DISCLAIMER: All characters from Star Trek belong to Paramount and use of them here is not intended to infringe, nor to make any profit. This story depicts a loving relationship between women. If you have objections, don't read it. You have been duly warned.
NOTE: This story is a sequel to Truly Free so you might want to read that one first since it establishes a number of post-delta quadrant events and introduces many new characters. I used names for Bajoran characters that come from the world of Star Trek but the reader should not associate the Trek characters' histories with the characters here.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Razor's Edge
By Weejee

Chapter 1

"Just get out already and leave us alone!" B'Elanna Torres exclaimed with mounting frustration, moving toward the door of the house had been sharing with Seven of Nine since the two women had decided to move to Jalara six months earlier.

"But B'Elanna," Jomat Ven whined. "I just want to make sure you . . . ."

"If you repeat any part of that list, Ven, I swear, I'm going to have Seven assimilate you. For the last time, I have all your instructions memorized."

"Okay, okay," Ven said, sheepishly. "It's just that I have not been away from the children since Luson died. I *know* that you and Seven will take good care of them. I know that. I don't know why I'm so anxious. . . ."

B'Elanna closed the distance between them and put her hand on her friend's shoulder. She spoke softly and deliberately, "Maybe what's making you anxious isn't the thought of leaving Anara and Bemar with us for two weeks but that you'll be out of your element and in Kathryn's domain. I know how much you care about her but, honestly, I can understand that it might scare you."

Ven hung his head and nodded. "Perhaps you're right, B'Elanna. I'm just a small-town writer. She's a starship captain . . . And not just any captain, but *Kathryn Janeway.* What am I going to do for two weeks on Voyager?"

"Look," B'Elanna reassured him, "she invited you to come along on this trip. She wants to spend some time with you and she wants you to see what her life is like on Voyager. As far as I know, Kathryn's never crossed that line and asked anyone she's been involved with to come aboard for any period of time."

"I didn't know that," Ven said, looking up at B'Elanna.

"You'll be fine and you'll have a great time. What you do have to remember is that she is *Captain* Kathryn Janeway and that she's got responsibilities that are hard for me to imagine sometimes, even after having spent seven years serving under her. She's a great captain and that's going to occupy lots of her time. But she wants you there because she cares about you too."

Ven nodded, hoping that B'Elanna was right.

"Good. You'll have a great time, Ven. If you think Kathryn is a hot babe now, wait till you see her in command of her ship and crew. She's very impressive," B'Elanna said with a smile.

"Hey! Do I have to worry about competition now?" Ven joked.

"Indeed, I would like to know the answer to this as well," Seven said, entering the living room and coming to a stop with her hands on her hips.

B'Elanna crossed the distance to where Seven stood and put her arms around her beloved. "I have all the trouble I need right here," she responded, planting a kiss on Seven's cheek. "But I'm not dead, you know. Come on, Seven, you have to admit that Kathryn's pretty damn hot, I mean . . . compelling . . . standing on the bridge in that red uniform."

"Hot," Seven said, considering B'Elanna's colloquial use of the term. "While I would not have phrased it in quite that way, I must concur. You will see a very different side to Kathryn aboard Voyager, Ven, and I'm sure that you will be pleased," Seven offered.

"So get out of here," B'Elanna insisted once again. "We'll miss you but we'll be fine."

"The children are in bed and will expect a call from you tomorrow," Seven added.

"Okay, okay." Ven hugged Seven and then B'Elanna, picked up his bag and left.

B'Elanna settled in on the couch and picked up the beer she had started in on earlier. Seven, however, remained standing, absorbed in thought. "Seven?" B'Elanna asked, trying to get her attention.

Seven looked at her with an expression of concern on her face. "Do you find many people attractive?"

B'Elanna swallowed hard. "Not many, but some."

"I see." B'Elanna could see the muscles in her jaw pulsing.

"Come and sit down with me, Seven."

"I prefer to stand," Seven responded, assuming her familiar rigid stance with her hands clasped behind her back.

"Please, come here, sweetie," B'Elanna pouted.

Seven sighed and sat on the couch next to B'Elanna. B'Elanna took her hand. "Seven, I don't know that I could ever express in words or actions how much I love you. You're everything I could ever hope to have in a partner and so much more than I ever imagined. And not only do I love you, not only are you the best friend I've ever had, you're also the sexiest creature ever in the entire universe. Every day I thank whatever powers brought you to me because I know that I don't deserve you."

"B'Elanna . . . ."

"Please let me finish. I'm sorry if my comments about Kathryn hurt you. I didn't mean anything by them. It's natural to find attractive people attractive, but it doesn't mean that I love you any less or that I find you any less sexy and amazing. And it *doesn't* mean that I would *ever* do anything to jeopardize what I have with you. I've had enough experience to know that you are the only one for me."

"I'm sorry for overreacting, B'Elanna. While I do have some experience with relationships, I have never been in love before and what you said frightened me."

"I understand that," B'Elanna responded, placing her other hand on Seven's cheek. "But can you believe me when I say that you can trust me on this?"

Seven nodded. "I trust you," she said softly, moving to capture B'Elanna's lips with her own.

"Good," B'Elanna said, breathlessly when they broke the kiss. "So, the kids are asleep?"

"Yes, they were sleeping when I left them."

"Sound asleep?" B'Elanna asked again, moving her hand up to Seven's breast, eliciting a gasp.

"They are sleeping."

"I wouldn't want to wake them up while I try to show you just how sexy I think you are," B'Elanna purred as she trailed kisses along Seven's neck.

"They . . . are . . . sleeping," Seven managed to get out.

B'Elanna pulled Seven up from the couch and tugged her toward the bedroom. "I love you, Seven," she whispered, maneuvering her lover through the door and pulling off pieces of both their clothing along the way. As quickly as B'Elanna had been able to arouse Seven and direct their interactions toward making love instead of having an argument, Seven suddenly took control of the situation. From the start of their relationship eight months before, B'Elanna had been surprised at how commanding Seven could be sometimes when they made love. She wasn't hard or dominating – in fact, the tenderness that B'Elanna had come to see in the former drone nearly broke her heart – but gently and completely in control of B'Elanna. And, more than anything, B'Elanna had been surprised at how easily she could give herself over to Seven's command and how overwhelmingly erotic was the result. She had spent so much of her life running away – literally and emotionally – and could hardly believe how powerful she felt in giving herself, body and soul, to Seven. The last thing she remembered that night before everything became drowned out by the blood pounding in her head, was the sound of herself saying, "Take me."

B'Elanna lay on the tarmac underneath a very small shuttle that belonged to the inhabitants of a sparsely-populated and very impoverished world in the next sector. They had heard about the Jalaran Institute for Technological Development and had requested help with their shuttles. As the Institute's Director, Seven had agreed to aid them – this kind of assistance was precisely what the Institute had been founded to provide – and had assigned the project to B'Elanna to implement upgrades much like those she had done for the Free Haven shuttles that they had used to retrieve the Federation equipment that Cole and his pirates had stolen from colony.

"Son of a . . . !" she exclaimed, as flung her tool to the ground so that it bounced out from under the shuttle.

"I guess it's a good idea to stay on your good side," she heard a sultry voice say. B'Elanna rolled out from under the shuttle to see a toned and luscious pair of legs before her. Her eyes followed them up an equally luscious body to see a tall, dark haired Trill woman smirking down at her.

B'Elanna swallowed and stood up. "Easier said than done," she replied, wiping the grime from her hands on her overalls and feeling caught in the woman's green gaze.

"I'll try to remember that," the woman replied, giving B'Elanna the once over. "I'm Jocasta Lakar from the Nova Foundation. I'm looking for your boss."

"My . . . boss. Yes, well, Seven of Nine is in her office at the Institute and she's expecting you. I could walk you there."

"That's quite all right. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble for leaving your post. No, just point me in the right direction," Jocasta declared.

B'Elanna decided that she was growing to dislike this woman considerably but decided to hold her tongue because she knew how important the foundation's money could be to the Institute. Seven had been preparing for this visit for weeks and was very nervous about her ability to bring in material support for the Institute's work. Besides, B'Elanna thought, she needed to get back to the shuttle upgrade. So, she pointed Jocasta Lakar in the direction of Seven's office and went back to work. But her mind turned again to that annoying woman. Jocasta, B'Elanna had learned in the past months, was notorious in foundation circles, having been given seemingly endless funds by her father, a somewhat unscrupulous business man. Nova, her pet project, seemed aimed at cleansing the family's reputation from the stain of her father's business and purchasing entrance into a better class of people. Seven had agonized over whether to apply for a grant from Nova and eventually decided that the funds would benefit their work enough to make it worth the potential trouble. Having now met the infamous Jocasta Lakar, B'Elanna wondered whether they might not all regret Seven's decision.

Several hours later B'Elanna entered the Institute lab and greeted the staff who were working at the various consoles positioned about. She continued into her office to upload some information from a padd to the main computer. Through the glass walls of the offices, she could see Seven sitting at her own desk with Jocasta Lakar perched on the edge with her legs crossed. Jocasta was talking animatedly, swinging one long, toned leg and leaning across the desk on occasion to emphasize whatever point she was trying to make. As B'Elanna sat down at her desk and settled in to update the information on the shuttle upgrade, she turned again in the direction of Seven's office and her eyes met those of her lover. As was always the case, Seven's intense gaze pierced her and brought forth a wave of emotions. She knew that at that moment they were both thinking about making love – about last night, about times before and toward future times. B'Elanna winked at Seven, eliciting a small smile from the woman she loved, and turned back to her own work.

Seven of Nine shook her head slightly to get herself back to the conversation with Jocasta Lakar, who seemed never to stop speaking. There was much at stake in this meeting – Jalara's new government had given her a great deal of responsibility as head of the Institute – and she needed to stay focused. The more support they could get from foundations like Nova, the more developing worlds to which they would be able to offer aid. Allowing herself to become so easily distracted by B'Elanna's presence was not going to help her, but the sight her lover always elicited a strong response. Even as B'Elanna sat at the other side of the lab, separated from her by layers of glass, Seven could still feel a charge as their eyes met and couldn't help but think about the last time they touched. As she tuned back in, Seven heard Jocasta's endless discourse finally coming to an end as the woman first looked over at B'Elanna and narrowed her eyes and then inquired about continuing their meeting over dinner.

"Dinner, yes, I believe that I can arrange that," Seven responded. "Excuse me for a moment please," she continued, standing and heading out of her office and into the open space of the lab at the sight of Anara and Bemar arriving from school.

"Guess what, Seven!" Bemar exclaimed, rushing toward her.

"You have accepted a position as Ambassador to Vulcan," Seven said with utmost seriousness and winking at B'Elanna who had just joined them.

"No, silly," Bemar responded with frustration. "I received the highest grade in Astronomy."

"Impressive, indeed, Bemar," Seven beamed.

"Good work, little one. And you know you're talking to the best Astrometrics officer in four quadrants," B'Elanna said, gesturing toward Seven. Bemar nodded. "How was your day, Anara?" B'Elanna asked, pulling the girl toward her.

"It was fine," she said somewhat dejectedly. "Will we be able to speak with father tonight?"

"Of course you will," B'Elanna said emphatically. "He wouldn't miss it for anything."

"Now, you must sit and complete your homework so that you will be able to spend as much time speaking with him as possible," Seven directed, motioning for the children to sit down at the desks that she had set aside for them these two weeks that their father was to be away.

Seven and B'Elanna had not had a moment to exchange words before Jocasta interrupted them. "Now, about dinner."

"Of course," Seven responded and turned to B'Elanna. "We have not concluded our discussion and Jocasta Lakar has suggested that she and I continue the meeting over dinner if you do not mind."

"I wasn't aware that you needed to clear your dinner plans with one of your technicians," Jocasta smirked.

B'Elanna's mouth opened but before she could say anything, Seven stepped in to prevent a major incident. "Jocasta Lakar, this is B'Elanna Torres, the Institute's Chief of Engineering," she said.

"I see," said Jocasta. "And your social secretary?"

Seven could hear a low growl coming from deep inside B'Elanna but knew that it was only her Borg-enhanced hearing that made this possible. "I am extremely fortunate that B'Elanna shares her life with me as well," Seven said, placing her hand on B'Elanna's forearm and looking at her warmly.

"How quaint," Jocasta muttered under her breath. "Well then," she continued, addressing B'Elanna. "I hope you won't mind if I steal her from you . . . at least for this evening."

It took all of B'Elanna's will power not to smack the smirk off Jocasta's face. She took a deep breath as she counted to ten and told herself over and over again that it would not do Seven or the Institute any good for her to have to be pulled off a bloody pulp of what was left of the rich and famous Jocasta Lakar. Finally, she spoke up, addressing both Seven and Jocasta. "I take it your meeting is going well. I'm very proud of what Seven has accomplished here at the Institute and I'm pleased at the prospect that the Nova Foundation might be able to assist."

Jocasta's smirk became even more intense, if that was possible. "Oh, I am certain that I can do something for Seven of Nine."

Her jaw and fists clenched, B'Elanna turned to Seven and thought she saw a brief flash of a blush on her lover's face. "I'm done for the day. I'll take the kids and see you at home later."

Seven nodded and B'Elanna left the two women so that she could mobilize Bemar and Anara and head for home.

Chapter 2

"So, how are things going?" B'Elanna asked Ven, having finally put the children to bed following their conversation with their father.

"Very well, I think. Voyager is an amazing vessel and Kathryn seems genuinely happy to have me here. I still feel a little out of place and in the way but I'm working on getting over it."

"I know exactly how you feel right about now," B'Elanna muttered and sighed.

"What do you mean? Has something happened?" Ven asked, concerned about the woman who had become his closest friend since his wife's death a few years ago.

"Aw, Ven. I wanted to talk with you about your visit and not bother you with things here," B'Elanna said, sorry to have raised the issue.

"Come on, tell me," Ven cajoled. "What has happened to upset you?"

"Jocasta Lakar happened. She's here representing her Nova Foundation to help the Board make the decision about funding some of the Institute's projects," B'Elanna explained.

"Why has this created difficulty for you?"

"For starters, she's a nasty, predatory dilettante who could never understand what we're trying to do here."

"Is that all?" Ven laughed.

"And she can't keep her eyes off Seven!" B'Elanna continued, frustrated that her friend saw any humor in the situation.

Ven chuckled again.

"I'm serious, Ven. I knew I shouldn't have talked to you about this," B'Elanna steamed.

"I'm sorry, B'Elanna. Its just that I know you don't have anything to worry about in that area."

"How do *you* know?" B'Elanna griped. "You're practically on the other side of the galaxy."

"Hardly," Ven chuckled again. "But I *do* know," he continued. "I see that Seven adores you. You two are perfect together and it is clear to everyone but you that you really don't have anything to worry about."

"But that woman is horrible," B'Elanna exclaimed, "AND beautiful AND rich. I know Seven loves me, but what do I have to offer her? I've dragged her to this backwater place and Jocasta can give her anything she wants."

"Well, I'll ignore the 'backwater' comment. . . .," Ven said quietly. "As for the rest of it, you have yourself to offer Seven and a home and a life here. She seems completely happy."

"But she probably doesn't know what she wants because she's had so little experience," B'Elanna insisted.

"How do you know that she doesn't know what she wants?"

"I just . . .," B'Elanna sputtered, pacing the floor of her living room now.

"So you haven't spoken with her about this? About her experience or about what she wants?" Ven asked gently.

"Well, I know that she had some relationships or something, but we haven't really talked specifics," B'Elanna admitted.

"I think you need to talk with her about all of this, B'El. Don't go flying off the handle and assuming things you don't know. You'll just open the door for Jocasta."

"I am a Klingon!" B'Elanna exclaimed. "I will not allow that creature to dishonor me."

"All right, all right. Don't get carried away with the Klingon business. I know you're a Klingon but I also know that you're Human and that you're probably the most stubborn specimen of either species. Seven loves you – stubborn Human, Klingon, idiot that you are sometimes – but you can't expect her to read your mind and you shouldn't assume you know hers," Ven asserted deliberately. "Talk to her."

B'Elanna pursed her lips and growled softly. "I hate it when you're right."

Ven smiled, always satisfied whenever he was able to be of help to B'Elanna who, although sometimes deeply vulnerable, rarely allowed any signs of weakness or need to surface. "Well, since that doesn't happen often, you'll just have to live with it this time."

Seven of Nine pulled open the door to Ilvia's best bistro to allow Jocasta Lakar to enter.

"Thank you," Jocasta cooed to Seven. "You are very gallant."

"You are welcome," Seven replied. "But I was simply being polite."

"Nevertheless, I always appreciate such attentions," Jocasta continued, as Seven showed her into the restaurant, trying to ignore the attention she had been receiving throughout this never ending business meeting.

A handsome young man rushed over to them shortly after they entered the bistro. "Seven!" he exclaimed. "How wonderful to see you."

"It is good to see you as well, Romare," Seven responded.

"And where is your *delicious* consort this evening?" Romare asked.

Seven smiled at the young man's affectionate mention of B'Elanna. The two women had spent many lovely evenings at the bistro and Romare and his husband often seated them at a romantic and secluded table and provided them with especially sumptuous fare. "She is looking after Jomat Ven's children this evening. Jocasta Lakar and I are here for a business meeting."

Romare greeted Jocasta and led the two to a table near the center of the room. As he made to leave them, he turned to Seven. "You tell B'Elanna that I want to see you both here soon."

Seven nodded in response and settled in for what she knew would be a long evening with a difficult woman.

"So," Jocasta began as she perused the menu, "you obviously come here often."

"Yes, B'Elanna and I come here frequently," Seven responded, "It is the finest restaurant in town."

"Mm hmn," Jocasta mumbled, indicating her suspicion that the bistro would not meet her standards. Nevertheless, she found something tolerable on the menu and the two women ordered their meals when the waiter arrived.

"So what brings you to this . . . quaint. . . planet, Seven?"

"I came here eight months ago as a technical advisor from the Federation's Institute for New Technology to assist the Free Haven colony recover from the devastation of the war. The work entailed installing a new energy grid and water reclamation system and upgrading many other essential systems," Seven recounted.

"Eight months ago," Jocasta exclaimed. "Surely you must have completed the work in a few weeks. Why are you still here eight months later?"

"That is true. I left the employ of the Federation when the project was completed and remain here for personal reasons," Seven said, not wanting the conversation to turn away from business discussions.

"Ah, the technician . . . I mean, engineer," Jocasta smirked.

Seven considered how to handle the woman's attempt to dishonor B'Elanna and felt paralyzed for a moment. She wanted to put Jocasta in her place and make it clear that she did not want to hear her slight her beloved again. But B'Elanna had not lashed out against Jocasta earlier out of concern for damaging the Institute's ability to obtain funds from the foundation. Perhaps her lover's surprising and more diplomatic approach would suffice for now. "B'Elanna and I have worked hard to get the Institute running and I believe that we have already made an important contribution to various planets in this region. The need is great as the war seriously damaged so many worlds. Our work on Cyrangia, for example, has restored systems on an entire continent, allowing the return of many refugees whose displacement was placing considerable stress on other continents and nearby worlds. They have begun to recover so quickly that it is difficult to imagine the devastation that greeted us when we first arrived," Seven said with some measure of pride. "B'Elanna accomplished extraordinary things there."

"I see," Jocasta said slowly, clearly mulling over what Seven had just told her. "Perhaps it would help me in formulating my recommendation for the Board if I could see what you've done on Cyrangia."

"Indeed, I can imagine that it would be a useful visit. I will make arrangements for one of the engineers who worked with us there to give you a tour when you have finished your evaluation here," Seven offered.

"Oh no," Jocasta said, reaching across the table to touch Seven's hand briefly. "I don't think an engineer's tour would be as enlightening as one given by the Director of the Institute. I wouldn't think of going without you." She sat back in her chair and lifted her mug of raktajino to her lips. "Arrange it for the day after tomorrow."

Seven sighed and nodded, incredulous that she had gotten herself into such a situation and anxious about the upcoming journey.

Chapter 3

Late that evening – much later than she would have liked – Seven returned home to find B'Elanna sprawled on the couch, drinking Trakian ale and watching a holovid of a Klingon romance. Seven knew immediately that something must be bothering her lover as B'Elanna rarely indulged in such idle pursuits alone. The last time had come after one of her father's daughters – her half sister – got married and did not invite B'Elanna and Seven to the wedding. B'Elanna had been deeply hurt and moped around for days, spending far too much time drinking and watching vids. Sorrow had gripped Seven's heart during B'Elanna's mourning and she did her best to offer comfort. She had no idea what could have transpired to bring B'Elanna to this point again.

B'Elanna obviously hadn't noticed her arrival so Seven walked to the couch and knelt down in front of it, drawing B'Elanna's attention away from the entertainment. Seven leaned down to greet her with a kiss and, met with a hesitant response, pulled back to look into the brown eyes before her.

"I missed you, my love," Seven whispered.

B'Elanna brought her hand to Seven's cheek and stroked it, searching her lover's eyes – for what she didn't know. *Kahless,* she thought. How she loved this woman who, more than anyone ever in her life let her be herself and brought out the best elements of that person. *I owe it to her to do what's best for her after everything she's given me,* B'Elanna thought.

"I missed you too. Did you have a good time?"

"I do not know whether such a thing is possible with Jocasta Lakar. She is a difficult person in many ways," Seven responded with a sigh.

"I'll say," B'Elanna muttered, sitting up to continue the conversation.

Seven joined her on the couch, sitting upright and rigid in a way reminiscent of her discomfort when sitting down in the years after being severed from the Borg collective. "Unfortunately, she does not seem to be any closer to making a decision about funding any of the Institute's projects. She will meet with Falor, in his capacity as a representative of the Parliament, and other officials from the town tomorrow."

"Well, maybe she'll have enough information after those meetings to come to a decision," B'Elanna offered, trying very hard to keep her dislike for and distrust of Jocasta from taking over her response to Seven's predicament.

"I do not believe so," Seven began, tentatively. "She says that she requires additional evidence of our work. After hearing of what we have accomplished on Cyrangia, she requested an opportunity to see for herself."

"Great. Then she can head off there the day after tomorrow and let us know what the Board decides once she returns to Trill." B'Elanna's excitement at the prospect of Jocasta's departure was evident in her tone.

"It is not as simple as that," Seven said, looking down at her hands. "Jocasta Lakar has specifically requested that I accompany her to Cyrangia and acquaint her with what we have done."

B'Elanna leapt from the couch and began pacing. "I *knew* it," she fairly shouted. "I knew it. The only 'acquainting' that's going to go on on that trip has nothing to do with touring environmental control facilities."

"What do you mean? She simply requires additional information. I do not *wish* to accompany her but must do so in my capacity as Director of the Institute," Seven said with some measure of irritation in her voice.

"I mean that she *does not* need any more information or evidence. You've given her volumes of data on what we've done and on what we plan to do. This little trip is simply a ruse," B'Elanna sputtered, her hands on her hips.

"A ruse? For what purpose?"

"For what purpose? For the purpose of acquainting herself with *you,* Seven! That's all she's interested in and that's why she's dragging out this whole process."

"I do not believe this to be true, B'Elanna. And even if it were, it would not make any difference. We need foundation support and we agreed to seek funding from Nova. This is simply part of the necessary process of completing the grant application," Seven insisted, trying to calm B'Elanna but becoming increasingly agitated herself.

"Well it is true. Haven't you seen how she acts around you? And how she completely disregards our relationship? Mark my words, she has an ulterior motive for this trip."

"I do not understand why this should make you so upset, B'Elanna," Seven responded, the emotion of the situation clearly evident in her voice. "Whatever Jocasta Lakar may want in relation to me is irrelevant."

"She's a very persuasive and powerful woman."

"Yes, she is," Seven agreed. "And very compelling in some ways. But I reiterate that any interest she has outside of the work we are doing here is irrelevant."

B'Elanna continued to pace the living room in her anger and outrage at Jocasta's presumption and the idea that Seven found the woman 'compelling' raging in her gut.

Seven stood and moved to block her path. "I do not understand why you do not trust my judgement in this. Did you not ask me to trust you and to trust in your love for me?"

B'Elanna stopped abruptly when she encountered her lover standing before her. "Yes, I did ask you to trust me, but this is different."

Seven placed her hands behind her back and assumed the familiar, rigid stance that tended to indicate discomfort with a given situation. "How is this different?"

"It just is, believe me," B'Elanna sputtered, knowing that she was beginning to lose ground in the argument.

"I do not believe that I can trust you on this question without further information. You require that I trust you and yet you do not trust me. This is illogical and unfair."

"Look," B'Elanna began cautiously, crossing her arms. "I know what I'm talking about. I've been around and had lots of experience – more than I would like to have had – and I know women like Jocasta Lakar. She's set up this trip just to have an opportunity to get her claws into you."

"And I am incapable of resisting?" Seven asked, cocking her head.

"I just think that you're probably more susceptible to her designs because you haven't had all that much experience. I just don't want you to get hurt."

"Your data is flawed. You do not have sufficient information concerning my 'experience.' But, I reiterate that this is irrelevant. You do not trust me and I do not wish to continue this conversation. I will carry out my duties and accompany Jocasta Lakar to Cyrangia." With that, Seven marched off to the bedroom and closed the door.

B'Elanna awoke at the realization that someone was shaking her shoulder. She opened her eyes to find Bemar looking down at her.

"B'Elanna," Bemar said, still shaking her, "We're leaving for school now."

She bolted into an upright position. "Leaving for school? What time is it?"

"It is 0800, the same time we always leave for school," the boy said, not understanding why B'Elanna was agitated.

"Damn," B'Elanna grunted, cursing herself for having fallen asleep on the couch. Suddenly, Seven appeared in the living room, leading Anara by the hand and obviously ready to leave for work. Anara pulled away from Seven and rushed over to B'Elanna.

"Bye, B'Elanna," Anara said, hugging the bewildered woman around the neck. "See you later."

"See you later, munchkins," B'Elanna replied. "See you later?" she asked of Seven.

Seven simply nodded in response, called the children to her, and left.

"Damn," B'Elanna shouted, getting up and rushing to get ready for work.

That evening, B'Elanna entered Ilvia's town hall to find most of the town's most prominent residents gathered there to wine and dine Jocasta Lakar of the Nova Foundation. Even though running the Jalaran Institute for Technological Development was Seven's responsibility, the town's residents were well aware of how much they had benefitted from the Institute's presence. It had brought jobs and prestige to the town but Ilvians were also very proud of the important contributions it made to helping people to recover from the war. They had pulled out all the stops to impress Jocasta but B'Elanna suspected that the reception, however enjoyable, would have no impact on the woman's recommendation to the foundation's board. B'Elanna knew what would make Jocasta recommend funding the Institute's work and gritted her teeth, hoping that she wouldn't have to resort to taking drastic measures to ensure that that woman didn't get what she was after.

Surveying the room, B'Elanna at once saw Seven and Jocasta standing with Keeve Falor and some local businessmen. She moved toward the bar, weaving through the various groups of people standing and chatting and, when she reached her destination, ordered a drink. Standing with her back to the increasingly animated interactions among the group surrounding Jocasta, B'Elanna took a swig of her drink and tried not to spin fantasies about what was going to happen when Seven was off alone with that woman.

"Hey, B'El."

B'Elanna turned to see Varis Sul standing next to her at the bar. Sul, with whom B'Elanna had been involved briefly and fairly disastrously some years ago, had recently been elected to a seat on the town council and so was obligated to attend this gathering.

"Hi, Sul," B'Elanna responded with a smile, thinking about how much she enjoyed Sul's company these last few months. In the aftermath of their adventure with Cole and his pirates, the troubled and self-destructive child of the past had transformed into a mature, responsible and happy woman. And the confidence that her friends in Ilvia felt in her abilities was clearly reflected in the fact that they had elected her to the council.

"You look beautiful, B'Elanna," Sul said, blushing slightly.

"Thanks. You look great yourself. And very professional." B'Elanna was aware that Sul still had feelings for her but also knew that her former lover was completely supportive of her relationship with Seven. B'Elanna had dressed in a form-fitting black cocktail dress, hoping to mount some sort of challenge to Jocasta's lure but, upon entering the reception, had decided to lay low.

"Poor Seven," Sul laughed.

"What do you mean?"

"That woman. She's so obnoxious!" Sul continued laughing with B'Elanna joining her. "I mean, I know that I can be obnoxious – very obnoxious – but she takes the cake."

"You said it." B'Elanna took another sip of her drink. "I don't think Seven thinks she's all that bad, though."

"Well, as intolerant as Seven is of stupidity, she can also be very generous. She doesn't hate *me* anymore," Sul said, proud of having won the confidence of B'Elanna's new love.

B'Elanna nodded. "She's right about you, but she's wrong about Jocasta Lakar. I just hope she doesn't get hurt. I couldn't bear that."

"Just because she's generous doesn't mean she's stupid, B'Elanna. Seven can take care of herself. Don't worry so much," Sul comforted her, laying her hand on B'Elanna's shoulder.

"Thanks, Sul. Listen, I've got to get home. Jaxa's looking after the kids and I promised I'd be home early. Keep an eye on Seven for me?"

"Anything for you, B'El."

B'Elanna stirred from her slumber at the feel of strong arms pulling her into a warm and inviting body. "Seven?" she mumbled.

"Yes, my love," Seven replied, pulling B'Elanna to her so that their bodies were spooned.

"How did the reception go?"

"I believe it was a success," Seven said, inhaling the familiar and ever comforting scent of B'Elanna's skin. "You looked beautiful tonight as well."

"I didn't know you had seen me there."

"I always know when you are present," Seven replied, pulling B'Elanna yet closer.

"I thought you were angry with me," B'Elanna whispered.

"I am," Seven responded softly and kissed B'Elanna's shoulder. "Good night, B'Elanna."

"Good night, Seven."

Chapter 4

Seven awoke to an empty bed, disoriented for a moment, hoping that the events of the past few days were nothing more than an unpleasant dream. Truth be told, Seven had found dreaming one of the more unsettling aspects of reclaiming her humanity. She certainly did not enjoy the disturbing, frightening dreams of anxiety that she sometimes had and did not quite understand the benefits of the fantastical dreams, even if they were happy. Her real life was generally satisfying beyond her imagination and she did not feel the need to embrace fantasy. But on this morning, she would have welcomed a realization that her disagreements with B'Elanna had been a dream. Getting out of bed and beginning to prepare for her day and for the three-day trip looming before her, Seven tried to figure out how she had arrived at this point where B'Elanna did not trust her and she herself did not feel the absolute confidence in B'Elanna that had drawn her to her lover so powerfully when she had first come to Ilvia. Since that time, she had felt profoundly attuned to B'Elanna and it distressed her greatly to experience this discord.

Dressed now, Seven entered the living room to find a message from B'Elanna indicating that she had gotten the children ready and taken them to school before heading to the Institute's landing strip to continue working on the shuttle upgrade. Consuming a quick breakfast, Seven thought about how Jocasta Lakar posed no threat to their relationship as far as Seven was concerned but wondered why she did not find the woman to be unbearable as B'Elanna and others seemed to. Jocasta was intelligent, passionate, and willing to donate money to worthy causes. Despite her recognition of Jocasta's merits as a person, Seven was not looking forward to the trip and wished that Jocasta had permitted her to arrange for a Cyrangian engineer to guide her. But it would only be three days and Seven simply could not understand why B'Elanna was being so unreasonable.

Seven picked up the bag that she had packed for the trip, made sure that she had everything else she needed and left the house to meet Jocasta at the Institute, sighing and wishing the whole thing were already accomplished.

"Ahh, delicious," B'Elanna said softly as she fixed the final component into place, completing the upgrade of the shuttle's shields, sensors, and impulse engines. Once tested she would deliver it and provide the government that had requested their aid with the specifications to do the work on any other ships they had, however few and small. "Now, we have to see how you run," she continued, addressing the small ship as she slid into the pilot's seat.

Although piloting was not her most developed skill, B'Elanna very much enjoyed being the one to put her designs to the test in the field. She truly relished the excitement of actually feeling the difference in a ship or instrument as a result of her work. Deciding that a quick set of maneuvers would be just the thing to take her mind off everything, B'Elanna keyed in her course and settled in to test out the upgrades.

"My ship has arrived and my pilot is ready to depart," Jocasta declared, entering Seven's office. "I suggest we leave now," she continued, perching herself on the desk and gazing down into Seven's eyes.

"Acceptable," Seven replied, with no hint of either her distress about the situation with B'Elanna or her apprehension about the trip that loomed before her. She picked up her bag and followed Jocasta out of the Institute offices and toward the landing strip expecting to find B'Elanna there. Seven travelled fairly frequently for work and had never left without saying goodbye to B'Elanna. Her lover's early departure to deposit Anara and Bemar at school and subsequent work on the shuttle upgrade meant that they had not seen each other all day. Seven had stopped by the school on her way to work to let the children know that she would return in three days. Now, as she approached Jocasta's ship, Seven found no sign of B'Elanna.

"I'll take that for you," Jocasta's pilot said, taking the bag from Seven's hand and heading toward the ship.

"Thank you," Seven replied, turning around to see if B'Elanna was working on one of the many shuttles parked on the strip.

"Shall we?" Jocasta said, tugging Seven's arm and pulling her toward the ship.

"Damn!" B'Elanna exclaimed, having just queried the shuttle's computer about the current time. She quickly keyed in her new destination and began the landing sequence.

Seven sat in one of the passenger chairs of Jocasta's truly luxurious personal shuttle, named the Sphinx, not able to focus either on the pilot's launch preparations or Jocasta's incessant babbling about the trip. She couldn't leave without seeing B'Elanna, no matter how tense their interactions had been of late. Just as Seven was about to tell Jocasta that their departure would have to be delayed, her attention was caught by the appearance of a shuttle that had just landed on the strip. Seven stood and peered out the window to see B'Elanna emerging hurriedly from the hatch.

"I shall return in a moment," Seven said, interrupting Jocasta's prattle. Before Jocasta could respond, Seven was out the door.

B'Elanna jogged toward Seven, who was by now standing on the landing strip. "I'm so sorry," she exclaimed. "I was testing the shuttle upgrades and lost track of the time."

Seven stood rigidly, trying to hold in both her anger and her relief at B'Elanna's arrival.

"I would never have let you leave without saying goodbye," B'Elanna continued.

Seven nodded. "I was distressed when I did not find you here. Was the test successful?"

"I think everything's in order," B'Elanna replied. "All ready to leave?"

Seven nodded.

"That's some ship," B'Elanna said, motioning with her head toward the Sphinx and wondering how to move beyond the awkwardness between the two of them.

"It is impressive," Seven said, also unsure of how to say goodbye while they were still at odds over Jocasta.

The two stood awkwardly for a moment and then B'Elanna reached down to roll up her left pant leg. Underneath Seven saw the Kut'luch blade that B'Elanna's mother had left her strapped to her lover's leg. Seven knew that B'Elanna sometimes carried it when she thought she might be entering a dangerous situation, but could not imagine why she had it with her today. Seven watched as B'Elanna undid the leather strap that secured the knife's sheath to her and then offered the blade and sheath to Seven.

Seven tilted her head and cocked her eyebrow. "I do not believe that I have need of such a weapon on this trip, B'Elanna. We are simply going to Cyrangia to tour the facilities and will return in a few days."

B'Elanna stepped forward and offered her Kut'luch again. "It isn't about the weapon, Seven. I wanted you to have something of mine with you. Its about me, my house – about us. Qapla' Balth je' – Honor and Success, my love."

"jIH DoQ batlh," Seven responded, grasping the sheath and then fastening it to her leg. "I claim the honor." Seven moved toward B'Elanna and reached out to place a hand on her cheek. Bringing the other hand to B'Elanna's face, Seven gazed into her lover's eyes deeply and thought about the power of B'Elanna's gesture in sending her Kut'luch along with Seven on her trip. "I will return to you soon, beloved."

"ji-OI – I ache for your return," B'Elanna whispered as Seven's lips met her own.

B'Elanna watched as Seven returned to the ship and then stood on the landing strip, her arms crossed, as she watched the Sphinx depart.

Chapter 5

Seven of Nine sat at a work station in the passenger compartment of Jocasta Lakar's ship, the Sphinx, and tried to make some progress on one of the Institute's major projects on which she and B'Elanna had been working for some time. A Bajoran colony, much like Jalara had been before it became independent, was in need of assistance with its agricultural technology. Farming wasn't something she knew much about – she was much more comfortable with ship's systems – but this was precisely the kind of challenge that she had hoped to find in working at the Institute. In this case, the relative poverty of the colony meant that they would have to find a way to create the most productive technology possible with few resources. Getting work done on this trip, now three hours into a six-hour journey, had been difficult as Jocasta interrupted her regularly with irrelevant questions or comments. She sighed almost imperceptibly as Jocasta entered the compartment again, flopped down in the arm chair near Seven's work station and crossed her long legs.

"So, where shall we dine tonight?" Jocasta said, once again interrupting Seven's work.

"I am certain there is a restaurant in the hotel where we are staying," Seven replied, trying to concentrate on the tasks before her.

"Oh, but I had something more . . . I don't know . . . special in mind."

"Special?" she said, looking up, quizzically.

"Yes, you know – excellent food, cozy atmosphere. It is a special occasion, after all," Jocasta responded, swinging a leg, exposing it to view.

"In what regard? As much as I respect and like the people I have worked with there, Cyrangia is an unremarkable place. And this is not the first time we will dine together."

Jocasta stood and moved over to lean against Seven's work station. "Well, I have never been to Cyrangia and, as for dining together, I imagine that every such occasion with you is special."

Seven of Nine, former Tertiary adjunct of Unimatrix Zero One, who had crossed the Delta Quadrant with the crew of the Federation Starship Voyager and faced innumerable species, challenges and dangers with the utmost calm found herself speechless at this moment. Perhaps, she thought, B'Elanna is correct and this woman desired something from her that had nothing to do with their business relationship. But there was nothing she could offer to Jocasta. Her life was with B'Elanna. More than that, she had begun to feel her destiny – to the degree that she accepted that there was such a thing as destiny – to be inextricably linked with B'Elanna Torres. She could imagine no other life for herself, no other way to be her best self. As Seven's mind raced to find some way to respond to Jocasta's provocation without upsetting her or the possibility of a working relationship, she was brought back to the moment by the feeling of the Sphinx rocking suddenly and the sight of Jocasta thrown off balance and into the chair where she had been sitting not long before.

Regaining her composure, Jocasta moved to a communication panel and contacted the pilot. "What is going on? I pay you to get me where I'm going in one piece," she snarled.

The pilot's voice came over the comm. "I'm very sorry Ms. Lakar, but a ship just decloaked off our port bow and fixed a tractor beam on us. We're being held in place and they're not responding to my hail."

Seven stood and followed Jocasta out of the passenger compartment and into the cockpit. She sat down at the station next to the pilot and began to glean what information she could from the display panel.

"We're being scanned," the pilot reported.

"I will attempt to send a deflector pulse through the tractor beam to dislodge it," Seven informed the others.

The three waited a moment as Seven performed the task and were rewarded with a jolt that indicated that the Sphinx was free of the other ship's tractor beam.

"They're locking on weapons," the pilot said, clearly agitated now. "I'm attempting evasive maneuvers."

"Who are they? What do they want with us?" Jocasta asked no one in particular as their ship rocked from the impact of a phaser hit.

"Direct hit to our shield generators," the pilot shouted.

Seven studied the panel before her intensely, keying in commands to retrieve information. "Cole," she whispered.

"What?" Jocasta exclaimed.

"Cole?" the pilot responded. "Cole, that pirate who's been terrorizing small worlds in your sector?"

"Yes," Seven said evenly. "That Cole. I recognize this ship's signature. We had a 'run-in' with Cole and his men eight months ago when I first arrived on Jalara."

"How could you possibly recognize the signature," Jocasta spat out in disbelief.

"I have an eidetic memory," Seven replied, cooly. "B'Elanna's shuttle engaged this very ship on that occasion eight months ago." Just as Seven finished, the Sphinx was rocked again by the impact of phaser fire.

Their pilot spoke the words that Seven had most been afraid to hear at this juncture. "Shields are down!"

"Do you have weapons aboard?" Seven asked him as she leapt from her seat. Before the pilot could answer her, a small device appeared before them in a transporter beam and the cabin began to fill quickly with red-colored gas. Seven moved quickly toward the device and began to attempt to disarm it, whatever it was. The last thing that Seven was aware of was seeing the pilot fall from his seat and to the ground, not far from where Jocasta had fallen unconscious moments before.

Young Bemar sat sprawled on B'Elanna's lap, his arms around her neck as the two watched Anara playing with a toy. The three had had dinner, spoken with Ven and now were relaxing in the little time the children had before bed.

"Do you think that father and Kathryn will get married?" Bemar asked, looking up into B'Elanna's eyes.

"I don't know, little one. It might be too early to tell. Have you asked your father or Kathryn? B'Elanna replied, stroking the boy's hair.

"No. I was just wondering. Father seems to be having a very good time on Voyager."

"How would it make you feel if they got married?" B'Elanna asked softly, noticing that Anara had stopped what she was doing to listen to their conversation.

"I don't know," Bemar responded, looking down at his hands. "I like Kathryn. I know that father likes her."

"But," B'Elanna tried to coax him to say what he was feeling.

"But she's not our mother."

"No, she's not," B'Elanna agreed, still stroking his hair. "And no one can replace your mother, sweetie. You'll never love anyone in exactly the same way that you loved her." The conversation was bringing forth deep and intense memories of Luson, the children's mother. "I loved her too – very much – and I miss her too," B'Elanna said softly.

"But if we still love mother, how can we love Kathryn too?" Anara asked, moving over to kneel in front of the chair on which B'Elanna and Bemar sat.

"There's nothing wrong with loving both of them." B'Elanna took the girl's hand in her own to comfort them. "Your mother would want you to be happy – all of you – and loving Kathryn won't take away from what you'll always feel about your mother and what you'll always have from her."

Bemar nodded to indicate his understanding.

B'Elanna took Bemar's hand in her free hand and met each children's gaze. "The two most important things learned from my life on Voyager and from all the mistakes I've made since then and the right choices I've made, are that you don't have to be biologically related to someone to be family and you can never have too big a family."

"Does that mean that we're your family too?" Anara asked.

"Of course you are, silly. I wouldn't know what to do without you."

"Would we have to live on Voyager if father and Kathryn were married?" Bemar queried, getting to one of the questions that B'Elanna suspected was at the heart of his concern.

"I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Voyager wasn't made to have families aboard. We did have one child aboard when we were trying to get home, but that was an unusual situation. Whatever happens, your father will do the best thing for all of you, as he always has. You can trust him on that."

The children nodded their agreement.

"And, whatever happens, I will always love you and Seven will always love you." She paused a moment to try to imagine what Seven might be up to at this moment, having likely just arrived on Cyrangia. **Well,** B'Elanna thought, **there will be lots of time to let my imagination run wild when I'm sleeping alone in our bed tonight.** "Okay, munchkins," she said, turning her attention to the children once again. "Time for bed."

The children scrambled to their feet and hugged B'Elanna before padding off to bed. B'Elanna let out a sigh of relief that she had made it through this difficult discussion with the children and wondered where the future lay for them all.

Chapter 6

Seven awoke to find herself in semi-darkness, slowly becoming aware of her body and the deeply sluggish and heavy feeling that kept her from moving quickly or easily. **There must have been a paralyzing agent of some sort in that device,** she thought, **along with whatever rendered us unconscious.** As she stretched her limbs and struggled to become fully in control of her body again, she realized that she was lying on a cold floor in a small, completely enclosed room. Eventually able to move, Seven got herself to the person lying closest to her – the pilot of the Sphinx. She shook him to see if she could get him to wake up. Getting no response, she shook him more vigorously and then felt for a pulse. **I never even found out his name,** she thought, realizing that the man was dead.

With nothing left to do, Seven turned her attention to Jocasta, who lay on the other side of the pilot. She placed her hand on Jocasta's shoulder and shook her, hoping that she was still alive. Getting no response, Seven felt for a pulse and breathed a sigh of relief upon finding one. The darkness of the room made it impossible for Seven to determine Jocasta's condition beyond what she could feel so she simply shook her again. "Jocasta. Jocasta Lakar." Seven could feel Jocasta begin to stir and felt the woman's hands grasp her arms.

"Oh, gods," she moaned. "Where am I?"

"Regrettably, I am unable to provide you with that information," Seven said softly.

"Seven of Nine?" Jocasta gripped Seven's arms more forcefully, sounding frightened and unlike her typical commanding self.


"What happened?" Jocasta asked, sitting up but still holding onto Seven.

"Cole beamed aboard a device that released a gas that rendered us unconscious. I woke up here only a few moments ago." She paused, took a breath and then continued, "I am sorry to inform you that your pilot is dead."

"What! How did it happen?" Jocasta exclaimed, releasing her grip and backing away from Seven.

"I cannot say for certain but it seems that his physiology could not tolerate the gas that rendered us unconscious. We were simply lucky, I imagine."

"Lucky! That's a twisted way of looking at things."

"We are alive," Seven emphasized.

"For how long? And what do these people want with us?"

"I do not know," Seven said, suddenly distracted by the sound of footsteps in the hall. She waited as they came closer, approaching the room in which they were locked. Soon she was assaulted by the brightness entering from the lighted hallway. But the glare was shortly tempered by appearance of a large figure in the light.

Turning up the lights in the small room, a burly, blonde man stepped forward, flanked by two armed guards. "Welcome. I trust you are comfortable," he sneered.

"Well, I would hardly say so," Jocasta exploded, getting to her feet. "Why are you holding us here? I will have you know that I will hold you responsible for my pilot's death."

Seven stood as well, wondering if there were any circumstances in which Jocasta Lakar could not convince herself that she was in control.

The man laughed, looking Jocasta up and down. "As much as I might like to take credit for it, it was an accident. But, it might come in handy." He motioned to one of the guards to removed the pilot's body.

"Who are you and what do you want with us?" Jocasta demanded.

"My name is William Cole," the man replied. Stepping forward and standing very close to Seven, he continued softly, "You may call me William. I hope you will."

"What do you want from us?" Jocasta bellowed again. "If it has anything to do with that Bajoran colony on Jalara, I didn't have anything to do with it. Tell him, Seven."

His eyes still locked on Seven, Cole smirked. "Yes, tell me, Seven," he said, realizing that this beauty before him must have something to do with those annoying upstarts on Free Haven who brought the Federation's wrath upon him. As a result, he was forced to relocate to this gods-forsaken trading station and engage in petty operations like this one.

"What is your objective in capturing us," Seven responded, ignoring the order and standing rigid before Cole's penetrating gaze.

"Oh, well," Cole began, now circling Seven. "I am quite flexible with regard to objective. A good leader is able to assess each situation in the moment and maximize his opportunities in response to circumstance. I do believe that I have opened the door to more possibilities than I imagined when I planned this operation."

"What are you talking about?" Jocasta expelled, moving toward Cole but finding her way blocked by the tip of a phaser rifle.

Cole stopped his assessment of Seven and turned his attention back to Jocasta. "My immediate objective, however, is to have your father deliver 200,000 bars of gold-pressed latinum in exchange for your safe return."

"Well then, get to it," Jocasta spat out at him. "The sooner Daddy gets you the money, the sooner I get out of this place."

Seven stood silent, wondering what would happen to her if Jocasta's father paid the bounty. No one she knew had access to those kinds of resources. She did not imagine that Jocasta's singular focus on getting out included her.

Cole locked eyes with Seven but continued addressing Jocasta. "I *shall* get to it. But aren't you going to ask about the fate of your lovely companion?"

"I'm sure you'll find someone who can ransom her," Jocasta said, giving evidence of some small measure of embarrassment that she had not, indeed, given any thought to Seven's fate.

"Perhaps, perhaps," Cole nodded. "But I do not think that her peasant mates on Jalara have much to offer. Making an example of her to punish them for their insolence might provide some personal satisfaction. Or," he said, running his finger across Seven's optical implant, "cutting her up to sell the Borg technology in her body might be even more satisfying."

Seven did not flinch at Cole's gaze or his touch but, inside, began to consider the very real possibility that she might not survive this – that she might never see B'Elanna again.

"There's no need to go cutting her up," Jocasta said with desperation evident in her voice. "Why don't you just ask my father for 300,000 bars. Surely she can't be worth all that much?"

"We shall see. We shall see," Cole muttered and headed for the exit.

Seven and Jocasta could do nothing but stare at the door as it closed, leaving them in darkness once again.

Chapter 7

B'Elanna sat on the porch of the house she shared with Seven, drinking a glass of Bajoran spring wine, watching the sun set, enjoying the view of her garden, and listening to Varis Sul complain about her lack of a social life.

"Ugh," Sul finally concluded, "at least I'm so busy with town council work that I really don't have that much time to think about it."

"Don't obsess about it too much, Sul," B'Elanna said, pouring herself more wine. "Someone will come along when you least expect it. Who knows, it could be someone you've known for a long time and didn't even think of as romantic potential. Look what happened to me."

Sul nodded her head, trying to believe what B'Elanna was saying but having a hard time with it. She knew with whom she really wanted to be but had ruined the relationship a long time ago. Now she would never get another chance. She sighed. "I just wish I hadn't been such a fool when we were together."

"Sul," B'Elanna said softly, "let's not go there again."

"I know, I'm sorry. Its just that the paradox drives me crazy."

"What paradox?"

Sul looked down at her hands, not wanting to meet B'Elanna's eye. "I think we could be good together now – that I could actually be good for you and not just a nuisance – but I'm who I am now only because you kicked my ass out the door."

"It wasn't all bad when we were together," B'Elanna responded, causing Sul to look up and smile at her. "But we are both different now and I can't imagine my life without Seven."

"I know," Sul said sincerely. "And I don't ever want you to think that I'm not deeply pleased that you're so happy. And, hell, I even like Seven."

B'Elanna chuckled. "It certainly took me long enough to come around to her. Boy, were there fireworks when we first met – and not the good kind. Kathryn and Tuvok had to pry us apart more times than I care to remember."

"I don't get it. When I first saw you two together, I could see a connection immediately. I find it hard to believe that you ever hated each other."

"I don't know that we *hated* each other," B'Elanna said. "We always had a strong and strange connection and, deep down, I felt that she understood me better than anyone on Voyager. I think that's how she got to me so easily." B'Elanna thought for a moment and then spoke softly. "Seven understood what lay underneath our hostile exchanges long before I did. Anyway," she said, meeting Sul's gaze, "you never know how things will turn out or . . . ." Before B'Elanna could continue, she heard the sound of the console in the living room beeping and indicating an incoming message. "I'll be right back," she said, leaving Sul on the porch to think about everything they had talked about that evening.

Suddenly B'Elanna returned, agitated and upset. "That was Karosh on Cyrangia. He said that Seven and Jocasta never showed up. He tried sending a message to Jocasta's ship but got no response."

"When did you last hear from Seven?" Sul asked, clearly disturbed by the news.

B'Elanna paced the porch. "I saw her off when she left and we haven't talked since. I didn't think anything of it because we had been fighting about Jocasta. I just decided to trust that she could handle everything and figured she was just very busy. Kahless, what could have happened to them?"

Sul moved to B'Elanna's side and put an arm around her shoulder. "I'm sure they're okay. Seven's strong and smart – she can take care of herself."

"You're right about that," B'Elanna conceded, "but I can't stand not knowing."

"Well, then, what are you going to do about it?" Sul said, looking her in the eye.

Seven sat on the cold floor in the corner of the dimly-lit cell where she and Jocasta were being held by Cole as he awaited a response to the ransom demands from Laertes Lakar, Jocasta's father. The two hostages had not spoken since the cell door closed and they were left alone again and, although Jocasta had looked in Seven's direction on a number of occasions, Seven did not feel inclined to engage her. Instead, she passed the time pondering engaging in breathing exercises to attempt the difficult task of controlling her anger and her fear. The prospect of being a simple commodity of any sort – either one that Jocasta's father could redeem from captivity or one sold on the black market in parts – enraged her. After years of having been a borg drone, her own will erased and subordinated to that of the Queen and the Collective, she could not bear to be confined in this way or made an expendable adjunct to Cole's plan to use Jocasta for his personal gain. The fear arose from the prospect of losing the life she had with B'Elanna. When she was a drone, she believed that the mundane details of the lives of individuals outside of the Collective were entirely irrelevant and, even after Kathryn severed her from the Collective, she often simply tolerated the routine of life. But with B'Elanna, things that had seemed trivial and unremarkable before had become so enjoyable and made her understand the pleasures both of individuality and of life with another person. She could hardly bear the thought that she might never again awaken next to her love, inhale the intoxicating scent of her skin, hear the sound of her voice or any of a thousand other small things. Almost unconsciously, Seven's hand moved to touch the pant leg that hid the Kut'luch blade strapped to her leg. She thought about the significance of B'Elanna's actions in giving it to her and began to think of how to put it to good use in her current situation. Seven's musings were interrupted by the sound of a deep sigh coming from Jocasta in the far corner of the room.

"I'm sorry," Jocasta said, almost inaudibly to the normal human ear.

Seven said nothing, nor did she acknowledge Jocasta in any way.

"I don't know what else to say," Jocasta said a bit louder. "I'm sorry."

Still no response from Seven.

"So, you're never going to speak with me again?" Jocasta asked, the irritation evident in her voice.

Seven turned to look at Jocasta, "For what, precisely, are you sorry?" she asked, so cooly that Jocasta shivered.

"Well . . . for getting you into this whole mess," Jocasta said tentatively.

"You are not responsible for William Cole holding us prisoner. His greed and mercenary tendencies are to blame."

"Uh, thanks," Jocasta replied, surprised at the response.

"There is no need to thank me. I simply stated the truth." Seven's voice became more severe suddenly. "You are not at fault for our being here but you *are* responsible for your self-centered, selfish, and unthinking declarations."

"Excuse me?" Jocasta said, getting up from the floor and moving to stand near where Seven was sitting.

Seven looked up at her. "The ease with which you volunteered information in an attempt to curry favor has placed my life in grave danger. Please refrain from speaking about me in the future. I do not particularly care to speak *to* you again but, if I must do so to ensure our survival, I will."

"I . . . I . . ." Jocasta sputtered.

Sul entered B'Elanna and Seven's living room to find B'Elanna at her console, disconnecting from a comm signal and looking rather dejected. She placed the raktajino she carried on the desk where B'Elanna sat.

"No luck, I take it," Sul asked.

"No luck. The Cyrangian government has no record of The Sphinx entering its sector. No one seems to know anything about where they are," B'Elanna said, grasping the mug of raktajino tightly in frustration. "We've got one more option," she continued, opening a channel to Voyager.

When Kathryn Janeway appeared on the screen dressed in a robe and obviously having been called out of bed, B'Elanna immediately felt guilty but knew that Kathryn would forgive her.

"B'Elanna," Kathryn said with evident concern. "What's wrong? Is it the children?"

"No, the kids are fine. We're all fine here."

"That's a relief," Kathryn replied. "But there is *something* wrong, isn't there?"

"Yes," B'Elanna said softly. "Its Seven. She and Jocasta Lakar left yesterday for a tour of the Institute's work on Cyrangia and they never showed up. I've exhausted all my resources in that sector to try to get a lead on what might have happened to them but haven't made any headway." B'Elanna could see Ven on the viewscreen now as he sat next to Kathryn.

"B'El," Ven said, "I'm so sorry. I'm sure they're okay."

"Thanks, Ven. I'm sorry to bother you both but I didn't know what else to do."

"Don't be silly, B'Elanna," Kathryn reassured her. "You know I'll do whatever I can to help. Give me a few minutes to get in touch with some people and I'll get right back to you."

B'Elanna nodded. "Okay."

"We'll find her, B'Elanna," Kathryn said forcefully, making B'Elanna recall all the times that Kathryn refused to give up on a lost member of the Voyager family. She knew that Kathryn would do everything in her power to help find Seven.

Jocasta thought long and hard before she addressed Seven of Nine again, knowing that her customary approaches to social interaction would no longer work. She understood why Seven would be annoyed with her for having made it possible for Cole to connect Seven to the events that had taken place on Jalara and at Cole's former base, but she couldn't imagine that the woman would never speak with her again. After all, they had become so close in the past two days and she even thought that she had made progress in turning the beautiful woman's head her way. Whatever the case, she was going to go insane sitting in this dank, dimly-lit cell with no one to talk to. Clearing her throat, she spoke up. "I'm sure my father will pay to get us both out."

Seven merely looked at her.

"I mean, he can certainly afford it and he does whatever I tell him to do."

"Well, that is certainly comforting," Seven shot back sarcastically. "Perhaps you will change your mind when the time comes and turn me over to Cole."

"I would never do that, Seven. I really am sorry. I care too much about you to let anything happen to you."

"You care about me? We do not know each other," Seven shot back. "You are clearly interested in a sexual relationship with me but this desire does not translate into care and concern, something I know to be true from past experience. You and I shall not be having intercourse, so you may dispense with the pretension of concern."

"I . . . I . . ." Jocasta sputtered.

From the moment B'Elanna saw Kathryn's face on the viewscreen again, she knew that the news was not good.

"B'Elanna," Kathryn began, Starfleet headquarters has learned that Laertes Lakar received a demand yesterday for 300,000 bars of gold-pressed latinum for Jocasta and Seven's safe return."

B'Elanna exhaled. "Damn. Who has them? Where are they?"

"We don't know any more at this point," Kathryn replied.

"What's going to happen now?"

"I've received approval for Voyager to accompany Lakar to the drop-off point. The Wyoming will pick you up in two hours and rendezvous with us."

"I'll be ready," B'Elanna assured her. "Thanks Kathryn. I don't know what I'd do without you sometimes."

"Having Starfleet connections does make some things easier," Kathryn allowed.

"That's not what I meant and you know it," B'Elanna said, smiling for the first time since she heard that Seven was missing.

"Well, I could say the same about you, my friend," Kathryn said, also smiling. "We'll all be together soon."

Chapter 8

B'Elanna sat in the crew lounge of the U.S.S. Wyoming, nursing a beer and gazing out the window thinking that, in a few hours, she'd be on Voyager and on her way to finding Seven. *God, how my life has changed in a few short months,* B'Elanna thought. *Not that long ago, I was hiding out from almost everyone I ever cared about and now I'm in love with someone I used to dislike intensely and rushing back to work with Voyager's crew." She thought about what drove her to isolate herself and about how subtle and yet overwhelming had been the process by which Seven drew her out into a full life again. As deep in thought as she was, B'Elanna's musings were interrupted by a shout coming from behind her.


She turned to see Harry Kim, her former crewmate from Voyager and first real friend among the Starfleet staff, standing just inside the doorway and grinning at her. The attention of other members of the Wyoming's crew was drawn by Harry's call and by the sight of B'Elanna leaping to her feet and rushing over to him.

"Hey, Starfleet," she replied, pulling him into a long, deep hug. "Good god, you don't look a day older than when I last saw you."

He shook his head in mock annoyance. "You look even more beautiful, B'Elanna – if that's possible."

"Pure flattery," she said, hugging him again. "I've missed it." And, more softly, "I've missed you, Harry. You were such a good influence on me." In many ways B'Elanna had missed Harry most of all the Voyager crew from whom she had cut herself off. In her daily life in the Delta quadrant, Harry had been something of an anchor for her . Their shared excitement about the minutia of engineering bound them in easy ways but she had always appreciated his attentiveness, his humor, and his profound humanity. He *had* been a very good influence on her and she missed that. B'Elanna was not surprised at all that this reunion was less emotionally fraught than those she had had with Chakotay, Kathryn, or even Seven. Harry simply loved her and would always feel more happy to see her than resentful of her absences.

Harry pulled her over to a table and the two sat down together, still observed by many of the Wyoming's crew relaxing in the lounge. Her hand remained in his. "I've missed you too. But here you are," he grinned.

She was glad that Harry was the same good, loving, easy friend she had relied on those years ago and that neither time nor experience had made him jaded or cynical.

After a moment of considering each other, he continued, "I'm sorry that the circumstances are so difficult for you." She nodded to indicate her appreciation of his concern. "I know you'll find her. It took too much for the two of you to get together for anything to go wrong now."

B'Elanna furrowed her brow and looked at him quizzically. "You're not surprised that Seven and I are together?"

Harry let go of her hand. "Not at all. Captain Janeway had me posted to Voyager for three months last year while Seven, the Doctor and I worked on the plan to remove Seven's abdominal implant and formulate a way to keep the nanoprobes charged and the Borg systems working without the regeneration unit. Seven and I spent lots of time together."

"And," B'Elanna said, unsure of Harry's point.

"It became clear to me that Seven had feelings for you. She tried to deny it, to suppress them as irrelevant – or maybe she just didn't understand them – but I saw how real and deep they were."

"But you couldn't have known that I'd be interested," she smirked.

Harry took a swig of the beer that B'Elanna had been drinking when he came in. "Oh, I had my suspicions that there was more to your annoyance with Seven than irritation about her interference in Engineering."

B'Elanna narrowed her eyes. "I see," she said slowly. "So why didn't you say anything?"

Harry laughed. "Right. What would you have done to me if I had come to you and said, 'Hey, B'Elanna. I think you're not so much angry with Seven of Nine as hot for her so, instead of fighting, why don't you just go jump her bones.'?"

"I probably would have ripped your heart out and eaten it for dinner," B'Elanna said, smiling.

"I rest my case."

B'Elanna smiled.

"I'm glad for you both," Harry said, now very serious. "The last time we talked, Seven told me how happy she's been with you. She knows that you love her."

"Well, even if you weren't surprised, Starfleet, I certainly was. It isn't just that I never thought that Seven and I would ever work as a couple but I never imagined that the kind of connection I feel with her was even possible – with anyone. She's just extraordinary in every way and I will never be the same again because she's been in my life, whatever happens."

"I'm sorry that I won't be able to help find her," Harry said, sadly.

"But it helps having you here right now," B'Elanna told him, taking his hand once again. "Now, tell me what's been going on here with you."

A few hours later, B'Elanna found herself in Captain Janeway's Ready Room having bid Harry goodbye, with promises of a real visit soon. She sat on the couch on the upper level, with Tuvok standing nearby. Kathryn sat at her desk and before her stood Laertes Lakar, internationally-known, internationally-mistrusted business man, and Jocasta's father. B'Elanna had arrived in time to see, with perfect clarity, how Jocasta had become the self-centered, controlling and selfish creature B'Elanna had seen on Jalara. On the way from the transporter room to the captain's Ready Room, Tuvok had informed B'Elanna that Mr. Lakar had been extremely vocal about his displeasure at the situation and it seemed that no degree of insistence on Janeway's part that the Federation had nothing to do with the kidnaping could calm him.

"Mr. Lakar," Kathryn said, her jaw set firmly in frustration with this self-important man, "at this point, the only thing we can do is proceed to the rendezvous point and find out what is required of you next."

Lakar huffed and paced before Kathryn's desk. "Well, the message said something about the payment being for the return of my sweet Jocasta and her companion. I have no idea who this woman might be, since no one has ever been good enough for my Jocasta to give them her long-term attention. "

B'Elanna began to growl at the characterization of Seven as involved in any way with that woman and Kathryn held up her hand to calm her.

"Mr. Lakar," Kathryn began firmly, "the woman with your daughter is the Director of the Jalaran Institute for Technological Development and they were on a business trip related to the Nova Foundation."

"And so the Federation should have done everything in its power to ensure my daughter's safety!"

Kathryn sighed, having talked around and around this issue with him before. Before she could respond yet again, B'Elanna jumped in. "Mr. Lakar, while Jalara is a Federation world, the Institute's relationship with the Nova Foundation is not official Federation business and the trip to Cyrangia was not only your daughter's idea and at her insistence, but took place on her vessel. The Federation cannot take responsibility for anything that's happened."

"And why should I care about your opinion on this matter?"

Tuvok stepped forward as B'Elanna began to answer. "B'Elanna Torres is also a former senior officer of this crew and is the Institute's Chief of Engineering." He purposely failed to mention the personal relationship between Seven and B'Elanna, desiring to keep the interaction on a professional level, an approach he hoped would make Laertes Lakar more willing to provide the money to redeem Seven from captivity.

"Nevertheless," Lakar continued, eyeing B'Elanna, "I have no intention of paying money to kidnappers for the release of a total stranger."

Even though he did not believe in the concept of luck, Tuvok had to admit that there might be some small measure of merit to it, given that he happened to be in precisely the right spot to hold B'Elanna back when she bared her teeth and leapt forward to grab Laertes Lakar.

"You cowardly piece of targh dung!"

"B'Elanna!" Kathryn said, afraid of the situation spinning out of control.

"Kathryn," B'Elanna responded in frustration, struggling against Tuvok's hold. "Captain, we can't let him . . . ."

"Hold on a minute, B'Elanna." Kathryn turned to Lakar, hoping to sway him using whatever means she could. "Mr. Lakar, it seems to me that a man of good conscience, such as yourself, would certainly see the importance of the humanitarian gesture of helping to liberate our colleague from these kidnappers."

Lakar held up his hand to indicate that he would listen no more. "I am returning to my ship now. We will speak again when we reach the rendezvous point."

Realizing that there was little more to do at this point, Kathryn nodded at Tuvok to accompany Lakar to the transporter room and she moved to take hold of B'Elanna's arm. When the men were gone, Kathryn relaxed her hold and B'Elanna sat down on the couch, a dejected expression on her face. Kathryn sat next to her. "We won't leave her there, B'Elanna. I promise."

"What are we supposed to do, Kathryn? I don't have that kind of money." She covered her face with her hands to hide the brimming emotions.

Kathryn placed her hand on B'Elanna's shoulder. "We'll figure something out."

B'Elanna looked at Kathryn, her eyes moist with tears. "Without access to the device that recharges and refreshes her nanoprobes, Seven's Borg systems will begin to deteriorate. It will be a slow process, but her cortical and motor functions will be affected." B'Elanna paused. "Eventually, she'll die."

"It won't come to that, B'Elanna. We'll get her out. Soon."

By this time, Tuvok had returned to the Ready Room and had overheard the last part of Kathryn and B'Elanna's conversation. Kathryn looked up at him, knowing that he too would be concerned about the well being of friend. His mastery of Vulcan control over emotions meant that this concern would not manifest itself as worry but, instead, as intensely focused rational attention to the problem at hand, as had been the case when B'Elanna and Harry had become lost on an away mission. Kathryn knew that Tuvok would not rest – literally – until Seven was rescued.

"B'Elanna," Kathryn said softly, "Why don't you go and see Ven. He's worried about both of you and it would do him good to see you."

B'Elanna wiped her eyes and nodded her assent. As she stood, Tuvok stepped forward.

"I will accompany you to Mr. Jomat's quarters," he said.

Tuvok and B'Elanna exited Janeway's Ready Room, crossed the Bridge and stepped on the turbolift in silence, both consumed with their own thoughts. After stating their destination, Tuvok turned to B'Elanna and spoke hesitantly.

"Ms. Torres . . . B'Elanna. I wish for you to know that I will do whatever is in my power to assist you in gaining Seven of Nine's release from her captors."

B'Elanna turned to him, gratitude evident on her face. "Thank you, Tuvok. I know that you will."

Tuvok spoke more softly. "When I say that I will do everything I can on Seven's behalf, I mean that, should you need assistance that falls outside the possibilities of the Starfleet framework, you may rely on me. I have had a long and challenging career in Starfleet and would find other means to be useful, should our course require that I do so."

"I don't know what to say, Tuvok. I can't say how much I appreciate this gesture," B'Elanna said as her eyes watered again.

"There is no need to thank me," Tuvok said evenly. "Just be prepared, should we need to pursue such a course of action."

B'Elanna nodded in understanding of what that might mean and felt heartened at the thought of Kathryn and Tuvok's commitments to Seven.

Since William Cole's visit to their cell and Jocasta's assurance that he would get a considerable amount of latinum from her father, Seven's circumstances and Jocasta's had diverged considerably. Jocasta had been called out to take a meal with her captor while Seven had been given rations in the cell. Jocasta's guard returned her to the cell with a cot and blankets and, only after Jocasta insisted that Seven be given a cot as well, did Cole agree. She now sat on the cot, listening to Jocasta's snores and focusing on a faint tingling in her left arm. Seven knew that these were the first signs of the depletion of energy from a portion of her nanoprobes and knew that it would only get worse, eventually resulting in loss of cortical function, paralysis and death. In her brief life as an individual, she had not been especially prone to worry or to morose thoughts, but she found it difficult now to avoid them. Pulling the blanket around her, she wondered about her fate and about how to resist the pain of the profound loss she was feeling at this moment.

Chapter 9

Sitting in a crappy chair behind his crappy desk in his personal hell hole of a base of operations, William Cole pondered the serendipity that had brought the blonde captive to him. When he had cooked up the operation, he had hoped simply to score enough ransom money to set himself and his team up at a new base of operations after the Federation had destroyed his long-term base. He had never imagined that kidnaping Laertes Lakar's daughter would result in an opportunity to get back at those peasants from Free Haven who had put him in this situation in the first place. Cole leaned back, put his feet up on the desk, and picked at his nails. *I could just take the money,* he thought and imagined for a moment the consequences of this course of action. *But why should I be satisfied with what I can get from Lakar? Why shouldn't I get more than just a new base? With a little more money, I could get set up to control an entire sector like I did before!* Cole stood up and paced as he pictured these potential new circumstances. Suddenly he slammed his fist on the desk and spoke to the empty room, "Dammit, I deserve some compensation and that Borg is going to help me get it."

Sitting back down, Cole pressed button on his console to contact his command office. "What's the ETA of Lakar's ship to the rendezvous point?" he barked.

"Three hours," came the hesitant voice of one of Cole's men from the console.

"All right. Let me know the moment we have contact."

"Yes sir."

Leaning back in his chair, putting his feet up again, Cole began to plan the best way to maximize the profit from his unexpected Borg captive.

B'Elanna and Tuvok parted ways outside Ven's quarters. Although everyone knew that their guest spent the evenings and nights in their Captain's quarters, neither Ven nor Kathryn was comfortable enough to forego the fiction of Ven having his own quarters for the duration of the visit. B'Elanna pressed the door chime and walked forward when she heard Ven's voice inviting her to enter.

"B'Elanna," Ven said, rushing over to her and pulling her into a hug.

B'Elanna had been sure that she would be able to resist the urge to cry upon seeing Ven. As soon as she felt her friend's arms around her, however, the tears began to flow.

"Shh," Ven whispered. "Everything will be fine. She'll be back home with us before you know it."

B'Elanna pressed her cheek into Ven's chest. "I wish I could believe that, Ven. Laertes Lakar refuses to pay Seven's ransom. I don't know what we're going to do."

"You will find a way, B'Elanna. I'm sure of it. And, having seen Kathryn at work now, I know that the two of you working together will be quite formidable."

B'Elanna pulled away and looked Ven in the eyes. "Kahless, I hope so, Ven. I don't know what I would do if anything happened to her. I don't think I could go on."

Ven, guided B'Elanna to the couch and, taking her hand, leaned forward to fix her with his gaze. "You know that I would give anything to make sure that you get her back safely, don't you?" B'Elanna nodded. "But you also must know that you are strong enough to handle anything that comes your way – even if it is the last thing in the world you think you're prepared for."

"Ven," B'Elanna began before he interrupted her.

"I know that you don't want to think about that possibility now and you shouldn't have to but I know what its like to lose someone."

B'Elanna hung her head and said softly, "I know. I'm sorry to bring all of the emotion up for you again."

Ven grasped B'Elanna's chin to make sure that she looked at him. "That's not my point, B'Elanna. I just wanted you to know that I'll be here, whatever happens, for whatever you need, just as you have been there for me."

B'Elanna hugged the man who had become such an incredibly important part of her life in the past few years and hoped that she wouldn't have to draw on his emotional support in the ways they had been discussing.

Turning the topic away from things as heart-rending as Luson's death and the danger they knew Seven faced at this very moment, B'Elanna inquired about the children, who were now in Jaxa's care.

Captain Kathryn Janeway had been sitting in her ready room for almost three hours reviewing the situation, assessing the options, and trying to formulate a plan for dealing with whoever had kidnaped Seven of Nine. Having gone over and over everything they knew, she was still resisting admitting that there was little she could do with the limited information they had. After almost three hours she didn't have a plan and, despite the nagging feeling that they might not have any options, could not bring herself to believe that they might lose Seven. **Not after everything we all went through to get to this point,** she thought. **Not after she finally found happiness with B'Elanna.** Kathryn stood up and deposited her coffee cup in the recycler and gazed out the window of her ready room just as Voyager dropped out of warp and her comm badge chirped.

"We have arrived, Captain," Tuvok's voice came through the comm. Since Voyager could not go with Laertes Lakar's ship to the rendezvous point, they had chosen a destination to wait for word about the exchange. "Mr. Lakar's ship has continued to the designated meeting place."

"Understood," Janeway replied and settled into what would certainly be interminable waiting, taking a moment before informing B'Elanna and Ven of their status.

The sounds of the cell door opening and the heavy boots of two of Cole's men awakened Seven of Nine awoke from a restless sleep. Jocasta had slept soundly, Seven knew, since she had observed her on many occasions during the night. But even Jocasta could not sleep through this sudden commotion. Seven struggled to sit up, feeling exhausted and shaky from the continued depletion of energy from her nanoprobes. She couldn't tell for certain how long she had before her cortical node ceased functioning but could feel her strength draining away. Throughout the fitful night she had been consumed with thoughts of the demise of this drone, resigning herself to inevitable solitary nature of deactivation. **This drone is alone,** she had thought countless times during the night. **This drone is alone.**

The two men marched in, holding their weapons at the ready and turning their attention to Jocasta, who was just sitting up.

"Okay, Ms. Lakar," one of the men said gruffly. "Time to go."

"Go where?" Jocasta asked, hesitation evident in her voice.

"Back to daddy," the other man replied, turning to look at her, "so we can get out of this hell hole."

It became immediately clear to both Seven and Jocasta that Laertes Lakar had not paid Cole the additional 100,000 bars of gold-pressed latinum to redeem Seven from her captivity. Jocasta stood up slowly and, as the two men moved to escort her out, she turned to Seven.

"Don't worry. I'll get my father to pay the money Cole has asked for. Don't worry."

The first man who spoke laughed a cold, deep laugh. "We're not interested in such a small take. Cole's got other plans for her."

Mustering her last bit of energy, Seven took advantage of the distraction provided by the two men leading Jocasta out and by their contemplation of Cole's plan for her. She drew B'Elanna's kut'luch from the leather sheath strapped to her leg, leapt from the cot and grabbed one of the men. Holding the blade to his throat, she fixed her gaze on the other man. "You will release this drone," she said emotionlessly.

"I don't think so," the man replied, pushing Jocasta away from him and to the far end of the room.

"Seven," Jocasta said, hoping to be able to do something to stop this situation from becoming deadly. "Don't do this. I promise, I'll get you out of here."

Seven did not acknowledge Jocasta and remained focused on the task at hand. "You *will* release this drone," Seven intoned again, her energy fading as she concentrated to hold her captive fast.

The stalemate continued, their eyes locked on one another, until Seven's opponent saw her falter. Her head drooped ever so slightly and her eyelids closed for a second and he took the opportunity and fired. Her captive jumped away as Seven crumpled and fell to the ground.

Kathryn, Ven and B'Elanna sat in silence in the Captain's Ready Room, their tortured waiting finally ended when Tuvok entered.

"Lakar's ship has returned," he said stoically.

Kathryn sighed, hoping that the unpleasant man had found some shred of decency and ransomed both his daughter and Seven of Nine. She rose from her chair and headed for the bridge, the three others following behind. Kathryn stood in her customary position at the center of the bridge and turned to her Operations Officer. "Hail them, Lieutenant Green."

"Aye, Captain," the young woman said.

The silence on Voyager's bridge was profound at the sight that greeted B'Elanna, Ven, and the senior officers when the viewscreen flickered to life.

"Where is Seven?" B'Elanna asked in a near whisper.

"I have no idea," Laertes replied firmly.

"Jocasta, where is she?" B'Elanna asked again.

"I'm sorry. William Cole . . . "

"Cole!" B'Elanna, Ven and Kathryn exclaimed in unison. Kathryn held up her hand to quiet everyone.

"What does Cole have to do with this?" Kathryn asked.

Jocasta swallowed and braced herself to explain as best she could. "William Cole is the one who attacked my ship, killed my pilot, and took us captive."

"Why you? What did he want?" B'Elanna asked.

"Well, obviously, he wanted money," Laertes interjected.

"He wanted money," Jocasta confirmed. "But when he found out that Seven had something to do with the destruction of his base, it seemed that no amount of money would satisfy him."

"Did you offer money?" Kathryn asked.

"By the time my father arrived, it was past that point and too late anyway."

"What do you mean, too late?" B'Elanna asked, dreading the answer.

"They shot her. She's alive but seems to be out of her mind. She kept talking about herself as 'this drone'."

B'Elanna and Kathryn exchanged a worried glance.

"He sent this to give to you," Jocasta continued, holding up the kut'luch. Laertes took it from her, handed it to one of his staff and the kut'luch materialized on Voyager's bridge. B'Elanna bent down slowly and retrieved it.

Teeth gritted and growling, B'Elanna addressed Jocasta. "I know that Seven would never have revealed that information to Cole. *You* must have told him."

Jocasta swallowed and said meekly, "It was an accident. I didn't mean . . . ."

B'Elanna took a step toward the viewscreen, the silence on the bridge now deafening as everyone awaited her response. Contemplating the kut'luch, B'Elanna seemed frozen but then looked up and locked gazes with Jocasta. Never taking her eyes from the woman before her, B'Elanna dragged the blade across the palm of her hand and drew blood. "If she dies, I swear on my honor, on the honor of my house, that you will know the point of this blade." She displayed the now bloody knife. "If it takes the last drop of blood in this body, I swear that I will send you to whatever hell you deserve to inhabit."

"B'Elanna," Ven exhaled, moving to grasp his friend's shoulder.

Still not taking her eyes from Jocasta, who was frozen in fear, B'Elanna replied, "I don't care if it sends me to Gre'thor, Ven. If this p'taq is responsible for the death of that honorable warrior . . . ." B'Elanna's voice broke but she continued, "for the death of my beloved, I will not rest until I see her avenged."

"How dare you threaten my daughter!" Laertes shouted.

Kathryn held up her hand to quiet him and turned to address Jocasta. "Ms. Lakar, would you be willing to share information with us about the place in which you were held and about the people who held you?"

"Of course, Captain."

"Mr. Tuvok will beam over immediately and debrief you."

Jocasta nodded her head to indicate her assent.

"Voyager out," Janeway said, signaling to her Ops officer to close the signal.

Chapter 10

Almost an hour later, B'Elanna sat at the table in her guest quarters aboard Voyager contemplating the kut'luch which lay before her, her blood now dried on the blade. Ven paced the floor behind her, unable to contain the frustration he felt at not being able to help in any material way and afraid for his friends. Certainly, Seven's fate weighed on him most heavily but, should the worst come to pass, he also feared for B'Elanna, given the course of action to which she had committed herself. He loved her as if they were of one blood and would eternally be grateful for the wisdom of the Prophets that had brought her to his family. He was also grateful that B'Elanna's life had developed in the past few years in ways that had allowed her to let go of the demons that seemed to keep her from feeling fulfilled. There was no question that Seven of Nine had played a large role in this transformation, but he wanted to find a way to help B'Elanna remember and hold on to everything good that she had found in her new life and not do anything to destroy the profound good that was clearly at the core of her being. Things were out of control and he didn't know how to proceed. Ven feared that he might lose so much that had come to him – Seven to Cole's greed, B'Elanna to a thirst for vengeance that would destroy her, and Kathryn to disgust at his own weakness and inability to act.

B'Elanna looked up suddenly. "I have to contact Seven's aunt. I was hoping that we'd have her back and I wouldn't have to cause her any worry, but I don't see that I have any choice now."

Before she could open a channel, her comm badge chirped. "Janeway to Torres."

"Torres here."

"Please join me in my Ready Room and bring Ven with you if he's there."

"We'll be right there, Kathryn," Ven replied. Turning to B'Elanna, he continued, "Maybe you won't have to call Irene. "

"Let's hope so," B'Elanna said, picking up the kut'luch and placing it back in the sheath strapped to her ankle. The two set out for the captain's Ready Room in somber silence.

Looking back now, it all seemed like a dream to B'Elanna and she couldn't fathom how she had arrived at this point. Tuvok had gathered enough information from Jocasta, combined with data from a tracking device he had secretly planted on Laertes Lakar's ship to narrow the possibilities of Seven's location to four non-Federation worlds. Traveling in a shuttle provided by the Lakar family – at Jocasta's terrified insistence – B'Elanna and Tuvok had found Seven in only 38 hours. She had been in an extremely weakened state and also required extensive repair work to her ocular implant, which Cole and his men had attempted to remove as part of their plan to sell Seven's Borg components on the black market.

It had all seemed so easy. Even though Cole had escaped – the dire state of Seven's medical condition had meant that B'Elanna and Tuvok could not think about anything else – they had all heaved a sigh of relief that they had found Seven in time. Kathryn was so grateful that Seven was back that she had let go of her anger that Tuvok had violated Starfleet regulations and protocol and her own orders in planting the tracking device on Lakar's ship.

So, the precise steps of the path that had led B'Elanna to be standing in Voyager's shuttle bay, watching as Seven prepared to leave for Earth – alone – eluded her entirely. She stood at the edge of the group gathered there, dazed and staring as Kathryn and Ven attempted to persuade Seven to return to Jalara and to her home with B'Elanna. B'Elanna thought about how strange it was that she felt paralyzed and unable to intervene as the woman to whom she had pledged her future left her and their life together behind. As much as she would have liked to put her blade to Jocasta's throat or pummel the life out of Cole, there was no one to blame, really. One can never predict another's actions or responses in crisis situations and, just as B'Elanna would never have imagined herself numb and silent as her life crumbled before her, no one could have known that Seven of Nine, who had endured so much in her relatively short life, would emerge from her captivity this time closer to the emotionless drone that B'Elanna used to imagine her than she had ever been.

B'Elanna felt Tuvok come up behind her as she listened to Ven's pleading. "B'Elanna," he whispered in his customary even tones, "you must . . . ."

Before he could finish, B'Elanna spun around to face him. "I must what?" she hissed. "I've said it all, Tuvok. I don't understand what's going on any more than you do and I've tried everything I can think of to change her mind but she won't talk to me." She lowered her head to hid the tears that had now begun to fall. "She won't even look at me," B'Elanna whispered.

Tuvok waited until B'Elanna looked up at him and met his eye. "The probability that returning to Earth to live with her aunt will delay her emotional recovery is quite high."

"I understand that, Tuvok. Don't you think I want her to come home with me?" She turned to look at Seven, who was now boarding the Lakar's shuttle that would take her to Earth. "I can't make her come with me. I can only let her do what she feels she needs to do."

Tuvok considered B'Elanna's words for a moment and nodded in recognition of the constraints on all of Seven's friends right now.

And so, as if in a dream, B'Elanna watched the Lakar's shuttle leave Voyager, taking her future away.

The End

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