What the Tinman Found

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Content Warning: implied suicide attempt, depression and angst.

Who stole your heart
who took it away
Knowing that without it you can't live

Who stole your heart
The smile from your face
The innocence the light from your eyes
Who stole your heart or did you give it away
And if so then when and why

Who took away the part so essential to the whole
Left you a hollow body
Skin and bone
What robber what thief
Who stole your heart and the key

Now all sentiment is gone
Now you have no trust in no one

Who stole your heart
Did you know but forget the method and moment in time
Was it a trickster using mirrors and sleight of hand
A strong elixir or a potion that you drank
Who hurt your heart
Bruised it in a place
That no one and nothing can heal

If you can tear down the walls
Throw your armor away remove all roadblocks barricades
If you can forget there are bandits and dragons to slay
And don't forget that you defend an empty space
And remember the tinman
Found he had what he thought he lacked
Remember the tinman
Go find your heart and take it back

Who stole your heart
Maybe no one can say
One day you will find it I pray

~~Tracy Chapman ~~

^&^&^&^&^

"Counselor Troi, it's a pleasure to meet you," Sam Kohlman exclaimed. His affable grin told her what kind of counselor he was -- the sort who could win anyone over just on the basis of charm. On the small screen, he laughed at himself a little. "Well, sort of meet you."

"Subspace is close enough for the government, as they say. What can I do for you, Counselor?"

"Sam, please. I don't stand much for formality." His open, rounded face lost its happy lines. The look in the dark brown eyes was enough to tell Deanna he had a problem, and thought she could help him solve it. "Admiral March suggested that I call you, especially since Enterprise is going to be in the vicinity. Admiral Gaines seconded the suggestion. I hate to bring this to you at this point, but -- I'm in over my head."

She could see the shame the admission brought him. His professional pride notwithstanding, he was crawling to her for help. Deanna surreptitiously toggled the door lock to prevent unexpected visitors. She sometimes had friends walk into her office unannounced, if she didn't.

"It's your captain, isn't it?"

Confirmation, and a little surprise, brought his eyes up from his desk. "I wish I could figure her out. It doesn't make sense that she keeps stonewalling me the way she's doing. Would you listen to the transcripts of the last few sessions and tell me what's gone wrong? I've been a psychologist for fifteen years, and this one's got me stumped."

"How long have you been in Starfleet?"

"Barely two years." One of the older Starfleet enlistees, the number of which had been on the upswing lately, especially in the medical and psychological departments.

"The psychology of a starship captain isn't the same as your average civilian patient -- but you know that, obviously. And yours is one of the ones I'd say would be most likely to cause you difficulty." Deanna smiled reassuringly. She glanced down at the clock she kept displayed on her desk. "Go ahead and transmit the logs. I'll be happy to help, if I can."

"Has Captain Picard given you much trouble?"

"It gets easier when you've worked with someone for a number of years, and there's some trust between you. The captain has tried my patience at times, but usually all it takes is a little perseverance. Of course, I'm no longer his personal counselor -- not that he's needed any sessions lately. He's actually been remarkably low-maintenance, considering all he's been through."

"I've heard stories," Sam said. "You sure landed a plum position on the Enterprise. Out of professional curiosity -- how is it working out, um, with your. . . ."

Deanna smiled. "It works. It probably helps that we've worked together for over a decade, and that I can usually predict what sort of impact certain behaviors on our parts might have on the crew. It wouldn't be something I would recommend to the less experienced captain. It requires a great deal of discipline and a strong command personality. . . ." The odd look on Sam's face made her pause. "Sam?"

"Um. Well -- it was part of the reason you were recommended, I think. My problem started after our second officer's death in the line of duty."

Deanna took that in slowly. "I see. And she blames herself for his death? Or is she simply in denial? Or so grief-stricken she's overcompensating?"

"I think she falls under 'all of the above.' It's hard for me to tell when she won't talk to me. She swears, or orders me out -- usually both. Makes me wish I was Betazoid."

"How long have you known her?"

"A year, but she never has much to do with me. She listens politely and treats me like just another part of the ship's equipment."

"She's been captain of the *Potemkin* for two years, correct?"

"And proud of having a 'big gun' for her second command. You should hear her in full strut when the brass come aboard for a tour."

Deanna mused for a moment over the thumbnail sketch of the patient. "Has she a close personal relationship with anyone else on board the ship? The first officer, for example?"

"Nope. She's already had one transfer out from under her -- accepted a post on a starbase to get away from her. The new one, deBora, works well with her but he's L'norim and as friendly as a bulkhead. Even he's gotten worried, though. He was the one who brought her relationship with Tony to my attention -- you wouldn't have known what was going on with them unless you were part of the bridge crew, I'd guess. And I don't get to sit on the bridge often on a dreadnought."

"Okay, let me sum this up -- you've got a patient who's stubborn, proud, addicted to the power of her position and the control she exerts, distances herself from her fellow officers, is tough to work with which probably means extreme perfectionism, refuses to speak to her ship's counselor, and the only person she allowed to get close to her died under her command. Isolated, by her choice, and determined to stay that way. You realize you're too affable for her to respond well to you?"

"Hindsight, unfortunately. When I came aboard it never occurred to me that I'd need to establish a command persona with my CO. Too late now -- she laughs in my face if I try to get tough. She doesn't care that I can declare her unfit, and that may be because she knows I can't, yet. She's not reached that point and she's arrogant enough to think she can keep it that way. But if something isn't done soon, she's going to crash and burn. My notes sound like textbooks. What the textbooks don't do is tell me how to chip away the hull plating and get inside where I can help, when the patient can dismiss me. And Admiral March wants me to try getting outside help before giving up and playing that final hand. She's a good captain, when she's not being such a hardass."

"And the more you try, the more annoyed she'll be, because you have no foundation of trust to use as leverage."

He looked depressed, head bowed, long lashes falling against his rounded cheeks. "I don't know if you'll be able to help, either. I hate to say it, but you just don't strike me as being tough enough."

"What did you say, Commander?" Deanna snapped.

He looked up, wide-eyed. For a shocked moment he went pale and stared, then noticed her smile and grinned himself. "Hey, how'd you do that? That was perfect!"

"I've been sitting on the bridge with Captain Picard and the Riker formerly known as Commander for most of my career. Osmosis." She sat back and reached for her tea. "Send me all your logs on your sessions with her, and I'll give you a call when the Enterprise reaches Rigel. And Sam -- don't be surprised if what I suggest sounds odd. It may take some creativity to solve this problem. I've only met Captain Shelby once, and that was a long time ago, before she was promoted."

^&^&^&^&^

"So where is she, Jean-Luc?" Shelby, the youngest of the group, had to be the one to lead out with the inevitable question. The others had hinted at it, but she had never been one to hedge. She wasn't as smug as the rest of the group, however, which was something.

Jean-Luc glanced around at the three captains and single admiral. Impromptu gatherings like this weren't terribly unusual when there were multiple ships in the area and all was quiet. He counted his blessings that Riker wasn't around; the *Lexington* had gone on an extended tour in a different sector. Riker never passed up a chance to yank his former CO's chain good and hard. Informal get-togethers of Starfleet captains tended to be that loose, the group dynamic changing significantly when all present had no reason to keep up the usual official front.

He didn't often attend these things, and even when he did, he usually refrained from the boisterous behavior to which the younger men were prone -- and they seemed to be getting younger and younger all the time. In a way, he regretted mentioning Glendenning's invitation when Deanna had called him into her office and picked his brain for ways to gain Shelby's trust. One thing always led to another, with Dee.

He raised an eyebrow at Shelby and finally responded to the question, now that he'd allowed a dramatic pause. "She?"

"You can't be serious." Glendenning slumped back in his chair and snorted. "Any one of us who took a fellow officer to bed on a regular basis, we'd get nothing but grief about it. Not only do you waltz up to H'nayison and announce you're tipping your counselor and not get torched, you get special dispensation to keep doing it. You owe us a look at the woman."

"Like hell I do," Jean-Luc growled, and reached lazily for his drink. The side room in the dive Bellamy had chosen didn't have much in the way of ambiance. Dimly lit, shabby green tablecloth, a lurid vaguely-pornographic depiction of Klingon women battling -- or possibly mating with, it was difficult to tell -- Klingon men on the wall. It was one of those tasteless places one wouldn't expect to find a bunch of high-ranking officers. Probably why Bellamy chose it. The crews of five ships were wandering about the streets outside on leave, frequenting the cleaner, well-lit establishments. Getting away from them for a while was the idea.

Bellamy grinned, not incidentally reminding Jean-Luc of Walker Keel in his younger days. Bellamy was Keel's much-younger cousin, and just as headstrong and dramatic as his relative. His black hair fell in his face constantly; he'd made it his trademark to have a lock of it falling down his forehead just over his left eye.

"Jean-Luc likes to keep his women to himself," he said, winking.

"I heard she's Betazoid," Glendenning said. The man's blond hair was shot through with grey, and he'd let his beard grow in, shaping it into a goatee. Jean-Luc didn't know him well, but had the impression he was a vain man so far as his appearance went.

"Her service record is readily available," Jean-Luc said. "If you're that interested."

Admiral Gaines smiled into his drink, a mai tai, of all things. Ordering mixed drinks on alien worlds was a brave undertaking. Shelby glanced at Gaines and jogged his elbow. "Admiral?"

"I've met Miss Troi. She's a lovely woman."

"Troi?" Shelby's head jerked back in recognition. "You mean the same Troi who was aboard when I -- "

"Yes, the same," Jean-Luc interjected, sipping his whiskey. He had been nursing the drink for the past hour while the war stories flew around him. The way things were headed, he'd need to up his intake to pull this infernal scheme off the way it was supposed to go. Upending the bottle that stood at his right elbow, he made a point of shaking out the last few drops -- Shelby had come in later than the others, and wouldn't know it had been mostly empty to begin with.

"Oh. My. She's quite a bit. . . younger, isn't she?"

"Quite."

Bellamy's rolling laughter set off Glendenning. The two exchanged conspiratorial glances, and both looked across the table at Jean-Luc. Gaines shook his head.

"You're all missing the obvious."

"I'm not sure what you mean, missing the obvious." Glendenning rubbed his head, ruffling his inch-long buzz cut. "It's pretty impressive if you ask me. Oldest captain in the fleet and he can still -- "

"This could turn into a roast, if you're not careful." Gaines studied the other four faces around the table soberly. "Show the man a little respect."

"Hell, I respect him -- anyone who can have his ship and get laid regular by an officer has all the respect I'm capable of," Glendenning exclaimed.

"Just because Jean-Luc's the only one who has the balls to admit it doesn't mean he's the only one doing it."

Gaines' words were like a wet blanket over the mirth. Glendenning's craggy features fell into a carefully-bland expression, and Shelby stared at the table intently. Bellamy's high spirits flagged only for a few moments, however.

"He's a braver man than I," he announced, raising his shot glass. "Can't say that I'd have it in me to send a good fu -- a good woman into the middle of a firefight. Heard about that Maquis thing. Tough call, Jean-Luc." Everyone had to remind him of it, of course -- the one thing he'd love to forget the most, and it fell into conversations at every turn.

"That 'Maquis thing' wasn't a firefight, thanks to her quick thinking. Just two people wounded. She took considerably longer to heal than my first officer." Jean-Luc put his glass on the table and turned it between his thumb and finger slowly, staring at Bellamy. "And if you refer to her that way again, you can expect to pay for it."

The quiet threat quashed all conversation for a good five minutes, as Jean-Luc locked gazes with his fellow captain over the length of the oval table. Bellamy tossed off a nervous grin at last. "Sorry, Jean-Luc."

Jean-Luc leaned forward, elbows on the table, and finished his whiskey with a single swallow. It rolled down his throat and delivered a kick to his sinuses on its way.

"I remember her," Shelby said, as if the exchange between the men hadn't happened. "I remember those big dark eyes. She didn't say much -- just sort of hovered around, giving occasional emotional weather reports. She's an empath, right?"

"Yes, she is." Jean-Luc appraised the woman briefly. Everyone else in the room had worn civvies, but she'd stayed in uniform, and unlike many women she looked good in it. The form-fitting utilitarian lines of standard uniforms weren't so flattering to more generously-proportioned female officers.

Shelby smiled -- not her nice smile, though. The one that usually announced a blistering remark. "She didn't strike me as being your type."

"Really? And just what is my 'type?'"

He regretted asking almost as it left his mouth. Shelby inclined her head and sat back. She'd cut her hair short, styling it into a cap of curls. "Well, to be completely honest, I thought I might be."

"You really should stop drinking so much, Captain," Jean-Luc said, letting amusement shine through.

"No, really," Shelby exclaimed over the guffaws of Glendenning and Bellamy, and for a moment, Gaines. "I mean someone with -- well, you know."

"Balls?" Jean-Luc asked, raising an eyebrow. That set Bellamy howling and slapping his leg.

Shelby reddened. "Backbone. A voice."

Jean-Luc raised his head slightly. "You think a ship's counselor has no voice? Do you listen to yours?"

"Sure I do. He usually doesn't have much to do on the bridge, though."

"He's not a ranking officer?"

"No. Troi is?"

Jean-Luc chewed his lip briefly. "She took the test. She's a commander, with commendations. Made a fair showing at the last war games when she took command, took out the *Lexington* -- just ask Riker about it sometime." And let me know what kind of look crosses his face when you do, he wanted to add.

"Hey, this sounds like a good story," Glendenning exclaimed. "And this is your ship's counselor?"

"When she's not beating up the cadets in mok'bara class." Bragging about Deanna wasn't hard to do, in certain company, but this was pushing it. But part of the goal was convincing present company that Deanna was a strong person -- she couldn't have much impact unless Shelby had some respect for her, on some level, and it was hard to predict what might impress Brassy Betty, as he'd heard other captains call her.

"Or making the captain a happy boy?" Bellamy said gleefully.

"How is the crew handling it?" Gaines said. "You've got a lot of folks at Command watching those reports like hawks, looking for morale problems or lackluster performance. I'm not in the official pipeline to see what's going on -- I'd like to hear what's happening." The admiral's role was more scripted than his, but Gaines was making a good show of it. Deanna's supposition that Elisabeth might fear reprisal if word got out that she'd been fraternizing with her second officer prompted this line of questioning. A backhanded way of reassuring Shelby, but since she wasn't admitting it even to people who had known about it, this was the only way Deanna could predict might have an effect.

"Other than the usual tasteless jokes, it's not an issue. Especially after six months of the same boring public behavior on our parts."

"Has anyone ever told you you're too serious, Jean-Luc?" Glendenning said. "You weren't this solemn last time I saw you. Is this what being laid regularly does to you?"

Jean-Luc snorted disdainfully and crossed his arms, slumping back in the chair, which leaned a little. It was just as run-down as the rest of the dive. "You really want to know what it's like? You really want to see her?"

He had them, except Gaines, who had met Deanna earlier. The three captains leaned forward and looked at him with such curious obliviousness to each other that Jean-Luc almost smiled and gave away the game. He picked up the empty shot glass in front of him and looked into it for a few moments, focusing, conjuring a feeling.

The step of a high-heeled shoe at the door brought the others straight up in their chairs. She stood in silhouette for a moment, the light from the bar proper at her back, showing off her sinuous curves -- she was vamping, putting a hand on a hip and posing. She paused for a few moments, then stepped into the room.

Jean-Luc glanced up nonchalantly and held up his glass. She took it, smiled, and sauntered from the room.

"God," Bellamy whispered.

"She doesn't like to be deified, actually," Jean-Luc said.

"Has she been out there all this time?" Glendenning said. "Why didn't you just bring her in?"

"I'm a selfish man, Tom. And she's her own person -- if she wanted to be here, she would be." Not to mention she'd been paying close empathic attention to Shelby's unaffected emotions, and that wouldn't be possible if Shelby were aware of her presence. Now that Shelby knew Deanna was there, her reaction to that knowledge would be measured as well.

"I'm sure she couldn't resist if she only knew what high esteem in which these gentlemen hold her," Shelby commented acerbically. "Judging from the lengths of their tongues, she'd have a fine time."

Jean-Luc kept his poker face intact. Deanna returned with a full shot glass and placed it on the table in front of him. She stood over him a moment; she'd let her hair down and pulled all of it forward over her left shoulder, spilling curls down the skin-tight flame-colored dress she wore.

"They'd like to know if you would join us," he said, inclining his head toward Bellamy and Glendenning.

"I thought this was a captains-only gathering," she replied. Her red lips tipped into a lazy smile. "I'd be afraid of sitting on a pip."

"Oh, hurt my ego, why don't you?" he said evenly.

"*You* have nothing to be insecure about." She glanced at the other men with the casual interest she might give scientific specimens. "Good evening, Admiral Gaines. Nice to see you again."

"The pleasure is all mine, Commander," Gaines said.

"Captain Shelby -- it's been a long time." Deanna tilted her head, regarding the other woman with more interest than the men. "Belated congratulations on your promotion."

"Thank you, Counselor. I should offer the same to you -- I don't believe you were a commander the last time we met."

"I took the bridge test a few years later. Are you going to be here long? I haven't toured a dreadnought before."

"You and the captain are welcome to come aboard, of course," Shelby said without real enthusiasm. "I'd be happy to show you the nickel tour. As long as the favor's returned -- I was at the commissioning ceremony, but I didn't get the whole tour."

Deanna looked to Jean-Luc. He sipped a little whiskey, and looked at her as if he weren't bothered at all by her apparel or her hip-hitched pose. "Sit down, already."

"I haven't decided if I want to or not -- you know I don't like the smell of alcohol." She turned and walked a few steps, studying Bellamy, who moved into the empty chair between himself and Glendenning and shoved his vacated seat out from the table.

"Nice of you to show up and show off," Shelby said.

Deanna stared at the other woman briefly, then shifted her gaze to Jean-Luc. "I think I'll just wait for you in the bar, if you don't mind. Whenever you're ready."

"Commander," Glendenning said. "It was an incorrect assumption, I'm sure. Please join us."

"Thank you, Captain, but I'm just as comfortable with the leers I was getting at the bar. I'll be at the dom-jot table with Malia, Jean. Don't take all night, she's beating me at every turn. You may have to pay for dinner."

She left with her usual confident yet appealing swinging stride, and Bellamy and Glendenning glared at Shelby. Jean-Luc studied his drink.

"I'm sorry, Captain Picard."

"Nice of you to suddenly find manners," he said, darting a sidelong glance at Shelby. "And you are definitely not my type."

She bit her lower lip. "I deserved that. I'm sorry."

"How long has she served with you?" Glendenning asked.

"Almost fourteen years. I gave her a lot of hell, as a patient." A corner of his mouth turned up slightly. "I suppose she has a right to give some of it back to me. I can't complain."

Gaines glanced at Shelby. "So you knew her well enough to know you could take the chance, Jean-Luc?"

"You could say that."

Bellamy seemed to have lost his good humor. Glendenning watched the younger man. "Thinking of anyone in particular, Craig?"

Bellamy's grey eyes looked startled. "Actually. . . ."

"You see what you've done, Jean-Luc? Setting precedents isn't for the faint of heart." Gaines chuckled. "You could still see it crash down around you, you know."

"I doubt it."

"What makes you so damn sure?" Shelby exclaimed. "What is it that makes you think you can disregard regulations that're there for a damn good reason?"

Jean-Luc studied the flustered woman. "I'm not disregarding anything. I haven't broken any of the regs."

"You've got to have the most unusual relationship to pull this off," Shelby exclaimed.

"Two relationships, actually. One of which was quite well established before the other began."

"But where do the boundaries fall?" Glendenning finished his drink and looked into the glass, brow furrowed.

Jean-Luc snorted. "That only works for me, Tom. You can't get refills that way."

Bellamy gave a lopsided grin. "Let me guess -- you draw the boundary with the uniform. Officers when it's on, and -- "

"It's not that simple. And why are we discussing this? What happened to the war stories?"

"This is much more interesting, as I'm sure you know," Gaines said. "The boundary question is one that's bugging the folks at Command, too."

"Deanna could explain it better than I."

"She's explained it to Command. It's not something easily defined, I gather. I've heard Nechayev mulling it over with some of the others."

Jean-Luc drummed his fingers on the table. Sitting up straighter, he called, "Commander!"

Deanna reappeared in the door a moment later. "Sir?"

"The boundary question," he said, nodding at Gaines.

Though she still looked like a seductress, her posture said officer -- she stepped into the room, hands behind her back, and stood at attention. "The boundaries between personal and professional relationships are best maintained by observing certain predetermined behavior patterns when in public. The process is simplified with the restriction of more intimate behavior to private areas of the ship -- quarters, holodecks and other recreational areas only. Behaving professionally on and off duty in the majority of public places within the ship regardless of mode of dress or company kept is necessary."

Gaines listened patiently, but with questions brimming in his eyes. "But what if you were alone in, say, the ready room, or the briefing room?"

"Professional behavior is mandatory in such places, regardless. The attitude of both parties would change if such license were taken; emotional memory is often linked to external stimuli, including location. And maintaining the proper demeanor is crucial to the success of -- "

"Oh, please, you're trying to tell me you've never -- " Shelby cut herself off at the glare from Jean-Luc.

"Never," Deanna said. "And Captain, jealousy isn't very becoming."

Shelby gaped. "I am not jealous!"

"Commander," Jean-Luc said, vaguely disapproving.

"Sorry, Captain. But it's giving me a headache."

"You're dismissed, then. Thank you."

Deanna relaxed into her off-duty saunter and left the room. Jean-Luc watched her out of the corner of his eye, then glanced at Shelby. "You're still not my type."

"Oh, don't flatter yourself. She was only saying that."

"If she weren't being an officer, I might believe you." His eyes swept from Shelby to Gaines, then on to Glendenning, as if it were the most natural progression he could make. "I believe in equality -- what's this I hear about you and some biologist, Tom?"

Bellamy, surprised, turned to his neighbor. "Biologist? That wouldn't be the pretty little dark-haired -- "

"Sarah's an old friend," Glendenning said. "It's nothing serious, and certainly nothing permanent."

Jean-Luc looked down into his drink with a slight smile. "Too bad for you."

"Sounds like Miss Troi really has you by the nards, Jean-Luc." Shelby still sounded bitter.

"Not really. She'd leave if she thought her presence were damaging my career. I'd probably have a few choice words on the matter, but it is what it is. In that arena, I really have no control over her."

"Which is why you put yourself in the spotlight to avoid all rumor and accusation of regulation violation -- to avoid the choice between career and personal goals, for both of you," Gaines said. Unscripted, but he was making the best of the situation. "I can see why you'd want to keep her -- and I'm not just saying that from seeing her here, I'm thinking also of the tour of the *Enterprise* earlier. I can see how differently you treat each other in different situations. It's fascinating to observe. Are you sick of being questioned about it yet?"

"Actually, it's given me quite a break from being questioned about the Borg. But yes, I'm sick of the prying and the jokes -- the stupid nicknames, the ludicrous accusations. The only liberty I've taken as captain is the threat of making someone walk the plank if I hear one more person call her Mrs. Captain."

Bellamy laughed, and Glendenning smirked. The latter cocked his head and studied Jean-Luc. "I don't know how you manage it. This isn't like you, Picard. You weren't the kind of man who would risk so much over a woman. What changed? What happens to a captain whose only focus his entire life has been career and exploration, that makes him suddenly lay the whole thing on the line for a woman?"

Jean-Luc studied their faces, and opted for something lower on the List of Reasons Why than the obvious, and sentimental, top candidate. "It's a challenge," he said at last. "I suppose she could explain the whole thing in psychologist's terms, but -- it put a new spin on an old game."

"Not to mention the sex is pretty good, eh?" Glendenning said slyly.

Jean-Luc sniffed, sat back with his arms crossed, and looked at the man through lidded eyes. "She's an empath. What do you think?"

"I don't believe this," Shelby exclaimed. "Of all the officers I've met, you're the last one I'd expect to hear bragging in a bar about sexual conquests."

"Maybe I didn't have a reason to brag before."

Shelby stared while the men laughed, and Jean-Luc met her gaze, trying to swagger without overdoing it.

"Are you aware of how dangerous what you're doing can be?" Shelby asked when the laughing died down.

"I appreciate the concern, Elisabeth, but it's not something I've embarked upon entirely on a whim. I have two careers to think about, and no intention of damaging either of them."

Her stare deepened to a glare, and she chewed the inside of her cheek. Something in her expression set off warning bells in Jean-Luc's head. This was the wrong reaction, the one they didn't want.

{Deanna. . . deep water, here.}

He loved the sound of her shoes tapping lightly on the tile floor, the way everyone's attention turned to her as she stepped into the room. This was her game, after all, and he needed a break from playing it. "Jean-Fish, are you trying to tell me I should lose weight?" She sounded calm as always, not at all perturbed as the words might imply.

"Lose. . . Dee, I'm sorry, I -- "

"Was so flattered by the captain's attention that you forgot the time, and left me starving and going broke?" The amused affection underlying the jab balanced it out nicely. Damn, she was good at this.

"I think I may have had one too many of these." He tapped his shot glass.

She crossed the distance between the door and his chair slowly, twirling a cherry by the stem. "I think I know how to get your attention," she said, dropping her voice half an octave. Suddenly, he didn't want to know what kind of distraction she was about to give Shelby. The look she gave him was more excruciating than the banter about the pip.

Bellamy and Glendenning slumped back in their seats, Bellamy's mouth even dropping open a little. Gaines only watched, his mouth behind his joined hands as he rested his chin on his thumbs. Jean-Luc didn't turn to see Shelby's reaction; Deanna had his full attention, no acting necessary. He wasn't certain what he would do if he looked at the others' faces. Emergency beamout or sudden frantic searching for the restroom came to mind.

She made a show of balancing the cherry on the end of her tongue, then curling the latter until the fruit vanished between her perfect teeth. Lips pursed, she moved her tongue around, making occasional bumps in her cheeks, then she opened her mouth. On the end of her extended tongue she balanced the cherry, a knot tied in the stem as expected -- except she'd tied the knot around the tip of her tongue somehow.

She leaned in, hands on the arm of his chair, holding it out to him. Needing to breathe and managing to do it quietly, he remembered the game and moved as if to bite the cherry. She flipped it back in her mouth.

"You want my cherry, you'll have to come get it from me," she murmured. In a whirl of dark curls, she spun and left the room.

As a diversion, it worked almost too well. Bellamy was the first to shake himself out of a stupor. "Hell in a tight dress," he exclaimed. "Jean-Luc, you mean to tell me you sit next to that on the bridge?"

"Not while she's wearing that, and not while she's tying knots with her tongue."

"You'd better go after her, don't you think?" Glendenning said.

"In a minute. She's not really in that much of a hurry." Jean-Luc quickly thought about cold showers, and took a sip of whiskey to add to the distraction.

"Hey, if you don't, I will," Bellamy exclaimed.

"I wouldn't, if I were you. She'll wipe up the floor with you."

"You make her sound pretty tough." Shelby sounded unusually disturbed, speaking in a low, dangerous voice. Perhaps the diversion hadn't been as diversionary as hoped. Jean-Luc noted the half-lidded catlike stare and the set of Shelby's mouth.

"She is. That she doesn't appear to be makes it all the more effective."

"It isn't like you to show off, Picard. Not like you at all."

"If I wanted to show her off, I wouldn't be here right now. There are much better places to go for that. I didn't start this entire line of conversation, remember."

"But you didn't stop it, either."

"Elisabeth, if you have something to say, just say it. I don't care whether you approve or not, and I don't care whether anyone else does, either. I do my job, and then some. So does she. That should be all anyone has to be concerned about."

"You cocky bastard," she exclaimed. "You actually think you'll keep getting away with it."

"No one is getting away with anything." Jean-Luc shoved his chair from the table. "We don't have to try."

"It's not fair," Shelby exclaimed. Her voice cracked slightly.

Jean-Luc met Gaines' eyes across the table. Both of them looked at Shelby. Her eyes darted back and forth, widening slightly. She sprang up, looked around like a caged wild animal, and bolted.

Deanna caught her at the door. She actually threw a wild punch at the counselor; Deanna blocked it easily, catching Shelby's wrist using a mok'bara trapping technique.

"Let me go!"

Shelby's shrill cry sounded completely unlike the polished officer Jean-Luc knew. He stepped up behind her and caught her arms, and Deanna closed the door behind her.

"It's all right to grieve, Elisabeth," Deanna said.

"You set me up! Damn you, all of you," Shelby wailed. "It's not -- fair!"

"Let her go, Jean," Deanna said. {Thank you. A foot in the door. Tell them they did well. You did very well.}

When he released her, Shelby stopped fighting and glared at the counselor, chest heaving. Deanna held out a hand even as Jean-Luc reached in a pocket and produced her communicator. She held Shelby's gaze, her eyes issuing stern warnings as she contacted the *Enterprise,* and the two of them vanished in the sparkle of a transporter beam.

Jean-Luc returned to his chair and picked up what was left of his drink. He noted both Bellamy and Glendenning had also dropped into somber moods. Gaines seemed to be trying to read his fortune in what was left of his mai-tai.

"She'll be all right?" Bellamy asked.

"Deanna said you did well, and to thank you for your participation, and your silence. This wasn't pleasant business."

"Thank you for doing this, Jean-Luc," Gaines said. "I know you didn't care for the idea."

"All that just to get her to acknowledge it," Glendenning muttered. "Damn -- she's got herself in some serious denial. You really think she'll pull out of it, Jean-Luc?"

Jean-Luc sighed wearily and put the glass aside. "If anyone can get her back from the pit of depression, it's Dee. Don't let appearances fool you. She's tenacious, and she can find her way around your armor before you realize it."

"It still seems harsh to me that we had to put her through all that."

"Deanna tried to talk to her earlier today. She wouldn't do it. Wouldn't come to Dee, wouldn't be bothered by a meeting on the *Potemkin.* Dee said she sensed Shelby knew why she was trying to meet with her and had nothing but disdain for the idea. Elisabeth had her chance. Dee calls it guerilla counseling -- she's good at knowing what kinds of boots to wear to kick you when you're running from the counselor's couch."

"So how much of what you told us about Deanna is true, and how much of it was just for show?" Bellamy asked, seriousness giving way to a little amusement.

"I was the straight man in all this. She asked me to brag, not lie."

Now Gaines showed some surprise. "Even the part about Riker?"

"Never play war games against a psychologist who's made a career of analyzing bridge officers," Jean-Luc said, indulging in a canny smile. "Especially a psychologist who's watched you from across the bridge for a decade."

Bellamy and Glendenning both looked at Gaines. "So can we roast him now?" Bellamy asked.

Once again, Jean-Luc found himself considering emergency beamout as an option.

^&^&^&^&^

Deanna caught herself rubbing the back of her neck as she headed for deck eight, and dropped her hand at once. She smiled in passing at a few junior officers, startled by their stares, then remembered she still wore the red dress. The realization quickened her pace.

She stepped into the captain's quarters and removed the heels the instant the doors closed, wobbling a little at first until her foot muscles compensated, then made her way through the dark rooms to the bathroom. Still in darkness, she fought to reach the fastener between her shoulder blades.

The light went on. Jean-Luc appeared in the door, looking tired; he'd awakened in spite of her better efforts. Funny how he could look rumpled with hardly any hair and wearing nothing but boxers. He undid the dress for her and stood back while she peeled it off, followed by the underthings that had been pressed into her flesh for too many hours.

She turned, and they stood looking at each other with the frank comfort of long-term lovers. He gestured at her shoulders, and when she backed closer he applied his strong hands to undoing the knots in her muscles. Closing her eyes, she relaxed into the movements of his thumbs into the crevices and joints of her shoulders and up the back of her neck. Something had him in a pensive mood, which in itself wouldn't be so unusual, but this mood was laced with a darkness she couldn't understand.

"How is she?"

"No guarantee. She held it in a long time, and she's still holding out on me. A lot of guilt and pain. She was determined not to let it affect her performance, though that's automatically a guarantee that it will." She sighed and leaned back, rolling her shoulders. "I wish I'd been able to just sit down with her and talk, but I don't have the advantage I had with you -- I don't have a working relationship with her. And she definitely doesn't have any respect for me, or any other counselor, I'm gathering. She's one of those who believes counseling is for weaklings. Poor Sam, this is his first ship's captain, and it had to be her. And she recovered too quickly from the bar -- I made less headway than I should have. I don't think she's even letting herself be angry that we set her up that way. I was hoping it would make her angry, and that would give way to the rest of the pain she feels."

He stopped massaging and laid his hands over the points of her shoulder blades briefly, then stepped closer and slid his arms around her. "You're all right?"

Deanna opened her eyes and caught a glimpse of them in the mirror, in profile. The red lines where clothing had pressed into her white skin were still visible over the curve of her hip. Jean-Luc had buried his face in her hair. The muscles in his arms corded as he tightened them around her.

"I'll be fine. I spent some time meditating in my office after I sent her back to her ship. I'm sorry I slipped up at the bar -- I couldn't catch myself in time. I spent so much time considering the actions that might trigger Shelby's reactions that I forgot to school myself not to use a nickname."

To her surprise, he chuckled. "Captain Jean-Fish Picard, reporting for duty. They won't tell. I threatened them -- told them I'd send you looking for them. After I told them you could use a bat'leth."

"Is your ego still intact?"

"Bruised, but not badly. And I didn't like setting her up that way. I'd have hated it, if anyone had done that to me. Lucky I have a good counselor around to prevent that necessity."

She moved slightly, and as always, he let go, never restraining her against her will. "I'll come to bed in a minute, Jean."

When she came to him in the darkness, she hesitated over the bed, looking down at him. The ship's orbit placed it on the night side of Rigel, blocking out the sun, and the moonless sky offered little illumination. What little there was highlighted his profile, the line of his forehead and nose. Her eyes adjusted still more, and she could make out the rest of him dimly -- he lay with one arm crooked over his head, the other on his chest.

"There are more beautiful sights in the universe than this poor old carcass, Deebird."

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." She smiled and crawled under the covers he held up, settling along his body with her face against his chest. He resumed the shoulder rub, mounding her muscles into his hands like clay and working his way down her arms. "Why do you like having me on top of you so much?"

"It helps me sleep. I used to have trouble with insomnia, remember."

"Having a not-so-petite woman on your chest cures insomnia? I need to write a paper on this, the medical community must know."

"I can picture it now, officers walking into sickbay complaining of insomnia, and picking their cure from a lineup of dark-haired beauties -- the whole fleet would be exhausted, whether they had insomnia or not."

"Does it have to be a specific kind of woman, or will any Betazoid in an old captain's shirt do?"

"Now, hold on -- are you saying the shirt is old, or the captain?"

She laughed, no less genuine for the fact that he'd intended it. "You have shirts older than your last two ships combined. I should start another paper on the male instinct to preserve tattered scraps of cloth and refer to them as clothing."

"Or about the woman's instinct to wear them?"

"They're comfortable."

His laughter felt good against her chest. "Now you know why we keep them. Guess that isn't much of a paper, is it?"

"Mmmm. Are you sure you aren't just a masseuse pretending to be a starship captain?"

"I should have known I'd be found out sooner or later. You were too good, you know," he rumbled. "You handled the whole bar thing with finesse. It could have turned into a complete disaster."

"It had a few tense moments. She's strong enough to fight back against the embarrassment -- I wanted her to do that. Challenging and retreating is sometimes the only thing that works, with dreadnought-sized egos. It let me make some headway, so it wasn't for nothing."

"It wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, except for that excruciating hour after you left with Shelby and I had to listen to what they wouldn't say in front of a woman."

"What did they say?"

He sighed and pushed his palms down her back until his fingers found the base of her spine and prodded along either side of the vertebrae. In the months after Galisi, he'd fallen into the habit of massaging her back; though she no longer needed physical therapy or his supplemental attentions, the effort was no less appreciated.

"Jean-Fish, come on -- I've heard some pretty rude things before. I can't believe starship captains would be that bad."

"They roasted me. After Gaines left, Glendenning stepped up his intake and got Bellamy going with a few remarks about the cherry. Bellamy would be after you in a second, if he thought he could get around me."

"And that makes you incredibly smug."

"Leave my poor ego alone, Deebird. You already hold it in the palm of your hand. Along with a few of those more solid attributes you like so much."

Even with her eyes closed, she knew he was smiling, his pleasure becoming more evident all the time in a couple different ways. Her hand closing on his erection sent his hands sliding over her buttocks.

{Thought you were tired, old man. And I thought you'd have a bad case of whiskey weenie, after all that drinking you did.}

His hands closed on her upper thighs and froze there. "What did you just say? Whiskey *what?*"

"Weenie. You know, drinking does tend to -- "

"That was synthehol. I just let them think it wasn't so I could babble the way you wanted me to, without making them think I was an imposter. Where the hell did you come up with that term?" He pulled her up a few inches. "Don't tell me -- Beverly."

"She does have a way with coining -- "

"You're not paying enough attention to me, cygne."

"What if I'd rather talk?" Her hands proved the lie, closing over his shoulders as she pushed herself up and let him grab a breast in his teeth through the thin shirt. The shuddering breath she took encouraged him further.

He rarely took control in the bedroom, as if consciously balancing their lives that way -- he ordered her around during the day, then let her have her way in the privacy of their personal life. For some reason, probably because other men had been leering at her and instinctive possessiveness came to the fore, he asserted himself, flipping her on her back without warning and working the shirt out of his way. He kissed her, surprising her with his ferocity. She sensed his desire, but also the darkness from before -- though not predominate it was still there. His weight actually felt oppressive. But now she questioned whether it was really him. Perhaps she had brought some of the mood home with her. Elisabeth's depression had been pervasive and by the time Deanna had called a halt she had felt its influence on her.

He noticed her inattention and stopped, raising himself on one arm."Dee?"

"You startled me." She smiled, then realized he probably couldn't see it. "Probably because half the time we've been together, I've been walking wounded and you're too much of a gentleman to rough up a damsel in distress."

"You *are* all right, aren't you?"

"Of course I am. Going to finish what you started, or do I have to pick up where you left off?"

He answered with a thrust of his tongue into her mouth and pulled her underneath him, his hands closing on her flesh tighter than usual. She slipped into that vicarious mode she had used before, mirroring his hunger and pulling at his shorts.

He stopped short of entering her, held himself in check, his chest pressing against hers and a hand on her thigh where he'd been maneuvering her into position. "What is it?"

Unbidden, the whisper of uncertainty blossomed into something much bigger. He knew it as it happened. The verbal fencing, the physical proximity and mutual arousal, were what usually reconnected them and brought them into the flame, and in this state he could read her almost as well as she could read him. The uncertainty had kept her off balance. That had been why he stopped -- he could tell she wasn't completely with him, and it concerned him.

"Cherie, what's wrong? Something is bothering you." Irritation prickled. "You should have said something."

"I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm so sorry, Jean. I don't understand -- "

{Relax, to center. Relax, and listen. Breathe and be.}

Clinging, arms around him, she closed her eyes and fell into the rhythm of his repetition of the litany. He was doing it to calm her racing heart, take the edge out of her voice. It was another of those exercises that weren't supposed to work for humans. She supposed the unusually high level of discipline he exerted over himself played the largest part in that.

He moved most of his weight off her, leaving an arm and a leg draped over her. His frustration had dissipated along with her anxiety, in the course of the centering exercise. "Was this something you brought home with you?"

"I don't know what happened. I couldn't find my way, suddenly. Maybe I didn't meditate long enough -- "

"You're tired, cherie. It's late, and you probably overextended yourself, dealing with Shelby. I should have let you sleep."

She sighed and gave in. No sense in arguing with him; he'd already slipped halfway into slumber, the relaxation exercise having sapped him of any kind of tension, good or bad. His lips resting lightly against her temple, she lay in the embers until she slept and dreamed of --

She came awake suddenly, gasping, panicked, almost falling out of bed. His arms were already around her, her head already clutched to his chest; her limbs were still in motion, but stilled quickly, one leg coming to rest dangled off the side of the bed.

"No," she cried, wrenching free. "No!"

She collided with the wall on her side of the bed and fell in a heap on the floor. Panic, fear -- where was it coming from? Was it hers, from the dream, or --

"Deanna?"

Rockets were going off in her head. This couldn't be her own pain. Gritting her teeth, she curled knees to chest and tried blocking it out. Finally she blinked back tears and looked up at Jean. He was on the verge of coming after her, held back only by the worry that she might try to get away from him again.

The computer announced an incoming message. "Kohlman to Counselor Troi -- "

"You said you were scanning her quarters," Deanna exclaimed, angry at how obvious it was she was in tears. "Constant unobtrusive surveillance, you said -- who fucked up?"

Kohlman paused, put off balance by her hostile snarl. "We took every precaution. You know how determined she is -- she threw herself against the edge of her bed."

"She hit her head. Is she all right?"

Another pause. "She's in sickbay. She's been sedated. It wasn't bad -- "

"I'll be over in the morning. We'll discuss it then. Troi out."

Jean slid to her side of the bed and helped her up next to him. He sat for a few minutes, watching her seethe. "Shelby?"

"I had her stable. I had her -- damn! DAMN!"

The first thing that came to hand, a padd, ricocheted off the wall and hit the floor, skittering between the wall and the bedside table. She rubbed her aching eyes and let a sob escape, then again, then caught her second wind and raised her head.

"I don't know if it's safe to attempt a hug or not."

The wry tone he took was just perfect. She sniffed, unable to muster much amusement. "Just occupational frustration. This is the first really deep depression case I've had in a long time."

Jean turned, managing to surround her without holding her, hand resting on the bed behind her and his face barely brushing her hair over her left shoulder. He rubbed her stomach through the old shirt, fingers drifting up to cup her breast. "Since you had a barely-functioning former drone to wrest from the blackness of his own ravaged soul?"

She hated when he tried to make light of his own pain, though she understood it was one of those human mechanisms for coping. Underneath the light tone he still carried an undercurrent of darkness, just a memory, but enough for her to detect. The same darkness she had sensed earlier. Had he been thinking about the circumstances of the death of Shelby's lover, during a Borg attack, and been reminded of his own experience to such a degree?

"Let's get some sleep, Jean-Fish."

He pulled her to him, spooning against her back -- he knew it would make her feel safe. She relaxed into his arms and smiled at the brush of a kiss against the back of her neck. Before she closed her eyes, she caught a flicker of light -- it wasn't a star she'd seen through the window. The stars were blocked out by a dark blot shaped like a dreadnought -- the *Potemkin.* She'd seen a winking running light along the starboard nacelle. The *Enterprise* was parked in a lower orbit paralleling Shelby's ship.

Dark ship, dark captain, dark night. Dark, deep emotions.

If not for Jean-Luc's strong, constant presence at her back, she knew she would have shivered.

 

^&^&^&^&^

Jean-Luc wandered into engineering. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been there, which probably meant it was time he visited. With most of the crew on leave or performing the sorts of checks and services that normally happened with the ship idling along in safe territory, he'd have a chance to see what went on belowdecks when the senior officers were all elsewhere.

He didn't expect what he found. He never would have, he was certain of that -- not aboard his ship.

The doors opened upon a scene straight out of Academy legend -- an even dozen of the younger crew stood around the main console, playing pool. Cups were being used as pockets, and it looked as though the panels had been turned off.

Jean-Luc stood staring as one of the newest of the new, a tow-headed, gawky young man with nary a pip, knocked a ball into the corner pocket and received applause for the bank shot around the island in the center of the console. One of the girls turned, and leaped into the air with a strangled yelp. The whole group performed similar gyrations, and suddenly he faced two neat rows of ensigns, and two lieutenants, he noted with growing displeasure.

Jean-Luc kept staring at them. It made them uneasy; he could only hope the displeasure he felt blazed from his eyes as fiercely as he felt it. He tapped his comm badge. "Commander LaForge, are you aboard the ship?"

"Yes, sir, I'm in astrometrics at the moment recalibrating -- "

"Could you report to main engineering, please?"

Geordi would know the deceptively-polite tone. "Yes, sir. I'll be right there."

Jean-Luc put his hands behind his back and took two steps forward, and waited. Geordi arrived promptly, took in the scene, and nodded. "I'll handle it, sir, thank you for bringing it to my attention."

Jean-Luc nodded curtly, did an about-face, and left the room. He stood outside the closed door for a moment. Geordi's voice came clearly through the metal, thick as it was. "What the *hell* is this? Whose idea was it? Briggs? Pleasance?"

Sighing, Jean-Luc decided to forgo the remainder of whatever wanderings he might have taken, and returned to the bridge out of force of habit. At least the handful of ensigns and cadets remaining there hadn't broken anything or taken undue liberties, he noted, heading into his ready room without a backward glance.

Officially he wasn't on leave, but with so little going on, he selected a book from the ship's library and began reading. If not for Deanna's preoccupation with Shelby he might have taken the day off and gone dirtside. The thought of going down by himself didn't appeal so much as it once might have.

The annunciator interrupted his speculation on the philosophies of Rana'heth. And, to his surprise, Deanna came in, took her usual seat in front of his desk, crossed her legs, folded her hands in her lap, and smiled.

"Counselor," he exclaimed, not bothering to hide the pleasure she knew he felt. "It's been a long time."

"Not so long as all that. I have something I'd like to discuss, if you have the time."

"Of course. I have nothing but time, at the moment. The only semi-urgent situation at present is a bunch of insubordinate ensigns playing pool in main engineering."

It distracted her, put a cute little frown between her eyebrows and a bemused look in her eyes. "Pool?"

"On the main console. But Geordi's handling it. What can I do for you?"

"It isn't for me, actually." The rapid sobering, the quiet tone --

"No. I did my part, last night."

"Captain, please hear me out." She was completely counselor now, and the sureness of her absorption into the role brought him back to center in his own. "Captain Shelby is refusing to allow herself to feel weakness. Last night, I took her a few steps toward acknowledging her helplessness in the incident in which Lieutenant-Commander Cantrell died. She blames herself for his death, and the deaths of a number of other crew members, in an encounter with the Borg four months ago. She has no respect for Kohlman, and he can't bring himself to take control -- he's too inexperienced, for all his years in private practice before he joined Starfleet. When she was rational he did well enough, but he wasn't prepared for facing an exceptionally strong-willed captain who previously showed no inclination toward this sort of difficulty. She doesn't respect me either, and though I've managed to hold my own, she won't really talk to me. But she does respect you."

"No."

"I'm not asking you to play counselor, Jean-Luc." She was still firmly entrenched in being the counselor, but the one he knew on a first-name basis. The lines between the roles were fine, but present nonetheless. "All I want is to borrow your extra pip for a while, to get a foot in the door. I need someone to make a connection with her. You told me that there's a kind of comradery between captains, that when you're in a group as you were last night that the command presence falls away and generally the captains let a little of their real self out to play. I'd like to get her to open up just a little, like she did last night, but I can't -- she's not budging. She's kicked my foot out, slammed the door tight, and bolted it shut behind her. If she were just another patient, I'd find a way to lean on her without your help. With a captain whose identity is so firmly rooted in her rank and who has isolated herself so thoroughly, I have nowhere to begin. I could wait her out, if our ships weren't supposed to go in two different directions soon. But it would take too long. And Sam's been trying for four months already."

"She tried to kill herself -- maybe I'm not a counselor, but that sounds like she's unfit for duty to me."

"If she begins to deal with the problems instead of denying them, we can keep her on her ship and reduce her workload, let her first officer shoulder part of her burden until she recovers. Quite similar to measures once taken aboard the *Enterprise.* The identity of a starship captain borders on obsessive at times, and never more so when loss of control is perceived."

The reminder, made as gently as it was, still hit too close to home, and only reminded him of why he didn't want to do as she asked. "I can't do this, Deanna. I can't. Don't ask this of me." Jean-Luc rose and turned to the viewport behind his chair to avoid her eyes.

"You're the only one who can." She waited, and when she got no response, she sighed. "You understand her pain, Jean-Luc. You nearly lost someone you love to an away mission. You have a history with the Borg -- well, so do many others, but she was there with us for that initial battle. You have an extraordinary career, one she'd like to live up to. She would respond to you. All I want -- "

"No," he whispered.

"You and Worf," she said scornfully.

He straightened, tugged his uniform straight, and looked at her, raising an eyebrow.

"But you didn't order him to give blood, you gave him the choice. That the patient died -- that was something you left up to the one who could give life. I'll leave you with the same choice, then. Shelby's career depends on our intervention. Her self-definition depends on her career, at the moment. You can do the rest of the math yourself." She stood and headed for the door.

"Dee."

She stopped but didn't turn around. "Yes?"

"When?"

Her head turned slightly. He thought she must be smiling, not in amusement so much as in pride. She knew how much it would cost him. He knew how much it was needed, for that reason -- she wouldn't ask unless she felt it was the only way. That she'd brought up the incident with the Romulan they'd rescued who had promptly died in sickbay due to Worf's stubborn refusal to help only underscored it -- she'd used it as the gentle rap across the head he needed to get his attention off his own emotional reaction and realize what she was saying.

"Come with me," she said. When he reached her side, she looked him in the eye. "Don't be afraid."

"I'm not afraid, damn it!"

She smiled and shook her head. "Whatever you say, Captain."

He couldn't move his feet, suddenly. She halted again, then put her arms around him for a moment. He didn't move a muscle, but her proximity fanned the embers and heightened his awareness of her.

{I know how difficult it will be. I will be there for you, after. Always.}

"This is inappropriate behavior, Counselor."

She smiled again as she pulled away, too aware of what his gruffness covered to take it seriously. He was certain that was part of the complicated equation that allowed them to work together so well; she would never mistake the abruptness for lack of affection, no matter how he snapped at her.

They transported to the *Potemkin* and he followed her to the captain's quarters. A flustered-looking man stood outside the door. Deanna introduced him as Sam Kohlman, ship's counselor.

"The captain agreed to try talking to her," she said quietly. "Has anything happened while I was gone?"

"No. Are you sure about this?"

"Don't worry, Sam." Deanna looked at Jean-Luc. "I don't want you to act as if there's anything wrong with her. Just be yourself, express some concern as a friend, and see if it draws a reaction. She's very angry, and she might direct some of it at you. I want her to do that -- just be careful of your reactions. Do you have any questions?"

"What are you going to do if this doesn't work?"

The counselors exchanged glances, and Deanna's gaze fell somewhere between Jean-Luc's eyes and the floor. "We'll have to declare her unfit for duty. We don't have much else we can do to drive home to her that she needs help."

She turned and touched the controls. The door opened. Grim-faced, Jean-Luc followed her inside, leaving Kohlman standing in the hall.

^&^&^&^&^

"Elisabeth," Deanna said.

Shelby stood like a statue with her face toward the stars, a portrait in black and grey. The room was as Deanna had left it; she glanced around, looking for signs that her patient had done anything but stand as she'd been doing for the past hour. Nothing.

Deanna turned to Jean-Luc; he held himself almost rigid, hands behind his back, at red alert and likely to stay that way. But he was a good actor when he had to be, and he'd done well the previous evening. She nodded and pointed with her chin at Shelby's back.

"Captain," he said, as if greeting her before a routine briefing.

She turned around at last. She paid Deanna absolutely no attention; it was as feared. The patient had slipped into complete denial and refused to acknowledge the counselor. Not a failure on Deanna's part, it was always the patient who directed treatment, really, but it felt like it was her fault just the same.

Shelby's face could have been chiseled in marble as she stared at Picard. "Why are *you* here?"

"Out of concern, mostly." He took a few slow steps toward her, keeping his eyes on her -- the look of someone sizing up an adversary. "It didn't sound to me as though you were doing very well. I also wanted to apologize for last night."

"Oh, I suppose I can't blame you for doing what the little woman tells you," she exclaimed, glancing at Deanna, lips twisting. "Can't get fucked unless you keep the wench happy."

Deanna had heard worse from her already. Jean-Luc hated the implication that either of them might be using sex as a means of control, and it was hinted at often, usually in the context of humor. Shelby's insinuation made him frown. In spite of his anger, however, his voice remained calm. "I did what I did because I was made aware of your situation, and felt sympathy. You weren't responding to standard treatment. I know how tempting it is to deny the pain -- "

"How could you? You didn't lose her! She survived!" Elisabeth shouted. Still, no sign of tears. Just anger, and the slight wobble in her voice that said the tears were there somewhere. "It wasn't your fault, either!"

"It was my fault, because it was my responsibility," Jean-Luc said. "But she is an officer. She knows the danger. She accepts it -- it would be disrespectful of me to disregard that. She makes the choice to die in the line of duty, not me -- she could disobey orders. If I send her into a situation, she goes because she accepts that it's necessary. Your officer died because he accepted his duty with the same level of commitment. You show him no respect if you refuse to accept that, either as an officer or as a friend."

"I should never have broken the regs -- shouldn't have let him convince me it was just a. . . . Damn him. Damn you! It's not fair!" The anger rose in waves, pulsing against Deanna's brain. This was what was needed, but it wasn't enough.

"Because he died, and Deanna is alive, it isn't fair? Elisabeth, nothing is fair. It certainly wasn't fair that I've been tortured and subjected to one indignity after the next, or that the Borg -- "

"This isn't you, either, Picard. You don't do this sort of thing. You're only doing this for *her.* If it were just me, you wouldn't be here. Get out."

"You're wrong, Shelby." Jean-Luc's tone became hard as duranium. Deanna almost stopped him, but Elisabeth's wall of rage faltered. She showed no outward sign of it, but it was there, the wavering, however slight and temporary.

{Push, Jean. Just a little more.}

"You know me as a captain. That doesn't mean you know me as a person. The duality exists -- you can't be a captain every minute of the day. None of us can."

"I know that -- we all know that. What difference does it make? He's still dead, and I'm still here. I have a job to do and I just wish everyone would let me get back to it, and leave me *alone!*"

Deanna pursed her lips and looked at Jean-Luc. He had gone cold, a curl in his lip, refusing to look at her, or Shelby -- he stared at nothing, deep in thought. Shelby's refrain sounded familiar to him, probably; he'd said it before as well. Deanna saw his jaw move slightly, and suddenly he tore at his shirt, whipping off the jacket and yanking the red undershirt out of his waistband.

It completely distracted Shelby. She stared incredulously at the bare chest of Captain Picard, and in her brief respite from her pain she felt a flicker of admiration, Deanna sensed. Jean-Luc was as fit as he could make himself, and determined to keep it that way. The results were impressive, more so if one noticed most of his chest hair was grey.

"Do you see anything wrong with this, Shelby?" he asked. "A flaw, perhaps?"

Deanna's heart did a backflip and came to rest in the back of her throat. She watched his face, unmoving as it was, and was torn between focusing on Shelby and worrying about him. This wasn't what she'd planned; she hadn't imagined he would do this. A little venting, a little commiseration over being human, a brief connection, and a foot in the door for counseling had been all she'd intended.

Shelby came away from the windows, caught up in curiosity -- which he'd intended. He was using one of Deanna's old methods of getting his attention when he needed a reminder that he wasn't the only person in the galaxy. Find something suitable and shock the patient into a paradigm shift. Deanna wondered if it would be enough.

"A scar," Shelby said, and actually touched the faint line down his sternum. "Why?"

"Deanna?" he said, using it to pull her into the conversation. She came forward, picking up his jacket off the floor and using it as an excuse to come close.

"He was trying to carve out his own heart," she said matter-of-factly, though the memory made her own heart falter.

Shelby rocked back on her heels and looked back and forth between them. Her eyes, her emotions -- she'd been shocked out of her misery. Deanna turned to Jean-Luc, unwilling to speak. How much he disclosed was his prerogative, not hers.

"I was in bed, staring at the stars, after being discharged from sickbay following a long series of operations and being sedated for days on end." Jean-Luc tucked in his shirt. "My body felt only slightly like it belonged to me. I felt like I'd been buried under a mountain. I felt lost -- they raped me, for all intents and purposes, took control of me and made me helpless. They left just enough behind to suffer the indignity and agony of watching them use me, my knowledge, my body, my voice, to destroy everything I held dear -- everything I stood for. I had just enough of myself left to desire control, only the burning ache to wrest myself free -- I couldn't. I knew there would be no rescue. I wanted only to cease to exist. But you rescued me anyway, you and Riker. You found a way, where there shouldn't have been one. Lying there in the darkness, feeling like an empty shell of myself, I wanted to die anyway."

He stared out the viewports at the planet beneath them, refusing to see anything else. Deanna saw the glimmering of tears in his eyes and knew he hated them. He had always hated sharing them with her, and showing that weakness to others was doubly humiliating. Shelby didn't seem to notice them. She was caught up the story -- she'd been there, when the events he spoke of had happened. She'd been on the ship, in her quarters on a different deck. She probably remembered the quietness of the crew, especially the ones who had seen Picard as a drone. She might recall the way Beverly's eyes glittered with unshed tears for days when she wasn't on duty in sickbay, or the haunted look Deanna had worn as if it were part of her uniform.

Deanna had resorted to tranquilizers once the danger to Jean-Luc had passed, but it had taken a long stretch of days for him to come to the point at which he could pack his things and depart for France, and leave her assured that he wouldn't fall back into the state of mind he'd been in. He was remembering the long stretch -- reliving the pain in a way he hadn't done in years. He wavered, face fixed in a mask of composed agony.

{Dee, I can't -- tell her.}

She staggered a step at the welling of remembered emotion from him. This was humiliating him, but he was determined. Steadying herself, she looked at Shelby. "I woke to a pain in my chest in the middle of the night. I sensed his despair and went to his quarters, and found him trying to stab himself. I stopped him. He ordered me to leave him alone."

Deanna bowed her head and let a few tears fall. "I told him the usual professional things, but it wasn't good enough -- I could sense the complete disdain he felt for my attempt. So I asked him who would feed Livingston."

"My fish," he filled in, regaining his voice. Now he was remembering her voice, her concern, clinging to it as he'd done that night. "It startled me. And she didn't stop -- she asked who would remember Jack, when I was gone. She wanted to know who would remember my parents, or friends who had died in the line of duty. She wanted to know who would give her the professional challenges that helped her grow as a counselor. She wanted to know who would offer her tea when she brought in the crew evaluations, or who would take Riker down a few pegs on occasion just out of general principle."

He paused to regain his footing, inhaling as if the effort cost him dearly. It did, Deanna knew -- he was trusting that his secret would be kept, risking more than he would under normal circumstances, in an effort to prove to Shelby that she wasn't alone.

The eddies of emotion from Elisabeth were promising. Shelby was sharing the pain. The shift wasn't enough yet, she could easily tip the other direction, but this was helping. Deanna touched his elbow lightly; as if it gave him the last bit of strength he needed, he continued, still staring into the darkness outside as if the window opened on the memories themselves instead of a view of Rigel.

"She asked me where Jean-Luc Picard had gone, and would I care to let him come home again -- because I was the only thing keeping him from coming back. I thought the Borg had taken my life from me. I thought I would never get anything back -- the resolve, the career, the things I believed made me who I was -- I felt weak. Useless. I could barely move, my brain didn't seem to want to function half the time, and I kept hearing things that weren't there. I was certain Command would take my ship from me because such irreparable harm had been done to me. I thought the only control over my destiny that I had left was whether to live or die, and it seemed only fitting that I should end it by undoing the heroic measures that saved my life years before, when they installed the artificial heart. All I had to do was drive the point of the knife into a valve. Crack it open, leave it to fail and let my life run out of me. After what the Borg did to me, the pain was inconsequential -- even welcome. Pain was all I had left to prove there was something left of me."

Another pause. He brought himself slowly back from the edge of the abyss he'd left behind years before, a single tear escaping and wending its way down his face. "Except I had forgotten I had an empath on board, who would sense the pain and find me there with barely a scratch in the skin. An officer with the guts to sit with me for the better part of the night and talk me out of the misery I was hoarding so selfishly, and make me realize that I had another choice -- to work toward recovering what I'd lost."

"But he hadn't lost it at all," Deanna put in, recovering her demeanor. "He had only allowed himself to lose sight of it for a time. He needed to be reminded that we all sometimes lose sight of the things that give us strength, the friendship and the things we hold dear. All I did was hold up a light. Turning from the darkness wasn't something anyone could do for him. He had to step into the light himself, or at least reach out so someone could help him out of the despair."

"Let someone in, Elisabeth," Jean-Luc added, finally bringing his eyes down from the view. "Just one person. You can trust Deanna -- she's kept my secrets as if they were her own. She's never told anyone anything without my permission. You have to let this out of you and find your way back."

Elisabeth stared at him with an awestruck, disbelieving expression, and Deanna wished she could extricate Jean-Luc from this right then. He'd had her, right up until that last admonishment -- now it looked like nothing more than a manipulation. Shelby was reacting, but her emotions took a different path now -- perhaps not a desired path, but ground had been gained. The problem was that Jean-Luc wouldn't realize --

"I appreciate your time and concern, Captain. But I'd really like to be left alone now." Shelby spoke politely, with no indication of the depth of emotion underneath her veneer of calm. She turned her back on him and meandered up to the windows again, hands joined over the small of her back. She could have punched him and hurt him less.

{NO}

At the force of Deanna's silent shout, Jean backed a few steps and closed his mouth, his eyes full of the anger at the rebuff. Her intervention had reminded him of the real reason they were there, reminded him that he shouldn't take it personally, but he couldn't help his hurt -- he never opened himself that way to anyone, and to have it rejected stung. Deanna touched his back briefly, then crossed her arms and let the silence lengthen.

"Elisabeth, are you aware of the fact that I can remove you from command?"

"Go to hell." So much for the last card in Deanna's hand. It hadn't worked for Sam, either. Shelby kept her footing on that pinnacle of suffering, clinging with all the strength of a terrified person about to fall into an abyss.

Jean-Luc shifted uncomfortably behind her. Deanna sensed his lingering ire at the disregard for his own sufferings -- the perceived slight Shelby had dealt him -- and she wished she could put her arms around him, though she wondered if he would accept comfort even from her, at this point.

Deanna had tried it before, but it might work now, after everything else. And what else was there but to try again? "Tony wouldn't want -- "

"Tony doesn't want anything, he's dead. Why can't you all just go away? Why can't you let me -- "

"Because the fact that you're alone is why you're having the difficulty in the first place," Jean-Luc exclaimed, drowning out her words and channeling his frustration through a scornful, belligerent snarl. "You won't allow your crew to get close -- the one you were closest to is now dead. So you're alone, and the pain is too great for you to bear, and you refuse to share it. Sharing pain is intimacy, intimacy means developing feelings for someone, feelings of affection and companionship and love mean it will hurt when you lose the person -- so you're in an endless cycle of knowing that anyone on this ship could be taken from you just as easily as Tony. But you're not getting out of hell until you accept the inevitability of it. You're stuck here, until you let someone inside. You've got to trust someone again. Not with your ship or your life -- that's too easy. You've got to trust someone with a piece of your heart."

"Leave me ALONE -- "

"NO! Damn you, Shelby, get your head out of your ass! Look at me!"

Shelby whirled and snatched up a heavy-looking statuette from the table near the windows. She drew back her arm, but hesitated when Deanna stepped in front of Jean-Luc.

"Put it down," Deanna said firmly. "If you want to kill him, you'll have to kill me first. I won't let you hurt my captain."

Shelby wobbled visibly, groped for shreds of control, for the fury she'd used for weeks on end to keep up the pretense of strength, but it had been too much. The walls crumbled. The statuette thudded to the floor. She wavered, then fell forward on her knees. The wail started low and increased in volume; she clutched her stomach and began to cry.

Deanna gripped Jean-Luc's hand. {Thank you. Breakthrough. I can begin to work with her now. I'll be home for dinner.}

He returned her grip, then strode stiffly from the room, jacket in hand.

^&^&^&^&^

When the holodeck doors opened, he knew without turning that it was Deanna. He'd used a lock code she knew, knowing she would look for him after she had finished with Shelby and had purged herself of the aftereffects of coping with such dark emotions.

She came up behind him but didn't say a word. Glancing down at the bench upon which he sat overlooking the sea, he moved over a few inches. With that encouragement she came around and sat next to him, hands in her lap.

They sat that way for a while, the ocean breeze flowing over them and shifting a few stray curls back from her face. Her expression serene, she watched the waves far below them. The cliff, a duplicate of one south of Monterey on the Pacific coast, was one he remembered from one of his few-and-far-between leaves on Earth, years ago.

"I don't want to do that again," he said at last.

"You didn't want to do it this time. But Starfleet captains stick together."

He snorted and put his head back, looking up at the drifting clouds -- cirrus, scudding across the deep blue sky. "Was I ever *that* bad?"

"You tell me."

"I hate it when you say that."

Amusement tinged her voice. "It was a growing experience for you, talking to Shelby that way. And you can have the satisfaction of knowing that you truly made a difference."

"She was about to fell me with a hor'ghan. What good did that do? I don't understand why she broke down."

Deanna sighed and rubbed his leg absently. "Her threatening you made it all come together. It gave me the opportunity to recreate in a small way the situation that led to Tony's death. He died protecting her from a drone. Everything you said had an impact, much more of one than if I'd said it -- I did say a lot of it already, in fact. But I didn't have personal experience with it. You did. And I didn't intend for you to tell her about your scar, but that was the one thing that shook her out of misery long enough to get some of what we were saying through to her. She needed the forcefulness you showed, and she needed it from someone she respected."

"How is she doing?"

"She has a long way to go, and we're limiting her duty schedule for a while, but the release, the surrender, already gave her a lot of relief. I know you don't like hearing it, but Jean, I really am proud of you." The back of her hand brushing his face alleviated the irritation. "You're still my favorite patient, even if I'm not your official counselor any more. I never get to see the rest of the story -- my patients tend to leave the ship and disappear. It's nice to know at least one of them is still growing along in the right direction."

He slid a hand behind her and scooped her into his lap. As she rolled with the motion and straddled his thighs, her arms went around his neck out of reflex. She rested her elbows against his chest and kissed his forehead.

"I wouldn't have made it without you, Deanna. You were more than a counselor -- you were a good friend, and you still are very much that friend who sat with me when I couldn't find my way."

"I always will be. We may forget someone with whom you have laughed, but never someone with whom we've wept."

"Hm. I've cried with you a lot. I guess that means you've been indelibly stamped in my memory."

"I hope that isn't the only reason you would remember me," she murmured, giving him that sly heart-tickling smile he loved to see. She pulled at his uniform, but in spite of her tone she wasn't doing it with passionate intent.

"Now what are you up to?"

One hand dragged his undershirt up while the other pulled a regenerator from the waistband of her uniform, where she'd hidden the device under her jacket. "I'm pronouncing you fit and getting rid of the evidence. I should have done it a long time ago. Unless you want to keep the scar?"

He held on to her thighs to balance her while she aimed the device at the line of scar tissue up his chest. He watched her face instead of the process itself, and caught her eyes as she raised them after turning off the regenerator and setting it aside on the bench.

"I'm sorry, Dee," he whispered, catching her hand and turning it palm up. He rubbed his thumb from the base of her third finger to the heel of her hand. "I know you did away with the scar that night, but it's been there in my memory."

"I had to get the knife from you. The cut wasn't deep, and it didn't hurt me as much as your pain."

"I was angry at you for it, you know. Afterward, after I'd gotten out of the pit. And then I was angry at myself for causing you injury and bullying you the way I did. You could have insisted on finishing, on wiping out my own scar, but you've always respected my wishes even when I did something you didn't think I should. And now I'm angry at myself again, because seeing what you went through with Shelby makes me understand what I put you through from a new perspective."

"You were a completely different case. She has no tolerance for officers who are softer than she is."

"You're not -- "

"She perceived me as soft. So did you, at one time."

"But I learned how wrong that was." He kissed her palm and held it to his cheek. "I never thanked you, did I, for staying with me that night. Every time I woke you were sitting there watching me. And you didn't bring sickbay into it, even though you probably wanted to. You were willing to sit with me alone, when you could sense all the. . . ."

The memory of the darkness he'd swam in that night overwhelmed him again. He'd relived echoes of the Collective, immense amounts of information swirling through his mind and the pressure of the memories of thousands -- he wasn't certain what exactly had happened that night beyond the sharp tearing of the knife through his skin and the horror on her face, and the blood welling from her palm.

She closed her hand around his thumb and held his hand against her heart. "I did what I did because you were a patient in pain. I didn't call sickbay because I could fix the damage easily enough, and I knew that if I had called for help, afterward you would feel humiliation that the medical staff all knew the mighty captain had succumbed to despair."

"What did I do? Did I do anything -- "

"No," she whispered, though he knew it was a lie from the way she looked away from his eyes. She was a terrible liar, when it came to personal matters.

"What was it? Was that why you were afraid of me last night -- it reminded you of it?"

Her eyes hardened and fixed resolutely on his. "You will not do this, Jean-Luc Picard. You know better than to return to this -- it's in the past, and there's nothing else that needs to be said about it."

"I need to know what I did," he exclaimed.

"No, you don't. It wasn't you that did it."

"If you don't tell me, I'm going to assume the worst -- "

"The nightmares you had were disturbing, and your emotions were out of control. I didn't dare leave you alone, and I didn't want to sedate you -- you'd been sedated for days, and you had to find equilibrium some time. Your subconscious had to work out what was there."

She was trying too hard to sound matter-of-fact, and that meant the experience had disturbed her more than she wanted to admit even to herself. And he suspected now that it had something to do with the previous night, when she'd been uncertain in his arms for the first time in months. She feared the darkness she remembered in him, from when he hadn't been in control of himself.

"What I made you suffer -- I'm surprised you didn't transfer. Dee, if I could take it all back, if I could have kept -- "

She touched his lips with a fingertip then put her hand to his face, gripping his hand to her chest more tightly. "When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. It brings me great happiness to see that you've left all that pain behind you."

He smiled wearily, bending to her will. "You're quoting Gibran again, aren't you?"

"Much of what he has to say holds true. Without the sorrow, the joy would be shallow." She kissed him on the cheek, reminding him of when she'd seen him off on leave following his recovery from the Borg.

"How long have you really loved me, Deebird? Honestly?"

"In what capacity?" She slipped off his lap, to his dismay, and tugged on his hand until he stood. Her wily glance only served to make him more curious.

"Are you going to tell me you go to such great lengths for every patient who tries to kill himself?"

"Let's see -- there was you, and there was Shelby. So far, yes, but the lengths I traversed for her were in different directions. I didn't sit up all night with her."

"You're hedging, Dee."

"The most honest answer I can give you is that I don't know. I just knew that, at the time, I couldn't leave you, even after you went to sleep. That sitting with you until I was certain you wouldn't try to finish what you'd started was what I needed to do. Whether that was a consideration of an officer for her captain, or a personal motivation, or a counselor's desperate attempt to rescue a patient from himself, I really can't tell you. It was probably all three, along with my basic empath's inability to turn my back on suffering." She put her hands behind her back and looked at her toes. "I just knew you needed my help."

He looked at her, standing there in uniform with the ocean at her back, and had to close his eyes. Seconds later she folded herself around him and kissed his face with feather-light touches of her lips. His arms around her, they stood for a long time drawing comfort from one another.

"Do you understand how frightening you are to me?" he whispered at last.

"Nearly as frightening as you are to me." Her fingers swept down the back of his head and made him shiver. "Complete self-control is important to both of us, and to love is to give someone power over you. You could destroy me, Jean-Luc."

"If I did, that would destroy me."

"Which is why we take the risk, isn't it? Dancing in the flames, daring to fly in the fire and ignore the risk of being burned to experience the joy. Because we know we can trust."

"Hajira," he murmured. "Here's a quotation for you. Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage."

"Good one. I'll have to use that next time I have a paranoid young couple in my office."

"Cygne, are we off duty yet?"

"You should have asked that before you started touching me like this."

"Want me to stop?"

Her hand went up his shirt and her finger traced the former location of his scar. She leaned back and looked at him, and the playfulness evaporated. "No," she whispered. "I want you to burn. I need to feel you burn, hajira."

The kiss started gently enough, but she seemed determined to crush herself into him, hungry and demanding. They swayed together, clinging and then pulling at clothing. The feel of her bare skin under his hands and the insistent intrusion of her tongue inflamed him.

This felt like another milestone to him. Both of them had felt their way into the relationship as if balancing on a fence, neither willing to simply plunge in headlong. The fact that it had begun quite suddenly didn't detract from the obvious forethought being invested in their slow dance into complete intimacy. Intentionally remembering that years-ago night of complete and painful vulnerability spent under her watchful eye, with her sharing his agony, seemed to bring them closer still.

She nuzzled up to him, her mouth wandering along his throat -- nothing new, but something about her manner had changed. He hesitated, but Deanna didn't slow the downward slide of her hands along his hips. "Computer, run program Troi-seven, variation two."

The ocean and the bench disappeared in swirls of particles, to be replaced by the back room from the bar, complete with the lurid mural and a few empty glasses on the table.

"Now that you've gotten rid of your friends," she murmured against his chest, sliding down to finish pulling his pants out of the way and fastening her mouth on him. The sudden pull almost buckled his knees.

She didn't stay there long -- she was teasing him, he realized, and stared open-mouthed at her as she backed away and stepped out of her pants and boots. Her movements slowed to a fluid crawl. Raising her arms, she did a sinuous hip-swaying dance, turning and moving with practiced but flowing movements of her arms.

Her gradual progress across the floor in shallow arcs brought her within arm's reach, but when he moved toward her she spun away. She flirted in the air in front of his nose with her fingers as she left him behind.

"Seductress," he muttered.

She settled on the table, balanced herself on her hands, and opened her legs. And was in motion the instant he was, rolling and slipping out of reach.

This was building a different sort of fire between them. Jean-Luc chewed his lip, watching her pull the band from her hair and send it spilling over her back. He predicted her avenue of escape this time and cut her off, pinning her against the wall in the corner behind the table. She postured defiantly, flattening herself against the mural, as if ready to bolt for freedom if presented with the opportunity. Her eyes dared him to capture her. But he couldn't do it -- his hand closing on her breast lost its strength. This was Deanna, his little bird. He'd seen her so broken she couldn't walk without wincing. He couldn't mishandle the body he'd helped heal.

"Jean -- I'm not a weakling," she shouted -- his eyes widened at the pent-up frustration in her voice. He gazed into her blazing eyes in shock until she stepped toward him and sank her teeth along his shoulder near the base of his throat. The pain brought with it undeniable lust -- she wasn't just dancing into the flames, she was stoking them, drawing him in with her.

His teeth glanced off hers when he launched the counterattack; a little salt on her lips told him she'd drawn blood. She returned the kiss as violently as he pressed it on her, fingers closing on his shoulders fiercely, then pushed him, giving him pause. But she was with him, in the fire -- laughing fiercely and daring him, running her tongue across her lower lip. When he trapped her wrists, an unmistakable surge of pleasure from her gave him license to go further. She fought him off with her knees, laughing in his face, until he lost patience and let go of her arms to grab her thighs and pull her feet off the floor.

Squealing, she thrashed until penetration, then put her arms around his head and arched her back against the wall, wrapping her legs around his hips and sliding them up and down provocatively while he ground into her and nipped at her. Holding her up this way wasn't going to last long -- already he started to lose his grip. He moved her to the table, losing control and dropping her a few inches too soon. She didn't let go of his neck, pulled him down with her, and fastened her mouth on his. Insatiable, crazed, grasping at him -- she wanted him, and he needed release -- the memory of her face, of the painted-on red dress and the looks on the other men's faces, the way their eyes followed her, the way his eyes couldn't help but fall on the movement of her hips. The burning in her eyes as she flipped the cherry back in her mouth. The fall of her hair as she turned, as she sauntered from the room daring him to pursue, giving him a smoldering glance over her right shoulder as she hesitated in the door. She had flaunted herself but she had wanted him. As he wanted her, needed her --

She moaned, struggling against him but in a predatory rather than a desperate way, digging her nails into his back. The emotions flowing through them blazed hot, but darker than usual -- it was hard to tell where his emotions ended and hers began, and a stab of pain blossomed, but it was too late, one of them was already --

She shouted when she came, a long inarticulate wail that brought him back to the reality of sweat and the musky odor of sex, and the table creaking beneath their combined weight. One final pounding thrust and he joined her, but the realization of the circumstances made it almost hurt.

Sweat stung the scratches on his back, only one of the details coming to his attention, and the combination of them all sobered him rapidly. Deanna's breath caught every other time she inhaled, as if she were crying. She'd let her arms fall around her head on the table, her hair fanned beneath her, her lip caught in her teeth.

He almost fell as he slid off the table. "Dee," he gasped, touching her throat. Red marks marred her skin, on the side of her neck and on her chest. The faint beginnings of bruises on her thigh brought the reality home with paralyzing clarity. She sat up, as if boneless and fighting against gravity.

"Jean," she said huskily, holding out her arms. He helped her down and held her up; she trembled, gained some stability in her legs, and cleared her throat. "Computer, discontinue program and run Troi-seven, variation one."

The room vanished and another took its place, an unfamiliar bedroom with a broad open window overlooking a lush garden. Their clothes lay on the floor, along with the regenerator she'd brought in with her. He helped her to the bed and settled her on it, then retrieved the regenerator. His chest continued to tighten with repressed emotion as he did away with the bruises and marks; he found others, on her legs, on her back where shoulder blades had met the table. She watched him with opaque eyes that he imagined must be accusing him. They should be.

"I asked you to," she said at last. "I wanted it. I had to know."

"Know what?" he shouted, hitting a hysterical high note. "That I can be a brutal bastard?"

She only looked at him, lying on the white bedcovers with her hair loose around her face, sad-eyed, and he could do nothing. Couldn't shout, couldn't move. Leaving wasn't an option. Staying was excruciating. Absolutely nothing would make up for this.

Bird song trickled into the room, along with a breeze that shifted the curtains slightly. Closing his eyes, he mustered self-control, worked his way past the initial surge of anger, and slowed his breathing, easing off the near-sobs and finding a more even, calm rhythm. It took a long time. She waited, with her infinite patience that almost made him angry again -- she should be screaming at him, punishing him somehow.

"I wanted to know what you were like, without the self-control," she said at last. "I wanted you to know I could handle it. I wanted to know that I could."

"Why? Why, when it's so unnecessary -- I didn't want to hurt you!"

"I can take care of myself, Jean-Luc. You wanted intimacy. You want to know all the facets of Deanna Troi. I'm showing you another one, and asking to see another facet of you. I knew it was there but I've been frightened of it, the same as you." She touched the back of his neck, stroking him gently then guiding him down on the bed, settling him on his side and using the regenerator on his back. "I'm not frightened now. I can accept it."

"I can't accept it. It's intolerable."

The regenerator finished its work and she tossed it -- he heard it hit the floor. While he lay staring at the white wall, holding the anger tightly, she stroked his arm so gently it made his muscles quiver.

"The first question Elisabeth asked me, when she finished crying and started talking, was whether I would have really let her kill me to protect you. And when I told her that I would have, she asked me if Tony died for her because she was his captain or because he was her lover. That answer was more complicated."

She put her hands on his shoulders and he obediently shifted to where she wanted him, on his back in the deep softness of the coverlet with his head on some pillows. She sat cross-legged next to him and took his hand in both of hers, smiling down at him with sweet, sad affection. "I told her that I couldn't know what Tony might have felt, but that love isn't something easily defined -- it's something that runs out of the neat little compartments we try to put it in, and becomes different things without our choosing its course. That when I sat in the captain's quarters years ago, trying to pull him through that night of terrible pain and nightmares, I did it out of a different kind of love, that of a loyal crew member and friend, of someone who was doing her best to save a fellow officer's life as she knew he would do for her, willingly and without question.

"But when I go on away missions with you now, it's impossible to keep the emotional motives unmixed -- I serve just as willingly, but it's likely that I would sacrifice myself more joyfully than I would before. I love you, and I'd give up anything for you. And I know that if I were to die, you would have people around you who would bring you through the grief -- Data, Carlisle, deLio, Malia, Will, Beverly, Geordi -- you have friends who would support you and share your pain, and you would be able to go on. I could give myself up for you because I would know there would come a day that you would be happy again."

Deanna brushed her fingers across his face and fell to rubbing her thumb along his cheek. "Elisabeth wanted me to tell you that she's sorry she rejected you -- she can apologize herself later, when she's up to it, but she said to tell you she thinks you're the bravest man she knows. I agree. It takes strength to show weakness, the way you did. And she was right -- you might have gone to talk to her if it hadn't been me asking you to, but you wouldn't have shared so much of yourself. You were trying to please me. I won't ask it of you again, Jean-Luc. I was wrong to do so in the first place."

Grasping at a distraction, he found his voice and tried to pull out of the pain. "People who want to die generally find ways to do it. She's a good officer, and she needed help. If I could give it to her, it was my obligation as a fellow officer to try."

"You make me more proud of you by turns, Jean-Fish." She kissed the back of his hand and held it to her chest.

"Tell me why you wanted me to hurt you," he said, suddenly breathless and plaintive. "I can't just dismiss it -- I can't tolerate it."

"You didn't hurt me."

"Damn it! I did hurt you, I could tell I hurt you -- the pain was there, intermixed with the fire!" He sat up and stopped short of crushing her fingers, lifting his hand and staring at hers -- she let her fingers go limp, pressing her palm into his.

"Hurting implies more than just a little pain. You did nothing I did not find enjoyable. The real pain wasn't because of you." She put a palm over his heart. "Hajira, be still. I love you. I trust you not to hurt me. I can explain why I wanted it, if you promise me you won't shout."

"You may as well. Not that it will make hurting you forgivable."

"No shouting, remember. Let me finish. You're right -- last night reminded me of how you were when you were struggling against the depression. I needed you to lose some of your control to the darker side of lust, to prove that you aren't like that any more. I knew you weren't, but the heart builds its own set of emotional associations. I needed to experience the difference. And I think you needed to experience it as well, to prove the same things to yourself. This reaction is too extreme. You didn't even break skin. I asked for rough, but you feel self-incrimination. You accepted my being critically injured in the line of duty with more grace than this."

He stared at the stippled ceiling and couldn't move -- while the pain and anger roiled in him, she watched him, waiting, slow sympathetic tears flowing freely. Finally a shuddering gasp escaped him and his fingers closed on hers tightly. "Dee, I need to know what you won't tell me -- what happened that night, that made you so afraid? What did I do?"

"The version you remember is only partially correct. You remember that you intended to kill yourself -- you weren't completely lucid when you tried. When I came in, I grabbed your wrist. You didn't seem strong until I challenged you, then you tried to turn the knife on me. The wound on my hand was a defensive one. I got the knife from you, but I screamed while I was doing it -- Will came in and helped me. Beverly came in and helped us. It was her you wouldn't allow to finish mending the scar, though you probably remember my face instead of hers because of the way I had to hold you while she worked. You fought with us. I told her to do as you asked, and leave the scar. When the blood was cleaned up, I threw both of them out, citing patient confidentiality -- not to mention the possible effect on them, of seeing their captain in such a state for a protracted period of time. Will insisted on someone being there with me, so I told him that I would only allow Data. He had no emotions to affect, would sustain no trauma at your behavior, needed no sleep, and could be ordered to keep what he heard to himself. He sat in the corner out of your line of vision, to avoid provoking you."

Deanna's hand covered his mouth -- she'd sensed the coming outburst. He stared up into her eyes, fighting several urges, the greatest of which was to cry, with shouting and cursing running a close second -- his eyes burned, his throat burned, and a spear of self-hatred pinned him to the bed.

"You weren't yourself until sometime the next morning. The ninth time you woke, I could see lucidity in your eyes, and I could sense the change -- you were finally aware of yourself again. Then we talked, as you remember, and you cried for a long time. And I sat there stroking the back of your head as you slept afterward, talking to Data about the things we admired most about you and the human condition in general. He asked me about crying, and pain, and why you would want to kill yourself -- I tried to explain it to him. I told him about how overwhelming being part of the Collective must have been -- you were in it such a brief time that there was really no way for you to make the transition out of it again. You hadn't had the chance to be completely assimilated. They tore you apart and then we yanked you out before you could make any adjustments. Your mind was trying desperately to compensate and re-organize itself, and without sedation everything crashed in on you at once. You had to get through it so you could begin to heal, so all we could do was let you get on with it."

"What about the emotional effect it had on you?" His throat felt like sandpaper. The spear through his chest seemed to be twisting slowly, robbing him of air.

"I told you I would make sacrifices for my captain. I did. After you left for France, I stayed in bed for the better part of three days. Then Beverly and I went shopping."

The sob working its way out turned to a guffaw. "Why does everything always work its way back around to *shopping*?"

"Because you need a break from the pain. I could have substituted fishing or hang-gliding, but you wouldn't have believed me."

"Deanna," he whispered, holding out an arm. She settled against him and pressed a palm against each side of his head, her ear to his heart. He sighed and closed his eyes.

The bird song provided just enough noise to keep the silence from becoming deafening. Jean-Luc found his equilibrium again at last, an indefinite period of time later, and still she lay quietly in his arms, completely relaxed and trusting.

"How were you able to trust me after that?"

Her hand slid down and came to rest on his cheek. "I knew that I could. Emotions are fleeting things, out of control most of the time -- but you are not ruled by them. You regain control when you lose it. And there is something about being trusted that makes one trustworthy. Belief, as you have said before, is sometimes all it takes. I can believe in you, Jean-Luc. At times you've been one of the few things that I could believe in."

"Even when you knew I didn't believe in myself?"

"Especially then. Friends do that for each other."

"Cheré. How you turn me inside out. I love you, Deanna."

Her hand drifted from his cheek and insinuated itself between his head and the pillow, wrapping around the back of his neck. "I love you, Jean. I can feel how much you are breaking inside -- but remember always that the breaking is part of what keeps you from becoming hardened beyond all help. I will be with you to share the pain, whenever you wish it. Don't begrudge me that. Don't think it's a terrible thing that I can feel it. I have always felt it, and I have never lost my respect for you because you were sometimes weak. I won't stop loving you because I can share the pain you feel. I have always been willing to help you work through it. You don't have to feel you must protect me from it now. Even if you bruise me, even if you get angry at me, even if sometimes you feel a flicker of hate -- I know these things are temporary. What is not temporary are the immense self-sacrifices you have made to be with me. I will never turn away from you because you sometimes lose control."

She raised her head and kissed away his tears as they fell slowly, until he caught her face with his hands and kissed her, tasting the salt of his sorrow on her lips.

"My swan," he whispered, choking on a sob.

"You must be a salt-water fish, you swim in it so much," she murmured. "But this swan can handle that without difficulty. I'm unique -- a salt-water swan. Come swimming with me, Jean-Fish. And when the water is too deep, I will carry you, and we will fly away."

Again, she'd surprised him into joy, though the ache of remembered pain persisted. His arms went around her, pressing her to his chest, and at last he could allow the elation of having her in his arms.

"Cygne et poisson, en vol."

"Higher all the time, mon cher."

^&^&^&^&^


Deanna disengaged the link to the Potemkin and sighed the deep sigh of the weary but triumphant. With a satisfied smile, she propped her head in her hands and quietly composed herself, reviewing the conclusion of her experience with Shelby and her counselor. A week of intense work and a few private sessions with Sam had yielded better results than predicted. After some role-playing with Sam, he had gained more confidence in guerrilla counseling, and could pick up where Deanna had left off with Shelby. Especially now that Shelby had agreed to cooperate and had signed a contract that stated as much -- not that the contract was legally binding, but the piece of paper with her signature on it would make an effective reminder for Sam to wave under her nose if she got too unreasonable.

The annunciator interrupted Deanna's thoughts, and she summoned the unscheduled visitor in, knowing who it was the instant the tone sounded. "You don't usually come here."

Jean-Luc sat across her desk from her and looked uncomfortable. "I hate this office -- no offense, but it's not a place with pleasant associations. Present company excluded."

"I just talked to Sam. It occurred to me that this whole experience is a lot like a play Beverly did once, based on an old children's book. Have you ever heard of the Wizard of Oz?"

"Wasn't that some sort of nonsense about a tornado and flying monkeys?"

She grinned. "It *is* a children's book, Jean. And it's an excellent metaphor. Dorothy is swept away by a tornado, far from home, and wants desperately to get home to her loved ones. She and her dog Toto land in Oz, and their house falls on the wicked witch of the east. The witch disintegrates leaving behind ruby slippers, which Dorothy is told have great importance. She puts them on and embarks on a journey to find the mighty and powerful wizard, who can send her home if anyone can."

"I only came to invite you down to the holodeck for Geordi's pool tournament, not be tucked in for storytime -- unless you're going to institute a mandatory captain's afternoon nap? Which, under certain conditions, doesn't sound so bad."

"Don't get your balls in an uproar, Jean. Let the tired counselor finish her story." She spoke with whimsical affection, enjoying the easygoing mood he was in. "On the way to the city of Oz, Dorothy meets a tin woodsman standing frozen in a clearing. She oils his joints and frees him from the rust paralyzing him, and he joins her quest because he would like to ask the wizard for a heart, to put in his hollow chest."

He settled back in his chair at last and listened solemnly, no longer puckish or impatient.

"They find a scarecrow hanging on a pole in a field, who can't scare crows and can't get down. They help him down and he joins them, because he needs a brain. They meet a lion in a wood, and comfort him after they scare him -- he's a cowardly lion, and he decides to join them to get courage. And so the four of them travel to the wizard, and find that he is an awesome and terrifying wizard indeed. He will help them if they go on a quest for him -- to defeat the wicked witch of the west. On their quest, the tin man finds that he feels loyalty and empathy for his new friends, the lion behaves with great bravery, and the scarecrow comes up with several clever ideas to help them along. Dorothy vanquishes the witch by throwing a bucket of water and making her melt. When they return to the wizard, he hedges and blusters, and then they discover that he wasn't really a wizard -- he was another victim of a tornado, a tinker, a humbug, just a little man with no real power. All his fantastic displays were carried off from behind a curtain, using smoke and mirrors. He was only powerful because everyone else believed he was. He built a balloon and Dorothy gets in it with him to return home, but her dog Toto jumps out, so she jumps out to retrieve him, and the balloon takes off without her. Then the good witch of the north appears and tells Dorothy that she's had the way home with her all along -- all she has to do is click her heels together. The magic ruby slippers will send her back to Kansas. So she goes home, the scarecrow takes over the leadership of Emerald City because of his superior intellectual ability, the lion returns to the forest as king, and the woodman stays with his friend the scarecrow as an advisor. The evil witches are gone, Oz is peaceful, and Dorothy is home."

Jean rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Interesting."

"The roles overlap a lot, but it's an accurate picture of what we've been through. With my wizardly ways, I gave the tinman the oil he needed to free himself of emotional paralysis, gave the lion the encouragement to confront his fears and overcome them, gave the scarecrow the realization that he could understand what he couldn't seem to fathom -- and I really did nothing. I stood behind the curtain and pulled ropes and levers to manipulate the outcome, but I'm just as weak and emotionally paralyzed and frightened and confused as the rest of them. All we can ever do is take turns helping each other off the post, oiling each other's frozen joints, and supporting each other when our courage falters. And home is held in our heart, wherever we are, and it takes but a thought to find it."

"I suppose there is a lot to the story that I didn't realize. I never got past all the crew members in pasteboard wings and monkey masks."

Deanna laughed at him, sitting in her office looking uncomfortable in the chair where so many others looked the same way. "Things are never quite what they seem, Jean Poisson. Especially starship captains. Behind all the smoke and mirrors, there's a humbug in need of a home."

"Or a counselor needing to exorcize her personal demons?"

They studied each other, with the detachment of fellow officers -- this was one of those times that roles overlapped. Her office, his ready room -- these were areas both personal and public, with implied ownership of space but the distance of official purpose. Nicknames and gentle teasing aside, they both wavered between officer and lover in attitude. Dangerous, but fence-walking could be fun. They had come to the realization early that part of what fueled the professional relationship now was the challenge of keeping it in spite of the danger of becoming over-familiar on duty.

She was aware of him on several levels; her heart called to his, her body pulled toward the lean strength of the man residing in the uniform -- the awareness went both ways. She didn't think he was completely cognizant of that. With him it was almost subliminal. She wondered what his reaction would be if she called to his attention the fact that his body language broadcasted quite plainly the connection between them, whether he was twenty inches or twenty feet from her. She knew everyone they met saw it, before a word was spoken or a move made.

"The wizard makes a pretty good exorcist," she said, unmoving, but letting sly innuendo creep into her tone. She watched him tense, one hand closing over the arm of the chair, and his eyes scolded, but beneath it he answered her in kind. The embers flamed briefly, then ebbed again.

"I get the feeling sometimes that I'm just your plaything," he said softly, tipping the balance into the personal.

"Sometimes. Other times, quite the opposite. But you would never settle for someone who was always one or the other."

"Role reversals," he said, sniffing. "Control games. I don't like to think of you as an adversary, but sometimes it's like that, isn't it?"

They hadn't spoken of the experience in the holodeck since it happened. He'd needed the time to recover -- both of them had needed time. They had fallen into such a silence that the other bridge officers had looked at them strangely when, for the first time in memory, an entire shift had gone by without a single word passing between counselor and captain. The following day more of a semblance of normality had resumed. She had known he would work through it and return to being the man she loved, and he had, but something had changed between them. He seemed to be more confident with her than before. But this was the first time he'd broached the subject, which meant he'd waited until he felt safe about discussing it. Perhaps it was the office that did it.

"There's a very fine balance at work," she said, thinking about all the married couples she'd counseled and the skewed balances she'd seen. "Be challenging without becoming adversarial. Be loving without becoming a slave to the other's whimsy. Pursue passion without becoming selfish and wounding the other person. Be yourself, but not at the expense of the relationship."

He smiled, in a warm, admiring, affectionate way. "And it's not something one can accomplish by himself, is it? It's a joint effort, and learning how to work together is the key. How to complement each other, strength for strength. Learning when to give and when to take, to keep the equilibrium in the relationship."

She sighed and returned the smile. "You make my toes curl, Jean-Luc Picard, with how well you listen to me. When you listen."

"I was angry at you when everything was said and done, once we got off the holodeck."

"I know. But I knew you would stop being angry. Will you forgive me, for manipulating you that way?"

"You knew I wouldn't listen to you, if you'd just tried talking to me. I'm just as bad as Shelby in that respect. I would have gone on treating you like a wilted flower." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "You had a point, and the issue was sitting in my blind spot. I was afraid to exert any control, not just because I didn't want to hurt you, but because I didn't want to remind you of Worf."

"I was wondering when you would get around to that particular elephant again," she murmured. "You've never reminded me of Worf, not even on the holodeck last week. Thank heaven for small favors."

The relief he felt was all the answer she needed, and she took it as his only answer. "Jean, other couples do go through power struggles. They have problems with sex, and with organizing their careers and the details of their personal lives. I had an idea of what we might go through when we started. I've been waiting for problems to happen, but you've been trying too hard. All I want is you, in all your different facets. You don't have to always play the gentleman. We can't find equilibrium when you've left some of you off the balance."

"But you've been doing it, too."

She shrugged. "Guilty, and already doing time for it. As I said, I've been just as afraid of it as you. We must be getting some of it right, though. We've been together this long."

His eyes came up to meet hers, and suddenly they met, without moving an inch. They stared across her desk for a small eternity.

"It wasn't really manipulation, Jean," she whispered. "I really did want it. I couldn't have deceived you -- I'll never be able to."

"I know. That's why I stopped being angry at you, fifteen minutes after I started. The rest of my anger was at myself, for overreacting to it."

"Well, then, I suppose we're past it. Aren't we?"

The corner of his mouth twitched, deepening an already-affectionate smile. "I hope so. If we aren't, we'll just deal with it when it comes up again. Right?"

Deanna wanted to kick back and gloat. This, from the ultimate closure addict, who wanted all his past problems to lock themselves into closets and stay there where they wouldn't trip him up. "Absolutely. Let's go watch the pool tournament."

"Actually, I'm supposed to play." He rose and straightened his uniform, turning as she came around the desk. "Which is why I asked you along. All pool sharks need a good-looking babe on their arm, as a good luck charm."

"I'm not supposed to be on your arm in public, Captain."

"Well, you can watch from an appropriate distance and cheer, can't you?"

She stopped and crossed her arms, and he mimicked her posture. They stood eye to eye for a moment. "Are you going to give me something to cheer about?"

"I thought I did that already, last night."

"That was last night." Her smile faded a little as her eyes traveled down the front of his uniform. She put a hand to the middle of his chest, feeling for the non-existent heartbeat. "You know, when I said starship captains were humbugs -- "

"Cygne, the roles overlap, as you say. We become each of the players in turn. I may become the lion, or the scarecrow, but I'm fairly certain that as long as you're with me, I'm not going to be lacking a home or a heart. Though I may have to continue making use of smoke and mirrors, it's a great consolation that I can sneak you behind the curtain." He leaned and kissed her forehead lightly.

"I'm glad to hear it. And I promise I'll keep the curtain closed, so you can blow smoke and use all the mirrors you like." She gripped his hand briefly and headed for the door. "Do mighty and powerful wizards play pool?"

"I think the metaphor is about to suffer a massive hull breach," he commented blandly as they left her office.

~^~^~^~^~^~^~^~

cygne et poisson en vol -- swan and fish in flight

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This page contains a single entry by Lori published on December 24, 2006 5:45 AM.

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