The Play's the Thing

    by Otter (uniotter@earthlink.com)

VOY J/7 NC-17
 

Disclaimer: The characters of Janeway, Seven, and the crew of Star Trek: Voyager are property of Paramount Pictures; no copyright infringement is intended. The rest of the story and characters are my own, written for entertainment purposes only. If you are younger than 18 or this material is illegal where you live, please do not read further.

This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you have my sincere pity, and I’d advise you to find another story.

Summary: When aliens decide to teach Voyager’s captain how to play, Janeway discovers a whole new side to Seven of Nine…and to herself.

Spoilers: References to "Fair Haven," the 11th episode of season six. The events in this tale occur before "Imperfection," in season seven.

Acknowledgments: The author is indebted to many people for support and assistance. Thanks to Sandra, alpha reader and co-otter – still my hero after 10 years <smile>. Thanks also to Jennifer for invaluable suggestions, first draft editing, and allowing me to steal a couple of lines; and to ginger and Sybil for being so generous with their knowledge and much-appreciated research. Thanks especially to beta reader Tenderware, whose humor, wise advice, formidable intellect, and amazing stories provide so much inspiration.

Dedicated to the Sirens of Sandrines, for the wonderful playground they’ve created.



 

"Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be captain," Kathryn Janeway thought for the tenth time that evening, and sighed. It was not the first time she had found herself in such a predicament. Dangerous situations weren’t what triggered these feelings; on the contrary, Capt. Janeway thrived on challenge and excitement. No, it was always the most prosaic things – filling out reports, disciplining personnel, and the one she dreaded above all – acting as a diplomat at a trying social function.

She smiled with an effort at the Genn ambassador seated next to her at the long stone table, trying not to be disconcerted over what passed for a smile on their planet – a slightly opened mouth and protruding tip of the tongue – which reminded her of a dog in hot weather. She was grateful once again for her decision not to bring Tom Paris along on this mission – she could just imagine the kind of comment that would have issued from his lips at the sight of the gaping expressions directed their way.

As it was she heard a sound suspiciously like a smothered laugh coming from Lt. Torres, who was seated on her left. Janeway directed a warning glance at her, and B’Elanna quickly raised a cup to her lips, downing her drink to mask her amusement. Unfortunately, the liquid returned just as quickly as it disappeared, as B’Elanna gagged and discharged the drink in a spray from her mouth that covered her nearest neighbors and most of the food in front of her. There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other, liquid dripping from their faces.

"B’Elanna! Are you okay? What happened?" Janeway asked in dismay.

"I’m sorry, Captain, but that drink…it tastes like a kilo of salt was dissolved in it!" The engineer gasped, eyes watering.

Janeway turned to her hosts, ready to offer an apology for her crew’s unfamiliarity with the local cuisine, and was met by the sight of them convulsed in laughter. It was an odd, snuffling sort of sound, but unmistakably laughter. And it was quite a sight. Though the aliens were humanoid in appearance, they were all at least two meters tall, with smooth gray skin and flattened, indistinct features. They had no eyebrows, but their eyelashes were three times as long as a human’s. Their beady black eyes were closed in merriment, and some were actually slapping the table top as they guffawed, in an uncanny similarity to Starfleet enlisted at the local bar back home.

Capt. Janeway realized immediately what had happened, and she grabbed B’Elanna’s arm to forestall the half-Klingon’s fiery temper from erupting.

"It’s a joke, isn’t it?" Torres asked incredulously.

Janeway nodded.

"That does it! I’m going to—"

"Tuvok, would you help B’Elanna find a more suitable beverage?" the captain interrupted smoothly. "Something to wash the taste out of her mouth?"

"Of course, Captain." Her security officer rose immediately and escorted the fuming woman out of the large dining hall. Janeway sent up a silent thank you for his levelheadedness, and fought down her own rising irritation before turning to the alien next to her.

Its name (she had been unable to determine whether it was male or female) was FerringGol, and as its laughter subsided it looked at Janeway inquiringly.

"Your people don’t have a sense of humor?"

"On the contrary, Ambassador. My crew is exceptionally good natured. But we aren’t used to being the target of pranks such as the Genn seem to enjoy."

"Pranks?" Ambassador FerringGol’s tone was huffy. "The Genn just enjoy a good laugh. And your crewmembers are not targets, Capt. Janeway. You will notice we enjoy laughing at ourselves just as much."

It was true that earlier when one of the Genn’s chairs had collapsed with a loud crash, its friends had roared at the sight of their comrade sprawled on the floor. Even the unfortunate individual whose chair had been sabotaged seemed to find it funny, grasping its sides in a paroxysm of laughter. Janeway and her away team had eventually managed diplomatic smiles at this odd behavior, but as the dinner progressed it had become harder and harder for the captain to suppress her annoyance. It was fortunate that Seven of Nine, with her Borg habit of speaking her mind, was also missing from this away mission. On one of her rare days off, Seven had arranged a "play date" with Voyager’s youngest member, the half-Ktarian Naomi Wildman. The two were safely ensconced in the holodeck, probably running a Flotter program, the gentle character being one of Naomi’s favorites.

‘Right now, I wish I was with them,’ Janeway reflected grimly. She decided the wisest course would be to finish the meal and get her people out of there before someone was injured. And that someone would most likely be a Genn, she concluded, eyeing her returning engineer as B’Elanna reseated herself at the table. The half-Klingon’s expression was impassive, but Janeway could feel the waves of menace that were radiating off the woman like steam rising from a volcano.

Perhaps even their hosts realized they were skating on thin ice, for their manner towards B’Elanna was suddenly placating. Janeway glanced around at the rest of her crew. Tuvok was holding his own, debating philosophy with a couple of Genn further down the table. Neelix was talking animatedly with another Genn regarding trade. It had turned out that the small planet and its inhabitants had really only one resource useful to Voyager, a rich layer of berillium buried deep in its substratum. But as mining the ore proved to be against Genn environmental policy, the trade that resulted was mainly in cultural and historical artifacts.

The last member of the away team, Ensign Harry Kim, was attempting conversation with a rather large individual at the end of the table who held an infant in its arms.

"That’s a beautiful baby," he said admiringly.

"Thank you," the Genn replied, its tongue protruding in a proud smile.

"How old is…er, I’m sorry, I don’t know whether it’s male or female," he apologized.

The Genn’s mouth snapped shut, and it consulted its universal translator, as if uncertain that it heard right. "Why does that matter?" it asked finally.

"Oh, it doesn’t," Harry assured the alien hastily. "I just wanted to use the proper term, that’s all."

"And what would the improper term be?"

"Uh, I mean, that is…" poor Harry was at a loss, aware he had offended unintentionally, and not sure how to recover from it. "I meant…the correct term," he finished lamely.

As the alien continued to stare coldly in response, Tuvok intervened. "What the Ensign means," he said smoothly, "is that he did not want to cause offense by incorrectly identifying your offspring. We have encountered species in which that would have been disrespectful. But if he has inadvertently caused offense by his question, I’m sure he meant no harm."

"Yes, I mean no, I didn’t," Harry agreed eagerly. "Please accept my apologies for my clumsiness."

The Genn ignored him. "The infant is not ‘mine,’" it informed Tuvok disapprovingly. "We Genn do not ‘own’ our offspring."

The Vulcan’s right eyebrow rose, the only sign of his discomfiture. A silence had fallen over that end of the table, and Janeway thought it best to stop the discussion before things got any worse. She turned to the alien next to her.

"Ambassador FerringGol, there’s clearly been a misunderstanding. Would you explain to your people that no offense was meant?" To her dismay, the ambassador looked just as disapproving as its companions.

"Captain, I am hoping a malfunction in our universal translators is responsible for the insulting tone of your people’s questions," the Genn replied stiffly.

Janeway opened her mouth to defend Harry and Tuvok, then thought better of it. There was probably no way to explain without further offending their strange hosts. "I assure you that no insult was meant, Ambassador, and so must agree with you that there is a miscommunication somewhere," she replied, hiding her rising anger behind perfect enunciation.

"I certainly hope so," FerringGol replied with a sigh. "And I hope that the citizens of Voyager will eventually learn to move beyond their antiquated and ignorant beliefs."

Janeway had to bite her tongue to hold back the retort that sprang to mind. Her engineer had no such compunction.

"Now wait just a minute," B’Elanna began angrily.

"Lieutenant," she said warningly.

"But Captain, he’s got some nerve!" her chief engineer protested. "It’s fine for them to play juvenile pranks on us, but then to get all bent out of shape over some harmless semantics—"

"That’s enough, B’Elanna!" Janeway’s tone cut razor-sharp, and the Klingon subsided into a sullen silence. There were murmurings among the Genn at the table as word of the incident spread. In spite of her reprimand, Janeway’s sympathies lay with her chief engineer. Dealing with the Genn had proven to be one of the most frustrating experiences Janeway had encountered since entering the Delta Quadrant. Their concept of humor and sense of cultural superiority had required Voyager’s crew to exercise constant diplomacy and restraint. But this touchiness over an innocent misunderstanding was the last straw.

The captain stood. "Ambassador FerringGol, I hope you will forgive our hasty departure, but the crew and I must return to our ship," she said. B’Elanna, Tuvok, and Harry joined her eagerly. Neelix also rose, looking perturbed at the hostility in the air.

The Genn ambassador rose to its feet, towering over the smaller woman. "Captain Janeway, I find this most regretful, but I think that’s probably wise. There is, however, the matter of a traditional gift. We were planning to present it to you after dinner, but—"

"Thank you, but that won’t be necessary," she assured the alien grimly, before tapping her commbadge. "Chakotay, this is Janeway. Things have been cut short…five to transport back."

"But Captain," the Genn was distressed, "in light of everything I’ve heard tonight, I would say that this gift is vital to Voyager’s growth. Please permit us to present it to you—"

"Mail it to us," was the short reply, before the entire team disappeared in a shimmering haze.

Back on Voyager, Janeway stepped onto the bridge with a sigh of relief. "Remind me to let you lead the next away mission," she told Chakotay sourly.

The handsome Commander looked at her with an expression that was equal parts amusement and concern. "Something go wrong?" he inquired mildly.

"You might say that," was the dry reply. "I’ll fill you in later. Tom?" She turned to her pilot.

"Yes, ma’am?"

"Set us back on course, if you would. Warp speed as soon as we’re clear."

The helmsman punched in his course, but before he could engage the engines there was an interruption from Harry.

"Captain, we’re being hailed, audio only. The Genns are saying something about a gift?" he trailed off, looking at Janeway expectantly.

"Oh, God. All right, transport it aboard, Harry. Anything to get out of here and away from this planet."

Ensign Kim punched in the coordinates and announced a moment later that it was beamed aboard. Tom Paris brought the ship about and they resumed course for the Alpha Quadrant. It was only minutes after achieving warp that the lights suddenly flickered, and an emergency signal blared over the speaker. "Warning," came the dispassionate tones of the computer. "Security breach of main computer. Unauthorized program detected." There was a sudden shift as they dropped out of warp.

Startled, Janeway turned to her security officer. "Tuvok? What’s happening?"

The Lt. Commander wore an expression of concentration as he examined his console. "It appears as though the last transport brought on board an unexpected passenger," he announced. "A ‘virus’ of some sort."

The crew stared at him.

"But is that possible? Through a transport beam?" Harry asked incredulously.

Tuvok’s brow’s rose. "It would appear to be the case," was the composed reply.

"Well, get rid of it, whatever it takes," Chakotay ordered, moving to oversee the Security officer’s console.

"I am attempting to do just that, Commander," the Vulcan assured him.

The Captain rapped her commbadge. "Bridge to Engineering. B’Elanna, are you there?"

"Right here, Captain."

"We’re having a bit of trouble with the main computer. Put up whatever security blocks are necessary to isolate your area, is that clear? They may be after the ship’s power source."

"Aye, Captain."

"Ensign Kim."

"Ma’am?"

"Get the Genn on the line. Find out what the hell kind of game they’re playing now!" Janeway’s voice was quietly furious, and Harry hurried to obey.

Janeway stood suddenly. "You have the Bridge, Chakotay. Have a security team meet me in the transporter room."

"Aye, Kathryn. But what are you going to do?"

The look she gave him before the doors slid closed was sardonic.

"I’m going to open my present, of course."

~~~~~~~

The box lay on the transporter dais, about half a meter long and 20 centimeters high. It was made of some type of hardwood, intricately carved and highly polished. Ensign Lang, on duty in the transporter room, had obeyed orders and not touched the object since its arrival. Janeway entered flanked by Lieutenants Ayala and Baxter. At a look from the captain, Lang gave her report.

"I instituted the containment field as you instructed, Captain. But a scan of the box showed it to be empty except for some kind of document."

"A document?"

"Yes, ma’am. On some kind of paper, I think."

"Hmm." Janeway looked thoughtful. At her sign, Lang deactivated the field, and Baxter stepped forward. He ran his tricorder over the box and nodded.

"I can confirm that, Captain. A thin sheet of some sort of fibrous material. Appears pretty inert."

"In that case, go ahead and open it, Lieutenant." She lifted her phaser and Ayala also braced himself, his rifle pointed at the box. Lt. Baxter carefully worked the latch and finally swung open the lid.

It was exactly as they had reported – the box was empty except for a scroll of paper. Donning protective gloves, Baxter carefully lifted the scroll out of the box, then unrolled it for the captain to see. The message was simple and handwritten in English.

You have much potential, but you need to learn how to play. Janeway swore in irritation. "Lt. Baxter, take those down to the Science lab. I don’t think there’s anything else there, but let’s make sure." She tapped her commbadge. "Harry, have you gotten ahold of the Genn yet?"

"They aren’t answering our hails, Captain."

"Well then, I guess we’d better have a face-to-face conversation," she said grimly. She holstered her phaser and left the transporter room. "Mr. Paris, take us back to the planet."

"Captain, I would advise caution in this instance," came her security officer’s voice over the commbadge.

"Tuvok?"

"It appears that warp speed was the virus’s trigger in the first place. I would hesitate to attain warp again until we have a better idea of what we are dealing with."

Janeway frowned. "Point taken. Okay, Tom, set us on course for the planet, impulse only. But in the meantime, I want every available person working on that virus!"

"Captain," Tuvok’s voice came again as she entered the turbolift. "I have isolated the virus’s whereabouts. It seems to be affecting one portion of the ship only…"

The hesitation in the normally imperturbable Vulcan’s voice gave Janeway a sudden sinking feeling. "Where, Tuvok?" she asked sharply.

"In Holodeck Two, Captain…the one presently occupied by Seven of Nine and Naomi Wildman."

~~~~~~~

"Seven! Seven! Where are you going?" Naomi’s voice carried over the swamp as she watched her friend disappear behind a tree. She hurried to catch up with her. "What are you looking at?"

"This structure was not here earlier," the tall Borg replied distractedly as she ran her tricorder over its trunk. "But it does seem to be composed of the same light molecules as the rest of the flora in this simulation." She stood suddenly and scanned the area. "Naomi Wildman -- have you noticed a change in the environmental conditions since we entered the holodeck?"

Naomi glanced around her. The Forest of Forever did seem a bit…brighter than it was normally. And Flotter and Trevis were nowhere to be found. "Maybe someone changed the program," she suggested.

"That would appear to be the case," Seven agreed. "The question is, ‘why?’"

The girl shrugged. "Maybe they were bored. Seven, it’s almost lunchtime…aren’t you getting hungry?"

The blond woman’s brow rose. "I do not require nutrition at this time. However," she added, noticing how her companion’s shoulders drooped, "perhaps it would be a good idea to consume the food we brought on our…‘picnic.’"

"Oh good!" Naomi jumped up and headed back toward the clearing where they had spread out a blanket. The Borg followed her, her face relaxing into something very close to a smile.

As they came upon the clearing, however, the little girl froze. There was someone, or rather something, already there…and it was raiding their picnic basket.

"Good afternoon," it said, lifting its head at their approach. "I hope you don’t mind sharing…there seemed to be so much food here, and I was so hungry."

Naomi noticed something unusual about their guest right away. For one thing, although she could hear its voice as clear as day -- a very pleasant, melodic baritone which seemed to echo slightly in her mind -- its lips never moved. The other strange thing was…

"You’re a horse," she whispered, marveling at the sight. She had studied earth horses in detail, but nothing about their habits ever mentioned they could speak, or that they liked to eat from picnic baskets.

Seven’s brow rose. "It does appear to have equine features," she noted. "But I am not certain about the structure on its forehead…."

The beast bowed regally. A stallion with a powerful neck and a coat of unblemished white, and a long, silky silver mane and tail. Even its hooves were shiny white. Its eyes, however, were of the deepest blue, and regarded them with amusement.

"My children, I am so happy to see you. My name is Tidus. And you are?"

"I’m Naomi Wildman, captain’s assistant in training."

"I’m Seven of Nine, I’m…I’m…in charge of Astrometrics."

Hearing Seven’s stutter, Naomi glanced quickly at her friend. Seven was staring at the beast in wide-eyed wonder, her head tilted slightly as if she were listening to an internal voice.

"Hello, Naomi Wildman, Seven of Nine. Why don’t you come sit down? It is very generous of you to share your picnic with me."

Naomi hesitated, unsure about getting so close to the animal. But Seven walked forward without fear, stopping only when she was inches away.

"Who are you? How did you get here?"

Though it was Seven of Nine’s question, Naomi had to look twice to be certain of who was speaking. It wasn’t said in the Borg’s usual abrupt manner, nor in her usual alto tones. The voice was pitched much higher, and the expression on her face was delighted, rather than the slightly imperious one Naomi was accustomed to.

"I am but a visitor to your beautiful world, and want only to interact with its inhabitants. And perhaps sample its food." The creature’s eyes twinkled as it added that last bit, and Naomi was astonished to hear her companion giggle.

"Can I touch you?" Seven asked. Tidus inclined his head graciously.

"Seven, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea…" Naomi began uneasily, but Seven was already reaching out her hand.

"Oooo, your fur is so soft! Feel him, Naomi!"

Reluctantly, Naomi followed suit, and was startled by the warmth and velvet texture of the creature’s coat. "Wow, you are soft!" she marveled.

"Perhaps, after our picnic, you two could come riding with me," Tidus suggested. "I can take you anywhere you want to go."

Seven turned to Naomi excitedly. "That’s a great idea! Want to?"

Naomi frowned. "Seven, you’re not acting like yourself."

"Maybe she’s finally learning how to play?" came Tidus’s gentle voice, and Seven nodded.

"You always say I never play with you! So let’s play. Okay, Naomi?" the Borg’s voice turned wheedling.

Naomi stared doubtfully at her friend, at the familiar features she had grown to care for and trust. But there was also a smile on Seven’s face, something Naomi had never seen before. She smiled in return, feeling suddenly very happy herself.

"Okay," she agreed. "But lunch first. I’m starving!"

~~~~~~~

"I have half a mind to shut the damn thing down!" Janeway growled.

Chakotay sent her a sympathetic look. "Well, that’s still an option, Captain. But since the virus is preventing us from stopping the program or entering the holodeck, it would mean cutting off all functions, including life support. And since we don’t know yet how we’re going to get them out of there, that should probably be the last resort."

Janeway acknowledged the advice with a frown and turned to the rest of the officers gathered around the conference table. "So have we made any progress at all?

"Harry’s been feeding me the sub-procedures as they run, and we’ve been examining them strand by strand," B’Elanna reported. "It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There’s something in there besides normal code….something…primitive."

Janeway looked up sharply. "What do you mean, B’Elanna?"

The engineer shook her head. "I’m not sure yet. It’s just a gut feeling."

Tuvok lifted an eyebrow. "Its mode of infection and inaccessibility would suggest something rather sophisticated," he pointed out.

"Yes, it is. It’s incredibly sophisticated…and yet…" she shook her head again in frustration.

"Well, Tuvok reports that several items have been requested from the replicator, including food, clothing, several toys, and a saddle," Chakotay put in. "Also, interestingly enough, a site to site transport of the blanket that was on Naomi’s bed."

"A saddle, Chakotay? Toys? And the blanket off of Naomi’s bed?" Janeway asked incredulously. "Are you sure?"

"Unless that’s malfunctioning too, and giving false readings," he replied. "There were," he consulted his PADD, "a jump rope, a game of kadis-kot, a Drayan exercise ball, a couple of Klingon yanwl’ swords –"

"What the hell are they doing?" Janeway broke in, baffled. "Do you think it’s part of Seven’s plan to get them out of there?"

"It is impossible to speculate," Tuvok replied. "The most important knowledge gained is that objects can be transported in to the holodeck."

The captain looked at him.

"But we have no way of knowing whether they can be transported out," he emphasized, obviously knowing just where her thoughts were leading.

Her first officer knew it too. "Kathryn," he began warningly.

"I’ve no choice, Chakotay. Ensign Wildman is ready to take down the holodeck doors with a spanner, and I can’t really blame her. If my child were in there I’d feel the same way."

"It would be prudent to have someone accompany you, Captain," Tuvok said. "Such as a member of security."

She smiled at the Lt. Commander. "I want you on the bridge in case the Genn try to pull any more stunts, Tuvok. In fact, I’m not going to risk anyone else’s safety when we have no idea what we’re up against. But I’ll be fine, don’t worry."

"I don’t like it. There’s gotta be another way," B’Elanna said.

Janeway turned to Lt. Paris. "Tom, how long before we reach the Genn planet?"

"At impulse speed?" he scoffed. "We’re talking another two weeks at least!"

"Well, that settles it. We’ll set up emergency signals using the replicators, just in case communication is limited." Janeway stood and paced back and forth behind the table. "Let’s give Seven another hour to put whatever plan she’s working on into action. Then I’m going in. Dismissed."

~~~~~~~

Alone in her ready room, Janeway sat at her desk and fought back a rising sense of panic. As fearless as she was in the face of personal danger, it always struck deep when a member of her crew was involved. And these weren’t just any crewmembers. Janeway treasured her relationship with Naomi, the first child born on Voyager. The youngster took her role as Janeway’s "Captain’s Assistant" very seriously, and the older woman felt real affection for her.

Then there was Seven of Nine. Ever since she had rescued her from the Borg six years ago, Janeway had felt a sense of responsibility for the young woman. For her safety, for her personal development…for her happiness.

It was difficult to say when her concern for the former drone’s welfare had turned into love. Perhaps it was sparked in those early days, when Seven had fought being assimilated into Voyager’s crew as much as the young Annika had fought assimilation by her Borg captors. Her defiance of Janeway’s authority, while infuriating, held a certain novelty for the captain, who had rarely had a subordinate question her so relentlessly. Or perhaps the change had come later, as Seven had struggled to learn the ways of her new family and deal with the unfamiliar social interactions required of her. Janeway had discovered that behind the formidable intelligence and aloof exterior lay a young woman of complex emotions and a tremendous capacity for caring.

In any event, Janeway’s deepest feelings had remained hidden behind her habitual personal reserve and the requirements of her office. And if anyone noticed that the captain paid special attention to the progress and well-being of her Astrometrics officer, well, that’s what a mentor was for, after all.

So the waiting and uncertainty were especially agonizing for Janeway. She vowed that if anything happened to either of them, she’d personally make sure the Genn would never have the opportunity to harm another living being. She admitted to herself what she would never have told anyone else: those two were favorites of hers. The chronometer beeped and Janeway took a deep breath. It was time.

~~~~~~~

Back in the holodeck, laughter could be heard ringing out over the treetops. It was most unusual, for Naomi rarely laughed, and Seven never did. But as they sat astride the big white stallion, shrieking in joy at the speed of his gallop over the meadow, neither one of them would have been recognized by their crewmates.

Finally, Tidus stopped on the crest of a hill and shook out his wind-blown mane. "This is a beautiful place," came his resonant voice, as he looked over the valley below. "I could stay here forever."

"Seven, it’s my turn to be in front," Naomi declared from her position behind her companion. "You’ve been driving all this time!"

"All right," Seven heaved a sigh and rolled her eyes. "But it’s not called ‘driving.’" She twisted around, and with her Borg-enhanced strength, was easily able to lift Naomi in front of her. "Let’s go back and play Talaxian tag again," Seven suggested.

"Okay!" Naomi agreed. "Let’s go, Tidus!"

The beast cantered gracefully back to the site of their picnic, but he stopped abruptly a few meters away, and snorted in alarm.

"Captain! It’s Captain Janeway!" Naomi called joyfully. She dismounted hastily and ran up to the uniformed figure, who had been examining the area and was straightening up with a frown on her face.

"Naomi, Seven, are you all right?" She approached them carefully, a hand on her phaser.

"We’re fine! Have you come to play with us?"

"Play with you?" Janeway was incredulous. "Do you know how worried everyone is? We had no idea what was going on!" She held out her hand to show what she had picked up. "You took off your commbadges! Why?"

Naomi bit her lip, but before she could answer Seven slid off Tidus and came up behind her. "They don’t work anyway. And they were getting in the way when we were playing Enaran symphony."

"They were getting in the way when you were playing Enaran symphony?" The captain repeated, staring at the tall blond Borg, who wore an expression Janeway had never seen before. "Seven? Are you all right?"

"I’m fine. But we were having fun. And now you’re yelling at us." Her mouth was set in a way that, on anyone else, Janeway would’ve described as a pout.

"I’m not yelling," replied the captain, nonplussed.

"Yes you are," Seven insisted.

Janeway bit back a retort and turned to the child watching them. "Naomi?"

"You were talking a bit loud, Captain."

Janeway took a deep breath and spoke with care. "All right. I’m sorry for yelling. I’d like you to put your commbadges back on, please." She watched as they did so without protest. Seven wandered over to the picnic site and Janeway turned to the girl next to her. "Naomi, do you know what’s wrong with Seven?"

"She’s not a grown-up anymore, Captain." Even the young Ktarian didn’t sound quite like herself, and Janeway looked at her closely.

"What do you mean, ‘she’s not a grown-up’?"

"She’s acting like a kid," Naomi said simply. "She’s playing with me and laughing and having fun. She hasn’t acted like that since that time she got sick."

"Yes, you’re right," Janeway agreed, watching the woman in question, who was surreptitiously listening in on the conversation. Janeway shuddered at the memory of the virus that had caused Seven to exhibit the personalities of the individuals that she had assimilated. Could it be happening again? "And who replicated the unicorn?" Janeway asked. "Was it you?"

"What’s a unicorn?" Naomi frowned.

"A mythical beast of Earth legend from ancient times." Seven answered, obviously accessing her database and sounding a bit more like herself. But she immediately reverted back, shaking her head as if trying to clear an unpleasant sensation. "Tidus is a unicorn!"

"Tidus?" Janeway’s eyes narrowed.

"That’s his name," Naomi explained.

"How do you know that?"

"He told us," said Seven.

"He told you?"

"Yes, Captain," Naomi confirmed. "Can’t you hear him?"

Janeway glanced over at the white-maned animal, whose blue eyes held a disturbing sentience. "No," she said slowly. "Is he speaking now?"

"Yes." Seven turned to the unicorn. "Yes, that’s her. She’s our captain."

"What’s he saying?" Janeway asked sharply.

"He’s asking if you’re Kathryn Janeway. He says he’s supposed to be a gift to you."

"A gift? Damn those Genn!" She pulled out her phaser and aimed it at the animal. He responded with a reproachful look.

"No, don’t hurt him!" Seven cried.

"Naomi, Seven, get away from that thing," Janeway instructed. Naomi moved to the side, hand over her mouth in distress, but Seven held her ground and looked at Janeway defiantly.

"I don’t want you to shoot him," she said.

"This is a dangerous program, Seven. The Genn have infected our main computer and we can’t go to warp. We’ll be stranded unless we can disable that thing." Janeway motioned to the Borg. "Get over here, now."

Seven’s response was to shake her head in answer to a silent call. She faced the unicorn again. "But she’s going to shoot you!" She listened a moment, then turned around to address Janeway. "He says you can’t hurt him with that."

"I don’t want to hurt anyone, Seven. I just want my ship back. Please get away from that thing and come here."

Seven eyed her distrustfully, and Janeway felt a twinge of hurt. It had been a long time since she had seen that look. She reminded herself that Seven was obviously not her usual self. "Seven, come over here, please." Her voice was calm, but authoritative.

Seven continued to hesitate, glancing from the captain to Tidus and back again.

"Seven," Janeway’s tone grew firmer, "I am your captain and you’re supposed to obey my orders. If you don’t listen to me….I shall…be very angry." Even as she said the words, Janeway felt a bit foolish. The blond Borg of old would’ve merely raised a brow and made some dispassionate comment about poor emotional control. But this Seven looked disturbed at the thought of Janeway’s anger.

"You’ll be mad at me?"

"I shall be very disappointed in you," Janeway agreed.

"Oh, all right." Dragging her heels, Seven made her way over to the captain.

Setting her phaser to stun, Janeway immediately fired at the animal. There was a split-second flicker, but otherwise the hologram continued to regard her, unharmed. Naomi and Seven gave audible sighs of relief and Janeway hid her frustration.

"He says you should put the weapon away and join us in play, Captain," Naomi ventured hesitantly.

"Oh, he does, does he? And will he go away if I do that?"

"I don’t want him to go away," Seven announced clearly. Janeway ignored her.

"He says he won’t bother us while we’re playing, if you don’t want him to," Naomi answered.

"I’d like him to help us get back to the Genn planet," Janeway said.

Naomi looked over at Tidus, who responded with a shake of his head. "He says he doesn’t know anything about that," she reported. "He’s just here to have fun."

"A likely story," Janeway muttered to herself, then realized she had two crewmembers watching her expectantly. Well, if you can’t beat ‘em…she thought with a sigh. Maybe playing along was the safest thing to do while she worked on figuring out a solution. "Okay, who’s up for kadis-kot ?"

~~~~~~~

"Commander?"

"Report, Harry."

"Looks like she’s found them, sir. At least, their commbadges and biosigns appear to be in the same location."

"Well, that’s something, I guess." Chakotay turned in his chair to look at the young Ops officer. "No luck in communicating with them directly?"

Harry Kim shook his head. "Whatever has hold of our central computer is putting up some kind of block."

"Well, keep working on it." His commbadge chirped. "Yes?"

"This is the Doctor. I’ve been monitoring their bio readings, and have noticed something rather interesting."

"Go on."

"The neural patterns of Seven of Nine and Naomi Wildman are undergoing a distinct change. They—"

"Hold on, Doctor," Chakotay interrupted, aware of the concerned looks being exchanged by the bridge personnel. "I’ll be right there. Tuvok, you have the bridge."

Down in sickbay, Chakotay stared at the screens before him. "So what you’re saying, Doctor, is that Seven and Naomi are growing younger?"

"Their neural-cortical scans would suggest individuals much less developed," the doctor confirmed. "I cannot say if it will continue, but there hasn’t been any change for the last 6 hours." He indicated the graph before him. "These are the scans based on analysis of oxygen level imaging and magnetic resonance. The results are consistent with those seen in children, rather than adults."

"Human children, you mean."

"That’s correct. But both crewmembers are part human, Commander."

"I’m aware of that, Doctor." Chakotay glanced at him. "So what kind of danger are we talking about here?"

The EMH shook his head. "It’s impossible to say without a full monitoring of their current behavior. From what I can see, they don’t seem unduly stressed in any way. In fact, it appears that in Seven’s case at least, there may be a slight benefit."

"What do you mean?"

"The normal cell degradation is occurring much more slowly….her usual requirement for regeneration may be unnecessary."

"Interesting. And fortunate, since her alcove is out here, while she’s stuck in there." Chakotay rubbed the back of his neck wearily. "And the Captain?"

"As far as I can tell, she is thus far unaffected. Although her cortisol levels do show her to be under some stress, as would be expected."

Chakotay sighed. "Keep monitoring them, Doctor. Let me know the moment anything changes."

~~~~~~~

Two hours later, Janeway was no closer to figuring out a solution for escape, but her patience was rapidly running out. Looking after Naomi and Seven in their regressed mental states had proven unexpectedly challenging. Janeway knew her lack of experience with children put her at a disadvantage, but she was pretty sure that even a child psychologist would’ve been hard pressed to handle them. Naomi had always been both bright and mature for her age, and Seven’s advanced intellect and Borg knowledge was downright dangerous when combined with a 6-year-old’s emotions. The fact that she had an internal database accumulated from hundreds of species didn’t stop her from asking dozens of questions either.

"Captain, will we ever make it back to the Alpha Quadrant?"

"Of course we will." Janeway, intent on reprogramming her commbadge, replied distractedly.

"But what if we don’t?"

"Don’t worry, Seven. We’ll make it back."

"But what if we don’t?"

"If that happens," Janeway replied patiently, "we shall find a nice planet and settle down there."

"Then we’ll die there." Seven regarded the captain solemnly.

Janeway looked up. "Seven, everyone dies sometime," she began gently.

"I know that," was the scornful response. "And what’s going to happen to our memories?"

"We will always be remembered," Janeway assured her, before tapping the communicator impatiently. "Chakotay? B’Elanna? Anyone there?"

"I don’t think they can hear you, Captain," Naomi put in helpfully. "And it’s your turn." She pointed to the kadis-kot board.

"That’s not what I meant," Seven said with exaggerated patience. "What happens to what we remember?"

"We will take our memories with us, Seven.…Red, grid 11-two," Janeway said, her inattention causing both an unwise move and an unwise answer.

"Kadis-kot, I win!" Naomi said with delight. "That’s three games."

"Where do we take them, Captain?" Seven asked. "Where do we go when we die?"

There was a sudden silence. Janeway regarded her two companions blankly. "Where do we go when we die?" she echoed.

"Neelix says we go to the Great Forest," Naomi said.

"Well, that is the Talaxian belief," Janeway agreed, feeling her way carefully. "So I’m sure that is where he’ll go, Naomi."

"So everybody goes to a different place?" Seven persisted.

"But I’m half Human and half Ktarian," Naomi said. "Where will I go?"

"I don’t want to go where the Borg are," Seven said darkly.

"I want to go where you and Seven are going!" Naomi looked close to tears.

"No one’s going anywhere!" Janeway said in exasperation. She caught herself and lowered her voice. "None of us are going to die for a long, long time."

"How do you know that?" Seven asked.

"Because I’m the captain and I say so," Janeway replied, mentally wincing as she heard herself. She sent a silent apology to her mother as that bit of Traditionalist upbringing emerged unexpectedly. Frustrated, she reattached the commbadge she was fiddling with and glared at the cause of their predicament – Tidus standing on a hill some kilometers away, silhouetted against the sky. As if divining her thoughts, the unicorn reared and shook his mane defiantly.

"Wow, look at that." Naomi pointed beyond him, at the sun that was beginning to set.

"It’s beautiful," the captain agreed, forgetting their troubles for a moment at the sight of pink and lavender clouds, outlined in glowing gold as the fiery ball descended beyond the horizon. It seemed like a long time since she had watched a sunset.

"I’m hungry," Seven said forlornly.

"You are?" Janeway looked at her in surprise. The former Borg rarely displayed an appetite, her nanoprobes making her less prone to the bodily necessities the rest of the crew was subject to. "Well, why don’t we go sit down and eat dinner? It’s about that time anyway." Naomi and Seven followed her willingly as she programmed a picnic table for them and then replicated some soup and sandwiches. There was a brief discussion over the palatability of the tuna sandwiches Janeway had prepared, and again she found herself swept back to her childhood in Indiana. "This is payback for those times Phoebe and I refused to eat our vegetables, isn’t it?" she murmured, and imagined she could hear Gretchen Janeway’s laughter.

Fortunately, she had not slaved over a hot stove to prepare the meal, and changing the menu was no hardship. Peanut butter and jelly was always an easy favorite, and soon Naomi and Seven had finished their meals. With the sun going down, Janeway decided it was time to be settling in, but persuading Seven and Naomi to abandon their playing wasn’t easy. She managed to distract them with the promise of a story.

"You’re going to tell us a story, Captain?"

Janeway’s eyebrows rose at the doubtful note in Naomi’s voice. "I am. Do you have some objection to that?"

"No-o. It’s just that…well, do you know any?"

"Of course I do," Janeway said firmly, frantically trying to think of one.

"A real story, not like those kind you tell Commander Chakotay," put in Seven.

Janeway frowned. "The kind I tell Chakotay? What do you mean?"

"About when you were at Starfleet Academy. How Cadet Cressman was expelled for taking his girlfriend up in a shuttlecraft just so he could say he joined the 300 Kilometer Club. And how when Admiral Idrun found out, she—"

"That’s enough, Seven," Janeway interrupted hastily. She vaguely remembered laughing over the escapade while sharing a drink with Chakotay one night in Sandrines. Seven had been there at the time, but had failed to see anything amusing in the story. Clearly this Seven retained that memory, however inappropriate it was in her present state. "I’m going to tell you the story of how Flotter finds his family."

"Ooo, goodie!" Naomi exclaimed, while Seven settled down with a satisfied look on her face. The captain spun out the tale of the holodeck character, and eventually they both drifted off to sleep. Janeway had been worrying about Seven’s need to regenerate as the hours passed – she was clearly exhausted, and the captain prayed that a good night’s rest would help. Then she glanced down at her Borg charge, and a small involuntary "oh" left her lips, her heart twisting at the sight. Most people had an air of innocence while sleeping, but the change in Seven was astounding. It went beyond the simple relaxation of features that came over her in her alcove. Janeway sometimes wondered what Seven would say if she knew of her captain’s penchant for watching her regenerate. She didn’t do it very often, recognizing it for the invasion of privacy that it was. But occasionally, while making the rounds she performed to keep her finger on the pulse of the ship, Janeway would find her steps leading her to Cargo Bay 2. She told herself it was simply to check up on Seven, as she would do for any crewmember, but she knew it was a weak excuse. There wasn’t another crewmember aboard Voyager whom she observed while they were sleeping.

It was a bittersweet pleasure to be able to gaze unabashedly at her in a way she couldn’t do while Seven was conscious, lingering over every feature without having to guard her expression from those penetrating blue eyes. Eventually, vague feelings of guilt, dissatisfaction, and an indescribable yearning would drive her back to her rounds. Those same feelings assailed her as she sat next to this "younger" Seven, but this time there was no reason for her to leave, no reason why she couldn’t look to her heart’s content.

She marveled at how soft those full lips were when relaxed, and how her long lashes hid that piercing azure gaze from view. Seven wasn’t actually sucking her thumb, but her fist lay against her cheek in a near imitation of it, and she slept curled in fetal position, demonstrating a vulnerability Janeway had never seen before. A welling of love rose up inside her – maternal, protective, and desiring – all at once. The overpowering unexpectedness of it left her shaken.

"Damn, Katie, you’ve got it bad," she whispered to herself. She shook her head, turning to tuck the blanket in around Naomi, and lay down between them. She needed her rest, for tomorrow she was determined to confront Tidus and get some answers.

The day dawned bright and warm. Janeway stifled a groan as she rolled over and attempted to rise. Although her sleeping pad had seemed comfortable enough, sleeping on the ground at her age was obviously not a good idea. The stiffness in her muscles made itself known with every movement, and she vowed to replicate a regular bed for herself if they were going to be stuck here for many more nights.

Naomi and Seven were nowhere to be found. Kathryn took the time to perform her morning ablutions before going to look for them. They proved easy enough to locate – Janeway had only to follow the sound of raised voices.

"You cheated!"

"I did not! You are just…just…insufficient!"

"I’m not! And you don’t even know what that means, anyway!"

"Yes, I do! It means you’re stupid!"

"No, I’m not! You’re stupid!"

"No, you’re stupid!"

"No, you’re—"

"Okay, that’s enough!" Janeway stepped into the clearing to find Naomi and Seven facing each other, fingers pointed accusingly. Toys of various types lay strewn about on the ground. Her sudden entrance surprised them into silence, but not for long.

"Captain, tell Seven to stop cheating!"

"I am not cheating! It’s not my fault Naomi’s insufficient!"

Janeway held up her hand. "There will be no name calling, Seven." She eyed the blond woman sternly, ignoring the ferocious pout that resulted. "Now, someone want to tell me what’s going on?" Both of them started up again, loudly, and Janeway raised her hand once more. "Hold on, hold on, I can’t understand if you’re both shouting at once. You," she pointed to Naomi, "explain first."

"We were playing hide-and-seek," Naomi began. "It’s a game Lt. Paris taught me. First someone has to count—"

"I know how it’s played," the captain interrupted her. "And then what happened?"

"Well, I was hiding, and Seven used her Borg eye to find me!"

Janeway sat down on a nearby log. "Is that true, Seven? Did you use your ocular implant to search for her?"

"Of course! It’s the fastest way to find somebody."

"Yes, but it gives you an unfair advantage, doesn’t it? Since Naomi can’t do the same."

"That’s not my fault," Seven said, frowning.

"No, it’s not anyone’s ‘fault,’" Janeway assured her gently. "But since you want to play together, you should try to keep the games as fair as possible. Why don’t we agree that you won’t use your Borg-enhanced vision or hearing while you’re playing hide-and-seek?" Janeway was rather impressed with her negotiating skills, but they failed to impress the squabbling playmates.

"See? I told you!" Naomi couldn’t resist sticking out her tongue in victory.

Seven’s face darkened in growing anger. "You’re always taking her side! I hate you!" She pulled out a phaser from the holster Janeway noticed only then that she was wearing, and pointed it at the captain.

Janeway felt her blood freeze. She had forgotten that the Borg’s transformed state meant that her usual powers of reasoning and control were lacking. "Seven, no—" As she saw Seven’s thumb squeeze down, the captain had time to do no more than gasp in horror before the streaming pulse from the weapon hit her in the abdomen.

~~~~~~~

"Commander!" The EMH’s voice over Chakotay’s commbadge sounded concerned. The commander, busy monitoring their progress back to the Genn planet, tapped his badge distractedly.

"Yes?"

"You wanted to be notified of any change. I’ve noted a sudden surge of adrenaline in the captain’s bloodstream, usually indicative of physical stress."

"Hold on." Chakotay turned to his security officer. "Tuvok, any sign of that emergency signal we agreed on?"

"None, Commander. Though if Captain Janeway were incapacitated, she might not have time to send a warning."

"No," he agreed. "Any other clues to her present state, Doctor?"

"It’s difficult to judge with the information I’m able to gather," the EMH replied. "But I am certain that she’s still alive."

"I’m getting readings that she’s moved," Harry put in. "So she’s well enough to walk."

"Or someone carried her," Chakotay said grimly. "Keep monitoring her, Doctor. Any sign of trouble, let me know. Tuvok," he turned back to the Vulcan, "I trust your team is ready to enter the holodeck at any time?"

"Affirmative, Commander."

"Good. Be ready to beam in on my signal. I promised her at least 36 hours, but we may have to disobey the captain’s orders if it turns out she’s in danger." He stood suddenly. "I’m going down to Engineering to see how B’Elanna’s doing. Keep me informed."

The scene in Engineering was just as tense, long periods of silence broken by swear words muttered in Klingon and English. B’Elanna sat at her station, staring moodily at her monitor and biting on a thumbnail. Occasionally she would make furious entries in one of half a dozen PADDS spread out around her, only to shake her head and sit back in disgust. She didn’t look up when Chakotay entered.

"Any luck with that program?"

"Lots of it…all bad," was the frustrated reply.

Chakotay leaned over to observe. "Well, it looks like you’re making some progress. You’ve isolated quite a bit of the subroutine here."

The half-Klingon lieutenant sighed and ran a hand through her soft brown hair. "Yes, I’ve decoded enough to determine that there’s something there…I’m just not sure what."

"There? You mean in the holodeck?"

"Yes, we’ve got an intruder, all right."

"An alien life form?"

"Yes…no…Kahless, I don’t know!" B’Elanna flung the PADD she was holding across the room and stood up. Chakotay watched as she began pacing. "It’s an alien program of some sort. Something between a computer virus and a sentient hologram…at least that’s what my gut is telling me."

The first officer’s eyes narrowed. "Sentient hologram? You mean like the doctor?"

"No, not like the doctor. That’s what’s so puzzling. The routine loops and evolves far beyond its original programming, but it’s not sophisticated in the least! It looks like a simple enough algorithm, but it’s….living!" She shook her head in frustration. "Am I making any sense, Chakotay?"

"Enough to scare me," the commander replied, only half joking. "And if it’s true, then I hope the captain knows what she’s doing." He walked over and put a hand on her shoulder. "Keep at it, Lieutenant. I think you’re very close to figuring out what this is, and that’s the first step to beating this thing."

~~~~~~~

Janeway closed her eyes and braced herself for the burning blast of the phaser. She barely had time to wonder if she would finally get to see her father again, or feel regret at never having made it back home. She didn’t expect the burst of coldness that hit her, or the disorienting sensation of moisture that followed. Had she lost control of her bladder in fright? Was it blood? She stared down at her tunic and trousers. No, it was….

"Water? A water gun?! It’s a toy?!"

Seven said nothing, but there was a tiny smile on her face. Naomi, hand clapped to her mouth, began to giggle. Soon the both of them were laughing irresistibly, spurred by the other’s merriment and the captain’s incredulous expression. But Janeway had had enough.

"Okay, that’s it!" She grabbed each of them by the arm and marched them back to the blankets. Even Seven, who could’ve easily overpowered the captain, seemed cowed by Janeway’s wrath and went meekly.

"Sit there, both of you!" They sat on the blankets and watched with widened eyes as Janeway towered over them. "That was not funny, Seven. Weapons are not something to be played with!" She held out her hand for the phaser.

Seven handed it over obediently, but could not resist a question. "How come you didn’t say anything when we were playing yanwl’ ?"

Janeway frowned. "I would’ve if you had turned the weapons on me! It’s one thing to pretend to be Klingon swordfighters, but quite another to scare someone. Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference!"

Naomi and Seven gazed back at her as if she were speaking an alien tongue and their universal translators were offline. Janeway took a deep breath and resisted the urge to pull at her hair. "Well, you’d better sit there and think about it. I’m going to have a talk with Tidus, but I’ll be back. Naomi, you’re coming with me." She looked at Seven. "While we’re gone, I don’t want you to move." The Borg shifted restlessly. "I mean it, Seven! I don’t want you to leave that spot, do you understand?"

Seven nodded unhappily. Even the Kazon had been known to cower when Janeway’s voice took on that particular tone.

They walked a few meters away and Janeway looked around. It was as good a place as any.

"Okay, Tidus," she called. "I know you’re never far away…show yourself."

A few moments later, the snow-white beast stepped out from behind a stand of trees. He gave an elegant bow and looked at Janeway expectantly.

"I want to know exactly what you want from us," the captain stated. She looked at Naomi to translate.

"He says that those who made him only wanted to send you a gift."

"A gift? Then why are you keeping us captive in the holodeck? Why are my crewmembers experiencing personality changes? That’s not very friendly, is it?"

The beast snorted and tossed his head. He eyed the child next to Janeway, and Naomi began stumblingly to relate his answer.

"Tidus says no harm is meant. He says his work will be done once you have accepted the gift…."

"’Accepted the gift’?" Janeway interrupted. "What exactly does that mean?"

"He says you have forgotten how to play, and the gift is to remind you."

"Forgotten how to play? You mean what the Genn consider playing? That’s damn presumptuous of them, to judge other species that don’t happen to share their culture!" Janeway broke off as Tidus began leisurely to graze on the grass at their feet. "What did he say?" she demanded of Naomi furiously.

"He didn’t say anything. He’s eating," was the child’s reply. She looked a bit apprehensive, and Janeway sighed. This interrogation was not turning out to be very productive. She would have to try another tactic.

"All right." She took a deep breath. "Tidus is an interesting name. Did the Genn give that to you?"

The beast’s eyes narrowed, but eventually he seemed to decide that there was no harm in answering.

"He says his name is an English translation of a natural phenomenon. And that it was given to him by his creators."

Tidus,’ Janeway thought. ‘As in tides and waves.’ She nodded in satisfaction. "I thought as much. You say you will leave once I learn to play. How will you know when I have learned?"

Tidus raised his head, chewing on a mouthful of grass.

"He says he watches us and will know," Naomi said.

"I didn’t see you around last night," Janeway remarked casually. "Where were you?"

"He says he was resting," Naomi said.

"Oh? So you sleep, too?" the captain asked, giving no hint of her sudden excitement.

"He was resting," Naomi repeated. She looked at the captain and shrugged. "That’s all he says."

Janeway put a hand on her young charge’s shoulder and squeezed gently. "That’s fine, Naomi. Thank you." She turned to the unicorn. "Well, then, Tidus, I suppose I’ll be seeing you around. I’m going to go back to my….playing."

The beast raised his head and seemed almost to smile. Then he set off to look for more grazing land. Janeway watched carefully as he moved away. The way he avoided the nearby bushes, pausing before the foliage almost as if he was planning to go through it, then eventually walking around it, confirmed her growing suspicions. She was pretty sure she had discovered a basic facet about how the hologram worked. Now she just had to communicate it to her crew.

Janeway half expected to find Seven missing when she returned to the picnic site, but to her relief the Borg was still on the blanket, just as she had left her. In fact, she appeared to be sleeping, her face buried in the covers. But then Janeway detected her shoulders moving, and heard muffled sounds coming from her.

"Seven? Are you okay?" Janeway knelt next to her Astrometrics officer and carefully turned her over. She was perturbed to see tears in Seven’s big blue eyes. "What’s wrong, Seven? Are you hurt?"

Naomi sat down next to them, reaching out to pat her playmate’s head. "I think she’s sad."

Seven said nothing, but buried her face against Janeway’s thigh, sobbing forlornly. Distressed, the captain responded immediately. She gathered up the younger woman into her arms, rocking her gently. "Sweetheart," she murmured, "I want to help you, but you have to tell me what’s wrong."

Seven stopped on a hiccup, and raised her face from where it was pressed against the captain’s shoulder. "Sweetheart?"

The endearment had come naturally, as it would for anyone addressing a young child, and Janeway could feel herself blushing. She brushed the golden hair back and wiped the trail of tears from beneath those expressive eyes. "What’s wrong, Seven?" she asked gently.

"I don’t like it here. I want to go home. And you don’t like me."

"Of course I like you! What makes you say that?" Janeway stared at her.

"You yelled at me. And you took Naomi’s side." Seven’s voice broke. "You – you like her better."

"Oh, Seven." Janeway was torn between worry and laughter. Somehow, her Starfleet officer training had never covered this situation. She stroked the younger woman’s cheek reassuringly. "I wasn’t taking anyone’s side. I just didn’t want to see you two fighting. I love you both, you know."

"You love us?" Seven’s voice held wonder. Even Naomi looked surprised.

Janeway hesitated, then put her cautiousness aside. It was true, wasn’t it? "Yes," she said, feeling relieved to say the words even though neither of them realized to what extent she meant them. "I love you." She grinned and smoothed back Seven’s hair. "Now I need you to do me a big favor. I need you two to play nicely while I try to talk to Commander Chakotay, okay? Can you do that?"

"How are you going to talk to him? The commbadges don’t work," Naomi said.

"We have a plan set up," Janeway explained. "But I need to concentrate for a bit."

"Okay, Captain," Seven agreed quietly. She threw her arms suddenly around Janeway in a breathtaking hug. "I love you too."

Janeway felt a lump in her throat. It was more affection than she ever expected to see from the younger woman, and it played havoc with her emotions. ‘I’m going to need a psychologist’s appointment once we get out of here,’ she thought with grim humor. ‘Talk about inappropriate desire!’ She patted Seven’s arm and gently extricated herself. "Thank you, sweetheart." With a sigh she turned away. The best way to assure their futures was to get them out of here.

"Computer," she began, "please provide information on the Brooks-Tilden model…"

~~~~~~~

"Commander, I think we have something." Harry Kim’s voice was restrained, but the Ensign’s excitement was reflected on his boyish face.

"What is it?" Chakotay turned around.

"Hang on, I’m downloading it." A few moments later he handed the first officer a PADD.

Chakotay’s tattooed brow creased as he read. "She’s requested a lot of information on Brooks-Tilden, the ‘Nervous Net,’ and something called ‘Subsumption architecture’." He looked around. "That mean anything to anyone?"

"That’s robotics, isn’t it?" Lt. Paris asked. He turned to the Ops officer. "Harry, you’re the most recent one out of the academy."

Ensign Kim grimaced. "Yes, but you picked a bad timeframe in my education," he replied. "Robotics was the second semester of freshman year."

"Ah." Tom nodded in comprehension. "Gwenyth."

Tuvok’s brow rose, and Chakotay grinned at the ensign’s flush. "Never mind, gentlemen," he said dryly as he stood up, PADD in hand. "I trust B’Elanna will be well-versed in the subject." He headed immediately for Engineering.

"Of course!" the engineer shouted in excitement, when Chakotay relayed the information to her. "It’s BEAM applied to the programming modules!"

"Beam?" Chakotay asked.

The half-Klingon engineer surveyed the PADD eagerly. "BEAM: Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, Mechanics," she explained absently, while punching in equations. "Rodney Brooks and Mark Tilden were two scientists who turned around the whole idea of ‘artificial intelligence’ in the late 20th century. When early researchers got stalled trying to develop computers that could ‘think,’ Brooks and Tilden took the opposite approach. They postulated that sensorimotor skills were the foundation on which intelligence was built, rather than higher-level thought processes."

The dark-haired commander nodded, his brow clearing. "Ah yes, I remember now. They built robots using pure analog circuitry – transistors and capacitors – sometimes powered by solar cells. It astounded everyone when their creations, essentially brainless or with very rudimentary thought-processors, appeared to be able to learn."

"Exactly! Now I know why that damned subroutine seemed so primitive to me. The Genn must’ve figured out a way to incorporate that wave-module development into a computer virus. It keeps one step ahead of us because it adapts without thinking."

"The Borg strategy at its most basic," Chakotay commented.

"But now that we know how it works, it should be simple enough to defeat," B’Elanna said grimly, picking up another PADD and punching in more algorithms. "I just have to find a routine that will disrupt that wave cycle." She looked up suddenly. "You say the captain figured this out?"

"She didn’t use any of the prearranged signals we had set up, but we have to assume the request for information was a deliberate communication," Chakotay replied.

B’Elanna shook her head admiringly. "She’s something, isn’t she?"

"She’s something all right," Chakotay agreed. "Now let’s see if we can bring her back to where she belongs."

~~~~~~~

Back in the holodeck, Janeway was busy instructing Naomi and Seven in the art of building a campfire.

"What do we need this for?" Seven asked doubtfully.

Janeway compressed her lips to hide a smile. Child or not, some things never changed – like the Borg’s tendency to question her decisions. "It’s important to know emergency measures in case alternative sources of power are unavailable," she explained. "Now we add the kindling, like this."

A few minutes later the spark was struck and the fire burst into life. It was just moments after that that the holodeck illumination dimmed, the artificial sun gradually losing its radiance.

"Just in time," Janeway noted with satisfaction.

"Hey, how come it’s becoming night so soon?" Naomi asked, confused.

"Commander Chakotay is changing the schedule," the captain reassured her. "Don’t worry, we’ll be safe here."

Suddenly, Tidus appeared in the clearing, prancing and visibly upset.

"He says the diurnal cycle has been disturbed," Seven remarked. "He thinks you must be playing a trick on him."

Janeway smiled at the hologram, who, even as she watched, was beginning to slow in its movements. "Why, Tidus, of course I am! I’ve finally learned the art of playing, and I have you to thank for it. It’s even more enjoyable than I expected."

~~~~~~~

Just an hour later, it was all over. Without its solar power source the hologram became inactive, and the virus was quickly neutralized by a special sub-routine B’Elanna had devised. Seven and Naomi were whisked immediately to sickbay, and without the presence of Tidus to affect them, seemed to gradually revert to their former personalities.

"I’ll keep them overnight for observation," the doctor murmured to Janeway. "But they appear to be recovering without any ill effects." He ran his tricorder over the captain. "I just want to be sure you were unaffected by this hologram."

"Fortunately, I was spared that indignity," Janeway assured him dryly. "I think my not being able to hear him had something to do with that."

"Yes, the auditory-neural connection is well-documented. It would seem that the oscillating nature of this ‘Tidus’ virus worked on the cerebral cortex of both Seven and Naomi. The question is why theirs would be more susceptible than yours." He studied the tricorder with a satisfied look on his face. "I am postulating that it was due to their relative lack of development."

The captain was surprised. "Really? Naomi is still a child, Doctor, but Seven’s fully grown."

"There could be some way in which her development was arrested when she was assimilated by the Borg at age six," he replied. "I’d have to research further."

Janeway hopped down from the biobed. "Well, keep me apprised of their progress. Naomi’s mom is pretty anxious about her, and I don’t want to send Seven back to duty unless she’s a hundred percent." She walked over to where the two of them lay on adjacent biobeds. Naomi appeared to be sleeping, but Seven’s eyes were open as she stared at the ceiling.

"Seven?" Janeway asked. "How are you feeling?"

"I am functioning within normal parameters, Captain," was the soft reply. The blue eyes looked briefly into hers before resuming their perusal of the ceiling. "I would like to go back to work."

"Well, the doctor wants to keep you here overnight, and then you should spend at least a day regenerating. After that, well, we’ll see." Janeway studied her carefully. "I’m glad you’re operating normally, but how are you feeling?"

Seven glanced at the captain, then sat up suddenly. "I…am somewhat…unsettled at my behavior," she said at last. "I was acting very illogically."

Janeway placed her hand on Seven’s knee reassuringly. "You weren’t responsible for your actions," she said. "The effect the virus had on your behavior wasn’t something you could control." She hesitated. "So you remember everything?"

"I remember it, but I do not understand it," Seven admitted. "The feelings I experienced are not within my usual emotional parameters."

"Well, perhaps they are, but are just buried very deep?" the captain suggested.

Seven did not appear happy with that possibility. She stared at Janeway’s hand resting on her knee. "The doctor says you were unaffected by the hologram. Yet your own behavior was not usual for you, either," she said, lifting her eyes to meet Janeway’s.

The older woman removed her hand and stepped back hastily. "I was probably less patient than I usually am," she agreed. "The two of you in your regressed states were quite a handful, I’m afraid."

"In reviewing our behavior, I would say you showed admirable patience," Seven replied. "However, I was referring to your increased level of demonstrativeness."

Janeway could feel herself flushing slightly. "Adults tend to be freer in showing their affection towards children, I think." She cleared her throat. "I’d better get back to the bridge. We still have to decide how we’re going to respond to the Genn’s ‘gift.’"

"Captain, I’d prefer to return to the Astrometrics lab," Seven said, moving to get down from the biobed.

"Sorry, Seven, but I’d prefer to have you both right under the doctor’s nose," Janeway said. Her tone brooked no argument.

The Borg’s expression did not change, but Janeway could sense her frustration. "There is nothing for me to accomplish here," Seven said. She looked over at Naomi, and then admitted, "And I do not believe I can fall asleep."

Janeway’s expression softened. "I understand," she said. "But I want you to try to rest as much as possible." Her eyes twinkled. "Or do you think you need a story?"

Seven looked up quickly. "Would you tell me one?" she asked, her expression impossible to read.

Janeway was taken aback at this response to her teasing. "I…well, I suppose I…are you serious?" she asked finally.

Seven’s head tilted. "I recall it being very comforting. But perhaps it would not be appropriate in this instance."

Janeway started to agree that it would not be appropriate for the captain of an Intrepid-class vessel to be telling her Astrometrics officer a bedtime story, but something in Seven’s expression stopped her. It was gone in an instant, but Janeway was momentarily reminded of the little child that had taken over the former Borg, giving her a glimpse of Seven that she had never seen before.

"I don’t know about a story," she replied slowly, her voice a touch huskier than normal. "But I could come back to talk with you, if you like. Keep you company for awhile."

"That would be acceptable," Seven stated.

"I’m glad. But try to restrain your enthusiasm." The captain’s tone was dry.

"You are employing irony." Seven’s brow rose. "Did you perceive my reply to be insincere?"

"I’ll be back after I’ve had my supper, Seven," was all Janeway said as she turned to go. She got as far as the door before Seven hailed her.

"Captain?"

"Yes?" She turned around.

"Thank you, Captain," Seven said softly.

Janeway nodded and left, a hint of a smile on her face.

~~~~~~~

When Janeway returned later that evening, the doctor met her at the doorway. "I’d appreciate it if you would convince my patient to refrain from assimilating my sickbay," he said irritably.

"Seven? What’s she doing?"

In answer, the hologram pointed to his office, where Seven sat behind his desk, working at his computer. Janeway shook her head and walked over to his office door.

"Seven, that does not look like resting to me."

The younger woman did not look up. "I am simply reprogramming a few diagnostic procedures to increase efficiency."

"What you are doing is aggravating the heck out of my chief medical officer," Janeway said. "Do I have to order you confined to quarters?"

Seven stopped immediately. "I will return to my biobed," she said.

"I think that’s wise."

As she climbed back into the bed, the captain went over to check on Naomi.

"She is still unconscious," Seven reported with concern.

"The doctor says she’s fine, she’s just exhausted," Janeway replied softly. She pulled up a chair next to Seven’s bed and sat down. "Did you have dinner?"

"I do not require any nutrition," she said. "The amount I ingested in the holodeck was unusual."

"Yes, no doubt another side effect of the virus," Janeway agreed.

"Have you decided what your response to the Genn will be?"

"I’d like to ship back their damn gift in a photon torpedo," the captain replied angrily.

"You would not take such an action," Seven said.

"No, you’re right." Janeway sighed. "But their act was tantamount to an attack on our vessel, and I’m not going to let that go without some kind of acknowledgement."

"Perhaps I might be able to modify Tidus’s program to instruct his owners in the same lesson they attempted to teach us," the former Borg suggested.

Janeway looked surprised, then she chuckled. "Seven, I never knew you were so devious!" Her eyes gleamed briefly as she considered the idea, then she shook her head. "No, that’s not an option, I’m afraid. As much as I would enjoy the gesture. I think we’ll settle for sending back a disabled program and a strongly worded statement."

The younger woman adjusted the blanket covering her. She appeared to be weighing her words, which was unusual. "In spite of the virus’s treacherous nature," she said eventually, "it did have a beneficial effect."

"Yes?"

"You displayed a side of yourself that was unfamiliar to me."

Janeway laughed with a touch of embarrassment. "Well, I could say the same of you. Though I’m not sure I would like to encounter that Seven again anytime soon."

"Yet you told me…you told her…that you loved her." The Borg’s voice was low.

Janeway flushed. "Seven, I—"

"Captain, there is something I must tell you."

Janeway sent a nervous glance toward the doctor. Fortunately he was in his office, and out of hearing range. "Yes?" she said.

"In my regressed state, I found myself experiencing certain emotions," Seven began, not meeting her eyes. "Gratitude, admiration, affection…for you."

"That’s not unusual," Janeway said gently. "Given the respective roles we took on, those kinds of feelings sometimes develop."

"Yes, I realize that," Seven said. "However, the effects of the virus have gone from my system," she looked up suddenly, "and I still feel them."

Janeway took a deep breath. "I think what you’re feeling, Seven," she began slowly, "is a sort of hero worship. That’s perfectly understandable, under the circumstances."

Seven’s gaze was unwavering. "Does hero worship contain…desire?"

The captain was startled. "No! I mean…I suppose there might be feelings that could be mistaken for desire…but you shouldn’t be misled by them, Seven."

"You believe I am experiencing a misplaced hero worship?" Janeway nodded. "And your declaration of love for me – was that also not what it seemed to be?"

"It was made out of the genuine caring I have for your welfare, as I do for all my crew," Janeway answered uneasily.

The Borg considered that in silence. "I do not believe I am being misled by my feelings," she said at last. "But I do believe you are being misled by yours."

Caught off guard, Capt. Janeway attempted to explain her feelings as the type of affection a mother would feel for her child, or a teacher would feel for her pupil. But Seven had come to her own conclusion.

"I no longer require your company for comfort," she stated levelly. "You may leave now." She lay down on the biobed and pulled the blanket over her, turning her back to Janeway. The gesture made it clear that their discussion was over.

Janeway stared at her Astrometrics officer, unsure of how to respond. Seven’s deliberate rudeness obviously meant Janeway had hurt her, and that thought pained the captain deeply. She did not want to leave things like this.

"We can discuss this again later, Seven," she said softly. "When you’re feeling better." There was no reply. With one last troubled glance at the younger woman, Janeway left sickbay.

~~~~~~~

Three days passed before Janeway saw Seven again. After being pronounced fit for duty by the doctor, the former Borg returned to her alcove to regenerate. The captain was very tempted to check in on cargo bay two, but Seven’s recent revelations made her hesitate. It was more important than ever that she respect the boundaries between them.

Seven did not attempt to seek her out; in fact, Janeway suspected that the younger woman was avoiding her. This disturbed Janeway, but the captain had her hands full as they made arrangements to return Tidus to the Genn. Once Voyager’s warp drive was restored, they made it back to the planet in short order. A request to meet with Ambassador FerringGol was granted immediately, and Janeway beamed down to the surface, accompanied by Tuvok and Samantha Wildman. Janeway had had doubts about including the ensign on this trip, but she had pleaded to be allowed along.

"I’m not after revenge, Captain," Ensign Wildman said. "Naomi is safe and unharmed, and that’s what matters to me. But I want the Genn to realize who they affected with their stupid practical joke…I want to put a face on their victims!"

Janeway nodded. "All right. But I don’t want you doing or saying anything unless I tell you to."

They were met by a guard and ushered into a large room to wait for FerringGol. The ambassador’s office was surprisingly comfortable, with pastel tapestries hanging on the walls and intricately woven rugs covering the uneven stone floor. A tall marble table sat in the middle of the room, a large sofa and chairs of various styles arranged around it. Tuvok placed the wooden box he was carrying down on the table. Ambassador FerringGol appeared, dressed in a light gray flowing robe.

"What is the meaning of this?" the alien asked, blinking rapidly.

"What does it look like?" Janeway countered. "I’m returning some property which belongs to you."

The ambassador opened the lid, lifted out a PADD and frowned in puzzlement.

"That’s what’s left of the virus you transmitted onto Voyager," Janeway said, before the alien could speak. "It’s been deactivated."

"You are returning the gift?" FerringGol asked stiffly.

"That ‘gift’ nearly put Voyager out of commission!" the captain replied. "It’s being returned with this warning, Ambassador: I am submitting a formal report of this incident. If you ever attempt again to infect our ship, or any other vessel belonging to Starfleet, we will consider it a hostile act and respond accordingly!" The auburn-haired woman stepped to within 20 centimeters of the alien as she delivered the warning. Her blue-gray eyes were flashing with the force of the famous Janeway glare, and though she only came to the level of the alien’s bony chest, FerringGol stepped back rather hastily.

"There was no danger in the computer program," the Genn said placatingly. "Tidus was not designed to harm anyone."

"Your program put us in a very vulnerable position, Ambassador. If we had been attacked while without our warp drive, the entire ship could’ve been destroyed!"

"Tidus would not affect your warp drive," FerringGol replied defensively.

"We had no idea what it was capable of!" Janeway countered. "The program was obviously designed to evolve and act independently. It trapped two of my crewmembers in the holodeck and caused major psychological changes in them. One of those attacked was Naomi Wildman, Ensign Wildman’s daughter." Janeway nodded at Samantha Wildman, who stepped forward.

"If you have any feeling for your children, Ambassador," she said, "then you’ll understand the kind of worry I went through. I was afraid that I would never see my child again!" Her voice broke slightly, and FerringGol had the grace to look ashamed.

"I am sorry you were worried. But the Genn value offspring very much -- we would never harm a child. This Naomi was not permanently damaged?"

"No, she wasn’t," Ensign Wildman admitted. "But that’s not the point!"

"In fact, I am quite certain the child considered the experience enjoyable, yes?"

Janeway interrupted before the ensign could answer. "Ambassador FerringGol, the Genn had no right to take such action. It doesn’t matter what your motivation or the result was!"

The alien gave its open-mouthed smile. "Oh, but the motive and the result are the whole point, Captain Janeway. Our intent was to teach you and Voyager an important lesson. The freedom to be found in play is very instructive. Have you not learned something new about your crewmembers, and they about you?"

The captain stared at the Genn in consternation, the memory of Seven’s expression and the wonderment in her "You love us?" coming immediately to mind. Then Janeway became aware of curious looks directed her way by Tuvok and Samantha Wildman. "You overstepped your bounds, Ambassador," she said grimly. "I will repeat once more – we will consider future such attempts as hostile acts, and retaliate in kind. Goodbye."

They transported immediately back to Voyager. It was clear they would get no further with the Genn, and Janeway found the lack of resolution frustrating. But once they left the planet behind, she was free to concentrate on another problem thus far unresolved – what to do about Seven of Nine. The young woman was still keeping her distance, and Janeway decided she had given her enough time. A visit to Astrometrics was in order.

She found Seven busy at her station, and her expression upon seeing the captain did not change.

"The doctor says you’re completely recovered," Janeway said, coming to stand next to her at the console.

"As I reported 37.7 hours ago, I am functioning normally," was the cool reply.

"Good. Then you’ll be able to join me for dinner."

Seven stared at her. "You wish me to eat dinner with you?"

"I thought perhaps we could share a meal in my cabin," Janeway said, more tentatively than she usually spoke. "We could…talk things over."

Seven considered that. "Very well," she said.

Janeway programmed a simple meal of chicken and pasta, along with some broccoli spears, and fortunately the replicator cooperated. When Seven showed up, precisely at 1900, dinner was ready and sitting in covered dishes on the table.

The former Borg was dressed in her usual unitard, this one a pleasing plum shade, but Janeway had decided to be a little less formal. The implant over Seven’s brow lifted at the sight of the captain’s caramel-colored trousers and cream sweater, but she did not comment.

"Come in, Seven. Have a seat. Would you like a drink before dinner?"

"Synthehol has a deleterious effect on my system," she replied. "But thank you for offering."

The captain smiled to herself. Seven’s manners were really coming along quite well. "Unfortunately, that statement is true for a lot of people who don’t have your self-discipline," Janeway said wryly. "But I’m going to have some chilled guava juice. Would you like some?"

"I have never had guava juice. I would like to try it." She carefully examined the glass Janeway handed her, sniffed at it, then took a sip. "It is pleasant," she pronounced.

"Yes, I like it," Janeway agreed, watching her with amusement. "Shall we eat?"

Dinner conversation was desultory, but not as awkward as Janeway feared. It was over an after dinner cup of coffee that she decided to broach the subject of their previous discussion.

"Seven, I want to apologize for the way I handled things when you were in sickbay," Janeway said. "I have to admit you took me by surprise, but I certainly never meant to hurt your feelings."

"You did not," Seven stated. "I believe my feelings were more of anger than of pain."

"Anger?"

"Yes. You were denying your feelings for me, and it angered me."

"I was not denying that I care about you, Seven," Janeway began.

"You love me," Seven said simply. "And I do not believe it is the same feeling you have for other crewmembers."

"Wha- where did you get that idea?"

"My time in the holodeck proved very enlightening," Seven replied. "When you admitted you loved me, I was prompted to examine my own feelings in return. I realized that what I felt for you must be love as well."

"Seven," Janeway said, "you can’t just assume—"

"I am basing it on my knowledge of over 9000 assimilated species, and an analysis of the physical changes which occur," she continued, as if anticipating the captain’s protest.

"What are you talking about?" Janeway asked, bewildered.

"I mean I have some knowledge of the mating practices of a great many cultures, including human. I am also referring to the increase in heart rate and respiration, the dilation of pupils, the slight euphoria due to increased beta-endorphin production I experience in your presence," Seven said. "What is more, I detect some of those symptoms in you."

Janeway flushed, feeling suddenly very exposed. "Seven, your Borg-enhanced senses may allow you to detect many things regular humans do not, but that just means you must be extra careful about employing them," she said sharply. "Some things are…private, and many people would be offended to know you are spying on them in that way."

Seven considered that. "You mean, as you said in the holodeck, it is not ‘playing fair.’"

"Exactly," Janeway said. "And after awhile, you may find that no one wants to play with you!"

The blond woman stood up from the table and began a deliberate pacing, hands behind her back and head bowed in thought. Finally, she stopped before Janeway. "I will try to ignore the reports of my enhanced senses in the things which may be interpreted as an invasion of privacy," she said. "But I cannot reverse the knowledge I have already gained." She looked directly into Janeway’s eyes. "Do you no longer wish to play with me?"

In spite of herself, Janeway had to laugh. "Oh Seven," she replied. "If only you knew!"

The Borg took that as a positive sign and looked hopeful. "Then you will consider a relationship with me?"

"I can’t," Kathryn said. There was a world of sadness in her tone.

"You mean you will not."

"I mean I can’t. Seven, it’s completely inappropriate!"

Seven turned away. "I do not see why," she said, arms wrapped around herself as if she were cold.

"I’m your captain!" Janeway said. "I know," she continued, when Seven would’ve interrupted, "you’re not technically a member of Starfleet. But that doesn’t change the fact that you fall under my command as long as you’re a part of Voyager. I’m responsible for every member of this ship, and I certainly can’t become involved with any of them!"

"So the only option left to you is an alien…or a holodeck construct," Seven said bitterly.

Janeway winced. They had never discussed her disastrous involvement with Michael Sullivan, though she realized the crew was aware of it. "That’s not fair," she said in a low voice.

Seven turned back to face Janeway. "What is not fair is that you deny me the opportunity to become closer to you," she said.

Janeway approached her. "Seven, that’s not true," she said softly. "I’ve always been very interested in your development, and I will always be here for you." She touched the Borg’s arm sympathetically. "What happened to you on the holodeck was very confusing. I’m sure it stirred up all kinds of feelings for your parents, whom you lost at a very young age. But it would be a very unscrupulous person that would take advantage of your vulnerability—"

She broke off as Seven grabbed her suddenly, pulling her close and placing her mouth on Kathryn’s rather forcefully. The kiss had more enthusiasm than experience behind it, but it started Janeway’s heart racing nonetheless. She pushed Seven away immediately. "What do you think you’re doing?!"

"These are not feelings of loss for my parents," Seven stated clearly. "They are not misplaced hero-worship. I am attracted to you, Kathryn Janeway. And I believe you are attracted to me. You are denying that attraction, and what is more, you are denying the possibility that those feelings will ever develop any further."

Janeway was dismayed at hearing the truth stated so plainly. She had underestimated Seven’s understanding of the subject, as well as the Borg’s ability to recognize what she’d been trying to hide. Before she could respond, Seven continued in a pained voice.

"I was attempting to initiate a relationship between us, but I do not have enough experience in this area. The doctor’s advice is proving…insufficient. If this relationship is to proceed, it will be up to you to initiate it." She stepped back and assumed her usual rigid stance. "Goodnight, Captain."

Janeway watched in silence as Seven left her quarters. She lowered herself onto her sofa as her legs gave way beneath her, staring pensively at the door. She didn’t move for a very long time.

~~~~~~~

Janeway wasn’t sure what to expect from her Astrometrics officer after that conversation, but was still completely unprepared for what she got.

Seven acted as if nothing had changed between them.

She was as cool as ever, as competent as ever, questioning orders when she disagreed with them, following them efficiently otherwise. The only thing Janeway could consider out of the ordinary was her polite declination to engage in their usual game of Velocity. But as Seven was busy catching up with work that had accumulated while she was trapped in the holodeck, it may well have been a legitimate excuse.

Janeway, on the other hand, found herself growing more restless every day. She slept poorly, alternating between insomnia and disturbing dreams of her time in the holodeck. Her patience was in short supply, and the second time she snapped at Chakotay over a relatively minor matter, he looked at her curiously.

"Something bothering you, Captain?"

She put a hand on his arm apologetically. "No, I’m just a bit tired, Chakotay. I’ve been experiencing some insomnia, and I think it’s starting to get to me."

"Maybe a visit to the doctor would be in order," he said.

"I think a glass of warm milk and a good book would be far more soothing," she said wryly. "But thanks anyway."

"Why don’t you take off early today, Kathryn?" her commander suggested. "There’s nothing much going on and I can easily cover for you."

"That might be a good idea," she agreed wearily. "I’ll take you up on it just as soon as I run these schematics down to Engineering."

"I can do that," he offered.

"No, I could use the exercise. And B’Elanna mentioned wanting to talk to me anyway."

But when she arrived on Deck 11, her chief engineer didn’t look very happy to see her. "Oh, Captain, you’re here."

Janeway’s brows rose. "You said you wanted to talk to me."

"Yes, but I was planning to drop by after…well, I guess it doesn’t matter." She glanced over her shoulder to where Crewman Boylan stood monitoring a nearby console. "Uh, can we go to my office? It’s a bit more private."

"Of course."

Once in her office, B’Elanna seemed even more ill at ease. "I appreciate your coming to see me, Captain. I was planning to stop by the bridge after my shift…"

"Well, I saved you a trip," Janeway said. "Now, was there something you needed to discuss?"

The engineer sighed. "You know I don’t usually meddle in other people’s business, Captain."

"A wise philosophy, Lieutenant."

"Yes, well…." She hesitated so long that Janeway grew impatient.

"B’Elanna, why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind?"

"I’m worried about Seven, Captain," the Klingon blurted.

Janeway frowned. "You’re worried about her?"

"Yes, I think something’s bothering her."

Janeway kept her voice unemotional. "Then I think the person you ought to be talking to is her."

"I tried to, Captain," B’Elanna replied. "She says she doesn’t want to discuss it."

Janeway crossed her arms and leaned back. "Then perhaps you should respect that."

"But anyone can see she’s obviously unhappy!" B’Elanna said with irritation. "And you know Seven, Captain. She’ll retreat and overwork till she does some kind of damage to herself."

"If you are that worried about her, Lieutenant, I would think Commander Chakotay would be the logical person to talk to."

"Normally I would approach him about a personnel matter," B’Elanna agreed, looking uncomfortable once more. "But I decided to talk to you because…well, because you’re what’s bothering her!"

"I beg your pardon?"

A lesser person might have quailed at the sudden ice in Janeway’s tone. Fortunately, B’Elanna’s half-Klingon physiology gave her a higher body temperature, and her human side was blessed with an uncommon stubbornness.

"She’s told me a little about what went on in the holodeck, Captain," she said. "It’s been nearly a week and I think Seven’s still trying to deal with what happened to her there."

Janeway’s gaze was a blue-gray laser. "I had no idea you were such a confidant of hers, Lieutenant."

B’Elanna shrugged. "It’s true we were pretty antagonistic to each other in the beginning," she said, carefully lining up the PADDs on her desk. "But things have changed. I think we’ve developed…a mutual respect. In fact," she cleared her throat, "I consider her a friend, Captain. And I believe she’s experiencing some residual effects, ones that she’s not dealing with."

"That may be true, Lieutenant," Janeway said. "But that doesn’t necessarily mean it involves me. And while I appreciate your concern for a fellow crewmember, it certainly doesn’t involve you!"

"Yes, ma’am." B’Elanna said, after a pause.

"Was there anything else?"

"No, ma’am." The chief engineer’s face was impassive.

"Good. I’ll be in my quarters for the rest of the afternoon if you need me."

After she left, B’Elanna grabbed the gravel-filled ball she kept on her desk for that very purpose, and crushed it in frustration. "BlyuD!" she growled, telling Kathryn Janeway in Klingon what she hadn’t been able to do in English – that she was lying to herself.

She hadn’t admitted the extent of her knowledge to the Captain, but she was well aware of the cause of Seven’s unhappiness. She’d suspected for some time that Capt. Janeway held deeper feelings for the Astrometrics officer, feelings she kept sternly in check. When Seven described their interaction in the holodeck, and the Captain’s reactions afterward, B’Elanna guessed that the shuttles had finally come home to dock. Janeway, no longer able to deny her feelings for the former Borg, was doing everything she could to push her away. And it was making Seven miserable.

Seven herself appeared at that very moment, as if conjured by B’Elanna’s thoughts.

"You just missed her," the engineer said sourly, and described her unsuccessful attempt at approaching the captain.

"You should not have done that," the blond woman said, her brow furrowing.

"Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t give everything away. I was just hoping to hear…I don’t know…some indication of her plans. But she pretty much told me to mind my own business."

"Perhaps I should assume the type of child-like state I was in under the virus," Seven mused. "The captain seemed to prefer dealing with that individual."

"Don’t you dare!" B’Elanna said, coming around to lean against the front of her desk. "Janeway’s confused enough as it is."

"But she expressed affection more readily to that Seven," the Borg pointed out.

"You may have roused her protective instincts, but if there’s one thing you don’t need, it’s her thinking of you as a child," B’Elanna said emphatically. "Things are uncomfortable enough without introducing that aspect into it."

Seven’s head tilted. "Are you referring to the human proscription against mating with children? I am well aware of that tradition, Lt. Torres. Ninety-four point four percent of the species the Borg have assimilated have similar prohibitions."

"Well, I’m glad to hear it. I just meant that the captain’s probably feeling guilty about her attraction to begin with, and we don’t need another complicating factor."

Seven nodded. "That is very good advice, B’Elanna. I would not have expected someone with your judgement to be so perceptive about human emotion."

"My judgement?" B’Elanna bristled. "What’s wrong with my judgement?!"

"Your selection of Lt. Paris as a romantic partner calls that into question," Seven replied.

B’Elanna resisted the urge to belt the former Borg, and tried to remember how concerned she was about her welfare. "I think you’re doing the right thing, playing it cool," the Klingon said, changing the subject. "From what I hear, and from what I just saw, the captain is starting to feel the strain."

"I have no wish to cause her unhappiness," Seven said. "My actions are simply because I have no other choice than to wait. I cannot force her to care for me if she does not."

B’Elanna put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder sympathetically. "Oh, she cares for you all right. It’s just a matter of whether it will be enough to overcome her fear."

~~~~~~~

Janeway was more disturbed by B’Elanna’s words than she wanted to admit. Seven had been politely distant to her ever since the night they had shared dinner, but she was obviously confiding in Lt. Torres. Janeway felt a stab of jealousy, then dismissed it as ridiculous. She was truly glad that Seven was finding friends among the crew, many of whom had originally distrusted the former Borg. But she wasn’t sure exactly how much soul-baring Seven had done, and she hated the thought that her love life might be a subject of discussion.

If it could be called a love life,’ she thought moodily. The brief affair with Michael had proven highly unsatisfactory. ‘A hologram…I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that there wasn’t much substance to him.’

‘There’s a lot of substance to Seven,’ her traitorous inner voice whispered, and Janeway sighed. She missed her. She missed their Velocity games, she missed the challenging conversations they shared, she missed the opportunities she used to enjoy watching Seven develop into the fascinating person she was becoming. It was extremely troubling to know that Seven no longer felt free to relate to her in the same way as before. That special relationship, one that had come to mean so much to Kathryn Janeway, was now out of reach. It hurt more than she could’ve imagined.

Alone in her room, she replicated a glass of wine and called up a favorite sonata. But relaxation seemed unlikely – all she could think about was Seven. Being a woman of action, it was difficult for her to leave a problem unresolved, and it seemed to her that the situation with Seven had gone on long enough.

"Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine is in Cargo Bay Two."

It was too early for her to be regenerating, so Janeway decided to pay her a visit. She found the former Borg entering schematics in a PADD. Technically her shift had ended but she was still at work, and B’Elanna’s words about her overworking came back to mind. Seven’s expression at seeing the captain was as aloof as ever.

"Did you need my assistance?" she asked politely.

"No…I thought I might talk with you," Janeway said. "But if you’re busy…"

"I am not."

"You shouldn’t be working on your off-duty time."

"I am simply compensating for a period of non-work activity during my regular shift. I spoke with Lt. Torres for 34 minutes over a personal matter."

"Yes, I wanted to talk to you about that," Janeway said, glad that Seven had raised the topic. "She mentioned that something was bothering you, and that the something was me! I’m not sure what you told her, but I don’t relish the thought of being responsible for your unhappiness."

The implant above Seven’s eye rose. "Lt. Torres is conjecturing. I merely related what happened to us in the holodeck."

"But was she speaking the truth? Are you unhappy because of me?"

The younger woman turned back to her PADD. "Is there a specific reason you wanted to speak with me, Captain?"

"Seven, don’t do that. Don’t shut me out." She stepped closer to the Borg and reached out to touch her arm. "I’m sorry I’ve been so clumsy over this. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt you." Seven didn’t answer. "If it’s any consolation, I’m not feeling very cheerful myself."

"Then why do you continue in your present course?" Seven asked, looking up. "Why do you not do what will make us both happier?"

"Which is?"

"Allow us to express our feelings for each other."

Janeway sighed. "Oh Seven, how can you even be sure of your feelings? You have no experience with this kind of thing. I know, I know," holding up her hand, "you’ve assimilated the experiences of thousands of species. But that’s not the same thing as experiencing it yourself! I feel like I’m taking advantage of a juvenile here."

Seven put the PADD down and moved closer to the captain. "I will not gain personal experience until I engage in a personal relationship," she said reasonably. "However, I have been assured that there are other crewmembers who would be willing to help me."

Janeway frowned. "Oh? And just who told you that?"

"Lt. Torres."

"B’Elanna has a big mouth," Janeway growled, detesting the thought of Seven with anyone else. Anyone else but her. Closing her eyes briefly, she came to an abrupt decision. When she opened them again her whole demeanor had changed. From the way Seven’s eyes widened, it was clear she could sense it too.

Janeway reached up to run her hand slowly along Seven’s left cheek, rubbing the pad of her thumb gently over the classically defined cheekbone and down past her ear, curving her fingers around the back of Seven’s neck. The Borg stiffened slightly. "Captain?" she asked hesitantly.

She drew the younger woman slowly toward her. "I’m going to hate myself for this," she murmured, and Seven could feel the other woman’s breath against her lips. "But I’m damned if I’ll let anyone else teach you how to kiss." Seven willingly let her head be pulled lower.

"Close your eyes," Janeway whispered. "And let your other senses take over." Seven complied, closing her eyes, her hands instinctively raising to clutch the captain’s shoulders for balance. She expected to feel the captain’s lips against her own, but the first brush of sensation wasn’t against her mouth. It was the tip of Janeway’s nose, rubbing lightly against hers, bringing her attention to the scent of the auburn-haired woman in front of her. The captain wasn’t wearing perfume, but she gave off a slightly spicy scent which Seven’s nanoprobe-enhanced sense of smell detected easily.

Then there was the feel of Janeway’s left hand, spanning Seven’s ribcage and then settling on her waist. The fingers were warm and lingering, and circling around to the Borg’s lower back and pulling their bodies firmly closer. As she felt the length of Janeway’s body against her, Seven could feel her awareness expanding like a star going nova. Blood was rising to the surface everywhere beneath her skin – in the nerves tingling at her nape under Janeway’s clasp, in her breasts where they pressed up against the captain, and in the entire lower half of her body, which was growing more heated by the second.

And finally, there was the feel of Janeway’s mouth, soft and warm against her own. Seven had not expected the gentle nibbling which preceded the kiss, and drew back slightly in surprise.

"Relax, Seven," came the captain’s whisper, made even huskier by emotion. "I’ve waited a long time for this moment…and I intend to savor it." Then her mouth was back, pressing a bit more insistently, encouraging Seven’s own mouth to soften and open slightly. Janeway was clearly experienced at this, her lips coaxing an unexpected sound from the younger woman’s throat, and causing her hands to drop from Janeway’s shoulders to clasp the smaller woman’s hips and pull her even closer. Suppressing a groan of her own, Janeway allowed the tip of her tongue to snake out and slide over the Borg’s full lips.

The effect on Seven was electric. Janeway was literally swept off her feet as she felt Seven’s grip on her bottom tighten, and she was lifted up to bring her mouth even closer. Seven’s own tongue made an exploratory caress, which Kathryn rewarded by nipping the Borg’s lower lip lightly with her teeth. The breathing of both women became increasingly labored as the kisses intensified.

Finally Janeway pulled back to slow things down. "My goodness, you’re a fast learner," she gasped.

"It was sufficient?" Seven asked, looking pleased.

Janeway laughed, a sound that sent a tingle down Seven’s spine. "Any more sufficient and I’m not sure I could walk," she said. "By the way, you can let me down now."

Reluctantly, the Astrometrics officer loosened her hold. "I like kissing," she pronounced.

"It has its moments," Janeway agreed with a smile.

"It is hard to imagine that copulation will be even more pleasurable."

Janeway felt her knees grow weak again. "Was that a rhetorical statement?"

Seven looked puzzled. "Kissing is part of what is known as ‘foreplay.’ And foreplay is a prelude to copulation. Is that not correct?"

Janeway took a deep breath. "Kissing can be a part of foreplay," she replied in a low voice. "But it is an act that can mean many things. On Earth, kissing is used to express affection, as a greeting and a farewell, or for purely ceremonial purposes. It doesn’t always lead to copulation, Seven."

The blond woman was silent for a long time. "I do not believe that kiss was ceremonial," she said at last.

The captain’s laugh was tinged with embarrassment. "No, you’re right," she said. "It was the kind of kiss that usually leads to lovemaking." She noticed the Borg’s eyes light up and held up her hand. "Hold on, Seven. We’re not going to make love."

The younger woman considered that. "We are going to make love," she said with her customary certainty, albeit softer than usual. "The only unknown factor is how long you will ‘hold out.’"

Janeway, expecting to deal with anger or disappointment, was left speechless. Eventually she managed, "I’m not sure I like the influence B’Elanna has on you."

"I do not require B’Elanna’s assistance to know that we care for each other," Seven said. "Or to recognize that I desire you." Her arms tightened again. "Do you hesitate because of my Borg physiology? I know that some find my implants distasteful."

Seven’s voice was without inflection, but Janeway sensed what the statement had cost her. "Of course not!" she said immediately. She placed her palm against the metallic star in Seven’s cheek and looked directly into that cobalt gaze. "People sometimes fear the unknown, Seven. But I have always thought you were very attractive, even when I didn’t want to admit it to myself. It’s more than your beauty – it’s your intelligence and your courage and your heart. Your implants are simply a part of who you are." She sighed and leaned against the taller woman. "Can we go to my cabin? The cargo bay is not the best place for this discussion."

"That would be acceptable." Seven replied evenly, as they moved towards the cargo bay exit. "I look forward to continuing the ‘foreplay.’"

Janeway froze in her tracks and turned back to face Seven, feeling a tingle when she saw the determination and budding desire in the blond’s eyes.

"I…" she hesitated, suddenly feeling that things were moving far too quickly and were slipping out of her control. She cleared her throat. "Let’s just get to my quarters okay?"

But as the doors slid open they nearly collided with B’Elanna, who was on her way in. "Excuse me, Captain! Seven, I was just coming to see you."

"Do you require something, Lieutenant?"

"No, I was just on my way to the mess hall, and wondered if you wanted to join me." Her eyes narrowed slightly as she noted the air of tension between the two women.

"I am unable to comply at this time," Seven replied politely. "Capt. Janeway and I are about to engage in discussion in her quarters."

Janeway nodded coolly to B’Elanna and began heading for the turbolift. But the captain winced inwardly at Seven’s phrasing. Didn’t the Borg ever teach their drones the value of evasive maneuvers?

"Oh really?" came the engineer’s casual question as she fell into step behind them. "Well, I’ll keep you company on the way, then."

The captain grit her teeth, but obviously could not object to B’Elanna accompanying them. It made the journey more difficult, however, when all Janeway could think about was the kiss she and Seven had just shared, and what an energetic lover the younger woman would make. She suppressed a shiver, all too aware of the Klingon’s sharp-eyed and knowledgeable gaze.

"Well, Seven, have you fully recovered from your holodeck experience?"

Janeway knew this was partly aimed at her, but she waited patiently for the Astrometrics officer to answer.

"I am operating within normal parameters, thank you, Lieutenant."

"Well, we have the Captain to thank for that. She was certainly worried about you!"

Janeway wondered why she had never before noticed how endless the corridor was. From the corner of her eye she saw Seven’s suddenly interested glance fix on the Klingon.

"She expressed worry?"

"Are you kidding? She was ready to storm the holodeck! She insisted on doing the rescue single-handedly, and if we hadn’t gotten you out, the Genn planet would probably be a meteoroid by now."

"Lt. Torres is exaggerating," Janeway said as they entered the turbolift. She sent B’Elanna a quelling look as she continued. "I was naturally concerned over the fate of both you and Naomi, but no more than was the rest of Voyager’s crew."

"Nevertheless, I am…touched by your concern, Captain. And I believe I have not yet thanked you for rescuing me," Seven said softly. The look she sent Janeway was very warm, and the captain found herself flushing slightly.

"You’re welcome," she muttered.

"So, what are you going to be discussing?" B’Elanna asked blithely from over their shoulders. Seven turned around to speak, but Janeway interrupted, unsure of how truthfully the Borg would feel compelled to answer.

"I’m sure the lieutenant is joking, Seven. She knows better than to get involved in matters which are none of her business." Fortunately, the turbolift doors opened onto Deck Three at that moment. "Enjoy your meal, Lieutenant," Janeway said dryly, as she and Seven stepped out.

"Thanks, Captain. You too," was B’Elanna’s mischievous comment right before the doors closed. Seven had to grab hold of Janeway’s arm to restrain her from getting back into the turbolift. The significance behind B’Elanna’s remark was lost on her, but she did recognize the slight smirk on the engineer’s face as being provoking.

Once in her quarters, Janeway attempted to resume their conversation. "Seven, I think we need to slow this down a bit."

"Very well. I believe you wanted to express your reservations?"

Janeway had to smile at the Borg’s politely raised brow. "I know that you think my ‘reservations’ are the only barrier to us…to our…to the logical conclusion of that kiss, Seven," she finished hastily. "But that’s only because your inexperience prevents you from really seeing where this could lead."

"Ah." The blond nodded in comprehension. "And that is what you fear."

"What are you talking about?" Janeway frowned.

"You are afraid of the possibility of a more intimate relationship," Seven answered. "And you believe that avoiding copulation with me will prevent that."

"What?"

The younger woman moved closer and slipped her arms around Janeway’s waist. Ironically, her voice and manner were as though she was comforting the captain. "It is useful for you to behave as though it is my welfare that concerns you. But I believe you are afraid for your own sake. Perhaps because of your lack of success in this area?"

Angrily, Janeway attempted to pull away. "If you doubt my concern for your welfare, I’m surprised you still want to sleep with me! And what the hell do you mean, my ‘lack of success’ in that area?!"

Seven’s arms were gentle, but she refused to release her. "I do not doubt your concern for me," she said quietly. "But it would be understandable if you were fearful for your own sake. After all, your past relationships have ended in loss."

Janeway was silenced by the unexpectedness of that. She didn’t know whether to be glad or resentful that Seven’s hold on her was warm and unyielding. "Someone’s been gossiping, I see," she said, intending to sound cutting, but sounding rather shaken instead.

"Lt. Torres has told me about Justin and Mark," Seven admitted. "And I have heard other crewmembers refer to your father’s death as well." She lowered her head to place her lips against Janeway’s brow. "It disturbs me to hear of your unhappiness," she said.

Janeway closed her eyes and leaned against Seven. The strength she could feel in that voluptuous body was very comforting. "It happened a long time ago," she said. "I’ve recovered and moved on." But had she? She could go on pretending, as Seven had pointed out, that she was only trying to protect the younger woman from getting hurt. Or she could admit that Seven was an adult who might actually know her own heart and mind best. An individual who, while naïve in some ways, was also incredibly wise in others, and whom she shouldn’t be trying to shield from life’s vagaries in any case. ‘At some point, Kathryn Janeway,’ she said to herself, ‘you’re going to have to take a chance again.’ She gazed up into the beautiful blue eyes that were regarding her with such tenderness. And now seems like a damn good time.’ She smiled up at the taller woman and stepped back out of the shelter of her arms. This time Seven let her go. She took hold of the Borg’s hand and led her to the bedroom, where they sat down on the edge of the mattress. "You are sure about this, Seven?"

"Yes, Captain."

"You’d better call me Kathryn, I think. In spite of what you may have heard, I don’t expect to be addressed by rank in bed."

Seven looked puzzled.

"It was joke, Seven."

"Yes, Kathryn," she said obediently, willing to accept Janeway’s definition of humor even if she didn’t get it.

Janeway chuckled and slipped her arms around the Borg. "Never mind. Non-verbal communication at this point may be more useful anyway." She leaned in for another kiss, pleased when Seven responded immediately. She instructed the computer to lower the lights and began to unfasten the opening to Seven’s biosuit at the nape of her neck, when she felt the Borg stiffen slightly. "Are you nervous, sweetheart?"

"I believe my raised blood pressure and gastric discomfort can be partly attributed to that emotion," Seven admitted. "But I am also experiencing what I am certain is arousal."

"We can stop at any time," Janeway said reassuringly. "If I’m doing anything that makes you uncomfortable, let me know." She moved over onto the bed, pulling Seven to lay down beside her. Propping her head up on her hand, she reached out with the other to undo the twist in Seven’s hair, letting its golden glory spread out onto the pillow and running her fingers through the silky strands. She gently stroked the Borg’s scalp with her fingertips and felt Seven begin to relax.

"When I was a young girl living on earth," Janeway began in a low voice, "my sister Phoebe and I were encouraged to play out-of-doors as often as possible." When Seven looked inquiring, she added, "It was part of the Traditionalist upbringing." She gently tucked a strand of hair behind Seven’s ear and let her fingertip outline its shell-like contour. As her finger trailed down the line of Seven’s jaw, she noted the slight flush appearing under the fair complexion of the Borg’s cheek. "One day, after a misty rain had passed over our farm house, we noticed a glorious rainbow highlighted against a nearby hill. That’s when Phoebe told me about the pot of gold the leprechauns have buried at the place where a rainbow touches the earth."

The captain’s fingertips had by this time journeyed leisurely down Seven’s throat, and were delicately tracing the collarbones beneath her formfitting biosuit. From there her hand swept down to gently cup a full breast, causing Seven’s eyes to widen and her chest’s rise and fall to quicken. With her index finger Janeway circled Seven’s nipple, then ran lightly over and over the hardening protrusion with her fingertip. "Are you familiar with leprechauns, my darling? And the legend of their pot of gold?" Those blue-gray eyes looked inquiringly into Seven’s, seemingly intent only on the story she was telling. But the slight smile on her lips told another story entirely.

"I am familiar with the mythological beings of Earth legend," Seven managed with difficulty.

"I thought you might be," Janeway said with satisfaction. Her hand moved leisurely over to the younger woman’s other breast, where her fingers began their subtle torment once more. "Well, being the adventurous child I was, I was determined to find that pot of gold. Phoebe was less convinced of the urgency of our quest, but I was able to talk her into it." Janeway’s hand began a slow descent, fingertips memorizing each rib, neither hesitating nor rushing over the feel of Seven’s abdominal implants, till they rested on the sensitive skin of her hipbone. "We set out that very moment, without even telling our mother we were leaving. The rainbow appeared so close to us, I was sure we would be back with our treasure before supper time."

Janeway’s hand was now only inches away from Seven’s mons, her arm lying across Seven’s lower abdomen, and the Borg could feel her blood flow to that area increasing. She braced herself for the next move of Kathryn’s hand.

"It seemed as if we walked for days," came the captain’s husky voice. "And that beautiful rainbow, shining right before us against the trees, seemed to get farther and farther away with each step." Janeway’s hand finally began to stir, but to Seven’s surprise, did not continue its downward path. Instead she grasped Seven’s left wrist, lifting the Borg’s hand with it metallic mesh to her lips for a kiss. Then she brought Seven’s hand to her chest, where Seven could clearly feel the strong beat of Janeway’s heart. "Phoebe wanted to turn back several times, but I was too stubborn to give up."

"I must admit that does not surprise me," Seven said in a low voice.

Janeway’s smile flashed white in the dim light. "I must’ve developed that character trait early," she agreed. She moved Seven’s hand till it rested over her right breast, and smiled again at the other woman’s intake of breath. "Finally, though, it began to get darker. And with the dusk, the rainbow disappeared. I had to admit defeat and we started back home." Janeway began to press Seven’s hand against her breast, closing her eyes briefly as the Borg took up the movement, using her fingertips to stimulate the captain’s rapidly stiffening nipple. Suddenly Janeway sat up, removing first her tunic and then the thin sweater beneath it. She lay back down and brought Seven’s hand to the lacy white cup of her brassiere.

"We were halfway home when my dog Bramble came running up to us. Across the field was my mother…she had come out with Bramble to track us down. I knew then that we were in trouble."

"She was worried about you," Seven whispered, fascinated by the sight and feel of Kathryn’s breast beneath her hand.

"Yes, she was worried all right. I tried to explain what we were looking for, but I could tell by her expression and posture that she was upset, although she didn’t say anything at all on that long walk home." Janeway took Seven’s hand and placed it over the fastening of her bra. "Take it off, please," she requested, the only acknowledgement of what they were doing. Seven complied eagerly. Her nervousness seemed to disappear as she concentrated on her task. The sight of Kathryn’s beautifully shaped breasts with their coral-tinted nipples was enough to take her breath away. She reached forward without any prompting to gently cup each firm mound, marveling at their softness and the way they rose to her touch.

"Well, I was miserable." Janeway’s voice was becoming more breathless as well, testament to the effect the Borg was having on her. "Not only had I not found my treasure, but I was also in trouble. Mom waited till after dinner, then asked us, ‘Do you know why what you did was so foolish?’" The captain reached down to slip out of her trousers and panties, leaving her lying fully nude next to the still-dressed Seven. "I answered, ‘Because we didn’t let you know where we were going?’ She nodded, then asked, ‘What else?’"

Janeway lifted her arms and linked them around the Borg’s neck. She nuzzled Seven’s ear, and continued in a whisper. "And I replied, ‘Because we were so busy we stayed out too late?’ And she again asked, ‘What else?’ Well, I couldn’t think of anything after that, and neither could Phoebe. And then mom said, 'Because you went out looking for something you could never find, and ignored what you already had. Katie, Phoebe – the rainbow is the treasure. Don’t ever forget that.’" She pressed her body up against Seven’s, causing the Borg to tremble slightly.

"Seven?" Janeway murmured. "Whatever happens tonight – that’s my pot of gold. Getting to know you, experiencing your friendship – that’s my rainbow. I will always be grateful for that." She placed a very sweet kiss against the corner of Seven’s mouth.

"Kathryn?" Seven’s voice cracked slightly. "I wish to undress now."

Janeway’s pulse leapt in response, but she remembered to use restraint. She drew the biosuit off slowly, unwrapping her lover like a precious gift. When Seven was finally naked, Janeway simply looked at her. "You’re beautiful," she said softly.

Seven didn’t reply. While her self-image would be forever scarred by the Borg’s mutilations and the subsequent implants, she seemed to accept that Janeway was sincere in her admiration. "I find the sight of you…arousing, Kathryn," she said at last. "May we proceed to the next stage of foreplay?"

Janeway couldn’t help but smile at Seven’s formal phrasing, but she vowed to make the younger woman lose her habitual control before the night was over. "Stage two, coming up," she said. She resumed their kissing and caressing, trying not to lose control herself at the feel of Seven’s voluptuous flesh pressing against her. Seven was no longer shy, returning both kisses and caresses freely. Janeway reached for one of Seven’s breasts and began sucking on the nipple, causing half-articulated exhalations to issue from her. After awhile she turned her attention to the other breast, and was pleased to feel Seven start to undulate against her.

"Kathryn," the former Borg gasped. "There is a sensation…I am not certain how to proceed…"

"Yes, darling?" Janeway whispered sympathetically. "What is it?"

"I believe I require assistance…in my—"

"Hold on, let me see," Janeway murmured, interrupting whatever clinical term the Astrometrics officer would’ve used. She reached down with gentle fingers. "Oh my. You’re very wet, Seven. Do you ache…right here?"

"Ache…ye-es," It was nearly a groan.

"I can help you with that, darling." Janeway kissed her way down Seven’s body till she reached the triangle of dark gold where her thighs met. She planted kisses all over the silky hair, pleased at the way Seven’s body lifted in response to the press of her lips. Carefully parting her thighs, Janeway used her tongue in careful strokes on the quivering flesh beneath her. The taste and smell of Seven was intoxicating, and Janeway leisurely explored every slippery fold. The gasps and moans coming from the blond woman indicated that she was enjoying the sensation, but then,

"Kathryn?"

Janeway lifted her head, but continued to stroke Seven with her fingers. "Yes, sweetheart?"

"Your actions are causing the…ache…to increase."

Janeway’s husky laugh was sexiness personified. "Don’t worry, darling, I’ll make it all better…starting right now." She lowered her head once again, but concentrated her attention on the sensitive knot at the apex of Seven’s nether lips, laving it with her tongue. The tension in Seven’s body increased and her hips began a subtle thrusting motion. As she neared her climax, the sounds coming from her were indistinguishable, except for one drawn-out cry.

"Kaaathryyynn!"

Hearing Seven’s excitement nearly sent Janeway over the edge. She continued to lick and suckle until Seven’s shudders subsided into an occasional tremble. Then she moved up to hold the younger woman, who was wearing an expression of quiet wonder.

"I believe I now understand the attraction of copulation," Seven said shakily.

Janeway chuckled. "We’re going to have to expand your bedroom vocabulary, my darling."

Seven looked at her, eyebrow raised. "I would like to…’make love’ to you now," she said. "Is that satisfactory?"

"The description is just fine. As for the lovemaking, well I won’t be able to judge that till after…oh!" Janeway’s teasing remark was cut short as Seven pushed her down and covered her mouth with a kiss. After making love to Seven, Janeway was already quite aroused. So it was exquisite torment when the former Borg proceeded to touch and taste in a very exploratory manner – as much intrigued as stimulated by Janeway’s body and its passionate responses.

"Seven, put your finger inside of me…please."

Seven did, and her eyes grew half-lidded. "The sensation of heat is extraordinary," she whispered.

"Stroke me, please," Janeway gasped.

Seven began a slow movement in and out. "Kathryn," her voice was hoarse, "you are wonderfully lubricated." She marveled at how the sensation of being inside Kathryn, along with her lover’s undulating body, was arousing her all over again.

"More." It was a moan, and Seven was not sure whether another finger or an increase in speed was being requested. She provided both. When Kathryn moaned again in encouragement, Seven added a third finger. Once it was slick with moisture, she inserted it carefully into the tighter rosebud opening below Kathryn’s sheath. Her research had indicated this area to be erogenous to some individuals, although she was unsure if the captain was one of those.

The auburn-haired woman shuddered as that long slender invader slipped gently into her. "Oh God," she groaned. Seven shivered in turn. Kathryn’s reactions definitely indicated pleasure. Contractions were building slowly in the yielding flesh surrounding her fingers, and she recognized the echo of her own earlier orgasm. She lowered her full lips onto the tiny organ which Kathryn had demonstrated was the root of such delightful sensations, and was gratified at the sudden clenching that followed.

"Yes, please…don’t stop, Seven…" Janeway’s voice was a ragged plea. Seven found herself growling deep in her throat and becoming even more urgent in her movements. Janeway threw her head back and came with a long groan, the waves of her climax pulsing through her body like an electrical storm.

She lay so still afterwards that Seven felt a touch of alarm. "Kathryn? Are you all right?"

Janeway’s smile was blissful. "I haven’t felt this good in…" she paused. "I don’t even remember. You’ve turned my brain to mush, darling. Along with every muscle in my body."

"Indeed?" Seven frowned slightly. "Does that mean we will not be engaging in more lovemaking?"

Janeway groaned. "Give me some time to recover, Seven. You have youth and a Borg-enhanced physiology on your side. What do I have on mine?"

"Deprivation?"

Janeway raised her head indignantly, then noticed the glimmer of mischief on the blond woman’s face. "Seven! Are you teasing me?" The Borg’s lips quirked, but she did not answer. The captain regained energy enough to pounce on the woman next to her. She was delighted to discover that, as she had always suspected, Seven was definitely ticklish.

~~~~~~~

Standing in the passageway outside the holodeck, Janeway checked her chronometer and frowned. It was not like Seven to be late. The captain mentioned that she had missed their usual Velocity matches, so Seven had finally agreed to meet with her. But it was the appointed hour of their scheduled game, and Seven was nowhere to be seen.

"Computer, locate Seven of Nine."

"Seven of Nine is currently in Holodeck Two."

Ah, she’s probably trying to get in some extra practice,’ Janeway thought with a smile. She entered the holodeck, but instead of a Velocity court was surprised to see what looked like the Forest of Forever. Could it be another virus? She frowned at the uneasy memories the setting evoked. Just then, Seven stepped out from behind a tree. She was dressed in her Velocity outfit and carrying two phasers.

"Kathryn. Are you ready for our game?" She handed Janeway one of the phasers.

"I thought I was. But you don’t intend to play Velocity here, do you?"

"When I agreed to meet with you, I was not thinking specifically of Velocity," Seven said.

"No?" Janeway was mystified. "Then what did you have in mind?"

"I thought perhaps we could find something positive in the Genn’s gift, and test your newfound ability to ‘play.’" There was a glint in the Borg’s blue gaze.

"Oh, the Genn gave me something positive, all right," said the captain softly. "They brought me you."

Seven smiled outright. "That is a beautiful thing to say, Kathryn. It illustrates your new openness perfectly. As will this game." With that, Seven raised the toy phaser she was holding and directed a stream of water at Janeway, which the older woman only partially managed to avoid by ducking.

"Why, you little devil!" Janeway spluttered, wiping moisture from her face and neck. "So you want to play, do you? Well, you’ll discover you’re playing with fire!" She lifted her own weapon for a shot, but Seven dodged it and took cover behind a tree.

"You taught me how to build a fire," Seven called back. "It will be interesting to see if I can extinguish it."

"More likely get your fingers singed," Janeway threatened, taking her own position behind a nearby bush. "You’re not a child this time, Seven. So don’t expect me to hold back when I catch you."

"I will not hold back either, Kathryn. If you catch me!" Seven turned and ran, letting loose tiny shrieks of excitement very reminiscent of the last time they had occupied the holodeck. Janeway grinned gleefully.

"Oh, I’ll catch you all right," she promised, laughing as she took up pursuit. "And then the games will really begin!"
 

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 December 28, 2000. Updated January 2, 2002, to delete table and add logo graphic.