Picket Fences

 
Seven of Nine, astrometrics officer for the Federation Starship Voyager, looked up from her computer console in Cargo Bay 2 and sighed in frustration. Although the young woman had been severed from the Borg Collective by Voyager's captain almost three years earlier, she still had the same intolerance for failure and imperfection as any drone would. At the moment, Seven found herself perplexed by a question Mezoti had asked just before entering her regeneration alcove - a question for which she had no answer.
 

 In less than five days, the youngest three of the four children Captain Kathryn Janeway rescued from a disabled Borg cube would be leaving Voyager to resume their lives as normal children...as normal, at least, as children who had been assimilated by the Borg Collective could be. Captain Janeway had managed to find Mezoti's family, who agreed to also take the boys Rebi and Azan into their lives, but Seven suspected the children were suffering some anxiety regarding their impending departure. Mezoti's question confirmed Seven's fears. Now, in the greenish glow of the cargo bay, Seven struggled to find an answer in the Starfleet database to her young friend's question.
 

 "Regeneration cycle complete," the computer announced. Seven, who had been engrossed in her programming efforts, looked up as the children began to emerge from their alcoves. Linking her hands behind her back, she approached her young charges.
 

 "Mezoti. I believe I have found an answer to your question. You wished to know what it would be like to be a part of a family," Seven began.
 

 "That is correct," the young girl replied. "I do not remember being in a...family. I do not know what will be required of me." Mezoti paused and cast a worried glance at Rebi and Azan before continuing. "What if we are inadequate? What if we fail? Will we be sent back to the Borg?" she asked in a small voice.
 

 Seven felt a pang in her heart, as she looked from one worried face to the next. She approached the children and placed a firm hand on Mezoti's shoulder. "No, you will not be sent back to the Borg. Captain Janeway would never permit you to leave with individuals who would do such a thing," she answered ardently. "My knowledge is insufficient to provide you with an accurate response to your original question. I do not recall much of my own experiences in a family. However, there are many references to...family life...in the Starfleet database. If we utilize the holodeck to create a simulation, the concept will not be entirely unfamiliar to you," Seven explained logically.
 

 The astrometrics officer had to admit, she was personally interested in exploring this particular aspect of humanity in greater detail - it was the one area in which she felt truly different than her shipmates aboard Voyager. Unlike the rest of the crew, Seven had very few memories of her family - she simply did not remember much before the age of six, and family became irrelevant after that. The Collective had no need for families. The ex-drone was also intrigued because she knew how important family was to the captain...and although she was not sure why, she felt a need to understand something that obviously meant a great deal to Janeway.
 

 "I have finished my analysis of the stellar cloud we just passed," Seven announced, "and now have sufficient time to engage in this activity with you before I must meet with Captain Janeway for our velocity match at 1600 hours. Meet me in Holodeck Two after your midday meal, and together we will explore this concept of family," she added, dismissing the children with a nod of her head. Seven returned to her programming of the holodeck simulation, pleased and confident that she had chosen the correct solution to the problem.
 

 **********
 

 Captain Kathryn Janeway had been piloting Voyager through uncharted Delta Quadrant territory long enough to know things were often not what they seemed. For some reason, she could not shake the unsettled feeling she had about the stellar dust cloud they just passed. Dropping her PADD on the coffee table in front of her, Janeway descended to the lower level of her ready room and put her hands on her hips.
 

 "Something just doesn't feel right," she said aloud. "Why would there have been an increase in tacheyon emissions when we stopped to take readings? Why would those levels have dropped off once we started moving again? And why in the world would the cloud's density have shifted each time Voyager changed positions?" Thoroughly perplexed, the captain was about to pull up Seven's report on her console again when the door to her ready room chimed. She granted permission for her visitor to enter, and looked up to see her burly first officer.
 

 "Sorry to bother you, captain," Chakotay began, "but the Mezotians want to know whether we can speed up our arrival. Their planetary environmental systems have detected a fairly powerful ion storm approaching. They'd like to have the children transported before it hits," he explained quickly.
 

 "You know, commander, that's funny. I was just thinking about sticking around a little longer to run some more tests on that cloud out there," Janeway replied, gesturing towards the window. When she saw the concerned look on Chakotay's face, she held up a hand. "It's probably nothing, but I'd like to look into it. Have you had a look at Seven's analysis?" she asked, sitting down at her desk and motioning to her first officer to do the same.
 

 "Well, no...not yet. To be honest, Kathryn, I didn't really see the need. So we passed through a bunch of space dust...what's the big deal? It's certainly not the first cloud Voyager's had to plow through, and I doubt it'll be the last," Chakotay explained in a slightly exasperated voice. "What's so interesting that we need to hang around analyzing it for days?" he asked in sincere confusion.
 

 Kathryn Janeway let a small smile pass her lips, as she looked down and shook her head. She understood that Chakotay was not a scientist, and therefore did not have the same curiosity about phenomena like she or Seven had...but sometimes she wondered why the man had even joined Starfleet in the first place. [Probably to meet women ,] her inner voice answered sarcastically.
 

 The captain leaned back in her chair. "Well, for one thing, I find it a little odd that a mere 'bunch of space dust' would exhibit shifting tacheyon levels each time Voyager altered course a bit. And don't ask me what it means, but according to Seven that cloud out there has been keeping pace with Voyager's movements," she said. Janeway paused long enough to gauge whether this information registered any sort of curiosity in her first officer, and then continued. "Now, either Seven is completely off her rocker, which is doubtful, or something very strange is going on. I'd like to find out what it is," she declared.
 

 "Come to think of it, captain, Seven was acting a little strange earlier. I ran into her outside the mess hall and she requested some additional time off. You know Seven...she never requests time off from her duties," Chakotay explained.
 

 "That is a bit out of character for Seven. Did she happen to mention why she wanted the time off?" the captain asked, a note of concern lacing her voice.
 

 "No...and since she wasn't volunteering any details, I didn't press the issue. The fact is she does have a certain amount of leave accrued. It's not like she asks to be relieved of duty on a regular basis," he explained.
 

 [Exactly. Seven NEVER requests time off. Something  must be wrong. She's probably upset about the children leaving. You should go to  her...just to make sure she's all right, of course. Or, you could wait until your velocity match and see whether she brings it up ,] Janeway's inner voice suggested.
 

 The captain thought about that for just a moment, but far longer perhaps than she should have. When she looked up, she noticed Chakotay staring at her. Apparently she had missed part of the conversation. It was not the first time she had found it difficult to devote her complete attention to the man.
 

 Kathryn Janeway shook her head. "I'm sorry, commander. What were you saying?"
 

 Chakotay smiled, but she could tell he was slightly annoyed. She briefly wondered whether he had finally, after all this time, figured out how frequently she paid little attention to him when Seven was on her mind.
 

 "I asked whether you want me to contact the Mezotians and tell them we'll be delayed for a few days," he repeated evenly.
 

 Janeway paused a moment to consider the options. "No, I think their concerns are valid. I don't want to risk transporting the children in that storm either. Tell them we'll be in orbit at the designated time," she said as she headed for the door. "If we have the chance, we'll return here afterwards." As she stepped on the bridge, the captain turned and said, "Resume our course for the planet, Mr. Paris. Warp Factor Two."
 

 **********
 

 Satisfied she had programmed as many pertinent elements as possible, Seven of Nine entered Holodeck Two to survey her results. She was uncertain as to whether the program would run smoothly, given the fact she had included many random and disparate features from a variety of databases. Seven was pleased she had decided to check the program first, before having the children join her.
 

 The scene that greeted her when she stepped through the arch was entirely unfamiliar but incredibly beautiful. A cool, salty breeze brushed against her face, as she looked up into a blue, cloudless sky. Seven knew the environment was artificial, but the warmth from the sun beating down on her was entirely tangible. She walked down a narrow tree-lined path towards the small powder blue house with white trim.
 

 When she reached the bleached picket fence, Seven noted the small, grassy yard featured a strange apparatus consisting of small seats hanging from chain-linked tethers and a tall, narrow ramp made from some sort of metal. For a brief moment, the young woman had a memory flash...an unexpected sense that made the entire scene feel slightly familiar. She was unable to grasp anything concrete, however, so she continued her exploration around the left side of the little dwelling. Suddenly, before Seven could reach the front of the house, she was startled by the loud outbursts of an animal on the other side of the fence. She recognized the creature to be a terran canine of some indeterminate breed; but before she could study it in greater detail, a voice called out to her from inside the house.
 

 "Oh, good! You're home early, honey! How was your meeting?"
 

 Unsure as to whether short, dark-haired woman was addressing her, Seven glanced back over her right shoulder to the path behind her. She concluded that since she was the only person in sight, the greeting must be meant for her. She turned and headed for the gate in the fence. As soon as she entered the yard, the large animal bounded over to her and, jumping up on its hind legs, placed its two large paws on her chest. Seven looked down with a frown. In its exuberance and haste to greet her, the creature had deposited muddy prints on her biosuit. She removed the pet's paws and arched an eyebrow.
 

 "I am uncertain as to whether you can comprehend my language," she addressed the dog, "but nevertheless your behavior is entirely unacceptable. You must refrain from such actions once the children arrive. I do not believe they will appreciate such a greeting," Seven said in her version of a reprimand.
 

 "Sweetheart, dinner is almost ready," the woman from inside the house called out. "Please call the children inside. Amelia can stay in the yard with her bone while we eat."
 

 Seven finally realized this was to be their "family" home in the simulation...and because the children had not yet arrived, she decided to freeze the program until she could call them to the holodeck. With a final, approving glance at the little blue house, she called for the arch, froze the program and summoned the children.
 

 **********
 

 Kathryn Janeway stood in the middle of Holodeck One, her velocity phaser on the floor next to a towel. She had been waiting only ten minutes, but those ten minutes seemed like an eternity for the auburn haired woman who was not particularly known for her patience. "Besides," she thought to herself, "it's not like Seven to be late...even two minutes late."
 

 The captain put her hands on her hips and wondered what she should do. It was possible that Seven had simply been detained...perhaps by Naomi...and would be walking through the holodeck doors any minute now. Janeway felt a flutter in her heart, as soon as she realized Seven would be wearing that fabulous black exercise outfit she had. She absolutely loved the way Seven looked in those clothes and had, on more then one occasion, considered engaging in additional athletic activities with her astrometrics officer simply to see the blonde dressed like that more often. The captain smiled and shook her head, wondering when she had become so devious.
 

 Fifteen minutes passed, and Voyager's commanding officer began to feel somewhat ridiculous standing alone in the middle of an empty holodeck grid. No, not ridiculous...that was not the correct word. Disappointed. Janeway tried to put her finger on it. It was more like disappointed...the sort of disappointment a schoolgirl would feel being stood-up on her first date.
 

 The captain was about to ask the computer for Seven's whereabouts when she restrained herself. It had recently occurred to Janeway that it could be considered a violation of the young woman's privacy to be constantly asking the computer for her location every time she was a little late...especially when Seven was off-duty.
 

[Seven's never late,] her inner voice reminded  her. [You're always asking for her whereabouts when you're in different parts of the ship. In fact, you ask just so you know where she is. Why do you  suppose that is? One of these days, Kathryn, the computer is going to divulge her location and you're gonna wish you hadn't asked. ]
 

 Janeway frowned, finding that possibility entirely unsettling and more than a little unpleasant. Unfortunately, her worries won out over her restraint. After all, something might have happened. Seven might be hurt or in trouble. She had to find out.
 

 "Computer, locate Seven of Nine," she ordered.
 

 "Seven of Nine is in Holodeck Two."
 

 That was strange, Janeway thought. Had she made a mistake? Were they supposed to meet in Holodeck Two for their match? "We never play velocity in Holodeck Two," she reminded herself. The captain was about to contact Seven directly on her comm badge when she had a terrible thought. What if she's not alone? The little scenario her inner voice had planted in her brain a moment before, was now germinating into a full blown displeasing possibility.
 

 Janeway shook her head, momentarily keeping her imagination from running away with her. She picked up her towel and velocity phaser, and headed for the door. She could do one of two things, she decided. She could return to her quarters, and casually ask Seven about it the next time they saw each other. Or, she could pay a visit to Holodeck Two and find out exactly what was going on. Considering her choices carefully, the captain concluded it was better she not go charging off in search of Seven. After all, she did not want to give the young woman the impression she was always checking up on her. "Certainly I'm capable of a little patience," she chided herself. Janeway left the holodeck for her quarters, trying extremely hard to convince herself everything was okay.
 

 **********
 

 "Sweetheart, will you please pass me the rice?" the dark haired woman asked Seven of Nine.
 

 Seven and the children were seated at an oval table in the kitchen having dinner with the woman Seven had met earlier. The kitchen in the house was small, but its size contributed to the cozy atmosphere it fostered. The cabinets and drawers were made of knotted pine and the countertops of light yellow Formica. The same shade of yellow was repeated in the flower print of the wallpaper. Seven noticed that much of the countertop space was taken over by various appliances, both small and large, and utensils for food preparation. A metal apparatus, from which an astonishing number of pots and pans were hanging, was suspended over the dish drain. Over the double-sided, porcelain sink a large window looked out to the backyard and the ocean below. The former drone noted that although the room was quite cluttered, it appeared to be an efficient use of space. Seven's curious examination of the room was interrupted by Rebi's voice.
 

 "Seven, I do not understand," Rebi began, while balancing a mixture of chicken and rice on his fork. "How does this individual know the sugar content of your coronary organ?" he asked.
 

 "Actually," Azan chimed in, "I was not aware a heart could possess a flavor of any kind, either sweet or sour. Please explain," he requested.
 

 Seven put her fork down and paused before answering. She glanced at the woman who was, Seven deduced, her spouse in this simulation. "I do not know your designation," she stated rather bluntly, wondering how she should refer to the petite woman.
 

 "You are such a kidder sometimes," came the reply. "You know very well my name is Leah. Honestly, sweetheart...no wonder I can't get the children to take anything seriously," Leah added with an affectionate smile.
 

 At that comment, both Seven and Mezoti raised an eyebrow. Seven picked up the bowl of rice pilaf and passed it to Leah before turning her attention to the boys.
 

 "Rebi. Azan. I believe...Leah was utilizing what is known as a 'term of endearment' when she addressed me as 'sweetheart'," Seven explained. "It is something that mates in families often do with each other. It is a way of expressing love and affection for one's partner," she added, before taking another bite of her green beans.
 

 "What are some other things families do, Seven?" Mezoti asked excitedly. The young girl was clearly eager to learn as much as she could about families during this simulation. Before Seven could answer, however, Leah rose from the table and began clearing the dishes.
 

 "Well, little one," Leah began, "first we are going to wash and wipe the dishes. I believe it is your turn to wipe tonight while your brothers put the dishes away. Then, I thought we'd go into the living room and play a game of Yahtzi. And, since it's a beautiful night and you don't have school tomorrow, perhaps we can head down to the beach and make a campfire...that is, if Seven is up to it," she finished in a flurry of energy.
 

 "Oh, yes...that sounds like fun. Can we, Seven? Please?" the young girl asked in a pleading voice.
 

 Seven looked over at Rebi and Azan and noticed they, too, seemed excited by the prospect of engaging in such "family" activities. The young woman was not entirely sure she understood everything Leah had mentioned - especially the game called Yahtzi - but she was willing to participate. This was, after all, the reason she created the simulation in the first place...to provide the children with an opportunity to experience such things. Besides, Seven thought, if Yahtzi was anything like Kadis Kot, she was sure to enjoy it. "Very well," she replied. "But first we must assist with the cleaning of this room."
 

 "Wonderful," Leah exclaimed, "and while we work, you all can tell me about your days."
 

 This time, it was Rebi and Azan who looked at Seven with raised eyebrows. Unfortunately, she did not have a clue as to what purpose telling about their days would have. Nor was she certain about exactly what they were expected to...tell.
 

 **********
 

 More than an hour of pacing her quarters had done little to calm Kathryn Janeway's state of mind. Now she was really worried. No one had heard from Seven in two and a half hours; and although she had requested the time off from Commander Chakotay, it was highly unusual for her to spend so much time on the holodeck. In fact, Seven had often declared the holodecks to be an inefficient and wasteful use of one's time. The captain decided she needed to find out what was going on with the young woman. When a query to the computer revealed Seven's location was still Holodeck Two, Janeway decided to make an unscheduled visit.
 

 The captain made the journey to deck six in record time. She stood outside the holodeck doors for a minute, trying to determine the best course of action. Janeway looked over her shoulder to see whether the corridor was clear, not wishing to be seen by her crew loitering hesitantly outside the active holodeck.
 

 When the coast was clear, the captain checked the panel to see whether a security or privacy lockout was in place. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found none had been engaged. For a brief instant, the Kathryn thought she saw a slight energy spike in the holodeck's emitters...but on second glance, everything appeared to be normal. She adjusted her tunic, took a deep breath and stepped through the holodeck doors.
 

 The scene that greeted her was wholly unexpected. It was nighttime in the holodeck simulation, but the full moon overhead enabled Janeway to see her surroundings clearly - albeit in a bluish-white glow. She walked a few meters down a dirt path until she reached the small blue house. The house was situated on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean and was nestled in a small grove of redwood trees. The scene was strikingly similar to one of her favorite get-away spots back on earth - a small town called Mendocino, roughly two hours north of San Francisco on the Pacific coast.
 

 The captain noticed that although the lights were on inside the dwelling, there did not appear to be anyone home. She was about to knock on the door when she heard an unmistakable sound - voices singing. Following the melodic sound, Janeway walked around to the back of the house and saw what looked like the flickering light of a campfire on the beach below. Finding the wooden stairs built into the side of the cliff, she took a deep breath and made her way down to the beach.
 

 ********
 

 "I do not understand the purpose of this exercise," Mezoti stated, after they had finished the third round of "Row Your Boat."
 

 "Yes," Azan chimed in, "it seems entirely unproductive. What is to be gained by such an expenditure of energy?" he asked, sincerely puzzled.
 

 "There is no purpose to singing," Seven explained. "It is an activity intended to provide pleasure and enjoyment. When done in a family unit such as this, it fosters a sense of togetherness. It is meant to be a...fun way to share what is known as "quality" time," she added with a certain amount of hesitancy, hoping she had gotten the explanation right.
 

 The truth was, the ex-drone did not really understand the importance of the activity herself. The research she had done, however, led her to conclude that "singing around a campfire" was a somewhat essential part of a family bonding experience. In fact, the "campfire" scenario occurred in the cultural practices of approximately 76.4 species. For that reason, she had decided to include the activity in the simulation. It was possible that Mezoti's family would engage in such rituals as well, and Seven wanted the children to be prepared in that event.
 

 "That's right, everyone," Leah responded, as she tossed another log on the fire. "And another wonderful way to spend quality time together is roasting marshmallows," she added with a smile.
 

 Seven looked on curiously, as Leah removed five long sticks from her duffle bag and began spiking a marshmallow on the end of each. Once this stabbing procedure was complete, she handed a stick to each person. Seven noticed each of the children watching her, but she was at a loss as to what should occur next. Raising an eyebrow, she glanced at Leah and waited to see what the woman would do next. The last thing she would have expected was Leah thrusting the marshmallow end of her stick over the campfire flames. Not wanting to appear completely na´ve, however, Seven mimicked the actions with only the slightest hesitation. The children were a bit more skeptical, but followed suit nonetheless. All were surprised, however, when Leah removed the melted marshmallow from the fire after a few minutes and consumed it.
 

 Rebi was the first to express uncertainty. "What is this white thing?" he asked, using his fingers to squeeze and pull at his melted marshmallow. Of course, this caused the soft insides of the marshmallow to ooze onto his fingers creating a sticky mess. "I do not believe we should consume it," he warned, while trying to divest his digits of the gooey substance. "It does not resemble nutritional matter," he concluded firmly.
 

 Seven was equally appalled, especially when she observed that Mezoti's marshmallow had fallen off her stick and into the fire. The item had landed on the edge of a log and was turning into a black, bubbling, charred mass. Seven had no doubt that ingesting the substance would do more harm than good. Leah, however, had noticed Seven's hesitation and was soon by her side on the other side of the fire. Seven wondered whether roasting marshmallows during such "family time" necessitated having one's mate place their arm around one's shoulder. She worried that perhaps she was missing some significant nuances to the ritual.
 

 "Don't be silly. Of course, it's not nutritional," Leah stated playfully. "That's the whole point. That's what makes it so fun!" she exclaimed.
 

 The petite woman pulled her stick out of the fire and turned to Azan. "Here...my second one is ready," she said excitedly. "Just try it," she pleaded while holding out a perfectly melted marshmallow.
 

 Azan looked over at Mezoti, who simply shrugged her shoulders. Calling on every bit of his courage, Azan grabbed the melted marshmallow and brought it to his mouth. Unfortunately, he reached a little too strongly for it, and most of the substance squished out his fingers and dropped to the sand. There was enough remaining for a taste, however; and when it met with Azan's obvious approval, Mezoti and Rebi looked down at their sticks with renewed interest. Before long, all three children were roasting two and three marshmallows at a time, laughing and giggling each time someone lost one to the fire.
 

 Seven remained hesitant, until Leah grasped a freshly melted marshmallow in her fingers and leaned close to the ex-drone. "You're not afraid to taste this, are you sweetheart?" she asked, holding the warm confection to Seven's lips.
 

 Motivated by the blatant challenge, Seven opened her mouth and allowed Leah to place the marshmallow to her lips. The astrometrics officer was unprepared for the gooey sweetness her tongue encountered and found herself immediately wanting another. She thought it odd that Leah's fingers seemed to linger at her lips, but the reason soon became clear when Seven observed that half of the marshmallow had remained on the dark-haired woman's fingers. Unconsciously, Seven leaned forward and licked the remaining treat from Leah's fingers.
 

 The smaller woman put a hand on Seven's thigh and leaned close enough to whisper seductively in her ear. "You enjoyed that, didn't you?"
 

 Seven nodded her head, and was about to ask for another when she heard a distinct shuffling noise from behind her left shoulder, then the polite clearing of a throat and the low, husky voice. Seven had no need to turn around in order to determine who had joined their campfire.
 

 "Seven, what's going on here?" the captain asked, slightly perturbed by the scene upon which she had stumbled but trying extremely hard to appear calm. She had been standing there long enough to witness the unmistakably seductive exchange between Seven and what appeared to be a holographic representation of Dr. Leah Brahms.
 

 The youngsters jumped to their feet, and while doing their best to stand at attention, called out in unison "Captain Janeway!"
 

 Seven thought it strange that Janeway would be unfamiliar with the practice of roasting marshmallows...especially considering she had grown up on earth where this activity originated. Perhaps, Seven decided, she should invite the auburn-haired woman to join them. She felt a sudden and unexpected thrill go through her body at the thought of feeding marshmallows to Janeway in the same manner in which Leah had fed them to her. "We are roasting and consuming soft puffs of a confection made from gelatin," she replied matter-of-factly.
 

 This brought a small smile to the captain's face. "I can see that, Seven. That's not what I meant," Janeway replied patiently. She directed her best command stare towards the children. "I believe Neelix has been looking for you three. He tells me you're quite late for your lessons. I think it's time you head back to the cargo bay. He's waiting for you there," she informed the youngsters.
 

 All three little voices replied with "Yes, captain," and dutifully headed back up the beach towards the house.
 

 Janeway turned towards Seven who, along with the holographic Dr. Brahms, had risen from the driftwood log. "It's not like you to miss a scheduled velocity match without at least letting me know beforehand. I was worried about you, Seven" the captain admitted in a soft voice. "You have been in here for almost three hours," the captain added, stealing a glance at the hologram of Dr. Brahms, which was leaning incredibly close to the young woman.
 

 This information took Seven completely by surprise - not just the part that she had forgotten to meet with the captain, but that Janeway had been concerned about her - and she felt profoundly regretful that she had caused the captain to worry.
 

 "Captain, I apologize. I was unaware our simulation had been running for so long. I believe I may have lost track of time," Seven confessed uncomfortably. The ex-drone hoped the captain would not inquire as to how such a thing had happened, because Seven was at a loss to explain it.
 

 "That's quite all right, Seven. I didn't mean to intrude on your...privacy. I'm certainly not criticizing the way you choose to spend your off-duty time. I just wanted to make sure you were okay," Janeway explained awkwardly, becoming increasingly concerned about what she had interrupted. Each time she looked over at the Dr. Brahms hologram, it was engaging in physically demonstrative - almost possessive - behavior towards Seven.
 

All of a sudden, the captain had a powerful urge to  either flee the holodeck or deck the holographic engineer [which, of course,  would be entirely unprofessional...not to mention useless ,] her inner voice reminded her. "I'm sorry I disturbed you, Seven. I'll let you get back to...well, whatever it was you were doing," Janeway said, in a somewhat flustered manner, as she turned to head back towards the cliff.
 

 "Wait, captain," Seven replied, reaching out to grasp the smaller woman's arm. "Please. I do not wish you to leave. If you find this environment pleasant, perhaps you can stay for a little while," she asked tentatively. Seven knew the captain's time was precious, but she hoped that since they had missed their velocity time together Janeway might agree.
 

 The other woman frowned when she noticed the hologram now had its arm around Seven. Voyager's commanding officer had no idea what was  going on with her astrometrics officer, but she was determined to find out. Both she and her inner voice were in complete agreement. [Something weird is definitely going on here .] "All right, Seven. It has been awhile since I've had the chance to sit around a campfire," she said with a grin, "and you've programmed a beautiful setting."
 

 Janeway waited for Seven to reseat herself, but just as she was about to sit down next to the young woman, the holographic Dr. Brahms got between them and shoved her aside. The captain folded her arms across her chest and, after a moment's hesitation, moved to the log on the other side of the fire. The captain was now pretty sure something was wrong. Not only was the action incredibly unusual for a hologram, it did not mesh with the personality or character of Dr. Leah Brahms.
 

The auburn haired woman had never met the brilliant  engineer, but she had read a great deal about her...and she was known to be a  soft-spoken, gentle woman. [Not to mention a married heterosexual  woman!] her inner voice added. Any deviation in the holodeck's representation of Leah Brahms would, therefore, had to have been programmed by  Seven. [Why on earth would she do that?]her inner voice  screamed. [Has she decided to...experiment...with her sexuality? Well,  Kathryn, perhaps you should have been more...available to her after that whole  Unimatrix Zero experience .]
 

 "Is something wrong, captain," Seven suddenly asked, noticing that Janeway was staring into the fire, apparently deep in thought.
 

 "Well...that was going to be my question, Seven. What have you and the children been doing in here all this time...aside from roasting marshmallows, that is?" she asked cautiously. "And why have you included a holographic representation of Dr. Leah Brahms," Janeway added, motioning towards the hologram.
 

 "I did not program this character, captain. She was already present when the simulation began. Leah is my mate," Seven answered reasonably.
 

 "I see," the captain replied calmly, until the full realization of what Seven had said hit her. "Your what?" she asked in amazement. "Your mate?" the older woman asked, not entirely sure she had heard correctly the first time.  Janeway was thankful she hadn't been sipping from a cup of coffee, because she had no doubt she most certainly would have coughed the liquid out her nose at Seven's explanation.
 

 "Yes, captain," Seven said, clearly unaware as to why this information was provoking such a reaction in the captain. "I am at a loss to explain, however, why the computer chose this particular character to represent my mate in this simulation," she added, as though such an admission would clear everything up.
 

 Suddenly, as if on cue, the holographic Leah Brahms sprang into action and brought a hand up to the back of Seven's neck. Janeway was mesmerized watching that hand provide a slow, sensuous sort of massage to the young woman's neck and shoulders. The captain actually had to close her eyes for a moment, her mind wandering as it envisioned her own hands in contact with  Seven's soft skin. She shook her head, and called on every ounce of her command  strength to ignore the actions of the hologram. She looked directly into Seven's eyes, but purposely did not ask the question that was foremost on her mind.
 

"Why don't you start at the beginning," the captain suggested with a small smile. "Why were you and the children running this simulation in the first place?" she asked.
 

Seven proceeded to explain how the children were worried and anxious about  their impending departure, and how Mezoti had asked what it would be like to live in a family. The former drone talked about how she arrived at the idea to create a simulation, and detailed the research she did to program the holodeck with the appropriate elements. Seven even gave the captain a description of all the activities she and the children had engaged in while playing "family"  together. When she was through, she looked up to find Janeway staring at her with an odd expression in her eyes.
 

The captain tried to speak, but the words did not come to her. She found herself overwhelmed by emotion for the Borg sitting across from her. As she  watched the firelight dancing across Seven's features, she wondered how someone  who had known little kindness the past 18 years of her life could have such a  warm and compassionate heart. The waves breaking on the beach, and the crackling  of the campfire were the only sounds to be heard as Janeway struggled to find  her voice. After a few moments, she rose from her driftwood log and joined Seven on the other side of the fire.
 

 "Seven," she began in a throaty whisper, "that just might be the sweetest thing you've ever done," Janeway said, finding it difficult to keep the emotion out of her voice. Placing a hand on Seven's shoulder, she said, "I wish you had come to me, though. I could have been some help. At the very least, I could have talked with the children...allayed their fears...given them a clearer idea of what they could expect," she explained gently.
 

 "I did not wish to bother you, captain. Your time is very valuable. In addition, I knew it was possible to retrieve enough pertinent information from the databases to program an adequate representation," Seven explained logically.
 

 "You know, Seven, there's more to being in a family than playing parlor games and sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows," the captain with a grin. Without even thinking about it, she reached up and tenderly brushed an errant strand of blonde hair from Seven's face. Janeway was about to elaborate on that point, when she was suddenly knocked off the log from behind.
 

 "Hey! What the hell?" she shouted, picking herself up from the cold sand and brushing herself off. She turned to look at Seven, who was standing and staring at the holographic Leah Brahms in disbelief. "Seven," the captain said in a frighteningly low voice, "your holographic...mate...just pushed me to the ground! Would you care to explain?"
 

 Seven was at the captain's side in an instant; but when the hologram began advancing towards the smaller woman, Seven stepped in front to effectively block its path. "I am sorry, captain. I have no explanation. Perhaps this hologram is malfunctioning?" Seven suggested.
 

 "I'm not so sure about that, Seven," Janeway responded while rubbing the seat of her pants, which were now slightly damp. "I've never heard of this sort of malfunction in a hologram before. I mean, they don't usually go around knocking people to the ground when they malfunction," she added in a slightly exasperated voice.
 

 Seven thought about that for a moment and agreed with the captain's assessment. As a general rule, holograms were only capable of acting in the manner in which they were programmed. Therefore, it was logical to conclude that if the holographic Leah Brahms had purposely knocked the captain to the ground, it had been programmed to do so for some reason. The young woman was puzzled, however, as to why someone would have done that. Thinking that perhaps it would have an answer to that question, Seven turned her attention to the hologram.
 

"Please explain your behavior. Why have you attacked Captain Janeway?" the blonde asked, making sure she was still standing protectively in front of the captain.
 

"You are my mate," the holographic Leah answered, "and I did not like the way this...being...was touching you," she explained while  tossing a glaring look at Janeway. "I will not permit another to court you," the hologram added in a defiant voice.
 

"Court her?" Janeway asked incredulously, moving forward to address the hologram. "What in the world are you talking about? I was doing  no such thing! I was just..." the captain stopped in mid-sentence, realizing how absurd it was to be arguing with a hologram.
 

Seven of Nine's right eyebrow did its best to crawl completely off her forehead at this little exchange, but she remained silent. She found it  interesting, however, that the captain appeared to be somewhat flustered.
 

"You touched my mate in a manner I found to  be...intimate. And your eyes...the manner in which you were looking at her...betray you. I cannot allow you to have such contact. You must depart now,"  the hologram ordered, as it began walking towards the captain again.
 

"I don't think so," Janeway mumbled under her breath.  Putting her hands on her hips, she barked "Computer, delete the Leah Brahms  character," in a firm voice. She did her best not to look over at Seven, afraid her eyes would betray her again.
 

"Unable to comply."
 

Janeway looked over at Seven then, not concerned with  how her abrupt order to delete the Brahms character might appear. She tried again. "Computer, deactivate holographic representation of Dr. Leah Brahms."
 

"Unable to comply."
 

"Why not?" the captain asked, becoming increasingly more annoyed. She shook her head. "I mean...computer, elaborate."
 

"The specified holographic representation is not currently running."
 

"That's absurd...I'm looking right at it," Janeway answered, before cutting herself off in the realization that she was arguing  with the computer. She was about to call for the arch, in order to access the controls manually, when Seven spoke up.
 

"Computer, run a level five diagnostic on the holodeck systems," the young woman ordered. She looked over at the captain, wondering why the older woman was becoming so...upset.
 

After a few moments, the computer responded. "Diagnostic complete. Holodeck systems are operating within normal parameters."
 

Captain Janeway sighed and turned to face Seven. "This does not make any sense," she said slowly. "Let's try it from a different angle, shall we?" she asked without actually expecting an answer.
 

Janeway turned back to face the hologram, folding her  arms across her chest. "Computer, how many life forms are presently located in Holodeck Two?"
 

"There are three life forms in Holodeck Two," came the response.
 

Seven quirked an eyebrow, understanding clearly where  the captain was going with this line of questioning. She looked over at Janeway  who nodded her head slightly in response.
 

"Computer, specify life forms currently present in the holodeck," the older woman requested.
 

"Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine are currently present in Holodeck Two. Unable to identify third life form."
 

Both Seven and Janeway turned to look at the Brahms  hologram, which had not moved an inch.
 

"Well," the captain began, "that certainly explains a  great deal."
 

"Indeed," Seven agreed. In fact, the entire simulation was finally beginning to make much more sense to the young woman. Not only did the revelation explain the unusual behavior exhibited by the Brahms hologram,  Seven thought, but it might account for other peculiarities as well. Although the entity did not, as yet, appear to be dangerous, Seven was very happy the captain had sent the children back to the cargo bay.
 

Unable to restrain herself, Seven stepped forward and  confronted the entity before Janeway could formulate a course of action. "State your intentions," she demanded in her best menacing Borg voice.
 

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the captain  could not keep herself from smiling at the words that had, by now, become so  associated with the fierce protectiveness of her astrometrics officer.
 

"You are my mate. I must protect you from others," the entity answered.
 

Janeway did not like the sound of that...in fact, the  little yellow warning lights that always alerted her to dangerous situations began blinking furiously in her head. She remained silent, however, allowing  Seven to take the lead in the interrogation.
 

"Insufficient. Why have you boarded this vessel?" Seven  asked impatiently.
 

"I do not understand 'boarded'. I am your mate. We are a...family. I must protect you from others," the being replied, throwing a harsh  glance in Janeway's direction and taking a step towards Seven. "Our...quality  time with the children may have been terminated, but we have not finished our evening together."
 

The captain did not like how this was going at all. It would not be the first time an entity had developed an...attraction of some sort  for the Borg. Janeway hated thinking about it, but she had to acknowledge that on a few occasions she simply had not anticipated a threat to Seven quickly  enough...and the young woman had been hurt as a result. The auburn-haired woman  decided she was not going to take any chances this time.
 

Without a care for her own safety, Janeway stepped in  front of Seven and tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Security. Intruder Alert, Deck Six, Holodeck Two."
 

She received no answer, so she tried again...this time,  hailing her chief of security. When no response was forthcoming, the captain  frowned and addressed the entity. "Are you responsible for our communication devices not functioning?" she asked angrily.
 

The life form looked at Seven, then back at Janeway  without answering.
 

Realizing she had just about run out of patience, the  captain decided to take control of the situation and force this "first contact" encounter to take place off the holodeck. At least that way, she would have access to the rest of her command staff...and she and Seven would not be in such a vulnerable position.
 

"Computer, end simulation," she ordered.
 

"Unable to comply."
 

The captain now had a very bad feeling...and it was  making the hair on the back of her neck stand up. It was the same sort of feeling she always had in these situations...a sense that big trouble was about to find her.
 

"Captain, I believe I understand what is going on,"  Seven whispered, without taking her eyes off the intruder, "and I may have a  solution." Whatever the entity was, it had apparently learned very quickly and  efficiently how to manipulate the systems. Seven realized that without access to  the holodeck settings, she and the captain would be at risk. They needed to somehow bring the simulation to an end as quickly as possible.
 

"Then by all means," Janeway replied with a sweeping gesture of her hand, "go right ahead." The captain did not usually enjoy turning  control of a bad situation over to someone else, but with Seven, she always made an exception...she had learned to trust her astrometrics officer implicitly.
 

The ex-drone walked over to the entity and placed her  left hand on the...woman's shoulder. "Leah, my ...friend, Kathryn, has come at  my invitation. She will be having dinner with us. Would you please return to the  house and start getting dinner ready? We will join you as soon as we have finished discussing our business," Seven asked in a very reasonable...mate-like tone.
 

The entity continued to gaze at Seven, as if in an attempt to gauge the young woman's sincerity, then said, "Why, of course, sweetheart. I will make your favorite dish - Eggplant Parmesan with penne and tossed greens," Leah replied. Then, without warning, she moved in close and planted a gentle kiss directly on Seven's lips before turning and starting back for the house.
 

If Seven was embarrassed or uncomfortable about the  gesture, it was impossible for Janeway to tell. The captain, however, was more than slightly disturbed by it. For a few moments, she was unable to tear her  eyes away from Seven's lips, from wondering how it would feel to kiss them herself. She looked down at the sand and shook her head, trying to regain her concentration. That was  very interesting, she thought. As soon as Seven had begun speaking to the life form as though it were her mate, its entire disposition changed...it had become agreeable again. The fact that it had brokered no argument about returning to the house was a very good sign, Janeway figured.
 

Once the entity was out of sight, Seven began. "Captain, I do not believe this life form intends to harm us. In fact, it may be  attempting to learn of our species by studying our customs and interacting with us accordingly," she added.
 

"Then why is it holding us hostage on the holodeck?" Janeway asked. "And why the holodeck, for that matter? Wouldn't it be more...efficient to simply ask about our customs and cultural practices?"
 

"I do not believe it is holding us hostage, at least not intentionally. It may simply be playing out the simulation to its natural  conclusion," Seven explained.
 

Janeway thought about that for a moment, suddenly very worried about what the "natural conclusion" might be in this simulation. She looked up into blue eyes and frowned. "What do you think that 'natural conclusion' might be, Seven? You said earlier you didn't program the Brahms  character. How do we know it's not going to cause you harm?" she asked, trying very hard to sound calm.
 

"I'm uncertain, captain," Seven replied, "but this life  form has had numerous opportunities to harm us, if that is what it desired to do. It has not," she added in a firm voice, linking her arms behind her back.
 

"All right, I'll grant you that point," Janeway  responded. "So, what do you suggest?"
 

"I recall reading about similar incidents when I was doing research in the Starfleet database...situations in which energy-based life forms utilized holographic and other computer-controlled systems to study and interact with Starfleet personnel. In each case, crewmembers of Enterprise-B  were unable to leave the simulation until the parameters and scenarios desired  by the entities had been properly satisfied." Seven paused to check Janeway's  reaction. "In other words, captain, I believe that we must...play along," the  young woman explained.
 

"Tell me I didn't hear you correctly. You want us to play along?  In a simulation now controlled by an entity we know nothing about?" the captain asked in astonishment. "That's not a very Borg-like  strategy, Seven," she added with a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
 

The ex-drone quirked an eyebrow. "No, it is not," she  agreed with a slight tilt of her head. "However, I believe it may be our best course of action at this time."
 

"Well, it would buy us a little time," Janeway agreed. "Maybe, Chakotay and the others have already discovered we're trapped in here. I  told him there seemed to be unusual energy readings coming from that stellar  cloud we passed. Hopefully, he'll be able to put two and two together without  our help, and realize we've picked up a hitchhiker," the captain said.
 

Although Janeway had an uneasy feeling about it, she had to admit that Seven's suggestion was a good one. They certainly were powerless,  at this point, to do anything but play along. Her Starfleet training also told  her that in such hostage situations, it was essential to interact with one's captor. The fact that this was also a First Contact situation made Janeway's  decision a little easier to make.
 

"All right, Seven. Let's do it. I have one question, though. Who I am supposed to be in this simulation?"
 

Seven paused, feeling a flutter in her stomach and...something else she could not identify. She felt a powerful need to look away, but she did not. "Judging by the entity's response to your presence,  captain, I believe you are the...rival for my affections," she answered shyly.
 

The other woman just stood there a moment in stunned silence, her mouth slightly open, and Seven thought perhaps she had not heard her. Suddenly, she wondered whether Janeway's silence meant she would refuse to  participate. The Borg feared such a scenario might make the captain  feel...uncomfortable. She waited patiently for Janeway to reply.
 

"I see," came the low, throaty response. "I suppose I  should have guessed that," the captain said with a smile that immediately put  Seven at ease. "Well, then...I'll have to be sure and play my part believably,"  Janeway said, as she moved close and looked Seven in the eyes.
 

For a brief instant, Seven thought the captain was going to lean in and kiss her in much the same way as the Leah Brahms character had done earlier...she was standing that close. The Borg found it interesting that  she was not disturbed by the possibility. In fact, she found herself hoping that Janeway did indeed play her role convincingly.
 

Just then, there was a flash of lightening followed a  few moments later by a loud crack of thunder. Janeway stepped back a bit and  looked up at the sky, which had grown decidedly dark and stormy during their  conversation. She pursed her lips slightly. "Thunder and lightening? Nice touch, Seven," she complimented playfully.
 

Seven had a feeling the captain was being facetious. "I  thought it would be a good element to include for the children. However, we were  supposed to be further along in the simulation, and back inside the house, by the time it began to rain," Seven explained apologetically.
 

"Rain?" Janeway asked. But before she was able to  comment further on Seven's choice of programming, a torrential downpour began.  "Wonderful," she said sarcastically. "Let's go, Seven," she shouted above the din of the wind and rain. The captain grabbed Seven's hand and together they ran  up the beach towards the house.
 

Both women were drenched by the time they reached the  back porch of the house. Once safely inside, Janeway looked over at Seven and  was temporarily mesmerized by what she saw. The young woman looked absolutely adorable soaked to the bone! Her silken blonde hair, normally arranged efficiently in a tight bun, was in complete disarray and hanging loosely about  her shoulders. A few unruly strands had fallen over her face and become caught  on the occular implant above her left eye.
 

The captain was in no better shape, her auburn hair  almost completely flattened by the excess water. Unlike Seven's biosuit, Janeway's Starfleet uniform was not what anyone would consider form-fitting. Now that it was thoroughly soaked, however, the material was clinging rather tightly to the captain's small form. Seven found her eyes drifting over the captain's  body, lingering at the older woman's nipples clearly visible beneath the  saturated tunic. She had a curious urge to reach out with the palm of her hand and touch them, but she restrained herself. Still, the Borg found it difficult  to keep from staring...afraid that if she looked away, she would lose the inexplicable yet wonderful sensations she was experiencing.
 

Seven had no idea how many minutes had passed before she was startled out of her rapt examination of Janeway's body by the touch of the  captain's hands - one cradling the side of her face, the other attempting to gently remove the strands of hair caught in her implant. She remained perfectly  still, not wanting to disrupt the captain's actions, and instead concentrated on  the smaller woman. Seven could tell the captain's heartbeat and respiration had  increased significantly, but she was unsure as to the cause. It could simply be  the result of having to run up the beach to escape the rain, she told herself.  When she felt the captain's hands on both sides of her face, pulling her close and placing a soft kiss on her lips, Seven knew it probably had to do with more  than mere physical exertion.
 

"There," Janeway said in a whisper. "Much better."
 

Seven agreed...but she was, for some reason, unable to find her voice. She was simply too busy making note of the physiological changes taking place in her body to do anything else. She was able to notice, however,  that when she brought her left hand up to touch her tingling lips, Janeway stepped back a bit and smiled. The captain reached out and took Seven's hand gently in her own.
 

"Come on," the captain said while shivering. "If we  don't get warm, the doctor's going to have two very sick people on his hands when we finally get out of here," she added.
 

Seven looked down at their entwined hands and nodded.  She allowed Janeway to pull her into the living room, even though the young Borg had to acknowledge she was already feeling quite warm.
 

**********
 

Janeway strode immediately to the fireplace and began  placing logs on the grill, sending a silent "thank you" to her traditionalist  upbringing when she was able to get a roaring fire going in no time. She was pleased that someone...or something...had thought to program a surplus supply of  dry wood. The wood stacked along the side of the house was now completely  useless in its drenched state...and she had a feeling this was going to be a  very long night.
 

The captain looked up to see Seven standing quietly  beside her, apparently still somewhat affected by her actions on the porch. The  older woman looked away and grinned, wondering how much more enchanting Seven  could get in one evening. "Seven, why don't you see if there's any dry clothing in the bedrooms. We need to change out of these wet things," Janeway said, while unbuttoning her tunic and draping it over the wooden chair in the corner.
 

Without saying a word, Seven nodded and left the living  room. Janeway tossed another log on the fire and surveyed her surroundings. The  living room of this simulated house was more than adequately appointed with all the creature comforts a person of 20th Century earth would want. The fireplace  was quite large and constructed from a variety of heavy stones. There were candles on the mantle, as well as on every table in the room. A large, puffy couch boasting numerous cushions faced the fireplace, and its two end tables were capable of holding an assortment of food and drink. The wooden beams  overhead gave the room a great deal of height, making it seem much larger than  it actually was...an effect that was greatly enhanced by the sliding glass doors  which comprised the entire port side of the room. Although it was still pouring outside, and there was the occasional crack of thunder from the storm, the  captain had to admit the room was fairly cozy.
 

Janeway had found a book of old fire sticks on the table and was lighting candles throughout the room when Seven returned with two terrycloth bathrobes.
 

"This is all I could find," she said uncomfortably,  holding the robes up for the captain's inspection. "I am not certain if they  will be sufficient," she added with trepidation.
 

Janeway moved across the room to where Seven was standing and put her hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "They're fine, Seven.  Perfect, in fact. The main thing is to get out of these wet clothes," she explained while taking the light blue robe from Seven's hands. "I'll take this one...it looks a bit shorter than the other."
 

Without a word, the captain began removing her trousers  and undergarments. Next, she lifted the gray sweater over her head and, without  disrupting eye contact with Seven, unfastened her bra and let it slip from her  shoulders. Seven felt she should look away, but the older woman was...she  was...well, she was just simply too perfect. A little voice in her head barked in protest, when Kathryn donned the robe and tied the belt around her waist.
 

"Ahhhhh...much better," the captain said with a sigh.  She looked over at Seven who was still dripping on the plush carpet. "Do you  need help, Seven?" she asked, crossing the room to where the young woman was  standing. The Borg didn't answer, but instead slowly brought her hands up to the clasp behind her neck and undid the fastening to her biosuit. Seven hesitated, and her sudden shyness was not lost on the older woman who held out the robe and  turned away. It had never occurred to Kathryn the young woman would be modest, and the discovery simply made Seven even more charming in her eyes. In fact, the  captain thought, she was seeing a great many of Seven's endearing qualities this evening. Once Seven was safely inside the robe, Janeway grasped her hands and  pulled her towards the couch.
 

"Okay, then. Doesn't that feel better?" Janeway asked, settling back into the cushions.
 

Of course, without her specially designed biosuit to help the nanoprobes regulate her body temperature, Seven actually felt slightly  colder now than she did while dressed in the wet garment. She had no intention  of saying anything to the contrary, however, even when her body betrayed her and  she began shivering uncontrollably. It didn't go unnoticed.
 

"Seven, you're still cold," Janeway observed. She  scooted over on the couch so she was right up against the ex-drone. "Let me help you get warm," she said in a voice that was a bit more throaty than she  intended.
 

The captain reached with her left hand for the small blanket at her end of the couch, while throwing her right arm around Seven's shoulders. "You know," she began, "There's an old earth expression that cautions against underestimating the power of shared bodily warmth," Janeway said playfully, as she pulled Seven closer.
 

The two women sat together on the couch in silence for a few moments, watching and listening to the crackling fire, when a flash of  lightening lit up the room. "So, what now, Seven?" Janeway asked with a smile,  sincerely wondering what they were supposed to do next in the simulation.
 

A loud boom of thunder came chasing after the  lightening, and Seven waited for the rumbling to subside before she spoke. "I  don't know. I believe we are supposed to have dinner. That is the last thing the...entity said to me before departing the beach. I think we should remain  here until she...I mean, it...announces the meal is being served."
 

The captain could tell Seven was making it up as she went along, but the smaller woman just grinned and played along. "Well, Seven. If I remember correctly, you informed your 'mate' you would provide assistance with the meal," Janeway reminded the Borg politely. "I'm not sure it's right for  you to go back on your word," she added.
 

The Borg thought about that for a moment. "You are correct, captain," Seven said finally with a furrowed brow. She rose from the couch and headed for the kitchen. "I believe it is prudent, however, for you to  remain here," she added, after unconsciously tucking the remaining portions of  the blanket around the captain.
 

"You'll get no argument from me," Janeway replied, raising her hands. "I'll just sit right here until you return," she said with a decidedly contented look on her face. "Besides, I was never any good in the  kitchen anyway," she explained.
 

The captain leaned back and watched Seven leave the  room, noting the graceful way the young woman moved across the floor. There was just something about the way she moved that Janeway had always found impossible to ignore. Perhaps it was the pink, terrycloth robe, Janeway was not sure, but  the ex-drone also appeared much softer somehow than she normally did...and infinitely more approachable.
 

Janeway had to admit she was thoroughly enjoying this  time with Seven, but wondered about the young woman's real motivation for designing the simulation. She understood why Seven would want to provide some  illustration of family life to the children before they left Voyager for new lives. What the captain did not really comprehend was why she had included a mate for herself. Granted, the Borg may not have programmed the Leah Brahms  character, but she had certainly allowed for the possibility of a mate in the programming. Furthermore, Seven had not seemed bothered in the least by the  character's amorous actions around the campfire. Was it possible, Janeway wondered, that Seven's experience with Axum in Unimatrix Zero had awakened  desire in the young woman and stimulated a need to explore that aspect of her  humanity further?
 

Janeway's head was now reeling with this new information, and she rose from the couch to walk around the living room. She moved over to the sliding glass doors and watched as the raindrops bounced off the white picket fence surrounding the yard. It was windy and pitch black  outside, but when the lightening flashed she could see the turbulent ocean waves  crashing violently against the rocks.
 

The captain pulled the lapels of the robe tighter around her body as she shivered, not from a sudden draft in the room but from the memory of that moment in sickbay, when everything changed...when she realized  for the first time just how empty her life would be without Seven.
 

Looking back on it now, Janeway thought it interesting that such a significant moment in her life could be so brief, so seemingly innocuous at the time. In the span of about two minutes, she had gone from  experiencing unbearably profound sadness to extreme joy...and at that precise  moment of transformation, the captain knew her life would never be the same.
 

[Funny how it took almost losing her to another, before  you finally realized how much you love her!] her inner voice taunted.
 

There was something different about Seven since that afternoon in sickbay when she admitted Axum was more than just a friend. And  although it had been painful to hear of Seven's feelings for someone else, Janeway knew it also signaled an important turning point in their own  relationship. Seven had changed, had become less fearful and more comfortable  with her emotions. When they were together now, there was a sense Seven had  finally let down the wall around her heart. Was it possible that somehow, in  recognizing her feelings for Axum, Seven learned the true nature of her feelings  for her commanding officer? For that, the captain knew she would be  grateful to Axum for the rest of her life.
 

Janeway smiled, as she remembered the first time Seven acknowledged her  feelings for her. It was about a week after the Unimatrix Zero incident, and  they had been painting in her DaVinci holodeck program. All of a sudden, out of  the blue, Seven had put down her brush and announced, "spending time alone with you gives me pleasure." Janeway got a warm feeling now just thinking about it, even though she almost choked on her coffee at the time.
 

She suddenly had an unpleasant thought...was it possible she had been  misreading or ignoring Seven's signals all along? Kathryn turned away from the  window and walked back towards the fireplace. All this time, she had been telling herself Seven was not emotionally ready for a romantic relationship...was it possible she was simply using that as an excuse because  she, herself, was not ready?
 

Janeway was stunned. Her head was swimming with all the  new information it was trying to process. She tossed a few cushions from the couch onto the carpet in front of the fireplace and sat down, pulling her knees  up against her chest. She was lost in thought when Seven returned from the kitchen with two wine glasses, a bottle of merlot and a corkscrew.
 

Not wanting to startle the captain, Seven stood quietly  behind the couch for a moment before approaching. She knew Janeway would detect her presence, whether she made a sound or not. She continued watching the  smaller woman for a few moments, noting how the light from the fireplace was  highlighting the red in Janeway's hair. Seven felt an increase in her heart rate and respiration, as she momentarily envisioned herself running her fingers  through those fiery strands.
 

"How's it going in there, Seven?" the captain asked, without turning around.
 

"Leah informed me it would be some time before we can  begin our dinner. I assisted with the salting of the eggplant slices, but  apparently they must now...sit for a while before they can be rinsed, drained  and cooked," Seven replied.
 

"Since when did you learn how to do that?"
 

"Leah provided a brief demonstration."
 

"I see," Janeway responded with a slight frown. "Well, come and sit by the fire with me while we wait," Janeway suggested.
 

Seven remained where she was standing, clearly confused  by the captain's positioning. "Why are you sitting on the floor?" she asked.  "Would it not be more comfortable to sit on the sofa?"
 

"More comfortable? Perhaps. But it's much warmer down  here, closer to the fire. Think of it as more efficient," the captain explained  jokingly. She patted the cushion next to her and looked up into brilliant blue eyes. "Sit down on this and then lean back against the couch," she said with a  smile. "You can also stretch out this way and warm your feet," Janeway added, demonstrating for the young woman.
 

The Borg thought about it for a moment, and then decided to comply with the captain's request...even though she found it to be a little  strange. "I brought something to drink, captain," Seven said awkwardly, before sitting down. She handed Janeway the wine bottle, and then the glasses and  corkscrew. "Leah informed me this beverage is a good...companion to the  meal."
 

"Thank you, Seven. However, if I am to be the...rival  for your affections...and we are to convince the entity of that, I think you  should call me Kathryn. Don't you agree?" she asked with a sly grin.
 

Seven shifted uncomfortably. "As you wish, cap...I mean, Kathryn," she agreed.
 

Janeway had to work hard to keep from grinning at  Seven's apparent discomfort. Instead, she concentrated on freeing the cork from the bottle of ruby red liquid. "Good. Now, come sit down and we'll try this wine," she offered.
 

Seven remained fixed in her spot, however, apparently  surveying the area in front of the couch. After a moment, she finally spoke.  "There is insufficient space for me down there," she said softly.
 

The captain poured two glasses of wine and placed them on the end table along with the bottle. She looked up at Seven and this time, she did grin. "Nonsense. There's plenty of room for both of us." At the young  woman's continued hesitancy, however, Janeway decided on a different approach. "You're not going to tell me the Borg are incapable of sitting on the floor, are  you?" she asked lightheartedly.
 

Understanding perfectly well what the captain was  attempting, Seven quirked an eyebrow and tilted her head slightly. She slowly  eased her long, lanky form down to the cushion next to the captain, accidentally brushing against the other woman's shoulder as she settled herself. "No, that would be..."
 

"Inefficient?" the captain finished. "How come I knew  you were going to say that?" she asked, tapping a hand on the ex-drone's upper thigh. Before Seven could answer, though, Janeway held up a hand. "Never mind.  Don't answer that. Here. Try this," she said, passing a glass of wine to Seven.
 

The captain watched with acutely focused attention, as Seven brought the glass to her full lips and took a tentative sip of the light,  berry-flavored beverage. [Oh, god!]When the young woman pulled her mouth away too quickly, a few drops of wine dribbled onto her lower lip...and Janeway's  respiratory system shut down completely for a few moments, while she watched Seven's tongue dart out to capture the errant drops. [Breathe! Breathe!] her inner voice pleaded, fearing she might pass out from oxygen deprivation. Fortunately, it took only a few  moments for the captain's head to clear. Finding her voice, however, was slightly more difficult...and when she did speak, the words came out somewhat ragged. She cleared her throat and tried again.
 

"Well? What do you think?" she asked, managing not to  lose herself in those brilliant blue eyes.
 

"It is pleasant. It possesses both tangy and sweet flavors, yet it is not overpowering...an interesting combination," Seven  answered, clearly intrigued by the subtle complexity of the wine. The young  woman decided a larger sample was necessary to confirm her conclusion, however,  and quickly downed the remaining portion in her wineglass before the captain could stop her.
 

"Whoa, Seven," Janeway said, placing a gentle hand on  the Borg's shoulder. "You aren't supposed to drink wine quickly. It's meant to  be sipped. That way, you can savor the flavors on your tongue," she explained. [Oh, my.]The  captain had to pause for a moment, the erotic nature of her statement suddenly making a definite impact on her physiology. "We can't even be sure of its  alcoholic properties. Given the fact we have no control over this simulation, I  think we should...go slowly," she added, with a smile.
 

"Very well, Captain," Seven replied. "But...perhaps we should not consume this beverage at all," she suggested gravely.
 

Janeway laughed. "Kathryn. Remember?" she teased. "And I don't think we need to go that far. Just remember to sip it slowly. In fact, try  swirling it around in your mouth a bit before swallowing. You'll be able to  taste it even better that way," she said.
 

Seven followed the captain's suggestion with her next  sip and discovered that, indeed, swishing the wine around in her mouth brought  out even more flavor. She marveled at just how many wonderful, yet seemingly  irrelevant, things she had learned from Janeway over the past few years. Seven  was even more surprised to realize she had actually enjoyed most of the things  the captain had taught her, even though she found many of the activities to be completely unproductive. The ex-drone felt very fortunate Captain Janeway was  willing to spend so much time with her. When Seven looked up from her internal musings into the other woman's eyes, she found they were already watching her.
 

"Is something wrong...Kathryn?" she asked softly,  suddenly feeling self-conscious.
 

"No...not at all, Seven. I'm sorry if I was staring. It's just that it suddenly occurred to me how much I enjoy watching you try new things. It's almost as though you throw your whole being into it, body and  soul," the older woman explained. After a brief moment of contemplation, she  added "it's very refreshing, Seven, and...quite charming."
 

Seven was not entirely certain she understood to what  the captain was referring. Being relatively new to humanity, the Borg found  herself having to try "new things" on a fairly regular basis. She was not sure  why the captain would find it "refreshing"...but Janeway's words made her feel warm and, strangely, very satisfied. The blonde was about to ask whether there  were any other "new things" she should try while they were in the holodeck, when the life form emerged from the kitchen again.
 

"The dinner is ready, sweetheart. Would you like me to add cucumber to the salad or just tomato?" she asked.
 

Janeway cringed internally, wishing the life form would  quit using that term when addressing Seven. Both women immediately rose from their cushions on the floor, Seven managing it a bit quicker and lending a hand  to the other woman. Janeway had to clamp down on a strong desire to walk over to the entity and smack it in the face. [Now, that  wouldn't be very diplomatic, would it?] her inner voice chided. Instead, she reached for her wineglass and took a few sips, forcing herself to relax.
 

Seven looked to the captain for help with the question,  and detected an unusual expression on the smaller woman's face. The ex-drone rarely consumed solid food and, therefore, had absolutely no idea whether the salad should include cucumber...or tomato, for that matter. "I believe our guest  should make that decision," Seven answered, neatly tossing the matter into  Janeway's lap.
 

The captain turned to address the entity, but had to wait a moment before speaking as a loud crack of thunder rattled the windows. "I think tomato..." She stopped before finishing her sentence, a brilliant thought  suddenly occurring to her. She looked at Seven and smiled, a playful glint in her eye again. "Actually, I don't think tomato and cucumber are enough ingredients for the salad. We should be eating an antipasto salad with Eggplant Parmesan," she informed the life form.
 

Leah walked over and placed a hand on Seven's shoulder.  "Is that what you would like to have, honey?" she asked Seven, ignoring the  other woman completely.
 

Seven blinked. She had no idea why the type of salad was so important, but she knew the captain must have had a reason for making an  alternate suggestion. Perhaps, she thought, this was another "new thing" Janeway wished for her to try. "Yes," she replied. "That is what I wish, as well," she declared without hesitation, wanting to be sure the entity complied with the  captain's instruction.
 

Leah promptly returned to the kitchen and Seven turned towards Janeway. "Captain...Kathryn," she corrected herself, "I am not familiar  with that food. Why did you suggest antipasto?" she asked.
 

"Antipasto is a type of salad that includes not just vegetables, but cheeses, meats and olives -- a great many ingredients," the  captain replied with a smile. "Leah said dinner was ready, but I'd like a little more time alone with you. It should take her quite a while to put all those various items together," she explained, feeling quite satisfied with herself.
 

"I see," Seven responded. "And it is customary to put  honey on this antipasto salad, as well?" she asked curiously.
 

"Honey? Who said anything about honey?" Kathryn asked, before understanding to what Seven was referring. Her heart suddenly swelled in adoration for the Borg, as she realized just how truly enchanting Seven was.
 

Janeway was powerless to prevent a huge grin from  surfacing. "Oh. No, Seven. The entity was not referring to the food 'honey' -  she was using the word as a term of endearment," Janeway explained, the last bit delivered in an unmistakably frosty tone.
 

Kathryn turned to refill Seven's wineglass when the wood on the fire shifted, tossing a rather large log off the pile. Sparks flew and  embers began burning on the rug in front of the hearth. Janeway glanced at her  bare feet, and then calmly retrieved an unused log to smother the glowing bits of burning wood. Then, using the special fireplace tongs, the captain managed to place the log back onto the pile. Deciding the fire looked a little low, she  added a few more pieces of wood and settled them into place. Satisfied with her  efforts, the captain brushed the wood dust from her hands. She smiled at Seven and motioned to the couch, tucking her left leg under her as she sat down...and took a deep breath.
 

"Seven, can I ask you something?" the older woman asked, draping her right arm across the back of the couch.
 

"Of course," Seven answered, situating herself on the  right side of the couch. Although attempting to emulate the same casual  positioning as the captain, Seven found she was unable to bring her leg up onto the sofa. She was simply unaccustomed to sitting in such a relaxed manner. She  did, however, manage to lean back against the cushions while turning to face  Janeway.
 

"You mentioned you programmed this simulation to help  the children with their impending departure from Voyager...to give them a sense  of what life would be like as part of a family. What you didn't mention is why you also programmed a mate for yourself," the auburn haired woman began  tentatively.
 

Seven shifted slightly, clearly not anticipating the captain's question. "I did not program the Leah Brahms character," she  explained, glancing down briefly at her hands, which were folded neatly in her lap.
 

Janeway smiled, noticing the reaction her question had caused in the young woman. "I understand that, Seven. Although you may not have  programmed the specific character we call 'Leah Brahms', you did allow for a  mate in the programming of this simulation. I'm just wondering what prompted you to do that," the captain asked gently. After a moment of silence, Janeway added "I'm sorry, Seven. You don't have to answer that question if it makes you uncomfortable." She watched to see whether the Borg would take the bait.
 

"I am not...uncomfortable, captain," Seven replied in a  somewhat stilted voice. She found her mind racing to come up with a suitable  answer for the captain. The ex-drone knew it would be useless to manufacture an explanation - Janeway would easily detect any deception she might attempt. Contrary to her initial response, however, Seven acknowledged she was somewhat uncomfortable divulging her true motivation for including such a character in  the simulation. Feeling a sudden urge to flee the room, Seven attempted to rise  from the couch but was halted by Janeway's hand on her arm.
 

"Seven," the captain said in a soft whisper of a voice,  "please...tell me."
 

Janeway captured Seven's eyes with her own.
 

The young woman glanced down at the captain's hand and sighed. "Very well," Seven began tentatively. "I was curious to discover what it would be like...to have a mate."
 

Seven stopped there, hoping the smaller woman would be satisfied with her answer. Janeway, however, could sense there was something  more to it than that and refused to let her astrometrics officer off the hook. She allowed a moment of silence to pass, before encouraging Seven to continue.
 

"I see," the captain said slowly, her hand still resting gently on Seven's arm. "Can you tell me why you were curious about that?" she  asked carefully, already having a fairly good idea where this was heading, but not wanting to pressure Seven into answering. She reached over and refilled both  their wineglasses, giving the young woman another moment to gather her  thoughts.
 

The Borg took the offered wineglass and looked up into warm eyes...eyes that had made her feel safe and cared for on countless occasions. Seven knew she had nothing to fear about being honest with Kathryn,  but she was unaccustomed to the strange sensations she was experiencing in the pit of her stomach. The ex-drone took a small sip of her wine and continued.
 

"As you know, some time ago the Doctor gave me lessons in dating. Although the experience was not entirely successful, it did provide  me with a certain amount of knowledge regarding human courtship rituals. I have subsequently discovered, however, the Doctor's instruction was lacking in one important area," Seven explained.
 

"You mean in terms of his orientation bias?" Janeway interrupted, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.
 

Seven arched an eyebrow, finding it interesting the  captain should seize upon that issue as the one to which she was referring. "No,  Kathryn. I am aware it is acceptable to date members of one's own gender. Our  lessons were focused entirely on courtship, but there was nothing of love or what occurs after an individual has found their...mate."
 

"Oh. I see. Well..." Janeway began. She was mercifully interrupted by another loud crash of thunder, which provided a much-needed  moment to think. Seven's use of her first name had not gone unnoticed...and the  captain could not help but feel it significant in some way, as though some sort of shift had taken place. Her heart began beating wildly again, so she took a sip - a rather large sip - of her wine to compose herself. The older woman had, for some months now, anticipated having this conversation with Seven - but ironically, now that the moment was upon her, Janeway felt oddly nervous. She  took a deep breath and began carefully.
 

"And something has happened recently to motivate you to...explore these issues?" she asked, with a little trepidation.
 

"Precisely. I believe I have...feelings for someone. Recent events have enabled me to identify those feelings as...love. I am  uncomfortable about proceeding, however, until I understand what it means to be  mated to another," Seven replied plainly. "That is what I had hoped to explore  by including a mate in this simulation," she added.
 

The captain knew she should say something, anything...but all she could manage was a continuous slow nodding of her head.  Voyager's commanding officer felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her...except that she had stopped breathing entirely, approximately 14 seconds  earlier. She felt her chest tighten, a curious sensation she likened to rematerializing inside a decompression chamber.
 

Kathryn's mind began to race, no doubt spurred on by the continual nodding of her head. Janeway tried to bring her heart rate under control, to calm down a bit, so she could respond in some manner to the young woman's statement. Amazingly, it took only a few moments for her to fully grasp what Seven was telling her. [She can't be referring to Axum. How can she "proceed" with someone who's on the other side of the galaxy?] her inner voice  clarified.
 

"Seven, I..."
 

"Sweetheart, dinner is served!" Leah suddenly shouted  from the kitchen doorway.
 

Frustrated to be interrupted again, Janeway slammed her  hand down on the couch causing the Borg to jump slightly in surprise. Although  she was no longer in a rush to leave the holodeck, the captain was suddenly very desperate to be rid of the entity. She wondered how much longer they would have to play along with the simulation, not entirely sure her heart would hold up to the torture much longer. Then, suddenly, Janeway had an idea. Placing her wine  glass down on the end table, she turned to face the Borg.
 

"Seven, what do you suppose would happen if we speeded things up a bit?" she asked, with a mischievous look in her eye.
 

"I don't understand. Please explain," Seven  requested.
 

"Well, you said I am supposed to be your...suitor in this simulation, right? And clearly the entity sees me as a rival for your affections. So, why do we have to go through the whole dinner scene? What do you  think would happen if you simply tell Leah you are... choosing me over her?  Wouldn't that put an end to this whole "mate and family" simulation right then  and there? The entity would have no reason to stick around after that, would it?" the captain asked, clearly thinking out loud while trying to formulate a  course of action. "I mean, is it possible it's as simple as that?" she asked,  gazing intently into Seven's eyes.
 

"I am uncertain. It is impossible to know what might happen under such circumstances. We have very little information about this life form. It is also possible it will challenge you to some sort of physical contest," Seven said gravely.
 

"You mean like a duel?" Janeway asked, with a laugh. "That's somewhat unlikely, don't you think? And even if it were to respond in that manner, I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Seven," she added, with a bit more bravado than was perhaps necessary.
 

"I do not wish you to be harmed, Kathryn," Seven said  simply.
 

Kathryn brought a hand up to Seven's cheek and smiled. "I know you don't," she said softly. "Besides, I also have you to protect me. I  think we should take our chances and give it a try," the captain added, as she  rose from the couch. She reached out her hand to Seven, who took it and allowed  herself to be pulled up.
 

"Okay, then. Just follow my lead," Janeway said with a definite gleam in her eye.
 

Seven dipped her head in agreement. "Understood," came the familiar response.
 

********
 

Chakotay looked up at Tuvok and shook his head in  frustration. "Are you telling me you can't even get a message to them?"
 

Tuvok's expression did not change, but he shifted  slightly and placed his hands behind his back. "That is correct, commander.  There appears to be some sort of dampening field surrounding the holodeck. Not only are we unable to transport anyone in or out, but our communication devices  are incapable of penetrating the field," he explained.
 

Voyager's first officer looked over at B'Elanna, who was leaning against the conference room table with her arms folded across her chest. "And you're telling me we can't access the holodeck controls from out here?" he asked, in an exasperated voice.