"Captain! Captain! Wake up! You're dreaming. It's all a dream."
He woke wide eyed and screaming, holding on to her like a drowning man. They stayed locked together like this until his frantic breathing eased and his eyes regained their focus.
"Forgive me ... I thought I was back with my interrogator, he had this device ...". His chest heaved as he drew in more air. "I'm all right now, I'm all right, I know where I am."
Troi kept her hand on his arm and waited till he calmed down further. "Tell me what you remember about yesterday."
"There's no need."
"Yes there is! You weren't making much sense when we put you to bed. I want to know if you remember what's been going on."
Picard tried to sit up but his body wouldn't obey him. He fell back, resigned to his pathetic state.
"I was in my cell - dozing - when there was a commotion. The next thing I remember is a Klingon looking down at me and laughing. He said I was a pitiable wretch ... But I smelt better than he did! He led me out, past the bodies of my Cardassian guards and into the fresh air. A shuttlecraft took me to their Bird-of-Prey and then here to the Enterprise. I think Will made a brief Thank-You speech to the Klingons but after that everything is a bit hazy."
He closed his eyes and steeled himself to ask the key question. "Do you know what happened to her? And to Worf?"
"They're both safe. Beverly and Worf were never captured. I told you so last night, five times."
"Where are they?" Picard suddenly found the energy to sit up. "Are they on the Enterprise?"
"They're both away at the moment but Beverly will be back today."
"And you're sure they're all right?"
"They will be, now they know you're alive ... you see ... we all thought you were dead." Troi paused to wrestle with her own emotions. "The Cardassians told us you had died during questioning. Their spokesman was very polite - apologising and explaining they hadn't realise how 'fragile humans were'. When we asked for your body back they told us it had already 'been disposed of'".
"How long have you thought me dead?"
"Fifteen!" It was far longer than he had expected, long enough for friends and colleagues to learn to live without him.
Troi guessed his concern and tried to reassure him. "Worf still hasn't got over the shame of leaving you behind - in his eyes he deserted his captain."
"Rubbish! I was caught and he was injured. There wasn't anything he could do."
"Tell him that. Though if you really want to please him, do something life-threatening so he can save you."
Picard gave a wry smile, "I'll see what I can do ... How about Beverly?"
Deanna was silent for a moment, considering how to answer. "At first she was depressed ... very depressed. I even had the ship's computer monitoring her bio-functions." Picard could guess why. "I wouldn't be telling you except I still have some concerns. A week after you 'died' she suddenly snapped out of the depression and moved into a sort of happy private world. I began to wonder if she was taking something but Dr Selar assures me not. She's been coping perfectly well with her work but when we talk I feel as though she's not completely with me. You may find her behaviour a bit ... 'odd'."
It took Picard over an hour to finish his breakfast. His stomach just wasn't used to such quantity or quality of food. Afterwards, Troi tried to persuade him to go to Sickbay but with no success. All morning he refused offering one excuse after another until finally admitting he'd rather wait until Beverly was there. The counsellor eventually got around him by pointing out how unfair he was being to her colleagues.
"Can't you imagine the tongue lashing she'll give them for not checking you over immediately?"
The Captain had only been in Sickbay five minutes when Dr Crusher returned to the ship.
"Where is he? Is he hurt?" Her eyes swept anxiously over the receiving area.
Dr Selar gestured to the far biobed where Picard lay half hidden by a scanner. Beverly hurried over and looked down. She was an experienced doctor, she had expected him to look ill but the reality still came as an awful shock. A deep familiar voice spoke to her from a painfully thin face.
"I know, I've been over doing the dieting."
"Just a litt...." Her voice broke. Colleagues suddenly busied themselves with tasks on the other side of the room and pretended not to notice as she struggled to hold back the tears. When at last she regained control it was the confident, unemotional CMO who spoke to them.
"What tests have already been done on the Captain?"
Dr Selar showed her the initial results and then left her colleague to it. Captain Picard's health had always been Dr Crusher's personal responsibility and she didn't want to intrude. For a Vulcan she showed remarkable understanding of human emotions. As Beverly supervised the remaining investigations she appeared quite calm and collected while she chatted away to her patient.
"Lieutenant Almo won the stratagema competition. Lift your arm please."
"How about the children's art competition," Picard joined in, "did Andy Cartwright finish his Bolian Octopus?"
The Sickbay staff couldn't believe the trivial nature of their conversation - wasn't this her dear friend just returned from the dead? But the two of them knew what they were doing, inconsequential small-talk was all they could cope with for now. One concession Crusher did allow herself was physical contact. Wherever they moved him during the tests she kept one hand on some part of his body. This didn't go unnoticed by the other staff and after a while one of the younger nurses started to giggle.
"You know Beverly", Picard whispered in her ear, "I won't disappear if you let go of me." He glanced down at the long fingers resting lightly on his thigh.
"Oh! I'm sorry." Her hand was removed immediately and Picard instantly regretted his words. What did it matter if the others noticed, hadn't he been enjoying her touch? He tried to retrieve the situation by a touch of his own but she carefully avoided him. It was though a switch had been thrown - one moment she was relaxed in his company, the next she was remote, her mind in an other world. But unlike the world Troi had described this one definitely wasn't happy.
When the examination finished, Dr Crusher stood before him ready to issue the official verdict.
"Well Captain - I've seen you in better shape. However, your condition can improve if you do as you are told. For the next few weeks I am going to control your life. You will eat what I select, exercise as I instruct and go to bed when I tell you to. Is that understood?"
"Yes Ma'am." Picard saluted and was rewarded with a discrete smile - wherever her thought had been they were back with him now.
"Bridge to Sickbay."
Beverly touched her com badge. "Yes Captain."
"We're getting reports of sick and injured refugees aboard a ship just leaving the neutral zone. Can you be ready for customers in 10 minutes?"
"Make that 5."
Even as she spoke her staff started their emergency preparations.
"Where are the refugees from?" Picard asked.
"The Marquis attacked two Cardassian outposts. They retaliated by destroying three ex-federation colonies in what is now their territory. We've been picking up survivors for weeks. Jean Luc, I'd .."
" .. you'd like to stay and chat but there will be other patients who need you."
"More than 'like'. I was looking forward to taking you for some gentle exercise. You'll have to make do with Ivan's company." She beckoned over a male nurse.
"I want you to accompany the Captain to the holodeck. See that he has a gentle 15 minute walk in a flat rural setting. I think he's had enough of prison walls for a while."
In the holosuite Picard left it to Ivan to pick a setting. What he chose was his homeland - the Russian Steppe. Instantly Jean Luc found himself in the middle of a large wheat field that stretched away to the horizon.
"Magnificent isn't it!" The young man beamed with pride.
"Well it definitely fulfils the 'flat' requirement." Picard's sarcasm was lost on Ivan. "I can see why you joined Starfleet. Does it make any difference which way we go?"
The nurse picked a direction promising the Captain there would be a river in less than a kilometre. As they walked along he explained how his family had been farmers on the Steppe for six generations. Picard wasn't listening, the scenery was making him queasy. After months in a tiny cell this vast space and the swaying crops were unbearable.
"Computer change the setting, put me in a prison cell four metres by three."
His surroundings transformed and Ivan disappeared - presumably still on the Russiam Steppe - not that Picard cared. In these familiar cramp surroundings he felt better immediately. He adjusted the surroundings to match his own Cardassian cell and started pacing, up and down, back and forth just as he had in prison for hours and hours and hours.
"One. Two. Three. Four. Turn.
One. Two. Three. Four. ... "
Half an hour later the cell door opened slowly. Counselor Troi stood in the doorway watching him. Picard stared back, what is she doing here?
"May I join you?"
He gapped, unable to cope with the question. Deanna took the initiative and sat herself down on his bunk.
"Where are you Captain?"
He could answer that one, "In my prison cell." The absurdity of this statement suddenly struck him. "Or rather I'm in a holographic recreation of my cell."
"Is this a good likeness?"
"Close ... but it smells too sweet, there should be a hole in the floor for waste, a hose pie here for water and a hook in the ceiling. Oh and I should be naked."
Troi studied the dim cramped space.
"Beverly told you to take a walk in a rural setting and you chose to come here?"
"I know, ridiculous isn't it? But I couldn't cope with the scene Ivan selected. I'm not used to vast open spaces."
"Nor he to your prison. When you changed the program he ended up in his own cell. He panicked and forgot how to leave the holodeck. I would have joined you earlier but I had to calm him down first."
"I'm sorry, I didn't think." Picard looked away.
"What did you think about, Captain ... During those 15 weeks in this cell?"
Six years before he would never have answered her, but in their years together he had come to respect and trust Deanna's abilities.
"In the beginning all I thought about was escape. When that proved futile I fell into worrying about what had happened to Beverly, Worf and the Enterprise."
"And after that?"
"... Make believe." The admission embarrassed him.
"When I came in just now did you think I was imaginary?"
He nodded. "Even in Sickbay I wasn't always sure if it was reality or one of my 'coming home' fantasies."
"Day dreaming can be quite addictive especially when reality is unbearable. If you want to get out of the habit you need some demanding activity to occupy your thoughts."
He gestured to his frail body. "A little difficult in my present state."
"Not a bit of it. You don't need to be fit to be useful but you do need to get used to company again. You can start with 15 minutes in Ten-Forward this evening."
Picard opened his mouth to protest but she cut him off.
"And you can start writing a report on Gul Madred's interrogation techniques."
"No! I'm not ready for that." His fear and embarrassment almost overwhelmed her.
"Starfleet has learnt that Madred is nearly always the interrogator who questions non-Cardassian prisoners. Your report could help future victims."
Intellectually he knew she was right but that didn't make the task any easier. As a prisoner of the Borg he had been striped of all individuality and used for their ends. His recovery - such as it was - had taken years but eventually he had come to forgive himself. Resistance, after all, had been impossible. Madred's methods were more personal, he had a way of making his victims co-operate in their own torture and humiliation. The Cardassian had even tricked Picard into volunteering to remain with him. To write about this experience would be to inflict it on himself all over again.
"No Deanna, I really don't think he's up to meeting people - in a day or two maybe."
Troi normally deferred to Beverly's medical opinion but not this time.
"On the contrary, I think it would do him good. It would force him to remain in reality. Do you know where he took that walk you prescribed? In a holographic prison cell." She mimicked his pacing. "One, two, three, four, turn, one, two, three, four. Does that strike you as normal behaviour?" Crusher's shocked expression answered her question. "The Captain's been living in a fantasy land for months, he's having difficulty distinguishing what's real and what isn't."
"All right then", Beverly conceded, "he can go, but only for 15 minutes and I'm going with him."
At the appointed time Beverly called at Picard's quarters and escorted to Ten-Forward; a role reversal with which neither of them felt happy. Though she had previously agreed to Troi's suggestion it didn't stop her from now having second thoughts.
"Jean Luc, are you sure you're up to this?"
"No. I'm not." He squeezed her arm. " The prospect of a crowded room is ... somewhat daunting. But it's like being thrown from a horse ... you've got to get straight back up or ... " Weakness was always hard for him to admit. "Will you give me a leg up?"
Thirteen minutes of conversation was all he could cope with. At that point Beverly interrupted and insisted he needed to rest. Picard protested but was grateful to be rescued. He said 'Good Night' to the assembled crew and made his way out unaided. In the corridor he immediately lent against the wall while she positioned herself to hide him.
"Thank you." He whispered.
"You're welcome. Can you make it back to your cabin or shall I contact the transporter room?"
"I can make it ... if you're with me."
On the way there neither of them spoke but Picard took delight in their perfectly matched steps and the occasional brush with her hip. When the cabin door closed behind them they were alone together for the first time since his return.
Nothing happened. In his prison fantasies Beverly had always thrown herself around him. The real woman just stood there eyeing him cautiously. It was his own fault, he decided, that thoughtless comment about her hand had made her hesitant. Contact was up to him.
Opening his arms he said simply "Come here." She obeyed instantly wrapping her arms tightly around him and burying her face in his neck. For quite some time they stood there, clinging to each other and crying with relief. The physical exertion became too much for Picard and his legs started to shake. Beverly guided him to the sofa and sat down next to him.
"I thought you were dead."
He shushed her, stemming the tears that were about to restart.
"And I didn't know what had happened to you. Madred told me you had been captured but I began to doubt it when he didn't show you to me. It was the kind of torture he would have enjoyed inflicting. After that I just didn't know."
She stroked her fingers across his cheek. " I was here ... missing you."
Though he felt her touch and saw her gentle smile Troi's words still drifted into his mind. 'Beverly disappeared into a happy private world.' Was he there?
He held her arm and tried to lighten the mood.
"You'll just have to get used to me all over again."
Fear. He saw it, just for an instant but he was certain it crossed her face. But why? There was an awkward silence before Beverly spoke.
"You're tired Jean Luc and I'm forgetting my own instructions. You need at least eight hours sleep. If you develop any medical problems during the night the monitor attached to your ankle will warn me. Now go to bed and call me when you're ready for breakfast."
She stood-up, breaking their physical contact, and left without looking back.
In the morning she was her normal self again. Breakfast was just as it used to be, except that she drank tea rather than coffee. They had plenty to talk about and there was none of the awkwardness that had marred the previous day. In fact he might never have been 'dead'. It was all strangely disappointing - he wanted it to be the same but also different. Their familiar routine was reassuring but inadequate.
"Jean Luc? Are you all right? You seem miles away."
"I'm sorry, I was thinking."
He paused, "About what I want to do with the rest of my life."
"And what would that be?"
"I don't know ... but this isn't it."
He looked at her expecting some kind of response but received none. Her eyes were open but they didn't see him. Her mind was away in some unhappy reality.
"Beverly? Are you all right?" He clicked his fingers.
She jumped. "What? ... Sorry ... my turn to apologise."
"Where were you?"
"Where I should be is in Sickbay." She was already on her feet. "Do you want to come with me? There are several new refugees patients we need to talk to. It would do you good to .. "
Picard cut in " .. talk to someone worse off than myself?"
"I wasn't going to say that."
"No?" He cocked an eyebrow. "Well you should have. It's the truth.... Lead on."
Picard's next two days were filled with a mixture of rest, exercise, food and engineered social encounters. He knew what Beverly and Troi were up to but didn't mind, in fact he enjoyed meeting the newer members of the crew. They had no memories of how he had once been - a fit, confident captain who controlled the ship's fate. Talking to them was easy, especially Adam Nyland the ship's botanist. Like Picard he had grown up on a vineyard and the two men hit it off immediately.
With his old colleagues conversation was difficult. He didn't know how to relate to them other than as their captain. If he passed one of them in a corridor he would look away rather than risk seeing pity or embarrassment in their eyes. He even avoided his friend Will Riker, who was now Acting Ship's Captain. Picard reminded himself of a cat he had once known as child. The creature became so old and feeble that even the birds ignored it as it passed amongst them on the lawn.
Troi, Guinan and Beverly, of all the people on the ship, were the only ones with whom he felt truly comfortable. To them he had always been more than just 'The Captain', he had also been himself and he still was. Even with her unpredictable mood swings Beverly's company pleased him. In fact her very anxiety was a bond between them, she too was another soul struggling with reality.
"I read your report." Troi's statement was factual and unemotional, just what Picard needed. It hadn't been easy to write about his interrogation, not even with certain intimate details omitted.
"I didn't include everything."
"I know, it doesn't matter. But if you ever do want to tell someone ..."
He gave her a brief smile. Strange how he could tell her things he could never tell anyone else, and there was something he needed to tell her. He stood up and strolled over to the window, preparing himself to make the admission.
"I missed it, you know ... the interrogation ... I missed it when I was alone in my cell."
"It gave a purpose to your life."
"That's it!" She understood! "Resisting Madred was my reason to keep living. After he stopped I had nothing. I never went anywhere, I never saw or heard anyone. My food came through a hole in the door. Until you came in I ... " He stopped. Hadn't that been the holodeck?
Confused and embarrassed he sat down again and slowly ran his hands over his head.
"Why did they keep me alive Deanna? Why not kill me and be done with it?"
"I think you know the answer to that."
He looked away and was silent. She was right again. "I worked out how to do it ... The hose was long enough ... though the low ceiling would have made it difficult. I'd have had to have bent my knees. Sick joke, eh! Do you think Madred watched recordings of his victims killing themselves?"
"Probably. The prison was his private empire hidden away on a remote moon. From the records the Klingons found, most of the prisoners didn't keep him waiting long. You survived because your imagination helped you escape - make believe made your existence tolerable. You have nothing to be embarrassed about."
Picard gave her another brief smile - she knew how to help and when to change the subject.
"Beverly's pleased with your speed of physical recovery. In fact you've been such a model patient she's worried about you."
"I'll rebel a bit, if you think it'll make her happy." He caught her eye. "I know Deanna, it's no joke and I wish I could help her. There have been times when I thought she was going to tell me what's troubling her but then she backs off. It's as if ... am I imagining things or is she afraid of me?"
Troi hesitated. "I won't lie to you. I do sense anxiety when you're around but also comfort and affection. You may be the trigger for some fear but at the same time she needs you. Like you, she's been surviving in a fantasy land, but she's finding it much harder to leave. Your renewed existence may be causing chaos in her make-believe world."
Picard gave her a quick glance. Does she know how often I still return to that world? How I look forward to the images that got me through my imprisonment? He didn't look at her again. He'd rather not know the answer.
In acknowledgement of his efforts on the report, Troi let Picard off with an easy social event - lunch with a handful of old friends and Adam Nyland. Coping with such meetings was getting easier for him, especially with someone as interesting and communicative as Nyland. During the meal Jean Luc encouraged the botanist to talk about his current research. Across the table Riker, Troi, Data and Beverly watched him with amused affection. Their ex-captain certainly hadn't lost his talent for making people feel valued. However obscure their speciality, he would understand its relevance and find intelligent questions to ask them.
"What is it?" he demanded when he caught them smiling at him.
"Nothing, it's just good to have you home."
Picard gave an embarrassed grunt and changed the subject. "No one's explained to me why Jellico isn't in charge of the Enterprise. Can someone fill me in?" As he ran his eyes over their faces they all looked away. Only Data rose to the challenge.
"Captain Jellico was relieved of his duties by Vice Admiral Necheyev. I believe the reason was his inappropriate handling of the Enterprise crew."
Picard turned to Riker for a fuller explanation.
"52 Enterprise officers asked for a transfer off the ship. Necheyev came aboard to find out what was going on. I don't think 'tact' is high on the admiral's list of priorities but even she was appalled by Jellico's crass insensitivity."
"Why? What did he do?"
Riker looked down, composing himself before facing his captain's eyes.
"He refused permission for your memorial service."
Exercise sessions supervised by Dr Crusher were now part of Picard's daily routine. She varied their content in line with his recovery but also to prevent him getting bored. That afternoon they were in the holodeck where Jean-Luc was trying out a programme he had never seen before.
"Where did this come from?"
"My imagination, of course. Don't you think I'm capable of creating another world?"
"Beverly! You know I didn't mean that." She had been her normal self all day and he didn't want to disturb that. "I'm very impressed, it's the most inventive exercise circuit I've ever used."
"If you can talk this much you obviously aren't trying hard enough. Computer, increase the flow rate by point one."
Crusher scanned him again with her tricorder and then continued her stroll along the river bank. In the water Jean Luc attempted to keep up with her while swimming against the current. Every 150 metres the water changed direction and he was rewarded with 25 metres of easy rapids before it changed back again. Given the choice he would have swum in the nude but guessed such lack of attire might have embarrassed her. In prison nakedness had been a punishment but he had come to like it. Clothes now felt restrictive and swimming in the nude was a tactile pleasure he wanted to repeat again and again.
"You can come out now if you want to."
"Not yet, I'm enjoying myself." He rolled onto his back but continued swimming, "There is one thing I would like to change though."
She bent down to hear him as he swam over to explain.
One quick tug was enough to pull her in. Beverly disappeared beneath the water dragging Picard with her. When they came to the surface, spluttering and entwined, one of his hands had found its way onto her left breast. She didn't seem to mind. Recalling the moment later, he could have sworn she took the next step. Two wet hungry mouths grasped each other passionately. As they lost themselves in the embrace both forgot to tread water. Beneath the surface their kissing continued until panic gripped her. She struggled franticly and grabbed for the bank.
Picard helped her out and knelt beside her as she lay gasping and holding her abdomen. His heart was pounding and his face must have shown his anxiety.
"It's all right." She reassured him. "The safety controls were on ... I wouldn't have drowned."
He laid his hand over hers and gradually felt her relax. "You scared me."
"I'm sorry, I forgot and over exerted myself."
"Forgot? Forgot what? Beverly ... are you ill?"
"No! Of course not, and I'm fine now, just rather wet. Why don't you do another two circuits while I get changed."
As she got up to leave her hand gently stroked across his head. Picard sighed with relief. This time she hadn't disappeared into that remote unhappy world. Everything between them was fine - no, better than fine. He dived into her river and made excellent progress against the current.
It was past his allotted bed time, but Jean Luc still felt wide awake. Beverly had been called back to Sickbay and he hadn't seen her since their river dip. He wanted to be with her again before the emotion of the moment wore off. The computer obligingly told him where she was and he set off to join her.
There was a definite spring in his step as he made his way along the corridor. Ahead of him a young male officer was leaning against the wall, engrossed in conversation with a female colleague.
"Aren't you on duty lieutenant?" Picard's authoritative voice filled the corridor. He hadn't meant to intimidate them but the way they both jumped was truly gratifying. The old cat, it seemed, was a danger once more.
The Sickbay receiving area was dim and deserted as he made his way through to her office. In there the lights were on and he could see her clearly through the glass partition. Some strange premonition made him hesitate and hold his breath - she wasn't alone.
One glimpse was enough - her arms reaching to embrace the man - Picard didn't wait to see any more. He retreated quickly to the main corridor. The strength had gone from his legs and he wanted to wretch. A passing crewman offered to help him into Sickbay but he brushed him off. The last person he want to see now was Beverly Crusher.
Back in his quarter's he collapsed on the bed, writhing at his own stupidity.
"Why didn't it occur to me? Why did I assume there was no one else? I was dead and she's an attractive woman."
And Adam Nyland was an attractive man, even Picard could see that. He was Beverly's age, he was new, fresh, unencumbered by guilt and emotional complications.
"God - why do I feel so rejected!"
As he recalled her odd behaviour 'someone else' became the obvious explanation. She was nervous because she was reluctant to tell him, reluctant to admit Adam would change their relationship - there would be no more breakfasts together, it wouldn't be him she called when she couldn't sleep, she wouldn't flirt with him anymore on the holodeck. That afternoon when he pulled her into the river she must have momentarily forgotten about Adam.
Picard sat up and tried to get a grip on his emotions. Hadn't he coped when previous men entered her life? Hadn't he managed when she fell in love with Odan? Maybe, but things had been different then, the Enterprise had been the centre of his life and a very demanding mistress at that. As he thought back to those earlier days he realised how his priorities had changed. Ships may come and go but Beverly was supposed to be forever - somehow he had a right to her continued presence in his life.
"She's going to leave the Enterprise!" The full horror suddenly dawned on him. "That's what she's afraid to say. She's going to leave me!"
A lonely and sleepless night was made worse by Beverly's non appearance at breakfast. He didn't dare ask the computer where she was, the answer might have been too painful.
He tried escaping into make believe but it didn't worked, the only image his mind could conjure up was her arms embracing Adam. Before long he was afraid to even close his eyes. In the past work had always been the solution - busying himself with activity until he could bear to face his emotions. Troi had called it cowardice but what did that matter as long as no one else was hurt.
The captain's ready room looked just as it used to. The fish tank was back in the corner and Picard's copy of Shakespeare lay on a side table. As Jean Luc entered the room Riker hurried out from behind the desk, acting like a schoolboy caught in the headmaster's chair.
"For heaven's sake Will, sit down. You're the captain."
"No Sir, that wouldn't seem right. I'm only looking after her until you're ready to take up the reigns. You do want her don't you?"
The two men looked at one another. Only they shared and understood the passion she could engender in her captain. Do I want her? The question had always been there but Picard had avoided it till now. It brought a flood of warmth rushing up his spine.
"Yes! I want her!"
"Good!" Will beamed. "So how do we convince Starfleet that you're ready?"
Picard rubbed his hands. "First you need to brief me about what's been going on." He gestured for Riker to join him on the sofa. "What have the Cardassians been up to and why?"
During the next hour Number One took him through the most important events - the Marquis raids, Cardassian retaliations, diplomatic negotiations and Starfleet politics. Anyone listening would have been hard pressed to understand. The two men had a private shorthand and a familiarity which enabled them to finish one another's sentences.
"If you want more details Data can provide them. Now what else can we do to get you back in the big chair?"
"An activity, I need something to get me used to command again." Picard was careful not to suggest bridge duty. He couldn't bear the thought of returning there as anything less than the ship's Captain. "How about a training task?"
Riker sat back and stroked his beard. "Do you remember how to steer the ship?"
"Like a bird to fly."
"In that case, we need some more helmsmen. We only have four who are fully qualified and none with your ability. Could you get four more up to scratch?"
"Well ... getting them up to my standard maybe pushing it but I'll make sure they don't scrape the paint work when leaving spacedock."
The assignment had all the desired affects. It kept him occupied all morning and his mind off Beverly. Helmsmanship and how to teach it came back to him without even thinking. By the time his students left for their first practice sessions on the holodeck Picard was on a high - but not for long. He was supposed to meet Beverly for a gym session after lunch but couldn't face it. Seeing her embrace Adam had been bad enough, hearing her talk about it would be unbearable. He took the easy way out and left her a message saying he would handle the workout on his own.
The gym was empty when he entered and strangely reminiscent of Madred's interrogation room. Audiences weren't welcome there nor in here. This was to be a private session, too personal to be observed. Today he needed to push himself hard, really hard. Worf would have understood.
"JEAN-LUC! What are you doing!" Beverly rushed across the gym to take some of the load. "You stupid man. You could have killed yourself. That weight could have pulled your arm from its socket."
He blushed deeply and looked away before stammering an excuse.
"I ... I ... thought I'd try something more challenging."
"But not yet and never like that! Here, let me show you."
The doctor carefully demonstrated various exercises to strengthen his arm and shoulder muscles. She told him to feel her body as she did them so he could understand which muscles each exercise should use. Picard blocked all other thoughts from his mind and immersed himself in the moment. Here he was touching her, enjoy it! There might be another man in her life but right now he was the one she was with.
As he repeated her exercises she chatted away to him but he didn't listen. Her physical presence was all he was aware of. Did she know how inviting her smile was? Did she mean for her touch to be quite so sensuous?
After the gym session Beverly was immediately called back to Sickbay for her favourite medical duty - helping a woman through labour. Knowing this, Picard tried not to resent her departure but failed. As she turned to go he almost asked her to call on him later but stopped himself. Making such a request was to risk rejection and he wasn't ready to face that yet. Besides didn't he have students to think about? Wouldn't they be expecting feedback on their first exercise? For the rest of the evening he threw himself into his work, never giving himself time to think of anything else.
He might have learnt to live without clothes, but clean warm water was a luxury he still appreciated. Picard took a shower and then dried himself in front of the mirror. As he rubbed his arms he could feel muscle outline for the first time in months. Encouraged he tried a few body builder poses - not great but not too bad either. He certainly wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen like this. A little oil massaged into the skin improved the picture even further. After this final touch he lowered the lights and lay down on his bed, naked. The familiar light patterns moved across the ceiling. Sleep was the last thing on his mind.
One hand lazily stroked the hairs on his chest and then, ever so slowly, worked its way down towards his groin. The result was more than satistactory, he hadn't felt so firm in ages. His hand reached down further and cupped his balls. They swelled and hardened in response to his carefully handling. Closing his eyes he moved his attention back to his penis. There was no need to hurry - slow rhythmical movements would have the desired effect.
When his cabin doors opened he knew exactly who it was. Soft graceful footsteps covered the space to his bedroom door and Beverly appeared, bare-footed but dressed in her uniform. She stop and rested against the frame, her eyes fixed on his active right hand.
Watching her watching him was all the stimulation he needed. His fingers resumed their work - circling, stroking, pushing, growing more urgent by the moment. He had to tempt her over. She was watching intently but never moved an inch. Then suddenly she was satisfied, one hand reached behind her as she began to unzip her uniform. Her gazed moved to his face, watching his reaction as she undressed. The garment fell first to her hips and then the floor. There was nothing underneath.
With her mane of red hair and long shapely legs she looked magnificent. He tried to swallow but his throat was dry. In an instant she was next to him, grasping his wrist and forcing him to let go of himself. Her warm hand took its place. Picard gasped as her hold tightened. Before he knew it she was astride him, trapping his arms under her knees. Her right hand still held him and continued his rhythmical motions. His eyes savoured the shape of a breasts, the curve of hips, her firm straight thighs. He raised his head to see himself in her grasp but was pushed firmly down. He was her prisoner and must do as instructed - look her straight in the eye. He obeyed willingly.
Her hand made its way down and around his balls. She stroked their hairs, cradled their weight appreciatively in her hand and then squeezed almost to the point of pain. He moaned but made no protest. He would gladly have risked castration for the chance of penetration. Sensing his readiness she positioned herself just above him. Tempting him with somewhere warm, moist and tight. He tried to raise his hips and enter but was held down again. She was torturing him and he loved it.
"Nyland to Dr Crusher." The com-system broke in. Jean Luc froze, caught in mid thrust.
"Yes Adam, what can I do for you?" She was calmness itself.
"If you don't have anything on this evening, I was wondering if I could have the pleasure of your company?"
Beverly kept perfectly still, eyeing her current victim and assessing his desirability against the alternative candidate.
"That sounds appealing Adam ... I'll be with you in a moment."
With one quick movement she lifted herself off him, swung her uniform over her shoulder and strode out of his cabin without even a backwards glance. She was gone ... and to another man's bed.
Picard turned over in agony and pressed himself into the mattress. Why do I do this? What kind of sick mind conjures up a woman who teases you to distraction and then leaves without giving satisfaction? But this was how it was in his fantasy world. After years of restraining himself he could never believe she would ever be willing, not even in his dreams.
"Crusher to Picard." The com system brought him back to reality with a sudden jolt. "Jean Luc are you all right? Your leg monitor indicates some distress."
"I'm fine. I just ... had a bad dream." His voice was flustered and out of breath.
"Are you sure? Shall I come a check you over?"
"No!" The response was far too vehement. " Really I'm all right. It was just a dream, a bad dream. I'll see you in the morning."
Beverly didn't join him for breakfast but did appear soon after. Without asking his permission she ran her medical tricorder over his body.
"That was quite some dream you had last night."
"Yes doctor, I do remember, but it's over now. Do you mind if we change the subject?"
She gave him a suspicious look but consented. "I hear you're training four new helmsmen for the Enterprise. Did Will ask you or did you volunteer?"
"I volunteered. I know, you're going to tell me off for rushing things but I have to find out if I'm still fit for command. "
"I won't tell you off, not this time. Your physical recovery is progressing well. Whether you can regain the mental and emotional strength is up to you. Life's short Jean Luc, if it's what you want ... go for it." A wistful expression crossed her face.
"That doesn't sound like you? What's happened to the cautious woman I remember?"
"Maybe she's lost too many friends recently. ... another died just two days ago, a contemporary of mine from medical school - Adam Nyland's sister."
All Picard's recent assumptions started to crumble.
"How did Adam take it?"
"He sobbed in my arms when I told him. He and his sister were very close. I've suggested he applies for some time off to visit his fiancée on Mars. He's been missing her dreadfully."
Jean Luc struggled to hide his relief. So there's nothing between them! He nodded soberly and managed to maintain a grave expression. "Look I'm due to give a class in helmsmanship in five minutes, I'd better go."
It wasn't until later that realised his mistake - shouldn't he have held her, wasn't that what her friend Jean-Luc Picard did when she was distressed?
"All right Beverly! You have made your point - I'm not as young or as fit as I used to be." Picard limped across his cabin to get a drink. It was his own fault, she had told him to do some simple squash strokes to test his co-ordination and he had insisted on trying something more vigorous.
"I told you to take it easy but you ..." she saw his expression and backed off. "Is your leg still hurting?"
"Yes!" He almost snapped. "It's still sore. I'm not used to lunging like that."
"Come and lie down and I'll give you a massage." She beckoned him to follow as she moved towards his sleeping area.
"Thank you, but a warm bath will do fine."
"A massage would be better."
"I appreciate the offer but ... better not."
For a moment they looked at one another - then Beverly guessed at his meaning. The rejection stung her to the core. She looked away, unwilling to face him or let him see how much he'd hurt her .
"I'm sorry, Captain. I was forgetting how much you value your emotional detachment. I won't disturb you any further." She was across the room and out before he could hobble after her.
"Beverly! Wait! God damn it woman, that wasn't what I meant!"
"I'm fine Deanna."
Dr Crusher busied herself with her experiment and refused to look at her companion.
"No Beverly, you're not."
"All right then, I'm not fine, I'm BLOODY awful! But the problem is all my own making and I will deal with it! Now will you leave me alone to get on with my work?"
Troi reluctantly left the laboratory. There wasn't any point in pressing her in this mood, her friend could be as stubborn as Picard when it came to accepting help. Whatever was troubling her, she would bury herself in her work until she was ready to face it.
"Any progress?" Riker enquired as the counsellor entered his quarters.
"No, she's not talking."
"Ask the captain."
"Very funny Will. Anyway I don't think he knows. I sense some guilt from him but mainly bafflement. It's strange ... if he'd offended her then I'd expect her to be angry - that's the usual pattern to their relationship but it's not like that this time."
"So how is it?"
"She's feeling even guiltier than him but also afraid. I'm amazed she can function at all under that emotional load."
For the next few days Picard never managed to be alone with Beverly or even to get her to look him in the eye. When he visited Sickbay for tests she always had a trainee with her, the supervision of his exercises was delegated to one of the nurses. If Troi or another friend invited them both to a social engagement Beverly backed out at the last minute pleading pressure of work. If he sent her a message she didn't open it.
While his relationship with Beverly was going backwards everything else in his life was going well - the student helmsmen blossomed under his tutelage, Starfleet declared him officially alive and asked his opinion on various issues, his physical condition was improving daily - but his pleasure and pride in all this was brought to naught by seeing one woman back out of a lift rather than face being alone with him.
On the fourth evening Picard couldn't stand it any more. He called at her quarters in exasperation. She answered but just stood in the doorway waiting to hear what he had to say. Her faced looked drawn and her eyes like black holes.
"Beverly please, we need to talk. May I come in?" He sounded so unhappy she instinctively moved to embrace him before remembering her fears. Her arms closed in on themselves and she grasped her wrist in an effort to control her nerves.
Jean Luc saw the familiar behaviour.
"Beverly? ... Do I frighten you?"
"No! No. I frighten myself. ... that doesn't make much sense does it. ... I know we need to talk but not now. Another time. Please!"
He put a hand out to touch her but let it fall into space. Two passing crewmen eyed them suspiciously.
"Another time then. Good night."
With a leaden heart he turned away and returned to his own cabin.
Picard finished the last of his breakfast coffee and prepared to greet his visitor. He had slept badly and was in no mode for company but it was Beverly who stepped into his quarters.
"Is this a convenient moment?"
Her appearance shocked him. If he had slept little she had had none. He rose from the table intent on guiding her to the sofa.
"No, please stay where you are. I've been practising what to say all night. You've got to let me do this."
He did as he was told, sinking back into his chair. Whatever was scaring her, was now scaring him. He could see her struggling to compose herself, to get her voice under control.
"Do you ever think about the future, Jean Luc? I do. ... I think about what life will be like when I leave the Enterprise ... and about what I would 'like' it to be like. ... For some time now I've wanted you to be part of that future. I'd come to assume that you would be there. ..." She looked away unable to continue.
"When the Cardassians told us you were dead, I believed them, we all did. It was the end of a life I loved, it was the end of the future I had been looking forward to." She swallowed hard before looking at him again. "Numb. I remember feeling totally numb for days and days ... until Wesley called. He had heard about your de... about you and even though I had to help him through his sorrow, he cheered me up. He told me things I had never known about you, about how you had helped and guided him ... probably more than you'll ever realise. You'd played a father's role and I was glad of it." She paused again.
" Jean Luc ... I've done something ... something I shouldn't have." She swayed unsteadily on her feet.
"Beverly, please! Sit down before you fall down."
She obeyed him, sitting down at his table and resting her head in her hands. He could feel her body shaking through the tabletop.
"Tell me." He whispered gently coaxing her to lift her head.
"Do you remember those medical tests Starfleet requested just before our last mission? Well ... I used one of your samples ... I'm carrying your child."
Picard was stunned. He sat open mouthed and motionless staring at her for what seemed like eternity.
"Please Jean Luc! Say something!"
"I'm NOT getting rid of it." She shouted, convinced he was repulsed by the whole idea.
"BEVERLY! Did I ask that? Give me a chance will you? Most men in my position would have know of the possibility of fatherhood. They would have ... with the mother."
He took several deep breaths and managed to regain some degree of composure.
"So I'm going to be a father?" His voice was strangely calm, he might have been asking about her vacation dates.
She nodded. "In about 24 weeks."
"Good, good." He was still too shocked to show emotion. "Really I'm pleased. I've wanted a child for a long time but had given up on the possibility."
Beverly looked unconvinced.
"Ask Wesley, if you don't believe me. I told him years ago."
"Okay, fine, you wanted a child, but not now and not with me.
"GOD DAMN IT!" Picard exploded. "Stop putting words in my mouth!"
"Then why do you avoid the possibility of intimacy? Why didn't you want me to touch you the other night?"
"I DID, I did." His voiced crescendoed and then subsided. "But it's not as simple as that, is it? If it was just a matter of my desire for you then we'd have 6 children by now."
At last a small smile crossed her face. Jean Luc tentatively stretched out a hand and risked touching her fingers. "I sent you away because I was afraid. Afraid I might lose control and force you, afraid I might ruin our friendship and you'd leave the ship. For years I've been keeping myself in check, reminding myself that you were Jack's wife, that I was too old for you, that it was inappropriate for a captain to ... You can't undue conditioning like that in an instant. And besides, how was I to know what you had in mind? You're my doctor - you touch your patients. Sometimes I can't tell whether you're on or off duty."
"True." Beverly closed her fingers around his and held on tight.
Picard was calmer now, his mind clearer. The child and the many effects it would have on their lives began to dawn on him. There were so many things that need sorting out, things most 'normal' couples would have discussed long before. What did she want from him? - a father figure, a lover, a husband? Nothing could be taken for granted.
Cautiously Picard raised the first issue. "Do I get to play father?"
"Of course." She couldn't understand the question.
"There's no 'of course' about it. It's not as though we're living together. How am I supposed to know what arrangement you have in mind?" The antagonism was back. "When you created this child you didn't expect me to be around. What would you have told people, that it was mine?"
"Yes! It's your child. I wanted your child. I was going to say it was conceived just before we left for Seltris 3."
He was relieved but not totally reassured. "You asked me whether I wanted fatherhood but not you. Well I could ask you the same question. Why didn't you tell me you wanted a child? Why leave it until I was 'dead'?"
She let out a snort of laughter. "How could I? We never talk about how we feel about each other, it's ... a forbidden subject. Oh we might flirt on the holodeck but outside it we always keep things strictly platonic. What was I supposed to do? Proposition you across the breakfast table? 'Another croissant, Captain? And how about creating a child today, if you're not too busy?' Besides I did ask you ... hundreds of times ... in my head, but it never worked out. You would either laugh it off as a joke or be so shocked it destroyed our friendship."
He nodded silently in agreement. She was right, they'd been friends so long it had become impossible to change things.
"It's very real isn't it? ... " He tapped his head. " ... the world up here. ...When I was in prison you used to visit me every day.... Trying to ...'satisfy' you became my sole purpose in life ... but I was always a disappointment. I never came up to your expectations. ... You would always depart, leaving me ashamed and frustrated."
She was horrified. "Is that how you think of me? As a demanding tormentor?"
"No! No!" He caught her hand before she could withdraw it. "There was another you who used to come at night. I would be lying on my side in the dark and then you would come and lie beside me cuddling up to my back. You'd talk to me about your day on the Enterprise. I could feel your breathe on the back of my neck and the heat from your body would keep me warm. I would fall asleep listening to the sound of your voice."
Beverly watched every movement of his face. His words so touched her it was hard not to cry. "Those nights, you know, they weren't spent in your cell."
"No. You used to visit my cabin and keep me company. In the mornings you'd be gone but I could cope because I knew you'd be back. ... Ridiculous isn't it. Two adults living in fantasy land."
"No, it's not." He assured her. "It kept me going and I'm glad I'm alive."
She gripped his hand and smiled but anxiety still showed in her face.
"Beverly? What is it? What are you afraid of?"
It took her a long time to answer. "...That I've trapped you into this. That, being you, you'll do the honourable thing and I'll never know if it's what you really want."
"It is! Look at me. It is what I want." He searched for some words to convince her. "If Q had turned up in my cell and told me what you were contemplating I would have said - Yes, go ahead."
"Just that?" She teased him. "No request to be whisked home so we could employ the conventional method?"
"Only if he could have guarantee my performance." Picard joked but his own anxiety showed through.
"He wouldn't have needed to. Jean Luc, I am not that tormentor you conjure up. I'm the Beverly who shared your nights - only I'll still be there in the mornings."
Words finally failed him. He was overwhelmed by the changes she had brought to his life. Tears welled behind his eyes and a lump formed in his throat. He pressed her fingers to his lips and whispered, "Don't let go."
It was a long time before either of them spoke. The shared tranquillity was wonderful.
Eventually, Picard broke the silence. "Where do we go from here?"
"I think I've made enough decisions for a while. You chose."
He was willing but unsure. She had already taken them past step 10 but how did they get past step one? How do good friends become more than good friends?
Taking her hand in his he tentatively opened it up to expose the palm. Then with one finger he ever so gently stroked up and down her long fingers. The action had but one purpose - to give her physical pleasure. From her closed eyes and the look on her face he was confident he had succeeded.
"You can do that again, Jean Luc, anytime you like."
Encouraged, he reached over and lifted a strand of hair out of her eyes, letting his fingers touch her face as he did so. "You're exhausted, I'm exhausted. ... Come to bed."
Beverly rose obediently to follow him but stumbled as her tired legs failed to work. A strong arm grabbed her and held her firmly around the waist. As she stood recovering from the shock she let her hand run over his upper arm. The muscles were reassuringly hard and prominent - she must stop thinking of him as an invalid. Her hand drifted onto his chest and came to rest over his heart; there was nothing medical about this examination - it was purely for her own enjoyment. She shifted in his arms to see him better and found herself almost mouth to mouth. With closed eyes and lips slightly parted she reduced the gap. A pair a warm strong lips explored hers. The tip of his tongue made a first tentative journey into her mouth. There was no need to rush things, wasn't anticipation part of pleasure.
In the bedroom neither of them had the energy to undress. They immediately collapsed onto the welcoming mattress and curled up together like spoons. This time it was Picard who was at her back, his arm circled around her so that his hand rested on her abdomen. Beverly guided him to where the small but detectable bump was growing. Its father sighed with satisfaction and pressed himself against the mother. Within a minute her regular breathing told him she was fast asleep. He tried to stay awake, to savour the moment, but soon joined her, too tired and too peaceful to resist.
On the Enterprise bridge Deanna breathed a sign of relief.
"Everything all right?" Riker inquired.
"Definitely all right."