A HOLIDAY GIFT

By Shayenne

Disclaimer: Paramount owns everything but I doubt they want this.

Rated PG

Written for the VAMB Secret Santa.

Another year in the Delta Quadrant. Another holiday season. Another of Neelix's parties.

Kathryn dressed carefully. Nothing too revealing and flirty, but nothing too matronly either. The captain's presence was a necessity at these parties, but equally, she knew she would leave early and let the crew have their fun. Riotous fun, if previous years were anything to go by.

The dress was dark green, almost a shadowy black, and fell to her knees, a subdued sheath that nevertheless clung to her body, outlining her slim figure. With her hair artfully arranged on top of her head and a pair of silver earrings as her only adornment, she knew she looked good. And tonight that was important.

Her door chime rang, as she had known it would. "Come in, Chakotay."

It was only years of practice that stopped her drawing breath at his dark figure. Oh, but a man shouldn't look this good! Taupe slacks clearly outlined his powerful thighs, and a cream shirt glowed against his copper skin. White teeth flashed in his face.

"You look beautiful, Kathryn."

She twirled around in a mock pirouette to hide her satisfied smile. She'd heard his quick indrawn breath, as involuntary as it was flattering. "Not too staid?"

"No." He'd moved closer, and his voice was by her ear. "That is a word I'd never use about you."

"Then let's go."

Gallantly, he held out an arm for her to take, but instead she slid her hand down his arm to clasp his fingers. His small twitch revealed her out of character gesture hadn't gone unnoticed.

*

The mess hall was strewn with the many colors of the holidays. Red, black, and green streamers-the African colors of Kwanzaa-hung from the ceiling amid the bunches of replicated holly and mistletoe, plants significant to the Pagan winter solstice. A shining menorah stood underneath a viewport, glowing with the nine candles of Chanukah, and on the other side of the room was a similar candleholder with seven flickering lights-a kinara, representing the important things of Kwanzaa. A small nativity scene occupied a prominent place on Neelix's counter, and Kathryn could see the Doctor explaining its Christian significance to a bemused Seven of Nine. A small brazier stood on one of Neelix's cooking burners; a symbol of the Bajoran Gratitude festival. Tal Celes stood beside it, earnestly writing on a small scroll. Bajoran tradition said that problems written down and consigned to the fire would turn to ashes.

A tall evergreen tree held pride of place in the center of the room, a symbol common to many religions and none, the universal symbol of the holiday season. Parcels were piled around its base, large and small, gaily wrapped and ribboned. Tom had organized a Secret Santa among the crew, making sure that each person gave a gift to another, an anonymous present exchange that ensured no one was left out. Kathryn tried to see the package she had left there earlier, but it wasn't visible in the piles of presents.

Neelix bustled up to them as they entered, proffering a tray of mulled wine, and was gone again almost before they had time to take a glass. Naomi followed in his wake with a plate of tiny appetizers-Neelix's special Prixin savories. For nearly an hour they stood near the center of the room exchanging pleasantries with the crew who came up to wish their command team a happy holiday.

But only part of Kathryn's mind was focused on the small talk. She was acutely aware of Chakotay's tall presence, the way his hip brushed hers as he shifted, the earthy fresh scent of the man himself. A small sigh whispered past her lips in a rare moment when no one was demanding her attention. Dear Chakotay; always there for her, supporting her in small, subtle ways, like now. His free hand rested on the small of her back, and he bent to whisper in her ear that he'd see if he could find them another glass of Neelix's mulled wine.

"Tom wants to hand out the presents soon," he said, eyes sparkling. "And we wouldn't want to miss that."

Her eyes met and clung to his a moment longer than normal. "No," she said. "We wouldn't."

Chakotay must have seen some subtle invitation in her eyes, for he hesitated, and his hand flattened over her back. Still a light touch, still only a gesture of friendship, but he must have read something in her face that hadn't been there before, because his fingers spread over her back and withdrew slowly. Almost a caress. Almost.

In the center of the room, Tom Paris clinked a glass for silence. "I'm supposed to give you a speech about the time of year, and our Voyager family, and the sharing and caring times we've had over this past year," he said. "But I know that you all want one thing! So, with no more ado, it's time for presents!"

A ripple of laughter spread around the room, warm laughter, inclusive and sharing. This crew *was* a close one, mused Kathryn. The little moments like this brought it home. Chakotay shifted slightly beside her and their hips brushed again.

"Who did you draw in the Secret Santa?" he whispered. "I hear Tom was accepting bribes from people to make sure they got the person of their choice."

She smiled up at him. "That would be telling. But it wasn't hard to think of a gift."

"Oh?" His mouth curved in amusement. "Then you must have got Tom. Certainly, you didn't get Seven. I can't imagine any gift that would give her real pleasure."

"Who did you get?"

"Naughty, Kathryn. Why would I tell you?"

She let the subject drop. "I wonder who did draw Seven?"

His eyes found Seven, on the far side of the room, still standing with the Doctor. "I hope our EMH did. That's why Tom was letting himself be bribed-so that people could chose a gift for the one they really care about."

Her breath hitched. Yes. That was what the holiday was about. The differences in the various festivals didn't matter a hoot when it came down to it; it was all about caring. And loving.

Tom was handing out gifts with a flourish and a comment for everyone. "For the luscious Michael Ayala, something big, bulky, and prettily wrapped-just like the man himself. For a donation of replicator rations, Mike, I'll tell you exactly how many ladies and gentlemen bribed me to be your Secret Santa!

"Here's a small and interesting one, and the label is written in a small and interesting hand. It's for Mort Harren! Maybe it's a data chip, Mort, and someone's finished off your theories for you!

"Harry, me boy. Come up here. I'm sure you can guess what this is." Something long and thin was handed to Harry, who grinned broadly and mimed fingering a clarinet.

Deftly, Chakotay snagged them a couple more glasses of mulled wine, as Neelix rushed past. "Nothing for you yet, Kathryn."

"I'm sure they won't forget the captain." Kathryn ran a finger around the rim of the glass, and smiled into his eyes.

"I'm confident you'll get something very special."

"Oh? That sounds like you're in the know on that one. Don't tell me you bribed Tom to-" She closed her mouth abruptly. She couldn't let herself presume he cared enough to want to be the one to give her a gift.

"-Be your Secret Santa?" His mouth moved closer to her ear, and his moist breath caressed her skin. "You'll have to wait and see, Kathryn."

She shivered at his words.

"But you can't be too surprised if I did." His voice was low and serious; gone was the lighthearted friend of a moment ago. "You know I care for you--my friend Kathryn."

The surge of joy in her belly withered at the last phrase. Yes, she was his friend. It was the obvious thing for him to give her gift.

With an effort she made herself smile and flick a glance sideways at him. "I'll wait and see. I think I'll know if it's from you."

His large hand curved over her shoulder, pulling her into a swift hug. "I think you will."

"Something large and square for Tuvok!" came Tom's irrepressible voice. "It's probably a logic puzzle. And here's one for Seven of Nine."

"I wonder what it is?" Kathryn said. "I hope she doesn't simply dismiss it as 'irrelevant'."

"Now this one was nearly lost in the pile," said Tom, raising his voice slightly. "It's for the commander. It feels like a PADD."

Chakotay moved through the crowd to pick up his gift.

"And this one's for the captain. " Tom weighed another small package in his hand. "You might take it back to her, Commander."

The small item was a match of Chakotay's. Kathryn felt carefully around the edges, underneath the command-red giftwrap. Carefully, she started to pick at a corner. A warm golden hand stilled her fingers.

"Kathryn."

She looked up at the intense tone in his voice.

"Why don't we take our gifts back to my quarters and open them together. Share a glass of wine?"

Her eyes jumped to his face as if they were on strings. But no, he looked guileless, as if the suggestion were a normal one, and indeed it was. They often left early together, to allow the crew to celebrate in a more uninhibited fashion.

"I'd like that." She clasped his hand once more, and they left the messhall together.

The ride to deck three was silent. Kathryn eased away from his hand in the turbolift, and they stood side by side, eyes front, as the lift descended. Chakotay held his gift carefully. She wondered if he guessed who had sent it.

His quarters were dim, a somber mix of shadow, that lifted when he called for lights. Kathryn sat on the couch underneath the viewport, putting her gift carefully down beside her.

Chakotay came to sit beside her, placing two glasses down on the coffee table. He lifted his gift. "So who goes first?"

"Ladies first," she said. That way, if he didn't like his gift, she could raise her chin proudly and leave. Briefly, she remembered Tom Paris' approving glance when she'd put down her replicator rations to ensure her chosen recipient got her gift.

He sat back against the couch, and slung a companionable arm around her shoulders.

Kathryn picked off the wrapping paper and sure enough, there was a PADD. "Holodeck program? Novel? It doesn't say who it's from."

"Turn it on," he suggested.

Something about his posture alerted her. Outwardly, he was relaxed and casual, simply a man sharing a glass of wine with a friend, but there was a core of tension inside him; it manifested itself in the tautness of his thighs, and in the way his fingers trembled slightly on her shoulder. So Chakotay was her Secret Santa then. The knowledge warmed her, and his wariness made her wonder. Was his gift something he worried she wouldn't like?

Or maybe, just maybe, he had the same thoughts as she. That this was a new year, and a new time.

Shifting a little closer so that he could read as well, she thumbed on the PADD.

"Dear Kathryn," she read. "Here is your Secret Santa gift. But I'm betting that it's not so secret anymore. You always were able to read me too easily. Your gift is a game-or maybe it's not a game. That is entirely up to you. Below are some questions. Read and answer them."

Kathryn looked sideways at Chakotay. They were sitting so close now that their thighs brushed. Even through the double layer of material, she could feel his body heat.

"Question One," she read. "How long have we been in the Delta Quadrant?"

His face gave nothing away.

"Six years," she said aloud.

"Question Two. If it were within your power, would you want the entire crew to be happy?" Abruptly, she pushed the PADD toward Chakotay. She could see where this was leading. "I think you should ask the questions yourself," she said in a low voice.

He swallowed, and his arm moved away from her shoulders and took the PADD. "Answer the question first, Kathryn."

"Of course," she said. "All of them. Even me. And especially you. Does that answer your third question as well?"

"It does, so here's the fourth one. Do you know Starfleet Protocol 154.2 subsection B?"

She thought. "Something about deep space missions. And family units. Starfleet doesn't prohibit them, Chakotay. I've always known that."

The PADD lay forgotten on his knee. "You know what this is about don't you?"

She nodded.

"So, shall I continue, or shall we save some time and you can simply repeat the speech you've given me before about how you care for me as a friend, and Voyager's command team can't become anything more?"

The despairing look in his eyes made her reach out to him. He'd never stopped trying, her Chakotay. Even now, when he thought he was on the edge of another rejection, he still let her know he cared. "Let's continue. After all, this is my holiday gift, isn't it? I'm sure you didn't intend only a table quiz as a present."

"Question five. Do you know the crew wants you to be happy, whatever it takes?"

She thought back to Tom's approving glance when she bribed him to let her be Chakotay's Secret Santa. "I'm learning this, yes."

He glanced down at where her hand rested over his. "Question six. Do you know I love you?"

"I do now."

The silence stretched. Her heart pounded as she waited for his next question. She was sure she knew what it was, and her answer was ready. But he didn't seem in any hurry to ask it.

Finally, in a low voice he asked, "Question seven. Do you love me?"

"Yes." No hesitation.

His smile was tender. "Your holiday gift is freedom, Kathryn. Think back on the questions, and the answers you gave, and then take your freedom from them. You can do whatever you want."

He probably expected her to run, she thought. He wasn't pushing her, even though his wish showed clearly in his eyes. But her days of running were over; she had known that before she even attended the party that evening. And it was time to show him, and to let him know that the next year would be different.

"Maybe it's time for your Secret Santa gift."

Chakotay eyed her over the bright wrapping. "Why do I suspect I wasn't the only one to bribe Tom?"

Her smile was enigmatic, but her eyes danced, and he saw. "Kathryn, I want-"

She stopped his words with a finger over his lips. "Later." The word hung in the dimly lit quarters. One simple word, full of promise.

The paper gave way under his seeking fingers, and he held a PADD. "A holonovel? Kathryn, how did you know I've been wanting 'Klingon Sex-Slaves in the Underworld'?"

A gentle chuckle. "It's nothing that racy, I'm afraid."

The PADD sprang to life. "Your holiday gift," he read aloud, "is me." He looked at her and heat blazed out of his eyes. "You?"

"Me."

"That sounds pretty racy to me." He shifted even closer, pulling her tightly to his side. His face came down to nuzzle her hair. "And what can I do with my gift?"

"Anything you want."

"Can I unwrap it?"

"I certainly hope so."

His lips moved down, pressed gently on her forehead. "Can I unwrap my gift and keep it in my bed, safe and warm next to me?"

When did her voice become so shaky, so thick? "That's a very good place to keep it."

"And is it only a holiday gift? How long can I keep it?" The question was low, intense, and the edge of playfulness had left his voice.

"How about forever?"

"Forever might be nearly long enough."

And finally, his lips came down, seeking hers, and she melted into the freedom he had given her.

(((FIN)))

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