ST:TNG #2—Highland Tempest
This was my first attempt at putting Picard and my character, Rachel, in a solid, lustful situation. See my diatribe in Heaving Bosoms for the whole sordid tale.
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In a small, seldom-used transporter room, in a sleepy part of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Rachel Cabot joined Captain Picard on the platform. The last of their bags and supplies lay gathered at his feet. She turned to find Will Riker studying her at the controls, his eyes narrowed in a scrutiny squint she knew too well.
“Well, Number One,” Picard said loudly.
He had asked Riker surreptitiously to oversee this particular transport. No one else was in the chamber. Picard’s practiced blank expression failed to dampen the brilliant light in his eyes.
Throttle down, Captain, Cabot thought, presenting Riker with a pleasant, noncommittal smile.
“We’ll see you in a week, then, sir.” His eyes flicked to Cabot and back. ”Have a pleasant working holiday.”
Rachel could almost see the invisible quotation marks around the words. Riker was fishing. She kept her bland expression. No nibbles here.
“You know where we are, should there be any problems with repairs at Starbase 725.”
Riker took a breath, his chin lowering to his chest in resignation. “Yes, sir.”
The transporter delivered them inside a small cottage on a high coastal point of the planet Gileád. Two sides of the point cut to the thin shore in a shear drop of half a kilometer. The inland side sloped into steep, rocky pastureland. The building had been abandoned by the Federation years ago when the First Contact survey team determined Gileád too vulnerable and undeveloped to be exposed to other cultures. Because the cottage was so remote, the Federation allowed guarded use of it as a retreat. Applicants were carefully screened, then counseled by the First Contact Committee. They wanted no irresponsible contamination of the Gileád culture or even a chance that the Prime Directive might be bent.
When Captain Picard’s application came to them, the Committee barely looked at it. All five of the Committee members knew him personally and had worked with him on several First Contact missions. They approved his request without hesitation, and without asking for clarification on the purpose he had given— “Personal Leave.”
Inside the cottage, Cabot blinked, trying to sort through the myriad sensations pressing on her. Smells demanded her attention first. Pungent dried flowers hanging in bunches from the rafters drifted sweetness and age through the room. The breeze pushing through the open frames of the windows brought with it fish, and thunderstorms, and night.
Long translucent curtains drifted into the room like gentle apparitions tethered to their valances only out of politeness. Cabot waded through them to the stone fireplace. It popped and whistled with a well-built fire. She breathed deeply of the familiar wood smoke. Pine, she thought, just like home.
She ran her hands along the heavy mantle, gleaming with years of oil; touched the chalky hearth walls and the sturdy, antique wrought iron tools. Books covered the wall next to the fireplace, ancient paper and leather adding their own color to the room’s scent. She saw Keats and Browning and, of course, Shakespeare, and recognized her own slim volume of Dickinson and her collection of Emerson. A huge, cushioned wing chair and matching divan faced the crackling fire. Between them, a vintage bottle of cabernet sat breathing on a small table.
“What do you think?”
She turned to find Jean-Luc standing as the transporter had left him with their things at his feet. His face waited expectantly in the fire’s glow.
She hardly knew what to say. “You did all this?”
He glanced at the books and the fire, his expression becoming more naked and fragile. “I thought you would be pleased.”
“I am. I love it.” She blurted out the first words that made any sense inside her head. “I’m just… surprised.”
She studied him as the shock faded. “I always suspected, but now I know… You’re a shameless romantic, Jean-Luc Picard.”
Walking carefully toward him, she reached for his hands. He stepped over the bags and came to her. For the first time, she touched him without wondering if it was appropriate. The freedom of that simple act made her light-headed and her heart pound in her throat. She let her hands drift away from his and travel across his chest and shoulders.
His sharp hazel eyes turned a dove grey as they moved over her features. Their tender intensity drew her body to him. She felt his arms circling her, his hands sliding across her back. Their uniforms whispered.
Slowly, their mouths came together.
Rachel stretched luxuriously. Her fingers poked around the edges of the carved headboard, her toes strained under the cool sheets, and her back curved in a delicious arch. She heard the clink of flatware in the next room and smelled fresh bread. As she settled contentedly back under the covers, Jean-Luc strolled through the door.
“Good morning,” he smiled, balancing a tea service. He had searched through the luggage while she slept and found his silk sleeping robe. The brevity of the robe exposed a trim, well-muscled body otherwise neatly disguised by his uniform. She knew that body now.
Tossing a quick glance toward the windows and the darkness beyond, he corrected himself. “Actually, ‘good evening’ might be more appropriate.”
“The mighty hunter returns with the spoils,” Rachel said, helping him position the tray on the bed. A basket of small turnovers steamed up into her face, and she inhaled the yeasty aroma. “What a wonderful scavenger you are.”
“I am at my best in primitive situations,” he said, sliding onto the bed.
She smiled sweetly. “Oh, yes. Your very best, I’d say.”
He leaned back against the high footboard and watched Rachel fill the porcelain cups with dark tea. Her elegantly expressive hands made a sacrament of the simple act; two fingertips to the teapot lid, a small flourish to keep the spout from dripping.
Grace, he thought, not for the first time. And, as before when the thought occurred to him, he wondered where it came from. He did not think of her as graceful, her movements fluid or deliberate like a dancer. In fact, she moved quite spontaneously, talking wildly with her hands, jumping up when a good idea came to her.
No, the feelings that rose in him when he watched her came from a hundred disjointed details; her short, dark hair springing in sleepy curls away from her face, the crisp white of her soft chemise blazing against her tanned shoulders, the line of lace at her bodice laying against the beginning swell of her breast. She looked up at him, her hazel eyes steady and calm. The combination of ease, playfulness and cautious hope that passed over her features strummed the thought until it vibrated in his chest. Grace.
“My god, you’re beautiful.” he said.
Rachel felt the blood rise in her face. He leaned easy there against the footboard, bare-chested and still smelling of her. But, she saw how his eyes snapped like lightening in the lamplight. She recognized the static charge in his voice. Her hand trembled as it passed him his cup and saucer.
He caressed the hand that held the cup.
“I thought I knew you,” she said quietly, sitting back against the pillows. “But here’s a man that makes me breakfast and breathless at the same time.” She pushed down a sudden swell of emotion. “Where is my Jean-Luc Picard, sir? What have you done with him?”
Picard tapped his chest. “He’s here—held captive, the pompous ass. I’ll not let him spoil this holiday.”
“Don’t think he wouldn’t, given the chance. Intimacy terrifies him, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” she murmured, sipping her tea. “At least on his ship, it does.” Then, she smiled. “You’re quite informed for a stranger. Handsome, too. I’ll have to be sure not to mention you to him.”
His eyebrows arched. “Jealous, is he? Thinks he can have you to himself without earning the privilege? Arrogant bastard.”
“I just don’t think he would understand,” she said. “I love him, you see, and I’d never want to hurt him.”
He tried to maintain the light, bantering tone. “You say you love the unworthy wretch?” It was a word they had skillfully skirted for months—at least, he had. And, now it circled above them.
Their easy friendship had pleasantly surprised him; the comfortable evenings they spent in Ten Forward talking over dinner, their good-humored debates over Jazz versus Classical music. Then, they started leaving notes on each other’s personal message boards; a line of poetry he misquoted the night before, suggested readings that illustrated her point about Jungian psychology. His fiercely guarded privacy and calculated distancing from the rest of the crew seemed irrelevant in Rachel’s case. It had all been so effortless and innocent…
Rachel carefully set her cup down. She didn’t know whether to kick or applaud herself. Her own tranquility, the setting, Jean-Luc’s mood all conspired to wipe strategy right out of her mind. She had no intention of ever saying that word, of even thinking it. Weeks ago when he had asked her, in his most circumspect manner, if they might not vacation together, they both knew such a holiday excluded that word. They were both well aware of the low voltage current that had crept into their quiet dinners. Their eyes met for a moment too long. They stood a bit too close. Dangerous business for a Starship captain and a junior officer.
So, they made an unspoken agreement. They would get off-ship and discharge the electricity before they embarrassed themselves or ruined the friendship they had created. But, he surprised her; the fairy tale cottage, the intensity of his passion, and now this emotionally vulnerable Jean-Luc. Rachel felt so off-balance, she could have said anything.
Since she had actually said that word, she held the flavor of it in her mind and found the taste rather pleasant. She looked at him and saw that he still hadn’t drawn on his serious “Captain’s Face,” the one with the stern eyes and all the harsh lines, the one that would deflect that word instantly. The vulnerable stranger was still there.
“Yes, I love him,” she said quietly. “Strange that it hasn’t occurred to me before.”
She took a deep breath. “So be careful how you talk about him. I imagine I’d have to defend the wretched, arrogant, pompous ass’ honor if you push me into it.”
He smiled gently. “You would, would you?”
“Yes. And since he is so… uncomfortable with intimacy, we don’t have to tell him about this conversation, do we? I’d hate for him to think he had to respond.”
Jean-Luc looked down at his warm tea, stared into the dark liquid for a long moment. “No,” he said, slowly moving the tray off the bed, “we needn’t tell him. Though I believe I can respond.”
“Don’t,” she whispered as he took her cup. “You don’t have to.”
“Oh, but I do. You’ve let the beast out, my dear, and I fear we must face it. No more equivocations. No more games.” His clear, hazel-gray eyes met hers firmly. “I find I am, undeniably, in love with you, Rachel Cabot. You seem to complete a portion of my life I never knew was lacking. I don’t know what this means for us, and I’d prefer not to think about that now. All I know is that I must say this out loud. I love you.”
He watched her ease out from the covers and crawl toward him, the roundness of her breasts and thighs backlit by the lamplight glowing through her pale shift.
“Go ahead,” she said, her face inches from his, “both of you, say it again.
His smile broadened as he put his hands in her hair. “I love you.”
The trail sloped gently down the leeward side of the cliff, winding in slow arcs through the whistle grass and the occasional scagg tree. Thin sunlight, strained by the metallic clouds, touched the black gravel of the trail and disappeared there. The hollow music of the whistle grass rose and fell with the wind’s baton.
“This road curves north and comes into the village from the south.” Jean-Luc pointed his walking stick along the horizon of whistle grass.
“I’ve seen lights from the point,” Rachel told him. “And sometimes, when the wind shifts, I think I’ve heard music at night.”
“We’re actually only a few kilometers from the village. Unfortunately, most of those kilometers are straight down.”
“Playing devil’s advocate? This was your idea, remember? I still think it’s a good one.”
He glanced up at the lowering sky. “The weather’s held since we arrived, but it could break either way. We could get drenched before this outing is over.”
Rachel stepped close and said conspiratorially, “We haven’t stepped outside the cottage in almost three days. While I think we’ve hit on the perfect exercise routine, I could stand a change of pace.”
Picard lowered his eyes as a self-conscious smile spread across his face. “Then, a walk to the village and back is definitely in order.”
“Good. I don’t want to waste all the time I spent studying the Committee’s reports. If we run low on local currency, I could even earn a few nub playing one of their windpipes.” She held up a small oboe-like instrument.
Picard smirked and shook his head. “Only if I allow it. Don’t forget how patriarchal and male-dominated this society is.”
“Yes, sire,” she said meekly, then gave him a playful shove. “Just don’t get used to it. Do you think we look the part?”
His eyes ran quickly over her from the snug, rough-wool waistcoat, to the full skirts billowing around her calves, to the soft woolen stockings and sturdy walking shoes. “We’ll pass.”
“I like this.” She tugged at his worn snap-brim cap. “The Arcadian style suits you.”
“Country Squire?” he asked, smoothing the front of his tweedy jacket.
“Hmm.” She stepped back and squinted. His baggy pants were thin in the knees, his shoes scuffed and well broken-in. Shaking her head, she said decidedly, “Poet…”
Adjusting the thin leather strap across her chest, she opened the pouch connected to it at her hip, replaced the windpipe and recited as if from a biography. “… set apart from his fellows by the passion of his art. A man kind to his neighbors and yet a mystery to them.”
Jean-Luc laughed. “What about you? Let’s see…” He twirled his finger in the air, and Rachel turned around slowly for his inspection. “Ah! A shepherdess, I think. I can see you wading through your flock of enué, as sheep are called here, on one of these windswept pastures.” Smiling, he added, “And you would most likely sing to them.”
Rachel took his hand as they started down the road. “What lonely lives we’ve imagined for each other.”
Picard grunted in acknowledgment. “Do we still see each other in that way? Does the mantle of loneliness take time falling away from such long-term practitioners?”
She squeezed his hand. “Maybe. It took all our lives to learn how to be alone. Now, we’re learning how to consider someone else. We’re just beginning to see how that’s done.”
He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Ah, but what a glorious beginning we’ve made.”
Later that afternoon, they left the rutted cart trail and entered the village. Speckled chickens squawked out of their way in a flurry of feathers. A tethered goat munched solemnly on the weeds growing at the tavern’s doorway. From the blacksmith’s shoppe rang the piercing toll of iron against iron. A few locals scurried about, casting a stern eye in their direction.
The winds had picked up again, sending an intermittent volley of grit and rubble across their path. A dark bank of clouds pressed in from the shale-colored sea, dousing the poor afternoon sun and drawing what little warmth remained of the day.
Picard secured his cap with one hand and tugged at Cabot with the other. “Shall we try the tavern?”
Together, they hurried across the rutted street to the squat, though solid-looking building. The sign swinging wildly above the door read “Enués’ Blood” with a faded painting of a slaughtered lamb on the weathered wood. Cabot glanced up at the sign, then at Picard. His eyebrows jumped with a challenging smile as he pushed his shoulder against the heavy ironwood door.
The greatroom of the tavern was dark and smoky, even in the drowsy slowness of the late afternoon. Only a few heavy-shouldered men sat drinking sullenly at the tables. The barkeeper, a no-nonsense, solid woman, eyed them as she polished glass mugs behind the huge wooden counter. Picard dipped his head toward a table set back against the wall.
“Dreary,” Cabot said quietly as she pulled out one of the chairs. “This must be a hard life.”
“What’ll it be?” the barkeeper demanded, suddenly standing over them. She was a young woman, actually, the kind that hard work, a poor diet and endless childbirth thickened and soured. As if in confirmation, a youngster kareemed out from a back doorway, and jabbered all the way to his mother’s skirts.
“Ach, Nils,” she scolded, shaking him off her leg like a troublesome dog. “Don’t be pesterin’ me now. Back to the kitchen with ye.”
Cabot smiled at the dirty-faced cherub. He was one of the most beautiful children she’d ever seen—dirty or clean. Nils smiled back, plugged his mouth with his thumb and hid behind his mother’s ample skirts.
“Don’t be makin’ eyes at me customers,” she scolded, but the stern expression had softened. She said again, more congenially, “What’ll it be now?”
Picard glanced around the other tables, noting the thick mugs of amber liquid. “Two tankards of ale, madam, if you please.”
The woman arched an eyebrow. “Aye.” Then, “You’re not from around here.”
“No,” Cabot said smoothly. “We’re from Craghorn on our way to the markets at Whistlecroft.”
“Ach!” the woman scowled. “You’ll not be gettin’ there this day. The devil’s own storm is brewin’ outside. Didn’t you check with your village vaneman before ye set out?”
Rachel traded dark looks with Jean-Luc. “Didn’t you…?”
His eyes widened innocently as he shook his head.
“Isn’t that just like a man,” the barkeeper scolded. She turned her attention back to Cabot, who she obviously thought was the more capable of the two. “Hear that wind howlin’ across the chimney? There’ll be more than a few drowned chickens by morning, I’ll wager. You’d best spend the night here. I got a two-coiner room in the loft with clean bedding.”
Cabot reached for the pouch at her hip. “Thank you…”
“Krista St. Conna,” she said, laying a broad hand on Rachel’s. “And don’t be flashin’ yer coins in here.” She jutted her chin at the men slumped in their chairs. “Those louts’d love to see a wee bit like yourself with money for the takin’. Let him pay me.” Her hard eyes drilled Picard. “Or are you the kind she has to keep the money away from?”
Picard met her glare as he dug into his pants pockets. “ Two coins,” he said as he placed the money in her outstretched hand, “and another nub for the tankards—when it’s convenient.”
Krista St. Conna withdrew her hand and straightened slowly. Her fists went to her ample hips as she appraised Picard through narrowed eyes. Then, she turned from the table and strode powerfully back to the bar.
“Well played,” Jean-Luc said quietly, “though I’m not certain staying the night is a good idea.”
Wind hooted down the huge central chimney, stalling the updraft enough to thicken the smoky room like cornstarch in a simmering gravy. Heavy shingles clattered from one side of the roof to the other.
Rachel gazed up past the tavern’s thick beams, following the dance of the shingles. “I suppose we could go back out…”
The leaded windows shuddered in their frames. Daylight had all but disappeared from the small squares. Peering through the cloudy window behind him, Picard watched a line of clothes torn loose by the wind sail out across a field.
“Then again,” he said, “we could do with a leisurely tankard.”
The door blasted open, wind churning grit and drowned leaves across the room. Above the howl of the coming storm, a man’s voice boomed clear and strong.
“Set up a line, Krista darlin’! This weather’s given me a powerful thirst.” An incredible mountain of a man easily shouldered the door closed. The men at the other tables seemed to wake from their stupors and shouted a variety of greetings, curses and friendly accusations at him. The big man bellowed back at them and took in the rest of room as he shrugged out of his mackinaw. His inspection paused at Picard and Cabot. He tipped his head slightly, a polite but marked affirmation of their position as outsiders. His presence and energy immediately reminded Cabot of Lt. Worf.
“And what weather doesn’t send you in here, Kutter Tourey,” St. Conna tossed back, setting the last of three mugs of ale on the counter. “I wish you’d marry that sweet Faya Gilmorin, so she’d keep you home and out of my way.”
Tourey drained the first mug as if it were water and banged the empty on the counter with a loud sigh of pleasure. “And what would you do without me, then, darlin’? Watch these lay-abouts snore in their cups? Come, Krista, you need me t’spark some life into this tired pub.”
He downed the second mug, then leaned over the counter. “Ah, and what sparks we could kindle if not for your Dayo.”
St. Conna grabbed the empty mug handles in one hand and brandished them at Tourey. “Don’t be waistin’ yer sweet words on me, laddie. I’d chew you up and spit you back so fast you’d be no good to any woman.” She dunked the mugs in soapy water and wiped them with her apron. “Sparks, indeed. Humph.”
Grinning, Tourey took his last brew and sauntered away from the counter. He wore a colorless rough woolen shirt and baggy trousers belted by a wide strip of black leather. The rolled sleeves of his shirt exposed forearms thick and knotted with muscle. When he stopped at their table, Cabot met his appraising look and saw a dark intelligence behind his brown eyes.
“Looks like the storm’s blown in something new.” He held out his hand to Picard. “Kutter Tourey.”
“Jean-Luc Picard.” He stood and accepted the man’s hand. Cabot watched the muscles bunch in Tourey’s arm and guessed he was doing more than just shaking hands. Jean-Luc’s expression remained bland.
“Pee-card,” Tourey mused, finally letting go. “‘Tis an odd name.”
“Common enough in Kopper County,” Jean-Luc answered.
“Ah.” Tourey took a pull on his ale. “A part of the country I’ve not had the pleasure of visitin’. And would this be your lovely wife?”
“Rachel,” he said simply.
Tourey bent, took her hand and pressed the knuckles to his lips. His eyes caught hers over the top of her hand for only a moment, but she could feel the heat there. “A pleasure, missus.”
St. Conna elbowed Tourey aside and set two tankards of ale on the table. A third she shoved into his hand. “Here now. Don’t be foolin’ with these fine folks. It’s bad enough the storm’s keepin’ them from Whistlecroft, they don’t have to put up your shinanigins as well.”
“Can’t a man make friendly conversation?” Tourey feigned a hurt and humbled expression.
Unconvinced, St. Conna held a warning finger in front of his nose. “Don’t.”
“Aye, your highness,” he said as she stomped back to the bar. “I’ll be as sweet as a tyke on the Sabbath.” He grinned back at them and pulled out a chair. “I’m not really the brigand Krista makes me out.”
“I’m sure you’re not.” Picard arched a sardonic eyebrow as he sat.
“So,” Tourey planted his arms on the table and studied them both. “Yer off to market, then?”
Picard nodded, sipping his ale.
“I saw no enué in the public pens.”
“Our herder left before us,” Cabot explained demurely. “I just hope he made it to Whistlecroft ahead of this storm.” For added affect, she glanced nervously at Picard.
“A herder, have ye?” Tourey’s eyes gleamed. “It must be aristocrats I’m drinkin’ with to have hired help.”
Cabot laughed lightly. “If you can call Uncle Zem and two mangy herd dogs hired help…” She raised her mug. “…then here’s to aristocracy.”
Picard grunted agreement and took a healthy pull of his ale. Tourey’s keen interest dimmed momentarily, but thoughts danced rapidly across his face. Before he could launch another volley, a stubby little man from one of the back tables shuffled over and slapped him on the shoulder.
“C’mon over here, Kutter. We’ve drawn up new plans for the gaming house.”
Tourey signed. “Not again, Quint. You lads have been tinkerin’ with that worn-out idea for an age and a day.”
“We’ve hit on a piker this time. Come see.”
Tourey dipped his head at his current drinking partners. “You’ll excuse me while I humor these sorry sods.”
He swung his leg over the chair and followed the little man back to the corner where he was regaled by hearty cussing and laughter.
Picard took another sip and said quietly, “He’ll be trouble if we’re not careful.”
“Uh huh,” Cabot murmured behind her mug. “Fighting, rape, robbery or all of the above.”
“I’d say that covers it.” He looked at her for a long moment. “Are you still glad we came into the village?”
She grinned back. “You bet.”
A squeal issued from the kitchen. Nils scampered out and ran up to Cabot again. He stopped short of falling into her skirts and stood watching her uncertainly.
“Hello, Nils,” she said. “Back for a visit?”
He held out a roughly carved toy-figure of a man. She accepted it with a great show of wonder. “What’s this?”
Nils leaned against her leg. “Da,” he said.
“Your dad?” Gently, she picked him up under the arms and settled him on her lap. The child snatched back the toy and chewed on it, watching her with round blue eyes. “He’ll have an awfully soggy head, now, I’m afraid.”
Nils giggled and pulled the man out of his mouth to look at the sodden head. “Da!” Then, he looked at Picard, and his face became very solemn. “Ooo.”
“Smart baby,” Rachel chuckled, then laughed when she saw Jean-Luc’s perplexed, frown. She patted his leg and said sympathetically, “I’ll get rid of him.”
Picard’s frown deepened. “I don’t hate children, you know.”
“I know. I’ll get rid of him.” She stood and planted the little boy on her hip, still snickering.
“I’m delighted you find me so entertaining,” he called after her sotto voce.
She squeezed her lips together to keep from guffawing. First, their skillful playacting, then fencing with Tourey’s potential threat, and now teasing Jean-Luc about his unmentionable sore spot with children—she was simply having too much fun. Nils jabbered at her comfortably as she walked across the greatroom to the bar. The hours she spent volunteering in the nursery gave her the practiced, rolling gait of a woman used to a toddler mounted on one hip.
St. Conna emerged from the swinging kitchen door and stared mortified at the sight. “He’s at ye again? Ach, I’m sorry.”
“No bother,” Cabot assured her, “though he’s a bit damp underneath.”
“Gaitlen!” the woman roared, plucking the boy from Rachel’s arms.
A thin young girl hurried out of the kitchen and stared at the scene with Nil’s same wide blue eyes. A faded yellow ribbon held back her brown hair.
“Do ye seem to be missing one in there, girl?” St. Conna asked with controlled anger. She placed the baby in Gaitlen’s arms.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” she said. “They’re wild as rabbits today.”
“Aye, I know, darlin’.” St. Conna patted the girl’s cheek and gave her a tired smile. “Lib’s no good to ye, sick upstairs. Tis a mighty job for a lick like yourself. Just try to keep ‘em outta me pub.”
“I’ll try, Mother.” Gaitlen hurried back into the kitchen.
Cabot smiled, watching the young teen’s harried retreat. “What a sweet girl.”
“Aye.” St. Conna sighed and leaned her heavy arms on the bar. “All mine are sweet-tempered, wild as sun-struck cats mind ye, but respectful of their elders.”
“Then, you must be proud.”
The barkeeper gave Cabot a secret smile. “Aye,” she whispered, “that I am. But, what about you, Missus? You’ve carried more than my Nils on your hip.”
Rachel perched on the nearest barstool and thought carefully about how to answer. “Carried many, yes, but none of them mine.”
“What?” The disbelief in St. Conna’s voice faded to a soft, understanding croon. “Ach, ye hire out to the rich families in Craghorn. Take care of their aristocratic brats, do ye? That’s no sin, darlin’. We all have to get by.”
She considered Cabot, then squinted past her at Picard. “What’s the matter with him? He looks fit enough? At your age you should have a dozen babes filling yer house.”
“It’s not him.”
“Ach,” she breathed, her good face full of pity and sorrow. “I knew a woman in the next county who suffered the same. A sad thing, she was, not a bit like you.”
She looked again at Picard. “He’s a better man than I took him for, standing by you in yer trouble. Not many would do that.”
“He is a good man,” Rachel said, “and we’re happy in our way.”
St. Conna laid a firm, warm hand on Cabot’s arm. “Then, God bless ye.” She pulled a delicate bottle and two tiny shot glasses out from behind the counter, then poured a swallow of dark, amber liquid into each glass.
“A touch can smooth the roughest times,” she said. “Can turn a problem skinside in for a better look. Perhaps, there’s still a way for you and yours. Here’s to you… “
“Rachel.” She smiled at the strangeness of the name. “And to your good man.”
Cabot picked up the glass. “And to you, Krista.”
They tossed back the shots. Rachel braced herself as the whiskey torched her throat and nose, but a strangled cough still escaped her. She gripped the edges of the counter, waiting for her eyes to stop watering. St. Conna grinned, stoppered the bottle and stashed it back in its hiding place.
Picard watched the interaction of the two women, careful to avert his eyes when the barkeeper looked his way. He admired how smoothly Rachel seized the opportunity of the stray child to reconnoiter their situation. Building bridges, no doubt, he thought. I’ll have to ask her what fabulous tale she told to get St. Conna to share her finest distilled alcohol.
He smiled inwardly as the two women put their heads close together like old school chums sharing a secret. He’d have to remember this particular talent of Rachel’s the next time an assignment called for blending into an alien culture. With her sharp thinking and ability to turn an advantage, she wouldn’t remain a junior officer for long.
A ripple of discomfort shivered through him when he realized he was contemplating ship’s business. He had told Rachel he wouldn’t think of theEnterprise, of what would happen when they left this isolated dream and returned to their normal lives there. And indeed, he hadn’t. But, sometime soon, he would have to. They both would.
The door crashed open again, this time blowing in four drowned-looking figures and a blast of cold rain. It took two of them to muscle the door back shut. Cursing, chattering and laughing, the four pulled off their drenched cloaks and hats and moved to stand by the fire. All carried small cases of some sort.
“Ander,” St. Conna called, “did ye see Dayo and me boys on the road?”
A tall young man wiped his sleeve across his streaming face. “I could barely see me-self on the road. They’re not in outta this?”
“They probably took shelter in the barns,” a pretty young woman said. She bent low and rang the water out of her deep red hair as if it were a piece of laundry. “I saw plenty of men from the fields waitin’ out the storm in there.”
“Then, they’ll be there ‘til morning,” St. Conna said disgustedly, heading for the kitchen.
The young woman laughed, “They get hungry enough, Krista, they’ll come home.”
Tourey pulled away from the back shadows and into the firelight. The young men’s toweling efforts slowed, then stopped. All three were long-limbed and enough past puberty to start filling in those limbs with hard-earned muscle. But all three watched Tourey’s approach like cornered mice. When the young woman stood up, flipping her wet hair back behind her, she found herself looking into Tourey’s laughing eyes. A flicker of panic darted across her face, but was quickly replaced by practiced indifference.
“Will ye be singing for us then, Lally?” he asked.
The woman glared at him, her eyes snapping with more than simple anger. Tourey grinned and sauntered past the group to the bar, the redhead watching his progress. She shook her head vehemently when the boy Ander leaned close and whispered to her.
“We’re musicians with a job to do,” she whispered, but with enough strength for Picard to hear her conviction. “So let’s get to it.”
Tourey’s mocking laugh drew Picard’s attention away from the troubled group. The big man leaned against the bar as close to Rachel as he could, murmured next to her ear, then grinned, waiting. She neither flinched nor shied away from him, but slowly, deliberately, squared her shoulders. Picard eased his chair away from the table.
Cabot stared straight ahead at the keg propped against the back wall of the bar. The tap dripped every few beats of her heart, ale hitting the floor in a quiet pptth. Tourey’s hard arm leaned heavily against hers. She smelled sour ale and rotten teeth as his breath puffed against her hair.
Oh, my, she thought. I haven’t been propositioned like this since Janus VI. Those rock-head miners were polite compared to this piece of work. Let’s see… I need to insult his manhood, something vile enough to make his gonads shrivel…
“Would you mind repeating that?” A voice said cool and low behind her. As she turned toward it, Tourey backed away a step.
“I said…” Jean-Luc took Rachel’s elbow, pulled her down from the stool and set her behind him. “…would you mind repeating what you said to my wife? I didn’t hear.”
Though his voice ran smooth as water, his features hardened into the infamous “Captain’s Face,” all chiseled angles and smoldering temper. Tourey considered him. His hooded eyes traveled over the face and the frame, calculating, measuring. He hawked deep in his throat and spat on the floor.
“That’s what I thought.” Picard took a step closer. “If you need to speak to her again, you speak to me first.”
Tourey let his eyes drift to Cabot, let them run down and up her body. Then, he smiled at Picard, an expression that carried more ice than warmth. Cabot frowned, watching Picard’s jaws knot and relax, his fists clench and unclench. What does he think he’s doing?
St. Conna returned from the kitchen, holding a big soup bowl in each hand. She stopped in the doorway, her eyes narrowing. “What’s this?”
“I think Mr. Tourey needs another ale,” Picard said, his eyes never leaving the big man’s face.
The barkeeper glanced fretfully at Cabot and shoved the bowls into her hands. “Another tankard, Kutter?”
After a lengthy pause, he answered, “Aye. Another round for me and the lads.” He slouched against the counter. “And draw another for Mr. Pee-card here.”
St. Conna bustled behind the bar, filling mugs as quickly as she could. She slid one toward Picard and jutted her chin at him. “Go on now.” Her voice was stern, scolding, but Cabot knew better after talking with the woman. A nervous concern edged the gruffness. “Eat while it’s hot.”
Picard took the tankard, raising an eyebrow at Tourey in acknowledgment, then gripped Cabot’s arm and steered her back to their table.
“What’s with this outraged husband act?” Rachel hissed at him. His fingers dug into the tender bony prominences of her elbow. “I could have handled him just fine, thank you.”
“I realize that.” Releasing her arm at the table, all aspects of the “Captain’s Face” disappeared. He spoke in a quiet, conspiratorial tone. “But, he was testing me, not you.”
He took a bowl from her and sat down with it. “St. Conna’s husband and sons are unavailable. These boys…” He pointed his spoon at the musicians who sat tuning bell-shaped mandolins. “…are terrified of Tourey. And the men in the back will probably cheer on anything he does. There’s not a man here to oppose him.”
“Except for you.” Cabot stirred the thick, steaming stew. “He knows that now.”
“Whether he thinks I’m enough of a threat is another matter.” He glanced up at the redheaded woman, a crease deepening between his brows. “We’ll see.”
“I’m sorry.” Rachel stared at the stew. “That rot-gut of Krista’s must have affected me more than I thought. I should have seen what was going on.”
“You were otherwise occupied,” he reminded her. “By the way, just what did he say to you?”
“It was ugly and would spoil your appetite.” She took a spoonful of the hearty soup. “This is really quite good.”
Jean-Luc gave her a thoughtful frown, then dug into his supper.
The evening came on in relative peace. While the storm raged outside, shaking the windows and sending deep shudders through the firm stone walls, the musicians struck-up lively folk tunes and sad ballads. Lally sang in a rich, untrained soprano that was all the more enjoyable for its simplicity. Ander and the other young men joined her in ambitious harmonies that often succeeded. Picard found himself enjoying the music. Beside him, Rachel made tiny movements to the music, humming snatches of counter-melodies.
A few more drenched patrons braved the weather for the warmth of the pub and an ale, and stayed to get dry and tap their feet along with the tunes. St. Conna circled the greatroom, lighting smoky lamps on the walls and clearing the heap of empty tankards in the back corner. She gave Picard a friendly wink whenever she passed their table.
Occasionally, one of the men would shuffle across the greatroom to the kitchen door, disappear for a few minutes, then return spattered and wet-faced. After watching several of these treks, Picard surmised the kitchen must lead to a privy out back. During one of the breaks in the music, Lally rose and followed the same route to the kitchen. After a few moments, Tourey nonchalantly left his cronies and started in the same direction.
Picard and Cabot both straightened, but he laid a staying hand on her shoulder. “Let me handle this.” He watched Tourey disappear into the kitchen, then strode after him.
Cabot sat in her chair, watching the swinging door flap back and forth behind Picard. Then, she went to the bar and Krista.
The covered walk-through between the pub and privy usually kept the weather off those in need, but the storm’s fierce wind blew through the widely slatted sides and doused patrons coming and going. Lally kept her head down as she hurried back to the pub.
And ran into Kutter Tourey’s chest.
“Oof.” She stumbled backwards, but Tourey grabbed up her arms.
“Easy now, lass,” he said, rain dripping off his grin.
“Get yer hands off me,” Lally said.
Tourey laughed. “You like me hands on ye, and you know it.”
“I’m warnin’ you.” Her eyes flashed in the lightening. Her hair spun in a red tornado.
Picard had seen enough. “Tourey!” he shouted from the kitchen door.
When the big man turned, Lally slipped an arm out of his grip, grabbed at her boot and pulled a knife.
“No!” Picard cried, leaping from the doorway and running into the walk-through.
But Lally lunged, throwing her full weight on the knife and sending it deep into Tourey’s gut. He uttered a high-pitched grunt, like a washerwoman who had found goats stomping her clean sheets. Picard reached them as the huge man sagged, his hands wrapped around the bloody haft.
“She’s cut me,” he told Picard incredulously. Slumping against the shorter man, he let Picard lower him to the ground. “Look. She’s cut me, the bitch.”
Picard kept the man’s hands from pulling the knife back out. “Leave it!” He looked up at Lally. Blood and rain ran from her fingers. “Get help.”
“Let him die,” she said, though without much conviction.
A shout came from the kitchen doorway. St. Conna and Cabot ran out. St. Conna glanced quickly at Lally, then dropped into the mud to examine Tourey’s wound. Her worried eyes found Picard’s.
“Let’s get him inside,” she told him.
They each took an arm, and Cabot convinced Lally to help her with the legs. Tourey groaned as they lifted him, his hands holding fast to the knife handle. They squeezed through the kitchen door and laid the man dripping and muddy on the plank floor.
The noisome litter of children finally stilled. “Take the wee ones upstairs, Gaitlen,” St. Conna said calmly, pushing a stew pot off the open-flame stove and replacing it with a kettle of water. “Now.”
Wide-eyed, Gaitlen hustled the youngsters up a closed stairway in the back of the kitchen. Lally crumpled, her pale complexion drained of color. Cabot caught the swooning woman and maneuvered her to a short three-legged stool. She spoke quietly to her, gently bending the redhead over until her face rested in her soaked skirt. Crouching next to Tourey, Picard pulled open the bloody shirt. St. Conna tossed a pairing knife into the simmering water and joined him.
“We’ve got to see how bad,” she said, grimacing.
“Is there a doctor?”
“A hundred miles away. He only passes through twice a year.” She got up and rummaged through a wall of squat shelves, pulling down rags and jars. “I’ve seen me share of knife cuts and eyes slashed open by a broken bottle. I’m all he’s got, God help him.”
She turned wiping her face with a swipe of her sleeve. “Rachel, darlin’, bring Ander and his boys in here.”
As Cabot raced out the door, Lally groaned and began to weep. “He took me once, Krista. I couldn’t let him take me again. I’d a killed him or me-self first.”
“Aye,” St. Conna said. “You may have done just that.”
The musicians hurried into the kitchen, then froze when they saw Tourey writhing and blood-covered on the floor. St. Conna pressed clean rags around the haft as she ordered them.
“Ander, find Dayo. You other lads, come keep Kutter still. I’ve got to get in there and see what’s been hurt.” She jutted her chin at a lidded jar. “Soak a rag in that, Rachel, and hold it to his face. Be careful not to breathe any yourself.”
And so, with Picard, Cabot and the two terrified youths holding a groggy Kutter Tourey still, Krista St. Conna cut open the wound. She pried apart the severed abdominal muscles with her fingers and slowly eased out the knife. Tourey thrashed until Cabot got the sickly-sweet smelling rag to his face once more. St. Conna dabbed into the wound with more rags as he stilled.
“I don’t see any of his guts oozin’,” she said. “Bring that lamp closer.”
Soon, the door into the pub crashed open and a square-headed, burly man burst through. “Saints! Krista!”
“Stand a minute, Dayo. Aen, are ye out there?”
“Aye, Mother.” A soggy teen shoved past the knot in the doorway.
“Run up and fetch me sewin’ box. Quick now. Farleigh?”
“Drag that potato sack over and prop Kutter’s feet up on it.”
After another hour, Tourey lay unconscious, but alive on the wet kitchen floor, washed out with St. Conna’s best whiskey and sewn together with black darning thread. Dayo, the closest thing to a constable the village possessed, herded everyone else out of the pub and led Lally to the warm fire of the greatroom. He asked Picard to join them.
After they both told their stories, Lally’s halting and interrupted by weeping, Picard’s quiet and straight forward, Dayo shook his big, squarish head. “What were ye thinkin’, Lally, playin’ yer music here when you know Kutter’s a regular? And why in God’s name did ye go out back by yourself?”
Picard closed his eyes, willing his anger away. “Where else would she sing in this small village, Mr. St. Conna?” he asked quietly. “And who would ever think of taking a body guard to the privy?”
Picard stood, afraid he would say something too alien to this man if he stayed. He walked back into the kitchen to find St. Conna and Rachel washing bloody rags and moping the floor. Tourey lay asleep on a pallet of blankets by the warm stove.
“How goes it for her?” St. Conna asked, jutting her chin toward the door.
“Not well, I’m afraid.”
“Ach, poor lass. Well, what did she expect, paradin’ around in pubs like she did. If it hadn’t been Kutter that took her, it would’a been some other buck.”
“Krista, you don’t believe that,” Rachel said, eyes snapping. She stared hard at St. Conna, then added, “If you think she asked to be raped, then you must want the same thing. Seems to me you also ‘parade around’ in a pub.”
Picard looked down at his muddy shoes. “Rachel,” he warned.
Cabot set the mop against the wall, her face fighting for control. “It’s been a long day. I’m tired.” She turned stiffly to Picard. “Do I have permission to go to bed?”
He flinched inside.
“Fine.” She grabbed one of the lanterns and walked past him to the stairway.
St. Conna watched her with a curious, unreadable expression. “Room’s at the top,” she said softly.
Cabot’s mud-splashed skirts and stockings disappeared around the turn in the stairs. Picard sighed. Accepting alien values so far removed from his own never came easy for him. After all his years in space, he thought he could harden himself to them, attain a measure of detachment, at least. But, he knew how Rachel felt, because he felt exactly the same way.
“Good night, Mrs. St. Conna,” he said, heading for the stairs.
She reached out and stayed him with a soapy hand. “I’m sorry if I…”
Picard shook his head, trying a thin smile.
“Good night, then,” she said, her good face still perplexed. “Many thinks for yer help.”
He trudged up the short staircase. Down a low-hung hallway, he heard the excited chattering of children and a baby’s impatient cry. Above him, the storm raged only an arm’s span away, ripping at shingles over his head and sending them clattering into the dark. The glow of lamplight filled a doorway beside him.
The tiny room contained a narrow feather bed, a miniature night table big enough for the lamp, two clothing pegs on the wall, and a slit of a window. Rachel stood at the window, her straight back to the door. Jean-Luc ducked under a support beam and entered, closing the door behind him.
“Did I endanger the Prime Directive?” she asked.
“I don’t believe so.” He peeled off his cap, unbuttoned his jacket. “We’re still simply strangers with odd ways.”
“That’s good. I guess.” She continued to stare out the little window.
“Yes, we’re lucky.” He stood close behind her. “We could have done real harm.”
“Harm.” She spoke the word as if it were foreign to her. “I’ve always criticized the Federation for sticking its nose in where it didn’t belong… for doing harm. I never thought I’d get that righteous… or that dangerous.”
Jean-Luc’s hands twitched at his side. “It’s a valuable lesson to learn about oneself. You can’t guard against righteousness unless you’ve experienced it.”
Rachel crossed her arms tightly across her chest and shivered, staring out into the wild night.
The next morning, Cabot watched her feet as she stepped around the lakes and rivers in the village road. On either side of her, farmsteads recovered from the night’s storm. Men sawed on downed trees, women gathered scattered buckets and livestock, children scampered through flattened chicken coops. The air was bright with swearing and resigned laughter.
Warm morning sun soaked through Cabot’s wool jacket. It was the first time she’d felt truly warm in nearly a day. She paused outside a tired, rough-hewn fence and gazed at the weathered shack within it. No flowers dotted the tiny yard, just a goat straddling a lump of soggy rubbish. A litter of black and white kittens leaped at each other in the knee-high weeds.
The gate screeched when she pushed it open and slammed shut behind her. Avoiding the narrow mud-path to the stoop, she walked through the tall grass. Grasshoppers and black toads scurried out of her way. At her knock, the door opened a crack.
“Good mornin’, Missus,” Ander the musician said.
Cabot smiled, surprised to find the young man here. “Good morning. I came to see Lally.”
Ander stepped back as the redhead edged into sight. Dark smears circled her puffy eyes. She seemed to have aged years overnight. Cabot managed to maintain her smile.
“We’re leaving.” She gestured back up the road at the pub where Jean-Luc waited for her. “I wanted to say good-bye.”
“Thank you for the kindness,” Lally said, lowering her eyes.
“Are you…” Rachel reached out to touch her, but stopped. “Are you all right?”
The woman took a deep breath and let it out in a long, shaky sigh. “Aye. We’ll be moving off to Nary County by week’s end. Ander’s Gram needs help on her sheep station, and he’s decided we should go. He’s asked me to be his wife.”
Rachel looked up at the young man and saw a new firmness there. “Far enough away for a new start?”
“Aye,” they said in unison.
Ander continued, “The station’s in the Wayback. No villages closer than a day’s ride. No pubs.”
“Well… ” Cabot let her eyes stray back to Lally, “… maybe someday, you’ll have an audience of your own children to sing to.”
Lally’s face went slack. “I’ll not sing again.”
“Singing is joy. Don’t let anything take your joy from you.” She reached into her hip pouch and held out the delicate windpipe an Enterprise replicator made for her eons ago. “Until you’re ready for your own joy again.”
Lally touched the smooth wood with her fingertips. “I couldn’t. It’s too fine.”
But, Cabot remained with her hand outstretched until Lally finally took the instrument. “God bless you, both,” she said matter of factly, turned and picked her way back to the gate.
“And to you, Missus,” Ander called back to her.
From under the pub’s lurid placard, Picard watched Cabot maneuver the cart path’s brimming ruts and slippery muck up the low rise to the pub. Krista St. Conna came out to stand with him, her fists on her hips, squinting into the morning sun.
“How’s Tourey this morning?” Picard asked.
“He’ll live,” she sniffed. “Dayo and me boys are packin’ him into the wagon to cart home.”
She jutted her chin in Cabot’s direction. “What’d she want with Lally?”
“Just an errand.”
When Cabot joined them, smiling and shaking her head at how trudging through the mud had made her short of breath, St. Conna laughed grandly. “Nasty underfoot, glorious overhead,” she recited. “Grace after the storm.”
She pulled from her apron an oblong package wrapped in a dishtowel and string. “Set this in yer bag.”
“What is it?” Cabot unfastened her pouch and nestled the gift inside. It made a slosh-glug sound.
“Never mind for now.” The barkeeper stepped back from them. “Good journeying. Luck at the markets.”
“Thank you,” Cabot returned, but St. Conna had already shut the door behind her.
The walk between the village and the Federation cottage took twice as long on the return trip. The storm turned the steep, switchback trail into a mud-slick, sending both Picard and Cabot to their hands and knees more than once during the long day. They spoke only to point out a treacherous spanse or a solid handhold. Tired, hungry and mud-caked, they reached the summit as morning drifted into afternoon. As they trudged to the cottage, the necessary silence of the hard morning deepened and stretched out between them.
In silence, they peeled off stiff and sodden clothes, bathed, dressed, and ate a light lunch of soup and hard bread. Cabot curled herself into the love seat and fell immediately asleep. Her soft, even breathing whispered in the thick quiet. Picard cleared the dishes, listening, then brought a quilt from the bedroom. Spreading it over her, he looked down at the worried frown that had followed her even into sleep. His jaws tensed and relaxed, then tensed again. Eventually, he returned to the bedroom and fell into his own troubled sleep.
In the darkness of early morning, Rachel woke. She built a fire and sat staring at it, cocooned in the quilt. Something moved at the edge of her vision.
“The Enterprise comes back today,” she said, watching bark on a log sputter into green and yellow flames.
“Yes.” Jean-Luc stepped from the bedroom doorway.
“We have some things to talk about.”
“Yes.” He stood next to the mouth of the fireplace, watching the action of the flames. They wavered over his features in gold and crimson.
“Right. I guess I’ll go first.” Cabot took a sharp breath. “I don’t want to leave the Enterprise. I’ve worked hard for my posting, and no matter what happens… happened here, I deserve to keep it. Since you aren’t my direct superior and don’t usually tour the Sciences Division, we could serve for years on the Enterprise and never have to speak to each other again. Are you going to request my transfer?”
Jean-Luc continued to gaze into the fire. “No.”
Rachel closed her eyes briefly. “Thank you.”
Silence pressed in around the fringes of firelight. Jean-Luc felt transfixed by the hissing tumble of logs and slow curls of smoke. “We seem to have covered everything.”
“I think so.” Rachel’s voice took on a gentler tone, its firm control gone. “No regrets.”
Jean-Luc frowned, his angular features becoming all hard planes and sharp edges. A muffled voice deep inside him screamed, jabbered, hissed, but the pounding of his heart swept the words away. Still, he couldn’t take his eyes from the fire. “No regrets,” he answered.
“I think you need a vacation from your vacation.”
Cabot jumped at the voice behind her, nearly falling off her work stool. Doctor Yanzanni uncrossed her arms and tapped the display screen on Rachel’s computer. “We finished with these tables a half hour ago.”
“Sorry,” Cabot mumbled, quickly bringing her console up to date.
Yanzanni watched her. “You met someone,” she said decidedly.
Cabot turned, ready to deny it, but instead said nothing .
“Ah.” The geology chief nodded. “The scourge of shore leave. Give it a few days. Here.”
She set a sample case on the counter with a heavy thunk. Cabot recognized the beat-up container. It housed the hundreds of specimens they had collected last month on Bandara VI.
Yanzanni patted her shoulder then returned to her lab. “Categorizing those ought to be mindless enough work.”
Cabot opened the case and fit the first sample into her analyzer. This distraction had to stop. She had work to do. For three days she had kept a tight rein on her concentration, because if she didn’t images of Gileád pushed everything else out of her mind. The salty flavor of the air. The distant rush of the ocean. The way the veins stood out on Jean-Luc’s arms when he planted them on either side of her. His sharp, spice smell…
Shit! She opened her eyes to find the telltale on her console screen signaling a memo in her personal message board. Thankful for any distraction, she called up the message.
Further discussion warranted. Meet me 19:00. My quarters. JLP
A sickening quiver rippled through Cabot’s stomach. She keyed in a quick reply.
19:00—MY quarters. RC
In a few moments, an answering message formed.
The chime on Rachel’s door sounded at precisely 19:00 hours. She stood up, sat down, stood up again. “Come.”
Jean-Luc looked like he had just taken a deep, bracing breath—his chest inflated, his nostrils flared—as he stepped across the threshold. The doors shushed behind him. They stared at each other.
“I made some tea,” Rachel said, moving hesitantly to the food slot. “Please, sit down.”
Jean-Luc left the shelter of the doorway and took a few steps into the room. “You needn’t have…”
Rachel turned with the tea tray. She gripped the edges with white fingers. “Please,” she whispered, “sit down.”
He nodded slightly and found the divan in her common room. She set the tray on the transparent coffee table and sat on the edge of the chair opposite him. “I think you’ll have to pour,” she said, squeezing her hands flat between her knees.
He lifted the plain pot and sloshed tea into the cups. Without preamble he said, “I find it impossible to pretend you’re not on this ship.”
She took the offered cup in two hands, but the china still rattled. “I was afraid of that.”
“Were you?” It sounded more like an accusation than a question. His sharp eyes drilled her. “You seemed to have every contingency thought through.”
She held the warm cup in her hands, letting the pungent steam rise into her face. “I thought we could be professional about this. Carry on. Put it behind us. That sort of thing. But, there was always a chance we couldn’t.”
“You didn’t mention any chance in your argument on Gileád. In fact, your speech that night was quite polished. I don’t suppose you wanted to interject any doubts.”
She sipped the tea.
“You didn’t leave room for doubt at all or any other options, for that matter.”
“I just wanted to make it easy.”
Jean-Luc leaned forward. “Make what easy?”
Rachel grimaced. “Coming back to the Enterprise. Leaving the words we said… the way we felt… on Gileád. Not… being together.”
Jean-Luc’s jaws clenched as he looked into his cup. “You made a very large, very erroneous assumption. You thought that’s what I wanted.”
“I don’t know!” His cup and saucer clattered onto the table as he stood and stalked to the end of the room. “I don’t know. You made up my mind for me on Gileád, and you’re doing it again. Stop it, Rachel.”
“Yes, sir,” she said softly.
“Maird!” He lunged at her, gripped her upper arms and hauled her to her feet. “Why are you doing this? Why are you deliberately pushing me away?”
Tears ran down Rachel’s cheeks. Her voice broke in hopeless sobs. “Because… because it’s easier than watching you put on your ‘Captain’s Face’ and shut me out of your life. It’s easier than thinking of Gileád as a beginning. It’s easier than hoping.”
“Rachel…” Jean-Luc folded her into his arms where she sobbed against his neck. He rocked her gently, just as he had done in sick bay months ago. “What have we done?” he muttered, squeezing his eyes shut. “What have we done?”
“I know you,” she said, crying, “because I’ve known Will for so long. You both cling to the same narrow viewpoint—the Hero stands alone. I knew that about you, but I still couldn’t keep myself from loving you.”
“Nor I you.” His throat tightened, squeezing his rich voice. He held her close to him, felt her arms circling him. “I did not want this. My life has a pattern and an order I work very hard to maintain. Then, you come and render the pattern meaningless. Suddenly, my entire life becomes circumspect.”
He breathed in the rich floral scent of her hair, felt the softness of her cheek against his. The roundness of her body molded against him, hitching with her quiet sobs. He forced the words to continue, to spin out until they were done. All of them.
“Long ago, I determined love to be a luxury I could ill afford,” he said slowly. “But, you’ve redefined love. You’ve transformed it from a luxury to a matter of life and death. You have delivered a mortal wound, Rachel, and I cannot heal myself.”
“Don’t.” She pulled back, shaking her head, laying her fingers over his mouth. Tears coursed down her face.
He took her hand and laid it on his chest. “I thought Gileád would be a cure. It was not. I thought I could heal myself. I cannot. You are the cure, Rachel. You.”
As an unfamiliar tightness seared the back of his throat, the last of his control fell away. His mouth went to hers with all the questions they’d left unanswered. She pushed against him, her hands slipping off the shoulders of his uniform as she tried to keep him from this commitment. But, his mouth responded fiercely, refusing the futility, searching for possibilities.
She moaned, defeated, as she stopped her half-hearted struggle and fearfully answered his kiss. His defiance of his very nature broke her resolve. His urgency allowed her body no other recourse. She joined his search for possibilities.
When at last they pulled back, Rachel found a weary acceptance. She looked into his shining eyes, laid a hand against his hot cheek, and thought of Worf’s favorite saying.
It is a good day to die.
And she believed it. Because if they couldn’t find the possibilities they both desired, and she was forced to give him up again, then her heart would surely die. If that was her fate, she decided to go out as a warrior.
“What are we going to do?”
“I think…” His hands held the sides of her face, the balls of his thumbs wiping tear tracks from her cheeks. His eyes smiled, crinkling in the corners. “I think we will have to improvise.”
“I have something that might help.”
She went to her dressing table and touched a sensor along the side. A deep drawer slid out. Removing an oblong package, she turned back to him. “Krista St. Conna gave me this, remember?” She pulled off the loosened dishrag and held up the half-full bottle of whiskey.
“She said a touch of this could smooth the roughest times.” Rachel rounded the divan and dumped the cold tea back into the pot. The cork left the bottle with a fat pop. She poured a finger into each cup. “She said it could turn a problem skinside in for a better look.”
He joined her and thoughtfully took the cup she offered him. The china rang harmonically as he raised his to Rachel’s. “Here’s to a better look.”
“And to improvisation,” Rachel added.
◊ ◊ ◊