The trees outside the ballroom were decorated with tiny white lumiaries. The effect was peaceful, in direct opposition to the tension among the guests.
"It couldn't really be THAT bad." Beverly sipped at her drink, a fruity fermented beverage.
"I doubt there is any chance of this treaty being signed in the morning." Jean-Luc held on to the railing edging the second-story balcony. "Neither side has any real motivation to compromise." He shook his head, gazing out on the lush foliage below them sparkling with tiny lights.
The reception hall was enormous, two stories tall, with huge columns spaced at regular intervals. The Enterprise senior staff were mingling with dignitaries from both sides of the political factions. Will Riker had a particularly bright smile, which only his closest friends could recognize as gritting his teeth with his lips lifted. Deanna Troi was holding a drink similar to Beverly's in one hand, her other absently massaged at her forehead as she stood behind Will's shoulder.
The Doctor could see the effect the combined seething animosity of the Bjurnas was having on the Counselor. She turned her head back to her companion, realizing her attention had wandered from what he was saying.
"... I do believe the ONLY point everyone is in agreement on is that the random acts of terrorism must end. Both sides along with the 'spokesperson' for the independent guerillas have agreed to a cease fire. I suppose if nothing else was accomplished, that in itself was worth the negotiations." His sigh spoke otherwise. For three days he had been on the planet, talks lasting twelve, fourteen and even sixteen ship's hours at a go.
She took another sip of the sweet, tangy drink, letting the subtle warmth of alcohol pleasantly burn. A shiver ran down her spine, at odds with the temperate night and the libation.
"Come, let's go back in. I believe it's suitably late for us to make our escape." The Captain instinctively reached to tug at his jacket, belatedly realizing he had on his dress uniform. He placed a hand on the small of her back as he ushered her toward the huge stonework archway leading back in to the grand hall.
As they walked in to the small vestibule which led to corridors ringing the ballroom she looked for Deanna, worried about her obvious headache. The Counselor and First Officer must have had the same idea as the Captain, because she caught the familiar shimmer of blue light from the far end of the reception as Deanna and Will beamed back shipboard.
Uncharacteristically, the Captain paused in the relative darkness just before the second archway to the bright, festive ballroom. The Doctor paused as well, glancing at his face. Weariness and resolve shone equally. He took a deep breath and pressed lightly with the hand on her back, "I suppose... "
His pause certainly saved their lives. At least initially. It was only the precise, balanced stonework of the archway which protected them for the few precious moments after the explosion.
The world went bright white with a hot, loud rumble for seconds which seemed to stretch to an eternity. Then there was blackness...
Awareness came back slowly, fooled by the black, pressing silence. Beverly thought her eyes were open, but there was only impenetrable darkness. It didn't feel like she had room to breathe, which was fine, because the air was close and choking with dust. The urge to cough was enough to instill panic; weight seemed to press against her from all sides, unyielding stone underneath her...
A soft vibration against her back took long moments to coordinate with hearing and identify as a quiet moan. More sensation coalesced, the force of heaviness above her had resilience, warmth... breath.
"Jean-Luc!" Her voice was a croak. She tried to move. Orientation came back next. She was flat on her stomach, on the cold stone tiles of the floor. WHY she was there flirted with her memory. There was only the balcony... and... this. Whatever this was. It wasn't good.
"Jean-Luc." She coughed more than spoke, a sharp pain halfway down her side telling her she most likely had a broken rib or two. There seemed to be some room on the side away from the pain, carefully she wiggled her fingers, then slowly moved her arm. She reached a few centimeters, then felt rough stone.
Coherent thoughts were coming in small bursts. She realized the right side of her face felt cold rock, and the left side was covered with Jean-Luc's hand. It was reassuringly warm. And when she concentrated enough to screen out her panic, she could barely feel his breath rising against her back.
She moved her face against his hand slightly. "Jean-Luc?" Another low vibration against her back, a change in the breathing, he was starting to come around a bit.
She assessed her own condition. Adrenaline was wearing off. Besides the ribs, she felt a dull throbbing in her temple, and the slightly sticky warmth of blood trickling down her cheek. She thought she could wiggle her toes and fingers, and nothing else felt like it was broken...
"Beverly..." His voice was barely a breath, just behind her right ear.
"Jean-Luc..." She heard the waver in her own voice, struggled to push down the fear. "How badly are you hurt?"
"Jean-Luc?" Anxiety had her coughing again, sharp knives seeming to dig into her side.
"Shh..." His hand on the side of her face soothed, fingers questing blindly. His weight shifted slightly. "I'm all right I think." Warmth from his speaking caressing the back of her head, in contrast to the cold stone beneath her.
She tried for shallow breaths, waited for the agony to settle so she could speak again. "Don't move until you're sure." She said quietly, carefully.
Again, small movement against her back. She felt a mildly digging pressure along her hip and up the side of her back, and sussed out it was the heavy gold braiding from his uniform. She felt his right hand flex against her upper arm and shoulder and realized he must have tried to push her down beneath him, protecting her by covering her with his own body.
"How long?" He asked, his voice slightly stronger.
"I don't know." She tried to shift a bit, the dagger digging into her lung again.
"Anyone else?" His right hand moved from her shoulder, she thought he was testing the boundaries of their captivity as she had.
"I haven't heard... " She broke off, realizing the implications of her words. The grand hall had been full of delegates from both parties, there should be noise; screams, moans, something...
"It must have been a bomb." With his words, she remembered the vestibule, the blinding heat and sound and light.
"Are you hurt? Is anything broken?" She found she could speak if she took short, shallow breaths.
"I think I am alright." His weight shifted off her fractionally, rolling to the right where there was a few centimeters of space. His left hand which had been on her cheek, dropped to her left shoulder.
"What about you, Doctor?" He sounded far more lucid than she felt.
"I'm fine." She lied, careful to avoid breathing deeply enough to take in any more of the irritating dust.
He was moving more, with a low grunt most of his weight was off of her. A familiar chirp sparked hope for the briefest of moments, but there was only a single indicator beep-no communicator. She was not wearing one, having chosen to wear a dress rather than her Class A uniform. She felt him wiggling around, doubtless trying to reach her own communicator badge, which he carried for her. Another solitary chirp in the darkness.
With his weight off her, she was able to adjust position slightly. The movement drew an involuntary gasp through her clenched teeth when her ribs protested.
"You are not 'fine', are you?" She heard annoyance in the Captain's voice, but an equal measure of concern.
"I *am* fine, Jean-Luc. A concussion and some broken ribs. Neither is life-threatening." Her annoyance at her own injury was clear in her voice. "And *you* also have a concussion, I'm sure, since you were unconscious longer than I."
Her observation was met with silence. She felt him moving again, this time reaching forward. She had the impression of more space there. He crawled forward, trying not to jar her.
"There's a little more... " he broke off, the darkness concealing his movements, "room here. Not much, but..."
Steeling her resolve, she pulled herself forward, swallowing a whimper when her ribs protested the effort. She came up against two walls-one of rock, the other of warm, human flesh. There was just enough room for the Captain to sit up, if his legs remained in the space they had been in. There was not really room for both of them.
She turned on her side, angling so her uninjured side was against him. There was small headspace above them, but nothing on the sides. The dust seemed to hang in the air.
"Do you feel any air moving?" She asked hopefully.
"I don't know." Somehow she didn't believe his answer.
Reaching for him in the inky space, she instinctively found his face. She checked his temples, then found the large goose-egg, sticky with blood at the back of his head.
"Ow." He complained, flinching.
"Anywhere else?" Her voice was that of the one person who could issue him orders.
"Sore, but no." This time she believed him.
"I hate to break it to you, Captain, but I believe your 'Cease Fire' was a major failure."
"Do you, now?" She could hear the smile in his voice. The return of her acerbic wit was a good sign, in his opinion.
"I do. Bombings are not part of a Cease Fire. At least the last time I checked Federation Protocol." She settled herself a little more comfortably, and he raised his arm to wrap it around her shoulders.
"Well, they are not part of the Federation yet, Doctor, so they can't be expected to follow Federation Protocol now, can they?" She smiled this time. He really must not be hurt if he was able to banter with her.
Her voice more serious, she said, "I'm glad Will and Deanna beamed up already." A shiver wracked down her spine, despite the stuffy air in the rock compartment.
"They did?" She heard hope and relief in his voice.
"I don't know about Worf and Data though." Dust caught at her throat and she coughed, then tensed with the pain, fighting the urge to cough more. His hand soothed her bare shoulder and arm.
The silence stretched around them for a time.
"Do you think the ballroom collapsed entirely?" Beverly asked.
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "The explosion could have been not very large-just near to us."
Silence again, for long moments. "It's more stuffy, isn't it?" she asked.
He did not answer her. He absently slid his hand up and down her arm again. She shuddered, though the stale air was warm. "How much air do you think we have?" Her voice was small.
"There might be some air coming in. We can't lose hope."
"If you tell me there's a way out of every box, I'll slug you," she murmured crossly. He drew a breath to speak but she cut him off, "And DON'T tell me to think positively!" Her rush of words had caused her to breathe too deeply and she started to cough again, reflexively holding her breath, only making it worse.
"Shh.. small breaths, in through your nose.." He soothed, pushing damp hair off her forehead, while circling on her back with the other hand.
The small fit left her lightheaded. She let her head fall against his shoulder.
"They'll find us," he said, confidence in his voice. "Will and Deanna together will find us."
Her voice was more hoarse when she replied, "They had better. Will still owes me from poker last week." She felt him brush the hair off her sweaty forehead again. Gently he adjusted their positions, so she rested more comfortably against him.
The air grew warmer and the space around them seemed to close in on her. There was no way to measure the passage of time. Each breath was beginning to hurt. The thought of water to moisten her mouth and soothe her throat was torturous.
"Jean-Luc..." Speaking was an effort. Her words were punctuated with a raspy cough.
She felt his lips brush her temple. His arm supported her. She felt his other hand on her face, fingers cradling her jaw, thumb brushing her cheekbone.
"We're running out of air." She was feeling muzzy, but couldn't be certain how much of it was thin oxygen and how much was the concussion.
"They'll find us." His words were meant to soothe, as his hand was.
"But what if they don't?"
"Beverly..." She heard the note of warning in his voice, was reminded of their earlier conversation... echoing the words spoken on Kes-Prytt.
"I'm such a fool to be afraid... " She wondered if he would understand.
"You're braver than you know."
"No... I'm not brave. If I was brave, I would never have left you that night." Her words were a hoarse whisper in the blackness.
He went utterly still. Then without words, he was leaning toward her, his fingers moving to the back of her head, his lips finding hers unerringly in the dark. At first the feather-light, electric touch they both had shared in the past. He pulled back, and she followed, her mouth meeting his again with an intensity belying their situation and her injury.
When his tongue requested entry, she opened for him. A lifetime of longing had not left him ready for the sensations of her. It was only when she took a breath that caught and set her to coughing he came back to their situation.
He rested his forehead against hers while she painfully caught her breath. "You're stronger than you seem... but... we shouldn't... "
"I'm sorry..." she whispered, breath coming short. His thumb brushed her cheek again, and caught moisture. She reached up, caressing his features, so dear, so familiar. "I was so wrong, and I'm sorry..." He wiped away more tears.
"You were not wrong. You just were not ready." He leaned back, but ever-so-tenderly brought her with him and tucked her head into the nook of his shoulder. His strong, sure hands alternated between soothing away the tears on her cheeks and combing through her hair.
"You're smarter than you realize. I wasn't ready either. I shouldn't have let you leave, should have gone after you... but I wasn't ready yet. I was too worried about appearances and protocol and things that just aren't important. It took Q's little revelations to me to prove to me what was really important... and then I didn't know if it was too late for us."
"Is it? Is it too late?" Her voice was thready with tears. "Is it only because I realized I'm more afraid of dying without telling you I love you than of dying?" She laid her hand over his heart, palm open, cherishing the steady beat.
He went still again. She held her breath, the ache in her side a dull spreading agony, but nothing compared to the ache of losing him. His hand cupped her face then, his thumb brushing her lips. "It's not too late. That is what Q wanted to show me. It's *not* too late. I do love you Beverly Howard Crusher. More than life itself."
"I don't want to die, Jean-Luc." Her voice was stronger, her hand still resting over his heart.
"Now, you are thinking positively, Beverly." She felt the curve of his lips against her temple. He rested his cheek against her hair.
It might have been minutes later, it might have been an hour. They hadn't moved, content in their embrace. Both were getting sleepy. The Doctor knew that was a bad sign when she recognized it. She startled awake, clutching at the front of his dress tunic.
"What?" He murmured, weary.
"We shouldn't... we shouldn't fall asleep." Tears escaped silently with her realization. We won't wake up.
But there was no room. The rocks seemed to be pressing in on them... Wait a minute, the rocks were actually moving, slightly.
"Jean-Luc?" She tried to lift her head from his chest, but could not find the energy.
"They've found us then..." His words rumbled through her brain, not quite making sense. But then the sound of stones moving and scraping reached into her dull consciousness. And a sweet, cool brush of air.
"It's not too late..."