STANDARD DISCLAIMER:The characters from Star Trek: Voyager belong to Paramount/Viacom and whoever else has the legal documentation to back up their claim. No infringement is intended. They are borrowed only.
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:This is a story about two adult women in a loving and romantic relationship. The fact that one of them is an ex-Borg while the other is a starship captain is completely irrelevant. Continue reading at your own peril. Resistance is still entirely possible. ;) Also, the timing on this is post "Dark Frontier". Though I really won’t make any references to any episodes in this installment.
OTHER NOTES: Please feel free to e-mail me constructive criticism, comments, etc. at DiNovia7@msn.com
THANKS:To Stacey, my Xenaverse editor, who jumped into this story feet first and agreed to assist me in honing the voice of my Collective (a cute name for my Sevenfic Muse) even though she is "not a Star Trek fan". She has eyes, though, and can see the obvious appeal of our favorite Borg.
To Christy, my best friend all these years. She has seen me through several Trek addictions and continues to be supportive. Not easy, let me tell you. She has eyes, too—though because of her particular artistic talents, she is more likely to notice shoes and clothing before anything else.
To Gina L. Dartt, One of One, and unarguably the best Sevenfic author there is. And to Shay, who understands the Muse better than I do. Thanks for the inspiration! The aid and comfort of you both has been valuable beyond measure.
And finally, to all the wonderful women in our group. Your support and feedback, your humor and your own stories and experiences have helped this story and me immensely.
The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate—
it is life, intensified, brilliant life.
The doors to the holodeck slid open with a technological clang, allowing Captain Kathryn Janeway of the U.S.S. Voyager exquisitely simple passage into the past. She felt her lips curve into a grateful smile, tipping her head back to breathe in the wondrously dusky, pungent scents of plaster and pigment, charcoal and stone. As the doors clanged shut behind her and disappeared, the temperature in the studio chilled slightly and Janeway walked over to a large window, warming herself in the late afternoon sun, taking a moment just to enjoy what had to be one of her most favorite places in the Universe.
After a few moments of quiet indulgence and some truly lazy thoughts, she managed to pull her eyes back into the studio, leaving the early summer landscape outside. She glanced around the big haven, noticing several new, half-finished projects lying around on tables and the benches hastily constructed to bear their weight. Sheets of vellum and parchment with scribbled notes and wild sketches lay strewn on the floor, glowing in honey and amber tones as the sunlight danced across them. Her smile widened.
"Ah, Caterina!" A round and elderly man hurried into the room, arms filled with brushes and paints and canvasses. "I was not expecting you today! Che bella sorpresa! Come in, come in!"
The captain raised one eyebrow, intrigued that this would be the first thing Leonardo would say to her. After all, he was only a hologram. Her hologram, if one wanted to get technical. Who else would he be expecting?
She glanced around the large studio again, realizing that this was not where she had left off when last there. Although it had been more than a month, she was sure there hadn’t been a clay model of the Sforza horse on the central table when she’d exited that day. She walked thoughtfully over to a low table, idly fingering a wooden model, this one of something winged.
"You don’t have another student, do you, Maestro?" she asked with some amusement.
She was very surprised when the inventor’s face split into a huge grin.
"Si, si, Caterina! A new student, a very good one! I am expecting her any minute! She is always punctual, that one! So unlike me!"
"You? Late?" said the captain, doing her best to stifle the chuckle she felt coming on.
"You cut me to the bone, mi’amica," he said. But he was smiling nonetheless. He nodded his hoary head to the stone loft above them. "She has talent too! See for yourself."
A large easel sat primly next to a window overlooking the wide, green fields that stretched out below them like a sea of grass. A low table and a stool completed the work area, each tool and implement painstakingly organized on the rough wooden surface.
"What did you say her name was, Maestro?" asked Janeway as she started up the curved stairs to the loft. A tiny suspicion buzzed through her brain.
"There’s no need to be jealous, Caterina," laughed Leonardo. "You know you are first in my heart! Besides, she is un’amica di tuo! Quite tall with a most unusual name and golden hair…like an angel of God…"
He trailed off as he prodded his mind in hopes of remembering her name.
"Something with numbers…Ah! Yes, that was it! She told me her name was Sette DiNovia. She is a friend of yours, no?"
Janeway didn’t answer. She had lifted a stack of parchment sheets off the easel and was gazing at the sketches on them, at first only mildly interested. But soon she was paging through sheet after sheet of extremely precise drawings, perfect to the last detail. Her immediate shock and astonishment quickly subsided, turning into concern. There was no life in the sketches. No spark of recognition of the beauty of the subject or its soul.
It was almost ludicrous. There were trees and landscapes that were scientifically correct in every way, still life sketches detailed to nearly the last molecule, even portraits of several of the crew so real as to almost be holographs…yet they had no movement, no spirit, no emotion. The portraits especially were most painful to look at, with dead eyes and mouths devoid of feeling.
Sadness welled inside Janeway as she thought how lonely the woman who drew these must be.
Almost as lonely as me, she thought rather unexpectedly. She frowned as she placed the sketches back on the easel, wondering what exactly had prompted that thought.
I should be happy, she thought. I am happy. We’re getting closer to the Alpha Quadrant every day, not to mention getting closer to a breakthrough with the slipstream technology. My crew is healthy, morale is high. My ship is in one piece and I am still in command. What more could I ask for?
A fleeting image of a pair of hands tenderly cupping her face startled her. She shoved it away angrily.
I don’t have time for that, room for that in my life, she told herself firmly. My needs come last.
And even though that had been her mantra for the last five years, ever since Voyager had been lost in the Delta Quadrant so far away from home, there was a tiny, rebellious part of her that held onto the hope that one day her needs would come first. Sooner rather than later.
"Caterina? Will you stay for your friend’s lesson?"
The holographic DaVinci’s question snapped Janeway out of her reverie. She felt herself grinning despite her brief bout with melancholy.
"I would like that. Do you think your new student would mind?"
Both of Leonardo’s eyebrows made for the top of his head. "Mind? No, Caterina, I do not think she would mind." He grinned suddenly, looking for all the world as if he had the secret to the Universe in one of his smock pockets and was just itching to tell someone. Janeway wondered what he was up to.
"I do not think she would mind at all," he muttered happily as he prepared the lesson of the day.
Seven of Nine strode purposefully through the corridor, attempting to conceal her excitement about her next painting lesson. She was succeeding rather well—at least in outward appearances. Inside, though, she wondered if this would be the lesson that Leonardo would let her use actual paint.
It had confused her no end when she had started this task and the holographic Maestro refused to allow her to lift even a brush in the first lesson.
"I have agreed to teach you how to paint, bella angela, but first you must teach yourself to see! To experience! To look beyond what is there or to see it from a different angle! Saper vedere, mi’angela. Saper vedere!"
She had tried to protest his plan, horrified at the inefficiency inherent in it, but to no avail. The overly animated hologram refused to capitulate.
"Very well. I will comply," she remembered telling him, somewhat annoyed. She failed to see how this method of instruction would succeed. Even now, though she had painstakingly completed every exercise in clean, precise detail, he still clucked over her sketches disapprovingly.
"Sette, your attention to detail can be rivaled by none. Every line, every mark is perfect. But there is something missing, always something missing. Where is the life, la bella vita?"
Seven always responded the same way, feeling her failure sharply.
"I do not understand."
"I know, I know," Leonardo would sigh. "You will. Someday, it will strike you with such force it will take your breath away. I long to see that day. I long to see that discovery in your lovely face."
Seven longed for that day, too. She didn’t know exactly why. It was a confusing and complex desire that was very unfamiliar to her and—most disturbingly—it grew stronger every passing day.
She finally reached the holodeck, its doors sliding open efficiently to allow her entrance. The sight of the Renaissance master bustling around his studio surprised her. She had not yet initiated the program.
"Sette! Wonderful!" beamed the Leonardo hologram as he swept pages of notes and half-finished projects off a table. "So punctual every day, though I worry about that. You should be late once in a while! Who knows what adventures you miss by being so precise?"
"Tardiness is inefficient," she replied coolly, predictably. She glanced around the studio, noting an additional easel and workstation near hers in the loft, while the master chuckled at her indulgently.
"Is there to be another student at this lesson?" She didn’t know quite how she felt about that prospect. For some reason it unnerved her. Made her feel…subtracted from.
"Yes, Seven," answered a voice other than Leonardo’s. "Is that all right?"
Seven turned to see Captain Janeway enter from one of the anterooms where she had no doubt been changing into something more suitable for the environment. She instantly felt something akin to a power fluctuation surge through her body, flesh and implant alike. It subsided almost immediately but she filed the experience away for further study just the same. She feared it might be an indication that her implants were malfunctioning.
"It is acceptable, Captain," she replied sincerely, though for the first time in her life she felt the word acceptable was somehow inadequate. "After all, it is your program. It is I who should have asked permission—"
"Nonsense, Seven," said Janeway quickly. "I’m glad someone else can find pleasure here."
Seven nodded. She noted that she no longer felt lessened now that she knew the additional student was the captain. In fact, she felt increased in some indefinable way. The small smile she earned from Janeway contributed to the experience significantly, though she was unable to ascertain why. Vowing to examine her reaction when time permitted, she turned to the holographic Leonardo and opened her mouth to ask the same question she always asked at the beginning of her lessons.
Leonardo stopped her before she could utter a sound.
"No, angela, no paint today. I have other plans for you. And Caterina, you will help me. Today we see through each other’s eyes!"
Seven frowned, unable to hide her frustration with the master.
"I will comply," she said rather peevishly, taking her place at her easel. She began preparing her space for the day’s exercises.
Janeway chuckled. "You’re certainly more patient than I was, Seven. I badgered him constantly about the paints."
The young woman turned wide eyes on her captain. "Was it a successful tactic?"
Janeway laughed outright. "No," she said, shaking her head emphatically. "It failed miserably, as a matter of fact. For a month, the only thing he would let me draw was that wall over there." She pointed to a stretch of blank wall in a darkened corner.
Seven looked where the captain was pointing. She was positively horrified.
"What did you do?" she asked softly.
"I drew it," said the captain simply. "But I added a window," she added as an afterthought. "And a different view through it every day."
The smallest of smiles dusted the Borg’s full lips. "I see," she said, the implant over her left eye raising in appreciation.
"The lesson begins, my friends!" said Leonardo unexpectedly. He stretched his arms over a small table upon which he had arranged several objects. A goblet on its side, small trinkets spilling out of its mouth. A vase with several flowers, two dead and one new and fresh. A bowl with a long loaf of bread and a knife. Two oddly shaped gourds.
"You will begin your drawings when I tell you. And you will stop when I tell you, even if you have not completed it. When you stop, I will give you more instruction." Though his resonant voice was quite serious, there was just a hint of sparkle in his deep eyes.
"Yes, Maestro," said Seven agreeably. Janeway eyed the young woman, amused.
Leonardo kept his arms stretched out, letting the silence fill the studio for long minutes as his students gazed intently at the objects on the table. He could see very clearly the analytical concentration of Sette and the soft absorption of his Caterina as they each traced the lines of the objects with their eyes. He watched them avidly until he felt the pendulum of silence begin its downward swing and he took a deep breath.
"Begin!" he said finally and two sets of pencils began to sketch.
Janeway lost herself almost immediately in the layered sounds of the room, the soft scratching of pencil on paper, the muted scrapes and swishes of Leonardo’s clothing as he gently paced behind the two of them, contemplating their progress, the even breathing of Seven of Nine next to her. The next layer found her contemplating her own heartbeat and the small sound of her blood in her ears. The last layer found her immersed in the faint throb of her ship, its heartbeat a song, a power that hummed in every molecule around her. She didn’t think about the pencil or the shapes. She didn’t think about how the drawing looked at all. Time stretched mutely before her like an incredible loom upon which any design was possible…
Seven lost herself in the composition of the objects, finding the arrangement pleasing in a mathematical way. She thought about every line and curve, every angle and every plane and how they connected to each other. She allowed herself to look at the collection as one object existing in multiple planes instead of individual objects in individual planes. One unit in harmony. She began to sketch carefully, angles and lines forming larger shapes on her page just as they did on the table. She saw nothing but form and depth and perfection. She reveled in it even as she knew it was somehow lacking. But this was all she knew, all she could know. This was all the Borg had taught her. Crisp lines, uncomplicated relationships between plane and form, dark and light, and the empty chill of space…
The Maestro’s voice rang out in the cavernous studio, startling both students, now halfway done with their preliminary sketches. The women blinked a few times then set their pencils down, awaiting further instruction. Neither of them had the emotional energy to speak and so they kept silent.
"Now you must switch places. Finish each other’s work."
Janeway thought it was the most purely human sound she had ever heard from Seven. Even the younger woman seemed startled, as if she had never done anything so odd in her entire life.
Perhaps she hasn’t, thought Janeway suddenly, concern sculpting her features as she watched a faint blush tint the Borg’s ethereally milky cheeks.
"I apologize, Captain," said the young woman, averting her egg-blue eyes from Janeway’s level stare. "I cannot explain that outburst. I—I believe I—"
"It’s all right, Seven," said Janeway softly. "A perfectly normal response. Do you want to stop the lesson?"
"No," said the Borg quickly, eyes snapping up to meet the captain’s. "I wish to continue."
Janeway smiled…and watched curiously as Seven’s distress seemed to dissipate as a result.
"Then shall we?" she asked, indicating the proposed switch. Seven reached out hesitantly and took the captain’s offered pencils.
The first thing Seven noticed about Janeway’s drawing was that the shadows were much darker and the highlights much brighter than she had made them herself. She contemplated that for a moment before adding her first mark to the page.
"What do you see in her drawing, Sette?" asked Leonardo, startling the young woman. She had not noticed him move to take up station behind her.
She glanced at her captain nervously.
"I do not think it appropriate of me to comment on the captain’s work," she said finally. Much to Seven’s surprise, Janeway laughed.
"It’s not that bad, is it?"
"It is not bad at all, Captain," the Borg was quick to clarify. "In fact, it is much better than my own attempt. I believe the term is ‘beautiful’."
Seven noted the distinct softening of Janeway’s eyes and the pleased smile with pride. And although she was not one to notice such things usually, the room seemed to warm a bit in direct correlation.
"I believe the response is ‘thank you’," replied the captain.
"But what do you see, Sette! Remember, saper vedere!" Leonardo’s hands flitted about his head in an excited manner. Seven ignored the irritating motion as best she could.
"The shadows are much darker and the highlights are much brighter," she noted dispassionately.
"Because she used a greater pressure coefficient while—"
"No, no, no! Not how she made these marks! Why, Sette? Why would our Caterina do it this way?"
Seven faltered. The hologram was asking her to share thoughts and emotions—something she would rather not do. Emotional context was something very new and strange to her and it often felt perilous and uncertain. She did not know the proper social etiquette for many rituals and styles of self-expression and therefore preferred to keep such personal information to herself. Perhaps, she theorized, her reticence was a means of self-preservation.
But there was also a matter of pride to consider. It was not her habit to feel fear or uncertainty with any regularity. Certainly it hadn’t been while she was still part of the Collective. But she was no longer Borg, which made her prone to experiencing these negative emotions. She disliked them intensely and strove to avoid all their possible provocations.
Seven risked a glance at the older woman, considering her options. She did not want to embarrass the captain or herself, but since only the two of them were present and no one was likely to overhear, she could not formulate any plausible reason for not answering the question.
"I believe," she began softly, "that the shadows and highlights are a…reflection of Captain Janeway’s personality. The shadows are darker because she feels the burden of being in command of a ship so far away from her collective. She might also feel the cumulative ‘darkness’ of the crew, meaning she shares in their frustration and their pain. However, I feel the highlights balance that darkness. She may feel the pain of the crew in times of danger or distress, but she also feels their joy in times of triumph. These highlights reflect her own natural joyful personality and the rest of the crew’s, as well."
"Yes, angela! That is what I wanted! Now what else do you see?"
Leonardo, loath to lose this window of opportunity with his new student, ignored the blank gaping of his Caterina. It was hard to do so, though, when she had such a wonderful combination of incredulity, pleasure, and vulnerability caressing her features.
"The captain’s lines are also less defined, creating softer edges. She concentrates on circular or rounded shapes over linear shapes and angles. From a psychological perspective, these choices would indicate a woman with an affinity for her feminine nature, for emotions and compromise. A maternal woman. Someone with a great capacity for…compassion."
Seven relied heavily on data assimilated from Federation databases to formulate her responses. And although she didn’t quite know what she was saying from an experiential point of view, she certainly believed the statements to be true. Especially of Kathryn Janeway, who was peerless on Voyager, certainly, and—suspected the Borg—in the entire Delta Quadrant, as well.
"Very good, Sette! Very good!" Leonardo could hardly contain his excitement at this most wonderful breakthrough for his oddly emotionless student. Never one to rest on his laurels however, he prodded her further. "Now you have seen what is Caterina in this drawing. Let us see what you will be in it. Finish it for her. Let your pencils complement her vision. But remain true to your own vision, as well! I think we will all be surprised!"
Seven stared at the half-finished drawing for a long time, wondering what she could possibly add to it other than simple completion. The drawing was clearly better than her own, which was hardly surprising when one considered that the captain was far more advanced a student.
The Borg frowned. This is flawed instruction, she thought dourly. I have not assimilated sufficient knowledge yet. My contributions will detract from the whole. What is the purpose of this?
She glanced up at Janeway, intending to ask that question, and found herself regarded quite intensely by a pair of indigo eyes. She immediately felt the power surge again, startlingly stronger this time, and she tried to pull her eyes away from the captain’s gaze.
It was almost as if she was caught in a tractor beam. Everything else in the holodeck faded from her view and the only sound she heard was the thrum of her blood thundering through her auditory capillaries. She began to feel dizzy and realized—much to her surprise—that she had ceased respiration.
"Sette," interrupted the hologram, watching the scene with interest. "You must finish your lesson."
Janeway was the first to break the eye contact, smiling somewhat insincerely, as if grateful for the interruption. Seven slowly came back to herself, the sounds and sights of the room returning finally, her respiration beginning again.
I am not functioning properly. I must seek the Doctor’s advice. But she had absolutely no desire to see the Emergency Medical Hologram right now. What she really wanted was to finish the captain’s drawing.
The Doctor can wait, she decided resolutely as she brought her pencil to the parchment, deftly changing the curve on the base of Janeway’s goblet.
Seven of Nine entered Holodeck 2 precisely on time. This occurrence was not unusual. In fact, Seven’s punctuality was somewhat legendary aboard Voyager, the crew having split into two distinct factions on the subject—those who now set their chronometers by her movements and those who believed her the most perfect masochist the Universe had ever known. Seven remained studiously unaware of both opinions.
She also remained unsurprised by the fact that the captain of Voyager, Kathryn Janeway, had once again arrived early for the latest of their painting lessons.
"Captain," she said evenly, greeting the older woman as she ascended the stairs and headed toward her workspace. She ignored the small flutter of her electrochemical systems, easily controlling the involuntary environmental response. Though it still gave her pause.
Snapping shut his tricorder, the Doctor finished his examination and assured Seven that she was functioning normally. He cheerfully added that he had not found a single malfunction, fluctuation, or suspicious anomaly in either her organic systems or her cybernetic implants. But Seven was not satisfied. She insisted that his diagnosis was flawed, which caused his cheerful demeanor to evaporate instantly. He reached for a PADD, depressed a sequence of keys in short, staccato bursts, then dismissed her brusquely.
"This PADD contains several possible causes of your so-called fluctuations, Seven. Research them and decide for yourself what is causing them. If you need assistance, you know where I am."
Seven took the PADD to Cargo Bay 2, which doubled as her quarters, and read each entry avidly. Shortly thereafter she returned to Sickbay with a distinctly uncomfortable air about her. She handed the PADD back to the Doctor quickly, as if it were radioactive.
"Entry number 5A is completely inaccurate. Do not ever mention it again. To myself or anyone else," she warned tersely. Then she turned on her heel and stalked out.
The EMH program’s eyebrows arched high upon his forehead.
"Bingo," he said to no one in particular, his cheerful mood returning.
"Seven," replied the captain warmly. "Right on time."
The Borg’s left brow raised inquiringly, the silver-hued implant that framed the eye following suit. "There was some doubt?"
Janeway smiled. "Never."
Seven nodded and quietly finished sharpening her drawing pencils. She still found it a trifle disturbing that her painting lessons still had not produced a single drop of paint, not to mention a brush.
"What is the agenda for today’s lesson?" she asked idly.
"We continue the journey you began last time!" replied a jovial voice belonging to the master of the studio. Leonardo smiled beneath his long beard as he crested the top of the stairs and handed each of them a mirror.
Seven held the glass up, looking at her features for a long moment, then quietly placed the mirror reflective side down on her table. Janeway’s observant eyes caught the subtle intent of the action.
"Seven?" she asked, concern coloring her inquiry.
Seven did not look at her.
"Is something wrong?" The captain sensed something from the younger woman but was having a difficult time putting her finger on what it was.
"No," said the blonde firmly. But she softened a bit when she realized the captain continued to look at her, clearly expecting a different response. Perhaps a more accurate one. She took a preparatory breath.
"I do not…’like’ mirrors. I do not like the reflection I see."
"What?" This revelation shocked Janeway. Knowing that Seven was considered extremely attractive by a large percentage of her crew (herself included, if the truth were known), the captain was startled to find that Seven did not share that opinion. Her brows knit in a frown as she wondered why that thought hadn’t ever occurred to her.
Seven did not deem it necessary to repeat her statement. It had been hard enough to say in the first place.
"Why?" It was the only other question Janeway could formulate.
"It is unlike the faces I see around me. It is…different. I am different." Seven did not look up from her task, arranging and re-arranging her artist’s tools with absent precision.
"So am I," whispered the captain gently, confused. "We are all different from each other. We are individuals."
The young woman’s eyes finally found Janeway’s and the older woman suddenly and clearly saw the insecurity Seven was feeling highlighted in the palest of blues.
"You share similar characteristics with the fellow members of your species. You share characteristics with members of other species," said the Borg, her voice tinted with an aching tone of envy. "I alone have cybernetic implants, internal or external. My reflection reminds me of what I am. Of the reasons for the crew’s dislike of me."
The bright-hot anger she felt on behalf of this woman startled Janeway and she forced herself not to say something inappropriately colorful, no matter the satisfaction a visceral release would bring. She made an abrupt decision and put down her pencils, taking the two steps needed to reach Seven and gently grasp the young woman’s wrist in her hand.
"If there are still crew members on this ship who dislike you, Seven, that is their loss," she said vehemently. "They are letting something completely superficial rob them of the opportunity to know someone I consider to be quite remarkable."
Janeway looked earnestly into the young woman’s eyes, hoping Seven didn’t notice the slight tremor in her voice or the trembling of her fingers, wanting her to know only the truth of what she was saying.
What is going on with me? she wondered, nailing down the fluttering inside her with an almost vicious calm. These were different emotions than she was accustomed to feeling for a member of her crew, vaguely familiar and yet completely confounding.
The Borg eyed Janeway uncertainly for a moment, then looked away, gently extracting her wrist from the captain’s grasp.
"Thank you," she whispered, not quite sure how to react, but sure no one had ever said anything so…kind to her.
"You’re welcome," said Janeway distantly, re-taking her place at her easel. She fiddled with her pencils for a few moments, willing herself to shut down that part of her that was so open and…passionate. Seven literally felt the strange connection between them fade as if severed.
The captain finally turned her attention to the hologram, who had been patiently waiting for his students to finish their conversation. "I think we’re ready to begin now, Maestro," she noted somewhat unsteadily.
"Good, good!" said Leonardo, genuinely pleased. "Let us start this lesson by looking into the glass and drawing what you see there as completely as possible. When I tell you to stop, you will switch places again and finish each other’s self-portraits."
The hologram caught Seven gaping at him, once again startled by the exercise he had chosen.
"Yes, Sette?" he asked politely. "What do you think?"
"I think," the blonde said acidly, "that you spent too much time in the company of certain questionable historical figures. Your assimilation of cruelty is exceedingly complete."
Janeway couldn’t help herself. The Borg’s unwittingly humorous response simply blind-sided her, delivering a hammer blow to the barriers she had erected around herself. She tipped her head back and laughed, a deliciously deep and rich sound that echoed in the stone hall quite wonderfully, melting her recently icy demeanor with golden warmth. When she came back to herself, she found Seven’s eyes riveted upon her, a look of utter bewilderment there.
"I’m sorry, Seven," apologized Janeway amid several lingering chuckles. "I didn’t mean to laugh—"
"Do not apologize, Captain," said Seven softly. "I am sure the rest of the crew would agree that the occurrence is much too rare."
Before the captain could examine the meaning of that too closely, Leonardo clapped his hands in exasperation.
"Caterina! Sette! Is this a painting lesson or a hen house?!"
A wild grin stole onto Janeway’s face.
"Cluck," she said. "Cluck, cluck, cluck."
Neither Seven nor the holographic genius was quite sure how to respond.
Janeway sat quietly in her Ready Room, sipping from a mug of coffee spiced with one of Neelix’s little concoctions. It was remarkably good for coffee in space but even that little perk could not break her concentration from the sheet of parchment in front of her. In fact, nothing could, as evidenced by her doing absolutely nothing for the last hour except contemplating the arcs and shading and depth of the sketch upon it.
It’s beautiful, she grudgingly admitted, uncomfortable with that conclusion because the sketch was of her own face. Very realistic, very complete. The slight curve of the right side of her mouth, creating that knowing half-grin that was so characteristic of her. The wave of her hair as it fell to her shoulders. The defined set of her jaw. All of this was familiar to her. Though the eyes…there was something missing in the eyes.
It could be mistaken for longing, she noted, although she knew that the artist hadn’t intended that. I wonder what would cause a longing like that.
Unbidden, an image shot across her brain. A pair of hands reaching for her face, cupping it tenderly, almost gingerly, drawing her forward towards…
She stopped the little fantasy before it could go any further, crushing it brutally under the weight of her perception of duty and responsibility.
Stop it right now, Kathryn Janeway, she scolded herself. There is no room for that in your life. Your life is not your own anymore. It belongs to the crew of this ship. You owe them at least that. At least that for making the decision to strand them here with you.
She brushed those thoughts from her mind as if they were nothing but lint and let her gaze fall again to the sketch, distracting in its own right. It wasn’t long before she was again deeply engrossed in its form and style.
So engrossed, the chime of her door when it rang made her jump. She quickly checked her chronometer and found that she had lost a significant part of the afternoon.
"Come," she barked, angrier with herself than the intruder.
"Bad time?" asked Chakotay, her first officer, both brows raised over his eyes. He stood hesitantly in the doorway, a PADD held in one hand.
"No, come in, Commander." She shook her head ruefully. "I was just…well, doing nothing. So technically you aren’t interrupting."
The tall man took his customary seat in front of her desk and quirked a rakish half-grin at her.
"Doing nothing, Captain? That’s not like you."
Janeway grinned back. "No," she agreed, "it’s not." She reached down and pushed the drawing over to him. "But I can’t seem to pry myself away from this." She waited for him to look it over for a moment. "What do you think?" she asked finally.
"Self portrait?" The hesitancy in his voice belied his doubt.
"Not exactly. I did this part here," she said, running a fingertip along the edge of the hair, "and the general outline. The mouth and some of the nose, too." She took a small breath and looked up. "Seven did the eyes."
Chakotay’s eyes darted up. "Seven?" he asked with delicate incredulity. "Seven of Nine?"
"You know of another Borg aboard this ship?" Janeway asked, smiling. "Of course, Seven of Nine. She also finished the nose and did all of the shading and depth." She was inappropriately pleased by her first officer’s apparent speechlessness. "Good, isn’t it?"
"More than good. Excellent even." He studied the lines and curves for a moment longer then slid the drawing back to her, a definite aura of concern enveloping him.
"But?" prodded Janeway, knowing the man too well to think he would miss what she felt was obvious.
"But…" Clearly Chakotay was hesitant to criticize. "There is no life in the eyes, Kathryn," he allowed finally. "The drawing looks like you but it isn’t you. Not really."
"I know." She stood and came around the desk, perching on the edge as she often did when she had bitten really hard into a project and was excited about seeing it through. "But she’s so close to finding that something that will make all the difference, Chakotay. I know she is. She just needs a little push."
Chakotay very wisely kept to himself his personal opinion that the only person qualified or even likely to succeed in giving Seven that push was Kathryn Janeway. And that the young Borg was very likely to push back. He sighed and decided that immediate diversion was the correct strategy at this point. Otherwise he was sure he would end up saying something the captain might not be ready to hear.
He tapped the parchment.
"Are you going to have this framed? It’s quite a likeness even with its flaws."
Startled, Janeway regarded the sketch.
"To tell you the truth, I hadn’t even considered what I was going to do with it. It would make an interesting—if somewhat conceited—addition to my quarters."
Chakotay cleared his throat. The captain looked at him expectantly.
"Actually," he said, running his fingers along the edge of her desk, seemingly unable to meet her gaze, "I was thinking more along the lines of the mess hall. Neelix has been coming to me recently. He seems to think the mess hall could use a little…culture and original artwork by the crew would certainly fulfil that need." He glanced up, gauging her response, and concluded it needed a little more of a sell. "It would certainly be inspiring to the crew if your work—yours and Seven’s, I mean—was the first addition to the gallery."
Janeway sat there, perched on the edge of her desk, staring at him for quite a long moment. Then she got up and walked two paces away, deep in thought. She glanced back at him once, her gaze cool.
Finally, the petite woman returned to her chair and sat down stiffly.
"It’s a good idea." Her words were clear and sharp, like chips of glass raining down on a copper roof.
"I’ll tell Neelix you said so," he said, smiling with relief.
Her expression remained cool.
"But not this drawing," she said firmly. "If you really think it would be inspiring to the crew for me to contribute to the gallery, I will. But it will be something other than this."
"Understood." He knew better than to argue. He was surprised he had gotten as far as he had with the suggestion.
Janeway glanced at the PADD lying by his hand on the desk and gestured to it with a nod of her auburn head. "That’s not what I think it is, is it?"
Chakotay suddenly seemed very apologetic.
"Personnel schedules for the next month. " He winced when she groaned. "And," he continued reluctantly, "inventory reports from all major departments."
Janeway propped her head wearily in one hand and reached the other one out for the PADD.
"Give them here," she sighed.
"I’m sorry, Captain. I know it’s dry stuff." He handed them over.
She gave her first officer a withering look.
"A desert is dry, Commander. Chalk cliffs baked in the blazing heat of three suns for a thousand years in a planetary system where water does not even exist—they are dry. This," she said, brandishing the small gray device, "is something much more evil."
"You don’t have to tell me, Captain," said the dark-haired man as he stood, the tribal tattoo over his left eye crinkling when he grinned. "Who do you think had to approve the first draft?"
"Dismissed," growled Janeway. "Before I wipe that grin off your face."
Chakotay put his hands up in the universal signal of surrender and backed towards the door.
"Yes, ma’am. I was just on my way out." The door to her Ready Room opened behind him. "And Captain?"
Two pieces of frozen duranium glinted back at him from slit eyes.
"Yes?" she asked, her voice low and dangerous.
"I’m sure you remember that departmental research proposals and laboratory schedules are due today. I’ll have the report to you within the hour."
Chakotay slipped out of the room, ducking the feigned launch of the offending PADD towards his head. He noted appreciatively that the aim was true and probably would have knocked him out cold. And promptly wondered why that impressed him so much.
He turned to take his seat at the conn and found that the entire bridge staff was staring at him, including Tuvok, whose angular eyebrow was arched high on his forehead in stern disapproval.
Tom Paris, at the helm, grinned suddenly.
"Ahhh," he exhaled, like a man sated after a good seven-course meal, "there’s nothing in the galaxy quite like Hell Day."
A quiet chuckle—echoed by the first officer—rippled through the bridge. The moment of merriment soon faded, however, to be replaced, thankfully, by the usual professionalism that Tuvok, Vulcan chief of security, had come to expect from the crew. He almost breathed a sigh of relief until…
"Status?" asked Chakotay as he took his place in the captain’s chair.
Paris did not even look up from his console.
"It’s 1432 hours and all’s right with the world, sir," he said, his voice lilting in a passable approximation of a nineteenth century cockney gentleman.
Harry Kim, stationed at tactical, noted that if looks could kill, Tuvok would be a murderer and Tom would be quite, quite dead.
At precisely 1900 hours, Seven of Nine strode through the doors of Holodeck 1 and found herself standing in the studio of Leonardo DaVinci as seen through the eyes of night. It was quite a change from the studio’s normal appearance. The stone hall was dim, lit by a scattering of candles, and the sky outside the grand windows showed only a field of stars, the holographic atmosphere unsullied by aesthetic detractors such as clouds.
The young woman moved further inside the room and noted the presence of a new hologram, this one a fairly young girl with long, wavy red hair and wide, sad looking eyes. She was playing a musical instrument that Seven recognized as a lyre, the soft and intricate melody very soothing in nature.
To everyone but Seven.
The Borg frowned, wondering where the captain was. She didn’t see anyone other than the young musician…which made no logical sense. Obviously someone had had to initiate the program.
She started to call out for the missing commanding officer when the young girl glanced at her sharply, putting her finger to her lips in a gesture requiring silence. Seven’s left brow raised almost defiantly as she instantly considered and rejected the hologram’s request.
I am Borg, she thought. I do not take orders from holographic images.
She contemplated that for a moment longer.
I do not take orders from holographic images as limited as this one, she amended, unhappily conceding that she would take orders from the EMH if circumstances required her to do so. Though she didn’t have to like it.
Before she could defy the holo-musician, however, the Maestro made his entrance, hurrying to the young woman’s side.
"Sette! Forgive me! I was conversing with the cook to see if she would bring Caterina a bowl of soup and some wine. The time slipped away from me."
His deep whisper supported Seven’s assumption that quiet was somehow a parameter of this evening’s lesson, though she could not fathom why. Instead, she simply chose to go along, mildly intrigued.
"Then the captain is here?" she asked very softly.
"Si, si!" said Leonardo, gesturing to a model’s lounge usually used to store a variety of half-completed projects of the Maestro’s. Those had been cleared away, though, and Seven was surprised to see Captain Janeway reclining on the lounge, sleeping soundly, a swath of muslin draped across her body. She took a step closer, her frown returning.
"Is she damaged?" she whispered, understanding the need for quiet finally. And applauding it.
"Damaged?" Leonardo looked quite confused.
"Is she injured or ill?" clarified Seven. She attempted to glance at the hologram but found herself completely unable to raise her eyes from the sight of Janeway in repose.
"No, just sleeping, bella angela," said Leonardo with a knowing grin that Seven missed totally. "She mentioned something about…how did she say it?…‘departmental reports’?"
That clarified everything for Seven. It was a matter of record amongst the crew that Hell Day, as Janeway’s monthly administrative duty day was known, was the captain’s least favorite activity as commanding officer. As she understood it, Hell Day was the day set aside each month by the captain in which she was to process a large segment of the more routine departmental reports. Part of Seven’s analytical mind thought the captain had no one but herself to blame for the stress she consequently experienced, having created it for herself. But the young woman could not deny that Janeway did indeed look quite exhausted. Something that was causing her a great deal of concern.
"We will postpone this lesson," she said resolutely. "The captain should regenerate."
"I said the same to her when she arrived, angela, but she would have none of it. She said only that she would wait for you, that this time was more important than sleep."
Seven felt a rush of warmth spread through her electrochemical system the likes of which she had never experienced before. The added experience of her throat constricting around a knot of pain there and the sudden overproduction of saline secretions by her lachrymal glands startled her. She could not explain her reaction, hesitant to blame the obvious cause. Surely mere words did not wield power enough to trigger physiological responses, did they?
The Doctor was wrong, she decided. I am malfunctioning quite severely.
She did her best to ignore her malfunctioning systems, however, and turned her full attention to the captain’s face, not sure why she needed to study it, only sure that it was an imperative she could not resist.
The differences were both subtle and conspicuous. The planes of Janeway’s face were smooth and undisturbed where during consciousness they bore what Seven now recognized as the signs of strain and stress. Angles that highlighted concentration, lines that signified mental sharpness, they were gone. Gentle slopes and delicate curves were all that remained, stripping years away, magnifying ten-fold the hints of warmth and vulnerability one was likely to see in her during her waking hours. Seven suddenly had a most inappropriate desire to experience tactilely the implied softness of her captain’s skin and was immediately and soundly horrified by the thought.
Janeway chose that exact moment to open her eyes.
Seven gasped audibly and jerked to attention, her face becoming quite hot as blood from the rest of her body rushed there. The Borg knew from her vast storehouses of assimilated knowledge that she was ‘blushing’, a concept which had always perplexed her. Now she decided the sole purpose of the act was to indicate to others that she was experiencing discomfort of a highly personal nature. She found it extremely inefficient and not a little annoying.
"I—I did not mean to wake you, Captain. I apologize."
Janeway sat up and stretched her shoulder muscles discreetly, a small frown settling mostly between her brows.
"What were you doing then?" She didn’t relish being stared at while she slept. Of course, that personal preference did not stop her from doing the exact same thing to Seven on more than one occasion. Something she very carefully refused to contemplate just now.
Caught, Seven of Nine, formerly of the Borg Collective, once Tertiary Adjunct of the Unimatrix 01, did something she had never done in her whole life. She lied.
"I was attempting to ascertain if you were damaged, Captain," she said evenly. "It is unusual for you to sleep at this time."
It is very close to the truth, thought Seven hopefully. She will believe me.
However, before Janeway could make an issue of it, Leonardo swept between the two of them.
"Ah, Caterina! You have awakened! Wonderful! Are you ready for our lesson? It is not too late to begin."
The captain narrowed her eyes at the hologram then looked beyond him to the studiously uninterested features of her blond Astrometrics officer. She felt as if something was going on behind her back but she was damned if she could figure out what a hologram and a Borg with precious little experience in the finesse of deception would want to put over on her. Or why they would work together to accomplish it. She finally sighed, the tension lessening but never really leaving her face.
"Yes, of course," she said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "I’m sorry for keeping you both waiting."
She rose and started up the stairs to the loft, still slightly disoriented by her impromptu nap. She listened with mild amusement as Leonardo shooed the musician out of the studio, terse with her now that she was no longer needed. She felt the presence of Seven of Nine at her right shoulder and stole a glance at the young woman…
…and found a pair of sky-blue eyes glancing nervously back at her.
"Are you sure you wish to continue with the lesson, Captain?" asked Seven suddenly. "It can wait until—"
"I am perfectly fine, Seven," smiled Janeway, the smile not quite reaching her eyes. All this pussyfooting around was beginning to frazzle her already worn nerves. Not to mention she really didn’t want to continue with the lesson at all. She felt very out of sorts and restless, with no motivation and a strong desire to do something different this evening, but she was at a loss as to what. She resisted the urge to take her frustration out on the young blonde although she inexplicably thought Seven deserved it.
Seven nodded and took her place at her easel, initiating her pre-lesson ritual of laying out her artist’s tools and preparing her space. Though she retained her cool exterior image, inside she felt anything but calm. She was angry and embarrassed, caught—by the captain, no less—behaving inappropriately. The captain’s reaction had been one of annoyance and Seven did not wonder why. She contemplated how she would have felt in Janeway’s place and decided she, too, would have been annoyed. More than annoyed, even.
Disgusted with herself, Seven extracted a fresh sheet of parchment from a stack nearby and affixed it to her easel with vicious perfection.
This is a pointless endeavor, she thought abruptly, lashing out at the first handy victim of her mood. The opportunity to utilize actual paint will be denied me again. I will be asked to participate in some ridiculous exercise designed to point out my flaws as a Human. The captain will once again experience humor at my expense. There is no reason to continue this instruction. It has taught me nothing.
She eyed the Leonardo hologram sullenly as he lit more candles around the two of them. He was humming pieces of the holo-musician’s melody to himself and generally seemed to be in a jovial mood, which added to Seven’s dark mood considerably. She fought the urge to replicate a rabid Targ and watch as it attacked the Maestro, somewhat surprised that she would have the urge in the first place.
She once again glanced at the captain, watching for a nanosecond as the older woman sketched lightly in the corner of an old piece of parchment she retained for just that purpose.
This is her fault, thought Seven bitterly, putting a pencil in its perfect spot upon her worktable. I would not be here, suffering humiliation at the hands of an inferior hologram, if she was not so incredibly beauti—
Utterly and completely.
One hand hovered halfway between the table’s surface and the lip of her easel, yet another pencil in its grasp. Her whole body simply ceased movement as her cerebral cortex and cranial implants suddenly swung into overdrive.
Behind the professional ice she kept as her external image, behind the analytical restraints she had placed upon her more unpredictable and human side, she was suddenly aware that something was fighting quite determinedly to break free of the cold, silver confines of her incredibly strong-willed consciousness and into the world.
She refused to let it.
I am Borg, she thought savagely. Beauty is irrelevant. Beauty is subjective. Subjectivity requires ‘feeling’. ‘Feeling’ is irrelevant. ‘Feeling’ suggests emotional content. Emotions are irrelevant. Emotions are inefficient. Inefficiency compromises order. I seek order. I am Borg.
She repeated this circular reasoning over and over until she felt she could move again, that bright thing inside her doused by large quantities of logic and her own iron-gated and forbidding will. She refused to look at Janeway and instead kept her attention on her easel. Waiting in uncomfortable silence.
"Today," said Leonardo finally, coming to a fitful rest in front of his two bristling students, "we will explore the sensation of touch. Please turn and face one another."
Both women’s eyes snapped up, equally aghast.
"What?!" barked Janeway.
Leonardo made impatient circular motions with his hands, the long, wide sleeves of his shirt flapping like ineffectual wings. The Borg woman watched these flutterings warily, analyzing their communicative value. She deemed them extremely…inefficient, not realizing that the better word might have been ‘ridiculous’.
"Turn and face each other, Caterina! You still understand English, no?"
"What is the purpose of this exercise?" asked Seven, unwittingly forestalling the captain’s imminent and profane response to the hologram. "This is a lesson in the art of painting…allegedly. What does the sensation of touch have to do with painting?"
Janeway would have laughed at the derision so clear in Seven’s question if she weren’t so disconcerted by the whole concept herself.
"It has everything to do with painting, angela! It is intrinsic to this art! It will give you a whole new perspective to work with!"
"I do not need a ‘whole new perspective’," said the blonde icily.
"I agree," Janeway added quickly. "The one she has now is just fine."
Seven raised her ocular implant at this statement but said nothing.
"What is going on here, eh? Is this some kind of battle we are fighting? A war?!" He slammed a fist on a nearby table, the sound startling both women. "This is a painting lesson! Not a war! Do you want to paint?"
He waited for an answer but neither Seven nor Janeway made a sound.
"Answer me! Sette DiNovia, do you wish to paint? Yes or no! Decide now or leave this studio!"
Seven glanced uneasily at the captain only to have Leonardo reach out and grab her chin, forcing her eyes back to him.
"No! Do not look at her! What do you want, Sette? Paint or no? This is not her decision, it is yours! You are the artist! Make your choice!"
She should have been angry. She should have been incensed. She should have jerked her chin from his grasp and stormed out of the Holodeck.
She did none of these things.
"I wish to paint," she said very quietly.
Leonardo regarded her with his hawk’s eyes for a moment longer, then his expression softened and he released her chin, reaching his hand up to pat her lovely cheek.
"Buona, Sette. Good. I will teach you, angela. You will paint."
He turned then to the captain, the softness gone again, the hawk perched back in his eyes.
"And you, Caterina? You already have painted for me. Will you help tu amica learn what you already know? Or will you let her continue solo, to muddle through? Perhaps someone else can help her and not you? You would prefer that?!"
It was that last concept that got Janeway’s attention. A very possessive instinct rose up in protest of that possibility and subverted nearly all of the outrage and self-righteousness that demanded she not only exit the Holodeck program, but wipe it out of the computer core as well.
"No, I would not prefer that," she said sharply. "I will continue to assist you with Seven." She glared at the hologram, wanting him to see that though she was agreeing to stay, she was not very happy about the terms…or the manipulation.
The grin that split the Maestro’s face at her words was almost comical.
"Then you may face one another, please," he said sweetly.
Janeway turned to face Seven, her chin tilted defiantly upward, her entire face drawn into a forbidding mask of stony detachment. Which melted instantly when she saw Seven facing her, her eyes shyly averted, her very demeanor one of uncertainty. She couldn’t remember ever seeing the young woman so vulnerable, except perhaps once…
Once, a long time ago, a Borg drone encased in a cybernetic exoskeleton and black plastic tubing sheltered herself in the captain’s arms, an individual of but one mind for the first time in 18 years. It was remnants of that crumpled drone that Janeway saw now, though there was no despair present. Only an incongruous bashfulness that the smaller woman had never expected to see.
Leonardo cleared his throat gently.
"Sette," he said, "you will be drawing Caterina’s lovely face and she will be drawing yours. You must learn to take your sense of touch with you to the paper. You must learn to see with your hands and not with your eyes. You will go first. Close your eyes."
The young Borg glanced at him briefly, part of her wishing there would suddenly be a ship-wide red alert that would allow her to escape this moment and part of her feeling that there was a red alert of a more distressing nature going on inside her body. Memories of her desire to touch the captain’s face and the embarrassment she had experienced only a short while ago made complying with the holographic instructor’s instructions very difficult.
She closed her eyes without regarding the captain first. She thought somehow that that would lessen the sense of impropriety and familiarity that this sort of exercise was bound to generate. She was highly mistaken.
She felt the hologram’s hands grasp her own, drawing them upward. For a brief moment she worried that the implant on her left hand would repulse the captain, that she would feel the smaller woman flinch away from her touch. She thought about pulling away, about refusing this whole experience after all, but there was suddenly no time. She felt the hologram’s hands shift position on her own as they applied a horizontal pressure and she knew that the moment for refusing this was long past. She ceased respiration, a small part of her cranial implant involved in an extensive analysis of the new emotions racing through her and their effects on her physiology. The rest of her cranial implant was—quite simply put—frozen in abject terror.
Another eternal instant went by and Seven heard the captain take a sharp breath in preparation for the imminent arrival of her hands. And then…
Seven’s eyes snapped open, shock making them wide as the instant of contact between her fingertips and Janeway’s skin blew the doors off her emotional restraints. None of her previous electrochemical fluctuations could ever hope to match what was going on inside of her now. Electricity arced from every cell to every implant. Fire consumed her central nervous system and raced along her nerve endings. Every major organ seemed to either be shutting down (in the case of her brain and lungs) or speeding up (in the case of her heart). Finally the initial explosion began to fade, allowing her cranial implant to begin processing the visual stimuli in addition to the tactile sensations.
And Seven suddenly understood it all.
The honey-colored candlelight dancing around the captain’s head, bathing her silken face in rich tones and setting alight the red in her auburn hair… The depth and breadth of the soul peering out at her from within ageless indigo eyes… The gentle curve of lip and eye and cheekbone… Even the scent of clean, warm skin…
Seven finally understood. Viscerally. Deeply. Unequivocally.
This…this beauty…this is what the Maestro meant. This is what I had to see. This is what I had to learn. This above all else.
"Kathryn," she whispered, forgetting herself completely, desire flooding her voice. She cupped Janeway’s face in her hands and drew her forward, knowing she wanted desperately to communicate her understanding of—of everything—to this woman, the most important being in her life, and knowing instinctively that that could be done only by placing her lips against the captain's in this strange but effective manner...
It was a silent eternity.
Watching as Leonardo guided Seven’s hands to her face, Janeway thought she was going mad. Time stretched all out of proportion. Her heart began to pound in her chest. Her mouth went dry.
What is wrong with me? she wondered plaintively. This isn’t like me. If I didn’t know better, I would say… The thought evaporated the instant she felt the hesitant caress of Seven’s fingertips, one set warm and soft, the other cool and smooth.
It was like a level-4 stun blast from a phaser rifle…
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. She could barely think.
She watched as Seven’s eyes flew open at the touch, the egg-blueness of them darkening abruptly to a cobalt more beautiful than the Mediterranean Sea on a clear summer’s day. But even the sight of that hardly registered with her. All she could hear, all she could focus on was one phrase…
How could she have missed it?
A wave of heat suffused her body, followed by an icy chill of disbelief.
It’s been these hands all along…
How could she never have noticed the fine silver mesh that ran along those long, elegant fingers? How could she not have seen the feminine lines, the maddening efficiency? How could she have had that fantasy as many times as she had and not have realized it was Seven’s hands…Seven’s lovely, strong hands…that were now—incredibly, impossibly—cupping her face so tenderly, drawing her forward towards what could only be a…
"Bridge to Janeway."
The sound startled Seven of Nine and she looked into the captain’s eyes uncomprehendingly for a brief moment before quickly dropping her hands to her sides and backing up sharply.
Janeway’s body loudly and profoundly mourned the loss of the sweet touch and the imminent kiss even as her brain struggled to come back online. She fought the desire to take a step towards the young woman and tried instead to formulate a response to the strange sound that had interrupted them.
"Bridge to Janeway. Please respond."
It was Tuvok’s voice, calm, sure, and mildly concerned. Janeway almost had to physically shake herself to get herself moving, striking her comm badge a little more forcefully than necessary.
"Janeway here," she said huskily before clearing her throat discreetly. She glanced at Seven, who stood quietly staring at her, her face a study in confusion and innocent desire. She turned away abruptly, the sight pulling at her like a tractor beam.
"Captain, forgive the intrusion, but there is a security matter that I felt should be brought to your attention."
"Of course, Tuvok. I’m on my way."
"Acknowledged," replied the chief of security and then the comm channel went dead.
Leaving the two women to face one another in a churning stillness.
Janeway finally forced herself to speak.
"I—I have to go," she said quietly, fearing any sound would shatter one or both of them.
Seven refused to lower her eyes even though she felt a sudden collection of saline secretions in them.
They are called tears, she corrected herself, finding small comfort in the vernacular description of the phenomenon. She nodded at her commanding officer.
"I understand." Her voice was clear but soft, with a hint of a waver flavoring the words that was most unlike the woman who spoke them.
Janeway stood there for a moment longer, wanting to find something, anything to say, wanting to make this right somehow, or to make it go away, or...or...
Incoherent internal jabbering began to nibble away at her clarity of thought until she had no recourse but to lower the command mask that had always served her well in uncertain times. She found that under such tight self-control she could only manage to return the young woman's nod before she forced her stiff and leaden legs to take her from the Holodeck.
Seven simply stood and watched, feeling the clang of the closing Holodeck doors like a blow. She suddenly experienced the need to fight the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks, blinking them back ferociously.
Do not shed these tears, she ordered herself. I will not allow it.
Leonardo saw his student's internal struggle for composure. Then—and only then—did he stir.
"Sette?" he asked, his voice filled with fatherly devotion. "Is there anything I can do? Is there anything that you need?"
Seven did not look at him but merely continued to stare at the spot where the captain had exited.
"I require paint," she said.
Leonardo's smile was so large it lit up the entire studio. He said not another word, but hurried over to his worktable and began uncapping his pigment powders...humming all the while.
The Ready Room door hissed shut, leaving Kathryn Janeway alone for the first time in four long hours. Four hours of hearing what amounted to "he said/she said" reports of a fight that had broken out in the mess hall during the dinner hour.
The details of the altercation were already beginning to fade from her mind, the most notable thing about it being B'Elanna Torres' intervention and subsequent black eye. Of course, the crewman that had blackened her chief engineer's eye had barely escaped with his life, but B'Elanna could hardly be blamed for that.
No, said a sour voice in her head. The blame is all yours.
The fact that Janeway had not been involved in the slightest with the confrontation or the physical violence did not matter to the voice in her head. The situation required blame and so it placed blame. End of story.
Janeway stared at the flat silver expanse of door for several motionless moments before she abruptly stood and wandered over to the replicator, requesting a hot mug of coffee. She traded the view of the door for one of the stars, coming to rest against the bulkhead near the large window in her office. She leaned against the sturdy alloy wall and crossed her arms, steam rising in lazy curls from the mouth of her cup.
Her face was a blank page. Emotionless. Unthinking. Unfeeling. And the stars outside were unfathomable and completely unaffected by Janeway's presence or state of mind. They might have comforted her if she could have seen beyond the arid desolation inside her.
She never once took a sip of the coffee, letting it cool and then finally grow cold and bitter in her mug. The replicator didn't care that the beverage had never been consumed. It simply recycled the mug and coffee in its efficient, unquestioning way. She spared no thought to the irony of that description.
Instead, she found herself back at her desk, once again fixing her eyes on the door. She wondered idly if she would just continue to stare at it all night.
She shifted positions in her chair and heard a small crinkle as her foot brushed something under her desk. Looking down, Janeway saw the bronze edge of a piece of parchment. She tugged on it, pulling it onto her desk, recognizing it immediately: the portrait of herself that she and Seven had done, stuck quickly under the desk when the meetings had started hours ago. As her eyes gently traced the naïve lines and hesitant shading, she felt the stony fortress inside her begin to crumble, leaving only a tired woman, so damn tired and so damn weary of always having to be the responsible one.
She dropped her head onto her arm, almost defeated.
Dear God, what have I done?
Of course, she reasoned, she had led Seven on. She had irresponsibly let herself communicate to the young, inexperienced Borg that she might be attracted to her, that she might desire her.
It was obvious. She had driven the young woman to respond in what she had undoubtedly perceived to be the correct manner. Seven hadn't known what she was doing.
But the memory of those long, lovely fingers on her skin drifted across Janeway's body and mind, sending a bolt of effervescence down her spine and all along her nerve endings. The memory of what was felt was immediately followed by what was seen, making her chest tighten and ache.
Come off it, Kate, said a new voice in her head, this one's rich, throaty tones thick with scorn. You saw it happen in her eyes. That was real.
Was it really? She lifted her head off the desk.
Her new inner advocate just snorted in response.
You have to ask? it asked, the voice tinted with outrage and disbelief. Well I refuse to spell it out for you, Kate. Maybe five years was a bit too long. You've forgotten what desire looks like.
Janeway thought about that for a minute.
Mark was gone, married now to his assistant. The thing that had upset her most about that Dear Jane letter had been how much she had been relieved by it. How little he had come to matter in her day-to-day existence. That had been quite the jolt to her status quo soul.
Not as much of a jolt as Seven of Nine was, admit it.
Janeway wondered dourly if she could slap the voice out of her head.
Still...it was right... Seven had intrigued her from the moment she'd been activated to serve as their liaison with the Borg during the Fluidic-Space Wars...
Is 'intrigued' the best word you can come up with? came the snide response.
That did it.
Janeway stood up abruptly, intending to march herself off to her quarters where she could quickly and privately silence the harassing little voice by replicating herself a mild sedative and going to bed.
She would not be goaded into a discussion on Seven, not even by her own psyche.
As she came around her desk, the chime of her Ready Room door rang, stopping her dead.
"Come in," she sighed, not sure she could handle whatever it was that waited on the other side of that cold, unfeeling door.
The door hissed open and Chakotay raised his eyebrow in question, respectfully requesting entrance.
"I was on my way to my quarters, Chakotay. Make it fast. It's been a long day."
Janeway crossed her arms, doing her best to look like a captain of a starship. She didn't think she was managing it at all.
"Yes, ma'am," said the dark-haired man, coming more to attention than he had intended to. The captain's mood dictated a certain response, whether he was conscious of it or not. "I just received a second complaint. It seems Seven of Nine has overstayed her Holodeck privileges by two hours, displacing Ensign Yurpin and Tom Paris. The Holodeck doors are sealed by Borg encryption codes and she isn't responding to hails." He looked directly into her eyes, his voice softening. "What do you want to do?"
Janeway just stared at her first officer.
Now this should be interesting, whispered the irritating voice.
"I’ll take care of it," snapped Janeway.
And you, she mentally shouted. Shut up!!
She wasn’t surprised by the sudden silence in her mind.
Chakotay had just enough presence of mind to get out of Janeway’s way as she stormed through the doorway. He watched as she marched across the Bridge and into the turbolift, his tribal tattoo warping slightly as his eyebrows climbed nervously up his forehead. He made a mental note not to disturb the captain further, realizing that would be exposing the crew to unnecessary danger.
An angry Kathryn Janeway was truly a force to be reckoned with.
She became a whirlwind…
That was more surprising to the holographic genius than anything else.
He had expected her silence. He had expected her focus. He had even anticipated some of what she had painted.
But his angel in motion…that had been beyond even him.
Once begun, she did not pause, she did not break, and he was unsure whether or not she bothered to breathe. Not that he would have said a single word. She had wings now and to stop her would have been more than criminal. It would have been mortal sin.
She ignored every possible distraction. So steadfast was she that he believed she would rather burn with her creation than abandon it, should the studio catch fire.
She painted for hours, with bold strokes and soft ones, thick lines and delicate strands of color and hue that wove a story onto that canvas. The dark places were impenetrable and the light—ah! the light!—it was gossamer! Spilling across the painting in pools and rivulets, bathing it in joy as unrestrained as a child dancing in a summer downpour.
He could barely keep from laughing…or sobbing…or from making a thousand other sounds of wondrous surprise and awe. But he did restrain himself, somehow, and was still silent when the young woman made her final stroke.
The two of them simply stared at the painting, mesmerized, until Seven finally broke the silence.
"I must destroy this," she said, her voice devoid of life and all feeling.
Leonardo’s eyes snapped to the young woman, lightning flashing in them, and he spat out a string of curses in his native tongue before catching himself and switching to English.
"—never heard of anything so ridiculous! Sette DiNovia, what are you talking about?!"
Seven looked at him dispassionately, her cool demeanor compromised slightly by the fine, golden wisps of hair that had escaped the prison of her severe hairstyle, now framing her face softly.
"I must destroy this," she repeated. "It must be seen by no one."
"The whole world must see this painting, angela! Most of all our Caterina! Have you lost your mind?!" The hologram took a step closer to the canvas, as if to save it from the ravings of a complete lunatic.
The first crack in Seven’s impossibly passionless shell appeared at the mention of the captain’s name.
"No! No one must see it. Specifically the captain. I will not allow it!"
She made a move towards the canvas, but Leonardo blocked her, his eyes becoming hawkish again. This did not intimidate the Borg. Instead, she made a move towards him, hoping to force him away from the painting, allowing her to do with it what she would.
But Leonardo had a weapon of his own.
"What is it about this painting that frightens you, angela?" he asked sharply, gratified when the young woman came to an abrupt stop.
"I am not afraid," she sneered.
"You reek of fear, Sette!" lied the Maestro. In truth, she barely scented the air around her, the only odors in the studio coming from pigment and paint, oil and thinning spirits. "It runs through your blood like quicksilver! You are afraid of what this painting means, of what it reveals!"
Seven’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
"It reveals nothing," she said tightly. "It is nothing. A waste of energy and pigment. A completely unproductive activity that has resulted in nothing of significance or value. I am Borg. It is beneath me."
"No!" barked the Maestro, the sound almost a slap to the young woman. "I do not believe you, Sette DiNovia! This painting reveals everything! That is why it frightens you so! That is why you wish to destroy it! It is everything that you feel and everything that you are! Your coldness, your warmth, your hope, your passion, your love! Your past and your future! All are laid bare!"
Leonardo had not thought it physically possible for his student to become any paler than she usually was, so milky white was her perfect skin. She proved him wrong just then, a sickening pallor rising in her lovely face.
"No," she whispered, shaking her fair head slowly back and forth. "You are wrong! You do not understand! You cannot understand! There is no order in emotion, no precision, no consistency! It is chaos! It is a flaw!"
Seven’s eyes were a desperate shade of ice blue and her entire body trembled like a small bird trapped by a seething cat.
"It is Human!" countered the painter.
"It is inefficient! It is irrelevant!"
"It is truth!"
"It is PAIN!"
Student and teacher regarded each other for an interminable moment, Seven’s breath coming in dry, empty sobs.
"Because of what you feel for our Caterina?" asked the Maestro quietly, his voice sincerely concerned.
The young woman bent her head in defeat, her voice darkening with the weight of her despair.
"Because she does not feel the same for me."
The hologram smiled sadly though she did not see it. He came closer to her then and put his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
"Oh, but she does, angela," he said softly.
Seven’s head sprang up, blue fire snapping in her eyes.
"Do not touch me!" She flinched away from his holographic hand and began to skirt away from him.
"Sette? Angela? What is—"
"You are attempting to deceive me! I will not listen to you. I will not!"
She activated the exit and bolted through it, almost running down Janeway, who was coming to a halt outside the doors, a distinctly unhappy look on her face. Seven made an odd sound, a pained whimper when she realized who was impeding her effort to escape, and she turned and hurried down the corridor, wanting nothing but to get away, to get far, far away from the captain and the studio and everything they represented.
"Seven?" called the captain, her features now clearly marked by concern and confusion as the young woman disappeared around a corner.
"Caterina? Is that you?" The voice came from inside the Holodeck and Janeway realized Seven had left without disengaging the program. Very unlike her.
She stepped through the doors cautiously and found her way into the studio.
"Ah Caterina!" sighed the genius. "Thank the Heavens you have come."
"What is going on?" asked Janeway sharply. A large part of her was screaming to go after the young woman, but another part of her was frightened by what she might find.
Or what you might find out, eh, Kate?
She ignored her own psyche.
"Come," said the hologram, taking her arm gently. "I think there is something you should see."
Janeway glanced over her shoulder, trying to make a decision. Go after Seven or follow the hologram? In the end, it was her fear that made the choice.
"After you," she said to Leonardo, trying her best to forget the pain etched on the face of the young Borg woman—and failing completely.
Until, that is, Leonardo showed her the ‘something’ he was talking about.
It was more than just paint on canvas.
Kathryn Janeway sat with her bare feet tucked under her, clad only in nondescript, black, Starfleet-issue uniform pants and the gray tank top that was standard under her uniform tunic. She rested her crossed arms on one raised knee then rested her head on her arms, gazing at the work of art opposite her with soft, sad eyes.
Yes, it was definitely much more than just paint.
She couldn’t take her eyes off of it, even in her own quarters where she had moved the canvas after the Maestro had told her of Seven’s plans for it. It held her completely under its spell, rendering her immobile and functionless. Reminding her of how…what was it that the Maestro had said?
Ah, yes…how blind she was allowing herself to be…
"I do not understand you, Caterina. Why would you blind yourself to this, to what she offers you? Eh?"
Janeway forced her eyes open again, the shock of the first sight of Seven’s latest work having seared them closed.
It was the most inexpressibly beautiful thing she had ever seen. And the most disturbing.
The center of the black canvas was suffused with a soft golden light, touched with just the merest hint of green. In the center of the warm pool, two hands held one another gently. One was most definitely Seven’s left hand, the long, elegant fingers and the fine metallic mesh giving it away. The other one was her own right hand. The image of them clasped in this way—fingers loosely entwined, the implied tenderness of touch—was at once loving and sensual.
That alone would have been enough. But Seven had painted a story around those hands. A meeting…no, a confrontation of dark and light, of fear and hope.
The bottom left corner of the canvas was framed in what Janeway could only surmise were actual vent panels from the young woman’s set of Borg alcoves, the distinctive black construction material providing a hellish point of focus. Rising up from that twisted, grotesque material was a fiendish portrait of Seven of Nine in her full Borg encasement. The skin of this creature was gray and lifeless, its head bent in a hopelessly submissive way. A single, cool ray of light crossed her head, seemingly ignored.
Above this creature was another incredible self-portrait of Seven, this time as she was now…except for a minor addition. She was nude and curled in a fetal position on her knees and elbows, her face hidden from view. Her entire body was enveloped by golden light and a hand cupped her gently in its palm. A pair of wet, feeble wings rose from her back, completely useless and immature. She looked small and weak and seemed to shudder as if cold.
The central image of the entwined hands followed next if the eyes took the compositional route from bottom left corner to top right. Then a hesitant and stiff portrait of Janeway herself, looking severe in her red and black command uniform, an almost smug grin darkening her features.
Janeway did not like this portrait but recognized it for what it represented to Seven: her first impression of the arrogant Starfleet captain who had separated her from the Collective and forced individuality upon her. The portrait did not lack its own poignancy, however. Though dark and serpentine, there was a most exquisite—if dim—halo of golden light around her head, taken from Leonardo’s own style as seen in his paintings of the Madonna.
The final portrait of herself was the one that surprised the captain the most.
She only registered parts of it, as if the whole was too much for her to comprehend. An ivory sheath that flowed down her body like cream…her hair dancing in gentle motion around her head, the spicy reds alight with warm, golden light…the look of utter joy and peace upon her face…all surprising considering both the artist and the subject. However, when one added the brilliance of white swan wings that spread gloriously from her back and the luminescent orb (containing the tiny, fetal Seven of Nine) that she held cupped in her hands, the portrait became almost mystical.
And very discomforting.
"Caterina?" asked the hologram, sensing a shift in his dearest student.
"That’s quite a leap, isn’t it?"
"Prego? What is ‘quite a leap’?"
"This," said Janeway, pointing to the portraits of herself. "I go from dark antagonist to angelic protagonist rather quickly, don’t you think? Too quickly. It isn’t justified." She frowned slightly at the painting.
Leonardo looked at Janeway for a long, silent moment. Waiting.
She finally turned to him, both brows arched in question.
"You don’t agree?" she asked curiously.
"If you were not too old for me to take over my knee, Caterina, I would do so this instant!" he replied, ire spilling out of his eyes and mouth.
"No!" said Leonardo firmly. "Do not play the innocent with me, Caterina! I will not tolerate it a moment longer!" He threw his hands up in defeat and stalked over to a wide window overlooking the moonlit grasses of the vast, verdant field outside.
"I do not understand either of you," he continued finally, sadness present in his disgusted tone. "First Sette makes the most important discovery of her life, that she has a heart beating in her chest as lovely and warm as any heart that ever beat inside an angel of God. Then she sees with that heart for the first time, painting that brilliant work over there," he said, nodding towards the work in question. "But she decides it must be destroyed, must never be seen. Certainly not by you."
The Maestro drifted over to the painting, absorbing with his eyes and heart the passion present in it. Soon, he turned his penetrating eyes on Janeway, regarding her with a look of utter disgust.
"Then I show you this painting and you! You comment only that the composition is flawed, hurried! Are you blind to what this painting is?! Can you not hear the song of hope that is woven into these strokes?! I alone may call her ‘angel’ but she knows it was YOU who gave her wings to fly! She knows it is you who holds her in your hands, to do with what you will!"
The holographic painter was so agitated, Janeway thought he might do something drastic. Inevitably, he only sighed, the sound heavy and dark with resignation.
"Sette, our bella angela, offers you the cry of her heart and all you have to say is something asinine about the leap from dark to light." He shook his head as if trying to comprehend. "The two of you do not realize how alike you are, do you? Eh? It seems you both are content to live only from your necks up! Is that it? The Inferno keep your feelings, your very souls, as long as you never have pain? As long as you never weep?"
Leonardo raked her with a long, derisive gaze, his black eyes sharp as blades.
"I ask you, Caterina, what good is a life so empty of life?"
Stunned, Voyager’s captain opened her mouth to respond, but found her voice had fled.
"No, do not say anything," said the genius, dismissing her with an imperious wave of his hand. "I do not wish to hear your excuses. Take the painting and get out of my studio. Give it to Sette so that she may destroy it. Destroy it yourself, if you wish. I cannot care about it now. Go."
Which is how the painting had ended up here, in her quarters.
It had taken some time to open herself to the feelings and desires it inspired within her. Many hours of numbness and fighting the inevitable until she could finally let go and feel its power on her skin, a fiery caress delivered with paint and unbelievably fragile hope.
Now the energy of the images practically hummed inside of her and with it, a need so startling that it sliced her from the inside out. The small woman shook her head, wiping the silvery remnants of tears from under her eyes.
So how much longer are you going to just sit there? Do something!
Kathryn noticed that her sarcastic voice had become rather immune to her constant attempts at silencing it…and chuckled mirthlessly at herself for noticing.
She stood and wandered out into the living area of her quarters, taking a few moments to contemplate the stars sliding past the window as her ship plotted its way towards home. She felt restless again and replicated a glass of wine to help her relax, taking it to the sofa and curling up with it. The light in the cabin was dim but not too dim to read by and—thinking it would be a pleasant distraction—she craned her head to look at the shelves behind her, finally choosing a small volume of poetry bound in burgundy leather. She opened it to a random page, took a sip of wine, and began reading.
This isn’t exactly what I had in mind, complained her subconscious.
Kathryn ignored it and continued to read.
The wine was forgotten after the second line, the delicate stem placed absently on the end table. She heard her own voice reading the words on the page and wondered for a moment if she had written them herself. But no, the book plainly credited a woman named Ellen Bass, a 20th century poet and nonfiction writer.
The poem was entitled For Janet, At the New Year and a small part of her tasted the irony that the author’s words were still so appropriate so many, many years later.
The way I want to love you, the way
I want to be loved is
with such abundance, with
so much willing profusion—
like those tiny blue flowers
that turn a glade into a sky blue lake,
or our stars, brilliance strewn
across the black felt sky like a
child gone wild with glitter and glue.
I want a love that quickens the dead
wood of our hearts, rubbing life into the sticks
with the power of seasons, revealing
brittleness to be only winter
with buds straining against the bark.
It was as if she had waited all her life to read those words.
Without a single thought, she closed the book and placed it on the end table next to her forgotten glass of wine. She stood and retrieved her sweater and uniform tunic from the chair she had relegated them to, pulling them on quickly and efficiently. And before she knew it, she was entering Cargo Bay 2, only marginally aware that it was barely a few minutes before morning watch.
She gazed up at the lovely face of Seven of Nine, her features relieved of the pain she had last seen there. She idly wondered if the young woman dreamed while utilizing the alcove to regenerate and found guilt in a bit of passing speculation of the subject of those alleged dreams.
Before the captain could interrupt the Borg’s regeneration cycle, however, the wrist restraints holding the young woman in the chamber automatically released, followed by the soothing voice of the ship’s computer announcing that it was 0600 and that the regeneration cycle was complete.
Seven’s eyes snapped open, the pale blue of her irises a striking contrast to the electric green of the power modulation monitor above her head. For a moment, she was unaware of Janeway’s presence, the cool, professional mask she wore daily already in place.
Her eyes eventually caught the red of the captain’s tunic and that mask faltered for the briefest of instants as she recognized her visitor.
"May I be of assistance, Captain?" she asked, her voice adding a chill to the antiseptic storage facilities. She hadn’t moved a centimeter but she definitely seemed farther away.
For an eternal nanosecond Janeway panicked, her practical nature almost demanding to know what in the deepest level of Hell she was thinking by coming here. She quickly silenced that part of her mind and charged forward, not allowing herself the opportunity to ‘chicken out’.
Just once…just this once, she was going to give herself permission to pursue her own happiness, to explore a path she would normally not give a second glance. And she would accept whatever the consequences that resulted from her choice. But she would NOT look back years from now and wonder what might have been. That would be a weakness.
And Kathryn Janeway was anything but weak.
Maybe it was the words from the book… Maybe it was the Maestro’s deep disappointment in her, his derision cutting close to the bone… Maybe it was Seven’s song in paint, coaxing a long-buried part of her out into the light…
Or maybe it was simpler than all that.
Maybe it was just the memory of Seven’s hands on her skin and the feeling of unbelievable rightness they invoked so quickly and so effortlessly. And in a way no one else’s hands ever, ever had.
Whatever it was, it had led her here, now, and with the surreal sense of one who recognized her life was about to turn on this single moment in time, she spoke quietly.
"Leonardo has thrown us out of the studio. We can’t return for some time."
Seven seemed surprised by this turn of events. Or as surprised as a Borg could allow herself to be. She could not fathom what would provoke the holographic painter to forbid them access to the studio or why Janeway, the creator of the program, would allow such a thing.
"Indeed," she said, a hint of impatience in her voice, as if she wondered why it was necessary for the captain to make this announcement in person and at this hour.
"Instead of our customary arrangement, I was wondering if you would consider continuing our lessons in my quarters. Say, after your duty shift this evening?"
Janeway swallowed hard, lost in this tentative foray into reaching out. She suddenly had a sense of why she had decided to stay unattached all these years in the Delta Quadrant. Nothing was as effective at destroying one’s own self-image as embarrassment endured in the process of becoming romantically involved. To say she felt awkward was an understatement of cosmic proportions.
Seven, for her part, seemed stunned, intrigued, confused, and extremely uncomfortable. But her newfound emotional core cried out for even the slightest chance to recreate that precious moment of connection she and Janeway had shared earlier. Only her eyes communicated that hope, dancing with light.
"I will comply," she replied softly.
Janeway felt a sudden relaxation of the tension inside her, as if she’d been holding her breath and had finally let it go.
"Good. I’ll expect you at 1800 hours?" She felt a grin tugging at her mouth and fought it tooth and nail.
"Acceptable," agreed Seven, nodding almost docilely, as if unsure of what to say or do.
"Don’t forget your brushes," said Janeway, finally giving up and allowing the grin to come. It changed her face so profoundly, Seven was momentarily taken aback.
"I’m a lot more generous with paint than the Maestro," she added.
Then she turned and strode out of the cargo hold, leaving Seven of Nine alone to weather all the tremulous emotions and sensations now battling for control of her body and soul.
Seven of Nine stood stiffly in the corridor outside Janeway’s quarters after pressing the chime pad, acutely aware of every second that passed. The hiss of another door down the corridor caused her to glance up and she met the wide and curious eyes of an approaching lieutenant.
Seven averted her eyes as the woman neared and instead, glanced down at the battered wooden box in which she carried her artist’s tools. It captured her attention immediately, the lieutenant’s inquiring gaze instantly forgotten.
She hated it.
Obviously the container was more appropriate in the DaVinci holo-program and she found herself wondering why she had brought it here. Surely something more linear, more contemporary would be—
The young blonde stopped the idle thought in mid-stream and frowned. She felt agitated, conspicuous, and unsure—emotions that she rarely experienced. And certainly not all at once.
This is nervousness, she noted to herself. It is unpleasant.
As an effort to distract herself while waiting for Janeway to answer the door, Seven decided to review the advice that Neelix, the ship’s cook, morale officer, and native guide, had given her for this occasion. For reasons she could not even begin to comprehend, she both admired and disliked the diminutive Talaxian…and that was enough of a dichotomy to encourage complete avoidance of him. Seeking him out to request his assistance had been difficult in the extreme.
The flamboyantly-dressed alien looked up from his task of cleansing the counter top where he served the meals that kept Voyager’s crew from starving and smiled widely as he recognized his visitor.
"Seven! How wonderful to see you!" He came around the counter, wiping his hands on his apron. "Will you be joining us for dinner tonight?"
Seven directed her gaze to the large bubbling pots and the containers of leafy vegetables that she could see in the kitchen and her brow raised in dubious consideration.
"I do not require nutritional supplements at this time."
The Talaxian looked disappointed, but only for a moment.
"Perhaps another time, then," he said. "Is there something else I can help you with?"
"I require your…advice," said Seven coolly.
After two full seconds of stunned paralysis, Neelix’s face lit up like a solar flare.
"I am at your service, Seven!" he said excitedly. "What can I do for you this evening?"
His genuine pleasure at this heretofore unknown occurrence was causing an elevation in his vocal decibels and Seven stole an uncomfortable glance at the other patrons of the mess hall, few though they were at this time of day.
"I also require your discretion in this matter," she said firmly.
Neelix followed her gaze. "Of course! Where are my manners?"
He led her to a table in a very empty corner of the mess hall and pulled out a chair for her. Seven eyed the object warily before gingerly sitting in it, her posture impossibly perfect, her hands neatly folded and resting on her knees.
"Now, what can I help you with, young lady?" he asked smartly, taking a seat opposite her.
Seven narrowed her eyes at the unusual designation, feeling that she should dislike it for some reason. But since both terms were fairly accurate as far as designations went, she dismissed her concern.
"My presence has been requested in the…in a crewmember’s quarters," she said, deciding not to reveal the identity of that crewmember at the last minute. She had become very acquainted with the concept of ‘gossip’ early in her experiences on Voyager. Therefore, she knew most of the crew considered Neelix to be an ‘easy mark’, relying on his genuinely friendly nature and his innate curiosity to provide them with the best information. She definitely did not want her visit here to be the ‘talk of the ship’ tomorrow.
Neelix continued to smile at her, a blank look on his open face as he waited for her to elaborate.
"I wish to know what the rules of conduct are for such a situation," explained the Borg.
"The…rules of conduct?"
"Yes," agreed Seven, becoming annoyed by his apparent lack of comprehension.
"Goodness. How militant sounding." His smile turned from genuine to forced as he realized that this might not be a simple matter of advice after all. He suddenly felt out of his league here.
Seven waited. Impatiently.
"Whose quarters did you say you would be, uh, visiting?" Privately, he wondered if ‘invading’ wouldn’t be a more accurate term.
"You do not require that knowledge."
Neelix blinked. "I don’t?"
Seven clenched her jaw.
"Okay," he said hurriedly, happy to change tactics. "Is it a social visit or work-related?"
"That knowledge is irrelevant."
"It is?" he asked automatically.
Seven’s eyes darkened, boring little holes into the back of his head.
"It is," he answered for himself. "Completely, uh, irrelevant. Yes."
He regarded her with a look of desperation one usually saw only in the eyes of a mouse just before the cat ended polite conversation and ate him for lunch.
"I would compliment the décor," he said finally, weakly, digging up anything that could be considered helpful in these circumstances.
"Even if I find it displeasing?"
A prayer for lenience in the face of judgement began in Neelix’s mind.
"Most definitely, yes! Even if you find it displeasing."
"I understand. Continue."
He sighed and cast about for another offering.
"If your…host offers you something to eat or drink, take it."
"Even if I—"
"Yes," he agreed, interrupting her. "Though you can politely explain that it doesn’t suit your tastes if you find you don’t like it."
She nodded as if committing the rules to memory, which he supposed she was actually doing.
"Compliment the host’s choice of outfits—even if you don’t like it. Although I would never tell anyone that you didn’t like their choice of clothing."
Her glance at his own teal and ochre ensemble was not lost upon him.
This last tidbit was offered so hesitantly that Seven dismissed it immediately. After all, who else would she be?
She rose from the table and prepared to leave, turning only when her politeness protocols reminded her of her manners.
"Thank you, Neelix. You have been very…helpful."
Neelix smiled limply back. "You’re welcome, Seven." As she walked away, he called out "Have fun!" almost as an afterthought. And promptly wondered how that could be accomplished.
The Borg did not stop to acknowledge the sentiment.
That last piece of advice—the command to ‘have fun’—Seven thought was the least likely of all of them. Especially if she were to spend the entire evening waiting outside the door.
Before she could press the chime pad again, Janeway’s voice erupted from the control panel, inviting her in.
The door slid open and Seven of Nine entered, instantly aware of two things.
First, there was music playing in the living quarters, something deep and sultry, like Janeway’s laughter. She recognized it from assimilated knowledge as ‘jazz’, and the chosen instrument as a grand piano. She hadn’t expected music. Nor had she expected the effect it would have on her. She vigilantly fought the tingling sensation that threatened to surge along her entire nervous system.
Secondly, there was only one easel prepared and waiting in the living area.
"Make yourself at home, Seven," called Janeway from her bedroom. "I’m running a little behind schedule."
A little? This is the third outfit you’ve had on. Enough already.
Since she had taken her subconscious’ advice, Kathryn noticed that it expected to be in charge from now on, something she was absolutely not going to let happen. Although she had to agree about the clothing. Three outfits was a bit much.
She settled on a pair of creamy linen pants and a sapphire blue, sleeveless tank in a satiny material. She ran a hand through her auburn hair and dabbed some perfume lightly on her wrists, feeling ridiculous as she did so because intellectually she knew Seven was not likely to notice the scent.
"Ever the optimist, aren’t you?" she mumbled to herself, taking a last look in the mirror. She briefly shook her head at her reflection and tried to nail down the uncharacteristic flutter in her belly, thinking that she’d rather spend an eternity in a Romulan prison camp than be seen in her current state.
Why is this so hard?
She answered herself in the next breath.
Because you have so much to lose.
And though terrifying, Kathryn could not deny that the statement was true.
She finally forced herself from her sleeping quarters and stopped dead, stunned to find Seven standing stiffly in the center of the room, her hands linked behind her back, a small, wooden box aligned next to her feet.
"Seven? I said you could make yourself at home."
Seven turned, prepared to reply, but the sight of the captain so wonderfully and casually dressed and the spicy, warm, musky scent that accompanied her made the Borg actually forget what she was about to say. She stumbled over the words incoherently until, of all things, Neelix’s advice came to her rescue.
"I do not—I seem—you—I—" She stopped, took a breath, and started over.
"The décor of your living quarters is aesthetically pleasing," she said earnestly and quite without looking. Realizing only when the words were out of her mouth that Neelix’s third Rule of Conduct would have been more appropriate in this circumstance. The faintest of blushes colored her snowy cheeks, highlighting a most endearing look of puzzlement and aggravation.
"Thank you," said Janeway, smiling. "Can I get you anything? Some wine? Tea?" She walked over to the replicator and programmed a cup of coffee, wanting something familiar, something anchoring in this sea of the unknown.
Seven considered the request. "Tea would be an acceptable liquid refreshment at this time. Thank you, Captain."
She’s been coached, thought Janeway. And rather badly at that. The knowledge that the young Borg was relying on studied niceties rather than her own opinions and desires pricked a tiny hole in the captain’s mood that threatened to deflate it altogether.
"Any particular kind?" she asked, her fingers poised over the replicator control pad.
The younger woman blinked, taken completely off guard. "I will have…" She paused, completely unsure of what kind of tea she would find pleasing. She could not ever remember consuming the liquid.
Kathryn’s mood sagged a little more as she prepared herself for the inevitable rote response.
"…whatever is your favorite," finished Seven quietly.
Kathryn’s mood perked up.
Her fingers tapped a sequence of buttons and a hot mug of Brandied Apricot tea appeared on the replicator pad. She delivered it to the Borg with a pleased—if concerned—half-grin.
"If you don’t like it, I’ll get you something else," she promised.
Seven took a sip and found that the taste pleased her immensely.
She looked into the cup at the steaming, amber liquid and smiled in a sort of hushed amazement.
"It appears I was in error previously."
"Taste is not irrelevant."
Janeway chuckled and motioned for Seven to join her on the long couch that sat beneath the large windows that dominated the living area.
"I’m glad you like it." She took another sip of her coffee while desperately wondering what one did about small talk when one’s conversational partner probably had little experience with the concept.
"I see only one easel," said Seven, both startling Janeway and beating her to the conversational punch. "Have you decided to postpone our lesson?"
She looked at Janeway inquisitively, her head cocked slightly, her mug of tea held primly in both hands and resting gingerly on her knees.
"Actually, the easel is for you. I was hoping I could simply watch you work. The Maestro hinted that that would be something to see—right before he tossed me out of his studio."
Everything lovely that had been in Seven’s features drained away.
The painting. She had forgotten about her painting. How could she possibly have forgotten it?
Of course the captain had seen it. Of course she had found it laughable, a curiosity, an oddity. Of course she would want to see the well-trained Borg repeat her little trick.
A wave of self-loathing rushed over Seven, making it difficult for her to move, making it difficult to place the mug of cooling tea carefully on the low table in front of the couch. She rose after she’d managed the small movement, her features stark and pained.
"Excuse me, Captain. I must go now."
She turned towards the door.
Stunned by the shift in moods, Janeway frantically tried to catch up to what was happening. She almost, almost let Seven go through that door before something inside her rose up and said Stop her!
The young woman froze at the soft sound of her Human designation.
It was the last thing she had ever expected to hear. And the only thing that could have stopped her.
She could not turn around, could not face the woman who had spoken the designation so softly and with such kindness.
Janeway came close to the taller woman but did not touch her.
"Annika, it’s not what you think." She had easily read Seven’s fears as they crossed her features, the Borg unschooled in the finer art of concealing deep emotion.
Probably because she hasn’t quite learned how to deal with deep emotion yet, reminded her psyche archly.
"Your painting is beautiful. Stunning," she continued, her voice a gentle, heartfelt whisper. "I’m sorry you thought you needed to destroy it. It’s too wonderful, too important to destroy."
"I did not want you to see it," said Seven, her voice low and unsteady.
"Why?" Kathryn risked putting her hand on a trembling shoulder, feeling the warmth of Seven’s skin through the brown mesh of her outfit.
That touch, that most gentle, tender, achingly comforting touch that Seven—without truly realizing it—had been waiting to feel again since she’d first been separated from the Collective…that touch decimated the last ferocious wall of ice imprisoning her emotions. And for the first time since her assimilation at age six, Annika Hansen felt tears slip hot and slick down her cheeks.
"I did not want to risk your…disapproval," she whispered in a terribly small, terribly forlorn voice.
Kathryn’s hand left the young woman’s shoulder and came around to cup her chin, gently insisting that she turn her head.
"Look at me," she requested, her voice deep and rich.
Seven hesitantly raised her bluer-than-Heaven eyes.
"You’ve never risked that," said Kathryn intently.
Silence poured between them like honey, thick and golden-sweet.
Janeway knew at the bottom of her soul that if she tugged, Seven would lower her lovely face. She could then easily brush her lips over the young woman’s and she knew the Borg would respond, allowing her to taste the sweetness that so surely flavored the full lips.
It would be so simple…
She released Seven’s chin.
"Shall we continue with your lesson?" she asked huskily, her hand dropping awkwardly to her side.
The young Borg struggled to respond to the simple question. Her entire body thrummed with the aftereffects of frustrated need and she was fundamentally startled by how powerful that need had become in so short a measure of time.
"Yes, Captain," she managed finally, dropping her eyes from Janeway’s intense hazel-blue gaze. She turned and retrieved her container of artist’s tools, taking them to the easel sitting in the corner of the room.
Janeway watched her as she prepared her tools, using the distraction to bring her breathing under control, to regain her equilibrium. She could still feel her fingertips tingling where they had touched the Borg’s pale skin.
Chicken, hissed her psyche. I’m beginning to think you’re hopeless.
Mournfully, Kathryn could only agree.
Three quarters of an hour later, Janeway sensed Seven had grown bored with technique study. So had she, if she were to be honest with herself. She found there were only so many times she could watch the young woman complete perfectly yet another DaVincian exercise before her mind wandered off.
And wander it did…to some very interesting places…
She felt heat rise in her cheeks as she realized she’d once again drifted into a fantasy inspired by the proximity of this most tantalizing young woman.
This has got to stop, she chastised herself as she pulled away from the easel and the distracting scent of soft, sweet skin. You’re not making this any easier on yourself. You need a diversion.
Her irrepressible inner voice piped up with a vaguely lewd suggestion for an alternative activity, which Janeway promptly squashed.
No one asked you, she said bitterly.
She ended up at her own art supplies and tools and—inspired—extracted her paintbox. She spent the next few moments quickly uncapping paints and filling her palette, finding that she took significant pleasure in the prospect of presenting the young woman with such an extravagance of color.
The astonishment she saw in the sparkling cerulean eyes did not disappoint.
"I may use all of these?" asked the Borg, eyes widening as Janeway gently placed the well-stocked rectangular palette in her hands.
"You may use however many you want," said the older woman warmly. She settled onto the couch in preparation for watching the young woman work. "And however many more you can create from what’s there. I said I was more generous with paint than DaVinci, didn’t I?"
"You did," said the Borg as if she only now believed it. An ethereal smile shimmered across her lips and Janeway believed she had never seen anything so lovely as Seven at that moment.
Absolutely hopeless, lamented the captain’s inner voice bitingly. You could be tasting those lips right now instead of just admiring them, you know.
Janeway mentally backhanded the voice. It shut up.
"Have you decided what you are going to paint this evening, Seven?" she asked, more as polite conversation than anything else. She lifted a fresh mug of coffee to her lips.
"You," said the young woman so off-handedly and so unexpectedly that Janeway almost choked on a sip of that coffee. She carefully put the mug down on the end table.
Seven noticed the surprise on Janeway’s face and feared she had made another in a long list of social errors. A relatively rare occurrence as of late—until recently, when everything she knew and felt had once again become unfamiliar and confusing. A very large part of her still regarded these changes—this "Humanity"—as an annoyance.
"If that would be acceptable," she added rather contritely.
"You’re the artist," said Janeway weakly, not sure how comfortable she was with this turn of events but hesitant to ruin the evening by declining the offer. Even if it wasn’t so much offered as it was stated.
"Is there any particular way you would like me to—"
Seven gently interrupted the captain before she could change her position.
"The position you are seated in is more than adequate, Captain. Please do not alter it." She rather liked the informality of the older woman’s bare feet drawn up under her and the relaxed quality of her reclining against the corner of the couch.
Seven nodded at Janeway as she settled back onto the cushions.
The captain had provided everything needed except, of course, brushes and the like. The young woman opened her battered little box of supplies and retrieved her pencils, finding comfort in the familiar linear feel of them.
She had been feeling oddly ever since that strange, intense moment earlier…as if her abdominal cavity had been outfitted with an inertial dampener and it had suddenly gone off-line.
This is only a physiological reaction. I can control it, she thought sharply. And she immediately set about ignoring all the sensations inside her that were going off like flashing lights and whistles.
This will not be difficult, she thought finally and with satisfaction as the urgency and anticipation subsided predictably.
By the time Janeway’s features began to emerge from the delicate, spidery lines she was sketching, however, she was forced to concede that the task of ignoring those ‘feelings’ would be more difficult than she had originally imagined.
At first, it was just a slight tremor that manifested itself intermittently. She redoubled her efforts, focussing instead on the way saffron-colored light fell across Janeway’s face and body…
Seven’s fingers began to tremble, compromising the accuracy of the sketch.
This is inefficient, she thought, dismayed. She shook herself discreetly, as if to rid herself of the phenomenon.
She glanced up at the captain, who was gazing idly out the large plasteel window at the iridescent distortions of starlight streaming past. The wistful, almost lonely look on her commanding officer’s features caused the Borg’s pericardium to constrict in a gently aching manner. She realized suddenly that she no longer wished to paint. She wished only to assist the captain, to ‘heal’ that wounded expression.
Captain Janeway’s emotional state is not your concern, she chastised herself harshly. Your task is to paint. Complete your task.
Thinking that the added stimuli of working with colors would successfully override the growing desire inside her, Seven put down her pencils and retrieved her brushes, loading each of them with shades of sapphire and lapis and bone-blue. When she looked up, she found herself caught in an unreadable smoky gaze that was most disconcerting.
Her hands began to quiver.
Janeway noticed and her eyes immediately clouded over, her brows drawing together in concern.
"Annika?" she asked softly.
Seven’s whole body began to tremble delicately, like a slender tree shuddering elegantly in a spring breeze. The look on her face was anything but elegant, however. She looked positively unhinged.
Janeway straightened in alarm.
"Annika?" she repeated.
One of the paint-laden brushes escaped the Borg’s erratic grasp and fell to the floor, sending pigment in a graceful-yet-surreal arc through the air. Both women watched, mesmerized, until the last droplet had found its landing surface. Then Seven dropped to her knees, a strangled sound bubbling up briefly before she cut it off…
Janeway was beside the young woman before she realized she had even moved.
Seven scrubbed urgently at the paint on the carpet…and rather ineffectually, making the stain larger instead of smaller.
"Annika, what is it?" The captain placed a gentle hand on Seven’s forearm only to have it jerked away as if burned.
"How do you Humans function like this?" she cried.
"Like what?" asked Janeway softly, realizing the young woman was highly agitated for some reason. She definitely didn’t want to add to her distress.
"How do you concentrate on one task when your consciousness desires to perform another?" The Borg did not look up but continued to scrub at the stained area on the floor.
Janeway again risked touching the young woman, drawing her up from the floor. Seven kept her eyes averted and her arms stiff, as if allowing the older woman to affect any of her senses would bring her downfall.
"I’m not sure what you mean," she admitted.
"These ‘feelings’ are interfering with my efficiency, with my ability to function! My task is to paint but I cannot!"
Janeway’s heart went out to Seven, wishing she could understand the source of her anxiety, wishing she could find a way to repair it. It was absolutely killing her inside to see the young woman so upset.
"What’s stopping you, Annika? What do you really want to do?"
Seven’s head snapped up, her blue eyes dancing with fire and frustration.
"I want to touch you!"
The words echoed in the suddenly still room, the air thick with electric silence.
Realizing what she had just said, Seven, horrified, pulled away from Janeway, turning her face away, her fists balled at her sides as she struggled to stop the tears of embarrassment and humiliation that desperately wanted to course down her cheeks.
After an interminable silence, Kathryn Janeway quietly lifted the young woman’s left hand and cradled it gently in her own, running her fingertips lightly over the fine metallic mesh snaking down each long, elegant finger. She gently but firmly insisted that the fist open, smoothing the rigid tension away with serene tenderness.
She glanced up to see Seven’s wide, blue eyes regarding her with a stark mixture of surprise, incredulity, and open desire.
Emboldened, Kathryn drew the young woman’s hand to her cheek, covering the trembling fingers with her own.
"Then touch me, Annika," she whispered, her sea-storm eyes shining in the dim light.
Seven of Nine hesitated for only 2.37 seconds.
She raised her other hand to cup the older woman’s face, feeling a rush of warmth and pleasure flood her cells and implant conduits as she did so, realizing that this was what she had desired all along. She ever-so-slowly lowered her face, brushing her full lips timidly over the captain’s wine-shaded ones, completely lost but sure to the center of herself that this was the absolute right action at this moment in time. Sure to her very core that here, she could be found.
Kathryn mirrored the soft, hesitant, tiny caresses playing across her sensitive lips, reveling in the utter sweetness, the sheer wonder of it all until Annika made a soft, desperate sound in the back of her throat, encouraging her to deepen the kiss.
Which she did. Without the slightest reservation.
Oh God, thought Kathryn, one hand snaking up to find the nape of the young woman’s neck, pulling her closer. Seven’s lips parted in shy invitation and when the kiss deepened, the pure, clean, sweet taste of the young Borg threatened to overwhelm her.
It’s been so long…
So long, in fact, that when the kiss ended she felt her heart clutch in protest.
The captain opened her eyes and found a pair of very round, very blue eyes looking back at her.
A trembling hand rose to press fingertips lightly against her lips. After a moment, Seven pressed the same fingertips against her own lips.
"We ‘kissed’," she stated hesitantly. She looked very bewildered and—bemused—Kathryn reached up and caressed the young woman’s cheek.
"We did," she agreed softly.
"I wish to repeat the experience," said Seven eagerly, studiously.
Kathryn stifled a chuckle.
"All right," she said, eyes sparkling. "But let’s get off the floor first. The couch would be more comfortable, I think."
Seven seemed abashed as Kathryn stood, holding her hand out the assist the young woman off the paint-stained deck.
"I am sorry, Captain. I did not realize—"
Kathryn did laugh then, the rich rumble making Seven shiver with delight.
"Call me Kathryn, Annika," she said, seating herself on the couch and tugging Seven down to join her. "I think we’ve moved beyond the formalities now." Her eyes were bright and alive and Seven wondered how she had ever missed those qualities before.
"Kathryn," she repeated, curiously tasting the new designation. It resonated deeply in her chest, at once immensely pleasing and very odd. Together with the subtle warmth now suffusing her body, it was an intoxicating sensation. One that made the need to kiss the captain again rise strongly within her.
Kathryn saw the desire flood Seven’s lapis-colored eyes and felt her own response to that desire thrill through her.
"Kiss me," she whispered, her voice deep, threaded with a much gentler, much richer version of her command voice.
Seven did not hesitate.
Warm, full lips touched hers with gentleness and quiet passion and Kathryn heard the smallest of growls well up from deep inside herself. She felt her lips parted by a hesitant lingual caress and she allowed the deepened connection of mouths, soundly rewarded by the most sensual, most delirious, most unbelievable kiss…
Warmth…heat…honeyed silk…breathless depths…
Kathryn sank gratefully into the deafening vortex of sensation. Her heart wanted to pound right out of her chest. Her hands became restless, her blood thundered through her. Finally, she pulled her mouth away and began a trail of searing kisses along the hollow of the young Borg’s throat…
"No!" It was a strangled plea, choked and ragged.
Seven pulled away sharply, breathless, chest heaving with the effort to bring herself under control. Her eyes were still round but this time they were filled with fear instead of desire.
"I do not—I cannot—" she whispered, her voice as small as her eyes were large.
Perfect, snapped Kathryn’s consciousness. What are you doing? Look at her! She’s frightened out of her mind!
"Seven?" asked the captain worriedly. This wasn’t going at all how she had planned.
"Cap-Kathryn? What is happening to me?"
Seven shuddered and huddled into herself, trying to understand, to control her overwhelming physiological response to that last kiss. What had started out as gratifying warmth had quickly become an inferno, sending her nervous system spiraling out of control. Analysis, thought, even respiration had become all but impossible pursuits. Every ounce of her blood seemed to be irradiated, pounding through her with animalistic abandon, keeping time with the wild beating of her heart. Even her bones seemed on the verge of boiling away to nothingness.
It was absolutely terrifying.
Kathryn saw that terror and felt like a complete ass.
She kept her distance from the frightened woman although she did keep her hold on Seven’s hand, wanting to communicate with her gentle touch as well as her gentle words.
"Seven…Annika, it’s all right. You’re all right. Just keep breathing."
When the young woman finally seemed to calm down a little, Kathryn risked a brief caress of her cheek.
"Oh, Annika, I’m so sorry," she whispered. "I think we’re moving too fast here."
"’Too fast’?" echoed Seven, the fear lessening as her curiosity bloomed.
Kathryn didn’t answer her.
"Seven, what exactly do you know about…sexual relationships?"
God, why do I feel like I’m having "the talk" with my teenage daughter?
The young woman cocked her head as she accessed knowledge stored in the data nodules of her cranial implant.
"Single cell fertilization is the preferred method of procreation for most Humanoid species. Copulation is the primary act that facilitates that method. Pursuing and obtaining unions based on sexual compatibility is an activity that occupies much of the average Human’s time and energy."
She looked into the captain’s eyes, then, her brow drawn in concentration.
"There are many complex sociological rituals associated with these unions though I have not had the opportunity to study them in any detail," she added clinically. "The Doctor advised me my time was better spent in other pursuits."
Kathryn’s eyes darkened.
"Oh he did, did he?" Her voice dripped with contempt.
By steering Seven of Nine away from sexual education, the Doctor had essentially sent this lovely, desirable young woman out into the world ill-prepared to defend herself from unwanted attention, not to mention left her completely unprepared for her body’s own reaction to absolutely inevitable stimuli. Without the necessary knowledge and understanding of sexual relationships, Seven was vulnerable to being used and abused in the worst of ways…something that did not sit at all well with her captain.
Seven blinked. She could not remember ever seeing that particular look on the captain’s features before.
"Kathryn?" she asked as the auburn-haired woman rose from the couch and turned her back on the young woman, her arms crossed tightly across her chest. There was a distance that had not been there a moment ago, an emotional wall that left the Borg feeling quite alone in the small room.
"You are angry." It wasn’t a question.
Kathryn spun around, eyes flashing.
"You’re damn right I’m angry," she said acidly, regretting her tone the instant she saw Seven’s face fall. Her face softened and she returned to her seat on the couch, waiting for Seven to look up.
"But not with you," she added softly when the Borg’s troubled eyes finally revealed themselves.
"With the Doctor, then," stated the blonde. "I do not understand."
Kathryn sighed. "No, you wouldn’t," she allowed. "And really, neither would he." That last bit seemed to come as somewhat of a revelation to the captain and she mulled it over for a moment until she realized that some explanation was in order.
Even if it made her uncomfortable.
Even if…well, first things first.
"But let’s put my anger with the Doctor aside for the moment, Annika. It’s not the most important issue right now. And at any rate, I don’t believe it was truly negligence on his part."
Kathryn gazed at Seven’s alabaster features, noting the tension in the strong jaw, the faint frown, the frost in those impossibly blue eyes that was the thinnest of veneers over a very real, very bright fear. She found herself regretting having caused the fear even as she wondered how she could alleviate it.
Honesty seemed not only the best course, but also the only course.
"I would rather concentrate on removing that look from your eyes," she confessed, brushing her fingertips over the optical implant that glinted in the subdued light.
"What ‘look’?" asked Seven, confusion momentarily crowding out the other emotions present in her features.
Kathryn’s expression turned to one of wistful sadness.
The ice in Seven’s eyes suddenly spread to her other features.
"I am not afraid, Captain," she said pointedly, as if speaking to someone rather dim. "I am merely discomforted by these unfamiliar physiological responses."
Kathryn tried very hard not to smile at the obvious deflection.
"Would it help relieve those fears if I told you I was experiencing them too?"
Janeway’s admission caught Seven of Nine completely off guard. She had not deemed it likely that the captain had ever experienced fear. At least, certainly not in her experience, which was—admittedly—only a fraction of Kathryn’s life span to date.
"You are…afraid?" She wanted to be certain she understood. Perfectly.
"Yes." Quiet. Reserved. Honest.
And totally beyond Seven.
"Why?" she asked, clearly baffled…a classic Human response, considering.
"Because I am attracted to you in a way I haven’t been attracted to anyone in a very long time," began Kathryn, pensive now that she was showing this most personal side of herself to another. "Because my physical response to your amazing beauty carries with it a certain amount of emotional risk. And because," she finished, shrugging deceptively nonchalantly, "this is all new territory for me."
Seven was more intrigued by the last statement than the others, though she did take special care to file the admission about her own aesthetic qualities away for further study.
"New territory?" she echoed, not sure she understood. "You have never had a sexual relationship before?"
Uh oh, snickered Janeway’s psyche. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
"I didn’t say that," cautioned the older woman, acutely aware that she was blushing inexplicably. "But my previous relationships have been restricted to men. I’ve never kissed a woman before." She smiled slightly, apparently amused. "Well, before tonight anyway," she amended. "That’s part of the ‘new territory’ I was referring to."
"Indeed," replied Seven softly, though she wasn’t quite sure to what she was responding. The mention of the kiss they had shared, no matter how indirect, sent a shower of tingles over the entire surface of her body. The knowledge that Kathryn had never shared such activities with another woman created a strange sort of pride and pleasure inside her that was tempered by another odd, almost painful feeling associated with the knowledge that she had shared this aspect of herself with someone else.
All these confusing emotions seemed to blend and fuse into one lump in her abdomen, one colored by equal parts trepidation and exhilaration. But at the core of that lump of confusion was a certainty. Just as real and as solid as the hull of the ship or basic spatial mathematics…
"Kathryn, I would like you to be the one to teach me the complex sociological rituals associated with this type of relationship."
It was such an innocent and profoundly moving request…and so formally stated that Kathryn wasn’t quite sure Seven knew what she was asking.
"Seven, I—" Janeway hesitated, searching for the words that would make this beautiful young woman understand what she was asking…and just exactly what the captain was willing to give. She steeled herself and took a long last look in those wide-open eyes, so new and so ancient at the same time, as silver-gray as the undersides of leaves in the golden light. She had the sudden urge to cut this woman out of her life, to forget the spring growth bursting from the dead-wood of her heart, to retreat to the cool stone and slick, seamless shell she had built around her life.
To the simplicity. To the clear, even keel of it.
To the security.
Seven sensed Kathryn’s hesitation and she shattered silently and cleanly, like frozen marble. Her eyes lowered in shame.
She does not want me. She does not want to teach me this. I am insufficient.
"Why, Kathryn?" It was little more than a whisper, an ache set to sound. "Why do you not want me? Is it because I am inadequate? Less than you?"
It was as if Seven had slapped her—hard—across the mouth.
"Annika…I…you… Of course not!" she babbled, her mind racing to find the perfect logical, sensible response even while her heart battled for control of her voice.
Dammit, Kate, you’re hurting her! Isn’t she what you’ve been dreaming of? The disgusted sneer of her inner voice was palpable. Are all Starfleet captains this dense, or is it just you?
But something inside of Kathryn Janeway—duty? fear?—just wouldn’t let her take that last, blind step off the precipice.
Seven raised her doe-like eyes to the captain’s, all the ice, all the barriers gone.
"I was nothing. One drone among trillions. You severed me from the Collective. You believed in my individuality, in my value. You restored my Humanity. Yet even among Humans, I am nothing, one among trillions." She looked down at hands that were clutched into fists, knuckles white with tension. "You make me unique, Kathryn," she whispered.
She raised her eyes once more, the naked longing within them thin and sharp as a razor.
Before Kathryn could object, Annika bravely leaned forward and brushed her lips over the older woman’s in both inquiry and answer. When the captain didn’t respond, the Borg, undeterred, continued with the tiny, petal-soft kisses until finally, like a fragile soap bubble, a plea welled up from within her heart.
"Please, Kathryn," she murmured against velvet lips, raising her hands to cup the captain’s face oh-so-very tenderly.
Janeway hovered on the edge of that precipice for a singular eternity before she finally spread her arms and dove off the edge—only to discover she had wings…
"Oh, Annika," she breathed, heart soaring gloriously as she allowed the kiss to deepen.
This is joy, realized Seven as the almost uncontainable emotion quickly filled her. She noted that the joy made her want to smile, to laugh out loud, but she focussed her attentions instead on the kiss…this incredible kiss that was making her whole body hum at a register it seemed only she could hear.
She tasted the hint of mocha flavoring Kathryn’s mouth, it adding a dark, rich taste to the almost spicy qualities of the captain’s natural flavor. She reveled in the warmth and the sensuous connection she felt with this woman who meant so very much to her. She weathered and survived the tremulous moments of confusing vitality that only a short time ago had been truly terrifying.
This is life, she thought reverently. I am alive. I am real.
The young woman felt overwhelmed by the realization. For the first time that she could remember, she believed anything was possible, that she could achieve whatever she set out to do, that she was more than just a Borg, or even an ex-Borg.
For the first time in a very long time, Seven felt like Annika Hansen.
The kiss wound down slowly, melting into lovely, soft, quiet moments of tender exploration. The fingers of Kathryn’s right hand had found their way to the silken tendrils of hair at the nape of Annika’s neck, sifting them, lightly tugging on them, sending shivers up and down the young woman’s spine.
Seven pulled away from Kathryn’s mouth and pressed back against the questing fingers, her eyes closed, her lips parted slightly in desire. At that moment, she became the light from a crescent moon, shimmering on inky water…crystalline snow at the night’s darkest hour, silver like the stars…a wraith’s icy breath slipping across black desert sands…
"You are so beautiful," whispered Janeway, raising Annika’s left hand to her lips, pressing the warmth of her mouth against the cool mesh along the fine bones.
Seven’s eyes, a hazy blue when colored with doubt, opened at the touch.
Since her liberation from the Collective, the young woman had often felt that the topical implants, reminders of the considerable Borg technology she still carried beneath her skin, were repulsive. That they made her less than Human. Less than perfect. The knowledge that they were necessary to her survival did little to reassure her, especially when most of the crew still shied away from her because of them. Ultimately proving to her that they were, indeed, offensive.
She opened her mouth to dissect Kathryn’s assessment with her unflinching logic—only to find her mouth stopped by gentle fingers.
"Lesson number one, Annika: You are beautiful." Janeway slid her fingers along Seven’s jaw from her lips to the starburst implant nestled beneath her delicate ear. "These do not detract from your beauty," she murmured, brushing her lips over the sensitive skin and mesh combination that comprised the young woman’s fingertips. "They are a part of who you are, of who you will be. That makes them beautiful. Especially to me."
The young Borg just stared at her.
"I—Kathryn—" she began. She gave up after a moment of stunned silence, saying, "I do not know how to respond. ‘Thank you’ does not seem…sufficient."
Janeway smiled, both fascinated and charmed by the light that appeared in Seven’s eyes when she did so. It wasn’t the first time she had seen that dancing iridescence, but now she knew what was causing it and that made it all the more wonderful to behold.
"’Thank you’ is plenty, Annika. Believe me."
Seven dipped her head a fraction. "Then thank you, Kathryn," she said shyly.
The two regarded each other for a long time, the comfortable silence broken only when the captain suddenly yawned.
"I should allow you to retire," said Seven immediately, rising from the couch. "You are fatigued."
Kathryn caught her hand.
"Please don’t. Not just yet." Her dusky blue eyes took on a deeper hue.
"But you are—"
"—old enough to stay up past my bedtime, if I want to," interrupted the captain evenly. "Besides, we haven’t talked about lesson two, yet."
Seven returned to her seat on the couch, hope filling her eyes and spilling over into her lovely pale features.
"Then you will be my teacher in this?"
Kathryn leaned forward and kissed the young woman sweetly, intently, giving Seven’s mouth the devotion it deserved without heightening the passion to unmanageable levels. More than anything, she wanted to take this slowly…though for whose protection, she wasn’t sure.
"I would be honored to be teach you these lessons, Annika. Under one condition."
"This is all new to me, too." She reached up and brushed a few fine strands of golden hair out of Seven’s eyes. "Will you be my teacher as well?"
Seven’s face actually fell at the heartfelt words.
"How can I be your teacher, Kathryn? I know less than you—less than anyone on Voyager—about these emotions, these rituals."
"But you are an expert on the subject I wish to study," replied Janeway, smiling kindly.
The smaller woman raised one index finger and placed it gently under the blonde woman’s chin, tilting her face up to look into those clear, pale eyes.
"You, Annika," she whispered.
The brightest and purest smile the captain had ever seen broke across Seven’s features like sunlight through the darkest storm clouds. Never in her whole life, never once in thousands of exotic locales or alien worlds, had Kathryn Janeway ever seen anything so perfectly exquisite.
In fact, she didn’t realize she had stopped breathing until she started again quite suddenly…in an unstoppable yawn.
Janeway chuckled ruefully at herself.
"Well, this is certainly turning out to be some first date, isn’t it? I’m sorry, Annika."
The young woman’s brows took opposite routes in her obvious confusion, the left implant rising as the right brow quirked low.
Kathryn glanced up incredulously.
"Oh dear. I think we’ve discovered a topic for the next ‘lesson’," she said cryptically.
"Indeed," replied the Borg noncommittally. Though the captain had the distinct feeling that Seven wouldn’t wait until the next ‘lesson’ to begin her research. That just wasn’t her brilliant Astrometrics officer’s way.
The young Borg eyed the captain disapprovingly as she attempted to stifle yet another involuntary intake of breath.
"I believe that lesson will have to wait until you have regenerated, Kathryn," she said, rising from her seat once more.
For a long moment, Kathryn wanted to protest, wanted to find away to keep the beautiful young woman with her for just a little longer. She finally sighed and rose up off the couch herself.
"All right, Annika. You win." She quirked a rakish grin at the blonde and added, "I will comply."
Seven didn’t quite smirk but Kathryn saw the humor in her eyes nonetheless.
They walked to the door in silence, Seven stopping before the sensors could automatically open it. She looked at her captain, totally enthralled and not a little shy.
"May I kiss you once more, Kathryn? Before I go?"
The captain let the back of her hand drift along one of Seven’s perfect cheekbones.
"Please do," she whispered, touched that the young woman would ask permission.
She felt the heat and the power of their connection the moment Seven’s soft, simple lips touched hers and one kiss became many kisses…long ones that were deep and tender like lovesongs whispered in the stillness of a winter’s night.
"Do you like these kisses, Annika?" asked Janeway after they had parted, held gingerly in the circle of the young woman’s arms, nuzzling the long, leonine neck without quite realizing what she was doing…or how very much she was enjoying it.
"I do not think I have experienced enough of a scientific sample to form an accurate conclusion," whispered the Borg, quickly stealing another delectable taste from the captain’s wine-painted lips.
She pulled back and smiled at Kathryn’s surprise, allowing the movement of her body to activate the door’s sensors.
"Good night, Kathryn," she said as she slipped into the empty corridor.
"Good night, Annika," whispered Janeway as the door hissed shut behind the lithe, retreating form. "Good night, my angel."
Half-way to her destination of Cargo Bay 2, Seven of Nine halted her journey and redirected the turbolift to take her to the deck that housed the Holodecks. She marched into the only one that was free at the moment and tapped a stream of commands into the control pad mounted inside the door.
The grid walls disappeared with a whoosh…replaced by Leonardo DaVinci’s studio. The Maestro stood at the grand windows, looking out over the moonlit grasses until he noticed the reflection of his bella angela in the glass and turned, a frown stealing over his features.
"Che cosa ora?" he sighed, not at all pleased to see his visitor. "What do you want?"
Leonardo’s habit of intermingling languages had been confounding to Seven originally. It was definitely not an efficient way to communicate, offending her orderly nature. However, she had been gratified to find that her linguistic database did include the Maestro’s native tongue. If she could not increase the efficiency of his communication, at least she could understand what he was saying at any given moment. An accomplishment, to be sure.
"You will continue the captain’s lessons." It was not a request, it was a command. One issued by a very annoyed young woman in all her Borg glory.
And one that did not intimidate the painter at all.
"You would dare order me, Sette DiNovia?" he boomed. "I have made my decision! She is impossible, stubborn! She refuses to open her eyes to what is right in front of her!" He sighed, obviously disgusted. "I cannot teach one such as her."
The venom in the holographic genius’ voice surprised Seven. She concluded from his statements that he and Kathryn had argued over her. Perhaps he had attempted—as he had attempted with her—to point out some Truth the captain was not yet ready to face. Remembering her own resistance to a similar Truth, she was not surprised by the painter’s decision to ban them both from the studio.
If stubbornness was a characteristic she and Kathryn shared, then Seven could only imagine it was a characteristic that DaVinci had perfected.
"You need only continue to instruct her in the arts. It is not necessary to ‘open her eyes’ anymore."
In spite of himself, Leonardo took a step toward the young woman.
"What are you saying, angela? Has something happened?" His eager eyes took in Seven’s appearance, the stern set of her face, the perfection of her hair and outfit, the general coolness that enveloped her. But there was something more there. Something that told a different story.
"Ah!" he said, clapping his hands in delight. "How could I have missed this? I should have seen it the moment you arrived!" He did move closer then, circling her as if she were a statue.
"Seen what?" asked the Borg, enduring the scrutiny with little patience.
"Something has happened between you and our Caterina! It is written all over you!"
Seven looked at her arms and her midsection in alarm.
"Where?" she asked, confused.
Leonardo laughed. "No, no! Not that way, mi bella angela! It surrounds you, your skin is alight with it!" He stopped in front of her, taking a long, last, joyful look at her. "You are practically glowing, Sette!"
Seven looked almost horrified.
"Borg do not ‘glow’," she said firmly, her nose crinkled with disdain.
The Renaissance master laughed again, patting the young woman’s cheek with a rough hand.
"Perhaps not, angela. But you do." He gestured for her to sit on the empty models’ lounge. "Come! Tell me what has happened!"
Seven linked her hands behind her back and stood at attention.
"I cannot stay," she said, declining his offer to sit. "I am already…late for my scheduled regeneration period."
DaVinci seemed surprised to hear this. "È la verità? You are late for something?"
The young blonde nodded hesitantly.
"And did you enjoy the ‘adventure’ that kept you from your scheduled task?" he asked knowingly. The adorable blush that tinted his Sette’s cheeks made him smile all the more.
"I found it extremely...pleasurable, yes," she admitted.
"Buona, Sette! Buona! I won’t keep you, then!"
Seven nodded and turned to leave.
"Prego! Sette! A moment more!" called DaVinci before she could leave.
Seven turned back, curious.
The painter stood at one of his canvases, already blocking out a new subject in charcoal.
"I will continue the lessons…for you both. Capite lo?" He didn’t turn, only continued to sketch.
"Si," said the ex-Borg, deferring to his choice of languages. "Capisco."
She accessed the Holodeck controls then, glancing back at the hologram once more, his hand frozen in mid-stroke as the computer paused the program in anticipation of her exit.
"Grazie, Maestro," she added softly.