All That Matters

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"Doesn't matter what I know. All that matters is that it works."


  


At this point in my life
I've done so many things wrong I don't know if I can do right
If you put your trust in me I hope I won't let you down
If you give me a chance I'll try
You see it's been a hard road the road I'm traveling on
And if I take your hand I might lead you down the path to ruin
I've had a hard life I'm just saying it so you'll understand
That right now, right now, I'm doing the best I can

At this point in my life
At this point in my life
Although I've mostly walked in the shadows
I'm still searching for the light
Won't you put your faith in me
We both know that's what matters
If you give me a chance I'll try
You see I've been climbing stairs but mostly stumbling down
I've been reaching high always losing ground
You see I've conquered hills but I still have mountains to climb
And right now right now I'm doing the best I can
At this point in my life

At this point in my life
I'd like to live as if only love mattered
As if redemption was in sight
As if the search to live honestly
Is all that anyone needs
No matter if you find it

You see when I've touched the sky
The earth's gravity has pulled me down
But now I've reconciled that in this world
Birds and angels get the wings to fly
If you can believe in this heart of mine
If you can give it a try
Then I'll reach inside and find and give you
All the sweetness that I have
At this point in my life

-- Tracy Chapman

~^~^~^~^~

He woke slowly, to a slight headache and the overall feeling that his body had been well-used. Slight aches in familiar places, and warmth, and the position of his limbs -- and a lingering perfume. He wasn't alone. It hadn't been a dream. A bottle of wine, fumbling for words, the soft touch of her hands. . . .

She stirred in her sleep, fingers drifting down his shoulder. Gods, it felt good to have her there. This could be something real. Something he could keep.

She shifted, edged closer, rested her cheek on his shoulder, draped her arm across his ribs and wriggled further under the covers. "Morning."

"Not quite yet. Almost."

Touching her back with his fingers lightly made her shiver and burrow closer. "Okay?"

"More so than I've been for long, long time."

"I didn't mean that. Sore?"

"Stop treating me like an old man. It's bad enough that I am one."

Pushing herself up, she crossed her arms across his chest and looked at him in the starlight. "You are not."

"Don't coddle me. I don't want that from you."

"What do you want, Jean-Luc?"

"I want the stamina of a man half my age. Or younger."

"That wasn't what I meant. Why are you so frustrated by your age?"

He slid his arms around her, pulling her head to his chest. "You'll have to tolerate some nonsense from me for a while, until I can sort myself out. Probably a lot of incredulous musings, and shock, and at times outright disbelief. I'm not good at being insecure."

"Sex is not a contest, no matter what nonsense men babble when they're sitting around bars beating their chests."

"Nice summation. Doesn't help."

"Why?"

He blew one of her curls out of his mouth. "Give me some credit for being observant. I know quite a bit of your. . . history. Ow!"

She pulled a fistful of chest hair, keeping her fingers closed tightly around it. "You stop it! I don't have a score sheet, or a perfect memory. And frankly there are some things I'd really, *really* love to forget."

"You too?"

"Don't talk about this. Not now. Unless you want to get up and get dressed, and find Counselor Davidson."

"I hate that you're making me switch."

"You don't have the option. Shut up and cuddle."

"I had no idea you were this bossy."

"I had no idea you were so good with your hands."

He couldn't help feeling a surge of pleasure at the compliment -- exactly what she'd calculated he'd feel, no doubt. Begrudging appreciation for it followed. Then, again, that feeling of being naked in more ways than one.

"Jean-Luc, you've got to realize that I'm not going to take advantage -- "

"You just did."

She stiffened, but he wouldn't let her pull away. She pressed her face into his chest and loosed her hold on his chest hair, thankfully.

"Don't worry about it. I want to come to a place where I can trust you, completely. I've never done that before. Not like this. Not -- do you know what I'm trying to say? I want to move forward with this, make it work."

"On the one hand, I can tell that you do -- on the other, it wouldn't be the first time someone's believed it so much and -- "

"Don't be afraid, don't cry, please."

"I'm -- fine. It's just the newness of it all."

"Except you're not sure of that, either."

She slid her arms around him, forcing her hands between his ribs and the mattress, trying to not sniffle, not cry. "It's impossible, you know that, don't you?"

"Nothing is impossible. One of the credos of command. When you find an impossibility, you make it possible."

"But Starfleet -- "

"Can all go to hell in a shuttle with a hull breach if they try to tell me you have to leave the ship."

She shivered again, tightened her arms, and sobbed once.

"I refuse to let them dictate my personal life any more. I'll quit if I have to."

"No," she blurted.

"Yes."

"You can't know that we'll -- "

"Why can't I? Why can't you? Is it so hard for you to believe? What if all it takes is believing?"

She slid to one side, sitting up. Her hair spilled forward over her shoulders. In the near-darkness, in the filtered starlight, her pale skin took a blue tint.

He almost said how he felt, but knew she sensed it. Instead, he brushed his fingertips down her arm, then reached for her hair, running his fingers through it.

"It's because you experience it vicariously, isn't it?"

"What?" She leaned closer, brushing his chest with the ends of her hair.

"It's a common complaint that many women don't enjoy giving blow jobs."

She laughed -- just as he planned. Oh, she was beautiful when she laughed, head back, the tension vanishing and the soft music of her amusement rippling around him.

It was different -- it really was. It felt different.

And in that fantastically-sensitive way of hers, she reacted to his surprise. "What is it?"

"Is it possible. . . . Can you project emotion, too?"

She was still for a few moments. Surprised? "It's an aspect of a sexual relationship -- I hadn't expected it. I try not to. It doesn't always happen."

"It's not very noticeable, but when you laughed -- it tickled. I thought it was my imagination." He pulled her face around with a finger to her chin. "Why are you -- "

"I let my guard down," she whispered. "Whether it was the wine, or just the way -- the way you make me feel. . . . I'm afraid of this, Jean-Luc."

"I'm liking the idea more all the time. I'd be a damned fool not to. I don't usually make promises, Deanna. But you would have to really go out of your way to make me want to give you up. It isn't the wine. It isn't the newness of it. Tell me you're not going to forget that."

"Not likely that I'd be able to -- Jean -- Jean-Luc -- "

"You don't have to trip over it. Johnny, if you want." He grinned, pulled her down, and held her close again. "As long as it's my name in whatever form."

~^~^~^~^~

She knew when he slept. She wished she could sleep.

The worst part was that all of this came about due to her weakness.

If she'd left the ship the instant she'd realized she was falling for her commanding officer, she wouldn't be there, jeopardizing both their careers. He dismissed the notion so easily. But he'd made all the right career choices, before. Transfer Nella, put aside his infatuation with Beverly. . . .

She couldn't call that infatuation. She knew better.

Beverly had refused him, he'd respected her wishes and been friends anyway -- but it was too late for that option, for Deanna.

If Beverly had changed her mind earlier --

Deanna realized how tense her muscles were getting, and focused instead on his closeness. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed just the simplest of touches, until he'd taken her in his arms. He was all muscle and controlled strength. He stuck to his regimen of physical activity and it showed. Discipline, mental and physical, were what he lived by.

Maybe that was what she found most attractive about him. And his smile, and the softer side she'd seen emerging since his experience with the Kataan probe. He hadn't lost any of the discipline, but the lifetime he lived as a result of his contact with the probe, and likely still remembered well, had affected him profoundly. It came out in unexpected ways, often during their counseling sessions. That he could be both -- that he could face down danger without flinching yet be the smiling, affectionate Jean-Luc Picard who had showed up for poker night -- that he could express so much with the touch of his hand --

He wanted to trust her. He already did, in greater measure than she'd expected of him, as private a person as he was.

He had discerned her feelings before she realized he'd done so and taken control of the situation. The captain at work. Analyze the situation and assess the possibilities, and choose a course of action. Only the course he'd chosen had been unexpected. She'd expected a more cautious approach if anything, invitations to dinner and walks on the holodeck -- not a sudden tumble into bed.

What was she doing here, with his arm across her chest, his face in her hair? It wasn't the sort of thing she would have expected from him. Suddenly deciding to flout Starfleet didn't seem like him, either. When he was awake it was easier. His emotions, his confidence, could silence the paranoid voices and convince her, in ways her own rational thought couldn't, that everything would be all right.

She'd told him there was a side of him she didn't know. That was true -- she didn't know him as a lover. Some men could speak all the words a woman wanted to hear without meaning it, and leave in the morning on the next ship just the same. She had no idea if Jean-Luc was that kind of lover. The other side of her, the side that had predominated for the last ten hours or so, railed against these thoughts. He wasn't the sort of man who threw away officers for one-night stands. He wasn't going to throw their friendship away. He'd gone to great lengths to preserve his friendship with Beverly, after all. He'd made sacrifices for friends before.

She could have said the words, and he would have let her leave without protest. Regardless of the feelings she knew he had for her, he'd have been as patient as he needed to be, within reason. But she'd done as she had several times before, and allowed herself to be swept away, by her own attraction to him, by his attraction to her, and the love --

He woke when her hand tightened on his arm. "What is it?"

"Have you ever loved someone so much that -- that it felt like you'd just turn inside out, or fly apart, or -- "

His thumb pinned her lips shut. His hand, his palm on her cheek, his fingers smoothing her hair back -- she couldn't stand it. Her past and the possible future sandwiched her neatly in the vise and tightened down. She had been here before -- in the arms of a man she couldn't resist, wanting nothing more than to stay there forever. Except the first time it had happened, she'd had no inkling of the pain that could be inflicted on her heart when it ended. She had learned the hard way, suffered in varying degrees, with several lovers. Empaths were not good at breakups.

Trust. Love. Faith in her own judgement. Nice, neat terms, but big, messy undertakings. She could trust Captain Picard with her life, but could she trust Jean-Luc Picard with her heart?

"You're frightened." His thumb brushed across her throat. "Your heart's going at warp eight. Are you sensing something?"

"I can't, at the moment. Even you."

"Is it me? Something I said?"

"I don't know what to expect. Where this will go. If you'll be here again. . . ."

"I hope so, it's my bed."

"Please, don't be an elephant."

What possessed her to blurt that out?

He sat up, dislodging her but taking her by the arm to pull her up as well. His quick touch of the controls next to the bed brought the lights up a few levels, to dim. He gazed into her eyes for a long moment, then smiled. Damn that smile. Have a little hull breach, heart.

"Do I look like an elephant?"

"No. But I'll bet I look like a fool."

He appraised her for a moment. "You aren't a fool. Perhaps I am, however."

He caught her hand when she flinched away from him. "No -- no. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I don't take this lightly -- I can't afford to. I thought you understood that."

"Why do you think I'm afraid? I've seen you do things completely opposite the way you feel. It wouldn't be hard for you to disregard -- "

"Stop it! Why are you being so irrational?"

His anger flared at her -- he hadn't been angry at her before, as far as she could remember. As vulnerable as she'd made herself to him, it felt like salt in open wounds. She cried out and flung up her hands in front of her face. Her head throbbed. Gasping, she tried to see through watery eyes. She could have sensed his mood turning, if she'd controlled her own emotions better. Palms to her forehead, she gulped back sobs and reined in her reaction. His hand on her arm, gently, spoke of concern.

"You're in pain. What is it?"

"Jean -- are you still angry?" She hated the gulping sob that tagged along with the question.

"You can't sense how I feel?" He reached for the panel by the bed. She caught his hand.

"No, I don't need a doctor. Just tell me if you're still angry."

"Worried, at the moment. You're behaving oddly, and you can't sense me -- "

"White out. Hold me, and try to feel something other than worry or anger."

"White out?" But he did as she asked, one hand becoming a gentle pressure against the back of her head. She felt better immediately. Electricity seemed to crackle along his skin, then the warmth and love returned. She drank it in, closing her eyes, tasting his skin and inhaling his scent. The sense of his presence eased the pain, did away with the fear, and restored order to the chaos she'd allowed in her thoughts.

"What I told you earlier, when you asked if I could project -- I opened myself to you, let all the barriers down. When you got angry at me just now, I was completely unprepared for it because I let myself be too afraid to sense you, and couldn't tell you were irritated by it and getting angry."

"It hurt you that much?"

"Like stabbing me in the forehead with a fork. A very large, sharp one. I allowed a sort of emotional connection to form between us. Between my fear and your anger, I was in a white out -- like a white wall between us."

As usual, several things vied for priority in him -- his curiosity about this new information, his concern for her, and a niggle of a self-preservation alarm starting.

"I'm an empath. It's a subtle thing, mostly negligible from your end. From mine -- it makes me more aware of you. More responsive. When you're awake, I can feel the constant reassurance of your belief and it allows me to stop thinking about -- the elephants. The bad things that could happen."

"So you were thinking while I was asleep, and became afraid. And when you couldn't sense what I felt because of that -- I had to lose my temper."

"It's all right. You shouldn't feel guilty. The headache is almost gone, I'm not afraid, and the connection is back."

"Is this going to be an ongoing problem?"

"No. You can be angry at whomever you please, including me. Just not when I'm being stupid and you've just woken up. And I won't always rely on my sense of you to reassure myself, either -- but I need to now, just until we've figured all this out. I know it sounds odd, but this is all so new, and unexpected -- I thought you would take things a little slower than this."

"I was afraid to let you leave," he whispered. "I thought you would have second thoughts and turn me away later. It appears I was right about second thoughts."

She quivered inside at the sound of his voice. "Jean -- you've never confessed insecurity to me. I don't know what to do with this side of you yet."

"Insecurity is something I can't allow myself, on duty. But we both know how badly people we love can wound us. I can appreciate your fear, and seeing how easily you can experience pain when you're this close to someone. . . ."

"It won't happen again. I need time. That's all."

"I think we can manage that." He kissed her hair, then turned her head to kiss her mouth. Shivering, she got lost somewhere in the electricity and let go.

She opened her eyes an indefinite time later, and found herself laying on his chest, listening to him breath, a layer of perspiration making their skin slick. He touched her face with his fingertips, slowly stroking them down her cheek. His other arm held her around the waist firmly.

She remembered all of it, but the rational part of her had been overwhelmed by their combined emotions. Time sense and other such superfluous concerns had fled. He was still enjoying the memory of it; closed eyes, contented smile and relaxed muscles attested to it.

"Okay?"

"Stop asking me, dammit!" He moved slightly beneath her. "God, you're good."

"Yes, but you don't have to deify me. Yet."

"There you are. I like you much better than the insecure woman who was just here."

"So do I."

"I remember," he said, surprised at something. "You were like that, once before. You tried to quit Starfleet -- remember, you lost your empathic ability and snapped at me for trying to tell you useless anecdotes?"

"I'd rather forget that. I was very rude to you, and horrid to almost everyone else who tried to help me."

"You still feel guilt about that?"

It brought her head up. She eyed him, startled. "How do you know that?"

"I just. . . is it that connection?"

"It shouldn't be -- although why I expect anything about you to be like anyone else, I don't know."

~^~^~^~^~

He fastened his pips along his collar while standing in front of the mirror. The quiet snore from the bed startled him a little; he'd been thinking about how to handle himself that day, the immediate ramifications of what he'd just done. The computer's gentle intrusion had awakened him, not only to another day on the *Enterprise*, but to a day of discovering whether the two of them could really sort this out. She hadn't risen with the alarm; it made it a little easier for him. She wouldn't be able to sense and question his moods while asleep.

Crossing the room, he watched her, sprawled in abandon on her stomach in the covers, her shoulders showing white through the tangles of her curls. He resisted the urge to touch her and left her sleeping. On his way out, he picked up the discarded clothing they'd spread around the outer room, deposited it in a chair in the bedroom, and made sure the door was secured when he left. Though no one would come in when he wasn't there, it made him feel better.

The bridge held no real surprises, but everything felt *different* -- like that time he'd fumbled his way into a relationship with Nella. Data kept looking at him with a silly grin until he scowled at him. The android was actually worse than Will had been about Nella -- Will hadn't done much more than look surprised and a little sly a few times, once the relationship became obvious. Although there had been that instance he'd shown up to clear routine orders with Jean-Luc, simply because they entailed assigning Nella to something.

But Deanna Troi was not Nella, nor was she like any other woman he'd ever been intimate with. He had no idea what to expect, though rationally he expected her to come on duty and be her usual pleasant, professional self.

When she arrived, she did just that. He guessed she must have risen shortly after he left. Sitting next to him, she shot him a brief smile, the same as always, and turned to stare down Ward, who was staring at her. The ops manager turned back to his board under the weight of those obsidian Betazoid eyes.

Jean-Luc resisted the impulse to head for the ready room and request her presence -- but then thought again, why not? She was the counselor. The only person aboard with whom he should be discussing the professional ramifications of what had just happened. He was still the captain, she was still the counselor, and if he was going to keep drawing parallels to Nella -- inevitable, seeing as how she'd been the only other member of his crew he'd tried such a relationship with -- talking to her would be the next logical step. That Ward and Data, and possibly the rest of the bridge crew, would chuckle about it should be the last thing he worried about. He was captain of the ship, his performance on duty was still one of the things she had to monitor, and being up front with her professionally shouldn't stop now. They had to continue to function as if there were nothing else between them, with the exception of any personal counseling sessions.

He glanced at the helm, at ops, then stood and tugged his uniform straight. "I'll be in my ready room, Mr. Data."

"Aye, sir."

"Counselor, a moment of your time?" He said it as he headed for the door, tossing it off as he had many times before, amazed at how unaffected it sounded. But why should it sound any other way? He'd spent more than a decade with her on his bridge, calling her in for private discussions of crew behavior or missions or his mental state after a particularly-difficult experience.

She came in and sat down, like always, accepting his offer of a beverage and opting for coffee this time. When he'd brought it to her and went to his chair, he realized he'd gotten himself coffee too -- he hadn't made a habit of drinking it in the morning since Beverly's departure. In fact, he'd gotten completely out of the habit of breakfast. He headed back to the replicator again without sitting down, returned with a plate, and offered her a croissant wordlessly, holding out the plate over the desk.

For the first time since she'd come to the bridge, she met his eyes. A flicker of question and surprise in them, she took a pastry, pulled a dainty portion from the end, tucked it in her mouth, and raised an eyebrow at him as she chewed.

"Did you invite me in for breakfast, or did you wish to discuss something, Captain?"

"Breakfast was an afterthought. I don't usually eat it."

"Any more," she added for him. "I've thought about asking you to join me. But. . . ."

"But for months, I came on the bridge feeling lonely because Beverly was gone, and -- "

"Captain," she murmured, mildly reproaching him.

They sat in silence for a while. She finished the croissant and drank some coffee, then seemed to come to a conclusion; raising her eyes to meet his, she smiled -- Counselor Troi's smile.

"You wished to speak to me about something. Probably how to handle the difficulties of a shipboard relationship -- as I recall, it was somewhat difficult to handle, before."

"De -- "

"Is this someone you have worked with for a long time?"

It caught him by surprise, left him with his mouth hanging open. "Excuse me?"

She reached for another croissant. "I am the ship's counselor. This is not a formal session. You called me in here to discuss it with me -- you've done that before. You want to know how this will affect the crew, or your performance, or. . . ?"

"Or this kind of discussion," he added.

"You appear to be fighting for composure -- I thought third person objectification would help you talk about it."

"Perhaps. Well. . . yes, I have worked with her for a long time. I hope that the professional side of the relationship doesn't change any more than necessary. It's always been a pleasant -- no. I suppose it hasn't, but not because of her, it's -- "

"Captain."

He stared at the plate, at his reflection in the surface of the desk next to it. "I'm sorry. But I know this will work -- I know there has to be a way around this awkwardness."

"It's new. It will not always be new, if given enough time. That holds true for you as well as for the crew -- when the novelty wears off and they see that you are not allowing them to see anything beyond what they always see, the captain on duty and the friend off duty, it will no longer be a cause for amusement or curiosity."

"The question is, can I train myself to be the same on duty?" The annunciator sounded as she put the last bit of her second croissant in her mouth and reached for her cup. Jean-Luc collected himself, setting aside irritation, and said, "Come."

Data entered with a ghost of a grin on his face, stopping next to Deanna's chair at attention. "We will be arriving at starbase 394 tomorrow at approximately eleven hundred hours. I had scheduled myself for leave, starting at fourteen hundred hours -- however, knowing how difficult it can be for the counselor to persuade you to take any leave yourself, I am willing to forgo my leave and remain aboard the ship, if -- "

"Data," Jean-Luc snapped, then caught himself with a wince. Then stifled an evil smile. "That's very generous of you, Commander, thank you. I do believe I'll take you up on that offer -- and since it will be so quiet for three days, you can take advantage of the lull and run a shipwide level one diagnostic."

The ghost of a grin vanished. "Sir, I believe we ran a level one not -- "

"Are you questioning a direct order, Commander?"

"No, sir." The android looked down at Deanna, nodded, and turned to go.

"Data," she called, bringing him back to her side. "Our appointment this afternoon -- would you mind if we moved it to fourteen hundred? I'm trying to reschedule missed appointments into today's schedule around the duty roster. One of the difficulties of away missions going awry and fouling up routine."

Jean-Luc blinked at that. "If I'm keeping you from other appointments -- "

"How could you be, when you were the first one?" She reached for the coffee cup she'd left on the edge of his desk. "Data, I expect your cooperation and confidentiality. As first officer the well-being of the entire crew is your concern, including myself and the captain. Your behavior will affect the perceptions of the junior officers, you know."

Data rarely stopped open-mouthed as he did then. "It will," he said uncertainly.

"The order of the day is to be professional," she said. "Have you ever known me to allow personal relationships to cause dereliction of duty?"

Data's head jerked up as he caught her meaning. "Ah. No, Counselor. I have not." He glanced at his captain, uncertain again. "Nor have I seen the captain exhibit such behavior."

"Do you believe that you will find it difficult to work with me?" Deanna asked.

"I doubt that it will present any difficulty."

"Why?"

"I have known the two of you for. . . quite some time," Data replied, stopping himself short of specifying. Part of his work toward a more human demeanor. "Long enough to know that you would never allow personal considerations to hinder your duty as an officer. You did not allow it to interfere when you were with. . . I am sorry."

Data was improving by leaps and bounds. Deanna finished it for him, however. "Worf. No, I didn't. But, he was not the captain."

"That is true. However, the captain is not given to unnecessary risk. He would do nothing to hinder the career of anyone in his command, nor would he do anything to risk his own. Strictly speaking, regulations do not explicitly forbid relationships between bridge officers, but they are such that such an endeavor is highly unlikely to succeed. I would expect that the two of you, being seasoned officers and cognizant of regulations, would have taken this into consideration and that if difficulties do arise you would be the first to act appropriately, without the necessity of outside intervention."

"Stop, Data -- your analysis is accurate enough, but try again." Deanna sat back in her chair and sipped her coffee, waiting while the android cocked his head and thought about it.

"It is none of my business what my fellow officers do while off duty, so long as it has no effect on their performance while on duty."

Deanna nodded. "And if you do notice that it affects either one of us?"

"I should speak to the ship's counselor at once, as per regulation."

"What do you think the ship's counselor would do if you did so?" Jean-Luc asked.

Data turned to him, quite sober. "Her duty. Whatever that might entail."

"Good. Dismissed, Commander."

Deanna watched Data leave out of the corner of her eye. She seemed to watch Jean-Luc's fish for a moment, swimming in its sphere mounted on the wall, and smiled as if reminiscing about something. Dropping her gaze to her lap, she turned contemplative.

"You can do it," he said. "If anything, you would be harder on yourself than another counselor would. Unlike Data, I do remember when you allowed a personal relationship to interfere with your duty as an officer. You confessed it to me, remember?"

She closed her eyes, then opened them and met his gaze directly. "Yes. I remember. Aaron Connor."

"In your professional opinion, do you believe that I am capable of maintaining my demeanor as captain of this vessel while pursuing a relationship with a member of my crew?"

"I believe that is possible, yes. More possible than before. Since your last attempt, you have experienced a great deal of personal growth. You are a disciplined and controlled officer, determined to uphold your principles and values." Though she spoke calmly, her eyes told a different tale -- last night's insecurities danced in them.

He took the last croissant and split it in two with his fingers. "I value my counselor. I am highly motivated to keep her with me. Her skills and her dedication to her work have impressed me -- her strength and intuition have served this ship and crew well. I have no doubt that regardless of personal entanglements, that will continue, and I expect to be informed if my behavior hampers that in any way. I shall reciprocate if the opposite should occur."

Leaning forward with a smile, she took the half of the croissant he offered. "Thank you, sir. As always, I shall do my best to meet your expectations."

"Very good. And by the way, Counselor, about breakfast? Don't expect a repeat of this." He waved his half of the croissant. "I wouldn't want any misunderstandings -- it's quite early in the relationship, you see, and I'm not certain of how possessive she can be."

Deanna *almost* laughed aloud. Instead, she returned their cups to the alcove in back, dropping them in the recycler, then headed for the door. "If you'll excuse me, Captain, I have to go make some changes to the leave schedule before my first appointment."

"I thought I was your first appointment."

"My first *counseling* appointment," she clarified, hesitating short of the door sensor. "And thank you for risking her wrath -- I hadn't eaten yet, in spite of managing to work up an appetite, somehow."

"Oh, really?" He grinned and settled back in his chair. "Sounds like I'm not the only one. Anyone I know?"

"That's none of your business, sir. But since you *are* the captain, you probably do know him. And you should probably also assume she's possessive, by the way. Whoever she is."

"And why would I assume that?"

She sniffed at that and shook her head. "If you will forgive my saying so, Captain -- if I were her, I'd definitely feel that way. One generally does, when one finds someone worth keeping."

Luckily, she turned and left the instant she finished. He slumped, chuckling, then laughing aloud at himself. "Good God, what have I done? What am I doing?"

But the laughter died away as he thought about the conversation he'd just had. He thought about the way she'd smiled at him on the bridge, and the familiar way she'd faced him across his desk, slipping bits of croissant in her mouth and drinking coffee, speaking to him with just enough affection and just enough distance. Questioning Data -- who had answered in kind, professionally.

It took a while for him to set aside emotions, but as she had said, it was new. That would change with time. And as he expended the effort to refocus on the operation of a starship and the review of the last mission's logs to file a final report, the emotions faded into the background.

He thought of her again while entering the officer's mess for lunch, but wasn't allowed the luxury of contemplation of the situation. Ward, sitting alone, waved him over and asked about fencing -- Data had apparently mentioned Jean-Luc had at one time made a habit of indulging in the sport, and Ward was considering taking up something new, his other current favored options being tennis or Rulabin darts. Not once did he bring up Deanna -- not even when the counselor arrived, replicated food, smiled at them as she walked past their table, and sat down across the room with Geordi and Lieutenant Mendez, the beta shift ops officer.

Ward glanced at her, though. Chewing a bite of Zentakian vegetables, he met Jean-Luc's eyes briefly before looking at his plate. "I hope you don't mind my asking, sir, but -- why'd it take you more than a decade?"

Of all questions to ask, it had to be an unexpected one. Not too many aboard knew Deanna had been on the *Enterprise* that long, and Ward obviously didn't know the rumors surrounding Beverly's relationship with him. Jean-Luc tried to stifle a laugh, with no luck. Ward looked up, startled, and a smile fought for expression on his round features.

"I do mind, Mr. Carlisle. But since you avoided the more annoying questions. . . I suspect that it took that long because she waited for me to grow up."

Ward's burst of laughter got the attention of nearly everyone in the room. He caught himself, unable to restrain the grin, and picked up another fork of vegetables. "Better late than never, I guess. That's what Cecily said. I grew up with her, you know? She lived next door, we went to the same school, we went off to the Academy and got lost, and met again when we were both stationed on the *Carmichael.* Weird how it all works out in the end."

"This is Starfleet," Jean-Luc mumbled, poking his salad without much interest. "Weird is part of the job."

"I'll say. So what could I bribe you with to give me a few fencing lessons?" He glanced at Deanna again, one corner of his mouth twitching. "I know -- I'll have my mother-in-law send me some genuine high-quality Swiss chocolate all the way from home. Bet you could use that, right?"

Jean-Luc paused, then put down his fork. His second officer didn't seem surprised or upset, or even curious any more. Just a few days, that's all it had taken for him to adjust -- for the newness to wear off.

It *could* work.

~^~^~^~^~

Time, Deanna told herself, staring at the watercolor painting of flowers hanging over her desk. A patient had given it to her as way of saying thank you for her help with his nightmares. She studied it anew, counting brush strokes in pink petals and the contour of the gold vase. It didn't distract her long.

Fickle, reckless time, rushing by then slowing to a crawl at the wrong moment.

She had more appointments, but couldn't stop thinking of her conversation with Jean-Luc. Breakfast in the ready room. He'd said not to expect it again -- did he mean not to expect it in the ready room, or not at all?

That was stupid. Of course they'd have breakfast again. Unless what he'd said last night was just talk -- maybe he'd change his mind and back off, seeing that he'd rushed into the assumption she'd move right in with him. Maybe in time he would lose interest and they'd drift apart, and they'd never live together at all.

Why was she doing this to herself? He'd said that morning that he wanted her to stay. All that talk with Data meant something.

But did it mean he was deluding himself?

Twiddling the brilliant geode one of her other patients had given her, she sighed and chewed her lip. She could sense him, occupied with his duties. Every now and then a familiar turn of emotion told her he'd thought about her.

If only she could turn it off. Ignore him, the way she'd practiced for months until the Zibyan mission -- if only she could keep herself from drifting his direction in between appointments. She'd opened herself to him too much too soon. An indicator of how much she really trusted him -- she hadn't opened herself like that with anyone else. As long as she had someone occupying her, she could think straight enough to keep him out.

All those years, knowing too well how he felt about too many people. She was Betazoid -- accepting things she sensed around her without judgement or, most of the time, reaction. All those women -- not so many as some other officers had had, but she could list them. She could even guess what attracted him to each of them, though love was never that simple a thing that music appreciation, intelligent conversation, or any one shared interest would be enough to turn his head.

And now there was Deanna Troi. Another name on the list?

She had to quit thinking this way. It would never work unless she could stop predicting the end before it even had a chance to begin.

Rising, she wished there were a replicator in her office -- this ship being less luxurious than the last, she had to go elsewhere to replicate anything. She went down the corridor to main sickbay and bore left as she entered, heading for the small room where medical staff could sit down for staff meetings or breaks. There weren't any patients but she noticed Dr. Mengis and three of his subordinates standing over some equipment at the opposite end of the room.

Her supervisor bothered her, she'd told Jean-Luc as much not long ago, but she hadn't told him the details of why. Gregory Mengis came into the break room while she requested raktajino and stood to one side as if waiting for her to move out of his way. She could feel the heat of his attention, his admiration, and she wanted nothing more than to give him a short demonstration of a self-defense technique she and Beverly had called the Klingon nutcruncher, taught to them by Worf. She'd never used it on anyone -- it would hurt, regardless of the gender of the opponent, and causing physical damage had never been her preference. However, she was positive she could manage it effectively, given the right motivation.

She could tolerate the occasional admiring glance. This was different, and she wished she could break her intentional silence on the extent and nature of her empathic ability to tell him to stop. But he'd never said a word to her or done anything out of line, thus landing her in the miserable position of ignoring it as best she could. She knew from hard experience when she could and couldn't talk to someone about what she sensed; this was the latter.

So tempting to react to the ogle in progress behind her as she took her time picking up the hot beverage and carrying it from the room. She smiled pleasantly at the doctor, her professional 'you are a coworker on good terms' smile, as she passed him.

Back in her office, she folded her hands on the desk, eyed her raktajino, checked the chrono, and waited impatiently. Data was late. That meant someone was holding him up, and the only person he would allow to do that was the captain. Which brought her back to thinking about him.

She closed her eyes, focusing on more pleasant aspects of the man rather than on the officer, and ended up fighting the giddiness -- damn if she didn't feel like a silly schoolgirl! She laughed at herself, letting her mind play with that. Relatively speaking, she was that much younger than he, now that she thought about it. Not that it mattered to her, really, but human men could be silly about things like that. Will had already shown obsessive preoccupation with those streaks of gray in his beard. Jean-Luc showed no signs of concern, however, and hopefully that would continue.

He had to mean what she thought he'd meant, earlier in the ready room. He wouldn't take this lightly. That rush of emotion from him as she'd left the bridge should be all the proof she needed -- this insecurity of hers had to go. He felt strongly about her, and he voiced no doubt. Concerns, yes, but she would expect that. But it was so unbelievable to her, that suddenly after all that time she spent wishing for it, he would welcome her into his bed without hesitation. Captain Picard had done that? It only proved that the side of him she was only just starting to see was truly uncharted territory for her.

The annunciator brought her back from musing. Data came in and took a seat, then relaxed his formerly-stiff posture as he'd practiced, his shoulders lowering a few millimeters. He smiled, not the mischievous one from that morning, and said, "I am sorry I was late, Counselor. The captain wished to speak with me, and given the nature of our sessions, I wished to experience the phenomena of being late. I forgot the time."

"I see." As often happened with Data, she found herself trying not to laugh. These sessions were a crash course in the subtleties of things like tone of voice and turns of phrase. He'd asked her help in trying to find a happy medium between his unique personality and a demeanor that would put new crew and visitors more at ease with him. Practicing human impreciseness when appropriate was part of it. "How did the experience make you feel?"

"Apologetic. Mildly guilty. I did have an appointment and I was seven point two four. . . seven minutes late."

Deanna crossed her legs under the desk and settled back in her chair. "We left off last time discussing an encounter you had with Lieutenant B'nai'gar. Did you have any further concerns about that?"

Data hesitated, and not for the first time she wished she could sense what was going on with him -- his emotions weren't organically generated, and the best term to describe what she sensed from him was 'smudged.' She thought he might be worried.

"Data?"

"A question -- as a friend?"

No telepathy needed to know what this was about. Bracing herself, she knitted her fingers and rested them over her knee. "As a friend."

"The captain is perhaps not aware of the rumors that have started about the two of you," Data said, in his usual matter-of-fact tone he used for discussing everything from playing his oboe to in-depth analyses of interstellar phenomena. "I have, with my superior hearing, detected -- "

"What's the question, please?" She tried not to sound strident. Right then, she did not want to hear the rumors. She'd heard a few about bridge officers before, including Jean-Luc and Beverly.

"In the past he has displayed a great deal of discomfort when the crew has any knowledge of his. . . interests. The bridge officers are all aware, and it will not be long before the remainder of the crew knows. He does not seem to recognize the curious looks from Mr. Carlisle and the others, however."

"Are you concerned for his feelings, Data?"

Data mimicked discomfort very well -- shifting in his chair, repositioning his hands on the arm rests. Or perhaps he was simply mastering human body language to match how he felt, at long last. "Captain Picard is my friend. As are you, Deanna. Is it incorrect of me to feel concern?"

"No, and I think I speak for both of us in saying we appreciate your concern. He can manage. He's more aware of the crew than you seem to think. What you may be seeing is that he's chosen to ignore their reactions."

"I had not thought of that." Data smiled again, faintly. "I have observed that for the last few months, he has not been very happy. I was pleased to see that has changed drastically over the course of the past few days. I hope that will continue -- you also seem much happier than you were."

"You are becoming later for your appointment all the time."

His smile widened. "I am sorry, Counselor. I. . . lost track of time again."

"As I was saying, your difficulties with Lieutenant B'nai'gar -- Data. Stop grinning like that."

"I cannot seem to help it. I find it amusing that you are blushing."

Deanna hid her face in her hands. "Next lesson -- when not to point out to someone that they're embarrassed."

"I believe I can extrapolate from existing data and hypothesize that one should not point out someone is embarrassed when they have just begun a relationship with their -- "

"Reference this in your databanks," she exclaimed, dropping her hands and glaring. "Butt out."

Data blinked. The corners of his mouth dropped. "My difficulties with Lieutenant B'nai'gar have been resolved," he said.

Deanna sighed, hand to forehead, and composed herself. "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I'm a bit sensitive about. . . things."

"Would you like to talk about it, Deanna?"

She peered through her fingers. Data was as straight-faced as the day she'd met him, and the question had sounded sincere. It occurred to her that of all people aboard, he was most trustworthy -- all it took was a quick sub-routine initiation and he could selectively forget. Then she realized how desperate that thought was. How lonely she'd become, that now she was thinking of venting her private life to Data, whose ability to commiserate was so limited. He couldn't even really enjoy a chocolate sundae with her.

And then it struck her, she couldn't call Beverly for a chat. Her contacts with the doctor had been few and far between since she'd left the ship. Deanna knew that eventually Bev would work her way through things and open up to her again -- or she would have, if not for this sudden change of circumstance. Given the motivation for Bev's departure, as narrated by Jean-Luc, the revelation of his relationship with Deanna might cause a permanent rift between Beverly and both of them. And calling up Will, her other former listening ear, would be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons; that heated disagreement they'd had prior to his taking off on his own ship may have been forgiven in word, but the hesitance and the distance remained.

She had no confidant any more. Guinan was gone, too, to who knew where. The idea of discussing any of this with her mother was enough to put permanent knots in her intestines. There was Jean-Luc, but the relationship was so new, and part of the problem now was the difficulty of romancing one's own captain -- this was uncharted territory.

"Data, thank you -- but I don't feel up to that right now." She paused, groping for her dwindling composure, and straightened her shoulders. "However, there is something I'd like to ask you."

"Yes, Deanna?"

"If you are asked any questions about whether or not the captain and I are together, I'd like you to be honest, but in a vague way. Like the way you estimate lengths of time in an informal situation."

"But if the question is asked by a subordinate there would be no need to say that much."

She smiled into her raktajino, now lukewarm, and set aside the cup. "I suppose not."

"Details of the romantic relationships of others are private personal business," Data added. "Idle gossip is not becoming of an officer."

He wasn't mimicking the captain, but something about the word choice reminded her of him. "Just what did you discuss with the captain that made you late?"

"I asked him for clear instructions on how I should react when asked questions. Mr. Carlisle said we should expect it. Some of the ops staff have already commented. Apparently the sudden increase of the off-duty time you have spent with the captain has not gone unnoticed in the lower decks." Data tilted his head, studying her more intently. "Have I upset you?"

"No, I'm fine. Let's get back to why we're here, shall we?"

She made it through the session, tutoring him through interpersonal scenarios that might take place between officer and subordinate, slowly describing the nuances of facial expression and discussing cultural differences. Data was already well-versed in much of it, having been in operation for so many years among humans, but he'd never asked for specific definitions and descriptions -- what he had requested from her in these sessions was confirmation and clarification, to build an accurate database for his future reference.

If he'd been anyone else she might have rescheduled. Data didn't react to the emotion probably showing through her shaky composure. She thought it was due to his inexperience -- he couldn't have been exposed to too many silly, weepy females. He'd been in Starfleet all his life. From cadet on up, setting aside personal concerns on duty was expected. She was grateful that it was only him seeing her this way, so caught up in her struggling with her own emotions that it couldn't be set aside in a session.

But as he turned to leave, he stopped, tilted his head, and looked over his shoulder at her. "I do not think the crew will react badly to your relationship with the captain."

"Thank you," she murmured, not knowing what else to say. After he'd gone, she crossed her arms on her desk and let her head fall against them.

What was that old saying? She had made her own bed, and now she must lie in it. Though technically, after she'd dragged herself out of it, she'd made the *captain's* bed.

Chuckling drily, she rubbed her eyes and tried to be less edgy. This wasn't good. Jean-Luc was busily instructing his officers on how to deal with this, and here she was, quietly falling to pieces. She was his officer, too. She should have better self control. She'd told him he could handle it, and he was doing so -- now if only she could be as brave about things on her own as she could in his presence.

Allowing herself to find him and read his emotional state, she discovered that he had that familiar preoccupied fuzziness -- he was thinking hard about something. Suddenly pleasure twined throughout, and the mental equivalent of a pointing finger. He'd thought of her. She couldn't sense his thoughts, that would take telepathy, but reading emotions was nearly as effective when it was someone she knew well.

His feelings had fluctuated all morning, and during lunch. He'd run the gamut of incredulousness and disbelief to dismay. Now all of the turbulence had settled -- now he was happy, just as Data said.

Her next appointment arrived, and by the time the doors opened, the counselor's face was back to normal and hiding her happiness behind her professional demeanor as much as she could manage.

~^~^~^~^~

The gymnasium complex was busy, but the weight room was empty. Jean-Luc headed for the machine he normally used, set it, and put his hands in the straps.

It wasn't so bad. Data and his questions aside, he hadn't noticed too much interest in him, other than curious looks. Really the most unbelievable part of all was that Deanna Troi found him desirable. What did she see in him? He'd known some beautiful women, been in love with a few, but years had passed -- he was slowing down. Deanna --

He sighed and stopped working the weights, letting them pull his arms back. Slowly he banged his head twice on the back of the machine.

He'd graduated from the Academy before she was even born.

If he was the type to brag, this one would be for the locker room. Seventy, and he'd reeled in a woman thirty years his junior. Not to mention a Betazoid, not to mention one who the younger men were still tripping over their tongues for.

Oh, he'd put his foot in it this time.

About the time she went into the phase he'd be --

He closed his eyes and hung from the weight machine as if on a crucifix, laughing at himself.

What the hell did she see in him?

Would she be as unable to figure that out as he was, now that it was the day after? Last night they'd both had their share of insecurities and questions. The idea of that mental connection she talked about -- that was new, and a little alarming at first.

The permutations of her fascinated him. Maybe because he'd never paid attention to her other facets before, and had come to know her so well as officer and counselor that the person seemed one surprise after another. She didn't get the chance to indulge her wicked sense of humor as a counselor, and certainly not as an officer.

Speaking of which -- he'd have to kick her forward. Perhaps a rotation at ops. She should be doing more to advance her career. Part of him felt guilty for letting her linger so long unnoticed. Her talents could be an advantage, in command, and now that he saw --

Now, wait a minute. She didn't seem to care to move that direction.

But if she did, she could have her own ship. She seemed to enjoy being in charge well enough. She'd managed to gain deLio's respect, no easy thing. It might be worth further investigation.

He smiled, forced his arms forward one last time, and went limp, leaving his arms dangling by his fingers in the handles. He'd have to put her in command some time when he could observe --

Ah. Kobayashi Maru.

But how to get her on the holodeck? Usually the situation came as part of a series of simulations, so as to be an unexpected one. She'd try to pass it off as unnecessary if he tried to convince her to do a whole series. Or maybe not. She'd taken the bridge officer test, after all. However, the test had been one thing, not hours of simulator time. She'd not want to take that much time away from counseling -- she was devoted to her duty, after all.

The best way would be to simply do it, and sort it out afterward. If he passed it off as a test for some cadets and junior officers, possibly tell her he wanted her assessment of their performances under pressure and put her in the center seat then remove himself from the situation entirely so as not to influence the outcome -- he might be able to get away with it. Afterward, depending on the outcome, he could call it his way of gauging how to make decisions that would affect their future.

With a few alterations to the configuration of the machine, he ran himself through his usual programmed set of lifts, the weight increasing gradually with every set of five until the bench felt like concrete under his shoulders. At failure, he collapsed and closed his eyes against sweat trickling down his forehead.

Thinking about a woman and the future wasn't so new. A woman he worked with, not new. A woman he intended to pursue long-term relations with while maintaining a working relationship -- that was new. He'd thought about it briefly with Nella, but not really. It was easier not to think at all sometimes and just fall into the relationship. Saying good-bye to Nella hadn't been easy, but he'd done it and weathered the sadness.

This time, for some reason he couldn't quite put a finger on, was different. Maybe the difference lay in the fact that Nella had walked into his life, stayed a short time, and walked out again. Deanna had been there all along. She knew him well enough to know how to confront him without being too confrontational, knew when he needed her help and when to back away again. All their personal conversations up to now had been evidence of that. She would expect him to think about the ramifications of this and trust him to make decisions he could live with -- she already considered her own set of issues, as evidenced by her brief segue through raging panic last night.

It was easy to think of falling into bed with her so suddenly as a careless act, but something in him kept insisting that it wasn't. Being careless with her wasn't an option.

What was it about him, that the only long-term relationships with women he seemed able to consider were with the ones who healed him? It wasn't the reason why -- Beverly he'd known long before she became the one who put his body back together again when it broke. But it was ironic just the same.

Beverly. Imagining the future with her was an indulgence he hadn't permitted in a long time. After her retreat from his suggestion of a relationship, he hadn't allowed himself to think about things that might lead to more of the same sort of thoughts, which in turn might lead him to confront her again. That was why it'd died -- he had turned himself off so thoroughly --

What if he'd been able to turn it on again?

The machine cheeped quietly to remind him he'd been sitting too long. Next set. His exhaling on the return sounded loud in the cavernous, empty room.

No, Beverly was no longer an option -- burned bridges there. But for the sake of knowing, he forced himself through the moot scenario. Beverly on one hand, Deanna on the other. Fire and unpredictability on both sides, obviously -- he tended to appreciate complex, strong-willed women. Deanna had seemed so soft, especially off duty, he'd never given her much thought. However, after the incident with the Romulans, then the unexpected thing with Worf --

Who would have imagined her with a Klingon? For that relationship to go on longer than a week, she had to have more fire yet that he hadn't seen -- try to imagine it as he might, Deanna breaking furniture didn't seem possible. Last night, she'd been so careful at first, then so responsive -- funny, he'd never considered the more gratifying ramifications of an empath in bed. Probably because he'd never considered that he might one day have one.

He ended the set, and after a few minutes realized he'd not finished working his way through the Beverly verses Deanna scenario. Well, there was his answer. . . .

Maybe it really was a woman who healed him that he needed most. And maybe because Deanna was unafraid of confronting the parts of him he feared, he could feel safe with her. She sensed everything, fears and petty anxieties, and accepted and loved him anyway.

His subconscious, as it often did once he'd set an idea in motion and gone on to other things, kicked up another idea -- not Kobayashi, the war games. After their three-day leave at starbase, the *Enterprise* was due to participate in war games in a nearby sector. In the course of the scenario he was supposed to be 'killed' and a bridge crew of his choosing would take over. Rigging the assignments to make her the most senior officer on the bridge would be child's play. He could 'kill' Carlisle in the same accident he was supposed to die in, taking out both first officer and captain. Data would be on a different ship. Geordi would be disabled early as well to run engineering through their paces. Putting her in command of a shipload of cadets --

He laughed out loud, the short staccato of it echoing briefly. As long as he fixed it so the helm officer wasn't disabled and Deanna might end up filling in, he might even get his ship back in one piece.

A scuff and a rattle of equipment to his left startled him. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," he replied automatically, a little surprised to find the newcomer was not only pretty, but wearing less than he was -- tight electric-blue shorts and a halter top, and a matching band around her head, a long saffron-colored pony tail hanging down her back. She was setting up the machine next to him for bench presses.

"I'm Natalia Greenman. I haven't seen you in here before." She flashed him a smile. "Working up quite a sweat, aren't you?"

He glanced down at his soaked grey shirt. "I was. Got a little winded. You're in engineering, aren't you?" He didn't often have the newer crew approach him with such fearlessness. For some reason, they all seemed afraid of him.

"Yep. Commander LaForge isn't the easiest guy to work for, but he's fair most of the time."

"An accurate assessment. Have you been aboard long?" It occurred to him to wonder why, out of all the machines, she'd chosen the one next to him.

"Since Starbase 25. About two months. What about you?"

He adjusted the controls over his head and behind him without looking and began the next set. "Twelve years."

"But that's -- you were on the 1701-D? Have you ever met Captain Picard? I mean, he's only the best captain in the fleet."

It took more effort than it should have to keep working and not react. "Oh, I don't know. Captain Riker could give him a run for his money."

She gaped at him, her weights forgotten. Like it was such a traitorous thing to suggest. She looked up then, as someone entered the room; he glanced over and smiled. He wanted to do more -- Deanna smiled at him, obviously not suffering any doubt today.

"Hello, Counselor. Pull up a bench. It's good for you."

"I can think of more pleasant ways to hurt myself, thank you." She sat on the machine to his right. Still in uniform -- she must've had late appointments.

"Have you met Natalia Greenman? She's one of Geordi's cadets."

"Hello, Natalia." Deanna smiled at the girl.

"Uh -- hello, Counselor. Nice to meet you again. Uh -- sir? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

He finished the set and extricated himself, and Deanna handed him the towel he'd left draped on the machine she was using for a chair. He smiled at the girl apologetically. "Apparently, I'm only the best captain in the fleet."

She jumped, in several directions at once, and fell off the weight bench. "Sir, I'm sorry -- "

"Miss Greenman thinks I'm even better than Riker," he said, glancing at Deanna -- then realized what that sounded like.

"I wasn't -- you -- sir, that's not fair!"

"Are you all right?" he asked, looking down at her where she still sat on the floor.

She scrambled to her feet. "Fine, sir!"

"At ease -- I refuse to return salutes when my arms are this tired." He put the towel over his shoulders and got up. "The weight room is all yours, Cadet Greenman. Counselor, was there something you wanted to discuss?"

"Why else would I wander into this torture chamber?"

She followed him from the room and out of the gymnasium complex. When they were in the corridor, she checked behind them for onlookers and poked him in the ribs. "Stop intimidating the cadets."

"She started talking to me. I was just there to lift weights."

"And how did she know you're better than Riker?"

He shot her an alarmed glare. "You know what I -- what she meant!"

"I know what I meant."

"You must have amnesia, then."

She blinked, losing her amused grin. "Are you trying to hurt my feelings?"

"No. I'm sorry. I was just thinking, before that cadet came along -- I realized that I'd forgotten about the difference in our ages."

"Forgot? Or are you thinking, perhaps, of excuses to justify panicked retreat?"

He walked into the lift; she followed, and they ended up on opposite sides with three uniformed crew between them. Two departed on deck ten, the third on deck nine.

"I told you I don't do insecurity well."

"Then don't do it at all."

"Are you telling me that you have no doubts at all about a relationship with a seventy-year-old has-been? I'm probably older than your father would have been."

She glared at him until the lift stopped. "What is this really about, Jean-Luc?"

He glanced out the open doors at the empty corridor. "I'm not sure exactly why. It just feels. . . uncomfortable."

"I think I can guess why." She crossed the lift in three strides and shoved him against the wall, getting in his face. "When you stop thinking with your balls and your ego, you can join me for dinner."

She marched out and left him holding up the wall. When Carlisle entered the lift, he was treated to the spectacle of the captain, in drenched workout greys, laughing helplessly.

Jean-Luc left the confused second officer and the lift behind, and went to his quarters for a shower. Passing through the bedroom, he missed something. He stopped and turned around, unsure of what it was.

Then it struck him -- his shoes. He'd never been good at putting them away, usually left them along the wall near the closet where he could get at them easily. That morning before he'd left for the bridge, he'd tripped over a few and not stopped to kick them back into place.

Deanna had picked up his shoes. Made the bed. Put his untidy stack of books he kept at the head of the bed in the shelf, got rid of the collection of tea cups and glasses he'd accumulated in that corner on the floor nearest the bed --

Out of his memory rose a voice he hadn't thought about in a long time, telling him to put away his shoes. He closed his eyes and pictured her face -- Eline. Deanna had told him he needed to grieve for her loss, even though the probe had created her in his mind and she was likely nothing more than a fiction. The probe had been the most personal experience he'd ever shared with her in counseling, and the only reason he'd shared it had been the days of shock and displacement that had followed and the effect it had on his work. He'd lived a lifetime as a father and husband among the Kataan -- that wouldn't fade quickly, Deanna had said. As usual, she was right. He still remembered Eline fondly.

Would Deanna have remembered that Eline always chided him to pick up after himself? Had he told her that detail of his life as Kamin? He couldn't remember.

He showered, changing into something comfortable and thinking about the war games. He needed to start picking crew assignments -- he'd let Data and Geordi handle most departments, but he wanted to do the bridge himself. Riker would make this one difficult. The *Enterprise* should make a good showing, being the flagship, and since he was supposed to be dead ten minutes into the game, he'd need to have solid people at ops and tactical, and a cool head at the helm. Especially if Deanna had to --

"Data to Captain."

"What is it, Data?" Trying not to sound annoyed, Jean-Luc paused on his march for the door.

"I thought you would like to know that the *Lexington* will be at Starbase 394 when we arrive. Captain Riker sent an invitation addressed to you, myself, Deanna and Geordi to a poker game tomorrow evening."

Riker had to be early to the war games, just to be friendly, damn him. Barely two days with Deanna, and he'd have to face him. Sometimes, Jean-Luc could believe that the whole universe really conspired to make him suffer.

"Thank you, Data. I'm sure it will be an entertaining evening."

"I am sure you are correct, Captain."

Jean-Luc frowned. Did the android actually sound smug?

He left his quarters and was blessed with an empty hall, at least. Deanna's door opened before he could touch the annunciator. He found himself in an empty room, with a table set for two.

"Anyone home?"

She peered through the open bedroom door. "Decided to come back from the grave, old man?"

"I did warn you about insecurity, didn't I?"

Deanna stepped into the room, crossing it slowly. "Have I done anything, said something, that would make you think -- "

"Oh, no, it isn't that at all. If I had any sense, I'd shut my mouth and stop complaining. I just didn't think about how much younger you are, and it was a bit of a shock when I remembered."

"Was age difference a concern with anyone else? My eyes are up here. You like my dress?" The dress was. . . green, short, and -- short. Too tight -- how did she breath?

"That isn't a dress. I'm not sure what to call it. Promise me you won't wear this in public."

"As you wish." She smiled and slipped an arm around his waist. "Want me to take it off?"

"I think I can handle that much. After dinner."

He wasn't sure what it was they were eating, but she educated him as they went along. She'd replicated Betazoid vegetarian. Nothing fancy, she claimed, just the sorts of things anyone on Betazed might eat.

"It doesn't help that I'm riding around with a crew of children," he said, finishing the last of his dessert.

"This really bothers you, doesn't it?"

He put his fork on the empty plate and pushed it aside, then folded his hands on the table and looked at her. "I can't stop thinking about you, as you were the first time I saw you. You weren't a cadet, but I remember thinking how young you were."

"Age is relative. Do you think I didn't feel old in the gymnasium watching that girl fall all over herself ogling you?"

"She wasn't ogling me."

Deanna shook her head slowly, eyes laughing. "I hate to shatter your preconception, Jean, but she watched you for a few minutes before she even went in the room. I was talking to Malia and her husband down the hall. I saw her standing in the door. Did Natalia look like she'd ever used a weight machine in her life?"

"You're telling me she went in there to -- Deanna, that girl couldn't have been more than twenty!"

"Some girls *like* older men. If there were more aboard who didn't know who you are, you might find that out. Being bald helps, too. A lot of women think bald men are sexy."

"I don't believe what I am hearing. You're saying that -- "

"The aura of power that surrounds you intrigues them, even if they don't realize you're a Starfleet captain."

"The aura of *bullshit* -- "

"Jean! Really," Deanna exclaimed.

He stared at her. "You sounded almost *exactly* like your mother when you said that."

"I did not!"

Jean-Luc subsided and rested his forehead in his palm. The silence drew out between them.

"Jean?"

"I can't believe this. How can I believe this? How -- " He looked up, saw her stricken look, and regrouped. "I think it will be easier as we go along. We slipped right back into our jobs so easily. By the end of the day I almost believed I'd dreamed the whole thing."

"But we need to be able to slip back into the job, and back to us." She stood, and he did so as well, catching her hands before she could do things to distract him.

"Give it time." He smiled and kissed her cheek. "You know what the best part about today was?"

"Not tripping over your shoes?"

It made him pause. "I did tell you about that, didn't I? About -- "

"Eline. I hope it didn't upset you. It was an impulsive thing to do -- I tripped over them myself, and remembered how much you missed her after Kataan. We've had so many elephants wandering around that I thought it would be nice to remind you of a swan."

She filled his arms perfectly, he thought. "You asked if I'd ever loved someone so much it felt like turning inside out -- you do that to me so easily, Deanna. I know I don't always find the words. . . ."

"I know."

He could feel her heart beating against his chest. He didn't often think about not having one of his own; the artificial heart didn't really beat, just pumped blood. Did she know about that? He couldn't remember.

"What's the leave schedule look like?" he asked. "You did change it, didn't you?"

"I left it on your desk. You didn't look at it?"

He smiled against her neck. "I spent a little too much time thinking about other things today."

Laughter she didn't give voice rippled over him, giving him gooseflesh -- he was sure that was what the feeling meant. "I made a few last minute changes. My last official act as the captain's personal counselor -- I gave him three days of leave, and the official kick in the pants to take them."

"Perfect." But he remembered then -- Riker.

He was getting better at predicting her response to his sudden changes of mood. Before she could pull away, he said, "It's nothing. Just that I found out Will's going to be early. He's set up a poker game for tomorrow night."

Her only response was a perceptible tension in her body.

"I know it feels uncomfortable. It'll be all right."

"Maybe we're rushing this too much, Jean. Maybe last night wasn't such a good idea."

"Maybe you're looking for excuses to run away?"

She giggled while he wiped tears from her cheek with his thumb. "Maybe we're both hopeless."

"No, that's pretty definite. It's too late to turn back now -- we've got a shipload of rumors cruising toward the starbase, and Will's bound to hear from someone else if we don't get to him first." He ran his hand down her back. "This seems to be painted on."

"I should probably tell you, there's one other item on the menu," she whispered, putting a hand up the back of his shirt. "My dress. It's edible."

~^~^~^~^~

Deanna woke to find herself in her quarters, sprawled in a tangle of covers at an angle across her bed, and immediately recognized that no, she hadn't been dreaming about Jean-Luc -- dreams didn't make one sore that way. Dreams also didn't tend to feel this heavy. He was there, tangled up with her and still asleep, using her as a pillow. Squirming slightly, she discovered his arms were wrapped around her ribs.

"I need to get up," she whispered. It woke him easily, but since it wasn't a red alert, he immediately dropped back down to sleepy and tightened his arms.

When he didn't move, she squirmed again. "If you won't let me up, could you go to the bathroom for me?"

That was enough of a red alert, apparently. He rolled off; she slipped out from under the covers. When she came back across the room in the dark, she caught her foot in something and stumbled against a chair. "Ow!"

"Lights up half -- Deanna?"

She kicked aside the offending item -- his pants. Standing on them while snagging her toes in them had done it. "I should have thrown them harder. Maybe I wouldn't have tripped on them."

As her eyes came up, she stopped -- this was still new enough to shock her. Captain Picard sitting up in her bed, rubbing his eye with the heel of a hand. But he wasn't in uniform, nor was he reacting as the captain she knew, eyeing her nude body as she stood eyeing his.

"Did you want something?" she asked, smiling.

He matched the smile and *felt* at her, as he had done a few times before. Somehow, the sensation of an embrace. This was one of those delightful surprises of getting to know him this way. Adaptation and creative use of resources, two of many things that made him such an excellent officer. Previous lovers hadn't thought of deliberately communicating with her like that.

She sat on the bed, almost in his lap, one leg folded beneath her. That smile he had reminded her of a little boy in some ways, a little shy, a little mischievous, and he couldn't seem to look her in the eye. Maybe because he was too interested in her body, she realized, revising 'little boy' to 'horny teenager.'

"Something tells me I should find that regenerator I have in here somewhere," she murmured, shivering as he ran a fingertip between her breasts.

"You have atrocious housekeeping skills. This looks almost as bad as my bedroom -- though you cleaned that up for me, didn't you?" He kissed her shoulder, his breath tickling her skin as his lips traced her clavicle.

"Sore?" She asked mostly to get the reaction -- she could tell without asking. He raised his head, the dart of ire visible in his eye, then kissed her until she had to pull away to gasp for air. She fell across the bed, stretching, and rolled her head to look at him.

"Deanna." He ran a hand down her body, sweeping his fingertips across her flat stomach and up in a circular motion. "Déesse. So beautiful," he whispered.

"What does that mean?"

His hand rested heavy on her navel. "You can't tell me you've never heard the word 'beautiful.'"

She giggled at it, mostly in delight that he was with her this way, playing with her. Little word games, the way he manipulated his emotions to communicate with her, and his touch -- he could make her tingle all over with his caresses and explorations of her body. As if reading her mind, he wrapped a hand over her thigh, letting it slide in and up.

She met his gaze and the hand stopped, then made small circles on the soft skin of her inner leg. He took the hand she held up, and she pulled herself into a sitting position again, chest to chest with him.

"I wish. . . ."

"Jean." Deanna touched his face, then the back of his head, kissing him lightly. "I love you. I want you just as much -- but I'm sore, and I'm too tired to assemble an away team to find that regenerator."

A brief, tight smile at that. His arms went round her, his hands resting over her shoulder blades, and he bumped noses with her before kissing her cheek. "You're not just saying that to make me feel better, are you?"

"You told me not to coddle you. It's been a while for me, too, you know."

"Do you trust me?" he whispered. She sensed an odd twisting in him -- what was he thinking? "Can you tell what you mean to me?"

"Yes, of course. What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong." He kissed her cheek, her forehead, then began straightening covers.

When they lay in darkness again, oriented properly on the bed and on their backs looking up at the ceiling, she sensed the twisting sensation from him again.

"Jean, are you sure there's nothing wrong?"

"Promise me something?"

Her hand found his chest under the covers. No heart beat. That would be hard to get used to. She rubbed her palm along that faint scar down his sternum. "What is it?"

"Always be honest about your feelings. And please, don't ever start a conversation with the words, 'there's something I've been meaning to tell you.'"

Deanna couldn't fathom where this might have come from, and wondered at the roots of this request. "Why would I be anything but honest? I know you well enough to understand how important honesty is to you. But there are some things that I can't tell you because it would invade the privacy of others."

"I understand that. I just had to say it, make it clear -- if anything I say or do gives you pause, makes you doubt, talk to me, please. Please?"

"Of course. Who else would I go to?"

It seemed to satisfy him. One of his hands closed around hers, holding it to his chest. "Déesse. I love you."

"What does that mean?"

He sighed heavily. "Love is -- "

"Never mind. I can see you're going to be difficult."

"Is that a problem?"

She rolled until her cheek rested on his shoulder, and he abandoned her hand in favor of tangling his fingers in her hair. "If difficult is what you are, no. I have plenty of experience with difficult," she murmured.

"So do I. The most reassuring thing about all this, however, is what is *not* difficult."

"I can think of several things in that category. I can sense that the top item on your list is the same as mine."

His emotions threatened to overwhelm her. He thought for a moment, then his fingers tightened in her hair. "Inside out."

"Yes," she whispered.

~^~^~^~^~

"You haven't changed a bit."

"But I feel older," Jean-Luc said, glancing at his former first officer on the way out of the transporter room. Will didn't change much, either, though it was gratifying to see a few more gray hairs in the man's beard. The *Lexington* had caught up with them before they'd even reached the starbase, and now paralleled their course; Will had beamed right over the minute they were in range.

"Don't look a day over eighty, Jean-Luc."

"You need to watch yourself, Captain. Some day you'll need an admiral in your court, and this one will be on the other side of the net if you're not careful."

Riker laughed. "So where's Dee? How is she?"

"Fine."

It stopped Will dead in his tracks. "Fine? Is that *all?* Data made it sound like she'd just single-handedly accomplished the last away mission."

At least that had apparently been the only thing Data had told him. The discomfort of discussing the necessity for maintaining the captain's privacy with the android hadn't been wasted. "Actually, she did acquit herself rather well. Even if she did get herself kidnaped and break several bones, she managed to find her own way out of her predicament."

"Jean-Luc, are you all right?"

"Never better." He allowed a quirky grin. "In fact, a twenty-year-old made a pass at me just the other day."

"How much did you pay her?"

Jean-Luc eyed Riker a moment. They walked the last few steps into the lift. "Engineering."

"Why there?"

"Data and Geordi are down there. I assumed you would want to see them as well?"

They strolled into main engineering. By a twist of fate, the girl from the gym happened to be at one of the stations, watching a lieutenant doing something; she looked up, saw them, and went wide-eyed. Jean-Luc smiled at her.

The girl had more cheek than he'd thought. She left the console, smiling brightly, and approached. "Good afternoon, Captain."

"Cadet Natalia Greenman, this is Captain William Riker. I told you about him, didn't I?"

She looked at Riker open-mouthed. "Yes, sir, you did."

"Nothing bad, Will. Honest. We were simply discussing differences in command styles, and I mentioned yours by way of example."

Will stared at him incredulously for a few seconds, turned to Greenman, and turned on the fabled Riker charm-the-ladies smile. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Greenman. If you'll excuse us, we were looking for Commander LaForge and Commander Data?"

"They just rode the lift up to the next level." She pointed at the warp core area.

"Thank you, Cadet. As you were." Jean-Luc led the way.

In the lift, Riker jabbed him in the ribs with his elbow. "And I thought you were kidding."

Jean-Luc shrugged and kept his smile to himself.

The lift jerked to a halt on the next level. "Captain -- Will," Geordi exclaimed, coming around the catwalk with Data behind him. Both were smiling, Data doing so almost deviously, glancing at Jean-Luc. So much for privacy. Maybe that talking-to hadn't been so thorough as all that. Come to think of it, everything he had said had been in reference to the crew -- Riker wasn't crew. Data had apparently drawn a distinction between subspace transmissions and face-to-face contact. And Data being Data, he didn't necessarily know that Riker had once been Deanna's paramour.

Stifling the urge to swear, Jean-Luc watched the hand-shaking and shoulder-slapping greetings between the officers, and kept himself steady as Riker asked, "Anything exciting happening on the Big E these days?"

Geordi and Data might have practiced the simultaneous head turn to look at their captain, it was so well synchronized. "You could say that," Geordi said, turning his eyes back to Riker at once, never losing the affable and innocuous smile, but Jean-Luc wanted to slap that grin off the android's face. "Exciting for one of us, anyway."

This could turn bad very quickly. Jean-Luc wasn't sure why he thought Riker would react badly to the news, but something told him he would. Perhaps it had been what little Deanna had said about arguing with Riker because he had wanted to rekindle romance and she hadn't. That was a year ago, though. Will should have gotten over it by now.

Still, that sense of impending doom wouldn't go away.

Riker grinned as impishly as Data. "You know, Jean-Luc, you've loosened up a lot over the years."

"The hell I have!"

"Will is quite correct," Data said. "When I met you, shipboard romance was the last thing I would expect -- "

"Data, may I remind you that I know where your off switch is?"

"Shutting up, sir." But not stopping the grinning -- damn android!

"Romance? Hey, this is getting better all the time." Will had a bigger, truer-to-life version of the shit-eating grin Data had been wearing lately. "Anyone I know?"

Jean-Luc opened and closed his mouth before he could get air past the knot in his throat. He grimaced and gestured at the lift. "If you're ready to break for lunch, Geordi, why don't we all head for the officer's mess?"

Which was, thankfully, empty when they got there. Will teased him all the way up from engineering, trying to wiggle a hint out of him. And then, as they were sitting down with plates and beverages, the door opened.

And there she was.

"Dee!" Will left his chair to embrace her, and held her out to look at her. "What's this I hear about broken bones and kidnapings?"

She shot a querying glance at Jean-Luc; he smiled, tight-lipped, and knew she sensed a negative on her unspoken question. "Just another away mission, that's all."

"The Zibyans didn't think so," Geordi said.

"How are you, Will?" Deanna asked. "You look well."

"Hard to believe I've been gone a year. Things are different around here -- lots of new faces in the halls. And you look just as wonderful as always."

"Thank you. I'll just get my lunch and join you."

"So do you know who the captain's new paramour is?"

She froze only for a second, but with her attention apparently on the replicator in front of her, Will didn't notice the slight tensing. "I did notice him talking to one of Geordi's cadets yesterday."

"I have socks older than that girl," Jean-Luc exclaimed. "If you're going to accuse me of something, at least pick someone who's had a few promotions."

"Well, you do seem to have common interests. She's taking the rough road to command. And she seems to enjoy weight lifting." Deanna wasn't too far from being her usual gently-teasing self. Regardless, Data grinned on. Pulling the emotion chip out of him and giving it to deLio sounded like a pretty good idea, at the moment. The taciturn security officer could use a sense of humor, and would be less likely to use it at Jean-Luc's expense.

"Where's Beverly?"

Will's innocent question dropped in the middle of the conversation like a meteorite. Suddenly, Geordi had eyes only for his salad, and Data took his cue from the engineer and averted his eyes. Beverly's departure hadn't exactly been a pleasant occasion. The frosty glares she'd given him in those last few meetings, the distant manner in which she spoke to him in public -- there were no questions asked, no answers given, but it'd been obvious things were not well. And Will had already been gone for nearly six months at that point, and obviously, no one had bothered to tell him Beverly had moved on. Jean-Luc had only spoken to Will once, and that had been before the confrontation with Beverly. Why Deanna hadn't mentioned it to him, he could only guess, but that was moot.

"Beverly is CMO aboard the *Valiant,*" Jean-Luc said, affecting nonchalance.

"Since when?"

"Five months or so. She's doing well, or so I hear."

"Wow. I didn't think she would ever leave the *Enterprise.* Giving up chief of Starfleet medical to come back aboard the flagship, only to transfer to a -- "

"It was a good opportunity. Barregan's an excellent captain." Jean-Luc glanced at Deanna, who paid too much attention to her plate -- vegetables weren't that hard to deal with.

Riker noticed and followed Jean-Luc's glance at Deanna, and immediately made Jean-Luc regret looking at her -- Riker scanned the other faces in the room, and his own expression turned serious.

"Deanna?"

"Yes, Will?" What could she do but sound innocent?

"Am I imagining things, or is there something really odd going on here?"

She stopped chewing and rolled her eyes. "Are you turning Betazoid on us?"

"Why did Beverly leave?"

"She didn't tell me why. I've asked, several times."

Probably true. It didn't help. "Beverly was -- is? -- your best friend. Why wouldn't she say something?"

"I don't know. I wish someone could tell *me* that."

"I have to go," Geordi announced. "Got to get done so I can start my leave. Data, I'd get done quicker if you'd help me out."

"Certainly, Geordi."

Will watched them leave with growing alarm. "What is this about? Jean-Luc?"

"Beverly wasn't very happy when she left."

"She was angry," Deanna put in quietly. "She wouldn't come talk to me, either."

Unfortunately, before Jean-Luc could say another word, the clues snapped together to the worst possible conclusion in Riker's head. "It's you, isn't it? You and Jean-Luc -- well, no wonder she was furious!"

Deanna hadn't expected him to put things together quite that way. She sat up, dropped her fork in her plate with a clatter, and paused a moment, eyes closed. Jean-Luc knew she was trying to pull herself together and failing. How he knew that in the moments she played statue, he wasn't certain. Her expression altered little as she rose and walked calmly from the room.

"If I could figure out how to do it without either striking a fellow officer or stooping to your level of tactlessness, I'd nail your ass to the bulkhead!" Jean-Luc exclaimed. "How could you assume something like that about her? You've supposedly known her for so much longer, yet you could honestly believe she would do that to her best friend?"

Will flinched back in his chair. "It was -- "

"The most ludicrous thing I've ever heard you say!" Jean-Luc threw his napkin down on his plate and went after her. She was already out of sight, probably took a lift, so he turned right and headed for the nearest one. Will followed him.

Pivoting in the lift door, Jean-Luc jabbed a finger at Will's face. "Back off. Get in this lift with me and both our careers will come to an abrupt end."

"Jean-Luc -- I'm sorry! It just looks a hell of a lot like -- "

"Drop it." Jean-Luc shoved Riker backward, slapped the controls to shut the door, and backed --

Into Deanna. Luckily, she was the only one in the lift. She'd been standing in the curve of the wall, out of sight.

"Computer, deck eight, secure the door, don't stop for more passengers."

He put his arms around her. She wouldn't unfold, kept her arms tight to her chest and hands over her face, and wouldn't look at him. On deck eight, she walked ahead of him -- to his quarters, they were closer to the lift -- and didn't turn around until they were behind closed doors.

"How," she wailed, and walked into his arms in tears.

"Damned idiot -- I'm sorry, I should have told him while I had him alone. But he was at it the instant he stepped off the transporter, and he wouldn't give up."

"I wanted to die, Jean! If he could jump to that conclusion, how many -- "

"Stop. Just get it out of your system, and then we'll talk."

She laughed, coughed, and then sobbed, pushing her face into his shoulder. It only took her a few minutes to subside, but she clung to him a while longer, her breath tickling his neck.

"Why were you laughing?" he asked, hand on her cheek.

"I didn't expect you to be good at this sort of thing."

"I'm not. I'm only pretending, just to humor you."

"I'm sorry, but your cover's blown. You'll have to keep me close at hand to make sure I don't tell everyone you're really just a big softie."

He backed away reluctantly, but if he didn't, he'd be tempted to keep her there too long. "I have a few secrets I could blackmail you with. Aaron Connor, for example."

She blinked, and rallied swiftly. "Kamala."

"Oh, for -- Devonin Ral."

"Vash."

"Worf."

"Vash."

"You can't name her twice!"

"She's come around that many times to cause you trouble -- why not?"

"Well, fine then -- Will Riker."

"Jenice."

"Oh, God."

"That's me. Try goddess, next time. Déesse. I asked the computer what it meant."

He took a step backward, the opposite of what he wanted to do. "Am I really that much fun to tease?"

"Thank you, for letting me. I needed the distraction." She looked at the door. "Someone we know is standing outside."

"Let him."

"You were right, you know. It *is* flattering to have a boy beat the snot out of another boy over you, or at least offer to."

"The sad thing is, I'd probably lose."

"Only the battle."

He sighed and reached for her again. "Inside out."

The annunciator interrupted their kiss. "I should talk to him," she sighed. "We should. He's still a good friend, even if he suffered from mistaken assumptions."

"Some friend -- what friend would tease me until he finds out who you are and turn into an idiot?"

"You're only saying that because you're angry." She backed away slowly, and touched the front of his jacket. "You might want to take that off. Wearing the counselor's makeup on your chest isn't regulation."

He nodded and went to change it, realizing only as he made it all the way into the bedroom in front of the closet that he'd just behaved like a well-trained husband. He smiled as he changed, careful to not throw the soiled jacket to one side as he usually did.

He stopped short of leaving the bedroom. She'd let Riker in while he was out of the room; he could hear their voices through the closed door, indistinct but recognizable. Of course. She'd done it on purpose, to remove him from direct confrontation. Pondering, he sat on the side of the bed and reached for some of the padds she hadn't moved.

Riker's voice rose in volume suddenly, jarring him from his consideration of the war game scenarios the six ships would be running. " -- can't be serious. He has a career! You have a career! I can't believe you're risking -- You told me you wanted to stay aboard the *Enterprise* -- was he the reason all along? Was he the reason you couldn't bring yourself to come with me?"

Jean-Luc froze for a few seconds in the silence that followed. Putting the padd down, he rose, straightened his uniform, and glided out of the bedroom. He had to ignore Deanna as much as possible; instead, he focused on Riker, whose red face and blazing eyes held livid rage.

"Aren't you forgetting something, Will?"

"I'll bite. What am I forgetting?"

"Her feelings," Jean-Luc murmured. "She has them, you know. Are you so determined to prove to her that she made the right decision in not going back to you?"

A photon torpedo spread between the eyes, at close range, might have had a similar impact. Will snapped his mouth shut and stared at his former captain, leaning back slightly.

"I don't care what the hell you think happened, Will, but I'm extremely disappointed that you think either of us would be capable of doing what you're suggesting. If you want to destroy your friendship with me, and with her, that's your prerogative, I suppose, but you can do it without resorting to attacking her in a mindless rage. One more outburst, and I'll throw you off this ship myself."

Jean-Luc turned and took stock of the damage Riker had done. She had calmed somewhat, he guessed, and looked at him through the glitter of tears, just as shocked as Will, and grateful. He brushed her cheek with his thumb and returned to the bedroom.

When she came in finally, he looked up from the padd. She stood at the end of the bed a moment, then sat down and put her head in his lap, using his thigh for a pillow. He brushed her hair back from her face and left his hand on her throat, rubbing her skin lightly with his fingertips and keeping his attention on the details of the sector earmarked as the battleground for maneuvers.

"Thank you for beating him up for me."

"You could have taken him. I nearly replicated a pipe for you."

She sat up and leaned against him. Slipping his arm around her, he tabbed the padd off and tossed it on the floor. "There's something else about elephants -- they tend to leave big smelly piles of -- "

"Please don't flog the metaphor, Jean-Luc." It put a smile in her voice for the moment, anyway. "We're still invited to poker tonight."

"You want to go?"

"It would probably be a good idea. If we don't, it'll look like we're avoiding him. I'm not sure he believes us about the timing." Deanna moaned. "And I thought he would be easy to handle. He still thinks I'm making a huge mistake, regardless. I'm sorry."

"Quit apologizing for him. Why the hell are you letting him have that much to say about it? I know you value his friendship, but this -- I have trouble reconciling your behavior toward me and your behavior toward him. You wouldn't let me get away with that sort of nonsense."

Her hand gripped his shoulder briefly, then slid down to rub circles on his chest. "This is one of those things I can't really talk to you about without violating a confidence. In a way, it's a continuation of a very old disagreement about a very old issue. Suffice it to say Will expresses himself differently. He needs to vent. You would simply let go, if I wanted to leave, and turn all your feelings inside where no one can see them."

"But who would pick up my shoes, if you leave? Who would turn me inside out?"

Deanna kissed his cheek. "Don't worry about it, Jean. I won't leave."

~^~^~^~^~

"Fold."

"You're not quite up to speed tonight, Jean-Luc," Will said. The undercurrent in his voice was only slightly less disturbing to Deanna than what she sensed from him.

They'd gone to Will's ship, gotten a tour, and settled in one of the holodecks for poker, running a program Will had come up with simulating an old gambling establishment he'd known on Earth. The tension between the captains had an unpredictable tide, ebbing and rising every so often. Jean-Luc was furious at Will for his lack of control; Will was thinking only of her rejection of him last year. The hurt he felt was complex. She hadn't capitulated to his appeal for her to consider leaving with him when he was offered the *Lexington*. Now that he knew about her feelings for Jean, he suspected she'd had them all along, which had been true, and that they were her reason for rejecting him. What she couldn't convince him of was that she wouldn't have gone with him, no matter what her feelings for Jean were.

Had he really thought she would jump back into his arms, all this time? How had she missed that all those years? No, it had to be a sudden thing -- he must have woken up one morning and realized he wanted the family life more than he did before. Of course, his endless string of short-termers were all nothing more than that. He'd looked around and she'd been the natural choice. Once lovers, already good friends, wants children -- perfect. She wondered if the biggest portion of his anger at this point, a year later, weren't simply due to the blow to his ego.

Jean-Luc kept himself under tight rein -- he seemed determined to prove what she already knew, that he could handle the situation. Will didn't seem to care, and though she never resorted to physical violence, she felt like reaching across the table and slapping him. In fact, the urge to do so was too strong. Something wasn't right.

She eyed the glass in front of her. She never drank authentic hard liquor; she'd thought this was synthehol. The woozy feeling wasn't going away, however much she tried. Damn him. Was he trying to get them all drunk?

"Not a bad ship, Will," Jean-Luc said, reaching for his glass as Data dealt the cards again. "I've always thought the Intrepid class had a good balance between size and armaments."

"Glad you approve," Will replied coldly. He couldn't even try.

Deanna scooped up her cards and focused as narrowly as she could. {it's not synthehol}

Jean-Luc put his glass down without drinking and looked at his cards. She sensed his anger rising another notch. Her stomach flipflopped suddenly; sitting back a bit, she willed it to settle down.

"Is everything all right, Deanna?" Data asked. He sat directly across from her, and looked over the tops of his cards.

"I don't feel so well."

"Dr. Mengis said to take it easy for a few days. Maybe you should go," Jean-Luc said.

"Maybe I should." She tossed her hand face down on the table. "It was a bad hand, anyway. Good night."

As she left, Data and Geordi bid her good night as well. Will only glanced at her and dropped his gaze to his cards.

She beamed off the *Lexington* to the starbase. Rather than go straight to the recreational levels, she wandered for a while in the administrative sections. This time of night the offices were empty. Walking in utilitarian corridors didn't make for great scenery, but this was a Starfleet base, a big metal can in deep space. What scenery could it offer? At least the absence of people gave her reprieve from emotional static, as she called it. She was right -- her slight nausea had been a result of the combination of alcohol and emotional turmoil around her. As she walked and put herself into a slight meditative trance, the effects of both dissipated.

Finally she headed toward deck fifty-nine. Riding down endlessly in the lift with four strangers, lieutenants in uniform, she put her hands in the pockets of the deep blue pantsuit she wore and fingered the pass key in her right hand.

They were young officers on leave, and prowling. Two of the men looked her over without being obvious about it. The third openly looked. The fourth sidled closer and smiled. "Which ship you with?"

"The *Enterprise,*" Deanna said pleasantly. "You?"

"I'm on the *Lexington.* Lieutenant Theodore Calloway, at your service." He bowed slightly and grinned.

"Commander Deanna Troi. Do you like serving under Captain Riker's command?"

Calloway's face didn't change much, other than a slight cooling in his eyes, but she sensed resentment. "When he's not busting our butts demanding results faster than we can give them."

"Sounds like a challenging CO."

He exchanged a look with his fellows. "Challenging -- yeah, you could say that."

"It's nice to know some things haven't changed since he was first officer on the *Enterprise.* He administered the bridge test when I took it. I think what I appreciated the most was the challenge -- it was nice to be treated as an officer. People tend to not take counselors seriously as officers."

All four of them were surprised. Calloway withdrew his interest; the sensation of recoiling came clear to her. "You're a counselor," he said, filling the pause.

"Although I'd say Captain Picard is a far more challenging CO," she added as if she hadn't heard. "That last away mission was quite a task. I'm so tired of sickbay, but you can't leave a broken leg untended. Especially after you've walked on it too much. In all honesty, it was my fault -- if I had spent more time in mok'bara class I would have known how to fall right. I suppose I could blame the instructor -- Klingons aren't known for patience. If he'd only taken more time going over it with me, I would have mastered it, I'm sure. Although I suppose that really was my responsibility, to practice until I knew the technique. I should have -- excuse me, my level."

She permitted a grin as she strode out and down a wide corridor into more well-trafficked areas of the station. Their shock would wear off, and maybe they would get the hint and straighten out their attitude.

The rec decks were well-appointed, to say the least, and non-regulation signage pointed the way to all sorts of amusements at every corridor junction. During the war ships couldn't journey far from their assigned sectors for leave, and some of the bases had been refitted to meet the need for recreation; this was one of them. She followed the signs that led her toward Starbase Hilton, eventually passing out of the more crowded main corridors through a neon-blue arc; the pass key provided the access code that kept an alarm from sounding. On her right, a bored-looking front desk clerk glanced up at her as she went by.

Once around the corner from the desk, she took out the key and let it vibrate against her palm, following the variance until the key hummed audibly. It took her to the door and opened it as she approached.

From the red-carpeted halls into a room that registered at first as a world of swirling golds and creams -- her heels sank into the carpet. Kicking them off, she wandered barefoot, studying the curves and spirals of an abstract sculpture hanging from the ceiling. When he'd said they would get off the ship for a complete change of pace, he wasn't kidding.

On the bedside table, she noticed a line of controls at the base of a tall gold-tone lamp. She pressed one labeled 'shutters' and jumped at the sudden movement of the entire wall in front of her, which had to that point resembled just a wall with vertical stripes.

Space. It seemed to invade the room -- the entire wall was a viewport, looking out at the void, except there to her left, a movement. . . . The ship. While she sank to the edge of the bed in awe, the *Enterprise* glided slowly into view, illuminated by running lights, the glow of her nacelles, and what light reached it from the station.

Distances were deceptive. The ship seemed to fill the window, looming impossibly large -- she could make out edges of plates, the outer airlock doors where the umbilical from a starbase would meet the hull during a refit, windows -- but she knew her perception was nothing like the reality, that the ship was larger still. She'd seen the ship while it was in spacedock and from shuttlecraft. This was different.

He arrived some time later. She sensed his dark mood before he reached the room; he fought it, but gave up as he entered.

"How did it go?" she asked, when he came around to sit with her on the bed.

"I'm glad you warned me about the alcohol," he murmured, his voice sounding too rough. He was tired, and not wanting to meet her gaze. He undid the cuffs of his long-sleeved shirt and stopped, resting his hands on his knees, apparently contemplating the thick off-white carpet.

"What's wrong?"

All she could get from him was a vague impression of dark anger, held in check, and his rigid control told her it hadn't gone well. "Nothing's wrong that a good sound beating wouldn't -- "

"Jean! You don't mean that."

"No. I just feel like I do." He sighed. "He asked me if you still snored."

"I don't snore. What's funny?"

"I shouldn't have bothered to respond. I couldn't resist. I told him that as soon as we got any sleep, I'd let him know."

She laughed, and felt his pleasure at her laughing. "As angry as that must have made him -- thank you."

"I'm surprised you're still up."

"I've been admiring the view."

He looked around at the room, studying the sculpture briefly, his eyes coming to rest on the small bar in the corner. "The room's better than I expected. I thought I'd find you either asleep or in the spa."

Deanna smiled at that. "I was waiting for you. In the meantime, I've been spending some quality time with an old friend." She pointed at the nose of the ship just coming into view again. "She may have changed, but she's still very much the *Enterprise.*"

He went to the window, treating her to the unique sight of Captain Picard standing in front of his ship while indulging in that affection and awe peculiar to starship captains for whom their ship became an extension of themselves. As *Enterprise* drifted out of sight once more, he put a hand to the window as if trying to touch the starboard nacelle.

"Ships are compared to mistresses," Deanna said, sensing his sudden realization that he'd made the gesture and the beginnings of embarrassment. "If she's your mistress, what does that make me?"

He turned from the window, came down the four steps to the bedside, and smiled at her. "Not a mistress."

"Does that mean you're cheating on her, or me?"

"Neither. She has very different demands than you do."

Deanna reached for him as he sat down, pulling his shirt off. She flung it away and shoved him over, straddling his stomach. He lay against the gold and cream cover, arms limp around his head, letting her run her hands over his chest.

"She'd never do this, for example," he rumbled, chuckling.

"You wouldn't want her to. Three million tons of starship would be a bit heavy." She bent to kiss him, hesitating when she sensed a change of mood. "Jean?"

"Have you been reading up on ship's specs?"

"I usually prefer lighter reading than that." Smiling, she met his eyes across the inches, touching her nose to his.

"Nice how you sidestepped answering the question."

"Why would you be surprised I know something about the ship? It's not like I singlehandedly constructed a warp core from a few spare deck plates and an old replicator."

"Now, there's a creative idea. I'd like to see you do that."

He spoke lightly, but with an underlying seriousness she found curious, to say the least. "If a transfer to engineering shows up on my desk, I'm quitting."

That made things take a too-serious turn. He had been fondling her breast through her shirt, but let his hand drop. "I wouldn't do that to you. Your career and the direction it takes are entirely -- "

"I see we won't be able to joke about that. I was kidding, Jean-Luc."

He winced. "Sorry."

Deanna slid off him and pulled the band from her hair. "You've spent your life focusing on Starfleet and career to this point. Expecting you to start joking about it would be unreasonable. Almost as unreasonable as expecting you to sacrifice any of it for me."

She rounded the end of the bed and made for the bathroom as she spoke, noting with dismay that he'd suddenly felt a surge of fear. Rather than analyze or respond to it, she hesitated in the bathroom door, stunned by the gleam of gold fixtures and white surfaces.

The spa he'd mentioned, which took up most of the room, was big enough for six people. The hotel would have to accommodate a variety of sizes and shapes of occupants, of course, which would explain the generic bench seat circling the tub well under where the water level would be. She was sitting on the edge contemplating the controls when he came in, his bare feet hardly making a sound on the cool tiles.

He caught her hand before she turned on the water. Perching next to her, he made a point of looking her in the eye.

"I honestly don't think it will be necessary for either of us to sacrifice a career," he said, then flipped her hand palm up and rubbed his along it slowly. "It's far too much to expect, if it did become something we had to consider. But Deanna, I want you to keep in mind that although it's too much to expect, so far as I'm concerned, it isn't too much to ask."

She knew her mouth fell open -- after an unknown amount of time, her tongue began to feel dry. His eyes held hers for the duration, waiting, but she couldn't think of what to say.

"The counselor would tell me it's too soon to make promises," he continued at length. "That may be true. But if this is going to work, we have to be agreed from the outset that we both intend to pursue it as if it were something permanent. I don't intend to sacrifice my career, nor do I intend to sacrifice you. I think we can manage."

"I want to believe that. But the odds, Jean-Luc. You know it's difficult."

"I do know. Which is why I won't joke about certain things -- I do not wish to create misunderstandings about how important they are to me."

His hand felt warm along her cheek, then slid to the back of her head to pull her close. "I will not joke about your career. I will not joke about our relationship, or the impact it has on our careers. It's important to me that you know how much you mean to me -- there will be a way. I know you don't want to do anything to hurt me, professionally or otherwise. It's part of how I know this can work."

She averted tears, but only by clinging to him and drawing upon his calm. With her ear to his shoulder she heard his sigh, but again, no pulse or heartbeat. "I understand," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

"Don't sound that way -- I'm not scolding you. What's happened to you today? What turns a swan into a sparrow?"

"I suppose it was a couple of things. Too much thinking, and being stomped on by an elephant."

He sniffed at that. "Would you accuse me of denial if I decided I didn't want to talk about that again for the duration of our leave?"

"Only if you don't accuse me of denial for doing the same." She sat up and touched a temperature selection and the water flowed into the tub from the bottom, surprisingly quiet as it did so. "You've been in counseling too often. You're starting to sound like a counselor."

"Well, the reverse is also true. You've been hanging around with a captain too much. Counselors don't ordinarily sit staring at starships, either."

"That particular one also happens to be my home," she said, leaning to dangle her fingertips in the water.

"And it will continue to be. Right up there on deck eight, section one -- just look for the cabin with the smiling bald fellow who found a regenerator."

She raised her head from her temperature adjustments. "Did you bring it with you? Oh, I see -- you have it in your pocket."

He laughed at that, shaking his head. "There are no pockets in these pants. Either you're completely oblivious, or a master of the ancient art of deadpan."

"I don't know what you mean. Just look at that -- I splashed water on my pants! Now I'll have to take them off."

"I can help, if you like."

"Like is *such* an understatement."

And as her eyes came up from the damp spot she'd deliberately created by running her wet fingers up her thigh, she found him looking at her, a riveting, intense look in his eye she still hadn't quite reconciled with the man behind it -- he wanted her. After months of watching him, furtive thoughts quickly doused in rational insistence that he would never be interested in a relationship, quiet tears shed in the privacy of her quarters over the loneliness she suffered in the wake of Will's unhappy departure and then in the wake of Beverly's, compounded by her yearning for a man she thought out of her reach -- now, this.

She wanted him more than anything, at that moment. If he had asked her to give up her career, she would have done so on the spot. Regretted it later, perhaps, but in that instant he had her completely. The weakness of being an empath who had given herself up to someone else could be her undoing. She searched his face, fighting the echoes of heartbreaks of the past, falling --

This was the twisting she had sensed in him. He had been doing the same, last night when he had begged her to be honest with him -- remembering heartbreak he had suffered. Thinking of what could be, if this relationship took paths similar to past relationships.

The beginnings of concern showed in his face; she'd spent too long spinning in helplessness. She smiled, reaching for him, his cheek warm against her palm.

"It isn't too much to ask," she murmured, letting her hand fall back to her lap. "I gave you my career already anyway, the night you took me to the holodeck chateau."

His eyes widened at that. "What are you saying?"

"I was ready to leave the ship. I couldn't bear it any longer -- every time I saw you I wanted to cry, because I never thought you would want anything to do with me."

"But you said you wanted to stay. You turned down some excellent postings to stay."

"I wanted to stay with the captain. I couldn't stay with the man."

He watched the water slowly filling the tub for a few moments. "You couldn't?"

He would be thinking of himself, and Beverly. Of Will and herself. Steadying herself, she whispered, "Because I couldn't. . . stand the thought of going through it again. Loving someone, working with him and ignoring it for the sake of professionalism, then seeing it slowly die away. Better to remove myself completely and suffer a quicker death of emotion -- "

"Stop it!"

The ringing tone echoed around the bathroom over the rush of water. Seconds afterward, the tap shut itself off just short of the full mark.

His fingers on her chin brought her head up, and then he was pulling her into his arms. He ached, partially out of sympathy and partially his own angst; his lips grazed her cheek. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry -- "

"The water will get cold." She felt the check, the composure-gathering, and gratefulness that she had halted his strident exclamation before it could turn into something more. His arms tightened around her until she could barely breathe, however. She kissed his shoulder, all she could manage while being held this way. "It's all right. I told you, I'm better today -- you can get angry with me. Honesty, remember?"

At last, his grip loosened. "I would only leave if you wanted me to, Deanna."

A promise that she hadn't asked for, from someone she'd never thought would ever make it to her. A promise she'd never heard before. He might change his mind, circumstances might prevail, but for now, she chose to believe.

Pulling at her shirt, she kissed his face as he let go to help her remove her clothing. He still seemed enthralled by her, or with the sensation of touching her all over. The newness of it all -- she shivered at his touch, smiling.

Lingering angst faded quickly as they settled in the water together. He forgot more swiftly still when she balanced on the balls of her feet in the middle of the tub and picked up his right foot by the toe.

"Ever had a foot massage?" she asked over the hum of jets coming on.

"No one's ever offered."

"Poor, neglected feet." As she worked at his toes with her fingers, she thought about the books he'd brought. "I notice you have some poetry with you. I didn't know you liked poetry."

"Why wouldn't I?" He watched her through his lashes, the churning water nearly up to his chin. "Do you like poetry?"

"Oh, yes. I've even tried to write some. I couldn't quote it to you -- most of it I deleted after I wrote it."

One corner of his mouth rose. "Too bad."

"I could, however, quote you about a thousand lousy pick-up lines."

He chuckled. "I'll bet you could. You could probably categorize them. What's the worst one you've ever heard?"

"That's tough. There were so many. My least favorite is 'read my mind, sweetheart.' Or darling, or honey, or sugar, or any of those silly things humans call each other."

"I suppose then that calling you pumpkin or sugarmuffin would get me nowhere."

Deanna gave him a bemused look. "Isn't a pumpkin a large orange vegetable?"

He was now actively trying not to laugh. "Yes, I believe so. A squash, in fact. What do Betazoids use as terms of endearment?"

"We don't," she said, hoping it didn't come out too short. "Or I don't. There are a few, mostly related to kinds of bonds that can exist. It would feel as though I were taking them in vain to use them."

She switched feet, giving equal effort to his left one. Her hands were starting to feel weary from her efforts. He had sobered as she spoke, and seemed to study her for clues of what to say next.

"So do you come here often?"

It caught her off guard. "Oh, actually, no -- this is my first time here. Though I might be persuaded to hang around." She giggled. "That's an old one. What about one you've actually used?"

"I don't use pickup lines."

"Really? Although I suppose you wouldn't have to, would you?"

He sighed at that and pulled his foot free of her hands. "Come up here, would you? Sit next to me?"

She did so, sitting on the low shelf on his right. He found her hand in the water and held it while looking in her eyes. "There are too many elephants in here with us."

"It's inevitable, I suppose. But I love you, Jean-Luc. I may not be able to forget the elephants completely but I want to be with you."

He smiled and sat against the head rest behind him, squeezing her hand. "Relax for a while. Try not to think about anything but the now."

It worked. Between the warm water bubbling around her and his calm and solid presence, she drifted on a cloud of contentment, eyes closed. When he stirred and let go of her hand, she jumped and wondered what was up as he got out and wrapped a towel around himself -- but he came back moments later, two drinks in hand, and rejoined her.

"What is it?" She held up the glass and peered at the amber contents.

"Something I thought you would like based on what you've fed me recently -- it's called an amaretto margarita. You seem to like bitter or sour. Probably to counteract all that chocolate you eat."

As she sipped she tasted the salt on the rim, then the ice and flavor touched her tongue, and she shivered all over. "Oh, perfect!"

He put his glass on the edge of the tub. "Really? Let me try." Instead of tasting from the glass she held out, he dodged into the curve of her arm. His tentative tongue seemed to be asking permission; as she gave it and he probed along her teeth, his hands found her body, one finding a breast and the other splaying along her ribs and sliding to her back to support her.

Eventually he broke away, leaving his arm around her and reaching for his drink. She sipped the margarita she'd held steady. "What's yours?"

"Geordi suggested it once, months ago. It's called a hull breach." He sipped it and almost dropped it. "Geordi must be sniffing plasma. I think I'll just share yours, if you don't mind."

"That's all right, I don't mind at all." Watching him put the drink out on the floor, she took another mouthful of margarita, pulling it out of his reach. He eyed her, then smiled and came in for another kiss, stopping again when she dodged out of his reach.

"Get over here."

"No," she exclaimed cheerfully, sliding along the curve of the tub and pushing his chest with her foot.

"You said I could share your drink."

"I didn't say it would be easy. Jean -- let *go* of my foot!" She splashed water at him and tried to get her toe back, laughing. He came across the tub and pinned her down, taking the drink from her and setting it aside before silencing her laughter with a kiss.

So easy to immerse herself in this wanting. So wonderful to have his arms around her this way. So much heaven, to love and be loved, inside out.

~^~^~^~^~

It was quite peaceful; Deanna had been right about that much. Eyes shut, the wind tickling his chest hair, Jean-Luc smiled, thinking of the touch of her hands, light and firm by turns -- last night had been too short. He hadn't wanted it to end. But it wouldn't end with the leave -- it wasn't just another liaison. This was different, as he'd sensed from the beginning.

"Captain?"

He opened one eye. The sun -- or rather, the simulation of the sun as depicted by whoever programmed the sky in the gigantic beach room on the starbase -- shone into it, rays casting the person standing over him in silhouette.

"Geordi?"

The silhouette sat on the lounge chair next to him, the shadow resolving itself into a familiar friend. "Guess I shouldn't stand with my back to the sun. You're looking relaxed. Enjoying your leave?"

Jean-Luc noticed the engineer wore black shorts and an open orange shirt. No padds in hand, which was the norm for him even on leave. "Of course. Actually, I didn't recognize you because you weren't wearing engineering."

Geordi laughed at that. "You *are* having a good leave. I can count the times you've cracked a joke at me in the last year on one hand."

Moving the book tented on his chest to the ground beside his chair, Jean-Luc folded his hands across his stomach. "Did your staff throw you out? Or did you finally finish the recalibrations in astrometrics? I hope you brought the object of your recalibrations on leave with you."

Geordi gaped a few seconds. "You don't miss much, do you, sir?"

"I do read those reports that come across my desk once in a while. You spent more time in astrometrics in the last two months than you have in the last six years."

"Yeah, should've known Dixon Hill would put two and two together." Geordi turned his head slightly, watching something further down the beach. "So you gonna have Deanna along the next time we visit the mean streets? She'd make a great client for you."

Jean-Luc glanced at her. She sat on a bench near a food vendor, eating something from a cup. A handful of young men had gathered to talk to her. "I've invited her before. She's never seemed interested."

"Yeah, but she's got a little more incentive now."

Jean-Luc chewed the inside of his cheek briefly. "Perhaps. Although, perhaps I won't be finding so much time for Dixon Hill any more."

Geordi's incredulous chuckle got his attention again. The engineer grinned puckishly, but it faded quickly. "I wouldn't have expected it. Or how you're handling it -- Data told me you talked to him seriously yesterday."

"I'd be a sorry excuse for an officer if I didn't learn from my mistakes. If it's going to work, I can't ignore the effect it might have on the crew. I can't pretend it doesn't exist. The ship's counselor thought I would be able to do it before, thinks I'm better equipped for it this time, and from what I've seen so far it seems to be true."

"You really have it all figured out -- wow," Geordi exclaimed, leaning away from Jean-Luc's sudden glare. "It's surprising, that's all. Not that it happened -- just who it happened with. I wouldn't have figured she was your type."

"I don't know what my type would be, so I couldn't say."

Geordi laughed again, but more his happy laugh than an amused one. "Well, you've got a lot of jealous guys back on the ship, you can bet on that. Mengis looked like he'd been shot between the eyes when he found out."

"What?" he spat.

"Whoa, don't shoot the messenger." Geordi smirked at him. "You knew people would be talking about it. Actually, most of what was going on in the officer's mess was talking about the crew talking about it. Data's been pulling senior staff into the know and in Dee's absence had Counselor Davidson in to discuss it with us. We figured out exactly what to do, last night over dinner."

"And what is that?"

"Nothing. We can't control what people talk about off duty, of course, but as department heads, we can frown on gossiping about the captain while on duty and ignore nosy questions. I've been practicing my official scowl. Professionalism is the order of the day." Geordi glanced again at where Deanna sat. "Y'know, I'm surprised you're letting that go on right in front of you."

"I don't intend to start monitoring her conversations with other people. If she wants to run off with some inexperienced, shallow young fellow with no hair on his chest and more hormones than sense, then it's quite likely she really wasn't my type."

Rather than laughing, Geordi ducked his head, elbows propped on his knees as he studied the sand between his feet. "I hope she doesn't. She's good for you."

Jean-Luc raised an eyebrow. "At least someone thinks so."

"Will took it pretty hard, all right," Geordi said, surprising him with candor. "Last night was ridiculous. He came back aboard this morning looking for you. Didn't say much, but he doesn't have to -- he knows he made an ass of himself. I told him you were on the starbase on leave. Hope he doesn't bug you."

"Hasn't yet." A shadow fell across him; Jean-Luc looked up to find a young man with blond hair standing a short distance away. He waited, but the man seemed nervous. "Did you want something?"

"You're Captain Picard," he said, half-asking.

"Yes. Is that a problem?"

The blond guffawed and sidestepped, grinning. "No, sir. I had a question. . . ."

"And you are?"

"Lieutenant Theodore Calloway, of the *Lexington,*" he said, almost coming to attention with the mention of his rank. It also gained him a little more confidence than before.

"I see. Your question?"

"Well. . . I'm an acquaintance of Commander Troi's and I was curious. She mentioned she broke her leg on her last away mission -- I was wondering, was that really true?"

He stared at the lieutenant, trying to assess what this meant. "She told you about that, did she?"

Calloway gaped a moment. "Well, we were just making conversation -- she was telling us -- uh, excuse me." The lieutenant backed away and jogged off down the beach.

"Sure you want her talking to those bald-chested youths?" Geordi sounded amused by it.

Jean-Luc scowled at him, then sighed. "I find it curious Mr. Calloway referred to her by rank -- how many times have you heard that? How many times have you heard her talking about being injured on a mission?"

"I don't hear her talk much about anything. Except over poker, which hasn't been happening lately. You think we could get a game going again?"

"Frankly, poker hasn't been the same since Will left."

Geordi rubbed his hands together slowly, staring at nothing. "Yeah. I miss the old senior staff. But I was really starting to wonder why Will didn't just accept one of those promotions."

"So where is she?"

The engineer blinked. "She?"

"Astrometrics?"

"Oh. Well. . . let's just say I'm not as quick at *recalibrating* as you are."

Jean-Luc rolled his eyes. "How long have you known her?"

"About. . . yeah, okay. I guess I'm still ahead of you there." Geordi grinned and stood up. "I still think you ought to talk her into Dixon Hill. Have a good time -- see you day after tomorrow."

After watching the engineer walk away, Jean-Luc picked up his book and found his place. The story couldn't hold his interest, however, and again he found his eyelids feeling heavy. He glanced at Deanna and saw that one of the three remaining men had the temerity to sit next to her. While she spooned another bite of ice cream out of her cup, the man leaned and said something, obviously peering down the front of her indigo one-piece suit, his expression a giveaway that his interest wasn't in a fellow officer.

Deanna hopped down and walked away, leaving the surprised man to watch her go. She ate a few more bites, sauntering casually down the sand with her hair blowing free in the onshore breeze. The bright cerulean sarong she'd wrapped around her waist flapped open to reveal most of a leg. She went around his chair and retook the one Geordi had been sitting in, putting her legs up and glancing at him as she withdrew her spoon from her lips.

"What did Geordi want?"

"Just dropped by to say hi. Would you leave those poor young men alone?"

She smirked at him. "Jealous?"

"Not in the slightest. It's my duty to protect the innocent. Those youngsters wouldn't know what to do with you."

"You think so? They seemed to have a few ideas." She tipped her cup toward him. "Want some?"

"Don't you ever get tired of chocolate?"

"No. Why would I? There are so many ways to enjoy it." She eyed his bare chest pointedly. "I hear French chocolate is quite good."

"I wouldn't know. I'm better with judging wine than chocolate."

She only smiled at his mild embarrassment and settled prone on the chair, giving her shoulders a provocative wriggle. How she spooned ice cream out of the cup and into her mouth with closed eyes, he wasn't sure. A lot of practice, maybe.

A group of yelling people ran by, throwing a ball back and forth. Jean-Luc let his head fall back and his eyes drift shut. For a simulation, the sun felt authentically warm. He wondered idly if he needed to worry about sunburn.

"Jean," Deanna murmured, with a hint of warning in her tone.

He sat up, picking up the book in one hand as an afterthought -- he reached for the bag to put the book away and glanced up to find a woman coming to a stop at the foot of his lounge chair.

Deanna had dropped her cup in the sand and now lay flat on her back, eyes closed. The woman glanced at her casually, and at the other four chairs in that particular bank of lounges -- the one on the far end was occupied by a sleeping woman in a bikini.

Jean-Luc gave the woman a few seconds of appraisal, then put the book in the bag, took out a padd, and resettled in his chair.

"Captain Picard?" It wasn't going to be that simple. Why should he expect it to be?

"Yes," he said, simply acknowledging it without looking up again.

"I'm sorry, am I disturbing you?"

"Was there something you wanted?"

"Actually, I was hoping to ask you a question."

He looked at her again, mildly perturbed. She was tall and curvaceous, with long curly auburn hair. She'd worn a vivid emerald two-piece to bring out the green in her hazel eyes. Not as young as most of the others on the beach, but not much over forty, he guessed.

"A question?"

"You don't remember me, do you?" Slight reproach -- she smiled, and then he did remember.

"Sarah Laughlin -- you were in engineering on the last *Enterprise.*"

She laughed, a bubbly gulping noise, and brushed her hair behind her right ear. "Yes, sir, I was. I'm on the *Lexington* now. After my promotion and the destruction of the 1701-D I was posted there. It's a good ship. I was sorry when Captain Blickenstadt retired, but it's nice to be working with Captain Riker again."

"You said you had a question?"

"I was just going to ask how everything's going on the *Enterprise* lately. You look very well, yourself, sir." She glanced at Deanna. "Is she asleep?"

Jean-Luc followed her gaze. "Looks like it. We've been busy, and it's been an interesting year. But all's well, engineering included. I just saw Geordi -- he's somewhere about as well, if you want to say hello."

"Thank you, sir, I'd like to see him again. He gave me a very nice letter of recommendation. Sir. . . ." She looked at Deanna again, suddenly uncertain. "I wouldn't have known you were here, but there were some people down there talking about you." She pointed at the end of the beach nearest the exit, where another food vendor and an equipment rental desk were located. "They were saying some. . . interesting things about you and. . . ."

"And the counselor," he finished quietly. "You aren't the first to tell me about it. I don't pay attention to idle gossip."

"Well, it's nice to see you again, Captain. Tell her I said hello when she wakes up." Sarah smiled and walked up the sand away from the chairs.

Jean-Luc rubbed his eye wearily. "If this is going to be the beginning of a trend, let's go see if there are more private areas to be found? Perhaps we should change and find a holosuite."

Deanna peered at him through her lashes, turning her head slightly. "That would be a good idea, I think. There are too many of our own crew about. In fact, the more I think about it, the better I think it would be to keep public contact between us to a minimum unless we're obviously working on mission-relevant tasks. At least until we're old news."

"I suppose that would be wise."

She sat up and retied her sarong. "It would make you feel more at ease, too. You aren't quite used to it yet, nor am I."

"You're uncomfortable being seen with me in public?"

Deanna tilted her head and smiled, a resigned look in her eye. "We know each other very well and I've become comfortable with Captain Picard. On a more intimate level, we're still getting to know one another, and in a way the fact that you're also my captain makes that difficult. Intimidating."

"Why should it make things difficult? You've never been intimidated by me before."

She leaned and picked up her empty cup. "Imagine yourself trying to date Admiral Nechayev."

"Oh, hell. Turn my stomach, why don't you?"

"I didn't mean imagine -- Jean-Luc, you know what I mean."

He threw the padd back in the bag and pulled on the shirt he'd brought. "I'm not *that* imaginative, so no, I don't."

Her amused look further bemused him. "All right -- let me rephrase it. Imagine you've read in the news for years about a legendary starship captain who's survived assimilation, torture, Q, Ferengi, Romulans, and everything else the universe threw at him, and manages to come out of it relatively unscathed, mentally and physically fit, still in command and still looking damned good in a bathing suit. A captain whose dedication and determination are second to none, with solid principles and a record that may not be spotless, but is full of accomplishments and commendations. A captain whose battle tactics appear in textbooks, and who routinely saves entire worlds, the galaxy, the Federation, the space-time continuum and pretty much everything else from destruction. And then this captain walks up to you one day and waggles an eyebrow at you, and suddenly you're hearing him making arrangements with his senior officers on how to ignore the fact that you're taking up residence in the captain's quarters."

"I've got you beat. I'm seeing his old counselor."

Deanna blinked, then giggled. "Touche."

They started walking up the beach, putting a few feet of air space between them. "Though I'm not seeing nearly as much of her as I'd like."

"That can change."

"Not until we're back in the room, though."

"Would it embarrass you? You didn't seem so embarrassed on that diplomatic mission to the Phenavians when we had to take off our clothes before going in the Temple of the Four Moons."

"This isn't a diplomatic mission, and I'm selfish. Not to mention I'd rather those bald-chested young men wouldn't follow us."

They passed the vendors and crowds of off-duty officers, left the beach room, and were abruptly in the stark grey corridor of a starbase again. "Bald-chested?" Deanna echoed as they rounded a corner and entered a back door into the Hilton, passing through another blue arc unhindered.

"Most of them were."

"Do you always pay attention to other men?"

"Only when they pay attention to you."

She smiled and leaned, brushing arms with him. "Oh, you're not jealous at all, are you?"

"Absolutely not. Perhaps mildly perturbed that they feel they have the right to stick their nose down the front of your suit. But I assumed if you minded you would have done something, and you did."

They entered their room. Jean-Luc noticed a message light blinking on the night stand. "Someone's after us. If I don't listen I can say I didn't get the message, but it might be something I'd want to know."

"You're the captain. You have to know." Deanna went in the bathroom, untying the sarong as she walked.

"What if it's Will?"

An echoing clatter of something. "Why would it be?"

"Geordi said Will came on the ship looking for us this morning."

"Possibly to apologize. I would hope so. He behaved like a petulant child last night."

"Do I detect a note of unusual and uncharacteristic hostility?"

Deanna came out, and if he hadn't already been dropping the bag at the foot of the bed he probably would have done so -- away missions and the past few days notwithstanding, seeing her nude still had that much of an impact.

"Unusual?" she said. "He's supposed to be one of your best friends. He's supposed to be my friend. He had an afternoon to cool off and be civil."

"The male ego is such a fragile thing." He watched her approach, almost laughing when she deliberately brushed a nipple across his chest. "Is this a distraction to get me to stop talking about Will?"

"Will it work?"

"Probably not. I think I need more of a distraction than that."

She sighed and glanced at the winking green light. "Maybe you should listen to it. If there's something official that needs your attention, you should pay attention to it."

"I suppose so." When he turned away, she followed him; when he sat down she sat in his lap and put an arm around his shoulders. "I thought you weren't going to distract me."

"Did I say that? I just said you should check the message."

"If I have to engage in serious conversation, it would probably be better if I didn't have a nipple in my eye." He waited for her to retreat, watching her head for the replicator, then toggled the message button. It turned out to be a recording from deLio, announcing a call from the *Lexington* two hours previous -- for Deanna, from Will.

"Should I call him back?" Jean-Luc asked.

"That depends. What are you going to tell him?"

"Doesn't matter, as long as I'm out of breath when I say it."

"You know what *I* think?" She sauntered back to the bed and jumped on it, bouncing a few times. Jean-Luc eyed the dish she held, noted the mischief in her eyes, and let his gaze wander over her body as she pulled her legs under her and removed his shirt one sleeve at a time.

"We should ignore the message and go back into denial?"

"Absolutely." With a light push against his collar bone, she guided him backward, laying him flat on the bed. She tipped the dish and poured chocolate in a spiral pattern over his chest.

"I don't think I've ever been dipped in chocolate before."

"Dipping implies immersion. This is drizzling." She stopped and lost some of her smile. "Do you want me to stop?"

"Well. . . it just feels a little. . . silly."

"Perhaps it is silly. Are you afraid of being silly once in a while, even in private?" Deanna dipped a finger in the chocolate and smudged his face, two stripes on each cheek. "If it's too much to bear just close your eyes until I'm done. I'll make you stop feeling silly then. All right?"

With his eyes closed, he felt sillier -- she maneuvered him up on the bed, arms wide, and left the dish sitting astride his navel while she removed his shorts. "I don't know if I like this."

"Don't you trust me?"

"Yes, but chocolate all over my chest? I would have thought -- " At the sensation of warm liquid in a line down his abdomen into the area he would have thought, he stopped and waited patiently.

She finished and the bed moved slightly, presumably as she shifted position. He jumped when her voice came from just inches from his ear. "North, or south?"

"What? Oh -- south."

She licked the chocolate off his right cheek. "Don't be disappointed yet. Directions are relative, you know. East, or west? No peeking. You'll make me start over if you peek. Just relax."

Relative to what? "Mmm. . . . West."

Her mouth descended on his left nipple. She sucked and licked chocolate from that area, being thorough. "Up, or down?"

"Are you even making any logical pattern, or is it completely random?"

"Relax. Up. . . or down?"

"North."

A slight shift on the bed, and she licked the left cheek. He almost opened his eyes, but stopped. "That's very good, Jean -- such excellent control. Now if you could simply relax. . . . West, or southeast?"

"West."

She gave the left nipple a token lick. "Southeast, or southwest?"

"Southwest." Her tongue tracked along the right collarbone. "Damn you and your screwball compass!"

"Jean-Luc. The puzzle isn't unsolvable. There is a pattern, you just aren't paying enough attention. Relax. Up, or down?"

"Down."

She suckled the right nipple. In a maddening series of directions and responses, she cleaned off most of his chest and abdomen, but left him on the verge of swearing in frustration. She kept telling him to relax and giving him compass points that made no sense. Finally he gave up and stopped trying to find any logic in her directions, blanking his mind as best he could and determined to wait it out.

{Tell me what you want.}

It startled him. He almost opened his eyes, refraining at the last second. "I -- "

{No. Tell me. Calm, center, and tell me. You're almost there.}

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and tried. {This way?}

Nothing. He tried what had worked before, a feeling -- imagining the last time her mouth had closed around --

Oh, no, he wasn't imagining that. She licked him like a popsicle -- absurd comparison, but she made him forget it almost the instant he made it. Her mouth closed on him, took him in a little at a time, slowly backed away again, and repeated the process.

She worked him up to the point of no return -- almost. Then she was gone, leaving him craving her touch. The bed shook a little; warm chocolate breath hit his face. "Do you still feel silly?" she whispered, licking the edge of his ear.

He opened his eyes. Hers were there, close, wide and black and smoldering. "Déesse," he gasped.

Her answer was a kiss, tentative, lips against lips. The tip of her tongue asked for permission to enter and got it. While occupying his tongue with hers, she lowered her body against his, rubbing herself against him. She caught his arms and held them against the covers the second he started to move.

{Relax. Or do I have to distract your conscious mind again?}

He laughed into her mouth at that and grabbed the first thing that came to hand, two of the bars of the metal headboard. She only stopped kissing him when it became too difficult to continue while riding him back up to the brink. Where, frustratingly, she stopped and began nuzzling along his collar bone.

"Damned empath," he growled, shifting his grip on the headboard.

"I should add that to my qualifications -- Commander Deanna Troi, Ph.D., D.E." She kissed his chin. "Tell me what you want, Jean-Luc. Tell the empath what you want."

As her eyes came up to meet his again, he stared into them, let his head fall back in the pillow, and caught his breath. She felt heavy on his ribs until she raised herself slightly, holding herself on her left arm while she traced patterns on his right arm and chest.

He had to close his eyes to focus. Once he did, imagining what he wanted was followed by reality, or close to it. She didn't always manage to decipher the feeling correctly. Then came a point at which she didn't seem to be paying attention any more, and didn't stop what she was doing when his arms went around her.

She didn't stop short this time. When he came, he laughed again and held her tightly while she writhed and lost herself completely in orgasm. Finally she collapsed in his arms, some of her hair tumbling into his face. He felt her heart flutter against his chest, slowing as she caught her breath.

"Much better than the beach," he mumbled. "So what was the pattern?"

She lifted her head to look him in the eye, giggling. "Jean-Luc. You really didn't figure it out?"

"You mean there *was* a pattern?"

Shoving herself up, she wagged a finger at him as if beating time and chanted, "My Aunt Emma got sick and died. Did she die?"

"You just said she did. I didn't know you had an aunt."

"No, she didn't. And I don't have an aunt, this is a demonstration. Now, watch. My Aunt Emma got sick and died," she chanted again, describing a spiral with her fingers. "Did she die?"

"No."

"She did. I told you, watch." She repeated the phrase and gestured with her fingers as if describing falling rain. "Did she die?"

"Yes."

"But do you know why?"

"Deanna, this isn't making any sense, there's no pattern -- "

"My Aunt Emma got sick and died," she exclaimed, sitting up and holding out her hands with waving fingers. "Did she die?"

"Yes."

"No, she didn't. WATCH," she said, leaning forward with her hands against his chest. "My Aunt Emma got sick and died, did she die?"

"Oh, bloody hell. Yes."

"Why?"

"Because you said 'watch.' And the compass directions were a distraction, the key to it was to *relax.*"

She grinned, nodding and brushing her hair back over her shoulder. "You got that much more quickly than the last person I tried it on."

"Do you suppose," he began, tracing a circle around her left breast and zigzagging his fingertip down her ribs, "I could persuade you to let me try?"

"I don't know. Can you?"

Jean-Luc reached for the dish of chocolate she'd left on the night stand. "Watch."

~^~^~^~^~

The soft low tone of an incoming transmission woke her, and the difference between it and the more familiar sound of an intraship comm signal startled her. Deanna moved and stopped herself -- she remembered. This was the hotel, and Jean-Luc was with her. Late afternoon, from the glaring green numbers on the chrono next to the lamp.

"What the -- " Jean-Luc raised his head and peered drowsily at her, then fell back. "Damn. Might as well get it over with." He rolled and stabbed at the appropriate control.

"Captain, this is Data. I hope I am not interrupting."

"What do you want, Commander?" Amazing how patient he could sound. She knew he didn't feel like it.

"Captain Riker has been attempting to make contact with you. He wished to know how he could reach you. I did not tell him, but he seems impatient."

Deanna sat up. "Data, tell him to meet me outside the Thai restaurant on deck fifty-six in an hour."

"I will relay that message to him, Counselor. Data out."

Jean-Luc sat up, running his hand over his head. Anxious. He didn't look at her, instead headed for the bathroom.

She flopped over on her stomach and buried her face in the pillow. The door opened; he came to sit on her side of the bed. She reached up to caress his cheek with the backs of her knuckles. "He's my elephant. I know you'd like to protect me, but that would be the worst thing right now."

"I don't understand him. Why does he feel he has to approve of what you do?"

Deanna smiled sadly. "It's one of those things I can't discuss with you. Perhaps later. You said you wanted to trust me completely. Do you?"

"Of course."

"But just a little while ago, you found it difficult to relax."

He thought about that while running a hand down her leg absently. "What you said about getting to know each other more intimately -- I didn't give it much thought at the time. I already feel as though you know me so well. . . ."

"Because of counseling. We've been very intimate, in that respect, and it's given you the sense that we know one another so well. But it's different now, and you're starting to see that. It's a different kind of intimacy. I'm having trouble with it, too."

"You?"

She sensed his disbelief and anxiety, kissed his cheek, and rested her chin on his bare, strong shoulder, still smelling faintly of chocolate. "Counselors are their own worst patients, Jean. I know you love me. I know what I've said and what you've said, and what matters. I can be your officer on duty. I just feel a little insecure about us right now. And if it comes about that we have to choose between careers -- "

"We won't have to do that."

"You see, I have to trust you on that. I've never done this before. There are no handy reference books on how to wage romance on Captain Picard."

He laughed at it and fell on the bed, pulling her down across his chest. "You could write one, but I'm afraid you would have unhappy customers when it was published. The trouble is, if you wrote about a successful method, it would only work once."

"That's why each copy would have a 'buy this book, get a free cloning kit' offer." She patted his head. "Though I could hardly harvest hair to include with the kits, could I?"

"I knew there had to be an advantage to baldness." He sighed, hands clasped over her side. "At least we balance each other out. You're worried about the professional, I appear to have anxiety attacks about the personal. And why the hell does Will have to behave that way? He was surly about Worf -- sorry."

"Don't apologize for the truth. I'll go meet him and then you meet me for an early dinner -- where would you like to eat? Because that way I'll have an out. I can tell him I have to meet you."

They chatted about types of food available while she got ready. She thought he knew more about the starbase than was possible, even for someone who'd been in Starfleet that long, until she came out of the bathroom at last and found him scrolling through a directory he'd found in a drawer in the night stand. When she giggled, he looked over his shoulder at her.

Every once in a while, a moment struck her just right, and she wished time would stand still. Jean-Luc sitting with his back to her, smiling over his shoulder, the muscles in his back standing out plainly in the half-light -- this was one of those moments. No captain here. She could sense his love, the concern over her meeting Riker set aside for the moment, and as his eyes admired her she walked slowly around the bed to stand before him.

"Sure you don't want me to come?" he asked.

"You already did."

He tugged on her skirt. She sat and draped her arms around him, head on his shoulder. For another four ticks of the chrono, she rested there, doing a quick relaxation exercise.

"Dena'bat." It took a second to recognize that he referred to a restaurant.

"All right. Let's do that. Where is it?" She reached for the directory, her hand instead falling on his and brushing down the back of it to his wrist.

"The same deck, section four." Turning his head brought him nose to cheek with her. He was almost literally eye to eye with her. "Deanna, you know it will work. You know we can do this. Don't you?"

She smiled, hopefully with more confidence than she felt, and nodded. "I know that things are only impossible until they're not."

"That sounds familiar," he said as she got up and smoothed her dress, rearranging the cowled neck. "Who said that?"

"You did."

"Ah. I can be smart sometimes."

"Sometimes." She touched his cheek lightly. "Give me half an hour and head for the restaurant. If I don't meet you within ten minutes, start heading my direction."

"Yes, ma'am."

She stood in the door a moment longer and studied him, sitting there smiling at her. "If you can't bring yourself to come as you are, wear the beige pants with the green shirt."

He waved her off with a flick of his hand. Grinning, she went her way to meet Will, adding a new mood descriptor to her list -- fondly disgruntled. Jean-Luc seemed to be doing that a lot. She hesitated in the hall outside the room, sensing his shifting mood, guessing that he must be thinking about her again. Curious, she sent a thought to him.

{Inside out.}

It reached him, and he responded. The sensation of attention, the mental equivalent of a pointing finger -- humans weren't supposed to be able to do this. And he was slowly opening himself to her, orienting his attention on her in a new way. It felt good.

She reached deck fifty-six and made her way through the light traffic in the corridor. Will was ahead of her, she sensed, and anxious. She steadied herself, glancing down at the pale green dress she'd wrapped herself in. Different than her usual, but the heavier fabric still flattered. When she rounded the corner and saw him standing in front of the restaurant's sign, she almost groaned aloud -- he had beamed over in uniform and had a pensive, irritated expression. There were a grand total of four ships parked in orbit, three of which were smaller than the *Enterprise*, so the odds were good that if he acted out, it would generate an unhealthy amount of gossip she'd have to live with.

"Good afternoon," she said stiffly, coming to a halt in front of him. He stared at her as if she'd just dropped in from the ceiling.

"What the hell are you wearing?"

"You've been gone for a year and you find it amazing that my wardrobe changed? What do you want, Will?"

He raked his hair with his fingers, exhaling noisily. "I want to apologize for the way I behaved last night."

"Apology accepted."

"Can I buy you dinner?"

Deanna pressed her lips together. "I already have plans, but thank you."

"I meant both of you."

He was showing his distress and frustration on his face plainly. This could too easily become a repeat of the nasty confrontation they'd had prior to his departure for the *Lexington,* and this was neither the time nor the place for it. She shook her head. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not? You're both my friends -- why can't I -- "

"Because you're still upset. Maybe some other time."

He slapped one hand against his thigh impatiently. "We're in Starfleet, on two different ships. How many other times are there going to be? It's already been a whole year -- "

"Will!" Deanna crossed her arms and scowled at him. "You're shouting."

"I want to know why you think I can't suck it in and get along with him," he exclaimed under his breath. "I have self control."

"Most of the time. You seem to lose it when particular issues arise. And your phrasing suggests hostility and disapproval -- suck it in? Get along? Not words you would use under normal circumstances."

"And just what about this is normal?"

She turned and walked past him. "I will not permit you to shout at me in public."

He followed her, then drew alongside as she rounded a corner and strolled along a series of storefronts, ignoring looks from passers-by. Will kept his voice to a murmur, at least. "Dee, I'm sorry. But there's nothing normal about this. You're talking about Captain Jean-Luc Picard here -- you know regulations. You sit on the bridge with him! Darrin was in astrometrics, below decks, support staff, and he still had trouble with it -- what the hell do you think you're doing?"

"You have no right to judge me. No right to judge him -- if he believes he can do something, he can."

"Nella -- "

"He didn't believe he could manage it with her." Keeping her voice down wasn't easy. Between his anger and hers at his obtuseness, this could get out of hand too quickly.

"Regulations -- "

"Have not been broken."

"Yet."

"So what's her name? Rank? Has she moved in yet?" Deanna slowed, crossing her arms again, adopting a cool demeanor to cover her anger.

Will glared at her, giving her one of his cold, angry smirks. "Don't try to psychoanalyze me, Dee. This isn't some personal issue I'm projecting. I know what I'm doing. The two of you apparently don't have a clue -- maybe Admiral Reese was right and Jean-Luc's getting too old for -- "

"The only reason you're not flat on your back with my fist print in your face is you were smart enough to wear a uniform," she snapped. "You stay away from us. When you can find it in you to trust that we're capable of making our own decisions, drop us a note. I really miss my friend Will Riker, I'd like to have him back. And I know Jean-Luc misses him more than he's probably willing to verbalize."

"Dee -- "

She held up her hand to fend it off. "I let you yell at me yesterday to get it out of your system. I withheld judgement last night even though you turned into a complete ass. But this -- you're sober, in uniform even, and here we are in the middle of a starbase providing a show for anyone who might walk by. And you have the gall to insult friends who would probably still risk their lives for you in spite of your silly tantrums."

"You picked the meeting place."

"Because I thought being in public would keep you from throwing yourself on the floor and holding your breath!"

Will reached for her arm, turning it into an open-handed gesture when she backed out of reach. "Look. Deanna. I'm worried about both of you, as friends, surely you realize that. Be reasonable about this -- you of all people, the ship's counselor -- you know better than to think this will do his career any good."

"Why don't you let him decide what's good for his career? Do you think I haven't brought up all the issues with him? You think he hasn't thought this through? It wasn't my idea, Will, none of this was -- "

Deanna stared at him, then fled, trying to keep her composure. Blindly she turned down a narrow side corridor that dead-ended at a locked hatch. She slammed both fists against it, trying not to cry. The dull echo of the blow sounded nearly as loud as the pounding of her heart.

The irony -- he couldn't see what was in front of him. All he could see were career considerations. He'd gone full circle, all the way from the young officer who had left her in the lurch to the first officer who wouldn't leave the *Enterprise* to this, a captain who couldn't believe another captain might prize something more than his career. And on top of that, the unsettled issues from their argument a year ago still loomed over them.

"Deanna," Will said, trying to be soothing. She jumped -- she'd been so caught up in her own feelings that she hadn't sensed him behind her. His hands closed on her shoulders. Spinning, she threw him against the wall and backed against the opposite one.

"You just don't get it, do you?" she whispered. "Can't you figure out why he might take a risk like that? He's not old, and he's not crazy. You're just being dense as neutronium. Commander Riker was willing to give up his career once upon a time for the same reason. Commander Riker also trusted Captain Picard's judgement. I guess you're just not the same person any more."

"You can't expect me to stay the same. I had to face up to the reality of choosing career over personal -- we all do. We all have. But that's my point -- people change, Deanna."

She met his gaze soberly, turning to go as she spoke. "Did you hear what you just said? When you believe it, give me a call."

"And sometimes they don't change for the better," he exclaimed. "I still don't understand why you're willing to risk the captain's -- "

"It isn't me taking the risk," she blurted, doing an about-face in the middle of the hall. "He makes his decisions. I make my own. *We* are taking the risk."

Will leaned against the wall and planted the heels of his hands in his eyes. "Deanna. . . ."

"If you'll excuse me, I have somewhere I need to be."

"You know he's not being objective about this. You know he can't be."

"That isn't the point."

"The point being that a good captain is risking his career and the career of an officer under his command -- "

"His choice."

"And if Command calls him on the carpet?"

"He'll make another choice."

Will crossed his arms and slowly sauntered toward her. "And you think he'll resign, and take you with him back to France?"

Deanna bit her lip. After a moment of composure-gathering, she said, "If he hadn't already assessed the situation and decided on courses of action for all possible avenues, he wouldn't be making the attempt. Would he?"

"You don't think he'll decide to handle you the way he handled Beverly?"

The Klingon nutcruncher had never sounded so appealing an option. She glared at him, feeling her nails biting into her palms and not caring; at least the pain distracted her from the fury enough that she wouldn't lash out.

"He already is. He lets me make the decision," she said, sounding much calmer than she thought she could. "I could have said no. I probably still could. I don't want to. Good bye, Captain. Hope you enjoy the remainder of leave. Say hello to the girlfriend for me."

"You mean to tell me *Beverly* was the one who decided not to -- "

Deanna spun and stood her ground when he ran into her and rebounded. She glared, frowning. "Stop following me. Go away. It's bad enough you've inflicted all these negative emotions on me in the middle of my leave and now I'm not even sure I'll be able to *eat* dinner."

"This isn't like you. It isn't like him -- "

She backed him up step by step. "I'll allow you venting, but this stopped being simple venting last night -- you've had plenty of time to settle down. Jean-Luc has always respected your right to make your own decisions, even when it meant letting you sit around on his bridge passing up one promotion after the next. You should do the same for him."

It seemed to register at last -- he went wide-eyed and backed another step, leaning away from her as if she'd slapped him. She left him standing in the corridor, marched out into the public areas at a yellow-alert walk, sending people veering out of her way. Two corridors and a lot of alarmed looks from other pedestrians later, she slowed and gathered her wits.

The Dena'bat restaurant was in section four, she was in three, so she kept going at a more leisurely pace. As she came within line of sight of her destination, she noticed a small group of people milling around across the corridor from the restaurant entrance. Some of them were from her ship. She opted to ignore them. Hesitating to read the menu posted alongside the door, she was startled to hear her name in hushed tones from someone behind her, and paid closer attention.

The group radiated a lot of curiosity. Obviously, rumors were spreading even as she stood there reading about Dena'bat cuisine. Then she sensed recognition, from a very familiar person, and realized Jean-Luc was already in the restaurant -- he'd seen her standing there. The group must have been watching to see if she would show up.

He came out to meet her, but before a greeting could leave his lips, she turned with a polite smile in place. "Hello, Captain. What a coincidence to find you here. Is the food good?"

She rolled her eyes, pointing out the group behind her, and saw him glance that direction. "I haven't a clue. I hadn't ordered yet -- would you like to join me? I thought we could discuss the war game scenarios. I'd like your opinion of the group of cadets I've picked for the bridge."

"You've certainly put that off. And why are you working on leave?" She followed him into the restaurant, noting that he'd worn the suggested outfit -- those beige pants fit him like the proverbial glove.

He'd chosen a booth in the back. The place was noisier than most, with the huge round grill in the middle of the restaurant surrounded by Dena'bat cooks flinging food in the air as it roasted over glowing coals. The clamor of spatulas against the grill, the constant murmur of conversations trying to be heard over the cooks, and the sizzling of food made it difficult to hear unless she paid rapt attention to what Jean-Luc was saying.

"How did it go?" he asked, shoving a padd across the table.

"He's convinced we're both crazy."

"Won't he be surprised?" He glanced around the restaurant. "You know we weren't fooling anyone."

"We don't have to fool them. The more boring we are, the sooner they'll learn we won't do anything to entertain them."

He met her gaze. The emotions she sensed from him didn't match his sober expression; he picked up another padd that sat at his right elbow and studied it.

{I love you, too.}

She sensed his acknowledgment -- he'd heard her. It was getting easier, though it shouldn't be. She'd had her best success earlier when she had distracted him with the compass game.

A waiter wandered over, waving his antennae, and she let Jean-Luc order for her. He passed the padd he held across after the waiter took away the menu. The softly-glowing screen showed a jumble of information she recognized after a few seconds of scrutiny.

"Why are you giving me a sector map?"

"That's not all that's in there. I want you to review it and interpret it for me."

Their eyes met. Something was going on here, and it didn't feel like a request from Jean-Luc -- this was the captain. Appetizers came, and while they munched on grilled vegetables with odd textures, she did as he requested. His seriousness increased as she spoke; by the end of her regurgitation of what he surely already knew, he leaned across the table and thought for a moment, then tapped the edge of the padd.

"You reviewed how to read some of this for the bridge test?"

"Yes."

"If you were traveling that direction," he pointed at the fake torch glowing orange on the wall to his left, "what course change would you order to intercept with the grill?"

"That depends. Are you wanting relative or absolute bearings?"

He grinned -- her request for specifics pleased him. "Relative."

"Assuming flight path to be level with the floor, bearing 105 mark 0. Now it's your turn." She described a circle in the air using both hands, folding her hands on the table when done. "This is the moon. Is it the moon?"

"Oh, good grief. No?"

"That was the moon." With her index fingers, she traced an hourglass and let her hands fall to the table on either side of the padd. "Is that the moon?"

"Yes?"

"No." She did a zigzag and folded her hands. "What about that?"

"Yes."

"Correct. But do you know why?"

He cogitated on the available data and grinned. "You folded your hands."

"It took Data ten minutes. That was one of the first things I did to help him break out of the linear if-then thinking he'd been applying to human behavior. He kept studying the motion and not the end result. What are you grinning like that for? I don't know if I like it."

"I was just thinking. . . . Have you thought any more about what we discussed on Zibyan, before the mission went to hell?"

"What we discussed? Burning hot food?"

"Deanna, no -- the other subject. And not the one you beamed up to avoid."

Her hand halted short of her mouth with another vegetable. "I don't want command. I told you that."

"I know. But I don't like thinking that an officer with potential hasn't had the opportunity to explore it -- it's bad enough Will sat on his hands for years. I should have promoted Data a long time ago. We got too comfortable with -- Dee?"

She waved her hand in front of her face. "Ew. Bitter one. What are these things?"

He tapped his finger on the table absently, studying her, and the captain returned in spades. "What did you think of my bridge assignments? Did you see any possible difficulties with them?"

"I assume Data made recommendations?" She picked up the padd again. "I don't see anyone who would be less able than any other cadet. Interesting that you put Natalia Greenman at ops."

"She has potential."

Deanna sighed heavily and looked up as dinner was delivered. The distraction of prodding at steaming food with the two-pronged utensils provided lasted a while. When he spoke again, he resumed where he'd left off, his words almost drowned out by one of the cooks scraping the grill repeatedly.

"It isn't just about intelligence, either. If it were I certainly wouldn't have gone far."

"Something tells me you define intelligence differently than I do. Or that you're being far too humble. As for Natalia, her tests all come back higher than the average -- what she lacks is self-confidence."

"She didn't seem terribly insecure to me. Quite the opposite. She seemed friendly, even outgoing."

Deanna smiled faintly, thinking about her sessions with the cadet, and ate another bite of the long pink stringy vegetable. "Natalia is a hard worker. She fought to get where she is. She'll keep fighting."

"Then she'll get to where she wants to go."

Setting aside the utensil, Deanna folded her hands in her lap. "Why do I think you are talking about someone else?"

"Haven't a clue. Try the red things, they're delicious."

She eyed the pile of red blobs on the corner of the plate. "The last time you told me 'try the red thing' I almost scorched my tongue out. How do I know you don't have a mouthful of dead nerve endings from years of diplomatic eating and this isn't really another little pile of berries from hell?"

"Would I think they were delicious if I didn't have any nerve endings left?"

"I'm a counselor, not a doctor. How would I know?"

He ate in silence. Not a cold one, or a distant one, but one that accepted her need to avoid further conversation. That last comment of hers had been too snappish. She couldn't look at him for a while; it would be too embarrassing. She'd succumbed to irritation with him for pushing the issue of career, let it frustrate her into reacting poorly while he was being the captain. Unacceptable.

But as her eyes came up from her plate when the last bite passed her lips, his rose to meet them, as if he'd been waiting for her to look.

"I love you," he whispered -- but he hadn't said it. His lips hadn't moved.

She stared, trying to comprehend this. Her heart hammered against her chest and she couldn't seem to breath. She had heard him say it. Even though the cooks clanged away at sizzling food on the grill and other conversations rose and fell around them, he had whispered it.

"What?" she asked.

His head tilted a few millimeters as if he hadn't heard it. Something tickled but didn't quite take form -- he was trying to speak to her telepathically and falling short. But she'd heard him say the words -- he shouldn't have been able to do that. Few humans could, and he'd never exhibited the potential. Her gaze wavered and fell. She rose with him when he finished eating.

They left the restaurant and walked back to the hotel. The corridors were noticeably emptier; beta shift was under way. Most of the leave-takers had probably retreated into restaurants, bars, dance clubs, or more private surroundings. He still didn't speak, even when they reached the room. Removing his boots and tossing them aside, he propped himself up on the bed and opened the book he'd started on the beach.

Deanna poked through her bag and found the padd she'd brought with the latest psychology publications in it. Leaving it next to him, she went in the bathroom, got ready for bed since he seemed to have settled in for the duration, returned to her place, and sat cross-legged, plumping a pillow against the headboard and reaching for her padd. But now there were two -- the one with the information on the upcoming war games sat atop her psychology research.

Jean-Luc didn't look up from his book. He seemed calm enough. Nothing unusual -- just his usual focus on something he found interesting. She picked up the padd, intending to move it to the night stand on her side of the bed, but her attention was drawn back to him -- the emotion was unmistakable. He hoped. When she sat back and studied the padd anew, hope turned to satisfaction.

He wanted her to study this. The only conclusion she could draw was that he intended her to serve some purpose on the bridge other than observer. The questions about headings and navigation in the restaurant could mean helm, but he'd already put a cadet there. Unless in the course of the simulation the helm was supposed to suffer simulated death, but that didn't make sense if the purpose was to put cadets through their paces.

She keyed through the assignments again. Data would be on another ship, the *Zelezny.* Geordi would become a casualty, as would the captain. That left Ward Carlisle, the second officer who for the duration of the sim would be first officer, in charge. Her suggestion -- if the cadets immersed themselves in the sim as they were supposed to, the death of the captain should add a new component to what they'd faced before in previous sims on the holodeck.

The sector map bothered her. Why would he make a point of giving her this information? Why had he brought it with him to a restaurant? On leave? If not for the distraction of the group of onlookers she would have questioned it on the spot. He wanted her to know this.

The only other person on the bridge who routinely made use of headings and bearings was the officer of the watch. She'd heard Jean-Luc rattle off coordinates without difficulty for years -- while it wasn't absolutely mandatory to be able to calculate bearings without batting a brain cell, it seemed to serve him well. It probably cut down on response time. Sometimes extra seconds mattered. Like in a battle.

Or a war game.

She could refuse this without a word. If he put her in a situation in which she was ranking officer on the bridge, handing it over to deLio would be her option.

Did he understand what she had gone through the last time disaster struck and she'd been the only commissioned officer on the bridge? That anxiety over what to do to save the ship, and arguing with Ro about it -- standing watch was different. As long as someone, the XO or the captain, was a turbolift away, sitting in the Big Chair felt just fine. She didn't feel ready for the responsibility.

But this was her captain's doing -- Jean-Luc's personal interests would be better served if she were counselor and nothing more. The captain had forced her to think about her ambitions. Was this favoritism? She didn't think so. Favoritism would be a shortcut to court martial. This was another test. It had to be. He wanted to know, or to prove to her, that she could be an effective officer in any capacity under his command.

Echoes of her words to Will -- trust Captain Picard. She hadn't imagined she'd be called upon to leap off this cliff for him, not so soon.

She tried to focus, but it was too much. Dropping the padd, she clapped both hands over her mouth, trying to hold back.

"Deanna?"

She rolled in a half-somersault and laughed, holding her sides, letting it all go. When she came to a gasping, hiccuping halt, she opened her eyes and brushed tears from her cheeks. Jean-Luc stared at her, slightly amused but also somewhat concerned.

"I'm sor -- orry," she burbled. "It was just -- oh, I'll tell you later. It hurts too much -- if I tried to explain I'd start laughing again." Since she already lay flat on her back, she propped both heels on top of the headboard and picked up the padd again.

Jean-Luc looked down at her and sniffed. "Do you often assume this position?"

"Well, think about it -- put the feet up, all the blood rushes to the other end of the body where it's needed. I have a lot of work to do. I need all the help I can get." She ran her fingers through her hair, rubbing her scalp where it itched.

"All right. . . so, is that how you manage to keep so much hair on your head? Increased blood flow?"

"I'm sure it doesn't help so much as the protein supplements."

"What supplements?"

She covered her mouth with the padd to hide the grin. "The ones you give me."

Holding his head in both hands as if it hurt, he groaned. "I don't believe you. Where were you hiding this silliness?"

"Does it bother you?"

He dropped one hand and smiled whimsically. "No. It just makes me wonder how many other personalities you'll manifest."

"It's all me." Folding her legs, she sat up, then rearranged herself to put her head in his lap. She slid her hand up his shirt and rubbed his chest. "Just a side of me not everyone sees. We all have pieces of us no one sees."

He nodded solemnly and went back to reading, resting his left hand on her stomach. She scrolled through contents of the padd. Basic battle strategy texts -- how much had he downloaded into this for her? A few taps on the controls and she had a list. Ship's specs, on the *Enterprise* and the other ships. Sector information. He wasn't sending her into it completely blind -- she could be grateful for that much.

She studied it until her brain felt like it might seize up completely, then tossed the padd aside and closed her eyes.

"Cygne."

She opened one eye. "What did you say?"

"Swan. In French." He smiled down at her. "You're tired."

She thought about asking why the test -- why she was supposed to study, why she had to accept this duty. But that wasn't right. The captain wanted her to do it, and if he wanted her to know why, he'd tell her. Hers was not to question, but to do. He had to believe she could do it. She had to believe in him.

"Maybe a little. You wouldn't mind if I went to sleep?"

"Why would I? Sleep, chère."

"Why did you just call me a chair?"

He laughed, the delighted laugh of the unexpectedly-amused, and shook his head. "It's my way of avoiding those terms of endearment you think are silly. Tomorrow, when you're not tired, you get your first French lesson."

~^~^~^~^~

Jean-Luc hated being dead.

The consolation was that this was only simulation, not real, and the carpet burn he was likely getting on his cheek would be easily banished afterward. He wished he'd fallen in a better position to see what was going on.

He wanted to be an ensign in the back of the room, observing how Deanna reacted, what expressions crossed her face. He thought he could guess from the tone of her voice.

He'd been right. She had it. Whatever it was that separated the lackluster commanding officers from the effective ones -- her strategy needed desperate help, her demeanor wavered slightly now and then, her pauses for consideration of options too long -- but it was there, or at least the beginnings of it. That assurance that they would pull through, no matter the odds. That determination. Confidence in the crew, in the ship, and in herself. It wasn't the only thing she needed, but if she didn't have it, working toward command would be a futile pursuit. All the other things could be learned, but if one didn't have the ability to throw oneself into the game wholeheartedly, folding and bowing out was the only reasonable and logical option.

"deLio," she called over the sounds of the bridge -- of consoles being manipulated by the touch of deft fingers, of the rattle of the air duct cover she'd shaken loose in those last few maneuvers. How she had pulled them through those turns in a Sovereign-class he couldn't be sure, not until he looked at the logs.

This would work. He could do this. Combining the working and personal relationships would be possible with her where it hadn't been with anyone else. She respected him on all levels, kept indulgence of her puckish sense of humor confined to private moments in which he could enjoy it with her, and still responded on the job with the efficiency and professionalism he'd come to expect.

Because she already had to use a front, he realized. Because she had to present a calm, pleasant facade to her patients and fellow officers at all times. Because she didn't dare expose her personal reactions to all the things she sensed. That was how she pulled this off so well. Following her lead wasn't hard; his own command persona was well-established, with more years of experience than she had in counseling.

At the moment, her front had changed -- she was using the Commander Troi persona, which had been slow to emerge over the years and still was in the process of coalescing. Sitting watch on gamma shift once in a while wasn't enough to gain real command experience.

"deLio," she called again.

"Weapons are offline," the L'norim replied smoothly at last. "Shields at eighty-nine percent and holding. Enemy vessels are gaining on us, sir, intercept in ten minutes."

She'd resorted to running and regrouping, and what she had planned next was anyone's guess. The *Enterprise* was the first up to bat; the scenario was supposed to take the form of a first contact with a new well-armed race who would not negotiate and attacked without mercy. Jean-Luc had conducted the initial contact and been wiped out in the first exchange of weapon fire, which had supposedly knocked the ship around and resulted in his fall and a blow to the head. Carlisle had gone down as well. A medical team had pronounced both of them dead, but the 'bodies' remained because even in simulations, things might go wrong and a quick resurrection might be necessary.

Deanna had taken command immediately, to the shock of all others present. He gathered they had expected her to defer to deLio.

The computer, simulating the first contact situation, had substituted a generated alien image and provided the initial ground work, and all the readouts would indicate alien vessels rather than the Federation ships actually flying around out there. All shots fired and resulting damage would be tallied and correlated with the computers on the other ships.

Her initial, alarmingly-vicious defensive response had decimated one of the five ships, crippled two others, damaged one other, but left one unscathed. The firefight had gone on for twenty minutes until enough damage had been sustained that she decided the odds had tipped too far against them; the *Enterprise* skipped out for safer environs at her order, without question from the crew. He'd half-expected deLio to say something about there being no honor in retreat, but realized he was superimposing taciturn security officers. deLio was not, and never would be, Klingon. He would do his job as exactingly as a L'norim would.

She was rattling off coordinates with a practice only he knew she'd worked hard for, the ensign at the helm making her fingers fly to keep up. He'd awakened to Deanna jabbing him in the ribs late last night, and sleepily listened to her recitations of what she'd been rehearsing -- speed and distance ratios, calculating how much time would elapse over the same distance at different speeds. Correcting her occasionally had been all the help he'd given her. All the homework had paid off.

Regardless of the outcome, Jean-Luc knew this would wipe the overbearing, haughty expression off Riker's face. Though Will didn't know yet that it was Deanna in command, he would after all the shooting was over, and Jean-Luc would take immense pleasure in rubbing his face in it.

"Sir," the ensign exclaimed suddenly, sounding panicked. "Those coordinates will take us directly into -- "

"I'm aware of that. Engage metaphasic shields."

"Commander, is this tactic really -- "

"Yes, Mr. deLio, it is. Let me know when we have phasers back."

Jean-Luc couldn't resist peeking. Something new was happening. Through his eyelashes, with only his right eye, he could barely see the main screen, on which Deanna had placed a 2-D representation of the battle in progress -- there was the *Enterprise* and around it the phalanx of enemy ships, swooping in from all directions. She was outgunned and scrambling. The scenario had called for any crippled ships to come back to life by taking new identification as reinforcements from outside the sector, just to add an element of randomness in the number of attackers, so there were four ships converging on them.

She was flying them into a red giant. He remembered the star -- remote and near the edge of the sector. All that erratic dodging and turning had to have been her way of making it seem they were panicking and running for their lives, not running for the red giant. She'd meant to get there from the start. This was turning out to be one long psychological game, from beginning to end.

And what else could he have expected? She was playing with her strengths. Her only hope of making a good showing was to use what she had, fight with what she knew how to use best.

He understood why deLio had questioned; with inexperienced crew in critical positions, this could be a fatal mistake. But Deanna wouldn't do this haphazardly. She had to know what she was doing.

Jean-Luc was tempted to call a halt. The whole point of the simulation was that it be as real as possible, and her pre-planning defeated the purpose somewhat. His intent had been to offset her complete lack of battle command experience, to make the trip interesting for the cadets; fifteen-second battles did nothing to help anyone advance. He supposed he should actually be thankful she had a plan; it meant she was less likely to make a rash decision in the excitement of the moment. It also meant that he'd have to let her finish the exercise to see what it was she'd planned, as she likely wouldn't tell him out of spite if he didn't.

From his 'dead' position on the floor, he didn't know what the crew was doing, but the staccato reports they gave had a note of anxiety in them. Deanna didn't react to it.

"One ship in pursuit!" He'd put Natalia Greenman at ops, just for the boldness she'd displayed -- that might teach her flirting with older men could pay off, but what the hell, she had her own spark and he was curious to see what she would do on a bridge.

"deLio, phasers?"

"Half power. Aft photon torpedos loaded, forward -- "

"That's enough. Arm the aft torpedos. Greenman, keep an eye on the shields. Bridge to engineering!"

"Batris here," came an unknown voice. Jean-Luc recognized the name, though -- one of Geordi's protegees.

"I need you to route a proton burst through the main deflector dish, on my mark -- "

The rest was lost on Jean-Luc. The hell with being dead, he had to see this.

While she finished giving orders, he crawled as unobtrusively as possible into the empty counselor's chair and glanced around. He ignored the technical jargon for now and checked the crew's faces. Greenman was staring over her shoulder at the counselor with awe and new respect, then noticed he'd risen to haunt the living and snapped around to her console.

"Deflector dish ready," Greenman said crisply.

Deanna checked the display on her -- his -- chair. "You should have the trajectory and range, Ensign. Deploy the deflector dish on my mark. Range to the corona?"

Every few seconds, Greenman gave the decreasing distance, until at last Deanna's head snapped up. "Mark! On main screen! Fire phasers!"

The combination of effects set off a brilliant fireworks in the corona several hundred kilometers ahead of them. The red haze on the screen turned scarlet, white and brilliant orange. Deanna issued a course change and sent them veering down at a steep angle then on a parabolic course under the star. Jean-Luc watched a monitor on the other side of the bridge displaying the ship's attitude; the yaw and pitch were going crazy. At least she was thinking three-dimensionally, but he ached sympathetically for his poor battered ship. She was throwing both of them around pretty hard.

"Recharge phasers! Where's that ship, deLio?" Deanna Troi had never sounded like this. Or looked like this -- she could actually be intimidating, when she tried. Her mouth set in a firm line, she kept her eyes forward, pretending her captain wasn't there trying not to laugh -- or cry, or swear out of general principle.

"On its original heading, and slowing. I believe they are examining the phenomena we caused."

"Ensign, bring us up behind them, best possible speed. Send us right up their tail, then break for open space. Heading zero one mark two five mark seven. deLio, target the ship with phasers and torpedos. We'll get them coming and going."

Jean-Luc sat back, unable and unwilling to suppress what must have been a Cheshire grin. That had to be Riker. She could sense him, certainly, and he'd be the one who would take it upon himself to be in such close pursuit. She'd created a diversion by making him think something catastrophic must have happened to the *Enterprise*. Veering into the red giant in an apparent attempt to hide and using the limited-duration metaphasic shielding were the setup; the fireworks, then the drastic course change, would give Riker the impression that something had gone wrong, perhaps catastrophic shield failure -- she'd taken them pretty deep into the star, however briefly. By the time the *Lexington* caught up to their previous position, the *Enterprise* would be blasting them out of space, because chances were Riker had stopped thinking scenario and started thinking rescue. He might even have the shields dropped in preparation for rapid transporter recovery when he found the disabled ship. She was cheating.

But all was fair in love and war. And what did starship captains ever do when nothing else worked but cheat, even the odds, play from the bottom of the deck, bluff their way through?

"The *Lexington* is hailing -- "

"The *Lexington* isn't here, deLio, that's an alien vessel. Fire." Deanna didn't waver, or look at him. Jean-Luc almost laughed. She looked so serious and intent on blowing the other vessel to simulated atoms.

Ahead, the Intrepid class vessel appeared first as a shadow then as a red-tinted ship, and the *Enterprise* caught up in an instant. The phasers fired, the torpedos were away, though neither really happened -- deLio only reported it as such. The computer announced destruction of the alien ship a moment later.

They broke out of the photosphere into the corona a few moments later, to find two of the other ships waiting for them, the third coming around to complete a triangular formation. The metaphasic shields weren't up to the pounding of another trip through the star, and the remaining adversaries were pinning them there, positioned so that no matter what direction the *Enterprise* went, at least two of the ships could follow quickly.

"Damage report," Deanna exclaimed, and got willing and eager responses from all quarters. They were as curious to see what she did next as Jean-Luc.

It was bad. The last salvo had depleted torpedo supplies, and the phasers were next to useless at twenty percent capacity. The metaphasic shields were down. On the up side, the standard shields were in good shape, but that wasn't much comfort in the face of three ships. They could beat away at the shields at their leisure.

"Hail them."

"No response, sir. They are charging weapons."

"Divert all power to the forward shields. Course heading -- Ensign, punch us a hole through that triangle. Best possible speed."

Jean-Luc slapped his hand over his eyes and collapsed into the chair, barely able to contain a contradiction. He knew what she was doing, and hung between intervention and curiosity, caught in the balance between what would probably happen and what might happen. He peered between his fingers, unable to look but unable to not look. She was aware that her adversaries would expect her to try going around, so she was going through.

The cadet obeyed the order, trusting and not knowing in her inexperience that this was the point at which a good officer objected to the CO's lunacy. The ship sprang forward.

In the seconds between their lunatic action and actual collision, the other three ships moved out of the way.

It was a narrow miss. The smaller ships probably took most of the beating as the *Enterprise* slammed by them. Shields butted shields out of the way, and the bridge rocked and actually threw people around. The loose air vent came free and nearly struck the ops console. Since it didn't, Natalia ignored it. Good for her.

"Warp two," Deanna said calmly.

Reaching the edge of the sector signified escape, and though the three ships heeled about and began pursuit, the *Enterprise* crossed the boundary with room to spare. Jean-Luc stood up and smiled at all hands. "Computer, end simulation. Well done, all of you. We've made an excellent showing today. I find it gratifying to note that there were no hesitations or inappropriate reactions -- you have given the other ships a tough act to follow. Even if. . . some of the strategy was a little unorthodox. Congratulations on your survival. It's no small achievement, believe me."

He paused, and glanced at Carlisle, who had retaken his seat and was looking shell-shocked. He'd probably never been on a ride quite like it. Deanna seemed to have made herself at home; she looked as serene as always, elbows propped comfortably on the arm rests of his chair.

"Captain, incoming message from the *Lexington,*" deLio announced.

"On screen." Jean-Luc turned, crossing his arms. Riker's face appeared larger than life on the screen. He looked. . . resigned.

"Interesting tactics, Captain. But still, I'd like to congratulate the cadet. . . ." Will's eyes moved to take in the rest of the bridge, and widened when he saw who was in the center chair. "You're kidding!"

"She had you pegged, didn't she? Slowed you right down and shot you to pieces when you weren't looking. Did you lower your shields, too? We really didn't have that much left to throw at you."

Riker went bug-eyed, then started to laugh, then swear. He cut the transmission abruptly.

"Ensign, lay in a course. Return to initial rendezvous coordinates. Mr. Carlisle, I'll be in my ready room reviewing the logs." He paused, mustering the extra composure to keep his tone professional. "Commander Troi -- if I could speak to you in my ready room for a moment?"

She followed him in, settled in the chair opposite his, and didn't look directly at him. It made him hesitate. She didn't seem very happy. Might as well start with the issue and work toward the positive.

"Deanna, that wasn't very safe. If the others hadn't moved out of your way that could have been disastrous."

She nodded once, taking a moment to form a response. "We were unable to defend ourselves, pinned down, in an unknown sector of space with no reinforcements for us and probably more reinforcements for them. They were ready for anything else I could have done. If it had been real, what would you have done?"

"Aside from the fact that I wouldn't have done half the things you did that put you in that situation in the first place?"

"It put them off guard. They didn't expect any of it."

He sighed and put his face in his hands. "You can't just treat the ship like a bumper car!"

"I'm sorry, Captain. It won't happen again. Because if it had been a real situation, I wouldn't have been in command."

Jean-Luc left his chair, came around the desk, and leaned against it, crossing his arms. "I suppose I can't really fault you. I put you in the situation myself."

"I could have let deLio take command. That's what I would have done if I hadn't known you intended me to take over."

"You're saying the only reason you took command was because I wanted you to?" Had she taken it as a personal request? He'd made it on leave -- he hadn't thought about that.

"The captain wanted me to. It felt like an order."

She stared at the floor, and apparently ignored whatever she sensed -- or she was afraid again, and unable. She might have reacted to the mixture of guilt and pride he felt otherwise. Of course she would know it was the captain's request. He tried to think of the appropriate official response.

"Do you know why I wanted you to?"

"Because you wanted to see what I would do. You wouldn't have done it just because of Will."

"You realize that I didn't intend for you to create your entire strategy beforehand? That wasn't the point of the exercise."

Her straight posture didn't waver, but her composure did -- she turned away for a moment, gripping the arms of her chair, then brought her head back to center and kept looking at the floor.

"What do you think my assessment of your performance should be?"

She bit her upper lip and considered. "I should probably stick to counseling."

"You should start doing more studying. Deanna, don't look like that. It would have been just as bad if I'd put a cadet in your place. I've seen some spectacular ways to destroy a starship in sims."

"Has anyone ever *actually* destroyed the ship?"

"No, but I've seen ships beaten up worse than you've done. If your only real casualty was an air vent -- for which I'm blaming maintenance for not fastening it down properly -- you did well. How did it feel being in command in the middle of a battle?"

The faint smile reinforced his earlier hunch. "It was frightening, once I was faced with it -- "

"But you enjoyed it, didn't you?"

She shook her head slowly, still inspecting carpet.

"I think you did. That's how you can tell a good captain from a mediocre one, you know. Somewhere in the middle of the anxiety and the fear of losing the ship, you enjoy the adventure."

Her eyes came up at last. Surprised, and a little disbelieving, she asked, "You still think I would be a good captain?"

"Oh, not any time soon. You would need more experience, rotations through tactical and ops, some classes, and a realistic idea of what you can safely do in a starship -- you were focused on what you were doing, otherwise you would have noticed I nearly jumped up about half a dozen times."

"I was intentionally ignoring you. I didn't want you to accuse me of reading what to do next from you."

He bit his tongue, shook his head, and allowed himself an amused smile. "No chance that I'd accuse you of that."

"I was really bad, wasn't I?"

"Unconventional. In spite of having it worked out beforehand."

She shrugged a little, losing her stiff posture and hugging herself. "I knew if I didn't plan things out somewhat I wouldn't be able to think. Thank you for warning me. I wouldn't have known what to do otherwise. It would have been a little humiliating to be destroyed ten seconds into the battle, in front of all those cadets."

"Well, there you have it. I had so much faith in you that I didn't even think about that possibility." He smiled down at her. "Stop beating yourself up -- it was a good effort, made more impressive by the fact that you aren't a command school graduate. You cheated, because you didn't manage to treat the other ships as aliens and took advantage of foreknowledge of the area and the opponents, but you impressed the hell out of a bunch of cadets and ensigns, and one grizzled old captain."

It wasn't helping. If anything, she looked more down in the mouth than before. She felt -- fear. He was sure of it. Of what, though? She enjoyed command, he had expressed his pride in her attempt, and his ship had survived the ordeal.

Oh. His ship. If she did make the switch, work toward command, her time aboard the *Enterprise* might be limited. And he was sending her mixed messages.

"There are many ways this could work, Deanna. Your career is up to you. I'll support you, no matter what you do. I'm not going to stand in your way -- but I don't intend to be left behind, either."

"How?"

"Sometimes how doesn't matter as much as why. I don't have to know how, at the moment. I have the feeling that finding out isn't going to be so difficult as you imagine."

She laughed, just a little, breathlessly. "I'll just trust you on that, sir."

"So what was so funny night before last, when you nearly rolled off the bed laughing?" Maybe that would give further reprieve from the nervousness.

Looking around nervously as if hunting for composure, she struggled with a wavering smile -- stifling a grin, he realized. "I had just lectured Will on trusting your judgement, the way he used to. Then you were making it obvious you wanted me to take command -- " She bit a nail and dropped her gaze to her lap, sheepish. "It was ironic. . . I believe the phrase is, 'hoist on your own Picard?'"

Jean-Luc gaped at that for a while. When he recovered and regained control of his dropped chin, he cleared his throat, hiding a smile behind a hand. "Good God, that's bad. That's. . . extremely, irrevocably bad. Now I know who to call on when I want to set phasers on pun."

She winced, and stayed that way. "May I be dismissed, sir?" From her tone, she was about to laugh, or cry.

"I suggest you attend Mr. Carlisle's debriefing and give the cadets a lecture on when it's appropriate to question one's commanding officer. They don't appear to know." He let her get halfway to the door. "Did you have a pleasant leave, by the way?"

She hesitated, bowed her head, and smiled. "Yes, sir. I enjoyed it very much. My friend and I had a very restful and pleasant three days, barring a few run-ins with mutual acquaintances. What about you?"

"Mine was very much the same. I believe I've discovered a new appreciation for your beloved chocolate -- and if you get the chance, you should ask Geordi how the recalibrations are going in astrometrics, just to see his reaction."

She raised an eyebrow but didn't comment as she left. Jean-Luc began the review of the logs, and was hard at work fifteen minutes later when the annunciator went off. "Come in."

Will strode in. He stood for a few moments, looking a bit sullen, slowly approaching when Jean-Luc said nothing.

"I hope you don't mind my transporting over for a chat."

At least he didn't sound hostile. In fact, he sounded more like the Will Riker Jean-Luc remembered from better days, albeit a weary one. "Have a seat. I was just looking over the carefully-laid plans of a psychologist who knew her opponents too well for their own good."

"You rigged it." Will sank into the chair in front of the desk and rested forehead in hand.

"I didn't help her, Will. She had all the information on this sector, that's true, but so did the cadets. The only part I rigged, as you put it, was the disabling of Carlisle that put her in command. She took the reins and ran with it -- she had the option of handing it over to deLio. No one really expects a counselor to take charge in a situation like that."

"So all of that nonsense, those crazy maneuvers -- how the hell did she get away with that?"

"She had cadets who wouldn't question as long as she kept up a steady confident demeanor. She had the advantage of knowing you would all expect her to be a cadet, and that you'd expect her to fall back on standard battle tactics from Academy textbooks. She knew those ships would move out of the way. She knew you would stop to make sure the *Enterprise* was out of danger. She cheated."

"You told her she'd be in the center seat?"

"Not in so many words, but she needed that edge to offset inexperience. It isn't as though the cadets didn't learn from it. I'm making her lecture them on when it's reasonable to question your commanding officer's orders." Jean-Luc rose and went to the replicator, returning with appropriate beverages and putting Will's coffee in front of him. "I'm damned proud of her, too."

At last, a smile. Will sniffed and reached for his cup. "You should be. And I'm a sorry excuse of a jerk, aren't I?"

"Nothing that couldn't be fixed with an apology."

"I'm sorry I behaved like that, Jean-Luc." Will appraised him briefly. "You really love her, don't you?"

Jean-Luc watched his fish move through the tank for a moment and sipped his tea. "Is that a bad thing?"

"I would never have imagined it. She's not your. . . ."

"Type? People keep telling me that. I'm beginning to wonder what my type really is."

Will smirked and tapped the arm of his chair. "She's nothing like any girlfriend of yours I've ever met."

"You're quite correct. But, in more ways than I'd realized, she's like Eline."

"Who's Eline?"

It was Jean-Luc's turn to smirk. "Want to see the whole thing from beginning to end?" Reaching for his console, he pressed a few keys. The holo-emitters recreated a grid of the sector, complete with wire frame color-coded representations of the spatial geography, the red giant in the lower left corner. "I don't think you saw the endgame move. You were still in the photosphere playing dead."

They watched two-centimeter ships move through the maneuvers slowly, like graceful insects in flight. In the replay, the computer filled in the shots that weren't actually fired. The *Enterprise* shot little blossoms of red and scored a number of hits, tiny phaser bolts dancing back and forth between ships and flaring against briefly-visible shields. Then came the cut-and-run across the bow of the *Zelezny* and the beginning of a long, zigzagging flight.

"Damn," Jean-Luc muttered.

"Talk about making use of every kilometer of space she's given." Riker's eyes followed the *Enterprise* evading the other ships, dodging through open space like a drunken moth trying to get away from a flock of birds. "And she planned this?"

"The basic course, yes. She wanted it to look erratic, so you wouldn't think she'd intentionally ended up at the star, and reacted to the other ships as she went. She's given up snoring for reciting course changes in her sleep." Jean-Luc frowned a little at his slip -- nothing like giving the man ammunition. He'd gotten too involved in the simulation. But Will didn't react, at least not now. He too was watching the flight of the counselor.

He stopped the sim as the ship reached the star and magnified, until the red wire-grid sphere and the *Enterprise* were large enough that all details could be appreciated. The other ships in flight around the star to intercept were revealed, and he got to see Riker's slow indecisive approach to the blossom of flaring particles while the *Enterprise* neatly swung up, strafed the *Lexington* with phasers, and caught the nose of the ship with a spread of torpedoes from the aft chutes.

Riker snorted. "Eat shit and die, Riker."

Jean-Luc hid a smile behind his hand. He watched Riker's face during the climactic moment, knowing he could back it up and see it again.

When the moment came, Riker flinched backward, eyes wide.

Jean-Luc reached out to re-orient the sim and replay that last few moments, rendering actual 3-D images instead of the wire frames. The glow of the star hovering over half his desk cast red highlights on Riker's face. The *Enterprise* left the photosphere like a bird on the wing, made a slight course correction at the moment of Deanna's order, and shot toward the three ships, which started to peel away and were swept aside seconds later in a flare of shields clashing.

*Enterprise* vanished in the vicinity of Jean-Luc's left shoulder, going into warp in a sparkle of light.

"You let her do that to your ship, just to get even with me."

Jean-Luc scowled. "Get over yourself. I did it because I'd planned to, for the past few days. After Zibyan, I became curious about what she might do in command of the ship in a battle. Blasting you to molecules was icing on the cake."

"Why did she do it? She's not given to -- " His expression turned from surprised amusement to serious shock. "Is she seriously pursuing command?"

"No. This surprised her as much as it did you. She did it because she sensed her captain wanted her to. She would have a lot of work to do if she did pursue it."

Will chewed his lip for a moment. "I guess I knew the minute I realized you were together that you were serious, and it shocked me. I knew you wouldn't fraternize with a fellow officer unless you were."

"No, I wouldn't. You surprised me. I've never seen you this caught up in protesting a choice she's made."

Will looked at the wall pointedly, chin jutting. "She's never made this kind of choice before."

"I know. It surprises me too, you know. Possibly more than anyone else."

A Riker grin lit his face briefly. "I can guess that it would."

Sitting down again, Jean-Luc keyed in another series of commands. Transferring the information took a few moments; he pulled the isolinear chip and passed it to Riker, smiling. "Here's a copy from the bridge recorder. You might like to check out the expression on her face when she blew you up."

Will tapped the chip against his palm thoughtfully and slumped back in the chair. "I hope you know what you're doing, Jean-Luc."

"Doesn't matter what I know. All that matters is that it works."

"It works," he echoed, bringing his blue eyes up to meet Jean-Luc's. "For now."

Jean-Luc lost his smile. "It's so reassuring that you haven't lost your faith in my judgement, Will."

"Thanks for the entertainment." Will hoisted himself to his feet, straightening his

uniform. "I haven't lost faith in you. It's just that this is so unlike you. You've never done this. . . ."

"Done what?"

He smirked, shaking his head. "I suppose I can't say you've never attempted a relationship with someone under your command. I can remember one of those. That's probably why I found this one so difficult to believe -- not to mention she's your counselor."

"Was my counselor."

"Oh, I see the motivation now -- you're trying to avoid another counseling session with her. Now, that, I can understand. She can be pretty merciless." Will's grin was more genuine this time, but still fell short. He was trying too hard. "See you tomorrow -- got to go see if I can't top the Wild Betazoid Offensive."

Jean-Luc winced. "You'd better not start calling it that."

Will chuckled as he left, regardless. When the door had shut behind his former first officer, Jean-Luc propped his elbows on his desk and tried to feel as though the situation with Will Riker had been adequately resolved.

Maybe, as with everything else, it would merely take time.

~^~^~^~^~

Deanna put the book of poetry back in its place. The captain's books -- his souvenirs, his antiques. She touched the Klingon dagger and drew back quickly at the sharpness of the blade. What did all these things mean to him? Had they been gifts, or just things he'd picked up along the way, or perhaps heirlooms? The dagger was from Worf, she knew that. The small crystal embedded in some sort of dark green base mineral might have been a souvenir of a world they'd visited.

When he arrived, she turned from the analysis of the book titles and memorabilia of Captain Picard and tried not to be nervous. After three days of leave and feeling so relaxed and far from duty, coming back to the simulation had been an abrupt and drastic change, not only from off-duty demeanor but from her normal on-duty facade. He hesitated in the bedroom door, and for a second she wondered if he weren't surprised to see her there; what she sensed from him was muddled with her own anxiety so it was hard to tell.

"You'll never guess what I did today," he exclaimed, smiling as he came to her.

"So why don't you tell me?"

He stopped short of contact and held out a hand, tilting his head as if studying her reaction. Deanna placed her palm against his, fingers spread, letting them drift closed over his wrist as if re-establishing contact with a skittish animal. What was skittish were her own feelings -- though she knew being here when he came in after shift would please him, the question of how they would interact after the sim remained. The role of command was such a drastic shift that she still felt off-balance, even after an afternoon of counseling duties following the debriefing.

"After reviewing the logs and Carlisle's report post-debriefing, I took a leisurely stroll around the ship. It's been a long time."

"And?" She knew about the captain's walkabouts; he had always taken it upon himself to renew his acquaintance with the ship, usually no less than once a month. She also couldn't remember his last walkabout.

"I discovered something about myself that I wasn't aware of before." Jean-Luc took a step and ran his fingers through her curls, tugging loose the hair band. His other hand now held hers firmly.

"I'm glad you were never this opaque in counseling." A tease -- he had been opaque at times, and dodgy, until he'd come to trust her in that role.

"I'm the jealous type."

Deanna, after a few moments of trying to connect a ship tour with this observation, frowned. "I don't understand."

"You're an empath -- you tell *me* how many men on this ship had a crush on you."

She gaped, trying to back away -- he held her still, the intent of the grip on her fingers and the back of her head now clear. "I have no idea!"

"I walked all over this ship, and for every sly smile I got, I must've gotten two irate glares."

"Oh. . . ." She giggled, shrugging it off. He was kidding. His estimate was too far overblown. "Well, I'm sorry. But I really have no control over the feelings of others, Jean. I wouldn't do anything to encourage the bare-chested ones, either. Or cadets, or the ones who only want one thing."

"I see. . . so it's true," he exclaimed, leaning closer, "you only wanted me because I wasn't a cadet, or bare-chested, or wanting one thing only."

She caught her lower lip in her teeth and studied his face, tilting her head. He was in a wonderful mood. He'd just walked around the ship and found nothing objectionable, otherwise he would have opened with a discussion of how to handle it. And he wasn't discussing work. She wanted to kiss him, but it was worth delaying gratification to indulge his good humor.

"I have far more specific criteria than that."

His lips grazed her jaw, his nose pressing against her cheek. "Oh?"

"I wanted someone about the same height so I wouldn't have to wear dangerous heels to reach his face. I wanted someone who looked good in the uniform, or out of it. Someone who tastes good with chocolate. Who doesn't have to fill every single moment with chatter, or demand my undivided attention. But most importantly, I wanted someone who has a vineyard."

"That's specific. But curious. Why a vineyard?" He was playing along, setting himself up for it, and enjoying himself while doing it. That kiss, when she got it, would be a toe-curler.

"Because I'm a counselor."

He stood back at last, genuinely puzzled and raising an eyebrow. "And this makes sense because?"

"I wanted someone I had something in common with. I'm used to handling a lot of whine, I thought I would be better off -- Jean-Luc, are you all right?"

She tried to make it deadpan, but he had stumbled backward, grasping his chest and making the most unconvincing pained expression she'd seen. He fell on the bed, arms wide. What a terrible ham he could be. Giggling, she climbed up and straddled him on hands and knees, waiting for him to open an eye.

"I know you're in there trying not to laugh. Come on, let it out, those repressed emotions will make a counselor mad, you know."

He did peek out at her, grinning and rubbing his eye with his knuckles, still trying not to break down. And then the urge dwindled, and an arm went up to bring her down to him. She lay on his chest, listening to him breath, wriggling occasionally.

"That was a very bad pun," he said at last.

"Puns are fun. You need to have fun once in a while."

"But if I laughed, it would only encourage you. That was *very* bad." His warm chuckle made her smile. "Geordi thinks you're good for me. I tend to agree. That was the best leave I've had all year."

"That would be a compliment if it weren't the only leave you've had all year."

"Hm. Something tells me you won't have such a difficult time getting me to take leave any more."

She wriggled again. "Something tells me I should help you out of uniform."

"Why are you still in uniform?"

"I came here after shift. I haven't been back to my quarters yet."

"That reminds me, I need your help. I can't figure out how much space I should make for you in the closet."

"It would be simpler if you just added another closet, only one twice as big."

He moved, and she sat up. They faced each other, she astride his thighs, he propped up on his elbows and thoughtful. "This is a challenge. Think you're up to extended negotiations on what goes and what stays?"

"It's a definite challenge, for you." Deanna shoved her hair out of her face. "But I know all your negotiating tactics."

"I hadn't thought about that. Mm. Well -- how about throwing Data out of his quarters, knocking down a wall, and moving all your things in there?"

"That's not fair to Data. You're not supposed to let this affect the crew, remember? Oh, and what are you smirking about now?"

"Just thinking about how much fun I'm going to have. It's been a long, long time since I've had a roommate."

"Plus you're looking forward to having a female roommate."

"Damned empath."

"That has nothing to do with how I can tell. The longer I sit here letting you leer at me, the more it seems likely I'm about to be hoist on -- "

"That pun has *got* to go!" But he was laughing as he said it. Deanna laughed and fell into his arms, claiming her kiss.

It *would* work.
 

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This page contains a single entry by Lori published on December 29, 2006 10:30 PM.

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