Soft Touch by Rosemary Cullen

1/5 [PG] TNG/post First Contact (D:P/C:G) Paramount is. It all belongs to them. I am playing without permission. (But it's fun :) Warning AAA story ( Awful Angst Alert) No sex so far and not much violence, a bit of bad language. Data gets lost and found, so does Picard. Geordi finds Leah but will Picard find Crusher? Ro finds true love and the Macqui cause trouble with some weird aliens.

Immobilised in a diagnostic frame, Data tried not to let the resonance of place overwhelm him.

The Enterprise's main engineering deck had been restored days past. He had worked alongside Geordi, and his new team, as they reconstructed the area first invaded by the Borg.

The feeling of dread he felt was unnecessary, but pervasive. He toyed with the idea of turning off his emotion chip, again.

That idea triggered a whole string of memories.

Perhaps, if he had left his emotion chip on in that last sortie with Picard, the anxiety would have alerted him to his danger. If he had been afraid, it would have prompted him to be careful. He could have missed the whole degrading experience of being captured by the Borg. Missed the queen's manipulations, emotional and physical.

The memories stirred resentment, anger and confusion.

Should he blame the Captain? The man who came back for him, made an impossible bargain for him, would have traded his life for Data's? He didn't know, but decided not to turn off the chip.

To distract himself he turned his attention to his friend, Geordi, leaning close in front of him, mapping the destroyed circuitry in his head with a probe.

"Geordi?"

"Hum?"

Geordi brought his focus back from the micro to the macroscopic. Data looked into his blue mechanical iris with his remaining gold one.

"Why did you chose the bionic, rather than the cloned, implants?"

Geordi looked at Data thoughtfully, before leaning forward again and resuming his mapping.

"You were there, Data. You must remember how difficult it was for me to chose. I walked round Starfleet Medical with odd eyes for a week!"

Data raised his right eyebrow. "How could I have understood the argument? Then?" He closed his eye for a second, visibly controlling himself. "Now. I do not understand, how you chose, or why."

Geordi stepped away from the android, looked at the probe and downloaded its conclusions at his work bench. Then focused again on his friend.

Data still looked a mess, despite the temporary synthskin covering the implant areas. Being immersed in raw plasma gasses had not only dissolved the Borg implanted flesh, but had also wiped out all of his biomechanical interfaces. The Borg had somehow grown the flesh they had implanted directly into Data's neural net. With the flesh gone the circuit interfaces looked more reminiscent of tree roots than anything mechanical. Data's standard bioneural packages were already being grown in sick bay and would be ready later that day for reimplantation. The problem lay with how to disentangle the areas where the Borg had interfaced.

Geordi walked back, leaving the probe on the bench. "I'm used to this kind of sight, Data." He shrugged then released the android from the diagnostic stand. "Biological eyes just seemed limited. I felt I had blinkers on, only one level of vision." He shrugged again. " I've got used to more."

"And I to less." Data murmured. Almost to himself.

He rubbed his right arm, where the temporary synthskin covered a numb area. That area would stay numb until Geordi and he found a solution to his altered circuitry.

It had felt so different, so precious that donated flesh. Breath on his arm, lips whispering kisses across his closed eyelid. He shuddered at the memory, at how beguiling it was, and how horrific.

Geordi rested a concerned hand on his shoulder.

Geordi was one of the few people who touched him regularly, Data took the comfort offered. And felt grateful, but he wished himself living sometime in the future, when he had worked out these feelings and would not have to deal with this crippling, ambivalent regret.

*****

"Regrets? Beverly you know me better than that."

Jean-Luc raised his glass to his friend then took a sip, losing himself in the burgundy depths for a moment. The silence from across the table threatened to stretch into significance.

He looked up, met searching blue with guileless grey.

Beverly looked at him, exasperated. What a surprise that reaction was. She ought to know better. In that, at least, he was right.

Sometimes she wondered what she liked about him. Arrogant, self righteous, self bloody contained. What did he need his friends for?

She realised that she was still angry at him for listening to Lily when the rest of them had been cowed into letting him have his suicidal way with the ship and the crew. She thought she had dealt with that, but then to answer her flippantly when she was trying to get some sort of depth of response from him. He pushed all her buttons.

On 'that' day she had heard his evacuation order and had made for her assigned evac-pod with a feeling of mingled relief and resentment. The resentment had turned to fear when she had looked for him, automatically, as they regrouped on the ground. But she hadn't been surprised, and wasn't really surprised now.

Tossing back her hair she opened her mouth ready to do battle. He stalled her by taking the hand she had on the table in a firm warm grip. He shook his head, a small movement. Held her gaze.

"About destroying the Borg, never, no regrets. About my behaviour?" He looked at his hand over hers. "Shamed beyond belief, Beverly."

"Oh Jean-Luc." She grabbed his other hand and brought it to join their already joined hands in the middle of the table. "What do you feel you've done to be ashamed of?"

"Now you sound like Deanna. Changing professions Doctor?" He raised a wry eyebrow.

She smiled at him, ignoring the tears that wanted to prick at her eyes. The ship was filling up with the family members of those who had died. The memorial service loomed tomorrow, a concert was scheduled for tonight. Mozart's 'Requiem' of course, with its sublime mixture of mourning and celebration. For mutual support they were going together.

The silence extended for a moment, then he lifted her hand in his and held it against his cheek, closing his eyes and turning his head slightly to breath in her scent. He needed her with an intensity that hurt, his nerves felt flayed, and he still had to get through tomorrow.

He opened his eyes again and, with the ease of long practice, schooled his features into friendly interest, away from the passion that threatened his hard won composure. This dinner was supposed to be a neutral oasis for both of them. He let go of her hand and sat back in his seat.

" So what's the great secret, Beverly? You've been wearing that smile all evening." He changed verbal gears so adroitly Beverly was left gasping in his wake. "A mystery to stir the blood?" He grinned at her innocently.

Despite her irritation, this was practised flirting, she glided into its well charted waters like a swan.

"Blood, what blood? Medically certified icewater, issued to all Captains on commissioning." She pouted at him then smiled. " An old friend will also be arriving tomorrow."

The eyebrow raised again. " Now. Can't say I think much of their timing. Who is it?"

"Leah, you remember, Leah Brahms. She's coming to supervise the core re- alignment."

Picard frowned slightly." How come you know this and I missed it? When is she coming aboard? Does Geordi know ?"

"I expect you missed her name, so many people are coming aboard for the service." Beverly winced slightly as she realised she had brought up the memorial again.

She switched subjects, determined to lighten the mood.

"She called me. We have some mutual friends from my time at Starfleet medical. She asked after us all, after you, and Geordi. She's heard about his new eyes." Beverly's smile widened a little. " She claims she's professionally interested in the engineering."

Jean-Luc looked alarmed at the wicked look on Beverly's face. "She's married Beverly."

Beverly lifted her glass and toasted him over the rim. "Not any more, Jean- Luc. Divorced four years now." She met his eyes, then drank her wine.

Picard smiled slightly to himself, remembering meeting Geordi in a future he tried not to think about too often. Married, a parent, patently happy.

"To possibilities." He toasted Beverly and also drained his wine. " Come on, we'll be late for the concert." Standing, he held out his hand to her. She rose gracefully to her feet, stood too close to him for a moment, aware, as always, of his clean scent and raw heat.

His hand tightened around hers, the pressure almost painful. She turned to pick her wrap off the back of her chair and broke the familiar spell. Turned back and caught his eye.

" The concert." She whispered.

" Oh yes, mustn't miss the concert." His mellow voice was slightly ragged.

Beverly tugged on his hand, and he came tamely enough. She wondered for a moment why she felt as if she had the tail of a tiger in her grip.

*****

Leah Brahms sat in the intimate dark of the shuttle transporting her to the Enterprise from the Utopia Planetia yards, and wondered what it was about Melissa Porter.

The woman was sitting in the seat across the aisle, occasionally inclining her oval face to attend to the six year old sitting beside her. Leah couldn't help noticing that even when she bent over the boy it was with the grace of a reed in the wind, her hair suggesting silk as it slipped over her shoulder, concealing her face from the watching engineer.

She was so perfect she was repellent. She made Leah feel like a brown mouse, one that the cat had played with for an unfortunate amount of time and left on the rug for its owners to find.

"Whatever it is she should bottle it." Leah thought to herself sourly as she peered again at the screen of the padd on her knee. The core specs that had occupied her time and attention over the past three weeks suddenly seemed irrelevant. She glanced back at the couple, then away, out of the port to the blackness beyond. Her own ghostly face seemed to mock her, reflected in the dim cabin light.

She found herself comparing the blackness of space to the remembered warm darkness of Geordi's skin.

" You," She admonished herself, "are getting maudlin."

She pushed her thoughts roughly back into the practical groove that came so naturally to her. Practical. That was definitely her, efficient too, and other cold adjectives. It was good armour, it had allowed her to overcome the handicap of being small and pretty and allowed other engineers to take her seriously. It protected her; and like a sword worn with armour it was two edged.

The sun lit the disc of the Enterprise as the shuttle swung round ready to dock. Shining, fragile, testament to humanity's audacity it looked impossible hanging in space. She had been involved in nearly every part of its design, there was a kind of inevitability about being involved in fixing her. Her eyes were dragged without her volition away from its shining splendour to the reality of the human child sitting opposite.

He had caught sight of the same apparition through the port next to him and called out, wordless, excited. His mother bent to him again, murmured something in his ear. To Leah's annoyance it was as if she had turned off a light, he looked away from the starship as if it had burned him, the violence of his rejection swinging him round to meet Leah's stare. In his empty blue eyes she saw a coldness that made her heart cry out in recognition. His head dipped, hiding the truth behind his straw blond fringe and Leah found herself looking once again at the perfect profile of Melissa Porter.

"Now what did she have to do that for?" Leah thought feeling for the miserable child. " Isn't loosing his father enough?"

Melissa was one of the many widows created by the Borg incursion. Paul Porter, Geordi's engineering chief, had been one of the first assimilated by the Borg. Another family tragedy to lay at the Borg's feet, Leah supposed, one of many to be laid to rest at the memorial service to be held on the repaired Enterprise today.

Leah wondered, indulging herself for a moment, if Melissa would have bothered to come if the service was not going to be transmitted to half the Federation, live. She had certainly never heard that the Porters had had a strong marriage, with Melissa's PR career it amazed Leah that they had even managed enough time together to produce a child.

"Meow" Leah thought to herself, guiltily.

The pilot called back that docking would commence in two minutes and Leah turned her attention to gathering her scattered belongings.

Her padd had slipped into the crack in the seat behind her and she was occupied for a moment in prising it out of the upholstery. A familiar bump announced their arrival in the docking bay and as the lock swished open she was happy to smell the Enterprise's unique fresh air filling the shuttle. 'Home' some basic part of her insisted, despite her lack of ship time lately.

Melissa had gathered her son and her two bags up in one smooth movement and was now standing, framed by the shuttle's door, gazing at the interior of the docking bay. She paused.

'Making an entrance" thought Leah sourly, stalled behind the pair.

Leah watched as the woman walked down the ramp and into the bay with the little boy beside her trotting to keep up. Leah stayed back in the shadows as Melissa was welcomed on board by the Captain himself.

"Mrs Porter, I wish we were meeting again in better circumstances." Jean- Luc swallowed as the impact of the woman's beauty threatened to make him stutter. "My Chief Medical Officer, Dr Beverly Crusher."

Melissa turned the searchlight of her attention away from him and allowed him to swipe at the remains of his composure. " And Ensign Jolene Matthew's. She will escort you and your son to your quarters."

The searchlight swung back, impaled him on ice blue. " I know the way Captain. It was my husband's home, and I think it rather late for the Doctor's help. Come on Toby." She swept away heading for the bay door.

Ensign Matthew's cast an agonised glance at her commanding officer, who had a face set like stone, then at Dr Crusher, who glanced at Jean-Luc then met the woman's eye and nodded at the departing pair. The Ensign escaped after them, gratefully.

"Nice woman." Beverly commented sotto voce.

Jean-Luc glanced at her witheringly and then examined the manifest he had on a padd. "She's the last. I'll see you at 1400 hrs Doctor." He turned on his heel and marched out of the cargo bay.

Beverly felt a tide of prickly heat rising to her ears. Burning with suppressed emotion, she watched him out of the door then swung around and felt her feelings undergo another upheaval as she spotted Leah walking slowly down the shuttle's exit ramp. Leah's eyes were as big as saucers.

"Miss Federation popularity done her thing again?" Leah pulled Beverly into a hug. "He shot out of here like the Borg came back!"

Beverly felt a hysterical giggle coming on and hid her mouth with her hand. Leah held her at arms length and looked at her for a moment.

"Still pining huh?"

Beverly felt her lips twitch again and drew her brows together in an effort to look severe.

"Nice to see you too, Leah." She steered her out of the docking bay and they made their way to the turbolift. "And I have never pined for anything in my life!"

*****

"Ro"

In the instrument light cast by the shuttle's control panel Twiss's face looked even more green and elfin than usual. The black stubble of his hair blended into the darkened cabin roof making his face look like a mask, an impression emphasised by the welt that twisted his face from jaw to temple. Laren felt the small hairs stand up on the back of her neck, and was aware of just how tense she was as that reaction registered.

"What?" she snapped, curt. The intersecting lines on the screen in front of her crept closer and closer, as they inched into place.

Twiss glanced over her shoulder, horizontal in free fall, so that Laren was aware of the faint rasp of his hair against her ear. Satisfied he pushed back with a small grunt, jacknived up to the roof and swung gracefully off a handhold.

"Chrome's losing it back there." Twiss waved with the languid ease of one bought up in free fall, swayed back to see her face.

Ro Laren's intense concentration never wavered, the lines crept closer to intersection and her hands hovered over the controls, as if she didn't trust the computer to do as it was told. The orange light sparked off the earring in her ear, silhouetted the head set she wore plugged into the other ear, glittered in her eye as she turned slightly to see her weapons officer.

"Deal with it." Her voice was low and dangerous.

Twiss stayed, unmoved, secure in his indispensability. Ro turned back, dismissing him from her mind. The lines met and a small orange ball flashed in the middle of the screen. Ro let out the breath she had been unaware that she had been holding and leaned back in the seat, her nose brushed Twiss' feet.

"Deal. With. It. Twiss."

Ro ducked away from his legs and pulled out the command padd she had interfaced under the control panel, started scrolling through the tightly packed information again, checking and rechecking for errors, some loophole that had evaded her so careful planning.

Twiss let go of the hand hold, floated gently face up, then let himself float down until the back of his head rested lightly on the back of Laren's chair.

"He's shed almost all of his outer crystals, and the mix of perfumes back there is......startling."

Ro tipped her head back and groaned.

"If he loses the second layer we won't be able to use him." Twiss continued, languidly. "Then we can all go home."

They both heard the wind chime sound of another crystal detaching itself from its host, back in the main body of the ship.

Ro savagely pushed the padd back into its reader and unclipped her harness. The violence of her movements shot her out of her chair and pushed her up against the ceiling, Twiss anchored one arm around her vacated chair and plucked her down. Ro remembered not to struggle as Twiss aimed her at the door and gave her a push.

"I'll watch, you are so much more diplomatic, Ro." Twiss rotated about his axis and rested in mid air, nose pointed at the readout.

Ro hung in the doorway for a second then shrugged, phase two wasn't for hours yet, and she had better deal with Chrome. He too was essential.

Chrome, beautiful, even surrounded by a cloud of orbiting crystals, was at the centre of a fug of conflicting flower scents. Ro had been warned they were sensitive, Karatids; she had tried really hard to find some other answer to the problems posed by this mission. She sighed, then picked up an aerosol from a rack near the door and sprayed a fine mist of water. The effect on the Karatid and the fug was dramatic, the air cleared as if by magic and the alien stilled, trembling and chiming slightly as the orbiting crystals bumped into it.

Ro pulled herself closer to it, then used a finger to unlock a cabinet above her head, pulling out an intricately cut glass container.

"Just one microsquirt, Chrome. One squirt of number five and then I expect you to calm down. There will be no payment if you don't perform."

Ro had no idea how the Karatid listened, she knew it understood her and had understood the deal they had negotiated on the space station. In its addiction to human perfumes It had made itself vulnerable, and useful.

The being shuffled over towards her. It chimed, whining. "Too hard, too hard, you trick, trick I, I. How may I stay calm in here?" The last cadence was almost inaudible.

Ro squirted the perfume, rather sickened by the creature's self pity. She pushed her hand over her eyes as the dazzling colours flushed across the crystal surface in response to the perfume.

"Just stop, stop the ship and leave me. The price is to high." The Karatid shuffled back again, fazing out from its hit "Hard, hard, hard , hard." it rang a descending scale, finally becoming quiescent in the corner.

It should surface again about when it was needed, judged Ro. Junkies always made her skin crawl, she hated the idea of giving up control to anyone, let alone some chemical. She locked the cut glass bottle in the cabinet and re-entered the front cabin.

Twiss sprawled in the air above the consol like a dozy Cheshire cat. He raised an eyebrow at her. She batted his feet away from her face and pulled herself into her command chair. Sinuous he twisted away from the viewport, bared teeth in what might have been a grin.

"Go back and clean up, Twiss." She turned her attention back to the padd, dismissing him from her mind. " Unless you fancy breathing crystal all the way back to the border?"

"More likely to worry our passenger than me, I can sleep." Twiss floated doorward. " Need to keep my touch, Ro. Hate to doze off when I'm fiddling the transport, messy." For a moment he loomed behind her, menacing, then in a swirl of air he was gone.

"Long spoons, Laren." Ro twisted her hair away from her face and plugged in the com unit, feeling dirty. "That's what he would say. When you sup with the devil..." She cut the thought short and turned again to the plan.

***** Soft Touch by Rosemary Cullen

2/? [PG] TNG/post First Contact (D:P/C:G) Paramount is. It all belongs to them. I am playing without permission. (But it's fun :) Warning AAA story ( Awful Angst Alert) No sex so far and not much violence, a bit of bad language. Data gets lost and found, so does Picard. Geordi finds Leah but will Picard find Crusher? Ro finds true love and the Macqui cause trouble with some weird aliens.

As the visitors on the Enterprise started filing into the ship's chapel for the memorial service; Data sat on the blue squashy couch in his quarters, leaning against the corner, one leg up the other down, cuddling Spot's warmth to his chest.

He stroked her fine fur, ears to tail, over and over again, the counterpoint of Spot's enchanted purring creating a soundtrack for his thoughts. Thoughts at present as blue as the upholstery he was sitting on. As dark as the eye she had given him.

In the shiny wall panel opposite he could see the reflection of the green red and yellow LED's exposed on the side of his face, evidence of his difference, as if evidence was needed.

The memories circled, like vultures. Waiting to catch him like this, unoccupied. He closed his eye to the accusing reflection and she was there, as always, as close as the skin she had given him, entirely desirable. She had left him an illusion of choice, delivered pleasure, and killed nearly half his shipmates. Data wondered if she had killed something inside him too, the last of his innocence perhaps.

Spot patted at his face and he looked down into her accusing lettuce eyes. He had stopped his obsessive stroking.

He smoothed his palm over her fur again, deliberately, feeling with all the intensity left to him, the warm silk of her. It wasn't enough. He had a ghost memory of what it had felt to touch with human flesh, the exquisite rawness of it. His appalled reaction when she had hurt him by scratching grooves in his arm was as excruciating now, in his memory, as it had been shocking at the time. Sensation had tied him to her with bonds that made duranium seem brittle.

Grief battered at his throat. She was dead and he had killed her and now he should get up, spray synthskin over his betraying endoskeleton and accept the Federation's commendations for that betrayal.

The door chirped at him.

Data sat up and moved Spot down to his lap. She settled immediately, curled quickly into a firm ball defying eviction.

Data rested a hand on her back then attended to the door.

"Enter"

Geordi came in towing Leah by the hand.

"Data, look who's come to sort us out, she thinks she can work out a way....You're not ready. Data the ceremony starts in five minutes, get a move on!"

Data flicked a glance over Leah and then looked down at his lap and the cat pretending to be asleep on it. The twinkling lights outlining his left cheek pulled the eye.

"I cannot go Geordi."

"What! Waddya mean you can't go? Data, the Captain will be waiting for you. Data what is it, tell me? Come on buddy, this is not the time to lose that famous courage."

Geordi crossed over to the couch and crouched down in front of his friend, trying for eye contact.

" Courage?" Looking up, Data's remaining eye blazed into Geordi's, like a tiger's.

"You of all people know I'm a coward, Geordi. God knows I have demonstrated it to you enough times. In not going I am at least being honest. Bravery is apparently beyond me, is it essential to have me demonstrate my capacity for hypocrisy?"

Geordi sat back on his heels, looked up at Leah who was still standing by the door where he had left her. She returned his regard with a 'don't ask me' look, shrugging her shoulders eloquently.

Geordi shook his head at Data. "You're wrong Data. I haven't got time now to tell you, but you're wrong. Do you want me to tell the Captain?"

Data looked at him again, his anger moderated by Geordi's kindness. "You would do that?"

Geordi punched him lightly on the arm. "You're on Data, but you'll owe me."

Data was looking at Spot again, trying to subdue his need to cry. He looked up as Geordi and Leah moved to the door, ready to go.

He looked so lost and alone, sitting on his couch with his cat. His naked vulnerability brought a lump to Geordi's throat. He had had little time to see the depth of his friend's despair in the rush to get engineering operational.

"Are you going to be all right until after the service, Data? I'm coming back as soon as its over, but I have to go now."

Data dredged up a smile that cut a strip from Geordi's heart.

" I will be fine. I am sorry, Geordi, I wish ......" He shook his head again, a movement of anxious bewilderment that spoke louder than words of his internal confusion.

The door, sliding shut, cut off their final view of him, stroking Spot in absent minded abstraction.

In the gentle light of the corridor the violence of the emotion that shook Geordi seemed almost ridiculous. Following him in tightly reined silence round the first corner, Leah jumped as Geordi whirled and slammed his fist into the impervious wall panelling.

He recoiled, and clutched his split fist to his stomach, hunching with the pain, ending up leaning against the opposite wall.

Leah hated this. She felt as if she had walked into the middle of a cheap holonovel, without the benefit of knowing what had gone before. She stalled for an instant, watching as Geordi slowly lifted his bruised knuckles to his lips. He still had his eyes closed and some of his internal struggle twisted his mouth against that hand.

"Geordi?" She stepped close to him as some crewmembers strode past them, shielded him from their incurious eyes with her body.

"Geordi?" She spoke again and raised a hesitant hand, finally giving into temptation and smoothing her hand across his creased brow then down to the hand he still held against his mouth.

"Let me see." She pulled his hand away by tugging gently on his arm, and he opened his eyes, the startling blue of his mechanical iris mesmerising. She broke whatever communication was going on, dropped her eyes to examine the graze on the back of his hand.

"Don't hurt yourself, Geordi." She risked his gaze again, watched him blinking, getting himself under control. " Let's not give the Borg the license to ruin any more lives."

LeForge extracted his sore hand from hers, closed hers in his whole one. The electric warmth of the contact startled them both and, once again, they held each other's eyes, searching for understanding.

The impersonal tones of the ship's computer broke jarringly into the moment. " All personnel and visitors. For the duration of the memorial service, now commencing on deck eight, you are reminded that only essential areas will be manned. All crewmembers and visitors are welcome to attend or observe the ceremony. Normal Operations are expected to recommence at sixteen hundred hours."

Geordi and Leah moved as one towards the nearest turbolift, bound by duty but not unaware of the strengthening bond forming between them.

******

In his quarters, Data heard the announcement and was assailed by doubt. What the 'right' thing to do was becoming increasingly difficult to work out. A sudden need for action gripped him and he tipped Spot onto the floor and paced around his quarters. Nothing had changed from before the Borg attack and somehow, given his internal turmoil, that was unbearable.

Spot stalked, tail flicking in disdain, under his desk and settled, indifferent, in her basket.

" And a lot of help you are."

Data bent in an effort to see his pet, misjudged where his hand was and knocked the holocube of Tasha on to the floor where it activated. He looked at the shimmering figure in disbelief. He knew that monocular vision interfered with his depth perception but this was the first time in his life he had ever been clumsy. Pain, like an assassin, twisted his stomach as he picked up the cube to deactivated it. It was too much. He had the illogical conviction that the fates were conspiring to overwhelm him and a red tide of anger rose to wipe out the agony in his chest. With a convulsive spasm he crumpled the holocube in his fist and threw it, with all his strength, at and through the monitor that sat on his desk. As the fizzing electronics extinguished themselves he ran out of his quarters.

In the deserted corridor he paused only for an instant, rage was giving way to a deep need to go away, to hide from everyone and everything until he could reach some sort of balance. Decision made he stepped into the nearest turbolift and leaned against the bright walls as the doors swished shut behind him.

"Deck sixteen" He told the computer at its prompt. The turbolift surged smoothly into action and for the first time in three weeks Data let himself relax.

*****

Toby did not feel like a big boy. Toby, minute and alone in the echoing basement of a huge ship, felt the weight of every deck that hung like doom over his head. There was no one here. In the dim, standby lighting the deck curved in on itself like a worm, the starstudded blackness outside each port pressing in on him until he lowered his eyes to the toes of his new white shoes and trudged on.

"Computer?" His voice sounded like a whistle, he knew Mummy would be ashamed of it. He cleared his throat as the wonderful, friendly computer answered him.

"Working"

"How much longer 'til I get there?"

"At your current rate of progress, five point five minutes."

" How long is a minute, Computer?"

" A minute is divided into sixty seconds. It is one sixtieth of an hour."

That sounded like a lot of time. Toby felt relieved, with that much time he could stop and have a drink from his special 'Starfleet Cadet' bottle, being scared sure made you thirsty.

He sat down on the floor of the corridor and pulled his bag off his back. Engrossed in pulling out Teddy, and then his drink bottle, and then getting the tight pop top off so that he could have a drink, he missed the sound of the turbolift door opening some fifty metres down the corridor.

Data could not believe what he was seeing. This, the bottom of the ship, was always deserted. The quarters unformatted space, only used in emergency evacuation. It had been his unofficial bolthole ever since he had discovered its peace on one of his off duty midnight rambles. Yet here was a human child, dressed in blue shorts, a black jacket with stars on it, his skinny legs poking out of sneakers that looked two times the size of his feet, sitting in the middle of the companionway, picnicking. For an unreasoning moment he thought he might be hallucinating. Then the little boy looked up and saw him.

There was nothing unreal about the pure note of terror that ripped out of the child's throat as he saw Data advancing on him. In a blind panic he tried to push himself away and up the wall behind him, never letting up on his terrible ululating wail.

It stopped Data cold. Involuntarily he brought his hand up to cover the flashing diodes on his face that were the obvious object of the boy's terror.

As he covered the lights the boy's panic broke. He managed to scramble to his feet and he darted away down the corridor, rebounding off the walls as he tried to run and look over his shoulder at the same time.

"Wait." Data snatched up the boy's belongings and set off after him, catching up quickly despite the desperate boy's fear augmented speed.

Toby looked over his shoulder for the last time, gasped to see Data so close and caroomed off yet another wall, ricocheting back into the android's arms.

Tears streamed down Toby's face as he struggled futily in Data's grip.

" Please don't kill me Mr Borg. Oh please, please don't." He twisted to look at the suddenly rigid android's face. " Mummy needs me to look after her."

Paralysed by horror at Toby's naming of him, Data sank to the ground. Sat, still holding the boy's arm, pulling the desperate child into a twisted half kneel beside him. Toby sobbed, tugging futily at his adamantine grip. Data looked at the child, and something registered, he opened his hand.

Toby ran off as quick as he could round the curve of the corridor. Ran until he could run no more, then tripped and fell full length on the floor, and lay there, sobbing. Waiting for the Borg to take him as they had taken his Daddy. " I'm sorry Mummy, I'm sorry Mummy." He choked, over and again. Until he ran down to gulps, and sniffs, and finally out of tears all together. He dared to open his eyes. Nothing happened, he remained alone in the corridor. Not getting up he twisted his head to look over his shoulder. There was no flashing Borg man. He scooted over to the wall and saw the com panel.

"Computer?"

"Working."

"Where's the Borg man."

" There are no Borg on this ship."

The computer sounded pretty sure, Toby felt cautious. He crept up to the corner until he could see a long way down the empty corridor. There sure didn't seem to be any Borg men. He sniffed convulsively and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Thinking.

"Computer? Who else is on this deck with me?"

"Lieutenant Commander Data is the only other occupant of deck sixteen at this time."

Toby felt his whole face and neck turn hot. He stomach churned, everyone knew about Data. Even nerdy three year olds in the crèche knew about him. He was the hero of half of Toby's class at school and they had just finished a project on him. Toby wished the floor would swallow him. It didn't.

As the tide of embarrassment waned Toby squared his shoulders and marched purposefully back down the corridor, ignoring the occasional gulp that still wanted to remind him he had been crying.

It seemed a long way back, Toby was beginning to hope that Mr Data had just been a funny bad dream. One that he had had awake instead of asleep. Mummy was always telling him off for daydreaming, perhaps this was what she meant.

His wish evaporated as he rounded a last corner and found his nemesis, still sitting on the floor, his head tilted back against the wall. He had Toby's bag and Teddy under one hand. Slowly Toby came closer, then he gasped. Mr Data was crying. Not noisily like Toby would, but his face was a mask of grief and tears streamed out of his closed eyelid, dripping off the side of his face on to the shoulder of his uniform.

Toby's soft heart melted in an instant. He felt his own tears start again in sympathy.

Data heard and came back to the present. The remembered, underlying, chittering communication, linking him to her, had once again almost overwhelmed him with its promise of belonging, the end of turmoil. The reality of the child banished her with a jolt of overwhelming surprise.

"Do not cry." Data reached out, slowly, supplicating. Toby took a wary step back.

"Mr Data?" Toby rubbed his face again with the sleeve of his jacket. Sniffed, and stopped crying.

Data nodded, content to be still, to marvel at human resilience yet again. He sincerely doubted that he would have come back.

"May I have my things?"

Data wordlessly handed the bag and teddy over and watched as Toby concentrated on getting the one into the other.

Finally Toby stood, sturdy and mottle faced but sufficient, bag on his back. Ready to go.

"I'm sorry." He said at last, looking at his toes, at the wall, anywhere but at the lights on Data's face. "Its kinda scary down here, and Dad...you know."

"I am the one who is sorry." Data wiped his left cheek with the back of his right hand, leaned forward onto his drawn up knees." I did not mean to scare you, I was." Data paused for a second." Surprised." He concluded after the small hesitation.

Toby twisted the toe of his sneaker into the pile of the carpet.

"Mum sent me." He sounded slightly defiant, risked a quick glance at Data's face.

"Oh." Data looked away down the empty, unused corridors, then back at Toby. Waiting.

"She's going to pick me up."

Once again Data said nothing but looked around the unformatted and deserted deck. He looked at Toby, who's lip was quivering slightly again.

"Where is she to meet you?" Data rose to his feet in a move of uncoiled grace. "Did she give you co-ordinates?"

Toby's brow furrowed a little." She told me to wait by the door that goes into the Captain's Gig." He looked at the patiently waiting Android "She said ask the computer, so I did."

"So you did." Data smiled at the child, the look of genuine amusement transforming his face from frightening to friendly in a moment. He squatted on his heels.

"Would you like some company while you wait?"

Toby stood back for a moment, considering. It would be nice not to be alone, and Data hadn't reacted like most grown ups. Anyone else would have told him off he was sure. For being here, for being by himself, for running away.

"Is it a long way?" He looked into Data's amber eye and tried to ignore the diodes.

Data shook his head and stood, holding out his hand. Toby's slipped into his. "A couple of minutes." He pointed down the corridor Toby had fled down so recently. "Shall we go?"

******

Melissa Porter looked like an alabaster statue, poised in front of the company gathered for the memorial service. The spotlight gleamed off her sleek hair, surrounded her in a halo of light as she gathered herself to address the service on behalf of the bereaved. The silence lengthened as she waited for every eye to be on her.

Beverly felt a sudden distaste for her theatricality. 'Performance artist.' She thought.

Deanna must have felt her flash of spite because she glanced her way, inscrutable. Beverly felt like coughing to spoil Melissa's opening, squashed the feeling before it could slip out. Glanced habitually over to Jean-Luc to distract herself. He looked grave and martial, and worn to the bone. Beverly thought how adversity seemed to refine him, stripping him to his steel core. 'But if I touch him he may shatter' she mused, schooling her features to reveal nothing.

" Families, Starfleet, Federation citizens. We are here to mourn our dead, to say a final farewell."

Melissa's voice was like honey, smooth. She looked down at the wood of the podium, paused to stoke the carved curves then looked up, gathering the room with her eyes.

"Death took the innocent with the evil, the attacker with the attacked. We are asked to forgive."

Her gaze travelled the room as her words filled the silence. Finally she rested her regard on Picard. It was as if she weighed him, judge and jury and him wanting.

His face remained like stone.

"That is the way we are taught, to forgive. To love our enemies and forgive their transgressions. It brings us peace." Melissa leaned forward on the podium.

"At what price peace?"

Beverly's mouth opened in shock, others in the audience looked bewildered. Melissa gave no time for recovery.

" We are invaded, we triumph, we are expected to forgive? Our borders are challenged, we are attacked, we are expected to forgive? We are threatened by enemies, the Borg, the Romulans, the Cardassians. We negotiate and make shameful bargains, and we are meant to forgive?"

Melissa's voice had risen steadily, controlling the growing murmurs with professional delivery.

"Families will not forgive. Children without fathers, will not forgive. Citizens without homelands, will not forgive."

She moved around the podium and ended up standing in front of Picard. The spotlight followed her. Illuminating the passion that had gradually flushed her perfect complexion. In contrast Picard seemed more and more distant, rooted, impervious.

"The responsibility to act seems to rest on the shoulders of those who will not forgive."

" You." Her voice dropped to a stage whisper, the room strained forward as one to hear her.

" The Borg, the Cardassians, the Romulans and now the Borg again. The universe does not seem to be able to do without you."

She moved again so she was standing beside him. He did not so much as turn his head, moving only as she completed her next statement.

"You will be our hostage. Your ransom, change."

Too late the security forces reacted. Too late Picard started out of his chair. The fizzing blue of a transport beam enveloped both Melissa and Picard, and pandemonium broke out amongst the startled mourners.

Riker leapt to his feet and spun around to locate the Security Chief and the rest of the command staff.

The computer's calm tones filled the void left by Melissa Porter's passion.

"Attempted beam in deck sixteen. Automatic defence procedures have been initiated. Red Alert."

The room erupted like an ant's nest stirred with a stick. The recent memory of the Borg was fresh in all minds.

Riker gathered his crew together by eye, shouting orders over the turmoil.

"Command staff to bridge, Counsellor you're here. Security deck sixteen." Then he was off.

*****

Soft Touch by Rosemary Cullen

3/5 [PG] TNG/post First Contact (D:P/C:G) Paramount is. It all belongs to them. I am playing without permission. (But it's fun :) Warning AAA story ( Awful Angst Alert) No sex so far and not much violence, a bit of bad language. Data gets lost and found, so does Picard. Geordi finds Leah but will Picard find Crusher? Ro finds true love and the Macqui cause trouble with some weird aliens.

"When did your mother say she would pick you up?" Data had watched Toby fidgeting outside the entry door to the Captain's Yacht for a quarter of an hour and was wondering how much longer he would need to stay with the child.

Toby glanced up at him, uncomfortable again, now that all he had to do was wait.

" She said 'Be good and I'll come soon'." Toby hauled Teddy into his arms. "She made me promise not to go anywhere without her." Toby's nose was watering again and he dragged his abused jacket sleeve across it, then gazed in dismay at the less than attractive mess left behind.

"Mum gets cross when I'm messy." He said in a small voice. He looked at Data, all eyes and appeal. "Do you think she'll be cross about this." He waved the offending arm.

Data, sitting cross legged on the floor on the other side of the corridor was ambushed by irritation at the boy's mother. He squelched the feeling, and shook his head wordlessly, reassuring the boy, resolved at the same time to satisfy his curiosity over what she had thought she was doing by sending Toby here.

Toby was jiggling again, from one foot to the other now.

"Mr Data?"

"Yes Toby"

"I really need to go somewhere, you know?" Those eyes looked at him anxiously.

"Oh." Data inclined his head, reviewed the floor plan of deck sixteen and realised that bathroom facilities were not part of unformatted space.

Toby was looking as if he might cry again. Data, watching him, found in himself a profound need to prevent that from happening. His eye was caught by the sign above Toby's head.

'Yacht Access. Authorised personnel only.'

The Yacht was self contained, it had facilities. It would definitely be one up on a puddle.

"Come on Toby." He stood and moved to the access panel beside the door and input his command code. " We can deal with the bathroom and your jacket in here."

Toby slipped his hand into Data's again as the airlock swished open to reveal the plush interior of the Gig.

"Cool." Toby said, with open mouthed appreciation. Tugging on Data's hand he walked inside.

Data left the airlock door open and followed the tourist. Used mainly for transporting VIP's, the Captain's Gig was unexpectedly luxurious.

" The aft head's there." Data pointed at a universally marked room. Toby was off in an instant, the door swinging twice with the urgency of his passage.

Data found himself smiling after the boy, held on to the moment and moved into the lounge portion of the main deck. As his infallible memory had told him, there was a replicator in the wall.

The door to the head opened more sedately and Toby came out.

"If you bring your jacket down here we'll get the replicator to clean it."

Toby pulled his bag off his back again and struggled to get one of his arms out of the starry sleeves. The two operations got tangled as he walked down the ramp, so he let Data peel him out of the other arm, spinning with the turn into one of the deep velvety couches lining the walls of the lounge. He bounced experimentally as Data loaded the offending garment into the replicator slot and set the controls.

"Mummy said."

Data, his back to the boy, allowed himself to pull a face. Toby's Mother had some explaining to do.

"Mummy said that I was to keep the jacket on. Its too hot really but she made me promise. I didn't mean to get it dirty."

Data turned to reassure the boy but Toby beat him to it. "Why is it going that funny blue colour, Data?"

"What?" Data spun back to the replicator only to see the whole jacket de- materialising. " No I only set it for clean....!"

Data took a step towards the vanishing jacket, as if to grab it before it was gone for good. He was too late. He turned back to Toby who looked stricken, remembering his mother's lecture about keeping the jacket on.

Data saw the air distort behind the boy in the beginning of another transport event and reacted instantly. He lunged forward, grabbed Toby and started up the ramp out of the lounge at a full run.

Behind him the confinement beam failed to resolve as the Enterprise's automatic defence program kicked in.

" Red Alert."

*****

"Beam me again!" Melissa pushed herself away from the transport console and held the short bladed knife she had pulled from her sleeve to Twiss' neck. "Beam me back, you slimy piece of Targ bile. I have to get Toby!"

Twiss' eyes rolled towards Ro, strapped in the pilot's seat. Ro shook her head, ignored Melissa's twisted face and glanced at the console in front of her.

"Hold on Melissa! Twiss secure her!"

The little ship rang like a bell as it was slapped by an invisible hand and pitched into tumbling, churning, flight.

"Is he safe?" Ro shouted over the cacophony of creaks and groans to Twiss. In the red emergency lighting Twiss looked demonic. He had twisted Melissa by the wrist into the field of the security restraint that was waiting for her beside the transport console. She lay spread-eagled in its pitiless hold, safe and immobilised.

Ignoring the roller coaster pitching of the ship he leaned forward and checked the status of another panel on his console.

"The packing field is active. He should be OK."

Ro nodded again and shut her eyes briefly as the spinning ship bucked again as if riding a huge wave. " Three seconds to Moon shadow. Two. One. Stabilisers on."

The ship righted and their inner ears told them they were no longer pitching. Ro pushed the green area on her console and they heard thrusters kick in. There was a muffled pattering all around as gravity re-established the position of the floor.

"Chrome?"

A faint chime answered her. She peered at the corner of the cabin, then, annoyed at herself, turned the cabin lights back up with a finger flick at her console. The Karatid was linked into the transporter by two large OD leads.

"Are you still operating?"

"Yes, yes, yes." The floor around the alien was littered with broken crystal. " Soon I go, not now , now." He sounded sad and defeated. Ro didn't care, as long as he was doing his job.

She pushed the clip that secured her harness and spun out of her chair. She crossed to Melissa.

"Let her go."

Twiss growled at her. " She pulled a knife on me."

Ro looked at him, eyes glittering

" I said let. Her. Go."

Twiss shrugged, compliant again, and released the field. He pulled himself out of his own zero G harness and moved to the operations console. Bent his face into the tactical hood.

"No pursuit."

Ro bent over Melissa who had huddled in to herself on the floor. Tugged the blond woman into her arms and held her.

Twiss lifted his head out of the hood in time to see Ro kiss the side of Melissa's face.

Something seemed to snap inside Melissa, she moulded into Ro's embrace.

" What about Toby?"

Ro stroked the corn silk hair. " They'll look after him, they're Federation not Cardassians. If we can get Picard don't you think we can get him? He's safe 'Liss. You're safe, with me at last."

Twiss watched them for a second, light and dark on the floor.

"Touching." He sneered. " Are you going to cuddle all the way back or do you want to check on the hostage?"

Now it was Ro's turn to seem to shrink. " Soon." she muttered. If only someone else had been suitable. Melissa tightened her hold on Ro and looked defiantly up at Twiss.

" This should be and interesting trip." He thought to himself as he turned back to the navigation console. " Very interesting indeed."

*****

The turbolift doors swished open in front of Data, showing the bridge. Riker twisted around in the command chair, registered his presence and jerked his head to Data's Op's console.

"Did the Deanna brief you?"

Data nodded. "She took charge of Toby and asked me to let you know that everything is under control on deck eight. Most of the guests have arranged beam back to McKinley station. The rest are scheduled to be off ship in less than two hours. "

Riker nodded at him then turned back to attend to a page on his communicator and Data swung himself into his familiar chair. Let the routines of accessing sensors and systems engage his attention.

Nothing, no ship, no attack. No Borg. Sensor logs scrolled again, the beam in on deck sixteen registered with no emitting point. Check recheck. No end point for the beam out with Picard and Porter. No end point for the beam out from the Gig.

Data called up the sensor logs for the previous two hours, scrolled the machine language originals.

"Data?"

He answered with one level of attention only, engaged completely in trying to understand.

"Nothing yet, sir." He heard Riker leave the Captain's seat to stand behind him, looking over his shoulder.

'Why no end point? Possibilities, probabilities danced, vying for attention, transporter smear? Inter ship beam? Why no end point?'

The sensor logs caught up to real time, the shields expanding out from the hull like butterfly wings. Sweeping the debris that accumulated near the ship ahead of it. Nothing was there, the beam out had ended at the ship's skin. Data looked again for the signature of the beam in that had sent him running from the Gig. Spread the numbers out on his console and scrolled them so slowly that Riker could read them. Where on the ship's skin? The co- ordinates made no sense, the beam in had come from sixteen separate directions at once.

Data looked up at Riker.

"I need to go to Engineering, Sir. This is most perplexing."

Riker barked an unamused laugh. "Understatement, Data. How soon 'til I can have some answers? Nachayev is already waiting."

Data pushed down the feeling of anger. Riker did not mean to be unreasonable. Data calculated. " With Geordi's help, an hour?"

"Half it commander. We owe him."

Guilt swept Data, he owed the Captain more than any of them realised, only Picard knew the full truth of his recent brush with the Borg. Only Picard had a chance of understanding. Data nodded to Riker and rose to leave his position.

Riker watched as he walked to the turbolift. "Senior officers meeting in one hour Data. Find him." Data nodded and headed for engineering.

*****

"Our guest is not impressed." Twiss came forward again, and sauntered over to the replicator.

" I would have expected nothing less." Ro looked up from the padd she was programming. " Is he comfortable."

"More or less." Twiss sank catlike onto his bunk holding a hot drink. " Have we entered the asteroid belt yet?"

Ro nodded " And passed all but the last buoy. Those codes are still valid thanks to Melissa." Ro smiled over at her partner. "We check out just fine as a private Yacht."

Chrome blissing out in the corner with unlimited access to a bottle of diluted perfume chimed drunkenly. "Home, Homey , homey , homey."

Twiss and Ro met each others eyes uncomfortably. Chrome had lost both his first and second layers. He would not stay sentient much longer.

*****

Leah climbed backwards out of the Jeffries tube and paused at the top of the ladder to look over engineering. Down below, round the bulk of the pulsing blue core, she could see Data and Geordi. Data appeared to be preparing to make a direct link into the ship's system.

'So the last check of the sensor logs had pulled another blank, huh?' Leah thought to herself.

Leah checked the core pulse against the specs in her padd, grunted in satisfaction then climbed the rest of the way down to the floor of Engineering.

As she walked over to the two men she could hear Geordi arguing with Data.

" I wish you wouldn't do this, Data." Geordi was taking readings of Data's head with a handheld diagnostic. Data was sitting at the main frame interface. Several lengths of ODN cable were hanging out of the desk top ready to be plugged in.

Leah heard Data reply but was unable to hear what it was he said. She quickened her pace and was soon close enough to see the frustration creasing Geordi's brow.

"But it's not safe Data. Every time we have tried this you have difficulty pulling yourself out of the information stream."

Geordi spun Data away from the console and put both his hands on his shoulders. "Data, look at me." Data fixed him with one of his mildest looks.

" Promise me. No, I mean it, promise me there is no other way to find this out."

Data tilted his head looking bemused.

"Commander Riker was quite specific Geordi. He wants this information as quickly as possible. I could spend a week instructing the computer to check each sensor trace for anomalies. Or I can interface and find out in seconds." Data seemed to look inward " Its the difference between being told about a sensation and feeling it, Geordi. The computer can't differentiate this information. My duty is clear."

Leah came up behind Geordi. " Why don't you want him to do it, Geordi?"

Geordi spun round to see her and then threw his hands up in defeat.

"Oh Leah, because the last time he tried something like this it kicked in his dream program and he ended up attacking Deanna. The time before that he got mixed up with the holodeck programming."

Geordi paced in small circuit between the computer and the warp core.

"Because he made me promise to try to dissuade him the next time he was tempted to try interfacing his systems with the Enterprise's."

Finally he stopped with his hand on Data's shoulder." Because he's depressed and I don't want to lose him." His voice contained all the compassion Leah had ever heard.

Data reached his own hand to place it over Geordi's.

"It will be OK Geordi. You have the over-ride." He handed the ODN cable to his friend. " We should get on."

Geordi gave Leah a final hopeless look and plugged the cable into Data's cranial access port.

Almost immediately the screen on the mainframe lit up. Multiple feeds of sensor information filled all the reading surfaces with the occasional flash as some relevant bit was shunted to the master screen. Five minutes dragged by, with Geordi dividing his attention between Data and the master screen, until finally the information started coalescing into a coherent whole.

Leah stood over it, reading the conclusions out loud.

"He's found it. Geordi, look, it was a tiny ship disguised as a derelict, powered down." She pulled him over to the screen to see.

" See the sensors filtered it as junk and let it rest on the aft screens It was flicked away when the defensive shields came up, and there's the trajectory."

"Data we've got it. Data?" Geordi hit the over-ride to bring the android out of the loop.

" No.! Data don't you do this to me. You promised." Geordi's face twisted in anger and he hammered at the button.

It was no use, the over-ride was being over-ridden from within the mainframe. Data was not returning from the interface. Geordi spun back to the console and hit all the cut offs. "Leah unplug him. Now!"

Leah pulled the ODN cable from Data's head. The android's eye closed and he sat unresponsive in the chair. One by one, as they watched, the colourful LED's that defined the left side of his face went out, leaving Data inanimate.

" Damn, shit and buggery." Geordi stood helpless before his friend. Then turned to Leah. " How the hell am I going to explain this to Riker?"

****** Soft Touch by Rosemary Cullen

4/5 [PG] TNG/post First Contact (D:P/C:G) Paramount is. It all belongs to them. I am playing without permission. (But it's fun :) Warning AAA story ( Awful Angst Alert) No sex so far and not much violence, a bit of bad language. Data gets lost and found, so does Picard. Geordi finds Leah but will Picard find Crusher? Ro finds true love and the Macqui cause trouble with some weird aliens.

Picard lay on the hard bunk listening to the force field buzzing. It was not much of a stretch to imagine the sound as something else, insects in a meadow perhaps. He shut his eyes and imagined himself elsewhen. LeBarre, with his life ahead. Under the vines in the dappled heat of mid summer. Time had been suspended then, as it was now, creeping through days that seemed endless in their agricultural monotony.

He tried to remember the fire of his ambition, the force that had lifted him from the vineyard and up to the stars. All he achieved was a reactivation of the burning anger he felt at his kidnapping. At the violation of the ceremony that was to bring peace to the many injured, closure to the bereaved.

His eyes snapped open against his will, to reveal the grey ceiling of his cell, he let his gaze wander calming himself in the moiré patterns the force curtain made in the air.

The bunk, a sink, a toilet. A replicator slot with no controls. The sudden bounds of his life. The anger was building again but he was damned if he would give his captors another show.

The only jailer he had seen so far had re-demonstrated the packing field the first time he had visited, he did not want a repeat of that enforced stillness. The green skinned alien had treated him as if he was of no consequence, answered none of his questions but had left a change of clothes so that he could get out of his dress uniform. Black top, grey shirt and pants in a soft material, it gave him no clues, but he suspected Macqui. From Melissa Porter's speech if nothing else.

Picard closed his eyes again attempting to alleviate boredom with sleep. They would be worried. She would be worried, fussing around her sickbay and mothering the ship because she could not mother him.

Riker would be fidgeting, hating the big chair, overmanaging his crew to pull the best from them, to find him.

Data. Ah now, he had meant to talk to Data, find out how he was managing after the damned Borg had left him. Data would find some way to blame this on himself, for not being at the ceremony.

Picard wished he could tell him he had understood. Understood almost too well that feeling of guilt, that need to hide. What a mixed blessing emotions had been for his young friend. Picard suspected that Data had expected emotions to explain the imponderables, life the universe and everything. Only to find they did nothing of the kind. That kindness was nearly absent from the universe in fact, and life was difficult.

Picard drifted finally into sleep, and so missed Ro's first visit. She stared through the force-screen, impressed despite herself at his sang- froid. Found herself almost envying the peace in his sleeping features, for the moment his problems were over. Hers were just beginning, Twiss had detected the Enterprise following their course. Only their size was keeping them safe in the asteroid field and the secrecy of their eventual hideout may have become moot.

*****

"Leah?"

Beverly watched, feeling like a spare part, as the dark haired engineer started to seal the new skin Beverly had incubated onto Data's face. Geordi and Leah were restoring Data's neural net from his original specs. Geordi had neither the patience nor, at present, the inclination to try to replicate the Borg's level of sensitivity. He took Data's continued absence as acquiescence.

Beverly felt goose bumps prickle the skin on her back. It was unnerving to see Leah working around the replaced eye with Data unresponsive. Other times, when he had been turned off to be repaired, he seemed somehow alive. Now it was as if he had never inhabited this body.

"How's getting him back going?"

Geordi re-entered sickbay; he had left to re-calibrate a dermal sealer. He scowled at his friend's inert form and answered for Leah.

"It's not. We're not wasting our time. He can come back when he feels like it." Geordi scowled in the general direction of the computer's visual pick up." The Bynars'll get him out if he is too stubborn to re-integrate before then."

Beverly wrapped her blue coat even more tightly around her middle. The anger in Geordi's voice was hard to deal with. Usually such a gentle man, Data's defection had got at him personally.

Leah looked up from her work and shook her head. " It's not your fault Geordi."

Geordi glared at her. " It isn't. I warned him, I told him. He did it anyway," Geordi scowled at the body on the bed." I've no more time for him, I have work to do." His voice raised in pitch at the last, aimed once again at the computer's pick up.

Data remained inert, despite the ODN cable connecting him to the sickbay computer.

Geordi ran a finger along the cable almost unconsciously, then slapped the regenerator into Leah's hand and started to leave.

"When you've finished Leah, I'll be in engineering." He stomped out of sickbay fuming.

Leah met Beverly's eye for a moment then bent to her work again, smoothing the tangled nerve bundles and re-implanting Data's bioneural packages. Beverly moved so that she could assist her. As they finished they both stood beside the biobed and looked at the inert android.

Beverly brushed a stray hair off Data's forehead. "The trouble is, now he has experienced emotions, he probably understands how much he has hurt Geordi." She smoothed the edges of the new skin. "At least he gave us the clues we needed before he went off line. I remember Jean-Luc telling me that Data has a different time sense, to him a second can be an eternity."

Beverly turned away from Data and started tidying up the instruments Leah had used, trying to cover the lump that had leapt into her throat at the mention of Jean-Luc's name.

Leah was looking at the sickbay door as if she could see Geordi's progress down to engineering through the walls. " Geordi's so upset, Beverly. After all the losses, Picard, and now this."

Hearing someone else's trouble soothed Beverly's, she patted Leah on the shoulder. " Go and help him, Leah. I'll be OK."

Leah heard the undercurrents and looked hard at her friend.

" He's safe you know. It's in their interests to keep him well. A dead hostage is security for nothing."

Beverly shrugged, felt her eyes misting a little. " It's whether he'll act in his own interests that worries me, Leah."

They both looked at the spectacularly unresponsive android in front of them and the comparison was clear. Men were not noted for looking after themselves.

***** "Docking now"

Twiss completed the last system checks and turned to shut down the Ops station.

Ceres was always interesting to rendezvous with. Not only was its orbit eccentric but the political shiftings in the anarchy Belters favoured as government, meant that welcome needed to be negotiated afresh each visit. It appeared that the Karatids were in the ascendant again. They must have struck another O2 lode.

"And our contact is?" He raised an eyebrow at Ro, huddled over her communications station. She had jealously guarded the code she was sending. Twiss doubted she had even told Melissa. Guerrilla games.

Ro ignored him until she had received a reply, then banged her fist in frustration on the console. " It's half way across the asteroid. How in the seven hells are we supposed to get him there with the Enterprise breathing down our necks. The place will be lousy with bounty hunters."

Melissa came and massaged her shoulders, Ro's frown eased a little.

" When will they get here?" Melissa sounded eager. Twiss supposed she was thinking of her son.

Ro must have heard it too. "We won't be able to get him yet 'Liss. All that my contact is arranging is onward transport for the hostage. We will have to lie low for a bit."

Melissa's mouth twisted and she leant forward so that the shining fall of her hair hid her face. "I know. I worry is all." Her voice sounded husky.

Ro reached up and cupped the side of her face. " The Enterprise is an hour away, its too big to take the same route we did, and Ceres won't help them. Anarchists don't think much of Starfleet. They won't help us, but you can be sure they won't help them either. If we can get him to our contact we'll be safe."

"Will he come quietly?" Twiss broke into the moment. " And what about it?" Twiss jerked his head at the misshapen pile of crystal in the corner of the cabin. Chrome had stopped communicating several hours before.

Ro laughed at the idea of Picard co-operating in his own captivity.

" I'll ask him, but I think we will have to sedate him as we planned. We'll take Chrome in the same box. Anti-gravs won't slow us down too much."

" Why do you want to talk to him?" Melissa sat down beside Ro. "He upsets you. You get all tense even when you talk about him. Just knock him out and be done with it, Laren."

Ro shook her head. " He deserves better than that 'Liss." She looked out of the porthole, "He deserves to know who captured him."

" He deserves nothing." Melissa hissed at Ro and turned away. " He's the reason they came back."

Ro shook her head at Melissa. " You can't know that 'Liss. Its like being mad at a volcano, wasting energy on the Borg. Who knows why they came back?"

"It was him."

Twiss had watched the exchange with amusement. He leaned back in his seat and tapped the chronometer. " Whatever. Time's wasting Ladies. I'm going to check the charge on our phasers. Thirty minutes to leaving?"

Melissa and Laren locked eyes for a moment and then Ro stood and headed for the detention area. " Get Chrome in the transport box, huh, 'Liss. I'll go deal with Picard."

*****

Deanna Troi sat on the side of Toby's bed and leant over him to say goodnight. She smelt different to Mummy, nice but not Mummy. Toby turned away from her and cuddled Teddy to his nose. Teddy smelt right. The only thing that was right in his world.

"Could you ask Mr Data to come and tell me good-night?" He turned back again and looked into Deanna's dark eyes, hoping she would say yes.

Toby had thought about Mr Data this afternoon.

After Data had left him with the Counsellor, Toby had had not much to do, so he had sat and thought a bit. The Counsellor had sent someone down to the yacht to get his bag and his teddy, but she had said Mr Data was busy when Toby had asked if he could have dinner with them. Toby knew about grown ups being busy, but it was night now and even grown ups didn't work all the time. Data was nice, and a bit scary, and awesome strong. He had run, carrying Toby, up two whole decks, which had been cool fun. Toby felt he would be a good person to say good-night to.

"Oh Toby," Deanna stroked Toby's hair gently. "Mr Data is not feeling very well at the moment."

Deanna felt her eyes fill at the intensity of the child's emotion. Loneliness, unmitigated by adult rationalisations. She wished she had been able to find any close relatives on Earth. It wasn't fair that he should be alone, abandoned by the adults he trusted.

Disappointed Toby felt his eyes fill with tears, again. Now he had made Mr Data feel sick. He had been naughty and taken his jacket off, even though he had promised, and Mummy had gone and now Mr Data had gone too.

He turned back into the pillow and pretended very hard to be asleep. Deanna left him after a while, promising to be in the next room.

Everyone always went away from him. He waited in the humming dark for a long time. Sometimes he rubbed his eyes and looked at the lights that rubbing made. He didn't go to sleep, perhaps sleeping was something else that had gone away. He turned over and over and got in a tangle with his blankets, the sobs that were always just there, came back.

After a while he paused in his crying. He thought he had heard something in his dark borrowed room, and his heart started thump-thumping in his ears. He pulled a bit of blanket up over his head and only let one eye see out. Then he remembered what he had done this afternoon when he was scared. In a tiny voice he said.

" Computer?"

*****

That that was Data was the Enterprise, and its pulse was his life.

He swam through the streams of information that kept the starship operational, flowed around the warp core, feeling the quantum adjustments. For a lifetime he played, diving into fractal bay after bay. Like a salmon he swam against the sensor screens and tasted the impacts of microscopic debris particles as they vaporised in the force field. He inhabited the gravity generators and reclined amongst the stars. At home at last he felt his soul expand ready to burst like a soap bubble taking the last vestiges of his fraying self with it.

Someone was crying.

The sound set, like a steel hook in a game fish, in Data's consciousness. It reeled him twisting and turning, resisting some of the way, back through the streams of his mind and into the room of a small boy who had lost everything.

The part of Data that was more than machine, cared.

Some note of protest must have escaped him because the child ceased his heart wrenching sobbing and huddled under the covers to hide from the dark; and when Toby called on the computer it answered him with Data's voice.

"What is it Toby?"

"Will you come and say good-night Data?"

Toby's heart was suddenly as full of joy as it had been of sorrow. His friend sounded OK.

"I will be along soon."

Deanna found them in the morning. Toby cuddled against Data's chest in the damp innocence of sleep, and Data holding the child as if he was his lifeline to sanity.

" Welcome back." She said, trying to contain an unprofessional grin.

Data tilted his head in acknowledgement.

" I think the kidnappers are using a Karatid to confuse our sensors." He observed in a classic non-sequitur.

"Commander Riker will be pleased to know." Deanna replied." Do Beverly or Geordi know you are here?"

Data's look of comical dismay made her laugh out loud. She moved over to the bed and sat on the side. Reached out to touch Toby's hair.

"Are you all right, Data?" She looked into his restored eyes and was happy to sense a balance that had been missing for some time.

Data looked down to the child he held, then back up at her. " I will be, Counsellor." He looked into the warmth of her gaze. " I belong here."

" Did you doubt it, Data?"

"Seriously, Counsellor. Quite seriously for a while."

He picked up Toby's teddy from the floor and tucked it into the sleeping child's arms as he extracted himself from his embrace. He paused by Toby's bedroom door and looked back at the two of them.

"Tell Toby I will see him at breakfast. I have some calls to make."

Deanna nodded smiling slightly to see him brisk and in control.

"Thank you, Data."

"Thank him, when he wakes up. Tell him how brave he is."

Deanna nodded " I will, Data. See you later."

*****

"Picard?"

That warm voice, always surprising from such a small woman. Picard sighed, suspicions confirmed, and turned his head to meet Ro Laren's eye.

"I have nothing to say to you, Ro." He returned his gaze to the ceiling.

Ro looked at his sharp profile and wondered why the one person she had the greatest respect for was always at loggerheads with her.

She pulled her shoulders back and firmed her voice. " The Macqui intend to hold you until their demands are met. We are going to meet our contact now, and we have to traverse Ceres to get there. Will you give me your parole ?"

Picard smiled slightly at the ceiling.

"No."

"Then I will have to sedate you."

"All you *have* to do is let me go."

He turned his head and blazed a look of pure fury across the cell. " This is wrong, Ro."

He turned away from her again and finished, his voice strained but in control. " I once thought better of you. Of all the disappointments in my life, you are one of the greatest."

Ro swallowed. The feeling was mutual. 'If only's' battered at her mind. With savage discipline she pushed them down.

"You will never understand." She stated without emotion.

He didn't reply. She waited for a moment then turned on her heel and left. Picard continued his study of the ceiling. His opportunity had not yet arrived, that it would he had no doubt at all.

***** "Administrator Platinum here. Ceres Free Port. What is it Starfleet?"

In the viewscreen Riker faced a Karatid whose crystal complexity reminded him of the grand chandelier in the dining hall at Starfleet headquarters.

"I am Commander Riker in command of the Starship Enterprise. We are in pursuit of a small ship we have reason to believe has abducted our Captain. May we dock?"

" This, as you well know Starfleet, is a free port. Your problems are your own to solve. Why would we make room for your great hulking ship? Do you have trade goods, are you waiting to stake a claim?" The Karatid laughed a merry tinkle. "We are not interested in fugitives. Offer a reward, we have a thriving community of bounty hunters." The Karatid shook its crystals like a bird settling its feathers. " I am sure you know about our twenty kilometre sovereign space, outside the zone you may orbit if it pleases you. Permission to dock denied."

The screen went back to showing the unlovely, armoured, outside of the large asteroid.

Data looked over at Riker who had turned an unhealthy shade of red. With a visible effort the Commander regained control of himself.

" Suggestions. Counsellor, anybody?"

"Could we hire a bounty hunter?" Data looked at the readout of the several large guns trained casually on the Enterprise. " I do not think it would be wise to try force."

" And the Karatids make sure that beaming is not an option, their shields are impervious." Deanna looked up from the information feed she had just accessed on the arm of her chair." The Belters certainly made a strategic alliance when they invited the Karatids to join the community. Starfleet still has no answer to their jamming, I just checked again."

Crusher shifted in the seat usually occupied by Riker. "Have you located them, Data?"

"No, Doctor. But the ship we were following docked here. I can trace the ion trail up to the shields."

Beverly stood up and moved forward as if physical proximity to the viewscreen would enable her to see the missing ship more clearly. She watched as a Ferengi trade vessel approached the asteroid and was let through the screens. She glanced at Data but he shook his head minutely, the gap in the shields had not been long enough for him to confirm the position of the ship they were after.

" Are they self sufficient." She asked suddenly.

"The asteroid's environmental system allows them to exist isolated for three years," Data explained. " They mostly import luxuries."

"Could we blockade them?" Beverly turned and fixed Riker with a challenging look.

Riker grinned at her, Data looked confused.

"Nachayev has given me a carte-blanche, and we are the biggest ship in this quadrant."

He turned to Deanna's questioning noise. "How long do you think you could live without chocolate, Deanna?"

He raised an eyebrow at the dawning of comprehension in her eyes. " How long, if we block all incoming trade, and search all vessels leaving Ceres, before the anarchy chooses a different administration?"

"According to the latest research on Ceres unpopular administrators last an average of three point five hours." Data chipped in helpfully.

"As someone might say, make it so."

Riker sat back down on the Captain's chair and started his report to Starfleet. He had always fancied himself as a pirate.

*****

Picard spluttered awake to the strong smell of almonds. It was pitch black and he could hear the unmistakable sounds of phasers firing somewhere close by. A soft chiming sounded by his ear, it gradually resolved into speech.

"Wake human, we go, go. I trick, trick them, them. They thought I had gone but not yet. Chrome is home, home, home, home."

The chiming rose in pitch to be heard over the intensifying fire fight. Picard sat up, the dark was unrelieved. A hard edge brushed his hand.

"We deal, deal, Human?"

Picard nodded, which was a mistake on two counts. His head was pounding as if it was about to fall off, and he doubted his interlocutor could see him.

"We deal." This was the opportunity he had been waiting for.

"You carry me, feel. I, I am lumpy not heavy."

Picard explored the contours of the creature in front of him. It felt like a pillow with edges. He hefted experimentally, no heavier than a pile of plates.

A stray shot winged the container they were sitting in and made his head ring.

"Where are we going? It doesn't sound very safe out there."

"I, I eat a door. Taste, taste foul but I, I persist. You, you push. We, we get away. I home, home, taste the air."

Picard shrugged. Any action was preferable to sitting like a pig in a barrel.

The Karatid tugged him over to the side of the container furthest from the fire fight and said. " Feel, feel side, side. Ridges where I eat. Through, through now, now."

Picard waited until the firing started up again and pushed against the side, it popped out and light flooded in, a wall was two centimetres from his face. He looked at the Karatid glistening in the light.

"Home, home, homey, homey." It chimed. "Put me against the panel."

Picard obliged, steam rose from the front of the entity and he could feel a vibration in his hands. The panel suddenly slid up.

"Through, through now, now."

Picard pushed the Karatid through the access way and rolled through after it.

"Put, put the side of the box back." Picard reached out of the hole and fitted the etched panel back in the side of the box they had exited. It looked precarious but might stay.

"In, in now."

The wall panel slid down again behind him leaving the two of them in red tinged darkness. Phaser fire pierced the panelling above the height of the container outside. Picard scooped up the Karatid and moved further down the tunnel. It was chiming in little rills, over and over. Picard realised it was laughing.

" I trick, trick them, them. They trick me, me."

The Karatid resonated in his arms, the vibrations loosing coherence. The chemical cocktail of smells the alien generated caught Picard's nose and throat and a wave of vertigo swept over him.

Reeling, he put the alien down and sat, abruptly, leant his head against the coolness of the wall, fighting nausea. The Karatid was giving off a fug of conflicting scents and he thought he would have to throw up.

He shut his eyes to master his stomach and when he opened them again he wondered if the chemicals were causing hallucinations.

Three Karatids were now in front of him.

As he blinked at the scene the scent mix reached a crescendo. With a resonant 'ping' the small ragged one in the middle fell to bits in a shower of crystals and, with the sound of shaken bells, the two outside shuffled over the disorganised pile. After a minute they moved apart again, chiming melodiously, the smell of spring flowers clearing the air of the stink. There was no sign of the debris, or Chrome.

"Our, our brother was not wise." The one on the left rang softly. " You, you humans are causing trouble, trouble." Added the one on the right." Bad, bad, bad trade." They both tinkled together.

"We deal, Picard hostage. We taste our brother's plan. He sell, sell for smell, smell. Not honourable. We sell, sell for trade, trade. We deal?"

Picard wondered if he had jumped from the frying pan into the fire." I am out of choices. We deal."

"Follow, follow, follow, follow." The two crystal entities moved off with Picard in between them. Further into the interior of Ceres.

*****

Soft Touch by Rosemary Cullen

5/5 [PG] TNG/post First Contact (D:P/C:G) Paramount is. It all belongs to them. I am playing without permission. (But it's fun :) Warning AAA story ( Awful Angst Alert) No sex so far and not much violence, a bit of bad language. Data gets lost and found, so does Picard. Geordi finds Leah but will Picard find Crusher? Ro finds true love and the Macqui cause trouble with some weird aliens.

Ro ducked, let the phaser blast waste itself on the panelling. The Karatids limited all phasers on the asteroid to heavy stun, still, she had no intention of emulating Twiss' draped form.

The bulk of the container was between her and the bounty hunter that had them pinned in this cul-de-sac.

Ro listened to Melissa's inventive cursing and felt grateful to have her guarding her back.

Melissa was so fierce, she was the only person that met Ro's burning passion. They had recognised the power in each other across a crowded room at one of Starfleet's interminable graduation functions. Like some cheap holonovel the room had dissolved into a tunnel that had the other at the end.

Ro could remember no other details of the evening, except that her heart had been lost in an instant and only now was complete. That Melissa had been equally attracted to her was one of life's miracles.

Melissa had been riven, even then, with resentment. The injustices, as she saw them, perpetrated on the innocent by a Federation that masked despotism with high sounding rhetoric.

"How long did it take, Laren?" Ro had lain in bed listening to her in the dark. " One class of ships for peaceful exploration then at the first sign of trouble, bang, back into building warships."

Ro remembered Melissa turning to her. Her arms warm in the night, her thoughts incandescent. "Stay on the Enterprise, Ro. I'm going to join you there."

And more recent memories. "Don't be jealous, La. You know I only married him so we could serve together. Families used to be able to be together, and I could have been with you and had Toby. Paul was such a dick he wouldn't have guessed."

Melissa shaking in the small ship they had left. Blaming Picard now for the loss of her son. For the advent of the Borg and their return. Even for the demise of the Galaxy class ships Melissa had planned their life around.

Ro heard a thud on the other side of the container. Melissa let out a satisfied whoop.

"Got him."

Ro crept cautiously round the side and saw Melissa turn the body of the aggressive bounty hunter over with the toe of her boot.

Ignoring the fallen, Ro picked Twiss up under his arms and lugged him more fully over the pulling arm of the antigrav cart they had under the container. She glanced round and saw Melissa keeping watch at the bend in the corridor.

"All clear here." Melissa called back.

Ro grasped the control and pulled the large canister behind her. The two women jumped as there was a rattling crash from the opposite side of the object.

Ignoring the danger from ambush they both rushed to see what had happened, and were confronted with the jagged evidence of Chrome's escape route.

Melissa stuck her head in the hole. " Both gone." She reported. The women met each other's eyes dismally.

Ro felt an inappropriate desire to giggle sweeping over her, even let her lip twitch slightly. It had all been to easy up to now, this had the distinct feeling of the other shoe dropping. Melissa looked stunned.

Ro took her by the arm.

"Lets get out of here 'Liss. It's time the Macqui made us disappear too."

*****

Riker sat in the command chair and tried to constrain the amount of glee he felt.

"Administrator Platinum. How pleasant to speak to you again. How can I help?"

Riker stroked his beard and leaned forward in the chair, face as innocent as a vicar's.

It was lost on the Karatid.

" This is outrageous, Riker. You are stopping all trade, citizens cannot carry out their business. I tried to complain to Federation Headquarters and my communications are jammed. This is Piracy."

Riker thought that the Karatid looked rather more like a ruffled rooster now. A rooster that would peck his eyes out given the opportunity.

"The subspace interference is disturbing, I agree. Maybe I could relay a message for you?" Riker smiled at the administrator again. "We are searching all outgoing vessels for our missing person. Outside the twenty kilometre zone of course. And when we explain, incoming vessels don't mind joining us in parking orbit."

Riker nodded at the ensign on communications and she split the screen to show the seven vessels the Enterprise trailed in her tractor beam.

"As soon as we retrieve Picard we will be out of your way."

"But he may not even be here!" Platinum's chimes were becoming shrill.

Riker shrugged, " Without scanning the asteroid we agree, we can't be sure. I guess we'll have to keep up the search."

The screen went blank as the administrator cut the transmission from its end.

Riker was enjoying himself, he had complete faith in Picard, very soon this impasse was going to come to an end. He leaned back in the seat and watched the crew monitoring the situation. Perhaps he could get used to this.

"Message incoming, Commander." Riker looked up at the screen again, and waved away the discrete cheer that went up as his commanding officer's familiar features were revealed, flanked by two rainbow Karatids.

Riker stood. " Good to see you, Sir. How are you?"

"I'm fine, Number One. These citizens" Picard nodded at the Karatids, "have patched into Ceres and Federation communications. They are challenging for the administration. For the record. When I am returned the blockade will be lifted?" Picard's eyebrow was slightly raised, and his expression remained grim. Riker wondered what other obvious strategy he should have employed. He had the feeling Picard would probably tell him.

"Our search envelope would become redundant, yes Sir."

Riker watched as the Karatids flushed through several chromatic changes. Picard stepped away from the aliens as a poll screen started flicking through numbers. Picard walked away from the pair and addressed the screen again.

"One to beam out, Commander."

Riker looked at Data on Ops who nodded. " Co-ordinates locked in, Ceres shields lowered, Sir."

Riker met Picard's eyes in the screen. " Welcome back, Captain."

*****

Beverly had left the bridge as soon as Jean-Luc had appeared on screen and managed to get to the transporter room just as he beamed in. She watched as he looked around his familiar surroundings and then met her eye.

" Welcome aboard." She said. She glanced down at the medical tricorder she had activated as soon as he solidified. " How are you? Were you really treated well?"

She looked up to see him close in front of her, studying her with a look she could only later classify as hunger.

" You tell me Beverly. Am I all right?" He asked, holding her gaze with his. A moment of communication.

She jerked her attention back to the tricorder, flustered.

"Reasonable." She shoved the machine into one of her pockets and took a nervous step back." How do you feel?"

Picard laughed suddenly and pulled her into a hearty hug, then just as quickly let her go and headed for the door. " Glad to be back, Doctor. I'm going to change then we'll have a debrief." He almost bounced off Riker's chest as he strode out of the door. " Senior officers meeting in thirty minutes, Will."

Riker stared after him open mouthed and then looked back at Crusher.

" Is he OK?"

Beverly smiled after Picard, then linked her arm with Riker's and steered him out of the transporter room again." Happy to be home I think, Will. We'll see in thirty minutes."

*****

There was, of course, a party.

The Holodeck resounded with real and imaginary holidaymakers enjoying a South American Fiesta of dubious cultural integrity but undoubted participatory fervour.

"Computer show me the way to Jon's Bar?" Picard couldn't believe she had done this to him, on the other hand he should have guessed from that look in her eye.

Picard resisted the urge to tug down on the front of the loose white shirt he was wearing. He also resisted the urge to turn and bolt.

'Holodeck seven. Meet me in Jon's bar for a drink' she had said. Neglecting to mention the Fiesta of course. Or the fact that what looked like the entire crew was here. He followed the 'tinkerbell' through the crowd and nodded and waved at all the expressions of welcome he received as he wended his way through the dancing partygoers. It felt good to be home, to be appreciated.

Jon's Bar, when he reached it, was a building sporting a neon sombrero. From inside, sounds of enthusiastic merrymaking competed with the street bands.

Picard paused in the doorway to allow his eyes to adjust to the relative gloom inside. He sniffed at the smell of chilli cooking, and felt his insides tighten.

"Look at that."

Beverly slid up beside him and handed him a large glass with a pink umbrella in it. He stared at her instead, her green gown was in danger of meeting décolleté with thigh split. Suddenly his throat was tight with a hunger that had nothing to do with food.

Beverly grinned at his expression and turned his head around with one finger to see what it was that she was commenting on.

On the step up stage Will and his trombone were cheerfully murdering 'Sweet Georgia Brown', aided and abetted by three of Geordi's engineers dressed as bananas and playing the sax the drums and what appeared to be a Vulcan harp.

On the left hand side of the minute dance floor Data was sitting at a table, juggling three oranges and a full glass to the evident delight of a small boy.

Deanna was standing beside the table behind the child, wearing even less than Beverly, but in black. Picard was surprised Riker was hitting any of the notes.

On the right side of the floor Leah and Geordi were dancing, cheek to cheek, to music that had nothing to do with what Will was playing on the stage.

Jean-Luc wondered if he had fallen through the rabbit hole. The rest of the bar was full of brightly costumed engineers and medical staff who appeared to be trying to out doing each other in lurid drinks. Laughter and conversation was nearly drowning out the band's efforts.

"I think we were overdue for letting our hair down." Beverly took him by the hand and pulled him over to the table that included Deanna and Data.

"Speak for yourself." Jean-Luc replied, only pretending to be grumpy. "Some of us have had an enforced holiday. I was bored witless."

"Only you could describe being kidnapped as a holiday." Beverly screwed her nose up at him. "Drink." She nodded at the concoction in his hand. " Data mixed it. He is being mysterious about the ingredients but it seems to be working." She waved at Nurse Ogawa, who was trying to balance a pretzel on her nose.

Picard sipped and watched as Data made the oranges and the glass disappear, to Toby's delight.

"Ta da. The end of the show."

Data grinned at his young friend who had scuttled behind him to see where the ingredients had gone. Data magicked an orange out of the air and handed it to the boy.

" No finding out my secrets." He hefted the child on to his lap and started peeling the fruit.

Deanna laughed and put her hand on Toby's shoulder. " It's bed time young man."

Toby let out the wail common to all children at this news. "Aww, do I have to? Data. Do I have to? It's not fair."

Data put Toby on the floor, crouched down in front of him and pretended to peer furtively around the room. "Really, it is me that needs to go to bed, Toby. I am tired, but I am scared of the bad guys that live in the corridors."

Toby laughed, knowing he was being teased but pleased with the game. He stuck his chest out. " It's OK Data, come with me. I'm tough. I'll look after you." He took Data's hand and led him towards the door." Me and my Teddy, we're not afraid of nothing."

" Will you tell me a story?" The other adults heard Data asking Toby as they left.

Toby tried for a gruff grown up voice. "Sure thing partner, I'll tell you the one about the..... " Toby's voice was swallowed by the sound of the holodeck door swishing open and closed.

Deanna drank her cocktail and smiled benevolently round the table.

"Perfect therapeutic couple those two. All my clients should be so easy." She pretended to frown at the Captain and Crusher. " Still, what would life be without challenges?"

*****

After the party he followed the green curve of her hip and thigh through the stark, new corridors and let himself wonder, for an unsteady moment, why women kept doing this to men.

The deck shifted under his feet and remained doing so even after he had tried to banish the effects of synthenol.

"So that was the secret ingredient. I'll get him for this."

Picard fended off a wall and caught up to the enticing vision in front of him.

"Come on Jean-Luc." Beverly had reached the turbolift and called for a car, then looked over her shoulder at him, teasing. Saw him looking and twirled, arms up, provoking. More than half drunk on alcohol and relief.

"Beverly." He leaned his neck and the top of his back up against the cool wall panels.

She slinked closer, grinning. "Wassa matter Jean-Luc." She shook a finger at his nose. "Bet you're not bored now."

He could smell her now, almost feel the warmth of her in his arms. He closed his eyes fighting for control. Wondered, not for the first time, whether you could actually break something inside with frustration.

"Jean-Luc?"

His eyes opened to see hers, centimetres from his. Concern had started to shade the inebriation in hers. She put both hands on his shoulders. "I'm sorry Jean-Luc." She tilted her head, searching his eyes with hers, " I never have fought fair. Have I ?"

Carefully, he rested his hands on her waist. "Are we fighting then?"

The turbolift car arrived and she reached up and ran her hand down the side of his face. "Come to my cabin, for coffee. We'll find out huh?"

She whirled away from him and into the turbolift. He swallowed and followed, aware of a feeling of destiny but unable to resist any longer.

*****

Geordi tracked Data down, late in the evening, three weeks after Picard's return.

Data was in the forward observation lounge, in the dark, surrounded by stars.

He glanced round to see who was entering, then turned back to the view.

Geordi came and joined him on the window seat. They sat for a few minutes like book ends, the stars streaming past.

Eventually, inevitably, it was Geordi who broke the silence.

"Data."

"Yes Geordi."

" That sealed communication you passed on to me. Starfleet have offered me a position in design, at the Yards."

"You are leaving?"

"I would be working with Leah."

"Have you accepted it? Will you, and leave the Enterprise, your engines?"

"Perhaps. Probably. Yes."

"Congratulations. I will miss you, Geordi. "

Data turned again to the view. Geordi watched him.

"Are you OK Data."

"In what way, Geordi?" Data looked back at him, inscrutable.

"Well," Geordi ran a hand round the back of his neck. " Deanna told me that Toby was being given back to his mother. I wondered how you were coping."

"The Federation Council want an end to the troubles Geordi." Data paused not trusting his voice for a moment. After a struggle he continued in his normal even tones, it nearly broke Geordi's heart.

"The Bajoran ambassador is taking him to DS9, Bajoran nationals will take him to Bajor. A meeting is being arranged with a Macqui representative. They see Toby as an olive branch, a bargaining chip. They have refused me permission to escort him, in case I am also abducted. They have promised me he will be fine."

Geordi was appalled for his friend. For a moment he was honestly ashamed of his species. Words seemed inadequate but he had to say something. "I'm sorry, Data."

Data shook his head "It is I who owe you apologies, Geordi. I didn't mean to hurt you, before, when I went into the network." Data looked across to his friend. His determination to stay off the subject of Toby clear.

Geordi got up and stood beside the seated android. He punched him gently on the arm. " You've done worse, Data. I'll miss you too."

Data smiled ruefully into the night. And listened as his friend walked out of the lounge. Leaving him sitting, in the dark, watching to stars streak by into infinity.

********************************************************************** 20/7/97 All she wrote for now.

I know, I know. Lots of loose ends, but hey, it took me seven months to get this far!

Anyone feel like filling in the gaps? Feel free, this be fan fiction nothing precious or exclusive.

Must go and write the two lectures I put off for this. Don't expect anything original now until at least December as I have a major case study and video client presentation plus a month long course in September.

Keep writing everyone it keeps me nicely unbalanced.

All my love

Rosemary.