"Mom? Can I talk to you about something?"
Ensign Samantha Wildman turned away from her computer terminal to face her only daughter. Her almost-five-year-old daughter. How time had flown! The tiny girl was sprouting up. No, had sprouted up. In no time she'll be a fully grown woman. That milestone fifth birthday was coming up next week -- and her father wouldn't be here, again, to spend it with her. How many more? Would he ever get the chance to see and hold his baby girl while she was still a child?
Sam stifled a sigh as the familiar stab of pain pierced her soul, as it always did whenever Greskrendtregk's name came up. If only they'd both accepted assignment on Voyager, or she had decided to stay on Deep Space 9 instead of going off on what was supposed to be a brief mission to apprehend some Maquis criminals! Either way, she wouldn't be raising her girl alone. Forcing away her regrets, since indulging in them truly was a waste of time, Sam answered, "Of course you can, Honey. What's on your mind?"
"Well, I was thinking about my birthday. Uncle Neelix was asking me about what kind of cake I like -- 'no special reason,' he said, but I know he's planning my birthday cake. My birthday is next week, you know. I'm sure you haven't forgotten. You were there!"
"I certainly was!" Sam smiled and chuckled, the way she knew her daughter would expect her to, but that burst of agony came back, as it always did, whenever Naomi's birth was mentioned. Of course I've never forgotten the day you were born. When you died, and when you were brought to me by that other Voyager's Harry Kim. This Naomi's mother had died with everyone else on the duplicate Voyager, which their Captain Janeway blew up to keep Vidiians from harvesting the organs of everyone on both Starfleet vessels.
"Mom? You okay?"
Sam smiled at her girl, shaking off her momentary lapse of attention. Her mind did tend to wander whenever she remembered that awful, and yet miraculous day. The proof what happened wasn't a fantasy was standing in front of her. "I'm okay, Naomi. Whenever I think about the day you were born, my mind seems to wander a bit."
"Don't you remember everything?" Naomi grinned back at her mother.
"Oh, I do. Everything." But I don't know when I'm going to get the courage to tell you the whole story. Maybe I should have Harry Kim do it. "So, what was it you wanted to tell me about your unforgettable birthday?"
"I wanted to ask a favor. Uncle Neelix was talking about Flotter and Trevis, and I think he was hinting he'd like to decorate my birthday cake with them. I still love their program, and it does grow along with you, but . . . it's not what I want on my cake this year. Would you talk to him and ask him to make my cake a little more grown-up? And if maybe my party could be held in Fair Haven? Tom said he was going to add some Irish children into the program, so I'd have someone to play with, now that Mezoti's not here anymore."
Sam didn't bother to stifle her sigh this time. Having Mezoti leave the ship, along with Azan and Rebi, was a wound that had yet to heal. Sam feared it would take a very long time before it did. "I'll ask Tom about the Fair Haven program, but I'm not sure he's had the chance to add in any children yet. He was really busy while the Klingons were here. But I think I can do something about the cake. Are there any particular decorations you'd like?"
"I don't know. Flowers, maybe." The brightness in Naomi's blue eyes had dimmed markedly. Suddenly, she jumped up from her chair and said, "Oh, I don't really care what's on the cake. I just don't want it to be for little kids. And tell Uncle Neelix I don't want another surprise party. I just want a regular party this year!"
Before Sam could reply, Naomi stomped off into her bedroom and ordered her door closed. The privacy lock, which Naomi hardly ever engaged, pinged on.
Sam leaned back in her chair, shook her head, and moaned slightly. Watching Naomi turn from a toddler into a little girl and then into a bigger girl had been hard enough. Now adolescence was right around the corner . . . even worse, it might already have arrived.
Stardate 54534.4, personal log, Captain Kathryn Janeway
Ensign Wildman and Neelix came to my ready room today to settle an argument. Neelix wanted me to intervene with Sam about Naomi's birthday party. He wants it to be a surprise. Ensign Wildman doesn't think that's a good idea. Naomi told her mother she doesn't want a surprise party and has already expressed some very definite opinions about the event. She wants to have one that's more "grown up," according to Sam.
I suspect Neelix is still a little touchy about losing his lady love Ch'Rega. He began to plan Naomi's party as soon as the Klingon's new home was a light year behind Voyager, and he's quite enamored with his initial, Flotter and Trevis-themed extravaganza. In the end, though, he agreed to "age up" the decorations, party favors, and activities. That's what Naomi wants. Since a Ktarian child's fifth birthday is as big a deal as the 15th, 16th, and 21st birthdays have traditionally been for many cultures on Earth, I suggested Neelix consult the database for information on Quinceañera and Sweet Sixteen birthday events. He perked up at once and left to begin his research.
Ensign Wildman didn't leave immediately. I guessed what was wrong, and she confirmed her daughter's birthday always brought up memories of what really happened that day -- and where it actually took place. She's never told Naomi about the true circumstances of her birth, and I assured her there's time to let her know. Naomi has matured quickly, but I'm not sure she's ready to comprehend all the ramifications her birth on a duplicate Voyager may still have for her and Ensign Kim someday. As Mr. Kim said to me after it was all over, it's like nothing had changed for him, and yet everything had. He said it was weird, and I answered, "Weird is part of the job."
I used to think of Naomi as a little girl. For the past year, I've had to drop the "little." Now, whenever I see her, I wonder if puberty is about to strike! While the Doctor and Samantha Wildman both had warned me about the accelerated early childhood growth rates of Ktarian children, Naomi's really had to be seen to be believed. She appears to be a girl twice her age. Ensign Wildman believes -- or maybe hopes -- her rate of growth will slow down sometime during the next two years; but by then, Naomi will look like she's in her teens. According to her mother, she's already starting to act like one.
Our young Cadet Icheb was subjected to a faster-than-normal-growth rate himself, courtesy of a Borg maturation chamber. We don't know his actual birthdate. . . or even how old he is. I never thought to ask his parents when we dropped him off on Brunal. I thought we'd said good-bye to him forever. It never occurred to me I'd ever need to know the exact day he was born. Such a fiasco! I'm glad we were able to save him from the Borg -- twice! He's a member of our crew now, and that's what he'll be for the rest of the way to the Alpha Quadrant.
But . . . Icheb has been on this ship for a year, and we've never celebrated his birthday in all that time. I wonder, is it time we corrected that error?
PADD in hand, Lieutenant Tom Paris strolled into Astrometrics. A quick survey of the room revealed Seven of Nine was not at her usual duty station, but her chief assistant and, as Tom often thought, her acolyte was.
"Hey, Icheb. How are things?"
The cadet turned towards Tom. In that uncertain cadence both former Borg used when speaking with Tom Paris, since conversations with him tended to revolve around what Seven considered to be irrelevant social discourse, Icheb answered, "To what sort of things are you referring?"
"Oh, just in general, are you feeling good about how everything in your life is going? And yes, I know that's not relevant, exactly, but it's still good to know." Tom's breezy smile as he approached confirmed to Icheb that this visit was likely to be another opportunity to practice his social interaction skills.
"Then yes, things are going well."
"That's great. Seven had some questions for me about my perceptions of some odd readings we've been getting that might affect which course we should take for the next couple of weeks. I jotted down my answers into this PADD. Is she . . ." Rather than state the obvious, Tom rephrased his comment. "I mean, she doesn't seem to be around now. Where is she?"
"She's in Engineering, speaking with Lieutenant Torres about a problem with one of our instruments. Seven perceives a slight deviation from the norm within some of the images. I believe that is why she requested your opinion on your readings." Tom detected an interesting emphasis on the phrase "Seven perceives."
"Do you believe there's a problem with the imager, Icheb?"
"It is operating within established Starfleet standards. When I checked, it was only off by .0047 percent."
"Ah. Not perfect enough for Seven, no doubt." Tom chuckled lightly, and Icheb simply shrugged. That was one of those social comments that didn't require a response.
"If you wish to leave the PADD with me, I will deliver it to Seven when she returns."
Tom handed Icheb the PADD and then sighed, "I guess this means B'Elanna won't be meeting me for lunch. When those two start talking Engineering, it usually takes a while. Do you have to stay here to cover, or can one of the Delaney sisters take over for you so you can go to lunch?"
"I can take a short break. Ensign Jenny Delaney has been assigned to be our back-up today."
Leaving the PADD on Seven's favored console, the two went up to the Mess Hall, chatting casually (from Tom's perspective) and concentrating intently on another lesson in human social interactions (from Icheb's). After they'd each chosen from Neelix's offerings and taken a seat at a table near the Mess Hall windows, Tom asked Icheb, "You've heard about Naomi's birthday party, haven't you?"
"B'Elanna and I are trying to decide on a gift. Do you have any suggestions? I know you hang out with her sometimes."
Correctly interpreting the idiom "hanging out" to be a less precise but equivalent term for "spending time with," Icheb answered, "I can't think of anything right now. I hadn't thought about giving her a gift. According to Neelix, gifts are optional."
"That may be true, Icheb, but after my baby girl comes, we may need Naomi to babysit every now and then. Not that it's a bribe, or anything. I just want to maintain the relationship." Tom's grin seemed a little forced. Icheb decided the gift was a bribe, whatever that was. He'd have to look up the term in the database.
Icheb munched on his sandwich for several seconds. "Why do some people like to have birthday parties, and some don't? When we had the surprise party for Captain Janeway a few weeks ago, she said she was delighted. But Commander Tuvok told me he would prefer not to have any more celebrations for his."
Tom laughed lightly. "Oh, that's probably because Tuvok's age has hit the three figures mark. He doesn't want to think about having any more birthdays, even though he's probably good for a hundred more. Vulcans are very long lived. But as long as Neelix is around, we'll have parties for him. I've got an idea that will really surprise him on his next birthday. What about you, Icheb? How would you like to celebrate your birthday? It must be coming up soon."
"I don't know."
Noting the furrowing of the young man's forehead and the uneasy shifting in his chair, Tom inquired, "What do you mean you don't know?"
"I don't know what my birthday is. I'm not sure I ever knew. If I did, I don't remember it, and my parents never told me what it was when I went to live with them. I guess they didn't care. They knew I wouldn't be around when the day came." Icheb took another bite of his sandwich and chewed vigorously. He didn't know why, but a strange feeling had come over him. Perhaps a better way to describe it would be a coldness descending into his abdomen, not unlike the butterflies the Doctor diagnosed him with when he knew he was going to meet his parents on Brunal. Considering what happened on that visit, those "butterflies" must have died there.
Tom had no trouble putting a name to his reaction to Icheb's revelation. He was appalled, not only because he'd just reminded Icheb about his parents, who'd made Admiral Paris' behavior towards Tom, when he was growing up, the epitome of loving parenthood, but also because the poor kid didn't even know his birthdate! No kid should ever grow up without knowing that simple fact. Even if there wasn't any actual celebration, acknowledging the transition from one year of life to the next and measuring the growth of a person over time was something Tom had always considered to be important. But if you've conceived your child to be a weapon against the Borg, and only that, Tom guessed measuring his development from one year to the next wasn't going to be high on your priority list.
Tom managed to lighten up the conversation after Icheb's revelations by telling him the story of the time Harry and Tom fixed Tuvok's console and replicator so that it would respond to any of the commander's requests by saying, "Live long and prosper." Icheb seemed to enjoy the anecdote, and they finished their meals in a decent mood, at least, to all outward appearances. As they walked back to Astrometrics, however, Tom couldn't stop thinking about what Icheb had revealed. He couldn't tell if Icheb was equally disquieted, but Icheb was likely to keep his emotions in check, as opposed to Seven's tendency to display hers with sarcasm or abruptly ending a conversation.
Jenny Delaney was still manning Astrometrics when they arrived. After confirming that Seven was still in Engineering and not likely to return to her post immediately, Tom picked up the PADD he'd intended to leave on Seven's console and said, "I'll take this to her, Icheb. Have a good afternoon. And try not to snicker when you have your training session with Commander Tuvok today."
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Although 'snickering' would probably never have occurred to me if you had not just mentioned it to me just now." A slight smile appeared on Icheb's face, and Tom decided he'd done all he could to undo the damage his untimely reminder of the way his parents had betrayed him might have done to Icheb.
When the doors to Engineering opened, the first thing Tom saw were Seven and his wife, leaning next to each other on a console, intently discussing whatever it was they were viewing on the screen in front of them. They aren't at each other's throats, Tom thought. That's a plus. At least it doesn't look like they are . . .
B'Elanna glanced up at his approach before turning towards Seven and saying, "It's within standard parameters of . . . Oh, Tom! I forgot all about lunch."
"No problem. Icheb and I went to the Mess Hall together and had a nice chat. But you know . . . you won't want me to remind you, I know, but you shouldn't skip any . . . "
"I shouldn't skip any meals. Yes, I know. The Doctor reminds me of that enough. Not you, too!" Brushing a loose curl of hair from her forehead, B'Elanna asked, "So if you already had lunch, why are you here? Not to remind me to eat, I hope."
Tom grinned what he hoped would be one of his most sparkling -- and conciliatory -- smiles, as he replied, "Actually, it's your counterpart here I wanted to speak with. Seven, a word?"
Seven shrugged slightly and stepped away from the console. B'Elanna stepped away, too, and clasped her husband on the upper arm. "In that case, I'll just slip off to the Mess Hall before the Doctor comes storming in, waving his medical tricorder in my face, insisting I go eat lunch right this minute. Seven, we'll get back to your imaging problem when I return. The deviation isn't so bad the ship will be put in danger before I do, will it?"
"It should be safe enough to wait until after you've consumed your meal," Seven agreed.
Tom leaned down and gave his wife a surreptitious buss on the top of the head before she strode to the turbolift. When he turned back to face Seven, her eyebrow was raised in that way she had that smacked of disapproval, exasperation, or a complete lack of comprehension. In this case, the first was undoubtedly the reason for that particular expression.
"You wished to speak with me, Lieutenant?"
"I have the PADD with the answers to your questions to give you."
She held out her hand and accepted the device from Tom. "Thank you. You could have left it with Icheb. There was no need for you to come here, unless your true purpose, despite your earlier statements, was to visit your wife."
Tom's smile had a bit of a grimace as he acknowledged, "I did want to see her, of course, and I could have left the PADD with Icheb, but I wanted to talk to you about him."
"Is his performance unsatisfactory in some way?"
"Oh, no, nothing like that. He's doing great. He's an asset to Voyager, no doubt about that, and a credit to you . . . and the B . . . " Shut up before you stuff your foot all the way down your esophagus and kick yourself in the stomach, Tom thought desperately, as both of Seven's eyebrows approached her hairline. Since Seven was often abrupt, Tom decided to just blurt out the real reason he'd come to see her. "Seven, do you know what Icheb's date of birth is? Is it recorded somewhere in your Borg memories?"
"Why do you wish to know?"
"Well, we're planning a birthday party for Naomi. We could have one for him sometime, too."
"That data was not recorded in the data node I used to recover the children's names. The date of birth is irrelevant. The Borg do not celebrate birthdays."
This didn't surprise Tom in the slightest. Why celebrate an individual's birthday if a drone isn't an individual? Another thought struck him, however. "Is the date of assimilation irrelevant, too?"
"It's added to the database as part of the record of the assimilation itself, but it has no other significance."
"Doesn't the matter of age come up if a child is assimilated?"
"If the assimilated being is too undeveloped to function as a drone, it is placed into a maturation chamber for seventeen cycles, or however many it takes it for the neonatal drone to grow into its duties. One becomes Borg. That is all that matters."
Tom groaned, "That's terrible! Your birthday is a matter of record, Seven."
Seven placed hands behind her back. "Since I was born on a Federation planet, yes. It is a matter of record. My current age has little to do with my current level of functioning, however, don't you agree, Lieutenant?"
"Hmm. Perhaps not. You're an adult, without question. If we didn't know your birthdate, it wouldn't affect your presence on the ship, other than to frustrate Neelix even more than he already is that you refuse to let him plan a party for you. Still, it would be nice to have some idea about how old Icheb is. He spent some amount of time in a maturation chamber, and we know that tends to accelerate a child's growth. Didn't that data node mention anything about how old he looked, at least? As of the date they grabbed him?"
"The node was damaged. The entries concerning all the children were corrupted to a greater or lesser degree. The Borg species assignment for Azan and Rebi was unrecoverable." Seven narrowed her eyes in annoyance that she had yet to learn the Borg designation for the Wysanti. "But why would Icheb's birthdate be of significance to you, Lieutenant Paris?"
"Birthdates are important to people in the Federation, Seven. All sorts of rights and privileges are linked to a person's age, and obtaining them often depends upon the exact day of birth. I don't think the captain had to report an actual date of birth when Icheb came on board, or when he started his Starfleet training, but I'm sure he'll need it when he becomes a citizen. And Icheb should have birthday parties in his honor. I know I'm looking forward to celebrating a very important birthdate in the near future. I'll know when to plan her birthday parties!"
"Mr. Neelix will enjoy having the opportunity to have another party to plan," Seven admitted softly.
"Yes, he will. He loves planning parties, and he loves little children." Tom couldn't keep the broad smile from his lips, but after a few seconds more, he shook himself a little and changed the subject back to the one he'd intended to address. "So, anyway, since you're Icheb's guardian, why don't you go to the captain and see if there's a way to establish one for Icheb, so he doesn't miss out on any more birthdays -- or anything else he deserves to receive."
Solemnly, Seven agreed, "I will consider going to Captain Janeway about this, Lieutenant."
"That's great! Now, I'm in Sickbay for Beta shift for the Doc, so I can't be with her much this evening. Let me get up to the Mess Hall to spend a little quality time with B'Elanna now. And if you need any help on this, especially planning a birthday party, I'll be glad to help."
Tom didn't notice Seven's failure to say goodbye as he left Engineering. She often fell short on the social niceties, of course, but in this case, she didn't respond because her mind had wandered away when Tom brought up Neelix's love of children. Seven remembered the ones who'd been left behind on Wysanti. Images arose, of Mezoti, hugging Seven and saying she would never forget her, but still stepping onto the transporter platform to leave the ship with the twins. She'd never forget that first day, on Stardate 53511, when Seven met a group of neonatal drones, including a very spirited female, any more than she'd forget Stardate 54192.5 -- the last time Seven saw Mezoti. Despite Seven's indoctrination by the Borg and her frequently-stated preference for the way the Collective accomplished their goals, there were some aspects of humanity Seven had regained or, perhaps, had never truly lost. One of these was regret.
The lunch rush was over. Neelix already had dinner well in hand. He was about to sit down with a warm cup of Talaxian rungi juice and a leola-nut cookie, when his goddaughter's head appeared at the edge of the Mess Hall doorway. "Are you busy, Uncle Neelix?" she asked.
"Not at all! I was just going to have a little snack. Will you join me?"
At her nod, Neelix produced a chocolate-chip cookie and a glass of milk out of the replicator. When they were settled, Naomi took a few bites of her cookie, but instead of sipping her milk, she used her straw as a swizzle stick. "Is something wrong, Naomi?" he asked kindly.
After a big sigh, Naomi admitted, "I lost my temper when I was talking with Mom about the surprise party you wanted to have for me. It's nice you want to have a party for me at all. I shouldn't have said some of the things I said. She didn't repeat any of them to you, did she?"
"Oh, no. She only said you wanted a party that was more grown-up than the one I was thinking of. And that you didn't want it to be a surprise. I can't blame you for that. You're getting to be quite the young lady. I think you're ready to help plan your own parties."
Naomi's sigh this time was one of relief. For the next few minutes, while they sipped their drinks and nibbled on cookies, they discussed the sort of decorations she'd like to see on the wall, and how the plates and napkins should look. Neelix became noticeably more enthused the longer they talked. Naomi really wasn't a little girl anymore. She firmly expressed her opinions now, which he hadn't noticed before. When they couldn't agree on a party theme right away, however, Neelix suggested, "We can base the designs of the decorations to match your cake's appearance." Neelix grabbed the PADD he'd used to save pictures of dozens of cakes he'd found in the database. "Here's a few. See if you like any. And don't worry. If none of these strikes your fancy, there are hundreds more in the database!"
Naomi spent several minutes scrolling through images of some of the frothiest creations she'd ever seen. Finally, she admitted, "I like parts of some of them, but they're all a little fussy. When Commander Tuvok was baking with you, he made some really nice cakes. Do you think he might help you with mine?"
"Mr. Vulcan hasn't baked anything with me for quite a while. But we can always ask him. He did have quite a flair for decorating his desserts," Neelix agreed.
At that moment, Tom Paris strolled in. "Just the people I wanted to see! I hear the two of you are planning a birthday party!"
Naomi and Neelix quickly filled him in and showed him the images of several cakes. "I think Naomi's right. Maybe a simpler cake would be more appropriate for a Ktarian Fifth Birthday Party. It's a special one, you know. The more sophisticated, the better. Have you thought about music?" When Naomi admitted they hadn't talked about that yet, Tom said, "I have the perfect song. It's by the Beatles, a classical group. We can play it when our guest of honor," he nodded solemnly at Naomi, making her giggle, "enters the Mess Hall with her mother."
"We have to sing the Birthday Song, though," Neelix objected.
"Of course we will, but we'll sing that just before Naomi cuts her cake. This other one is a fun number, Neelix. Great for getting a party started."
A fourth member of the crew walked in as Tom was explaining the song to Neelix. Icheb ordered one of his favorite Nutritional Supplement snacks, a platter of the Doctor's fortified cheese nachos (with guacamole and spicy salsa), and a #7 in vanilla shake form.
As he turned to go, Naomi called Icheb over and asked him what he thought of the cakes in Neelix's collection.
Sipping on his shake as Naomi displayed the ones that weren't too "icky," Icheb nodded and then offered, "They all look very . . . fancy."
Naomi grinned at Neelix. "See! A simple cake would be best, but with a pretty color frosting."
"Maybe I can convince Tuvok to loosen up and bake one of those great cakes he made last year, Neelix. Pistachio with Parra crème frosting? With a cloaking frequency on the top?"
"I'm not sure Mr. Vulcan would like a reminder of that time, Tom," Neelix hedged.
"That cake does sound like it would be very good to eat," Icheb remarked.
"Oh, it was the best, Icheb!" Naomi replied. "Maybe you should ask Commander Tuvok if he'd make it for your birthday."
Suddenly realizing where the conversation was bound to go, Tom grimaced as Icheb replied, "I don't think so."
"I've never had a birthday party, Naomi. I don't know which day I was born."
Neelix and Tom exchanged pained glances. Naomi just looked at Icheb, her eyes widened in astonishment. If Icheb noticed the deep silence that followed his comment, he didn't show any sign of it as he calmly picked up his platter of nachos and left for his station in Astrometrics. Although Tom was seldom at a loss for words, this time he simply murmured, "Gotta go now," and followed Icheb out of the door.
After the goddaughter and her godfather were sitting alone at the table for a bit, a smile spread across Naomi's face. "Uncle Neelix, you wanted to throw me a surprise birthday party, right?"
"Yes, I did. But you said you didn't want one."
"No, I don't, but I think maybe you can 'have your cake and eat it, too.' We do need a surprise party on this ship. Just not for me."
The invitations were sent to everyone on the ship for a party celebrating the all-important Fifth Birthday (for Ktarians) of Naomi G. Wildman. Neelix had prepared a tempting array of tapas and appetizers, eschewing any Delta Quadrant "special" ingredients (even though it pained Neelix to refrain from utilizing his favorite flavors). The decorations were tasteful, heavy on stars and the letters spelling out "Happy Birthday," and very light on flowers or anything "fussy."
At 1250, the first guests slipped inside the Mess Hall to the dulcet tones of a Beatle's song thumping through the com system, You say it's your birthday . . . da da da de da da, de dum . . . It's my birthday too, yeah . . . da da da de da da, de dum . . .
Icheb and Seven were among the first to arrive, joined almost immediately by Ensign Kim, Lieutenant Torres, and Lieutenant Tom Paris. . . . We're gonna have a good time . . .
"Do you like the song?" Tom yelled, doing his best to be heard over the drumbeats and singing.
. . . I'm glad it's your birthday . . . Happy birthday to you . . ."It is . . . interesting," Icheb replied. Seven managed a fairly accurate imitation of a Janeway glare, but Icheb pointedly refused to look in her direction. B'Elanna shot an irritated glance at her husband, while Harry happily tapped his feet in time to the music: . . . Yes, we're going to a party, party . . .
By 1300, the Mess Hall was filled with partygoers. After the captain entered and requested a reduction in the song's volume, Icheb thought it sounded better. Having to shout over music to be understood when conversing with a shipmate wasn't pleasant; and how many times would the crew want to hear the same lyrics repeated, appropriate though they might be for a birthday party? Icheb hoped Tom had chosen other selections to play later on, after the bulk of the crew had left.
Naomi and Sam arrived promptly at 1301. Everyone yelled out "Happy Birthday" to a brightly smiling five-year-old who looked to be ten, or maybe even eleven, in her pretty party dress, replicated for her when she served as one of the flower girls at B'Elanna and Tom's wedding. The other girl, sadly, was not one of the party guests. She no longer lived on Voyager.
For several minutes, the guest of honor circulated through the crowd, receiving congratulations from the crew. Commander Chakotay, who was taking a break from the command chair just long enough to view this part of the celebration, arrived a quarter of an hour later. That was the cue for the Mess Hall lights to be dimmed. The rock music ceased in mid "birthday." Everyone expected Neelix to bring out his spectacular birthday cake. To everyone's surprise, Commander Tuvok emerged from the kitchen, carrying a three-tiered cake with very simple decorations on its side. Five lit sparklers had been carefully placed around the edge of the top tier, with a sixth -- one to grow on -- in the tier's center. The frosting was a delicate pale green. Letters spelling out "Happy Birthday" were written in vivid purple script surrounding the bottom tier of the cake. "Naomi" had been inscribed in bright pink letters on the side of the top tier.
Oohs and aahs resounded through the Mess Hall as Tuvok set the cake down on the table closest to the kitchen.
Captain Janeway leaned in and sniffed. Her eyes closed in delight as she asked, "Is that Parra-crème frosting? And is it . . . a pistachio cake, by any chance?"
"It is, Captain. Naomi asked me to assist Mr. Neelix in its creation."
"I didn't realize you were still preparing desserts, Tuvok," the captain replied.
"Normally, I do not. However, for this very special celebration, I could not refuse to honor a particular request." He nodded gravely towards Naomi, who couldn't keep herself from grinning.
A "hip-hip-hooray" could be heard, issuing from the corner where Tom and Harry were standing. Then an even louder "oof!" erupted from Tom's mouth, as a sharply pointed, well-aimed Klingon/Human elbow popped into his side.
The captain looked over her shoulder towards the corner, and saw an innocent smile on the face of her chief engineer. Pursing her lips to hide her own grin, Captain Janeway turned her attention back to her second officer and commented, "Very tastefully done, Commander. I have no doubt it will be just as tasty as it looks."
"It will be, Captain. Uncle Neelix and Commander Tuvok baked me a cupcake so I could approve it!" Naomi said happily.
While the captain continued to lavish praise on her second officer, Icheb moved nearer to the table to examine the cake more closely. He noticed a squiggly line piped around the side of the second tier. "That red line, is that a diagram of a cloaking frequency?" Icheb inquired.
"It is indeed, Cadet. I am pleased you recognized it so quickly. You were not on board this ship the last time I decorated a cake in such a manner."
"Well, shall we sing happy birthday to Naomi so we can dive into all that deliciousness?" Commander Chakotay asked. "But aren't there any candles for you to blow out?"
"We don't need any," Naomi said, exchanging a glance with Neelix.
"We're not quite ready for singing that song yet, Commander," Captain Janeway remarked. "We haven't had a chance to fully appreciate all the decorations."
This was the signal for Neelix and Tuvok to each grab hold of a side of the platter and slowly turn it around to display the inscription on the other side of the cake. The bottom and middle tiers were decorated in the same manner as the first side, but the top layer was different. On this top tier, the name "Icheb," appeared in bright blue letters.
Icheb raised a quizzical brow and turned to Seven. "It is not my birthday."
"We do not know if that's true. Perhaps it is."
The captain intervened. "Cadet, Naomi wanted to give you a birthday gift. Since we didn't know when yours was, she said she'd like to share her birthday with you. Do you accept?"
He hesitated for a few seconds, and then a slow smile spread across his face as he said, most gracefully, "It would be impolite to refuse a gift."
The crew applauded. The birthday song was sung. Approximately three quarters of the partygoers sang, "Happy birthday Naomi and Icheb, Happy birthday to you," while the remaining quarter reversed the names. "Happy cacophony," the captain murmured to her first officer out of the side of her mouth.
With Neelix's assistance, Naomi cut the cake. Icheb handed out plates of the delicacy to everyone in the Mess Hall (with the exception of the Doctor, who couldn't eat it but was occupying himself by waving a tricorder in front of a piece and sniffing, "The pistachios have some nutritional value, but all that sugar! Terrible!"
"It's only once a year, Doctor. How bad could it be?" Neelix asked as he passed by.
"A hundred and forty-six people live on this ship, Mr. Neelix! It can be very bad!"
When only a small section of the bottom tier remained; everyone at the party had been given a piece; and, courtesy of Neelix, a tray of cake slices had traveled around the ship to be offered to everyone who was on duty during the party; Naomi and Icheb were finally able to sit down and enjoy their own birthday cake. "Tuvok, this tastes great!" Naomi exclaimed.
"I am pleased it meets with your approval, Miss Wildman."
"And mine as well, Commander. Thank you for putting my name on the cake, too."
"No need to thank me, Cadet. Miss Wildman insisted on the inclusion of your name."
After the two young people drifted away, having finished their cake, the captain approached her old friend. "Naomi and Icheb are right. This cake is delicious! Does this mean you're willing to come out of retirement and become our pastry chef again, Tuvok?" she teased.
Tuvok straightened his head, and the captain heard him breathe out with the slightest suggestion of a snort. "When Naomi made her request, my initial response was to tell her I would be too busy with my duties to bake and decorate a three-tiered cake, even with the assistance of our primary chef. However, when she looked at me with such trust and explained how she wanted her cake to appear, I decided I could find the time. Mr. Neelix proclaimed himself delighted to receive my help. It was fortunate I did. Naomi had specified 'nothing fancy and no flowers' on the confection. I was able to restrict Neelix's concept of appropriate embellishments to the simple rope design you saw along the upper corners of the layers and where the tiers met."
"I wouldn't have minded a few flowers on top. The more Parra-crème frosting, the better, I always say." The captain punctuated this remark by scraping the last little bit from her plate and licking it off her fork. "Umm" was the only other thing she said.
The barest suggestion of a smile appeared on Tuvok's lips -- the expression Tom Paris liked to call "Tuvok breaking into an unfrown."
"Perhaps we can request that Mr. Neelix provide you with an array of Parra-crème flowers on your next birthday cake, Captain."
As Tuvok intended, his captain replied, "Perhaps I will," before her husky laugh rang throughout the Mess Hall.
Once most of the guests had thrown their plates, forks, and napkins into the recycler and were wandering around the room with glasses in their hands, mixing with their crewmates, Sam guided Naomi to the couch. A small stack of parcels had been placed nearby, waiting to be opened. "I don't have a real present to give you, Icheb," Naomi said apologetically. "I couldn't think about what to give you. I wasn't sure you'd agree to let this be your birthday, too."
"It is said that 'it's the thought that counts,' Naomi. Asking me to share your special day is a very thoughtful gift."
Naomi reached for the first box, a very small cube, barely ten centimeters per side. "It's from you, Icheb!" The package had no wrappings other than a single strand of ribbon tied into a bow, with a small name tag attached to identify the giver. When Naomi pulled off the top of the box and saw what was inside, she didn't say anything at first, but there were a few tears in her eyes when she looked up and met Icheb's gaze. "Is this from that day in Fair Haven?"
"Yes, the day we all went to the seacoast, when you both collected shells you liked and replicated them, so you could take them off the holodeck for souvenirs. That's the term you used that day, as I recall. Mezoti took most of hers with her to Wysanti. She said she wanted to keep them always, to remember the good times we had together. She left a few of the shells behind for me, so I could also remember that day. I thought you might like this one to remember it, too."
"Oh, thank you, Icheb. Thank you so much!" Naomi gave him a hug. He stiffened up a little at first, but then, slowly, his shoulders and arms relaxed. Icheb had very few memories of being embraced by anyone. His father Leucon held him close once, but he wasn't sure that should be classified as an embrace. Rather, his father had immobilized him while his mother Yifay injected him with whatever it was that knocked him unconscious, to make it easier for his parents to stuff him into a transport and send him back to the Borg. This felt very different, more like the other hug he remembered. Mezoti gave him one after she handed the shells to him, on the day she left Voyager, just before they went to the transporter room to say goodbye. He was glad Mezoti had given them to him; it seemed very right to share one with Naomi.
The rest of Naomi's presents were soon opened; the givers had been sincerely thanked; and the party began to settle into a gathering filled with the pleasant buzz of long-time co-workers relaxing with each other as friends as well as colleagues. Icheb was just about to stand up and circulate around the room, as Tom had advised him to do at social gatherings, when Captain Janeway and the Doctor approached the couch where he was sitting next to Naomi.
The captain nodded to the EMH, who pulled an envelope out of a pocket in his uniform and handed it to Icheb while the captain explained, "We have a gift for you, too, Icheb. Since you've agreed this should be your birthday, we're presenting you with a printed 'hard copy' of an official document the Doctor and I have just entered into our ship's database. We can't be sure of the exact year, of course. But since Seven and the Doctor agree the best estimate of your current age is that you're sixteen years old, your official birthday, according to Federation records, has been established as July 19, 2362. Congratulations, Cadet!"
Icheb accepted the envelope and slowly opened it. The document within was a very simple one, but his name was there, along with the planet of his birth and the names of his birth parents, all in the appropriate spaces. Nothing he could do about that, naturally. They did give birth to him. The really important entries were the numbers in the boxes captioned "month," "day," and "year." He'd never mentioned anything about this to Seven; he'd suspected she would say it was irrelevant; but he'd learned the date of a person's birth was very relevant for a citizen of the Federation, which he soon hoped to be. Seven's own birthdate had been recorded on the planet of her birth. And now, even if this might not be the exact day he first came into being, he had a birthdate of his own. It truly was a precious gift.
There was only one thing he could say. "Thank you, Captain. Doctor. Seven." He turned to the girl sitting next to him. "And thank you, Naomi, for suggesting this. It was your idea, wasn't it?"
"Not just mine, but I had something to do with it. Now, next year, we can have an even bigger party. I'll have to think of a special present, now that I know when I can give it to you."
"I look forward to next year. I'll have more time to decide on your gift, too. An entire year."
From where Sam sat on the other couch in the Mess Hall lounging area, she could see and hear the two young people chatting about birthdays, presents, and Mezoti. The pair were getting very comfortable with each other. Sam wondered if perhaps they were getting a little too comfortable, but what could she do about it? Who else was close enough in age for Naomi to associate with? Her daughter had been so lonely since her friend Mezoti had left. Icheb may not be a child, but he clearly wasn't an adult yet, either. And it was likely Naomi would catch up to him all too quickly, in the not very distant future.
Sam glanced over at Seven and noticed her right eyebrow curving upward, as it often did when she was confronted by a troubling situation. Sam had become very familiar with that expression. Now she felt her own brow raise up, as if it had a life of its own, as she watched her daughter -- her little five-year-old daughter -- who now looked ten and was maturing every minute -- smiling up at this very pleasant young man as she gave him a warm hug.
The captain and Seven's most recent estimate for the time it would take to reach the Alpha Quadrant was in the neighborhood of thirty years, and possibly more -- unless they hit it lucky and made more big jumps, like those they'd already managed a few times since their journey began. What would Naomi look like thirty years from now? Or twenty? Or even just ten years in the future? How would Icheb look? And who else would be around that Naomi could call a friend or . . . a romantic partner.
Leaning her right elbow heavily onto the arm of the chair and raising her hand to her cheek to support her head, Sam decided she must be getting one of those temporal headaches Captain Janeway was always complaining about. If the captain didn't get them home very soon, Sam might be looking at Naomi's future. A glimpse of an adult Naomi and Icheb, working closely together, probably in Astrometrics, suddenly came to mind. A shiver ran down Sam's spine, and she realized, more than ever, that she wanted -- no, needed -- Gres here with her.
Ensign Samantha Wildman didn't think she could endure celebrating another of Naomi's birthdays -- or any other sort of celebration (perish the thought!) without him.
(Might Sam have anticipated the adult Naomi and Icheb that Captain Janeway and Chakotay discovered working together in Astrometrics during "Shattered"? ;-)