DISCLAIMER: Characters belong to Paramount - not me.
SUMMARY: Response to a challenge issued several millennia ago. I think the only rule was that snow had to be involved but not generated by the holodeck! If there are more rules, let me know quickly and I'll see what I can do about incorporating them!
Dedicated to the originator of the challenge - sorry I can't remember who it was, and of course, to Caro, who mentioned it again - I blame you for getting me started on yet another story!

By Rebelgirl

Chapter Four

B'Elanna knew where she was before she even opened her eyes. She could hear a deep creaking sound accompanying a nauseating rocking that originated from under her body. There was a smell of blood in the air so strong she could practically taste it. Her face and body could feel sense a burning heat, her nasal passages were raw from inhaling the arid air. Wails of torment could be heard over the creaking wood. The engineer knew that she was back on the Barge of the Dead. What bothered her was why she had returned.

The brunette sat up and looked round, the familiar surroundings doing nothing to ease her fear. As she stood up, B'Elanna noticed she was wearing the garb of a Klingon warrior. She touched her cheek to check for the mark of the dishonoured but there was no sign of it. Perhaps once again, it wasn't her time to enter Grethor.

There were a number of Klingons crouched in recesses across the deck, their positions revealed when flashes of lightning removed the shadows from the barge. All had their heads bowed, ashamed of their plight and avoided looking at the guards wandering through the barge as they carried out their patrols.

B'Elanna waited for two guards to walk past her before she moved from her position. She headed towards the bow of the Barge where the large ship's wheel was located. The brunette could see the tall, imposing figure of Kotar standing behind the wheel in his usual place. There was no point in hiding on the Barge. The Klingon Barge master would already know that she was on board. She could at least attempt to get some answers from the ancient warrior.

Kotar turned as she approached. "Mongrel child of Miral. You have returned once more," he greeted B'Elanna with familiarity.

B'Elanna wasted no time. "Why am I back here? I resolved the dishonour I placed upon my mother. What am I doing here?" Her voice was harsh and insistent.

"You ask many questions of me," Kotar's rumbling voice replied, unfazed by B'Elanna's demands. "You should be asking these questions of yourself."

B'Elanna was livid. "If I asked myself, I'd know the answers," she spat at the tall boat captain.

"Then you know why you are here," Kotar responded calmly. He looked at her with a penetrating stare. "Or have you not asked yourself?"

B'Elanna stared at the man sullenly as she tried to answer the questions for herself. She genuinely believed that she had dispelled the dishonour she had placed on her mother, and had accepted her heritage with less resentment. She hoped to meet Miral in Stovokor when her time came and to return to the Barge had come as something of a shock.

The brunette then began to examine her behaviour on Voyager. She had treated the rest of her engineering team with more respect and had been less inclined to lose her temper. When she did let rip, she refused to use her heritage as an excuse. And she made sure that her staff knew it too.

The engineer shook her head, confused. "I haven't exactly embraced my Klingon heritage," she admitted. "But I no longer use it as a justification for my behaviour. I have nothing to answer to as far as my engineering team is concerned," she declared confidently.

"Then you must look elsewhere," Kotar prompted.

B'Elanna changed her focus to the other members of the crew. As she thought of the senior staff, they appeared on the deck and stood in a semi-circle round her. Mentally, she rolled her eyes. Was she going to have to defend herself to her colleagues again? Her eyes settled on her ex-lover and she had to fight to keep the look of disgust off her face.

She had broken her engagement with Paris after one indiscretion too many. She had caught the helmsman performing more than routine manoeuvres with one of the shuttle bay technicians and their resultant argument had been witnessed by several of the crew. There was no way that they could hide the problem any more. B'Elanna felt she had no option but to terminate her relationship with Tom before gossip spread throughout the entire ship. The gossip spread anyway and B'Elanna found herself on the end of many sympathetic and quasi- understanding looks that she could barely tolerate. She dealt with the situation typically by burying herself in Engineering.

Unfortunately, Starfleet regulations meant that she could not demand justice or punishment against the pilot in true Klingon fashion. After a lengthy debate with both the Captain and Chakotay, the half- Klingon dropped the subject and her reaction to others trying to broach the subject encouraged them to drop the topic too. B'Elanna wanted the whole sorry episode forgotten about so that she could get on with her job and put the shame and dishonour she felt to the back of her mind.

The raven-haired woman looked up at the imposing figure of the Klingon helmsman. "I'm here because I didn't exact punishment on Tom?" she asked incredulously.

"Is that what you think?" Kotar responded blandly.

B'Elanna studied the taller man's face for a moment, even as she thought about the question. "No," she answered finally. "I followed the orders of my superiors and abided by the rules of the people I share a ship with. It was not I who behaved dishonourably."

"Then something else has brought you back to me," Kotar remarked, still giving nothing away.

B'Elanna looked back at her colleagues and noticed that Tom had the decency to look contrite. She flicked her gaze over the others standing there before resting on the tall figure of Seven of Nine.

"You're why I'm here," she whispered sadly.

Seven cocked her eyebrow inquisitively but said nothing. B'Elanna looked back at Kotar. "I'm here because I haven't confronted my feelings for Seven of Nine aren't I?"

Kotar remained silent and returned her gaze steadily. B'Elanna sighed and ran a hand through her hair before turning to face the ex- drone. "I'm sorry Seven," she began hesitantly.

"Sorry for what?" the blonde woman asked mildly.

"Sorry for not telling you how I feel about you." B'Elanna glanced round and was unsure that she could do this in front of the rest of the senior staff.

Seven didn't give her any choice. "How do you feel about me?"

B'Elanna looked at her steadily. She swallowed as the silence pressed in on her and she could feel the eyes from the rest of the command staff boring into her. "Seven, I know I haven't treated you fairly in the past, and I haven't got any excuse for my behaviour so I won't mar the apology by trying to explain myself." She stopped and coughed nervously as Seven continued to stare at her. The temperature on the barge was becoming oppressive and B'Elanna could feel beads of sweat trickling down her face.

"Do you believe that to be the source of your dishonour?" Kotar asked.

The small Klingon thought for a moment. "No. I have already made inroads into amending my behaviour towards Seven. I have tried to alter how I interact with her since the shuttle mission."

"Then why apologise?" It was Seven who voiced the question.

"Because I was wrong. And you need to know that. My treatment of you stemmed from my dislike of the Borg, but I never gave you a chance. You had difficulties adapting to life on Voyager and I pounced on every example I could to demonstrate how unreliable you were and how you didn't fit in."

B'Elanna paused suddenly, her eyes focusing on a distant inner memory. "How you didn't fit in," she repeated in the barest whisper. The small engineer closed her eyes for a long moment as she realised the irony of the statement. She had been fighting a battle all her life, acutely aware of her own differences and how she didn't fit in on the Klingon homeworld of Qo'nos anymore than she fit in with humans. She remembered the pain of isolation and sheer loneliness she had felt, and still often felt. The pain returned as she realised that her behaviour towards the tall blonde was even more unacceptable. She had experienced what Seven was going through and had sworn never to allow anyone else in her presence to suffer in the way she had. Instead, she had been the instigator of a number of incidents that had highlighted Seven's uniqueness and differences and had made no effort at all in trying to allay her fears or diminish the feelings of isolation.

B'Elanna took a deep breath. She could do nothing about the events of the past. All she could do was deal with the present and hopefully influence the future. If only Kotar allowed her the time to do it before she entered the gates of Grethor. She spoke again. "Seven, I truly am sorry about my behaviour towards you. But what I haven't done yet is tell you how I feel about you."

"Your actions have made it perfectly clear how you feel about me," the ex-drone replied evenly.

"No they haven't, and that's the problem," the brunette admitted candidly, wondering if all her efforts on the class N planet had been for nothing. Seven seemed to be entirely unaware how B'Elanna had tried to change how she interacted with the younger woman. She paused again and ran a hand through her thick black hair nervously. "Seven, I.I've fallen in love with you."

The tall Astrometrics officer gazed steadily at the engineer. She raised her ocular implant imperiously. "Really?" she asked, disbelievingly.

B'Elanna flinched. She felt as if she had been totally dismissed by the blonde woman and it took her by surprise. However she was determined to see things through. "Yes, really. I don't expect you to reciprocate, or even do anything. I just had to tell you."

"So you could feel better," the ex-drone surmised coldly.

B'Elanna heard Paris snigger maliciously from behind her but she refused to turn and look at him. "Yes," she continued honestly. "But also so that I no longer live a lie. Or twist my feelings so that they turn to anger or bitterness toward you. I can't continue to treat you badly because I can't deal with my own emotions."

"Despite the fact that your revelation has made me uncomfortable?" Seven queried in the same dull tone.

B'Elanna hesitated. She was confused by Seven's manner. While they had been on the mining expedition, the half-Klingon had thought that their volatile relationship had abated somewhat and that they had both come to understand each other. Obviously she was wrong. "I'm sorry to cause you more discomfort Seven. I'm just trying to right a wrong." The raven-haired woman shook her head slightly, reflecting the frustration she felt at the inadequacy of her words. She could feel rivulets of sweat rolling down her body as she spoke, and wondered why the temperature was rising.

"You are merely trying to prevent your entrance to Hell," Seven retorted angrily. "It is too late B'Elanna Torres. You should have reflected on your behaviour a long time ago."

B'Elanna bristled for an instant, and then forced her irritation back down. To react impulsively would just give Kotar yet another reason to throw her through the gates of Grethor. B'Elanna had consciously beaten him once and the Barge master had revealed that he had seen her on a previous occasion though she had no memory of meeting him when she almost drowned. Somehow she had to find a way to explain things to Seven. She had to make her listen, though she knew that she would not be able to *make* the ex-drone forgive her. "Seven," she began again. "I know I don't deserve it, and I certainly shouldn't expect it, but could you at least allow me some time to talk to you?" She looked into the icy blue eyes of the Borg but refused to be deterred. "Let me tell you a bit more about me. Allow me to ask more questions of you. I can't excuse what I've done, but I might at least be able to get you to understand my behaviour."

The tall ex-drone turned her back and began to distance herself from B'Elanna. "Why should I bother?" she asked as she drew away.

B'Elanna stared miserably at the retreating woman, allowing the pain of rejection and loneliness to sweep through her again. "Because I want you to," she admitted softly. Her voice was quiet and B'Elanna thought for a moment that the roar of the wind surrounding them had obliterated it, but Seven stopped and slowly turned back round.

Seven sneered at the shorter woman imperiously. "Don't worry. I'm not going anywhere yet. Not until I see you disappear into hell. Your pitiful explanation can pass the time until the gates open."

Sometime during the exchange, the figures of the other command staff had vanished. B'Elanna glanced round and realised that she no longer had such a large audience. She looked over her shoulder and stared at the imposing gates that were steadily increasing in size as the Barge neared its destination. Her head snapped back round when Seven spoke again.

"Well?" the Astrometrics officer prompted impatiently.

"Sorry. Just trying to work out how much time I have," B'Elanna stalled, hating the feeling that she was on trial for her life.

"You're not going anywhere yet either," Seven commented cryptically.

B'Elanna frowned at the comment for a moment before suddenly crashing to the deck of the barge with a sickening thud. The hybrid tried to get up, but found herself being restrained by taut ropes wrapped around her upper body. "What the hell?" she questioned as she tried to get up again. However, no matter how hard she struggled, the bindings would not move and B'Elanna realised that she was pinned to the floor. She twisted her head to look at the younger woman who was now seated next to her on a plain wooden chair.

"Now talk," the ex-drone commanded.

"Seven you have to believe me. I truly am sorry." B'Elanna's heart sank as the tall blonde sat back in her chair and looked at her with disgust. "And I'm sorry for telling you again, but I love you," she repeated, determined to face up to her feelings, no matter what the consequences.

Seven stared anxiously as B'Elanna continued to thrash in her survival bag, deep in the throes of a personal torment brought on by the fever that was raging through her system. She had begun mumbling several minutes ago and occasionally, her words were formed with absolute clarity. Seven had no idea what sort of hell the delirium had triggered but she knew that B'Elanna was suffering and she had to do something about it swiftly. The Klingon's temperature was continuing to rise, trying to fight the infection that was coursing through her body, but it appeared to have little affect on the pathogens. If B'Elanna's temperature rose too high, her body would start to experience cellular breakdown and she would die.

The tall ex-drone looked down at the tricorder and willed herself to understand its readings, despite realising the futility of the sentiment. She had never felt so helpless before. B'Elanna's condition was distressing her and her inability to help the stricken engineer compounded her frustration and concern. She had to discover the cause of the infection before she could even begin to make inroads into developing a cure, but she didn't know where to begin. The problem was compounded by time. Seven had no way of estimating how long the engineer could survive without treatment. All thoughts of leaving on an expedition to find food had been abandoned in preference to dealing with B'Elanna. Seven knew that her decision could have potentially fatal consequences. Even if she could find a cure, she had no idea how long it would take for B'Elanna to recover enough to assist with the shuttle repairs, let alone a strenuous foraging mission into the mountains to provide food for their continued survival.

Things were looking bleak indeed, but all Seven was concerned with was B'Elanna's immediate survival chances.

With a heavy sigh, she examined all the evidence again. Fortunately, her eidetic memory gave her assistance as she recalled the sensor sweeps she undertook when she was looking for a safe haven. No matter what way she looked at the data, the young Astrometrics officer could find nothing that might indicate the source of B'Elanna's infection. She knew that it was futile to study the data but Seven was reluctant to leave the shelter and continue working on the shuttle comms systems. That left her nothing else to do but nurse the delirious Klingon and trawl through the evidence in the hope that something new might miraculously appear.

She looked up from her readings as B'Elanna began mumbling again. Since the fever had taken hold, the brunette had muttered several bizarre and disjointed comments, and Seven's name had been mentioned frequently. The Borg could only assume that it was because B'Elanna had become incapacitated whilst marooned with her. On occasion, the ex-drone would look up in shock at the desperate emotion B'Elanna used to voice her name, wondering what it was she had done to trigger such an emotive cry. There were other times when the young blonde woman just wished that B'Elanna were awake and lucid, and actually meant the loving tone she adopted to call out.

Seven could see trickles of sweat running off the smaller woman's face. They slowed as they cooled down and the drips that settled in engineer's dark tresses crystallized into droplets of ice when they were no longer heated by the proximity of the sick woman. If she were not careful, B'Elanna would begin to dehydrate, further reducing her chances of survival.

The Astrometrics officer got up and grabbed a canteen, shaking it to gauge how much water was left. At least she could be thankful for one thing on the planet. There was a bountiful source of water available to them. Once their rationed water was finished, Seven could simply melt some snow.

That thought circled round in her mind, bothering her for some unknown reason, as she lifted B'Elanna's head up and dribbled a tiny amount of fluid past her dry lips. Instinctively, the Klingon swallowed and licked at the water. The action encouraged Seven. B'Elanna was not so far gone as to be totally unconscious or oblivious to her surroundings. With great care and patience, Seven continued to drip-feed the older woman until B'Elanna no longer craved the moisture and rested her head back limply in Seven's cradled arm. Gently, the willowy Borg wiped B'Elanna's face and then placed a cold cloth on her burning brow. She was unsure how effective her treatment was, but it soothed the brunette and made Seven feel better for doing something that got a positive reaction.

When she finished, Seven pulled the survival bag up around B'Elanna's shoulders to try and protect her from the freezing temperatures inside the shelter. The Borg knew that B'Elanna's core temperature had to be lowered, but exposing her to such an extreme of cold would be more detrimental to her health and would probably only result in frostbite. The engineer resisted, not wanting to be covered and craving the cooler temperature, but Seven was undeterred and managed to adjust the survival bag successfully.

It was when she was distracted by that task and no longer consciously trying to think why the water problem concerned her that she made her breakthrough. Seven recalled regaining consciousness on the shuttle and B'Elanna's torn and bloody clothing being soaked by the ice that the shuttle had melted on impact. Perhaps it was something in the water that had set off B'Elanna's infection.

Leaving B'Elanna's side, the Astrometrics officer took a sample of snow and ran a series of diagnostics on it. Her initial results showed nothing extraordinary. She tried to extrapolate how the snow would react if mixed with human or Klingon blood but again, there was nothing significant in the findings. Seven frowned. She believed that the snow had something to do with the cause of B'Elanna's infection but there was, as yet, no proof. The blonde felt a tiny smile tug at her lips. She realised that she was working on a `hunch' as B'Elanna liked to describe the guesswork. It was the first time Seven had recognised she was doing that. Perhaps spending so much time with the chief engineer was influencing her more than she realised.

Seven extrapolated her findings again, to ensure that she hadn't missed anything, but the readings were correct. She frowned as she thought about the sample she had analysed. Realising that the snow she had used was not an appropriate sample, Seven made preparations to return to the shuttle crash site. She grabbed a bag and collected a number of instruments to aid her analysis before looking worriedly at B'Elanna. The half-Klingon was still thrashing round on in her survival bag. Seven wondered how safe the woman would be if she left her alone. The ex-drone felt sure that if she left B'Elanna to her own devices, the smaller woman would somehow get out of the survival bag and end up freezing to death in the snow outside the shelter.

Coming to a decision, Seven grabbed a length of rope and several pitons. She leant over the delirious engineer and secured a piton deep into the snow and placed three more around B'Elanna's body. She fed the rope through the securings and tied B'Elanna down, effectively trapping the woman in the rest area of the shelter. B'Elanna struggled against the ropes and her mumblings became distressed. Seven hesitated and wondered if she had done the right thing, but she had to leave the stricken woman and she wanted her to be safe while she was gone.

She stroked B'Elanna's face tenderly and tried to soothe the woman. There was a dull ache in Seven's chest and she hoped that she would get an opportunity to express her true feelings for B'Elanna before it was too late.

B'Elanna seemed to settle after a while and Seven withdrew regretfully, slinging the bag of equipment over her shoulder. Just as she was leaving, B'Elanna called out again and Seven spun round in shock.

"Seven you have to believe me. I truly am sorry."

The willowy blonde stared intently at B'Elanna. The words were clearly spoken, laden with emotion, and for a moment, Seven thought that the fever had broken and that the engineer was finally lucid. She was about to answer when B'Elanna spoke again.

"And I'm sorry for telling you again, but I love you."

By now, Seven realised that B'Elanna was still deep in the clutches of the infection but the words still took her breath away. They had been spoken with such heartfelt need that Seven could feel her chest clench painfully. She stepped back to stand next to the dark woman. She traced her fingers lightly over her tormented face. "I love you too," she whispered brokenly. "I hope one day you tell me that when you are aware of what you're saying."

B'Elanna twisted against her bonds again and continued to talk. However, the words became garbled and unintelligible and Seven could no longer understand what she was saying. Whatever it was though, the hurt and raw emotion remained, and Seven found herself hoping to find a cure quickly to release the woman from hell she was currently residing in.

The Borg moved away from B'Elanna and ducked out of the shelter determinedly, knowing that if she turned back again, it would be incredibly hard to leave the Klingon. She strode purposefully toward the shuttle, bending into the wind once more, but barely noticing the swirl of snow that whistled past her, caught up in the ferocious wind.

When she got to the crash site, Seven walked around the shuttle and inspected the nose cone and the snow that had been disturbed by the impact. Eventually, she discovered a large area of snow that was discoloured by the earth it had once covered. She took samples of the clean snow and the dirty brown ice before going inside the shuttle to perform some more tests.

Once inside and sheltered from the elements, Seven set to work. Once again, she extrapolated results from mixing the snow with Klingon blood and with human blood samples but still she found nothing. Seven made a number of trips around the shuttle and also took samples from the snow that had worked its way inside but to no avail. She was beginning to wonder if her `hunch' had been unfounded after all. She leant back in her chair and stretched; feeling her joints pop slightly and mentally relived her experiments again. Perhaps she had missed something. On her third review, she sat up suddenly and sprang back to where the analysis equipment lay. Instead of introducing the snow to separate samples of Klingon and human blood, she combined the blood to see what the result would be.

When she used the sample of snow that had been tainted by mud on the blood combination, the result was startling. A bacterial pathogen began to multiply voraciously.

Seven cursed. So many times, B'Elanna's mixed heritage had saved her life. This time however, its very combination had provided the pathogen with the perfect breeding ground and it was killing her.

Part 5

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