Admiral Kathryn Janeway rose from her command chair aboard the Galaxy Class starship Brilliance. "Computer, locate Miranda Priestly."
"Miranda Priestly is in the arboretum on deck seven."
As much as Janeway loathed interrupting the quality time Miranda no doubt had with her daughters and Andrea Sachs, she knew it couldn't be helped. She read the encrypted message, which she'd received on a secure channel, again. Admiral Hayes and Seven's old adversary, Admiral Neyachev, had co-signed the orders, which was enough for Janeway to square her shoulders and press her lips into a fine line. Miranda's assignment was as clear as it was dangerous. Only Janeway held a higher security clearance than the fashion editor, and as far as Janeway knew, she was the only one who knew of Miranda's position as a covert intelligence agent.
Janeway tapped her comm badge. "Janeway to Miranda Priestly."
"Miranda here. Go ahead, Admiral."
"Join me in my ready room."
Only the slightest beat made it clear that Miranda realized something was up.
Andy Sachs looked up from where she sat on the grass in the small apple orchard. When she first visited the arboretum after embarking on the Brilliance, she had been amazed, and quite relieved, that there were real plants and flowers aboard the huge vessel. The holodeck could create most things very lifelike, but there was something special about the real thing. Now she watched her new lover, who was also her boss, answer Kathryn's hail. Something was clearly going on that Andy, Caroline, and Cassidy, Miranda's twin daughters, had no knowledge of.
"Mom, do you have to go? We're having such a good time and Andy created the picnic…" Cassidy frowned.
"I know, Bobbsey. I'm sorry, but I have to go see the admiral. If I can, I'll rejoin you before you go back to our quarters. Andrea, if I'm not back before dinner time, please replicate some for yourself and the girl?"
"Sure thing, Miranda." Andy smiled, knowing how it pained Miranda to have to cut their picnic short. At least they'd had a full hour together in the park area. "Don't worry. I have a few tricks up my sleeve that will entertain these little monsters." They stood and Miranda kissed her girls on the top of their head and then lifted her cheek toward Andy.
Instead of kissing it, Andy ducked to the side and gave Miranda a quick peck on her lips. She smiled inwardly at the tiny gasp the formidable woman gave before giving her a knowing look under raised eyebrows.
Andy watched Miranda move with her usual elegance along the arboretum paths. She knew this woman quite well by now and she wasn't sure she liked that barely noticeable tension around her eyes.
"Enter." Janeway looked up as the door to her ready room hissed open. "Ah, Miranda. Take a seat."
"I take it you have heard from the brass?" Miranda sat down on the opposite side of Janeway's desk. "From your expression, I take it you are not entirely pleased."
"I knew some details about your part of this mission when we embarked on this journey. I admit, I thought we'd hear from Hayes and Neyachev much sooner. Clearly Starfleet and the Federation leaders are not in complete agreement how to proceed." Janeway turned the computer around. "Here's your message. I have read the part I could decrypt, but some of it is meant to be read with both of us present and then deleted. And before you worry about anything remaining in the system, I asked Seven to write a whole new Borg algorithm for this."
"Well, that's good enough for me." Miranda leaned forward and entered her security code. She allowed the virtual lens to scan her retina.
Instead of a written instruction, a low female voice started speaking.
"Admiral Janeway, Ms. Priestly," Admiral Neyachev said curtly. "As circumstance would have it, you two on the same vessel give us hope that a politically delicate and volatile situation could be resolved. I see from the crew manifest that Seven of Nine is aboard the Brilliance. As much as I'm still wary of this former Borg of yours, Kathryn, her skills will come in handy."
"She still hates everything and anything Borg," Janeway muttered. "Sorry." She glanced at Miranda.
"Your orders are to continue on route to the pleasure planet of Risa as your first destination." Neyachev's air-quotation marks were readily audible. "There you will allow for shore leave and thus be able to blend with the tourists. Rendezvous with one of our local agent there at a club called "Minya'ar." You will recognize this woman on sight, but a genetic verification scan is still prudent. Her cover is working as an exotic dancer. She will be of assistance when Miranda Priestly initiates contact with the woman who has a strong personal connection to the individual responsible for the attack on more than fifteen Federations settlements the last year. She lost her family in one of them, so her motivation is high. This contact has gone through conditioning only comparable to yours, Kathryn, as this woman was an ensign aboard Voyager while it was lost in the Delta Quadrant."
"Andrea Sachs," Seven said by way of greeting her friend. "Caroline and Cassidy Priestly." The young twin sisters often tried to trick others by assuming each other's identity, something Seven found curious as they were decidedly different. Caroline's eyes were three shades lighter than Cassidy's and she had fourteen more freckles across her nose. It was strange that others didn't notice this.
"Seven!" Cassidy jumped up from the checkered blanket on the grass in the arboretum. "You off duty already?"
"Oh this is great. Mom had to go see Admiral Janeway and we were just going to suggest a game of four people Kadis-Kot. Would you like to play?"
"Seven might have other plans, Cass," Andrea cautioned.
"Kadis-Kot is my favorite game." Seven couldn't remember feeling so at ease with a friend since she came to the Alpha Quadrant, not counting Kathryn. In the Delta Quadrant, she had often played this with Neelix and Naomi Wildman. The thought of Neelix, the Talaxian former moral officer and ambassador that helped guide Voyager through unknown space made her heart ache. She missed him. And Naomi was in school on earth. Even if they corresponded regularly, she did miss her young friend. "I would like to play with you if you have time."
"Oh, fantastic!" Cassidy, impulsive as always, hugged Seven around the waist.
Swallowing against a sudden surge of emotions, Seven smiled brightly to hide how moved she was at the adoration in Cassidy's eyes.
"Thank you, Seven," Andrea said and returned the smile. "The girls were so disappointed when Miranda had to meet with Kathryn."
"I am happy I decided to see I you were still here. We did not have an arboretum on Voyager as it was much smaller, but we did have a hydroponic bay."
"Here. Sit here with me," Cassidy said after sitting down, patting the blanket. "Perhaps we could play in teams? Would you be in my team, Seven?"
"We're always in teams, Cass," Caroline said quietly, her eyes huge. "How come you want to be in Seven's team all of a sudden?"
Cassidy faltered, looking back and forth between Seven and Caroline. "I—I just thought it'd be sort of fun. You with Andy and me with Seven."
"I think it's a good idea, Caro," Andrea said calmly and slid closer to the distraught twin. "This way it will be a more even game as you and Cassidy are unbeatable when you're playing together. You got to give me and Seven a break, you know. Or we'd lose in the first set."
Caroline smiled cautiously. "You really think Cassidy and I are that good?"
"Ha! You're monsters when it comes to all games, but mainly Kadis-Kot." Andrea tucked a tress of red hair behind Caroline's ear. "And I would love for you to be on my team, Caro."
"Yeah?" Smiling broadly now, Caroline nodded regally to her sister. "Very well. You might regret this when Andy and beat you fair and square."
As the girls busied themselves by setting up the board game, Seven sat down next to Andrea. "You handled this potentially hurtful situation very well."
"I know them rather well. After I moved in with Miranda, I was afraid the twins might be put off by the new arrangements, but as it turned out, they really like me."
"Completely understandable. You're a very worthwhile individual," Seven said. "I am lucky to be among your friends."
"You're kidding, right? I'm the one who feel so very lucky. To have Miranda return my feelings and be friends with you and Kathryn…it's amazing. I have to pinch myself sometimes."
"Do you have time enough on your hands to work on your designs?" Seven, who was scientifically gifted, was in awe of how Andrea could design something as beautiful as a comfortable, stunning garment, just with a few pen strokes.
"Yes, when the twins are at school, Kathryn was kind enough to grant me some small quarters where I set up a drawing board and my sewing equipment. I had it in my quarters the first week, but it was in the way." Andy patted Seven's hand. "And what about you? Are they treating you well in the astrometrics department?"
"Compared to the Daystrom Institute, this is—most satisfactory." Seven had still not been able to come to terms with how they had treated her at Daystrom's, or how her then partner, Chakotay, had dismissed her pain. To work among people that were either afraid of her or disdainful because she was a former Borg, was a relief. "I find my superior officer quite impressive."
"There, you ready?" Caroline sat down close to Andy and leaned her head against her shoulder.
Seven was surprised that Cassidy mimicked the behavior as she scooted in under Seven's arm and smiled expectantly. "You start, Seven. Which color is your favorite of the pieces?"
"Green." Seven moved her first piece and drew a deep breath, enjoying the sound of birds and the smell of the different flowers around them.
"Ah," Caroline said with a toothy grin. "A classic start, and a classic mistake, dear Seven." She rubbed her hands gleefully, making both Andrea and Seven chuckle.
Seven watched the others make their moves. The afternoon seemed to promise even more of friendship and sense of family.
Janeway blinked. Tal Celes from Voyager? She remembered the awkward and not very skilled ensign that drove Seven crazy in astrometrics for screwing up constantly. She had moved on to become an undercover agent?
Miranda sighed and stood. "I'm starting to think it might have been a grave error in judgment to bring my children on this mission."
Janeway heard the desolate ton in Miranda's voice clearly. "Caroline and Cassidy will be tucked away aboard the Brilliance the entire time. They'll be fine." She hoped she sounded convincing. She rounded her desk as Miranda stood. "Our ETA to Risa is in eighteen hours. I'll come by your quarters later with a high security data PADD with all you need to know about my former crewmember. She must be our link to reach someone close to our objective. As strange as it sounds to me, as I remember this young woman as quite timid and uncertain. Losing her family just after returning to the Alpha Quadrant must have toughened her and made her go look for…" Janeway hesitated.
"I'm afraid that might be the case."
"As long as she keeps her head cool, nothing wrong with some motivation." Miranda sighed, despite her tough words. "For a young woman to lose everything is heartbreaking, of course."
"She's quite beautiful in a wholesome sort of way, at least in this picture." Miranda's eyes narrowed. "This could be an idea for her to come with us further into enemy territory. I could use her as a model for one of the mainstream spreads."
"Celes—a model?" Janeway tried to picture her former crewmember moving down the runway, or posing for lingerie or haute couture.
"I absolutely see it. In fact, her coloring reminds me of Andrea's. This could be a way to launch her clothes line."
"Seven told me, after checking with Andy, of course, that she's quite the designer."
"Now there was a surprise I didn't see coming," Miranda said, snorting. "When I learned that Andrea is in fact Sara Candes, a new, undiscovered designer with a whole new concept and excellent taste…" Shrugging, Miranda tapped her lower lip. "I will need to find a way to tell her about my double duty here, even if it is a very watered down version of the truth. I can hardly expect her to be completely honest, when I'm hiding what I do when I'm not editor-in-chief of Runway. She'll sense that I'm not being entirely truthful; she's very perceptive when it comes to the girls and me."
"Seven didn't used to be." Janeway leaned back in her chair, relaxing a little. Her neck was sore to the touch and she hoped Seven might give her one of her fabulous massages tonight. "She was far too literal when she first came aboard Voyager. As she learned the intricacies of the social structures, she began reading me very well. Too well, sometimes."
"Perhaps it's because she loves you so passionately." Miranda regarded her thoughtfully. "Andrea has understood and read me quite well for the last two years, or more. She would have the upper hand if she wasn't making herself entirely transparent to me. So you see why I need to tell her something."
"Clear it with Hayes when we have secured Celes and left Risa."
"How long do you think we will be in orbit around Risa?"
"Forty-eight hours approximately."
Miranda's smile softened. "So, time for a little shore leave when we get our hands on Celes?"
"I don't see why not. We might have to brief her together, but I don't see why you can't spend twenty-four hours at one of the resort with Andrea and your children."
Miranda's face softened. "That makes me very happy to hear. Thank you."
"I'll talk to my first officer and let her know she needs to set up a duty roster that allows as many as possible to get some downtime. It will be a while before we are off duty for any extended period."
"Going into what my superior called the 'hot zone' will keep us on our toes on a whole new level. If we run into one of those nearly mythical ships, the Brilliance will have her work cut out for her."
Janeway regarded her ready room with a critical eye. This wasn't Voyager, nor did she have her the same feeling for the Brilliance as she had for her little Intrepid Class ship that carried her and most of her crew back home to safety. Still, the Brilliance was every bit as impressive as the legendary Enterprise. With time, she would no doubt come to mean a lot as well. "We'll do what we did in the Delta Quadrant. Meet everything head on."
"Seven of Nine to Admiral Janeway." Seven's hail interrupted them.
"Go ahead Seven. Just me and Miranda here."
"Excellent. I would like Andrea Sachs and the Priestly twins to join us for dinner tonight. Would you ask Miranda Priestly for me?"
"She hears you, sweetheart."
"Thank you, Seven. I look forward to it. What time?"
"As the girls are joining us, I suggest 1800 hours as they might need time afterward to do homework."
A unison moan made Janeway smile. "Sound doable, Miranda?"
"It does." A soft smile lit a warm fire in Miranda's eyes.
"Good idea, Seven. I'll be back at our quarters half an hour before our guests arrive. Janeway out." She stood and walked Miranda to the door. "This way I can give you the PADD when you and your family join us."
Miranda nodded and left. Janeway strode onto the bridge where she listened to uneventful reports of everything working at peak performance. She might have thought that was boring, but the true nature of their special assignments made her relish in the relative quiet. Soon enough they would have to watch their backs at every turn.
Miranda helped Seven carry the last bowls from the table and placed them in the replicator's recycling slot. As the leftovers and the dishes dematerialized and was stored back as in the Brilliance's energy buffer, Miranda regarded the statuesque blond that was still such a mystery to her. There was no denying that Seven was a stunning woman, of model grade actually, but something guarded in her eyes had Miranda concerned.
"This was delicious, Seven," Miranda said as she sanitized her hands in the small alcove next to the replicator. "I don't think I've ever taste anything as good coming from a replicator before.
"That's Borg encryption technique and ingenuity for you," Kathryn chuckled and wrapped an arm around Seven's narrow waist. "I promise you, the rest of the replicators aboard the Brilliance aren't capable of such gourmet treats."
"Kathryn is being facetious," Seven said, smirking faintly. "I can easily reprogram your own replicator should you wish to recreate this dish."
"Sounds good to me." Miranda turned to her lover who was sitting on the couch with Caroline and Cassidy. "You can cook, right, Andrea?"
Andrea looked nervous. "Not really. I do know how to program a replicator, but cook, no, not really."
"Hm. We have to do something about that. I would love for my girls to develop their palates."
"They are well developed," Cassidy said cheekily. "Pizza slices and pasta rollers. Not to mention the meat-stackers."
"Junk food. We've eradicated war and greed from most of the Federation, but amazingly enough we are plagued by junk food even more when it became popular during the twentieth century."
"Hey, I like meat-stackers," Andrea said. "Don't bash my very favorite food."
"How can you possibly enjoy such a ridiculous excuse for nutrition?"
"It kept me alive while in your employment," Andrea answered blithely.
"Excuse me?" Miranda raised an eyebrow deliberately. It used to unnerve Andrea to no end, at least before they admitted to their feelings for each other.
"It's fast. It's readily available. Just what a hounded assistant need to make it through the day without fainting."
Caroline and Cassidy guffawed and slapped each other's hands. "She got you there, Mom," Caroline said and giggled.
"Oh, don't worry, Bobbsey. I'll 'get' her right back."
I hope so, Andrea mouthed, making Miranda swallow hard and coughed to camouflage it. She still tried to wrap her brain around the fact that Andrea could do that to her at any given time. One look, a few mouthed words, a quick whisper in passing, or, and this was most devastating of all, a quick, secret caress just under her hairline at the back of her neck. Andrea had learned she could not do that unless she was prepared to deal with the consequences later. That was another surprise. She didn't know, until Andrea, just how voracious she was. Before, Miranda had occasionally enjoyed sex, in a detached sort of way. What had been disconcerting back then was when she realized that masturbation was just as satisfactory as being with the man she was currently married to. Now, only Andrea's touch would do. If masturbation entered the picture, it was because Miranda loved watching Andrea caress herself. Andrea had yet to convince Miranda to return the favor, but knowing her young lover, it was just a matter of time.
"You're far away, Miranda," Kathryn said and placed a gentle hand on her elbow. "Why don't you take a seat over by Andy and I'll bring you some of the coffee my mother sent."
There wasn't much Miranda wouldn't do for the right type of coffee. She was among the few who could get her hands on un-synthesized coffee back on Earth, but somehow Kathryn's mother, a traditionalist from Indiana, had some pull with the area where they grew the beans. She sat down next to Andrea and Caroline switched to sit next to her mother.
"Mom, Andrea promised to help us with our science project," Caroline said.
"She did?" Miranda pursed her lips. "Not help as in suck her in to doing all the work?"
"No, just help. Give us pointers. We'll do all the work." Cassidy blushed faintly. "I really want Ms. Tara to be proud of me…us." Her cheeks grew crimson.
Miranda blinked. Cassidy clearly had a case of hero worship. Her teacher, of Bajoran descent, was a stern, quite beautiful woman in her mid-thirties. A flicker of a thought made Miranda stop just as the fragrant mug of coffee was by her lips. About the same age difference as between her and Andrea.
"Miranda? Something wrong?" Andrea's voice, low and soft, immediately engulfed her, so warm, so loving.
"Not a single thing." She sipped her coffee and gazed around the room at faces she loved, and others that she'd come to think of as very close friends. No, nothing was wrong. She thought briefly of her mission. Not yet.
"I've never been to Risa," Andy said as the Brilliance settled into orbit around the planet that was known as one huge world of pleasure. "Have you?"
Miranda looked up from her data PADD. "Yes, a few times. On business."
"So, no fun and games for you, then?" Andy packed a few more items into her overnight bag and then closed it.
"Not until now." Miranda smiled slyly. "I do plan to rectify that."
How could this woman take her breath away with just a few words? Andy shook her head and walked down the small, private corridor that connected her and Miranda's suite with the girls' bedroom. She pressed the buzzer.
"Come in." The door opened at the sound of Caroline's voice. "Hi, Andy."
"Just making sure you're finished packing. We transport down to the surface in an hour."
"We're done. We were actually done last night." Cassidy grinned as she turned her head go face Andy. "If only Mom didn't make us bring homework."
"Hey, what's the price of a few math pages and a history paper, when you get to spend a whole day at the Water Wonder World?" Andy rubbed her hands together. "I know that I can't wait to try those slides I saw on computer."
"Oh, they looked scary," Caroline said, looking worried. "Are you sure they're safe?"
"Absolutely safe. They have installed emergency beam-out emitters everywhere which are engaged if there is the slightest hint of trouble."
"Yeah, like if you've inhaled a liter of water and look like this," Cassidy said and goggled her eyes while inflating her cheeks.
"Cassidy." Miranda's voice made the teasing twin jump and let go of the breath she held with a resounding whoosh. "Do not tease your sister. We all have our fears. I would never even contemplate going in any of those slides. You should be very grateful that Andrea agrees to take you, as I'll be tied up with work."
"Sorry, Caro." Cassidy slumped her shoulders, but true to her nature, she was soon her sparkling self. "But you're joining us when you're done, aren't you, Mom?"
"Yes. If my meeting ends before you leave, I'll join you and perhaps watch you be daredevils."
"What about Kathryn and Seven?" Andy asked, wrapping an arm around Miranda's waist. It still mesmerized her that she was entitled to do that, and more. Just a while ago, she would have expected to be fired if she touched the untouchable Miranda Priestly. "You think they'll join us as well."
"They might. I'll ask them later." Miranda glanced at the twins. "Carry your bags out and put them next to ours. Be ready to go to transporter room two in fifty minutes."
"Sure—uhm, yes, Mom." Cassidy jumped up and ran over to her sister. Hugging her so fiercely, Caroline squealed, she laughed raucously. "Oh, we're going to have so much fun. Don't worry, sis. I'll stay really close to you the whole time, you'll see."
Andy suddenly had to blink away tears. The twins sometimes fought like wild animals and more than once had Andy been forced to act as a referee and separate them. Still, it was during moments like this, when she watched their unconditional love for each other, that she realized how much she loved these children.
"Andrea," Miranda murmured. "I worry about you sometimes."
"Wh-what?" Andy quickly wiped at her wet lashes.
"Your heart. So tender, so easily bruised. Still, I also know how brave and strong you are, so I suppose I'm a foolish old woman for worrying."
"As much as I hate for you to worry, I'm sort of honored that you do." Andy laughed, her voice a little breathless. "And you don't fool me, Priestly. You may scare most people's socks off, but you have the biggest heart of all of us. And you're not old."
Miranda tossed her head back and laughed. Andy could see the twins stare with open mouths and she knew her own expression probably mimicked theirs. Not many people ever saw Miranda laugh like this. Holding her tighter, Andy told herself she would never take this for granted.
"I wonder what goes through you head when you look at me that way," Miranda whispered and regarded Andy through her eyelashes.
"I think the planet of Risa will be the perfect place for me to demonstrate just what I'm thinking of." Andy turned to go back to their living room area when Miranda stopped her halfway down the short corridor.
"I will hold you to that." Miranda tugged at her arm. She moved in closer and pressed her lips to Andy's.
Andy returned the kiss with all of the desire she felt for this woman. Miranda gasped against her lips and wrapped her arms around her neck.
"And there they go again," Caroline said, her voice bored. "Will they ever grow tired of kissing?"
"Mom and Andy? You're kidding, right?" Cassidy snorted.
"Cheeky girls nine o'clock," Andy murmured. "Better wait to read my mind until tonight."
The bar was like nothing Seven had ever seen. Standing behind Kathryn and Miranda, she gazed around the Minya'ar club. Crystals, rare metals, adorned most of the walls and furniture. It would've given a cold expression, but the pulsating lights made it warm, inviting. Even sensuous. No doubt that was the intention.
A hostess walked up to them, smiling brilliantly. "Welcome to the Minya'ar, ladies." She motioned with her hand. "Dining section or the stage area?"
"Stage area," Miranda said.
"Certainly." The woman, dressed in a glittering dress and with her hair in the most intricate braid Seven had ever seen, led the way. Soon they assumed their seats around a tall table by the stage that was really a long, winding runway. The hostess took their cocktail orders and hurried toward the bar, no doubt encouraged by the look Miranda gave her.
"There," Kathryn murmured and motioned with her head toward one of the gilded cages dangling from the tall ceiling.
It took Seven a moment to recognize the shy and stumbling ensign she had found infuriatingly slow and inaccurate when it came to her work performance aboard Voyager. Here, Tal Celes was dressed in a miniscule golden garment, a sort of bikini, and was dancing provocatively to the sensual music. Every now and then she caressed herself, even her breasts, which Seven found equal parts curious and intriguing. She had never frequented an establishment such as Minya'ar, and certainly not seen anything like this in public.
"She's stunning." Miranda nodded approvingly. "I'd say she has the look that easily lends itself to change, depending on outfit and makeup."
"Who would've guessed that our little awkward ensign could transform into this?" Kathryn smiled wistfully. "I did see her grow tremendously the last year aboard Voyager. I guess her development curve went straight up."
"I'll say," Miranda said.
The hostess approached with the drinks and Kathryn turned to her with a confident smile.
"We'd like to talk to the girl dancing over there." She pointed at the cage.
"Oh, I'm sorry. Golden Butterfly doesn't perform in private. She only dances out here in the club area."
"No, you misunderstand. We want to talk to her. Out here. In public." Miranda nailed the hostess with what Seven had named her 'evisceration' glare.
"Certainly. Of course. I'll tell her." The hostess, several shades paler scurried off.
Seven sipped her glass after removing an odd and superfluous little paper umbrella. "She sees us," She followed Tal as she climbed down the chain to the floor, avoided skillfully the groping hands of an inebriated man and the cat calls from a table where four women sat.
"Cap—Admiral Janeway," Tal said as she reached their table. "It's been a while."
"It has." Kathryn smiled and motioned to the chair next to Miranda. "I understand from Admiral Neyachev that you are the best person to assist us in our mission."
"If you mean I'm the best person to introduce you to Maladorian's next in command, I think there's something you need to know." Tal spoke in a low voice, carefully glancing around them. "Nash Forster and I didn't exactly part on good terms." She snorted and leaned back, a pained expression ghosting across her face. "She might actually kill me on sight."
Janeway frowned. "I was led to believe that you have some pull with this woman."
"You'd think that, wouldn't you, considering that we sort of hit it off initially." Tal gave a one-shoulder shrug. "Nash is a dangerous woman. In itself, that can be rather thrilling and I fell for that. The dangerous, bad-girl routine. It was when I discovered who her associate was that I realized it wasn't a routine."
"You understood that you were getting too close to the Alpha Quadrants worst crime boss alive." Miranda sipped her drink. "What was your reaction?"
"I contacted my superior officer. She took it up with the brass and came back within twelve hours, ordering me to cultivate the relationship." Tal curled her lips into a wry smile.
"You say relationship…of a romantic nature?" Janeway saw Seven sit even straighter out of the corner of her eyes.
"Oh, yes. Hot and heavy." Suddenly Tal blinked. "Capt—damn, I mean Admiral, it was easy at first. I just had to go with what my body told me. Then—it became more. She has a way to get under your skin, Nash. For being so callous, and I'd say greedy, she is also warm, caring, and nice. When she wants to be. That made me start to believe it could happen. You know." She swallowed hard and wiped at her eyes. "Love?"
Janeway grabbed a paper napkin and gave it to Tal. "And?"
"And that's when I remembered. She was the next in command to the man who was directly and indirectly responsible for my parent's death. I got to spend ten days. Ten days, Admiral, with mom and dad after we returned to the Alpha Quadrant. Then their colony was attacked the day before I was to join them. Eight-hundred people, men, women, and children, died on Logg's Prime."
"I only learned of this today." Janeway wondered now if the brass had kept this from her deliberately. Nobody at any of the Voyager reunions ever mentioned anything about Tal and her family. That in itself was odd and it was only because of her own heartache at the time that she'd not been attentive enough to question Tal's absence.
"Now we know, you do not have to carry the burden alone anymore, Tal Celes," Seven said, her voice soft and resonate. "We are here because we need your assistance, but I also feel you need out emotional support. Your new orders are to join us on the Brilliance and thus go find Nash Forster, and thus you might find out her true feelings regarding you personally as well."
"D-didn't you hear me? She most likely hates my guts for just leaving her without an explanation. Nash is a bit on the possessive side."
"I still maintain that all might not be what it seems." Seven smiled faintly. "Just remember how everybody perceived the two of us, each in our own way. Today, we both have exceeded everybody's expectation, do you not agree?"
Tal guffawed, but nodded in agreement. "I'd say so. Me from a wimp to an agent. You from a Borg automaton to a brilliant and stunning scientist."
"And if I found love, so you can you."
Janeway winced. Too many personal revelations about to ensue. "So, pack up your belongings and report aboard the Brilliance in two hours, Lieutenant. Lt. Commander Wu is head of security. She expects you."
"Aye, ma'am," Tal responded, but it was Seven that received her careful smile. "See you soon then?"
They stood, and Miranda checked the time. "Oh, my goodness. I guess I have time to join Andrea and the children after all. I know I should be thrilled, but honestly…I'm a great deal more apprehensive about what they might expect of me at this Water Wonder World place rather than what we're about to face regarding Maladorian."
And this comment made Tal Celes go from a careful smile to uneasy laughter.
The Water Wonder World was every bit as loud, cramped, and, well, wet, as Miranda had feared. Dressed in stylish city shorts, a sleeveless shirt that Andrea had made especially for her, a large sunhat and sun-shields to protect her eyes, she tapped her comm badge. "Miranda to Andrea. Where are you?"
"You're here!" The jubilant voice of her lover pierced the noise around her. "We're over by the Raging Roaring River."
"Wonderful." Consulting the map of the vast park, Miranda located what sounded like a horrible way to have 'fun'." She noticed a few people doing double-takes as she passed them. Not acknowledging their stares, she saw Andrea and the girls, which was in fact impossible to miss as they were all three waving madly.
"Mom, you came just in time." Cassidy flung her arms around Miranda's waist. "We're just going on this one."
"Oh, Bobbsey, I'm not going on that." Above her, the people already enjoying themselves howled. "I'm—I'm not dressed right."
"Sure you are, Mom." Caroline tugged at her hand. "You're wearing short and I've waited and waited to show you that I'm not afraid to go on the rides anymore."
"That's brilliant, Bobbsey, you're obviously braver than I am."
"Aw, come on, Miranda. I don't think we'll get all that wet."
Miranda cocked an eyebrow. "You've got to be joking."
"No, I'm not." Andrea pointed at some people coming through the exit. "See. Not drenched. A little damp at the most."
Miranda regarded the people, most of them dressed in fluorescent colored clothes. Granted, some of the more avant-garde designers had gone down that route a few years ago, but these people had no doubt found these loud garments at the local swimwear and leisure suit shops. "Does it really mean that much to you, Caroline?" She tapped her lower lip with her index finger."
"I really, really want you to come. So does Andrea and Cassidy." Caroline tilted her head and looked imploringly at Miranda.
"Oh. All right. If my hair is hanging like a limp dishrag afterward, I won't forgive either of you. And quit smirking Andrea." Keeping a straight and stern face, Miranda made sure they had no idea how difficult it was to keep from bursting into laughter.
The line wasn't very long and sooner than Miranda was comfortable with, they sat down in what looked like an old fashioned canoe. "Doesn't this thing even hover?" Miranda frowned.
"Some of the way, yes. Mainly it floats along and the scenery is quite beautiful." Andrea looked way to angelic to be trusted. Her eyes sparkled in a manner that made Miranda weak at the knees and highly suspicious. The young woman that had once and for all captured her heart was not to be trusted when it came to her quest to 'educate' Miranda in how you 'just kick back and have fun.' A fruitless endeavor, Miranda thought, being unproductive and just 'kick back' was not in her nature. She regarded her girls and saw in them an unbridled joy, something they hadn't always felt around her, she knew that. Andrea's presence had unlocked something…so perhaps there was something productive and worthwhile in relaxing and just enjoying the moment with her family. It might just strengthen her and add to the probability of success.
Seated in the alu-carbon canoe, Miranda found herself between Andrea's legs and with Caroline between her own. Cassidy was up front.
"Stop tickling me, Caro!" Cassidy squealed and didn't sound too angry.
"Hm. Good idea?" Andrea murmured in Miranda's ear.
"Don't you dare." Miranda turned her head and melted completely when Andrea pressed her full lips to the corner of her mouth.
"Oh, I dare, Priestly," Andrea said and gently caressed Miranda's hips and then slid her fingertips up to her waist. "I know you like this."
They were interrupted by the jerking movement that sent the canoe forward. Miranda knew that it was steered along the manmade river by a magnetic strip, and she prayed there'd be no technical malfunction. At first, it was an indeed a beautiful scenery around them where the magnetism pushed them forward. She relaxed against Andrea who wrapped her arms around her.
"Brace for impact," Andrea whispered and then every sound was drowned out by the roaring waterfall, the twins echoing screams of terror-filled delight. Behind her, Andrea gasped and then laughed and laughed.
Miranda clung to Andrea's hands, keeping her lover's arms safely around her. She wasn't afraid, how could she be, when she was surrounded by the people she adored. And before she knew it, Miranda joined Andrea and her girls, laughing and even giving an occasional squeal.
Andy curled up on the soft faux fur rug by the fireplace in the vast bedroom that came with their suite. Letting hair air dry, she looked dreamily at the dancing flames and enjoyed the nice glow of happiness in her chest after having spent time with the girls and Miranda. She chuckled at the memory of a drenched Miranda stepping off the water ride, her hair in the sexiest damp waves. At least they knew now that the top she designed for Miranda didn't become see-through while wet.
"What's so funny, Andrea?"
Miranda's voice right next to her made Andy jump. "Oh. Eh. Nothing?"
"Oh, I know. You're thinking of when you lured me into that god awful canoe." Her glittering eyes belied her words as she sat down next to Andy.
"You enjoyed it," Andy said, smirking.
"I did. Until that last waterfall. You had my children and I go freefalling in a canoe!"
"They loved it."
"Of course they did." Her voice softening, Miranda cupped Andy's cheek. "They love you."
"You think so?" Andy hoped this was true. She adored those girls and not to mention how much she loved Miranda.
"I know so."
Miranda tilted her head, pressing an index finger at her lower lips, something she often did when she wanted to distract the person she was talking to. Andy had also often noticed how Miranda tended to do this, but slowly, sensually, when she was beginning to get aroused. This prospect made Andy forget about wistful thoughts by the fireplace.
"What do you think?" Miranda began to purse her lips, but then smiled brightly. "I love you."
"Oh. Uhm. The girls asleep?" Andy asked, changing the subject surreptitiously after regaining her bearings.
"They are." Miranda combed her fingertips through Andy's bangs, adjusting them. "They were quite exhausted, but very happy. I had to promise them to come back for their birthday next year."
"Sounds like a great plan." Andy circled Miranda's waist with her arms and pulled her closer. "I know of another brilliant plan."
"So it would seem." Soft and sexy, Miranda's smile took Andy's breath away. She slid her hand down her neck, her touch making goose bumps erupt along Andy's arms. "So it would see indeed."
"Computer. Privacy lock on master bedroom door." Andy grinned. "Let's see if I can coax your skin to go into goose bump mode." Andy moved her hand from Miranda's waist to the back of her hair where the tresses lay in damp waves. "Oh, yes. I have the touch too, it would seem." She leaned in and pressed her lips to Miranda's neck. She let the tip of her tongue paint a wet trail down to her collarbone. "You smell amazing."
"A-Andrea." Miranda's voice caught and she gracefully lay down on the thick faux fur rug where Andy had tossed a few large pillows. "Mm. Is this what you want? Did you plan this?" She was trembling now. "Me, in just a robe, splayed on the floor for you to do with as you please?"
"Oh, Gods, yes." Andy untied Miranda's belt and pushed the silk robe open. "You're not cold are you?"
"Do I feel cold?"
"No. You're hot. Scorching." Andy ran her hands up and down along the slight curve of Miranda's stomach, enjoying the velvety sensation. "And so damn sexy."
Miranda just laid there, arms extended above her shoulders, her eyes half close. "Mm."
"I just might have to sample you." Andy pressed her lips to Miranda's, parting them without any resistance. Miranda's tongue, strong and combative, met hers and their kissing seemed to go on forever. Finally Andy pulled free, gasping for air. "Miranda…" She pushed off her own robe and then moved in on Miranda's breasts. Pushing them together, she enjoyed the feel of the rock hard nipples, effortlessly going back and forth, nibbling, tasting, tugging, until Miranda was a whimpering mess.
"Andrea, oh, please, please, you're going…going to be the death of me. Please, darling…" Miranda's hips shifted restlessly beneath Andy, clearly trying to rub against her.
"No, you're fine. Very horny, but very fine."
"Is this what you need, Miranda?" Andy pushed her hand down between them. "This?" In between drenched folds, she found Miranda's core waiting, no, desiring, her caress. "Like so?"
Miranda pushed her hands into Andrea's hair and pulled. "Damn it, just do it. Oh, please."
Andrea loved to tease, but wasn't much for tormenting, so she entered Miranda and curled her fingers just so. This seemed to send a current throughout Miranda's body. Wailing, Miranda wrapped her legs around Andy, pressing her closer.
Andy wasn't prepared for how it would feel to grind herself against her own hand where it was lodged between them. Nor did she know just how close she was to her own orgasm. She stared with greedy eyes at the stunning, amazing woman who actually loved her, who now thrashed beneath her, begging to come. She knew for a fact that Miranda never begged for anything, but she did in bed with Andy. Every single time.
"Miranda…you're so beautiful." Andy whimpered as Miranda tugged at her hair, pulling her in for a voracious kiss.
"Andrea, you're…you're mine. Don't you ever forget."
"I am." Andy was sobbing now as they pushed against her hand, both of them striving for that moment when they truly became one. "I am. Don't ever let me go, Miranda. Please."
"Miranda!" Andy couldn't wait. Her stomach clenched, her sex convulsed and then her whole body engaged in the sweet agony.
Miranda followed a moment later, bucking up twice more, then freezing before tremors took over and she flung her arms around Andy's neck. "Andrea, oh Gods. Andrea, darling, darling…"
Andy was in her own little orbit and not quite ready to answer verbally. She buried her face in Miranda while she pulled her poor aching hand free. "Mm."
Miranda rolled them on their sides. Somehow she produced a pillow from the nearby armchair and a blanket. Andy couldn't remember ever being more comfortable. Sure, the floor was hard, but she didn't care. Tomorrow morning, they were due back on the Brilliance, but right now she was in Miranda's arms where she belonged.
Seven entered the conference room just behind her lover. She thought it was fairly obvious that their last evening and night on Risa had been very pleasurable. If Andrea's broad smile was anything to go by, she and Miranda had not wasted the romantic setting either.
Miranda wasn't present at this briefing and only the Brilliance Chief of Security, also a well-known face from Voyager, former Maquis rebel Ayala. Kathryn had offered him the rank of junior lieutenant when Voyager was transported to the Delta Quadrant, some seventy years from home. The Maquis rebels were integrated and Ayala was one of the ones who thrived and did his job exemplary. To see him hold such a position aboard one of the flagships was pleasing. Usually any Starfleet officer would stand in line for years to serve on a galaxy class vessel, but clearly Ayala had impressed the brass. Here he was, and promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander at that.
At the other end of the room, standing by the view port, dressed in plain civilian clothes, Tal Celes looked pale and her lips a fine line.
"How are you?" Kathryn asked, matter-of-fact, but with her trademark compassion.
"Nervous. Apprehensive. Sort of how I used to feel aboard Voyager, only ten time worse."
"Sit down," Kathryn motioned for Tal to sit down.
"Isn't Miranda going to be here?" Tal asked.
"She can't join us while aboard the Brilliance. Nobody but the four of us in this room knows of her assignment."
They sat down at the far end of the long conference table. Ayala was studying Tal closely, his stony expression not giving anything away.
"It is natural to feel uneasy when a mission involves something so personal." Seven knew she shocked Ayala, but not Kathryn, when she took Tal's hand in hers. "I know I was not very helpful toward you aboard Voyager. I demanded a lot and I made the mistake on assuming that everyone can function the same exact way, all the time. It was more a sign of my ignorance regarding human behavior and capacity, rather any fault of yours. Your recent service record proves that."
Tal exhaled deeply and leaned back in her chair. "Thank you, Seven. That means a lot, actually. I always tried to please you, but I wasn't very good at what I did."
"You are excellent at what you do now." Kathryn tapped her data PADD with her finger. "Since we got back and you trained for your current position, you have gone above and beyond the call of duty numerous times. Still, we realize that asking you to contact Nash Forster is harder than any other mission."
"Yes, but…and I promise I won't let my own feelings interfere, but it will be good for me in the long run to get…closure."
Seven studied Tal's dilated pupils, the slight blushing of her cheeks and the base of her neck. "You are still in love with Nash Forster."
Kathryn flinched and looked back and forth between Seven and Tal. Ayala lost his ability to look expressionless for a few moments.
"As blunt as Seven is, I have to ask you, Lt. Celes, are you still emotionally attached to Nash Forster?"
"I think I always will be." Tal blinked rapidly a few times, but her eyes remained dry.
"Do you anticipate these emotions to come between you and your duty when we take Maladorian and Forster down together with the rest of his organization?"
"No. I can't imagine any scenario when I would become affected enough for me to forgo my duties or my orders." Tal's eyes were now two large, empty pools.
Seven was concerned. Whatever Nash Forster had done to Tal Celes, it had nearly destroyed the sweet young woman she'd been while aboard Voyager. Feeling cold rage permeate her, Seven wasn't surprised when her assimilation tubules emerged from her Borg-enhanced left hand and waggled expectantly. She, too, was ready for this mission.
Janeway had never felt as much at home as she did right this instant. Claiming the captain's chair, having Seven with her, and on a mission that looked like it could be as challenging as it was dangerous. Her nerves tingled and her heart pumped her blood at a steady pace.
"Ensign Vomak, set a course toward the Toskian sector. Lt. Commander Ayala, stay alert for any surprises. This sector is not for the faint of heart to cross."
"Aye, Admiral," both her subordinates echoed.
Glancing over her shoulder toward the newly installed duty station behind the captain's chair. "Commander Hanson. How's the new astrometrics sensor array?"
"Adequate," Seven answered promptly.
"A bit different than aboard Voyager."
"Affirmative. However, the Brilliance's view screen here on the bridge is larger by thirty centimeters lengthwise, and twenty centimeters height wise. As far as I can tell, the sensors reaches a fifth farther into space. I will be able to offer you more accurate scans."
"Sounds terrific." Janeway glanced around her bridge. This was where she belonged. On a star ship with her beloved Seven. She was also getting very fond of Miranda and her family. Somehow, despite their obvious differences, Miranda felt like a kindred spirit. As luck would have it, Seven had bonded with Andy.
Janeway could hardly remember how she had struggled to find meaning with her desk job once she was promoted to Admiral. The first weeks after Voyager's return had been like an endless whirlwind of briefings, parties, interviews, and all the time she'd been so worried about Seven. Furious, she had watched Chakotay return to his homeworld, not about to wait and support Seven during her ordeal. He had claimed he was getting their future home ready—which had been a lie. Instead, he'd thrown himself into teaching anthropology and lecturing about Voyager and how the Maquis had joined the crew in their attempt at getting home.
Janeway noticed that she was digging her blunt nails into the armrests. Willing herself to relax, she focused on how Seven eventually had broken off the relationship with Voyager's former 1st officer. When she came to stay with Janeway in San Francisco, Janeway had sworn to never let her go. Not again. As it turned out, Seven had been as lovesick as she had. Once she started putting down roots with her new lover, Seven blossomed. When Star Fleet offered her a provisional rank as Lt. Commander, she'd declined at first, but when they agreed to the addendum that she would always work alongside Admiral Janeway, Seven accepted. Janeway smiled to herself. Seven looked fantastic in her Star Fleet uniform. Why on earth had she allowed the poor woman to be displayed in that cat suit aboard Voyager for so many years? A leering voice in her mind claimed it was not without its benefits, but Janeway frowned at it and beat it down. She'd had struggled with a guilty conscience ever since she realized how she and other had violated Seven's privacy aboard Voyager. Now, seeing the young woman like this, professional looking, composed and confident, Janeway wanted to kick herself for not using the visual means of integrating Seven via the uniform already back then.
"Admiral?" Seven's eyes were concerned when Janeway snapped out of her reverie.
"My mind was wandering, Commander. Yes?"
"We'll arrive at the Oshada asteroid cluster in approximately thirty-eight point six hours."
Trying her best to hide a broad grin, Janeway felt better immediately. Some things that needed changing, did, and other things, like Seven's charming approximate accuracy, did not. "Good," Janeway said, relaxing back in her seat. "We need time to prepare."
As the Brilliance sped through space at warp eight, Janeway hoped they would be able to anticipate everything. If not, Miranda Priestly and Tal Celes could be lost.
Miranda glared impatiently at her staff. They seemed quite taken aback by the sullen Tal Celes who didn't exactly beam at the clothes placed before her. Soon they would initiate Tal's first photo shoot in one of the lounges where panoramic view screens allowed for a spectacular backdrop.
"This girl is not cooperating." Miranda pinched the bridge of her nose as she spoke to Andrea who was sitting next to her, data PADD in hand. "Couldn't she at least act a little bit interested."
"Uhm. This is rather a big change for her. I mean, going from cage dancer to Miranda Priestly's new top model, that's quite the leap. What if I talk with her during the lunch break?" Andy sounded cautious and Miranda surmised her young lover had not yet come to terms with the fact that Miranda valued her opinion.
"If anyone can get her to relax, it would be you, my doe eyed charmer." Miranda took Andrea's hand and kissed it briefly. "Bring some of your bloused over. Those things are so lovely; it's bound to break the ice."
"Okay." Andy left after running her fingertips along Miranda's neck, which made her shiver and clench her thighs. She wondered if Andrea's touch would ever become so familiar that such reactions became a thing of the past. Somehow Miranda doubted it.
Andy joined Tal Celes where she sat in makeup. "Hello. I'm Andy, in case you missed that while we were introduced. You've met a zillion people today, so I don't blame you."
"I remembered. Not smart to forget Miranda's…girlfriend."
Andy blinked. "Now, please tell me you didn't mean for that to sound so disdainful."
Frowning now, Andy laced her fingers. "I don't know you, nor do you know me, or even of me, but a word of advice is, never, ever, let Miranda hear you talk about me that way. She would not like it."
"Oh, she needs me more than I need her, so I wouldn't worry about it."
Andy stared at the brooding girl next to her. "She needs you?"
"Why would you say that? A million girls would take your job in a heartbeat."
"I think not." Tal huffed and finally looked Andy in the eyes. "Hey, if being with that woman is what makes you happy, and why wouldn't it, she's filthy rich, then I say go for it."
Andy shook her head. "You're not very nice and I actually came over here to see if you needed a voice of reason if all this beauty business was getting too much. Looks like I could have saved myself the trouble."
"I don't need favors." Tal pressed her lips together.
"Then we agree on something." Andy stood and walked away from the infuriating woman. What could Miranda possibly see in her, apart from her photogenic face?"
"Andrea?" Miranda said, raising her eyebrows as Andy stormed right by her.
Stopping, Andy gestured emphatically in Tal's direction. "Her, you can keep. And just so you know, rumor is out; I'm only with you because you are 'filthy rich'. I'll be in our quarter. I have worked to do." Andy barely registered Miranda's narrowing eyes before she stalked off.
Miranda debated whether to go after Andrea, but something told her she ought to have a little chat with the reluctant model in the making over there. She walked slowly over to the makeup section. "Leave us." If she hadn't been succumbed by ice cold fury, it would have been mildly entertaining to see eight people scatter like frightened lemmings.
"So you come to punish the one responsible for infuriating your girl-toy." Tal smiled crookedly.
"I have one advice, which you better heed or you will regret it." Miranda knew her fury made her speak in a barely audible voice. "Nobody, and I mean nobody, speaks that way to Andrea. You may think you're indispensable, but you're not."
"That's not what the admiral said. From what I heard, you need me. A lot. So that means I don't have to suck up to your…girlfriend." She regarded Miranda between her eyelashes.
"The admiral isn't in charge of this operation. I am. She's here to provide backup and transportation, and to be of any assistance I might require. If I tell her to cut you loose and send you back to your commanding officer with a very bad report on your permanent record, she will."
"You're bluffing. If you do that, I'll make sure everyone knows of your double life."
"A nice way to commit treason and be sent to life in prison." Miranda gave her infamous and well-practiced crocodile smile.
Miranda leaned closer, placing both hands on the armrests of Tal's chair. "Try me. Say one more derogatory thing about the woman I love, whom my children adore, and whose won the heart of Janeway, Seven, everyone she's met that was with Voyager in the Delta Quadrant. They can all see what a good person she is, how she cares for others. Even for a grumpy old soul like me who can play very dirty, and not think twice about it."
Tal was paler now. "I don't care," she said, her voice starting to wobble.
"I think you do. The only reason you're not on the wrong side of an airlock, is that I think you let your nerves get the better of you and Andrea happened to be the one paying for it."
"Nerves? Me? That was a long time ago." Tal tugged at her fingers, much like Andrea would do if she was expecting a scolding, or downright evisceration. This, oddly enough, made Miranda relent a fraction.
"This is new to you. People in your face, touching you, and then on top of things, we're sending you right in the way of Nash Forster, whom might just decide to try the airlock thing on you, herself. It's not going to be an easy assignment."
"She…I mean, Nash, she's not…she's not all bad. So much about her is fabricated. I mean, there are sides of her that she makes sure nobody sees."
"But she let you see them?" Miranda pulled up a chair and sat down.
"Not really. I mean, she didn't let me see anything. I happened to witness stuff when she wasn't aware that I was there and able to see…see the vulnerable part. And now, now I'm to exploit that. The only true part of her that I saw, that I can cherish the memory of—that is where you will want me to place the proverbial dagger." Tal's eyes filled with pain. "So, you see, I really couldn't care less if I was rude to Ms. Starshine."
"Then why are you crying, if you're so toughened up?"
"I'm…I'm not!" Tal hid her face in her hands and cried as if her heart was about to break.
"So, there was something else behind this act of yours after all." Andrea's voice made Miranda jump.
"Not sure what all this was about, but clearly Tal needs a friend where she likes it or not, or even concedes to it, or not." Andy knelt next to Tal and took her hand between both of hers. "No matter what you think, I'm no fool. Nobody, nobody, talks to anyone close to Miranda that way. So I'm thinking, you're doing it as a cry for help, or something."
Tal stared with tear filled eyes. "Is she for real?" she asked Miranda, clearly trying for a contemptuous glare, but with very little success.
"She certainly is." Miranda looked indecisive, which in itself was nothing short of sensational.
"Not sure what that's about, but Tal, you can't afford to push people away. You're in new territory now, with tons to learn. Trust me, I know. You need advice, and as you're about to be photographed in a way that you've never experienced before. I've only done it a few times, for fun, but I know how intrusive it can be, and how vulnerable you might feel."
Tal looked at Andy as if she had sprouted antlers and joined the Andorian race. "Vulnerable?" she asked slowly. Sighing she looked up at the ceiling. "Yeah, I guess."
"For sure." Andy took Tal's hand. "Let's just start over, okay? As you'll be wearing some of my clothes, I'd be happy if we could at least be civil, but I'd prefer if we could be friends." She smiled hopefully, knowing she would most likely receive another acerbic and cynical remark. Hoping Tal would realize that if that happened, Miranda might just choke her.
"All right. I'm sorry I mouthed off the way I did. You caught me on a bad day and—" She shrugged. "Did you say 'your clothes'?" Tal looked confused.
"Yes. I'm Sarah Candes."
"You are the one the beauty staff's been swooning over?"
Andy felt her cheeks warm. "Uhm. Well not me personally, but I'm glad they seem to like my clothes."
"Like?" Miranda huffed. "I overheard them earlier and I can promise you they were literally salivating."
"Gods." Andy shook her head. This was still surreal to her. "All right. Back to what we talked about. I'm glad you're feeling a little better, Tal. Should we bring the staff back so we can go on with the shoot?"
"Wait…just wait a minute." Miranda narrowed her eyes and tilted her head. "I just realized you two have similar coloring. One human, one Bajoran. We're going to do a designer/model combination shoot for a few shots."
"Wh-what?" Andy swallowed. "That means people will know who I am. They might think you chose to feature my clothes because—"
"Because you're very talented. Anyone with half a brain will see that from the clothes in this shoot alone." Miranda pressed her lips together. "Why are you being difficult all of a sudden, Andrea?"
"D-difficult?" Andy tried to wrap her brain around the sudden turn of events.
"Yes, Andy, why are you?" There was suddenly a glimpse of laughter in Tal's eyes.
"Oh, please." Andy snorted, suddenly seeing the humor in the whole situation. "All right. You got me. And, Tal, I mean it, you better not be totally insufferable when we shoot this together. I'm not as nice as I look."
"Yes, you are." Miranda's voice had changed again, now holding that soft tone she reserved for Andy and her girls. "Tal will be wise and not take advantage of that." The steel back in her voice, she shot Tal a look that actually made the jaded young woman square her shoulders and become ramrod where she sat.
"Gotcha, ma'am…Miranda," Tal said.
Andy flinched. Tal calling Miranda ma'am was a huge faux pas, but Miranda obviously let it slide. Perhaps she chose her battle with this moody young woman. Andy was more than curious about Tal, as she clearly had some pull, even if she was an untried and unknown model. Suddenly, Andy thought of something. What if she asked Seven to run a check on Tal? It might prove useful to Miranda if Andy could find out enough about Tal, for her to forestall any issues that might arise. It was worth a try.
"What are you thinking about?" Miranda asked, looking slightly suspicious. "You have that look."
"What look?" Andy did her best too look cheery and innocent. "I'm just thinking which outfits Tal and I should wear during our mutual shoot."
"Sure you are." Miranda wasn't buying it.
Deciding that she needed to truly distract Miranda, Andy leaned in to whisper out of earshot from Tal and the returning beauty staff. "Actually you're right. I'm thinking of what to wear tonight, when the twins are safely tucked in and I have you to myself. I plan to do some research…and some replicating. You did say you might be persuaded to use…enhancements." She grinned, enjoying the blush on Miranda's cheekbones.
"Andrea." Closing her eyes briefly, Miranda gave a sigh that could be interpreted as a moan if you were close enough. "I already told you, you'll be the death of me."
"Nah," Andy pushed Miranda's bangs from her eyes with tender fingertips. "You're safe with me. I would never let anything or anyone hurt you."
Miranda jerked, startling Andy as she gripped her free hand tightly as her eyes darkened.
"Andrea, you—you just can't say things like that!" Miranda blinked at the flickering images of Andrea putting herself in danger's way because of Miranda's work for Star Fleet Intelligence. "Not even as a joke."
"Miranda?" Andrea looked concerned. "Of course I'd come to your aid if anything happened to you—or to the twins for that matter."
This made Miranda's stomach clench. "You focus on the twins. I can take care of myself. And unless you've missed it completely, we have a whole unit of security personnel with us on this tour. Just rely on them and stop frightening me."
"Yes, Miranda," Andrea said and smiled sweetly. "That said, I guess I should go talk to the beauty staff since I've been drafted to join this shoot."
"Finally. Some sense." Miranda pressed a quick kiss on Andrea's earlobe. "Off you go. Time is of the essence."
"When isn't it?" Andrea teased and stuck out her tongue a few millimeters before she joined Tal and the beauty staff.
Miranda found herself struggling against a sudden surge of arousal. And this just from seeing the tip of Andrea's tongue. Ridiculous. Then again, she knew better than to even graze the memory of how Andrea had used that particular part on Miranda only last night. "Damn," Miranda muttered inaudibly. "Too late."
Tal Celes was not prepared of how many products the beauty industry had come up with to enhance, hide, obscure, erase, and create optical illusions. There was no way she would be able to go through this several times a day. She was ready to clock the first person who dared approach her with an eyelash curler. Glancing at Andrea, Andy, she saw somehow a bit of her younger self. It wasn't that long ago, really, that Tal had been that friendly and caring. Smiled just as easily. That had all evaporated the day she made herself scarce from Nash Forster's life.
"How about both of these gorgeous girls in different shades of green?" The bald man named Nigel Kipling asked no one in particular. "Yes. Yes, I think we'll start out with the green."
"Is he kidding?" Tal hissed to Andy who was having her hair curled in long ringlets that actually looked quite beautiful. "Green?"
"I trust Nigel," Andy said blithely. Then she wrinkled her nose. "Up to a point. If he suggests that see-through pink shirt I made for an intimate moment, I will walk off the set like the worst model diva you ever saw."
Tal found it impossible to dislike Andy no matter how she tried. Returning the smile, if a bit cautiously, she shook her head. "Pink see-through? What were you thinking?"
"Moment of weakness. I thought of Miranda, and she can really rock any pink color even if she rarely wears it, and…I had drawn and then sewn a pink, see-through blouse." She shrugged.
"Ah, I see. Eye candy for you." Tal's smile broadened when Andy's cheeks turned into the shade they were discussing. "You got it bad, Andy."
"I know. And it's actually quite good for the most part." Andy seemed to internalize the rest of a statement. "So. Yeah."
"I understand. Some, at least." Tal nodded.
The two women sat in companionable silence for the rest of the makeup session and Tal knew she would not sell Andy short ever again. Even if she was not aware of the nature of this mission, Andy was nobody's fool—but, and this was the strangest thing, she could very well be everybody's friend. Tal closed her eyes, hoping against all odds that this mission would not end in perpetual heartache for Andy.
"All hands, report to duty stations at 0800 hours. We are approaching the Condwatchy space station. A brief shore leave is allowed only after security verifies safety protocols. No children under the age of eighteen are allowed to go aboard the space station without the being accompanied by an adult."
The female voice actually sounded quite admonishing and Janeway glanced down the breakfast table, which they shared with Miranda, Andy and their family. The Priestly twins—she could not tell them apart even if Andy had pointed out 'obvious differences'—were looking outraged.
"But mom," one of them said with a pout. "We're not kids anymore."
"You are," Miranda answered calmly and put spread on her toast. "And as I'll be in meetings aboard the station, you have either your nanny or Andrea to take you, if you're good girls. I can't imagine Andrea would want to drag around some whiny children and go shopping."
The girls blinked and then snapped their heads around to gaze at Andy. "Shopping? You're taking us shopping?"
"If you like." Andy bit into a piece of fruit and winked at Miranda. "Depends on the whininess level."
As Janeway could have foreseen, the twins immediately looked angelic and vowed to be perfect angels all day. Janeway snorted and returned her attention to Seven and her coffee.
"Do you wish to have children?" Seven asked.
Having just sipped her coffee, Janeway coughed, trying to move the hot beverage past her larynx and avoid getting down her lungs. "Children?" she managed.
"I have observed how you have studied Caroline and Cassidy on several occasions." Seven looked her usual together self and didn't give any indication on her thoughts on the matter.
"I can safely say that the topic hasn't come until this morning." Janeway smiled wryly. "I don't think the mess hall is the correct place for such private discussions."
"I did not mean to make you uncomfortable," Seven said and now there were clear signs of distress in her voice. "I apologize."
"Oh, darling, don't apologize. You have nothing to be sorry for. This question has just not dawned on me, and it is something we need to address. I promise we'll revisit this at the earliest possible opportunity if you want to."
"And if we end up disagreeing completely?" Seven blanched.
Janeway's heart somersaulted. "Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, can keep me from you. No matter what, Seven." She reached across the table and squeezed Seven's Borg-enhanced hand. "Do you trust me?"
"With my life," Seven whispered, her lips smiling tremulously.
"Good. Now, I'm due for a meeting as well. As soon as security declares it safe, why don't you join Andy and the kids?"
"I was thinking just that." Seven looked decidedly happier. "I think it will prove to be quite the experience as Cassidy informed me that her sister and she are 'professional shoppers'."
"Sounds intimidating. Andy might need the reinforcement."
Janeway got up and escorted her lover toward the corridor where she leaned in and kissed her lightly. "And don't worry about the other topic. I love you."
Tucking some hair behind Janeway's ear, Seven nodded determinedly. "And I love you, Kathryn."
The Condwatchy space station was one of the very few stations in this sector where planet density was low. This made for lucrative business arrangements for the people setting up shop there, which in turn had made the station grow exponentially. Almost 20,000 people lived there permanently and as Tal stepped into the main promenade, she could tell it most defiantly deserved its rumor of being both a paradise and a hell. Shady characters seemed to lurk in the shadows, while the most expensively dressed visitors frequented the high-end stores. It was probably also true that you could buy everything in the entire quadrant here.
Tal new Miranda and Kathryn was in a meeting somewhere, something she clearly wasn't privy to. Andy had offered her to join her, Seven and Miranda's children on a shopping excursion, but she'd declined. She had so much need for solitude these days, she wondered if she'd ever want to be among other people and just be happy-go-lucky social like before.
A pub appeared when she turned the corner and Tal went inside, ordered a Bajoran beer, and took her seat on a bar stool at the far end of the counter. She hoped nobody among the other patrons would approach her, as she was not in the mood to be civil.
After drinking half of the strong beer, Tal began to relax somewhat. Nobody was talking to her, which suited her perfectly. She thought about Andy, the only one that had been unconditionally friendly toward her aboard the Brilliance. She was a nice person and it boggled the mind that she put up with a woman like Miranda. Clearly Andy saw something in Miranda than Tal and most other people didn't. It was also quite interesting that Tal hadn't found it the least bit strange to see Janeway and Seven together as a couple. They had always shared that special bond, which clearly had surpassed Chakotay's attempt at keeping the stunning blonde with him.
"Tal Celes. Now there's a sight for sore eyes." The deep, sonorous female voice nearly made Tal drop her glass. She swallowed the bile that rose fast within her and pivoted slowly on the barstool.
"Nash Forster. What brings you this deep into Federation space?"
"Oh, babe, I heard a rumor that you'd surface. You didn't think I could let that slide, could you?" Nash looked as overpoweringly stunning as ever, if not even more so. Surrounded by the multicolor lights, her waist-long blond tousled hair seemed to go from shimmering green to bright pink. As usual, she was dressed in black leather that caressed every curve and muscle on her lean body. All this aside, it was her slanted, feline eyes that pulled Tal in, their golden amber hypnotic. Dangerous. "Going for modeling these days?"
"A girl's got to make a living, Nash," Tal managed. "You're risking a lot by showing yourself this openly. Especially with a Federation galaxy class ship moored just down the promenade."
"Ah, yes. The intrepid Admiral Janeway and her pet Borg." Nash smirked and sat down on the stool next to Tal. "And of course, your new boss, Miranda Priestly. Now her I'd like to meet. There's a woman who won't take no for an answer. A kindred spirit, perhaps." Tal chuckled.
"I can introduce you if you insist. Right after Janeway throws you in the brig."
"Oh, she won't do that. She can try, but she's got to catch me first." Nash shook her head. "And something tells me that the Tal Celes I know may put on a good show, but she wouldn't want me incarcerated." She caressed Tal's cheek with the back of her curled fingers. "After all, where would be the fun in that?"
"You are as presumptuous as always," Tal sneered and stood, out of reach. She knew her job was to pull Nash in, but even that small a caress from this woman was enough to make her heart bleed. She needed this to be on her terms, not Nash's. "I left you. You hated that, I'm sure. Nash Forster does the leaving, not the other way around. Certainly not a nobody like me."
"Oh, babe, you're not a nobody." Nash's full, curvy lips parted as her eyes darkened to a polished bronze. "I would never spend any of my valuable time, which I really don't have to spare right now, on a nobody. You said it. You left me and I need to know why."
Clinging to her beer, Tal fought to not let the allure of this woman that haunted her in her dreams every single night, take over. "So, you want to talk. Fine. When?"
"Somewhere private. I suppose my ship is out of the question."
"You suppose correctly. If you leave your goons behind, we can use a hotel room." Tal glared at the four men standing at a few meters distance.
"Sure. A hotel room. That's a new one for us." Nash leaned in. "It's been a while since we were alone together."
"We're not going to revisit that part. It's history. We're history, Nash." Tal tried to remain calm and detached, but her heart was pounding so hard she could barely hear herself speak.
"So you keep insisting. What hotel then, babe?"
Oh, if Nash could just stop calling her 'babe' with that special timbre to her voice, it would make it so much easier to keep her game face on. "The Tamarina, just across from here. You can afford it. Get a room on the second floor." There was no way Tal would get stuck with Nash in a room on the umpteenth floor of a hotel. This way, she could even jump out the window if she needed to.
"All right. Tonight at 1900 hours then." Nash kissed Tal's cheek slowly. "And do come alone. Tell no one. I'll know if you're being followed or if you're wired. Take my word for it."
"I know you guys are ready to go yet another turn around the shops, but I'm bushed." Andy looked imploringly at the twins. Seven had given up an hour ago and returned to the Brilliance, but of course the girls had wanted to stay longer. "We're meeting your mother for dinner in an hour. I don't know about you, but I want to shower and make myself presentable."
"Oh, all right," Cassidy said grudgingly. "Just one more peek into the candle store, please? I've never seen such diamond-candles before. Mom would love the silver one."
Andy agreed. "Okay. I'll find a seat outside and you girls can go in and pick out a candle for your mom."
She sat down with a huff of relief as the twins entered the store that really did have some wonderful items for sale. Rubbing her neck after placing the bags and parcels by her feet, Andy sighed and leaned back. These girls would become the death of her feet, no doubt, but, oh dear, they had stolen her heart. She could feel how they opened up to her more and more, which Andy knew thrilled Miranda as much as it did her. At first, when the twins learned of how the relationship between Andy and Miranda had altered, Andy had been sure the girls would either become jealous, or feel betrayed. When neither happened, Miranda had actually wiped at tears and hugged Andy very close for a long time after they went to bed that night. Another, totally unexpected, development was the close friendship with Seven. Miranda had expressed a similar joy at how close she was getting to Kathryn, as Miranda didn't have many close personal friends. Certainly no one who lived under the same spotlight. Kathryn and Seven were legendary after crossing the entire galaxy and beating the Borg in the process. Now that they were a couple, it was as if their fame had grown beyond all limits throughout the Alpha Quadrant, which bothered Seven more than Kathryn. She knew Seven was glad to be away from the onslaught of the media. The fact that Miranda had helped by adding to their legend through the Women of Voyager fashion shoot, did not seem to faze either of them, though.
Andy checked the time. 1900 hours. Half an hour until they were meeting up with Miranda. She was just about to stand up and get the girls' attention when she saw Tal Celes across the promenade. Tal was approaching a tall woman with long, shimmering hair. They talked animatedly in front of the luxurious hotel, Tal even taking a step back from the woman who invaded her personal space. The taller woman then grabbed Tal by the shoulders and pulled her toward the hotel entrance.
"We're ready, Andy. We decided on—"
"Shh. Wait." Andy held up a hand and perhaps something in her tone made the girls realize she meant it, because their chatter stopped instantly, but then continued in excited whispers.
"Isn't that the Mom's new girl? Tal? What's she doing? Why's that woman pulling her along? Are those guys spying on them?"
Andy glanced around them. Caroline was right. Darkly dressed men were standing to the left and right of the hotel structure, looking as if they were interested in anything but the altercation between Tal and the striking woman. Then the woman pulled Tal inside the hotel and the men moved instantly.
"Caroline, Cassidy. Listen. This is important. Take the bags and all our stuff and then you run to your mom. Hurry as fast as you can, okay? I'll page her and let her know why I'll be late."
"But Andy…?" Caroline looked frightened. "What if those guys are criminals or something?"
"I'll be careful. Your mom, Seven and Kathryn will help me if I need it. Now run toward the gate and go aboard the Brilliance. Instantly."
She watched the girls long enough to see them reach the gate. As soon as they were through it, she hurried toward the hotel. Something told her Tal was in trouble and even if the woman was a pain sometimes, she was also becoming a friend. She slapped her comm badge as she entered the hotel. "Andrea Sachs to Miranda Priestly."
"Miranda Priestly is detained in a meeting. Leave a message."
Oh damn. The computer voice was not what Andy wanted to hear. She could use an emergency override, but she was not sure it actually was an emergency. Instead she paged Seven.
"Seven here. Go ahead, Andrea."
"I'm on my way into the hotel close to the gateway, the Tamarina. I think I just saw Tal Celes being coerced to go in there with a woman. She in turn was followed by at least four men dressed in black. They did not look friendly, Seven."
"Andy, this is Kathryn. Do nothing to endanger yourself, but if you can keep your eyes on Tal until we get there, that would be very helpful." Kathryn sounded concerned. "This woman, what did she look like?"
Andy moved in through the doors of the hotel as she described the person Tal had met up with.
"Damn it. We need to get Miranda. This could blow up in our faces."
Andy understood exactly zero, but then she spotted Tal as the woman nudged her into an elevator. Studying the computer console above it, Andy saw it stopped already at the second floor. "Second floor," she spoke into the comm badge. "I'm going up."
"Be careful, Andrea." Seven sounded as if she was walking fast. "Miranda Priestly will not forgive any of us if something happens to you."
Andy had no idea as to what might happen when she took the stairs to the next level, she only knew she'd ended up in the middle of something she had no knowledge about.
"What?" Miranda rounded on Janeway, blue fire blazing from her eyes. "You're telling me Andrea is shadowing Tal Celes and a strange woman?"
"Believed to be Nash Forster, yes. Andy sent your girls back to the ship and followed Tal while she paged Seven. I was there. I gave her the go ahead to keep an eye on Tal so we could verify her whereabouts and who—"
"Andrea is a civilian! She has no training and now knowledge how to defend herself it this goes south. How could you use her, betray her, like this?" Miranda hissed and stalked closer. "Where is she?"
"That's just it. We can't go in after her as it'll be too obvious—"
"I asked; where is she?"
"At the Tamarina, on her way up to the second floor. I've got a transporter lock on her. If something goes 'south', I'll have her out of there instantly." Janeway knew this was hardly enough to sooth this tigress in front of her.
"You will beam her out now." The low growl would have intimidated any other person into action at a heartbeat, but Janeway only shook her head. "Stop wasting time, Miranda. Get to the Tamarina and once you're there and Andy briefs you, you can send her back to the ship."
Air left Miranda's lungs so fast, it sounded like a serpent's hiss. "Fine." She stormed out, nearly knocking Seven over on her way through the door, which said something for Miranda's state of mind.
Andy stood in the corridor just inside the stairwell, looking around the people crowding it on their way to their quarters. As it turned out, it wasn't hard to spot the tall woman Tal was with. She moved away from Andy and would soon round the corner at the far end of the corridor. A little farther behind, two of the men seemed to be in pursuit.
"Oh, hell." Andy hurried after them, pushing people aside as she mumbled apologies. When she reached the corner, she saw the woman more or less shove Tal through a door and as it was about to close behind them, the men caught up and forced their way in. "Oh, no!" Andy leaped forward and was about to follow, when a strong hand gripped her upper arm.
"Oh, no you don't."
"Miranda!" Andy pointed. "These people. They got Tal in there."
"I know." Miranda was still dressed in her haute couture outfit from earlier, and now she donned a stern face. "I'll explain more later, Andrea, but for now I need you to follow my cue. Will you be able to do that?"
So used to following Miranda's every command, every whim, really, Andy merely nodded. "Of course."
"It's important these people don't suspect anything. I'm the quadrant's leading fashonista; you are my assistant and more importantly, my lover. Got it?"
Confused now, Andy only nodded. Who else would they be? This didn't make sense. What was Miranda going to explain later?
Miranda shocked her by using some sort of gadget at the control panel to the left of the door, which hissed open instantly. Smiling broadly now, Miranda swept inside, her usual self-assuredness palpable.
"Tal, my dear, I thought that was you. Andrea and I were just going to dine downstairs when we saw you pass us with your friend."
"Miranda." Tal seemed relieved to see them. Between her and the two men, stood the tall woman from before. Unless Andy misunderstood completely, it was as if this woman had placed herself between Tal and the two men. "Yes, I would love to introduce you to an old…friend. This is Nash."
"Nash? Lovely to meet you. Why don't you and Tal join us for dinner? I'm sure your associates don't mind?" She smiled sweetly at the men.
"Of course not," the older of the men said through gritted teeth.
"That's settled then. Let's go downstairs before they give our table away. Come along, darling." Miranda took Andy's arms and only the way she clung to it like she needed Andy's strength to remain upright, showed that clearly nothing was what it seemed right now.
The four women stepped into the busy corridor, leaving the men behind.
Miranda stuck her hand inside her coat and tapped her comm badge. "All right. Miranda Priestly to Janeway. Four to beam over."
Tal stood motionless on the transporter dais where she'd rematerialized with the others. Andy looked completely mystified and the way she looked at her lover did not bode well. She hardly dared to look over at Nash. Surely she was fuming and ready to pull some concealed weapon and slit Tal's throat?
Miranda stepped off the dais first and nodded briskly to Janeway who stood there, gazing solemnly at them behind the computer console. "Not the way we planned, Admiral, but results are results nonetheless."
"We? We?" Andy joined Miranda, her eyebrows knitted and low. "What's going on?"
"Darling. Soon, all right?" Miranda gripped Andy's hand for a moment, her eyes going from ice to imploring warmth for a few seconds. "Andrea?"
"Okay. Soon." Andy relaxed visibly, but remained close to Miranda as if she thought her lover needed protection or something.
"So now I'm the unwilling guest of the Brilliance and Admiral Janeway. Fabulous." Nash joined the others, hands on her hips and with a disdainful toss of her impressive hair. "Anyone care to tell me why? I was under the impression that Tal was not all that eager to rekindle our friendship and that begs the question, what do you need from me? Am I far off topic if I think it's about my boss?"
"Not that far off." Janeway glanced over at Tal. "You all right, Tal?"
"I'm not a patient woman," Nash continued. "Unless you're about to brief me, I'm transporting back—"
"I wouldn't recommend that. Those men, they were Maladorian's, weren't they?" Miranda spoke politely. "They were no doubt there to make sure you didn't speak to anyone he did not approve of. Or…" She squinted. "Or you are here at your own initiative and he has had you followed as you didn't tell him where you were going."
"You're very perceptive," Nash said through her teeth.
"I have more perceptions where that one came from, but I suggest we move to the Admiral's ready room, or perhaps a conference room."
"Absolutely. As I don't want anyone to see us together, we're using a site-to-site transport." Janeway gave the voice command and Tal felt the familiar tingle before she found herself in Janeway's ready room where Seven met them.
"Of course, where Janeway goes, there goes her Borg." Nash smirked joylessly.
"Or vice versa," Janeway said lightly. "Take a seat everybody. Anyone require something to drink."
"Coffee. No foam latte, triple espresso." Miranda sat down on the couch.
"You get the show on the road and I'll prepare the replicator if that's all right, Kathryn?" Andy fidgeted. Her eyes were darker than normal and Tal guessed she needed something to do, to cope.
"Thank you, Andy." Janeway squeezed the young woman's arm as she passed her and took a seat as well. "Seven? Join me?"
Seven followed suit and Tal sat down too before her legs gave in from all the emotional turmoil. Nash seemed reluctant, but eventually chose the arm chair across from everyone else. Her eyes, normally so cool and calculating, was the only thing that gave away some of the fury Tal could sense emanating from Nash.
"First of all," Janeway said in an amicable tone, "I want to know how much of your boss' extracurricular activities you are aware of."
"And why would I tell you anything about my boss. He's the one who pay me, not you."
"Because I would surmise he's hidden the worst part from you. Would you agree with me, Tal?" Janeway changed her gaze to meet Tal's.
"Yes. When I read the report on his track record, I knew there was no way Nash knew about the full extent."
"Don't dismiss this so fast, Nash." Angry now, Tal spoke distinctly. "I left you because of him, and the fact that you work for him, and because I thought you'd never change. I was certain of it. Now that I know more about Maladorian, I have changed my mind. I don't think you could ever stand behind a man guilty of such atrocities. The thieving, the looting, and smuggling, yes, but being responsible for so much death…"
"You're wrong," Nash interrupted. "You couldn't be more wrong. I know exactly who he is, what he's done and what he intends to do in the near future. I made it my business to know."
Shocked, Tal stared at her former lover. "W-what? It's not possible…you…you're not like that. Like him." Her stomach was trembling as what was left of her heart began to crack.
"Guess you didn't know me as well as you thought. I can only say the same. Not really a cage-dancer-turned-model, huh?"
"Yes, but not only that." Tal glanced at Janeway who nodded. "I'm also Star Fleet intelligence."
Nash actually blinked a few times at that information. "Really. Your parents' death sent you on that route?"
"Not only that." Tal muttered to herself.
"So you claim that you work for Maladorian knowing full well the extent of his crimes?" Janeway leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. "I find that hard to believe, given your own history."
"Leave my history out of it, Admiral."
"Impossible." Janeway accepted a mug of coffee from Andy who now knelt on the floor next to the coffee table. "Thank you."
Miranda regarded Andy with a slightly uneasy expression and then refocused on Nash. "I'm sure there is a vast amount of intel to add to the dossier we're keeping on you, Natasha, but we know one thing that indicates you could be a useful double-agent."
Tal flinched. Natasha? Why had Nash never disclosed her full name?
"What so called truth do you think you know?" Nash sneered. "And I go by Nash. Only."
"Ridiculous," Miranda said with a superior tone. "We know Maladorian was behind the near complete destruction of the terraforming plant on Geyo 2. His evil deed resulted in the death of more than two thousand people, including—"
"Stop." Nash's throat worked and her complexion turned into a greyish green. "Just stop."
"It killed your sister, her husband, and—"
"And her two children. Aydis and Natasha." Nash's sounded ghostly, as if she'd left her body and was in hiding. Somewhere away from the particular pain that Tal knew only too well.
"I'm sorry he did that to you, to all those people. This seems to be his M.O." Janeway's compassionate voice was like a blanket around Tal. She remembered this voice, this larger-than-life attitude of the woman who brought Voyager back through thousands of light-years of hostile space. She worried that Nash couldn't use this particular memory to soothe her pain. This kind of pain, of losing it all, everything you looked on as yours. Your history, your family, your past—all of it eradicated by the action of a despicable individual. Tal also knew the encompassing fury that took you over, the urge for vengeance. A lust for retaliation that consumed every cell of your being filled your days and haunted you in the night.
Not really thinking of how it might look to the other or how it would be received by Nash, Tal shifted until she knelt by the armchair. She placed her hands gently on Nash's trembling arms. Those tremors weren't from fear. Tal knew this for certain. These were like the pre-tremors around a volcano ready to explode and pour it's magma over everything and everybody within range.
"I know, Nash. I know exactly. I told you my parents passed away not long ago. I didn't tell you they resided on the colony of Logg's Prime."
Nash blanched. "Logg's Prime. Maladorian…"
"Yes. He killed my family too. We share the same grief and the same anger."
Standing up, Nash walked over to the viewport and Tal held her breath as the woman she always thought had a wildness inside, turned to face them.
"Very well." Nash bared her teeth in what appeared to be meant as a smile of sorts. "I'll help you kill him."
Miranda regarded Andrea with as much dread as she'd ever felt. Would Andrea understand why she hadn't been able to share this part of her duties? Or would she see it as betrayal and—leave? "Tell me what you're thinking, darling." Miranda swallowed hard.
"I honestly don't know what to think." Andrea turned around from where she'd been putting away some of her fabrics. "You're some secret operative for Star Fleet. Tal is not a former cage dancer, but someone who is hell-bent on killing a man who is responsible for murdering her parents. This woman, Tal's former lover, I assume, is onboard for the same reason. Kathryn and Seven are who they say they are, at least. Always something."
"Can you understand why I couldn't share this with you?" Miranda pushed her trembling hands behind her, clasping them as she willed her heart not to break prematurely.
"Absolutely. I would imagine you'd break all sorts of spy code if you let the woman you love in on Federation secrets. They would have court-martialed you or something, I'm sure." Andrea sounded way too reasonable.
"Don't. Scream at me. Yell at me for not telling you. Tear my head off and let me know how betrayed you feel, even if you understand. Just d-don't push me away. Don't leave me, Andrea." Miranda could hardly breathe. Tears clogged the back of her throat and fear paralyzed her tongue, making it nearly impossible to form the words.
Andrea's mouth opened, but no words came through. She looked stunned. "Leave?" she finally managed to say. "I'm not leaving. Not you. Nor the girls." Tears rose in her eyes and the way she tugged at her fingers was a surefire sign how panicky she was right now.
"You're not?" Miranda stepped closer and unclasped her hands. As she took yet another step toward Andrea, her love leaped at her, throwing her arms around her neck and hugged her tight.
"No. No! I could never leave you. I'd…I'd die without you, Miranda. Oh, Gods, I'm shaking all over and I'm really trying to understand, and to find a way to be supportive and be what you need, to not make you pull away from me and think I can't handle it and—"
"Shh. You're doing fine. Andrea." Miranda found it easy now to be the strong one. As long as Andrea loved her and wasn't about to pack up and demand her own quarters, she could handle anything. "I'm sorry I couldn't tell you. I know you know why. And, Gods, I'm glad you do know some of it now. This way I can protect you and the girls better and I don't have to hide everything. There are still details I can't share, but know you know my double duty, to Runway, and to the Federation."
"Sort of interesting that you mentioned Runway first, before the Federation." Andrea chuckled breathlessly. "I just want to ask you a favor, Miranda."
"If it is at all doable, you can have anything you want. You know that." Miranda combed through Andrea's bangs with her fingers. "You know I could never deny you anything."
"I know. Normally I have to harness you in when you go crazy with the giving." Andrea smiled. "But this is different. If there is a way to share with me when you go off on assignments for the Federations, especially if they are dangerous, I would like to know. If I don't, then I'll worry my heart out even when you're away on totally benign Runway stuff—I mean, photo shoots. And such."
"I will be breaking the rules if I do, but I don't care. You never ask for anything. Never mind the 'spy code' as you so eloquently put it. You will not have to worry needlessly. I promise you."
"Wow. You hardly promise anything to anyone. This is pretty big." Andrea framed Miranda's face with her hands. "I love you. I love you so much."
Miranda's heart swelled back to what was its normal state around Andrea. "Silly girl." She pressed her lips to Andrea's and held her close. "I love you more than I ever thought myself able to. You're the keeper of my heart. You know that, right?"
"Yeah. And just so you don't forget whose holding my heart a happy captive." Andrea kissed her back, brushing those full lips against Miranda's over and over.
Miranda was about to deepen the kiss when the door hisses open and in stormed the twins, wide-eyed and out of breath.
"You're here smooching?" Cassidy came to a sudden halt. "Here we think you're being kidnapped by those goons and you're here. All cuddled up and just being cozy. Hm." She folded her arms over her chest. "Typical."
"At least they're all right," Caroline pointed out and went over to wrap her arms around Andrea's waist. "I was scared when you ran after those ninja looking guys."
"I'm sorry you were frightened." Andrea smoothed down Caroline's wild red hair.
"I wasn't scared. I thought it was exciting." Cassidy mimicked her sisters' pose and hugged Miranda. As much as Cassidy went for the bravado style, Miranda knew her daughter well enough to notice the evaporating shadows in both her daughters' eyes. They had been very fearful, both for Andrea sake and for their mother's. She hugged Cassidy tight to her with her free arm and held on to Andrea with the other. Andrea did the same and soon they were wrapped up in a rare sort of group-hug.
Miranda laughed. No matter what the future held in their quest to get to Maladorian and bring him back to face charges, this was a perfect, wonderful moment.
Tal walked silently behind Janeway and Nash as they made their way through the Brilliance's corridors. She listened intently and was not surprised at Janeway's ability for compassion.
"I'm not going to insult you by mincing words," Janeway said to Nash as she escorted the tall woman to her quarters. "You're going to find yourself in the presence of at least one armed guard until I feel you can be trusted. That said, I don't want to put you in the brig as we have rather a long journey ahead of us. You will benefit from being around Star Fleet personnel and the civilians aboard the Brilliance." She tapped the panel next to the door.
Nash and Tal stepped inside. "Impersonal, but adequate," Nash said, looking around. "Do I get replicator rations?"
"Slightly restricted in nature, but when it comes to energy spent, you have the same allotment as everybody else, including me."
"I wasn't about to replicate a weapon. Just a few knick knacks that I could use to make this a little more…homey."
"My quarters are across the corridor," Tal said. "In case you need…something."
Nash's eyes lit up with a dangerous fire that Tal recognized with a tremor of her midsection as evidence. "Oh, goodie. You know my taste so well. That will come in handy."
"Uhm. A security officer will be just outside the door until later. I've business to attend to. We're closing the gates in half an hour and then we'll be on our way to the L'Wiasta sector. ETA unless we run into a snag is twenty days from now. Use the time wisely, Ms. Forster. Lt' Celes." Janeway nodded politely and stepped outside. Tal heard her talk to the guard on duty and then there was silence.
Slowly Tal turned to Nash who regarded her with an unreadable expression on her face. Now that there were no witnesses, Nash seemed even tenser, and perhaps a bit…tired? Was that even possible? "So. You okay?" Tal wanted to groan at her trite words.
"Yes. Quite comfortable. Feeling like a prisoner, just a wee bit, but all in all, it could be worse."
"It could indeed." Tal sat down on the couch beneath the panorama view port. "We could be at the mercy of those armed thugs back at the Miramar. The stars only know what their true agenda was. Kill us? Kill one of us, or threaten to do so to get us talking. That sounds plausible. Would you have given everything away to save me? Or would you have kept your secrets, hid behind your under-cover part and let them slice and dice me?"
"Stop it. Stop!" Nash was on her so fast; Tal fell back against the armrest. Her arms closed around Nash's back automatically. "I would never let anyone hurt you. I would take them out so fast, they wouldn't see me coming. Even if I had to use only my hands, I'd keep you safe at all cost. I know you don't believe me. I know you hate me for my association with Maladorian, but that is the fucking truth! I would kill to keep you safe. Just like that." She snapped her fingers and then pressed her lips onto Tal's neck. "When you left…as much as I could understand why…I couldn't believe it. I had come to relax in the knowledge that you were there when I woke up. There when I went to bed. No matter what I had to do during the days…you were there."
"And then I wasn't." Tal spoke bleakly. She could feel the tremors travelling through Nash. So much emotion, only restrained because Nash had learned the hard way how to do that. Tal remembered one of the rare times when Nash had shared how she'd once studied the art of logic and control with a Vulcan master. She had a feeling that control was slipping and here she was—probably the one who had to bear the brunt of it when unleashed.
"Then you weren't." Nash looked down at her with hungry eyes. "And yet, a few months later, here you are. Going after me, guns blazing sort of, and in the company of such surprises as Miranda Priestly and the most famous admiral in the Alpha Quadrant, Admiral Janeway. Of course you brought the former Borg as well. And who wasthat little firecracker who served the coffee? I thought she was some sort of assistant at first, but the way Priestly looked at her, I could be wrong."
"Andy's her lover. Janeway and Seven are together. Just so you know." Tal's body was betraying her on all levels now. She arched under Nash. "And then there's me. Someone you have every reason to hate. Really."
Nash nibbled Tal's lower lip and then pressed their lips together in that type of mind melting kiss Tal had experienced over and over in her dreams after leaving Nash. She gave up. Clinging to Nash she wrapped her legs around the other woman. She parted her lips willingly and deepened the kiss. Nash grunted and took as much as Tal gave, and somehow, and this was new, she gave of herself just as much. Nash's hands caressed every part of Tal she could reach, and her shaking body revealed how affected she was.
"I still love you, Nash." Tal sobbed now. She had never meant to repeat those words every again, but holding Nash like this, and feel her reciprocate on all levels, made it impossible to lie, even by omission.
"Tal?" Nash raised her head some to look at her. "You speak the truth?" Nash fell into her native dialect. It was evident even through the universal translator.
Nash sat up and managed to pull Tal up with her. Straddling Nash's thighs, Tal held on to her shoulders and tried to get her brain to catch up.
"I adore you. You must realize how deep my feelings for you run when I risked everything I built with Maladorian to gain his trust." Nash cupped her hips. "I love you, Tal. I'll do what I can to make Janeway and her bunch to trust me. Together we can take him out…and then I will ask you how you feel."
Tal shivered. "Fair enough," she muttered and sank into the embrace. "But for now. Just hold me, all right?"
Nash squeezed her back. She felt the new little glowing light in the pit of her stomach and for the first time in months, she dared cautiously to hope.
"Seven!" Janeway arched under the skilled hands of her lover as a toe-curling orgasm tore through her system. "Oh, yes, yes, yes…Seven...ah!"
Seven had already climaxed twice to Kathryn's delight, and now she was reciprocating in kind. Sweaty, tousled, make up gone, and the icy pose Seven kept in place around others, eradicated, Seven had never looked more beautiful. Janeway looked down between her legs where the digits of Seven's Borg-enhanced hand connected with her body. As Seven slowly withdrew her hand, Janeway groaned and held her lover tight.
As their bodies cooled off, Janeway's mind returned to the breakfast they'd shared with Andrea and Miranda. She dreaded the answer, but knew she had to face it head on. "Sweetheart? Do you remember when you asked me about children?"
"Of course. I have an eidetic memory." Seven rose on her elbow. "Why does this question cause you such concern?"
"Do you want children?" Janeway blinked, confused at the sudden tears forming behind her eyelids.
Seven tilted her head for a moment, clearly considering the question. "Yes," she answered. "One day."
"O-one day?" What did that mean? Janeway prepared for the potential blow to her system.
"Yes. When we decide we have reached that place in our relationship when we could offer a child our undivided attention. I do not think growing up aboard a space ship is detrimental to a child's development, but I wish for us to be able to offer ample time on Earth or any other place planetside."
Janeway pressed her forehead against Seven's cheek, feeling the starburst formation of her Borg implant there against her. "I—I was afraid that you wanting children did not include me." She felt silly for saying this, but knew she had to be truthful if they were to stand a chance in the long run.
"Same-gender procreation has long ceased to be an issue, has it not?" Seven frowned.
"Yes, and I didn't meant that. I…just figured you might not think…" The more Janeway tried to explain her irrational fear, the sillier it sounded. She felt her cheeks color and she closed her eyes in dismay. "I'm sorry."
"Do not be sorry, my Kathryn." Seven nuzzled her cheek. "I know how I often fear you may grow tired of me, or how you perhaps might regret us being together. None of my fears are based in reality or from anything you say or do. I fear…because fear is always ready to attack us when we least expect it, I find. I do understand how our minds…I think B'Elanna Torres-Paris called them 'mind-ghosts', can sabotage us."
"So I'm a foolish old woman with mind-ghosts disrupting my happiness?" Janeway chuckled with tears in her voice. I'm not a very good catch, Seven."
Seven smiled broadly, looking relieved and happy now. "You are, Kathryn. You are the catch. Formerly the most eligible bachelorette in the Alpha Quadrant if you believe the tabloid PADDzines."
"Oh, God, don't remind me." Janeway covered her eyes. "Even Miranda who thinks there's no such thing as bad publicity, rolled her eyes at that one."
"And it is no longer true." Seven kissed her way up along Janeway's arm. "You are mine, Kathryn Janeway."
Melting into the pillows with Seven in her arms, Janeway knew she had never been happier. In the midst of a dangerous mission that might yet blow up in their faces, she was content to be just where she was—as long as Seven was there with her.
"Sleep now, Kathryn," Seven murmured and settled in next to her, her arm protectively around her. "I have you."
"Yes." Kathryn turned her head and buried her face into Seven's silky hair. "You do."