ST:TNG #5—Horace

This story takes place right after the last episode of the series.

◊ ◊ ◊

Jean Luc Picard, Patrick Stewart, Star Trek Next Generation, fiction“So, you were traveling back and forth through time?”  Forgotten, Rachel Cabot’s fork hovered in mid air.  A stabbed bit of lettuce wept dressing onto the Ten Forward table.  “And you saw all our futures?”

Jean Luc Picard hesitated only a moment.  “Yes.”

He rearranged the escargot in front of him, knowing the questions Rachel wanted to ask, knowing that in spite of all he understood about contaminating the present with knowledge of the future, he would answer her questions truthfully.  The personal trial Q forced upon him the night before was not really over.

He took a bracing breath and looked at her squarely, realizing as he did how long he had sat there avoiding her eyes.  They gazed at him with luminous curiosity and a quiet kindness that already forgave and understood any equivocations.  They were gentle eyes that swept his face like a kiss, eyes he had learned to seek out over the last few years, eyes he had not seen in Q’s version of his future.

“It was a future we must try to avoid, if we can,” he said quietly.  “Too many of our close friendships were… estranged.”

“Oh.”  She sat back, her fork soft-landing in its puddle of vinaigrette.

He watched her extrapolate a thousand different meanings from his vague reference, especially the one he intended.  Twenty-five years from now, they would not be a part of each other’s lives.  Her mobile face worked over the information, then returned its attention to him.  She smiled and frowned at the same time, an expression he’d come to recognize as her “Starfleet Face,” the physical result of an inner shoring up of resolve.

“Then, we’ll have to plan a different future, won’t we?”

Though they were fading, the memories of his future self still haunted Picard.  Frightened as he had been of the temporal rift and fuzzy-headed with the effects of Irimodic Syndrome, his first thoughts upon seeing Beverly on the Pasture had not been of their brief marriage, but of Rachel.  As an old man, he remembered how his hesitation and self-isolation had pushed Rachel away, how gray and drawn she had looked when she told him about her request for transfer off the Enterprise and his reaction of both despair and relief.  When he looked at Beverly in her captain’s uniform, his older self only remembered the anguish Rachel’s leaving caused him, and how, out of some desperate loneliness or need of family that Picard could not see clearly, he married the woman most available to him a few years later.  He persuaded Beverly into marriage, more to snap his fingers at his past, at the love he had let disappear, than out of romantic attachment.  Thankfully, they dissolved that marriage before their friendship had been completely ruined, but he had never allowed himself to love again.

Picard studied Rachel; the configuration of bone, skin and flesh that seemed at once familiar and alien, comfortable and disquieting.  What did she really mean to him; this woman who enjoyed baiting him by shamelessly misquoting Shakespeare? who goaded him into playing jazz on his flute? who posted cryptic comments to his personal message board that made him laugh out loud?  The future Q had revealed left Picard with too many questions and a nagging awareness of time creeping steadily past him.

Rachel squirmed against his scrutiny.  “I guess I’m not very hungry.”  She dabbed at the spill beside her plate, then tossed the napkin into her salad and pushed back from the table.  “I’ve got some model diagrams to go over… ”

A flare of alarm burst inside Picard’s chest.  “Wait.  I’ll walk with you.”

“No that’s all right.”  She stood and offered him a meager smile.  “You’ve got a lot on your mind.  Have you talked to Deanna?”

“Yes.  No.  A little.”  Deanna Troi had been dead in his future.  He had found it nearly impossible to talk to her about his experience without reliving some of his old man’s grief.

“Well,” Rachel pressed on, “I think she’s at the poker game tonight.”

“Poker game…” he repeated absently, his mind wandering as if it still bounced through time.  “You’re not going to the poker game?”

“No, I don’t much like poker.  I’ve never been able to bluff very well.”  Her hand closed on his briefly.  “Goodnight, Jean Luc.”

After she left, he sat staring at his cold snails in their skim of separating sauce.  He pushed them around the plate, a maudlin restlessness twining between his unanswered questions.  He arranged them into the shape of a playing card’s three of clubs, and then the deuce with a few snails left over.  He’d never joined the other senior officers in their poker game, though he’d often been invited.  He’d thought the format too informal, too intimate.  But these people were his friends and colleagues.  If he didn’t trust them, whom would he ever trust beyond the strict barriers he’d created for himself?  How would he ever turn the course of his life from the ending Q showed him of a lonely, sick old man filled with remorse and grief?

He set down his fork and, with a resolute tug on his uniform, went in search of a poker game.

She was a woman on a mission.

Rachel stood inside the ascending turbo-lift conscious of her attire: baggy, iridescent green Capri pants; a shapeless, colorless, thread-bare sweater; her saxophone’s cracked leather and chrome neck strap; tea-stained canvas shoes; and a swatch of orange gauze tied in a sloppy knot to hold her hair away from her face.  These clothes held magic like other clothes held the smell of smoke.  Anyone who played with her was used to the get-up.  Of course she didn’t have to wear these clothes.  They just felt right, and her horn seemed to agree.

However, this ensemble didn’t quite fit the dress code required on the Bridge.  She didn’t have time to change into anything more appropriate, not if she wanted to hold on to her resolve before common sense caught up with her.  If Data wanted to throw her out, that was his prerogative, but not before she finished what she set out to do.

She could already feel common sense creeping up behind her.  Who do you think you are, worrying about Jean Luc and checking on his whereabouts?  His mother?  His wife?  His girlfriend, fergodsakes?  And just how will he feel about this kind of meddling?

A little moan slipped out of her throat, and Rachel closed her eyes to better combat the nasty voice in her head.

A woman’s supposed to worry about the man she loves, she argued back.  It’s required.

Are you still holding onto that fantasy?  Even after he as much as said you have no future together?

That was over a month ago, and he’s been very sweet since then.  He does love me, you undermining hag, so kindly shut the hell up!

The doors snapped open and Rachel marshaled herself out the bridge’s forward lift.  Data opened his mouth when she nodded to him, but made no comment as she turned toward the closed ready room doors and punched the call button.  She imagined him snapping his mouth shut like a turtle, preferring instead to stick to the command chair and mind his own business.  The huge room seemed preternaturally quiet, even for Night Watch, and as the moment stretched Rachel became painfully conscious of the shiny seat of her pants and the tails of her scarf drifting in the circulating air currents.  At last a familiar, though distracted, voice called from within, and the doors opened.

The captain looked up from a jumble of report padds and squinted beyond the dim bowl of light around his desk into the darkened ready room.

“I thought so,” Rachel said quietly.  She stepped in enough to let the doors whisk shut.  “Computer, lights.”

When the lights came up enough for him to recognize her, Jean Luc’s lop-sided grin spread over his face.  “Hello.”

His foggy, distracted greeting carried no pretense, no protection of any kind.  Rachel saw clearly that he was tired and glad to see her.  The rush of affection his sleepy smile pulled from her banished the last natterings of her common sense.  She had been right to come up here.

Eyes swollen with too much reading lingered on her, trailing up and down her ratty old clothes.  Then, Jean Luc jerked himself upright.

“Good lord, what time is it?”

“Oh-one thirty.  How long have you been at it?”

“Oh, well…”  He took a deep breath and rearranged himself in his chair as if he’d done neither in days.  “I’ve been working most of the evening…”

“Have you been cooped up in here all this time?”

“Yes, I suppose I have.”  His smile evened out, the tired strain around his eyes relaxing.

“I know you’re worried about tomorrow, but you and Troi have been working on this material for days.  You need some rest.”

“And did you think you needed your magic clothes to pry me away?”

“I wasn’t sure what I needed.  This outfit, an incantation, Horace…  Now will you come quietly, or do I have to resort to extreme measures.”  She fingered the hook of her neck strap menacingly.

“Horace?”  Jean Luc leaned back in his chair.  “Oh, yes, your good luck charm.  What was that again?  A rag doll of some kind?”

“It’s no use changing the subject.  I’m determined to be a nuisance.  Will you at least take a break?”

“What did you have in mind?”

Rachel took a few more steps into the room, savoring the possibilities in his question.  She watched him watch her, and the slow metamorphosis of his expression from weary amusement to a heightened awareness.  Finally, one eyebrow rose.

“How about a walk in the arboretum?” she said.

“It’s Vaerén protocol that eludes me,” Jean Luc said quietly.  “If I can master that, the rest of the treaty negotiations will be relatively simple.”

Tiny walkway spotlights cast pale, semi-circles of light, enough to keep from tripping, but not enough to see the lush growth around them.  Couples sauntered in the intimate darkness, the murmur of their voices filtering through the leafy walls.

Rachel walked beside him, a monochrome ghost in the arboretum’s starlit darkness.  Her hand inside his squeezed gently—an acknowledgment, and also a reminder that he was to think on other things for a while.  He smiled in the dark.  She needed only to touch him so to bring him in line, the lightest of hands upon his rein.  He could remember no period of training, but somehow he had learned to read the set of her mouth, the language of her laughter.  She put his crude horsemanship to utter shame.

They walked in companionable silence for a long while.  The air smelled of loam and wet wood.  Its scrubbed, hyper-oxygenated flavor tingled the back of his throat.  Its movement through the plants stirred the close-cropped stubble on the back of his neck.  He dragged his consciousness away from the diplomatic puzzles that eluded him and drifted down into the rest of his body.  He was hungry.  His uniform itched from being worn for eighteen hours straight.  The muscles in his neck and shoulders needed a good stretching, and the tendons in his legs thanked him for taking this stroll.

He became aware of how small Rachel’s hand felt in his, how comfortable the curve of her arm.  He remembered when they had passed entire evenings in silence, tucked into the opposite ends of his long couch, each absorbed in their own book.  How natural it felt for him to get up for a cup of tea and bring one for her.  Or other times, like this one, when a mission weighed heavy on his mind, she would distract him with her magician’s slight of hand and, while he looked the other way, a solution would materialize.

He was beginning to wrap himself around her, much like her small hand wrapped around the meaty ball of his thumb, a matching of curve and hollow.  The temptation to let that metamorphosis continue was very strong, but another force, a much older force, drew him from it.  Composed of old habits, images of his proper course through life, the very essence of who he believed himself to be, the counter force pulled him toward the future Q had revealed to him weeks ago.  Jean Luc had already tried to break its power over him.  He had joined the senior staff poker game.  He attended Worf’s B’Nahl classes.  He had even asked Beverly to teach him to dance.  All these steps helped, but he knew they were not enough.  He could still feel time rushing up behind him with his fate between its teeth.  He was who he was.

“I must finish that report on Vaerén protocol.”

Jean Luc stopped and looked at Rachel, waiting for a reply.  Starlight gleamed off the glitter in her scarf.  The dim light cast her face in relief, one side a silvery crescent of cheek and jaw, the other shadow.  She studied him in silence, and for one uneasy moment he believed she had heard his thoughts.  Then, she let go his hand and kissed his cheek.

“That’s for luck.”  Kissing his other cheek, she said,  “And that’s for success.”

She leaned into him, her mouth finding his with a deliberate languor, her arms reaching up to gently draw him to her.  Jean Luc folded around her, aware at once of her taste, her scent and how all their curves fit together.

When they drew apart, he asked, “And what was that for?”

“That,” she said, “was for magic.”

On the second day of the Vaerén deliberations, Picard met Troi early to have a light breakfast and discuss the day’s tactical agenda.  Across the street from the Capital’s government center, a run-down cafe served flaky butter breads and an assortment of interesting teas.  He and Deanna walked the short distance from their guesthouse rooms, settled into a secluded table at the edge of the open-air court and unloaded their memo padds.  By the time the surly waiter brought their order, they had analyzed the previous day’s hostile parlays.  After two pots of tea, they had only begun to project all the possible directions those hostile beginnings might take.

Picard’s cup clattered into its saucer.  “We understand the political climate.  We are aware of all the motivations involved.  We’ve even muddled through their convoluted protocol.  And yet, I find no explanation for this level of hostility.  What are we missing?”

Troi sighed and shook her head.  “Perhaps it’s simply the initiation of formal relations between these two planets.  I sense their hostility is more fear-generated than aggressive.”

“Mmm.  That might be helpful.”

What he said and what he thought were two things entirely.  Jean Luc wasn’t sure what would be helpful at this point except pitching the original treaty outline and starting over.  He scrubbed his fingers across his brow in frustration.

“I have something for you,” Troi said.

He looked up to see her plop a lumpy rag next to his plate.

“I believe his name is Horace.”

Jean Luc picked it up and turned it over.  The small, lumpen figure fit in his hand, a tiny rag doll with no features except one black, bead eye and a tuft of purple frizz on the back of its head.

“Horace,” he said fondly.

“Commander Cabot gave him to me yesterday morning.”  Troi grinned at him, obviously delighted in her role as personal courier.  “She said I was to give him to you if the discussions started going badly, that he would bring you luck.”

“Rachel’s godfather made this for her when she was quite small.”  Jean Luc rubbed his thumb along the flour-smooth nubbin of a body made for a toddler’s hands.  “He is Ojibwa, a Northwood’s tribe in North America.  He told her Horace would make sure the good spirits always found her.”

“That’s lovely,” Troi smiled.  “And now she’s loaned him to you.”

“Yes.”  He returned the counselor’s smile.  “Just when we could use some luck.  Come on, then, Horace.”  He stood and tucked the doll under his waistband, into the slight blouse of his uniform where it was too tiny to be noticed.

“Instead of diverting and glossing over the ambassadors’ hostility, perhaps we should encourage it,” he mused, slipping his memo padds into their case.

Troi thought for a moment.  “Let the fears behind the hostility surface and then deal with each fear.  If it works, it would certainly create a better negotiating atmosphere.”

Jean Luc nodded.  “Think of it as diverting their attention from the main problem.  Then, when we get back to the actual treaty, they may come at it with a different perspective.”

“You sound very familiar with this particular tactic,” Troi said, gathering up her memo padds.

“Oh, yes.”  He felt the small lump under his uniform.  “Quite familiar.”

◊ ◊ ◊

An Epilogue

Crew members who met Captain Picard in the corridors couldn’t help but smile as they passed him.  They assumed his assignment on Vaerén must have been successful to put such a bounce in his step.  And when the Captain was happy, the ship was happy.

He marched along, suppressing the fool’s grin that threatened to steal his face, seeing in the delight around him that he wasn’t completely successful.  No matter.  In fact, propriety be damned.

He stopped outside Rachel’s door and rang the bell.  After a long wait, a wait that started to dampen his good humor, he touched the bell again.  He knew she was in her quarters—he had checked with the computer.  Again, he rang the bell.

Rachel heard a distant chime.  The sound teased her.  Peruvian flute?  Vulcan wind harp?  The music came again as she pondered its source.  Doorbell.

She struggled up from the last tatters of sleep, disoriented and thick-headed.  Slumped in the soft chair of her quarters, she still held one high-heeled shoe in her hand.  Its partner lay next to her clothes on the floor.

I fell asleep, she thought stupidly.  In my underwear.  As she rubbed her eyes, the memo padd with the music and dance routines she and Data rehearsed that night slid off her lap to join the shoe.  She stared at it.

“Started for the shower,” she mumbled, her hand trailing absently over her black camisole.  “Never made it.”

The door chime sounded again.  She sat up and groaned, feeling every sore muscle.

“Just a minute,” she called, struggling out of the chair.

I am not a dancer, she concluded, hobbling toward the door.  I don’t care what Data and Beverly say, this show will kill me.

She hit the door sensor, bent over like a wizened gnome.  “This better be good,” she growled.

When the doors opened, both their faces had decided to turn sour.  But, then a slow grin pulled Jean Luc’s expression in a very different direction as he took in Rachel’s state of undress.  Warming under his frank appreciation, she propped herself against the wall with one arm and tried to hold onto her irritation.  She couldn’t.  Feeling her cheeks burn, she grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him in, letting the doors snap shut.

“When did you get back?”

“Just now,” he said, gathering her into his arms.

His uncharacteristic display of affection left her scrambling.  Did he mean he’d come to her before checking in with the Bridge?  That couldn’t be right.  She tried to scrutinize his expression, but there was nothing hidden there.  He had never been more clear.

“The negotiations went well?”

“Thanks to you.  And Horace.”

She started to soften against him. “So my little magic trick worked.”

“Oh, yes.  Much better than you expected.”

He kissed her—a long, slow prelude that whispered of delights to come.  Rachel spun, part of her melting into him, part of her wondering just what the hell was going on.  If he was going to explore new territory, the least she could do was keep up.

“I was on my way to the shower,” she whispered.  “Come with me.”

The Cheshire grin spread again.

 ◊

Patrick Stewart, prayerfulRachel crawled across the rumpled sheets to Jean Luc.  He paused, about to bite into the aged Edam, and set it aside instead.  As she nestled into the bowl of his legs and slowly wrapped her legs around him, he gave up any thought of food.

The glow from their lovemaking lingered.  First in the shower, then in her bed, they had gamboled like teenagers, letting their passion lead them.  Picard had never felt so free.  And while they had paused to drink wine and pull a plate from the food slot, gravity seemed to have increased between them.  Where their bodies touched his skin hummed.

“Sing me the song.”  She spread her warm hands across his chest.

He knew exactly what she wanted.  One night, on a whim, he had sung his grandmother’s song to her when she came back from a mission exhausted and discouraged.  He meant to offer a distraction with his awful singing, but the song had an unexpected effect.

“Please,” she breathed, her eyes liquid and dreamy in the soft light.

He gazed at her expectant smile, the lips plump from his recent attention.  He could deny her nothing.

Ne me quitte pas,” he started, finding a comfortably deep starting place.  His voice felt loose and round.  Yes, he could do this.

Il faut oublier, Tout peut s’oublier, Qui s’enfuit deja—

Rachel inhaled as if taking in precious perfume.  Had she actually been tired earlier?  She felt incredibly alive with Jean Luc’s voice caressing her.  Of all the ways he made love to her, this was the most delicious.

Oublier le temps, Des malentendus, et le temps perdu, a savoir comment.”

He could  hear his grandmother singing the old lyrics in the back of his mind, but all he could see was Rachel. This woman he loved.  This miracle.

Oublier ces heures, Qui tuaient parfois, A coups de pourquoi, Le coeur de bonheur.”  His voice warmed now, the tune gathered strength.  His fingertips trailed down her arms to light on her hands.

Ne me quitte pas.  Ne me quitte pas.  Ne me quitte pas.  Ne me quitte pas.

Rachel drank in his face, the way singing opened it up and drew out such honesty.  His face changed when he sang, but he had already started that change before he walked through her door.  He looked like he’d been singing all day.

Moi je t’offrirai, Des perles de pluie.  Venues de pays, Où il ne pleut pas.

She didn’t know what had happened, but he would tell her in time.  He always shared good news with her, and this had to be good.  She could wait.

Je creuserai la terre, Jusqu’après ma mortPour couvrir ton corps, D’or et de lumière.”

Jean Luc watched her anticipate his delivery, her expression shifting as if she were singing with him.  He had not spoken French in a long while, but it rolled off his tongue with a sweet nostalgia.  Rachel’s body seemed to absorb it, delighting in the gutterals and rolling vowels.  She swayed with the lyrics, her body miming an erotic duet with him.   

“ Je ferai undomaine, Où l’amour sera roi, Où l’amour sera loi, Où tu seras reine.

She leaned even closer, feeling the puff of his breath as he shaped the words.  She smelled wine and the hint of Edam, his clean spice and an afterimage of her own perfume.  His fingertips added an electrical harmonic to the work of his voice, and she shivered.

Ne me quitte pas…

She mouthed the words with him.  “… Ne me quitte pas.  Ne me quitte pas.  Ne me quitte pas.

As he finished, she kissed him, moaning with desire.  Jean Luc lifted her and pressed her back into the sheets.  He would make love to her again and again, with his voice and with his body, for as long as he was able, for as long as she would allow.

Eventually, they lay together at peace.  Gentle waves rocked them to the edges of sleep.  Before slipping under, Jean Luc touched the new part of him that had given itself to love with complete abandon.  No reservations, no hesitation.  It was pure, and clear, and right.  He had defeated Q’s version of his future, he knew it.

His lips curled as he sank into sleep, held by his future and loving her.

 ◊ ◊ ◊

To learn more about Rachel Cabot’s genesis and her relationship with Picard, see my notes in Heaving Bosoms.

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