He almost didn't dare to look, in case that too was a lie. But, he realised that if he was to surrender, he needed to face her, so he turned.
A female figure stood in the doorway, dressed in a Starfleet Commanding Officer's uniform, her right arm raised to hold the phaser aloft. How long had they said it had been – 5 years? She looked older than that, from the woman he remembered. Her hair was longer. It shadowed her face. But it was her eyes that had really changed. All the laughter had gone from them – all the joy. She searched his face, the hollow confusion on her expression matching how he felt inside. He was surprised that, for a moment, no strong emotions were forthcoming. There was nothing for the first few seconds but emotional numbness and bewilderment. Physically, he felt giddy and removed, as though he was watching the scene through a window from a high balcony that wobbled and shifted beneath his feet. He heard himself speak – even his voice sounded distant and thick.
So, there was a third collaborator – and from the state of him, he'd been the one she'd followed through the narrow gap between the wall panels, not Maddox. She kept an eye on him as he slowly turned to face her. A middle aged human male, Caucasian, battered and bruised. Bloodied torso and face. Her first thought about his appearance was 'wipe away the blood and he'd look like a younger Noonian Soong'. Then, she thought about how Maddox and Poklar had taken Lore's body, and thought about how the Borg had been able to graft organic skin onto Data, and she felt the panic began to rise.
Only, then the man locked gazes with her. Those eyes. They were pale blue now, rather than gold, but there was no mistaking them. It was, of course, impossible, but then, she'd put her trust in a lot of impossible things of late.
This wasn't Lore, or B-4, or any other Soong.
She drew breath to say his name, but he spoke first, distant and dazed.
'Data…?' The second syllable of his name choked in the back of her throat. 'How…?' She tried to focus. She was in the middle of arresting two mad scientists – this was not exactly the time for tears. 'You're alive. You're here. You're… you're human…'
'You grew your hair,' replied Data in the same, dreamlike voice.
Tasha had no answer to that. All that she was able to do was let out a short, strangled laugh.
'You see, Maddox?' barked Poklar. There's a Starfleet shuttle stuck to the bottom of my ship like a leech, waiting to take us all away. They can't have just found us and crept up on us without our knowing. You sold us out!'
'Poklar, you're crazy!' Maddox cried. 'Why would I do that?'
'For exactly that reason,' replied Poklar. 'You think I've lost my mind. I've noticed the way you've been looking at me. You'd rather take your chances with them again than stay on the run with me.'
'I haven't contacted anybody!'
'It doesn't matter.' For somebody so badly injured and bleeding, Poklar moved surprisingly fast, closing the gap between Data and herself in a matter of moments. Wrapping one arm around his shoulders, she pulled a bloodied shard of metal from her belt and held it to his throat. She took a couple of steps towards the door, pulling Data along with her, watching Tasha intently as she went.
'Nobody's being taken from this ship,' Poklar announced. 'I'm ending this, right now.'
Data eyed Tasha, desperately. 'She intends to destroy the ship. You have to stop her.'
'If I set the ship to self destruct, we'll all go out together, in the wink of an eye,' said Poklar. 'If you try to stop me, Yar, I'll make it slow for him, and as painful as I possibly can. Try to draw your weapon against me and I'll cut him. You'll watch him bleed out, and hear him squeal as he goes.'
Tasha faltered, running possibilities through her mind, trying to work out the safest way to get Data away from her. Both Poklar and Data must have misinterpreted her hesitation as aquiescence, because the Romulan took another step towards the door, just as Data began to try to fight back. He made a grab for the sharp shard, wincing as it cut into his hand but not letting go.
'Leave while you can, Tasha. I am already dead.'
Seeing this as the distraction she needed, Tasha darted towards the struggling pair.
'And lose you again?'
She grabbed Poklar's wrist. Poklar snarled, and twisted, and Tasha saw in her eyes a flash of clarity – that Poklar had realised a way to truly hurt Data the way that Lore had hurt her. The jagged, makeshift blade was wrenched from Data's hand and turned towards Tasha. Tasha dodged, but miscalculated how far Poklar would be able to lunge with her free hand. A powerful blow knocked her from her feet. Tasha looked up as she saw the blade come down…
She only heard Data cry out her name in panic – she didn't hear the elderly disruptor being fired. She only saw the blade fall, and fall, and clatter harmlessly to the floor. Only after a moment of shock, waiting for an end that didn't come, did she notice that Poklar was dead.
She blinked at the slumped body, then gazed along the line of fire. Maddox was curled miserably at the far end of the room, the disruptor in his hands still aimed at the spot where Poklar had been when he'd killed her.
'It's over,' murmured Maddox. 'It's all over. She'd lost all sense of reason – a brilliant mind, consumed by her obsession. And I helped her. I became just like her. We fed one anothers' delusions.' He looked at the disruptor in his hands for a moment, then turned it to point at himself. 'I'm sorry, Data.'
'No!' Tasha cried out. 'It doesn't have to end this way. Come with us.'
'I can't,' replied Maddox. 'I've seen the way the path I've taken ends.' He nodded at Poklar's body. 'I'm halfway there already. I can't carry on, and I can't go back to face justice. Who could forgive the things that we've done… that I've done?'
'I can,' said Data, quietly.
Maddox looked across the room at him, and nodded; tears welling in his eyes. 'You're a better human being than I am, Data. You always were.'
A strange silence fell. Tasha looked from Maddox's body to Poklar's, to Graves' smashed machine, to Maddox again. An irrational little voice told her that if she looked at Data, he would no longer be there.
'Graves' machine…' she murmured.
'I broke it,' he replied. 'I hit it with a chair.'
Something inside her snapped. She didn't weep, she didn't scream, she didn't shower him with kisses… she laughed. She went into hysterics, until she was clutching at her bruised, aching sides with tears and fighting for breath. He took her shoulders, holding her tight, joining her in her giggling fit, but still she didn't dare to look at him. His skin was warmer than she remembered. Not to mention, stickier. She looked down at his hands. They didn't vanish under her gaze. They were very real, very human hands, complete with scraped knuckles, lacerated palms and fingers and a hell of a lot of blood.
'How…?' she began.
'Q,' he replied. 'How did you…?'
'Ditto,' she replied. 'We'll have to get a fruit basket delivered to the Continuum, or something.'
'I do not believe that Q cares much for fruit,'
She finally turned to face him, and gave his bloodied lips a light kiss.
'Ow,' he said.
'Let's go home.'
Geordi stepped back from his craftsmanship and inspected it yet again.
'Yep,' he concluded, 'that aughtta hold it.'
Deanna blinked out of her thoughts and looked across at him. 'We have a 15 hour journey in the vacuum of space ahead of us,' she reminded him. 'With that in mind, I think I'd like a more positive analysis of a patched up square metre of our ceiling than "that aught to hold it".'
'It'll hold,' Geordi assured her. He sat down next to her. 'Any more of an idea what's going on up there?'
Deanna shook her head. 'There was a lot of rage, and confusion. I'm sensing something more like relief now, but it's all still so confused. I just can't tell.'
As if on cue, Tasha's voice sounded over the Comms system. 'Yar to Orpheus…?'
'Orpheus here,' replied Geordi.
'It's over,' said Tasha. 'Two to transport on board.'
Geordi exchanged glances with Deanna, and beamed the two that Tasha had sent co ordinates for aboard the shuttle.
There was a moment, after the second person had materialised, when it simply didn't register for Geordi. He'd spent five long years mourning his friend, and coming to terms with the fact that he'd never get to see him ever again. Besides which, to his optical implants, that second person just did not look like Data. He was of a completely different atomic make-up. He just stood there, blinking at the bloodied human male that was holding on to Tasha for support, until Deanna got to her feet and, with a cry of 'Data', hurried over to him as quickly as her swollen frame would allow. Even then, Geordi found himself rooted to the spot.
He squinted. 'Data…?'
Could that really be his friend – very human and very much alive, gratefully receiving a hug from the pregnant Betazoid?
'Data…?' he repeated.
The man looked up from Deanna's shoulder and gave Geordi a small, faltering, unsure smile – the kind he used to make all those years ago when he'd thought of a line that he hoped would be amusing – the kind that would make Geordi internally brace himself for another truly terrible joke.
'You appear to be stuck in a loop, Geordi.'
Geordi walked over on slightly shaky legs and took Data's hand. 'It really is you.' He pulled his friend into a hug. 'We thought we'd never see you again.'
'An understandable assumption to make about somebody who has died.'
'What happened?' Geordi asked.
'A lot,' answered Data, still not pulling out of the hug. 'Although, I suspect your main queries will relate to how I am once more alive, and how I am human. The former is due to Maddox; the latter, to Q.'
Geordi pulled away and took a better look at Data's injuries. 'Dare I asked who minced your face?'
'A girl,' replied Tasha, leading Data over to one of the chairs.
'A revenge obsessed Romulan outlaw,' corrected Data, 'who also, I presume, got the better of Tasha as she was following me and beat her into temporary unconsciousness, given Tasha's injuries and the delay between Poklar finding me and Tasha's intervention.' Data yielded to Tasha's hands upon his shoulders, urging him to sit. 'You are fortunate, Tasha, that Poklar was so consumed by her want to catch up with me at that point that she did not think to kill you.'
'OK,' Tasha conceded, 'so I got beaten up by a girl, too.' She pulled a first aid kit from its compartment. 'Neither Maddox or Poklar are in any position to accompany us, by the way. Murder-suicide. I set a force field up over the hole we cut in their hull, but with no one manning that old wreck of a ship, I don't know how long it'll last.'
'Well,' replied Geordi, 'as nice as this part of the Universe is, I think we'd all like to go home, now.'
In the end, Poklar's ship lasted for 148 minutes after the shuttle had pulled away before the force field failed and the hull breach caused the whole thing to explode. The Orpheus was well clear of the asteroid belt by that point, but close enough still to pick up the explosion on their monitors.
By this point, Data's wounds had been patched up, all except the missing tooth, which he had cheerfully spent some time talking about getting replaced.
('You could get one that fires lasers from your mouth,' Geordi had grinned.
Data had prodded the fleshy hole again and replied 'enamel will more than suffice'.)
A lengthy, rambling chat had shifted from the subject of Deanna's pregnancy to Geordi's engagement.
('Priti Manek?' Data had asked, his eyebrows high.
'Yes,' Geordi had replied. 'You don't need to look so surprised about it, Data.'
Data's expression hadn't changed. 'Pretty Priti?'
'"Pretty Priti"?' Tasha had echoed, with a smirk.
'Geordi declared romantic urges for Lieutenant Manek after the very first time he saw her,' Data had explained as Geordi had pinched his brow. 'He occasionally referred to her as
'Pretty Priti in moments of particular wistfulness.'
'Yes,' Geordi had said, 'thanks Data'.
'But after all those years of yearning, you have finally won her affections,' Data had continued. 'Congratulations.' He had paused. 'Have you chosen a Best Man?'
'I had,' Geordi had replied, 'a few minutes ago, but if your speech is going to make any reference to "Pretty Priti" or "years of yearning", I'm gonna have to reconsider.')
Data had drank and eaten as well as he could given his missing tooth, finding that he particularly liked chicken laksa, albeit with the pieces of chicken picked out. The first trip to the bathroom had been an interesting one, although thankfully for Geordi, Data hadn't actually needed any physical assistance. Talking his friend through the process from behind the door had been disturbing enough, thank you.
Data slept now, as they approached their rendezvous point with the Enterprise and the Titan. Geordi let Tasha explain everything to the two Captains. It didn't take an Empath to be overwhelmed by the surge of joy that followed the moment of surprise and disbelief in both Picard and Riker's voices. Geordi found himself sniffing slightly to himself, for the first time since Data had come on board. Perhaps it was only just starting to sink in that it was real – that he truly did have his friend back. Deanna put a hand on his shoulder, her eyes bright with tears.
'Yes, it is real,' she said. 'We've all been given a new lease of life – not just him. I wish you could feel it – I wish he could feel it, right now. All those hearts, rejoicing. Such love, on those two ships. Such happiness at his return.'
He took her hand. 'I don't have to feel it. I know it. And I'm sure he does, too.'
Deanna turned her head, looking over her shoulder in the direction of the sleeping area.
'He's dreaming,' she smiled. 'They're happy dreams. There's a funfair, and a beach. He feels at home.'
'You're picking up his dreams?'
Deanna nodded. 'Must be some residual element of the link that helped me locate him. I'm sure it'll fade, given time and physical dista…' She trailed off, blinking.
'What? What is it, Deanna?'
Deanna pressed her lips together tightly for a moment, suppressing a giggle, her eyes wide.
Tasha turned to them. 'What?'
Deanna composed her self as well as she could. 'You just showed up, Tasha.'
'Oh,' chorused Geordi and Tasha.
'It's…' attempted Deanna, before breaking off with another amused, impressed expression. 'Well! Whether this is memory or fantasy, I'm certainly seeing some old friends in a new light at the moment…'
Tasha got to her feet, hastily. 'I'm gonna wake him up.'
'Let him sleep,' grinned Geordi, 'he's exhausted.'
'We'll be docking soon anyway.'
'Not for another thirty minutes!'
'Dammit, Geordi, I'm waking him up!'
'Oh, God,' Data told the ceiling. 'Oh God, oh Vishnu, oh Thor, oh Zeus, oh various Klingon deities, oh every being that was ever worshipped.'
'Enjoyed that, did we?' asked Tasha, propping herself up on an elbow.
'We did.' He kissed her. 'If only I had been given a younger body, I could cheerfully do that all over again, right now.'
Tasha cocked an eyebrow.
'I existed for many, many years without entering the world of orgasms,' Data reminded her. 'Is it really any surprise to you that, now that I have finally arrived, I have no wish to leave? It is the same with curry. And Beethoven at full volume. And scratching an itch right in the middle of my back. Why did nobody tell me these things we all so good?'
She gave him a gentle punch on the shoulder. 'You're like a teenager. Tell me this is going to settle down after a while – I'm having trouble keeping up.'
'Would you have preferred it if I had attended to myself today?'
It was a simple question, delivered with all of the inappropriate innocence of the Data from many years ago – no threat or accusation implied.
She smiled, and ran her fingers through his hair. 'We've been through this. If I'm not in the mood, I'll say so, and if you want to… "go solo" at any time, that's fine with me…'
'It is vastly preferable with you,' replied Data.
'Thank you.' Tasha checked the time, and pushed herself into a seated position. 'We'd better start getting showered and dressed. The wedding starts in an hour.'
'This is exciting,' Data announced, cheerily. 'I have never performed the duties of a Best Man before. And, it will be very pleasant to see Worf again, and Will, Deanna and the baby. They say that Lucy is sitting upright, unaided already.'
'She's a Riker.' Tasha crossed over to the bathroom, taking care not to tread on their still sleeping cat. 'Of course she's precocious.' She eyed their outfits, hanging on the door, as she stepped into the Sonic Shower – the formal uniform for her, and the blue civilian tunic for him. 'You know what they'll all be asking us, don't you?'
'Well,' replied Data as he padded in to brush his teeth, 'since we do seem to make a habit of proposing marriage to one another at our friends' weddings, I suppose comment is to be expected…'
'Not that,' said Tasha. 'Everyone knows Torres is transferring soon. And it's pretty common knowledge who it is that the Captain wants to take over her position at Ops.'
'The Captain kept his offer confidential. As have I. As have you, I trust.'
'Jean Luc doesn't always have to speak an intention for his closest friends to be aware of it. Even if they don't ask about the Ops post, people will want to know whether you've decided to take up Starfleet's offer. Straight back in as Lieutenant Commander – that's not to be sniffed at, Data.'
'Nor is it to be taken advantage of lightly,' added Data. 'I am not the person that I was – I am not capable of what I used to be.'
'I've seen your test scores,' replied Tasha, getting out of the shower. 'You're still way above the curve, mentally…'
'But physically…?' Data took her place in the shower. 'I have never come anywhere near to passing the physical tests, Tasha. My human body is slower and weaker than I ever imagined it might be, and I struggle to train. I'm just too old.'
'Contraction,' noted Tasha.
Tasha nodded. '"I'm too old", not "I am". That's the third today. See? You can learn new tricks.'
'I will never pass the physical tests, and you know it.'
'We can work around that.'
'You should not have to.' Data stepped out of the shower. 'I have been putting more thought into Cambridge University's proposal, of late. Perhaps an academic role would be more suited to my abilities as a human. The remote lecturing technology that they are eager to try out would mean that I would not be bound to the campus – I would be able to interact with students and coworkers wherever there was a holodeck or holosuite available. As your husband, I'd be able to remain on board the Enterprise and work for the University from here.'
'Contraction.' Tasha did up the last fastening of her uniform.
Data paused, one arm into his tunic. 'Perhaps you need to take a moment to fully digest what I just said.'
'No, no,' replied Tasha, brushing back her hair, 'I heard.'
'And, my way of asking is much more impressive than dropping into conversation that it would be handy if we were married, so get ready, go to the damn wedding, wait patiently until after your Best Man speech and then try to act surprised.'
Data sighed. 'I shall try. Although since, as I mentioned before, one of us proposes at every wedding we attend, it shall be difficult.'
'You shut up.'
She pinned a rose onto the breast of his tunic. 'I love you.'
He straightened out a kink in her fringe. 'I love you, too.'
And it really is the end, this time. Thank you to everyone for reading & commenting over the years, and to my wonderful Beta Realmlife. It's been a brilliant ride for me, hope it has for you, too.