"A DELICATE MATTER"


by lamardeuse

Part Two of "Galatea Redux"

Credits: Lines from the Paramount picture Sabrina (1954) reproduced without permission. Screenplay by Billy Wilder, Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman, from a play by Samuel Taylor. No copyright infringement is intended.

Same disclaimers and notes as in the first one, except this is a bit more on the PG side for language and content.

I

It was another moonlit night on the holodeck.

This time, the setting was slightly different. The Doctor had chosen a popular program which took place on one of the pleasure cruisers that ply the Beta Eridani system. Spectacular scenery was promised, and the program did not fail to deliver. The moons of the fourth planet were bathed in a pale glow that streamed through fifty-metre windows to wash over the massive dance floor of the ship, where he and Seven danced a slow waltz.

The crowd was thinning as the evening wore on, but the Doctor had no wish to see the date end. These times he had spent with the Borg woman on the holodeck over the past few weeks had been wonderful, made more so by the fact that he now knew that she loved him as much as he did her. They had laughed about it that first night, when Seven had lured him there on the pretext of continuing their "social" lessons, only to floor him with her new self-assurance... and that dress. Of course, Seven would be beautiful in a cotton shift, but something about the way she carried herself in it had told him that something had changed between them. At first, she had led him to believe that 'something' was her being in love with another man--

"At no time," he could hear her reply indignantly in his memory, "did I say explicitly that I was in love with another man. It was your lack of self-confidence which planted the idea in your mind that it had to be anyone but you."

He had argued with her, gently but at length, on that point. In the end he had to concede she was right. In the end, he had been afraid, and she had not; it boiled down to that, plain and simple.

Seven shifted slightly in his arms, and he loosened his grasp on her. Sometimes he found himself holding her too tightly, as if he were afraid she were a figment of his imagination that was likely to disappear into thin air at the slightest provocation. He was unused to this level of physicality--touching her, kissing her--and was finding it to be an unsettling experience. Not because he found it awkward, but because he found he was enjoying it--a great deal. Perhaps too much.

For there had been moments--sometimes even when he was attending to a patient--that she had intruded on his thoughts in a very pleasant way. He had thought that only Human males were subject to this peculiar affliction of using their intimate anatomy as a secondary brain, but obviously he was no longer immune. Not that he did not have control over... certain involuntary reactions... thank his programmers for that. But he was finding it increasingly difficult to suppress his desire to... well, tonight it manifested itself as a desire to see if this program included a full mockup of the entire ship. Staterooms included.

He felt it necessary to suppress these thoughts because he frankly had no idea how to bring up the subject. The setting of their Holodeck encounters was always so unabashedly romantic. Add to that the fact that he was fairly sure she had no experience in such matters and the result was tactful, gentlemanly silence. He resolved that he would not be the one to make the first move to deepening their relationship. After all, how difficult could it be to practice a little self-restraint?

She shifted against him again, her full breasts pressing into his chest, and he stifled a groan. Apparently, it was going to be very difficult indeed.

--

Seven of Nine was losing patience.

She had hoped the obvious ploy involving her most prominent feminine asset would cause some sort of reaction, but the Doctor remained as one cast in stone. How did one go about seducing a hologram?

She had not always been as frustrated with their new relationship as she was tonight. Their first evening together had been magical; she would not have changed one thing about it. Once the Doctor had recovered from the initial shock, he had rallied quite nicely. They had kissed and talked and danced for hours, and he had been... Seven had few words to describe it. He had made her feel cherished, beautiful, special. At first she had felt guilty for enjoying this; as a drone, taking pleasure in one's individuality was forbidden, in fact rarely even imagined by a member of the Collective. Occasionally, imperfectly assimilated units did arise, but everyone knew that they were swiftly reprogrammed or destroyed. The only loyalty allowed was to the hive.

When she had come aboard Voyager, she had replaced these programmed feelings of loyalty with similar feelings toward the crew of this ship. They became her new hive, and this knowledge helped to keep her from going insane in the first few weeks. After a time, she became more comfortable with distinguishing individuals from one another, with developing different relationships to each, though she still had no desire to form emotional bonds. The only emotional bonds she could recall had involved her parents, and those memories had been all but wiped from her brain. Besides, even if she had decided to take that leap, there were few aboard the ship who would welcome overtures of friendship from a Borg. Most did not even see her as anything but a machine--though some saw her as a dangerous machine. At least there was some variety there, she mused ironically.

And then there had been the Doctor. He had been the first--apart from the captain--who had treated her like any other person. More so even than Janeway, for despite her kindness and lack of prejudice she was always aware of the Borg woman's strategic value to Voyager, while the Doctor had no interest in such matters. In addition, his quick wit and his intelligence set him apart from the others in her mind. When he suggested those "social lessons," she did not object, for they would not normally have had much chance to interact otherwise. After a few sessions on the Holodeck, it was becoming clear to her that she was actually enjoying his company. At first she explained it as simple compatibility; after all, they were both in their own ways isolated from the crew, they had a certain aloofness and self-assurance that tended to put Humans off, and they were of a similar mind set on many issues.

But it was more than that. Those explanations failed to account for the warmth that suffused her limbs whenever his intense gaze trained on her, or the tingling sensation in her skin where he touched her. They did not explain why she found herself concentrating on the pleasing cadences of his deep voice to the exclusion of all else, or why she replayed every compliment he ever paid her over and over in her head. She knew enough about Human physiology to realize she was responding to sexual cues, and while neither of them was technically Human, they were close enough for him to cause these reactions in her. But why him? Why now?

And then he had hurt her, and she began to understand.

That night at the diplomatic reception had been unlike any other Seven had experienced. Every feeling was a first for her, setting in motion a parade of emotions that threatened to overwhelm her. There was the elation of being asked to a social function, the pride as she entered the mess hall on the Doctor's arm, the trepidation at seeing so many pairs of eyes suddenly glued to her. His lessons had given her just enough confidence to try out her new skills, and she felt excitement as people responded favourably to her "small talk." She had ventured out among the crowd, leaving his side for a time to mingle, always aware that she could return to him like a safe harbour. But when she had returned, it was not to any kind of safety. He had wagered on her, like Earth people did on horses or other animals. His pretense of befriending her was merely a way to win a bet.

Now, she understood what had happened, but at the time she had felt as though she were drowning. Her breathing became short and laboured, her vision became blurred. She felt stupid, and deceived, and terribly sorry for herself, and she wanted to crawl into her cubicle and never come out. All of which, she realized at the same instant, was foolish, for she was highly intelligent, she had to perform her duties the next morning at 0600, and there was no logical reason to feel hurt. They each had their motives for wanting the lessons; what was so wrong in that? It was wrong, she thought as she staggered through the corridors to the cargo bay, because I thought there was more. I wanted there to be more.

And being highly intelligent, it did not take her long to realize what that meant.

Once she had finally made up her mind to go after what she wanted, she went about it with typical Borg efficiency, assimilating the necessary information and using it against the target. He never knew what hit him, she mused, smiling into his shoulder. Resistance was futile. But she had not really thought beyond the initial stages, so focused had she been on mustering the courage to tell him how she felt. Now she wondered what to do about the next logical step. She had made discreet--and, she believed, not so discreet--hints, but had gotten no reaction. Seven did not wish to appear too aggressive, not because that was the man's prerogative, but because she did not really know whether or not the hologram even thought in those terms. She had heard some of the cruder women on the ship speculating on whether or not the Doctor was "fully functional," and she knew some holoprograms were designed with only that purpose in mind, but she did not wish to embarrass him by bringing up the subject. He would tell her if he had those feelings for her. Seven resolved to be patient; she certainly did not want to ruin her first relationship before it had barely begun.

The song ended, and they separated reluctantly, joining in the applause of the few remaining holographic guests. His eyes seemed darker, his gaze even warmer than usual, and Seven suppressed a shudder. "Would you like to go for a walk--on the deck?" he asked, and his voice seemed deeper than usual.

"That would be--wonderful," managed the Borg woman. His arm encircled her waist, pulling her lightly against him, and she found herself immobilized for a second or two, mesmerized by the feel of his strong fingers against her torso. This, she groaned mentally, forcing her feet to move, will be torture.

II

"So what do you suppose she's been up to lately?"

"What are you talking about?" Harry Kim twisted slightly in his seat to follow the direction of Tom Paris' nod. The only person he could see was Seven of Nine, standing over by the mess line engaged in conversation with Tuvok. He hadn't heard any gossip lately concerning the Borg.

"Harry, you never hear any of the gossip, do you?" Paris stuffed a forkful of what he wistfully pretended were mashed potatoes into his mouth.

B'Elanna Torres sighed, and Harry was unsure which of them was the cause. "I think he's referring to the rumours about her and the Doctor."

"Seven and the EMH?" gasped Kim. Lucky bastard. "How could that ever work?"

"Well, there are the birds, and then there are these bees, see--"

"Yeah, thanks, Tom. I think I picked that up somewhere along the way. What I meant was--well, I don't know what I meant, actually. I mean, I just never thought--"

"Think about it. Seven and a computer program. It's a match made in heaven," murmured the Klingon woman uncharitably. Both men stared at her for a moment, and she stared back over the rim of her glass. "What?"

"I think it's great," Harry proclaimed. "Why shouldn't they--" he trailed off, gesturing helplessly, "do... whatever it is that they're doing."

"Hey. Some of us are trying to digest over here."

"Come on, B'Elanna," purred Tom. "Surely you're not averse to a little romance."

"If it means she's no longer going to be snooping into our romance, I'm all for it."

"Au contraire," Paris grinned wickedly, "she might need pointers now more than ever. Are you in an adventurous mood tonight? Feeling up for a threesome? OW!"

"I might be feeling up for a little bat'leth practice if you don't start behaving yourself."

"Uh, kids, in case you're interested, she's coming this way."

Seven was indeed advancing on their table, or rather the adjacent one on the far side, which happened to be the only unoccupied one left in the mess hall. As always, she carried her meal tray in one hand and a PADD in the other. She remained fixed on the data readout on the small device until she neared their table, when she graced them with a nod and a hello, and passed them on her way to her destination.

"Hey Seven," Paris spoke up before she could sit, surprising the others. "We've got an extra seat here--why don't you join us?" Torres fixed him with an evil eye but said nothing.

"I would be disturbing you." The statement was flat as always, but also contained a note of--what? Paris did not have the perceptual abilities, at least where Borg women were concerned, to tell.

"Yeah, we're engaged in a high-level discussion of strategic importance. Come on," he insisted, and Harry, taking his cue, obligingly pulled out the chair next to him. Seven studied their faces for a moment, and evidently satisfied with what she saw, moved to sit.

"Thank you," she returned. Was that a ghost of a smile? Tom was slightly stunned, but rallied swiftly.

"So how have you been doing lately?" he ventured.

"I am performing within normal parameters, thank you. How are all of you?" A chorus of more or less enthusiastic responses followed her question. "Lieutenant, did you resolve the problem with the impulse intake system? I heard that it presented quite a challenge for your engineers."

"We managed all right," Torres returned curtly.

Seven paused for only a split second. "I have no doubt," she acknowledged, and began to eat. Tom shot B'Elanna a piercing glance, which she pretended not to notice. The conversation lagged for a few minutes after that as they all tucked into supper.

Finally, Paris decided it was time for the subtle approach. "I haven't seen you around here much lately."

"There have been occasions when I have been otherwise occupied at dinnertime."

"Oh yeah?" The helmsman was all innocence. "Top secret projects?"

"Hardly. Much of my time has been taken up with the reports on the first contact on Tehnari Seven, and I have been assisting Chief Mbele and Neelix with the hydroponics gardens."

"That's not usually your department," Harry offered.

Seven turned to him, nodding. "That is correct. It is becoming more like--a hobby for me. I enjoy watching things grow." She smiled again, and Paris was momentarily stopped in his tracks. Who are you and what have you done with Seven of Nine?  Her level gaze returned to him, and her expression was so guileless that he never saw it coming. "And of course, I have been spending a great deal of time with the Doctor on the holodeck. Does that satisfy your curiosity, Mister Paris?" The helmsman's mouth opened and closed once, like a guppy's. "My hearing is three times more acute than yours. I am quite sure Mister Tuvok heard as well, but of course he tactfully said nothing. I would not like to speculate on your chances for survival in a sexual encounter with a Borg and a Klingon, so I will also turn down your gracious offer."

"Eavesdropping again," B'Elanna muttered under her breath.

"That is true, Lieutenant, but since I was the topic of conversation this time, I believe we are even on this one." The Klingon woman lowered her gaze. She moved to stand, but was stopped by Harry's hand on hers. She traded a long look with him, and her expression softened. "I am not angry, Harry. I am just--a little disappointed. And tired. Thank you for your kindness. It means a great deal to me that you said what you did without knowing I would ever hear it." She turned her hand palm up to clasp his briefly, then stood and headed for the exit.

There was stunned silence for a moment, and then Paris stood abruptly and moved to follow her. "Tom, just leave her be," called B'Elanna, but he ignored her.

He caught up with her in the hydroponics bay, which was thankfully deserted. Her back was to him, but he knew she was aware of his presence; he was certainly breathing hard enough from his pursuit. "Seven." She turned slowly, one eyebrow lifted slightly. "Look, I'm sorry. That was one of the stupider things I've done--" --the eyebrow climbed higher-- "today." He tried a slight smile, and was rewarded with a similar one in return. Gods. If the Doctor is responsible for this, I should be getting some pointers from him.

"There is no need to apologize. I am not any more immune than anyone else to the gossip mill aboard this ship. It is just that I am--unused to being a target."

"There's another thing I should have apologized for a long time ago," he said more softly. "That idiotic bet. I hope the Doctor explained to you that it was all my fault--"

"He did."

"Geez, nice guy," Tom returned ruefully, rubbing the back of his neck.

"He felt sufficiently guilty, I assure you." Paris shook his head, and she shot him a questioning glance.

"Nothing, nothing. I just--I wondered if he had the courage to tell you how he felt. I guess he finally did."

Seven stared at him in shock. "You knew?" she asked incredulously, her normally flat tone abandoned. "How did you--"

"Ah, well, back after the whole betting thing, he came to me for a little advice. He didn't tell you?"

"What did you advise him to do?" she demanded. The Borg tones had returned.

"I told him to go for it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained." He paused, studying her reaction. "Hey, are you OK?"

Seven tried to control her whirling thoughts, to no avail. He felt this way for months. For months. He never told me, which means--what? I do not have enough experience in these matters. Was he merely afraid, or does this mean he does not feel as strongly as I--that would explain a great deal. Aloud she managed, "I am fine."

"I haven't put the Doctor in the doghouse, have I?"

"Why would you have put him in such a structure?"

"Gotten him in trouble."

"Oh. No. Everything is fine." She stepped closer to him in an effort to end the conversation; she needed some time alone to think. "I appreciate your apology, Lieutenant. I know you do not say such things lightly."

He smiled at her, sincerely this time. "Join us for dinner tomorrow night? We're going to Sandrine's. I promise, no ulterior motives this time."

"I do not know if Lieutenant Torres will like that."

"Listen, I'll tell you a secret about B'Elanna. She's abrasive at first, but once you get to know her, she's--" he paused, his face lighting in a wicked grin--"slightly less abrasive. You can handle her. Promise you'll think about it?"

"I will."

"Good." He held her eyes for a moment more, then turned and left the bay.

Seven exhaled slowly, trying to calm her pulse rate. She could do this, she told herself. She could analyze this just as she did any other problem which presented itself.

"Can't I?" she asked herself aloud. The plants did not answer.

III

"How're ya doin', Doc?"

"Fine, thank you, Ensign Pulver. How are you?"

"I'm drunk."

"Congratulations. I trust that queasy look on your face does not mean you will be vomiting on my shoes in the next few seconds."

"Wouldn't count on that, Doc."

"Then I will remove myself. Enjoy the rest of your evening--while you can." The Doctor stepped swiftly away from the tottering junior officer, abandoning him to his fate. While trained to stay by the side of ailing crewmembers, he was fairly sure the ensign was a hopeless case. He surveyed the room, which several hours before had looked like the quarters of Ensign Lepreau, the ship's geologist. The ravages of the bachelor party had transformed it into a tangled mess of semi conscious Human males, spilled drinks and finger foods.

When he had accepted the invitation to this event, which was being held in honour of his colleague Sian O'Riordan of Exobiology, he had researched "bachelor parties" in Voyager's database to determine the appropriate dress and customs. Dress was casual, there was usually no need to bring anything except more alcohol, and behaviour... well, over the centuries that had changed somewhat. There were generally no more scantily-clad women or holos of couples engaged in improbable sex acts, but the drinking, loud music and louder laughter seemed to have survived the forces of history. The Doctor had also noticed a tendency for the unattached men to harass and harangue the groom-to-be about his impending "bondage." He found it a curious way of expressing affection for a friend, but nevertheless observed the proceedings with interest.

"Hey, Paris!" He turned at the shout to see the helmsman enter the room with a bottle of clear liquid. Heading over to the half-cut guest of honour, Paris held up his offering. "Here. It's vodka. Guaranteed to leave you without a hangover."

The other man, a huge, red-haired Irishman in his forties with a full beard and a wide smile, regarded him sheepishly. "Thanks, but it's too late for that, lad. I've been into the Cardhu."

"Serves you right for drinking Scottish whiskey, you traitor." The Doctor watched Paris clap his friend amiably on the back. He turned away at a loud cry of "Timber!" just in time to see the soon-to be-late Ensign Pulver crumpling liquidly in a heap on the floor. Striding over to him, he crouched down to check his vital signs, then nodded and straightened, making a mental note to check him every half hour.

The ship was normally dry. Synthehol was the only officially-approved intoxicant, a substance which did not have the deleterious effects of alcohol, comas and hangovers being two of the most notorious. However, real alcohol was unofficially replicated--at great cost in ration points--for special occasions such as these, and if the captain knew about it, she did not say. It did little to impair efficiency and much to improve morale. The Doctor had never seen any cases of solitary drinkers aboard ship; it was simply too expensive a habit for anyone to maintain. Which was not to say that there were not disadvantages, for the lack of availability of alcohol also meant that hapless boobs such as Pulver had virtually no experience with their own limits. The EMH could have administered a shot to neutralize the intoxicant now coursing through the ensign's bloodstream, but once he determined there was very little danger of his becoming comatose, he decided to let him have the full experience. Perhaps a little first-hand knowledge would encourage the young man to be more circumspect, and might prevent a real medical emergency in the future.

"How's it going, Doc?" Paris' voice emerged from behind him and startled him slightly.

"I am fine, thank you."

The helmsman laughed, a staccato burst. "That's exactly what Seven said the other day." Lowering his voice, he said conspiratorially, "I didn't get you in trouble, did I?"

The hologram's eyes narrowed. "How would you have done that?"

Paris opened his mouth, then closed it, realizing he had just put his foot in it again. "Well, I kind of let slip that you had come to me for advice back when you two were having that little spat... you know, about how to tell her how you felt about her. I told her I guessed you had."

Wonderful. "No, Mister Paris, I did not."

"Then how did you two--sorry, none of my business." He paused for a moment, and the Doctor watched as realization dawned and Paris' baser instincts got the better of him. "Unless--she went after you?" The hologram said nothing, hoping his withering glance would silence the other man. "You lucky bastard!" Paris exclaimed crassly, though he did at least have the good sense to keep his voice down.

"Is 'thank you' an appropriate response to such a statement?" he asked coldly.

"Oh come on, give me a break. I'm not going to spread the gory details all over the ship. I really am happy for you, Doc. She seduced you! Wow!"

"Hardly." The last statement hit a little too close to home, but the Doctor was certainly not going to share that with Paris. Truth be told, the endless crude talk about the wedding night and other related topics had begun to wear on him, and he was contemplating making his excuses. He would have Pulver dragged down to Sickbay where he could keep an eye on him, and--

"So you finally made it, eh, Paris?" A cloud of beer-soaked breath enveloped the hologram, and behind it he recognized Lieutenant J.G. Norris, a burly officer from Weapons section. Even when sober, he was hardly the soul of tact. The Doctor shuddered slightly and waited for the best opportunity to make a swift exit.

"Yeah, I had to work late. You know how it is," Paris answered affably.

"I jus' bet you were. You were getting worked over, more likely. She bruise you up good?"

"I'm consulting with my physician now," the helmsman smirked, placing a hand on the EMH's arm to gently steer him in the other direction. As they turned, Paris dismissed the other man effortlessly with a breezy, "You take it easy, Charlie."

When they had reached a safe distance, the Doctor leaned in toward the helmsman. "Tell me something, Lieutenant." Paris nodded. "Did you not find Mister Norris' comments extremely offensive?"

"Yeah, sure I did."

"Then why didn't you tell him so?"

"Doc, the trouble with guys like that is they love to rile you. So if you respond in any way, even in a reasonable way, they'll never shut their big fat traps and leave you the hell alone. It's annoying, sure, but you have to work with the SOB, right?"

The hologram raised an eyebrow. "And what would Lieutenant Torres have had to say to that?"

"Oh, if B'Elanna were here, you'd be trying to reassemble his intestines from a few bloody scraps of meat. But that's B'Elanna. Besides, that kind of guy never has the guts to say anything to a woman's face." He held up a thumb and forefinger spaced about an inch apart and regarded the Doctor meaningfully. "Get me?"

"No," he replied, his brow furrowing. "I--" Their conversation was cut short by a large, hairy hand landing heavily on the Doctor's shoulder. I should have run screaming when I had the chance, he groaned inwardly.

"Doc," belched Norris, "you're just the man I wanted to talk to."

Gathering his patience, he turned to face the drunken officer. "Face" was an imprecise term, since Norris was a head taller than the EMH. "Actually," he intoned in his best no-nonsense professional voice, "I was just leaving. Perhaps some other time."

"Aw, don't be that way. Stick around and hang out with the guys."

"I have been 'hanging out' for four point two hours, Lieutenant. That is enough 'hanging' for anyone." With that, he reached up to disengage Norris' hand from his shoulder and nodded at both men. "Good evening, gentlemen." He had managed about three steps toward O'Riordan to say his goodbyes before the weapons officer's cutting remark sliced through the air.

"Now there's a guy who's getting laid tonight."

The Doctor whirled around to see a smirking Norris and a pained looking Paris. Perhaps the latter registered the look in the hologram's eyes, for he tried to defuse the situation. "You wouldn't be able to get laid on Risa, Norris. Shut the hell up, will you?"

"Were you addressing me?" inquired the Doctor cooly. He tried desperately to keep Paris' words of wisdom uppermost in his CPU, but the rage from his emotional algorithms kept bubbling over and drowning them out.

"Yes, I believe I was," mocked the larger man, as the hologram closed the distance between them.

"Norris, admit you were an asshole and let's get back to some serious drinking, okay? It's not hard--I do it at least five times a day."

The Doctor waited as everyone in the room seemed to pause. No one else was turned in their direction, but the level of conversation had suddenly dropped dramatically. He had never felt this way before; though he had no blood to boil, he now understood the metaphor.

"I didn't mean anything by it," Norris finally stated, and gradually the noise level in the room began to rise again. The Doctor nodded, realizing this was the closest he was going to get to an apology. It was enough, he told himself. Now, all he needed to do was find O'Riordan and--

"After all, I don't know what you're getting so touchy about. Who wouldn't be proud to lay the tightest little package on the ship? Even if she is a Borg bitch."

The spittle from the junior officer's final alliterative effort barely had time to hit the front of the Doctor's tunic before his fist connected with Norris' jaw. In the latter's already foggy state, that was all it took to send him to the carpet with a loud crash.

There were a few moments of silence for the fallen man. Then the room erupted in ragged laughter and the odd cheer. "Jesus, boy," grinned O'Riordan, stepping over Norris' prone form to cuff the hologram affectionately on the shoulder, "if we ever get back to Earth we're making the rounds in Dublin, just you and me. We could do some bloody damage, eh?"

"He's not making it back to Earth, Sian," intoned Paris solemnly, his gaze fixed on the body at his feet.

"And why not, just?"

"Because Seven is going to kill him."

"Ah. Well, cheer up," proclaimed O'Riordan brightly.

The Doctor closed his eyes on the entire scene. "And why should I?"

"Because after you're dead I'm going to throw you the best damn wake a hologram ever had!"

IV

"You struck him." Seven of Nine's pacing was threatening to wear a hole in the Doctor's office carpet.

"I did better than that," he told her. "I knocked him unconscious. Though I didn't have to knock him very far."

"Then why, after less than twenty-four hours, are you known throughout the ship as 'Fists of Fury'?" she demanded.

The hologram sighed. "I'm not proud of what I did, Seven."

"Then why did you do it?"

"I've been trying to figure that out since it happened." He shook his head. "I've had Lieutenant Torres check and re check all my systems. She found nothing wrong."

"What--exactly--was the immediate cause?"

His gaze lifted to her. "You haven't heard?"

"No. The conversation dies out suspiciously whenever I approach. The most Mister Paris would tell me was that 'you were defending my honour'."

"I suppose it might have looked that way," he hedged uncertainly.

"You are stalling for time."

He studied her for a few moments, evidently trying to decide on the best course of action. Finally rising from his chair, he circled around the desk to stand before her. She faced him defiantly, though her stance relaxed ever so slightly when his hand touched her arm. "Norris was drunk," he began quietly. "He said some rude things to Paris, which Paris wisely brushed off. Then he came after me."

"He is that type of individual," she remarked acidly.

"You've dealt with him?"

"Not on more than a handful of occasions. Two of his siblings were killed at Wolf 359, and it is obvious that I am a reminder of his loss."

The Doctor was amazed to find that he was gritting his teeth. "Has he threatened you?" he asked, his voice low.

She blinked, surprised at his tone. "Not in so many words. At any rate, he could not hope to carry out any physical threat on me if he dared. My strength and agility are double his." She paused, then regained her theme. "What did he say to you?"

"He--said something crude, and I thought he had apologized. I was turning to leave, and he--insulted you."

"You have perfect recall. Why are you so reluctant to tell me?"

"Because it's not worth repeating!" he shouted, startling her. "Do you really need to know? It was ugly, and sick, and it made me want to--" His face fell at her stark expression, and he turned away to try to regain his composure. "I've never felt that way, Seven," he finally managed in a small voice. "I wanted to hurt him--just for the sheer satisfaction of hurting him. If he hadn't fallen with that first punch, I probably would've kept hitting him until he had."

The Borg woman stepped back at that as if she herself had been struck. There were several moments' silence as her stomach lurched unpleasantly, then she watched the outer sickbay doors open to reveal Neelix with Naomi Wildman. Without a word, the Doctor moved to attend to them, leaving her to her churning thoughts. From the other room she could hear Neelix's words and tried to focus on them as a calming distraction. Apparently the girl had suffered a minor burn while helping the Talaxian in the kitchen, and despite the child's insistence that she was fine, he had been more insistent that she seek out a professional opinion.

"If you ever tire of cookery, there is a career in medicine awaiting you," Seven heard the Doctor say.

"Really?"

"I was not addressing you, Mister Neelix. Miss Wildman's diagnosis was correct. She did not need to see me." Seven smiled as she saw the girl extend her uninjured left hand, which he clasped in a solemn handshake. Somewhere deep inside her there began a slow, dull ache.

"I'll call you when I've made my decision," the little waif told him with mock seriousness.

"Thank you." A moment later, the doors closed shut behind the pair. Though she knew it was impossible for a hologram to ever tire, something in the set of his shoulders as he stood for a moment facing the outer doors suggested a great weariness. Suddenly, she understood what she had to do.

"I--" She almost choked on the words when he turned his deep brown-eyed gaze on her. "I believe I have made a mistake."

"What do you mean?"

"This. Our relationship. I thought that--no, that is a lie. I did not think at all. I made up my mind to pursue you, selfishly, without considering the consequences."

"Which are?"

"You feel that you are losing control over your actions, a dangerous condition for the medical officer to be in. I would be compromising the safety of the crew--"

"You said consequences. Plural."

"You are unhappy." It was almost a whisper.

"Are you unhappy?"

She sucked in a breath, shook her head slowly. "No. But I will be if I continue to hurt you."

"Seven--" He closed the distance between them in a heartbeat, anxiety etching his features. "You haven't hurt me. I just have to find a way to deal with this. When I was programmed, they never thought I would be operational for this long. They never imagined that I would have the chance to form attachments, to--" --he reached up to caress her cheek and she shuddered-- "--to fall in love. My emotional algorithms got the better of me--this time. That doesn't mean it will happen again."

"How can you be sure?"

He paused. "I can't," he admitted finally. "But that's a risk I'm willing to take." His gaze caught and held hers, and a stinging sensation started behind her eyes. "I don't want to lose you, Seven."

"And I do not want to be lost. But there is no other option." And before he could say any more, she had fled.

She managed to keep back the tears until she reached the cargo bay.

V

The doorchime sounded and started Tom Paris from his impromptu nap. "Come," he rasped, fighting his way back to consciousness. Foggily, he took in his prone, shoeless form on the couch, the book he had been reading splayed on his lap, and the half-finished plate of karesh'netal on the floor. Cripes, he thought, I'm turning into my grandfather.

The Doctor stepped through the open door and it hissed shut behind him. "Are you sure this is a good time, Lieutenant?" he asked, pausing as his eyes swept over the scene.

Paris shook his head in an attempt to clear it and motioned the hologram to a chair. "It's a great time. I've just had a long week." The other man sat tentatively, obviously still uncertain. The helmsman swung his legs over the edge of the couch to sit normally, knocking the book into the karesh'netal in the process. "Shit!" he exclaimed, diving for it before it had a chance to soak too long in the Bajoran delicacy. He inspected the tome thoroughly, brushing the odd bit of unidentified substance off its covers, then set it on the table. "It's B'Elanna's. She's subjecting me to Klingon epic poetry--her favourite, she says. A classic, she says. I think it's just her way of testing me."

"Testing you?"

"It's crap, Doc. Total and unmitigated crap. Of course, I'm never allowed to say this. That's where the test comes in." An evil sparkle lit his tired eyes. "But I'm getting her back."

"And how are you doing that?" the Doctor asked acerbically.

"I've got my own classic for her to read." He held up the PADD resting on the coffee table and passed it to the Doctor. "From early twenty-first century Earth."

"'The Haiku of Arnold Schwarzeneggar?'"

"Damned straight. Brought tears to my eyes, I can tell you." The hologram's only comment was a half-grimace as he handed back the object. Paris stretched painfully and yawned. "So Doc, what's on your mind?"

"I--wanted to ask your advice, Lieutenant."

"Well, it sure as hell can't be about medicine, and I don't think you're interested in learning how to pilot the ship, so let me guess... you've got woman troubles."

"Has the word gotten out so quickly?" he asked, startled.

"What word? Don't tell me you and Seven had a spat already?"

"If unceremoniously breaking off our relationship constitutes a 'spat', then yes, I would say we had a spat."

"What was the problem? Was she cramping your style?"

The hologram stared at him as if he had just sprouted two extra heads. The helmsman held up a hand. "Yeah, okay, that's me I was thinking of, sorry. So she broke up with you? Don't tell me she was that ticked off about your little incident the other night."

"Not exactly, though that is what precipitated it." He hesitated again, then ploughed forward. "She was angry, but that wasn't the direct cause. I was very upset about what happened the other night, and when Seven learned of this, she felt our relationship was causing me to malfunction and might compromise the safety of the crew."

"Why were you 'upset'?" queried Paris. "Because all of Norris' teeth stayed in his head?"

"You don't understand. I have never felt that way--so angry that I wanted to see a living being hurt, for no good reason. I have spoken with Lieutenant Torres, and she thinks my emotional algorithms overrode my other programming at that moment."

To his shock, Paris' response to this was to burst into laughter. He shook his head as he regained his composure. "I'm sorry, Doc, but--you just described a situation that every guy who ever lived has gone through at least once. You were suffering from the debilitating, but thankfully for most of us, temporary condition known as 'thinking with your dick'." He grinned broadly. "Welcome to the Human race."

The hologram frowned. "You're not taking me seriously."

"I'm taking you seriously. I just don't think all of this is as bad as you obviously think it is." He sighed at the Doctor's skeptical expression. "Look, I know you're concerned that you've developed some sort of flaw in your programming. You've never lost your cool, and it's a new experience, while the rest of us guys have been losing it ever since we hit puberty. We've had plenty of practice over the years in balancing our emotional impulses and our intellect, and we've learned the occasional--outburst--can be healthy. It doesn't mean we go nuts every day, but when it happens, it's usually only because there's a damned good reason. And believe me, you had a damned good reason."

The Doctor appeared to consider this for several moments, after which he allowed, "I hadn't thought of it in those terms before."

"You're becoming more human, Doc. It's a lot of fun, but there's a down side to it too." He smiled knowingly. "However, in my personal opinion, the fun outweighs the down side."

The hologram looked about him uneasily. "That's--actually what I had come to ask you about."

Paris was puzzled by this--he thought the sermon had been delivered--but said only, "Sure. Shoot."

"Well. I have already determined that I am going to try to 'win Seven back', as you might say, but my question was... that is, if and when we are back together, in a manner of speaking...." He trailed off, seemingly frustrated with his own embarrassment. "I'm a doctor, for heaven's sake," he admonished himself peevishly. "You wouldn't think this would be so difficult." Paris waited patiently, saying nothing, taking the opportunity to polish off the last bits of his snack. The other man finally took a deep breath and delivered his question in a rush of words. "Mister Paris, in your vast experience, at what point in a romantic relationship do you usually ask a woman if she will make love with you?"

The last bite of karesh'netal that Paris had been chewing was rocketed across the room. Spluttering, he tried to breathe, his attempt made more complicated by the Doctor's helpful thump on the back.

"Did that clear the obstructed airway?" he inquired solicitously.

"I'm not choking," gasped the helmsman, "I'm shocked as hell." He eyed the hologram suspiciously. "Are you kidding?"

"About what?" the other man asked, slightly irritated.

"You've been going out with Seven for how long?"

"Until Monday? Eight and a half weeks."

"And you love her?" The hologram nodded. "And she loves you?" Another nod. "And you mean to tell me you haven't--"

"There never seemed to be a--right time," the Doctor said, squirming slightly.

"Jesus, Doc, with a woman like Seven, every time is the right time." He paused, starting to feel a little embarrassed himself. "Ah... do you mind if I ask...." He trailed off, gesturing in the general direction of the hologram's lap.

"--if I come with all the accessories?" the Doctor finished for him, his voice dripping acid. "Yes, Mister Paris, I can assure you that everything works."

"Look, I didn't mean to insult you." He shook his head. "You are getting more human--only Human guys are that touchy about their anatomy. And listen, call me Tom, would you? 'Mister Paris' is a little formal considering where this discussion is going."

"I'm sorry," the Doctor sighed, his tone weary. "These past two months have been increasingly--difficult for me. I've watched myself become more irritable, more emotional, quicker to anger. I don't understand it. This should be the happiest time in my life, and in many respects, it is." His eyes gained a faraway look, and he smiled. "You don't know Seven like I do, Tom. She's so much more than she allows the rest of you to see. She's vulnerable in many ways, but strong, so strong, and she has a light inside of her that--blinds me sometimes." He glanced at Paris self-consciously. "I know, you're going to say I'm putting her on a pedestal."

"Maybe that's part of the problem," mused Paris thoughtfully. "Uh, Doc, let me ask you something. Where have you two been spending your time, when you've been together?"

"On the Holodeck, almost exclusively. Why?"

"What kind of programs?"

"The Beta Eridani Cruise, the Hollywood Canteen program, the resort on the third moon of Andor... to name a few. I don't see where you're going with this."

"Bear with me. You ever spend any time with her where you're just--hanging out? I mean, without any of the big huge romantic backdrops? Just kicking off your shoes and being a couple?"

"Not really, no."

Paris grinned. He had hit the motherlode. "My friend, let me tell you something about women."

"Seven is hardly 'women'," sniffed the Doctor in protest.

"Yeah, I know, she's blinding. Listen. She's female, and all females love romance, in varying degrees; I'm not trying to say they're all the same. But every woman, Human, Borg, whatever, loves romance only up to a point.  She enjoys being made to feel special--who doesn't?--but there comes a time when she wants to step down off that pedestal. And when she does, look out."

"For what?" the hologram asked innocently.

Paris stared at him. "Doc, you're scaring the crap out of me. You sure they didn't skip the chapters on sex when they were programming you?" The other man glared at him but said nothing. Paris tried another tack. "Hasn't Seven been giving you any--signals?"

"What kind of signals?" The Doctor's tone was dry. "Tachyon bursts? Morse code, perhaps?"

"That woman does not need Morse code to give a man a signal," the helmsman said wistfully.

Frustration showing on his features, the hologram shook his head. "She hasn't given me any that I've been aware of. The truth is, however, I don't have a great deal of experience with women giving me signals." He chuckled grimly, and Paris shot him a questioning glance. "It just occurred to me that I've been waiting for Seven to make 'the first move', but I don't have the vaguest idea of what the first move looks like."

"Well," offered the helmsman, "it seems to me what you two kids need to do is have a heart-to-heart discussion, without all the romance. Spend some quiet time together. Invite her to your quarters."

Both men stared at each other for a moment.

"Before you do that, though," added Paris, holding up a finger, "you might want to get yourself some quarters."

The Doctor raised an eyebrow at him. "I knew there was a reason I came to you, Lieutenant."

VI

Seven of Nine was uneasy as she stood outside the door to the cabin. In one hand she clutched the invitation that had been left on her recharging station in the cargo bay. As far as the ship's computer was concerned, these quarters had been vacant since Lieutenant O'Riordan had married Ensign Kandinsky three weeks ago. There was no record of it having been reassigned, but the invitation had asked for her presence at a "housewarming." The Borg woman did not fully understand the need for Humans to create separate spaces such as these for themselves, but she hoped to learn more tonight.

She had not spoken to the Doctor since that day in sickbay, and the loss of his easy company was felt nearly every waking moment, while the loss of his touch and warm gaze was missed during most of her sleeping ones. As much as she dreaded seeing him at this function, she nevertheless longed to see him again. Being in love requires one become inured to contradictions, she mused. Taking a deep breath, she raised her hand to ring the doorchime, and after a moment the doors parted effortlessly before her.

They opened on a semi-darkened room, about twelve feet square, with a small sitting area consisting of a chair, a decadently soft-looking couch and a low table adorned with candles. A replicator was set in one wall, and a large comm link faced the couch. All of it was fairly standard, except for the candles and low lighting. It was, from what little she had seen of them, a typical cabin.

And it was deserted.

Seven's hackles rose slightly at the realization that she was alone in a room that was supposedly the site of a party. She checked her internal systems briefly, but there was nothing wrong with her chrono. Was one not supposed to arrive on time for these functions? She had heard of people being "fashionably late," but she thought this applied only to the guests, not to the host as well. Looking about her one last time, she turned to go out the way she had come.

Before she could do so, however, the comm screen erupted in a blaze of black and white. A tinny musical prelude played while the image of a high mountain flashed on the screen, and then the opening credits of the film began. Seven moved slowly to the couch, her eyes transfixed on the parade of light and shadow, her flight completely forgotten.

Sabrina. Starring Humphrey Bogart, William Holden... and Audrey Hepburn. The Borg woman had chosen that film as the setting for her "date" with the Doctor almost three months ago, though she had never spoken of it to him. She had assumed the persona of the actress, the girl woman in the magical dress, and the disguise had given her confidence for as long as she needed it, until she was able to find her own. How could he have known? She sat, trying to calm her racing heart. When she was finally sure she could trust her voice, she spoke. "I know you're here. Please come out."

Suddenly he was behind her; she welcomed the sound of his voice as it washed over her. "I'm sorry for the subterfuge. I--wasn't sure if you'd come." Out of the corner of her eye she could see his hand poised over her right shoulder. After a moment, his hand moved away, and she felt herself shiver.

She gestured at the screen. "How did you know?"

He walked around the couch to stand near one arm, and Seven noticed he was staring at the movie rather than at her. She used the opportunity to take in the sight of him; he was wearing a collarless shirt and slacks in a neutral tone, his stiff posture contrasting with his casual attire. "It wasn't too difficult," he told her. "I imagined it had to be a twentieth century two-dimensional film and after that it was just a matter of reviewing the ones on file in the ship's computer."

"It must have taken hours."

"Eight point six." He glanced at her sheepishly. "I can scan them a little faster than the average humanoid." Something in her gaze must have encouraged him, for he moved to sit beside her, though as far from her as possible. Seven wondered which of them was more frightened. "I thought you might enjoy seeing it again."

"I would. Thank you." She tried to relax. Gradually, she forced her muscles to unclench and she sank back into the cushions. The film was a calming distraction, a place for her to cast her eyes.

--Once upon a time on the North shore of Long Island, some thirty miles from New York, there lived a small girl who lived on a large estate. -

The Doctor sat transfixed, trying to slow down his thoughts, which tripped over each other in his CPU. He wanted to blurt them out the moment they occurred to him. You're so beautiful. These past weeks have been the worst of my life. I love you. Don't leave. Don't be afraid. Stay here with me. Please. Instead he beat back the urge and asked, "Why did you like this particular film?"

Seven darted her eyes at him and back at the screen again until finally deciding on him. He had the strange sensation of floating, though he knew the artificial gravity was working perfectly, and he had no inner ear to convey such feelings to his processor. "I liked several of these films, actually. It was the actress in them I enjoyed most."

The hologram tore his gaze from her to watch the movie. An elfin girl with a ponytail and a plain-looking plaid dress was washing an old automobile, her bare feet in a pool of soapy water. "That one?"

"Yes," answered Seven, smiling at the centuries-old shadow.

"Why?"

The Borg woman hesitated. "She--fascinates me. She knows nothing, and everything. She is impossibly innocent, and impossibly wise. I felt as if she were--speaking to me." Now it was Seven's turn to look sheepish, but after a moment her gaze met his unflinchingly, and he drew in a sharp breath. "The characters she plays are never afraid of life. They gave me courage." Their eyes met and held.

The courage to tell me you loved me.

Yes.

Do you still love me? his mind asked earnestly.

There was no answer.

--Life was pleasant for the Larrabees, for this was as close to heaven as one could get on Long Island. --

"These are your quarters?" Seven knew she was stating the obvious but could think of nothing else to say.

"Yes. I requested them last week."

"I see." She did not want to ask him why he had felt he needed them now after all these years, for she was afraid he would tell her the truth. Instead, she looked about her, taking in the room. "They are very nice."

"Thank you. I haven't had much time to personalize them. I don't have many things to personalize them with, frankly. But that will come with time."

"I'm sure it will." She paused, then rallied when she thought of a new topic. "You do not need your portable emitter in here?"

The hologram looked at his arm absently, as if he had forgotten he wasn't wearing it. "No. I asked Lieutenant Torres if she could set up a holofield similar to the one in sickbay, and she was able to do so without too much trouble. This is a small area; it doesn't require as much equipment as sickbay or as much power as the portable unit, so it makes sense from an efficiency standpoint as well." Seven nodded; now it was his turn to take up the thread of the conversation. She was not sure where this evening was going, but as forced as things were at the moment, she had no desire to leave, to--

"Have you ever thought of requesting your own quarters?"

The question took her by surprise. "No. I have no need of them."

"Oh." He seemed as unwilling to press her on the matter as she was to be pressed, so the talk died out in favour of the sights and sounds of the movie playing in front of them. Seven watched the antics of the girl with the hopeless crush on the rich, handsome man. She smiled at her transformation from a gawky teenager to a self possessed woman, her joys, her triumphs. As the film progressed, she answered the occasional question from the Doctor.

And then it was time for the scene. On the screen, the woman pirouetted gracefully in her billowing, peacock dress. She stood her ground with the domineering lord of the manor, and then they danced.

--Sabrina. --

--Hmmm. --

--If David were here now, you'd expect him to kiss you, wouldn't you? --

--Hmmm. --

--Here's a kiss from David. --

"I wish I knew what to say to you."

"What?" Seven turned toward him abruptly. He looked down at the space between them, which had somehow narrowed. Somewhere along the way, his hand had become entwined in hers, and he regarded them wonderingly. He had no idea when that had happened. When he lifted his gaze, she was staring at their hands with the same expression of surprise.

"That's a perfect illustration of why, even after three days of thinking of nothing else, I've been utterly unsuccessful in finding the right words to convince you to come back to me." His hand squeezed hers gently, and he thought he felt an answering pressure before her fingers slipped from his. "Seven, I have no more control over what I do now when I'm near you, when I merely think of you, than I did that night--" he waved a hand toward the screen "--on the tennis court. And it's that lack of control that sent you away in the first place."

"It was the best decision."

"Was it?" He steeled himself for her answer. "Do you still love me?"

She flinched. "That is not relevant. The safety of the ship and its crew must take precedence."

Her spoken words were depressing, but the unspoken ones made him giddy. He collected his thoughts as best he could. "The rest of the people on this ship don't have to be perfect to do their jobs. They manage to do them, and do them well. Why do we have to be?"

The Borg woman shook her head. "We do not have to be perfect. But we are different from them, and we cannot forget that."

"How are we different?" His hand reached up to cup her face. "I used to think that too, but with every passing day, I'm less and less sure. I know I'm able to love you, just like them. I want to be with you, to see you smile, to listen to you sing, to--touch you." Slowly, gauging her reaction, he slid his fingers along her jawline, down the column of her neck, over the trace of her collarbone. Her eyes grew wide, but she did not pull away. "When I was first activated aboard this ship, I had no idea what was in store for me. If I had I probably would have shut myself off and never appeared again. I've had experiences I wouldn't care to repeat, but then without them I wouldn't be here with you like this today, and for that I'm grateful.

"I know that life is messy, Seven. It's frightening to feel yourself losing control--it's not something either of us is used to. We've both set ourselves on pedestals that raise us above the rest of the crew, but it doesn't mean we're different from the others or better than them. It only means we have further to fall when we realize we're as Human as they are, in all the ways that count." He searched the depth of her eyes for some sort of reaction as he constructed what he knew would be his final plea. His voice dropped to a fervent whisper. "Fall with me, Seven. It won't be so far if we go together."

He waited, suspended in time and space, for what seemed like an age. Then Seven closed her eyes and breathed out slowly, as if a great weight had been lifted from her. "You told me you did not know what to say to me." When her eyes opened again, he saw the sparkle in them that belied the dryness of her next remark. "That was a very pretty speech for someone with no words."

The hologram fought down a foolish grin. Deadpan, he droned, "My program allows me to improvise freely. I am completely adaptable to new situations, even desperate ones. In time, I believe--"

"Yes."

"Yes what?"

"Yes, I still love you."

"I know," he countered smugly.

She raised an eyebrow. "How do you know?"

"I am well-versed in unspoken means of communication. You did not answer my question directly, which was a telling sign. Your face became flushed. And your pulse rate jumped by twelve percent when I touched you."

The Borg woman said nothing to this. Instead, she took his hand and placed it so that two of his fingers were over her carotid artery. "What are you doing?" asked the Doctor, all pretense to smugness gone.

Seven slid her arms around his neck to draw him to her. "Providing you with more data," she murmured, as her mouth met his. After a second or two, the hologram recovered nicely from his shock, and returned the kiss with abandon.

"Well?" whispered Seven after some time.

"Eighteen percent," he breathed into her neck.

"I do not think your lips are an accurate medical device."

He nipped at her earlobe. "Don't argue. Who's the doctor here?" Surprised at his boldness, he felt his hands, seemingly of their own volition, glide down her back, up her arms, then down again, feather-light, over the voluptuous curve of her breasts. Her breath hissed between her teeth and her eyes closed, and he pulled her tightly against him for another kiss. When they finally broke apart, he took in her flushed cheeks, her tousled hair, and her swollen mouth, and felt an absurd sense of pride that startled him.

Seven returned his intense gaze in equal measure. She pressed her palm into his chest over the normal location of the human heart. "Even if I were a doctor," she said in a harsh whisper, "my training would be useless. You have no pulse for me to measure." Her eyes seemed to want to look into his soul, and dimly he wondered if he had one to offer her. Slowly, his right hand moved to cover hers.

"I haven't made it very clear to you, have I? How I feel?" he asked softly. She shook her head. "I've been telling myself I'm suppressing my feelings to protect you, but in reality, it's been as much for my benefit. I've been afraid--afraid of what you might think, afraid of feeling this way in the first place." Seven's face assumed a puzzled expression, and he brought her hand to his lips for a moment before gathering the courage to go on.

"Would you be shocked if I told you I think about making love to you? That I've been thinking about very little else for weeks?"

The Borg woman stared at him, and then an almost imperceptible smile stole over her features. "Surprised, yes, for you gave no indication of it. Shocked, in the sense of displeased or covetous of my maidenly virtue, no." She cocked her head. "Would you be shocked if I asked you the same questions?"

His eyes twinkled. "I believe I'd give you about the same answer."

Her eyes narrowed. "I gave you no indication of my feelings?" she asked incredulously. "I did everything but throw you to the floor and tear off your clothes!"

Chuckling, he pulled her into a hug. "I think that's the only ploy I would have recognized."

Seven smiled into his shoulder. "We're neither of us very good at this, are we?" she murmured, her tone rueful.

"Not particularly, no."

"Perhaps we just need more practice." Her voice had dropped half an octave, and it sent a strange sensation racing through him.

"Have you any suggestions?" he returned, his hands starting to roam again.

"I think we should start..." Seven trailed off maddeningly as her cheek rubbed against his, cat-like.

"Yes?"

"...by turning off the movie."

"Screen off!" the Doctor almost shouted. And the And the play of light and shadow faded to black.

Epilogue

For the first time since she had been a small girl, Seven of Nine awoke in a horizontal position.

Gradually she took stock of her situation. She was in a bed with dark green cotton sheets, which felt decadently soft against her skin as she shifted tentatively. Her chrono told her it was oh five forty five, exactly when she usually arose to begin her duty shift. Several of her muscles ached, not all of them unpleasantly. She was completely naked. And she was using the Doctor's chest as a pillow.

"Good morning." His deep voice reverberated under her cheek and set up a sympathetic vibration inside her.

"Good morning," she murmured, her arms instinctively reaching around him. "Have you been here all night?"

"I had to attend to a minor emergency around two a.m. A sprained tendon--nothing serious." His hands began tracing slow circles on her back, and she shivered deliciously. "Did you sleep well?"

"Surprisingly enough, I did."

"The modifications I made to your Borg implants when you first came aboard the ship have always made it possible for you to sleep naturally."

"I know. You told me that after the operation."

"Then why have you never requested quarters?"

"I'm not sure," she told him, levering herself up on her elbows so she could look him in the face. "I suppose... it always seemed so lonely, sleeping in a bed. Even though I was no longer a member of the Collective, I felt--reassured by the recharging structure. Sometimes, it even seemed as if I could still feel the others all around me at night."

"And now?" he asked.

Seven smiled slightly. "I find sharing a bed to be much more agreeable than either option." Her brows furrowed as she realized. "It must be terribly boring for you."

"I don't think I could ever tire of watching you."

Her stomach fluttered at the compliment, for she was unused to them. "You were watching me?"

"Does that upset you?"

The Borg woman considered this. "No."

"Good," he told her, pushing her hair out of her eyes and caressing her cheek, "because I plan to do it quite often, and it's much easier not to have to do it behind your back. Not that I don't enjoy looking at you from all sides."

"You will turn my head with all of this flattery," she informed him, her playful tone belying her statement.

"You deserve every word," he told her, his tone serious. Their gazes locked for a long moment, then before Seven quite knew what was happening, they were completely tangled up in one another, and she lost track of several minutes. A faint but insistent beeping brought her back to her senses. She managed with some difficulty to extricate herself and reached for her uniform.

"Seven of Nine here," she reported crisply, dreading the response. She had never been late for a duty shift in her life, and here it was a full thirty-eight seconds past the hour. Perhaps it was the captain herself--

"Hey there, Seven, it's Tom. I hate to bother you. Just wanted to remind you that you're not on duty today, so feel free to--" the hesitation was barely noticeable--"sleep in."

"I am not on duty?" Puzzled, she checked her internal calendar of events. "Why not?"

"You changed with me, remember? We talked about it the other day. B'Elanna's birthday is next Tuesday, and you told me you'd swap shifts with me."

She paused for a split second. "Lieutenant Torres' birthday was last month."

"Oh yeah, so it was. Well, it's somebody's birthday."

"I do not recall having had this conversation, Lieutenant. I never agreed--"

"Don't back out on me now, huh? It's really important to me."

"I--"

The Borg woman's response was cut off by a hand closing over her comm link. Leaning in, the Doctor intoned softly enough so that only Paris and Seven could hear his voice, "She'd be happy to help you in any way, Tom."

"Thanks, Seven. Talk to you later." And the connection was severed.

For several seconds she stared at the link as if it had sprouted horns. Then, slow realization began to dawn on her face, and she turned a jaundiced eye toward the Doctor. "Did you have anything to do with this?"

The hologram put on his best wounded expression. "What are you implying?"

She folded her arms over her ample bosom. "I did not intend to be that indirect."

He held up a hand as if to swear on the grave of his nonexistent mother. "I had nothing to do with Paris' scheme to give you the day off." There was a long beat as they both waited for one of them to break the silence. Seven won. "Though I may have mentioned I was inviting you to my new quarters last night."

More silence. Then, the Borg woman rose from the bed and walked, or rather undulated, to the bathroom. At the doorway, she paused and turned toward him. One eyebrow lifted slightly.

"Are you ever going to speak to me again?" asked the Doctor, preparing for the final blow.

The eyebrow rose higher. "Of course. I was simply taking some time to consider the nature of male-male bonding. It is a curious phenomenon. But it is not the sort of subject I wish to study extensively on my day off." She pursed her full lips thoughtfully, eyeing him as a biologist would a particularly unusual specimen. "Do holograms shower?"

"We don't really have the need--" he began, then cut himself off when he saw the eyebrow climb even higher. He wouldn't have thought that was medically possible. "Ah. That is to say we can shower, if we have the inclination." Seven eyed him for a second or two more, then turned slowly. He watched the play of muscles under the skin of her slim back and taut legs.

"I believe that can be provided," she shot back at him over her shoulder.

The Doctor sent out a fervent wish for the physical well-being of the entire crew of Voyager. Then he leaped up to follow her.

END

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© 1999 by lamardeuse. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced on the Official Robert Picardo Home Page with permission of the author.

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