One - Fascination

There was a celebratory mood forming under the subdued lights of Ten-forward as six members of the bridge crew gathered around a low table. Tasha watched Data pull a grey chair from under the middle of one side, and chose a seat across from him. Next to him is too obvious, right? she asked herself. La Forge and Crusher flanked Data instead, while Riker straddled a seat next to Tasha, and Worf settled in on one end.

"It's nice to be served after taking care of people all day," the doctor commented, smiling at the retreating server.

"Busy in sickbay?" Will asked, "a side effect of the new cliff-diving holo-program?"

Beverly sank her chin on one hand. "Just a normal day at the office, dear."

Geordi smacked his hands, rubbing them together and grinning. "Two days until shore leave, people! Skies with clouds, fresh air, real food…."

"One day, six hours, thirty-eight minutes, and nineteen seconds until we arrive at Persis III," Data corrected.

"Data, what's the difference? It's the day after tomorrow – that's two days," Geordi countered. The server placed a plate of steaming fettuccini in front of the navigator. There was a clatter of plates and utensils as dinners were laid on the table.

"The difference is that we have significantly less than two days to wait before reaching our destination," Data replied, "and I am not inclined to exaggerate that wait by any number of hours."

"Are you looking forward to it, too?" Beverly asked around a mouthful. "I'd hate to hear you calculate how long we've been on the Enterprise without taking any leave."

Data opened his mouth as if to do just that, but Tasha was quicker. "I can't wait to go for a run outside. The holodeck is great, but nothing beats running by a real lake with real birds chirping in real trees." She took a two-handed bite of banh mi.

"I hope there is a lake, with fish," Will said. "Nothing like fresh-caught fish fried over an open flame."

His comment was met with groans, which immediately sparked an answering grin and flash of devilry in Will's eyes.

"That's barbaric," Tasha declared. "Poor fish. You wouldn't really kill and eat a living being, would you?"

Riker continued to grin between bites. "I would, I have, and I will. It's the only dinner my dad could ever make with any success. I put the truth of that on the fish, not the cook."

"Well, my mom made a vegan lasagna that would make you cry," Geordi bragged, winding long strands of pasta around the tines of his fork. "You'd think there was sausage in it, but no – it was just pure, animal-free goodness."

"I dream of my grandmother's vegetable soup sometimes," Beverly put in. "Just the smell of it simmering would make my mouth water."

Worf broke his wordless consumption of a heaping pile of pipius claw to rumble, "Mother's rokeg blood pie."

Tasha had been silent for some time. What could she possibly contribute to the conversation? I searched through trash for scraps of food that other people had thrown away. I ate food that was rotten, or moldy, or crawling with insects, and fought to keep it down because I knew if I didn't, I'd be hungry again that much sooner. She cast her eyes down and away from the replicated sandwich that was still an embarrassment of riches to her, even after so many years. A new placement always did this to her, threw her back over ground she'd covered over long ago. She hadn't yet found her footing with this crew. It would take more time to shake her reawakened insecurities. The mission to Farpoint hadn't helped – that kangaroo court had been a visceral throwback to memories best forgotten.

She tuned out of the conversation, and looked up again distractedly, only to meet Data's pale gold eyes. The furrow in her brow relaxed as she realized that Data had been silent, too. He has even less to talk about than I do, Tasha thought. He's not even pretending to eat dinner tonight. She looked down pointedly at the empty space on the table in front of Data, and then up at him with a shy smile and raised eyebrows. Data continued to simply hold her gaze, expressionless. The smile dropped from Tasha's face as she looked back into his eyes. He was doing it again – just looking at her. Why? Could Data be as interested in getting to know her as she was in him? What was he thinking about?

Tasha didn't know when the friendly banter and one-upmanship had given way to an uncomfortable silence punctuated only by the sounds of eating, but she finally stopped staring at Data long enough to notice the chagrined glances Crusher was throwing her way. "I'm afraid we might've been rude," Beverly murmured. "I'm sorry."

"No, no, I can't wait to eat real food, either," Tasha said quickly. "I guess I just don't have any favorites." She picked up her fork and began dissecting her sandwich, popping a sauce-laden piece of replicated chicken into her mouth.

Still, she noticed the glances thrown back and forth between three of her tablemates, though Worf had eyes only for his dinner and Data continued to gaze calmly at herself. He was no longer looking at her eyes, though – was he staring at her mouth? Tasha licked her lips reflexively, and speared a single sprout on her fork.

"I believe that the appeal of the Vietnamese sandwich you have chosen lies in the consumption of disparate flavors at one time: salty, sweet, spicy, and umami," Data commented. "The contrasting textures are also intended to enhance its gustatory appeal. To eat each ingredient separately would seem counterproductive to that end."

Tasha looked down at the two halves of her sandwich, one, a mangled, half-eaten pile on the plate, the other pristine. "Do you want some?" she asked, picking up the uneaten half and offering it to Data. He half shrugged, took the sandwich, and opened his mouth wide enough to take a substantial bite. Everyone else at the table exchanged glances as they watched Data methodically chew and swallow, cocking his head as he did so – Beverly and Will's mirthful, Geordi's with raised eyebrows, and Worf's a deadpan curiosity.

Data finally spoke. "It is a well-approximated amalgam of ingredients that would be present as organic compounds on Earth. Thank you." He handed the sandwich back to Tasha.

"But did you like it?" Beverly asked, smothering her amusement with difficulty.

Data tilted his head and replied, "I neither liked nor disliked it. However, I do find my assessment of the proper eating method to be correct." At this, Will and Geordi laughed out loud, to Data's confusion and a furrowing of Worf's brow.

At the same time, Tasha took the sandwich back and pressed her tongue to the round bite mark he'd left behind. It was instinctive and inexplicable; what did she hope to taste? His saliva? Would it be different from a human's? Tasha quickly crammed almost half of the remainder into her mouth to cover the odd gesture she'd made with her tongue. The amused glances of her tablemates turned to her as she awkwardly tried to chew the too-large mouthful. More giggles burst from Will and Geordi, finally joined by Beverly, and offset by a puzzled look from Data.

"I am very hungry, too," quipped Worf.

They continued to chat and eat. Geordi wiped his mouth on a napkin and asked, "Tasha, why don't you go running in the arboretum? They have real trees and a little stream. It could be better than the holodeck."

"I don't know – it's so peaceful," Tasha replied, shaking her head, "and there are always so many people around. It wouldn't be right for me to go huffing and puffing past some nice couple on a quiet date."

"It is a nice place for a date." Will smiled. "Not that I speak from experience."

"The botanist is quite friendly," Data remarked. "I am sure that she would not mind you taking exercise there."

"No, it's just too quiet. I'll stick to the gym for cardio training. The arboretum is for strolling." Tasha tossed her napkin on the table and pushed back her chair. "It kind of sounds like a good idea right now. I'll see you all later." She got up and turned to go.

"May I join you?" asked Data, rising from his chair.

"Sure." Tasha tried to make it sound as casual as possible, but inwardly she was impressed. Data only asked to come along if he thought it would be an interesting or edifying experience. She smiled and gestured towards the door with her chin. "Come on." Data extended an after-you, and they both stepped down to the bottom level of the bar and through the swishing doors together.

"I prefer the holodeck for exercise," Worf said to his tablemates, who had all watched the two leave, nodding or waving goodbye. "A peaceful setting is . . . undesirable."

"I can imagine," said Geordi.

"I should say not," replied Worf.