AUTHOR'S NOTE: "Star Trek: Picard", the characters, and situations depicted were created for CBS All Access by Akiva Goldsman, Michael Chabon, Kirsten Beyer, and Alex Kurtzman. This piece of fan fiction was created for entertainment not monetary purposes. Previously unrecognized characters and places, and this story, are copyrighted to the author. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SPOILERS: All episodes until 1x10

The slow walk to a better life
By asianscaper


Chapter 2: The Artifact

Agnes Jurati stooped over the transporter console. She was a disgruntled cyberneticist with several degrees in synth development who was forced to tackle the steep learning curve of transporter technology.

"Can you both just check in with Picard please," she said as her fingers leaped over the controls. "I'd hate to have to explain why you're both missing from the ship."

Seven tapped her communication device too hard. The device chirped. "Seven to Picard."

"Picard here."

"Raffi and I will be at the Artifact to take stock of what can be put on the negotiation table. Don't wait up for us."

"Of course, Seven. I'll have Elnor join you if you need assistance"

"I shall let you know. Seven out." She gave Jurati a 'Now are you happy?' look. Standing patiently beside her, Raffi hid her amusement behind a hand.

"Thank you," Agnes said, unaffected. "Now, if you're both ready, I'll beam you over to a spot a kilometre or so from the Artifact. Can't get you closer, there's a bit of electrical interference nearby. Should be an easy, romantic stroll."

"Romantic?" Raffi mumbled, narrowing her eyes at her.

Jurati lifted a hand as though to silence them both, and then pushed the air in a fluid, upward motion. They disappeared from the platform, their atoms shimmering into a quantum state.

Raffi's complaint started on the ground when they reappeared. "There is nothing romantic about trade negotiations." She picked up her duffel, using its two handles to convert it into a backpack.

Seven did the same, pulling out a PADD from her back pocket. She examined the orange holographic read-outs and their surroundings. "I think she meant the walk."

Again, Raffi blushed. Seven took careful note and promised to somehow replicate it.

It was early into this new attraction. Seven knew Raffi's interest, saw it in how her breathing changed when Seven was in close proximity, how her irises blew out to a dark and luscious brown in low light, how she stared at Seven's lips when they talked.

Seven could be so bold --years as a species bent on perfection and then as a successful Fenris Ranger bred unwavering confidence --but she took Raffi's lead. It was reminiscent of times when she knew observation and data collection were key to the next best action.

Raffi had experienced enough heartache in her life. She deserved a gentle touch.

Seven let her attention settle on the Borg Cube towering over them --a monolith so artificial and out-of-place, that it seemed like a Titan child had dropped its toy in a puddle. Wispy, white clouds settled at its top, some of it darkening at its other edge as a small electrical storm formed, its sheer size creating weather just like the smaller, surrounding mountains did.

Borg were dreadful gods in some cultures. She thought that the comparison to a race of deities was apt.

They were at the shores of Collision Lake, the pebble beach shifting beneath small, murky waves. Their soft clinks cajoled the sound of churning water, rhythmic like chimes. Although the defence flowers had softened the Cube's fall into the water, the resulting deluge left dried mud and debris in its wake. Large branches cut through surrounding flora and rocks twice their size were upended from beneath the lake and deposited close to shore.

Seven watched Raffi carefully as the other woman turned her attention to the Cube. It took up nearly two-thirds of their vision, blotting out their view of the sky. It possessed a presence so commanding, a colour so ominous and dark even in the sunlight, and a structure that modelled apathy so clearly in its precise, straight lines that it frightened species into submission.

She was relieved to find awe in Raffi's face, nothing more.

"I keep forgetting how big it is," Raffi said, lifting a tricorder and then walking in the direction the instrument advised.

Seven followed close behind, her eyes straying over an exposed neck, sinewy arms uncovered to deal with the heat. She lowered her gaze. Distraction in the wilderness could be fatal.

Seven said, "After Wolf 359, many people have a visceral reaction to it. Trauma mostly."

Raffi hummed. "Well, it's become a home too."

Seven paused at that, lightly struck by her perspective. She shouldn't have been surprised; Raffi always tried to look at something from different angles, for even the smallest ways to press forward.

They walked in companionable silence for twenty minutes before Raffi's tricorder chirped after a dutiful scan of the area. They spotted a small party of three approaching them.

"The welcome committee."

"That would be Tam," Seven said. "I left word we'd be arriving. They don't get many visitors. You'd probably be the most exciting thing to happen to them in days."

"Oh, c'mon Seven. You're pretty exciting too." Raffi winked at her.

Seven's stomach did a somersault and she hid her pleasure by walking ahead.

Tam Pitto was about Seven's height with a face that bordered on vacant if not for eyes that glinted with new curiosity. Her left cheek was fused with dark and sinuous tritanium, the skin surrounding it pale and scarred. The horrors marked her permanently on the face and neck, stippling her with starbursts of metal. She tamed her thick, wavy brown hair in a loose ponytail, wisps falling over her eyes.

The Borg assimilated her at a very young age; her youth was obvious in how she deferred to Seven, remnants of her own Starfleet training. The rest of her had a healthy, dark flush --likely a product of Coppelius' desert-like climate and hours spent outdoors.

Previously rehabilitated when the Artifact was still Romulan property, she was one of Hugh's most promising researchers and, to Seven's surprise, one who took after his skills as a leader.

As with anyone who had been with the Borg for long stretches of time, her experience of an open and accepting society, or any society for that matter, was limited at best, non-existent at worst. But the xB's were always learning. A few dared to tap into their pasts unassisted, fewer still adapted to memory by projecting old habits unto their present lives.

Seven was well aware of the kind of medical and mental support the ex-Borg needed, especially after the submatrix collapse from assimilating the Romulan Imperial scout ship Shaenor and its wayward passenger, Ramdha. Her insanity had disrupted their programming, leaving bits of corrupted code in everyone.

Tam was one of the few in the maturation chambers whom Hugh had been able to coax into a relatively normal existence.

Seven glanced back at Raffi, who gave her an encouraging smile. More than ever, she was grateful the tactical officer had offered her skills. Seven may have quit Starfleet, but she was aware that the Federation nurtured its protectorates in things other than security and defense.

"Tam," Seven said.

Tam reached out with a bare hand. Seven raised a brow.

"What's this?" The handshake was new; xB's did not normally initiate them.

"A gesture of welcome and friendship," Tam said, matter-of-fact. "Also, tactile connection seems to help with our newer recoveries."

Without hesitation, Seven clasped her arm in a firm, Roman handshake. They pulled at each other with enthusiasm they could feel but couldn't readily express, smiles curling the edges of their lips.

"Welcome back, Seven of Nine," Tam said, releasing. She walked up to Raffi and offered the same greeting. "And welcome to Collision Lake, Ms Musiker."

"Just Raffi, thanks." They shook hands.

"Please, let us take your bags." She gestured to her companions who immediately followed. Raffi surrendered her things; Seven hung on to hers. "Our spines are reinforced with tritanium," Tam explained before pulling away to lead them.

Raffi shared her amusement with Seven. "Nice to know."

The walk to the Cube was shorter now that they took a well-trodden path.

A large group of xB's were milling around not far from the entrance of the cube, a few looking up to see their party coming over the ridge. Workers were stooped over the ground, putting up tents that were made of strong, canvas-like material enclosed on all sides, providing shelter from the frequent electrical storms. Seven spied makeshift tables and chairs, a few unmade cots as they passed.

There were at least five open fires, vestiges of what should have been a previous life, with pieces of meat and pots cooking over them.

A few tents --these ones open on all sides --hung over tall, black geometric shapes that trailed wiring back into the Cube. Inside these tents, several xB's held various devices, scanning, calibrating, and studying. They wore loose-fitting cotton layered with black matte canvas material, some faces covered in shemagh scarves. The same material was worn in different configurations as though the replicators had been programmed with a set of limited textiles.

For the most part, these workers seemed robotic and eerily coordinated, but Seven understood this desire for routine. One did not deal with their Borg past face-on, not after decades of violent assimilation and untamped evolution for the sake of the hive mind. The Artifact's submatrix collapse was also unique, catalysed by assimilating Ramdha who had failed to absorb the Admonition and had lost her mind instead.

Seven set a personal reminder to check on the Disordered Ward. Those in it were still Romulan citizens, lost and needing repatriation.

Tam led them through the town of tents. "Others choose to sleep and work outside until their implants need maintenance. For most of us, the open space is intimidating. We've tried to repair enough alcoves for everyone. It's...a process."

"Understood," Seven said.

A part of the Cube was not submerged, wedged into the ground by the shores of the lake. A gangway led to the interiors, entrance to a cave made of artificial quadrilateral patterns. Inside, the angular walls absorbed light from the flood lamps, non-reflective and obsidian. In contrast, the people within were illumined like ghosts, pale faces glowing, some eyes shining and encased in ocular implants.

In the large gathering area made of solid, rock-like tritanium, many races seemed lost in the comfort of routine. Only some had the peaceful look of having been found, an honest smile or two between xB's, interested and animated dialogue amongst a few. All of them were haunted, picking at the visible tritanium on their skins, and accepted this new reality by repairing what they could.

Tam allowed them to absorb the scene before saying, "I've arranged adjacent living quarters for you both. Please follow me."

Tam led them through the end of a corridor and then turned left into a shorter one which terminated at two doors. These opened to reveal two rooms, one stark and unlived in with an immaculate bed, side tables with two or three books stacked on top of each other, and a large desk furnished with four, comfortable-looking chairs. Several holographic displays showed read-outs, already connected to the ship's computer. Oddly, a healthy fig leaf tree sat in a far corner, two orchids framed the bed, and a large tulip in water had been placed on the desk.

The other was the same one Seven had commandeered after the Cube crashed, empty but for a cot that had been hastily made.

"That's yours," Seven told Raffi, pointing to the furnished room.

"Well that's practically five stars compared to yours," Raffi said, taking her duffel from the xB's with a 'thank you'.

"It's doubling as an office."

"I can see that." She nodded at Tam. "Thank you for thinking of everything."

Tam's eyes flickered minutely to Seven's. "It wasn't my idea. Seven had precise instructions." She avoided the sudden earnestness in Raffi's gaze as she excused herself. "I'm sure Seven is more than acquainted enough with the Artifact to show you around. Dinner can be at any time you wish although we hold a communal one outside the Cube at sunset."

Tam left them, her boots echoing through the corridor as she exited.

"Well that one's about as bossy as you are."

Seven caught Raffi's appreciative stare and felt something burn in her chest. Was it jealousy? Indignation? They felt foreign and clawing, and she nearly brought a hand up to one of her ribs. She let go of a frustrated breath. "I'll let you get some rest. I know it's a lot to take in. We can start the walk-around and briefings tomorrow."

Raffi took her forearm and her hand was luxuriously warm, stopping Seven from moving, or even thinking.

"I appreciate the personal touches." She gestured at her room, her eyes lingering on the white tulip in the vase. "It's a lot more than what we have on the ship."

The sudden enjoyment she got from Raffi's gratitude made Seven's tone a little less stiff. "You're welcome."

Raffi looked confused, uncertain. "Join me for dinner? I could use the company, and the introductions."

"Of course," Seven said, this time more gently. She was rewarded again --a tender, Raffi smile that started to melt whatever was left in Seven's organic body.

After settling into their respective rooms and unpacking their things, Seven and Raffi found Tam outside in one of the open-air tents, spooning food from a large stew pot onto someone else's plate, her brown eyes shining as she imparted the origin of the dish.

"It's an old family recipe," Tam explained. "Meat, usually chicken or pork, simmered in soy sauce and vinegar, some bay leaves for flavour. I remember having it when I was younger and some of the others have taken a liking to it. Now we make it often, in case anyone wants to try cooked food. It's easy to make."

The other woman asked, "Does it have a name?"

"Adobo," Tam said. "It's a Filipino dish, also a favourite on the USS Tombaugh before assimilation in 2362."

"Oh, I see. It's from Earth then." She examined their dinner under the waning sunlight. "I didn't know xB's had heirloom recipes to share."

"Most of us don't," Tam said, sobering. "Some of us can only hope to remember even a portion of our past lives. I've been severed long enough from the Collective to have retrieved some of my memories."

Tam and the woman moved to sit at a long table. As the other woman turned, recognition lit Raffi's face. "Soji?"

Soji Asha looked up from her seat. "Raffi," she said, reaching for utensils sticking out from a container at the centre and gesturing for them to join her. "Tam was just explaining a camp favourite."

"Looks delicious." Raffi's smile broadened as she sat opposite to them and then moved to allow Seven some space beside her. "What are you doing here?"

"Picard mentioned you were preparing for negotiations. I don't believe my people and the xB's have opened any channels of communication. I'm here as the Synth representative to the Artifact," her gaze lingered on Seven before turning back to Tam beside her, "if you'll have me, that is."

Seven watched Tam process this new information. "We can use as many allies as we can get."

"Good," she said. "Dr Soong and I agreed it would be beneficial if Coppelius as a planet presented a united front during the negotiations. An alliance between our people can make Coppelius a more formidable trade partner. It has the added benefit of including the xB's in the protectorate as a default."

"You've read my mind, kid," Raffi said. "Looks like you have a knack for diplomacy. We'd be lucky to have you on our side of the negotiation table."

Soji let go of a self-deprecating laugh. "Don't thank me yet. We haven't even started." Soji took her first bite from her plate and rolled her eyes in pleasure. "This is delicious Tam."

The xB hid a smile by eating as well. "I guess these small things aren't just figments from my past. They can be real parts of my present, too."

Seven could see Soji's eyes dull with sympathy --from a memory that was also a lie. Seven knew that Soji Asha's mind had been inserted with false memories to help her in her mission and to prevent enemies from discovering the Synth homeworld. Only recently privy to the truth, her identity represented a continual effort to gather shattered, disparate pieces; it required persistent introspection and gave Soji an intensity Seven could see in herself.

Seven's chest ached for her at the thought.

Soji bit her lip as she herded her food to one side of her plate. "We can choose these things," she said, as though to convince herself. "We are the captains of our fate."

"We are," Tam assured.

Seven couldn't help a deep breath of Collision Lake's dry air --in and out --measuring the depth of this early friendship against her own lack of community so early in her emancipation from the Borg. Understanding hung like a thick rope between these two and she felt faintly jealous. She had forged her path without anyone else who had recovered from the Borg to share with, not until Icheb, Azan, Rebi, and Mezoti. And even then, she had been the example the children looked up to, the one who had to pour knowledge and comfort into their cups.

At the same time, she felt relieved. Their peoples' fates had hung at a precipice but Soji and Tam were forging a clearer, more solid path together, filling a figurative vessel of shared experience.

She felt a hankering for this adobo.

"Come on. Let's get some food."

Raffi grinned and followed her. "Must be in the chicken."

"What is?"

"All that tradition and culture J-L was talking about."

Seven narrowed her eyes at Raffi before she hung her head and laughed, realizing this was Raffi's attempt at lightening the mood. "Must be."

Raffi seemed pleased and handed Seven a plate. "The kids are going to be alright," Raffi said, watching the Synth and the xB as they ate in companionable silence.

"Yeah." Seven felt her shoulders relax as she reached into the pot for her own serving of dinner. Her chest opened as she breathed, "Yeah, I guess they will be."

At sunrise, the view of the Borg Cube from Collision Lake's far shore was no less impressive than if Raffi was standing right in front of it. Its harsh lines tempered and cradled by low-lying mist, with flocks of water birds traversing three kilometres of light-eating tritanium, the Artifact seemed almost too ethereal to be real in the mellow shades of an early morning. It was a tyrant's fortress, the Borg Collective's expression of power and hubris, glowing green through its lattices of foreign metal.

And now it belongs to Coppelius, Raffi thought.

"That's a lot of tritanium," she began, gauging her friends' reactions.

Soji breathed deeply. She was perched, cross-legged, on a large boulder, her wide eyes taking in every line and angle of the starship breached at the far side.

"You've mentioned it before," the Synth said. "It's a home. Unless the xB's wish to relocate to Coppelius station, it should be treated as such, rather than something to be dismantled and sold. Besides, there's something more precious to trade and regulate. You don't want all that Borg expertise, technology, and research taken off-planet and then used, unchecked."

Suddenly, they were taken a few months back to when Soji Asha had been faced with the decision to finish a beacon that would grant her people the power to destroy all their enemies.

Her voice lowered, pensive. "A Borg Cube is one of the galaxy's most powerful weapons. Perhaps only an ex-Borg can understand the repercussions of possessing such a thing."

Soji caught Seven's gaze and Seven shuffled closer to Raffi, discomfited. Tam, who was slowly pacing across the shore in front of them, paused and straightened as Soji acknowledged her as well.

Raffi couldn't help an indulgent smile. She welcomed Soji's clarity, especially when it wasn't directed at her.

She pulled out her PADD from a nearby pack and began to take notes. "I'm including commitments to facilitate exchange in expertise while also maintaining effective controls over the technology shared and its applications."

She took their silence as acceptance.

They had spent most of the night stooped over the large table in Raffi's quarters, bathed in artificial light. It was Seven who eventually noticed Raffi nodding off to sleep and called for a few hours' break. Enhanced by Borg and Synth technology, her companions would have continued unabated.

It was a pleasant surprise to find them again this morning, waiting for her outside the Cube and already packed for a day of exploring Collision Lake's general vicinity.

Tam had handed her a walking stick. "We think exercise is good for stress. You've been working very hard."

Raffi felt decidedly special then --seen, really --and couldn't help but bask in Seven's indulgent smile. It was a good feeling.

Now, she was grateful for the space. In the young light of this new dawn, Raffi continued to draft the skeleton of a trade agreement. It would dictate the ex-Borg's voice in Coppelius' wider narrative while three of its foremost authors examined the roles they were to play --together, as a larger community of hybrids and exiles, and also apart --as individuals who had made great sacrifices to establish what made them truly and unequivocally alive.

When Soji and Tam called it an evening, laughing over a stew that smelled of roasted peanuts and pork that Tam fondly called kare-kare, Seven walked Raffi back to their rooms, her hands clasped behind her in an endearingly formal stance as she walked ahead and led the way.

"So dinner was another Filipino dish?" Raffi asked, recalling the long stalks of starkly green bok-choy, over-cooked eggplant, and melt-in-your mouth meat with fondness.

"Yes," Seven said. "Honestly I envy how much Tam's been able to recall her past life on the Tombaugh. It must give her a lot of comfort, a sense of identity and belonging, to be able to share it with the rest of us."

"Y'know," Raffi began, thoughtful, "I'm sure she's making it up as she goes. She may remember her past but she's far from the person she used to be, not after what the Collective did to her."

Seven stopped and Raffi nearly walked into her. "You're right, of course," Seven said, her eyes wide as she noticed just how close Raffi suddenly was to her.

Raffi chose to enjoy Seven's proximity. She could feel the heat radiating from their bodies, the strange tension in the air as Raffi ruminated loudly and found Seven watching her lips, "Tam's sharing the traditions she knows in the hopes that it would mean new ones for her people. Look at us, wondering what every new meal will bring."

"That's a credit to her."

"It's a credit to everyone." Watching vulnerability skitter across Seven's face, Raffi stepped even closer and slowly reached behind Seven, urging her to break the military stance, tentative as she held Seven's forearm, pulling it between them.

Seven's breath hitched and Raffi was fascinated by the movement of Seven's throat as the other woman swallowed and forgot some of her misgivings.

Slowly, her hand traced the length of Seven's arm, her wrist, then took Seven's hand into her own. She felt her heart hammer in her chest, roaring in her ears as Seven laced their fingers together, stretching long digits for a moment then tightening as though testing this new and tender familiarity that seeped into many of their quiet moments.

Raffi tugged gently and said, "C'mon. I could use a nightcap."

Seven looked doubtful. "It's been a long day. You just spent close to 12 hours drafting a trade document. I don't want to impose."

"Having you around and talking to you is not an imposition. I really enjoy your company." This time, Raffi watched her more closely, concerned. "Unless you're tired?"

Seven's deep-throated chuckle hit Raffi squarely in the stomach, a warmth that lingered and spread as Seven said, "No, I'm fine and will be for another week or so."

"So join me?" It must have been the uncertainty in Raffi's voice because Seven nodded, her eyes dense with emotion and tracking every little change in Raffi's expression.

Seven's scrutiny felt like a too-hot blanket draped over Raffi's shoulders. With barely any space between them, they walked into Raffi's quarters. Raffi didn't let go of Seven's hand when she stood in front of the replicator which was depressed into the wall, her voice trembling as she requested two glasses of bourbon. Seven's warm body pressed against her back as Seven observed over her shoulder.

She turned to hand Seven's glass to her, reaching backwards for her own. They stood hip to hip, observing each other as Raffi leaned back against the wall, noticing that Seven had let go of her hand to corral Raffi with one arm while she brought the amber liquid to her lips with the other.

This casual confidence lit a fire at the base of Raffi's spine.

"It's been bothering me for a few days," Seven began, her voice husky and low.

Raffi forced herself to speak, bringing the bourbon to her lips and hoping to hide her nervousness behind the glass. "What is?"

"This thing between us."

"Thing?" Raffi asked.

Seven's blue eyes bore into her before lowering. "You, ah. I…" The stammer was a contrast and Raffi's heart melted.

In a flash of courage, Raffi brought a hand up to Seven's face and she got the answer she sorely needed when Seven leaned into the touch, closing her eyes.

"I like you too," Raffi said, softly.


Raffi added, "As more than a friend. I think that should have been obvious after kal-toh."

Seven's nostrils flared and her eyes opened, clear and warm. Raffi could definitely get used to that look, unhampered by ego or bias and effusive with something like wonder.

"I'd really like to know where this goes," Seven admitted and Raffi could see now that the confidence had been a mask.

How anyone could abuse the trust Seven gave, Raffi could only guess. It had taken months of working with Seven, their obvious concern for each other, healthy amounts of mutual admiration and respect, and no small sacrifice to get an admission as vulnerable as this.

Raffi had failed in many respects when it came to those close to her. This dance with Seven felt frail and new, but she had a fierce desire to hold on to it. She had so few of such ties left; self-pity and guilt in the years after the attack on Mars gouged wounds that deepened with addiction and festered as she held on to her pride. With them, Raffi corrupted and spoiled many of her relationships.

The crew of La Sirena --a collection of flawed but ultimately kindhearted individuals --felt like a gift, an opportunity to build those ties anew and strengthen the connections which enriched those parts of her that had atrophied. It meant she could start the difficult journey to a meaningful and sustained sobriety.

And this thing with Seven? It was a thick and sturdy thread in the tapestry of what Raffi hoped was a more fulfilling life.

That bitch Bjayzl had no idea what she had.

"Take me where you want to go," Raffi replied, putting her glass back into the recess behind her. She pursed her lips, looking at Seven beneath her lashes, feeling coy in the midst of Seven's attention.

Seven's jaw tightened as she took in the woman before her, not quite in her arms but already a willing accomplice. She finished the rest of her drink and put it aside.

They were flush against each other, close enough to share a breath, to feel how the other's chest rose and fell, and their faces were inches apart.

"This is," Seven shook her head as though to clear it, fighting a smile, "a conflict of interest."

Raffi brought her hand up to play with the collar of Seven's leather jacket. "I must have heard that a few times already."

Seven raised her brow, the optical implant lifting. "Oh?"

"What matters is," Raffi peered into Seven's eyes, "I really don't care."

Seven hummed, this time bracketing Raffi's body with her arms, effectively pinning her to the wall. She seemed completely fascinated by Raffi's lips in much the same way Raffi couldn't stop wondering what the pink moistness of Seven's would feel like on hers.

She didn't know when it started, this inevitable fall into each other's orbit but she had pulled at Seven's collar, impatient.

Seven's face hovered mere centimetres from her. "May I kiss you?" she asked.

Raffi's breath rattled in her chest, unable to form words at this explicit request for consent. She nodded instead.

Their first touch was electric, Seven's lips moulding a path of exploration before she pulled Raffi closer, gripping the taller woman's hips, squeezing as though she wanted more. Raffi swayed into her, the hand on Seven's collar wandering into her wheat-coloured hair and cradling her head, the kiss deepening as Raffi opened her mouth to speak a lustful patois with her tongue.

Seven groaned and Raffi's desire sank into her chest at the sound, a strong current of affection prying her heart open for feelings she had buried a long time ago.

Grateful that she was trapped between Seven and the wall, she could feel her knees threatening to give out. She held onto Seven's shoulders and Seven took it as a signal to grind even closer.

Oh my god, Raffi thought, feeling Seven's lithe form move against her hips, thighs pushing between her legs in a bid for more contact.

She was completely overwhelmed by this woman. She had only ever admired Seven from afar during their time in Starfleet, from holovids and interviews about her endeavours, to reading about the occasional breakthrough, touting achievements that spanned the breadth of Federation technology and policy.

There were many occasions she could have met Seven during her tenure under Picard. They shared enough mutual acquaintances. But who had time between Tal Shiar's treachery and Picard's heroics? Mostly, she'd thought that her juvenile crush on the Federation's pride and joy would be relegated to the realms of pure fantasy.

Fate liked to play tricks on her, a good one this time, and Seven was in her arms now, about as preoccupied as she was, with a personality that was remarkably more complex than her stolid interviews. Raffi couldn't help but wonder what this fascinating, amazing woman saw in her.

Seven seemed to notice the break in her concentration because she pulled from the kiss, concerned.

"Raffi, are you okay?" Seven traced metal-encased fingers against her cheek, latent fire beneath them. "Have I taken it too far?"

"No, no," Raffi said. "Sorry. I just have a lot of baggage to sort out and I don't want to drag you into it."

Seven's brows furrowed. "I hope you know we're still friends. You can talk to me."

Raffi chuckled and patted Seven's chest affectionately. "Exactly where are you taking this?"

"About as far as you're willing to go." The certainty in Seven's voice should have scared her. Instead, Raffi felt compelled to trust it.

"Okay." Raffi took in a shuddering breath. "Okay. Normally, I'd ask someone who kissed me like that to take me to bed," the colour of Seven's eyes darkened to a deep, midnight blue and it nearly destroyed Raffi's resolve, "but it's late, you're amazing, I like you a lot, this is so much to take in, and I don't want to confuse you with my feelings before I figure them out. If that makes sense."

Seven smiled, stepping back, her hands settling on Raffi's hips, light and reassuring. "Of course. With everything happening, I want to get this right."

Raffi's laugh rumbled in her chest and the tension drained from her shoulders. She couldn't remember the last time a potential suitor's understanding felt like drinking liquid courage; she wanted to throw everything to the wind and just jump.

Instead, she listened to the rational part of her brain. She wasn't going to fuck this up. Gabe's resentment at Freecloud had been more than enough; burning her bridges with Emmy when Raffi manipulated her for diplomatic credentials only solidified her purpose.

"I want you to know, nothing's off the table," Raffi said. "This is just me...processing."

"I understand. I'll see you tomorrow then?"

Raffi was relieved to see speckles of muted excitement in Seven's eyes. "Yep, definitely."

"Good." She stood in Raffi's presence for a while longer, hesitant to leave. As though rethinking her departure, Seven leaned in to kiss Raffi chastely on the cheek, lingering as Raffi took in her unique scent --the light musk she'd worked up from their hike, the aseptic traces from the Cube's alcoves. Before Raffi could lean further into her enjoyment of Seven's presence, the other woman stepped back to allow them space.

Raffi regretted the loss immediately but as Seven left her room, she had a distinct feeling that they had gained something infinitely more worthwhile.

Part 3

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