Disclaimer: Paramount owns all rights to the Star Trek Universe, etc., etc. As usual, I hope you enjoy my creative effort. Also, as usual, be kind, but please send all comments and criticism (constructive, please) to AnnitaS@aol.com. (I just love feedback!)

Author's Note: This story is a sequel of sorts to "Uncle Joe." That one was basically pure fun. This one is a little more serious, but I hope with a few light touches I've kept it from being too heavy. Once again, there's a little PT woven into the story, but this one is again for Josh. Face it, you're just unforgettable!

Friends and Family

by Neetz

"Meyers! You're falling behind on the relay check. Get to it! Now!" B'Elanna Torres glared at her newly assigned ensign before stalking off around the corner.

"Do you think she could yell a little louder?" asked Ensign Meyers in a softly spoken aside to Sue Nicoletti as soon as the chief engineer had disappeared.

Nicoletti glanced around her before responding. "She's on edge because we're short handed, that's all. You'll get used to it."

B'Elanna froze. She had intended to go check on the progress of her team on the sensor log update when she overheard Meyers' remark. Her first impulse had been to go back and give Meyers another piece of her mind, but something stopped her. Instead, she moved back to just behind one of the instrument panels and listened.

"The lieutenant isn't so bad once you get used to her," Nicoletti continued.

Meyers shook her head. "I don't think I'll ever get used to her! Maybe that's why Carey isn't here today. I know she said he was sick, but I think he just needed some time away from her!"

Sue sighed and shook her head. "Let me give you a little word to the wise, Eva. Just do your job, stay out of Torres' way and you'll get along much better. As for Carey, he's used to working with Torres and he would never take a day off just to avoid her."

"Then you think he really is sick?"

"I don't know. I do know he hasn't been himself for a couple of days. I've been a little worried about him."

"What do you think is wrong?"

"I wish I knew," she replied thoughtfully. "But in the meantime, we have work to do."

"Well, it's certain Torres isn't concerned... about any of us."

"Eva," Sue replied, "you have a lot to learn. Let's get on those relays."

As they moved away, B'Elanna leaned against the back of the panel, deep in thought. Meyers could prove to be a problem, but she was willing to give it a little time before she stepped in. Her crew was a good one, even if she did yell at them a lot. And she was glad to hear Nicoletti's response. She'd let the rest of the crew deal with Meyers for now, but she'd keep an eye on her all the same.

One thing that did bother her, despite Meyers' remark, was Carey. In all the time she'd been chief engineer, he'd never missed a day he was scheduled to work unless he was laid up in sickbay or recovering from injury in his quarters. She had thought it a bit odd when he'd notified her that morning that he wasn't feeling well and asked to be relieved for the day. She hadn't been too sympathetic at the time, thinking of all the work that was before them, but she hadn't objected. Maybe she should check on him.

"Torres to Sickbay."

"This is the doctor," came the response.

"Doctor, has Lt. Carey reported to sickbay today?"

"Why, no," the EMH replied. "Has he been injured?"

"No, but he wasn't feeling well this morning."

"Then he should have reported here immediately. I can't be responsible if a crew member doesn't seek medical assistance until he is seriously ill."

B'Elanna sighed. "I'm sure he just decided to rest in his quarters."

"Then I suggest you check with him directly. I'm very busy at the moment. Doctor out."

The chief engineer frowned. One thing she knew about her second in command was that he was conscientious. He would never call in sick for no reason.

"Penny for your thoughts."

B'Elanna blinked as she realized Tom Paris was standing before her. "Oh, Tom. I didn't see you come in."

"Obviously," he replied, then the smile on his face faded a bit. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm not sure," she replied.

"Well, is it something that can wait until tomorrow? We were supposed to meet Harry in Sandrine's about half an hour ago."

"Oh," she looked at him in surprise. "I didn't realize it was that late."

Tom laughed. "Somehow I just knew you'd lost track of time. Of course, that's never happened before."

She playfully punched him on the arm, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. There had been a time when she wouldn't have tolerated Paris' sense of humor, much less have learned to appreciate it, but that had changed. A lot of things had changed since she and Tom Paris had gotten to know each other better.

"I guess you're just not as unforgettable as you seem to think, Hotshot!"

"Ouch!" Tom replied, his hand brought dramatically to his chest. "That hurt, Torres."

"Such a sensitive man," she returned. "I don't know how you survive."

"Well, I guess I'll have to learn if I'm going to associate with a half-Klingon, huh? The doctor already thinks I spend too much time in sickbay."

B'Elanna looked away as her earlier thoughts returned.


"Oh, sorry," she replied. "Tom, would you mind going on to meet Harry without me? I'll join you later. I have something I need to do first."

"No way!" he replied. "If I leave you here, you'll get all wrapped up in plasma converters or something and we won't see you 'till midnight!"

She shook her head. "Not here. I need to drop by and check with Carey about something."

"He's not here?" Tom asked.

She shook her head. "No, he was out sick today, but he didn't go to see the doctor. I thought I'd better make sure he's all right."

"Checking on 'Uncle Joe'?" he asked.

B'Elanna looked down for a moment, recalling the incident to which Paris referred: her temporary reversion to childhood due to exposure to an alien pollen, and the way Carey had helped her through the difficult time. She looked back at Tom and nodded. "I guess you could say I owe him one."

Tom smiled at her with genuine affection. "You know, underneath that fiery Klingon exterior, you really are a soft-hearted woman."

She growled softly, but menacingly. It didn't seem to faze Paris.

"Okay, maybe *way* deep down." He glanced around quickly to be sure they were unobserved, then leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. "Just don't forget about Harry and me."

"I won't," she assured him, gazing for just a moment longer into his blue eyes.

He gave her one last warm smile before turning to leave. B'Elanna watched him go, then called to Nicoletti that she was leaving. She could see the relief on Meyers' face and offered the woman one last glare before departing.

"Soft-hearted indeed," she muttered to herself.

B'Elanna stood for a moment outside Carey's quarters, still a little hesitant about this self-appointed mission. Taking a deep breath, she reached out and pushed the door chime.

"Come in," came the reply and the doors opened. At first, she didn't see him as she stepped into the darkened room.

"Lt. Torres!"

She turned toward the voice to find herself staring at the man before her. He was dressed in a heavy robe, a towel around his neck and his curly hair still dripping from the shower he had obviously just emerged from.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she sputtered. "I didn't mean to disturb you."

"That's okay, Lieutenant," he replied, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth at her obvious discomfort. "Did you need to see me about something?" He nodded toward the data padd in her hand.

She had almost forgotten she had brought the padd, mostly as a prop in case she needed a more professional reason for her visit. "Uh, well, I...." She mentally shook herself. This was stupid! Might as well be honest. "Actually, I was going to use the maintenance reports as an excuse, but I really came to see how you were feeling. The doctor said you didn't report to sickbay."

Carey's smile faded as guilt washed over his features. "No, I guess I didn't."

"Then, you're feeling better?" she asked.

He thought for a moment before answering. "I wasn't really sick, Lieutenant," he admitted. "You have every right to put me on report."

Before replying, B'Elanna noted the dark circles under his eyes and a general weariness about his stance. "I don't have any intention of putting you on report, Lieutenant. You must have had a good reason not to want to report to work today."

Carey looked at her in surprise. "I'm... not sure it's a good reason. It's kind of... personal."

B'Elanna nodded stiffly. "I see." The silence between them was awkward. Finally, B'Elanna nodded again. "Then, I won't intrude on you any further." She turned to leave.

"Lieutenant, wait...." She looked back at him. "You're being very... kind not to ask. But I guess I owe you an explanation."

She shook her head. "On the contrary," she replied, "I think one unexplained absence in three years of excellent service isn't too much to ask. And I have no right to pry into your personal life."

"Yeah, my personal life," he laughed, but the sound had an edge to it, one B'Elanna recognized. She'd heard someone else laugh in that same self-depreciating way and knew there was something unsettled behind it. Instead of walking away as she would have once done, she found herself taking a step toward him.

"As I said, I won't pry, but if you'd like to talk about it... I know I'm not exactly the first person you'd probably want to confide in, but..." she met his gaze directly, "you helped me once, not too long ago, and I'd like to be able to return the favor."

Carey looked at her in surprise again. "You don't owe me anything, B'Elanna. You were ill and you needed help. I just happened to be there."

"And I just happen to be here," she replied. "If you don't want to talk to me, I won't take it personally, but I can see something is bothering you and you should talk to someone."

He hesitated, then seemed to come to a decision. "You got a few minutes?"

"Sure," she replied.

"Okay, then why don't you get us a couple of drinks from the replicator while I get dressed."

"Anything in particular?" she asked, moving toward the console.

"Just coffee for me," he replied as he grabbed some clothes and ducked back into the bathroom.

B'Elanna placed the order for two coffees and carried them to the table in front of the sofa. Instead of sitting down to wait for him, she found herself walking around the room, taking in the furnishings. She had known and worked with Joe Carey for three years and yet she didn't really know much about him.

"Computer, increase illumination 20 percent," she ordered.

The quarters weren't pristine, with data padds spread haphazardly across the table, a shirt draped over the back of a chair and a pair of slippers near the sofa. Not exactly sloppy either, just lived in. There was a piece of cloth hanging on one wall. Some kind of Celtic tapestry, she thought, and a collection of vids next to the viewer. A model of a twentieth century vehicle of some kind sat on one shelf alongside those of more modern ships.

Her circuit brought her back to a small table at the end of the sofa that held only two items: a copy of an old engineering text, faded and tattered with age and use, and a framed photograph. Her hand strayed over the cover of the book appreciatively before she reached for the picture.

Carey's face smiled out of the picture at her. The shot had been taken outdoors. Carey was seated on a bench, his arm wrapped around the back of a pretty sandy-haired woman who's head laid upon his shoulder. His other hand rested on the shoulder of the taller of two young boys who sat on the ground in front of the couple. This older boy looked very much as B'Elanna imagined Carey must have looked as a child, the same eyes, the same hair. The younger boy had his mother's features, but there was still something recognizable around his eyes, too.

"That picture was taken on my last leave before I reported to Voyager." B'Elanna started at the unexpected voice. "We were in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. You can just make out the old bridge in the far background."

B'Elanna nodded. "Your sons are quite handsome." She looked from the photograph back to Carey. He smiled.

"Hunter, the oldest, was seven then. Joseph, Jr. was three. That was three years ago. Joey is almost six now and Hunter turned 10 two days ago."

B'Elanna looked up at the wistful tone she had heard in his voice.

"You miss them a lot, don't you?"

"Sure," he shrugged. "We all miss our families."

B'Elanna shook her head. "The only family I have back in the Alpha Quadrant is my mother and we weren't exactly... close. I sometimes forget how hard it must be for everyone else, especially parents who left their children behind."

Carey reached out and took the photograph from her, staring at it for a long time before he spoke. "When we were first stranded out here, I think I was still in shock and probably a little bit of denial. And besides, I kept thinking we'd find some way back pretty soon and everything would be all right. But it's been three years now and it doesn't look like we're going to make it home anytime soon. Sometimes... I can't help thinking about how much of their lives I'm missing." He sat down on the sofa and placed the photograph on the table in front of him. B'Elanna sank down beside him.

"Hunter was just getting into Parrises squares when I left. I was looking forward to seeing his matches when I got my next leave. He's probably starting to notice the girls. I had all this great advice I was going to give him. Joey has started school now. I wonder if he'll have as much trouble as I had when I was a kid. I always had to study twice as hard as everyone else, but I was determined and it paid off. I wish I could have been there to help him out."

B'Elanna wasn't sure what to say. "I'm sure... your wife will do a fine job until we get back."

He looked up at her, a deep sadness in his eyes. "I know she will, but she'll be alone. When you're career Starfleet, you expect to miss chunks of your children's lives, but nothing this big. And at least there were subspace messages. Sarah used to send one every day."

"And you miss her, too." B'Elanna said softly.

"Miss her?" he shook his head at the insufficiency of the phrase. "Today would have been our anniversary."

An important birthday, followed two days later by his anniversary. Suddenly B'Elanna realized what had prompted the sick day.

"Eleven years. Doesn't seem that long. But it seems like a lifetime since I've seen her. You know, I never had any doubt about her waiting for me to come home. Then, after it had been a while, I prayed she'd still be waiting when I finally got there. Now, well, now I hope she hasn't waited."

"Why?" B'Elanna asked.

"Because we may never get home. And I love her. And I don't want her to spend the rest of her life alone."

"You can't just give up hope, Joe," B'Elanna insisted. "You know Captain Janeway isn't going to stop trying to find a faster way to get us back."

"I know, and I won't stop trying either. But the reality is, it's a long shot, and it's a long way home the normal way. A whole lifetime. And I know if Sarah found someone else, he'd be a great guy. She really has pretty good taste, despite the fact that she fell in love with me."

"Very good taste," B'Elanna assured him.

"I want Sarah to be happy and I'd like to know the boys are safe and happy. They need a father. All kids do. I hope they don't hate me."

B'Elanna was shocked. "Why would they hate you?"

"For abandoning them."

B'Elanna's stomach twisted. "You didn't abandon them!" she objected. "And if your wife is as good a mother as you say she is, she'll make sure they know that. You're right, it will be hard on them. But lots of kids grow up all right without their father."

He must have noticed the catch in her voice because his head flew around toward her, his eyes wide. "Oh, B'Elanna, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..."

She shook her head. "The situation is very different. My father *did* abandon me. You didn't leave your children of your own free will. They'll have good memories and even if they believe you to be dead, they'll never have to doubt that you loved them."

"I hope you're right."

"Of course, I'm right!" she smiled. "I'm always right!"

Carey laughed. "Yes, ma'am, Chief!"

Torres sobered once more. "Joe, I wish there was something I could do, something I could say that would help. I'm really not very good at this kind of thing. I can never really understand how you feel, and I won't tell you that you should put the past behind you. You can't do that until you're ready. That much I *have* learned. But you're not alone. There are a lot of people here who probably feel just like you do. You should talk to them. Maybe you could all help each other. That's one good thing that's come out of this tragedy. Tom likes to say that Voyager is like a family and I think he's right about that. It isn't a substitute for the ones we left behind, but it's here to support us all."

"He's right. I guess it's just harder to see when you've left so much behind. But I have a lot of good friends on this ship."

"That can be hard, too, because it's pretty dangerous out here. It makes it dangerous to invest in friendships."

"But it's not in our nature not to care, huh?" he smiled, seeming to realize, even when B'Elanna didn't, the turn in the conversation. "And some of us have found something pretty special out here, so far away from home." He grinned. "You know, I think Tom Paris isn't a bad guy. Of course, he isn't an engineer, like us, but nobody's perfect."

B'Elanna managed to laugh and blush at the same time. "I guess that's why it was so hard for the captain to chose between us for chief engineer," she told him. "We're both such models of perfection!"

"Well, being in engineering does make us related, sort of. You know, the 'warped' branch of the family."

B'Elanna groaned. "That was about the dumbest thing you've ever said, Uncle."

"And I've said a few dumb things?"

"Not recently," she replied.

His expression grew serious again. "Thanks, B'Elanna. It's good to have someone willing to listen."

"I know," she replied. "I've just begun to learn that myself." She reached out and squeezed his hand. "Now, I think you've spent much too long in this dark and dreary room all alone. I think it's time I rescued you from being locked away in your quarters."

"Oh? And just what did you have in mind? Realigning the dorsal emitters?"

"Nope," she grinned. "I noticed your model car over there." She pointed toward the shelf.

"Oh, my 1966 Mustang? It's a classic."

B'Elanna smiled. "Tom's into vehicles from that period, too. He has this holodeck program with a... what was it?... a '57 Chevy?"

"Great car, but it doesn't hold a candle to the Mustang." His eyes suddenly twinkled with mischief. "Unless, of course, you're planning on a little... romance? More room for that sort of thing in a '57 Chevy." Her sudden discomfort told him he'd hit the mark. "Anything you want to tell your old uncle about?"

B'Elanna cleared her throat. "You two should get together and discuss it... cars, that is... maybe over a few drinks in Sandrine's. Tom and Harry are already there. I think you should join us tonight."

He hesitated. "Is that an order, Lieutenant?"

She shook her head. "Just an invitation... from a friend."

"Okay," he said at last, "I'll take you up on it!"

"Good," she replied, getting to her feet. Carey paused for a moment, his eyes still on the picture on the table before him. "You know," B'Elanna said, "a part of them is right here with you and a part of you will always be with them."

"Yeah," he sighed, then nodded purposefully and got to his feet. "Now, about this program of Tom's...."

"I'm telling you, she got all involved in some project in engineering and she'll never get here," Harry Kim told his friend as he and Tom sat sipping their synthaholic beers.

"Shows how much you know," B'Elanna's voice from behind him almost caused the ensign to choke.

"Glad to see you made it," Tom smiled up at her.

"Did you doubt it?" she asked.

"Not me," he replied, indicating the recovering Harry. "And I'm glad to see you've brought a friend." He nodded at Carey to take a seat as he rose and pulled out a chair for B'Elanna next to his.

"What kept you this time, Maquis?" Harry asked. "One more check of those pesky warp coils?"

Before B'Elanna could reply, Tom caught her hand under the table. "Just a little 'family' business, right, Joe?"

Carey smiled back at him.

"Family?" Harry asked.

"Voyager family," Joe replied. "As in, we're all one big happy one!"

"Well said!" Paris lauded. "Now, let me go get you two a couple of drinks so you can start catching up with Harry and me." He started to rise from the table, but B'Elanna tugged on the hand still holding hers and pulled him closer to her.

"Thanks for understanding," she whispered, lightly touching her lips to his cheek. Tom merely smiled and squeezed her hand once more before releasing it and heading for the bar.

"Sometimes, Harry," Joe explained to the still confused ops officer, "it's good to sit back and remember what you have to be thankful for."

Kim narrowed his eyes as he looked from Carey to Torres, then just shook his head in defeat. "I think I missed something important."

Tom chose that moment to return with the drinks. "Only if you don't look for it, Harry. Only if you don't look."

Carey watched as Tom and B'Elanna exchanged a knowing smile and felt a little tug at his heart. Maybe, just for tonight, it was enough to know what their expressions meant, to know that for Tom and B'Elanna, things were just beginning. He could remember what that was like. He envied them having each other and just setting out on their own journey of discovery, and while it made him a little sad for what he missed, it also made him happy for his friends. It was a hopeful sign. And maybe Joe Carey still had hope after all.

Leaning back in his chair, he picked up his drink and looked across the table at Paris. "So, Tom, B'Elanna tells me you have a holoprogram with a '57 Chevy... *parked* on Mars?"

Tom's eyes grew wide as he choked on the drink he had just taken. Harry couldn't resist a smile as he started thumping his friend on the back. Joe and B'Elanna just looked at each other and laughed.

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