Title Graphic by Penumbra

Genre, rating: ST:Voyager slash J/7 (no established relationship, one-shot), rated R (for violence and some smoochies).
Summary, spoilers:
The Voyager crew bumps heads with a society that has more complexity than what was obvious initially -- and as always, politics tend to be a mess. No real spoilers, no references to specific episodes.
Legal yadda
: Characters not mine. Don't intend to keep them, will be returned in original packaging (though I might be tempted to do some indecent things to Seven). Not for profit.
Other words of wise
: Hopefully consistent Brit English spelling, some mild gore, live with 'em. I might also be maiming Trek canon regarding nanoprobes and common understanding of Janeway's mental stability (or lack thereof), but I'm sure you can make the leap of logic.
This story came about an idea I had one day while on the tram, and developed into the epic you see here. I also wanted to explore the idea of a J/7 relationship, but in my way, with no convenient transporter accident, inebriation, or well-timed malfunctioning of the holodeck needing to push them together…and no sudden realisations of how they are soul mates and have been madly, deeply, truly in love for all eternity without either of them clueing in on it before, despite their triple-digit IQs. In other words, a fan fic with no Harlequin novel rip-off romance. Don't know how well I did it, or if it turned out to be less than boring, but I'd love to know. Hint hint.
Thanks to Silent Bard who again infected me with the darned J/7 storytelling bug. With apologies to Iain Banks.
Email: penumbra@clinched.net

| Ch. 1-5 | Ch. 6-9 | Ch. 10- End |

Two, Three, Seven
© Penumbra 2002

Chapter X: Doppelgänger Galore

"The Culture military is attempting to overtake your ship."

N'shaah's words made Janeway pause, and the Silent had progressed three hurried steps before he noticed the captain was no longer by his side. "Captain Janeway?"

"Run that by me again?" she said, catching up with N'shaah as they hurried along the corridor, trailed by the rest of the Voyager team and a large number of Silents.

"The Culture military is in the progress of infiltrating your ship, with the intention of acquiring it for their own purposes."

"How? Why?" the captain demanded to know, doubt obvious on her face. Chakotay was still on board, along with almost 130 of her crew members. She couldn't see how an alien race could just infiltrate her ship, without raising a red flag somewhere on Voyager.

"The espionage arm of the military is specifically chosen based on their adaptive qualities," N'shaah explained. "They are the best shape-shifters the Culture has, and they've been quietly replacing your shuttle crews with their own operatives during the food supply shipments."

"I see," Janeway said, between clenched teeth, although she would need to see it with her own eyes to really believe it. "We need to stop them. Now."

"I agree," N'shaah replied, nodding as they rounded a corner. "There is a shipment leaving the surface in just a few moments. We need to get on that and get you back on board to warn your command staff. Through here," he said, making an abrupt stop at a mechanical door that opened to reveal a large lift.

"The supply shipments are leaving from this building?"

"Yes, some of them -- this is the same tower that you landed on and stayed in," N'shaah said. "We are on the lower floors. For the Culture, relative distance from the ground is a measure of status." The derision in his voice was evident. "They would never venture down here."

"You do not find it risky to conduct your operations from the building that houses the political headquarters of the Culture?" Tuvok asked, his eyebrow rising. The lift doors closed and the car began to ascend.

"Not at all," N'shaah replied. "This way, we are at the centre of their power, the better to monitor them. The left arm of the Culture knows not what the right does. Their political system is ineffective and staffed by fools, even though they hold great power. It is the military that we fear, and they never venture this far into the political realm."

"Eye of the storm," Janeway said, appreciating the wisdom behind his choice of location.

N'shaah turned to her, smiling briefly. "Exactly. They'd never look for us here."

The lift arrived at its destination and all fell silent as they quietly filed out of the car and took positions by the walls. The view opening from the windows in the corridor told Janeway they had gone up at least half a kilometre, but they were still in the lower half of the tower.

N'shaah gestured to his men, who crept down the corridor, covering one another, energy weapons drawn and ready. Nodding towards a door in the next intersection, N'shaah waved for Janeway to follow his men. While Tuvok took lead and took out his phaser, the captain was right behind him, feeling quite naked without her phaser.

They all stopped in a loose formation at the door, which opened to reveal a massive ledge on the side of the tower. The Delta Flyer stood on the open area, flanked by several large containers and a number of people in Starfleet uniforms, busying themselves with stocking the shuttle.

"Stay behind. We will take care of this," N'shaah whispered to the Voyager team, and before Janeway could utter her protest, he was on his way towards the nearest pile of containers, his men fanning out, staying in the shadows of the various containers that littered the landing pad.

It was over in mere seconds. The Silents formed a semi-circle around the shuttle and on command rolled forward, capturing the people loading by surprise and into effective crossfire. Janeway resisted the urge to stop N'shaah, despite it being her first instinct upon seeing people in Starfleet uniforms being cut down by the pulse projectiles of the energy weapons. However, as soon as the altercation was over and the last person had slumped onto the metal deck, she ran to the Delta Flyer and to the nearest uniformed body.

"It's Chief Petty Officer Jameson," B'Elanna said, kneeling next to the captain. "From ops." There was disbelief in her voice.

Janeway nodded absentmindedly to B'Elanna, her eyes raking over the prone form, lingering by the black, smoking hole in the middle of Jameson's barrel chest. It was the petty officer…yet it was not. Janeway took his limp hand and turned it around, only to see that the two outermost fingers of his hands were pressed into the grooves of his palm. She counted altogether seven fingers on the hand, and a wave of relief ran over her. N'shaah had been right.

"They are all Culture," Tuvok announced a little farther away, where he was inspecting the corpse of Crewman Simitis.

Janeway tore her eyes from Jameson's doppelganger and stood up, taking stock of the situation. The familiar faces of her crew members were melting away under her eyes, as the facial muscles of the Culture spies became lax in death. "I count altogether nine of them, and goodness knows how many others they have already smuggled on Voyager."

"Yes. We must hurry," Seven said, standing up next to Crewman Cole's double. "They do not need to replace every member of Voyager's crew, merely enough to provide the critical mass for a successful mutiny."

"She has a point," N'shaah said, gesturing towards the Delta Flyer. "After you, Captain Janeway."

---

As she settled down into the chair, a shiver ran through Janeway. She inhaled deeply, willing her shaking hand to be still on the armrest. She was tired to the bone and had altogether too much adrenaline in her bloodstream, but there was grave, unknown danger still standing between her and a nice, hot bath. Damned if some upstart aliens were going to keep her from that.

Space was a precious commodity in the Delta Flyer when attempting to squeeze in as many people as possible; currently it housed the six Voyager away team members, along with N'shaah and roughly a dozen of his followers, definitely a tight fit. Everyone sat where they could, the air calm but electrified in the cabin as Paris prepped the shuttle for take-off.

"Seven. Toss me a nutrition bar, willya?" B'Elanna said from Janeway's left, her form slumped gracelessly in the chair. "I'm starving."

Seven dug into the emergency rations box next to her, throwing B'Elanna one before hefting another and turning to Janeway. "Captain?"

"Yes, please," Janeway murmured, leaning forward to take the bar. It tasted like cardboard, but it gave her the energy she was sorely in need of. After inhaling the bar, she felt much better and, with a deep breath, turned towards N'shaah who was sitting on the floor next to her. "Any idea why the Culture want my ship?" she asked. The question had been nagging her mind.

"A few ideas, yes," the Silent smiled, resting his weapon on an upraised knee. "You obviously have something they want. Technology they do not possess, most likely."

Janeway's eyebrows drew together. "I cannot see what that could be. Our levels of technology are quite similar."

"Well, you have managed to tame the Borg," N'shaah said, smiling crookedly as he nodded towards Seven, who flinched. "Something no-one in this system has been able to do, ever. It is something of a sore point, as I'm sure you can imagine."

"I do…but for them to make the decision, they would have to know we are a multi-species crew -- otherwise, we would not have a former Borg as a crew member," Janeway said, putting emphasis on the word former. She was getting peeved at the bad rap Seven was constantly receiving, despite the understandable cultural trauma it resulted from. "We were treated in a civil manner by the Culture leaders when we landed, however."

N'shaah shrugged. "It could be just that the military did not bother to tell all the information they had to the Culture politicians. Wouldn't be the first time they concealed information for their own purposes. I wouldn't also be surprised if they had laid the mines you tripped in the first place, for the sole purpose of ensnaring you in this system."

"So what you're suggesting," Janeway said, frowning, "is that we were purposefully set up? And that our Culture hosts are unaware of the moves the military is making?"

"As I said, the left hand knows not what the right does. The military is notorious for their hunger for power of any kind."

"And they think Voyager might give them an additional edge," Janeway finished his thought. She harrumphed and leaned back. Nothing rankled her like having her ship and crew treated as a commodity. "Messing with my ship will be the last mistake they'll ever make," she murmured to herself. Her words were drowned by the engines as the shuttle revved up for lift-off.

---

"Eight minutes to entry," Paris said from the pilot's seat. "My request for landing at Cargo Bay Four has been approved."

"Very good," Janeway said, hefting the phaser rifle she had taken from the runabout's weapons arsenal. Tuvok had another, and Seven the last one. The rest of the Voyager team had normal phasers, and all the Silents aboard brandished their energy weapons.

"Seven and I have devised an attack plan," Tuvok said calmly, handing over a PADD for Janeway to see. B'Elanna and Neelix clustered around her.

Scanning through the brief plan, Janeway nodded sagely. "Good. We must not rely on communicators, in case the invaders are monitoring them. Use the advantage of surprise, and do not, repeat, do not fire lethal shots if you are uncertain whether the crew member is one of us or of Culture." She passed the PADD to N'shaah. "This time, I lead," she said pointedly.

The Silent leader nodded. "This is your home soil. I defer to your command."

"Good. Lock and load," Janeway said, as the Delta Flyer made its final approach and slipped into the maw of the Cargo Bay. It settled down with a gentle sigh, rotated so that the front windows pointed towards the nearest wall to avoid anyone accidentally looking into the craft and seeing the assault party.

"On your mark, captain," Paris said as he stood up, his hand hovering over the emergency release of the back cargo loading door. His other hand was holding his phaser.

"Right," Janeway said, shifting her grip on the rifle and checking that it was set on heavy stun. "Tuvok, you're point."

The Vulcan nodded, taking his position. Janeway eyed her assault team, then turned her attention to the large cargo door.

"Mr. Paris. Mark."

A warning beep sounded, and the cargo door fell down with a loud clang. There was a handful of Voyager crew members working around the Cargo Bay and they all froze in surprise, giving Janeway and her team just enough time to file out of the Delta Flyer and fan out. When the first shots were fired, downing two men, the rest sprang into action, diving for cover. However, Janeway's team outnumbered them clearly, and those that they didn't get with phasers, the Silents hunted down, clubbing them with the butts of their energy weapons. Janeway was glad to see they had heeded her words about not shooting anyone who was not a confirmed Culture infiltrator.

"All clear," Tuvok called, pushing a fallen crew member around with his phaser rifle.

"Count?" Janeway demanded. They did a quick head count and found out that of the nine people in the Cargo Bay, seven were Culture. "I don't like those numbers," she said. "Paris, Neelix, bind them up with cargo holding clips. Seven -"

"On my way, captain," Seven replied, stepping to the nearest data access panel and setting her rifle down onto a cargo container. "No alerts were made. Commencing scan," she said as her hands flew over the input panel.

"Tuvok, secure the door," Janeway barked, before she moved to stand next to Seven. "Well?"

"The scan reports fifty-eight life forms fitting the genetic profile of the Culture. They are concentrated on the lower decks. Only one such life form is present on the bridge."

"What of the real Voyager crew?"

"I count seventeen missing crew members; the rest of the duplicated personnel are apparently housed in Cargo Bay One, where there is a large concentration of humanoid life signs. The computer has been instructed to disregard both the altered crew complement and the intruders' alien physiological profiles."

"They're sneaky all right," Janeway murmured. "And our transport?"

"Transporter is ready and standing by," Seven said, her eyes unblinking on the console screens. "I am instructing the computer to raise the security shields as soon as the transport is over."

"Command authorisation required for the requested security procedure," the computer announced pleasantly.

"Authorise Janeway phi-seven-seven-gamma. Command seal." Janeway was fingering her rifle impatiently as she rapidly rattled off the words.

"Command seal activated. Standing by."

"All right, then. Seven, you're with me. N'shaah, if you could please come here," Janeway instructed. The Silents' leader nodded and stood next to Janeway.

"Good luck, captain," Tuvok said. He was to beam to Cargo Bay One with the rest of the Voyager team and the Silents, to release the crew members and start the clean-up of Voyager from the Culture infiltrators. To help them in their task, the computer had been instructed to raise the security shields for every corridor section that contained one or more of the infiltrators -- a potentially risky affair if real Voyager crew members got caught in with them, but it was a risk they had to take.

"Computer, energise," Janeway said, and the Cargo Bay shimmered from her view, only to be replaced by the very familiar surroundings of her bridge.

The first thing Janeway saw was Chakotay in the centre chair, rising up as if struck by lightning. "Captain, I didn't -"

"Hold on, Chakotay," Janeway said, lifting a hand as her attention was held by Seven. She had, as soon as she materialised, moved away from Janeway, lifting her phaser rifle. As Chakotay also turned his head, Seven calmly squeezed the trigger on her phaser rifle, the stun beam hitting Ensign Kim squarely on the chest.

The compact ensign flopped backwards from his Ops post, hit the view screens behind him, and from the force of the impact came back forward to slump over the console.

"Security!" Chakotay barked, as the ensign manning tactical stepped forward and drew her phaser, pointing it towards Seven.

"Wait, Chakotay," Janeway said, setting her rifle down on the co-pilot's empty chair as she instinctively shifted to stand between the security ensign and Seven. "This is not Kim," she said, gesturing towards Ops.

That stopped Chakotay. "Excuse me?"

"It's not Ensign Kim," Janeway repeated and stepped to the Ops console, where Kim was draped over the data unit. She lifted the arm of the prone figure, palm forwards, and pried the two extra fingers from the palm grooves. "Seven fingers. This is a Culture infiltrator."

"How the hell did that happen?" was Chakotay's immediate reaction. "Pardon my language, captain," he added, sitting down on his chair heavily and sighed. "Care to explain? From the start?" The look he gave Janeway was somewhere between amusement and weariness.

Janeway gave her first officer a crooked smile; she had forgotten he hated being out of the loop almost as vehemently as she did. "In a minute, I will. Seven?"

The Borg had already stepped up to the ops station and pushed the fake Kim's body ungracefully off the console. Her hands glided over the panel. "Lieutenant Tuvok has released the lock on Cargo Bay One and the crew members imprisoned there are dispersing. He has also alerted all available security officers who are confirmed not to be Culture infiltrators. The security barriers are holding."

"Good," Janeway smiled and turned to Chakotay. "Now, you mentioned something about explanations?"

"Yes," he said, glancing first at the quiet alien standing near the turbo lift entrance, then taking in the dusty, worn appearance of both Seven and the captain, his eyes finally coming to rest on Janeway's Borg-enhanced left arm. "I can tell this is going to be quite a tall tale."

"You could say that," Janeway mumbled and sat down into her chair. "Definitely."

 

Chapter XI: Muscles Better, Nerves More

She knew she should have gone off duty already, but Janeway couldn't help but to feel responsible for allowing her ship to become vulnerable for takeover. So as soon as she had given Chakotay a brief overview of their adventures and how they came to be back on board Voyager, she had retired to her ready room to monitor the clean-up operation.

Tuvok was making a quick job of it. After only an hour, a mere three disguised Culture infiltrators remained at large, and Tuvok's security people were chasing them through the Jeffries tubes they had taken refuge in. Six of her crew had suffered minor injuries in the scuffle, but otherwise they had been nabbed and imprisoned in Cargo Bay One unharmed. Janeway was thankful of that much; her worst case scenario had been that her crew had merely been killed when their replacements took their posts. Apparently the Culture had felt that they would need Starfleet to run the ship, if not command it. She snorted at the thought.

The chime at her door sounded.

"Come."

It admitted N'shaah, who was fingering the communications panel strapped on his forearm. He gave Janeway a quick smile before settling down on the chair she was gesturing towards.

"Well?"

"My people report they have found your seventeen missing crewmembers. They were locked into a storage room near the launch pad," N'shaah said.

A great weight rolled off Janeway's chest. "I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that."

"It was surprisingly simple to locate them. The Culture were executing their plan in a hurry, it seems," he replied, acknowledging the implied thanks with a nod. "The question remains, however, how we are going to get them back here."

"And how I will get the Culture infiltrators off my ship," Janeway added. She was tempted to merely show them to the nearest airlock and give them the boot, but resisted valiantly. It really wasn't her way of doing business. "Since transporting them is out of the question."

"Might produce interesting results, though," N'shaah murmured, his eyebrow rising. "Hmm. Captain Janeway. With your permission, I would like to contact my Primitives counterpart. They are better equipped to secure a suitable transportation, and would gladly aid us, if you agree to relinquish the Culture soldiers to their care."

I wonder what sort of care that will be, Janeway immediately thought as she leaned back and folded her arms across his chest. The wrist implant poked painfully between two ribs and she fidgeted to position it better. However, at this point I couldn't care less. It's their internal conflict, and if that's what it takes to get my people off the planet…

"Very well. Make it so."

"I'll get to it immediately," he said, rising from the chair.

"Work with Commander Chakotay on this," Janeway said. "And thank you, for everything," she added, almost as an afterthought.

"You are very welcome, Captain Janeway," N'shaah said as his parting shot and exited quietly to the bridge.

The door hadn't been closed for more than two minutes when the chime sounded again. Janeway sighed. After this one, I'm taking that bath. "Come."

"How are you doing?" were the first words out of Chakotay's mouth as he entered the ready room.

"Tired as hell and achy, thanks for asking," Janeway replied, tempering the terseness of her words with a smile. "This day has gone on for far too long."

"Which is why I came, actually," he said, making a graceful segue. "Lieutenant Tuvok reports he has rounded up the last of the Culture infiltrators and they are now all housed in the brig. It's almost over."

"Thankfully," Janeway sighed, closing her burning eyes.

"Captain…Kathryn, even B'Elanna is leaving her engineering repairs till tomorrow. You need rest." There was obvious concern in his voice.

"I’m actually fantasising about a bubble bath here," Janeway said with a crooked smile and opened her eyes. "Which is what I'm planning on doing next, right before a good night's sleep."

"Maybe you should let the good doctor take a look at your arm first?"

Janeway glanced down, surprised. She had momentarily forgotten the existence of the Borg modifications in her arm. "Point taken," she murmured and stretched before standing up. "I trust N'shaah has spoken with you about the return of our missing crewmembers and disposing of the Culture spies?"

"Yes, just before I came in. I will see to it." Chakotay paused, tilting his head. "I also came here to ask whether you'd like some good old-fashioned home cooking tomorrow night."

Janeway's eyes brightened as she smiled. "Why, of course. If you're cooking, I'll bring a bottle."

"Sounds like a plan," he said, smiling in return.

"All right," Janeway said and moved from behind her desk, resting her hand on Chakotay's shoulder, "I will leave you to decide on a menu and oversee N'shaah's plan while I go get de-Borged."

"A very good game plan, captain," Chakotay said as they stepped out of the ready room and into the bridge.

"Till tomorrow," Janeway said as she stepped into the waiting turbo lift. She could just see Chakotay's nod as he settled into the centre chair, before the lift doors closed.

---

"And, you get to keep a memento," the Doctor said brightly, plunking the extracted implant onto her newly repaired left hand.

Janeway made a surprised sound deep in her throat and turned the implant in her hand. The metal was cool and silky smooth as she let her fingers slide from the domed top to the starburst arms and all the way down to the tapering tail that had been embedded into her median nerve. The extraction operation had been successful and the EMH had predicted full recovery.

"It's harmless now?"

The holographic doctor nodded sagely. "Yes. It has been neutralised, as are the nanoprobes in your bloodstream."

"But they stay in?" Janeway was not sure how she felt about having millions of nanites in her cardiovascular system, dormant or not.

"Yes," he said, lifting his eyebrows dramatically as he regarded his medical tricorder. "However, I assure you, they pose no danger."

"All right, then," Janeway grunted and rose to sit on the biobed. Her left hand and forearm were still a bit sore, and she had to get used to having feeling in that arm again. Her attention shifted from the Doctor's bald head to the prone figure in the next biobed. "How's Ensign Kim doing?"

The Doctor turned around to face the ensign. "He has a concussion from the blow that had disabled him when his doppelganger took his place," he said, "so I'm keeping him under sedation for the rest of the day, to better monitor his brain condition. By tomorrow he'll be as good as new."

"And the others?" Janeway continued, waving her arm to indicate the entire infirmary where almost all biobeds were occupied. Some of them were the Voyager crew members that had been imprisoned down at the planet; the Primitives had made a quick job of it, bringing her missing crew on board with a stolen Culture transport vehicle and taking the Culture infiltrators with them.

"Bruises, cuts, concussions, minor fractures and such." He shrugged. "Ensign Leroux appears to be the only casualty of the mission."

Janeway only nodded, her eyes focused in the distance. If there was one regret, it was that she had not managed to save her. I've already had enough memorial services to last me an entire lifetime, she thought and sighed. The Primitives had also returned Ensign Leroux's body -- a gesture Janeway had otherwise appreciated had it not been one of their leaders who had been responsible of Leroux's premature death in the first place.

"Chakotay to Janeway."

The voice from her communicator jerked her from the maudlin thoughts. "Janeway here."

"The Silents have departed. They suggested we break orbit and head out of here, before the Culture military puts two and two together and figures out they've been had."

"A valid suggestion. Get us out of here, Chakotay."

"Will do, captain. Chakotay out."

The almost sub-sonic hum of the engines grew stronger as Voyager broke out of the planet's gravity well. Janeway closed her eyes, briefly regretting she hadn't had time to say goodbye to N'shaah personally, but she knew she was on the verge of exhaustion and should be in bed, not exercising her diplomatic muscle.

"I'm good to go?" Janeway asked as she hopped off the bed, palming the implant.

"Yes, captain. I want you back for a full physical in two days' time, however."

Oh joy, Janeway thought, but curbed the acidic reply that had risen on her tongue. Instead, she just nodded curtly to the hologram and exited the sick bay, heading for the nearest turbo lift.

"Deck three."

As the turbo lift started towards the requested deck and her quarters, Janeway leaned against the back wall. She stretched her neck, hearing the vertebrae pop, and grimaced at the staccato of sounds. The bath would alleviate the muscle pain, but…as she turned her palm up, regarding the Borg implant, she decided that right that moment, visiting a certain someone would be far more important than bergamot-scented bubbles.

"Belay that order. Deck eight."

The lift obeyed and halted their progress, starting again towards the lower decks of the ship. The doors opened at deck eight, admitting Janeway to the long corridor that led past the bulge of the engine core hull to the astrometrics lab and beyond, towards Cargo Bay Two. As the massive steel doors of the cargo bay opened, Janeway stepped in quietly, pausing as the doors closed behind her.

All the way down to deck eight, she had been pondering what she would say to Seven, but she found out she wouldn't have had to bother her tired mind with it yet: the Borg regeneration alcove was active, the lights dimmed, Seven herself deep in the shadows. As she approached the alcove, Janeway mused how tired Seven must be if she had actually obeyed the Doctor's orders and gone to regenerate instead of going to work.

"Hello, Seven," Janeway murmured quietly, although she knew Seven could not hear her. There were deep shadows under Seven's eyes that spoke of exhaustion, and while her posture was erect, her face was relaxed; she looked years younger than when awake.

Leaning against a nearby pillar, Janeway regarded the still form. She had done this many times in the past, but this time, she looked as if with new eyes. Much had changed between them in the past days -- not only was there the date invitation that had effectively been suspended in limbo, but the recent events had made Janeway appreciate Seven’s existence and presence in a completely new way. She had skirted death and bodily harm, only to be rescued by their joint effort and the facet in Seven which scared Janeway the most: the Borg half.

There was much to be feared about the Borg, naturally. In their quest to subjugate and assimilate all life in the galaxy, they were so much like a mechanical virus, optimised to spread at maximum speed, with devastating results. They were single-handedly responsible for a collective trauma the majority of species in the galaxy shared -- billions were triggered into abject fear by the sight of a Borg cube, or by the words that overrode all communications, words, and thoughts and promised assimilation and a life that was a living hell. Or so Janeway had thought, before she had rescued Seven. They had often been at odds on the true motivations of that act, Janeway refusing to view life in the collective as life at all, while Seven arguing the strengths of a unified mind. But regardless of their differing opinions, Janeway could not help but marvel at the irony that it had been the Borg, the great leveller of the Universe, who had made Seven the unique individual she was.

A myriad of emotions welled inside Janeway, from pride to sadness. Yet, her words were simple.

"Thank you. I owe you my life."

The words hung in the quiet of the cargo bay as Janeway stepped away from the pillar and to the work station Seven used. She placed the Borg implant extracted from her wrist onto the console and, giving the darkened regeneration alcove and its occupant one last look, departed.

 

Chapter XII: Utterly Droll

Even though she attempted to focus on the numbers streaming on the screen, Seven was constantly distracted by an irrational need to look at the detached Borg implant, resting on top of her work console in Cargo Bay Two. Her attention had been thus divided all through Alpha shift and well into Beta.

"Computer, pause output," she said finally, a frown marring her brow.

Being distracted was very unlike her. Shifting sideways and resting her hip against the console, Seven picked up the implant, turning it in her fingers. The shape and form were familiar to her; she sported several identical ones along the length of her body. She was uncertain why Janeway had returned the implant to her, and the conundrum was enough to break her concentration.

There was much about humanity she did not understand, with its duality of emotions and objective thinking that were constantly at war with one another. Seven found it utterly confounding that while the humans on board certainly thought they were making uncomplicated, rational decisions, it seemed always be their emotional attachment to a viewpoint that really ruled their decision making capabilities -- a phenomenon also known as stubbornness. Humans simply refused to give up, even in the face of seemingly unbeatable foes.

This brain-emotion duality was a trait that greatly exasperated her at times, but one she on occasion found admirable…especially in Captain Janeway. There was something to be said about a woman who, despite the odds being heavily against her, had decided that they would brave innumerable light years of hostile space to make their way home again. This was a seemingly irrational desire for Seven, given her upbringing with the Borg: her home had been the hive mind, always present no matter how far flung her physical being came to be from the Borg home worlds. Regardless, she couldn't help but admire Captain Janeway's tenacity in her quest.

Lately, though, a barely discernible change had occurred in Janeway. Her desire to be back on Earth was not as overwhelming as before. Instead, she had seemed to accept that her life would be spent in transit, and that it would be that stretch of time that would come to define her life -- not the singular moment of entering the Terran system, should it ever occur, but the journey. Seven, while not entirely familiar with her own emotional side, had learned to read the captain well enough to note the subtle change…and the coinciding settling of something melancholy in Janeway's being. For that, she had found no discernible reason, which also frustrated her to no end, as enigmas were wont to do.

Seven's brow contracted. This was something she would clearly need to discuss with the captain herself. "Computer. Locate Captain Janeway."

"Captain Janeway is in Commander Chakotay's quarters," the computer announced with soft tones.

Seven glanced at the chronometer on her console, noting that it was well past Captain Janeway's shift on the bridge. She concluded the captain was spending her free evening with her first officer; Seven was, along with the rest of the crew, well aware of the habitual dinners the two had on occasion.

For some reason, the thought of the captain dining with Chakotay made Seven feel apprehensive. Analysing the feeling got her nowhere, except to realise that she would have preferred that Janeway had chosen her company that evening -- not an unjust desire, Seven decided, given the invitation for a date Janeway had extended her way. Seven scrutinised herself further and found that she would have enjoyed the opportunity of such an intimate encounter at that moment, not only to discuss her worry about Janeway's sombre attitude, but to just…talk. About the past mission, stellar cartography, her recent aberrant mental visions during regeneration, whatever topic would strike them. The need disturbed her for it was very unlike her to so crave social contact.

Lack of need did not mean she didn't enjoy such contact on occasion. Seven could well recall the talk they had had on that late evening before the catastrophic mission to the Culture home world and before Janeway's romantic overture. The memory of consuming Janeway's choice of nutritional supplement along with talking about the species they were about to encounter was clear in her eidetic memory, but more clearly she remembered the segue Janeway had taken as she had caught the captain staring her. It had been about her unique status as the sole Borg crew member, and as she ran the conversation through in her head, Seven realised with a start that the same uniqueness principle could be applied to Janeway herself. She was singular amongst her crew, both in talent and in position…and that conclusion made Seven wonder if the captain had, in fact, been talking about herself when she addressed Seven's non-existent concerns about being lonely.

But if she is lonely, why did she seek Commander Chakotay's presence? Seven wondered, rotating the detached implant between her fingers. Why not mine? She liked none of the answers her logical mind supplied to her question.

---

Seven checked her internal chronometer, which told the time to be 0720 hours. Extrapolating from what the computer had revealed of Captain Janeway's daily schedule, she had determined the time slot between 0710 and 0728 to be the chosen time for reaching the captain at her quarters.

Seven pressed the chime and the door opened a moment later, revealing Janeway sitting by her kitchen counter, a PADD in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other. Still in her sleepwear, the captain had pulled on a matching burgundy robe over the nightgown she wore. Her hair was mussed from sleep.

"Captain Janeway," Seven greeted with a nod.

"Seven," she said with a smile, gesturing with the PADD for her to enter. "What brings you here on such an ungodly hour?"

Seven cleared her throat. "I found this in Cargo Bay Two yesterday," she said, opening her hand to show the Borg implant extracted from Janeway's wrist. "Yours, I presume."

"Yes. The doctor suggested I make a neck pendant out of it, but that didn't seem fitting, somehow."

Janeway's levity fell flat on its face. "Did you not wish to keep it?" Seven asked gravelly.

Janeway hesitated at the strange tone of Seven's words, setting both the PADD and the coffee cup carefully on the kitchen counter. "I…it is more part of you, than of me."

"I see," Seven answered and focused her eyes on the streaked star field outside the windows.

Seven's voice had sounded cold to Janeway, and she was trying to figure out why. After all, it was just an implant, a Borg apparatus, that she did not want to carry on herself…even though it had saved her life. The logical conclusion on why Seven was upset hit Janeway, and she briefly contemplated smacking the back of her head against the wall. I should not be having such serious conversations so early in the morning, she admonished herself.

"Seven, no, I didn't mean it that way," Janeway said, sliding off the high chair to stand next to the Borg, who kept her eyes resolutely on the star field outside the panoramic windows. "Seven. Please look at me," Janeway said, her voice low and calm.

Seven turned to face the captain, who took the Borg-enhanced hand into hers.

"I did not want to keep the implant, not because I didn't like what it represented, but because it brought back unpleasant memories. It made me recall the day I severed you from the Collective, the pain I saw in you. What they'd done to you." Janeway said and grunted in dismay. She was having a hard time articulating her thoughts. "It's complex."

"Captain Janeway -"

"Kathryn. Please."

"Kathryn, being Borg is a large part of what makes me who I am, and it will always be so." Seven's voice was not defensive, it was merely stating a fact.

"I know that," Janeway replied. "It was what saved me on Culture prime. I recognise that part of you, and Seven…your duality as a Borg and a human makes you the unique person that you are. I didn't mean to sound ungrateful, or present myself as apprehensive of your history."

"Many people take exception to me, though."

"I know," Janeway said and sighed, closing her eyes. "They look at you and see the enemy. But I'm not like most people."

"No, Kathryn. You are not."

"And you are not like most people, either," Janeway continued, opening her eyes and looking up into Seven's eyes as she smoothed the fine mesh on the Borg-enhanced hand with her palm. "In fact, I would say you are the single most fascinating person I have ever met."

There was a touch of a smile ghosting on Seven's lips. "Why do you say so?"

Janeway tilted her head. "That, my dear, is too big of a question to tackle at this hour," she said with a straight face.

"Do you wish to continue the discussion at a more suitable time?"

"I most certainly would," Janeway said, her eyes twinkling as she released Seven's hand and grasped her coffee cup again. "I did ask you out on a date, you recall."

"I have an eidetic memory, captain," Seven said, mirroring Janeway's smile. The gloom that had permeated her mind through the night had vanished. "I am in Alpha shift today," she informed Janeway.

"How convenient - so am I," Janeway replied with a droll voice and downed the last dredges of her coffee. "1800 hours?"

"Acceptable," Seven said solemnly and nodded, clasping her hands behind her back.

"All right, then," Janeway said and sauntered towards her bedroom. "I'll pick you up on the hour," she said over her shoulder. "Dismissed," she added, but with a wink to soften the official tone of the word.

"Aye, captain," Seven replied and exited. There was a strange, fluttering feeling in her abdomen. She analysed the sensation as she was in the turbo lift, recognising the phenomenon as 'having butterflies in one's stomach' but puzzled as to how slender-bodied diurnal insects were related to the sensation of anticipation. Making a mental note to research the history of the strange colloquialism, Seven exited the lift and headed towards Astrometrics to start her work day.

---

Janeway sped through Tuvok's terse report reading with one eye only. There had been some minor damage to Voyager when his security teams had been in the progress of apprehending the Culture infiltrators, but the damage was negligent compared to the psychological effects on her crew. Having one's identity assumed by an alien invader and on occasion, having to shoot down one's doppelganger, was bound to have some minor repercussions on the mental well-being of the crew. Janeway made a note to ask Neelix to arrange something in the near future to take the minds of Voyager's crew off their recent predicament.

"No pursuers?" she asked and set the report PADD onto the armrest of her command chair.

Chakotay shook his head. "None detected so far."

"In that case…helm, warp six," Janeway said, a little louder, as she decided that they'd run away long enough.

"Yes, ma'am," Paris said at the helm, not turning his head as his hands flew over his console. The high sound of the engines that had been running at warp nine modulated perceptibly.

"I have scheduled Ensign Kim for Beta shift duty today," Chakotay said quietly.

Janeway turned to him, frowning. "He's fit for duty? Despite the concussion?"

"The Doctor says so," Chakotay shrugged. "And Kim himself contacted me this morning, asking to be returned to active duty. Apparently he's feeling a tad peeved at having his post hijacked by his evil twin," he continued, a smile forming on his lips at the last words.

Janeway smiled at that. She could well imagine Kim wanting to make up for the bad deeds of his body double. "Very well." She marked her formal note on the duty rotation logs and leaned back, resting her gaze on the streaked star field on the main view screen, only to have her eyes focus in the unseen distance as she pondered her impending date with Seven.

There was a small nagging voice at the back of Janeway's head, admonishing her for spending most of her shift in a dangerous state of distraction, but she couldn't be bothered to listen to it. A date. Were she in more private settings, Janeway would have let out a bark of nervous laughter, but since she was on the bridge, she settled on coughing and shifting her pose on the command chair. Chakotay flicked his gaze briefly her way, only to focus back on his PADD.

Janeway was feeling both apprehensive and giddy about the date with Seven.

She realised the apprehension was a natural reaction to feeling so out of her depth. It had been several years since she'd been on a date so she was feeling a tad rusty, and nothing in her previous experience was relevant enough to prepare her for a date with a Borg, anyway: while the Starfleet Academy had done a stellar job of preparing her for the most arduous tasks and surprising circumstances, they had not offered Borg Courtship Etiquette 101 as a part of the curriculum. Janeway made a mental note to send the Academy chancellor a suggestion as soon as they reached Alpha Quadrant.

She was being hysterical and she knew it. Feeling the overwhelming urge to glance at the chronometer every ten seconds wasn't helping any.

As for the giddy part…that was an even rockier mental path for Janeway. She had of course socially interacted with Seven many times in informal settings, but a date was a completely new ball game. Janeway had made the necessary preparations first thing in the morning, as soon as she had decided on a course of action. Her first idea had been to stage an elaborate holodeck scene, complete with a full moon and a jazz orchestra, but she had scrapped the plan as too ambitious for a first date. Slowly does it, she had reminded herself, and decided on a low-key approach: dinner and talk. Couldn't go wrong with that, could she?

Janeway exhaled with a sigh, glancing at the chronometer. It was early in Alpha shift and there were still many hours to go. She rose, letting her gaze rake over the tranquil bridge before turning to her first officer.

"I'll be in my ready room."

"Crew evaluation reports?" Chakotay asked, his voice compassionate as he briefly lifted his PADD to show he was saddled with them, too. Alien invaders and near-death experiences did not stop bureaucracy.

"Yes, the evaluation reports," Janeway replied and crossed the short distance to the ready room. She actually hadn't had a plan on what she meant to do there, aside from having copious amounts of coffee, but Chakotay's suggestion had actually been right on the money. The mindless tedium of paperwork could help pass the time.

Yeah, right.

---

At exactly 1700 hours, the end of her shift, Seven logged off her work console and ran an appraising eye over the spacious room that housed Voyager's Astrometrics laboratory. Her Beta shift counterpart, Lieutenant Nawab, was already there, scanning through the data gathered in his absence and the state of the various research projects they were conducting.

"Lieutenant Nawab, I have executed additional calculations regarding the accumulative counter-gravitational effects in the black hole cluster," Seven said, approaching the slim, dark man.

The lieutenant turned her way, nodding and offering a small smile. "Yes, I noticed, Seven," he said. His words were quiet and unhurried. "I'll try and give you my commentary on them by 2000 hours."

"Very well," she nodded and clasped her hands behind her back. "However, I anticipate I will not have time to review your comments until tomorrow."

"Ah?" he said, surprised. His attention shifted from the calculations to Seven, whose lack of social contact and complete absorption to work was nothing short of legendary in the Astrometrics department. "You have a busy evening planned?"

"Yes. I have a social engagement that I project taking most of my available off-duty hours tonight." With that, Seven nodded and departed, leaving a dumbfounded Nawab looking after her retreating form.

Seven took a deep breath as the doors to the lab closed behind her, and paused to look down the corridor on her left, towards the turbo lift. In exactly fifty-seven minutes, Captain Janeway would step out of it and approach Cargo Bay Two, along the corridor to her right. The thought unbalanced Seven, and she took another deep breath before starting her own walk towards the cargo bay.

As she peeled back her outfit and took a sonic shower, Seven's thoughts turned to her impending date, quite unheeded. Aside from the topmost feelings of fear of facing the unknown and being flattered, Seven was attempting to discern the nuances of the more subdued parts of her mind. Aside from her deep respect of Captain Janeway's intellect, command ability, and skills in areas ranging from diplomacy to warp propulsion, she had come to appreciate the captain as a friend. A mirror for her feelings during moments of weakness; a mentor when she needed one in a crossroads of her life; someone she enjoyed spending time with when off-duty. The list was long and Seven tabulated it in her head while in the shower.

There was another layer to her impressions on the captain -- a far more intimate one. Seven could well recall the personal scent the captain exuded; the power of her presence, so much larger than her diminutive physical being; the comforting, exotic tinge of her low voice. These were past sensory input Seven realised she was more feeling than remembering outright. The thought of sensing a scent with more than just her olfactory nerves was disturbing her, so she vainly attempted to shut out the thought as she stepped out of the shower.

She was ready and dressed at 1749 hours, the cluster of thoughts in her head neither willing to be laid to rest, nor any more cohesive than what it had been when she had commenced processing it.

---

Once in the turbo lift, Janeway fidgeted with the bracelet she was wearing. Dressed not in her uniform but in a black sweater and a pair of slacks, she was feeling decidedly out of character. She missed the psychological shield provided by her uniform, but Starfleet standard issue wasn't exactly a de rigueur outfit for an engagement as personal as the one she was about to engage in. And besides, she wanted to be Kathryn, not the captain.

Janeway cleared her throat as the doors to Cargo Bay Two opened. At the sound, Seven turned from her position at the work station, and clasped her hands behind her back. Janeway saw Seven give her a once-over, and she involuntarily straightened under the watchful eye.

"Hello, Seven."

"Evening Ca-," Seven started and tilted her head, apparently evaluating the context of their encounter. "Kathryn. You look…beautiful."

Janeway lifted a humoured eyebrow and flecked a non-existent piece of dust off her sleeve as she stepped closer. "The doctor's choice of words?" On occasion, during his training of Seven, their EMH had actually managed to impart some useful phrases on the former Borg.

Seven smiled briefly and looked away. "No. Entirely my own."

"Thank you, in that case," Janeway said quietly, and stood close enough to see the throbbing pulse point on Seven's neck. "Nervous?"

"Extremely," Seven said, offering another brief smile, although save for the racing pulse, nothing in her appearance betrayed the conflict of emotions in her.

"Good. I'd hate to be the only one," Janeway said and flashed a smile. It relaxed her a bit to know this was as unknown territory for Seven as it was for her. "Shall we?" Janeway continued and held out her hand. Seven simply nodded and took the offered hand, and they exited the cargo bay.

They walked the length of the corridor in silence, Janeway preferring to just enjoy the quiet comfort between them and the feel of Seven's slim hand in hers -- glad that for once, Seven didn't shy away from physical contact.

"Deck two," Janeway murmured distractedly as they entered the turbo lift. Despite her constant preoccupation during the day, nothing had prepared her for the reality of actually taking Seven out on a date. She took a glance at her side, her eyes resting on Seven's straight profile for a moment, before focusing on the lift carpeting again.

Oh yeah.

She was holding hands with six feet of glorious Borg, by far the most beautiful woman on the ship. The thought made Janeway inexplicably giddy, and she recognised that again, her nervousness was approaching hysteria.

"May I ask, what are your plans regarding our date, Kathryn?"

Janeway turned towards Seven and smiled at the warm look in her eyes. She reached out and grasped Seven's other hand in hers, letting her eyes drop to the Borg mesh on it. "Simple. A dinner at the mess hall and some talking."

Seven hesitatingly squeezed her hand. "I approve of your plan," she said, and Janeway was suddenly very glad she hadn't gone for the full dinner-and-dancing plan after all. "I do hope Neelix has prepared something digestible tonight."

Janeway let out a rueful laugh and focused on Seven's eyes, momentarily losing herself in the arctic blue. "Mmm, yes. I specifically requested he refrain from culinary experiments for our dinners," she informed Seven hazily.

"Very prescient of you, Kathryn," Seven said, humoured and relaxing.

The turbo lift stopped and doors opened at deck two, but Janeway was reluctant to break the eye connection, not to mention losing the warm touch of Seven's hands on hers. However, after a moment Janeway forced her focus back onto reality and let the other hand go, and they stepped out. A crewman who had been waiting for the lift gave them a long look as they headed for the mess hall.

As soon as they stepped in, Janeway could hear the collective intake of breath from the people present -- and they were many. Sighing, Janeway started to plow through the unusually thick after-hours crowd. While the mess hall tended to transform into a bar in the evenings and thus giving the crew a rare chance to socialise with one another, it was never this full. Resolutely, Janeway held onto Seven's hand behind her back, and thankfully the crowd tended to part before her. She could feel that all eyes were on them, but as soon as she turned to look their way, gazes skittered in all directions except theirs.

"We need to start figuring how to keep the crew more occupied during their off-duty hours," she muttered to herself, making a mental note to propose mandatory hobbies. Knitting circles. Anything.

"Captain Janeway!" Neelix exclaimed, as if there was someone present who had not yet realised the captain was there. The Talaxian emerged from the kitchen, wiping his hands on his apron before waving towards the far end of the hall. "This way," he said, his eyes twinkling as he took in Janeway's companion. "Nice catch, captain," he whispered.

Janeway murmured something unintelligible and gave him the fish eye. "I thought I told you not make an announcement of it?"

Neelix merely winked at her. "Wasn't me, captain. You know how quickly word gets around this ship."

"Warp speed is slow plodding in comparison," Janeway muttered.

"And here's your table," Neelix said with a flourish, stepping aside and bowing to reveal a corner table with relative quiet, the endless star field opening behind the panorama windows. A lone candle stood in the middle of the small table, which was set for two. "Can I get you ladies something to drink?"

Janeway sighed. Apparently Neelix was determined to play the maître d' to the hilt. "Vodka martini. Straight up, with a twist," she said curtly. Maybe the alcohol would help her calm down. "Seven?"

"Liquid nutritional supplement #12, please."

"Of course," Janeway said with laughter in her voice, and lifted a humoured eyebrow at Seven as Neelix vanished into the crowd. "Please," she said, indicating the chair opposite her. Seven took it while Janeway seated herself, and their dinner was ready to commence.

 

Chapter XIII: Positive Void Coefficient

Janeway grimaced when she took the first sip of her martini. The liquor left a warm trail down her throat and she relaxed against the backrest of her seat.

"Kathryn, why did you find my choice of beverages amusing?"

Switching her focus from her drink to Seven, Janeway pursed her mouth, considering how to word her thoughts. "It just reflected your personality so perfectly," she finally replied, smiling.

Seven raised a sceptical eyebrow as she sipped the nutritional supplement she had requested. It was pale yellow in colour and had the consistency of mud. "Elaborate, please?"

"It…" Janeway began, pausing for a moment. "You are efficiency incarnate, Seven. Your drink is sensible, efficient, and logical. Just like you."

Seven seemed to be inexorably pleased when Janeway called her efficient, and it occurred to Janeway that it was probably the highest praise Seven could think of. Never mind her intelligence, gorgeous looks, or wry sense of humour. Efficiency.

"Thank you, Kathryn. I recognise the corollary."

Janeway nodded.

"Regarding your drink, then, I am intrigued to see that it also reflects your personality," Seven continued.

"I'm straight up, with a twist?" Janeway said dubiously, lifting the cup and regarding it with a judging eye. She made a mental note to talk to Neelix about acquiring real stemware; it was a crime to serve a martini in a Starfleet standard issue mug.

"Yes, in a manner of speaking. Additionally, reflecting the qualities of your beverage, you are extremely lucid, no-nonsense, strong, and in possession of great amounts of…character."

Janeway felt inexplicably flattered by Seven's impassioned enumeration of the qualities she saw in her, and a smile came onto her lips. "Thank you," she said and laid her hand on top of Seven's that was resting on the table between them, and gave it a small squeeze. The hand felt solid and warm. "I'm really happy to be here, now, with you."

In response, Seven smiled, hesitatingly, as if her face was not used to shaping itself so -- no, she practically beamed, and Janeway felt her stomach lurch at the sight. She needed to remind Seven to smile like that more often.

"The same applies to me, as well," Seven said, quietly.

Janeway smiled, and took a quick look around the crowds milling around them. Damn all them to hell, she said firmly in her mind, deciding to ignore all the attention they were getting. She would never hear the end of it but at the moment, she simply didn't care.

---

Their food arrived in no time, and for once, Neelix had managed to restrain himself when it came to experimenting. Janeway was glad; she wouldn't have wanted to have her focus entirely taken by her digestive system complaining about the mystery meat aspects of the meal. When done, Janeway settled back, feeling comfortably stuffed and rather good altogether. Even the crowd milling around their table had thinned somewhat.

"How'd you like it?"

Seven set her fork down carefully and regarded the plate with a raised eyebrow, before lifting her eyes to meet Janeway's. "It was passable, albeit I would have much preferred your chocolate chip cookies."

That analysis brought a surprised bark of laughter from Janeway, and she folded her arms across her chest. "I concur," Janeway replied dryly. "You know why I chose to serve chocolate chip cookies that other night?" she asked, on a sudden impulse.

"No, I do not," Seven said, interested. "I am aware of their nature as comfort food, but that is the extent of my knowledge regarding the matter."

"Comfort food, yes," Janeway said, smiling crookedly. "But the cookies have a special significance for me. They go together with the stars," she said, gesturing grandiously with one arm.

Seven's brows contracted in apparent confusion. "Explain."

Janeway took a deep breath, shifting her gaze momentarily to the streaked star field outside, before focusing back on Seven. "When I was still a kid, my mother used to make chocolate chip cookies, a traditional food item where I come from. In the evening, when they had cooled down, I would steal a few and sneak outside. I would sit at the edge of the corn field, eat cookies, and watch the stars slowly rise to the darkening night sky. It was the most magical thing my eight-year old mind could imagine."

"You were fascinated with space at such a young age?"

"Oh yeah," Janeway grunted, sighing. "My mother never understood my desire to be somewhere so far away, when life was good right where I was. But life on a planet has never been my idea of a perfect existence."

"A…" Seven paused, searching for the right word. "Nomadic spirit?"

"Very much so. And look where it got me," Janeway said, making another crooked smile. "To the very end of space," she said, gesturing towards the windows. There was but a hint of bitterness in her voice.

"You regret being here." It was not a question, but a statement from Seven.

"Yes," Janeway replied immediately. "My decisions have had immediate and adverse effects on so many others, not just me. But then again…" She trailed off, leaning forward with a contemplative look on her face.

"There are positive aspects to your situation?" Seven finished her sentence. There was a hint of smile playing on her lips.

"Very positive," Janeway said, mirroring the slight smile as she regarded Seven with great warmth. "Like my crew," she said, gesturing vaguely towards the joyous crowd milling about the mess hall, "I need to make the most of what I have, and consider this to be the adventure of a lifetime."

"Your existence here in the Delta Quadrant has certainly provided me with experiences I would not have otherwise encountered," Seven said, tilting her head.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" Janeway said and drained the last drops of her second martini.

"Like you, Kathryn, I elect to deliberate on the positives, whenever possible." Seven's smile deepened.

"Glad to hear that. And after the Culture mission, it's not like some serious positives weren't needed," Janeway added ruefully, eyeing the crowd to see if Neelix could be spotted. She felt like another martini-in-a-mug.

"Was the lack of positive events in your life the motivation behind your proposal for a date?"

Seven's uncomplicated question yanked Janeway's attention back to her date. "Um," she said, blinking. "No. Yes."

"Clarify, please." Seven's words were her usual abrupt constructs, but there was a hint of amusement in her voice.

"Seven, I…" Janeway paused, sighing pensively. "I asked you out simply because I wanted to do so. Because of all the people on board Voyager, you are the only person I wanted to go out on a date with. And for many other reasons."

"Such as?"

Janeway regarded Seven from beneath her brows. "You're relentless, you know that?"

"Yes," Seven replied evenly as she leaned forward, the smile back on her lips.

"I realised that if I…if I wanted something out of my life, I would need to take action myself, right now." There was a dreamy quality to Janeway's words as she regarded Seven fondly.

"What do you want of your life, then, Kathryn?" Seven asked, obviously fascinated by the unusually personal nature of Janeway's words. "Apart from this date?"

Janeway's eyes narrowed and she grunted something unintelligible. Great. I have two martinis and my soul becomes attached to a faucet, she thought, a tad amused despite herself.

"Or has the discussion become too personal for you?" Seven said, laying her hand on Janeway's on the table.

Janeway couldn't figure out if Seven's tone was neutral or if it had a hint of a dare in it, but she decided to forge ahead regardless. After all, this mushy candlelit dinner had been her idea in the first place.

"I don't want to live my life waiting," Janeway finally said, finding the right words hard to come by. "I want a life here, now," she added, jabbing the table with her free hand for emphasis. "And I don't want to live it alone. There's so much I want to share."

"And you want to share it with me?" Seven said, sounding a bit dazed.

"Well, let's not exchange wedding wows just yet," Janeway said impishly, patting Seven's hand. "We're here to see if this might work. You certainly are something very special. I saw that the first moment we met, even through several inches of Borg plating."

"Considering 91% of my body was covered in Borg sclerites when I first encountered you, I am suspicious of your statement," Seven said, dry humour in her voice. "However, it is very pleasing to hear you found me worthy of note even during our initial encounter."

"I figured it might," Janeway said, winking. "I'm also glad the situation turned to have more positives than negatives for you, too," she added hesitatingly, an unspoken question in her tone.

"Of course, Kathryn," Seven said, extracting her hands and looking at Janeway as if she had made the most obvious statement known to man. "I could not envision my life without you in it." She paused for a moment, searching words. "I am persisting with this topic merely because I am curious why you chose me, and not Commander Chakotay, as your date."

Ho boy. Janeway sighed. "That, my dear, is a can of worms I'd rather not open. Let's just say that I have given much thought on the matter and concluded that it's best if Chakotay and I remain as friends only." Janeway felt no need to launch into a two-hour explanation on the complexity of her relationship with her first officer and how person-sized holes in her soul were not Chakotay-shaped.

"I see," Seven said, although it was obvious she did not. "Regardless, I am glad you chose me." Seven finished with a full-on smile that conveyed more of her enjoyment than words ever could. The smile warmed Janeway's heart to no end, and she found herself smiling in return. Regarding the young woman sitting across the table from her, Janeway was suddenly certain that the person-sized hole in her life was shaped like Seven. All hard angles interspersed with luxurious, soft curves.

"You know, Seven, that was the most lovey-dovey conversation I've ever had with anyone," Janeway said impishly.

"Lovey-dovey?" Seven tasted the words and apparently found them nonsensical, judging from her facial expression.

"Ah...look it up," Janeway said, smiling crookedly. "Besides, I don't know why you are all jealous about Chakotay, what with your dalliances with Ensign Kim."

"Jealous?" Seven repeated, her eyebrow rising. "Surely you jest, Kathryn. As for Ensign Kim, the only explanation I can suggest is that my cortical implant must have been malfunctioning at the time," she deadpanned.

Neelix's appeared suddenly at their table and he eyed Janeway suspiciously as she was falling all over herself in laughter. He cleared his throat. "Dessert, ladies?" he asked cheerfully, whisking their empty plates onto one arm.

"Yes, please," Seven said through Janeway's laughter. "I would like to have liquid nutritional supplement #8 and the captain obviously requires another martini."

"Coming right up," Neelix said and vanished into the crowd, only to return with their desserts and drinks. By that time, Janeway's laughing fit had died down.

"Having a dinner during our date was a commendable idea," Seven said, tasting her dessert and lifting her brows in appreciation of the taste. "The informal setting is conductive to conversation, and nutrition can be consumed simultaneously to conversing."

"Efficient, yes?" Janeway said and spooned more of the surprisingly palatable gel-like dessert into her mouth.

"Extremely."

"Great. Next time, I'll cook," Janeway said, regarding her dessert appraisingly and deciding she could do so much better. She had originally decided on the public setting fearing that a dinner in her quarters would be too problematic on so many aspects, including the possible intimacy of the scenario. Now, however, Janeway was somewhat regretting her overtly cautious choice.

"It is a date," Seven replied, and Janeway looked up, to see a twinkle of amusement in her usually so cool eyes.

"It most certainly is, Seven," Janeway murmured, eyed Seven fondly, and got back to finishing her dessert.

---

After the third martini and a cup of decidedly horrible coffee, they had said their thanks to Neelix and departed the mess hall, tired of the busy setting. Once in the hallway, Janeway sighed in relief.

"The mess hall was getting unexpectedly dense in inhabitants," Seven said, brushing non-existent lint off the sleeve of her body suit.

"Well, the crew doesn't get to go out much," Janeway grunted, clasping her hands behind her back as they started down the corridor. "Make no mistake, we will be the prime topic of ship-wide gossip for days to come," she added, amused and exasperated at the same time.

"It is of no consequence," Seven said next to her, glancing briefly her way.

"How very right you are, Seven," Janeway replied, resting her hand on Seven's shoulder as they stopped to wait for the next turbo lift. Turning towards her date, Janeway smiled.

"You are already a frequent subject of conversation during the crew's off-duty activities," Seven continued without missing a beat, tilting her head. "Surely you realise that?"

"I…" Janeway started, her eyebrows rising in surprise. Certainly she had figured she'd be a subject of gossip, but frequently so? She laughed quietly, shaking her head. "Yes, I'm aware of it, but I choose not to dwell on it. Frankly, I don't give a damn." The turbo lift doors opened at Janeway's last words and she let go of Seven's shoulder, gesturing for her to step in.

"An acceptable stance on the issue," Seven agreed as they entered the lift. A crewman also in the lift retreated to the back wall and attempted to blend in with the paneling as best as he could. "Deck three," Seven said and the lift took off.

Janeway's heart skipped a beat and she forgot all about the ensign. "Deck three?" Whatever happened to deck eight?

"Yes, Kathryn," Seven said. Her features softened into a smile as she turned towards Janeway. "I am…'walking you home'. Is that not the custom?"

Janeway opened her mouth, closed it, and regarded Seven with an amused look. As always, Seven's research had been as thorough as she had expected. "Yes. The traditional gender roles are an understandably moot point here, I see," she said. "Thank you," she added as an afterthought.

"You are welcome," Seven said.

The lift slowed down and the doors opened on deck three. As they stepped out, Seven paused and half turned, holding her hand out. Janeway, with a raised eyebrow, took the offered hand and squeezed it gently, before they started down the hallway towards the captain's quarters. The light were dimmed for Gamma shift, and the corridor was thankfully deserted.

"Well, here we are," Janeway said when they reached her door, and cringed internally for uttering such a cliché. She decided not to follow it up with another about nightcaps.

"Yes," Seven agreed and turned to face her. "Are you occupied tomorrow evening?"

"Apart from a Velocity match with Chakotay, no. Why?"

"You recall inviting me to sample your cooking?" Seven said, cocking her head.

"Ah, yes," Janeway said and smiled, deciding not to panic about the menu until the following morning. "Tomorrow evening."

"Very good."

"Well…good night, Seven," Janeway said, not really wanting the evening to be over, but also not wanting to drag on the somewhat awkward moment any longer than necessary. She let go of Seven's hand and took a step back, the doors to her quarters whooshing open.

"Kathryn. Wait."

Janeway had started to turn away, but Seven's words and the hand on her arm stopped her. However, she had no time to react as Seven stepped closer, resting her other hand gently on Janeway's cheek, and bent her head down to place her lips over Janeway's. Janeway froze from the shock of the unexpected action, but that feeling faded quickly, replaced by a keen awareness of the softness of the lips kissing her. Sighing quietly and closing her eyes, Janeway responded to the kiss, being hazily aware of her hands sliding around Seven's waist, tracing the hard ridges of the mesh implants there. Mostly, her focus was on how wonderful it all felt.

The kiss was hesitant yet it held restrained passion. Janeway luxuriated in how absolutely perfect it was, how divine Seven's lush lips felt and how exquisite her scent was. Janeway could feel the heat of Seven's body under her sensitised palms, through the feather-light touch of the cooler Borg mesh hand on her cheek, and in the firm grasp the other had on her bicep. Pulling Seven in closer to a tight embrace, Janeway had to tilt her head back so as not to break the contact between their lips. Seven replied in kind, sliding her arms to encircle Janeway's shoulders.

Experimentally, Janeway parted her lips slightly and licked Seven's lower lip with just the very tip of her tongue. Seven let out a startled sound, muffled by their lip-lock, and pulled back. Janeway's eyes opened as she frowned, miffed at the abrupt termination of the contact she had been enjoying very much indeed.

Seven extracted herself gently from the embrace and stepped back, lifting a hand to feel her lips. "That was…most unexpected," she said, her voice dazed.

Janeway cleared her throat. "Not in an unpleasant way, I hope?" she said quietly, her voice a tad hoarse.

"On the contrary," Seven assured her, still patting her lower lip with her fingers, as if she was trying to re-create the sensation of Janeway's tongue for further study. "Merely unexpected. Intriguing. I must research this further."

"Maybe I can help with that research," Janeway said, bemused, as she leaned against her door jamb and attempted to collect herself. Her legs felt a bit unsteady. "Tomorrow," she hastened to add. She didn't think she could handle any more that night.

"I would like that very much, Kathryn," Seven said, finally leaving her lips alone. She clasped her hands behind her back. "Good night."

"Good night to you, too, Seven," Janeway said softly, following Seven's retreating form. Her gaze lingered momentarily on Seven's shapely behind and the delightful curve of her waist, before she tore her eyes away and finally entered her quarters, fighting the urge to roll her eyes at herself.

"Lights, two thirds."

As she crossed the room, Janeway took off her bracelet, placing it on the kitchen counter. It was fashioned from the small Borg implant that had been extracted from her wrist. She had extended the tapering end with an identical-looking strip of metal, making the narrow band reach around her wrist. Unconventional and definitely not in harmony with her usual taste in jewellery, Janeway nevertheless found the implant beautiful -- in a vaguely sinister sort of way, but beautiful nevertheless. It reminded her of Seven on so many levels.

For a while, she couldn't think of what to do next. Starting to unbuckle her belt, she abandoned the task quickly when she realised she didn't really want to go to bed quite yet. But reading didn't appeal to her either, and work was the farthest thing from her mind. So she settled on pacing the living room in haphazard patterns, trying to work out the excess energy.

After a while, Janeway sighed in frustration and forced herself to stop pacing randomly. She leaned against the window, shoving her hands in her pockets as she regarded her mirrored face that was superimposed over the star field.

"Well, Katie. How was it for you?" she murmured to her reflection, who merely lifted a mischievous eyebrow in reply.

---

Her eyes closed, Seven was touching her lips with her index finger. The difference between the pressure her finger generated and the feeling of kissing Kathryn were a universe apart, and the diametrical opposition of the subjective perceptions intrigued her. She recalled how the tongue had felt, gently touching her along her lower lip, and the myriad of odd effects the sensation had immediately produced in various parts of her anatomy and mind. Certainly, she had read descriptions of emotional fireworks and the benefits of intimate contact, but all of the reference texts had failed to adequately prepare her for the experience itself.

Seven opened her eyes. The cargo bay around her was in deep shadows, the only sources of illumination were the faint glow of the workstation and the green halo emitted by her regeneration alcove. She moved across the vast space silently and, once at the workstation, keyed in her access code.

"Seven of Nine, personal log. Stardate 52289.9."

She paused, clearing her throat.

"My date with Cap-, Kathryn has concluded. We consumed nutritional supplements at the mess hall, and Kathryn indulged in three alcoholic drinks, which seemed to have no discernible intoxicating effect on her.

"Our continuous discussion through the meal was extremely illuminating and enjoyable. From it, I would hazard to deduce that her intentions when proposing the date were indeed romantic in nature, and on that regard, the evening can be considered a success. I received a considerable amount of additional information regarding Kathryn's character and personality, which has for me resulted in growing respect and…attachment for her. Additionally, the captain appeared to be enjoying herself throughout the evening. This was most clearly evident when I, as recommended by my literature research as a suitable conclusion to our date, kissed Kathryn."

Seven stopped there, taking a deep breath to clear her head. It didn't work.

"That was a most singular experience which I must process further before presenting my full analysis. On our departure, Kathryn promised to help me in conducting more experiments regarding the subject; I am very much looking forward to that," Seven said, pausing to lick her lips that were suddenly dry. She had to clear her throat before she could continue. "Meanwhile, I have received the requested commentary from Lieutenant Nawab on my ongoing research on the accumulative counter-gravitational ramifications of dense black hole clusters. I will analyse and apply the suggested alterations as the first action during my shift tomorrow. End log."

She logged off and circled around the console to step up into her regeneration alcove.

"Computer, begin regeneration cycle."

That night, as on so many nights before, she dreamed of Captain Kathryn Janeway. The dreams were very pleasant indeed; unbeknownst to Seven, all through the ship's night, there was a smile on her lips.

 

Epilogue: Trees to Leaves, Dust to Dust

Janeway cleared her throat and clasped her hands in front of her.

"We are assembled here today to pay our final respects to our honoured dead, Ensign Nicole Leroux, who died in the line of duty. Her passing will be mourned by not only her family, but by us all who knew her," she said, her eyes gliding over the assembled command staff and friends of the ensign. "Her truest testimony will not be in the words we speak of her, but in the way she led her life and in the way she lost her life -- with dedication, honor and an unquenchable desire to explore this mysterious and beautiful universe," Janeway concluded, and paused. "Proceed."

As they watched, the sleek black torpedo that housed Leroux’s body slid into the tube, and it was ejected with a slight shudder to make its final journey to a nearby star. After a brief moment of silence, Janeway let out a small sigh. She simply hated funerals.

"Dismissed."

People left the cramped torpedo bay in small knots, discussing quietly as if the sombre atmosphere would break from loud voices. Janeway paced astride Chakotay, both silent and engrossed in their own thoughts as they walked along the corridor towards the turbo lifts.

"Bridge," Janeway requested once in the lift, and unbuttoned the collar of her dress uniform as the lift begun its ascent. "I hate funerals," she voiced her earlier thoughts, to no-one in particular.

"I wholeheartedly agree," Chakotay said next to her, and shook his head. "She had so much potential," he continued, referring to Leroux.

"Very much so," Janeway agreed quietly, pulling herself straight as the lift stopped and the doors opened.

"Captain on the bridge," Ensign Kim said, jumping up from the command chair.

Janeway nodded to him and sat down heavily, drumming her fingers against the arm rest. "I have the conn," she murmured, deep in thought. "Status report, Mr. Kim, if you please."

"All systems normal. Ensign Leroux's casket was tracked into HD187123 where it vanished into the corona."

"And no sign of pursuing Culture ships?" Janeway never wanted to see another seven-fingered hand ever again.

"Not a vapour trail detected, captain," Kim replied from behind the Ops console. "Additionally, Astrometrics reports that the stellar cartography data we received from them indicates that the stretch of space before us is a relatively peaceful one."

"Good," Janeway said and flicked open the display console by her chair. She called up the said data, flicking through it idly. "Let's see if we can find a suitable M class planet for shore leave. The crew could do with some R&R for a change, wouldn’t you say so?" Janeway said, glancing sideways at Chakotay.

"Yes -- and I hear you're setting an encouraging example by successfully engaging in some off-duty crew fraternisation," Chakotay said nonchalantly, his eyes firmly on his screen.

The captain's eyes snapped to him immediately, registering the wrinkles of amusement around his eyes. Janeway ran through a short list of applicable snappy comebacks in her head, before settling on just a bemused smile. "Fraternisation. Right," she replied, the tone of her voice positively droll. The dark mood that she had had during the funeral was dissipating.

Chakotay nodded with a smile, before focusing back on the data. "There is actually a promising system, not much off our optimal path."

"The twin star system at heading 193.1?" Janeway had been eyeing the very same system.

"Yes. The trajectories of the planets there would suggest a stable climate on several of them. I'll have astrometrics pull up probabilities on us finding balmy weather and sandy beaches there."

"Agreed," Janeway said, humoured. "Meanwhile…Mr Paris?"

"Yes, ma'am?" the helmsman asked, turning his head towards Janeway.

"Alter course to heading 193.1. Warp six." Janeway leaned forward, watching the streaked star field bend as the ship turned.

Paris's hands flew over his console and the hum of the ship's engines shifted momentarily. "Course altered to heading one-nine-three point one, captain. Warp six, standing by."

"Engage."

The End

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