Boiled In Their Own Pudding
By Rob Morris

CHRISTMAS DAY, 2378 USS VOYAGER, DELTA QUADRANT

CAPTAIN'S QUARTERS

Captain Janeway looked and rolled her eyes as Chakotay held and shook the spoon over his baked sweet potato.

"You're putting on more brown sugar?"

The First Officer shrugged.

"I told you. I like a lot of butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar on my yams."

She pointed with an opened palm.

"With all that, you might as well add marshmallows too."

Chakotay looked up.

"No. Those would be-candied yams. I like my yams sweet, but not that sweet."

"They're already called sweet potatoes. They're called that because they're sweet. You don't have to add anything to them, except a little butter."

Chakotay ignored her, and took his first bite. Janeway shook her head.

"Bet you can't taste the potato through all that mess."

Chakotay threw down his fork and stared over. The clang from the plate echoed for a moment. Janeway was not amused.

"Watch yourself, Commander. You're walking a line, here."

Chakotay's face scrunched a bit in confusion.

"You're calling rank and vaguely threatening some kind of action against me-for a fork thrown against a plate?"

The Captain nodded.

"Yes, if I let that kind of thing go, then this voyage is as good as over."

He put his hand to his head.

"Kathryn, we're in private. There can be no breakdown of command when only the two of us are present, eating roasted yams."

"It's called, Chakotay, a sweet potato. A baked, not a roasted, sweet potato."

Chakotay plunged his fork into the vegetable, and held it up.

"Better call Tuvok, Captain. Because I and my YAM are calling a mutiny. You know mutiny, don't you? The kind I helped prevent six years ago? The kind the Doctor went and undertook not six weeks ago-without having this kind of interrogation? Mind you, he didn't have someone altering his mind, like I did with Tuvok."

Her face hardened.

"Make your point."

"Certainly. When I emerged from Teero's long-distance brainwashing, I saw raw fury on your face. This despite the fact that you knew that I was a pawn in a fanatic's game. But when the Doctor, of his own free will, decided to go against orders and leave the ship to aid an obviously unstable holographic leader, you choose to not even temporarily confiscate his emitter. Suppose his program had become unstable? Did you even check for a virus set in him by Iden?"

Janeway shook her head.

"And just how long would you have had me punish the doctor for? For nothing more than seeking the truth about himself and his kind?"

Chakotay ate more potato, and then spoke.

"I don't know. How about for thirty days?"

Choked by anger, the Captain was a moment in gathering herself.

"Tell me you did not just go there."

Chakotay's mouth distended for a second, and then he responded.

"There is discipline, and then there is humiliation. You all but sawed Tom in half. Reduction in rank would have been enough. But you balance your ledgers by bludgeon."

Janeway held up two fingers on one hand.

"I have bent over backwards to help my crew cope with the facts of living through this ordeal. When you complained that your former crew were being shortchanged, who put Be'lanna in as Chief Engineer like that?"

"If and when you do bend over backwards, Kathryn, it's so you can check to be certain your fiats are being followed to the letter. Yes, you've been good to a lot of people in a lot of instances, me included. But more and more, it's like you're being magnanimous. As the Captain, you have certain authority and certain rights. But in exchange for following orders, a crew has the right to demand consistency from their CO. You've been consistent in being capricious."

She got up, and walked right up to him on the other side of the table.

"It is Christmas Day. You might consider giving me the gift of peaceful, quiet obedience!"

"My father always told me that we shouldn't blame Christmas for the hypocrites who misused the faith behind it to oppress our people. So I won't dispute that a gift is a proper observance and a decent courtesy. But you want a gift, Captain? Look all around you. Because six years ago, I gave you true and total command over this ship!"

She slammed her fist on the table.

"You were no more interested in the burdens of commanding this ship than you were in commanding the Maquis! People you once worked with told me that If Eddington hadn't been such a speech-making showboat, you would have been very content to just quietly run petty little raids through the DMZ! You didn't give me this ship so we could get home, Chakotay. You gave it to me because you knew you couldn't handle it."

He got up, and headed for the door.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I can't handle deciding on a dime that we could let three officers be assimilated without consequence. Or was it? Did Tuvok's breakdown on the Borg ship make Teero's job easier? Did Tom stare back at that whole deal with the Borg, look at Seven's abduction, and decide it was alright to blow up that pollution center? Leadership by whim, Captain, leads to whims all around. So no-I cannot handle that."

He was out and away before another word could be said. They were still united by sheer misery of soul, though.

QUARTERS OF LIUETENANTS PARIS AND TORRES

Elsewhere, another conversation began to quietly move into uncharted and dangerous territory. Harry Kim sat and ate with his friends.

"I just still can't believe she set me up like that. Two bombs in two ships-and then she tells me not to take it personally."

Tom smiled at his recent bride.

"I can't complain. It worked out well for us."

Be'lanna smiled, as well.

"Besides, Harry, it's not like this sort of thing hasn't happened to you before. You should be immunized against it by now."

Harry waited for the playful punch line. When none came, he considered other punches. Be'lanna kept on, unheeding of the sharpness of her words, and their effect on her young friend.

"You know, it just occurred to me. When Tom and I were stuck out in space, our air supply running out? That was when we first declared that we really cared about each other."

Paris smiled.

"One might even say that we declared that we love each other. Well, I might say it."

Torres let the implications of that go for now.

"My point was, while we were doing all that, Harry was making his infamous play for Seven Of Nine."

Tom nodded, and pointed.

"Now I get it!"

Harry looked back and forth.

"Well, then, explain it to me. I don't get it at all."

Be'lanna's amused look seemed to indicate that she thought he never would, either.

"Isn't it obvious? Harry, every time your love life hits the wall, ours goes from impulse to warp. I mean, we got married while you were hauling off your girlfriend for terrorism."

Tom ate three forkfuls of stuffing, then added salt to Harry's already-aggravated wound.

"From the beginning. I mean, I only started chatting Be'lanna up because you were in one of your funks and she got impatient waiting for you to come around."

Harry tried to cut this off.

"I guess if you two ever want to have children, I better get left at the altar."

Kim desperately hoped that his married friends would catch on, either to the bitterness or the absurd irony of his response. This was to prove a vain hope. Be'lanna merely nodded.

"That just might about do it. Happily, we all know you'll get there."

Tom seemed no more disposed to be cognizant of his friend's feelings.

"Where would we two be without Harry?"

When they turned back to their food without another word, Harry again waited for the punch line. This time, though, he stopped waiting.

"You want to know where you two would be? Huh? Well, I'll tell you where you two would be. In prison. And if we follow that line of thinking, I'd be at least a Lieutenant who could feel safe that if he happened to have a bad romantic turn, it wouldn't be automatically spread all over the ship like wildfire!"

Torres glared at the Ensign, but Harry just shook his head.

"Stuff that Maquis/Klingon temper, Mrs. Chief Engineer. Look at the two of you. Failed Maquis and failed Starfleet both. Starfleet, paranoid as can be about a group that got crushed the first time they faced a real enemy. The Maquis, swearing oaths and making speeches while playing pirate against a bunch of anal-retentive Admirals more noted for their own conspiracies than for stopping yours. One group in a tizzy to defend one of the stupidest treaties ever written, one group giving them ammo to defend it by playing space militia. Well, the Maquis are gone, and most of the Admirals who were SOOO hot to get them had to resign after the Breen attack on Earth. Launched, might I add from the very place the other group warned about-albeit in so asinine a way, no reasonable person was going to listen anyway. I and the other people not protected by the power structure here on Voyager are the only real victims of your war. So do not sit there and play kissy-face while wearing two pips you did not earn and tell me how lame I am."

He was out before they could speak to him. Be'lanna shook her head.

"He honestly blames us for his life not being where he'd like it to be?"

Tom held up an opened palm, pointed at the door.

"Like his own lack of social skills plays no part in all that. Our Mister Kim not only doesn't have a leg to stand on, he barely has a lower torso. I mean, just how many spies and saboteurs has he granted access to this ship in the name of getting him some?"

Be'lanna looked at her new husband, tried to eat, and then looked at him again. This was not a friendly look.

"You had to bring that up, didn't you? You know how I am about that."

"By that you mean what exactly?"

"Tom, no one worked closer than me with Seska. Chakotay was blinded by the need for warm bodies in the Maquis—not to mention the warmth of her reptilian body. Seska, Jonas-they occurred under my watch, and it's indicative of a pattern."

"And this pattern is?"

Be'lanna got up, and turned away.

"That what Harry said is what most people think. That I'm a lucky, petulant fool who got her job because Chakotay insisted on a politically correct power-sharing agreement."

Tom ate more, and then looked at her.

"One, none of that is true, and two, why would you, of all people, care if it was?"

Her hands met the table with some force.

"If I believe it to be the truth, and if I care about it, shouldn't that be enough for you?"

He downed a sliver of cranberry sauce.

"No, partly because I won't support you when you talk yourself down, mostly because it's sometimes really hard to tell when you care about something."

She pulled back.

"Oh, is that what we meant by that crack about declaring your love?"

He wiped off his chin, and stood up.

"You took the second most important day in the evolution of our relationship and talked about it like we exchanged friendship icons. We're now married, and you still can't even say that we are and have been in love unless you have to."

She turned back to him.

"You know, contrary to internal opinion polls, you are not perfect. One does not become perfect merely by learning from having made every single mistake there is for one sentient being to make! All this time, and you still are trying to make me into this constructively expressive, positively emotive construct. My God, you are as bad as my mother, trying to make Kahless, Jr. out of me. Around you, I'm not allowed to be grieving Maquis, driven Engineer, unhappy half-Klingon- around you I'm not even sure I can be Be'lanna."

He grabbed a blanket, and a pillow.

"Another mistake I've learned from. There is no talking to or being around you, when you're like this. Noper. You've gone and decided that the universe doesn't work-again. So it is that when Be'lanna drinks the misery-tinted bloodwine, so must we all. You sure we're not already-related? Cause you just ruined Christmas as quickly as the Admiral ever could."

"Well, Tom, I'm certain that Admiral Paris has had at least six happy holidays-if you know what I mean. Cause' mine is about to get a LOT better!"

He walked towards the door, turned and gave a mocking salute.

"Yes, Ma'am!"

Sacked out inside the Delta Flyer, Tom accessed one selection from the vid library.

*Mary-I never knew we had so many friends!*

Tom flicked it off.

"You don't, pal. They will turn on you."

He chose another selection, one better fitting his mood and the general behavior of those onboard.

*If the creature emerges from the water again, Tokyo will surely be destroyed!*

Tom grinned.

"Burn, baby, burn."

QUARTERS OF SAMANTHA AND NAOMI WILDMAN

Samantha Wildman and Neelix found Naomi inputting text on her terminal in the Wildmans' quarters.

"Honey, what are you doing?"

The girl shrugged.

"A bunch of kids my age wrote specifically to me, back on Earth. I want to get a good long letter together in time for the next transmission batch. I'll record a vid for some of it, but I figured there might be more memory space available if I made most of it text."

Neelix reached over and hit the save routine prompt.

"Well, you can do that later. Your Mom and I have set up the Ktarian Kaioshin feast celebration."

Naomi unfroze her letter, and kept typing.

"No. I already celebrated the Ktarian feast."

Her mother saved again.

"That was North Continent. This is South Continent. C'mon, Naomi. Your father would want you to be part of both of them."

Naomi resumed typing.

"I've already been a part of every Earth ceremony celebrated in December. You've had me up since oh-five-hundred hours. I've worn six sets of clothes, and heard all about lights that didn't go out, lights in the sky, lights of sacrifice and self-responsibility, and heard a scary story about a mean king who killed kids. The only light I want is my bedroom light as it goes out. I'm tired."

Samantha sighed.

"Your father and I always agreed that when we had children, we would expose them to every faith in our heritage, the better to let them decide for themselves which one to choose. And that king was wicked, not mean."

Naomi wasn't budging.

"Well, I never agreed to any of that. And my father isn't here."

Neelix laid on the charm to a child he'd always had a way with.

"Naomi, your Mom just wants you to go and celebrate what she and your Dad hold sacred. This is very important to her."

It didn't work. Naomi's eyes went narrow, and she nearly screamed.

"I said NO!"

Ensign Wildman shook her finger at her daughter.

"Young lady, stop being difficult and get into those clothes. This whole agenda was one of the first things your father and I talked about when we first let him know we were alive."

Naomi turned and looked at her.

"You let him know that you were alive. You let him know that I existed."

Samantha nodded.

"Yes. He was excited and surprised. And he reminded me of how important it is that we quickly establish the back-payment of your spiritual debt to his ancestors."

Naomi slammed down her hands.

"I've been going to Spirit Debt Classes for the last ten months! Since we've been talking regularly with the Alpha Quadrant, he keeps adding on more stuff. A lot of it isn't even Ktarian!"

Neelix tried again.

"Naomi, your Mom and your Dad..."

The child cut him off with a nearly shocking rejoinder.

"...neither of whom you happen to be."

The Talaxian's jaw dropped, and he fell silent. Samantha shook her head in disgust.

"What Neelix was trying to say is that your father and I fell away from our faiths, as we got older. We're trying to instill you with the teachings of those faiths, so that you don't suffer in the same way."

"Mom, I'm suffering now!"

"NO, you only think you are."

The girl moved for her bed-area, but was physically blocked by her mother. Naomi's glare threatened to consume her whole face.

"I'm exhausted. All these classes, just so you and Father can feel good about your own souls. And I haven't even eaten today."

"That's part of the fast in solidarity with the early martyrs."

"From which faith?"

Samantha folded her arms.

"Today is Christmas, the Feast Of The Christian Nativity."

Naomi folded hers.

"Then why aren't I feasting? And why are we celebrating all these other holidays at the same time? Most of them don't even occur in the twelfth month."

Neelix found his voice.

"Well, honey, the fast was adapted from the pre-Reform Ktarian Na'a ceremony. Your Mom and Dad combined them to give you a better overall perspective. The other holidays got put in because Christmas tends to be an overwhelming holiday for people who don't observe it as a religious event. They didn't want it to be subsumed."

Samantha turned and looked at Neelix.

"I could have said those things myself, you know. Neelix, I've appreciated your help. But I don't need back-up to have authority with my own daughter."

The Talaxian's way was usually to withdraw quietly, after a fashion. This was not most days.

"Well, I couldn't agree with you more, Samantha. After all, you have a rebellious, overworked, underfed, confused and angry child, who, despite having once peppered people with questions about religion, now seems set to renounce it entirely."

He looked at Naomi.

"She's your mother, after all, and I'm not."

He made for the door, and was not stopped as he went. Samantha was showing her rage more and more, and her daughter was matching her every step of the way.

"It may surprise you to learn, Naomi, that the time will come when you're not so cute, and the spotlight you seem to like so much will shift away. You won't always be the only child born on Voyager. Asking to be the Captain's Helper can also be seen as a selfish burden on a crew with much better things to do."

Naomi crinkled her eyes at Samantha.

"Cute? Spotlight? Mom, every time I've helped out-even if it was just making coffee with Neelix- I hear people saying the name of some teenager who lived on The Enterprise-D. I finally looked him up. You know what he's hated for? Two things. Being too perfect, and then screwing up later on. When you're an adult, it may be hard. But when you're a kid, you're never right. Not even once. About anything. You go and talk with somebody I've never met face to face, and all of a sudden, I'm some kind of heathen."

"My heart bleeds. Now get in your outfit, or go to bed without supper."

Naomi made for her sleeping area, threw out the outfit, and activated the divider on max. Samantha was quick to realize that while she could take some things back and still keep her authority, her wounded pride wouldn't allow for a single retraction.

SICKBAY

Three beings who could choose, if they liked, to stay out of the attempts at holiday festiveness did just that.

"I was overdue, in any event, for an extended stay in my regeneration alcove. I speak not as Borg, but as one still new to humanity. One light and one child may have power to redeem on levels unguessed at. But to expect that merely invoking the proscribed day of feasting will put aside all other concerns seems unwise to me. In fact, it seems to invite the raising of far grimmer concerns."

"I myself chose to remain on the Bridge. We are at full stop under shields and our somewhat crude temporary non-portable cloak, so I was alone, and I found this solitude highly enjoyable. My recent failures in control weigh heavily upon me. Human emotions are, as has been noted, rarely more rampant than at a time when the false expectation of perfect happiness instead brings about nearly perfect misery. The observance itself has validity, and can be fascinating to view if kept to its religious center. But perhaps I as a Vulcan find enforced happiness an even more repugnant idea than enforced worship."

"Every so often, fate steps in and reminds me that I am in fact just a program who is a sum total of other programs. For most of this day, I had my back-up on call. I was only to be activated in case of serious injury. There was none. Physically, anyway. The replicators have been making a lot of aspirin, though. I'm made a doctor. I say, if you're going to feel joy, spread it out through the year. Don't bunch it up in one small season then complain if it spoils. Decibel levels all over this ship were so high, my program actually took note of them as a potential sign of rampant toxicity. Let's face it, the man was right. It's all a great fraud. A Humbug. Quite literally a virus that they all willingly expose themselves to, then wonder why they stop feeling good."

Unspoken was the common thought between them that all their rational thinking that spared them all the foolishness also kept them forever as things apart from those they called their friends.

8 PM THAT SAME DAY

Chakotay buzzed Janeway's quarters. She said two words.

"Save it."

He shook his head.

"Not why I'm here, Captain. It's an emergency transmission from Reg Barclay."

She rubbed her weary eyes.

"Doesn't he know we're under temp-cloak? Besides, it's the wrong time of the week. His power usage must have been insane."

Chakotay waved his hand dismissively.

"He says he can get us home. Instantly. As in today."

The Captain stood silent for a moment. Again, she spoke only two words, this time in weary relief.

"It's over."

TURBOLIFT EN ROUTE TO BRIDGE

Harry saw the two in the turbolift, joined them, and spoke quickly.

"The first thing you should both know is, I meant every word I said. Every last word. I had meant to say them in a nicer, more polite, better timed way. But I'm not pulling back a single statement. Because except for tone and volume, you two had that coming."

He fell silent, and now Be'lanna looked at Tom.

"Can I ask where you were last night?"

He closed his eyes.

"I sacked out in the Flyer. I'd prefer not to stay there."

She shook her head.

"You don't have to. But what the hell happened, Tom?"

He opened his eyes and looked at her.

"I guess we became grown-ups. Because I always told myself, only grown-ups understand phrases like 'don't say words you can't take back.' Now I understand. Can I have a few weeks before giving you an apology? Because right now, I can't even think about yesterday without cringing."

She took his hand, though only lightly.

"I can't think about it, period. I had a cousin once who made me feel as fundamentally rotten as I just made myself feel. So you have your few weeks, Tom."

Harry forced a few more words out.

"Look, I'm not accusing-anymore. But did anybody spike our drinks or our food?"

Tom Paris, who had many times before this thought himself at last fully matured, now felt once again like reality had slapped him back. He wished there was an outside force to blame, a Q or would-be conqueror or scavenger firing some kind of insanity ray at them. He knew better.

"No. That was all us. A long journey didn't help, but I always know when I've broken something. Still-I never thought even a screw-up with my talents could break Christmas."

Torres shot off some support.

"You weren't the only one swinging that hammer, Tom. All our fingerprints are on it."

Harry shook his head.

"And with thirty to fifty years still ahead of us-what then?"

To that, no one had an answer.

BRIDGE

Naomi Wildman spoke to Captain Janeway so that her mother could hear.

"Captain, I was thinking that maybe I shouldn't be here when our visitor arrives. Maybe it's best if only the official crew-the people who do the work-are around."

Samantha Wildman looked over at her little girl. Her face had progressed to a definite 'we'll talk.'

Only a direct talk with both her husband and Naomi would truly settle things, though. Revealed then would be the sudden extraordinary pressure he had received from his own family, when Naomi's existence was first revealed.

Janeway was not letting her helper go just yet, though.

"Naomi, I'll ask you to stay. See, our visitor is a young Starfleet officer who you, perhaps unfairly, have been compared to. And for the record, this chair and its occupants have never once resented your help. I could no more run things in the manner I prefer without you than I could without Commander Chakotay. That's not an adult talking down to a cute child. Those are the words of a CO grateful for her blessings."

When Naomi nervously took her place near the lift doors, Chakotay asked Janeway a question.

"You know we'll never settle everything we kicked up. So where do we go from here?"

She shrugged.

"Home would be my first choice."

Tuvok, the Doctor, and Seven all emerged from the same lift. All three seemed to note a near-illusory whiff of ozone, a sign of either a current storm or one just passed. Their various levels of detachment seemed almost not to be in evidence. Paris spoke.

"Captain, we're at the meeting point."

For once, nobody had any real idea why these coordinates had been chosen over any other. Seven was looked to by Chakotay, but a light shake of her head indicated nothing present on her temporal transceiver.

"Captain Kathryn Janeway?"

He was just there, without warning. His abilities apparently worked just as Reg Barclay had said. His face didn't contain the legendary earnestness of the early media reports. If anything, he seemed a bit drained, though whether this was a result of his journey, no one there could say. But he was less former legend than current portal to them, so the Captain rose to greet him.

"Welcome to Voyager, Lieutenant Crusher."

Wesley Crusher greeted her with all courtesy. But no one could fail to notice his sudden furtive looks at Ensign Kim and Naomi Wildman.

"It's a pleasure, Captain. Commander Riker says hi."

Which Janeway correctly took to mean that Q had removed the blocks on Riker's memory of his trip to Voyager nearly six years ago.

"I'll be blunt, Mister Crusher. Can you get us home?"

As Barclay had explained, Lieutenant Crusher had received training from the time-walking species known only as The Travelers. He could also walk with others in his temporal tow, including, hopefully, the USS Voyager and its weary crew.

"I'll need to look the place over, Captain. But right now I'm starved. I kind of borrowed that method of instant matter transmission from someone I met awhile back. But I don't have his physiology. I'll look the place over as I eat."

Seven Of Nine spoke then.

"Look the place over? I fail to comprehend why a more certain answer cannot be arrived at. Either you are capable of performing this act or you are not, Lieutenant."

Crusher appeared to breathe in before he responded. Perhaps addressing someone who so resembled the cold creatures that had tormented his first Captain bit at him.

"Well, there is your temporal transceiver, which someone from a plus-fifteen timeline used to send messages of warning. There's the fact that besides sending that same message, Ensign Kim was born in a near-term timeline that crossed with yours, and has experienced yet another timeline, this one subject-minus in nature. I have to know about all those things before I even attempt a jump."

Chakotay seemed a bit put off.

"Lieutenant, all those trans-temporal events are in our records. Surely you reviewed them before coming here."

Crusher seemed well-prepared for this question.

"Yes, I did, Commander. But I also have to see their side-effects first-hand. Also, and I hate to say it like this, this ship has gone through an unprecedented amount of null-gain events. What some people call the time-reset button. I might be able to do it. But not right now."

Janeway nodded.

"Mister Kim, Miss Wildman, please guide the Lieutenant through the minefield of Neelix's culinary offerings. But Mister Crusher? Please eat fast."

The young man smiled, and with Naomi and Harry in tow, he proceeded to the galley. When they left, Janeway turned to her first officer.

"What were we arguing about yesterday?"

He nodded, thoughts of home flooding his brain.

"I can't remember either."

SHIP'S GALLEY

Naomi had heard of Crusher, whose rise and fall as a boy in Starfleet had some teasingly making comparison to her desire to be useful aboard Voyager. Harry Kim certainly had heard of the former cadet who was already an ensign as he entered the Academy. Despite the lack of mobility aboard Voyager, Kim couldn't help but wonder where that kind of situation would have left him, rank-wise, in the present. Certainly, there would be fewer people making Harry jokes.

"Wesley? What was it like, growing up on Enterprise?"

The man seemed less grim than having taken a step down, and not being unhappy as a result.

"Well, Naomi, it was like knowing that the universe was in good hands. Like the gods were right there, just a lift-ride away."

Harry nodded.

"And you were one of them. Must have been awesome."

Crusher's eyes now looked a bit weary.

"I walked with them. I rode alongside them. I think I died with them a couple of times. But I was never one of them. I was a kid with ideas. I was told how smart I was until I did something stupid and cost another man his life, trying to look even smarter."

Naomi looked down, then at Wesley.

"Maybe the adults around you forgot to let you be a kid. Wasn't Tom's cousin your squad leader?"

Harry added in.

"Yeah. He's had some choice words to say about Nick Locarno."

Wesley shrugged.

"I'd probably agree with those words. But in the end, he only spoke. I listened. The only thing I really resent him for is reapplying to the Academy when his absolute ban was lifted. He made a point of snubbing Cadet Hajar, the only other member of our squad left at that point. I later learned Nick tends to leave people behind."

Naomi said one last thing before getting up.

"You were a kid. Maybe a talented one, but you were still a kid. They tell us not to act like adults until they need something for themselves. Maybe they should have just let you be a talented kid, so that when you had to hang around with them at the Academy, you didn't know how to handle it."

Crusher grinned.

"Tell me. Do you defuse exploding warp cores, too?"

The little girl grinned back.

"Nah. Mainly, I just talk too much."

Feeling a lot better, she went back to her quarters. Harry nodded at their guest.

"Don't tell me you're no miracle-maker, Lieutenant. That was great. But pardon me for saying, you do seem down on yourself."

"Harry, its Wesley. And you're right. I guess you could say I'm in mourning."

Kim winced.

"Who died?"

He waved a hand in the air.

"Nobody that I can verify. See, a while back, I got pulled away from this reality by a very powerful being. In the course of trying to get home, I met this couple. The guy was me, if I were a lot better at being me. The girl was the kind that if I thought I had a chance, I'dve jumped at it in a heartbeat. They became my best friends. We parted ways, and then they contacted me. They needed their reality, under siege from a nearly satanic power, to be sealed off so it couldn't escape if they failed. I offered to stay and help them more, but they kicked me out. At first I hated them for protecting me. But I realize now, I'm never going to see my friends again. And that kills me inside."

Harry gulped a little.

"I've heard of situations like that."

After Kim left, Crusher approached Neelix.

"I heard you make pancakes. Could I maybe get a stack?"

The Talaxian did as he was asked, but asked a question of their visitor.

"Tell me, Wesley-just how are you going to break it to them?"

Crusher maintained an awkward silence, but did not correct Neelix's implication. An old con artist simply knew.

BRIDGE

A short time later, Crusher kept to what Jean-Luc Picard had reminded him was the first duty.

"I can't get you back. Any of you. I can't transport Voyager. If you get back, it will be as one ship, together. With no help from me."

Janeway shook her head.

"Wesley, Reg Barclay told us that a Traveler's method of stepping around time once brought the Enterprise-D back from a bizarre galaxy. Voyager is nowhere near the size of a Galaxy-class."

Crusher shook his head.

"Captain, it's not about mass or size or anything physical. It's all of you. Because of all the temporal anomalies you've encountered-and will encounter-basically, none of you are the people you left as. Lieutenant Torres body looks, from a temporal standpoint, like someone split it in two."

The Vidians, thought Be'lanna. The surgeon, she realized, must have used chronitons to rapidly mature her separated halves. Crusher continued.

"You and Commander Chakotay bear Chrono-rad traces I can't even identify, like you were both at ground zero for an anti-time correction."

The senior officers took his word on that.

"Mister Paris has residual from some manner of warp experiment. His chronal DNA is all over the map. Harry and Naomi aren't even from this reality, and Harry also shows traces of an alt-past timeline. The Doctor's emitter is 29th Century tech. Seven Of Nine reads like she's been chronally resurrected five or more times. There's nothing here for me to lock onto. Reg overstated, in his enthusiasm. Believe me, he's tried everything. But apparently the Caretaker's Array also used temporal energies. From start to finish, helping Voyager is beyond my methods."

As the crew sat in stunned silence, Janeway shook her visitor's hand.

"Well, it was a good try, Mister Crusher. Thank You."

Wes nodded, and then pulled out a PADD.

"Some mutual friends of ours asked me to pass this correspondence on, and your EMH asked me to give something to Reg. Trust me—he'll get it and then an earful from me, for over-promising. Again, I'm sorry I couldn't help. Now I have to get back before Voyager's time field keeps me here. After all, we wouldn't want to subject you to that would we?"

The officer's self-deprecation was appreciated, but after he truly vanished, Janeway got up.

"This holiday just keeps getting better and better. I'll be on the holodeck."

SICKBAY

Tuvok finished his treatment. He nodded at the EMH.

"You have my thanks, Doctor. I had not foreseen the possibility of this episode, else I would have prepared for it through meditation."

The Security Chief had come in, shaking and stuttering. It nearly had the Doctor ready to tell Captain Janeway the harsh truth about Tuvok's long-term illness.

"Commander, were you perhaps -pardon my terminology- upset that Wesley Crusher's method of travel could not bring us back to the Alpha Quadrant?"

Tuvok looked away.

"It was far more than that, Doctor. As I saw the young man materialize in front of us, I became lost. I entered another place. In it, I sat silently at dinner with my family. My wife was next to me. There were no strange emotions to filter out. No need to set the thermostat in my quarters, for I was on warm, dry Vulcan. When I realized Lieutenant Crusher was incapable of instantly ending our journey, I felt ripped away from all I knew, and incapable of consistent, coherent actions."

The EMH nodded.

"I really wish those sensations were restricted to you, Tuvok. I myself had made more plans than I can count. I finally understand what all of you went through when that omnivorous leviathan cast his telepathic illusions. For what it's worth, I don't think this came directly from your illness."

The Vulcan looked at him plaintively.

"Have you detected contagion or alien influence?"

"No. But I have discovered that we are one and all a group of people a long way from home, and whether through a particular day of the year or a particular young man, we expected far too much and paid the price."

Tuvok closed his eyes.

"Is hope more than a mere emotion, Doctor? Is it in fact a vital necessity? Is that why so many of our friends gambled and lost that the 25th of December contained joy, in and of itself?"

The Doctor kept silent on this question.

ASTROMETRICS

Icheb was a bit thrown off.

"I found his knowledge of temporal mechanics to be quite comprehensive."

Seven continued checking the new data collation program as she responded.

"I do not criticize his knowledge. I criticize his lack of effort. Crusher made no attempt to bring us home. He merely showed up, talked, ate and left. On that basis, Mister Neelix should be commissioned as a Commander."

Icheb looked confused.

"But in fact he did. Wesley Crusher attempted to transport me to Jupiter Station-the very one that the Doctor visited. He theorized that since I had not dwelled on Voyager quite as long as many here have, I would provide a blueprint as to how the rest of us might attain transit."

Seven wondered why the visitor had not spoken of this.

"What sort of relative success did he achieve?"

Icheb called up a study onscreen.

"My integral temporal field is now inextricably linked with that of Voyager. We could not even go back to when I was linked with the collective. On our fifth attempt, Wesley Crusher seemed faint, and I refused to allow another attempt."

To the once and future Annika Hansen, this information about Crusher made no more sense than him not trying at all. Why would he put himself into such dire straits for strangers, and then earn their wrath by not making his efforts known? Now more than ever, she regretted avoiding the holiday many had chosen to celebrate. It could have explained much.

"You were wise to do so."

PARIS/TORRES QUARTERS

Harry looked at his two best friends.

"I'd still prefer that you don't help me be any more awkward than I already am. But ultimately, I'd rather be an idiot ensign with you two than a hero without you. The rest of that stuff I said we can bring up later. I don't even know what to apologize for, and what to defend. Just don't pull rank when we do, okay?"

Be'lanna shrugged.

"I never knew it all got to you like that. Then again, I have this tendency to focus on me."

Tom shook his head.

"Harry, you always seemed like you were better suited to this place than either of us. Also, I guess seeing you get all that bad luck reminded me how easily it could have been me. That makes me nervous, and you may have noticed I that I tend to cover my insecurities by joking. You may be the butt of some jokes-but you're not a joke yourself. Don't ever go there, pal."

Be'lanna nodded.

"Ever. There's nobody here on this ship that can stand there and call themselves free from stumbling. I probably have one or two more ridge-induced psychotic episodes coming. Maybe even some from the dependable genes of the Torres clan. You'll get your revenge, trust me."

As happy as Harry was when he left, the pair that then fell together in bed was even happier. Tom kissed her face all over.

"I thought that he'd never leave."

She grabbed and kissed him back.

"This isn't going to solve our argument, you know."

He began to undo her clothes.

"It's still a terrific way to work out the associated tension. Talk later. Action now."

She began to undo his.

"Hey, I've kind of lost track of my birth control. Yours?"

"Hey, not to worry. Species barrier, remember? Did you not tell me that your folks were years in trying to have kids? And I've heard the same story about Emissary Keh'lyr and Ambassador Spock. We have room, and I am not stopping when we are this worked up!"

She readied herself.

"Here's to the species barrier!"

It was only in the afterglow, and when an exhausted Tom had fallen asleep, that Be'lanna had a stray thought before joining him in slumber.

"Wait. Does the species barrier apply to hybrids?"

The answer came months later and was named Miral Paris, born between two quadrants, the happy result of a lousy Christmas.

THE WILDMANS QUARTERS

Samantha said what was on her mind.

"I thought we agreed that you wanted to be exposed to all the faiths our families have to offer."

Naomi didn't yell, but very firmly shook her head.

"No. You agreed. I asked if I couldn't just look them all over. While I was waiting for your answer, you set me up for virtual lessons time. Since then, I've been spending more time on the holodeck than even Captain Janeway."

Samantha turned, and then turned back, shaking her finger.

"Okay. Maybe all this isn't your favorite activity. But I am your mother, and this is for your own good."

Naomi sat down.

"How? What am I gaining? All I'm seeing is you asking me why I'm not in lessons, doing homework based on those lessons, then getting upset on holidays, and it seems like every single day is someone's holiday."

"Well, it is. The calendar is replete with holidays. We try to respect all cultures. We try to teach that to our children."

Naomi pulled up her lessons onscreen.

"Most of these faiths you don't even celebrate. You or Father. So why do I have to learn them? Why do I have to spend so much free time doing the lessons, Neelix almost didn't recognize me?"

Samantha shrugged.

"To give you options!"

Wildman caught herself, and put a hand to her head.

"God, how that sounded. Naomi, I made a promise to your father. But for now, how I carry that out is all my choice. So what do you think would be fair?"

Perhaps Naomi really did have something on the ball, for her answer was not the simple one Samantha thought would come.

"Two months with no new lessons. Let me digest what I have. Except for really big days like Christmas or Xanegji, no dressing-up. When the new lessons start, only Yeshuite Christianity and Ktar-lare Reformed. That covers both families."

Samantha would tweak those terms later, but for the most part they were kept as stated.

"Anything else?"

"Yeah. Mom, don't be so fair to other beliefs that you lose yours and Father's in the process. They're all great. But if you believe one thing, then somebody else is gonna find it offensive. In that case, you just believe and deal with it. I mean, I wouldn't let those Vaadwaur kids talk down Neelix, just to be polite."

Samantha tried to reassert herself.

"Honey, all faiths have validity. As do all points of view."

Naomi punched a few buttons on her terminal.

"No, they don't. What about people who killed doctors on Earth for doing things they didn't want to happen? What about the Terror War? The faiths have validity, but the points of view didn't."

"Naomi, you can't think that way. Your father respects my faith, and I respect his. We both respect all facets of those faiths."

The girl smiled.

"Gotcha!"

Wildman shrugged.

"What gotcha?"

Another picture was pulled up onscreen. It was that of a Ktarian woman.

"Who's she?"

Naomi pointed.

"That's Father's cousin Etana Jol. She and the Ktara-Nol cult wanted to take over the Federation, starting with the Enterprise. Wesley and his girlfriend stopped them. The Ktara-Nol all believe that Ktarians should rule just about everything-and that people like me just shouldn't exist."

Samantha grabbed and held close the daughter who indeed was too smart to easily handle.

"You're not always right. Mommy's not perfect. But you have validity. And you have lent that validity to all those who love you. Especially one tired ensign."

CAPTAIN'S QUARTERS

To his surprise, Chakotay did not find the Captain on the holodeck.

"Come."

He entered, and saw her reading the mysterious correspondence PADD Crusher had given her.

"Kathryn? Do I still have your confidence to serve as First Officer? The nature of some of our words yesterday force me to ask this."

She looked up.

"You were right. You gave me this ship. I forgot how much my first command weighed upon me. If you had raised any sort of ruckus, I could not have handled that, let alone mutiny."

Rather than return the compliment, Chakotay merely nodded in appreciation, and asked about her statement.

"Is this because you're upset Lieutenant Crusher couldn't bring us home?"

She shook her head.

"I am a little upset with Reg for overselling this. But it was something Crusher said that sticks with me."

"The time-field contamination? We should have almost have expected that. Braxton and his bunch warned about that kind of thing."

"No, Commander. It's when he said that we're not the people we left as. He meant it to describe our trans-temporal portability. But its literal truth isn't it? We're not who we left as. We're not even close."

Chakotay shrugged.

"To which I reply, good. If we hadn't been here, Be'lanna and I might well have died when the Dominion annihilated the Maquis. Tom would be a beach-bum. A lot of you would have also died in the war. I'm sorry for the dead. I mourn them, one and all. But I won't apologize for living."

Janeway sighed.

"Face it, I've become a dictator and you're held by some as a revolutionary sell-out. We've tried. But every time a chance for home comes by, we get preachy, we get frenetic, we get angry, and we get bothered. What we don't get is home."

Chakotay nodded.

"Some historians say that the Americas before the European colonists came were filled with savages scraping by in horrible places. Others say they were a cluster of paradise-like dwelling areas filed with blissful tribes living in communion with the Earth. I finally asked my grandfather what the Americas were before the Europeans."

She seemed half-interested.

"What did he say it was?"

Chakotay smiled.

"Ours. It wasn't all great anymore than it was all bad. But it was ours, and so were our destinies. Kathryn, this ship is ours, and so is this journey. Ours to be brilliant or insipid with, exclusively at our whim. No one else's."

She smiled at last.

"That really is quite good."

He nodded.

"Now if I could just figure out how Christmas got ruined, I'd be a regular shaman."

Captain Janeway put the PADD away. She would tell her people who it was from another day.

"Well, I have that one. A writer may not sit down and say 'Today I will be brilliant'. A living being may not sit down and say, 'Today I will be joyous'. A day and a festive time of year can help. But to expect it as a given? That dishonors us as well as the holiday. Well, no more. Hopefully, next Christmas will be better. But we owe it. Not the other way around."

"Kathryn? The letter Crusher gave you?"

"Not now, Commander. Through little gestures and big, we have a ship to heal."

Chakotay nodded.

"Our ship. Commanded by the tyrant and the wimp."

Janeway mock-frowned.

"Call yourself a tyrant again, Mister, and I'll see you in the brig!"

FIVE DAYS LATER

Naomi hugged Neelix, and so did Samantha. He understood better than some might have thought.

Tom and Be'lanna looked tired, but very contented.

Harry was with a date, and while it didn't end in wedded bliss, nor did it end with his drugged kidnapping, so he enjoyed himself.

Tuvok spoke with his crewmates, and at least tried to be a part of a celebration of renewal. Seven did as the Doctor had bid her, and kept silent on the illogic of holding one cycle above another. The Doctor felt out of sorts, but his reason for this was no more pronounced than usual.

Finally, the Captain raised a glass.

"Forgetting for the moment about taking one calendar over another, I say the following words: Here's to the New Year. May she be a damned sight better than the old one, and may we be home again before it's done."

A very ecumenical Amen traveled the room as midnight struck. And even though the terms of Kathryn's toast were indeed met, those that celebrated the day decided that next Christmas should be a 'small' one. Some rules knew no quadrant.