She stared at the ring on her finger for several minutes, aware that some reaction was likely dictated but lacking the politesse to know what that might entail. According to the man who was to be her husband, the diamond was cushion cut and rather expensive, and the ring was a symbol of their ever-lasting relationship. She had researched the human tradition of exchanging rings and hadn't liked what she found.
The concept of romance was still largely a mystery to her, so she wasn't sure what was acceptable behavior-her understanding was based on the gigaquads of data she'd collected on Lt. Paris and Lt. Torres. Tom had often remarked that B'Elanna 'wore the pants' in their relationship, which made no sense at all because she had yet to see Tom sans his lower garments, and Ensign Kim had commented several times that B'Elanna had Tom 'whipped.' Based on these observations, she felt fairly confident that one partner was the leader and the other the supporter.
From the research into rings she conducted, Chakotay seemed to be in the dominant position, and the idea of him owning her was disturbing. He had assured her on numerous occasions that the Roman idea of men claiming their women was entirely outdated, and all that remained of the practice was the idea of binding people together, but she wasn't convinced.
The Borg had owned her once, she considered. Without agency, she had been but one drone among billions-she did what she was told, and she never had a thought of her own. While Chakotay could never exert the same amount of force as the Borg Queen, Seven was well acquainted with his style of leadership. He hadn't commanded her to do anything as of yet, but she found she was expecting him to.
"It is…" She stopped to think a moment longer. Although she wasn't nearly as invested in this process as he was, she had no intention of injuring his feelings. He was pleased by his investment, and she was nearly certain he was looking for a positive response. All she could muster, however, was a terse, "Adequate."
He kissed her cheek, and she stiffened in response. Directly after having her emotional blocker removed by the Doctor on Voyager, she'd been flooded with fond feelings for him. Kissing him was entirely new and exciting. That had faded shortly after, but the Doctor was quite certain that she'd merely been overwhelmed by the experience; according to him, she should relax, acclimate to all the changes in her life, and let Chakotay lead. On returning to the Alpha Quadrant, Chakotay had been given a fresh commission, a promotion to captain, and a ship of his own-leadership was an innate talent of his, and she needed to trust that he wouldn't lead her, or his new crew, astray. He had her best interests at heart.
"That's good to hear. I tried to choose something that would please you."
Her Borg implant inched up her forehead. She wouldn't go so far as to say she was pleased, but his misapprehension wasn't hurting anyone. "Thank you."
"We have reservations at Bellagio's at eighteen-thirty," he reminded her as he walked toward the bedroom.
She didn't require a reminder, but when she had told him so previously, he'd waved off her concern. The words were to keep himself on track, he explained, not to condescend to her. She supposed that could be true, but his explanation didn't stop her irritation. There were numerous other methods he could implement, such as programming the computer to send him updates at specific times.
Rather than complain, however, she simply set about getting ready for their evening out. She preferred the quiet of Voyager's mess hall in the early hours of the morning, where she could ingest a nutritional supplement in the company of her own thoughts, but Chakotay wished for her to be more social. With that in mind, she made a conscious effort to appear enthused by his current plan to treat her to a fancy dinner, even though the exercise caused her minute anxiety. Eating in public was something to which she was not accustomed, and she struggled to conform to this society's new expectations of her.
The same could go for her odd garb, she considered. Once they reached San Francisco for debriefing and shore leave, Chakotay had helped her choose clothing that would better match the current fashion and style of those who lived on Earth. She missed the efficiency of her biosuits, although she had to admit she liked certain blouses that were composed of a soft material that seemed to caress her skin. Her selection for that evening was a such a top, paired with a pair of simple slacks. She left her hair down at Chakotay's insistence, as he claimed she looked more relaxed. As she had not collected data about this particular subject, she saw no reason to argue.
She accepted his compliments with a silent tilt of her head when he appeared in the doorway, dressed in a suit and tie. Delivering a positive statement about him was probably required by decorum, but she didn't think he looked exceptional. This was, she realized, a situation where a white lie would suffice.
"You look nice." He offered her his elbow, and she stared blankly at him. He smiled, which grated on her nerves-as if her ignorance was somehow cute to him. "It's an old Earth custom, Seven. I'm escorting you, so you place your hand on my arm."
This, like most Earth customs she encountered, was inane and archaic. She did as he bid, but she kept her grasp on him light, as if there were sharp objects embedded in the suit beneath her fingers. She recognized that part of her disdain and frustration was due to her anxiety regarding dining out, but she couldn't rid herself of the negative feelings.
Trying her best as he was merely trying to help her adjust to her new life on Earth, she adopted an interested expression while Chakotay spoke of the current happenings at Starfleet headquarters. He rambled about the minutiae of his next command, and she nodded whenever he seemed to be seeking a response. However, her interest was only truly piqued when he mentioned running into Admiral Janeway. For a moment, Seven didn't make the connection-Admiral Janeway was a stranger, as she was only familiar with Captain Janeway-but her mind rapidly made the correction.
"Did she appear well?"
"Yes. She asked about you."
The fact, said casually and with no import, warmed her cheeks. "That... is acceptable."
"I told her you were doing fine." He covered her hand with his. "I also mentioned you'd like to hear from her."
"She's busy," Seven said, dismissing the idea. She knew if she held out hope that the Admiral would contact her, she'd likely be disappointed. While Janeway had plenty of time on Voyager to discuss philosophy and humanity or to share a match of Velocity, Starfleet's demands of Janeway on Earth left little time for socializing, even with old friends.
"She said she would."
He guided her to the front of the restaurant, which was already teeming with life although the evening was relatively young. She hesitated when faced with the crowds; as a drone, she'd been constantly surrounded by hundreds of other beings, but she'd grown accustomed to privacy and solitude. The thrum of activity grated on her nerves.
"Seven, if you're uncomfortable, we can go home."
She knew he would do as he said the moment she agreed, and she was grateful for the small kindness. For all he pushed her boundaries to help her improve, he respected when she wasn't ready to face the tasks set forth for her. He was kind, she thought not for the first time that evening, and a good man. Her being with him made logical sense. Then why, she wondered, didn't her heart race as it used to?
"No," she replied evenly. "We are already here, and we should not waste your reservation."
He regarded her a moment longer before pulling the door open and ushering her inside. The hostess seated them quickly, and Seven was grateful to discover their table was away from the commotion of the main dining area. A waiter offered them water, took their wine order, and left them to their conversation, which Seven had to admit she'd lost track of.
"What do you think?"
She eyed her fiancé and nodded. This appeased him and allowed her to consult the menu. There were a variety of dishes that seemed palatable, but she had never tried any of them before. Perhaps he would order for her, she considered. He often did so when she seemed to be at a loss. When the waiter approached, and she looked expectantly at him, he graciously ordered a breaded chicken dish for her.
"Tell me about your day."
She didn't think she'd ever understand the practice of small talk. If something of note had occurred, she would have told him, and there was little point in rehashing minute, repetitive details of a mundane day. She certainly had no interest in his day.
"I awoke at 0600. I partook in a sonic shower. I conducted my work. I met you at your home before dinner. Now, we are here."
He smiled, and for a moment, she felt as though he was either humoring or making fun of her. She bristled.
"Sounds pretty average. Nothing special?"
"You provided me with an engagement ring."
He reached across the table and placed his hand on her forearm. There was a certain amount of comfort and security in his grasp, and when he squeezed her arm, she was able to forget the uncomfortable circumstances in which she found herself.
"Seven, I care about you, and I care about the details of your life. If you're afraid of boring me, don't be."
Having an eidetic memory, Seven could recall with perfect certainty every moment of her day. Still, to avoid having to reliving them in what she considered to be an irrelevant conversation, she said, "I wouldn't know what to say."
She was saved from the rest of his statement by an approaching figure. She expected the waiter and was happily surprised when Admiral Janeway set her hand on the table instead.
"San Francisco's a small world," Chakotay stated with a laugh. "I didn't expect to run into you so often now that you're back in town, but I can't say I'm upset."
"Back in town?" Seven fought to keep the flush from her cheeks as Janeway turned to look at her.
"I was in Indiana," she explained. "Visiting my family."
"But Starfleet wouldn't let you go for long. Have they finally given you your new assignment?"
Janeway's gaze lingered on Seven. "I'm afraid they're keeping me in San Francisco for a while. While they won't reprimand me formally for what happened on Voyager, they don't want to reward me, either."
"A promotion to admiral isn't a reward?"
"Not when all you want is to be out among the stars." Janeway finally cast her gaze elsewhere, and Seven realized she hadn't been breathing. "But if I play nice for a year or two, they may demote me and give me a fresh command. I apparently need a reminder of Starfleet rules. But I didn't come over here to talk about myself. It's been awhile, Seven. How are you?"
Seven felt as though her tongue were leaden, and she struggled to form a full thought. She settled for, "Fine."
"That's good to hear. Now that I'm back in town, I was hoping we might spend more time together."
When Seven didn't respond immediately, Chakotay filled in, "Seven's been fairly busy with work."
"I do have some free time."
"I know we're no longer on Voyager, but I miss our late night discussions."
"I do, too," Seven admitted. This was something fairly personal, she noted. She wouldn't normally reveal her feelings in such a manner, especially in public, but she needed Janeway to understand-although what Janeway was supposed to understand, she wasn't sure.
"Perhaps we could get lunch this week?"
"I would like that."
"I'll be in contact, then. For now, I'll let you both get on with your evening. It was nice to see you."
Her confusion multiplied when Janeway bent down and brushed a kiss against her cheek. Unlike the peck Chakotay had delivered earlier, this kiss sent a shot of adrenaline through her system, and she leaned after Janeway's retreating mouth. She identified her feelings as akin to those Chakotay had initially invoked in her and fought a wave of panic.
"Dinner was delicious, wasn't it?"
She glanced at him, her mind thousands of light years away from the meal they had consumed earlier that evening. "Yes."
"You seem distracted."
"Is this about the captain?"
"No," she replied, much too quickly. His use of Janeway's old title caused a flutter of excitement in her belly, which she sought to quash by clenching her jaw and diverting the subject of their conversation. "I am considering the work I must complete tomorrow."
"Are you sure?" She evaluated the expression in his gaze and determined he was both sad and apprehensive. He was an insightful man, and she wasn't masking her thoughts as well as she ought. Before she could lie further, he added, "You weren't worried about work earlier. You became pensive after she stopped over to say hello."
Caught, Seven gave in. "You are correct."
"I've missed seeing her."
"And that's cause for consternation?"
He set his hand on her knee and stared plaintively at her. "Seven, if there's something on your mind, I'd hope you would confide in me."
"I'm aware that your relationship with the captain was always-close."
She couldn't stop her mien from shifting. She felt guilty, although she'd done nothing wrong. "So?"
"So, I'm just wondering if you don't miss what you used to have."
"I miss a good deal about being on Voyager."
"My people have a saying, Seven. Coya anochta zab."
Her implant lifted up her forehead. The language of his ancestors was not known to the Borg, and she had no idea what he said. "Explain."
"Don't look back. If you spend your life wishing to be back on Voyager or yearning for what you had, you'll miss out on what's right in front of you now. Voyager was important, but that journey is behind us. You need to start thinking about you want for your future. I don't want you to marry me because you think you have to or because some other version of the captain said we would. I want you to marry because you want to. So, if you have any reservations, or questions-"
"I understand," she interrupted. She supposed the alternate-universe Janeway had experienced an existence where they remained in a familiar environment in the Delta Quadrant. Nothing the older woman said necessarily applied to their current circumstances. "I will think about this."
He smiled, but none of the sadness left his eyes.
"Thank you for waiting." Janeway pulled her office door shut and offered Seven a smile. "Sorry about that."
Having only been made to wait eight minutes, Seven saw no reason to complain. Being this close to Janeway was enjoyable, and she didn't mind not going directly to lunch. Janeway was an important person in the Alpha Quadrant, and Seven appreciated that Janeway was willing to spend time with her at all.
"Where will we dine?"
"There's a little cafe up the street. I had lunch there a few days ago with some of the big wigs around here. The luncheon wasn't that great, but the food was."
"I trust your assessment."
Janeway guided Seven down the hallway and pulled the door open. Seven stepped gratefully through and waited for Janeway to catch up. She took the moment to appraise Janeway's new, sleek uniform and determined she liked the way the fabric clung to Janeway's curves. She did miss seeing the four pips along Janeway's collar, but she supposed all progress came at a price.
As they made the short trip to the cafe, Seven answered each of Janeway's questions, sure that the other woman probably didn't understand half the technical jargon that came along with discussing her current work but appreciating that Janeway cared enough to ask. She attempted to ask Janeway similar queries, but Janeway was a master at deflecting the topic back onto her.
Seven pulled up short when she spotted how bustling the cafe was, although she quickly fell back into step when Janeway shot her a curious look. Tilting her head up to feel less powerless, she marched inside-Janeway had always expected more from her than she knew possible, and she wasn't about to let the other woman down.
Sliding onto her seat was eerily like the previous dinner with her fiancé, and Seven once again felt out of her element. Stiffening, she sought to maintain control by defaulting to what came naturally.
"Would you want to go somewhere else?" Janeway asked.
Janeway nodded, taking her at her word. "So, tell me more about how things are going for you. I've heard a bit from Chakotay, but he tends to sugarcoat."
"I am not used to this planet, despite it feeling like home." Seven stared down at the menu without really reading the options. "There are many customs I am not aware of."
"And many menu options, too, I presume?" She flushed, which was the only opening Janeway needed. "Do any of these sound good to you? I can explain what they are."
"You could simply order for me. I'm certain your choice will be more than adequate."
"Maybe. But if I do it for you, then you'll never learn to do it yourself."
Seven evaluated Janeway's statement and grimaced. "Very well. Is a chicken pot pie appetizing?"
"Well, it's not exactly a nutritional supplement, but many people like it. It's considered a comfort food."
"Some foods just make you feel good when you eat them."
"As some people just make you feel good when you're around them," Seven noted quietly. She lifted her gaze from the menu to Janeway. "Would you be considered a comfort person?"
For a moment, Janeway's cheeks turned as red as her hair. "Seven, I-"
The waiter approached, to Seven's dismay. He took their drink orders and waited patiently while Janeway coached Seven through her choices. By the time he left, Seven felt the moment was over, and returning to her question would be awkward.
"Have you been to see Voyager?"
Janeway leaned back in her chair and shook her head. "It's a bit too fresh and painful right now. Maybe in a few years, if they give me another command."
Unsure what pushed her onward, Seven said, "Chakotay's shore leave is almost complete, and he'll take his command shortly after. His first mission is a year-long venture."
"Will you be going with him?"
"I have not decided. The prospect of once again discovering new spatial anomalies is tempting, but there is also a good deal of research to be conducted here on Earth."
"Are you happy?"
The hastily blurted question lingered between them, leaving Seven to wonder what its impetus was. Janeway had always been concerned with her well being, but this seemed to be of a different caliber.
After several, silent moments, Janeway added, "I suppose you must be. You were never one to simply sit by and-"
"No." Seven analyzed how comfortable she was during this interaction compared to the rest of the time she'd spent on Earth and came to an undeniable conclusion: no matter the context, she belonged by Janeway's side. "The last time I was happy was on Voyager."
"I can understand that. Being back on Earth has been an adjustment, but we have to keep moving forward. There's no going back to the Delta Quadrant, at least not with our current technology."
"Chakotay voiced something similar. I am to determine what I want my future to look like."
"And what have you come up with?"
The waiter arrived with their drinks and took their food orders. Seven defaulted to the chicken pot pie, as she hadn't bothered consulting the menu since their discussion turned toward other matters. Despite the lapse in time, Seven decided that pursuing this conversation was necessary.
"I have determined that I require your presence in my life."
Janeway's attention fixed entirely on her, and she both luxuriated in and squirmed under the full force of Janeway's piercing gray eyes. Seven nearly smiled as Janeway borrowed her turn of phrase: "Explain."
"I have spent many hours contemplating the direction of my life, and if I am to be happy, you must be present."
"I'll always be your friend-"
"I would like to conduct an experiment."
Janeway's eyebrows rose. "Oh?"
"My hypothesis is that kissing you will be much more pleasurable than kissing Chakotay, but I have no evidence to either support or refute my claim."
"If you are opposed, then we will never speak of the matter again."
"I'm not opposed, per se, but you're the fiancé of my first officer."
"I'm your friend more than his possession."
"Well, yes, but-"
Taking the rejection in stride, Seven said, "Very well. Please delete this occurrence from your memory."
Although Janeway seemed to be on the verge of saying something important, nothing passed her lips, and Seven considered the discussion closed. She could marry Chakotay now, she decided, as he would have to do. The rest of lunch was filled with stilted conversation, which Seven felt moderately responsible for, and when the bill was paid, she was eager to leave the awkward situation she had generated.
She didn't get very far, however, as Janeway snagged her wrist and pulled her close as soon as they were back on the street. Moving with the utmost of care, Janeway cupped her cheeks and kissed her softly. Seven sank into the embrace, noting the quickening of her heart rate, the tightening of her chest, and the flood of heat in her belly. Kissing Chakotay did not feel like this and never had; she clasped her hands to the front of Janeway's uniform and wondered if the technology yet existed to slow time so that she could live in this moment for as long as possible.
When Janeway withdrew, Seven was reluctant to give up her grasp. Rather than fully let go, she took her time straightening Janeway's uniform to her exacting specifications. Janeway waited patiently until Seven realized she was supposed to say something.
"The results were conclusive," she offered, her voice breathy.
"Was your hypothesis supported?"
"Preliminarily, yes. But repeat experiments need to be conducted to improve experiment validity." Seven licked her lips. "If the test subject is willing, of course."
"The test subject is, but she is wondering what the researcher is thinking."
Seven sighed and finally stepped back. "I will be ending my engagement. Perhaps on Voyager, he would have been sufficient, but I desire a future with you."
"I'll see what I can do," Janeway teased.
Seven brushed a second kiss across her lips just to make sure the first time hadn't been a fluke. Satisfied with the emotions suddenly blazing through her, she understood that even if she conducted further tests, she knew all she needed to in that moment.