Interesting Times

Author's note: Again with the general lack of violence for me. Again with the Harry thing. Have an excuse though...this one was written for the recent VAMB Spring Fling exchange. This was for Tanya, who requested a post-Endgame story where Harry and Seven were the main characters. Still, it's strongly J/C. 

Cheshire’s help was instrumental to my finishing it on time. She had to feed me some lines to keep the muse going, and one scene in particular, the last scene between Chakotay and Seven, the backbone of it was hers. She can yell if she wants to, but the core of it is hers. Thanks, hon ;)

Interesting Times


** H **


I should be finishing my latest concerto. I'd planned on it, had the clarinet out and tried my hardest to find those elusive last notes for the better part of two hours. I have to say I'm not surprised that even after playing around with various combinations for a while, I've still got nothing. I expected it; I've been stalled out on this piece for a good year now. And no matter how hard I try, those last few measures just won't come to me. If I get anything at all lately, it's hollow or discordant. Disjointed. Or plain wrong for the rest of the piece. I gave up about thirty minutes ago.

Now I stare out at the lush, late summer foliage just past the window. I do that a lot now – stare at the scenery outside. I think it's because the grass is the perfect shade: green, not blue or red. The trees are deciduous, appropriate for this latitude, and producing exactly the kind of flowers they should be making. Not one too many. Not one too few. Not colors slightly off or out of season. And not bursting with fruits so bizarre you need a tricorder just to be able to identify their purpose and composition. The chestnut trees that grow here are full of fruit now, and ready to drop. Ready for animal, wind, or whatever else to scatter them over the flat gardens and beyond, hoping for eventual rooting and sprouting. And I know, because I've done it on more than one occasion, that if I was to walk outside right now and pick up one of those fruits, was to crack open the hard shell and pick out the sweet white meat inside, it would taste exactly like a chestnut should…

I jump at the sudden warmth of a small, strong hand on my shoulder.

Startled, I'm already feeling bad for the startled look on her face at my reaction. I smile down at her, what I hope is reassuringly, as I take her hand in mine.

It's not her fault I still assume that any hand that small on my shoulder…with that slight pressure of maternal pride and concern…must be someone else's. It's not her fault that I just turned and looked at her with a hint of disappointment on my face before I could catch it and realized who she was. None of it was ever her fault.

"Harry?" She's already scolding. "Drink your tea. It'll be cold soon!"

"Thanks, Mom," I tell her as I gently release her hand. "I'll drink it now." Not that I want to. I'll probably toss it into the recycler later when she's not looking, but it's better to oblige her in the little things and keep the peace than to argue, as I learned long ago.

She knows me a little better than that, unfortunately. Folds her arms in that bulldog-stubborn stance of hers. Stands and watches me, waiting for me to move towards the beverage in question, and I sigh inwardly. Force myself to cross away from the window and take the drink she'd brought me – without asking if I wanted any – about twenty minutes ago. Only when I lift the lukewarm cup in my hands and make a show of taking a long sip do the lines around her eyes and mouth relax. Only when I've actually consumed about half the orange tea that used to be my favorite does she smile again: thoroughly pleased with herself.

I only realize I've overdone it with the fake enthusiasm when a sunbeam smile crinkles lines I'd never remembered being on her face when I was on Voyager and staring at her framed holo-image by my bed. "I'll bring you more," she declares and turns to run right to the kitchen.

"Mom! No!" She halts, blinking, and I soften my tone immediately. "No, thank you. I'm fine."

She's hurt now. "It's cold," she declares. "You hate cold tea." I do, but that's not why I don't want it. Not that that's stopping her in a million years from deciding that that's why I'm not enthusiastic about drinking it. "I toldyou it would get cold–"

I sigh heavily in interruption. "It's fine, Mom. It's good. Thank you. I'm just not thirsty enough to drink any more right now, okay?"

She looks dubious. Like she doesn't believe me. Like she's looked at me for a while now. And I can see the second she opts for another method. "Okay," she gives in. Drops her arms to her side and is obviously racking her brain for something else to talk about.

It only takes about three seconds.

"The music's not going well?"

I let out a beaten huff devoid of emphasis, following her eyes to the discarded clarinet resting on its stand. "No better than it has been for the last year."

"It'll come to you."

"Mmm." The sound I make is noncommittal, because I'm not so sure if it ever will anymore. I've written and rewritten the thing so many times by now that it's starting to feel hopeless.

The silence that falls is comfortable enough as we both gaze out of the same window.

"We're having your favorite for dinner," she breaks in eventually.

The second sigh I repress completely, proud of myself for doing it. Because we're always having my favorite. Every leave I have and manage to come home lately, we're having my favorites. Every. Single. Night. And while I appreciated being spoiled rotten the first few months of being back, it's gotten a little tiresome by now. Because it's weird. Just once, lately, I wish we could do something more normal. Have something I hate for dinner. Just so I can crinkle up my nose and complain the way I used to. Have her smack me playfully on the arm and tell me to eat my vegetables because they're good for me, the way she used to. Have her tell me to practice the clarinet and to call her more often when I'm off on one of the advanced tactical training courses I've been taking lately.

Back when things were normal, and I had to be prompted to remember something like that. Back when I wasn't the son they'd thought was dead and now have been given a second chance with…to undo whatever imaginary mistakes they thought they'd made to lead me to my supposed demise.

And I remember the words of the Starfleet counselor I saw all last year, the first year of our return. Give them time, Harry. It's an adjustment for them, too. They'll come around. Just be patient with them.

I'm trying – Gods, am I trying!

I only smile instead of screaming the way I really want to. Hoping it completely reaches my eyes. "Thanks, Mom."

It seems to satisfy her. She looks happy enough with my appreciation, and I'm glad I bit back on my annoyance now as she squeezes my arm. "Dinner will be ready in about an hour. Don't spoil your appetite!"

I do have to suppress the urge to roll my eyes. She's the one who just brought me an entire cup full of tea and then stood here and watched me drink it. But I'm not supposed to spoil my appetite.

It's a little more normal, though. The smile I give her is a lot more natural this time. A lot more easy. "I won't," I promise as she finally leaves me to myself again.

I set the tea back down on the table. Turn back to the window.

It's funny, in a sad sort of way. I never really thought it could be so bittersweet to be home. To be back in Starfleet, and surrounded by family, and still feel a little…empty.

Maybe I wouldn't normally, but it's been a while since I've heard from any of the Voyager crew. They had become my family, for seven years were all I had. The adjustment to seeing less and less of them as we've all scattered across the sector has been a hard one. I guess I could start contacting people myself. But somehow, I don't really want to bother any of them. Tom and B'Elanna, I've keep up close communication with. We've managed to get together just about every other leave. The Delaney sisters, too, and a few others. But Megan and Jenny just got transferred out to a new post on Salernis V. Tom and B'Elanna are off on a vacation with Miral. It's the first one they've been able to take with just the three of them, and I can't see myself bothering them just for the sake of my having a case of the doldrums. I could seriously go for a grueling game of kal-toh, just to clear my head, but Tuvok's on Vulcan and isn't scheduled to be back on Earth for another eight weeks. The doctor's out on a three month sabbatical at a multi-cultural medical conference, and Seven, last I heard, is over visiting with her aunt. Everyone else is either visiting with family or on active duty at the moment. As for the captain and Chakotay…well, I think the last time anyone heard from Chakotay was about three months after we landed and he resigned his commission.

That one hurt the captain. I think we all saw that. Although publicly she never did anything but support his decision, was even standing by his side when he made the announcement for the press – and floored the rest of us. I like to think the rest of us know the captain…admiral…enough to know how affected she was by his decision. By his leaving for that remote colony on the outskirts of Federation space and then with his lack of communication afterwards.

I like to think I'm not the only one who knows how much that's kept the spring from coming back into her step and the light from creeping back into her eyes ever since. I like to think I'm not the only one who's been bothered by that unfulfilled and sad, worried undertone she thinks she's been hiding from us ever since.

Come to think of it, the admiral has all but disappeared lately, too. I haven't talked to anyone who's really heard from her in the last three months or so. And it's getting to be a little concerning. I can't recall a time before now that I haven't heard from her at least once a month. The one thing that hasn't changed from our days on Voyager is her unfailing insistence on checking up on every member of her crew. At least until recently.

I feel the frown deepening. This is really unlike her at this point. One month missed, I could understand. Two possibly…if Starfleet had actually found work of any significance for her besides making her a perpetual sideshow for the Federation media. But three? Three months? It could even have been longer, I'm realizing, the more I think about it. Does that mean something's wrong? Or just that, maybe, she's managed to move on with her life? Finally? And that that life might not have as much room in it for the rest of us as it used to?

"Harry." I jump again, ready to curse. Grinding my teeth at the way she just startled me again. And if she has another cup of tea in her hands, I'm not sure how much self control it's going to take not to snap at her this time…

I turn, freezing at the sight that greets me in the doorway. At the sight of someone else standing there, beside my mom.

"There's someone here to see you," Mom tells me with a bright smile.

And I guess I shouldn't be as surprised, as shocked to see my visitor as I am. I should've known she wouldn't just give up on us.

I should've known she would never give up on me.

"Admiral!" I exclaim, feeling stupid that that's all I can come up with at the spur of the moment. And then I remember that she's only ever accepted me for who and what I am. Relax under the warm smile she flashes me from the doorway as her crisp, familiar blue eyes pass over me.

"You look good, Lieutenant," she pronounces in that husky voice of hers I've missed so much it almost hurt. "I'd say Earth living still agrees with you."

All the tactical training I've been signing up for, she means. I know my muscles have been steadily building and developing since I've been back, but there's one area that isn't exactly as fit as it could be. "More like my mom's cooking agrees with me," I can't help correcting her with a rueful rub of my midsection – which I have to admit is a bit fuller than it used to be. And I'm grinning sheepishly back at her.

She winks almost too quickly to catch it. "Well," she straightens almost imperceptibly. "Then I'm glad I'll get the chance to experience her talent first-hand." At my questioning look, she exchanges a covert glance with my mom before settling those intense eyes back on me. Her eyebrow rises. "I've been invited for dinner," she explains wryly. "And I was informed that my refusal would be…unpardonably rude." Her eyes sparkle, letting me know she's amused more than anything, but I can't help the wince.

"Mom," I protest in irritation, feeling color come into my face. "The admiral might have to get back to work soon. She probably doesn't have the time to stay…"

"Nonsense. If she can come all the way over here just to see us, then she has time to stay an hour and eat," Mom huffs. Waving her hand in dismissal and feeling entirely too comfortable in putting her arm around the admiral's shoulders, even though she has to lean up a little to do it. I feel my face flushing a deeper red as she continues without even a hint of social awareness, "This one is too thin, too. Just like you. All you Starfleeters are alike. Too much work, not enough taking care of yourselves. And I'm not hearing of the woman who brought my Harry back to me leaving this house until I know she's had at least one decent meal."

The flicker in the admiral's eyes my mom misses, but I catch it before she covers and smiles over it. To my mom, she's the woman who brought me back safely. To the admiral, she's the woman who stranded me in the first place. But she smiles gamely. Puts her arm around my mom as if the two of them are best friends in a blatant camaraderie that should really have me worried as hell if I had time to think about it.

"Well." The admiral locks eyes with me, shrugs, and drawls, "There you have it. It looks like I'm staying."

I can only shake my head at the too-pleased look on my mom's face.


**H**


Even though the admiral and I haven't had a chance to talk in private yet, dinner goes surprisingly well. I've never seen her eat that much – ever. She's already mostly through her second helping, and the look of panic that would cross most people's faces when my dad comes around with a third helping of rice noodles isn't evident anywhere on her face. She only smiles, putting a hand on her middle and holding up a hand in patient defense.

"Thank you," she protests ruefully, managing to look like the refusal is killing her, somehow. "But I really couldn't possibly…"

He ignores her. Heaping a third helping right smack onto the middle of her plate, and at the exasperated protest from me that's similarly ignored, the admiral shoots me a look of more grim, amused acceptance than anything.

"Or I suppose there's always room for more," she quips softly. Accepting her sentence and gamely lifting her fork.

She doesn't even like Chinese food. I know this from Voyager, but there she is, sitting at my family's table and eating like she's never enjoyed anything more. Complaining about the quality of replicator food in comparison and generally making herself the daughter they never had. I have to shake my head, grin back at her from across the table when my parents aren't looking. I know she has Neelix to thank for being able to pass off appreciating the food she's practically having forced down her throat now.

Dinner is finally over, and by now I know there's more to her visit than the casual urge to catch up on things with me. The way she's moving. Talking. Smiling. It's her preparation-for-battle mentality, however well she's hiding it from my parents. Something serious is up: something more serious than anything that's happened since our return to the quadrant.

She helps my mom clean up the dishes, something that's more than a little mortifying to witness, actually. She's not some housemaid, for the love of warp theory. My mom at least has the presence of mind to refuse to let her help, but the admiral's forceful personality reemerges when she acts like she's the one with the hearing problem this time and completely ignores my mother's protests.

I feel a little guilty for not helping myself now. It's just not something that I usually do. clean up after dinner. It's maybe not occurred to me to offer before. Mom's never asked me to, either. But I guess that's no excuse…

"Harry. Why don't you show me those trees you're always raving about?"

My face flushes right away. Okay. God. How boring am I? Really? To rave about trees?

Before I even finish pondering that daunting question, the admiral's efficiency in most things she sets her mind to is readily apparent. My head snaps up to see her standing before me, and the table's already cleared. I meet her eyes. They're burning with an intensity meant only for me to see.

She wants to get me alone, and she definitely feels like she's run out of time to waste on niceties.

A familiar, burning sensation starts forming in my gut. She's about to drop a huge bombshell on me, and most likely not of the pleasant kind. Damn it. Whatever it is, I'm probably going to have to refuse her, too.

With a backward, mumbling excuse to my parents, who look slightly offended that we've both just refused tea and ginger sorbet – Mom's specialty – I lead my former captain outside.

She doesn't wait. "I need you, Harry," she tells me out of the corner of her mouth in a hoarse whisper I almost can't even make out. But I do make it out. All too well, in fact.

I sigh deeply, having pretty much expected it. "For what?"

"I need you to come with me. Now. Tonight."

I blanch. Nothing like having notice. Not that it would really matter. "Where?" I ask automatically as we amble slowly out towards the tree.

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see she shakes her head curtly. She can't tell me that. She turns to face me as we reach the chestnut tree that's featured in so many of the holo-images I've sent her of my parents and I. And sometimes with other Voyager crew who've come to visit and were also all bombarded by my mom's well-meaning hospitality…

I sigh again, kick at the dirt at my feet, sending a fallen chestnut scrambling over root tips and eventually tumbling down the hill below. "It's far, isn't it?"

She nods but is quick to qualify, "Not nearly as far away from home as you've been before, though."

I have to admit some tension, a few of the butterflies leave me at that admission. Because to be honest, I hadn't been fully sure. There are always rumors, and the latest favorite about Voyager has been that she might be re-outfitted and sent back to the DQ on a purposeful mission this time. At least that isn't it. But still.

"It's dangerous, isn't it?"

She says nothing. Doesn't matter, as I search her face. Her eyes speak volumes for her.

"Admiral." I let out a rueful breath, wishing like hell I didn't have to turn her down. "You know there's nothing I wouldn't do for you. But…" I shake my head. Letting my gaze wander back to the window at the front of the house. It's dusk already. The lights are on inside, and through the transparent alloy, I have a clear picture of my dad reclining in his favorite chair to read and my mom leaning over him. Probably bringing him his evening tea. To go back in there, now, and tell them…

"It's too soon." I jerk my chin in the direction of the window. "Not for me, I mean, but…"

"For them," she fills in softly as she follows my gaze. "I understand."

And I nod, grateful that she does. That she's not going to press me on this – whatever it is. It's probably better that I not know, really.

Then she leans into me, her arms stretching around me suddenly, and pulling me into an impromptu embrace. That familiar sadness starts to descend over me again as I realize she's probably getting ready to leave.

And then she whispers into my ear three words that change everything.

"Chakotay's in trouble."


The roaring of blood in my ears fades, and the first thing I want to know surprises me.

"Then what the heck are we doing standing around here having dinner?"

In the second before I blink, I want to say that she starts to laugh. But just that quick, her lips have tightened as she looks past me to the window, and no smile is in evidence on her face. "I'm still waiting for a comm.," she provides cryptically.

And she's not happy about the time it's taking to get here, obviously.

"From?" I prompt, since she doesn't seem willing to elaborate. "Who is it? And what's taking them so long?"

She smiles obviously this time, if tightly – and probably only at my reaction. Which I have to admit is a complete one-eighty from what I'd been offering her before. But Chakotay in trouble? As Tom would say, it's a no-brainer. Of course I'm in, if those are the stakes. With both feet, and she doesn't need to hear it to know it, either.

She shakes her head and finds my eyes.

I could kick myself as I lower my voice and lean in closer to her. Realizing and feeling stupid for being so slow. "You think someone's listening?" I whisper grimly.

She only shrugs, running her hand over the rough bark of the tree beside us as if contemplating the pattern. "It's a possibility," she murmurs. Noncommittally, I notice.

So she's just playing it safe. A given really when one of us is in any kind of danger...I think. Maybe? A little weird, still. This is Earth, for the love of quantum mechanics, not the hostile Delta. Still, she's clearly reluctant to talk.

"Then let's go back inside," I say. "I need to tell my parents I'm leaving, and then I'm all yours."

"Will they understand?"

This time, I'm the one who shrugs. "They'll have to."

The smile she gives me then is much less tight than before. Almost remnant of the smile I used to live to make her flash at me, and for a heavy second, a jolt of déjà vu kicks through me. A jolt that might even be a pleasant one. Except for the circumstances.

"Admiral."

The voice alone gives me another hard kick to my insides. She didn't say her name – which was probably intentional – but she didn't have to for me to recognize who's on the other end of the call. A slight flicker in the admiral's eyes lets me know she noticed the way my mouth fell open a little, and I'm quick to close it as she turns away from the open street to face the more sight-obscuring house.

"Is this a secure channel?"

"Quite."

"Then go ahead."

"Preparations are nearly complete. I'm standing by to extract you from your current location in approximately six point three minutes."

I cough. The captain turns briefly. Flashes another grin that I'm already sharing with her. Because only Seven would put an "approximately" at the head of an estimation that precise.

"Closer to four would be better. This has taken long enough."

"I will endeavor to satisfy your request."

She turns her head away, and I barely hear her utter, "We'll be ready."

"'We'?" A slight pause. "You've convinced him?"

I think I'm offended by that question. And when did Seven start using contractions? I don't think I'd noticed that before… Then again, it's been…almost a year since I've last seen her.

"Was there ever any doubt?" the admiral replies dryly, restoring my charred sense of dignity by a few much-needed degrees.

"Given your powers of persuasion, I admit the doubt was small."

I'm definitely offended now.

"Good." The admiral cuts the link before I have time to think about it, sounding…satisfied. Turns to face me and gestures to the house. "Shall we?"

I straighten grimly. Coming to understand how serious it must really be if she pulled Seven into it. Seven's the kind of girl you call in when you need something utterly impossible done, done right, and done efficiently. The reality settles fully over me for the first time, I think.

"Yes, ma'am." I nod and lead the way. Feeling a weird sense of…determination to my steps that hasn't been there in months. Maybe closer to two full years now as I palm the door to slide open. It may still be too soon for them, but wherever it is that we're going, my parents are going to have to accept it, accept me going off into the less-charted regions of the galaxy again. The hard part's just going to be telling them I don't even know when I'll be back.

I allow the admiral to step past me and one glance at her face has me wondering if I'll be back.


**H**


That took no time at all. Amazingly, the admiral got almost no argument out of my parents after all.

I think they just love her that much. Trust her that much. Must be it, because when the admiral told her we had to leave for a deep-space mission, all my mom said to her was, "If I trust him to anyone, Admiral, I trust him to you. I know you'll bring him back safely."

As the deck materializes around me…or rather, I materialize in the middle of it and recognize just where I'm standing…my jaw drops open a little more. I turn to her immediately, wanting explanations, and quick, but she stops me with a single raised palm.

"I understand that you want answers, Harry. If I were in your place, I'd want to know exactly what was going on, too. But you'll just have to trust me for the moment–"

"Always," I interject quietly, understanding, and she gives me half a smile.

"Good. Because right now, I'm not at liberty to give them to you. Takeoff is in seconds if Seven's got the upgrades in place. And you can see by now why this is a time-sensitive issue." She gestures around her at the too-familiar deck.

The too-familiar deck of the Delta Flyer. The Delta Flyer that, last I heard, was in lockdown in the middle of Starfleet Security's most secure docking facilities, being studied and tested for all the major upgrades we'd made to it over the years. And more importantly, being outfitted for compatibility with the slipstream drive technology that's been rumored to be being added to its already impressive capabilities. In other words, the Flyer that no one, and I mean no one, was supposed to have authorization to actually take out for a test-flight anytime soon.

"You didn't exactly get permission for this, did you?" I ask her on the heels of a resigned deep breath. Already realizing I probably shouldn't have asked that question. Deniability and all.

"No time," is all she offers, her hand on my back ushering me forward and into the cockpit. Sounding…about as guilty as a typical Ferengi might for pick-pocketing an unsuspecting patron, too. "Have a seat. I'll need you in Tactical." I blink at her, a little surprised that she'd want me there, of all places, and she pokes me almost playfully in the ribs. "All that additional tactical training of yours had better come in handy, Lieutenant. Because by my estimate, we've got less than–"

"Admiral. Three ships are approaching our position." Seven's voice, cool and calm, shouldn't startle me the way that it does, but she'd been so quiet I'd hardly even noticed her tucked into the corner at the science station, working over the readout monitor. And she looks – fantastic, actually. I suck in another quick breath, but with the instant rush of motion Seven's announcement had caused, I'm snapped back into the present again before I can even process it.

All traces of levity vanish.

"What's the status on those engines?" the admiral demands, sliding into the pilot's seat and leaving me to sink uneasily into mine.

"Less than thirty seconds." A pause. "There's an inherent margin of error in the calculations of three percent." Seven's head lifts from the readout to lock eyes with the admiral. "I cannot guarantee our success with absolute certainty."

"Three percent doesn't bother me," the captain shoots back calmly over her shoulder. "Talk to me when those're the odds of success." She swivels back to the flight controls and stabs her finger down on the comm. icon, flicking the viewscreen to life in front of the three of us. "Owen," she acknowledges coolly, even as I go ramrod straight in my chair on recognizing the wizened face in the close-up image. "This is a surprise."

Though if I could see her face, I'd bet even credits her expression proclaims it's anything but.

"What can I do for you this evening?" she drawls.

He looks…pissed. "You can stand down those engines you're firing up, Admiral. And you can give me one damned good explanation for taking that ship out of docking without authorization," he barks, towering over the imager.

"No can do on the first," she laments. His facial muscles twitch at her flippant tone, and I wonder if she's sounding like Tom on purpose just to rile him. I wouldn't put it past her, even as she continues, "But as to the second, you already know exactly what my intentions are. I made them clear enough to all involved at that inquiry yesterday morning."

His head shakes curtly to the side, his eyes narrowing in on her. "Which is why I've had my eye on you since yesterday."

I can't help the lurching sensation of a sudden altitude change as the situation starts to really penetrate. It never occurred to me that it was Starfleet she was worried about listening in on us.

This is bad.

"Though apparently I wasn't watching close enough," Tom's father growls retrospectively.

"Apparently," she agrees almost cheerfully, her fingers working over her station all the while.

A message pops up on my screen from her station. I flick my index finger over to access it, not wanting to draw any undue attention to myself right now and read: power up phasers. This might get ugly.

I swallow. Flicking my eyes up to her back, which is perfectly straight. And I know she means it. She'll order me to return fire if they try to stop us from leaving. Chakotay's in trouble. It doesn't matter to her who's trying to stop her from getting to him. Friend or enemy. Right about now, they all stand equal chances against her: namely, no chance.

Hell. Barely more than an hour ago, I'd been staring out at chestnut trees, contemplating taking my clarinet down to my favorite brook after dinner and working on my latest concerto some more and now this. One thing's for certain with her. You can never let your guard down around the captain – I mean, the admiral. Because you never know what she's going to throw at you. Fortunately for her – and maybe for me – I trust her implicitly. Whatever this is, and whatever the reason for it, I know she has Chakotay's welfare somehow at heart. This is for him. We're doing this for him, and that's all I need to know.

For the moment, that is.

I tune back into the conversation happening at the front of the flight deck. Tom's father is speaking. "You know the situation, Admiral. We can't afford the risk of taking action based on one specious confession from an unreliable source!"

"And I disagree," she all but cuts over him in a voice that would have sent shivers down the spine of any one of us back on Voyager, myself most definitely included. "Chakotay hasn't checked in over a month. It's too coincidental."

"Admiral." His eyes have dropped during most of the last part of the conversation. They only now flicker back to her. "I can see on these readings what you're trying to do. We've had our best teams working on those engine systems for the better part of two years now, and they still haven't been able to bring those modifications safely online."

"And if you had enlisted our help with it, as I've advised you to do on numerous occasions now, you'd have seen that the time could have been cut down exponentially," she retorts. Meeting his gaze ounce for intimidating ounce. "So consider this mission me proving the powers that be wrong on two points."

I can see the second he gives up intimidating her, when most of the fight leaves him. He leans into the screen, his shoulders hunching and his eyes going softer in almost pleading lines. "Think about this, Katie."

"Don't 'Katie' me, Owen," she clips. "Not now."

"Kathryn," he concedes impatiently. "It's dangerous. You're risking not only the lives of your officers but the operation itself!"

"The operation be damned. It's not worth sacrificing a good man's life over. What he's gotten so far will have to suffice. And knowing him, it'll be more than enough to help Starfleet prepare an adequate defense against whatever threat that organization might pose to the Federation."

Threat? My eyes widen and I look to Seven, but she's busy over her own controls and I'm left wondering, what threat? And whatever it is, why haven't I heard about it before now?

The admiral's eyes – Admiral Paris's eyes – dart briefly down over his monitor before he draws himself up to full seated height over the desk he's currently seated behind. "Admiral." He goes for it a second time. "I'm orderingyou to stand down and let us tractor you into the Hood's shuttle bay. If you do, I'll suspend all charges against your two officers."

I swallow. Recognizing that means he knows who else is on board this ship. That's…probably not good.

But the captain doesn't hesitate. "My officers are completely unaware of the unsanctioned nature of our mission," she lies imperiously.

"I find that hard to believe," he calls her on it just as coolly.

"You're stalling, Owen." Her voice picks up that taunting edge it always held right before she delivered the final blow to countless hostile aliens back in the Delta Quadrant, and I know it's close to crunch time now. "You must know how little time you have left to get here."

I peer at my readout monitor. It's true. With their position so close to Earth right now, they can't risk jumping directly to warp for another several minutes. I'm holding my breath now, wondering if it's going to come down to an actual exchange of fire or if Seven's almost done whatever work she's been doing with tying the slipstream drive appropriately into our flight path. Compensating for every known variable in what amounts to about ten thousand possibly lethal ones.

"Stand down, Kathryn. Please."

"No." She pauses, her fingers going still for just the briefest of seconds while the breath hitches in my lungs in anticipation. She cocks her head, as if studying him with extra scrutiny. "Did you really expect me to?"

He sighs. Leans back in his seat. Utterly defeated. And softly admits, "No. I do know you better than that."

"That's a relief."

"Kathryn…" He opens his mouth and closes it several times. Finally sighs and spits out, "Be careful, damn it."

The admiral nods once in grudging respect. "I'll do my best." She turns her head just slightly. "Engines?" is all she asks.

Seven looks up from her console even though the admiral can't see her. Her voice steady and cool, and I envy them both their absolute composure. "Ready."

"Fire up the slipstream drive." The admiral tilts her head almost pleasantly at the viewscreen. "It's been nice chatting with you, Owen. I'll be back to face the court martial committee in about a week, if all goes according to plan. Keep a docking bay open for us."

She keys the engaging sequence into her console and then I'm thrown back in my seat.


** S **


As soon as she closes the comm. link with Admiral Paris, Admiral Janeway exhales. A normal action, yet it is not a normal respiration pattern for her. It does not coincide with her usual cadence of breathing. It's almost...tremulous. From my position at the science station, I'm easily able to observe both her and Lieutenant Kim. Neither of them has moved much in these first moments of the slip stream flight, which I attribute to the extreme stress being put on the inertial dampeners. I know it must be disconcerting to their entirely humanoid physiologies, but my cortical implant spares me the worst of the effects. Neither gives any outward indication that they are experiencing the physical effects of our unorthodox mode of travel, however. I find this, at least, to be typical behavior of both.

Neither speaks. If Lieutenant-Commander Paris was aboard, he would surely make a jocular remark in reference to our odds of successfully completing this mission. At the very least, he would say something to "ease the tension". I believe it would be appreciated, by all three of us, but neither Tom nor B'Elanna are included in this mission. The admiral...Kathryn…had said she didn't want to take them away from Miral. Unfortunately, neither of us seems capable of...breaking the ice.

The silence stretches on while each of us busies ourselves with taking readings, checking and rechecking that my modifications are holding and that the test flight is truly a success.

"Well," the admiral eventually slaps a hand against her console and spins the pilot's chair around to face her small crew. Breaking the uncomfortable, awful silence. With only a glance in my direction, she focuses her attention immediately on him. "I guess I owe you that explanation now, Mister Kim."

"It'd be appreciated, ma'am."

When the Admiral first approached me, I required immediate explanation before consenting to accompany her on this mission. Apparently more than the lieutenant demanded, because her explanation to him starts at the very beginning of our current predicament.

"Chakotay never resigned. It was all for show." She wastes no words in softening the revelation. "He was sent on a mission. One that I was initially going to head," she notes – seemingly unnecessarily for the tale itself.

I hear him take in a sharp breath which he exhales slowly and can't resist turning my head slightly to observe his reaction to this information. I wonder if his initial emotional response will be the sense of betrayal I had felt upon learning this. Of even…anger…at being deceived. I experience an odd sensation of relief to see that his capillaries have expanded and his face has reddened, his mouth tightened. All signs of the emotions I had experienced. Somehow, it makes me feel less…alone in my own puzzling initial reaction to this news.

He maintains his control. As I had. "Go on," is all he warily allows.

"I'm sorry that you were kept in the dark on this, but it was important that no one know what was happening. For his safety, more than anything else."

"Where is he?"

She pauses. As she had when I asked this question earlier. "We're headed for the Nyberrite Alliance."

The Alliance, as I have learned in the past few days of research, used to be a small, separate entity that had been on good terms with both the Federation and Klingon Empires. While the Nyberrites themselves had begun the alliance, their numbers were small thanks to a virulent plague that had decimated the population over a century ago, and so they had not been particularly selective in their criteria for membership. They had taken any who wished to join them into their loosely organized collective. They had been tactically inferior to the Federation, more merchant based in their system of government, and somewhat freer in their laws and general society. But they had been an accepted entity, recognized as a legitimate one. And while inferior, their fleet had been respected for their sound shipbuilding practices and their clever use of defensive tactics.

"The Nyberrite Alliance? I thought they were all but obliterated in the Dominion War," the lieutenant protests, a deep frown furrowing his dark brows. "They came off about as bad as Cardassia Prime did, if memory serves."

"Most of them were killed in the war. The planet itself was devastated. Somewhat worse than even Cardassia Prime, yes. But some of them survived. And everything I'm about to tell you from this point forward must remain in the strictest of confidence." Her eyes flick over to me, and realizing that she knows I'm interested in Harry's response, I'm unsettled. I turn back to the controls, though it is unnecessary. Any further adjustments made by me while the ship is in slipstream drive will serve to throw us out of the stream and most probably expel us directly into the path of some celestial body, which would destroy us. And effectively strand Chakotay in hostile territory indefinitely.

My attention is still keenly focused ahead of me, despite my change in physical position.

"And…why would Chakotay have been sent there, exactly?"

"No one's heard much from them since the end of the war. We sent ambassadorial envoys equipped with as much humanitarian aid as we could spare at the time. Helped them to relocate to suitable unclaimed territory on the outskirts of Federation space and begin rebuilding. But that was several years ago, and no one has received any communication from them since the envoys returned to Earth. Since then, they've become quiet. Secretive. Uncommunicative. At first, no one paid much attention. There was still so much to do here with regard to rebuilding. But Starfleet had started receiving intelligence about their post-war activities in the months leading up to our return. Disturbing intelligence."

"Regarding?"

Again, she pauses, and I note how she had paused at this juncture when relating the tale to me, as well. "They've been keeping a very close eye on Federation activities, for one. Something that was disturbing, given their absolute silence."

"That doesn't sound good. But it's not exactly a reason for Starfleet to be sending spies in." Again my head turns, and this time as the admiral's eyes shift to me, I can see the intensity there. "And it is a spy operation. Isn't it?"

The admiral nods.

"That can't be all that's been going on, then," he challenges.

"It isn't," she allows. "They've been…acquiring weapons. Technology. Most recently, we've even intercepted operatives that wanted to meet with Seven in hopes of either convincing her or otherwise coercing her into helping them acquire Borg technology."

His eyes widen as he sends a cursory glance around to me. "That's pretty serious stuff."

"Precisely. You can understand why the Federation is a little nervous about their activities."

"I guess I can. But…why? Why are they trying to acquire all this new technology? And weapons, too? What's their endgame?"

"We don't know yet. That's what Chakotay was sent to find out, but he hasn't been at liberty to send back anything more comprehensive than cryptic messages assuring us that he's alive. He would have been bringing that information back with him upon successful completion of his mission."

"But the mission isn't going to be completed. He ran into trouble."

"Yes. And by all indications, he doesn't even know it. Which is why we're going to have to pull him out of there." A dark cloud seems to pass over her face. "That's if we're in time," she murmurs almost inaudibly. As if she does not want to admit the possibility, even to herself, that we may not be. "If he hasn't already been…harmed."

Or killed. The words remain, even now, unspoken. I find the thought disturbing. Even terrifying. He has not have been a part of my life for almost two years, was the source of much internal pain over his abrupt departure. And now, what I find to be his betrayal in deceiving me about his disappearance adds anger to my emotional misgivings about his behavior, but before all this, he was…a friend. A close friend. He was the man from whom I received my first true romantic instruction. In the short time that we had explored a possible relationship, I had never found him to be anything less than supportive, caring, and kind. Even…gentle…in that kindness. The fact that our circumstances, our differences in age and interests made us incompatible and severed that blossoming romantic relationship early upon our arrival to Earth had never made him less of a friend to me, in my estimation.

Even if, for quite some time, I have thought that this had obviously not been the case for him. Finding out that his absence had not been entirely willful somewhat erased my recent misgivings towards him. And the thought of losing him forever is greatly disturbing. I wish to do whatever is necessary to ensure his continued survival. His continued presence in my life as the friend I remembered him to have been on Voyager.

"The Alliance has been doing more than acquiring weapons and technology," the admiral's voice continues, drawing me back to their conversation. "They've been acquiring people, too. Recruiting as many as they can find that fit their criteria."

"New members."

"Yes. But the people they've been actively recruiting…aren't exactly what you'd call the pick of the litter. For the most part, they're dissidents, and other castaways from both sides of the Dominion War. And I should warn you now, we've recently gathered intelligence that would suggest their methods of 'initiating' recruits…apparently includes heavy psychological manipulation."

"Heavy…" The lieutenant's brow furrows as he trails off, then lifts in disbelief. "Brainwashing?"

"Yes. Even though they're looking for dissidents, they wouldn't seem to trust that everyone they bring in has pure intentions."

"Which means that Chakotay could have been subjected to it, too." The lieutenant shakes his head. "Starfleet at least set him up to be able to withstand it, right?"

The admiral's lips tighten. "We didn't know there was a need." I note the fury she seems to be directing mostly inward at this oversight. "There's no telling what's been done to him over the past two years."

He lets out a shaky breath. "So we need to be prepared for him to be in any kind of mental condition, I guess."

"Yes."

"Okay." He digests this information for a moment before swallowing thickly. "So you were saying about the type of recruits they're taking in. Dissidents and other malcontents?"

"They're specifically, even actively seeking these elements out," the admiral continues. "Bringing them in secret to their training facilities, which have begun to crop up in increasing frequency in their part of space."

"They're…pretty far beyond even DS9, from what I remember."

"Yes."

"And that's where Chakotay's been all this time? That's where we're headed?" The lieutenant shakes his head, whistling out another breath. "That's almost two months of top warp travel just to get there."

"You see now why I had to borrow the Delta Flyer," the admiral quips. "What would have been two months Chakotay probably doesn't have is only going to be a few days."

"It should be less than that," he argues. As usual, an astute individual. "A lot less–"

"Yes, but we're dropping out well before we reach the colony where Chakotay has been living. The Alliance has already built an impressive sensor array around their territory, and the last thing I want is to drop out of slipstream right in the middle of one of those nets and warn them that we're coming."

"Understood," he acknowledges somewhat…grimly, I decide.

"Seven will be navigating around the sensor net manually. But we'll have to be traveling at low speeds to give her time to maneuver us through without tipping them off that we're here. In the meantime, you and I will use that time to devise an extraction plan for getting Chakotay off that compound. I have a basic outline of procedure, but I want your input. Especially in light of all the increased tactical training you've done recently."

He only nods slowly. Putting it all together.

"He lied to us," he accuses suddenly. Most pointedly as he intently fixes his gaze upon the admiral's surprised face. "You both…you lied to us. You lied to all of us." The building anger in his voice is clearly audible over the continual hum of the slipstream bubble being created around us. It has been simmering below the surface for some time during this conversation, but it has only now reached a peak of overt expression. His voice rises slightly as he makes the accusation, and I understand his feelings. Too well, in fact.

Chakotay's disappearance had hurt me. I thought that it had hurt the admiral. Perhaps it had on another level, and she merely used anger to cover her hurt, as humans so often seem to do. But now I am coming to realize, upon observing the lieutenant's difficulties with reconciling the deception Starfleet had required, that others had been hurt as well. And I…sympathize.

"I'm sorry," the admiral apologizes. And on her face is the same pained strain I found there when I made the accusation just over a day ago. "But I was under strict obligation to keep his mission a secret from anyone below a certain clearance. That unfortunately included all of the rest of you."

"All due respect, ma'am…I'm not sure that's exactly good enough this time."

I straighten in spite of myself. I had not thought Lieutenant Kim prone to the same unpretentious assessment of his superior's actions as I am. And in the admiral's tone is the same warning edge I have personally ignored for many years now when it has suited my argument to continue. "You know the routine, Harry. It's part of the job."

"Job, hell. He just…dropped us. Like old news. And no one's heard a word from him except…" he trails off. Fixes her with a piercing look I'd never have associated with him, and it makes my full attention come to him for the first time. There is something…different about him, I realize in this moment. But what, I can't quite decipher… "Except you." He scoffs, as he realizes the depth of the deception. "You realize how many people were hurt by the way he just dropped us all. And took off without a backward glance. With the way communications have been ignored and sent back unopened by everybody who's tried to send them. People are angry with him, Admiral. I…was angry with him."

"I know." Her voice has gone soft with regret.

"And you…you were crushed! If anything, we were all angry at how fast he just dropped you. Especially after…" he pauses abruptly. Makes eye contact with me and breaks it just as swiftly. Embarrassed. "No offense, Seven but I mean after…well…you."

"Chakotay's personal life is not something I'm prepared to discuss with you, Lieutenant. And it's really none of your business…or mine, whom he chose to spend his time with, in any regard," the admiral bites out, in a tone that makes it clear she will accept no more of his prying. Her eyes once again find mine, and I'm not entirely surprised to find a fiercely protective glint in her eyes.

The trait is inherent to her. I'm only surprised by the person she is protecting. And perhaps at the person she is protecting me from, I suppose.

"You're right," he admits, backing down. "Sorry, Seven," he calls over his shoulder to me in apparent chagrin. "I didn't mean anything personal by it, only that…well…"

"I understand," I afford him coolly. For I do. There are reasons that neither Chakotay nor I were able to give completely to each other, to take the step to commit to a monogamous, exclusive relationship. One of his reasons was the admiral. In the subsequent months after his disappearance, I have come to understand much more than I ever did about their personal interactions. This is thanks in part to members of the Voyager crew, who no longer hesitated to discuss this nuance of their friendship once it was made clear that Chakotay and I had ended our fledgling romance.

I understand that he was not mine to take to begin with. And I no longer resent either of them for it. It simply is, and Chakotay and I as a unit are a thing of the past. I have moved on.

"As for me," the admiral continues after clearing her throat, seeming keen to change the subject, "I was less crushed than angry, Harry. Believe me, I'm not exactly happy with him, either. He was never supposed to be the one to do this."

"You were."

"Yes," she snaps. Most likely without meaning to. "And I thought I could trust him with understanding where I was going and why I had to go. Little did I know that the first thing he'd do would be to run straight to the admiralty behind my back and offer himself up for the job instead…oh, believe me, Harry, when we get him back, I might kill him myself."

Everything in her demeanor suggests that it is a viable possible course of action. It seems to make him feel better. As it had me yesterday.

I still don't know why it had made a part of me relax to see the depth of the admiral's anger with Chakotay earlier, either.

Perhaps the lieutenant will not mind discussing those confusing emotional incongruities with me later.

"Well if you're mad at him, that's about as bad a punishment as I could wish on him for doing this right after we got back, I guess," he concedes. In perfect accord with my own assessment also. "But…if we don't know anything about these Alliance members…how do we know for sure that Chakotay's in trouble?"

In answer to his question, she holds up a data chip before tossing it across the flight deck to him. He catches it easily, and she explains, "You can watch it later. I'm sure you won't have any questions about whether or not Chakotay's in danger after you do."

He frowns, turning it over in his fingers. "What is it?"

"A confession," she supplies. Her lip curls upward in distaste, and having witnessed this "confession", I know perfectly well why she reacts this way. "Those operatives we detained. The ones that wanted to get to Seven," she nods her head towards me. "One of them boasted about how little we really knew of their capabilities. He flat out told us that they know Chakotay was sent to their camp, and why."

The lieutenant grows pale. "If that's true…if he isn't lying…"

"His Betazoid interrogators have assured the intelligence committee that he's being truthful."

"There are ways to fool Betazoids."

"We don't believe he was using them."

"All right. Then how do we know they haven't…I mean…wouldn't they have just…" He does not say "terminated him". For the same reasons the admiral hesitated to make this kind of verbal statement earlier, I believe.

"Apparently, they have a specific purpose in mind. They believe they can in some way make use of him at some point in the future. So they've let him stay. Only with the intention of never allowing him to leave with any of the information he's gathered."

"If everything you've told me is true. If those are the kind of people they've become…he's in real danger."

"Yes. He knew it going in, but…" she shakes her head. Her disgust with everyone involved apparent in her demeanor. "Starfleet should never have asked it of him," she maintains darkly. "Not so soon after coming back. Yes, we were perfect candidates, considering we hadn't been around all this time and would be less suspicious defectors if it was handled correctly, but they never should have asked him to make this kind of sacrifice so soon."

"It sounds like he volunteered. Admiral."

Her lips twitch. A reflex belying the difficulty she's having in restraining her temper. "You're right, Harry," she agrees. Vehemently. "He did. He did more than that…he stood there, in the middle of that committee he wasn't even supposed to have access to, and used those damned persuasive charms of his to convince them to hear him out before throwing him out. And when they were persuaded to listen, he made a case that even I couldn't argue about how he was the better, more believable choice."

"You were going to resign." He makes the statement again, bringing the conversation back to this point. I believe I know why, but the admiral seems less suspicious about the question…for the moment.

"Yes." She nods. Somehow missing – or perhaps simply not prioritizing – the flicker of anger in his eyes at her casual admission. "It was all planned out. I was supposed to be the one to resign, stating irreconcilable differences with Starfleet philosophy."

"But that wouldn't make any sense…" he objects.

"It would have," she explains. "Especially with the review board's mock rulings regarding some of my more…questionable command decisions in the Delta Quadrant."

"They were going to reprimand you."

"Yes. It was perfect. I'd take the reprimand, and publicly resign the next day. From there I was going to leave and give myself over to the Nyberrite Alliance and ask them to take me on as a recruit."

"So you were going to go potentially get yourself killed, instead," he declares bitterly. "And you were going to let Chakotay lie to the rest of us in your place."

His unexpected accusation stops her in whatever she had intended, had been preparing to say. She tilts her head to a more cajoling angle. "Harry. I understand that it's never pleasant to be deceived. But you're acting as if you don't know anything about intelligence operations or classified information. Sometimes, they're a necessary part of the organization we've both chosen to serve."

"Seven didn't choose it."

Both of their eyes find me. She looks…startled…at his conclusion, and I must admit I am surprised, as well. I lift my chin as I meet her gaze. Because it is a valid point, and one I had given no true consideration to until this moment. I had not chosen it. I had not chosen to have friends in an organization that sometimes made deceiving me "a necessity". It had been chosen for me.

He gives neither of us much time to reflect upon this revelation. "And yes. I know all about the necessity of classified operations, Admiral. What I have trouble with is the way the two of you volunteered yourselves for this when you were both needed back here by the rest of us. I have a hard time believing there was no one else in the whole of Starfleet that could have done this."

"Not everyone needed as much recovery time as you did," she snaps, in typical Janeway fashion losing her patience upon having her decisions questioned in such a frank manner. I tense, and so does he, even as she appears to realize what she's just said. How she has said it. She draws herself up short. Takes a deep, almost shaking breath, pinching the bridge of her nose before dropping her hand and lifting her face to him. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair," she admits without prompting.

"No, it wasn't," he retorts, sounding hurt. "You know I've stayed back, closer to Earth, for my parents' sake. Not for my own."

I believe she wants to continue the argument. Based upon the few conversations she and I have had concerning this topic, I am almost certain she wishes to.

But she does not.

"I'm sorry," is all that she firmly repeats. "But it was necessary."

He's quiet for a moment. The muscles in his mouth moving as he flexes his jaw. Choosing his words carefully. "It might have been, at that," he permits tightly. "But it doesn't excuse either one of you picking such a lousy time to go gallivanting off and dropping the rest of us. And just because we chose this life doesn't mean we don't have to accept the consequences of living it sometimes."

She says nothing. But for the first time, the depth of her remorse at the grand deception shows. Her eyes shine with a strange, almost self-reflective light before she softly admits, "Maybe it doesn't, at that."

Harry pushes away from his station for the first time and stands. "If you'll excuse me, Admiral. I think I'd like to get a drink of water."

She doesn't try to stop him. He stalks past me, passing through the door leading down into to the aft section. She's watching me, instead...waiting, I believe, for a reaction. Possibly seeking support or reaffirmation.

I am unable to give her either at present. I stand and silently follow him.


"What did you want with Seven of Nine?" a cool voice intones again.

The figure with the spotted, disheveled appearance on the imager snickers. "Have you seen her? What don't we want with her?"

This is now the lieutenant's second viewing of the interrogation. Again at this juncture, I can feel his gaze sliding uneasily to me, and I make certain my own eyes are averted to my unnecessary task. I do not look back at him until I am certain that his gaze has returned to the viewer.

"You imply an intention for which there would be no benefit to the Nyberrite Alliance to send two of their best operatives all this way to acquire her."

"Whatever," the operative shrugs. Apparently annoyed that his interrogator has spoiled his "joke". He shifts in his chair. "How about this, then – don't insult my intelligence, I won't insult yours."

"I am unable to decipher your meaning by that statement."

"Vulcans," the man restrained to the solitary chair in the middle of the imager screen spits in disgust. "We have a few of you, too."

"Do you?" the interrogator responds coolly.

"Yes. Pain in the ass, all of you. You know what we wanted with her. And Starfleet's not using her. So why not just give her up to someone who knows how to utilize her talents?"

I have already seen this, yet it is still…disturbing. If Starfleet had not intercepted the two men sent by the Alliance to retrieve me, I could very easily be one of the individuals the admiral is now charged with having to rescue. But at least if I had been taken, I might be with Chakotay at this moment instead of being uncertain as to his condition.

I might not be as worried for his safety as I cannot deny being now, having heard this recording three times. The operative being questioned on this recording is a man that inspires nothing more than contempt for him, and for his organization as a whole.

"This is all very enlightening, and the Federation is as always quite hospitable, but I'm getting a little bored with being here. So let's cut to the chase. Let me tell you how things are going to work out. You're going to let us go. And when you do, I might make sure something you don't want to happen…doesn't."

"Your words continue to be cryptic, at best," the seemingly implacable voice of the unseen interrogator continues. "It is difficult to establish a proper standpoint of negotiation when you refuse to make direct statements."

"Oh, really?" The man's snide voice sends grating surges of annoyance, of anger through my body. "Let's talk specifics, then. Here's a name for you. Let's see if it rings any bells. Commander. Chakotay," the sneering figure drawls, placing infuriating emphasis on each syllable of the last words. "That getting your attention now, Vulcan?"

It had gotten mine.

"You mentioned the former Commander Chakotay. What was your intent in mentioning him? Do you mean to imply that he is a part of your organization now?"

"You know he is. You sent him, didn't you?"

There is the barest hint of pause. "I do not know what you are referring to."

"Really?" The operative is patently unconvinced. And thoroughly unintimidated. "We're back to playing these games, then? Fine." His manner continues to exude arrogance. Complete confidence and control, despite his captive position. "Here's a clear enough 'statement' for you," he taunts. "We know you sent him to gather information on us – we've known all along, since the minute he showed up at our doorstep."

"We sent him nowhere."

"Liar," the operative drawls back evenly.

The interrogator's manner seems to shift, though he himself is not visible on the recording. "If your group had these suspicions regarding Mr. Chakotay's true allegiances when he arrived, why did you not simply kill him, or turn him away?"

"How do you know we didn't?" the figure demands immediately. Much more slyly than his blustering countenance has given him credit for until this moment.

"Your own words indicate that you did not," the interrogator replies.

The insufferable operative pauses. Cocks his head and arrogantly winks. "Nice catch." He straightens as he receives no verbal reply. "You're right, of course," he admits. Obviously baiting his questioner. "Though you could have gotten that from your Betazoid over there. Didn't think I knew what he was? I did," he spits derisively to another individual…also off-screen. He turns back to the original questioner. "We didn't kill your commander. We did let him in."

"Your statements are contradictory. If you had misgivings about his resignation–"

"That dog and pony show you put up for the reporters?" The operative barks out a harsh, grating laugh. "Right. It was about as transparent as any Federation scheme, but we gave you points for trying."

"Again, I must ask you. If you had misgivings about his true allegiance, why would you have accepted him into your ranks?"

The figure leans into the screen. Whether intentionally or not is unclear, but the sensation is that it is intentional. He goes eerily quieter, and his taunting voice picks up an openly mocking drawl. "Because we have every confidence in our methods of initiating new recruits. Even unwilling recruits."

The interrogator pauses yet again. A pause of perhaps the most significance. "You are saying that your organization uses coercion to 'convince' new recruits."

"Coercion. Mind control. People have different names for it. We call it 'reconditioning'. Sounds pleasanter, don't you agree?"

The interrogator says nothing. The operative doesn't seem to notice.

"He fought hard at first against the reconditioning, but in the end, he was no different than the rest of them. He's ours now – body and soul. We own him. We've just been biding our time until we can make the most efficient use of him."

This is where the recording terminates. Whether because this is the end of the conversation or because this was all the relevant information the admiral wished to retain of the interrogation is uncertain.

The lieutenant sits in absolute silence for long moments afterward.

Working beside him for the span of only fifty-seven minutes, it has become apparent to me that he is not the Harry Kim of my most recent memory – and my eidetic memory is not subject to the inherent flaws of most humans'. Gone is the young man I had naturally associated with more youthful adolescence. The figure watching the viewer is more reserved. He lacks the obvious nervous mannerisms I had once associated with him. He lacks the youthful enthusiasm, the over-optimism that had once served to irritate me. In place of those characteristics, I find a man with a steady hand, a cool precision to his movements. A…confidence, somehow, that he had been lacking while on Voyager.

And while I always found him to be in relatively good physical condition, his appearance is more robust. It's easy for my optical implant to detect the ripple of bulkier musculature beneath the civilian clothing he wears. I remember the admiral telling me last year that he had applied for extended tactical training courses while planetside, and despite she and I believing that he was hiding from the impact of returning home by remaining on Earth for such an extended period of time, the results of those exercises seem to have been good for him. He has…a maturity now, I finally decide upon, after evaluating the sum total of the changes in his person. The change is compelling.

I find it…oddly unsettling.

"So. Are you as pissed off at both of them – and scared out of your mind for him – as I am right about now?" he asks me out of nowhere.

It takes me a moment, while I regard him in surprise, to be able to process his question. After a long period of contemplation, I decide, "I believe that's an accurate description of my emotional condition. Yes."

He further surprises me at the laughter that bubbles forth from his chest and throat.

I raise a solitary brow. Unsure of whether or not to take offense at his response. "Lieutenant?" I prompt him to explain.

"I'm…sorry, Seven." He regains control of himself, placing a hand over his chest. "I just…I think…" He shakes the last of his amusement away, leaving only an odd, residual smile of fondness. "I think I've missed you. That's all."

Even if I had prepared an answer to his inexplicable confession, I don't have the chance to respond.

"Seven." Her voice comes crackling out over the comm. system into the aft section, her aura snapping at both of us even though she is physically not present in the room. "We're ready to drop out of slipstream. I'll need you to take the helm for a while so Harry and I can start going over those extraction plans."

His uncertain gaze intercepts my own as I look to him for guidance. After barely a few seconds, he nods once in the direction of the flight deck. Neither of us have spoken to her since we left her up there. Yet our personal feelings about this mission's origins must be put on hold. Chakotay's welfare is paramount to even our sense of betrayal.

"Understood," I acknowledge aloud, already closing out of the diagnostic I had been performing on the aft shield modifications that should serve to shield our approach from Nyberrite detection. As I reach the doors, a disturbing thought occurs to me and not for the first time. I pause and turn back to him. "Lieutenant."

"Harry, Seven," he protests in exasperation for the third time this hour. "Please. We've only know each other how long, now?"

It's the same correction the admiral – Kathryn – has made for the better part of two years as well.

"Harry," I allow. The word feeling…strange…forming on my tongue. "When you are reviewing the admiral's plans, pay close attention to them."

His brows raise. "For?"

I am hesitant to continue, yet the sense of foreboding I have been living with since the admiral first approached me has only intensified in the short span of time that I have been able to observe her more closely on this ship. I do not like her closed demeanor. Her unwillingness to discuss particulars of the final phase of her plan. Her unwillingness to engage either of us in direct eye contact for very long. I swallow my hesitation, lifting my chin. "I believe Chakotay is not the only individual we must be concerned about."

A glint appears in his dark eyes that has never been there before. An almost hard, determined glint. A glint I am surprised to realize would possibly frighten me if I did not know for certain that it was not meant for me.

A glint I'm forced to admit that a part of me I do not much like finds…exciting, somehow.

"Don't worry, Seven," he replies grimly. "I know her as well as you do. If she's planning on pulling a fast one, I'll get to the bottom of it, I promise you."

His assurance has to suffice, I conclude, upon weighing my few options.


** H **


She pushes a button, closing down the marked imagery that had been scrolling across the screen behind her as she spoke. "And that's the plan."

I'm stunned. Literally, figuratively…many, many different kinds of stunned.

"That's it?" is all I can say to her.

Maybe it's just the extra tactical training courses I've had lately, but I can see so many flaws in her "plan" that it makes my brain hurt to look at her and try to wrap my head around it. Yet what worries me most has to be that she apparently doesn't see the inherent problems in it.

"That's it?" I echo hollowly. "That's all there is to it?"

"That's it." She regards me coolly, her expression as closed as it's been since the moment she joined me in the aft section of the Flyer. All but daring me to keep questioning her. And I can honestly only stare back at her in awe.

I do know her, I have to remind myself. Forcing myself to take deep breaths and not to overreact. I know why she's doing this. I know full well that whenever one of us is in danger, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that she wouldn't risk to get us out of it safely. I know this about her already, and on some deeper level I guess it's hardly surprising that this situation is proving no exception to that unfailing rule...

But this is just insane.

"Let me make sure I have this straight." I get slowly to my feet to circle the small space the Flyer offers. "You want to beam down to the planet by yourself. Tell these extremists that you've given up on Starfleet and that you want to join them instead. And Seven and I are just supposed to sit up here, crossing our fingers and keeping a transporter lock on you – through shielding our sensors can barely even penetrate – until you give us the signal that you've found Chakotay?"

She looks pissed off at my overly simplistic breakdown of her plan, but in essence, this is exactly what she intends to do.

I can practically hear her teeth grinding together as she tries to respond to me calmly. "Yes, Harry. I go down, get Chakotay, and then you beam us up, and we hightail it out of the sector. It's really not that complicated."

"Did you not hear…?" I gesture exasperatedly at the console we'd been working over. Toward the monitor with the data chip with the recorded confession. "Do really you not see the problems with this? I can't even beginto count the number of things that could wrong with this plan!"

"You're overreacting, Harry." She gets to her feet rather dismissively and heads for the stairs to go up into the flight deck.

Oh, no, she doesn't. I move swiftly, more swiftly than she'd expected at the surprised annoyance flitting across her face, and block her from leaving. "No. I'm not, Kathryn." Her eyebrow arches up in surprised annoyance that, but I continue before she can call me on it. Off duty, that's what she insists I call her, isn't it?

And I'm starting to get more than a little pissed myself, as it all sinks in for me. She'd told us – or at least she'd told Seven – that she hadn't asked for Tom and B'Elanna's help with this because she hadn't wanted to take them away from Miral. But now that she's laid out her "master plan", it occurs to me that she'd probably not brought Tom or B'Elanna along because they wouldn't have thought twice about second guessing her. Nor would either of them have had any problems vocally criticizing and outright rejecting her crazy, suicide mission of a plan.

And granted, I've always been a little bit guilty of hero worshiping when it comes to her; she was my first captain, after all. But it really bothers me that she'd obviously thought, even after all this time, that I would just blindly go along with whatever absurdly dangerous scheme she concocted. And Seven? Well, Seven has never been accused of not voicing her opinion, but maybe she too is more prone to hero worship than the others and I hadn't seen it before. Or maybe, the captain had just needed her that badly for the slipstream drive and hadn't had a choice but to ask her to come along. But me, there's no question about. It's becoming gruesomely, crystal clear why she picked me now.

Has she always been this manipulative and I've just failed to see it all these years? Or does she genuinely value my input, as she claims?

I'm about to find out, I decide grimly. I step more directly in front of her. "You go down there, they're going to recognize you on sight. They'll kill you immediately."

"They aren't going to do that," she replies with infuriating calm and a curt, abbreviated shake of her head. "If they recognize me–"

"They're going to," I cut in firmly. "You're only the most reported-on person in the Federation media. Still."

She grants me no reaction, except for the narrowing of her eyes. "If they recognize me, then they'll know I'm worth more to them alive than I am dead."

I almost can't believe what I'm hearing. I have to swallow back the reply I want to make in favor of a calmer, "All right. For the sake of argument, let's say you're right. Let's suppose they do decide to keep you alive. You tell them you're on their side, and they pretend to believe you. So they take you into one of their shielded compounds that our transporters definitely can't penetrate, and after hours of torturing you for any relevant, classified information they can possibly get out of you – then they kill you."

"They won't kill me," she insists, her voice and eyes going harder with each passing second. But if she thinks I didn't notice the way she just completely failed to address the whole torture scenario, she's crazier than I've suspected already.

"And why won't they kill you?" I demand, almost hoping she's going to surprise me with some further knowledge about this group that would validate her belief. At this point, I'd pretty much take anything. Anything other than that our intelligence is just so lacking that she's honestly been reduced to thinking this is the best way to get in there and bring Chakotay back with us.

A way that will most certainly get her killed, unless she knows something I don't.

"They won't kill me," she repeats. Rather lamely, at that. "They're extremists, Harry," she tries coaxing me again. "They aren't going to let the perfect opportunity of having someone like me show up on their doorstep pass by and not use it to their full advantage. Killing me serves no purpose."

"Uh…it sure as hell sends a message to everyone in the quadrant that they're a force to be reckoned with, don't you think?" I can't help snorting. "Getting their hands on and executing a high-profile Starfleet admiral – and having the proof to back it up?"

No reaction. No reaction.

"At least let me go down, instead," I try. "Me, they might not recognize…"

"Out of the question," she clips back immediately.

And at the flash in her eyes then, I know I've got her. "Why?" I press. "Because you know how dangerous it is just to walk in there?"

She only shakes her head. Refusing to concede my tiny victory. "It's out of the question, Harry. I'll be the one to go. Not you or Seven, so you might as well get that into your head now."

She's already got her mind made up that this is how it's going to happen. She isn't willing to hear anything to the contrary. I can see that now, and it's starting to scare the hell out of me.

I try a different tact. Feeling desperation start to set in. "What if using you to their advantage means using you against Chakotay? Your presence alone could be used to coerce him into performing some horrific act on their behalf. Have you thought about that, Admiral?" I at least have her attention when I mention his name. How much of it, I can't tell yet, though. "How does this plan really help him in the short term?" I force her to explain.

She only shrugs a shoulder. "This is exactly where you and Seven come in. I'm only beaming down to serve as a distraction, mostly. Whether or not they believe me, they'll take me to Chakotay immediately, because they'll want his opinion on whether or not I can be trusted."

I have to wonder if she can even hear herself right now. Hear how many things she's taking for granted and how many obvious red flags she's completely ignoring here. And I'm mostly afraid that she can. And that, in typical form, she just doesn't care.

In her mind, as long as Chakotay comes back safely, it doesn't matter to her if she makes it back.

Damn her. She's impossible when she's in this mode. I've only ever seen one person talk her down from this kind of ledge, and unfortunately, he happens to be the one person who's gotten her up there this time. And he's also nowhere to be found at the moment.

"Once I locate Chakotay," she's continuing, drawing me back to her, "I don't plan on staying down there long enough for them to coerce either one of us. You and Seven combined are a technical force that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."

I'm starting to see red at this point. Flattery. She's actually resorting to petty flattery to snow me into compliance with her insanity. She pats my shoulder and takes full advantage of my shock to ease past me to the stairs. "Now you see why this plan works," she throws over her shoulder at me. "I have every confidence that you and Seven will be able to bring us home."

And she's gone. Gone! Like that's the end of the–

I growl in frustration to the empty room, slamming my palm down onto the console, but before I can even begin to calm down enough to chase after her, I hear the distinct sound of a phaser firing.

Adrenaline explodes through me immediately. Grabbing my own personal weapon from its holster, I clear the steps in a single bound and burst through the door into the main cabin, ready to confront the intruders who've somehow managed to beam aboard– and stop still at the horrifying sight that greets me.

The captain…the admiral…is slumped on the deck. Unmoving. And standing over her is…

"Seven!" I roar, kneeling down and feeling for the admiral's pulse even as I keep a close eye on the phaser still held in Seven's hand. "What the hell–"

"Her plan was inefficient," she explains coolly as she holsters the phaser, "and she was refusing to listen to reason."

"So you shot her?"

"Yes." She calmly nods.

Somebody in Starfleet screwed up big time, I start to realize numbly. Somebody at the top of the command chain obviously should have been making sure these two were going to intensive counseling. Somebody'soversight has just led me to put my entire life on hold only to strand myself on a small ship in the far reaches of the Alpha Quadrant with two certifiably insane women. Incredible. A few hours ago, I was home sulking over how bored and unfulfilled I was. And now…I shake my head in disbelief. Suddenly vividly recalling the wording of that ancient Chinese curse I'd been telling Tom about all those years ago as I stare at the insane woman standing over me – the conscious one, I mean.

Seven is completely unaffected by my internal revelation about her mental stability. "She is merely stunned. However, if you wish for her to remain unconscious for the duration of this mission, I would suggest that you sedate her."

"I'm not the one who shot her, Seven – it's not me who needs to be worried about when she wakes up!" It's only now that something else clicks into place in my shocked mind. I turn to her. "Wait a minute. You said her plan was 'inefficient'."

"It was," she reiterates.

"How did you know what her plan was?"

She doesn't even blink. "I was monitoring your conversation."

My head shakes slowly back and forth. "Of course you were." My eyes drop back to the felled woman at my feet. I gently turn the unconscious admiral over onto her back. And okay, impulse control has never been one of Seven's strong suits, but I certainly never expected her to go and do something like this. What she just did was completely, utterly out of line. It was overkill, no question about it. Only…

The more I think about it, the more I have to admire her for it. Tom used to joke that it would take a well-aimed photon torpedo to stop the captain from doing something once she had set her mind to it.

Turns out, it only takes a former drone with a type three phaser set on stun. Who knew?

But now I have to ask, "Seven. Please tell me this at least means you think you have a better plan?"

Her eyebrow rises imperiously at my question. "Of course."


I don't like this, I decide, securing the shoulder straps to my pack and tightening them to make sure they won't slow me down by slipping at the most inconvenient moment possible – which they would, the way this mission is already going.

I don't like this at all. I can't imagine anyone in my place that would, either.

I really don't like that Seven's plan is barely more refined than the admiral's. Hell. Her plan is essentially to take the admiral's place in all this. I might have to admit her defection would be a lot more believable than the admiral's, but as I've argued up and down with her already, that's not saying much. And it certainly isn't saying the Alliance is going to be any more willing to hear her out before shooting her where she stands, either. I don't care what that operative said about trying to recruit her. I do care that he thought some of the things he said were funny, while I found absolutely nothing humorous in them–

The right strap catches on the shoulder harness of the extra ammunitions belt already secured to me, and I scowl at it, ripping it up to where it needs to be and tightening it further. The doors leading up to the flight deck from the aft section open, and Seven strolls onto the flight deck behind me. I whirl on her almost immediately, and I don't mind admitting my eyes almost roll back in my head when she appears wearing…well…what she's wearing.

There's nothing wrong with it. I mean…it's not like she's dressed in anything…revealing. That isdefinitely not in anything as tight fitting as those suits she used to wear on Voyager. It's just…well…that it fits her well, I guess. The casual, white blouse. Loose and billowing at the sleeves and fitting across the bodice. The perfect fit of the leather jacket she pulls on over it, complimenting the discreet black pants of the same material. I almost can't believe what I'm seeing. Seven. In leather. A good material, I guess, considering the conditions down on that planet. Considering the cool night air we're about to be exposed to. A logical choice. Maybe even an efficient one. But…

I swallow hard. The way her hair is pulled back, the loose curls framing the front of her striking face. She just looks…a hell of a lot softer than anything I'd ever have given her credit for. Ever.

She raises an eyebrow at my silent appraisal, making me straighten.

"I don't like this," I say again. More because it was what had been stuck on my tongue before she walked in rather than because it's based on any rational, conscious thought on my part as I look at her.

The corners of her mouth twitch. "You do not approve of my attire?"

I almost scowl at her. Because I've got the distinct impression that Seven's messing with me now.

"I don't – that's not what I–" I tighten my jaw. "Seven. What you're wearing is…fine. It's just…different."

She frowns. Morphing back into the Seven that I know, and it's a relief, I can say that. "Perhaps I should change."

"What?" She's as hard to keep up with as the admiral, nowadays. Maybe those two have been spending too much time together. "Why?" I manage to ask. "I just said it was fine."

"I was striving to achieve better than 'fine'," she informs me. A full if soft smile playing on her curved lips now.

My jaw almost drops this time to realize what's going on. She knows exactly how good she looks in that outfit. She knows it. And she is playing with my head. "You dressed like this on purpose?" I demand. Probably a little more outraged at the idea than I should be. Considering.

In a fluid movement, she shrugs a single shoulder. Nowhere near as tightly as she would have years ago. And offers, "While attempting to gain admittance into the alliance, it would be best to make full use of any asset which might be to my advantage."

I start to close my eyes, assuming – hoping to hell it goes without saying – that she doesn't exactly mean full use. I take a deep, calming breath before focusing my full attention on her. "Seven. Did it even occur to you that it could just as easily turn out to be a disadvantage?" I have to ask. Unable to help that this outfit, her motives with taking such care to select it, is just one more thing about this whole plan that I don't like at all. Unable to help how worried I am about the whole thing.

She only nods curtly. "It had," she responds coolly. "I decided the potential risk was inconsequential when measured against Chakotay's safety."

Yes. Of course she had. And yes, she's definitely been spending too much time with the captain – admiral.

It still doesn't sit well with me. Not in the slightest. Seven may be growing, learning all about humanoid interaction. She may be making vast improvements in all areas, but I can't help a strong protective streak in me that wonders how many things she doesn't quite have a grasp on. How many things she still doesn't have a complete understanding of. "Have you really given enough thought to how dangerous…and foolish…it is to just beam down there and ask to join them?"

She sighs – and I don't know when she started doing that, either. "We have discussed this in depth. I am much more likely to be accepted into their group than the admiral was. They have already shown interest in recruiting me."

It does absolutely nothing to reassure me, hearing the same empty projections for the fifteenth time.

She continues, with perhaps the only point I can't really argue in this whole mess, "And my presence in the most populated section of the colony will serve as a distraction which will enable you to beam to a more remote location without detection."

Splitting the transporter beam had been a good idea. Through all the surveillance around the camp, the Alliance is definitely going to know someone's beamed down, probably the second our transporter beam passes through their advanced sensor net, but they won't know where. Hopefully. I grimace. "I still don't like that I can't penetrate that compound with sensors. I really can only guess that I'm putting you down in a more populated part of the colony. And I'm still not completely sure we won't end up transporting ourselves into a brick wall or something."

She seems unconcerned. "I have looked over your calculations." Of course she has. "They were as sound as the available data allows. We will succeed."

"I wish I had your confidence," I mutter. Checking the chronometer on the transport console and the timer I had already set to automatically initiate transport. "Anyway, we're about to find out. About forty-five seconds left. You ready?"

She straightens her jacket. Checks to be sure her tricorder is secure in its holster on the belt. And I notice another one of my arguments that she's all but ignored and feel the already tight muscles in my neck and jaw going even tighter. "You're not taking a phaser."

She raises another eyebrow. "I will be scanned immediately."

If you aren't shot, I don't say aloud. "Yes," I acknowledge with forced patience. "And your point?"

"At best, a phaser would only be confiscated from my possession within moments of meeting with any Alliance operative. At worst, it will appear threatening."

The ship's computer signals a warning that transport is about to commence, and before I can even begin to respond to her "logic", the transporter room, and she, both disappear from view.

Damn it.


** **


As I materialize on the deserted hillside inside the enclosed compound, my first observation is that I had not materialized in the middle of a structure, and I find I take pride in Harry's competency with transporter control mechanisms; I had not shared his deep concerns over his ability to discern an appropriately safe location, despite the difficulties in penetrating the compound with the Delta Flyer's sensors. Hopefully, the split transporter beam has safely enabled him to appear in a slightly more secure location and escape detection, as I had anticipated.

It is my appearance that is meant to be detected immediately, for we know from the recorded confession of the still-detained operative that the alliance wanted me to join them. That is why, despite Harry's vehement protests, I am the one to materialize in what should be the very heart of the Nyberrite compound.

Yet the second striking observation is the absolute silence of the open stretch of ground upon which I stand. And despite my assumption that the base would be well-guarded, that my presence would be detected immediately, this does not appear to be the case.

It's night on this hemisphere of the planet, and the compound is unlit to compensate. It is now that I notice a third disturbing revelation. For some reason, my optical implant is failing to compensate for the lack of light, as it usually does. This could be evidence of whatever interference our sensors encountered, but it is nonetheless…highly discomfiting. My vision is severely limited, and I can detect nothing but vague shapes of buildings in the distance. What could be stacks of cargo containers dot the open ground closer to the buildings in the immediate distance. Nothing moves for a long moment. No shadows flicker. Not even a breeze ruffles the long, flat grasses at my feet. Uncertainly, I remove my tricorder and begin to scan the area. The tricorder detects no life signs, anywhere. I glance uncertainly over my shoulder. Still, nothing moves. No alarm klaxon blares, belying my presence. Not a single sound can be heard anywhere–

I hear the distinct snapping of a twig just ahead of my position. But swinging my head around and squinting into the darkness reveals nothing. The tricorder has no additional readings which would explain the sound. And I still see nothing.

I replace the apparently useless tricorder at the specially replicated belt of my civilian clothing. Uncertain as to which way I should proceed and second-guessing my previous decision to forgo carrying a weapon. For having decided that arming myself would most likely serve only to inflame the very individuals I sought to convince of my benign intentions.

With more hesitancy than is inherent to my personality under normal circumstances, I take a single step forward into the darkness–

Bright floodlights crackle into full blast overhead, illuminating a group of individuals clad in dark, concealing clothing barely ten meters ahead of me before the intensity of the glaring, white-hot light overloads my optical implant entirely. I can see almost nothing for a time. Yet the lingering, lasting impression I have of the image I'd been permitted before the spotlights burned my functioning retina is the gleam of five sleek, shining pieces of metal.

Weapons. Aimed, most squarely, upon me. And despite the meters between me and the alliance members just ahead, I somehow doubt they are individuals that will miss at this range.

I raise a hand slowly to shield my eyes from the glaring light. Squinting and barely able to make out the forms approaching silently and nearing my position. In spite of the threat inherent to their armed approach, I square my shoulders and raise my chin. "My name is Seven of Nine. I believe you have heard of me."

No response. I swallow, my throat feeling inexplicably dry, and try again. "I have come to join your organization. I no longer wish to be associated with the Federation."

No one answers. They give no indication of having heard me. I wonder if the translator in the communicator secreted in my jacket pocket is encountering interference, also. If that is the case, this will perhaps be a rougher initiation into the compound than I have expected…

The figures continue to approach. As my eyes slowly adjust to the blinding lights, I begin to discern the shapes as cloaked figures walking side by side. The central figure halts when they reach perhaps three meters away from me. At a slashing gesture from him, the others halt alongside him. It's now that I wonder if whatever is interfering with my optical implant might be affecting my other residual Borg implants as well, or if the movements of the central figure are somehow…familiar to me.

The central figure reaches up with his unoccupied hand and smoothes back the hood of his cloak. I draw in a small breath to recognize the face revealed beneath it.

"Chakotay," I acknowledge coolly…as coolly as it is possible to acknowledge an old friend brandishing a certainly lethal weapon at you.

He smiles. Even with the dark spots still obscuring parts of my vision, the recovering parts of my eye fix upon his face, and the breath catches in my throat.

Because the man standing before me now is not Chakotay. At least…he is not the Chakotay that I have known. There is a hardness to his affect. A more chiseled look to his thinned features. A dark, rugged growth adorns his jaw, shadowing the planes of his face. Yet even through the unfamiliar shadows, his black eyes gleam with a light of their own under the spotlights.

A menacing light. And when he smiles, flashing white teeth in his tanned face, I have little difficulty in acknowledging the shudder of apprehension that roils through me. It is a smile completely devoid of any good will. A smile filled with malice.

"Seven," he acknowledges evenly. Eerily so when coupled with that malicious glint in his eyes as they pass over me in a distinctly…predatory…manner. "You look well. It's good to see you again," he claims. "Even if you're not exactly who I was expecting."

My brow furrows. "What–"

I get no further. He raises his weapon. Taking closer aim. And somehow, despite the clear intent behind such a motion, I still have difficulty believing he truly intends to–

A cry, more of shock, of disbelief than of actual pain escapes me as pain explodes through my chest and I'm thrown backward. The last sensation I am aware of is one of my body forcefully striking the hard ground before consciousness deserts me.


** H **


I've come prepared. As prepared as I can be, considering the gross lack of intelligence we could gather about this facility beforehand. But I have to admit that if this had been two years ago, I probably wouldn't have thought as much about the little details as I have today. And all the interesting little toys I've been introduced to during advanced tactical training this summer have come in handier than I ever could have hoped.

At least I've narrowed down the source of the interference already. I think.

I can see the building I need to get to, and the outside appears to be deserted, but that's not speaking to what kind of enforcements will be guarding the inside. It might have to come down to a choice between trying to enter and increasing the yield of the explosives. Visually scanning the darkened area for any night patrols wandering around, I determine that it's clear and pause behind the next building over to try my commbadge again. "Kim to Seven," I utter as low as possible.

Not even a crackle this time. Damn. Well, I haven't heard any shots fired. Yet. But that doesn't mean anything, really. She's far enough away, and the Alliance could be using silent weapons, for all I know. I shake my head, stepping around the side of the building to approach the target building ahead.

Weapons' fire scorches past my ear, barely missing me.


**S**


Consciousness returns well before I am prepared for it. Worse, it is not a gradual process. Pain flares through my body simultaneously with first awareness, the residual energy from the weapon still lingering in my system. It appears to be wreaking havoc with my implants. Preventing my cortical processes from functioning properly. Misfiring neurons scramble impulses attempting to travel to my sensory organs, leaving me at a loss to determine where I am. When I try to flex my arms, my legs, even my fingers, I receive little productive result, and more pain shocks through me. My nervous system is impaired, and I can only hope these side effects are from the weapon – and will prove temporary.

Despite my condition, I'm able to open my eyes. It does little good. My optical implant refuses to cooperate, as it had when I arrived, and in this dimly lit space, there is very little I can discern about my current location, aside from the fact that it is an enclosed room. I have been moved inside one of the shielded compounds. I cannot help but wonder if this will enhance Harry's difficulty in locating us when he has finished with his own task, but perhaps it means at least that his simultaneous arrival was not yet detected, as we had hoped. Unless he is here, as well…

It's impossible for me to tell. My head is slumped over my chest, accounting for at least some of the sharp pain in my neck and shoulders, but I am unable to lift my head yet. I am, however, unsurprised to glance down over my body and find myself restrained to a metal chair. Quite effectively, if perhaps crudely. My legs, arms and torso have been thoroughly, tightly lashed to the chair, my ankles tethered individually to the front legs of the stark, simple piece of furniture, and my arms are wrapped many times over to the hard chair's arms with the same strong, black cord which restrains the rest of my body. Only my head is unrestrained, and it still refuses to lift from my chest.

The buzzing that had been in my ears begins to fade, and I begin to detect low murmurs from somewhere ahead of me. Someone is speaking. Imparting low instructions. Instantly, I close my eyes again and stop testing my limited range of movement. Unready to give away my state of consciousness so soon.

"...handle this. Just make sure…"

The voice lowers again before I can make out anything else. Lapsing into incomprehensible murmurs. Regardless of the low volume, it takes only a moment to realize that the voice is Chakotay's. I recognize his inflections. His cadence, and the rhythm of his speech patterns. He isn't speaking to me, for which I am thankful. I remain unready to confront the situation. I do not yet know if Harry's part of the mission has been more of a success than mine, or whether the ship has been detected. I do not know what these people intend for me now that they've captured me, and as the admiral had feared, it appears certain that Chakotay has been compromised. That he has been "brainwashed" to follow the Alliance's agenda, and I cannot help recalling with a residual shudder how he had not hesitated to depress that trigger at point-blank range. Even while looking me directly in the eye and most probably knowing how much pain it would cause me when I regained consciousness.

Chakotay's mental condition drastically changes the nature of this rescue mission, and my own capture has shifted the level of responsibility to Harry now. Aside from the uncertainty of what the Alliance will want to do with me now that they have me, there are still several physical difficulties I need to address before I can even contemplate Chakotay's latest betrayal, much less determine the appropriate response to it–

"You may as well open your eyes, Seven." My heart rate increases dramatically, and my eyes fly open without bothering to check with me to see if it's wise at the sudden sensation of warm breath on the back of my neck. Before I have recovered from the first shock, he continues whispering sinisterly in my ear, "I know you're already awake."

I attempt to calm my irregular respiration patterns. He's behind me. Yet he'd been in front of me when I'd heard him seconds before. How had I missed his approach? His close proximity produces nothing close to the sensations of comfort that I am accustomed to associating with his presence. Now, in this moment, he feels...

Dangerous.

I feel his strong hands smoothing almost gently over my shoulders from behind, grazing up the sides of my neck as his fingers wrap around my throat in a clearly intimidating fashion. His fingertips settle lightly against the bottom edge of my jaw as his hold tightens just enough to make a point.

A point about the absolute control he wields over my fate.

I stiffen painfully as I feel his teeth graze my left ear, and I truly begin to wonder about the odds of successfully completing this mission when he softly whispers his next question.

"Where is she, Seven?"


** H **


On pure instinct, I duck back behind the wall I'd just rounded, crouching behind it and angling my phaser around the side until I get a bead on the shooter. I see him, stalking towards the building from the field opposite, and he calls, a hell of a lot louder than he needs to, "Soldier! You don't have clearance to be in this vicinity. Identify yourself!"

There's only one of him, at least. Which means he must've spotted me by sheer luck, and not on sensors. If I'd been flagged on their sensor net, there would be a whole swarm of them.

Which is good. Sort of.

"Identify yourself!" he all but screams again.

Pissed off now, I let my return fire answer that one for me. There'd definitely been no one standing out on that field a second ago. I must've just missed seeing him. But if I don't drop him, fast, and get unpinned from this position, reinforcements are going to start showing in a hurry. Especially with all this racket he's making – and forcing me to make. The wall scorches about a centimeter away from my fist. I growl, falling back further and readjusting my grip on my phaser before daring to inch out from the wall again. Returning fire as quickly as I can sight him, and nicking his calf as he powers toward me from across the field, gaining on my position. He screams, and jumps, but it's not enough to drop him. Within seconds, he's limping for me again and opening fire all the while. I cringe back slightly as several more shots blast towards my position. They miss me, because I'm not presenting much of a target, but even as I'm cursing the unexpected intruder for calling so much attention to my presence, another shot barely misses my head, forcing me to jerk back from the line of fire again, and striking a stack of cargo containers with unknown contents somewhere behind me.

The containers explode without warning and blast me along the back of the building, clear to the other side, and then I'm all but flying. When I hit the ground again, it's with vision-blackening force as my forehead slams against a small, really poorly placed rock. Had it been any bigger, I wouldn't even be conscious right now, as the searing, blinding pain exploding through my skull assures me. As it is, for crucial seconds, I can only lay dazed, tasting dirt and sweat and blood. But it's move or die, and I don't know where the operative who'd been shooting at me is, if he'd also been thrown back by the forward momentum of the explosion or not. For all I know, he could already be right on top of me. I force myself to start scrambling to rise. And I lost my phaser back at the wall, I realize, coming up on battered, scraped hands and knees and realizing I have one more free hand than I should. Damn it. I fumble around, to face behind me, not bothering to get to my feet before reaching into my belt to retrieve the dart gun I've already used to fell one errant night sentry back a few buildings ago, and squint into the darkness to see if I even have the time to rise.

The operative comes stumbling around the corner right at this second, his weapon arcing around towards me along with his arm as he faces me, and I raise my shaking arm. He gets one shot off before I do, but his misses.

Mine doesn't. All that extra practice, all the training wasn't for nothing after all, I guess.

The dart hits the middle of his throat. He drops where he stands, face down in the dirt and probably driving the dart even deeper into himself. I wince on his behalf, surprised I'm still cognizant enough to feel any sort of sympathy, but the dart shouldn't be lethal enough length to kill him. It just would have hurt like hell if the sedative hadn't knocked him out before he fell. I get to my feet, barely noting the injuries that twinge all throughout my body, including my forehead. The adrenaline soaring through my bloodstream makes sure I hardly feel them, and I run shakily to his position. No time to waste in bothering to turn him over, or even to drag him to a less obvious position, and with that explosion, there's no chance of my presence not being known at this point. I duck down instead by the familiar gleam of metal and retrieve my lost weapon, the weight of it feeling reassuring in my hand.

So they definitely know I'm here, and they'll be converging on my location already. But that's fine. Not ideal, but I'd known I couldn't remain anonymous on this compound forever. And at least he hadn't been able to detect me outright. They'll be readjusting their scanners in a heartbeat, though, trying to find me. Knowing I'm not going to stay here long.

I've come prepared for this. Ducking down behind the wall again, I unshoulder the heavy pack and let it drop to the ground beside me, where I can swiftly rifle through it. I grab the arm band I needed right away, my fingers closing on the familiar texture almost immediately. I put it on as quickly as possible with numb fingers. But I have to fumble around for longer than I'd like for the second item, hopefully not longer than I have, until, in the darkness, my eager hand finally closes over the thin, flat case I'd been searching for, and I smile. "There you are," I murmur, pulling out my prize. I flip open the case and free the tiny, beautiful little machines that had been trapped inside. Watching as they rise and twitter like a swarm of Earth bees over my head before they split, each one taking off in a different direction, and then they're gone.

Except for one. One of the perfect, almost invisible little machines drops softly to the grass at my knees. Waiting for my prompting before fulfilling its purpose. I flip the appropriate sequence into the arm band, knowing the code by heart, and my thermal energy is now masked to anything less advanced than Borg sensors. The machine hums softly. Beeps once. And starts emitting a thermal signature and false life signs of its own, just as its brothers will, when they get far enough away from my position. Even better, they'll move along at random, believable paces just like I would, if it was really me they were reading on those sensors.

And now I'm free to make my way across to the target building, relatively confident that even specifically adjusted sensors aren't going to betray my location.

Shouldering my pack again, I rise stiffly to my feet. Crouching and then forcing my legs to carry me quickly across the distance and thanking every star I've ever come across that I haven't been overwhelmed by operatives already.

And hoping like anything that, wherever Seven is, she's having at least as much luck as I am.


**S**


"Where is she?" he repeats. And this time it's much more of a snarl.

In the absence of properly functioning mental processes, I decide that feigning ignorance is my only option. "I am uncertain whom you are referring to," I claim.

"You know exactly who I'm referring to. And she'd never have let you come here by yourself. Never." I say nothing, and his breath becomes harsh against my skin. "Kathryn," he spits. "Where is she?"

The pain in my head doesn't lessen, but throbs all the more harshly as my adrenaline soars, sensing increasing agitation in the man behind me. Sensing increasing danger.

I attempt to deflect the question. "I came with the intention of joining the Nyberrite Alliance. If they will not have me, I will leave."

He laughs. "I hate to break it to you, Seven, but look down." His hands leave my neck for a moment, and then a pressure builds around my shoulders as he tugs firmly at the cord wrapped around them. Allowing the strong material to almost cut into my flesh. "You're not going anywhere," he coldly informs me, slipping his fingers free and snapping the cord back into its original position. "Not until you tell me where she is."

I attempt to regain control of my breathing. Attempt to process my remaining options and ponder the wisdom of further provoking him.

His hands smooth back up my shoulders. Resume their place over my neck, although lightly this time, and I stiffen. Gritting my teeth through the pain this still causes.

"She isn't here," I lie boldly. Distinctly disliking the sensation of his fingers tightening over my neck as I speak. "I came alone," I repeat. Hoping that my voice resonates as clear and strong as I intend it to.

"Deception, Seven?" He gives a low hum of disapproval. His thumbs graze lightly over the back of my neck, even as his hold on my throat tightens. "I'm disappointed in you. Outright lying? I didn't think that was your style. You learned more at Kathryn's knee than I gave the two of you credit for."

The expression is disconcerting. Particularly with his hands still around my throat and the contempt dripping from his words.

I swallow. It's difficult, past the constriction around my neck. And try, "Why are you so certain that I know where she is? Why can you not accept that I have come here alone?"

His soft laughter at my response is tolerantly amused. And it leaves me entirely unprepared for him to jerk my head sharply upright, sending shards of pain exploding through sore muscles. I exhale sharply, angrily as he growls against my ear, "Less than a week ago, you were on Earth. That's been confirmed, by several reliable sources." Cold realization sweeps through me, dousing the pain as he continues, "And now here you are, sitting on a planet that by all currently known laws of physics you shouldn't be able to reach for another seven weeks. There's only one way you could have gotten here. And only one person who ever could have convinced Starfleet to let her take the ship you came in."

Unfortunately, the Alliance would seem to have better intelligence than we'd anticipated. Much better. My mind struggles to come up with a plausible counterargument to his assertion – and finds none as he shakes my neck for too-painful emphasis, "So I'm going to ask you one more time, Seven. Where. Is she?"

"She intended to come!" I uncharacteristically blurt out before realizing. "I..."

"You?" he prompts, after a thick moment of silence.

"I convinced her otherwise," I settle upon, without enough conscious thought behind the attempt.

He snorts. "You convinced her otherwise? I don't think so. No one talks Kathryn Janeway out of doing something once she's made up her mind to do it. And believe me," he laughs bitterly, "I've tried. You would have had to tie her down or lock her in a brig somewhere to get here without her."

"Not quite. I simply stunned her with a phaser and had…the doctor…sedate her," I reply coldly. Surprising him for the first time in our interaction from his stiffening body language. His hands retreat once again to my shoulders as he straightens, forcing me to expend painful effort in keeping my head upright on my own. His fingertips dig harshly into my flesh.

There's a bark of laughter from somewhere behind me. For the first time, I realize that whomever Chakotay had been speaking to had never left the room. The unknown individual shuffles closer to our position but not close enough that I can see him. "Maybe she's telling the truth after all," a rough voice grates over my head.

"That doesn't explain how she got the Flyer."

I find the continual insult to my intelligence is more than my pride can stand. "Do you believe I am incapable of circumventing Starfleet controls and taking the vessel without authorization?" I can't help demanding coldly of the men behind me.

"Not incapable, Seven," Chakotay retorts silkily. Pouncing on my response. "Just unlikely."

"You seem to be suppressing a large part of your past. Do you not recall how many times I was confined to the cargo bay for acting without authorization?"

"Oh, I remember. But you were a different woman then." He chuckles, one of his hands smoothing over the top of my hair. It's…

Extremely disquieting.

"Admit it," he coaxes, in a voice too soft for the pointed, malevolent intent in his words. "You used to be rebellious, but you knocked that off a while ago. She eventually trained you as well as she did the rest of us – it's been a long time since you took a single step without her say so."

I rally myself. Bristling under the implication. "That is untrue."

"Tell yourself that if you want. Don't worry…it takes most people years to realize how manipulative she is–"

"This is not you, Chakotay," I break in, dropping at least a part of the façade I'd been struggling to maintain. "The Alliance has done something to you. They have altered your mind. If you come with me, now, we can help you."

Silence descends. I swallow tightly, futilely attempting to restore moisture to my throat, and flatter myself that he is actually considering the request. Yet at the single first word that he speaks, my breath catches in realization of what I've foolishly betrayed with the simple entreaty.

"'We'?" he echoes.

My heart sinks.


 

** H **


Bright floodlights crackle to life overhead, illuminating the stark fields of what looks like the entire compound and, all but blinded, I duck down out of the open line of sight behind some cargo containers to conceal myself from immediate view. Damn. Well, it had taken longer than I expected, really, but it's still going to make things slightly more difficult. The holographic force field I've erected around me is decent enough, as far as they go. It should allow me to blend in with my surroundings to anyone looking at me dead on, but it's not the most stable piece of technology, and I knew that coming in. I may have been able to become familiar with it during tactical training, where I was allowed to use it, but it's not as if we were just handed them to take home and play with. I've had to recreate this one from memory, and even with Seven's helpful input, I don't know how well it'll do its job under lighting as intense as this.

Counting on it unconditionally could easily get me killed. Unfortunately, I may not have much choice right now, I realize, as a squad of Alliance members go jogging past my position, heading for the direction I've just come from. Their faces are buried in their scanners, and that's when it occurs to me that the Alliance must obviously have altered their equipment to still be operational even against whatever interference they're running in this place. I wish to hell I had one of those scanners now, because it would make finding Seven and Chakotay a heck of a lot easier, but there are too many of them in the one grouping to take out one and not be noticed by the rest of them. Even if they can't see me, they'll see their friend go down and know I'm here.

Damn again. Time is slowly running out before the timed transport tries to lock onto my and Seven's signals, and I still have to reach her and find out whether or not she's with Chakotay yet. Really, I have to find her first…something that's been impossible to do with all this interference messing with the communicators' signals, too. If that charge I set doesn't take care of that interference, we're going to be stuck here for another hour on top of the twenty or so minutes when the transporter makes the first attempt. And with all the increasing activity around here as the Alliance struggles to find me, I'm not sure the additional time is going to be to our side's advantage.

The charge is set, and that's all I needed. Hopefully, opting not to actually enter the building where the interference is coming from won't come back to bite me, but entering that building and getting pinned inside it wasn't worth the tactical risk of getting the charge set closer to the source. My calculations with the yield of the explosive had just better be powerful enough, that's really all there is to it–

Two more are headed in my direction. As I glance around the side of the containers at them, I can see another one lagging behind as he heads in their general direction, apparently coming from another building. I squint past the bright lights to see if there's anyone else in sight.

No one. Good. The first two sail past me, and I reach into my pocket for the projectile sedatives. Load one into the end of the propeller gun. If I time this right, I should be able to drop him, pull him back behind these containers before anyone notices him dropped flat on the field, and relieve him of what I hope is that scanner tucked securely into the pocket at his hip.

If I time it right. If I don't… Let's hope Seven has things under control on her end, I tell myself grimly, as I adjust my position and wait for the straggler's approach.


**S**


"'We'?" he echoes yet again, as my heart rate further increases at the triumphant gleam in his dark eyes.

I am angry with myself. He knows precisely what I have just let slip, and to deny the presence of at least one other on this compound is probably futile now, I realize, as I brace myself for the oncoming barrage of pointed questions from him.

Yet whatever Chakotay might have followed up with is cut off as the door slides open, admitting a darkly-dressed Nyberrite female – the first I have ever encountered. She presents an impressive figure, her green skin mottled with blue spots almost iridescent in nature, her figure compact and lightly muscled. Yet for the attention she unwittingly draws from me, she barely glances in my direction, seeming unsurprised at my presence…and undisturbed at my restrained position. Her yellow eyes are pale, and glinting as they flit over the figures behind me instead.

Her pause in the open doorway is brief. She marches directly to Chakotay, who is already crossing the room to greet her.

"I told you I didn't want any interruptions," he's warning the operative before she can even speak.

She pauses in her approach. Her eyes shifting to the individual who still stands behind me before flicking back to Chakotay. "There was an explosion," she declares without preamble. "A stack of kilocite was ignited by weapons' fire in Quad B not five minutes ago."

"We don't use energy weapons on the compound," Chakotay snarls back as he reaches her.

"No," she holds her ground, lifting her gaze to him. "Not unless defending against–"

"Infiltraters," Chakotay finishes. He pulls back from her, even as I tense anew.

"There's more," the woman declares. "Five of our operatives have been discovered unconscious. Three from the team sent to contain the infiltrators, and two night guards on patrol near the central complex. They had been felled by an unfamiliar projectile dart. The darts each contained the same long-acting sedative of unfamiliar composition."

"Nonlethal force – has 'Starfleet' written all over it," Chakotay declares.

The woman straightens. "So we surmised."

I feel all eyes in the room revert to me – even those from behind. I keep my head level, despite the pain it causes my neck, simply glad to be free of the threatening hands around it.

"That doesn't make sense. There was only one transport," the one behind me muses, breaking the spell over the room. "And we caught her the second she arrived."

For the second time, the woman seems unsure of herself. "I know. I have someone looking over the logs now, but–"

"Don't bother," Chakotay barks, cutting her off. "They're accurate. Temeris never misread a sensor log in his life."

"That still doesn't explain how they were able to transport through our shielding without us detecting the transport beam," the one behind me growls.

Chakotay's eyes are on me now. Only on me. His gaze razes over my face. Reading every nuance of expression while I fight to show him none.

Somehow, however, I must give something away.

"Yes it does," he declares. "They split the transporter beam. Didn't you…Seven?"

I say nothing. Waiting for the explosion of anger in response to my stubborn refusal to reply. Once more, silence descends over the room. The Nyberrite's eyes lock onto mine. I keep my chin raised even through the pain it causes my neck and meet her eye with confidence I do not quite feel, but again, it is Chakotay's eyes which swiftly draw my attention. They are burning with an even more intense light than they have been since I first arrived and locked gazes with him. In this instant, I believe him capable of things I would rather not attribute to his character.

In this moment, I believe him to be capable of anything.

"Seven?" he repeats. Too calmly. Much, much too calmly, as he takes a single step in my direction. "That's what you did. Isn't it? You split the transporter beam. There was only one…but two people beamed down on that single beam. We only detected the penetration of our sensor net. If the beam was split at the precise moment it passed through the grid, the other person could have been directed to a separate location and we'd only have read one transport."

He steps forward once more. He is now barely meters away from me, and I can see the slightly darker dots of his hard pupils. "Kathryn's somewhere on this compound."

I remain silent, and he takes another step. Beginning, ever so slowly, to close the already small distance between us. And I can do nothing, restrained to the chair, but to watch him approach.

"Seven. Listen to me very carefully right now." His voice turns softer, but the menacing edge remains. "You need to tell me where she is, before our men find her first. Believe me, if they find her before I do, you and she willboth wish you'd told me where she is."

I cannot help but to believe him. He takes another step, and the other two individuals in the room might as well be holograms for all the focus they command. Chakotay and I are watching each other – only each other now.

"Seven," he coaxes once more. The step he takes next brings him directly in front of me. His knees brush mine, and my neck aches from arching it up to hold his eye. His hand reaches towards me, and I cannot jerk away fast enough to stop his unfurling fingers from taking a firm hold on my jaw. He leans down over me, until our lips are almost touching, and when he speaks again, I can feel his warm breath wisping across my own lips…

"Tell me where she is," he whispers. "This is the last chance I'm going to give you before things start getting rough in here."

If the threat is meant to instill fear, I refuse to let it succeed.

Much.

"Tell me, Seven," he repeats, his eyes focused, fused on my face.

"No." My throat is so devoid of moisture that the word hurts passing over my vocal chords. But I do not back down.

His reaction is not what I am expecting. I think, given his actions thus far, that I had almost become convinced that another refusal might even provoke him to strike me. I've braced, painfully, for the blow. Yet it does not come. Not immediately, and not in the deadly silence that follows on the heels of my refusal. Instead, he does something which increases my adrenaline levels exponentially more than a simple blow might have done.

Chakotay smiles.


** H **


Got 'em, I think triumphantly, as the Nyberrite scanner clearly shows two human life signs in one building, about half a kilometer away from me. There are several humans on this compound, actually – but only one with Borg implants, and only one of Chakotay's origins. And they're together, sealing the reading. That's where they are. And I have about thirteen minutes to get there. Doable, if I don't keep being forced to stop and sight-see behind stacks of cargo containers and around the sides of buildings every three minutes while more Alliance members storm by me.

With my newly acquired limp, I'm already slowed down more than I'd like to be. It's going to eat up a lot of my time. I'm going to have to start trusting the holographic field, I decide, setting my jaw a little tighter. Again, I brush trickles of blood from my eye, hardly noticing the sharp sting as I brush against the open wound from the rock. I sprint for cover of the next building, forcing my gimp leg to keep up the grueling pace and thanking the gods of adrenaline again that I'm probably not feeling it as much as I'm going to later.

The leg's not the real problem, though. The real problem is going to be if that snide, snarky Alliance operative on that recording was telling the truth. If they've managed to get into Chakotay's head and to turn him to their side. Although I guess he's not exactly privy to all the latest gadgets and toys Starfleet's been developing while we were stranded in the Delta Quadrant. Unless, it occurs to me now, for the first time…they gave him a crash course in them just before he left.

Which unfortunately makes too much sense.

So Chakotay might have been able to fill them in on some of the tricks I'm using. If that's the case, they'll be scrambling, right now, to find countermeasures to use against me. Gritting my teeth, I force myself to sprint across to the next cover, another stack of cargo containers. And by the way, now that I can scan the interiors, I'm a little more wary of using them for cover. It was no accident that the containers near me the first time exploded on impact with that operative's weapon, either. These containers are all housing scores of illicit, unstable materials. Weapons fuels. Outlawed, crude grades of warp plasma and highly volatile ore compositions. Starfleet may have guessed that the Alliance had unsavory intentions, but with the things I'm seeing just out in the open on these fields, what the Alliance is planning is no less than a full-scale war against…

Someone. And whoever it is, if they don't have advanced warning that the Alliance is coming, they're going to be in for a hell of a rude awakening. The kinds of casualties these kinds of weapons are able to inflict are going to be devastating. If these people have turned Chakotay to their side, I can only imagine what kind of rhetoric, and hatred, they'd have had to instill in him in order to get his cooperation in this. I can't imagine what they've done to his brain to turn him into a willing participant in all this…

I can't imagine Seven in the hands of someone that confused…or dangerous. And Chakotay was always a more dangerous man than most people ever gave him credit for back on Voyager. I'm not sure most people saw the reports Starfleet had gathered on his records as a Maquis. But I did, and so did the rest of the senior staff. For pure tactical terrorism, the man is an undisputed genius. If he wasn't fundamentally a good man, and a man I trusted with my life, I'd have been a little terrified of him, actually. And if the Alliance has managed to get into his head, to turn him against Starfleet, his old friends and colleagues…if he isn't that man that I knew back on Voyager anymore, then I don't think I want Seven anywhere near him. And none of that is speaking to her being with any one of the people responsible for amassing stockpiles of these kinds of weapons.

There's no denying that whatever feelings I used to have for her have resurfaced in the past few days. Not now, and not at the surge of inexplicable anger I experience when I think of her in possible danger–

"Kathryn."

I almost fall in the middle of the field as the muffled voice comes out of nowhere.

"Kathryn, I know you can hear me."

It's Chakotay's voice! What the hell?

I glance down, belatedly realizing I'm still in the middle of the field and need to sprint for cover, but the voice continues, and that's when I fully realize where it's coming from.

"As you must have surmised by now, I've tapped into your comm. frequency."

The heck if he hasn't, too. Only he apparently thinks he's talking to the admiral.

This must mean he's aware that we've come for him. That he's still on our side, I guess. The relief is blended with frustration as it occurs to me that anyone passing close by while he's talking into my pocket is going to know I'm here from the sound of his voice alone. And as I toss myself behind the next building, rolling across the back of it before coming to rest against the wall and out of sight of most of the compound, I'm not exactly sure how to respond. Just as I reach into my pocket and dig out my communicator to activate my end and reply, to ask him to stay put until I can come for him, and to close the line, he keeps talking.

"Not going to answer me?" I pause. Sitting up straight against the wall at the tone, the edge in his voice I hadn't noticed out on the field. And when he chuckles, darkly and menacingly…that's when actual chills start to run up and down my spine. "Well, that's okay. You can just listen, then. I know you're here, and why you've come. You've come to rescue me. What you don't know, and need to know right now, is that I don't need rescuing. And that you're ultimately here only because we wanted you to come."

My brain must be bruised from that fall. He can't have said what I thought he just did…

"That operative you 'caught' we intended to be captured. And I knew that if he told you I'd been brainwashed and was in danger, you'd be on the next flight out of the sector before he finished talking. Probably without even bothering to gather much back-up. But you're you, and occasionally unpredictable, and so I had to make sure. So, to sweeten the deal, we had him tell you we were after Seven, too. Because I know just how much that would have riled you…our coming after her."

His laughter is cold. Hard. "I can picture your face right now, as I'm telling you this. 'Pissed off' doesn't even begin to describe it, does it?"

If my head wasn't already aching, I'd give in to the compulsion to pound it against the wall I'm leaning against. It's true. It was a set-up. This whole thing…has been a set-up. And ironically, the only reason it hasn't worked out the way they'd planned it to was because of Seven's unpredictable act of phasering the admiral.

This is incredible. Mind-blowing. Interesting times, all right, is really all my brain can seem to muster in response to this new development. Chakotay isn't giving me much time to catch up with my thoughts as he keeps at it.

"There are a few additional things you should know, Kathryn," he continues. "I don't want to kill you. No one here does. We want you to join us."

Oh, man. They've done a number on him, all right. He's lost it if thinks that's happening…or would be happening, if I was who he thinks I am.

He laughs again. "Now, I know you're hard-headed. And the fact that I got you out here on a lie will make you even more obstinate than usual, but once you've heard the truth…once you understand what we're really facing here…I know you'll agree with me. Just as I know that getting you to listen to reason will be the most difficult part of this negotiation."

Uh. Yeah. If it really was the admiral that he was talking to right now, I'd only have to wish him a heck of a lot of luck with that – getting her to understand whatever twisted logic the Alliance is using to justify acquiring the weapons I keep reading on these scanners.

I can't believe I'm hearing this right now. Does he really believe what's he's spewing? I start to ease around my side of the building, needing to get a closer reading on the building where I detected his and Seven's life signs. He hasn't mentioned her yet, which makes me wonder if she's still with him or just in close proximity to him. If she is with him…did they believe her story of wanting to join them?

His voice continues. "But you do need to listen, Kathryn, and you need to listen very carefully. We may not want to kill you…but we will if we have to."

My blood runs arctic cold at the casual tone in which he says that.

"Trust me when I say that, even at this moment, we're closing in on your position."

I immediately glance at the scanner I confiscated and recheck the positions of the Nyberrites running around the base. I don't see any one group directly closing in on where I'm still hunkered down…but I do notice that time is still inexorably slipping away from me. He's bluffing. And like an idiot, I'm falling for it.

I need to move.

"I tried to tell them you'd give them a good run despite any defenses they mustered – and I'm forced to admit I'm glad you didn't let me down in that regard. But the time for running is up, Kathryn. Throw down your weapons and show yourself. Let my people bring you in unharmed. Give me a chance to show you the real truth that Starfleet has been denying for all these years."

Starfleet. So Starfleet itself is the Alliance's target – one of them, at least. Hell. But I'll have to deal with that later. Assuming I make it to later.

I briefly consider his words. It could buy me the time I need to get into close proximity to him and Seven. My going along with the charade wouldn't matter at all to the pre-arranged transporter beam. It would pick all three of us up, regardless of the reason we'd come to be together, or the circumstances. With the interference nullified, the transporter won't have trouble locking onto the three of us. I was painstakingly careful about the way I programmed the computer to scan for our individual life signs. Since Chakotay's last scan and transport on the Delta Flyer was years ago and the pattern on memory might not match up enough to today's, the computer will scan for his DNA markers if it can't conclusively determine which life sign in close proximity to Seven or I best fits his pattern. Giving myself up would ideally only double our chances of making sure one of us is near him when the time comes.

There's just the one nagging detail…that I'm not who he's expecting. I'm obviously not the admiral, and once he clues in to that little deception, I really don't want to be standing in front of him without a weapon.

"Kathryn."

I immediately tune back in to his voice. It's gone hard again. He's done with trying to talk her in nicely. Between me and the building he's in, there's a group of Nyberrites passing. As soon as they're past my position, I'll make another run for it. If I can get to the far wall, I should be in a good position for the detonation.

"Kathryn. Do as I say, or you'll regret it."

I silently snort. Like that would ever work with her. It's not going to work with me, let alone her. I glance over. The patrol is halfway across the square, so I start to concentrate on my breathing, focus the pain away from my head and leg. One last sprint. I can do this.

"Tell me, Kathryn, do you even care about Seven at all? Or was she just a means to an end for you?"

I freeze.

"Because, to tell you the truth, after our little threat against her, I didn't think you'd actually bring her with you. It's true we could certainly use her for the reasons we mentioned – and we will now – but I'd intended you locking her away to be a necessary sacrifice if it meant getting you out here."

He pauses for a minute, as if thinking, and then it's clear that's what he'd been doing as he continues, "But I guess you had to have someone help you with the slipstream. That was it, wasn't it? You needed her Borg efficiency, didn't you?"

The patrol is past my position. I can move. But I can't. I have to close him out of the comm. channel before I do. And I can't do that just yet. Not until I know…

"But it does make me wonder just how much you really care about her safety."

My heart skips crucial beats. No. He wouldn't. It's Chakotay. Fundamentally, he's still himself, right? No matter what they've done to his brain, he would never–

"Let's find out."

My stomach clenches.

"I'll give you thirty seconds to show yourself. And if you don't, we're going to find out just how effective nanoprobes are at keeping someone alive."


** S **


He winks at me when he closes the comm. link, but then his eyes move to the person standing behind me. He jerks his head to the left, indicating the door. "Make sure the doors are covered," he instructs.
"If I know Kathryn at all, she'll walk right through them."

I experience a small thrill of pride that he still has no idea it isn't Kathryn he's been talking to all this time. I also fear for Harry and tense anew as more than one person begins to file out from behind me. There has beenmore than one person behind me all this time. I don't have the time or the luxury of being overly shocked by this revelation. Despite the throbbing pain in my neck, I watch them as they move and try to catalog as much as I can about them. As the last man passes close to Chakotay, he pauses and looks back over his shoulder at me. "What about her?" he grunts.

I recognize his voice easily as the only one I've heard speak. I must admit I'm surprised to see the slight round indentation high on his forehead. It would seem to indicate that he has at least some Cardassian heritage. Given Chakotay's feelings about the race, it's doubly disturbing to realize that he has been working so closely alongside at least one of them.

"You let me worry about her," Chakotay snaps definitively. "You'll have your hands full taking care of Janeway."

The smile that appears on the alien's face would concern me more if it was indeed the admiral that was making her way here. It's identical to the expression Chakotay wore only minutes earlier, and it's just as menacing.

The Cardassian begins to move past Chakotay only to be hauled to an abrupt stop as Chakotay's hand shoots out, grabbing the unnamed man by the arm and yanking him closer than either male would normally stand to each other. It's a strangely intimate posture as Chakotay growls low in the back of his throat, "You just make sure your weapon is on stun, Partek, and that you bring her to me untouched – or I'll be the one doing the torturing. Understood?"

Partek scoffs, jerks his arm free of Chakotay's grasp but says nothing, heading once again for the door. Chakotay scowls darkly after him before returning his attention to me. "So," he smirks, sauntering closer. "Now that we're finally alone…what do you think it'll take, Seven?"

I choose to focus my attention past his position, on the now-closed door, rather than to respond.

He laughs mirthlessly at my non-response, seeing through it and trailing a hand over my shoulders as he reaches and moves around me. "Despite all your Borg arrogance, Seven. Despite all that collective knowledge you have…you've really never been trained for this sort of thing, have you?"

I say nothing.

"Do you know what I'm talking about, Seven?"

I do not reply. I can control at least this much as his fingers once again snake around my neck, his fingers tapping idly against my jaw. And I am too aware that my heartbeat has increased, despite my efforts to ignore his taunting.

"I can feel your pulse, Seven." His hot breath washes across my neck as he lowers his mouth almost to my ear. "Even now, it's beating faster." He chuckles darkly. "I don't recall you ever getting this excited before," he whispers, his thumb stroking behind my ear. "I guess I should've handled our relationship a bit differently if this is what gets you excited."

Against every intention, I jerk my head away from his hand. A pain shoots up through my neck, and again a small cry of pain escapes me against my will.

He circles in front of me, lowering himself slowly until he's at eye-level with me. His dark eyes are entirely soulless as his finger strokes the side of my face. "That's what I thought," he declares triumphantly. "Despite all the atrocities you may have committed as a Borg, you have no real knowledge of torture. That's one skill that isn't really in the Borg repertoire is it?"

I feel my chest shudder as I drag in a shaky breath. Yet my voice is strong this time, and I'm proud of that fact. I manage to hold his predatory gaze to counter, "I have assimilated the knowledge of thousands. I am fully aware of torture methods you've never even considered."

"Maybe." He cocks his head slightly in acknowledgment. Conceding the point? I am uncertain. His hand leaves my face, slips into his pocket and reappears holding a cylindrical object. "Being aware of torture methods and being intimately familiar with them are two very different things." With a casual flick of his wrist, a long silver blade snaps into view.

I barely dare to breathe as he begins to trace a light, spiraling pattern down the side of my cheek. I feel the blade continue, slide coldly across my jaw, his hand dragging it across skin at just the perfect angle so that it does not yet cut me. He stops only when he has the tip of the blade tucked neatly behind my ear, shifting it so I can feel the sharp edge nick into my soft skin.

"I think we've given Kathryn enough time to make her decision," he declares without warning. His free hand brings the comm. device back to his mouth, holding it between the two of us. Activating it, he speaks once more to the person that he thinks is his former captain. "I'm disappointed in you, Kathryn. Your precious little Borg is about to experience truly agonizing pain – and you aren't even here to help her."

If he was speaking to the admiral, which he believes he is, his words would be calculated to bring about maximum impact. He is using his knowledge of her to attempt to unnerve her, to rile her into rash action, and I find it despicable. He is no longer anything like the Chakotay that I know, and the stranger before me is one I am beginning to despise.

"How very selfish of you," he chides tauntingly. "You should be ashamed of yourself."

His eyes remain on mine as he speaks, and I can see that he wishes to gauge my reaction to his words as well as to provoke a response from her. My gaze flashes anger at him, loathing for his base tactics, and yet he only smiles. Genuinely, wickedly amused.

He winks again, letting me know that he is far from finished with this base line of provocation and furthers, "Maybe you aren't who I thought you were all this time." He brings the comm. device closer to his mouth, his voice going sickeningly soft for his next blow, and he scoffs lightly. "Maybe you really are just Daddy's lost little girl playing dress-up as an admiral after all. Too damn scared to move. Too frightened to do anything but stand still and save yourself. I bet that's exactly what happened when you lost your–"

The very distinct sounds of a chain reaction of explosions cuts off whatever insult he was in the middle of delivering with such brutal precision. His hand jerks against my neck, cutting into my skin as he pulls sharply away from me, spinning towards the doors. I only manage to see his expression for an instant, but it's the closest I've seen him come to a real smile since he phasered me. Never taking his eyes off the front of the building, he circles behind me, the hand with the knife resting on my shoulder even as he chuckles, "That's my girl. Took you long enou–"

"Sorry to disappoint you, Chakotay," a very familiar male voice that is definitely not the commander speaks out from behind me.

I feel Chakotay's hand leave my shoulder as he spins around to confront the intruder. For the first time sounding unsure as he splutters, "Harry?"

"I'm certainly not the admiral," Harry agrees what sounds almost like lightly but for the slightly shaking tenor of his tone.

And then I hear the distinct sound of a type three phaser firing and barely manage to look over my shoulder in time to see Chakotay slump to the floor.

"Seven, are you all right?" Harry demands immediately, already falling to his knees behind me as he begins to loosen the ropes binding me to the chair. I hear the scraping of metal and then slight tightening of the cords around my legs precede the abrupt loosening of the restraints as they fall to the floor.

As he moves around in front of me, working his way up with the knife that Chakotay had dropped when he'd been phasered, I'm too shocked to muster anything more than, "You shot him."

He pulls me to me feet, supporting my shaking legs, which have not had the benefit of free circulation in the tight restraints all this time. And grins as his scrutiny confirms that I have not been significantly harmed. "Well, it worked for you when you did it to the captain."

I have regained myself enough to begin to correct him about her rank only at the precise moment that weapons' fire burns suddenly above our heads, and Harry fires back even as we both dive for cover. The others guarding the doors have finally noticed the lieutenant's surprising entrance, and they have come to ensure that we do not succeed in our mission.

But they're too late, and the transporter beam locks onto the three of us and we disappear into the welcoming blue lights.


 

** H **


Having discarded my clarinet some time ago, I stare out at the chestnut tree in the front of the yard. A little frustrated, if I'm honest. After everything that's happened over the past two weeks, I'd felt like I might be getting back into some sort of groove in the settling dust of the aftermath. Apparently not, as the damned ending still won't quite come to me.

But maybe that's to be expected. I mean…I did sort of have my whole life turned upside down in the span of just a few days. Maybe in just hours. Finding out that Chakotay hadn't really resigned had lifted a heavy burden off my heart in itself…even if I'd been too angry at the deception he and the admiral had played out for the rest of us to realize it immediately. I've had some time with that now, and I definitely forgive them for it. Maybe seeing the admiral phasered on the deck of the Flyer had helped a little to forgive her. I don't know. I do know that being mad at Chakotay, despite his threats against Seven, became more out of the question the instant I was forced to phaser him at point-blank range.

That wasn't speaking to how pissed off they were at us, when they woke up. I half grin, half shudder at the remembrance of that. Of standing over the two of them lying side by side in the aft section and watching them regain consciousness together. Watching them slowly sit up and remember everything that had happened to lead them to waking up there, and then especially watching the two of them exchange a single wary, confused glance and then stare back at Seven and I standing over them. As they gaped up at us in absolute, undeniable awe.

And when the necessary recriminations, the outrage at our (arguably treasonous) actions finally dimmed and passed, after Seven and I calmly explained ourselves several times over and stood by our decisions even in the face of their wrath, they gave over and admitted we'd done the right thing.

Well. Chakotay admitted it. Mostly for the admiral's sake, I think. He was glad we hadn't let her come down there by herself. I still don't think I'll ever forget the look on his face when he fully realized what he'd done down there. That he'd been convinced the admiral was the one on that compound, and that he'd let those operatives loose after her to try and bring her in. That he'd held a knife to Seven, and threatened her with bodily harm, all to convince the admiral to come join the Alliance. They'd definitely planned on bringing her there to force her into joining their sinister organization like they had Chakotay, and he'd been willing to let it happen at the time. Not only that, but he'd apparently been instrumental in forming the plan to draw her out in the first place. It was his intimate knowledge of the way her mind works that had enabled the Alliance to manipulate her into biting at their bait, and his idea to use Seven to further ensure her compliance.

I can't think about the picture I walked in on in that room. Not without my heart rate skyrocketing into the next stratosphere. It's a picture that's going to be hard to get out of my mind, though. At least not anytime soon.

It took a while for Chakotay to even play at being able to interact normally with the rest of us, to think about forgiving himself for that. Knowing him, he probably won't. Not completely. It's understandable. If that had been me, I doubt I'd be able to forgive myself. Seven was classy about it, of course. Wouldn't hear his apologies and informed him that his guilt was "erroneous". She assured him that she didn't hold him accountable for his actions while under the Alliance's control and that neither should he.

On the surface, Chakotay's mind alteration was pretty easy to take care of – thank the stars. The majority of what had been done to him was actually mechanical. An implant embedded into his hippocampus was controlling his memory center. The Alliance had simply rewritten history for him. Suppressed his own long-term memory of events and given him a slew of new, false memories. Memories that incited anger, rage. They had been the basis of the psychological manipulation that the Alliance members had put him through, were the framework of his ability to think and behave they way he had. For two years, he'd believed the lies that had been put into his mind, had bought into the warping of his personal history with Starfleet. It was a lot to take in, to reconcile for did the best we could to help him accept what had happened, but mostly, he's going to need time with it. Especially since it's not exactly the first time his brain has been royally screwed with like that.

He was lucky, in spite of it all. The false memories hadn't been integrated into his memory organically; the Alliance didn't seem to know how to do that. Which meant that deactivating the implant before waking him had been all it had taken to restore him to his former self – more or less. It was tricky to do, but with Seven's help I managed it. His true memories came back, at least. He knew what he'd done and realized what had happened to him. But he still has no memory of those first few weeks of having reached the colony. He only remembers being stunned on arrival, and waking up an indeterminate amount of time later – much like what had happened to Seven, plus the mind alteration. He was able to confirm that the same alterations had been intended for the admiral and that he'd been ready to argue using it on Seven.

The other Alliance members had toyed with the idea of just killing her. Of taking her implants and trying to figure out how to use them on their own. They'd been afraid that her own Borg implants would work to circumvent the memory implant's pathways. Seven tells me they were right.

The wind ruffles the leaves of the tall chestnut, and I suppress another shudder. I force my mind to turn to more pleasant reflections, and there are some from that flight back to Earth.

After things had settled down and we'd had some time to reflect on the new information we'd gathered from Chakotay – once he was able to start reconciling everything that had happened and started to come out of his shell the tiniest bit – we all spent a good full two days just enjoying the hell out of being alive. Especially of being alive and together. I think even Chakotay had enough sense of the uniqueness of the opportunity the four of us had on that shuttle to not be completely immune to it. And I don't think the admiral, Seven and I were as worried about facing the music back home as we should have been, but after everything that had just happened, everything that had almost happened, the three of us had decided we'd take the repercussions of our actions with clear consciences.

That's really the most important thing. In the two days that followed, I came to some realizations aboard the Flyer. Some realizations about the way my life has been going and the fact that it's at odds with the way my lifeshould be going. About the quality of the life I want to lead, and about the people I want to be in it.

Which reminds me. I only have a little bit of time left before Seven stops by to go to dinner. We're supposed to be meeting Tom and B'Elanna at some pizza place he's found and always raving about recently. And rumor has it that Chakotay and the admiral…Kathryn…will be there, too. It wouldn't surprise me. Not since I offered Chakotay a temporary place to stay a few days ago (knowing he hadn't gotten a chance to get a new place when he's only been back a few days). He informed me that he'd already been offered room and board at a modest local apartment whose sole occupant desperately needed a live-in chef.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took me a full minute to get what he meant – where and with who he meant – but after watching the admiral turn a shade of red I've never really seen her turn and then catching Chakotay's broad smile breaking out across his face as he winked at her, it hit me what had happened. It was faster than I expected, but I think I've decided that the two of them had simply come to the same sort of realizations I'd come to on board the Flyer. And, looking back over the past nine years...it really was about damn time.

I'm happy for them. And I do hope they come tonight. It'll be nice to see them…the two of them…happy. As happy as I've been very recently. If someone had told me a week ago that any of this would be happening today, I'd have told them they were out of their minds.

Interesting times.

But I wanted to talk to my mom tonight before going out. The conversation I'm looking at having isn't going to be any easier for waiting to have it. And since she's usually the one to determine how things go down with my parents as a unit, it's best to start with her, get her on my side – and then tell Dad.

She's not going to like it. But it's time.

"Harry, drink your tea. It'll get cold."

She startles me with her voice but not enough to make me jump. I make a noncommittal grunt of a reply as she comes up next to me to stare out at the scenery, too. And I could sugar coat this, try to make it softer for her, but…my mom hates that. She likes to be told how it is, and she certainly could never be accused of not doing the same – much to my chagrin on several past occasions involving friends and colleagues who've been around to witness her directness over the years.

I clear my throat. "Mom."

"Hmm?" We keep looking out at the trees.

"Let me ask you something."

"You know you can ask me anything."

I do know. I just also know that half the time I'm not going to like the answers. I swallow. "If I went out on a deep space mission soon…a much longer one…would you be okay with it? Really okay with it?"

Her reply shocks me, as she turns abruptly to look at me and I regard her a little nervously. She only smiles. "Well, now, I am relieved."

I stare at her and wonder if the Alliance somehow got to her brain, too, like they had Chakotay's. "What?" I croak out disbelievingly.

Her smile widens. "I've been waiting for that question for some time now," she explains – with the distinctly satisfied aura of someone who's been in on a secret they're about to let you in on. "I'd almost given up on ever hearing you ask it. But now that you have, I can stop worrying about you."

"I don't understand." I really don't. "I thought you'd be nervous about letting me go off planet again. You…you aren't?"

This time she chuckles as she smoothes her hair. "Nervous? Oh yes. I'll be a basket-case the entire time you're gone." She lifts her hand, brings it up to my face the way she does sometimes. And confesses, "But, Harry. You're an explorer. A scientist. It's what you were born to be, and it's always been who you are. It may have skipped a few generations, but it's clearly in your blood. It's a part of you. I could no more ask you to stay home on Earth for the rest of your life than I could find it in my heart to ask you to give up life in Starfleet entirely. I accepted long ago that you would be going back out again. We've only worried about how long it's taken you to get back out there and try."

"We". Meaning she and my dad have been up late at night, in bed, talking about this for months. Meaning he's apparently been in on this little theory, too. And…damn them all…but coupled with the admiral's hints on the Flyer that first time…it gives me a lot to think about. Normally, this kind of thing would annoy the living daylights out of me. The two of them…I turn green…hell, maybe the three of them for all I know…sitting around plotting my future for me, whispering their conspiratorial concerns, but this time, I'm too relieved to care much about that aspect. This time, I find I can only be grateful that this conversation isn't the tearful blow-out I'd worked myself up into dreading it would be.

Well…damn. As she pulls me down for a huge bear hug, my eyes are burning with gratitude. With regret and realization, as I have to accept that it possibly wasn't my parents holding me back here, all this time. That they're always ready to support me, and that all I had to do was to make the decision to actually go. But now's not really the time to dwell on it. Later I'll sit with it, try to come to terms with why I might have been so…nervous…about going out on another mission.

Right now is just a time to be grateful.

"Which assignment will you take? Do you know?" she asks.

She's referring to a list of about twenty I've been offered since we got back. There's one that takes top priority at the moment, though, and it's one I can't get into much detail about.

They're putting together a team to go back out to meet the Nyberrite Alliance. They'll be expecting us now, but the longer we wait, the more time they have to prepare an adequate defense. Starfleet can't afford to miss the opportunity to get out there now, before they have a chance to reinforce themselves. Or even to move their colony completely. To my mother, I say only, "It's related to where we went last week. And what we had to do there."

She nods thoughtfully. Knowing enough by now not to press me for more details than I'm giving. "It's still lucky the three of you got off as lightly as you did," she points out.

I was able to tell her enough of the basics to let her know what I was charged with, and as she refers back to last week, I wince. Her statement is true enough. As soon as we'd gotten back to Earth, we were detained and boarded by a full security team. And aside from the tiniest flicker of relief in Admiral Paris's eyes as they passed over Chakotay, the hard look that descended over his features didn't leave the entire time he stood there, reading the charges against us – and they were vast. Stealing a classified project like the Delta Flyer comes with about twenty inherent sub-violations alone, but the list continued on. Demonstrating intent to fire on another Federation vessel. Disobeying the direct orders of a superior officer. Interfering with classified, covert operations. Interfering with an undercover operative of the Federation. And in my case the charges were later amended to include phasering a senior officer, which amounted to physical assault. It would have been mutiny, if this mission had been in any way sanctioned by Starfleet Command – which it fortunately wasn't.

What the three of us had done was no light matter, and at first, the brass saw it as anything but justified.

The admiral got us out of most of it. She took full responsibility for our actions. It wasn't enough to spare me the worst dressing-down of my life – with the exception of just one that I can think of – but I got out of it with a reprimand. They couldn't do much to Seven because she's not even officially in Starfleet, but in the beginning they were talking about criminal charges in civilian court…the whole nine yards. Mostly, I think they were trying to scare the you-know-what out of us. Hoping to do what they could do discourage us developing rebellious traits like the admiral's. It was her they tried to throw the book at, really. Since she'd taken full responsibility for the entire thing, they went for her pretty hard. And I wasn't there for it, because I wasn't allowed to be, but the way she tells it, the only reason she got out of that hearing with her pips intact was because of Chakotay. Apparently, he strolled right into that hearing and all but blackmailed them into dropping the charges against her, using the fact that he was the one with the crucial information about the Alliance's activities. And while he hadn't outright threatened them with withholding it, he'd nonetheless made it clear that if they wanted his help with neutralizing the threat, he was only going to give it with the admiral standing by his side, rank and privileges intact.

He earned himself a reprimand for that little maneuver. Fortunately for all of us, Starfleet just plain needs us too much for the upcoming mission they're sending back out there. The surviving members of the Alliance blames the Federation, and especially Starfleet, for not backing them up more during the Dominion war. For allowing their planet to be decimated by the Dominion. Those core surviving members have latched onto bitterness, hatred, as their lifeline to survival, and the target of their wrath is Starfleet itself. Every bit of mind control they've done to their new recruits seems to have centered on whipping up the same kind of frenzied aggression against Starfleet that they have naturally.

They're definitely coming for us, sooner or later. And even if his mission wasn't strictly a success, if Chakotay hadn't gotten in there to begin with, we'd probably never have seen it coming before it was too late. Starfleet had had suspicions, but nothing so concrete as to be able to guess at the truth of it all. And once they'd calmed down enough to realize that the four of us were going to be crucial to the front lines of defense against the Alliance's intentions, the brass did calm down somewhat nicely.

Simply put, they need us.

"Starfleet Command asked me to be involved in a tactical mission," is all I can tell my mom, though. "It leaves in about a week."

She winces a little at the close time frame, but recovers quickly. Nods. And then gets that sly look on her face. "And is Seven going to be included in this mission?"

I roll my eyes. "Yes. As a matter of fact, she is."

"We've been seeing a lot of her this week."

And it's been heaven, I don't say aloud. Instead, I just grin, and my mom smiles. It had taken a few visits to get her used to the implants and all. I think they put her off, but Seven's been developing social skills. That's something I've been learning about her lately, and watching her in action around my parents as she's been slowly winning them over has been gratifying.

"Do you think it's serious?" she asks.

I swallow. It's already way past serious. But I'm not ready to admit it out loud to my mother yet. She's only just getting used to the idea of Seven and I.

"Harry?" My dad's voice breaks over the internal comm. system. Saving me from having to come up with an appropriate response. "Seven's here. I'm sending her up."

My mom clears her throat. Collecting herself and heading for the door. "I'll leave the two of you to…whatever it is you might want to talk about before leaving," she explains.

I'm grateful, even as I turn to cap the mouthpiece of my clarinet, preparing to leave it for a while. "Thanks, Mom."

"Mrs. Kim," I hear Seven greet my mom.

"Hello, dear," my mom returns politely – almost warmly – on her way out the door and I turn to look at Seven for the first time this evening.

My mouth drops open. She's wearing the same Maquis-inspired pants suit that she selected to wear on the rescue mission. Well…it can't be the same outfit as that last one got pretty banged up, but it's a perfect replica of it. It fits her perfectly, showcasing but not broadcasting her goddess-like, statuesque figure. And her hair is in the same soft, alluring style, with the curls framing her face. As I stare at her in a little bit of awe – and a lot of pure desire – it occurs to me that I'm going to be the envy of every man in that bar tonight. Or, just as likely, in more than one fight by the end of the night.

I've had a lot of practice at that lately. Fortunately. And Tom will back me up. Not to mention Chakotay… Hell. What am I talking about? We'd have to elbow B'Elanna and Kathryn out of the way, and that's if Seven didn't just handle it herself with her usual "efficiency"…

"You do not approve of my attire?" she teases, in a lighter tone than before when she'd said these words to pull me out of my gawking.

I'm staring.

I close my mouth a little. Grin. "It's perfect," I correct. Pulling myself together, snapping out of it and slowly approaching her. "You're beautiful, Seven. You do know that, don't you?"

Right now, I want nothing more than to kiss her, and more than chastely, but I don't want to rush this. If a fraction of the sparks I can feel sizzling through the air between us now remain after a few months' time, then what we have building here is something too special to risk screwing up. So instead, I lean over to kiss her cheek, containing myself.

She surprises me by turning into the kiss, so that her lips plant firmly on mine. And at the slight pressure of her soft mouth parting ever so slightly under mine, I automatically pull her to me, pressing her up against me and losing myself in the feel of her. In the taste of her. My hand comes up to cup her face and then through the hot arousal in both of us, a melody suddenly explodes through my conscious awareness. One I've never heard before, but one I recognize immediately. It's lilting and teasing, but strong and solid all throughout.

It's my ending. And it, like her, is perfect.

I'm not actually all that surprised that it was she who inspired it. But I don't want to lose it now that I have it. I pull back, leaving us both breathless, pressing my forehead to hers and beg, "Seven. This is going to sound strange right now, but…just…give me one second, could you?"

"Of course." She looks confused, for which I don't blame her, but as I rush over to the music stand and pick up my clarinet, pressing the button to open the recording program and bring the mouthpiece to my lips, the notes come easily and fluently. I think she'll recognize it when she hears it, and as I turn to her on the last note, I can see the broad smile on her slightly swollen lips.

"You've finished it," she declares, as I place the clarinet back on its stand. She approaches me, looking over my shoulder to the piece of music, watching the notes appear based on what I've just played. I like it. I'm not only satisfied with it, but I like it. I hope she likes it, too. As I turn and look into her eyes, I can see that she definitely does, that she's not just being polite.

"It is appropriate," she proclaims, giving her final seal of approval. "It concludes the piece with grace and elegance."

I grin at her choice of vocabulary. At her. "Grace and elegance, huh? Well those are at least two words you must know a little something about. Considering the fact that you have both of those qualities in abundance."

Sappy, yeah. I'm working on it, okay?

I'm getting lost in her eyes again. They're so blue. So much softer these days than I ever remember them being back on Voyager, and it's a dangerous combination, I decide. A little thrilled about it. My eyes slide down to her lips, and the hell with it. I start to pull her back to me–

"Harry."

Damn it. We jump apart, and my mom pretends not to notice how close to having our tongues down each others' throats we were when she interrupted. It's still embarrassing as hell. Not to mention plain awkward. "Tom's on the comm. line," she informs. "He says you're late. They've already ordered. And he says to tell you that if you don't get there in five minutes, they're eating your food."

He'd do it, too. I consider just not caring, saying to hell with it and letting him, but since my mother is still standing there watching us, I figure it's best to leave now – while we still can. I offer Seven my arm. "Shall we?"

She links her arm through mine without hesitation. "Tom did promise that this particular bar would be…interesting. Although I'm still not certain how Kathryn and Chakotay will feel about being forced to 'karaoke'."

I laugh freely at the mental image that idea invokes in my brain and shake my head as I guide Seven towards the door, giving my mom a quick kiss on the cheek as we pass. She frowns. "Are you sure you won't stay for dinner instead?"

I roll my eyes. "As…thrilling as that offer is, Mom…no. Thank you. I'll see you later. Don't wait up."

She takes it well enough. Nodding us onward, even if I know she's probably going to get me back for that little crack later. "Have fun, you two," she orders after us as we start down the stairs.

"Thanks," we call over our shoulders automatically without thinking.

It's only as we're well on the way to the front door that I swear can hear her murmur sweetly, "And may you live in interesting times."