Episode 9-21 - Partners Under Hippocrates Pt. I
By: Ala (jc47@wp.pl)

Disclaimer: Star Trek: Voyager, its characters and related properties are Registered Trademarks of Paramount Pictures. No infringement of Paramount's copyrights is intended. Voyager Virtual Season 9 (VS9) is a non-profit endeavor. The unique characters and milieu of VS9 are the property of the VS9 producers and individual authors. This story is the property of the author. Please do not repost without permission.

The door to the turbolift slid open, admitting its occupant to the Bridge.

"Commander, my Ready Room. Now," came the icy command as the newly arrived Janeway breezed into her office, barely sparing a glance at those around her.

Momentarily stunned, Chakotay soon lifted himself out of his chair to follow the woman off the Bridge.

The door opened, admitting him into the room and he stepped in just enough to let it close behind him, then eyed the Captain.

She was sitting in her chair as straight as a board, her body tense and her hands tightly closed in fists. Her eyes held a barely concealed fury as she regarded her console. With a deep, angry sigh she turned the computer slightly, indicating for Chakotay to come see what its screen contained. He did so quickly enough, peering over Janeway's shoulder as he read the communiquT Starfleet had sent her.

TO: Captain Kathryn Janeway, Commanding Officer, USS Voyager-A, NX 74656-A
FROM: Admiral Laurence Forward, Starfleet Command, Diplomatic Division
STARDATE: 56750.3
SUBJECT: Mission orders - Urgent

The Federation has received an offer of an alliance with the Vidiian people. After considering the possibility, the UFP's President has decided to be open to such an idea, should the necessary preliminary talks go well.

Considering your familiarity with the area and Voyager's still quite unique methods of transportation, the resulting mission has been assigned to you and your crew.

Your orders, Captain, are to collect Commander Ashcroft and Lieutenant Watson from Deep Space Nine. You are then to proceed to Vidiia, where the diplomatic talks will take place tomorrow.

Whilst your two passengers will represent the Federation in these talks, we ask that you choose two more officers out of your crew to accompany them. I trust your judgment in this matter, but I must stress one point.

Under no circumstances are you or Commander Chakotay allowed to take part in the discussions. Indeed, it would be best if, with the exemption of a brief greeting conversation with the Vidiian Mar, neither you nor the Commander was to speak to any Vidiian officials.

I hope you will have a quick journey and a successful mission.

Admiral Laurence Forward
Head of Starfleet Diplomatic Division

Chakotay sighed. It had just occurred to him that in the last decade he had spent less than a year in the Alpha Quadrant, out of which he had been planet- side only five months or so. He was sure the rest of their old crew was close behind in those statistics, his possibly slightly higher due to his being in the Maquis previous to their seven-year Delta Quadrant stint.

Truth be told, the Voyagers could be classified as nomads for almost eight years. For most of them, with the notable exceptions of Naomi Wildman and Icheb, this had still not changed. They still spent most of their lives on the move, the several months they had been on Earth not an altogether pleasant memory.

On the other hand, Chakotay knew that those same people did not think of themselves as vagabonds for the simple reason that they had been home all that time. Voyager had been their home.

Shaking his head to get his thoughts back on track, Chakotay glanced at the Captain. "Back to the Delta Quadrant, then?"

It was her turn to sigh as she gave a strong push at the desk, in effect moving herself and her chair away from the console. She seemed about to stand up, but sat back down for a moment before rising fully. Shoving the chair back in place, she turned to her First Officer with fire in her eyes.

"Of course! We've only just returned here, so why not travel back to the Delta Quadrant for a THIRD time, right?" Her voice was laced with sarcasm as she continued, gesticulating wildly to make her point. "After all, we don't have anybody here to go back to, do we? After nine years, we're sure to have lost all our family and friends that were here all that time, right?"

Chakotay listened carefully, paying attention to the words Janeway used, noting the tone of her voice and eyeing her movements and the expressions that flitted across her face. Coming to a conclusion, he voiced it quietly. "You're talking about this, but it's not what really bothers you, is it?"

She brought her eyes to his for a moment, as if surprised by his accusation, then made as if to shake her head in denial. Finally, sighing, she hunched her shoulders, admitting that he was right.

"You know me too well, Chakotay," she uttered with a sigh, as she had done many times in the years she had known him.

Walking towards the viewport, she fixed her gaze on the once-familiar stars. She knew it was a subjective opinion, but it somehow seemed to her that these heavenly bodies were no longer signs of home as much as they had once been. These constellations that she used to stare up at when she was little, remembering the legends that humans had invented generations earlier... those same constellations seemed to tell different stories now that Kathryn had been to the other side of the galaxy and back.

It was ironic, she reflected, that one of the very sights she had most missed while out in the Delta Quadrant now seemed almost... alien.

Turning to look back at Chakotay, she heaved a sigh. He was right, of course. She had no problem with going back there, it really was not the problem at all.

"So then, what is it?" he urged gently.

"I don't know... this feeling of us being... used, I guess," she said, lifting her hands as if to show something then dropping them in resignation. "I mean, Voyager is among the strongest ships they have right now. We've basically been ordered to drive those two to Vidiia, and when we finally get there..."

"...You're not allowed to take part in the negotiations?" he finished helpfully.

She nodded slowly, then the fire returned to her eyes as she remembered the message. "Not only me, but also you. It's like... It's like they don't trust our judgment, you know?" she asked, deliberately using the same words the Admiral had written. "Like they don't trust..."

"...Us," he finished her sentence in a near whisper. "Kathryn, they're only human. Or, well, aliens," he corrected himself with a slight grin. "They don't trust us, and no matter what we think about that, we can't change it. We've done what we could and now it's their turn. In the meantime, we just have to follow their orders - as long as they're not too outlandish."

She turned to look out the viewport again, "I know, I know. It's just..."

Seeing her reaction to the news, Chakotay quickly analyzed the situation. An idea came to him almost instantly and he placed a hand on her shoulder. "How about we escape?"

That got her attention. "Escape?" she asked, swiveling around to face him.

He nodded. "Once we get there. They don't need us anyway, so we could go on some short vacation. Spirits know how little we've had of that these past few years."

"Chakotay, we can't leave the-"

"Kathryn," he countered, predicting her line of reasoning, "the crew will be alright. Really. They've been through worse things than orbiting around a planet." Seeing her reluctantly agree, he continued, "We could take the AsteriŽ for a shake-down cruise-"

"The AsteriŽ?"

Chakotay shrugged. "The Captain's Yacht. She didn't have a name, and I think it fits. Of course, it's not official yet, so you could always-"

She cut him off, "No, I like it." Eyeing him carefully, she asked, "And where would this shake-down cruise take place?"

Flashing her a grin, he answered, "That's a surprise. But trust me, you'd like it." Despite the surprise factor, he knew she was warming up to the idea. Now just to say the final thing... "So, what do you say? Just you and me...?"

Her reaction was slow in coming as she considered the options, but in the end she threw her hands up in the air and rolled her eyes, saying, "All right, all right, I'll go!"

She shook her head, seemingly reproaching him, but there was laughter in her voice as she continued, heading to the replicator to get some much-needed coffee, "Now, back to the matter at hand. Have Voyager go to Deep Space Nine and inform the crew of our plans. Somebody might still prefer to stay, and I won't drag anyone out there if they don't have to go."

He nodded, and with a quick kiss on the cheek he practically ran out the door, already planning the details of Voyager's mission - and their vacation.

****

Janeway marched into the Transporter Room with Chakotay and Tuvok in tow. She nodded curtly to the ensign on duty and took her position in the middle of the room, looking at the pads before her. Once her executive officers had come to stand on either side of her, as was their habit, she sighed quietly and gave the order.

"Energize."

A bluish glow permeated the room as the closest two pads were filled with sparkles of light, and soon the officers materialized before them.

Janeway's body was tense and her hands were folded behind her straight back in a manner that would have earned her top marks for the position if she were a cadet.

Nevertheless, she moved forward to greet the diplomats. Her eyes first focused on the human whom she knew to be Kevin Ashcroft. A tall, well-built man in his mid-forties whose dark tan contrasted sharply with his blue eyes and blond hair. Janeway briefly wondered why Starfleet was sending a mere Commander to the Vidiians, as she knew that a Captain would probably have a much more appropriate level of diplomatic skills. She quickly dismissed the thought; after all, she was not allowed to intervene.

"Commander Ashcroft, I'm Captain Janeway," she said, shaking the man's hand as he acknowledged her introduction. She then nodded to her companions. "This is my First Officer, Commander Chakotay, and Voyager's Chief of Security, Commander Tuvok."

"Commanders," he said, nodding politely to the two men.

Next to Ashcroft stood a young woman, possibly in her early thirties. Pale- skinned and dark-haired, she was a direct opposite of the Commander, even down to the smile that graced her lips, so different from the strict, emotionless face of her superior. The barely visible ridges on her nose were a sign that she had Bajoran genes somewhere along the way, possibly from one of her grandparents. Her dark, almost black eyes, on the other hand, hinted at the Betazoid blood that flowed through her veins. Apart from those characteristics, however, and the slight telepathic abilities, Vela Watson was human. Her mixed heritage had helped her throughout her career, bringing her to the rank of Lieutenant relatively quickly.

"Lieutenant Watson."

"Captain," the woman replied with a smile, "Commander Chakotay, Commander Tuvok."

Chakotay and Tuvok watched their Captain welcome the newcomers. Sure, there was a smile on her lips, but it was just a bit too thin and just a bit too tight for Chakotay to consider it in the least genuine. True, her stance would seem relaxed to the average onlooker, but Tuvok had known her long enough to recognize it for what it was. It was a stance meant to make her appear relaxed when she truly was not.

Chakotay sighed. The Captain was not happy with their new mission, and even if it was not obvious to the two diplomats, he was sure both Tuvok and the quiet ensign behind them knew it. No, she was not happy with it. Far from it. In fact, Kathryn Janeway was seething.

Thankfully, that would end soon.

Once again Chakotay thanked the spirits for inspiring him several hours earlier. Their vacation was indeed a very good idea.

****

Ashcroft stepped out of the turbolift and straightened his uniform. Disregarding the Bridge crew's curious looks, he made his way down the steps and towards the Briefing Room. The door opened to a sight of half a dozen people sitting at the oblong table, with Janeway standing at its head.

At the interruption, however, she moved towards the diplomat until they stood within less than a meter.

Ashcroft waited a moment before speaking, loud enough for all to hear, "I find it strange, Captain, that I found out about this meeting through an overheard explanation of Commander Tuvok's absence."

Janeway sighed inwardly, trying not to glare at the diplomat. He was impertinent, she'd give him that. And insolent, she realized, as she saw the look he was giving her. Eyeing the expanse of the Bridge behind him, she decided to give those manning the consoles a little show and narrowed her eyes slightly.

"I had a reason not to invite you, Commander," she said, her voice, though not especially loud, had a steel-like quality to it that ensured her words carried well to those around her. "I called a meeting of Voyager's senior staff, and unless you know something I don't know, that does not include you."

Her eyes held a challenging look as she stood before Ashcroft, hands planted firmly on her hips. Despite the quite significant difference in heights, with her chin raised high and her mouth set, it was Janeway that had the upper hand.

Seeing this, as well as noticing the angry, yet amused looks of those in the room behind her, the diplomat nodded slightly, not wanting to admit defeat too obviously.

"Of course, Ma'am," he said with a hint of sarcasm. "I'm sorry to interrupt." Turning back, he reentered the Bridge, throwing a brazen "Carry on" over his shoulder before the door closed.

Kathryn turned around, let the door slide closed and looked at those around her. Her eyes still held some of the hardness that had appeared moments earlier, but when she smiled at her crew it was a genuine smile that hinted at her satisfaction with her recent accomplishment.

"Well then, now that that's settled, let's get on with the meeting, shall we?"

****

Janeway proceeded to where her chair stood, having just finished informing those present at the meeting of their newest mission, as well as her little vacation with Chakotay. Those seated around the table accepted both pieces of information and now only one thing remained to be done.

Not bothering to sit down, Kathryn leaned against her chair with her hands folded across its back as she regarded the EMH.

"Doctor, your knowledge of the Vidiians is unrivaled on Voyager, and, consequently, in Starfleet. Your presence at the negotiations will undoubtedly be a valuable asset."

The Doctor nodded and Janeway turned to look at the man sitting at the end of the table, his face hinting at his being slightly uncomfortable. No wonder, Kathryn reflected. Up to now, not one word had been spoken that somehow related to him personally. Well, that was about to change.

"Lieutenant, with over seven years in security, your recent switch to piloting and considerable abilities in other fields, you're one of the most cross-trained people we have. You'll be joining the Doctor on the away team." Ayala acknowledged the order with a curt nod and waited for the comments he knew were still to come. "Officially, you'll take part in the negotiations in the capacity of a security officer. Your being Tuvok's second for so long will be a good reason for such a choice. Unofficially, though... I trust you'll use some of that Maquis thinking that I know is still in you. Another point of view will be welcome in the talks."

"Aye, Captain."

Kathryn smiled at Mike before she turned her gaze to the holographic medic. "The same goes for you, Doctor. Along with your being our head physician, you've also some outstanding knowledge of the Vidiians. Officially, Commander Ashcroft will be in charge of the team. Unofficially, though, keep an eye on those two, okay?"

His eyes widened slightly as he read between the lines. She nodded slightly as a sign that he had heard her right, and continued, her gaze flitting between Ayala's calm face and the Doctor's eager one.

"Gentlemen, like the rest of us, your way of thinking is more Voyager than it is pure Starfleet. Let them see it, but don't let them realize it."

Despite the good-natured wink, they both knew what the Captain meant by those words. The 'Fleet hounds could still be out for them.

****

A planet revolved around its axis, the light mauve clouds swirling about the otherwise cerulean globe. For an offworlder, especially one used to the blues and greens of Earth, the planet seemed to be covered by water all around. Only a moment later would more scientific thoughts come to mind, hinting at the presence of colourful gases in the atmosphere. In spite of its correctness, however, one would still think of the planet as a big ocean.

Vidiia was far from being an ocean. There were several continents and quite a few big cities surrounded by the many smaller villages. Paradoxically, unlike on most other homeworlds, it was the smallest continent that was home to the Vidiian capital. It was also the smallest continent that had withered the least in the preceding two millennia. This was why the little strip of land near the south pole was now the center of Vidiian political, cultural, and economical life.

****

He was happy.

No, 'happy' did not cover how he felt at that moment, the Doctor realized.

More like... proud.

He was proud.

Yes, he reflected as he read everything Voyager's database had to offer about the Vidiians. The Captain's order had made him proud.

Oh, there had been occasions where he had been in charge of the away team - there had even be quite a few instances where he had constituted the whole away team - so this did not seem better.

But it was. By asking him to make sure everything went right, the Captain had not only hinted at her own lack of faith in Ashcroft's abilities when confronted with the realities of the Delta Quadrant. She had also, once again, given the Doctor a sign of her trust in him.

And so his unofficial position of what amounted to being in command, albeit not by Starfleet's orders, was a source of pride for the Doctor.

Besides, he thought with a smile, out in the Delta Quadrant, Janeway's orders were more important to him than Starfleet's.

His smile faded and he gasped as new information came forth on the terminal's screen. Fingers hovering mid-air, he let his eyes focus on the picture before him.

Memories flooded him. Her soft chestnut hair; the awkward moment in Sickbay. Her rosy lips; parking in the '57 Chevy. Her emerald green eyes, their dance in Sandrine's...

He leaned back in his chair, letting his eyes slide closed as he reminisced. So many memories... so many happy moments they had shared together.

Would he see her again? he wondered. There was a chance that they would meet sometime during this mission, but the medic knew better than to think it was very likely. After all, quite a few years had passed since their last encounter. For all he knew, she could be-

No, he would not let himself think that. She had been sick with the phage, but B'Elanna's DNA had slowed down the effects of the disease. She had a much bigger chance of surviving this long than most of her compatriots did. Still... one did not die only from the phage.

Sighing, the Doctor lifted a finger to trace the familiar shapes of his first love's face, to follow the length of her forehead ridge and continue on to her nose. With him lost deep in thought, his lips moved slightly to form a single word.

"Danara..."

****

"Harry, have the diplomatic team report to Transporter Room One," Chakotay said, looking at where the ops station was located opposite the helm.

"Aye, sir."

Turning to face the Ready Room door just in time to see Janeway leave its confines, the Commander gave his Commanding Officer a grin that only widened at the answering smile. Placing her hands on her hips, Kathryn looked around the Bridge, taking in her surroundings. Finally, satisfied when she came to the conclusion that everything was all right, she walked over to sit down in her chair, as she usually did.

She rested there only a moment, keying a few commands in the console between the chairs to check if any new messages had come in the meantime. Satisfied when she found none, she rose from her seat and turned towards Tactical, which was thankfully positioned exactly where it had been on the previous Voyager.

She made a sweeping movement with her hand, then spoke to her second in command. "Tuvok, for the duration, Voyager is yours. Try not to let our Starfleet guests cause too much trouble. I'd like to reclaim her in one piece."

With Tuvok accustomed to such comments after years of serving under Janeway, he arched his eyebrow only a bit as he answered stoically, "Indeed, Captain. I shall endeavour to ensure that they comport themselves with Voyager's usual high standards."

Kathryn glanced to her left where Chakotay stood, barely suppressing a grin. She focused once again on the Vulcan, her serious expression belied by the sparkle in her eyes. "Commander, I do believe that was an attempt at a joke. Am I right?"

Eight years earlier, Tuvok would have almost blanched at such an accusation. Now, he only tilted his head slightly, accepting the comment in silence. There was, after all, no logic in attempting to correct Janeway, along with the rest of the old crew.

****

The brilliant sparkling lights of the transporter disappeared from before Kevin Ashcroft's eyes as his body materialised.

He took a quick look around, noting the room seemed to be an unusual cross between dreary Cardassian-like architecture and the colourful, imaginative decor of an artistic people. While the bleakness was an obvious example of how the phage had influenced the Vidiians, the attempts at rebuilding their previous way of life were equally evident.

His gaze fell on a group of three people standing not far away. With their cranial ridges as distinctive of their race as spots were to Trills, it was easy to recognize them as Vidiians.

One of them, whom Ashcroft identified as the Mar, stepped forward. His eyes were a dark, piercing grey that, with the slate colour of his cropped hair, gave him an air of leadership and authority.

"Welcome to Vidiia, Commander Ashcroft," he said, offering his hand in what he knew to be a human greeting.

"Thank you, Mar Kalani. May I introduce my assistant, Lieutenant Watson, Voyager's Doctor and Lieutenant Ayala from security," Ashcroft said, nodding in turn towards the three officers.

"Pleased to meet you," the Vidiian leader said, acknowledging politely each of them, then turning slightly to look at his own people. "This is our Internal Affairs Advisor, Gilar Emorin and Sen Caddock, our Security General. I must apologise for the absence of the fourth member of our party. There has been a slight delay in the shuttle's repair, but she should arrive shortly. May I suggest a tour of the city while we wait?"

"That sounds like a good idea. We can start the talks as soon as your team is complete."

"Actually, Commander, it is a Vidiian custom to share Calnesh before negotiations... We were hoping you would agree to observe it with us."

"Calnesh?" Ashcroft asked, obviously as unfamiliar with the practice as his assistant was.

It was the Doctor who took a step forward, opting to explain the term to the two officers. "It's a small repast, finished by a toast of a sweet Vidiian beverage. It is a way to become acquainted with others taking part in the negotiations. Traditionally, observing the Calnesh is a sign of good will."

The older diplomat nodded to the medic, then looked to Kalani with a smile. "Lead the way then, Mar."

****

"You know, every time I see her from the outside..."

"Yes?" Chakotay asked, glancing out the Yacht's window at the USS Voyager-A, then looking back at Janeway.

She shook her head and started again, "I love this ship, and it's wonderful how state of the art she is, but..."

"But you find yourself imagining she's a different ship, don't you?"

Janeway looked at her companion guiltily. "I do. I can't help it. I fell in love with her over the years. So many memories... We christened her fight after fight. We practically rebuilt her. She was our home for years... she really was our ship."

Sighing, she shook her head and continued, "I shouldn't. This Voyager is as good, even better a ship than she was. Harry, B'Elanna and Seven coordinated her construction from the very beginning, just like they used to do with all the repairs... I'm the Captain; I shouldn't play favourites with my crew, and I definitely shouldn't with ships, but I can't help thinking that if they let me, if they gave her back to us..."

She carried off and Chakotay placed a hand on her shoulder. "It's okay, Kathryn. You're not alone in this. Some of our old crew dream of her from time to time. A few pilots, wishing they could fly her again or engineers, who find themselves once again repairing a burnt plasma relay... They all treasure her in their hearts, Kathryn, just like you and me."

Interpreting what he saw in Janeway's eyes as surprise, he continued, remembering the vessel in a slightly dreamy voice. "She was the most beautiful ship I'd ever seen, you know. Sleek and powerful, with graceful curves and a matching personality..." He paused as he noticed the expression on her face, "What?"

Kathryn shook her head, grinning. "It's just... Should I be jealous?"

He chuckled. "Never, Kathryn. I love her, but so do you." When she grudgingly nodded in agreement, he continued, "Don't feel guilty about it because it's not wrong to love her. By now, if you asked Tuvok, he'd probably give you a properly Vulcan version of 'I miss her'."

Janeway sighed. As true as it was that Vulcans did not see the logic in such thoughts, after eight years spent on the same ship, her old friend was bound to feel Voyager's absence, even if it was perceived as a lack of her engines' familiar hum while he meditated.

Still a bit lost in his reverie, Chakotay concluded, "The original Voyager was one of a kind."

"You make it sound like 'the original Enterprise'," Janeway remarked with a laugh.

"She's in the same class, Kathryn," he countered, then winked at Kathryn. "Besides, she's outdone the Enterprise. Eight years of fights and she's still in one piece."

"She was stubborn, that's for sure," she agreed, before her eyes took on a distant look as she whispered, "We had some wonderful adventures with her."

Hearing what she did not say, Chakotay decided to lift her spirits. "That's the catch, isn't it?" he asked. "Once you get a namesake of a previous ship, people start thinking you drive a taxi."

While she agreed with his comment, Kathryn nevertheless smirked at his vocabulary. "A taxi?"

"Tom," they both said at the same time, laughing.

****

Thirty minutes and a quick tour of the city later, a Vidiian had walked up to Kalani, bowed his head, and informed the Mar that the shuttle had just arrived. Soon after, the two diplomatic parties were headed towards the sikelt, a building that served the dual purpose of being the capital's town hall and housing any diplomatic ouvertures that took place. Maeno Kalani continued telling the Starfleet officers about the Vidiian culture.

From what the Mar said, Ashcroft realized one could think of the Vidiians as one of two things: a people free from moral wrong, without crime committed in their entire history, or a people who admitted to past wrongs, but had changed their ways and were now once again innocent.

The way this portrait of the people was repeatedly although subtly pointed at brought suspicious notions to the man's mind. However, at this point of the talks - which indeed had not even started yet - these thoughts were still closer to curiosity than distrust. Resolving to figure out the mystery, Ashcroft concentrated once again on the Kalani's words.

It was a few moments later that they entered the majestic-looking building they were to have Calnesh in, and they soon found themselves in what looked liked a small ballroom. There were several tables with various specialties and a few bottles that the Fleeters suspected contained what they were expected to drink later on. The windows, tall and slim, reminded the humans of ancient Terran cathedral architecture, but the glass was instead transparent, letting in as much light as possible.

While Ashcroft continued his conversation with the Vidiian leader, with Lieutenant Watson standing close-by, Ayala immersed himself in a chat with Caddock, who apart from his job as security chief to the whole planet, seemed to have a penchant for painting. Not only that, but from what Mike understood, his interlocutor was quite well known in the field and some of his better pieces were considered true works of art by the critics.

"Ah, here she comes," Kalani noticed as he turned to the entrance. A smile on her face, she walked up to the group, and the Mar once again took the introducing upon himself, "Commander, may I introduce one of our leading medics, Doctor Danara Pel. Doctor, this is Commander Ashcroft of Starfleet's diplomatic corps."

"Commander," the newcomer uttered with a polite nod, sharing a handshake with the human.

"Doctor."

"Lieutenant Watson, also from the corps," Kalani said, waiting until the customary greeting was shared before he continued, "From Voyager's security, Lieutenant Ayala..."

There was a twinkle in her eye as Danara recognized the man from years before. Trying to be formal, however, she took the proffered hand and nodded. "Lieutenant."

"Doctor," Mike replied, a grin on his handsome features as he remembered the EMH. This was sure to be one of his more memorable missions, he decided.

The Mar did not notice the amused looks passing between the two and instead resumed the presentations, "...and this is... where'd he disappeared to?"

The Doctor, having first taken part in the art-centered chat of the two security officers, had excused himself to inspect the various paintings strewn across the walls of the ballroom. Here and there hung brightly coloured images, some in greens and blues and others in redder, earthier tones, enlivening the otherwise ashen walls.

It was Danara that first saw the EMH at the other end of the room, surveying the art. Her eyes lit up as she recognized the familiar figure. She had no doubt who that could be.

It had to be him. It had to be-

"Schmullus!" she cried, lifting her hand high in the air. She half ran towards him in her delight at seeing him. "Schmullus!"

**

That name. That voice. Could that be-

"Danara?" he asked, turning around to face where he thought she would be. His eyes immediately focused on the woman approaching him, and his lips curled upwards in a brilliant smile.

"Schmullus!" she repeated, running into his open arms. He brought them around her without thinking, a laugh threatening to bubble out at his happiness to see her again.

For her part, Danara hugged him tight, then, as if realizing her actions, hastily moved out of his embrace. She looked up at the man, a shy smile playing on her lips.

She looked... wonderful, the Doctor thought as he looked at her. A blush had crept onto her cheeks in her hurry to reach him as fast as possible, and her mouth was rosy with her excitement. A few locks of her chestnut hair had escaped the confines of her simple ponytail and fell loosely around her face in soft curls, tickling her distinctly Vidiian ridge. Her eyes were bright with happiness and laughter as she took his hand in one of her smaller ones.

"I was hoping you'd be on the Federation's team," she whispered.

"Likewise, Danara. Likewise."

**

Ashcroft approached the newly rejoined twosome and waited for the hologram to notice his presence before he spoke in slightly hushed tones, "You know Doctor Pel?"

"I do," the Doctor answered simply, but at the look in the Commander's eyes, he quickly elaborated, "She's a good family friend."

"'Family friend'? But you don't *have* a family, Doctor," the man countered. Unless, of course, he means all those Mark Ones out there, he continued in his mind.

Used to such comments, the EMH answered smoothly, "On the contrary, Commander. I have a family that has, over time, grown to almost two hundred people."

Kevin Ashcroft shook his head. "Whatever you say. So, why is she a 'family friend'?"

"For starters, Danara gave us the cure for a virus the Captain and Commander contracted in the second year of our journey. I trust you'll understand that in our situation, losing both commanding officers was a scenario we especially wanted to avoid."

"Of course, Doctor," he agreed, deciding to ask for another reason for this friendship. He wanted to check how much information the EMH would be willing to give and how accurate it would be. He knew about her help with the medicine, as well as her stay on the original Voyager. After all, he had readied himself for this mission, reading up not just on the Vidiians, but also on all their previous contact with Starfleet. And those always, as far as they knew, had to do with Voyager.

So he had read all their official logs from the time, studying intently the relations between the Vidiians and the lonely ship.

Oh yes, he knew the Vidiians. He supposed he knew the Vidiians as well as he possibly could without ever having met one.

But only so much information was ever put in an official log, and Ashcroft hoped the EMH would provide him with some more data when properly asked.

He was about to continue his questioning when the Doctor turned to the security officer saying, "Lieutenant, if you could..."

"I'll get right on it, Sir," Ayala said, pulling out his tricorder to scan the room.

Ashcroft furrowed his brows, confused. He was a hologram, wasn't he? He was not programmed to lie, or to avoid answering a question. So why did it seem to the Commander that that was what he had just done?

Meanwhile, the EMH, with Danara still standing behind him, turned back towards the hosts. "I hope you understand, gentlemen. Standard Starfleet procedure."

Kalani nodded. "Of course, we understand."

The Commander, however, did not. Politely excusing them from the Vidiians' company, he pulled the Doctor to the side. "Correct me if I'm wrong, Doctor, but I thought Starfleet put me in charge of this mission?"

The medic nodded, inwardly amused at how attached the diplomat seemed to be to being in a commanding position. "I thought you would prefer to take care of the negotiations without having to worry about the other, more mundane tasks. Am I to continue, or should I leave everything to you, Commander?" he asked, eyeing the man.

It seemed he was reluctant to agree with the logic, but in the end he conceded, "Very well, you may continue." For a hologram, he thought, he thinks quite a bit like a human. We'll see what else he can do...

The Doctor smiled slightly and pulled out his own medical tricorder, intending to check the food and drinks. He knew he should have had Mike check the room as soon as they entered, but he had quite frankly forgotten all about it. It was only when he realized the Commander had not issued any safety precaution orders that he had remembered about that.

And he was grateful that he had, for he did not want to explain any more of his relationship with Danara. It was complicated enough without him having to do so.

"If you'll excuse me then, Commander," he said, nodding to the diplomat and heading towards the tables.

****

"Laying in course..." Entering a few commands in the console before him, Chakotay made sure Kathryn could not find out what their destination was before time. He knew her well enough, after all, to know she would try to do just that.

"Course laid in. Engaging warp drive... Warp drive engaged," he said, partly absentmindedly, the habit of commenting his actions ingrained deep in his mind. He waited a moment as the AsteriŽ's speed increased, then stated, "Warp six."

Chakotay glanced at Kathryn and grinned, knowing what would come now. Sure enough, she looked up at him innocently, "So, where are we going again?"

"Not gonna tell you," he said, repeating his words from earlier in the day when she had tried to trick him into revealing their destination.

"Aw, come on, Chakotay... Just a hint, then?" she asked, flashing her sweetest smile.

"Not gonna tell you."

"Chakotay..."

A chuckle escaped him at her near-whine and he repeated a sentence he had spoken several years earlier, "We've been down this road before, Kathryn."

"Have we?"

"Yes, we have. I even remember my conclusion the first time around."

"Oh?"

"You're like a little kid, wheedling."

Had it been possible, the AsteriŽ would have shook with the laughter that ensued.

****

The first formalities finally done with, Lieutenant Watson stretched imperceptibly, enjoying a momentary respite from the talks. They had, after all, been holed up in this room for almost half an hour now, and had only now finalized the usual, dreary customs connected with the beginning of diplomatic talks.

Knowing the mission should finally become more interesting in a few more minutes, Vela took the opportunity to look around.

The room they were seated in was nearly circular in shape, the pale violet walls livened up in a few places by strategically hung vibrant arrases, while the windows let bright light in to the room. Cabinets stood along the walls, various small trinkets resting on their flat surfaces in an effort to make the office-like chamber more or less lived-in.

In its middle stood eight chairs, flanking the conference table from two sides. To Vela's right sat her superior officer, and she briefly considered him. After having served under him almost six years, Watson knew well that the expression he wore on his face at that moment was as haughty as it would get during talks. While she knew it was unnoticeable for anybody else, that almost ever-present look was as clear as ever for her to see and the Lieutenant sighed inwardly. Once again, she was witness to the very reason why Ashcroft had not made it to Captain yet.

Shaking off the thought, Vela turned her head slightly so that she could see Ayala, the security officer, from the corner of her eye. Tall, dark and handsome, she thought. Seemingly every woman's desire. With looks like that, she knew, he should be brazen and seductive. And yet from what she gathered from their short exchanges, this was hardly the case. Here was a man of few words, quiet and serious in everything he did despite the trace of anger the Betazoid part of Watson caught. A curious man, she decided, before settling her gaze on the fourth member of their diplomatic party.

The Doctor. Voyager's Chief Medical Officer. A hologram. Truth be told, she thought, she had been against the concept of a sentient hologram, and Janeway's assigning one to their team had been a reason for Watson to doubt the Captain for a moment. But she was over that by now, her keen perception having quickly noticed that this hologram was more than photons and forcefields. How much more she could not be sure yet, but she was willing to give him a chance, which, she knew, was more than could be said for Kevin Ashcroft. Presently, she regarded the Doctor, wondering who was more human: he or her superior. Resolving to keep an eye on the Doctor and his affiliation with his Vidiian counterpart, Vela Watson turned her mind back to the topic at hand.

Just in time too, for the Commander had just posed the first important question.

"I hope you'll understand my reasons for asking, Mar, but why exactly does Vidiia want an alliance with the Federation?"

Kalani nodded. "Of course, Commander. It's really quite simple. As you can imagine, the war has left us depleted. All our resources have been severely reduced throughout the last several months. And we didn't have much to begin with; we were only just starting to get our feet under after the phage."

General Caddock, who was in charge of security, continued where the leader had left off. "While formally the Alliance has not ceased to exist, it was only formed because of the war. As long as we were needed by the Alliance's other members, everything was all right. The Devore, the Krenim - even the Kazon - would do nothing to us but say things. We were safe. Now, with the Sernaix threat eliminated, we can't trust them at all."

The Mar took charge again, saying, "And so we need a strong ally. We don't wish the others wrong, but we want to know they won't attack us. With the Federation as our ally, they wouldn't dare. The only ones foolish enough to do so are the Kazon, and them we are not afraid of."

"We just want some time to restore ourselves," Emorin said with a sigh, a trace of a stutter in his explanation. "With the phage gone and the Sernaix hopefully nothing more than a memory, we want to rebuild Vidiia as it had once been."

Nodding in acknowledgement of his Internal Affairs Advisor's words, Kalani tilted his head to the side slightly and regarded the leader of the Federation diplomats. His voice quiet and smooth, he put forth the question that had been nagging at his mind ever since Ashcroft had asked about their motives.

"Surely, Commander, the Federation has nothing against an alliance for such reasons?"

The human shook his head in the negative. "The Federation, as a general rule, is happy to ally itself with anyone whose intents and deeds are the same as those the Federation strives for." Lifting a hand at the sight of a grin spreading across the Mar's face, Ashcroft continued, "However, we always have to make sure that such is the case. It is not that we do not trust the Vidiians specifically, it's just the way things are done."

Kalani smiled widely, with an answer already leaving his lips. "Of course, Commander. We understand the importance of such things as procedure and protocol. Now, may I invite you all to lunch? We have, after all, just completed the first step of the negotiations, haven't we?"

Watson's eyes narrowed slightly as she looked at the Vidiian leader. There seemed something off about him, she surmised. The way he spread his arms as if trying to convince them that he was trustworthy. The way the words rolled off his tongue as if each one had been individually coated in honey. The smile that seemed a little too... eager?

Quickly putting the thought away for future consideration, Vela rose from the chair she had been occupying and followed the others out of the room.

****

When they had all settled back into their seats, Ashcroft none-too-bluntly asked his next question.

"Have you stopped the organ-harvesting?"

Though wincing at the term, Kalani nodded, answering smoothly. "We have. We were never proud of it to begin with. We only even considered it because we saw it as a necessity to assure our survival. When the cure was found, we more than willingly stopped it."

Noticing Pel narrow her eyes slightly at the last sentence, Vela studied the Mar for a moment before asking a more specific question.

"Have you disposed of the instruments you used?"

"No, we still use them."

"You what?"

Kalani raised a hand at the hologram's outrage and spoke in a sure voice. "Tell me, Doctor, would you really throw away a tool that would let you help your patient without having to operate on him? Heal him without cutting his flesh? Take away the pain without inflicting more pain? Would you?"

The EMH was left to shake his head. "No, of course not."

"That is what we do. The herano is the perfect way to extract an organ out of a body, operate on it, and then return it to the patient. It spares both nerves and hurt, not to mention time and funds." Settling his gaze back on Ashcroft, the Mar continued in a determined voice, "We will not change this. Whatever the herano has been used for in the past, it is now used as ethically as you would use any other medical instrument."

The Commander nodded in accord. "Of course, Mar. I must say the concept itself of operating without a creating an incision seems a bit strange to me, but I agree that such a use of this herano is ethical. And you need not worry; far be it from the Federation to forbid it."

****

It was that same evening that a get-together was organized in the sikelt ballroom, offering a reprieve from the talks to both teams of diplomats. Similarly to earlier in the day, tables full of food were lined up along the walls while the middle of the room had been cleared, providing a space for dancing.

Popping a small treat into his mouth, Ayala looked around. Mar Kalani stood to one side, conversing with General Caddock and Commander Ashcroft. His younger partner, Lieutenant Watson, who had finished talking with Gilar Emorin a few minutes earlier, was now chatting amiably with the Doctor.

Finally, Mike's scrutiny settled on the other medic in the room, who was now glancing around in much the same way as he was. Their eyes met for a moment and she smiled at him before letting her gaze wander back to the hologram.

Understanding the situation as soon as she had made that move, Ayala strode purposefully towards Voyager's Chief of Medicine. He gave a slight nod to Watson, a wordless apology for his intrusion, and she stepped back, giving the two men some privacy. Again Ayala nodded, this time in thanks, then turned towards the Doctor, who was only too happy to question the man's intents.

"What is it, Lieutenant? I was just-"

"Avoiding Doctor Pel?"

"Why- no! Of- of course not!" The hologram quickly glanced back at the woman in question, who in turn blushed and averted her gaze. He narrowed his eyes at Mike, "Does it look like that?"

"It IS that, Doctor."

He grumbled something about security officers sticking their noses into other people's business, but his eyes once again strayed to Danara. Had Ayala been anyone else, he would have sighed. As it was, the quiet man just shook his head a little.

"Why don't you ask her to dance?"

Finally registering the soft tunes of music flowing around the room, the Doctor raised an eyebrow. Again, he glanced back at the other medic before asking speculatively, "You think I should?"

Accustomed to reading between the lines, Ayala placed a hand on the hologram's shoulder. "She'll accept."

"I didn't- You think so?"

"Yes, I do. Now go before she thinks you're not interested in her," Mike said. A nudge in Pel's direction stopped any further questions.

The Doctor stumbled slightly because of the shove, but soon regained his footing and walked towards Danara still a bit unsure, but nevertheless determined to at least try.

She smiled at him as he approached her. With a grin and a twinkle in her eyes, she greeted him, "Doctor."

He caught on quick enough and with a polite nod of the head responded in kind. "Doctor."

The exchange left them quiet for a few moments, the two of them standing awkwardly, both unsure what to do. Finally, gathering up what was left of his courage, the Doctor cleared his throat.

"Uh, Danara... Would you... care to dance?"

Her eyes brightened up immediately. "I thought you'd never ask," she answered, looping her arm through his as he led her to the dance floor.

"Actually," he confided as he let his hands rest on her hips, "I thought so too."

Her quiet laughter filled a part of his heart that the Doctor suddenly realized had been empty for much too long.

With a soft smile, he looked down at the woman in his arms, reveling in how her own lips curved in happiness, how pale her cheeks were in the evening light, how soft her hair seemed to be.

How wonderfully green those eyes that gazed straight at him were. Bright, clear emeralds one could lose himself in. So beautiful...

****

During all the talks she had been a part of in her decade-long diplomat career, Lieutenant Vela Watson had always taken it upon herself to learn as much as possible about the people she was dealing with.

Sometimes those were honest and true, their intents and wishes exactly such as they had presented them to the Federation. Sometimes they were the direct opposite, lying and veering around the questions to obtain their secret goal. More often than not, however, the team consisted of several people whose objectives and sincerity varied.

Such was the case this time, Vela realized, as she regarded the four Vidiians seated across from her.

Straight across from her superior sat Mar Maeno Kalani, the Vidiian leader. Quite an imposing man, wearing what seemed to be a cross between a uniform and traditional garb. He was handsome in his own way, nearing a distinguished age, with eyes a few shades darker than his silver hair. His voice was usually deceivingly soft, its more steely quality hidden no doubt for the duration of the talks with the Federation diplomats. To Watson, Kalani seemed sure of himself despite his attempts at proving the opposite. It did not work. Even if Ashcroft were fooled, she knew better than to trust this man.

Shaking her head, resolving not to think wrong of a man she did not know yet, she switched her gaze to the man sitting to Kalani's left, opposite Lieutenant Ayala. The Security General, Sen Caddock. He was quite a few years younger than the Mar, bangs of black hair falling into his eyes, which were a striking mixture of gray and mauve. Both in his actions and his words he contrasted with Ayala, exuding an air of strength in a much more violent way than his human counterpart. Every move was similar in this, as if designed to provoke fear in those who were with him. His voice, low and gruff, seemed to perpetually have a warning tone in it, and Watson found herself wondering if this was the same voice Caddock used when he spoke to his friends, his wife, or his children.

Once again realizing she was getting sidetracked, the diplomat turned to inspect the man sitting on the other side of the table, directly across from her. Unlike the two previous men, Gilar Emorin was a none-too-remarkable individual. Tall and lean with dark brown hair and bright green eyes, he evoked in Watson's mind the image of a hard-studying pupil, who was rarely seen with his nose out of a book. Indeed, were he a human, he only lacked the glasses that were characteristic of such people, despite the long-gone need for those. She had never figured out why some scientists - especially physicists - chose to wear glasses instead of having a doctor correct their eyesight. But that was beside the point. This man, the Internal Affairs advisor to the Mar, seemed to be... Her eyes narrowed slightly as she studied the Vidiian, then widened in disbelief as she recognized the look. He was afraid. What of, though? She had no clue. The fact was, however, that as shy as Emorin was, reclusive almost, was strange for a man in his position, unless fear was in the picture. She would have to get to the bottom of this, she knew. It more than likely had something to do with the talks.

Finally, Watson's gaze came to settle on the Vidiian doctor. Young, attractive, and from what she had gathered from bits of conversation, quite the scientist. Once not much more than a field medic, now a leading hematologist, Danara Pel seemed to be the honest one of the four. She smiled often, an expression that would reach her eyes when she looked at Voyager's Doctor, and her laughter, the few times Watson had heard it, was melodious and unrestrained.

Relying on her Betazoid senses, Vela frowned. While Pel appeared happy not only about the Doctor's presence, but also Voyager's, she seemed at the same time unwilling to go through with the talks. Strange. Of the four Vidiians she would have thought Danara Pel to be the most likely to want an alliance with the Federation.

"Have you made reparations to the races you attacked?" Ashcroft asked, breaking Lieutenant Watson's train of thought.

Kalani seemed a bit reluctant, but answered the question, "No, we have not. Vidiia is still too weak, not only militarily, but also economically. We have not had the means to make such reparations yet. And, truth be said," he confessed, looking slightly askance, "we can't be sure any such compensation would be accepted."

"Why not?"

It was Emorin who answered, his gaze kept focused on the table before him. "We've done them much wrong. They do not trust us anymore."

"No wonder," the EMH muttered under his breath, just loud enough for his immediate neighbor to hear him. Lieutenant Watson glanced at him, the look in her eyes a mixture of reproach for not keeping comments like that to himself and of agreement with his thoughts.

"But," Kalani continued, unaware of the medic's remark, "we're also hoping that our help against the Sernaix might prove to be a factor in our favour. We were going to ask to meet in the nearby future with the leaders of the races we attacked. For now, we're just trying to stabilize our economy, so that we have the means to make those reparations."

****

On the second day of the talks, the weather on Vidiia was far better than it had been the previous day. With the sun shining brightly and the general feeling of happiness in the air, the Mar had proposed that the lunch be consumed in the sikelt gardens.

The eight of them had been chatting in small groups for a few minutes when the Doctor sighed, looking around. Glancing towards his companion who was presently taking a bite out of one of the snacks provided by the local chef, he gathered up his courage for the second time in as many days.

"Danara," he whispered, leaning in slightly so as to make sure she would be the only one to hear him. "Would you care for a walk?"

Just like the previous evening, she smiled up at him brightly and nodded, letting him grasp her elbow gently to lead her away from the rest of the diplomats.

"So," she started when they were a slight distance from the others, "tell me how it is that you're down here, on Vidiia?"

He grinned, immediately understanding her question. A brief thought crossed his mind as he wondered why she had not brought up the matter earlier, but he decided she must have been in too much shock at seeing him to ask him then and there. And after that, she had probably opted to wait with the question until they were alone, without the other Vidiians around... For all she knew, whatever means had been used to get him to the planet were confidential Starfleet material.

"See this?" he asked, pointing at the small device attached to his arm. "I got it about a year after we last saw each other. As you can see, it not only freed me from the confines of Sickbay, but from the whole of Voyager."

She seemed genuinely interested in the little piece of technology as she took a closer look at it. "What's it called?"

"A mobile emitter," the EMH answered proudly.

Danara laughed at the slight way he had puffed his chest out and laid a hand on his arm, smiling.

"It's so good to see you on Vidiia, Schmullus."

A loud blast drowned out her name for him and the clearing was suddenly filled with smoke seemingly coming from nowhere.

Somebody, one of the diplomats cried, quite unnecessarily, "Everybody down!"

It all happened too fast for him to react properly. One moment there was only smoke and silence, and the next he felt himself being dragged away from where he thought the others has been. His vision impaired by the smoke and still in slight shock from what had just happened, he let the invisible hands pull him, then help him into what he supposed was a shuttle. His arms were pulled behind his back, fastened there with some kind of rope, and he was lead further in. Pushed down until his legs gave way, he slid down to the floor to lean against the shuttle bulkhead just as the door closed with a bang.

His last conscious thought before he slipped into shock was that he should not be slipping into shock.

Meanwhile, outside, the smoke was clearing away slowly and Vidiians and Starfleet officers alike were gathering themselves up from the ground.

A woman with faint ridges across the bridge of her nose and piercing, black eyes struggled to a where she had last seen two of the diplomats. She looked around, and saw nothing but two pairs of fresh tracks in the grass, all but evident signs of someone having been dragged across the clearing.

Turning back, Vela yelled to the others, "They took the doctors!"

------

Written by: Ala
NotBeta: SaRa
Producers: SaRa, MaquisKat and Coral

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