Persistence of Vision

"Captain Janeway! Kathryn!"

The words stopped Seven of Nine in her tracks. She had been striding along a corridor in Starfleet Headquarters, paying little attention to those around her, unless the term "attention" could be given to a mild state of constant irritation with other people's propensity to stop and chat in the middle of the hallway. But now she blocked the hallway herself as she saw that her old captain was only a few meters ahead of her, being greeted by an admiral.

Seven stepped back, out of sight. It wasn't that she didn't want to meet the captain, not exactly, but she had to admit that their recent encounters had made her uncomfortable. The fault was not the captain's; Janeway treated Seven as she always had. The problem, Seven acknowledged, was her own. *She* felt awkward in the captain's presence, for reasons she preferred not to examine too closely. Normally, such imprecision in her thinking would have been unacceptable to her. But now she was having a sexual relationship with Chakotay, and Voyager had been back in the AQ almost one earth month.

Nothing was the same.

"Admiral Ch'ben," Janeway said to the woman who had called her name. She touched the admiral's arm lightly and would have continued down the corridor, but Ch'ben stopped her.

"Kathryn! What's your hurry? And why so formal? You've never called me 'Admiral' like that before."

"Perhaps because you weren't an admiral before," the captain replied. "Before I left, I mean. I've been gone a long time, you know."

"Who could forget?" asked the admiral. She was tall and dark, of a humanoid species Seven did not recognize. A worried expression marked her narrow, ridged features. "I thought. . .but never mind. It's so good to see you. I. . ." She was about to say more, but suddenly seemed aware that she and her now-famous companion were attracting stares. Ch'ben finished quickly, "Have dinner with me tonight, Kathryn."

"I'm sorry," Janeway began.

But the admiral interrupted. "Don't brush me off. You owe me that much at least."

"Tholla, please." The captain's voice was quiet; not many people, Seven thought, would have heard the tension in it. "Yes, all right," Janeway said. "Dinner."

Seven turned and walked back the way she had come. If anyone had asked why she left just then, she would have said that she didn't care for eavesdropping. But it would not have been the real reason.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"Mercy me! It's a blond goddess, and she's all alone. Not a Chuckles in sight."

The voice rang out in Seven's quarters later that evening. If the speaker had been hoping to startle her, he was disappointed. She did not even turn from her computer screen.

"Q," she observed neutrally.

In a flash, the being moved to perch on the corner of her desk. Tilting his head, he looked at her quizzically, saying nothing, his eyes widened in exaggerated inquiry.

"What is it?" Seven said at last. She could have continued the juvenile waiting game indefinitely, but it seemed pointless.

"Aren't you going to call security, or at least yell 'Intruder alert'?" asked Q.

"I have no doubt that you have masked your presence, Q. And in any case, there is no security in my private apartment."

"Oh, come now, my lovely. You know as well as I do that Starfleet would never leave its prize heroes unsurveilled. Is that the right spy lingo? Oh, who cares? They'll be listening, never fear. At the very least, you might need to call them to protect you from the tattooed terror."

"What do you want, Q?"

"To show you the error of your pitiful ways, my sweet, except that it would do no good. Humans never listen."

"Then why do you even bother with such 'pitiful' life forms?"

"What's this!" Q mimed shock and awe. "Irony from the queen of the literal? You *have* become more human, haven't you? Or is just the effect of living with Chuckles? Where is that pompadored paramour, by the way?"


Q laughed. "Out, indeed! Quite a few of my little Starfleet friends appear to be 'out' this evening. Which is why I have come to take you on a date -- to save you from the boredom of being *in*."

"The best way to save me from boredom is to leave me alone, Q. I do not wish to go out, certainly not with you."

The being's face hardened briefly, and Seven suddenly found herself gasping for air.

"Careful, delectable one," Q said. "If you misuse your breath that way, you're likely to lose it. I tolerate a certain amount of rudeness from people like Jean-Luc and Kathy, because they have other charms. You, however, I do not find quite so appealing. You wouldn't want to make the mistake of forgetting who you're talking to."

The constriction in her chest eased. Seven took an experimental deep breath and looked at Q steadily. "You are an alien being. And you are very powerful. I never forget."

Q held her eyes. "Good."

He flashed away again, and when he returned, it was with the playfulness of old.

"Come, come, cara mia," he boomed, appearing behind her chair. "Enough of this poky old place. If Chuckles can go out, so can we. Never let it be said that Q doesn't know how to show a girl a good time."

Seven closed her eyes and waited.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The apartment to which Q transported them was similar to Seven's own, meaning that they were in someone's official Starfleet quarters. She asked no questions, knowing that Q would make things clear in his own time. Or he wouldn't. Regardless, quizzing him would do no good.

Seven had not been lying when she told Q that she never forgot his otherness or his power. She did not underestimate him, nor did she miss the malice behind his madcap foolery. Whatever he had to show her in this apartment would be for his pleasure and her pain, of that she had no doubt.

Q had been wandering around the living room, picking up ornaments and muttering "tacky, tacky" and "oh, please" under his breath. But now he was next to her, his hand gripping her head uncomfortably as he whispered in her ear, "Are we here for my pleasure? Absolutely. But your pain? Well, that remains to be seen."

An instant later, he was reclining along the top of a sofa that he had conjured up against the wall, and Seven found herself seated on its cushions.

"Comfy?" he asked. "I hope so, because the show's about to begin."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When the apartment's outer door opened to reveal Captain Janeway and Admiral Tholla Ch'ben, Q smacked Seven's shoulder gleefully. "Surprised, aren't you? Admit it -- for a second there, you thought it was going to be Chuckles, didn't you? You were afraid I was going to make you watch Studly Boy doing something naughty, like having it off with some young bimbo. As if the Q would be interested in anything that pathetic."

Seven opened her mouth to respond, but thought better of it. Q could read her mind; she refused to let him bait her into speaking. Yes, she had thought for a moment that the "show" would involve Chakotay. She realized now, though, what Q apparently already understood: he could never hurt her with Chakotay the way he could hurt her with the captain.

"Will you stop?" Q demanded. "Believe me, if I wanted to hurt you, I could think of more fun ways than just letting you listen in on other people's conversations. I've brought you here for your own good."

His voice was so loud that Seven instinctively glanced toward Janeway and her companion, but Q snorted. "Do me the favor of realizing that I have everything under control," he said. "They can't see or hear us, of course. Now shut up and pay attention."

The admiral had called for lights, and in their dim glow, Seven watched the captain choose a straight-backed chair that sat by itself, out of the light. She wasn't in uniform, but her dark, long-sleeved dress was as impersonal as any Starfleet tunic. Closing her eyes, she stretched her feet forward. Only then did Seven notice the high-heeled black boots, tightly laced.

"Coffee?" called the admiral from the kitchen unit.

Janeway opened her eyes and smiled. "Of course."

"What would you like in it?"

"Preferably something non-synthaholic."

Ch'ben laughed. "Sounds as if you picked up some bad habits in the DQ."

"A few," Janeway responded. But she was no longer smiling.

The admiral entered carrying two cups. Unlike the captain, she was dressed for a night on the town, in a close-fitting red sheath. She paused when she saw where Janeway was sitting, but handed her a mug without comment and then moved to a small couch.

"I'm so glad I ran into you today, Kathryn. I've been trying to get in touch with you ever since you got back. Didn't you get my messages?"

"The debriefings have kept me pretty busy," said the captain, not answering the question. She drank deeply from her mug.

"Is that all finished?" Ch'ben asked. "The debriefings, I mean? Surely the brass have wrung you dry in terms of information by now." She spoke lightly, but her choice of image was unfortunate; the words seemed to hang in the air.

"My, my, ma petite. Is it just me, or are there some undercurrents swirling around this room?" Q hopped down to sit next to Seven. "Candy?" he offered, holding out a bag. Seven ignored him.

"I'm sorry," the admiral was saying. "That sounded grim, didn't it? I just meant. . ."

"I know; it's all right," the captain said. "Yes, the meetings are almost over. Only one more week of interviews scheduled."

"That's good."

"I suppose."

A silence stretched between them. Ch'ben shifted on the couch and twisted the hem of her dress.

"Dinner was nice, wasn't it?" she said finally. "Were you surprised to find Bella's Café still here?"

Janeway smiled wryly. "Part of me was surprised to find Earth still here."

"Everything must seem so different to you. . . ." The admiral's voice trailed off. "But it isn't, you know, Kathryn. Yes, a lot has changed, but a lot of things have stayed the same. Important things."

"*We* aren't the same, Tholla."

"Not exactly, no. But we're still. . .we could. . ." She leaned forward, irritated. "Damn it, Kathryn, will you come sit over here? I don't want to talk to a shadow." Ch'ben paused, breathing deeply. When she spoke again, her anger was gone. "Sit with me. Please."

"Tholla, I. . .this isn't a good idea. Too much has happened. We aren't the people we were. It's been too long; it would be a mistake to try to go back." Janeway stood. "I should go."

She turned toward the door, but Ch'ben was across the room before she could leave. "Kathryn," the admiral said, catching Janeway by the shoulders. "Don't." She pulled the captain into her arms, kissing her gently. Janeway stiffened but then relaxed into the embrace, returning the kiss softly at first, then more intensely.

"Q," Seven said. "Remove us at once. I do not want to watch this."

Q chuckled without smiling. "Lie to yourself if you want to, but don't try to lie to me. This is exactly what you want to see. It's practically your own fantasy come to life. Isn't this how you used to imagine it? Pulling the captain to you, kissing her, making her like it?" He smirked and went on. "Then you'd imagine her naked and yourself on top of her, your fingers in her. . ."

"Stop!" Seven shut her eyes and pressed her hands over her ears, knowing it was childish, but needing to shut out that relentless voice, shut out the picture of the captain holding Ch'ben. Her chest felt constricted again, but she didn't think Q had anything to do with it this time. What made her feel worst was that he was right -- even as she closed her eyes, part of her *did* want to watch.

"Oh, gol durn it," said Q loudly, back to playing the jovial buffoon. "You can come out now, Goldilocks. Doesn't look like anyone's going to be getting any here tonight."

Seven raised her head and saw Janeway disengage herself from the admiral's arms. "I'm sorry, Tholla," she said. "It's too much, I don't. . ." She broke off, shaking her head and smiling slightly. "God, what you do to me."

"I can do a lot more," Ch'ben said, drawing Kathryn toward her again. "Stay with me tonight."

"Time out!" said Q brightly. Both women were suddenly motionless, frozen in Q's time-stopped tableau. "What do you say to a little wager, lovey mine? What'll it be--the lady or the tiger? That is to say, will she stay, or will she go?"

"You do not need to continue this encounter, Q. You've made your point."

"Oh? And what point is that?"

"That I've been lying to myself about the captain, about Chakotay. And if you wanted to humiliate me, you have accomplished that as well."

Q gave an exaggerated sigh of exasperation. "Believe it or not, Seven of Nine, it's not always about you. There are more interesting things at stake here than your wretched little affairs."

Not for the first time, Seven wished she could still make use of her assimilation tubules. Then she could simply link to this infuriating being's mind and avoid this ridiculous guessing game. Instead, she would have to play by his rules, and right now, he seemed to want her to press him. So she asked, "What sort of things?"

Q made a show of unwrapping another piece of candy. "Oh, like for instance, the fact that they're going to make an example of her."

"I do not understand."

Q sighed again. "An example. As in 'a sacrifice.' I see I will have to spell it out: Starfleet plans to charge your captain with violating just about every Fleet regulation going -- everything from gross malfeasance to conduct unbecoming to attempted murder."

"But why?"

"Why? Because the Federation is taking a lot of heat about certain aspects of this Dominion War. There have been acts that some people -- small-thinking, literal-minded people, of course -- are interpreting as major violations of interplanetary war ethics."

"But what does that have to do with the captain? She was not involved in the Dominion War. People are calling her a hero."

"You're not very bright, are you, Blondie?" asked Q. "It's *because* she wasn't involved in the Dominion War, and *because* people are calling her a hero, that she makes the best scapegoat. If they walk a hard line with someone like her, Starfleet will be showing that it takes ethical violations seriously and doesn't play favorites. But they won't actually have to admit any wrongdoing of their own."

"But people will see through such a ploy. . ."

"Oh, be your age. And stop saying 'but.' You were Borg, for pity's sake, and you still don't understand a thing about power. Yes, there will be objections, but they'll be no more than gnats to the Federation. When you're the ones in charge, you get to say which ethics count and which don't."

He began to pick his teeth with the candy paper. "Of course, it helps that your beloved captain is guilty as hell. Not that I don't admire her for it; she's got what it takes. But still, think of all the high-sounding platitudes the Fleet will be able to spout. It's the perfect solution for them, really. You lower species can sometimes be very clever."

Seven felt anxiety flood her, and after a second, anger. She was furious with Starfleet, with Q, and with how often, since Voyager's return, she found herself feeling helpless and inadequate. She turned on Q, not caring whether she upset him.

"From my perspective, *you* are the lower species. You are always bragging of your omnipotence. Why do you not do something to help her instead of sitting there sneering?"

Q just laughed. "Ooh. You're so cute when you're a spitfire."

Seven forced herself to concentrate on assisting Janeway. "Does the captain know she is to be charged?"

"Let's find out, shall we? Hmmmm?" said Q. He snapped his fingers toward Janeway and Admiral Ch'ben.  

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The captain moved slightly, but before she could do more than register the fact that Ch'ben was in stasis, Q appeared beside her in a flash of light.

One manifestation of Q, that is. Another remained on the sofa next to Seven. "Handsome bugger, isn't he?" he said, nodding toward the new Q and elbowing Seven sharply.

"Q! What the hell do you want?" Janeway demanded.

"And good evening to you, too, Kathy," said the being. He leered at Ch'ben, whose hands were still on the captain's waist. "Am I interrupting something? Oh, I do hope so. Perhaps I could I join you?"

"That account is paid in full, Q," Janeway said, stepping away from the admiral.

Q put on a sad face. "Tsk, tsk. You distress me, Kathryn, acting as if what we had was nothing more than a commercial transaction."

Next to Seven, the other Q snickered. "And what a transaction it was," he said, elbowing Seven again. "I knew she'd come around eventually. It was only a matter of time until she felt guilty enough and desperate enough, and then a couple nights of fucking the Qster no longer seemed like too high a price to pay for getting home."

He looked hard at Seven, not bothering to keep the hostility out of his face. "Shocked? No, I can see you aren't. You always were a pragmatic little thing, weren't you?"

Seven looked away. No, she was neither shocked nor disappointed. Nor did she believe that the captain had been overly desperate or guilty. Just honest, perhaps. The longer it took to get home, the less justification she would have felt for continuing to refuse Q. Having sex with him would simply have been logical. The captain had had to do many unpleasant things in her career and no doubt would have to do many more. Copulating with Q might not even rank among the worst. The only surprise was that she hadn't done it sooner.

The other Q was still talking to Janeway. "Aren't you going to tell me how much you enjoyed my technique? I. . .Kathy!" he interrupted himself, feigning surprise. "What a filthy mind you have, girl. I wasn't talking about *that* sort of technique. I meant my technique in getting you home. A cunning little plan, wasn't it? No one will ever see Q's dainty hand in it."

"It was an absurd plan, as you well know," the captain said. "But it's over, and we're back, and *we*" -- she indicated herself and Q -- "are finished."

"How are things over at Starfleet headquarters, Kath?" asked Q, in an apparent non-sequitur. "Everything just about finished there, too? Will you be getting promoted soon?"

"Q, just what is it you want?" Janeway was impatient.

"Didn't I speak clearly? I want to know how you're doing, how Starfleet is treating you."

"You know how I'm doing. And you know that Starfleet is treating me like the enemy." The captain began to pace angrily, ticking off her examples on her fingers. "Every time I try to go anywhere by myself, another 'good friend' appears, anxious to catch up on old times or take me out for coffee or just generally make sure that I'm never on my own or with my old crew. I've been without a computer for days -- they claim they've taken it for 'upgrading' pending my new security clearances. If I try to access a public terminal, yet another old friend turns up to distract me. When I was foolish enough to object to this treatment, I got extra sessions with a therapist who told me how concerned he was about what he called my 'persecution fantasies.' Tonight is the first time I've been allowed out without obvious surveillance, which of course means that Tholla is the surveillance." She chuckled dryly. "Evidently you're not the only one who thinks a good fuck will make me putty in your hands. Tholla's the fourth old flame in two weeks who's tried to take me to bed."

"But she's the only one Kathy really cared about," said Seven's Q. "Nobody ever guessed that. Kathryn played that beard of a Mark for all he was worth. Which wasn't much. Mark, eeww." He shuddered theatrically.

The captain's Q was also saying, "But she's the only one you ever really cared about, isn't she?"

Janeway pressed her lips together and turned away. Seven thought she might be on the verge of tears, but when she turned back, she was dry-eyed.

"You loved her," said Janeway's Q accusingly.

"As I told Tholla herself, that was a long time ago," she replied evenly.

"So you're not going to spend the night with her?"

"What do you care?"

"Kathryn, Kathryn," said Q, taking her hands in his. "Of course I care. I just want you to be happy, that's all. I worry about you."

"Spare me." Janeway pulled her hands away.

"What will become of you?" Q was clearly enjoying the melodrama.

"I don't know what will become of me, but I know I'm not going to wait around for criminal charges and big, public trials. If I can, I'll get the hell off this planet and as far away from Starfleet as possible. They'll have to find someone else to feed to the wolves."

Seven's Q nudged her yet again. "There's your answer, Borg-ette. Of course she knows what's going on. Satisfied?"

Seven felt numb. "What is going to happen to her?"

"That depends a great deal on her, wouldn't you say?" It was the captain's Q who spoke. For a second, he sat beside his double at Seven's side; then with a flash, the two Qs merged, and Janeway was back in her original tableau with the admiral.

"Well! That was fun," said the combined Q, clapping his hands. "And Kathryn won't even remember I've been here." He lay down, plopping his head in Seven's lap. "What will happen, you ask? Like I said, everything depends on our plucky heroine. She's crafty and determined, but she's been away a long time. Will she have enough contacts left from the old days who can help her out? Will they be willing risk Starfleet's wrath? Will she get away? Or will she spend the next ten-to-twenty in maximum security? Tune in next week. . ."

"I am to assume, then, that you will not assist her?" Seven asked, knowing what the answer would be.

"I? Interfere in human affairs? Never!" Q sat up abruptly. "Of course," he went on, musingly, "for Kathryn I could make an exception. . .if certain conditions were met." "You wish to have sex with her again?"

"Yawn. Been there, done that. She was good, but you can't step into the same river twice."

Seven thought she saw where he was going. "Am I the one you want to have sex with? I will do so, if you will help the captain."

Q loomed suddenly over her, his breath hot in her face. "That's oh, so brave and generous of you," he hissed, "but as I believe I've already told you, I don't find you all that appealing."

"Then what do you want?"

The being's face gave an ugly twist, but he said merely, "You disappoint me, Borg," before returning his attention to Janeway and Admiral Ch'ben.

They were moving again, the admiral wrapping her arms around the captain, nestling her cheek against the smaller woman's hair. "Just for tonight, Kathryn," Ch'ben whispered. "Stay."

"For a few minutes. . ." Janeway whispered back. This time, Seven did not look away. She saw the captain reach up to curve one hand around the admiral's neck and cup the other around her breast.

And she saw Q, leaning forward on the sofa, his lips parted, watching avidly.


Seven knew that Q understood how she felt about the captain. And his own feelings, such as they were, did not appear to be too dissimilar. And he liked to watch.

"I know what you want, Q," she said. "You want to watch me have sex with the captain."

Q snapped the other women into stasis again and turned a beaming face upon her. "I knew I could count on you, my lusty wench. Yes, that's all I ask. And it's little enough, considering the fun you stand to get out of it."

"I have not yet agreed; I need to know more," Seven replied. She wanted him to keep talking; she needed time to consider the implications of his scheme.

Q opened his eyes wide. "What do you mean, 'know more'? You both get naked and let nature take its course. What more is there to know?"

"Please. Do not be disingenuous. I need to know more about the plan, about what I am expected to do. . .and what you will do in return."

Q let out a long breath. "You and your limited, literal mind. It's as bad as dealing with Vulcans. All right. Here is 'The Plan.' I will make sure that you and Kathy are alone together, far from Starfleet's prying eyes. The two of you will then make whatever arrangements you need to get her off the planet. At some point, you will seduce her. And I will watch. There. That's the plan. Would that have been so hard to figure out?"

"It would not be a matter of seduction, Q. When I explain to the captain that you. . ."

"Ah, non, non, non, cherie," Q admonished, wagging his finger at her. "Under no circumstances is Kathryn to know that I'm involved at all. I'm not going to have her acting the martyr on my account. Any fucking she does with you will be because she wants to. Keep me out of it."

"That is impossible. Why should I deceive the captain in that way? It isn't necessary. She has already shown that she is not opposed to making sexual arrangements with you; if she thought this plan would help her, I believe she would agree to participate."

Q rolled his eyes. "Now there's a romantic come-on if I ever heard one. Kathy won't be able to resist you."

"Why me, then? Why do you want to watch *me* with the captain? You have made it quite clear that you do not find me 'appealing'."

"Gods move in mysterious ways."

"The captain may not be willing to have sex with me unless she understands why."

"Ha! And the girl accuses *me* of being disingenuous!"

"What do you mean?"

Q began to slap himself. "It's your own fault, Q boy," he said. "Your own fault. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, you persist in thinking that humans are going to show a glimmer of INTELLIGENCE and AWARENESS. You have only yourself to blame if you find yourself having to explain EVERY FUCKING DETAIL to some imposter posing as a SENTIENT BEING."

Grabbing Seven's shoulders, he pressed her down into the couch. "Listen to me, you blind idiot cow. Kathryn Janeway has wanted you practically from the minute she saw you. She risked her ship to save you time and time again. If you're too much of a coward to help her out, fine. But don't fool yourself about why you're saying no."

He let her go and leaned back. Seven sat up slowly, hating him. He was right: she was fooling herself, refusing to admit what she knew was the truth.

She *was* afraid -- not of being caught by Starfleet or of violating Federation law or of having her intimate sexual moments drooled over by a puerile alien being. She was not even afraid of leaving Chakotay, awkward though that was going to be.

She was afraid that she would offer herself to the captain, and Janeway would turn her down. Would not want her. Would be offended or disgusted or secretly amused or, worse, just not interested.

But what were her alternatives? To continue her life as it was, on a planet as alien to her as any in the Delta Quadrant? To watch the captain be prosecuted and perhaps imprisoned?

And if Janeway did manage to escape on her own, what then? She would disappear from Seven's life altogether.

Seven looked at the captain, frozen in the arms of the admiral, her face edged by the soft light of the room, her fingers touching Ch'ben's cheek.

"Very well, Q," she said. "I will comply."

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The next day, Seven began to consider possible methods of getting the captain away from Earth. Q had told her that he would arrange their meeting in one week, as soon as Janeway's Starfleet interrogations ended. "I wouldn't want her to miss a single glorious moment of them," he said. "Besides, you have a lot to do."

On the second day, she received a message from Tuvok. He would be departing for Vulcan soon, he said, and he would like to talk with her in person before he left.

That the talk would concern Janeway, Seven felt reasonably confident. Tuvok might even have an idea of how to help her. It wouldn't surprise Seven if the Vulcan knew about the proposed criminal charges. If there was anyone from Voyager who could find out such things, it would be the captain's old friend and security officer. And it seemed unlikely that he was merely arranging a chance to say goodbye to Seven herself.

Later, a heavily-encrypted text message arrived containing directions to a rendezvous site within walking distance. As a precaution, Seven deleted the file thoroughly.

She followed Tuvok's directions to a small, anonymous building in an old quarter of town. Its door opened to her retinal scan, and she found herself in a darkened, windowless room crowded with old furniture.

Tuvok had not yet arrived. Seven checked out the room as best she could, but she did not detect any surveillance equipment. Not that she knew everything to look for, of course. Still, it was wise to check.

"Scan verified," the computer said suddenly, and the outer door opened before Seven could take the precautionary cover she deemed prudent.

Into the room stepped Captain Janeway.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

She wore the same dark dress she worn the night of her dinner with the admiral. And the same black boots. She looked a bit drawn, but she smiled at Seven as of old.

"Captain. It is you. Where is Tuvok? I received a message from him. . ." Seven was aware that she sounded slow-witted. But the captain's appearance had been a considerable surprise.

"A computer simulation," said Janeway. "I hope you and Tuvok will forgive me. But it's likely that Starfleet is monitoring your transmissions; I needed to conceal myself."

Seven did not want to seem to know more about the captain's affairs than she should. "Explain," she said.

"I can't tell you much. But for various reasons, I can't stay in Starfleet any longer. Or on Earth, for that matter. I'll be leaving the planet, Seven. Soon."

"Where are you going?"

"Somewhere safe. It's better you don't know."

Seven was baffled. What was going on? Was Q changing the rules for some freak of his own, substituting this unexpected meeting for the one he had promised a week hence? Or could Janeway's presence here possibly be a coincidence? Seven was unsure how she could find out. But she was certain of one thing: If Q were behind this encounter, she would have to make the most of it. She might not have another opportunity.

"How can I assist you?" she asked the captain.

"Thank you, Seven, but there is nothing for you to do. I've made all the arrangements."

Seven was taken aback. "You have already made your arrangements? When?"

Puzzled, Janeway said, "I've been working on it for a while. Why do you ask?"

"Before you had dinner with Admiral Ch'ben?" Seven realized she was giving too much away, but she needed to understand.

"How do you know about that?"

"I saw you," Seven said truthfully, leaving out a few of the pertinent details. "You went to Bella's Café."

"What is this about, Seven?"

Seven struggled to control her thoughts, to come up with a reasonable explanation even as she was trying to make sense of the situation. Was it all just an elaborate prank of Q's, a trick to get her into bed with the captain? He must have known that Janeway was going to able to make her own provisions for escape. Or perhaps, Seven thought, surprised at the idea, perhaps he didn't know. Maybe he was not as omniscient as he pretended.

"You. . .you seemed so at ease when I saw you with the admiral," she told the captain. "So comfortable with being home. I am surprised to learn that you were already planning to leave."

Janeway did not look completely convinced, but she let it go. "Seven. . .I don't know when -- or if -- I will see you again. I wanted to say goodbye."

Putting her hands on the former Borg's shoulders, she reached up and brushed her lips against Seven's, her touch feather-light.

She seemed about to step away, but Seven hated the thought of her leaving. She put her arms around the other woman's waist. "Captain. . .Kathryn. . .I"

Janeway kissed her again, fiercely, longingly, but as Seven kissed hungrily back, a wrenching idea hit her: what if Q had gone to the captain as well? What if Janeway had agreed to seduce *her*? She might not really want me at all, Seven thought. It could all be just for Q. . .

She pulled back abruptly, and Kathryn looked stricken. "Oh, god, I'm sorry; I never meant to. . .what is it?"

For Seven was glancing around the room, knowing it was useless, but unable to stop herself from checking to see if Q were present. "Surveillance. . ." she said vaguely.

Janeway shook her head. "We're all right. This is a safe house; the people who run it keep it clean. I trust them."

"Someone like Q could. . ." Seven knew she was violating Q's order about keeping him out of it, but she didn't care. If he had substituted this unannounced meeting for the arranged one, then he had already broken his promise to her. And if the captain had succeeded on her own, then neither of them owed Q anything.

Janeway looked at her searchingly. "Has Q been spying on you?" She took hold of Seven's arms, comforting her. "That's what he does, Seven -- he watches from the shadows because he has no other way to feel alive. It can be annoying and sad. . .but in the end, it means nothing. If he wants to watch, let him. I never give a damn."

"Once. . ." Seven began, deliberately unspecific. "Once, he offered me a deal. . ."

The captain looked at her sharply. But if she suspected that Q's offer to Seven might have involved herself, she kept her own counsel. When she finally did speak, it seemed to Seven that she was choosing her words with care.

"Q has offered me deals, too," Janeway said. "And I've taken some of them. When I think they'll benefit enough people. When the gain is more than the cost. I can't tell you how to handle Q for yourself, Seven; that's up to you. But my own rule is that I don't take things from him just for my own sake; I don't want him to have that much control over me. One of the reasons that Q bothers with humans is that we give his existence some focus. He needs us. That means Q can have no power over you that you don't give him."

Seven did not reply. But now it was she who began the kiss, her mouth hot against Janeway's lips, her cheek, her throat. She ran her hands down the captain's body, claiming her as she wanted to be claimed herself.

Janeway held her tightly and then paused, her eyes seeking Seven's. What she saw in them must have reassured her. "Oh, god, how I've wanted you," she said, her voice thick. "No need to keep it a secret now. . ."

"No need," replied Seven firmly.

Reluctantly, her hands still stroking Seven's face, the captain pulled away and then moved toward the door. "I have to leave now, Seven. I'm sorry. But I can't risk missing my transport; it's my only chance. Maybe. . .someday. . ."

"Kathryn." Seven grabbed her arm. "I want to go with you."

"You can't. It's out of the question. I'll be a fugitive, Seven, always on the run."

"I'm going with you."

Janeway drew her close. "I don't think you realize what you'd be giving up -- all your opportunities, your new life here on Earth, everything you know."

"I gave up everything I knew once before. You might agree that it turned out for the best."

Kathryn's face softened. "Yes. I definitely might agree."

"Then let us go," said Seven.

"What about Chakotay?"

"Our relationship was a mistake. I believe he will be happier without me."

"Seven." Janeway was solemn. "Think carefully. About what you're really proposing, about what it will mean in the long run. We'll be on the move for months, maybe years. We'll always have to hide ourselves." She gave a small smile. "And I'm not the easiest person to live with."

"Nor am I," Seven replied. "But I know what I'm doing, Kathryn. I know what I want."

The captain stood silently for a moment before kissing Seven again, deeply and possessively.

Then they both left the dark safe house and stepped into the light of the street.