DISCLAIMER: Paramount, Viacom, whoever else these days, just borrowing, no harm intended...yaa dee dah...
AUTHOR'S NOTE: T/7, of course, graphic scenes somewhere in the middle, Borg children still on board, no canon episode referenced except for the one with the Science Fair, the Omega Particle episode and the Tsunkatse tournament ship episode.

Queen of Hearts
By DiNovia

Part Four

The doors to cargo bay 2 whooshed open, admitting a slightly breathless Naomi Wildman who—upon seeing the very unexpected and unwelcome sight of Seven of Nine at her workstation—immediately began to back up. Though Naomi considered Seven to be her very best friend, she was absolutely the last person on the ship she wanted to see right now. Unfortunately she wasn't quite fast enough to avoid her.

"Naomi Wildman," said Seven of Nine, stopping the child in her tracks.

"Uh...hi, Seven," said Naomi with a toothy grin designed specifically to hide her anxiety. "I thought you had duty today."

"Your attempt to 'cover your tracks' is futile, Naomi Wildman. Please give me the isolinear chips you are carrying."

Naomi's face fell and she looked around the residential area of the cargo bay, noticing Mizati and iCheb looking glum and guilty at their smaller workstations. The strawberry blond scowled and reached into the pocket of her tunic.

"How did you know?" she asked, placing the three green chips into Seven's hand.

"The Collective does not require deception," explained the Borg. "Perhaps you should have taken that data into consideration before assigning iCheb and Mizati their roles in this 'mission'."

Naomi narrowed her eyes and pinned Mizati—the likeliest culprit—with a scathing glare.

"You told her?"

Mizati seemed somewhat confused...and more than a little upset. "She asked," replied the eight-year-old defensively. "I told her only that we were attempting to steal a shuttlecraft. I did not tell her why."

Seven frowned, suddenly realizing that very fact. But she was nothing if not adaptable.

"Correct," she said, closing her fingers around the isolinear chips and gazing at her young friend. "I have reserved that duty for you...as the 'mission commander'."

Naomi just blinked. "Then you don't know about the Raadamani?" she blurted.

Pale was a word that had often been employed in descriptions of Seven of Nine, former Borg drone. Until just this moment it had been a gross understatement.

"Elaborate," she demanded, managing to speak the word despite the sudden constriction of her larynx.

Naomi shared another look with Mizati, this one pregnant with concern and sadness. Then she joined Seven at her work station, small fingers manipulating the console until the portable viewscreen usually used in conjunction with iCheb's and Mizati's lessons lit up with a view of the strange vessel off Voyager's bow.

"It's a Raadamani ship," said Naomi softly, hardly daring to look Seven in the eyes. "I heard Ensign Jenkins talking about it in the mess hall this morning. She said they're here for B'Etal."

Seven almost didn't react. There was silence certainly...and a delicate shudder. But nothing else.

The young blond turned to her workstation, her long fingers beginning a sequence of commands.

"I see," she said flatly.

"Then you understand why it was necessary for us to acquire a shuttlecraft," concluded Mizati. She nodded resolutely. "We now require your assistance to complete the task."

"My assistance is irrelevant. Your task has already failed."

iCheb stood slowly. "Elaborate," he requested warily. "How can our task have failed before we have attempted it?"

"Because I have sent a detailed description of your plans to Commander Tuvok via intraship communications," said Seven nonchalantly. "No doubt security will arrive momentarily."

Now Mizati stood, drawing herself to her full height and endeavoring to look as menacing as an eight-year-old could.

"And if Commander Tuvok takes my sister, what will you do?"

"I will comply," stated Seven without emotion.

"Without protest?" asked iCheb angrily.

"Without protest."

"But Seven, you named her!" said a startled Naomi. "This is her home!"

"The Raadamani are certain to disagree. For most species, the custody of their subunits depends on biological and genetic similarities rather than emotional bonds. I do not see why the Raadamani would believe any differently."

"Yet these issues did not prevent you from opposing my parent's claim of custody," iCheb pointed out. "You risked this ship and its crew to rescue me yet you will allow the Raadamani to reclaim B'Etal? Do you not wish for her to remain in your care?"

"Merely 'wishing' for a particular set of circumstances will not cause them to materialize, iCheb." Seven's suddenly sharp voice was the first real indication that she was indeed hurting over this news. "Though I wish for B'Etal to remain with us I cannot alter the captain's decision if she determines the Raadamani would make fit caretakers for her."

"Cannot or will not?" Mizati's anger was a visceral thing. If Seven was so compliant when faced with B'Etal's reclamation, what would stop her from being similarly compliant if and when the Norkadians came to claim Mizati? The little girl knew that Seven loved B'Etal, that Seven wanted her to stay. What she didn't understand was why her mother wasn't fighting for it.

"Irrelevant." Seven shot the child an icy glare.

"It is a valid question, Mother," said iCheb sternly. "Your choice does not seem logical."

"I opposed your parents' custodial claim because of their intent to have you assimilated a second time. Your life was in danger. I did not oppose the claim of the Family Cugai for Ixan and Rebi because I—"

"Ixan and Rebi chose to return to their biological family!" Mizati balled her fists at her sides in an unconscious mimic of her favorite engineer. "B'Etal is not capable of making such a choice! You must represent her best interests as her mother! Her best interests are here! With us!"

"Mizati—" Naomi edged close to her younger friend, hoping to calm her. She had never seen Mizati so angry. The little girl stepped away from her.

"My biological parents are constructs, facts, data stored in my cortical implant," she said, still addressing Seven. "I did not know them. I do not remember them. I do not want to live with them. This is my home. You are my mother. I require no more!"

The child's breath came in short, sharp pants until she managed to regain a measure of control over her respiration. The steel in her eyes rivaled even Seven's best glare.

"Will you be so compliant when the Norkadians come to take me?" she asked coldly, finally getting to the heart of her distress. "Will you let strangers take both your daughters from you?"

The words stung with the intensity of a physical blow.

"I am one…alone," replied Seven, her voice hesitant and unsure. "My will in this matter is insufficient to—"

"You are not one alone!" shouted iCheb. "We are your collective! We support each other!"

Mizati turned without a word and stalked toward the cargo bay doors.

"Where are you going?" demanded Seven of Nine.

"Your concept of your family unit and your place within it has degraded. You have been damaged," said the child, her gait never wavering. "Obviously Lieutenant Torres did not heed my warning regarding such an occurrence." The doors whooshed open and she stepped through them, turning and piercing everyone in the room with an icy glare. "She will learn that Borg do not exaggerate."

The clanging echo of the closing doors was the only sound to follow in Mizati's wake.

"Yes, Captain?" B'Elanna Torres stood at attention stiffly, steeling herself for whatever the compact auburn-haired woman would have to say. She'd known resigning her commission and asking for a shuttlecraft and supplies was a risk when she'd done it, but she'd also known it was the right thing to do. She hoped the captain would understand that.

"Have a seat, B'Elanna," said Kathryn, gesturing to the chair nearest her. B'Elanna nodded and took the offered seat, looking at her hands resting on the conference table's wooden surface rather than at her commanding officer.

Janeway took a moment simply to observe her Chief Engineer, attempting to discover if the inherent differences in B'Elanna's opinions and behaviors was something more than just a feeling of hers. When the silence between them finally became awkward, only then did the young Klingon/Human woman look up. Whatever questions Janeway had, she found the answers plainly painted in chestnut brown.

Her mouth quirked into a sympathetic half-smile.

"Does Seven know how you feel about her?" she asked quietly.

Chestnut eyes widened in alarm.


Janeway held up a hand, halting B'Elanna's denial.

"Don't bother," she said. She looked down at the table, ran her fingers lightly along a grooved edge. "I wasn't sure I'd guessed right until I asked but the look in your eyes confirmed my suspicions." She returned her gaze to her engineer. "You love her."

It wasn't a question. B'Elanna's mouth became a desert wasteland and she could only manage a short nod of her head.

"Does she know?"

B'Elanna considered the question. Everything in her body hoped that Seven had had welcomed the turn their relationship was taking but the interrupted kiss had seemed to interrupt everything else, including their friendship. Now she didn't know what to think. She blushed, sure she had seemed more than idiotic to the Borg. It was that fear that had kept her away so long.

But, she noted silently, darkly, she hasn't exactly been around all that much herself.

"B'Elanna?" Concern touched Janeway's gentle frown.

"Yeah, I'm still here," said the Klingon quietly. "I don't know if she knows or not. We haven't exactly been…talking much lately."

Janeway sighed softly, silently lamenting the timing of this new development. She wondered if what she felt was surprise or something else. She guessed she should have seen this coming; after all, the two of them were so damned alike in some ways. But she'd always thought their differences would keep them from seeing that. The old 'forest for the trees' thing.

All in all, Janeway's immediate reaction was that they were a good match: two passionate, loyal, brilliant women searching for a place to belong in a Universe that had trouble accepting them. It wasn't their compatibility or lack of it that troubled her. It was her own protective streak. That big, ugly 'mother bear' thing that had made her risk her ship and her crew time and again in defense of Seven of Nine, the innocent she had delivered from evil. The mother bear in her saw the potential for deep pain in this turn of events and didn't like it one bit—despite her intellectual understanding that protecting Seven from such life experiences would be more detrimental in the long run.

"B'Elanna," said Kathryn finally, "you know that it is my preference as the captain of Voyager to refrain from interfering in the personal relationships of my crew. You also know, from personal experience," she added, "that, though reluctant, I have interfered when I have deemed it necessary."

B'Elanna sat up in her chair, her hands balling into fists in front of her. Rage ignited in her eyes.

Before she could even snarl a response, the startling screech of buckling metal stopped her and both she and the captain's attention snapped toward the conference room door...and the tiny, Borg-enhanced hand that was helping it to open. Shouts coming from outside ended when the crunching sound gave way to a loud POP!

"Targ snouts!" yelped B'Elanna, jumping out of her chair and flinging herself halfway onto the conference table. Blue sparks snapped once or twice in the doorway followed by a weary electronic hiss and some smoke.

"Tuvok to the conference room!" shouted Janeway as she bolted to her feet.

The sounds of a struggle resumed but neither Janeway nor Torres could see through the smoke to assess the situation. Finally there was a loud "OWWWW!" and Harry Kim stumbled through the door, holding his shin and cursing under his breath.

"She kicked me!" he whined between coughing fits. "I can't believe she kicked me!"

"You were attempting to impede my progress, Harry," said Mizati, calmly entering the conference room. "Kicking you seemed the most efficient method of removing you as an obstacle."

"What is the meaning of this?!" barked the usually unflappable commander of Voyager. Why did she always seem to come unglued when dealing with Seven's unpredictable children? Or—more importantly—why were these children so bent on driving her insane?

"This does not concern you, Captain Janeway," said the child politely. She turned her icy glare to Voyager's chief engineer instead. "I have come to seek retribution from B'Elanna Torres."

"Me?!" The squeak in B'Elanna's voice was wholly un-Klingon. "What in Gre'Thor did I do?"

"You have damaged my mother," said Mizati darkly, bearing down on the woman. "I warned you that I had little tolerance for such things."

"What??" B'Elanna tried to move away from the little girl but found herself blocked by a neighboring chair. "What are you talking about? I never touched her!" The Klingon was torn between wondering what the Hell was going on and finding Seven to make sure she was okay.

"Exactly!" shouted Mizati at the top of her lungs.

The confused silence that suddenly blanketed the room was shattered by the dual arrivals of Tuvok, phaser drawn and Vulcan eyebrow raised, and Naomi Wildman, visibly pale after seeing the damage to the conference room door.

"May I be of assistance, Captain?" asked Tuvok. Logic told him that no amount of logic would be sufficient to guide him through this minefield of high emotion. The prudent alternative, therefore, was to take direction from his commanding officer.

"Mizati!" hissed Naomi urgently, her eyes as round as deflector shields. She jerked the younger girl around to face her. "Have you blown a fuse or something?? What are you doing?"

"Enough!" Kathryn Janeway scrubbed at one of her temples viciously, wondering when her ship had turned into a daycare center. An unruly one at that. "I want an explanation and I want one right now!"

Five pairs of eyes blinked owlishly back at her. Not a single mouth opened.

Janeway sat down. "I'm in no hurry," she lied with forced cheerfulness. "I can wait all day, if you'd like." She leveled her patented Force 10 glare at each and every one of them. "But someone in this room," she said, baring her teeth in a menacing facsimile of a smile, "is going to explain what this is all about."

Naomi glanced at Mizati and released a sigh of resignation. Then she came to parade attention, turned to the captain, and looked her dead in the eyes.

"Seven knows the Raadamani are here for B'Etal, ma'am," she said softly. "Mizati is upset because Seven has agreed to give custody over to them."

"She what?" The blood drained from B'Elanna's face and she dropped, hard, into one of the conference table chairs.

"Lieutenant, calm down," ordered Janeway, grateful when Torres obediently fell silent. The captain turned to her young bridge assistant. "Naomi, are you saying Seven has been in contact with the Raadamani? That she has actually told them that she is giving them custody of B'Etal?"

The strawberry blonde shook her head. "No. She just told us that she was going to comply with your orders to return B'Etal to her people, right before she sent that message to—" Naomi stopped in mid-sentence and turned guilty eyes towards Voyager's chief of security.

"Sent what message, Naomi?" prodded Janeway. "To whom?"

"To me, Captain," replied Tuvok. "It was a description of a possible solution to the question of B'Etal's custody," he said carefully, casting stern looks at the two little girls. "It was, however, very similar to a plan we had already considered and discarded. I simply deleted the communication."

Naomi held her breath and prayed to every Ktarian water-nymph she had ever heard of that Mizati would keep her Borg mouth shut. If there was ever a time for discretion, this was it. And Naomi was painfully aware that discretion simply wasn't one of Mizati's strengths.

One heartbeat…then another…then the moment had passed. Janeway finally nodded, accepting Tuvok's explanation without question.

"How did Seven find out about the Raadamani?" asked B'Elanna softly. "I thought you hadn't told her yet." She directed the last comment to Janeway.

"I told her," admitted Voyager's first child. She looked quickly at the floor. "I overheard Ensign Jenkins talking about it in the mess hall this morning."

"Miss Wildman, you and I will be having a little talk later about sensitive information and ship-wide distribution," said Janeway admonishingly. "But frankly, we don't have the time for that right now. The Raadamani are expecting us to turn B'Etal over to them in less than—" She checked the chronometer on the wall. "—twelve hours. I'd like another option before then."

Mizati stopped glaring at B'Elanna Torres long enough to let what the captain had just said sink in to her cortical implant. "Then you are not planning to return my sister to the Raadamani?" she asked, still unsure she had heard right.

"No, I am not," confirmed the compact commanding officer. "If you two had bothered to check Ensign Jenkins' story—" Janeway stopped herself before she got on her high horse. "That's not the point. The point is I have determined it is not in your sister's best interests to go with these people. Now I simply have to convince them of that—without violating the Prime Directive or firing on them."

Mizati considered that information carefully, her head tilting to one side in a very familiar fashion. Finally she refocused her eyes and looked at the captain.

"The law," she said. "The most efficient means of fulfilling those requirements is to invoke the law."

Janeway was absolutely sure of it. The Borg children were more than just children; they were a finely-crafted weapon whose primary purpose was to drive her completely out of her head.

"What law?" she asked, trying to remain patient.

"The Ulii-Marisin Decision, enacted prime in Tangent 43. When two pods vying for the custody of a child or children are equally matched in value and right and when the First Pair is unable to determine—either through unavoidable absence or the declaration of absolute equality—a victorious pod, either pod has the right to invoke the Ulii-Marisin Decision, a battle to the death to be fought by a champion of each pod's choosing. The pod of the champion who survives is declared the custodial pod. There is no appeal."

"We are not a Raadamani pod, Mizati," countered Tuvok. "It is unlikely Voyager would be considered an equal match to Pod Boi-Ovani."

"If B'Etal were only Raadamani, you would be correct, Mr. Tuvok. However, 26% of her internal systems are Borg in origin." She turned to look at B'Elanna. "And she could be considered a member of the House of K'mDoQ, could she not, Lieutenant?"

The young Klingon blinked once and tried to think back to what little she knew about Great House politics and policy on Qo'noS.

"Kahless! She's right," she said after a few moments. "If a Klingon child with no House affiliation is named in tribute to a member of a Great House, it is the right of the members of the Great House so honored to choose whether or not to adopt that child and thereby grant him or her House affiliation." She grinned from ear to ear. "And as the last known living member of the House of K'mDoQ, I guess that would be up to me."

"But B'Etal isn't Klingon, B'Elanna," argued Harry, frowning in confusion.

"She is if I say she is, Starfleet," snarled B'Elanna. "And I say she is!"

Harry raised his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay!" he squealed. "I was just trying to help!"

"All right, children, knock it off," said Janeway, interrupting the bickering before it got out of hand. "I just want to know if this is doable. Tuvok?"

"If this particular pod recognizes the authority of this law and we are able to convince them of our right to challenge them for custody, then I believe we could be successful. Providing, of course, that our champion defeats theirs in the conflict."

Janeway put up a hand to stop that line of thinking. "One step at a time, Tuvok. Let's find out if the law holds sway with them and if we can press our claim of custody first." She glanced at the others in the room. "Only then do I want to cross the bridge of the champion. Understood?"

A round of general nods answered her.

"Good. Tuvok," she ordered, "find out if this pod is bound by this Ulii-Marisin Decision and whether or not we have sufficient grounds to challenge them. Get Chakotay to assist you if you need him. Harry, you and Tom use those creative minds of yours to continue looking for other options. I want something to fall back on if this doesn't work."

"No problem, Captain." It took all of Janeway's willpower not to chuckle at her young ensign's earnestness.

"B'Elanna," she continued, "I want you down in engineering making sure the warp drive is at 100%. There've been some unconfirmed sightings of Borg cubes in the area," she said pointedly. "I want to be able to outrun them if they suddenly show up."

"I'll have Carey get right on it, Captain," replied the chief engineer, with a knowing grin. "With your permission, I'd like to let Seven know that B'Etal isn't going anywhere without a fight."

Janeway hesitated, having nearly forgotten about Seven's belief that they were simply going to hand B'Etal over to the Raadamani without so much as a look backwards.

"Granted." But she leaned across the table at her officer, gazing at her with unreadable eyes. "Just remember, B'Elanna, we haven't won this fight yet. The Raadamani might reject our challenge. They might—"

"Their ship might also suffer a massive propulsion systems overload and explode in the next thirty seconds," said B'Elanna acidly. "That still won't change the fact that B'Etal is Seven's daughter and she's staying right here!"

"I'm not disagreeing with you, Lieutenant," countered Janeway, her voice steely. "I am just asking that you temper your enthusiasm with realism. We still have a long way to go before this is over."

"Give me ten minutes and a bat'tleth and I'll make that 'long way' a heck of a lot shorter for you," offered the Klingon with a murderous growl.

"Belay that," the captain snapped. "I have enough to worry about without chasing down vigilantes from my own crew. Am I understood?"

B'Elanna glowered, looking as if she had something else to say about that, but she finally thought better of whatever was perched on her lips and sighed instead, yielding reluctantly to Janeway's better judgement.

"Understood, Captain."

"You all have your orders," said Janeway, getting to her feet. "There will be a staff meeting in exactly three hours. Make the time count. Dismissed."

As the adults exited one by one through the battered door, Janeway put her hands behind her back and called out to two young ladies who immediately looked as though they wished they had been fleeter of foot.

"Not so fast, Miss Wildman, Miss—" She stopped, momentarily flummoxed by Mizati's lack of a surname.

"Miss Nueves," supplied the child helpfully.

"Yes," agreed the captain. "Miss Nueves. Join me in my ready room, won't you? There are a few things I'd like to discuss with the two of you."

Both girls' faces fell.

"Yes, ma'am," they intoned quietly. Janeway gestured with one hand and they marched sadly out of the conference room, heads down and bodies slumped like criminals marching to the gallows. Behind them, Kathryn Janeway ruefully shook her head, then followed them out.

"iCheb!" B'Elanna spotted the young Brunali as she rounded a corner in the corridor and she hurried to catch up to him.

"B'Elanna." Relief battled with wariness on the young man's features. "Did Mizati locate you? She wished to speak with you."

B'Elanna smirked. "Which is just a nice way of saying she wanted to rip my arms out of their sockets. Yes, she found me. On the other side of the conference room door. Which she ripped out of the wall. And which you'll be helping her to fix once we've gotten out of this mess."

"I…see," he replied…in a manner that clearly said he didn't see at all. In fact, he didn't seem to even comprehend what B'Elanna was saying, appearing distracted in a way that was wholly un-Borg. His agitation finally caught B'Elanna's attention.

"Hey," she said, putting her hand on his arm. "Are you okay?" She looked worriedly at the cargo bay doors. "Where's Seven?"

"In there," he said, pointing toward the cargo bay. "She said she wanted to spend some time with B'Etal before Captain Janeway came to retrieve her. I am going to ask the captain to ascertain whether or not the Raadamani would be willing to consider a…different arrangement."

"What kind of arrangement?" asked the young Klingon, her eyes suddenly intense. Something in iCheb's voice was making the pit of her belly cold.

"Perhaps the Raadamani would prefer a fully grown male with engineering expertise to a female infant," he said haltingly yet with deep conviction. "If so, I would be willing to take B'Etal's place in this transaction."

Immense pride in this man-boy's courage temporarily stole B'Elanna's ability to speak and she impulsively pulled iCheb into a hug.

"No one's going anywhere," she said fiercely, releasing him to look squarely in his eyes. "I promise. Now, I want you to go get Mizati and Naomi and take them to the holodeck or the mess hall or something, okay? I'm gonna need a couple of minutes with Seven…to brief her on the plan."

"Do not let her coldness deceive you, B'Elanna," said iCheb somberly, indicating the cargo bay doors. "My mother is her most remote when she is…fearful." He gave the Klingon woman a shy smile. "I believed it was a trait she had acquired from her Human heritage, though I have since observed similar behavior in…other species."

"Go!" said B'Elanna, exasperated. She swatted the teen harmlessly with the flat of her palm. "Before I toss you down the corridor." He chuckled and darted away from the second mock blow, heading toward the turbolift.

The engineer gazed after him for a moment, then turned, taking one last deep breath before searching out Seven of Nine. It didn't take long to find her.

Seven was sitting in the antique rocking chair, studying B'Etal with wide, captivated eyes. The baby gurgled happily—completely oblivious to the tempest surrounding her—and reached for Seven with tiny fingers, determined to catch some of the pretty golden hair that dangled just out of her grasp.

B'Elanna, believing she was unnoticed, watched the two of them for a long moment…until Seven finally spoke, her eyes not lifting a single micrometer.

"Have you come to say goodbye to B'Etal, Lieutenant?" asked the young woman icily. "Or to take her from me?"

Anger roiled in the Klingon's belly. "B'Etal isn't going anywhere, Seven," she swore, wondering how Seven could even think she would take part in something like that. "Not as long as I'm alive."

"Impressive words," said the young Borg, finally lifting her pale, empty eyes to lock gazes with the Klingon. "However, there is a saying among Humans that makes me doubt them. 'Actions speak louder than words.' Certainly your actions have spoken louder than your words in the past."

"What the Hell is that supposed to mean?" demanded B'Elanna.

Ire flickered across Seven's features. "You called me 'friend' yet abandoned me when it suited you. You said you enjoyed the time you spent with the children and me and yet this is the first time you and I have spoken in more than a month. Why should I now believe what you say about B'Etal?"

The edge in Seven's voice cut B'Elanna more deeply than any blade ever could. In her pain, she fell back on the only thing she could—her honor.

"I am Klingon," she hissed, her fists balling at her sides. "My honor is proof enough!"

"Obviously," countered Seven, "your honor does not extend to Borg drones."

The hare trigger on B'Elanna's emotions instantly relaxed a notch. She recognized that rationalization. Hell, she was a master of it. How many times in her life had she lashed out at someone, blaming his or her hurtful actions on her own heritage? Echoes of that cry had chased her all the way out of Starfleet and into the Maquis. Had even chased her onto the Klingon Barge of the Dead not so very long ago.

You treat me badly because I am a half-breed was so much easier to believe, to understand. Her self-loathing was even an armor of sorts, protecting her in its own strange and dysfunctional way. Saying, in essence, You can't hurt me because I hate myself more than you ever could.

"I don't see any Borg drones in this room," she said softly, shaking her head. "Just a mother and her child."

The ache in Seven's chest at B'Elanna's words would have driven her to her knees had she been standing.

"I am no one's mother," she said bitterly. "I am Borg. While you may have forgotten that fact, I am sure the remainder of Voyager's crew has not."

"Dammit Seven, listen to me! B'Etal is your daughter! Everyone believes that and no one is taking her anywhere! We have a plan now! There's a way out of all of this!"

B'Elanna's shouting woke the infant in question and she struggled against the blanket Seven had wrapped around her, loudly expressing her discontent. Seven carefully shifted the little girl to an upright position, feeling her nestle in the hollow of her neck. B'Etal's fussing subsided almost immediately but Seven's trembling fingers continued to soothe her, rubbing in circles along her back.

The ache in Seven's chest was suffocating. The shallow, humid breaths warming her skin, the soft sounds of B'Etal in sleep, the flutter of her tiny heart—it all brought tears to her eyes. Knowing that soon someone else would be comforting this being she loved so dearly, this tiny creature whose very presence had opened a place inside herself that she had never known existed…it was unbearable.

"The captain makes all decisions aboard Voyager," she whispered sadly. She wanted to believe B'Elanna but she knew better than anyone else did that Kathryn Janeway got whatever she wanted, no matter how improbable. If Janeway's orders were to hand B'Etal over to the Raadamani, Seven knew any protest—even B'Elanna's—would be futile.

"This plan is one of them!" While still adamant, B'Elanna lowered her volume significantly, reluctant to disturb B'Etal again. "Seven, this isn't like when iCheb left! Janeway doesn't want to break up your family but she has to be cautious. She doesn't want anyone to get hurt."

B'Etal chose that moment to make an unhappy sound, her tiny features turning red and squinching up as she prepared to follow the first sound with several others.

"Let me take her," said B'Elanna gently, reaching for the baby. When Seven's eyes clouded with fear, she quickly added, "I just want to hold her. I won't take her anywhere."

Seven relented and watched as B'Elanna lifted B'Etal to her chest, settling the baby against her sternum. The infant struggled for another moment then suddenly relaxed, sighing with contentment before she began sucking her fist.

"I won't let them take you, wamach'wI," promised B'Elanna softly. Then she kissed the top of B'Etal's head, closing her eyes as she took a deep breath, enthralled by the fresh, clean scent of the baby's skin.

It was too much for Seven to bear. Seeing B'Elanna so tender with B'Etal, yet knowing that the Klingon would never share that tenderness with her, never feel anything for her…

"I must go," said Seven, bolting abruptly out of the rocking chair.

"What?" B'Elanna turned as the determined Astrometrics officer rushed past her. "Where are you going?"

Seven didn't answer. She simply hurried out of the cargo bay without so much as a glance backward or a single word of explanation.

"She doesn't believe me," realized B'Elanna as she stared at the closing doors. "Why doesn't she believe me?" She looked at the precious bundle cuddled under her chin. "You believe me, right kiddo?"

B'Etal, being too young to understand the question and caring only that she was warm and safe in her second mother's arms, answered B'Elanna with a yawn and a satisfied squeak.

Kathryn Janeway propped her head in one hand and lifted her lucky cup to her lips with the other. She took a sip of a steaming coffee-like substance, frowned, then dropped the cup in its saucer with a clink.

I hate this part, she thought dourly. The waiting game. She'd already delegated all the really juicy assignments to her senior staff and even now the biosciences department was doing a work up on the first contact aspects of this whole ordeal. Which left her plenty of time to think...and to worry.

She scowled and pushed away from her desk, strolling to the huge plasteel windows that lined the far wall of her ready room. She gazed blankly out at the stars—stationary for once—and at what she could see of the cluster-type Raadamani vessel off the port bow.

She hated feeling like this.

Worry sat thickly in the pit of her stomach like one of Neelix's less-successful stews. Except there was no cure for worry, no magical hypospray filled with liquid blue relief.

Kathryn shook her head in dismay then leaned it against the smooth, cool surface of the window.

So much of what was going on were things Starfleet would never have expected to happen let alone would have thought to include in any Academy classes. How many custody battles were being fought over children freed from the Borg? How many eight-year-olds with typical eight-year-old emotional development could bend tritanium alloy in their bare hands or extrapolate subspace relay equations in their heads? How many adult Human women were just discovering the concepts of love and family after having spent 18 years as little more than a machine? How many Klingon/Human women, former members of a guerilla fighting force somewhat outside the law, were about to start courting a Human ex-Borg, complete with a ready-made ex-Borg family?

Well, Katie, said Janeway's inner voice, which sounded disconcertingly like her younger sister, Phoebe. You always enjoyed a challenge—just like Daddy.

Janeway immediately wondered how her father, the indomitable Admiral Edward Janeway, would handle her current predicament. She laughed outright when the only image she could come up with was a picture of him calmly walking out an airlock.

"Next time I ask for a challenge remind me to be more specific, Fee," she whispered, chuckling.

A discreet chirrup called the auburn-haired captain back from her reminiscences. The Janeway command mask replaced her wistful smile and she straightened her shoulders, heading for her desk.


The door hissed open, granting entrance to Voyager's first officer and chief of security. By the look of them, neither one was particularly happy.

Though, Kathryn admitted, with Tuvok, it's hard to tell.

"Report," she said, taking her seat.

Chakotay slumped into the chair opposite her, seemingly relieved to let his larger frame relax for the moment. He nodded tersely to Tuvok, content to let the less hotheaded of the two of them begin the report.

"Pod Boi-Ovani is indeed bound by the Ulii-Marisin Decision, Captain," began the mocha-skinned Vulcan. "However, they were resistant to its application in this particular case."


Chakotay ran a thumb along the tribal tattoo on his forehead.

"Because we're not Raadamani?" he replied, shrugging. "I think we caught them off guard, Kathryn. I don't think they expected us to find this wormhole of opportunity."

"Indeed," agreed Tuvok. "They seemed surprised by our knowledge of their statutes and process of jurisprudence."

Chakotay took a deep breath and found his captain's steely gaze.

"There is another option, Kathryn," he said, wondering in the back of his mind why always had to play the part of devil's advocate. "The Raadamani haven't made any threats against B'Etal. They've only asked for custody."

"You're saying there's a possibility that they will take her and raise her as one of their own." She shook her head. "I've thought of that too, Chakotay, believe me. But we have to be willing to play this custody card even if that is their intention."

"I am not sure I follow you, Captain," said Tuvok, his brows furrowed. "The Prime Directive—"

"—doesn't apply here, Tuvok. The Raadamani are space-faring and they made contact with us, not the other way around." Janeway turned intent, gray-blue eyes on each of her trusted officers. "Tell me, gentlemen, are you willing to tell Seven of Nine that she is a suitable choice as mother to B'Etal only when the child's life is in danger or when there is no one else to do it?" When neither man answered, Janeway continued. "We made that mistake with iCheb and we were almost too late to correct it. Custody of a child is about more than biology and genetics and race. Seven's claim is just as valid as theirs."

"Yes, Captain, but the Raadamani will no doubt argue the opposite."

Janeway's smile was practically reptilian. "Not without nullifying their own claim, they won't."

Both men frowned, but only Chakotay voiced his confusion.


"Look at the math, gentlemen," explained Janeway. "According to Mizati, 26% of B'Etal's internal systems are Borg in origin. Not enough to tip the scales in our favor if this is truly a contest of genetics, unless—"

"Unless the child's remaining genetic material differs from this pod's by a significant amount," said Tuvok, taking Janeway's theory to its logical conclusion.

"Which it does," she agreed. "By 49%, in fact…if the Doctor is correct."

"Leaving them with a 25% match and us with 26!" Chakotay beamed.

"Exactly!" said Janeway, rising from her chair. "Biology and genetics would be their best bet for refusing our request for an Ulii-Marisin Decision. As you said, Chakotay, we aren't Raadamani. However, once they realize we have the biological advantage, I think they'll be all too eager to invoke the law themselves."

"It's their only chance," said Chakotay, blinking in surprise. "No matter what they want her for, no matter what their plans for her, that law is their only chance to regain custody." He knew it shouldn't startle him like it did, but the captain's uncanny ability to turn losing odds into winning ones simply wasn't something he was ever going to get used to.

"And our trump card," agreed Janeway. "If these Raadamani merchants are anything like our Ferengi back home, they won't like losing. Refusing to consider their claim might put us right in the middle of another war—something I definitely want to avoid." She shifted gears from scientist to captain quickly and easily. "Tuvok, contact the Lead Pair of Pod Boi-Ovani. Tell them you'd like to discuss the terms of their agreement to turn B'Etal's custody over to us. When they demand to speak to me personally—and they will—stall them for eight minutes and then connect them through this terminal."

"Aye, Captain," said Tuvok as he exited the room.

"Chakotay," said Janeway as she unconsciously straightened her uniform. "Call the senior staff to the conference room. I want to begin briefing them as soon as I am finished with the Lead Pair. Once they invoke the Ulii-Marisin Decision, I have a feeling we're going to need every minute we can get to prepare. Understood?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Chakotay grimly.

"Oh, and Chakotay?" added Janeway, halting her first officer before he made it through the door. "Remind me to put a note in Mizati's personnel file, won't you? Something glowing that will hopefully stop me from launching her into the nearest black hole on those days she insists on testing the limits of my patience."

"Yes, ma'am," smirked Chakotay knowingly. "Right away."

Kathryn Janeway entered her conference room, frowning as she stepped gingerly around the warped remains of what used to be a door. She shook her head, pulling unconsciously at the uncomfortable collar of her dress uniform as she took her place at the table. She took a quick headcount of the room before she sat, interested to find that Mizati and iCheb had accompanied Seven to this meeting. They looked more like her guards than her children, however; flanking her chair and staring straight ahead, their arms clasped rigidly behind their backs. Janeway had to suppress the urge to say at ease when she saw them.

Instead, she offered a small smile of approval to Seven of Nine, who nodded slightly in acknowledgement, a smile of gratitude tinting her pale lips in return. She then took a moment to survey the rest of her senior staff as they waited impatiently for her to bring the meeting to order. A feeling of pride swept through the captain unexpectedly and she savored it, wondering briefly what would have become of these people if the Caretaker hadn't intervened in their lives the way he had.

It doesn't matter, Katie, chided her inner Phoebe. They're here now. Do right by them.

Kathryn nodded, feeling her blood turn to steel as it often did in decisive times.

"In accordance with their beliefs and traditions," she began, "the Raadamani have invoked a Law of Absolutes against Voyager in an attempt to gain custody of B'Etal Seonaid Nueves, daughter—" She paused for the briefest of moments, her throat clenching with emotion. "Daughter," she repeated, "of Seven of Nine."

She referred to the PADDs placed around the table. "The law is known as the Ulii-Marisin Decision and you will find a brief overview of it on the PADD in front of you." A brief shuffle was the only sound as hands reached for and accessed the information. While her officers were reading, Kathryn Janeway watched their eyes, seeing them register the barbaric nature of the law in question. When the last pair of eyes found hers, she spoke again.

"I've agreed to their terms," she announced.

Of the immediate reactions—ranging from surprise to approval—only one could be characterized as 'dumbfounded'.

"Captain! You can't be serious!" The Emergency Medical Hologram's face betrayed an unusual mix of emotions, disgust and disbelief seeming to be chief among them. "This isn't a law! It's litigiously sanctioned murder! Surely you can see—"

"I appreciate your…distaste of this statute, Doctor," said Janeway, interrupting her outraged officer. "And I don't want any of you to think that I condone this type of…well, as the Doctor said, it is little more than murder." She frowned deeply, revealing a tiny glimpse of the toll the commitment to follow through on this plan had taken. "However, my decision has been made. We are here now to decide only on the particulars of our involvement…which takes place in one Raadamani circumference or—"

"Thirty hours," piped up Mizati. All eyes turned toward her and she blushed bright red, startled by the sudden attention. She averted her eyes from the scrutiny.

"Thirty hours," agreed Kathryn, smiling slightly. She had to admit there was something she liked about the girl despite her stubbornness and her tendency to do first and ask questions later. "Thank you, Mizati."

Mizati's head rose proudly at the acknowledgement. "You are welcome," she said, nodding.

"Thirty hours doesn't give us much time to prepare," said Chakotay, deftly steering the meeting back on track.

"No, it doesn't." Janeway rose from her chair and walked to the viewscreen on the wall, activating a series of visual files. The first one seemed to be an approximation of an arena as seen from an aerial viewpoint.

"Let's get started, shall we?"

90 minutes, 216 questions, and the greater chunk of a migraine headache all brought Kathryn Janeway to the hardest part of the meeting. They were now perfectly clear on the what, the when, the how, and the why. The only thing left was the who.

"Okay, people," she began, once again occupying her seat at the head of the table. "The Raadamani have notified us there are three absolutes regarding the appointment of a champion and that violating them constitute an immediate forfeit. The first is that the champion cannot be coerced, forced, or chosen—either randomly, by skill, or by democratic vote. He or she must come forward of his or her own free will to participate."

A few nods circled the table but no one spoke.

"The second is that neither member of the Lead Pair of a combatant pod may volunteer as that would cause undue hardship on the functioning of that pod. Raadamani litigants have determined that the spirit of that absolute must be applied to us as well, even though our hierarchy is differently structured. They have therefore barred Commander Chakotay and myself from volunteering." The captain cleared her throat and looked up at her Astrometrics officer, sincere regard coloring her eyes. "But we both want you to know, Seven, that either of us would have gladly come forward."

A delicate wave of surprise fluttered across Seven's face which until this moment had been stoically porcelain and unexpressive.

"Thank you, Commander," she said, nodding at the first officer. Her pale blue eyes brightened with emotion. "Thank you, as well, Captain," she added, acknowledging her friend and mentor. "I…appreciate the sentiment."

Seven realized immediately that the word appreciate did not adequately describe her feelings and her lack of emotional vocabulary embarrassed her. Whatever had seemed so irrelevant about emotion only a few short months ago had evaporated under the strange heat of her interaction with B'Elanna Torres. Now she wished she had made more of an effort to increase her usage of the relevant terms.

Kathryn nodded then quickly averted her eyes, worried that too much emotion of her own would show through her battle armor.

"The only other absolute regarding the champion," she continued, looking at her PADD, "doesn't apply to us since none of the crew is likely to be pregnant at this time."

She was silent a moment while she considered her next words. Finally, she looked up.

"You've all read the report on this," she started. "And even if I were allowed to choose who would represent this ship, I wouldn't. I loathe everything that this law represents." She clenched her jaw against the venom she felt rising inside her. "But the alternatives are…unacceptable."

"During my meeting with the Lead Pair, I discovered that there is more at stake here than just B'Etal's custody. As we had feared, B'Etal's racial disparities are significant enough to this pod to be cause for something called reciprocal action on their part. It is their stated intent, should they prove victorious in their claim of custody, to…"

Kathryn looked away from Seven at that moment, unwilling to look into those particular eyes as she revealed the Raadamani's heinous plan.

"…to have the child euthanized in retaliation for recent attacks by other Raadamani on this pod."

B'Elanna leapt to her feet, crimson rage distorting her features.

"Over my dead body!" she growled. "I'm your volunteer, Captain. This Raadamani petaQ will choke to death on his own blood!"

"An impressive threat, Lieutenant," admitted Tuvok. "And one likely to give the Raadamani pause. However, as Chief of Security, it is my duty to protect the members of this crew." He stood. "Therefore, I will represent the ship in this conflict."

B'Elanna leaned across the conference table. "Stay out of this, Tuvok," she snarled. "This is between me and those child-murdering cowards!"

"Oh goody," sneered the Doctor. "Maybe you two can fight to the death to find out who gets to fight to the death."

"No." Seven's voice was glacial as she stood and linked her hands behind her back. "B'Etal is my child and my responsibility. I will represent her in this confrontation."

B'Elanna turned her round, dark eyes on the ex-Borg. "No way! I won't allow it!"

"You won't allow it?" asked Tom Paris, incredulous. "B'Elanna, what are you talking about?"

"Captain, you can't let her do this!" Torres ignored her ex-lover's question and instead appealed to her superior officer. "What if something happens? What if she—" She couldn't bring herself to say the words.

"Do you have so little confidence in my mother's abilities, Lieutenant?" asked iCheb curiously, instantly capturing the attention of everyone in the room.

"No! That's not the point!" sputtered the young Klingon. "I'm thinking of the two of you, for Kahless' sake! Now that you have a mother don't you want to keep her?!"

"What we want is not relevant here, Lieutenant," explained Mizati. "This is my mother's decision to make."

"But it's the WRONG decision!" shouted B'Elanna, skating dangerously near the edge of desperation. "Don't you SEE that?" She looked wildly around the room, searching for supportive eyes around the table. After a moment, she took a deep breath.

"I'm the logical choice for this," she said, trying a different tactic.

"Oh this I have to hear," muttered the Doctor, rolling his eyes. "A Klingon attempting logic."

"Doctor." Janeway glared at her holographic officer until he reluctantly averted his eyes.

"Fine. If you all want to listen to this ridiculous—"

"Doctor!" repeated Janeway. The EMH fell obediently silent.

Janeway nodded, then turned her laser-like gaze on B'Elanna. "Please continue, Lieutenant."

"Indeed," agreed Tuvok, raising one eyebrow in inquiry and interest.

B'Elanna nodded her thanks to the captain. "Look around the table," she said, gesturing with one caramel-skinned hand. "This fight is about family, isn't it? And you all have one. All of you." She looked at Tuvok. "You have a wife, Tuvok. And children and grandchildren. All waiting for you back in the Alpha Quadrant." She indicated others around the table. "Harry's parents are waiting for him. Tom's father is waiting for him. The Captain's mother and sister. Chakotay's tribe." She glanced at Seven. "Relatives of the Hansens."

She took a moment, standing up and looking around the room. "Of the three of us at this table who don't have anyone back in the Alpha Quadrant waiting for us, the Doctor has already made his feelings clear. And Neelix—though he may have the courage of ten Klingons—just isn't cut out for killing. No offense," she said, her eyes filled with genuine affection for the Talaxian guide.

"None taken," he assured her, smiling.

She smiled back then turned to Janeway, her features stony and resolute.

"That just leaves me," she said quietly.

"Unacceptable," said Seven sharply. "I am—"

"Damned right it's unacceptable!" agreed Paris angrily, interrupting Seven. "I'm with the Borg on this one!"

"Shut up, Tom!" spat B'Elanna. "This isn't any of your business!"

"And how exactly is it your business, B'Elanna?" he countered, leaning forward menacingly. "If Seven wants to take care of this, why shouldn't she? Who died and made you Kahless the Unforgettable?"

B'Elanna leaned across the table toward her ex-lover. "Paris, I'm warning you," she said lowly, enunciating each word carefully. "Stay out of this."

"That's what this is all about, isn't it?" continued Tom recklessly, ignoring B'Elanna's warning. "We're back to that Klingon honor thing, aren't we? Or is it that Maquis thing, where you'd turn off the safeties in the holodeck just to see if bleeding could make you feel again! Is that it, B'Elanna? Do you want to bleed?"

"Qu'vatlh!" cursed the Klingon engineer. "You don't know what you're talking about!!"

"Lieutenant—" said Janeway wearily, intending to stop this pointless argument before it got out of hand.

"Then explain it to me, B'Elanna!" shouted Paris, ignoring the captain's intervention. "Explain it to all of us! Because it doesn't make any sense! Why are you so determined to do this? Why are you so willing to risk your LIFE for this? Seven has come forward on her own! It's her kid at stake here! Her family! If she wants to do this, I say more power to her! She's got a chance here! She's got experience in this—or have you forgotten the Tsunkatse tournaments?"

"Ensign, don't—" Janeway saw that this argument was gaining speed, tumbling out of control. She tried desperately to rein her officers in before one of them went too far.

"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND!" roared B'Elanna. She clenched her fists against her rage, not even feeling it when her nails sliced into the skin of her palms.



A nanosecond after the words left her mouth B'Elanna Torres realized exactly what she'd said…and where. The crimson flush of rage transformed immediately into mortification and she snapped to attention, shocked brown eyes darting around the silent conference room.

"Oh god," she whispered, blinking once and stumbling back a step. In a panic, she turned toward the only escape route, the battered door, and in the process found Seven's wide, egg-blue eyes staring at her, clearly shocked.

"I…I…" She shook her head slowly, as if in a trance. Then she broke the eye contact and bolted for the door. In her haste she didn't make too many allowances for the broken mechanism, barreling right through it without a thought.

A few seconds later, Tom Paris dropped back into his seat, flushing bright red and unable to look at anyone in the room. Which was probably a good thing considering the daggers Kathryn Janeway was shooting his way with her steel gray eyes.

"Well," said the Doctor, both holographic eyebrows high on his holographic forehead. "That was…unexpected."

"Doctor, please." The tone of Janeway's voice did not leave room for argument and the EMH shrugged apologetically.

"I was just saying—"


As if to emphasize Janeway's vehemence, the conference room door chose that moment to give up the ghost, creaking out of its socket and dropping to the floor with a startlingly loud clang. The captain closed her eyes, gripping her throbbing forehead with one white-knuckled hand.

Tuvok quickly and discreetly lifted the door off the floor, propping it against the nearest wall as quietly as he could.

No one in the room dared speak. In fact—other than Mizati and iCheb, whose slightly victorious smiles made their particular opinion on B'Elanna's admission clear—no one dared raise their eyes from the table in front of them, content to take Janeway's lead…whatever that turned out to be.

"All right," she said finally, lifting her eyes from the table in front of her to look at what remained of her senior staff. Only Chakotay managed to even glance in her direction.

"Seven is our champion," she said resignedly. Just once, couldn't something in this quadrant go smoothly? she wondered.

Seven's eyes snapped up to meet the captain's briefly and then dipped away, even as she nodded her acknowledgement of Janeway's statement.

"You have just under—" Janeway checked the chronometer on the wall. "—28 hours to prepare. I suggest you use the time to its best advantage."

"Yes, Captain," agreed Seven, glancing at the doorway briefly.

"Go on," said Janeway gently. "If you need anything, we're all here for you."

Seven blinked and looked at the faces around the table. "I…" For the first time in her life, words seemed to fail her. "Thank you."

She stood and shared a last, beseeching look with Janeway, who nodded ever so slightly, her lips curling in a supportive half-smile. Understanding the silent suggestion, Seven nodded one last time, turned, and exited the room.

When she was sure the young Borg was out of earshot, Janeway sighed and leveled a Force 10 look around the room.

"I don't want to hear a word of this on the ship's gossip circuit, am I understood?"

A few nods answered her. That wasn't quite good enough.

"Am I understood?" she repeated, her volume a notch or two higher.

A chorus of yes, ma'ams and ayes rang out.

"Good. Dismissed, all of you." Kathryn's head sank into her hands.

A general shuffling erupted as the senior staff clamored to leave as quickly as possible. Chakotay signaled to the children and they stopped their attempt to exit, waiting obediently.

"Captain, permission to take Ensign Wildman off active duty until further notice? The children will need—"

"Permission granted," said Janeway, not looking up. "Do whatever you have to, Chakotay. Then you and Tuvok meet me in my ready room. We have work to do."

"Aye, Captain," said the first officer, nodding to the kids and herding them out.

Kathryn Janeway sat alone at her conference table for a long moment, wondering what else could possibly happen.

The unholy crash of the door as it slid down the wall and slammed to the floor was her only answer.

Part Five

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