DISCLAIMER: I don't even own this computer! I do not claim to own these characters either. They will be returned unharmed.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: To my beautiful and wonderful girlfriend and partner, Tiff, who not only gave me this original idea but patiently listened to it on the phone and beta-ed it on the fly, laughing in all the right places and generally making it--and my life on a daily basis--much, much better.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL: To Six of One.
Half Dozen of Another
Rillo Verk, a Ghiriti merchant trader currently in residence on Parvala Station, looked up from the completion of his latest transaction and groaned. Had he been quicker, he could have made it out the bolt-hole he'd installed in the back room--but he was old and fat and besides, there was nowhere that Human female could not find him. He'd learned that very early on. If he'd've been smarter, he would never have gotten involved with her in the first place but her initial request had seemed so harmless and she was--let's face it--very easy on the eye.
That eye now swiveled on its stalk, looking in vain for something to busy himself with that would save him from whatever impossible task she had for him now. There was nothing, of course. It had been a slow day in his little shop and he would hardly need to straighten it when he finally closed the doors for the evening. He was looking forward to a small meal and a relaxing--or mostly relaxing now that the damned teminara was back--evening in a tub of warm slime. His tentacles were feeling a bit dry. However, it seemed he'd have to assist this Seven woman yet again before he could retreat to his quarters on Level Three.
"Rillo Verk," said the woman sternly. "I require your assistance. Again."
"Oh?" he replied, seemingly nonchalant. He drummed several tentacles on the counter that separated them. "Did the bhurts not work out?"
"They performed...adequately," replied the tall blonde, her features twisting into a look of thoughtful distaste. Though they were nowhere near as elegant or as beautiful as the images of the swans that she had seen, the seven bhurts had seemed to enjoy B'Elanna's bathtub immensely. They had purred and warbled and paddled around in the tepid water quite contentedly, happily preening themselves and each other while Seven had watched, and she'd had no misgivings about leaving them unattended until B'Elanna could discover them. In fact, it wasn't until a shocked B'Elanna Torres had discovered them--followed by much shouting and cursing--that their claws had come out and Seven understood from several sources that the resultant affray had left the lieutenant with a number of superficial wounds. Seven felt deeply sorry for the unexpected outcome but it had not dampened her enthusiasm for her project by one molecule. One way or another, Seven would provide the young Klingon with the Christmas treasures she so richly deserved.
"So you require something new, then?" asked Verk. Had Seven been more conversant in Ghiriti physiology, she would have recognized the obvious signs of apprehension in the merchant trader. Although he didn't know it yet, he had good cause to be concerned: Seven had reached Day Eight, perhaps the most perplexing of all in the list of gifts.
"Yes," she said, consulting the PADD she carried once more. No matter how she analyzed the day's required gift, she could not make sense of it. But she supposed she did not have to understand it for it to hold the proper significance. "I require eight unmarried lactating mothers. You must assist me in locating them."
"What makes you so sure it is Seven of Nine, B'Elanna?" asked Kathryn Janeway from her Ready Room replicator. "Coffee, hot, black," she ordered, gratified when the coveted liquid appeared without any unexpected extras. Though hesitant to say it aloud, she was extremely relieved that she was not the target of this particular effort. Whatever its ultimate end.
"She's the only person on this ship--no, probably in the whole Delta Quadrant--who could have bastardized Borg algorithms that way, Captain. She had that entire tree--and its little friend--transported directly into Engineering and there isn't a single byte of evidence of it in our logs. I've had Carey and Vorik over every log twice and they can't even account for the amount of energy that had to have been used, let alone have they found any proof that the transporter was even active during that time!"
Janeway took a sip of her coffee before sitting behind her desk. "Have you tried talking to her? Asking if it's her handiwork?"
B'Elanna deflated against the back of the chair in which she sat, crossing her arms over her chest and frowning. "I can't even find her! She doesn't answer my hails and she's rigged her comm badge to bounce its signal randomly so that it can't be tracked. Short of scanning the entire station for her implant signatures, I don't know what else to do!"
"Hmmm. That does rather implicate her, doesn't it?" mused the redhead. "Have you considered why she might be doing this?"
B'Elanna snorted. "To drive me crazy? I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine."
Janeway put her lucky cup down on the desk and smiled gently. "Tell me how your relationship has been with Seven lately. I had understood that you two were getting along much better...?" She phrased the last as a question, hoping to draw out her standoffish officer.
"Yeah, I guess," admitted the young Klingon, somewhat grudgingly. "She's very...well...there's a lot going on underneath that icy exterior, you know? Her sense of humor is so dry and sharp, it should be considered a lethal weapon. And she really loves Voyager. I know that sounds odd, but I guess I didn't see it for what it was before. I just thought she was trying to prove she was better than me but those improvements she's always bringing to me in Engineering? She really wants to help, to make things better. And don't even get me started on how she is with Icheb and Naomi!"
"Why would that sound odd, B'Elanna? That she loves Voyager?" Kathryn knew the answer her chief engineer would give but she wanted her to say it out loud. Sometimes an epiphany needed a little push from a friend.
"I didn't think she was capable of that type of emotion, to be honest. Not until I saw it with my own two eyes, anyway."
"And would you say that Seven loves Icheb and Naomi?" Why did she suddenly sound like a ship's counselor? Was the tone of voice something they acquired with their training? She'd have to ponder that later.
"Are you kidding? Of course!" B'Elanna's conviction was almost palpable. "I may not have recognized it at first--I mean, she's not exactly what you would call 'orthodox' in her ways of expressing it--but she loves those kids right down to the iron molecules in their blood! In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if she knew how many of those each of them had at any given moment." Suddenly the Klingon woman frowned. "Wait a minute--why are you asking about Seven and love? What does that have to do with all this craziness she's up to?"
Janeway shrugged and sat back in her chair. "The lyrics are 'On the nth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...'"
B'Elanna Torres' complexion turned an interesting shade of deathly white. "Are you saying...?" She swallowed heavily. "Seven...loves...me?"
Voyager's captain raised both her hands in a gesture of caution. "I'm saying, B'Elanna, that maybe her friendship for you has grown into something she is not at all familiar with. Perhaps it's just infatuation, perhaps it's something more. As you said, she's not exactly conventional. She probably doesn't know how to go about showing you that her feelings have changed."
"So she's stealing trees and putting aquatic felines in my bathtub?" she asked weakly. Unconsciously, she ran her fingers over a spot on her forehead that had been a series of deep scratches yesterday...until the Doctor had fixed her up. If she never saw another bhurt for as long as she lived, it'd still be too soon. She wondered if she'd ever again be able to use the bathtub without remembering that yowling, hissing cacophony.
Janeway's eyes twinkled. "Well, yes and no. In her mind, perhaps, she's courting you but she's doing it in her own way. Adapting traditional methods to the resources she has at hand." She chuckled warmly. "You have to admit...it's purely Seven."
B'Elanna reluctantly smiled at that. "Yeah, it is."
"Can I ask how you feel about the possibility of Seven courting you?" The question was deceptively light. Underscoring the casual tone was the definite edge of a protective streak being carefully restrained.
A blush darkened the Klingon engineer's cheeks. "I can't say that I've never thought about it, Captain. I mean, she's gorgeous and brilliant and everything anyone could ever want, right?" She looked away, a shadow of something shading her eyes. "I just never thought..." She shook her head softly, a look of wonder coming over her features.
"Never thought what, B'Elanna?"
The younger woman raised her head and looked directly into her captain's eyes, a gentle, self-conscious smile tugging at her lips. "I never thought it would be me," she said. There was no pain in the declaration, only simple honesty.
Kathryn Janeway had not become captain of a Federation starship by being indiscriminate with her emotions and, therefore, she had a good handle on them at any given moment. However, the naked truth of B'Elanna's admission made her heart ache to know that this brilliant, beautiful, strong woman would still harbor such a distorted sense of self that she would feel unworthy of someone's regard. She cleared her throat in an effort to disguise how deeply she'd been touched.
"Well, it seems the two of you need to have a little talk," she said, a little too brightly. "Maybe the key here is not tracking Seven down but rather the next thing on her list. Get one step ahead of her, so to speak."
"That's a good Klingon tactic, Captain," agreed B'Elanna, grinning. "So what does the eighth day of Christmas usually bring?"
Janeway hummed to herself for a moment and B'Elanna heard the muttered phrase 'seven bhurts a-swimming' before the captain stopped abruptly and looked up sharply, her features paling significantly. "Oh God, B'Elanna! It's 'eight maids a-milking!'"
"WHAT? What the Hell does that mean?" B'Elanna held the arms of her chair with a death grip, more in response to her captain's distress than the words that she'd just said.
"Milk maids! Women who harvest milk from bovines by manually stimulating their teats!" When B'Elanna gave her a horrified blank look, she added, "I was raised on a farm, remember? Though I've never milked a cow. Mom used to, I think, when she was younger but there are machines to do that so I've never--"
"Wait! Seven will never find a cow on the station, will she? What are the odds that there's some sort of bovine--"
Janeway bolted out of her chair. "You're forgetting that Seven has probably never heard of a cow, B'Elanna. She's probably interpreting the phrase in purely Human terms!"
Now it was the Klingon's turn to bolt out of her chair. "Kahless' argyle socks! Captain, we have to find her. Right now!"
"You'll get no argument out of me, Lieutenant. I think it's time we used your last resort option."
"Scanning the station for her implant signatures?"
Janeway nodded. "And let's do this as quietly as possible, shall we? I don't want the entire ship knowing that Seven is out there rounding up lactating females from the station. Engineering?"
"Astrometrics," countered the engineer. "No one's on duty there because we're docked but it has the most advanced sensor array."
Janeway nodded. "After you."
As the two women hurried through the minimally-staffed bridge, their progress was noted by Tuvok, who had the conn. When Seven of Nine had first been brought on board, he'd contemplated the many ramifications of severing her from the Borg hive mind. Knowing the chaos that Humans often made manifest, he'd predicted that an ex-Borg might unleash an entirely different phenomenon. One he had no name for. It appeared that his prediction had come true and he noted it in his personal files. Though he would never show it, he was highly gratified. If Seven kept to her current schedule, he should have no problem winning the B'Elanna Torres/Seven of Nine Relationship Pool.
Logic, once again, had prevailed.
Rillo Verk fluttered nervously next to the Human female, wringing his tentacles together while his eye stalk swiveled back and forth. There was something terribly wrong, he knew, about gathering unwed mothers to be presented to someone as a gift but somehow he just couldn't deny Seven of Nine. He'd already aided and abetted her in the theft of several of the station's protected flora and fauna, he rationalized. What would one more unusual request hurt?
"There are twelve days of Christmas," said Seven as she inspected the small knot of women and babies before her. "Not eight. I will require your assistance further, Rillo Verk. Tomorrow we must locate nine women of title or rank who engage in ritual movement to music. You have done well assisting me in procuring the eight unmarried lactating mothers."
The Ghiriti merchant trader stared at Seven with barely concealed horror. What kind of barbarous, cruel, and hateful holy day--or days--would require the giving of such a list of gifts? The recipient, he decided, must be a being of such unmatched greed and nefarious consumption as to be unquenchable. For the first time, Rillo Verk felt pity for Seven of Nine. He wondered what the punishment would be for her if she could not fulfill the complete Christmas list.
"I should rest in preparation for our work tomorrow, Seven of Nine. Is there anything further you require of me tonight?" Mentally, he was tallying his profit from the last eight revolutions, wondering if he'd made enough to validate packing up his little frigate and heading back to Ghiri IV. He could be on his way within the click.
"No, she doesn't," said a voice from behind Seven, effectively forestalling the young Borg's response. B'Elanna Torres stepped out of the shadows and put her hand on Seven's forearm. At first surprised that B'Elanna had found her so quickly, Seven was now distraught, her head bowed in such an unadulterated image of inadequacy it made the Klingon's redundant hearts both ache.
"I have not completed the list," she said quietly, her eyes averted. B'Elanna leaned forward to catch her gaze.
"The list is irrelevant," she replied, a soft smile touching her lips. "You have my attention. Let these--" She looked at the multi-species group of females and grimaced slightly. "Er--let these mothers return to their homes." She then glanced at the Ghiriti trader, who seemed torn between morbid curiosity and the need to flee. "And your friend, too. We need to talk."
Reluctantly, Seven nodded to the eight females and they dispersed without a word, shuffling away in multiple directions. She then turned her azure gaze upon Rillo Verk. "Thank you for your assistance," she said to the Ghiriti trader. "You have been most helpful. You may go."
Almost yellow with worry, Verk gently touched Seven's arm with several of his dry tentacles. "I'm sorry I was not more helpful. Be well, Seven of Nine."
"Be well, Rillo Verk." She watched as he squelched away down the corridor, his eye stalk swiveling back to glance at her a number of times. When he was gone, she faced the diminutive engineering chief and squared her shoulders. "I--"
B'Elanna raised her hand. "Not here, Seven. Let's go somewhere quiet. And comfortable." She looked around the empty warehouse district and shook her head. "And warmer. Where are we, anyway?"
"Food Storage level 3A. Frozen foods." Seven cocked her head in confusion. "Rillo Verk believed we would be safer here. He seemed to fear discovery."
"Smart--er--what species was he?"
"Rillo Verk is a Horska from Ghiri IV. They are the secondary species there, inhabiting approximately 37% of the planet's surface, much of it swamp-like. The predominate species of Ghiri IV is the Bonded Whelm. They are--"
"Forget I asked," muttered B'Elanna. "Let's just go back to the main promenade, okay? There's a little place on C-Level that serves a great drink called the White Space. I need one--or five. We can talk there."
Terrified of what the beautiful Klingon hybrid had to say but unable to determine an efficient mode of escape, Seven had no choice but to comply. "As you wish, B'Elanna Torres," she said sadly.
Finally seated at the little cafe and with drinks on the way, B'Elanna turned her full attention toward Seven of Nine. She noted the anxious rigidity of the young blonde's posture, the tiny lines of apprehension around her big blue eyes, the minuscule tremor of her hands... She wanted to put her at ease but realized that was probably beyond her abilities at the moment. Her own belly fluttered helplessly, resistant to all orders to the contrary.
"So, today's the eighth day of Christmas, huh?" she asked.
The server chose that moment to present their drinks--a double White Space for B'Elanna and a non-alcoholic fruit punch for Seven--then left quickly, sensing the awkwardness of the moment.
"Sounds like the list was getting...more complicated..."
Seven nodded emphatically, relieved that the lieutenant recognized her quandary. "It was."
B'Elanna ran her finger around the rim of her glass and looked into its depths. "Well," she began hesitantly. "How about we make this easier on the both of us? Since it's the eighth day of Christmas, we'll ask eight questions--four each. I'll start." She gulped most of her drink in one swallow, thumped the glass on the table, and threw caution to the wind. "Is this your way of...courting me, Seven?"
Seven's sky blue eyes became wide with shock. If she had ever required irrefutable proof that the beautiful engineer was the most brilliant being she had ever known, she now had it. "Yes," she answered succinctly. She had no need to dissemble now. Whatever the lieutenant felt, it was a relief simply to have her intentions known.
B'Elanna, for her part, blinked a few times and downed the last of her drink, signaling their server for another. "Okay," she said. "Good." She tried hard not to let her voice waver. "Your turn," she said, bracing herself for whatever was to come.
"Were you seriously injured during the altercation with the bhurts, Lieutenant?"
B'Elanna was intensely grateful for the arrival of her second drink. Of all the questions she had expected, this one wasn't even on the list. And Seven seemed so earnestly concerned, it tore at B'Elanna's hearts. "First, call me B'Elanna. When we're off duty, I want you to call me B'Elanna, okay?" When Seven had nodded in the affirmative, she continued with her answer. "And no, I wasn't seriously injured by the bhurts. A few tiny scratches, that's all," she said, reaching across the table to cover Seven's pale, Borg-enhanced hand with her own. "The Doc fixed me up good as new." She left her hand where it was and asked her next question. "Seven, what is the significance of the dates etched into the rings?"
The young Borg struggled to answer, the sensation of B'Elanna's hand resting on her own causing a maelstrom of confusing and distracting emotions to swirl in her head and heart. "The first stardate corresponds to the first day I ever saw you," she explained. "The subsequent dates are simply every day I have been fortunate enough to know you." She made the declaration so matter-of-factly--without guile or ego or any ulterior motive--that it took B'Elanna's breath away. When B'Elanna made no response, Seven looked up. "I believe it is my turn. Why did you enter into a romantic relationship with Tom Paris?"
B'Elanna's bark of laughter was sharp and self-deprecating. "Stupidity. Pure and simple. I was lonely and he was persistent. It didn't take us long to find out we were better suited as friends. We still are--thank Kahless. Friends, I mean." She took a small sip of her drink and looked askance at the young Borg. "Why? Were you jealous?"
Seven's face narrowed and sharpened so quickly, it startled the Klingon and she sat back.
"I'm not sure. I felt him unworthy of you...so much so that I often entertained fantasies of killing him. Your honor demanded a worthier mate but still you continued to fraternize with...him. I did not understand your choice or my reaction to it. If that is jealousy, then yes, I was jealous." She blinked and took a sip of her own mild drink. As suddenly as the animosity had appeared, it melted away. To be replaced by a shyness and hesitancy B'Elanna had not ever seen before in the ex-Borg.
"B'Elanna Torres," began Seven, unconsciously reverting to the more formal mode of addressing the Klingon. "Am I... Do you find...me...worthy?"
She glanced up with such hope and such trepidation painted in those cobalt blue eyes that it took every iota of willpower B'Elanna possessed to keep her from simply leaning across the table and kissing her. Instead, she tightened her hold on Seven's hand. "Yes," she answered raggedly. "Which brings me to my last question. Seven, will you do me the honor of being my date for the Twelfth Day of Christmas Dinner Neelix is planning?"
Neither Janeway nor she should have ever thought there'd be any way to keep the identity of the prankster or the reasons for her shenanigans from the crew at large. And once Neelix found out...well...a party couldn't be far behind.
"Yes," replied Seven without hesitation. She held tight to the young Klingon's hand and B'Elanna could feel the tremors of those long, pale fingers increasing. But Seven was resolute. "Yes," she repeated, uncharacteristically redundant. "I will."
B'Elanna grinned, charmed. "Good," she said, raising her glass to her lips. "I think you have one question left, don't you?"
Seven thought for a moment then asked, "How long must we wait before we engage in recreational copulation?"
Only after B'Elanna had finally stopped spluttering, the servers had cleaned up the spilled drinks, and they'd settled their bill and left did Seven realize she had not received an answer to her inquiry.
On the ninth day of Christmas, Seven and B'Elanna took nine turns around the gardens of the Taj Mahal in the Holodeck, holding hands and engaging in possibly the longest conversation either of them had ever had with another living soul. The sun set on their ninth revolution and the sky exploded around them in shades of amber and gold, russet and plum. When the indigo night finally extinguished the sun's dying light and stars blinked into existence as if opening their sleepy eyes, B'Elanna leaned into Seven's side and gazed upon the ivory wonder of the palace, brightly lit against the inky darkness. Seven, for her part, could hardly breathe and it had nothing to do with the beauty of the Taj Mahal but everything to do with the touch of the woman next to her.
On the tenth day of Christmas, B'Elanna and Seven repaired ten malfunctioning gel packs from a jeffries tube under deck six. Working conditions were cramped and uncomfortable and the air was stale but neither of them noticed. They shared myriad shy glances and found infinitesimal reasons to brush against one another in the pursuit of their duties. It may not have been the quickest or most efficient repair ever done on Voyager, but it was probably the most thorough. Susan Nicoletti, who was working on a malfunctioning wall panel nearby, greeted them with a low wolf whistle when they emerged from the conduit and was completely ignored.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, each woman chose and discarded eleven outfits to wear on their imminent date and each finally abandoned their solitary ordeal to seek the advice of friends. The Doctor, with his impeccable taste--well, more or less--assisted Seven with her attire while Neelix and Sam Wildman assisted B'Elanna with hers. When both women finally succumbed to sleep--or, in Seven's case, regeneration--that night, they did so fully confident in their choices of clothing...if nothing else. B'Elanna wondered if Seven was as nervous as she was and almost laughed out loud when Seven contacted her over the ship's communication network to pose that exact question, but in reverse.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, B'Elanna Torres arrived at the doors to Cargo Bay 2 at exactly 1825 hours, her hearts in her throat and her belly full of drunken Delta Flyers. She smoothed the front of her short, ruby red, off-the-shoulder cocktail dress one last time before stepping forward to trigger the doors. Standing just on the other side, waiting nervously, was the most beautiful woman B'Elanna had ever seen.
Seven wore a V-necked, sleeveless black dress that fell mid-thigh. Her long, honey-colored hair was unbound and fell in gentle waves around her shoulders. She wore a strand of delicate seed pearls around her throat, her long fingers fidgeting with them uneasily.
B'Elanna tried to breathe. "Merry Christmas to me!" she muttered to herself but Seven heard and charmed the young Klingon even further by blushing hotly.
"You look...beautiful, B'Elanna," said Seven shyly. She opened her mouth to say more but nothing further issued forth. "So...beautiful," she repeated, reaching for but not quite touching the young Klingon's cheek. Seven suddenly dropped her hand back to her side, looking at it with shock--as if it had moved of its own volition.
Recognizing that they both needed a little grounding, B'Elanna held out her hand to Seven. "Shall we go to dinner?"
The young ex-Borg took the lieutenant's hand gratefully, entwining her longer fingers with B'Elanna's shorter, darker ones. "Yes, please." Perhaps once she was in the familiar company of her friends and colleagues, her heart would stop pounding like it was now and she could catch her breath.
They rode the turbolift in silence, hand in hand, each of them glancing shyly at the other, wondering how they could possibly deserve the other's company. When they arrived outside the Mess Hall, B'Elanna held Seven back for a moment. The taller woman gazed down quizzically at her beautiful date.
"Seven, we're kinda going to be the center of attention in there and I want you to know a couple of things before we go inside, okay?" She tightened her hold on Seven's hand. "First, I am honored to have you as my date tonight. I never imagined--not in a million years--that you would choose me but I am so very glad you did. And second, if you feel at all uncomfortable in there, just hold onto me, okay? If it gets too bad, tell me and we'll leave. We'll go back to my place, or something, and have a nice dinner alone. We don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"I want to stay, B'Elanna. Because I'll be with you." She smiled at the Klingon woman, who grinned back.
"Ready?" asked B'Elanna, squaring her shoulders.
"Ready," confirmed Seven, aligning her impossible posture.
They entered the Mess Hall hand in hand to the sound of thunderous applause and many cheers. B'Elanna rolled her eyes at the display only to catch sight of something on the ceiling.
Above them, attached to every square inch of the Mess Hall's ceiling, was an unbroken field of mistletoe.
"I will kill Neelix," she growled, narrowing her eyes. "Where is he?" She looked around the room, hoping to see the diminutive morale officer in the milling, roiling crowd.
"Neelix did not arrange this particular decoration, B'Elanna."
"How do you know?" asked the Klingon, still searching the crowd. He had to be there, somewhere. She would find him.
"Because I did."
When Seven's words finally sank in, B'Elanna looked up into twinkling cerulean eyes. "You?" she squeaked.
Seven nodded. "I found other Christmas traditions to be more to my liking than procuring a list of obscure and incomprehensible gifts," she explained.
"Oh?" Then realization struck the engineer like lightning. Tongue-tied, she stared at the suddenly smiling Borg.
"May I have this kiss, B'Elanna Torres?" asked Seven softly, her eyes half-lidded with desire.
Seven cupped B'Elanna's cheek with trembling fingers and dipped down to press soft pink lips to B'Elanna's darker ones. At first tentative and searching, the kiss suddenly caught fire and B'Elanna pulled Seven closer, twining her fingers in strands of honey-gold to hold the taller woman in place while she plundered her sweet, hot mouth. The Mess Hall once again detonated into a cacophony of cheering and applause. When they parted, Seven rested her forehead against B'Elanna's ridges and sighed.
"Merry Christmas, B'Elanna," she whispered, leaning close to the smaller woman's ear so she could be heard above the din.
B'Elanna caught those intoxicating cherry-pink lips in another sizzling kiss and whispered back, "Merry Christmas, Seven." With a wicked grin, she added, "Next year, I want jewelry."
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