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 6: A Ripple With No End

Sitting at her desk with an open channel to the USS Thomas Paine, Raffi scrolled through the new terms.

She ran her eyes over a clause about the Disordered Ward, and the plan to repatriate Romulan xB's on the Artifact.

The crew assimilated from the Shaenor were decidedly worse off than most of the other xB's, their minds blended into a soup that could not tell time or express their desires. Seven suspected that it had everything to do with their proximity to Ramdha during assimilation --recipients of undiluted, corrupt code that jumped the Cube's nodes without any sort of barrier.

As the most vulnerable of the xB's and only a few of them being able to voice their assent, Tam wanted to repatriate only those with immediate family in the Romulan Free State, to Romulans who wanted to take their injured kin and care for them properly. Otherwise, she preferred that all xB's relied on Federation and Coppelius-developed medicine for remediation.

Again, Raffi smiled at Tam's growth. Despite her seething dislike of Bran's actions and the Federation-bred anti-Synth ideology which had yet to die out in many of the Federation's institutions, Tam had an impressive handle on her reasoning, something Raffi admitted she had so little of at a similar age.

Tam Pitto had authored an entire chapter at Raffi's advice, which included the immediate ratification of conventions and covenants relating to their rights: economic, social, cultural, political, and civil. It demanded the elimination of all types of Synth and xB discrimination. Lastly, it stipulated the removal of any statutory limitations for crimes committed against their kind across all Federation member worlds.

It could close Coppelius off with immediate protections from nearby Starfleet starships in the event of unwarranted, unlawful activity. It also meant that Coppelius had full voting rights in any Federation assembly as a member planet. If the delegation wished, they could leave for Earth and start authoring policy today.

All this, by leveraging the Federation's desperate bid for self-preservation against its Borg and Romulan enemies, and in sectors where their influence continued to fade.

Free trade was merely a vehicle; what Coppelius gained in return was priceless.

Raffi couldn't help a self-satisfied smirk.

On the screen to Raffi's left, Axi Ridor lifted her head from her reading, her brows meeting in a frown.

"You drive a hard bargain, Musiker."

"Someone ought to. They deserve the galaxy's best, just like anyone." Raffi left the venom in her tone, "And a few basic rights are hardly a bargain, Captain Ridor."

Axi Ridor considered her for several, long minutes before she finally stood from her chair in what Raffi suspected was her ready room.

"I don't ever recall being manhandled quite this way before," Axi mused.

"If the member worlds refuse, we have a much larger problem than the Federation's next exchange of Borg and Synth technology and intelligence." Raffi put her PADD down, leaning towards the screen to bring across a point. "A moral problem. It's already festered in a few individuals."

Axi blanched. "You make a good point, Musiker."

Schooling her expression into one of calm agreement, Axi opened a cabinet and poured herself a dark, amber liquid. She raised her glass in a good-natured salute, despite the strain of a few large promises she had to convey to her superiors pressing lines into a quickly aging forehead.

"Congratulations on Federation membership, and the promise of our best medical and technical expertise under the Coppelius-Federation treaty. Oh, and let's not forget, equality, justice, and the necessary protections under the conventions you all so skillfully stipulated."

Raffi let go of a breath she hadn't known she was holding in. She lifted her own glass of water as she said, "In return, Bran Lekkie will be delivered to Earth on the USS Vega with the Coppelius representatives. Also," Raffi smiled sweetly, "we can't wait for the Coppelius Research Centre to be built, or for Altan and Tam to co-chair as Federation citizens."

Axi took a sip of her drink, chuckling. "I don't know how to feel about working with a bunch of ex-Starfleet with such audacious hero complexes," she admitted. "I may be here on a semi-permanent assignment after the Paine's repairs. For patrol and escort duty."

"It shouldn't be too bad."

"No, certainly not." She leaned forward to consider Raffi a little more closely. "When all this is over, I wouldn't mind buying you a drink, Raffaela Musiker."

Raffi hid her brief confusion in a smile, trying to determine if she understood Axi's intentions correctly, and then recalled the spread of beautiful blonde hair on her pillow this morning. She pursed her lips, readying a reply. She'd had her share of Starfleet captains in her bed but right this moment, and really for the foreseeable future, she couldn't think of anyone else but Seven of Nine occupying that space.

"For a little friendly chat, sure."

They stared at each other for a long moment before Axi bowed, acknowledging Raffi's subtle refusal. "And here I thought I'd try."

"I'm flattered, Axi, I am. Thank you. But there's someone else."

"Cheers to the lucky fellow then."

"I'll send her your regards."

"Only if she doesn't send the wrath of the Rangers on me, certainly."

Again, Raffi was impressed by Axi Ridor's powers of deduction. It was one more reason why Raffi knew that for all of Axi's misgivings about getting the purported 'short end of the stick', the long term benefit of a Borg Cube under Federation jurisdiction was still worth a lifetime --and more --of concessions.

"I'd be more than happy for you to share a toast with the rest of us, ex-Starfleet misfits. I'm sure you'd appreciate the company."

"Don't tempt me," Axi joked before raising a friendly hand in farewell. "It's been a pleasure, Musiker. The Federation is keen to formalize all this tomorrow. I'm looking forward to finally setting foot on Coppelius."

"See you then, Captain."

"And you, Lieutenant Commander. Axi out."

The transmission ended. As if on cue, the hundred eighty-three signatories of the United Federation of Planets began to appear on the treaty projected on her screen, seared in gold lettering, both in Federation Standard and in the members' native scripts. In real-time, the Coppelius side of the screen began to populate.

Maybe she was imagining it, but she could hear the faint hum of jubilation in her head as her heart expanded even more. For the first time in a long time, Raffi's entire being felt satisfyingly full.

At near to noon, the heat was balmy like the ambient temperature of a Borg alcove. Seven, stripped to her tank top and standard-issue cotton pants, anticipated Elnor's impulsive lunge, using his momentum to trip him then swing his body into a tight choke hold.

Using her Borg strength, she tightened her grip and didn't let go until he slapped her thigh and rushed out of her embrace.

"How do you get me every time?" he complained, massaging his neck and coughing.

"Not many people will see it but your dominant foot ticks slightly in the opposite direction before you're about to move."

Elnor let out a frustrated sigh before putting his hands up in mock surrender and going for one of the bottles of water they had parked in the shade of a rock.

He drank while she glanced at the Artifact and judged its relation to the sun. Soon, it would be past the sun's high point in the sky. She was looking forward to the 5-kilometre run back and whatever culinary surprise Tam had in store, knowing that the younger woman always managed to cook something new when under duress.

The atmosphere at the Artifact was tense, everyone waiting for word on what the Federation would accept. Instead of impinging on Raffi's space in their quarters, and knowing also that she wouldn't be able to influence the outcome at this late stage, she tempted Elnor with the promise to teach him some advanced and useful fighting techniques that she had learned as a Ranger.

He agreed, always eager to be in her company, an inclination that she still couldn't understand.

Elnor's training with the Qowat Milat stunned her to a stalemate or to outright defeat, often enough that she preferred him as a sparring partner. But his perfect technique didn't always account for an opponent's cunning.

Right now, he seemed deep in thought. She already knew that after a few more tries, she would probably have to change her strategy to get past his defense.

He was a fast learner, and one of the best fighters she knew. If not for the implants which allowed her to anticipate with superhuman cognition, to react with frightening speed and strength, Elnor could easily defeat her.

She joined him under the shade of a tall, red-coloured bush, sitting on a rock and drinking from her own container.

She commented, "I can imagine sparring with me frustrates you more than it amuses."

Elnor's studious frown turned into a bright smile. "Oh no! I want to be more like you and I learn so much from you." He took another drink, using the pause to contemplate before saying, "Do you know how?"

"How what, Elnor?"

"How I can be more like you."

Seven gave him a self-deprecating smile. "I highly doubt you'd like to follow in my footsteps."

Elnor gave her a confused look. "Why not?" he told her, indignant. "I'm sure I do."

Seven shook her head, her arms over her knees as she held her palms face up, more flesh at this angle than Borg tritanium. She was close to wringing them. She was sure that anyone who used the template of her life was bound for disappointment.

"Look, I can't really speak for my earlier experiences but after playing at being human for so long, I can tell you that the friends and family who stick around and prove themselves are the ones you need to keep close. They'll pull you from whatever hole you find yourself in --despair, the tar pits of Egon-Ross, a ship in pieces." She gave him a pointed look, her thoughts going to one of her oldest and staunchest friends, Naomi Wildman. "A Borg Cube or another."

"Is it so hard to be human?" Elnor asked. He looked at his own hands to mirror her movements, turning over his fingers to stare at the painted nails of his upbringing. "I think being Romulan is hard for me, too."

"How about being Qowat Milat?"

"Not so much. But trying to fit in at Vashti was..." he breathed deeply, "not pleasant at all."

Seven hummed her understanding. "I know what you mean." She nudged him gently closer and he moved so she could whisper to him sagely, "I can tell you what being with Raffi has reminded me of."

Elnor's eyes lit up with enthusiastic approval. "Oh, she's great."

Seven nearly laughed with sympathy. "I know, which is why I listen and watch. Very few people make me want to try at being more like a person the way she does."

"So..." Elnor prompted, waiting patiently.

For a moment, Seven wished for a glass of bourbon to help her open her chest because it felt crowded with a dozen, nameless emotions. Again, this was the burden of her humanity. Luckily, she could recognize the deep fissures they came from: her individual attachments to Voyager's crew, the painful affinity she shared with Kathryn, violently severed bonds to Icheb, the craggly acquaintance with her Ranger friends, and the more recent, solidified relationships to La Sirena's crew.

"Our connections enrich us," she began, this time opening her palms as though to cradle these thoughts, which were precious. In the face of great misery, they were also disadvantageously fleeting. Elnor continued to watch her, thoughtful and curious like a child eager to learn his first lesson. "I'd like to be at my deathbed, surrounded by people I love. To be able to say that I was able to make a difference in people's lives and that they've made an impression in mine, than to die miserable and alone."

"Isn't that the goal for any life that's well-lived?"

"Then you've learned this important thing much sooner than I did." She let go of a big breath, expunging every bit of good left in her so Elnor could hear. "May you live long, Elnor," she said, soft and begging, reciting the old, Vulcan greeting like a prayer, "And may you prosper, far more than I ever have."

Elnor watched her expression, perhaps seeing the thin veil of regrets, pain, and guilt which miraculously seemed to lift at the mention of her friends. He must have also recognised the greeting because his eyes widened. After all, approximations of the greeting in Romulan culture existed --Vulcan and Romulus shared a common ancestry.

He became very solemn and repeated the sentiment in the terse language of his people, "Live long and prosper."

It was a testament to Elnor's worship of Picard and his boundless regard for Seven that he could quietly accept this form of giving, even if the words were owned by an old enemy, tied to deep-seated Romulan anger and resentment.

Seven knew at that moment that given the opportunity, he would surpass them all.

After a long moment of sharing a more relaxed camaraderie, he patted her knee and reassured, "And I will do what you ask, Seven. Don't worry."

"Good to hear," she said, feeling redemption like the slowly warming light of a rising sun. "And you fucking better, Elnor, or so help me, you won't need a Fenris chip to call me to your side."

He laughed, reciprocating with his arm around her, just as she felt a smile grow on her face at the welcome contact.

It was the first official visit to Collision Lake by Coppelius station and its representatives. There were formalities during the day such as exchange of personnel and the organisation of a planet-wide skeleton government. As the sun set, xB's began to prepare for a more informal gathering where Synths and xB's could bond over their new and shared place in the quadrant.

Altan Inigo Soong shuffled eagerly towards the tables laden with food while golden-eyed Synths gravitated towards the central bonfire. Driven by an innate desire, they clasped at each other's hands, dancing. They enticed any ex-Borg who ventured near to do the same.

Many xB's had already been exposed to the colourful crew of La Sirena and they gathered outside the Artifact to greet their neighbours. They managed to converse without guile and a little expression.

The Synths didn't seem to mind; neither society had been exposed to the rest of the galaxy for too long. New customs were only just beginning to ripen, and they were at the cusp of a larger sense of community.

The crew members of La Sirena were dotted across the gathering, with Seven only just arriving from an afternoon run. She perched a few metres away from the festivities, at an elevated outcropping that gave her a view of the bonfire and the revellers. She caught sight of Cristóbal Rios, who seemed eager to join the dancers, cajoling a laughing Agnes with one hand while pulling Elnor. An enthusiastic Synth showed them a few of their flowing, hypnotic steps, and the crew joined in, their hands clasped.

Then her eyes fell on Raffi, who sat by the fire, looking like she had been observing Seven the whole time, and Seven felt her cheeks warm. Catching Seven's gaze, Raffi smiled coyly at her before crooking her finger in a come-hither motion that nearly made Seven stand up and gallop over.

But Tam came fully into view between them, waving apologetically before joining Seven at her perch, her shorter legs hanging from the outcropping.

Raffi smiled indulgently before fetching Jean-luc from his chair and pulling him into the celebrations instead.

The silence between them felt heavy with something unborn --unseen, moving, and alive. Seven was used to people's silences, never discomfited even if the other party waited for an initial reaction. Tam shared the unmoving air between them for long minutes, as comfortable as Seven was in unassumed non-conversation.

After what seemed like a longer amount of time than she had intended, Tam passed Seven a small plate with three different desserts. There was a colourful rice cake in three, sticky colours of orange, violet, and off-white. The second was also sticky but tube-like, brown sauce poured over it, which smelled of muscovado sugar. The third was suspiciously yellow --a cheese-topped dessert made of a root crop that had been grated and cooked. It was as rich as it looked.

Seven raised an inquiring brow. "And what are these?"

"Sapin-sapin, suman, and cassava cake. Vestiges of my childhood wrestled from Federation archives now that we have access." Her frown deepened as she stared intently at the scene of dancing Synths and stiff but eager xB's. "I've clung to comforting memories and rituals, to my human side so I can make sense of this new life. I try to share what I can."

Seven took a bite of each. "Mango," she commented. "Ube, a violet taro variety. Rice and coconut."

Tam smiled widely. "Not exactly native to these parts but we've found some edible root crops to make something similar to the cake. And we'll likely grow a strain of rice that doesn't need too much water locally, too." She looked up at the sky, tracking the Paine's movement as it shimmered along a predetermined line. "I'm looking forward to the shipment of nuts, seeds, and plants --the ones that pass Coppelius' strict biodiversity rules."

Seven couldn't help the admiration from her voice, "You're growing your own food instead of synthesizing them."

"There's enough space in the Artifact to put up enough hydroponic bays. We need to start using our hands and feet. It might help get the others out of their shells."

Seven's smile was unbidden, proud. Remembering an earlier intention, Seven reached into her pocket and pulled out a transparent chip, gesturing for Tam to take it.

Tam took it, brought it up to the light, chuckled, then set it on her knee. She said, "I hope you aren't in the habit of giving these out to just anyone."

Seven's eyes flickered in the distant firelight, focused on the small group of people dancing and laughing. La Sirena communicators pinned to shirts and jackets shimmered as they moved. "I've given away more in the last few weeks than I have during my entire time with the Rangers."

"That's a good thing?" Tam asked, sceptical, although there was a hint of smugness in her expression. "You have more to lose now."

She raised her brows in silent assent. "Sure, but I also have more people on my corner who can't stand to see me lose any more."

Tam's smile was suspiciously knowing. "If that's what it means to be human..." She reached into her own pocket and opened her palm. On it was a black, coiled device, shaped almost like a cowshell with a glowing green centre.

Seven felt her throat tighten. She knew what it was, but asked anyway, "What is it for?"

"You have us, too, Seven," Tam said, stretching her hand outward to implore that Seven take it.

Seven shook her head. "I don't...understand."

"We won't have starships for a few years," Tam explained, "but we will answer your call in any way we can. Anywhere, anytime, in whatever situation you find yourself in. That is our promise to you as your people." Tam's face was tight with solemnity, with the far-reaching ramifications of her words. "As"

Seven's felt her throat close up. Her hands trembled as she took the device. "This uses the transwarp conduits," she whispered with reverence. "No delay, no interference."

"Anytime, anywhere, in whatever dimension or singularity," Tam repeated.

"And you made this?" Seven accused, turning it over and watching as its black, unfathomable colours furled in and out of the darkness, anchored only by the green light in its middle.

Tam laughed, patting Seven's leg with light admonition. "We all did with our combined minds over a few days. We knew we didn't want you to go into the galaxy alone. Our people have suffered enough." Sobering after a moment, she continued, "It's a small gift compared to what La Sirena has arranged with these negotiations and we can't guarantee an armada, only a few of us through the transporters of the queen cell." She grinned. "For now."

"You'll have a Federation starbase up there in less than a year," Seven said, certain.

"Maybe." Tam twiddled her fingers. "And enough technology to build a vessel that can rival a Federation starship. Or any starship."

Inexplicably, Seven knew where Tam's mind had gone. Reflected in her eyes were memories of Soji's temptation, a preemptive strike that would have secured their survival. But it would have endangered everyone else's. Even as a young world, Coppelius had to cultivate far more wisdom than its neighbours. Unrestrained power, like the one synthetic life could wield, was easily transformed into tyranny.

The Federation was the lesser of many evils. The inherent autonomy stressed in the treaty was not unique for Federation member worlds but Coppelius' emphasis on control and oversight over technology was unprecedented. It was in preparation for the knowledge that the Federation would eventually appropriate for its own ends.

Seven sighed her relief into the space between them, "I'm very proud of you Tam, everything that you are and what you have achieved."

Tam's head cocked to the side, a mirror of Seven's habits.

"I'm a product of La Sirena..." Tam paused, looking at the night sky before retracing her words with a careful addition, "and a product of you, just as you are of Voyager. I want you to continue to be proud of me."

Seven blinked, the cavity around her heart roiling with emotion.

Seven nearly put a hand to her chest, the feeling of uncontrollable affection threatening to burst through. How many more of these conversations could she have without being completely dismantled? She remembered an earlier dialogue with Elnor, and couldn't help but try and remember if this was what it was like to impart a part of yourself to your children. Her only other experience had been rudimentary with Mezoti, Azan and Rebi. It had been only a little more involved with Icheb.

Tam was grave as she gestured at the device. "I'll always hold some version of you, Seven. A First, if you will, from a figurative maturation chamber."

Seven touched the moisture against her own cheek before she knew that she had started to weep. Icheb had been Second in the Cube he had matured in, and even if Borg designations were remnants of her past, Icheb was technically First in hers.

Tam had spared her the admission, but the younger woman was now as much a First or Second or Third of Seven's odd yet welcome adjunct to a unimatrix called La Sirena.

Seven closed her palms over the xB device, and gratefully put it in her pocket, the connection to Coppelius as immediately taut to those in the vessel she currently served in.

Three figures shimmered into being a few kilometres from the Artifact, at the same coordinates Agnes had beamed Raffi and Seven that first time. Again, the threat of electrical storms had prompted the change in plans but Axi Ridor, her security officer, and a minor lieutenant seemed unaffected by the sudden heat of a Coppelius noon-day sun.

"Ms Musiker," Axi greeted, her orange eyes bright with pleasure.

Raffi extended a hand, which Axi took. Seven gave her a terse smile as she accepted the same greeting. Soji and Tam were just as serene as they accepted Federation representatives in their territory.

It took a few minutes to introduce everyone before they started walking towards camp.

"We could have taken a shuttle," Axi explained, "but you can understand we're a bit short on resources at the moment."

"Isn't the Vega due to arrive soon?" Tam asked.

"Three days can be a lifetime when you have a gaping hole in Decks 6 and 7," Axi said, keeping her face carefully neutral despite the strain in her voice.

"We can lend you some of our personnel to help," Tam said.

"Ah, it's a bit, shall we say, strained on the ship," she gave her security officer a cursory glance filled with meaning, and the human woman in Starfleet yellows offered a tight smile of acknowledgment.

Axi continued, "A home-grown terrorist cell on the Paine makes me worry about the safety of any synthetic life aboard." She sounded apologetic. "Inasmuch as we have changed policy, it's quite different to change the tide of opinion overnight. We'll need to vet our crew against more stringent standards as soon as we arrive at a star base."

Soji's mischievous grin was unhelpful. "The good captain is saying she still has bigots on board a Federation starship."

The Starfleet security officer coughed, the minor lieutenant's eyes bugged out. Tam nudged Soji with an elbow, grinning. Seven stopped herself from saying anything while Raffi squeezed her eyes shut in silent recrimination. If the treaty hadn't already been signed, these children would have given Raffi an aneurysm.

Axi remained diplomatic with an apologetic but cursory, "Precisely that, Ms Asha."

The silence wasn't as long or uncomfortable as Raffi expected it to be. Despite the subtle undercurrent of hostility from their Synth companion, Captain Ridor began a casual conversation about the Artifact and Coppelius Station, carefully weaving in her own experiences. She used them to draw a comparison with her companion's experiences, calibrating her assumptions and understanding. It was refreshing to see.

Soon, Tam and Soji were engaging in tentative conversation with the captain, and Raffi couldn't help but notice Seven's admiring gaze.

Seven and Raffi watched as the trio continued their dialogue more openly, walking ahead at a faster gait as though unable to suppress their excitement.

"A Starfleet captain for a reason," Seven commented to Raffi, quietly enough that only she could hear.

Raffi breathed through clenched teeth, a little hesitant to admit, "I'm starting to believe Riker had a hand in picking her to run this mission."

"I don't doubt it either. He probably ran a profile to determine what personality type would suit the negotiations best. Starfleet still has our psychological profiles in their database, a record of all our past decisions, our preferences, behavioural tags. It wouldn't be hard for them to run any of it through simulations and learning algorithms."

"A bit scary, don't you think? That Starfleet could read our minds, more or less."

"I'm not too worried," Seven admitted. "Tam and Soji can outwit any machine. Any profiling already done on them can be turned on its head. They're as knowledgeable as the actual creators of the algorithms."

Raffi chuckled, comforted somewhat. "They're going to outpace us pretty quickly."

Seven smiled. "That's the point, I think," she said, glancing at Raffi with the warmth of a thousand suns. "The greatest hope for our children is that they'll be better than we ever could be."

Axi Ridor stared at the Artifact for what seemed like an age, admiring its sheer size. Tam tapped her shoulder to urge her to keep moving towards the entrance. Axi blinked and let herself be led inside the Cube.

They arrived at a casual setting, a round table put together to seat 18 people. This time, they were joined by other xB's appointed by Tam to represent the collective as well as Altan and his own people. Once seated, they were served rice and coconut-based snacks and a sweet drink from a rare citrus fruit that was smaller and more potent than a lemon.

Seven could hear Axi mumble appreciatively, "I've only ever tasted something similar on Earth. This is delicious."

From beside the Starfleet Captain, Tam tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Some of us remember Earth. And many other places from the forced diaspora into our collective."

After their guests ate and stories were exchanged, Altan prompted, "So what has precipitated this visit, Captain Ridor?"

The room quieted down and Axi wiped her mouth. "As you well know, the USS Vega is arriving in a few days. The Federation extends its formal invitation to transport Coppelius' representatives to Earth for its first Federation assembly. And also," she licked her lips, "for your people to witness Bran Lekkie's trial first-hand, as promised. We're here to help with any preparation or questions for the impending visit."

A murmur rose from the table. Axi wasn't finished, raising a hand to ask for silence. "We also invite La Sirena and her crew to join us on special invitation by Commander Riker."

Seated outside of the round table, shoulder to shoulder as they watched the proceedings, Seven and Raffi exchanged a look. "Told you," Raffi whispered, her eyes bright and laughing. They looked over to where Rios held a contemplative frown. "Is he eager or just conflicted?" Raffi asked.

"Conflicted, more like," Seven said before she caught Picard's gaze. The older man pursed his lips and gave her a small nod, something akin to acquiescence. "If Picard has his way, we'd accept the invitation."

"No doubt," Raffi said, shuffling closer to put a head on Seven's shoulder. "I wouldn't mind a few days on a vineyard. And," she sounded choked up, "Earth was home for a while, as I'm sure it was for you, too."

"Indeed." Seven kissed Raffi's forehead, her heart only a little conflicted at the prospect of visiting Earth and of being in close proximity to people she had left behind.

It had been a few weeks since Axi Ridor's invitation to visit Earth. Unable to refuse the sheer weight of opinion by more than half his crew, Cristóbal Rios set a course alongside the USS Vega, ferrying not just his crew but a few more Synths and xB's who were a part of the Coppelius delegation.

It was the middle of the night now, the excitement dying down after a few days in deep space. The crew had retired for the evening, their guests resting and quiet in repurposed storage bays. From her console, Seven could hear the faint beeping of Raffi inviting her to their bed.

Smiling, she stood up and was accosted in the middle of a corridor by Rios, who seemed dangerously intent. He pushed a bottle to her chest then stepped back quickly as though he had just deposited something incendiary.

"What's this?"

She brought the bottle of William Van Winkle up against the dim light, admiring its dark, amber liquid. The conspicuous signature was etched over its label --the name of a distillery which had produced the most sought after bottles of bourbon in the quadrant. Seven could feel her mouth water.

"An early wedding present," Rios said, poker-faced.

Seven nearly dropped the bottle, her hand firm around its neck as she lowered it to her thigh. "I'm sorry, what."

"Look, I know you love her." He gave her a funny look as she tried to digress, raising a hand to stop her from embarrassing herself further. "No, I won't hear it. You love her, Seven, and that's that."

He handed her a chip. "I retrieved this after the negotiations, when we all had time, and fortunately for me I tend to use my free time combing through La Sirena's computer. The sender didn't bother with a private message, which would've pinged the right person, but sent it on a public channel. It came through as noise until Emmet alerted me to it."

She took the chip. "You should be the one taking this to her."

"Yeah, well. I think you're the closest family she has now."

"Besides yourself."

Rios blew a rush of frustrated air through his lips. "You should be the one there for her when she gets it, okay?"

Seven studied Rios for a moment. "Cris, you're either avoiding the emotional fall out or you like me too much."

The resulting grimace was laced with humour. "I'll keep that open to interpretation, thank you."

"Fine." Seven shook her head, the edges of her lips trending upwards into a smile, but not quite. She examined the chip more closely. "I'm going to thank you in advance. For both of us."

"You're too noble. And you think too highly of me."

"I'm surprised everyone does."

He took the joke with an even-tempered "Ha!" before peering at her with a sudden desire to know more. Instead, he batted the question away and said, "Thank me when Raffi gets what she wants, not before."

Seven's posture softened as she said, "As you wish."

"Look, there will be more opportunities to share a bottle and I'm hoping we can, in the near future."

"I doubt you'd like to part from your stash, Captain."

"Oh, for all the right reasons, I do. And family is one of them."

Seven didn't have any more words to return so she gave him a casual salute instead, pocketing the chip, and then watching as La Sirena's captain disappeared behind a door, his good intentions lingering just as Elnor's and Tam's had been, for hours and hours now.

She panted into Seven's ear, hyperaware of the rhythm the other woman had set, her fingers pumping in and out as Raffi's sex clenched around them, squeezing as though taking every last bit of pleasure, pulling them deeper into her.

Earlier, Seven seemed ravenous, her eyes glinting as she stepped into their shared quarters and pushed Raffi into their bed with purpose. Raffi grinned, delighted to be at the mercy of such understated power as she allowed the other woman to pull her bodily along. Raffi's entire body vibrated its acceptance as Seven stripped her of her clothing. Tonight, as with many other nights since they left Coppelius, her surrender to Seven's ministrations was easy and quick, irrevocable proof to how far she let Seven wander past her defences.

"Baby," Raffi pleaded, "Please. Make me come."

Seven groaned into Raffi's neck, overwhelmed by her request but also motivated by it. Raffi could feel a muscled arm re-position alongside her head before Seven's hips pushed insistenty into the movement of her hand. Raffi sank deeper into the bed, turning into the pillow beneath her and crying into it with every push and pull.

The pleasure brightened as Seven added even more force behind her hips, the angle of her fingers prodding into the rough spot in Raffi's front wall, which made Raffi clench even tighter.

"Seven!" she gasped.

"I've got you, Raffi," Seven gritted, her tongue darting out to taste the sweat on her neck. Seven hummed as she took the skin into her mouth and sucked, her eyes closing as the wet sound of their love-making filled the air between them.

There was a river in between her legs, squelching obscenely as Raffi chased the growing tide of pleasure, her own pelvis churning against Seven. The other woman moaned her appreciation, clearly entranced as Raffi maintained the steady beat of her hips. It wasn't nearly enough.

As though feeling her frustration, Seven eased a third finger in, her thumb sliding over her clit in deliberate circles. The thin burn of being stretched, paired with the white hot pleasure of Seven's skilful hands over her tight bundle of nerves, made it the contrast she needed to collapse into the intense orgasm already built underneath the surface.

She screamed into Seven's bare shoulder, falling into the abyss faster as she heard the other woman grunt from the feeling of Raffi gripping her. Seven maintained a steady, forceful tempo throughout, unwilling to yield.

Just as Raffi thought she'd ridden through the wave, one vigorous push caused Raffi to gasp and her hips met Seven's palm in a demand. Something like mischief lit Seven's face and the woman kissed Raffi's chest, lingered on an erect nipple with a slippery tongue, cold moisture causing it to harden even further.

"Ah, fuck," Raffi hissed, her lower body moving of its own accord, plying Seven with the promise of more.

Seven travelled further down, entranced by this journey and taking detours against Raffi's ribs, her stomach, kissing and licking against the trimmed hair of her mons. By the time Seven's mouth sucked on her clit, she had released even more wetness, and was on her way to a second orgasm. Raffi rode it until her throat was raw from screaming, her buttocks sore, and her sex oversensitive.

She felt Seven smile against her, taking one more lavish lick and sucking before pulling away and kissing her. Raffi moaned at the taste of their love-making, pawing at Seven's thighs.

Seven spread her legs wider, opening herself to Raffi's view, and Raffi hummed appreciatively at the wetness she could see glistening there. From under Seven, Raffi slipped into her, a warm and welcoming grasp, and already incredibly tight, knowing that the other woman had been at the edge the entire time. She pushed two and then three fingers in, slow and deep, before thumbing Seven's clit with demanding swipes. Seven came against her with a long and satisfied moan, her entire body collapsing on top of her as Raffi chuckled, self-satisfied.

"You're amazing," Raffi said.

Seven kissed her deeply, grinding her wetness against Raffi's hand. "So are you."

"We're never getting out of bed at this rate."

"That'll be...unfortunate," Seven said. "I have something for you."

Raffi moved the hand still cupping Seven's mons and the other woman moaned in soft surrender.

"Can it wait?" Raffi whispered, her hand gentle even as Seven's body began to move, seduced by Raffi's intent. With the fingers still inside Seven, Raffi gathered Seven's wetness before slipping out to coat it on her outer lips.

"Maybe," Seven hissed, moving insistently to seat herself on Raffi's fingers. "Yes."

Raffi lunged upwards to kiss her, her hand in motion, seeking out Seven's pleasure. For so many years, Raffi had felt her life slip through her control like sand, decisions that took a life of their own and then stalked and tortured her like demons. Now, as Seven sighed into her mouth and melted against her chest, Raffi felt every breath and moan fill her with something warm and indescribable, a horizon slowly brightening as the universe answered every indulgence she had, at first, didn't dare ask for or need.

They wouldn't leave for hours after that.

Breakfast was a light affair, joined only by Rios and Agnes at La Sirena's mess. Mercifully, there was only a little teasing from Rios, who seemed intent on keeping his rambunctiousness at a minimum as he threw glances at Seven.

Now that they lived together, Seven and Raffi were given a larger living space, a room for a bed and another for whatever they wished --in Raffi's case, it was her own desk while Seven enjoyed a small reading nook with a small bookcase and a comfortable armchair. Raffi gravitated towards her desk, flicking on three news feeds on separate displays with their volumes muted, and then zooming into a publication on synth policy in another. She retrieved a coffee from the replicator, looking to Seven, who disappeared to the bedroom, perhaps already occupied with another task.

Raffi was a few pages into her reading when Seven appeared beside her.

"You'd want to see this," Seven said, dropping a kiss on her shoulder and a PADD on her lap. "Rios found it on a wide-channel transmission after the attack on the Paine. Come get me when you're done."

Raffi nodded, her gaze lowering to read the display. Her stomach lurched into her throat as she saw the origin of the transmission. Freecloud.

That could only be from one person. She looked up to find her girlfriend but Seven was already walking away. Seven picked up a book to read and took a seat at one of the wide arm chairs, letting Raffi know she was present but also offering her the necessary privacy.

Trembling, she told the computer, "Play transmission."

Gabe's adult features filled her vision. He had his father's lips, and she felt the deep pang of regret and shame as they moved to soft but urgent words. His cheeks, his eyes --they were hers, and she had to temper the familiar awe which came with seeing him.

She was a mess of emotion even before she could properly hear him, and she struggled to listen to his words.

"Hi Mom," he said, seeking encouragement from someone off-screen. It was probably Pel, and judging from the cooing sounds off-screen, his Romulan wife was holding their daughter.

Raffi's heart wanted to break in two.

Breathing deeply, he continued, "I saw the attack on the USS Thomas Paine on the newsreels and I knew that if I didn't at least ask after you, I'd regret it." He licked his lips, again looking at his young family, beyond the screen. They seemed ever-present, driving him forward and his next words were achingly deliberate, "I've heard about the events in Coppelius. I'm...there's a lot I'd like to apologize for, a lot I still don't understand. Just...please. Tell us you're ok." The recording stopped.

There were so many ways this could end, Raffi thought, or start.

She sat there for a good ten minutes before she tilted her head, drawing strength from the sight of Seven sitting on a forest-green armchair, deep in a book, deep in thought, her presence immense in that Raffi felt it like an embrace even if they were metres apart.

"Time to face the music," she told herself.

She opened a subspace channel to Freecloud.

She felt several emotions at once when the recipient answered: nervousness, fear. She twiddled her thumbs, eyeing the empty horgl on her desk. And then there was triumph and incredible freedom when his expression opened into a smile.

Suddenly, his presence was enough.

"Mom!" Gabriel said.

His abundant relief and a tentative but sudden interest were the first good emotions she'd seen on his face in years. She clutched her chest, the mere sight of something patently different slamming gratitude and love into that space. She had received so few of those emotions from him in decades. To see him now flooded with wariness and concern, felt very much like coming home.

From her nook, Seven looked up at the scene, her hearing more sensitive to Raffi's awed intake of breath, the muted sniffles of joy, those nervous swallows as she wet her lips to prepare soft, deliberate words for her son.

There were awkward introductions, long and lingering silences as mother and son navigated unfamiliar roads towards each other. Raffi cheeks broke into a smile as Pel showed her their daughter, Gabe watching with tempered delight, and suddenly the path had fewer obstacles.

Seven felt her gratitude expand as she watched someone she loved take the first few steps into a new beginning. She could feel old, deep wounds in her own heart begin to heal.

After, when Gabe had to excuse himself as it had gotten too late, Raffi switched off her screens and sat back with her eyes closed. She looked like she was savouring this moment and Seven watched, living vicariously.

She knew, as Raffi's smile became wider and wider, that every fight she had ever fought --for the Fenris Rangers, for the xB's, for La Sirena --may have actually been worth it.

She never felt this so keenly than when Raffi stood and approached her, putting a hand on her shoulder as she dipped into Seven's space.

"I love you, you know," Raffi said, kissing Seven's temple, gentle and giving.

She'd have to thank Rios for this, Seven thought, as the strength rose deep from her chest, a Phoenix resting in the ashes and called to answer. She felt her wings spread, her heart suddenly afire.

Courage was in her words and she couldn't stop them if she tried, "I love you too, Raffi."

They kissed and already, there was a promise of all the good to come.

The End

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