12. Within Exceptional Parameters

"Stay." Data pointed a firm finger at the white fluff in the basket. Aura's ears flattened in protest but she didn't move. "Very good." He commended her then took a few steps back.

"Mii?" She put one paw out of the basket.

"No." He scolded. "Stay."

The kitten made a growling sound deep in her throat and reluctantly retracted her pink pad.

"Good girl." He picked a small treat out of a box on the counter and fed it to her as he kneeled next to the basket. "The doctor was right. You do learn very quickly even though you do not appear to like the command." Aura wasn't really listening. She was too busy enjoying being petted. She stopped purring immediately and perked her ears when the intercom sounded.

"Mr. Data?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"How are you feeling?"

Data opened his mouth to explain that it was impossible for him to feel anything. But a millisecond later he realized that the question was directed at his physical, not emotional, health. "All systems are functioning properly, sir."

"Good, good. I was just wondering if you would require any recuperation time."

"No, sir."

"Our current heading is going to take us through a rather turbulent bit of space within a few hours and I would prefer having you on the bridge."

"I will be there immediately, sir. Data out." Aura's shining, gold eyes watched his every move as he spoke to her. "I have to go to work now. Stay." As he turned toward the door Aura realized he was leaving her. He'd done this a few times already and she wouldn't let it happen again. As the doors hissed open she leapt out of the basket and sprinted through them as fast as her little legs could carry her. She had barley passed the threshold when the doors snapped shut behind her, missing the end of her tail by centimeters.

As Data exited the turbolift and strode toward his post the calm air of the bridge was disrupted. There was an audible grunt of surprise from the tactical station. Troi tried to suppress a giggle, while Riker disguised his by clearing his throat. Data didn't associate any particular significance with these actions. He just figured that he must have, once again, missed out on a good joke. He had just sat down and was pondering weather or not he should inquire about the merriment when the Captain's stern voice rumbled from behind him. This individual did not sound amused.

"Mr. Data, What is the meaning of this!"

He cocked his head and furrowed his brows slightly. "The meaning of what, Sir?" As he turned in his chair to face Picard he couldn't help but note Wesley's vain attempt to hold back snicker only to snort instead. He became utterly confused as he realized that he, or something near, seemed to be the cause of amusement and (for the Captain) annoyance.

"The meaning of bringing THAT onto my bridge!" Picard's finger thrust in the direction of Data's feet.

Before he even turned to look he heard a soft 'mew' and felt something trying to climb up his leg. He looked down to see a tiny white fuzz-ball (that could have easily passed for a piece of lint) clinging desperately to his pants. "Aura!" He scolded, as he unhooked the minute claws from his uniform. She sat in his palm as he brought her up to face him. "You are not supposed to be here." Her ears twitched back as if she didn't like what she was hearing. "It is not her fault, Captain. She did not know any better. We will not allow it to happen again." He turned back to the kitten. "Well we?"

By now Troi had given up trying to hold back her mirth and was giggling so hard she almost fell out of her chair.

"I could take her back for you." Wesley offered.

"That would be very helpful."

The boy turned to the Captain for permission. "Make it so." He groaned, waving the boy on and rolling his eyes.

"Yes Sir!" The Ensign leapt enthusiastically from his seat and took Aura from Data's hands. Immediately she began shrieking with cries that rivaled those of the red-alert alarms. The Captain denied the sudden urge to clamp his hands over his ears. Will put his hand up for another reason. If he didn't cover his mouth he would have let out a guffaw just as loud and distracting as the kitten.

Wesley just stood, bewildered, restraining the squirming, screaming bundle. He looked imploringly to the Captain who gave no response other than the slight elevation of one eyebrow. Of the few options he was granted Wesley chose the quickest solution. He gave the fuzzy siren back to Data. As soon as Aura's pink paws felt the electric warmth of her master's hands the racket stopped.

He held her at eye level and sighed deeply. (another attempt to mimic human behavior) "You cannot be here." She tilted her little head and with pleading eyes let out a tiny 'mew?'. "The bridge is no place for kitties."

Worf growled at the use of the word 'kitties'. This was getting too cutesy for his Klingon stomach to handle.

"Now, be good and go back with Wesley." He returned her to the boy's uncertain arms. Once again, the instant she was out of Data's grasp, she resumed her shrill scream.

"Meeew! Meeeew! MEEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWW!" Even with her white coat of fur Aura's face was visibly turning red.

"I shall return her." The new father began to rise.

"Never mind Mr. Data." Picard halted him. "I want you here. Just keep that thing quiet."

"Yes Sir." He took her back and she abruptly quieted. "She will be no further distraction." He set her on his lap and began his work at the console. She didn't like this spot; it was not high enough. Data ignored her as she clambered up the front of his uniform onto his shoulder. Aura looked over the back of the chair at the senior bridge crew. She noticed with some interest that the man with no fur on his head was frowning at her. She decided it didn't matter as she climbed up the side of her indifferent master's face, using his ear as a foothold. Sitting triumphantly on top of Data's head she was quite proud of her climbing feat but he continued to ignore her and concentrate on the ops panel. This was highly unacceptable. Leaning as far forward as possible she reached down and batted Data's slightly oversized nose.

"No." He reached up, plucked her off by the scruff of the neck and set her back on his shoulder. "I cannot be distracted. Please stay still." She flicked her ears back in defiance but nevertheless did as she was told. "Why don't you watch the star field?"

For the first time she noticed the monitor and all those little white things racing out from the center. For a while she stared transfixed at the screen. Perhaps another time she would try to catch those flying white dots; but her eyelids began to droop and soon a tiny pink tongue curled out of her mouth into a wide, exhausted yawn. Before long the blips and chirps of the computers were joined by the contented purring resonating from the tiny white creature now snuggled behind Data's neck.

Picard had to concentrate on his disapproving frown. After all, any other expression would be condoning the presence of that distracting little furball that was now curled up behind Data's neck. It was difficult though. It was hard to stay angry at Data anyway and the recent events made it almost impossible. But he tried nevertheless.

He suddenly had the feeling that two sets of eyes were boring holes in each side of his head. He glanced to his right where Riker had that all-knowing, cocky grin on his bearded face. To his left Troi just smiled encouragingly.

"Oh, what are you two smiling at?" The captain said in as irritated tone as he could muster.

"Smiling, me?" The first officer's grin disappeared his big blue eyes widened in feigned innocence as if hurt by the accusation. "I wasn't smiling." He turned to Troi. "Were you smiling?"

"Of course not! What would I possibly be smiling at?"

It was downright irritating when one was trying his best to stay annoyed and the people around you insist on making it difficult.

"This is a conspiracy!" He tried to glare sternly at both of them but failed miserably. "Can't a man enjoy a bad mood on his own bridge without—"

"Bad mood?" Troi looked around the room as if searching for the upset person of whom her captain was speaking. "I sense no bad mood."

His smile finally broke free; not the forced diplomatic smile he used on admirals and children but a true 'life-is-good' smile. "Why dose my crew have to be so # insightful." As he gazed out at the rushing star field he reflected on just how much this ship had become home to him and the people that had become family. He smiled because everything was just as it should be; Number One and Troi at his sides, Data and Wesley at the forward control panels, the ever-loyal Klingon at tactical. His crew was all at their stations; his vessel was in perfect working order. Every thing was 'functioning within exceptional parameters.'

He just hoped everyone understood that the little white fuzzball was not to become a permanent member of the bridge crew.