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 5: Casting a Stone

The bed was big enough, Raffi thought, watching the ex-Borg sleeping beside her. They wore more comfortable clothing, loose pajamas Raffi had wrestled from the replicators.

She wondered lightly about the difference in ambient temperature here in their living quarters to the rest of the Artifact --yet another thing Seven had thought to adjust for her comfort. These little pieces of thoughtfulness were additions to the puzzle of her growing affection, which was prying her open to a flood of feelings she had no courage to face. At least, not alone.

Having someone in bed with her wasn't something she was used to, certainly not after shoving every bedmate she'd had since the Mars attacks into states of steadily growing resentment.

Strangely, she was comfortable beside her companion now. It helped that she was given explicit permission to share the space and that Seven's room was less than spartan. She had taken one look at the single cot of that four-by-four box, scoffed at the lack of storage space or any ample light, and quickly said, "Nope," while Elnor twisted his lips in agreement.

When they pushed the anti-grav sled into Raffi's quarters, Elnor helped her carry Seven onto the wide bed and Raffi sorted her clothing, cursing at the replicator as she tried to find something that didn't double as work clothes.

Now, she was sitting up against the headboard, a pillow to support her back. She had a PADD on her lap, her attention divided among the information there, the treaty projected on the bigger screens looming over her desk, and the soft susurration of Seven's breathing.

This was a different peace, Raffi decided. Something to keep and aim for during her travels with La Sirena.

Seven groaned beside her, shifting under their shared blanket. Looking down to check on her companion, Raffi found Seven's blue eyes peering up at her, moving from disorientation to quiet acceptance.

"Hey," Raffi said, nearly breathless.


"Can you move?"

Seven tried, then winced. "A bit. I should probably just keep lying here until my nanoprobes finish the job."

"I can give you something for the pain."

Seven seemed to consider it, but she put up her cybernetic hand, clenched and unclenched it, and said, "Maybe later. What time is it?"

"Something like three in the morning at Collision Lake."

Seven sighed, breaking her gaze and shifting her head as though craning up to look at Raffi was taxing. Her hand found its way to Raffi's thigh and, assured that her bedmate was real, Seven closed her eyes briefly, gratitude flooding her features.

"I didn't count on you being here when I woke up." She seemed so vulnerable then, recalling a number of other times she had been left on her own, abandoned or lost. Softly, Seven added, "Thanks."

"It's the least I could do." Raffi swallowed the lump in her throat, patting Seven's hand before deciding that she really wanted to hold it instead. She grasped lightly and Seven squeezed in return. "I didn't know that asking you to get my PADD would somehow force me to confront the possibility of a universe without you in it."

The sadness in Seven's eyes was heart-breaking. "It's hard to imagine I'll be missed."

"Oh, honey," Raffi said, putting aside her PADD. She pushed downwards so she could lie level to Seven. They lay sideways, facing each other, their hands still clasped together over the blanket. "There are quite a few of us who'd miss you, myself included. And there's Elnor, bless him. I think he's quite attached to you. He hasn't left your side."

Seven was quiet, taking Raffi in. "You're more than I deserve."

Raffi's laughter was soft. "You're more than anyone I would either," Raffi bit her lip, only a little unsure, "but I think we're working towards deserving better, don't you?"

Seven reached for her cheeks, her metal-encased hands surprisingly warm. A thumb brushed over her lips and Raffi's jaw slackened at the touch. A forefinger tempted with a light touch over her open mouth, but Seven's hand settled lightly against her neck instead. Her long fingers threaded into Raffi's hair, her eyes tracking that movement as though fascinated to stillness.

After a few moments of simply taking Raffi in, Seven said, "We can always try."

They shared a few, calming breaths. Even if it seemed Seven was teetering at the edge of wakefulness, her gaze was a clear and fathomless lake.

Raffi peered into them, seeing admiration and tenderness reflected in equal measure, and a longing that tugged at the same, taut strings in her own heart.

With Seven's hands still burrowed earnestly in her hair, Raffi shuffled forward and placed a soft kiss on Seven's mouth, which the ex-Borg accepted. Seven's lips were soft and yielding, seeking solace and a deeper connection as she tried to press closer, stopped only by her considerable fatigue.

"I really do want you," Seven whispered when they pulled apart.

"I haven't had many good things in my life," Raffi admitted, "so that can be a little hard to believe, too."

Her hands cradled Seven's face, stuttered over a stubborn jaw. She pulled in for another kiss while Seven's eyes fluttered closed and the other woman groaned --from relaxation, desire, or both --Raffi couldn't tell but the sound fizzled in her belly and butterflies fluttered outwards, agitated.

"It shouldn't be," Seven insisted, her breath hot against Raffi's mouth.

Raffi finally broke contact to smile at her, their foreheads touching. Seven's breathing evened out, deepened, as though the conversation had taken all of Seven's remaining energy. Raffi caressed her cheek with her thumb.

"Hey." Trying not to sound too breathy, she tried again, "Okay. I really need you to rest now. I'll be here when you wake up."

Seven's nod was small, only for her, and she curled into Raffi's body, pulling the blanket closer against them.

She kissed Seven's forehead just as the ex-Borg's breathing changed to the deep thrum of slumber, peace and gratitude a relaxed line over her lips.

Raffi shuffled towards Seven's side of the bed, groggily coming to when she noticed that it was empty. Relieved, she found Seven sitting close to the edge, regarding her with a gentle tilt of her head, her optical implant shifting against her temple and molding into a soft but studious frown.

Raffi studied her in return, noticing that Seven's previous lethargy was gone.

"Your clothes are on the dresser. You can use the sonic shower first."

Seven gave her a perfunctory nod, gingerly getting up to retrieve her clothes. Standing at the dresser, she ran long, pale hands against the fabric, as though grounding herself in the here and now, before sighing.

"Are you okay?" Raffi asked, her own bones creaking as she padded to the replicator and demanded her first coffee of the day.

With Seven's back to her, she could see Seven's shoulders relax. "Yeah. Thanks again for," she gestured to the room, "everything."

"It's no problem at all." Raffi took a sip of her coffee and said more softly, "You gave me a scare."

"A visit to the queen cell is always a matter of desperation. I'm just glad I had a reason to," she stumbled over the word, "stay." She turned and gave Raffi a look, meaningful and unsure.

Raffi sat down on the bed, balancing her cup as she put it on the side table. She hummed in contemplation. "Why do you always choose your humanity, Seven? Given a chance, I'd like to think I'd forego emotions and feelings completely."

Seven took her clothes from the dresser and put them against her chest like a figurative barrier. "Because it's harder," she admitted. "Because I know the rewards are greater. I wouldn't have known it when I was severed, but the ability to choose how I live my life is the greatest gift Kathryn and Voyager gave me." Her gaze was suddenly far away, examining a past. "It also happens to be the most human part of me."

"Fair point." Raffi closed her eyes for a brief second, trying to gather the sum of her life in these few moments and compare its weight to Seven's. "They also happen to be the most painful." She could feel her eyes crinkle with mirth as she opened them and took in Seven's tall, statuesque form. "The happiest, too."

"You can say that," Seven said, "especially when the choice to be happy is yours."

They contemplated the silence, comfortable and light in the space between them before Seven cleared her throat and stepped into the shower room.

Raffi was left to her thoughts as the low hum from the sonic shower filled the room. Even though she'd served in Starfleet where so many of her peers were from other worlds, Raffi took much of her humanity for granted. Here, just a few metres away, was a woman who made a choice to be human, to feel the full brunt of connection between one person and the next, and indulged in the breadth of consequence from those relationships. Enough that the temptation of unlimited power and depthless knowledge could not compete.

Everytime Raffi succumbed to the snakeleaf, it was a choice to render those ties invisible --the long, thin threads to Gabe, the ones that stretched to Emmy, to the millions of lives she'd failed, and even those newly woven ones to J-L --seething in smoke until she could move unfettered. But in the end, she'd wake from that momentary reprieve, the noose tighter than ever before, and she would need more to smoke.

In Vasquez Rocks, she hunted down purer varieties of her drug, growing them in her backyard, hoping she'd find a strain that would make all of it unravel or disappear.

Emil, that version of Cris who looked at her with pursed lips, pity in his eyes that Rios wouldn't be caught dead with, and also, the grim determination of his (medical) profession, would hand her synthetic leaf and say, "The substance itself isn't the problem, Raffi. It's something else you're running from."

She'd nod and go, the words sliding off her like rain on a coat while she tried desperately to quash reminders of a time and a place that had seen her lose 5 million lives, and not for lack of trying. The universe dealt her a hand, and her best just hadn't been good enough. Typically, a Starfleet officer, or any person with a vocation, didn't live down that kind of guilt, pain, and disappointment; her remaining tenure in Starfleet was excruciating thereafter. How J-L managed a vineyard after his retirement baffled her, but she knew it had been a form of escape for him, too.

With a start, she noticed that her horgl had been largely untouched, tucked in her duffel. She felt a momentary prickle of need, like the ghost of a limb, but whatever void she had been trying to fill seemed to have found some sort of inlet here in Collision Lake. Before she could examine this thought further, Seven stepped out of the shower.

The grease was gone from her wavy blonde hair, her complexion a little more rosy than yesterday. She seemed nearly herself, encased in a leather jacket and standing ram-rod straight.

She considered Raffi with wide, blue eyes, almost ravenous as though taking the sight of Raffi in after nights of having nothing.

Raffi grabbed her own clothes and stepped into the sonic shower. After dressing and finishing another cup of coffee, mostly to enjoy the comfortable silence she shared with Seven, Raffi stepped out of her quarters with Seven in tow.

The Artifact seemed different, its green light less jolting, the hallway wider. It may have something to do with her worry lifting now that Seven walked beside her, close enough to touch.

The tips of Raffi's fingers pressed against Seven's palm and Seven's hand twitched.

"You have a limp," Raffi observed.

"Yes. The nanoprobes are struggling with reconstructing a broken femur. They're nearly there; it's just taking time."

Raffi's eyes widened. "Seven," she said, this time reaching out for her.

Seeing her concern, Seven allowed Raffi to sidle up to her, to take her hand. The warmth of Seven's metal-encased fingers made Raffi worry less.

They had somehow managed to sync up their sleep with Collision Lake's day cycle, and they arrived at the common area outside the Cube just before breakfast.

Three of La Sirena's crew were already seated at a long table, nursing cups of tea and coffee. Agnes and Soji managed to look interested but sceptical as Cris rendered an animated retelling of his days as a Starfleet pilot. Rios revelled in the attention and Raffi, ever the bearer of practicality and realism, took some pleasure in interrupting.

Seven limped to the seat opposite Rios, who clapped then opened his arms in greeting at the sight of the ex-Borg on her feet.

"Aha!" he crowed. "My best pilot!"

"Captain," Seven greeted as she moved to sit, accommodating her stiff right leg as she edged towards the end of the bench.

Rios took one look at her remaining injury and said, "Oh. No football for you then."

"Count us out of your nefarious plans, please and thank you," Raffi said. She pointed to the food being laid out at a separate communal table with her thumb, "Grub, anyone?" There were several hums of agreement.

To Seven, she said, "You, sit. Tell me what you want."

"Whatever's on the menu, and whatever will fit on the plate."

Rios opened his mouth and Raffi gave him a pointed look, "You, with me." His jaw closed with a click and he stood to join her with Soji and Agnes.

"Unfair. Why does Seven get first class treatment?"

Agnes ribbed him, watching Raffi carefully. She said, "You know why. Stop teasing."

"Raffi and Seven sitting on a tree," Rios sang, "K-I-S-S…"

Raffi made a disgusted noise and Agnes laughed, "Don't say I didn't warn you."

"I-N-G," Rios finished, grinning as he put an arm around Raffi. "Happy for you, Raff Raff."

"Nothing happened, okay."

"Nothing happened, okay," Rios mimicked. "Oh please. She was dying one moment and after one night in your room, she miraculously walks out and joins us for breakfast. I mean, sure she's limping and God knows what's caused that, but wow, she's alive."

"He's got a point," Soji said, trying to hide her smile by worrying her lip.

"Are you all ganging up on me now?" Raffi said, pushing at Rios' chest, playful but also annoyed.

Rios was deadpan. "Yes."

They arrived just as xB's laid out the rest of the food, Tam at the head of the charge and looking like the cooking had done nothing to alleviate her stress.

"Have fun with the longsilog," Tam said, as she pointed at the array of garlic fried rice, salty pork sausage, and crispy, fried eggs. "Breakfast of champions. Good thing too. Rios just set up a field so we could all play football and a few of us put up hands to play."

She spared a long-suffering glance at La Sirena's captain, who began to complain that this meal was going to block his arteries even as he shoveled several servings onto his plate.

They all stared at the growing structure of fried food in his hands.

"Are you seriously going to run that much?" Soji asked.

Rios bared his teeth. "Watch me." The succeeding smile was quickly angelic. "Besides, I'm sure some of us here will be having things other than longsilog to eat."

He wagged his eyebrows at Raffi and there was a chorus of "Gross!", Raffi and Agnes hitting him on either shoulder and forcing him to balance his teetering plate of goods.

Seven looked up to investigate the noise just as Elnor joined her at the table.

He was thrilled to see her, quickly depositing his sword against the table, and they could hear his enthusiastic, "You're better!"

Seven patted his arm to show him she was indeed in a better state and said, "Not quite there yet, but I heard you stuck around for a while. Thanks for being there for me, Elnor."

"Of course Seven. It's the least I can do." They shared a moment of heavy silence, brought back to their ordeal in the queen cell, but the mood quickly lightened when he sat down, joined by the rest of the group.

Raffi put Seven's plate in front of her, and the ex-Borg gave her a grateful smile.

There were furtive glances from some of them, and then impish ones, but the table was full of friends and Raffi couldn't care less as long as she could hear Seven laugh ring out alongside the others'.

After their meal, the rest of the crew excused themselves to prepare for the game at the makeshift football field. Tam and a flock of xB's trailed after them.

"Take your time," Rios called, indicating Seven's injured leg. "I'll see you guys there." He gave Raffi a more mischievous grin, which Raffi rebuffed with yet another hard jab against his arm.

Watching their backs fade behind tents, Raffi commented, "I'm surprised Tam and the xB's haven't found Bran Lekkie sooner." Seven made a small noise of inconvenience, unable to hold it back. She pushed the mug of steaming tea away and pulled her arms to her herself. Seeing the motion, Raffi added, "What aren't you telling me?"

Seven slowed her words as she examined her own motivations, grappled with sympathy for her own kind. "I don't think Elnor will appreciate that cats tend to play with their food."

Recognising the allusion, Raffi's mouth turned down in displeasure. "Right."

"It isn't through any fault of theirs," Seven said, her tone carefully neutral. "The Borg nearly always destroyed more than they assimilated. Being the galaxy's apex predator appeals to qualities that are easier than restraint." She reached for Raffi's hand over the table, stopping less than an inch away, her pinky touching the other woman's knuckles. "In a world of connection and interdependence, we're very much like children. But they answer to Tam and they will bring him back. Albeit a little toyed with."

Raffi didn't hesitate to close the space between their fingers and took Seven's hand. Seven heaved a sigh of relief.

Raffi said, "Not perfect after all." She brought the back of Seven's hand to her lips.

Soft and slightly dry from Coppelius' desert-like air, Raffi's lips were a distraction and Seven tried not to imagine putting them against hers. "No, far from it. We can be very vindictive."

Raffi looked at the direction of the football field. "Cris is in for a bit of a surprise then."

They shared a smile before Raffi helped her up from her seat, supporting Seven with an arm around her waist as she led Seven towards their friends.

Seven continued to stare at the taller woman, still very much in awe of Raffi's ability to accept her people and in extension, even her. Raffi smiled wider and kissed the side of her lips in a casual show of affection. It made Seven's stomach burst with a crowd of butterflies.

This was a gift, Seven thought, to be shown Raffi's plain and obvious language for care and desired closeness.

Past the tents and through some dense underbrush where xB's had hacked a trail through, the vegetation opened into a clearing. Thin grass bent into dusty earth as the levelled area stretched towards a vast, dry plain dotted with short, brambly bushes.

Seven and Raffi parked themselves on a fallen log, amused and happy to sit this one out, especially after the last 24 hours they'd just had. They watched Rios as he limbered up at the sidelines, already looking like he was regretting such a big meal, but he rubbed his hands together as Soji, Elnor, Agnes, and a few others gathered in a semi-circle before him.

"Imagine," he was saying, raising a stern finger at Picard to stop the older man from his own soliloquy. Jean-luc seemed only a little put off and remained sitting on a fold-away chair with the football tucked under his foot. "The opportunity to teach an entirely new culture about the galaxy's game."

Picard tipped his wide-brimmed hat at him and tapped his cane in light approval. "It's just the Earth's game, Captain."

"Ha! Soon it'll be Coppelius' game!"

Soji raised a brow. "So much for all those non-interference clauses in the Prime Directive."

"You wound me!" Rios gasped, clutching his chest. "Tam already knows football." They all turned to the interim leader of the xB's and she shrugged in apology, looking like she was already regretting an earlier admission. He turned his attention back to Soji, a challenge in his eyes. "You and me, twenty minutes each half. You get to pick the first member of your team, then I will, and so on until we have seven on each side."

"I'm aware of 7-aside rules," Soji told him. "In fact, you'd be at a fairly large disadvantage."

Rios made a face. "Don't underestimate me, kid. What I lack in power and speed, I more than make up for in cunning and experience!"

Soji laughed. "Okay, Cris. Don't blame me if you can't walk tomorrow." After a moment's consideration, she announced, "Tam." The xB in question strode to her side, grateful.

"Ugh!" Rios said. "Elnor!"

Elnor seemed all too happy to be called at all, grinning at the sidelines where Picard, Raffi, and Seven gave him identical thumbs-ups.

"Agnes." Jurati did a fist-pump, a little awkward as she shuffled into a half-dance to stand beside Tam.

"You cheat! You can't take my best striker!" Rios pointed to a large, hulking xB. "Xavi!"

And so it went until fourteen places were filled and each side faced off against each other on a small field that Rios and a few other xB's had cleared for the event. Someone had replicated neon-orange cones to delineate the width and length of the field while bright orange ones marked goal posts. They were fitted with simple sensors that fed information to a projection of Mr Hospitality, who appeared beside Picard.

Dressed in referee attire, he tried to explain, "I love football like any self-respecting Earthman."

There was a furious discussion about the rules --Rios gesturing with his feet and Soji poking fun at him at every turn --and then Picard surrendered the football. With an air of impatience, Mr Hospitality rolled it towards Rios at the middle of the field. The human captain scooped it up with his foot and then juggled the ball with both feet in an attempt to intimidate the opposing team.

Soji picked up a handful of soil and threw it at him, laughing as he sputtered.

The hologram pulled out a whistle, waving it to indicate that he was ready to start the match. He also gave Soji a pointed warning, "Play clean."

"This is going to be a disaster," Picard said, laughing good-naturedly.

Raffi put an arm around Seven, who simply leaned into her space, grateful for a chance to sit still and watch.

"Honestly J-L," Raffi said, "it'll be the best kind."

They were well into the second half. Mr Hospitality looked more than a little impressed at how quickly everyone had picked up the rules, Rios more so, shaking his head every now and again at their surprising aptitude for ball control.

Cristóbal Rios seemed to be thoroughly enjoying a game that involved two of La Sirena's crew ganging up on him, including a small, terrifying clique of ex-Borg who were only beginning to understand that football had little to do with purely technical skill and everything to do with the cunning Rios had been harping on about.

The xB's were playing with less robotic-compliance and more with an intent to win. Tam commanded half the field with her previous, intermediate experience from her time in the Academy, her Borg implants refining her movements.

Rios was significantly more skilled in the game and in his understanding of the rules. His team was on a 3-to-1 lead, which seemed hard-won to the casual spectator, and the opposing team was slowly gaining on them. Soji, Agnes, and Tam were putting up a pretty impressive fight through sheer will alone.

Raffi was already on her feet, standing on her toes as Agnes attempted a strike --and scored!

"Yes!" she shouted.

"Hey," Rios accused from where he was doubled over, already winded from chasing after his girlfriend and after his xB opponents, who displayed careless, superhuman endurance. "Whose side are you on?"

Agnes would have gone for a victory lap, patted on the back by a laughing Elnor (who had definitely forgotten his loyalties), but there was a sudden lull in the celebrations as Tam and Soji looked to the ridge just beyond the field.

As if by some secret intimation, a group of xB's emerged from the trail leading from the wilderness, a man in a Starfleet uniform in their midst, his hands in cuffs. He leaned heavily on his captors, too tired to walk properly. Every person on the field stood at attention and followed their movements, the xB's expressions defaulting to blank-faced stoicism.

Tam was the only xB with visible anger on her twisted mouth, stepping purposefully towards her men. Soji put a hand on her arm, only lightly restraining, and miraculously, Tam opted to stand still.

"Bran Lekkie," Picard breathed. "They've found him."

Judging from how her companions could not keep impartiality at the football field or shortly after as they walked to a makeshift interrogation room, Raffi was nominated to question their prisoner. As if on cue, Rios herded Picard, Agnes, and Elnor back into the communal areas, giving Raffi and Coppelius' leaders the necessary mental space to deal with the current problem.

Now, she stood across Bran Lekkie, unable to keep the regret from her voice, or the deep sadness of knowing that this man's mistakes would forever affect his life and others'.

Hers had been a slow slog into regret. She had no doubt Bran Lekkie's had been festering since the Mars attacks of 2385, come to spectacular fruition on a starship he practically grew up on. She could only imagine the depth of his anger, the same one which glazed over his eyes, shining in the middle of large, dark circles, and over sunken cheeks.

"How did you come about the detonator?"

"There are more than a few factions who want synthetic life eliminated."

"Are you working for the Romulans?"

Bran guffawed, though not nearly as loud as he could, because his mockery ended in a tired cough. "I'm here for justice for the homeless refugees of Sol IV!"

Raffi tried not to flinch. "Does your organisation have a name?"

His answering, sinister sneer gave her the hint she needed. He would have been part of a small, Martian cell, likely embedded in Starfleet and originating from the batch of Martians who entered Starfleet after the Mars attacks.

With a small gesture, Raff instructed her PADD to emphasize this particular part of the conversation. She muttered, "Yet another terrorist group for the Federation to wrangle and yet another one from within."

"Who's to say I'm not a lone wolf?"

Raffi clucked her tongue. "To be able to sneak a Romulan weapon onto a Federation starship is no small task. I suspect most of your cell is still on the Paine and if Ridor is as intelligent as I think she is, she would've rounded them up by now and put them in the brig."

To Raffi, he seemed painfully young, ready for an even harder life ahead; murder seemed like the least of his regrets. Her thoughts came back to Gabriel, to the relative peace he found without her and she couldn't begrudge him that, especially after her long and unexplained absences.

Better to choose one's fate and live an uneventful, quiet life than to be thrust into one that asked for sacrifice and regret without receiving a modicum of meaning to make it worthwhile...for years. Well, she liked to think she found her purpose as a part of La Sirena's crew, vindicated after being proven right about the Tal Shiar's treachery, but it was still a life without Gabriel, or Pel, or their daughter. She could do her best and never get what she wanted. That stung.

"You could've killed the Synth delegation."

"'Destroy' is a better term," Bran sneered. "You can't kill something that's not alive."

"And what about the Starfleet officers you 'killed'?" Raffi returned.

She flicked their faces onto the view screen. One, a middle-aged man of Earth descent, with twinkling brown eyes and a mess of wavy hair. The other, a young ensign in stark yellows, looking for all the world like she had just graduated from the Academy a few weeks before.

Bran swallowed, his throat moving as though choking on regret. "A necessary sacrifice."

"One that you had no business making for them."

Bran turned his attention sideways, suddenly unwilling to interact. He ignored her even as she tried to catch his gaze again.

Sighing, she stepped out of the interrogation room, the Cube closing the gap behind her.

Suddenly allowed to drop her mask, she quickly became aware of the Cube's ambient temperature and the sweat staining the back of her shirt. Bran had certainly worked up her emotions and the Cube's tropical humidity didn't help. It felt stifling, bringing to the fore her physical and mental exhaustion.

The Synth and the two ex-Borg watching from the other side of the interrogation room seemed far more comfortable.

Wiping her brow, Raffi said, "There are some principles you can't argue with. Not when they aren't willing to meet you halfway. Or if genocide is their only alternative."

Seven nodded. "Most conflicts stem from some form of fundamentalist thought or another." She stood with an unaffected air in a leather jack, her arms behind her back.

"He could have ruined everything," Tam gritted, her fists clenching so tight that her knuckles were white. "Three Synths nearly killed in a vacuum!"

Most xB's of the Artifact were hard to read, their expressions smoothed into cold impassivity. They stared into the distance as though reconciling their continued separation from the numberless entities of the Cube.

Tam was a rare specimen, a junior lieutenant from the USS Tombaugh who was assimilated at eighteen years old and strangely, had been left inside a maturation chamber until Hugh retrieved her himself.

Hugh leveraged her previous Starfleet training --recent in that she had been in stasis the whole time --and developed the Borg Reclamation Project with her help and her input. In human years, she was now twenty-three years old, the physical trauma of assimilation largely alleviated by a young and growing human body.

The mental toll was less apparent, but it was obvious that she benefited a great deal from Hugh's tutelage. From Raffi's interactions with her, Tam remained largely untouched by Ramdha's madness and had been gifted with more of Hugh's positive traits --his compassion, his general good sense, his intense individuality that nearly maimed the Collective when it tried to assimilate him again, and his tendency to trust anyone who served under Jean-luc Picard.

Her anger, on the other hand, seemed entirely her own. Being around Seven gave Tam Pitto licence to grow into this intensity. Her articulations of joy, anger, even melancholy were obvious in a way that Seven's emotions were not.

Not once had Seven asked her to hide her emotions: not when she was pleased with cooking meals and sharing it with her friends. Not when the xB away party found Bran and Tam looked like she was ready to beat him into a pulp, and certainly not now, when there was murder in her eyes.

"As the interim leader of the xB's, the decision is yours," Seven said.

Raffi could recognise the apprehension in Seven's voice, even if she seemed reticent to the potential results. It was the same, tight intonation she used on the bridge when she and Raffi were about to do something very foolish and very dangerous, Rios watching with barely controlled horror as he held on to his chair.

"As interim leader of the xB's, I'm deciding he's more useful to us alive than dead."

Seven's surprise registered as a miniscule lift of an eyebrow, barely moving her optical implant.

"That'll surprise him. He probably thinks we're all unthinking machines." Soji Asha pushed away from her makeshift seat on top of the storage crates. "Federation membership is overrated. We might want to rethink that."

Raffi rolled her eyes. "Soji..."

"What? It's true." She made a wide gesture, her gaze emphatic with an old and familiar chaos. "Out of all the crew, guess who didn't leave Starfleet."

Seven's lips quirked into a surly grin. "She's right, you know."

Raffi shot Seven a glare. "Don't encourage them."

It was Tam who spoke, her brown eyes flashing, her hands curled over the edges of a nearby metal chair. Raffi pursed her lips into a thin and neutral line as the metal creaked then bent in her fist, careful not to balk at the sheer strength of Tam's rage.

Tam ground her words through clenched teeth, thrust from a place of fire and brimstone and into the cold lake of uncompromising logic and utility.

"I want free passage for all xB's across Federation space," she began, her shoulders heaving with emotion, "access to the knowledge at the Academy, to dozens of cultures, and acceptance into a collective that will allow us to keep our individuality while enriching our own."

Soji was suddenly blithe, shedding her role as Devil's advocate. She said, "Nothing quite like Federation membership then, in that case."

Raffi noted that Soji Asha had lost none of her chameleon traits from when they had first met her. She looked entirely amenable to this decision now, but she was watching Tam closely, letting her take the lead despite nearly losing three of her own people in the explosion.

It was a testament to the bonds they had forged without prompting, a commitment to a planet they had only just begun to call home.

Raffi thought she heard Seven sigh in relief.

"I'm from the Academy. I was Starfleet," Tam said, looking pointedly at Seven. "I wouldn't have left had there been a choice. Most of the people I admire are from that organisation; I want the same opportunity to be available for anyone else who wants it. That, and the choice to leave if they wish."

Seven straightened, perhaps reminded of her own decision to apply to Starfleet when she had arrived at the Alpha Quadrant.

It was no secret Seven joined the Federation's exploratory arm because of Kathryn Janeway's influence just as it was no surprise Tam got along as well as she did with Seven and most of La Sirena's crew because knowledge of Starfleet protocol allowed her to interact with them at a high degree of fidelity and understanding.

To want that for the rest of her people when they were lost, identity-less, and treated like the worst of the quadrant's inhabitants, seemed entirely reasonable.

Tam said, "They will put Bran Lekkie under trial, but not until we have the opportunity to do it on Coppelius' watch."

This time, it was Raffi who could barely hide her emotions, a pleased smile blossoming on her face. "Right. So Federation membership first, and then Coppelius hands him over as a sign of good will to seal the deal, with an official delegation in attendance during his hearing."


Soji shrugged, but her smile was eager. "I wouldn't be opposed to attending our first Federation trial as members with a seat at the table and a voice to be heard."

Raffi nudged Seven in the ribs, good-naturedly. "They grow up fast, don't they."

"Well, she certainly knows how to use her anger for an outcome." It was a glancing, indirect compliment and in Seven's world, the best kind.

Tam nodded in acknowledgment.

To Raffi, she continued in a cold, unforgiving tone meant for the prisoner on the other side of the glass, "I want Bran Lekkie and those like him to steep in what they have expedited and caused: citizenship for my kind, acknowledgment of our rights as a planet and as a people." Her eyes shone with the prospect of a dream, not as unreachable as previously thought. "Before long, they'll look up from their miserable lives and see the newsreels, watching yet another ex-Borg or gods forbid, a Synth, graduate into Starfleet's ranks."

The look on her face turned ferocious and gleeful. "Only then will they know that we had won. There will be no sweeter revenge."

Back at Raffi's quarters, Seven deposited her leather jacket on a chair. With an indication from Raffi, she retrieved two glasses of bourbon from the replicator.

Her leg was only slightly better, but even if a short sleep in a Borg alcove would have solved this problem overnight, she didn't want to pass on the opportunity to enjoy Raffi's company. She basked in the heated looks Raffi was inadvertently throwing her way.

Seven said, "I want that first shipment to include a dozen bottles of William Van Winkle."

Raffi chortled as she reached for the glass of bourbon in Seven's hand. "That can be arranged into the negotiations, I'm sure."

"Or you can convince Rios to let go of his trade stash."

"Or," Raffi repeated, sipping on her drink, "we can work that into the first shipment from Earth."

Seven rolled her eyes but her smile was indulgent. "Very well. I'll hold Tam to it."

Looking at Seven from beneath her lashes, with her lips on the rim of the glass, Raffi commented, "She takes after you, you know."

"Nobody taught her the wisdom she just displayed earlier."

"I'm pretty sure we all did. Encouraged it at one time or another. She's had a steady supply of some very exceptional people. Hugh, Picard, yourself." Raffi took a sip of her bourbon and made a noise of appreciation. "It takes a village."

"And it took you too, Raffaela Musiker," Seven interjected, taking Raffi's glass from her hand and pulling Raffi towards her as she stood from her chair.

Seven tilted her head in that inquiring way, only a little hesitant, but determination seeped into the sinews of her arms as she held Raffi's hand and led her by the elbow.

"Seven," Raffi said, her voice hoarse.

Seven watched the muscles against her neck move in a nervous swallow. Raffi stood nearly a head taller but she always made the concession to dip into Seven's space. Seven could hear her heart thunder in her ears, a rushing tide of emotion, then Raffi took her lips and they were kissing.

They had gone through a long and difficult ordeal, herding so many of Seven's brethren past the jaws of prejudice and hatred. Now, in this moment of quiet, their kiss was much slower. With her eidetic memory, Seven retained every detail; she enfolded taste, sensations, scents, and the feast her eyes consumed into the parcelled boxes of her mind so she could retrieve this freedom and peace at will.

She felt the bones against her ribs creak, unused to her chest opening, all in spite of the trauma from Icheb's death which had forced it closed. The deeply gouged betrayal by Bjayzl. Starfleet's slow collapse into hateful, discordant policy, which resulted in her resignation.

Seven felt it open to the torrent of emotion --lust, and overpowering affection --as she watched Raffi strip out of her shirt and pants, laying them at the foot of the bed, and then shuffling backwards to make space for her. She wore standard issue underwear, but as Raffi lounged, her long limbs graceful and her stomach lean, Seven felt as though she was kneeling at the temple of a goddess --Artemis, perhaps, or Athena, or both; presiders of wisdom, war, and moonlit-beauty.

Her admiration of Raffi usually left her speechless. The way she handled the negotiations with grace and unparalleled wit --fighting with a ferocity for the ex-Borg that rivalled even Picard or her own efforts. For all the tired lines across her forehead or the sadness which haunted her after Freecloud, Raffi was immensely generous to her friends. Her laughter and her kindness were beacons that Seven sought in moments of darkness.

"Hey, eyes over here," Raffi coaxed, her voice as warm as it ever was whenever Seven opened her eyes to a vision of her.

Between following Raffi into the sheets, and two or three fortifying breaths, they were kissing again.

They had both gradually come to a place where touching each other had become a statement, bold and sure. Seven liked to think it had everything to do with finding a measure of peace, one that she could finally extend to this extraordinary woman before her.

Raffi was a gentle kisser, but the demand was there when she opened her mouth and Seven sucked on her tongue. Raffi returned the favour and Seven felt her eyes erupt with figurative fireworks; she took a moment to query her optical implant.

Raffi hovered an inch from her to smile, all-knowing. "You okay?"

"Yeah. It's just, this isn't something I've done in a while."

"Sleeping with a beautiful woman?" Raffi waggled her eyebrows, laughing. "Or?"

"Sleeping with someone I care very much about."

"Oh." The other woman put her arms around Seven's neck, insistent fingers curling into the back of Seven's head. "You say all the right things."

"They're all true."

Raffi pursed her lips in amusement. "I don't doubt it." Tugging a little more insistently, she said, "Now, why don't you show me."

Seven put her mouth on Raffi's, not so much to devour as to taste, even if the yearning clawed sharply in her stomach. She pressed insistent lips against Raffi's, sliding her hands over the warm skin of her stomach, which was already exposed to Seven's touch.

Raffi on the tongue was smooth honey, thick and heady with flavours that could have easily overwhelmed, but she was tender, generous, and open --traits that Seven's previous lovers didn't always have.

Seven was careful not to demand too much. She was gentle as she opened her mouth, hoping for a more thorough sampling of Raffi's allure, but it only served to stoke a flame. Raffi breathed more harshly, her hands roaming as their bodies became more intertwined, and their exploration became frantic.

For a moment, as Raffi nudged Seven's jaw up with her nose and found her neck with her lips, Seven's world tumbled into a tropical rainforest --hot, humid, and heavily wooded. How Raffi took her to places even beyond her current world --Coppelius, Collision Lake, La Sirena or the Artifact --she didn't know, but Seven was near-delirious with the scent and feel of her, a planet of firsts.

Her fingers trembled over Raffi's cotton panties, traveling to the juncture of her thighs and then discovering wet heat that made her forehead drop on Raffi's shoulders.

"Your clothes," Raffi breathed, straining as she pressed against Seven's hand. "Take them off. I want to feel you."

Seven fought through the haze to look into Raffi's dark eyes, taken aback by the lust roiling there, and then by her growing impatience as Seven continued to touch her through the moist fabric covering her sex.

"Baby," Raffi insisted, "I want you. Now."

The term of endearment pushed Seven into motion. Bracketing Raffi's hips, she pulled at the hem of her shirt, stretched it over her head, and threw it to the side. She did the same for her bra, and she took note of Raffi's eyes widening as more skin was exposed. Raffi made a move to touch the curve of her breasts, entranced, but Seven swatted her away.

She hadn't realised it until now, but vulnerability was her default with Raffi Musiker. It didn't feel jarring to bare herself like this when so many of her emotions had been laid out in the last few days for Raffi to ponder. Not once had the other woman breached her trust, or asked for more than she could give, and it was refreshingly comfortable. Easy. Galvanising. It left her space to broaden in other ways, to breach into the unknown; she could build tenacity and daring from knowing that Raffi had her back no matter what.

Seven could feel tears prickle against her eyes. How naive had she been to think that love was supposed to be painful? A sacrifice that had left her a husk, the ghost of a woman she wanted to be while her son suffered in her arms, begging to die?

She surged downwards into Raffi's space, kissing her with calm intensity and the fury of feeling, strengthened by this supreme confidence that Raffi had given her, and which she could only hope to give in return.

Raffi came willingly, putting a little space between them so she could remove the rest of her underwear before demanding, "You too," indicating Seven's remaining undergarments.

How could Seven refuse this woman anything?

She obeyed.

From there, they didn't need much urging.

They fell into each other, autumn leaves dancing in sync as they sought firm ground. Seven curled into Raffi's affection, and the pattern their hands followed down their bodies eventually ended in both of them gasping, their fingers covered in slick.

Seven concentrated on giving Raffi pleasure, sliding a tip into her as the taller woman gasped at the welcome intrusion. In return, Raffi's fingers began a slow, deliberate courtship that pressed and circled Seven's clit.

Hot breaths buffeted against each other's shoulders, necks, and sweating clavicles. They lay flush against each other as they urged their hips forwards and back.

There was very little warning but Raffi uttered a choked, "Seven, make me come."

Seven hummed and trapped her engorged clit between a middle and forefinger, sluicing around it, before pressing those fingers into tight, welcoming heat.

"Oh!" Raffi cried, surging up into Seven's fingers and riding them as she paused in her own ministrations to clutch at Seven's shoulders.

Seven watched her, Raffi's mouth open in silent supplication for more, eyes squeezed tight, before the sight of her became too overwhelming. She licked Raffi's chest, dipped to pull a nipple into her mouth. She sucked, a tongue playing against its tip until she felt Raffi tighten with purpose around her.

"Seven!" Raffi cried as her walls gripped tightly around Seven in that first instance, the pressure built to a point that seemed to consume them both.

"Raffi." Seven pressed soothing kisses against her shoulder and urged, "That's it. Just let go."

For a moment, Seven felt suspended between motion and a result, then the tension broke completely like wires snapping in succession, whipping out with gratification after minutes of having been tightly wound into knots. Around her fingers, Raffi pulsed wildly as Seven continued to draw pleasure from her with purposeful, measured thrusts.

Seven, breathless with awe, pulled Raffi more tightly against her, enjoyed the gentle ebb and flow around her fingers. It took a few minutes but eventually, Raffi insisted, "Stay inside, please."

Seven remained still until Raffi's breathing slowed.

Seven could feel Raffi swallow, trying to form words, her long fingers threading into Seven's damp, blonde hair, gentle but resolute with something she was yet to say.

Seven's stomach clenched unpleasantly as she pulled out from Raffi's heat. She had been on casual hook-ups before but she rarely engaged in them unless the pull of attraction and her own incalculable needs as a Ranger justified a closer look. Raffi must have felt her stiffen because the other woman kissed the sinews of her neck soothingly and massaged the base of her head.

"I may..." Raffi swallowed and her voice became even softer, tempered by shyness and certainty, "I want this again. More times than I have a right to."

Relieved, Seven let out a wet laugh, and Raffi pulled away slightly, enough so she could look into Seven's eyes and show her that she was being honest.

"I'm not taking this lightly," Raffi said. "I never was."

"You didn't have to represent the xB's in the Coppelius-Federation treaty to show me that you cared," Seven teased, fondness colouring her voice. "You could've just asked me out."

Raffi considered this. "Yeah I could have, but Tam's approval was half the battle."

"Ever the tactician, Raffi Musiker," Seven admonished and she couldn't help from capturing Raffi's lips in a kiss.

She settled beside Raffi, momentarily exhausted and not from the physical exertion. Even after all these years, the most draining thing about being human was reconciling her emotions with logic and her Borg impassivity. Her past lovers seemed to find it amusing to hold tension like a sword over Seven's head --to teach her a lesson, to test her, to stamp ownership, dominate, or appease an ego. Some people were intent on changing her so she could more easily fit in, friends and colleagues who meant well. She had conformed, mostly, but with Raffi, she didn't need to.

Raffi evoked none of those contradictions. Seven's feelings for her were constant and sure, a deep and calm river, and Raffi had no problems returning them in kind. There was very little thinking involved, less rationalisation on why she liked Raffi so much. Raffi just made her feel safe.

In a small but meaningful surrender, she let the taller woman lie half on top of her. Raffi traced her skin, over Borg starbursts and human goose flesh, as though etching an image of Seven in her mind that was complete and replete with her identity. Infused with a rare peace, Seven breathed deeply, the musk of their lovemaking a long and resounding note, and Raffi's woody scent a constant reminder of her gentle acceptance, her strong fervour, even if the entire quadrant knew Seven of Nine was Borg and hated her for it.

In a whisper --because it felt as though this was one more thing the galaxy could take away if she spoke it out loud --Seven admitted, "You make me happy, and I haven't been happy in a long time."

"Good," Raffi said, before looking up at her with mischief in her eyes."You ready for round two?"

Suddenly aware that her thighs were sticky-hot with her own arousal, Seven tightened her arms around the other woman.

No more words were needed after that.

Part 6

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