The Journey Home

A Star Trek: Voyager Story (J/7)

By Enginerd


Chapter 18 - Honored Guest

"BíElanna?" Tom questioned as he looked back from the pilotís seat to see her enter the shuttle.

"Lieutenant Torres, I had not expected your presence for my test runs," Vorik said from the side console, pausing in his final checks and adjustments before launch.

"Uh, well, you are enhancing the engines, right?  And I am the chief engineer - so - Iím coming," BíElanna said unapologetically.

Vorikís brow rose curiously but he wisely remained silent as his gaze returned to his console to finish up his final calibrations.

"The more the merrier," Tom said with a smile.

BíElannaís eyes narrowed at Tom and focused on his hip. "Tell me, Tom, is it normal for a test pilot to be carrying a sidearm?"

Tom smiled winningly. "Who knows if Vorikís engine enhancements might get some unwanted attention," he offered innocently.  "I donít suppose that is why you happen to have a phaser as well?"  He asked, glancing down at her hip.

"Could be some unfriendly people out there," BíElanna countered, crossing her arms over her chest.  Tom smirked.

"I hear you.  Who knows if we might have an engine problem or something and have to land someplace hostile," Tom said solemnly.

Vorikís brow rose as he sighed and continued his adjustments.

Another unexpected crew member boarded.  "Harry??" Tom blurted with amusement.

Harry saw BíElanna and cringed.  "Uh, I didnít expect . . . uh, I guess Vorik already has all the help he needs . . . for the test run," Harry said awkwardly.

And then some, Vorik considered.

"Look, Harryís safety minded too," BíElanna said sarcastically, noting the side arm on Harryís hip as she passed him and took a seat, shaking her head.

"I had not anticipated this level of concern with my engineering modifications," Vorik said without looking up from his console.

Harry winced.

"Might as well have a seat, Harry," Tom said with amusement.  "As I told BíElanna - the more the merrier."

"Tuvok?" BíElanna said with surprise as the dark Vulcan boarded.

Tuvok paused and looked over the unexpectedly crowded shuttle with a sigh.  Walking to the Pilot, Tuvok handed over a PADD. Seeing the curiously look, he offered. "Flight plans to Balleto, which Commander Chakotay has endorsed. I have my orders to fulfill."

"I am relieved your presence is not due to concerns over my engine modifications," Vorik noted, then returned his attention to the console.  Tuvokís brow rose slightly.  Harry cringed.

"Orders? I thought the Captain made it clear that it was just Seven going to Balleto with her. I couldnít even get her to agree to have me pilot their shuttle," Tom asked with genuine confusion.

"I must provide the Captain with my report on recommended shore leave locations.  As you are all aware, we are unable to perform our normal security scans due to the tri-polar magnometric flux, which has also required use of our shuttles in lieu of transporters.  Mr. Vorikís planned shuttle test runs in the vicinity of Balleto, providing me a convenient means of transport to complete the report the Captain had requested."

"I could help you with that report," Harry offered eagerly, causing BíElanna to roll her eyes.

"You know, sheís going to see right through all the excuses," BíElanna said flatly to anyone who was listening.

"Excuses??" Tom countered innocently, then grinned. "Have a seat, everyone. Weíll be launching in three minutes."

***

As the shuttle approached the almost hidden landing site, Kathryn smiled, marveling at the lush green landscape.  The small plot of land they approached was framed by thick patches of ferns and towering trees that reminded her of the majestic redwoods near the Academy. She glanced to Seven, who had been watching her.

"Uh, shouldnít you keep an eye on the landing site?" Kathryn asked, wondering what was going on behind those sparkling blue eyes.  Seven had not spoken one word about their discussion last night or the messages, which was probably a good thing, she considered. Kathryn really didnít want to admit she had inadvertently sent a message she meant to delete - but really did mean, never-the-less.  God, what was she thinking??  Things between them would never be what they were, Kathryn thought sadly.  It was not right to have Seven think that they would be; but what could she say that wouldnít just make things worse?

"Yes, Captain," Seven said dutifully, returning her gaze forward with a slight smile as she easily maneuvered the shuttle between the trees and finally landed on a small field of grass. Silently, Seven returned her gaze back to Kathryn and raised her optical implant.

Kathryn looked at her curiously.  Sevenís unquestioning compliance with all her wishes today for some reason made her feel suspicious and God help her . . . intrigued.  She absently wondered if Seven had studied passive-aggressive behavior.  Although, from that black Hazard team uniform she wore, Seven was clearly ready for more aggressive behavior, Kathryn noted, her eyes lingering over Sevenís appealing dark-clad form.  Kathryn caught herself ogling and blinked. Good God, Katie, youíre a Starship Captain not a lecher!!

"Priestess? Priestess?  Weíve landed," Fauna said, gently shaking the older woman, who shifted comfortably with a grunt and continued her slumber and gentle snoring.

"Priestess?" Deegan tried as well.

Kathryn smiled weakly at Seven and quickly got up, thankful for the distraction of which she took full advantage.  She glanced at the older woman on the way to the replicator. "Coffee, black. Hot."

The coffee mug appeared and the bouquet of the steamy liquid quickly filled the shuttle cabin.  Taking a few groggy sniffs, Hellia stirred awake.  "What IS that smell?" Hellia said gruffly, blinking and rubbing her eyes.

"What some Starfleet officers call liquid consciousness," Kathryn said with a grin, handing over the mug to the older woman, who looked at it curiously.

"It is an acquired taste," Seven warned bluntly, never having acquired it herself.

The old woman looked at Seven then Kathryn, who shrugged.  Hellia sipped the liquid and immediately grimaced at the unpleasant taste. "Indeed."

Kathryn glanced over to Seven, finding that slightly superior look, and rolled her eyes.

"I think I prefer your Scotch," Hellia offered with a grimace, handing back the mug to Kathryn, who cringed slightly, certain if she glanced over to Seven, sheíd find a look of disapproval displacing the preferred superior one.

***

A dozen young attendants excitedly swarmed to the landing site to welcome the returning Priestess, who slowly emerged from the shuttle, helped by Fauna and Deegan.  Janeway and Seven followed, Kathryn sporting a smile and Seven, a frown.

"Priestess Hellia, tell us of your pilgrimage!" One boy called out.  "And your guests!" A girl added enthusiastically as they surrounded the three Balletian travelers.  They glanced at the visitors with anticipation and great curiosity.  Seven tensed as the children grew bolder and ventured closer to them.  She looked over the young Balletians critically, assessing the potential threat.

Kathrynís amused smirk did not go unnoticed, causing Seven to glare at her unhappily. "It would be unwise to underestimate anyone," Seven said in a stern, hushed tone.

Kathryn took another look at the gaggle of young boys and girls who looked to be in their young teens and nodded.  "You are absolutely right, Seven," she said with forced conviction, though a faint smile threatened her lips.

Seven exhaled heavily and continued to glance around the community for threats.  She concluded overhead attacks were less likely since the simple structures aligning the main stone road were single story.  Kathryn smiled at the lovely village, noting how the buildings aligning the main cobblestone path were handcrafted with the natural materials of the land. Her mother would appreciate this place, she considered.

"Did you see the lights from the sky?" "Did you see Lataria?" "Who are these visitors!" The children continued to bombard the Priestess with questions.

"Children, children!" Hellia said with an amused smile.

The group of adults by the vegetable cart on the side of the road, glanced curiously at them but remained a respectful distance.  They did not appear to pose a threat, Seven considered, concluding the baskets they carried were only for their food as Kathryn spotted, with great interest, a woman putting a tomato-like object in her basket, wondering if she might get a chance to sample the local offerings before they started on their trip to the Valley.

"Please, give us time to rest," Hellia said with a chuckle at their youthful exuberance. "I promise, I will tell you of my adventures - later," Hellia added, getting disappointed frowns and murmurs as the children gave the older woman some space but still hovered close by, curiously eyeing two women visitors.

An apparently peaceful, bucolic location with friendly inhabitants, Seven thought as she diligently continued her threat assessment.  Perhaps a bit too friendly, she considered, still eyeing the exuberant children suspiciously as Kathryn smiled at the childrenís seemingly limitless energy.  Her smile faltered when her eye caught sight of a young girl with strikingly familiar blond hair amongst the group. She had the same build and was the right height and age. . . .

When the young girl turned, a fuller, unfamiliar face smiled shyly as curious brown eyes glanced at her.  Kathryn released a ragged breath she didnít know she was holding.  After a moment of silent, self-flagellation for her ridiculous thoughts, she returned the smile politely.

Hellia glanced at Kathryn curiously, feeling palpable disappointment and frustration radiating from the conflicted Captain.

***

"Welcome to my humble home," Hellia said as they entered a simple structure made of different woods, clay, and stone.

"Thank you, Hellia," Kathryn said, looking around with a smile.  It reminded her of a traditionalist house, with warm, inviting colors.  They entered the main room, where a fire was already crackling in the hearth, taking the chill off of the slightly brisk day.  On the walls, Kathryn found interesting wood carvings arranged in groups complementary to each other. She wondered if they were religious symbols.

"My students made them in their art class," Hellia offered proudly, noticing Kathryn regarding them closely.  "I also have some carvings on display in the guest room.  They are the more . . . interesting ones," she admitted delicately with a guilty smile and shrug.

Kathryn smirked, understanding perfectly.  Although now her curiosity was piqued; what kind of carvings rated the guest room?

"Priestess!" A young woman happily greeted them with a smile as she emerged from the kitchen.

"Talia, could you please get our guests some refreshments?"

Kathryn noted Sevenís critical inspection of the petite woman, who was barely bigger than the teens that greeted them.

"I do not require sustenance at this time," Seven said, still eyeing the new Balletian suspiciously.

Kathryn glanced at Seven a moment, taking her cue.  "That wonít . . . ," she answered, then glanced at Hellia an indecisive moment. "That would be lovely," Kathryn finally said, getting a curious look from the older woman and a displeased look from Seven, who thought it unwise to ingest anything.

"I remember how disappointed my mother would be if someone refused her hospitality," Kathryn explained, prompting a warm chuckle from the older woman and a thoughtful look from Seven.

"I am not disappointed by refusals, Captain.  Talia is the one who prepares the food. Though I do enjoy taking time to share food and conversation with friends.  It has always been a special treat of mine," Hellia admitted with a warm smile. "If it is just conversation, just as well," she added with a shrug.

Kathryn smiled, sharing her sentiment.  She absently glanced over to Seven, who was quietly eyeing Talia, making the poor woman decidedly uncomfortable.  Seven did have a talent for making people uneasy she considered wryly, recalling one memorable dinner where it worked to their advantage. Although, she had to admit being a bit disappointed that Robert "the eager" was only terrified of Seven and not her. But on the bright side, she was spared the wrath of Emma . . . .

Kathryn suddenly tensed as her eyes dropped, desperately trying to push down the ache that welled up again.

Hellia looked at her a concerned moment, then glanced to Talia.

"Iím famished Talia, please get us plenty," Hellia asked, receiving a quick nod and relieved smile from the woman, who seemed anxious to retreat from the unnerving blue eyes following her every move. "I must admit, traveling makes me hungry," she added conspiratorially, getting a surprised look from Kathryn.

"I thought you said getting shot at makes you hungry?" Kathryn teased with a small smile, grateful for the distraction.

"That too," she said and laughed as she migrated towards the hearth.

Kathryn grinned, her sad thoughts defeated by Helliaís good humor. She hoped to have the same positive outlook and humor as Hellia when she was . . . a hundred twenty-ish? Kathryn wondered, but knew better than to ask a woman her age.

"Sit, sit - enjoy my home," Hellia invited them warmly, motioning to the comfortable looking furniture as she sat in a chair nearest the fire. Once seated, she released a contented sigh. "I like to travel, but I do so love returning home," Hellia offered with a smile.

Kathryn sat down on a sofa with Seven and smiled politely, silently acknowledging she couldnít agree more.

Hellia looked at her and frowned slightly. "I did not mean to be insensitive, Captain," Hellia said softly, quickly gaining Sevenís curious attention. Seven could not tell from Kathrynís expression whether there was something bothering her. Reviewing the conversation, she realized the comment of home must have saddened Kathryn. Seven looked at Hellia, who seemed genuinely regretful. At times like these, when Kathrynís face was unreadable, Seven truly wished she had Helliaís gift of empathy.

"I know, Hellia," Captain Janeway offered, not exactly pleased to have her feelings the subject of conversation. "At times, I find myself longing for home more than others and sometimes, I depress myself," Kathryn joked weakly, sitting back in her seat. "Nice sofa," she said, shifting in the plush seat with appreciation.

Hellia nodded in understanding, then offered "Iím pleased you feel comfortable here, Captain. Often it is difficult for people who are used to the comforts of technology to feel comfortable without it," she said, holding her hands towards the heat of the hearth as she glanced over to Seven with a slight frown. She had never seen anyone sit so . . . rigidly before.

"It is a nice sofa," Seven offered hesitantly.

Kathryn looked around the home. "Actually, this home is not so different from what I grew up in. My mother was a traditionalist and didnít care for a home full of temperamental technology."

"So how is it, Captain, that a woman who was raised that way would grow up to travel the stars?" Hellia asked with genuine curiosity.

"My father traveled the stars - and became an Admiral," Kathryn noted.

"That sounds like a difficult arrangement for your mother," Hellia offered.

"I didnít appreciate it when I was younger - but it was hard for her. Thankfully for my Dad, she was an exceptionally patient woman and didnít complain . . . well," she added with a smirk, correcting herself. "Except when he was home and meals were still missed, then...," Kathryn noted, leaving the rest unsaid as she shared a soft chuckle, recalling her motherís clear displeasure.

Seven sat still, listening with amazement and some discomfort. Kathryn rarely spoke to others so freely about herself or her family. She looked at Hellia and wondered how that woman, a stranger, was able to get Kathryn to open up. Perhaps it was because she was a stranger, Seven considered - an understanding ear that was not in her chain of command.  Or perhaps, she just represented an older and perhaps wiser figurehead?  Or possibly something more fundamental - a strong maternal figure she respected.  Kathryn was close to her mother, Seven considered.

"Something tells me your heart is more like your motherís," Hellia offered.

Kathryn eyed the older woman uncomfortably, then noted dryly "Well, I wish my cooking skill was.  But Iím afraid I take after my father with that too."

Hearing Kathrynís use of humor to deflect the conversation, Seven was once again torn. While she was relieved that Kathrynís personal disclosures were not unlimited around Hellia, she felt immense sadness that Kathryn could not find the comfort to completely open up with . . . anyone.

"So you wish to be an Admiral as well?" Hellia asked.

After a thoughtful moment, Kathryn answered. "At one time, that was my goal. Now? My goal is to get my crew home," she said firmly.

"And then?"

Kathryn blinked at the simple question, grateful for the reprieve when Talia quietly returned with colorful refreshments and placed them on the small table between Hellia and her guests. ĎAnd then,í Kathryn pondered the question, drawing a blank.

"Let me know if you need anything else," Talia said, glancing uncomfortably at the blond guest whose stony gaze chilled the air.

"Thank you, Talia," Hellia said warmly and took a piece of fruit from the tray and bit into it happily as her helper eagerly retreated from the room.

"And then?" Seven repeated the valid question, looking at Kathryn expectantly after the interruption left.

"I . . . have no idea, Seven. It is rather hard to think about the future when I am just trying to get through each day," Kathryn admitted honestly.  Seeing the concerned look on Sevenís face, she joked weakly "But I donít think Iíll have to worry about my lack of plans for a few more years - unless youíre a lot closer to solving the slip stream problem then youíve let on."

"I have not given up, Kathryn," Seven informed her with steely resolve, almost in challenge.

Kathryn eyed her, instinctively drawn in by her confidence.  At first, Kathryn found her unapologetic certainty to be arrogant and annoying, then at some point over the years, it had grown to become a surprisingly alluring source of strength. And at times, it almost made her believe there was no such thing as impossible.

"Iím sure if there is a way to get us home faster, youíll find it," Kathryn finally said, fully believing in Sevenís ability.

As the two women looked at each other for an intense moment, Hellia picked up another small piece of fruit from the tray and said "I have found that if one focuses too much on a goal, one may miss out on the joy of the journey," Hellia offered sagely. "You should try the falfal fruit," she noted and popped another berry in her mouth. "It is one of my favorites."

Kathryn couldnít argue Helliaís point, but right now, she was not finding a whole lot of joy in her journey, she considered uncomfortably.  She reached out to take a falfal fruit, but Sevenís hand gently stopped her.  Kathryn frowned as Seven silently took Kathrynís intended fruit from the tray and sampled it for herself, no doubt for poison.  Sevenís optical implant rose with apparent satisfaction as she chewed.  When she slowly licked the sticky juices from her fingers, Kathryn blinked, not sure whether to be mortified by the insult to their host, or GOD help her . . . aroused.

Hellia watched the battle of wills and emotions between these stubborn women with amusement.

"The falfal fruit is quite good.  I recommend you try one . . . Captain," Seven said unrepentantly, slowly removing her hand from Kathrynís.

Kathryn cleared her throat. "You donít say," Kathryn responded and finally popped a falfal berry in her mouth.  Her eyes widened with appreciation at the burst of flavor.  Hellia smiled warmly as Kathryn took another piece.

"Hellia, the sun will set in 2.62 hours. Will there be sufficient time to visit the valley before it becomes dark?" Seven asked.

Hellia smiled broadly. "Child, witnessing the sun setting over the Valley and seeing it come alive - it is a true wonder.  You will understand when you see it."

Seven was not pleased at all.  Even Kathryn had to vaguely wonder what "come alive" meant.

"It will be worth your present unease," Hellia promised confidently, noting the obvious displeasure that even a non-empath could recognize.  Sevenís optical implant rose skeptically.

***

The sun hung low in the sky as they slowly made their way towards the valley on a tree-lined, dirt path. Seven tried to be patient but Hellia was old.  Even using a walking stick, she was certainly not swift in her gait.  She frowned as she once again gazed up at the lowering sun, not understanding why Hellia insisted on seeing the valley at twilight.  They could have easily returned the next day when there was a full day of sunlight for their walk.  Though that still might not be enough time, Seven considered with an impatient sigh, glancing at the slow, old woman.

While her optical implant allowed her to fully function in the impending darkness, Kathryn would be at a disadvantage.  Even so, Kathryn appeared unconcerned, Seven considered with frustration, listening to them continue a lively conversation about the history and people of Balleto and Earth.  Kathryn seemed almost too relaxed, Seven considered with unease.  It was as if she were taking a stroll around her familyís land in the Indiana holodeck program. But this was not the holodeck and this was most certainly not her home.

After one too many audible sighs of frustration, Kathryn finally glanced back at Seven with a warning glare, causing Sevenís frustration to grow.  Why did not Kathryn at least acknowledge the dangers?

"You will understand once we get there, Seven," Hellia said soothingly, glancing back at the young woman, who radiated irritation.  "I know you are here to protect your Captain. I feel your frustration increase as it grows darker," Hellia offered. "But this," she said, looking around lovingly, "is a peaceful planet, not even the animals are a threat to us."

"I hope so," Seven said bluntly.

"Seven," Kathryn sighed wearily and Hellia laughed softly.

***

After about an hour of walking and chatting, Kathryn realized Hellia didnít seem to be getting fatigued. On the contrary, she seemed to be getting more lively and animated in her discussion the closer they got to the valley, Kathryn noted curiously. Glancing around their forest path, Kathryn wondered if it was just Helliaís excitement or . . . something else.

"You are confused," Hellia said with a grin as she glanced over to her walking partner.

"Itís not the first time, Hellia. And Iím sure it wonít be the last," Captain Janeway said with some amusement.

"If you have questions, Captain, please . . . ask them."

"I was curious how it was that, after an hour of walking and conversation, you seem more . . . invigorated," Kathryn said.

"I had noticed that too," Seven offered.

Hellia smiled. "I love coming here. For me, it is rejuvenating - in both body and soul." She looked at the frowning Captain and chuckled. "It is just the way it is. I think it is a gift from Rophayhe. Do you not feel a special energy?" Hellia asked, looking at the Captain and Seven, who glanced at each other as they thought about what they did feel on this planet.

Kathryn glanced around curiously. "I feel anticipation. There is an energy with that."

"I feel concern," Seven said bluntly, causing Kathryn to roll her eyes.

Hellia chuckled at the skeptics. "You both will understand the gifts of Rophayhe soon."

Kathryn looked at Seven, whose optical implant rose.

***

As they reached the end of the trail, Kathryn watched the rays of the descending sun peek through the snow-capped mountain tops. The rich splash of color across the single-mooned sky reminded Kathryn of nightfall on Earth and made the already magnificent peaks breathtaking. She had seen many a beautiful sunset in her lifetime and this ranked among the best. Kathryn smiled at Hellia, who looked out with palpable anticipation, as if something else was going to happen.

"Watch, my children," she said reverently, making Kathryn glance at Seven, whose optical implant rose curiously.

The mountains blocked what little light was left of the day, casting a shadow on the valley below. But amazingly, the valley was not in darkness. A faint, pulsing light appeared, and grew in intensity as the sun descended further, then completely out of sight.

A child-like joy bubbled up at this unexpected discovery as Kathryn watched natureís light show. A green glow radiated from the large leafy ferns that pulsed together as if one giant organism. Seven wondered if the unified pulse was a result of biotelepathic signals shared by the plants or somehow governed by the planetís tri-polar magnometric flux. Regardless of the cause, she had to admit the sight was . . . mesmerizing. Adding to the floral light show, pinks, blues, yellows, reds, and oranges of the surrounding flowers began to glow in concert with the leafy green ferns.

"How beautiful," Kathryn whispered as the Valley pulsed with a rainbow of life.

"Come and walk with me among Rophayheís treasures," Hellia said with joy, leading the way to the valley below with a youthful bounce in her step.

Within minutes, they were in the valley, walking amongst the glowing flora.

"I feel the energy," Seven said curiously, looking around with her enhanced optical sensors for any danger. There were no readings that alerted her. An unexpectedly warm breeze washed over them, causing the plants to softly shimmer in response to the gentle motion. Unable to help herself, Seven reached out for a flower petal to manually repeat the effect. It gently twinkled upon her slight touch. "Beautiful," she said with wonder, then looked at Kathryn with a pleased smile, receiving one in return.

Not long ago, Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 0-1, would have deemed the beauty before them as irrelevant, Kathryn considered, pleased this surprising display could now be enjoyed by the younger woman. Seven deserved to enjoy what life had to offer. Seven deserved to be happy, she believed, wishing to be the one who brought it to her, or at the very least - to be the one to share in Sevenís happiness. But could Seven really be happy with her, Kathryn wondered sadly, questioning her own ability to successfully put the past and heartache behind her. And more importantly, would Seven even want to risk opening herself up to another broken heart from the troubled Captain, she silently questioned with an uneasy mix of fear and hope. Kathryn still feared making things worse and hurting the younger woman even more. Yet seeing Sevenís eyes light up with wonder or mischief, hearing her voice in jest or even in debate, feeling her happiness and love brought a different, frightening feeling to Kathryn. Need.

Seven watched a war of emotions cross Kathrynís face. "Do not be afraid," she said firmly, startling Kathryn, who blinked. "I have determined the flora is not dangerous," she offered dryly, taking a step towards her and extending her hand to Kathryn.

Hellia smirked.

Without thought, as no thought was needed, Kathryn placed her hand in Sevenís and was gently led to a red flower. With a nod of encouragement towards the flower, Seven released Kathrynís hand. A disturbing sense of loss washed over Kathryn, who, driven by a need for that connection, quickly sought and grasped Sevenís hand again. She glanced uncertainly at Seven, who smiled as she threaded their fingers together.

With an exhale of relief, Kathryn focused on the flower between them and reached out with her free hand, gently touching a pedal. As expected, the red glow shimmered in response. Kathryn gazed at the flower as the shimmering faded and the flowerís light grew steady again. Looking at their joined hands then into Sevenís eyes, she whispered with brutal honesty "Iím still afraid."

The admission was a surprising gift that Seven struggled not to read too much into. But her heart just knew Kathryn still had hope for them, even though it frightened her. A fierce desire to allay Kathrynís fears welled up, prompting her to take Kathrynís other hand in hers and look her directly in the eye.

"We will face our fears, together," she vowed.

Kathryn took an uneasy breath at the unconditional love so freely offered. "Well then," she whispered uneasily. "I suppose those fears . . . donít stand a chance," she softly responded, her eyes searching Sevenís.

"They do not," Seven whispered, her eyes dropping to Kathrynís lips before she closed the distance between them.

Their lips gently met in a sweet promise.

Hellia smiled broadly. "A gift from Rophayhe," she announced delightedly.

Seven and Kathryn awkwardly broke the kiss and glanced to Hellia in surprise, each having forgotten about her presence. Kathryn cleared her throat and looked into Sevenís eyes with an amused smile, but warmly told Hellia "Iíll take it" as she continued to hold Sevenís hands.

Sevenís optical implant rose in challenge. "You said you did not believe in . . . ." she said, refraining from smiling.

"Seven," Kathryn interrupted with exasperation.

Hellia just chuckled. "There are no requirements to believe to receive Rophayheís gifts," she offered, then added with a grin, "a good thing, yes?"

"A good thing . . . yes," Kathryn acknowledged uncomfortably, feeling Seven squeeze her hands. Kathryn eyed the trouble-making former Borg, earning a faint but decidedly amused smile.

Seven suddenly tensed as her eyes darted around them, quickly sobering Kathryn from her happy musings. "Someone is watching us," Seven said with certainty, causing Kathrynís eyes to narrow as she tried to look out into the distance and see where they were.

"Rophayhe is all around," Hellia responded curiously. "Watching over us."

Seven and Kathryn shared a skeptical look. "Animals?" Kathryn guessed, reluctantly releasing Sevenís hands.

"There are some of Rophayheís creatures out there, but as Iíve said, they are not harmful," Hellia offered with a reassuring smile, feeling their strong unease.

"I am uncertain whether the movement I am detecting is from indigenous animal life," Seven admitted, frustrated she could not provide a more definitive assessment.

Kathryn and Seven shared another look before they returned to scanning the area.  Seven was relieved her concern had not been dismissed.

There was a shimmer from the plants by a few trees near the lake, a few hundred meters ahead of them. "Kathryn," Seven said, quietly motioning in the direction of the shimmer that was at first delightful, but now unnerving.

"My gut is telling me thatís no animal," Kathryn said with a sigh. "Hellia, could there be other visitors to the Valley this evening?" Kathryn asked the old woman.

"It is unlikely, as no one has been invited - except you two.  Why?  Whatís wrong?  You two are very worried," Hellia said, though it didnít take an empath to sense that from the tense look on both womenís faces.

"I think there is something other than Rophayhe or his animals watching us, Hellia.  And if there are no other invited guests, I would suspect they are . . . uninvited," Kathryn said. "Which makes me wonder why."

"Perhaps it is a lost soul seeking guidance," Hellia offered, unconcerned with the idea of trespassers. "It is rare but not unheard of . . . ."

"We are exposed," Seven said bluntly, getting a nod from her Captain.

"Perhaps it is a lost soul, Hellia. But you can tell that both Seven and I are uncomfortable now.  We will not be able to continue to enjoy Rophayheís gifts if we are looking over our shoulders wondering who is out there watching," Kathryn offered truthfully.

Hellia sighed, knowing that truth. "I understand. I regret you did not find all that you need here," she said sincerely, placing a hand on Kathrynís forearm and getting a confused nod. Kathryn glanced in Sevenís direction curiously. "But I have faith you will find what you need, Captain," she added with warm conviction, feeling the tumultuous emotions the Captain battled ever since she first met her.

"We should return to your village," Kathryn said uncomfortably.

"Very well.  Perhaps you can join me for a bite to eat before you return to your ship?  All this walking has made me hungry," the Priestess offered with amusement.

Kathryn had to smile. "Why donít we go back to the trail, by way of the trees over there?  Thereís less plant life that could attract attention as we walk through it," Kathryn offered softly, glancing in the direction.

"Agreed," Seven said.

"Do you actually think whoever is out there means us harm?" Hellia asked with surprise as they began to walk back.

"I donít know. But as Seven said, we are exposed and that is not the best position to be in. I think it prudent to be cautious," Kathryn said. Hellia sighed and frowned, nodding reluctantly.

Once the three made it to the area surrounded by a large group of trees with a sparser collection of glowing flora, Kathryn placed a gentle hand on Helliaís arm to stop her.

"Iíd like to stop a moment to see if they are following," Kathryn explained to Hellia.  With a silent glance from Kathryn, Seven took that cue to backtrack a few meters and position herself behind a boulder to scan the area.

"This is not what I had in mind," Hellia said sadly, shaking her head and sitting on a felled tree with a small grunt for her effort.

Kathryn placed a hand on the older womanís shoulder.  "Iím sorry. I want you to know I do value what you have shared with me . . . especially your friendship," she said sincerely.

"You will always have that, Captain," Hellia said with a small smile and patted Kathrynís hand affectionately.

Kathryn joined Seven behind a boulder. "Are they approaching?"

"It would appear they are following. However, the plants have stopped shimmering.  I believe they are maintaining a distance, for now," Seven said, returning her scan of the area.

"At our pace, theyíll easily be able to catch up before we could get back to Helliaís village, if that is their intent," Kathryn said with a frown, glancing back at the old woman.

"Do you wish me to engage and determine their intent?" Seven asked.

Kathryn sighed unhappily.  "I donít like the idea of splitting up," she said thoughtfully.  "But I really donít want to be worried about an ambush the entire trip back," Kathryn continued with a frown.

"It would be logical to determine if there is a threat and neutralize it," Seven said, getting Kathryn to reluctantly nod.  "I will be back shortly," Seven said and started to get up but was stopped by a firm hand on her forearm.  Her questioning look was promptly answered with pointed look.

"Be careful. And thatís an order," Captain Janeway said firmly.

"I will comply . . . Captain," Seven said with a whisper of a smile.


Chapter 19 - Rophayheís Gift

"Where did they go??" Harry asked, crouched behind a tree.  He looked at Tom, who had also found new cover behind a nearby tree.

"I donít . . . oh, over there, the plants are shimmering," Tom said, pointing to a patch of flowers about 300 meters away.

"You know, this is a pretty cool place," Harry offered, glancing around with appreciation.  "Iíve never seen plant life like this. I wonder if it would be ok to take some samples," he said, touching the leaves of the nearest plant and smiling as it shimmered.

"Why not?" Tom said with a shrug, causing Harry to smile with encouragement. "Weíre already trespassing with weapons on sacred land. Iím sure taking some of their sacred plants back to Voyager without permission wonít add that many more years to our eternal damnation," Tom said with a smirk.

Harry frowned.

"I suspect your eternal damnation may not be sufficient punishment to satisfy Captain Janeway."

The crisp voice caused the two look-outs to jump and jerk their heads up to see Seven of Nine standing over them in an intimidating Hazard team uniform, with her arms crossed over her chest, clearly unamused.

"Seven! This isnít what it looks like," Tom blurted as he quickly stood. It was a phrase she suspected BíElanna heard often from the pilot.

"Yeah," Harry chimed in unconvincingly.

"Since I am not to rely on appearances, then what, exactly, is this?" Seven asked, tilting her head curiously.

"Uh . . . we had some shuttle problems. Funny thing. We were helping test out olí Vorikís engine improvements and . . . well, poor Vorik.  His test didnít go so well and we had to land," Tom explained.

"Yeah," Harry chimed in unconvincingly.

"Vorik is with you?" Seven asked with surprise.  Of all the people on Voyager to violate direct orders, she would never have suspected Mr. Vorik.  And hearing of his involvement, she couldnít help but feel disappointment; she would have expected a far better excuse.

"Not right here," Harry said, motioning to the area. "Heís with BíElanna and Tuvok at the shuttle, East of here," he added, motioning in that direction.

"You were all "helping" Vorik?" Seven asked incredulously.  While it was comforting to know her friends were nearby, clearly to protect their Captain, she could just imagine how livid Kathryn was going to be.  Tom nodded and Harry winced.

"Well, uh, actually . . . I was helping Tuvok," Harry offered, compelled to explain. "He was, well, investigating potential shore leave locations as the Captain had requested, and he couldnít do that from Voyager with the tri-polar magnometric flux . . . and all," Harry offered, without a single convincing molecule in his body.

Tom rolled his eyes. Amateur.

Seven eyed Harry a silent moment, then sighed. "Your tricorder," she demanded and held out a hand for the device, which she immediately received.  Opening it up, she scanned the area.  The sensor readings flickered, showing indications of a shuttle, then showed two shuttles, then one, causing Seven to frown.

"The tri-polar magnometric flux is affecting the readings," Harry offered as Seven noted with displeasure how the tricorder indicated nothing, flickered, then indicated multiple people, flickered again, then indicated only the three of them before going blank.

She sighed heavily as she looked up from the small screen and offered "I should be able to filter out the effects."

When she started to adjust the device, Harry shook his head. "Iíve already tried, but the energy from the plants ends up masking the humanoid signs," Harry explained with a bit of frustration.

She looked at him and raised her optical implant.

"Go ahead, try it yourself," he said with frustration.

After making the adjustments, she frowned at the most unsatisfying result.  The discrete humanoid biological signs were now shown as an unhelpful, massive blob.

Harry looked at her, not needing to say "told you so."

"We should return to the Captain," Seven said, crisply closing the tricorder and handing it back to Harry.  Noticing the men appear hesitant to follow as she started to leave, she noted "I will inform her you were watching us. I am certain she will have some questions for you." After producing twin cringes, she left with purpose, not looking back.

Harryís shoulders slumped as he followed Seven.

Tom shook his head and joined Harryís side. "We are so screwed," he whispered.

"What was it you said? The more the merrier??" Harry offered with irritation.

***

This was not good, Kathryn concluded when she heard, then saw three men. They emerged from the forest with daggers that glistened in the plant light. Not good at all.

"I donít suppose they could be those lost souls you were talking about?" Kathryn asked hopefully, getting a frown from the older woman. "I didnít think so," she exhaled wearily and tapped her comm badge. "Seven, this is Captain . . . ." Before Kathryn could finish, her comm badge let out a high-pitch squeal. She winced at both the annoying noise and her inability to call in the reinforcements. "Damn," she muttered under her breath.

"My children, what is the meaning of this?" Hellia asked, standing with the help of her walking staff. "Why do you insult Rophayhe and bring weapons onto sacred land?"

"Did you hear that? She thinks weíre insulting Rophayhe," one of the men, a wiry figure, scoffed, prompting chuckles from his companions. "Well if Rophayhe is so upset about it, why doesnít he say so??" the man challenged.

"I donít think heís here today," the shortest man offered with amusement. "Probably busy someplace else . . . performing his miracles," he said, mockingly.

"You know, thatís the problem with Gods - theyíre never around when you really need one," the wiry man said contemptuously.

"Rophayhe is where Rophayhe is needed most," Hellia countered with conviction.

"Well, old woman, I think he is going to be needed here pretty soon," the wiry man said with vicious glee, rubbing his thumb across his blade as he glared at the Priestess. "What do you think?" he questioned his friends. "Do you think sheíll beg Rophayhe to save her?"

Captain Janeway eased closer to Hellia.

"You! Get away from her. Our quarrel is not with you," the largest man, who towered over all, barked in a deep booming voice that commanded attention . . . as did his stature.

"If you donít mind me asking," Kathryn said, looking up at the large man. "What sort of quarrel could the three of you possibly have with an old woman?" Kathryn asked conversationally. She glanced at the three with a curious gaze.

"That is none of your concern, stranger! If you donít leave now, you will never leave here on your own," the wiry man threatened, lifting up his weapon in emphasis.

While still not completely sure which one of the three was the supposed leader, she concluded the wiry man was the most volatile. As she expected, he took a menacing step towards Hellia. Janeway adjusted, placing herself squarely between the two, clearly dismissing their warnings. Her eyes narrowed in warning at the wiry man, who looked at her uneasily then to the large man.

"Captain," Hellia said with alarm.

"Are you a fool?" the large man growled, not pleased by the interference.

"Well, I have been told that Iím prone to sudden bouts of recklessness," Captain Janeway admitted, focusing on the wiry man who fidgeted.

"Please, Captain, leave now. This is not your quarrel," Hellia said worriedly.

"Listen to the old woman," the massive man said with irritation.

Janeway glanced at Hellia. "Leaving you with them is not an option, Hellia," she said tersely, refocusing on the wiry, little man.

"Captain, the battle between the Latarians and Balletians has existed long before I was born, and will exist long after I am dead. I have chosen to put my life in Rophayheís hands, for better or worse. Rophayheís will, will be done."

"Hawthen, what are we waiting for?!?" The wiry man complained to the tall man. "Sheís giving me the creeps," he said, pointing his dagger at the old lady.

"A moment, Leegahn," Hawthen commanded, watching the women. To his surprise, Janeway looked at the large leader with appreciation and nodded her thanks before responding to the Priestess.

"Hellia, just as I respect you for being willing to die for what you believe in, please, respect me for being willing to fight for what I believe in," Kathryn said, glancing at Hellia.

"She is a fool," the shortest man laughed, looking at his companions. "There are three of us and she has no weapon!"

"Let the old woman try and save the strangerís life," Hawthen snapped.

"And what do you believe in, Captain?" Hellia probed with intense interest, startling Kathryn with the question.

"I . . . I believe in justice and defending those who need it," Kathryn finished with conviction.

"Nothing else?" Hellia asked with slight hope, causing Kathryn to frown.

"Iím sorry," Kathryn said, almost wishing she could have faith in a deity like Rophayhe. "Thereís an old Earth saying, God helps those who help themselves. I suppose I believe that," she offered.

"And when we are unable to help ourselves?" Hellia countered simply, getting a confused look from the Captain, who glanced back at the three thugs ready to attack. She frowned; this wasnít exactly the most inspiring pep-talk she had ever heard. "There is no shame in relying on others," Hellia added sagely. "Sometimes that is our only hope. You know this in your heart, yet still struggle with that truth," the Priestess added, looking at Kathryn.

"I want to help you," Janeway offered, almost pleaded. Hellia nodded sadly, feeling Kathrynís sincerity.

"Do you really want to die for her??" Hawthen asked incredulously, clearly not happy with this stubborn stranger. If she had been a Balletian, she would have fled by now - with the Priestessí blessing.

"Are you willing to die for this hatred of yours?" Kathryn responded calmly, though her voice and eyes held clear warning. She was going to fight them with everything she had.

"Are you willing to die for a God youíve never seen?!?" Hawthen barked.

"You know, thereís a lot of talk about dying today, which I have no intention of doing. But I will defend those who are bullied," Captain Janeway said firmly. "And I really donít like bullies," she added with great distaste.

Kathryn eyes darted to each man, knowing the odds were not exactly encouraging, but her plan was to just hold on until Seven came back. She glanced to the wiry man, noting he had just run out of patience.

"Enough talk! Weíve already wasted too much time. Sheís decided to die with the old woman - so be it!" Leegahn declared and rushed Kathryn, dagger first, causing the old woman to gasp.

Drawing upon her Starfleet hand-to-hand combat skills, Janeway stepped aside and swiftly grabbed his arm and shoulder. With minimal force, she deflected his charge, causing him to lose balance and stumble to the ground with a loud "oooff."

She quickly turned back to the Priestess, whose eyes were wide with surprise. "Your staff!" she shouted, holding out her hand.

The old woman hesitated a startled moment before tossing it to her.

Kathryn caught it just in time to turn and block the shortest man who attacked. With a solid whack to the manís forearm, his knife fell to the ground as he grunted in pain. Even against these apparently unskilled fighters, Kathryn still frowned, wishing she had spent a bit more time training with Tuvok than was required to pass her annual proficiency test.

She swung up, solidly connecting with the shortest manís jaw, causing him to drop like a rag doll. She really hoped he was knocked out for a while.

Turning to face the large man, she noted his eyes narrowed as he cautiously approached with his dagger held out menacingly. If Rophayhe was going to give her a gift, she wouldnít mind Sevenís return right now. Or a phaser. Or . . .

***

"Do you think sheíll restrict us to quarters?" Harry asked, with a wince, offering yet another possible punishment that Captain Janeway might hand out as they marched towards their fate.

"I donít know, Harry," Tom said once again, with growing irritation.

"I was asking Seven," Harry countered tightly. "Well, Seven?"

"It is fruitless to speculate," Seven said with a sigh. "I recommend you cease . . ."

"Noooo!!" The anguished cry of Captain Janeway cut through the forest and into Sevenís heart.

The sound was almost as chilling as Sevenís reaction to it, Harry thought, seeing concern flood her face before she took off for an all-out run towards the Captain, causing a great disturbance in the flora, which violently flickered, almost as if signaling something was horribly wrong.

As they followed as fast as they could, Harry absently wondered if the glowing plants actually might sense what was going on.

Seven noted with dread a rapidly pulsing wave of light moving away from Kathrynís location. Her optical implant zoomed in and focused on the source, revealing a short man cradling his right arm as he awkwardly rushed across the Valley. She had no thoughts of pursuit, her priority was clear - Kathryn.

Arriving upon Kathrynís site, Seven hesitated, seeing Captain Janeway numbly sitting on the ground next to Hellia. Her initial relief was quickly replaced by profound sadness as she realized Hellia was unmoving, laying in a pool of blood.

A winded Harry and Tom had their weapons drawn as they arrived shortly after Seven. They quickly fanned out and looked around the area. Tom paused to check the pulse of a wiry man on the ground. Tom looked at Harry and shook his head. They quickly determined there were no more immediate threats.

"Kathryn?" Seven called as she approached but did not get a response. Captain Janeway just sat, staring at the old woman, her bloodstained hand gently covering a wrinkled one. Sevenís eyes widened with alarm as she noticed Kathrynís pale complexion and the her substantial leg wound that was still losing blood. "Mr. Paris!" Seven said anxiously as she knelt by Kathryn. "The Priestess is dead and the Captain has been severely damaged," she said, applying direct pressure to Kathrynís leg as she scanned for other injuries.

Kathryn did not flinch; she just stared at her old friend. Another she could not protect . . . .

"Geeze," Tom muttered. Even with the weak light from the surrounding plants, he could see a large dark pool of liquid where the Captain sat. "Harry, get some cloth. We need to make a tourniquet for her leg."

Harry nodded nervously and rushed over the dead attacker. Kneeling at the body, he winced before starting to rip up his clothes, knowing the guy had no more use for it now.

"Kathryn?!?" Seven called uneasily as Kathryn passed out.

Tom took the material from Harry and quickly wrapped it above the wound. "Harry, contact Tuvok and get the shuttle here. Weíre gonna need the medkit," he said urgently as he tied the tourniquet.

Harry nodded and tapped his com badge. "Kim to Tuvok, the Captain needs . . . ." A high-pitched squeal pierced their ears, interrupting the request for help. "Damn it!" Harry exhaled.

"I will take her to the shuttle," Seven announced with determination.

"Wait!" Tom blurted as Seven moved to pick up the Captain. "Youíll make much better time to the shuttle without her," Tom insisted, causing Sevenís jaw to clench and glare at him.

"Unacceptable!" Seven spat.

"Seven, heís right," Harry said.

"I can not leave her again! I left her before and this happened!!" She argued vehemently.

"This is not your fault!" Tom argued. "She needs you to bring the shuttle here. Taking her with you in this condition will kill her," Tom said bluntly. "GO. Thatís an order."

"Please, Seven," Harry urged softly.

Seven angrily lifted her eyes from Kathryn to the two crew members, who held their breaths. Without another word, she left to retrieve the help Kathryn needed, leaving a trail of rapidly shimmering plants in her wake.

***

After many minutes of uncomfortable silence, Harry looked between the Captain and Tom for the hundredth time.

"Sheís not going to make it, is she?" Harry said bluntly.

"Are you questioning my medical skills, Harry?" Tom joked weakly, relieved when he checked and still felt the faint pulse of his patient.

Harry paused uncomfortably. "It will take Seven some time to get to the shuttle, even running full out," he said with a wince.

"Yes," Tom said with a sigh. "But with the medkit on the shuttle I will have no problem stabilizing her," he said softly, knowing as did Harry that if she died now, there would be precious little time before even the medkit would be useless. Seeing Harryís frown, Tom put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, Harry. The Captainís a tough lady, whose been through worse scrapes before and came out OK. Iíll place my money on her any day."

Harry smiled weakly. But how many tough scrapes can a person go through and continue to be OK, he wondered worriedly. If Seven or any of them had anything to say about it, this would not be her last one, Harry concluded with growing conviction and nodded.

Hearing a sound of someone approaching, Harry looked at Tom with alarm. Tom nodded slightly and Harry slowly reached for his phaser.

***

"So, Tuvok, finished your shore leave report yet?" BíElanna asked, looking up from her console, clearly bored.

Only Tuvokís brow rose in response.

Vorik ignored them both, continuing to process the test data from the two shuttle runs he had managed to accomplish successfully before the "mysterious problem" that made the Pilot decide to cut short his testing and land. With Mr. Tuvokís command-endorsed task, it was clearly unnecessary to have that "mysterious problem." However, his attempt to explain that to the illogical Pilot was unsuccessful. Humans....

A proximity alarm went off, startling BíElanna, who scanned the console. "Someoneís quickly coming towards . . . theyíre here," she said with surprise as the shuttle door began to open. "Kahless!" BíElanna said as she and Tuvok grabbed their phasers.

Seeing Seven appear, they lowered their weapons in relief which was short lived. "The Captain is dying, we must go to her," Seven said, short of breath, which in itself was alarming to BíElanna. She made her way to the pilotís seat.

"Get a medical kit ready. She was stabbed in the leg and lost much blood. She does not have much time," Seven said grimly, rapidly tapping the launch sequence into the control panel.

"Kahless," BíElanna blurted once more before scrambling to get the kit.

"I have it," Vorik announced as he promptly retrieved the medkit from the stowage location and handed it to BíElanna, who frowned with worry.

Tuvok sat in the co-pilotís and helped with the launch sequence. "What of Priestess Hellia?" He asked.

"She is dead."


Chapter 20 - Saying Good-Bye

I slowly don my dress uniform. Lately, really bad things seem to happen when I wear it. The Uttuskan experience comes to mind. And now, I dress for a funeral for someone, who in a short time, I had come to know as a good friend. I tiredly fasten four pips to my tunic to complete the uniform and stare at my reflection, contemplating Hawthenís and the other Latariansí actions. To cause the death of an old woman because of religious intolerance is still incomprehensible - even after having witnessed the atrocity myself.

I suppose it should have been no surprise that the Balletianís had no criminal justice system to speak of. The culture of peace and love apparently had no interest in truly punishing murderers or other criminals, for that matter. "Itís in Rophayheís hands," one priest had said to Tuvok, after we returned Helliaís body. Tuvok studied me with a raised brow as if I might get angry that they were content to let Hawthen just walk away as if nothing happened.

"Check the Latarian laws," was all I could offer, expecting that the technologically advanced society could not possibly condone the murder of an old woman. Tuvok did as I asked, maintaining Hawthen in our brig until he finished his investigation.

I suppose I should not have been surprised that the Latarian criminal justice system would only address the injury to me - not the murder of a defenseless, old woman. But then, had I been a follower of Rophayhe, my injury would not have merited their attention either. I suppose I should be furious. I suppose I should demand justice from the Balletians and Latarians. I know my crew wonders why I released Hawthen without aggressively going after him and his accomplices for Helliaís murder, even if just to make a point, as Iíve been known to do. But my lone cry for justice would have fallen on deaf ears - of both planets.

How can you made a difference when one societyís justice dismisses justice for a group solely because of their beliefs?

How can you make a difference when the other societyís beliefs dismisses justice?

The only "justice" I could seek from the Latarians is for my injury, which would have also been fruitless. Tuvok found that Hawthenís act of compassion towards me, bringing his medical kit, which ultimately did save my life, would reduce any sentence to mere probation.

My crew could have argued that Federation law applied for the attack upon me. I am grateful they did not. I suspect they knew that having Hawthen and his accomplices in my brig while we continue our journey home would have been more of a punishment for me.

There will be no justice, no matter how much Hellia deserves it.

"It is in Rophayheís hands," I can hear Hellia tell me. That wasnít very satisfying the first time I heard that. Hellia had believed her fate was in Rophayheís hands and she died. Not a great confidence builder. Though to be fair to her deity, I was the one who couldnít protect my friend.

I stare at my reflection wondering, could I have? Could I have stalled longer? Could I have done something, anything, differently to prevent Helliaís precious life from being taken so brutally?

"No, dear child," I once again hear Helliaís warm voice. A voice I so very much want to believe; but donít know if I can. There were so many things I could have done so much better.

I take a final look at my crisp, dress uniform. Beneath the decorations and the pomp and circumstance, there is the command red. A red that reminds me of all the blood Iíve seen shed during my career. How many people have died? How many could I not save? How many were crew, friends . . . or closer?

Too many.

I look down at my hands which slightly tremble. I frown. I am not nervous or anxious. If I were, that would mean I still feel . . . something. But I do not. There is a thick numbness that has settled over me since Helliaís death. I could still be in shock, I suppose. But I donít have time to see the Doctor, even if I wanted to. I must pay my respects. That is all that I have left to offer my friend.

I finally emerge from my stateroom, finding Seven waiting patiently outside my door, always ready to help me. I find myself still surprised by that, though I know I shouldnít be. She loves me. Why she still does, is a mystery.

I pause, taking note of her different clothing. Instead of a skin-hugging biosuit, she is wearing slacks and a lovely blouse, which are both dark blue and frame her curves with an understated elegance. It suits her. She glances down at her attire self-consciously. How this beautiful woman could still feel so uncertain about her appearance is beyond me. I want to comment, but am not sure what is appropriate to say under the circumstances. I just nod in appreciation, which seems to ease her uncertainty, and walk to the turbolift. Seven is by my side and remains silent, for which I am grateful. I would thank her for knowing what I need, but that would defeat the desired silence.

***

We arrive at the shuttle bay, where I am surprised to find many of my Senior staff dressed formally. BíElanna, Tom, Harry, and even Samantha Wildman and Naomi, all look at me uneasily, uncertain if I would disapprove of their presence. I have no reason to, Hellia was a good woman and deserves to be honored. But except for the Wildmans, none of them had talked with her. I take an uneasy breath at the sudden realization that they are here more for me than Hellia. That realization almost pierces through the thick numbness.

I blink and glance to Naomi and look at her a long moment before turning to Seven. I am compelled to break the precious silence and question her about the safety measures, but the doors whoosh open behind me. Tuvok, in his dress uniform, and Chakotay and Vorik, in their working uniforms, join us.

I donít need to ask; Tuvok reports to me.

"I have two shuttles in low orbit around the planet and a discreet squadron on the ground to ensure no Latarian interruptions," Tuvok says. I exhale and nod, satisfied with the ironic safety precautions for this planet of peace and love.

"And you should not be concerned, Captain," Vorik curiously volunteers. "With the thorough maintenance performed by LT Paris, I am confident your shuttle will not experience any . . . unusual problems," Vorik notes, glancing over to Tom, who smiles weakly.

I nod, not really sure why he was compelled to mention that.

As Vorik left for the shuttle bay operations center, I once again look at Naomi, who eyes me with uneasy hope. I glance to her mother, who has a similar hopeful look. I would not have thought to bring a child, but I know Tuvok will not let anything happen to her. And Hellia was quite impressed by her, enjoying their brief conversation. I defer to Samanthaís wishes and nod my agreement, causing Naomi to beam happily and grab her motherís hand. When she immediately pulls Sam towards the shuttle, as if worried I will change my mind, I am reminded of when Emma grabbed her overnight bag and dashed out of the house the nanosecond she got our agreement to go to....

I shut my eyes a brief moment as an unexpected ache wells up.

Apparently I was wrong. I am not completely numb.

"Mr. Nelix wanted to join you but is suffering a bad bout of food poisoning," Chakotay notes with a grimace, interrupting my thoughts as my staff - my friends - follow Naomiís lead and embark. I am grateful for the distraction from my unproductive thoughts and look at him with some concern.

"He will recover," Tuvok offers and leaves for the shuttle. I absently wonder about those fuzzy black ping-pong balls. . . .

"Iíll hold down the fort until you get back," Chakotay said with a small smile.

I nod weakly and look back to the shuttle. I have a funeral to go to, I remind myself - as if I could really forget. I am to endure the loss of yet another. Another whom I could not . . . .

With a gentle touch at the small of my back, Seven brings me back to the task at hand - getting myself into that shuttle.  I look into Sevenís questioning gaze and nod, forcing my feet to move towards the shuttle.

***

Not surprisingly, the mood is somber in the shuttle as we depart. Even Tom has refrained from his usual wisecracks, focusing on his piloting. BíElanna is manning the tactical panel, and I suspect anxious for a fight. With the Latarians unlikely to interfere for a while, I hope Tom has enough sense to steer clear from that potential disaster.

Harry and Tuvok sit, quietly discussing something. Tuvok has become a good mentor to Harry. I wonder if part of his desire to mentor is because he misses his children. I take a deep breath, forcing my focus on something else.

I canít help but notice Naomi steeling glances at me again, trying not to stare. I know she has millions of questions for me, yet does not ask. Her mother whispers in her ear, which I am sure is to curb the Naomi inquisition. But it is only natural that the child is inquisitive and I would like to encourage her. Perhaps I should set up some time later to allow her to ask me whatever she wants. Although too much curiosity can be a bit annoying. I recall one Christmas Eve, when Emma was three and emerged from her room, catching us, not Santa, placing her gifts under the tree, requiring a lot of explanation . . . .

I take a deep, uneasy breath and suddenly stand up, startling everyone. I think I prefer the numbness to this ache that haunts me.

I walk over to BíElanna. "Anything out there to shoot?" I ask bluntly, breaking my self-imposed silence. I cross my arms over my chest, feeling a bit claustrophobic but try not to appear too desperate for a distraction.

BíElanna eyes me uncertainly, as if she couldnít believe I would break my silence to talk with her, or perhaps she thinks Iíve lost my mind. Oh, if you only knew, BíElanna.

After a moment of awkward silence, Tom pipes up. "Well, Captain, thereís nothing in the immediate vicinity. But Iím sure if we head over to that light blue planet over there, we could find a few targets," Tom suggests helpfully with an eager smile, always ready with a quip, God bless him.

"Never mind, it will make us late," I say with a sigh, getting a grin from Tom, who is encouraged by my comments, though he doesnít really understand. I absently glance over to Seven, who regards me with concern.

I look at her a moment, then drop my eyes. I just wish she understood . . . .

"We are approaching the landing site, Captain," Tom offers.

***

Except for the few surprising words in the shuttle, Kathryn has remained silent and preoccupied. I know she is struggling with this death, but I do not know how to ease her burden. I have abandoned my attempts to find a solution to Kathryn's problems. That in no way means I have given up trying to help her. I have simply come to realize, through painful trial and error with the Uttuskan experience, that there is no amount of research I can do that will find THE answer . . . or truly prepare me for what I see happening to someone I love.

I do not understand how the intelligent, warm, and engaging woman I desperately miss, could have turned into a shadow of a person I once knew, who must summon all her strength to just say a few words. I can catalogue the events, which I have, to understand she has been traumatized, felt embarrassed, and ashamed for her actions. I know she has lost a close friend and feels horrible failure being unable to protect her. A feeling I too share with Kathryn. Yet these events are just variables which no medical text or research theories can arrange into a suitable model to analyze or predict her behavior. There is no simple output to the many inputs. The pieces of the puzzle which I do possess get me no closer to understanding.

I am at a loss, only left with what is uncomfortably foreign to me _ my intuition. I know she is in pain. I will do whatever it takes to ease that pain; no matter how small or large. I will stay by her side, waiting for an opportunity to help. I will wait as long as it takes.

We arrive at the main temple . . . at dusk. I believe I understand the Balletian's preoccupation with dusk. There is the obvious physical phenomena in the Valley, which is truly impressive. I have also found the Earth sunsets on the holodeck quite remarkable. Though I suspect that has more to do with the time spent watching Kathryn enjoy them, than an aesthetically pleasing change in the light spectrum.

Similar to Earth texts, Balletian texts associate many abstract concepts to light and dark - good and evil, hope and fear, knowledge and ignorance. Yet, Balletians do not fear the darkness; they seek it, to encourage the light. Balletians believe even a single, infinitesimal point of light, hope, or knowledge, can survive in and even overcome the seemingly overwhelming darkness. That is a particularly appealing philosophy, especially as I see Kathryn once again battling the darkness. She has endured so much already. I fear this loss will finally prove too much for her to overcome.

We enter the main temple and it is . . . unimpressive. I suppose I had expected something more extraordinary for an honored Priestess of the very foundation of their culture. Yet, the natural simplicity of the temple seems fitting for what I knew of Hellia.

We are led to plain, wooden pews that are hand-crafted with great care. While not overtly decorative, the craftsmanship is unmistakable. I follow Kathryn closely, though try not to make her feel uncomfortable by being too close. That is much more difficult than I had anticipated. The death of Kathrynís friend is a stark reminder of how precious life is. I want to take her into my arms and never let go. I have missed that basic physical connection with her every single day since she terminated our intimate relationship. And the closeness we were slowly reclaiming the past two days has been undermined by the brutal acts of the Latarians. I can not help but fear I will be unable to overcome the new walls that Kathryn has put up. But I must. Failure is not an option.

Kathryn is on my right as we sit in a pew, joining the large congregation of Balletian mourners, who silently listen to the a cappella choir, whose haunting sounds echo in the temple. The acoustics of the room are well engineered. Again, I am surprised by the subtle elegance of Balletian design. It is . . . pleasing.

She sits rigidly, almost as if she expects another attack. In contrast, I notice the sad, contemplative looks of the congregation, including Voyagerís crew, who seem to be moved by the hymns. When the music stops, I notice Kathryn visibly relax, as if a weight is lifted from her. I am confused as I have studied how music can be medically and spiritually therapeutic.

A Priest enters the temple, flanked by two acolytes. He steps up to the pulpit.

We listen to his words, praising the Priestessí long life and how she lived it fully, how she touched the young and old alike with her ministry of peace and love. Kathryn sits with a stillness that almost looks like she is sleeping. But her eyes are open and staring, unfocused and downward. I know she is listening to his words when she stiffens slightly at the mention of Rophayheís will. I too, am not enamored with the idea of Rophayheís will, which had allowed Helliaís murderer to escape punishment.

The congregation is asked to rise and join the Priest outside, at the Lake of Blessings. Like other cultures, the Balletians symbolize their blessings with candles. I do not know if Kathryn will want to participate in the ceremony, but I know she will, for the sake of propriety. If she has any personal reservations or aversions, she will push them aside to properly represent Starfleet and do what she thinks is her duty. She always has and always will. That is who she is.

***

The priest lowers a torch to the large floating platform, setting it ablaze. "In the darkness, Helliaís light will show us the way," he announced, pushing the platform away from the shore. It burns brightly as the believers repeat his words in a somber chant.

I look among the believers, who surround the lake. The young attendants, who had exuberantly greeted the Priestess with big smiles upon her return, now stare at the blazing platform with tears in their eyes. I wonder what their parents told them about the circumstances of Helliaís death. I glance to Naomi, who seems as sad as the attendant children, though she had only met her once. But I understand. It didnít take long for me to realize how special Hellia was and feel like weíve been friends for . . .ever.

I frown, knowing Naomi knows of the attack and the religious intolerance behind it; Sam would have explained it to her, as she had with other difficult subjects. I admire that honesty with a child, but those life lessons come at the expense of Naomiís innocence. I knew her innocence would be lost earlier than her Alpha Quadrant peers, but I regret that someone so young has been personally affected by the cruel result of such hatred. I wish I could have sheltered her a bit longer from that harsh lesson.

When Naomi wipes her eyes and reaches for her motherís hand in comfort, I take an uneasy breath as my previously welcome numbness seems to be slowly deserting me.

I watch the young attendants gather, then begin to hand out candles to the Balletian congregants. Individuals, couples, and families light them from a central torch and go to the waterís edge. They gently cast them upon the water, towards the larger burning platform as they announce the names of their loved ones. Their tears fall, watching the candle drift away and join the other points of light. After a solemn moment, whatever tears that are left are wiped away and the congregants leave the lakeside, and I suppose, go home.

I see hundreds of candles now surrounding Helliaís burning platform, reflecting off the lake, defiant of the darkness that surrounds us. I suppose it should be an uplifting experience to see how much love the remaining family and friends have for the departed, but all those points of light just remind me of how many people have died.

After most of the Balletian congregants have left, the priest turns to me and my crew. He invites us to participate, telling us Rophayheís blessings extend to all. Great. If his blessings are as effective as his "will," I think I might want to pass. But Starfleet officers are expected to show respect for a host worldís religious ceremonies and even honor them by participating, as long as Federation laws or personal religious beliefs are not compromised in the process. But I am finding it really hard to show respect for this Rophayhe. Where was he, she . . . whatever, when Hellia was being attacked?!?

I am surprised to find BíElanna go first. She walks to the waterís edge and releases a candle for her mother. For once, Tom seems to understand that he needs to be by her side and doesnít leave it for one moment. Perhaps there is hope for my pilot yet.

Harryís next and sends a candle off, voicing the name of his Grandmother. He is visibly moved by the experience and is not afraid to show his tears. He has grown so much.

Even Tuvok participates. He releases a candle but speaks in Vulcan. He looks out over the water a reflective moment and says something else in Vulcan before retreating from the waterís edge. To say the Vulcan has no emotion is to not know the Vulcan.

Samantha and Naomi release one candle together. They jointly announce a relativeís name, Samís father. As they stand, Sam wipes a few tears away and Naomi takes her motherís hand. "It will be OK, Mom," Naomi says, getting watery smile and hug.

I take a sharp, deep breath and look at my crew, who stand together, waiting for Seven and me.

Theyíre just floating candles, I remind myself as I head towards the closest attendant. Dad wonít mind if I light one for him.

I stop abruptly, seeing that girl. The one with the familiar hair and build . . . who now looks just like my Emma. I feel like Iíve been physically struck as my body recoils from the shock. I blink rapidly assuming this tormenting vision is just a cruel trick of candlelight and shadows - but her face does not change from my dear, sweet Emmaís. Dear God . . . .

***

Kathryn stops unexpectedly. I gently place my hand at her back, but she refuses to take another step, tensely shaking her head no. I look around in confusion, not understanding why she is suddenly so tense. When the young attendant comes towards us with a candle, Kathryn takes a ragged breath and grows even more rigid, like she is afraid of participating.

"Do you wish to send a blessing?" The fair-haired attendant asks, stopping in front of us with a smile of encouragement.

Kathryn rapidly shakes her head no and starts to slightly tremble, clearly struggling with her emotions. I keep my hand at her back, needing to let her know she is not alone and I will help however I can.

The girl looks at her a thoughtful moment. "It is OK to mourn, Captain," she says softly with a surprising air of maturity for her age.

Kathryn exhales heavily. When she stares at the ground, unable to look at her, I grow more alarmed, realizing Kathrynís strong reaction is because of this girl. I quickly evaluate the possible threat, but can not find any as I closely watch her.

"Ally?" An older woman in the distance calls out.

When the girl turns towards the woman, her profile suddenly strikes me as disturbingly familiar. I also note the hair, height, and build are as well. I quickly look between Kathryn and the child as the puzzle pieces finally come crashing together.

"One moment, mother," she says, getting an accepting nod and turns back to us.

"For the light to return, we must make room for it. We must cast off our sorrow through our mourning," she adds sagely and asks "How many blessings, Captain?"

Kathryn shakes her head no again, clearly struggling with a pain I can only imagine. How could I have possibly failed to recognize this?

The girl looks saddened by Kathrynís refusal then turns to me.

"Would you like a candle?"

I look uneasily between Kathryn and the girl once again before deciding. "Yes . . . please," I say, which seems to satisfy the girl, who smiles.

Kathryn glances in my direction uncomfortably, surprised by my participation. But I know she would never want to interfere with me sending a blessing.

Receiving my candle, I nod my thanks and watch the eerily familiar girl return to her mother. My heart aches as I look at Kathryn, who is staring at the ground. "I would like you by my side when I do this, Kathryn," I say and can see Kathryn is still terribly conflicted. "It is all right," I say sadly, not wanting to push too much. "I can do it alone."

"No," Kathryn blurts, abruptly reaching out to grab my arm. "Together," she blurts tightly.

In spite of the obvious difficulty for her, she will still do this. For me. I did not think it was possible to love her more.

As we walk to light the candle, she holds onto my arm tightly, using me for support, which pleases me; that is what I have wanted all along. We approach the waterís edge and kneel. I release the candle onto the surface and we stand, watching it drift towards the others.

My heart pounds as I take a deep, uneasy breath, hoping my instincts are right, hoping she does not end up hating me.

"Emma Janeway, our daughter," I say clearly.

Kathryn abruptly releases my arm, as if it had just burned her, and stumbles back. The look on her face is of shock, then wounded outrage, as if I had betrayed her. I have never seen such a look from her before; it makes me sick to know I had caused it. What have I done?

***

"Kahless," I could not help but hiss, not knowing what to think. It looks like Seven gambled and, from both their faces, lost. What do we do now?!?! Then I notice Tomís return; I hadnít even noticed he left.

"Come on," he says with soft urgency as he grabs my hand and we go back to the waterside with a candle. Thankfully, flyboy seems to have a plan, which is more than I can say.

As I previously did for my father, he kneels down and releases a candle. When he stands back up, he holds my hand and says "Emma Janeway," in a loud, clear voice. "The child of Kathryn and Annika Janeway."

"Kahless," I exhale, truly frightened when the Captainís head whips around to look at us in shock then anger. I hear her raspy, desperate cry "But she never existed!"

"But she did, Kathryn," Seven argues just as vehemently. "And sheís gone now."

I look at Tom with amazement. Somehow he knew the Captain needed to know it was OK to mourn a child that never really existed. Kahless!

Another candle joins ours and Tuvok now stands next to us. "Emma Janeway. The child of Kathryn and Annika Janeway, who has changed them forever and, I believe ultimately, for the better."

The Captain looks at her old friend in great agony before her eyes drop to the ground. "But she never. . . ." she still protests, but weakly.

"She did, Kathryn," Seven counters.

I hear Harry joining in this unusual blessing as he launches another candle from the shore. "Emma Janeway. The child of Kathryn and Annika Janeway," Harry says reverently. "I am so sorry for your loss, Captain," he adds sincerely.

"But . . . ." Captain Janeway whispers, shaking her head as her bottom lip quivers and moisture rims her eyes.

Iíve never seen my Captain look so lost. Tears well up in my eyes.

"She did, Kathryn," Seven counters, but more softly.

When Samantha and Naomi go to the waterís edge, I notice with alarm the Captain is swaying on her feet. Seven quickly wraps her arms around her waist, holding her securely. The Captain makes a half-hearted effort to push her away but Seven is not about to let her go. I donít blame her.

Naomi and her mother stand up. Naomi looks up uncertainly at her mother, who nods her encouragement with a loving caress of her head. "Emma Janeway," Naomi announces and watches the candle float away. "The daughter of the Captain and Seven of Nine," she continues, looking at the Captain sadly. "I wish I could have met her; I know we would have been really good friends," she says with youthful honesty.

I have never, ever, heard a more startling and heart-wrenching sound than when Captain Janeway cries out for her daughter. It resonates with my soul and I suddenly feel the depth of her agony. Tears fill my eyes as my blood boils with rage. I want nothing more than to hunt down every pítahk who has hurt my Captain and make them understand the true meaning of suffering . . . .

"Mom?!?" Naomi says anxiously, leaning against her mother. The poor kid is scared she did something wrong. Sam lovingly rubs her back and whispers something in her ear, successfully calming her with a hug.

Goddamn Uttuskans!

As Captain Janeway continues her howls of anguish, Seven gently rocks the tortured woman, who would not be standing if not for Seven holding her. I have never seen Seven of Nine so overtly loving and compassionate; traits thought irrelevant by the Borg but are surprisingly natural for her. Traits we all, including the Captain, desperately seek in a partner. If I had ever been jealous of Sevenís abilities before, it pales in comparison to now. Now, I am witnessing that even a woman who spent most her life as a Borg drone is better than me at love.

"God, I hate the Uttuskans," Tom softly hisses with an anger that I have never seen from this happy-go-lucky pilot, an anger that I have carried with me ever since we left that horrible planet. "To lose a child . . . ," he adds with anguish, taking a ragged breath as tears fall.

Once again, I am astonished. I have never seen Tom so passionate about anything except piloting, Captain Proton, or other "fun." I think . . . I think I may have severely underestimated him.

He sees my scrutiny and starts to look embarrassed about his emotional display. "Sorry," he mumbles, wiping his eyes self-consciously.

"Donít you dare be sorry for honoring a family and their loss with your tears," I fiercely say, surprising him.

"Klingons donít cry," he says uneasily.

"For Kahlessí sake, what the hell do you think these are?" I ask, pointing to my tears that continue to fall. "It is the heart of a man that makes the man. And you are a good man, Tom. Your tears for her just proves it," I say with surprising conviction.

He looks at me oddly. I donít know if he is going to throw-up, run away, or kiss me. He earnestly blurts "Marry me?"

"What?!? Donít be an idiot! Weíve got a crisis here!" I say, glancing over to the distraught Captain being comforted by Seven. I canít believe him!

"Right," he cringes, looking over at the calmer Captain, who now steadily weeps, still gently rocked by Seven. "Of course. Youíre right. But . . . Iím your idiot, right?" Tom asks uneasily, looking more vulnerable than I have ever seen, which causes something in me to snap.

I really do love him!

"Yes," I groan. "Youíre my idiot," I begrudgingly admit, rolling my eyes. Kahless, help me.

He hesitantly slips his arm around my shoulder, like weíre teenagers at a movie, not two adults at a funeral.

Idiot.

He gently kisses my cheek. "I do love you, BíElanna," he whispers with emotion. "So much."

I put my arm around him, my idiot.


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