Queen of Hearts
The arena was dark when Wuqat of Pod Boi-Ovani entered it.
"Kaido mesa-li," he ordered and one by one, the overhead lights surged with power, illuminating the empty space. He nodded, clearly pleased, then headed directly to the tos, the point where things begin and things end. He walked the perimeter of the arena slowly, saying the ritual chantthe tzit-fallitunder his breath.
Null Humans, he thought, scowling as he remembered the words of Irlo-Jaat, the Lead Pair, when he had come to present himself as champion for this ancient ritual.
"They war for love or principle, Wuqat," they'd said. "Their passion is their undoing."
Wuqat frowned again. The Raadamani had warred for one reason and one reason alone since Sine 134. Profit. The Ulii-Marisin decision was a holdover from a different timea weaker timewhich had never been repealed. That his pod found itself bound to it now made him want to howl.
He finished his circuit and stepped into the center of the fighting area, flexing his corded hands and muscular arms. He settled the slisss, his ritual fighting blades, along his forearms and crouched in the center of the ring, trying to imagine the form and face of the Human he would face in only a few degrees.
"Iiiiya!" he shouted, leaping into a spinning kick, his bare feet thudding loudly on the floor in the empty arena. Once landed, he dropped into a crouch and fluidly drew an arm back, punching forward with power and grace. He let the pull of his arm carry through and he rolled on one shoulder, his sinewy legs catapulting him directly from the floor into another high kick.
Soft, Irlo-Jaat had called them. Impure. Base. Enslaved by sentiment.
He struck at the air with a roundhouse punch, letting his disgust power his moves.
They wanted to keep the fractional infant to raise as their own, as if her genetic structure carried no weight to his pod. It was completely unthinkable.
Did they not know the equation? Could they not see the simplicity of his people's computations? It surely didn't take an Enth to figure it out
With five billion Raadamani roaming the quadrant as merchants, it was inevitable that an economic disaster would eventually befall them. When it began, some clear-headed leads got together and determined a new computation of podial profit based entirely on the Saitzi-elo, a complex system that computed a pod's genetic makeup and compared it to the average genetic makeup of the TaTzit, the Great Primes. The closer a pod's genetic average was to the Primes, the more profit they earned.
Wuqat was proud to be a sum of Pod Boi-Ovani with a familial percentage match of 78.9011% and a podial percentage match of 67.6509%. And this with only his wife, Nai, and one child. Both percentages had been significantly higher before his two other children had fallen victim to the bio-economic civil war that had been raging between factions of the Raadamani for more than 15 cycles now.
The fractional infant's bio-data had been reviewed by the genetic counselors but her podial origin could not be determined. That had disappointed others from his community. Boi-Ovani had reciprocals pending with several pods and many were hoping to finalize at least one.
Wuqat sneered. It didn't matter to him what pod the infant had come from. He had a chance to reciprocate now, to punish some pod somewhere for the losses he had suffered. Nothing would stop him.
He flexed his biceps and drew his long arms up to deliver a simple combination move to his invisible foe, pleased by the sounds of his blades slicing through the air. He followed the simple combination with a spinning attack and then a feint, so intent on his warm-up that he missed the sound of the arena's doors opening and the dim sound of footsteps crossing the smooth floor.
"Aya?" said the intruder softly and Wuqat turned to see his only surviving child, Qati, looking at him with wide, proud eyes. He held a small container in his upturned hands. Wuqat smiled.
"Qati, esai," he said in greeting, removing his slisss. He knelt in front of the boy, only 3 cycles old, and took the container from him. He lifted its lid and looked inside, his smile widening.
"Uwre-no kenra?" It was imperative that no one had seen Qati bringing the paste that lay in the little box if his plan was to succeed.
"Ksayt," said Qati, shaking his head. Wuqat nodded approvingly. Using the yiheja poison in a ritual battle was strictly forbidden under the laws still in effect from Cosine 30, when the Ulii-Marisin decision had been ratified. Though he didn't think Irlo-Jaat would object, he did not know how much the Humans truly did understand about Raadamani law. The rumor on Pod Boi-Ovani was that some children on board the strange ship had stumbled upon a Raadamani legend that had given the Human lead the idea to press the Ulii-Marisin decision. Wuqat couldn't take the chance that that was true.
If the Humans found the yiheja poison or suspected its use, it would mean an instant forfeit on Boi-Ovani's part, giving his opponent custody of the fractional child. However, the neural poison would also give him an out if things began to look bad for him in the fight.
Just the merest dab of yiheja on the skin would do the job. All he had to do was have some nearby, someplace no one would suspect. He looked around the arena, his eyes stopping on one perfect spot.
"Tojii-wa, Qati," he said, gesturing for his child to follow him. "Ri fesa-am ses kuwut."
Qati ducked his head obediently and darted off to retrieve a pair of fighting gloves from a bench nearby. He met his father at the tos, the point where things begin and things end. Every Raadamani arena had a tos and every tos was marked in the same way with a sturdy pole on which to display the podial crest.
"Ken-am, Qati," said Wuqat, directing his child's attention to the pole. "Ri lati-wa no kuwut." Once Qati had donned the oversized fighting gloves, Wuqat proceeded to show him how to conceal the yiheja on the back of the pole, teaching him to never touch it with bare skin even though they had both taken the counter-agent to nullify its effects. Wuqat was not a risk-taker by any stretch of the imagination but even caution demanded extra vigilance where his only remaining child was concerned. As the youngster carefully spread a bit of the poison on the pole where directed, Wuqat squeezed his narrow shoulder with pride.
Not only had he assured his victory in the battle to come, but he had also taught his son the true value of that victory. Profit ruled most conflicts but pride had its place, too. Wuqat would defeat the Human champion and wash away the dishonor of losing his other children with the blood of that fractional infant, that offensive, weak, impure error that did not deserve to live.
He would use any means possible to destroy her.
For Qati, his only living child.
For Yansa and Lennik, dead now only eight deci-cycles.
But mostly for himself. For he despised the pity in the eyes of his pod-mates and longed for the time when the name Wuqat would again equal strength and not humiliation.
B'Elanna Torres leaned her head back in the rocking chair and sighed. She was exhausted but she didn't care. No way would she spend one unconscious moment away from Seven. Not one.
She looked at her lover through half-opened eyes, remembering the softness of her skin and the sweetness of her mouth and the newness of all those things just a few hours before. Now Seven regenerated, standing peacefully in her alcove where the Borg systems did what they could to prepare her body for the coming battle. Seven had already prepared her mind.
After B'Elanna had made the commitment to Seven and her children, becoming wife and mother with the soft utterance of two small words, she had done what any other Klingon warrior would have done when saddled with the burden of watching her mate enter such a conflict. She'd given Seven her mother's bat'tleth and had taught her how to use it.
For ten hours straight, thrust after parry after blow, B'Elanna guided Seven of Nine through the most intensive, most grueling, most agonizing bat'tleth training program imaginable. Seven never complained and B'Elanna never relented, pushing her wife harder and harder, not satisfied, not content until Seven could defeat a six-member rogue Klingon assault team without one wasted movement.
Only then did she relax. Slightly.
They'd returned to her quarters then, sore, bone-tired, and filthy with sweat. Without a word, B'Elanna took Seven's hand and led her to the ensuite where she silently undressed her and bathed her by hand, filling her tub with steaming water and scented oils. She washed Seven's long, golden hair carefully, reverently, then helped her from the tub, drying her off and wrapping her in a long, cool robe.
She herself showered quickly, scrubbing the tension and pain from her muscles, ringing her hair out and styling it with a shake of her head and a few tugs of her fingers. Before she'd been able to pull on her own robe, however, Seven had appeared in the doorway, her eyes a feral, hungry blue.
With head held high and nostrils flaring with raw need, the young Borg pulled the tie of her robe open and let the garment fall to the floor with a sigh.
B'Elanna'd taken a sharp breath at the sight, her body reacting instantly, fiercely. She felt her knees weaken and she braced herself against the counter with one hand even as she felt a growl begin low in her belly.
With panther-like grace, Seven stalked towards her, appraising her openly, wantonly, letting her eyes drink in the form and shape of her wife. She moved within an inch of B'Elanna, careful not to touch her, circling her like prey. She was nearly drunk just from the scent of her, the spicy, honeyed musk unique to the Klingon and so enticing.
Slowly, so gently, Seven touched the fingertips of her left hand to the base of B'Elanna's spine, smiling a half smile when the small woman tipped her head back and let her growl rise in volume. She set her fingertips adrift, let them whisper over B'Elanna's caramel cocoa skin, up, up over the little ridges of her vertebrae, up, dipping into the small of her back, up further still, between her shoulder blades and up, up, under her damp, dark, wavy hair. B'Elanna let her growl deepen to a purr and arched into the incredible caress.
Seven's eyes became half-lidded and her breathing deepened. Her blood boiled inside her veins and she knew only one thing would cool it
When her fingers reached the nape of B'Elanna's neck, Seven changed her touch from teasing to tempestuous, gripping her lover firmly but not harshly.
Then she kissed her. Hard. Soul-deep. Without apology. Without restraint.
What had passed between them then had been powerful...primal...needful...
Before B'Elanna could get lost in her memories, though, the computer chirped unexpectedly, making her jump.
"Internal sensors working. Commencing scan." A slight hum followed the computer's crisp tones and then stopped.
"Regeneration cycle incomplete," said the computer, releasing a set of alcove controls. Surprised, B'Elanna looked up into iCheb's newly opened eyes.
"B'Elanna," he said as a greeting, stepping precisely from his alcove. He noticed that the lieutenant was rocking a sleeping B'Etal in protective arms. "Is B'Etal well?"
"She's fine," said B'Elanna dismissively, frowning with confusion. "What the Hell was that all about?" She indicated the entirely unorthodox sensor sweep with a jerk of her chin.
iCheb moved to the Borg console that controlled the regeneration cycles of each of the alcoves. He entered a few commands, then turned his attention to B'Elanna, standing at attention.
"I programmed the computer to perform an internal sensor sweep at this time to verify your presence. If confirmed, the computer was to interrupt my regeneration cycle. I wished to speak with you privately."
Uh oh, thought B'Elanna. Here it comes...
She'd already had Mizati's lecture on the proper care and treatment of Seven, complete with a very short list of consequences should she fail to comply. She could only imagine what iCheb would have to say.
"Go ahead," she said slowly.
"Available data suggests that you and my mother have...come to an agreement regarding the nature of your relationship," he began, slightly unsure of the appropriate terminology.
B'Elanna fought the urge to smile both at iCheb's consternation and at the simple joy of hearing those words from another person. She nodded.
"We have," she confirmed, wondering how this, the eldest of Seven's children, would react to the information. "We took the Oath..."
"The Oath?" iCheb focused his sight inward and B'Elanna knew he was searching for a comparable reference in the vast amounts of assimilated knowledge stored in his cortical implant. After a moment, he smiled widely...the first such smile B'Elanna had ever seen from him. "The Great Oath? The most sacred of Klingon marriage rituals?"
B'Elanna couldn't help but smile back. "Yeah...the Great Oath."
"Then you are now also my mother," he said, still smiling. "In that event perhaps you will not be offended by my request."
"Request?" B'Elanna felt her forgotten apprehension march straight back up her spine, knocking her relief and her worry out of the way without a second glance.
iCheb nodded. "Mizati has chosen the designation of 'Mama' for Seven. When B'Etal is of sufficient age to begin expressing herself linguistically, no doubt she will do the same. I am experiencing...difficulty reconciling that designation with how I feel about Seven."
B'Elanna frowned. "Why?"
"I believe I am associating the designation 'Mama' exclusively with my biological mother and the negative emotions I harbor toward her. For Mizati and B'Etal, calling Seven 'Mama' is logical and accurate. I do not feel it would be the same for me. Therefore, I have researched a variety of comparable designations. I have several choices prepared, but the one that...attracted me the most was a designation from your Klingon culture."
"And?" Now B'Elanna was completely confused. What did this have to do with her...exactly?
"And I believed it would be proper to request your permission before I committed to the designation. I did not wish to risk offending you."
iCheb smiled again suddenly and B'Elanna was astounded by the effect it had on his features. Disrupting his usually remote expression, the smile revealed a hint of his boyhood past and natural curiosity. The young Klingon wondered how she could entice the young man into smiling more frequently.
"However," he continued brightly, "you are now my second-mother. Your heritage has been added to our collective. Perhaps the designations I have chosen for Seven and for you will not offend you...provided you approve of a Klingon designation."
B'Elanna smiled. Touched by iCheb's consideration for her feelings, she shook her head slightly, confounded by two thoughts. Onehow could anyone in his or her right mind engineer a child to be a weapon? And twohow could a woman who had no real experience with motherhood, personal or otherwise, raise such a wonderful son?
B'Elanna sat up a little straighter in her chair.
"A Klingon designation would be an honor, iCheb," she said softly. "For both of us."
Unable to completely hide his relief, iCheb nonetheless managed to divert another smile. He nodded instead.
"Then if it pleases you, I shall call you QanwI', the one who protects. And I shall call my mother cheghwI', the one who returns."
Considering the matter closed, iCheb turned back to the console, intent on disrupting Mizati's regeneration cycle. He did not see the tears that welled in B'Elanna's eyes or her furtive attempts to wipe them away.
Kahless, she prayed, watching the young man as he prepared to greet his sister upon her waking. Kahless, I don't ask you for much but please, please let Seven come home. Not just for me, not just because I love her. But for these kids, too. Because they need her. Please, Kahless, don't let iCheb regret the name he's chosen for her.
The chime of another regeneration cycle ending sounded in the cargo bay.
"iCheb," greeted Mizati as the regeneration cycle released her prematurely. "Has Lieutenant Torres made reparations to our mother?" Like her adopted mother and her siblings, Mizati did not believe in 'beating around the bush'. "Have they redefined the nature of their relationship?"
"They have," confirmed iCheb. "They have taken the Great Oath and have bonded as mates for life and beyond." He stepped aside and turned to face B'Elanna, allowing Mizati an unobstructed view. "B'Elanna is now our second-mother."
If iCheb's smile upon hearing the news had been bright, Mizati's was positively incandescent...and not a little smug.
"I approve," she said, nodding authoritatively. She strode to B'Elanna's side and surprised her newest parent with a soft kiss on the cheek. "Welcome to our family unit, SoS'ma."
Caught between her amusement at Mizati's posturing and the slightly overwhelmed feeling she was experiencing at being called 'Mother' for the first time, B'Elanna smiled.
"Thanks, kiddo," she said, her voice catching with emotion. She reached out and took Mizati's tiny hand in her own, squeezing it. "I know this isn't the best timing maybe and"
Mizati interrupted B'Elanna. "SoS'ma, do you love my mother?"
"Of course I do!" blurted the engineer without thinking.
"Are you prepared to initiate cohabitation with the four of us, functioning as her spouse and as our second parent?"
Seeing that B'Elanna's response was likely to be both positive and somewhat annoyed, Mizati continued. "Then the timing is perfect, SoS'ma." She turned her wide, hazel eyes toward Seven who was still standing in elegant repose within her alcove.
"Besides," added the little girl softly, glancing at her new mother briefly and then quickly averting her eyes. "It is traditional among both Klingons and Humans for a couple to make their bonding official on the eve of a battle. Particularly if there is the significant probability of a fatality."
"Unacceptable!" Mizati balled her fists at her sides, her eyes dark and menacing.
"Irrelevant," stated Seven of Nine, her own eyes flashing despite her outward calm. "You cannot go with me. You are to stay here with Mr. Neelix and the others. Where you will be safe."
The Talaxian and the others in questionMizati's brother and best friendtried not to stare at the arguing mother and daughter. The little girl apparently hadn't realized that she wouldn't be accompanying her mother to the Raadamani ship and when she finally did figure it out, she wasn't at all keen on the idea.
"I will not comply!" shouted the little girl. "I wish to be with you. I do not care about my safety!"
"Hey, hey," said B'Elanna, taking Mizati's hand. She turned the child around and crouched in front of her so that she would be at the child's eye level. "Kiddo, you know what? I know you want to be with your Mom right now. I do, too, and I don't care what happens to me, either."
The young Klingon took a deep breath and brushed a strand or two of Mizati's long, chestnut hair out of the child's eyes.
"It's just that if you stay hereon Voyageryour Mom and I won't worry about you as much as we would if you came with us. Even if you don't worry about your safety, we do. We can't help it. We love you."
Mizati's hazel eyes widened and she looked from B'Elanna to Seven and back again.
Now it was B'Elanna's turn to look surprised. And Seven too, for that matter. The young Borg had been listening to the exchange from a distance, wanting to see the interaction between her new daughter and newer wife. But Mizati's incredulous question stunned her. She quickly took her place at B'Elanna's side.
"Of course we love you, kiddo," said B'Elanna, placing both her hands on Mizati's tiny shoulders. "Don't you know that?"
At a loss for words, Mizati could only shake her head.
"Mizati Nueves," began Seven, "you are my child. I love you with my whole heart." The young woman's usually cool voice broke under the strain of such devastating emotions. "Even if I do not return from this ordeal, I will continue to love you after my death."
B'Elanna's anger-darkened eyes snapped toward Seven.
"You are NOT going to die, Seven," she hissed.
"The outcome of this battle is not certain, B'Elanna," countered Seven. "If these are to be my final words to our children, they will not be lies." The young mother pulled Mizati to her and hugged her fiercely. "I love you, Mizati. Just as I love iCheb, B'Etal, and Naomi. However, I will not make promises to you that I cannot keep." She pulled away from the little girl a tiny bit, just space enough to look into the child's eyes. "If I do not return, your second mother will raise you and love you...and when we meet again in Sto-Vo-Kor, we will spend an eternity as a loving family."
"Dammit! This isn't right! I should be the one fighting!" B'Elanna felt the hot prickle of tears in her eyes and an aching lump in her throat. She couldn't bear the thought of Seven sacrificing herself, of the children losing the first real mother any of them had ever known.
It was a small hand that reached out to her, calming her with a single touch.
"No, SoSoy. My mother has given her word. To forfeit now would bring dishonor to our family. You will accompany Mama to Pod Boi-Ovani." Mizati took a deep breath and forced herself to stand a little taller, a little straighter. Her goal was to appear courageous though she could not be sure of her success. "I will wait here and prepare myself for all possible outcomes."
Kathryn Janeway stood in front of the mirror in her ensuite and placed the last of her pips on her dress uniform tunic. For the first time in her life, she hated what the tunic stood for. For the first time in her life, she regretted what she was.
Why didn't I take up farming, she thought sourly. Or art, like Phoebe? I'd be safe at home, with a dog and a husband and a stable life...a secure life... She caught the look in her eyesfiery, remote, absoluteand her wishful thinking hit a tangible snag. ...a deadly boring life...
No, that wasn't for her and she knew it. She had too much of her father in her, too much of his spark, his wanderlust. She'd been born to wear this uniform. She had no doubt of that.
But just because something is meant to be, doesn't make it easy, she reminded herself. And wearing this particular uniform on this particular day was bound to be one of the most difficult things she would ever face. A realization that gave her no comfort whatsoever.
"Come," she said, pulling on the hem of her tunic one last time before entering her living area. Her first officer and chief of security greeted her, both grim-faced and solemn. Chakotay tugged viciously at the collar of his dress uniform but said nothing. Tuvok simply radiated disapproval.
"Gentlemen." She nodded at each of them, sporting her own version of their grim features. "Where's Seven?"
"We are to meet Seven and Lieutenant Torres at the mess hall. They are saying goodbye to the children at the moment."
"They?" Janeway leveled a curious gaze at her two officers.
Tuvok nodded. "I received a message from Lieutenant Torres a short while ago. She informed me she would be joining the away team. Her phrasing left no room for discussion."
Chakotay cleared his throat and looked at the floor.
"Commander?" asked Janeway, recognizing her first officer's 'guilty' look instantly. "You have something to add?"
"I'm not sure I'm supposed to let the hara cat out of the bag, Captain, but I received two requests earlier, at separate times, each asking for a personnel file to be updated from Marital Status: Single to Marital Status: Married." For the firstand probably onlytime that evening, Chakotay's eyes sparkled. "One from Seven of Nine and one from B'Elanna Torres."
"Married?" Kathryn Janeway stared at her first officer blankly. I expected them to come to an agreement on their personal relationship but marriage? It's only been a few hours! What the Hell are they thinking?
"A logical decision," said Tuvok, nodding his unmistakable approval. If Janeway had been a little surprised before, now she was simply thunderstruck.
"Logical? You can't be serious!" Anger swept through her like a brush fire, hot and unstoppable. How dare the two of them do something like this without consulting her? How dare they presume to make such a rash and impulsive decision before weighing all the variables, before considering all the consequences?
"I am always serious, Captain," countered Tuvok. "Have you ever known Seven to hesitate once she has decided upon a course of action? Have you ever known Lieutenant Torres to be fickle or disloyal in the conferring of her affection and regard? Both women are passionate, yes, but they are also pragmatic. A marriage at this time combines both of those qualities."
"Pragmatic? How can you say that?"
Chakotay stepped forward and took Janeway's arm, leading his captain a few steps away from Tuvok.
"Kathryn, look," he said under his breath. "Pragmatic or not, like it or not, it's done. Maybe they wanted to provide for the children if this...goes badly. We all know they're in love. It really doesn't matter why they got married tonight. The truth is your little girl is all grown up and she's making her own decisions now."
Kathryn's eyes, now a deadly shade of gunmetal, snapped up to Chakotay's and she jerked out of his hold.
"Seven of Nine is not a 'little girl', Commander. Nor is she 'mine'. You are out of line."
"I don't think I am, Captain," he responded, the brown of his eyes now touched with a bit of his own steel. But it faded as suddenly as it had appeared and he softened.
"Kathryn, admit it. Seven is like the daughter you never had. We all see that." He sighed and rubbed his thumb along the bottom edge of his tribal tattoo. "And that daughter is about to fight to the death. No matter what the outcome, this can't be easy for you."
Kathryn said nothing but Chakotay saw the change in her eyes, the merest clench of her jaw.
"It's not easy for any of us. But I can't bring myself to question Seven's or B'Elanna's motives in this." He looked down at his feet, his voice becoming even softer. "What if B'Elanna becomes a widow on her wedding night, Kathryn?"
"What are you saying?" Janeway's voice was at its lowest and deadliest register.
"I'm saying that you aren't really angry about the marriage, Kathryn. I'm saying that if you don't realize that now and you say something to them about it and and B'Elanna loses Seven tonight..."
He sighed, wondering how to make her see.
"It's okay to be angry, Kathryn. Be angry that B'Etal's life is at stake. Be angry that Seven, your surrogate daughter, has to fight to the death to win back a child's right to live. But don't be angry that Seven and B'Elanna carved some happiness out of this night." He paused for a moment. "I don't want to see you live to regret that."
Kathryn forced herself to nod in agreement although she still wasn't convinced that the marriage wasn't an ill-conceived notion that had no place in the current proceedings. However, what she saw when she walked into the mess hall tore through all of her worries and concerns as if they were tissue paper.
Seven and B'Elanna stood against one of the viewports, stars glittering behind them. B'Elanna held B'Etal and Seven had her arms wrapped around both of them, her cheek resting against B'Elanna's temple. iCheb, Mizati, and Naomi stood close around the women. They were all smiling widely, having just been ordered to say "Peaches, please..." by Neelix, who was wielding a holo-imager while Samantha Wildman looked on.
"There," said Neelix, huffing proudly once the image had been snapped. "Every family should have a family portrait of their very own." His demeanor was bright but even Janeway could see the tinge of sadness that lay beneath the Talaxian's cheer. And everything suddenly became clear to her.
How many times had she herself put off happiness in favor of some other more immediate responsibility? She had postponed marrying Justin until she made captain, thinking that would be the perfect time to begin a life together. Only Justin had died long before that day, a completely unexpected tragedy that had deeply tarnished that fourth pip when she'd finally received it. She had even postponed marrying Mark, pouring all of her energy into getting her ship ready for its maiden voyage...a maiden voyage she was still on almost eight years later.
Another person could argue that she'd been lucky not to marry, that she'd be a widow and a divorcee today as a result. But seeing Seven and B'Elanna now, watching them make the singular unspoken decision to separate the happiness of what was from the uncertainty of what was to come...Kathryn realized that she hadn't been lucky at all. She'd wasted her opportunities, always waiting for the perfect time to begin. Now she was twenty years older and still waiting.
Her throat clenched tight with the thought.
"Seven?" she called, interrupting only when the group disbanded from their pose. Seven pairs of eyes turned toward Janeway and her entourage, each pair registering its own distinct reaction to the moment. Resolution, fear, sadness, uncertainty... Janeway felt each look as a blow.
"It is time," said Seven. Though a statement, Kathryn nodded.
"The Raadamani expect us in thirty minutes."
"Has Commander Chakotay informed you of the change in my marital status?" Unconsciously, Seven reached out a single hand, finding and grasping one of B'Elanna's. The young Klingon laced her fingers with Seven's and stepped protectively closer to her wife, bristling with the obvious intention of defending both her new marriage and her new family.
Janeway nodded and found herself smiling knowingly at the two women. If she had expected domestic bliss to somehow diminish either woman's innate fire, she was happily disappointed.
"Then allow me a few moments with my family and we may proceed."
Chief among the maelstrom of emotions that assailed Captain Kathryn Janeway after that pronouncement was pain. But not the pain she expected. Certainly she was worried about Seven. Even afraid for her. It was only logical considering the circumstances. The pain, however, was solely due to Seven's usage of the word 'family'...or, more to the point, her definition of the word. Apparently, the word didn't apply to Janeway in Seven's eyes.
And that truly stung.
The Raadamani guard that followed Voyager's officers into the anteroom of the arena shoved Seven toward a small circle marked plainly in the center of the floor.
"Keep your hands off her, you petaQ!" snarled B'Elanna, launching herself toward the guard. Only Chakotay's quick interception kept her from making contact. The solidity of his hold kept her from gaining any distance but he knew he couldn't guarantee that would last beyond the next few seconds...let alone forever.
"B'Elanna, not now," he said through gritted teeth.
"be'nal, I am unharmed," said Seven softly. She stood tall inside the circle and gazed at her lover, letting all of her heart show in the blue of her eyes. "This is not my adversary. Do not let him distract you."
B'Elanna blinked in surprise but straightened immediately, the fight leaving her in one breath. Although she saw Seven's love for her clearly in her pale blue eyes, she also saw resolution, the calm of a warrior before battle.
And dammit, she's right! That moH isn't worth the effort.
"Is this...creature...your mate?" asked the guard, seeming to chuckle at B'Elanna's expense. He wondered how the small, dark femalehe guessed it was femalecould be considered attractive to anyone...her obviously mixed heritage notwithstanding. He was still sneering derisively at B'Elanna when Seven's hand shot out and gripped him by the throat...tightly.
"She is my wife," she snarled into his ear, pulling the startled Raadamani closer to her than she would have preferred under normal circumstances. "You are unworthy of her presence here. You would do well to remember that."
"Urk," gurgled the guard, his eyes bulging. He clawed at Seven's hand but she only squeezed more tightly, lifting him slightly off the floor.
"Do you understand me?"
"Glaaargh," warbled the guard, clawing more desperately at his throat. The rest of the small room remained perfectly silent...and perfectly tense. When it became obvious that Seven wasn't going to let the guard go until he had answered her question, Janeway stepped forward.
"Do not interfere, Kathryn," said Seven barely glancing in the smaller woman's direction. "You are not my captain here. This is between this yIntagh and myself. He will answer me or he will die. It is his choice." Seven's grip constricted even more, the ex-Borg hesitating only when she sensed the guard's larynx about to rupture.
"Do you understand?" she repeated, knowing the universal translator made her question irrefutably clear.
"T-taaaaaaa....." The guard's eyes began to water and he fought to refrain from urinating on himself. The translator could not process his nearly incomprehensible positive response but Seven could...and did, relaxing her grip in an instant. The guard dropped heavily to the floor, gasping and clutching at his battered throat.
"Good choice," said Seven, flexing her fingers. Her eyes were a dark and dangerous blue and they never left the guard's features. "Go now. Send another in your place if it is required. I will suffer your presence no longer."
The Raadamani toad might have bowed if it had been part of his culture. Instead, he pressed himself against the curved wall of the small room, entering some sort of hasty request in a communications access plate with trembling fingers. He kept his terrified eyes riveted on Seven even though she never moved from her appointed spot nor acknowledged his presence again in any way. Within a few momentsthat must have seemed like small eternities to hima replacement guard arrived. The toad did not even wait for the new guard to enter the room before he bolted as if chased by Chaos itself.
Tuvok raised an eyebrow. He knew this Seven of Nine. Or one like her. This was the Seven that had fought for his survival aboard the Tsunkatse tournament ship, albeit a more polished, more confident version. He realized immediately that the display with the guard and with the captainthough perhaps inspired by the Raadamani's insult of her loverwas not a random reaction to it. Rather, it was a finely crafted tactic designed to infect the Raadamani collective psyche with terror...one that was likely to succeed if the guard she had "dismissed" was inclined to share his story.
He assessed the relief guard, a tall, muscular female, and nodded to himself. Seven's tactic was sound. Had she tried the same with this guard, she would have failed.
B'Elanna headed straight for Seven once the first guard had left...only to be blocked by the female Raadamani and her weapon.
"You may not pass," she droned. Claar barely looked down. The small mongrel did not concern her.
"Oh yes I can," retorted the lieutenant and she changed directions, attempting to get to Seven's side another way.
She was met again by the guard.
"You may not pass!" Claar looked closely at the mongrel for the first time and immediately re-evaluated the situation. Though small, the female possessed a dense musculature and a persistence and determination twice her size. A struggle with her would not be a simple matter.
"She is my wife!" argued B'Elanna, as if that made all the difference in the Universe. The Raadamani snorted before she could stop herself.
"Not for much longer," she muttered, amused by the thought of fractional beings bonding and such.
Before B'Elanna or anyone could respond to the taunt, a strange, humming sound began to come through the walls of the anteroom. As it grew in volume, it became clearer, more defined. Eventually the inhabitants of the anteroom could make out a single word.
"What is that?" asked Janeway.
"Wuqat is the name of our champion," explained Claar. She seemed to find the chanting distasteful if the expression of disgust upon her features was any indication. "Our people have not fought a battle such as this in many cycles. They are...excited by the coming spectacle."
Excited was not the word Seven would have used to describe how she felt at the moment. Resolute, perhaps. Even resigned. But not excited.
She glanced around the anteroom as the crowd's cheering grew even louder. She met her captain's angry eyes, Tuvok's curious eyes, and Chakotay's saddened eyes. And then there was B'Elanna, her sable eyes filled with the one thing Seven had never expected to see: worry.
Seven wanted to go to her at that moment, wanted to wrap B'Elanna in her arms and comfort her, wanted to draw the stain of that look out of her eyes with soft kisses and softer promises. It angered her that she could not, that this Raadamani would not let them touch.
That small flash of anger ignited all the anger Seven held inside her. How dare these beings threaten her youngest child? How dare they believe that spilling B'Etal's blood could somehow reconcile their losses? How dare they worry her family, her wife? How dare they frighten her children?
Seven's features and mind turned to ice when she remembered saying goodbye to Mizati that one, final time. Kneeling down to take that deceptively frail body into her arms and holding her daughter to her with all the power in a mother's arms. Seeing tears roll down small, ruddy cheeks for the first time, her heart breaking to know that she was the cause, that she had brought pain to this child...her child.
"Take this, Mama," said Mizati, holding up the Queen of Hearts card that had been her constant and comforting companion since the day she'd been brought to Voyager. "Your death is unacceptable. Take this as a reminder of those who require your presence."
And then there was Naomi. Too brave and too "grown up" to allow her own tears to fall. She'd been the first member of Seven's new family, offering her friendship and love with no thought of compensation, no condition, no fear. Now she stood away from the children and B'Elanna, clearly hesitant to interrupt what she thought was not her domain until Seven had confronted her.
"They are your family now," she'd said, answering Seven's query. Her smile had been unsure and a little forced. "I am just your friend."
"There is nothing 'just' about our friendship, Naomi Wildman," Seven had replied. "You will always be part of my family."
Knowing how uncertain Naomi must be feeling, how disorienting sudden and drastic change could be, Seven had asked Naomi to accompany the away team to the transporter room. She wanted to speak to the child alone for a moment.
"I have a request of you, as a member of my family," she'd said, kneeling in front of Naomi a few minutes before she had to beam to Pod Boi-Ovani. She knew that what she was about to ask of Naomi was serious and might become a long-term commitment on the child's part, however, she was sure no other would suffice in the role.
"The outcome of this event is uncertain and I find that I am...afraid. A portion of this fear is comprised of worry for B'Elanna. If I were to... If I cease to function as a result of this battle, the probability that B'Elanna would refrain from social contact outside the circle of our children is approximately 89%. She has a history of depression and if I am not here to assist..." Seven had reached for Naomi's hand, taking it lightly in her own.
"Will you look after her, Naomi Wildman? Seek her out and offer her your friendship as you once did with me? I am her wife and I love her with my whole heart. I cannot bear to think of her in pain, suffering and alone. I remember similar feelings. They were...unpleasant."
Naomi had hugged Seven. Hard.
"I promise, Seven. Cross my pericardium, hope to discorporate, stick an ancient, inefficient sewing device in my optical interface plate." It was an inside joke of sorts, a revised version of the old Terran rhyme customized by their friendship.
It had been time for Seven to go then. She'd stood and walked to the transporter platform, turning at the last minute.
"I love you, Naomi Wildman," she'd said over her shoulder.
"I love you, too, Seven of Nine," replied the little girl formally, her hands behind her back in a very familiar pose. Seven remembered nodding, pleased by the unconscious gesture. Then she'd stepped on the platform, flanked by her wife and her captain. B'Elanna had reached for her hand immediately.
Naomi was the last sight Seven had had of Voyager.
Seven let her fingers find and caress the card she carried in a special pocket inside the vest of the battle armor B'Elanna had helped her design. While strength and protection had been two of the armor's most desirable traits, Seven had added a few 'inefficient' accessories, such as the pocket now holding her daughter's prized possession. And the other one, holding a single data chip addressed simply 'To My Family'.
The rage barely caged inside Seven made her want to take the chip from its pocket and crush it into dust. She didn't want to leave her family a small fragment of green plastic that could not hope to contain her heart no matter how much data could be stored on it. She didn't want to leave her family, period.
The cheering of the crowd in the arena brought Seven back to the task at hand. The name Wuqat had become less of a simple cheer and more of a thunderous demand. Seven frowned briefly.
"How many Raadamani have been allowed to witness this conflict?" she asked Claar suddenly, startling the guard.
"Only those whose duties permit. Approximately 110 or so."
"Yet those who would...cheer...for me number only four. How do you explain the difference in the numbers?"
Claar was clearly taken aback. "I...we...assumed..."
Seven made a cold, hard sound of disgust.
"You assumed nothing. By placing me in an unknown element with few supporters, you hoped I would be psychologically damaged and that my performance here would be negatively affected. A sound tactic." She pinned the flustered guard with an iron gaze. "One that must be discarded now."
"What?" Claar wasn't quite sure what was being said.
"Either you will allow me a comparable number of supporters or I will...eliminate 106 of your supporters," said Seven calmly. "The choice is yours."
"Eliminate? How would you?" The guard's eyes narrowed as Seven's meaning became clear. "You could not"
"Don't try her," countered B'Elanna, setting her hands on her hips. "Does she get what she wants or not?"
"I..." Claar tried to regain her footing in the conversation. "The arena can accommodate only a finite number of spectators. I am sure we have no space"
"How much space would the bodies of your spectators require?" asked Seven sharply.
"Broadcast the proceedings to my ship," said Kathryn Janeway, stepping forward with her hands also on her hips. She would not have this disintegrate into a killing spree on Seven's part. Under no circumstance.
"What? I do not know if that will be allowed!"
"Then I suggest you find out," replied the determined captain. "Or would you prefer our champion's solution to the problem?"
The Raadamani guard looked from one woman to the next, realizing that she was terribly outnumbered. "Allow me a moment to confer with the Lead Pair," she said reluctantly.
Inside, she seethed.
Seven of Nine, former Borg drone and the current Astrometrics Officer aboard the starship Voyager, was not happy.
"Where are you taking her?"
Two heavily armed Raadamani guards flanked B'Elanna Torres and were preparing to remove her from the anteroom. In response, Sevenguarded by the ever-vigilant Claarwas preparing to leap across the room and rip out their throats.
Claar turned, a sickening sneer present on her features.
"You are not the only one who can make demands, Human," she said. "The mates of all champions are to be placed under heavy guard. It is the law." She glanced at the diminutive Klingon and smirked. "That mongrel is your mate, is she not?"
Seven's Borg-enhanced hand moved so quickly and so automatically that even she might have sworn it had moved of its own accord. The blow it delivered was fierce. Claar crashed to her knees and lost her grip on her weapon, which went spinning across the anteroom floor. A viscous umber-colored fluid oozed from her mouth and nose and dripped off her jaw.
"B'Elanna Torres is the last surviving member of the Great House Km'DoQ of Qo'noS and my wife!" Seven shook with unstoppable rage. "You will address her with respect or I will reach into your body cavity with my bare hands and remove every one of your primary organ systems while you scream!" She struggled fiercely against the hold of Tuvok and Chakotay, who had hurriedly stepped forward to prevent the Astrometrics officer from doing the Raadamani guard any more damage.
"be'nalwI'" began B'Elanna. She took a step towards her wife of barely 24 hours only to be grabbed by the guards flanking her. She froze and without looking at either one of them, said with deadly certainty, "If you don't want our champion over there to kill everyone in this room, you will let me go to her." When put that way, the guards in question could easily see the preferable choice and they released their prisoner. B'Elanna hurried to Seven's side.
"be'nalwI', look at me," she said quietly, acutely aware of the public nature of this conversation. She thanked Kahless that they'd been accompanied by three of the most honorable people she knew. "Look at me," she repeated when Seven would not turn away from Claar.
Seven's eyes dipped to the floor for a moment and she stopped struggling. Unable to look Tuvok or Chakotay in the eye, she settled instead for an embarrassed nod.
"The guard is in no further danger from me, Commander," she whispered, addressing Chakotay. He gazed dubiously at Seven for a moment and then relaxed his hold, indicating that Tuvok should do the same. The two men returned to Janeway's side in a futile attempt to give B'Elanna and Seven some privacy.
The young Borg sighed once and then raised her eyes to find B'Elanna's and the engineer saw the naked rage and the confusion her brave lover was trying so valiantly to hide. She reached up and brushed the back of her hand along Seven's left cheek, under the optical implant that shimmered in the strange light.
"I love you for protecting my honor, be'nalwI'," she said softly.
Seven straightened her shoulders. "It is my duty. My honor as your mate depends on my ability to defend the greatest of your treasures."
B'Elanna shook her head sadly, the smallest of smiles tinting her lips and touching her eyes. "You don't get it, do you, you Borg goof? You are my treasure. The kids are my treasure. Compared to that, honor is just a five-letter word." She shook her head again, this time chuckling softly. "I swear! When we get home, I'm upgrading you with faster software."
Seven raised the optical implant over her left eye pensively, the tension of her confrontation with the guard draining away to be replaced by a hint of humor.
"I was under the impression that you liked my" Seven glanced down at her own lithe body and smirked. "software?"
B'Elanna cleared her throat and threw a glance at her three superior officers, noting their studied interest in a particular anomalous curve in the wall. In fact, the same anomaly which was at once comical and touching.
"I meant," she said, turning back to Seven and gracing her with a mock glare despite the heat creeping up her neck and flooding her cheeks, "that you are being dense."
"I am aware of that," admitted Seven, smiling. "I wished to see your blush one more time before " Her smile faded, replaced by uncertainty and longing.
B'Elanna's hearts clenched tight in her chest.
"Oh, Seven " She refused to close her eyes, determined not to waste a single, precious second of sight with this womanher wifeso close to her. She knew she might not have this chance again.
The force of that thought drove B'Elanna to do something she knew was not allowed. And she didn't care one bit.
Let them beat me for it, she growled to herself. Let them kill me for it! I won't say goodbye to her without holding her.
She closed the distance between herself and Seven in a rush, enfolding her taller lover in her arms and clinging to her as if she could keep her from the coming battle with the simple power of her love.
"I love you, Seven," she said in a strangled whisper, tears flooding her eyes.
"And I love you, be'nal." Seven wrapped her long arms around B'Elanna and brought her closer, savoring the heat that radiated from her wife and the feel of her curves against her own body.
"ENOUGH!" Claar launched herself at the lovers and tore them apart from one another, shoving B'Elanna toward the other guards. "You may NOT touch again! Do you understand?"
Seven's ragethat B'Elanna had so efficiently cooledboiled over again the instant Claar laid a hand on the Klingon hybrid.
"I understand that if you touch B'Elanna again, I will kill you," countered Seven, baring her incisors and nearly snarling. Barring the lack of cranial ridges and the darker skin, she had the Klingon presence mastered.
"Strong words for a dead Human," snorted Claar, striding over to retrieve her weapon. Then she sauntered to where B'Elanna stood, guarded again by the other two Raadamaniwho obviously wished they were anywhere but where they were. Claar pushed one of them out of the way and took his place.
"We are armed and we hold your mongrel wife. You can do nothing."
Claar circled B'Elanna, never taking her level gaze from Seven's until she came face to face with the smaller, darker fractional being. A small alarm made her look up and she chuckled when she saw the seam in the ceiling of the anteroom begin to open. The roar of the crowd grew a hundred-fold as the orb-shaped room separated, the floor of the arena absorbing the split halves of the temporary cell quietly and efficiently.
Claar grinned evilly and said, lowly so only B'Elanna could hear, "Take a long look at her before you go, mongrel, because when she diesand she will dieand after Wuqat drains the blood of that fractional infant as is his right, I will take great pleasure in watching you grieve right before I rip your heart out."
B'Elanna's eyes never left Claar's, never flickered, never moved. She didn't even blink.
"Seven, stop," she ordered quietly.
Claar's grin faded a bit and she whirled around to see Seven frozen in a crouch, preparing to leap for her.
"How?" Claar backed away from Seven, watching in horror as the young woman drew herself up to her full height again, uncurling from her crouch with the sleek and elegant grace of a predator.
B'Elanna crossed her arms in front of her and shifted her weight to one leg, eyeing Claar with a superior gaze.
"Make no mistake, you Raadamani petaQ," she said, snarling the Klingon curse. Her voice was clear and proud, easily heard by all in the arena as their cheering subsided, replaced with hushed and confused whispers. "Seven heard every word you said to me." She let that knowledge sink in, watching the disbelief play over Claar's features, watching as the guard looked between Seven and herself, clearly not knowing what to think.
B'Elanna then grinned with a malevolence that turned Claar's blood to ice. "She would have snapped your neck before you'd known what had hit you."
The Raadamani guard turned and looked at Seven, whose optical implant rose slightly in challenge. Claar read the truth of the other woman's statement in the Human champion's pale eyes.
"So I guess you owe this mongrel your life."
Claar's eyes snapped back to B'Elanna, livid, lurid with hatred and fury. With blinding speed she unsheathed her kurukthe blade that all members of the Ordinal Guard woreand turned toward the Klingon, intending to cut the smug grin from her face.
She raised the blade to strike and found herself screaming a nanosecond later. Her dagger clattered to the floor and she snatched her shattered hand out of the air, cradling it close to her body even as she doubled over with the excruciating pain. Dark umber blood covered her tunic, the stain growing wider by the second. She could see bone fragments and severed tendons when she looked down at the ruined extremity.
She howled with pain and rage.
Not a single pair of eyes even glanced in her direction. They were all riveted on Seven of Nine. Or her communicator now imbedded in the barrier that separated the arena from the spectators. No oneexcept Claar, of coursemade a single sound.
B'Elanna waited for Claar to quiet down before she unleashed her best evil grin.
"Two inches to the right and that thing would have come out right here." She rested a fingertip right between Claar's eyes. The injured guard growled in spite of the pain.
"And," added the lieutenant, casually glancing over her shoulder, "I think your champion just wet himself." Her eyes glinted with smug satisfaction.
Claar hazarded a look in Wuqat's direction and found him staring at Seven, terrified. In fact, every spectator in the arena had similar looks on their stunned faces. She followed their gazes to Seven and the strange device buried in the wall and she knew how much skill and strength had been required to make the shot. Apparently the Human champion had both in abundance.
She lowered her head in shame as a pair of her fellow Ordinal Guards came to help her out of the arena.
The deep tones of the payt-anes bell, the chime that accompanied the arrival of the Lead Pair to every official gathering or appearance, followed her mournfully.
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