"Oh, god, Seven," B'Elanna exhaled as she lay on her bed and was made nearly incoherent by Seven's touch.
Seven ran her tongue across B'Elanna's shoulder, down her collarbone and to a spot just above her heart, tracing the course of the elaborate tattoo that graced B'Elanna's skin. She had learned only weeks earlier of B'Elanna's gesture of commitment to her in taking this mark, the pattern of flames signifying undying love, but this was her first opportunity to become intimately acquainted with it. Since their reconciliation, the couple had been awkward and hesitant, moving slowly toward the level of intimacy they had reached in the course of their relatively short relationship. Seven paused in her explorations, her lips pressed to the decorated skin at B'Elanna's heart as she measured the beat and wondered how she ever thought she could deny her profound connection to this woman.
B'Elanna gripped Seven's shoulders more tightly as Seven continued her accounting of the irresistible body before her. Her hands renewed their work with purpose at the same time that she moved her mouth to B'Elanna's nipple and was rewarded first with a tremor and then an earthquake that signaled her lover's release.
"Oh, god, Seven," B'Elanna exhaled again when she finally regained a sense of her surroundings and pulled Seven into a tight embrace on top of her.
"I am pleased to have been elevated to the status of a divinity in your eyes, my love," Seven murmured lightheartedly into B'Elanna's ear.
"After what you just did to me," B'Elanna laughed, "I'm more than willing to believe it."
"I simply attempted to meet the high standard you set earlier this evening," Seven responded, smiling.
After a few moments of silence, B'Elanna pulled away and looked into the blue of Seven's eyes. "You do know that I love you?" she asked, the joking manner now set aside.
"I know. Better than I've ever known anything in my life," Seven replied, leaning in to kiss B'Elanna softly. "I do not have the words to express how I feel about you . . . or how sorry I am that I hurt you," she continued, rolling over on her back and leaving B'Elanna chilled by the sudden exposure.
B'Elanna turned on her side and brushed the hair back from Seven's face. "You have nothing to feel sorry about, Seven. We're here now. That's all that matters, love." When Seven didn't respond, B'Elanna raised herself onto her elbow so that she could look down into Seven's eyes. "Tell me what's bothering you, sweetie?"
Seven frowned. "I know you love me," she sighed, "but I sometimes wonder how you could want to be with me after I left you as I did." Her frown deepened when a broad grin broke out on B'Elanna's face.
"How could I want to be with you? How could I *not* want to be with you, Seven? Being with you . . . before . . . now, it's the best thing that's ever happened to me." Seven began to blush and a small smile made an appearance. "Besides, do you think I go around tattooing myself for just anyone? Do you see any other tattoos on this body?"
Seven's smile grew more intense as she joined in the playful banter. "I have not seen this body for some time now. I believe I shall have to investigate," she replied, grabbing B'Elanna and flipping her onto her stomach.
Although she wished she did not have to disturb her sleeping lover, Seven shook B'Elanna gently. "B'Elanna."
B'Elanna nuzzled Seven's neck and murmured something incomprehensible.
"B'Elanna, I must go," Seven said, shaking her again.
B'Elanna opened her eyes. "Go? What do you mean you have to go?"
Seven sat up and began scanning the room for her clothing. "I must return home to refresh my nanoprobes."
"Do you have to do it tonight?" B'Elanna asked, tugging Seven back down.
"Yes, I must. I had not planned on our dinner becoming so . . . extended. Unfortunately, it cannot wait another day." This time Seven was able to make it out of bed and began gathering and putting on her clothes.
B'Elanna sat up and watched Seven dress, worried about the possible more serious implications of such a hasty departure after their first intimate encounter following Seven's return. "You know, this wouldn't be a problem if you would just move back in with me."
Seven finished dressing and moved back to kneel next to the bed. "I love you, B'Elanna," she began, looking deeply into the brown eyes before her, "and after the mistakes that I have made, I do not want to take a chance on making more."
B'Elanna pursed her lips and braced for rejection.
As if she had been able to read B'Elanna's mind, Seven stroked her lover's cheek and continued. "I am not declining your invitation. I simply need more time."
B'Elanna nodded, her relief apparent. "Okay. Just know that you're wanted."
"Thank you," Seven responded, kissing B'Elanna and pushing her back down on the bed. "Now, go back to sleep and I'll see you tomorrow."
Seven packed up the storage unit that did the work of refreshing a portion of her nanoprobes, a process she was required to undergo on a regular basis since it had been necessary to remove her abdominal implant. In many ways she missed the experience of regenerating and always would, but was pleased to have become less reliant on the large and unwieldy regeneration unit. Still, her life had been radically changed after the removal of the implant. In fundamental ways, she was less Borg now than she had been and, even after all this time, had not fully reconciled herself to the frailties of human existence, something that her experience with William Cole had made so powerfully clear to her. It was not that she imagined herself invulnerable when she had been more Borg, but she was now much more aware of her body and its weakness when it neared the time to refresh the nanoprobes. At the same time, she felt a heady rush of energy each time she underwent the process and felt stimulated in a way that regular regeneration did not. She often found that she could not sleep afterwards and so generally used the extra energy and time to work. On this particular evening, having left B'Elanna asleep following their lovemaking, she did not feel inclined to work.
Wishing that she had not had to be separated from B'Elanna the first time they had been intimate since her return, Seven hoped that B'Elanna did not take her departure as an indication of any lack of commitment on her part. True, it had taken extraordinary effort on the part of many people to bring her back to Jalara and to push her toward her life again, but it had been an extraordinary experience that had pressed her into isolation in the first place. And she was deeply committed to B'Elanna and looked forward to sharing a home again, but needed to take care of a number of important things first.
Deciding that she would not be able to work, nor sleep, Seven sat down at the communications console in the living room of the guest house she had occupied when she had first arrived in Ilvia and in which she had been living since her return. She sent out a message and, waiting to see if the recipient was available for a live conversation, was soon gratified when her console indicated an incoming signal.
"My goodness, Seven," Nora MacKenzie laughed, "don't you ever sleep? It must be the middle of the night there."
"It is, indeed, the middle of the night here," Seven responded, happy to see the woman with whom she had become friends since "Mac" had reached out to her during Cole's trial. Although they had not actually seen one another in person since the trial, the two had spoken on a regular basis and Seven was grateful to have emerged from the difficult experience on Penthara IV with a good and true new friend. "I could not sleep and did not feel like working."
"I take it you did that nanoprobes thing tonight?" Mac asked, aware that many of the conversations the two had took place after Seven had refreshed the nanoprobes in her body and had energy to spare.
"Indeed," Seven responded, "after B'Elanna and I had dinner and . . . engaged in . . . other activity."
"Do tell," Mac said, smiling as she translated Seven's euphemistic language and propping her feet up on the desk at which she sat.
Seven returned the smile. "Suffice it to say that things are going well. And I must thank you again for your kindness and support."
"No need to thank me, Seven. I just wanted you to try for some happiness and, now that I know you better, I'm even more pleased that you listened to my advice." Mac narrowed her eyes in mock seriousness and continued, "So, no details for this lonely, workaholic, old gal?"
"I'm afraid not," Seven responded evenly but the expression on her face indicated her amusement at Mac's attempts. "And, while you may indeed by a workaholic, you are not old, nor must you be lonely."
Mac sighed. "Let's not go there again, Seven."
"But," Seven began.
"I'll tell you what," Mac said smugly, "you give me the juicy details of your evening with B'Elanna and then we can talk about my love life, or lack thereof."
"I do not believe that I will indulge you in this," Seven said, her eyebrow raised in suspicion.
"Well, you can't blame a girl for trying," Mac laughed.
"Indeed," Seven responded. "Perhaps you can put your mischief and curiosity to good use on my behalf, however. I have a favor to ask of you."
B'Elanna arrived at work to find her staff putting the finishing touches on the specifications for the new ship they had designed for the interplanetary peacekeeping force. She was proud of the work they had done and, with the exception of the design problems with Dar'el's idea for a shield upgrade, the project had gone smoothly. She and Seven were due to begin work on the Institute's next project, which, at this point, remained somewhat vague. Velnar, a small world that had suffered greatly during the war, had requested that the Institute consider assisting in rebuilding what had been destroyed. In many ways, it reminded B'Elanna of Jalara not so long ago, before the Federation had offered equipment and expertise - in the form of Seven of Nine - and so she felt inclined to help. It wasn't clear what Velnar's leaders wanted, nor how the funds would be best spent, so B'Elanna and Seven had decided to make a brief visit to have a look around and speak with the appropriate politicians and scientists.
For once, money wasn't a problem, since Jocasta Lakar's Nova Foundation had made a sizeable donation, to be used at the discretion of the Institute's director - no strings attached. Of course, both B'Elanna and Seven knew that Jocasta had given the money simply to try to assuage her guilt for having created a situation in which William Cole had tortured Seven, in part to punish her for her involvement in the events that had led up to the destruction of his base on the asteroid X573. Despite the double taint on the money - its source in Laertes Lakar's shady business deals and its passage through Jocasta's hands - Seven and B'Elanna had decided to accept the donation, focusing instead on the good that they could do with it. As she did every time she had dealings with Jocasta Lakar, B'Elanna hoped they would not regret the decision.
Entering her office after having surveyed the final work on the new ship, B'Elanna gazed out through the glass window and across the large workspace where she had a clear view to Seven's office. She was not surprised to see Seven there already, but had not expected to see Sul relaxing and chatting with Seven. Reining in her curiosity about what was going on, B'Elanna turned her attention to some paperwork she had neglected for too long, but soon found that she could not contain herself any longer and headed for Seven's office.
Before she could make her way there, however, she found her path blocked by Dar'el, a young staff member, who should have been working with the other engineers on the new ship.
"Who *is* that?" Dar'el asked, gesturing toward Sul.
B'Elanna crossed her arms, somewhat suspicious of the motives of the young woman who had not long ago pursued her in an attempt to initiate a romantic relationship. "You mean you haven't met yet? I would have thought that you'd have run into each other at that club where you both hang out."
"Yes," Dar'el confirmed, "I've seen her but we've never talked. I don't even know who she is."
"That's Varis Sul," B'Elanna informed her.
"Really?" Dar'el said, smiling a bit now. "The Town Council member?"
"The very one."
"I've heard about her," Dar'el admitted. "Would you introduce me?" she said, practically whining.
"Sure, I'll introduce you," B'Elanna agreed, grinning. "But . . . ." Her thoughts were interrupted by the emergence of Sul and Seven from the office, neither woman seeming to notice the two engineers standing nearby.
"Well, if it were anyone else," Sul said to Seven, "I'd say you should be a bit more cautious."
"I understand," Seven replied, "but I do believe this course of action to have minimal risk. I wish to proceed."
Sul nodded and followed Seven's gaze as it landed on B'Elanna. "Hey B'El," Sul said, suddenly stiff and awkward. "What's up?"
"Not much," B'Elanna responded, noting that Seven seemed uncomfortable as well. "What brings you here?"
"Oh, I, uh, I needed Seven's help with something," Sul stammered, looking at Seven, whose normal expression had been replaced by the Borg mask she had perfected when first freed from the Collective.
"I am happy to assist you, Sul," Seven said evenly, not revealing anything. "I will contact you when my schedule permits and we may go together to select the item."
"Great. Uh, thanks, Seven," Sul responded.
B'Elanna watched the exchange, unable to make any sense of what was going on and was about to ask what it was that Seven was helping with when she felt Dar'el's elbow in her side. "Ow," she exclaimed, turning to glare at Dar'el, who inclined her head at Sul and raised her eyebrows.
B'Elanna scowled but proceeded to keep her promise, introducing Dar'el and Sul to one another and quickly following Seven when she began to walk back to her office.
"What was that about?" B'Elanna asked, breezing into Seven's office behind her.
"I am sorry but I cannot divulge that information, B'Elanna," she replied, taking a seat behind the desk.
"Not even to me?"
"I'm sorry. Not even to you, my love, not even if you pout in that very cute way you do," Seven smiled.
"I do not pout," B'Elanna pouted, flopping down in the chair across from Seven's.
Seven laughed. "If you say so. But you are very cute, whether you're pouting or not."
"Cute isn't exactly what I'm going for," B'Elanna muttered.
"You are also sexy and fierce and unspeakably beautiful," Seven continued, her smile deepening.
"Fierce . . . now that's what I was going for," B'Elanna replied, her smile matching Seven's.
"Now, back to business, Chief. Are you prepared for our excursion tomorrow?"
"Yes, Madame Director. I am ready, but there's not much preparation I can do without knowing what they want to accomplish." Seven nodded. "I figure we'll just have to see what things look like before we draft a proposal for them."
"I concur," Seven responded. "I prefer not to work this way but I believe that Velnar is, perhaps, the most needy world with which we have worked thus far and so we should be willing to be . . . flexible."
"I just wish the government were not in such disarray," B'Elanna sighed. "We don't know quite what we're getting ourselves into." She regarded Seven closely, thinking about how she had nearly lost her forever the last time Seven had traveled on Institute business. "Are you okay with this trip, Seven? I can go alone or take someone else with me if you feel uncomfortable at all."
"I am fine, B'Elanna. As the Director, I need to be present for the discussions."
"But if you're nervous at all . . . ."
"I am not nervous, B'Elanna. The probability of anything happening to us on this trip is extremely low. Besides, I will be with you," Seven said assertively.
B'Elanna hung her head and studied her hands. "I wasn't able to protect you before. What makes you think I could if anything happened?" she whispered.
Seven stood and moved to kneel before B'Elanna. "I do not expect you to protect me, B'Elanna. You could not have prevented what happened to me. You helped me to understand that only William Cole had that power. But I do feel safe when I am with you." She caressed B'Elanna's cheek, causing her lover to look up and meet her eye. "Whatever is to happen, being with you will mean that I am home and safe, even if my life is to end. I am sorry that I made you doubt the truth of that."
Completely speechless, B'Elanna captured Seven's lips with her own, hoping to convey some small measure of her love. When they parted, both gasping for air, Seven smiled. "So much for the 'hands off policy' at work."
"Kahless, when you say things like that to me, woman, how could I possibly resist?" B'Elanna said, breathlessly, getting up from her seat. "I'd better go now or the staff will get an even more entertaining show." Standing in the doorway, she turned and took in the sight of her lover again, flushed from the kiss and clearly trying to get her emotions in check. "See you for dinner at Ven's?"
"Indeed, you will."
Four days later, B'Elanna and Seven stepped out of their shuttle and onto a world that assaulted them with dust and heat. The landing strip was just at the edge of Velnar's capitol city, an overcrowded metropolis, teeming with displaced, desperate or simply impoverished people.
"My god," B'Elanna exclaimed, "Gre'thor would be a step up from here."
"It is unpleasant, indeed," Seven responded, squinting in the sun. "The atmosphere was damaged by the Cardassians in an attempt to make the planet uninhabitable so that they could claim additional territory," she explained.
The two women started out toward the municipal building where they were to meet with representatives of the planetary government. B'Elanna slapped at her pants legs, trying to remain as clean as possible. "Well they came pretty close. These people must be pretty desperate to stay here under these conditions."
"I believe they are," Seven agreed. "I suspect they have no place else to go, no money to get off the planet and get started elsewhere." She wiped the sweat and dust from her brow with the back of her hand. "Velnar also has a reputation for being a good place to disappear, if one needs to." They turned onto the main "boulevard," a thoroughfare with crowded sidewalks onto which all manner of life spilled.
"I don't think that anyone ever cared that most of these people exist," B'Elanna whispered as she stopped to look at a young girl caring for her younger sister. "They seem to have been born lost."
"And we're here to see if we can rectify that," Seven said, her hand coming to rest on B'Elanna's shoulder in a gesture of comfort. "We can help them restore the atmosphere, and much more."
B'Elanna sighed heavily. "I know. But it won't provide immediate relief to most of the people here."
"We can only do what we can," Seven assured her. "It will make a great contribution to the well being of the people here in the long term."
"This is why I joined the Maquis," B'Elanna said through gritted teeth as they continued on their way. "What the Cardassians were doing to innocent people made me sick and I just couldn't stand by and do nothing."
Seven nodded sympathetically, not knowing what to say to comfort B'Elanna or assuage her outrage at the conditions on Velnar.
"I didn't get into it to kill Cardassians, you know," B'Elanna continued. "I just wanted to do something to stop all of this and I didn't see any other way at the time."
"But now you have made another way," Seven said emphatically, stopping to look B'Elanna in the eye.
"I hope you're right," B'Elanna sighed again. "We'd better move on or we'll be late for the meeting."
"You must be Seven of Nine," the small portly man who met them at the entrance to the municipal building stuttered. "And B'Elanna Torres, Chief Engineer, Jalaran Institute of Technology."
Seven raised her eyebrow at the demeanor of the strange man before them, taking a moment to adjust to the dramatic change of coming in out of the heat and into a climate controlled environment. "That is correct."
"Come, come this way," he stammered.
The two women followed him into an elegant conference room where he showed them to seats at the table. Not long after, the doors at the opposite end of the room opened and a handsome, well-dressed man entered, followed by three security guards.
"Here they are, they are here," exclaimed the man who had escorted them in as he gestured to B'Elanna and Seven. "B'Elanna Torres, Seven of Nine."
"Thank you, Waites," the new arrival said. "Please bring our guests some refreshments." Turning to the women, he continued, "I am Eldred, Ambassador to Federation worlds in this sector. On behalf of the planetary government of Velnar, I am honored to welcome you both and I thank you for your offer of assistance."
"We are happy to be able to begin these discussions about what the Jalaran Institute can do for Velnar," Seven said, taking the seat that Eldred offered her.
B'Elanna sat next to her and Eldred across the table from them just as Waites returned with a tray laden with food and drink. Seven and B'Elanna each glanced at the food and then at each other, silently noting the tremendous disparity between the world outside and what was being set before them in the conference room.
"There is much that we need," Eldred began. "Velnar is a very impoverished world."
"I can see that," B'Elanna muttered, "but you couldn't tell from the spread on this table."
Eldred regarded her for a long moment before continuing. "As in many societies, there is a great disparity between the educated class and the uneducated," he explained. "Most of the established families, such as my own, were able to survive the war years without too much disruption but the planet as a whole has suffered greatly."
Seven raised her eyebrow in disbelief. "How is this possible? Was there no means of protecting the majority of the planet's residents?"
"We did what we could," the Ambassador replied, "but the war years were difficult for the planets in this sector of space. Those who were not here can scarcely imagine the violence rained upon us."
B'Elanna clenched her jaw, finding that she was growing to dislike this man intensely. "While it is true that we were not here during the war, we have worked with a number of worlds that suffered similar damage at the hands of the Cardassians and none displayed this disparity between the *wealthy* and the poor."
"Perhaps our *educated* class is simply more resourceful than the people on these other worlds," Eldred offered smugly.
"What kind of assistance do you seek from the Institute, Ambassador?" Seven interjected, hoping to direct the conversation in a less controversial direction.
Eldred exhaled and turned his attention to Seven. "It seems clear that the main impediment to recovery and development at this point is the damage done to our atmosphere. The relentless heat makes farming nearly impossible and even those who desire to work find it too draining to do so, given the conditions."
"We have done similar work elsewhere," Seven explained, "and might be able to aid you . . . ."
B'Elanna caught Seven's eye and interrupted her before she could make a concrete offer to the Ambassador. "But, we'd like to take a look around and get a sense of the technical challenges involved, if you don't mind."
Eldred regarded her again. "Of course not. We have provide accommodations for you nearby and Waites can escort you there."
"No need," B'Elanna said, standing up. "Just point us in the right direction and we'll find it," she continued, as Seven and Eldred rose from their seats.
"B'Elanna," Seven called out, hoping to halt her lover's progress down the hot, dusty street. "B'Elanna, please stop."
B'Elanna pulled up, her back still to Seven even as she could feel her coming up behind her.
"Please explain why you ended our discussion with the Ambassador so abruptly," Seven asked.
B'Elanna turned to look at Seven and crossed her arms. "I don't trust that guy. There's something going on here and, before we offer any assistance, I think we should get some more information."
"It is certainly appropriate to seek as much information as possible before we proceed," Seven responded, still not sure what it was that had made B'Elanna suspicious.
"Trust me, Seven, there's something wrong here. It just doesn't make sense that a small group of people could be flourishing like this under these conditions."
"I concur," Seven said. B'Elanna nodded as Seven took a step closer and brought her hand up to B'Elanna's cheek. "And I do trust you, B'Elanna," she added, warmed by the smile that greeted her assertion. "Shall we proceed to the center of the city to begin our investigation?"
"Sounds good," B'Elanna agreed, and the two women began to walk again.
Their path took them through streets similar to those they had traversed on their way to the meeting at the Municipal Building and they saw little else but relentless poverty and despair. They finally stopped to sit on a bench in a run down park near the center of the city that seemed to be occupied primarily by groups of young men and women.
Seven sighed. "Even if we are able to help restore stability to the atmosphere, it will take a great deal of time for the social situation to change here."
"That's assuming anyone in power here wants . . . ." B'Elanna stopped, her attention captured by someone in the distance.
"B'Elanna?" The words had hardly left Seven's mouth when B'Elanna jumped up from the bench and began running across the park. When she caught up with her, Seven found B'Elanna holding a girl, who looked to be sixteen years old, by the arm.
"Get off me," the girl spat out at B'Elanna and struggled to break the hold. "I said, let me go!"
"You're kidding, right?" B'Elanna responded. "Calm down and tell me what you're doing here."
"That's none of your business. Let me go!"
"B'Elanna," Seven interrupted. "What are you doing? Who is this?"
The girl stopped struggling suddenly and looked at Seven. "So this is the Borg? As if you didn't stand out enough on your own, now you've gone and hooked up with a Borg."
"Look, I don't care what you say about me, but you had better watch your mouth when it comes to Seven."
"B'Elanna, who is this?" Seven interrupted again, frustrated at being kept in the dark.
B'Elanna finally turned to look at Seven, even while she held tightly to the young woman. "This is one of my father's daughters - my half sister - Karen."
"Do your parents know you're here?" B'Elanna asked a sullen Karen, who was seated on the couch in the hotel suite that Ambassador Eldred had provided for them.
"They don't care where I am," Karen spat out.
"I sincerely doubt that to be true," Seven said as she brought glasses of water for the three of them and watched Karen gulp hers down.
"Shows what you know," Karen shot back.
B'Elanna stepped in and drew Karen's attention to her. "Look, what are you doing here?
"Just living, like everyone else," she replied, placing the empty glass on a nearby table.
"But why?" B'Elanna continued. "How did you get here, anyway?"
"I stowed away on a cargo transport five months ago. If I had known it was headed for this dump, I'd have waited for the next one."
"Five months is a long time to spend alone in such difficult conditions," Seven commented.
"I've made friends and we get by," Karen responded.
Frustrated with her half sister's refusal to explain what she was doing on Velnar, B'Elanna tried again. "I'm only going to ask this one more time," she said, her jaw pulsing with annoyance. "Why?"
Karen sighed and closed her eyes, the surly veneer leaving her aspect and a vulnerable teenager emerging as a prelude to the flood of words that came forth. "I just had to get away from there. Do you have any idea what its like to have a sister who's perfect? All my life I heard, 'why can't you be more like Jane.' Blah, blah, blah. I just couldn't stand it and after the wedding and then the baby, Mom and Dad didn't seem to have any time for me and nothing I did was right. I just had to get away from there."
"I see," B'Elanna said, stunned by the change in demeanor.
"Do you? I don't think so," Karen whined.
B'Elanna joined her on the couch and took a deep breath to consider the ways in which she had a lot more in common with her sister than she had imagined. "Well, I know what it feels like to not be able to satisfy one's parents and I know about wanting to be independent. I've run away from lots of stuff in my life," she continued, glancing up at Seven, who was standing near the window listening but trying to be unobtrusive, "and I've learned that running usually doesn't solve the problem."
Karen considered her own admission and B'Elanna's response for a moment and then opted to retreat back into herself. "Why do you care anyway?"
"Well, you're my sister, for starters," B'Elanna insisted.
"I don't think you believe that," Karen shot back, standing up and pacing to the other side of the room. "You called me 'your father's daughter' and, besides, I haven't seen you since that first time almost five years ago when you came to Earth to see us. You didn't even come to the stupid wedding."
"Look," B'Elanna explained, crossing the room to stand near Karen. "That wasn't my decision. Seven and I weren't invited to the wedding and, after how that first visit went, I'm not surprised."
Karen turned around to face B'Elanna again. "I didn't know you weren't invited. I thought you just didn't want to come . . . didn't want to see us . . . or that Seven had something to do with your not coming, and I've been angry with you."
B'Elanna crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. "Well, I'll admit that it is extremely difficult for me to be around my father, and even harder to interact with your mother, but that doesn't have to affect our relationship and I was wrong to let it. And Seven had nothing to do with it. I've made my life with her, but nothing about what we have together would ever make me give up other relationships. I assumed that none of you wanted to have anything to do with me."
"That's not true," Karen assured her. "I don't care what the rest of my family thinks. *I* wanted to get to know you."
B'Elanna laid her hand on Karen's shoulder. "Now that we both know we were wrong about some things, we can certainly be friends."
"I'm told I'm not an easy person," Karen said, a small smile appearing.
"Well, then, we have lots in common," B'Elanna responded, smiling as well. "Just ask Seven."
"I've come to realize that easy is not something to be valued in and of itself," Seven interjected, her eyebrow raised. "And, I've become quite accustomed to the unpredictability that B'Elanna brings to my life."
B'Elanna crossed over and slipped her hand into Seven's. "That was very diplomatic of you, my love," she said, kissing the hand she held and taking in Seven's sly smirk.
Karen observed the affection between the two women and felt sorry at the energy she had wasted being angry with B'Elanna and for how she had spoken to Seven. "Um, Seven," Karen offered hesitantly. "I'm sorry about what I said earlier. It's just that . . . "
Seven didn't wait for the young woman to finish, understanding better now the context in which she had made those initial outbursts. "I accept your apology."
"Good," B'Elanna said, taking in Karen's smile and grateful for her lover's generous spirit. "I suggest we get some food and we can hear more about what you've been up to..."
"Sounds good to me," Karen said, patting her stomach. "I'm pretty hungry."
"I think you need a bath, first," B'Elanna said, wrinkling her nose. "And those clothes need to go in the recycler."
B'Elanna and Seven watched a now clean Karen devour the majority of the food that Ambassador Eldred had arranged to be delivered to their suite.
"Wow," Karen muttered with a full mouth. "I can't believe the spread you guys have here. I haven't seen this much food since I landed on this rock." She swallowed the large portion and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. "You said the *government* gave you all this?"
"Yes," Seven responded, placing another piece of fruit on Karen's plate and surreptitiously slipping another napkin onto her lap. "We've entered into discussions about providing some technological assistance to help Velnar recover from the damage done by the Cardassians. I believe they are trying to impress us."
"The *government*?" Karen asked again, incredulously.
"Yes," B'Elanna said, frowning, "the government."
"I worked in one of the compounds for a few weeks and we never got to eat any of the stuff," Karen said, taking a big bite.
"What kind of compounds?" Seven asked.
"The cargo ship I was on landed near one of them and I took a job there. They've got a controlled environment outside the city - like a greenhouse - and hundreds of people work in there for room and board, if you can call it that. We lived in a dirty tent and ate disgusting gruel. I made some friends in the compound and we snuck out a few weeks later and made our way here to the capitol. I just couldn't take the tight quarters and being watched all the time. It felt more like prison than a job."
"How have you been supporting yourself since then?" B'Elanna asked, stunned that her sister had been through so much since they had last seen each other.
"Scavenging mostly. My friends and I usually sleep in an abandoned building where lots of runaways squat." Karen looked away from them, pensively. "I won't deny," she said softly, "it has been tough. As much as I've wanted to get away from here, I haven't been able to do much more than whatever it takes to survive. Not much of a life."
"I'm so sorry, Karen," B'Elanna said, putting her hand on the young woman's shoulder. "Look, you stay with us here tonight and tomorrow we'll start to work on what to do."
"That sounds like a good idea," Seven added. She began to clear the table as B'Elanna and Karen rose and headed toward one of the bedrooms in the suite.
Karen stopped and turned back to look at Seven. "Thanks for everything, Seven."
Seven nodded in acknowledgment. "Goodnight and sleep well, Karen."
When B'Elanna entered the bedroom, she did so so quietly that Seven, who was sitting on the bed reading some of the materials the Ambassador had given them earlier in the day, almost did not realize it. Seven put the work aside and observed her lover's silent preparations for bed. When B'Elanna was finally done, she sat down with her back to Seven, the tension in her body evident. Seven placed her hands on B'Elanna's shoulders and then pulled her into a loose embrace.
"Talk to me, B'Elanna," Seven whispered.
"I don't know what to say, love. I can't believe it possible that my father could make the same mistake again," B'Elanna choked out.
Seven nuzzled B'Elanna's hair and tightened her hold on her lover. "I do not mean for this to sound as if I do not believe Karen, but it is possible that we do not have all the facts."
"I've thought of that too, believe me, but right now I'm a little overwhelmed by everything that finding Karen here has brought up," B'Elanna responded as she ran her hands up the arms that enfolded her. "I thought I had finally been able to let go of the past and believe that my father really was sorry for having abandoned me, but . . . ."
Seven kept quiet, waiting for B'Elanna to work through what she needed to say but, when nothing was forthcoming, she began to worry. "B'Elanna?"
B'Elanna shook her head and sighed. "I'm just angry - not at him - at myself for letting it get to me."
"How could it not `get to you,' my love?" Seven asked, turning B'Elanna so that she could look into her eyes.
"I just thought that, after all this time, now that I've made a life for myself doing something I'm proud of and that I love that his neglect couldn't touch me anymore. I though that finding you, loving you, having you love me, would make me immune."
Seven stroked B'Elanna's cheek and wiped away the tears that stained it. "No one can be immune to such a profound emotional experience without serious consequences, B'Elanna," she said quietly. "I know because I tried it."
B'Elanna started to pull away from Seven but found herself fixed in her lover's strong arms. "That's not the same thing, Seven. I didn't mean. . . ."
"How is it different?" Seven asked. "You wish to cut yourself off from difficult and painful emotions just as I tried to. If it was wrong for me to think that I could run away from pain by denying myself love and pleasure, why is it not wrong for you to imagine that you could possibly act as if your father never hurt you?"
B'Elanna said nothing but Seven could see the muscle in her jaw pulsing as she became frustrated by the incontrovertible logic of Seven's assertion. "I just want to get on with my life and not be defined by what my parents did to me," she finally muttered.
"You have, B'Elanna. You are such an impressive woman and have been for as long as I have known you." She brushed a strand of hair behind B'Elanna's ear and kissed her on the forehead. "No doubt, you have always been so."
B'Elanna shook her head.
"Do not deny it," Seven said with a smile. "I am correct and you will fail at any attempt to prove me wrong."
"I always seem to be powerless when it comes to you," B'Elanna laughed.
"Oh, you are quite powerful," Seven said. Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she brought her lips to B'Elanna's and ran her tongue across them. B'Elanna gasped as Seven sucked on her lower lip.
"Oh, I don't know," B'Elanna offered as Seven's lips made their way along her jaw and down her neck. "I feel pretty weak right now."
Seven laughed and pressed B'Elanna into the bed. "Let me show you the power you have over me."
"If you insist," B'Elanna exhaled as she submitted herself to Seven's demonstration.
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