The air tasted of ash and dust, so did the inside of her lips. Everything did. The last time she coughed, she filled her mouth with black mucus from her lungs. Beverly Crusher's mind supplied that it was chemical pneumonia, nothing serious, nothing Tri-ox couldn't hold at bay until the Enterprise got to them. Will was coming. Jean-Luc reminded her of that every night. Sometimes he said it again in the morning, but only when he was concerned. She was only aware of the time of day because the grey light was a little more yellow in the morning, and this morning she woke with his hand on her stomach.

The wound on his forehead was healing, but she couldn't take the scar from his face without a dermal regenerator. That stopped working last week, or was it the week before? She couldn't remember.

This evening Jean-Luc was only slightly in focus. That had been firmly placed in her mind as a danger sign.

"I'm getting worse," she said, taking a shallow breath. "You might need to try draining my lungs." Beverly's eyesight was good enough to know he was grimacing at the idea.

"Next time," Jean-Luc muttered dryly. "Stay well away from the explosive devices. Minimum safe distances aren't just guidelines, they're real and pressing matters that you should be concerned with."

Ensign Doren lived, so she won't argue with him. It had definitely been stupid of her to go back in after her patient, but, she saved a life and she was content with that. Life was precious in a war. Doren had been almost too grateful before Jean-Luc sent her to join security. Their security escort still defended their little mountain cave. She saw them occasionally, but only Jean-Luc sat to talk to her. zh'Corami only brought her food and made sure she ate it yesterday because Jean-Luc had been checking something. It ended up being the stars; when he explained the star charts he'd been painstakingly sketching into the stone wall of her prison, she forgave him.

His head was near her chest, almost resting on her breasts as he listened to the sound of her breathing. It would be easier with a tricorder, but she'd have to talk him through it anyway.

"Time to sit up," he reminded her, resting warm hands on her shoulders. "Your lungs sounds like crackling. You said that was bad."

"It is bad," Beverly agreed, but her coughing fit stopped the explanation she wanted to give as to why. She kept thinking of Arvada III and Minos and of the Enterprise-E covered in Borg drones. Had she lived through that to end up here: dying of dust in her lungs while Jean-Luc tried to keep up her spirits? She ached from coughing. Shivers of pain ran through her when he dragged her up.

She had been getting weaker and Beverly wondered if her lips are blue. Her fever had increased and she knew there was an infection, perhaps even a secondary one. Massive doses of Tri-ox may be weakening her immune system, not that it wasn't bad to depend on the drug already; they can't risk it.

"You're going to have to do it," she panted through her irritated throat. "I'm not-" she knew this but he hasn't wanted to believe her- "going to make it much longer without permanently damaging my lungs." Beverly left off the risk of death. He knew. She knew. They both knew her health was a serious problem on the heap of steadily increasing list of serious problems. Losing her would be a crisis, something that undermined his confidence. During a war, this damn war, she couldn't risk that.

She can't leave him.

"Laser scalpel," Beverly listed off, "hypospray, empty vial, tube--"

"From a endospanner," he interrupted. Jean-Luc remembered the list. Had she told him before? Had he done it before? She can't remember and sitting up was making her dizzy. Her chest was all pain, and the tiny slide of the scalpel was a point of heat in a smouldering fire.

"Wesley-" she begged him but Jean-Luc shook his head.

"You'll see him," he insisted but his calm was starting to crack around the edges. "I promise you'll see him. Tell me about the liver," he requested, as he always does when she was starting to drift. "How does it function? What are the major veins and arteries?"

The wet popping sound was her lung as the scalpel seared into it.. The heat on the skin of her back was blood and pus running down. It was bad again but she can't remember if it was worse than before. She was just so tired.

"Beverly!" he snapped at her, frustrated that she was drifting away. It was stern instead of hurtful and she really did want to answer. It was just so hard to move her mouth; so exhausting to breath in and such a relief to breath out. Her chest didn't hurt when it was empty.

"The hepatic portal vein," she gasped, shuddering in pain. "Hepatic arteries. Hepatic veins- drain into the inferior vena cava."

Jean-Luc laughed, rubbing his hand slowly down her back until her breathing slowed a little. "I wouldn't even know if that was right," he admited, shifting her back towards the wall. He stops because her teeth are chattering. "Your fever's worse."

Worse means she's had it for some time. That's another bad sign. "Dammit," she murmured, squaring her shoulders and wrapping her arms around her chest. "I was hoping it was just cold in here." Her chattering teeth made a mess of the last word and to her surprise, he hugged her close. It was just for warmth, she told herself, but it was easier to breathe with his arms around her. It seemed safer.

"I'm going to get you out of here," he promised so softly Beverly wondered if she wasn't meant to hear. "Back to the Enterprise, a real sickbay and your own bed. I promise you."

She liked believing him. Even if she died here, in this grey little cave, it was Jean-Luc she'll remember.

Weapons fire sang over his head, turning the rock face into rubble. He fired back, missing the Jem H'dar. Jean-Luc muttered, cursed and ducked down lower as rock burst around him again. He had to make it back. Getting shot now would be a waste of his life and he had no intention of dying on this dry little hell hole. Not with Beverly and his crew here because he would bring them home.

He made the second shot, felling the Jem H'dar, then he could run for it.

Jean-Luc had been a runner at the Academy. He has always liked knowing the strength of his own legs. The air was harsh, he hasn't been eating as he should, but he could still pound the dirt beneath his feet and escape. It was not the marathon, compared to that this was a sprint, but he could hold his own. He shifted to a diagonal through a canyon, being careful to make himself as difficult of a target as possible.

His lungs burned and the muscles of his legs screamed for him to stop. Jean-Luc had never suffered from a lack of willpower and he put both thoughts out of his mind. This was easy, simple, like cresting that last hill. He fired over his shoulder, ducked, doged left and fired again. The hard satisfying thump of a body against the rock echoed on the godforsaken planet and he kept running.

It was the plan to run interference and draw them away from the ship. The Jem H'dar ship would fly and their runabout wouldn't. If the Enterprise couldn't be there soon, he was going to lose Beverly. When he was alone, Jean-Luc could admit the possibility that it might not make it to them in time. He and the three remaining ensigns might make it the month or so until the next cargo vessel passed through, but he doubted Beverly would last the week.

As poor as it might have been of a tactical descision, he'd made the call. Putting the aching of his legs out of his mind, he poured on the speed and forced them to chase him. They were kilometres from the Jem H'dar ship and it would have worked.

The First, a huge, hulking grey creature who he'd traded shots at over the time they'd been stuck, turned up ahead and headed down into the branch of the canyon where Beverly was hidden. Everyone else was after the Jem H'dar ship. There were at least three of them behind them. The First would definitely kill her if he got to her. She was injured, and the Jem H'dar had little use for prisoners.

He switched directions and tore after the First. The dull grey dust he kicked up behind him hung in the air. Jean-Luc didn't have a plan, or a weapon, or really much of a hope of defeating the Jem H'dar. None of these thoughts made it through the copper-tasting adrenaline or the singular notion that he had to protect her.

Running up the hill without feeling his body, Jean-Luc crested the rise and slowed as it flattened out.

The First was waiting for him. The Jem H'dar's rifle slammed into the dust to the left. The grey dust swallowed the metal of the rifle.

"So many of the species here protect their wounded," he said, staring him down. "I have long wondered why that is. It makes you weak."

Jean-Luc shook his head. Catching his breath was more important than speaking.

"You will tell me that caring for others is a strength. It is not an opinion shared by the gods." The First lowered his arms to his sides. "The gods only care for the strong, and the Jem H'dar are full of their strength. The Alpha Quandrant will fall."

"So you say," Jean-Luc muttered. The First was easily a head taller than him and built like the Nausicaan who had taken his heart decades ago. He'd been younger than and nearly ended up dead. A dusty little planet in the middle of nowhere was a little better than a bar fight but in the end, if he lost, it wouldn't matter either way.

He had no fear of death. A healthy respect, certainly, but no fear.

"I doubt my death will lead to the fall," Jean-Luc offered. He stood easily before the Jem H'dar, wondering if there was any weakness he could use.

"There are many like you," the First reminded him. "They will fall."

The Jem H'dar's cold eyes met his. The effect was like staring down a black hole; the gravimetric distortion would have been more forgiving.

He'd been in a few scuffles. Jean-Luc could take a punch, and throw a decent one when he needed to. The First was in his armour and for a second or two, Jean-Luc thought he might have been slowed by the heavy outfit.

The fist that slammed into his side was an argument to the contrary. Jean-Luc feinted, trying to protect his side before it was pummelled into oblivion. He got in a punch, slamming his unprotected fist into the spiny side of the First's face.

The skin of his hand stung and the wet heat on his knuckles was his own blood. Adrenaline buried the pain and they continued to circle each other. The thick grey dust rose and clotted the air. Jean-Luc dodged, hit the First on the side of his scaly neck and took a backhanded slap across the cheek for his trouble.

Blood rushed into his mouth, mixing with the dust. Jean-Luc spat, trying to keep his tongue back and away from his teeth. Blood ran dark down his chin, mixing with the dust. The First's scaly skin was tougher than his own and any blow Jean-Luc managed to land tore more flesh from his hands.

Trying to hit the First's eyes wasn't fair play, but survival outweighed that. A well placed knee and a shift of his weight got Jean-Luc close enough to gouge and the sharp edge of his thumb sank into the yielding wet of the First's eye. Blood and fluid spattered out, coating his hand before the First thrust it violent away.

The Jem H'dar's howl of anger was followed with a series of blows that left Jean-Luc reeling and covering his head with his forearms as the First drove him back. Slamming into the wall right by the opening to the cave, he wondered how long it would take him to die. Breaking his neck would be the most efficient method but the stiff forearm the First drove into his throat suggested strangulation was also a possibility.

It was almost worth it to see the ruin the First's eye had been. The iron-skulled creature headbutted him and Jean-Luc's head bounced between the rock and the scales coating the Jem H'dar's forehead. Concussion left him for an instant, and threatened to fade entirely as the First pressed harder.

He struggled with his legs, fighting for leverage. His hands crawled at the back of the First's neck, reaching up for the tubes that provided him with ketracel white. Jean-Luc couldn't get purchase and the black on the edges of his vision was closing in. His legs burned, his chest screamed and somewhere in the back of his mind he wished he could have done more for Beverly.

He'd never even had the chance to tell her--

Blood spurted across his face, shocking Jean-Luc back from the brink of the void. He coughed, suddenly able to breath as more black blood shot across his face. He sagged down but the First fell faster. The creature who had been able to kill him collapsed, lifeless.

The blood on Jean-Luc's face stung his eyes, and he wiped the back of his wrist across his eyes to clear them. Something red glowed on his left. He blinked, spitting more mixed blood and dirt out of his mouth. Coughing made his chest seethe with agony again, but he lived. Pain was a blessing.

Cold hands caught his face, lifting his head. As colour slowly returned to his world, Jean-Luc saw Beverly's hair, red beneath the filth, fall across his vision.

The red was the laser scalpel, now off and forgotten in the dust. She'd sliced through the Jem H'dar's neck. He wasn't even sure if she was able to walk, but, somehow she'd done it.

"You look like hell." Beverly whispered.

Her voice may have been soft, or it could have been the ringing in his skull. As his vision improved, Jean-Luc noticed how blue her lips were, and the skin of her face was greyer than the dust on her uniform.

His attempt to speak ended in a coughing fit. She stroked his cheek and her fingers felt like ice. Beverly dropped her hand to his destroyed one and rested it over his battered knuckles. Her head fell to his shoulder. As his breathing improved, hers went more raspy.

His arm screamed as he lifted it to rest it around her shoulders. Beverly clung to him, one hand on his, the other on his chest. Closing her eyes, she smiled at him weakly. The Jem H'dar could come. Neither of them had any fight left. Death was a peaceful thought, something almost comforting.

Jean-Luc wasn't sure how long it was before the transporter effect began in front of them. He thought he was hallucinating and Beverly was completely out. He could still hear the ragged sound of her breathing but there wasn't anything he could do to soothe it.

The blue of the transporter faded into the sharp black of boots. Looking up past the black leather, Jean-Luc followed a trousered leg up to Will Riker's relieved smile.

"Lets get you out of here. You both look a like you've been off the ship too long. No more unplanned shoreleaves."

Will dragged Jean-Luc to his feet and Data's strong arms lifted up Beverly. Her head rested on his chest and Jean-Luc turned to make sure she was all right. His trembling hand slid the hair from her cheek. He left blood in the dust, but he nodded to Data.

"She's all right."

"Of course captain," Data agreed. "Sickbay will be able to repair all the damage."

"To both of you," Will said, steadying him with strong arms.

Jean-Luc nodded slowly. Grabbing Will's shoulders let him stay on his feet as the transporter lifted them out of hell.

Everything felt fuzzy, as if the edges had been blunted from the universe. Beverly blinked, half-surprised she could even open her eyes. The lights above her were immediately familiar. Sickbay, and she was off on one of the side beds. One of her hands rested on her stomach; she could feel her own breathing.

It was normal, regular and slow. How long had it been since she could breathe without her chest screaming? She blinked and licked her lips. Her other hand was caught in something. Beverly turned her head slowly and her lazy eyes focused on Jean-Luc's recently healed face. Bioplasters still covered the worst of his injuries and patches of silver covered his hands as well.


She sighed and closed her eyes again. She could hear the bustle of sickbay around her. Sickbay was always full during the damn war. She'd have to get up and help soon but for the moment, she could rest. His hands were warm and firm against hers, just like they had been in the cave. Even back on the Enterprise, he was her lifeline.

"Captain," she muttered back. "Shouldn't you be on the bridge?"

"Will wouldn't give the ship back."

Beverly chuckled, smiling happily when it didn't hurt. Nothing hurt and the fever she'd been fighting was finally gone. "Are you sure that's what happened?"

Jean-Luc lowered his head, exhausted enough to rest it near her on the bed. She reached over and rested her hand on the back of his head.

"Thank you." Stroking the back of his neck made her smile. "You really kept me--"

He lifted his head but he couldn't meet her eyes. "Beverly, I couldn't-- Not there, not--"

"Shhh..." she murmured, sitting up just a little. "I know..."

"Don't sit up," he warned, getting his feet. Jean-Luc's concerned face moved up until he was level with hers.

"It's all right," Beverly assured him. She knew enough to know what her limits were. Her lungs must have been completely repaired. She held his cheek in her hand and focused on his eyes as he finally smiled. "I'm all right."


Her thumb ran along the side of his cheek. "Because of you."

"That's the painkillers talking," Jean-Luc teased her. He tried to pull back and return to his chair, but Beverly held him there. Her body was still moving slowly, as if it were remote controlled.

Maybe he'd turned into it or she was just a little off target. What was meant as a kiss on the cheek ended much sweeter than it began.

"I'd like you to stay."

Jean-Luc kissed her forehead, lingering there before he returned to his chair by her side. "You only ever need ask."