Adaptations: A Sequel to Sustenance

    by Tenderware (tenderware@gate.net), based on a Story Idea by EmptyFlask

VOY J/7 NC-17

Warning: This is a sexually explicit story that explores a loving relationship between two female characters. If you are a minor or are offended by lesbianism or sex or both, then please go read something else.

Disclaimer: The characters were created by Paramount, Kate Mulgrew, and Jeri Ryan. I'm just borrowing them to tell a tale. This is strictly a fair-use, not-for-profit, just-for-fun kind of deal. No money exchanged hands; just a few ideas about romance.

Summary: Their love helped Janeway and Seven survive several weeks on a desolate planet. Will it also sustain them now that they're back on Voyager and confronted by a crew that seems incapable of adapting to the captain's new relationship with the former Borg?

Time frame and Spoiler Alert: Beginning of 6th Season. Possible spoilers for "Pathfinder" (Season 6), "Night" and "Infinite Regress" (Season 5), and "Message in a Bottle" (Season 4). And as a sequel, this story definitely gives away the "mystery" of its predecessor, so please read Sustenance first if you haven't already.

Acknowledgments: I should begin by thanking the members of Hercaptain, who were the first to clamor for a sequel to Sustenance and who provided early comments and suggestions.....and lots of encouragement. Part of the reason this took so long, however, is because I was missing a credible B-story plot. So I owe a very special thanks to EmptyFlask for the drifting-wormhole idea, which provided all the necessary sci-fi inspiration. And extra thanks, finally, to Otter for Beta reading and for providing excellent suggestions throughout, particularly regarding the more romantic epilogue.

Dedication: One of my readers wrote me last June (1999) saying she'd like to see a story in which Janeway and Seven get together, but the crew doesn't accept the relationship. This one is for you, Asrael. Sorry it took so long.


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Prologue

Kathryn Janeway kissed the damp inner thigh laid out before her. Ordinarily, it would quiver at the slightest provocation, let alone an ardent touch from her searing red lips. Tonight, however, it merely shifted position, more restless than aroused. Kathryn absently wiped her chin on a cast-off sheet and ascended the lanky body of her gentle, young lover, Seven of Nine.

They were both sweaty and tired from the efforts of their futile lovemaking, which made Kathryn wonder if perhaps Seven wasn't really in the mood after all, despite her apparent interest earlier in the evening. As she settled over Seven, however, the young woman quickly shut her eyes in mock concentration. Kathryn understood the gesture as a means to shut her out, but she wasn't insulted. She simply accepted that Seven didn't want to talk.

Stifling a sigh, she slipped her hands underneath her young lover's back and was gratified when Seven returned the embrace. So Kathryn tried again. Gripping Seven's shoulders, she began sliding her hot, damp body along Seven's, pressing her thigh into the thatch of blond coils between Seven's legs even as she rubbed her own engorged sex against Seven's fleshy thigh. Her movements were deliberate, languorous, seductive, her face nuzzling Seven's neck as she gyrated her pelvis around the sexy swells of Seven's upper thigh and hip bone.

Her own breath began to catch; Seven merely sighed.

Kathryn stopped and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Then she raised her head to study her companion's face.

"Darling, what's wrong?"

"What?" Seven responded, turning her attention to Kathryn as if noticing her for the first time.

"I asked you what's wrong. You don't usually take this long to climax," she explained gently. "You seem distracted."

The young woman inhaled sharply through flared nostrils. "I regret causing you such inconvenience, Kathryn," she blurted angrily. "If you wish to stop, just tell me!"

"That's not what I mea--"

Seven interrupted as she scooted out from under Kathryn. "I will get dressed and return to the cargo bay," she declared, preparing to bolt from the bed.

Kathryn instantly knelt up behind Seven and threw a restraining arm over her shoulder and across her chest. "Hey, stop," she called, her tone gentle but firm. "Seven," she whispered tenderly into the ex-Borg's ear. "Please, darling. Don't leave."

She pressed her naked bosom warmly against Seven's bare back, kissing softly along the nape of her neck, at her ear, along the blond temple. "Seven, please listen. I could make love to you for days on end, and I don't want to stop now. All I meant is that you seem tense and preoccupied." She nuzzled Seven's ear. "I'd like to help you relax," she whispered, "so you can climax......if you want to, my love."

Kathryn felt some of the tension and resistance drain from her partner's shoulders, so she gently pulled her down onto her back again, wanting to see her face. Seven was crying. The sight made Kathryn's own eyes tear.

"Oh, Seven," she cried. "I can't bear to see you like this."

Those words of comfort and love broke through the last of Seven's self-restraint. And with a gasping breath, she finally released all the hurt and anger and frustration that had been building quietly over the weeks since they'd been rescued. Her eyes stung as the tears streamed hotly down her cheeks. Try as she might, however, she couldn't seem to catch her breath. She detested this loss of control and felt embarrassed by it. Almost instinctively, she clutched at Kathryn, burying her face in the smaller woman's neck.

As if reading her mind, Kathryn cooed words of reassurance and support. "It's all right, my darling," she said, cradling and stroking the blond head. "Just cry, Seven. Let it all out," she encouraged.

Kathryn felt her upper body becoming progressively wetter, Seven's tears mingling with their sweat and the remnants of their lovemaking. The bed itself felt excessively damp. She pulled Seven closer, trying to move her over to a dryer spot, and pulled up the sheet to warm them both, wanting to help Seven feel cozy and safe.

After a long while, the young woman's wracking sobs gave way to smaller cries and finally to whimpering spasms.

Kathryn kissed Seven's temple, the bridge of her nose, the tear-stained cheeks, and then the corner of her lips. Then she reached over to her night stand and pulled out a tissue, using it to wipe her lover's eyes and cheeks and nose.

Seven's eyes drifted up towards Kathryn's. Catching the hand with the tissue, she pulled it close and kissed the wrist. Then she smiled sweetly at her lover.

Kathryn smiled back......relieved.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Seven sighed. She couldn't bring herself to complain about the crew to Kathryn. Whereas before she would never have hesitated, their personal relationship now made that enormously complicated. There was simply no way she could do it without placing Kathryn in the impossible position of having to take sides between her lover and her crew. Seven could never bring herself to do that. So she opted for a more circumspect but equally honest response.

"I do not want to discuss it, except to say that sometimes," she said sincerely, "I wish we were still stranded."

She half-expected the admission would bring her a sense of relief, but she felt suddenly embarrassed by it, remembering too late how difficult the ordeal had been for her unfortunate partner. The insensitivity of her own remark cut through her like a cold blade and made her feel small and wretched.

"Oh, I am sorry, Kathryn!" she cried. "I should not have said that."

"Shhh, darling, it's OK," Kathryn said. "I understand," she assured her.

In fact, she did understand. The statement spoke volumes, more than Seven realized. But then, Kathryn wasn't entirely blind to everything that had been going on. Nor was she completely immune herself to the looks, the hushed voices, the speculative glances, some tinged with reproach.

All the crew could plainly see that being stranded for twenty-five days on a desolate planet had profoundly changed their captain and their Borg crewmate, as well as the apparent nature of the relationship between them. Not that the captain flaunted her new romance in front of the crew, but even if she and Seven had thought to conceal their love, the endeavor would have been hopeless. The quiet intensity of their shared looks gave them away. The slight softening of their voices when they addressed each other. The way they seemed always to be silently communicating with each other, even with a roomful of people between them. One would have to have been completely blind and self-absorbed not to have noticed that the captain had fallen for Seven.....although, except for Chakotay and the Doctor, no one really understood the dire circumstances that had led to those undeniable emotions.

And as Kathryn considered it now, maybe that was the problem. All most of the crew ever saw of Seven was the too cool Borg veneer with the steely arrogance and amoral efficiency. They knew nothing of the magnitude of compassion and devotion and sacrifice that Seven was capable of. Those were sentiments she reserved almost exclusively for Kathryn.

And all the crew knew of Captain Kathryn Janeway was exactly the sort of bigger-than-life image that she studiously projected, especially after stranding them in the Delta Quadrant. They could never see, and hence could never understand, the immensity of Kathryn's own need for love, her own capacity to be weak and vulnerable and hungry for human contact, for the press of a dear one's flesh, the embrace of her arms, the strength of her shoulder to cry on. That need was something Kathryn had only allowed herself to share with Seven, and even then reluctantly. It had taken all of Seven's great Borg tenacity and resolve and, once that was depleted, her very human tears to break through the captain's defenses and make Kathryn finally accept Seven's love and support. Ironically, then, their relationship grew out of characteristics that were the exact opposite of each woman's apparent nature: Kathryn's need and Seven's nurturance. How could the crew accept a relationship between two personalities they didn't even realize existed?

With a deep sigh and a subtle shake of her head, Kathryn admitted to herself that it had all been so much easier when no one else's feelings were involved, when no one else's opinion mattered. She pulled away a little from Seven so she could look carefully into her eyes, wanting the young woman to sense how earnest and heartfelt her next statement was.

"Seven," she began, "sometimes -- a lot of times, actually -- I wish we were still stranded, too."

Kathryn saw the confusion wash over Seven's features.

"No, darling," she gently corrected. "Not the part where I was starving. I definitely don't miss that," she joked bitterly with a sideways smile. "I mean the part where you cared for me, the part where we were alone, just the two of us. Endlessly making love," she added with a low, seductive trill. "I've never been happier in all my life than I was at that moment, past the point of wondering what had happened to Voyager and of worrying about what was probably going to happen to us."

There was surprise in Kathryn's tone as she continued. "I hadn't expected to feel so relaxed and content at precisely the moment when I was sure I had lost everything: my ship, my crew, my hopes of returning home, and soon, I thought, my life. There was nothing left in the universe for me to worry about except loving you. Oh, Seven, I was then and am now prepared to love you to my very last breath. And sometimes, when we're lying here together, making long, slow love to each other, I feel a little of that same carefree, joyous eternity."

Seven smiled through her tears, swallowing back the new surge of emotions that swelled in her throat.

Kathryn studied her again. "Do you still want to leave?" she asked softly.

Now it was Seven's turn to reassure. "No," she breathed. "I want you to make love to me, Kathryn. As if it were just you and me and the universe.....for a carefree, joyous eternity."

"Seven," Kathryn breathed, "oh, yes!"

Her lips immediately sought Seven's in an urgent kiss that became a deep embrace of their tongues. Seven's mouth was hot and wet and sweet against her own, and she told her so in that way lovers have of talking without words, two sighs whispering secrets, one moan calling out to another. Their breathing became heavy with excitement until Kathryn had to break away for fresh gulps of air. Only for an instant, however, as Kathryn's lips hungered for the taste of Seven's chin and then for the tender center of her throat. In the next moment, she began a slow descent of kisses, trailing down the valley of Seven's breastbone and then onto the flat plain of her abdomen.

"No, Kathryn," Seven said gently. "I need you up here.....with me."

"Of course, my darling. Anything," Kathryn replied, repositioning herself over her partner. "Oh, Seven, I love you so much." She kissed Seven's right cheek, then traced the starburst implant with the tip of her tongue. When she reached Seven's ear, she brushed her lips against the lobe and whispered to her passionately. "Just tell me what you want."

They clutched at each other then, Seven burying her face in Kathryn's neck, suddenly too embarrassed to admit what she wanted.

Kathryn perceived the hesitation and then guessed what Seven needed, what would give her -- what always gave them both -- a sense of comfort.

"You miss it," she stated knowingly. Seven's downcast eyes and half-bitten lower lip confirmed Kathryn's guess. "I miss it, too," she admitted.

Tears welled in the young woman's eyes at the admission. Kathryn had been so troubled by what they had done to survive on the planet that Seven hadn't entirely expected her to feel the same way. The truth was, however, that although Seven's breasts no longer produced milk, her body remembered the joyous sensation of feeding Kathryn and often ached with the need to relive that experience. And whether out of habit or instinct, Kathryn regularly felt an overwhelming need to taste Seven, her mouth gravitating naturally toward the young woman's nipples.

Kathryn blinked away her own tears and smiled sweetly at Seven. "You still sustain me, my darling. And maybe it's because of what it meant to both of us, but I always feel safest and happiest and most loved when you're holding my face to your bosom."

They kissed again, and then Kathryn trailed her lips to the warm, sweetly scented melons of Seven's chest. She kissed around one of the plump nipples, which puckered instantly in anticipation, and then took it into her mouth, sucking with a fervent yet languid rhythm. And when she felt Seven tighten her embrace and gasp with familiar pleasure, she smiled contentedly against the warm flesh, emitting a short, throaty moan of her own.

After having been stranded for over three weeks on a lifeless rock, this simple, natural gesture between them was, for both, the real homecoming. And it was good to be home.

~~~~~~~

Act I

Harry Kim surreptitiously eyed the captain and Seven as they sat at the other end of the messhall, quietly consuming their breakfast. "I don't know," he complained to his companions. "They just don't seem all that happy to be back home."

"Well, I guess as long as their food was holding out," B'Elanna offered sarcastically, "they were having a nice little honeymoon together.....that is, until we came along and spoiled it."

Harry flinched at the sexual innuendo in the comment.

"That's overstating things, B'Elanna," Tom objected. "After all, Janeway looked pretty darn frail when we rescued them, and even Seven had a little less swell to her curves."

B'Elanna smirked at the choice of words, but she understood that Tom was using them for Harry's benefit. The slight quirk in Harry's lips, moreover, indicated that Tom's humor had hit its mark.

"I'm not thrilled that they were starving, Tom. I mean, I'm not that heartless, especially when it comes to the captain. But Harry's right. They just don't seem as appreciative as they could have been. After all, most of us were pulling triple shifts so we could rescue them before the food ran out."

"Well good thing we did, if they were able to salvage only about a third of the food we sent down."

B'Elanna conceded the point with a nod, having read the captain's report, too. "That's just it, though. Since they were on their last legs, they should have been a lot happier to see us. And I would've expected Janeway to miss us a lot more than she did. But when they got back, she just hid in her quarters for the first week, all the while Seven was regenerating. And since then, she's been spending all her spare time with Seven."

"Obviously they have a new 'understanding'," Tom euphemized.

"It's not right, Tom," B'Elanna shot back in a low voice. "It goes against every Starfleet protocol for the captain to get involved with a member of her crew."

"Since when are you such a stickler for protocol?" Tom challenged.

"This one matters. It's about the captain keeping her objectivity in decisions involving Seven, like sending her on an Away mission or deciding between what Seven wants and what the rest of us want."

"You mean you're worried that when it comes down to picking sides, the captain will always pick Seven's side.....over yours," Tom translated bluntly.

B'Elanna bristled but didn't bother correcting him. "Look," she continued, "I'm actually more worried about Seven's attitude since she already thought too much of herself, even before becoming involved with the captain, but the truth is that Janeway isn't exactly acting like her old self either. I just don't get what she sees in Seven."

"Well, she's always been a little protective of her," Harry offered, "but that always seemed more maternal. And I think Seven sort of looked up to the captain as a mentor. To me, it just doesn't seem right for the captain to take advantage of that trust."

"Hey, she's human. Maybe you just have trouble seeing Janeway as a sexual being," Tom suggested.

Harry coughed. "Well, it isn't something I like to think about."

"And how do you know it wasn't Seven who pursued the captain?"

"I'm having trouble seeing that one, Tom," B'Elanna rejoined. "Seven is such a cold fish. How could anybody fall for her?"

"You've got to be kidding."

"No, I'm not. Seven may be easy on the eyes, but she grates on the nerves. And she's as heartless and unloving as they come. Definitely not the passionate type."

"Maybe there's a side to her that we aren't aware of, a side she only shows Janeway."

"Do you honestly believe that?" B'Elanna challenged.

"I honestly don't care," Tom shot back mockingly. "I'm honestly tired of having the same discussion every day because you're incapable of getting over your obsession about this. Look, why don't you just let me know when you're ready to start talking about something else? In the meantime, I'll be on the Bridge."

Harry fidgeted uncomfortably, feeling like a third wheel while his two friends had their lover's spat.

B'Elanna simply steamed, casting daggers at Tom's retreating back and deciding that she had yet another reason for disliking the blond Borg.

~~~~~~~

Kathryn bit into her omelet with little enthusiasm as she watched Tom Paris leaving the messhall and idly wondered where he was off to so early.

"Is there anything wrong with your breakfast, Kathryn?" Seven asked from across the table.

Kathryn smiled back sadly. "No, Seven. It's fine."

"Is it the 'company' then?" Seven continued, intending her question as a gentle tease but also suspecting that she wasn't far off the mark.

Kathryn cocked her head curiously over her coffee cup. "How can you be so strong and supportive when you were so miserable last night?" she marveled.

She had intended the question rhetorically, but Seven considered it, searching for the right expression, and then responded quietly: "I 'got laid'."

The unexpected reply made the captain sputter into the coffee she was sipping.

Seven quirked her eyebrow and then offered politely: "If you wish, I will give you the less facetious response when you have recovered."

Kathryn swallowed and immediately put her cup down, her expression a mix of caution, humor, and fondness. "Proceed," she said.

"I believe we 'take turns' in our need for comfort. Yet another way we complement each other so well."

That elicited another smile from Kathryn. "I think you're right, darling. You seem lowest after a long day of trying to......" she struggled for the right word.

"Adapt," Seven offered.

Kathryn nodded. She had once considered the term an overly technical expression, but she now understood it as Seven's euphemism for the trials she experienced trying to fit into her human collective.

"And you, Kathryn," Seven continued, "seem lowest in the morning."

"Because I'm facing a whole day without you, my love," she explained sweetly.

Seven smiled although she wasn't fooled.

After a moment, the light mood slipped away, and Kathryn mourned its passing with a sigh. "We've been taking our breakfast in here almost every day trying to get the crew to relax around us, and all we've managed are a few polite nods and stiff 'good mornings'."

"It does appear we've been unsuccessful in our attempts, but," Seven lowered her voice, "you were visibly uncomfortable on the two occasions when one of the crew actually joined us for breakfast."

Janeway made sure no one else was listening before responding. "That's because the 'polite conversation' kept turning to questions about our experiences on the planet. I'd just rather not talk about it.....for obvious reasons." She took a deep breath. "Still," she considered after a moment, "maybe I need to make more of an effort.....for your sake."

"No, Kathryn," Seven objected a little too loudly.

They were instantly aware of a lull in nearby conversations as several crew momentarily shifted their attention to the two women and then just as quickly averted their eyes and feigned not to notice them.

Seven became immediately subdued. "I'm sorry, Kathryn," she whispered. "I simply do not want you to become involved."

Kathryn broke her own rule about public displays and reached across the table to clutch Seven's hand. "I am involved, Seven," she declared. "For you to feel as unhappy as you felt last night is.....unacceptable to me," she concluded, using another of Seven's favorite words.

Seven was spared the effort of replying as Commander Tuvok's call came over the ship's comm system.

"Senior staff to the Bridge."

The leisurely atmosphere was instantly overrun by the hustle and bustle of Starfleet discipline.

Rising automatically, Kathryn regarded Seven's expression and could tell by the quirk of her metallic brow that she, too, had heard the uncharacteristic urgency inflecting Tuvok's voice. She and Seven immediately moved toward the exit. They were silently joined by Harry and B'Elanna, who had been sitting at another table and now seemed uncomfortable in the company of the two women, even as they tried to mask their discomfort with a professional demeanor. Kathryn gave them a polite nod and wasn't the least bit gratified when they returned it stiffly.

As the captain and her officers made their way to the turbolift, Kathryn turned her attention from her personal trials to ship's business, quickly assessing their situation based on the evidence already before her. Since no red-alert klaxon had sounded, she knew that they were in no immediate threat from some approaching danger. That piqued her curiosity all the more, making her wonder what else could possibly excite her Vulcan second officer. She had no more time to speculate, however, as the turbolift opened onto the Bridge. She and her companions filed out, Harry taking his position at Ops, B'Elanna sitting at the starboard engineering station, Seven taking the aft auxiliary engineering station, and Kathryn coming to stand by Tuvok in the command area behind the helm, where Tom Paris was already busy at work.

"Report," she ordered.

Tuvok handed Janeway the PADD he had been reading. Just then, Commander Chakotay and Neelix stepped off the turbolift, and Tuvok reported aloud for their and the other officers' benefit as the captain scrolled through the PADD.

"Sensors have detected a wormhole. Large and seemingly stable, at least for the past hour." Janeway's head jerked up from the PADD, too impatient to read the data before her. He nearly sighed and then proceeded. "I decided to send a probe through before summoning you to the Bridge." He nodded towards the PADD trying to redirect Janeway's attention to it again. "As you can see, Captain, we have begun receiving telemetry from the probe."

Janeway reviewed the data. The configurations were only vaguely familiar, but she recognized them as a region of space on their projected course to the Alpha Quadrant. The question was how far into their projected course. She glanced at Seven, anticipating that the efficient ex-Borg had already routed the telemetry through the Astrometrics databanks and was now analyzing the readings.

Seven joined Ensign Kim at the Ops station so she could cross-check her data with his sensor readings before reporting her findings. An instant later, her head drifted up as her shoulders pulled back slightly.

"Captain, the wormhole leads to grid 3, sector 6-2-7-6-1 -- 22,377 light years ahead of our present location."

Tom tapped his console twice and quickly turned his chair towards the captain. "Confirmed! The wormhole could cut two decades off our travel!" he said excitedly. "We could be home in less than nine years!" His eyes flitted from one face to the other, finally returning to Janeway's.

Her own expression softened as she nodded to Tuvok with a deep sense of relief. As happened each time they had hopes of shaving sizeable chunks off their journey back home, she felt some of her heavy guilt receding.

Harry interrupted her hopes. "The probe is picking up high levels of Theta emissions."

"Probably from the meteor fields that skirt that section of the Delta Quadrant," Chakotay explained from the data he was reviewing on his terminal.

"Yes," Seven agreed. "However, the probe is focused on the wormhole. It would not be picking up the Theta emissions at this level unless....."

"It's drifting," Harry cut in, at once completing and confirming Seven's suspicion.

Janeway quickly moved towards the Ops station. Her hand rose to Seven's shoulder, and the young woman shifted over in response, making room for the captain. Needing the contact, Janeway allowed herself the luxury of letting her hand rest where it was as she leaned in towards the console. After a moment, she straightened. Her expression seemed to falter as she looked at Seven and gave her shoulder a slight squeeze.

Seven's pupils widened a bit at the gesture. She understood Kathryn's need to touch. Her gesture was intended to provide reassurance, not simply for the person she touched, but for herself as well. Seven felt a sudden wave of elation, as she did whenever she could be a source of comfort and support for her captain. That was the most significant change in how Kathryn treated her now, and Seven relished it.

Janeway broke the contact and looked at the other Bridge officers. They all stared back, wanting direction, conviction, and encouragement: the three things the crew demanded of her and in seemingly greater quantities the closer they were to their goal. It never ceased to amaze her. The first year of their journey, they seemed to expect so little from her. Just the last word, nothing more. As time went on, they expected a little bit more. Trust. Friendship. Hope. Always hope. That had been the hardest of all to give.

But not today.

Janeway's back stiffened as the command mask returned. With a quick nod, she turned towards her Ready Room and threw orders over her shoulder. "We have work to do people. Senior staff meeting at 1400 hours," she barked before entering the studious confines of her Ready Room.

Her officers needed no further direction. Seven would map everything that might be in their projected path, including those pesky meteors, and would then turn her expertise towards assisting Harry and B'Elanna in finding a way to stabilize the wormhole. Tuvok and Chakotay would have to shore up the ship's defenses in anticipation of what promised to be a rather bumpy ride. Tom had already begun feeding the telemetry into his navigational systems and would incorporate the information that would be coming in from Astrometrics to plot the safest course through the wormhole while leaving a sufficient margin of error to compensate for the drifts. The Doctor, who would have been monitoring the entire discussion from Sickbay, would now turn his attentions toward figuring out how to keep everyone alive if, their luck failing, they actually had to fly through all that Theta radiation. And Neelix -- poor Neelix -- had to prepare for the possibility of either repairing the crew's shattered morale if the mission resulted in yet another failure or else preparing for a huge celebration if it was, as they all hoped, a success.

Kathryn understood that they all faced rather daunting tasks. As she initiated her desktop display to start analyzing the wormhole, however, she allowed herself to be cheered by the little conceit that her fine crew could have all their chores done, dinner made, and the table set in the few hours she had allotted them for their respective assignments. She smiled before turning her attention to the data on her screen.

~~~~~~~

Act II

"Kahless, Seven!" B'Elanna yelled. "I told you not to change those equations." She reached across the engineering console and nudged the tall blond aside to reinput her own numbers.

"Your calculations are incorrect, Lt. Torres," the Borg responded coolly, hands clasped behind her back in her customary stance.

"Like hell! But, anyway, that's 'irrelevant'!" the half-Klingon shot back mockingly. "I'm the chief engineer here. And even if you are sleeping with the captain, you take orders from me when you're on my turf."

They had been at it for hours, trying and retrying several configurations to stabilize the wormhole, but they weren't having much success.....and their growing fatigue and repeated failures were clearly beginning to take a toll.

The lieutenant's previous slights had been more subtle. Before, she had merely alluded to Seven enjoying special privileges because she was involved with the captain. But this time, Torres was too tired to be anything but carelessly blunt.

And Seven seemed too tired to simply let the matter go. She bit the inside of her cheek, forcing back her ire but registering that this comment stung more than all the prior ones. Perhaps it was hearing the disparaging remark stated so plainly, but whatever it was, the magnitude of the insult made her blood boil; not for her own sake, but for Kathryn's, whose behavior was exemplary, professional, and beyond reproach, and who was owed respect, regardless. Seven decided that this Klingon needed to be put in her place.

"You dishonor my captain, P'taqh!"

Torres sneered at the Klingon insult but forced herself to stand firm knowing that it wasn't the time or place to exchange fisticuffs with the impudent Borg. "Meet me in Holodeck 2 after the staff meeting, and we'll settle this then," she spat back.

"I will comply," Seven replied easily.

"No you won't!" came the familiar tones of the First Officer.

"Chakotay!" Torres blurted in surprise.

The commander ignored the chief engineer for the moment. "Seven, report to the Astrometrics Lab immediately and complete your projections there."

Seven hesitated, wanting to beg Chakotay not to report the incident to the captain.

He registered her concern. "Move it, Seven, before I decide to bring the captain in on this."

She was visibly relieved before nodding her assent. "Yes, Commander," she said gratefully. Then she exited.

Chakotay next turned his attention to the chief engineer. "Your office! Now!" he barked uncharacteristically, leading the way to B'Elanna's office. Once inside with the door sealed, he immediately pivoted to face the lieutenant.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" he demanded angrily.

"Why don't you ask Seven that?" B'Elanna responded defensively.

"Because there's nothing wrong with Seven."

"Like hell there isn't!" She bit off a few oaths as she paced back and forth feeling terribly misunderstood.

"Lieutenant," Chakotay called in disciplinary tones, "if you want the chance to tell your side of the story, this is your one shot. Take it!"

"All right," Torres conceded. "Seven and I had a 'difference of opinion' regarding our calculations for stabilizing the wormhole. Instead of following protocol, however, Seven just changed my formula. I decided to put her in her place."

"By challenging her to a combat? Klingon-style?"

"Actually, Commander, if you had come in sooner, you would have noticed that Seven challenged me," she countered smugly.

"Actually, Lieutenant, I did come in sooner, and what I noticed was that Seven made the challenge after you dishonored her.....and the captain."

Torres visibly flinched, instantly regretting that Chakotay had overheard her initial comment.

Chakotay seemed to read her mind. "What matters isn't that I heard you. The problem is that your entire engineering staff heard you. How do you think that looks -- the head of the engineering department implying that the captain plays favorites? Do you really think Kathryn is such a bad captain, B'Elanna? Do you think she'd let her personal relationship with Seven endanger her ship and crew?"

"Are you honestly going to tell me the thought has never crossed your mind, Chakotay?" B'Elanna challenged.

He turned from her, remembering the accusations he had made against Kathryn only weeks before in her Ready Room, the accusations that had led to her painful confession. Despite what he had told Seven about his duty forcing him to ask questions, he still felt wretched over the entire incident. And this, in turn, made him feel fiercely loyal towards Kathryn, deeply regretting the ordeal she and Seven had suffered....and respecting the relationship it had forged between them.

"One time, B'Elanna," he finally responded in a low, earnest voice. "I challenged Kathryn about her relationship with Seven only one time.....and then she told me more than I ever needed to know on the subject." He appeared very grave just then. "It was enough," he concluded mysteriously.

B'Elanna frowned, not understanding Chakotay's meaning. "Aren't you the least bit upset, Chakotay? I thought you were in love with her."

Chakotay smiled a little wistfully and shook his head. "That's all in the past. I haven't had romantic feelings toward her for a long time, well before Seven came into the picture."

"Well I think it would have been better for the crew if you had been the one the captain fell for. At least you're second in command, so we have to take orders from you anyway."

"What are you saying? Is Seven giving you orders?"

"She might as well be. She doesn't respect the chain of command! Doesn't respect protocol! She's arrogant as all hell!"

"And that's different from her previous behavior exactly how?" Chakotay asked ironically.

"It's a matter of degree," B'Elanna huffed. "And it's gotten worse -- because now she thinks the captain won't reprimand her."

"Are you sure about that?"

"What do you mean?"

"From where I stand, B'Elanna, Seven is just as rude and arrogant and annoying as she's always been," he declared. "I think it's your perception that has changed."

"With all due respect, Chakotay, I think you're full of it. Seven thinks she can get away with anything now."

"Why would she think that, B'Elanna? It took Seven over a year to understand the concept of rank and to respect even the captain's position.....and it took her even longer to stop contradicting Kathryn all the time. So what makes you think she'd understand anything about how her personal relationship with the captain might improve her own status.....especially when you and a few others on this ship are working so hard to make her feel exactly the opposite?" he added pointedly. "That kind of special privilege isn't something Seven would know to exploit, B'Elanna. And it's just as well that she doesn't know -- because on this ship, Lieutenant, having a personal relationship with the captain doesn't make any difference. Is that understood?"

Torres swallowed back her Klingon pride. "Yes, Commander."

"As for perceptions and unequal treatment: it seems to me that you're the one letting her perceptions bias how you're treating Seven. Case in point: a qualified member of your engineering staff has pointed out possible errors in your calculations. Protocol dictates that you cross-check her data to see if her concerns are valid. So. Have you run Seven's calculations through the computer to see if her projections are correct?"

Torres swallowed again, this time with embarrassment. "No, Commander."

Chakotay approached his former Maquis companion with a saddened expression and touched the lieutenant's arm. "B'Elanna," he began in softer tones, "even if you were right about Seven taking special privileges, don't let it affect your performance. It isn't my place to make you stop hating Seven, although I'm sure the captain wishes you didn't. And nobody expects you to tolerate her insubordination. But don't let your personal feelings for her affect your responsibilities to this ship and crew. Isn't that what you expect from the captain, too? You can't demand any less of yourself. That isn't the Maquis way or the Starfleet way or the Klingon way. Is it?" he asked with a sad smile.

"No, it isn't," B'Elanna agreed softly. And with honest contriteness added, "I'm sorry, Chakotay. I'll run an analysis on Seven's calculations immediately. And I won't make this mistake again."

Chakotay nodded his head in acceptance of B'Elanna's apology and gratified by her promise, which he knew he could count on. "I'll expect a full report at the staff meeting in an hour." He started to leave then hesitated.

"B'Elanna," he called. "One more thing."

"Yeah?"

"You're going to have to find a way to deal with this.....because it isn't going away. The captain is in love with Seven, and Seven is just as head-over-heels in love with the captain. Next time you get the chance to observe them together, try noticing that. Trust me, you won't have to look very hard."

With that, he turned and walked out of engineering, leaving a stupefied chief engineer in his wake.

~~~~~~~

Perspiration dappled Kathryn Janeway's forehead as her tightly shut eyes twitched in agitation, stimulated by some disturbing image in her dream. She never slept well on the nights when Seven regenerated. The ex-Borg only needed to spend 6 out of every 72 hours in her alcove, and she'd always make it back to bed before Kathryn awoke. Even this short absence, however, was enough to unsettle the captain completely, her body naturally missing the warm, yielding press of Seven's flesh, the erotic provocation of her smells, the moist whisper of her breath.

Perhaps it was also the unsatisfactory resolution of the staff meeting the previous afternoon that was now giving Kathryn nightmares. After careful investigation -- and with the help of some projections supplied by Seven -- the crew had come to the conclusion that the wormhole's drifts were too erratic. Unless they could devise a way of minimizing the drift, they faced a 90% probability of getting thrown off course inside the wormhole funnel, which would crush Voyager and everyone onboard.

Sadly, then, the wormhole was proving to be another disappointment, and this type of failure was always the hardest felt. For although Voyager was no worse off than before Tuvok discovered the wormhole, it had raised their hopes enough that failure now would make their journey home stretch out before them like an eternal hell, bedeviling Kathryn Janeway, the captain who bore the brunt of the responsibility for Voyager's current predicament.

In Kathryn's dream-state, the wormhole began to taunt her with its false promises, turning her into a hungry Tantalus before a magnificent feast that was just out of reach. And try as she might, she just couldn't reach the fruit. Her body remembered the pain of a previous hunger. This was not simply a nightmare but a memory. She could feel the familiar sensation of her stomach contracting, the acid burning into the lining and making her cower and hug herself against all that emptiness. And when she looked up again at the fruit, it had become Seven, the source of her sustenance and the only real hope she had. The young woman was holding her arms out to Kathryn, her expression serene. But Kathryn couldn't reach her any more than she could reach the fruit.....or the wormhole.....or home. Everything she wanted, everything she needed, jumbled together in her tired mind and became Seven, a just-out-of-reach Seven. And realizing that she couldn't touch her beloved, she felt not just hopelessness and despair, but raw panic.

Kathryn whimpered and tossed again on the bed, her body dripping with sweat and tense with agitation.

"Seven!" she cried out in her sleep. "Seven!"

Something brushed her cheek, and she recoiled from the contact. And then she felt a weight pressing up against her, trying to envelope her. It wasn't until she smelled the familiar scents that she came awake, looking up into the worried expression of her lover.

"Seven," she breathed, tears coming freely.

"I am here," Seven whispered reassuringly.

"Seven," Kathryn called again, this time a mantra as she clutched for the security of the young woman's arms.

They held each other for a long while as Kathryn calmed herself. She continued to inhale deeply, less for the oxygen it afforded than for the sense of home that washed over her from Seven's many smells, the sweet perfume of her hair and skin, the metallic tang of her implants, even the slight singed scent of her suit after a regeneration cycle.

"Kathryn? Are you all right?"

"I am now," she responded, clutching tighter for emphasis.

Seven snuggled into the embrace and then she waited, giving Kathryn the opportunity to tell her about the dream if she wanted to. When the captain remained silent, the young woman guessed that she wanted to put those thoughts behind her. Seven accepted that, content simply to communicate her love for this woman.

She pressed her lips against Kathryn's forehead and instantly felt the dampness there. "You are wet," she observed, pulling up a portion of the sheet to dab at the captain's brow.

"I'm sorry. I can go shower if you like."

The young woman hugged her close, forestalling her departure. "I was not complaining, Kathryn," she said. Then added whimsically, "I like you wet."

Kathryn picked up on the suggestiveness of the statement. "Are you trying to get my mind off the nightmare?" she asked flirtatiously.

"I would find it acceptable if my actions had that consequence, too."

Kathryn filled in the rest and couldn't help chuckling. "Well at least you're honest," she joked.

As she rested her head on Seven's right shoulder, Kathryn idly traced the vertical weave of the ex-Borg's bodysuit. The plum one. Her favorite. She began just above Seven's heart, her fingers drawing energy from the vitality underneath and then trailing down the breastbone. She lifted her hand and moved it back up to trace a second path, this time beginning just to the left of the combadge and over the slope of Seven's left breast.

The young woman's breath hitched as Kathryn's finger passed slowly over the nipple, which stiffened instantly from the stimulation. The finger paused abruptly in its journey, as if considering something, and then retraced its path over the nipple again.

Two pairs of lips quirked in shared amusement, but neither woman spoke, obviously intent on seeing how far this little game would go.

Kathryn moved her hand up the shoulder and to the back of Seven's neck as the young woman shifted to give access to the fastening. Once there, the captain released the fastening and then tugged on that part of the suit until Seven's left shoulder and arm and breast were bare. From the sheer weight of the masses, Seven's breasts fell a bit to the sides when she lay on her back, and Kathryn enjoyed making a game out of grabbing them, pulling up, and then releasing those masses so she could watch how the artificial gravity of the ship always made them bounce back off to the sides.

As she indulged herself in this little game now, Seven rolled her eyes and sighed. Kathryn's lips curled with humor, but she ignored her nonetheless. She knew, of course, that Seven preferred a contact that concentrated on her more sensitive nipples, but she considered this game a kind of foreplay, a gentle teasing to heighten Seven's anticipation.....and her own.

And, in fact, after only a short while, Kathryn's fingers did return to the dark pink tip of Seven's breast. She began to pluck at the nipple vigorously, rolling it between the tight grip of her fingers and pulling up sharply until it released from her grasp, only to be plucked at again with more fervor.

Seven did not roll her eyes this time. Instead, she remained perfectly still, concentrating all her attention on the erotic sensation Kathryn was creating by pinching her nipple with such intensity. The bulbous tip began to throb, not from too much contact but oddly from the acute sensation that there was too little contact. Kathryn continued to provoke with the same intensity, however -- no more, no less -- as if wanting to prolong the sweet aching, and this made Seven arch her back, naturally gravitating towards the contact.

Perfectly perceiving Seven's desire, Kathryn finally lifted her head and brought her mouth down around the fat nipple, pulling it fiercely into her hot, wet mouth, the sharp edges of her teeth rasping against the skin with each hungry intake.

Seven inhaled sharply through her teeth. In the next moment, she brought her hand up to hold Kathryn's head to her, simultaneously bending down so she could kiss that head, inhaling the musky smell of Kathryn's sweat-damp hair.

While Kathryn had been teasing her, the only thing Seven could concentrate on was how much she wanted this sensation. For reasons she couldn't comprehend, it was only now that Kathryn was where she belonged that Seven could begin to think anew. And as her mind started working again, she curiously found herself wanting to talk. Not about just anything, but about sex, about each other, about all the lovely things they could indulge in for the rest of the night. After all, she reasoned, Kathryn did need that diversion from her nightmare and from all the worries of her day.

"Kaaaathrrryn," she trilled seductively.

The captain laughed into the pink areola. Seven only used that melodic call when she was feeling amorous.....aroused......as she often felt after regeneration. The cycle apparently both energized and excited.

Unwilling to release the nipple, Kathryn did, at least, answer the call with an amused "Hmmm?"

The accidental hum reverberated around Seven's nipple and made her smile. "Would you do that again?" she requested.

Kathryn honestly had no idea what she was talking about. "Hmmm?" she asked again.

Seven's smile grew broader. "Thank you."

At last the captain understood and laughed again around her mouthful. Then she hummed in several mock hungry sounds, which tickled Seven and made her laugh. Kathryn pulled up and looked at Seven, both women visibly amused as they struggled to catch breath.

"Did you want something, darling?" Kathryn finally asked as she knelt up. She motioned for Seven to sit up, too, so they could finish undressing her.

"Do you remember the experiment we conducted with my nanoprobes?" Seven asked. Her tone feigned innocence as she idly traced around one of Kathryn's nipples, but there was undeniable mischief in her expression.

"Which?"

"The one in which I induced your breasts to lactate?" Seven explained.

Kathryn studied her partner for a moment, tugging her suit off before responding warily. "Yes?"

Seven absently licked her lips before continuing, her eyes fixed on one of Kathryn's breasts. "Could we do that again sometime?"

There was a childlike entreaty in Seven's tone that filled Kathryn with tenderness and amusement all at once. Still, she couldn't help but feel that this was something she should object to.

"Darling, I'm not so sure that's a habit we should get into."

"Oh, I agree," Seven assured quickly. "Nevertheless, it was.....pleasant."

Kathryn smiled fondly. "I suspect that's your alcove talking."

"That does not make any sense, Kathryn."

"I mean, you're sexually aroused from your regeneration cycle."

"Oh," Seven said, finally comprehending. "I do not believe that is accurate. Even when I am tired and have not regenerated for a long while, I find myself thinking about reliving that experience with you."

"You fantasize about me breast-feeding you," Kathryn translated.

"Yes. And I am simply saying that I wish to experience that again someday; not that I wish to make a 'habit' out of it."

"I'll think about it," Kathryn agreed. "OK?"

"'O-K'," Seven reiterated happily, having received the concession she sought. They kissed then, several slow, patient kisses. After a few breathless moments, Seven continued. "I also 'fantasize' about engaging in several other activities with you."

Now it was Kathryn's turn to roll her eyes. But she smiled fondly nevertheless and asked, "Darling, why don't you just tell me what you'd like to do tonight?"

Two eyebrows -- one blond, one gunmetal -- shot up excitedly. In the next moment, they pleated pensively as the young Borg considered her options. Finally, her face gleamed in a broad, decisive smile.

"I wish to play the 'astronaut' game."

"What?" Kathryn asked in genuine confusion.

"The game you created on the planet.....where we pretend to be 'deep space explorers' and we send out 'probes'," Seven explained excitedly.

"Oh, that!" Kathryn declared wide-eyed. "Uh, darling, you must understand I was not in my right frame of mind when I invented that game," she protested, her face coloring. "I mean, I was half-starved, after all."

"Oh, I know, Kathryn!" Seven replied, completely missing her partner's distress. "That is what I found most impressive. That you should devise such an inventive pastime for us despite your undernourishment and strained mental faculties. It was at that moment that I truly appreciated what an exceptional leader you are. We were so near to death that I certainly would have grown despondent had you not come up with that pleasant diversion," Seven explained, beaming proudly.

Kathryn blinked. "Thank you," she finally said in a small voice.

"No, Kathryn," Seven responded sincerely. "It is I who must thank you." She hugged the older woman closely and nuzzled her ear. "Thank you, Kathryn. Thank you for loving me.....in so many wondrous ways."

That brought a broad smile to the older woman's face. She hugged back, pressing a tender kiss very near to Seven's ear. A moment later, she felt herself become suddenly eager to play the game Seven had suggested."Turn around, darling," she ordered huskily.

"No, Captain," Seven replied provocatively. "I wish to be the astronaut."

Kathryn swallowed down her dismay. "All right," she said slowly. "Just give me a quick ten minutes to take care of a few things in the bathroom. OK?"

"That is acceptable. It will give me the opportunity to replicate some items that will facilitate our enjoyment of this game."

"Items?"

"Yes. I researched this activity shortly after we returned to Voyager."

"I see." Kathryn took a breath as if to say something more and then checked herself. "Never mind," she said.

As Kathryn showered and employed a few other devices for a thorough cleaning, Seven walked into the main living area of the captain's quarters and began programming selections into the replicator. Several minutes later, she returned to the bedroom and laid out her "props." She understood, of course, that she and Kathryn were not really "role-playing." The playful metaphors the older woman had used to describe this particular sexual act were intended more as euphemisms.

Seven considered that. She did not entirely understand why the captain had appeared embarrassed moments ago by this act, especially when the two of them had so thoroughly enjoyed it back on the planet. No matter. She was delighted that Kathryn was willing to engage in it now since Seven found the physical sensations extremely satisfying -- the more so since it seemed such an intimate, trusting, personal act, something she could never imagine doing with anyone but Kathryn.

After a moment, Kathryn came out of the bathroom feeling refreshed and energized.....and decidedly aroused. She had set the water to a hot pulse, which she always found mildly titillating, and had worked the jets into those areas where Seven would be lavishing her singular attention. When she saw the mussed bed, she shook her head marveling at how barely an hour ago, she had been in the throes of a horrid nightmare and in just a few moments, she would be in the throes of a most delicious embrace. She did wonder if Seven's seduction had been part of a scheme to divert her attentions from the wormhole. If it had, she smiled, the plan was working beautifully.

Seven came around the bed to where Kathryn was standing and placed her hands on the captain's hips, pulling her in. They kissed for a long while until their breathing became ragged. And once again Kathryn felt damp.

"Come here," Seven instructed imperiously.

She sat on the end of the bed and gently pulled Kathryn by the thighs until she was straddled across her lap.

Seven always marveled at how perfect this position was, allowing exceptionally easy access -- Kathryn's sex spread open and yielding at the young woman's fingertips while her breasts bounced provocatively at just the right height for Seven to nibble on the taut, pink tips. Seven exploited both opportunities now, sucking eagerly at one of the nipples before her while reaching down with her right hand to finger the crease that yawned open on her lap and invited her explorations. And Seven the astronaut was feeling very explorative.

The former Borg's heightened senses picked up the scent of Kathryn's growing arousal even as her fingers luxuriated in the copious juices that the captain's sex was producing.

Kathryn was ready.

Seven reclined, urging the smaller woman to crawl over her and to the top of the bed. And, of course, as Kathryn's body moved slowly past, the young woman indulged in a nibble here and a taste there. That made it difficult for Kathryn to avoid falling on her lover. The ex-Borg didn't seem to be worried, however, deliberately pulling the soft weight to herself as she happily drove the captain to distraction.

Finally reaching the pillows, Kathryn settled face down onto them, and then turned her head toward Seven's night stand, where some items had been laid out. She watched curiously now as the young woman came back around and started making preparations.

Seven picked up one of the items she had replicated and snapped it onto her right fingers and hand.

"A latex glove?" Kathryn asked.

Seven cocked her head, her expression whimsical. "Class-four probe casing," she corrected, sticking to the scenario.

Kathryn laughed. "Class four! Darling, you aren't sending your 'probe' into an ion storm or some unstable wormhole." Kathryn's face fell a bit at her own mention of an unstable wormhole.

Seven caught the reaction and purposely diverted the captain's attentions to her gloved fingers. She reached out to Kathryn's right arm, which rested on the pillow, and slowly traced the length of it, from the wrist to the shoulder, encouraging Kathryn to focus all her thoughts on the tactile sensation of the latex rubbing along her skin.

Kathryn closed her eyes in concentration, exceptionally aroused by Seven's actions. The fact that she knew those gloved fingers would be intimately snuggling into her in just moments made their deliberate caress less innocent, more scintillating. She inhaled slowly and then let out a shuddering breath.

She half-opened her eyes when she felt Seven's fingers pull away and observed the young woman dipping the gloved fingers into a jar and then rubbing a substance onto them. Her lips curled in amusement as she allowed herself to get into the spirit of the game.

"That's the propellant -- right?" she suggested.

Seven smiled, but no longer innocently.

The look sent a shiver through Kathryn. She closed her eyes again in anticipation as Seven approached with the lubricated and gloved fingers. A gasp escaped the older woman's lips as she felt Seven begin to trace a silky fingertip down the nape of her neck and along the bony protrusions of her spine.

When the finger reached the small of her back, it abruptly pulled away. Kathryn half-opened her eyes in reaction. Her anticipation rose as she saw Seven going for more lubricant. Without conscious thought, she tucked her knees up, her body still prone but kneeling over to open up more to Seven's explorations.

Seven smiled when she turned back and saw that Kathryn had repositioned herself. "You are enjoying this," she noted.

"Mmmm," Kathryn murmured in agreement.

The young woman crawled up behind her captain and began trailing her thumb down the exposed spine, wanting to spare the better lubricated index finger for its final destination. When she reached the crease, the captain gave a short whimper. Intrigued, Seven stayed her course, lingering provocatively at the top to build Kathryn's anticipation even more. After a moment, Kathryn's buttocks began to wiggle impatiently, and Seven relented with a smile.

She pressed on in a steady movement until she reached the small, puckered opening. Then she gently inserted the tip of her index finger, pausing a moment as the captain gasped with delighted surprise and then got accustomed to the subtle stretching. Then, with a slight twisting back and forth, Seven slowly pushed her finger into the tight orifice until she was inside the captain as far as she could go.

Kathryn inhaled sharply and trembled at the intimate sensation.

Seven pulled herself up and partly over the captain's back. She supported most of her own weight on her left shoulder but sensed that Kathryn would want the feel of the young woman's body draping over her, cocooning her, protecting her. The appreciative moan that emanated from deep inside Kathryn's throat let the young woman know that she had been right.

Seven understood that this form of penetration would make Kathryn feel acutely vulnerable, and she wanted to communicate, with the simple press of her flesh against Kathryn's, that she was worthy of this great trust. The exchange epitomized the true nature of their relationship -- that this bigger-than-life Starfleet captain could permit herself to be small and frail around the ex-Borg, who responded to this trust with hitherto unknown and untapped reserves of love and security and sustenance, in whatever form was required. On the planet, that sustenance had taken the form of breast milk, which supplied nutrients the captain's body needed to survive. But the two women quickly discovered that there were other forms of sustenance, less tangible but no less necessary for their survival, and it was this form of emotional support that Seven provided now in unexpected abundance, and that Kathryn returned with equal generosity. It was at moments like this that nothing else mattered except the love and trust that they nurtured between them.

Seven elicited another moan from Kathryn as she snuggled still closer with her body while her finger pushed in more deeply in its intimate caress. She stole nips and kisses along the silky skin of the captain's neck and shoulder. Then she nuzzled the older woman's ear.

"You are my universe, Kathryn," she whispered.

"Yes," Kathryn agreed, trembling.

"And I intend to discover and explore every parsec of space in my universe."

Another small sound of ecstasy erupted from Kathryn's throat.

Seven's finger did not remain idle in its probing. Instead, she kept twisting it deep inside Kathryn, as if to stretch her open more and facilitate a much deeper exploration of her farthest reaches.

"Oh......oh, Seven!" Kathryn cried, the sensations overwhelming her. She felt her arousal trickling down the inside of her quivering thighs.

Seven detected it with her acute sense of smell and reached around and underneath Kathryn with her left hand until her Borg-implanted fingers were slithering over the sensitive knot of the captain's sex.

"Ah!" Kathryn called out at the added sensation. She buried her face in her pillow and bit down on it as if to muffle her more ecstatic responses.

Seven brushed her lips along the fine, soft down of Kathryn's neck and back, resisting the overwhelming urge to bite, to consume Kathryn completely. Instead, she breathed deeply, inhaling Kathryn's many delicious scents, and concentrated on her probing technique.

Feeling experimental, she slowly pulled her finger out halfway and then just as slowly twisted it back in, repeating the maneuver in a sort of languorous thrust. "Like this, Kathryn?" she asked in low, seductive tones. "Or....." she began, interrupting herself to demonstrate a different technique. Then, she pushed her finger inside and began to wriggle it in a slow, provocative tickle, all the while prodding deeper. ".....or is this more to your liking?" she whispered.

Kathryn took another shuddering breath. "I....can't tell....I like both," she managed haltingly. And then she changed her mind. "Uhm.....the second.....I like the second way....a bit more.....oh, darling, more!"

Seven smiled. With her latex-covered, right index finger, she dug deeply into the tiny hole behind, while with her metal-encased, left index finger, she slithered gently but firmly back and forth over the rigid nub in front. And all the while, she kept pressing herself hotly onto Kathryn's back and nuzzling her neck, the heat between them starting to make them perspire.

Sweat beaded over Kathryn's upper lip and hairline at the combination and intensity of these sensations.

"Oh, yes.....like that......Don't stop!" she pleaded. Her body began to tremble with the onset of climax.

Now that she had established the right rhythm for Kathryn, Seven concentrated on maintaining it, letting the captain ride through it. Then the small body beneath hers lifted up a little and became rigid with tension. And suddenly the universe seemed caught in some great cosmic force, frozen in a perfect moment of ecstasy. The moment peaked, marked poignantly by a muffled cry of joy from a mouth biting down on a pillow. And in the next instant, the universe grew calm again, Kathryn's body collapsing beneath Seven's.

Seven moved her left hand away from Kathryn's sex and up to her stomach, hugging the captain's body to herself. She also paused the intimate movement of her right index finger although she did not remove it, content simply to hold Kathryn in place while she descended from her climax. Listening intently to their heavy breathing, she caught the subtle change in Kathryn's -- a soft sigh of pleasure -- and it was only then that Seven released Kathryn, carefully removing the invasive finger to let her rest. Then she slowly pulled herself away so that she could roll the smaller woman over.

Kathryn did not protest, letting herself be guided onto her back by Seven, who reached down and pulled gently on her buttocks. Kathryn found even this simple gesture remarkably erotic, acutely aware that Seven was methodically repositioning her for further explorations. And when she felt the cool air caressing the reddened center of her sex, she gasped again, enjoying the sensation that now this part of her anatomy was splayed open for Seven's exploration. As before, she absently tucked her knees closer to her body, spreading her lips and buttocks apart in an erotic display of her two seductive nether regions.

That was all the invitation Seven needed. Placing the pad of her still well-lubricated index finger over the puckered opening that was once more beckoning to her, she reentered the captain in one smooth movement.

Kathryn gasped at the provocative sensation of being stretched open again by Seven's probe.

It was then that Seven began twisting her finger deeply inside Kathryn, rekindling the passion. And then she began stroking her thumb along the length of Kathryn's sex.

Kathryn moaned with renewed interest, looking up at her Borg, who suddenly had a very smug look on her face.

"You like this," Seven declared.

"I like everything you do to me," Kathryn responded honestly.

Seven's eyebrow quirked up inquisitively. "No matter how 'wickedly naughty'?" the young woman prompted.

Kathryn smiled. "The naughtier, the better," she purred.

Seven was mimicking an expression Kathryn had used the previous time they had indulged in this form of sexual exploration. And she had heard her partner use many other expressions to describe their lovemaking activities. She understood that Kathryn found these expressions titillating, and she hoped that in time, she, too, would come to appreciate the idea of "fucking," as Kathryn had once put it, as much as she appreciated the physical acts themselves. For the time being, she was at least grateful that she could evoke certain reactions in Kathryn by employing some of the terms and phrases she was teaching her, including the inventive metaphors of their "astronaut" game.

"Should I launch another probe, Kathryn?" Seven asked with playful eroticism.

Kathryn bit her lower lip in consideration. "Gently," she said after a moment.

"Always," Seven vowed.

She reached over to the night stand with her left hand and picked up another load of lubricant, bringing it over to where her right hand laid nestled between Kathryn's legs. Then she dabbled the added lubrication on the exposed middle finger. She felt Kathryn shifting a little and then watched as the older woman readied herself by reaching down with both hands and pulling her buttocks farther apart, opening herself up further to allow Seven more access.

There was so much trust in Kathryn's gesture, an intimacy and private sharing that made Seven want to touch her even more, to reach in and make love to everything that was Kathryn.

Seven gazed with growing desire as she pulled her index finger out and then began very slowly pressing the two fingers together into Kathryn's small opening. She proceeded cautiously, gauging the captain's responsiveness. She wanted to keep the penetration pleasurable by giving Kathryn time to adjust to the girth of the two fingers. There was some initial resistance, and then she sensed the captain pushing open and forcing herself to relax. Seven responded to the subtle invitation by pressing into Kathryn in one final, decisive motion until both her fingers were snuggled inside. She then waited while Kathryn flexed the surrounding muscle, obviously adjusting to the added dimensions of the second "probe."

"Are you experiencing any discomfort, Kathryn?" Seven asked with sincere concern.

"No, my love," Kathryn responded without hesitation. She licked her dry lips and then added, "Quite the opposite."

"You are experiencing pleasure, then," Seven stated playfully, twisting her fingers slightly for emphasis.

Kathryn gasped. "Understated.....but accurate," she finally replied, her voice beginning to catch.

Seven increased the subtle, twisting motion of her two fingers until it seemed, finally, that there was no resistance at all. It was then she began a moderate, thrusting rhythm, easily stroking in and out of Kathryn. She saw that the captain was still watching her, so she brazenly ogled the area between Kathryn's legs.

Ogling Kathryn's naked body was a privilege Seven had been granted back on the planet by virtue of becoming the captain's lover, and she enjoyed exercising this privilege at every opportunity. She indulged her bliss now by studying Kathryn's private parts, knowing that the open inspection would further titillate her. She smiled a little smugly when she saw the effect of her inspection, her ocular implant detecting a fresh rush of fluid spilling out of Kathryn's sex.

"You are very wet, Kathryn," she declared.

Kathryn smiled, almost chastely, which to Seven seemed an odd counterpoint to their "wickedly naughty" activity. She found it remarkably arousing.

"You have such interesting spaces to explore," she announced, swiping her thumb provocatively along the wet crease. "I believe I need to launch a third 'probe' into this anterior region, to determine the source of all this moisture."

Kathryn could barely speak through the sharp edge of desire that overwhelmed her at that moment. "Do it!" she croaked.

Seven's nostrils flared in subtle triumph. Watching the captain intently, she circled her thumb around the rim of Kathryn's sex in an effort to heighten her anticipation. Then she briefly poked the tip of her thumb inside and swirled it around once before pulling out again.

Kathryn bucked into the contact, trying to draw the thumb in, but Seven seemed determine to set the pace. She twisted her fingers in the smaller opening, simply to remind Kathryn that they were there.

"Mmmm," Kathryn moaned helplessly. "Please!" she begged.

Finally, Seven push the full length of her thumb into Kathryn's sex, wriggling all her digits deeply inside the captain.

Kathryn let out a quivering cry at the feel of this double penetration. She felt so filled and stretched by Seven.....and rocked by the intimacy of the contact between them. Then she began panting in short bursts as she felt Seven rubbing her thumb and forefinger together, caressing the delicate membrane between the two digits, the thin barrier of sensitive tissue that separated Kathryn's two innermost regions.

The captain's eyes grew wide with surprise. "Do you...." she began, her voice breaking. Then she swallowed and tried again. "Do you have any idea how good that feels?"

Seven smiled. "I trust you will show me at some point."

"Oh, yesss," Kathryn promised.

She felt her nipples tighten with renewed excitement, suddenly aching for attention. She briefly caressed herself, tweaking her nipples roughly, and then held a breast toward Seven with one hand while she reached out to the young woman with the other hand.

Seven perceived that invitation, too, and did not hesitate to accept, swooping down in one fluid motion until she was settled again over Kathryn, languidly sucking on the offered nipple.

Kathryn tangled her fingers in the blond hair and moaned against the building tension of a second orgasm. She felt at once utterly filled and completely consumed by Seven as the ex-Borg began prodding into her lower regions with more energy while devouring the tips of her breasts with greater gusto. The sight of her nipples disappearing in between Seven's full, red lips added to her excitement. And she was also acutely aware of the sounds of their lovemaking, the moist, smacking noises of Seven's fingers poking her humid sex and Seven's wet mouth sucking up on her nipples. She inhaled against the building excitement and was further titillated by the provocative odors of their sweat and sex and the sweet perfume of Seven's silky hair feathering across her chest. All of Kathryn's senses were overwhelmed by the intense eroticism of the moment. And in the next instant, she felt her body finally surrendering, for a second time, to Seven's thorough ministrations.

This time, however, Seven got caught up in the moment and did not release Kathryn. Instead, she increased the intensity, thrusting harder into Kathryn and sucking on one nipple and then the other with wild abandon. Kathryn rode that wave, too, through a third orgasm, slightly shocked that she could come in such quick successions.

Then the captain took command of the situation. She pushed Seven off and then forced her onto her back, understanding that the young woman was now distracted by her own desperate need for release. Kathryn did not hesitate.

Pulling her lover's fingers out of her over-indulged sex, Kathryn began her own careful ministrations. She clamped her mouth down firmly over one of Seven's plump nipples and then pulled up fervently, sucking it in several times to inflame the young woman. Then she quickly trailed her lips down to where Seven needed the most attention.

The blond fuzz of Seven's sex was drenched and sticky with arousal. Remembering how the alcove energy titillated Seven, Kathryn realized that tonight, the young woman had postponed her release for a long time. Kathryn felt a pang of pity and immediately seized on her task. Pulling the wet down of Seven's sex apart, she buried her face in the sweet smelling crease and nuzzled the pearl in greeting. Then, happily nestling her face there, she began lapping provocatively at the engorged tissues, feeling Seven wiggle and moan around her.

Kathryn released the sides of Seven's mound, letting them hug her face, and brought her hands up again to Seven's bosom to pinch the nipples, twisting and tweaking in the exceptionally tight grip that she knew Seven enjoyed.

The young woman writhed and moaned her satisfaction, petting Kathryn's hands in approval and then caressing down the length of her arms, over her shoulders, and onto her head, stroking the hair even as she gently pulled Kathryn closer, subtly encouraging a deeper contact.

The captain responded to the communicative caress with a deep penetration of her tongue, which made Seven wiggle with delight. Then she swiped it the full length of Seven's sex, even over the tiny opening in the rear.

Seven gasped.

Kathryn smiled to herself and then indulged in an act she'd never consider doing with anyone but Seven. She licked avidly around the small hole, bouncing slightly against it whenever Seven bucked from the intensity. And then she squeezed the tip of her tongue into it as far as possible, penetrating Seven and licking deep inside her.

After a moment, she pulled out to catch her breath. She looked up at Seven and noticed that the young woman was deeply enthralled by the act. Kathryn couldn't resist the temptation to tease her.

"How do you like my new 'deep space probe,' darling?"

Somehow, Seven managed to bite back her first ecstatic reply. She responded instead with a Borg reserve that she sensed Kathryn would find unexpectedly humorous.

"The rough, wet texture of the casing is intriguing, Captain," she quipped, "but I require additional data before commenting on its effectiveness. I recommend more test launches.....many more."

Kathryn laughed. "Indeed," she said, feigning displeasure at the young woman's immodest response. She pinched her nipples a little harder, grinning when Seven gasped. "And what makes you think you can endure 'many more test launches' of my new probe?"

Seven quirked her brow, trying to retain a measure of control through her building excitement. "I am Borg. I will adapt."

Kathryn laughed at the young woman's unique brand of humor and rewarded her by beginning a series of probative explorations along the full length of her sex. She flicked the tip of her tongue excitedly over the sensitive nub at the top, stuffed its entire length indelicately into the large opening in the middle, and then squeezed it almost rudely into the tinier hole in back. And all the while she was lapping relentlessly at Seven's sex, she continued tweaking the plump nipples until the young woman could no longer bear the delicious intensity of stimulating pinches and probes.

The poignant trembling of Seven's thighs announced her assent. Then, with an uncharacteristically loud cry of joy, she climaxed in a series of spasms that shook her universe like a huge ion storm. And when it was all over, she collapsed with exhaustion.

Only then did she feel Kathryn slowly pulling her "probe" out. Seven smiled. The entire exploration had been "wickedly naughty," and the mere thought of that made the ex-Borg squirm with delight.

~~~~~~~

"Hold still, Seven!" the Doctor instructed.

The young woman couldn't resist the temptation to "fidget," as the hologram put it, in reaction to the feel of the instrument the Doctor was using to adjust Seven's ocular implant.

"I am sorry, Doctor, but my implant appears to be unusually sensitive to the touch of the micro-filament you are employing."

"That's odd. You've never been that sensitive before. In fact, your Borg nanoprobes have always induced your body to produce additional amounts of endorphin. It's what makes Borg drones resistant to pain," he explained unnecessarily. "I wonder if this new hyper-sensitivity is a side-effect of your having to use the portable regeneration unit while stranded on the planet. The low energy signals of the unit might have allowed more of your natural human physiology to assert itself."

Seven sighed. "That is not the cause of my increased sensitivity, Doctor."

"Oh? How can you be so sure?"

"Because I have been adjusting the settings of my body's receptors," Seven admitted.

The Doctor harrumphed. "For what purpose?" he asked indignantly, as if Seven had just admitted to borrowing one of his tricorders without asking.

The ex-Borg understood that the body she possessed now was partly the good Doctor's handiwork, but at times she thought he sounded far too proprietary, as if Seven's body was more his than hers. This was one of those times. And the suggestion made Seven feel suddenly contrary.

"None of your business, Doctor," she declared.

The hologram became uncharacteristically subdued. In fact, he seemed almost hurt, which in turn made Seven feel unaccountably odd. She bit her lower lip and finally relented.

"It is an experiment, Doctor," she mumbled.

"What sort of experiment?"

The young woman inhaled. "It is a.....personal matter," she said finally, hoping that would be the end of it.

"I'm your doctor, Seven. If there's a chance you're engaging in experiments that could endanger your physical well-being, then I need to evaluate and approve those experiments before you proceed with them."

Seven was stymied by his response. If what the hologram was saying extended to her physical explorations with her sex partner, then the Doctor had a good deal more latitude in each individual's personal life than Seven would have thought possible.....or even appropriate, especially given that her partner was the captain.

"I believe my terms may have been misleading, Doctor. I am not conducting a scientific experiment on myself; rather, I have been exploring different aspects of my physical relationship with the captain."

"Oh?" the Doctor asked, and then "Oh!" he said, as if coming to some understanding. He suddenly became concerned and adopted an unexpectedly confidential tone. "Seven, have you been having trouble.....well......climaxing?"

Seven shot him a wide-eyed look. "Doctor?"

He misinterpreted her response. "You know, having an orgasm?"

"Doctor, I know what 'climax' means! And that is not the problem!"

"Then why have you adjusted your sensitivity settings?"

"I merely wished to see if I could experience the sensation of being 'ticklish'," she explained finally.

The Doctor blinked in mild surprise. "I see," he lied. "Seven," he went on after a moment, "not everyone is ticklish. Even some regular human beings, without the advantage of Borg suppressors, don't experience that level of tactile sensitivity. You're body simply may not be susceptible to tickles."

"But as you noted yourself only moments ago, Doctor, I have been successful. I 'flinched' when you 'tickled' my ocular implant with the micro-filament."

"Ah, yes. That's what started this whole thing, isn't it?"

"Yes, Doctor."

"Well, let me see if I can manage to complete the adjustments without tickling you further," he said ironically.

Seven smiled fondly, feeling a new kind of appreciation for her old friend's sardonic brand of humor. Maybe that was one of the real side-effects of her being stranded. That she had developed a better sense of humor. Indeed, now that she considered it, she decided that it was impossible for even a Borg to get stuck for twenty-five days with someone like Kathryn Janeway and not develop a sense of humor.

An odd little sound emanated from Seven's throat catching both her and the Doctor by surprise.

"Did you just laugh, Seven?"

"I do not know," she marveled in mild shock. "Did it sound like a laugh?"

"Very nearly," the Doctor responded in mock seriousness. Then his face broke into a warm smile, and Seven's face mirrored it.

With the mood lightened, the Doctor began humming a little aria as he completed the adjustments to Seven's implant. "Seven," he asked idly after a moment, "why the sudden interest in whether or not you're ticklish?"

Seven answered honestly, letting down her guard a bit with her old friend. "Now that the captain and I are involved in a personal relationship, I find myself wanting to experience the things she experiences. Even the things that at one time seemed irrelevant to me."

"That's a natural reaction."

"Is it?" Seven asked skeptically. "There's so much about what I feel for Kathryn that I don't understand," she said, a sense of regret evident in her normally placid tone.

Having completed the adjustments, the Doctor put aside the micro-filament device and gave Seven his full attention, his demeanor kind and sincere. "What are you feeling, Seven?"

"I do not know if I can verbalize it, Doctor. I feel this attachment to Kathryn, an overwhelming need always to be in her company, and especially to make certain that she is safe."

"Maybe the old Chinese proverb is true, that when you save someone's life, you become responsible for it."

Seven frowned, visibly accessing her stores of data. "The 'Chinese'," she recited. "Inhabitants of 'China'. One of the oldest civilizations in earth's history, known especially for its art and philosophy." She quirked her brow. "Why would they say such a thing?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "But the old saw does seem to fit your present situation."

Seven considered that. "It is true, Doctor, that caring for the captain makes me feel.....complete." She looked at him with a sense of revelation. "I am now a part of Kathryn's collective," she declared happily, using terms she could comprehend.

The Doctor smiled fondly. "Yes, Seven," he asserted simply. After a moment, he mused, "You know, it does make sense that you should feel responsible for the captain even now. For over three weeks, all of your efforts, your every waking thought, and in fact your entire body, as well, were all directed toward only one goal: ensuring the captain's survival. You gave yourself over so completely to that sense of duty that it defined your own reason for being. And I think you're now finding it impossible to give up that habit." He frowned. "In fact, I hadn't considered it until just now, but the bond you share with the captain may be the effect of the psychosomatic trauma the two of you experienced."

Seven wasn't certain she liked the direction the conversation was suddenly taking. "Are you saying it is wrong for me to feel so attached to the captain?"

"I'm suggesting that you may think you love her and for the wrong reasons -- because the two of you became dependent on each other over the course of your ordeal."

"No, Doctor," she responded almost threateningly. "I know I love Kathryn and for the right reasons. Because she is kind, intelligent, compassionate, beautiful, trusting, naughty --"

"Seven!" the Doctor tried to interrupt. "Seven, please!"

"-- humorous!" she broke off her litany of Kathryn's positive traits to allow the hologram to explain.

He took an unnecessary breath. "Seven, I'm not trying to cast doubts on your feelings for the captain. Honestly.....However, it does occur to me that the two of you may have some as yet unresolved issues given your traumatic experiences."

"I believe we do have 'issues', but they are not the result of our experiences on the planet. They are the result of our return to Voyager. Perhaps you have not noticed, Doctor, but except for you and Commander Chakotay, the crew appear to be unable to adapt to the captain's new relationship with me......and even you are now doubting the validity of our feelings."

"Not at all, Seven," the Doctor protested with visible regret. Then he complained half to himself, "Oh, it's times like this that I'd give my port holo-emitters for a ship's counselor. I make such a mess of things when I try psychoanalyzing the crew! I'm sorry, Seven. Truly sorry."

The young woman softened. "Do not upset yourself, Doctor. 'No harm done'," she said using a stock phrase, but he understood the sentiment to be sincere.

"As for the crew," the Doctor proceeded after a moment, "I havenoticed their general negativity towards this relationship. Maybe Chakotay and I understand because we know more about what you went through."

Now it was Seven's turn to express a note of regret. "If that is what is required for the crew to accept my love for Kathryn, I fear they will never adapt....because they can never know what you and Chakotay know. They can never know what we did. It would devastate Kathryn."

"I know, Seven. It won't come to that," he said, trying to sound convincing. "I'm sure the crew will come around....in time....."

~~~~~~~

Ensign Golot rubbed her tired eyes and then read the chronometer in her engineering workstation: "1632" hours.

The display meant nothing concrete to her. Just an arbitrary arrangement of numbers. It was "F.S.T." -- Federation Standard Time -- based on twenty-four terran hours, the equivalent of one earth day. Before traveling to San Francisco and joining Starfleet Academy, that temporal cycle was unknown to the young Bolian. It was an alien clock from an alien planet in an alien solar system. And of all the trials she had faced at the academy, that had been the hardest: adjusting her own physiology to a standard terran day.

The Bolian day, from summons to topor, lasted the equivalent of 45 earth hours. Even the traditional time-keeping units the Bolians used were different, dividing their days into five standard cycles. Golot's body was used to sleeping for two cycles -- meaning that Bolians, if left to follow the natural rhythms of their world, would work and play for the equivalent of 27 hours and would sleep for 18 hours. Adjusting to a day that was a little under 2.5 of their cycles meant that they were often sleep-deprived during their work hours and wide-awake during their scheduled topor, or "sleep" time, as the humans called it.

Of course, once a cadet graduated and was assigned to a Starfleet vessel with the standard one-on/two-off shift rotation, the discipline thrust upon her by Academy class-schedules could be relaxed at the personnel officer's discretion. Respectful of cultural differences, Chakotay encouraged this sort of flexibility on Voyager, permitting a two/three schedule for Bolian crew members, which meant that they worked two shifts in a row and then went off duty for the subsequent three shifts. That schedule better fit Golot's natural rhythms, but it was off just enough to make her feel constantly off balance.

She sighed. She had once overheard a fellow crewmate, one of the ex-Maquis, complaining about the Federation as an imperial power, colonizing regions of space and exacting strict allegiance to Federation principles, which had themselves been drawn largely from terran principles. "Earth," he had said mockingly. "The Federation's so-called Sector 0-0-1. As if it were the center of the universe."

Despite her Starfleet sensibilities, there was a small part of the young Bolian that couldn't help agreeing with the former Maquis; except that it wasn't space that had been colonized but time. For Golot, the greatest example of earth's hegemony over the Federation was the 24-hour terran day that had been established as Federation Standard Time. Golot sighed again and stifled a yawn.

Just then, she saw Seven of Nine enter Engineering and join Lt. Torres at the Warp-drive console. That was something else the Bolian couldn't quite get used to: having a Borg on Voyager.

She wondered what the Borg and the chief engineer were still doing working. Beta shift had started almost six centicycles ago -- that is, more than a "half hour" ago. No doubt, they were working into second shifts to try resolving the problem with the wormhole they had just discovered, a chance to shorten their trip home.....except it was turning out to be another dead end.

The day before, the Borg and the chief engineer had had another fight. Only this time, Lt. Torres had said what was on everyone's mind: that the Borg could get away with anything now because she was the captain's paramour. She guessed there were some Starfleet principles, after all, that the captain didn't mind breaking. But of all the people the captain could have chosen to couple with on their long journey, this was by far the worst choice. A Borg! The Federation's number one enemy. The scourge of every technologically advanced race in the universe.

When Seven of Nine had been infected with the Borg vinculum virus and the personalities of her victims were surfacing, Golot had overheard Janeway casually telling Chakotay that she had just spent several hours trading jokes with a Bolian manicurist. "Seven is having a rough time," she had said. But didn't anybody bother to notice that if Seven was manifesting the personality of a Bolian manicurist, somewhere in her past she had assimilated that manicurist? What of that Bolian's "rough time"? And the Borg had also manifested personalities of Federation victims at Wolf 3-5-9, which meant that Seven of Nine had somehow been there during the slaughter. Golot's brother had also been there. "Lost in battle," the Federation dispatch had said. "Body not recovered. Presumed taken by the Borg." The idea made her skin crawl.

And Seven of Nine had been there. For all Golot knew, Seven herself had assimilated her brother. But now she was supposedly severed from the Collective and personally involved with Captain Janeway, so, of course, all her actions as a drone had to be forgiven!

Golot considered the entire affair a callous affront to the memory of her brother and the millions like him.

"Ensign Golot."

It was the Borg. Golot's blue skin tinged to green with anger, but she checked herself.

"Yes?"

"Lt. Torres has assigned you to assist me with these calculations. You will take the equations on this PADD and input vector coordinates I will be supplying to you shortly from Astrometrics. The captain has called for a senior staff meeting at 1800 hours. You must have the calculations completed no later than 1740 hours so that the lieutenant and I can review them before the meeting. Is that understood?"

Bristling at the imperious tone -- and at the imposition, yet again, of that infernal Federation time -- the young Bolian indulged her desire to mock the presumptuous Borg. "Yes, Captain," she replied pointedly. "I mean, Seven."

She tried to look innocent but grinned inside when the Borg flinched at her "mistake." She was grateful Seven was so clever. It meant that she'd be quick to pick up on even the subtlest insult.

Seven tried to ignore the misstatement. "Do you have any questions, Ensign?"

In her sleep-deprived state, Golot couldn't resist baiting the Borg a second time. "No, Captain....that is to say, Seven."

The Borg was hooked. "Ensign, is there some reason you're having trouble remembering that I am not the captain?"

"No. How about you? Do you ever have trouble remembering you're not the captain?"

Seven understood the insinuation and, taking a slow breath, considered how best to respond. Since there was no implied insult to Kathryn -- which had been Lt. Torres's mistake the previous day -- she did not entirely take offence, particularly given that she knew her own character and was satisfied that her behavior had not changed in the least.

"I assure you, Ensign Golot, I know exactly who I am," she responded in cool tones. "But I believe you forget yourself. Engaging in futile efforts to insult me when there is important work to be done is inefficient. I recommend you withhold your disparaging comments for when we are both off duty."

Golot smiled a little too triumphantly. "All I did was accidentally confuse you with the captain. I regret that you find the comparison 'insulting'."

The Borg flushed red. Whether from anger or embarrassment the young Bolian couldn't tell, but she did, nevertheless, feel a deep satisfaction at having thrown the Borg's words back in her face. The force of that verbal blow was apparently enough to turn Seven on her heel and chase her out of Engineering.

~~~~~~~

On a typical trek to the Astrometrics Lab, Seven of Nine would have begun considering her next assignment, already outlining the best way to proceed or perhaps conducting preliminary calculations in her head. She prided herself on making efficient use of her time, even the few minutes it took her to get from one location to the next. On this occasion, however, she couldn't seem to get her mind off the exchange she had just had with Ensign Golot.

"Deck 8," she called absently as the turbolift doors closed behind her.

The ensign had always been cool around the Borg but never openly challenging. Clearly, the changed nature of the captain's relationship with Seven had prompted this reaction. And perhaps Lt. Torres's outburst yesterday had also emboldened the young ensign.

Seven disembarked from the turbolift and began the familiar walk to Astrometrics. As she passed crew members, she received few polite nods and more than the usual cold stares. All eyes seemed to linger, to judge, to accuse. Had they always? At one time, she would have considered such appraisals irrelevant. Was she simply becoming more sensitive to the stares, the subtle innuendo, the criticisms, as she became more human?

Reaching Astrometrics, she entered quickly and was grateful when the doors finally closed behind her, shutting out Voyager and the crew and the stares. There were only two places left on the ship that provided a kind of sanctuary. This was one of them. The other was the captain's quarters. Even Cargo Bay 2 had ceased to offer comfort, partly because of its public nature but also because being there meant she was regenerating alone instead of lying next to Kathryn in her bed.

Seven approached the main console and activated the data transfer to Engineering so that Golot could begin the calculations. In the meantime, she used her command-crew authorization to call up personnel data on the neighboring display. She quickly accessed Golot's records. After just a few moments scanning the ensign's personal history, she discovered what she had been anticipating -- Federation records showing that a member of Golot's family had been taken by the Borg, and at Wolf 3-5-9 no less.

Seven shut her eyes against the despair that swept over her. She was feeling something she had felt before, but it was a sensation still relatively new to her. Compassion. A sense of deep sympathy and sorrow for someone else's pain.

She understood that it was painful to lose a loved one, but until Kathryn, that sense of loss had remained an abstraction to the ex-Borg. Now she could put a face to that kind of loss. And as she considered how she might feel losing Kathryn to the Borg, heavy tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. As it was, she had developed a profound hatred for the Borg Queen simply because she had threatened to assimilate Kathryn. She couldn't even begin to imagine how much more hatred she would harbor for the Borg if they ever actually destroyed the individual perfection that was Kathryn Janeway.

And here she was -- Seven of Nine, formerly Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01 -- a stark reminder, despite Kathryn Janeway's efforts to rehumanize her, of everything in the universe that signals death and destruction. What an insult it must seem to someone like Golot to have to witness her captain consorting with the enemy.....with a Borg!

"Computer, secure the Astrometrics Lab," Seven called, her voice faltering.

The computer twittered and then announced, "An encryption protocol has not been specified."

Seven swallowed back the irony. "Borg encryption code.....Theta-2-8-6."

When she was satisfied that no one could walk in on her unexpectedly, Seven slumped down to the deck and began to sob.

~~~~~~~

Act III

"That's it then?" Harry Kim asked dismally. "You're sure that someone will have to stay behind in the shuttle?"

He had been sitting patiently, with his fellow senior officers, listening to B'Elanna's and Seven's report. The two women had devised a plan to minimize the drifts, but there was a catch.

According to their analysis and Seven's careful calculations -- which, for safety's sake, had been double-checked by both B'Elanna and a member of her Engineering staff -- the wormhole could be stabilized if they used a modified shuttle at this end to create a graviton stream. The idea, in a sense, was to pull the passageway taut....."to minimize the wiggle room," B'Elanna explained.

Because the drifts were dynamic, however, the trajectory of the stream would have to be recalibrated to match the wormhole's altering vectors. That meant leaving someone behind to man the shuttle and compensate for the drifts as they occurred.

"Can't we just control the shuttle remotely?" Neelix asked.

"I wish we could," B'Elanna replied. "But there's no way we could maintain an open comlink to transmit instructions. And even if we could, the slightest delay in repositioning the stream would probably be enough to throw Voyager off course."

"What about the shuttle's automated systems?" Chakotay asked, thinking out loud as he formulated his suggestion. "Couldn't we preset the navigational systems to key off the sensors? Program the shuttle to alter trajectory to match the drifts?"

"I don't think the shuttle's computer could handle that," Tom offered.

"That's right," B'Elanna replied. "The drifts are affecting both the position and shape of the wormhole. As a result, there's no absolute center for the navigational systems to use as a focal point. For the shuttle's computer to keep up with the drifts, its sensors would have to monitor thousands of intersecting vectors. In other words, it would have to keep remapping the relative center of the wormhole and then compensate, all in a split second. Unfortunately, it's just not sophisticated enough to do that."

"So what you're saying," Harry translated, "is that we need someone on the shuttle who can eyeball the center and keep it in the cross hairs -- so that the graviton stream stays pointed in the right direction."

"Exactly," B'Elanna responded.

"That sounds like a job for a pilot," Tom noted nervously.

"It seems to me that we just need someone who can keep the shuttle aimed at a moving target," Neelix offered. "Anyone with basic piloting skills should be able to do that."

"I agree," B'Elanna confirmed. "As long as it's someone with a good eye, a steady hand, and quick reflexes," she added practically.

"I still don't like this plan," Tom murmured.

"None of us do, Tom," Chakotay agreed.

Everyone grew deadly quiet. Waiting.

Seven felt herself growing more nervous. Kathryn was avoiding her eyes as she slumped slightly in her chair, looking as though she had been only half listening.

After what seemed a long while, Janeway straightened and finally addressed her officers.

"All right then," she said in a low voice. "Let's get a shuttle ready. Neelix, no ceremonial fanfares or lengthy farewells. Just inform the crew. Get everyone ready." She looked at each of them, studiously avoiding Seven's gaze. "You have all been the finest crew any captain could hope for." She took a deep breath. "And I'll miss you very much." Her voice shook a little, but she was spared continuing as protests arose from all around her.

"No way, Captain!" Tom shouted. "This isn't right," B'Elanna protested. "Please, Captain," Harry began. "That would not be prudent," Tuvok offered. "We can't leave you behind, Captain!" Neelix cried. "Perhaps we should consider another alternative," the Doctor suggested nervously.

"Now wait just a goddamn minute!" Heads snapped towards Chakotay. He stared at the captain. "You can't do this!"

"Commander," she warned.

"No, Kathryn. He is right."

Janeway slowly turned towards the deceptively calm voice of Seven of Nine, knowing by the use of her familiar name that she was in for a fight.

Seven took a quick breath. "I cannot allow you to make this sacrifice," she continued quietly.

"You 'cannot allow'?"

"No," Seven answered.

"I think you're forgetting who's captain."

Seven smiled sadly and mused half to herself, "This is the second time today I have been accused of that." Then she looked at Kathryn again and visibly straightened, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin in defiance. "I cannot permit you to stay with the shuttle.....when I am the logical choice to be left behind."

The others remained quiet. No protests, Seven noticed. In her confused mind, it only served to confirm her decision.

The captain's heart began to ache. "Why should you be the one left behind, Seven?" she asked softly. "Why would you think that?"

"I am an artifact of the Delta Quadrant.....and a Borg. On earth, I would be a curiosity. Something to be studied or examined.....and definitely feared.....but never embraced."

"You're wrong," Janeway protested, her eyes shimmering.

"I am not wrong. If you will notice, no one in this room objected when I suggested staying behind."

"I object!" Kathryn replied before anybody else could.

"That does not alter the fact that I am the logical choice."

"But it's my call, Seven, and I am the necessary and final choice," Janeway declared in unmistakably commanding tones.

Seven took a nervous breath. "Then I must accompany you," she rejoined.

"That's out of the question," Janeway countered. "I didn't rescue you from the Borg Collective just to leave you stranded here in the Delta Quadrant."

"If you stay, I stay," Seven insisted, almost childishly.

"No!"

"Yes! I am responsible for you. It is the Chinese way," she asserted, her voice faltering in a half sob.

"What are you talking about?"

"I saved your life, and it is now my duty to protect you, Kathryn. Forever!"

"I think you and I had better have this discussion later," the captain warned.

"There is nothing to discuss!" Seven cried, forgetting herself. "I sustain you, Kathryn. Remember?"

"Seven!" Kathryn warned fearfully.

Seven caught herself and took halting gulps of air, fighting for control.

"Everybody out!" the captain ordered.

Chakotay looked as if he was about to object but thought better of it. Instead, he stood up and silently shuffled out with the rest of the senior officers.

Kathryn wanted to scream.....and cry......and shake her fists at the whole damn universe. And she wanted to shake Seven.....and hold her.....and tell her that everything would be all right.

She rose slowly and walked to the other end of the table, kneeling down next to Seven. Gently cupping the young woman's chin, she urged Seven to look at her. Their sad eyes locked for long moments.

It was Seven who finally broke the silence between them. "Please Kathryn," she implored in a whisper, "do not break your promise to me."

Kathryn studied her. "What promise?" she asked after a moment.

Swallowing back her tears, Seven looked squarely at the captain. "You promised that you would love me until your very last breath, Kathryn," she explained with a steady voice, belied only by the copious tears that were now streaming down her face. "You cannot do that if we are apart. And I cannot permit you to break your promise......I will not allow you to.....die without me," she concluded, her voice finally faltering.

~~~~~~~

The burly First Officer paced animatedly in the captain's Ready Room. "You're going to die out here. You know that, don't you? You and Seven."

Kathryn tried to ignore his aggressiveness. After the fateful staff meeting the previous evening, she had spent the rest of the night planning things out with Seven, and by now she had reached a kind of peace with their decision. It inflected her voice with a lightness that seemed wholly inappropriate to Chakotay.

"I think you're right that we couldn't make it back to the Alpha Quadrant in a shuttle, Chakotay. Seven is in Astrometrics now exploring this region for the nearest uninhabited M-class planet. We'll supply the modified shuttle with everything we need -- food, shelter, replicators, medical supplies. The hardest part will be outfitting it with Seven's alcove, but I have B'Elanna and Harry working on that now. In short, we'll have everything we need."

"Sounds cozy," Chakotay noted sarcastically. "But how's it supposed to look to the crew?"

"I would think that they'd understand I'm doing what is necessary to get them home." Janeway turned to her Vulcan security officer. "Tuvok, help me out, will you?"

"I'm afraid I can't assist you, Captain. Despite his emotional outbursts, Commander Chakotay is correct, both about your decision and about the crew's reactions. They will correctly surmise that you are staying behind with Seven for personal reasons since the decision to deprive Voyager of two capable officers for a mission where one will suffice is unquestionably illogical."

"What are you saying?" Janeway began in a disbelieving voice. "That leaving Seven behind alone would be an acceptable solution?"

"Not acceptable, Captain, but certainly less difficult for Voyager."

"But not less difficult for me," Janeway responded, her voice almost faltering.

"It doesn't have to be Seven!" Chakotay broke in. "Captain, I am volunteering for the mission."

Janeway studied her First Officer, feeling her anger replaced by the friendship between them. "That's not acceptable either, Chakotay.....Nor you either, Tuvok," she added when she heard the Vulcan begin to clear his throat. "This is my responsibility, gentlemen. It was my decision that got us all stuck here in the first place. Seven coming along hasn't changed the fact that I'm the one who has to take this mission. The only personal decision here is my decision to take Seven along. And I agreed to that because, ultimately, I'm the only real family she knows......and because.....because I made her a promise," she added wistfully, half to herself.

She looked up again at her two officers, kindness in her eyes even while the command mask fell back in place. "B'Elanna says the modifications to the shuttle should take only about four days. I want everyone and everything ready as soon as that's completed. Dismissed."

~~~~~~~

Seven of Nine was studying the main screen of the Astrometrics Lab when she heard the swoosh of the door followed by the clip-clap of small, humanoid feet.

"Naomi Wildman," she greeted without turning around.

"How did you know it was me, Seven?" the child asked.

"My enhanced hearing enables me to discern subtle noises, and your weight, height, and gait give you a distinctive footfall that I am able to recognize."

"Of course," the precocious child responded easily.

Seven raised her brow, an amused expression animating her features.

"What can I do for you?" Seven asked.

Naomi bit her lower lip. "I know you're really busy, Seven, but I....I was hoping you could play a game of Kadis Kot with me."

"You are correct, Naomi. I am 'really busy'."

"I know, but couldn't you break away for a little while? It's just that, well, it'll probably be our last time." The little girl's voice choked on "last," and without hesitation or conscious thought, Seven swooped down and pulled the child into a loving embrace, barely in time to catch her as she was seized by wracking sobs.

"Ssshhh, Naomi," Seven soothed. Her own eyes misted over. "'It will be all right'," she recited, feeling unsure herself.

"How can it be all right when you and the captain are leaving Voyager?" the child wailed. "Everybody thinks it's wrong for the captain to leave!"

Seven frowned. "Wrong? It is unfortunate, perhaps even distressing, but it is not 'wrong'. Correctly perceiving a threat to Voyager, the captain is sacrificing herself to ensure the safety of the ship and the crew as you travel through the wormhole."

"I understand that, Seven. But some of the crew say that Voyager still won't be home, and that it's the captain's responsibility to return the ship to the Alpha Quadrant. They say you should have talked her into staying."

"I did try," Seven explained. "At the staff meeting. But the captain had already made her decision."

"You didn't try hard enough," Naomi whimpered. "I don't care if it takes forever to get to earth! I love you, Seven. You and the captain shouldn't be leaving home."

Seven brushed away an errant tear from her own face. "I am sorry, too, Naomi Wildman.....I will miss you." She pulled the child in close for another hug. "You must promise to study diligently, use your time efficiently, and....and always surround yourself with people who love you." Seven pulled away again to look at the child. "And when you think of me, know that I am doing the same."

The child nodded, wisely understanding that Seven had chosen to remain with the person who loved her best. She visibly tried to regain her composure, hiccuping back gulps of air. "I will comply," she vowed bravely.

Seven took a breath. "I believe I will take my lunch break now. If you join me, we can play Kadis Kot as we ingest our meal."

"I'd like that. Thank you, Seven."

~~~~~~~

Later that evening, Seven of Nine heard the doors to Astrometrics open again and admit someone else with a light footfall -- these steps, however, were a bit heavier and surer....and they belonged to a body that was far better known to Seven. Her skin tingled as she felt the warmth of that body press beside her. The next sound she heard was like a low purr.

"It's late, darling," came the throaty call of her lover.

"Kathryn," Seven greeted. "I was just finishing up."

"Have you found a little paradise for us, yet?" the captain asked.

She tried to sound amused, but Seven thought she detected an undercurrent of.....fear? Perhaps her find would help allay the older woman's concerns.

"I have," she said confidently. "An M-class planet, approximately four light years from here. The entire system appears to be uninhabited. I launched a probe -- "

"Without me!" Kathryn quipped in mock indignation. Then she smiled fondly at the young woman.

Seven blinked in mild confusion and then smiled back as she caught the innuendo. "And," she continued, "sensors show the planet to be geologically stable with temperate climates in the equatorial regions and ample plant and animal life."

"Sounds lovely, Seven," Kathryn responded. She had meant to sound sincere, but then couldn't help adding, "All we need is the cozy cottage with a white picket fence."

Seven detected the unmistakable tinge of sarcasm.

"Are you certain this is what you want to do, Kathryn?"

The auburn-haired captain took a breath. "Honestly, Seven, this isn't about want. I just don't see that I have any choice." She looked at the young woman a little sadly. "But you do," she added quietly.

"Thank you, Kathryn."

The captain frowned. "That wasn't the response I was expecting."

Seven knew that and acknowledged the fact with an amused nod before explaining. "Thank you for accepting that it is my choice and for respecting that I choose, as I would always choose, to be with you."

Kathryn smirked but fondly.

"It just doesn't seem right, darling," she continued after a moment. "I wanted so much to return you to the Alpha Quadrant. I had begun thinking that maybe you were the reason we wound up here. That maybe I was meant to get stranded here just so that I could rescue you from the Borg, make things right again by taking you back to earth....back home."

"That is your idea of 'home', Kathryn. I do not share the same sense of loss, particularly because before I met you, that concept was meaningless to me."

"And now?"

"And now, you are my home," Seven explained simply. "I know you are sad and disappointed, Kathryn. I understand that you would feel those things for yourself, but please, do not feel them for me."

Kathryn was a little disbelieving at what she thought she was hearing. "Aren't you sorry that Voyager will go on without us?"

Seven's jaw tightened as she considered the question. "I will miss my friends -- the Doctor and Naomi especially. However, since you were prepared to stay here without me, my choice was simple: to be with you or to be without you. I cannot be without you, Kathryn. Therefore, I do not regret my decision."

Kathryn let the tears spill onto her face as the force of those words hit her. "I couldn't bear it either. The truth is that while I was sitting in that meeting yesterday, knowing what I had to do, the worst part was the thought of being separated from you."

"Never," Seven vowed.

"I just couldn't ask you to come with me. And even now, part of me can't help feeling that I should order you to stay on Voyager......I'm sorry, darling," she cried. "I've failed you....."

Seven pulled Kathryn in and wrapped her arms tightly around her, trying to comfort Kathryn as she continued to sob.

"I'm sorry," Kathryn said again. "I'm sorry for being so weak that I can't bear to be without you."

"You think because you have needs that you are weak," Seven said quietly. "That is the source of all your problems, Captain Janeway. It is why you had such difficulty allowing me to help you when you were starving." She pulled away to look at Kathryn. "But you are wrong. It was your fear -- your sense of humiliation -- that made you initially turn away from me, and it was your great strength and courage that allowed you to accept my help at last. How can you think otherwise?" Seven held her close again. "No, Kathryn, you are not weak. Our love is a source of strength. And to stop relying on each other at this point, to cease drawing on that strength would be like deciding we no longer wanted to use our limbs or to breathe the air around us. Turning away from me now, Kathryn, would be....inefficient."

Kathryn smiled through her tears, her mood growing lighter. "Darling, I've heard poets describe love in countless ways," she said softly, "but never as 'efficient'.....You are unique, my love."

"I am a Borg romantic," Seven quipped.

The captain chuckled, snuggling closer. "I guess that's why resisting your love is futile," she joked back.

"That is a good one, Kathryn," Seven complimented, seeking her lips.

"You think so?" the older woman asked between kisses.

"Yes."

"Good joke?"

"Indeed."

"Funny?"

"Very."

"Mmm?"

"Mm-Hmm."

The last exchange lingered, becoming a languid kiss. And then they held each other as, this time, Seven grew pensive and doubtful.

"Will you be....lonely, Kathryn? Without the crew?"

"I'll have you for company, Seven," she responded, evading the question. "Actually, I suppose it'll be like it was back on the planet....just the two of us."

"Except our circumstances will be much improved," Seven observed more lightly.

"No milk rations?" Kathryn asked in a secretive voice, sounding almost disappointed.

"I did not say that."

The captain favored the young woman with a crooked grin.

"You know," she mused after a moment, "the odds were really against us on that rock. I'm still amazed at how you managed to keep us alive."

"'All in a day's work'," Seven recited a little too casually.

"Was it?"

"I don't understand the question, Kathryn," Seven frowned.

"I mean.....would you have done the same thing for anyone else?" Kathryn continued seriously. "If you had been stranded with, say, Chakotay or Tuvok?"

Seven flinched, her body instantly objecting to the idea, but she judiciously allowed her intellect to consider the question.

"I believe you wish me to say 'yes'," Seven began haltingly, "and I don't want to disappoint you, but....it was personal, Kathryn.....I think I could have expressed the milk for them." She lowered her voice. "But I....I would have found it difficult to allow anyone else to draw the milk from my nipples....as you did."

Kathryn's eyes shimmered. "That was my fault, darling. I don't believe feeding me directly was your original intent, and if I hadn't thrown away all the containers, I wouldn't have had to......violate you like that."

"It was not a violation, Kathryn. Not with you. Never with you," Seven declared, embracing Kathryn fiercely. "With you, it was joy."

She looked into Kathryn's eyes. "With you, it will always be joy."

The sentiments were pleasant but suddenly too intense.

"So if Chakotay had thrown all the cups out?" Kathryn prompted, inviting a little morbid humor.

Seven picked up her cue. "Tuvok would have made a fine First Officer."

A smile crinkled the captain's tear-stained eyes.

"Poor Chakotay," she lamented ironically.

~~~~~~~

Act IV

"Round Three goes to Chakotay," the holographic Boothby announced.

The First Officer relaxed his guard and sprinted over to his corner, sweat pouring from his tired body.

"What's wrong with you, boy?" Boothby asked.

"What do you mean? I'm winning," Chakotay protested.

"No, son. You're not here to box. You're fighting some demon. And by the look of things, it's a pretty big demon," he said as he gave the First Officer's arms a quick rubdown. "I think you wrenched your left shoulder on that last knockdown." He squeezed the shoulder for emphasis, and Chakotay recoiled painfully from the contact. "Come on, son, spill it," Boothby pressed. "You look like you've lost your best friend."

Chakotay smiled bitterly. "You've got it all figured out already, Boothby. There's really nothing more to say."

The bell rang indicating the start of Round Four, but as Chakotay stood to move to the center of the ring, Boothby threw the First Officer's towel in ahead of him.

"Hey, what did you do that for?" Chakotay protested. "I was winning!"

"This sounds like one you're not gonna win, son. And I think you're going to have to get used to it. You'd better get over to Sickbay and have the Doc look at that shoulder."

Chakotay fumed, but he knew better than to argue with Boothby. Instead, he snapped his gloves together angrily and stormed out of the holodeck.

"Deck 5!" he yelled at the turbolift computer.

Within moments, he was crossing the doorway into Sickbay.

The Doctor came out of his office immediately. "Commander," he greeted. "Have you injured yourself?"

"It's my shoulder, Doctor. Boothby insisted I come and let you take a look at it."

"I see," the Doctor said, and he did. Chakotay had communicated more than he realized with his comment.

As the holodoc passed his medical scanner over the shoulder and then began administering treatment to mend the torn ligament, he engaged the First Officer in seemingly idle conversation.

"That's a nasty tear. I take it you were losing."

"No, actually I was winning."

"Hmm. Putting your all into it, then."

Chakotay sighed.

"Do you want to talk about it?" the Doctor inquired after a moment.

"Why does everyone keep asking me that? Isn't it obvious why I'm upset? Aren't you upset? After all, you're feelings for Seven were no secret!"

The Doctor visibly flinched at that one.

Chakotay took another breath. "I apologize, Doctor. I was out of line."

The Doctor looked at him and responded sincerely. "Commander, I'm going to miss both of my friends. As are you."

"That's just it, though. It doesn't make any sense for Kathryn to sacrifice both of them. I've volunteered, I think Tuvok was about to, but she won't listen to either of us."

He took another breath. "Doctor, I've been giving this a lot of thought. Look," he began, shifting uncomfortably, "you and I both know that the captain went through a lot down on that planet. She was starving, physically and mentally exhausted from lack of food, and distraught, maybe even slightly crazed with worry, over us and over what was going to happen to her and Seven."

"The 'slightly crazed' part may be a bit exaggerated, Commander, but there's no question about any of the rest of that," the Doctor agreed warily, concerned about where the First Officer was headed.

Chakotay gave a short nod. "So don't you think the captain's decisionmaking was impaired? I mean, anyone would snap going through what she went through....."

"Commander," the Doctor began warningly.

"Hear me out," Chakotay interrupted with a raised hand. "I think the captain is trying to recreate what she and Seven had on the planet, where it was just the two of them. And it isn't right for those of us who are thinking straight to let her sacrifice herself....and Seven," he added as an afterthought, "just to recapture something that never should have happened in the first place. I understand that they care about each other, but I think her attachment to Seven is almost obsessive....."

"It's called love, Commander."

"No, Doctor. It's different.....and I understand it. Seven saved Kathryn's life in such a personal way." He lowered his voice. "She breast-fed the captain, for goodness sake! How could they not develop a bond doing something like that?! But for the captain to turn her back on her responsibilities to Voyager just so she can run off with Seven again? That's not like her."

"That's not what the captain is doing, Chakotay!" the Doctor protested.

"It amounts to the same thing! She has other viable options -- letting me stay, for instance -- that would permit her to remain on Voyager and see this ship and crew safely home. She's shirking that responsibility, Doctor. And it's not right!" the commander replied angrily. He took another breath. "I want you to declare the captain mentally incompetent."

"Well, as Chief Medical Officer, I certainly have the wherewithal to do that. And there's no question that I would do that....if I felt Captain Janeway was incompetent. But in my medical opinion, she isn't."

"Doctor, you're not a psychologist --," Chakotay began.

"And neither are you, Commander," the hologram responded testily. "The truth is that there's no one on this ship qualified enough to make that kind of call. But as CMO, I'm the closest. And I'm telling you, as both the captain's doctor and her friend: nothing that happened on that planet is responsible for the captain's decision to take this mission."

The Doctor softened. "Commander, you and I both know that it is justlike Kathryn Janeway to martyr herself for her crew, especially for something as serious as shortening our trip home. She was prepared to make a similar sacrifice when we were going through the Void, remember? And that was before she became involved with Seven. The only thing that's different about her decision this time is that she's willing to let Seven stay with her. And frankly, I think that's the healthiest thing she could do."

Head hung low, Chakotay considered the Doctor's words, saddened by his growing awareness that the hologram was right.

"Leaving Kathryn behind is going to tear this crew apart," he said plaintively.

"I know," the Doctor agreed. "That's why it's going to take a very special captain to pick up the pieces and get this ship and crew home. But I know the commander who's up for the position, and I have every faith in him," he added gently.

Chakotay drew unexpected strength from those words. He seemed about to say something more but was interrupted by the Sickbay doors, which swooshed open to admit Tom Paris.

"Ensign Paris reporting for medical duty, Doctor," he said in his typically light and subtly ironic tone. "Hi, Chakotay," he greeted, turning to the First Officer. "Did you sprain something?"

Chakotay sighed. "Nothing that won't heal, Paris. Thanks for mending the shoulder, Doctor," he concluded hopping off the bio-bed. He didn't await a response.

The Doctor continued staring at the Sickbay doors even after they closed behind Chakotay.

"Anything wrong?" Paris asked.

The Doctor frowned and then turned his full attention to the sandy-haired pilot who also doubled as his medical assistant. "Tom," he began, "things are actually pretty quiet here today, and well, I've been thinking I should hone my skills in other areas now that I'm regularly asked to participate in Away missions. I wonder....how would you like to help me brush up on my piloting skills?"

"Sure thing, Doc."

~~~~~~~

"Good afternoon, Ensign Kim. I am here to relieve you."

The young man crawled carefully across the overhead shuttle catwalk, nursing a sore knuckle, and then peered down through the hatchway, a look of surprise evident on his face.

"Seven! How did you know I was up here?"

"I heard you mutter an oath. I believe the word was 'Fuck'," she replied in her typical deadpan.

The ensign's ears shaded crimson. "Um, well, I banged my finger with the spanner," he explained.

"Perhaps you should have the Doctor take a look."

"Yeah. Thanks."

He climbed down from the shuttle crawlspace where he had been working on the connections to Seven's alcove and let the young woman take over for him, quickly briefing her on where he had let off.

"Understood," Seven confirmed when he was done. Then without further delay, she climbed up and began her work.

Kim smirked at Seven's lack of social graces. "See you later, I guess," he mumbled under his breath.

"'See you later'," Seven echoed back, the timbre hollow and distant as it reverberated through the human-size tube she was now in.

The ensign smiled and then exited the shuttle. As he left the docking bay, he nodded a farewell to Torres and her engineering team, who had just come in. Torres nodded back distractedly.

Neelix was there, too, still trying to expand his functions by putting in a few duty shifts in other parts of the ship. He smiled and mouthed a silent "bye-bye" at the ensign as he waved his fingers at him.

"Neelix," B'Elanna called, getting the Talaxian's attention, "you and Golot are with me. We need to check all the power couplers," she ordered over her shoulder as she entered the shuttle with her two assistants trailing. "We've got to make sure all the circuits are working perfectly. Can't risk the captain losing power after she's initiated the graviton stream."

"What about auxiliary power couplers?" Golot asked.

Seven had heard the question from where she was working on the alcove installation, and she was about to answer in the affirmative when she heard Lt. Torres's response.

"Those, too. They may need to throw everything they've got into maintaining the stream."

Seven nodded to herself, satisfied with the chief engineer's response.

As Golot began removing the port bulkhead panels to expose the circuits she needed to test, she couldn't help balking at B'Elanna's choice of words. "'They'? I thought Seven was just going along for the ride."

Quirking her lips, the chief engineer couldn't resist the invitation to poke fun at the too efficient Borg. "Now, Golot," she said in mock disapproval, "you know Seven of Nine isn't the idle type....In fact," B'Elanna added with an irritated sigh, "she's the busy-bee type...busy and nosy."

Golot smiled back, appreciating the lieutenant's willingness to relax protocol, particularly where the Borg was concerned.

Seven, for her part, raised her brow quizzically, realizing now that they didn't know she was there and wondering if she should inform them. But when Neelix guilelessly joined in the conversation, the young woman felt compelled to listen in.

"Well," the Talaxian began, "it certainly is true that Seven likes to involve herself in several areas of the ship to make sure they're running 'efficiently'." His mutton chops bounced a bit in amusement.

The statement was true enough, and certainly nothing that Seven would normally take offense to, but the tone was oddly uncharitable for the typically diplomatic Delta Quadrant native. Neelix, however, was struggling to negotiate his place in engineering, and that meant trying to curry favor with the territorial and hot-headed half-Klingon chief engineer, a daunting task for the cloying and flamboyant Talaxian. To his relief, his efforts occasionally paid off.

B'Elanna chuckled approvingly at the innuendo. "I'm surprised she isn't here now, telling us which isolinear chip goes where."

"Pretty soon she'll be trying to teach me a better way to roast a leg of Kelaran wildebeest or instructing the Doctor on how best to heal one of his patients."

"No, wait," Golot called. "The Borg don't fix 'damaged' drones, remember? And since killing two birds with one stone is more efficient, Seven would recommend roasting the patient!"

Seven winced from where she lay, unintentionally eavesdropping on the conversation and now wishing she was anywhere but there.

"How ever will we manage without her?!" Golot pressed on amid the cruel snickering.

When the laughter died down, Neelix filled the lull with a depressing counterpoint. "I just wish we didn't have to manage without the captain."

The comment sobered the trio, and made Seven of Nine hold her breath.

"That one's going to be tough," B'Elanna noted.

"I guess it wouldn't be like Captain Janeway to let anybody else stay behind like that," Neelix sighed. "But it just doesn't seem right that she should leave us! A captain's place is with her ship!"

"She should have let that Borg do the job," Golot spat.

"She'd never do that. In fact, I'm surprised she even considered separating from Seven when she announced she would be staying behind alone," B'Elanna countered.

"Yes," Neelix mused, "they seem to have developed a very strong bond."

"Doesn't it make you wonder what went on between them all the while they were stuck on that planet?" Golot asked. "Maybe Seven did something to the captain."

"Like what?" the chief engineer asked skeptically.

"I don't know....but didn't the captain seem different to you after she got back?"

"She certainly didn't seem all that glad to see us," Neelix complained. "The way she just hid in her quarters."

"Or in the cargo bay with the Borg," Golot added critically.

B'Elanna thought back to her conversation with Chakotay and realized there was something he had been trying to hide to protect the captain. And as both Klingon and officer, she implicitly shared his need to respect Kathryn Janeway's privacy.

"Captain's privilege," the chief engineer observed commandingly. "That's enough gossip. We have work to do," she added, trying to put the breaks on their casual speculations.

"Yes, Lieutenant," Neelix acknowledged. "I meant no disrespect to the captain....it just doesn't feel right to be losing her."

"I know, Neelix," B'Elanna said softly. "But once the captain makes up her mind, you know there's no changing it."

"Seven could have changed it," he countered bitterly. "She's the only one who has any influence over the captain. She should have tried harder! She should have convinced Captain Janeway to stay on Voyager!" He shook his head sadly. "Now the captain will never get home. She'll never get to see her family again."

"You don't know that, Neelix. I, for one, don't plan to give up trying to get the slip-stream engine to work. Maybe with Starfleet to help when we get back, we'll be able to figure it out and then return here to get the captain."

"She'll probably be dead by then," Golot observed a little too casually. "Or else assimilated," she added.

B'Elanna stiffened but did not respond.

The trio fell into an uncomfortable silence, which let that last statement bore its way painfully into their thoughts.

From inside the maintenance crawlspace, Seven hugged herself against the horrible notion that was finally beginning to form in her mind. For all their planning and packing and preparations, it was probably a conceit to think that she and Kathryn would enjoy a long, idyllic future together. More likely, Kathryn would soon succumb to some disease or alien force or some other danger out here, without Voyager to protect her. And the worst part, the part that Seven was starting fully to appreciate only now -- at Neelix's accidental prompting -- was that she could have done something to prevent all this...but didn't.

She was the one who had been weak. She could have fought Kathryn on this decision, but she had given up.....too easily.....and all because the only thing she really cared about was being alone with Kathryn. Her motives had been selfish, and she would wind up paying a price that was too dear -- Kathryn's life. Anticipating that loss now, Seven laid her head down in misery and let her tears slide silently to the floor.

~~~~~~~

After composing herself, Seven had returned to her task, remaining quiet while Torres and her team completed the maintenance on the power couplings. She was grateful when they finally left. It was then that she had let go her anger and frustration, pulling up on heavy panels with her bare hands and banging away at bolts and fastenings that seemed reluctant to turn but really weren't.

When she was done, she cleaned up in the lavatory off the docking port. She was due to meet Kathryn in the messhall for dinner but dreaded the idea of facing any more crew members. She wished she could just talk Kathryn into having dinner in the privacy of her quarters. More selfish thoughts.

The truth was that the captain was committed to spending what little time she had left with the crew.....her way of softening the blow of her departure and of, in effect, saying goodbye. Seven knew she couldn't interfere with that. She would simply have to grit her teeth and bear the crew's reproaches, which were beginning to feel well deserved.

Ultimately, it would all be irrelevant. In little more than a day, ship and crew would be long gone and out of their lives, possibly forever.

She winced against the suddenly bitter taste of that thought. Feeling even worse, now, she inhaled deeply and made her way to the messhall, trying hard to control the whirl of emotions that vexed her.

"Deck 2," she squeaked when she reached the turbolift. She cleared her throat, trying to rid herself of the lump she suddenly felt there.

After a moment, the turbolift reached Deck 2, and she took another careful breath before entering the corridor and making her way to the Officers' Mess.

Upon entering, she made a quick circuit of the room. Most of the Alpha-shift bridge crew was present, but no Kathryn. She considered retreating again and then saw Tuvok eating by himself at one of the tables along the far wall. Next to Kathryn and the Doctor, the second-in-command had been a close mentor and friend and had even rescued Seven once from a kind of mental oblivion when she had been contaminated with the Borg vinculum virus. She realized that she would miss the reticent Vulcan.

"Commander," she greeted.

"Seven," he returned.

"I am meeting the captain for dinner," she explained. "May I join you while I await her arrival."

"Of course," he said, motioning to the chair across from him. "I anticipate this will be the last time we'll have this opportunity to converse."

"Indeed," she said, feeling that lump again.

"I regret," Tuvok declared honestly, "that the captain has decided that both you and she should remain behind."

There was nothing implied in the tone since Tuvok was the type who spoke plainly, except, of course, when he allowed his sarcastic sense of humor to surface. At the moment, however, he was deadly serious and meant nothing other than sincere regret that he would be separated from two close friends.

Coming as it did on the heels of B'Elanna's and Neelix's comments, however -- not to mention Ensign Golot's -- Seven seized on the "both" in Tuvok's statement and made more of it than she should have.

"Would you rather only one of us had stayed behind?" she asked frostily.

Momentarily distracted by an offending spice in the stew Neelix had prepared, Tuvok missed the change in Seven's mood and answered the question as it was asked.

"Indeed, I would. Losing both of you for a mission where one would suffice is illogical, as I have already mentioned to Captain Janeway."

The comment stung. "And what did the captain respond?" Seven continued.

"She suggested that leaving you behind would be too difficult for her."

Seven had, of course, volunteered for the mission, but the sudden revelation that Kathryn had actually entertained the idea made her stomach clinch painfully.

"But you disagree with her decision," she spat.

"Not entirely," Tuvok responded evenly. "As concerns her emotional state, I believe the captain is correct in her assessment. Clearly, you and she have developed a bond as a result of being stranded together several weeks back. However, as concerns Voyager, the decision is an emotional one that will deprive the ship and crew of not one, but two good officers."

"You believe I should have used my influence to convince the captain to stay," she asked and stated all at once.

"Indeed, insofar as you seem to be the only one with influence over the captain at the moment, perhaps you could have convinced her to accept a volunteer for this mission."

Since she wasn't aware that both Chakotay and Tuvok had volunteered for the mission, Seven assumed he meant that she should have convinced Kathryn to let her stay behind when she had volunteered at the staff meeting. Seven hadn't expected Tuvok to be so blunt in his desire that Seven should be the one who left Voyager, and she found herself feeling deeply hurt by that frank suggestion.

She stood up abruptly. "Perhaps I will yet convince the captain to let me stay behind alone," she declared, her pain punctuating each syllable. "Particularly since no one on Voyager cares whether I stay or go."

"On the contrary, Seven -- " Tuvok began, finally understanding that the young woman was misinterpreting his comments.

Seven interrupted. "It is just as well, Commander!" she cried, tears staining her face. "Because I no longer wish to be a part of this collective!" She ceremoniously tore the combadge from her chest and threw it to the deck as she stormed out, leaving a rather befuddled Vulcan and curious onlookers in her wake.

~~~~~~~

Moments later, Kathryn Janeway strolled into the messhall and casually looked around, clearly searching for Seven.

Tuvok approached. "Captain," he greeted.

"Tuvok," she responded with a nod. "Have you seen Seven?"

"She left a few minutes ago, Captain. I believe I upset her."

"What happened?" Janeway asked a little too loudly. Crew at nearby tables turned to observe the exchange.

"She asked me my thoughts regarding your pending departure and mistook my responses to mean that I wished her to stay behind without you."

Janeway translated. "You told her you thought it was 'illogical' for both of us to stay behind."

"Yes, Captain," Tuvok affirmed, a hint of regret lacing his usually even tone.

The captain took a breath, trying to control the combination of anger and sadness she felt rising in the pit of her stomach.

"Did she say where she was going?"

"No, she simply noted that she might still be able to convince you to let her stay behind alone and then she announced that she no longer wished to be a member of 'this collective'," Tuvok repeated.

Instantly perceiving the pain that would have led Seven to make those declarations, Janeway felt suddenly nervous about where the sensitive young woman might have run off to.

"Computer, locate Seven of Nine," she barked.

"Seven of Nine is in the Officer's Mess on Deck 2," the computer responded.

The auburn-haired woman searched the room again, looking more diminutive and confused than most of the crew were accustomed to seeing her.

"Uh, Captain," Harry Kim called, "here." He put a combadge in her hand. "I saw Seven take it off and throw it to the deck as she left."

Janeway felt a rising panic as she closed her suddenly pale fingers over the metallic triangle. And in the next breath, she yelped out orders as fast as she could. "Computer, emergency lock-down of all shuttle and transporter functions and report any unauthorized departures or transports within the last half hour."

"No unauthorized departures have occurred. No unauthorized transports detected."

Janeway heaved a small sigh of relief as, by now, everyone in the messhall looked on. She returned the gaze, scanning the room in a slow circuit as she considered her next move. Now that she had locked out shuttle and transporter controls, there was no real emergency other than her personal need to see if Seven was all right. For that, she could simply retreat to a nearby and more private computer terminal, where she could locate Seven by running a ship-wide scan for Borg bio-signatures. But the weeks of disapproving looks and subtle criticisms made her feel suddenly contrary. She didn't want to retreat.....she didn't want to hide anymore.

"Computer, activate a ship-wide comlink."

The electronic chortle of the computer indicated that the public-address channel was open.

"Janeway to Seven of Nine. Proceed to the nearest comm station and report your location."

The captain mentally counted to ten awaiting a response. There was silence.

"Janeway to Seven, acknowledge!" she ordered.

As the last call came in through the speakers in Engineering, Golot turned to B'Elanna. "I guess the captain lost something," she noted sarcastically.

B'Elanna did not grin back, distracted by the slightly desperate inflection in the captain's call.

By now, the entire crew was aware that Seven was missing, the captain's signal having reached all parts of the ship, including an almost forgotten Jeffries tube on Deck 15, near the ventral phaser array. It was an area of the ship seldom manned. In fact, the only crew member in that section at the moment was an unhappy young woman with metal-tipped fingers and a Borg-implanted brow.

Janeway had guessed correctly. Seven had been heading for the docking port when the captain began barking orders at the computer to lock down all the obvious means of leaving Voyager. And in her desperation, Seven even considered some of the less obvious means, such as launching herself into space in one of the emergency escape pods. Of course, she knew Janeway would have instantly put a tractor beam on the pod, which meant that her efforts would have resulted in nothing more than wasted resources, inefficiency, and embarrassment. So the dejected young woman had finally settled on tucking herself into a deserted Jeffries tube, wanting desperately to shut everyone and everything out.

But she couldn't shut out Kathryn's voice, which was now reverberating throughout the suddenly quiet ship. In every section, noisy work and idle conversations stopped as the crew listened in growing astonishment to the captain's broadcast, her voice becoming more sincere, more pleading, more intimate.

"Seven?" Captain Janeway called softly over the general comlink. "Seven, this is Kathryn. Please answer me, darling," she begged.

Many of the crew shifted uncomfortably, feeling suddenly as if they were eavesdropping on a private conversation. Seven shifted, too, knowing that Kathryn was letting down her command mask for her sake.

The only one who seemed not to be fidgeting nervously was Janeway herself. To her surprise, Kathryn felt a kind of calm settle inside as she gave herself over to her feelings. Professionalism and protocol seemed suddenly less important than getting Seven to talk to her. And maybe the only way the crew could finally come to terms with her decision was if they saw for themselves how much their captain and their Borg crewmate loved each other.

"Seven," Kathryn continued after a moment, "I know you're hurting. And I think I know the sorts of ideas that are running through your head right now, but, darling, you haven't let me down.....and no matter what anybody else says," Kathryn added, looking around challengingly, "you haven't let the crew down, either!"

Janeway took a deep breath, still looking into the faces of her crew. "Don't you people understand anything?" she asked, unguarded tears starting to well in her eyes. "I'm the one who let you down. I'm the one who got you stuck here six years ago. And I'm the one who needs to set things right again. My responsibility. My call. Not Chakotay's. Not Tuvok's. Not yours. And not even Seven's."

She took another breath.

"Some of you have lost loved ones to the Borg -- friends, family, lovers. And you've directed your hurt and anger at Seven as if she were still a member of the Collective.....as if hating her was a way of respecting the memories of those you lost. But Seven isn't our enemy. She's a human being who was snatched up by the Borg as an innocent child!"

Kathryn paused for emphasis.

"What if....what if we could rescue your loved ones from the Borg, sever them from the Collective and return their individuality to them? Would you hate them, too? Would you hate them for what they did when they weren't in control of their own actions? Would you hate them for having become victims of the Borg?.....I would think you'd embrace them, comfort them, help them adapt to being individuals again. I would think you would rejoice at having your loved one returned to you...."

The captain's words reached Golot in Engineering and others throughout the ship, raising issues they hadn't considered and hopes they hadn't dared entertain.

"That's what Seven represents! She's our family, come back to us from Borg obscurity."

Kathryn's voice faltered as she pressed on.

"But Seven is special, too. Because she was taken so young, she will always be part Borg. And even if that makes her a little rough around the edges, the truth is that we'd all be dead ten times over if it weren't for her Borg enhancements.....I'd be dead now if Seven hadn't kept me alive when we were stranded......"

Seven was instantly alarmed by the direction Kathryn's comments had just taken. As she heard her pause for breath, she scrambled out of the Jeffries tube, hoping to reach the nearest comm panel before Kathryn said anything more. She nearly tripped in her haste when she heard her beginning to speak again.

"When we were stranded on that rock, we....that is to say, I -- "

"Kathryn!" Chakotay interrupted. "You don't have to do this!"

Kathryn held up her hand to silence him. "I do have to do this, Chakotay. They need to know that Seven saved my life, that she protected me, that she sustained me!" Kathryn said, her voice choking with emotion. "It's the only way they'll appreciate how truly wonderful she is!"

Just then, Seven's voice broke in over the general comlink. "Seven of Nine to Captain Janeway! I'm on my way! Please, Kathryn," she added quickly, "do not say anything more until I get there!"

Seven pulled away from the comm panel and sprinted into the turbolift, too late for Kathryn to stop her, but she could hear the captain continuing.

"Seven, wait!" Kathryn called. "I need to say this so they'll understand how human you are. I need to tell them because they weren't there to witness for themselves how much you cared for me."

Janeway looked again at her crew, willing them to understand. "I need to tell you....because you weren't there to see how worried Seven looked when I was starving....You don't know anything about the pain and anguish she felt when I rejected her solution!....You can't imagine the sublime joy she felt when I finally accepted her help!....You need to see her through my eyes to understand who she really is!.....You don't know!"

Just then, the messhall doors opened, admitting an uncharacteristically frightened ex-Borg. Seven froze as soon as she caught sight of the captain.

"They don't know," Kathryn said more quietly, addressing Seven directly this time.

Seven eyed the crew worriedly and then returned the captain's gaze. "They know all they need to know, Kathryn," she cried. "Please! Leave it at that."

Kathryn looked at Seven, considering her plea, and then carefully looked around the room at her crew, as if trying to determine how much they really understood of the bond between her and Seven. She felt to her core that it wasn't enough.

Seven must have sensed her wavering. She slowly approached the auburn-haired woman and held out her hand, hoping the contact would sweeten her entreaty. "Please, Kathryn," she repeated.

Kathryn took the offered hand and pulled it to her bosom, holding it to her heart with both her hands. "Then you tell them what they need to know, Seven. Please. Tell them what you feel for me."

Confusion and embarrassment ghosted over Seven's face at the thought of having to reveal something so personal as her feelings.

"I.....I do not know how to proceed," she said hesitantly.

"Just tell them why you're staying behind with me."

Seven took a breath as she looked around nervously. Then she reconnected with Kathryn's eyes and focused her attention there. She would speak her words of love to Kathryn....only to Kathryn. And imagining that, she felt a familiar calm wash over her.

"I could never leave you," she began softly. "I could no more do without your laughter and your passion than I could survive without oxygen. When you look at me, when you smile at me, when you touch me, I feel.....complete.....And I couldn't bear the thought of you struggling alone, without me to protect and comfort you.....I love you, Kathryn."

There they were -- passion and compassion. The two emotions that most define a human being as a human being.

Janeway carefully studied the crew's reactions. Several of the faces held a hint of embarrassment. Some were even moist with tears. Seven's words appeared to have touched a necessary chord....and it was a start. Satisfied, Kathryn returned her attention to Seven and smiled proudly at her ex-Borg.

"I love you, too, my darling," she said, "with all my heart."

They kissed then -- a long, penetrating kiss -- Kathryn encouraged by the need to demonstrate her feelings for the crew's sake, and Seven encouraged simply by the need to press her lips to Kathryn's.

When they finally parted, they smiled at each other for a moment more, engaging in one of those silent exchanges between lovers. Then they held each other by the hand and simply left.

Silence descended in the messhall and throughout the ship as Kathryn and Seven made their way to Deck 3. Moments later, as they entered the captain's quarters, they heard Chakotay's grave voice coming over the open comlink: "Computer, end ship-wide transmission."

~~~~~~~

Act V

Kathryn Janeway floated to half-consciousness on a cloud of sublime contentment. She did not understand the source of her mood and guessed that she must have been having a pleasant dream. Half a second later, she felt an intimate part of her anatomy flutter in excitement, which made her conclude that this pleasant dream had erotic overtones. After another moment, she perceived that the fleshy sides of her mons were being pulled open while something hot and wet and slightly rough slithered along the length of her engorged lips. It was then she realized she wasn't dreaming. She took a deep, shuddering breath.

"Mmmm. That's nice," she crooned. Then as an afterthought, she asked, "That is you, isn't it, Seven?"

She felt as much as heard the laughter that bubbled up from the point of contact. Kathryn smiled broadly and slowly opened her eyes. When she peered down, she was surprised to find a pair of darkened, half-lidded eyes staring back at her, full of passion and mischief.

It was Seven, of course, her face nestled between Kathryn's legs as she languidly stroked the captain's sex with her tongue, looking up at her all the while.

The tableau titillated Kathryn even more, forcing her to swallow just so she could talk. "What are you doing, darling?" she managed, amusement mingling with the excitement in her tone.

Seven pulled her mouth away briefly to answer. "Watching you sleep," she said. She kissed the bundle of nerves at the apex and then added, "I believe I could spend the rest of my life watching you sleep."

Kathryn gasped. "I believe I could let you," she quipped, although the sentiment was sincere.

She inhaled again and spread her legs farther apart, granting Seven more access.

The young woman fastened her mouth hungrily onto the captain and plunged her tongue inside.

"Huh....Oh!" Kathryn cried breathlessly. "Mm, oh. Oh, Seven!" she called.

She began to pant in a tempo that matched the staccato of spasms that seized her. The flutters began to concentrate themselves in the nub at the top of her sex. It felt hard and distended, no doubt engorged as a result of Seven's single-minded attention.

Seven's tongue was relentless, the speed and vigor of its movements growing in tandem with Kathryn's building excitement.

"Oh, oh, darling!" Kathryn cried again. "Like that! Oh! Don't stop!"

Seven pushed her hands underneath Kathryn and seized the two fleshy globes of her buttocks, holding the captain tightly to her face as her mouth fastened on more fervently.

Kathryn was on the edge of the precipice, anxious to plunge into bliss, but she felt an acute emptiness that made her ache for more.

"Go inside, Seven!....Please," she begged. "Now!"

The young woman brought her right hand up and immediately pressed two fingers into the captain. Curling them within, she began to rub the tender inner flesh in a quick, circular motion that matched the way her tongue was avidly stroking the hooded bundle on the outside.

"Oh God!" Kathryn cried. Her voice caught as her entire body tensed and arched. She seemed frozen in that position, except for the tremors that periodically quaked her rigid form. After a long, breathless interlude, she collapsed onto the bed moaning. A moment later, her hand absently tangled in Seven's hair, urging the young woman's head away from the suddenly too-sensitive knot of flesh.

Seven complied, allowing herself to be guided upwards until she was face to face with Kathryn and draping herself warmly over the older woman's small frame.

The captain welcomed the weight, hugging Seven to herself with almost painful intensity as she struggled to catch her breath.

"I love you," she exhaled.

Seven nuzzled the auburn hair with her wet nose and mouth, returning the embrace with equal ardor as her own need asserted itself. She straddled the captain's right thigh and pressed herself onto it.

Kathryn responded instantly, lifting her leg and pulling the blond's pelvis tightly against it. After a moment, their hips began to dance in a grinding rhythm.

Suddenly, the room's comm system chortled with an unwelcome call. "Doctor to Captain Janeway."

"Damn!" she called out. "Don't stop, darling," she instructed.

As she reached for her combadge, she quickly assayed how upset she should be by noting the time on the nearby chronometer. 0710 hours: she should have been up over an hour ago -- preparing for her last shift -- which meant she couldn't be too angry. "Double damn!" she muttered before tapping the combadge.

"Go ahead, Doctor," she said, finally acknowledging his call.

"Captain, I need to meet with you and the senior officers immediately. I believe I have a solution to everything!" he cried excitedly.

Kathryn sighed in a combination of mild annoyance at the interruption, weariness from the Doctor's habitual over-enthusiasm, and renewed excitement from the way Seven was rubbing up against her.

At that moment, Seven emitted a hushed whimper, clearly holding back but threatening to erupt with her own climax. Kathryn realized she had better cut off the comlink quickly.

"All right. Call the meeting for the start of Alpha shift."

"But --"

"0800 hours, Doctor!" she commanded sternly. "We can't all be dressed and ready to go at the flick of a switch. Janeway out!"

Kathryn instantly turned her attention to the frenzied young woman riding her leg. "Now, darling," she instructed seductively. "Do it now."

"Yes, Kathryn!" Seven managed. She threw her head back and obediently surrendered her passion.

~~~~~~~

Nearly an hour later, the captain and her ex-Borg bounded into the staff meeting, several minutes later than had been arranged.

"What's this about, Doctor?" Janeway asked as she crossed to her chair.

"So glad you could make it, Captain," he smirked, still bristling from being made to wait to deliver his news. He took an unnecessary breath for effect and then visibly brightened. "This is about you and Seven being able to stay on Voyager."

Janeway held up a warning hand. "We've covered this territory. Seven and I are staying behind and that's final!"

"But that's just it, Captain. No one has to stay behind."

Chakotay seized on the statement. "What do you mean, Doctor?"

"I mean that I am volunteering for this mission."

Kathryn misunderstood, part of her still feeling that the Doctor wasn't really a person and therefore taking him to mean that he was "no one" and could be left behind.

"No, Doctor," she said shaking her head. "Even with the wormhole, Voyager will still have nearly nine years of travel in the Delta Quadrant. I can't leave the crew without an EMH."

"I have no intention of staying behind either, Captain. I've been giving our situation considerable thought. According to B'Elanna's report at our last meeting, all Voyager needs is someone to operate the shuttle so that the graviton stream remains centered on the wormhole. With Mr. Paris's assistance, I conducted several flight simulations yesterday and successfully piloted a shuttle under similar conditions."

"He did great!" Paris confirmed.

"Unlike you and Seven, however, I can be....retrieved, once the mission is complete. Do you recall when we discovered the Hirogen sensor array, and you used it to transfer me to the Prometheus on the outskirts of the Alpha Quadrant?"

"Yes," B'Elanna chimed in excitedly, beginning to see where the Doctor was headed. "We used the array to transmit your holographic data stream."

"But that won't work, Doc," Ensign Kim interrupted. "There aren't any communications nodes between here and the other side of the wormhole for us to bounce your signal through."

Janeway, Seven, and Torres came to the same realization immediately. "Barclay!" they called out simultaneously.

"Exactly," the Doctor grinned.

"The micro-wormhole technology we got from Starfleet Command?" Chakotay translated.

"Yes," the Doctor affirmed again. "Seven's the expert, of course, but I thought if Lt. Barclay could send us several gigaquads of data all the way from earth, why couldn't Voyager transmit me across a measly 20,000 light years?"

"The Doctor is correct," Seven affirmed. "As Lt. Barclay's data on hyper-subspace communications indicates, we can open a micro-wormhole by initiating a gravimetric surge. And since the shuttle has already been modified for a similar purpose -- the graviton stream -- we can initiate the surge at both ends."

"That'd make the micro-wormhole more stable," Harry noted. "Which means we should be able to get it wide enough and keep it open long enough to get the Doctor's data stream through."

"Fascinating," Tuvok complimented in the Vulcan fashion. "However, I feel compelled to remind you, Doctor, that this technology will permit us to transmit only your data stream. Since we cannot conduct a transport beam through the micro-wormhole, we will not be able to retrieve your mobile emitter."

The Doctor sobered. "Yes, I'm aware of that, Tuvok," he said plaintively. "But it seems a small enough price to pay for being able to keep the captain and Seven with us."

Kathryn's eyes misted over. "That'll be like a prison sentence for you, Doctor," she said softly. "Are you sure?"

"It's only a temporary sentence, Captain," he quipped. "Provided no one interferes with the timeline, the emitter will be invented in the twenty-ninth century, which means I'll be out and about again in only 500 years. In the meantime," he added sincerely, "I don't mind losing a little freedom of movement if it means sparing you and Seven a lifetime of exile."

"B'Elanna," Neelix broke in, "couldn't we install holo-emitters in the shuttle?"

"Yes, but the real problem is insufficient power to run the Doctor's program."

"Well, we have to get Seven's alcove out of there now. Won't that help?" Chakotay asked.

"A little," B'Elanna agreed, "but as it is, the alcove is drawing only enough power to remain in standby mode. That's all the shuttle can handle, even with the enhancements we were able to make. In fact, Seven was going to be using the portable regeneration unit until the shuttle had landed on whatever planet she and the captain found."

"The Doctor will not require life support," Tuvok suggested.

"That's right," Kim affirmed.

"That'll help, too. And come to think of it," the chief engineer noted thoughtfully as she carefully studied the hologram, "there are a lot of other things the Doctor won't need....."

"Such as?" the hologram prompted, his interest clearly piqued.

The captain quirked her lips. "I have a funny feeling that B'Elanna is about to recommend you go on a crash diet, Doctor."

"I beg your pardon?" he asked puzzled.

"Doctor," Seven chimed in, "the only requirements are that you visually discern the center of the wormhole and then manually aim the shuttle there."

"So what are you saying? That I'm to be reduced to a head and a pair of hands?!" the Doctor cried in shock.

"I believe one hand will suffice," Seven countered evenly.

"Are you sure you can do it," the captain asked the chief engineer.

"Yeah! I really think this could work."

"But what if something goes wrong with the shuttle?" the Doctor protested. "How could I make emergency repairs if I don't have a body?"

"There won't be time for repairs, Doctor," Chakotay explained. "If anything goes wrong while Voyager is going through the wormhole, it'll all be over."

"I understand," the Doctor muttered worriedly. "But the prospect of being the sole survivor and nothing more than a disembodied head and hand is even less appealing," he noted.

"And I'm afraid I couldn't leave Federation technology behind if it was virtually unattended," the captain declared.

"I see. You will want me to initiate the self-destruct mechanism, in the event Voyager is destroyed."

"Actually, I want you to destroy the shuttle regardless. Let's just make sure nothing goes wrong so that we can retrieve you before it explodes. All right?"

The Doctor was only mildly mollified. "Yes, Captain."

"B'Elanna, you and Harry work on getting the necessary holo-emitters installed in the shuttle."

"Aye, Captain."

"Seven, review Lt. Barclay's data and prepare the shuttle for hyper-subspace communication."

The young woman nodded efficiently.

"Tom, I want you to run some more simulations...with the lightweight version of the Doctor," the captain ordered. "Sorry, Doctor, but you're going to need to get used to maneuvering the ship with less....you."

The Doctor gave a short, serious nod. "I will....adapt," he said, trying out Seven's word.

The captain smiled brilliantly. "I wouldn't expect anything less....from my 'Emergency Command Hologram'," she trilled in a low voice.

That perked the Doctor up a little.

"And as soon as we retrieve you, we'll stop for shore-leave at the first hospitable planet we find so that you can slap on your mobile emitter and take a good long walk somewhere."

As intended, the comment reminded the Doctor of what the elaborate scheme was meant to spare him: the loss of his precious mobile emitter and, with it, his freedom. He nodded again, this time with a smile.

"Captain?" Neelix broke in. "If you have no specific assignment for me, I'd like permission to start organizing a celebration.....uh, for after we've gone through the wormhole and retrieved the Doctor, of course."

"Oh, we'll have a party, all right, Neelix," Janeway grinned. "But don't you think it's a little premature to start planning already. We've barely started hatching this new plan," she added with amusement.

"I can't help thinking about celebrating, Captain," Neelix explained, his nose crinkling happily, "now that it's decided that you and Seven will be able to remain with us on Voyager."

The sentiment wrapped around Kathryn like a warm, cozy blanket, and she looked to Seven to share the moment, gratified when the young woman smiled back reflecting the mood.

"Go ahead," she said finally.

"Thank you, Captain."

"I suppose that's it. Everyone dismissed."

The officers all stood and began taking their leave.

"B'Elanna," Kathryn called out, just a moment.

The chief engineer hung back as the captain visibly waited for the room to empty, leaving them alone.

"B'Elanna, since you'll be taking Seven's regeneration alcove out of the shuttle, I was wondering."

"Yes?" the lieutenant prompted.

"Well, how difficult would it be to reinstall it someplace other than Cargo Bay 2? Say, for example, in one of the command crew quarters?"

B'Elanna smiled knowingly. "Not difficult at all, Captain. But," she added, unable to resist teasing, "why would Chakotay want a Borg alcove in his living room?"

Janeway smiled back. "Good point. I guess you'd better put Seven's alcove in my quarters, instead."

The chief engineer nodded, amusement tugging at the corners of her lips. She started to leave.

"Oh, and B'Elanna?" Kathryn called. "I want it in the bedroom," she announced in a low purr.

A slow smile broadened on the half-Klingon's face. Janeway seemed to be letting down her guard now that she had so openly declared her feelings for Seven, and the new Janeway was going to take some getting used to. But B'Elanna decided she very much liked the change.

She acknowledged the personal request with a warm nod and then departed.

~~~~~~~

"Status," Kathryn Janeway called as she walked onto the Bridge with her Astrometrics officer.

It had taken them only a day and a half to make the new modifications to the shuttle and prepare the Doctor for his "heady" adventure -- Paris's little quip -- but now that all systems were go, captain and crew were impatient to see what was on the other side of that wormhole.

The First Officer reported. "The Doctor's already in position, Captain, waiting for orders to initiate the stream."

"On screen."

The captain had to bite back a chuckle when she saw the image of the Doctor's head, suspended as if in midair in the suddenly cavernous space of the shuttle cockpit. Since he was essentially a light projection, he had full movement, which made his head seem to bob as he nodded and raised his disembodied hand in polite greeting. Despite his cordiality, he did not seem pleased.

"Captain," he greeted with a barely concealed smirk.

"Doc," she replied, truncating his name to match his new form.

The hologram harrumphed.

Janeway poked some more fun, her mood entirely too light given the dicey task still ahead of them, but she sensed that the crew could use a bit of humor to take the edge off the worry.

"I just wanted to say thanks again, Doctor, for loaning us a hand," she said. Then, amid the titters that followed that comment, she turned to the Bridge crew and called, "All right, people, heads up."

"I can see I'm going to be the butt of many a joke."

"Hardly that, Doctor," the captain continued in a too charming trill and a broad smile.

That brought a few louder chuckles.

The Doctor sighed.

Janeway smiled fondly and then got down to business.

"All hands, this is the captain. Brace for impact. This one's going to be a bumpy ride." She cut the general link. "Yellow alert," she ordered, knowing that Tuvok would sound the alarm.

The lights dimmed to yellow-alert status, emergency overheads coming on.

"Tom," Janeway called, "you take it from here."

"Aye, Captain," the pilot acknowledged. "All right, Doc. Prepare to initiate the graviton stream on my mark."

"Acknowledged."

"In five....four.....three.....two.....one.....Engage!"

Instantly, the gaping mouth of the wormhole became visible in the forward viewscreen, a beam emanating from the Federation shuttle off the port bow and seemingly trying to pin down the wormhole's dancing center.

Paris immediately maneuvered Voyager into position, trying to assay the safest point of entry.

"Here we go!" he announced.

In the next moment, Voyager shot past the shuttle and into the squiggling funnel. The ship was immediately rocked as it warped through streams of arcing light, the impacts setting off the red-alert klaxons.

"Shields at 77%," Tuvok called out.

There was a sudden jolt as if from behind, throwing Harry Kim out of his chair and sending the Astrometrics officer flying over the railing and landing with a thud to the captain's right.

"Seven!" Janeway called with alarm.

"I am unharmed!" the young woman yelled back, grabbing onto a nearby rail.

"Shields at 48%," the Vulcan security officer reported.

"Hull breach on Deck 14!" Harry called from Ops.

"Erect a level ten forcefield," Janeway bellowed over the din.

Another impact jolted the ship, nearly throwing the diminutive captain out of her chair.

"We can't take much more of this!" the First Officer observed.

"Paris, punch it!" Janeway ordered.

The ensign increased the power to the engines, and, as if that extra juice shattered some final barrier, they were suddenly through, the ship growing immediately calm and quiet except for the incongruous klaxons.

"Tuvok, stand down from red alert," Janeway ordered. "Somebody tell me where we are."

Seven of Nine immediately rose to her feet and returned quickly to her station. Casually brushing her tousled hair out of her face, she studied her board as she heard Paris's preliminary report.

"We made it, Captain. We're there!"

"Where, exactly?"

"Grid 3, sector 6-2-7-6-1," Seven responded efficiently.

Janeway's eyes misted, and she closed them in thanks.

"Sensors detecting a micro-wormhole opening astern," Tuvok noted.

"We're being hailed," Kim reported.

"Put it through."

"V...ger....min," came the crackly voice.

"Hang on, Doctor," Janeway called. She knew Seven was already keying instructions to initiate a gravimetric surge from Voyager's end.

Tuvok reported the results. "The micro-wormhole is expanding."

"Doctor, can you hear me?" Janeway called.

"Loud and clear, Captain, and am I glad to hear your voice."

"You did it, Doctor!" Janeway announced proudly.

"Well, I couldn't have done it without everyone's help --"

"Save the speeches for later, Doctor," Janeway interrupted with some amusement. "Time to come home."

"Yes, Captain. Initiating self-destruct on a thirty-second cycle and commencing EMH transmission in five, four, three, two......"

"We're receiving his transmission, Captain," Harry announced.

Janeway started counting to herself. Before she reached ten, she heard Harry's "Got 'em!" and breathed a sigh of relief. Studying her command console, which now displayed navigational data, she smiled brightly when she saw the coordinates confirming their new location.

"All hands, this is the captain," she said, her voice starting to choke. "Helm reports that the Alpha Quadrant is 8,722 light years dead ahead. Steady as she goes, Mr. Paris."

Captain Janeway felt more than heard the resounding cheers that erupted throughout the Intrepid-class vessel. And in the next instant, she felt herself being pulled to her feet and wrapped in a bear-like hug as the First Officer rejoiced along with everyone else. Kathryn returned the hug warmly, and then turned to look at Seven, who was still standing at the aft engineering station on the upper deck.

The beautiful blond was gazing back in mild amusement, her metallic brow poised in question, curious about the commander's evident breach of protocol. Kathryn shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly, silently replying that a breach here and there on a day like this was more than forgivable. And then, to illustrate the point, she climbed up on her chair, leaned over Seven's console, grabbed the startled ex-Borg by the neck, and pulled her in for a long, happy kiss.

As additional cheers and whistles erupted around them, the young woman surrendered eagerly to her captain's lips, guessing that the post-wormhole celebration had begun.

~~~~~~~

"Are you all right, Kathryn?" Seven asked the following morning.

"Just a little hung-over, darling, that's all." She pierced a portion of her scrambled eggs and popped it disinterestedly into her mouth, idly thinking that Neelix's cooking was getting a little better.

"Are you sure that's all," Seven asked knowingly.

Kathryn smiled a little sadly. "I suppose I thought things would be suddenly wonderful."

"You mean, with the crew.....with their willingness to adapt to us."

"Yes," Kathryn responded plainly.

"You wish some of them to join us for breakfast," Seven stated and asked at once.

"Well, that would be a start."

Seven looked around purposefully and noticed Harry Kim moving towards a table with his breakfast tray. "Ensign Kim," she called.

Harry quirked his head up towards Seven and visibly flinched before approaching the ex-Borg and the captain with a forced smile.

Kathryn stifled a sigh as she saw the discomfort ghost over him. "Seven, what are you doing?" she whispered under her breath.

Seven graced her with a half-smile. "I believe the Doctor would say that I am 'grabbing the bull by the horns'."

"Good morning, Seven, Captain," the ensign greeted with a polite nod.

"Harry," the captain returned cautiously.

"What can I do for you?"

"We require your presence while we ingest our nutritional supplements," Seven informed him.

Although the charmless and efficient Borg statement seemed more like a command, Harry understood it as Seven's way of inviting him to have breakfast with the two women. And the prospect of that made him very nervous indeed.

"Uhm, I really don't want to intrude on you and the captain, Seven. I'm sure you'd rather be alone."

"That is incorrect, Ensign. When the captain and I wish to be alone, we retire to her quarters."

Kathryn struggled to keep herself from laughing at how flustered that last comment made Harry, as if Seven had just mentioned "parents" and "bedroom" in the same breath. She thought she'd better try to patch over Seven's bluntness, particularly since scaring the crew was exactly the opposite of what she wanted finally to achieve.

"Harry, honestly, Seven and I have breakfast in the messhall because we want to socialize with the rest of you," she explained quietly. "But we can't manage that at all when you and the others keep steering clear of us because you're trying to respect our privacy. Won't you join us, please. I'd very much like to find out how you've been doing."

The sincerity of Janeway's request broke through Harry's discomfort. "I see your point, Captain," he said with a smile. "I'd be happy to join you."

He put his tray down and began to sit next to Seven when he noticed he was missing his utensils.

"I forgot my fork," he announced. "I'll be right back." Then he caught the dubious look on their faces. "Honest," he added with an easy smile.

Kathryn laughed.

Harry passed young Naomi Wildman and favored her with a smile as he retrieved a fork. Then he overheard her greeting the captain and Seven and turned to observe the exchange before returning to his seat.

"Good morning, Captain, Seven," the girl greeted. "May I join you for breakfast?" she asked guilelessly.

Kathryn smiled warmly. Well, she thought, at least one of the crew was at last taking her relationship with Seven in stride.

Seven read Kathryn's pleased reaction and then responded to the child's request. "We have just asked Ensign Kim to join us. If he has no objection, you may join us as well."

Harry stepped forward. "Uhm, no objections at all," he offered a little sheepishly. He couldn't help feeling as though he had just been shown up by a little girl. To his relief, the captain and Seven feigned not to notice.

~~~~~~~

Epilogue

The pink satin of her nightgown billowed provocatively against Kathryn Janeway's legs. Enjoying the sensation, she let herself shift seductively as she stood at the end of her bed, gazing toward the portion of her bedroom that had once contained a large lounger. It was now occupied by something far more precious to the captain -- a Borg alcove. Once upon a time, a vicious alien technology, the alcove had now become a symbol of life and energy, of the very thing that kept her own heart beating happily because the person dearest to it was kept alive by this technology.....was sustained by it.

In a sense, it was incongruous -- a Borg alcove in human living quarters. But it was emblematic of how Kathryn and Seven would build their lives together, a pastiche of different cultures and technologies soldered together with love and compromise. A synergy of Borg and human.....adapting.

The one thing they had not been able to adapt to, however, was being separated during Seven's regeneration cycles. And where they couldn't adapt, they renegotiated -- in this instance, by moving the alcove to Kathryn's bedroom.....to what had become, in effect, their bedroom. Kathryn was only a little surprised to discover how easily she could relinquish portions of her personal space to Seven -- to share her quarters with her as willingly as she had come to share every other aspect of her life with the former Borg drone. She even found the eery green light and automated hum of Seven's alcove soothing. And judging from the slight curl of contentment that she detected on Seven's otherwise placid features, she knew her young lover could sense that she was right where she needed to be.

Kathryn adored watching her now, mesmerized by how beautiful Seven looked at that moment. The young woman's hair was hanging in soft, loose waves of shimmering gold, matched by the waves of red satin that draped her body. That, too, was incongruous. Instead of the sterile bodysuit that Seven had worn in the too-public cargo bay, she would now adorn herself in more personal clothing while she regenerated, garments chosen with Kathryn's aesthetic tastes in mind. Kathryn admired the seductive elegance of the long, sleeveless nightgown Seven had selected for their first night of shared regenerating. She particularly appreciated the plunging neckline and the way the bodice cinched just below the full bounty of womanly bosom.

Seven's bosom: Kathryn's gaze lingered there now, enjoying the slight protuberance of the nipples. Something about the Borg energy coursing through Seven sexually aroused her from the moment the cycle started. The captain had often watched her ex-Borg regenerating, even before they had become lovers; and in all that time, she had never noticed this effect before, probably because of the tight biometric suits. But the satin nightgown that Seven wore tonight was loose enough that when Kathryn initiated the cycle for Seven, she saw the young woman's nipples harden immediately. That, in turn, had profoundly aroused Kathryn. She absolutely adored Seven's breasts. Even now, she had to fight back the desire to bury her face in the warm valley between those pliant masses.

Well, she thought, chuckling to herself, at least I can ogle her. That thought reminded her of their conversation back on the planet when they first went swimming in the mineral spring. Still sharing only a platonic affection, Kathryn had objected to Seven's ogling. It was just like Seven to conclude from Kathryn's comments that ogling was a lover's privilege. Seven was so direct. And in retrospect, she had been right.

Unrepentantly ogling Seven's nipples now, Kathryn wrapped herself in that fond memory, unsurprised when it quickly led to other fonds memories of their time together on the planet. And in the next moment, she was seized by a flash of vivid sensory recall, remembering how she had chewed lightly on those plump tips, sucking avidly to draw sustenance from them. She could almost taste Seven's milk even now, warm and sweet and creamy on her tongue. And in the next moment, she remembered the titillating sensation of feeding Seven, the young woman's hot, wet mouth fastened very tightly around her own sensitive nipples, languidly drawing fluid from them, the liquid coursing through her mammary glands and squirting out the tips. Kathryn took a shuddering breath as she remembered. Maybe Seven was right. Since they had the benefit of the nanoprobes, there wouldn't be any real harm if they occasionally indulged their hunger for each other's milk, to relive not simply the titillating physical sensations, but the sublime joy of feeding each other.

Just then, Kathryn became aware of a sharp, pleasant sensation at her own nipples, realizing only then that she had slipped her hands underneath her gown and was absently touching herself. She pulled down the straps and lowered the bodice so she could study her own breasts, enjoying the simultaneous look and feel of pinching her nipples between her fingers. She took another breath, this one intended to calm. Soon, she thought, very soon. And in anticipation, she removed her gown completely, leaving herself naked and ready for when Seven's cycle finished.

Kathryn curled up on her bed, a profound sense of contentment filling her chest. She took a deep breath, dispelling the worry of the last several days. And when she felt the last of the worry drain from her, a pleasant lassitude filled the void that was left behind. Kathryn succumbed to it without another thought.

Moments later, she felt a pillowy warmth pressing against her side as a sinewy leg braided its way between her own.

"Seven?" she mumbled drowsily, opening her eyes. "I thought you were regenerating."

"That was six hours ago, dearest," Seven explained.

She blinked in mild surprise. "Really? I slept all the way through?"

"Apparently, Kathryn my Kathryn," Seven responded, playfully nuzzling the auburn hair. "I imagine therefore that you are feeling very rested.....No?"

Kathryn's lips curled in amused understanding, but she decided to tease, shutting her eyes in mock sleepiness and letting the silence stretch between them.

Seven persisted with an all too familiar call.

"Kaaathhhrrrynnn?"

A low, throaty laugh bubbled forth from the older woman. Then she blindly turned her bare bosom toward the siren's call, returning invitation for invitation. She gasped when she felt the full lips and slight edge of enamel encircling one of her suddenly aching nipples. And in the next moment, she sighed, luxuriating in the familiar ecstasy of having that little nub of flesh tugged into the satiny wetness of Seven's mouth.

Laughter, gasp, and sigh -- it was the delicate opening sequence of their nocturne, still too subtle, too teasing, but Kathryn knew the frenzied rhythm they would reach as their passions crescendoed. She smiled to herself as she felt a tightening squeeze on her left nipple while Seven's mouth sucked more avidly on the right. Apparently tonight's first movement was to be more tarantella than adagio.

Kathryn sighed again contentedly. She was glad to have answered Seven's seductive call, now made sweeter by the fact that they could share their nights so completely. And as Seven climbed on top of her and began sliding urgently against her welcoming thigh, Kathryn silently vowed that she would continue answering that call with a lifetime of passion, no longer afraid to need this woman....and no longer afraid for her. Seven was finding her own way now, helped along by the crew's better understanding of her humanity, of her ability to love and be loved. With the crew at last beginning to adapt, she and Seven felt as though they really were finally home.

And they would carry that sense of home with them all the way back to the Alpha Quadrant, their place of origin and the final destination of their accidental journey into this alien space. It had been an arduous trek that had suddenly become a good deal shorter -- only 8 years, 7 months, and 29 days away. Seven had done the math, and Harry, at Neelix's bidding, had created a holographic countdown clock for the messhall. It showed Voyager at one end approaching earth at the other with their E.T.A. displayed boldly underneath -- cobalt-blue, stellar digits against the broad, black expanse of space. The schematics for the countdown clock had been uploaded along with mission-log updates in Voyager's recent transmission to Starfleet. The transmission had been sent the day after Voyager arrived in grid 3, the crew using Barclay's micro-wormhole technology again in order to report Voyager's new location to Starfleet Command. Goose bumps formed on Kathryn's flesh as she remembered the cheers that had erupted over the hyper-subspace comlink.

Kathryn gasped just then, feeling fresh goose bumps forming for a different reason. The erotic distraction of Seven's grinding pelvis instantly drew the captain's attention back to the ardent young woman in her arms. And when she reconnected with the dark, impassioned blue of Seven's eyes, Kathryn Janeway began to cry.

"I love you," she whispered, overwhelmed by the joyful feeling that her universe was at last complete.

The End



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This page is from the Delta Quadrant of Venus website. The site was originally hosted on AOL's hometown pages, which AOL shut down on October 31, 2008. The DQV site was resurrected and moved to this new home on November 30, 2008 because fans asked to have it back. Thank you for your continued interest in my stories. I'm truly touched. --T'ware

Posted February 6, 2000. Updated February 12, 2000, to make minor corrections and to delete references to Harry Kim's ethnic background (which is ambiguous at best when you've got a Chinese-American actor playing a character with a Korean surname). Last updated March 7, 2000, for minor errors. Updated January 2, 2002, to delete table and add logo graphic.