Title: Incendiary
Author: Whoa Nellie
Series: TNG
Rating: PG-13
Codes: C/Chakotay, P/Vash, R/T, crew
Synopsis: The Enterprise is assigned to evaluate the final stage of a planet's application for admission into the Federation. When Chakotay becomes a last-minute addition to the sociology team assisting with the evaluation, Beverly and he enjoy a hot reunion. Meanwhile, is someone trying to sabotage the membership application?

Author's Notes: This is the Chakotay from the canon universe after Voyager's return from the Delta Quadrant; he is not the one from our Twist of Fate series. This is the Enterprise from our Reasons of the Heart timeline (we don't have nearly enough universes to play in, do we?).

Feedback is always appreciated, posted or e-mail.

PROLOGUE (the following PG-13 excerpts are from the Academy Days story: Playing Doctor)

"Howard!" Dr. Sulake yelled for his med student. The infirmary at Starfleet Academy was unusually busy this afternoon. One of the Talavian students had returned from break with a virus that was causing severe illness among the other students. On top of the parrises squares finals and other sporting events, every pair of hands was needed for medical duties.

Beverly Howard, second year medical student, finished entering patient information into the database and located the source of the bellow. "Yes, Dr. Sulake?"

"Take over here, use that dermal regenerator on the cut under his eye and the bruising. I need to get back out there." Snapping off the osteogenerator that he had been using to repair the hairline fractures along the left cheek bone, he stepped back. "He should be coming around any time, run another set of scans before he leaves. He has a mild concussion but there's no signs of cranial edemas."

"Yes, Doctor." She picked up the dermal regenerator and checked the setting before applying it to the unconscious man's left eye. Alone with her patient she took note of his condition, he was breathtaking. 'It's not appropriate to see your patients as anything more', she sternly reprimanded herself. Still, his dark hair was soft against her hand as her fingers rested against his head to steady it while she reached across him to work on his injuries. His features were strong, even in repose. His body was powerful, he was probably around 188 cm tall with broad, muscular shoulders and chest. That was easy enough to see since he was only wearing a tank top and shorts. He wasn't that old, though, probably a freshman or sophomore cadet. He stirred, starting to wake up. "Hold still," she cautioned him.

"Where am I?" As soon as Chakotay opened his eyes, he no longer cared. Standing over him was a beautiful, blue-eyed woman with fiery red hair pulled back into a ponytail. From her form-fitting uniform, he could see that she was perfectly proportioned with pert, rounded breasts jutting out over a slender waist and long legs; that and the fact that she was medical personnel.

She had been right about the shoulders. That was Beverly's first thought, pressing him back onto the biobed. Not releasing the firm, tanned flesh, she answered the question that he'd asked in a very appealing husky voice. "You're in the infirmary, you've been injured. Lie still, I'll be done in a few minutes." She returned to the task of healing the cut and the bruising. "What happened?"

"A Nausican with a mean right hook," he responded. She smelled wonderful, like fresh flowers. "What's your name?"

"Beverly. Why were you fighting with a Nausican?" Her voice was softer than she'd intended.

Chakotay smiled, it was obvious that she was trying to be serious and professional. It was also obvious that, as a woman, she wasn't very sure of her allure. Even without trying, she had an easy charm and beauty; there was a passionate woman in there just waiting to be found. "That's what you do in boxing matches." As he spoke, his left hand came up and covered hers, trapping it against his body.

Her breath caught in her throat when he smiled. Dimples appeared in both cheeks and those rugged, handsome features softened with a boyish charm. His large hand engulfed hers, the warmth of his skin searing the back of her hand. "A boxer, huh? Are you any good, Cadet . . . " Some doctor-in-training she was. She'd completely forgotten to look at the PADD for his name. What was it about this man that completely fried her synapses?

"Chakotay," he supplied helpfully. He wasn't sure why she had blushed all of a sudden, but it was adorable. "Cadet First Class."

Her ears were ringing, was she breathing? Beverly shifted in a vain attempt to subtly relieve her discomfort. "Is that a first or last name?" Finally she was finished and she pulled her hand away from his to turn the regenerator off.

"Both." He sat up, watching her nervously arrange the equipment on the tray. "I'm Indian, my people only have one name."

"Oh." 'Well that was intelligent,' she thought to herself. 'Say something!' Her mind screamed at her when silence fell. "I need to run another scan before you leave." She picked up the medical tricorder.

"In a hurry to get rid of me?"

Her hands were shaking slightly so the scan took longer than usual. "No, not at all."

"Academy champion."

His scent was very masculine, she had been inhaling deeply when he spoke and she didn't immediately realize what he'd said. "What?"

Her discombobulation was amusing, his smile grew in response. "You asked if I was any good," he reminded her in a low voice. "I'm undefeated, at least I was until the Nausican," he laughed ruefully.

"Oh." There it was again. She knew she had a better vocabulary than that. Why couldn't she come up with something, anything, even remotely witty to say?

Standing up brought their bodies together. He tilted her face up with one hand while the other found the tie for her ponytail and released it. "I bet you've got a fiery spirit to match this fiery mane," he whispered, combing his fingers through the heavy, silky tresses. "You're beautiful like this, you should always wear your hair down." Applying gentle pressure on her jaw, he coaxed her mouth open and lowered his face to hers, covering her mouth with his.

Fireworks exploded in her head. His lips were full and firm crushing hers beneath them. A tingle had begun low in her body when he urged her mouth open and it flared into an intense throb as his tongue slipped into the warm, moist cavern. Beverly was sure she would have fallen if not for him holding her. She rested her hands against those broad shoulders, anchoring herself. She forgot everything, lost in the incredible sensation of his tongue stroking and caressing the sensitive depths of her mouth. One of his hands tightened its grip in her hair while the other moved down around her back to pull her closer. Her breasts were crushed against the unyielding wall of his chest.

Breaking the kiss, Chakotay breathed deeply for a moment, enjoying the feel of the long, svelte body against him. "When can you leave, Fireball?"

"1800," her head was still swimming. She hadn't wanted the kiss to end. She had needed to breath but if he hadn't broken the kiss, there was no telling what would have happened.

"I'll run back to my room, shower, change and come back then." He tipped her face up to meet his gaze. "Have dinner with me."

Not able to trust her voice, she nodded her assent and he was gone. Sinking onto the biobed, she tried to control the intense ache in the pit of her stomach. The PADD with his information was laying on the tray and she grabbed it. Eighteen, no nineteen, she corrected herself. He had just turned nineteen; old enough but there was still five years between them. Flipping her hair off her shoulder, she mentally shrugged. If he didn't mind older women then who was she to look a gift stud in the mouth?

ONE 'TOE CURLING' WEEK LATER

"How is it," Beverly began. Chakotay's roommate was gone for the weekend so they had privacy and a comfortable bed. "That I know every inch of your body intimately and virtually nothing about your mind?" To punctuate her point, her fingers trailed down the clean, tanned lines of his back and across his tightly muscled posterior.

Laying on his stomach, his head propped on one elbow, he shivered at her touch. "Keep that up and you'll get a refresher course on my body, Fireball."

Unable to resist, she smacked his bare backside. "I'm serious, Chakotay. I don't know anything about you. I know you're Command track but what are your career plans? Why did you join Starfleet?"

He caught her hand before she could pull it back. Without releasing his grip on her, he maneuvered himself into a sitting position, cross-legged. Dark eyes met blue eyes as he drew her hand up and placed an open-mouth kiss against her palm, his tongue flicking out to moisten the soft skin. "We put in for post-graduate assignments today."

She waited expectantly for him to continue. Finally, "And? Or do I have to beat it out of you?"

Pulling her to him, Chakotay rolled until she was under his body. His fingers found her ribs and tickled her mercilessly.

"Okay, okay," Beverly laughed, surrendering to his playfulness.

She was so beautiful when she smiled. He covered her mouth in a long, tender kiss. "I put in for the Yamato but I wouldn't mind the Stargazer. The captain of the Stargazer has a pretty decent record in exploration and first contacts. That's what I'd like, a deep space vessel or a science ship; maybe the Drake, the Victory, or even the Ulysses. I want to go places, see things that no one has ever seen before."

Her heart dropped. "Adventure."

"Hey, Fireball . . . Bev, what's wrong?" He saw her face change as he talked about the postings he was hoping for.

"I didn't join Starfleet for adventure, I want a nice, quiet, stable life. I want kids but I don't want to be raising them alone while you're off galavanting about the galaxy."

"We can have a stable life in space," he argued, panic rising. She was making it sound so definite. "Once you're a real doctor we can ship out together. We have all the time in the world to think about kids."

She shook her head reluctantly. "I'm a homebody, you want adventure. I'd be sitting home wondering if I would ever see you again or if a Starfleet officer was going to show up on the doorstep with condolences. I'm not sure I could live like that." Her voice trembled with emotion. Their relationship had started off so hot and heavy that neither of them had given a second thought to their respective futures. "You enjoy boxing and I can't stand to watch such violence. I love the theater and dancing, those things bore you to tears. You want command of your own ship, captains are married to their ships and I can't accept second place in your life."

Chakotay sat up, extending his hand to help her up. "You're ending it."

"Outside of sex, do we have anything in common? Can you honestly tell me that we have a future?" She was truly hoping that he could. This past week had been the most intense, overwhelming week of her life. There were times when being an adult was absolutely dreadful.

"I guess not." His reply was subdued. "We should probably get dressed. I'll walk you back to your quarters."

They dressed in silence, neither of them in the mood for idle conversation. Outside the entrance to her building, she caught his hand and pulled him toward her. Brushing his lips with hers, she whispered. "I'll never forget you, Chakotay."

He smiled down into her sweet face and reached up to run his fingers through her hair. "Always wear your hair down, my little fireball. It suits you." He stroked her cheek. "Who knows, our paths may cross again someday. I'll be the captain of my own ship and you'll be my chief medical officer."

Nodding, her lip quivering tremulously, she couldn't speak for the lump in her throat. Watching her lover walk away, she already missed him.

"Hey, Red, where've you been? I've been looking for you all day."

Beverly winced at the dreaded nickname. Given her hair color, it was inevitable but that didn't make it any less annoying. Chakotay had never once called her that, 'his little fireball' was what he'd called her. She turned around to greet her old friend. "Walker, hi. When did you get in?"

"Just today. Listen, I'm meeting a friend for dinner and I'd like you to meet him."

After the week she'd had, any other man was bound to pale in comparison. "I don't think so, Walker, not tonight."

"Aww, come on. I've got a date and if you come it'll be a foursome. That's just a lot less awkward." He held her hand in his. "Please?"

"All right," she never could say no to her friends.

"Super!" He put his arm around her shoulders and led her away. "You're gonna love this guy, I promise. His name is Jack."

INCENDIARY

"Mr. Data, have we received all of the available information on the Eillen?" Captain Jean-Luc Picard looked to his android officer. There was one final item of business in their regular senior staff meeting, a status report on their current assignment.

"Yes, Captain," Data replied. He activated the viewscreen. "Eillen is the fifth planet and the only M-class planet in this binary system. It has no natural satellites and a planet-wide population of 626 billion people. They attained warp capability 73 years ago, but did not choose to join the Federation at that time. The Eillen government contacted the Federation three years ago expressing an interest in joining."

"Three years?" Riker asked. "That means they should be in the final stage of the process."

"Correct, Number One," Picard said. "Based on our evaluation and the findings of the sociology team assigned to this mission, we will be making a final recommendation on accepting or denying their membership."

Data continued his report. "The Eillen are technologically as advanced as the Federation in every area except offensive weapons, although their defensive capabilities have not been field tested to our knowledge. They have developed a power supply system that is more efficient than our own and the Federation scientists are eager to study the possible applications in Federation technology. The planet has abundant mineralogical resources that the Eillen have protected and preserved throughout their recorded history."

Counselor Troi spoke up. "We've received a communique regarding the sociology team assigned to this evaluation. The transport ship carrying the team will rendezvous with us in about five hours. The anthropologist on the team had a family emergency, so Starfleet has dispatched a replacement. He will arrive tomorrow afternoon."

"Do we know who they're sending?" Picard asked.

"Yes, sir," Deanna pulled up the personnel file. "A Starfleet officer with an extensive record of first contacts and interaction with alien races, his name is Commander Chakotay--"

"The Maquis?" Riker interrupted.

Deanna, meanwhile, was buffeted with very strong, completely opposite reactions from two of the staff at the table. Struggling to control her senses, she focused on the information in front of her. "Former Maquis, most recently he was the first officer of the Federation Starship Voyager during their time in the Delta Quadrant. Following their return, as you may know, the Federation council granted full pardons to all of the Maquis on Voyager over the objections of the Cardassians. Based on his record of service and the recommendations of both Captain Janeway and Voyager's security chief, Lieutenant Commander Tuvok, Commander Chakotay was offered reinstatement in Starfleet. He accepted a posting to the Starfleet First Contact teams as an anthropologist."

"Well, let's postpone the reception for the sociology team until tomorrow night to allow Commander Chakotay time to arrive," Picard said. "If there's nothing further, we're adjourned."

As the assembled staff was preparing to return to their duty stations, Deanna isolated one of the reactions that she had sensed earlier. "Will, what's wrong?"

"Tom didn't get a pardon;" Riker couldn't look at Deanna. He knew it wasn't the same, Tom hadn't been on Voyager--but it rankled nonetheless. It was nothing personal; he didn't know any of Voyager's Maquis. It just didn't seem fair that his . . . other self, for lack of a better term, hadn't gotten the same break.

Deanna reached out to coax his chin up so he was looking at her. "He also didn't get massacred. Commander Chakotay and his people spent seven years isolated from the Federation on a Starfleet ship living and working under Starfleet regulations. Their service records reflect repeated dedication to Starfleet principles, the ship and their crewmates--they earned those pardons. If Tom had turned himself in to Starfleet, he might have served time and been rehabilitated by now instead of being in a Cardassian prison. You can't blame Commander Chakotay for getting thrown into the Delta Quadrant any more than you can blame Tom for not ending up in the Delta Quadrant."

Wrapping his arms around Deanna's slim waist, his lips sought hers for a long, deep kiss. He pulled her against him and reached out with his mind to find her thoughts. The warmth of her love for him was evident as he let his mind entwine in hers. For a few brief moments, nothing else existed but her. Finally breaking the kiss, he sighed deeply. "I know. I also understand why they were pardoned. After their historic trek back through uncharted space and the Dominion War here, everyone needed a celebration and the Federation needed the knowledge and expertise that not only the Starfleet crew but the Maquis on Voyager possessed in the rebuilding process. It was a win-win situation for everyone."

"Are you going to be all right with this?"

"Yeah, if nothing else he's fresh meat for the poker game," Riker grinned.

...

"Either that Terellian Fudge Decadence is better than usual, or something else is responsible for that dreamy smile on your face." Vash reached across the table to snag a spoonful of the concoction in front of Beverly. Deanna, the doctor and she were just settling in for one of their usual 'chocolate fests.'

Deanna briefly savored a bite of fudge-covered brownie. "I think it's more of a someone than a something."

Flushing slightly, Beverly spooned a large dollop of the Terellian Fudge Decadence into her mouth. Even as she shrugged innocently, she knew it was a lost cause.

"This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain last-minute addition to the sociology team joining us, would it?" Deanna asked, spraying whipped cream on her next bite of brownie.

"Oooh, paydirt," Vash crowed. "I don't need to be empathic to read that blush." She pointed her own can of whipped cream at Beverly. "Okay, spill it."

Beverly paused, thinking back to that magical week in medical school.

Across the table, Deanna moaned softly.

"God, that good," Vash breathed in amazement. "Come on, share--out loud."

"It was during medical school--he was a senior at the Academy."

Vash interrupted her at this point. "Um, I'm not privy to your staff meetings, so could someone fill me in on who we're talking about?"

"Commander Chakotay, former and current Starfleet officer with a stint in the Maquis in-between," Deanna supplied.

"Chakotay is . . . ?" Vash trailed off, waiting for either of them to finish the sentence.

"Indian," Beverly said. "He was born and raised off-world, but his ancestry is Earth."

"A flame-haired doctor and a wild Indian brave--I think I have a bodice-ripper with that plot," Vash winked at Deanna.

"Would this be the toe-curler?" Deanna asked, remembering a comment Beverly had once made to her.

Smiling broadly, her cheeks burning, Beverly nodded yes. "God, he was nineteen, bronze, muscled with the most sensuous voice and absolutely insatiable. The chemistry was so hot, practically all we did was . . . "

"The mattress mambo," Vash cackled. She handed the doctor the Ktarian chocolate puff. "A younger man, Bev, I'd have never guessed. You go, girl."

Deanna took a sip of her hot fudge-chocolate. "How did the two of you meet?"

"The infirmary," Beverly replied. "He was injured in a boxing match--"

"And you kissed it and made it all better." Vash collapsed against the back of her chair in a fit of laughter.

"Playing doctor with your patients, Doctor? Deanna couldn't resist the jibe, joining in the amusement. "I know you have a good bedside manner, but isn't that carrying things a little far?"

Chuckling along with her friends, Beverly threw in a comment of her own. "Bed, nothing; as I recall it was more like ground, supply closet wall, the shower in the men's locker room . . . well, I guess there was a bed involved once."

"Oh my God! The shower in the men's locker room?" Vash gasped, erupting into a fresh round of giggles.

"I never knew you were so wild, Bev," Deanna teased.

Beverly sighed, remembering the intense sensuality of those deep, brown eyes, "Only with him."

"This is the relationship that only lasted a week?" Deanna asked. When the doctor nodded yes, she posed her next question. "He obviously made you very happy. What happened?"

"Fear," Beverly said. "He was young and full of life. He was command track and wanted adventure; I was still in medical school and looking for stability. I was afraid of . . . Oh God--"

"What is it, Bev?" Vash asked, concerned.

Beverly buried her face in her hands. "I told him I was afraid that I would end up a widow with children to raise on my own. In a way, that was part of it, but I was also overwhelmed by how fast things happened. It was such an intense week with him--I'd never felt that way with any man before, or since. I just felt so out of control with him. I loved Jack and our life together, but Chakotay could make me weak in the knees just flashing those dimples of his. I wasn't myself whenever he was anywhere near me."

"Maybe you were yourself," Deanna suggested, "free and uninhibited instead of being responsible and in control."

"But--," Beverly began.

Vash broke in. "Bev, Jean-Luc and I made a similar decision, remember? Then he got a glimpse into some sort of alternate universe and saw how a different decision turned out for him--another him. That's why I'm here, because Jean-Luc decided to follow his heart instead of his head. Yes, your past is ironic given why you ended things with him, but he's here now--or will be soon. Your paths are crossing again, whether by chance or fate--who cares? You've got a great opportunity, jump on him--I mean it," Vash finished with an impish shrug.

"I couldn't have said it better myself," Deanna was still grinning at Vash's 'slip of the tongue.'

"You know, this could all be moot," Beverly stole a spoonful of Risan Chocolate Mousse from the dish in the center of the table. "For all I know, he's happily married or involved."

"No and no," Deanna helped herself to some of the mousse as well. "I read the psychological profile from the debriefing team. There was a young woman--a former Borg drone--from the ship whom he had just begun a relationship with before their return. By the end of their debriefing, they had parted amicably. She had apparently perceived him to be a safe, non-threatening partner for some experimenting with human courtship; whereas on his part it seemed to be more of a reaction to enforced isolation. Back on Earth, they just naturally drifted apart. He is quite single and emotionally unattached."

"Forget emotional attachment," Vash spoke up. "Go for the physical attachment--those are much more fun, not to mention great exercise for working off all this chocolate."

"Jean-Luc isn't a young man, anymore," Beverly pointed out.

"Thank God," Vash rolled her eyes. "If Jean-Luc had any more stamina than he does now, I'd never be able to walk."

The three women broke into gales of laughter once again.

...

"Did the sociology team members get settled in all right?" Riker had a stack of books in his arms as Deanna and he walked through the corridors. They were on their way to meet the captain and Vash for a quiet dinner in Ten Forward. Deanna hadn't explained the books, just asked him to carry them and said that they'd be dropping off a box of stuff, including the books, at Beverly's quarters on the way.

"Yes," Deanna replied. They stopped at the door to the Picards' quarters, and she rang the door chime.

Inside, Vash was sitting on the floor near an open trunk with books strewn all around. "Come."

"I brought the books," Deanna said, walking in.

Right behind her, Riker spoke up. "Correction, I carried the books that she wanted to bring."

"You can be a good boy and just keep right on carrying them all the way over to that box on the table, William," Vash instructed without looking up. "Aha! I found it; Wild Hearts Healing Touch by W. Nellie. I knew I had it."

He dutifully crossed the room to the indicated table and deposited the books beside the box. "These are for Beverly?" He glanced through some of the books that he had been carrying. "First Love Wild Love, Beloved Savage, Silken Savage . . . am I seeing a theme here?"

"Yep," Vash answered. She scooped the books back into the trunk and closed the lid. "They're to help Bev prepare for her reunion."

"Where's the captain?" Riker suddenly decided he didn't want to know what the two ladies were up to.

"Changing," Vash said.

Almost on cue, Picard appeared in the bedroom doorway. "Number One, Deanna," he nodded in greeting. "How many times do I need to tell you not to play with them, Number One? Asking Vash anything just encourages her to give you an answer."

"Since when have I waited for him to ask before I share those delightful TMI's that always make his ears turn red and you sigh like a plasma leak?"

Picard dropped a perfunctory kiss on her upturned lips. "There's a reason that it's referred to as Too Much Information, dear."

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," Vash chirped.

"In your hands it's practical lethal, Vash," Riker said.

Deanna started to put the books into the box and noticed some things already there. "What else do you have in here?"

"Just a couple of things to help set the mood," Vash shrugged almost innocently. "To answer your question, William, Beverly and a certain Commander Chakotay knew each other a long time ago. We just want to help Beverly get excited about this little reunion."

"Motion lotion?" Deanna laughed as she pulled the items out of the box to get a closer look.

"To help get things heated up properly," Vash winked. "There's also some cherry body gel but since all of Beverly's beds come equipped with restraints, I didn't think she'd need the chains, and whips really aren't her style."

"Vash," Picard sighed.

"Bio-bed restraints, Jean-Luc. All of her bio-beds in Sickbay have restraints," Vash laughed. "I also threw in a box of belly button candies--cinnamon to be precise, nice and hot. Don't worry, Jean-Luc, I have a full box of them in my nightstand."

All he could do was heave another sigh.

...

"That was quite an impressive collection of novels Deanna and you presented to Beverly," Picard noted to his wife, slightly sardonically, later that evening. He turned off the bathroom light and walked over to his side of the bed.

Already in bed, Vash glanced up from the PADD she was working on and smiled, allowing her appreciative gaze to travel over the masculine power of Jean-Luc's body emphasized by the short, grey pajamas he wore. "We've been reading them since our late teens, so we both have amassed something of a stockpile. Deanna had more of the westerns like we gave Beverly."

"Those were not exactly what I would call westerns," he chuckled pulling back the covers. He climbed into bed next to her, noticing that she wore one of his favorite negligees, the sapphire satin one, which molded itself to her perfect curves. He regretted his next question before even asking it; however, curiosity was killing the cat. "Just out of morbid curiosity, ma petite, does this stockpile of yours contain any novellas featuring a Frenchman as the heroic lead?"

"Well, now that you mention it . . ." Vash trailed off as she leaned over to open the drawer of her nightstand. After rummaging through various mementos, she sat back up holding a very ragged, well-read, well-worn book. She coquettishly gazed at her husband through her lashes and handed him the book, "This happens to be one of my favorites."

"A Coeur Ouvert," Picard read the title out loud as he looked at the picture on the front cover. He had noticed that these novels always seemed to have rather lascivious pictures on the cover. On this one, a French Marshal of the Napoleonic era held a lovely young brunette who was dressed in a elegant gown from the same historical period, bent back over his arm. Considerably more cleavage spilled over her d├ęcolletage than would have been acceptable for the time; not that it would have mattered. Judging by the expression on the man's face he wasn't planning for the young lady to wear the gown for very long. The picture went a long way toward earning the book the 'bodice-ripper' moniker so often used by Vash, Beverly, and Deanna. Allowing the book to fall open, he began to read.

Upon learning from one of the field colonels that Mademoiselle Chandal was alone at her family's countryside estate, Grant shouted a few final orders to one of his generals as he mounted his horse. The idea itself was enough to nearly panic the usually unflappable military officer. The Chandal chateau lay right in the path of the retreating Prussian forces. What in the world was Marguerite thinking? He spurred the horse to a frantic pace, desperate to reach her in time. As he raced through the war-torn countryside, he prayed, 'God save me from stubborn women.' He had told her to go to her aunt's home in Paris. His precious Marguerite never followed orders, not even from a French Marshal. He topped the hill overlooking the chateau and his heart faltered. The Prussians were closer than he was--he'd never make it in time! Determinedly, he urged the horse faster, uncaring if he drove the beast into the ground; he had to save his darling Marguerite!

Inside the chateau, Marguerite tightened her grip on her father's sword as yet another round of cannon fire volleyed and thundered just beyond the walls of the house. The large windows rattled from the nearness of the explosions. Just then, a shout sounded from outside and she turned, dragging the sword around in front of her. It took all of her strength to pull the tip of the sword off the floor and, holding it in both hands, point it toward the approaching invader. Even though she knew someone was coming, she screamed shrilly when the horse and rider crashed dramatically through the large, stained-glass window in the Grand Hall, the rider's cloak flowing majestically behind him. The horse was dripping sweat, the barrel-chest heaving with exertion. On the horse was the most magnificent sight she'd ever seen-- her Grant, come to her rescue. In spite of the looming danger, she nearly swooned at the strong, dashing figure that French Marshal Renault cut in his gold-braided, ornate military jacket and riding pants which emphasized his sleek, muscular build as his powerful thighs gripped the sides of the horse.

"Thank God!" he breathed as he swung himself off of the horse, grateful to see the vision of loveliness standing before him. Her dress was simple by Parisian standards, but his precious cherie never needed fancy things to adorn her. She was the most amazing jewel without any trappings at all. He rushed to her, pushing aside the sword she held to clasp her to him, embracing her passionately while his heart slowed its rapid pace. "I told you to go to Paris. Why are you still here, ma petite?"

"As God as my witness, I will never let those filthy Prussians touch my family home!" She avowed, tossing her head defiantly to look up at him. She was held captive by his gaze, his handsome, chiseled features framing those intense grey eyes and the firm set of his mouth. Her heart raced at the thought of those lips on hers. The anticipation of his kiss alone was enough to cause butterflies in her stomach.

"Oh, that's brilliant." He pulled the sword from her, kissing the soft, creamy skin on the back of her hand as he spoke. "Marguerite, you can't even take me with this sword, what do you think you could do against cannons with it?"

Marguerite huffed indignantly and turned away. "If that's how you feel about it, then leave and go back to your men, Marshal Renault. I can take care of myself."

"Do you really think I would just leave you here?" Grant reached out to grab her arm and pulled her roughly against him. His mouth swooped down to cover hers in a passionately-charged kiss bespeaking the desire that blazed in his steel-grey eyes.

Marguerite's knees gave way as Grant's muscular arms slid around her, crushing her against him. She clutched his shoulders, feeling the sinewy muscles through his uniform and thrilling at the raw strength of his manly body. In the warm security of his embrace, the butterflies in her stomach burst from their cocoons as eagles of desire. She arched into him, his hard, muscle-bound form overpowering her own soft, yearning body. Thoughts of maidenly virtue fled before the chastely images of him taking her to heights of passion she had only heard the whispers of servants about. Gasping for air, she broke the kiss with a terrified thought, "Grant, if the enemy finds you here . . ."

"Which is why we're leaving. " He replied as he took off his cloak and wrapped it around her. He swept her tiny frame into his arms, ignoring the cannon balls piercing the walls of the house and vaulted onto his steed.

While it was flamboyant and ridiculously melodramatic, Picard had to begrudgingly admit to seeing certain parallels between the couple in the book and Vash and himself. However, he didn't give a damn how petite she was, no man could just vault onto a horse while holding a woman in his arms. Any idiot knows you have to put the woman on the horse first and then mount up behind her. He wouldn't even mention how skittish the horse would be with artillery going off nearby. He cast a sideways glance at Vash to find she had returned her attention back to her PADD or at least she was pretending to. Again, he let the pages just fall open and began reading a second passage later in the book.

"Je t'aime, Marguerite." Grant vowed in a deep resonating whisper reaching up to brush his fingers through her silky, brunette hair while gazing into her brilliant blue eyes. Effortlessly sweeping his beautiful, young bride up into his arms, he carried her up the staircase, "Bedtime, Madame Renault."

"This is how you ladies entertain yourselves?" Picard chuckled as he looked over at his wife.

"Literally," Vash purred suggestively as she set down her PADD.

"What the devil have you done to this book?" Picard wondered as he tried in vain to get the bedraggled book to stay shut. "It won't even stay closed."

Looking somewhat sheepish, Vash admitted, "There were a few occasions where it accidentally fell into my bathwater."

"Why not just replicate another copy?"

"Oh, I couldn't do that! We have such a history together," Vash gasped in feigned horror as she snatched the book from Jean-Luc and clasped it to her. "Besides, it opens up to all the really good parts."

"I suppose next you're going to tell me that you find this French Marshal character reminiscent of me."

"Well, yes. There are a number of striking similarities. Especially in the part where the evil Marquis tries to force Marguerite to marry him so he can control her family's vast estate and Grant saves her by running the Marquis through with his sword during a duel." Vash answered, managing to keep a straight face.

For a brief moment, Picard believed her; after all, it was a plausible plot element for this book. Recognizing the impish sparkle that lit her eyes, he realized that he'd been had. "You just made that up."

"Yep."

"Am I ever going to live down the way I dispatched Sir Guy during Q's little Robin Hood scenario?" Picard muttered wearily, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Nope."

...

"Sickbay to Counselor Troi."

Deanna reached for her commbadge. "Troi here." She was on her way to Transporter Room One to meet Commander Chakotay.

"I've got a minor emergency here in Sickbay," Beverly said. "I'm not going to be able to get away."

Knowing that other personnel in Sickbay could hear the conversation, Deanna parsed her reply very carefully. "I do hope this isn't serious enough to keep you from the reception tonight. I'll extend your greeting and apologies to the Commander." Just before she closed the channel, she added, "Did you get a chance to review that material we dropped off last night?"

"Goodbye, Deanna," came Beverly's amused reply.

Deanna entered the transporter room where Will was already waiting.

The transporter chief tapped panels on his console. "Sir, the commander is ready to beam aboard."

"Acknowledged," Riker nodded. "Energize."

The familiar light pattern of the transporter beam was replaced by the solid form of Commander Chakotay. 'His picture doesn't do him justice,' Deanna thought to herself.

"Welcome aboard the Enterprise," Riker stepped forward and extended his hand. "I'm First Officer, Commander William Riker and this is Ship's Counselor, Deanna Troi."

Chakotay shifted the bag he carried to shake hands with the two officers. "Commander Chakotay, Starfleet Sociological Division. It's a pleasure to meet you both."

"If you'll come with me, Commander," Deanna began. "I'll show you to your quarters. Captain Picard is holding a reception in Ten-Forward this evening for the sociology team. I'm sure you'll want to settle in first."

Stepping off the transporter platform, Chakotay remarked, "Thank you, actually I'd love to see more of the ship. I've never had the opportunity to see a Sovereign-class vessel up close and personal."

"I'm sure we can arrange a tour while you're aboard," Riker said. "If you'll excuse me, I should return to the bridge."

As they exited the transporter room, Deanna had a suggestion. "Perhaps Dr. Crusher could give you that tour; she wanted to be here to greet you, but she had an emergency in Sickbay."

Chakotay paused to allow the counselor to precede him out of the room. "I don't believe I know her." Troi and he went in one direction while the first officer headed in the other direction.

"You probably know her by her maiden name," Deanna pointed out casually. "I believe the two of you knew each other at the Academy, Beverly Howard." Paydirt, as Vash would say, she was suddenly struck by a powerful surge of arousal from the commander. He definitely remembered her and he definitely still had strong feelings for her.

"Yes, she was at Starfleet Medical; she treated me after an injury once," he hoped his voice sounded marginally non-committal. "She's married now?"

"Widowed," Deanna supplied, inwardly amused by the thrill that shot through him with that news. "Her husband was killed in the line of duty more than twenty years ago. She's been the Chief Medical Officer aboard the Enterprise for most of the past fourteen years."

"It'll be nice to see her again."

Stopping at the door to his assigned quarters, she said, "Here you are, if you have any questions or problems, just call. The reception is in Ten-Forward and will begin at 1800 hours."

"Thank you."

"I'll see you tonight."

...

"I didn't know push-up bras were part of the Starfleet dress uniforms," Vash purred quietly as she joined Beverly and Deanna in Ten-Forward that evening. She was wearing one of her little black dresses tonight with her favorite pearl choker and matching earrings. One of the perks to civilian life was a more variable wardrobe than the duty uniforms and dress uniforms that Starfleet personnel had to choose from.

"I thought they were a little . . . perkier than usual," Deanna teased. "The male crewmembers here have certainly noticed."

"Ladies," Picard joined the group just as the three broke out in giggles, Beverly suspiciously flushed.

Riker appeared from the other direction with a trio of drinks precariously clutched in his hands. "Here we go. Good evening, Captain, Vash. Can I get you something to drink?"

"No, thank you, Number One," Picard declined. "I need to see Guinan and commend her for the usual well-done decor and refreshments."

The door to Ten-Forward slid open and Chakotay stepped into the room. He'd spent the entire afternoon struggling to read reports on the Eillen in order to get up to speed on the mission, but was frequently distracted by memories of a certain, incredibly hot redhead, so adorably unsure of herself. Would she even remember him? Counselor Troi had said that she'd wanted to meet him earlier, of course it may have just been protocol--a senior officer duty. He wiped his palms on his uniform trousers. His hands hadn't sweated this much as a teenager, where had this nervousness come from? His heart lodged in his throat. There she was, across the room talking and laughing. What do you say to your first love and the only woman who ever broke your heart?

"There he is," Deanna whispered.

Beverly's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. What would he think? She knew that she was still in good shape, but she was also thirty years older than the last time he'd seen her.

"You had THAT and let him go?" Vash gasped, staring at Commander Tall, Dark and Yummy in the doorway of Ten-Forward. "Thirty lashes with a wet noodle." Just then Chakotay and Beverly locked gazes and he smiled, dimples appearing in tanned cheeks. "God, make that forty lashes."

"Should I be worried, ma chere?" Picard asked in bemusement.

Vash leaned over to drop a kiss on her husband's cheek. "Of course not, he's just a tasty little piece of eye candy--very sweet to look at."

Chakotay made his way through the crowd to where Beverly stood. She was still as beautiful as ever; she'd barely changed over the years. "Hi, Fireball," he murmured softly. "It's good to see you again."

'Fireball?' Vash mouthed to Deanna who shrugged back in bemused curiosity.

"Hi, Chakotay," Beverly could feel her face burning. She was that awkward, self-conscious twenty-four year old all over again.

"You still wear your hair down." Chakotay reached out to finger some of the auburn tresses, oblivious to everyone around them. "It still suits you."

Picard spoke up. "She's worn her hair down since I've known her."

Beverly barely heard anything. She was drowning in the sweet, brown eyes staring down at her. "I used to hate my hair. I always wore it pulled back or pinned up."

"I'm Vash Picard," Vash jumped into the conversation. "I'm the head of the archaeology department aboard the Enterprise and Jean-Luc's blushing bride."

"I'm sorry," Beverly said. "I don't know where my manners are tonight. May I introduce you to Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his wife, Vash; you've already met Deanna and Will. Everyone, this is Commander Chakotay; we knew each other back at the Academy."

"Literally," Vash coughed, shrugging impishly at the embarrassed glare Beverly shot at her.

As they were shaking hands, Picard spoke. "It's a pleasure to have you aboard, Commander. Perhaps we'll have an opportunity to have tea and discuss some of your experiences in the Delta Quadrant."

"I'd enjoy that, sir."

Vash was bursting with curiosity. "Have you seen the ship yet, Commander Chakotay? I'd love to give you the full tour."

"Thank you, Mrs. Picard," Chakotay said, "but Counselor Troi has already volunteered Fireball here for that duty assignment."

"Fireball?" Vash parroted back.

"The first time I laid eyes on her, I was nineteen and with that beautiful hair and incredible looks, I couldn't think of anything to better describe her," Chakotay explained.

Beverly clarified one point in that story. "The first time he laid eyes on me, he was waking up from a concussion."

"You're just as hot as ever, Fireball," his eyes studied her appreciatively.

Picard firmly wrapped his arm around Vash's waist. "If you'll excuse us, I need to see Guinan, the bartender-of-sorts here."

"But I don't and I still have a whole list of questions," Vash smiled up at the commander sweetly, trying to slip out of Jean-Luc's grasp.

"I'm sure you do, dear. I just don't think Commander Chakotay is up for the Spanish Inquisition tonight."

"The Holy Roman Inquisition is more my style anyway," a smile tugged at the corners of Vash's mouth. "They gave people a grace period to confess themselves before the actual questioning began."

"Thank you, Professor Vash," Picard steered his wife toward the bar.

Deanna and Riker exchanged glances.

"Oh . . . yes. Would you care for something to eat?" Riker suddenly stammered.

Chakotay looked questioningly at Beverly after Deanna accepted and the two had excused themselves.

"She's half-Betazed, they can communicate telepathically," Beverly explained. "She's an empath--normally only able to sense emotions, but with her Imzadi, they have a much stronger mental link."

"Then that was a very non-subtle, silent effort to leave us alone," Chakotay theorized.

She laughed, combing her fingers through her hair nervously. "You'd think that experienced Starfleet officers would be a little smoother about it, wouldn't you?"

Moving closer, he could smell the gentle, flowery scent of her perfume. He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. "You know what Machiavelli would say, don't you?"

Beverly couldn't even place the name with his hot breath fanning the creases and folds of her ear. His voice was just as mesmerizing and sensuous as she remembered.

Chakotay guided her eyes up to his with one finger under her chin. "The ends justify the means."

...

"Beverly wasn't kidding when she said that she was totally different around this guy," Vash confided to Deanna later that evening. They were watching the couple standing by the window, the stars providing a celestial backdrop. "Is she all right?"

Somewhat concerned herself, Deanna had been keeping an emotional tab on Beverly throughout the evening. The couple had been inseparable, with Beverly introducing him to some of the crew present and Chakotay introducing her to the rest of the sociology team members. "She's fine--more than fine, really. They both have very strong reactions to one another. I'm not sensing any duplicity from Commander Chakotay, his feelings toward Beverly are quite genuine."

"I've just never seen her like this before," Vash said. "You've known her longer, Dee, have you?"

"Close, an entity named Ronin and a Trill named Odan; she felt very deeply for them and there was passion, but she was more in control of herself with them. Ronin she destroyed to protect the Enterprise and Odan she ended things with when he ended up in another body."

"Oh, that would make it a little odd," Vash had known a few Trills in her day. "You're sure this guy isn't going to take advantage of her? I could have Jean-Luc call Geoffrey down from bridge duty to read him."

Focusing on Chakotay, she replied. "I can't be sure of his usual demeanor, but he's very relaxed. He's not making any effort to disguise his feelings for her. There is a lot of unrestrained passion and tenderness, but it's hard to distinguish between the two of them. I don't think Captain Picard would call his Betazed security chief from bridge command to eavesdrop on a private conversation to satisfy your curiosity."

"You'd be surprised at what I can get that man to do for me. Bottom line, I don't need to have Jean-Luc shoot him out an airlock just yet?"

"Shoot who out an airlock, chere?" Picard walked over just in time to catch his wife's comment.

Vash turned to give him a perfunctory kiss. "Commander Chakotay. Dee says he's a nice boy, but as tightly as he's got Bev wrapped around his little finger, I just don't want to see her get hurt."

"Beverly is a grown woman," he reminded her. "Don't meddle."

"I have no intention of meddling, but what kind of friend would I be if I didn't provide a little well-placed support?"

Across the room, Beverly raised her glass to her lips only to discover that it was empty.

"Would you like more?" Chakotay offered.

Another drink would extend the evening a little longer and she really didn't want to see it end. "No, thank you. It's getting late, I should probably call it a day."

"May I walk you to your quarters?"

Blood raced through her body, her heart beating furiously. "I'd like that."

Chakotay took the empty glass from her hands and set it down on a nearby table along with his. Turning back, he extended his arm toward her.

Beverly nearly stopped breathing at the sensation of her hand settled snuggly in the crook of his strong arm.

"I realize that this isn't as big as the Galaxy-class ships," Chakotay said as they left Ten-Forward, "but after seven years on an Intrepid-class, it seems huge."

His scent was clean, natural--no colognes or aftershaves, she noticed once they were alone in the corridor. As a young man, Chakotay had been almost lanky with a sinewy strength; as a man, he was solid, muscular with a powerful presence. The voice, which had been so soft, was now low, almost melodious with an erotic timbre that sent shivers through her entire body. Those lips had just gotten more full and sensuous over the years. The tattoo he now sported gave him a more savage look; briefly she imagined him clad only in a breechcloth like a character from one of those romance novels.

"Beverly."

Startled out of her reverie, she looked up at him. "Yes?"

"What deck are your quarters on?"

Dragging her eyes away from his face, she realized that they were standing in a turbolift. For a split second, she couldn't remember where her quarters were. If she went to his quarters with him, she wouldn't need to ask the computer where her quarters were. "Deck four," she answered finally.

She looked so beautiful, her big, blue eyes staring up at him, her bright auburn hair flowing gently across her shoulders. Chakotay bent his head to brush his lips softly against hers. Her mouth was pliant to his entreaty, opening readily at the urging of his tongue. He pulled her against him, her supple curves molding to the hard contours of his own body. His hands tightened around her, pressing her closer to him, his tongue reacquainting itself with hers.

"Ahem."

Springing away from Chakotay, Beverly looked at the door to the turbolift. Geordi and Robin Lefler stood there with equally goofy grins badly hidden.

"I believe this is your deck, Dr. Crusher," Geordi almost managed to say without laughing.

Her face flaming, she nodded to the two as she exited the lift, a bemused Chakotay trailing her.

"You're adorable when you blush," he murmured.

Sighing in resignation, Beverly started along the corridor toward her quarters. "Why is it that every time I'm near you, I turn into this wild, wanton woman?"

Chakotay stopped and turned her to face him. "It's not me, Fireball, it's you. It's who you really are inside." As he spoke, he trailed a finger lightly down the front of her uniform to emphasize his response. "It's who you've always been."

Somewhere low in her body, his soft words and tender caress sparked an ache. She knew that she should say goodnight and go to bed, alone. Of course, it was doing what she 'should' that had separated them thirty years ago. She was tired of a lifetime spent doing what she should instead of what she wanted. "Would you like to come in?"

Inside her quarters, Chakotay wandered around, studying the clues to the woman she had become. Several plants around the room told him of her love of nature and beauty, while the books scattered on the table and resting on the bookcase revealed a mind hungry for stimulation and knowledge. Beverly had gone into the bathroom to get out of her uniform and into something more casual, so he idly picked up one of the books on the table and began flipping through it. There was a bookmark almost halfway through, and he allowed the book to fall open there. Reading only a couple of sentences, he slammed the book shut and looked more closely at the cover. A bronze-skinned man with long, dark hair and rippling muscles clad only in a breechcloth--obviously meant to be an Indian--stood triumphantly over a red-haired woman wearing a flimsy chemise and laying at his feet.

"That's not mine," Beverly was starting to think her face should just be painted red; it would save time since she had been blushing almost constantly over the past day anyway. She had changed into a cream-colored tunic, after a brief debate with herself deciding to leave off the leggings. The tunic fell to a decent length and, thanks to her dancing, she still had nice, trim legs. Crossing over to where he was grinning broadly as he held the book out to her, she explained. "They belong to some friends of mine, I just . . . I mean . . . they just . . ." God, those dimples were so inviting, just begging for her to stick her tongue-- "Would you like something to drink?"

"No."

His answer was so low, she barely heard it. His eyes were boring into her, so dark that they appeared almost black. Wetting her lips, she stepped closer until their bodies were not quite touching, and asked her next question in a voice husky with anticipation. "What would you like?"

"You," he uttered hoarsely.

...

"So your son, Wesley, became a traveler? It must be hard on you, not being able to see him." Over breakfast in Beverly's quarters the next morning, Chakotay was listening intently as she told him all about the past three decades of her life. He poured them both more coffee.

Nodding, she looked wistfully at his picture. "The consequence of parenting--you raise them to be their own person, and that's exactly what they do. I'm very proud of him, I just miss him sometimes. You never had children?"

"I could never quite forget a certain redhead who dumped me at the Academy," Chakotay replied with a cocky grin and a shrug.

"Picard to Crusher."

Beverly's heart skipped a beat. Motioning for him to be quiet, she activated her commbadge. "Yes, Captain?"

"It's nothing official, Doctor, I was just calling to see if you were joining Vash and me for breakfast this morning."

Burying her face in her hands, she shook her head. She often had breakfast with the Picards, a tradition that pre-dated the captain's relationship with Vash. The question was how to get out of it gracefully. Chakotay wasn't helping, he was waggling his eyebrows and leering at her, almost daring her to tell Jean-Luc exactly what he would have interrupted a mere forty-five minutes earlier. She had been awakened by the delicious sensation of large hands gently stroking her and when she had responded, he had pressed her down into the pillows for a morning romp.

"I'm sorry, Bev," Vash's voice came over the comm. "I only left him alone for five minutes. I hope Jean-Luc interrupted something that I will let you get back to now. Hopefully the reading material came in handy, I'll talk to you later."

With each word, Beverly's face got progressively redder. By the time Vash closed the comm channel, her face felt like it was about to spontaneously combust. Across the table, Chakotay was laughing uproariously, his head thrown back and his arms holding his sides during his unrestrained outburst. "You are so not helpful," she said as she began putting the breakfast things away.

Catching her hand, he pulled her onto his lap, breathless from his merriment. "You're a beautiful, vibrant woman. Is there anything that has happened between us in the past twenty-four hours that was wrong or a violation of any regulations?"

"No," her hair flew around her face as she answered him. She put her arm around his shoulders, her fingers alternately massaging his neck and slipping into his hair to toy with the thick, dark strands.

"Thirty years ago, you broke up with me out of fear, a fear that actually did come to pass for you and you survived, raising a son, becoming an accomplished physician and an amazing woman." When she would have spoken, he covered her lips with his fingers. "Nothing can change the past and you can't escape your destiny--as I found out when I ended up back in this uniform aboard a Starfleet vessel more than seven years ago. I have never found anyone as hot and exciting as you. I won't let you push me away like you did before; we were both young then and I accepted your decision because I thought you were wiser than me about life. I'm a lot older and wiser; with so much time between us, as different as our lives are now, maybe things could be different this time."

Beverly pulled his hand from her mouth and tangled her fingers in his hair. Angling his face up, she lowered her head to softly brush her lips against his before pressing her mouth hard against him. Her tongue forced its way into his mouth, frustration at what her youthful fear had cost her fueling her passion. She cupped his face with her other hand, imprisoning his mouth for her demands.

He acquiesced easily, allowing her to control the kiss, as sure in his feelings now as he'd been so long ago. When she finally broke the kiss, they were both breathing heavily. "As much as I would love to stay and finish this," Chakotay panted. "We'll be arriving at Eillen shortly and the sociology team is scheduled to meet before then. I need to stop by my quarters to pick up the material for the meeting."

"Dinner tonight?"

Setting her on her feet, he kissed both of her palms. "I'll bring the dessert."

Beverly called out to him just before he left. "You are the dessert."

...

Geordi was already waiting in the transporter room after lunch when Data entered.

"Everything is arranged," he informed La Forge. "The Energy and Resource Coordinator will meet us at the central power supply facility."

Once they were both on the transporter pad, Geordi nodded to the transporter chief. "Energize."

Materializing on the surface, they were greeted with bright sunshine although the temperature was comfortable. All around were signs of activity, but the atmosphere wasn't hurried or chaotic. People walking past were dressed in widely disparate attire from long, flowing robes to very skimpy, barely-there scraps of cloth.

"I believe that building to our right is the central power facility," Data indicated a large, two-story building that appeared to span thousands of meters in each direction.

"Good guess."

Inside the entrance, they were greeted by a middle-aged Eillen man in a loose-fitting tunic and trousers. "Commanders Data and La Forge?"

"Yes," Data replied. "You are Coordinator Relme?"

"Yes, welcome to Eillen's central power supply facility. If you are ready, I will conduct the tour personally, we're very proud of our Energy and Resource Management Department."

Geordi fell into stop beside Relme with Data following behind. "From what I've read, you have every right to be proud. Your means of energy production is fascinating."

...

"Administrator Sivade, it's a pleasure to meet you," Riker stepped forward to greet the planet's head government official. "I'm Commander Riker of the Federation Starship Enterprise; this is Counselor Troi of the Enterprise and Dr. Lenak of Vulcan and Dr. Dara Olmeade of Earth representing Starfleet Sociological Department."

"Greetings," Sivade bowed in traditional greeting. "Commander, per your request, I have arranged for our Coordinator of Transportation to take you on a guided tour on the communal transportation system. Dr. Lenak and Dr. Olmeade, if you would come with me, I have a meeting room prepared for you."

...

"Through here," Coordinator Relme was saying, "Is one of the more isolated areas of the facility. It's completely self-contained, it even has its own ventilation system to avoid any possible source of contamination. Once the decontamination cycle is complete, the inner door will open."

"How many people work in this area?" Geordi asked.

Relme consulted his notes. "Six technicians are on duty generally. Allowing for breaks and absences, there is always a minimum of four techs on duty at all times. This section is pressure control and matrix calibration. The computer system manages most of the functions, the technicians are a quality control measure to guard against unforeseen circumstances and to maintain the control components."

As the three exited the decontamination antechamber, the door silently sealed shut behind them. A woman wearing the gray jumpsuit characteristic of all of the facility employees left a panel to approach the group. "Coordinator Relme, it has been too long," she greeted him. "How is your family?"

"Very well, Mada, thank you. Commanders La Forge and Data of the United Federation of Planets- Starfleet, this is Chief Technician Mada. I'm sure she will be able to answer any of your questions."

Before anyone could say anything further, an alarm sounded. An instant later, a control panel in the far corner of the room exploded, flames erupting from the jagged opening. Mada hurried to the master control station in the center of the room and punched in some instructions. Geordi pulled a technician back from the area. The man hadn't been close enough to bear the brunt of the explosion, but he had suffered some severe burns. Another technician was slightly burned attempting to shut down a nearby computer.

"Why isn't the fire suppression system engaging?" Relme yelled above the crackle and din of the energy-fed fire.

One of the technicians was scanning system readouts. "It's malfunctioning."

Data used his tricorder to analyze the smoke coming off of the fire. "The oxygen in this room will be depleted in approximately forty-one minutes; however, the temperature will rise above human tolerances in twenty-two minutes."

"I agree, we should definitely get out of here," Geordi shouted, attempting to access the fire suppression controls from one of the panels.

Mada shook her head. "We can't, the systems are crashing, the explosion is causing a cascade failure. The door won't respond to commands and if we don't get this crash stopped, it won't matter. The energy matrix will destabilize and destroy everything within two thousand meters."

"Data to Enterprise," the android tapped his comm badge. There was no response.

"This room is shielded from transmissions," Relme explained.

Geordi moved over to study the door panel. "I can't access the fire suppression systems, but I think I can get this door open. Data, see if you can help Mada stop the cascade effect. I'm going to see what I can do to get us out of here." He pulled the control panel plate off and began tracing energy flows in the circuitry.

Data quickly scanned the computer screen. "Perhaps if we can use the communications system to divert the energy off of the matrix and onto another one somewhere else, the collapse will not be as destructive."

"Good idea, if I override the flow regulation protocols, I think we can route the energy streams through the auxiliary calibration controls and into the communication system from there," Mada said. "We'll have to divide it up between three of the other facilities, though. Without being able to warn them in advance, I don't want to risk overloading their systems."

Smoke began to fill the room, the self-contained ventilation system not functioning. Two of the technicians were trying to help the two injured techs while the sixth technician helped Geordi with the door. Mada and Data worked feverishly to dump as much energy as possible out of the matrix.

"I don't understand, the failsafe systems should be taking over," Relme was pacing between the master control station and the door.

"Okay, run this cable to that console right there," Geordi said, handing one end of the cable to the technician.

The station where Mada was working exploded, sending her flying backward to slam into a bank of equipment. She slumped to the floor, unconscious.

"Ow!" Geordi yelped. He jumped back from the door panel.

"Are you injured?" Data asked, not looking up from his work.

Geordi shook his hand, "Just a burn. I'm almost ready here."

"I need a few more minutes," Data said. "Get the technicians out, I will follow."

"Okay, power up that console," Geordi instructed the tech. "The surge should overload the circuitry." A shower of sparks flew from the door panel, but the door opened only a millimeter. "Damn, this is going to take some old-fashioned muscle. I could use your help over here as soon as possible, Data." He shoved the plate from the door panel into the crack and wedged the door open wider. Blood dripped from his hands where the cover cut into his skin. When the door was open wide enough, he threw down the panel cover and used his hands to pull the door open, ignoring the pain.

"All of the energy has been transferred," Data announced. He crossed the room to add his strength to opening the door. Once the door was sufficiently ajar for them to squeeze through, he turned back to lift the unconscious Mada into his arms.

"The outer door can be manually operated," one of the technicians yelled. "There's an emergency handle on the left, just lift the lever to release it."

As soon as everyone was out and accounted for, two of the technicians slammed the door shut while Relme activated the general alarm to clear the building.

"La Forge to Enterprise. There's been an accident down here, nine to beam directly to Sickbay."

...

On one of the numerous transit cars humming throughout the city, Deanna looked over at the transportation coordinator. "Everything is so quiet, with all of the activity and bustle, you'd expect the environment to be noisier."

"The power cells that operate equipment are shielded for maximum energy conservation," the coordinator explained. "The shielding also serves to silence the energy conversion process." A small, oblong device at his belt chimed. After a brief conversation, he turned back to them. "I'm afraid there's been an explosion at the central power facility. It won't affect the tour, but a council has been convened to investigate the matter, so I must have my assistant take over for me here. She will join us at our next stop."

"I hope no one was seriously injured," Riker said.

"No, some minor injuries, but everyone has received treatment and the facility has been shut down for repairs."

The transportation coordinator had barely finished speaking when the transit car suddenly lifted into the air. Deanna noted, almost surrealistically, that she didn't hear the explosion until a split second after the car jolted under her. Seemingly in slow motion, the transit car rolled, sliding several hundred meters before slamming into a building.

"Deanna! Are you all right?" Riker's voice carried over the screams of injured and frightened passengers. "Deanna!"

"I'm here, Will. I think my wrist is broken, but otherwise I'm all right."

Emergency crews were already arriving to assist the injured by the time Deanna and Riker crawled from the wreckage. His shoulder was bleeding from a large gash. The transportation coordinator was right behind them and sat against the mangled transit car, breathing heavily. Riker checked him quickly. "We can beam you back to the Enterprise for treatment."

"No, our crews are equipped to handle this, thank you. I'll be taken to one of our medical facilities once the situation has been secured."

"Riker to Enterprise, there's been an accident. Beam Counselor Troi and myself directly to Sickbay."

...

Later, after the cut on his shoulder had been healed, Riker reported to Picard's ready room. "According to the Eillen officials, a power grid blew causing the car to derail. Several failsafe systems malfunctioned for unknown reasons."

"Are you and Counselor Troi all right?" Picard asked.

Shifting in his chair, Riker grimaced. "My shoulder's going to be a little sore for a while, and Deanna's wrist was broken--she's still in Sickbay undergoing osteoregeneration treatments; nothing serious, though."

"Good. Could this be related to the explosion at the power facility?"

"I don't know," Riker said. "The officials whom I spoke with didn't seem to think so. They're investigating, but they seem to be more concerned with the malfunction of the failsafe systems than with the events themselves."

"I have Commander Data's report on the first explosion; Commander La Forge and he were touring the facility when the explosion happened. They were trapped briefly along with several Eillen, but they managed to escape with only minor injuries." Picard sat back in his chair, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I'd like reports from Counselor Troi and you as soon as possible."

"Are you thinking that these are attacks aimed at Starfleet personnel?"

"I'm not discounting the possibility," Picard replied. "To that effect, I want a security detail to accompany anyone beaming down to the planet with a constant transporter lock maintained on each individual and regular check-ins. Let's minimize our exposure until we've looked into this. I want you to work closely with Eillen authorities on their investigation."

...

Riker let himself into Deanna's quarters. He had finished his report on the incident down on the surface and stopped by to see how she was feeling. "Deanna, are you here?"

"Hi, Will," looking up from her computer console, she smiled enigmatically. "I was about to comm you. I just finished transmitting my report to the Captain."

"How's the wrist?" he asked, perching himself on the edge of her desk.

Deanna picked up a red feather sitting on her desk and waved it under his nose. "Good enough to best Capitaine Diabolique himself."

"Deanna, it's been kind of a hectic day--," Riker began.

"Well, I was hoping for more playtime," she cooed, lightly caressing his face with the feather; "But if the Black Mephisto is already yielding to the Crimson Witch, then we can get right to--"

"I yielded last time, it's your turn."

Deanna sauntered toward the door. "Well, Capitaine La Folle is in the mood for some fun and does not wish to yield just yet. See you on the holodeck."

Barely twenty minutes later, Riker was dressed in tight black breeches, a white shirt with a black silk sash tied at his waist. He adjusted the black mask that covered his face and tilted his plumed hat--black feathers, of course--forward to a rakish angle. Long strides covered the deck of his ship quickly, and despite his initial reluctance in Deanna's quarters, he found himself relaxing and enjoying the game. "Unfurl the mainsail," he yelled to his crew. "We search for that daring fiend, the pirate known as the Crimson Witch."

On the deck of her own ship, Capitaine La Folle was issuing orders to her own men. "Look sharp, tighten those lines and get someone up in that nest. The Black Mephisto sails these waters." Deanna tightened her red sash tied diagonally across her torso and fastened at her hip. The sash matched the tight-fitting red breeches and red boots, providing a stark contrast to the white shirt she wore. Her long, dark curls flowed freely under her red, plumed hat, adding a wild mystique enhanced by her crimson mask. The explosion and subsequent crash had shaken her somewhat and this pirate game that Will and she played was an ideal way to release the adrenaline.

"Sails ho," called the lookout from the crow's nest.

Holding the spyglass to her eye, she could make out the ship in the distance. Even better was the rugged, dashing figure pacing the quarterdeck. Every inch a holonovel pirate in his costume, Deanna could feel a rush of desire as she watched Will shouting orders to his crew when they spotted her ship. She closed her eyes, reaching out across the distance to him, feeling his excitement equal to her own. He had needed this release as much as she did.

"She'll try to use the wind to flank us," Riker guessed aloud. "Let her think it's working and be ready to drag anchor and turn on her."

"Catch the wind," Deanna said. "Helmsman, turn us fifteen degrees starboard. Make it look like we're trying to flank him and then make a run straight at him. While his men are trying to compensate, we can grapple and board."

The two ships continued toward each other, a watery game of cat and mouse. The Crimson Witch cut toward the stern of the Black Mephisto, her crew manning the sails with cutlasses at the ready. Both captains eyed the rapidly narrowing distance between them carefully. At just the right moment, simultaneously they yelled, "Now!"

Riker watched in astonishment as Deanna's ship veered suddenly. His men were already dropping anchor to execute a turn. They saw the ship coming but couldn't get the anchor back quickly enough. "To the rails," he shouted. "Prepare to be boarded."

Off guard, his men were quickly overpowered. Soon, only the two captains faced each other on the deck of the Mephisto.

"Touche," he saluted Deanna's maneuver. "You've been studying."

Their hearts were both beating furiously, desire-tinged adrenaline coursing through their bodies. Deanna's voice was a husky whisper when she spoke. "Computer, discontinue characters in this program and engage privacy lock." Whipping out her rapier, Deanna decided on just a little more foreplay.

Riker pulled out his own rapier and did his best pirate snarl, feeling Deanna's shiver at the sound. "Yield to me now, Capitaine La Folle, and it'll go easier on ye."

"I prefer it hard," she taunted, flashing her foil.

They danced across the deck, parrying and thrusting. Grunts and gasps wafted through the air as they both felt closer and closer to the culmination of their interaction.

"You've been practicing," Deanna gasped, breathless.

Bearing down on his nimble prey, Riker grinned. "The captain is a very able instructor."

Deanna was being consumed by their shared arousals. She stopped, leaning against the main mast to catch her breath, and held her rapier out to Will, hilt first. "I yield."

His eyes flashing, he threw both foils aside and trapped her lush curves between his body and the mast. Her lips were full and yielding to him when his mouth crushed hers in a forceful, demanding kiss. Breaking the kiss, his mouth sucked and nibbled its way down the swan-like column of her neck. His tongue found the tender spot where her pulse flittered excitedly in her throat and flicked it.

The sea air brushed across her breasts, the nipples responding with an almost painful intensity. Will was still fully clothed and his mask grazed her sensitized skin, sending shivers through her body. When his tongue found the rapid pulse in her throat and began lashing it with hot, wet strokes that tantalized and excited every nerve ending, Deanna moaned aloud. Her fingers entwined themselves in the dark hair and tried to pull him back up to her mouth.

Catching her hands, Riker pulled back long enough to whisper, "Oh no, my pretty prize. I intend to enjoy my bounty to the fullest."

...

Chakotay stood in the doorway to Beverly's office for several minutes watching her work. After all of the injuries from the previous day, she'd been exhausted last night. He'd served them dinner from her replicator and then put her to bed. She asked him to stay when he offered to leave, so he did some reading while she snuggled against him. He fell asleep at one point, spending the entire night just holding her. They'd parted just after breakfast with plans to meet for lunch, but she'd commed him and asked him to come to Sickbay.

"Are you planning to stand there and stare at me all day?" Beverly finally noticed him standing in her doorway.

"I could," he murmured softly. "You wanted me?"

Flushing at his response, she ignored the innuendo. "I've been working on the Eillen medical technological development, but there's no real context for the advances in their database. I was hoping that you could help me put their medical advances into proper perspective given the cultural dynamics of the relevant time periods."

"I'd be happy to help; it sounds interesting." Chakotay walked over to perch on the side of her desk. He pulled up the Eillen historical database and downloaded it onto a PADD. "I'm not sure that I'd want to see such an analysis of our own advances, though."

"Why not?"

"It seemed like most of the technological advances we made on Voyager were either a result of combat or desperation, sometimes both. I'd guess Earth history has a similar pattern. How often do people create something new for no reason other than it was there to be created?"

Beverly noticed how his dark eyes seemed to get even darker with each word. He obviously had a passion for cultural developments of species. Her cheeks flushed again as she recalled just how intense he could be about his passions. "Necessity is the mother of invention," she quoted.

"Let's see if that holds as true for the Eillen as it does for the rest of the universe," Chakotay said.

Bringing the file back up on her computer, she suggested, "Why don't we just start at the beginning."

An hour later Chakotay glanced up to see her rubbing the back of her neck. "Stiff?" he asked. When she nodded yes, he skirted the desk and stood behind her. Her hair was soft in his hands as he brushed it out of the way and urged her head forward. Quickly locating the tense muscles, he began stroking her neck and shoulders. Gradually, he increased the pressure, kneading and massaging the knots out of her muscles. Her body was soft and pliant beneath his hands, his own body paradoxically tightening even as hers relaxed in response to his ministrations.

"Mmmm," Beverly felt so good that she could understand why cats purred. "God, you have great hands; that feels wonderful."

"You're not the first woman to say that," Chakotay baited her. He chuckled aloud when he felt her stiffen under his hands. "My mother used to get bad headaches, I was the only one who could ease them."

Beverly laughed ruefully. "I'll bet you were a perfect son."

"Not hardly," he snorted. "I was her contrary one, always doing the opposite of how things were supposed to be."

"And she adored you for it."

His hands stilled, everything around him temporarily forgotten. "Yes, she did," Chakotay whispered.

Rising from her chair, Beverly slid it out of the way and turned to face him. "I'm sorry, does it bother you to talk about her?"

"No, I'd just never thought about it like that before," he said. Shaking off the serious tone that their conversation had taken, he grinned and winked. "Besides, she's not the only woman to enjoy a good massage; a few of my commanding officers over the years have benefited from this particular talent."

"Oh really," Beverly's hands came up to toy with the hair at the nape of his neck. "Seven years on Voyager, I'd imagine Captain Janeway enjoyed it a great deal."

Chakotay's hands pulled her hips closer to his. "Not really, aside from the occasional shoulder rub, nothing ever happened. There was temptation and opportunity, but it just never seemed to feel right."

It was getting difficult to follow the conversation; there was very little doubt about where this discussion was going to end. She reached behind her to depress the privacy panel on her desk that closed her office and blackened the windows looking out onto Sickbay.

"You know," he gasped much later, trying to catch his breath. "I still haven't gotten that full tour I was promised."

"You've already seen more of the Chief Medical Officer than almost everyone else on this ship."

...

Materializing on the surface, Vash was jolted with the familiar excitement of discovery. The ruins were incredible. Intricate, multicolored stonework that had been standing since before Eillen recorded history, and she was the first Federation archaeologist to explore them. She had wheedled extra sensor time out of Data to get a more detailed schematic reading of the ruins from orbit. It wasn't really fair to call them ruins since they were still largely intact; they simply hadn't been used in a millennia. The building was elliptical with a spiraling corridor that penetrated ever further into the structure, ending at the exact center. There appeared to be rooms and doorways that suggested shortcuts through the building, however.

"Wow, is that paint?" Deryl, one of Vash's assistants asked. "It's hard to believe it would still be so vibrant after all this time."

Her mind already racing with theories and archaeological fascination, Vash answered almost absently. "No, those are all different types of rocks and minerals seamlessly incorporated into the walls." She ran her hand along the cold smoothness. "Many cultures believe that specific minerals and ores have special properties--even ancient cultures on Earth. This looks to be an intentional arrangement." Completely focused on her work, she jumped right to business. "Dan and Trey, I want a detailed scan of the wall's perimeter; maybe there's a pattern that could provide a hint as to the structure's purpose. Barbara, did we get information on the Eillen folklore and mythology?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good," Vash nodded in satisfaction. "That'll help in determining what properties they attributed to the different rocks. Let's go inside--Whoa!" She pointed at the security guards who had been assigned to her landing party. "Stay out here. The last thing I need is novices blundering around in there while I'm trying to work."

"Sorry, ma'am, Commander Lar's orders were very specific," Crewman Kennely said. "No matter what you say, threaten, cajole, wheedle or yell, we are to stay with you at all times."

Rolling her eyes, she decided to let Geoffrey have his way; besides with a Betazed security chief, she couldn't be entirely sure that he wasn't eavesdropping telepathically. "Fine, just stay behind me and don't touch anything."

As her assistants moved off in opposite directions around the outside of the building to complete their assignments, the other five members of the landing party located the entrance.

"No sharp edges," Barbara noted about the arched entrance.

"Yes, but the corridor inside is square," Vash added. "Make a note to get architectural information from the Eillen government." Stepping through the archway, she aimed her wristlight at the walls. They were covered in symbols and artwork, some etched into the stone and others painted on. "Deryl, give Kennely the holorecorder." She looked over at the security officer. "Make yourself useful, and be sure to get everything on the recorder."

Over the next hour, the group worked its way with painstaking slowness through the corridors. Deryl had been leaving beacon lights at intervals, so the corridor behind them glowed with pinpoints of illumination. Dan and Trey joined them after finishing their scans of the exterior.

Something along the wall caught Vash's attention. They were almost a quarter of the way into the building, having completed one and a half circles of the building along the spiral corridor. "This is odd," she murmured. She knelt down beside the etchings and artwork to get a better look. Using her finger, she traced along the wall from just before the section which had seemed strange across the symbols in question.

Engrossed in what he was seeing, Kennely wandered past the archaeologist, still recording.

Too late Vash realized where the security officer was. "No! Get--" She didn't have the chance to finish. The structure shook, rumbling loudly before chunks of debris began falling down on them. Flattening herself against the wall of the corridor, she winced as a piece of falling stone struck her cheek and a larger piece slammed into her shoulder. She reached for her communicator, noting in satisfaction that her assistants were already flush with the wall themselves. There wasn't time to educate the security officers about cave-in procedures. "Vash to Enterprise, get us out of here now."

...

Picard kept his pace at a dignified hurry along the corridor. Doctor Crusher had assured him that none of the injuries were serious at first glance, but his wife personally requesting an emergency transport was serious enough to him regardless. If Commander Lar was picking up any of his concern, he wasn't saying anything, just silently keeping pace with his commanding officer. The two men arrived at Sickbay to hear Vash reading someone the riot act.

"What part of 'stay behind me' didn't you understand?" she yelled. "You didn't seem to have any trouble understanding Geoffrey's orders except I'm almost positive he didn't order you to destroy a structure that has been standing for a thousand years. We didn't even get halfway through the ruins and now they're nothing but a pile of rubble!" The first thing she had done when they materialized in the transporter room was to have the transporter chief scan the surface to check the damage.

Picard reached Vash's side, waiting patiently for her to pause for a breath. His heart caught in his throat at the sight of the ugly bruise forming on her cheek surrounding a cut which had almost stopped bleeding. "I'll string him up on the yardarm and you can flog the skin from his back later. Right now, I want to know if you're all right and what happened."

"There was an explosion, sir," Crewman Kennely said. "If I hadn't triggered the booby trap, Mrs. Picard would have been in front when it blew."

Picard activated his commbadge, "Picard to Riker, get the Eillen official up here, now!"

"There's more to it than that, Jean-Luc," the adrenaline rush from having a building collapsing on her and her team was starting to wear off. The fear and anger were starting to fade, and everywhere that she had been struck with debris was beginning to throb. "I noticed something strange along one wall just before the collapse was triggered."

"Hold off on contacting the Eillen, Will," Picard said. "I do want a meeting with senior staff and the sociology team, though; schedule it for an hour from now." He closed the comm channel.

Lieutenant Commander Lar had quietly been reviewing the medical status of his security team with one of the nurses. Satisfied that his people were not seriously injured, he addressed Vash. "What exactly did you see, ma'am?"

That was just it, she couldn't explain it. Something about that section of the corridor was wrong. "I'm not sure," she sighed. "Kennely, where is the holorecorder? I'd like to review that section, see if I can put my finger on it."

The security officer fidgeted nervously. "I dropped it down on the surface."

Before Vash could respond, Geoffrey spoke up. "I'll scan the rubble and see if I can retrieve it." He routed sensors through one of the medical consoles and began scanning.

"I have tricorder readings of the corridor," Barbara said. "If it'll help any," she held out her tricorder.

Exasperated, but silently proud that all four of her assistants were holding their equipment, Vash accepted the tricorder and skimmed through the data. "Well, this is interesting."

"I've located the holorecorder," Geoffrey announced. "I'm beaming it up now."

"In pieces, no doubt," Vash groused, still somewhat sore about not getting to see the inner chamber of the ruins.

"Are you planning to share your findings, or do I have to wait for the paper to come out?" Picard asked his wife dryly.

"According to these readings, it wasn't an ancient booby trap that caused the collapse; it was recent. The signatures of the corridor walls don't match; it was dating the composite materials at around a thousand standard years up until the section I stopped at--that signature reflects not only new material, but, if I'm reading this right, replicated material."

Picard reached for the tricorder, "You're right, there's not enough information to identify the source, though."

"I've downloaded the images from the holorecorder into the computer," Geoffrey interrupted. "The data appears to be intact; you can view it from here."

"Score one for Starfleet technology," Vash said, heading for the station that the security chief had indicated. "Show me the last section of the corridor."

Picard was torn between his own archaeological interest and the rapt fascination lighting up his wife's face. He rarely got to see her in action like this and it was an absolute delight. For all of her impishness, he sometimes forgot the brilliant mind behind those beautiful blue eyes. "Do you know what the symbols mean?"

"Not yet," Vash shook her head. "It's similar to other hieroglyphic-style languages, though. Given enough time and a little help from the universal translator, I may be able to figure it out. Here," she stopped the playback. "The symbols change. There was a pattern to the etchings and paintings up to this point, but here the configuration balance changes. Actually . . . " her voice trailed off as her mind began making connections. She pulled out the PADD containing the sensor data and downloaded it along with the tricorder information. "Yes, that's what I thought. If you overlay the building schematics and symbol patterns, you can see."

After several seconds of silence, Picard prompted, "See what?"

"This looks to be an all-purpose ceremonial facility. These symbols probably indicate stations of some sort for specific rituals. The etchings match up with where these rooms are, except I don't think they're rooms as much as passages--direct routes to the inner chamber. See how the etchings on both sides of the corridor line up? There must have been a way to trigger the doors at each etching. But here," she pointed to the holorecording. "According to the schematics, there should be an etching right here, except it's almost a half a meter away. The painted symbols look like a bad forgery, as if someone copied them in a hurry."

"Someone planted an explosive?" Geoffrey asked.

Vash sighed, trying to sort out the myriad of information swirling through her mind. "Yes, but it doesn't make sense. The Eillen have preserved this site for a thousand years, I can't believe they'd destroy it."

"We'll figure that out later," Picard advised. "This is very helpful information, but right now I want Dr. Crusher to take care of your injuries." He gently brushed her hair behind her ear to get a better view of the ugly bruise and dried blood along her cheek.

"It's easier to regenerate skin if it's not moving," Beverly commented.

Vash wrinkled her nose at the doctor. "Point taken."

"How is it that you can tell my wife to shut up without so much as a peep from her when I would be risking life and limb if I even tried?"

"You're a man," Beverly grinned. "I could change that for you, if you'd like."

"No," Vash interjected, patting his cheek. "I like him just the way he is."

...

Comfort, Vash decided, was exactly what she was in need of as she removed a pair of pink satin panties from her lingerie drawer. She contemplated the contents for a long moment before realizing what she was truly after. Closing it, she opened Jean-Luc's top dresser drawer and took out one of his sleeveless, grey undershirts. Although the long, hot bubble bath had felt wonderful, her shoulders, arms, and legs were still sore from the falling rubble. She considered such unfortunate events to be an occupational hazard; however, 'Captain Overprotective' up on the bridge was not likely to see it that way and would most likely be a mother hen for at least a week. Even though Beverly had treated her injuries, the muscles underneath were still moaning and complaining; Bev had warned her that she'd probably be somewhat tender for a few days where some of the deeper bruising had been. Tossing the bath towel in the recycler, Vash began to get dressed. Jean-Luc's Starfleet-issue, grey, cotton undershirt felt smoothly satisfying against her skin as she pulled it on and, smiling, she quickly brushed out her hair. Picking up a few PADDs, she laid down on the bed and began to work on her research notes.

Picard stopped to stand in the doorway of his bedroom silently watching his wife. Her appearance was more reminiscent of a young, sorority girl than one of the Federation's foremost experts on interstellar archaeology. Attired in only a pair of panties and one of his undershirts, Vash was sprawled out on her stomach with her head at the foot of their bed and her legs bent at the knees. Working on several PADDs, she absently criss-crossed her ankles in the air. Her head bent down over her work, her dark hair fell in a cascade over her shoulder toward the bedspread, veiling her face from his view. With a wry smile, he was reminded of several of his fantasies from his Academy days. She reached up to tuck her hair behind her ear revealing the telltale pinkish tint of freshly regenerated skin on her cheek. He caught his breath recalling the sight of her in Sickbay, bruised and battered.

Vash glanced out of the corner of her eye and noticed her husband's boots in the bedroom doorway. Without even looking up, she returned her attention to the PADD and lamented, "I want Geoffrey back, Jean-Luc."

"He's chief of security now, ma cherie, not to mention the best tactical officer I've had since Worf." Picard patiently explained, knowing that Vash had developed a strong rapport with Lieutenant Commander Lar while he was her security guard.

Rolling onto her side, she regarded him,"Geoffrey is so unobtrusive. I hardly know he's there until I need him and then he's usually at my side before I even say his name."

"Mr. Lar happens to be a telepath. Although it has obviously proven useful, telepathy is not a job requirement for Starfleet security officers." Picard responded, stripping off his uniform jacket and setting it on the bedroom chair. "Look, I know firsthand how easy it is to become accustomed to relying on the special talents of those around us. Over the past decade or so, I've had to remind myself that not all ship's counselors are empaths and that not all second officers have positronic brains and superhuman strength; and it took a long time to get used to the fact that I no longer had a large, snarling Klingon watching my back from tactical."

"All of which boils down to: 'No, Vash. You can't have Geoffrey back as your security guard'," she huffed.

"I cannot demote the man because he's too good at his job. However, Commander Lar has suggested that it might be a good idea to have a small number of security personnel cross-trained in basic archaeology field procedures to accompany your team on sites."

"Once again, Geoffrey imposes himself between me and utter disaster," Vash cooed, melodramatically throwing her head back.

"Vash," Picard had to give his lovely wife points for tenacity. Once she had looked up and he was sure that he had her attention, he continued, "You should know that Mr. Kennely was the first to volunteer for the training, even offering to work on it during his off-duty hours. It seems he was fascinated with the ancient site and would like a chance to see more sites in the future."

"I'll admit he did seem to be intrigued by what he was seeing. If I have to drag around a security detail, I'd rather they'd be interested and appreciative of what they're seeing and not bored out of their skulls and maybe even a little useful. Barbara spent several semesters at the Daystrom Institute teaching introductory courses on field procedures. Have Kennely set it up with her."

Picard watched with satisfaction as her expression softened from irritated scientist to dedicated professor. He had yet to meet an academic who could refuse a willing and curious pupil. Sitting down on the bed, he took one dainty foot in his hand and began to massage it. "Merci beaucoup, petite amie."

"Ohhh God . . . Right there, Jean-Luc . . . Oh God, yes!" Vash moaned closing her eyes and rolling onto her back. The PADD she had been working on was dropped, forgotten.

"We're usually farther along before you start sounding like that," he quipped with a deep, masculine chuckle.

"Just don't stop. That's a direct order." Feeling him apply gentle pressure to the ball of her foot, her head fell back and her toes curled as she let out another low moan.

"Was that what it sounded like, Madame Picard?" he chortled softly, picking up her other foot.

"No, but it felt almost as good."

After placing a kiss on the arch of her foot, he stood up stripping off his uniform shirt and boots. Still wearing his undershirt and trousers, he directed. "Roll over, chere."

Vash turned back over onto her stomach as he knelt between her legs. She pillowed her head on her crossed arms and sighed indulgently at the warmth of his large hands slowly traveling up the length of her legs from her ankles to her upper thighs soothing the complaining muscles.

"If I recall there was an injury here . . ." Picard's voice was low and tender as he leaned in to place a kiss on her delicate cheek. His hands lingered of their own accord on the satin-covered contours of her backside before moving up to the small of her back. Splaying his large hands across her back, his thumbs followed the graceful curve of her spine to her shoulders and down again. With her earlier injuries in mind, he kept his touch more of a gentle caress than a massage. "And here . . . and here . . ." He brushed kisses across the creamy skin of her shoulder and her upper arm, bared by the undershirt that she wore. Sweeping her hair out of the way, he switched sides to continue the process on her other shoulder and arm. "And here . . .and here."

Vash purred contentedly, "Now, I can sleep."

Picard held her gently against him and carefully slipped the covers from underneath her to tuck her in, and commented, "You know, Beverly can always give you something for insomnia if you're having difficulty sleeping."

"But your bedside manner is soooo much better than hers."

...

"Given their planet's rotation around the sun, I'd say these symbols would break down into at least six sections based on the seasons that the continents surrounding the equator experience. If we run an algorithm based on a derivation of six and the symbols we've already figured out, the universal translator may be able to fill in the rest," Chakotay had been working with Vash in her lab for several hours. She had requested his help in translating the hieroglyphic language that she had encountered down on the surface.

"That's a good idea," Vash said. "Let me just input these last couple of symbols." She tapped several keys on her PADD and the computer panel. "There, it'll take a few minutes before we see the results." Perching against the computer console, she eyed the commander speculatively.

"Do I have something on my nose?" Chakotay asked after a couple of minutes had passed.

"No," she assured him. "I was just thinking how well-rested you look. The guest quarters are quite comfortable, not that you would know."

Looking down at the petite brunette who was obviously quite irrepressible, he had to grin. "Am I to assume that my grace period to confess myself is over?"

"You're a smart man, that's definitely a point in your favor."

"What score would a man need to earn your approval?"

Delighted to realize that he was actually brave--or foolish enough to banter with her, Vash made a show of inspecting her nails. "That's quite a lofty goal, one no mere mortal has ever accomplished."

"Aren't you married to the captain?"

Strutting over to where he stood, she deliberately circled him, ending up facing him. In a soft tone, but one that carried a veiled threat, she said, "If you're going to date one of my friends, you should know that I'm very protective of them and I once took my husband with his own sword. I have gone nose-to-nose with omnipotence, and if you hurt Beverly in any way, I will show you just how formidable I can be."

Chakotay raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I care very much for Beverly, I did thirty years ago and I never forgot her. I wouldn't do anything to hurt her."

"Well, then I'll have to remember to take security off standby for shoving you out an airlock."

"Please do," he remarked dryly.

The computer beeped, signaling that it had completed its analysis. They both turned to study the results.

"It worked, we have a full analysis," Vash commented. "I'll download these results and deliver my report to Jean-Luc personally."

"You will remember to list your co-authors, won't you?" Chakotay asked, teasing.

"Such impertinence," she huffed with a toss of her hair. "I could always have security throw you out an airlock just for that."

Chakotay grinned, arching an eyebrow. "You like me, you really like me, don't you?"

"Strong Indian warrior, huh? I'll tame you, it might just take me a little longer," Vash winked. "Of course, Beverly might prefer you wild and clad only in your loincloth."

"I'm going to hazard a wild guess that you are the friend who provided those books to her," he chuckled.

Giving her most innocent, wide-eyed expression, she exclaimed, "Why Commander Chakotay, what a quick brain you have."

"Is that another point?"

Vash picked up the PADD with the downloaded analysis. "Does Chakotay mean incorrigible in your language?"

"Nope, contrary," he bantered back.

"Figures."

Chakotay watched as she waved flippantly to him and started past him toward the door of her lab. "I do have one more question."

Stopping, she turned around and waited expectantly.

"Is there some sort of rule or ship's regulation about you being allowed to play with sharp objects, hopefully?"

Vash appeared to think the question over. Shrugging her shoulders in a very perky manner, she chirped, "Nope."

Chakotay was grinning broadly when he started to download the results onto another PADD for his own personal interest. Suddenly he felt Vash smack his backside with the PADD she held.

She had one more comment before she exited. "That's another point."

...

"What do you think, Counselor?" Picard asked. They were waiting for the arrival of the Eillen administrator. Riker was meeting Administrator Sivade and escorting him to the conference room.

"I have sensed no subterfuge from any of them," Deanna replied. "Their civilization is fairly standard, actually quite similar to many of the Federation's non-telepathic races. They are genuinely confused by these incidents."

"Dr. Lenak," Picard turned to the head of the sociology team whom he'd invited to attend this meeting. "What is your impression?"

The Vulcan steepled his fingers, pausing for reflection before he answered. "Their admission has been proceeding smoothly. There is no logical benefit for them in these incidents."

"Unless someone is trying to hurt their admission into the Federation," the captain proposed. He stood as the door slid open to admit Riker and their guest. "Administrator Sivade, thank you so much for agreeing to this meeting. I'm Captain Picard, I believe you've already met Dr. Lenak and Counselor Troi, and this is Lt. Commander Geoffrey Lar, my Chief of Security."

"My pleasure, Captain," Sivade greeted Picard before acknowledging the others. "I only regret that we meet under such unfortunate circumstances."

"Yes," Picard gestured for everyone to be seated. "But we have reason to believe that these 'unfortunate circumstances' are intentional. There is proof that the building collapse yesterday was sabotage, which would lead us to the possibility that these other accidents were sabotage as well."

"Captain, those ruins pre-date our recorded history," Sivade pointed out. "Perhaps they simply collapsed from age; and, while we have not been able to determine a cause for the other incidents, I think your theory might be a bit excessive. After all, we're talking about three completely unrelated incidents in which systems malfunctioned for undetermined reasons."

"Administrator Sivade," Deanna tried another tack. "Is there anyone who might oppose your admission into the Federation?"

"Absolutely not! Before we approached the Federation about admission, there was a planet-wide referendum on the issue. Ninety-eight percent of the adult population voted in favor of joining the Federation."

Geoffrey spoke up for the first time. "What about the other two percent?"

"They're isolationists--they barely tolerate interaction with the rest of the Eillen civilization. They live on a small continent near the south pole. We have always respected their privacy, it's against the law to travel there without an invitation. A communication system enables them to see and participate in everything going on without direct interaction. The Federation assured us and them that their privacy would be respected, they have no reason to leave their continent and are not violent--they simply wouldn't do anything like this. If you have any evidence that might impact our investigation, we would appreciate your assistance in the matter, but I cannot believe that any Eillen is behind these incidents."

Picard gestured for Geoffrey to pass the administrator the PADD with their findings. "The head of our archaeology department managed to collect data from the ruins before they collapsed. There were some inconsistencies in the symbols along a wall, which suggested that it was someone unfamiliar with the ruins and who was in a hurry. According to the tricorder readings in the ruins just prior to the explosion, a section of the corridor was recently tampered with and replaced with replicated material."

Sivade met the captain's gaze. "We don't possess the technology to replicate materials, Captain. Our manufacturing processes are highly refined, but still require solid materials, either raw or recycled.

...

Down on the surface, Chakotay hung the holoimager on his shoulder and surveyed the deserted corridor of the school building. After a brief meeting with Education Coordinator Retsim, he'd inquired about observing at one of their schools to see their education system in action. Retsim had avidly approved of the idea and offered him his choice of facilities. The Eillen housed all of the classes in one large building more reminiscent of a campus. Their children were grouped by developmental level with each level assigned to its own section of the building. Right now, all of the children were out in the center compound for the afternoon rest period. The Eillen school day was fairly long, lasting nearly half the day, but there were several of these rest periods that provided opportunities for the children to play, eat and socialize. This was only one of several such facilities in each city.

"Excuse me, sir."

A small voice from right in front of him got his attention. He looked down to see a small Eillen girl, probably the equivalent of six or seven Earth years standing there. Kneeling down, he smiled. "Hello there, my name is Chakotay, what's yours?"

"Tiva,"

"That's a pretty name. Can I help you with something, Tiva?"

The little girl shook her head, her hair flying around her face. "No, thank you. I just need to get something from my storage compartment."

Chakotay realized that he was in front of a bank of student lockers. Standing, he stepped aside. "I'm sorry."

"That's okay," Tiva said, pulling a book out. "I just need to finish a project for my teacher so I can go outside." She stopped at the door to a nearby classroom. "You're from the Federation, aren't you?"

"Yes, I am. How do you know about the Federation?"

"We studied it in school."

Curious about the nature of the information, Chakotay knelt back down so he was on eye level. "What did your teachers tell you about the Federation?"

Tiva shrugged. "Just that it's a group of different people from different planets who all live and work together and help each other and stuff." Her tone turned scholarly. "Collaboration is a means of achieving things on a larger scale than would be possible as individuals." She cocked her head curiously, "Is that all true?"

Chuckling at the simple, yet fairly accurate summation of a federation, he nodded. "On a good day, yes."

Satisfied with his answer, she opened the classroom door and disappeared inside.

Chakotay made a note on his PADD about the delightful conversation. Continuing down the hall, he reviewed the notes he'd made about his day. If he hadn't turned down another hallway when he did, the full brunt of the explosion would have killed him instantly. As it was, the shockwave slammed him into the opposite wall; he grunted with the impact, feeling his shoulder dislocate. Flaming debris immediately began pelting him, and he instinctively covered his face with his uninjured forearm.

"Enterprise to Commander Chakotay, we've detected an explosion in your vicinity," a voice sounded from his commbadge. "Prepare for emergency transport."

Struggling to clear his head, he barely heard the message. "No, wait. I'm in a school, the area was deserted except for a little girl about fifteen or twenty meters from me. Can you get a lock on her?" The rain of debris had stopped, allowing him to sit up.

"No, sir. There's some sort of interference. Without your communicator, we wouldn't even be able to lock onto you."

"Wait for my signal, Chakotay out."

The hall was littered with large chunks of ceiling, walls and even furniture that had been catapulted out of classrooms by the force of the explosion. It looked like the blast had been a couple of classrooms away from the one Tiva had entered. Hoping she was all right, Chakotay carefully picked his way through the blazing obstacle course. He cursed the delays as he kicked desks and chairs out of his way and scrambled over the massive beams lying across the floor. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder and the searing heat of the inferno that blazed around him, he forced open the classroom door. "Tiva! Can you hear me?"

The smoke was burning his eyes, blinding him so he didn't see the flaming ceiling panel give way. It fell, knocking him to the ground. He quickly rolled, thrusting the panel off but not before his hands and face were badly burned. Staying on his knees, he hobbled awkwardly through the room with his right arm nearly useless. He found her in the back corner of the room, huddled under a desk, not moving. Stripping off his uniform jacket, he leaned in to grip her ankles and drag her out where he could wrap the jacket around her, making sure that her head and face were protected. As soon as his jacket, with its flame-resistant properties, was off, he could feel his skin blistering from the intense heat, punctuated with fireballs of burning debris. Gathering Tiva in his arms, he activated the communicator just as a large display board, fire consuming it, crashed down on his head.

...

On the Enterprise, Beverly made a quick check of her trauma team. They had been alerted to prepare for possible medical emergency just a few moments ago, but they were all in place and ready to receive any wounded. "Sickbay to Bridge, what's taking so long?"

"Commander Chakotay refused transport," Picard responded. "There's a child in the vicinity of the explosion. He's trying to find her."

Blood rushed out of her face, and Beverly braced herself on the trauma bed. It was Chakotay. "Transport him directly here as soon as he finds the child," she instructed. Turning to her team, she issued orders, "you heard him, with an explosion we'll be dealing with burns and smoke inhalation, let's get . . . "

The whine of a transporter beam interrupted her instructions. Chakotay appeared on the biobed in front of her clutching a small bundle wrapped in his jacket. He was badly burned over a large section of his upper body and face, bleeding profusely in several areas and his shoulder was bulging out at a very unnatural angle. The bundle in his arms turned out to be a young Eillen girl.

"Dr. Selar, move the girl to another bed and take your team to work on her." The initial scans showed that both were unconscious, but the girl's readings were more stable than his. Beverly gave him an injection to clear the smoke damage from his lungs before turning her attention to his more severe injuries.

...

Sivade drummed his fingers nervously against his desk. There was something disconcerting about not being able to see his visitor's face. The . . . individual had simply appeared in his office a moment ago requesting to speak with him. The suit and mask that the visitor wore completely concealed its features, although its appearance was roughly humanoid.

"My people are aware of the incidents which have been plaguing you recently, Administrator," the stranger was saying. "I am here to offer our assistance."

"Thank you," Sivade replied. "But the Federation has a ship in orbit and they are providing help in our investigation of the matter."

"Surely you have realized that these incidents began with the arrival of the Federation ship?"

"What are you saying?"

The stranger shrugged casually. "All of the incidents have targeted Federation people, but your people have suffered as well, including an innocent child, I believe."

Sivade rose from his chair, a sick feeling growing in his stomach. "Why would the Federation try to harm their own?"

"It is a common Federation tactic," the stranger sat in a chair in front of the administrator's desk. "If they discredit you as a civilized race--deem you unworthy of equitable membership in their Federation, they can claim you as a colony and strip your world of its resources unimpeded."

"I find that hard to believe."

"Are you willing to bet the lives of your people on it?" the stranger challenged. "Better still, are you willing to bet your life on it? Colonies of the Federation have no use for democratically elected heads of state."

Sivade sank into his chair. The first time that the Federation had come to Eillen, the government had asked them to leave. Maybe they'd been precipitous in requesting membership. "How do your people fit into all of this?"

"Mutual aid," the stranger slid a document across the desk. "The Federation is not the only choice, my people would be interested in entering into a mutual aid treaty with the Eillen. Good will is the only requirement for this arrangement."

"Obviously I will need to review this and take it to my council of coordinators for a final decision," Sivade said.

The stranger stood. "Of course, but for the safety of your people . . . and yourself, I would suggest that you expedite the matter."

...

"Doctor," Picard activated a comm link to Sickbay once everyone else was situated around the conference table. "Can you give us an update?"

Even over the intercom, Deanna could hear and feel the strain in Beverly's voice.

"The little girl is fine; she suffered smoke inhalation and heat stroke--Eillen physiology is not equipped to handle extreme levels of heat, that's why she passed out. Dr. Selar has already treated her and is ready to release her to her parents, they're here now."

"What about the commander?" Riker asked.

Beverly sighed, "It's still touch-and-go, barring complications he should recover completely. He's suffered extensive smoke inhalation and burns to his lungs as well as second and third degree burns over almost 40 of his body. He has a concussion, multiple contusions, lacerations and a dislocated shoulder. I'm keeping him unconscious right now to prevent shock from setting in. I'll know more once I have his condition stabilized."

"Keep me informed," Picard closed the link. "Mr. Data, what can you tell me about the explosion?"

The android keyed up the sensor readings. "This was undoubtedly triggered by an explosive device. The energy signature of the explosion was unremarkable; however, the sensor readings of the vicinity of the explosion were quite intriguing."

Picard studied the display carefully. "This is the interference that prevented transporter lock on the child?"

"Yes, sir. The Eillen authorities have not yet finished examining the remnants of the device itself, but the entire area around the explosion was saturated with molecular residue which interfered with our scanners and transporters. The signal lock from Commander Chakotay's communicator was the only source that the transporters could establish a positive lock on," Data said.

Riker leaned forward in his chair. "Do we know what kind of device leaves that sort of residue?"

"Speculating, sir, but the device was most likely biologically-based technology. Currently, the only known species which utilizes biologically-based technology is--"

"The Breen," Geordi blurted out.

"I think we need to have another talk with Administrator Sivade," Picard announced tersely. "Number One, you're with me. Mr. Data, you have the bridge."

...

"Hold still," Beverly cautioned as Chakotay began to regain consciousness. She stroked his hair, her eyes studying him. "You're in Sickbay onboard the Enterprise, everything's going to be fine."

Blinking several times, his eyesight gradually cleared to reveal the red-haired vision hovering over him. "You're still a beautiful sight to wake up to, Fireball." His voice was barely a cracked whisper.

"And you still have a soft head," she shot back. "Don't try to move yet; you suffered pretty extensive injuries."

Chakotay tried to moisten his lips, "hurts to breathe," he uttered hoarsely.

Cradling his head with her hand, she tilted his mouth up enough for him to sip some water. "I know, your lungs suffered a lot of damage. I can give you something for the pain, just try to take regular, shallow breaths."

He turned his head to watch her retrieve a hypospray and a dermal regenerator. She looked so intent and serious, pursing those luscious lips as her blue eyes scanned the biobed readouts; he caught her hand before she could administer the hypospray. "Tiva?"

"The little girl?" Beverly asked. When he nodded yes, she covered his hand with hers before she continued. "She's fine, just some heat stroke and smoke inhalation. We've already released her to her parents. She was very lucky that you were there; otherwise she probably wouldn't have survived. As your doctor, I can't exactly commend you for refusing emergency transport in order to hurl yourself through an inferno like that; although, I can't exactly yell at you all that much either, since you were so heroic and all." She carefully settled his hand back down on the biobed, trying not to aggravate the burns that hadn't been completely regenerated yet. Now that he was conscious and the more immediate injuries had been stabilized, they could begin the process of regenerating the burned skin. As badly as he'd been burned over almost the entire upper half of his body, that process was going to take at least a day. Relieved that he was going to be all right, she was going to handle his care personally rather than assign a tech or nurse to the dermal regeneration as she normally would.

"Others?"

"No, no one else was injured and yes, everyone else at the school has been accounted for," she gently covered his mouth with her fingers. "Enough talking, now hush. I'm going to work on some of your burns so you may feel a tingling."

Chakotay kissed her fingers before she pulled them away. He had intended to watch her as she worked on him, but before the hiss of the hypospray faded, his eyes were drifting shut.

He looked so peaceful, Beverly mused as she lingeringly traced the tattoo surrounding his eye. The burns on his face were bad, but the regeneration wouldn't effect the tattoo. Listening to his still-slightly-labored breathing, his lips drew her attention. They were so dry and cracked, for a moment she was tempted to lean in and moisten them, but she reminded herself that they weren't exactly alone. "Alyssa, bring me a damp cloth, please."

...

Picard strode intently through the door to Sivade's private office with Riker right behind him. "Administrator, we need to talk."

"Indeed, Captain Picard, Commander Riker," Sivade greeted them both, partially rising out of his chair to bow. "I was about to contact you."

"What do you know about this?" Picard handed him a PADD with their findings.

Sivade studied the information. "This is the first I've seen anything from the explosion analysis; our investigation is not yet complete."

"Can you explain the presence of Breen technology in our analysis of the explosion?" Riker asked.

"No," Sivade replied. He very deliberately set the PADD on his desk. "Captain, Commander, after much deliberation, the Coordinator's Council has decided to request that the Federation remove themselves from Eillen. Until we are able to independently determine the causes of these incidents, we feel that it would be better if the likely targets were not on the surface."

Picard leaned forward, bracing his hands on the desk. "Several of my crew have been injured, and one of the members of the sociology team was seriously injured; I want answers."

Sivade stood, leaning in so that he was eye to eye with Picard. "A child was nearly killed in that explosion, I do not want any more of my people placed in harm's way because of you. More than seventy years ago, my people asked the Federation to leave this planet; I'm asking you now, on behalf of my people, to leave."

"How do the Breen fit into this?" Picard insisted.

...

"Hey Mathews," Frank called out from the shuttle pilot's seat. They were returning to the Enterprise from a stellar mapping expedition. "Have you heard about the pool that Kirrelson is taking up?"

"Yeah," making his way through the cramped confines of the shuttle, Mathews sat down beside the pilot. "You in?"

"Yep," Frank checked his readouts and made a slight course correction. "Extend the proximity alert by two or three hundred meters, would you? There's a lot of debris around here, it's like flying through an obstacle course." Getting back to the subject at hand, he asked, "What did you take?"

"The--" before Mathews could finish his sentence, the proximity alarm blared a warning. He hurriedly punched up the sensor readings. "There's nothing there!"

Both men gaped as a ship suddenly decloaked just a few hundred meters off the starboard bow. Frank reacted first, altering course and increasing speed even though he knew they were outclassed. "Shuttle Carl Sagan to Enterprise."

"We're being jammed," Mathews informed him. He gripped the console for support when the shuttle was hit with an energy blast. "Targeting phasers."

"Hang on," Frank rolled the shuttle, narrowly avoiding a second weapons blast. Keeping the shuttle moving, he tried to prevent the other ship from getting a weapons lock. "Keep trying to signal the Enterprise."

On the bridge of the Enterprise, Geoffrey looked up from the tactical station. "Sensors detect weapons fire."

"Source," Data requesting, consulting the readings on the command chair display.

"Other side of the planet," Geoffrey supplied. "Breen energy signature, they must have had a cloaked ship in orbit."

"What are they firing at?"

"One of our shuttles," Geoffrey was reaching for the alarm before the order came.

"Red alert," Data stood, straightening his uniform jacket. "Shields up and set a course to intercept. Open a hailing frequency."

"Open."

"Breen vessel, this is Lieutenant Commander Data of the Federation Starship Enterprise. Cease fire on our shuttle at once or we will be forced to respond. Acknowledge."

Geoffrey watched the display board. "No response. They're firing on the shuttle again."

"Target their weapons system and fire as soon as we're in range. Enterprise to Captain Picard."

A moment later, "Picard here."

"Captain, one of our shuttles is under fire from a Breen vessel. We are moving to provide assistance; however, we will be unable to beam you back up in the interim," Data advised.

"Understood, keep me informed. Picard out."

...

Picard closed the channel and met the administrator's eyes. "Would you care to explain?"

"There is nothing to explain," the stranger stepped from a dark corner of the office. "This planet is Breen territory and you will leave."

"Wait a minute," Sivade snapped impatiently. "We haven't signed anything yet. The Eillen are not allied with either of you. If you have any disputes to settle, take it somewhere else."

As soon as the Breen appeared, Riker had surreptitiously freed his phaser and checked the setting. "You heard the administrator, he wants everyone gone. You go first."

"I am in the process of negotiating a treaty with the Eillen," the Breen captain countered. "You leave."

"Until things have been sorted out in orbit," Picard observed, "No one is going anywhere."

...

"The shuttle has taken heavy damage," Geoffrey reported. "Their shields are down to 27."

"Prepare to extend our shields around the shuttle. Bridge to Transporter Room 1, lock onto the shuttle and prepare to beam it directly to the shuttle bay as soon as it is inside the shields." It had been a long time since he'd been in command of a ship during a battle, and that was before the installation of the emotion chip. This was quite exhilarating.

It took only twenty seconds for the Enterprise to pull within range of the shuttle, but watching the disruptor fire from the Breen vessel rock the already-damaged shuttle was nerve-wracking.

"The shuttle has sustained a hull breach," the ops officer said.

Data switched on the comm system. "Bridge to Transporter Room 1, can you get a lock on the crew aboard the shuttle?"

"Yes, sir."

"Synchronize the transporters to the shields, you will have only two seconds to initiate transport." Data didn't take his eyes off the display console. "As soon as we have the crew aboard, reverse a tractor beam and force the shuttle toward the Breen vessel. Target the shuttle with phasers and fire."

The communications system activated. "This is Transporter Room 1, I have them."

"Engaging reversed tractor beam and firing," Geoffery said, his fingers dancing across the console.

"Full reverse," Data ordered.

Barely an instant later, both ships were rocked by the explosion. "Breen shields down to 80," the ops officer noted.

"Our shields down to 93," Geoffrey followed the report with one on their own status.

Data had been doing a quick analysis of the Breen energy signature. "Modulate our phaser frequency to this setting and narrow the confinement beam to the smallest parameters. Their next blast will most likely be directed at our weapons array, target their disruptor blast with the modified phaser. It should cause a feedback loop in their weapons."

"The computer can't get a weapons lock fast enough to hit their disruptor fire, I'll have to target manually," Geoffrey summoned his Betazed control, trying to focus on the instant when he would need to lock and fire.

"They're preparing to fire," the ops officer announced.

"Firing modified phasers," Geoffrey said. "Missed, our shields now down to 86." He suddenly punched the firing button.

"They've fired again," the ops officer's report was a millisecond late.

"Direct hit, their weapons system is overloading," Geoffrey allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction as he watched the readings.

"They're withdrawing," the ops officer made the official report of what they could all see on the viewscreen.

Data stood once again and activated the communications system. "Enterprise to Captain Picard."

"Picard here."

"Captain, the Breen ship's weapons system has been disabled; they are withdrawing. The shuttle was destroyed, however the crewmembers were safely retrieved. There were no injuries aboard the Enterprise and only minor damage, repair crews have been dispatched. We can beam you up whenever you are ready."

"Good work, Commander," from the surface, Picard congratulated his officer. "Stand by."

...

Watching the Breen captain disappear in a shimmer of light, Sivade regarded the two Federation officers. "Before you go, would you please explain what is going on here?"

...

A couple of hours later, Picard prepared to address the Council of Coordinators. They were broadcasting his address across the planet so that the entire population could hear what he had to say. He straightened his jacket as Administrator Sivade introduced him.

"Council of Coordinators, people of Eillen," the administrator began. "For the past several days, a number of incidents have occurred causing injury, fear and suspicion to mar our peaceful society. We have determined that the origin of these incidents were sabotage on the part of an alien race called the Breen who wished to deter us from membership in the Federation. The captain of the Federation Starship Enterprise has asked to speak with you all today before the Council makes its final decision regarding our membership application. I will now turn the podium over to Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the United Federation of Planets."

Picard stepped to the podium, returning the administrator's bow before bowing to his audience.

"Four hundred and twenty five years ago, a great and wise man from my home planet of
Earth posed the question: 'How far have we come in man's long pilgrimage from
darkness toward light? Are we nearing the light--a day of freedom and of peace for all
mankind? Or are the shadows of another night closing in among us?'

I stand here today to give you the answer to that question. It is not a straight and true
path. The shadows are ever-present, requiring eternal vigilance to defend the truth of
justice, liberty and peace that are the hallmarks of the light.

Throughout time it has been recognized that the strength of freedom lies in unity. Five
centuries ago, that strength drove the founding of the first government of the people, by
the people and for the people that our planet had known. That democracy and the
principles behind it, the idea that every individual was born with an inherent equality
and inalienable right, remained strong for the next three centuries, through many dark
nights they emerged as the founding force in a unified world government. There would
be many more dark nights ahead of the human race, but they would persevere.

It was a mere 315 years ago when Zephram Cochrane achieved warp capability from
Earth and suddenly humans were no longer alone in the universe. Vulcans may have
been the first race that we made contact with, but they would not be the last. I stand
here today representing the United Federation of Planets, an alliance of almost 200
different races. The Federation is bound by a constitution that guarantees mutual benefit
and protection of its members throughout more than 8,000 light years as well as
ensuring the integrity and dignity of each individual citizen of its member planets.

But a constitution is nothing more than words. The only true power in the universe
comes from the ideas, the faith and the principles of individual beings. Freedom can
only come from those willing to give it freely to all who want it.

That is all I have to offer you. Freedom, liberty and equality do not comes easily, but
together we can explore the wonders of the universe as we continue to strive toward that
day of peace and freedom for all."

...

Chakotay was sitting on the edge of a biobed trying none too hard to concentrate on the instructions that he was being given. The task was pleasantly difficult considering that the one giving said instructions was a beautiful, vivacious, fiery redhead.

"The skin that was regenerated will be extra-sensitive for a few days," Beverly was saying. "You'll need to be careful with the settings on the sonic and water showers. Normally the sensitivity is barely noticeable, but with the amount of skin that required regeneration, you'll feel things more intensely than usual."

Reaching out, he caught her by the waist and pulled her to him. He settled her between his legs, sneaking a quick look around to make sure that they were alone. "Care to test it out with me?" he whispered, dipping his head to kiss her.

His lips were full and sensuous, gently brushing across hers. She should say something, she should step back, she should . . . Shoulds kept battering at her mind, but her wants and needs drowned them out. Parting her lips, her tongue snuck out to lick at his mouth in a silent invitation to deepen the kiss. When he did, her body melted against his, secure in the embrace of his strong arms. Their tongues played and danced together, the warmth slowly spreading through her body. The hiss of the Sickbay doors startled them apart.

"Ah, Commander Chakotay," Picard entered Sickbay with two guests. "I'm glad to see that you're feeling better."

"Thanks to first-rate medical care," Chakotay smiled at Beverly.

The captain turned to introduce his guests. "Commander, I'd like you to meet Administrator Sivade, head of the Eillen government."

Chakotay stood and shook hands with the administrator before kneeling in front of the second guest. "Tiva, I remember you. I'm glad to see that you're all right."

Blushing, Tiva twisted nervously. "I wanted to thank you for saving me, Commander Chakotay. I have a gift for you."

Catching Captain Picard's subtle nod, Chakotay knew that it was an appropriate gift to accept. He held out his wrist and watched as she fastened a bracelet on him. The bracelet consisted of polished stones and geodes, some with etchings on them, set into a soft, malleable circle of some type of black rock. It molded comfortably to his wrist. "It's a beautiful gift, thank you."

"These are all from our planet," Tiva explained, blushing again. "Ancient symbols of protection and friendship for you to remember me by."

"As if I could ever forget such a pretty girl," he leaned forward and kissed her cheek. He stood back up.

"I would also like to thank you for what you did, Commander," Sivade said. "Risking your life for a race that was not even a member of your Federation was a most honorable act."

"The value of a life should not be measured by the alliances of a government," Chakotay demurred.

Sivade nodded approvingly. "But, the good news is that, thanks to the recommendation of Captain Picard and the assistance of everyone on board the Enterprise, you are looking at the newest, official members of the United Federation of Planets."

"Congratulations," Beverly and Chakotay chimed in unison.

"Doctor," Picard spoke up. "If you're finished here, would you escort our guests to the transporter room. I haven't had the opportunity to speak with Commander Chakotay, yet."

Chakotay knelt to say goodbye to Tiva. "My people have a blessing that they wish on friends when they part. Peace in your heart and fortune in your steps, my little friend."

Beverly shot an amused glance at Chakotay as she led the red-faced little girl and the administrator out of Sickbay.

Once they were alone, Picard extended his hand to Chakotay. "I've seen your reports, and I want to commend you on your performance on this mission. You handled yourself superbly and on very short notice."

Chakotay took the proffered hand. "Thank you, sir.'

"You know, the Enterprise could use an officer with your skills on a permanent basis, if you're interested." He paused briefly before adding, "I dislike prying into my officer's private lives, but Beverly certainly seems happy to have you aboard."

"Yes, sir." Hesitating, Chakotay took a deep breath. As tempting as the offer was . . . "Do you need an immediate answer, Captain?"

"No," Picard replied. "May I ask if there's a problem?"

"I'd just like to think about it. After seven years aboard Voyager, I'm not sure that I'm ready for that life again, even here."

"Of course, the offer stands just take your time. Meanwhile," Picard's voice took on a curious tone. "I would like to discuss some of your experiences in the Delta Quadrant. Would you care to join me for a cup of tea?"

"Yes, sir."

The two men headed toward the Sickbay door. "I do hope that my wife has been behaving herself; although, I must admit, not being the main subject of ship's gossip has been nice for a change," Picard noted dryly.

Chakotay grinned. "Mrs. Picard has been delightful, but the way I heard things, there's been a pool going around on which is better: the Indian Outlaw or the Picard Maneuver?"

FINIS

First Love, Wild Love by Madeline Baker, Beloved Savage by Sandra Bishop, and Silken Savage by Catherine Hart are real bodice-rippers and among the favorites of Whoa Nellie. The Crimson Witch, Captain La Folle and the Black Mephisto, Captain Diabolique are characters from Desire in Disguise by Rebecca Brandywine, also among the favorites of Whoa Nellie. The other two are fictional bodice-rippers created just for the purposes of this story.

The quote in Picard's speech about man's pilgrimage from darkness to light is from Dwight D. Eisenhower's inaugural address, January 20, 1953.