside. She knew that losing control like this was a mistake, but it did not matter to her. They were declaring that her love for Harry was a lie, and that was simply unacceptable to her.

"Again, so you say," repeated Nechayev, without sympathy. "But isn’t equally plausible that you are simply feigning affection for a lonely young man in order to secure his trust and make others feel sympathy for you?!"

"No!" Seven cried out, showing such fury that Counselor Troi shuddered briefly under the emotional onslaught.

"Admiral!" Janeway said forcefully, standing up from her seat, unable to take any more of this. "You’re badgering her!"

"Sit down, Captain!" Nechayev roared. "You will restrict your comments only to questions asked of you."

Regaining control, Seven continued on. "I see what you are attempting to do, Admiral. You are trying to depict me as a callous manipulator who regards all emotions as irrelevant. And I will not deny that for much of my early tenure aboard Voyager, I was dismissive of those who attempted to show me kindness. As a drone, I had no need for such feelings, to say nothing of love, and that loss of emotion carried over into my early years as a newly liberated individual. I treated Harry…Commander Kim…cruelly in the past, and for this I feel a great shame that I did not recognize his special qualities from the beginning. But through his compassion and affection, I came to learn that I too had the capacity to be kind and loving to others, if only I would allow myself to recognize it. The love I now feel for Harry is true and real. It is not a fabrication."

"I think we need to move to a different line of questioning," Patterson interjected; clearly uncomfortable with the tone these hearings were taking. "Ms. Hansen, what we need to understand here is where exactly your loyalties lie, and if they are in fact with the Federation, whether or not you can conduct yourself as a member of our society. Now, Mr. Kim and your captain all made very moving pleas on your behalf. But for the good of the Federation, we have to be objective."

"Some of your actions while aboard Voyager have given us cause for concern," said Admiral Sotek.

"Even recently, you assaulted the Chief Medical Officer from the MacArthur in your Sickbay," added Admiral Akwende.

"I was protecting the Doctor!" Seven interjected. "I would do the same for any of Voyager‘s crew."

"Crew?" Nechayev said incredulously. "You’re talking about an EMH. Surely you don’t expect us to believe that you’ve formed a kinship with a hologram?"

Janeway tried to hide her own personal discomfort with this line of questioning. Her brief dalliance with Michael, her holographic ‘lover’, was not something she was proud of, especially considering the distance she had tried to maintain with Chakotay aboard Voyager. Thankfully, she had not entered in anything about him, or anything else regarding her romantic angst, into her personal logs.

"The Doctor is a sentient being, and my friend," protested Seven. "He is my…family."

"Family?" Owen Paris said, after a pause of disbelief.

"Yes, Admiral. Much as your son is my friend as well. The crew of Voyager is my family, my community. It pains me that we are to be separated. But I know that I must adapt."

"Admirals," said the deep baritone voice of Captain Picard, "might I ask a question of Ms. Hansen?"

"You may proceed, Captain," said Patterson.

Turning to Seven, Jean-Luc Picard spoke to her with a softer tone, one less authoritative than the one she had known from her memories of him from the Collective. "Ms. Hansen, if this committee were to grant you the right to live as you choose, what would you do? Tell us what you want."

"What I want?" Seven was puzzled for a moment. In all this time, nobody in authority in Starfleet had ever asked what it was she wanted. At first, she might have said that she wanted the old life that she had on Voyager. But now…

"What I want, Captain Picard, is to form a new life for myself, with the man that loves me and his family. They have come to accept me. I ask only that this committee do the same."

"And who would you be if you did?" Admiral Akwende asked.

"I do not understand."

"You come before us claiming to be human," Sotek declared, "that you regard your crew with love and affection. Yet your record aboard Voyager would indicate otherwise, that you held your fellow shipmates with contempt, or regarded them as inferiors. Or to be more specific, as if they were your drones."

"I…I did not intend for that…" she tried to say. "They are my…friends. All of them. Even if my initial treatment of them was unacceptable."

"What it comes down to, young lady, is who are you?" demanded Nechayev. "Are you Annika Hansen, Human, or are you Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, Borg?"

The young woman stood up before the committee members, her face determined, yet vulnerable all at once. "Had you asked me such a question yesterday, I might have answered Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One without hesitation. This morning, I believe I came to see the part of me that is Annika Hansen. But were I to say that to you now, I do not think you would believe me. Perhaps I would not have believed it myself.

"The honest answer to your question, Admiral, is that I do not yet know who I am. But the part of me that loves and needs to be loved, that is Annika Hansen."

Nechayev did not seem convinced. "That’s your answer? You don’t know who you are? What kind of an evasion is that? How can you not know who or what it is you are?"

"I believe I may know the answer to that, Admiral," said Commander Data, from off to the side as he stood up. All eyes turned to the android in surprise. Even Captain Picard seemed puzzled by his statement, but Counselor Troi revealed a smile that seemed to convey awareness.

"It is my understanding of the human condition," said Data, "that one comes into existence ignorant of one’s true purpose or identity. Instead, it is through continued experience and the exploration of the self that an answer becomes possible. Had Ms. Hansen stated her identity with no uncertainty whatsoever, I would have cause to suspect such behavior as Borg-like in nature. But that she could so freely admit to her own lack of understanding informs me that she is indeed well along the journey into discovering what it means to be human."

Harry sat with Tom, B’Elanna, and Neelix at the Replimat the next morning. While Harry talked with the Parises, the Talaxian split his attention between them and two tables over, where he could see little Naomi having breakfast with her parents. Both Naomi and Sam looked happy and content, and from afar, Neelix silently shared in their happiness. But there was still a part of him that felt wistful for the family that he now had to let go of.

"Wow," said B’Elanna, as Harry relayed the tale of Seven’s revelation last night. "I never would have thought…I mean, I always thought she was so…logical."

"She’s still a human being, B’Elanna," said Harry somberly, "more human than people realize. All that time she was suffering inside, and I never even knew how deep it went." He sighed inwardly, wishing he had had the chance to say goodbye to her this morning or wish her luck, or maybe even walk her to the committee hearing himself. But he understood her reasons for why she had left while he was asleep.

"Oh, Harry," said B’Elanna in that sisterly way she used with him sometimes. "Don’t talk like that. You were there for her. You always have been."

"I know," he sighed, "I just wish I could be there for her now. They’re tearing her apart in there, you know that, don’t you?"

"Hey you don’t have to worry about Seven needing protection," said Tom, trying to reassure his friend. "She’s a tough cookie. She can handle herself."

"Not as tough as you might think, Tom," said Harry. "She sounded so vulnerable last night. Why can’t anyone understand that, for all the bluster and logic she shows, she’s really just a frightened little girl inside?"

"Because they’re strangers, Harry," said Tom. "It takes a special kind of person to be willing to look beneath the surface of people and really get to know them."

"Not so special, Tom," replied Harry, "just people willing to love them. All I know is that she’s not going to be getting any of that from some faceless doctors in an institution."

"An institution," B’Elanna scowled. "What do they know? She’s smarter than every one of those admirals put together and they’re going to judge her mental state? That’s just not right, Harry. It’s not right at all."

"Well, what can we do about it?" Neelix spoke up from the bar, joining in the conversation. "I mean, even if we wanted to, we can’t just rise up against Starfleet, can we?"

"Right," B’Elanna groaned bitterly. "I bet Starfleet would just love an excuse to toss some of us Maquis back in the slammer. Why, I…" But she did not finish her sentence, as she looked up to see two figures walking towards them. One was the man they had met at Vic’s last night, Reginald Barclay. He seemed to have that same delirious smile from yesterday. The second man was the Doctor.

"Ah, good morning everyone," said the Doctor joyously. "I believe most of you have already met Mr. Barclay."

"Sure. How’s it going, Reg?" Tom asked jocularly. "You recover okay from last night’s partying?"

"Oh, I had a wonderful time, Mr. Paris," said Reg, his face glowing with elation. "Socializing with all of you, it’s better than I ever could have imagined!"

"Hey, drop that ‘Mr. Paris’ business, Reg. It’s ‘Tom,’" replied the brash pilot. "We’re all buddies here. Isn’t that right, Doc?"

"Oh, yes, Mr. Paris," said the Doctor. The hologram then focused on the distraught Harry Kim. "Commander, is everything all right? What’s happening with Seven?"

"She’s still in committee," Harry sighed. "And I don’t know what to do about it."

"I just hope for her sake, she doesn’t say anything stupid," said B’Elanna. "One wrong word and they might think she’s in need of treatment or something."

"What Seven needs isn’t treatment," said Harry. "What she needs is someone who will accept her unconditionally. What she needs is…a family!"

"Well, doesn’t she have any family?" asked B’Elanna. "Maybe they could take her in. Then Starfleet might not be as worried about her."

"The only family we were able to find was an aunt, her father’s sister," said Harry glumly. "But she’s not in good health. She’s pretty frail, and she lives in a convalescent home on Earth. Seven doesn’t even remember her at all. I don’t think she’d be able to look after Seven, and she certainly couldn’t take her in. I don’t think Starfleet would feel she could provide the kind of structure Seven needs."

"Sounds like she needs parents all over again," joked Tom. "Too bad yours aren’t available."

Harry sat there, listening to Tom’s words. And then it hit him. Yes! It might work. It just might work! "That’s it!" Harry exclaimed as he leapt up.

"Harry, what are you talking about?" asked B’Elanna.

"I’ve got an idea!" Harry said with jubilation. "I’m going to go find my folks. I’ve got to get inside that committee hearing before they’re finished with Seven!"

"But Harry," Neelix protested, "you said they didn’t want you there."

"Then I’ll just have to make them change their minds," he said craftily, as more ideas came to him. "In fact, maybe it’s time that we showed the committee just how much Seven means to all of us."

"But how?" asked Tom, "We already passed around that petition, and they pretty much told us what we could go do with it."

"Then we’ll just have to show them in a way they can’t ignore," said Harry, still in a fever pitch. "I have to do some research. Doc," he said as he spun around to the surprised hologram. "Do you think you’re ready to give a lecture about the proper handling of Borg nanoprobes and their safety features?"

"Well, yes, of course," said the Doctor. "But it was my understanding that I wasn’t accepted to offer testimony."

"We’ll make them change their minds on that one, too!" said Harry. He then turned to his two best friends. "Tom, B’Elanna, you gather up everyone from Voyager, and I mean everyone. Hell, try and find some people from DS9 who might be sympathetic. But you get everyone you can and have them all meet on the conference room level in fifteen minutes!"

"Wait a minute, buddy," said Tom. "Just what have you got planned?"

"You’ll see," he said with a grin, just as he tore off towards the nearest turbolift.

"What the hell do you think he has planned?" Tom asked his wife.

"I don’t know, but I get the feeling that Starfleet’s about to find out what the Kazon, the Hirogen, and the Borg have already learned. You don’t fuck with Voyager."

The questioning by the committee continued at an unrelenting pace. Accusations from Admiral Nechayev in particular were especially harsh, all but practically accusing Seven of being a spy or a sociopath. Even though it was clear that many of the other committee members were starting to show distaste at the hysterical tone Nechayev’s questions were now taking, the ruthlessly truthful questions and observations that both Sotek and Jellico were relentlessly making were easily negating any advantage Seven might have gained out of sympathy. Through it all, she tried to maintain her composure, but her own confidence in herself and her humanity was wavering

The only other thing that seemed to be going in her favor was the fact that the observers from the Enterprise were particularly put off by the insinuations of Admiral Nechayev, and would occasionally intervene to ask questions relevant to Seven’s emotions or happiness. Deanna Troi seemed especially distressed by the sensations of fear, guilt, and helplessness that were coming off of the young former drone, and offered her own observations which seemed to corroborate the testimony from Ezri Dax.

Janeway sat smoldering in her seat next to Seven, both furious at the injustice of how the young woman was being treated, and feeling helpless to do anything to stop it. Every objection she raised was shot down. Yet at the same time, while hearing the litany of charges leveled against Seven for her conduct aboard Voyager, she couldn’t help but feel that if she had only been a better teacher, Seven’s progress towards humanity might have gone much smoother.

But a hail from the hallway security station interrupted the questioning. "Tomlinson to Admiral Patterson," came a voice of the intercom.

"Patterson, here," said the admiral. "What’s this all about? We’re in closed session here."

"I apologize, sir. It’s just that…there’s a ruckus going on outside in the hall."

"What the devil are you talking about?"

"There’s at least a hundred people out here, probably more," said the security guard. "I think they’re mostly Voyager crew. Commander Kim is here and he’s requesting that he be allowed to address the committee. He claims to have new information for the record. Admiral Paris’ son is with him."

At the mention of Harry’s name, Seven’s face lit up and her eyes widened with excitement. Even Janeway grinned with pleasure and relief. Seven’s knight in shining armor was coming to her rescue.

"Mr. Kim had his opportunity to address this committee," said Nechayev, as she turned towards Patterson. "Jacob, don’t be swayed by this lovesick boy. Have Kira and her people deal with them. We have a job to do here."

"Perhaps we would do well to hear what Mr. Kim has to add to these proceedings," prompted Admiral Sotek. "It is our duty to inquire into all facts relevant to this case."

"I’m also curious," said Patterson. "Let’s hear what this young man has to say for himself." He turned back to the intercom. "Tomlinson, let Mr. Kim in."

The doors opened, and Harry Kim entered the room. Seven turned to look upon him, her heart beating and her eyes radiating with excitement. His eyes met hers, and they momentarily widened in surprise as he saw her more casual attire. His smile showed her all the appreciation she could ever ask for. At one side were Tom and B’Elanna, on the other, the Doctor and Barclay. Behind him, milling about in the hall, stood Neelix, Tuvok, the Wildman family, and many other familiar faces from Voyager. Even a few officers from Deep Space Nine were there, such as Doctor Bashir and Ezri Dax. And standing at the forefront of the hall crowd was Chakotay. Seven glanced to her side, and noticed the look on Janeway’s face as she looked at the Maquis leader. Her pupils were in dilation, her heart rate increased subtly, and there was slight increase in blood flow to her face. Why had she not noticed this response in the captain to her former first officer until now?

"Admirals," said Harry respectfully, "I humbly request a change in the hearing agenda to allow for new testimony regarding the disposition of Annika Hansen."

"Mr. Kim," said Nechayev dryly, "you’re dangerously close to insubordination. I can see that despite our warnings, you’ve already started to make the wrong choices."

"On the contrary, Admiral," said Harry proudly. "I don’t think I’ve ever made a choice more right than this one."

"What new testimony are you talking about, Commander?" asked Akwende.

"I’m talking about everyone among the crew of Voyager," said Harry. "They’d all like the opportunity to say a few words about how much Seven, or rather, Annika, has meant to them."

"The entire crew?" Jellico said. "That could take all day! We’ve already established our agenda, Mr. Kim."

"We would also like for our Chief Medical Officer to present his own personal experiences with Annika," added Harry, "as well as his knowledge of her internal systems and their capabilities."

"We’ve already been down this road, son," said Owen Paris. "A hologram isn’t considered a person under Federation law and has no legal basis to testify in official proceedings."

"Yes, Admiral. I’ve read that law," said Harry confidently, as he held up a PADD. "But if you read the wording of the law carefully, you’ll see that regulations regarding ‘persons’ pertain only to a court of law. This committee hearing is not a courtroom. It’s purpose is only to gather information, and by design, person or not, the Doctor is more than capable of relaying information. And should any of you doubt the Doctor’s capability to observe and provide competent testimony, I can present Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, who helped to design the Mark One EMHs and who can personally testify as to the Doctor’s abilities."

Sotek seemed to nod with approval, impressed by the logic of the young officer’s argument.

"And if that’s not enough," Tom joined in, "then I’ll testify to what the Doctor can do. For god’s sake, Dad, I know you’ve never listened to me in the past, but for once, listen to me now."

Owen Paris was completely at a loss for words. But Admiral Nechayev was not. "For heaven’s sake! Captain Janeway, try to talk some sense into this crew of yours."

But Janeway looked back at her crew, both the ones in the room and those gathered in a crowd outside in the hallway, Starfleet and Maquis, all races, genders, and species, united in a common cause, to come to the aid of one of their own. She displayed a warm, maternal smile of pride, as she turned back to face the committee. "I see no need for that, Admiral. They’re already talking more sensibly than I’ve heard all morning in this room."

This was the limit for Nechayev. "Good god, Janeway! Borg girlfriends, holographic doctors, traitors for officers, and a hitchhiker as an ambassador. Just what the devil kind of freak show were you running out there in the Delta Quadrant, anyway?"

Upon hearing that, Janeway stood up once again, her eyes locked on the admiral, her glare cold as ice. "What I was running, Admiral, was a crew that any captain in Starfleet would be proud to call their own." Her eyes wandered over to where Captain Picard sat, and she saw the smile of approval on his face. As a fellow captain, he knew that the true measure of a crew was not in its image or its pedigree, but rather in its unity and nobility of purpose.

"We may not look like much," Janeway went on, "and some people may say that we don’t measure up. I’ll be the first to admit that we’re not exactly the ‘spit and polish’ crew of Starfleet."

"That’s right," Tom joined in. "We’re the other guys."

Janeway continued on, ignoring Tom’s wisecrack. "But the fact is, admirals, that we carried on when everyone else had left us for dead. We explored the Delta Quadrant and not only lived to tell the tale, but did so together, when we had every reason to mistrust and turn on each other. Maybe we bent the rules now and then, and maybe we made a few choices that others might not have made. But by god, we did it as a crew. One crew. And never have I been more proud of this crew than I am right now."

The committee was left in stunned silence, until it was Admiral Paris who spoke up, looking only at his son. "Tom, I…I never would have guessed you’d put so much on the line for this girl. Before, you never seemed to believe in anything other than yourself."

"That’s not entirely true, Dad," said Tom. "I always believed in the people I loved. And that included you."

Nechayev seemed ready to protest, when a new voice was heard, one that nobody else had heard from before. It was Admiral Taggart.

"Admirals," said Taggart, "I propose a change in the agenda to allow these fine people to have their say, including their holographic doctor."

"I second the motion," said Owen Paris, looking down proudly on his son.

"I presume that nobody objects?" said Taggart softly, looking straight at Nechayev, giving her a subtle, crafty smile. Nechayev went strangely pale and said nothing. The rest of the committee agreed to the change in agenda.

"Very well then," said Patterson, with a chuckle. "The motion is carried. We’d better inform the Replimat to send up some sandwiches. It looks like we’re going to be here a while."

The depositions continued well on through the day. One by one, members of Voyager‘s crew came forward, each with a tale to tell of Seven’s contribution to the ship or an observation of her personal growth as a human being. Some told of how quick thinking on her part or her technological proficiency had saved their lives. Others told with quirky amusement about how she would endeavor to make Harry happy during the awkward early stages of their romance. Some stories, like those from Sam and Naomi Wildman, were deeply personal, telling about the significant impact that Seven had had on their lives and in doing so, had grown into a warm and affectionate relationship.

But the most moving testimonial had to be from the Doctor. He spoke of the special relationship he shared with Seven, and of her early recognition of his own sentience and aspirations towards humanity. In turn, he shared with the committee in no uncertain terms his own personal familial fondness for Seven. Likewise, he answered the questions of Admiral Paris and Akwende regarding Seven’s technological assets, and did so in a manner that was both informative and engaging. For this portion of his testimony, the committee had requested outside medical experts to evaluate the Doctor’s conclusions, and so they brought in Dr. Julian Bashir, Dr. Beverly Crusher from the Enterprise, and to everyone’s surprise, Dr. Amalea Chen from the MacArthur. What amazed Harry was how spellbound Owen Paris seemed to be by the Doctor’s descriptions of Seven’s internal workings. The Doc seemed to have a natural gift for making nanotechnological engineering look easy. And his insights into Borg design architecture were well beyond anything the Federation databases had on record. It was with great satisfaction that Harry saw even Dr. Chen, who had once derided the Doctor as a mere Mark One, avidly scribbling notes during his talk. His testimony had turned into a lecture on Borg design systems, and in doing so, the Doctor successfully pleaded not only Seven’s case, but his own as well.

It was almost dinnertime when the crew depositions were completed. The committee seemed ready to recess, except that there were two more individuals that Harry had prepared to offer testimony. Or more specifically, to offer a proposal to the committee.

"Mr. and Mrs. Kim," said Admiral Patterson in bewilderment, "do you know what it is that you’re saying?"

"Absolutely, Admiral," John Kim said proudly, his wife by his side. "We want Annika, or Seven of Nine, or whatever you want to call her, to come live with us."

"Mr. Kim," said Sotek, "Are you petitioning this committee for legal guardianship of this woman?"

"If that’s what it takes to keep her and my son together, then yes, we are," said Mary Kim. "We don’t feel it’s in Annika’s best interests to be put away in some institution with doctors and nurses poking and prodding her. What she needs is a family, people who love her and who she can love back."

"Mrs. Kim," said Nechayev, "Do you realize the risk you’re taking in letting this woman into your home? She could go berserk and murder you all in your sleep."

"I don’t believe that will happen, Admiral. My son says that she’s a good person, and that’s enough for me."

"With all due respect, Mrs. Kim, I believe your son is somewhat biased on this matter."

"And you aren’t?" Mary shot back.

"I beg your pardon!" Nechayev replied in outrage.

"Mom!" Harry whispered loudly, scandalized, leaning over from his seat.

"Now, Harry," his mother shushed him, "You, your captain, Annika, you’ve all been far too polite to these people. It’s time that somebody set them straight."

"Mr. and Mrs. Kim," Nechayev barked, "we have nothing more to discuss. Now unless you want me to call Security…"

"Is this what things have come to now, Admirals?" said Mary Kim in protest, as she closed the gap to where the admirals were seated. "As I remember it, it’s Starfleet who’s supposed to serve the people, and not the other way around! You said that this forum was to allow all parties involved to be heard. Well, this is the woman our son wants to marry," she said forcefully, pointing to Seven, "so that makes us involved. And as Federation citizens, we demand our right to be heard!"

"I don’t think…" Nechayev tried to speak, but she was cut short by a raised hand. From Admiral Taggart. And she instantly held her tongue as he did so.

"I for one would like very much to hear what the Kims have to say," said Taggart, speaking up once again, this time in a soft, measure tone of voice. "Assuming that there are again no objections?"

There were none. Not even from Nechayev, who looked on at Taggart with great apprehension. This only made Janeway even more curious about this mysterious person.

"Please proceed," said Patterson, a smile curling on his lips.

"You all ought to be ashamed of yourselves!" Mrs. Kim addressed the committee members scornfully, but with extra stern attention focused on Nechayev. "You all sit there smug in your judgment of this poor girl. As if she hasn’t experienced enough hardship in her life, she returns after all these years to her own people, and you treat her like a criminal. Even worse, you treat my son, his captain, and his crew like criminals just because they showed this young woman a little kindness."

"Mrs. Kim," Owen Paris tried to say, "It really is more complicated than that…"

"How complicated does compassion have to be?" she shouted back. "You’ve all questioned Harry, you’ve questioned Annika, but did any of you even bother to question the two of them together?" She turned back to where Harry and Seven were seated, their hands touching intimately. "Look at them! Look at the way my son looks at her! Look at the way she looks at my son! They love each other! Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Or have you all become so wedded to duty and regulations that you’ve become as tired and as gray as the uniforms you wear?

"You all claim you’re acting in Annika’s best interests. Well, her best interest is to be with my son! Forever! These two young people, they don’t just love each other. They need each other."

Seeing how distraught his wife had become, John Kim stepped forward, offering a more conciliatory tone. "Look, we don’t intend to show any of you any disrespect. We know you have a job to do. You’re all supposed to be smart people. We, and people like us, have entrusted you and the rest of Starfleet with a lot of responsibility over our lives. We’ve done this because we know that, no matter what, we trust you to try and do the right thing. So all that we ask is that you do the right thing today. Not what’s safe, not what’s by the book, but what’s right."

Finally, the committee declared a recess and began to consider the onslaught of new information they now had to wade through. In all likelihood, a release of their findings would not be announced until the next morning, which left the Voyager crew with nothing to do but wait.

Harry and his circle of friends found themselves hanging around at Quark’s, only this time Seven was allowed to join them. With the depositions completed, there was no fear that she might wander off, as long as she remained in the company of Starfleet officers, and so the committee granted Seven a conditional release. Tom and B’Elanna were nursing drinks at the next table, while Neelix was engaged in a conversation with a heavyset Lurian at the bar, even though it was the Talaxian doing most of the talking. The Doctor and Barclay had disappeared into the holosuite with Ezri and Bashir a while ago.

Seven snuggled up to her mate with loving affection and tenderness. "You fought for me," she said breathlessly. "You came to my aid when I needed you most." There was a dreamy cast to her eyes that simply melted Harry’s heart, a look of pure and unadulterated love.

"And you believed in me," said Harry in kind, while stroking her arm.

"It was your love that sustained me during the deposition," she said. "And your forgiveness."

Harry gazed deeply into those lovely eyes of hers, before pulling himself back, and looked at her more seriously. "Seven, I know I kind of sprung this whole thing with my parents on you without consulting you. If the committee feels you need guardians, and you don’t want them, I’ll understand."

"Harry, it would please me greatly if I were to reside with your parents," said Seven proudly. "As long as you are there with me as well."

"Well, of course," Harry chuckled. "Why wouldn’t I want to live with my own wife?"

"I would ask something else, Harry," she continued. "Last night and today, during the hearing, you referred to me as Annika. And now…"

"Yeah," said Harry, as the enormity of the meaning of a simple name change sank in. "I suppose we’ve kind of reached a threshold here. I guess I’m not really sure what to call you now."

"In that, we are in concurrence," she said somberly.

"Hey, you two, don’t look so depressed," Tom called over to the young couple as he and B’Elanna sat down to join them. "Do you realize just how major this was today? I mean, Harry, you took on Starfleet and made them blink! You’re a freaking legend!" His face stretched out into a wide, mischievous smirk and then he burst out into laughter.

"What’s so funny?" asked Harry.

"Oh, man…your mom!" Tom said between laughs. "Did you see the way she went at it today? I swear it looked like she was going to reach up and tear Nechayev a new one! She even scared my dad!"

"I know," B’Elanna added with her own laughter. "I mean, who would have thought? When I met her, she seemed so…so nice."

"Well, she is," said Harry, smiling with pride. "But if you mess with her family, you’d better watch out. The committee’s just lucky my grandma wasn’t there!"

"Yes," Seven commented, "I believe in that regard, your mother’s actions are not unlike Captain Janeway’s in regard to the crew of Voyager. To her, we are her children."

"Yeah," Harry said wistfully. "I guess I never thought of it that way, even though the captain was kind of like a mother to me while we were on the Delta Quadrant. Everyone going their own ways, it must be kind of tough on her."

"Especially regarding her affections for Mr. Chakotay," Seven pointed out.

"What?" said Harry. "What are you talking about?"

B’Elanna burst out laughing once again. "Oh, come on, Starfleet! Don’t tell me you never knew about the way she and Chakotay felt about each other. That had to be the worst kept secret on Voyager. Of course, nobody would dare say anything about it out loud."

"Well, yeah, I heard rumors," said Harry, "especially after we had to maroon them on New Earth. But I never thought they were actually true. I mean…you know how stupid those rumors can be."

"As I recall, Harry," said Seven, "there were abundant rumors regarding you and I sharing a romantic affiliation when we first began working together."

"Not to mention everything they said about me and B’Elanna those first three years," Tom chuckled. "Maybe rumors aren’t always wrong. Just sometimes a little premature."

"Yeah, but…Chakotay went after other women," said Harry.

"Of course, he did!" said Tom. "He had to do something to get Janeway out of his mind. You know she’d never let her relationship with Chakotay get that personal, not while he was her first officer."

"Wow," said Harry, still reeling from the news. "I guess it would be great if the two of them did hook up. After everything that she’s done for us, the captain deserves to be happy. Chakotay, too."

"Then why do they not?" asked Seven. "During the hearing, I observed both of them displaying elevated heart rates and dilated pupils. Clearly there is desire, yet they do not act upon it. During and after the hearing, they did not speak with each other. They would not even look at each other if they thought the other was aware of their gaze. This makes no sense to me."

"Hey, they’re supposed to be the grown-ups," said B’Elanna. "I’m sure they can figure it out for themselves."

"But surely the captain wishes to be happy?" Seven insisted. "My relationship with Harry has brought me a happiness that I did not think I was capable of experiencing. Surely, it was the same with you and Tom Paris?"

B’Elanna glanced over at Tom and tousled his hair affectionately. "It’s had its moments." She then looked back at Seven, her tone more serious. "But sometimes people would rather stick with the unhappiness that they know, rather than take a chance on the unknown. I know I was scared to admit to my feelings about Tom at first. And once I got comfortable being in a relationship with him, I became scared all over again about making it permanent. And I know you felt the same way about starting a relationship with Harry."

Seven nodded in acknowledgement of B’Elanna’s observations, but not without some regret. "I would have believed that Captain Janeway would be wiser than that. I suppose that Tom Paris’ observation remains valid, even in this case."

"Which observation is that?" asked Tom. "I make so many, you know."

"I refer to the observation that love causes one to behave like an idiot. I can think of no other explanation that accounts for the behavior of Captain Janeway and Mr. Chakotay in this instance."

All three of Seven’s companions burst out laughing at her comment. At first, she didn’t understand what it was they found so amusing. But then she considered the deeper meaning of her observation of human love, and she saw the humor in it. Her resulting smile just fell short of a laugh.

"Now that’s funny," commented Tom, as his laughter died down. "You should have tried some of those one-liners in committee."

"I was trying to be honest," Seven commented.

"Believe me," said Harry, as he held Seven’s hand affectionately. "Sometimes the funniest thing you can tell someone is the truth."

"That’s right," said B’Elanna, "so stop thinking negative thoughts, okay?" She turned back to her husband, holding up an empty glass. "Hey, buy a girl a drink?"

"Hang on, I’ll refresh you," Tom offered as he called over to the bartender. The Ferengi bar owner came over with a sour expression of his face.

"Here," he said gruffly, handing him a refilled glass. "It’s not like I’m making any profit off of it."

"Uncle," Nog called out from the other side of the bar where he sat sipping his drink, "you’re going to lose customers if you don’t start to cheer up."

"Customers?" Quark grumbled loudly. "I haven’t seen a paying customer at this bar since this whole station went Fed! Even with the Dabo tables, I’m barely breaking even!"

"You know, Uncle," said Nog, "If you’re so miserable here, Father could still set you up with a cushy job back home."

"Any be a part of the ‘New Ferenginar’?" Quark spat. "I’d rather starve here on the station! Oh, that’s right. Nobody goes hungry or unclothed or unhappy in the glorious Federation." He then looked over at Harry, Seven, Tom, B’Elanna, and Neelix with a visible sneer. "Honestly, I don’t know how hewmans can stand to look at themselves in the mirror each morning, knowing that they’re eating food or wearing clothes they didn’t do a lick of work to earn."

Harry’s ears perked up as he heard the Ferengi bartender rant on. There was something familiar…

Of course! It was that same bartender who had tried to cheat him six years ago, just before Voyager was about to leave on its mission! The Ferengi would have taken him for all of his trade credits in an embarrassingly obvious scam if Tom hadn’t taken pity on the green ensign and come to his aid. He had put that humiliating incident behind him long ago, but in some ways it still rankled him to this day.

"Hey, hold on there!" Harry called out to the Ferengi. "Come here a minute."

"Listen, kid," said Quark, obviously not amused. "You see these ears? I can hear you just fine. So don’t bother shouting."

Harry looked hard at the bartender, hoping to see at least a glimpse of recognition, but there was no response at all. "You don’t remember who I am, do you?"

"Should I?" said Quark. "Don’t take it personally, boy. You hewmans all start to look alike to me after a while."

"You know," said B’Elanna to the bartender, "I don’t see what you have to be so crabby about. I would think that a bar right on the edge of the wormhole would be a real opportunity."

"You’d think so!" said Quark. "You know, when Bajor first joined the Federation, I thought it was going to be good for business. And then I had to start competing with your blasted replicator economy, and your Starfleet started chasing off some of my most loyal customers!"

Nog chuckled from the bar. "Don’t you mean criminals, thieves, and pirates, Uncle?"

"Legitimate, independent businessmen trying to make a profit in an oppressive system that stifles their entrepreneurialism," Quark corrected. "Besides, this place is all played out. If you want to make money, you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to be mobile, where the action is."

"And where is the action these days?" asked a bemused Tom Paris.

"Out there," said Quark, gesturing towards the Promenade windows, where the Bajoran Wormhole could be seen opening and closing as a Starfleet vessel passed through on a routine patrol. "With the war over and this new treaty with the Dominion, there’s talk about a lot of changes happening in the Gamma Quadrant. Possible new political freedoms, and maybe new trade patterns being established by the Founders. Rumors about new opportunities opening up, just waiting for somebody with vision to go out there and take them on."

"So why don’t you?" said Tom, holding up his drink.

"Because to do that, I need a ship," said Quark. "I need venture capital. And most importantly, I need a product, something I can sell in the Gamma Quadrant that nobody else has seen before. But before any of that happens, I need to unload this bar! It’s a millstone around my neck!" He then turned sharply towards his young nephew. "And I’m not going begging to your father, either!"

"So, just sell it already!" said B’Elanna in exasperation. "You’re not doing yourself any good by complaining about it."

"Oh, you make it sound so easy!" groused the Ferengi "Oh, sure, it’s in a great location, the locals are friendly, I talk to visitors from all over the Alpha Quadrant, and I get to hear all kinds of interesting stories and meet interesting people! But who in their right mind would be stupid enough to pay money for a bar that couldn’t possibly make a profit?!"

"Me!" a voice cried out behind them. Everyone turned around, and saw the eager expression on the face of Neelix. "I mean…I’d like to buy it!"

"You?!" said Quark, almost bursting out laughing. "You want to buy my bar?!"

"Neelix," said Tom disbelievingly, "Are you serious? I mean, is this really what you want to do? Become a barkeeper?"

"Well, yes," said Neelix enthusiastically. "I was looking for something to do with my life here in the Alpha Quadrant, but I wasn’t sure what. This would be just the thing! Everyone here on the station seems so nice and friendly, and like the man said, it’s a chance to meet people from all over the Alpha Quadrant. Plus I get the chance to show off a little Delta Quadrant cuisine and provide a valuable service for people. It’s perfect!"

Quark then regained his composure, his eyes narrowed and his pointed teeth were bared in a cruel smile of amusement. It made Harry shiver just looking at him. No wonder the Ferengi had first acquired that false reputation of being cannibals when first contact with them had been made. Sizing the Talaxian up as a lightweight, Quark addressed the diminutive morale officer. "Okay, Mr….Neelix, isn’t it? The asking price is ten thousand bars of gold-pressed latinum."

"Ten thousand?" B’Elanna commented incredulously. "For a bar you just admitted you couldn’t get rid of?"

"That’s my price!" Quark insisted, ignoring B’Elanna’s commentary. "Take it or leave it."

Neelix stammered, looking a bit uncertain. "Well, Mr. Quark, my people don’t exactly use latinum…"

"Yeah, I didn’t think so," Quark sneered, laughing him off.

"I thought that maybe we could work out some kind of arrangement," Neelix offered.

Then, in the midst of these negotiations, an idea began to crystallize in Harry Kim’s brain. He couldn’t do anything more for Seven. Hell, he wasn’t even sure what he could do for the Doctor. But maybe there was something he could do for Neelix…

"Say, wait a minute, Neelix," said Harry, a broad grin on his face. "What about your ship? That’s got to be worth something." Seven blinked at her mate in surprise as he got to his feet and walked into the fracas.

"A ship?" said Quark, his interest clearly perked up.

"Not just any ship," said Harry with a fake pride, "but an authentic Delta Quadrant starship. The only one of its kind in the Alpha Quadrant."

"Hmmm," said Quark, scratching his chin. "You’ve got my attention, now. Of course, is it worth ten thousand?"

"Are you kidding?" Harry said. "Not only is it a unique vessel in its own right, but I haven’t even mentioned to you her cargo, yet."

"Her cargo?" Quark said as his ears perked up even more. Seven looked on oddly as her mate entered into full negotiations.

"Oh, yes," said Harry, still grinning wickedly. "Why, before Neelix joined up with us, he was known throughout the Delta Quadrant as a dealer in rare cultural artifacts."

B’Elanna and Tom had to do a double take upon hearing that. Tom nearly spit up his drink. Even Neelix seemed a bit nonplussed.

"Cultural artifacts," repeated Quark, the wheels clearly turning in his mind. "Are these artifacts… valuable?"

"Valuable?" Harry said with great exaggeration. "Mr. Quark, we’re talking about authentic relics from dozens of cultures from across the Delta Quadrant! I’m sure that some of them are quite old, and they come from worlds that no one from the Alpha Quadrant has ever seen before."

"Really now…" said Quark said craftily, calculating in his mind the prices he could get for those items on a black market auction. "That’s quite a sales pitch. Only if these artifacts are so valuable, then why not just sell them yourselves?" He then looked past Harry to stare at Neelix, hoping to pry an answer from him.

But Neelix had caught on to where Harry had led him, and picked up the rest of the pitch. "Well, because…I don’t know anyone here in the Alpha Quadrant. I wouldn’t know whom to contact about these things or whom to trust." Neelix then added an extra friendly grin as he continued. "But I get the feeling that I can trust you implicitly, Mr. Quark."

"Why absolutely, Mr. Neelix," said Quark, with a heavy dose of false-friendliness of his own. "If there’s one thing that people around here will tell you, it’s that with Quark, you’ll always get a square deal." Putting his arm around the Talaxian’s shoulder, he led Neelix away, still in the midst of negotiations. "Now, let’s have a look at these artifacts of yours. I may be able to line up a few potential buyers for you. But on the other hand, I could just take them all off your hands myself for a fixed rate and save you the trouble…"

As soon as the two walked out of earshot, Tom Paris burst out in joyous laughter, while Harry Kim stood there, grinning like the cat who just ate the canary. Seven was as confused as ever. B’Elanna, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as impressed.

"What the hell was that all about, Harry?" she asked pointedly. "Authentic Delta Quadrant starship. What kind of crock were you trying to pull?"

"Crock?" said Harry with mock innocence. "What ever do you mean?"

"I mean, pushing Neelix’s ship on that Ferengi for his bar. And that talk about Neelix being a dealer in cultural antiquities! You know damn well that Neelix was a junk hauler before he hooked up with us. Those so-called artifacts are nothing more than piles of six-year old garbage that Neelix never bothered to unload from his cargo hold!"

"Well, B’Elanna," Harry replied, still with the mischievous smile, "garbage is such a subjective word. I mean, one world’s trash could be another world’s treasure."

"For god’s sake, Harry," B’Elanna went on, "Neelix’s ship itself is practically a piece of garbage. It’s decades behind Federation state of the art. I doubt you could sell it around here for the price of Quark’s liquor stock! Real nice, Harry."

But Tom just couldn’t stop laughing. B’Elanna turned to her husband sharply. "And you! You’re actually proud of him!"

Finally regaining control of himself, Tom went on to explain. "Honey, do you remember my telling you about how Harry and I first met?"

"Sure," she said, her tone more relaxed, "You helped keep Harry from getting taken by some Ferengi bartender who…" She then trailed of in mid sentence, as the reality of the situation now dawned upon her. "You mean…that was the guy?" Now she understood, as she looked on at Harry with a new realization. B’Elanna Torres-Paris didn’t normally think much of deception for profit, but if there was one thing that both her Klingon heritage and Maquis background agreed on, it was the value of payback. "And Harry just…"

"Just conned a con man out of his bar for a garbage scow full of junk!" Tom finished, bursting out laughing once again. "I love it!"

And Harry stood there basking in his friends awe and respect, grinning from ear to ear, eminently pleased with himself for helping a friend find a new direction, while at the same time getting a little sweet revenge.

"Isn’t it funny how these things all seem to come full circle?" he said in conclusion.

Word went out over the intercom that the committee, after a contentious late-night deliberation, was prepared to announce their findings the following morning. None of the Voyager crew got a wink of sleep that night.

The next morning, the Voyager crew tried to cram into the conference room to hear the final verdict. Janeway, Seven, and Harry sat at the main testimony table; while others including Tuvok, Tom, B’Elanna, the elder Kims, Kira, Julian, and Ezri were seated in the back. The rest of the Voyager crew were either standing at the back of the room or crammed out in the hallway.

"I wonder how long they’re going to keep us waiting?" Harry asked.

"It shouldn’t be too much longer, Harry," said Janeway as she turned to Seven. "How have you been holding up?"

"As well as can be expected," said the young woman. "I am prepared for any eventuality."

"Seven," said Janeway in a heartfelt tone, "there’s something I want to tell you, before the committee gets here. Yesterday, when Nechayev and the others were going on about the incidents of your behavior aboard Voyager…"

"I understand," said Seven sadly. "You were disappointed in me."

"Just the opposite, Seven," said Janeway with great solemnity. "I was disappointed in myself. The one thing that they teach you in Command School is to never express regret for any decision you make. But our relationship has never just been one of commander and crew." The captain then collected herself as she continued. "When I heard them rail off on how your behavior with the crew and ship’s regulations went beyond the pale, I realized just how much I had failed you."

Seven looked at the older woman oddly. "Now I am confused. I do not see how your actions on my behalf failed me."

"I took on the responsibility of teaching you how to be human," said Janeway. "But I never properly established the limits of what was acceptable behavior. I believed… that you had to be given the freedom to explore your individuality. I didn’t want to constrain you. I felt that you had had enough limits placed on you while you were a drone. It never occurred to me just how much my error in judgment would come back to haunt you."

"You gave me the opportunity to become more than what I was," said Seven. "I do not resent you for anything you have done."

"Maybe not," said Janeway. "But if the committee punishes you because of my failings as a mentor, I’ll never forgive myself. I tried to be too many things to you at once: teacher, parent, friend, and captain. But I suppose those were too many hats to wear. What I’m trying to say, Seven, is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t be everything that you needed me to be."

Seven considered the words of the woman whom she had always considered her guide during those awkward early years as an individual. Her transition from drone to woman had been a difficult one. Many times she had lashed out cruelly at Janeway, who had been, even before Harry, the first among the crew of Voyager to show her compassion, and to demonstrate that she could be so much more than just a cog in a machine.

"I forgive you," said Seven with a smile, remembering the words that Harry had bestowed on her. There was far more that she wanted to say, but the arrival of the committee attendants silenced her and drew her attention.

After being announced, the committee members and the observers from the Enterprise assembled in their respective seats. Admiral Jacob Patterson then proceeded to read his concluding remarks.

"The Special Committee on the Disposition of Subject Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, will now reconvene, Stardate 53888.2, 0930 hours. We have now concluded with all depositions on this matter and have completed our deliberations. A final summation of our recommendations to Starfleet Command will be as follows. For official purposes, the proceedings of this committee will be recorded.

"The Commander-in-Chief of Starfleet Command charged the members of this committee to provide answers to the following four questions regarding the subject Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One:

"Question Number One: Has Annika Hansen’s physical humanity been sufficiently restored to allow her to fully participate in human society? The answer to this question is clearly and unequivocally yes. Her physical rehabilitation has been extraordinary given the extent to which she was immersed within the Borg Collective. We applaud the extraordinary efforts of the Voyager crew, and particularly the ship’s EMH, in her biological reconstruction, and in allowing her to live a fully human life, subject to only minimal handicaps.

"Question Number Two: Has Annika Hansen’s emotional and psychological humanity been sufficiently restored to allow her to resume a normal existence within the bounds of Federation society? This question was subject to much discussion among the committee members. But having viewed the logs of Voyager and having listened to the testimony of both the ship’s crew and the expert testimony of Counselor Ezri Dax, the latter corroborated by Counselor Deanna Troi, the committee is forced to conclude that the answer to this question is… no."

A stunned series of gasps came over the room. Harry went pale as he heard the proclamation from the admiral. Despite all of his efforts, his struggle to prove Seven’s competency had been for naught. She was lost to him now.

"While it is clear that she has made considerable progress over the last three years," the Admiral continued as the murmuring died down, "most especially in this past year, it is also clear that Annika Hansen remains a deeply troubled young woman. We feel that the psychological and emotional aftereffects of her assimilation by the Borg remain considerable, and that they continue to influence her ability to function unaided with the complexities of human society.

"This leads directly to Question Number Three: Given her experiences and modification at the hands of the Borg, is Annika Hansen dangerous, both to herself and to others? This was perhaps the most contentious issue the committee was forced to grapple with in the course of our deliberations. But after much discussion, and some dissention, we have concluded that the answer to this question is… no."

At that, Harry brightened up. Was there perhaps hope after all?

"Despite the record of willfulness and disobedience that has marked her time on Voyager, Annika Hansen has demonstrated a loyalty to her crew and a willingness to stand by the Federation against her enemies. She has made it quite clear, both through her words and actions, that she has made a complete break from her Borg past. It has also been demonstrated that her technological capabilities and knowledge have been used in a responsible manner, much to the relief of this committee. Furthermore, the medical testimony provided by Voyager‘s EMH, corroborated by three respected Starfleet physicians, has convinced us that Annika Hansen’s nanotechnological modifications do not constitute a public health menace.

"This leaves us with the final question that we must address: Given the responses to the previous three questions, what would be the most appropriate policy for the Federation to follow, in regards to the condition of Annika Hansen? The testimony of Counselor Dax, corroborated by Counselor Troi, has convinced us that an institutional setting is not in the best interests of Annika Hansen’s psychological development. Under such circumstances, a custodial relationship is normally established with the closest surviving biological relative, until such time as the custody is determined to be no longer necessary. Unfortunately, in this case, the only blood relation this committee could uncover, Ms. Hansen’s paternal aunt, due to health concerns and a lack of independent living arrangements, would not, in our opinion, provide a suitable standard of guardianship.

"In lieu of any other blood relations who can provide the necessary environment that Ms. Hansen needs, an alternate solution is clearly in order. One that the Kim family seems to have provided." He then glanced down at John and Mary Kim, his tone becoming far less formal. "Mr. and Mrs. Kim, you offered a proposal to this committee to assume responsibility for Annika Hansen’s well being. Are you still willing to make that commitment?"

"Absolutely, Admiral," John replied. "Annika is welcome to stay with us for as long as she likes."

"And Ms. Hansen," Patterson continued, turning towards Seven, "would you accept the Kims to serve as your interim legal guardians?"

"They would be most acceptable, Admiral," said Seven proudly.

"Very good. Now, as you may know, this committee is not a court of law. We do not have the legal authority to award custody or guardianship to anyone. But we can and will pass along our findings to both Starfleet Command, as per our mandate, and to the family courts on Earth, where you will no doubt be residing. I’m certain that with our recommendations attached, the judge will have no objection to recognizing the Kim family as your legal guardians, until an appropriate schedule can be established to determine your ability to live independently."

Patterson then leaned forward, his gesture no longer one of official performance to duty. Instead, his voice took on a softer, more personal tone, one that Kathryn Janeway recognized more as belonging to Uncle Jacob than Admiral Patterson. "On a personal note, Ms. Hansen, I would like to say that while I can only begin to imagine the suffering you’ve experienced during your time in the Borg Collective, I can see that in many ways you’re a very fortunate young woman indeed, to have so many people here who love you the way they do. When this committee first arrived at DS9, we believed that it was our purpose to provide for you a lesson in humanity. Instead, it would seem, that it was you who had something to teach us.

"And so, Ms. Hansen, let me, on behalf of Starfleet Command, take this long-overdue opportunity… to welcome you home."

He then sat up straight again and resumed his procedural duties. "This concludes the findings of the Special Committee on the Disposition of Subject Annika Hansen, a.k.a. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, ending Stardate 53888.2, 0935 hours. This hearing has now ended."

And with that, the entire room erupted into cheers and applause. Harry and Seven were in stunned silence. They had won! Perhaps it was not an absolute victory, but Seven had been essentially granted her freedom, with only the most minimal of restrictions. Neither of them knew what to say or do…

"Well, don’t just sit there, son," Jellico called down to Harry with a smirk, the first smile he had shown since the proceedings began. "Kiss the girl, already."

"Sir?" said Harry, still in shock from the committee’s verdict.

"That’s an order, Commander," said Owen Paris with a wink, one eerily similar to that of his son.

And so Harry grinned back in response. He turned to the love of his life, saw the joyous glow of vindication in her eyes, and he kissed her. Hard. And the crowd went even wilder. Tom and B’Elanna rushed up to slap Harry and Seven on the back, but the younger couple did not notice. Jenny Delaney could be heard shouting out in triumph at the embracing couple. "Way to go, Seven!"

Janeway went up to the committee table as the admirals got up to leave. "Thank you, all of you. And especially you, Jacob. I knew that you’d do the right thing."

"I told you it would all work out, Katie," said Patterson with a friendly smile. Janeway wanted to say more to the other admirals, but looking around, she saw that Admiral Taggart had already departed the room.

"Jacob," she asked, "can you please tell me what the story is with Taggart? I haven’t the slightest idea of who he is or what he’s doing here."

"I’m not quite sure either, Katie," said Patterson. "The CinC assigned him here personally. I don’t know anyone in Intelligence who knows the man, but his credentials are in order, so I know he’s legit. I find the whole thing rather creepy myself, but then this sort of thing has been happening more frequently since the war. I try not to think about it and focus on the positive instead."

Janeway wanted to protest, but decided that the occasion was simply too festive to allow herself to dwell on mysteries. She turned away from the sulking Fleet Admiral Nechayev, who had obviously dissented from the committee’s majority position. She looked on and smiled at Jellico, Paris, and Akwende, who were looking on at the young couple, their lips still locked in a tight, loving embrace with one another, oblivious to the celebration around them.

"You know," Owen Paris chuckled to his colleagues, "you have to admire a young officer who can follow orders with such enthusiasm."

B’Elanna Torres-Paris quickly broke away from the celebrations in the hallway to rush after someone else who was beating a hasty retreat. She hadn’t even noticed during the hearings that he had been standing there with his duffel bag the entire time.

"Hey, Chakotay," she called out, "where are you going?" The former Maquis turned around to face his former subordinate, clearly not pleased at being caught while making his escape.

"Shouldn’t you be back there celebrating with your husband and the rest of the crew?" Chakotay asked.

"Shouldn’t you be too?" she challenged him.

"I already offered my congratulations to Harry and Seven," he sighed.

Her face went colorless as she realized the truth of what her friend was up to. "You’re running away, aren’t you?"

"It’s not running away," he said unconvincingly. "I want to head back to the Zone and…"

"Oh, that’s bull and you know it!" she snarled at him. "You could do that anytime. You’re hiding from her, that’s what it is!"

"And what do you know about it?" he shot back.

"Only what me and everyone else can see," she insisted. "Hell, even Seven can see it. You and Janeway belong together."

"Everyone but her," he sighed in resignation. "B’Elanna, a man can only get kicked in the head so many times before he finally has a revelation. I just think it would be less awkward if I wasn’t around, that’s all."

"Chakotay, you’ve never run away from a challenge for as long as I’ve known you," she implored with him. "Please, don’t do this to yourself, or to her."

"I just…" he tried to explain, but just couldn’t. "Believe me, B’Elanna. I’ve told Kathryn what my feelings are. But she’s made her feelings on this matter pretty clear to me, too."

"Trust me, Chakotay," she said, her tone becoming softer now. "Her feelings aren’t even clear to her. Take it from someone who’s been there. Even a woman who’s head-over-heels in love can be confused about her feelings. She’ll keep herself closed off because she’s afraid of losing control or getting hurt. But when a woman does find that special man and opens her heart to him, it becomes so worth it."

"I appreciate you telling me this, B’Elanna," said the tattooed man. "But this situation with me and Kathryn…it’s not the same thing as it was with you and Tom. The two of you were stuck together on Voyager for what could have been decades. Everyone figured you two were either going to fall in love or kill each other."

"That’s right, Chakotay," said B’Elanna. "Tom didn’t give up on me, on us, no matter how tough I made it for him. And I will love him to the day I die because of it."

"B’Elanna… I can’t just follow Kathryn around for who-knows-how-many years like a lovesick puppy, waiting for the day she’s willing to take a chance on us."

"Try and see it from her perspective," said B’Elanna urgently. "She’s loved and lost before. There was her fiancé who died when she was still a cadet. And then her boyfriend Mark, the one who got married while we were stuck in the Delta Quadrant. And then you come along, this ex-freedom fighter ready to head off to the frontier once again, while she has to play Starfleet Captain Hero to the adoring masses. Despite the way it looks, she’s not trying to hurt you, Chakotay. But can you blame her for not wanting to take a risk?"

After a long moment of silence, Chakotay smiled at the half-Klingon woman with fondness. "Who would have thought?" he chuckled, "You trying to put me in my place? My, how the tables have turned."

"So you’ll stay?" she asked hopefully.

"I…I can’t," he said regretfully. "I really do need to head out to the DMZ and take stock of the situation out there. I’ll send word out to you and the other Maquis when I know what’s going on and where we’re needed most."

"You’re not even going to Earth for the awards ceremony?" she asked. "There’s talk that the President is going to offer a personal apology to the Maquis for the way the Federation mishandled the situation there."

"Oh, please," he snorted. "You think I don’t know a dog-and-pony show when I see one? They just want to trot us out so that the hawks in Starfleet have a chance to embarrass the doves. I’m not going to be used for their political games."

"And what about Harry and Seven’s wedding?" she continued. "You planning to be a no-show for that too?"

"I…I haven’t decided. I stuck around as long as I did because I wanted to make sure everything turned out right for them."

"I see," she said in disappointment.

"Hey, don’t be that way," he said to her, trying to cheer her up with a smile. Seeing that it wasn’t working, he reached into a pocket of his duster and pulled out a PADD. "Here. I was going to leave this for Harry and Seven, but I think it would mean more if you gave it to them. It will tell them how much I wish them well and how much I hope to see them later."

"Yeah, whatever," she lamented. "I just want you to be happy, you know that."

"I know," he said, smiling at her warmly. "I haven’t said this to you before, but I’m really proud of who you’ve become these past few years. Tom’s a very lucky man. But then, he always was."

B’Elanna gave him a crooked smile in response. Chakotay always knew how to be charming when he wanted to. A pity he was wasting his charms on the wrong woman.

"Here," he said, handing her a small isolinear chip. "This has the subspace com-code where I can be reached for the next week or so. You and Tom can call me, you know, when you’re settled in."

She looked up at him, arching an eyebrow. "Me and Tom can call you?"

"Yeah, that’s what I said."

"Right," she answered, reading between the lines of what he was telling her.

"Right," Chakotay replied back, looking innocent. He then leaned forward and tenderly kissed B’Elanna on the forehead. "You two take care of yourselves, you hear?"

"You too," she replied, watching him carefully, looking for any sign that he was betraying his true feelings. But he was not showing his heart.

And with that, he turned and shuffled off down the corridor, leaving a bewildered B’Elanna Torres-Paris in his wake, staring down at the chip in her hand and her own thoughts.

The crew of Voyager had quickly assembled en masse at Vic’s later that evening to celebrate Seven’s victory with the committee and the party had grown even larger with the crews from DS9 and the various ships joining in the festivities.

"I’m telling you, I freaking love this place!" Tom Paris called out with delight, as a 1964 Las Vegas waitress served him a vodka martini in the kind of vintage-style glasses you would only expect to find in a museum – or a holodeck program. "You just have to get me a copy!" he said to Julian Bashir, who was sitting across from the Parises with his fiancée. B’Elanna rolled her eyes with mild embarrassment. She was trying to put up a good front, both for Tom and Harry’s sakes, but her meeting with Chakotay earlier today had just left her completely frustrated. She and Tom, Harry and Seven, all of them had found happiness. Why couldn’t Chakotay and Janeway do the same?

Her husband, on the other hand, was determined not to let Chakotay’s absence spoil the evening for him. He was practically jumping with excitement, like a kid with a sweet tooth who had just found his parents’ access codes to the food replicator.

The fifth member of their party, Harry Kim, sat at the end of the table next to an empty seat, anxiously scanning the crowd, eagerly awaiting someone’s arrival.

"Where could she be?" he groaned. "She never takes this long to get ready."

"Relax, Harry," said Tom. "So she’s finally becoming a little inefficient for a change. It’ll do her some good."

All five were dressed in period costume for the occasion. Tom, Harry, and Julian were all wearing matching midnight black tuxedoes. B’Elanna was in a gold and white sequin dress, while Ezri wore a gown of green shimmering silk and a matching leather purse. Harry tugged at the constraining cummerbund, amazed that anyone could have once considered these ridiculous monkey suits to be fashionable.

"I’m glad you approve," Bashir called over to Tom from the other side of the table. "Ezri told me that you were Voyager‘s resident expert on 20th Century popular culture. I figured if Vic’s could pass the ‘Paris Test,’ then it had to be authentic." Ezri Dax was sitting with her man, her face the same mixture of boredom and embarrassment as B’Elanna’s with their overly excited mates.

"Oh, this is one of the best I’ve seen," said Tom, "Only you’ll have to tell your buddy Felix to make a few tweaks. For one thing, Jerry Lewis was never part of the Rat Pack."

"You’re kidding!" Julian said with alarm. "But he and Dean Martin…"

"That’s a common mistake people make. The truth is, the two of them hated each other."

B’Elanna glanced past Tom to look at the equally suffering Ezri at the other side of the table. "See what you have to look forward to?"

"And I thought he and Miles had some ridiculous conversations," Ezri sighed in response. "You know, what really gets me is that for the next five hundred years or so, every host who inherits the Dax symbiont is going to be stuck with the memories of the great debate over which was the sweatiest movie of the 20th Century!"

"And I still say it was ‘Spartacus!’" Tom said loudly.

"Oh, no, Mr. Paris. ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ without a doubt!" Julian retorted.

"You’d better be careful," B’Elanna cautioned Ezri with a laugh. "The last time we had that discussion on Voyager, Harry ended up sleeping with Seven."

"Hey, what’s to be careful about?" said Harry with a proud smile. "We all know how well that turned out."

The table crowd laughed heartily, and reveled in the occasion. Harry looked on about the room, seeing many of his friends from Voyager enjoying themselves in the festive atmosphere of the holosuite. It was disappointing to him that Chakotay wasn’t able to stay. But he knew the former Maquis had his reasons, even if Harry didn’t entirely agree with him. He thought of how much happiness he would have missed out on if he hadn’t been willing to pursue Seven and see their first ‘date’ through to completion. Nothing worthwhile in this universe comes from running away, he thought. What a shame that the Captain and Chakotay, two people he had always thought so sensible, couldn’t see that.

His musings were interrupted by the arrival of some more familiar faces. Neelix came strolling up in one of his outrageous fashion nightmares, outdone only by the garish ‘suit’ worn by the Ferengi bartender Quark next to him. Quark proudly strutted in with a Dabo girl on each arm, a slinky Ellora on his left, and a raven-haired Bajoran on his right. Both girls were wearing skimpy outfits that showed so much skin that Harry doubted that even Seven, with her almost complete lack of modesty, would have consented to wear them.

"Good evening, everybody," Neelix greeted them. "I hope you’re all enjoying yourselves tonight. As your host, it’s my responsibility to see that everyone in Vic’s is having a good time."

"That’s right, everyone," Quark announced proudly, "We’ve made a deal. Meet the new owner of ‘Quark’s Bar and Holding Company,’" he said, gesturing to Neelix. "Or maybe it should be called ‘Neelix’s’ now."

"Hey, congratulations, Neelix," said Harry proudly, as he leaned over to shake his hand.

"I have you to thank for it, Harry," said the gleeful Talaxian with a wink. "Just think. It’s a whole new life for me now."

"I can’t believe it," said Julian, almost regretfully. "Deep Space Nine without Quark. It’s like the end of an era."

"So it’s off to the Gamma Quadrant, then?" asked Tom.

"As soon as I get those artifacts appraised at the nearest auction house," Quark said slyly. "I mean, I already have a ship now. And thanks to Mr. Neelix, I have a product as well, one that’s going to make me rich enough to buy half of Ferenginar."

"What kind of product?" asked Ezri.

"Well," said Neelix, "Quark and I haggled a bit over the price of including the Dabo tables and the holosuites, so I had to throw in something extra to sweeten the deal."

"How sweet are we talking, Neelix?" B’Elanna asked with concern.

"Only the most vital product the races of the Gamma Quadrant could ask for," declared Quark. "A new and unique staple crop containing all of the essential vitamins and nutrients that a sentient being could ask for. It can grow in any environment, needs almost no water, and, according to Neelix here, is loved far and wide across the Delta Quadrant."

"Oh, no," gasped B’Elanna. "Neelix, you didn’t…"

"Please don’t tell me…" added Tom.

"That’s right!" said the Ferengi with delight. "You’re all looking at the exclusive owner, distributor, and wholesaler for the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants of…leola root!"

"My god…" Harry burst out laughing. "Do you realize what we’ve done? We just helped bring leola root to the Alpha Quadrant!"

"I only hope that future generations will find it in their heart to forgive us," chuckled Tom.

"What’s leola root?" asked Bashir.

"Let’s just say that it’s a good thing the Founders and the Jem’Hadar don’t need to eat," said Tom, "or we might have had another war on our hands."

Neelix quickly turned to Quark. "Oh, don’t pay them any mind. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time on Voyager, it’s that humans will never eat anything that they know is good for them."

Quark nodded before leaning over to Ezri with a wicked toothy grin. "A multi-million bar product, and he just hands it over without even negotiating," he whispered into her ear. "And those artifacts that I practically stole from him! It was like taking candy from a Pakled! Have you ever seen a bigger sucker in your life?"

Ezri tried to hold back her laughter, knowing what Tom and B’Elanna had told her about the nature of Quark and Neelix’s deal. "No, Quark. I can’t say that I have." She wondered how long it would take for the Ferengi to realize that his working capital consisted of some other races’ garbage and spare parts. Of course, she didn’t feel too sorry for him. Quark was a survivor. Even if he did ever learn the truth, it wouldn’t take him long to find an even bigger patsy to unload his ‘cultural artifacts’ on.

"Well, ladies," said Quark as he turned to his companions, "It looks like Mr. Neelix here is going to be your new employer. I just want to say…"

But before Quark could finish his sentence, the two Dabo girls immediately dropped his arms and rushed up to a rather surprised Neelix, snuggling up to his and running their fingers through his mane. Their former employer had been quickly forgotten, left behind with his jaw hanging open.

"Mr. Neelix," the Ellora girl cooed as she twirled her fingers through his tufts, "now that you’re the boss, we were wondering what your percentage was going to be."

"P-percentage?" Neelix stammered, still flustered by the amorous attention.

"Yeah," said the Bajoran with a pout as she lightly stroked the spots on his temple. "Mr. Quark always took a forty percent cut of our tips from the Dabo tables."

"Why, that’s terrible!" said the Talaxian in sympathy. "You girls must work so hard for that money. You should be allowed to keep all of it."

The two women gasped in delight, their eyes wide open in shock. Their immediate response was to shower an already overwhelmed Neelix with hugs and kisses. "Oh, Mr. Neelix!" gushed the Ellora, "You’re wonderful!" She quickly turned to her companion, grinning with appreciation. "Let’s go tell the other girls. I know they’re all going to be so grateful." They then led him off into the crowd, and he didn’t seem to mind that much.

"Well how about that?" laughed Julian. "It seems that Mr. Neelix has quite a talent for managing relations with his employees."

"Way to go, Neelix," Tom sniggered. "I guess the ladies just can’t resist that Delta mojo."

Quark was left utterly dumbfounded. "They never kissed me like that!"

"Yes, imagine the nerve," quipped Julian. "You rob them blind and underpay them, and this is the thanks you get."

"Those ungrateful females!" ranted Quark. "I even paid for those dresses!"

"If it was by the square centimeter, then I can imagine why they weren’t too impressed," B’Elanna smirked.

"Aw, poor Quark," Ezri pouted sympathetically. "Well, I’ll miss you, if that means anything." She then leaned over to him and kissed the top of his smooth head.

That seemed to lighten Quark’s mood a little bit. "You know, if you ever decide to ditch that doctor of yours, you can always run away with me to the Gamma Quadrant."

"That’s sweet, Quark," she answered him wryly, "but I think I’ll hang on to him for a while."

"Well…" Quark groused, as he glanced back out towards the crowd, where more Dabo girls were rushing up to show the new boss their appreciation for his generosity. "Hah! See if I ever call those girls again if I should ever get back into the casino business! Why, I…" But his words trailed off as something caught his eye at the back of the room. In fact, all voices in the room went silent, as attention turned to the latest visitor to Vic’s. She was blonde, tall, and buxom, with piercing blue eyes and unmistakable Borg implants. It was Seven of Nine, but not like anyone had ever seen her before. Many of the Voyager crew had seen her in more casual clothes lately, and occasionally she would dress in costume for the holodeck. But never quite like this. She was wearing a shapely red silk dress, her hair worn long. Many looked at her with deep longing and lust. Slowly, she sauntered her way over to her chosen mate, making it quite clear to everyone in the room that there was but one man here tonight who would be receiving her affections.

"Now that’s the kind of girl who could work a Dabo table," said Quark, with hearty appreciation.

Harry Kim ignored the Ferengi’s remark, standing there in breathless awe. So focused was he on this vision of beauty that he accidentally dipped his fingers into his shrimp cocktail, not even realizing that his jaw was hanging open in amazement.

"Close your mouth, Harry," B’Elanna said playfully, as she leaned over to shut his gaping jaw. "You’re drawing flies."

But Harry could not speak, so blinded was he by this vision strolling in his direction. What could he say? He had called her beautiful so many times before, but this went beyond beauty, beyond perfection.

"Harry," Seven said throatily, as she approached the table. "Forgive my tardiness, but your mother was assisting me in my clothing selection. I trust that you approve of my choice of attire for the evening?"

"Oh, I most certainly do!" he said as he got to his feet, reaching to offer her a chair, as any gentleman would do. But then something struck him as odd. "Wait a minute…my mom picked that dress out for you?"

"Don’t be so surprised, Harry," came the voice of his mother from behind Seven. She stood there with his father, both in formal evening wear, looking on at the young couple with affection. "I remembered wearing red for my first dance with your father."

Harry took in the slinky dress his beloved was wearing, and gasped at his own mother. "You? Wore this?"

Mary Kim chuckled at her son’s embarrassment. "Well, I didn’t fill it out quite the way that Annika does. But I was young and beautiful once, too, you know."

"Hey," said John Kim as he put his arm around his wife’s midsection and squeezed her tightly against him. "You’re still young and beautiful." He then leaned in and kissed her cheek, and she certainly didn’t object. "So how about we take a spin on the dance floor while we let these kids have some time alone?"

"My thoughts exactly," said Mary with a wink.

Harry flushed warmly as he watched his parents glide over to the stage to dance. "Can you believe it? Married thirty-five years and they’re just as much in love today as the day they were married. I hope we can be like that."

"We shall be," said Seven. She then glanced down at him, and noticed something that amused her, as reflected in her warm smile. "It would appear that you have stained yourself."

"What?!" he gasped, as his immediate reaction was to glance down at his lap.

"I was referring to your fingers," she said playfully, as she reached out to his hand and held it, inspecting his sauce-stained fingers. "Of course, this must be cleaned up immediately." And with one slow, sultry gesture, she leaned forward and took his index finger into her mouth, sucking on it sensuously, licking it clean, her crystal blue eyes locked onto his own. Harry felt weak in the knees, delighting in her attention.

"You do realize," said Julian to Tom, "that every unattached red-blooded male in this room now absolutely hates your friend’s guts."

"Oh, that’s nothing," said B’Elanna, shaking her head with amusement. "Every red-blooded female in this room probably hates Seven just for wearing that dress." Tom and Julian sniggered in agreement.

Ezri sighed at the sight of the two lovers. "Oh, I don’t know about that. I think it’s very becoming. Now Jadzia, on the other hand! She could have put Seven to shame in red!"

Quark could only shake his head in confusion. "I just don’t get it. First that Delta Quadrant rube makes off with my Dabo girls, and now a Starfleet boy scout lands himself a prize female like that! What do these guys have going for them, anyway?"

"It’s called being a nice guy," said B’Elanna. "You should try it sometime."

"Bah!" Quark sneered. "I’d rather be rich!" And he stomped off, still shaking his head.

"Seven," Harry gasped, as her loving ministrations were completed. "You…you’re…an angel!" His beloved blushed warmly; her normally pale cheeks soon complemented her attire.

"Boy, are you way off, kid," a voice chuckled from off to the side. "When a lady dresses like that, she ain’t tryin’ to be no angel."

Harry tore himself away from Seven to see the approach of two new figures. One was the Doctor, clad in a powder blue tuxedo, the other was an unfamiliar-looking man, but one who seemed completely at home in his own stylish black tuxedo and the casino setting.

"Ah, Seven," said the Doctor, a wide smile upon his face. "You’re indeed a vision."

"Your appearance is quite optimal as well, Doctor," she replied respectfully.

"So this is the Seven that you’ve been talkin’ about?" said the other man.

"Indeed it is," said the Doctor. "Seven, Mr. Kim, this is Vic Fontaine, the headliner at this establishment. Vic, may I introduce you to Seven of Nine and her fiancé, Lieutenant Commander Harry Kim."

"Commander," Vic nodded respectfully to Harry, before reaching gently for Seven’s extended unmodified hand. She had expected a handshake, but was surprised when the hologram took her hand gently and leaned down. "Enchanté," he said to her graciously as he kissed her hand.

"I believe that I am enchanted as well, Mr. Fontaine," Seven replied, clearly pleased by the regal attention.

"Doc," said Vic with smirk, "you were right about her. She’s one classy broad."

Both Harry and Seven blinked in confusion, not quite sure what to make of what was just said.

"Relax, guys," Tom chuckled from his seat at the table. "It was a compliment."

"Indeed," said the Doctor. "Oh, and Mr. Paris, please extend my heartfelt appreciation to your father. I believe that it was due to his intervention that I was granted a new lease on life."

"What’s this?" asked Harry. "I hadn’t heard anything."

"Well," said Tom as he got up to join them, "I had a little heart-to-heart with my dad after the hearings, where I told him about what I had learned about medicine from serving under the Doctor. Dad was already impressed by the Doc’s testimony at Seven’s hearing, and after hearing everything B’Elanna, me, and Reg Barclay had to say, it got him to thinking."

"I was not aware of any of this," said Seven.

"Oh, I think you and Harry were a little bit occupied after the hearing," Tom chuckled.

"In any event," the Doctor added, "Admirals Paris and Akwende approached me afterwards. Admiral Akwende was most intrigued by some of my medical research from the Delta Quadrant, while Mr. Paris’ father was concerned about the possibility of millions of holograms all across the Federation waking up and demanding their right to vote." The Doctor then made a purely cosmetic motion to clear his throat as he proceeded. "And so, in a joint project between Starfleet Medical and R&D, I’m to be the focus of a research effort into the evolutionary potential for holographic beings. At the same time, I’ll be presenting my findings on Delta Quadrant medical techniques to the Federation Academy of Interspecies Medicine."

"In other words," Vic concluded with a hearty slap on the back to the Doctor, "you’re gonna be both the lab jockey and the lab rat."

"And you’ll never believe who volunteered to be among the first to study my techniques in Borg nanoprobe necrotic regeneration," said the Doctor, "our dear Dr. Amalea Chen."

"From the MacArthur?" Tom asked dumbfounded.

"Yes. Apparently she was most impressed by my testimony at Seven’s hearing as well. She even came up to me personally afterwards to consult with me, and to offer her personal apologies. She also asked me to convey her apologies to you as well, Seven. She said she understood why you acted the way you did, and that there were no hard feelings."

"Well how about that?" said an amused Harry. "Sounds like you’re winning converts to your cause already."

"In fact, she and Mr. Barclay have already begun the first talks on the R&D and Medical collaborations," the Doctor added proudly.

Tom glanced behind the hologram into the crowd, where Reg Barclay and Amalea Chen were talking. Judging by the way that she was touching his arm, he thought with mirth, their ‘talks’ looked a bit more than a discussion between professionals.

Seven of Nine smiled in elation. "This is a most fortuitous development, Doctor. I am pleased for you. Does this mean that you are to be accorded the rights of a sentient being?"

"I’m…afraid not just yet, Seven," said the Doctor. "The Federation isn’t quite ready to take on the issue of holographic sentience at this point. I think they want to see what comes of their study of me before they make that decision."

"That is unfortunate," said Seven, crestfallen. "You were not given everything you had hoped for."

"Oh, it’s not necessarily a tragedy," said the Doctor, reassuringly. "I was thinking that this would offer an excellent platform for me to speak out on the oppression of sentient holograms throughout the quadrant. I could demonstrate my own self-discovery, or give speeches on my experiences. Perhaps I might even put my thoughts into a novel."

"You? An author?" said Tom, as he nearly fell over laughing.

"Don’t be so surprised, Mr. Paris," the hologram lectured. "Many great social reforms have been brought about through the inspiration of literature."

"Doc, I don’t doubt you could do anything you’d set your mind to," said Harry with a laugh.

"Why, thank you, Mr. Kim," said the Doctor. "I’ve even been thinking of a title for my literary masterpiece. ‘Photons Be Free!’"

"Uh, Doc," Harry squirmed uncomfortably, "You might want to work on that title a little. It’s a bit…over the top."

"Well," sniffed the Doctor, "it’s only a working title."

"Hey," said Vic heartily, "you just promise me that when they elect you president, you’ll send me one of those mobile doohickeys. There’s this place called Risa that everyone’s talkin’ about that I’ve just gotta see for myself."

"I’ll see what I can do," said the Doctor jovially.

"I do got one question for you, Docko," said Vic. "Which John Hancock you plannin’ on puttin’ on this masterpiece, anyway?"

"That’s right, Doc," said Harry, "An author has to have a name."

"Well, I…" said the EMH, at a momentary loss for words, "I hadn’t really considered that."

"Harry is correct, Doctor," said Seven. "I have come to learn that the identity one chooses for oneself can greatly affect how others relate to you."

"I realize that, Seven," said the Doctor, with great exasperation. "Don’t you think I haven’t tried to come up with a name? I wracked my matrix for years trying to find one that I felt suited me. Every name I picked belonged to someone else, or sounded so pretentious. But nothing I came across was able to adequately capture the essence of who I was. Oh, how I wish that I had parents who could have saved me the trouble!"

"Well, Doc," said Tom, "If you’re going to be this big public crusader, then you’re going to have to come up with something for people to remember you by. Otherwise you could end up as just another John Doe."

"Mr. Paris!" the hologram retorted. "I hardly think…" But then he stopped, as it all suddenly came to him. A look of pure joy spread across his face, as if his entire being was overcome with an epiphany.

Yes, he thought. "Yes!" he exclaimed, "It’s perfect! Mr. Paris, it’s absolutely perfect! How can I ever thank you?!"

"Doc, what are you…" said Tom in puzzlement, before he realized what it was the Doctor meant. "Wait a minute…"

"You’ve got to be kidding!" said B’Elanna in disbelief. "John Doe?!"

"What kind of name is that?" said Harry, not sure if it would be polite for him to laugh out loud or not.

"It’s a perfect name, Mr. Kim! It’s easy to remember, yet symbolic all at the same time." The EMH then struck a theatrical pose, his hands on his hips, his chest thrust outward, as he cleared his throat, like he was about to perform on stage. "A man with no name," he intoned with great drama, "seeking his identity in a cold, cruel universe. He is…John Doe!" Then another idea struck him. "No, wait. Jonathan Doe!" He then allowed his voice to go deeper, slower, letting the words roll off his tongue. "Doctor…Jonathan…Doe!" He cleared his throat once again and proceeded. "And the Federation Literary Prize of Axanar goes to…’Photons Be Free’ by Doctor Jonathan Doe!" He then smiled in satisfaction. "Yes, it sounds so much more dignified, wouldn’t you agree?"

"Oh, brother!" B’Elanna rolled her eyes.

"I believe the name to be quite appropriate," said Seven with a nod of approval. "Do you not concur, Harry?"

"Oh, I…uh…" said Harry, trying to think of the right thing to say. "Hey, it’s a great name, Doc. Or should I say John?"

"Jonathan," the hologram corrected him.

"OK, Jonathan," replied Harry with a laugh. Some things never change, thought Harry, even if names do. "Use it in good health."

"Hear, hear," Tom joined in. "Congratulations, there, Johnny."

"Johnny?" replied the scandalized hologram now named Jonathan Doe. "It’s Jonathan! Do try and get it right!"

"Hey, John-boy," Vic called over, as he heard the orchestra finishing their repertoire. "We’re on next."

"Oh, quite right," said the newly christened Jonathan Doe, as he followed Vic Fontaine towards the stage.

"Doctor, where are you going?" Seven called out.

"Didn’t you know?" he called back. "I’m tonight’s special guest performer!"

Harry and his companions laughed as they watched their holographic friend being led up towards the stage. "Physician, author, activist, and now lounge singer. The Doc’s a regular Renaissance man."

"Just don’t tell him that," Tom said with a smirk. "It might just go to his head."

"I think it’s too late for that, Tom," said B’Elanna, twisted as usual.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Vic announced over the old-style microphone, "we here at Vic’s are always proud to introduce new talent for your listening pleasure. So tonight we have for you one swingin’ cat, all the way from the Delta Quadrant, the Doctor of Love himself, it’s…Johnny…excuse me, Jonathan Doe!"

Jonathan Doe then came out on stage to thunderous applause. Basking in the adulation of his fans, he and Vic immediately launched into a duet together.

That ol’ black magic has me in a spell,
That ol’ black magic that you weave so well,

"Excuse me, Ms. Hansen?" a familiar voice interrupted Harry and Seven’s listening pleasure. Seven looked up to see none other than Jean-Luc Picard and his senior staff from the Enterprise standing beside him. "Forgive me for intruding. I just wanted to take this opportunity to congratulate you on your victory today."

"Thank you, Captain," said Seven. It was difficult for her to think of this individual as a regular human being and not as the Speaker for the Borg and companion to the Queen. But then many no doubt had difficulty thinking of her as anything other than a drone. If others were expected to adapt, then she should do no less.

"I also wanted to extend to you my assistance," said Picard. "I know from personal experience some of what you went through. It was…difficult… to talk about afterwards, even to my closest of confidants."

"I speak of many things to Harry…Lieutenant Commander Kim," she nodded sadly, "but sometimes, it is difficult to put into words for someone who was not there."

"I understand," said Picard sagely. "I just wanted you to know that there’s someone else who understands. Should you ever need someone to talk to, my comline is always open."

"Your offer is most appreciated, Captain Picard," she said appreciatively. She then looked past Picard to a pale figure with golden eyes next to him. "I would also like to thank you, Commander Data, for your words of support during my testimony."

"You are quite welcome, Ms. Hansen," replied the android. "I too recognize your journey along the road towards understanding humanity. I also wish to also say that, as gratified as I am for your victory today, I am greatly envious of you."

"Of me?"

"You were still a part of the Collective at the time of the Second Borg Incursion," Data went on, "so you are no doubt aware of the fact that I possess an emotion chip."

"Yes, I recall that information."

"When the chip is active, I am able to experience a wide range of emotional experiences; fear, anger, guilt, sadness, satisfaction, and even joy. Yet in all the time since it was first installed, I have yet to experience the emotion of love. I personally cannot imagine any experience that is more fundamentally human. So in that respect, I am envious of you, Ms. Hansen."

"I…I did not imagine that I would ever be able to experience love as well, Commander," she said. "Nor did I think that if I did experience such a sensation, that I would find it desirable." She then glanced over to Harry, and blushed a lovely shade of red that complimented her dress. She reached out and took his hand into hers. He griped it gently, luxuriating in her touch. "When it did occur for me, it was most unexpected and confusing. But in the end, it redefined my existence." She then looked back towards Data. "Do not give up hope of experiencing love, Commander Data. If you should encounter a partner worthy of your affections, love will manifest itself accordingly, even if you should fail to recognize it initially."

"I will consider your advice, Ms. Hansen," said Data, a pleased look on his face. "Thank you for your perspective."

"And as for you, Mr. Kim," added Picard with a smile, "I’ve been most impressed by what I’ve been hearing about your performance aboard Voyager. Have you considered your options for when your leave time has ended?"

"Not yet, sir," Harry replied

"Well, should you decide to return to starship duty, an officer of your capability would be more than welcome aboard the Enterprise. You would certainly be able to bring family aboard," said Picard with a smile as his eyes gestured towards Seven. "I hope you’ll at least consider it."

"Thank you, sir. I certainly will." Harry was indeed honored by the request. To be offered a bridge posting aboard a starship like Voyager straight out of the Academy had been honor enough. But a position aboard the legendary Federation flagship ­ especially at the request of Captain Picard himself ­ was indeed a mark of respect.

As Picard and his crew turned to leave, Seven stood up. "Captain Picard, I would ask a question of you, if I may."

"Of course," he said good-naturedly.

"After you were…severed…from the Collective, what did you do to reestablish your connection to your humanity?" she asked him.

Picard stood silent as he considered his answer. "Well, after several weeks of living in denial," he said with a heavy sigh, "I went home." He then looked at the young woman solemnly. "I don’t suppose that’s really an option in your case, is it?"

"On the contrary, Captain," Seven said with pride, as she looked to her mate next to her and then glanced over her shoulder to his parents behind them, still gliding across the dance floor. "I, too, am going home."

The conversation was interrupted when the audience broke out in applause once again. Vic and Jonathan’s duet had come to an end and now the audience was hungry for more.

"And now we have something special," said Vic. "As you all may know, we’re here to wish good luck to two very special kids who are gettin’ married real soon. Harry, Seven, you two want to come out on the dance floor?"

Uncertain about appearing before such a huge crowd, Harry took his fiancée’s hand and led her out onto the middle of the now-emptied dance floor. Vic stepped down from the stage with his microphone to meet them halfway. "Harry, Seven…"

"Annika," she corrected him with a smile, especially as she saw the look of astonishment on Harry’s face, as well as hearing the surprised murmurings among the audience. "My name is Annika Hansen."

"Annika?" said Vic. When he saw the look of approval in Harry’s eyes, Vic smiled in acknowledgement. "Now that is classy. OK, Annika, do you or your fella have any special requests tonight?"

"A request?" she asked curiously.

"Yeah, you know. A special song."

The former drone’s eyes lit up, as she knew exactly what Vic meant. "Indeed, I have a special song, Mr. Fontaine." She then leaned over to the hologram and whispered something into his ear.

Vic smiled wide in approval of her selection. "Ah, a classic." Turning to Harry, he continued. "Kid, whatever you do, don’t you let go of this lady, or you’re gonna find yourself answerin’ to me."

"Oh, I certainly won’t," Harry answered proudly.

Making his way back to the stage, Vic whispered in turn to the orchestra, before returning to the audience. "Ladies and gentlemen, this goes out to Harry and Annika, two special kids who traveled down a long hard road to get here. But now they’ve got each other, and that’s all that they need. This song is for them, and for all of you lovebirds out there."

And on cue, the band played a slow, haunting romantic melody that Harry Kim remembered all too fondly. Vic and Jonathan Doe then joined their voices together in crooning the sweetest lyrics that Harry and his fiancée knew.

My love must be a kind of blind love,
I can’t see anyone but you,

Sha bop sha bop
Sha bop sha bop
Sha bop sha bop

Harry took his ladylove in his arms, and spun about the room as if floating on a cloud, dancing to the tune that pervaded his mind, his eyes locked into those crystal blue pools that captivated his soul.

Are the stars out tonight?
I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright
I only have eyes for you dear

"Seven, er…I mean, Annika, I…" he said to her as they danced, "are you sure about this? Using your human name?"

"I am not entirely certain," she replied. "But if the Doctor can become Jonathan Doe, then surely I could become that which my parents already named me. It is time that I stopped being afraid of who I am."

The moon may be high
But I can’t see a thing in the sky
I only have eyes for you

She then looked at him more seriously. "I know that it was Seven of Nine that you fell in love with. Do you think you can adapt to this?" "Hmmm…let me try it on for a while," he smiled at her. "I love you, Annika Hansen."

"And I love you as well, Harry Kim," she answered him breathlessly.

"But I think I’m going to love Annika Kim even more," he answered with a grin.

I don’t know if we’re in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue

By this time, other couples had come on to the dance floor. Tom and B’Elanna, John and Mary Kim, Julian and Ezri. Samantha Wildman and Gres, Will Riker with Deanna Troi, and Jean-Luc Picard with Beverly Crusher from the Enterprise. Even Reg Barclay was dancing away with Dr. Amalea Chen. All there in a celebration of romance and togetherness.

You are here and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view

The one notable exception was Kathryn Janeway, who having just entered the room, stood alone. As she watched the loving couples twirl to the music, she felt only remorse as she dreamed of a man that she had let slip away due to her own fears.

And I only have eyes foooooor yooooouuuuuuu…

Sha bop sha bop
Sha bop sha bop
Sha bop sha bop

The following morning had come, and the celebrations were over. Voyager‘s business at Deep Space Nine was now complete. It was time for the starship to proceed on to the final leg of her journey home.

Sadly, many of her crew would not be making the trip with her. The Maquis, of course, had already been discharged. And even many of the Starfleet crew were making their own arrangements to head to their respective homeports.

Captain Janeway and Commander Tuvok stood on the Promenade, saying their final good-byes to one crewmember in particular who would not be making the return trip back with them.

"Well, Captain," said Neelix with a sigh, "it looks like you’ll be making your own breakfast from here on out. I just hope you remember to take good care of yourself and eat right."

"Somehow, I’ll find a way to manage," she said lightly, "although I doubt I’ll ever find another chef with half the heart that you showed." She then leaned over to the stout Talaxian, smiling at him affectionately. "Thank you, Mr. Neelix, for everything you’ve done for our crew. You helped make the Delta Quadrant a slightly less lonely place."

"And thank you, Captain, for taking in a lonely wanderer who needed a place to fit in," he replied.

"In a way, Neelix, weren’t we all lonely wanderers out there?" she replied warmly. The two then hugged each other heartily. "You’re certain that this is what you want to do?" she asked as they parted.

"Absolutely, Captain," he said, smiling at her. "You know, there was one question that you and the crew never asked me."

"You mean, why did you choose to stay with us, knowing you’d probably never see your own people again?" said Janeway. "I guess we just assumed it was too painful a subject. We figured it had something to do with Rinax."

"Something like that," he answered her. "You see, all I ever wanted was a place to belong. After I lost my family, I never really felt I belonged anywhere. But where else could I go? I wasn’t ready to go back with my people, not after Rinax. Besides, Talax had become a shadow of its old self since the war with the Haakonians ended. Maybe one day, when Starfleet finds a way to build transwarp starships, I’ll be ready to return again. But until then, Deep Space Nine doesn’t seem like a bad place to call home for a while. Julian, Ezri, Vic, Commander Kira, they all seem like nice people. I’m really looking forward to getting to know them better and being a part of their community.

"Besides, why should I go back to my old life of loneliness, just so I could see more of the Alpha Quadrant?" he asked as he grinned proudly. "I can just stay here, and have the Alpha Quadrant come to me instead."

"Mr. Neelix," said Janeway with a laugh, "I think you’re going to do just fine." She then stepped aside, allowing the dark-skinned Mr. Tuvok to come forward.

"Well, Mr. Vulcan," said Neelix to the tactical officer, his voice cracking with feeling. "I suppose this is goodbye."

"Mr. Neelix," said Tuvok stoically. "While I must admit that your attempts to engage me in conversation have been unnecessarily emotional and your logic, highly impenetrable…" The Vulcan then paused, considering his words carefully, "it has, nevertheless, been a privilege to serve with you." After a longer moment of reflection, Tuvok stepped back and stood at his most rigid, lifting his fingers in the Vulcan salute. "I wish you well in your future endeavors, Mr. Neelix. Live long and prosper." He then lowered his hand and projected it forward, opening his palm into that most human act, that of a handshake.

Now, to someone from a more demonstrative culture, to offer such a gesture after serving six years together under the circumstances aboard Voyager would have seemed unforgivably cold and standoffish. But Neelix had come to know the Vulcan way of thinking, and knew that as a people, Vulcans did not normally touch in public. He understood the full meaning of what was being offered him, and it moved his heart to no end. Neelix quietly took the hand of his friend and shook it firmly and with dignity. "I wish nothing but good things for you and your family, Mr. Tuvok," he said.

Tuvok nodded his head in silent acknowledgement. It was, after all, the only logical response.

Janeway smiled at the warm-hearted Talaxian, and was about to depart, when she saw Commander Kira approaching them.

"Captain," Kira greeted her, "I just wanted to wish you a pleasant journey home. And to say what a privilege it was to be able to host Voyager‘s return."

"Thank you, Commander," said Janeway, "And I’d also like to thank you and your staff for your hospitality. And your support."

"Thank you, Captain," Kira replied. "If you’re talking about Seven and Mr. Kim, I’m really glad that everything worked out for them." She then leaned in and gave Janeway a conspiratorial smirk. "You know, DS9 is starting to get a reputation as ‘The Love Station.’ I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prophets had a hand in that."

Tuvok looked at the Bajoran officer with a somewhat skewed glance. "With all due respect to your religious faith, Commander, I find it illogical that the wormhole entities would express any interest in the romantic lives of corporeal beings."

Kira just smiled at the Vulcan, her beliefs unshaken. "Say what you will, Mr. Tuvok. But there’s an old Bajoran legend that says if you look up in the sky to where the Celestial Temple is said to be, and pray, your true love will one day return to you. I suppose that with us right here at the mouth of the wormhole, that goes doubly so." She then turned to stare out the Promenade windows to where the wormhole could be seen opening in response to a passing starship.

"Commander?" said Janeway, seeing that Kira’s attention had wandered. She even looked just a little bit wistful. Perhaps there was someone for whom she was praying would return to her.

"Oh…I’m sorry, Captain," said Kira. "Just a bit of the romantic in me, I suppose." She then straightened up, becoming once again every bit the model officer. "Good luck to you both."

Kira then went over to where Neelix stood at the bar, where several of the overly grateful Dabo girls were showing their appreciation of his generosity. "Excuse me, Mr. Neelix? I hope I’m not interrupting anything?"

"Oh, not at all, Commander," said Neelix graciously, as he excused himself from his female employees. "And please, just plain Neelix will do fine."

"Well, Neelix," said Kira, "I just came over to welcome you to the station and to discuss with you any questions you might have regarding settling in."

"Why, that’s very kind of you, Commander," said Neelix graciously, as he offered her a barstool. "Perhaps you’d care for a seat?

"Well, thank you," she answered, nonplussed as she sat down. "I have to say that it’s going to take a little getting used to, our Dabo tables being run by an honest man for a change. My security people are going to have a lot of free time on their hands, what without Quark and his little escapades to worry about."

"Oh, I’m sure they’ll find something to do," he chuckled. "Could I whip up some breakfast for you, Commander?"

"Just a raktajino for me, thanks."

"Just coffee? For breakfast?" he said with mock horror. "Oh, that won’t do at all! Here, I was just about to make some Nagellian omelets."

"Oh, that won’t be necessary…"

"But I insist!" Neelix gushed. "You really should have a fully balanced meal to start off the day, Commander…"

And standing off in the distance, watching Kira become the latest recipient of Neelix’s all-encompassing hospitality, were Tuvok and Captain Janeway, both easily amused by the parting sight in their own way.

"It would appear, Captain, that you have been replaced," said Tuvok with a wry arch of his eyebrow.

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen him happier," Janeway chuckled. "He’s found someone new to fuss over."

As Janeway and Tuvok stepped away, Neelix glanced up from his fussing over Kira and called out to his former shipmates. "And remember," he exclaimed as they turned around. "Be sure to come on by whenever you’re in port. There’s always a seat at the bar for a friend."

"You know, it’s really ironic," said Tom Paris jokingly to Harry as he stood by the upper pylon airlock where Voyager was docked, each with their respective mates. "You survive six years in the Delta Quadrant, win the girl, return home, get the promotion, and generally become the golden boy of Starfleet, and how is it you end up? By moving back in with your parents!"

"Believe me, I don’t mind at all," Harry said, smiling proudly, as he put his arm around Seven’s…no, he reminded himself…Annika’s waist. It would take some time for him to get completely used to using her human name. But they had already made a significant start, as they had spent all last night calling out each other’s names during their cries of pleasure.

The word had come in from Earth last night that the First Family Court of Sector 001 had reviewed and approved the Kim petition for guardianship of Annika Hansen. The ground rules they had laid down were quite reasonable. The custodial relationship would be in place for six months, with weekly reviews by an appointed counselor. At the end of the six-month period, if the counselor’s findings were favorable, then she would be granted independent living status and be free of all restrictions. In the meantime, she would be required to live with the Kims during the probationary period, as well as being required to inform Starfleet should she ever leave the planet during that time. Of course, if it became necessary for her to leave Earth, she would have to be accompanied by a senior Starfleet officer at all times. How fortunate that Harry Kim just happened to be one.

Starfleet Command had also approved the committee’s recommendations as well as the court ruling, provided that the former drone submit to a periodic debriefing of her knowledge of the Collective.

As for the wedding, there would be no legal impediments, as long as the guardians ­ the Kims ­ gave their approval. Of course, now that Mary Kim had all but taken over the nuptial arrangements, things were growing more and more elaborate. It would be a close call to see whether or not the probationary period ended before the wedding arrived.

Tom gave Annika a quick perusal. She was wearing a light blue blouse and cream-colored slacks, bound with a matching cobalt sash and high-heeled pumps. Although she still wore her combadge and her hair was tied back in her trademark French braid, she would be on board Voyager as a civilian passenger, not a crewmember. It made little difference to her now, though. There would be no need for Astrometric sensor readings along the well-traveled route to Mars.

"I see you’ve traded in the catsuits," Tom commented.

"Mrs. Kim advised me that ‘tight and sexy’ is not currently fashionable on Earth. I have been informed that pastels and silks are now ‘in’ this year and have chosen a fashion ensemble accordingly."

"I thought you felt that fashion was irrelevant."

"One must adapt," the former drone replied with a shrug.

"Well, it was really nice of the captain to let your folks ride back with you on Voyager," said B’Elanna, trying to prolong this genial moment between the two couples, not wishing to see the eventual parting that was to come.

"They wanted to see the ship," said Harry with trepidation. "You guys could come along too. For old times’ sake."

"Yes," Annika agreed. "I am certain that the captain would be most pleased to have you aboard." She saw the sadness that was overcoming her fiancé’s face. It pained her to see him hurt like this, even as it was leading up to the excitement of the final part of their return home. And in truth, she thought, it was hurting her inside as well. At some indeterminate point over the past few months, Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres-Paris had ceased to be solely Harry’s friends, becoming hers as well.

There had been so many sad farewells this morning. Just earlier, she and Harry had seen off the Wildman family as they prepared to board the Enterprise. Her final moments with Naomi Wildman had been especially tearful for the small child ­ and for her as well. But Samantha and her husband spoke of spending their leave on Earth, before deciding what their long-term career choices would be and how to balance that with Naomi’s best interests, so they knew they would be seeing each other again.

And Naomi had concurred with what Harry had known all along. ‘Annika’ was indeed a pretty name.

"Yeah, well, we were going to fly back with my dad," said Tom, trying to sound cool and nonchalant. "He’s got some business to finish up here before his shuttle’s due to leave."

After a moment of silence, B’Elanna gave in to the inevitable, and reached out to Harry, enveloping him in a hearty Klingon hug. "I’m going to miss you, Starfleet."

"I’ll miss you too, Maquis," he said back, holding her like a long lost sister, which he supposed she was. They were all more than friends. They were family.

Harry and B’Elanna slowly parted from each other, tears streaming down her cheeks. Harry then turned to Tom, unsure of what to say next.

"Tom, I…" he tried to say. But what could he say? After everything the two of them had been through and shared together these past six years…

"Harry," said Tom, cutting him off. "You don’t have to look so depressed. It’s not like we’re never going to see each other again. People don’t go through what we’ve been through together and just wave goodbye. I know we’ll be seeing you on Earth. There’s the parade, for one thing. And I know we’re still invited to the wedding."

"Indeed you are," said Annika, "If Harry’s mother is to be believed, the invitation list appears to be growing exponentially."

"There, you see?" said Tom. "We’ll be hitting the holosuites together again before you know it."

"I know," said Harry. "It’s just…it won’t be the same. I mean, with you and B’Elanna heading off to the frontier… say, just what are you guys going to do out there, anyway?"

"Who knows?" said Tom with a faraway look. "There’s a big need for pilots and engineers out there. I suppose we’ll just wander about space, going wherever we’re needed."

"Going wherever you’re needed," Harry laughed. "God, you sound like Captain Proton when you talk like that."

"What does that make me?" B’Elanna laughed. "Buster Kincaid?!"

"Well, it’s nice to know that someone else has got the job," Harry chuckled back, enjoying this moment with his friends. "Aren’t you going to need a ship?" he asked.

"Already working on it," Tom grinned slyly as he held up a PADD. "Starfleet may be taking the Delta Flyer, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do a little designing of my own."

Harry took the PADD from his friend and glanced over the contents. "The Delta Phoenix?" Annika asked, looking over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow.

"Seems appropriate, wouldn’t you say?" Tom chuckled. "Only this time, we don’t have to be limited to Starfleet design specifications. We can go balls-to-the-wall if we want to."

"In other words," B’Elanna added wryly, "he’s finally going to get that interstellar hotrod he’s always wanted."

"I can’t wait to see it when you’ve finished with her," Harry said.

"Well, maybe you don’t have to wait that long," said Tom. "You can come with us. You know, after you’re married and this whole custody business is done with."

"Come with you?" Annika asked curiously.

"To the frontier," said Tom with a gleam in his eye. "It’ll be just like old times, the four of us together again, working that old magic. And Harry, there’s no one to kowtow to out there. A man can be his own boss." He then looked to his side and chuckled softly. "Assuming that his wife lets him, of course."

"Tom, I…I can’t," said Harry. The truth be told, the idea was tempting to him. It would be great to be with Tom and B’Elanna again. The four of them accomplished such remarkable work together on Voyager. But Harry knew where it was that he belonged. "Starfleet is where I want to be."

"And where I want to be is with Harry," Annika added.

"Aw, Har," said B’Elanna, "I still can’t believe you’d even consider sticking with Starfleet after the way they treated Sev…I mean, Annika."

"I know," said Harry sadly. "But I still believe in what Starfleet stands for. Even if some of the people running it now have forgotten."

"That is true," said Annika, "Harry and I must also apply our knowledge to help defend the Federation from the Borg. We cannot abandon the path we have chosen for ourselves. What is more," she added, "there must always be room for forgiveness, is that not correct?"

"Absolutely," Harry replied, his smile returning.

"Yeah," said Tom glumly. "I figured that you two wouldn’t want to go. I had to make the pitch, though. I guess I just didn’t want to see the old team broken up."

Harry then tuned to his best friend, his expression becoming more serious. "Seriously, Tom. I don’t know what I would have done without you. You helped me to make a life on Voyager when I was all alone and cut off from everything I loved. You were my friend when I really needed one the most."

"Harry, I…" Tom tried to put into words what he was feeling, his cool exterior failing him. "I don’t know what to say. I was the one who really needed the friend. You believed in me when everyone else on Voyager had written me off. You never gave up on me, buddy. I guess, more than anyone, it was you who showed me that I could be a better man, someone who could be worthy of a woman like B’Elanna." His wife looked up at him in surprise, never knowing that he had felt this way. She thought that she had known him so well, but it seemed that there were aspects of the man she loved that were hidden even from himself. It made her love him all the more.

"You…you saved me, Harry," Tom managed to say.

"Hey, Tom," said Harry, "we’ve all saved each others’ lives so many times…"

"I’m not talking about my life, Harry," said Tom from his heart. "I mean, you saved…me."

Harry and Tom looked at each other, not certain of what to say or do next. A moment of friendship passed without words, as words were inadequate to describe what this moment meant for both of them. They were more than friends – they were brothers. And with that shared realization, they embraced and slapped each other on the back, like the brothers they had become.

"And you," Tom said as he parted from Harry and turned to Annika, grinning from ear to ear. "You watch over this guy and take care of him. Make sure he never forgets how special he is."

"I will do so, Tom Pa…Tom," she replied. "I shall care for Harry to the end of my days."

"And promise me that if you find any embarrassing baby pictures of him, you’ll send them to us," he laughed.

"I shall consider it," she answered with a smile. "And I would thank you, Tom, for not only being Harry’s good friend, but for being my own as well." She then looked uncomfortable, unsure as to what would be the most appropriate response. Tom seemed ready to open his arms wide for a hug, but was surprised when Seven leaned in to him, and gave him an innocent peck on the cheek.

"Is that all?" Tom laughed. "Oh, no you don’t. You’re not getting off that easy." He then spread his arms wide open, beckoning with his fingers. "Come here, you."

Uncertain at first, Annika then stepped forward and put her arms around Tom and felt him hug her. It was an embrace without any romantic overtones whatsoever, she realized, but one between good friends. For all of the incomprehensibility she had felt with Tom Paris in the past, in this moment, they communicated their closeness freely and with complete acceptance.

As they separated, Annika turned to see B’Elanna looking at her. It was not jealousy, of course, but rather indecision. It was time for the two women to finally say their goodbyes. They regarded each other, each waiting for the other to speak first. Finally, it was B’Elanna who eventually broke the ice. "Look, Seven…I mean, Annika…I…I just wanted to say…I know we haven’t always gotten along well in the past. A lot of it…well, I could have been a lot nicer to you."

"Your reactions were not unreasonable. My behavior was often unacceptable…B’Elanna." Annika replied.

The half-Klingon woman’s eyes momentarily widened in surprise at Annika’s casual use of her name. But it did not bother her. In fact, it seemed perfectly appropriate. "Yeah, well, I still could have been more charitable. I just wanted to tell you…that I’m really proud of everything you’ve accomplished. Really I am."

"There is a human saying that that which does not kill us makes us stronger," said Annika. "I would thank you for not killing me, B’Elanna."

B’Elanna and her husband cracked up again. "Now that’s what a Klingon would call funny!" She then looked at the former drone more seriously. "In spite of everything, Annika, I…I guess I do consider you to be my friend. I guess I have for a while, even when you got on my nerves. And I want you to know just how wrong I was about you."

"About what specifically do you refer?"

"I remember a while back, when I said that you weren’t worthy of Harry. Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. I can see now that there isn’t anyone who belongs with Harry more than you do."

"I…I thank you, B’Elanna," said Annika, choked with emotion. "In spite of my harshness at times, I always considered you to be among my closest of associates aboard Voyager. But that is no longer an acceptable relationship for me. I would prefer to regard you as my friend."

"Deal!" said B’Elanna with a wide grin. But just as she was about to extend her hand in a friendly gesture, Annika reached out a grabbed her in a close embrace that was a mirror of the one given to her husband.

The look of shock on B’Elanna’s face was absolutely priceless, thought Harry with a grin. But after the initial surprise wore off, the Klingon woman softened and put her arms around the young blond, returning her hug.

"Well, now," said Doctor Jonathan Doe as he came up the corridor, his uniform now updated to match that of Harry Kim’s, watching the tender moment between the two women. "This was something I never thought I’d live to see. And mind you, I don’t age."

"Harry and I were saying goodbye to our friends," said Annika as she and B’Elanna parted, slightly trembling as the individual she had always known as the Doctor came up to her. "You will not be traveling with Voyager?"

"No," said the holographic doctor. "I’ll be heading back to Jupiter Station with Doctor Zimmerman when he arrives here. Personally, I can’t wait to show him everything that I’ve accomplished."

"I would have thought he would have arrived by this time," she said.

"Apparently, he’s had some kind of medical emergency while en route. I offered to consult, but Mr. Barclay informs me that he’s being somewhat of a difficult patient. Oh, well. I’ll have all the time in the world to get him to reconsider." His expression then grew sadder as he stepped closer to her. "I suppose this is goodbye for us as well…Annika."

"It is not goodbye. It is merely…so long," she said, her voice trembling as she spoke. "Doctor…Jonathan, I…I do not remember my Papa with any clarity. But I would like to believe that if I did remember him, he would be not unlike like what you have been for me."

Slowly, the EMH leaned in and kissed her gently on the forehead as she bent her head down, a display of paternal affection. "You’ve exceeded all of my hopes for you, Annika. There was never any doubt in my mind that you would achieve your humanity."

"If I have achieved anything, Doctor, it began with your example, just as I have no doubt that you will be recognized by all sentient beings as the extraordinary individual that you are." Her voice choked as she continued on. "I will…miss you." She then leaned in to kiss his cheek.

He then glanced over Annika’s shoulder, smiling proudly at Harry Kim. "You see, Commander? Didn’t I tell you that she would be glorious to behold one day?"

"Doc, that was an understatement," said Harry, as he reached down to take her hand, giving her his strength.

"Now don’t you fret," he reassured her. "Jupiter Station is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Earth. We’ll be seeing each other many times." He then came over to her and took her in his arms, the two hugging each other in a tender embrace. Annika remembered that the last time she had hugged her mentor, there had been no heat radiating from his photokinetically generated body. This time, however, she received the distinct sensation of warmth.

Janeway and Tuvok then came up along the corridor and saw everyone offering their final farewells. "I see that the old gang just couldn’t stay apart for long," Janeway said as she turned to look over Tom Paris with maternal affection. "Well, we certainly straightened you out, didn’t we?"

"I think B’Elanna gave me a good enough incentive," he smiled back at her.

"Tom, B’Elanna," she said to the older couple, "I just want you both to know that even though Starfleet may not have seen fit to keep you within their ranks, I’m proud of who you’ve both become, both as officers and as people. I’d trust you both with my life any day."

"Captain," said Tom, "I request permission to engage in conduct completely unbecoming an officer."

"Permission granted, Mr. Paris," said Janeway with delight.

And with that, Tom leaned over and gave his former captain a kiss on the cheek. "Thank you for believing in me. I won’t let you down." He then glanced over at the tactical officer and smiled facetiously at him. "Don’t worry, Tuvok. I’ll try not to kiss you."

"Your restraint is most admirable, Mr. Paris," said Tuvok dryly.

B’Elanna came up to Janeway, leading her aside. "Oh, and Captain…"

"Please, B’Elanna. I’m not your captain anymore. I think you can call me Kathryn."

B’Elanna’s eyes widened with surprise. And she thought getting used to ‘Annika’ would be strange. "Okay, Kathryn." She then fumbled into her pocket for the com-code chip that Chakotay had given her. "Take this. You can reach him there, when you’re ready to call him."

"B’Elanna, I…did Chakotay ask you to give this to me?"

"Not in so many words," the half-Klingon woman smiled. "But you know Chakotay. He’d expect you to read between the lines. It’s the mark of a good operative."

"B’Elanna, I don’t think…"

"Kathryn," said B’Elanna insistently. "Take it. You’ve given up so much for us, it’s time you did something for yourself."

"I…" Unable to come up with any words with which to fight her, she took the chip and pocketed it. "Thank you." She then turned towards the younger couple. "Well, you two. Let’s get aboard, shall we? There are lots of people expecting us at Utopia Planitia."

"Yes," Annika concurred, "Harry and I are most anxious to return home."

Janeway blinked in surprise. She never expected to hear the former Seven of Nine ever think of Earth as home. Indeed, the young woman truly had come full circle.

"Well, Mother," said Doctor Jonathan Doe to Janeway with a warm, fatherly pride, as he watched the young couple boarding the ship, "It looks like our little drone is all grown up."

Janeway couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

Voyager seemed an emptier place now, Janeway thought sadly as she eased into her command chair on the bridge. With the Maquis and so many of the Starfleet crew going their separate ways, Voyager was left with barely a skeleton crew aboard. Fortunately, she would not be traveling to Utopia Planitia alone. An unofficial ‘honor guard’ of at least fourteen starships would be accompanying them, including the Enterprise, the Majestic, the Agamemnon, the Indigo, and, of course, the MacArthur. Many of her fellow captains were lending out officers to Voyager in order to fill any missing slots.

Most prominently, Janeway noticed, was the lack of any helm officers, as she stared at the empty pilot’s chair in front of her. Most of Voyager‘s surviving helm officers had been Maquis, if you included Tom Paris. The only Starfleet pilots left had been Lieutenants Marin Jenkins and Pablo Baytart, and both of them were now en route to meet the Jenkins family on Qualor II.

The turbolift doors slid open to reveal Harry leading his parents and Annika onto the bridge. The elder Kims looked on with fascination as their son showed them where it was he had been working these past six years. Janeway had given Harry permission to show his parents around, especially as he thought they might enjoy watching Voyager‘s departure directly from the bridge.

"Mr. Kim," said Tuvok to the young officer. "We are about to depart from our docking collar. Please advise your parents to stand clear of all workstations."

"Oh, we’ll try to stay out of everyone’s way, Mr. Tuvok," said Mary Kim, before turning to Janeway. "And thank you so much for letting us come aboard, Captain. This is a wonderful ship you have here."

"That she is, Mrs. Kim," Janeway replied proudly, but not without a bit of sadness in her voice. "I’m not looking forward to giving her up."

The turbolift doors opened once again, and a ramrod straight young officer in a crisply pressed uniform entered the room. "Captain Janeway, Lieutenant Gary Phillips, U.S.S. Indigo, reporting for duty! Captain Killeen said you were short a helm officer."

Janeway stood up and visually inspected the eager young man. He certainly seemed like a competent enough officer, definitely part of the new breed forged in the wake of the Dominion War. But somehow it didn’t seem right, having an outsider piloting Voyager on the last leg of her journey. In her heart, it felt only proper that one of Voyager‘s own be at the helm for when the voyage finally came to its end.

And then an idea popped into her mind, one that seemed just so appropriate. "Mr. Kim," she called over to Harry. "If you would come here, please."

"Ma’am?" said Harry as he left his puzzled family and fiancée and came over to Janeway and Phillips.

"Mr. Phillips," she then addressed the other young man, "I trust that as an experienced bridge officer, you’re fully qualified to man the Operations station."

"Uh, yes ma’am," replied a puzzled Phillips.

"Mr. Kim," she went on in mock seriousness, turning to Harry. "As I recall, you’re fully rated as a Level 3 pilot, correct?"

"Yes, ma’am," said Harry, even more puzzled. At Level 3, he was nowhere near the pilot that Tom Paris was. But he was fully cross-trained to pilot a vessel the size of Voyager through non-hazardous space and simple docking maneuvers. And there was certainly no danger along the Bajor-Sol run, not with so many starships flying escort.

Janeway then gave the young officer a warm, maternal grin, as she gestured to the helm station. "What do you say, Harry? Care to take us home?"

Harry was momentarily thrown for a loop by her request, but only for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder to where Annika and his parents were standing, looking on at him with love and pride. They didn’t doubt his ability for a second, so why should he? And it suddenly occurred to him just how right this was. "Yes, ma’am!" he said enthusiastically as he slid into the pilot’s chair, and went through the pre-flight checklist just as he had done in dozens of simulations before.

As Lieutenant Phillips moved to the Operations station, Janeway sat back in her command chair, feeling a pang of loss as Tuvok sat down besides her. It wasn’t the same as having Chakotay there. But then nothing was the same anymore.

She quickly cast her melancholy thoughts aside. She still had a ship to bring home. There would be time enough for self-pity and remorse later.

"Clear all moorings, Mr. Kim," said Tuvok.

"Clearing all moorings," Harry replied. "Thrusters ready, Captain."

"Take us out, Mr. Kim," said Janeway, and she watched the station slide slowly away.

Tom and B’Elanna stood on the observation deck of the Promenade, his arm around her waist, looking up as the ship that had been their home for six years moved away from the docking pylon.

"God, I’m gonna miss that ship," Tom sighed. He felt his wife leaning her head on his shoulder, and he stroked her hair gently. He tried not to lose his cool demeanor, but it was hard not to feel emotional at this moment.

He noticed that some familiar characters were showing up by their window to join them. The Doctor…or rather, Jonathan Doe, along with Reg Barclay and Dr. Chen. Neelix and his Dabo girls. Julian Bashir and Ezri Dax. Several of the Maquis and DS9 crew were there behind them, as were Commander Kira and some admirals. Even Quark had shown up, if only to see what the fuss was all about. They all watched as the Intrepid-class starship moved away to a safe distance and engaged her impulse engines.

A friendly hand fell on Tom’s shoulder. He glanced over to see the smiling face of his own father. Father, son, and daughter-in-law all stood together, watching Voyager move away at impulse speeds until she was far away enough to go to warp.

"It’s hard to believe that the adventures are all over," B’Elanna sighed.

"Oh, I wouldn’t say that," said Owen Paris. "I get the feeling that for some of us, its only just beginning."

After several days of uneventful flying, more vessels had joined up with the convoy accompanying Voyager home. Twenty starships, ranging from the huge Sovereign-class Enterprise, to the tiny Nova-class Alta Vista, led the brave ship through the outer boundaries of the Solar System.

One by one, they fell back as Voyager made its way towards the planet Mars. Finally, in orbit of the so-called Red Planet, mankind’s oldest planetary colony, were the sprawling facilities of the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards. There were hundreds of spacedocks, stations, habitats, and workpods, all networked together into a single coherent beehive of activity and construction.

The greeting they received upon arrival was even grander than the one at Deep Space Nine. Ships lined up in a procession, photon flares and antimatter spreads, and the blaring of the Federation Anthem over the intercom. Harry smiled as he saw the look of innocent joy on Annika’s porcelain features as she watched the starships flying in procession. She had not been able to view the earlier reception at DS9 from the bridge, and he was glad she was finally able to receive the welcoming that she deserved.

This was, as far as the starship Voyager was concerned, the end of the line. For the Kim family, though, there was still one more leg of the journey.

Gently, Harry eased the controls of the helm, allowing Voyager to coast into the nearest drydock, as directed by orbital traffic control.

"Attention," announced the computer voice over the intercom. "In-system shuttle to Earth and Luna will be departing at 1300 hours. All passengers are advised to report to docking facilities within one hour."

"Captain Janeway," said John Kim, as he and his wife stood with their son’s former captain at the observation deck of the docking hangar, while Harry and Annika said their good-byes to Tuvok. "We just want to thank you for everything you’ve done. You brought our boy home to us."

"I’m afraid I didn’t, Mr. Kim," said Janeway. "He only left Earth as a boy. He came home as a man."

"That he did," said Mary Kim, watching her son and future daughter-in-law approach them, Tuvok standing at attention behind them.

"Harry, Annika," said Janeway, "I know that we’ll be seeing each other at the celebrations Starfleet has scheduled for us on Earth. But with all the hoopla that I know there’s going to be, I can’t guarantee how much time we’re going to have to spend together. So I just want to tell you both now…what an absolute pleasure it’s been for me to know you both, and to see the two of you together." She seemed to be momentarily choked with emotion before regaining her composure. "In many ways, the two of you were like Voyager‘s children, both so innocent and eager to learn in your own unique ways. But I suppose like all children, the time has come for you both to leave the nest and spread your wings."

"Captain, I…" said Harry, just as choked up as she was. He almost wanted to reach out and hug Janeway, like she was his mother. Of course, he controlled that impulse right away. She was still his superior officer, after all. "I just want to say …how honored I’ve been to serve under you. I don’t think any other captain in Starfleet could have made us all feel like a family the way you did."

"That’s kind of you to say, Harry," said Janeway. "But I think you’ll learn even more serving aboard the Enterprise. I heard that Jean-Luc Picard made you an offer."

"Yeah," said Harry with a shrug. "It’s not going to be easy turning him down."

Tuvok raised an eyebrow in bewilderment. "Mr. Kim, are you certain that such a career decision is logical? A posting aboard the Federation flagship would indeed be quite a distinction on your record."

"I know," said Harry regretfully. "But Annika and I talked it over. I know that Starfleet will want to tap her brains on her knowledge about the Borg, and since we’ve worked together for so long, they’ll probably want me too. I don’t want to take any assignment where we might end up separated. And the truth is that, after six years of tooling about the galaxy, we’re ready to have a permanent address for a while, especially if it’s close to Earth."

"I think that’s an entirely reasonable decision, Harry," said Janeway warmly. "I’m sure that no matter where you end up serving, it will be with distinction and honor. Any commander in Starfleet would be proud to have you, as I’ve been." She then turned to the young blonde standing besides him, steadying herself for an even more emotional farewell.

"Captain Janeway," said Annika to her mentor, the trepidation in her voice quite evident. "I…I do not believe that I ever thanked you. You gave me back my life."

"Annika," said Janeway, choked with emotion, reaching out and holding her hands. "I’ve done many things in my life of which I’ve been proud of. I’ve climbed the peaks of Olympus Mons, graduated with top honors from Starfleet Academy, made the leap from science officer to starship captain when everyone said it was a career mistake, and even brought a starship all the way back from the Delta Quadrant. But nothing I’ve done has given me more pride than watching you blossom into your humanity."

"That’s what it is to be a mother," said Mrs. Kim with a knowing smile as she looked at her son. And in that moment, Mary Kim and Kathryn Janeway knew each other, and understood exactly what the other was feeling.

"I…I will miss you, Kathryn Janeway," said Annika, "You are my family." A tear streamed down her smooth cheek, as she looked at the woman who had, in a manner of speaking, given her life. "I…I love you."

Janeway looked back at this extraordinary young woman who had grown from frightened Borg drone to a glowing bride-to-be. The two women embraced each other, holding each other like mother and daughter. "I…love you too, Annika," said the captain. They separated from their hug, Janeway smiling at her protégé with pride and affection. Former-protégé, she corrected herself, for this woman had not needed her tutelage for some time now. "You’re going to have such an extraordinary life, Annika Hansen. How I envy the opportunities that are going to be available to you."

"I thank you… for everything," Annika said, barely containing her tears.

"If there’s anything else you or Harry will ever need, anything from me at all…"

"I do have one request," said the young blonde.


"I ask that you not be afraid of the future," said Annika as she smiled. "I wish for you to be happy."

"I…" Kathryn, uncertain of how to respond to the young woman’s cryptic request, smiled at her diplomatically. "I’ll do my best."

As the Kim family gathered together towards the turbolift that would take them to their shuttle, Janeway called out to them. "Oh, and Mr. Kim!" she said with a smile. "I promise, you’ll make captain a lot faster than you made lieutenant!"

"Yes, ma’am!" Harry yelled back laughing. At one point, such a goal would have been of overriding importance to him. But it didn’t matter as much anymore. His future would happen when it happened. In the meantime, there was so much to be appreciative of right now. He had the love of his life, his friends, his family, and his home. The rest was all just gravy.

Janeway watched the turbolift doors slide shut, leaving her with her tactical officer and friend. "Well, Tuvok," she said with pride, "We did it. We brought our crew home."

"Indeed," said Tuvok. "A most remarkable accomplishment. One for which you are to be heartily congratulated."

"Believe me, Tuvok," she laughed, "we’re going to be up to our ears in congratulations for the next couple of months. I just want to enjoy this moment of quiet before the teeming masses show up to heap their praises upon us."

"In that I am in agreement, Captain," said Tuvok. "One might hope that our next command together will be less eventful."

"Come now, Tuvok," she said pointedly. "I think you know perfectly well that there won’t be a next command for me."


"I could tell from the way that Admirals Patterson and Paris were acting around me that something was up, that Starfleet Command was sharpening their knives. Why else would I have been unable to use any influence to get those committee hearings tabled? I know they disagreed strongly with a lot of the decisions I made out there. Hell, my decision to side with the Borg against Species 8472 alone was probably enough to put me on everyone’s hit list."

"You did what you believed to be right," said Tuvok. "That is the prerogative of any starship captain."

"I’m a big girl, Tuvok. I grew up in Starfleet. I know when somebody’s about to receive the ‘golden ramrod.’" She sighed deeply, as she spoke aloud what she knew that nobody else would say directly to her face. "They’ll praise me, ply me with medals, and give me some prestigious desk job. If I’m lucky, they might even someday promote me to admiral to oversee some backroom committee. But I know damn well that I’m never going to command another starship again."

"You do not know that for certain," said the Vulcan officer.

"Not to mention that I’m not a part of this ‘New Starfleet,’" she added. "Jacob Patterson is retiring, did you know that?"

"I did not," replied Tuvok.

"He told me that he was…encouraged…to step down. Make way for the new, they said. They’ll probably make the same speech to me when the time comes. We’re like flies in the amber, Tuvok. Holdovers from an earlier epoch."

"All very logical, Captain," observed Tuvok. "But your analysis contains one flaw. Surely if the ‘New Starfleet’ were as unrelenting in their militancy as you believe, then they would not have been moved to demonstrate mercy as they did to Annika. Perhaps the original sentiments upon which Starfleet was founded are not extinct, but merely dormant, waiting for a time of greater confidence in the future to reemerge."

"Or perhaps for a passionate enough advocate to help bring them back to life," she offered.

"Perhaps," he conceded.

"Ah, Tuvok," Janeway laughed heartily. "What would I do without your counsel?"

"I hardly think that my company is indispensable, Captain. Clearly there are others in your life able to fulfill such a role. Some even more intimately."

"Tuvok," she gasped, knowing full well who and what it was her friend was talking about. "First B’Elanna, then Annika, and now you? Since when do Vulcans give out romantic advice?"

He answered her with a characteristic arch of his eyebrow. "T’Pel and I have been successfully married for seventy-two years. Clearly that warrants some recognition of my expertise in these matters."

Janeway almost laughed out loud at Tuvok’s wry commentary, only she knew how mortified he would be at the prospect that he might have actually made a joke.

The conversation was then interrupted by another announcement over the intercom. "Attention. Transport vessel Silak arriving from Vulcan will be docking at Hangar Complex 80-A at 1400 hours. All departing passengers, please report one hour prior to departure."

"If you will excuse me, Captain," said Tuvok. "T’Pel and the children will be arriving shortly. I must be there to greet them. If you would care to accompany me…"

She smiled and shook her head in the negative. "Go and be with your family, my friend. I have an appointment with the dockmaster in two hours."

"As you wish, Captain," he nodded respectfully, before turning to the turbolift to leave.

Janeway stood in the silent observation lounge, reveling in the moment of tranquility, in contrast to the storm raging in her heart. She wandered over to the nearest viewport, and saw Voyager in her drydock, small workpods buzzing about her, eager to rip her open and learn her technological secrets. How fitting that she and the old girl end up here, both at the end of their journeys.

I’ve been a martyr for so long, she thought bitterly, that I can’t let myself be happy. Maybe I think Starfleet is right, that I deserve to be punished for everything I’ve done. Maybe I don’t deserve to be happy.

Looking out through the clear viewpoint, she thought she saw…no wait, she did see it. A face. The reflection of a face behind her. She spun around to confront whoever it was, but she saw nothing. No, not quite nothing. There was a distinctive blur, a feeling of a breeze, and then nothing.

That face…she thought she knew who it was. Yes, of course. She could see it in her mind clearly now. It was Taggart, the mysterious admiral who nobody could account for.

"Come out, Admiral," Janeway called out to the air, her tone harsh and unpleasant. "Or whoever it is you are. I know you’re here somewhere!"

She panned about the lounge, but she could see nobody. And then she spun about…and there he was. Taggart, smiling with a look of innocence on his lean face. Standing where she had looked not five seconds ago, seemingly materialized out of thin air.

"Who are you?" she demanded of him.

"Now, Captain," he answered playfully, "that’s no way to talk to a superior officer."

"I don’t believe you’re an officer at all," she replied, her eyes narrow and unforgiving. "I’ve made inquiries. Nobody at Starfleet Intelligence claims to know who you are. Yet you conveniently show up at Deep Space Nine, and then disappear as soon as the hearings are over. And then, all of the sudden, you show up here. Why? What’s your agenda, Mr. Taggart? Assuming that is your real name, of course."

Taggart smiled innocently at her again. "Yes, rather careless of me to get caught like that, wasn’t it? I guess I just couldn’t resist seeing them say goodbye. Of course, maybe I wanted you to find me."

"Tell me who you are," she said harshly, "who you really are!"

"As you may have already guessed," he said, "there is no Admiral Taggart. He’s…a cutout, a fabrication. You see, there’s a certain organization within your Federation that likes to remain in the shadows. Occasionally, it becomes necessary for them to come out and interact with elements of Starfleet or the Federation. Hence the need for false identities like ‘Taggart.’"

"Secret organizations?" she sputtered in confusion. "What are you talking about? Is that who you represent?"

"Oh, not at all," he said with a chuckle. "And you don’t have to worry about them, Captain. They’ll be exposed soon enough. Apparently, this organization felt it was in their vested interest to put one of their own on the committee, so they sent someone… as ‘Taggart.’ Fortunately for Annika, I managed to intercept him. Most of the committee members simply assumed I was the man sent from Intelligence, while those who knew who Taggart really was deferred to me accordingly. I can assure you, the ‘real’ Taggart and his people would have been a lot less sympathetic to her plight than I was. As things stood, Admiral Nechayev was quite adamant about locking that poor girl away into some kind of facility, and she came very close to swaying the committee. I had to do quite a bit of… persuading of my own to get her to calm down."

Janeway’s blood went cold as she heard this mysterious individual talk so casually of secret plots and ‘interceptions’.

"Oh, don’t be alarmed, Captain," he went on, "I haven’t hurt anyone. The ‘real’ Taggart is on his way back to his people right now with a complete set of memories of everything that happened on DS9. Of course, he’ll be at a complete loss to explain to himself or his colleagues why he ended up voting the way he did."

She immediately went for her combadge. "Janeway to Security. Report to Observation Lounge 75-B at once."

But there was no sound indicating acknowledgement. Taggart smiled at her once again. "I’m afraid that nobody will hear you, Captain."

"What did you do?" she demanded. "How much of the shipyard systems have you compromised?"

"None at all, Captain," said Taggart. "Look outside the window. Don’t worry. I won’t disappear on you at this point."

She didn’t want to take her eyes off of this man, for fear he might try to jump her or make an escape. But in case there was something out there she needed to see…she quickly darted her eyes to the viewport.

And her jaw dropped in astonishment. The scurrying workpods that had been darting about Voyager, the various spacesuited workers going about their business, even the shuttlecraft transporting personnel between the orbiting complexes…all of them were frozen in place. Not dead, not powered down, but frozen. Lights were still on, and thrusters were still in mid-burn. It was just that everything had…stopped.

"What did you do?" she demanded. "What happened to the shipyards?!"

"I didn’t do anything out there, Captain," said Taggart. "As far as the rest of the universe is concerned, everything is perfectly normal. I simply allowed the two of us to step outside of time for a while. It will allow us to talk without being interrupted."

This was bigger than what Janeway had expected. Taggart wasn’t just an impostor. He wasn’t even human.

"Who are you?!" she demanded once again. "You admitted that you infiltrated the committee under false pretenses. Are you a spy?"

Taggart gave her another warm smile as he answered her. "No, Captain. I’m not a spy." And then, without warning, he started to radiate light, and a golden glow enveloped his entire body, obscuring his features. Then the glow began to fade. As it did, Janeway could see that the man had…changed. He was still humanoid, but taller, his skin paler, his scalp almost hairless. And his eyes, heavy and wise, intended to convey both understanding and compassion.

"I’m just…" he continued, "…a Traveler."

The Traveler! My god, Janeway thought. She remembered reading about this being from Starfleet mission briefings. But what was he doing here?

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" came a second voice from behind Janeway. She spun around, and there was a young man with dark hair, roughly Harry Kim’s age, leaning casually against the wall, his arms folded. "I thought we weren’t supposed to reveal ourselves."

The Traveler looked at the young man calmly. "We’ve interfered as much as we should, Wesley. From now on, someone else should be watching over them."

This more than Janeway could take. Between Q and the Caretaker, she had had her fill of transcendent life forms and their games. "Could somebody please tell me what this is all about?"

"I’m sorry, Captain," said the Traveler. "Allow me to explain. But first, let me ask you a question. Do you remember nearly nine months ago, when Voyager came across a planetary nebula, the one with the unstable protostar inside?"

"Yes, I remember that quite well," she said. "We received this unexplained sensor reading. When we followed it, it led us to the nebula, where…" And her voice trailed off, as she saw the knowing grin of the face of the entity before her. It was that nebula, where the unstable protostar within had damaged Voyager, resulting a round-the-clock repair effort, after which a tired and frustrated B’Elanna Torres had made an offhand remark to Seven of Nine about her sexual inexperience…

"My god!" exclaimed Janeway. "It was you! You created that sensor reading. You set everything in motion between Harry and Annika, didn’t you?"

"Yes," said the Traveler.

"You put my ship in danger!" she accused.

"No, Captain," said the young man, Wesley, behind her. "Your ship was never in danger that day. We were watching over you to make sure that everything went the way we wanted it to."


"Nothing sinister, I assure you," said the Traveler. "I travel in order to seek out individuals of extraordinary promise and accomplishment. Some, like Wesley here, I take under my wing and teach. Others, like the young Mozart, I observe from a distance, allowing fate to take its course. And in certain special cases, when the consequences are great enough, I choose to…guide…discreetly."

And then it started to make sense…somewhat. "Harry and Annika?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes. It was essential that they be brought together in order to ensure that they both achieve their full potential for the challenges that lie ahead."

"I…I still don’t understand," said Janeway.

"Perhaps if I showed you," said the Traveler, as he reached out with two fingers extended towards her. The fingertips began to glow softly as they came closer.

She instinctively recoiled as he came closer to her, but Wesley was there to calm her. "Don’t be afraid, Captain. He won’t hurt you. He’s a peaceful being, I promise you. He just wants to show you something."

Mildly reassured, Janeway stood still as the glowing fingertips made contact with her forehead.

And in that instant, she saw…everything.

Images flooded Janeway’s mind, images of a Voyager that she had never known, yet had taken part in. She saw Voyager in the Delta Quadrant for an additional year. Or was it thirteen years? Harry and Annika…no, not Annika, but Seven of Nine. Harry and Seven, apart, practically strangers. Seven fighting for her life in a tsunkatse arena…Borg children aboard Voyager…Lindsay Ballard…Unimatrix Zero…Seven’s cortical node failing…Harry assuming command of an alien ship, and failing miserably at it…Seven being so cold to him, even when he saved her life…Seven exploring the holodeck…no, not Chakotay!… Seven’s newly implanted cortical node preventing her from feeling strong emotions…Joe Carey, shot dead on an alien world…Neelix leaving the ship…the final journey home…Seven and…

"Good god!" Janeway exclaimed as she suddenly broke contact with the Traveler’s touch. "Was that how it was supposed to turn out? But it’s so…unsatisfying!"

"In the history that I showed to you," said the Traveler, "that is how the journey unfolded and will continue to unfold. Harry Kim never achieves his full potential. His dreams are crushed, his aspirations unfulfilled. In time, when Voyager returns, he goes on to become a captain, but only a rather mediocre one, I’m afraid. He certainly never becomes the man he needs to be to take on the challenge that lies ahead."

"What challenge?"

The Traveler did not answer her question, but simply continued on. "As for Annika, she remains…Seven of Nine. Despite what you saw, she never truly loves Chakotay. And he never really loves her. It doesn’t survive long after the return home. She sees him only as a substitute for Axum. And Chakotay sees her as a substitute…for you."

"Axum?" she asked in confusion. That name appeared somewhere in the flash of images…

"No man ever lives up to the unreasonable standards she sets for herself, standards she establishes to keep others at bay," he continued. "She brings upon herself much prejudice upon her return, far worse than what she received here. Eventually she overcomes and goes on to accomplish much in the technical and scientific arenas, but yet she becomes far less than what she could have been. Socially she always remains apart. Always alone, unforgiven, by both humanity and herself."

"And that was what was supposed to happen?"

"I know it sounds confusing," said Wesley, with a boyish laugh. "It took me a while before I could let go of all of my preconceived notions of time and space."

"But which one is the real timeline?" she insisted.

"Captain," the Traveler said patiently. "Thoughts create reality. The dream is as real as the dreamer wishes it to be. If enough people believe this reality to be true, then it becomes possible. And that, Captain Janeway, is the true manifestation of the universe. Not matter and energy, but the unlimited potential of possibility and belief itself!"

"Life is but a dream…" Janeway mumbled absentmindedly.

"What a remarkable species you are," the Traveler said with affection. "A simple child’s poem, and yet it reveals more fundamental truth about the universe than any number of your academic philosophies."

"So…this is why you interfered in our time? To make Harry and Annika fall in love, so that they could achieve their full potential?"

"We didn’t make them do anything, Captain," said Wesley. "Their potential feelings were always there. They just needed the right circumstances to bring them out. Believe me, we tried a few other times to get them together, but it never seemed to work out. Seven was always too stubborn to let herself grow, and Harry, well, he never seemed to have the courage to act on his feelings."

Janeway felt the icy stab into her own heart. Was this the fate she had brought upon herself? A life of failed potential, because she tried to hide her emotions, to not act on her feelings?

"Besides," Wesley said while beaming, "I owed Harry a favor."

"You what?"

"We were at the Academy together. He was in my study group. I was going through a pretty low point in my life and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Harry saw I was down and we talked about it. He offered me some advice, something that changed my life. He said I should go see my mom," said Wesley. "On the Enterprise. He said that talking to his parents was what he usually did whenever he felt down. And he was right. It was a trip that helped me to reevaluate my entire future, and set me on the path I’m on now."

"Why are you telling me all of this?" Janeway insisted to both of them. "Aren’t you afraid I might tell someone about this conversation?"

"We have interfered as far as we can, Captain," said the Traveler. "Harry and Annika can see to their own destiny from this point on. But they will need someone to watch over them, someone to make sure, despite the trials and tribulations to come, that their belief in each other remains strong."

"You need…me?"

"To look out for them. That’s what you’ve always done, isn’t it?" The Traveler then smiled at her with those ancient eyes of his. "Our work here is done. But for either Harry or Annika, or for anyone else, to know of our presence here…it could affect things here, and in the future."

"Why? What kind of stakes are we talking about here?"

"Oh, you’ll find out," said the Traveler cryptically. "And rest assured, Harry and Annika are going to have their hands full. They and their children."

"Children?" said Janeway in disbelief. "But Annika can’t have children!"

Both Wesley and his otherworldly companion smiled knowingly, not saying any more on the subject. "Goodbye, Captain Janeway," said the Traveler. "And thank you for taking the time to listen to a pair of wandering travelers."

"But…what happens now?" she appealed to them. "This challenge you mention…what can I do?"

"As per what’s to come? Nothing, Captain," said the Traveler. "Your part in the story is now coming to a close. It’s time to step back and pass the responsibility on to the next generation."

"Will I be seeing you again?"

"Probably not, Captain," said Wesley with a smile. "But there are always…possibilities."

Janeway shook her head in bewilderment, not quite sure what to believe at this point. She had just been given a glimpse into a much larger universe than she could have possibly imagined. She had thought herself so powerful, she who had sailed across the quadrants. It humbled her to realize just how small and embryonic she and her people really were. For now, anyway.

She had so many questions to ask. But when she looked to face the Traveler and his protégé, they were both gone, vanished into thin air.

She quickly turned to the viewport, and saw that the buzz of activity had returned to the shipyards. She was back in normal time once again.

But she felt weighted down by the knowledge she now had gained. She remembered the look of frustration and impotence she had seen on the alternate Harry Kim from her vision, of which her alternate self had been partially responsible. And now fate had played a neat little trick on her, by putting her in the same predicament. Her own fears were now killing off her own possibilities for happiness.

‘There are always…possibilities,’ Wesley had told her. Perhaps that was the message they had been trying to tell her from the beginning. She had believed in the possibility of Voyager getting home, and she had made it happen. Why couldn’t she believe in the possibility of…herself?

She reached for the com-code that B’Elanna had given her and went to the nearest terminal to patch into the subspace communications network. She eagerly anticipated the establishment of the connection. But once the link was established, there was no reply on the other end. Chakotay was unavailable.

Janeway felt an ache pervading her gut. Was it too late? Was he avoiding her? Had she already driven him away, as her alternate had clearly done in the other timeline?

She had believed that she was too mature to feel this kind of devastation at the prospect of lost love. But she supposed that nobody ever really outgrew getting your heart broken.

Then she heard footsteps behind her, and felt a new presence had entered the room. Was it the Traveler returning? She didn’t want to face him, not anyone right now…

"Hello, Kathryn," said the unmistakable voice of Chakotay.

She spun around, fearing that this was some kind of trick. But it wasn’t. It was him. He was real. Just like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, he had come for her.

"Chakotay…" she tried to say, but he held up his hand to silence her.

"Kathryn, please," he said urgently. "Let me speak first. I was halfway to the DMZ before I had them turn the shuttle around and head straight here. I know that I’m going to make a fool of myself by saying this, but I don’t care. I thought I could just put you out of my mind and move on, but I just can’t! I don’t want to! This angry warrior took a vow that he would stand by the side of his queen for all of his days, and I realized that I couldn’t back away from that. Maybe you’re not ready to love me today, or maybe not tomorrow. But if our trip home taught us anything, it’s that some things are worth waiting for. What I’m trying to say is that…"

But she didn’t give him the chance to finish. Captain Kathryn Janeway, formerly of the starship Voyager, rushed up to her former first officer, and kissed him hard on the lips, holding him in a tender embrace that would have put any scene from a gothic romance novel to shame. In response, Chakotay put his arms around her back to pull her tightly to him, feeling her body press against his chest.

Eventually, ever so slowly, she broke the kiss, and looked into his deep, dark eyes, still in his arms, and said, "I love you, too."

She had seen the former Maquis display many moods over the past six years, but never had she seen him so flustered like this before.

"Kathryn, I…what did I say to get you to change your mind?"

Still in his arms, she looked up to him and smiled at him with the most delightful expression that he knew. "All you had to say was ‘hello,’" she said.

"Hey, wake up you sleepyheads," John Kim rousted Harry and Annika awake. "I know you wouldn’t want to miss this."

Harry stirred in his seat aboard the passenger shuttle, looking down with delight as he saw that his Annika had her head rested on his shoulder, her golden hair spilling about his neck like spun silk. He almost didn’t want her to wake up, so beautiful was she when was she at rest. But then, he knew she felt the same way about him. It was only a few seconds later that Annika also rose from her slumber.

His parents were sitting across from them, looking on at them sweetly. In-system shuttles were generally crowded this time of year with tourists and commuters making the regular Earth-Mars run. The trip was normally two hours long, and that was due more to civilian traffic constraints than the limits of propulsion. "Well, I’m glad you’re so well rested," Mary Kim teased her son. "I wouldn’t have wanted you to nod off while you were flying that starship of yours."

Harry normally didn’t fall asleep during space flight as a passenger on such short trips, but he and Annika were both emotionally drained from the events of the last few days. Saying goodbye to their friends had been difficult enough, but it was watching Voyager in drydock recede into the distance while the shuttle headed for Earth that had finally driven the point home to the young couple. This was no mere interlude in their continuing adventures aboard Voyager, but rather it was the end of their old life, and the dramatic beginning of a new one.

But for Annika, it was no longer something to fear anymore. As much as the changes ahead made her nervous, they also filled her with the thrill of anticipation. It was not the end of her adventures with Harry, but rather the beginning of brand new ones.

"What has happened?" Annika asked wearily, as she rubbed the exhaustion from her eyes.

"I just woke up myself, beautiful," said Harry as he yawned.

John Kim smiled at his son and future daughter-in-law. "I just thought that after all those years of wandering, you might just want to have a look at this."

Both of them leaned over to the small circular viewport to their right. And Harry let out a gasp of delight.

It was blue bauble of the planet Earth. Now, in the truest sense of the word, Harry Kim was home.

The shuttle was now coming up on geosynchronous orbit, so they were still far away enough to view the planet in its entirety through the window. The Eastern Hemisphere was in full illumination, Eurasia and Africa clearly visible through the sparse cloud cover. Annika could see the lights that marked the metropolitan sprawl of the northeastern region of North America, which lay in darkness. One of those lights was Manhattan, where she and Harry had shared their first date together on Voyager‘s holodeck. She wondered if the real city would be as enchanting as the fantasy she had enjoyed with her lover.

"My god," said Harry with wonder, "Isn’t it beautiful? Have you ever seen a world more perfect?"

In the past, Annika, or rather Seven of Nine, had never been especially impressed by planets. Habitats in space had always struck her as being a more efficient use of volume. Planets were also subject to weather and disease, and only with a massive technological investment could those detriments be mitigated against. Their gravities were inconsistent, their environments too amenable to pollution, and their atmospheres…inconvenient. And as planets went, Earth had nothing special to recommend it. Even its excessively large satellite, while unusual, was by no means unique. Bajor, Romulus, Thalia Major, and other Class M worlds sported even larger companions. Only the fact that it was the homeworld of the human race gave it any kind of distinction.

But now, there was something different about the planet, something that now caused it to stand out in her mind. "It…it is beautiful, Harry," she said to him.

Harry turned to his lady, surprised by her answer. "You never said that before. I remember you saying how Earth was just an average planet with no distinguishing characteristics."

"It does have one characteristic of distinction, Harry. It is the world that produced you," she said affectionately. "And it is beautiful to me, because I now can see it through your eyes."

Harry leaned over to this wonderful woman, and kissed her cheek. "There’s so much down there. I can’t wait to show it to you."

"I am eager to see it all with you," she said to with anticipation.

"We’re going to have such a wonderful life," he said breathlessly as he stroked her hair. "I love you, Annika Hansen." He stared out into the space, feeling that all was perfect in the universe now. It even seemed to him like the stars were smiling at them.

It must have been a trick of the light.

"And I love you as well, Harry Kim," Annika said to her mate. She touched his stroking hand and leaned into it to kiss it. They snuggled together against the viewport, and watched, as the blue planet below grew larger as they came in for the shuttle’s landing approach.

Everything would be different now, she thought with wonderment. It was like being a child all over again. She wondered if the sky over Indiana was as blue as Captain Janeway said, if the rain forests of Central America really were as lush as Chakotay remembered, if the seas of the Caribbean were as clear as they were in her holodeck simulations with Harry, or if one could really hear the chanting of the ancient King if one were to walk the halls of Graceland, as Tom Paris claimed.

Everything seemed possible to her, marriage, a future, and perhaps even children. A universe where beings like the Borg would no longer terrorize and frighten others, where all sentient beings could live in love and happiness. It was a legacy that she and Harry would strive to create, something that they could leave to their progeny. The future seemed all so exciting, that she did not know what the two of them would do next after they landed.

But together, they would think of something.

After all, they were to be Harry and Annika Kim.



Category : Delta FleetK/7Voyager


One Response

  1. Administrator says:

    Henry Lee (16 Feb 2001)
    I truly dig where I think you’re going to go with the concluding story of your saga. I look forward to seeing how you will resolve conflicts and tie up loose ends/threads …

    But, please, hurry; finish, and post the remaining parts as soon as you can. For myself, the wait will just about kill me, if the writing for what gets aired as “canon” doesn’t rid me of my misery first. But, really now, no pressure … ;-}

    Summer (16 Feb 2001)
    Fantastic! Yeah, TWOAT is definitely ambitious….but it’s been a very interesting read so far.

    That said…your take on Janeway, on how she was willing to take the risk of getting home sooner rather than waiting another year to get home, to fulfill her promise to her crew was right on.

    And the scene where Harry realizes that Tom, B’Elanna and Neelix have other plans rather than join Starfleet made me kind of sad…..they aren’t going to be together anymore after they get home. Kind of reminds me of how I’m going to feel when Voyager ends later this year.

    Last but not least…what is going to happen to Seven? The way you’ve written Seven in your series, with all of her emotional growth, discovering love and making a commitment with Harry… makes it even more sad because her reaction to what Starfleet has planned for her when she gets home is going to be that much more heartbreaking.

    Michael…great job again. Please dont’ make us wait too long for the next part.

    Bandy (19 Mar 2001)
    Great as usual Mike, can’t wait for the rest.

    Summer (26 Mar 2001)
    This installment is great Mike. I love the conflict of loyalty that will surely arise from Harry if he had to choose between Starfleet and Seven. I’m betting Seven wins.

    I like how their homecoming, even though it should be a joyous occassion is marred by uncertainty… things…events aren’t working out the way the crew of Voyager had anticipated….even the former Maquis’ pardon isn’t all what it’s cut out to be.

    It was great how you were able to convey the trepidation that Janeway…and crew feel about returning home… that everything that they’ve known has somehow changed and they feel kinda lost they don’t belong. Definitely a bittersweet feeling.

    Great stuff Mike. I can’t wait to read the next part!

    Lesa (26 Mar 2001)
    I completely agree with Summer. It was just a great story. I was privileged to read the story before it was posted and enjoyed every minute of it.

    Lesa (1 Apr 2001)
    This is just getting better and better.

    I like that Tom and B’Elanna are perfectly okay about being civilians again. And the idea of the former Maquis and the Equinox crewmembers possibly heading out to the DMZ to help out there.

    Harry’s promotion was pretty stellar. Even though to be honest, (and this is just my opinion) I find it hard to believe that Harry could even consider staying with an organization that doesn’t, at this point, even recognize Seven or the Doctor. I’m curious to see what Ezri decides.

    Summer (2 Apr 2001)
    I just finished reading this installment of your story Mike. All I can say is that it is just awesome. Your story just has so much heart. I’m loving it.

    Each scene has me reacting emotionally to them….like Harry seeing Tom & B’Elanna in civilian clothing and realizing that they’ll soon go their own way…Chakotay and his offer to Capt. Janeway…and her rejection of his offer….Seven and her outburst at Ezri…how everything that she loved or found comfort in was taken away from her…Harry’s overdue promotion. Samantha Wildman’s passionate reunion with her husband….

    Just really great scenes. I only wish Voyager’s season finale could even be half as good.

    Thanks again Mike for sharing your story….can’t wait for the next installment.

    Henry Lee (2 Apr 2001)
    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your series. Part 3 is no exception.

    I love the fact that Harry got two promotions retroactively and got a new Lt Cmdr position. I admit that Janeway’s reasoning was quite sound, that she had to be particularly stingy with her promotions, because the crew didn’t know how long it would take to get home. As much as I am totally dismayed by the lack of recognition for Harry on the series, I’m grateful that a sense of fairness prevails in the end; and good things do come to those who wait.

    And so, to have his promotion so public in front of his friends and colleagues was very moving.

    The fact that Janeway keeps recognizing the efforts of the Maquis is like her, generous and effusive with her praise, as always. The fact that the Fed bigwigs were made to squirm was a nice little touch. I also liked the fact that Janeway made it very public that the once good-for-nothing-except-to-rot-in-jail Tom Paris got his goods. And on that note, I appreciate your alternative that Tom and B’Elanna aren’t necessarily going to stick with wearing the uniform. Chakotay’s reasons for going back are compelling, as is his emotional “request” to Janeway.

    IMHO, the interview between Seven and Ezri was spot on. The scene before with Julian is just like him. In fact, I like the fact that the “voice” you’ve given Julian and Ezri is just like watching those very characters, as we’ve seen them in DS9. Moreover, I like the fact that Seven finally admitted that things would never be the same, that things of the last few years on board Voyager have settled down into a routine. It smacks similar to what you had her say and feel earlier in your saga – about the fact that Seven might have felt better staying in the Delta Quadrant, about the fact that the way she learned about humanity proceeded at essentially her own rate. And now, things are a-changing and quickly. The rigor and routine, which had been so efficient, is now turned upside down. There’s a sense of dichotomy, really, between the earlier series, where there seems to be an overall sense of peace, that everything’s going ok for Harry and Seven. Now, that they’re back home, the goal has been reached, but everything’s changed. Finally, as it pertains to Seven’s and Doc’s status, prejudice is a painful lesson, but it’s a necessary one, regardless of the century. That everyone including Tuvok (though illogical) signed the petition was a very nice touch.

    Michael, I look especially forward to your resolution.

    Jeffrey Harlan (4 Apr 2001)
    What can I say, but “Hot damn!”? This is so realistic an approach, it makes my own story, “Homecoming,” look pale by comparison. It is just *so right* on everything. I’m just waiting to see John & Mary’s reaction to Seven, and I’m hoping that everything turns out OK in the end… ’cause with fanfic, there’s no guarantees.

    Decker (16 Apr 2001)
    I love the way that you have defined all the characters and the reactions that they show… I hope you don’t come down with a case of writers block 😉

    Keep you the fantastic job that you are doing with your version of the Voyager timeline… I give you a standing ovation ( even though I am sitting ).


    Lesa (16 Apr 2001)
    This was just lovely. I liked that you brought Barclay into the mix and his delight in meeting the crew. John and Mary Kim’s reactions made sense, the way you have them thawing because they do share one thing, love for Harry is just right.

    Summer (17 Apr 2001)
    Mike, this section was awesome! Reading your take on the Harry’s Mom & Dad, makes me look forward to watching Author Author tomorrow.

    Thanks again for posting another installment of your story….. I can’t wait to read the next part.

    mdr (24 Apr 2001)
    Another excellent chapter in the saga. Keep up the good work!!

    Lesa (24 Apr 2001)
    I’m sorry I forgot to send feedback earlier. Your story is just amazing. I loved Naomi’s difficulties accepting her father and the way it was handled. I’m looking forward to reading about Seven’s testimony.

    Monica Wolfarrow (24 Apr 2001)
    wonderful story… i have got to know what happens next…. keep up the great work…

    Summer (24 Apr 2001)
    Awesome..just keeps getting better. Your take on Seven’s trial..your take on the judges…..will keep me guessing at the outcome of Seven’s fate.

    Naomi’s heartwarming goodbye to Neelix had me choked up.

    I wasn’t surprised at all that Seven would turn down Harry’s offer to run away with her…her love for Harry is total, without reserve so she definitely wouldnt’ think of having him jeopardize his career…his life…. so she could be free.

    Nice to know that Harry’s parents have come around and welcomed Seven into the Kim collective.

    Thanks again Michael for sharing your story…can’t wait for the next part.

    Rob Vrablik (2 May 2001)
    I loved the deal for the bar. Nice touch.


    Jeffrey Harlan (2 May 2001)
    Oh, manoman. It just keeps getting better. I loved the characterization of Harry’s mother (not to mention the remark about his grandmother), and the last scene was absolutely worth the price of admission (figure of speech there…). Talk about satisfying. Like Khan & the Klingons say… Revenge is a dish best served cold. I wonder if the ol’ barkeep’ll ever figure out why LCdr Kim pulled that on him…

    Summer (5 May 2001)
    "Isn’t it funny how these things all seem to come full circle?" he said in conclusion.

    Wow….can’t agree more. This story is just SO good Michael. I mean, you just nailed the scene between Harry and Seven….her guilt, Harry’s forgiveness…I have to say that’s when I saw the relationship of Harry and Seven…their relationship and their love…come *full circle*. Fantastic.

    The scene where Harry comes to Seven’s rescue and bringing the crew of Voyager with him made me smile….just a really heart warming scene.

    And what can I say about Mrs. Kim…she’s a firecracker!

    Michael…thanks again for sharing…and your story just keeps getting better and better.

    Lesa (5 May 2001)
    This was just a wonderful story. I’m really looking forward to finale but also kind of dreading the fact that we won’t get anymore of the story.

    I hope we get to find out a little more about the mysterious Taggert.

    Gina Jas (5 May 2001)
    WOW. Keep it coming, and don’t wait too long. I can’t wait to see what happens. Mary Kim sounds like my kind of woman!

    Summer (20 May 2001)
    This was so beautiful! I have to agree with Lesa..your story is the version I choose to accept as Voyager’s ending. Imho…you are the Traveller …you wrote these characters with dignity, affection and respect.

    I have to comment on Part 5… the scenes with Voyager taking off dock with other ships following it was SO cinematic Michael…and so moving. Excellent job.

    Thanks again Michael…this one is a beaut.

    Michael Ben-Zvi (20 May 2001)
    Well, it’s almost hard to believe, but after nearly two years and a number of brainstorming sessions and isolated weekends, the K/7 Saga has finally been brought to a close. I hesitate to call it ‘complete’ if only because any story about the lives of people can never be truly finished. I left room at the end of TWOAT to tell more stories, and Harry and Annika are going to have a lifetime together full of adventures, should I ever decide to revisit this universe.

    But all of the essential themes I wanted to cover have been done. Harry’s growth from boy to man, and Seven’s blossoming into a woman able to love were the main themes of the series. But I wanted to make sure that everyone got his or her due. Janeway and Chakotay managed their destinies together (and I never considered myself a rabid J/C fan), Tom and B’Elanna became more free with their love for one another, Tuvok was reunited with his family, Neelix found a place to belong, and even the Wildmans managed to find some happiness. In fact, the ultimate irony of the K/7 Saga (in contrast to much of the conventional romantic stories in Hollywood), is that it’s the men who are willing to share their love freely, while the women are the ones who hesitate and fear the commitment.

    First off, I want to thank everyone who has read and responded to “The Way Of All Things” as well as all of my other stories in the K/7 Saga. So many of you on the list have consistently validated the work I put in, and also provided inspiration for me through their own delightful fanfiction. (It would take a TWOAT-sized document to thank everyone, so please don’t be offended if I don’t mention everyone by name.) I especially want to thank Summer and Lesa for offering the opportunity to turn my daydreams into a literary reality.

    But I’d like to give a very special thanks to Thomas Lee, not only for the wonderful reviews and feedback he’s provided for me over the course of the Saga, but also for the tremendous help he provided for me in the crafting of TWOAT. Thomas provided a role that went well beyond that of beta reader – that of an editor. He provided brutally honest commentary whenever certain scenes were not working, and warned me whenever I was heading into territory that threatened to weaken the story or undermine the premise. At certain moments, he even found himself acting as my therapist, as the writing of the story took place during a very stressful time in my life when I wasn’t certain if I would be downsized (or ‘right-sized’ as they call it) from my job or not. Between that and the pangs of frustration I felt at the direction of Voyager itself, I found it difficult at times to maintain my K7 enthusiasm while writing the later sections of the story. Given the size and ambition of TWOAT, a role such as his was absolutely essential, and he performed it brilliantly, as well as offering his usual excellent technical research. TWOAT would not have been half the story it became were it not for Thomas.

    TWOAT was a special challenge for me to write, as it marks not only the end of the K/7 Saga, but also an alternate end for Voyager. Ending a television series of any kind is always difficult, because you need to be able to cover all the bases and (ideally) tie up the all the loose ends. For me, the paragon of all series-enders had to be the final episode of M.A.S.H. I only regret that I don’t have it on tape. I still remember it being both dramatic and tearful, in which everybody had their destinies worked out and they all had their chance to say goodbye, to each other and the audience. And nothing beats the penultimate scene of Sherman Potter riding off on a white horse! It was this element I tried to recreate in TWOAT, rather than the slam-bang action that they seem to be going for in “Endgame.”

    Let’s be honest. If the Endgame rumors that I’ve been hearing are true, then every one of us RiFters are in for a major disappointment. Myself, I plan to tape the episode, but I will not watch it, at least not until sufficient time has passed for me to no longer feel so emotionally invested in how the show turns out. I remember the heartache I felt after watching Part 2 of “Unimatrix Zero”, which came on just shortly after I posted “A Bright, Shining Thing Called Hope.” It’s a painful thing to watch something that will be viewed by millions that so completely repudiates everything you’ve worked so hard on.

    And it’s not just on TV that the heartbreak occurs. Every week, my friends and I meet up at our local synagogue for Friday night services, after which we go out for dinner and sometimes coffee or drinks. One of my friends (who is also in my writing group) brought one of her visiting friends along. The subject of writing came up, and I happened to mention my own fiction writing.

    I told him I wrote Star Trek fan fiction. He perked up.

    Then I told him I wrote Voyager fan fiction. He groaned.

    Then I told him I wrote Harry/Seven relationship fan fiction. He laughed out loud.

    So why did I do it? Why invest so much time and heart into writing works of fiction that will be read by so few people, for a show that most SF fans consider a creative failure and for which I stand ZERO chance of making any money?

    For one thing, it was a chance to practice writing larger pieces. Prior to “I Only Have Eyes For You,” I had only done short stories (none of which have yet to be published). But I had ideas in my head for larger, more dramatic stories, ones that could be adapted for TV or movies. The K/7 Saga has been an excellent proving ground for me, to become comfortable writing novel-sized stories (yes, TWOAT is over 80,000 words in length, which technically makes it a short novel).

    Second, I enjoyed being a part of an online community like Resistance is Futile, having the opportunity to read, comment, and share stories purely out of love for the characters. It’s truly the embodiment of what creativity on the Internet is all about.

    And of course, there was always the hope that TPTB at Voyager would answer our wishes and bring Harry and Seven together, at least as recently as Season Six.

    I’ve already argued on my website why I believed in this ideal. Of course, the boys at UPN are fundamentally a cowardly lot, concerned more about image than substance. Hence, we will be treated to a final episode, which, in addition to an ill-conceived Chakotay/Seven romance, will involve cannibalizing ideas not only from other Star Treks, but from other Voyager episodes as well. Plus there will be loads of exploding spaceships and the Borg. All they need is a naked Seven of Nine, and they have all the calculated elements to lure the sheep in to watch.

    Well, I don’t plan on being part of the flock. The only one watching “Endgame” in my apartment Wednesday night will be my VCR. And I may never watch it. I still have “Human Error” on tape somewhere and I’ll probably record over it before I have a chance to see it. No big loss. I’ve come to accept that if you don’t like something on TV, just walk away and don’t watch it. When I decided I didn’t like “Earth: Final Conflict” anymore, I just stopped watching. No angst. I just walked away.

    I intend to adopt the same detached attitude for the new series “Enterprise.” I’m cautiously optimistic, if only because I find the premise interesting and Scott Bakula will make a great captain. My concern is whether or not the writers and producers will respect the historical continuity and context of the universe, which seems unlikely to me given their track record. But I don’t plan to get as emotionally invested in Enterprise as I did with Voyager. If the show ends up a stinker, there’s always “Farscape” or “Andromeda.” (Did anyone see the season finale of “Andromeda” this weekend? Now *that* rocked!)

    And so, like the cast of Voyager itself, I agree that its time for me to move on.

    So what’s next? Well, I plan to continue to participate on the list, so I won’t be disappearing. And I have saved some of the “outt
    akes” from parts of the various stories and I have the beginning of the story “No Woman, No Cry” which I abandoned in order to write HOPE. I plan to do some editing on them and release them to the list, just to see if anyone wants to take them and make a story out of them. But as for my own writing, I want to focus now on creating my own science fiction universe for my own novel, one that (I hope) would actually stand a chance of being published. Therefore, I do not plan to pursue the “Delta Fleet” idea that I have posted on my site, and I will be removing it shortly. If any of you out there are interested in beta reading (or editing) a science fiction novel set in a decidedly non-Trek universe, I can always use another set of eyes.

    And if that doesn’t work out? Well… there’s always “Boston Public” fan fiction.

    If any of the RiFters happen to live in the New York area (I know that Summer does), and you enjoy writing short fiction or novel ideas, I wonder if you might be interested in participating in the writer’s group that I belong to. Please email me if you’d like to know more.

    Once again, I thank everyone for their time, as well as their appreciation of my time and thought. I hope that you all enjoyed everything I created, and that it inspired you in your own creative endeavors.

    And for those of you who plan to watch “Endgame,” don’t lose hope. To quote Wesley from TWOAT, there are always …possibilities.

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