The three inches of snow that had fallen during the night made Raven’s Island look pure and untouched.
The island was small. On the south end steep cliffs provided a grand view over the ocean. A narrow path followed the sandy shores on its north side. Snow covered the trail but Janeway knew it well enough to lead the way.
Arm in arm she walked with her mother.
In the past she never used to do this, not even as a young girl but times had changed. She was concerned for her mother’s safety and wanted to make sure that Gretchen did not slip on the uneven ground and hurt herself.
"It’s beautiful out here," her mother said, inhaling the salty ocean air. "I can see why Seven loves it so much."
"She adores this place but she’s also quite taken with the city life. She loves going to the theatre, the movies … restaurants. I know she finds her work fulfilling and enjoys the company of her colleagues."
"She must think it very different from her upbringing out here."
"She has adjusted well but to tell the truth, Mom, I think she was shell-shocked in the beginning. So many people around her and she was also desperately trying to please me … to prove I didn’t make a mistake by hiring her. She wanted very much to fit in."
"She told me some of her unconventional background. I’m surprised you decided to hire her. You are usually such a stickler when it comes to rules and regulations."
Janeway felt herself blush.
"I was in a jam. I needed a translator immediately," she confessed. "However that’s not the whole truth. The fact is … she dazzled me, intrigued me no end. I have never met anyone like her, so open and honest. Her lack of diplomas and degrees were disturbing but I soon found out that she was the most brilliant translator I have ever worked with. Her dedication to duty and the way she perceives the concept of loyalty surpasses everything I have ever come across."
Gretchen squeezed her daughter’s arm.
"In other words, you fell head over heels?" she murmured.
"I guess that’s one way of putting it," the CEO said in a guarded tone of voice.
Gretchen stopped walking. They had reached the water and the icy blue sea stretched as far as the eye could see. Raven’s Island was located in the periphery of the archipelago.
"You never were very open, Kathryn," the older woman said with trepidation. "Even when you were young, you were always very private and quite proud. I remember how you used to lock yourself up in the bathroom to cry alone when you were little, not about to let anyone see your tears."
Janeway remembered it too.
"When Phoebe became old enough, she would bang on the door and demand that I’d come out. I was of course mortified."
"She was concerned for you. She didn’t want you to be sad all alone.
"Really?" Janeway doubted it. Her feisty little sister had never expressed very tender feelings towards her but then again, the CEO had never encouraged her to do so either. Her own efforts of being the protective big sister had prompted up front disapproval by the youngest Janeway early on.
"You also were very direct when you wanted to communicate with me or your father. I remember one time when you came home for the holidays," Gretchen continued. "You were studying at Harvard at the time. You asked me to take a walk with you, just like you did after breakfast today."
"I remember," Janeway replied, tight-lipped.
"You said that you had news for me. You then proceeded to tell me in a very matter of fact tone of voice that you had discovered you were a lesbian and that I would have to accept it. You said you knew that I wouldn’t understand the implications of this and was probably disappointed but it couldn’t be helped."
"I was very young."
"Yes, you were. I also understood that you were both apprehensive and nervous about telling me. Now, tell me Katie, in retrospect - did I not understand? Did I seem disappointed?"
Janeway shuddered and they resumed their walk.
"You were very understanding; I underestimated you and your reaction. You never showed signs of disappointment or disapproval. To be frank, you reaction shocked me," she confessed. "I was quite cynical, even back then, and for a long time I wondered what the catch was. Over time I came to the realisation that you just loved me, no catch, no hidden agenda, just unconditional love."
"Have I changed, Kathryn?"
"What do you mean?"
"I don’t know what’s wrong, darling, why you have kept to yourself so much these last few years … but I want to understand."
Janeway knew she had reached a cross road of sorts. She had withdrawn from her own family, creating a distance that became more and more painful as time went by.
"Mom, I don’t know if I can explain," she began.
The muscles in Gretchen’s arm tensed and then relaxed as if the older woman willed herself to not put pressure on her daughter.
"Take your time," she said quietly.
The CEO cleared her throat. Squinting into the light of the rising sun she continued.
"Three years ago, when I was home for Christmas, something happened that made me anxious. I found it wise to withdraw, both to pull myself together and also because …"
Janeway cleared her throat again, chastising herself for not being able to keep the tremors out of her voice.
This seemed to take the other woman by surprise.
"Tell me about it, darling."
Janeway involuntarily held on harder to Gretchen’s arm. She did not know quite how to explain but dug deep inside for courage.
She, who had stared down countless business opponents, hosted enormous stockholder meetings and broken new territory as one of the few women leaders in her field, now suffered from a dry mouth and sweaty palms inside the gloves.
"Do you remember that Jack Cambridge was there?" she asked.
"Yes. That was the year when several of your father’s old friends came by with a huge fruit basket. They stayed for eggnog and warm cider on Christmas Eve."
"I overheard your conversation with Cambridge, Mom. I was just about to enter Dad’s study, looking for my purse, when I heard you two talking in there. I meant to turn around but heard you mention my name. I know it’s no excuse, but I got curious."
The older woman frowned.
"I have a feeling that I know what you’re going to say but I want to hear it from you, darling."
"This was a month after the tenth anniversary of Dad’s death. Cambridge and you were sharing some old memories and he mentioned the fact that neither Phoebe nor I had got married or provided you with any grandchildren."
"You replied that both Phoebe and I were busy with our careers. He then put his arm around you and expressed … his concern. He said that there was still hope for Phoebe. You asked him what he meant by that. Cambridge then said that Dad had talked to him … about me. He said that my ‘way of life’ had become one of the greatest disappointments in Dad’s life." Janeway inhaled sharply. "I could hardly believe my ears. I couldn’t believe that Dad had confided in this man. I was stunned. I had never known that Dad felt that way. I always thought he accepted and supported both my chosen profession and … me."
She stopped walking and angrily brushed the threatening tears from her eyelashes.
"What did you do then?" Gretchen asked softly.
"I left the room and walked into the garden. I must have been in a vulnerable mood, because I took it really hard. I had just closed a major business deal and opened a new franchise in Germany. I was exhausted but content. To be honest; I was pretty proud of myself for accomplishing that." Janeway’s voice deepened. "Dad had been on my mind a lot that fall. I had thought about his accident and indulged in fantasies about how proud he would’ve been of my achievements had he lived, I guess as a sort of comfort. Now all that seemed so empty."
"I don’t blame you. I remember that talk with Jack very well. If you had stayed you would have heard me set him straight, Kathryn," Gretchen said firmly. "The man may have been an old friend of your father’s but he is also a complete moron. He was not expressing any other opinion than his own."
"What did you say to him?"
"I told him to mind his own business and that he had completely misunderstood anything your father might have said on that matter. Personally I find it hard to believe that Edward ever discussed anything so private with this man." Gretchen’s eyes softened and a smiled played at the corners of her mouth. "Edward never regarded you as a disappointment. He worshipped and was proud of both you and your sister till the day he died. He wasn’t very open with his feelings and you know that receiving praise from him was rare to say the least."
"But it mattered all the more when he did praise you," Janeway murmured.
Gretchen nodded and turned to cup Janeway’s chin.
"I also felt vulnerable that fall since it was the ten year anniversary of his death. I know that you always sought your father’s approval, darling. I’m the person who knew your father best; believe me, you had it."
"I did? I have asked myself over and over if the understanding I received from Dad was all an act. It hurt me so much to think it might have been."
"It wasn’t. You hold on to your memories of Edward. They are real. Jack Cambridge’s opinion bears no merit whatsoever."
Janeway closed her eyes briefly. She knew the next part would be harder to explain.
"That was not the only reason for my absence, Mom," she managed.
"No?" Gretchen sounded puzzled.
"As much as Dad was my hero whom I tried to please in every way I could when I was younger, there was another person that I idolised even more. So much that I knew how futile it would be to try and live up to her standards."
Gretchen looked dumbfounded.
"Are you talking about me, Katie?" she asked incredulously.
Janeway let go of her mother’s arm and shoved her hands down her jacket pockets.
"You’re everything I would like to become as a person," she murmured. "You are accomplished, together, and elegant. What’s more, you also possess grace and a heart that I will never be able to resemble. You touch people’s lives and they become better people for knowing you. It’s easy for me to take on the role as the forceful, commanding leader. It’s like a second nature. To be like you, the wonderful, strong and compassionate person that everyone loves and adores - I don’t stand a chance."
"I don’t understand, Kathryn," her mother said, taking her hands and pulling her oldest daughter close into an embrace. "Are you saying that you’ve put me on such a tall pedestal that I’m out of reach?"
Janeway was not sure. Had she?
"I may have," she confessed into her mother’s shoulder. "All I know is that when I heard Cambridge talk to you about me in such a demeaning way … I knew that if I had let Dad down - the one parent I had a chance of measuring up to … If I had failed that and by doing so, disappointed you - I had lost all my chances."
The CEO could hear the anguish in her own voice and stopped. She hated when her emotions took over, disliked the sense of vulnerability that overwhelmed her at moments like these.
"Go on, sweetheart," her mother urged her softly.
"Oh, I know it’s silly but up till then I had nourished some hope that some of the qualities you possess would rub off on me. To hear Cambridge express what he meant was Dad’s perception of me so long after his death was devastating. I was mortified that he told you. I was certain that it was terribly humiliating for you. All I could think of was to run away. I guess my pride was hurt too."
Gretchen held on to her daughter, not letting Janeway pull away.
"And there is a lot of pride there to be hurt, isn’t there? You’re a good daughter, Kathryn. You are strong, capable and resourceful. If you had been the dependent, clingy type that never accomplished anything on your own, for your own sense of achievement, I would have said - get a grip and shape up," the older woman smiled. "I would have considered you immature. That is not what you are, darling. I understand that there must be a lot of hurt and self doubt behind this. I know you better than you think, Kathryn and why do you think that is?"
"I don’t know," Janeway said.
"Because you and I are quite alike, darling. During your adolescence you reminded me constantly of myself at that age. Hotheaded, idealistic and goal oriented, stubborn and always with a book in your hand. In fact, I saw both your father and I in you. Your sister is the exception to the rule in a way - she is the first one to display an artistic side in our family."
Janeway stared at her mother.
"I remind you of you? But I’m just like Dad."
"You are. He was a strong, capable man that dominated the room when he entered it. People respected him, even feared him sometimes. I’m pretty sure that you have the same image among your employees. I have seen them stand at attention around you but I also suspect that they would do anything for you and not just out of respect or fear. I don’t think you realise the impact you have on people, Kathryn. If you don’t believe me, just ask Seven. Do you really think you could have won her heart so completely if you didn’t have any of those characteristics you used to describe me?"
Janeway pondered this. Seven always insisted that her partner was kind, sweet and loving. Janeway had shrugged that off as Seven being partial. Perhaps that was selling the young woman’s ability to judge character short?
"Listen to me, Kathryn," her mother continued. "The only way you could disappoint me was if you let yourself down, or by living a lie. Do you think it’s possible that you may have unsolved issues about yourself even if everything in your professional life is going so well?"
"If you had asked me that before I met Seven, I would’ve denied it," she admitted. "I would’ve said that my single status was by choice and not confessed how lonely I found life outside of the office. I didn’t lack opportunities; people interested in pursuing a relationship approached me recurrently. I turned them down for two reasons, I dreamed of love and I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"It’s a narrow-minded world and I hated the idea of becoming the favourite choice of discussion at social gatherings. I guess you can say I was half in the closet, half out." She smirked. "When Seven came into my life, all that changed. I couldn’t have cared less what people thought. As it turned out, most people are so charmed by Seven, they don’t even look at me and if they do … it’s because they’re jealous."
"It warms my heart to see the love between you and Seven; it’s quite tangible, you know. Don’t let that girl go. I’ll be blunt; your best hope of becoming this warm-hearted, together woman who embraces life is by loving that girl and making her your top priority."
Janeway knew her mother was right.
"I can become so wrapped up in what I’m doing at the moment," she confessed and hooked her arm around her mother’s again. They resumed their walk. "I sometimes work all night and don’t realise it until the sun rises."
"I’m sure she understands but don’t let it become the rule," Gretchen warned. "Do things with her, talk to her about everything and let her into all aspects of your life. I think she shares your passion for the company and loves working there almost as much as you do, but don’t push it."
Janeway’s stomach twitched.
"I know, Mom, I know."
"I know we won’t solve everything today, darling. I just want you to know how glad I am that you decided to talk to me. I know it wasn’t easy for you. You are not the explaining kind, another trait we share, dear daughter." Gretchen stopped walking again and looked pointedly at her oldest daughter. "Just for now, hold on to two simple truths. Your father and I accepted every aspect of you, personal and professional, a long time ago. Neither your father nor I were ever disappointed in you in any way. I know there are more issues than this but for now I thought hearing me say it in no uncertain terms would make you feel a little more at ease."
It was when she heard her mother’s candid and clear statement that Janeway noticed something for the first time.
In that moment, it was like hearing herself talk. Perhaps she was a bit like her mother after all.
The large dining room table looked like something out of Santa’s workshop.
Seven was helping Phoebe wrap some last minute Christmas presents for her mother and sister.
"I think Gretchen will enjoy the CD with classical music," the blonde offered. She attached a red ribbon to it and handed it over to Phoebe.
Janeway’s sister took it and began to write her mother’s name on the little card that went with the gift.
"I hope so," she said. "It’s hard to pick out gifts for Mom, she seems to have everything. Still, she loves music so that’s usually a safe bet."
"I find shopping for Kathryn quite difficult as well."
"I find everything about Katie difficult," Phoebe said dryly and put the CD away and reached for some more gift-wrapping paper.
"Really? Why?" Seven asked, not able to keep the reserve out of her voice. She disliked any negative comment about her partner, no matter who expressed it.
"Oh, you know, she always has to do things the hard way. She's always so intense."
Seven began to wrap a small box that Phoebe was giving to her sister. She did not know what it contained and had not asked. She studied the younger Janeway cautiously.
"I do not know you, Phoebe," Seven said slowly, "but you also strike me as intense."
Phoebe’s head snapped up.
"At least I don’t attack her way of life."
Seven considered this.
"Does Kathryn criticise you?" she asked.
"Oh, she always has an opinion. She and I lead such different lives that we have little in common, if we ever did." As if sensing that too much criticism would not go well with Seven, Phoebe looked up with a crooked smile. "I know you think the world of her and that’s good. She needs someone to love."
That was the first caring comment about Kathryn that Seven had heard Phoebe express.
"We all need love," the blonde agreed. "I think the love between family member forms how we perceive our relationships later in life."
Phoebe shot the blonde a look.
"Are you saying that you and Kathryn are having problems?" she asked.
"Kathryn and I constantly have to adjust and compromise in order to understand each other. We come from such different backgrounds. I am never uncertain regarding her feelings but I do sometimes experience apprehension."
This seemed to intrigue the other woman.
"Why is that?"
"I want to make her proud of me. I do not want to let her down. There is still so much I do not know - about life outside Raven’s Island - and about Kathryn."
"Surely even Kathryn must realise this?" Phoebe said, frowning.
"She does. She constantly amazes me with her insights and her patience. I never knew there could be such a person, with such a complex nature and so much to give."
The artist shook her head, looking utterly bewildered.
"We’re talking about my sister, right?" she asked. "All she cares about is making money and adding to that empire of hers. She has not been very giving the last couple of years."
"Have you asked her why?"
"Why should I? It would be a waste of time and besides, I already know the answer. She’s too wrapped up with what’s going on with Stellar Ltd. It’s amazing that she found time for a relationship."
Seven regarded the other woman calmly. Her first response was to resent Kathryn’s sister for talking about the woman she loved like this but she sensed the hurt beneath Phoebe’s words.
"You have known Kathryn much longer than I. You know sides of her that I do not," Seven said, putting the scissors down and looking pointedly at Phoebe. "In the time I have known her I have discovered that she can be driven by her desire to succeed and often she tries to hide her feelings but Kathryn has an enormous heart and the ability to love deeply."
Phoebe raised her eyebrows but let Seven speak.
"She knows how you feel about her work and that you do not appreciate what she has accomplished. This is a constant source of disappointment for her."
"Like my opinion matters." Phoebe bit her lower lip. "She doesn’t give me much credit for my profession either," she added defiantly.
"That is not correct. She is proud of you. Your large painting hangs over her fireplace and every time we entertain company, she points it out and talks about her sister, the artist."
This appeared to take the younger Janeway by surprise.
"I remember when she bought it. I wanted to give it to her but she insisted on paying the market value. I had no idea that she hung it in her home; I thought she wanted it for the office."
Seven reached for the roll of red ribbons.
"I never had any siblings," she said. "I was an only child. When I was little I spent most of my time fantasising about what it would be like to have a sister to share this house with, to be my friend."
"Funny," said Phoebe with a smile, "I used to fantasise what it would be like to have a little sister."
Seven hesitated briefly. "I would like the opportunity to get to know you, Phoebe. It would be like having a sister."
Phoebe slowly lowered her hands and leaned back in the chair.
"You really mean that, don’t you?" she asked, sounding amazed. The cynical tone was gone from her voice and the smirk that constantly seemed to play on her lips was exchanged for an almost bashful smile.
"You’re a sweet girl, Seven. I think my sister should count herself very lucky."
A voice from the door answered for her and Seven realised that they were not alone.
She glanced over her shoulder. Kathryn was standing behind her, having returned from the walk with her mother. She looked a little pale but with a new sparkle in her eyes.
"I know I’m very lucky, Phoebe," Kathryn said. "Seven is the best thing that has ever happened to me."
"I agree," her younger sister said. "She’s pretty special."
"She is. Are you two getting to know each other? Oh, goodness, are you wrapping even more gifts? We won’t be able to see the tree, Seven!"
"These are Phoebe’s gifts. I am just assisting her."
Phoebe Janeway winked at Seven.
"Have I told you how extremely curious Katie used to be just before Christmas?" she asked. "She used to snoop around the house trying to discover where Mom and Dad hid the presents before wrapping them."
"Oh, please," Kathryn sighed in mock annoyance. "I remember you happily tagging along."
"Only to make sure that you didn’t get caught."
"Ha! Only to make sure I didn’t find out anything that I didn’t tell you."
"Do you remember when Mom caught us red-handed?"
Kathryn moved behind Seven’s chair and combed through the blonde’s hair with her fingers.
"I do. I also remember you scurrying off in flash, leaving me there to explain."
Phoebe looked incredibly smug.
"There, you see, Seven," she said casually. "I was not only the fastest; I was the smartest one too."
Janeway put in the last of the dishes from dinner into the dishwasher.
Her mother and Marion had made dinner for all of them and apparently had a great time in the kitchen, no doubt swapping Janeway-stories, she mused. Marion would be impossible to deal with for a while but Janeway was prepared to overlook such things since the ambience was improving constantly in the little house on Raven’s Island.
She looked out the window. It was getting dark already. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day and she was actually beginning to look forward to it.
"Kathryn?" she heard a soft alto voice behind her.
A smile spread over her face and Janeway pivoted.
"Hello, darling," she said, extending her arms and inviting the younger woman into a tight embrace.
Seven wrapped her arms around her partner and held her close.
"The other’s are sitting around the table exchanging favourite Christmas memories," she informed Janeway. "I find it sad that Julia does not have many happy memories."
"She will from now on, don’t you think?" Janeway said softly. "She will have her first Christmas with Marion here on Raven’s Island and let’s hope there will be many more."
Seven nuzzled the older woman’s neck.
"I am so glad that you talked with your mother. You both looked much more at ease when you returned from your walk."
"I know. I feel better."
Janeway leaned back against the counter and pulled Seven with her.
"Kiss me," she suggested.
Without hesitation the blonde leaned down and pressed her full lips to Janeway’s, parting them and kissed her thoroughly.
Janeway who had had a soft peck in mind found herself in a delirious frame of mind and could only cling to her partner and kiss her back.
Seven raised her head and regarded the woman she loved happily.
"Mm," the CEO purred. "That was nice."
She lifted her hands and put one around the Seven’s neck and the other one on her waist, just underneath her sweater. Moving it in soft little circles she watched the young woman close her eyes and lean into the caress.
"You like that, darling?" Janeway asked redundantly.
"Yes," Seven whispered.
"Yes??" the older woman asked and moved her hand up a little, just touching the curve of Seven’s left breast. "What about this?"
She cupped the breast, weighed it in her hand and enjoying the fact that Seven was not wearing a bra. In a slow, maddening movement, she allowed her hand to cover the hardening nipple.
"Yes, I think you like this," Janeway said and smiled. "I think my Seven enjoys this feeling."
"I do …" Seven breathed unsteadily.
Janeway relented and pulled the younger woman closer again. Pressing her mouth to Seven’s, she deepened the kiss and let her tongue explore the enticing, sweetness of her partner.
A discreet cough interrupted them.
"Sorry, Katie, but we were wondering if you two needed any help out here," Phoebe grinned when the couple flinched.
Janeway rolled her eyes.
"Hmm, no, not really," she answered, feeling herself blush.
"Fine, then. I’ll let the others know. That you don’t need any help that is."
"Wait," Seven interrupted. "I have saved a bottle of that red wine we like so much, Kathryn. Why not share it with our family and friends?"
"Why not indeed?" she asked rhetorically. "How about it, sis? Care for a glass of wine?"
"Don’t mind if I do."
"Then get the bottle, darling, so we can let it breathe a little. Might as well do it the right way."
"You always do, don’t you?" Phoebe said.
At first Janeway thought her sister was needling her as usual but Phoebe looked and sounded sincere.
"I try but I screw up sometimes," the CEO said quietly.
"Don’t we all," Phoebe smiled.
Janeway returned the smile.
"Amen to that!"
Janeway regarded her sister over the rim of the glass.
She had poured six glasses of red wine and handed one to her sister who had stood behind her. Phoebe had tasted it carefully and then nodded in approval.
"Not bad, Katie."
"Join us in the living room," Janeway had said to Julia and Marion while putting the other five glasses on Seven’s mother’s silver tray. She carried them past the three women in the dining room, motioning with her head towards the living room where a roaring fire had mellowed down to a soft glow.
Now she was sitting close to Seven on the couch, one arm resting behind the blonde, curiously watching her little sister.
"You bought a gallery?" she asked. "Why? I never thought you’d want the hassle that comes with owning a business.
"Why not? I think it’s a great way to keep the profits from my paintings to myself now that I’m getting recognition. Don’t you think I can pull it off?" Phoebe challenged her.
"That is not what I meant," Janeway sighed. "You’ve always made it clear that you thought I sold my soul to Mammon and I …"
"If I did, I was just teasing you!" her sister interrupted. "I don’t remember ever putting it like that. You on the other hand have always considered my painting a hobby and art not a ‘real job’. You used to say that I needed something genuine to fall back on."
"I didn’t mean it that way! I just thought it wise to have a broad education so you that you didn’t limit yourself; that you could branch out."
"And that is why I am buying into this gallery! That and I want to be able to help out young artists, to discover new talents."
Janeway had to admit it sounded like a good idea.
"Do you need help?" she asked casually, rolling the hem of Seven’s dress around her finger.
"No …" Phoebe hesitated. "Well, I guess I’d like someone who knows more about these things to take a final look at the contract. I have a lawyer but …"
Janeway smiled tentatively.
"I’d be happy to do it for you, kid," she said. "Do you have it with you?"
"Stop it now," Gretchen said sternly with a smile that countered her tone of voice. "No working over Christmas. You’ll have time for that after the holidays. Right, Seven?"
The blonde nodded.
"Kathryn, I think that can wait until we go home," she said.
Janeway put her arms around Seven’s shoulders.
"Of course it can," she grinned. "I just can’t help it, you know. Whenever I hear about a good business deal my nose start to twitch."
She could see in the corner of her eye that Phoebe smiled broadly.
"Good business deal?" her sister smirked. "High praise coming from you, my sister the business tycoon."
"Business tycoon? Nah, try Corporate Shark," Janeway said in mock reserve.
"Why not Company Bitch?"
"No, that would be me." Marion offered blithely. "You can’t give her all the nifty titles, Phoebe."
"This is getting weirder by the minute," she said. "What’s Seven’s reputation at Stellar then?"
"Office Angel," Janeway replied quickly.
"Janeway’s Saviour," Marion said.
"None of this is correct. You are making this up," Seven said calmly. "I have a formal title …"
"That doesn’t count," Marion objected amicably. "We’re talking about unofficial titles here."
"I was getting to that," Seven smiled. "I have heard from several independent sources at Stellar Ltd that they call me Janeway’s Most Wanted."
Janeway stared at the younger woman. The laughter started out as tiny bubbles in her stomach and erupted into an explosive mirth that pulled the others in.
"Oh, that you are, darling," Janeway said, wiping tears of laughter from her cheek. "That you are."
Julia stretched and opened her eyes.
The unfamiliar surroundings made her frown but then a broad smile graced her lips.
"Finally," she heard a husky voice next to her.
She turned her head and regarded the elegant face of the dark haired woman next to her. Marion’s hair was tousled but she looked almost as stylish as when she moved like an agile predator through the corridors of Stellar Ltd.
"Merry Christmas, Marion," Julia said softly. "Have you been awake for long?"
"No, just for ten minutes or so but you looked so adorable that it felt like hours."
"Oh, please. You really have no patience, do you realise that?" Julia groaned.
"It’s just that I want to go down to the tree and begin unwrapping presents, you know."
"Ah, is that it? Well, let’s get dressed then. I guess that the special gift I have for you will just have to wait until you’ve unwrapped the ones downstairs."
Marion halted halfway out of the bed and quickly turned around.
"What special gift?" she asked, surprised.
Julia smiled, trying not to show that her nerves were about to give in.
"Oh, I’m sure it can wait until you have …"
"Quit teasing me, Julia," Marion said sternly. "What present? Where is it?"
"It’s not the type of present that you wrap …" Julia began.
"Then just give it to me, you said it yourself - I have no patience!"
That was an understatement the younger woman thought nervously. Marion had her robe half on and was hovering above her with sparkling eyes.
"It’s not what you think," Julia tried to caution her lover. "It may not even be what you want. I …"
She choked on her words and to her humiliation tears began to well up.
Of course Marion detected her change in mood immediately. She sank down next to Julia and pulled her close.
"Hey there, honey," she said, sounding worried. "Now what’s wrong? You know I will adore anything you give me because it’s from you. It can be oven mittens for all I care!"
Half laughing, half crying, Julia mustered her courage.
"You know I have been working very hard for the last month, especially these last two weeks, right?" she asked Marion.
"Yes. Go on."
"I did that to finish two special projects that I really cared about. I wanted to have them out of the way before Christmas."
"Yes? You mean so you could take time off to come to me?" Marion smiled.
"That too. I also wanted to complete my assignments because I’ve been offered another job."
"You have? Is it a promotion? You’re getting great recognition where you are, I mean, is it a step up?" the older woman asked.
"Yes," Julia said nervously. "It means more money, great benefits, a chance to travel some but …" She got up on her knees and regarded Marion seriously. "I wanted it to be a surprise. You know that I love you more than anything."
"Yes, I do." Marion said as she kissed her gently. "I love you too."
"The job is with the mother company."
She waited for the information to sink in. Marion looked as if she was waiting for an explanation, then the truth began to absorb. Her mouth opened and she looked at Julia with wide eyes.
"Their offices are here in town," she whispered.
"Yes," Julia said, searching Marion’s shocked appearance for any positive signs.
"You’ll have to move."
Marion regarded Julia for another endless moment and then she threw her arms around the other woman’s neck, hugging her fiercely.
"Oh, honey," she said huskily, "you’re not just here for the holidays, are you? You’ve come to stay?"
"Yes. Are you happy?" Julia asked, starting to relax since Marion was hugging her so close.
"Are you kidding? I’m ecstatic! I can hardly believe it. Why didn’t you tell me?" Marion pulled back a little, her eyes shining of happiness. Then she halted a little and looked worriedly at Julia. "What about your parents? What did they say?"
"I’ve only told my father so far," Julia confessed. "He actually wished me the best of luck with my new job. He wondered where I would be staying. I guess it was his way of asking …"
The sales manager propped herself up against the pillows.
"You know what I want, don’t you?" she asked quietly.
"I don’t take anything for granted," Julia said, gazing down at her hands fiddling with the sheet. "I know what I’d like, though."
"Then tell me. I bet I want the same thing."
Julia looked up. The love shining from Marion’s eyes gave her the courage to take the leap of faith.
"I want to live with you."
Marion leaned towards Julia and placed a tender kiss on her trembling lips.
"Right on your first attempt," she smiled. "That’s exactly what I want."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. My place is small but it’s a start. If we want something bigger later on we can buy a condo or even a house."
Julia’s eyes welled up again and she threw herself into Marion’s arms. The older woman held her close, nuzzling her hair and whispering how much she loved her, how happy her surprise had made her.
They kissed over and over; soft tender kisses that made their hearts beat faster.
Julia could not remember ever being so happy.
"What a perfect Christmas," Marion murmured.
"I know what would make it even more perfect," Julia said brightly.
"Let’s go down to the tree. I think I hear someone else stirring. You know you’re dying to see what I got you."
"What ever it is, it can’t be better than what you just gave me, though," she said slowly.
Julia smiled and kissed Marion again.
"I know. However, I’m glad that you said that part about not minding if it was oven mittens!"
Seven stretched lazily.
The bed was warm and soft, the warmth radiating from the smaller body to her left. She turned her head and regarded Kathryn’s face. The older woman features looked so soft and relaxed when she was asleep.
Seven rolled over on her side and pulled Kathryn closer. The CEO murmured something inaudible and buried her face against the blonde’s neck.
Seven let her hand slide down her partner’s naked body. Kathryn’s skin was like velvet. The younger woman knew how it felt to kiss every inch of the beloved body; still she never tired of it. She adored the fair skin dusted with freckles.
She carefully pushed Kathryn onto her back and stroked errant strands of auburn hair from her face. She leaned down and kissed the narrow lips tenderly.
Seven let her mouth proceed down the soft skin of Kathryn’s neck.
As if she sensed in her sleep what the blonde wanted, the CEO tipped her head back a little. Seven used the tip of her tongue to trace the enticing jaw line from Kathryn’s ear to her stubborn chin. Placing open mouth kisses down the older woman’s neck and across to her fragile collarbone, she noticed Kathryn begin to stir.
"Mm," the other woman sighed and slowly opened her eyes. "Hello there," she said huskily.
"Kathryn," Seven whispered against the lips beneath hers. "Good morning."
"Good morning, darling … what time is it?"
"I do not know."
Seven slid a hand down under the covers and cupped a small breast, making Kathryn’s eyes widen.
"What are you up to?" the older woman asked breathlessly.
"Only this," Seven replied and pushed the blankets down, revealing the naked flesh of her partner. "I want to look at you."
"Oh … hm … you do?"
The blonde lowered her head as her hand raised the soft orb to meet her hungry mouth. Devouring the pink nipple she let her tongue work at it relentlessly. The nipple hardened in her mouth, making her moan softly around it.
Kathryn arched beneath her, gasping and fumbling for her lover with both hands. She laced her fingers through Seven’s hair as she pulled the younger woman closer.
"Oh, god, Seven," she groaned. "What a way to wake me up!"
Seven did not reply but let her other hand slide down and pull one of Kathryn’s legs up and over her hip. The CEO immediately hooked it around Seven and by doing so she opened up to more intimate caresses.
"Yes," Kathryn whimpered and pressed against Seven’s hip.
Seven only wanted to please her partner. She pressed the auburn haired woman onto her back and with a firm grip of her wrists she put Kathryn’s arms above her head. The CEO looked up at her wonderingly but obeyed.
"Do not move your hands, Kathryn," Seven whispered insistently. "I mean it."
"All right," Kathryn answered, trembling all over. "I won’t."
The position left the older woman exposed and vulnerable and Seven knew this was almost more than Kathryn could bear. She was so used to being in charge, especially at work, that she found it incredibly suggestive to lose command.
Seven got up on her knees and by nudging Kathryn’s knees further apart she could get between them.
"I can see all of you, Kathryn, do you realise that?" she asked in a low tone of voice.
"Oh, god, yes … I do …"
The younger woman pressed the shivering thighs further apart and pushed Kathryn’s knees up. She looked down at the hot centre she loved to caress. She knew that her partner was on the brink of release already and wanted the moment to last for as long as possible. She put a finger in her mouth and licked it, even though she realised that she would not need any additional moisture.
Kathryn’s eyes widened and followed her every move.
Slowly she lowered her finger and found the aching little ridge of nerves between Kathryn’s folds. She barely touched it and still Kathryn inhaled sharply and arched her back again. Over and over in little circles the blonde caressed her lover. She could see Kathryn’s hands restlessly moving above her head, gripping at the pillows for support but the older woman kept her promise to not lower them.
"Now, do as I say," Seven commanded. "Roll over."
Kathryn whimpered of frustration but obeyed. The blonde helped her roll over on her stomach, making her pull her knees up and spread her legs wide.
"Oh, Seven, what are you going to do to me?" the CEO whispered throatily.
"You will find out."
Seven got behind her partner again. Leaning over her, she lowered her slender body and let her full breasts caress Kathryn’s back. Her nipples became hardened instantly and Seven knew this would make her come too unless she slowed down. This was for Kathryn.
She reached between them and let her hand slide in between Kathryn’s legs. She traced the slick folds and found the source for all the wetness gathering there. She gently probed the area and when she found the little nubbin again, Kathryn whimpered and could not lie still.
"Oh, please Seven," she begged.
"Not yet," Seven replied with a calm she did not experience. "Not quite yet."
She spread the wetness with soft fingers and then let two digits enter her partner slowly. She pushed all the way inside Kathryn, making herself a part of the woman she loved more than anything. Not realising what she was about to do she let her thumb caress the area between Kathryn cheeks for the very first time.
The CEO stiffened and then began to push against Seven’s hand, whimpering into the pillow, lost in the pleasure.
Seven did not double penetrate Kathryn, not sure if the older woman wanted her to, but kept up the intimate caress with her thumb as she began to make love to her partner with her fingers burying deeply within her.
Kathryn moved faster against her, pressing her hip against Seven’s own hot centre. Feeling the older woman approach her orgasm with lightning speed was all it took for Seven’s own pleasure to take over. Blindly she leaned down and found the soft spot just behind Kathryn’s jaw, locked her lips onto it and at the same time pressed her fingers deep inside her.
Kathryn pushed back against the blonde with the same passion, shivering all over as she came hard, moaning the name that meant everything.
"Seven, oh, Seven …"
Seven removed her fingers slowly and pulled Kathryn into her arms. Panting for air they laid together in a happy mess of arms and legs.
"Seven," Kathryn said eventually and got up on her elbow to kiss her beloved. "Merry Christmas, darling. Was this my present?"
"One of them, Kathryn," Seven admitted with a smile.
"You have more like this one stashed away somewhere? The way you touched me … You’ll be the death of me!" Kathryn laughed.
"Not just now, maybe later," Seven joked. "You seem quite taken."
"Oh, I’m taken all right." The CEO looked hesitant. "I have a Christmas present for you, well for us, that I wanted you to have before we go downstairs."
"Yes? Where is it?" Seven asked curiously.
"In my bag. I don’t want you to think that … I mean … Oh, hell … wait here."
Kathryn rose from the bed and padded naked to her overnight bag and rummaged for something. She returned with something hidden in her left hand.
"I wanted to give you this in private so you could honestly say if you want it or not," Kathryn said, sounding uncharacteristically nervous.
"Why would I not want it?" Seven felt incredulous.
"Just open it, darling." Kathryn handed over a small red box.
Seven propped herself up against the pillows and unwrapped the little gift. Inside the red box was a black velvet casing. She regarded it and glanced at Kathryn who licked her lips and smiled weakly.
The blonde flipped open the lid and stared wide-eyed at the two gold rings there. The design was simple but elegant and both of them boasted a diamond surrounded by blue sapphires.
Seven looked up at Kathryn. She could not believe what her eyes and heart told her.
"Is this what I think it is?" she asked in a low voice, almost afraid of the answer.
"Do you like the rings?" Kathryn asked in return, avoiding the question.
"They are beautiful. Are they engagement rings?"
Kathryn inhaled deeply.
"Yes. Seven, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You’re my heart. Without you my life is empty with little meaning. We belong together, darling. I want you to be my fiancé. Is this what you want to? Will you have me Seven? Will you share my life?"
Seven’s heart overflowed. She had never in her wildest dreams anticipated anything like this.
"I would love to," she simply said and watched Kathryn detach the first ring and put it on her finger and gently kiss her hand.
"Your turn," the older woman said.
Seven carefully took the other ring and holding it, warming it, she then let it slide down Kathryn’s finger.
"I’m yours now, forever," the CEO said tenderly. "I love you, Seven. I have never loved anyone like I love you."
"You belong with me, and I with you." Seven replied as she leaned back and kissed the CEO ever so gently. "You are the only one I have ever loved. I cannot imagine my life without you. Thank you for this gift, Kathryn."
Seven rested against her partner, now her fiancé, feeling tears burn behind her eyelids. Refusing to let them fall she buried her face against Kathryn’s chest.
"That’s all right, Seven," the older woman sniffled, soothing her, stroking the long, tousled blonde hair. "I’m crying like a baby myself."
Seven raised her eyes and it was true. A steady stream of tears ran down Kathryn’s cheeks.
Through her own tears Seven determined that she had never seen such a radiant smile on Kathryn’s face before.
Little did she realise that it only reflected her own.
Torn wrapping paper and bright strings filled the floor.
The six women sat in lazy, comfortable positions, sipping tea or coffee and munching on warm cinnamon rolls.
"What a wonderful morning," Phoebe sighed contentedly. "I haven’t felt this good in months."
"I know just what you mean," Kathryn said and stretched out next to Seven on the couch.
Not more than ten minutes had passed before her hawk-eyed sister had detected the rings and nudged their mother. Gretchen had looked at their hands in surprise but then smilingly asked if congratulations were in order.
Marion and Julia had smiled broadly at both of them and then shared their good news. Janeway had noticed the aura of happiness around the other couple. It felt so good to share this experience with someone who truly understood.
Marion was more like herself than anyone else in the room could understand. They had the same ability to pull on the professional mask and just do the job and not look back. They both also knew the price they paid for their ambition. To think that both of them also had lucked out by finding such wonderful partners to share their lives with was pretty amazing.
Janeway now glanced at Marion where the elegant woman sat on the floor, leaning against Julia’s legs. She wondered how Julia managed to keep up with the dynamic sales manager.
Marion was like a runaway train when she focused on something and there were times she did not even stop to think. This had almost got her fired earlier in the year when she had gone after Seven. Only the fact that Seven had pleaded her case and made Kathryn take pity on her employee had saved her position at Stellar Ltd.
Now she was a valued friend who had proved her loyalty more than once. She was not as sarcastic or cynical as she used to be and Janeway was prepared to put money on that it was because of Julia.
Julia was something of a puzzle. Janeway knew there was more to her than met the eye but knew that given time Julia would become as good a friend to her and Seven as Marion had.
Her eyes wondered over to her mother. Gretchen was sipping her second mug of steaming, hot coffee, looking very relaxed. She had been very busy up till Christmas with her catering business and now she truly deserved to just kick back and just rest.
Janeway was pleased that she and Phoebe had begun a tentative attempt to reach out. Perhaps most of their differences had come about because of preconceptions and misunderstanding? She had seen that happen before, why should that not be the case with her and her fiery sister?
Phoebe was browsing through a book about famous paintings that Seven had given her from both her and Janeway. Of course Phoebe had guessed that Seven was the one behind since Janeway did not know they were coming.
The CEO looked down on her lap where she still held the small portrait of her mother that Phoebe had painted and given her. In the painting Gretchen Janeway was sitting on her porch and watching something of apparent interest behind the painter.
Janeway loved it already and knew she would keep it on the mantle just beneath the big painting by Phoebe that hung there.
She absentmindedly rubbed her cheek against Seven’s shoulder. The blonde had given her several Christmas gifts but the ones she appreciated the most were two antique combs for her hair that had belonged to Seven’s mother.
Then there was of course the delicious way Seven had woken her up this morning and how the younger woman had glowed at the sight of the rings.
Kathryn Janeway determined that she simply did not remember ever feeling this happy.