Beverly finished her sip of tea as she placed the cup back onto the glass tabletop. “This is delicious, what is it?”

Sitting across from her, the captain went along with her unsaid request to keep to the mundane. “It’s an herbal tea blend,” he replied, and his eyes flicked over to the replicator. “I came across it in the replicator files.”

The cup was warm in her hands, the heat of the liquid seeping into her fingers, but still they remained cold. Everything was cold lately. Absently, she nodded, but said nothing. Her comment had only been that—a comment.

The captain couldn’t allow the silence to continue between them, so even for the slightest lapse of sound, he had to compensate. “Have you met any of the new crewmembers we took on at Starbase Two Eighteen?”

His question reminded her of the new, fresh faced staff she’d watched board at the last starbase, it had only been a week ago. Only a week.Yet as she had learned time and time again, anything and everything could happen in the space of a single week. Beverly looked up from her hands and gave him another nod. “Yes. In fact, I have a new Nurse. His name’s Beck, he’s an obstetrics specialist.”

Obstetrics. I should have chosen that as my specialty, then I wouldn’t be here, in this situation.

The captain nodded, his fingers tapping lightly on the table. “I met the new head of Stellar Sciences last night. Lieutenant Commander Daren.”

She lifted an eyebrow at the man across from her, bringing up a specific crewmember wasn’t like him. And last night? What had he been doing out last night? Aloud, she said, “Yes, Nella Daren, I’ve met her as well. She was in sickbay for a physical last week. I liked her. Very forthright.” Forthrightness was a trait she admired in people, it kept people from bricking themselves into impossible situations.

For a moment, he looked as if he had something else to say, something more, but all he said was an agreement to her statement. “Very.”

Silence again.

She had to find something else to say and struck on a notice she’d gotten two weeks prior, one she hadn’t bothered to mention before because it wasn’t that important. “Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she said. “The Exogenics Journal accepted my paper for publication.”

The captain smiled at her. “That’s wonderful, Beverly.”

Her eyes drifted away from him and his smile, the one that didn’t warm his eyes. But, she continued to talk, to fill the quiet. “I’m hoping to get a response from other scientists studying ribosomal replication. There’s still no satisfying explanation for the genetic drift.”

His smile stayed in place. “That journal is widely read. You’ll probably be swamped with responses.”

As for herself, she didn’t have a response.

Again, he rushed to fill the quiet. “Did you know it’s possible now to predict the configuration of a star system that won’t be formed for another two million years?”

She found herself staring at him, even for their current emotional discomfort, that change in subject was a bit too random. “Really?” she asked, attempting to sound vaguely interested, and failing. “No, I didn’t.”

However, it seemed a subject that truly interested him and he perked up as he explained it to her. “It’s quite intriguing. It’s made possible by a rather complex mathematical construct based on fractal particle motion. And of course that’s just the foundation… the modeling itself requires gravimetric wave inputs.”

This time she didn’t even try for vague, instead she quite effectively communicated her disinterest. “I see.”

The captain squirmed. “Well, I’m sure it sounds dry. Stellar cartography isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…”

Beverly gave him a pat smile. “I’m sure it’s fascinating, Jack,” she said, then stood up to leave their quarters. She needed to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. A place where she didn’t have to keep noticing the new pip on Jack’s collar, each time she caught the glint of its gold reminding her of why he now had it. “Well, we’d better get going, we don’t want to be late.” As if they had been waiting for that particular signal, her two younger sons bolted from their bedroom and out the front door. She supposed they were as eager to escape the stifling cabin as she was. Wes had more luck on his side than Paul and Alex, he was already away, finishing his last year at the Academy. “You need to take them to school,” she said to Jack. And with that, she headed for the door, her escape nearly made.

“Beverly.”

The desperation in his voice caused her to turn around. “What?”

He scratched behind his neck, one of his quirks he expressed when he was nervous. “No matter how much you think about it, it won’t ever make sense.”

Not to you, it won’t. “I know,” she said aloud.

“And yet in a way, it does make sense. I mean, he died being himself, so stubborn and morally indignant that he wouldn’t break the prime directive to save his own life.”

“Someone else could have,” she whispered.

“I’m not having this argument again. He wouldn’t have wanted me to.”

“I’d rather he have been angry at you or all of us over him being dead. All you had to do was beam him out. The site wasn’t protected against our transporters.”

“My hands were tied,” he said, but when he said it, his eyes were fixed on the floor.

“You didn’t have to watch it happen.”

He coughed and cleared his throat at the accusation. “Anyway, while we’re orbiting Earth, we’ll have time enough to slip away and see Wesley at the Academy.”

“That will be good,” she said. “I have to get to sickbay.” Then she slipped out the door.

The new Captain Crusher watched her go, making no effort to stop her. He knew his wife, he knew how she tended to be with conflicts that set human life against the tenets of the prime directive. And this time, the back lash of the directive’s power had taken a close friend from them.

And she was right, he hadn’t been one of the ones to watch him die. Instead, he’d been up here on the ship, manning a few shifts so that the captain could have some time for shore leave at the recommendation of the ship’s counselor. Jack wondered if he would have chosen differently if he’d been physically there on the planet, physically there when they executed him. Detachment became very difficult when death was shoved in your face.

It didn’t hit him until the rest of the crew had returned from their shore leave turned prime directive mission, faces drawn and missive, bearing the body of their captain. Only then did he realize he shouldn’t have respected his best friend’s morals, he shouldn’t have allowed himself to fall prey to the diplomatic pressure of the prime directive. Instead, he should have gone with his gut and beamed his best friend off the planet and stop him from being executed. But he realized it all too late, and felt all too responsible for Jean-Luc’s death.

And now all he had left to do was bring his friend’s body home.

***

“You shouldn’t remember him like this,” said Deanna Troi.

Her words barely registered with Beverly as she stared past her friend and into the examination room beyond, the one where Jean-Luc’s body was being stored until there had been an offical autopsy. It had nearly been twenty four hours since his death and it had yet to be done, so she had decided to do it herself. “It’s the least I can do,” she said. If I hadn’t been with him…

Deanna’s hand found its way to the doctor’s arm, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I know this is important to you, but I think someone else should do this autopsy. Someone who wasn’t as… close… to him.”

Beverly resisted a slight smile. Deanna knew, after all. She’d known for a long time, known practically since the ship’s first mission, though she had never acknowledged that fact aloud. Her fingers moved forward and triggered the door open. “I have to face the fact that he’s gone,” she said, brushing past the Betazoid and into the room.

The harsh, antiseptic smell nearly pushed her backwards. And always, always, as with every morgue, it held the lingering scent of death.

“I think you already faced that fact,” said Deanna.

Beverly turned her head a bit, she hadn’t expected Troi to follow, but there she stood. Offering… what? Support? Condolences? What did one say to a friend who had lost her lover, the lover who was not her husband? And then again, what could she say in thanks? “It was…” and she still searched for the right words, but none that would fit came to mind. “Good of you to come.”

“Someone has to be here for you.”

The doctor reached into her labcoat pocket and brought out the medical tricorder. She turned and faced the banks of drawers built to hold the dead bodies of fellow crew members or loved ones or hapless inhabitants of disaster stricken planets. All were empty now, save one. She actually wasn’t sure which drawer held Jean-Luc’s body, she would have to check the padd in her other pocket for that.

Her hands made no movement towards the padd. Behind her, behind Deanna, the door shut, sealing in the middle with an audible shushing. A few beeps told Beverly that Deanna had triggered the lock. She knew what it meant, that Deanna was giving her the privacy between them to say what needed to be said.

Of its own volition, her hand made a nearly imperceptible advance toward the padd. The rest of Beverly’s body remained still. “We never meant for it to happen,” she said.

“Does anyone?”

With her back turned to the counselor, her voice was practically disembodied, and Beverly was reminded of an old tradition of her mother’s people, a practice they called confession. Certainly, the story about to fall from her lips qualified as one, if the tradition was still used. She wasn’t sure when she’d made the decision to tell it, yet told it would become. “People do go looking for love,” she said.

“Did you?”

“No. I thought I had already found it. I loved Jack then and I love Jack now. And in the in between, I never stopped loving him.”

“But he wasn’t Jean-Luc.”

“He wasn’t. He was Jack. Jean-Luc was… he was…” Then the image was there in her mind, that first sight, that first meeting, that first day, that first week, that only week where it had only been the two of them. Her denial and her leap into stability and complacency. “I actually met Jean-Luc first, a week before I met Jack. But I wasn’t willing to work with fate, I worked against her instead.”

“When you fell in love in one day,” Deanna said, recalling a conversation she had shared once with Beverly during a morning exercise routine. “When you were with that man for a week, it was him, wasn’t it?”

“It was.”

“And you didn’t see it then?”

“People are remarkably adept at willfully blinding themselves to what fate has in store for them, even when fate throws it at you as hard as she can.”

“How did it end?”

It didn’t, in the end. “He left. I left. We both ran away from one another, from whatever it was that had formed between us. It was too strong for either of us and we thought we could outrun it. So we ran. Have you ever tried to outrun your shadow?”

There was a pause, Deanna’s slight intake of breath as she sought out her answer, her explanation of understanding. “Will and I very nearly did exactly that,” she finally said. “He’d already beamed to the Potemkin when he turned around and beamed back. I imagine that if he hadn’t, he would be a first officer somewhere, maybe even a captain, and we wouldn’t be together at all. I think… I think that everyone tries at least once in their life to run away from love, but it always holds onto you in the end.”

“Fate is even a more dogged follower,” Beverly replied, and her hand inched closer to the padd. “We parted ways and hoped two things—that we would never meet again and that we would meet again. Then I met Jack and it took us months to figure things out. He was certain he was in love, I was never certain because I couldn’t sort out what I felt for Jean-Luc. Had it been love or merely infatuation? I went with infatuation and when Jack proposed, I accepted. After all, I did love him, loved him more than Jean-Luc, because that had only been infatuation.” She took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled, calming her rapidly beating heart, her mind splashing images across her eyes of that second meeting. “And I was wrong. It was love, the entire time.”

*

“Beverly, this is my commanding officer, Jean-Luc Picard,” Jack said, a grin plastered on his face at finally managing to get the two most important people in his life together in the same room.

“A pleasure, Captain,” Beverly said, offering her hand.

Picard took it, his grip firm, his hand warm, feeling the same as she remembered in her dreams. “Likewise, Doctor,” he replied. His voice was a smooth, flowing warmth along her skin, throughout her body, just as she remembered.

*

“I thought it would be okay, that the infatuation had passed. I thought that up until the moment I looked into his eyes again, and I saw my mistake, our mistake, in all its raw emotion.”

*

“Come on, you two! Don’t be so damn formal,” said Jack, clapping Jean-Luc on the back, placing a hand on Beverly’s shoulder. “You’re my two best friends. You can’t be ‘captain’ and ‘doctor’ to one another. It has to be Jean-Luc and Beverly.”

“Yes, I’m sorry, Jack,” said Picard, who then shifted his eyes from his best friend and first officer to the woman with whom he’d once had the most intense relationship of his entire life. “Beverly.”

Her name rolling off his lips like that brought her eyes to his and everything stopped—her breathing faltered, all sounds faded away to nothingness, her heart stopped beating. How she ever could have thought it feasible to fool herself into thinking what she felt for this man, with this man could only be infatuation, she would never know. His deep gray eyes held everything for her, held a part of herself within them. “Jean-Luc,” she replied. How long had it been since she’d whispered his name? Called his name? Cried out his name? Too long. And she never would again, she had made that decision when she agreed to marry Jack.

*

“We muddled through it all, and realized quite quickly that it was easy when Jack and Jean-Luc were both out on the Stargazer and I was somewhere else, anywhere else. A year after Jack and I married, we had Wesley. We both wanted a family and I also wanted…” What had I wanted?

“You wanted a visible connection to Jack. You thought that having a child with him would bind the two of you more strongly, perhaps a bond stronger than the one you shared with Jean-Luc,” said Deanna.

“Yes, that’s it exactly. And it worked, for a time. I faltered when Jean-Luc came to see me and Wesley, right after he’d been born. When he held my son, I saw it in his eyes, that he knew that if he hadn’t run, if the two of us hadn’t run from one another, the boy he held would have been his, and not his best friend’s. When he handed Wesley back to me, his mouth told me ‘congratulations’ but his eyes told me ‘I’m sorry.’ Thankfully, he went right back to the ship, as did Jack, and back out into deep space. We had nearly four years like that, then Jack had a close call, he very nearly died.”

*

The message notification chirp caught her attention as she was finishing up some charts. Wesley had fallen asleep next to her on the sofa hours ago, and by all rights, she should have been asleep as well. But something had kept her awake, something hadn’t allowed her to drift off, and she’d busied herself with the extra charts, figuring she might as well catch up on work. A frown marring her face, Beverly strode carefully over to the communications bank and turned it on. The screen immediately notified her that the message was real-time, not just a subspace packet.

“Hey, babe,” Jack said as soon as he saw her.

“What’s going on?” she asked, her chest constricting impossibly tight, so tight she should have gone into cardiac arrest.

“We had a close call today. Jean-Luc thought it would be good for me to see your face and hear your voice and talk to you in real-time, so he allocated three of the real-time packets to me. I’ve never seen him that rattled, Bev. Then again, I’ve never been that rattled.”

“Jack, what happened?” They were both alive. Both the men she loved were still alive and safe and well.

Jack quickly outlined the incident with the warp nacelle, how Pug had nearly frozen up and had even turned to go back inside the ship, then at the last minute, had come to his senses and helped him phaser through the rest of the nacelle truss. He and Pug had barely gotten away from the nacelle when it blew, knocking them both straight into the hull, and rendering them unconscious in the process. Jean-Luc had gone out on EVA himself to retrieve them and later, sitting in sickbay, thanking their lucky stars to be alive, Pug had said aloud that if he hadn’t turned back, if he had gone through with bolting for the ship, Jack would have died. Jack would still have been cutting away at the nacelle truss, too far away for Jean-Luc to grab him and drag him inside. “But we’re all okay,” he finished. “It was just a close call. I feel even more alive now, seeing you.”

Behind her on the sofa, Wesley stirred in his sleep and then was awake and sitting up. “Mom?” he said. “Is that a message from Dad?”

“No, it is your dad, buddy. I’m on real-time, not just another subspace message.”

The almost five year old jumped off the couch and ran over to stand in front of the screen. “Dad!” he shouted.

Beverly stooped over and picked him up, her son’s little body warm in her arms, reassuring her that he was alive, too. That even if something happened to Jack, she would always have a part of him with her, something she would never have if something happened to Jean-Luc. “Just because your father’s on a starship millions of light years away doesn’t mean you have to shout, young man,” she said to her son.

He gave her a lopsided grin much like his father’s. “Sorry,” he said. “Dad, when are you coming home? I’m playing on a baseball team now, all because you taught me how to play. You should come watch a game.”

“We’re heading home right now, actually,” Jack replied. “We’ll be there in less than a week, so I can definitely watch a game of yours. More than one game. We’ll be in drydock for a month undergoing repairs.”

Wesley turned to his mother. “Mom! Did you hear that? Dad’s coming home!” He threw his little arms around her and squeezed tight.

“I heard that,” she said, and kissed his forehead before turning to her grinning husband on the screen. “It’s true? You’re coming home, then?”

“Yeah. I mean, we have to replace the nacelle. We’re being brought back by one of the heavy-warp tugs. I had no idea they designed ships to extend a warp field around another ship for cases like this.”

“It sounds like a perfectly obvious idea to me,” said Wesley.

“You know way too much for your age, my boy,” said Jack, looking at his son, then back at Beverly. “Maybe he needs a younger brother or sister to teach so he won’t keep talking down to his elders.”

Beverly smiled back at him. “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” she replied.

*

“It worked out well for us, all three of us, really, Jack, Jean-Luc, and me. Because we were trying for another child, I had that to focus on, so I was able to ignore the… thing… between myself and Jean-Luc. At that point, neither of us had given in, both of us had remained true to Jack. Soon enough, the ship was fixed and they were back out to space. Nine months later, Paul made his appearance. This time, it was only Jack who took shore leave and came to see us, Jean-Luc was too busy with ship’s business to take that much time away, even though Jack insisted that others could have picked up the slack. But, that wasn’t Jean-Luc. He wasn’t going to let others pick up work that he should have done himself. So he stayed on the ship, I stayed on Earth with my sons, and Jack went back to the ship.”

A sigh escaped her lips, remembering the ease of that time, her focus on her new child, her new permanent connection to Jack, and on her oldest son, now happily playing the role of older brother. Then she continued, “Another year passed like that, we nearly slipped into a comfortable routine, nearly forgetting the danger of our bond. Jean-Luc never visited me unless Jack was with him, and I never once stepped foot on the Stargazer. Then…”

“Maxia Zeta.”

Beverly’s fingers wrapped around the slick plastic casing of the padd. “Maxia Zeta,” she repeated.

*

Rain. The storms outside had given way to plain, pattering rain in the cool San Francisco night. Once the thunder had passed, the boys had finally seen fit to go to bed and stay there. Beverly stayed up, restless, agitated, pacing the length of the living room floor, only pausing to stare out the bay window each time she passed it. The air inside became stifling and she cracked open one of the windows, the smell of rain wafting through the opening, a smell of life and hope. Even that didn’t calm her and she went back to pacing. Stacks of padds lay spread out on the dining table, charts shuffled through numerous times, yet none of them completed. She couldn’t concentrate.

From the communications bank, a chirp notified her of a message. A strange sense of deja vu crept over her and as she walked over and turned the screen on. But this time, it wasn’t a real-time message, only subspace. Jack’s face appeared on the screen, a face empty of good humor, instead filled with stress and worry. “Beverly, there’s been an accident. We… we lost the Stargazer. Obviously, I’m alive. Lucky for us, we didn’t lose very many people, only three casualties.”

No, he couldn’t be. He couldn’t be sending her a message to tell her that Jean-Luc was dead, killed in action, gone. And she had nothing left of him to her, nothing left as a tangible reminder of his existence, of their love.

Then Jack said, “Jean-Luc is alive, too, at least I think he is. I mean, physically, he’s fine. It was touch and go for awhile, he insisted on returning to get one last crewman. But mentally… I’m worried about him, Bev. He isn’t himself. I think losing the ship has hit him too hard, almost like he’s lost himself and not just a vessel. They, Starfleet Command, relieved him of duty and put him on a transport to Earth for the court-martial.”

He paused and a scowl passed over his face. “And I can’t help him. They assigned me to stay here at Starbase 32 and manage the crew reassignments, the paperwork, the clean ups… everything Jean-Luc would have had to do if they hadn’t relieved him. There are so many different reports that have to be sent, so many different admirals wanting to know this and that, that I couldn’t even get a minute of real-time to tell you any of this. Anyway, I love you, and I’m alive. Jean-Luc should be arriving tomorrow sometime, try to find out when. If you can, meet him at the transport center. See if you can help him, since I can’t from this far away. He needs somebody, Bev. I’d like to think that he’s as much your friend as mine, and you’re such a great help to me, that I think you could help him. Maybe even better than I could.”

Jack sighed and scratched the back of his neck. “I’m out of time on this damn packet, too. Give my love to the boys, I love you, and I hope I’ll see you sooner rather than later. Bye.”

The screen went black.

Her heart felt impossibly strangled. Slowly, ever slowly, her fear leaked away, releasing its hold on her heart, and it began to beat again. It had happened before, this situation, where she found herself restless and unable to sleep. She realized that she shared a connection with both men, that fate bound her to them both, and she was connected to them, even across light-years of distance. But this time, she had nearly lost Jean-Luc, lost him entirely.

For an instant, she contemplated not meeting him, not facing him. But that instant was quickly pushed out of existence by her overwhelming need to see him, to assure herself that he was alive. Despite the danger that awaited the both of them, ground they had assiduously avoided for nearly seven years, she would meet him. She would go to him even though Jack wouldn’t be there, even though Jack would be so incredibly far away, even though it would only be the two of them, like it was for that one week, just Beverly and Jean-Luc.

Her brain did the work for her, automatically waking her early the next morning, contacting Jack’s parents, who eagerly agreed to take the boys for a time. They arrived within hours and Wesley and Paul left happily, eager to spend a few days with their grandparents, getting away with things they’d never get away with at home.

Then she found herself standing against a wall inside the transport center’s main atrium, waiting for Jean-Luc to come home, having no idea how she had gotten there, no idea what she had spent her time between the boys leaving and her arrival at the center. Her contemplation stopped, came to a screeching halt when she caught sight of him, his measured strides carrying him off one of the public transporter pads and into the crowd. His face was drawn and haggard, his eyes illuminating a beaten soul, his shoulders weighed down by the recent events in his life.

And she went to him. No words passed between them as she took his hand in hers and led him out of the center. Led him to her home, to her arms, to her bed, to her heart.

*

“We couldn’t fight it, Deanna. The near loss had beaten the will fight out of us, all we wanted was the solace of one another. For a week, we forgot about Jack, we forgot about all our other obligations as he blindly suffered through his court-martial, as I blindly comforted him when he returned from the incessant, relentless questioning of his abilities at command. My sons came home from being with their grandparents and things slowed. Jean-Luc still visited the house, he even allowed himself to play with the boys, to let down his guard and be a normal human being. The boys reminded him of Jack, of his best friend left clearing out the mess made by the loss of the ship, and slowly, we managed to separate ourselves. But the pull… the pull to each other never became entirely possible to resist, not when we were on the same planet. We had to put distance between us, as much distance as possible.”

When Beverly stopped speaking, she found that her hand had removed the padd from her pocket, and her other hand had replaced the tricorder to its own pocket, readying to enter the commands to access the file.

“First, there was the good news, and inevitably, it was followed by the bad news. It hurt, it hurt more than I imagined, more than either of us imagined. ”

*

The inquiry board rendered its verdict in the early morning hours. Captain Jean-Luc Picard was cleared of any wrong-doing in the loss of the USS Stargazer. In fact, he was to be rewarded the Grankite Order of Tactics ‘in recognition of his development of the Picard Maneuver during the Battle of Maxia.’ The exoneration made him happy, the award caused his dismay. He saw no reason for him to be given an award when he had lost a ship, but Command insisted that his actions had been responsible for the minimal amount of lives lost. He countered them with one statement. “You mean Starfleet lives.”

Command had no response for that, but gave him the award anyway. They also would commend him with a teaching position at the Academy, one often given to recipients of the Grankite Order of Tactics. He would be staying on Earth for some time.

Beverly slipped out the doors before the rest of the crowd clamoring to commend the captain on his award. She found a communications terminal and transmitted the good news in a short message to Jack, as well as her agreement to his most recent proposal, she had to do it right away, before she lost her determination on the matter. Then she quickly left the main Command building and returned home to finish packing.

An hour hadn’t passed before he was standing on her doorstep. “I’ve been cleared,” he said as she stepped aside to allow him into the house.

“I know,” she replied. “I was there.”

His brow furrowed and he made no effort to hide how puzzled he was. “I didn’t see you.”

“I know that, too. I was at the back, behind some rather tall Andorians.” She smiled at him, feeling only a shadow of the happiness she should have felt at seeing his career restored. “Congratulations.”

Her words brushed by his ears, they were meaningless to what she said with her eyes. His hand reached out and caressed her cheek. “Beverly?”

“I’m leaving tomorrow for Starbase 32. We’re joining Jack, they’re assigning him to the station for at least two more years. They liked his work and the station’s commander demanded him as an exec.”

The captain nodded. “Good… good for Jack. It will be good for his career.”

“They’ve also extended an offer to me of a position in their hospital.”

Another nod. “That will be good for your career as well, it’s a premiere facility.” His words were hollow. They were entirely true, for both Beverly and Jack, their careers would advance quite well from their assignments on the starbase. But Picard had picked up on the real reason on why Beverly had chosen to accept the assignment. Jack hadn’t been given a choice, but she had, she could have stayed in her research position at the medical school.

Then again, she couldn’t have. Not with Jean-Luc teaching so close by at Starfleet’s Command School, one of the post-graduate options after graduation from the Academy.

She was running away and he knew it. He also had to accept it, because it had to happen. “I’m sorry,” she said, instinctually responding to the sadness in his eyes.

“No,” he said. “Don’t be. It’s the right thing to do, for all of us. We… this… us… it shouldn’t have happened. I’m the one who should be sorry.” His eyes closed as guilt settled over him.

The time, she was the one who reached out, making him open his eyes, making him look at her. “It takes two, Jean-Luc. The fault is with the both of us, and neither one of us more at fault than the other.” Her hand went to the back of his neck, pulling him towards her and he gave no resistance. She kissed him then, pouring everything she had into the kiss, feeling the shiver of their connection, knowing it would be the last time they would, they could, be together.

The next day, he showed up to see them off, the boys each giving their uncle a hug, then he shyly gave Beverly a hug. With the boys there, it was nothing more than a goodbye hug between friends. As lovers, they had already said those goodbyes.

“I love you,” he whispered into her ear before stepping away.

He’d broken a rule. Only before Jack had they told one another of their love, at least verbally. Now that she was married to Jack, their love couldn’t be spoken aloud, because it made their actions even more wrong in some way. Her vision blurred with tears she blinked away and willed them not to fall. Once she was able to see clearly, he was gone. He, also, had run away.

*

“You were stationed on Starbase 32 for quite some time, weren’t you?” Deanna asked.

Beverly nodded. “For nine years. Jack remained the exec for two years, then accepted an assignment as first officer on the Potemkin and then moved on to become the first officer on the Hood. I stayed on the starbase, moving up through the ranks in the hospital as other doctors moved on, eventually I became the chief medical officer there. We… we kept in touch with Jean-Luc, but we rarely saw him, as eventually he was assigned another ship to command, and between my schedule, Jack’s schedule, and his, the three of us meeting wasn’t possible. We actually only saw him once during those nine years.”

The doctor tapped a couple keys on the padd and it displayed the location of Jean-Luc’s body. Drawer 32. How appropriate. Though she had the knowledge of his location, her feet made no movement to bring her over there. Instead, her hand replaced the padd in her pocket.

“Wasn’t Alex born on Starbase 32?”

“Yes, he was.”

The silence that followed asked the question Beverly knew Deanna wanted to ask. So she answered it as if her friend had asked anyway. “Yes, Alex is Jean-Luc’s son.”

“I didn’t—”

Beverly interrupted her. “No apologies are necessary. I could say that it was a mistake of mine, but it wasn’t. At first, I thought it had been, that I had been careless. Later, when I felt Alex’s first kicks, I realized that my subconscious had done it on purpose. I had wanted a child with Jean-Luc. I wanted his child, as much as I had wanted Jack’s children.”

“Because if something happened to him, you would still have a part of him. Like you had with Jack.”

“Yes. And I was lucky in two ways. One, that I did conceive, and two, that my youngest son looked like he could be a combination of mine and Jack’s genes as much as he looked a combination of mine and Jean-Luc’s genes. So very lucky, or there would have been explaining to do, explaining that I never wanted to do.”

*

Jack had brought the two older boys in to see their brother and to visit their mother before they were discharged. Wesley, as the oldest, acted nonchalant about it, but the excitement in his eyes told otherwise. Paul, not even two, really had no idea what the fuss was about over this very small human. Wes pushed a chair next to the bed and stood on it to see his mother and new brother, while Jack stood behind him, holding their toddler and grinning. “Looks like Paul’s going to be the odd one out of the bunch,” he said. “Though our little Alex has more red in his hair than Wes.”

She returned her husband’s smile. “That’s because poor Wesley is all you.”

“I am not,” said Wes. “I’m myself, not Dad. And Paul won’t stick out, he’s got eyes the same color as mine. Dark green, like Dad’s. Alex will stick out, cause he’s got blue eyes like you, Mom.”

“Your father is talking about hair color,” she said.

“Oh. That.” He glanced at each of his younger brothers in turn. “Yeah. He’s right.”

“It had to happen sometime,” said Jack. “The nurse said that the chief medical officer was thinking about releasing you this afternoon. But she also said that the chief medical officer thought you should take more time off and might not release you, just so she can make you rest.”

“I don’t care what Liz says about my official medical release status. I’m not staying in this hospital one minute after than fifteen hundred hours. And you can quote me on that, too.”

The private room’s door opened to admit another visitor. When Beverly saw who it was, she covered nervousness by fixing a glare on Jack. “You didn’t tell me you invited him,” she said.

Jack gave her another of his grins. “If I had, it wouldn’t have been a surprise,” he replied, then looked at their guest. “I’m glad you could make it.”

“As am I,” said Picard. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen you.”

“Almost a year, in fact. We shouldn’t allow that to happen, we’ve been friends too long. We should all get together at lease once a year, there’s no excuse not to.” He put an arm around his friend’s shoulders and pulled him over. “Come meet the newest member of my family. And really, Jean-Luc, you should put some serious thought into having one of your own.”

“I have other considerations, Jack. I haven’t got time for a family.” The captain still hadn’t made eye contact with Beverly.

Jack rolled his eyes. “Same old excuse. You need a new one. Anyway, Bev will have to catch you up on the past year here, as I’ve got to feed these guys. We’ll come back once they’ve been recharged.”

“Dad, that joke gets worse every time you say it.” Wes jumped off the chair and at Picard as he spoke. “Good to see you, Captain,” he said when a surprised Jean-Luc caught him, the boy’s greeting almost an afterthought in the excitement. Then Wesley was out the door, his attention span well within the norm for his age—practically nonexistent. A mock scowl on his face, Jack went after his joke-killing son.

Which left them alone for the first time in a few months shy of a year. His catch of the boy had left him standing close to the hospital bed. Like she had done when Jean-Luc had visited her and Wesley after he was born, she sat up and handed him the newborn before he could get out of arm’s reach. After a frightened look cast in her direction, Picard studied the infant, then commented, “I barely remember Wesley being this small.”

“Neither do I,” she said, then took a settling breath. “Jean-Luc, he’s—”

He interrupted her. “Don’t sa—”

And she cut him off in return. “Yours.”

Briefly, he closed his eyes, as if he were wishing the situation away. “Are you certain? I mean, he could still be Ja—”

“He’s your son. And mine. He’s ours.” The conviction in her voice silenced any further doubts from him.

Picard’s eyes opened and now he regarded the boy differently than seconds before. “Why?” he asked, not looking at her.

“In case anything ever happened to you, so that I would have a piece of you still here.”

He said nothing in response, only continued studying the infant. “He has your eyes,” he finally said. “And my hair… well… what used to be. Except I can see some red in there, when the light hits it.” He looked at her then. “Beverly, the risk you took, what if he had my eyes, or god forbid, my nose? How would you explain that to Jack?”

“I don’t know. I just would have.”

“And you never even asked me if I wanted this—”

“You don’t have to give your approval, it’s not like I’m going to tell Jack, or anyone else for that matter. It’s between you and me. You’ll never have to acknowledge him as your own, nor do I expect you to. I didn’t even realize what I had done until months later and it took some deep introspection on my part to figure out why I had been so careless when I’m normally quite meticulous.”

“That’s even worse, that this is an accident!”

“He’s a person, not a ‘this’! And he wasn’t an accident, not subconsciously. He was meant to be. Fate, I suppose.”

“Fate?” His single word question came as a shout and the sound jostled the infant into a wail.

Beverly reached for her son and Picard handed him over. Her attention went entirely to her child and she figured the captain would be gone by the time she could soothe her son. When Alex had quieted, she looked up and was surprised to see Jean-Luc still standing there. The anger had gone from him, replaced by sadness. He looked as if he were going to say something significant when the door burst open and Wesley ran through, followed by Jack and Paul.

She could practically see Picard’s mind shift gears. “Congratulations,” he told her, quite softly, like before.

And like before, his eyes apologized because he couldn’t speak the words. However, unlike before, his apology was different, he was apologizing for his outburst, and telling her he forgave her for not letting him in on the decision that had resulted in their son. But she also saw that he could not forgive himself for the actions that had brought their son into existence, and the situation in which it placed them all.

He repeated the congratulations to Jack, then bid them farewell, left the room, and left the starbase.

*

“After that, I didn’t see him again for eight years. Oh, Jack saw him, he always kept up with his friendships he formed with the men and women he served with. But I always managed to figure out a way to avoid Jean-Luc. I didn’t dare contact him, much less see him. It would be too much. I was… we were… determined that the last time would actually be the last. And it would have been, if Jack hadn’t been so determined to be Jean-Luc’s first officer again.”

“Captain Picard didn’t request Jack to be his first officer when he was given command of the Enterprise?”

“No, not at first.” Beverly stepped forward, eyes scanning the number labels on the drawers, and finding the correct one. Her feet took reluctant steps forward until she stood in front of it, eyes on the label, not glancing back at Deanna. “But when Jack asked him who would be his first officer, and he was so very obviously showing his intentions of wanting the position, Jean-Luc couldn’t very well deny it. He also knew that Jack was the best man for the job, and if he didn’t ask Jack first, if something went wrong, he would always second guess himself.”

The doctor’s hand reached out and hovered over the key that would trigger open the drawer. “Jack accepted the position and then told me. So I didn’t know until it was too late. At first I thought it would be only Jack going to the ship, like before, and I would stay on Starbase 32 and run my hospital. Then everything came apart when Jack so excitedly told me that it was a family ship, that we could all come with him. Starfleet was even offering the position of chief medical officer to me. With all of that, how could I refuse and retain any semblance of sanity to anyone? We accepted. Jack went ahead of us, and the rest of us, as you know, met with the ship at Farpoint after catching a ride on the Hood, where I met you.” Her hand fell away from the key and she found herself finally turning to face her friend. “How long have you known?”

Troi hesitated, Beverly saw it in the slight crinkles that formed at the corners of her friend’s eyes. The wrinkles disappeared right before Deanna answered, “Since the second mission. I knew that you pursuing the captain while infected with the virus wasn’t as random as everyone else thought it to be.”

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“I knew the turmoil you were going through, I felt it. There was too much of your friend wanting to help you and not enough of the ship’s counselor. So I kept my realization to myself and helped you through it in what ways I could.”

Beverly sighed. “It’s just as well,” she said. “At first, we thought the danger had passed, even after the second mission. But after nearly a year, we found ourselves together again. This time, I was the one to run away.”

“Your year at Medical.”

“Yes. It didn’t last though, did it?”

Troi said nothing, no answer was required.

“I couldn’t stay away from any of them. I came back. We would resist, all the time, we’d think the danger had passed, we’d let our guards down, and it would happen again. Always fate, always circumstance, arranging things.” She gave Deanna a pointed look.

The counselor blinked in realization at what Beverly was getting at. “I’m so sorry, Beverly,” she said, pain of her own touching her dark eyes. “Let me explain.”

Beverly listened to her explain, as their stories were intertwined now.

*

Deanna had run into Jack Crusher on their way to the bridge, she had just returned from two weeks of negotiations she had moderated with the captain. “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you about something,” Jack said.

“And what’s that, Commander?” she asked him, then told the turbolift to take them to the bridge.

“Have you noticed that the captain seemed bothered by something? I mean, ever since he got back from those negotiations, he’s been short with people, easily irritated, and sometimes he seems to drift away in his own thoughts.”

Troi sighed. “The negotiations took a lot out of him. Frankly, he needs a vacation. And you remember how hard it was the last time to get him to agree to go. Beverly had to threaten him with being relieved of duty.”

“And we don’t have that option this time since she’s at a damn conference.” His eyes lit up. “Oh! We could use Selar. She’d do it. I mean, she’s a Vulcan, so she’d be able to stare him down as easily as Beverly.”

The ship’s counselor and the first officer made a detour to sickbay to pick up a somewhat reluctant Vulcan to incorporate into their plan. However, when the captain caught sight of the three of them stepping off the turbolift, he lifted his hands in surrender. “I’m not going through all that harassment again,” he said. “I take it the three of you have ganged up to force me on a vacation?”

“We have not ‘ganged up,’ Captain,” said Selar, sounding remarkably indignant for a Vulcan. “Nor are you being forced on a vacation. We are merely making the recommendation that you abscond yourself from duty for a period of at least one week.”

Jack frowned at Selar. “That sounds an awful lot like a vacation to me,” he said.

“You may call it whatever you wish, Commander.” Selar turned back to the captain. “That is my medical recommendation, Captain. You will see to it that it’s followed?”

“Yes, Doctor,” said Picard. “A man can recognize when he’s been out maneuvered.” His eyes traveled to Jack and Troi. “And since this was obviously cooked up by the two of you, exactly where do you suggest I go?”

Before either of them could say a word, the second officer spoke up from his position at Ops. “Captain, I have just the place—”

Deanna interrupted her husband. “You be quiet, Will Riker. Your suggestions became null and void after what happened with your last suggestion.” Beside her, she heard Jack muffle a laugh and turned to glare at him as well. “And you, Jack Crusher, were no help whatsoever. In fact, you fully agreed with the second officer, so you don’t get a say, either.”

Crusher didn’t argue and Deanna told the captain her suggestion.

*

“Honestly, Beverly, when I made the suggestion, I had completely forgotten it was the location of your conference. If I had remembered, I never would have suggested it. I would never willingly have put you in that situation,” Deanna said.

Beverly gave her a forgiving smile, a true one. “I can’t fault anyone for what their subconscious has them do. After all, you now know what mine has done for me. So if yours plays clandestine matchmaker, there isn’t much you can do. I think it was fate, that inescapable, eternally determined shadow. Please don’t feel responsible for this. It isn’t your fault.” Before Deanna could protest, Beverly turned around to the drawer and triggered it open.

The drawer made no sound as it slid out of the wall, bearing its load of the pale, lifeless body of Jean-Luc Picard. The shock of seeing the captain’s body silenced any protest Deanna might have made. A remnant of Beverly’s clinical physician self remained active and remembered to take out the tricorder and begin the scan, begin the autopsy. “What would you say, Jean-Luc?” she asked aloud, in the hushed voice everyone always used when in the presence of a dead body. “What were you thinking? What were you feeling? What compelled you to choose death over admitting that you had been with me?”

Her mind supplied an answer not to her liking, an old adage. Dead men tell no tales.

Finally, Beverly focused on the task set out before her.

***

Jean-Luc Picard heard someone call out from behind him. “Excuse me?”

He turned around to find the source of the voice. One of the planet’s natives had addressed him. “Yes?”

“I was wondering why you hadn’t shown up at the last gathering for the conference, you said you’d be in attendance.”

Picard frowned. “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

The native frowned back. At least, Picard assumed it was his species’ equivalent of a frown. It was hard to tell, as their beaks had no easily recognizable motion similiar to a humanoid frown. “Are you not Sanjay?”

“No, I’m sorry, you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

“My apologies, sir. You human males, you all look alike to me. If you will excuse me, I must go find Sanjay.” Then the avian native was walking away, Picard looking on curiously, and idly wondering if all human women looked the same to them as well. Thinking no more on the strange encounter, the captain continued his walk toward his accommodations, only to stop suddenly in mid-step.

This planet, this city, was the same city where Beverly’s medical conference was taking place. The thought came to his mind unbidden—I have to find her.

Within the hour, he managed to locate her conference’s building and the meeting room where her session was underway. Resisting going to her never made it to his conscious thought, not with the freedom of the planet’s anonymity, with the freedom of the ship being in another sector for an entire week, with the freedom to be able to love her as he wanted. Soon the doors opened and the medical professionals streamed out, each in their own little worlds of medical discoveries and new medical theories, oblivious to the greater goings-on around them.

As if she had known he was there waiting for her, the moment she stepped into the anteroom, her eyes locked onto his. Even with the space of several meters, even with the throng of people in between them, the connection crackled to life again, it wouldn’t be snuffed out, no matter how much they chose to deny it.

This time, they didn’t deny it.

The distance had closed between them and he had taken her hand in the space of a moment. He remembered another instance when they had met in the anonymous public, when they had exchanged no words, when they had agreed to unspoken needs. Here, he couldn’t do exactly as she had done for him, because he had no home. Yet he still led her into his arms, led her into his bed, and again, led her to his heart.

For the entire walk his accommodations, where he’d set out to go hours before, he was intensely aware of her closeness, her body. The soft scent she always wore. He remembered the smoothness of her skin, the way her body arched under him, the sounds she made when he pleasured her. The hunger he felt for her…

Beverly took his hand again and then the rhythm of his pulse deafened all other conscious thought. “Is this it?” she asked.

He looked towards her, recognizing her question, and yet unable to comprehend it enough to supply an answer. After a moment, he realized she meant if they’d reached his room, and was able to say huskily, “Yes, this is it.”

She smiled at him, that understanding smile, telling him she knew the source of his inability to think clearly. He opened the door and then led the way into the apartment, stopping just inside and watching as she entered.

He finally returned her smile and then said, “This frightens me, do you know that?”

She gave a slight shake of his head, an encouragement for him to continue.

“I want you so badly I scare myself.”

Beverly moved towards him, taking him into her arms. “It’s easy, Jean-Luc, you have me. I’m right here. All that’s left for you to do is love me, as I intend to love you.”

She made it sound so rational, but it wasn’t. There was nothing rational or intellectual about his desire for his best friend’s wife, and even more inexplicably, it wasn’t just desire. Desire, they could have resisted that. Whatever it was, all he knew was that consciousness of choice always left him the moment her looked into her eyes.

He slid his hands around her, skimming under her jacket, pushing it off her shoulders. Deftly, he undid the top few buttons on her blouse, gradually revealing her skin. Then he gave wholeheartedly into temptation and let his fingers glide over the flesh he had exposed.

She sighed and her head went back, exposing the column of her throat. He lowered his head and nipped the smooth skin there. Her groan of contented pleasure had him fumbling with her remaining buttons and her hands came up to grip his. “Why don’t we finish this in the bedroom?”

His mind was lost in a haze of desire as he lowered her onto the bed and impatiently pulled off his clothes, he wanted nothing more than to bury himself in her, lose himself… as he always did when he made love to her. Nothing else mattered but this moment, the kiss of her flesh on his, the slickness of their bodies as they came together.

Beverly inched back on the bed and Jean-Luc followed her, his mouth covering hers hungrily. She had wrapped her legs around him, bringing herself urgently against his hips and he once again felt that familiar wonder at her desperate need for him, a match for his own.

Beneath him, her hips felt fluid, rippling in response to own aching heat. Her legs opened further, and he knew he was once again lost. He heard himself whisper something incoherent and listened to her own murmured passionate longings.

She was writhing now, meeting his every thrust, their bodies joined, their world reduced to just this sacred act between them.

Their bodies became a river of pure sensation, he sought, she answered, and together they crested that long climb to ecstasy. It had been a long time since they had loved one another like this… but their bodies remembered. Nothing was anchored anymore; he felt only the sensation of flooding sensuality as his body curved over hers, driven by the need to lose himself with her. He sank deeply into her and again and again, finally giving into the powerful spasms of his desire. He felt Beverly’s answering pleasure as she gave out a long, deep cry of satisfaction and her body contracted around him.

He raised himself to look at her, to seal this memory of her into his mind. Her eyes were still closed, her concentration seemingly devoted to feel of her body surrounding his. Her expression was rapturous, ravenous, and he felt his soul answer her. This time when they had made love, it was different, they had responded with a complete awareness of one another, a sweetness, a fierceness that utterly satisfied and left him knowing, for the first time, what he was capable of feeling and giving.

His only regret was that he hadn’t known years ago, that if he knew then what he knew now, he never would have let her go.

She never made it to her evening session, but eventually, they found themselves needing sustenance of some sort.

When they stepped outside the hotel, they found that night had fallen on the government center, and with that night had come chaos. A small crowd had gathered at the entrance of the lobby to watch the goings-on. Unsure of whether or not any of the medical guests knew who he and Beverly were, he let go of her hand so they could weave their way through the crowd.

It would be the last time he felt her hand in his.

Before he realized what was happening, a contingent of the city’s police had surrounded him, ordering him to surrender from behind their disruptors, all trained on him. Never one to argue in the face of several powerful weapons, Picard surrendered, confused all the while. Around him, the crowd murmured, and he caught some of them. They were saying “that’s him, that’s the one,” and he couldn’t fathom why any of them would say that.

Later, in the cell where they placed him, he remembered that to the natives of this planet, all human males looked alike. When that man had first made the observation, he’d found it amusing, never thinking it would trap him in a situation like this, that it would cease to be amusing at all. They at least told him why they had taken him into custody—a government official’s second secretary had been murdered in cold blood, right under the government center’s memorial light. The man had run off right away, but three witnesses claimed to be able to identify the killer, and all agreed that it was the same man.

They identified Jean-Luc.

The second day of his incarceration, they pulled him out of his cell again and brought him into an interrogation room. “You didn’t tell us you were a Starfleet captain,” Silayana said.

Picard looked straight at the woman, one of the higher detectives for the planet’s government, and said, “You didn’t ask. I assumed you would have looked up my record.”

“We did, which is how we know, Picard.” She sat down across from him with an approximation of a caring on her avian face. “I also know something else.”

He sat back in the hard, wooden chair. “What’s that?”

“I know you didn’t commit this crime.”

“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I’ve been saying that. You’ve found evidence to support my statement of innocence?”

“No, we haven’t. That’s why I have to ask you again, where were you?”

The captain drew his face into a mask of stone. “I’m not at liberty to say.” He’d repeated that phrase over and over the night previous, always in the same tone, always knowing it could be the only answer he could give.

Silayana leaned forward on the front part of her green-feathered arms. “Captain, you realize that this is a capital crime? That if you are convicted tomorrow, that you will be executed the following day? If you were to die, it would be a grievous waste of life. Don’t let it come to that, Picard. Give me something to go on, something that can allow me to prove your innocence.”

The intensity of her black eyes unnerved him and he realized that her look of concern had been no approximation. The woman really was concerned about his life. The concern was so apparent now that he felt badly for putting her in this situation as well. “I have nothing for you other than my word,” he replied. “I’m sorry.”

“If you were somewhere else, Captain—”

He cut her off, wanting to save them both the misery. “I was, Silayana. But I’m not at liberty to say where. Again, I’m sorry.”

She sat back, as defeated as he was. Her eyes went to the padd that he assumed contained his record, and her hand gestured toward one of the guards. “Take him back to his cell.”

They didn’t question him any further and left him in his cell until the next morning. For awhile, he paced the three meter length of the cell, then stopped, because pacing made him feel no less trapped. It never had. His shadow had always kept up with him. And now, it seemed, his past had caught up with him and then overtaken him, pinning him down in this impossible situation.

He knew that all he had to do in order to save his own life would be to tell them where he’d been. But he couldn’t do that, he absolutely could not. He would not do that to Beverly, he would not betray Jack like that, even though he’d already betrayed him countless times over. And even if he could bring himself to betray them with the truth, the words wouldn’t have been able to pass through his lips.

If he had stood up in that interrogation room and said, “Silayana, I didn’t commit the murder because at the time of the crime, I was in the arms of my best friend’s wife,” that simple statement would have relieved the detective’s conscience and damned his own. So he never said it.

It was a long night.

By the morning, Starfleet had sent a legal advocate of their own. When the guards led him back to the interrogation room, he was greeted by a soft-spoken man in a Starfleet uniform. He realized that Beverly must have contacted the ship, and Jack must have contacted Command. That meant his ship was in orbit of the planet. It meant that Jack might be tempted to beam him away if it came down to an actual execution. But Jack was as bound as he was by the prime directive, and interfering in a planet’s judiciary process would break the directive.

Though, the captain still held out some hope that it wouldn’t come down to that. He thought the Starfleet advocate might have a different angle, some hard evidence, but the platitudes were the same, the single question the same.

“So you have no alibi, Captain?” the young JAG officer asked him yet again.

“No, Lieutenant. I don’t.”

“But you maintain that you did not commit the murder?”

“Exactly.”

“So you were somewhere else?”

“Yes.”

“Where?”

“Lieutenant, you won’t be able to fool me with words into telling you where I was. I’m not at liberty to say and I never will be at liberty to do so.” Picard actually felt his lips twitch in a near-smile at the officer’s audacity. “Could you tell me where Detective Silayana is?”

“She’s been reassigned to another case, sir.”

He frowned. He’d hoped his case wouldn’t weigh on her too heavily, but he’d hoped for too much. And if this case weighed a stranger down so strongly, he couldn’t begin to think how hard Beverly must be taking it…

“Sir?”

Picard blinked, he’d been caught up in a reverie. “Yes?”

“Um, the trial’s going to start in ten minutes. The guards are waiting to escort us to the courtroom.”

They went.

Jean-Luc and his own legal representative were the only humans in the expansive room. The trial was much shorter than he thought it would be, but with no offer of defense on his part other than his word, with the testimony of three eye witnesses placing him at the scene of the crime, identifying him as the culprit, the judge had nothing left to do but convict him. Seated at a desk high above the proceedings, the avian had a weary look about him, his feathers had once been a vibrant red, and here and there, there was a hint of what had been, but most of his feathers long since become a washed-out grey.

The judge crossed his arms and stared down at him before speaking in clear, unaccented Federation Standard. “Son,” he began.

Picard couldn’t keep the startled look off his face.

“Don’t look so indignant, Captain. I’m your elder by over two hundred years. And for one hundred and three of those years, I’ve been a judge of this court. I am bound by the laws of this court, I am bound by the will of the people, and I am bound as a living being to regret this sentence. The end of your life will happen too soon and somehow, I don’t think it had to be this way. I will ask one more time, Picard. Where were you at the time the murder was committed?”

“I am not at liberty to say, sir,” said Picard. For the first time, the words hurt, cutting like razor wire, as they left his mouth.

The judge kept his silence for a moment, as if he were waiting for Picard to shout out to all of them that he had been somewhere else, and tell them exactly where that was. But the captain never did. Heaving a sigh, the old avian shuffled the actual papers handed over to him by the planet’s version of a court clerk. “Then it saddens me to say that this court has found you guilty of the murder in question, and your sentence is, unfortunately, death. The sentence will be carried out tomorrow at quarter-sun.”

With another world weary sigh, the judge stood and left the room.

As they led him from the court and back to the holding facility, he wondered how Beverly would react when she found out the verdict, and wondered if Jack would be able to console her.

In his cell, he didn’t pace, he didn’t sleep, he didn’t eat. He simply sat, sat and remembered what he could of his life, remembered what he could of what events had led up to what would be his end. There was only one interruption in his vigil.

A knock on the clear, thick polycarbonate wall of his cell made him look up. A guard stood there. “Yes?” Picard asked.

“A woman was outside, she wanted to see you. But… our tradition, our way, is not to allow anyone to speak to the condemned, except for the assigned guard. I have to send her away.”

Beverly. It had to be. He rose from his bed. “She’s still out there?”

“Yes. She told me a message to give to you. I would… I would give her a message for you, your answer, if you would like.”

“What does she look like?” He had to be sure.

The guard gave him an avian shrug. “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

That trait again, that thing where they couldn’t tell humans apart. “Because we all look alike?”

“What? Oh, no, no. It’s only human males we have such trouble telling apart. Your females are… different. It’s hard to explain. The reason I can’t tell you what she looks like is because her face is hidden behind some black material of some sort. We don’t have plumage like that, so I don’t know what you call it. But her call… I mean, her voice, is a woman’s.” His hands fluttered about as he tried to find some sort of description that could help at all. Then he lit on one. “She is tall for your species. Does that help you at all?”

It was her. He had no doubts now. “Yes. What was her message?”

“She wanted me to ask you why.”

“Tell her… because I love her more than my own life.”

The guard slowly nodded. “And so it shall be,” he said. “I will return.”

Jean-Luc waited, standing in the middle of the cell, thinking only of her, of the truth of his statement.

The guard returned. “Your message was delivered. But she did not give me a response before she walked away.”

“That was her response. Humans do not always answer with calls, as your people do. Sometimes, we answer with action, or even inaction.”

“Those calls… the one she gave you, then, are what we describe as a call of deafening silence.” The young guard paused and studied him closely before continuing, “They have been known to break a man, sir.”

“I am no sir. Not to you. You were assigned to stay with me this night, you have every right to call me by my first name. Jean-Luc.”

The guard cocked his head to the side. “I was not assigned, Jean-Luc. I requested this duty. Please, call me Omid. I will leave you to your thoughts, but I feel compelled to ask you a question. Would you mind answering it? You may tell me to leave if you wish.”

“I don’t mind. Go ahead.” He nearly told the young avian that in all honesty, he appreciated the company, and that the conversation distracted him from his worry about Beverly, about what impact his death would have on her and everyone on his ship.

“How is it that you are not broken? From the notes in her call, you are her bond-mate. From the notes in your own call, she is your bond-mate. How have you withstood the breaking of that bond?”

“The answer is very simple, Omid. I haven’t. I am broken, you just can’t see it.”

“You did not commit this crime, did you?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“And your bond-mate, she wanted to know why you did not fight for your own life, that is what made her ask you why?”

“Yes.”

Omid cocked his head again. “May I ask why?”

“You already know the answer to the question.”

“But I do not understand it.”

Jean-Luc wanted to make the young avian understand, he wanted to see, to know, that one other living being could understand his decision. “Do you have a bond-mate, Omid?”

“Not yet.”

Disappointment ran through him, then he struck on the idea of perhaps saving one young person from making the same mistake he had. “When you find yours, never take it for granted. Never leave it behind, never run away. And never, ever give up that bond for anything, even your own fears.”

“If I ran away, Jean-Luc, another male would call and could take my place. I had no idea you knew this of our species. This happened to you?”

“In a manner of speaking. I was too afraid and she married another man.”

“But she is your bond-mate.”

“Only according to fate. According to the law, she is another man’s bond-mate.”

“That is very sad.”

“Indeed.”

With Omid’s pronouncement of the situation true, there was nothing left to be said between them, and the guard left him to his memories. Those memories kept vigil with him through the night, memories of her, of the times they had become one, of the times they had the freedom to be themselves, of the time they had made another living being out of what existed between them. More memories, then, of each time one of them had run away, of each time they had allowed their fears to rule them, memories of their arguments, memories of their last time together.

Footsteps, the scratches made by the avian guard’s clawed feet, sounded down the corridor and Jean-Luc rose from his bed for the last time. Omid appeared, a troubled cast to his eyes. “I must lead you to the physician now,” he said. “He will explain what will happen. Please, come with me.”

The cell’s door opened and Picard strode through. “No restraints?”

“Why would we need them? You have shackled yourself, Jean-Luc.”

Picard caught the irritation Omid had tried to hide. “You are troubled,” he said.

“I am. I do not agree with this outcome.”

“I am sorry.”

“You should not be sorry for me. I will live. You will not. But that loss is through your own choosing.” The guard stopped at another door and indicated that the captain go through it. “This is where I shall leave you. I wish you peace in your afterlife, Jean-Luc.”

Beyond the door, one of the government’s physicians waited, an avian obviously disgruntled with having to perform this duty. With a hand gesture, the doctor indicated for the human to take a seat as he continued to fiddle with an instrument and mutter, “We are a merciful race. We do not condone or inflict acts of violence.” Realizing he was speaking aloud, the physician looked over at Picard. “Ironic, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is.” The muttering, the ranting of the physician, sounded so much like Beverly.

“Yet, of course, and so it shall be.” The physician sighed. “A non-sentient machine will administer the dose. You won’t feel any pain, I promise you that. It will be over in one second. You will exist… and then you will not. A magistrate will be present for the government. Your people have sent one representative. They alone will watch your execution, well, aside from myself. Omid tells me that the representative your people have sent sings notes he finds familiar. Perhaps that will be of some comfort to you, if the notes are familiar to you as well.”

Beverly. He wanted to ask her the same as she had him, why would she put herself through this, why would she insist on witnessing his death? And yet, it did give him a small amount of comfort, that he would see her one last time.

The magistrate appeared in the door opposite the one through which Jean-Luc had entered. “The time is now.”

They brought him into a small room divided in half by a clear polycarbonate wall, just like the ones that had formed the walls of his cell. Entering the room, he could feel it, feel fate, feel eternity near, and he knew that there would be no last-minute rescue. Then he felt something else, someone else, and he knew she was there. He looked and found that she was there, standing alone.

As they had him sit down, he never took his eyes from her, telling her everything he felt with the only means of communication he had left. Somewhere, he heard a voice repeat the sentence made the day before, but it never really registered. He was focused on her and she was no longer alone. The other half of the room had filled with a crowd, a throng of people, all of whom he knew, all of whom they both knew. A crowd of people, a lifetime of people past and present, and all he could see was her.

Her eyes never left his, no tears blurred her vision.

And he knew that every other moment of his life when he and eternity had brushed against one another, his life was never in danger because it wasn’t meant to end then. Not for the Borg, not for the Stargazer, not for a brash young man picking a fight with Nausicaans, not even for the stars. His love, encompassing his life, could only be given to her…

       …to Beverly…

                …only ever to her.

***

Beverly snapped shut her tricorder, then dropped it into her pocket. Nothing out of the ordinary had appeared on the scans, Jean-Luc had died exactly how the government’s physician had described, and yet never how she thought he would have died. “I’ve learned what I was meant to learn,” she whispered to his lifeless body. “And the next time I see you, I will never let you go.”

Anxiety struck her suddenly, and she wondered if she would ever recognize him again, if she would know who he was in one of their other lives to come, then just as suddenly, the anxiety faded. “I would recognize you through a thousand lifetimes, Jean-Luc,” she said. “And we will allow fate to guide us, instead of fighting her so desperately. Until I see you again, and we can right our mistake, I will mourn you and what we couldn’t be.”

She closed the drawer.

When she spun to walk towards the door, she found herself face to face with Deanna. “What did that mean, what you said to him?”

“Something my people, my Nana’s people, believe about life and death. Why do we walk side by side with pain?”

“We? Do you mean me?”

“All of us, everyone. We walk with this pain so that our soul learns lessons. We learn these lessons so that we never make the same mistakes again. Jean-Luc and I… I believe we were each other’s lesson. I believe that what happened with him, everything, including these past three days, was the most painful thing I will ever go through. And I’ve learned what the lesson was—to never let him go again.”

Deanna’s eyebrows furrowed in question. “Again?”

“It’s… once our lives end here, eventually, they will occur again, with new lessons to learn, and learned lessons to apply. We’ll see one another again.”

“And what about between now and then? For the rest of your own life?”

Beverly gave her a sad, knowing smile. “Eventually, I’ll cry. Sometimes, I might hug my son… his son. And even after that, I’m sure I’ll cry over him again, and again. Nobody will know, nobody will see, because no one except him can know. So we’ll be separated for the rest of this lifetime. While in an eternal sense, it’s the blink of an eye, from linear time it’s…” She stopped talking, realizing just how long it would be until she could see him, until she could tell him she loved him.

A very long time.

End.

 

Author’s Note: I normally don’t do song fic, but this story was inspired by the song “The Long Black Veil” found on the CD of the same name by the Chieftains. It’s a poignant, haunting, piece. The lyrics:

Ten years ago on a cold dark night
There was someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light
Just a few at the scene, and they all did agree
That the man who ran looked a lot like me

Well the judge said “Son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, well you don’t have to die”
But I spoke not a word, tho’ it meant my life
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife

She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave when the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows, but me.

Well the scaffold is high, and eternity near
And she stands in the crowd, and she sheds not a tear
But sometimes at night when the cold winds moan
In a long black veil, she cries all over my bones

Listen to it if you get a chance. Reading lyrics is one thing, hearing them is another.

Also: Thanks to rosyrock for providing the necessary sex scene and karen for the detective’s name. There were lines in this story taken from the episodes The Price, Violations, Encounter at Farpoint, Captain’s Holiday, and Lessons.