Chakotay realised his breath was rattling heavily through his chest as he left Cargo Bay 2 and had to stop before he reached the turbolift, his damp hands curling into fists as he forced himself to take stock. As the immediate, powerful emotions his conversation with Seven had stirred up began to slacken their grip the fog of confusion, familiar during his sessions on the holodeck with her, began to return, along with the impotent frustration he'd felt then. She was capable of so much, he knew that for certain now, not only of the stable relationships he'd seen form on the holodeck but of untold depths of compassion and empathy. She'd certainly shocked him with her argument in defence of the Ventu, careful and measured but considerably more personal than his own. He suspected that it had been the poignancy of her admissions that had swung the Captain in their favour rather than his more moral based discussion, after all, Janeway had ignored him more often than she'd heeded him over the years. He realised that he shouldn't have been so surprised, he hadn't been totally blind before, he knew Seven was fundamentally good-natured, could be selfless to the point of revealing a self-destructive martyr streak, but then she'd ruin that image of herself by saying something unbelievable like "beauty is irrelevant" and he'd automatically think of her as drone once more.
He sighed irritably as that thought ran through his head, angry at himself, and studied the dark corridor in which he stood, still speckled every so often with a patch of Borg technology which hadn't been removed, the legacy of when this section of the ship had been wholly assimilated, and grimaced. The whole crew had done Seven a disservice by penning her down here. Now that he thought about it, it was as if Seven had spent her entire time on Voyager on parole, ordered to become a full crewmember but also expected to subsist in a Cargo Bay which was essentially a Borg relic. The crew tolerated her attempts to become social but didn't go out of their way to encourage it. She was one of the crew but not part of it in many fundamental ways. He remembered, when he'd first watched her simulations, asking over and over why she felt she couldn't reveal that part of herself in real life. It had had saddened him then that she was too insecure, perhaps still too full of Borg pride to let go and be human, but now he saw that it had a lot more to do with the people around her than with Seven herself, holograms were safe.
He moved to step forward again, his legs suddenly leaden. At least this time he'd been able to reassure her and had hopefully helped her to accept and cope with the emotions the situation on Ledosia had left her with, she wouldn't need to bottle it up or confide in holograms….
"Commander, what a lucky coincidence!" Neelix's cheery voice bouncing down the corridor jerked Chakotay away from his intense thoughts. "I was just about to come and look for you!"
Chakotay frowned, feeling slightly dazed. "Why…why would you come to look for me down here Neelix?" he asked quickly.
Neelix chuckled, flashing his pointy teethed grin. "Actually I'm here to speak to Seven and then I was going to speak to you, now I can invite you both at the same time!"
"Invite us?" Chakotay echoed dubiously, the memory of when he'd unsuccessfully invited Seven to one of Neelix's gatherings, a cooking class, popping spontaneously into his head. "To what exactly Neelix?"
"It was Lieutenant Paris' idea really; I'm just helping out in my role as Morale Officer." Neelix answered brightly, continuing towards the Cargo Bay, "Come on and I'll explain…"
Chakotay moved to hold Neelix back from the doors. "I don't think Seven will…" He stopped himself abruptly; surely he'd learned not to assume anything about Seven by now?
Neelix must've seen the conflict in his expression for he smiled knowingly as he shrugged off Chakotay's hand. "I know that Seven doesn't find social events easy, but I've always believed she just needs a little coaxing, and that's my job."
"Coaxing…" Chakotay repeated thoughtfully, glancing at the doorway furtively before smiling to himself. "You could be right about that Neelix, you want some help?"
"Gladly Commander." Neelix agreed happily and walked with him into the Cargo Bay.
Seven still stood at the console almost exactly where Chakotay had left her a few minutes before, but Chakotay was gratified to notice that the Ventu blanket had been moved from the console to join the meagre collection of Seven's possessions by her alcove. She nodded politely to Neelix but couldn't restrain herself from cocking a surprised brow at Chakotay, "Mr Neelix, Commander."
"Good evening Seven!" Neelix replied exuberantly, "I hope you've recovered from your experiences on Ledosia?"
Seven paused for a split second, unconsciously glancing at Chakotay, before giving a slow but firm nod. "I believe so Neelix, thank you for your concern." She replied softly, "May I ask why you are here?"
"Well, I'm here to invite you both to a little get together on Holodeck 2 being thrown in your honour!" Neelix announced, obviously expecting both of them to share his enthusiasm.
"Our honour?" Chakotay forced out somewhat incredulously as he saw Seven blanch, "Why exactly?"
"Yes, I fail to see what we've done to merit…" Seven began, her cool exterior becoming mildly flustered.
"You were missing in action for two days!" Neelix pointed out, "The whole crew was worried about you and working on a way to find you. Of course your safe return needs celebration!"
Chakotay and Seven exchanged uncertain glances, unsure of how they could respond to that without hurting Neelix's feelings. Seven eventually took the plunge. "Mr Neelix, there's really no need to expend resources on my account…"
"Nonsense Seven!" Neelix interrupted, "Your shore leave was disrupted, you need a break, some fun, as does everyone else on the ship, which is why this party is being held."
"I am sorry that the crew's shore on Ledosia was cut short because of our situation." Seven responded, "But I've come to believe I learned more from my time with the Ventu than I would have at the warp mechanics conference." She didn't catch Chakotay shooting her a surprised and relieved look as she spoke these words; she was too focused on Neelix's reply.
"Even if you enjoyed your time there, which is wonderful to hear, that doesn't mean you don't deserve a party." Neelix told her, addressing Chakotay too, "It's being combined with Tom's celebration of his flying lessons ending, so it should be fun. You'll be the centre of attention after all!"
Chakotay decided to ignore Seven's slight wince, starting to like the idea of a party. "Which programme is the party being held in Neelix?"
"Sandrine's." Neelix answered, "It starts at 2000 hours and is completely casual, no uniforms. Even the Captain has said ranks can be forgotten at a party."
"It sounds great Neelix." Chakotay said gamely, "I'll be there."
Neelix beamed at him, amber eyes sparkling. "Wonderful Commander!" He began to turn back towards the doorway, "I'd better go and round up some more guests." He smiled hopefully back at Seven, "Please think about coming along Seven."
Seven gave him an obliging nod, an affectionate smile flickering briefly over her lips. "I will consider it."
Satisfied, Neelix took his leave, but Chakotay stayed where he was, watching Seven as she returned to her work. "Are you really thinking about going?" he queried in gentle curiosity.
"I might…" Seven began, her eyes uneasily scanning the Cargo Bay for a moment and falling again on the Ventu blanket, "It may prove a…"
"Good distraction?" Chakotay filled in, able to sense the weight of her previous concerns returning to her shoulders.
Seven's lips twitched with a strained wryness. "Precisely." She admitted honestly, "However, I am unaccustomed to being the "centre of attention" as Neelix phrased it. I do not think I'd relish it."
"Oh, I don't know, it can be enjoyable in the right situation." Chakotay countered, and Seven wondered if she was imagining a twinkle in his eyes. "Besides, with the party also being in Tom's honour as well as ours, I'm sure he'll happily take on any attention you don't want."
Seven felt a laugh bubble pleasantly out of her throat which only grew louder as Chakotay joined her. "Yes, you are almost certainly correct about that!"
Chakotay laughed again, and then became more serious. "So you'll go then?" He unconsciously touched the back of her hand, which was resting on the console, encouragingly as she nodded shyly. "Good, I'm glad." He murmured before making a small sigh as he met her gaze, "I'm also relieved you're not angry with me about missing your conference, that was absolutely my fault after all."
Seven shifted awkwardly, embarrassment tingeing her features. "I was angry…at first." She conceded, glancing up at him guiltily, "But I now feel I should thank you for it."
Chakotay was slightly taken aback. "What? Why?"
A small, thoughtful smile settled on Seven's face. "As I told Mr Neelix, I believe I learned a great deal. Warp mechanics after all can be studied anywhere at any time, the Ventu on the other hand were unique."
"They certainly were." Chakotay agreed softly, "For what it's worth, I think I learned a lot too."
Seven couldn't resist lifting her eyebrows at him, "You learned to follow your scheduled flight plan at all times?" she suggested, her tone utterly deadpan but belied by the teasing smile pulling at her lips.
Chakotay burst out laughing. "No, not exactly, although I probably should take that lesson to heart shouldn't I?"
"Yes." Seven answered, brutally honest as ever. Her smirk soon fell away though, and she gazed at him gratefully, "You were fundamentally right however, Ledosia did show me some very relevant beauty."
"I'm glad to hear that Seven." Chakotay said, very sincere now. "You will come to the party won't you?"
Seven thought she could hear entreaty in his voice and felt heat rise up her cheeks. The Doctor and the Captain frequently firmly "requested" her presence at social events, but it felt very different with Chakotay asking. She knew that if the Doctor were here he'd remind her exactly why it was different, but she pushed those emotional considerations hurriedly aside. "Yes, I shall Commander."
"Good." Chakotay answered, his weighty tone conveying a lot more than that simple word. "Don't call me Commander anymore Seven. I'm Chakotay, at least when we're off duty, and remember this party is strictly casual."
Seven's expression became unreadable for a moment, her voice wavering. "As you wish, if you comfortable with that."
"I am." Chakotay assured her firmly, wondering why he'd never asked her before, all of the other senior officers had always called him Chakotay when they were off duty, with Tuvok sometimes the exception depending on his mood, but he'd never thought of extending the privilege to Seven. "I should have made that clear to you before, I'm sorry."
Seven flushed, "No need Comma…" She caught him frowning at her teasingly and corrected herself, "No need Chakotay."
Chakotay smiled at her widely, "I'll see you later then." He said cheerily, turning to leave.
Seven felt a sigh escape her as she nodded and then the doors shut behind him, feeling shell-shocked by this turn of events. "Yes, I suppose you will." She murmured to herself almost disbelievingly.
A/n: The holodeck strikes again… ;) PLEASE REVIEW! :D Unfortunately I'll probably not be able to update again until next week, I've got a lot of work to do and my mum is coming to visit me too. I might be able to squeeze a chapter of something in tomorrow, but I can't guarantee that so I thought I'd warn you.