Author's note: For those of you jumping in without having read my previous novel, "Captain's Prerogative."

Warning, this is a spoiler alert for anyone who would rather start at the beginning. If so, stop reading here and go to "Captain's Prerogative" for the full story.

For those who prefer a shortcut, here in a nutshell is what you need to know...

Nine years earlier, following his experience with the Nexus, Picard encountered Shea, a genetically engineered woman, and fell in love, not knowing that Shea was the creation of an omnipotent being known as D by the Q Continuum. To protect his ship and crew, he banished her, despite his personal feelings. He hasn't seen or heard from her since.

One more thing - I'm posting this as I write it, so it may be a bit rough. I try to be careful but if you find typos or other "oops" please let me know so I can correct them. Thanks!


Change of Heart

Chapter 1

He stood in Ten-Forward looking at the passing stars out the view window beside the table where they had so often sat and debated and argued and finally seen eye-to-eye. He could never quite bring himself to sit there again, yet he felt compelled to come here periodically and remember. Why he still engaged in this personal form of torture after all these years was beyond him… but there it was. He sighed deeply.

"Captain?" Guinan's voice startled him. He turned in her direction. "Can I get you anything?" she asked.

"No. Thank you, Guinan. I was just leaving."

She tilted her head questioningly. "You don't look like you're leaving. You look like you're frozen in place."

"I was just… thinking."

"You mean reminiscing," she corrected him.

He frowned at her. "Your point?"

"All this time. You still miss her."

He looked away, back at the stars. There was no point in arguing or trying to deceive Guinan. "Doesn't matter," he said. "I made my decision that day. I've learned to live with it."

"Have you now?" Her brown face smiled gently at him, but her eyes challenged him.

"I appreciate your concern, Guinan, truly. But there is little point in this discussion. As you well know we must accept things as they are, not how we wish them to be."

"That's true. Unless one is merely settling for that which offers the least challenge."

"The least challenge? Is that what you think?" He scowled at her.

She merely shrugged and didn't answer him.

"Guinan, what exactly are you trying to tell me?"

"Captain, I've watched you struggle with this off and on for the last nine years. Obviously, it's not going away. Or else you wouldn't be standing here… again… thinking about this… again. So maybe it's not too late. If you have the will and the desire, maybe you can change your mind, even now."

"Change my mind? I hardly think that would be possible, even if I were so inclined."

Guinan shrugged again, "Perhaps not. Or perhaps all you need do is ask." With that, she walked away.

Ask? Ask who? he had wanted to say, but even as the question formed in his mind, he already knew the answer. D, the Old One, the omnipotent being who had taken her from him. But that wasn't exactly true. D had given him a choice. It was he, himself, who had chosen to relinquish her, to reject her… to betray her. He'd had little choice, he reminded himself once more. His decision had been for the good of this ship. Her presence on board had simply been incompatible with their mission. She was too disruptive. Her personal influence over him in particular had been dramatic and disturbing. He hadn't been himself. Or he had been completely himself. He could never quite figure out which of those two statements was accurate. He supposed that was what really bothered him, not ever coming to grips with what that experience had meant. Had she been the most terrifying thing that had ever happened to him, or the most wonderful one of all? They couldn't both be true, yet somehow they were.

Recent events had sparked his memories again. Battling a clone of his own had reminded him of those clones of Shea those many years ago. It was a strange feeling seeing yourself in that form, feeling at once connected, yet repelled, feeling both protective and threatened. Very strange, indeed. It had made him understand Shea's reactions to her clones far more than he had at the time. As she had killed her clone, Picard too had personally killed his own. The comparison was hard to avoid and kept coming back to him. Those thoughts continued with him as he had supervised repairs to the Enterprise, and returned even now that the Enterprise was back on mission, with new crew members selected to replace those lost in action as well as those who had departed voluntarily. He found himself sighing deeply again, something that seemed to have become a habit of late. He couldn't help it.

He missed Data. The knowledge that his android friend had sacrificed himself to save his Captain was a burden Picard carried with a deep sense of guilt and sadness. B-4, Data's so-called earlier version brother, held Data's memories in his positronic brain, but not Data's personality. Picard held hopes that one day B-4 would evolve as Data had, but it would be a long time coming, if ever.

Picard also especially missed Will Riker and Deanna Troi. Will was proving difficult to replace. Worf was serving as his Number One for now, but only under protest, claiming he was not fit for the position. Picard disagreed, of course, but Worf insisted the assignment should be temporary. And then there was T'Pawl, his new Vulcan Ship's Counselor. While clearly skilled, T'Pawl was a cold substitute for Deanna's empathy. Still, he could hardly fault Will and Deanna for their decision to move on. Picard was proud of his Number One taking command of the Titan, and knew he and Deanna were content living there onboard joined in marriage. Their wedding had been a joyous event, the happiest he could recall in many years. He thought of their union and smiled inside, but he also recognized that beneath the happiness he felt for them lay a touch of envy. There was no shared bliss for him… merely duty, obligation and his continuing responsibilities to his ship, her crew, and the Federation. He supposed it was that same envy which lay at the core of his renewed thoughts of Shea.

But enough ruminating about ancient history and old hurts, he decided. It was pointless and needlessly painful. He turned away from the table and the window and headed for the Bridge.

Over the next few days, despite his determination to set such thoughts aside, his mind kept returning to his conversation with Guinan. He really didn't want to think about Shea at all, but visions of her pervaded his dreams. Not a new phenomenon certainly, but since dealing with his clone, it had been occurring nearly as frequently and intensely as it had in those first few months following her sudden departure. This morning he had actually startled himself awake by crying out her name in his sleep. He found his thoughts straying far too often, and he felt distracted from his duties. If Deanna were still here, he would have swallowed his pride and made an appointment. It wouldn't have been the first time this subject had come up. Counselor Troi had been invaluable to him, helping him learn to live with the choice he had made. But now, he had T'Pawl. He just couldn't fathom discussing this with her. It wasn't exactly following protocol, but Picard decided Deanna was the only person he was willing to talk to. That night, before retiring, he sent her a subspace message, requesting a counseling session.

Deanna waited for the Captain to appear onscreen in her office on the Titan, knowing he was on his way to keep the appointment which they had made earlier in the day for a subspace live-link communication. "The dreams are back," he had told her simply in his message. Of course, she had known immediately what he meant. She had felt he was troubled, even before she and Will had left for the Titan, but assumed it was over recent events. The meeting of his clone and need to destroy it had been difficult for him emotionally, but she hadn't anticipated the experience would resurrect regrets about Shea again. Deanna mentally berated herself for not seeing the connection, which in retrospect seemed a bit obvious. Her intercom buzzed alerting her that Captain Picard was ready to take her call. When his face appeared, she said, "Hello, Captain. It's good to see you."

Captain Picard gave her a half smile in greeting. "Thank you for making time for me, Deanna. I know this is a bit outside of your duties."

She shook her head. "You don't need to thank me. I will always make time for you."

He took a deep breath, as if about to speak, but then merely grimaced and looked aside.

"The dreams, Captain?" she prompted.

He nodded. "Yes, the dreams. Back again, in full force. I can't seem to shake them."

"Do you want to shake them?"

He met her gaze. "Of course. I'm distracted, unable to concentrate. It's completely unacceptable."

"Are these dreams different from those you have experienced in the past?"

The visions swept through him again, seeing himself with her, joined physically and mentally, the ecstatic pleasure of their bond until she was suddenly torn from him, seeming to pull his heart from his chest, and tear the very soul of his mind in half.

"Not really," he answered evenly. "They just seem to have returned with a vengeance."

"I see," she said. "Do you think meeting your own clone refreshed these memories in you?"

"Initially," he agreed.

"But…"

"But now I think it has more to do with a conversation I recently had with Guinan."

Deanna frowned at that. Guinan had amazing insight, but her efforts at playing amateur psychologist often backfired, leaving people on the receiving end of her comments more disturbed than helped. "Why don't you tell me about it."

"She caught me staring out a window in Ten-Forward and pretty much nailed me on what I was thinking. When I told her it was pointless to discuss something that couldn't be changed, she said maybe it wasn't too late."

"What do you think she meant by that?"

"I asked her the same thing. She replied, 'Perhaps all you need do is ask.' Quite frankly, I haven't been able to think of much else since she said it."

"Oh, Captain," Deanna said in alarm, "You're not seriously thinking…"

"No, no, I…" he fell off. "At least, I don't think I am. I mean, it's probably not even possible. Why Guinan even said it, I don't know, but…"

"But now you're obsessed."

"Obsessed?" He wanted to feel insulted, even outraged, but it was so true, all he could do was offer a bitter smile. "Yes, obsessed. Obsessed with the idea that maybe, just maybe I could reverse my decision, change my mind."

"What about all the reasons on which you originally based your decision?"

"All still there, of course. Still a problem. Which is why I'm here with you now."

"To resolve your inner conflict," she summarized for him.

"Precisely. I let her go because it was the best choice for the Enterprise and her crew. They are my primary responsibility and I have sworn to uphold the interests of the Federation above my own."

"But if the two were not in conflict?"

He smiled at that thought. "Then I would not hesitate to ask."

"Well." She paused to think, trying to see how best to counsel him."Clearly you have a conflict of interest. So unless, you can come up with a way that a relationship with her would not jeopardize your duties as a Captain, you don't really have the option of asking, do you?"

"No, not unless I could come up with a way," Picard replied. The thought of a way had long since been floating in the back of his mind, but he hesitated to give it voice.

"Captain?" Deanna cocked her head at him. "What is it you're not saying?"

The silence stretched, but Deanna was patient. Finally, he spoke the thought aloud.

"I could relinquish command. Retire from Starfleet altogether."

That took Deanna by surprise and she swallowed the idea with difficulty. "You'd give up command for her?"

Picard didn't meet Deanna's eyes, but he answered. "I think so."

"I… I don't know what to say."

"That's all right, you've helped me more than you know," he pulled his shirt straight. "Thank you, Counselor," he said and clicked off leaving Deanna with her mouth slightly open.

Retired to his quarters, Picard kept thinking the same thing. Perhaps all you need do is ask. Ask, just ask. But how? Send a message on all channels into the vastness of space. Yell? Scream? Pray? Did he dare even try? What if D actually showed up? Talk about putting the Enterprise at risk. Who knew how D would respond? Perhaps if Picard were off ship, alone, isolated, but even as he thought that perhaps distancing himself from the Enterprise would be a wise precaution he recognized it would have no effect. No matter what physical distance he put between himself and the Enterprise, its safety would always be foremost in his thoughts. D could easily reach out to grab anything in this universe whenever it pleased him and D would not hesitate to use his loyalities against him. He knew the risks and couldn't believe he was even contemplating trying to communicate with D, but the more he thought about it, the more he recognized that the idea was now so firmly lodged in his mind it would never go away until he tried. Ask, just ask. Such a simple idea, such a terrifying one, and so very tempting. Either nothing would happen, or everything would. The urge came again, insistent.

Don't do it. Don't even think about it. Think about something else.

He grabbed a book from his shelf. Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. He hadn't read the classic novel since he was a young man, but remembered how much he had enjoyed it. The well known opening line stopped him cold. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." He put the book back on the shelf. He reached for his old standby, Shakespeare, but immediately, the memory of D in the form of Derek showing him the original manuscript of 'Twelfth Night' sprung to mind. He moved his hand away. Picard hadn't believed Derek at the time when he'd said he had gotten the ancient manuscript from the author himself. Picard believed it now. Moody, changeable, egocentric beyond measure, D was a being so dangerous and unpredictable that the Q paled in comparison. Thinking of Q it occurred to him that perhaps what he needed was an intermediary. If Q could speak on his behalf, insolate him from the darker side of D's persona... But he also remembered how D had dominated Q, turned him into a gelatinous blob, then folded him up and deposited him into a breast pocket as easily as if Q were a mere handkerchief. How much protection could Q provide, assuming he had even survived that encounter? Picard had seen no indication that Q still existed in this universe since the day that it had happened. Not that he missed him or had ever wanted to see him again. Not until now.

"Q," the name issued in a near whisper from his lips almost before he realized it. He covered his mouth. He hadn't said it very loud. He looked about his quarters. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary. He felt relieved and if he were honest with himself, a little disappointed. But mainly relieved, he told himself. Lucky for him, Q hadn't heard… assuming he still could.

But the thought that Q might actually have ceased to exist was disquieting. Annoying at times, frightening at others, Q had played a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Picard many times. Picard did not enjoy being the mouse. Yet, to his own surprise, the idea that D might have dealt a fatal blow to Picard's tormentor and sometime protector saddened him. They had a shared history, he and Q, and even at his most demented and most interfering, Q had offered an intellectual challenge Picard could not deny appreciating. Perhaps on some level, he had even felt flattered that a being of his nature would take a personal interest in him. He frowned and sighed.

"Why Captain Picard, I'm touched. Truly I am." Picard spun around to find Q outstretched on his sofa. "to paraphrase your illustrious Mark Twain, 'rumors of my demise have been grossly exaggerated.'"

"So I see," Picard replied. "You heard me apparently."

"Oh yes. In word and thought." Q squinted at him. "You've been thinking about Shea. Thinking about changing your mind. Thinking about asking a certain someone if you can have her back."

Picard merely nodded in affirmation, not trusting himself to speak his desires aloud.

"And you've called me. You actually want my advice, don't you?"

"Yes, I actually do. In this regard, I think perhaps you are the only…" he chose the next word carefully, "friend… that I can turn to."

"Friend? You consider me a friend, Picard? If so, you have a funny way of showing it. It's been nine of your years since you've seen me last and I wasn't in good shape at the time. Only now, do you even try to see if I survived and only because you want something from me. How is that being a friend, Captain?"

"Not a very good one, I admit. In truth I don't know if you are a friend or not. I don't know what to think of your interest in me. You put me on trial forcing me to represent all of humanity with the threat of annihilation if I failed your test, you risked our lives by introducing us to the Borg, you've tempted members of my crew, and meddled in my personal life on more than one occasion. Are those the acts of a friend?"

"I was getting to know you," Q said petulantly. "Humans are an odd lot, difficult to quantify. You can't blame me for trying to see if you were worthy. It took awhile. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be your friend or not."

"So, are you now?" Picard asked.

"That depends on how you define 'friend' I suppose."

"I define a friend as someone I can rely on, who will support me in times of need, promote my welfare and protect my interests whenever possible. In other words, a friend is someone I can trust."

"Oh I like that, Jean-luc. Yes, I'd like you to trust me."

"I'd like that too. The question is are you worthy?"

"Oh…" Q looked at him with wide eyes, having the tables turned on him. "Am I worthy of your trust? Yes. Yes, I am. How can I prove this to you?"

"You can support me now."

Q nodded in understanding. "You want me to help you get Shea back."

"Act as my intermediary, Q. You may succeed, where I might fail."

"I don't know. This is a touchy subject. You're asking a lot."

"Nevertheless, I am asking."

"So you are. You are a brave man, Captain. But it will be asked why you want this now? What is it that has changed your mind?"

"Time, Q. Time to reflect, time to regret. Time to finally come to the realization that she has become more important to me than my career in Starfleet."

" More important? Again you take me by surprise, Jean-luc. But then time does have a way of making things clear in retrospect, doesn't it? Hmmm… this may change things. I will see what I can do. I'm making no promises, mind you and I can't predict the outcome, but I will relay your request."

"That's all I can ask. Thank you."

"You're welcome, …friend," Q said with a nod and vanished from sight.

The night passed with no further contact. Picard slept fitfully and returned to his duties in the morning. He felt on edge, but managed to suppress his nerves enough not to be questioned by his subordinates. Then T'Pawl asked to see him. He didn't especially want to see her, but there seemed no getting around it. When she sat down in the chair in front of his desk in his ready room, she lifted a single eyebrow questioningly as Vulcans were so prone to do.

"Is there a problem, Counselor?" he asked.

"I am here to see whether there is or not. I received an interesting communication from Counselor Troi of the USS Titan. It would seem you prefer to consult with her over your own Ship's Counselor."

Picard grimaced. "I meant no disrespect T'Pawl and I do not question your credentials. It's simply because Deanna and I have a shared history."

"I understand, Captain. And I'm sure you understand that it is my duty to evaluate your mental health."

Picard sat back. "Are you questioning it now?"

"That depends. Counselor Troi indicated that you might be considering a dangerous path. That you might be thinking about getting in touch with a powerful and dangerous entity identified as D."

"And if I were?"

"Then I would have to question the state of your mental health."

"I see."

"Do you question my logic, Captain?"

"No T'Pawl, your logic is impeccable. And I promise that if I receive any contact from said entity, I will inform you immediately."

T'Pawl nodded. "That is gratifying to know. I would also like to know if in fact you have attempted to initiate contact."

For the briefest moment, Picard considered lying. Instead, he said, "I have."

"Do you not recognize that this was a dangerous act? I do not understand why you would choose to take such a risk."

"No. You wouldn't. And I can't explain it to you in any terms you might understand. Let's just say, I weighed the benefits against the risks, and found it to be the most logical choice I could make."

"I will have to put this in my report, Captain."

"Understood."

Another night passed, then another. A week went by. Nothing. After a month, his hopes began to fade.

Picard sat in the Captains chair. They were on way to pick up the Bajoran ambassador for the peace conference Picard was scheduled to moderate between the ambassador's world and the newly reordered Romulan Empire, when Q suddenly popped into existence on the Bridge before him.

"Hello, friend," he said.

"Hello, Q," Picard replied, feeling his pulse quickening. He wondered if he were truly prepared for this.

"I delivered your request," Q told him.

"And the answer?"

"We shall see." Q shrugged and vanished again.

"What was that about?" Commander Worf asked.

Picard remained silent.

Counselor T'Pawl who was also on duty on the Bridge turned to him. "Does this pertain to our previous discussion?"

Picard looked from his first officer to his new counselor and decided he wasn't about to discuss this with either of them. "I'll be in my ready room," he told them.

Not long after, Deanna's image stared at him from his personal viewscreen once he had finally agreed to accept her incoming call.

"Oh, Captain, you didn't. Tell me you didn't," she insisted.

"I'm afraid so," he replied.

"Someone want to tell me what's going on?" Riker asked from behind her.

"It's a personal matter, Will." Picard responded.

"No, it's not," Deanna contradicted him. "This involves all of us." She turned to Riker. "It's about her."

Riker scowled for a moment, but then the pieces fell into place. "Shea? You've asked for her?"

"It's not your concern, Will, or anyone else's." He looked at Deanna meaningfully. "As I said, this is personal. When and if, this matter ever affects you, or anyone else on board a Federation vessel, I will address it. Until then, end of discussion. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal," Riker replied and shared a look with Deanna. Picard clicked off communication.

As the days went by, and the conference came and went, no one dared breach the topic with the Captain again, though clearly it was on everyone's mind and their tension and worry flowed like an underground river. Worf and T'Pawl discussed the issue in private, and teleconferenced with Riker and Deanna, but as time passed uneventfully, they began to relax and started to believe that nothing would come of the Captain's request. Still, as a precautionary measure the Titan remained in close proximity able to reach the Enterprise quickly if needed.

Picard was seated in the Captain's chair as the Enterprise prepared to leave orbit around Earth after a recent visit for family shore leaves and a graduation ceremony at Starfleet Academy where Picard had been featured as the commencement speaker. He didn't mind. He always enjoyed seeing those young eager new faces ready to embark on the adventure of their lives.

"Captain," Worf announced, "An unidentified vessel is de-cloaking off our starboard bow."

"On screen," Picard ordered. The vessel was less than a quarter the size of the Enterprise, and of unfamiliar design. It's cylindrical surface was darkly reflective, almost mirror-like.

"We are being hailed."

"Open a channel on screen."

The field of stars turned into an image.

"I understand you wanted to see me, Captain?" Shea stared down at Picard with her emerald green cat-eyes. She was every bit as beautiful and fearsome as he remembered.

He rose to his feet, for a moment lost for words. Then he found them. "Yes, I would like to speak with you."

"Permission to come aboard?"

"Granted."

"No! Captain!" Worf protested, but it was already too late. She was materializing before him even as he voiced his objection.

"Nice to see you too, Worf," she said sarcastically. She wore a jumpsuit, sleeveless, but otherwise not dissimilar to their own. She turned to the Captain expectantly.

"Would you come to my ready room, please," he said and she followed him in.

For a moment he just stared at her, not quite believing this wasn't one of his dreams. "You're really here, aren't you?"

"In the flesh. Q told me what you said. That I'm more important to you than your career. Is that true?"

Picard nodded. "I think it may be so."

"Surprising, considering what you decided nine years ago."

"Yes, I know. It seemed the only choice I could make at the time."

"But now, you want to change your mind?"

"Apparently, I'm a slow learner."

"Slow?" She smiled a bit at that. "I'm not sure I would ever apply that description to you. Stubborn, certainly, opinionated yes, highly resentful of and resistant to any perceived manipulation, most definitely." She dropped into a chair in front of his desk and stared at him. "I was very upset and disappointed with you for long while. But in retrospect, I had to finally recognize that it was my own fault. I pushed you too hard, too fast… I used everything I had to manipulate you into being with me, and you knew it. You enjoyed it on the one hand, but despised it on the other. I had no right."

He hadn't expected this. For her to take responsibility for his deeply conflicted emotions about her. He had thought he might find himself on bended knee begging for her forgiveness. Instead, she was apologizing to him. He felt overwhelmed.

"Is it too late for us?" he asked finally. "Is there any chance we could try again? With both of us knowing exactly what we're getting into?"

"Are you sure that you do?" she asked.

"Well, I know a lot more than I did the last time." He smiled cautiously at her. "Though I suspect there's still much to learn."

She nodded in agreement to that. "It would require a leap of faith on your part."

"I'm prepared to jump," he said, "if you will have me." He opened his arms to her. When she rose and filled them he felt such a rush of repressed emotions that he wanted to cry and laugh at the same time. He found himself doing both, as he held on tightly. When he felt calm again, he pulled back enough to look her in the face. "I assume this means yes?"

"It's been a long time coming, but yes."

He smiled at that and went to kiss her, but she put a finger to his lips. "Not yet."

"I've waited nine years, and now you think I'm rushing things?"

She laughed. "Hardly. I just want to make sure you're fully informed."

"Very well. I noticed you have a ship."

"How very observant of you," she teased. "Would you like to see it?"

"I would."

She nodded and he felt himself being transported.

"Commander," the Bridge operations officer alerted Worf, "Two persons have beamed aboard the other vessel. Shea and the Captain."

"Worf to Captain Picard!"

Picard's voice responded. "I'm all right, Worf. I'm taking a tour of her ship. I'll contact you later. Picard out."

"A tour?" Worf echoed in disbelief. He turned to his communications officer," Send an emergency alert to Capt. Riker of the Titan informing him of our situation." He next addressed the officer at operations, ""Run a scan on that ship. I want to know how many life forms are onboard, what it's made of, everything and anything you can tell me about it. Counselor T'Paul, did you sense anything from the Captain? Is he under duress?"

She shook her head. "No. If anything he sounded pleased with himself."

Worf let out a sound of disgust before he could stop himself.

Shea smiled at Picard. "They're scanning my ship."

"Is that a problem?"

"Not for me."

"And what will they learn?"

"Something surprising… this is no ordinary vessel. It's a life form."

"A living ship? Like the one we encountered, the one which called itself Gomtuu?"

"Distantly related, no doubt. But this one is a hybrid, an engineered combination of biology and machine."

Picard frowned at that. "Like a Borg."

"A bit. I'm sorry your encounter with that Borg queen left such a bitter impression. Not all Borg are like her. They're not all bent on assimilation. I've found that some are respectful of other life forms."

"So there are more of them then?"

"Oh yes. Many more."

"I'm sorry to hear that. So what else will the Enterprise's scan reveal?"

"A small crew - twenty-seven in total. A variety of humanoid races. Handpicked. All male."

He looked at her sideways.

"Keeps life simple. No shore leave required."

He sighed deeply. "I see."

"Problem, Captain?"

He half-smiled. "Well, it's a new way of thinking for me. But I'm trying to be more…" he searched for the right word, "…flexible."

"Good. An open mind will be a necessary component if we have any chance of starting over, as you said."

Picard nodded recognizing there was a lot he didn't know. She continued her tour and answered his questions, one by one. The ship was impressive in many respects, but as time went by and they passed it cordially, he recognized they were both avoiding discussing how this was going to work, if it would at all. He was just about to summon the courage to address it, when his communicator buzzed.

"Captain Riker to Captain Picard."

"Will?"

"Permission to come aboard?"

"I'm not sure. This isn't my ship." He looked at Shea.

"Granted," she answered and in a moment, both Will and Deanna materialized before them.

"Feels like old times," Shea smiled. "You're looking good, Commander, as always. You and Deanna finally hooked up, I take it?" Shea glanced over at the Counselor, who took a step toward her husband, and took his arm possessively. ""Good for you," Shea congratulated them. "Best hang on tight, Deanna, he's in dangerous waters." She looked at Riker again. "So have you come to persuade Captain Picard that he's basically lost his mind?"

"I wouldn't put it like that," Riker answered.

"Well this should be fun. I'd love to hear how exactly you will put it." She looked up, "Ship darling, how about some seating here for the four of us?"

"Of course, Sweet Shea." a disembodied voice replied, sounding gender neutral.

The flooring rose around them, forming into sofa-like shapes. "Please," Shea told them, "Let's sit and talk like old friends, shall we? Some wine, I think. Or do you prefer tea, Jean-luc?"

"A glass of wine would be very nice."

Four glasses filled with ruby red appeared on a coffee-sized table which simultaneously took shape before them. "Thank you, Ship," she said. She handed a glass to Picard and took one for herself. "So, what is it you wanted to say?" she addressed Riker.

Will looked at her then looked about. "Strange ship," he observed.

"It's alive," Picard told him. "Sentient. Don't hurt it's feelings."

"I wouldn't dream of it."

"Speaking of feelings, Captain," Deanna began. "Clearly you've been under a great deal of stress."

"Oh yes," Shea nodded sympathetically, "Very insightful, Counselor."

Deanna frowned at her. "There's no need to be sarcastic."

"My apologies. Please, continue. I'll do my best not to interrupt again."

"Thank you. My point is, Captain, when under stress, decision making is often unwise. You would be better served by taking time to address the underlying causes rather than to make a rash choice you might later regret in a misguided attempt to escape dealing with the real issues."

Shea pulled her feet up beneath her and stared over her knees at Picard, waiting.

He almost laughed at her expression of pure anticipation. Instead he merely smiled and looked back at Deanna. "You think I am running away. But from my perspective, I am running toward something instead. Something exciting, intriguing, and challenging. And maybe even a little terrifying I admit. My eyes are open, Counselor. I have no illusions."

"Oooo… good answer," Shea said. "Oh sorry, Deanna, I promised not to interrupt." She covered her mouth.

Picard couldn't help but chuckle. He noted that neither Will nor Deanna looked amused. On the contrary. He wanted to put their minds at ease and in doing so what better way to express his true desires to Shea.

"I see your fear for me, your worry that I am making a rash decision and may come to harm. But consider the fact that I have been ruminating on this for over nine years now. How rash could it be? Every day, every night, every moment of all that time, I have tried to suppress my desire, deny my deepest wish, all because of my allegiance to my crew and the Federation. I have proudly served that cause for over 40 years and for that I have no regret or apology. You think Shea is dangerous, violent, but it occurs to me that although our mission was meant to be one of peaceful exploration, so many many times we have been called to battle, forced to kill others in order to protect those who could not protect themselves. I do not consider myself a violent man, but I cannot deny the violence that I have authored on so many occasions when I deemed it justified. I cannot judge her any more harshly than I do myself."

He looked at Shea, hoping he had made himself clear. She dropped the hand from her mouth.

"Are you sure, Jean-luc?"

"I'm sure," he said. "Take me with you. I want what we had before, and more."

"You want to be bonded with me again, mind and spirit entwined?"

A smile spread across his face and he felt his heart pounding at the prospect. "Yes, I do. I want it."

Shea put her hands to his face. "Oh my love, consider carefully. I have been called a soul eater by some. And with me comes the other called D by the Q. He will not leave us alone, I assure you."

"You're trying to frighten me away."

"You need to be frightened."

"Believe me I've thought about all of this. I understand what you're telling me. I'm not a fool. But I will not deny myself happiness out of fear. Being with you brought me a sense of intimacy and connection such as I have never felt before or since. When you left, I was torn in half. I want to feel whole again. Take me with you. We will face whatever demons confront us together."

She smiled in wonder at him. "Then so be it," she said and kissed him.

Suddenly the connection he had felt so many years ago came rushing back. What had taken weeks to accomplish in the past, now washed over and through him in an instant, flooding his mind with her memories, and her love. It was the love that sustained his sanity as the waves of her life experiences crashed into him… far more than the nine years they had been separated and the prior memories of her life in Starfleet and their brief encounter which had led to her torture at the hands of Klingons in prison, her rage, and the vengeance she had wrought after. He was learning of all the events and emotions she had experienced from that time forward not only in his own reality, but of complete lifetimes lived in alternate worlds authored by her tormentor D. Finally he reached the moment in time where he stood here holding her, kissing her, feeling her thoughts and his own swirling together. Her mind pulled back until he was only himself once more, connected but independent. She was merely a comforting presence now… one he could pull upon at will and dive into again whenever he wanted, but only if he wanted.

"I had no idea," he whispered at last with his face pressed against hers. "I sensed there was more, but so much more… I never imagined."

"Are you all right? she asked, still holding on to him.

"Yes," he nodded.

"And you still want to come with me?"

"More than ever." He kissed her again. This time the kiss was merely a kiss, a damned sexy one, but not a mental onslaught. He looked at her now, feeling fully himself once more. "I need to return long enough to turn over command."

She nodded and released him. "Say your good-byes then. I'll be here waiting."

He turned away to find Deanna and Will gaping at him. Picard had completely forgotten they were here. He rose to his feet.

"Would you both please join me on the Enterprise?" he asked them.

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Riker answered. He and Deanna both stood as well.

Picard smiled at his friends, knowing they saw it as an opportunity to talk him out of this. He nodded to Shea, and felt himself being transported again. He was back standing on the Bridge of the Enterprise along with Deanna and Will.

"Captain!" Worf called out. "Are you all right?"

He laughed, having just answered the same question a moment before. "Yes. Quite all right."

"Captain," Riker began, but Picard put a hand up interrupting him.

"Will, I am about to do something that has been long overdue," he said. " Computer, record the following and transmit to Starfleet Command: Effective immediately, Captain William T. Riker is hereby given command of the Federation Flagship USS Enterprise-E. Also effective immediately, I hereby resign my commission with Starfleet. Signed Jean-Luc Picard."

He removed his Starfleet communicator from his chest and glanced at it with a smile thinking how one very similar to this had played a vital role in his meeting Shea so long ago. He looked up to see the bridge crew standing on their feet staring at him.

"I can't believe you're doing this," Riker said.

Picard smiled wider. "Believe it, Will. Our mission has always been to find new life. The most complex and fascinating life form I have ever encountered is on board that ship. I have a lot to learn and I'm not about to pass up this opportunity. I have a clear head and this is my choice."

"A clear head? Are you sure about that? Is this really your choice? How is this any different from your experience with the Borg? How can you say that this isn't this just another form of assimilation?"

"Assimilation?" Picard laughed in surprise. He hadn't expected such a comparison. The idea was ludicrous, yet he could see why Riker might think it. "No, Will, it's nothing like that. This is a voluntary joining of minds. I'm still me. When I was the Borg Locutus, did you ever see me smile, let alone laugh? This is as different from that as making love is to being violated. I'm not being tricked or manipulated. Can't you just give me the benefit of the doubt and wish me well?"

"I'm sorry,' Riker said. "We just want to protect you. After everything that's happened, all the changes we've been through and now this. Maybe we're just being selfish, trying to keep you here, but you have to admit, this is a surprising decision you're making."

"Only because I've been trying so long to deny my feelings. I won't do it any longer."

Riker sighed heavily. "Of course if this is truly what you want, if it makes you happy…"

"It does, truly." Picard saw the doubt in Riker's eyes. He gave it one last shot. "Will, I'm in love. Surely you can understand that."

"Of course," Riker looked at Deanna. He nodded slowly and tried to smile, "Then I guess I owe a toast to the happy couple."

"Thank you," Picard said and put his hand on Riker's shoulder. "Will. I've never said it aloud, but I think you always knew that I have thought of you as my son. A son of whom I am very proud, one whom I never have nor ever would abandon. Trust this, because you haven't seen the last of me. But as any good father knows, there comes a time to let go. You earned the right to sit in that chair years ago and it's about time I got out of your way. The Titan is a good ship, but it's not the Enterprise. This is where you belong." He looked over to Deanna. "And you, young lady, belong here right next to him. And I must thank you as well, Deanna. I couldn't have asked for a better friend and counselor. You helped me through many a dark time." She simply nodded and wiped away the tears.

Then he noticed Beverly Crusher was here. They had undoubtedly called her in case he had returned injured in some way. This good-bye was perhaps the hardest yet. "My dear Beverly. I have loved you since the day we met and there might have been a time that we might have taken that next step. But I think the reason we never did was because we both knew that in the end it wouldn't have worked between us. I'll always be sorry about what happened to Jack, although I'll never regret how close we became as a result of that shared loss." She nodded then looked away.

He turned to Worf and smiled. "Mr. Worf, my brave friend and stalwart protector. I knew I could always look to you should courage fail me. I shall miss you very much."

"And I you, Captain," he said.

Picard looked around at the remaining officers on deck. "It has been a great honor to serve with you. I couldn't have asked for a finer crew. I wish only the best for each of you. And I hope our paths will cross again." He tossed the communicator badge to Will, who caught it.

"Farewell," he said and reached out in his mind to Shea. Immediately he transported, leaving behind everything he had known, bringing nothing of his former life with him but experience and memories and the clothes on his back. He was no longer a Starfleet Captain. He was only himself, completely himself. It was all he could offer her and everything she wanted.

And in return, he was quite sure that he was embarking on the adventure of his life.