Love and ConseQuences

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Q trades Picard for Picard, and two universes change course.

She woke to warmth. Not unusual, since Jean-Luc's body temperature usually exceeded hers, and he often kicked all the covers over on her in addition to keeping a limb or two draped across her.

What was unusual was that she had awakened early -- he wasn't even awake yet. She looked at the back of his head and loved him all over again, quietly, keeping her hand under the covers instead of touching him. She'd been his lover for a year, his wife for a week, and the emotional rush at the sight of him sleeping next to her in complete abandon still happened often.

He moved in his sleep, rolling on his back and flinging an arm up. She studied him anew in the flicker of stars at warp, the contours of his body and the masculine line of his profile. Then she sat up and studied him seriously.

Where had he gotten that scar on the inside of his arm?

A new one, the redness visible even in the starlight. It cut a diagonal line from armpit to the top of his elbow. A regenerator had healed it; the residual redness meant it had been a particularly-deep one involving a lot of tissue damage.

It hadn't been there when they'd gone to bed.

She brought up the lights with a touch of the controls beside the bed. It woke him, light sleeper that he tended to be. Blinking, he rubbed both eyes with the heels of his hands and sat up. The instant his head turned toward her, he was out of bed and on his feet, then snatching the blanket off with him as he realized he was naked.

As Deanna sensed the rising alarm, she also sensed something else -- whatever was going on, however much he looked like Jean-Luc Picard, this wasn't her husband.

But it was Jean-Luc Picard. One with a roll of midriff flab that hadn't been there before, granted, but definitely him.

She pulled the sheet around herself, more for his sake than hers, and waited while he stared at her and settled himself, regaining control of his reaction. In her best officer's manner, she kept herself in check and waited some more while he sized up the room as if he'd never been there before. He turned to look out at the stars. Only Jean-Luc could manage dignity while wrapped in a blanket. When he looked at her again, he'd mastered himself completely.

"Where is this? Is this some sort of joke? Did Riker put you up to this?"

Not 'who are you' but 'where is this.' He recognized her, at least. "He wouldn't do that, would he?" she replied.

"No. He's more proprietary than that. What the hell are we doing here? Where's my ship? This isn't my ship, or any other ship I know."

The sinking feeling began in earnest. "Jean-Luc -- Captain -- please, go put on a robe and sit down. If you'll pass me a robe as well, I'll make us some tea and we'll talk this through."

A knot of tension in his gut notwithstanding, he acquiesced, eyeing the contents of the closet. He slipped into a grey robe and took down another, overlooking hers in the other side of the closet, and brought the robe and blanket to her, turning his back while she put it on.

While he sat with crossed arms at the table, she went to the replicator and brought back a pot of tea and two cups. He watched her pour and add cream and sugar, and his eyes widened when she did it just the way he liked it.

"Let's start with where we're supposed to be. Where are you from?" she asked.

"You don't know? The *Enterprise*, of course."

"Which one?"

"Which -- the 1701-D, Galaxy-class."

Deanna bit her nail. "What stardate is it?"

Picard smiled, turning his head so slightly that anyone less acquainted with his mannerisms might have missed the significance of it. She felt his emotional shift -- now he was on edge, not sure if he could trust her or not, when previously there had been only shock at finding her there. "You aren't from the same place or time, I take it."

"Captain, I'm not entirely certain what has happened, but I can reassure you that you have nothing to fear from me. I want nothing more than to return you to where you belong and get my Captain Picard back. If you are from my past this could be problematic. If you are from a different reality altogether, I would feel better about sharing information with you. I wouldn't have to fear polluting my own timeline, and I have too much to lose if that were to happen."

"How do we know you're not from the past, and I'm not from the future?"

"Because this is the 1701-E. The previous *Enterprise* is no longer in service."

He sat up suddenly, almost dropping his cup. "What year is this, then? You mean I'm still captain, even after -- was it destroyed before -- you won't answer me, will you?"

"I'm sorry. I can sense how the curiosity burns inside you, and I know how excruciating it is that you've lost control of the situation. But you obviously know that time travel -- "

"If it's an alternate reality you could tell me more. But if we don't talk about it, how can we possibly determine if that's so?"

Deanna considered what he'd said so far. "You said Riker was more proprietary than to use me to play a joke -- what's my relationship with him like?"

"You're his wife, of course. . . though there is no 'of course' is there?"

"No, there isn't. You're from an alternate reality. I'm going to list a few things I'd like you to identify, so I know how much common ground we have. All right?"

He stared at her, trying to take it in, and finally nodded.

"The Borg."

Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't know that name."

"What about Q?"

"Q -- who or what is that?"

"Sela, Tasha Yar, Beverly Crusher, Lwaxana, Ro Llaren, or Guinan. Are any of those familiar?" Picking names out of the air, but who knew how many branches of reality there might be, and who would turn out to be the key players in anyone's life.

"Tasha is my second officer. Lwaxana is your mother, I believe, Will's mentioned her more than once. Guinan is a friend of mine, who tends bar in Ten Forward. I don't know a Beverly Crusher, but I do know Beverly Howard, or rather Picard -- she was my wife. Sela or Ro -- Llaren? -- I don't recall."

Deanna let out a sigh and put down her cup before it could give away how much her hand had started to shake. It was starting to hit her that this was reality -- her husband was gone, and replaced by Beverly's ex-husband, and they were the same person.

God, sometimes she hated Starfleet. Definitely, she hated mind-bending anomalous situations like this. The only thing she hated more were sudden alien possessions, from which she woke up with a phaser or knife in hand, and spent a week enduring terrified glances from crewmates afterward.

"In this reality, Tasha died in the line of duty. Worf was your security officer afterward. Guinan is in both realities. I never married Will, though I might have if circumstances had turned out differently. Am I your counselor, in your reality?"

He studied her with growing unease. "You were never Starfleet, so far as I've been told. I don't have a counselor. Deanna's -- Mrs. Riker's primary occupation is keeping her three children under control."

It occurred to Deanna that this might be a fiction created by Q. This incarnation of Picard might even be a Q, for that matter. Though she thought she would sense the difference, and he felt too much like the real Picard to be a Q.

"I appreciate your patience, Captain," she said, heading off the rising anxiety. "I needed to be certain you weren't my captain. You see, my Captain Picard has a very different history than yours -- unless you're not from the same time frame?"

"The stardate is, from what I recall, 48234.56, and we were en route to the Gamma Quadrant via the Bajor wormhole on our second ten-year mission."

"You're from the past, but not far in the past. I don't think I need to worry about polluting your time line, either, as it sounds like it's quite different from ours. So I may as well tell you that the reason I am here -- not here in this timeline, but here in the captain's quarters -- is that I'm ship's counselor and the captain's wife."

"You?" His recoil from the idea almost hurt her feelings; she had to remind herself firmly that he wasn't her husband. But tears began to build in her eyes at the loss of her hajira -- the distance in this Picard's eyes would only remind her all the more of what she'd lost.

"Perhaps we should get dressed and talk to Data about this," she said. "He'll need to know. He'll be in command of the ship now." A thought that brought with it rising trepidation -- they were heading into certain conflict with the Romulans, leading the Federation fleet, and the captain and all the strategy and orders he carried in his head were missing.

But Picard's next question startled her out of that line of thought.

"You mean the android I refused to have aboard the ship? *He's* second in command?"

~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc came awake quite suddenly, sitting bolt upright. "Dee," he murmured, reaching, knowing the movement would wake her too -- but the bed was empty.

It wasn't even the same bed.

A few padds were keeping him company. He brought up the lights and picked one up -- the stardate was wrong. An engineering report, evidently on a major refit of the *Enterprise* --

The wrong one.

His eyes darted around the room swiftly. These were an uncanny duplicate of his old quarters, though a few of the details were off. Across the middle bookshelf sat a row of picture frames and a few holo-cubes. He made it across to them in a flash and snatched up the largest of the pictures.

Whose children were these? A redheaded boy, a blond girl. . . they seemed familiar in an unsettling way. He picked up one of the holo-cubes and turned it on. Beverly, in a wedding dress.

"I don't know what the hell's going on here, but this isn't FUNNY!" he roared.

"Oh, calm down, mon capitaine."

The smug, condescending tone sent his anger spiraling to new heights. Jean-Luc whirled to find Q leaning against the table, arms crossed, wearing a current captain's uniform. Jean-Luc realized only secondarily that he was naked, and rather than amuse the being further by groping for cover, forced himself to forget that fact.

"Send me back where I belong. I have no time for your games. We're about to enter a major conflict with the Romulans and my ship is a critical part of -- "

"Oh, piffle. Really, what does any of that matter, in the grand scheme of things? There are so many more interesting things to discover on the other side of the wormhole, as you're about to find out. In this reality, you're on your second ten-year mission, the war never happened, and you're off exploring, just like you always wanted to do."

"I don't want this. I want *my* life back! My ship, my crew, my past and my -- "

"Wife?" Q smirked. "You've been brought to an all-time low, haven't you, ma petit? The mighty starship captain, Jean-Luc Picard, explorer and interstellar casanova -- married, with child. You resisted so hard when I tried to help you along. I thought Vash would certainly fill the bill for you. And here you are, married, to one of your own officers. Tsk. Fraternization. . . I wouldn't have thought you were capable of that kind of risk."

Not rising to the bait took a lot of jaw-clenching. "I thought you were finished playing the what-if game with me, Q. Send me home and leave me be. I'm not going to play this time."

"What will you do, then? Sit here in your quarters alone for the next ten years? Your crew won't like that, mon capitaine -- they'll have you committed. Your little Deanna isn't the one who'll commit you, either -- she's got her family to take care of. And you have yours, waiting for you at Deep Space Nine, the little Picards and their mother, your former wife, who resents that her children want to go with Papa instead of playing it safe at home with Maman." Q gestured at the picture gallery on the bookshelf. "It's what you wanted, isn't it? The adventure of exploration -- no more war. No Romulan threat. You can be an explorer, Jean-Luc. You can have your children."

"Those aren't my children! Just tell me what the hell you expect me to do, already? I don't have time for this!"

Q feigned an innocent expression. "Why, I expect you to have fun. It's the opportunity of a lifetime -- you get a chance to succeed where your doppelganger failed. He was intending to beg Beverly to come back to him, after all, so that little fantasy of yours will also come true. I suspect you'll do a much better job of winning her than he would, considering what a cad he is. You could say -- " he giggled, quite irritatingly -- "you could say he's a real. . . Don Jean Poisson. Completely charming and hopeless when it comes to women. She got a little tired of sharing you."

The holo-cube rocketed through the air where Q had been standing and shattered against the far wall. Jean-Luc spun about looking for him, breathing hard as if he'd been wrestling with him physically rather than verbally. "Q," he grated. "Don't do this to me. Please?"

Q reappeared in a searing flash. "What did you say?" he exclaimed, clapping a hand to his cheek and beaming. "Why, you said -- tell me again. I've *got* to hear it again to believe it."

"Please," Jean-Luc repeated, in a deadly-soft tone. "Send me home."

"Oh, I wish that I could -- really I do. I have a certain fondness for you, after all. Of all the Picards, you and I have a special bond -- we've had such wonderful adventures together. I don't come out of hiding for just any old Jean-Luc Picard, you know. But this time it isn't for your benefit, petit capitaine. Oh, no. That brute of a Don Jean I sent along in my little exchange program needs some schooling in the gentle art of letting a lady be a lady."

The shock almost collapsed his knees. "Deanna. . . you bastard. You -- "

"Spare me the obscenities. Really, and I thought you were a gentleman. No, Jean-Luc, I'm afraid this is really up to your sweet little bird -- she's proved to be much more than I expected, very much more, and when she and your friends are done teaching him a lesson, you'll go home. Until then -- enjoy. Au revoir."

Another holo-cube shattered against the far wall. "Q! I FORBID YOU TO USE MY WIFE THIS WAY! *PUT ME BACK* DAMMIT!"

Silence. The audience with the superbeing was obviously over, and he was left to struggle for control over the waves of anger and fear threatening to drown him.

Deanna. . . .

Would she realize it wasn't him? And what Q had said -- with child? Was that true? Possible, he knew, but --

He stumbled to the bed and battled his emotions until he could meditate, after which he arrived at a semblance of calm. Then he brought up the personal logs that were supposedly his.

Then he lost his temper all over again.

And again.

~@~@~@~@~

He was uncomfortable in the uniform, nothing like his own, he said. He didn't like the black and grey. She had debated not letting him put on the uniform, but deep beneath the captain's calm, so familiar and solid, he needed the pips. Even if it wasn't his uniform, it was the captain's uniform for this setting.

Sitting in the living room at the table with him, Deanna couldn't help but be drawn to him -- so like her Jean-Fish. And yet so. . . not like.

His initial reaction to her had been one of a man recognizing another man's property, she realized. Now that he was settling into acceptance of his situation, he was allowing himself to look at her differently -- she wasn't Riker's wife here, after all. Technically she was *his* wife, Mrs. Jean-Luc Picard. It made her skin crawl.

Already she'd verified his biographical information to be nearly accurate; he'd named his parents and sibling, his grandparents, their parents, and given details of his life that coincided with Jean's. The differences were there, however -- Maman had passed away earlier in his universe. His father had raised him to sixteen, at which point he'd left home and applied to the Academy. No turning back from that point. His older brother had, upon the death of Maurice Picard, sold the vineyards, retaining only the house. Deanna had felt a brief pang of grief when she heard him tell of it -- her Jean-Fish wouldn't have liked that. As far as he'd removed himself from home, he still felt ties to his traditions and upbringing. More so the older he got, in fact.

The annunciator startled him; he'd been staring at her. "Come in," she said, knowing it was Data -- no one else would be at the door so early in the morning.

The android came in and hesitated just inside as the doors closed. "There is something wrong?"

"Data, this is -- " She looked at the captain. "This is not our captain. Something's happened. A singularity, an anomaly -- but more than anything else I suspect Q. It happened too suddenly and seamlessly. He comes from a parallel universe, an alternate reality."

Data regarded the captain impassively. "This is true?"

"Absolutely. I'd never have selected you for a first officer. Never been able to stomach the idea of having an android on the bridge."

Data did a double-take. "I see. Commander, what do you recommend?"

Deanna rose and paced a few steps, hands behind her back. "We can't let him take command, obviously. It's not going to be easy to find our captain and return him. There's no quantum fissure nearby to help us out. We can detect some difference between the two, like we did with Worf, though, to prove he's not really our captain. He's almost exactly the same, from a telepath's standpoint. I suspect he's the same genetically."

"We will take him to sickbay and run a comparison between his physiology and the captain's last physical, as well as a scan for any quantum-level flux that would indicate which universe Q brought him from. There may be -- "

"Does this sort of thing happen often?" Picard asked, glancing between them. "You're being terribly calm about this. And who is Q?"

"If there were any doubt left in my mind, that question removed it." Data quirked a smile, which startled Picard, Deanna sensed. "If you will come with us, Captain?"

The ride down to sickbay made Deanna nervous. In the lift, Picard stared at her with open appraisal -- her Jean wouldn't have done that even now that they were married, not in public areas of the ship. She found herself missing Jean's command demeanor acutely. Though she didn't feel the absence of him as she had when Jean-Fish had gone on that archeological dig -- this Picard's mere presence filled that gap -- she mourned the loss of him more and more, especially when she looked in this Picard's loveless eyes.

Data paged Mengis on the way; the doctor arrived in sickbay simultaneously with them. They had a brief discussion in Mengis' office before the diagnostic began. Letting the doctor lead Picard to the biobeds, Deanna stood to one side, arms crossed, and watched, thinking it was actually good that Beverly was no longer CMO.

Data stood next to her. Closer than he would have, she realized, their arms brushing. "Deanna, we will find a way to get him back -- or he will find a way back to us," he murmured.

"Thank you, Data." She smiled and slipped a hand through his arm, keeping her voice to the lowest murmur possible and knowing that he could hear no matter how low she went. "But please don't console me until you see me in tears. It only reminds me, and I'm trying to keep myself firmly in denial for now. I can't fall apart around this one. He's not my husband in his universe, but he's entertaining some notions, if you know what I mean. He's got the control, and almost the same demeanor but there's a certain. . . . Just watch him. We won't be able to let him roam freely. His behavior will be different. It will impact the captain's relationship with the crew. . . ."

"Understood. We will have to tell the senior officers. I believe all will understand the necessity for keeping this on the Q.T."

"On the what?"

Data smiled. "A colloquialism. I meant that they will understand the necessity for secrecy."

They watched Mengis working, until finally the man came across sickbay to where they stood against the wall of his office. His expression grave, his black mustache twitching, he met Deanna's eyes. "This is not the captain. He has no artificial heart, and there are old injuries long healed that Captain Picard never sustained, as well as the recent one you noted on his arm. He has also been voluntarily rendered sterile. There are, however, no variations in DNA sequencing."

"What explanations can you offer for this?" Data asked.

Mengis stared at the android for a few moments. "I might suggest he is an illegal clone, were it not for the fact that he is only slightly younger than our captain and I do not see possible motivations for cloning a child -- unless his growth was accelerated somehow."

"We suspect he is from an alternate reality, as we mentioned before. Please perform the RNA analysis, as I requested." Data had instructed the doctor beforehand to do the check for a quantum-level flux in the RNA, but showed no irritation that Mengis hadn't complied. He and the doctor had a long-standing cold war; like Kate Pulaski in the beginnings of her year aboard the *Enterprise,* the doctor couldn't bring himself to view Data as a life form. Data, at Deanna's suggestion, had schooled himself to react with Vulcan-esque calm at all times when dealing with the CMO. Mengis stared at him a moment and returned to his patient, who sat impatiently on the biobed with crossed arms.

Deanna sighed and watched the interaction between the bristly doctor and the grouchy Picard, who disliked being told he had to submit to more testing. "This is going to be difficult, Data. He's got a bad temper."

"And so does our uninvited guest," Data remarked offhandedly.

Deanna looked at him askance, until he met her gaze. She smiled wanly and patted his shoulder. "Thank you for trying. I have the feeling I won't be laughing much for a while, though."

Data hesitated, then put his arm around her. He'd never done that before. She contained her startled reaction and slowly turned to look at him again.

Giving her a familiar tip of his head, he said, "Is this not the appropriate way to comfort a good friend?"

"You're a little too stiff. Loosen the elbow, and don't be so deliberate about patting my shoulder. There. Now, pull away -- short contact, for a friend. If I were more than a -- "

"I was not seeking a lesson. I sincerely wished to comfort you."

"I know, Data, but like I said, being official is my refuge at the moment. Thank you. You're very familiar to my neural pathways. It reassures me."

Data glanced at Picard, who was looking their way irritably. "I am afraid that I will have to ask you to deal with him."

"I would expect that. This is too sensitive a situation -- I would prefer we keep as few people as possible in the know. Crew morale will be crucial in the near future; everyone's already on edge, and if it was widely known that our captain is missing, there would be panic. He is very much Captain Picard, in spite of the differences, and I wouldn't trust him not to out-think anyone who didn't know him well -- I wouldn't put it past him to steal a shuttle or interact with the crew to our captain's detriment. He's studying everything and everyone around him, and not just out of idle curiosity. Data. . . the fleet. We'll need someone else to lead it. We'll have to tell the other captains. I wish you'd been in the briefings with them."

"How much do you know about what was discussed in the briefings?"

Deanna took a step away from him. "Not enough. I never listened to the information we gathered on our undercover mission. What I know was picked up informally, during our time in the chambers with. . . I don't know much about the strategic information. I might be able to list names of commanders, and a few of the ships."

"Still, what little you know may be of use. Do you believe this Picard would be cooperative in maintaining the fiction that nothing is wrong? It is possible we could manufacture a 'covert operation' for which he could vanish shortly before we engage the enemy -- thus making his lack of participation appear part of the plan."

Deanna pressed her lips together. "You should call Admiral Nechayev. I'll reschedule my appointments and delegate some of them to Counselor Davidson." She frowned. "Data, we'll need to do something about quarters. It doesn't seem right to keep him in the brig, and that would result in too many rumors anyway. I'd also like to keep him close at hand."

"Perhaps your old quarters? They are down the corridor, and we could have the computer monitor and alert us if he should leave them during the night."

"That's a good idea." She smiled again. "Make it so."

"Technically, Counselor, I should tell you to do that."

"Oh. Sorry."

"The captain must be rubbing off on -- " He cut himself short, which in itself nearly did her in. "I am sorry. I should not tease under these circumstances."

"I'll see to the quarters, and keep him occupied. Please keep me informed and contact me if you have -- if there's anything I can do, if -- "

Data's hand closed on hers firmly, and briefly. "I shall, Counselor. And if there are. . . difficulties. . . contact me, as well as deLio. In fact, I shall instruct deLio to check on you at regular intervals, if that is acceptable to you. Your safety would be the captain's first concern, given the circumstances."

"I know. But at the same time, he'd know I would do my duty anyway in this situation."

Mengis beckoned, as Picard slid down and tugged his uniform straight -- how eerie that was. Deanna and Data moved forward as one. "Doctor?" she asked.

"There is, indeed, a quantum-level flux in his RNA, as you suspected. He is not of this universe -- after cross-checking our records and finding that this has happened before with another crew member, I understand why you asked." Mengis smoothed his drooping mustache with a finger and thumb.

"There will be a senior staff meeting at eight hundred hours, Doctor. Please bring the results of your tests with you." Data turned to Picard. "The counselor will see you to quarters. We will also require your presence in the meeting, if that would be -- "

"Yes, whatever." Picard was losing patience and edging into expression of his ire.

She led him from the lift they shared with Data as far as deck eight, and walked down to her old quarters as the android continued on to the bridge. He was watching her backside, she just knew it -- that familiar sensation of a Picard leer in progress licked her.

She wished, oh so desperately, that it was the right Picard doing the leering.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc stared at the monitor on the desk in his alter ego's quarters, and fumed some more.

Personnel was all out of kilter. Tasha was still with him but as second officer now. Riker remained first officer. Worf had transferred elsewhere -- no sign of Alexander in his records. Deanna listed among the civilians aboard, mother of three -- Kyle, William Jr., and Jonathon. No Data. A security chief named Blevitz, a doctor named Pulaski. Of course. Why not?

Beverly had been aboard for the first six years of their initial ten-year mission, then divorced him and took the two children with her to Caldos. Evidently he'd married her six years prior to receiving the *Enterprise* posting, and their children were now ten and thirteen. The logs mentioned Claude and Chelsea often; the alter-Picard was fond of his offspring, more so than Jean-Luc had expected considering the first few personal logs he'd tapped into.

The annunciator signaled someone at the door. Odd. It was barely six hundred. "Computer, who is at the door?" he asked softly.

"Commander Riker." The computer sounded different -- he didn't like it. A light tenor, but still, he preferred a female voice.

"Come in," he called. Time to face the first officer. He tugged the odd uniform straight, hating the red jacket with the black striping on the sleeves. This would be known as the universe of demented uniform designers, from now on. The universe of DUD.

Hell. He was missing Deanna so much, he'd started making lame jokes himself.

Riker strode in and looked around casually. "So what are you sitting here alone and fully dressed for? I thought you had a blond in here."

Jean-Luc almost snapped at him. "She left. Obviously."

The alter-Will looked exactly like the Riker he'd left behind, other than the uniform. He smirked and glanced around. "Oh, well. Guess she didn't like my beard enough to wait for me. Makes me wish Dee didn't want me to keep it so bad -- you know how the old ball and chain can get."

Jean-Luc stiffened, his mind reeling at the implications of this exchange. "Sit down, Will."

"Sure. Got something fun to do in mind?" He smirked at him, raised an eyebrow -- unacceptable. The last time he'd seen that smirk, it had been directed at someone in a skirt!

"No, damn it! I'm not who you think I am. I don't belong here."

Will stared at him, solemn now. "You're not Jean-Luc Picard?"

"I'm from an alternate universe. I don't belong here -- I'm not the same person. Frankly, I find my doppelganger's behavior reprehensible."

That got a raised eyebrow. "You do? Huh. So how did you get here?"

"The real question is how I get back. Ever hear of the Q?"

"Nope. Should I have?"

"Q is an apparently-omnipotent being, who delights in torturing me with scenarios like this. He's put your Picard on my ship -- where I sincerely hope my wife emasculates the bastard."

Riker guffawed. "Well, there's an interesting thought. Beverly didn't seem the type for that. I always figured she was more the dismember-and-disembowel kind."

"I'm not married to Beverly. Never have been, never will be -- her current liaison is the dangerous type."

"Okay, so you're not my captain, but you're a captain, of. . . ."

"The *Enterprise.* Your alter-ego has his own ship, and a pretty blond with a nice tan and a French accent to keep him happy."

"What about Deanna?"

"She's my ship's counselor."

Riker chewed his lower lip. "That's what she was going to do, before I met her. But then, you knew that -- what's with this game? This isn't your usual type of fun."

Jean-Luc stared at the man. His eyes began to burn for lack of moisture. "Aren't you listening to me? I'm not playing a game. This isn't funny. You want proof, try running a few tests on me, see if there isn't a quantum-level flux in my RNA -- I don't belong here, Will. I need to go home."

"I thought you hated your brother." Riker turned to go. "Well, guess I'll go do breakfast with Dee and the kids, if there's no fun to be had here. See you on the bridge."

Jean-Luc stared at the floor where Riker had stood. "Computer," he said at last, dry-mouthed. "Access current mission objectives. Also access service records of Jean-Luc Picard, William T. Riker, Natasha Yar. . . ."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Her old quarters had been emptied of all her things, some of which she'd parted with permanently, some of which had been moved, and the rest had gone into temporary storage until the next opportunity to move walls came along. Since deciding to leave children to chance, Jean-Luc had set the wheels in motion to add more rooms to their quarters, figuring in an extra room for her things and another for a nursery.

She did her best not to let her mood take over at the thought that she might never have his children, after all.

Picard glanced around at the bare rooms. "Let me guess, you're going to confine me here."

"You aren't our captain. Our crew might mistake you for him, and as counselor I have to be concerned about any damaging behaviors that might compromise -- "

"Do you always sound this way, like a damn dictionary?"

Deanna frowned. Crossing her arms, she considered his demeanor. "Do you always swear at women you don't know?"

"I know you. I see you often enough -- though I think in this universe you've lost weight."

"I haven't had any children, and I'd guess that might have something to do with my double's current state. And no, you do not know me."

He gave her a familiar lascivious look -- even as her heart turned upside down, her stomach plummeted. What made her think she could do this?

"We could change that," he murmured.

"I think not. I love my husband, and you definitely aren't him."

"But I am him." He came too close, prowling up to her, his steps measured -- bringing him into arm's reach. She took two steps backward.

"Don't make me hurt you."

He cocked his head in that intrigued, playful manner she knew well. "A challenge. I could never resist a challenge."

"I'm not challenging you. I'm warning you -- I am this ship's counselor and you are not my husband, you're a stranger, and getting stranger by the second. You're behaving like a -- "

She held up her hands and jumped at a sudden flash of light. When she recovered, she saw the familiar old Q standing next to a now-frozen Picard.

"A cad," Q finished, grinning, fingers steepled in front of him. He wore the current uniform style, with a blue collar and three pips.

"I knew it had to be you," Deanna said, managing relative calm.

"At least you aren't swearing at me. Honestly, that husband of yours. . . . For a moment I wondered if I'd snatched him from the wrong universe. You see the problem, don't you?"

"Yes, you're quite visible at the moment."

"Ah, Counselor -- we haven't talked much. You've always seemed so. . . boring. But sleeping with your captain that way, that was an interesting variation. You tamed Captain Picard." He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "Isn't that something? Even the lovely Vash couldn't sway him, and yet he risked his career for sweet little you. How does it feel, reeling in the toughest *fish* of them all?"

Her annoyance at his knowledge of such things remained hidden as she could manage. Any emotional reaction would only feed Q's ludicrous behavior. "I did nothing of the sort. Now, take this man back where he belongs and bring my Jean-Luc back to me."

Q laughed, clapping his hands twice. The frozen Picard unfroze, and jumped at the sudden 'appearance' of the taller man. Q's uniform had changed -- now he wore a red jacket reminiscent of the uniform Deanna remembered from the 1701-D, only with black stripes on the sleeves.

"Hello, mon capitaine, I don't believe we've met -- in your universe, anyway. I'm quite fond of the captain from this one. I," he announced, bowing, "am Q. One member of the Q Continuum, actually -- but you can just call me Q. So pleased to finally meet you face to face."

Picard eyed the man, edging away from him and glancing at Deanna as if trying to measure how alarmed he should be. "You're responsible for this situation?"

"The Continuum has decided that you need a few lessons in protocol."

"Since when does the Continuum meddle in the affairs of such lowly life forms?" Deanna exclaimed.

Q leaned as if needing to study her from a new angle, and stepped closer to her. "Such wonderful disdain! My dear Jean-Luc always did disdain so very well. He's *such* a good role model, isn't he? The Continuum meddles when it has to, my sweet little Betazoid. Certainly you don't think we play favorites with *your* universe!"

"This is ridiculous," Deanna spat. "Who are you to determine the way things ought to be? And don't tell me you're a god -- that's asinine. I've seen you without your powers before. You're nothing but a weakling with too much power at your disposal. Speaking of which -- we helped you, didn't we? Are you going to forget that?"

"You're about to cash in on old favors -- please understand this isn't really my doing, this time. I'm just doing my duty -- you know all about duty, I know."

Deanna crossed her arms and studied him intently. "You've always been hard for me to read. But you're not the Q we're used to dealing with -- you're not outrageous enough."

"I'm on my best behavior, ma petite. Just like you are, dealing with your friend here who isn't quite your husband -- but he's enough like him to tug those heart strings, isn't he?" Q chortled gleefully, pinching her cheek.

"If you won't help, go away," she snapped.

And in a flash, he did. Picard sniffed. "I must say, you have interesting acquaintances in this universe."

Deanna stared at him. "You aren't even upset that he's transplanted you here. Don't you want to get back to where you belong?"

"Of course I do. But I find this an intriguing side trip -- exploration is, after all, why I joined Starfleet." His eyes traveled down her body appreciatively.

"You mean exploration of the *galaxy?*"

His eyes came up to meet hers. Puzzling, how his emotions suddenly snapped back from his momentary lust. "Yes. Of course. What else would I mean?"

"Don't insult me. I know exactly what you meant. Does *your* Starfleet condone its starship captains pursuing personal pleasure in situations like these?"

Picard shrugged -- he wasn't giving away much in his body language, but his emotions were shifting beneath the facade. "It would appear that I have no control over this situation, and that I may as well make the best of it. You seem to think I'm at the whim of this Q person. A few lessons in protocol, he said -- perhaps you should begin the lessons."

Deanna stared at him. The lascivious note his suggestion took made her stomach turn. "Perhaps you should eat breakfast and take some time to consider your situation further. I'll be back to take you to the briefing." Not giving him a chance to respond, she hurried out and down the hall to her quarters.

She hesitated in the living room and ordered her thoughts, then gave the computer a specific set of instructions concerning Captain Picard, which would limit his access to the computer and notify her the instant he attempted to access anything or tried to leave her former quarters. She set it to notify Data in the event she didn't acknowledge notification. Then she stripped and took a long shower, standing under the sonics longer than necessary.

While she brushed and re-did her hair, the computer announced that Picard had requested a crew roster and his own service record. She granted read-only rights to unrestricted information, and blocked him from captain's logs, using her ship's counselor's rights -- she could block things for the mental well-being of her captain. Giving this Picard access to information that would give him an edge didn't sit right with her. At least he wouldn't know the command codes to override.

The annunciator surprised her as she sat at Jean-Fish's desk watching a display of what Picard was reading. "Come in," she said, looking up -- she'd been paying such close attention to Picard's emotional state that she hadn't identified Will right away. Of course he would beam over from his ship the moment he knew this had happened. Of course Data would tell him first.

"Data explained. How are you?"

She opened her mouth, but nothing would come out. He came and sat on the edge of the desk, and put a hand on her shoulder. A friendly hand, a formal one, very much the way Jean-Luc had done every so often over the years when something happened in the line of duty that impacted her personally. She could sense his worry, sharp and almost painful, and his uncertainty -- he wanted to do more, embrace her, but wasn't certain of how she would react to that.

"I'm fine," she managed. "Q came by. Evidently this has more to do with the Picard we have here than -- he's accessing personnel records, at the moment. I've been watching, trying to get an idea of what to expect from him. It frightens me how different he is."

"I'll be at the briefing with you. I think you should avoid being alone with him. Data said he's noticed him leering at you -- if Data notices, it's got to be obvious."

"Will -- in his reality, you and I are married with children, and he and Beverly were married, and divorced." The air in her lungs burned as she held her breath until she couldn't -- and when she exhaled, a sob came with it. "What if he -- what if I never see my husband again? What am I going to do? Will, I can't stand the thought -- it's so pointless!"

She clung to Will's hand and cried, unable to contain it any longer. He extricated himself at the sound of the annunciator, leaving her to collapse with her head in her arms on the desk. Then Bell was there, her usual wildflower perfume the first clue of her identity as the nurse put her arms around Deanna and let her sob against her shoulder. Bell stopped murmuring in French when it became obvious from an increase in sobbing that it reminded her too much of Jean.

When she raised her head, she found that deLio and Data were also there, and stood with Will before the desk. An android, a droop-jowled L'norim security officer, and a starship captain, shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, all looking at her with concern. Bell stood up, straightened her uniform, and crossed her arms as well.

"I guess this answers the old question of who counsels the counselor?" Deanna ventured in a wobbly, tear-laden voice, reaping a smile from all of them as her reward.

~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc ignored the startled, questioning looks of the crew as he strode through the ship on his grim walkabout. Geordi still had his visor, in this universe. The ship was different -- the engines didn't seem as powerful as they should be. The specs were slightly off. The weaponry was deficient, even compared to his old Galaxy-class in his reality. The crew. . . completely wrong.

If Q wouldn't send him home, he'd whip this damned mess of a crew into shape then find his own way back. His alter-ego had a relaxed way of doing things, to put it mildly. Already he'd given orders for engineering staff to put on standard uniforms instead of the civilian garb they'd grown accustomed to wearing. Shaping them up would keep his mind off Deanna and what that bastard alternate self of his might try to do to her. She could handle him, and she'd see through the man immediately.

In a lift on the way to sickbay, he finally met the other Deanna. She almost ran into him -- she dragged a boy, about six and obviously Will's son, through the doors. It was a relief to see how different she looked -- he could pretend it wasn't really her. She had short hair instead of long, and the anger on her face appeared to be a long term feature for her; what looked to be permanent lines had formed around her mouth and eyes already. A little heartbreaking to think she'd had that unhappy a life in this reality, and immensely satisfying that he'd been able to make her happy in his own.

"You know better," she snapped at the boy, continuing a conversation. "Jonathan Riker, if you ever do anything like that again, I'll let your father handle it *his* way. You're lucky you only have two broken fingers."

Jean-Luc studied the woman -- she was overweight, relatively speaking. Rubenesque, soft, but still curvaceous. Her emerald-green dress was too tight in the wrong places, showing the folds of fat on her hips. She whirled on him and glared.

"Good morning, Captain," she said coldly.

"Good morning, Cou -- Mrs. Riker."

More glaring, as she held the sullen boy by the arm with more force than his Deanna would have. "Did you just call me a cow? I'm tired of your fat jokes! I'm not a member of your crew, and I'm sick of hearing your lame humor."

Jean-Luc boggled at her -- several temptations ensued. He could try to behave as the alter-Picard might based on his log entries, or he could be himself. He could be himself as he wanted to react, or himself as he would have reacted if this were his ship. And as he thought about the ramifications of all those options, he realized the last one had the most potential.

Smiling, he said carefully, "I'm truly sorry about that. I've been inexcusably rude to you, and it's unbecoming of a captain to treat his first officer's wife with such disrespect. Please accept my apology and be assured that I won't do it again."

While she stared in shock, he looked at the boy. "Does it hurt, Jon?"

The boy nodded and held up his swollen fingers. "Yes, sir."

"How did you do it?"

"I was in a jeffries tube. I fell."

"You know, children aren't supposed to be in jeffries tubes."

"I didn't like the teacher. I got out of class and hid."

Memories of a few teachers he hadn't liked sprang to mind. Jean-Luc chuckled. "As much as I can sympathize with that, I suspect you know I can't condone it -- don't let it happen again, Jon. Is that understood?"

The boy had Deanna's eyes -- of course he would. Betazoid eyes in a Riker face. He nodded earnestly.

Deanna continued staring at Jean-Luc until the lift opened. He let her precede him to sickbay, keeping his polite smile in place, so that every time she glanced back at him suspiciously it was all she saw. He thought of children -- Meribor, Batai, Kenny Ching, his own future children -- and watched Jon Riker instead of his mother. All she would sense from him were the paternal emotions a man might feel for a child he knew.

Sickbay wasn't as bad as the rest of the ship. Pulaski looked askance at him; he got the feeling the other Picard never came down here. While the doctor tended to the boy's fingers, he glanced around casually and left again. Locking horns with Pulaski wouldn't be necessary. Obviously she was closer to what he would expect of her alter-ego back home than anyone else he'd met -- her sickbay was orderly and all staff in uniform.

The bridge he'd saved for last. Bracing himself, he strode out of the lift. At the secondary consoles behind tactical, two people were chatting amiably about their last vacations, as the security officer at tactical ignored them and tended the console. He glared at the two until one of them noticed and stammered to a halt. Rather than make a complete scene, he glared a moment more, then marched down the ramp.

Riker looked up at him, expression completely unreadable. "I hear you've been all over the ship," he said. "Geordi says you've got engineering staff upset."

"You're in my chair, Commander."

He moved, and Jean-Luc sat down. Bringing up current ship's status on his console, he ignored Riker's staring.

"What are you up to, Johnny?" Riker murmured at last.

Jean-Luc raised his head slowly. "My name, Commander, is Jean-Luc. While we're on the bridge, I am the captain. I suggest that you not forget it. Until you get it through your head that I am not who you believe me to be and help me find my way back to where I belong, this ship will be run by the book. Is that clear?"

In the man's blue eyes, the truth finally registered. "Yes, sir," he said, in the same serious, low tone Jean-Luc had used.

~@~@~@~@~

Deanna led the group to her old quarters. Will caught her arm just outside the door. "You sure you're up to this?"

"Absolutely, I'm up to this." She smiled at her friends. "I'm the only one who could do what's necessary to get this started, anyway."

"Which is?" Data asked.

"You'll see. Stay out here a moment. Don't look at me like that, deLio, I can defend myself for the ten seconds it would take you to run inside."

Deanna marched inside, leaving them in the corridor. When the door had shut, she said, "It's time for the briefing, almost, but I'd like you to meet some people first." Rising from the couch where he'd been staring at the stars, Picard tugged his jacket absently. "I don't understand you. It would be simple enough, you miss him -- I can tell. I could tell after you figured out I was from a different reality." He shook his head wonderingly. "It isn't as though I'm physically any different than him, you know. I'm not so different in other ways, either, you said."

"Didn't you care for your wife at all? Did she leave you because you lusted after other women? Don't you feel any guilt -- "

"Shut up," he growled, with sudden and real ire. She'd touched a nerve. He still had feelings for his ex-wife.

"I dislike having anything to do with you at all -- you only remind me that my husband is missing. However, it's fallen to me to deal with you directly, as ship's counselor and as an officer -- orders are orders."

The insinuations were there for him to decipher. She saw them untangling in his eyes. "You were ordered to deal with me?"

"By Commander Data. It's logical that he delegate the task of coping with you to me, since he has a ship to run. The chain of command is well-defined here on the *Enterprise.* I'll be able to spend the first half of alpha shift with you, at which point I must tend to counseling appointments, after which I'm scheduled to stand watch on beta shift."

"Stand watch? *You?*"

"It's my husband's ship. He would expect me to do my duty, regardless of his absence. So yes, me."

He gaped for a moment. "But. . . you're a ranked officer. Standing watch on the bridge. And you're his wife? Starfleet *condones* this?"

"As long as it works, they allow it." She smiled serenely.

This was how she would deal with him -- professionally. Make him painfully aware that she was only following orders and show him -- no, beat him over the head with the fact that she was an officer, and that she wouldn't tolerate his advances. And into the bargain she'd make him understand that this ship wasn't operated with the same slack attitude he was showing so far. His study of records and data requests had been more cursory than Jean-Luc would have made them. This Picard was more reactive than proactive. She hated to imagine the kind of Starfleet he worked in, if he was an example of their finest. His first thought should have been to enlist them in finding his way home, and all he had done so far was be curious and leer.

There had to be an officer here somewhere. His initial behavior had shown it. Why hadn't he stayed in that mode?

She keyed the door to open to admit the others. When Will entered, she caught the surge of recognition from Picard, and -- defensiveness?

"This is Captain Riker," she said casually. "Of the *Lexington.* Lieutenant-Commander deLio, our security chief. You already met Data. This is Jean-Luc Picard, here courtesy of Q from whatever alternate reality turns us into pale shadows of ourselves."

She sensed the shock from the others at the implied slight. Picard, returning from his survey of the others' faces, crossed his arms and looked her again, calculating. "Pale shadows?"

"You said I wasn't in Starfleet in your reality. From my point of view that's a pale shadow of what I could be." She met his eyes directly and mimicked his posture. "I also find you deficient."

"In what way?" A trace of the iron she knew from her Jean finally made an appearance -- he was getting angry.

"You needn't feel defensive about it. It sounds to me as if you've had a more leisurely exploration of your galaxy than we have. It would account for your more leisurely attitude, I think." She walked around him slowly, keeping him tracking on her so he wouldn't notice the reactions of the others as she spoke. "By not having an experience with the Borg, or Q, you've missed quite a lot of what went into making our Captain Picard who he is today. Not to mention the lack of certain members of our crew that you seem not to know -- you didn't mention Worf, or Wesley Crusher, though I suppose the latter didn't even exist in your universe."

"Crusher. . . you said that was Beverly's name."

"Wesley is her son. In this reality, she married your best friend, Jack -- "

"That swaggering idiot is *not* nor has he ever been my best friend," Picard snapped.

"Be that as it may," she put in smoothly before he could continue, "you missed a lot of things that our captain experienced. The Cardassians, for example, gave us quite a bit of trouble."

"But the Cardassians are peace-loving artisans," Picard said. "I've known several of them personally. Admiral Madred also happens to be a friend -- what is it?"

Deanna stared at him -- hard as it was, she blocked out the shock from Will. She studied Picard's emotional state carefully. "Jean-Luc, how many lights are there?"

"Five," he said, then frowned. "Why the hell did I say that? What lights are you talking about?"

~@~@~@~@~@~

"There's definitely a shift on the quantum level in his RNA," Pulaski said. Of all the crew, she was definitely the most like herself, right down to the odd looks she kept shooting him. Jean-Luc guessed she must be reacting to his discernable pleasure at finding someone familiar. He'd never been happier to spend an extended period of time in sickbay.

"Okay, let's get this straight -- you're saying that this captain is actually from another universe?" Riker exclaimed. "He's not just delusional?"

Pulaski lowered her tricorder and sensor wand. "Will, this man is older, has an artificial heart, shows significantly-different patterns of previous injuries incurred in unknown ways -- he's not our captain. There's no trace of the last surgery I performed on him. The scar from that last bat'leth fight on his arm -- gone."

"That's a vague report if I ever heard one," Jean-Luc said.

"I agree," Riker said. "Let's hear a better one, Doctor." He sounded more familiar when giving orders.

"You really want the list? Fine." Pulaski crossed her arms. "What we have here is a human male, approximately seventy-one years of age, genetically identical to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Artificial heart of unknown origin, functioning efficiently. Signs of invasive surgeries over most of his body, for what purpose I'm not certain, but there are significant amounts of forced tissue regeneration in the bone and muscle, so extensive that the traces still exist though they're years old. The patterns of bone regrowth are particularly telling in the right arm and on the skull." She indicated the sites with a point of a finger, reminding him of his experience with the Borg as was inevitable. "Unlike our captain, he has no trophy scars. Also unlike our captain, he's not sterile. And that last surgery was to put in a new knee to replace the one he blew out trying to keep up with his first officer in parises squares -- this isn't it," she said, tapping Jean-Luc's right knee. "Original tissue, no artificial components. The patient is fit as the proverbial fiddle, in remarkable shape really, with more upper body strength and muscle tone than our captain."

Riker studied him for a moment, then straightened. "I owe you an apology, then," he exclaimed stiffly.

"It's more than apparent to me that you and I have not been through some of the same experiences in the course of your tenure aboard the *Enterprise,*" Jean-Luc said. "Will you help me find my way home? If I can find a way, it may be possible to get your captain back to you. I can assure you, my staff are working at it already."

"We can only try. Why don't we go discuss it further over coffee?"

Seemed a strange thing to do -- Jean-Luc had thought a briefing with the other staff might be in order. He went along with the first officer, however, and found that Ten Forward was almost exactly as he remembered it. He thought he even remembered Guinan wearing that exact same outfit on his ship once.

When the hostess came over to their table, she glanced at both of them, then stared at him. Frowned. Stared some more.

"Where are you from?" she asked finally. "You don't belong here."

"I should have known you would be the only one on board to recognize that straight away," he said with a smile. "I don't belong here, that's true. I'm hoping to return to where I belong."

Guinan's slow smile remained cryptic as always. "You will. Let me guess -- Earl Grey, hot?"

"No. Coffee, with cream, lightly sweetened. Croissants, if you would, I didn't eat breakfast. Without my wife here to feed me it slipped my mind completely."

"Wife? You're still married to Beverly, wherever you're from?" Riker asked.

Jean-Luc dropped his gaze to the table between them. "No, I never married Beverly. She married my best friend, Jack."

Guinan fixed one of her fathomless gazes on him. "I'll get your breakfast -- coffee, Will?"

"Sure. The usual." Riker watched her leave. "So who is she, then? Your wife?"

Jean-Luc smiled and smoothed the unfamiliar uniform. "Deanna. Although, a very different one than this universe's Deanna -- one with a career and a promising future in command."

It took until after Guinan returned with their orders for him to recover enough to speak. "You married Dee -- but she's *my* imzadi!"

"That didn't seem to matter. And frankly, I don't see that it matters much to you, if your behavior this morning was indicative of your attitude toward her."

Guinan furrowed her brow at him as she placed his plate in front of him. "You and Deanna?"

Jean-Luc shrugged. "It seemed the thing to do at the time. How could I refuse?"

"Same way you do every time someone flirts with you," Guinan said acerbically, sauntering off, leaving him wondering now if his double had left a few things out of his logs.

"You said -- wait. Sorry. That wasn't you -- this is hurting my head. That bit this morning in your quarters -- I was kidding, Jean-Luc. We usually eat breakfast together at six hundred here in Ten Forward and I came by to get you. You were so caught up in what I thought was another of your little games that I gave up on it."

"You didn't sound like you were kidding to *me.*"

"Does my alter ego do a good deadpan?"

Jean-Luc sighed and spread marmalade on the tip of a croissant. "But he's never kidded me about sharing women. Then again, I've never brought any back to the ship or fraternized with any of the crew. Deanna has been the only one, and that was. . . different."

"I'm surprised Starfleet didn't notice and do something. Fraternization's a tough thing to keep secret. Never known Johnny to do it, certainly."

Jean-Luc looked up from his coffee. "You haven't?"

"Nope. Oh, we joke about it all the time. It's an ongoing thing, since that time one of his old girlfriends followed him home -- she was really something, have to admit, and just as stubborn as he is."

"Vash," Jean-Luc blurted.

"You, too? And you married Deanna? Not that there's anything about Dee that -- shit, you know what I mean."

He chuckled. "Deanna ran her off, actually." Which wasn't precisely the way it happened, but he didn't have to give the details.

"You're kidding!"

Jean-Luc put down his cup and steepled his fingers, resting his arms on either side of his plate. "Will -- you have to understand, my Deanna is a psychologist and an officer. She's been in Starfleet for only slightly longer than she's been my ship's counselor. You can't compare the two. I met yours, in the lift. Two different people, practically." He paused. "It may be no business of mine, but yours seems very unhappy."

Will chewed the inside of his cheek. "She's not pleased with the thought of going to the Gamma Quadrant for a long mission. She doesn't want to split up the family, however."

"Surely you've thought of other assignments? Have you been offered command?"

"No."

The fact stunned Jean-Luc. "No? Why not? There's usually a need for able captains."

"The fleet's just not that large. Since Fleet Admiral Madred's -- "

"*What* did you say?"

"Fleet Admiral Madred. He's a proponent of the -- "

"A Cardassian admiral? How did he -- when did the Cardassians join the Federation?"

"Since Vulcan seceded and unified with the Romulans, and a number of other worlds followed to form a coalition of their own, the Cardassian Union makes up a significant portion of the Federation. The first treaty was struck decades ago, a non-aggression pact after some threat of war, and then about stardate 46350 or so there was an incident -- you relinquished command temporarily and went on some sort of mission, and about four months after that a new treaty was signed." Riker sipped coffee. "I always wondered what happened on that mission. You never spoke of it."

"And Madred became fleet admiral," Jean-Luc whispered, studying the marmalade on his croissant as if it held the answers.

"You -- he -- met Madred about that time, and the two of them have been friends ever since."

"Friends."

"Your experience was different -- distasteful?"

"Oh," Jean-Luc shook his head and raised his coffee cup, "distasteful doesn't begin to describe it. But we're supposed to discuss how to get me home, and get your captain back -- shouldn't we be talking to Geordi?"

"You certainly have a one-track mind."

He thought of the Romulans and of spending the night in a bed without Deanna. "Two tracks, actually."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Counting up the years, Deanna pursed her lips and looked at the floor. "Have the Cardassians always been friendly?"

"Of course."

"What is Galor-class?"

"A Cardassian classification for one of their war -- The Cardassians aren't hostile. They've been members of the Federation for -- "

"Since you divorced Beverly, roughly?"

He eyed her suspiciously. "How. . . ."

"You changed at that point," she said slowly. "The point at which Gul Madred took you and tortured you, to gain information on the Minos Corva sector. Without the prior experiences of the Borg and various other trials to toughen you, you weren't strong enough to withstand Madred. There were four lights, not five."

"What are you talking about? This is nonsense! There was no torture!"

"You don't remember being shackled. You don't remember eating tespa eggs." She would have accepted the Cardassians' role in his reality as another difference between parallel universes, but it was obvious to her that this Picard, like hers, had undergone torture at Madred's hands. He was in denial, possibly brainwashed to not remember.

Since returning from the briefing, they'd been talking about the Cardassians in his universe. deLio stood outside the door of Picard's assigned quarters. Getting the security chief to wait outside had taken a minor war and some rank-pulling; after Picard had argued with Data in the briefing, none of the senior officers seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Picard paced around the living room. "This doesn't matter!" he shouted. "This is ridiculous! Obviously this has nothing to do with your reality -- Madred is my friend. He wouldn't torture me."

"Tell me about the lights."

He stopped, mouth open, and stared at the dried flower arrangement on an end table. Again, that shift to emotional flatness -- she had dealt with Geordi after his experience with Romulans brainwashing him, and the flatness Picard felt reminded her of the state Geordi had often slipped into when trying to remember things.

"Lights," he repeated. Like her Jean, he could be reasonable. He seemed to be realizing that he was surrounded by professionals now; since the briefing, he'd settled into a more officer-like demeanor with her. Probably a reflection of the fact that the Deanna he knew wasn't an officer, she realized, and that it had taken seeing her interacting with other officers to convince him she was that different.

"How did you feel when Madred first brought you into his chambers?"

"I wasn't certain I would leave. . . alive. God. Where did that -- he's my friend! He wouldn't -- "

She let him struggle with it for a while, going into a light meditation while he paced. When he stopped and turned to her, she opened her eyes and rested them on his, solemn, letting his emotions mirror themselves to him through her.

"Sit down, please."

He came to the chair she'd placed just out of arm's reach in front of hers, and sat back with his arms crossed. Jean-Luc had never been this defensive for so long. Picard stared at her coldly, holding himself rigid but showing more begrudging willingness to cooperate than before.

"You realize that something you do not remember happened to you. Would you like to know what it was? Do you want me to help you, or would you rather stay in denial? Because it seems to me that this is likely why Q brought you here. I helped my captain, after his experience with Madred. I won't make the assumption that your experience was like his, but it's obvious to me that there was something for you to deny, and that it's affected your life for the worse."

"Fine. It'll pass the time, anyway."

She clasped her hands in her lap. His clipped response was typical. "What was your marriage like, before you met Madred?"

"What does that have to -- "

"Answer the counselor's question, please, and don't assume that it has no relevance until you've proven that it doesn't."

He hesitated again. "I loved my wife," he said softly. Ripples of familiar emotion came from him at last -- the emotions she usually felt directed toward her. But he was thinking of Beverly. His Beverly.

"You didn't want the divorce."

"No. She said that I wasn't the same, and unless I told her what really happened. . . but I did tell her. I told her everything. I don't understand what she found so wrong with us. It was never exactly peaceful, but it wasn't bad, either."

"I'd like to start out this way," she said, thinking it through again as she took note of the shift in his emotions to frustration and fear. "I'd like to hear your impressions of your marriage before and after the meeting with Madred. Maybe if you think about the changes it caused in your marriage, you might begin to see what it was that changed in you. Would that be acceptable to you?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Of course you do. It has to be your choice. But realize that your choice may make a difference in your future, after you finally return home. Do you think if you could find the changes in you and alter that part of you, Beverly might come back to you?"

Hooked, reeled in, and dangling from the stringer. She'd found the motivational bait to gain his cooperation in spite of his lack of complete trust in her as a counselor. He stared at her, working through his skepticism and underlying fear. Tugging his alter-ego's uniform, he crossed his hands in his lap and settled into a familiar posture -- he was ready to go to work.

"That would be acceptable."

"Tell me about your life with Beverly," she said, cool and professional. "Starting from the beginning."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc finally went to captain's quarters. Not his, but they would have to do. Spending the day working with a sullen crew who were familiar-looking but whose personalities were just enough different so as to be disconcerting had taxed his patience and sapped him of energy faster than usual.

He replicated dinner, hating that he had to eat alone, and settled in with more of the captain's logs before his body could begin to ache at the thought of not having Deanna there with him. This time, he went back to the time surrounding the stardates he'd been held by Gul Madred -- and as his half-eaten dinner grew cold, he requested logs further and further back, then historical information from the computer. Then he wondered how much the information from official channels had been doctored.

The Picard from this universe had once been more duty-oriented, more of an officer than the general appearance of his ship might indicate. Random samplings of news bulletins and Starfleet information net updates bore an eerie resemblance to ones he'd read before, aside from the lack of references to the Borg, but from the time of the encounter with Madred, a slowly-widening gap between what he remembered and what was recorded became noticeable.

The annunciator startled him. "Come in," he called without thinking, then realized he might be letting anyone in.

At that moment, he would have gladly entertained anyone but Deanna's alter-ego. She swept inside in a whirl of filmy skirt. Here was a Betazoid on the prowl, the elaborate beaded purple dress clinging and only barely covering breasts and hips, over which drifted a layer of translucent lavender material. She'd piled her hair high on her head and wore impossibly-tall shoes. Given her generous proportions, he wondered that she didn't overbalance herself.

"I should point out that I've already got plans for the evening," he said, holding up a padd. "But it was nice of you to drop in, Mrs. Riker."

She glared -- it made him homesick. Even Deebird's anger would be welcome at this point. This Deanna strode over to him and posed not two feet from him. "Will said you aren't the same man -- that you're from some other reality."

"I don't have time for this," he said evenly. "Please leave."

"You don't want me to leave."

"I want you to leave, and I want to return to where I belong. With my wife. On my ship. Why are you here, when your husband -- "

"My husband," she spat. "The man who takes me for granted."

"That isn't my problem. I have a ship to run and -- "

"It isn't your ship! I can't figure out why Will's just going along with letting you walk in and take over, if what he says is true. Are you Jean-Luc Picard?"

"Yes. But not the one you know."

She leaned, giving him a good view down the front of her dress. "You could know me, if you like. You didn't leer at me the way the other one did -- that was a nice change, having you actually care enough about my feelings to apologize, even if you were apologizing for that other captain's actions -- actually, that says even more for you than just apologizing. I wondered, you know, when I saw you earlier today. You don't read right. Your attitude's completely different. I could like you, much better," she murmured, coming closer still. Before she could kiss him he dodged out of the chair and backed away.

"Don't do this." He almost fell over another chair in retreating from her. "Come any closer and I'll call your husband."

"Like he would care," she scoffed.

He tapped the comm badge, standing his ground as he did so. "Picard to Riker."

"Riker here." Behind the response, he heard boys' voices, raised high in playful arguing over a game of some kind.

"There's something of yours in my quarters. I'd appreciate it if you came and took it away?"

A pause. "I'll be there in a moment, sir."

In the intervening seconds, Deanna glared at him so ferociously he thought she might actually strike him with her fist. "You're going to turn me away. I don't believe it. I know you feel -- "

"I am not your captain. I have a wife." He let Will in; the first officer stood in the open door, eyeing his wife, who strode out without a backward glance. Will glanced at him, hesitated.

"I'm sorry," he said. "She. . . gets this way, when she's pregnant. Hormones."

It gave him pause. "What way? Seductive? Angry? Irrational?"

"Irrational, mostly. She must have sensed something from you that made her think -- I'll talk to her. It won't happen again."

"How far along is she?"

"Not so far. A few weeks at most. Part of her dislike for the nature of our mission. It'll be the first time she hasn't returned to Betazed for the birth." Riker grinned suddenly. "Oh, that's right -- you would be curious, wouldn't you? Haven't had any kids yet?"

"Not yet. For a minute I was afraid she was in the phase."

"No, that's still to come. She wouldn't have come after you anyway. But pregnancy does make her a little edgier than usual, and she gets impatient -- we were about to head for the holodeck once the boys got settled in for bed. She must've slipped out while I was playing kadis-kot with them. I'd better go catch her before she propositions someone else. Good night." Riker left him there to contemplate just why the idea of Deanna wandering the ship propositioning other men didn't disturb her husband more than that, and if this could be considered a deviation from what might happen in Jean-Luc's own universe.

Unable to focus now that Deanna Riker had reminded him of his cygne, Jean-Luc gathered his padds and went to Ten Forward. Perhaps the change of venue would allow him to think again. The room was empty. He took a seat and realized that he'd chosen the approximate location of the table he and Deanna frequented in the lounge on his ship. The ache of missing her increased, but he didn't move. Focusing with a will on the information he'd downloaded, he didn't hear her approach, and jumped when Guinan's hand fell on his arm.

"So how are you getting home?" she asked, sitting across from him. Knitting her fingers, she put her hands on the table in front of her and tilted her head, making her enormous blue flat-topped hat shift to the right.

"I don't know. I only know that I'll get there or die trying."

She considered that for a moment. "You wouldn't think about staying here?"

"I can't. This isn't my home." Alarmed at the pathos in his own voice, Jean-Luc turned his eyes to the padd in his hands. "I can't stay here. These people are not my friends. They are, but they aren't."

"You've upset a lot of the crew. I've been hearing about it all night, about how your orders are changing the -- "

"I don't care! This is a Starfleet vessel, and from what I've read so far the regulations governing its operation are mostly the same as what I've followed throughout my career. If the crew isn't willing to conform to standard protocols, they should get out of Starfleet."

"Many of them have."

Jean-Luc looked up at her solemn face. "Computer, what is the current crew complement of the *Enterprise?*"

"Six hundred twenty-two."

"What?" Jean-Luc stared at Guinan in dismay. "That's not a full crew. What's going on in this universe?"

Guinan shrugged. "Since the Federation Council decided Starfleet didn't need to be such a priority, I suppose they've stopped the recruitment PR, pretty much. With the treaties with the T'Khasi Coalition and the Cardassian Union, there's not a lot going on in this quadrant so far as conflict goes. The ships we have left are all explorers."

"But -- that's ridiculous, making assumptions that there would be no new adversaries to -- Why would they send out a Galaxy-class starship on an extended tour of a quadrant on the other side of the galaxy, with only half a crew? And deficient weaponry, and inadequate defensive systems! This ship shouldn't be in service!"

"By your standards, maybe."

"I know that look in your eye -- you know more than you're telling me. And just what is it about the captain who belongs here that I suspect I ought to know, but has been evading me? I keep making wrong assumptions about him."

Guinan's eyes narrowed. She glanced down at her hands, then away. "Couldn't tell you."

"You could. I wish you would. Q lands me here with no direction, you're no help -- when am I going to be given an even break?"

Her head came up with the mention of Q. "So you're here because a Q put you here. Interesting."

Hollow-chested and angry, he slammed the padd on the table and glared at her. She studied him for a few moments impassively.

"You were -- are -- a very good friend of mine," he said, tight-voiced. "Is that different, here? Would it be so difficult to help me?"

She only gazed at him in her impenetrable enigmatic way for a while longer. "Deanna is your wife," she said at last. "Is she happy with that arrangement?"

He had no air to answer with. Finally, he sucked some in and forced a response. "Guinan, I want to go home. I can't live like this."

She nodded. A smile, the first she'd given him since she sat down, blossomed. "I think you'll make it home. I suggest you talk to Beverly, when we get to Deep Space Nine. Maybe look up some of his personal correspondence. Find out a little more about your other self. He's not quite what his crew thinks he is -- but I'll bet you aren't, either."

She rose and left him to his studies, without even offering him something to drink. After watching her leave Ten Forward, he refocused on the padds.

He returned to his quarters three hours later, to find a message waiting for him. Settling on the bed, still fully dressed, he listened to the voices of children he didn't know calling him Daddy.

He closed his eyes to block out the unreality around him. "Deanna. I'll see you again. Don't lose faith in me, cygne. . . ."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna woke to the computer pleasantly telling her it was time for her to rise. Scowling, she kicked off the rest of the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, feeling like she'd just run halfway to Betazed carrying the ship on her shoulders. She stumbled into the bathroom, pulling off her night shirt and dropping her panties as she got in the shower.

Two days since Jean-Luc disappeared. Their guest had worked with her to a point, then propositioned her, putting an end to the second session. She hadn't slept the first night and resorted to a sedative for the second. Her eyes hurt, and her body ached. In spite of sleep she still felt tired.

"Data to Counselor Troi."

"Yes, Data, what is it," she said -- she'd almost snapped at the android, she realized.

"I would like to invite you to breakfast with me in the officer's lounge."

She leaned against the wall and stifled the urge to snap harder at him. He was doing it for her sake -- he never ate unless there were some social reason to do so. "No, thank you. I appreciate the offer. But I really don't feel well this morning. I didn't sleep well in spite of taking something last night, and I'm irritable. I wouldn't be good company."

"Perhaps lunch, then."

"I'll let you know, thanks." She smiled -- he was going out of his way to spend time with her. At least he wasn't asking her directly how she was doing, as others had. She'd told him she found his presence most assuring because she couldn't sense his concern so well; the worry from the other senior officers only compounded her feelings of loss and made it harder to concentrate.

She picked up the discarded clothing and stopped short of dropping them down the chute -- a dark stain on her panties caught her eye. Not much of one, just a spot. She froze, dangling the scrap of clothing in front of her, and began to tremble. Spotting could mean one of two things. She didn't know which she feared more.

At last she dropped the panties in the chute and made it out to the bedroom. Collapsing on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, hugging herself.

She lost track of time completely. By the time the annunciator went off, she'd wrapped herself in a tight cocoon of blankets. She ignored it. Whoever it was kept trying, and then she heard the doors open.

"Deanna?" A woman's voice -- Bell. One of the handful of noodges who seemed to be determined to distract her from what they perceived to be an overwhelming sense of loss.

"Go away," she exclaimed, trying to sound more irritable than despairing.

"We were supposed to get together this morning, remember?"

"Bell, I'm sorry, but I just don't feel like it. I can't."

Deanna heard her moving, felt the sag of the mattress, and then Bell's fingers touched her face, brushing back her hair. "What is it?"

"Just leave me alone. Please?"

"Cher, it's all right to cry. You've been so collected and calm -- it's made us worry that you're trying too hard."

"Everything I eat tastes like paper. I can't breathe. Can't sleep. That *man* makes me so angry -- he started to make progress, or so I thought, and then the next thing I know he's making passes at me again. And seeing him just reminds me -- Bell -- "

"It's all right, go ahead and cry," Bell said softly, moving closer and pulling Deanna into her arms to hold her across her lap.

Sobbing for a while only made her eyes hurt worse. Bell disappeared into the bathroom, returned with a cloth, washed her face, and then began brushing Deanna's hair gently. When someone else came to the door, Bell left her to go out to meet them. Quiet murmurs -- Deanna could sense the sympathy and worry. Her hands knotted in the blankets. It hurt, it pounded on her brain, the worry and the pain they felt at her loss, at losing him -- hurt. Her stomach lurched. This wasn't right. She shouldn't be this sensitive to it, she should be able to block it out better.

Bell came back a few minutes later. "Do you feel up to taking a walk with me, Dee?"

"No. I don't. Go away."

"Look, if you don't get up and come with me to sickbay, I'll just bring Mengis in here to see you. So you'd better get dressed."

Deanna closed her eyes and tried to bite back the sobs, only managing to shake harder when the suppressed tears burst from her. This time, she shook off Bell's attempt to comfort her. Rising, holding the sheet around her, she gathered articles of clothing, retreated to the bathroom, and dressed. Pips in place, she tamed her hair into its usual tight ponytail and applied makeup with angry strokes.

Bell looked surprised to see her so composed. "Deanna -- "

"I'm fine, Bell. I appreciate your concern. But I have my duty -- "

"Data said he was relieving you of duty for the time being."

Deanna left her quarters without another word, glad that Bell didn't try to follow her, and asked the computer for Data's location. She found him in Jean-Luc's ready room studying the monitor at the desk. When he turned to look at her, he raised an eyebrow and waited for her to speak.

"Data, if you relieve me of duty, I won't have anything to do. I'll go crazy."

He weighed his words carefully before answering. "If I may point out, Deanna, yesterday afternoon you appeared to be having what Mr. Carlisle referred to as 'random and violent mood swings.' Though you did not appear to me to be violent, he explained that the abruptness and severity of the mood change was what he referred to, and that -- "

"It won't happen again. I was frustrated and tired, and angry at myself for -- Data, I need duty. It's all that gives me definition at the moment. Otherwise I'll -- " She bowed her head and mustered her wits for a moment. "If you won't let me return to active duty, at least give me assignments to work on. I need the distraction. Put me at a secondary station, put me in simulations, make something for me to consider duty. But I'd rather return to full duty, to counseling, to working with *him.* I can't let him get the better of me. I won't make assumptions again."

"Captain Picard -- "

"Isn't here, Commander. You know he would let me try. You know he wouldn't protect me from my own duties. This Picard we have, he's smart and I let him catch me off guard, but it won't happen again."

Data looked at the monitor, then back at her. "You will keep security on hand at all times?"

"I'll have deLio arrange it."

"I admire your determination, Deanna. Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?"

She laughed dryly. "You're getting better at reading facial expressions all the time, aren't you? Just that I -- no, that can wait. I should let you get back to what you were doing. Thank you, Commander. I'll be sure to give you a report on my efforts later. How is the recovery effort coming?"

"Geordi and his department are working with astrophysics to explore all options available. They are researching all Starfleet records of temporal anomalies and encounters with parallel realities and attempting to find ways to create and control quantum fissures. It will take some time, and our current situation has priority, but we are making every effort to find a way to bring Captain Picard back to us."

She leaned and gripped his arm. "Thank you, Data. I'll check in with you later. Lunch?"

The android smiled. "Of course."

~@~@~@~@~@~

"This is unacceptable," Jean-Luc exclaimed. "These efficiency ratings are ridiculously low."

"Eighty-five percent is -- "

"Mr. La Forge, *fix* the engines." Turning on his heel, Jean-Luc left main engineering. Riker trailed along behind, with Yar two steps behind him.

"Sir, I think you're being a little hard on -- "

"If I wanted your opinion I would have asked, Commander."

"Let me rephrase, then," Riker snapped. "This ship has the best crew Starfleet has to offer, and you're treating them like automatons."

Jean-Luc hesitated, then faced the first officer. "Let me get this straight. Starfleet expects this ship to go across the galaxy with poorly-tuned engines, barely enough weaponry for a pretty fireworks display, half a crew, and officers who don't know the meaning of the word 'efficient.' You're telling me that I shouldn't expect better than suicide in the name of duty? That's what this is -- suicide. This universe of yours is very much like mine, uncannily so -- if the Gamma Quadrant is as much like the one I know, we're about to sail into the heart of the Dominion! The Jem'hadar would make short work of this ship. I *refuse* to allow it to go through the wormhole in this condition!"

Yar and Riker stared at him. This Tasha had longer hair than the one he'd known, and kept it in a long braid down her right shoulder. She raised her head defiantly.

"If I may point out, sir, the crew might respond more readily to polite requests than demands?"

"I made a polite request yesterday. I got less than optimum results. Commander Riker, how is the other project -- "

"Still working on it, sir," Riker said in unusually-humble tones. Jean-Luc stared at him a moment.

"Is there something else you have to say to me?"

Riker sighed and bowed his head. His body language differed considerably from the *real* Riker -- on Deanna and Beverly's Riker Ruler, this man rated about half a Riker, if Jean-Luc had understood the criteria well enough.

"I don't think our people understand well enough what you're looking for," Riker said. "Our experience with temporal anomalies and alternate realities is obviously deficient, compared to what you're used to. We've had a few encounters but nothing like what you've described to us."

"Then it will simply take a little more research than you're accustomed to." Jean-Luc headed for the lift. When he stepped inside, he found that Riker hadn't followed, but Yar had.

"Is everyone from your universe as grouchy as you are?" she asked.

"I'm not grouchy. Frustrated, yes. This is a Starfleet vessel. I may as well be traveling with Pakleds," he grumbled. "I've seen pirate ships operated with more efficiency. Bridge."

"Frustration can be alleviated."

He stared at her -- she leaned against the wall, adopting a familiar tilt-hipped, chest-forward pose.

"Commander, I've listened to enough of my doppelganger's logs to understand from subtext what you are to him, and I don't like it. I don't have any intention of liking it. That you've managed to carry on without being noticed by the first officer speaks of just how much subterfuge you've resorted to in order to keep the secret."

"Will said you married your ship's counselor. I don't think you have a right to be so sanctimonious," she murmured, giving him the once over.

"Your clandestine arrangement is obviously about nothing but sexual gratification, and is but another indication of your captain's inappropriate and lax attitude."

"Okay -- so you have a convenient double standard."

Jean-Luc glared at Yar. "I have a wife, who is also an officer, and there is nothing clandestine about it. You will refrain from further comment, and go about your business, Commander."

Tasha stood away from the wall and straightened. "Yes, sir," she exclaimed, glaring. The lift opened, and he marched out onto the bridge.

The absence of his counselor at her usual place hurt all over again. He cruised by the ops console and veered into his ready room, past the pictures on the wall where his fish tank should have been, to the desk, where he brought up the results of a search he'd run through Federation databases the day before.

Jack Crusher. He was still alive, and so was Walker Keel. Jean-Luc scrolled down the list of names of old friends, and found that many were still alive here. Of course, the Borg had never happened, and the fleet hadn't been decimated at Wolf 359, or in a Dominion War.

Another result of another search popped up while he contemplated. As he studied the first of a number of logged temporal incidents, the annunciator interrupted. "Come in."

Yar strode in and stood at attention. "I'd like to talk to you, sir. As an officer," she added, before he could send her away again.

"Sit. What is it, Commander?"

She settled in the chair and clasped her hands over a knee, chewing her lower lip. "I'm not sure where to start. But I've been worried about my captain, and you keep saying that our universes have many similarities -- I wonder if you could tell me something that I might use to help him, when we get him back."

Jean-Luc turned from his screen and leaned on the desk. "When? You show more confidence than most, Commander."

"If you don't mind my saying. . . you're the finest officer I've met in a long time. The captain was like you, before, but he's not any more. I'd like to find out what happened. Maybe your reality parallels his enough that you could help me know where to begin."

"You're very loyal to him, aren't you?"

Her sober blue-eyed regard said yes. "I miss the way Starfleet used to be. The way you seem to expect it to be. The others don't so much -- Riker used to be more of an officer, but his priorities changed. The captain went first, though, when Beverly left with the kids. After that he just seemed to lose the edge. I used to think it was her leaving that made him turn soft, but now I wonder if it didn't have something to do with the two months he was gone."

"The two months during which he met Gul Madred, you mean."

She nodded once. "Would you tell me about that? What happened to you?"

Jean-Luc sighed and turned his chair so he could look out at the stars. After a few moments of contemplation, he said, "Madred subjected me to senseless and brutal torture for days. For no other reason than to break me, because the information he requested was obviously unknown to me."

He heard her exhale after a few seconds of silence. "You survived it."

"So did your captain. But he broke. I've been examining his logs and the gradual insinuation of Madred into Command -- Madred was granted his position upon the integration of the Cardassian Union into the Federation. He became Fleet Admiral some years later, with little regard for the fact that he's never been an officer of the line. I suspect considerable politicking got him there, and that your captain's support helped. I suspect that he's used his position to gradually influence the Federation into weakening themselves by degree. There is a conspiracy afoot, Tasha."

He glanced at Yar at last. She had come to attention, mouth open, hands gripping the arms of the chair. "You've been here for two days and you figured all this out?"

"I have my experience to draw upon to make guesses as to where to start. Can I count on you, Commander, to keep this a secret?"

"Yes, sir! What are you -- what are we going to do? Is there anything we can do?"

Jean-Luc rose and leaned on the desk, hands splayed. "Commander, we are in Starfleet. When there is nothing we can do under the circumstances -- we create more options."

To his dismay, tears slid out of the corners of her startled eyes -- but then she smiled. "Sir, thank you. Thank you for saying that. Anything you need, anything I can do to help, just ask."

"I was hoping you would say that." He headed for the replicator in the back of the room. "Why don't we have a cup of tea, and we'll get started? Because I believe you can fill in a lot of gaps in what I know of your captain, and I'd like to know as much as possible about him before we reach Deep Space Nine and confront his family."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna stopped outside Picard's door and collected herself before going inside. Head high, she entered the room and stood looking at him.

He'd given up on uniforms and wore comfortable off-duty attire, white shirt and plain black pants. He rose from the desk in the corner -- he'd been looking through more information on the ship roster. His eyes flicked to her collar. "Red is still command, isn't it?"

"In view of our current situation, Admiral Nechayev thought it best to have a captain on the bridge. Since our first officer is now captain, they needed a first officer, and since I am a full commander -- "

"Hell's bells. You, a first officer." He sniffed, shaking his head. "This is truly a strange universe I've fallen into."

"I thought I should come by and explain to you that I won't be able to work with you -- not that you care. All you seem interested in -- "

"Commander, please, wait. Can we sit down and talk for a minute?" He gestured at the sofa. "Please. I won't hit on you."

Reading his intent, she sat on the end of the sofa and crossed her legs. He put more than ample distance between them and leaned, elbows on knees, head bowed.

"I want to apologize for what happened. It -- fell out of my mouth, before I could stop it. I don't know what it is that makes me that way. Every time I talk about -- certain things directly, that happens. I've talked this through with Tasha. . . she and I are. . . close."

"Lovers."

"Friends, more than -- it isn't like that. I don't know how to explain to you, but I've found that not thinking about things, really concentrating on not thinking about them and just generalizing -- I can't do what you wanted me to do in session and talk rationally. I've tried it with Tasha. I hoped you could see through it, being a trained psychologist and an empath, and that you could somehow snap me out of it."

Deanna stared at him. "Why didn't you tell me this to begin with?"

He groped for words -- the effort became too much, and the frustration mounted. His eyes closed, he stammered, "After -- what happened, I tried to talk. It makes me do things. I can't even think about it when I look at you directly. I can't talk to anyone. It's like being in a box with it. As long as someone's with me it's completely gone -- like it never happened. But when I'm alone it -- "

She watched him struggling and slowly an idea came to her, the details coming together. "Stop. What's your favorite composer?"

"I don't really have a single favorite, I enjoy Mozart," he blurted, the words tumbling out as if they'd been waiting on the tip of his tongue. "I also -- "

"Jean-Luc, have you tried hypnosis?"

"Nothing works. I've been trapped in here for two days solid after that session with you, doing nothing but thinking, and I thought I'd gotten to a point -- but you walked in and it went away again. The resolve. It happened with Tasha -- that's how we became lovers. We don't have counselors on ships. When I try too hard to discuss it, for an extended period, it's like it mutates into -- lust. I tried talking to a friend, a man, it turned into anger and I nearly killed him." He actually turned his back on her. "If I look at you right now it's going to happen again."

"If I'm not in the room, can you talk about it? Record it for me to listen to?"

"No. Can't talk aloud. I can only think it." Picard's hands went to his head. "God. It's giving me a headache, doing this. It always does. But I think it's weakening, whatever did this -- I didn't used to -- damn!"

Deanna went to the replicator and came back with a cold glass of water. Placing it on the low table in front of him, she moved a chair to face him and sat down. "Tell me about the day you took command of the *Enterprise.* Were you happy?"

"Absolutely. The first command I could take my family along -- I could watch the kids grow up. Chelsea loved the ship. She loves the stars, could watch them all day long if you let her. She used to help Guinan in Ten Forward." The distraction brought forth more of a response that it would have under normal circumstances, she guessed. He turned his head, appreciation in his eyes, and she realized he was actually perspiring with the effort he'd expended in talking to her in even that oblique fashion. "The saddest day of my life was seeing them leave." Picking up the glass, he drank -- she'd been right about the thirst.

"Stop thinking about that. I didn't mean to remind you of something that made you so sad," Deanna said, trying to block the waves of regret and despair from him. "You can only think of the things you can't tell me when you are alone. You think that I should know those things. I want you to relax before we go any further -- you're tense and your heart is racing. Lay back and close your eyes, and banish anxiety from your thoughts. Choose something soothing and think about it. Computer, play Mozart's Magic Flute, low volume."

She waited, paying attention to his mood. The music seemed to help; he leaned back and closed his eyes. Her impulse to go to him, massage away the tension, lay her hands on him, died slowly -- she had to meditate it away, closing her own eyes for a few moments.

Opening her eyes, she saw that he had relaxed almost too completely. "You think the conditioning is weakening."

"I've tried in my logs lately to -- " He winced; she felt the stab of pain as well. He'd thought of something that he'd been programmed not to be conscious of with another person present. That had to be it. The level of brainwashing and reprogramming he'd been subjected to boggled her mind.

"Would you be willing to submit to a combination of treatments, drug therapy, perhaps? It could take months to break this conditioning, and if there is something we could do to expedite the process -- "

"Anything! Whatever would help -- You don't understand what -- " He fell back, hands to his head, grimacing under the pain --

Blinded by it herself, Deanna stumbled from the chair, collided with a dizzying array of unidentified things on her rush through to the bathroom.

She came to herself suddenly, surprised to feel the cold tile of the floor against her cheek. A hand closed on her arm -- she jerked away in surprise, then submitted as she realized her body trembled weakly and sour bile lay on her tongue. Her stomach convulsed again at the taste. Picard picked her up by the armpits and held her over the sink; she gripped the edge and retched, noting that nothing came up. She'd not had lunch yet, and what was left of breakfast appeared to be on the floor.

More surprise that he brushed her hair out of her face with a gentle, practiced hand, and procured a glass of water for her with that one hand while supporting her with the other. It was the first time he'd touched her. She rinsed her mouth and risked a glance at his face.

Weariness, the kind that lingered after much physical pain, was etched around his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "Maybe you shouldn't do this any more."

Deanna sank to her knees again and clung to the edge of the sink, pressing her face into her arms. When she'd successfully stuffed the tears back down underneath an officer's control, she inhaled once, twice, and pulled herself up. "You shouldn't tell me what to do. You're not my captain. I'll send Counselor Davidson and Dr. Selar to see you later this afternoon, if you'd like to continue -- I think they will be able to make progress, and I'll check on you again tomorrow. Deprogramming is difficult, but we'll do all we can to expedite -- "

"You're pregnant, aren't you?"

She eyed him sharply. "That's none of your business."

"Well, I suppose not, technically. But it's fairly obvious -- it always made Deanna more sensitive overall, and strong negative emotions would give her physiological reactions, nausea being one of the more popular ones. So by all means send your other counselor along."

Deanna stared at him for a moment. "Do me a favor, will you? Don't be friendly to me." She rose off her other knee and pushed past him into the bedroom, speaking over her shoulder. "Thank you, for your assistance and your concern, but -- be polite, be firm, be cool, or be angry. I can't take friendly from you. I can't take -- softness -- "

"Deanna!"

He caught her at the door, gripping her arm firmly. Wrenching herself free, she stopped herself short of shoving him away, eyes burning as she glared at him, another sob nearly escaping her. They backed apart a few steps. Picard looked at the carpet.

"Sorry. Honestly, if there was anything I could do -- "

"There is," she exclaimed, hating that she sounded like she was crying. "If Q put you here to get this out of your system and turn you back into the captain you probably were, you can do everything in your power to help it along. I'll check on you tomorrow. Good day, Captain Picard."

"He's a lucky man," Picard said, almost wistfully.

She couldn't look at him. Her feet took her out, down the corridor, and through the door to her quarters automatically. She spun about in a circle, looking at the items on the shelves and the desk and the couch and seeing nothing that didn't remind her --

This wasn't good. This much negative emotion might cause a miscarriage. What he'd said made sense, now that she thought about it -- her overall moodiness might be attributable to her sensitivity to others' emotions. Only a few days along and already showing symptoms -- was this a peculiarity of her own hybrid physiology, or a quirk of Betazoid or human origin? Hormones, by any name, of any origin, changing her physiological reactions to things. A trip to sickbay went on her list of things to do.

Her stomach flipflopped. She pondered over the empty state of her stomach, went to the replicator, brought up lists and scrolled for something that sounded somewhat palatable -- everything sounded awful. Everything. Even a simple glass of milk.

Davidson. She had to give him orders -- and Selar. And she was supposed to be on the bridge. But she had to eat.

"Data to Troi," came the commanding officer's summons. "Deanna, I have been expecting -- "

"I'm sorry, Captain, I'll be there right away. Troi out." She hesitated only long enough to be sure her uniform wasn't stained.

The ensigns in the lift looked at her curiously. Data had notified the crew at large of the changes in the chain of command, of course, and made certain that everyone knew it was temporary. How temporary, they couldn't be sure.

If she lost Jean-Fish --

It was all she could do to keep herself steady and impassive, and not clutch her abdomen at the thought.

If she survived this mission, she would wait. How long she wasn't certain. Wait until she felt sure that Jean-Luc wasn't returning, then go home -- to the Picard home. To have his child. He felt the burden of being the last of the line, the last Picard. Putting her life on hold for however long it took to see that the last Picard grew up a Picard would be her occupation. If he couldn't be there to help raise their child, to instill in it what it meant to be a Picard, she could only hope that being raised at least part of the time at the chateau speaking French would be enough.

{Priorities, Jean-Fish. Gods, I miss you.}

He would come back. He'd be searching for ways home from his side, too. Maybe, given what he would remember of experiences the *Enterprise* had had, they could figure out how he'd most likely attempt it.

She was saved from the brink of tears by the doors opening. Her swift progress down the side of the bridge to the ready room didn't stir much surprise from the bridge crew. All the watch officers had already been briefed, down to the gamma shift ensigns. Ward Carlisle's presence at the conn, familiar and steady, reminded her that she'd pushed him out of her way -- she had sensed however that he didn't begrudge her, quite the opposite. He'd only been a second officer for five years, after all, and only on the *Enterprise* for two.

Data looked up from what he was doing. "Is everything all right?"

"Do I look that bad?" She sat down. No hiding anything from Data, he'd already asked her not to, and he'd been so supportive in the past few days of hell -- she could relax with him, especially when he turned off his emotion chip.

"You look pale. Perhaps you should be in sickbay. If this will be too much -- "

"I already told you, Data, I can handle it. You've worked long and hard to make sure I can handle it, and I'll do it. But there is something you should know, because it's only going to get rougher from here on out. I'm pregnant."

Thank the stars for that android poker face. She couldn't have handled a grin, or condolences -- she'd asked for a suspension of all such things from him. He acknowledged it with a nod. "This will affect your demeanor somewhat, I gather. I recall a number of past co-workers in the early stages of pregnancy. Is there anything peculiar to Betazoids that I should expect to encounter besides moodiness?"

"I seem to be more sensitive to the emotions of others. I'll do my best to compensate. I may need breaks to meditate, to center myself. I'll probably be more tired than usual. But I'm only a few days along, a week at most -- it's not going to really affect my performance on duty if I can take breaks."

"I am concerned that the combination of this with. . . our situation, may result in more trauma for you than it ordinarily would."

"It won't affect my work. I won't let it. I'll talk to Counselor Davidson, on my own time, if I have to. I'll go to sickbay after shift. But Data, I can do this. As long as I can convince myself of that, and if everyone would treat me the same, I'll be fine. Hopefully long enough to get the captain back. Speaking of which -- I just saw our guest. I think I know how we can start making headway, and I think he'll cooperate. You'll have a report on your desk by the end of the day, once I've spoken to Davidson and he's seen Picard."

Data smiled -- not his genuine one. His emotion chip wasn't on. This was his polite surface smile, that he'd practiced for command. "Good. Before we move on to ship's business. . . Beverly would like to know why you haven't answered her message. Evidently she addressed it to both you and Jean-Luc."

"I can't deal with messages right now. I've glanced through the headers, but -- " Suddenly, her vision fogged over. "Could you tell her? Please, Data, I can't deal with it. Not another explanation. Just send her a message that we'll get back to her later. Talking to Nechayev with you was hard enough, and that was official."

Suddenly her stomach lurched. She bent double, grabbing the edge of the desk and gasping. She didn't realize she'd had such a drastic reaction until Data's hand closed on her arm -- she hadn't even seen him get up or come around the desk. And when Mengis arrived, she realized she hadn't heard him call the doctor, either.

"You're exhausted," the doctor said almost before he'd gotten the tricorder open. He perched on the edge of the chair next to her and scanned. "You need sleep. Judging from the chemical imbalances I'm seeing, you've not eaten much either."

"I just vomited. I'll eat when I can hold something down."

"Commander, you're -- "

"Pregnant?"

Mengis' hard green eyes flicked to her face. "Yes. I'd like you to come with me and we'll run a full diagnostic. Quick off the mark, aren't we? You forgot to come in and let us put the implant back after your covert ops mission -- or was this intentional?"

"A little of both, actually. I was going to come by later today. I have work to do."

"How long will your diagnostic take?" Data asked.

"Less than an hour, Captain. Though I'd like her to eat something while we have her there, which will add to that."

"I shall expect you back here in an hour, Commander."

Deanna gaped for a moment. "I don't want this to be common knowledge," she said at last. "It's too early."

"I understand, Deanna. Go with the doctor, please."

She went, thinking that at least she'd be able to talk to Selar while she was there -- and with the thought, realized that she was, after all was said and done, an officer. Duty first. Jean-Luc would be proud of her.

The first sob caught her off guard, as she rode to sickbay with Mengis. The second caught her in the corridor. The doctor held her arm, slowed their progress, and watched her without a word. Catching her breath, she straightened her shoulders and he let go.

She walked into sickbay with him, head up, the first officer of the *Enterprise.*

~@~@~@~@~@~

The space station was as he remembered it. The promenade bustled with activity, the walkways and corridors filled with people of all species. But --

No Bajorans.

Jean-Luc stared out the viewport at the planet that should have had clouds and ocean and green and brown continents, and saw only rock.

"Hell," he muttered.

No hasperat. No Ro Llaren. No ancient Bajoran traditional spirituality, no Emissary, no Kai, no Orbs. . . . The space station existed because of the wormhole. Bajor the living planet, as he'd known it, was gone. Destroyed in a war decades before. The Cardassians were peaceful, all right -- as long as they were in control.

"Jean-Luc?"

The familiar voice had a hardness he somehow hadn't anticipated, in spite of knowing he was supposedly her ex-husband, in spite of Tasha's warnings. He turned slowly and kept his posture non-threatening as possible, shoulders rolled slightly forward and chin tucked.

This wasn't the Beverly he knew. Her hair, much longer than would have been feasible were she in Starfleet, had been braided and coiled elaborately on the back of her head. The bright blue dress, loose but flattering to her figure, covered a body of ampler proportions than he remembered, but she wasn't nearly as bad as Deanna. Her eyes glittered like ice. The anger in her posture, the lines in her face -- this universe hadn't been kind to the women he'd loved. This Beverly was hard as hull plates.

At least she wasn't an empath. She couldn't sense the fury building inside him at what she'd suffered, therefore it could remain his secret, unexpressed and controlled.

"We need to talk," he said, voice pitched low and serious.

"That's what I gathered from your message. Since when do you *not* want to see the kids first? Usually that's the only thing on your mind, any more." Her arch tone hurt, though it shouldn't. It only made him all the more thankful that in his universe, he'd retained his friendship with this woman.

He glanced left and right. This section of the station, one of the dim observation areas, was empty. He sat down in the front row of seats and crossed his arms, staring out at Bajor. After a moment she sat next to him, arm brushing his.

"I'm sorry, Beverly. You don't deserve any of what's happened. I'm ready to talk to you, if you care to hear it."

Her surprise almost brought her out of the chair. Bolt upright, she gripped the arm of it and stared. "Jean-Luc? Is that you?"

A slow, measured turn of the head, and he met her gaze calmly. "Actually, if you'd like the whole truth, I can tell you that too. But for the moment -- ask what you will."

Her fierce regard could daunt anyone. "What happened to you, on that mission? Why did you turn into a sexual predator when you came back?"

Thank the stars for Tasha and her candor. Uncomfortable as that explanation had been, it'd explained more than she'd guessed it might. "I was programmed to avoid direct questioning that way. A gift from Madred. He tortured and brainwashed me, you see, and I've had no choice in the way I've behaved. But that's going to change."

Beverly's incredulous expression hurt. This situation hurt -- she'd been as much a victim of Madred's manipulations as his doppelganger, as had the children. She sank back and slumped in the seat. "Your pal, your chum, the wonderful Madred about whom we argued so often -- you wouldn't hear a word against him and suddenly he's a torturer."

"Not so suddenly. He's always been one. What's sudden is the substitution that's been made -- perhaps this won't be believable, but I have evidence." He reached for the tricorder sitting in the chair to his left. "Beverly, I've been brought here from another universe. An alternate reality. If you would care to look at this you'll see that I'm the same person but that I'm not. It's why I asked to see you before the children see me."

She took the tricorder and scanned the record of Pulaski's findings, then turned it on him as if she couldn't quite believe it without verifying -- "Your heart," she murmured. Her eyes shifted their intense blue gaze to his face. "Not just that -- your demeanor. There's a -- freeness, there. Like something's been lifted -- "

"Like it's never been there in the first place," he said, echoing Tasha's descriptor. After hours of conversations with her that had been her conclusion. He was her captain minus the onus of the layers of programming Madred had put in place.

"You're saying that you're from an alternate universe but that *my* -- "

"I've found indications of what's been done to him throughout his logs, and all his communiques with Madred. I've discussed it with members of his crew. I was tortured and escaped relatively intact. He didn't. The sexual behavior, the belligerence toward men -- those were carefully calculated to disguise the reality and to humiliate him. I have reason to suspect he'll be returned to you, Beverly, and that when he does return, he'll be at least partly recovered. Though I don't know for certain what reasons you had for divorcing him, I think you'll find he's a changed man."

"I don't know if I should believe this or not. This could be another of your -- "

"The games are part of it. A way of building mistrust in others, to keep them guessing, to keep your Picard from ever being able to reveal anything about his condition to anyone. I've had considerable difficulty getting people to believe I am who I am because of those games. But from the pattern of absent and present scars, the artificial heart, and the shift in the RNA, you can see that I'm telling the truth. Beverly -- I never married you, in my reality. You married Jack Crusher. You had a son. You served aboard my ship. We're good friends, you and I, but I'm married to someone else."

The color in her cheeks and the wide-eyed alarm wasn't quite what he'd expected. "Oh, God. Jack -- and me? But -- You're serious. I can see from your eyes. This is real, isn't it?"

"If you want to take me to the infirmary here on the station and -- "

"No, Jean-Luc -- I can call you that can't I?"

He smiled. "It *is* my name. Remarkable how you've come to accept this, and quite a refreshing change from what I'd expected."

She stared at him for a long, long time, the red in her cheeks fading to white, until finally tears began to fall. "I wish he were like you," she whispered. "You're so -- solid. So much the way he was before. Do you think -- will he go back to -- where is he?"

"I suspect he is with my crew, my ship, and that my wife will be working hard to help him -- because helping him is the goal. The challenge. The being who brought me here is what's known as a Q, and from what he said, the reason this switch was made was for your Picard's sake. I'm working on other means of returning to my reality -- I don't take anything for granted when it comes to Q -- but I've no doubt that Deanna will ascertain the problem and do everything in her power to undo the damage that's been done. She's the best there is, Beverly. She's been my ship's counselor for years."

"Deanna's *your* wife?"

He sat still, staring at the rock that was once Bajor. "Yes. We'd just been married, shortly before I was brought here. This is hell to me, Beverly. That planet, for example, is alive in my reality. The Bajorans just joined the Federation. The Cardassians are rebuilding their civilization after a devastating war -- but here they are in the process of devastating the Federation. I believe that your Picard needs to turn this ship of his around and stay right here in the Alpha Quadrant, and work against the Cardassians. I think his programming was beginning to crack." His voice had dropped to a low whisper, and they leaned together over the arm of the seat. "His last few logs were almost manic, as if he were fighting against it and unable to make any real headway. I thought at first he was completely insane -- it was such a mess of sexual obscenity and furious raving that I feared for my crew. But if he's fighting it, if he's willing to work with Deanna, she'll be able to help him. There is hope, Beverly. She recovered me from bad situations before."

A slow clapping interrupted -- he didn't have to turn around to know who it was, only one being could appear in the chair next to him without his detecting the approach. Beverly's surprise added to it. She jumped up and backed a few steps, and Jean-Luc turned with feigned casualness to look at Q.

"Congratulations, mon capitaine. You astound me, the way you figure these things out without my help."

"You'd expect me to just sit around waiting for you to rescue me?" He sniffed. "You're so predictable. You act as though we're nothing but windup toys, put in the universe for your amusement, and the instant one of us does something you didn't expect it's such a surprise. I suppose you're here to annoy me instead of taking me home?"

Q frowned. "Well, I was going to tell you how things were going -- but if you're going to be so *petulant* I'll just be on my way."

"No -- wait -- Q, why are you being so. . . generous?"

"Oh, Jean-Luc, really -- you're so predictable. You act as if we Q are always up to no good, and the minute one of us does something you didn't expect it's *such* a surprise."

Jean-Luc laughed dryly, actually smiled at that. "Touche. Is it going well? Is she. . . is Deanna all right?"

Q pitched his head back and laughed, throwing his arms wide, and leaped from the chair. "All right! If I'd known she was half as much fun, I'd have included her on a few of our adventures -- but then, I don't always determine our adventures, either."

"What's happened?" Jean-Luc sat up avidly. "The Romulans?"

"Would you like to see? And do sit down, Beverly -- I'm sorry, the good captain's manners seem to fail him when I'm around. I'm Q. The engineer of our little switch -- don't worry, your husband's in good hands." Q pointed at the viewport, which flared and showed a broad view of the bridge of the *Enterprise* -- Jean-Luc barely registered Beverly's wary movement to a chair as he surveyed the scene.

Data, with four pips! Deanna, with a red collar! As Jean-Luc gaped Deanna rose and moved to the ops console, standing over the second officer's shoulder as Ward spoke. No sound, just the view, just Deanna moving from ops to face Data and say something, her face composed and professional. She snapped around to look at the viewscreen as everyone else did, and Jean-Luc saw the wavering image of a decloaking warbird.

Deanna's mouth moved. Red alert! Shields up! The next few minutes were incredible -- the bridge rocked, and the helm officer's fingers were flying in response to orders Data gave, the android rising to catch Deanna's elbow as she stumbled for her chair, the first officer's chair, and as she sat she already had her hand on the monitor bringing up data, her head turning to deLio at tactical behind her.

They'd made her first officer in his absence. He hadn't been there to witness it. Of course -- with the captain gone, replaced by a double of him who had definite problems, they would have to put someone in command to face the Romulans. Of course it would be Data.

And then it was gone. Replaced by the image of himself, in sickbay, in one of the isolation wards on a biobed, with Counselor Davidson and Dr. Selar in attendance. As he watched Selar injected something into his neck -- the pain on his doppelganger's face made Jean-Luc cringe.

"Drug therapy," Jean-Luc whispered. "They're trying to break the conditioning. They're trying to break through, so he can begin to process the experience."

And the window went back to stars, the glow of the Bajoran sun, the rock hanging in space -- and capricious Q was gone.

Beverly gripping his hand tightly brought him back from the dazed state he'd fallen into. He realized that tears streaked his face, and launched himself from the chair, shaking her off, pacing wildly down the length of the windows. He traversed the length of the observation bay twice, translating emotion into movement, and finally, as he reached the leeward side of the bay, struck the bulkhead with both fists and used the pain to focus, fingernails digging into his palms.

"Damn you, Q. Damn you to hell. I *hate* this," he grated.

He didn't bother looking when the flash of light happened to his right. "Now, *there's* the captain I remember. Losing himself to the anger. The hatred. It's so hard for you to lose control, isn't it -- Jean-Fish?"

His eyes ached. His throat hurt -- everything in him wanted to scream and throttle the smug bastard. But Jean-Luc turned a rigid, furious expression on him, and glared. "Thank you, Q, for letting me know what's happening. That she's all right. If it was reality, that is, and not one of your illusions -- because I've been thinking. That entire encounter with you on the Bonestell Facility wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In this universe you've put me in, my double never went through that. He's still a captain."

Q smirked and leaned against the bulkhead. "Well, ma petit, you have to realize, the fate of the universe takes many turns and twists. For all you know, he's been through something that had the same impact. Must have been really something too, to affect him the same as an impaling."

"You aren't the same Q, are you? Not the same individual Q I'm used to. You don't behave the same."

"No, Jean-Luc -- it's you who no longer behaves the same."

Jean-Luc laughed airlessly. "You know, I think you're actually learning from the humans you antagonize. Aren't you?"

Q tossed off a disdainful guffaw. "Moi? The immoral, unethical, outrageous Q? Surely you jest. What could I possibly learn from limited -- "

"You'll return me, when he's ready to return here. That's what you said. When will that be? Surely an omnipotent being could tell me that."

"Hmm." Q looked him up and down. "Maybe. Maybe not."

"You said -- "

"Oh, come now, surely you know better than to *trust* a *Q*!"

Jean-Luc's fist impacted the bulkhead. Q was gone -- "Damn! DAMN!" he bellowed, as Beverly's hands closed on his arm. He heard the tricorder.

"Now, that's something I haven't seen in a long time -- Jean-Luc Picard losing his temper and breaking his fingers," she said, actually sounding amused.

"Damn it, Beverly, that bastard -- stop poking at it already! I just -- want -- to go -- home!"

"Come on, I'll take you to the infirmary and we'll fix -- "

"JUST GIVE ME A MINUTE!"

He fell back against the bulkhead and slid to the floor, cradling his hand. The pain was actually welcome, at this point, anchoring him in the now, giving him something other than Deanna's eyes to think about. Bands of duranium seemed to tighten around his ribs. The wall felt cold against his back.

"Damn it. . . Deanna, cygne, I'm so sorry. . . ."

When he realized he'd spoken aloud he bit his lower lip and bowed his head. Several ragged intakes of recycled air later, he opened his eyes. Beverly leaned over him, concern in her face, especially her eyes. And angst. And tears.

"I wish my husband felt that way about me," she whispered.

Inhaling, Jean-Luc forced himself to his feet, disregarding her attempt to help him. He stared at the deck plates near his feet for a moment. "Beverly, I've heard his logs. I think you will find that once he's free of what Madred did to him, you'll have your wish."

She pulled him along by the elbow when he didn't seem able to move. Recovering his wits on the way, he freed himself from her light grasp on his arm and went the rest of the way on his own. The doctor in the station infirmary looked at his hand, logged 'lost a fight with a bulkhead' as cause of injury as if it happened every day, repaired the damage, and sent Jean-Luc on his way.

"I'm sorry," he said as they walked back out on the promenade. "I haven't been sleeping well, and trying not to think too much about where I belong -- deciphering what happened to your husband -- ex-husband, has been a welcome diversion, among other things. I lose control too easily when I'm this tired."

She laughed at that. "You keep reminding me over again, just by the way you are, how much *not* him you are. Apologizing for things like that hasn't been your habit. So that was Q?"

He almost got an answer out, when a girl shouted, "DAD!" and suddenly he was being throttled from behind.

When he'd extricated himself, he found himself looking at a ten-year-old Chelsea, blond and beautiful, with Beverly's translucent complexion. Behind her stood Claude, thirteen, who reminded him far too much of Rene with red hair. Their grins slowly waned; he looked to Beverly, who was absolutely no help whatsoever -- she seemed at a loss.

"I'm sorry," he began, then grinned. "You see, I thought you were a bunch of voles -- "

Chelsea leaped at him, giving him no choice but to catch her and endure a wet kiss on the cheek. Claude wouldn't come into hugging range but got his hair mussed. Over Chelsea's head, Jean-Luc glanced at Beverly; she mouthed a thank you and smiled, though the beginnings of fear showed in her eyes at last. The shock was wearing off to the point that she'd begun to think of the ramifications. She might not see the father of her children again.

"I suppose you wouldn't want ice cream, so we'll just skip that, and go -- "

"Dad, come *on,* you can't do that to us," Claude groaned. "You promised!"

Reviewing old correspondence sent as well as received had paid off. Jean-Luc guided his temporary progeny toward one of the restaurants along the promenade, with his temporary ex-wife in their wake, setting aside the trouble in his temporary reality long enough for an ice cream cone.

He even managed to not feel too much despair as he heard Chelsea ordering chocolate.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna sat up, dislodging padds, and looked around -- on the couch. After dinner she'd nodded off in the middle of studying a duty roster.

First officer wasn't so much of a leap. Administrative things weren't foreign to her, after all, and after watching Will, then Data, tending to these miscellaneous duties over the years, doing them herself felt familiar in a way.

The Romulan situation would be coming to a head in a few days. Things would change, then -- she'd be first officer in a tense confrontation. That would be different. They hadn't yet confronted actual Romulans, or even had a blip on the sensors, but that *would* change.

The off-duty loneliness was there, as it had been since Jean's disappearance. Even the presence of the Picard alternate couldn't do away with the yearning for Jean-Fish, the intense need for the feel and the smell of his skin, his warmth, the sensation of a stray breath across her arm -- his heart with hers. Her hajira. The need to discuss her situation with him -- though she never came to him after shift with professional dilemmas she could vent to him about her professional stress. Once they'd become lovers, she'd found him to be an excellent listener. She could collapse against his chest, listen to the soft sounds of his artificial heart, feel the warmth from his emotional one, and relax completely as she murmured her cares to him. She needed that confidant now more than ever.

Data had revealed to her in confidence that he'd been offered the position of first officer aboard Glendenning's new ship, the *Venture,* the latest Sovereign-class. Jean-Luc had known, of course. It'd been why he'd mentioned she might cross the bridge sooner than she'd anticipated. The thought of being aboard the *Enterprise* without Data *or* Jean-Luc in command daunted her. Though she knew neither of them would allow her to get this far if she weren't able to stand on her own two feet, having a new captain would be difficult. A new command style to get used to, a new face on the bridge -- it would always be Jean-Luc's ship to her, no matter who came aboard.

No guarantee she would even stay aboard, either. Captains generally chose their own officers. And if the ship went to a captain like Jellico, she'd be transferring voluntarily.

She'd have to move out of these quarters. That was the worst part. These were her quarters now, her home, and the last thing other than the baby she had to cling to --

No. Jean would come home to her. She had to stay in denial of the chance of his being gone for good, for her sanity, and for the sake of the child. Closing her eyes, she pressed her palm to her abdomen.

Calm.

Peace.

She sensed her guest before the annunciator went off and summoned him in immediately, brushing away tears and presenting a calm facade. Will came in slowly and sat in the chair on the other side of the coffee table. He looked tired but was concerned enough to come aboard and neglect Bell, evidently. Certainly concerned enough that it rubbed raw on her.

"How are you?"

"I'm just the same as the last time you asked, thank you." Deanna curled her legs under her and picked up a padd. "Only busier."

"Too busy. You shouldn't push so hard."

"I'd think a captain would know about burying oneself in work to avoid personal pain."

He watched her, brooding, the familiar concern and affection bristling against her empathy like a hairbrush against her arm. "You're not a captain."

"But I'm an officer."

She met his gaze finally. His eyes didn't waver and fall away from hers as they had so many times since she'd begun her relationship with Jean-Luc. "What has he done to you?"

"Nothing I didn't want, Will. Please don't start questioning my choices again."

"First officer, though? You said you wanted children."

Putting aside the roster, she crossed her hands in her lap and regarded him silently. These were moot points so far as he was concerned.

"You said you wanted a family. As happy as you were at the wedding, I thought that was what you'd decided -- that you'd changed your mind and you were going to stop pushing for command and start -- " He broke off, staring. "Why does that make you angry?"

"Because you think you know exactly what makes me happy. You think," she exclaimed, pausing, rising from the couch to pace with crossed arms, "that I'm going to settle for simple living. That I'll just be the little woman, sitting and watching everyone else make all the decisions."

"Dee, what's come over you? You sound -- "

"Upset? Sure, Will, it's what you expect after all. You keep coming back here with that sympathetic look on your face to comfort me. I have work to do. I have a career, my husband did everything short of actually bleeding to let me keep it, and I'll be damned if I give up anything he's ever given to me for no good reason! Especially my career, especially the one thing I've pursued that's given me -- "

She stopped and looked at him, trying to decipher his emotional state, which had just turned muddy and confusing. Will sat back in his chair looking up at her from under those thick lashes of his, measuring her. "You kept pushing me away because of, and I quote, 'professionalism.' You're sleeping with your captain. Just what was it that made you think it wouldn't work with me?"

Something was wrong. This wasn't the Will she'd come to know. Deanna tapped her comm badge. "Troi to bridge. Has anyone transported to the *Enterprise* from the *Lexington* today?"

"deLio here. No, sir, no one has -- were you expecting anyone?"

"No, thank you, Commander. Troi out." She glared at Riker. "Get off this ship, Q."

His features slipped from bearded and handsome to clean-shaven and less so. Q sighed and shook his head. "I suppose I should have guessed a woman would be harder to fool than a man. You would think I'd learn, after Vash -- "

"I am *not* Vash! Go away!"

"You aren't Vash, are you? He wouldn't have stayed with her, or vice versa. I wondered why, until we went to the Gamma Quadrant together. Tiresome woman. Demanding. You, however -- you're not so demanding, not the same way. All you want is. . . respect."

"I want a lot more than that. Peace and quiet, and you, gone. I want things the way they ought to be -- bring my husband back and leave us alone."

Q tilted his head inquisitively -- it reminded her of Data. "The way things ought to be, hmmm? Tell me more. How things ought to be, according to Deanna Troi. Excuse me. Deanna Picard."

Deanna sat down, retrieved two of the padds, and began scheduling the following week's bridge assignments, drawing on the past two months of schedules to discern the pattern Data had been using.

"Oh, please -- are you ignoring me in the hopes I'll go away and sulk? Hasn't anyone ever told you that only works with petulant imzadi?"

Deanna's head came up. She could feel her eyes burning, though she didn't know whether that was due to anger at Q or sheer frustration with the subject in all its permutations. "My life is none of your business."

"Perhaps, but that doesn't mean I don't see it for the sham that it is -- any Q could, just for the looking, all those years of denying your imzadi, just for the sake of career, and suddenly here you are in Jean-Luc's quarters. How mercenary of you to sleep your way to promotion."

Deanna worked at trying to read the padd through the anger blurring her eyesight.

"And now he's gone. You could call up Will and invite him over. That blond creature would be gone in a flash, he'd toss her over in a *second* -- "

She didn't bother looking at him. "Bring Jean-Luc back to me or leave. I won't play your mental games."

"Why settle for just one Jean-Luc? Or, why settle for the same one? There are so many of them to choose from. I'll give you a different one, if you like. Just say the magic words -- 'I want this one, Q.' And he's yours."

Suddenly the padds were gone, the room changed, her clothing altered -- the dress she'd worn to the wedding brushed her legs. Her wedding ring was missing, she realized, her finger feeling naked without it. The grass felt cold on her bare feet. She stood in the garden in front of the chateau, and as she turned to look around she saw Jean-Luc coming toward her, smiling as he had on their wedding day.

But when she looked in his eyes, his heart was missing.

She turned her back on him and walked away. Bumped into Q.

"What about this one?"

She looked where he pointed. Another Jean-Luc, this one in the gear he'd worn on the archeological expedition to Zanzibar, also smiling, holding out a hand. Again, his eyes were empty.

"This is pointless, Q. I told you, I don't feel like playing your stupid games." She sat cross-legged on the ground and crossed her arms, eyes closed.

Silence.

Venturing a look, she found she still sat on the lawn, with Q gone.

He stayed gone, too, so she got up and walked around for a while. Everything felt so real, everything smelled like it should -- the flowers were almost just like they'd been in the simulation Jean-Fish had done for their wedding. In the distance she heard a horse neighing. Birds sang overhead. The wind even carried the smells of green things and dust and flowers, and grapes. The vineyard. The winery.

Eventually she went inside the house, getting a splinter on her toe from the porch. She hesitated in the entry to pluck it out and jumped at the sound of a voice.

"And who is this?"

She looked up -- mouth open, she put her foot down and stared. "Mrs. -- Madame Picard?"

She'd expected Jean-Luc, if anyone, and hadn't paid attention. This was the woman from Jean-Luc's pictures, looking about the same age she must have been when Jean-Luc had been in his early twenties -- her pale blond hair already going to white, pinned up on the back of her head in an old-fashioned style. She wore a simple dress, floral print -- leaves and tiny pink flowers against a white background.

"Who are you, mademoiselle?" She smiled then, and Deanna saw hints of Jean-Luc's features in her face. "You must be one of Jean-Luc's friends, yes?"

"No, actually, he -- I -- "

"Oh, don't be shy, petite, I know my son has his liaisons. But he has never brought one home before, so you must be special. Come in, dear, and do tell me your name."

This had to be one of Q's scenarios, but this intrigued her; he had been weaving truth and fiction together, and curiosity overwhelmed her better judgement. She was stuck here anyway until Q finished with her. Deanna followed her mother-in-law into the kitchen, where she was given a tall glass of water, after refusing anything more.

"Deanna, what a lovely name," she said. "I have become interested in names, as of late, names and their meanings. Mine is Yvette, and I hope you feel you can call me that, instead of Madame -- I am madamed all day by the workers and the people in town, and Maurice's friends. We are two women standing in a kitchen on a fine spring day enjoying a lighthearted chat about everything and nothing, there is no need for such formality."

Deanna smiled at that. "Names and their meanings?"

"Oh, yes. Yvette, for example -- like Yvonne, it is a feminine form of Yves, which means yew tree. Which I do not mind at all, being named for a tree. If we had had another son, I would have named him Yves. It is a good, solid name. Do you know what a yew tree is?"

"I've never seen one. Is it Terran? I'm not a native of Earth."

"I should have known -- those eyes don't look quite familiar. Such beautiful eyes they are. A yew tree is an evergreen. Never loses its leaves, and is strong, so strong, such that they are used in making cabinetry and bows for archery. Come and see my cabinet -- I have one made of yew."

She led Deanna through to the large living room and showed her the familiar keepsake cabinet. "It's a beautiful cabinet, full of such beautiful things. What is the meaning of my name?" Deanna asked, peering through the glass at the heirlooms in the cabinet.

"Deanna is derived from Diana -- who was a goddess of the moon, did you know that?"

"I thought Diana was a goddess of the hunt."

"Oh, she was that, too. Also the goddess of chastity. But don't look so amused -- chastity does not always mean virginal, you know. It can also mean fidelity -- a wife who is faithful to her husband is chaste." Yvette appraised her critically. "You have a very serene way about you, petite. Very much a lady. I must say, Jean-Luc has excellent taste. You could easily be a moon goddess, with your coloring -- eyes and hair like the night, and such beautiful skin."

"Thank you, Yvette. That's very kind of you -- but I'm not really anything like a goddess, I. . . this is a beautiful swan," Deanna said, pointing at the large white one she remembered from Jean-Luc's holo-chateau. "I've always been partial to swans. They're lovely creatures."

Yvette smiled and opened the cabinet. Picking out the swan with a practiced care, she held it up between them. "It also is like you -- dark eyes, with sadness in them. You are sad, too, petite. What is wrong?"

"Do you always welcome total strangers into your house this way? You make me feel almost -- almost part of the family," Deanna said, rubbing away a tear with a fingertip.

Yvette's hand, long slender fingers and well-manicured nails, lay light on her arm. "My dear, you almost speak without words, with your eyes. Why are you afraid of me?"

"Because -- you're his mother, and I really didn't expect -- "

"Don't believe everything you hear about me, chère, not for a moment. I'm only firm when I must be -- so difficult, these Picard men. Stubborn, thick-skulled, but once they're domesticated they make fine husbands, believe me." Yvette put the swan aside and gestured. "Come, let's sit and talk in front of the picture window."

Deanna followed her, and Yvette glanced down at her feet. "You dance, perhaps, petite?"

"Sometimes. I'm not that good."

"You should have Jean-Luc take you dancing. Something to get him out of work -- mon dieu, that boy of mine has such focus!" Yvette turned and held out her hand, and when Deanna took it bemusedly, led her into an impromptu dance around the room. "You see, you are very graceful!"

Caught off guard, Deanna laughed for joy. Yvette hummed a little, whirling them around, then began to sing in French. "Au clair de la lune, Mon ami Pierrot, Prête-moi ta plume, Pour écrire un mot; Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu; Ouvre-moi ta porte. . . ."

Somewhere, a door banged, and Yvette turned and waited, as did Deanna. And there was Jean-Luc -- young, with wind-blown hair, dusty and dressed in rugged plain brown clothing, boots, and a riding crop in hand. He'd been out riding. He stopped in the door and stared at her.

Yvette sniffed at his reaction. "Oh, beau petit, you would think you'd never seen her before. I'm going outside to pick some roses for the table tonight. You will be staying, won't you, chère?"

"No, I. . . have to get back," Deanna managed. "I'm sorry. But it was nice to meet you."

Yvette brushed her hand down Deanna's arm and patted Jean-Luc's shoulder on her way out, leaving him puzzled and still staring at Deanna. Not unappreciatively, either.

"We haven't met," he said at last, sounding very much like the Jean-Luc she knew. "Have we?"

"I'm afraid your mother thinks so. I didn't mean to deceive her, but she was so swept up and she's so nice. . . you're Jean-Luc." As if her senses weren't telling her so. This was the raw material of which Captain Picard had been made -- he had told her of some of his youthful escapades, and this was the sort of man who could carry them off. She wondered briefly if this were a version of him from before his encounter on the Bonestell Facility.

He stepped closer, carefully, as if afraid she might run from him, holding the crop in front of him in both hands. "And you are?"

"Oh, I'm. . . Diana."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Diana. And why aren't you staying for dinner, then? Since Maman seems to like you so much." A fond smile, for his maman. He ran his fingers through his hair, taming it somewhat, while his eyes appraised her.

"It wouldn't be right. I should go, I've imposed too much -- "

He caught her arm gently as she tried to go, and the gesture stopped her but much too close to him for comfort. "I'd like to know how you came to be here in the first place. Our chateau isn't exactly where one would expect to find a Betazoid, let alone a beautiful one. I think, too, that I'd like to know a little more about you than your name."

She shrugged uneasily and pulled free. His nearness was making it difficult to think. There was something different about this one, something more real than the other Picards that Q had thrown at her. Perhaps it was just the way he'd set up the meeting, with Jean-Luc's mother and the swan and the small talk, and then Jean-Luc coming in after being out riding -- but that was how Q would want it. Convincing. He was getting too good at this. He'd almost convinced her he was Will, after all, and she knew nothing about Jean-Luc at this age, had nothing to compare her perception of this version to, so this could easily be Q again. But rather than end this on a sour note and spoil this glimpse of Jean-Luc, which was probably mostly accurate after all, she smiled at him.

"What would you want to know?"

He opened his mouth, let it drift closed, smiled -- it was easy to see why his mother called him 'beau petit' in her correspondence. "Are you here for a purpose, or are you lost?"

"I always have a purpose. I know exactly where I am."

"You are looking for someone, perhaps? My brother? But Robert wouldn't have met a Betazoid. Unless you are a tourist he met in the village?"

"I've never met your brother. Or any other member of your family, until your mother just now."

He was enjoying the mystery of it, but his curiosity sharpened. "So you have a purpose, you aren't here to see another member of my family. . . are you here to see me then? And what magnificent thing have I done to deserve your attention?"

Deanna glanced down at the floor, put her hands behind her back, and couldn't stifle a sly grin. "You are the sort of man who attracts attention, simply by being yourself. You are in Starfleet?"

"Yes, I am. You?"

"Yes."

He touched her chin and she followed the brush of his finger, raising her eyes to his. The surprise from him told her too much of what she felt showed in those damned expressive eyes of hers.

"Who are you?" he asked, too softly, too wonderingly. "How do you know me? You do know me, don't you? Why don't I remember you?"

She looked in his eyes -- his mother's eyes, she realized now -- then leaned in and kissed his cheek. "You'll figure it out someday, I expect, petit poisson."

She hurried out the front door, leaving him with dropped jaw in the hall, looking back just to get that last picture of him. As she opened the door, taking too long thanks to the unfamiliar latch mechanism, he started after her, a familiar avid look in his eye. And for a second, she considered, but fled outside anyway.

The yard had changed. She ran across the dry lawn, the shriveled yellow grass, and looked around frantically. What was going on? Now the house looked older. Q must have switched scenarios on her.

She bumped into another Jean-Luc, standing on the lawn. Him at a different age -- her age, she thought, judging from the stage of hair loss. He smiled, too, in a heartbreaking imitation of the smile her Jean-Fish had worn on their wedding day. Not giving him a chance to say a word, she raced for the vineyard. She'd rather be anywhere but facing another one of Q's illusions that felt almost real.

She almost ran into an old man coming up from the vines. The face beneath the broad brim of the hat was Jean-Luc's, but ancient -- sagging skin, pocked by the elements and the years. His back bent, he moved as though it hurt him to do so. He reached for her, and in the act of pulling her hands free of his grasp she realized that she too had aged, though not as drastically. Her hands were worn and wrinkled. She touched her face, pulled some of her hair down -- black shot with silver.

"Dee," the elderly Picard whispered. His fingers closed on her wrist like claws. "Dee. Thank God. It was all a dream -- I thought you were gone. Please don't leave me like that again."

She looked into his face. His heart wasn't there. Just a lonely, aged man with Jean-Luc's eyes -- so happy to see her that it broke her heart.

Her throat seized, blocking her breathing. She closed her eyes.

{Go away. Go away, Q, and take all of it with you. I played with you for a while. Now I want reality.}

She opened her eyes and found herself cross-legged on the couch, in uniform, surrounded by padds. Gathering her wits and catching her breath, she tapped her communicator. "Troi to bridge."

"Bridge here," deLio said.

"Please make a note that regardless of time of day I would like to be notified when anyone transports from any other ship to the *Enterprise.* Also, please hail the *Lexington* and ask Captain Riker to contact me at his convenience. Troi out."

When the call came, moments later, she was sitting at the desk already and ready to confront Will's concerned expression on the monitor. "Everything all right?" he asked, in a tone implying he suspected it wasn't.

"Relatively speaking. I was doing duty rosters and it reminded me of you. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your trying to be here for me, Will, and your letting me have some space. I know you're concerned about me. I'm fine. I'll be fine. I'm more than the emotions I feel. Thanks for being such a good friend to me."

A fleeting smile at that, ghost of the one he would've given under less trying circumstances. "You've always been there for me. Thought I'd return the favor, for once. Bell's afraid you're in a downward spiral to dark depression."

"If I am, I'll pull out of it. There's just too much for me to deal with at the moment, so I'll just be an officer until things settle and I can come apart at the seams. Except -- Will, you can't tell anyone else this. I've only told Data and Mengis. I'm pregnant."

The stunned look lasted but a moment, before settling into a cautious one -- walking the tightrope, not knowing if it would be appropriate to congratulate or console. He settled for facts, thankfully. "How far along?"

"Only a week or so. It was. . . a mutual decision, and what we wanted, and we were going to figure out the logistics of it as we went along just like before, but. . . it's too soon to tell, Will. So many times pregnancies are started and lost without the mother ever even knowing it. I wouldn't have known except I was hoping, looking for signs, and hormones seem to be making me incredibly sensitive empathically -- which is why I haven't asked you to come over here to talk about this. I can't deal with the concern I can see on your face. I'm doing my best to keep myself rested and calm. And Q was just here, pretending to be you -- I needed to see your face and reassure myself that you're not still upset about my being with Jean-Luc. Q likes to yank us around emotionally if he can, you know."

He actually smirked. "Isn't it a little late for that? I performed the wedding, Dee. Get over it, already." Sobering, he tapped the screen. "You are definitely being hormonal. But if it makes a difference -- you love him, I can see that all over you. I can tell this is hitting you harder than you're admitting and I can understand why you're not letting it hit you yet. I know what he'd want -- you're already doing that. He'd want you to make your choices and not back down from them. He'd want you to go on in his absence. You want my help, you have it, but I know better than to bother offering more than once. Say the word and Bell and I will be there for you."

Deanna grinned. "So when are you getting married?"

He opened and shut his mouth. "You didn't say you were *that* sensitive. We're still talking in terms of if and maybe. Or did she already start to brag, and I've got more hope than I thought?"

"Actually, I was only teasing, but -- really? Not that there's anything *wrong* with Bell, but aren't you already married? Or is the ship being demoted to mistress?"

He laughed, and it struck her that she'd missed the sound of laughter -- no one had laughed in her presence since Jean-Luc's disappearance. "Maybe I've decided I don't want to be old and grey before I -- shit. Dee -- "

"I wish I understood why you feel this incredible urge to do that," she blurted, fighting tears. "Why you have to tease him that way. Don't you think it *hurts* him? To think that there's such a difference in our ages, and what will happen when he really is an old -- "

If he ever had a chance to be old.

"Will -- I have to go. I'll talk to you later." She slapped the controls, cutting off his reply, and tried to breath.

Focus.

Calm.

She smoothed the uniform over her belly as if soothing what was to become a child. Smoothed it again.

"Your father will be happy about you," she whispered. "Your mother is, too. We love you."

Deanna returned to the sofa and picked up the roster.

~@~@~@~@~@~

With the kids settled in their quarters, Jean-Luc found himself alone with Beverly.

A soft, smiling one. The one he remembered as Jack's wife -- she had that look in her eye he remembered from those early days, only then it'd been directed at Jack and he'd been a bystander.

"I have work -- "

"You're uncomfortable. Don't try to bluster your way around me, Jean-Luc, I've known you too damn long for that. If you want me to leave just say so."

He slowed and looked at her standing there in the corridor of the *Enterprise* -- odd sort of juxtaposition, this. Here where they'd come together again as co-workers, built a solid friendship, and toyed with the idea of more. And here she was, looking at him as if more had actually happened.

"I'm not him."

Sighing, she wilted a little. "You're more him than he is. He would have been like you, I know it -- he would have been this way. Good with the kids, good with. . . me. . . damn. I wish -- "

"Don't do this to me," he muttered.

"Do what? Is it that terrible for me to love my husband? The only reason he's my ex-husband is because of that damned Cardassian and his cruel manipulations." She turned wide, beseeching blue eyes on him. "What if you're here to stay? I mean, this Q person didn't seem willing to -- "

"Beverly, were you listening to me when we spoke earlier? I have a wife. She means everything to me -- I can't just forget her. I have to get back to her. We were trying to have a child, she has so much ahead of her -- we were going to finally take an extended vacation together, just the two of us."

"But the kids! You let them -- "

"They don't deserve to suffer simply because some capricious superbeing took their father away. As long as there's a chance of his return, I -- "

"I don't know if I want him to come back," she whispered.

Jean-Luc stared at her, dry-mouthed and sinking inside. "Beverly, I'm sorry -- I can't do this. I can't talk to you this way. I'm not your husband -- I'm not your Jean-Luc. Good night."

He reached the quarters that weren't his, and couldn't bring himself to walk past the gallery of pictures of a family he didn't belong to. Slumping on the couch, he wished he had a bottle of wine. No -- Romulan ale. This was something that required more than wine to numb away.

"You puzzle me, Picard. You both puzzle me."

Q's voice sounded faraway and faint. For a moment, Jean-Luc considered responding. Instead he slumped further, rolled on his side, pulled up his feet, and dragged a cushion around for a pillow.

"Lights off."

This time, he welcomed the memory of Deanna's eyes, telling him more than words could ever say -- telling him of treehouses and vineyards, and swans and fishes dancing on beaches to music only they could hear. Her eyes, her smile, as they stood in the gardens of his mother and took vows, while their friends watched.

His body ached, throbbing to the beat of her faraway heart, he imagined.

"Cygne," he breathed. "Inside out."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna woke and realized she'd fallen asleep sitting in the chair in sickbay. And, to make things worse, Selar's hand on her shoulder had awakened her. Still worse, it was two hours later than it'd been the last time she remembered her eyes open. Restless after her conversation with Will, she'd wandered to sickbay and stopped in for a few minutes to check on his progress. The doctor must have let her sleep.

She picked up the padd that had fallen to the floor at her feet and approached the biobed. Picard was resting, peaceful and too much like Jean-Fish for comfort. Deanna was about to turn and leave when his hand caught her wrist.

His eyes slitted open, his head rolled her direction, and he cleared his throat. His voice raspy, he said, "Thank you, Commander, for not giving up on me."

"Would you like something to drink? How do you feel?"

As he rose on one elbow, Selar came around with a cup. He took it, eyeing the doctor, and she inclined her head and left the ward. Picard drank slowly and set aside the empty cup, then sat up on the edge of the bed, carefully, as if much older.

"I feel like I've been beat around the galaxy a few times by Klingons," he said, clearing his throat again. "How are you?"

"I told you not to be soft or concerned. I'm fine -- and I'll stay fine. Are you making progress?"

"Two days of this, I'd better have," he growled. "Madred really did a job on me, didn't he?"

A searing flash at her right. "Well, if it isn't the first officer," Q oozed.

Deanna stared at him impassively. "Are you here to take him home? Bring back my husband?"

"Well, no -- "

"Then I have nothing to say to you." She turned back to the patient. Picard raised an eyebrow and seemed only mildly alarmed -- taking a cue from her behavior, she realized. "Q does what he does to get reactions from people. It's a waste of energy to give him any more attention than necessary."

Q jumped back and raised his eyebrows. "Ah, so *you're* the reason Jean-Luc has been so boring -- I should have known. Get him in bed with a psychologist, and she *rubs off on him.*"

Since she'd steeled herself against anything he might say, she managed not to react overtly to it. Even if it turned out to be one of Data's jokes. "So you've made progress?" she asked Picard.

"Yes. They're not quite done yet, but I can tell you that when I get home, certain people are going to be very, very sorry they ever laid a hand on me."

The rising anger was perceptible to anyone who knew Captain Picard -- his face changed, from calm and composed to hard and composed -- but Deanna knew the extent of the fury he really felt. He had regained some of what made her captain who he was. The resolve. Madred's programming had stolen that from him. Resolve, self-motivation, a rigid sense of principle, and anger. Now that he had it back, he was putting it to use, building purpose, focusing.

"I'm glad to hear that, Captain. Our sciences department is still studying ways to return you to your -- "

"They won't find a way to return him," Q said smugly. "Not in a million years. I have to do it, I'm the only one who knows where he belongs."

"As I said," Deanna exclaimed, "we're still working on it. Dr. Selar, are you finished for the night?"

Selar had re-entered the room. As only a Vulcan could, she showed no surprise at Q's presence. "Yes, Commander, we were allowing him to rest. We will resume in the morning at oh eight hundred. He should sleep. So should you, I might add."

"If you like I'll escort you back to your quarters," Deanna said.

They left sickbay, and Deanna realized Q had disappeared as they left the ward. Picard followed along silently and didn't leer at her in the lift as he'd done before. Walking with him actually soothed her -- for the first time in days, she didn't feel completely empty without duties at the forefront of her thoughts.

In the corridor outside her old quarters, both of them halted.

Jean-Luc Picard stood waiting for them. In uniform, arms held out to her, smiling. "Deebird!"

Deanna stared at him, in his eyes, and ignored the apparition completely. Taking Picard by the arm, she pulled him into his assigned quarters.

"That was -- "

"It wasn't. Q is omnipotent, remember. He can appear to be anyone. I know my husband."

Q appeared before them in the room. "Oh, you challenge me," he crooned. "I do love a challenge!" With a snap of his fingers, he transported them into a flat grey space with no discernable boundaries -- full of Picards in the same black and grey uniform, all of them looking around in confusion. She took the hand of the one known quantity present, the Picard she'd been with, still in his civvies, and waited.

"This is intolerable," he said. "Does he do this to you every time?"

"Not this particular thing, but similar ones. He seems to like making us suffer. He's plagued my captain repeatedly."

"You're being very calm about it."

Deanna smiled at him. "I'm an officer, Captain."

"'I'm an officer, captain.' What mewling, pitiful attempts you make at being in control." One of the Picards was speaking in Q's voice, she realized -- the one to her immediate right. "You're not in control, Commander. All of you humans -- "

"I'm Betazoid," she corrected absently.

"Whatever. Miserable little finite creatures -- you all act like the universe revolves around you, and you can control it."

"I don't think that, Q. I can control myself -- until something happens to take that away from me, I am in control of what I do and what I say. It's all any of us has. You think you can manipulate us -- you're right, you can. You can tie strings to our limbs and jerk us around. All your games are as nothing to me, because from all I've seen, there's one part of us you can't touch. Our self-determination, our free will, has always gone unscathed. You put us in situations, give or take away abilities, transport us to different realities, tempt us with things we want, but you give us choices. I choose to be true to myself, my principles, and to my husband. You can do nothing to make me deviate from that."

Deanna glanced at the Picard whose hand she held. Looking around, she sent out silent queries, and received nothing back. She let her eyes meet as many of their gazes as she could. "My husband is not here," she said. "I'd like to get back now, I have to be on -- "

The Picard in front of her flashed into Q, angry-eyed, who then flashed and disappeared -- leaving them in Picard's quarters again. She let go of his hand.

"Good night, Captain."

"No security? No countermeasures? What if he comes back?"

"We must all learn to accept certain inevitabilities, Captain. Q's powers are one of those things we can't hope to thwart. It's useless to try. If it would make you feel better I'll put security outside your door."

She waited a moment. He shook his head and shrugged, then headed for the bedroom without another word, his shoulders taking a familiar, weary slump.

Outside in the corridor, in front of her door, Deanna realized that he'd sounded different -- he was starting to fight back against his circumstances. He'd be back to normal soon. Her sense of him had become more comfortable, less suspicion-arousing, and --

She kept walking and pressed Data's annunciator. The android wasn't asleep, of course, and sat at his desk going over the day's activities and damage reports. "I hope I'm not intruding, sir," she said.

"No, Deanna. Is everything all right?"

She was playing the role-dance with him, and he was good at it. His tone affectionate and friendly, he'd used her name instead of her rank, taking the lead in setting the roles they would play as he was the commanding officer in the situation. She ached to be dancing roles with Jean-Fish. "Our guest has made incredible progress in the last two days." She sat on the end of his bed and told him about it, then about Q, and the encounter with the room of Picards. He offered little comment, thanked her for keeping him updated, and paused, uncertain of where to go from there.

"Data, can I ask you a favor?"

"Certainly, Deanna."

"Would you mind. . . if you're not using the bed, could I sleep here tonight? It feels improper, if I think about it, but -- you can turn off your emotions so they won't keep me awake, and sleeping alone in my own bed -- our bed -- hasn't let me relax. I need sleep, I'd prefer to do without sedation if possible because of the baby, and I'm -- afraid of being alone. Between Q and Jean's absence. . . . I guess I'm asking you to watch over me. I know Q could snatch me out if he wanted, but it would make me feel better to have someone with me."

"I will not be using the bed tonight. Please do not give it a thought. If it would help, you may think of me as a piece of the furniture."

Deanna sighed. "I can't do that, but I can think of you as a good friend. Thanks, Data." She pulled the clip out of her hair, shook it out, and curled up on his bed in uniform, pulling one of the pillows into her arms. As she drifted off, which took mere moments to do, she heard only the soft sound of a padd being put on the desk and another being taken up.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc woke to the annunciator. He checked -- only five hundred hours, and his body, protesting the early hour, ached and sang mournful dirges of his loneliness. The empty bed blues. Except he was still on the couch, still in uniform. It made it easier, but he'd been dreaming of her, lost in her embrace and the reverberating emotions they shared. The annunciator went off again before his pain had abated completely and automatically he snapped out, "Come in."

He wished at once that he'd had the presence of mind to find out who it was first. Deanna Riker prowled in, dressed in a robe. "You called?" She untied the robe and let it hang open, sauntered a few steps, and he turned away quickly.

"Out. How many times do I have to tell you -- where the hell is your husband?"

"Got called to the bridge. I know you were thinking about me. I could sense it all the way from our quarters, you were calling me -- "

"Out. Or I'll call him back from the bridge."

And there he was, coming through the door without bothering to announce himself, Will Riker in high dudgeon. "Dammit, Dee! Sorry, sir, she faked a call from the bridge." He grabbed her shoulders. As usual, she went along without much trouble, just a moist-eyed glance Jean-Luc's way.

"Lock codes, Will," he said.

Will glanced over his shoulder and rolled his eyes. "She's smarter than she acts, sir. I have a lock code. I keep changing it, and she keeps getting through it. Come on, Dee, stop crying, you're just doing that to manipulate me."

"But he was calling -- "

"Deanna, get going. Now. No more of this. The man isn't responsible for what he dreams about -- we've been through this." He tied her robe and pushed her out into the corridor.

"Is she this way *every time* she's pregnant?"

"You mean, sensitive to other men's lascivious thoughts in her direction? Unfortunately. Betazoids in general become more sensitive telepathically when pregnant. A little like a human woman's sensitivity to odors. Maybe I'll put security at your door from now on."

"There's no need for that, Number One. We can manage. I'd prefer not to embarrass her that much."

Riker stopped cold and stared at him appraisingly for a few moments, chewing his lip. "That's the first time anyone's called me that in years. Thank you, for that and for being sensitive to her feelings -- wait a minute. That's what it is. You're sensitive to her feelings, because of -- do you have any kind of bond with your wife?"

"Do you know what a hajira is?"

Deanna, who'd stood waiting outside, wheeled about and stared, traumatized. "Oooh," she wailed. "Why -- why can't you trust me like that? Will, it's not *fair*! It's just not fair that *he* can -- "

"Great, thanks, now I not only get to hear about how her parents can be hajira, I get to hear about you and her alter-ego," Will exclaimed, hurrying his wife out of the room.

Jean-Luc stood with dropped jaw for far too long. Her parents? Of course she wouldn't have known in his reality -- her father had died when she was still too young to perceive the bond for herself, and likely her parents wouldn't have explained it to her until necessary. And Lwaxana, given her extreme attempts to forget Kestra's death, wouldn't necessarily have said anything about it to Deanna. In fact, he couldn't remember ever hearing Lwaxana mention Deanna's father except in passing while speaking of Deanna herself.

"Catching flies, mon capitaine?"

He turned around. Q lounged on the couch as if he belonged there, arms spread across the back and legs crossed, smirking. "You know, it isn't often I catch you in the middle of a truly flabbergasted moment."

Jean-Luc stared at him and waited with crossed arms.

"Come now -- certainly you would want to discuss this little development? You realize Riker is her imzadi, of course. She had to tell you that. So he has her soul, and you have her heart, and the eternal triangle is complete -- she's a very loyal officer, our little Miss Troi. So loyal she'll stay with her captain forever, even have his children. Because surely he won't leave her the way her imzadi did? She's trusted her captain with her life -- seen him lay his career on the line for mere friendship, mere loyalty to a fellow officer. So why wouldn't he do it for his wife? Simple deduction, really."

"Shut up! Damn you, take me home and get out of my life!" Jean-Luc bellowed.

"Oh, settle down, Jean-Luc, it's not so bad as all that -- she married you, after all. She loves you. No question of that."

Overwhelming.

"This is why, isn't it?" he said, laughing incredulously, unable to muster much energy to put behind it. "This is why I'm here. Forget all the other details, forget the Cardassians taking over the Federation, forget all the fuss about the kids and Beverly -- this is it. Put Picard in a situation where his hajira is married to Will Riker and make her irresistibly drawn to him for some mostly-plausible reason, then manipulate the details -- draw it all out over the course of a week to make it as realistic as possible and let him believe there's actually more at stake than *your petty curiosity* -- DAMN you! END THIS! NOW!"

Q's slow smile heaped wood on the inferno of Jean-Luc's rage. "Almost. Not quite. One more thing. Just. . . one. . . more. . . thing."

In a flash of whiteness, Jean-Luc found himself standing in the middle of a room. Barefoot, in a rough grey caftan.

"Hello. . . human."

Jean-Luc turned around slowly, fighting the urge to run for his life, in any direction, and then fighting an urge to race forward and pound a fist into the smiling face of Gul Madred. The Cardassian sat watching him, gently tapping the familiar remote against the desk. Jean-Luc pulled aside the caftan and saw that the scar was there -- the implant in his chest was back.

"Four lights," he spat.

"That's not the question today, human." Madred rose slowly and prowled around the desk, tapping the remote against his other hand. "The question is this. We have your wife. Would you rather see her with her imzadi -- or would you rather she remain faithful to you?"

"As if you wouldn't be able to guess -- Q. This isn't going to work."

"The question," Madred's voice went on, as if he hadn't heard, "is whether you wish her to be faithful to you and give up her career to return to Earth to bear your child in your absence. Because if you wish her to be faithful, you cannot return. If you would rather return to your ship and your career, and see her with her imzadi -- her soulmate -- then you will forfeit your child. Miscarriages do happen, you know."

"This is pointless! Who she is with is entirely her choice. Not mine. There was every opportunity for her to go with him, she stayed with me, of her own free will -- "

"I repeat. The choice is, does she give up everything to remain faithful to you and raise your child at home in France, or does she remain faithful to her career and end up with her imzadi? We are not speaking of artificially altering what has already taken place."

"You're saying that if I don't go back, she'll go home. If I do go back she'll have a miscarriage and go forward with her career, and leave me to be with Will."

"That's exactly what I'm saying. Exactly so, Jean-Luc." Madred slowly morphed into Q, an odd transformation if he'd ever seen one.

"The choice, then, is between my child and my career. Either way I lose her."

"Quite correct."

Jean-Luc thought about it. Better not to ask why, he'd get no answer. This was obviously one of Q's studies of humanity. But the choice wasn't really a choice.

"You're not manipulating the options directly, then?"

"No. Your presence is the only determining factor."

"Then I'll go back."

Q raised an eyebrow. "You're sure about that? Propagating the Picard family verses career?"

"I'm sure about that, Q. Send me back. Please."

"I'm not so certain of your choice. Prove it."

"How the hell am I supposed to prove that I'm sure I want it?"

Q handed him the remote. "If you want to go back, you'll push this button. How high you set it indicates how much you want to go back."

Jean-Luc held the device in his palm, studying it, trying to reason out how many times he'd have to go through this with Q before he'd convince him what he wanted.

He thought of Deanna Riker, and Deanna as she was to him in his reality -- at home. The tears in her eyes -- the happiness, the sadness, the way she mirrored his pain when he suffered. The beat of her heart at night, under his arm when he held her as she slept, or against his chest.

Nudging the indicator to high intensity with his thumb, he pushed the button.

The universe went white, then red, then black.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna doubled over and leaned against the side of the lift.

The other people riding in the same car looked at her strangely, asked if she was all right, but she ignored them and redirected the lift to deck eight, suspecting she knew the source of her pain.

She made it blindly to her quarters, the captain's quarters, and stumbled into the bedroom. He was there -- gods, was he real? Was this really him? Naked as when he'd left, but looking like --

"Jean-Fish! Jean-Luc!" His skin felt dry and cold. She turned him over -- he lay sprawled on his side -- and gasped. "What did he do to you? What happened?"

His eyes barely open -- so tired! But it was him, her heart told her so. Pain-wracked, she realized, noting the sour smell of his breath. A constant throb of agony vibrated from him. The odor and pain combined nearly turned her stomach. She ran her hands over his bare chest hungrily and looked for any physical damage to him. Other than the pallor and his obvious exhaustion, he seemed fine.

"Four lights," he whispered. "Deanna, I love you. I trust you. I will always trust you. My swan."

Deanna stopped, a hand on his shoulder, the other in the center of his chest. "Why are you feeling this way, Jean-Luc?"

"Inside out. Oh, petite, I missed you, it hurt -- "

Kneeling on the bed, she pulled him into her lap and stroked his face. "Jean, what happened?" Another pain, this one not his, bent her over him for a few seconds. She gasped and clutched her stomach.

Jean-Luc's hand closed on her arm, trembling, weak, but there to lend support. She heard him call sickbay and looked down at him, tears flowing from her eyes down on his face to join the ones already there. A different pain was beginning in him. Realization, and dread.

"I love you, Deanna. I would die for you. If it makes you happy, I would even live without you," he whispered.

Her physical pain mingled with his emotional pain, blinding her with tears. {Jean, what are you doing? What are you saying? I don't understand!}

Hands on her shoulders. A tricorder. And pain. All his pain now, eclipsing the remnants of the stab to the abdomen she'd felt.

{Your choice. It will always be your choice, cygne. Always. Whatever you choose, I will make it so.}

~@~@~@~@~@~

"It was the stress," Dr. Mengis said. "She was not eating properly, not getting enough rest, working too much, and the added emotional duress of trying to manage treatment of someone who reminded her of her missing husband -- your absence being another stressor, and the largest contributing factor I think."

Jean-Luc's eyelids felt like he might be dangling shuttlecraft from them, and the back of his tongue tasted as he imagined moldy shoes might. He turned to Counselor Davidson, asking with his eyes. Deanna's subordinate smiled wanly, trying to be consoling.

"I would have to concur. I spoke with her a few times in the week you were absent. Your friends, Captain Riker and Lieutenant Sumners, tried to be there for her. She turned them away more often than not. The one person who seemed to be the most comforting to her, the one she sought out, was Commander Data."

"Data," Jean-Luc echoed. He glanced toward the rear of sickbay. "You said she didn't miss a shift."

"Not a one. The two times Data tried to relieve her of duty she marched in and demanded it back." Davidson sighed, his hazel eyes showing a weariness akin to Jean-Luc's. "They say doctors make bad patients -- she's the worst. She's been asking for you, Captain. You should have been with her sooner."

"That may have been true for anyone else, but I needed to find my own bearings first. If I'd gone in there in the emotional state I was in an hour ago, I wouldn't have done either of us any good, and probably would have compounded her pain."

Davidson looked up in surprise. "You're probably right, actually. In any case -- you'd better get in there and see her. And I'll see you in my office first thing in the morning."

Sighing in resignation, Jean-Luc nodded and headed for the room they'd put Deanna into. He paused at the door, gathered his composure, and went inside.

She sprawled across the bed, one arm flung off the side and dangling in the air, her legs bent slightly and her hair wild around her face. The covers were twisted, wrapped around her, and one bare foot poked out. Her face -- too pale. Agony lingered, putting a heartbreaking twist to her lips.

He took the chair at her side, wondering for a second who had been sitting in it last, and put his palm to hers. Her fingers curled around his, her thumb moving over his knuckles. One eye cracked open; he saw the gleam of tears against her black pupil.

She moved slowly, slower even than after the incident at Galisi that had left her body broken in too many places, sitting up on an elbow and sliding her legs off the bed. He caught her when she fell forward stepping off the bed toward him, gathered her into his lap, held her like a child and kissed her scalp.

Then he heard movement -- he turned his head just far enough to catch it out of the tail of his eye. Black uniform, red collar.

Will hesitated, his expression making it plain that he disapproved entirely of something, then swept out the door.

Deanna's fist knotting in his uniform pulled his attention from Will's departure. Stroking her cheek gently, he held her while she sobbed, eventually clutching her tighter and burying his face in her hair to join her.

~@~@~@~@~@~



She waited for him to speak. Sensing his inability to express what he felt kept her from starting the conversation. Counselor Davidson had suggested leave for both of them; he'd only accepted her need for it, refusing to take any himself.

Being able to mourn their loss together helped immensely. He held her and let her cry many times -- releasing the pain of his absence, the pain of losing the child. He'd cried sometimes as well, then they'd taken refuge in the heart fire. Mourning darkened the flames and left them tired afterward.

For four days, she slept as much as possible and let herself recover. She saw him often; he stopped in for a few moments at a time throughout the day, when he could, giving her backrubs, or holding her, comforting them both. Brought her gifts -- flowers or chocolate or some small thing he knew she'd like. Held her in his lap, sat next to her, lay next to her, exhibited an almost constant need to touch her. Sometimes brought work back with him and did it while she read next to him, or simply lay with her head on his leg, taking comfort in his presence. She woke often during the night to find him almost crowding her off the bed. Sometimes she found him awake, too, brushing her face with his fingers, even kissing her forehead.

He'd taken care of answering the messages she'd left unanswered the first day. While she lay in bed, he dealt with all of them from his ready room. It had exhausted him -- she hadn't seen him look so haggard in years. Flowers appeared around her, but she didn't bother asking who they were from. It didn't matter. He mattered, they mattered, and though she could say clinically that he was handling it well, she could sense the ongoing sadness in him. Something was going untouched. He'd gone to see Davidson a couple of times; she could tell because his emotions were in disarray afterward. Still, the deep despair persisted.

The effect of the miscarriage on her body had been negligible, but her heart cried for the child who never had a chance to be, never became more than embryo, never even got so far as to have gender. She knew Jean-Luc mourned it as much as she -- but that wasn't all he mourned.

He came home the evening of the fourth day, very much the captain at first, until he looked at her. His stiff shoulders slackened and his expression softened. He'd brought her a single white rose from the arboretum. She waited for him cross-legged on the couch, some padds around her; as he sat and gave her the blossom, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. Then caught her jaw with a finger and kissed her lips, then hesitated, nose to nose, waiting. Her follow-up kiss invited more, a slip of the tongue teased his, and his arms went around her.

So warm. So strong. So Jean-Luc, yet the sensations from him confused her. He wanted her, but with an odd desperation so unlike the strength of his normal resolve. Perhaps the experience with Q had changed him more than she'd thought. Pulling away, she touched his face, looked in his eyes, and found anguish mingled with love.

"I don't understand, Jean-Fish. There will be other children. These things happen most often in the beginning, before a woman is even aware she's pregnant -- I only knew because I was looking for it. The stress I was under -- "

"It's my fault," he gasped. The admission undid him. She caught him in her arms and let him lean on her, trying to master her reaction to his turmoil before she responded. He didn't give her the chance to say anything.

"I didn't believe him," he whispered into her hair. "His prognostications were wrong in so many ways, about other things -- I chose the second option because it would bring me home. I believed he would be wrong, that you wouldn't lose the child or leave me -- but you've lost it and it's my fault. I should have known better -- "

"It can't possibly be your fault."

"Q said it would happen. The other part of it, the. . . . Cygne. I do love you. You love me, your eyes tell me so. I can hear your heart at night -- I missed that when I was gone. But he said if I chose to return, you would lose the child, and I would lose you. . . ."

Deanna pulled away and stared into his wavering eyes, and wondered if he'd really come home to her, or if this might be another of Q's tests. She abandoned that idea at once -- his heart was there. In pain, but there.

"What were the choices you're talking about?"

The tightness in him clenched down on a more emotional reaction than he gave. Turning his head slightly, looking at the floor, he said, "One option was that you would remain faithful to me. I wouldn't return, and you would go to France, and raise the child. The other -- you would lose the child, I would return and keep my career, but. . . lose you. To imzadi."

Of course. What else would Q play upon but their fears?

"So now you are afraid you will lose me, because Q said I would lose the child and it came true, and so therefore the other half of his prophecy must also come true? I suppose I'll have to wait for Will divorce Bell, then. And I suppose I should resign myself to seeing you marry and divorce Beverly -- or maybe I'll be dead next, because Q's other predictions said so."

She touched his face gently, the way he touched hers so often, tracing his cheek and jaw. When she touched his lips, his eyes came up. Almost there. Almost back on solid ground.

"There is an element of truth in everything he did to us, Jean-Luc. Enough that we might actually believe. Enough that in spite of the past year we've had together, the wedding, the promises made and kept, the love we feel and share, the trust we continue to have in each other -- whatever he did to you has planted doubt. A wise man told me once that all that mattered was what we believe. If you begin to believe the bond I have with Will is enough to tear me from your arms, I don't know if I can fight it -- you've believed so hard that you've made me your wife, nearly your first officer, almost a mother. I'm afraid to think of what you'll believe me into next. Please don't start thinking I'm like my mother."

It registered at last. He frowned, thinking -- she could almost hear the hum of his musings. "Did he do anything to you? Other than the alternate of me? Did Q taunt you the same way he did me?"

"Q came to me several times. As you, and as Will. He questioned why, when I would not compromise professionalism to pursue a relationship with Will, I pursued one with you. I understand why -- you understand, when you're not doubting what you know is true. That's all that matters. I love you, until death do us part, Jean-Luc Picard, and if you think you're going to get rid of me by enlisting Q's help -- "

He sighed impatiently -- not impatience with her, but with himself. "I'm sorry -- I surrender. It just touched so many nerves, what he put me through. Old dreams and nightmares. Too much for me to process when I'm feeling so. . . at a loss. These past few days I've hung on the edge of hope and fear, not sure which way I would fall. I just knew that, in spite of all the emotion, the uncertainty and sadness, that if there was any hope at all that it wouldn't come true and you wouldn't leave, I had to trust you."

"We'll talk it out, cher poisson. It will be all right. We'll be all right." She tugged on his arm, pulling him down on the sofa. She hadn't undressed him all week; in fact, a couple of nights he'd simply pulled off his boots and tumbled into bed in uniform. Time to rectify the situation. He stayed where he fell, on his right shoulder with his legs angled off the edge, and she made short work of his boots and jacket, leaving him on his back looking up at her. The discussion had left him in such a state of mixed emotions that she didn't bother to analyze it.

Tugging off his pants, then his shirt, she looked at him -- at the body of the man she loved. Not young, not old, but somewhere in between. He watched her in return, hands resting on his chest, while she loved him as he was, tracing muscle and sinew with her fingertips.

Were it not for the miracles of modern medicine he would be nothing but scars and missing parts. There would be knife wounds, burns from energy weapons, an arrow from Mintaka sticking out of his chest, a Naussican's knife, Borg implants everywhere. . . there on his shoulder, a knife wound she herself had given him while under the influence of Alcar. She'd heard someone call him 'the indestructible Captain Picard.' It angered her now, seemed such a callous thing to claim -- it made light of sacrifices made and prices paid. This was once a young man, a yew tree, the light of his maman's life -- a vibrant brightly-burning man with dreams and ambitions. He still was, in so many ways, the same man, but tempered by maturity and experience. Beautiful, in an entirely masculine way.

His fingertips along the inside of her arm brought her back. He brought her palm to his lips as though afraid she might snatch it back from him. Her heart jackknifed in her chest at the tenderness of the gesture and the pathos in his eyes. He spoke softly, holding her hand against his chest.

"Nothing is plumb, level or square
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter, I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage's nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that one moment. Then
it screamed and went on through
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it, I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand cross-piece but
I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife."

Deanna pondered the imagery and caught a single sob, twisting it into a tearful laugh. "Do they make his and hers crucifixes?"

He spread his arms for an answer, and she lay down on him, cheek to cheek. Knitted her fingers in his and became his cross, as she'd become his. Shared his pain -- she kissed him insistently, then lay nose to ear with him, doing centering exercises and trying to find heart fire in the midst of the despair. This was the worst he'd ever been after an incident with Q. But then, all the other times had been just him -- or Will, or Vash. Not someone he'd given himself to. Not someone he'd shared his heart with, or dared to love so --

Her head coming up brought his eyes open. She stared into them, smiling slowly. "It was a compliment, Jean-Luc. Q tested our love for each other like he hasn't done with you before. He put Vash in a silly costume and made you wear tights, but with me he either selected or created a reality that rang true for both of us to a degree that we played along -- if I didn't see cause to give benefit of the doubt, I would have never had anything to do with that other Picard he left here. He wanted to see what each of us would do. I had to face another you as a temptation, first on a level of basic attraction -- when that didn't work he added the twist of his needing counseling, and I responded to that professionally. When in counseling he proved more than I could handle I gave him over to Davidson out of consideration for the stress on the baby and the added responsibilities of first officer, instead of rising to the challenge as I wanted to do. When none of the indirect methods worked, Q became a facsimile of Will to ask why I took such career risks for you but not for Will. He played the imzadi card, even. When that didn't work, he sent me to the chateau and showed me images of you as a young man, then of you at my approximate age, and then as an old man -- testing my reactions. Everything fell into a pattern. He wanted to understand what motivated us to love, and find out the dimensions of it."

"You're right," he whispered, tensing beneath her slightly, eyes widening. "There was a pattern for me as well -- he offered the ship headed for exploration, an existence without the Borg, no threat of war from the Dominion or the Romulans -- he offered me Beverly, who in that reality had been my wife and mother of my children. I had the choice of reconciling with her or taking only the children with me. When I showed only interest in making the crew believe I didn't belong and finding a way back here, Q added the suspicious component, Madred being a Starfleet admiral and my friend. With that additional element I didn't lose sight of my goal completely, but found myself believing I was having a positive effect on my alter ego's behalf. Tasha was his lover -- she represented the officer side of you, I think. Then there was your alter-ego -- she pursued me as well, in the guise of increased sensitivity to my thoughts and emotions while pregnant. And when we got to DS9. . . Beverly wasn't exactly what I'd expect even under the circumstances. She accepted me too quickly, now that I think about it, but at the time -- And then Q made his appearance, and showed me you, in what I know was a false sequence, as a first officer in a confrontation with a warbird. To prove you didn't need me, probably. When I turned down Beverly flat, Deanna made one last attempt -- woke me at five hundred and then Will showed up, and they played out a scene in which she was jealous because I could be hajira with you and she wasn't with him, like your parents were."

Deanna almost lost her focus on what he was saying at that -- her mind turned backward through time, looking for memories to perhaps verify whether that element of Q's fantasy had been true. It could wait. She returned her attention to her husband the instant after it wandered.

"He taunted me," Jean-Luc whispered, then paused, swallowing. Nervous. Remembering pain -- she knew that feeling of his too well. "Turned into Madred and gave me the choice. And to prove to him that I wanted what I said I did, he gave me the pain inducer. I had to use it on myself. I didn't hesitate -- it sent me back to you. The next thing I knew you were with me. I didn't even think about what the pain would do to you, I'm so sorry -- "

"It wasn't your fault, Jean-Luc, you had no idea what would happen. Bastard," Deanna blurted. "What a complete bastard, doing that to you."

"Protective little swan, aren't you?"

His little smile, his sly, affectionate know-it-all smile, turned her completely inside out. "I may have chosen a cross, Jean-Fish, but it's the very best cross in the universe, and worth every tear I cry."

"Fuckingly-handsome?"

She pulled his hands in with hers, keeping her fingers tightly entwined with his, and got up. "Very much so. Are you ready to return to active duty?"

"That depends. What are you going to do to get me to salute?"

She pulled him up, intending to lead him into the bedroom, but reality struck, draining her of the rising excitement their return to banter had elicited. He knew it at once and took her in his arms, offering comfort.

"Perhaps it's too soon."

"Time, that's all we need. Inside out, Jean-Fish -- I missed you."

"Flying." At the touch of his lips against her temple, she closed her eyes and battled tears. He whispered, "Ma petite, I love you. I'm sorry I've been so silent this week."

"You have been as you are, and that's all I want. We both needed silence to recover. From Q, from the loss -- you've been seeing Davidson?"

"Twice. It's. . . harder, with him. I hate it. But I couldn't expect you to bear it -- I had to be there for you. I had to get rid of it somewhere else." He stroked her head, ran his fingers through her curls, rubbed her scalp. "Dee, how do you feel? Are you all right? You aren't just keeping it all hidden from me, are you?"

She extricated herself from his grip just far enough to look him in the eye. {I could never hide anything from you, hajira. Love me.} The rushing sensation of being drawn into heart fire caught her, taking her breath away. His arms around her, his lips on hers. They stood for a moment in the fire, tightly wound around each other, unable to bring themselves to let go -- the fear raged around them. His fear.

{The closer we are, the more afraid I become that I will not be able to survive losing you. It makes me fear that I'll let you down in the line of duty -- be weak and indecisive.}

{Q is not what you could call ordinary circumstances. He bends things beyond reality. Under normal circumstances, on an away mission, you would not be forced to decide between futures like that. Without an omnipotent being to dazzle you with the possibilities, all you see is the decision and its immediate effect -- if you could see the endless ramifications of each decision, you'd never make *any* of them. We must live in the moment, as you say. He took that away and made us look at lifetimes, gave us too many paths to consider, and it confused both of us. We were not meant to see things that way.}

He loosened his hold on her slightly. {Why do I let him do this to me? But I can't help it, he creates such believable -- and this one was worse than all the others. The reality he created, the details, the children -- they were real children, and Beverly was almost as I'd expect her to be, and -- }

"It may be that it was an alternate reality after all," Deanna murmured. The fire had helped both of them settle into a peaceable, drifting state of relaxation. A welcome change from the dragging sorrow that had clung all week -- which would probably return, but they needed the break. "It may be that what we did helped start a chain reaction that will lead to a Federation in another universe finding freedom from the Cardassians. I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that even though we didn't finish with him, the captain who vanished back to his own universe will be able to heal and have the strength to reclaim what was stolen from him."

"Another tin man for you to reclaim from rust?"

She smiled lopsidedly. "And who were you, the wizard? Running around Oz making the residents of the Emerald City do their duty for a change?"

"Of course. Had to put up a curtain and improve a few efficiency ratings, but it was all in the line of duty." Running his hands down her back, he studied her seriously. "How are you? Really?"

"The sadness will fade with time. There will be another opportunity to have a child soon enough. It isn't so bad, it really wasn't with me long enough for me to become very emotionally involved with it. Jean, I know it's early, but -- you're tired, and I'm tired, and. . . I need you."

He nodded, went to the bedroom with her, turning off lights and sliding into bed next to her, where he belonged. Being in his arms now that he'd shared what had troubled him reassured her all the more. She was home -- her husband. Still so new a thing, and so much more precious than before.

His lovemaking was so gentle, as slow and careful as he'd been after Galisi. Healing. They lay tangled together afterward and she sensed him slipping off to sleep -- she watched him in the starlight and felt the difference. Peace. Equilibrium, again.

Inching further into his arms, encouraged by the way they tightened around her, she rested her hands against his chest, pushed her head into the pillow, and slept.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc looked up from her face at the sound of the annunciator, called softly to admit them, and dropped his hand from the back of the couch to Deanna's shoulder as she slept on, oblivious to their entrance.

Beverly came in first and put her gift on the table, followed closely by Tom, Will and Bell. They seemed surprised that she didn't wake; or, perhaps, that she lay sleeping with her head on his thigh, her hair spilling across his lap. Beverly dropped to one knee and studied her friend's face, then glanced up at Jean-Luc questioningly.

"She's fine," he murmured. "Tired. Doing her usual marathon type of day." He put aside his own project, an archeological newsletter he'd been reading.

"We could come back some other time," Bell said.

"No, that's all right. I would have had to wake her anyway. I'm surprised she hasn't gotten up already." He shook her awake.

She peered at him through bleary eyes, frowning slightly, then got up and stumbled into the bedroom. He heard the tumbling of items knocked from shelves as she bumped into the wall. Their four friends looked at him with silent amused questions in their eyes.

"Yes, she's like that every time she wakes. But she recovers quickly enough."

"She's. . . is she all right?" Will's question could be interpreted broadly, but Jean-Luc thought he knew what he meant. They hadn't seen Will on a casual basis in the last six weeks. The standoff with the Romulans, and the resulting negotiations, had prevented any real leisure time. The efforts had been well worth it, however, and the fleet had dispersed but for a handful of ships lingering at Starbase 437 for leave.

"It wasn't that difficult for her. What Q did to us affected her more than the miscarriage."

"I'm not sure I understand what Q is," Tom said. He had shaved off the goatee, kept the mustache, and rubbed said mustache with his thumb. "Beverly explained it to me as best she could. But he took you into an alternate universe?"

"We don't really know what he is and there's no way for us to know. Yes, he took me into an alternate reality -- whether it was one of his own making or not, I can't be sure, but if it was -- he's become too subtle for anyone's good. The facsimiles of the people I know were uncannily accurate, given the differences of experiences. I must say I prefer the reality we have here, now, to what I saw."

"And why is that?" Will asked. "You haven't told us much about what happened."

Deanna returned, looking much more comfortable now that she'd changed from her uniform into a sarong, one with a bold black geometric pattern over dark green, and brushed her hair out over her shoulders. She smiled at their guests and sat within the arc of Jean-Luc's arm, which was stretched across the back of the couch. "To what do we owe this gathering?"

Jean-Luc touched her back lightly. "You. I didn't forget your birthday this time."

She gaped delightedly. "You really *are* trainable! What did you get me?"

The presentation of the presents began with Beverly's box -- a still photograph, from the wedding. "Tom took it," she explained, touching the shining silver frame, "and I framed it. I figured you might not have had time to get one done yet."

"It's perfect. Even if Jean-Fish's head looks shiny." Deanna grinned at him, obviously teasing. "Thank you, both of you -- I know exactly where I want to hang it."

Bell offered up the next gift while Will leaned against the table with crossed arms. Jean-Luc wondered if Will still bore whatever ire he'd shown in sickbay after the miscarriage, but watched Deanna unwrap the cunning sculpture. Then he recognized who it was and covered his eyes, only to find himself peering through his fingers at it in disbelief.

Deanna laughed and held up the foot-tall bust of Captain Picard, in milk chocolate. "Thank you. It's almost as handsome as the original. I'll probably have just as much fun eating it, too."

"Merde," Jean-Luc muttered, before laughing with everyone else.

"There's a shop on Starbase 455 that does custom chocolate sculpting," Bell explained between giggles. "When Will was picking my brain for gift ideas I suggested it. He said it was a wonderful idea."

Probably to embarrass the hell out of the original, Jean-Luc thought. Forcing an amused, wry grin, he snorted and hefted the bust in one hand. "Alas, poor Yorik -- " Deanna snatched it back from him.

"Stop that. It's unique, it's perfect. I think I'll put it in stasis and keep it."

"Can I put some whipping cream on it? At least one of us could have some semblance of hair that way."

"I like you better without hair, thank you." Deanna took the bust to one of the shelves and centered it at eye level.

"When did you see me with hair?"

Her shoulders sagged a little. She turned from the shelves and crossed her arms thoughtfully. "Q ran me through a few little hypothetical situations, too, you know."

A tension filled the room, perceptibly -- from the looks on their faces, Tom and Bell had heard enough about Q to know this could be embarrassing for anyone and everyone.

Jean-Luc sniffed. "Sounds like your hypothetical situations had a few more positive aspects than mine. My universe included a Geordi who thought eighty-five percent was an acceptable efficiency rating, and a Will Riker who walked into my quarters at six hundred hours to yank my chain."

In one of those infrequent moments when he could do so, Jean-Luc felt the flicker of Deanna's amusement from across the room, without benefit of the heart fire. "You said in that universe, you were married to Beverly."

"Divorced from, and the blasted woman took my children and went to Caldos into the bargain. Which was tragic -- Chelsea loved shipboard life, and Claude was working his way toward the Academy. And both of them developed atrocious accents into the bargain."

"What about me?" Deanna turned from the replicator and brought drinks for all, stopping in front of Jean-Luc first. "You said I had three children."

"And no time for anything else. In the week I was there, Jon broke fingers crawling in a Jeffries tube to get out of class, Kyle sustained a mild concussion trying to play parises squares, and Billy reprogrammed the terminals in the school science lab to display only rude drawings of the teacher Jon had been trying to get away from. I'd hate to think what might happen to the ship, or them, as they get older."

Deanna handed Will a glass of what was probably his usual type of ale and moved on to Bell. "So I wasn't a counselor."

"No, and if any ship needed one, it was that one. With that brainwashed zombie in charge, the whole thing was going to hell in a -- " Jean-Luc flinched, almost dropping his glass. "Merde. Here we go again. Do you realize, that universe was as it was because Counselor Deanna Troi wasn't there to put my sanity back together again?"

"Actually, it was more than that." Deanna turned from hugging Beverly and thanking her for the gift again. "From what the Picard we had here told us, he'd never met Q before. Since he'd never met Q, he'd never confronted the Borg -- I believe that were it not for the trauma you'd undergone prior, with the Borg especially, you wouldn't have been able to withstand Madred. Survival is a learned skill."

Jean-Luc fumed for a few moments, hating the thought that it might be true.

"Three kids," Will said, catching up slowly. He looked at Deanna. "You and I had three kids."

"Four," Jean-Luc said absently. "One in the oven. He said that was why she kept trying to seduce everyone on the ship -- hormones. That was amusing, actually, how he kept racing after her trying to keep her from propositioning anyone who had even the slightest attraction to her. Which was why she kept showing up at my door, which was why I wound up in Ten Forward every night, talking to Guinan, or Tasha. That was interesting -- Tasha, as she would have been eleven years later."

"It sounds too detailed to be one of Q's fantasies." Beverly sat down at last in a chair, with Tom leaning on the arm of it. She smiled up at him as if reassuring him.

"I think it was an alternate reality, along the lines of the ones we've encountered before -- from what I was hearing, nearly everyone was accounted for. I did some checking. Jack was still alive. Walker, too. Most of my old friends were. The Borg never happened, the *Stargazer* did -- but I had some sort of falling-out with Jack that sent us different directions. Beverly never married him, Wesley never came into being. . . so many different branches of familiar roads. Worf was nowhere to be seen, or Data."

Deanna sighed, returning to her spot at his side. "Your other self didn't like Data -- they fought at first. It set the whole senior staff against him. And he didn't see me as an officer at first. He seemed to have a hard time with that. What?"

Jean-Luc stifled the laughter too late. "Well -- frankly, I understand that, given what he must have expected. His version of you wouldn't fit in one of your uniforms, for one thing. She'd never been to the Academy and lacked a lot of your discipline. She seemed frustrated, overall, and took a lot of it out on. . . ." He glanced at Will. "Anyway, she was quite different, in too many ways to count."

"Was I there anywhere?" Tom asked.

"Actually, I did look you up. You never made it to Starfleet. If Beverly hadn't let slip that your name's actually Geraint, I wouldn't have found you -- would you believe you might be teaching botanical sciences at the University of San Francisco?"

"Unfortunately, yes, I'd believe that. I almost changed my mind before the Academy but I wasn't sure what else I'd do." Tom grinned at him. "So you had two kids with Beverly, over there? Did they have hair?"

"I had hair to a point, you realize -- which was how we got off on this tangent to begin with. Which brings us back to where Q took you, that you know what I looked like." Jean-Luc turned to Deanna, gesturing with his drink. "I told you all about my adventure, but you've said very little about yours."

"There isn't much to tell. Q didn't put me through a lot of fantastic situations -- just one brief conversation with him masquerading as Will, which he did very convincingly until the point at which he asked questions we've answered already. Then he took me to the chateau in Labarre. I met your mother, and while we were talking, you came home from riding."

Jean-Luc froze, leaning on his elbow on the back of the couch, staring at her. She met his eyes briefly, registered his reaction, then smiled and shrugged a little. "When it became obvious what he was getting at, I stopped responding to that circumstance. Then he showed me other versions of you. But I could tell none of them were the real you so I turned them all down. Other than that, everything else was in my reports."

"At least he didn't inflict too much of his nonsense on you."

"Q may manipulate, but he must be operating within some limits or he'd do it more directly." Deanna sipped her tea and raised an eyebrow. "Come to think of it, after I mentioned that the only thing he didn't manipulate was our own free will, he got angry at me. He also told me you'd gotten boring. Maybe that means he's losing interest in you?"

"Boring -- he didn't mention particulars? Please, teach me how to bore a Q!"

"You could accept a promotion," Will said. "That would be pretty boring. What would he taunt an admiral with -- the threat of endless meetings?"

Jean-Luc wondered if there weren't more to the light-hearted jab than was immediately apparent. Trying not to take umbrage at it took a little work; since he already looked at Deanna, it wasn't hard to not look at Will. She met his eyes briefly and he felt a rush of reassuring love from her bridge the distance between them.

The annunciator interrupted further comment from anyone. Data and Geordi came in, and the engineer held up an isolinear module. "Did it."

"Let's hear it," Jean-Luc exclaimed, pointing at the desk. While Geordi crossed the room and inserted the module, Jean-Luc explained. "We received a garbled transmission forwarded to us from the Pathfinder Project."

"And we're hearing it tonight because?" Beverly exclaimed.

Data handed Deanna a box wrapped in gold foil. "It appears to be for Captain Picard, from. . . Captain Picard."

"The Pathfinder Project has been making use of MIDAS and -- oh, stop looking at me like that, Dee," Jean-Luc exclaimed, noticing her frown. "I wasn't going to segue into technicalities long, just enough to explain how we might have managed to get a message from another universe."

"Reg said they were trying to communicate with *Voyager* in the Delta Quadrant, not alternate realities," Deanna exclaimed, even as her fingers pried at the wrapping paper on Data's gift. "But you're telling me now that it appears your alternate self in your alternate universe got a message to you in spite of being a completely different reality?"

"I had amassed quite a bit of information on spatial and temporal anomalies while trying to find my own way home, and if the Picard you sent back has half a brain he'll have found my notes. They did find the quantum-level flux in my RNA while I was there."

"Actually, from what Reg has been telling me, I'm not too surprised they got this," Geordi said, hitching a leg and half-sitting on the edge of the desk. "It wasn't the only thing they picked up. It was just the only understandable thing, probably because someone on the other end of it was intending someone else to receive it and modified the signal to compensate. Reg has been messing around with creating artificial wormholes using tachyon pulses and pulsars, among other things -- it's a wonder he hasn't caused any serious spatial anomalies in the process."

"Reg Barclay, you mean? Spiderman?" Will asked, guffawing. "Worshiper at the altar of the goddess of -- "

There was a story here somewhere, Jean-Luc thought, almost ducking out of the way of Deanna's furious glare at Riker. Maybe one he didn't want to hear, judging from the smirk Geordi wore.

"Oh, Data, I *hate* you," Deanna exclaimed woefully. Jean-Luc turned from Geordi to find her pulling a red shirt out of the box. Data had finally decided whether or not to take the position. "I hate Tom more! But I guess I can understand why you'd want the transfer. New ship, and you could get more free dancing lessons. Not to mention no one there will know where your off switch is and threaten you with it."

Beverly's quiet gasp distracted Jean-Luc from Deanna's muddled reaction. He noticed Will also looked surprised, and Bell was confused. "Tom asked for him. They're giving him the *Venture,* Will."

"Really? Congratulations!" Will's smile seemed as much for Beverly as Tom. He could probably see from her relaxed, cat-got-the-cream smile that she'd already decided to be Tom's CMO. "So you're swiping Jean-Luc's first officer?"

"I don't think he'll mind too much. He already has a replacement."

Will's jaw slipped askew as he gazed at Deanna. Jean-Luc could guess now what it was about, the look last month in sickbay, the comment about Jean-Luc's taking a promotion, and now this. How predictable of him. He just couldn't stop worrying about her.

"Let's hear the message, Geordi," Jean-Luc said. "I haven't heard from myself recently. Let's hope I'm not yelling 'abandon ship' again."

"This is going to give me a headache," Deanna groaned, watching Geordi touch the keys. She wasn't the only one, Jean-Luc reflected, as a familiar voice said words he had never said -- how odd that was. He kept automatically trying to remember when he'd said them.

"Greetings, from the *Enterprise* -- I feel strange talking to myself, but. . . Starfleet isn't for the timid, is it?"

"Dad, can I -- "

"Sit, Chelsea. Be quiet."

"But I've never had two dads and he -- "

"Chelsea!" At the quiet bellow Deanna put her hands over her mouth and laughed with her eyes at Jean-Luc, muffling a giggle. He scowled at her and put a finger to his lips.

"Anyhow," Picard began again, clearing his throat, "with the help of your notes -- which have been helpful in countless other ways, thank you very much -- I've located a quantum fissure after considerable effort on the part of Starfleet as a whole, and hopefully isolated the right quantum resonance frequency. To be sure, we've sent this message into a wide spectrum of -- "

"He's getting vulky on us," came Chelsea's voice again, mumbling. "We'll *never* get to say anything!"

"Shut up or wait outside. We don't have much time for this," Picard grumped. Deanna snorted, trying to contain herself. Riker wasn't so capable; his quiet chuckle had to be cut short by Bell's elbow to the gut.

"Starfleet Command, and the Federation as a whole, would like me to convey their gratitude for your efforts to unravel the Cardassian conspiracy at work here. Significant progress has been made in that direction, and we're postponing our mission until things have settled within the Federation. I personally would like to thank you, for what you've done to restore my ship to what it should be, and for making it possible for me to. . . ."

A pause, and Jean-Luc was a little surprised that one of the kids didn't jump in. Then a cool voice that made Beverly jump a little -- "What he's saying, Jean-Luc, is thank you. To both you and Deanna -- he's told me what she did for him, while he was there. We owe you a great deal, for reasons you know very well, I'm sure."

"Thank you for the ice cream," Chelsea blurted. "And the stories, and the really neat flute!"

"And for helping me with my homework," Claude's voice put in. "Even if you got half of it wrong!"

Deanna laughed, throwing herself against the back of the couch helplessly. Jean-Luc shrugged. "Calculus, the trans-universal constant."

"Given the nature of the. . . agent of our transportation, I had supposed you might like the reassurance that the entire escapade hadn't been some gigantic trick of Q's imagination -- Chelsea, put that down! How many times do I have to tell you that isn't a toy!"

"But *he* let me play with it!"

Some muttering in French, but Jean-Luc couldn't make it out; the recording was getting weaker. "Now that I've thanked you -- don't ever come back, please? My children, Will's children, and my second officer keep comparing us and I keep coming up short, dammit!"

With a final popping of static, it was gone.

"*My* children, too?" Will blurted.

"Who was the second officer?" Geordi asked. "Were those your -- his -- kids?"

Jean-Luc suffered through another explanation for Geordi's sake, clarifying for the others as he went along. The discussion extended itself over a game of poker, followed by much ribbing of first officers. Will seemed particularly focused on Deanna. Bell's eyes met Jean-Luc's across the table at last, held them for a few moments, then she laid down her cards and turned to her captain and lover.

"Will, shut up."

He stared at her, surprised by her clipped tone. "Is that an order?"

"No. It's a warning."

"I'm not sure I understand what you're shutting me up about." He reached for his nearly-empty glass.

"I've had it with you and the teasing. It's old. Shut up."

"His alter-ego had that problem," Jean-Luc said. "It's very daunting to be sitting in one's quarters and have a familiar friendly first officer come walking in -- and then to hear him make a pass at you. One of the difficulties with trans-reality travel is never knowing what to take seriously."

Will gaped at Jean-Luc, eyes sliding to Deanna. "Is he serious?"

Deanna looked up from her cards calmly. "Quite serious."

"And how do I know you're not in on it with him?"

"Why would I have to be when he's telling the truth?" Deanna tossed her hair back off her shoulder and picked two chips off her stack to add to the pile.

"The thing is, Will, that anyone who teases someone about something too long and too consistently is in danger of giving away the fact that he's hiding a legitimate concern behind it." Jean-Luc put an arm across the back of Deanna's chair, leaning back with his hand turned down against his chest. "I wasn't terribly afraid of your doppelganger, he only did that once and made it clear he was kidding by apologizing afterward. I did, however, wonder about his cavalier attitude about his wife's flirtations with me. Then I realized he wasn't worried because he was that sure of himself. That sure of me, that he knew I wouldn't take undue advantage. Because we had that much in common, my alter-self and I -- Will Riker and I have always been good friends, under any circumstance."

Jean-Luc wondered if anyone else caught the subtext -- Data and Tom struck up a continuation of the captain-to-XO-getting-acquainted conversation they'd started, and Beverly facilitated by bringing up a few anecdotes of teaching Data to dance and how painful his attempts at humor used to be. Deanna played cards quietly, enjoying the conversation around her and seeming quite at peace with the way things were. Will fell silent, almost too much so. Bell tried to draw him out a couple of times, but eventually the two of them called it a night and left.

And as usual, one guest departing led to another, until they were left with Beverly and Tom half an hour later. Not even pretending to play cards, the four sat at the table after Data's departure.

"You'll have to put up with his damn dog, you realize," Jean-Luc said. "I think it looks for four pips before it pisses on the boots under them."

"Toto just likes you, and doesn't know how else to show it." Deanna patted his arm. "Infinite diversity, Jean-Fish."

He leaned on the table heavily and scowled at her. "Anthropomorphize all you like, it's a bladder with hair. Tribbles have more going for them, at least they purr nicely and make you feel good."

"Are we speaking from experience? Did you make friends with a failed attempt at creating a self-perpetuating toupee?"

While Beverly and Tom sniggered, Jean-Luc started picking up chips and cards. "You and your stupid jokes -- although I would have wrestled a targ to hear you tease me, while I was gone. Instead I had to settle for a chocolate ice cream cone with a little girl, who planted it on my head like a party hat in the middle of a space station restaurant just for the fun of it."

"I would pay to see that," Beverly blurted.

Jean-Luc flipped the lid shut on the box of chips. "Actually, you were sitting across the table, finding it difficult to scold her in between peals of laughter. I seem doomed to play straight man to the jokes of beautiful women of all ages."

"At least we know Chelsea survived the experience. Must mean you'll make a halfway decent father."

Beverly went wide-eyed at Deanna's relaxed comment. Jean-Luc crossed his arms on the table and smiled at his wife. "I only had an afternoon with them. With Will's kids, I had a week of being clobbered by one or the other of them, racing through the corridors like little hurricanes. They seemed to follow me around. Especially the youngest one, even after I scolded him for climbing around in jeffries tubes."

"So I was fat," Deanna said, leaning back, elbows cupped in her hands.

"Not obese, not grotesque, just. . . larger. Shorter hair."

"But I was the same?" Beverly smiled faintly. "Even after two kids?"

"You appeared to be the same, yes, and with longer hair -- but you weren't a doctor. The records said you dropped out of medical school. Why, I don't know."

Something in Beverly's expression said she could guess, but she shook her head. "These things keep happening, and keep forcing us to look at our lives from new perspectives. It makes me wonder if some of the decisions we make aren't in defiance of them."

"Can't say that about me." Deanna lost her smile, but not her calm. "I may have been influenced one direction or another by one or two of our spatial anomaly experiences, but I don't think about the stupidity Q dishes out too much. He's wrong as often as he's right, and now we have some evidence that he's actually using alternate realities in his games. Our destinies are our own, and we direct them. That's all I need to know."

Tom and Beverly said good night, and Beverly's final serious glance at Jean-Luc on her way out told him more talk would be forthcoming some other day. When the door closed, he touched Deanna's cheek with a thumb.

"Madame?"

"Happy," she murmured, smiling at him. "But you're still worried about it, aren't you?"

He glanced down the length of her body, wrapped in green and black, and slumped. "You told me, and H'nayison confirmed, that my body language changed with hajira. That it affects me on a subconscious level. Am I doomed to be at odds with Will forever because imzadi does the same thing?"

"It's not like that," she said quietly. "I don't think it's fair to think of it that way. You think he could love Bell as much as he does if it were the same thing?"

"It wasn't just Deanna being seductive that I saw, you know. Your alter ego did love her husband. There was something more to their relationship than met the eye -- there had to be, his behavior said so. He was completely confident in it, in spite of her behavior. Which, come to think of it, reminded me vaguely of your mother."

Deanna's sigh brought his eyes up to meet hers. "It was a different reality, Jean-Luc. Not ours. Why are you wrestling with this?"

"Because Will looks at me like I'm a complete idiot for trying to make you my first officer. He hints, he implies, he all but tells me outright that he thinks there's a line we shouldn't cross -- family or service aboard a ship. That comment about a promotion for me wasn't just a flip remark. He looked at me as if I were an unwanted parasite when I showed up in sickbay long after the common consensus said I should have gone to you."

"I'm getting tired of explaining our every motive to people," she exclaimed bitterly. "It *isn't* his business! I understood, you understood, that if you'd shown up earlier it would have hurt me more -- you were protecting me, more than anything else. And after what I went through, I don't want to be a counselor and pregnant. It would be impossible! I wouldn't be able to keep anything down. Someone would come in grieving over the loss of a friend or a lover, and I'd be overdosing on anti-nausea medication."

"I understand these things, cygne. But Will trusted me implicitly as an officer and friend. He still does, except when it comes to you. I don't like it. I don't intend to let his nonsense influence me, but I don't like the way he keeps it up. It could destroy our friendship eventually."

"Then let it."

Blinking at her, he stared at her hard, glittering eyes. "But -- "

"We've done everything we could to make our friends feel comfortable with us. We keep going out of our way to include them, we made explanations, we invite them for poker or dinner -- we'll keep doing that. Ignore Will's nonsense. He's deciding to be this way, let him. If he wants to lose our friendship, that's up to him."

Smiling fondly, Jean-Luc balanced his chin in his palm and surrendered for the moment to the angry woman in the chair next to him. For now, it was as resolved as it could be. Touching the inside of her elbow brought the usual reaction -- a glance, a waning of temper, a slow-growing smile, and as he slid his fingers down the inside of her arm into her palm she caught them and looked away, coquettish and sly.

"You really were quite the handsome young man, you know?" she asked, surprising him. "But I prefer my Jean-Fish to him. He was too young for me."

"I was young, wasn't I?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Jean?"

"It wasn't just a fantasy of Q's -- I remember. Whether it was something I'd forgotten or if he created it just then -- temporal paradoxes give me headaches. I remember you."

Quite disarmed by it, she made an incredulous noise, chin dropping, and sat up. "So you weren't just shocked that Q would simulate something that happened? He really put me back in time? Do you remember what was said?"

"That I'd figure it out? You called me a little fish. I chalked it up to bad French from a flirtatious lost tourist with a sense of humor. Maman seemed quite dismayed that you'd left, and chided me for not convincing you to stay. I didn't have the heart to tell her you were a complete stranger."

Deanna leaned until her head rested on his shoulder. "Oh, Jean -- you talked to your pregnant wife then, do you realize that? In the dress you married her in. And I met your Maman, who told me my name means goddess of the moon. She said I must be special to you. That you had excellent taste."

He pondered, then laughed, and laughed again. "Deanna, Diana, a swan by any other name -- Diana's also goddess of the hunt, you know? So it was Q's doing. I wondered how you disappeared so fast. I came after you, when I got over the shock of being called a fish by a complete stranger. No wonder I liked that dress so well! Maman really liked you, even asked about you later that year."

"I liked her too. So much that I would have stayed and talked to her if you hadn't come in."

"I haven't given you your birthday present -- come on." He led her by the hand into the bedroom and opened one of his drawers. The box was wrapped in red paper. "Don't shake it. Just open it."

She tore off the paper eagerly and pulled out a wad of packing material, which she peeled away layer by layer to reveal the swan.

"Is it the one? The real one?" she gasped, apparently stunned by it.

"The very one. What is it, petite?"

"Maman showed it to me in the chateau. She said I was like a swan." After a moment of awed contemplation, she put it in the center of the table and came to embrace him, kissing him on the cheek.

Jean-Luc took a step back and looked at her, happy and beautiful. Strange how meeting her that day had faded to a point that he hadn't remembered it upon seeing her when she came aboard the *Enterprise* the first time -- of course, if he remembered every stranger he ever met with such clarity, he'd have a cluttered mind indeed. And, too, at the time he hadn't known it should be memorable. Now that she'd jogged his memory, the image of her was there, and the conversation.

"Was I suitably impressed, the first time we met?"

"I was more aware of my reaction to you, actually. But you appeared to be interested, if only in passing." The tilt of her head and slight smile told him what that reaction of hers had been. "I think. . . that I've picked names, for our first child. When it finally arrives."

"Do tell."

"Yves. And for a girl, Amy."

"Loved," he translated, a little surprised. "I like that. But why the boy after my mother?"

"Not after her, exactly. She would like it, that's all."

"You're sure about that?"

Deanna's smile said certainty, as she leaned in to kiss him. Then she pulled his arm out and led off in a slow dance. He followed, humoring her, and almost froze in shock when she began to sing in French. "Au clair de la lune, Mon ami Pierrot, Prête-moi ta plume Pour écrire un mot. Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu. . . ."

Clair de la Lune -- that simple folk song, but how she knew it when he was certain he'd never taught her. . . . He laughed, danced with her, and joined her for the last verse.

"Au clair de la lune,
On n'y voitque peu;
On chercha la plume
On chercha le feu.
Cherchant de la sorte
Ne sais c'qu'on trouva;
Mais je sais qu'la porte
Sur eux se ferma."

"Do you know what that means?" he asked, stopping the dancing by wrapping his arms around her waist. "Where did you learn it?"

"Maman sang a little of it -- I learned the rest on my own. The translation I'm not so sure of. I've been working it out without the computer's help."

"Pierrot is a harlequin -- a sad little clown. The friend asks him for a pen to write a note, and Pierrot doesn't have one so he goes next door to his neighbor, the brown-haired woman. The last verse would be something like 'By the light of the moon, One can not see that much; They look for a pen, They look for the fire. Searching this way Don't know what you'll find; But I know that the door Closed behind them.'"

"This is supposed to be a song you teach children? This explains a lot about the French in general, and you in particular," Deanna said, almost not laughing.

"Oh, well -- Maman heard this song a lot around the house. Pierrot was in love with the lady Yvonne, quite tragically so, and Yvonne is another feminine form of Yves, like Yvette. Papa used to sing Clair de la Lune quite loudly when Maman lingered downstairs too long at night."

"And your mother sang this to me."

"Maman knew everything -- mamans always do. Could you help me with something, oh goddess of the hunt?"

"What, Jean-Fish?"

"I'm fairly certain I lost a pen, somewhere over next to the bed. I'm absolutely certain you could light enough of a fire to help me find it."

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She woke to warmth. Not unusual, since Jean-Luc's body temperature usually exceeded hers, and he often kicked all the covers over on her in addition to keeping a limb or two draped across her.

What was unusual was that she had awakened early -- he wasn't even awake yet. She looked at the back of his head and loved him all over again, quietly, keeping her hand under the covers instead of touching him. She'd been his lover for a year, his wife for a week, and the emotional rush at the sight of him sleeping next to her in complete abandon still happened often.

He moved in his sleep, rolling on his back and flinging an arm up. She studied him anew in the flicker of stars at warp, the contours of his body and the masculine line of his profile. Then she sat up and studied him seriously.

Where had he gotten that scar on the inside of his arm?

A new one, the redness visible even in the starlight. It cut a diagonal line from armpit to the top of his elbow. A regenerator had healed it; the residual redness meant it had been a particularly-deep one involving a lot of tissue damage.

It hadn't been there when they'd gone to bed.

She brought up the lights with a touch of the controls beside the bed. It woke him, light sleeper that he tended to be. Blinking, he rubbed both eyes with the heels of his hands and sat up. The instant his head turned toward her, he was out of bed and on his feet, then snatching the blanket off with him as he realized he was naked.

As Deanna sensed the rising alarm, she also sensed something else -- whatever was going on, however much he looked like Jean-Luc Picard, this wasn't her husband.

But it was Jean-Luc Picard. One with a roll of midriff flab that hadn't been there before, granted, but definitely him.

She pulled the sheet around herself, more for his sake than hers, and waited while he stared at her and settled himself, regaining control of his reaction. In her best officer's manner, she kept herself in check and waited some more while he sized up the room as if he'd never been there before. He turned to look out at the stars. Only Jean-Luc could manage dignity while wrapped in a blanket. When he looked at her again, he'd mastered himself completely.

"Where is this? Is this some sort of joke? Did Riker put you up to this?"

Not 'who are you' but 'where is this.' He recognized her, at least. "He wouldn't do that, would he?" she replied.

"No. He's more proprietary than that. What the hell are we doing here? Where's my ship? This isn't my ship, or any other ship I know."

The sinking feeling began in earnest. "Jean-Luc -- Captain -- please, go put on a robe and sit down. If you'll pass me a robe as well, I'll make us some tea and we'll talk this through."

A knot of tension in his gut notwithstanding, he acquiesced, eyeing the contents of the closet. He slipped into a grey robe and took down another, overlooking hers in the other side of the closet, and brought the robe and blanket to her, turning his back while she put it on.

While he sat with crossed arms at the table, she went to the replicator and brought back a pot of tea and two cups. He watched her pour and add cream and sugar, and his eyes widened when she did it just the way he liked it.

"Let's start with where we're supposed to be. Where are you from?" she asked.

"You don't know? The *Enterprise*, of course."

"Which one?"

"Which -- the 1701-D, Galaxy-class."

Deanna bit her nail. "What stardate is it?"

Picard smiled, turning his head so slightly that anyone less acquainted with his mannerisms might have missed the significance of it. She felt his emotional shift -- now he was on edge, not sure if he could trust her or not, when previously there had been only shock at finding her there. "You aren't from the same place or time, I take it."

"Captain, I'm not entirely certain what has happened, but I can reassure you that you have nothing to fear from me. I want nothing more than to return you to where you belong and get my Captain Picard back. If you are from my past this could be problematic. If you are from a different reality altogether, I would feel better about sharing information with you. I wouldn't have to fear polluting my own timeline, and I have too much to lose if that were to happen."

"How do we know you're not from the past, and I'm not from the future?"

"Because this is the 1701-E. The previous *Enterprise* is no longer in service."

He sat up suddenly, almost dropping his cup. "What year is this, then? You mean I'm still captain, even after -- was it destroyed before -- you won't answer me, will you?"

"I'm sorry. I can sense how the curiosity burns inside you, and I know how excruciating it is that you've lost control of the situation. But you obviously know that time travel -- "

"If it's an alternate reality you could tell me more. But if we don't talk about it, how can we possibly determine if that's so?"

Deanna considered what he'd said so far. "You said Riker was more proprietary than to use me to play a joke -- what's my relationship with him like?"

"You're his wife, of course. . . though there is no 'of course' is there?"

"No, there isn't. You're from an alternate reality. I'm going to list a few things I'd like you to identify, so I know how much common ground we have. All right?"

He stared at her, trying to take it in, and finally nodded.

"The Borg."

Frowning, he shook his head. "I don't know that name."

"What about Q?"

"Q -- who or what is that?"

"Sela, Tasha Yar, Beverly Crusher, Lwaxana, Ro Llaren, or Guinan. Are any of those familiar?" Picking names out of the air, but who knew how many branches of reality there might be, and who would turn out to be the key players in anyone's life.

"Tasha is my second officer. Lwaxana is your mother, I believe, Will's mentioned her more than once. Guinan is a friend of mine, who tends bar in Ten Forward. I don't know a Beverly Crusher, but I do know Beverly Howard, or rather Picard -- she was my wife. Sela or Ro -- Llaren? -- I don't recall."

Deanna let out a sigh and put down her cup before it could give away how much her hand had started to shake. It was starting to hit her that this was reality -- her husband was gone, and replaced by Beverly's ex-husband, and they were the same person.

God, sometimes she hated Starfleet. Definitely, she hated mind-bending anomalous situations like this. The only thing she hated more were sudden alien possessions, from which she woke up with a phaser or knife in hand, and spent a week enduring terrified glances from crewmates afterward.

"In this reality, Tasha died in the line of duty. Worf was your security officer afterward. Guinan is in both realities. I never married Will, though I might have if circumstances had turned out differently. Am I your counselor, in your reality?"

He studied her with growing unease. "You were never Starfleet, so far as I've been told. I don't have a counselor. Deanna's -- Mrs. Riker's primary occupation is keeping her three children under control."

It occurred to Deanna that this might be a fiction created by Q. This incarnation of Picard might even be a Q, for that matter. Though she thought she would sense the difference, and he felt too much like the real Picard to be a Q.

"I appreciate your patience, Captain," she said, heading off the rising anxiety. "I needed to be certain you weren't my captain. You see, my Captain Picard has a very different history than yours -- unless you're not from the same time frame?"

"The stardate is, from what I recall, 48234.56, and we were en route to the Gamma Quadrant via the Bajor wormhole on our second ten-year mission."

"You're from the past, but not far in the past. I don't think I need to worry about polluting your time line, either, as it sounds like it's quite different from ours. So I may as well tell you that the reason I am here -- not here in this timeline, but here in the captain's quarters -- is that I'm ship's counselor and the captain's wife."

"You?" His recoil from the idea almost hurt her feelings; she had to remind herself firmly that he wasn't her husband. But tears began to build in her eyes at the loss of her hajira -- the distance in this Picard's eyes would only remind her all the more of what she'd lost.

"Perhaps we should get dressed and talk to Data about this," she said. "He'll need to know. He'll be in command of the ship now." A thought that brought with it rising trepidation -- they were heading into certain conflict with the Romulans, leading the Federation fleet, and the captain and all the strategy and orders he carried in his head were missing.

But Picard's next question startled her out of that line of thought.

"You mean the android I refused to have aboard the ship? *He's* second in command?"

~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc came awake quite suddenly, sitting bolt upright. "Dee," he murmured, reaching, knowing the movement would wake her too -- but the bed was empty.

It wasn't even the same bed.

A few padds were keeping him company. He brought up the lights and picked one up -- the stardate was wrong. An engineering report, evidently on a major refit of the *Enterprise* --

The wrong one.

His eyes darted around the room swiftly. These were an uncanny duplicate of his old quarters, though a few of the details were off. Across the middle bookshelf sat a row of picture frames and a few holo-cubes. He made it across to them in a flash and snatched up the largest of the pictures.

Whose children were these? A redheaded boy, a blond girl. . . they seemed familiar in an unsettling way. He picked up one of the holo-cubes and turned it on. Beverly, in a wedding dress.

"I don't know what the hell's going on here, but this isn't FUNNY!" he roared.

"Oh, calm down, mon capitaine."

The smug, condescending tone sent his anger spiraling to new heights. Jean-Luc whirled to find Q leaning against the table, arms crossed, wearing a current captain's uniform. Jean-Luc realized only secondarily that he was naked, and rather than amuse the being further by groping for cover, forced himself to forget that fact.

"Send me back where I belong. I have no time for your games. We're about to enter a major conflict with the Romulans and my ship is a critical part of -- "

"Oh, piffle. Really, what does any of that matter, in the grand scheme of things? There are so many more interesting things to discover on the other side of the wormhole, as you're about to find out. In this reality, you're on your second ten-year mission, the war never happened, and you're off exploring, just like you always wanted to do."

"I don't want this. I want *my* life back! My ship, my crew, my past and my -- "

"Wife?" Q smirked. "You've been brought to an all-time low, haven't you, ma petit? The mighty starship captain, Jean-Luc Picard, explorer and interstellar casanova -- married, with child. You resisted so hard when I tried to help you along. I thought Vash would certainly fill the bill for you. And here you are, married, to one of your own officers. Tsk. Fraternization. . . I wouldn't have thought you were capable of that kind of risk."

Not rising to the bait took a lot of jaw-clenching. "I thought you were finished playing the what-if game with me, Q. Send me home and leave me be. I'm not going to play this time."

"What will you do, then? Sit here in your quarters alone for the next ten years? Your crew won't like that, mon capitaine -- they'll have you committed. Your little Deanna isn't the one who'll commit you, either -- she's got her family to take care of. And you have yours, waiting for you at Deep Space Nine, the little Picards and their mother, your former wife, who resents that her children want to go with Papa instead of playing it safe at home with Maman." Q gestured at the picture gallery on the bookshelf. "It's what you wanted, isn't it? The adventure of exploration -- no more war. No Romulan threat. You can be an explorer, Jean-Luc. You can have your children."

"Those aren't my children! Just tell me what the hell you expect me to do, already? I don't have time for this!"

Q feigned an innocent expression. "Why, I expect you to have fun. It's the opportunity of a lifetime -- you get a chance to succeed where your doppelganger failed. He was intending to beg Beverly to come back to him, after all, so that little fantasy of yours will also come true. I suspect you'll do a much better job of winning her than he would, considering what a cad he is. You could say -- " he giggled, quite irritatingly -- "you could say he's a real. . . Don Jean Poisson. Completely charming and hopeless when it comes to women. She got a little tired of sharing you."

The holo-cube rocketed through the air where Q had been standing and shattered against the far wall. Jean-Luc spun about looking for him, breathing hard as if he'd been wrestling with him physically rather than verbally. "Q," he grated. "Don't do this to me. Please?"

Q reappeared in a searing flash. "What did you say?" he exclaimed, clapping a hand to his cheek and beaming. "Why, you said -- tell me again. I've *got* to hear it again to believe it."

"Please," Jean-Luc repeated, in a deadly-soft tone. "Send me home."

"Oh, I wish that I could -- really I do. I have a certain fondness for you, after all. Of all the Picards, you and I have a special bond -- we've had such wonderful adventures together. I don't come out of hiding for just any old Jean-Luc Picard, you know. But this time it isn't for your benefit, petit capitaine. Oh, no. That brute of a Don Jean I sent along in my little exchange program needs some schooling in the gentle art of letting a lady be a lady."

The shock almost collapsed his knees. "Deanna. . . you bastard. You -- "

"Spare me the obscenities. Really, and I thought you were a gentleman. No, Jean-Luc, I'm afraid this is really up to your sweet little bird -- she's proved to be much more than I expected, very much more, and when she and your friends are done teaching him a lesson, you'll go home. Until then -- enjoy. Au revoir."

Another holo-cube shattered against the far wall. "Q! I FORBID YOU TO USE MY WIFE THIS WAY! *PUT ME BACK* DAMMIT!"

Silence. The audience with the superbeing was obviously over, and he was left to struggle for control over the waves of anger and fear threatening to drown him.

Deanna. . . .

Would she realize it wasn't him? And what Q had said -- with child? Was that true? Possible, he knew, but --

He stumbled to the bed and battled his emotions until he could meditate, after which he arrived at a semblance of calm. Then he brought up the personal logs that were supposedly his.

Then he lost his temper all over again.

And again.

~@~@~@~@~

He was uncomfortable in the uniform, nothing like his own, he said. He didn't like the black and grey. She had debated not letting him put on the uniform, but deep beneath the captain's calm, so familiar and solid, he needed the pips. Even if it wasn't his uniform, it was the captain's uniform for this setting.

Sitting in the living room at the table with him, Deanna couldn't help but be drawn to him -- so like her Jean-Fish. And yet so. . . not like.

His initial reaction to her had been one of a man recognizing another man's property, she realized. Now that he was settling into acceptance of his situation, he was allowing himself to look at her differently -- she wasn't Riker's wife here, after all. Technically she was *his* wife, Mrs. Jean-Luc Picard. It made her skin crawl.

Already she'd verified his biographical information to be nearly accurate; he'd named his parents and sibling, his grandparents, their parents, and given details of his life that coincided with Jean's. The differences were there, however -- Maman had passed away earlier in his universe. His father had raised him to sixteen, at which point he'd left home and applied to the Academy. No turning back from that point. His older brother had, upon the death of Maurice Picard, sold the vineyards, retaining only the house. Deanna had felt a brief pang of grief when she heard him tell of it -- her Jean-Fish wouldn't have liked that. As far as he'd removed himself from home, he still felt ties to his traditions and upbringing. More so the older he got, in fact.

The annunciator startled him; he'd been staring at her. "Come in," she said, knowing it was Data -- no one else would be at the door so early in the morning.

The android came in and hesitated just inside as the doors closed. "There is something wrong?"

"Data, this is -- " She looked at the captain. "This is not our captain. Something's happened. A singularity, an anomaly -- but more than anything else I suspect Q. It happened too suddenly and seamlessly. He comes from a parallel universe, an alternate reality."

Data regarded the captain impassively. "This is true?"

"Absolutely. I'd never have selected you for a first officer. Never been able to stomach the idea of having an android on the bridge."

Data did a double-take. "I see. Commander, what do you recommend?"

Deanna rose and paced a few steps, hands behind her back. "We can't let him take command, obviously. It's not going to be easy to find our captain and return him. There's no quantum fissure nearby to help us out. We can detect some difference between the two, like we did with Worf, though, to prove he's not really our captain. He's almost exactly the same, from a telepath's standpoint. I suspect he's the same genetically."

"We will take him to sickbay and run a comparison between his physiology and the captain's last physical, as well as a scan for any quantum-level flux that would indicate which universe Q brought him from. There may be -- "

"Does this sort of thing happen often?" Picard asked, glancing between them. "You're being terribly calm about this. And who is Q?"

"If there were any doubt left in my mind, that question removed it." Data quirked a smile, which startled Picard, Deanna sensed. "If you will come with us, Captain?"

The ride down to sickbay made Deanna nervous. In the lift, Picard stared at her with open appraisal -- her Jean wouldn't have done that even now that they were married, not in public areas of the ship. She found herself missing Jean's command demeanor acutely. Though she didn't feel the absence of him as she had when Jean-Fish had gone on that archeological dig -- this Picard's mere presence filled that gap -- she mourned the loss of him more and more, especially when she looked in this Picard's loveless eyes.

Data paged Mengis on the way; the doctor arrived in sickbay simultaneously with them. They had a brief discussion in Mengis' office before the diagnostic began. Letting the doctor lead Picard to the biobeds, Deanna stood to one side, arms crossed, and watched, thinking it was actually good that Beverly was no longer CMO.

Data stood next to her. Closer than he would have, she realized, their arms brushing. "Deanna, we will find a way to get him back -- or he will find a way back to us," he murmured.

"Thank you, Data." She smiled and slipped a hand through his arm, keeping her voice to the lowest murmur possible and knowing that he could hear no matter how low she went. "But please don't console me until you see me in tears. It only reminds me, and I'm trying to keep myself firmly in denial for now. I can't fall apart around this one. He's not my husband in his universe, but he's entertaining some notions, if you know what I mean. He's got the control, and almost the same demeanor but there's a certain. . . . Just watch him. We won't be able to let him roam freely. His behavior will be different. It will impact the captain's relationship with the crew. . . ."

"Understood. We will have to tell the senior officers. I believe all will understand the necessity for keeping this on the Q.T."

"On the what?"

Data smiled. "A colloquialism. I meant that they will understand the necessity for secrecy."

They watched Mengis working, until finally the man came across sickbay to where they stood against the wall of his office. His expression grave, his black mustache twitching, he met Deanna's eyes. "This is not the captain. He has no artificial heart, and there are old injuries long healed that Captain Picard never sustained, as well as the recent one you noted on his arm. He has also been voluntarily rendered sterile. There are, however, no variations in DNA sequencing."

"What explanations can you offer for this?" Data asked.

Mengis stared at the android for a few moments. "I might suggest he is an illegal clone, were it not for the fact that he is only slightly younger than our captain and I do not see possible motivations for cloning a child -- unless his growth was accelerated somehow."

"We suspect he is from an alternate reality, as we mentioned before. Please perform the RNA analysis, as I requested." Data had instructed the doctor beforehand to do the check for a quantum-level flux in the RNA, but showed no irritation that Mengis hadn't complied. He and the doctor had a long-standing cold war; like Kate Pulaski in the beginnings of her year aboard the *Enterprise,* the doctor couldn't bring himself to view Data as a life form. Data, at Deanna's suggestion, had schooled himself to react with Vulcan-esque calm at all times when dealing with the CMO. Mengis stared at him a moment and returned to his patient, who sat impatiently on the biobed with crossed arms.

Deanna sighed and watched the interaction between the bristly doctor and the grouchy Picard, who disliked being told he had to submit to more testing. "This is going to be difficult, Data. He's got a bad temper."

"And so does our uninvited guest," Data remarked offhandedly.

Deanna looked at him askance, until he met her gaze. She smiled wanly and patted his shoulder. "Thank you for trying. I have the feeling I won't be laughing much for a while, though."

Data hesitated, then put his arm around her. He'd never done that before. She contained her startled reaction and slowly turned to look at him again.

Giving her a familiar tip of his head, he said, "Is this not the appropriate way to comfort a good friend?"

"You're a little too stiff. Loosen the elbow, and don't be so deliberate about patting my shoulder. There. Now, pull away -- short contact, for a friend. If I were more than a -- "

"I was not seeking a lesson. I sincerely wished to comfort you."

"I know, Data, but like I said, being official is my refuge at the moment. Thank you. You're very familiar to my neural pathways. It reassures me."

Data glanced at Picard, who was looking their way irritably. "I am afraid that I will have to ask you to deal with him."

"I would expect that. This is too sensitive a situation -- I would prefer we keep as few people as possible in the know. Crew morale will be crucial in the near future; everyone's already on edge, and if it was widely known that our captain is missing, there would be panic. He is very much Captain Picard, in spite of the differences, and I wouldn't trust him not to out-think anyone who didn't know him well -- I wouldn't put it past him to steal a shuttle or interact with the crew to our captain's detriment. He's studying everything and everyone around him, and not just out of idle curiosity. Data. . . the fleet. We'll need someone else to lead it. We'll have to tell the other captains. I wish you'd been in the briefings with them."

"How much do you know about what was discussed in the briefings?"

Deanna took a step away from him. "Not enough. I never listened to the information we gathered on our undercover mission. What I know was picked up informally, during our time in the chambers with. . . I don't know much about the strategic information. I might be able to list names of commanders, and a few of the ships."

"Still, what little you know may be of use. Do you believe this Picard would be cooperative in maintaining the fiction that nothing is wrong? It is possible we could manufacture a 'covert operation' for which he could vanish shortly before we engage the enemy -- thus making his lack of participation appear part of the plan."

Deanna pressed her lips together. "You should call Admiral Nechayev. I'll reschedule my appointments and delegate some of them to Counselor Davidson." She frowned. "Data, we'll need to do something about quarters. It doesn't seem right to keep him in the brig, and that would result in too many rumors anyway. I'd also like to keep him close at hand."

"Perhaps your old quarters? They are down the corridor, and we could have the computer monitor and alert us if he should leave them during the night."

"That's a good idea." She smiled again. "Make it so."

"Technically, Counselor, I should tell you to do that."

"Oh. Sorry."

"The captain must be rubbing off on -- " He cut himself short, which in itself nearly did her in. "I am sorry. I should not tease under these circumstances."

"I'll see to the quarters, and keep him occupied. Please keep me informed and contact me if you have -- if there's anything I can do, if -- "

Data's hand closed on hers firmly, and briefly. "I shall, Counselor. And if there are. . . difficulties. . . contact me, as well as deLio. In fact, I shall instruct deLio to check on you at regular intervals, if that is acceptable to you. Your safety would be the captain's first concern, given the circumstances."

"I know. But at the same time, he'd know I would do my duty anyway in this situation."

Mengis beckoned, as Picard slid down and tugged his uniform straight -- how eerie that was. Deanna and Data moved forward as one. "Doctor?" she asked.

"There is, indeed, a quantum-level flux in his RNA, as you suspected. He is not of this universe -- after cross-checking our records and finding that this has happened before with another crew member, I understand why you asked." Mengis smoothed his drooping mustache with a finger and thumb.

"There will be a senior staff meeting at eight hundred hours, Doctor. Please bring the results of your tests with you." Data turned to Picard. "The counselor will see you to quarters. We will also require your presence in the meeting, if that would be -- "

"Yes, whatever." Picard was losing patience and edging into expression of his ire.

She led him from the lift they shared with Data as far as deck eight, and walked down to her old quarters as the android continued on to the bridge. He was watching her backside, she just knew it -- that familiar sensation of a Picard leer in progress licked her.

She wished, oh so desperately, that it was the right Picard doing the leering.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc stared at the monitor on the desk in his alter ego's quarters, and fumed some more.

Personnel was all out of kilter. Tasha was still with him but as second officer now. Riker remained first officer. Worf had transferred elsewhere -- no sign of Alexander in his records. Deanna listed among the civilians aboard, mother of three -- Kyle, William Jr., and Jonathon. No Data. A security chief named Blevitz, a doctor named Pulaski. Of course. Why not?

Beverly had been aboard for the first six years of their initial ten-year mission, then divorced him and took the two children with her to Caldos. Evidently he'd married her six years prior to receiving the *Enterprise* posting, and their children were now ten and thirteen. The logs mentioned Claude and Chelsea often; the alter-Picard was fond of his offspring, more so than Jean-Luc had expected considering the first few personal logs he'd tapped into.

The annunciator signaled someone at the door. Odd. It was barely six hundred. "Computer, who is at the door?" he asked softly.

"Commander Riker." The computer sounded different -- he didn't like it. A light tenor, but still, he preferred a female voice.

"Come in," he called. Time to face the first officer. He tugged the odd uniform straight, hating the red jacket with the black striping on the sleeves. This would be known as the universe of demented uniform designers, from now on. The universe of DUD.

Hell. He was missing Deanna so much, he'd started making lame jokes himself.

Riker strode in and looked around casually. "So what are you sitting here alone and fully dressed for? I thought you had a blond in here."

Jean-Luc almost snapped at him. "She left. Obviously."

The alter-Will looked exactly like the Riker he'd left behind, other than the uniform. He smirked and glanced around. "Oh, well. Guess she didn't like my beard enough to wait for me. Makes me wish Dee didn't want me to keep it so bad -- you know how the old ball and chain can get."

Jean-Luc stiffened, his mind reeling at the implications of this exchange. "Sit down, Will."

"Sure. Got something fun to do in mind?" He smirked at him, raised an eyebrow -- unacceptable. The last time he'd seen that smirk, it had been directed at someone in a skirt!

"No, damn it! I'm not who you think I am. I don't belong here."

Will stared at him, solemn now. "You're not Jean-Luc Picard?"

"I'm from an alternate universe. I don't belong here -- I'm not the same person. Frankly, I find my doppelganger's behavior reprehensible."

That got a raised eyebrow. "You do? Huh. So how did you get here?"

"The real question is how I get back. Ever hear of the Q?"

"Nope. Should I have?"

"Q is an apparently-omnipotent being, who delights in torturing me with scenarios like this. He's put your Picard on my ship -- where I sincerely hope my wife emasculates the bastard."

Riker guffawed. "Well, there's an interesting thought. Beverly didn't seem the type for that. I always figured she was more the dismember-and-disembowel kind."

"I'm not married to Beverly. Never have been, never will be -- her current liaison is the dangerous type."

"Okay, so you're not my captain, but you're a captain, of. . . ."

"The *Enterprise.* Your alter-ego has his own ship, and a pretty blond with a nice tan and a French accent to keep him happy."

"What about Deanna?"

"She's my ship's counselor."

Riker chewed his lower lip. "That's what she was going to do, before I met her. But then, you knew that -- what's with this game? This isn't your usual type of fun."

Jean-Luc stared at the man. His eyes began to burn for lack of moisture. "Aren't you listening to me? I'm not playing a game. This isn't funny. You want proof, try running a few tests on me, see if there isn't a quantum-level flux in my RNA -- I don't belong here, Will. I need to go home."

"I thought you hated your brother." Riker turned to go. "Well, guess I'll go do breakfast with Dee and the kids, if there's no fun to be had here. See you on the bridge."

Jean-Luc stared at the floor where Riker had stood. "Computer," he said at last, dry-mouthed. "Access current mission objectives. Also access service records of Jean-Luc Picard, William T. Riker, Natasha Yar. . . ."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Her old quarters had been emptied of all her things, some of which she'd parted with permanently, some of which had been moved, and the rest had gone into temporary storage until the next opportunity to move walls came along. Since deciding to leave children to chance, Jean-Luc had set the wheels in motion to add more rooms to their quarters, figuring in an extra room for her things and another for a nursery.

She did her best not to let her mood take over at the thought that she might never have his children, after all.

Picard glanced around at the bare rooms. "Let me guess, you're going to confine me here."

"You aren't our captain. Our crew might mistake you for him, and as counselor I have to be concerned about any damaging behaviors that might compromise -- "

"Do you always sound this way, like a damn dictionary?"

Deanna frowned. Crossing her arms, she considered his demeanor. "Do you always swear at women you don't know?"

"I know you. I see you often enough -- though I think in this universe you've lost weight."

"I haven't had any children, and I'd guess that might have something to do with my double's current state. And no, you do not know me."

He gave her a familiar lascivious look -- even as her heart turned upside down, her stomach plummeted. What made her think she could do this?

"We could change that," he murmured.

"I think not. I love my husband, and you definitely aren't him."

"But I am him." He came too close, prowling up to her, his steps measured -- bringing him into arm's reach. She took two steps backward.

"Don't make me hurt you."

He cocked his head in that intrigued, playful manner she knew well. "A challenge. I could never resist a challenge."

"I'm not challenging you. I'm warning you -- I am this ship's counselor and you are not my husband, you're a stranger, and getting stranger by the second. You're behaving like a -- "

She held up her hands and jumped at a sudden flash of light. When she recovered, she saw the familiar old Q standing next to a now-frozen Picard.

"A cad," Q finished, grinning, fingers steepled in front of him. He wore the current uniform style, with a blue collar and three pips.

"I knew it had to be you," Deanna said, managing relative calm.

"At least you aren't swearing at me. Honestly, that husband of yours. . . . For a moment I wondered if I'd snatched him from the wrong universe. You see the problem, don't you?"

"Yes, you're quite visible at the moment."

"Ah, Counselor -- we haven't talked much. You've always seemed so. . . boring. But sleeping with your captain that way, that was an interesting variation. You tamed Captain Picard." He grinned and waggled his eyebrows. "Isn't that something? Even the lovely Vash couldn't sway him, and yet he risked his career for sweet little you. How does it feel, reeling in the toughest *fish* of them all?"

Her annoyance at his knowledge of such things remained hidden as she could manage. Any emotional reaction would only feed Q's ludicrous behavior. "I did nothing of the sort. Now, take this man back where he belongs and bring my Jean-Luc back to me."

Q laughed, clapping his hands twice. The frozen Picard unfroze, and jumped at the sudden 'appearance' of the taller man. Q's uniform had changed -- now he wore a red jacket reminiscent of the uniform Deanna remembered from the 1701-D, only with black stripes on the sleeves.

"Hello, mon capitaine, I don't believe we've met -- in your universe, anyway. I'm quite fond of the captain from this one. I," he announced, bowing, "am Q. One member of the Q Continuum, actually -- but you can just call me Q. So pleased to finally meet you face to face."

Picard eyed the man, edging away from him and glancing at Deanna as if trying to measure how alarmed he should be. "You're responsible for this situation?"

"The Continuum has decided that you need a few lessons in protocol."

"Since when does the Continuum meddle in the affairs of such lowly life forms?" Deanna exclaimed.

Q leaned as if needing to study her from a new angle, and stepped closer to her. "Such wonderful disdain! My dear Jean-Luc always did disdain so very well. He's *such* a good role model, isn't he? The Continuum meddles when it has to, my sweet little Betazoid. Certainly you don't think we play favorites with *your* universe!"

"This is ridiculous," Deanna spat. "Who are you to determine the way things ought to be? And don't tell me you're a god -- that's asinine. I've seen you without your powers before. You're nothing but a weakling with too much power at your disposal. Speaking of which -- we helped you, didn't we? Are you going to forget that?"

"You're about to cash in on old favors -- please understand this isn't really my doing, this time. I'm just doing my duty -- you know all about duty, I know."

Deanna crossed her arms and studied him intently. "You've always been hard for me to read. But you're not the Q we're used to dealing with -- you're not outrageous enough."

"I'm on my best behavior, ma petite. Just like you are, dealing with your friend here who isn't quite your husband -- but he's enough like him to tug those heart strings, isn't he?" Q chortled gleefully, pinching her cheek.

"If you won't help, go away," she snapped.

And in a flash, he did. Picard sniffed. "I must say, you have interesting acquaintances in this universe."

Deanna stared at him. "You aren't even upset that he's transplanted you here. Don't you want to get back to where you belong?"

"Of course I do. But I find this an intriguing side trip -- exploration is, after all, why I joined Starfleet." His eyes traveled down her body appreciatively.

"You mean exploration of the *galaxy?*"

His eyes came up to meet hers. Puzzling, how his emotions suddenly snapped back from his momentary lust. "Yes. Of course. What else would I mean?"

"Don't insult me. I know exactly what you meant. Does *your* Starfleet condone its starship captains pursuing personal pleasure in situations like these?"

Picard shrugged -- he wasn't giving away much in his body language, but his emotions were shifting beneath the facade. "It would appear that I have no control over this situation, and that I may as well make the best of it. You seem to think I'm at the whim of this Q person. A few lessons in protocol, he said -- perhaps you should begin the lessons."

Deanna stared at him. The lascivious note his suggestion took made her stomach turn. "Perhaps you should eat breakfast and take some time to consider your situation further. I'll be back to take you to the briefing." Not giving him a chance to respond, she hurried out and down the hall to her quarters.

She hesitated in the living room and ordered her thoughts, then gave the computer a specific set of instructions concerning Captain Picard, which would limit his access to the computer and notify her the instant he attempted to access anything or tried to leave her former quarters. She set it to notify Data in the event she didn't acknowledge notification. Then she stripped and took a long shower, standing under the sonics longer than necessary.

While she brushed and re-did her hair, the computer announced that Picard had requested a crew roster and his own service record. She granted read-only rights to unrestricted information, and blocked him from captain's logs, using her ship's counselor's rights -- she could block things for the mental well-being of her captain. Giving this Picard access to information that would give him an edge didn't sit right with her. At least he wouldn't know the command codes to override.

The annunciator surprised her as she sat at Jean-Fish's desk watching a display of what Picard was reading. "Come in," she said, looking up -- she'd been paying such close attention to Picard's emotional state that she hadn't identified Will right away. Of course he would beam over from his ship the moment he knew this had happened. Of course Data would tell him first.

"Data explained. How are you?"

She opened her mouth, but nothing would come out. He came and sat on the edge of the desk, and put a hand on her shoulder. A friendly hand, a formal one, very much the way Jean-Luc had done every so often over the years when something happened in the line of duty that impacted her personally. She could sense his worry, sharp and almost painful, and his uncertainty -- he wanted to do more, embrace her, but wasn't certain of how she would react to that.

"I'm fine," she managed. "Q came by. Evidently this has more to do with the Picard we have here than -- he's accessing personnel records, at the moment. I've been watching, trying to get an idea of what to expect from him. It frightens me how different he is."

"I'll be at the briefing with you. I think you should avoid being alone with him. Data said he's noticed him leering at you -- if Data notices, it's got to be obvious."

"Will -- in his reality, you and I are married with children, and he and Beverly were married, and divorced." The air in her lungs burned as she held her breath until she couldn't -- and when she exhaled, a sob came with it. "What if he -- what if I never see my husband again? What am I going to do? Will, I can't stand the thought -- it's so pointless!"

She clung to Will's hand and cried, unable to contain it any longer. He extricated himself at the sound of the annunciator, leaving her to collapse with her head in her arms on the desk. Then Bell was there, her usual wildflower perfume the first clue of her identity as the nurse put her arms around Deanna and let her sob against her shoulder. Bell stopped murmuring in French when it became obvious from an increase in sobbing that it reminded her too much of Jean.

When she raised her head, she found that deLio and Data were also there, and stood with Will before the desk. An android, a droop-jowled L'norim security officer, and a starship captain, shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, all looking at her with concern. Bell stood up, straightened her uniform, and crossed her arms as well.

"I guess this answers the old question of who counsels the counselor?" Deanna ventured in a wobbly, tear-laden voice, reaping a smile from all of them as her reward.

~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc ignored the startled, questioning looks of the crew as he strode through the ship on his grim walkabout. Geordi still had his visor, in this universe. The ship was different -- the engines didn't seem as powerful as they should be. The specs were slightly off. The weaponry was deficient, even compared to his old Galaxy-class in his reality. The crew. . . completely wrong.

If Q wouldn't send him home, he'd whip this damned mess of a crew into shape then find his own way back. His alter-ego had a relaxed way of doing things, to put it mildly. Already he'd given orders for engineering staff to put on standard uniforms instead of the civilian garb they'd grown accustomed to wearing. Shaping them up would keep his mind off Deanna and what that bastard alternate self of his might try to do to her. She could handle him, and she'd see through the man immediately.

In a lift on the way to sickbay, he finally met the other Deanna. She almost ran into him -- she dragged a boy, about six and obviously Will's son, through the doors. It was a relief to see how different she looked -- he could pretend it wasn't really her. She had short hair instead of long, and the anger on her face appeared to be a long term feature for her; what looked to be permanent lines had formed around her mouth and eyes already. A little heartbreaking to think she'd had that unhappy a life in this reality, and immensely satisfying that he'd been able to make her happy in his own.

"You know better," she snapped at the boy, continuing a conversation. "Jonathan Riker, if you ever do anything like that again, I'll let your father handle it *his* way. You're lucky you only have two broken fingers."

Jean-Luc studied the woman -- she was overweight, relatively speaking. Rubenesque, soft, but still curvaceous. Her emerald-green dress was too tight in the wrong places, showing the folds of fat on her hips. She whirled on him and glared.

"Good morning, Captain," she said coldly.

"Good morning, Cou -- Mrs. Riker."

More glaring, as she held the sullen boy by the arm with more force than his Deanna would have. "Did you just call me a cow? I'm tired of your fat jokes! I'm not a member of your crew, and I'm sick of hearing your lame humor."

Jean-Luc boggled at her -- several temptations ensued. He could try to behave as the alter-Picard might based on his log entries, or he could be himself. He could be himself as he wanted to react, or himself as he would have reacted if this were his ship. And as he thought about the ramifications of all those options, he realized the last one had the most potential.

Smiling, he said carefully, "I'm truly sorry about that. I've been inexcusably rude to you, and it's unbecoming of a captain to treat his first officer's wife with such disrespect. Please accept my apology and be assured that I won't do it again."

While she stared in shock, he looked at the boy. "Does it hurt, Jon?"

The boy nodded and held up his swollen fingers. "Yes, sir."

"How did you do it?"

"I was in a jeffries tube. I fell."

"You know, children aren't supposed to be in jeffries tubes."

"I didn't like the teacher. I got out of class and hid."

Memories of a few teachers he hadn't liked sprang to mind. Jean-Luc chuckled. "As much as I can sympathize with that, I suspect you know I can't condone it -- don't let it happen again, Jon. Is that understood?"

The boy had Deanna's eyes -- of course he would. Betazoid eyes in a Riker face. He nodded earnestly.

Deanna continued staring at Jean-Luc until the lift opened. He let her precede him to sickbay, keeping his polite smile in place, so that every time she glanced back at him suspiciously it was all she saw. He thought of children -- Meribor, Batai, Kenny Ching, his own future children -- and watched Jon Riker instead of his mother. All she would sense from him were the paternal emotions a man might feel for a child he knew.

Sickbay wasn't as bad as the rest of the ship. Pulaski looked askance at him; he got the feeling the other Picard never came down here. While the doctor tended to the boy's fingers, he glanced around casually and left again. Locking horns with Pulaski wouldn't be necessary. Obviously she was closer to what he would expect of her alter-ego back home than anyone else he'd met -- her sickbay was orderly and all staff in uniform.

The bridge he'd saved for last. Bracing himself, he strode out of the lift. At the secondary consoles behind tactical, two people were chatting amiably about their last vacations, as the security officer at tactical ignored them and tended the console. He glared at the two until one of them noticed and stammered to a halt. Rather than make a complete scene, he glared a moment more, then marched down the ramp.

Riker looked up at him, expression completely unreadable. "I hear you've been all over the ship," he said. "Geordi says you've got engineering staff upset."

"You're in my chair, Commander."

He moved, and Jean-Luc sat down. Bringing up current ship's status on his console, he ignored Riker's staring.

"What are you up to, Johnny?" Riker murmured at last.

Jean-Luc raised his head slowly. "My name, Commander, is Jean-Luc. While we're on the bridge, I am the captain. I suggest that you not forget it. Until you get it through your head that I am not who you believe me to be and help me find my way back to where I belong, this ship will be run by the book. Is that clear?"

In the man's blue eyes, the truth finally registered. "Yes, sir," he said, in the same serious, low tone Jean-Luc had used.

~@~@~@~@~

Deanna led the group to her old quarters. Will caught her arm just outside the door. "You sure you're up to this?"

"Absolutely, I'm up to this." She smiled at her friends. "I'm the only one who could do what's necessary to get this started, anyway."

"Which is?" Data asked.

"You'll see. Stay out here a moment. Don't look at me like that, deLio, I can defend myself for the ten seconds it would take you to run inside."

Deanna marched inside, leaving them in the corridor. When the door had shut, she said, "It's time for the briefing, almost, but I'd like you to meet some people first." Rising from the couch where he'd been staring at the stars, Picard tugged his jacket absently. "I don't understand you. It would be simple enough, you miss him -- I can tell. I could tell after you figured out I was from a different reality." He shook his head wonderingly. "It isn't as though I'm physically any different than him, you know. I'm not so different in other ways, either, you said."

"Didn't you care for your wife at all? Did she leave you because you lusted after other women? Don't you feel any guilt -- "

"Shut up," he growled, with sudden and real ire. She'd touched a nerve. He still had feelings for his ex-wife.

"I dislike having anything to do with you at all -- you only remind me that my husband is missing. However, it's fallen to me to deal with you directly, as ship's counselor and as an officer -- orders are orders."

The insinuations were there for him to decipher. She saw them untangling in his eyes. "You were ordered to deal with me?"

"By Commander Data. It's logical that he delegate the task of coping with you to me, since he has a ship to run. The chain of command is well-defined here on the *Enterprise.* I'll be able to spend the first half of alpha shift with you, at which point I must tend to counseling appointments, after which I'm scheduled to stand watch on beta shift."

"Stand watch? *You?*"

"It's my husband's ship. He would expect me to do my duty, regardless of his absence. So yes, me."

He gaped for a moment. "But. . . you're a ranked officer. Standing watch on the bridge. And you're his wife? Starfleet *condones* this?"

"As long as it works, they allow it." She smiled serenely.

This was how she would deal with him -- professionally. Make him painfully aware that she was only following orders and show him -- no, beat him over the head with the fact that she was an officer, and that she wouldn't tolerate his advances. And into the bargain she'd make him understand that this ship wasn't operated with the same slack attitude he was showing so far. His study of records and data requests had been more cursory than Jean-Luc would have made them. This Picard was more reactive than proactive. She hated to imagine the kind of Starfleet he worked in, if he was an example of their finest. His first thought should have been to enlist them in finding his way home, and all he had done so far was be curious and leer.

There had to be an officer here somewhere. His initial behavior had shown it. Why hadn't he stayed in that mode?

She keyed the door to open to admit the others. When Will entered, she caught the surge of recognition from Picard, and -- defensiveness?

"This is Captain Riker," she said casually. "Of the *Lexington.* Lieutenant-Commander deLio, our security chief. You already met Data. This is Jean-Luc Picard, here courtesy of Q from whatever alternate reality turns us into pale shadows of ourselves."

She sensed the shock from the others at the implied slight. Picard, returning from his survey of the others' faces, crossed his arms and looked her again, calculating. "Pale shadows?"

"You said I wasn't in Starfleet in your reality. From my point of view that's a pale shadow of what I could be." She met his eyes directly and mimicked his posture. "I also find you deficient."

"In what way?" A trace of the iron she knew from her Jean finally made an appearance -- he was getting angry.

"You needn't feel defensive about it. It sounds to me as if you've had a more leisurely exploration of your galaxy than we have. It would account for your more leisurely attitude, I think." She walked around him slowly, keeping him tracking on her so he wouldn't notice the reactions of the others as she spoke. "By not having an experience with the Borg, or Q, you've missed quite a lot of what went into making our Captain Picard who he is today. Not to mention the lack of certain members of our crew that you seem not to know -- you didn't mention Worf, or Wesley Crusher, though I suppose the latter didn't even exist in your universe."

"Crusher. . . you said that was Beverly's name."

"Wesley is her son. In this reality, she married your best friend, Jack -- "

"That swaggering idiot is *not* nor has he ever been my best friend," Picard snapped.

"Be that as it may," she put in smoothly before he could continue, "you missed a lot of things that our captain experienced. The Cardassians, for example, gave us quite a bit of trouble."

"But the Cardassians are peace-loving artisans," Picard said. "I've known several of them personally. Admiral Madred also happens to be a friend -- what is it?"

Deanna stared at him -- hard as it was, she blocked out the shock from Will. She studied Picard's emotional state carefully. "Jean-Luc, how many lights are there?"

"Five," he said, then frowned. "Why the hell did I say that? What lights are you talking about?"

~@~@~@~@~@~

"There's definitely a shift on the quantum level in his RNA," Pulaski said. Of all the crew, she was definitely the most like herself, right down to the odd looks she kept shooting him. Jean-Luc guessed she must be reacting to his discernable pleasure at finding someone familiar. He'd never been happier to spend an extended period of time in sickbay.

"Okay, let's get this straight -- you're saying that this captain is actually from another universe?" Riker exclaimed. "He's not just delusional?"

Pulaski lowered her tricorder and sensor wand. "Will, this man is older, has an artificial heart, shows significantly-different patterns of previous injuries incurred in unknown ways -- he's not our captain. There's no trace of the last surgery I performed on him. The scar from that last bat'leth fight on his arm -- gone."

"That's a vague report if I ever heard one," Jean-Luc said.

"I agree," Riker said. "Let's hear a better one, Doctor." He sounded more familiar when giving orders.

"You really want the list? Fine." Pulaski crossed her arms. "What we have here is a human male, approximately seventy-one years of age, genetically identical to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Artificial heart of unknown origin, functioning efficiently. Signs of invasive surgeries over most of his body, for what purpose I'm not certain, but there are significant amounts of forced tissue regeneration in the bone and muscle, so extensive that the traces still exist though they're years old. The patterns of bone regrowth are particularly telling in the right arm and on the skull." She indicated the sites with a point of a finger, reminding him of his experience with the Borg as was inevitable. "Unlike our captain, he has no trophy scars. Also unlike our captain, he's not sterile. And that last surgery was to put in a new knee to replace the one he blew out trying to keep up with his first officer in parises squares -- this isn't it," she said, tapping Jean-Luc's right knee. "Original tissue, no artificial components. The patient is fit as the proverbial fiddle, in remarkable shape really, with more upper body strength and muscle tone than our captain."

Riker studied him for a moment, then straightened. "I owe you an apology, then," he exclaimed stiffly.

"It's more than apparent to me that you and I have not been through some of the same experiences in the course of your tenure aboard the *Enterprise,*" Jean-Luc said. "Will you help me find my way home? If I can find a way, it may be possible to get your captain back to you. I can assure you, my staff are working at it already."

"We can only try. Why don't we go discuss it further over coffee?"

Seemed a strange thing to do -- Jean-Luc had thought a briefing with the other staff might be in order. He went along with the first officer, however, and found that Ten Forward was almost exactly as he remembered it. He thought he even remembered Guinan wearing that exact same outfit on his ship once.

When the hostess came over to their table, she glanced at both of them, then stared at him. Frowned. Stared some more.

"Where are you from?" she asked finally. "You don't belong here."

"I should have known you would be the only one on board to recognize that straight away," he said with a smile. "I don't belong here, that's true. I'm hoping to return to where I belong."

Guinan's slow smile remained cryptic as always. "You will. Let me guess -- Earl Grey, hot?"

"No. Coffee, with cream, lightly sweetened. Croissants, if you would, I didn't eat breakfast. Without my wife here to feed me it slipped my mind completely."

"Wife? You're still married to Beverly, wherever you're from?" Riker asked.

Jean-Luc dropped his gaze to the table between them. "No, I never married Beverly. She married my best friend, Jack."

Guinan fixed one of her fathomless gazes on him. "I'll get your breakfast -- coffee, Will?"

"Sure. The usual." Riker watched her leave. "So who is she, then? Your wife?"

Jean-Luc smiled and smoothed the unfamiliar uniform. "Deanna. Although, a very different one than this universe's Deanna -- one with a career and a promising future in command."

It took until after Guinan returned with their orders for him to recover enough to speak. "You married Dee -- but she's *my* imzadi!"

"That didn't seem to matter. And frankly, I don't see that it matters much to you, if your behavior this morning was indicative of your attitude toward her."

Guinan furrowed her brow at him as she placed his plate in front of him. "You and Deanna?"

Jean-Luc shrugged. "It seemed the thing to do at the time. How could I refuse?"

"Same way you do every time someone flirts with you," Guinan said acerbically, sauntering off, leaving him wondering now if his double had left a few things out of his logs.

"You said -- wait. Sorry. That wasn't you -- this is hurting my head. That bit this morning in your quarters -- I was kidding, Jean-Luc. We usually eat breakfast together at six hundred here in Ten Forward and I came by to get you. You were so caught up in what I thought was another of your little games that I gave up on it."

"You didn't sound like you were kidding to *me.*"

"Does my alter ego do a good deadpan?"

Jean-Luc sighed and spread marmalade on the tip of a croissant. "But he's never kidded me about sharing women. Then again, I've never brought any back to the ship or fraternized with any of the crew. Deanna has been the only one, and that was. . . different."

"I'm surprised Starfleet didn't notice and do something. Fraternization's a tough thing to keep secret. Never known Johnny to do it, certainly."

Jean-Luc looked up from his coffee. "You haven't?"

"Nope. Oh, we joke about it all the time. It's an ongoing thing, since that time one of his old girlfriends followed him home -- she was really something, have to admit, and just as stubborn as he is."

"Vash," Jean-Luc blurted.

"You, too? And you married Deanna? Not that there's anything about Dee that -- shit, you know what I mean."

He chuckled. "Deanna ran her off, actually." Which wasn't precisely the way it happened, but he didn't have to give the details.

"You're kidding!"

Jean-Luc put down his cup and steepled his fingers, resting his arms on either side of his plate. "Will -- you have to understand, my Deanna is a psychologist and an officer. She's been in Starfleet for only slightly longer than she's been my ship's counselor. You can't compare the two. I met yours, in the lift. Two different people, practically." He paused. "It may be no business of mine, but yours seems very unhappy."

Will chewed the inside of his cheek. "She's not pleased with the thought of going to the Gamma Quadrant for a long mission. She doesn't want to split up the family, however."

"Surely you've thought of other assignments? Have you been offered command?"

"No."

The fact stunned Jean-Luc. "No? Why not? There's usually a need for able captains."

"The fleet's just not that large. Since Fleet Admiral Madred's -- "

"*What* did you say?"

"Fleet Admiral Madred. He's a proponent of the -- "

"A Cardassian admiral? How did he -- when did the Cardassians join the Federation?"

"Since Vulcan seceded and unified with the Romulans, and a number of other worlds followed to form a coalition of their own, the Cardassian Union makes up a significant portion of the Federation. The first treaty was struck decades ago, a non-aggression pact after some threat of war, and then about stardate 46350 or so there was an incident -- you relinquished command temporarily and went on some sort of mission, and about four months after that a new treaty was signed." Riker sipped coffee. "I always wondered what happened on that mission. You never spoke of it."

"And Madred became fleet admiral," Jean-Luc whispered, studying the marmalade on his croissant as if it held the answers.

"You -- he -- met Madred about that time, and the two of them have been friends ever since."

"Friends."

"Your experience was different -- distasteful?"

"Oh," Jean-Luc shook his head and raised his coffee cup, "distasteful doesn't begin to describe it. But we're supposed to discuss how to get me home, and get your captain back -- shouldn't we be talking to Geordi?"

"You certainly have a one-track mind."

He thought of the Romulans and of spending the night in a bed without Deanna. "Two tracks, actually."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Counting up the years, Deanna pursed her lips and looked at the floor. "Have the Cardassians always been friendly?"

"Of course."

"What is Galor-class?"

"A Cardassian classification for one of their war -- The Cardassians aren't hostile. They've been members of the Federation for -- "

"Since you divorced Beverly, roughly?"

He eyed her suspiciously. "How. . . ."

"You changed at that point," she said slowly. "The point at which Gul Madred took you and tortured you, to gain information on the Minos Corva sector. Without the prior experiences of the Borg and various other trials to toughen you, you weren't strong enough to withstand Madred. There were four lights, not five."

"What are you talking about? This is nonsense! There was no torture!"

"You don't remember being shackled. You don't remember eating tespa eggs." She would have accepted the Cardassians' role in his reality as another difference between parallel universes, but it was obvious to her that this Picard, like hers, had undergone torture at Madred's hands. He was in denial, possibly brainwashed to not remember.

Since returning from the briefing, they'd been talking about the Cardassians in his universe. deLio stood outside the door of Picard's assigned quarters. Getting the security chief to wait outside had taken a minor war and some rank-pulling; after Picard had argued with Data in the briefing, none of the senior officers seemed willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Picard paced around the living room. "This doesn't matter!" he shouted. "This is ridiculous! Obviously this has nothing to do with your reality -- Madred is my friend. He wouldn't torture me."

"Tell me about the lights."

He stopped, mouth open, and stared at the dried flower arrangement on an end table. Again, that shift to emotional flatness -- she had dealt with Geordi after his experience with Romulans brainwashing him, and the flatness Picard felt reminded her of the state Geordi had often slipped into when trying to remember things.

"Lights," he repeated. Like her Jean, he could be reasonable. He seemed to be realizing that he was surrounded by professionals now; since the briefing, he'd settled into a more officer-like demeanor with her. Probably a reflection of the fact that the Deanna he knew wasn't an officer, she realized, and that it had taken seeing her interacting with other officers to convince him she was that different.

"How did you feel when Madred first brought you into his chambers?"

"I wasn't certain I would leave. . . alive. God. Where did that -- he's my friend! He wouldn't -- "

She let him struggle with it for a while, going into a light meditation while he paced. When he stopped and turned to her, she opened her eyes and rested them on his, solemn, letting his emotions mirror themselves to him through her.

"Sit down, please."

He came to the chair she'd placed just out of arm's reach in front of hers, and sat back with his arms crossed. Jean-Luc had never been this defensive for so long. Picard stared at her coldly, holding himself rigid but showing more begrudging willingness to cooperate than before.

"You realize that something you do not remember happened to you. Would you like to know what it was? Do you want me to help you, or would you rather stay in denial? Because it seems to me that this is likely why Q brought you here. I helped my captain, after his experience with Madred. I won't make the assumption that your experience was like his, but it's obvious to me that there was something for you to deny, and that it's affected your life for the worse."

"Fine. It'll pass the time, anyway."

She clasped her hands in her lap. His clipped response was typical. "What was your marriage like, before you met Madred?"

"What does that have to -- "

"Answer the counselor's question, please, and don't assume that it has no relevance until you've proven that it doesn't."

He hesitated again. "I loved my wife," he said softly. Ripples of familiar emotion came from him at last -- the emotions she usually felt directed toward her. But he was thinking of Beverly. His Beverly.

"You didn't want the divorce."

"No. She said that I wasn't the same, and unless I told her what really happened. . . but I did tell her. I told her everything. I don't understand what she found so wrong with us. It was never exactly peaceful, but it wasn't bad, either."

"I'd like to start out this way," she said, thinking it through again as she took note of the shift in his emotions to frustration and fear. "I'd like to hear your impressions of your marriage before and after the meeting with Madred. Maybe if you think about the changes it caused in your marriage, you might begin to see what it was that changed in you. Would that be acceptable to you?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"Of course you do. It has to be your choice. But realize that your choice may make a difference in your future, after you finally return home. Do you think if you could find the changes in you and alter that part of you, Beverly might come back to you?"

Hooked, reeled in, and dangling from the stringer. She'd found the motivational bait to gain his cooperation in spite of his lack of complete trust in her as a counselor. He stared at her, working through his skepticism and underlying fear. Tugging his alter-ego's uniform, he crossed his hands in his lap and settled into a familiar posture -- he was ready to go to work.

"That would be acceptable."

"Tell me about your life with Beverly," she said, cool and professional. "Starting from the beginning."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc finally went to captain's quarters. Not his, but they would have to do. Spending the day working with a sullen crew who were familiar-looking but whose personalities were just enough different so as to be disconcerting had taxed his patience and sapped him of energy faster than usual.

He replicated dinner, hating that he had to eat alone, and settled in with more of the captain's logs before his body could begin to ache at the thought of not having Deanna there with him. This time, he went back to the time surrounding the stardates he'd been held by Gul Madred -- and as his half-eaten dinner grew cold, he requested logs further and further back, then historical information from the computer. Then he wondered how much the information from official channels had been doctored.

The Picard from this universe had once been more duty-oriented, more of an officer than the general appearance of his ship might indicate. Random samplings of news bulletins and Starfleet information net updates bore an eerie resemblance to ones he'd read before, aside from the lack of references to the Borg, but from the time of the encounter with Madred, a slowly-widening gap between what he remembered and what was recorded became noticeable.

The annunciator startled him. "Come in," he called without thinking, then realized he might be letting anyone in.

At that moment, he would have gladly entertained anyone but Deanna's alter-ego. She swept inside in a whirl of filmy skirt. Here was a Betazoid on the prowl, the elaborate beaded purple dress clinging and only barely covering breasts and hips, over which drifted a layer of translucent lavender material. She'd piled her hair high on her head and wore impossibly-tall shoes. Given her generous proportions, he wondered that she didn't overbalance herself.

"I should point out that I've already got plans for the evening," he said, holding up a padd. "But it was nice of you to drop in, Mrs. Riker."

She glared -- it made him homesick. Even Deebird's anger would be welcome at this point. This Deanna strode over to him and posed not two feet from him. "Will said you aren't the same man -- that you're from some other reality."

"I don't have time for this," he said evenly. "Please leave."

"You don't want me to leave."

"I want you to leave, and I want to return to where I belong. With my wife. On my ship. Why are you here, when your husband -- "

"My husband," she spat. "The man who takes me for granted."

"That isn't my problem. I have a ship to run and -- "

"It isn't your ship! I can't figure out why Will's just going along with letting you walk in and take over, if what he says is true. Are you Jean-Luc Picard?"

"Yes. But not the one you know."

She leaned, giving him a good view down the front of her dress. "You could know me, if you like. You didn't leer at me the way the other one did -- that was a nice change, having you actually care enough about my feelings to apologize, even if you were apologizing for that other captain's actions -- actually, that says even more for you than just apologizing. I wondered, you know, when I saw you earlier today. You don't read right. Your attitude's completely different. I could like you, much better," she murmured, coming closer still. Before she could kiss him he dodged out of the chair and backed away.

"Don't do this." He almost fell over another chair in retreating from her. "Come any closer and I'll call your husband."

"Like he would care," she scoffed.

He tapped the comm badge, standing his ground as he did so. "Picard to Riker."

"Riker here." Behind the response, he heard boys' voices, raised high in playful arguing over a game of some kind.

"There's something of yours in my quarters. I'd appreciate it if you came and took it away?"

A pause. "I'll be there in a moment, sir."

In the intervening seconds, Deanna glared at him so ferociously he thought she might actually strike him with her fist. "You're going to turn me away. I don't believe it. I know you feel -- "

"I am not your captain. I have a wife." He let Will in; the first officer stood in the open door, eyeing his wife, who strode out without a backward glance. Will glanced at him, hesitated.

"I'm sorry," he said. "She. . . gets this way, when she's pregnant. Hormones."

It gave him pause. "What way? Seductive? Angry? Irrational?"

"Irrational, mostly. She must have sensed something from you that made her think -- I'll talk to her. It won't happen again."

"How far along is she?"

"Not so far. A few weeks at most. Part of her dislike for the nature of our mission. It'll be the first time she hasn't returned to Betazed for the birth." Riker grinned suddenly. "Oh, that's right -- you would be curious, wouldn't you? Haven't had any kids yet?"

"Not yet. For a minute I was afraid she was in the phase."

"No, that's still to come. She wouldn't have come after you anyway. But pregnancy does make her a little edgier than usual, and she gets impatient -- we were about to head for the holodeck once the boys got settled in for bed. She must've slipped out while I was playing kadis-kot with them. I'd better go catch her before she propositions someone else. Good night." Riker left him there to contemplate just why the idea of Deanna wandering the ship propositioning other men didn't disturb her husband more than that, and if this could be considered a deviation from what might happen in Jean-Luc's own universe.

Unable to focus now that Deanna Riker had reminded him of his cygne, Jean-Luc gathered his padds and went to Ten Forward. Perhaps the change of venue would allow him to think again. The room was empty. He took a seat and realized that he'd chosen the approximate location of the table he and Deanna frequented in the lounge on his ship. The ache of missing her increased, but he didn't move. Focusing with a will on the information he'd downloaded, he didn't hear her approach, and jumped when Guinan's hand fell on his arm.

"So how are you getting home?" she asked, sitting across from him. Knitting her fingers, she put her hands on the table in front of her and tilted her head, making her enormous blue flat-topped hat shift to the right.

"I don't know. I only know that I'll get there or die trying."

She considered that for a moment. "You wouldn't think about staying here?"

"I can't. This isn't my home." Alarmed at the pathos in his own voice, Jean-Luc turned his eyes to the padd in his hands. "I can't stay here. These people are not my friends. They are, but they aren't."

"You've upset a lot of the crew. I've been hearing about it all night, about how your orders are changing the -- "

"I don't care! This is a Starfleet vessel, and from what I've read so far the regulations governing its operation are mostly the same as what I've followed throughout my career. If the crew isn't willing to conform to standard protocols, they should get out of Starfleet."

"Many of them have."

Jean-Luc looked up at her solemn face. "Computer, what is the current crew complement of the *Enterprise?*"

"Six hundred twenty-two."

"What?" Jean-Luc stared at Guinan in dismay. "That's not a full crew. What's going on in this universe?"

Guinan shrugged. "Since the Federation Council decided Starfleet didn't need to be such a priority, I suppose they've stopped the recruitment PR, pretty much. With the treaties with the T'Khasi Coalition and the Cardassian Union, there's not a lot going on in this quadrant so far as conflict goes. The ships we have left are all explorers."

"But -- that's ridiculous, making assumptions that there would be no new adversaries to -- Why would they send out a Galaxy-class starship on an extended tour of a quadrant on the other side of the galaxy, with only half a crew? And deficient weaponry, and inadequate defensive systems! This ship shouldn't be in service!"

"By your standards, maybe."

"I know that look in your eye -- you know more than you're telling me. And just what is it about the captain who belongs here that I suspect I ought to know, but has been evading me? I keep making wrong assumptions about him."

Guinan's eyes narrowed. She glanced down at her hands, then away. "Couldn't tell you."

"You could. I wish you would. Q lands me here with no direction, you're no help -- when am I going to be given an even break?"

Her head came up with the mention of Q. "So you're here because a Q put you here. Interesting."

Hollow-chested and angry, he slammed the padd on the table and glared at her. She studied him for a few moments impassively.

"You were -- are -- a very good friend of mine," he said, tight-voiced. "Is that different, here? Would it be so difficult to help me?"

She only gazed at him in her impenetrable enigmatic way for a while longer. "Deanna is your wife," she said at last. "Is she happy with that arrangement?"

He had no air to answer with. Finally, he sucked some in and forced a response. "Guinan, I want to go home. I can't live like this."

She nodded. A smile, the first she'd given him since she sat down, blossomed. "I think you'll make it home. I suggest you talk to Beverly, when we get to Deep Space Nine. Maybe look up some of his personal correspondence. Find out a little more about your other self. He's not quite what his crew thinks he is -- but I'll bet you aren't, either."

She rose and left him to his studies, without even offering him something to drink. After watching her leave Ten Forward, he refocused on the padds.

He returned to his quarters three hours later, to find a message waiting for him. Settling on the bed, still fully dressed, he listened to the voices of children he didn't know calling him Daddy.

He closed his eyes to block out the unreality around him. "Deanna. I'll see you again. Don't lose faith in me, cygne. . . ."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna woke to the computer pleasantly telling her it was time for her to rise. Scowling, she kicked off the rest of the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, feeling like she'd just run halfway to Betazed carrying the ship on her shoulders. She stumbled into the bathroom, pulling off her night shirt and dropping her panties as she got in the shower.

Two days since Jean-Luc disappeared. Their guest had worked with her to a point, then propositioned her, putting an end to the second session. She hadn't slept the first night and resorted to a sedative for the second. Her eyes hurt, and her body ached. In spite of sleep she still felt tired.

"Data to Counselor Troi."

"Yes, Data, what is it," she said -- she'd almost snapped at the android, she realized.

"I would like to invite you to breakfast with me in the officer's lounge."

She leaned against the wall and stifled the urge to snap harder at him. He was doing it for her sake -- he never ate unless there were some social reason to do so. "No, thank you. I appreciate the offer. But I really don't feel well this morning. I didn't sleep well in spite of taking something last night, and I'm irritable. I wouldn't be good company."

"Perhaps lunch, then."

"I'll let you know, thanks." She smiled -- he was going out of his way to spend time with her. At least he wasn't asking her directly how she was doing, as others had. She'd told him she found his presence most assuring because she couldn't sense his concern so well; the worry from the other senior officers only compounded her feelings of loss and made it harder to concentrate.

She picked up the discarded clothing and stopped short of dropping them down the chute -- a dark stain on her panties caught her eye. Not much of one, just a spot. She froze, dangling the scrap of clothing in front of her, and began to tremble. Spotting could mean one of two things. She didn't know which she feared more.

At last she dropped the panties in the chute and made it out to the bedroom. Collapsing on the bed, she stared up at the ceiling, hugging herself.

She lost track of time completely. By the time the annunciator went off, she'd wrapped herself in a tight cocoon of blankets. She ignored it. Whoever it was kept trying, and then she heard the doors open.

"Deanna?" A woman's voice -- Bell. One of the handful of noodges who seemed to be determined to distract her from what they perceived to be an overwhelming sense of loss.

"Go away," she exclaimed, trying to sound more irritable than despairing.

"We were supposed to get together this morning, remember?"

"Bell, I'm sorry, but I just don't feel like it. I can't."

Deanna heard her moving, felt the sag of the mattress, and then Bell's fingers touched her face, brushing back her hair. "What is it?"

"Just leave me alone. Please?"

"Cher, it's all right to cry. You've been so collected and calm -- it's made us worry that you're trying too hard."

"Everything I eat tastes like paper. I can't breathe. Can't sleep. That *man* makes me so angry -- he started to make progress, or so I thought, and then the next thing I know he's making passes at me again. And seeing him just reminds me -- Bell -- "

"It's all right, go ahead and cry," Bell said softly, moving closer and pulling Deanna into her arms to hold her across her lap.

Sobbing for a while only made her eyes hurt worse. Bell disappeared into the bathroom, returned with a cloth, washed her face, and then began brushing Deanna's hair gently. When someone else came to the door, Bell left her to go out to meet them. Quiet murmurs -- Deanna could sense the sympathy and worry. Her hands knotted in the blankets. It hurt, it pounded on her brain, the worry and the pain they felt at her loss, at losing him -- hurt. Her stomach lurched. This wasn't right. She shouldn't be this sensitive to it, she should be able to block it out better.

Bell came back a few minutes later. "Do you feel up to taking a walk with me, Dee?"

"No. I don't. Go away."

"Look, if you don't get up and come with me to sickbay, I'll just bring Mengis in here to see you. So you'd better get dressed."

Deanna closed her eyes and tried to bite back the sobs, only managing to shake harder when the suppressed tears burst from her. This time, she shook off Bell's attempt to comfort her. Rising, holding the sheet around her, she gathered articles of clothing, retreated to the bathroom, and dressed. Pips in place, she tamed her hair into its usual tight ponytail and applied makeup with angry strokes.

Bell looked surprised to see her so composed. "Deanna -- "

"I'm fine, Bell. I appreciate your concern. But I have my duty -- "

"Data said he was relieving you of duty for the time being."

Deanna left her quarters without another word, glad that Bell didn't try to follow her, and asked the computer for Data's location. She found him in Jean-Luc's ready room studying the monitor at the desk. When he turned to look at her, he raised an eyebrow and waited for her to speak.

"Data, if you relieve me of duty, I won't have anything to do. I'll go crazy."

He weighed his words carefully before answering. "If I may point out, Deanna, yesterday afternoon you appeared to be having what Mr. Carlisle referred to as 'random and violent mood swings.' Though you did not appear to me to be violent, he explained that the abruptness and severity of the mood change was what he referred to, and that -- "

"It won't happen again. I was frustrated and tired, and angry at myself for -- Data, I need duty. It's all that gives me definition at the moment. Otherwise I'll -- " She bowed her head and mustered her wits for a moment. "If you won't let me return to active duty, at least give me assignments to work on. I need the distraction. Put me at a secondary station, put me in simulations, make something for me to consider duty. But I'd rather return to full duty, to counseling, to working with *him.* I can't let him get the better of me. I won't make assumptions again."

"Captain Picard -- "

"Isn't here, Commander. You know he would let me try. You know he wouldn't protect me from my own duties. This Picard we have, he's smart and I let him catch me off guard, but it won't happen again."

Data looked at the monitor, then back at her. "You will keep security on hand at all times?"

"I'll have deLio arrange it."

"I admire your determination, Deanna. Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?"

She laughed dryly. "You're getting better at reading facial expressions all the time, aren't you? Just that I -- no, that can wait. I should let you get back to what you were doing. Thank you, Commander. I'll be sure to give you a report on my efforts later. How is the recovery effort coming?"

"Geordi and his department are working with astrophysics to explore all options available. They are researching all Starfleet records of temporal anomalies and encounters with parallel realities and attempting to find ways to create and control quantum fissures. It will take some time, and our current situation has priority, but we are making every effort to find a way to bring Captain Picard back to us."

She leaned and gripped his arm. "Thank you, Data. I'll check in with you later. Lunch?"

The android smiled. "Of course."

~@~@~@~@~@~

"This is unacceptable," Jean-Luc exclaimed. "These efficiency ratings are ridiculously low."

"Eighty-five percent is -- "

"Mr. La Forge, *fix* the engines." Turning on his heel, Jean-Luc left main engineering. Riker trailed along behind, with Yar two steps behind him.

"Sir, I think you're being a little hard on -- "

"If I wanted your opinion I would have asked, Commander."

"Let me rephrase, then," Riker snapped. "This ship has the best crew Starfleet has to offer, and you're treating them like automatons."

Jean-Luc hesitated, then faced the first officer. "Let me get this straight. Starfleet expects this ship to go across the galaxy with poorly-tuned engines, barely enough weaponry for a pretty fireworks display, half a crew, and officers who don't know the meaning of the word 'efficient.' You're telling me that I shouldn't expect better than suicide in the name of duty? That's what this is -- suicide. This universe of yours is very much like mine, uncannily so -- if the Gamma Quadrant is as much like the one I know, we're about to sail into the heart of the Dominion! The Jem'hadar would make short work of this ship. I *refuse* to allow it to go through the wormhole in this condition!"

Yar and Riker stared at him. This Tasha had longer hair than the one he'd known, and kept it in a long braid down her right shoulder. She raised her head defiantly.

"If I may point out, sir, the crew might respond more readily to polite requests than demands?"

"I made a polite request yesterday. I got less than optimum results. Commander Riker, how is the other project -- "

"Still working on it, sir," Riker said in unusually-humble tones. Jean-Luc stared at him a moment.

"Is there something else you have to say to me?"

Riker sighed and bowed his head. His body language differed considerably from the *real* Riker -- on Deanna and Beverly's Riker Ruler, this man rated about half a Riker, if Jean-Luc had understood the criteria well enough.

"I don't think our people understand well enough what you're looking for," Riker said. "Our experience with temporal anomalies and alternate realities is obviously deficient, compared to what you're used to. We've had a few encounters but nothing like what you've described to us."

"Then it will simply take a little more research than you're accustomed to." Jean-Luc headed for the lift. When he stepped inside, he found that Riker hadn't followed, but Yar had.

"Is everyone from your universe as grouchy as you are?" she asked.

"I'm not grouchy. Frustrated, yes. This is a Starfleet vessel. I may as well be traveling with Pakleds," he grumbled. "I've seen pirate ships operated with more efficiency. Bridge."

"Frustration can be alleviated."

He stared at her -- she leaned against the wall, adopting a familiar tilt-hipped, chest-forward pose.

"Commander, I've listened to enough of my doppelganger's logs to understand from subtext what you are to him, and I don't like it. I don't have any intention of liking it. That you've managed to carry on without being noticed by the first officer speaks of just how much subterfuge you've resorted to in order to keep the secret."

"Will said you married your ship's counselor. I don't think you have a right to be so sanctimonious," she murmured, giving him the once over.

"Your clandestine arrangement is obviously about nothing but sexual gratification, and is but another indication of your captain's inappropriate and lax attitude."

"Okay -- so you have a convenient double standard."

Jean-Luc glared at Yar. "I have a wife, who is also an officer, and there is nothing clandestine about it. You will refrain from further comment, and go about your business, Commander."

Tasha stood away from the wall and straightened. "Yes, sir," she exclaimed, glaring. The lift opened, and he marched out onto the bridge.

The absence of his counselor at her usual place hurt all over again. He cruised by the ops console and veered into his ready room, past the pictures on the wall where his fish tank should have been, to the desk, where he brought up the results of a search he'd run through Federation databases the day before.

Jack Crusher. He was still alive, and so was Walker Keel. Jean-Luc scrolled down the list of names of old friends, and found that many were still alive here. Of course, the Borg had never happened, and the fleet hadn't been decimated at Wolf 359, or in a Dominion War.

Another result of another search popped up while he contemplated. As he studied the first of a number of logged temporal incidents, the annunciator interrupted. "Come in."

Yar strode in and stood at attention. "I'd like to talk to you, sir. As an officer," she added, before he could send her away again.

"Sit. What is it, Commander?"

She settled in the chair and clasped her hands over a knee, chewing her lower lip. "I'm not sure where to start. But I've been worried about my captain, and you keep saying that our universes have many similarities -- I wonder if you could tell me something that I might use to help him, when we get him back."

Jean-Luc turned from his screen and leaned on the desk. "When? You show more confidence than most, Commander."

"If you don't mind my saying. . . you're the finest officer I've met in a long time. The captain was like you, before, but he's not any more. I'd like to find out what happened. Maybe your reality parallels his enough that you could help me know where to begin."

"You're very loyal to him, aren't you?"

Her sober blue-eyed regard said yes. "I miss the way Starfleet used to be. The way you seem to expect it to be. The others don't so much -- Riker used to be more of an officer, but his priorities changed. The captain went first, though, when Beverly left with the kids. After that he just seemed to lose the edge. I used to think it was her leaving that made him turn soft, but now I wonder if it didn't have something to do with the two months he was gone."

"The two months during which he met Gul Madred, you mean."

She nodded once. "Would you tell me about that? What happened to you?"

Jean-Luc sighed and turned his chair so he could look out at the stars. After a few moments of contemplation, he said, "Madred subjected me to senseless and brutal torture for days. For no other reason than to break me, because the information he requested was obviously unknown to me."

He heard her exhale after a few seconds of silence. "You survived it."

"So did your captain. But he broke. I've been examining his logs and the gradual insinuation of Madred into Command -- Madred was granted his position upon the integration of the Cardassian Union into the Federation. He became Fleet Admiral some years later, with little regard for the fact that he's never been an officer of the line. I suspect considerable politicking got him there, and that your captain's support helped. I suspect that he's used his position to gradually influence the Federation into weakening themselves by degree. There is a conspiracy afoot, Tasha."

He glanced at Yar at last. She had come to attention, mouth open, hands gripping the arms of the chair. "You've been here for two days and you figured all this out?"

"I have my experience to draw upon to make guesses as to where to start. Can I count on you, Commander, to keep this a secret?"

"Yes, sir! What are you -- what are we going to do? Is there anything we can do?"

Jean-Luc rose and leaned on the desk, hands splayed. "Commander, we are in Starfleet. When there is nothing we can do under the circumstances -- we create more options."

To his dismay, tears slid out of the corners of her startled eyes -- but then she smiled. "Sir, thank you. Thank you for saying that. Anything you need, anything I can do to help, just ask."

"I was hoping you would say that." He headed for the replicator in the back of the room. "Why don't we have a cup of tea, and we'll get started? Because I believe you can fill in a lot of gaps in what I know of your captain, and I'd like to know as much as possible about him before we reach Deep Space Nine and confront his family."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna stopped outside Picard's door and collected herself before going inside. Head high, she entered the room and stood looking at him.

He'd given up on uniforms and wore comfortable off-duty attire, white shirt and plain black pants. He rose from the desk in the corner -- he'd been looking through more information on the ship roster. His eyes flicked to her collar. "Red is still command, isn't it?"

"In view of our current situation, Admiral Nechayev thought it best to have a captain on the bridge. Since our first officer is now captain, they needed a first officer, and since I am a full commander -- "

"Hell's bells. You, a first officer." He sniffed, shaking his head. "This is truly a strange universe I've fallen into."

"I thought I should come by and explain to you that I won't be able to work with you -- not that you care. All you seem interested in -- "

"Commander, please, wait. Can we sit down and talk for a minute?" He gestured at the sofa. "Please. I won't hit on you."

Reading his intent, she sat on the end of the sofa and crossed her legs. He put more than ample distance between them and leaned, elbows on knees, head bowed.

"I want to apologize for what happened. It -- fell out of my mouth, before I could stop it. I don't know what it is that makes me that way. Every time I talk about -- certain things directly, that happens. I've talked this through with Tasha. . . she and I are. . . close."

"Lovers."

"Friends, more than -- it isn't like that. I don't know how to explain to you, but I've found that not thinking about things, really concentrating on not thinking about them and just generalizing -- I can't do what you wanted me to do in session and talk rationally. I've tried it with Tasha. I hoped you could see through it, being a trained psychologist and an empath, and that you could somehow snap me out of it."

Deanna stared at him. "Why didn't you tell me this to begin with?"

He groped for words -- the effort became too much, and the frustration mounted. His eyes closed, he stammered, "After -- what happened, I tried to talk. It makes me do things. I can't even think about it when I look at you directly. I can't talk to anyone. It's like being in a box with it. As long as someone's with me it's completely gone -- like it never happened. But when I'm alone it -- "

She watched him struggling and slowly an idea came to her, the details coming together. "Stop. What's your favorite composer?"

"I don't really have a single favorite, I enjoy Mozart," he blurted, the words tumbling out as if they'd been waiting on the tip of his tongue. "I also -- "

"Jean-Luc, have you tried hypnosis?"

"Nothing works. I've been trapped in here for two days solid after that session with you, doing nothing but thinking, and I thought I'd gotten to a point -- but you walked in and it went away again. The resolve. It happened with Tasha -- that's how we became lovers. We don't have counselors on ships. When I try too hard to discuss it, for an extended period, it's like it mutates into -- lust. I tried talking to a friend, a man, it turned into anger and I nearly killed him." He actually turned his back on her. "If I look at you right now it's going to happen again."

"If I'm not in the room, can you talk about it? Record it for me to listen to?"

"No. Can't talk aloud. I can only think it." Picard's hands went to his head. "God. It's giving me a headache, doing this. It always does. But I think it's weakening, whatever did this -- I didn't used to -- damn!"

Deanna went to the replicator and came back with a cold glass of water. Placing it on the low table in front of him, she moved a chair to face him and sat down. "Tell me about the day you took command of the *Enterprise.* Were you happy?"

"Absolutely. The first command I could take my family along -- I could watch the kids grow up. Chelsea loved the ship. She loves the stars, could watch them all day long if you let her. She used to help Guinan in Ten Forward." The distraction brought forth more of a response that it would have under normal circumstances, she guessed. He turned his head, appreciation in his eyes, and she realized he was actually perspiring with the effort he'd expended in talking to her in even that oblique fashion. "The saddest day of my life was seeing them leave." Picking up the glass, he drank -- she'd been right about the thirst.

"Stop thinking about that. I didn't mean to remind you of something that made you so sad," Deanna said, trying to block the waves of regret and despair from him. "You can only think of the things you can't tell me when you are alone. You think that I should know those things. I want you to relax before we go any further -- you're tense and your heart is racing. Lay back and close your eyes, and banish anxiety from your thoughts. Choose something soothing and think about it. Computer, play Mozart's Magic Flute, low volume."

She waited, paying attention to his mood. The music seemed to help; he leaned back and closed his eyes. Her impulse to go to him, massage away the tension, lay her hands on him, died slowly -- she had to meditate it away, closing her own eyes for a few moments.

Opening her eyes, she saw that he had relaxed almost too completely. "You think the conditioning is weakening."

"I've tried in my logs lately to -- " He winced; she felt the stab of pain as well. He'd thought of something that he'd been programmed not to be conscious of with another person present. That had to be it. The level of brainwashing and reprogramming he'd been subjected to boggled her mind.

"Would you be willing to submit to a combination of treatments, drug therapy, perhaps? It could take months to break this conditioning, and if there is something we could do to expedite the process -- "

"Anything! Whatever would help -- You don't understand what -- " He fell back, hands to his head, grimacing under the pain --

Blinded by it herself, Deanna stumbled from the chair, collided with a dizzying array of unidentified things on her rush through to the bathroom.

She came to herself suddenly, surprised to feel the cold tile of the floor against her cheek. A hand closed on her arm -- she jerked away in surprise, then submitted as she realized her body trembled weakly and sour bile lay on her tongue. Her stomach convulsed again at the taste. Picard picked her up by the armpits and held her over the sink; she gripped the edge and retched, noting that nothing came up. She'd not had lunch yet, and what was left of breakfast appeared to be on the floor.

More surprise that he brushed her hair out of her face with a gentle, practiced hand, and procured a glass of water for her with that one hand while supporting her with the other. It was the first time he'd touched her. She rinsed her mouth and risked a glance at his face.

Weariness, the kind that lingered after much physical pain, was etched around his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "Maybe you shouldn't do this any more."

Deanna sank to her knees again and clung to the edge of the sink, pressing her face into her arms. When she'd successfully stuffed the tears back down underneath an officer's control, she inhaled once, twice, and pulled herself up. "You shouldn't tell me what to do. You're not my captain. I'll send Counselor Davidson and Dr. Selar to see you later this afternoon, if you'd like to continue -- I think they will be able to make progress, and I'll check on you again tomorrow. Deprogramming is difficult, but we'll do all we can to expedite -- "

"You're pregnant, aren't you?"

She eyed him sharply. "That's none of your business."

"Well, I suppose not, technically. But it's fairly obvious -- it always made Deanna more sensitive overall, and strong negative emotions would give her physiological reactions, nausea being one of the more popular ones. So by all means send your other counselor along."

Deanna stared at him for a moment. "Do me a favor, will you? Don't be friendly to me." She rose off her other knee and pushed past him into the bedroom, speaking over her shoulder. "Thank you, for your assistance and your concern, but -- be polite, be firm, be cool, or be angry. I can't take friendly from you. I can't take -- softness -- "

"Deanna!"

He caught her at the door, gripping her arm firmly. Wrenching herself free, she stopped herself short of shoving him away, eyes burning as she glared at him, another sob nearly escaping her. They backed apart a few steps. Picard looked at the carpet.

"Sorry. Honestly, if there was anything I could do -- "

"There is," she exclaimed, hating that she sounded like she was crying. "If Q put you here to get this out of your system and turn you back into the captain you probably were, you can do everything in your power to help it along. I'll check on you tomorrow. Good day, Captain Picard."

"He's a lucky man," Picard said, almost wistfully.

She couldn't look at him. Her feet took her out, down the corridor, and through the door to her quarters automatically. She spun about in a circle, looking at the items on the shelves and the desk and the couch and seeing nothing that didn't remind her --

This wasn't good. This much negative emotion might cause a miscarriage. What he'd said made sense, now that she thought about it -- her overall moodiness might be attributable to her sensitivity to others' emotions. Only a few days along and already showing symptoms -- was this a peculiarity of her own hybrid physiology, or a quirk of Betazoid or human origin? Hormones, by any name, of any origin, changing her physiological reactions to things. A trip to sickbay went on her list of things to do.

Her stomach flipflopped. She pondered over the empty state of her stomach, went to the replicator, brought up lists and scrolled for something that sounded somewhat palatable -- everything sounded awful. Everything. Even a simple glass of milk.

Davidson. She had to give him orders -- and Selar. And she was supposed to be on the bridge. But she had to eat.

"Data to Troi," came the commanding officer's summons. "Deanna, I have been expecting -- "

"I'm sorry, Captain, I'll be there right away. Troi out." She hesitated only long enough to be sure her uniform wasn't stained.

The ensigns in the lift looked at her curiously. Data had notified the crew at large of the changes in the chain of command, of course, and made certain that everyone knew it was temporary. How temporary, they couldn't be sure.

If she lost Jean-Fish --

It was all she could do to keep herself steady and impassive, and not clutch her abdomen at the thought.

If she survived this mission, she would wait. How long she wasn't certain. Wait until she felt sure that Jean-Luc wasn't returning, then go home -- to the Picard home. To have his child. He felt the burden of being the last of the line, the last Picard. Putting her life on hold for however long it took to see that the last Picard grew up a Picard would be her occupation. If he couldn't be there to help raise their child, to instill in it what it meant to be a Picard, she could only hope that being raised at least part of the time at the chateau speaking French would be enough.

{Priorities, Jean-Fish. Gods, I miss you.}

He would come back. He'd be searching for ways home from his side, too. Maybe, given what he would remember of experiences the *Enterprise* had had, they could figure out how he'd most likely attempt it.

She was saved from the brink of tears by the doors opening. Her swift progress down the side of the bridge to the ready room didn't stir much surprise from the bridge crew. All the watch officers had already been briefed, down to the gamma shift ensigns. Ward Carlisle's presence at the conn, familiar and steady, reminded her that she'd pushed him out of her way -- she had sensed however that he didn't begrudge her, quite the opposite. He'd only been a second officer for five years, after all, and only on the *Enterprise* for two.

Data looked up from what he was doing. "Is everything all right?"

"Do I look that bad?" She sat down. No hiding anything from Data, he'd already asked her not to, and he'd been so supportive in the past few days of hell -- she could relax with him, especially when he turned off his emotion chip.

"You look pale. Perhaps you should be in sickbay. If this will be too much -- "

"I already told you, Data, I can handle it. You've worked long and hard to make sure I can handle it, and I'll do it. But there is something you should know, because it's only going to get rougher from here on out. I'm pregnant."

Thank the stars for that android poker face. She couldn't have handled a grin, or condolences -- she'd asked for a suspension of all such things from him. He acknowledged it with a nod. "This will affect your demeanor somewhat, I gather. I recall a number of past co-workers in the early stages of pregnancy. Is there anything peculiar to Betazoids that I should expect to encounter besides moodiness?"

"I seem to be more sensitive to the emotions of others. I'll do my best to compensate. I may need breaks to meditate, to center myself. I'll probably be more tired than usual. But I'm only a few days along, a week at most -- it's not going to really affect my performance on duty if I can take breaks."

"I am concerned that the combination of this with. . . our situation, may result in more trauma for you than it ordinarily would."

"It won't affect my work. I won't let it. I'll talk to Counselor Davidson, on my own time, if I have to. I'll go to sickbay after shift. But Data, I can do this. As long as I can convince myself of that, and if everyone would treat me the same, I'll be fine. Hopefully long enough to get the captain back. Speaking of which -- I just saw our guest. I think I know how we can start making headway, and I think he'll cooperate. You'll have a report on your desk by the end of the day, once I've spoken to Davidson and he's seen Picard."

Data smiled -- not his genuine one. His emotion chip wasn't on. This was his polite surface smile, that he'd practiced for command. "Good. Before we move on to ship's business. . . Beverly would like to know why you haven't answered her message. Evidently she addressed it to both you and Jean-Luc."

"I can't deal with messages right now. I've glanced through the headers, but -- " Suddenly, her vision fogged over. "Could you tell her? Please, Data, I can't deal with it. Not another explanation. Just send her a message that we'll get back to her later. Talking to Nechayev with you was hard enough, and that was official."

Suddenly her stomach lurched. She bent double, grabbing the edge of the desk and gasping. She didn't realize she'd had such a drastic reaction until Data's hand closed on her arm -- she hadn't even seen him get up or come around the desk. And when Mengis arrived, she realized she hadn't heard him call the doctor, either.

"You're exhausted," the doctor said almost before he'd gotten the tricorder open. He perched on the edge of the chair next to her and scanned. "You need sleep. Judging from the chemical imbalances I'm seeing, you've not eaten much either."

"I just vomited. I'll eat when I can hold something down."

"Commander, you're -- "

"Pregnant?"

Mengis' hard green eyes flicked to her face. "Yes. I'd like you to come with me and we'll run a full diagnostic. Quick off the mark, aren't we? You forgot to come in and let us put the implant back after your covert ops mission -- or was this intentional?"

"A little of both, actually. I was going to come by later today. I have work to do."

"How long will your diagnostic take?" Data asked.

"Less than an hour, Captain. Though I'd like her to eat something while we have her there, which will add to that."

"I shall expect you back here in an hour, Commander."

Deanna gaped for a moment. "I don't want this to be common knowledge," she said at last. "It's too early."

"I understand, Deanna. Go with the doctor, please."

She went, thinking that at least she'd be able to talk to Selar while she was there -- and with the thought, realized that she was, after all was said and done, an officer. Duty first. Jean-Luc would be proud of her.

The first sob caught her off guard, as she rode to sickbay with Mengis. The second caught her in the corridor. The doctor held her arm, slowed their progress, and watched her without a word. Catching her breath, she straightened her shoulders and he let go.

She walked into sickbay with him, head up, the first officer of the *Enterprise.*

~@~@~@~@~@~

The space station was as he remembered it. The promenade bustled with activity, the walkways and corridors filled with people of all species. But --

No Bajorans.

Jean-Luc stared out the viewport at the planet that should have had clouds and ocean and green and brown continents, and saw only rock.

"Hell," he muttered.

No hasperat. No Ro Llaren. No ancient Bajoran traditional spirituality, no Emissary, no Kai, no Orbs. . . . The space station existed because of the wormhole. Bajor the living planet, as he'd known it, was gone. Destroyed in a war decades before. The Cardassians were peaceful, all right -- as long as they were in control.

"Jean-Luc?"

The familiar voice had a hardness he somehow hadn't anticipated, in spite of knowing he was supposedly her ex-husband, in spite of Tasha's warnings. He turned slowly and kept his posture non-threatening as possible, shoulders rolled slightly forward and chin tucked.

This wasn't the Beverly he knew. Her hair, much longer than would have been feasible were she in Starfleet, had been braided and coiled elaborately on the back of her head. The bright blue dress, loose but flattering to her figure, covered a body of ampler proportions than he remembered, but she wasn't nearly as bad as Deanna. Her eyes glittered like ice. The anger in her posture, the lines in her face -- this universe hadn't been kind to the women he'd loved. This Beverly was hard as hull plates.

At least she wasn't an empath. She couldn't sense the fury building inside him at what she'd suffered, therefore it could remain his secret, unexpressed and controlled.

"We need to talk," he said, voice pitched low and serious.

"That's what I gathered from your message. Since when do you *not* want to see the kids first? Usually that's the only thing on your mind, any more." Her arch tone hurt, though it shouldn't. It only made him all the more thankful that in his universe, he'd retained his friendship with this woman.

He glanced left and right. This section of the station, one of the dim observation areas, was empty. He sat down in the front row of seats and crossed his arms, staring out at Bajor. After a moment she sat next to him, arm brushing his.

"I'm sorry, Beverly. You don't deserve any of what's happened. I'm ready to talk to you, if you care to hear it."

Her surprise almost brought her out of the chair. Bolt upright, she gripped the arm of it and stared. "Jean-Luc? Is that you?"

A slow, measured turn of the head, and he met her gaze calmly. "Actually, if you'd like the whole truth, I can tell you that too. But for the moment -- ask what you will."

Her fierce regard could daunt anyone. "What happened to you, on that mission? Why did you turn into a sexual predator when you came back?"

Thank the stars for Tasha and her candor. Uncomfortable as that explanation had been, it'd explained more than she'd guessed it might. "I was programmed to avoid direct questioning that way. A gift from Madred. He tortured and brainwashed me, you see, and I've had no choice in the way I've behaved. But that's going to change."

Beverly's incredulous expression hurt. This situation hurt -- she'd been as much a victim of Madred's manipulations as his doppelganger, as had the children. She sank back and slumped in the seat. "Your pal, your chum, the wonderful Madred about whom we argued so often -- you wouldn't hear a word against him and suddenly he's a torturer."

"Not so suddenly. He's always been one. What's sudden is the substitution that's been made -- perhaps this won't be believable, but I have evidence." He reached for the tricorder sitting in the chair to his left. "Beverly, I've been brought here from another universe. An alternate reality. If you would care to look at this you'll see that I'm the same person but that I'm not. It's why I asked to see you before the children see me."

She took the tricorder and scanned the record of Pulaski's findings, then turned it on him as if she couldn't quite believe it without verifying -- "Your heart," she murmured. Her eyes shifted their intense blue gaze to his face. "Not just that -- your demeanor. There's a -- freeness, there. Like something's been lifted -- "

"Like it's never been there in the first place," he said, echoing Tasha's descriptor. After hours of conversations with her that had been her conclusion. He was her captain minus the onus of the layers of programming Madred had put in place.

"You're saying that you're from an alternate universe but that *my* -- "

"I've found indications of what's been done to him throughout his logs, and all his communiques with Madred. I've discussed it with members of his crew. I was tortured and escaped relatively intact. He didn't. The sexual behavior, the belligerence toward men -- those were carefully calculated to disguise the reality and to humiliate him. I have reason to suspect he'll be returned to you, Beverly, and that when he does return, he'll be at least partly recovered. Though I don't know for certain what reasons you had for divorcing him, I think you'll find he's a changed man."

"I don't know if I should believe this or not. This could be another of your -- "

"The games are part of it. A way of building mistrust in others, to keep them guessing, to keep your Picard from ever being able to reveal anything about his condition to anyone. I've had considerable difficulty getting people to believe I am who I am because of those games. But from the pattern of absent and present scars, the artificial heart, and the shift in the RNA, you can see that I'm telling the truth. Beverly -- I never married you, in my reality. You married Jack Crusher. You had a son. You served aboard my ship. We're good friends, you and I, but I'm married to someone else."

The color in her cheeks and the wide-eyed alarm wasn't quite what he'd expected. "Oh, God. Jack -- and me? But -- You're serious. I can see from your eyes. This is real, isn't it?"

"If you want to take me to the infirmary here on the station and -- "

"No, Jean-Luc -- I can call you that can't I?"

He smiled. "It *is* my name. Remarkable how you've come to accept this, and quite a refreshing change from what I'd expected."

She stared at him for a long, long time, the red in her cheeks fading to white, until finally tears began to fall. "I wish he were like you," she whispered. "You're so -- solid. So much the way he was before. Do you think -- will he go back to -- where is he?"

"I suspect he is with my crew, my ship, and that my wife will be working hard to help him -- because helping him is the goal. The challenge. The being who brought me here is what's known as a Q, and from what he said, the reason this switch was made was for your Picard's sake. I'm working on other means of returning to my reality -- I don't take anything for granted when it comes to Q -- but I've no doubt that Deanna will ascertain the problem and do everything in her power to undo the damage that's been done. She's the best there is, Beverly. She's been my ship's counselor for years."

"Deanna's *your* wife?"

He sat still, staring at the rock that was once Bajor. "Yes. We'd just been married, shortly before I was brought here. This is hell to me, Beverly. That planet, for example, is alive in my reality. The Bajorans just joined the Federation. The Cardassians are rebuilding their civilization after a devastating war -- but here they are in the process of devastating the Federation. I believe that your Picard needs to turn this ship of his around and stay right here in the Alpha Quadrant, and work against the Cardassians. I think his programming was beginning to crack." His voice had dropped to a low whisper, and they leaned together over the arm of the seat. "His last few logs were almost manic, as if he were fighting against it and unable to make any real headway. I thought at first he was completely insane -- it was such a mess of sexual obscenity and furious raving that I feared for my crew. But if he's fighting it, if he's willing to work with Deanna, she'll be able to help him. There is hope, Beverly. She recovered me from bad situations before."

A slow clapping interrupted -- he didn't have to turn around to know who it was, only one being could appear in the chair next to him without his detecting the approach. Beverly's surprise added to it. She jumped up and backed a few steps, and Jean-Luc turned with feigned casualness to look at Q.

"Congratulations, mon capitaine. You astound me, the way you figure these things out without my help."

"You'd expect me to just sit around waiting for you to rescue me?" He sniffed. "You're so predictable. You act as though we're nothing but windup toys, put in the universe for your amusement, and the instant one of us does something you didn't expect it's such a surprise. I suppose you're here to annoy me instead of taking me home?"

Q frowned. "Well, I was going to tell you how things were going -- but if you're going to be so *petulant* I'll just be on my way."

"No -- wait -- Q, why are you being so. . . generous?"

"Oh, Jean-Luc, really -- you're so predictable. You act as if we Q are always up to no good, and the minute one of us does something you didn't expect it's *such* a surprise."

Jean-Luc laughed dryly, actually smiled at that. "Touche. Is it going well? Is she. . . is Deanna all right?"

Q pitched his head back and laughed, throwing his arms wide, and leaped from the chair. "All right! If I'd known she was half as much fun, I'd have included her on a few of our adventures -- but then, I don't always determine our adventures, either."

"What's happened?" Jean-Luc sat up avidly. "The Romulans?"

"Would you like to see? And do sit down, Beverly -- I'm sorry, the good captain's manners seem to fail him when I'm around. I'm Q. The engineer of our little switch -- don't worry, your husband's in good hands." Q pointed at the viewport, which flared and showed a broad view of the bridge of the *Enterprise* -- Jean-Luc barely registered Beverly's wary movement to a chair as he surveyed the scene.

Data, with four pips! Deanna, with a red collar! As Jean-Luc gaped Deanna rose and moved to the ops console, standing over the second officer's shoulder as Ward spoke. No sound, just the view, just Deanna moving from ops to face Data and say something, her face composed and professional. She snapped around to look at the viewscreen as everyone else did, and Jean-Luc saw the wavering image of a decloaking warbird.

Deanna's mouth moved. Red alert! Shields up! The next few minutes were incredible -- the bridge rocked, and the helm officer's fingers were flying in response to orders Data gave, the android rising to catch Deanna's elbow as she stumbled for her chair, the first officer's chair, and as she sat she already had her hand on the monitor bringing up data, her head turning to deLio at tactical behind her.

They'd made her first officer in his absence. He hadn't been there to witness it. Of course -- with the captain gone, replaced by a double of him who had definite problems, they would have to put someone in command to face the Romulans. Of course it would be Data.

And then it was gone. Replaced by the image of himself, in sickbay, in one of the isolation wards on a biobed, with Counselor Davidson and Dr. Selar in attendance. As he watched Selar injected something into his neck -- the pain on his doppelganger's face made Jean-Luc cringe.

"Drug therapy," Jean-Luc whispered. "They're trying to break the conditioning. They're trying to break through, so he can begin to process the experience."

And the window went back to stars, the glow of the Bajoran sun, the rock hanging in space -- and capricious Q was gone.

Beverly gripping his hand tightly brought him back from the dazed state he'd fallen into. He realized that tears streaked his face, and launched himself from the chair, shaking her off, pacing wildly down the length of the windows. He traversed the length of the observation bay twice, translating emotion into movement, and finally, as he reached the leeward side of the bay, struck the bulkhead with both fists and used the pain to focus, fingernails digging into his palms.

"Damn you, Q. Damn you to hell. I *hate* this," he grated.

He didn't bother looking when the flash of light happened to his right. "Now, *there's* the captain I remember. Losing himself to the anger. The hatred. It's so hard for you to lose control, isn't it -- Jean-Fish?"

His eyes ached. His throat hurt -- everything in him wanted to scream and throttle the smug bastard. But Jean-Luc turned a rigid, furious expression on him, and glared. "Thank you, Q, for letting me know what's happening. That she's all right. If it was reality, that is, and not one of your illusions -- because I've been thinking. That entire encounter with you on the Bonestell Facility wasn't all it was cracked up to be. In this universe you've put me in, my double never went through that. He's still a captain."

Q smirked and leaned against the bulkhead. "Well, ma petit, you have to realize, the fate of the universe takes many turns and twists. For all you know, he's been through something that had the same impact. Must have been really something too, to affect him the same as an impaling."

"You aren't the same Q, are you? Not the same individual Q I'm used to. You don't behave the same."

"No, Jean-Luc -- it's you who no longer behaves the same."

Jean-Luc laughed airlessly. "You know, I think you're actually learning from the humans you antagonize. Aren't you?"

Q tossed off a disdainful guffaw. "Moi? The immoral, unethical, outrageous Q? Surely you jest. What could I possibly learn from limited -- "

"You'll return me, when he's ready to return here. That's what you said. When will that be? Surely an omnipotent being could tell me that."

"Hmm." Q looked him up and down. "Maybe. Maybe not."

"You said -- "

"Oh, come now, surely you know better than to *trust* a *Q*!"

Jean-Luc's fist impacted the bulkhead. Q was gone -- "Damn! DAMN!" he bellowed, as Beverly's hands closed on his arm. He heard the tricorder.

"Now, that's something I haven't seen in a long time -- Jean-Luc Picard losing his temper and breaking his fingers," she said, actually sounding amused.

"Damn it, Beverly, that bastard -- stop poking at it already! I just -- want -- to go -- home!"

"Come on, I'll take you to the infirmary and we'll fix -- "

"JUST GIVE ME A MINUTE!"

He fell back against the bulkhead and slid to the floor, cradling his hand. The pain was actually welcome, at this point, anchoring him in the now, giving him something other than Deanna's eyes to think about. Bands of duranium seemed to tighten around his ribs. The wall felt cold against his back.

"Damn it. . . Deanna, cygne, I'm so sorry. . . ."

When he realized he'd spoken aloud he bit his lower lip and bowed his head. Several ragged intakes of recycled air later, he opened his eyes. Beverly leaned over him, concern in her face, especially her eyes. And angst. And tears.

"I wish my husband felt that way about me," she whispered.

Inhaling, Jean-Luc forced himself to his feet, disregarding her attempt to help him. He stared at the deck plates near his feet for a moment. "Beverly, I've heard his logs. I think you will find that once he's free of what Madred did to him, you'll have your wish."

She pulled him along by the elbow when he didn't seem able to move. Recovering his wits on the way, he freed himself from her light grasp on his arm and went the rest of the way on his own. The doctor in the station infirmary looked at his hand, logged 'lost a fight with a bulkhead' as cause of injury as if it happened every day, repaired the damage, and sent Jean-Luc on his way.

"I'm sorry," he said as they walked back out on the promenade. "I haven't been sleeping well, and trying not to think too much about where I belong -- deciphering what happened to your husband -- ex-husband, has been a welcome diversion, among other things. I lose control too easily when I'm this tired."

She laughed at that. "You keep reminding me over again, just by the way you are, how much *not* him you are. Apologizing for things like that hasn't been your habit. So that was Q?"

He almost got an answer out, when a girl shouted, "DAD!" and suddenly he was being throttled from behind.

When he'd extricated himself, he found himself looking at a ten-year-old Chelsea, blond and beautiful, with Beverly's translucent complexion. Behind her stood Claude, thirteen, who reminded him far too much of Rene with red hair. Their grins slowly waned; he looked to Beverly, who was absolutely no help whatsoever -- she seemed at a loss.

"I'm sorry," he began, then grinned. "You see, I thought you were a bunch of voles -- "

Chelsea leaped at him, giving him no choice but to catch her and endure a wet kiss on the cheek. Claude wouldn't come into hugging range but got his hair mussed. Over Chelsea's head, Jean-Luc glanced at Beverly; she mouthed a thank you and smiled, though the beginnings of fear showed in her eyes at last. The shock was wearing off to the point that she'd begun to think of the ramifications. She might not see the father of her children again.

"I suppose you wouldn't want ice cream, so we'll just skip that, and go -- "

"Dad, come *on,* you can't do that to us," Claude groaned. "You promised!"

Reviewing old correspondence sent as well as received had paid off. Jean-Luc guided his temporary progeny toward one of the restaurants along the promenade, with his temporary ex-wife in their wake, setting aside the trouble in his temporary reality long enough for an ice cream cone.

He even managed to not feel too much despair as he heard Chelsea ordering chocolate.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna sat up, dislodging padds, and looked around -- on the couch. After dinner she'd nodded off in the middle of studying a duty roster.

First officer wasn't so much of a leap. Administrative things weren't foreign to her, after all, and after watching Will, then Data, tending to these miscellaneous duties over the years, doing them herself felt familiar in a way.

The Romulan situation would be coming to a head in a few days. Things would change, then -- she'd be first officer in a tense confrontation. That would be different. They hadn't yet confronted actual Romulans, or even had a blip on the sensors, but that *would* change.

The off-duty loneliness was there, as it had been since Jean's disappearance. Even the presence of the Picard alternate couldn't do away with the yearning for Jean-Fish, the intense need for the feel and the smell of his skin, his warmth, the sensation of a stray breath across her arm -- his heart with hers. Her hajira. The need to discuss her situation with him -- though she never came to him after shift with professional dilemmas she could vent to him about her professional stress. Once they'd become lovers, she'd found him to be an excellent listener. She could collapse against his chest, listen to the soft sounds of his artificial heart, feel the warmth from his emotional one, and relax completely as she murmured her cares to him. She needed that confidant now more than ever.

Data had revealed to her in confidence that he'd been offered the position of first officer aboard Glendenning's new ship, the *Venture,* the latest Sovereign-class. Jean-Luc had known, of course. It'd been why he'd mentioned she might cross the bridge sooner than she'd anticipated. The thought of being aboard the *Enterprise* without Data *or* Jean-Luc in command daunted her. Though she knew neither of them would allow her to get this far if she weren't able to stand on her own two feet, having a new captain would be difficult. A new command style to get used to, a new face on the bridge -- it would always be Jean-Luc's ship to her, no matter who came aboard.

No guarantee she would even stay aboard, either. Captains generally chose their own officers. And if the ship went to a captain like Jellico, she'd be transferring voluntarily.

She'd have to move out of these quarters. That was the worst part. These were her quarters now, her home, and the last thing other than the baby she had to cling to --

No. Jean would come home to her. She had to stay in denial of the chance of his being gone for good, for her sanity, and for the sake of the child. Closing her eyes, she pressed her palm to her abdomen.

Calm.

Peace.

She sensed her guest before the annunciator went off and summoned him in immediately, brushing away tears and presenting a calm facade. Will came in slowly and sat in the chair on the other side of the coffee table. He looked tired but was concerned enough to come aboard and neglect Bell, evidently. Certainly concerned enough that it rubbed raw on her.

"How are you?"

"I'm just the same as the last time you asked, thank you." Deanna curled her legs under her and picked up a padd. "Only busier."

"Too busy. You shouldn't push so hard."

"I'd think a captain would know about burying oneself in work to avoid personal pain."

He watched her, brooding, the familiar concern and affection bristling against her empathy like a hairbrush against her arm. "You're not a captain."

"But I'm an officer."

She met his gaze finally. His eyes didn't waver and fall away from hers as they had so many times since she'd begun her relationship with Jean-Luc. "What has he done to you?"

"Nothing I didn't want, Will. Please don't start questioning my choices again."

"First officer, though? You said you wanted children."

Putting aside the roster, she crossed her hands in her lap and regarded him silently. These were moot points so far as he was concerned.

"You said you wanted a family. As happy as you were at the wedding, I thought that was what you'd decided -- that you'd changed your mind and you were going to stop pushing for command and start -- " He broke off, staring. "Why does that make you angry?"

"Because you think you know exactly what makes me happy. You think," she exclaimed, pausing, rising from the couch to pace with crossed arms, "that I'm going to settle for simple living. That I'll just be the little woman, sitting and watching everyone else make all the decisions."

"Dee, what's come over you? You sound -- "

"Upset? Sure, Will, it's what you expect after all. You keep coming back here with that sympathetic look on your face to comfort me. I have work to do. I have a career, my husband did everything short of actually bleeding to let me keep it, and I'll be damned if I give up anything he's ever given to me for no good reason! Especially my career, especially the one thing I've pursued that's given me -- "

She stopped and looked at him, trying to decipher his emotional state, which had just turned muddy and confusing. Will sat back in his chair looking up at her from under those thick lashes of his, measuring her. "You kept pushing me away because of, and I quote, 'professionalism.' You're sleeping with your captain. Just what was it that made you think it wouldn't work with me?"

Something was wrong. This wasn't the Will she'd come to know. Deanna tapped her comm badge. "Troi to bridge. Has anyone transported to the *Enterprise* from the *Lexington* today?"

"deLio here. No, sir, no one has -- were you expecting anyone?"

"No, thank you, Commander. Troi out." She glared at Riker. "Get off this ship, Q."

His features slipped from bearded and handsome to clean-shaven and less so. Q sighed and shook his head. "I suppose I should have guessed a woman would be harder to fool than a man. You would think I'd learn, after Vash -- "

"I am *not* Vash! Go away!"

"You aren't Vash, are you? He wouldn't have stayed with her, or vice versa. I wondered why, until we went to the Gamma Quadrant together. Tiresome woman. Demanding. You, however -- you're not so demanding, not the same way. All you want is. . . respect."

"I want a lot more than that. Peace and quiet, and you, gone. I want things the way they ought to be -- bring my husband back and leave us alone."

Q tilted his head inquisitively -- it reminded her of Data. "The way things ought to be, hmmm? Tell me more. How things ought to be, according to Deanna Troi. Excuse me. Deanna Picard."

Deanna sat down, retrieved two of the padds, and began scheduling the following week's bridge assignments, drawing on the past two months of schedules to discern the pattern Data had been using.

"Oh, please -- are you ignoring me in the hopes I'll go away and sulk? Hasn't anyone ever told you that only works with petulant imzadi?"

Deanna's head came up. She could feel her eyes burning, though she didn't know whether that was due to anger at Q or sheer frustration with the subject in all its permutations. "My life is none of your business."

"Perhaps, but that doesn't mean I don't see it for the sham that it is -- any Q could, just for the looking, all those years of denying your imzadi, just for the sake of career, and suddenly here you are in Jean-Luc's quarters. How mercenary of you to sleep your way to promotion."

Deanna worked at trying to read the padd through the anger blurring her eyesight.

"And now he's gone. You could call up Will and invite him over. That blond creature would be gone in a flash, he'd toss her over in a *second* -- "

She didn't bother looking at him. "Bring Jean-Luc back to me or leave. I won't play your mental games."

"Why settle for just one Jean-Luc? Or, why settle for the same one? There are so many of them to choose from. I'll give you a different one, if you like. Just say the magic words -- 'I want this one, Q.' And he's yours."

Suddenly the padds were gone, the room changed, her clothing altered -- the dress she'd worn to the wedding brushed her legs. Her wedding ring was missing, she realized, her finger feeling naked without it. The grass felt cold on her bare feet. She stood in the garden in front of the chateau, and as she turned to look around she saw Jean-Luc coming toward her, smiling as he had on their wedding day.

But when she looked in his eyes, his heart was missing.

She turned her back on him and walked away. Bumped into Q.

"What about this one?"

She looked where he pointed. Another Jean-Luc, this one in the gear he'd worn on the archeological expedition to Zanzibar, also smiling, holding out a hand. Again, his eyes were empty.

"This is pointless, Q. I told you, I don't feel like playing your stupid games." She sat cross-legged on the ground and crossed her arms, eyes closed.

Silence.

Venturing a look, she found she still sat on the lawn, with Q gone.

He stayed gone, too, so she got up and walked around for a while. Everything felt so real, everything smelled like it should -- the flowers were almost just like they'd been in the simulation Jean-Fish had done for their wedding. In the distance she heard a horse neighing. Birds sang overhead. The wind even carried the smells of green things and dust and flowers, and grapes. The vineyard. The winery.

Eventually she went inside the house, getting a splinter on her toe from the porch. She hesitated in the entry to pluck it out and jumped at the sound of a voice.

"And who is this?"

She looked up -- mouth open, she put her foot down and stared. "Mrs. -- Madame Picard?"

She'd expected Jean-Luc, if anyone, and hadn't paid attention. This was the woman from Jean-Luc's pictures, looking about the same age she must have been when Jean-Luc had been in his early twenties -- her pale blond hair already going to white, pinned up on the back of her head in an old-fashioned style. She wore a simple dress, floral print -- leaves and tiny pink flowers against a white background.

"Who are you, mademoiselle?" She smiled then, and Deanna saw hints of Jean-Luc's features in her face. "You must be one of Jean-Luc's friends, yes?"

"No, actually, he -- I -- "

"Oh, don't be shy, petite, I know my son has his liaisons. But he has never brought one home before, so you must be special. Come in, dear, and do tell me your name."

This had to be one of Q's scenarios, but this intrigued her; he had been weaving truth and fiction together, and curiosity overwhelmed her better judgement. She was stuck here anyway until Q finished with her. Deanna followed her mother-in-law into the kitchen, where she was given a tall glass of water, after refusing anything more.

"Deanna, what a lovely name," she said. "I have become interested in names, as of late, names and their meanings. Mine is Yvette, and I hope you feel you can call me that, instead of Madame -- I am madamed all day by the workers and the people in town, and Maurice's friends. We are two women standing in a kitchen on a fine spring day enjoying a lighthearted chat about everything and nothing, there is no need for such formality."

Deanna smiled at that. "Names and their meanings?"

"Oh, yes. Yvette, for example -- like Yvonne, it is a feminine form of Yves, which means yew tree. Which I do not mind at all, being named for a tree. If we had had another son, I would have named him Yves. It is a good, solid name. Do you know what a yew tree is?"

"I've never seen one. Is it Terran? I'm not a native of Earth."

"I should have known -- those eyes don't look quite familiar. Such beautiful eyes they are. A yew tree is an evergreen. Never loses its leaves, and is strong, so strong, such that they are used in making cabinetry and bows for archery. Come and see my cabinet -- I have one made of yew."

She led Deanna through to the large living room and showed her the familiar keepsake cabinet. "It's a beautiful cabinet, full of such beautiful things. What is the meaning of my name?" Deanna asked, peering through the glass at the heirlooms in the cabinet.

"Deanna is derived from Diana -- who was a goddess of the moon, did you know that?"

"I thought Diana was a goddess of the hunt."

"Oh, she was that, too. Also the goddess of chastity. But don't look so amused -- chastity does not always mean virginal, you know. It can also mean fidelity -- a wife who is faithful to her husband is chaste." Yvette appraised her critically. "You have a very serene way about you, petite. Very much a lady. I must say, Jean-Luc has excellent taste. You could easily be a moon goddess, with your coloring -- eyes and hair like the night, and such beautiful skin."

"Thank you, Yvette. That's very kind of you -- but I'm not really anything like a goddess, I. . . this is a beautiful swan," Deanna said, pointing at the large white one she remembered from Jean-Luc's holo-chateau. "I've always been partial to swans. They're lovely creatures."

Yvette smiled and opened the cabinet. Picking out the swan with a practiced care, she held it up between them. "It also is like you -- dark eyes, with sadness in them. You are sad, too, petite. What is wrong?"

"Do you always welcome total strangers into your house this way? You make me feel almost -- almost part of the family," Deanna said, rubbing away a tear with a fingertip.

Yvette's hand, long slender fingers and well-manicured nails, lay light on her arm. "My dear, you almost speak without words, with your eyes. Why are you afraid of me?"

"Because -- you're his mother, and I really didn't expect -- "

"Don't believe everything you hear about me, chère, not for a moment. I'm only firm when I must be -- so difficult, these Picard men. Stubborn, thick-skulled, but once they're domesticated they make fine husbands, believe me." Yvette put the swan aside and gestured. "Come, let's sit and talk in front of the picture window."

Deanna followed her, and Yvette glanced down at her feet. "You dance, perhaps, petite?"

"Sometimes. I'm not that good."

"You should have Jean-Luc take you dancing. Something to get him out of work -- mon dieu, that boy of mine has such focus!" Yvette turned and held out her hand, and when Deanna took it bemusedly, led her into an impromptu dance around the room. "You see, you are very graceful!"

Caught off guard, Deanna laughed for joy. Yvette hummed a little, whirling them around, then began to sing in French. "Au clair de la lune, Mon ami Pierrot, Prête-moi ta plume, Pour écrire un mot; Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu; Ouvre-moi ta porte. . . ."

Somewhere, a door banged, and Yvette turned and waited, as did Deanna. And there was Jean-Luc -- young, with wind-blown hair, dusty and dressed in rugged plain brown clothing, boots, and a riding crop in hand. He'd been out riding. He stopped in the door and stared at her.

Yvette sniffed at his reaction. "Oh, beau petit, you would think you'd never seen her before. I'm going outside to pick some roses for the table tonight. You will be staying, won't you, chère?"

"No, I. . . have to get back," Deanna managed. "I'm sorry. But it was nice to meet you."

Yvette brushed her hand down Deanna's arm and patted Jean-Luc's shoulder on her way out, leaving him puzzled and still staring at Deanna. Not unappreciatively, either.

"We haven't met," he said at last, sounding very much like the Jean-Luc she knew. "Have we?"

"I'm afraid your mother thinks so. I didn't mean to deceive her, but she was so swept up and she's so nice. . . you're Jean-Luc." As if her senses weren't telling her so. This was the raw material of which Captain Picard had been made -- he had told her of some of his youthful escapades, and this was the sort of man who could carry them off. She wondered briefly if this were a version of him from before his encounter on the Bonestell Facility.

He stepped closer, carefully, as if afraid she might run from him, holding the crop in front of him in both hands. "And you are?"

"Oh, I'm. . . Diana."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Diana. And why aren't you staying for dinner, then? Since Maman seems to like you so much." A fond smile, for his maman. He ran his fingers through his hair, taming it somewhat, while his eyes appraised her.

"It wouldn't be right. I should go, I've imposed too much -- "

He caught her arm gently as she tried to go, and the gesture stopped her but much too close to him for comfort. "I'd like to know how you came to be here in the first place. Our chateau isn't exactly where one would expect to find a Betazoid, let alone a beautiful one. I think, too, that I'd like to know a little more about you than your name."

She shrugged uneasily and pulled free. His nearness was making it difficult to think. There was something different about this one, something more real than the other Picards that Q had thrown at her. Perhaps it was just the way he'd set up the meeting, with Jean-Luc's mother and the swan and the small talk, and then Jean-Luc coming in after being out riding -- but that was how Q would want it. Convincing. He was getting too good at this. He'd almost convinced her he was Will, after all, and she knew nothing about Jean-Luc at this age, had nothing to compare her perception of this version to, so this could easily be Q again. But rather than end this on a sour note and spoil this glimpse of Jean-Luc, which was probably mostly accurate after all, she smiled at him.

"What would you want to know?"

He opened his mouth, let it drift closed, smiled -- it was easy to see why his mother called him 'beau petit' in her correspondence. "Are you here for a purpose, or are you lost?"

"I always have a purpose. I know exactly where I am."

"You are looking for someone, perhaps? My brother? But Robert wouldn't have met a Betazoid. Unless you are a tourist he met in the village?"

"I've never met your brother. Or any other member of your family, until your mother just now."

He was enjoying the mystery of it, but his curiosity sharpened. "So you have a purpose, you aren't here to see another member of my family. . . are you here to see me then? And what magnificent thing have I done to deserve your attention?"

Deanna glanced down at the floor, put her hands behind her back, and couldn't stifle a sly grin. "You are the sort of man who attracts attention, simply by being yourself. You are in Starfleet?"

"Yes, I am. You?"

"Yes."

He touched her chin and she followed the brush of his finger, raising her eyes to his. The surprise from him told her too much of what she felt showed in those damned expressive eyes of hers.

"Who are you?" he asked, too softly, too wonderingly. "How do you know me? You do know me, don't you? Why don't I remember you?"

She looked in his eyes -- his mother's eyes, she realized now -- then leaned in and kissed his cheek. "You'll figure it out someday, I expect, petit poisson."

She hurried out the front door, leaving him with dropped jaw in the hall, looking back just to get that last picture of him. As she opened the door, taking too long thanks to the unfamiliar latch mechanism, he started after her, a familiar avid look in his eye. And for a second, she considered, but fled outside anyway.

The yard had changed. She ran across the dry lawn, the shriveled yellow grass, and looked around frantically. What was going on? Now the house looked older. Q must have switched scenarios on her.

She bumped into another Jean-Luc, standing on the lawn. Him at a different age -- her age, she thought, judging from the stage of hair loss. He smiled, too, in a heartbreaking imitation of the smile her Jean-Fish had worn on their wedding day. Not giving him a chance to say a word, she raced for the vineyard. She'd rather be anywhere but facing another one of Q's illusions that felt almost real.

She almost ran into an old man coming up from the vines. The face beneath the broad brim of the hat was Jean-Luc's, but ancient -- sagging skin, pocked by the elements and the years. His back bent, he moved as though it hurt him to do so. He reached for her, and in the act of pulling her hands free of his grasp she realized that she too had aged, though not as drastically. Her hands were worn and wrinkled. She touched her face, pulled some of her hair down -- black shot with silver.

"Dee," the elderly Picard whispered. His fingers closed on her wrist like claws. "Dee. Thank God. It was all a dream -- I thought you were gone. Please don't leave me like that again."

She looked into his face. His heart wasn't there. Just a lonely, aged man with Jean-Luc's eyes -- so happy to see her that it broke her heart.

Her throat seized, blocking her breathing. She closed her eyes.

{Go away. Go away, Q, and take all of it with you. I played with you for a while. Now I want reality.}

She opened her eyes and found herself cross-legged on the couch, in uniform, surrounded by padds. Gathering her wits and catching her breath, she tapped her communicator. "Troi to bridge."

"Bridge here," deLio said.

"Please make a note that regardless of time of day I would like to be notified when anyone transports from any other ship to the *Enterprise.* Also, please hail the *Lexington* and ask Captain Riker to contact me at his convenience. Troi out."

When the call came, moments later, she was sitting at the desk already and ready to confront Will's concerned expression on the monitor. "Everything all right?" he asked, in a tone implying he suspected it wasn't.

"Relatively speaking. I was doing duty rosters and it reminded me of you. I just wanted to let you know I appreciate your trying to be here for me, Will, and your letting me have some space. I know you're concerned about me. I'm fine. I'll be fine. I'm more than the emotions I feel. Thanks for being such a good friend to me."

A fleeting smile at that, ghost of the one he would've given under less trying circumstances. "You've always been there for me. Thought I'd return the favor, for once. Bell's afraid you're in a downward spiral to dark depression."

"If I am, I'll pull out of it. There's just too much for me to deal with at the moment, so I'll just be an officer until things settle and I can come apart at the seams. Except -- Will, you can't tell anyone else this. I've only told Data and Mengis. I'm pregnant."

The stunned look lasted but a moment, before settling into a cautious one -- walking the tightrope, not knowing if it would be appropriate to congratulate or console. He settled for facts, thankfully. "How far along?"

"Only a week or so. It was. . . a mutual decision, and what we wanted, and we were going to figure out the logistics of it as we went along just like before, but. . . it's too soon to tell, Will. So many times pregnancies are started and lost without the mother ever even knowing it. I wouldn't have known except I was hoping, looking for signs, and hormones seem to be making me incredibly sensitive empathically -- which is why I haven't asked you to come over here to talk about this. I can't deal with the concern I can see on your face. I'm doing my best to keep myself rested and calm. And Q was just here, pretending to be you -- I needed to see your face and reassure myself that you're not still upset about my being with Jean-Luc. Q likes to yank us around emotionally if he can, you know."

He actually smirked. "Isn't it a little late for that? I performed the wedding, Dee. Get over it, already." Sobering, he tapped the screen. "You are definitely being hormonal. But if it makes a difference -- you love him, I can see that all over you. I can tell this is hitting you harder than you're admitting and I can understand why you're not letting it hit you yet. I know what he'd want -- you're already doing that. He'd want you to make your choices and not back down from them. He'd want you to go on in his absence. You want my help, you have it, but I know better than to bother offering more than once. Say the word and Bell and I will be there for you."

Deanna grinned. "So when are you getting married?"

He opened and shut his mouth. "You didn't say you were *that* sensitive. We're still talking in terms of if and maybe. Or did she already start to brag, and I've got more hope than I thought?"

"Actually, I was only teasing, but -- really? Not that there's anything *wrong* with Bell, but aren't you already married? Or is the ship being demoted to mistress?"

He laughed, and it struck her that she'd missed the sound of laughter -- no one had laughed in her presence since Jean-Luc's disappearance. "Maybe I've decided I don't want to be old and grey before I -- shit. Dee -- "

"I wish I understood why you feel this incredible urge to do that," she blurted, fighting tears. "Why you have to tease him that way. Don't you think it *hurts* him? To think that there's such a difference in our ages, and what will happen when he really is an old -- "

If he ever had a chance to be old.

"Will -- I have to go. I'll talk to you later." She slapped the controls, cutting off his reply, and tried to breath.

Focus.

Calm.

She smoothed the uniform over her belly as if soothing what was to become a child. Smoothed it again.

"Your father will be happy about you," she whispered. "Your mother is, too. We love you."

Deanna returned to the sofa and picked up the roster.

~@~@~@~@~@~

With the kids settled in their quarters, Jean-Luc found himself alone with Beverly.

A soft, smiling one. The one he remembered as Jack's wife -- she had that look in her eye he remembered from those early days, only then it'd been directed at Jack and he'd been a bystander.

"I have work -- "

"You're uncomfortable. Don't try to bluster your way around me, Jean-Luc, I've known you too damn long for that. If you want me to leave just say so."

He slowed and looked at her standing there in the corridor of the *Enterprise* -- odd sort of juxtaposition, this. Here where they'd come together again as co-workers, built a solid friendship, and toyed with the idea of more. And here she was, looking at him as if more had actually happened.

"I'm not him."

Sighing, she wilted a little. "You're more him than he is. He would have been like you, I know it -- he would have been this way. Good with the kids, good with. . . me. . . damn. I wish -- "

"Don't do this to me," he muttered.

"Do what? Is it that terrible for me to love my husband? The only reason he's my ex-husband is because of that damned Cardassian and his cruel manipulations." She turned wide, beseeching blue eyes on him. "What if you're here to stay? I mean, this Q person didn't seem willing to -- "

"Beverly, were you listening to me when we spoke earlier? I have a wife. She means everything to me -- I can't just forget her. I have to get back to her. We were trying to have a child, she has so much ahead of her -- we were going to finally take an extended vacation together, just the two of us."

"But the kids! You let them -- "

"They don't deserve to suffer simply because some capricious superbeing took their father away. As long as there's a chance of his return, I -- "

"I don't know if I want him to come back," she whispered.

Jean-Luc stared at her, dry-mouthed and sinking inside. "Beverly, I'm sorry -- I can't do this. I can't talk to you this way. I'm not your husband -- I'm not your Jean-Luc. Good night."

He reached the quarters that weren't his, and couldn't bring himself to walk past the gallery of pictures of a family he didn't belong to. Slumping on the couch, he wished he had a bottle of wine. No -- Romulan ale. This was something that required more than wine to numb away.

"You puzzle me, Picard. You both puzzle me."

Q's voice sounded faraway and faint. For a moment, Jean-Luc considered responding. Instead he slumped further, rolled on his side, pulled up his feet, and dragged a cushion around for a pillow.

"Lights off."

This time, he welcomed the memory of Deanna's eyes, telling him more than words could ever say -- telling him of treehouses and vineyards, and swans and fishes dancing on beaches to music only they could hear. Her eyes, her smile, as they stood in the gardens of his mother and took vows, while their friends watched.

His body ached, throbbing to the beat of her faraway heart, he imagined.

"Cygne," he breathed. "Inside out."

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna woke and realized she'd fallen asleep sitting in the chair in sickbay. And, to make things worse, Selar's hand on her shoulder had awakened her. Still worse, it was two hours later than it'd been the last time she remembered her eyes open. Restless after her conversation with Will, she'd wandered to sickbay and stopped in for a few minutes to check on his progress. The doctor must have let her sleep.

She picked up the padd that had fallen to the floor at her feet and approached the biobed. Picard was resting, peaceful and too much like Jean-Fish for comfort. Deanna was about to turn and leave when his hand caught her wrist.

His eyes slitted open, his head rolled her direction, and he cleared his throat. His voice raspy, he said, "Thank you, Commander, for not giving up on me."

"Would you like something to drink? How do you feel?"

As he rose on one elbow, Selar came around with a cup. He took it, eyeing the doctor, and she inclined her head and left the ward. Picard drank slowly and set aside the empty cup, then sat up on the edge of the bed, carefully, as if much older.

"I feel like I've been beat around the galaxy a few times by Klingons," he said, clearing his throat again. "How are you?"

"I told you not to be soft or concerned. I'm fine -- and I'll stay fine. Are you making progress?"

"Two days of this, I'd better have," he growled. "Madred really did a job on me, didn't he?"

A searing flash at her right. "Well, if it isn't the first officer," Q oozed.

Deanna stared at him impassively. "Are you here to take him home? Bring back my husband?"

"Well, no -- "

"Then I have nothing to say to you." She turned back to the patient. Picard raised an eyebrow and seemed only mildly alarmed -- taking a cue from her behavior, she realized. "Q does what he does to get reactions from people. It's a waste of energy to give him any more attention than necessary."

Q jumped back and raised his eyebrows. "Ah, so *you're* the reason Jean-Luc has been so boring -- I should have known. Get him in bed with a psychologist, and she *rubs off on him.*"

Since she'd steeled herself against anything he might say, she managed not to react overtly to it. Even if it turned out to be one of Data's jokes. "So you've made progress?" she asked Picard.

"Yes. They're not quite done yet, but I can tell you that when I get home, certain people are going to be very, very sorry they ever laid a hand on me."

The rising anger was perceptible to anyone who knew Captain Picard -- his face changed, from calm and composed to hard and composed -- but Deanna knew the extent of the fury he really felt. He had regained some of what made her captain who he was. The resolve. Madred's programming had stolen that from him. Resolve, self-motivation, a rigid sense of principle, and anger. Now that he had it back, he was putting it to use, building purpose, focusing.

"I'm glad to hear that, Captain. Our sciences department is still studying ways to return you to your -- "

"They won't find a way to return him," Q said smugly. "Not in a million years. I have to do it, I'm the only one who knows where he belongs."

"As I said," Deanna exclaimed, "we're still working on it. Dr. Selar, are you finished for the night?"

Selar had re-entered the room. As only a Vulcan could, she showed no surprise at Q's presence. "Yes, Commander, we were allowing him to rest. We will resume in the morning at oh eight hundred. He should sleep. So should you, I might add."

"If you like I'll escort you back to your quarters," Deanna said.

They left sickbay, and Deanna realized Q had disappeared as they left the ward. Picard followed along silently and didn't leer at her in the lift as he'd done before. Walking with him actually soothed her -- for the first time in days, she didn't feel completely empty without duties at the forefront of her thoughts.

In the corridor outside her old quarters, both of them halted.

Jean-Luc Picard stood waiting for them. In uniform, arms held out to her, smiling. "Deebird!"

Deanna stared at him, in his eyes, and ignored the apparition completely. Taking Picard by the arm, she pulled him into his assigned quarters.

"That was -- "

"It wasn't. Q is omnipotent, remember. He can appear to be anyone. I know my husband."

Q appeared before them in the room. "Oh, you challenge me," he crooned. "I do love a challenge!" With a snap of his fingers, he transported them into a flat grey space with no discernable boundaries -- full of Picards in the same black and grey uniform, all of them looking around in confusion. She took the hand of the one known quantity present, the Picard she'd been with, still in his civvies, and waited.

"This is intolerable," he said. "Does he do this to you every time?"

"Not this particular thing, but similar ones. He seems to like making us suffer. He's plagued my captain repeatedly."

"You're being very calm about it."

Deanna smiled at him. "I'm an officer, Captain."

"'I'm an officer, captain.' What mewling, pitiful attempts you make at being in control." One of the Picards was speaking in Q's voice, she realized -- the one to her immediate right. "You're not in control, Commander. All of you humans -- "

"I'm Betazoid," she corrected absently.

"Whatever. Miserable little finite creatures -- you all act like the universe revolves around you, and you can control it."

"I don't think that, Q. I can control myself -- until something happens to take that away from me, I am in control of what I do and what I say. It's all any of us has. You think you can manipulate us -- you're right, you can. You can tie strings to our limbs and jerk us around. All your games are as nothing to me, because from all I've seen, there's one part of us you can't touch. Our self-determination, our free will, has always gone unscathed. You put us in situations, give or take away abilities, transport us to different realities, tempt us with things we want, but you give us choices. I choose to be true to myself, my principles, and to my husband. You can do nothing to make me deviate from that."

Deanna glanced at the Picard whose hand she held. Looking around, she sent out silent queries, and received nothing back. She let her eyes meet as many of their gazes as she could. "My husband is not here," she said. "I'd like to get back now, I have to be on -- "

The Picard in front of her flashed into Q, angry-eyed, who then flashed and disappeared -- leaving them in Picard's quarters again. She let go of his hand.

"Good night, Captain."

"No security? No countermeasures? What if he comes back?"

"We must all learn to accept certain inevitabilities, Captain. Q's powers are one of those things we can't hope to thwart. It's useless to try. If it would make you feel better I'll put security outside your door."

She waited a moment. He shook his head and shrugged, then headed for the bedroom without another word, his shoulders taking a familiar, weary slump.

Outside in the corridor, in front of her door, Deanna realized that he'd sounded different -- he was starting to fight back against his circumstances. He'd be back to normal soon. Her sense of him had become more comfortable, less suspicion-arousing, and --

She kept walking and pressed Data's annunciator. The android wasn't asleep, of course, and sat at his desk going over the day's activities and damage reports. "I hope I'm not intruding, sir," she said.

"No, Deanna. Is everything all right?"

She was playing the role-dance with him, and he was good at it. His tone affectionate and friendly, he'd used her name instead of her rank, taking the lead in setting the roles they would play as he was the commanding officer in the situation. She ached to be dancing roles with Jean-Fish. "Our guest has made incredible progress in the last two days." She sat on the end of his bed and told him about it, then about Q, and the encounter with the room of Picards. He offered little comment, thanked her for keeping him updated, and paused, uncertain of where to go from there.

"Data, can I ask you a favor?"

"Certainly, Deanna."

"Would you mind. . . if you're not using the bed, could I sleep here tonight? It feels improper, if I think about it, but -- you can turn off your emotions so they won't keep me awake, and sleeping alone in my own bed -- our bed -- hasn't let me relax. I need sleep, I'd prefer to do without sedation if possible because of the baby, and I'm -- afraid of being alone. Between Q and Jean's absence. . . . I guess I'm asking you to watch over me. I know Q could snatch me out if he wanted, but it would make me feel better to have someone with me."

"I will not be using the bed tonight. Please do not give it a thought. If it would help, you may think of me as a piece of the furniture."

Deanna sighed. "I can't do that, but I can think of you as a good friend. Thanks, Data." She pulled the clip out of her hair, shook it out, and curled up on his bed in uniform, pulling one of the pillows into her arms. As she drifted off, which took mere moments to do, she heard only the soft sound of a padd being put on the desk and another being taken up.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc woke to the annunciator. He checked -- only five hundred hours, and his body, protesting the early hour, ached and sang mournful dirges of his loneliness. The empty bed blues. Except he was still on the couch, still in uniform. It made it easier, but he'd been dreaming of her, lost in her embrace and the reverberating emotions they shared. The annunciator went off again before his pain had abated completely and automatically he snapped out, "Come in."

He wished at once that he'd had the presence of mind to find out who it was first. Deanna Riker prowled in, dressed in a robe. "You called?" She untied the robe and let it hang open, sauntered a few steps, and he turned away quickly.

"Out. How many times do I have to tell you -- where the hell is your husband?"

"Got called to the bridge. I know you were thinking about me. I could sense it all the way from our quarters, you were calling me -- "

"Out. Or I'll call him back from the bridge."

And there he was, coming through the door without bothering to announce himself, Will Riker in high dudgeon. "Dammit, Dee! Sorry, sir, she faked a call from the bridge." He grabbed her shoulders. As usual, she went along without much trouble, just a moist-eyed glance Jean-Luc's way.

"Lock codes, Will," he said.

Will glanced over his shoulder and rolled his eyes. "She's smarter than she acts, sir. I have a lock code. I keep changing it, and she keeps getting through it. Come on, Dee, stop crying, you're just doing that to manipulate me."

"But he was calling -- "

"Deanna, get going. Now. No more of this. The man isn't responsible for what he dreams about -- we've been through this." He tied her robe and pushed her out into the corridor.

"Is she this way *every time* she's pregnant?"

"You mean, sensitive to other men's lascivious thoughts in her direction? Unfortunately. Betazoids in general become more sensitive telepathically when pregnant. A little like a human woman's sensitivity to odors. Maybe I'll put security at your door from now on."

"There's no need for that, Number One. We can manage. I'd prefer not to embarrass her that much."

Riker stopped cold and stared at him appraisingly for a few moments, chewing his lip. "That's the first time anyone's called me that in years. Thank you, for that and for being sensitive to her feelings -- wait a minute. That's what it is. You're sensitive to her feelings, because of -- do you have any kind of bond with your wife?"

"Do you know what a hajira is?"

Deanna, who'd stood waiting outside, wheeled about and stared, traumatized. "Oooh," she wailed. "Why -- why can't you trust me like that? Will, it's not *fair*! It's just not fair that *he* can -- "

"Great, thanks, now I not only get to hear about how her parents can be hajira, I get to hear about you and her alter-ego," Will exclaimed, hurrying his wife out of the room.

Jean-Luc stood with dropped jaw for far too long. Her parents? Of course she wouldn't have known in his reality -- her father had died when she was still too young to perceive the bond for herself, and likely her parents wouldn't have explained it to her until necessary. And Lwaxana, given her extreme attempts to forget Kestra's death, wouldn't necessarily have said anything about it to Deanna. In fact, he couldn't remember ever hearing Lwaxana mention Deanna's father except in passing while speaking of Deanna herself.

"Catching flies, mon capitaine?"

He turned around. Q lounged on the couch as if he belonged there, arms spread across the back and legs crossed, smirking. "You know, it isn't often I catch you in the middle of a truly flabbergasted moment."

Jean-Luc stared at him and waited with crossed arms.

"Come now -- certainly you would want to discuss this little development? You realize Riker is her imzadi, of course. She had to tell you that. So he has her soul, and you have her heart, and the eternal triangle is complete -- she's a very loyal officer, our little Miss Troi. So loyal she'll stay with her captain forever, even have his children. Because surely he won't leave her the way her imzadi did? She's trusted her captain with her life -- seen him lay his career on the line for mere friendship, mere loyalty to a fellow officer. So why wouldn't he do it for his wife? Simple deduction, really."

"Shut up! Damn you, take me home and get out of my life!" Jean-Luc bellowed.

"Oh, settle down, Jean-Luc, it's not so bad as all that -- she married you, after all. She loves you. No question of that."

Overwhelming.

"This is why, isn't it?" he said, laughing incredulously, unable to muster much energy to put behind it. "This is why I'm here. Forget all the other details, forget the Cardassians taking over the Federation, forget all the fuss about the kids and Beverly -- this is it. Put Picard in a situation where his hajira is married to Will Riker and make her irresistibly drawn to him for some mostly-plausible reason, then manipulate the details -- draw it all out over the course of a week to make it as realistic as possible and let him believe there's actually more at stake than *your petty curiosity* -- DAMN you! END THIS! NOW!"

Q's slow smile heaped wood on the inferno of Jean-Luc's rage. "Almost. Not quite. One more thing. Just. . . one. . . more. . . thing."

In a flash of whiteness, Jean-Luc found himself standing in the middle of a room. Barefoot, in a rough grey caftan.

"Hello. . . human."

Jean-Luc turned around slowly, fighting the urge to run for his life, in any direction, and then fighting an urge to race forward and pound a fist into the smiling face of Gul Madred. The Cardassian sat watching him, gently tapping the familiar remote against the desk. Jean-Luc pulled aside the caftan and saw that the scar was there -- the implant in his chest was back.

"Four lights," he spat.

"That's not the question today, human." Madred rose slowly and prowled around the desk, tapping the remote against his other hand. "The question is this. We have your wife. Would you rather see her with her imzadi -- or would you rather she remain faithful to you?"

"As if you wouldn't be able to guess -- Q. This isn't going to work."

"The question," Madred's voice went on, as if he hadn't heard, "is whether you wish her to be faithful to you and give up her career to return to Earth to bear your child in your absence. Because if you wish her to be faithful, you cannot return. If you would rather return to your ship and your career, and see her with her imzadi -- her soulmate -- then you will forfeit your child. Miscarriages do happen, you know."

"This is pointless! Who she is with is entirely her choice. Not mine. There was every opportunity for her to go with him, she stayed with me, of her own free will -- "

"I repeat. The choice is, does she give up everything to remain faithful to you and raise your child at home in France, or does she remain faithful to her career and end up with her imzadi? We are not speaking of artificially altering what has already taken place."

"You're saying that if I don't go back, she'll go home. If I do go back she'll have a miscarriage and go forward with her career, and leave me to be with Will."

"That's exactly what I'm saying. Exactly so, Jean-Luc." Madred slowly morphed into Q, an odd transformation if he'd ever seen one.

"The choice, then, is between my child and my career. Either way I lose her."

"Quite correct."

Jean-Luc thought about it. Better not to ask why, he'd get no answer. This was obviously one of Q's studies of humanity. But the choice wasn't really a choice.

"You're not manipulating the options directly, then?"

"No. Your presence is the only determining factor."

"Then I'll go back."

Q raised an eyebrow. "You're sure about that? Propagating the Picard family verses career?"

"I'm sure about that, Q. Send me back. Please."

"I'm not so certain of your choice. Prove it."

"How the hell am I supposed to prove that I'm sure I want it?"

Q handed him the remote. "If you want to go back, you'll push this button. How high you set it indicates how much you want to go back."

Jean-Luc held the device in his palm, studying it, trying to reason out how many times he'd have to go through this with Q before he'd convince him what he wanted.

He thought of Deanna Riker, and Deanna as she was to him in his reality -- at home. The tears in her eyes -- the happiness, the sadness, the way she mirrored his pain when he suffered. The beat of her heart at night, under his arm when he held her as she slept, or against his chest.

Nudging the indicator to high intensity with his thumb, he pushed the button.

The universe went white, then red, then black.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Deanna doubled over and leaned against the side of the lift.

The other people riding in the same car looked at her strangely, asked if she was all right, but she ignored them and redirected the lift to deck eight, suspecting she knew the source of her pain.

She made it blindly to her quarters, the captain's quarters, and stumbled into the bedroom. He was there -- gods, was he real? Was this really him? Naked as when he'd left, but looking like --

"Jean-Fish! Jean-Luc!" His skin felt dry and cold. She turned him over -- he lay sprawled on his side -- and gasped. "What did he do to you? What happened?"

His eyes barely open -- so tired! But it was him, her heart told her so. Pain-wracked, she realized, noting the sour smell of his breath. A constant throb of agony vibrated from him. The odor and pain combined nearly turned her stomach. She ran her hands over his bare chest hungrily and looked for any physical damage to him. Other than the pallor and his obvious exhaustion, he seemed fine.

"Four lights," he whispered. "Deanna, I love you. I trust you. I will always trust you. My swan."

Deanna stopped, a hand on his shoulder, the other in the center of his chest. "Why are you feeling this way, Jean-Luc?"

"Inside out. Oh, petite, I missed you, it hurt -- "

Kneeling on the bed, she pulled him into her lap and stroked his face. "Jean, what happened?" Another pain, this one not his, bent her over him for a few seconds. She gasped and clutched her stomach.

Jean-Luc's hand closed on her arm, trembling, weak, but there to lend support. She heard him call sickbay and looked down at him, tears flowing from her eyes down on his face to join the ones already there. A different pain was beginning in him. Realization, and dread.

"I love you, Deanna. I would die for you. If it makes you happy, I would even live without you," he whispered.

Her physical pain mingled with his emotional pain, blinding her with tears. {Jean, what are you doing? What are you saying? I don't understand!}

Hands on her shoulders. A tricorder. And pain. All his pain now, eclipsing the remnants of the stab to the abdomen she'd felt.

{Your choice. It will always be your choice, cygne. Always. Whatever you choose, I will make it so.}

~@~@~@~@~@~

"It was the stress," Dr. Mengis said. "She was not eating properly, not getting enough rest, working too much, and the added emotional duress of trying to manage treatment of someone who reminded her of her missing husband -- your absence being another stressor, and the largest contributing factor I think."

Jean-Luc's eyelids felt like he might be dangling shuttlecraft from them, and the back of his tongue tasted as he imagined moldy shoes might. He turned to Counselor Davidson, asking with his eyes. Deanna's subordinate smiled wanly, trying to be consoling.

"I would have to concur. I spoke with her a few times in the week you were absent. Your friends, Captain Riker and Lieutenant Sumners, tried to be there for her. She turned them away more often than not. The one person who seemed to be the most comforting to her, the one she sought out, was Commander Data."

"Data," Jean-Luc echoed. He glanced toward the rear of sickbay. "You said she didn't miss a shift."

"Not a one. The two times Data tried to relieve her of duty she marched in and demanded it back." Davidson sighed, his hazel eyes showing a weariness akin to Jean-Luc's. "They say doctors make bad patients -- she's the worst. She's been asking for you, Captain. You should have been with her sooner."

"That may have been true for anyone else, but I needed to find my own bearings first. If I'd gone in there in the emotional state I was in an hour ago, I wouldn't have done either of us any good, and probably would have compounded her pain."

Davidson looked up in surprise. "You're probably right, actually. In any case -- you'd better get in there and see her. And I'll see you in my office first thing in the morning."

Sighing in resignation, Jean-Luc nodded and headed for the room they'd put Deanna into. He paused at the door, gathered his composure, and went inside.

She sprawled across the bed, one arm flung off the side and dangling in the air, her legs bent slightly and her hair wild around her face. The covers were twisted, wrapped around her, and one bare foot poked out. Her face -- too pale. Agony lingered, putting a heartbreaking twist to her lips.

He took the chair at her side, wondering for a second who had been sitting in it last, and put his palm to hers. Her fingers curled around his, her thumb moving over his knuckles. One eye cracked open; he saw the gleam of tears against her black pupil.

She moved slowly, slower even than after the incident at Galisi that had left her body broken in too many places, sitting up on an elbow and sliding her legs off the bed. He caught her when she fell forward stepping off the bed toward him, gathered her into his lap, held her like a child and kissed her scalp.

Then he heard movement -- he turned his head just far enough to catch it out of the tail of his eye. Black uniform, red collar.

Will hesitated, his expression making it plain that he disapproved entirely of something, then swept out the door.

Deanna's fist knotting in his uniform pulled his attention from Will's departure. Stroking her cheek gently, he held her while she sobbed, eventually clutching her tighter and burying his face in her hair to join her.

~@~@~@~@~@~



She waited for him to speak. Sensing his inability to express what he felt kept her from starting the conversation. Counselor Davidson had suggested leave for both of them; he'd only accepted her need for it, refusing to take any himself.

Being able to mourn their loss together helped immensely. He held her and let her cry many times -- releasing the pain of his absence, the pain of losing the child. He'd cried sometimes as well, then they'd taken refuge in the heart fire. Mourning darkened the flames and left them tired afterward.

For four days, she slept as much as possible and let herself recover. She saw him often; he stopped in for a few moments at a time throughout the day, when he could, giving her backrubs, or holding her, comforting them both. Brought her gifts -- flowers or chocolate or some small thing he knew she'd like. Held her in his lap, sat next to her, lay next to her, exhibited an almost constant need to touch her. Sometimes brought work back with him and did it while she read next to him, or simply lay with her head on his leg, taking comfort in his presence. She woke often during the night to find him almost crowding her off the bed. Sometimes she found him awake, too, brushing her face with his fingers, even kissing her forehead.

He'd taken care of answering the messages she'd left unanswered the first day. While she lay in bed, he dealt with all of them from his ready room. It had exhausted him -- she hadn't seen him look so haggard in years. Flowers appeared around her, but she didn't bother asking who they were from. It didn't matter. He mattered, they mattered, and though she could say clinically that he was handling it well, she could sense the ongoing sadness in him. Something was going untouched. He'd gone to see Davidson a couple of times; she could tell because his emotions were in disarray afterward. Still, the deep despair persisted.

The effect of the miscarriage on her body had been negligible, but her heart cried for the child who never had a chance to be, never became more than embryo, never even got so far as to have gender. She knew Jean-Luc mourned it as much as she -- but that wasn't all he mourned.

He came home the evening of the fourth day, very much the captain at first, until he looked at her. His stiff shoulders slackened and his expression softened. He'd brought her a single white rose from the arboretum. She waited for him cross-legged on the couch, some padds around her; as he sat and gave her the blossom, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. Then caught her jaw with a finger and kissed her lips, then hesitated, nose to nose, waiting. Her follow-up kiss invited more, a slip of the tongue teased his, and his arms went around her.

So warm. So strong. So Jean-Luc, yet the sensations from him confused her. He wanted her, but with an odd desperation so unlike the strength of his normal resolve. Perhaps the experience with Q had changed him more than she'd thought. Pulling away, she touched his face, looked in his eyes, and found anguish mingled with love.

"I don't understand, Jean-Fish. There will be other children. These things happen most often in the beginning, before a woman is even aware she's pregnant -- I only knew because I was looking for it. The stress I was under -- "

"It's my fault," he gasped. The admission undid him. She caught him in her arms and let him lean on her, trying to master her reaction to his turmoil before she responded. He didn't give her the chance to say anything.

"I didn't believe him," he whispered into her hair. "His prognostications were wrong in so many ways, about other things -- I chose the second option because it would bring me home. I believed he would be wrong, that you wouldn't lose the child or leave me -- but you've lost it and it's my fault. I should have known better -- "

"It can't possibly be your fault."

"Q said it would happen. The other part of it, the. . . . Cygne. I do love you. You love me, your eyes tell me so. I can hear your heart at night -- I missed that when I was gone. But he said if I chose to return, you would lose the child, and I would lose you. . . ."

Deanna pulled away and stared into his wavering eyes, and wondered if he'd really come home to her, or if this might be another of Q's tests. She abandoned that idea at once -- his heart was there. In pain, but there.

"What were the choices you're talking about?"

The tightness in him clenched down on a more emotional reaction than he gave. Turning his head slightly, looking at the floor, he said, "One option was that you would remain faithful to me. I wouldn't return, and you would go to France, and raise the child. The other -- you would lose the child, I would return and keep my career, but. . . lose you. To imzadi."

Of course. What else would Q play upon but their fears?

"So now you are afraid you will lose me, because Q said I would lose the child and it came true, and so therefore the other half of his prophecy must also come true? I suppose I'll have to wait for Will divorce Bell, then. And I suppose I should resign myself to seeing you marry and divorce Beverly -- or maybe I'll be dead next, because Q's other predictions said so."

She touched his face gently, the way he touched hers so often, tracing his cheek and jaw. When she touched his lips, his eyes came up. Almost there. Almost back on solid ground.

"There is an element of truth in everything he did to us, Jean-Luc. Enough that we might actually believe. Enough that in spite of the past year we've had together, the wedding, the promises made and kept, the love we feel and share, the trust we continue to have in each other -- whatever he did to you has planted doubt. A wise man told me once that all that mattered was what we believe. If you begin to believe the bond I have with Will is enough to tear me from your arms, I don't know if I can fight it -- you've believed so hard that you've made me your wife, nearly your first officer, almost a mother. I'm afraid to think of what you'll believe me into next. Please don't start thinking I'm like my mother."

It registered at last. He frowned, thinking -- she could almost hear the hum of his musings. "Did he do anything to you? Other than the alternate of me? Did Q taunt you the same way he did me?"

"Q came to me several times. As you, and as Will. He questioned why, when I would not compromise professionalism to pursue a relationship with Will, I pursued one with you. I understand why -- you understand, when you're not doubting what you know is true. That's all that matters. I love you, until death do us part, Jean-Luc Picard, and if you think you're going to get rid of me by enlisting Q's help -- "

He sighed impatiently -- not impatience with her, but with himself. "I'm sorry -- I surrender. It just touched so many nerves, what he put me through. Old dreams and nightmares. Too much for me to process when I'm feeling so. . . at a loss. These past few days I've hung on the edge of hope and fear, not sure which way I would fall. I just knew that, in spite of all the emotion, the uncertainty and sadness, that if there was any hope at all that it wouldn't come true and you wouldn't leave, I had to trust you."

"We'll talk it out, cher poisson. It will be all right. We'll be all right." She tugged on his arm, pulling him down on the sofa. She hadn't undressed him all week; in fact, a couple of nights he'd simply pulled off his boots and tumbled into bed in uniform. Time to rectify the situation. He stayed where he fell, on his right shoulder with his legs angled off the edge, and she made short work of his boots and jacket, leaving him on his back looking up at her. The discussion had left him in such a state of mixed emotions that she didn't bother to analyze it.

Tugging off his pants, then his shirt, she looked at him -- at the body of the man she loved. Not young, not old, but somewhere in between. He watched her in return, hands resting on his chest, while she loved him as he was, tracing muscle and sinew with her fingertips.

Were it not for the miracles of modern medicine he would be nothing but scars and missing parts. There would be knife wounds, burns from energy weapons, an arrow from Mintaka sticking out of his chest, a Naussican's knife, Borg implants everywhere. . . there on his shoulder, a knife wound she herself had given him while under the influence of Alcar. She'd heard someone call him 'the indestructible Captain Picard.' It angered her now, seemed such a callous thing to claim -- it made light of sacrifices made and prices paid. This was once a young man, a yew tree, the light of his maman's life -- a vibrant brightly-burning man with dreams and ambitions. He still was, in so many ways, the same man, but tempered by maturity and experience. Beautiful, in an entirely masculine way.

His fingertips along the inside of her arm brought her back. He brought her palm to his lips as though afraid she might snatch it back from him. Her heart jackknifed in her chest at the tenderness of the gesture and the pathos in his eyes. He spoke softly, holding her hand against his chest.

"Nothing is plumb, level or square
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter, I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage's nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that one moment. Then
it screamed and went on through
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it, I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand cross-piece but
I can't do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife."

Deanna pondered the imagery and caught a single sob, twisting it into a tearful laugh. "Do they make his and hers crucifixes?"

He spread his arms for an answer, and she lay down on him, cheek to cheek. Knitted her fingers in his and became his cross, as she'd become his. Shared his pain -- she kissed him insistently, then lay nose to ear with him, doing centering exercises and trying to find heart fire in the midst of the despair. This was the worst he'd ever been after an incident with Q. But then, all the other times had been just him -- or Will, or Vash. Not someone he'd given himself to. Not someone he'd shared his heart with, or dared to love so --

Her head coming up brought his eyes open. She stared into them, smiling slowly. "It was a compliment, Jean-Luc. Q tested our love for each other like he hasn't done with you before. He put Vash in a silly costume and made you wear tights, but with me he either selected or created a reality that rang true for both of us to a degree that we played along -- if I didn't see cause to give benefit of the doubt, I would have never had anything to do with that other Picard he left here. He wanted to see what each of us would do. I had to face another you as a temptation, first on a level of basic attraction -- when that didn't work he added the twist of his needing counseling, and I responded to that professionally. When in counseling he proved more than I could handle I gave him over to Davidson out of consideration for the stress on the baby and the added responsibilities of first officer, instead of rising to the challenge as I wanted to do. When none of the indirect methods worked, Q became a facsimile of Will to ask why I took such career risks for you but not for Will. He played the imzadi card, even. When that didn't work, he sent me to the chateau and showed me images of you as a young man, then of you at my approximate age, and then as an old man -- testing my reactions. Everything fell into a pattern. He wanted to understand what motivated us to love, and find out the dimensions of it."

"You're right," he whispered, tensing beneath her slightly, eyes widening. "There was a pattern for me as well -- he offered the ship headed for exploration, an existence without the Borg, no threat of war from the Dominion or the Romulans -- he offered me Beverly, who in that reality had been my wife and mother of my children. I had the choice of reconciling with her or taking only the children with me. When I showed only interest in making the crew believe I didn't belong and finding a way back here, Q added the suspicious component, Madred being a Starfleet admiral and my friend. With that additional element I didn't lose sight of my goal completely, but found myself believing I was having a positive effect on my alter ego's behalf. Tasha was his lover -- she represented the officer side of you, I think. Then there was your alter-ego -- she pursued me as well, in the guise of increased sensitivity to my thoughts and emotions while pregnant. And when we got to DS9. . . Beverly wasn't exactly what I'd expect even under the circumstances. She accepted me too quickly, now that I think about it, but at the time -- And then Q made his appearance, and showed me you, in what I know was a false sequence, as a first officer in a confrontation with a warbird. To prove you didn't need me, probably. When I turned down Beverly flat, Deanna made one last attempt -- woke me at five hundred and then Will showed up, and they played out a scene in which she was jealous because I could be hajira with you and she wasn't with him, like your parents were."

Deanna almost lost her focus on what he was saying at that -- her mind turned backward through time, looking for memories to perhaps verify whether that element of Q's fantasy had been true. It could wait. She returned her attention to her husband the instant after it wandered.

"He taunted me," Jean-Luc whispered, then paused, swallowing. Nervous. Remembering pain -- she knew that feeling of his too well. "Turned into Madred and gave me the choice. And to prove to him that I wanted what I said I did, he gave me the pain inducer. I had to use it on myself. I didn't hesitate -- it sent me back to you. The next thing I knew you were with me. I didn't even think about what the pain would do to you, I'm so sorry -- "

"It wasn't your fault, Jean-Luc, you had no idea what would happen. Bastard," Deanna blurted. "What a complete bastard, doing that to you."

"Protective little swan, aren't you?"

His little smile, his sly, affectionate know-it-all smile, turned her completely inside out. "I may have chosen a cross, Jean-Fish, but it's the very best cross in the universe, and worth every tear I cry."

"Fuckingly-handsome?"

She pulled his hands in with hers, keeping her fingers tightly entwined with his, and got up. "Very much so. Are you ready to return to active duty?"

"That depends. What are you going to do to get me to salute?"

She pulled him up, intending to lead him into the bedroom, but reality struck, draining her of the rising excitement their return to banter had elicited. He knew it at once and took her in his arms, offering comfort.

"Perhaps it's too soon."

"Time, that's all we need. Inside out, Jean-Fish -- I missed you."

"Flying." At the touch of his lips against her temple, she closed her eyes and battled tears. He whispered, "Ma petite, I love you. I'm sorry I've been so silent this week."

"You have been as you are, and that's all I want. We both needed silence to recover. From Q, from the loss -- you've been seeing Davidson?"

"Twice. It's. . . harder, with him. I hate it. But I couldn't expect you to bear it -- I had to be there for you. I had to get rid of it somewhere else." He stroked her head, ran his fingers through her curls, rubbed her scalp. "Dee, how do you feel? Are you all right? You aren't just keeping it all hidden from me, are you?"

She extricated herself from his grip just far enough to look him in the eye. {I could never hide anything from you, hajira. Love me.} The rushing sensation of being drawn into heart fire caught her, taking her breath away. His arms around her, his lips on hers. They stood for a moment in the fire, tightly wound around each other, unable to bring themselves to let go -- the fear raged around them. His fear.

{The closer we are, the more afraid I become that I will not be able to survive losing you. It makes me fear that I'll let you down in the line of duty -- be weak and indecisive.}

{Q is not what you could call ordinary circumstances. He bends things beyond reality. Under normal circumstances, on an away mission, you would not be forced to decide between futures like that. Without an omnipotent being to dazzle you with the possibilities, all you see is the decision and its immediate effect -- if you could see the endless ramifications of each decision, you'd never make *any* of them. We must live in the moment, as you say. He took that away and made us look at lifetimes, gave us too many paths to consider, and it confused both of us. We were not meant to see things that way.}

He loosened his hold on her slightly. {Why do I let him do this to me? But I can't help it, he creates such believable -- and this one was worse than all the others. The reality he created, the details, the children -- they were real children, and Beverly was almost as I'd expect her to be, and -- }

"It may be that it was an alternate reality after all," Deanna murmured. The fire had helped both of them settle into a peaceable, drifting state of relaxation. A welcome change from the dragging sorrow that had clung all week -- which would probably return, but they needed the break. "It may be that what we did helped start a chain reaction that will lead to a Federation in another universe finding freedom from the Cardassians. I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that even though we didn't finish with him, the captain who vanished back to his own universe will be able to heal and have the strength to reclaim what was stolen from him."

"Another tin man for you to reclaim from rust?"

She smiled lopsidedly. "And who were you, the wizard? Running around Oz making the residents of the Emerald City do their duty for a change?"

"Of course. Had to put up a curtain and improve a few efficiency ratings, but it was all in the line of duty." Running his hands down her back, he studied her seriously. "How are you? Really?"

"The sadness will fade with time. There will be another opportunity to have a child soon enough. It isn't so bad, it really wasn't with me long enough for me to become very emotionally involved with it. Jean, I know it's early, but -- you're tired, and I'm tired, and. . . I need you."

He nodded, went to the bedroom with her, turning off lights and sliding into bed next to her, where he belonged. Being in his arms now that he'd shared what had troubled him reassured her all the more. She was home -- her husband. Still so new a thing, and so much more precious than before.

His lovemaking was so gentle, as slow and careful as he'd been after Galisi. Healing. They lay tangled together afterward and she sensed him slipping off to sleep -- she watched him in the starlight and felt the difference. Peace. Equilibrium, again.

Inching further into his arms, encouraged by the way they tightened around her, she rested her hands against his chest, pushed her head into the pillow, and slept.

~@~@~@~@~@~

Jean-Luc looked up from her face at the sound of the annunciator, called softly to admit them, and dropped his hand from the back of the couch to Deanna's shoulder as she slept on, oblivious to their entrance.

Beverly came in first and put her gift on the table, followed closely by Tom, Will and Bell. They seemed surprised that she didn't wake; or, perhaps, that she lay sleeping with her head on his thigh, her hair spilling across his lap. Beverly dropped to one knee and studied her friend's face, then glanced up at Jean-Luc questioningly.

"She's fine," he murmured. "Tired. Doing her usual marathon type of day." He put aside his own project, an archeological newsletter he'd been reading.

"We could come back some other time," Bell said.

"No, that's all right. I would have had to wake her anyway. I'm surprised she hasn't gotten up already." He shook her awake.

She peered at him through bleary eyes, frowning slightly, then got up and stumbled into the bedroom. He heard the tumbling of items knocked from shelves as she bumped into the wall. Their four friends looked at him with silent amused questions in their eyes.

"Yes, she's like that every time she wakes. But she recovers quickly enough."

"She's. . . is she all right?" Will's question could be interpreted broadly, but Jean-Luc thought he knew what he meant. They hadn't seen Will on a casual basis in the last six weeks. The standoff with the Romulans, and the resulting negotiations, had prevented any real leisure time. The efforts had been well worth it, however, and the fleet had dispersed but for a handful of ships lingering at Starbase 437 for leave.

"It wasn't that difficult for her. What Q did to us affected her more than the miscarriage."

"I'm not sure I understand what Q is," Tom said. He had shaved off the goatee, kept the mustache, and rubbed said mustache with his thumb. "Beverly explained it to me as best she could. But he took you into an alternate universe?"

"We don't really know what he is and there's no way for us to know. Yes, he took me into an alternate reality -- whether it was one of his own making or not, I can't be sure, but if it was -- he's become too subtle for anyone's good. The facsimiles of the people I know were uncannily accurate, given the differences of experiences. I must say I prefer the reality we have here, now, to what I saw."

"And why is that?" Will asked. "You haven't told us much about what happened."

Deanna returned, looking much more comfortable now that she'd changed from her uniform into a sarong, one with a bold black geometric pattern over dark green, and brushed her hair out over her shoulders. She smiled at their guests and sat within the arc of Jean-Luc's arm, which was stretched across the back of the couch. "To what do we owe this gathering?"

Jean-Luc touched her back lightly. "You. I didn't forget your birthday this time."

She gaped delightedly. "You really *are* trainable! What did you get me?"

The presentation of the presents began with Beverly's box -- a still photograph, from the wedding. "Tom took it," she explained, touching the shining silver frame, "and I framed it. I figured you might not have had time to get one done yet."

"It's perfect. Even if Jean-Fish's head looks shiny." Deanna grinned at him, obviously teasing. "Thank you, both of you -- I know exactly where I want to hang it."

Bell offered up the next gift while Will leaned against the table with crossed arms. Jean-Luc wondered if Will still bore whatever ire he'd shown in sickbay after the miscarriage, but watched Deanna unwrap the cunning sculpture. Then he recognized who it was and covered his eyes, only to find himself peering through his fingers at it in disbelief.

Deanna laughed and held up the foot-tall bust of Captain Picard, in milk chocolate. "Thank you. It's almost as handsome as the original. I'll probably have just as much fun eating it, too."

"Merde," Jean-Luc muttered, before laughing with everyone else.

"There's a shop on Starbase 455 that does custom chocolate sculpting," Bell explained between giggles. "When Will was picking my brain for gift ideas I suggested it. He said it was a wonderful idea."

Probably to embarrass the hell out of the original, Jean-Luc thought. Forcing an amused, wry grin, he snorted and hefted the bust in one hand. "Alas, poor Yorik -- " Deanna snatched it back from him.

"Stop that. It's unique, it's perfect. I think I'll put it in stasis and keep it."

"Can I put some whipping cream on it? At least one of us could have some semblance of hair that way."

"I like you better without hair, thank you." Deanna took the bust to one of the shelves and centered it at eye level.

"When did you see me with hair?"

Her shoulders sagged a little. She turned from the shelves and crossed her arms thoughtfully. "Q ran me through a few little hypothetical situations, too, you know."

A tension filled the room, perceptibly -- from the looks on their faces, Tom and Bell had heard enough about Q to know this could be embarrassing for anyone and everyone.

Jean-Luc sniffed. "Sounds like your hypothetical situations had a few more positive aspects than mine. My universe included a Geordi who thought eighty-five percent was an acceptable efficiency rating, and a Will Riker who walked into my quarters at six hundred hours to yank my chain."

In one of those infrequent moments when he could do so, Jean-Luc felt the flicker of Deanna's amusement from across the room, without benefit of the heart fire. "You said in that universe, you were married to Beverly."

"Divorced from, and the blasted woman took my children and went to Caldos into the bargain. Which was tragic -- Chelsea loved shipboard life, and Claude was working his way toward the Academy. And both of them developed atrocious accents into the bargain."

"What about me?" Deanna turned from the replicator and brought drinks for all, stopping in front of Jean-Luc first. "You said I had three children."

"And no time for anything else. In the week I was there, Jon broke fingers crawling in a Jeffries tube to get out of class, Kyle sustained a mild concussion trying to play parises squares, and Billy reprogrammed the terminals in the school science lab to display only rude drawings of the teacher Jon had been trying to get away from. I'd hate to think what might happen to the ship, or them, as they get older."

Deanna handed Will a glass of what was probably his usual type of ale and moved on to Bell. "So I wasn't a counselor."

"No, and if any ship needed one, it was that one. With that brainwashed zombie in charge, the whole thing was going to hell in a -- " Jean-Luc flinched, almost dropping his glass. "Merde. Here we go again. Do you realize, that universe was as it was because Counselor Deanna Troi wasn't there to put my sanity back together again?"

"Actually, it was more than that." Deanna turned from hugging Beverly and thanking her for the gift again. "From what the Picard we had here told us, he'd never met Q before. Since he'd never met Q, he'd never confronted the Borg -- I believe that were it not for the trauma you'd undergone prior, with the Borg especially, you wouldn't have been able to withstand Madred. Survival is a learned skill."

Jean-Luc fumed for a few moments, hating the thought that it might be true.

"Three kids," Will said, catching up slowly. He looked at Deanna. "You and I had three kids."

"Four," Jean-Luc said absently. "One in the oven. He said that was why she kept trying to seduce everyone on the ship -- hormones. That was amusing, actually, how he kept racing after her trying to keep her from propositioning anyone who had even the slightest attraction to her. Which was why she kept showing up at my door, which was why I wound up in Ten Forward every night, talking to Guinan, or Tasha. That was interesting -- Tasha, as she would have been eleven years later."

"It sounds too detailed to be one of Q's fantasies." Beverly sat down at last in a chair, with Tom leaning on the arm of it. She smiled up at him as if reassuring him.

"I think it was an alternate reality, along the lines of the ones we've encountered before -- from what I was hearing, nearly everyone was accounted for. I did some checking. Jack was still alive. Walker, too. Most of my old friends were. The Borg never happened, the *Stargazer* did -- but I had some sort of falling-out with Jack that sent us different directions. Beverly never married him, Wesley never came into being. . . so many different branches of familiar roads. Worf was nowhere to be seen, or Data."

Deanna sighed, returning to her spot at his side. "Your other self didn't like Data -- they fought at first. It set the whole senior staff against him. And he didn't see me as an officer at first. He seemed to have a hard time with that. What?"

Jean-Luc stifled the laughter too late. "Well -- frankly, I understand that, given what he must have expected. His version of you wouldn't fit in one of your uniforms, for one thing. She'd never been to the Academy and lacked a lot of your discipline. She seemed frustrated, overall, and took a lot of it out on. . . ." He glanced at Will. "Anyway, she was quite different, in too many ways to count."

"Was I there anywhere?" Tom asked.

"Actually, I did look you up. You never made it to Starfleet. If Beverly hadn't let slip that your name's actually Geraint, I wouldn't have found you -- would you believe you might be teaching botanical sciences at the University of San Francisco?"

"Unfortunately, yes, I'd believe that. I almost changed my mind before the Academy but I wasn't sure what else I'd do." Tom grinned at him. "So you had two kids with Beverly, over there? Did they have hair?"

"I had hair to a point, you realize -- which was how we got off on this tangent to begin with. Which brings us back to where Q took you, that you know what I looked like." Jean-Luc turned to Deanna, gesturing with his drink. "I told you all about my adventure, but you've said very little about yours."

"There isn't much to tell. Q didn't put me through a lot of fantastic situations -- just one brief conversation with him masquerading as Will, which he did very convincingly until the point at which he asked questions we've answered already. Then he took me to the chateau in Labarre. I met your mother, and while we were talking, you came home from riding."

Jean-Luc froze, leaning on his elbow on the back of the couch, staring at her. She met his eyes briefly, registered his reaction, then smiled and shrugged a little. "When it became obvious what he was getting at, I stopped responding to that circumstance. Then he showed me other versions of you. But I could tell none of them were the real you so I turned them all down. Other than that, everything else was in my reports."

"At least he didn't inflict too much of his nonsense on you."

"Q may manipulate, but he must be operating within some limits or he'd do it more directly." Deanna sipped her tea and raised an eyebrow. "Come to think of it, after I mentioned that the only thing he didn't manipulate was our own free will, he got angry at me. He also told me you'd gotten boring. Maybe that means he's losing interest in you?"

"Boring -- he didn't mention particulars? Please, teach me how to bore a Q!"

"You could accept a promotion," Will said. "That would be pretty boring. What would he taunt an admiral with -- the threat of endless meetings?"

Jean-Luc wondered if there weren't more to the light-hearted jab than was immediately apparent. Trying not to take umbrage at it took a little work; since he already looked at Deanna, it wasn't hard to not look at Will. She met his eyes briefly and he felt a rush of reassuring love from her bridge the distance between them.

The annunciator interrupted further comment from anyone. Data and Geordi came in, and the engineer held up an isolinear module. "Did it."

"Let's hear it," Jean-Luc exclaimed, pointing at the desk. While Geordi crossed the room and inserted the module, Jean-Luc explained. "We received a garbled transmission forwarded to us from the Pathfinder Project."

"And we're hearing it tonight because?" Beverly exclaimed.

Data handed Deanna a box wrapped in gold foil. "It appears to be for Captain Picard, from. . . Captain Picard."

"The Pathfinder Project has been making use of MIDAS and -- oh, stop looking at me like that, Dee," Jean-Luc exclaimed, noticing her frown. "I wasn't going to segue into technicalities long, just enough to explain how we might have managed to get a message from another universe."

"Reg said they were trying to communicate with *Voyager* in the Delta Quadrant, not alternate realities," Deanna exclaimed, even as her fingers pried at the wrapping paper on Data's gift. "But you're telling me now that it appears your alternate self in your alternate universe got a message to you in spite of being a completely different reality?"

"I had amassed quite a bit of information on spatial and temporal anomalies while trying to find my own way home, and if the Picard you sent back has half a brain he'll have found my notes. They did find the quantum-level flux in my RNA while I was there."

"Actually, from what Reg has been telling me, I'm not too surprised they got this," Geordi said, hitching a leg and half-sitting on the edge of the desk. "It wasn't the only thing they picked up. It was just the only understandable thing, probably because someone on the other end of it was intending someone else to receive it and modified the signal to compensate. Reg has been messing around with creating artificial wormholes using tachyon pulses and pulsars, among other things -- it's a wonder he hasn't caused any serious spatial anomalies in the process."

"Reg Barclay, you mean? Spiderman?" Will asked, guffawing. "Worshiper at the altar of the goddess of -- "

There was a story here somewhere, Jean-Luc thought, almost ducking out of the way of Deanna's furious glare at Riker. Maybe one he didn't want to hear, judging from the smirk Geordi wore.

"Oh, Data, I *hate* you," Deanna exclaimed woefully. Jean-Luc turned from Geordi to find her pulling a red shirt out of the box. Data had finally decided whether or not to take the position. "I hate Tom more! But I guess I can understand why you'd want the transfer. New ship, and you could get more free dancing lessons. Not to mention no one there will know where your off switch is and threaten you with it."

Beverly's quiet gasp distracted Jean-Luc from Deanna's muddled reaction. He noticed Will also looked surprised, and Bell was confused. "Tom asked for him. They're giving him the *Venture,* Will."

"Really? Congratulations!" Will's smile seemed as much for Beverly as Tom. He could probably see from her relaxed, cat-got-the-cream smile that she'd already decided to be Tom's CMO. "So you're swiping Jean-Luc's first officer?"

"I don't think he'll mind too much. He already has a replacement."

Will's jaw slipped askew as he gazed at Deanna. Jean-Luc could guess now what it was about, the look last month in sickbay, the comment about Jean-Luc's taking a promotion, and now this. How predictable of him. He just couldn't stop worrying about her.

"Let's hear the message, Geordi," Jean-Luc said. "I haven't heard from myself recently. Let's hope I'm not yelling 'abandon ship' again."

"This is going to give me a headache," Deanna groaned, watching Geordi touch the keys. She wasn't the only one, Jean-Luc reflected, as a familiar voice said words he had never said -- how odd that was. He kept automatically trying to remember when he'd said them.

"Greetings, from the *Enterprise* -- I feel strange talking to myself, but. . . Starfleet isn't for the timid, is it?"

"Dad, can I -- "

"Sit, Chelsea. Be quiet."

"But I've never had two dads and he -- "

"Chelsea!" At the quiet bellow Deanna put her hands over her mouth and laughed with her eyes at Jean-Luc, muffling a giggle. He scowled at her and put a finger to his lips.

"Anyhow," Picard began again, clearing his throat, "with the help of your notes -- which have been helpful in countless other ways, thank you very much -- I've located a quantum fissure after considerable effort on the part of Starfleet as a whole, and hopefully isolated the right quantum resonance frequency. To be sure, we've sent this message into a wide spectrum of -- "

"He's getting vulky on us," came Chelsea's voice again, mumbling. "We'll *never* get to say anything!"

"Shut up or wait outside. We don't have much time for this," Picard grumped. Deanna snorted, trying to contain herself. Riker wasn't so capable; his quiet chuckle had to be cut short by Bell's elbow to the gut.

"Starfleet Command, and the Federation as a whole, would like me to convey their gratitude for your efforts to unravel the Cardassian conspiracy at work here. Significant progress has been made in that direction, and we're postponing our mission until things have settled within the Federation. I personally would like to thank you, for what you've done to restore my ship to what it should be, and for making it possible for me to. . . ."

A pause, and Jean-Luc was a little surprised that one of the kids didn't jump in. Then a cool voice that made Beverly jump a little -- "What he's saying, Jean-Luc, is thank you. To both you and Deanna -- he's told me what she did for him, while he was there. We owe you a great deal, for reasons you know very well, I'm sure."

"Thank you for the ice cream," Chelsea blurted. "And the stories, and the really neat flute!"

"And for helping me with my homework," Claude's voice put in. "Even if you got half of it wrong!"

Deanna laughed, throwing herself against the back of the couch helplessly. Jean-Luc shrugged. "Calculus, the trans-universal constant."

"Given the nature of the. . . agent of our transportation, I had supposed you might like the reassurance that the entire escapade hadn't been some gigantic trick of Q's imagination -- Chelsea, put that down! How many times do I have to tell you that isn't a toy!"

"But *he* let me play with it!"

Some muttering in French, but Jean-Luc couldn't make it out; the recording was getting weaker. "Now that I've thanked you -- don't ever come back, please? My children, Will's children, and my second officer keep comparing us and I keep coming up short, dammit!"

With a final popping of static, it was gone.

"*My* children, too?" Will blurted.

"Who was the second officer?" Geordi asked. "Were those your -- his -- kids?"

Jean-Luc suffered through another explanation for Geordi's sake, clarifying for the others as he went along. The discussion extended itself over a game of poker, followed by much ribbing of first officers. Will seemed particularly focused on Deanna. Bell's eyes met Jean-Luc's across the table at last, held them for a few moments, then she laid down her cards and turned to her captain and lover.

"Will, shut up."

He stared at her, surprised by her clipped tone. "Is that an order?"

"No. It's a warning."

"I'm not sure I understand what you're shutting me up about." He reached for his nearly-empty glass.

"I've had it with you and the teasing. It's old. Shut up."

"His alter-ego had that problem," Jean-Luc said. "It's very daunting to be sitting in one's quarters and have a familiar friendly first officer come walking in -- and then to hear him make a pass at you. One of the difficulties with trans-reality travel is never knowing what to take seriously."

Will gaped at Jean-Luc, eyes sliding to Deanna. "Is he serious?"

Deanna looked up from her cards calmly. "Quite serious."

"And how do I know you're not in on it with him?"

"Why would I have to be when he's telling the truth?" Deanna tossed her hair back off her shoulder and picked two chips off her stack to add to the pile.

"The thing is, Will, that anyone who teases someone about something too long and too consistently is in danger of giving away the fact that he's hiding a legitimate concern behind it." Jean-Luc put an arm across the back of Deanna's chair, leaning back with his hand turned down against his chest. "I wasn't terribly afraid of your doppelganger, he only did that once and made it clear he was kidding by apologizing afterward. I did, however, wonder about his cavalier attitude about his wife's flirtations with me. Then I realized he wasn't worried because he was that sure of himself. That sure of me, that he knew I wouldn't take undue advantage. Because we had that much in common, my alter-self and I -- Will Riker and I have always been good friends, under any circumstance."

Jean-Luc wondered if anyone else caught the subtext -- Data and Tom struck up a continuation of the captain-to-XO-getting-acquainted conversation they'd started, and Beverly facilitated by bringing up a few anecdotes of teaching Data to dance and how painful his attempts at humor used to be. Deanna played cards quietly, enjoying the conversation around her and seeming quite at peace with the way things were. Will fell silent, almost too much so. Bell tried to draw him out a couple of times, but eventually the two of them called it a night and left.

And as usual, one guest departing led to another, until they were left with Beverly and Tom half an hour later. Not even pretending to play cards, the four sat at the table after Data's departure.

"You'll have to put up with his damn dog, you realize," Jean-Luc said. "I think it looks for four pips before it pisses on the boots under them."

"Toto just likes you, and doesn't know how else to show it." Deanna patted his arm. "Infinite diversity, Jean-Fish."

He leaned on the table heavily and scowled at her. "Anthropomorphize all you like, it's a bladder with hair. Tribbles have more going for them, at least they purr nicely and make you feel good."

"Are we speaking from experience? Did you make friends with a failed attempt at creating a self-perpetuating toupee?"

While Beverly and Tom sniggered, Jean-Luc started picking up chips and cards. "You and your stupid jokes -- although I would have wrestled a targ to hear you tease me, while I was gone. Instead I had to settle for a chocolate ice cream cone with a little girl, who planted it on my head like a party hat in the middle of a space station restaurant just for the fun of it."

"I would pay to see that," Beverly blurted.

Jean-Luc flipped the lid shut on the box of chips. "Actually, you were sitting across the table, finding it difficult to scold her in between peals of laughter. I seem doomed to play straight man to the jokes of beautiful women of all ages."

"At least we know Chelsea survived the experience. Must mean you'll make a halfway decent father."

Beverly went wide-eyed at Deanna's relaxed comment. Jean-Luc crossed his arms on the table and smiled at his wife. "I only had an afternoon with them. With Will's kids, I had a week of being clobbered by one or the other of them, racing through the corridors like little hurricanes. They seemed to follow me around. Especially the youngest one, even after I scolded him for climbing around in jeffries tubes."

"So I was fat," Deanna said, leaning back, elbows cupped in her hands.

"Not obese, not grotesque, just. . . larger. Shorter hair."

"But I was the same?" Beverly smiled faintly. "Even after two kids?"

"You appeared to be the same, yes, and with longer hair -- but you weren't a doctor. The records said you dropped out of medical school. Why, I don't know."

Something in Beverly's expression said she could guess, but she shook her head. "These things keep happening, and keep forcing us to look at our lives from new perspectives. It makes me wonder if some of the decisions we make aren't in defiance of them."

"Can't say that about me." Deanna lost her smile, but not her calm. "I may have been influenced one direction or another by one or two of our spatial anomaly experiences, but I don't think about the stupidity Q dishes out too much. He's wrong as often as he's right, and now we have some evidence that he's actually using alternate realities in his games. Our destinies are our own, and we direct them. That's all I need to know."

Tom and Beverly said good night, and Beverly's final serious glance at Jean-Luc on her way out told him more talk would be forthcoming some other day. When the door closed, he touched Deanna's cheek with a thumb.

"Madame?"

"Happy," she murmured, smiling at him. "But you're still worried about it, aren't you?"

He glanced down the length of her body, wrapped in green and black, and slumped. "You told me, and H'nayison confirmed, that my body language changed with hajira. That it affects me on a subconscious level. Am I doomed to be at odds with Will forever because imzadi does the same thing?"

"It's not like that," she said quietly. "I don't think it's fair to think of it that way. You think he could love Bell as much as he does if it were the same thing?"

"It wasn't just Deanna being seductive that I saw, you know. Your alter ego did love her husband. There was something more to their relationship than met the eye -- there had to be, his behavior said so. He was completely confident in it, in spite of her behavior. Which, come to think of it, reminded me vaguely of your mother."

Deanna's sigh brought his eyes up to meet hers. "It was a different reality, Jean-Luc. Not ours. Why are you wrestling with this?"

"Because Will looks at me like I'm a complete idiot for trying to make you my first officer. He hints, he implies, he all but tells me outright that he thinks there's a line we shouldn't cross -- family or service aboard a ship. That comment about a promotion for me wasn't just a flip remark. He looked at me as if I were an unwanted parasite when I showed up in sickbay long after the common consensus said I should have gone to you."

"I'm getting tired of explaining our every motive to people," she exclaimed bitterly. "It *isn't* his business! I understood, you understood, that if you'd shown up earlier it would have hurt me more -- you were protecting me, more than anything else. And after what I went through, I don't want to be a counselor and pregnant. It would be impossible! I wouldn't be able to keep anything down. Someone would come in grieving over the loss of a friend or a lover, and I'd be overdosing on anti-nausea medication."

"I understand these things, cygne. But Will trusted me implicitly as an officer and friend. He still does, except when it comes to you. I don't like it. I don't intend to let his nonsense influence me, but I don't like the way he keeps it up. It could destroy our friendship eventually."

"Then let it."

Blinking at her, he stared at her hard, glittering eyes. "But -- "

"We've done everything we could to make our friends feel comfortable with us. We keep going out of our way to include them, we made explanations, we invite them for poker or dinner -- we'll keep doing that. Ignore Will's nonsense. He's deciding to be this way, let him. If he wants to lose our friendship, that's up to him."

Smiling fondly, Jean-Luc balanced his chin in his palm and surrendered for the moment to the angry woman in the chair next to him. For now, it was as resolved as it could be. Touching the inside of her elbow brought the usual reaction -- a glance, a waning of temper, a slow-growing smile, and as he slid his fingers down the inside of her arm into her palm she caught them and looked away, coquettish and sly.

"You really were quite the handsome young man, you know?" she asked, surprising him. "But I prefer my Jean-Fish to him. He was too young for me."

"I was young, wasn't I?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "Jean?"

"It wasn't just a fantasy of Q's -- I remember. Whether it was something I'd forgotten or if he created it just then -- temporal paradoxes give me headaches. I remember you."

Quite disarmed by it, she made an incredulous noise, chin dropping, and sat up. "So you weren't just shocked that Q would simulate something that happened? He really put me back in time? Do you remember what was said?"

"That I'd figure it out? You called me a little fish. I chalked it up to bad French from a flirtatious lost tourist with a sense of humor. Maman seemed quite dismayed that you'd left, and chided me for not convincing you to stay. I didn't have the heart to tell her you were a complete stranger."

Deanna leaned until her head rested on his shoulder. "Oh, Jean -- you talked to your pregnant wife then, do you realize that? In the dress you married her in. And I met your Maman, who told me my name means goddess of the moon. She said I must be special to you. That you had excellent taste."

He pondered, then laughed, and laughed again. "Deanna, Diana, a swan by any other name -- Diana's also goddess of the hunt, you know? So it was Q's doing. I wondered how you disappeared so fast. I came after you, when I got over the shock of being called a fish by a complete stranger. No wonder I liked that dress so well! Maman really liked you, even asked about you later that year."

"I liked her too. So much that I would have stayed and talked to her if you hadn't come in."

"I haven't given you your birthday present -- come on." He led her by the hand into the bedroom and opened one of his drawers. The box was wrapped in red paper. "Don't shake it. Just open it."

She tore off the paper eagerly and pulled out a wad of packing material, which she peeled away layer by layer to reveal the swan.

"Is it the one? The real one?" she gasped, apparently stunned by it.

"The very one. What is it, petite?"

"Maman showed it to me in the chateau. She said I was like a swan." After a moment of awed contemplation, she put it in the center of the table and came to embrace him, kissing him on the cheek.

Jean-Luc took a step back and looked at her, happy and beautiful. Strange how meeting her that day had faded to a point that he hadn't remembered it upon seeing her when she came aboard the *Enterprise* the first time -- of course, if he remembered every stranger he ever met with such clarity, he'd have a cluttered mind indeed. And, too, at the time he hadn't known it should be memorable. Now that she'd jogged his memory, the image of her was there, and the conversation.

"Was I suitably impressed, the first time we met?"

"I was more aware of my reaction to you, actually. But you appeared to be interested, if only in passing." The tilt of her head and slight smile told him what that reaction of hers had been. "I think. . . that I've picked names, for our first child. When it finally arrives."

"Do tell."

"Yves. And for a girl, Amy."

"Loved," he translated, a little surprised. "I like that. But why the boy after my mother?"

"Not after her, exactly. She would like it, that's all."

"You're sure about that?"

Deanna's smile said certainty, as she leaned in to kiss him. Then she pulled his arm out and led off in a slow dance. He followed, humoring her, and almost froze in shock when she began to sing in French. "Au clair de la lune, Mon ami Pierrot, Prête-moi ta plume Pour écrire un mot. Ma chandelle est morte, Je n'ai plus de feu. . . ."

Clair de la Lune -- that simple folk song, but how she knew it when he was certain he'd never taught her. . . . He laughed, danced with her, and joined her for the last verse.

"Au clair de la lune,
On n'y voitque peu;
On chercha la plume
On chercha le feu.
Cherchant de la sorte
Ne sais c'qu'on trouva;
Mais je sais qu'la porte
Sur eux se ferma."

"Do you know what that means?" he asked, stopping the dancing by wrapping his arms around her waist. "Where did you learn it?"

"Maman sang a little of it -- I learned the rest on my own. The translation I'm not so sure of. I've been working it out without the computer's help."

"Pierrot is a harlequin -- a sad little clown. The friend asks him for a pen to write a note, and Pierrot doesn't have one so he goes next door to his neighbor, the brown-haired woman. The last verse would be something like 'By the light of the moon, One can not see that much; They look for a pen, They look for the fire. Searching this way Don't know what you'll find; But I know that the door Closed behind them.'"

"This is supposed to be a song you teach children? This explains a lot about the French in general, and you in particular," Deanna said, almost not laughing.

"Oh, well -- Maman heard this song a lot around the house. Pierrot was in love with the lady Yvonne, quite tragically so, and Yvonne is another feminine form of Yves, like Yvette. Papa used to sing Clair de la Lune quite loudly when Maman lingered downstairs too long at night."

"And your mother sang this to me."

"Maman knew everything -- mamans always do. Could you help me with something, oh goddess of the hunt?"

"What, Jean-Fish?"

"I'm fairly certain I lost a pen, somewhere over next to the bed. I'm absolutely certain you could light enough of a fire to help me find it."

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This page contains a single entry by Lori published on December 15, 2006 10:44 AM.

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