by Taylor Dancinghands

Disclaimer: As I understand it, some entity called 'Paramount/Viacom' "owns" the characters, features and ideas that make up the mythology known as Star Trek. I know I don't. Nonetheless, it is my steadfastly held opinion (backed up by a Mr. Henry Jenkins of MIT!) that the Star Trek Mythology has come to take a place among the mythologies of the new global folk culture -and as such I have every right to try my best to contribute something of my own to the myths and stories I love so well. As long as I don't try (goddess forbid!) to make money off of it.

Jean Luc Picard woke with a start, and a cry.

He lay still in the quiet darkness of his quarters for some time afterwards, trying in vain to shed some of the nightmare's vivid images, and the lingering anxiety it had invoked.

If there was one thing worse than waking from a nightmare, he thought bitterly, it was waking from a nightmare he'd known he was going to have.

Exhausted as he had been last night, it had still taken an hour or more for sheer fatigue to banish the horrific images of the last few days. And even as he had been finally succumbing to his exhaustion he remembered hoping vainly that the nightmares somehow would not come, and knowing that they surely must. And now he lay in sheets gone clammy with his own sweat, flooded with disturbing images both real and imagined, and wondered, with dismay, how long it would be before he would be able to enjoy an unbroken night's sleep again.

It had been months, after the first time. Though, admittedly, the nightmare he had just woken from was not half so bad as those he had experienced after the first time he had been assimilated: visions of his own vivisection, watching his own hands committing atrocities against friends and loved ones ... no, not so bad as that. Those, he had wakened from writhing on the floor, screaming and crying.

In fact, from what he could remember, much of this dream consisted of reliving the worst of recent events. Not that those hadn't made a perfectly adequate nightmare all on their own... walking alone into the heart of the Borg infestation on his ship... seeing Data, smiling as he stood next to Her... standing helpless as the Borg drones stripped him of his uniform while She watched... even the moment when, with triumph and fury, Data had thrown himself against the plasma coolant chamber. But in the dream, that moment did not come with the sense of relief it had accorded him in real life, because in the dream he knew that She had replaced so much of Data with flesh that the coolant would kill him as well. In the dream he did not remember how he himself had escaped the deadly cloud of coolant, he only remembered kneeling beside the crumpled figure of his second officer as he lay dying, remembered the tatters of dissolving flesh hanging from the android hands that reached toward him, supplicating, the awful pain evident in his one remaining eye, as his lips moved for the last time in a plea that Picard had heard twice before, once as Data had been taken, slipping out of sight into Borg-held engineering, and again as he had stood on the bridge of his almost-empty ship, wondering why he felt so loath to leave her.


And Jean Luc had awakened then, with an answering cry on his lips.


Picard sat up in bed, knuckling his eyes and not being surprised to find the traces of tears there. No, not surprised. We are a veteran of these post-traumatic experiences now, he thought wryly, rising out of bed to find the sink and rinse away the traces of sweat and tears. He knew he would not sleep again tonight and so found himself before his book shelf, hoping to while away the remainder of the night with an old friend. Moby Dick? He shuddered involuntarily and moved on down the shelf. Milton, Paradise Lost, the book he had replicated a copy of to give Data as a gift once years ago. Yes, that was it, the perfect thing to lose himself in for endless hours. He donned a robe, settled into his favorite chair, and prepared to spend the night in distraction.

An hour later, he finally gave up on Paradise Lost. The nameless anxiety that had accompanied his dream had found a name, and the meaning of the dream had become abundantly clear.

"Data, are you all right?"

"I imagine I look worse than I ... feel."

Picard remembered seeing how he looked back at Her remains, as if unable to look away.

"Strange, but part of me is sorry she is gone."

"She was unique."

"She brought me closer to humanity than I ever thought possible. For a time, I was tempted by her offer."

"How long?"

"Zero point two three seconds." It was gallows humor. "For an android, that is nearly an eternity.

It was only as they were nearly to the bridge that Picard realized.

"Data, your emotion chip, how long has it been activated?"

Data did not meet his eyes at first.

"She was able to access and activate my emotion ship approximately 27 minutes after I was captured," he said matter-of-factly.

What a horrible violation, Picard had thought, then, and again now.

"But it is odd, now that you mention it, I seem to hardly be feeling anything at the moment," Data continued.

Picard's heart had sunk, hearing that. Dear God, he'd thought, he's in shock, just like I was. This would wear off soon, and then...

"Perhaps this experience has overloaded my emotion chip. I hope it is not permanently damaged."

"Data ... " Picard had begun, he'd wanted to explain, to assure him, to warn him of what was coming. He didn't know how and he didn't have the time. But his concern must have shown because Data had interrupted him before he'd gotten any further.

"I will be all right, Captain," he reassured.

No, you won't, Picard had thought with anguish.

"Sir, we must contact the evacuation pods in seven minutes if we are to reach them before their point of no return."

Damn him, he'd been right, and Picard couldn't have done it in time without him, either. But together, they did and when they were done, and Commander Riker's teams on the surface contacted and updated, when, at last, they found themselves with little to do until the evacuees returned, then Data had simply come apart.

One minute he'd said he was going to try and get the Enterprise's power system back on line, and the next, when Picard turned back to ask him about some other matter, he had found Data hunched over the console, hands over his face and trembling. If Picard had not been surprised to find Data in such a state; it had been startling to discover how painful it was for him to see Data suffering so.

At any rate, there hadn't been anything else to do, save for what he did: to gather Data up in his arms, to hold him, comfort him, murmur the meaningless little comforting things that humans like to hear at such moments--as Beverly Crusher had done for him in the darkest moments after his assimilation.

Long minutes had passed as Picard comforted the sobbing, trembling wreck of his second officer, not failing to shed a few tears of his own, but in the end it was Data who had roused himself, and typically, it was for the sake of others than himself that he strove.

"I must not... " he'd begun with a gulp, between sobs, and then, "Why can I not stop crying?"

"Data," Picard remembered hoping his own anguish would not show in his voice, "Data, you're suffering from emotional trauma. You've been injured, very seriously, in ways you may not understand yet. These kinds of injuries aren't as easy to see as physical ones, but they can be very grave nonetheless."

"I cannot ... " Data shook his head. "I cannot function in this manner."

"These things take time to heal, Data. Like any other serious injury. You're going to have to take it easy for awhile."

Data shook his head more vehemently. "No, you do not understand. The Enterprise's computer core is intact, but the main processing systems are a shambles. They cannot be relied upon to do the calculations to return us to the correct place and time. You will require me to do those calculations, and I cannot do them reliably in this state of mind!" Frustration now showed in Data's voice in addition to everything else.

Picard had not thought it possible for his heart to sink any further, but at those words it did. Surely, Data would not want to...

"Sir, I must deactivate my emotion chip, it is the only way..."

"Data, I'm not sure that's such a good idea-" Picard was fairly certain, in fact, that it would make things all the more difficult for Data in the future.

"I understand your concerns, Sir," Data said, trying to sound reasonable between sobs. "But I do not see any alternatives."

And he'd been right again, dammit. In the end he'd made Data promise to talk to Counselor Troi about it as soon as he saw her. He knew what she'd say--that he'd need to re-engage his emotions as soon as he could, but Data was too indispensable. He'd known it would be days before he wasn't in constant demand. What would the results be, of delaying his reaction so long? Not even Counselor Troi would know.

Ironically, in retrospect he found himself in a similar boat. At the end of that interminably long day--with the horrifying lows of the Borg infestation of the Enterprise, and breathtaking highs of observing the Vulcan Explorers set foot onto the earth's soil for the first time, the unbearable suspense of wondering if they would arrive in the right time, and if their meddling in history had proven successful or disastrous, after all that and twenty hours or more on his feet, when confronted with his own bed Picard had found sleep utterly beyond his grasp.

Beverly Crusher had, of course, known precisely what he wanted the moment he walked into sick-bay.

"You'll be having trouble sleeping, I expect," she'd said, offering him a small vial of pills.

"They will suppress your dreams to some extent," she'd continued, preempting the question he'd been about to ask, "and for that reason... " she paused significantly, giving Picard that "I-will-brook-no-nonsense" look, "for that reason you will not be taking them for more than two or three nights. The first few nights after you stop will be bad enough as it is."

Her tone was gruff but her look was understanding as Picard accepted her prescription. She too was a veteran of these sorts of circumstances. When there were no good solutions, she had learned to be gracious and for this Picard was very grateful, and so thanked her warmly as he left.

That had been three days ago. Three days of grueling interviews with Star Fleet for himself and all his senior staff, of painstaking comparisons between the Enterprise's historical data base and Star Fleet's to see what they had changed. Three heart-rending days of confirming casualty lists, notifying family members, and taking stock of the condition of the Enterprise's surviving crew. And when that was done, and the Enterprise with a skeleton crew were headed to the Utopia Planetia shipyards for refitting, then the doctor had cut him off.

Well, it hadn't been unreasonable of her. Three quarters or more of the Enterprise's complement was away on leave, the remainder were on leave on board, and although he was nominally in charge of overseeing the Enterprise's re-fit, all that mainly consisted of was seeing to it that his choice of Utopia Planitia's top engineers were assigned to the job.

His responsibilities thus discharged, he was free to wrestle with his demons at his leisure, and though he considered finding the time to talk with Deanna Troi before he'd gone to bed last night, he decided against it. She'd had her hands full with the many other badly-traumatized survivors of the Enterprise's Borg infestation, and besides, he'd thought he had a pretty good idea of what she'd say. He had gone through this before, after all.

So he had gone back to his quarters to wrestle with his demons alone, and now, sitting alone in his quarters, with Paradise Lost laying open and face down on his lap, he wondered if Data had reactivated his emotion chip yet.

He found out at dinner that night. The engineer he'd picked to managed the Enterprise's refit had worked with him before, and she knew that all she had to do to keep Picard out of her hair was give him around forty hours' worth of proposed technical drafts to read. Picard had been perfectly content to lose himself in these for the better part of the day, not stirring himself from his ready room even for lunch. Thus it was that the dinner hour found him hungry, and tired of solitude, and with little more thought than that Captain Picard found himself making his way to Ten Forward.

With three quarters of the crew gone Ten Forward was pretty quiet, even at the dinner hour, but, being the dinner hour, it wasn't entirely empty either. It lent just the right amount of friendly low-level background noise for a pleasant sociable dinner, of the very sort Picard desired. He spotted Data and Geordi at a table near one of the windows. Geordi was apparently just getting up to go, and, seeing Picard enter, gestured him over.

"Here, take my seat, Captain. I was just heading off."

Picard nodded to accept and, glancing over at Data, saw that nearly all the skin on his face and arm had been restored, though his left eye had not yet been replaced.

"How are Data's repairs coming?" he asked the engineer.

"We've got pretty much everything back the way it was, except for his eye; that'll take a little while longer to rebuild, but basically he's right as rain... physically."

So Geordi was worried, too. And well he might, he was a good friend. Picard smiled in understanding and gratitude.

"Good work, Geordi," he said as the engineer departed, and then turned to sit, and nod a greeting to Data.

"Good evening, Sir," said Data.

"Good evening, Data," Picard replied, settling in his chair. "How have you been these last couple of days? We've all been so busy, I don't think I've said more than three words to you in three days."

"Indeed, sir, I have had quite a number of demands on my time as well. I am pleased that they have finally abated somewhat and I am now able to turn my attention to other ... pressing matters."

Picard nodded, encouraging him to continue.

"In fact, I have been meaning to speak to you... to ask you a favor."

Picard saw Data hesitate in his speech, and then saw the young woman waiting at his elbow to take his order.

"Ah, yes," he said, recollecting his hunger. "I would like a bowl of onion soup en croute, some baguette, a green salad with a mustard dressing, and a glass of today's red vin du table. Thank you."

The waitron captured all faithfully, nodded and departed, and Picard looked up at Data again.

"Now what can I do for you, Mr. Data?"

"I ... have spoken with Counselor Troi... about re-engaging my emotion chip," he began, hesitantly.

"I thought, and she concurred, that I would not wish to be... to be alone... when I do. I asked her if she would assist me in this endeavor and she said she would... but she suggested that I ask you first."

"Me?" Even as he asked Picard was already beginning to see that it was quite possibly a very good idea and that seemed faintly unnerving to him, for some reason. And then the food came.

The waitron delivered Picard's meal quickly and quietly, and left the two of them alone with the food. Apparently not wishing to lose momentum. Data continued.

"The counselor suggested that your ... unique perspective would allow better insights into my situation than she would have. She also told me that I should suggest to you that I might be able to ... 'return the favor,' but I confess, I do not know what she meant by that."

"Hmm," Picard said around a mouthful of soup, and nodded thoughtfully. The soup was really good, better than usual. He remembered hearing once that the best refit crews often reprogram the replicators with the latest new programs at the beginning of a project so that they have the benefit of their use for its duration. Ten Forward's French onion soup was usually pretty good. This was better. He savored another mouthful of soup and wrestled with his cowardice.

There was a little part of him that was preparing to start screaming hysterically and running in circles. In the past, at least ever since Jack Crusher had died, he had been allowing this little tyrant to have its way. It seemed inconceivable that he should not now.

But this was different, or it should be.

"Sir, if this is uncomfortable for you ..." Data began, but Picard gestured him quiet with a wave, still seeming to contemplate his food in silence.

Don't think about it, he thought as he sopped a piece of his break in the soup. Don't think what it might mean if you agree. Don't think about your image, or your sense of propriety. You know what the right thing to do is, just look at him. It occurred to him that he hadn't, since Data had asked, hadn't looked him in the eye. He cursed his cowardice, inwardly, and took himself to task, forced himself to meet Data's one good eye with his two.

Even with his emotion chip supposedly disengaged, there was something in Data's countenance that spoke of deep pain. And though Picard was hardly one who was customarily moved to offer a shoulder to cry on, or bring home stray kittens, either, for that matter, he was moved by Data's plight--powerfully so.

He finished chewing the last of what was a truly excellently crafted piece of baguette, and took the plunge.

"I would have to say," he began, "that Counselor Troi is one of the few people I know who is right nearly as often as you are."

Picard watched Data's eyebrows rise in speculation.

"Does that mean that you agree...? You are truly willing to assist me?"

"Yes, Data," said Picard, feeling the waters close over his head.

"Yes, I am."

Data seemed slightly stunned.

I am... profoundly grateful, Sir I... thank you."

"You're quite welcome, Data," said Picard, smiling. "When do you want to start?"

"I am largely at liberty now. Whenever it is convenient for you..."

"How about an hour from now?"

Data nodded. "That is quite agreeable, thank you. I fear I have delayed this far too long, already."

Picard thought so as well, but didn't say so.

"Where would you like to be? Your quarters?" he asked, instead.

"The counselor said only that I should be somewhere I feel safe. My quarters would be perfectly agreeable, but, if you would prefer, I am sure that I would feel perfectly safe in your quarters."

It was, Picard recognized, a gesture of gratitude from someone who knew how awkward this was for him, and one he was inclined to accept. If...

Data, are you quite certain that you will be comfortable enough in my quarters?"

"Yes, sir, I am quite certain." This is it! Picard's insecurities were screaming. There's no turning back after this. You're going to find out things you don't want to know. This is going to complicate your life. Mark my words!

"Then I'll see you in my quarters in an hour, Mr. Data."

"Yes, sir," said Data, standing to leave, and breaking out, briefly, in one of those shy, tentative smiles that used to be the hallmark of relative giddy ecstasy for Data in the old days. All unwillingly, Picard felt it go straight to his heart.

He spent the next forty-five minutes utterly absorbed in his meal, which fortunately bore up to his intense scrutiny, and gave him something safe to focus on for the better part of the hour. Anything but what was shortly to come.

Data was, of course, perfectly punctual. Picard invited him in, showed him to the living area, and Data sat, tentatively, at one end of the sofa there.

"Is there anything you need before we start?" Picard asked.

Data shook his head.

"Is there anything I should know? Anything you want me to do?"

"No, sir," Data said with what almost sounded like trepidation in his voice. "I am ready if you are."

"All right then," said Picard sitting next to Data on the sofa. "Let's begin."

Data nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Picard thought he heard a high-pitched, whisper-quiet, click.

He definitely heard Data give a sharp intake of breath, and felt Data's body next to him go rigid with tension.

Cautiously, Picard reached out to touch Data's hand.

"Data? Are you all right?"

Picard laid his hand on the android's, curling his fingers beneath it to take a hold of it, and he felt the android's fingers tighten around his own in response.

"Data? You're all right, you're safe. We're home, on the Enterprise, in dry dock at Utopia Planetia. We made it, Data."

Data drew a deep breath. "We made it," he said, beginning to relax slightly. "We made it back."

As he relaxed he began to tremble, as though he were cold. Picard carefully placed a hand on his shoulder and felt the tremors subside somewhat.

"Indeed," he said, "and mostly thanks to you."

"I was ... afraid." Data was hardly more than murmuring. "If we had not been able to return to the proper time ... my very existence on twenty-first century earth would have been a profound violation of the Temporal Prime Directive." Data shook his head, lost in the memory.

"I was afraid I was going to have to choose between self-exile and self... self-destruction." Data's voice had dropped to little more than a whisper.

Picard gave Data's hand a gentle squeeze to bring him back to the present.

"But you didn't have to, Data," he said. "We made it back, and in a large way, and you made that possible."

Picard felt Data relax again, though the trembling increased again as well.

"Thank you, sir, for doing this for me," he said. "I know you are not... comfortable in these kinds of situations."

"Not generally, no," Picard said, "but this... this is good for me too."

"How is that, sir?"

"In instances like this, it usually helps to talk about what happened with some one else who's shared that sort of experience, and can truly understand what it's meant to you. I'm just terribly sorry that someone had to be you."

"Thank you, sir, I think," said Data, with a half-hearted smile.

"You're welcome, but I think it's time we dispensed with the 'sirs,' Data. We're not having this conversation as Captain and Lieutenant, after all, but as the only two Federation citizens ever to survive captivity by the Borg. A unique distinction," Picard added wryly.

"I hardly believe I need any more 'unique distinctions,'" Data began with a small amount of bitterness. Then he smiled philosophically and said, "but then again, how much difference can one more make?"

Picard smiled and nodded, but kept silent, waiting to see where Data would take the conversation.

He remained quiet for awhile, lost in thought. His tremors had subsided considerably, though he still kept a tight hold on Picard's hand.

"Does talking..." Data began at length. "Does talking about your experience truly help you feel better?"

Picard nodded, but Data shook his head in confusion.

"But I do not feel... I do not wish to share my experiences with anyone else. I do not wish to think about them at all, but I find I am unable not to do so. Even when my emotion chip was not operating I continued to experience memories... memories of Her." Data's trembling began to increase some again. "I do not wish to think about her anymore."

Picard was quiet beside him for a moment, and then spoke.

"Data, I know that one of the reasons that Counselor Troi thought that I... that I would be able to help you is that you might feel more able to... trust me with what you endured, because you know that I understand just what the Borg can do to you. What they can make you do, what they can make you feel, what they can make you believe about yourself."

"But when you were assimilated, you had no control over your actions, is that not the case?" Data asked.

"Yes," Picard nodded.

I was under no such compulsion," Data said, releasing his grip of the Captain's hand as he stood suddenly to pace the confines of Picard's living area.

"What I did, I did of my own free will!"

"Data, there are other means of compelling someone than brute force such as I was subjected to, and the Borg are masters at all of them. It seems fairly unlikely to me that any actions you took while you were alone in Borg custody were truly of your own free will." Picard tried to explain, but Data was having none of it.

"The actions I took cannot physically be compelled by any means I know of." Data continued to pace furiously as he spoke, fists balled tightly, and, Picard could see, he was close to tears.

"And what actions would those be?" asked Picard, quiet but mercilessly.

Data stopped in his tracks and stared at Picard as though he could not believe what he had just been asked.

"Do you not see? I fucked Her!" he cried in despair.

"I fucked Her, and I gave Her pleasure, and She gave me... She made me feel... " He was sobbing now, his whole body racked with spasms and self-loathing.

"She made me feel so good I wanted more, and She gave me more, and I gave Her... I gave Her what She wanted and it felt so good... it felt so good, what She did to me, what She made me feel. It was so good I would have done anything. I would have done anything to feel like that again... anything She asked... but She was horrible, She made me want horrible things and now She's gone and I'm sorry! How can I be sorry? How? She was evil. She made me want evil things, and how can I ever trust myself again? How can I ever... How can anybody ever..."

Watching him, Picard was taken aback by the force of the fury he felt on Data's behalf. It had been rape, a subtle and devious rape, but rape nonetheless. And for Data, who had never had the chance to experience intimacy with anyone else before this, at least not since he'd gotten his emotion chip, understanding the nature of the violation that had occurred would not be easy.

His anger, however, would not help Data understand, so he set it aside for now. Data was by nature a very rational creature, Picard thought, even with his emotion chip. All I have to do is get him back to a rational state of mind, and then explain it to him, step by step.

Data's litany of self-loathing had expired leaving him spent, standing in a posture of despair, shoulders slumped, hands hanging limp and lifeless at his sides, head bowed. Once again Picard found himself approaching Data cautiously, as if he might 'go off' again, or startle and run. But Data did not move, even when Picard faced him, and took a hold of his shoulders.

"Data," he said. "I trust you. I've trusted you with my life, my ship, my very soul in the past, and I'd do it again, without a moment's hesitation."

Data lifted his head, revealing a tear-streaked face. Even the lidded empty eye wept.

"How... how can you?" he asked, without a trace of hope in his voice.

Picard steered Data back to the sofa as he thought how to phrase his reply.

"Starfleet Captains are required, among other things, to be good judges of character," he said as they sat.

"I happen to think that's one of my strong points. It's one of the reasons why, I think, we have such a fine crew on the Enterprise. And it's why I can feel confident when I say I know you, Data. I know who you are. I've served beside you for nearly ten years. I know you are one of the kindest, most decent people I've ever had the pleasure to serve with. Also one of the most trustworthy. Everything I know about you, Data, and everything I know about the Borg, tells me that nothing that happened to you, nothing you did while you were in their custody, should change that opinion."

"But..." Data began.

Picard shook his head. "Think about it, Data. The Borg are masters at finding your greatest fear and exploiting it. Why do you think She activated your emotion chip? It was one of the first things She did, wasn't it?"

"I... do not know. I had not given it much thought."

Good, Picard thought, seeing Data's furrowed brow, he's thinking again.

"Data, you, yourself have frequently mentioned how emotions interfere with your ability to think clearly," Picard began, and saw Data nodding in agreement.

"I want to assure you that this also holds true for those of us who have been experiencing emotions for far longer than you have, and She must assuredly have been aware of that fact."

"So... Her object in engaging my emotion chip was to... interfere with my ability to reason? To what end?" Data puzzled. Picard was encouraged to see him struggling out of his despair in order to find a solution.

"So that you would be less able to detect the false logic She used to persuade you, Data. Less likely to recognize the lies She told you."

Data's face held the expression of a man struggling with an epiphany. "I did believe... I did begin to believe Her lies..."

"Which lies, Data, which lies did you want to believe the most?" It was a little while before he answered.

"She said... " Data's voice had dropped to near inaudibility, "She said she could make me more human."

"How did She do this, Data, what means did She use to convince you?" Picard forged ahead before Data became bogged down in the distress of his previous confession.

"When She replaced the skin on my forearm with human flesh, She was able to translate the sensations it generated into my own positronic matrix. The sensations I experienced as a result... were like nothing I have ever experienced before." Data's voice was less steady now. It was clear that these memories troubled him deeply, but still Picard kept him on track. He had a point to make.

"But now, you do not truly believe that She could have made you more human, do you, Data?"

"No, I do not."

"Why not, Data?" Once again, Picard was noting that when asked to bring his intellectual agencies into focus Data's emotional distress eased.

"Since their ultimate goal was the eradication of humanity, it seems very unlikely that Her intention was truly to bring me closer to humanity," he reasoned.

"Now, Data, can you tell me why you didn't see that at the time?"

"I... I was afraid, and it did make it difficult to think clearly... And you are saying that this was Her intention?"

"Precisely, Data!"

"Then what was Her object, in deluding me in this fashion?" Picard could see Data desperately trying to see the bigger picture.

"By offering you the very thing you've wanted most, all your life," he answered. "By convincing you that She was capable of granting that wish, She sought to control you, Data, because by controlling you She could control the Enterprise."

Data was quiet for a long time after that, his expression inwardly focused and intent. When he spoke it was almost as though it were to himself, and his gaze was on something distant and not present.

"I understand being used. I have experienced that before," he said, and then, "but I do not understand that I was controlled."

Picard nodded. They were making progress, good progress. He had the beginning of a thread of logic, and Data had caught onto it. Now, he must spin it further so that Data could follow it only to the correct conclusion.

"Tell me how it happened, Data," he said. "Tell me how it happened and I will show you how She controlled you."

Did Data trust him enough to accept this challenge? Picard was not at all certain. Data would be risking much, revealing his bruised and bleeding soul to Picard in hopes that it would enable Picard to find the balm for it. A grave risk indeed.

At last Picard thought he saw Data nod, as he sat hunched forward on the sofa, elbows on knees, hands hanging between. Still staring at that distant point, he began to speak.

"At one point, sometime after She had implanted approximately forty square centimeters of human epidermis on my right forearm, I believed that I saw an opportunity to escape. In retrospect I can see that I never had a chance, and that She restrained Her drones from apprehending me until She had made her point. But at the time... I was terrified, and desperate, and fought for my life... until one of them injured that little patch of epidermis... it even bled a little, and it felt..." Data shook his head, his voice unsteady as he went on.

"It felt like nothing... nothing I'd ever experienced, or imagined... I was paralyzed. It was... no more than a cut... no more than that, but... then She came, and told me that if I was displeased with the... the flesh She had given me that I should... I should tear it out... remove it, and I... I couldn't, I couldn't, I tried but I felt... I knew it would hurt like before only much much worse, but I tried... and I couldn't. I couldn't do it... I was afraid, I was afraid and weak, and should have... I should have..."

"Data," Picard interjected gently.


"Would you expect me, or Commander Riker, or anyone else on the Enterprise, for that matter, to be able to tear the flesh off one of their own limbs for any reason, no matter how critical?"

Data shook his head in confusion.

"No, of course... of course not, but..."

"It's no different, Data, not different at all."

Data seemed stunned, shaking his head slowly. Picard reached over to take him by the shoulder, to bring him back to focus.

"Do you see, Data? Do you see now how She made you think that your inability to do something that no sane being could possibly do, was a failure on your part, and a demonstration of your weakness? Do you see, now, how She continued to convince you of your own powerlessness?"

"...Yes... " Data's voice was unsteady, barely a whisper.

"Who was in control then, Data?"

"She was." His one good eye was wide with dawning comprehension.

"What happened next, Data?"

"That... that was when it began," said Data, swallowing.

"No sooner had I demonstrated my inability to tear away the piece of skin She had implanted then She asked me... She asked me when the last time was that I had experienced... intimacy... and when I told Her... She said... She said that it had been far too long... and then... and then She kissed me... " Data trailed off here, and seemed to be having difficulty finding words. Carefully, Picard took his hand again and waited.

When at last he spoke, he was weeping again, the tears flowing unstaunched down his face to drop onto Picard's hand where it lay intertwined with Data's.

"It... felt... so good... to kiss Her. I... I don't know why... I was... I was terrified, and Her kiss... Her touch felt so good... I didn't know what else to do..."

"Data," Picard ventured after a long pause. "Do you still think that what you did was of your own free will?"

"I didn't have to... to kiss Her back... to touch Her... to touch Her body... but it felt so... I wanted... I wanted Her. I knew She was... She was evil, but I didn't stop... I didn't..."

"Data, did it ever occur to you that since She had access to your emotion chip She could well have had access to your pleasure centers as well? That She could have been manipulating you just like Lore did?"

This brought Data up short. He swallowed hard before he spoke again, his voice somewhat steadier. "My ethics program was not disengaged in this case. Regardless of whether my sensations of pleasure were being manipulated... I was not forced into intimacy with Her. I should not have succumbed."

"Weren't you, Data? Weren't you forced?"

"No... no, I... I could have resisted..."

"Could you have? Really? Hadn't you already tried?"

"It didn't matter," said Data, desperately not answering the question. "She could see I wouldn't resist. She could see that I... that I..."

"Did you truly wish to be intimate with Her? Did you tell Her you wanted that?"

"N-no... of course not..."

"Did She ask you?"

It was clear that Data was on the verge of illumination, but typically, humanly, part of him strove desperately to cling to his earlier, familiar perceptions, regardless of how self-destructive or painful they were.

"What difference could that have made?" he cried. "She could tell, She could see what I wanted!"

"Did She ask you, Data?"

"No... but... but..."

He is so very close to understanding, Picard thought. He has followed my thread nearly to its conclusion; how can I coax him along this last length, how can I help him reach that conclusion? He was desperate to find the right words, the right twist of logic, yet, when he did, he had no conception of what he was going to say until the words had left his astonished lips.

"Data," he said, with a force of emotion in his voice that surprised him as well, "may I kiss you?"

And Data drew a short breath, not really a gasp, swallowed, and, after a short pause, said, "Yes, you may."

Picard's impressions, fleeting amidst his spinning senses, were of the silken touch of Data's lips against his own, the sweet taste of them, the warmth of their mingling breaths, and then they were parted, each staring at the other in stunned astonishment.

Data recovered first. Drawing a deep breath, and blinking hard, he said, "I understand."

Picard was slower to recover, succumbing to a moment of panic by the thought that he had quite possibly done something inexcusable.

"Data," he began, "if I have acted inappropriately..."

"No, you have not," Data interjected smoothly. "You asked. And I believe you have made your point."

Picard was assaulted by several powerful emotions, primarily relief, on two counts: the first, that he had not destroyed a valuable friendship, and the second, that Data had finally managed to follow his thread of logic to its conclusion, and might now be able to free himself from the onus of guilt She had placed upon him.

But among these and many other strong feelings that played within Picard was one inextinguishable spark of hope, hope for a thing too dangerous to be hoped for. Too precious to be discarded, he locked it carefully away--a habit of long practice--and returned to matters of the present.

"And that point is?" he asked.

"I did not consent," said Data, exploring the word's meaning even as he spoke it. "I did not consent to be engaged in that manner any more than I consented to having flesh grafted onto my arm, or having my emotion chip engaged."

"Yes, Data!" said Picard with enthusiasm.

"I am not responsible for the actions of those who have imprisoned me, or are in any other way compelling me against my will."


Data sat back in the sofa, looking much more relaxed than he had all evening, and drew a deep breath.

"These things seem self-evident when stated so simply," he mused. "How is it that it was so difficult to understand them?"

"Data, one of the most difficult and important things to understand about human nature is just how much emotional states can interfere with logical thought," Picard replied.

"This is generally a hard lesson to learn, and Data, I'm so very sorry you had to learn it like this, but if you can remember that--how hard it was to understand these things at one time, and how easy it was, later--you will understand humanity better than many humans."

"Hmm," Data murmured thoughtfully. "Perhaps, just as non-native speakers of a language may come to have a better knowledge of their grammar than those raised with it, I will find myself to be a more ... ardent student of humanity than many humans."

"Oh, I think there's very little doubt of that, Data," Picard responded. "It's one of the things that I ... admire in you."

"Truly?" There was an intensity in the android's voice that drew Picard's attention. Apparently his words had touched Data, and the thought fed a warmth in him that made him smile.

"Yes, Data," he said, putting as much of that warmth into his voice as he could.



They continued to talk well into the night. Not about anything serious, not about Her, but lighter, pleasant things they enjoyed sharing. Picard got himself a snack at some point, which he shared with Data. They shared with each other reminiscences, anecdotes, and stories from their youths, before they knew each other. They enjoyed each other's presence.

Eventually, however, Picard found he could no longer stifle the yawns, and his end of the conversation began to lag.

"Perhaps you would like to retire, now?" Data tactfully suggested after Picard had interrupted himself with a huge yawn.

"Sorry, Data," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I didn't sleep too well last night, and I don't imagine it'll be much better tonight. I keep hoping that by staying up late and tiring myself I'll sleep easier, but I should know better by now."

"You are also suffering ill effects from your recent experiences?" The idea seemed to have just occurred to Data.

Picard smiled sheepishly. "Yes, and on top of that for all the days you had your emotion chip turned off, I was getting medication from Dr. Crusher to help me sleep and keep... keep the nightmares at bay."

"Sir," said Data, looking up suddenly. "I believe I have had an insight into something Counselor Troi said earlier. She recommended that I should be sure to run my dream program on a regular basis to help resolve my feelings concerning recent events, and she suggested that, at first, I might desire... assistance, such as you have given me tonight..."

"By all means, Data," Picard put in. "It's no trouble."

"I... do not think I can thank you enough for all the time and consideration you have given me," Data went on, "but the Counselor did also suggest that there might be an opportunity for me to return the favor, and at first I did not understand, but I believe I may see now." Data stopped to choose his words carefully.

"Would you... would you like me to stay here... tonight, in case you wake..." he trailed off, on uncertain ground.

With some effort, Picard squelched the polite refusal that rose up almost automatically in response to Data's offer. It was one thing to be in the position of offering support and assistance to a crew mate--he was the Captain, after all, and this was something he must be expected to do on occasion, even if it was sometimes quite personal assistance--but to be on the other end of that, to allow himself to accept the aid and assistance of another, to reveal his fears and distress to another, that was another, far more difficult matter.

Then he remembered the five of six sleepless, nightmare-wracked nights he'd spent after his Borg assimilation, before Counselor Troi had forcefully confronted him in his ready room, threatening to have him found unfit for command if he didn't come in for treatment. Things had been far worse then, but he liked to think he'd learned something since. It still wasn't easy to accept help, much less admit that he needed it, but he knew now that it would be far harder on him if he didn't. There was something else troubling in the equation regarding accepting this help from Data, but that was a matter that he had determined already not to think about. That being the case, he had no other sensible option but to accept.

Looking up, he found Data waiting patiently, knowing his response would take time. His impassiveness made it easier for Picard to go on.

"You are probably familiar with the fact that it can be... difficult for me to accept... this kind of help." He let slip a small, self-deprecating smile and drew a deep breath as he went on.

"I appreciate very much your making the offer, Data. It... does make it easier for me to say..." and he closed his eyes and let the words fall from him like an act of surrender.

"Please... please stay."

And it was Data who reached across now to take Picard's hand into his own for a moment.

"Of course. It is the least that I can do," he said.

Picard showered and dressed for bed quickly, as was his customary habit. He bid Data good night before he closed the door, darkened the room, and settled into bed. He was tired, and looked forward to whatever amount of sleep he would actually get. He was even tired enough, he reflected, as he closed his eyes, that the emotionally turbulent events of the last few hours could not trouble him enough to keep the drowsiness at bay. Specters of last night's nightmares did come to haunt him, cruelly, just as he was dropping off, but when he remembered, childishly grateful, Data's presence, pictured him in his mind, sitting just on the other side of the bedroom wall, at his own computer station, quietly working away on some project or other, and the specters faded, and sleep claimed him.

The dark forces of his anxiety were only waiting, however, and in the vulnerability of his deep slumber they gathered until they took the shapes of those unwanted memories, and once again he must live through them. Even then he struggled against them. When things began to go wrong with the memories, at first he protested, tried to deny them. He knew that wasn't the way it happened. But the force of his anxiety was too powerful, and before long he was swept away into a stream of images that were entirely the products of those anxieties, unable to escape until it cast him up at its conclusion, holding the dying Data in his arms, and crying out in his anguish.

And this time a voice answered back.



"I am here, Captain. You are all right."

Picard sat up in bed, groping out desperately in the darkness for the source of the voice, and a hand caught his and held it tight. And then the voice said, "Computer, lights, one-quarter standard."

The calm, matter-of-factness of the voice did as much to calm Picard as the lifting of the darkness, but the vision of Data sitting on the edge of the bed, beside him, was like suddenly being able to breathe again.

"Data, you are all right," he said, reaching out to take Data's shoulder, as though testing to see that he was really there.

"I am fine, Captain, I am all right. You have been dreaming... that I was harmed?"

The horrid images of the dream seized him for a moment and he grasped Data's shoulder with force.

"Dear God, Data," he cried. "I dreamed She had... stolen too much of you... not enough to change you, not enough to stop you from defeating Her, but too much... I couldn't save you, I couldn't... You saved the ship and you saved me and I couldn't save you."

Picard had drawn back, wrapped his arms tight around himself, fists clenched with anxiety, but Data reached forward to take a hold of Picard's shoulders, addressing him with unabashed earnestness.

"But you did save me, Captain, you did. You came, when I had no hope. No hope, but that I would die when the Enterprise self-destructed and I would know that She was destroyed as well. That was my hope, and then you came, and you offered yourself up in exchange, Captain, you offered to consign yourself to a fate worse than death, for my sake!"

Data had developed a catch in his voice and he paused to swallow.

"When you did that, you... you gave me a reason to live. Even if I didn't think I was worth saving, I... I had to save you and maybe... I thought that perhaps, by saving you I might somehow ... redeem myself. What you did made everything I did possible. I was able to come near enough to the coolant tanks to smash them because you distracted Her, and when the plasma coolant burned away the flesh She had implanted... " and Data paused here because even the recollection of that moment was quite painful, "I knew... I knew I would live, because I had to make sure you survived. You saved me, my Captain. I could not have lived without you."

Thinking, Neither could I, Picard felt the tears well up, and it was too late, and he was too tired, and the burden of his emotions too great to fight them. He sobbed once, and fell forward onto Data's shoulder and wept. Carefully Data laid his arm around his Captain's shoulders, murmured the same small calming sounds Picard had spoken to him in his own distress, and waited out the storm.

Picard roused himself when it abated, and sat back to regard Data intently.

"Data, it makes me inexpressibly angry," he said at last, in a sad voice, "To think that you were ever convinced that you weren't worth..." he paused to swallow, "weren't worth saving from the likes of Her. I hope with all my heart that you never allow yourself to believe such a thing again."

"If I am ever tempted to do so," Data said seriously, "I will not, without thinking of today. I will never, ever forget the things you have told me today... and I will never forget the things you have helped me to understand. As long as I live, I will never forget them."

For the second time in twenty-four hours Picard found himself saying something that he hadn't expected to say, although, to be honest, he had a good idea what it was by the time he opened his mouth, and he didn't stop himself.

"Data," he asked, "may I kiss you again?"

And after the briefest of pauses, Data said, "Yes... please."

It was different this time, of course. Picard was more focused and Data, it seemed to Picard, was decidedly more in earnest. His impressions this time were not fleeting. The sensation of Data's mouth on his overwhelmed all his other senses, and became, briefly, the center of his universe. Picard's world for that moment consisted only of Data's lips, the taste of him, the texture of his tongue, and then, there was even more. Data's hands caressed his face now, sensitive fingers tracing the contours of his cheeks, his temples, climbed to linger over his scalp. Picard almost gasped at that touch, but could not tear his lips away from Data's. He reached out, instead, to touch Data's face, and stroke his perfect silken hair. He felt Data stir in response, and at that moment it was as if an electrical circuit had been completed, allowing a powerful current to run between the two of them. It was something very much like electricity that Picard felt course through his lips and fingers, and the places where Data's fingers touched his face, and this time he did gasp, and discovered that he had also needed very much to breathe.

Lowering his hand away from Data's face he saw that it was trembling, and suspected that he looked every bit as shaken as he felt. Looking up at him, Data seemed to Picard to be focused inward, not withdrawn, but reserved, and difficult to read.

Neither one of us is ready to discuss this yet, he thought. It's best to move on, then.

"I need to thank you, Data, " he said after a deep breath. "For staying here tonight. I want you to know that, even though it's hard for me to admit it, I do need help at times just like anyone else. And tonight... tonight I was very glad you were here, Data."

Much to Picard's relief, this elicited a self-conscious smile from Data.

"I am more than happy to be able to help you in any way, Sir," he said.

"I know," Picard replied with warmth, "and I wish I was sure I deserved it." And then, remarkably, he yawned.

"Would you like to return to sleep?" Data asked.

Picard had not expected to sleep again tonight, but now he almost felt as if he might be able to.

"Perhaps so," he said.

"I am happy to stay here for the remainder of the night, but I am to meet Geordi in my lab at eight hundred hours to install my new eye."

"By all means, Data, that should be fine."

Data rose from the bed, pausing to touch Picard's hand before parting.

"Then I will bid you good night, Sir."

"Good night, Data," Picard said, settling down into the covers, "and Data-"

"Yes, Sir?"

"Thank you again ... "

"Good night, Sir."

But lying peacefully in the dark, feeling the welcome slumber creep over him, Picard gradually became aware that the little spark of perilous hope that he had locked so carefully away had grown stronger. Kindled into a bright ember by that electric moment with Data, it now seemed to be straining the barriers that Picard had set carefully in place long ago, to protect himself from such dangerous hopes. His only unsettling thought as he dropped off to sleep, was that he wasn't going to be able to keep it locked away much longer.

He woke unaccustomedly late the next morning, suffused with a sense of comfort and well-being that persisted somewhat even after he recollected all that had gone on the night before. He had, after all, helped Data -successfully, he thought--get through some very difficult territory. On top of that, he'd had a better night's sleep last night than he'd expected to have for weeks. All good reasons to feel pleased with himself. But when he looked in the mirror he saw that it was the other dynamic of last night's interchange with Data that was written all over his face.

You fool, his doubts raged, you've let him touch your heart. You promised you'd never let that happen again, not after Jack. He squashed the doubts with the same cold discipline he used when shutting away his earlier hopes. He was not in any more of a mind to wrangle with these doubts than he was to admit his hopes. Unfortunately it was getting increasingly difficult to avoid either of these things.

Hence Picard's quest for distractions that day had an edge of desperation to them. He struggled to stay interested in his technical abstracts for most of an hour, then, giving up on them, went and pestered the repair crew until they were nearly forced to be rude to him. Dismayed to find the holodecks nonfunctional he ended up roaming the far reaches of his ship and, vast as she was, that finally gave him something to focus his energies on that didn't keep leading his thoughts back to Data. Hunger found him, at last, at the end of the day, exhausted, smudged and dusty, in the lowest decks on the outer rim of the saucer section. It was a long hard climb back to his quarters--about half the turbo-lifts were nonfunctional--and when he had reached them he wanted a shower even more than he wanted food.

Once he had showered and changed he was left with the decision of whether to eat alone in his quarters, or to hazard Ten Forward again. Sitting heavily on the edge of his bed, Picard took a self-indulgent moment to rail against his circumstances. Have things come to such a pass, he groaned inwardly, that I cannot make the simplest decision with out dancing around a score of emotional land mines? But he was spared any further brooding on the matter by a chime of the door. This, he thought with a sense of inexorable fate, will be Data. And, of course, it was.

"Have I interrupted you, Sir?" he asked as he entered.

Not from anything I didn't want to be interrupted from, thought Picard, and said, "No, not in the least. How have you been, Data? How is your new eye working?"

"It appears to be functioning admirably," Data answered. "How does it look?" He tilted his head up for Picard to examine.

"A perfect match," he said, carefully regarding the android's guileless golden eyes, and trying to ignore the other feelings they elicited in him. "That's some very fine work on Geordi's part."

"It cannot have been easy duplicating Dr. Soong's ocular design. I am not sure anyone else in Starfleet could have done as good a job," Data agreed.

"You're probably right," Picard said. "Geordi's turned out to have a real talent for cybernetic design. I've often felt that we were fortunate to have him on the Enterprise."

"I have been feeling very fortunate in my friends lately," Data said, and after a meaningful pause, continued with, "which, I suppose, brings me to the reason for my visit. I wish to inquire as to when you would be available to... assist me with my dreaming program."

"Do you have any other plans for this evening?" Picard asked.

"No, Sir," Data replied. "At this point I do not believe I have any particular plans for the next week."

"I was just about to get something to eat... " he said, thinking out loud, and then paused, struck by a whim. Jean Luc Picard was not generally a man given to following whims, but, just as Data was, he was on vacation, of a sort. He knew that the origins of this whim lay somewhere near the vicinity of his forbidden ember of hope, but, in perhaps his first acquiescence to that hope, he began to admit that he did indeed desire that unattainable thing. He wanted this too, this whim, and he knew if he asked, he would have it. So, he asked.

"Data, would you like to join me for dinner? Afterwards you can run your dream program... and..."

"And if you like, I can stay the night," Data filled in, mercifully, and then he smiled angelically to say, "and I would be very pleased to join you for dinner."

"Good, " said Picard with a smile that was probably wider than he'd meant it to be. "Why don't you have a seat... I hadn't actually decided on anything in particular for dinner yet. Is there anything you'd like?"

Data shrugged. "Not requiring food for nourishment, I have not as yet sampled all that wide a variety of culinary styles, but I am always interested in something new."

"Something new, then?" said Picard, remembering last night's dinner. "I know, Computer, display a list of the new replicator programs installed since our arrival at Utopia Planetia." He crossed over to his desk to see the list displayed on the monitor there.

He eventually chose lasagna, spinach salad, bread, wine (red), and, for dessert, an orange-flavored creme caramel that was almost as wonderful in his mouth as Data had been. He actually thought that as he was enjoying his second or so bite of dessert, and felt himself blush so violently that he ended up pretending to have a small coughing bout to cover it up.

Data had quarter portions of everything and enjoyed everything, especially the creme caramel, whose texture fascinated him. They chatted throughout the meal, about the food they were eating, food in general, memorable meals (mostly Picard's) and other subjects wide-ranging and diverse. It was, Picard reflected numerous times throughout the evening, one of the more delightful meals he had ever with anyone, both in the quality of the food and the company. But when the food was eaten and Picard had drunk the better part of two carafes of wine (synthehol), Data heaved a large sigh and said, "As pleasant as it has been sharing this meal with you, I believe it would be best if we moved ahead with the evening's agenda."

Picard rose and placed the remaining dishes in the recycler. "As you wish," he said. "How would you like to proceed?"

"Is there somewhere I may lie down? That is my customary habit when engaging my dreaming program," Data said. "Perhaps, if that is not an imposition, your bed?"

"By all means," answered the Captain, following Data into the bedroom.

"Lately I have been setting the program for twenty minutes, which is what I intend to do now," Data explained as they entered. "I should 'wake' on my own at the end of that period." He sat on the edge of Picard's bed and sighed. "I confess, I am experiencing some... trepidation about running this program."

"I'd say that's understandable," said Picard as he sat beside Data on the bed. "I can't imagine what it must be like to have to decide to dream each night. I'm certainly glad a conscious decision wasn't necessary for me to have to dream the last two nights. It was hard enough not to want to try and stay up all night. When your body requires sleep there isn't really very much you can do about it."

"Indeed, you could say this is one true disadvantage to not requiring sleep--something which, I have noted, many people envy in me," Data said.

"I'm afraid you would have had to include me in that number as well, Data," Picard said with a smile. "But not for awhile now."

"How is that?" Data asked, curious.

Picard hesitated, and looked away for a moment. This was not a confession he'd planned to make at this moment, but it was dawning on him that there might be a point to be made here, one which Data could well use about now.

"I used to believe," he began, "in a way, that you might be... well... better than us... people, I mean. You seemed... so perfect to me, at times. It wasn't the kind of thing I was likely to discuss with anyone else at the time, and it's just as well because I would have sounded like a fool and, of course, been completely wrong. You're not 'better' than us, Data, you're just like us, no different."

"When," said Data, who seemed to be struggling to divine the meaning of all this, "when did you come to this conclusion?"

"Actually," said Picard, "it was back when you lost that first Stratagema match with Sirna Kolrami during those war-games with the Hathaway."

"Because of the fact that I lost?" asked Data.

"No," said Picard, "because of the way you acted after you lost."

"If I recall," said Data after a pause, "you accused me of 'sulking.'"

"And you told me you couldn't sulk," said Picard.

"But you know," said Data, after another pause, gaze focused in the past, "you were right." He shook his head and looked back at Picard. "And that caused you to reassess your opinion of me?"

"It caused me to reassess my presumptions about you, Data. You're not invulnerable, and you're not perfect, no one is. And if... if I seemed angry with you at the time it was because I was angry with myself for letting myself believe that you were something magical... a fairy tale creature... instead of a real person."

"That one incident seems scant evidence to base such a conclusion on," said Data, not yet willing to concede the point.

"Possibly," said Picard, "but the fact is I've seen a lot moreevidence to that effect since than, and the most compelling evidence I've seen yet is how you've reacted to your captivity by the Borg."

"I confess, I... would not have expected to find such evidence in my... recent actions."

"No, of course not," said Picard, "because of the very fears She played upon... " He stopped and started on a different, hopefully clearer track. "Data, She used the very same methods on you as she did on me. Not the specifics, Data, not the mechanics, but the... the modus operandi She used were the same, and Data, the results have been the same. That's what I mean by evidence."

Data shook his head. "I do not understand," he said.

Picard leaned forward to take Data's hand between his own two, and address Data directly and earnestly. "She plays on your greatest fear, Data. That's how She breaks you, that's why She haunts you; and that's how She leaves scars." He drew a breath to steady himself before he went on.

"When you... when you first freed me from Locutus not so many years ago, I believed... that I was responsible for the... slaughter at Wolf 359. I knew... I knew I should have been strong enough to resist them, stop them from using my knowledge to defeat Starfleet... but I hadn't. I'd failed... and then I'd stood by and watched... and done nothing..."

"Captain," Data interjected with concern, "you could not possibly have done anything to prevent what happened at Wolf 359. There is no way you could be considered responsible."

"I know, Data," said Picard, drawing a deep breath. "My greatest fear was ... and still is, of failing in my responsibilities, of not being able to uphold the duties I'm committed to because of weakness or ... or cowardice, and She played on this so that even when I was free of Her, Her poison still infected my mind.

"Her poison is still in you, Data, telling you that the thing you fear most abut yourself is true, when it's not."

"I am not sure," said Data, still somewhat bewildered, "that I even know what my greatest fear is."

"Don't you?" asked Picard. "I... I think maybe I do. All the time I have know you the one thing I have seen trouble you enough that you didn't even want to discuss it with anyone was the possibility that as you... developed and discovered new things about yourself, that you would somehow turn out to be... someone you didn't want to be. Your... brother, Lore." Picard was surprised at the anger in his voice. "Lore did much to contribute to that fear. And I think that it was what concerned you the most about installing your emotion chip."

Data nodded, absorbing all but coming to no conclusions.

"What She... what She did to you played on those fears, Data. She caused you to experience things you had never experienced before in such a way that you would think that you were... depraved, unworthy of the status of 'person,' fit only to be the consort to a monster. What She stole form you... " again Picard heard bitter anger in his own voice, and saw Data gaze at him with astonishment at the strength of feeling he let slip.

"What She stole from you was an experience that should have suggested to you the very opposite. She stole it from you before you ever had the chance to know what it could be like--what it is to be intimate with someone you care about. She stole it from you, Data, and left lies in its place--lies that make you think that you were less than a person, less than decent. Data, those things are no more true than it is true that I am responsible for Wolf 359."

Picard realized that Data was gazing at him raptly, as though utterly astonished at something, then saw him swallow hard, and blink.

"I think... you may be right... about my fears at least," Data said after a long pause. "I wish I could be more certain of your conclusion."

"And that, you see, is the nature of the scars She can leave," said Picard, with passion. "It's where the nightmares come from, Data, and when you've battled with them enough times that you can find the lies, and recognize them, you'll actually find some of that certainty, and then you'll be able to defeat them. And you will. I did, and I'll be doing it again. I think it may be easier the second time." Picard finished with a little wry humor.

"If I trust you in this..." Data said after a long thoughtful moment, "and I do, I must... then I must trust you more than I trust myself. Is that... wise?"

"That's an important question, Data," said Picard, "because ordinarily I would say that you should always trust yourself first. But I know... I know that during my darkest moments, when I felt sure that I... that I was a failure... that I didn't even deserve my command, I could see that my fellow officers, and friends--people whose opinions I respected, and whose judgment I trust--thought differently. I had to conclude then, that if I trusted these people, and they overwhelmingly disagreed with me, then maybe this was one area in which I shouldn't trust myself. And Data, you have to understand that there are still some days that I feel those fears very strongly, even some times when I still feel responsible for what happened at Wolf 359, and that's when I have to rely on those I know and trust, because just as I am sure that you will never become anything other than a decent caring, honorable person, I know that you will never think that I could be responsible for Wolf 359, and you will never think of me as a failure because of what happened there. It's that knowledge that allows me to put my fears aside and go on. I may never be entirely free of those fears, Data, you may never be free of yours either, but I can put my faith in those I trust and know those fears to be baseless, and if you can trust me, you can come to feel the same."

"I do trust you," Data said after some consideration. "And if you believe that I could never... never be a bad person... then I must... I must believe that you are right, and that my fears are... baseless." Data sounded unconvinced, but that would take time, and little else would suffice.

"Of course I'm right," said Picard affectionately. "I'm your Captain, and I'm always right."

"Except," said Data, with a glimmer of humor, "regarding matters relating to Wolf 359."

"Precisely," said Picard.

"I do believe," Data sighed, after a quiet moment, "that I am ready to address my dreaming program."

"I've always said you were a man of great courage," he said, giving Data's hand a little squeeze before releasing it and standing up from the bed. "I'll be right here if you need me."

Data nodded, stretched out on the bed, gathered his nerve with one last deep breath, and closed his eyes.

Picard had left the Milton on the night stand, but he didn't pick it up as he went to pull his chair up beside the bed. There, he sat and gazed at Data's quiescent features. He knew it was a copy of Soong's face. He had seen pictures of the young Dr. Soong, a handsome, cocksure, crazy genius. Data had made an entirely different face out of the features. In him the delicacy of those features seemed more apparent, giving more of an impression of sensitivity, and, ironically, for one as relatively indestructible as Data was, vulnerability. Of course, it wasn't physical vulnerability that his face hinted of, but emotional. And how not, Picard reflected. He's only been experiencing emotions for a little over two years. He's always learned and adapted quickly; we forget that there are parts of him now that are only a little over two years old. He felt a terrible surge of protectiveness at that thought, and, somewhere inside of him, it met the simmering fury he felt over Data's violation by the Borg and together, they sent a knife of helpless anguish into his heart.

Even now, Picard cried silently, he lies before me reliving horrors I know only too well, doomed to relive them a dozen more times at least, and each time he'll have to walk purposely back into that pit of horror, eyes open, knowing full well what awaits. And he'll do it, too, though I can't imagine how, and there's nothing, nothing I can do to relieve his suffering.

He looked away from Data's still, golden visage and let his head fall into his hands, elbows on knees. Oh, you have it bad, Jean Luc Picard, he despaired. You've fallen and you've fallen hard. This is why, this is why, he railed inwardly, this is why you're supposed to be more careful.

I have a job to do, now, he thought, bringing himself to order. He is in my charge, and he needs my help, and I can't help him like this. You don't even know that he'll stay down the whole twenty minutes; he could wake at any time, and he'll need you then. He'll need you strong and clear.

Picard scrubbed at his face and looked back up at Data. Had anyone ever checked to see if he had R.E.M. while dreaming? And if not, why not? Picard peered closer to see if he could detect anything. In the low light Picard thought he did see something. Yes, there was definite movement beneath the lids, synchronized and slightly frantic. Picard struggled not to wonder what terrors those eyes were seeing again and looked at the chronometer on the night stand. It had been about fourteen minutes. Looking back at Data he thought he noticed that his jaw had tensed. Was it just a change in the light or... then he saw a muscle in his cheek twitch, then again. Then suddenly Data gasped and flinched violently, and began to move nervously.

"Data?" Picard tried, fairly certain he was still asleep.

Data moaned in his dream, then cried out and clutched his right arm to his chest.

"Data!" Could he be waked early? It had been more than fifteen minutes now. Picard wasn't certain what to do.

"No!" Data cried, writhing on the bed, arms out in front of him to keep something away. "No, I do not... no, no I do not want... Stop, stop... please stop... please..."

Data's voice was heartbreaking. Picard caught his hand and called out to him again.

"Data, you're dreaming. You can wake up now, Data. Wake up!"

Data woke violently with a gasp and flinched away from Picard. He drew his knees up and sat in the center of the bed, arms wrapped tight around himself, wide-eyed and gasping.

"It's all right, Data," Picard called from the edge of the bed. "It was just a dream, and it's all over now. You're safe, now."

Data slowly began to relax, and, as before, it left him trembling.

"A dream," he said weakly.

"It was horrible, I know," Picard said. "You don't have to tell me. It was unspeakably horrible, and half of it never happened, so you can let it go now Data. Let it go."

Data drew a deep unsteady breath and let his head fall forward to rest on his knees.

"Why," he moaned, slightly muffled by his lap.

"Data, this is the unpleasant process of your psyche reassembling itself after a bad spell. Housecleaning after an earthquake if you will. It's just not a tidy process," Picard tried explaining.

"No... " said Data into his knees again. "I mean why do I still want... Her." He lifted his head and his face was washed with tears. "Why do I still want Her? In my dream I still want... Her mouth, Her hands touching me, to touch Her, to feel Her, to be... inside her..." he sobbed. "Why? Why...?"

The knife of anguish twisted in Picard's heart as he reached across to take Data's arms in his hands.

"Oh, Data," he cried, "It's because you're human! In every way that matters, you're human, Data. That's why."

At those words Data disintegrated into a sobbing heap so suddenly that Picard had to lunge forward to catch him. He gathered Data into his arms, held him tight, and felt his hot tears fall on his own shoulder. And when Data reached out and wrapped his arms tight around Picard it was all he could do to bow his head over Data's shoulder, shut his eyes tight, and try hard not to cry.

How long they clung to each other like this Picard could never say. All hew knew was that after a time Data stirred in his arms. He lifted his head from Picard's shoulder released the death grip he'd had around Picard's waist, and leaned back a little way to regard Picard with awe and wonder.

"How is it... " he began, voice still choked with tears. "How is it that you have transformed the most... horrible, most calamitous experience of my existence into... into the... into the revelation I have sought all my life? I do not understand how, but you have."

Picard was at a loss for words, and the struggle to keep the tears at bay was becoming more difficult. Even as Picard scrambled to find something to say, however, he began to realize that Data's gaze upon him was even more intense than usual, his expression utterly unreadable. He left his half-formed thoughts by the wayside and waited in silence to see what Data would say now.

It took a moment. Data looked down, then drew a breath and looked up again to meet Picard's eyes, and as before his look was intense and inscrutable, but now he spoke.

"Over the last two days, you have given me so much understanding, imparted so much wisdom, I... I cannot begin to express its import, or my gratitude. But there is one... issue... upon which I wish I had a better understanding."

Picard nodded, but remained silent, waiting for Data to finish.

"A little earlier," Data went on after drawing a deep breath, "you suggested--fairly aptly, I think--that my lack of experience with... intimate relationships allowed the Borg to cause me to have a number of... misapprehensions about the true nature of... such relations."

Picard nodded again, barely, laboring to keep his expression neutral, and to keep his speculations at bay.

Data took another deep breath. "Jean Luc," he began, and Picard could feel his heart racing.

"I... was hoping that you would be... willing .. to assist me in... remedying that situation."

Picard found himself having trouble breathing. "Data," he said, when he had found some portion of his voice, "that isn't the kind of thing that you want to ask just anyone, for... purposes of demonstration."

"Oh no," said Data, deadly serious. "I know."

For a brief moment, (0.68 seconds or less) Picard actually though that all the air had left the room. Tit for tat, said a tiny happy voice from deep within him, you've shown him his hearts desire, and now he's offering you yours.

"Data," he said in an unsteady voice, when he discovered he could breath again. "Data, may I kiss you again?"

And Data looked at him with one of those delightful, coy smiles lifting the corners of his mouth and said, "I think, at this point, that you may take it as understood that you have my permission to do so at any time you deem appropriate."

Their lips met as though a force of gravity had compelled them together. But even as Picard savored Data's taste, lips, and tongue, his mind was reeling. Even as he experienced the indescribable pleasure of Data's hands stroking his head, feeling his fingers tracing the curves of his ears, some part of him was verging on panic. This is dangerous, it screamed, too dangerous! If you fall now--there's no hope for you. All these years you've been so careful, you've kept yourself safe, you can't throw it all away now! But it was too late now. Much too late.

Had he gone over the edge when Data had fallen weeping into his arms just now, or earlier even, with that second kiss? It didn't matter. The part of him that still struggled against it was struggling against a force as intractable as gravity or time. He felt Data's fingers trail down his neck to his shoulders and chest, and the part of him fighting that doomed battle wailed in defeat. That wail escaped Picard as a faint moan, as Data's lips moved over his Captain's face, down his neck, and to the hollow of his throat.

"My Captain," he whispered.

Kneeling on the bed, feeling Data's soft lips, gentle nibbling, and agile fingers playing over his skin, Picard felt a sense of surrender steal over him. Within his heart the struggle died, and a feeling of profound peace and freedom claimed its place. It made him feel giddy, and he reached out as though for support. His hands found Data's face, lifted it up so that he could see it clearly, and traced the features, the delicate, expressive lips, the perfect arched brows, with his fingers.

"Oh, Data," he said in an unsteady voice. "You are so very beautiful!"

Then their lips fell together again, only now there was no struggle, no sense of impending panic for Picard. He savored Data's mouth now with his full attention. He quested, and explored its depths with his own tongue, then expanded his explorations, tasting Data's lidded eyes with his lips, and behind his ears, on his throat. And then he encountered Data's uniform collar.

Hesitantly Picard reached around to the back, where the closure was. "May I?" he asked.

Data replied with another question, slipping his hands over Picard's shoulders as though to slide off of them the loose open-necked shirt he wore. "May I?" he replied with a smile.

They undressed each other simultaneously, slowly, deliberately, and occasionally awkwardly. They paused, when each had been divested of all shirts and jackets, to examine each other with anticipation. Picard was still devouring Data's perfect form with his eyes when he felt Data's hand caressing his shoulders and moving down to his chest, fingers lingering in the light down they found there.

Under Picard's fingers Data's smooth golden skin felt as flawless as it looked. He loved the feel of it under his hand, just as he loved the feel of Data's hand and fingers touching him. Casually, almost incidentally, Picard brushed his fingers over Data's perfect nipple.

The small noise of surprised pleasure Data made caused Picard's faithful clockwork heart to skip a beat, and before he knew what was happening Data was pushing him firmly but gently back onto the bed and attacking him with his lips and mouth, everywhere he could find exposed skin. He found Picard's nipples with his fingers first, caressing and fondling them gently, each in their turn. Then he explored them with his lips and tongue, one after another and Picard found himself drifting in a sea of delight, his fingers lost in Data's silken hair, and the very closeness of Data's body over him almost as electrifying to his senses as the delicious stimulation Data's tongue was giving him. And then, without warning, he felt a gentle bite. Picard gasped as the unexpected shock of pleasure coursed through him.

Data lifted his head, his features shadowed with concern. "Have I... hurt you?" he asked.

Picard raised himself up on his elbows, and shook his head. "Oh no, Data," he said, a little breathlessly. "You're doing... marvelously. Really."

Data's face lit up, transformed instantly by Picard's reassurance and suffused with joy.

"Then I shall continue on in the same manner," he said.

Picard lowered himself back onto the bed with a sigh of pure delight as Data went back to work on his chest. It occurred to him then, in his last rational musings, before he succumbed utterly to Data's ministrations, that lack of experience, for Data, did not necessarily mean lack of skill.

Dear God, he thought with a shiver of terror and anticipation, I've gotten intimately involved with someone who probably knows more lovemaking techniques than a Risan professional practitioner.

And then there was no room in his thoughts for anything but the incredible sensation of Data's mouth, tongue and teeth expertly finding all the most sensitive spots on his upper body, lingers over each one just long enough, and then moving on to another while each spot still ached for more. And while Data's mouth had its way with him above, his hands languorously traced his ribs, lingers over his navel, and made their way even further down, to caress the inside of his thigh through the soft, loose fabric of his trousers, to gently, tentatively stroke the hard flesh that lay concealed just above.

Picard sucked in a deep breath at that touch. The surge of heat he felt from it fed a growing need in him to feel Data's whole body against his own, skin to skin, each contact a caress. His hands, which had been playing over Data's shoulders as the android knelt beside him, leaning across to plant his wayward kisses, now moved with some urgency down Data's back to grasp his hips, and one wandered further, slipping fingers beneath the waistband of Data's uniform trousers.

Closing his eyes with pleasure, Data found Picard's hardness again, stroked it again through the fabric of his trousers, this time with more intent.

Picard groaned aloud, lifting his hips to meet Data's hand. With increased urgency he worked to remove Data's trousers, and felt him shift to facilitate the procedure. Trembling with anticipation, Picard's hands moved to the front of the waistband to free what rose up there. As golden as the rest of him it was, with perhaps a pinkish copper glow to the head, and a single silver drop of moisture (already!) sparkling at its tip, like a droplet of dew.

As much as he wanted all of Data's perfect naked body in his arms, at the moment Picard wanted this more. Propping himself up on one elbow he leaned forward to kiss that perfect bronzed head while his fingers gently stroked the slender shaft.

Data made a sound like something between a sob and a sigh that made something in Picard's throat catch as he continued to taste and caress Data's magnificent golden cock.

"Oh yes!" Data gasped. "Oh yes, my Captain..."

Picard felt Data shudder with rapture, but schooled himself to patience, and lifted his lips away, only to rejoin them with Data's again. But not for long. Now they were both impatient to be shed of the rest of their clothes. In a joint effort lacking in finesse, but making up for it in efficiency, they completed their objective in mere seconds, and when at last they both sat on the bed, each enjoying the vision of the other's arousal, it took even less time for them to throw themselves into each other's arms and fall back onto the bed, awash with uncontrollable passion.

Hands touching, bodies touching, skin touching skin. Overwhelmed with passion, desire, and consummation, for Picard time, his surroundings, even his own identity ceased to have any meaning. He was: touching Data, touched by Data; kissing Data, kissed by Data; holding Data, held by Data. For the moment his whole sense of self-identity was inextricable from the one he held in his arms, and in whose arms he was held.

Such a freedom it was, in this one's arms, not to be Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Enterprise, for however brief a period. He had not expected to find that such closeness could free him in this way. He had not either realized how much he wanted it.

Gasping with pleasure, he realized that Data's hands (and what talented hands they were!) had found his hard and aching cock. Feeling the caress of Data's body against it had been pleasurable enough, but this, this deliberate attention was almost more than he could bear. Data, however, had only begun with him, it soon became evident. Now feeling Data's kisses moving down across his chest he began to writhe in anticipation. He moaned as he felt Data's lips on the head, cried out as Data's mouth engulfed his turgid cock.

Picard felt as though he were in free fall, adrift in the sensations of Data's mouth on his sex, and his hands touching him... everywhere. Soon Data's talented lips and tongue began moving with a steady rhythm, licking and sucking with tortuous deliberateness. Picard began moving his pelvis to match Data's rhythm, but the android shifted his hands to Picard's hips and pinned him firmly against the bed. He struggled against him for a second only, recalling dimly who he was struggling against, and acquiesced, letting Data have his way with him entirely, and rapturing in his helplessness.

He became aware of the sound of his own voice, hoarse and gasping and somehow distant, and knew he was close to climax. Even in acquiescence part of him did not want this yet, wanted to wait, but it was no small part of him either that ached with frustration and desire when Data lifted his lips away.

"Data," Picard breathed, finding words again. "Dear God, Data... " Just not many words, it seemed.

He knew a more eloquent way to use his lips to communicate his feelings and commenced forthwith, sitting up and taking hold of Data's face, to lift his lips to his own. And in the depths of that kiss he stumbled across a more substantial drift of words so unexpectedly that he was taken by surprise and they spilled out of him breathlessly between kisses.

"Oh, Data, I want to give back to you everything She stole from you," he whispered into Data's ear, nuzzling the smooth curve of his jaw. "I want to make clean what She made filthy," he murmured into the hollow of his golden throat. "I want to worship what She defiled," he said with ardor heating his voice as he kissed each of Data's eyes. "I don't know if I can, Data, I don't even know if it's possible, but..."

He was forced to pause in his devotions, however, as Data took him by the shoulders and pulled him back a little way to regard him more clearly. Picard returned the regard, observing with pleasure how Data's eyes shown with emotion. Hips lips parted as though wishing to speak, but it took a moment before Data was able to gather his words together.

"I... I love you," he said at length, as though astonished to hear himself say it.

"I was not certain... I did not know... did not think that it was possible that I could. I have never experienced this feeling before. I never imagined I could be so sure... but I am." He shook his head emphatically. "This... this could not be anything else. I love you, Jean Luc, my Captain. I know I do!" And he pulled Picard back to him, wrapped his arms around him and laid his head on his Captain's shoulder.

"Oh, Data," he said, stroking the android's silken hair, "I think... I think I have probably loved you for a very long time."

With desperate hunger Data's hands pulled his Captain into a smoldering kiss that took Picard's breath away. Data's hunger and ardor re-ignited his own. Mindlessly he thrust his hips against Data, who responded in kind and with enthusiasm. The feel of Data's silken skin against his cock, of Data's hardness stroking against his fed a new urgency in him now. Without warning he grabbed Data and rolled, the momentum carrying him up to lie on Data's chest.

"Data," he said, meeting his eyes with all the urgency he felt. "I want you."

"You have me," said Data with an expression of sublime delight.

"No, more," said Picard, made stupid with desire. "Inside. I want you... inside me."

Below him Data seemed at a loss for words, but the idiotic smile on his face told all. Relaxing and allowing himself to slip off to Data's side, Picard felt a nagging reminder of some material concern in the back of his mind.

"Lubricant." He remembered and spoke simultaneously. "You can get some from the replicator..." and then he realized that beside him Data was actually giggling;

"This is my deepest, darkest secret, my Captain," he said, responding to Picard's puzzled look. "No one else alive knows. You must promise... "

Picard nodded solemnly and watched as Data gracefully inserted a finger into his mouth and withdrew it, covered with a thin layer of clear gel. Picard frowned in continued puzzlement until Data, with a conspiratorial smile, said, "I am able to alter the viscosity of my saliva at will."

He could not help but laugh. "Mr. Data," he chuckled, "you are a man of limitless talents and endless surprises, and I do love you."

Data smothered him in kisses again for awhile after that, pushing the unresisting Picard over onto his back, kneeling between his legs and pinning him down with his strong hands, sometimes at the shoulders, sometimes at the hips. Finally, Picard realized that more and more of Data's kisses were falling in the area of his aching sex.

Now he felt Data's lips on his navel, now the inside of his thigh, now the other thigh, his knee, now (gasp!) the tip of his cock, now the navel again. It went on like this, with more and more of Data's attentions directed at the source of his desire, until Data was only kissing and licking and sucking Picard's shaft and head and balls.

And when he had reduced his Captain to a veritable quivering wreck, Data paused, made sure he had Picard's attention, and with an incredibly sensuous gesture (and beguiling smile), slipped a finger between his lips again, and slowly drew it out.

Picard moaned with anticipation, straining to thrust his hips forward even though Data's other hand (so very strong!) still held his hips firmly to the mattress. Data bent over again to run the tip of his tongue up Picard's rigid shaft, and, lost in this sensation, he didn't notice at first the feel of Data's finger gently circling his anus. The touch opened up a whole new level of sensation in Picard, of which the moment of blissful surrender he had felt earlier had only been a pale facsimile. Data's finger probed more insistently and Picard groaned. He felt the tip of Data's finger slip inside and he sucked in a hissing breath between his teeth, feeling the beginning of the sensations which he knew would utterly consume him in the end.

"Oh, yes, Data! Yes!" he cried as the finger moved further in, the out a little way, then in further still. Data continued to lavish attention on Picard's cock and balls as he moved his finger slowly in and out, relaxing the opening until Picard felt the finger slip away and then enter him again, along with another.

He cried out, arching his back and straining futilely against Data's strength again. Methodically, Data worked his opening with two fingers now, and reaching even deeper inside him, all the while never letting up with his lips, teeth, and tongue. When Picard felt the third finger join them the stretching of his opening was almost uncomfortable, but, oh, to be filled like this again! It had been such a very long time since he had last felt these pleasures. He had almost forgotten, and what a sin that would have been.

"Oh, Data. Dear God, Data..." he cried with love and lust and rapture, and gratitude. "Take me. Take me now, Data. Please."

He heard Data give a deep contented sigh as he slowly withdrew his fingers, leaving Picard aching to be filled again. Data leaned up over Picard to kiss him on the lips and whisper to him.

"I want you," he said, eyes closed with pleasure. "I want to feel... being inside you. Not like with Her. I was afraid then, and I'm not afraid now... I was terrified of Her... and I love you. She only wanted to use me and you... you love me." This last he said as though it still astonished him.

"And now I... " Data went on, Picard thrilling to hear his voice actually rough with passion, "... I will love you."

Picard lay still and susceptive as Data moved back down to kneel between his legs, then lifted Picard's legs so that they lay over Data's shoulders. Next he grasped Picard's hips and lifted him up, as though he weighed no more than his cat, and pulled him closer so that he held Picard's wanting opening over Data's erect and waiting cock.

Picard savored the sense of suspension as Data lowered him carefully and at last he felt Data's head press against him, press harder, and then slip inside. He let out a long breath that ended in a moan as he felt himself lowered more, felt Data slip deeper inside him. At last he felt his backside come to rest against the top of Data's thigh as he knelt, and Data let his weight rest there, slipping his hand away from Picard's hips to play over the rest of his body.

Picard knew bliss, lying on his back, impaled on Data's golden shaft. He reached behind him for a pillow to prop up his neck so he could see Data's face. The slight shifting that occurred when Picard reached for the pillow sent shivers of pleasure through both of them, but caught Data by surprise. Picard drank in with pleasure the vision of Data's face, lips parted in delight, eyes wide with amazement.

"Oh, my Captain," he gasped with shuddering breath, and began moving, thrusting slowly and carefully.

Free at last to move, Picard arched his back and pressed himself against Data's hardness, driving it deeper inside and eliciting a cry from Data that fired Picard's ardor even further. Quickly, they found a rhythm and with very little time had shed the very last of the hesitancies and the carefulness of their earlier lovemaking, and given way to wild abandon.

With uncontrollable enthusiasm, Picard threw himself again and again against the hardness which rose again and again to fill him. Of the cries and sobs he heard filling the room he could no longer distinguish which were his and which were Data's. The ecstasy which he felt growing from the center of his sex contributed to the sense of his dissolution. Was he thrusting or thrusted upon? It was rapidly ceasing to make any difference. He/they were a rhythm, were their cries and gasps, were a pattern of sensations building, and building...

But now Data seemed to be slowing the rhythm. Picard focused for a moment to see Data, with a look of sheer delight and desire, lift one hand and slowly, lovingly, lick the palm and fingers, leaving a wide swath of glistening moisture.

"Oh, Data... " Picard whispered in anticipation, and felt Data's fingers wrap around his own rigid, straining member. Data timed the stroke of his hand with the thrust of his cock and Picard felt the first wave of all-consuming ecstasy wash through him. As the sensations flooded him they began to carry away bits of his sense of self, but just as a corrosive eats away the surface of a tarnished metal to show gleaming new metal beneath, as a fire consumes what is not pure, when the material and distracting aspects of his self-identity were carried away what remained was the ineffable shining star of perfect selfhood that dwells within the heart of any sentient being.

With every stroke of Data's hand and thrust of his cock more and more of the clutter in Jean Luc in Jean Luc Picard's soul was stripped away, until the stellar light in his heart overwhelmed all and he fell, utterly at the mercy of his ecstasy.

Crying out from the depths of his newly-revealed soul he felt himself spend over Data's agile fingers, felt the muscles within him seizing Data's cock again and again, until at last the brilliance faded, and he could see again. And what a sight awaited his eyes.

Data's face, framed between his knees, was suffused with inexpressible joy. He thrust powerfully into Picard once more, threw back his head and cried out--not a wordless cry of joy--but a revelation.

"I am ... " he sobbed with joy, "I am human! I am ... " and then he lost even those words, opening his throat to release the rapture that coursed through him. Picard felt Data's spending within him, and it accorded him a deep, inexplicable satisfaction. Now they were truly joined, each with the other, as intimately as two non-telepathic beings can be, he thought, and this realization left him a profound sense of peace and happiness, the like of which he did not think he had ever felt before.

As the moment of Data's ecstasy passed he lowered himself, sinking down on his knees and bowing over, utterly, truly spent. He remained thus for a little while, until Picard found the volition to stir and reached down to touch Data's shoulder, and with a gesture invited him into his arms.

Data accepted, unfolding himself to stretch out on top of Picard, and in doing so slipped from within him at last. The sensation sent a thrill of remembered ecstasy through both of them as Picard clasped Data tightly in his arms, and Data, with a heart-meltingly contented sigh, lay his head over his Captain's heart.

They lay together like this, suffused with the glow of their fading rapture for a long while, until finally, little bits of rational thought began to filter back into Picard's consciousness.

You really should do this more often, he thought, as his sense of time began to return. It's good for you, you know, getting these endorphins and what-not all fired up. And you know it's even more important for people with high-stress jobs, like starship captains, for instance. You had Functional Psychology in the Academy. You read Reich just like everyone else. It's an essential part of your physiological and psychological well-being, and you've been neglecting it. At his last Picard finally had to chuckle, causing Data to lift his head and give Picard an inquiring look.

"I seem to have a little nagging voice in my head," Picard explained, "reminding me that I should be doing this kind of thing on a far more regular basis."

Data raised his eyebrows speculatively and slipped off to Picard's side to face him eye to eye and very close.

"Is that meant to be a proposition, Sir?" he asked.

Picard took a long moment to consider, knowing that in an hour or two his answer might be different, but deciding to allow himself to be influenced by his current state of mind. Whatever his state of mind later, what he said now would determine his actions then, and though the path he would set himself on now might be more perilous, it would also be the right path.

"If it wasn't," he said at last, "it should have been. Yes Data, I... this is right. This feels right, with you, Data. And don't think for a moment that I'm not perfectly terrified at the prospect of having a ... visible personal life, as Captain of this ship... But this is so right," Picard reached up to lay his hand against Data's cheek, "and ending this, not continuing on with what we've started here, would be so very wrong." He shook his head, and then lay still, gazing deep into Data's golden eyes.

For some time now, Picard had observed, Data's baseline expression, when he wasn't actively moved by something else, had been that of a blind man who has suddenly and unexpectedly regained his vision while standing in the middle of a flower garden. His expression now especially invoked that image.

"I... I cannot begin to find words to express what I am feeling, " he said. "Only that it is all... wonderful, and perhaps the most wonderful thing of all... is thinking that we will be doing this again."

Picard lay in rapturous silence for a few minutes and then said, without preamble, "Well, there's no time like the present," and sat up on the bed.

"I beg your pardon?" said Data, rising as well.

"I want a shower before I sleep," said Picard. "Would you care to join me?"

Picard loved seeing that idiotic smile on Data's face, as a delightful contrast to the restraint with which Data generally schooled his features. He determined to find as many ways as possible to make him smile like that.

He headed straight for the shower without another word and Data followed after.

Together in the close steamy space of the shower, at first Picard concentrated just on washing, letting Data discover the simple sensual pleasures of soap and water, but inevitably the ardor of their play increased as did their arousal until at last Picard succumbed to his desires, dropped to his knees, and devoured Data's proud cock. Oh, how he had longed for this, since the moment he'd first laid eyes on Data's graceful sex, and now, with the warm water cascading over his back, the feel of Data's satin skin under his hands, Data's soft cries of pleasure mingling with the sound of falling water, and the taste of Data's slender shaft on his lips and tongue, Picard knew bliss.

At length, however, Picard felt Data's hand on his face and realized Data was trying to get his attention, and looked up.

"Wait... " Data gasped. "Now... now you..."

"Eh?" said Picard, standing to hear better.

"Now you... " said Data, leaning forward a little drunkenly, dazed with pleasure. " ...inside me."

Picard grinned and kissed Data ferociously, sliding one soapy hand down to fondle his perfect ass.

"Most happy to oblige, Mr. Data," said Picard, pulling Data close in under the shower so that their hardnesses moved against one another.

Now he moved one soapy finger down Data's crack to find the opening there. Having found it he stroked it, gently and firmly to test its sensitivity, and was pleased with the way Data trembled against him. With more soap on his finger he pressed for entrance and was admitted easily. Data gasped and closed his eyes.

Not having a 'conventional' use for this orifice, Picard mused, there can only be one reason for Data to have such a thing. How delightful. He probed more deeply with the one finger and found Data relaxing readily. He added more soap, and then a second finger. Data moaned against the hollow of his neck and the sound seemed to find a resonance in Picard and struck up a vibration within him, running between his heart and his sex. It made his heart leap and it made his cock ache even more to be where his fingers were.

And where those fingers were was ready for a third. So quickly he adapted and relaxed, Picard did not even need to add more soap. The third finger slipped in easily.

"Oh yes," Data gasped. "Oh, my Captain... I want... oh yes... I want... you. I want you now... oh yes..."

Picard silenced him momentarily with a long hard kiss, then removed his fingers and turned Data to face the wall. Obligingly he leaned on his elbows against the wall there, and spread his legs. Picard could see him trembling with anticipation as he took his time working a lather of soap over his own cock.

And when he could not bear to wait any longer (and it wasn't long), he addressed himself to Data, parting the firm cheeks with both hands. His erect member found Data's opening unerringly. With only the gentlest pressure he felt himself slip inside. This time both cried out together, and with hardly more prologue than that they fell to thrusting in a steady rhythm. The sensation of Data's warm and yielding enclosing his cock, again and again as he plunged into it, transported Picard into a timeless state of mind. Each moment so filled with throbbing, driving ecstasy that he had no room in his thoughts but for the moment. The vibration within Picard became a ringing, as though his being sounded like a bell, and it fired him to drive himself into Data with even greater enthusiasm. Data met his thrusts with equal force, crying, "Oh yes! Oh yes... Oh my Captain!"

With deliberateness, now Picard moved one hand away from Data's hips, found the soap again and with a generous handful, seized Data's rigid cock. Timing his thrusts and strokes together, it took only three or four before he heard Data shout, felt him thrust back against his hardness so that he was buried deep inside Data's tantalizing heat as he felt Data's warm spending over his hand.

Now he thrust himself with utter abandon into Data's depths and felt his hard flesh seized in the contractions coursing through Data in his climax. The ringing within him became one with the throbbing of his cock inside of Data, expanded to overwhelm him, deafened him, turned his knees to water, and then every other part of him so that in the end it seemed that the only reason he wasn't running down the drain with the rest of the water from the shower was that with all his remaining strength he'd wrapped his arms around Data and hung on for dear life.

Slowly, at last, the ringing in his ears faded, and he could hear the splashing of the shower that still poured over them, and within that sound something else. It was Data, laughing--well, more of a joyful chuckle, really. Picard regained control of his knees again and relaxed his grip on Data's shoulders, allowing Data to step back from the wall a little way and look back over his shoulder at Picard. He opened his mouth as though starting to speak but was unable to actually do so, only chuckling again, shaking his head and lifting his hands in helplessness.

Picard laughed in answer, kissing water off of Data's face, and finally letting himself slip free. Turning to face each other now, they stood rapt, and wrapped in each other's arms, warm water from the show cascading over their bodies, and knew bliss together.

When Picard felt himself starting to doze off standing under the shower in Data's embrace, however, he reluctantly stirred in Data's arms and reached over to turn the shower off.

"I would have held you up all night," Data offered as they left the shower and began drying off.

"I appreciate the offer, Data," Picard chuckled, "but I'm afraid it would be an unconscionable waste of water."

"Alas, I fear you are correct," said Data as he finished drying his hair in such a way that it was left in some disorder, a pronounced contrast from his customary appearance which Picard found delightful.

"However," Data went on as they left the bathroom, "I confess I have never been tempted to so flagrantly abuse ships resource protocols before."

Picard chuckled lightly to himself, thinking, where all the efforts of the Borg have failed, I have succeeded in corrupting my Second Officer. He headed automatically to the closet where he kept his sleepwear, but hesitated there. On a hunch he looked over to his bed and saw that Data had turned down the covers and sat, still naked, on the edge.

"It occurred to me," Data responded to his Captain's inquiring look, "that if I am to... watch over you again tonight, it might be more effective if I were to stay here, rather than in the next room."

All notions of sleeping apparel forgotten, Picard sat next to Data on the bed.

"You would lie here awake all night while I slept? Data, are you sure it wouldn't be... a bit dull... after awhile?" he asked.

"On the contrary," Data responded, "I truly would have cherished holding you in my arms all night long in the shower, and this way we will not be wasting all that water."

Picard smiled and kissed Data on the cheek. "I wouldn't have guessed that I could possibly sleep better than I did last night," he said as he climbed under the covers and let Data's body curl around him, "but I have a feeling you're about to prove me wrong."

They settled at last into "spoons," Data behind, his arms wrapped around Picard's chest and his head resting on Picard's shoulder.

"I wonder," Data mused after the lights had been lowered and Picard had begun to feel the warmth and comfort settle into his bones, "I wonder if Counselor Troi had this outcome in mind when she advised me to seek assistance from you."

Picard turned the thought over in his mind for a moment.

"If she did," he said at last, "I'll have to have a word with her."

"Concerning what?" asked Data over his shoulder.

"Conspiracy with my Second Officer... to steal my heart. Can't have that kind of thing on a Federation Starship, you know. It's bad for discipline."

Now Data took a moment to contemplate his answer.

"If I have done so, and I make no claim to the contrary, I very much fear that I know of no way of remedying the situation... save by offering you my own. I believe they are quite similar."

Picard lifted Data's hand to his lips to kiss it fervently.

"Dear God, I love you, Data," he whispered.

"And I, you," murmured Data, pressing his lips tenderly to the nape of his neck. It was the last thing Picard remembered as he finally drifted off to sleep.

All the endorphins in the world could not have utterly banished the still-too-recent horrors of the Borg from Picard's dreams. He did dream of them again that night, but when Data, still protectively curled around his Captain, sensed him beginning to moan and struggled in his sleep, he woke him, gently, whispered soft comforts to him, and let him drift back off to sleep after only a few minutes. In the morning Picard hardly remembered it at all.

It was better for Data the next night, as well. Picard had stayed by his side, but Data remained relatively quiescent for all of the twenty minutes he'd programmed the dream for. He had still 'waked' disturbed and frightened, and Picard had held him close and comforted him until the lingering terrors had departed. And then they had made love again.

Picard came to reflect later, that he never would have had the courage to begin a truly lasting relationship with Data had it not been for the three weeks during which he and Data had the Enterprise-E practically to themselves. Even when they would occasionally meet someone, it would be one of the repair crew from Utopia Planetia--no one who they knew, or who would know them.

It was such a liberating thing for Picard to be away from prying eyes, the potential of malicious gossip, or even the well-meaning speculation and ribbing of friends--in some ways especially that. He felt like he was getting to have his cake and eat it too. He was on vacation, but he hadn't had to leave his ship; they were even letting him pretend to be in charge of the repair work. All of these so contributed to Picard's general sense of well-being and security that things that would have seemed impossible emotional risks earlier now seemed... possible.

He actually kissed Data in Ten Forward only a few days after that first night together. No one else had been there but the barkeep (Picard had wished with all his heart that Guinan had been there to see it), but it had been the utter audacity of the very publicness of the place that astonished Picard. Data had understood the significance of the act and had been touched by the courage he knew it had required. Their lovemaking that night had been particularly enthusiastic.

Having the ship to themselves, and little to do meant that they felt free to be together in what public there was, and inclined to finding interesting ways to pass the time.

They went for walks in the arboretum, they fenced, they even played a little music, though Picard still felt fairly self-conscious about his own abilities. When the holo-decks came back on line, Picard took Data horseback riding, and a few nights later Data took Picard to see a reproduction of a Metropolitan Opera production of Gunod's "Faust". Picard responded by taking Data to see a 1965 D'Oyly Carte production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "the Mikado", which Data loved, but had never seen; and Data, in turn, delighted Picard by taking him to play poker, on their last Friday night 'alone' together on the Enterprise, with Newton, Einstein, and Hawkings.

Over the course of their three weeks of vacation together, Picard's nightmares had departed altogether and Data's dreams, while still occasionally troubling, were seldom more than that. They'd made love nearly every night, a few time in Data's quarters, (once in the holodeck) but usually in Picard's suite. They slept together every night.

And so, when the end of that remarkable three weeks finally came, and members of the Enterprise's officers and crew began to return, Picard knew he'd gotten used to being with Data. He knew he'd gotten past much of the awkward and speculative early phase of their relationship, and was ready to present his officers and crew with a 'fait accompli'. He also knew there would be no escaping some amount of grief from his friends when they found out, but this too would pass. They were friends, after all, and meant well.

Still, when he heard that Beverly Crusher had retuned, he felt his heart falter. As dear and close a friend as she was, Picard knew she could and would be merciless to him for weeks or months once she found out. He, however would have one chance, and one chance only to have a laugh at her expense, and to do it properly he would need moral support. Luckily these days he knew exactly where to find that support, unfailingly.

He asked after dinner, the same day as he'd learned of Dr Crusher's return.

"Can you stay for breakfast, tomorrow morning?" he inquired of Data as they tidied up the dinner dishes.

"Of course, Captain, " he responded. "Do you have something planned?"

"Ah, well," Picard tied to sound nonchalant. "You know that Dr Crusher has returned?"

"I believe I did hear that." Data answered.

"And you may recall that we have had a tradition, for some time, of breakfasting together on a regular basis?"

"I do indeed recall that."

"I thought I might leave a message for her, to invite her to breakfast tomorrow," Picard suggested.

"And I thought it might be...enlightening for her, if you were still there."

"You wish," Data said carefully, "for her to... guess, about us?"

"She'll know something is up the moment she sees me anyway." said Picard. "This way we'll get to surprise her--and that's not something I get a lot of chances at, with her." He paused, checking in with his new lover. "Of course, that means that pretty much the whole ship, from the First Officer down to the bootblack's mate, will know about us by lunch time."

Data rewarded him with one of those idiotic smiles and Picard could not help but wrap his arms around his lover and hold him tight--compelled in part to share in Data's joy, in part to comfort himself against the real fear he felt at what was to come for them, and for him. It came as no surprise to Picard (though he never failed to be astonished by it) to feel Data's total understanding through his embrace, how Data's arms shifted to cradle his Captain's head protectively against his shoulder, while the solidness and strength of his body demonstrated for Picard an offer to be a pillar of strength for his Captain for as long as he lived.

In the sanctuary of Data's embrace, Jean Luc Picard knew in his heart and in his bones that in these arms, from this steadfast soul he would find the strength and courage to do the truly impossible, even to be a Captain with a personal life. As long as he lived, he knew he would never have to look far, for far more than an average man's measure of courage, strength and love, stood always at his side now--his for the asking. As long as he lived, he would never need more.


(c) T. Dancinghands 1998

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