Seven of Nine adjusted the collar of her formal wear and deemed herself presentable. Although she wasn't technically a member of Starfleet, she had been ordered by Captain Janeway to replicate a dress uniform for the sole purpose of making a good impression. She was not often allowed on missions to establish first contact; her blunt demeanor had come to be seen as a boon aboard the Voyager, but her sharp tongue and tactless approach made her ill-suited for missions requiring diplomacy.
Her presence had been requested on this mission because she knew a good deal about the uptight species and their ways, as the Collective had assimilated a number of its people in years prior. She'd shared what she could with the rest of the away team, but she was still most knowledgeable and thus in the best position to lead the mission. That the Captain trusted her with this responsibility filled Seven with pride, and she held her head high as she headed for the shuttle bay.
She arrived precisely on time and was still the second to last person to arrive. The Captain was already there, as well as Ensign Ashmore and Commander Chakotay. The final member of their team sprinted in several minutes late, grinning and spouting excuses. Lt. Tom Paris needn't have wasted his breath-Seven, and likely everyone else, was aware of the reason behind his occasional tardiness; whenever he was due for an away mission, his wife gave him a fond farewell, which, according to the gossip, could be heard from several corridors away.
Janeway didn't seem impressed with him, but she didn't waste time on reprimands. Seven often wondered how Janeway could be so pragmatic, as she found curbing her tongue difficult. If something needed to be said, then she would say so. That tendency was inefficient, however, and she wasted valuable time. She approved of Janeway's ability to focus on what mattered.
"I'm sure this doesn't need to be said," Janeway said, her gaze shifting from face to face. "However, it bears repeating: you are all to be on your best behavior. The Viori have parts we need and supplies that will make the next few dozen lightyears of our trip easier. Absolutely nothing that might endanger our mission will be tolerated. Am I clear?"
The chorus of 'Yes, Captains' that followed filled Seven with a fresh sense of pride. As a drone in the Collective, she had been part of a group, but she had never experienced camaraderie. She was part of something that mattered now, and as she looked upon their leader, she wanted to be nowhere else but at Janeway's side.
When she boarded the Delta Flyer, she passed by Janeway and offered a small smile; Janeway returned the expression, and for a moment, their eyes met. Warmth curled pleasantly in Seven's stomach as she took a seat. She had recently come to terms with her attraction to the captain, and she wasn't certain how long she would have until she no longer felt a spark of excitement when they gazed at each other. Rather than worry, she chose to enjoy the all too human response.
The trip to the planet wasn't long, and Seven wished the alien species would simply allow them to beam in and out; she could not, however, argue with their logic and defense system. By keeping their shields up to disallow energy transmissions, they had a lesser chance of being attacked. They'd certainly learned from their encounter with the Borg. Still, this fact didn't keep her from feeling irritated by the nuisance of being transported via shuttle. When they docked with a Viori ship just outside Vior's exosphere and shifted over to be taken to the planet, her frustration intensified.
Rather than let any of her inner turmoil show, she recalled Janeway's stringent command and kept her mien still. The Viori were an odd species, with three thick legs, a two-fingered hand attached to a single arm, and a domed head that housed deep-set eyes, four slitted nostrils, and a very narrow mouth hole. Seven was grateful for her comm badge, which translated their highly musical language into something comprehensible. She touched the tip of her finger to the tip of the lead Viori's. They bowed their head.
"You will be welcome to Vior once we have conducted a search."
Seven bowed her head in response. "We will submit to your search."
Two Viori guards went from person to person and patted everyone down for weapons. Having briefed the team, Seven was glad to see nobody had breached protocol and brought a phaser. The Viori would have reacted poorly and would not have accepted any sort of explanation, including self-preservation.
Once her search was complete, Seven settled against a bench seat on the Viori vessel. One by one, the crew filled in around her, and the captain took a seat directly to her left.
"You're doing well so far, Seven."
"Thank you, Captain."
"They certainly like their precautions, don't they?"
"I find these measures prudent, if time consuming."
"At least they aren't hostile."
"They are a cautious species. They will not start anything they are not sure they cannot finish, and even then, they prefer to talk rather than fire a weapon. This defensive strategy did not work against the Borg, but most other species can be reasoned with."
"Do you think things are going in our favor?"
"We have not offended them thus far." Seven warmed as Janeway smiled at her. The ship rumbled beneath her, signaling that they were making their final descent. "As long as we continue to cooperate and behave, we will likely have a deal by tomorrow afternoon."
"That's good to hear. I don't like leaving the ship any longer than I have to."
Letting their conversation lapse, Seven allowed herself a subtle examination of the captain's features. The other woman's sharp blue-gray eyes roved the faces of her crew framed by short, delicate eyelashes, and her thin lips were pressed together rather tightly. If not for the slight upward tilt at the corners, Seven would have thought Janeway to be upset. Instead, she recognized Janeway's good mood, which made her feel rather settled and at ease.
This positive feeling extended through their landing, all the formal introductions to important Viori leaders, and into the dinner feast the Viori concocted for them. She had been seated across from Janeway and next to a Viori admiral named Skullus, who was slighter than their fellows and highly interested in her travels. Although she spoke with them, she couldn't stop her attention from flickering across the table throughout the course of the meal.
She did her best to stomach the goopy food presented to her. Rather than humanoid silverware, she was given a thin, hollow reed through which she could suck her food into her mouth. As inelegant as this was, she appreciated their direct approach to nutrition that was so unlike how humans had to design how their food looked and tasted.
"And your parents?"
"They were scientists," she replied between sips. "They studied the Borg."
"A dangerous occupation."
"Indeed. They were assimilated."
"My parents were also assimilated." Seven cast them a curious look. They hardly looked old enough to have encountered the Borg, as the Collective had taken its sample from this planet many decades ago. Their nose slits flared. "They returned three years ago when they discovered that our species persisted."
"How did you survive?"
"The Borg were unaware of the extent of our shielding technology. Most of our young and our important thinkers were hidden below ground, while an honored few sacrificed themselves to the Borg."
"They were brave souls," Janeway stated, drawing Seven's attention.
Seven sat a bit straighter under Janeway's scrutiny. She was going to do well, and Janeway would be proud of her. Focusing on these thoughts, she reached out and mistakenly took Skullus's drink. Janeway's expression shifted to one of curiosity and apprehension. Unsure of what caused this difference, Seven dipped her reed and took a drink.
All conversation around the table ceased.
Seven set the drink down and stared at the shallow glass. Skullus took their glass and sipped the rest of the liquid. They held the glass up and said, "I accept."
Letting her mind zoom through all her knowledge of the Viori people, Seven searched for what sort of social protocol she had accidentally violated. Her chest tightened as she realized she had proposed marriage.
"I was mistaken in my action-"
"Skullus has accepted." Mallus, the leader of the Viori, stood and spread their fingers. "This is cause for celebration not consternation. A union of our people will aid both sides."
Janeway lifted a hand. "Excuse my ignorance, but what just happened?"
"Admiral Skullus and your Seven will be married in a fortnight, as is customary."
Seven stood quickly and shook her head. "Your practice requires intent. I did not intend to propose-"
"We have grown less particular in our practices ever since the Borg halved our population twice over."
Seven hesitated; she didn't want this marriage, but she also felt duty bound by Janeway's instructions to avoid making a scene or putting their mission at risk. If Janeway were in her shoes, she would accept her fate in order to help her crew. Seven resolved to do the same. Before she could verbally acquiesce, however, Janeway spoke up.
"She can't marry your Admiral Skullus because she's already married."
Tom nearly spat out his drink, but a kick under the table from Chakotay sobered him quickly. Seven stared at Janeway, who avoided looking at her.
"I see." Mallus shook their head. "However, denying our custom would reflect poorly on our negotiations. A marriage can be broken as easily as it is formed. You will annul her current standing and allow this to proceed."
"I am sure her spouse will understand."
Janeway firmed her posture and cocked her head. "I will not."
Seven stared at Janeway, mouth agape and uncertain if she misunderstood. "Captain…?"
"Darling." Janeway's voice was hard and unyielding. From her tone, Seven understood exactly what Janeway was doing and appreciated the effort. "I will not terminate our marriage for the sake of one understandable mistake."
"Seven is aware of our customs, thanks to her time with the Borg," Skullus inserted.
"I was distracted. I was gazing at my wife and was not paying attention to whose glass I picked up."
"Were her marriage to one of our crewmen, I would consider an annulment. However, as her marriage is to me, I will not entertain any notions of ending our relationship." Janeway set her hand atop the table and glared at Mallus. "If you insist on this marriage to continue our negotiations, I suppose you should send us home now."
Mallus narrowed their eyes. "That will not be necessary. We will rearrange your housing requirements to reflect this newfound knowledge. If we discover this to be a fallacy, however-"
"Yes, yes." Janeway waved the unspoken threat away. "I appreciate your understanding in this matter."
Seven felt her cheeks heat as Janeway once again turned to stare at her. This was likely her last invitation on such a delicate mission, and she hated how she'd let her captain down. Despite the lively beginning to their meal, dinner was finished in near silence, and Seven followed Janeway to their joint quarters unable to think of a single appropriate thing to say. When the door shut, and they were alone, Seven realized there wasn't anything she could say that would matter. Janeway had made a decision, and following orders, even those unspoken, was her duty.
"Well, this is a fine mess."
"Is that all you have to say for yourself?"
Seven stood primly with her hands locked behind her back. She tilted her head, aware that she ought to apologize or perhaps try to explain herself. Because there was no logical explanation for her mistake-and she was already punishing herself for letting her concentration lapse-she chose to remain quiet. As she'd learned from her more human companion's mistakes, she did not have to worry about unsaying something she never said in the first place. Lt. Paris, specifically, was effective at making his situations worse by opening his mouth.
"We're alone in here. You don't have to call me by my title." Janeway sat down with a sigh on a couch that hardly looked comfortable.
"Kathryn, I did not intend to cause this problem."
"I'm not angry with you, Seven."
"Then I am not certain at what your frustration is directed." Taking Kathryn's word as true, however, Seven sat and confirmed her suspicion that the couch was too unyielding to provide any sort of comfort. "Would you like me to apologize?"
"No, that won't be necessary. It's just the whole situation. It feels like-I feel on display. This was supposed to be private."
Seven bowed her head, finally comprehending the impetus of Janeway's terse behavior. "You were not ready for others to know of our relationship. Yet, the crew thinks you merely covered for my faux pas. We have not been 'outed,' as your terminology goes."
"I've heard the gossip. They already suspect."
Sensing Janeway's tension, Seven leaned her forward and began a gentle massage. She started at Janeway's neck and moved slowly to Janeway's shoulders and onto Janeway's lower back, where most of the stress had tangled muscles into knots.
While she worked, she murmured, "Perhaps, but you would do this for any crewmember, would you not?"
"I'd have to think about it. For you, it was pure instinct."
"I appreciate your sacrifice. For the record, however, I would like you to know that I was willing to live with my mistake."
"Well, I wasn't." Janeway twisted her head, and Seven obediently gave her a kiss.
Seven woke, stared at the unfamiliar ceiling, and wondered when she'd fallen asleep in the first place. Although she'd slept on a few occasions in the past, she didn't care for the practice, nor did she need the rest. Feeling the warm brush of breath across her neck, she transferred her attention to the woman still asleep beside her; Janeway looked utterly relaxed, so Seven remained still so as to allow her captain as much rest as possible.
She'd never slept in Janeway's bed before. She'd been in it before, for short spurts of time, but she'd always returned to Cargo Bay Two afterward. After all, nobody was to know about their intimate interactions, and her leaving the captain's quarters early in the morning would hardly quiet the rumors. Here, however, she had an excuse. She'd lied down the evening before to maintain the illusion of their marriage, just in case someone were to check on them, and she must have fallen asleep.
"Are you awake?"
She felt Janeway's arms tightening around her, so she quietly replied, "I am. We don't have to be awake yet, so you may continue sleeping."
"But you don't want to?"
"I can think of a more efficient use of our time."
Janeway's hands slid along Seven's sides and tugged on the hem of her shirt. Seven allowed her top to be removed without a word, but she didn't remain quiet as Janeway cupped her left breast and squeezed. A breathy moan escaped her lips, and she arched her back into Janeway's touch.
Before things could escalate further, however, a knock sounded at the door. Seven quickly tugged her top back on and left Janeway in the warm cocoon of their blankets. Tugging the door open, she glared at Chakotay with every ounce of her frustration. He cocked an eyebrow at her.
"It's very early."
"I figured this might be the only time we have to discuss how what happened last night affects our negotiations."
She gritted her teeth and gestured for him to sit on the uncomfortable couch. "I'll fetch Kathryn."
He narrowed his eyes but didn't question her use of the captain's name. "Did I interrupt something?"
"Not at all. She is merely resting."
"What do you need, Commander?" Janeway appeared and leaned against the wall with her arms folded over her chest. Her hair was still mussed from sleep, a sight which made Seven's heartbeat approximately point four percent faster. Even untidy, the captain was a beautiful woman, and she was mildly jealous that someone else got to see Janeway like this.
"Just to talk before the day's negotiations started. I apologize for waking you."
"We were getting up. I need to prepare for the day-Seven, would you mind?"
Seven nodded curtly. "Commander, do you require any refreshments at this time?"
"A coffee would be great. Milk and two sugars."
There was a device next to the couch that functioned like their replicators, although it was slightly more sophisticated. Seven programmed his order and served the drink with a polite tilt of her head. He sat and sipped his coffee with a contented sigh.
"Do you require anything else?"
"No. Why don't you sit and chat?"
Seven had nothing to say, but she complied nonetheless. She eyed him and waited for him to engage her.
He cleared his throat after a period of silence and asked, "Must be awkward, huh?"
"Pretending to be married to the captain." He fidgeted with his cup. "You prefer solitude, don't you?"
"I do not mind sharing space with her."
"Ah. I just assumed-"
"Making assumptions is rarely wise."
The crows feet beside his eyes crinkled with silent laughter. "Very true words, Seven."
Janeway returned, cleaned and dressed. She sat beside Seven, and Seven fought to remain neutral as their thighs brushed. Despite having courted the trim redhead for just over half a year, her physiological reaction to Janeway's presence remained unchanged. All that had altered was her ability to hide her feelings; doing so grew harder with each passing day, and there were moments when she wished there was no need for secrecy. She respected Janeway's desire for privacy, however, so she never asked for more.
"What is it you wish to discuss?"
Chakotay set his coffee aside and leaned forward, balancing his elbows on his knees. "I stayed at dinner longer than either of you. Our hosts are less than pleased with what happened."
"I'm sorry, Chakotay, but I wasn't about to let them have Seven."
"I understand. But we do need to consider the impact this will have on negotiations."
"Surely my relationship with Seven-"
"Fake relationship," he added.
"-won't affect much."
"I hope not." From his tone, Seven gathered he was doubtful.
Janeway responded, "Have faith. If they won't trade with us, we'll manage."
"That was hardly the attitude you had before we came here."
"If the choice is between allowing Seven to marry one of these people and scrounging for supplies for another few lightyears, then there's no real choice."
"There may have been another option," he argued. "Something else, that you didn't give us time to think of. We could have gotten her out of that engagement some other way."
"Commander, is there a reason you're so against this way of doing things?"
Chakotay shifted his attention to Seven, who was doing her best to avoid the conversation. Janeway had expressed on many occasions that although she valued Seven's input and argumentation in private, there were times in public that such interjection impeded rather than encouraged progress. This particular heated discussion seemed personal, and she didn't want to get between her two commanding officers.
"Seven, what do you think of all this?"
Seven glanced at Janeway before responding. "I will do whatever the captain requires of me. She knows what our options are, and I trust her to make the right decision for all involved."
"So, you'll just pretend to be in a relationship? How long can you actually keep that up?"
Seven held her head high and spoke in a condescending tone. "Do you doubt that a relationship between us would be possible?"
He sat back and spread his hands. "Seven, you're not the most accessible person. You've made a few friends, but you're hardly-well, sociable. To be honest, I can't imagine you in a relationship with anyone, let alone Captain Janeway."
Janeway lifted her hand, cutting off Seven's biting retort. "Regardless of what you think, Seven and I will maintain the illusion that we're married. You'll inform Lt. Paris and Ensign Ashmore our wedding was in the mess hall last spring, and only the senior staff was in attendance. If someone asks them a question about any other detail, they should direct it to either of us. It is crucial that Lt. Paris does not invent puerile fantasies about the wedding or ridiculous stories that are impossible to corroborate."
"Yes, Captain." He dipped his head. "And when the Viori figure out they've been tricked?"
"Let's hope they don't." She glared until he lost the gumption to argue. "Dismissed."
Breakfast, which consisted of something akin to oatmeal, was a lively affair in contrast to how dinner ended. Seven wasn't sure what Chakotay overheard the night prior, but their hosts were as gracious as before. To her right sat Skullus; they assured her multiple times that they fostered no hard feelings toward her or the captain, and the same went for those above them. They were, however, very curious about her relationship.
"How did you two meet?"
"As you know, I was once a part of the Borg Collective. Captain Janeway-"
"You call her Captain?"
"Outside our personal quarters, yes, as she needs to maintain her position in all possible ways."
"Doesn't that bother you?"
"I respect what she does for the crew, and I would not ask her to change for me."
Their eyes widened, but they let the matter go. "You were saying?"
"Captain Janeway negotiated a treaty with the Collective in order to grant Voyager safe passage through Borg space. I was chosen as liaison, as I was the Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One."
"What does that mean, exactly?"
"I was relatively close to the Queen."
"I thought there was no hierarchy in the Collective."
"Some drones were considered more disposable than others. I was at the other end of the spectrum-incredibly valuable."
"And you escaped the Collective to be with her?"
"Rather, she severed my connection to the hive mind."
She examined their blase expression. "Hm?"
"It just seems like such a fantastical story." They shrugged. "I believe you, of course. It just sounds-far fetched. You never hear about people escaping the Collective."
"The captain and I have shared a close connection ever since."
"You seem like a fine pair."
"I believe so as well." Seven transferred her gaze from Skullus to Janeway and flushed to find Janeway eyeing her as well.
"Do you remember much about your-well, your days as a drone?"
She shook her head and lied, "I remember very little before my encounter with Captain Janeway."
"Ah. Perhaps that's for the best."
"I believe so."
Cutting off their conversation, another Viori entered the room, dipped their head, and requested Janeway's presence. After a moment's hesitation, Janeway skirted the table and kissed Seven's cheek. The open display of affection was different, but Seven decided she wouldn't complain.
"I will catch up with you later."
Skullus watched the interaction and, once Janeway had gone, they inquired, "When did your relationship begin?"
She and Janeway hadn't decided on a story, so Seven defaulted to the actual origin of their romance. She hoped Janeway would reach a similar conclusion. "Approximately seven months ago. I invited her to join me in a cafe on the holodeck for coffee. According to my research, such a location is ideal for a first date."
"Your human customs are quite strange."
"How do your people court one another?"
"We do not, as we do not feel the emotion you identify as love."
"But you get married."
"In order to strengthen and diversify our people."
A very short time ago, Seven had thought herself not unlike the Viori. Throughout her time on the Voyager, she'd crafted friendships and sought new experiences, but her emotional responses had never felt quite correct. She told others she cared about their well being, and she often sacrificed her own comfort for theirs. Yet, both she and they knew that she merely went through the motions. Before her attraction to Janeway, she thought herself incapable of the full range of human emotions. Warmth pooled in her stomach as she thought about everything Janeway had given her, from a home to a better understanding of herself and her humanity.
She blinked and glanced at Skullus, who stared back. "I apologize. I was thinking of other things. What did you ask?"
"I wanted to know if you'd like a tour of our capital. Your wife will be busy for most of the day in meetings, and I've been charged with your entertainment."
Although she'd rather have been with Janeway, she nodded and allowed them to escort her from the dining hall. There would be time to catch up with Janeway later, and for now, she would do her best to stay out of trouble.
Tom slung an arm around her shoulders, and she fought the urge to slough him off. He was congenial and meant no harm, but she wasn't sure why he was present.
"I've been assigned to accompany you around. Chakotay and Ashmore are with the captain-which means I got lucky. We get to go out and about, while they sit in a stuffy room and talk for a few hours. Hey, keep your eyes peeled for something nice to get B'Elanna, would you?"
Seven nodded stiffly. "You are more excited about this trip than I."
"You'd prefer to be with Janeway?"
"Y'know, this whole misunderstanding is a blessing in disguise, if you ask me."
"Well, now you get to test the water, so to speak."
She narrowed her eyes, but she bit off her coming interrogation as Skullus entered the shuttle. They sat at the helm and adjusted the controls. Once they were satisfied, the shuttle rumbled to life and sped away from the elegant building where they were staying. While Tom struck up a friendly conversation with Skullus, Seven stared out the window and examined the passing landscape. There were very few plants, and the few structures she spotted were short and squat; all in all, she found Vior lacking in color and vigor, but she supposed recovering from multiple Borg attacks took time.
Resting her cheek against her fist, she let her mind wander to the captain, who hopefully wasn't dealing with any sort of backlash. No matter what, she knew Janeway was capable and confident, which made negotiations much easier. Janeway maintained the same sort of persona in bed, and Seven shifted slightly at the memory of what Chakotay had interrupted. She would have thoroughly enjoyed what Janeway had to offer, and she hoped they had more time to themselves this evening.
She glanced at Tom. "Yes?"
Tilting her head up, she pretended as if her mind weren't a million light years away. She stalked after him, down the shuttle's loading ramp, and onto a busy street. Unlike what she spotted earlier, every building in this area was large and ornate; columns were etched with designs, and even the stone beneath their feet was placed in intricate patterns.
"Although much was destroyed by the Borg, we've rebuilt in select areas," Skullus explained, guiding them along. "It's been a long process, and we still feel the effects. I don't think we'll ever truly feel safe again. Unless…"
They shook their head. "I've been ordered not to press the issue."
Tom cocked an eyebrow. "That means it's about Seven's proposal, huh?"
"I am not at liberty to say."
Seven ignored their conversation in favor of examining the Viori milling about. Very few would make eye contact, and those that did quickly averted their gaze. She intimidated them, she surmised-or at least her implants did. They were likely uncomfortable with someone Borg showing up and touring their city. Although she had been assured by the captain several times that she was not responsible for what the Borg did, or even what she did as a drone, she felt pangs of guilt as she looked at the beaten civilization around her.
She followed Skullus toward a partially destroyed building. The gaps in the roof were covered by a faint glitter, suggesting some sort of force field, but nothing had been done with physical materials to mend any of the damage wrought.
"What is this?"
"The history of our people is kept here. We've done our best to maintain our records and continue our time-honored traditions, but every time a catastrophe strikes, it's like starting all over again."
Seven stared up at the building with unhappiness building in her chest. Although they saw other sights that afternoon, her mind lingered with the crumbling remains. Skullus had set their hand on her shoulder and told her not to worry, but she had barely heard them. Even when she returned to her quarters and found Janeway lounging on the uncomfortable couch, she was too distracted by her thoughts to notice the nearly translucent nightgown the other woman wore.
"I'm wearing your favorite slip." Janeway gestured for Seven to join her on the couch.
Seven sat and finally took in Janeway's outfit. Her cheeks heated, and she sighed. "You are. I apologize. My mind was elsewhere."
"Mallus said you went on a tour of the capital."
"You didn't like it?"
"They have a lovely city, but the evidence of their struggles is everywhere. They require assistance."
"Don't tell me you want to marry Skullus…?"
"Of course not."
"Then what do you suggest?" Janeway trailed her fingers along Seven's thigh and then placed her hand on Seven's knee.
"There must be some help we could provide them. We have interacted with the Borg more often than most other people."
"I suppose that's true, but I'm not sure what we can offer them."
Seven leaned into Janeway's embrace and closed her eyes. "I am uncertain as well, but I know I cannot simply turn my back on them."
"You feel as though you owe a debt."
"That is an accurate assessment, although I know I have personally done no wrong."
"I promise we'll do whatever we can for these people. You seem tired, and I don't think either of us is up to the challenge of brainstorming right now."
Seven tilted her head and placed dainty kisses along the delicate skin of Janeway's neck. "I am indeed tired, but…"
"There are certain matters to which I must attend before I rest."
Janeway's head fell back as Seven's tongue darted against her skin. She slid her hands around Seven's waist and held onto the taller woman's hips. As Seven suckled at the juncture of her neck and shoulders, she practically purred her appreciation. Seven jerked back and examined her handy work; a brilliant bruise blossomed where her mouth had been-easily rectified with the dermal regenerator but a passionate sign of to whom Janeway belonged.
She stood and scooped Janeway into her arms. The captain nestled closer, and she could feel the warm puffs of the other woman's breath on her neck. No matter how tumultuous her thoughts, having Janeway in her arms helped center and relax her. She was uncertain how she'd managed during the years after being separated from the Borg but before Janeway had accepted her romantic advances.
Gently, she laid the other woman on their bed. Janeway's eyes were large and trusting as Seven slipped the straps of her nightgown down. Seven tugged the gown lower and revealed Janeway's breasts, which were topped by already hardened nipples. She dipped her head and flicked her tongue lightly against one; Janeway gasped and arched. Treating this as similar to her duties, Seven plotted a course along the redhead's body. She took note of any anomalous reactions, charted the expanse between freckles, and worked hard to keep her captain happy.
By the time her fingers finally parted Janeway's lips and eased inside, Seven's hair had been jostled free from its usual French twist, and the tips tickled Janeway's cheeks. The shorter woman was likewise disheveled, but Seven doubted there was anything coherent going through her head, least of all worries about her appearance. She loved seeing the usually composed woman like this and knowing that she was responsible. The Borg had deprived her of power, but Janeway gave it freely. She thrust her fingers and stared down at her lover, hoping that Janeway knew how much their relationship meant to her.
"Darling, you're going to kill me." Janeway dragged the back of her wrist across her forehead. When Seven continued pumping, she squirmed away with a desperate laugh. "Please, have mercy."
Seven kissed her again, slowly. "As you wish."
"You never cease to amaze me."
"I would like this to be our norm."
Janeway closed her eyes. "You can have as many of my nights as you want."
"I was referring to how we do not have to hide."
Stiffening, Janeway rolled onto her side. For several minutes, there was silence, and Seven closed her eyes. As she drifted to sleep, Janeway finally said, "There are reasons for our secrecy."
Another beat passed.
"I'll think about it."
"What do you think?" Tom held up a small, gold trinket that glittered in the sun, grinning as if he'd found something rare and enticing. When Skullus had offered them the choice between a religious temple and an open market, Tom had all but begged her to go shopping. Seven got the distinct feeling that he had done something he needed to atone for.
"What function does it serve?"
"Well…" He cleared his throat and gazed down at the oddly shaped object. "I don't think it has one. It's art. It's just supposed to… y'know… look good."
"And you find this aesthetically pleasing?"
Tom shrugged. "Well, yeah. Girls like shiny things, right?"
The implant over her eye inched up. "Has Lt. Torres ever threatened to end your existence?"
"A few times," he laughed.
Deciding that he did not deserve a response, Seven turned her attention to the device before her. Compared to Tom, she was much more pragmatic in her choice. The vendor assured her that the form-fitting metal bracelets would connect their wearers and hurried to help her try one on. She was accustomed to the feeling of cold metal against her skin and found the sensation almost comforting. However, she wasn't certain what Janeway's reaction would be-she'd never seen the captain wear jewelry, but if she could barter this Viori down, then the purchase might be worthwhile.
"Would you accept-"
An explosion interrupted her offer and knocked her from her feet. Her head smacked the ground, and for a moment, she couldn't get her eyes to focus. Her nanoprobes quickly rectified the situation, and she struggled to her feet. Wanting to find the source of the commotion, she strode from the store, Tom staggering along right behind her. Viori scrambled around them, some leaking a putrescent green substance she assumed to be blood. A rather small Viori approached them with tears in their eyes and blood smeared on their face.
"You tend to this little one," she ordered.
"I shouldn't leave you. The captain-"
"Isn't here right now. They need help."
After a moment of hesitation, Tom nodded. "Don't go far."
Leaving him to the child, she turned and headed in the opposite direction of the fleeing people. The source of their fear had to be in the other direction, so she would begin there and form a search pattern. Viori citizens would be escorted toward safety, and she would hopefully locate and disable the disturbance. She didn't get far in implementing her plan, however, as something heavy slammed against her head, and she collapsed to the ground unconscious.
Janeway stood, stretching her arms and rolling her shoulders to release tension. While there was nothing terribly stressful about this negotiation, she'd also been dealing with her first officer. Chakotay hadn't yet revealed anything, but she knew he still had reservations about her approach. She could inform him that although the marriage was fake, the relationship wasn't, but she didn't think he would be receptive. As a first officer, he was usually exemplary. Regarding personal matters, she no longer trusted him as she once had.
What she had with Seven was something that mattered very much to her, and she felt very secure with the private bubble in which they conducted their affairs. Although she'd promised Seven she'd think about being open, the idea that her crew would be privy to details such as her love life and her sexuality made her uneasy. She was supposed to be their ineffable leader, and what she had with Seven showed her human vulnerability. In the Alpha Quadrant, vulnerability wasn't a death sentence, but in the Delta Quadrant-she simply couldn't risk her ship.
"Negotiations are going better than expected."
She nodded curtly at Chakotay's assessment. "I think things would be more difficult if Seven hadn't been so set on providing them assistance. She's had an impact on what I'm willing to give these people."
"You wouldn't help them if she hadn't asked for it?"
"I would, of course. But we'd have a lot more to argue about first."
He chuckled. "I have to admit I'm surprised they let her marriage proposal go so easily."
"They aren't an unreasonable people. They wouldn't endanger our negotiations by trying to force me to end my relationship."
For a moment, he was silent, and she wondered how much of the truth he'd gleaned. He had a fairly keen insight into others, and she hadn't been policing her tone and words as much as she ought.
"I'm the captain," she replied. "I'm always right."
Ensign Ashmore scurried over, pale and taut. He dipped his head respectfully and apologized for the interruption. At Janeway's behest, he reported, "I know you said not to interrupt, but I received a message from Lt. Paris. There was some sort of incident at the market."
"Is Seven okay?"
"They got separated. He isn't sure."
Janeway got to her feet. Across the room, their Viori hosts were huddled and quiet, waiting for negotiations to resume. Once she was before them, she met Mallus's gaze evenly. "Something has come up. I hope you will not take offense if we adjourn from our meeting for the moment."
"We heard about the earth shake." Mallus shifted uncomfortably. "Relief efforts have been dispatched."
"Seven is out there-"
"I understand you must be concerned about your wife, but I assure you-"
"Concerned is an understatement. My crew and I will be heading for the market, and if you are still interested in trading with us, we will be available to continue our discussions once my missing wife has been found."
Conceding defeat, Mallus nodded. "I will arrange a transport. Stay safe, Captain, and good luck."
She found Tom sitting on the curb, a bandage around his head and dirt covering most of his skin. His lip looked as though it'd been split, and she could tell there was more internal damage from the flashes of pain in his eyes on every inhale. He was alive, however, so she couldn't complain.
He lifted his head wearily and offered her a sad smile. "Glad to see you, Captain."
"You look like you could use a dermal regenerator."
"There've been a few doctors around, but I thought they should tend to their own people first."
"Where is Seven?"
"She went to find the source of whatever happened."
"The Viori said it was something like an earthquake-a shake they called it."
"It didn't seem like a 'quake." He winced as he stood up. "I told her to stay close because I thought you'd want us to stick together. But after she was gone for about half an hour, I tried to page her, and she didn't respond."
"How long ago was that?"
"As soon as contact failed, I sent a message to Ashmore. She's been missing for between fifty minutes to an hour and a half." Anticipating her next questions, he continued, "Our last contact was looking at items in the store behind me. When we parted, I remained nearby, and she headed south down the street. She turned right and disappeared from my sightline."
"Return to our accommodations, and have a doctor look over your injuries."
"In the future, you are not to neglect your duties."
"Yes, Captain." He stared at the ground. "Anything else?"
At first, his inability to respect rank and protocol had irritated her. She'd met him in the penal colony and wanted to set him to scrubbing exhaust manifolds until he understood the value of hard work and perseverance. Fortunately for him, she wasn't in charge of his punishment at the time. Over time, she'd grown to almost enjoy his offhand remarks and the humor they added to her day. Although she wanted him to understand how grievous an error it was to let Seven walk away, she knew that Seven would have gone without Tom's agreement.
"That will be all. Dismissed."
With that settled, she entered the shop. Despite claims of an earthquake, most of the merchandise was still securely in place-on shelves, behind glass displays, and neatly stacked atop tables. The Viori behind the credit register looked tired. Janeway struggled to read the expressions of the Viori people; however, there was something universal about slouching over with downcast eyes that clearly conveyed the alien's exhaustion.
"I'm sorry to bother you, but-"
"Are you the captain?"
She nodded, and he brightened. Curious, she asked, "Were you waiting for me?"
"Your fellow outside-he said you'd pay for the thing the woman took."
"Are you talking about Seven?"
"Blonde hair? Silver face pieces?"
"That's her. Did you see where she went?"
"I won't say a word until you pay for what she took."
Janeway grimaced. "What did she take, and how much does it cost?"
"A sensory band. Very rare. Very expensive."
"I don't think I've ever heard of one of those."
"Does it matter? She took it, and I want compensation. Several other items were ruined during the disaster, and I refuse to lose more money than necessary."
"Very well." She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "And then you'll show me which way she went?"
"If you buy the complementary band, I won't have to." He held his palm out expectantly.
"With one, you can find the other. Always!"
She doubted his claim, but she wasn't worried about the cost. If this got her closer to Seven's location, then she'd pay what she must. Part of her wanted to barter with him and lower his price, but she didn't want to waste time; she gave him the currency he demanded, slid the band onto her wrist, and followed his instructions. By pressing a small button, she activated the band's positioning system, and a glowing arrow projected just above her wrist.
Setting off in the direction the arrow pointed, she nimbly dodged pedestrians, fallen debris, and cracks in the ground. Nothing had happened to Seven, she assured herself. The blonde had simply gone off to help with damage control and lost track of her comm badge. This was highly likely, as even after years of wearing one, Seven still occasionally neglected to keep track of hers.
Despite having these thoughts, she hardly believed them. There was a dull ache in her chest that convinced her that this wouldn't have a happy ending. She shouldn't have allowed Tom and Seven to leave the embassy, especially after the accidental proposal. Other than what Seven told them, they had no real concept of this people. For all she knew, the Viori had crafted this natural disaster to get what they couldn't via politics.
That was her fear talking. She couldn't condemn a species she barely knew after an accident just because her significant other had gone missing. Starfleet insisted on a rational approach to first encounters, and she would be fair-minded until there was proof of wrong-doing.
Pausing to catch her breath, she examined the sprawling landscape through which she was traversing. The land looked ravaged; an after-effect of the Borg, she deduced. That they hadn't reclaimed the land spoke volumes about their desperate situation, and she could better understand Seven's devotion to helping the Viori somehow. Although she hadn't played any part in the Borg destroying Vior, she too felt the need to provide some form of assistance.
She set off again, checking her band every few minutes to insure that she was heading in the right direction. She traveled for a good thirty minutes more before she realized where she was being guided. She tapped her comm badge and called for Tom, who answered immediately. She supposed the scolding he'd received was more than sufficient to remind him of the respect she was due.
"Has Seven returned?"
"I haven't seen her."
The conversation repeated twice more as she contacted both Ashmore and Chakotay; her frown deepened as she finally trekked back into the embassy, where the device's arrow was pointing her. She marched onward, determined to find answers.
Mallus lifted their hand, presumably to calm her, but Janeway was in no mood for meaningless plateaus and false promises. Seven was somewhere in the embassy, and there was no explanation for that, except that their gracious hosts had kidnapped her. If Seven had arrived willingly, then she would have checked in somehow, either in person or through another-but there had been no word from Seven for too long.
"Please, Captain. You're making a scene."
"I'll make much worse than that if you do not return my wife to me."
"I'm not sure what you're implying."
"I have information regarding Seven's location." She spoke painfully slowly, so there would be no questioning her meaning. "She is in the embassy."
"Then why are you not with her? Is something the matter?"
For a moment, she was tempted to explode at him. Yet, she had no real proof of his involvement, so she curbed her anger and replied, "None of my crew have seen her, and she is not responding to our hails."
"That is indeed cause for concern. Our resources are at your disposal, should you require assistance finding her."
Janeway ground her teeth and nodded curtly. Mallus was born and bred to be a politician-there was no other way he could have such a polished answer to a question she'd never posed. She was supposed to be placated, but she was far from that. She'd take him up on that, just as soon as she reconvened with Chakotay and figured out their next step.
Returning to her quarters, she sat on the damn couch that felt like bricks beneath her and closed her eyes. This was supposed to be a relatively simple mission: meet with the Viori, make small talk, and exchange what was necessary. Instead, she'd lost one of the few people she'd allowed close to her, and negotiations were going stale.
When the door opened, she didn't bother straightening her posture. She was tired and sad, and for once, she didn't feel up to hiding her emotional state.
Without lifting her head, she knew that Chakotay was lingering in the doorway. She waved him inside, aware that this conversation should be somewhat private. When he sat beside her, she finally straightened and eyed him.
"You needed something?"
"You don't look well," he said quietly. "Have you eaten?"
"No, and I'm not hungry."
"You need to-"
"I'm not interested in a lecture." She stared him down, aware that the usual force of her glare was lacking.
"Then I won't give you one. I'm still your friend, aren't I? Let me help you." When she didn't respond, he set his hand on her arm. "I don't know what happened, Kathryn. You used to rely on me, but now, you push yourself until you break."
"I could name a dozen times, but that's unnecessary. Either you believe me or you don't-but I needed to tell you. I'm your friend, whether you acknowledge that or not, and even if I were only your first officer, my job is to help you."
Janeway deflated, leaning back against the couch. "I need to find Seven."
"No, you really don't. Chakotay, I need her."
"The ship wouldn't function nearly as well without her."
Stomach knotted uncomfortably, she sighed and straightened her shoulders. If she was going to tell him the truth, then she would do so proudly. After an initial stutter, she said, "While the marriage is fake, the relationship is not. Seven and I have been seeing each other for quite some time now, and her kidnapping sets my teeth on edge."
"Now…I'm afraid my feelings have gotten in the way of my judgment." She slouched back down, as the hard part of her confession was over. "I ought to have accepted your help earlier-I'm compromised, Chakotay, and I don't know what to do."
For a minute or so, he sat quietly, his hands linked in his lap. She wondered what was going through his mind but couldn't summon the courage to ask. There was a chance that he wouldn't accept this news easily. She never let him close for a multitude of reasons, most of which applied to Seven; yet, she'd allowed Seven an intimacy she'd never consider giving him.
"I'm not sure what this changes," he finally said. "The fact remains that we have to find her."
"Don't you have anything to say about-about everything else?"
"I'm glad you're letting yourself find happiness." He met her gaze and smiled, and relief trickled through her. She'd been holding herself together with nothing more than her will and desperation, but his steady presence gave her strength. "I understand why you haven't volunteered this information before, but I'm thankful you chose to confide in me now."
Her lips trembled. This had been an emotionally taxing day, and all she wanted was to decompress in Seven's embrace. The chance of that happening, however, was unlikely, so she decided to set her mind to another task to keep from worrying unnecessarily.
"I'd like to access a map of this building. She's in here somewhere, but they won't just let us wander around wherever we want. If we can pinpoint possibilities, we can start searching without drawing too much attention."
"What do you need me to do, Captain?"
She grinned at him, glad to have someone at her side.
Head throbbing, Seven opened her eyes and peered around. The room was dark, but her enhanced vision had little problem scoping her environment. She could tell she was on a bed, but there was no other furniture around. Across from her was a door with a light switch adjacent; she staggered to her feet, crossed the room, and flicked the switch, bathing the room in dim light. A few pushes on the door revealed she was locked in, so she shifted her attention from trying to escape.
Better able to see, she noted a padd resting on the edge of the bed. As there was nothing else to examine, she picked the device up and scanned its contents, hoping for a clue as to her location. Instead, she found a detailed history of Vior that focused primarily on the years leading up to the first Borg attack. Taking a seat, she scrolled through the information; although she'd never seen this information before, the story was hardly unique. Still, a dull ache settled in her chest as she was confronted with the violence she'd partaken in as a drone.
The door slid noiselessly open, and the motion drew Seven's attention. A slim figured Viori entered, and she stood quickly. The Viori hesitated when she took a step forward, so she resisted the urge to move forward. Anger pooled in her belly at being kidnapped like this, an inefficient human response, but her Borg control kept her from lashing out unduly. She wanted to return to Janeway but understood that behaving poorly would do nothing but restrict her freedom further.
"How are you feeling?"
Seven's gaze narrowed. "Physically, I am functioning within acceptable parameters."
"I suppose that your anger is to be expected."
"You will release me."
"I don't have clearance to do that." The Viori moved farther inside, and the door closed behind them. "But is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?"
"Allow me to contact Captain Janeway."
"I'm afraid I can't do that."
"What can you do?"
"Offer you something to eat or drink."
"I do not require nutrition at this time. I will, however, require regeneration within six hours."
"To maintain my Borg implants."
The Viori shifted nervously. "We don't have that technology."
"I will need to return to Voyager."
"I am fully aware of how little you can accomplish." Seven turned her attention back to the padd, deeming further conversation with this Viori irrelevant and a waste of her time.
"What happens if you don't regenerate?"
"I will deactivate." Seven lifted her gaze once more and stared with no shortage of vehemence.
"I presume you have kidnapped me to enlist my assistance. However, I doubt you will convince me to help you before I die." The Viori transferred their gaze to the ground and shrank back against the door. Deciding that she'd made her point, Seven sighed. "You hold no power, so there is little to be gained by making your life harder."
"What is your name?"
"You are working class," Seven stated, taking note of the 'lo' on the end of her guard's name.
This meant that Yanlo could do nothing that had not been approved by someone of a higher social class. Seven sighed and settled against her bedspread. "Can you take a message to your superior? Tell them that I am willing to help, but I will not stay permanently. I am no good to anyone dead, so I will need to return to Voyager by the end of the day."
"I'll try," Yanlo promised, ducking their head and shuffling out of the room.
The next time the door opened, Seven was prepared. She had filed her frustrations away to process later and adopted what she hoped was a welcoming smile. Lt. Paris informed her once that one was more likely to catch flies with honey, and she deemed the advice highly applicable in her current circumstances. At the very least, she might lull her host into a sense of false security, which she could use to her tactical advantage.
"Hello," Yanlo greeted, arm drooping and eyes averted.
"Are you unwell?"
"I spoke with my superiors. They believed you were lying in order to obtain your freedom."
"I don't believe that," Yanlo ventured, stepping closer. They seemed earnest enough, but Seven was aware that nothing being presented to her was likely honest or without bias. For all she knew, Yanlo's behavior was a ploy to tug on her emotional response.
"Thank you." Seven kept her voice polite but clipped. "Then I will await rescue, as you have no doubt angered my captain. Alone, if you don't mind."
"Have I offended you?"
"Although you are helping to maintain my imprisonment, no, you personally have not offended me." Seven sat on her bed and retrieved the padd. She'd already committed all the information to memory, but she had learned that looking busy encouraged others to leave her in peace.
"Oh, that's good."
"I would like to be alone."
"I was hoping you might tell me about what it's like on your ship."
Seven lifted her gaze. "That would be an inefficient use of time, as you will never see it."
"That's why I'd like to know. There are many things and places I'll never experience, but that doesn't mean I can't be curious-that I can't dream."
Seven felt some modicum of compassion for this alien being, who was little more than a drone fulfilling their duties without the ability or power to change anything. Inviting Yanlo to sit with her, she spoke at length of the ship's appearance and capabilities, followed by precise details of the crew and the particulars of their jobs. As she described Janeway, she couldn't stop her voice from quavering; if Janeway couldn't find her in time, then she'd never get to say good bye. She'd left so early that morning that they'd barely exchanged three words, which meant their last conversation had ended on a sour note. That was not the way she wished Janeway to remember her.
"You are upset."
"I am," Seven acknowledged. "Did you expect otherwise?"
"We are aware that your relationship with the captain was a lie created to keep you from marrying Skullus."
"We are not married, but we are committed to one another romantically." Seven cleared her throat and tried to regain her composure. "Is there any other information you require, or may I conserve my energy in peace?"
Yanlo stood and ducked their head. "I thank you for your time and knowledge."
Once she was alone, Seven leaned back onto the bed and folded her hands over her stomach. She hoped Janeway was aware of how strong her feelings were and wondered if Janeway thought of her as much as she thought of Janeway.
In another part of the building, Janeway was having similar thoughts. Her dog on Earth had lost tufts of hair due to stress every trip to the vet, and she was extremely glad her body didn't experience the same response; she wasn't a vain person, but she did like the way her hair looked. Instead, she was prone to nibbling on her nails, and her cuticles were quickly becoming a warzone.
"So, what you're saying is that the device I purchased is broken?"
The Viori before her trembled as they nodded. "Yes, that seems to be the most obvious explanation."
"I don't think so." She slowly and calmly placed her palms flat on the counter and leaned closer to her easy-to-break opponent. "I think that you've been given orders not to let me pass because you know Seven is somewhere beyond these doors."
"Captain." Chakotay's voice was low and soothing as he placed a hand on her arm. "Yelling at this person won't get her back any quicker."
"We're running out of time. She needs to regenerate."
"I know that." He tugged her away, so the Viori couldn't eavesdrop on their conversation. "They want Seven alive, otherwise they would have just killed her. The moment she collapses, they'll undoubtedly contact us about saving her. She's no good to anyone dead."
"What do you suggest? And if you say anything about just going back to our rooms and waiting for that to happen-"
He lifted his hands defensively. "I know you'd never agree to that. I just want to encourage a bit more diplomacy and a little less rampaging."
She snorted at his words. Just because their goal was closely related to her personal happiness didn't mean she could let her emotions rule her decisions. She gripped and squeezed his shoulder in thanks. He grinned back at her and gestured at the waiting Viori, who had composed themself during the short break.
"I apologize for my brusque conduct before. I'm afraid that when my wife goes missing, I lose a bit of my self-control."
"I'm sorry for the circumstances-"
"Great." Janeway didn't give them a chance to explain what they meant and chose to barrel forward with what she'd been given. "Then you'll be more than happy to help us resolve the problem."
They opened their eyes a bit wider. "I don't know… How?"
"Look, we both know that my device is probably just malfunctioning, right? So, what's the harm in just giving us a peek through those doors. One peek, and we'll leave you alone."
"Barely even a glimpse."
They shifted from foot to foot and rubbed the two fingers together nervously. "I really shouldn't."
"Do you know why I'm so calm right now?" She waited until they shook their head. "Because my first officer right here reminds me of protocol. You might consider him the only thing keeping me from flying off the handle. But he doesn't have to stay. I could send him back to his quarters, if you like."
Moments later, the door slid open, and the Viori hovered anxiously near her shoulder. "Just a moment, right?"
"Right." Ignoring her promise and the Viori's stuttered complaints, she strode down the hallway.
She hurried along with Chakotay close behind, aware that there would be security officers after them in a very short period of time. The hallway twisted and led to a series of doors, all of which had strings of alien symbols painted on them. Following the arrow on her watch, she located the door, behind which she knew she'd either find Seven or Seven's watch, and tried the handle.
When she found the door locked, she assigned Chakotay to figuring out a way inside and then rapped her fist against the barrier. "Seven, are you in there?"
A moment passed before Seven's hesitant voice came: "Captain?"
"Are you injured?"
"I am in need of regeneration, and I have superficial wounds that require tending."
"We're going to get you out."
"Oh, Seven." Janeway rested her forehead against the door, hating how close yet far away they were from one another.
"Do not worry. I have faith in your capabilities."
Chakotay interrupted their moment with a hurried whisper: "Captain, I hear footsteps. It may be wise for you to stall for a bit more time."
Janeway placed her palm flat on the door for a few seconds and then pushed away to do as Chakotay suggested. She cut off three Viori at the head of the hallway, lifted her hands to halt their progress, and smiled widely.
"Can I help you with something?"
"You are trespassing."
"Oh? I didn't know we weren't supposed to be back here. That lovely Viori by the door said we could take a look around."
"Come with us."
"Actually, now that I'm already back here, I don't see the harm in just looking around a bit."
The lead Viori took a step forward, while their fellows lifted their firearms to follow her movements. Sensing that she'd pushed as far as she could without inciting violence, she sighed and nodded.
"Fine," she said. "I can see that I've overstepped. I'll go with you."
"And the other who was with you?"
Angling to buy additional time, she adopted a puzzled expression. "The other?"
"Your first officer."
"He's not in his quarters?"
"You have ten seconds."
Counting down, she waited nearly the full time had elapsed before stating, "He's at the end of the hall. He was acting under my orders, and you will not harm him."
She spun around, recognizing Seven's voice and gait. The blonde hurried around the corner and collided into her. She caught her balance, tugged Seven closer, and clung to Seven tightly. The world around them seemed to go mute-the sounds and colors blurred into a distant haze, and all Janeway could focus on was the way Seven felt in her arms. She kissed the corner of Seven's mouth before fully capturing Seven's lips. That she'd been afraid of others finding out about what they shared felt foolish now, and she never wanted to hide her happiness again.
Their embrace ended only when the tip of a gun butted against Janeway's back. She reluctantly released Seven and raised her hands. Spinning about, she smiled wryly at the guards, who were less than entertained by what just transpired.
Wishing Tom were present to enjoy her next statement, Janeway said, "Take me to your leaders."
"This is unacceptable!"
Seven fought to keep her expression blase while both Janeway and Mallus spoke simultaneously. As the Viori had kidnapped her, Janeway apparently saw no point for calm negotiation; likewise, Janeway's behavior had been construed as rude, leading the Viori to treat their delegation less than pleasantly. Seven let the arguing continue for a while, deciding that wearing both leaders out would work to her advantage. Eventually, however, she cleared her throat and grabbed their attention.
"Perhaps we can agree that feelings were hurt," she stated, "and then simply move forward. Captain Janeway, we need supplies. Imperator Mallus, you need protection from the Borg. Despite our differences, I still believe we can come to a mutually agreeable bargain."
Janeway tilted her head, which Seven knew was a positive sign. Mallus remained still, their eyes dark and unreadable. After a moment, they waved their hand. "Very well. What would you propose?"
"I used my time in that room to educate myself about your current security measures."
"But that padd-"
"Was only designed to hold your society's history. I am aware."
"Borg ingenuity," Janeway interjected.
Seven granted her a half-smile. "Indeed. I have analyzed your weaknesses and have designed several upgrades that should provide a modicum of safety from the Borg. I am willing to provide these to you if, in return, you provide Captain Janeway with the supplies she requires."
Mallus remained stiff. "And how do we know your information will actually be helpful?"
"You will simply have to believe me. Information provided willingly is more trustworthy than anything said under duress."
"We'll even give you the information first, so you can evaluate it." Janeway spread her hands as she stood. "Once you're satisfied, you can hold up your end of the bargain. We'll return to our ship and transmit her suggestions as soon as possible."
When Janeway marched away, Seven followed with her hands linked neatly behind her back. As soon as they were alone, she touched Janeway's shoulder to halt their progression. "How do you know they will give us supplies?"
Janeway shrugged, half of her mouth curling up. "We don't, but they're desperate and afraid. If we have some way of helping them, we have a moral obligation to, regardless of whether they help us in return."
Janeway's fingers caught under her chin and drew her face lower. Knowing what was coming, Seven let her eyes flutter shut. The kiss didn't last long, but Seven relished in the attention so freely given. Together, they headed for the shuttle bay, but before they could board the Viori vessel that would take them back to the Delta Flyer, Janeway linked their hands together.
"I almost lost you," Janeway murmured, tightening her grip. "Really puts things into perspective, you know?"
Seven nodded, although she didn't truly know. "Yes, Captain."
With a short barked laugh, Janeway shook her head. "I can't let a little thing like what people might say or think get in the way of spending time with you and appreciating this. We may not actually be married, but what we have is real. Before you were taken, you mentioned that you didn't want to hide anymore. Well, I don't want to, either."
Seven considered this during the short ride from the embassy to the Flyer and then from the Flyer to the Voyager. While this was what she wanted, she couldn't help but wonder if Janeway would follow through on her intention. Making a statement was easy; being open about their relationship in front of the crew could prove difficult. She braced herself for disappointment as they disembarked and met Tuvok in the corridor. Yet, Janeway's grip on her hand remained firm. One of Tuvok's eyebrows arched up as he spotted their still-linked hands, but he made no comment.
"Maintain position." Janeway turned and kissed Seven's cheek. "I'll be on the bridge. Regenerate, and then report to the Doctor for a full examination."
As the Janeway walked away, Tom snuck up behind Seven and nudged her with his shoulder. "I called it."
"I suppose." Seven strode toward the 'lift.
"Lemme guess-I'm not allowed to tell anyone, not even B'Elanna."
Chest warm, Seven pivoted to face him. She held her head high and replied, "You can tell anyone you want. We have nothing to hide."