DISCLAIMER: Paramount owns Trek and the people we play with; Dickens owned the others. No money earned.
NOTES: For the fussy among you: It was GREEN in the original, and the Stardate is made up! This is my Christmas gift to all you lovely people at VJB (keep the receipt in case you don't like it!) and I wish you all a happy holiday. By the way, this was inspired by a Christmas Challenge but I don't recall whose. Thanks anyway!

The Ice Melts
By alastria7

"But Christmas is a part of your heritage, Seven," the Captain patiently explained, fervently wishing now that Harry hadn't raised the subject at the end of the morning meeting. Seven had hung back as the others departed and, overheard by B'Elanna had asked the Captain for her thoughts on the season. As the idea of the ex-Borg taking in this information seemed to fascinate B'Elanna, she had stayed behind also. Twenty minutes later, however, explaining Christmas to Seven was not proving an easy thing to do.

"But I fail to see why placing a dying tree in the Mess Hall, dressing it in over-shiny objects and singing around it while it dies is a good thing to do," stated Seven.

"Because it's tradition, and it's fun," the Captain said wearily.

"Fun!" counteracted Seven with a very slight smile. "Fun is a concept the Borg had very little if no time for."

It was obvious to two of the three people in the Conference Room that this present discussion about Christmas and its part in Seven's life was going nowhere. Placing two hands on the table before her, Kathryn pushed her seat back and got to her feet. "I blame Harry for all of this," she said with feeling.

"For Christmas?" asked B'Elanna, disbelievingly.

"No, silly," chided Kathryn gently, "for putting the idea in Seven's head that she should try to celebrate the season."

"Oh, that."

Seven sat starting from woman to woman, still no nearer to knowing what her involvement in Christmas was about although, by now, the religious significance and the 'trimmings' had been explained to her. She looked over to the Captain, who was now standing gazing out at the stars with her back to the others. Still needing clarification she said, "Captain, please explain why I should feel the need to stand around a dying tree, and be nice to everyone."

Her Captain sighed and turned around to face her; putting her hands behind her back Kathryn leaned against the window, and tried once again to get through to her annoyingly enchanting crewmember. "Seven, I've explained Earth's religious significance as well as the festivities that we practice on board ship, for those who wish to partake. What else can I tell you?"

"You might explain why it's deemed necessary to express excess fondness for fellow crewmembers on Christmas day."

"Because we are showing that we care for them, Seven," the Captain explained, practically devoid of all feeling by now. Moving with some purpose towards the replicator she placed a semi-desperate order for a much-needed brew. She raised her eyebrows in a silent question to the others and, as B'Elanna and Seven declined, Kathryn wrapped both hands gratefully around the steaming hot coffee and stared at Seven, sure it would not all end there.

"But, why choose one day for these demonstrations, couldn't we show that we care and give them gifts throughout the year?"

"That'd be nice, Seven," answered B'Elanna, "but people don't usually tell each other how much they care in daily life."

"Perhaps they should."

"Yeah, you're right. But they don't, OK? So Christmas is nice."

"And the dying tree?"

B'Elanna and the Captain both sighed heavily, looking at each other for moral support in their frustration. "I think we might be missing the point here," the Captain explained, "Seven, Christmas is about love, it's about unconditional love; forgiveness; giving and receiving; remembering that someone was born once who came to teach us how to love."

B'Elanna looked impressed with the Captain's simplicity after all this time of trying to explain the details.

"Then I shall have to forgo the celebrations, Captain," answered Seven with conviction.

Why, Seven?"

"Because the bulk of my life has been spent with the Borg, and love was not part of their curriculum. I am unqualified." Seven got up, turned around and left the room.

"But," objected Kathryn to her receding back.

"Don't waste your breath, Captain. Some things can't be altered. You had a good try, though."

"Oh, I'm not about to give up on her, Lieutenant."

There was no argument about that and B'Elanna said, "Yeah, well. I'll see you later," leaving Kathryn wondering how to integrate Seven and Christmas: it would be two days and a lot more coffee before she realised she was hatching a plan.

"Janeway to Lieutenant Torres."

"Here Captain."

"B'Elanna, are you free tonight?"

"Sure, why?"

"Some of us are meeting in my quarters later, to discuss the `Getting Seven in the Christmas Spirit' problem. Are you in?"

"I wouldn't miss it, Captain. What time?"


"See you later. Torres out."

If Seven of Nine had noticed anything recently it was that in the past few days, whenever she approached any of the Bridge crew or Lieutenant Torres, they smiled in a knowing sort of way. Whenever she enquired as to why this was, she was told she was imagining things and the subject was quickly changed. She wondered, at times like this, if she would ever understand people.

Her shift in Astrometrics over, Seven headed off to Cargo Bay 2. Today was what the crew called `Christmas Eve' and the singing of carols around the tree in the Mess Hall would take place soon for those who wished to attend, with a festive party following. With the Captain's surprising approval, she had excused herself and would now use the time to study some padds of recent star system additions and then regenerate.

"Is everything set?" Chakotay enquired of the Captain.

"Relax," said B'Elanna, "we all know what to do."

The Captain nodded her agreement to that statement and then left her small huddle of partygoers and moved further down the Mess Hall to approach Tom, who was in the process of chatting up a rather pretty young woman. Placing a hand on Tom's arm, she excused herself to the woman and asked, "Transporters and Holodeck all standing by?"

"Yes ma'am."

"'Til a quarter to midnight then, Mr Paris," she said as she smiled her apologies once more to the pretty ensign and departed. Returning to the others, she looked around the static faces and said, "We have a few hours before we go into action, what say we enjoy ourselves?"

"Is that an order, Captain," smiled Chakotay.

"I'd say it is."

Seven could have sworn someone had touched her. However, quick sweep around the Cargo Bay, with the computer confirming her status as the only occupant, assured her she was definitely alone. Her regeneration cycle had been interrupted and she couldn't understand why. Quickly and efficiently, she ran a diagnostic of her alcove, to be met with an assurance from the Computer that all was well.

Frowning, Seven stepped back towards her alcove and was about to attempt to regenerate once again when she heard the sound behind her. Turning, the ex-Borg let out a gasp of surprise for there, before her, was what could only be termed as `a vision'.

The `vision' was that of a Borg drone but completely grey in colour and translucent; she could actually see the stored containers right through it. A giant chain was coiled all around the spectre's `body' with heavy weights hanging from it, weights that dragged along the floor, impeding its slow but certain movement towards her.

Seven tapped her combadge. "Intruder alert, Cargo Ba."

"They will not hear you," boomed the spectre, "it has been disconnected."

"Wh - Who are you?" asked Seven, clearly unnerved, "and what do you want with me?"

"We represent the combined spirit of the innocent beings that make up the Borg. It has come to our attention that you need our help."

"I don't understand."

"We have come that we might help you to turn your life around, so that you may be freed of a loveless, joyless, humourless existence and know at last an open heart. With such a heart you may experience love - the true spirit of Christmas.

"I am grateful for your concern, but I assure you."

"And we assure you, Seven of Nine, we shall not leave until we tell you all that we have come to say."

"Then you had better proceed," agreed Seven, looking around the Cargo Bay and showing in her body language a slight annoyance at this being's insistence.

"This night, you will be visited by three spectres," delivered the apparition, slowly backing away towards the far wall of the Cargo Bay as it spoke. "Expect the first at midnight. The second will come at 01.00 and the third." as it spoke of the third, it was already disappearing through the Cargo Bay wall, "the third will come shortly after. Watch for them."

Seven stared at the area of the wall where the apparition had passed through it. She was a discerning creature, possessed of sound mind and reasoning, but she could not for the life of her work out what she had just seen. She considered reporting to the Doctor until she remembered he would probably be at the party: if he had gone to `enjoy' himself, she certainly had no wish to draw him away over something she could barely explain.

Seven reasoned that as the computer had failed to register an intruder, it must have been her mind's work and therefore no threat to the ship. Walking back to her alcove, she stepped gratefully inside the known state and entered oblivion.

"Oh, well done Tom. It looked so real. I'm sure she was taken in," Kathryn congratulated. "How did you do it?"

"Simple projection, Captain. What's she doing now?" Tom asked over the com. from Engineering, as he busied himself with the next part of their programme.

Kathryn studied the viewscreen on her desk in the Ready Room. Minute cameras had been set up in the Cargo Bay and on Holodeck 1 so the Captain could monitor Seven's reactions. "She's moving back to her alcove, she's going to continue regenerating."

"Good," cut in B'Elanna, interrupting Tom's reply to the Captain. Her engineering space seemed full with Tom in it, and she jostled to get nearer to the com. "Let her begin the cycle again; she has no concept of time in there and we've set the computer to give her a false reading if she tries to ask." B'Elanna was referring to the fact that they would be bringing the three spectres reasonably close together and not at hourly intervals, thus ensuring they all got to sleep at a reasonable hour.

"OK," agreed the Captain. "By the way Harry," she said to the ensign at her elbow, "that was a great device for waking her. Who'd have thought a jet of air aimed at her face would be enough to do the trick."

"Just ask me, Captain," glowed Harry, loving the praise.

"OK everyone, stand by," barked the Captain into the com "Tom, make your way to the Holodeck control room and join us on this comlink. Are you sure you can transport her to the Holodeck without her waking?"

"Uh, no, actually," cut in B'Elanna, "but we'll do our best. It wouldn't really matter if she did wake so soon. We're ready."

"Well then people, let's do it!"

Once again, within a short space of time, Seven was aware that she was awake. "Computer, what time is it?" she questioned.

The time is midnight

Seven looked around nervously. She'd hoped that what she'd seen earlier would be all she would see. Stepping away from her alcove, she became aware of a light growing brighter in the room, causing her to place a hand in front of her eyes to shield them from it. "Who is there?" she asked.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past. I am come that you might see the Christmases of old and be reminded of your joy at those times." The light slowly eased enough for Seven to be able to look at the spectre: she saw a female form in a long white dress, with light exuding from its face and head. "Take my hand," it said.

Seven was about to object - she didn't understand any of this, or why this being had come to her, but something within her ached to see her past and so, cautiously, she reached forward and took the hand that was offered to her.

Suddenly the Cargo Bay around Seven changed into a living room with a large Christmas tree in the corner, lit up with coloured lights, with a man and woman sitting on the floor before it. The woman turned her head and gestured for a child nearby to join her. Seven watched as the child ran over to the woman and received a hug before being handed a large colourfully wrapped box.

"From the files recovered from `The Raven', I know this to be my home in the Tendara colony, and these are my parents." Seven stared at the spectre, "How is this possible?"

"All things are possible in love, child," answered the spectre as Seven continued watching the child rip open the box to discover a pair of ice skates.

"Oh, I remember those!" shouted Seven, who covered her mouth quickly. "Can they hear us?"

"Neither hear nor see. We are invisible to them as we are not of their time."

"I understand, I have had some temporal training."

Seven watched as the child clambered ungraciously across her mother to hug her father, who was still on the floor beside them. "Oh, papa, they are so beautiful. Thank you, thank you. Thank you mother."

"You're welcome, my love," said little Annika's father, hugging his daughter warmly. "If the rink is open tomorrow, I'll take you skating then."

"Oooohhh, Daddy, will you?"

Magnus looked at his little girl and met eyes as blue as his own. "If you're good, poppet."

"I will be," promised Annika as she left her father's arms and delved into a pile of gifts under the tree. "This is for you," she said proudly, holding out a small package to her mother.

"Oh, darling. Thank you," said Erin, taking the package and unwrapping it carefully. Seven watched and, knowing what would come from the box, she held her breath as did the child Annika. "Oh Anni, it's beautiful," cried Erin as she held the wooden pendant towards her husband so that he could see, knowing full well he must have helped Annika to carve it. "I love it. I shall love it forever," she said, taking her child in her arms and hugging her thoroughly.

Seven watched the scene before her. It had brought a lump to her throat as she'd begun to remember the love that had abounded in that house, and the joy she had felt often in her young life. It was a far cry from the woman she was today, and a bittersweet tear escaped from her human eye in response.

"Time to move on," said the spectre, touching Seven's arm. The scene around them changed again to the inside of the `The Raven', the deep space vehicle on course to meet the Borg. It was another Christmas Day but the scene was very different. The child, Annika, was alone in her room as her parents worked on calculations and processing data they had received earlier in the day.

"Papa? Mother? I'm lonely, come and play with me," asked little Annika from the doorway of the small Bridge.

"We're busy right now, poppet," answered Magnus. Erin turned her head towards her child to give an apologetic smile and added, "We'll come and see you soon. Go back to your room and play with your new things, there's a good girl." Both parents turned back to give their full attention to the work in hand, as little Annika studied them sadly for a while and then returned to her room. Sitting on the bed, she dragged a large stuffed toy to her and hugged it under her chin as her tears silently fell on its fur.

"The girl is far away from home and separated from her friends, and her family is not available to her. In effect, she is alone," said the spectre to Seven. "Weep for her, if the tears will come."

"Please, take me away," said Seven, in a quiet voice. "I have seen enough: her hurt is too close to who I am today."

The spectre looked gently upon the pain in the woman's eyes and took pity on her. Waving its hand around in an arc, the view suddenly reverted to that of the Cargo Bay and Seven slumped at the foot of her alcove and wept, alone again.

"Do you think we've gone too far?" asked the Captain worriedly, through the comlink in her Ready Room.

"If it doesn't hit home, it's not going to work," said Harry softly, standing behind his Captain as she sat, with his hand on her shoulder for moral support.

"I'm sure you're right," Kathryn answered, patting his hand, "but this isn't about hurting her."

"What's she doing, Captain?" asked B'Elanna who was busy altering and realigning some of the technology that was making this deception possible.

"She's crying, Lieutenant."

B'Elanna registered the Captain's hoarse voice, but answered, "I'm with Harry on this one. We have to hit her to make the impact."

"Well, I hope you're right. Tom?"

"Yes Ma'am," replied Tom, who had moved to the Holodeck control room.

"Stand by for the next part. Oh, and - you're doing a great job."

"It was all there for us Captain, on the padds and slides left by the Hansen's - only a matter of putting them into a Holodeck programme."

"Well done anyway. Stand by."

"Aye, Captain."

Seven's alcove had ceased to function yet again and her look of apprehension was immediate; she had no idea how long she had been `allowed' to regenerate this time. "Computer, what time is it?" she asked.

The time is 01.00

It wasn't long before Seven was protecting her eyes again as another flood of light hit the Cargo Bay. Squinting through her hand, she could make out a figure: a rather rotund gentleman with a long white beard, dressed in a flowing green robe decorated with white fur. "Seven of Nine," called the spectre, holding out its hand as the brightness eased.

Seven looked over at the apparition which, unlike the last, appeared solid. "Who are you?" she asked, "As the previous spirit was the Ghost of Christmas Past, am I to assume you the Ghost of Christmas Present?"

"How clever of you, my dear. I am. Come." It stretched out a hand towards Seven and, somewhat resigned, she stepped forward to take it. As she did so, the scene around them changed to the Mess Hall, with an obviously happy gathering of the crew seated around a festive meal.

"What day is this?"

"Why, it's Christmas Day, child."

Seven looked around the Mess Hall. Neelix was in his element, providing the food for all the people he held dear. Some tables had been pushed together where the Bridge crew had gathered and were now laughing, pulling crackers and opening gifts given in friendship and love. Squeals of joy abounded, as gratitude spilled out into the room.

"Oh, Chakotay!" Kathryn held up a fine, blue/grey long scarf, silk- like and soft, and put it against her face.

"There," he said happily, "I knew it would match your eyes."

"Oh! How did you manage such a thing!" asked an obviously delighted B'Elanna to Harry, as she pushed aside the wrappings and found her gift.

"No sweat, Maquis. I had Chakotay help me replicate it," he said of the perfect model of the Maquis ship that had brought B'Elanna to the Delta Quadrant. She held it lovingly in her hands.

"It's beautiful Starfleet, thanks."

Seven watched as gradually more gifts were opened. She could see the thought that had gone into them and the obvious delight they brought. Suddenly the Captain tapped a spoon against her glass as she remained seated and said, "I want to propose a toast, to all you wonderful people - who it is my total misfortune to be loose in the Delta Quadrant with - a toast, for a Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," they replied and they drank their toast, watched by some others in the Mess Hall, who tilted their glasses in the general direction of the Captain's table.

"And of course, there are others we have to remember on this day," Kathryn continued. Tuvok looked down, thinking of his family; Harry smiled as a picture of his parents' faces popped into his mind. Most of the crew had a face of a loved one in their minds. Kathryn herself was thinking of Mark, her mother and sister Phoebe.

B'Elanna was thinking of Seven. "I have a toast," she said. Looking at her, the others smiled in a questioning sort of way and raised their glasses in readiness once more. "To Seven of Nine."

Tom looked up sharply. "Well I'm not toasting her," he said, fending off the looks he was getting from those present at the table. "What! She'd hate this! She's always so scathing about such get-togethers. She totally ignores Christmas and scorns those of us who enjoy it."

"Because she doesn't know how to join in, Tom. If she could let her barriers down, you'd see a different Seven, I know. But you don't have to join in." B'Elanna raised her glass once more and said, "To our absent cewmember. I wish she could share in our joy one day." B'Elanna looked around the table and met a sea of nodding faces, even Tom's. "To Seven," she said again.

"To Seven," agreed the others and drank the toast.

Seven stared at B'Elanna, not understanding why she had received this level of attention from a woman who fought frequently with her. To all intents and purposes, this woman hated her. That she should do this. It touched Seven deeply, so deeply she'd reached out and held the sleeve of the spectre beside her, holding on to the being for comfort - and, even though it was a ghost, it did indeed comfort her.

The Captain was on her feet. She had asked for the attention of the entire room and was now speaking. "I'm sure we all wish to give our thanks to Neelix, for this wonderful food, provided to his usual high standard. A triumph, Neelix!" Everyone in the room began applauding the little Talaxian, whose face began to rival his more outrageously coloured suits.

"Thank you, everyone," he said before busying himself over the tidying up, helped by Sam Wildman and a few eager crewmembers.

"And thanks to each of you," the Captain continued, looking around the room, "for coming together in the spirit of Christmas, sharing with each other the fullness of our hearts on this special day. Bless you all, every one," said Kathryn, raising her glass to the room in general.

"It is indeed a warming sight," said Seven to the spectre by her side.

"Hum, what? Aren't you the one who said ` Happiness is Irrelevant'?" mentioned the spectre, airily.

"I thought it served no useful purpose," Seven explained quietly. "I was wrong."

"Well then girl, there's hope." The spectre clasped his hand to her back warmly. "If you had remained unaltered by these events, then all of this would have served no useful purpose."

The spectre's last words seemed to echo, as the room around Seven became once again the Cargo Bay. Wearily and in a somewhat reflective mood, Seven approached her alcove for the third time, knowing for certain this time that she would be interrupted again. She stepped up to assume her position, but was distracted by a dark shape and slight movement just out of the corner of her eye. Turning, she found herself staring in abject horror at the spectre before her.

"And you must be," Seven said, trying to keep her voice even, "the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come." The spectre, dressed in a flowing black robe with a cowl over its head so as to render its face unavailable to prying eyes, held out a long willowy index finger and pointed. "You wish me to go with you," Seven stated, "but I find myself afraid. Can you assure me I will remain emotionally undamaged?"

The spectre simply stood before Seven, as silent as the grave, and pointed until the frightened woman resigned herself to do its bidding. "I will comply," she said shakily, moving forward. As she did so, the scene around her changed: it was a room aboard Voyager, a room with a coffin in the corner of it, with a small group of people gathered around it.

"Well, somebody must read the words," said the Doctor.

"No-one liked her. I'm her Captain; I should do it," said Kathryn Janeway, moving forward and standing before the others.

"I have never heard the Captain speak ill of the dead. The woman I know would not do such a thing," Seven stated to the spectre, "and what does this scene have to do with me? Why have you brought me here?" The spectre simply stood, maintaining it's ominous silence and a shiver ran down Seven's back as she turned to watch the proceedings in the room. "Show me some feeling from these people connected to this poor wretch," she asked.

Listening further to the `ceremony', Seven became aware that the person in the coffin had been considered a problem to many present. "Why wasn't she nicer in life?" someone questioned of the others, "If she had been, we could feel a slight bit moved about her passing."

"I don't think there's a person aboard who she didn't upset," offered Tom Paris. "It would be hard to be anything but glad to see the back of her." This comment was met by various murmurings of agreement.

Seven turned to the spectre once again, the colour lacking in her face. "When I said show me some feeling, I didn't mean bad feeling. Is there anyone here with a kind word to say about her?"

The spectre stood silently and then raised its hand, pointing in a different direction. Seven's eyes followed and came upon B'Elanna Torres who was sitting on the floor with her back against a table, crying softly. "She cannot see me?" Seven asked of the spectre. Receiving no answer, she decided the rules must be the same as for the previous two ghosts and she walked softly over towards B'Elanna and squatted down beside her.

"I loved her so," sniffed B'Elanna, rocking slightly in her grief. "She never knew because she never opened up enough to let me in, and it's too late now. I should have confessed my love - maybe it might have changed her, changed this outcome."

B'Elanna sobbed from her centre and Seven's eyes clouded. Looking back at the spectre she pleaded, "Tell me of whom she speaks!" Wearily, she knew she would hear nothing in the way of explanation from the apparition as she stood and faced it. "There's nothing more I need to see here," she said with some finality. "Take me home."

At the same instant Seven finished the words, she found herself floating in space and yet somehow able to breathe, with the spectre beside her. Before her was the coffin that had been jettisoned from Voyager a moment earlier. "I asked to go home," she whispered, her blue eyes a study in fear, but there was no answer and no reaction to her request. "Please, I am afraid."

When nothing was forthcoming Seven resigned herself to her current situation, knowing instinctively that she would have to see it through to its conclusion. "Who is she who resides in this coffin?" Her heart quickened as the spectre once again gave an ominous point, clearly suggesting she should look for herself. Seven moved closer to the coffin and peered in through the small window at the face within: she already knew whose face it would be.

"Must these things definitely come to pass, or can they be altered?" she asked quietly of her companion, whose silence was beginning to unnerve her badly. "Pity me, spirit," she pleaded, "for I am not the person I was. If I conduct myself differently from this day on, will the outcome change? Please, does it have to be this way?"

Deeply distressed, Seven looked back to the coffin and wrapped both arms around it in an embrace, almost attempting to warm the occupant and bring her back to life. "If I cannot change the outcome then exchange me now for the body in the coffin, do not be so cruel as to allow me to continue in life through to this conclusion."

Seven was no longer looking at or paying attention to the spectre. Her grief was all consuming as she held the coffin and repeated, "Please, I want to live. Give me a chance; I have changed. Please."

Slowly, the walls of Cargo Bay 2 began to materialise around the sobbing woman who, grateful and exhausted, went directly to her alcove.

"Well, that oughta do it."



"What was that extra bit all about?"

"What extra bit?" B'Elanna said non-commitally into the com. from Engineering.

"Do you love her?"

"Hey, Captain?" asked Tom over the com. from the Holodeck control room, "did I hear B'Elanna say she loves Seven?"

"Well, I think we all heard that," offered Harry smiling, standing next to his Captain in her Ready Room. "All we need to hear now is that she confirms it. B'Elanna?"


"Miss Torres, would you like to put us out of our misery."

"Yes, Captain. I love her."

"Does she know?" asked Tom in this strange three-way conversation.

"Well, she does now!"

"Well good luck, sweetheart," said Kathryn. "I hope Santa brings you just what's on your Christmas list."

"Me too," added Tom and Harry.


Kathryn broke the comlink between herself, Tom and B'Elanna, and sat back in her chair. "You think she'll be OK? Seven, I mean."

Harry looked once more at the viewscreen where Seven could be seen in the Cargo Bay, regenerating. "I think we'll have to wait until morning for that one, Captain. She won't come out of it until then."

"She looked so upset, Harry."

"She's stronger than you think, she'll be fine," he reassured, understanding that as the Captain had concocted this entire plan she felt responsible for the outcome, plus she felt responsible for the ex-Borg, period.

Kathryn smiled at Harry. "Go get some well-earned sleep, ensign. Santa and I will see you tomorrow." Harry smiled back and nodded before he turned and left the Ready Room.

"Janeway to Paris."

"Paris here, Captain. What can I do for you?"

"How on earth did you manage the weightless bit in space, Tom? I was very impressed."

"Ah, a good magician never gives away his secrets Captain. Call it Holodeck magic. It worked well, didn't it?"

"It certainly did," Kathryn laughed. "Well done, Tom. I'll thank B'Elanna in the morning, she sounds beat. `Night, Tom."

"'Night ma'am. You did a good thing today."

"Oh, tomorrow will tell, Mr Paris. Tomorrow will tell."

B'Elanna Torres was especially nervous this morning. Nervous wasn't a state she was used to being in, so she'd managed to drop a few things whilst getting ready. And after she'd managed to drop a few things, she'd managed to issue a few Klingon curses in their direction as they'd lain oblivious, awaiting retrieval.

Somewhat calmed now, and standing in front of the mirror brushing her hair, B'Elanna suddenly stopped what she was doing, the brush still held against her head. She stared into the eyes of her mirror image for some time and then lowered the brush. "What the hell were you thinking?" she asked of herself. The image looked as confused and worried about the possible results of her actions as she did. "You couldn't have just worked up to this? You had to hit her with it all at once?"

B'Elanna's hair suffered somewhat for the next few moments as it was subjected to a vigorous brushing. However, the Engineer managed to pull through the experience and look as neat and tidy as ever, as she left her quarters to face the day ahead. To face Seven.

"Computer, what day is this?"

It is Stardate 51756

"Yes, but what day is it," persisted Seven excitedly.

Today is Tuesday

"Yes, but."

"It's Christmas Day, Seven," said the Captain quietly, as she walked up to her officer and leaned against the alcove, looking up at her.

"Captain, I didn't hear you come in. Can I do something for you?"

"I'm here to ask you to the Christmas dinner today, at 13.00 in the Mess Hall." As Seven opened her mouth to reply, Kathryn held up a hand to stop her, "Oh, I know you'll say no, but you can't blame me for wanting to include you."

"I wasn't going to say no, I was going to say yes," said Seven with a smile, "had I been given the chance to do so."

Kathryn feigned surprise. "Well, I'm sorry. Whatever happened to `Christmas is irrelevant'?"

Looking into a perfectly innocent-looking face Seven answered, "But it isn't, Captain. It is very relevant, however it took a dream last night to help me see it."

"Oh? Go on."

Looking suddenly open and vulnerable, Seven murmured, "It was so real. It brought to my attention my need to change."

"You only change if you want to, Seven, not because a dream tells you so."

"Oh, I want to Captain," confirmed Seven, stepping down from her alcove and facing Kathryn with a smile, "And I will see you at 13.00 hours in the Mess Hall.

"Sure?" Kathryn needed to ask, as she was feeling slightly guilty about her part in this manipulation, but Seven's nod reassured her. "OK then, 13.00."

The Captain had nearly reached the Cargo Bay doors when Seven's thoughts suddenly caught up with something. "Captain?" she asked.

"What is it Seven?"

"I need access to a replicator. I have many credits built up, as I have rarely used my allotted amount."

Realising what Seven was about to do, Kathryn agreed and made the necessary arrangements.

Icheb was slightly concerned: this wasn't like Seven, at least not the Seven he knew. This one was smiling and laughing and planning to go to the Christmas meal in the Mess Hall soon; this one had given him a Christmas gift and a kiss on the cheek and harboured a large pack of gifts to give out later. And, most disturbingly, this Seven spoke affectionately about Lieutenant Torres instead of informing him of the latest row they had had.

Icheb thought the smile, which was almost constantly present on Seven's face, made her look younger and even prettier than before and, while he was undoubtedly pleased for her, he couldn't get away from the fact - this simply wasn't like Seven.

"I thought I'd be the last one here, Captain, sorry I'm late."

"No, that honour goes to the Doctor and Seven," replied Kathryn to Harry Kim, who was just lowering himself into a seat, amidst torn wrapping paper and numerous gifts strewn about.

"She's coming then?" Chakotay asked, not trying to hide his admiration for the Captain and her `team'. "Your little plot worked?"

"Well, we shouldn't count our chickens, Chakotay. I mean, she's not here yet, is she," warned the Captain, "She said she'd be here."

It was now Harry's turn to give a gift out to everyone and receive some back to the sounds of "ooohh's" and "aaahh's" registering everyone's appreciation, as laughter and friendship ran amok around the table.

Tom leaned across Tuvok (who sat back to allow better access) and waved a cracker in Kathryn's direction. "Come on, Captain, pull this cracker with me, huh? I've got a hankering to see you sat there with a crown on your head!" he said cheekily, hoping B'Elanna had remembered to include the paper hats.

"Uh huh. Well, only if you wear yours too. Deal?"

"Deal," agreed Tom as he steadied his hand on the cracker end.

"Oh, wait a minute," B'Elanna raised a hand and looked at everyone around the table. "Look, I don't want to spoil anyone's fun here but - I couldn't figure out the noisy bit, so when you pull these things, you're gonna have to shout `bang'. OK?"

"OK," grinned Tom as he turned back to the Captain and looked at her. He decided to count her down. "One," he began. By the time he said "Two" Harry, Chakotay and B'Elanna had joined the countdown. By "Three", they had all joined in, and when Tom and Kathryn tugged the cracker apart, the resultant "BANG" from the table was deafening, drawing smiles from other diners.

"Definitely more fun that way," said Kathryn to B'Elanna as she pushed the thin paper crown on her head, and looked expectantly at Tom - a crooked grin on her face, awaiting the expected tirade of abuse.

Tom got up from his seat and bowed deeply before her. "Your majesty," he said in an affected voice which had Kathryn and the others jeering in fun at him.

"So, who's going to pull mine?" asked Harry suggestively.

"I thought you'd never ask!" grinned Chakotay as the countdown began again.

".and I do not wish to make an entrance alone. Doctor, will you assist me?"

"Of course, Seven. You know I'm always happy to help you develop your social skills, but you know we're going to be late if we don't hurry." The Doctor paused and looked at Seven with a mixture of puzzlement and a smile, plus a slight frown. "What made you change your mind?"

"A dream, Doctor."

The Doctor would have questioned further but Seven had swept up her rather large package and was heading towards the door. "We should hurry," she urged breezily. Following her out of sickbay the Doctor considered that whatever had happened to her, he like it and hoped it would last.

Neelix stood before the noisiest table in the Mess Hall and lowered the first bowl of soup from his tray to the waiting diners. Sam Wildman joined him and soon everyone at the Command Table (as it had now become dubbed) was served, Naomi bringing up the rear with a basket full of bread rolls.

With his back to the door, Neelix was enquiring after the table's empty spaces when the door opened and in walked the Doctor and Seven. B'Elanna's eyes met Seven's, silently guiding her over to the vacant seat beside her. Seven held her gaze as she approached and took the seat, noticing with satisfaction that the Engineer looked interestingly flustered. Neelix acknowledged the latecomers and scurried back to the counter for more soup, which he returned with immediately.

"I apologise to you all for my lateness," a smiling Seven said to the rest of the table. "And the Doctor is late because I made him so!"

"No problem, Seven," said Chakotay. "You're both here now. Here." he put a cracker Seven's way, "It's a tradition, you."

"I am aware, Commander; I researched the subject of Christmas and its traditions this morning. I am happy to comply," she said, taking hold of the cracker end. When the countdown began, she raised an eyebrow and smiled a question around at the others.

"On three, Seven," Harry offered hastily as the count reached two.

"Three!" Seven and Chakotay pulled hard on the cracker. "BANG" yelled everyone at the table to Seven's obvious delight, as her laughter mingled with theirs and her smiling face looked around them all before she returned her attention to her soup, and the woman beside her.

The others at the table had quietened somewhat as they began eating, although a more private chatter had started up.

"You came, then?" It was an unnecessary question as Seven's presence was proof enough, but B'Elanna needed to say it.

"You thought I would not!" Seven smiled, resting her spoon over the soup dish and awaiting a reply.

"No! I - uh. Yeah. I thought you wouldn't come. You look different, somehow," said B'Elanna, knowing fully what had brought about the change in her. One day soon, she would have to come clean, but not yet. Not today.

Throughout the progression of the meal, every now and again a person- in-the-know would glance in B'Elanna's and Seven's direction, to see how they were getting on. The general conversation around the table was easy, friendly and fun loving - these people gelling with each other in an extraordinary way, no doubt borne of the fact that they were in extraordinary circumstances.

Neelix and his team excelled themselves and picked up endless congratulations from around the room. Soon, the sated diners were sitting back in their seats drinking the last of the coffee and enjoying the feeling of unity and relaxation that had grown between them all.

During a lull in the gentle conversation, Seven reached down for the bag at her feet, brushing B'Elanna's thigh with her arm as she did so, sending an electric shock apiece through both women, which was acknowledged by their quick look at each other. Recovering quickly, Seven raised her voice and addressed the occupants of the table. "I have some gifts here for you. Please, I would like to distribute them."

The others stopped talking and looked towards Seven, as she reached in the bag and pulled out the first gift that fell to hand. Seven passed it to Tom who ripped it open while everyone watched, fascinated.

"A set of spanners, Seven. Thank you. That's really cool."

"Not just any spanners, Mr Paris," said Seven, to everyone's obvious amusement. "These are special spanners designed for ve-hicles. I think you will find them a perfect fit for that ancient Earth automobile you are - I think the expression is - `doing up'!"

As Tom stared his amazement at the group, they were all verbally applauding a smiling Seven's choice.

The next gift to hand was for Chakotay and Seven passed it towards him. The Commander tore at the paper eagerly to reveal a medium- sized framed print of an eagle in flight. "I did some research, Commander," Seven explained. "This bird featured heavily in the customs of your people."

"A handsome gift, Seven. Thank you," said a surprised Chakotay to a (by now) slightly blushing Seven, who reached into the bag once more and pulled out an envelope, which she handed nervously to B'Elanna.

"Thanks." The slightly self-conscious Engineer found it hard to control her interest as she looked to see what the envelope contained. "A token," she told everyone, "for four hours Holodeck time." She stared at Seven incredulously, "You're giving me this?" she asked.

"I am," replied Seven. "Of course, if you require any help in using it, I shall be more than happy to accompany you," Seven added boldly, watching with interest the pink tinge that was spreading unchecked through B'Elanna's cheeks.

There were some seated at the table who had not been surprised by Seven's remark, although they tried to look that way as she glanced around everyone. Reaching into her bag again she pulled out a thin and flat gift, which she handed to Harry. The young ensign opened it to reveal many sheets of blank music score paper - a rare thing to a person with limited replicator rations. He thanked her warmly.

The Doctor received a golf ball with `Everyone a Winner' printed on it; Tuvok actually smiled as he shook out a purple and gold silk square, for the express purpose, Seven informed him, of sitting upon while he meditated, and Neelix received a blank book to write his own recipes in.

That left only one person without a gift. Seven's eyes met the Captain's and found an expression of great pride and encouragement flowing towards her from the older woman.

Reaching into the bag for the last time, Seven pulled out a small box. She handed it to the Captain, who opened it to reveal a folded letter. Swiftly Seven reached across to her, stretching out a hand, "May I read it to you, Captain?" she asked. Confused, Kathryn handed the letter to her.

Seven unfolded the letter and looked around at the others before she started reading. "Captain Janeway, there is no gift I could replicate for you that would in any way equal the gift you gave to me when you severed me from the Collective. You gave me my life, gave me a place to belong and, most importantly, reinstated my free will.

"My gift to you is my heartfelt gratitude, which will have to be conveyed by these two simple words, `thank you'. Signed: Annika Hansen."

Everyone had fallen silent at the impact Seven's words had made. The Captain stared at Seven, tears welling up in her eyes. "Oh Seven, that is without doubt the best gift I could have received," she said as she reached out for the letter Seven handed to her.

"Christmas is about new birth, is it not?" continued Seven, her eyes twinkling as she looked around the table. "I wish to announce that, as of this moment, I wish to be known as Annika Hansen," she paused to gauge the reaction of those gathered - finding it favourable she added, "And I wish you all a very Happy Christmas!"

A chorus of "Happy Christmas" and congratulations greeted the ex- drone as she attended to the final, most important thing on her `list' of things to do. Carefully and deliberately she reached across to B'Elanna's lap and wrapped her hand around the smaller woman's hand. Above the din, she heard B'Elanna sigh.

Moving closer, Annika asked, "Would you care to use some of that Holodeck time this evening, Miss Torres?"

Suddenly playful, B'Elanna replied, "And what if I don't?"

"Then I shall have to come home with you instead."

"Now that's made it hard to decide!" B'Elanna said, smiling nervously at Seven. Then she turned fully towards Seven, and looked up at her hair with a thoughtful expression. "You know," she said, "I'm sitting here staring at Seven's hair. Pardon me, but it's hard for me to think of you as Annika when I'm staring at Seven's hair."

By now, some of the other crewmembers had caught on to the conversation between the two women and were watching to see what would happen next.

"So what do you suggest?"

"This," breathed B'Elanna, as she reached up and pulled the pins from the austere style on the younger woman's head. Slowly, almost seductively, she pushed her fingers up through the blonde hair and pulled it down around her shoulders. "Hello, Annika," she said at last, with her hands still resting around the blonde's neck.

"Hello B'Elanna," replied Annika, now commanding everyone's attention as she allowed the smiling engineer to pull her close for a gentle kiss.

It was up to the Captain to break the silence as she said to the two women, "It looks as though Santa has brought you two all you will ever need."

"Come on, Annika, we have gifts for you here," said Chakotay as the others nodded and gave the gifts they had brought, just in the vague hope that she would attend. Mildly embarrassed, but holding on well, Annika unwrapped each in turn and gave her thanks, surprised that anyone should want to give her a gift, after the way she had treated them.

Chakotay's gift of a full blue-topped Officer of Science uniform touched her the most. When she had joined everyone this lunchtime, she had looked around the room wishing she could feel more fully a part of these people, more like one of them. Chakotay's insight surprised her.

"We'll work out a rank for you later," he told an overcome Seven, who looked from Chakotay to the Captain, to Tuvok and back to Chakotay. They were all in agreement that this was a uniform she should wear.

"I don't know what to say," she started.

"Well, as long as your ranking is less than a Commander, you can say thank you," he replied, eyes twinkling. "If it's any higher, I'm out of here - give me a shuttle - please, I couldn't stand it," he said in an overdone voice.

Amid the resultant laughter the Captain got up from the table and walked over to Neelix, put an arm around his neck and whispered `thank you' to him. She then addressed the entire room, wishing, "Merry Christmas everyone!" to all present, which resulted in numerous noisy replies.

"And a happy New Year," breathed B'Elanna into Annika's ear. "I shall make sure of it."

As the two women rested their foreheads together Annika Hansen silently thanked the three spectres who had opened her eyes to the true meaning of Christmas - to begin again, from wherever you have found yourself, and decide to be the best that you can be, now and always. And to let love into your life.

"My quarters," whispered B'Elanna, finally deciding between the quarters and the Holodeck, "and I'll show you what else Santa's got for you!"

"B'Elanna, Santa could not give me any more than I have already."

"You wanna bet?"

The End

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