Hello from Earth! Having a wonderful time! Wish you were here!

Chapter 1: Hello from Earth

Hello from Earth…

( Unless otherwise noted all messages are video recordings. )

Stardate 44395.54

(Thursday, 25 May 2367, 09:00 AM, Mars Standard Time)

To: Keiko Ishikawa O’Brien, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe Harris, Hotel Curiosity, Mars

Hi, Keiko! I’m recording this on my padd at the breakfast table, so I only have a minute, but I wanted to let you know I received the file with the pictures from your wedding. Sorry I had to miss it, but I’m pretty sure you didn’t really need some kid hanging around. I know, I know, you’re not that much older than I am, but… look at you, all ‘Sadie, Sadie, married lady.’ Congratulations!

Anyway, your dress was amazing! I’ve never seen a kimono that delicate looking, and you really did glow the way all the magazines say you’re supposed to.

Actually, everyone looked amazing – I can’t believe Ed wore a tuxedo – but then, he’s not Starfleet, and everyone else was in formal dress. He and my mother look so good together, don’t you think?

Thanks, also, for the picture of Data – I’d never seen him all dressed up before. I know you can see me blushing, but please don’t tell him I did? Someone should frame a copy of that image of him though…

Dad has a class this morning – he’s teaching a spring intersession kind of thing, through June – but this afternoon we’re going to the Spirit Arboretum. I can’t wait to see it.

(An audible chime interrupts the recording.)

Oh! My ride is here. Friends of Dad’s have daughters my age, and we’re spending the morning getting mani-pedis together. Gotta go.

 

(=A=)

Thursday, 25 May 2367, 3:00 PM, Eastern Time

From: Theodore Nechayev MIT, Boston, MA, Earth

To: Zoe Harris, Hotel Curiosity, Mars

Well, Zoe, I did it!

I have completed my last exam, turned in my last documentation from my time on the Enterprise and I stand – well, I’m sitting. Hmm. Alright, I sit before you a free man, and a rising junior. I’m told next year will be intense, so I hope you’re planning to have some fun between music and theater stuff because I’m excited about getting to show you MY city.

Aunt Alynna says she’s got the guest suite already for you, and to let you know that yes, there is a bathtub. She asked me what your favorite scents were, and I’m afraid all I could remember was that you dislike roses. No matter. There’s a bath shop in one of the shopping districts that you will love, and I will suffer manfully through because it’s my job as your host.

Before you ask, no, she’s not expecting that we’re serious; she knows I invited you as a friend.

And, friend-of-mine, you’ll want to be in your best comfort mode, because Cherise – the on-again/off-again girl I told you about – is definitely off-again, this time forever.

I can imagine the look of doubt crossing your face, so before you crumple a napkin to throw at the screen – don’t you dare glare at me, Miss Harris – you should know that a copy of her wedding announcement to some lawyer from Harvard is attached to this recording.

Can’t wait to see you next week.

(Attachment, from the Boston Herald)

Girard – Kaplan

Cherise Girard and Evan Kaplan were married Saturday the 20th of May, 2367 at Memorial Church, Harvard University. The reception followed at the Plaza Tent on campus.

The bride is the daughter of Claire and Edmond Girard, of Quebec, and is currently a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her studies are focused on Urban Planning and Civil Engineering. She will graduate with the class of 2369.

The groom is the son of Harriet and Norman Kaplan, of Chicago, and completed his legal studies at Harvard University in January of this year. He is currently an associate at the law firm of Kaplan, B’nel’kp, and Rogers, and is based in Boston.

(=A=)

Stardate 44402.71

(Saturday, 27 May 2367, 11:45 PM, Mars Standard Time)

To: Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe Harris, Hotel Curiosity, Mars

Hi, Data. This message is really brief because it’s almost midnight, and I’m very tired and a little buzzed from champagne.

Yes, you heard that correctly. Champagne. Dad let me have some at the after-party, but it had been hours since I’d eaten anything and… oh, god…  telling this completely backwards.

Okay, five words: I saw the Tantalus Quartet.

I saw them, and heard them, and met them, and it turns out that their cellist, Hugo Rodriguez, is actually one of the instructors at the Suzuki thing, and he’s going to make sure I’m assigned to his section.

How cool is that?

I mean… seriously?

Anyway, the concert was amazing, and the after-party was really lovely, but it would have been better if you were there. I mean, going to their concert with Dad was fabulous, but his suits are always rumpled and he never lets anyone press them, and Keiko sent me the pictures from her wedding and you looked…

(Zoe utters the next line in a tone of perfect, sudden clarity.)

Actually, you looked pretty amazing.

(And then she reverts to her usual breezy style.)

I mean seriously…  are you not beating women off with a stick?

Oh-oh! Hugo and Gae-Lyn said to hook you up with their booking agent, so I’ve sent that information as a text file. They said if their schedule meshes with the ship’s, ever, and anyone would be interested, they’d be willing to come aboard and do a concert or two, gratis.

(Data is then treated to a really intense yawn from Zoe.)

Remind me of the time conversion, and I’ll call live and in-person when I’m settled in San Francisco.

G’night, Data.

 (=A=)

Stardate 44421.56

(3 June 2367, 8:56 PM, Pacific Time)

To: Lt. Commander Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe Harris, Casa Nechayev, San Francisco, Earth

Hello from Earth, Mom!

Theo met Dad and me at the spaceport on the first, just as we planned, and then his aunt took us all to dinner at this place in the Marina district that had these mashed potatoes that are twice-baked with gouda…seriously, Mom, I wanted to take a bath in them.

Oh, please tell Lt. Worf that we delivered his gift to Alexander, and that his parents send their regards. They’re very sweet people, and insisted upon serving us lunch. I might have to start swimming every day if people keep feeding me this way.

I got your letter, and I promise I’ll be a credit to my good breeding. Or at least I won’t embarrass you too much. Yes, I know staying with the Admiral is an honor, and yes, I know I have to tone down the snark. Maybe it helps that I’m a civilian, because she seems perfectly delightful to me.

Also, she’s a lot smaller in person than she is on the news nets. We could totally share clothes, if she owned anything that wasn’t a uniform.

Dad’s list of rules was way more specific: don’t do drugs, don’t get drunk, don’t pierce anything below my earlobes, or above my earlobes, and no visible tattoos.

No, Mom, I’m not going to run out and get an invisible tattoo. What would be the point?

Anyway, yesterday, Theo and I went out to the Maritime Museum to see the old ferries – they really used petroleum products to power vehicles? How quaint. We also poked around the tall ships – I love the smell of tar and history. I would have made an awesome pirate. Theo indulged me, and since we were practically the only people there, we played pirates on the Balclutha for hours.

Then we went to this really old restaurant on the wharf and had three kinds of clam chowder just as the fog rolled in. Mom, Beach Haven is fantastic, but I think I’m falling in love with San Francisco.

Today, we went to Golden Gate Park, and saw a local Shakespeare troupe perform A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The actor playing Puck was half Vulcan, and I know it’s a total stereotype, but the pointy ears totally worked for the character, and then we came home and watched vids and ate Thai food. I always miss delivery food on the Enterprise.

It’s only nine, but I’m tired…Theo has arranged to meet some of his local friends for brunch tomorrow, and we left word at the Academy for Wesley to come join us if he was available.

I’m enjoying this trip a lot, but I’m also looking forward to Suzuki starting next week. I’m not wired for a life of leisure.

I’ve attached a few still images from our museum trip. There’s one of me in classic pirate stance at the bow of the ship – could you make sure Data gets a copy? Trust me, he’ll appreciate it.

(=A=)

3 June 2367, 10:30 PM, Pacific Time

From: Cadet Crusher, Wesley, Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth

To: Zoe Harris, Casa Nechayev, San Francisco, Earth

Zoe!

Mom said you were spending the summer here in San Francisco, and I have been so busy with classes that it didn’t occur to me to have a welcome message waiting for you.

About brunch, I’ve arranged for a day pass, and would love to meet you and Theo. The time and place you suggested work within my schedule.

See you then.

Oh, wait…”Casa Nechayev?” What’s that?

(There is a beat and then the recording continues.)

Wait, Theo Nechayev is related to Admiral Nechayev?

You’re staying with them?

Now I really want to see you at brunch.

Notes: This is not the proper sequel to “Crush” (obviously), but it is a bit of fun to move the plot ahead a bit. Locations on Mars are named after various Mars landers. Locations in San Francisco are real. The Balclutha is one of the tall ships at the National Maritime Museum, which is based at a pier off of Aquatic Park. I confess: on days when the water is choppy, I’m too chicken to climb the steps to the upper deck, even though I know it’s perfectly safe. “Casa Nechayev” is Zoe’s name for the admiral’s house.

Chapter 2: Having a Wonderful Time – Part I

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Having a Wonderful Time – Part I

(Unless otherwise specified, all mail messages are video recordings)

Stardate 44431.90

(7 June 2367, 15:28 hours, ship’s time)

From: Dana Swenson, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Fransisco, Earth

Omigod, Zoe! You looked just a real pirate standing on that ship. And Theo looked so dashing in that other picture. It sounds like you’re having a great time. I’m almost jealous.

No, I’m definitely jealous. You get to explore San Francisco with a cute boy, and I’m here doing a summer design class via correspondence and a creative writing seminar with Professor Benoit and … I miss my best friend. I mean, Annette’s here, but she’s about to start her last year of high school, so she’s been reading college brochures.

Oh! Everyone was on lockdown for three days because there were…well, I’m probably not supposed to say, but…you know that race of people with the kind of grey-ish skin and the neck ridges that sort of sounds like a kind of sweater? We had a bunch of them on the ship.

Daddy says I had nothing to worry about, and he’s in security, so he should know, right? But everyone was so tense, and I felt like if I was too loud or too happy something might break.

They’re gone now, but things still feel really…unsettled.

Josh said to tell you to tell Wesley that he’s NOT doing summer school. Boys! Honestly.

Speaking of boys…Josh and I…things are getting kind of serious…I think…but then there are days when I feel like he’s my brother because I’ve known him so long.

Gah! Zoe! I wish you were here. Or I was there.

See you soon.

(=A=)

Stardate 44432.87

(7 June 2367, 23:57 hours, ship’s time)

From: Lieutenant Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe Lauren Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco Earth

Dear Zoe,

Please forgive my delay in responding to your last message. I was pleased to hear from you, and am gratified that you enjoyed your experience with the members of the Tantalus Quartet. I have contacted their booking agent, and it is likely that the Enterprise will be doing more than hosting them for ‘a concert or two’ but I am unable to provide further details at this time.

I was unaware that one’s companion wearing untidy clothing could negatively impact enjoyment of an artistic presentation, but I appreciate the sentiment. I also regret that we were unable to attend the quartet’s performance together. However, I am certain there will be other opportunities to share similar experiences.

(A shaggy orange cat leaps into frame, and as he picks up the animal and deposits it on the ground, Data addresses it.)

Spot- no. You are not part of this recording.

(The cat lets out an annoyed mrrrreeeeooowww.)

(Data returns his attention to the letter he is recording.)

Pardon me. Spot is not yet well-versed in proper behavior.

I was initially uncertain as to why you believe that seeing me in my dress uniform would require that I beat women with a stick, or any other blunt object, but I realized that you were using slang to imply that I am ‘a catch,’ or that I have qualities that would interest a potential mate. Thank you for the compliment, Zoe.

I believe you would find it amusing to know that I recently had a conversation with Counselor Troi in which I confessed that being an active participant in Keiko and Chief O’Brien’s wedding has prompted me to consider the possibility of my own marriage at some point in the future.

The image of you ‘playing pirates’ on the Balclutha, forwarded from your mother, was not, perhaps, representational of your most aesthetically pleasing attire, but it was agreeable to ‘see you happy.’

I am due on the bridge shortly, but in answer to your question about time conversions, if zero-two hundred hours local time on what will be, for you, Sunday morning, is not too late for you to be awake (I am familiar with your predilection for keeping late hours), or disruptive to your optimal sleep patterns or class schedule, it will be an acceptable time for a ‘live and in person’ conversation, as you phrased it.

I look forward to speaking with you.

Regards,

Data.

(There is a moment of dead air and then, instead of the usual Starfleet or UFP symbol, the cat – Spot – returns, and switches its tail, then turns its head toward the camera and blinks, then bats its paws. Data’s hands are seen lifting Spot away from what must he his desktop, and then his face comes into view, though it’s obvious he’s petting the cat below frame.)

P.S. I believe I neglected to mention that I have acquired a cat.

(=A=)

Stardate 44433.69

(8 June 2367, 07:10 hours, ship’s time)

From: Lt. Cmdr. Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe L. Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco, Earth

Oh, my dear Zoificus…I’ve gotten spoiled by having you with me, and now knowing you’re out in the world exploring your own interests on your own terms…I’m not sure how I feel about it. Who gave you permission to grow up, anyway? It must have been your father.

I’ve enjoyed seeing the pictures you’ve been sending, both holos and photos. Admiral Nechayev sent me a note telling me that you were an excellent guest and expressing pity that you have no Starfleet aspirations. (I did not tell her that you must have been replaced with a clone of the daughter I’m familiar with.) I know you think you aren’t suited for this life, but if she invites you to tour the Academy, consider taking her up on it. The worst that could happen is that you confirm that it really isn’t the path for you.

I’m looking forward to hearing all about the Suzuki Institute. Comm when you can; don’t worry about the time conversion.

I love you, kiddo.

(=A=)

(A Series of Text Messages)

Thursday, 8 June 2367, 10:00 AM, Pacific Time

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

Hey, CelloGirl, Friends of mine from school are going to be in town for the weekend. Would love for you to meet them. Would a note from a Starfleet Admiral get you a weekend pass? Let me know your schedule, soonest.

Thursday, 8 June 2367, 10:07 AM, Pacific Time

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Got your message. This is music camp not the military. No one tracks us on weekends as long as we make curfew, but I’m trying to get a spot in Hugo’s master class. Will let you know my schedule once I know it.

10:16 AM

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

What’s a master class and who is Hugo?

10:19 AM

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

My secret lover. Wanna have a threesome?

10:20 AM

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

So. Not. Funny. Not. Funny. In. The Slightest.

10:22 AM

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Don’t they teach you how to use search engines at MIT?

It was, too, funny.

10:33 AM

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

Okay, it was a little bit funny.

If Hugo Rodriguez is offering a master class, then you must do everything possible to get in. Let me know about the weekend ASAP.

12:47 PM

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

I got in! Master class is Saturday from 1:00-5:00 PM. I could meet you for dinner, maybe?

1:02 PM

From Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

Fantastic. Will work out details later.

(=A=)

9 June 2367, 4:47 PM, Pacific Time

To: Zachary Harris, Hotel Curiosity, Mars

From: Zoe Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco, Earth

Dad!

Oh, my god, this place is stellar in the extreme. I only have about fifteen minutes, but I’m recording this message on my padd so that I can show you this:

(The video pans away from Zoe’s face, to do a slow tour of her dorm room, which has a view of one corner of the Golden Gate Bridge.)

I can see the bridge from my bed, Dad. And I can smell the salt air.

(The image steadies and Zoe’s face is once again in frame.)

Anyway, the room is awesome, and I share a bathroom with just one other girl – it’s actually between our rooms, and she’s the first chair cellist in her high school orchestra so, at least she’s not horrible, which is good because everyone is practicing all the time.

Sunday afternoon, when Theo dropped me off here, our registration packets already had our section assignments. I have a warm-up every morning first thing after breakfast, and then after that we break up into an ensemble class, where there are about six of us. We play quartet music, mostly, with some people doubling parts or taking turns.

After that I have my private lesson, and guess who my instructor is? No, not Hugo. Cooper! Cooper the luthier from Ogus II. She seemed surprised that I was surprised to find her there – she said you knew she went to Suzuki every year. Apparently a lot of the instructors are instrument makers, and they treat the after-class hours as an unofficial conference of their own.

After lunch we have orchestra rehearsals – we don’t audition for places until next week – for now, we have randomly assigned positions based on our current repertoire, and then free time until dinner – you can practice or there are workshops on different kinds of music, and other instruments – and then after dinner there’s a concert. Sunday night it was some of the instructors, but the rest of the time it’s students, so I think I’m going to sign up for a spot next week.

(There’s a knock – an actual knock – on the door, and Zoe turns away from the screen to yell, “Almost ready, come in if you want.” Then she turns back.)

Dad, that was Ronnie – her real name’s Veronica but she hates it – she’s my suitemate. Gotta dash to get one of the good tables at dinner. Love you.

Oh! I made it into Hugo’s master class on Saturday.

Bye!

(=A=)

Stardate 44438.92

(Saturday, 10 June 2367, 5:00 AM Pacific Time)

To: Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe Lauren Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco, Earth

(Zoe begins by affectionately mimicking Data’s very formal tone from his letter to her.)

Dear Data,

I received your missive and apologize for the delayed response.

(Zoe rolls her eyes, then breaks into a grin.)

Did you seriously record that as if you were writing a formal letter to a colleague, instead of a note to a friend? “Dear Zoe?” “Regards, Data?” I’m not sure what the total volume of your personal correspondence is, but with people you’ve actually hugged? It’s okay to loosen up a bit.

And…you used my middle name. Even my mother doesn’t use my middle name. Well, she does if she’s mad at me, but then it’s a whole different thing. I have a theory that the only reason human children even have middle names is so that they can tell when their parents are really, truly, deeply angry with them.

You’re totally gonna poll all your friends about this now, aren’t you?

Anyway, this note is to ask if we can reschedule our call until next week, because I got into Hugo Rodriguez’s master class and it starts in eight hours, and I haven’t slept yet, and then afterward I was invited out to meet some of Theo’s friends from MIT, and tomorrow I’m supposed to have breakfast with my father, as he’s returning to Centaurus in a few days, and then there’s the Sunday night concert, and…well…do you mind if we reschedule?

I’m betting you’re curious about what exactly the Institute is like, and I really wanted to tell you in real-time, but I don’t want you to have to wait, so I’m attaching a copy of my last note to Dad.

By the way, my private lesson instructor says to send you her ‘kind regards.’ That will make more sense when you watch my other vid.

(Zoe does not yawn, but she does rub her eyes, and even Data, watching her image on a video display, would be able to see that she’s in that weird combination of tired and wired that often happens to young people at arts camps.)

By the way, you owe me the full story about how you managed to adopt a cat. And why is he? She? Whatever. Why is the cat called Spot?

(Zoe shrugs)

Well, I guess if it’s good enough for Hades…

(Zoe resumes her affected version of Data’s formal style)

Cordially yours,

Zoe Lauren Harris

(The effect is ruined by the giggle she emits as she closes the file. Only a portion of it is appended to the recording. )

Notes: For purposes of this story, Zoe’s dorm is part of University of San Francisco’s Lone Mountain campus, and the Suzuki Institute exists in that space as well. Her class schedule is based on the National Cello Institute’s annual program, though that is only a week or two long. Data’s formality, with complete headers and actual greetings and closings seems consistent with his letter to Bruce Maddox in “Data’s Day.” Zoe’s comment about the name Spot being “good enough for Hades” is a reference to a scene in the fifteenth novel in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Skin Game.

Chapter 3: Interlude: Eat, Sleep, Cello

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Interlude: Eat, Sleep, Cello

Stardate 44460.75

(Sunday, 18 June 2367, 04:11 AM Pacific Time)

I’ve heard it said more than once that nothing good happens after two A.M., but whoever came up with that expression obviously lived in a time when faster-than-light travel hadn’t become routine, and time zones were calculated only on individual planets, and not across whole segments of the galaxy.

Put more succinctly: it’s always after two A.M. somewhere.

Right then, in my dorm room at the Suzuki Institute in San Francisco, it was actually shortly after four A.M., but I was wide awake, and even kind of wired, though that might have been as much because of the fact that my suitemate Ronnie and I had only returned from a late-night excursion to Mel’s Drive-In a couple of hours before, and had spent the intervening time ghost hunting in the campus chapel.

We didn’t find any ghosts, but we did manage to scare ourselves silly, which was the real point of the exercise. Never underestimate a little well-placed horror – it gets the adrenaline going.

And then there was the anticipation of the call I was about to place…one that had been rescheduled twice in the last ten days.

I fetched a mug of tea from the replicator in the elevator lobby on my floor, returned to my room, adjusted the comm-system so the camera could see me from my chosen position, sat cross-legged on the end of my bed with my back against the wall, and placed the call.

There was a delay, as connections were made, and then there was a static-filled screen – for a moment, I could have sworn there was an image behind the static – one of a pale-faced man in black combat-gear – but then it resolved into the Starfleet symbol, and then the mission patch for the U.S.S. Enterprise.

U.S.S. Enterprise communications. Lieutenant Seth Starker here. How may I route your call?” How ironic that the person on comm-duty was the cello-teacher I was not actually trying to reach.

Seth? Seriously? Since when are you a communications officer?”

Again there was a delay, probably so Seth could confirm the origin of my transmission. Then the video feed engaged, something that typically didn’t happen until a call had been routed to its intended recipient.

“Zoe! I’m filling in for Lieutenant Rothfus. He just had a paper published and is celebrating with his girlfriend. Hey, how’s San Francisco? How’s Suzuki? How are you?”

“San Francisco is awesome, and Suzuki is amazing. Eat, sleep, cello…that’s my life right now…and I love it.” I hesitated, “Look, I’d love to regale you with everything I’m learning and doing, but I kind of have a comm-appointment with Data, and I’ve already canceled on him more than once…”

“I’ll connect you through immediately,” he said, as if he’d suddenly remembered he was on duty.

There was another brief delay and the screen went dark again, but then it flickered back to life to reveal my tutor – my friend – in living color, sitting at the console in his quarters. The cat, however, was not in evidence.

“Hey, Data,” I said. “This is so much better than letters.”

He didn’t smile, of course, but he did imbue his words with a bit of warmth. “Good morning, Zoe. Yes, this is ‘better.’ Are you certain you are awake enough for a conversation? It is…quite early…in San Francisco.”

“Way to not give the time in detail,” I teased lightly. “And it is early – or late, I guess, since I haven’t been to bed yet. But…” I shrugged. “I have tea, and I have time, and I miss you.” I didn’t let him respond to that, just continued on, adding, “Besides, I cannot possibly survive one more day without knowing how you managed to adopt a cat.”

“Ah, Spot.”

“Yes, Spot. And should we take a moment and discuss the reason you chose that name for a stripe-y cat?”

“It is a common name for Terran pets, Zoe. As well, it seemed to…suit her.”

I smiled. “If you say so. Now, tell me where she came from?”

“Spot escaped from a supply shuttle. The pilot was due to continue her journey, and by the time the animal was located, she had already departed. Initially, she was to be a quartered in a crate in the biology laboratory.”

“But…?”

“She appears to be an escape artist.”

“Oh, so…she’s a pretty typical cat, then?”

“Having never before owned a cat, nor been around many household pets at all, I am uncertain as to what constitutes ‘typical.’ However, she has demonstrated a remarkable ability to disappear from her assigned crate and reappear in inappropriate locations.”

“Inappropriate?”

“Geordi found her curled up against the outer casing of the warp core on her first morning aboard-ahip, and two days later, she managed to gain entry to the Jeffries tube leading to the port nacelle.”

“Sounds like she has a thing for magnetic vibrations.”

“That is my theory as well. It may be why she tolerates my company above most others.”

“Is there a story there?”

“Only that, before I agreed to co-habitate with her, Spot managed to attain ingress into my quarters on no fewer than six occasions.”

“Data,” I said, letting my delight bubble out in my tone, “she likes you. She really likes you.”

“That has been my supposition.”

“So you’re keeping her?”

“I believe it would be more accurate to say that she is keeping me.

I laughed again. “That’s probably true. I have to say, I’m not a fan of cats – I’m much more a dog-person – but I’m glad you have a pet. One thing, though?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“She better not usurp my spot on your couch.”

For a moment we were both silent, and I was frantically analyzing what I’d said. Was it too forward? Had I just…staked a claim? Should I be embarrassed? Why was I not embarrassed?

Data broke the silence, saying with his usual understated certainty. “She will learn to share.”

We lapsed into another silence, but this time it was because I was sipping my tea. “So, I sent you the recording from my recital, last Tuesday. What’d you think?”

His head tilt, ever-so-slightly forward, was not the one that meant he was confused, but the one that held a hint of reproach. “Are you certain you wish me to analyze your performance?”

“Sure, tell me how much I sucked,” I quipped.

“I found no fault in your technique or intonation,” he said. “But I believe you chose a piece you are comfortable with in order feel more confident of your abilities.”

“Cooper said pretty much the same thing,” I confessed. “Well, actually, she said the piece was beneath me, and she’s making me work on one of Bach’s unaccompanied pieces for the last week of the clinic. She’s tough…but she’s also kind of Zen. She actually reminds me a little of you.”

His eyebrows lifted. “Of me?”

“Yeah. She has this knack of explaining things so that they just make sense, and she’s sort of…quietly confident. You always know she’s in charge, but you never feel like she’s ordering you around.”

“That is an excellent quality in a leader.”

“May I ask you a personal question?”

Again with the eyebrows. “You have never required permission before.”

I threw him a look meant to telegraph that he’d made a valid point and that there was a first time for everything. I wasn’t sure if he’d get it, but to explain would have distracted me from what I wanted to ask. “What are you like when you’re working?”

“I do not understand.”

I sighed. “Okay, look. I’ve observed my mother when she’s been involved in a work project. I’ve hung out in the anthro labs. I’ve even seen her issue orders before, though rarely…like to teammates, or whatever, but…she’s my mother, so, to me, her leadership style is never gonna seem anything other than parental.” I waited for him to digest that.

“Please continue.”

“I know what you’re like in class, and I got a glimpse of what you’re like when you’re in charge of a mission when we were on Ogus II – ”

He interrupted. “When the Potts child was missing.”

“Right. But most of the time when I’m around you it’s when you’re off-duty. It’s class or rehearsal or…just us. And… you don’t usually act like an authority figure, you just are one. I’m kind of curious about what you’re like when you’re actually…leading.”

“Is there a specific incident that has prompted this curiosity?”

“No. Not really. I guess it’s partly just me being nosy. And partly me being away from the ship, but in a city that’s become essentially a ‘company town.’ And…I guess I’ve been curious for a while, but I didn’t want anyone to think I’d ever be actually interested in Starfleet.” I favored him with a rueful grin, then. “It’s just…I’ve never seen you on duty. I want to know if you’re…different.”

“If you are referring to the idea that people take on distinct personae when interacting with differing segments of a population…”

“I am, and I’m not. I mean. I already know that you’re different when it’s just you and me than you are in class or in public. Not a lot different, but…there are things…nuances. You’re a lot more…open…and kind of…looser…when it’s just us.”

“I am not alone in this.”

“No, of course not. You already said…everyone does it.”

“I was referring specifically to yourself.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You are much more flippant with your friends, for example, more prone to snark, than you are when we are ‘just us.’ At those times, you are much more introspective.”

“I…guess.”

“In any case, if you wished to observe me at work during a typical day, I am certain it could be arranged, although the shadowing of officers is more usually reserved for students who are candidates for the Academy.”

“Shadow you?” I was surprised by the very idea. “No one said anything about shadowing you.” It had actually never occurred to me. “I was just thinking maybe…isn’t there any video of ‘Commander Data on the job’ that isn’t classified, or hasn’t been edited specifically for media? I mean, it’s not like you haven’t been a story from time to time.”

His eyes widened in apparent surprise. “I was not aware you had seen those media files.”

I could feel myself blushing. “You’re not the only person who can look stuff up, you know. It just takes me longer.”

“You do not have to ‘look stuff up’ if you wish to know more about me, Zoe.”

“Hence this whole conversation.”

“Ah.”

I took in, then released a deep cleansing breath. The light in the room seemed different somehow, and I realized that the sun was coming up. I glanced at the clock, then refocused on the screen, my eyes meeting the image of his. “It’s almost six. I should let you go. A bunch of us are going to spend the afternoon at Stinson Beach, and I want to be awake enough to surf and still survive tonight’s concert.”

“You should not be depriving yourself of sleep.”

I laughed at that. “Oh, please, Data, it’s summer. Anyway, I can sleep when I’m dead.”

For a fraction of a second, there was a troubled look on his face, as if my expression had truly rocked him. Then he was his usual self again. “I have enjoyed our conversation,” he said. “We will speak again soon.” It wasn’t a question.

“G’night, Data.” I said.

“Good night, Zoe,” he responded, but before he disconnected the comm system on his end, he added, very softly, “I have missed you, also.”

The connection terminated, and the screen went dark. I unfolded my legs and padded across the floor to look out the window at the bay and the bridge. Cool salt air tickled my senses, but for all my bravado before, I really was tired. I put my tea-mug on the desk so I wouldn’t forget to return it to the replicator, and then crawled into bed.

My dreams that night were full of music and laughter…and a certain android.

Notes: This was done as an interlude because their live chat deserved more than just being another entry in a series. For purposes of this story, Spot has always been female. Mel’s Drive-In is a real diner. Zoe and her friends probably went to the one at Geary and Arguello. Stinson Beach is also a real place and people really do surf there, but the water can sometimes be a little sharky.

Chapter 4: Having a Wonderful Time – Part II

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Having a Wonderful Time – Part II

(Messages are all video recordings unless otherwise noted.)

Stardate 44487.49

(27 June 2367, 10:25 PM, Pacific Time)

From: Zoe L. Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco, Earth

To: Zachary & Gia Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

CC: Lt. Cmdr Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

CC: Lt. Cmdr Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

Please forgive the mass mailing, but it was easier to record this once and send it to all the people who matter. I just got back from tonight’s recital where I played the Prelude from Bach’s first suite for solo cello – the one in G major – and I killed it. I mean, yeah, I know, it’s one of those pieces that every cellist plays, but Cooper has this knack of pulling stuff out me – musically, I mean – that I don’t even know where it comes from.

We worked on it nonstop for a week, and I even canceled my weekend plans with Theo and Wes (yeah, Wes has been hanging out with us when he gets weekend passes) to practice more. I know, you’re all in shock. Remember to breathe, those of you who need to.

Anyway, Cooper says she’s contacting Dad and Data herself to tell what she thinks I ought to be doing. We also talked a lot about the fact that I’m NOT doing music for the second half of summer, but going to an acting program instead, and she actually thought it was a good idea.

Specifically, she said, I should let one thing inform the other, that acting would help me be a better musician, and vice versa. She is officially the first teacher I’ve had – sorry, Data, but it’s true, if only because you and I have never had this discussion – who doesn’t think I’m being somehow disloyal to my instrument (does anyone think that could sound really dirty in the wrong context? Oops, sorry, forgot who I was talking to.) or not serious enough by wanting to do different things. She also said I should consider an academic institution for college, rather than a conservatory, but that I should look at all my options.

No, Mom, Starfleet Academy is still not on the list. Data, back me up on this? You know it’s not a life I’m suited for.

Anyway, it’s hard to believe this is my last week at Suzuki. I think I could stay here forever and not get bored.

At the recital tonight there were a couple of boys from Oberlin who played rock and roll cello duets – covers of a song by some ancient Earth group called ‘Metallica’ and a newer piece by an all-cello rock band called ‘String Theory.’ Dad, you and Uncle Zane would love them. Data….I’ve got a data-solid with some of their stuff, but I’m not sure you’ll appreciate the glory of ACID CELLO.

(The door opens, and another young woman – one with cocoa-colored skin and a head full of braids – leans over Zoe’s shoulder and peers into the camera. Her accent is faintly British.)

Hello, Zoe’s parents or friends or whatever. I’m Ronnie. If she hasn’t told you ALL about me, you’re missing out. Need to borrow your girl for a couple hours. There’s cheeseburgers a-waiting and less than 90 minutes to curfew.

(Laughing, Zoe pushes Ronnie out of frame.)

Ronnie, I need to finish this!

(She returns her attention to her letter.)

Alright everyone, you heard her…there are cheeseburgers. Sorry, but junk food trumps letter writing every time. Love you! Mean it!

(Message attachment: a clip of Zoe playing the Bach Prelude.)

(=A=)

Stardate 44487.90

(28 June 2367, 2:00 AM, Pacific Time)

From: Zoe L. Harris, Suzuki Institute, San Francisco, Earth

To: Dana Swensen, U.S.S. Enterprise

Okay, I admit it: I’ve been a horrible friend. I’ve been so focused on music and music, and did I mention music? And I kept meaning to send you another letter, but then all the news was of the old kind and…forgive me?

So, it’s my last week at Suzuki, and I’ve met some people and my playing is better than ever, but more than one of my teachers here has asked me if it’s what I really want to do with my life, and the thing is, how are you supposed to know what you want to do with your life at sixteen? I mean…really?

I mean I love music. But…what if they’re right?

What if I don’t love it…enough?

Okay, this is already way too serious.

So, you and Josh…Josh and you. I don’t know, you seem to fit together so well. But I guess…I met you both at the same time, so I think of you in the same breath half the time. The two of you together just seems right.

But if you’re not ready, you’re not ready.

I mean…Tev and I…we were…but then with Theo I’m not….

I’m really not helping, am I?

I’ve only got three days left here at Suzuki, and then I’m back at Theo’s for the North American Independence Day holiday, which is apparently some ancient celebration that involves fireworks and backyard barbecues. I’ll be there for a week after that, actually, before I move to ACT’s summer dorms, which are actually in the hostel at Fort Mason.

It will be weird not doing music every day. I know pretty much how I stack up with other musicians, but against other actors I have no idea.

Tell me I won’t suck?

Hug Josh for me.

Kiss him for you.

(=A=)

(Another series of text messages)

Friday, 30 June 2367, 11:05 A.M. Pacific Time

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev, Wesley Crusher

Okay, boys. The final recital is tonight. My ensemble got picked for the opening. Are you both coming? Can I get a head count?

11:07 A.M. Pacific Time

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris, Wesley Crusher

At the advanced age of eight-days-from-twenty, I do not believe I still qualify as a boy. Wouldn’t miss your concert for the world, CelloGirl. Auntie is coming as well.

11:08 A.M. Pacific Time

From: Wesley Crusher

To: Zoe Harris, Theo Nechayev

I requested an early-start weekend pass, but it hasn’t been approved yet. Will let you know ASAP.

11:09 A.M.

From: Wesley Crusher

To: Zoe Harris

If I don’t get a pass, please don’t hold it against me? It’s a really big weekend for off-campus requests.

11:12 A.M.

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

Aunt Alynna wants me to tell you not to be put off when she shows up in full dress uniform. Suzuki Institute is a respected school, and this concert is an annual event.

11:13 A.M.

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Is this the part where you tell me I committed some social faux pas by inviting her so casually?

11:14 A.M.

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

She’s a friend of the family to you, at least now. If you were a cadet it’d be different. Are we allowed to take you home with us, or do you have to wait until morning to check out?

11:15 A.M.

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Morning, sadly. Between ten and noon. Are you coming to fetch me, or should I sign up for the Institute’s ground shuttle? Public transport with cello and luggage is kind of a hassle.

11:16 A.M.

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

I’ll come collect you at 10:30, and bring you home so you can unpack. We’ll plan the rest of the weekend together.

11:23 A.M.

From: Wesley Crusher

Zoe Harris, Theo Nechayev

I was just informed I am Admiral Nechayev’s body man for the evening, and that formal dress is in order. Gee, Zoe, I thought you said we were FRIENDS?

11:37 A.M.

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev, Wesley Crusher

I swear I had nothing to do with this.

11:38 A.M.

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris, Wesley Crusher

Hey, it got you off-campus on a Friday night of a holiday weekend didn’t it? Aren’t you plebes supposed to be honored by such assignments?

Also? I had nothing to do with it either.

(=A=)

Stardate 44498.86

(Sunday, 2 July 2367, 2:00 A.M. Pacific Time)

To: Stevek Mairaj, U.S.S. Berlin

From: Zoe L. Harris, Casa Nechayev, San Francisco, Earth

Tev!

So, we haven’t talked since April or early May, and so much is going on. First, I’m writing this from the home of one Admiral Alynna Nechayev. Yes, that Admiral Nechayev.

(Zoe does her best deadpan I’m-being-completely-serious tone and expression.)

Apparently hanging out with officers, wannabe officers, and ‘fleet brats eventually sinks in. T’vek, I’m actually at a Starfleet Academy summer program for prospective students.

(She takes a beat.)

Also, I’m dating Wesley Crusher.

(She stares into the camera daring it to contradict her. It does not.)

(Time passes.)

(She bursts out giggling.)

Okay, that’s totally bogus, but I wish I could have seen the expression on your face when I said it. So, truth: I’ve been on Earth since the end of May, staying with Theo – I think I mentioned he was on the Enterprise for a semester in space thing from MIT? Well it turns out that he’s the Admiral’s nephew, and he’s here for the summer, and he invited me to spend the summer with him.

Of course there was no way my parents – well, my dad, maybe, but definitely not my mom – were going to let me spend the whole summer with a boy. (Theo says he’s technically a man since he turns twenty next week, but whatever.) So, for the last month I’ve been eating, sleeping, and breathing music at the Suzuki Institute, and I’m here for a week, and then I move to Fort Mason, for ACT’s summer program, and then there might be a few days here again before I head home.

Or…back to the ship.

Or…you know what I mean.

The music part’s been stellar, of course. I got to work with members of the Tantalus, I’ve learned a little bit of Vulcan lyre technique in a workshop here (see, I promised your mother), and the rest…

The admiral, when you’re not her underling, is really all shades of cool. She’s much smaller in person than she seems on a vid-screen, and kind of soft-spoken, and she’s been very welcoming, not pushing the whole ‘consider the Academy’ agenda on me at all.

And Theo…Theo is…nice. He’s funny and kind and I like spending time with him – he’s introducing me to his friends, and taking me to lots of his favorite places, but we’ve agreed to keep things casual. Light.

At least for the summer.

(Her tone changes from light and chatty to somewhat darker. Worried.)

I need to tell you something. Well, I need to tell someone something, and I’m picking you because you’re not likely to put me under house arrest or redirect a starship…you know I told you about…about Data’s brother and what happened after you left? Well, it’s probably nothing. Or nerves. Or…I could have sworn I saw him at the final Suzuki concert last on Friday. Just for a second.

I’m probably just imagining things, right?

Oh! I forgot. My suitemate, Ronnie, says to ask you if you know a guy on the Berlin – Harley Babigian? He’s a year or so ahead of us in school, and they used to date or something. Well, they used to ‘get together,’ but I’m not entirely sure which meaning of ‘get together’ was meant.

It’s really late, and we’re doing brunch with bunches of people I don’t actually know tomorrow, so I’d better hit send.

This summer’s been amazing, Tev. I miss you…I think I’m always gonna miss you…but I’m okay.

Better than okay.

Great even.

(She flashes her happiest smile, the one that goes all the way to her eyes.)

Give my love to your parents.

And send me a note when you have time.

(=A=)

Stardate 44505.87

(4 July 2367, 15:35 PM, ship’s time)

From: Stevek Mairaj, U.S.S. Berlin

To: Zoe L. Harris, Admiral Nechayev’s residence, San Francisco, Earth

Look at you, Zoe, hanging with the Admiralty. Wow, and to think I knew you when…

Okay, I know, you wouldn’t care if Theo’s family were janitorial workers, as long as they kept you in coffee…you are being kept in coffee, aren’t you? I’d hate to think what you’d be like if not.

(He schools his smiling, laughing face into a more serious expression.)

I’m glad you’re doing something for you this summer. I’m going to a summer program on Earth as well, that starts in a couple of weeks. ‘The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ is hosting an intensive for prospective architecture students and they liked my application enough to get me in. No promises, but maybe we can meet up. I’d love to see you.

(He takes on a concerned, lecturing sort of tone.)

So, about the other thing you mentioned. The brother….are we talking in code for a reason, or can we say his name? I feel like I’m in a spy vid.

(In a conspiratorial whisper)

The sehlat yowled at moonrise.

(In a normal voice)

I don’t know what to tell you. If it was just one time, then maybe it was just your imagination…you can be a little…creative, sometimes. Don’t be paranoid, just be aware. But if you see him again, Zoe, you have to tell someone. Your mother, at least. Or Data.

Is it wrong that I hope it’s just you being a little crazy?

Not crazy-crazy, but…you know.

Anyway, I’ll append my trip details so you have them. Hopefully our schedules will mesh. I want to meet this Theo-person, see if he’s good enough for you.

Oh, and Harley’s in my lit class – or was – I’m not sure what classes will be when school starts again. He’s…kind of awesome actually. Trouble, but in a good way.

(He holds his hand up, favoring her with the Vulcan salute, but then flashes the ASL sign for ‘I love you,’ right after.)

(=A=)

Stardate 44507.34

(5 July 2367, 04:23 hours, ship’s time)

From: Lieutenant Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe Lauren Harris, Admiral Nechayev’s residence, San Francisco, Earth

Good morning, Zoe.

At your request, I am attempting to be more casual in my personal correspondence with you. Do you find that ‘good morning’ is a better greeting than ‘dear Zoe?’ Does the fact that it may not be morning in your location when you receive this missive lessen the effect of the greeting? Is there a specific greeting you would prefer I use for future letters?

You have asked before for news of the ship. We have been under a communications blackout for the last three point seven six eight days, but I am afraid the reason is classified information. Let me assure you that we are all well.

Prior to the blackout, I had the experience of serving as ‘judge and jury’ in a trial between Captain Picard and a ‘con artist’ attempting to pass herself off as a legendary being in order to lay claim to an entire world and all its people and assets. I do not mind admitting that I was somewhat concerned about the possibility of ruling against the Captain, but with the help of Commander LaForge and many others aboard the Enterprise – including your mother, whose knowledge of folklore was quite handy – the truth was found, and the woman was arrested.

It is possible you have seen mention of this on the news networks, as she has been ‘scamming’ people throughout the Federation for…the better part of a decade.

In regard to your last letter, I am honored to be included with your family among people who ‘matter’ to you. Perhaps you are aware of this already, but, as I have often had to remind you that we are friends, I will clarify for you: you also ‘matter’ to me.

I have heard from Cooper, who has suggested that if you are to move forward as a musician, even if you do not eventually make a career of it, you would benefit less from a teacher and more from a coach and partner. She has further suggested – as you, yourself, have – I believe the word is ‘grumbled’ – that you have moved beyond what Lieutenant Starker can teach.

As we have already agreed to continue meeting weekly to continue your study of music theory, I would suggest that we expand our time together by one hour, and focus part of that time on technique and repertoire. I have observed that reactions to my own performances are much warmer since we have begun working together, and believe we should capitalize on what is clearly mutually…beneficial.

However, if this plan is not acceptable to you, or if you would prefer to work with someone who understands the emotional component of musicianship, I will understand, and will begin the search for a likely candidate.

When I mentioned your complaint about my ‘writing style’ to Counselor Troi, she suggested that I include some inconsequential chatter in my next letter, so I will share that as I record this, Spot is curled up on the couch, but not in ‘your place.’

Instead, she has taken a liking to the place I generally occupy when you and I are having tea together, and I must dislodge her if I wish to sit down. After I do so, she invariably waits until I have picked up a padd or my oboe (You have stated more than once that you think the oboe sounds like a ‘duck call’ but it is a necessary component of certain chamber ensembles. Having now listened to the calls and songs of eight hundred seventy-three distinct types of water fowl, I believe that you either made an error in identification, or are using ‘duck call’ in a way with which I am unfamiliar. Please elaborate?) and then jumps into my lap, where she will remain until I move her again. This behavior typically repeats itself until I cease my planned activity and focus my attention on her, or until she exhibits signs of being hungry.

(As if on cue, there is a loud meeoooowwwrrrrr from out of frame, and then orange and white fur obscures Data’s image.)

No, Spot. You must not jump onto the console.

No, Spot. You must not bat at the control keys.

No, Spot –

(There is a screen full of static for about 30 seconds, during which Data’s cajoling and Spot’s meowing can be heard. Then the image resolves into Data’s face again. His last three sentences are uttered very rapidly.)

I am afraid I must end this letter now, Zoe.

I look forward to your next communication.

Data out.

Notes: Episodes that take place during this chapter are “Devil’s Due,” and “Clues.” The piece of music Zoe mentions playing solo is the Prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007. A video of Yo-Yo Ma playing it has been added to the CRUSHING ON CELLO playlist (link in my profile.) Rock cello is not a new thing, though it’s safe to say it was new to Zoe. My own first intro to it was via the group Apocalyptica, which really did start out doing all-cello covers of Metallica tunes. Their version of “Fade to Black” has also been added to the playlist. And before you ask, no, Tev and Zoe are NOT getting back together.

Chapter 5: Wish You Were Here – Part I

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Wish You Were Here – Part I

(Messages are all video recordings unless otherwise noted.)

Stardate 44521.34

(10 July 2367, 07:00 hours, ship’s time)

From: Lt. Cmdr. Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Hello, Kid-of-mine!

I haven’t heard from you in a few days…are you all settled in at the hostel? I know orientation was last week, but classes start today, don’t they?

Send a note, even if it’s just a quick line to tell me how you are.

I miss you, kiddo.

I love you.

(=A=)

12 July 2367, 2:00 PM Local Time

From: Zachary Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Darling Zoetrope, are you merely immersed in your creative artistry, or has something gone wrong? We miss seeing your smiling face and hearing your melodious voice, even if it has to be via comm-chat and recorded letters.

I heard from your mother…she says you’ve been incommunicado for the better part of a week.

I think you’re just avoiding us until whatever you pierced or dyed has healed or faded.

Tell me I’m right, darling?

Gia sends her love, as do I.

(=A=)

13 July 2367, 4:00 AM Pacific Time

From: Anonymous Sender

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

(This message is audio only, and the voice sounds like a darker, less stable version of Data.)

I’ve been watching you while you’ve been in San Francisco. Brave of you to stray so far from the people who can protect you. Maybe you aren’t such a little girl after all.

I heard you play the Bach prelude at Suzuki. My brother didn’t teach you that kind of expression.

Does he know you wanted it to be his kiss? Somehow, I doubt it. If you ever want to taste the real thing again, instead of pining for a cheap imitation, I’ll be around.

I’m always around.

(Message auto-deletes after it finishes playing.)

(=A=)

Stardate 44533.22

(14 July 2367, 15:00 ship’s time)

From: Stevek Mairaj, U.S.S. Berlin

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

So, you’re so starstruck by the people you’re working with at ACT that you don’t have time to read or answer mail anymore? Maybe it’s good we’re not a couple any more – I’d be hurt and worried.

Oh, wait, I am hurt and worried.

Mostly worried.

Anyway, Zoe, I’m not traveling through San Francisco, but through Antwerp, so I won’t be able to see you before my program starts but we have a long weekend at the beginning of August and if you can find time, I think I could get a shuttle there, or you could come to Denmark, or we could meet somewhere in between – what’s in between California and Denmark?

Hope you’re having fun showing off how amazing you are.

See you in a few weeks.

(=A=)

15 July 2367, 11:00 AM Pacific Time

From: Cadet Wesley Crusher, Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, Earth

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Hey, Zoe, I just got a text from Theo asking if I’d heard from you all week, and when I tried to text your PADD I got a message-refused response. Is everything okay? Should I call the Admiral, or send word to my mother?

(=A=)

Stardate 44535.56

(Saturday, 15 July 2367, 11:34 hours ship’s time.)

From: Lieutenant Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe Lauren Harris, ACT, Fort Mason, San Francisco, Earth

Alert: This message has been tagged read-receipt (automatic), reply-requested

Zoe,

As I begin this recording, it is one hour, thirty-four minutes and thirty-eight point three seconds into the time of day when, were you aboard ship, we would be having our Saturday Session. As I have nothing else scheduled for this period of time, and have become accustomed to sharing it with you, it seemed appropriate to spend it recording a message.

Spot is asleep on the couch, and the ship is engaged in a mapping and charting expedition in a largely uninhabited sector. You would refer to this as ‘the boring part.’

Most of my colleagues would agree with you.

It has been approximately ten days since we have last communicated. As your pattern has been to send messages every other day, I became…concerned…and went to your mother to determine whether or not there was cause for alarm. Her response to my inquiry was that she had not heard from you either, but that you were likely ‘just busy, making new friends and experiencing new things.’

It is my hope that your mother is correct.

I am unsure why, but I do not believe she is.

I have formed seventeen distinct scenarios providing possible reasons for your ‘radio silence,’ to use your phrase. However, I am not inclined to list them now. It is my experience that if I omit information, you will ‘come looking’ for the missing…data.

Zoe if something is wrong…May I remind you that I am available if you…’need an ear.’

I hope to hear from you…soon.

(Read-receipt: July 15, 2367, Time: 11:35:35 Stardate 44535.57)

(=A=)

Stardate 44536.03

(15 July 2367, 3:37 PM, Pacific Time)

To: Lt. Cmdr. Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

CC: Lt. Cmdr. Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

Zachary & Gia Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

Cdt. Wesley Crusher, Starfleet Academy, Earth

Dana Swenson, U.S.S. Enterprise

Stevek Mairaj, U.S.S. Berlin

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

(This message is text only).

Am fine. Settled in at hostel. Other girls are really cool. Boys…are boys. Week’s been intense. More later. Z.

(=A=)

(A series of text messages)

15 July 2367, 4:02 PM, Pacific Time

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Sorry to be so avoid-y all week. Cannot believe you actually had Wesley Crusher check on me. I mean…Wesley? Really? Brunch tomorrow?

15 July 2367, 4:03 PM

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

It has to be on the late side. Promised auntie I’d go to mass with her in the morning. You’re welcome to join us.

4:04 PM

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

Mass, really? Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian….What flavor of mass? And what time?

4:05 PM

From: Theo Nechayev

To: Zoe Harris

Episcopal. Sung. We’d pick you up at nine-thirty.

4:06 PM

From: Zoe Harris

To: Theo Nechayev

I haven’t been to mass since Christmas Eve. See you in the morning.

(=A=)

15 July 2367, 8:30 PM Pacific Time

To: Irene Harris, Harris Farm, Garrovick River Falls, Centaurus

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

(Throughout this message, Zoe seems subdued, and a little bit ill-at-ease.)

(ACT is spelled as one word, but pronounced letter by letter – A – C – T)

Hey, Gran –

It’s been a while since I’ve contacted you, and since everyone else jumped on me for not being all chatty-Cathy this week, I thought I’d better send a note before it was your turn.

San Francisco is a lovely city, and I can see why people always want to come here. Parts of the city feel like there’s nothing but Starfleet, but then you turn a corner and there’s a local café that’s been here forever, and you can’t help but feel the history of the place…Centaurus feels so new and young by comparison.

So, the Suzuki Institute was an amazing experience. My technique instructor, a woman named Cooper who owns CrossBows on Ogus II, was really amazing at pulling expression out of me while she tweaked some of my technical skills, and I got to do a master class with Hugo Rodriguez from the Tantalus…and that was really scary, and really daunting, but then I did some more weekend extras, and I’ve learned that I’m a better musician than I think I am.

But I also learned that I’m not certain I want to be a musician as a career. The instructors are all brutally honest – you give up a lot of other options when you choose a conservatory, and it invariably means long tours or being stuck in the back of an orchestra til you’ve paid your dues…

So…I had a nice break hanging out with Theo. Mom likes him. Sometimes I think she likes him more than I do, but then, she sees us as some great match, and I suspect if I stayed with him it might not hurt her career – and why am I even worried about that. I mean, she’s on the damned flagship – I know, language – and everything and…

But that can wait.

I’ve been at ACT for a week and a half now, and wow…it’s not what I was expecting. It’s not what I was expecting at all. I mean, everyone’s very nice, but…I’m not sure I belong here. I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and everyone is so much better than me.

I wish you were here to hug me and then talk sense to me.

I wish I’d decided to go back home and do summer stock, at least for the second half of the summer.

I wish…I wish a lot of things.

Well, I have another message to send, and I’m going to mass – yes, you heard that right – with a friend tomorrow, so I should end this now.

I love you, Gran. Can’t wait to see you at Christmas.

(=A=)

Stardate 44536.94

(15 July 2367, 11:40 PM Pacific Time)

To: Lt. Cmdr. Geordi LaForge, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

(As with her previous message, Zoe is subdued, and any semblance of being chipper is obviously forced.)

Hey, Geordi,

I bet in a million years you never expected to get a message from me. Hope you don’t mind?

So, I’m at ACT in San Francisco, and there’s this boy here who’s a little younger than me – about fourteen. His name is Michael Lang, and he’s really kind of sweet in an I-wish-he-were-my-younger-brother kind of way, and his family survived one of the Borg attacks, but there was blowback from an explosion and he lost his eyes.

He’s been fitted for a VISOR – I guess they don’t like to do prosthetic implants on kids who are still growing? – and he’s getting used to it, but what he isn’t getting used to, shouldn’t have to get used to, is that other kids are picking on him.

I might’ve sort of, kind of, mentioned that the Chief Engineer of Starfleet’s flagship was a family friend – presumptuous I know, but you can exact some kind of revenge when I get back to the ship next month – and might be willing to share some advice?

So, would you?

His contact info is appended to this message.

Also…while I’m recording this…is there a way someone with seriously subpar computer skills could retrieve a message that was set to auto-delete after being read? If there is, could you send me step-by-step instructions?

I don’t want to eat up more of your time. Let me know what you think about Michael? I hate to see anyone in pain.

Oh…and…could you let Data know I’ll call him tomorrow afternoon or evening?

Thanks bunches.

Notes: Zoe’s lack of communication will be further explained by Zoe herself, so I won’t elaborate here. This chapter also exists between episodes, so it really is, mission-wise, one of the ‘boring parts.’ Fort Mason is a former army base in the Marina district of San Francisco, and was the principal port for the U.S. Army’s Pacific campaign during World War II. Today, it’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Some of the officer’s housing is still in use, while one of the buildings is a hostel with a small café. The main fort now houses Fort Mason Center, which provides space to improve troupes, SFMOMA, Greens restaurant, at least one music school, etc. ACT – American Conservatory Theater is a real institution, but does not, in our time, have space at Fort Mason – they’re more centrally located. For this story, I’ve really just co-opted their name.

Chapter 6: Interlude: Fear of Failure

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Interlude: Fear of Failure

Stardate 44539.34

(Sunday, 16 July 2367, 8:40 PM Pacific Time)

I put off the calls I knew I had to make for as long as I could, not because of the message from Lore, but because I didn’t want my family to know I was floundering where I’d expected to excel.

First, I spoke to each of my parents, explaining that the first week and half of ACT’s program had been intense. Then I watched Geordi’s message, following his step-by-step instructions to retrieve and save the message from Lore, which I (also following his instructions) forwarded both to him and to Data. Then I took a long, hot, water shower – one of the perks of having a father who’d funded a private room with an en suite bathroom.

I was wrapped in a terry-cloth bathrobe, with bare feet and still-damp hair when I finally placed the one call that I had been both anticipating and dreading.

“Lieutenant Commander Data, here,” came the familiar voice, as his features resolved into an image on my screen. As before, I’d adjusted things so I could sit on my bed while we talked.

“Hey, Data,” I said, attempting my brightest smile. “Miss me?”

“Yes,” he answered simply, but then his head canted ever so slightly forward, and his brows came together in the expression that usually meant he was concerned, but his yellow eyes were reassuringly steady. “I do not wish to be rude,” he said, “but in the common parlance, I believe it would be accurate to say that you ‘look like hell.’ How can I help?”

Come here and make everything better, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Instead I sighed, “I don’t think you can. It’s not just the message from Lore that has me all messed up. I’m not sleeping well. Food tastes like sand.” I could hear my voice quavering. “Data, everything’s all wrong…I don’t think I can do this.”

If I was expecting sympathetic platitudes, I was talking to the wrong person.

“Please elaborate,” he said.

“It started the first day,” I answered. “They broke us up into different groups, and the instructor I was assigned is this guy named Lachlan Meade. He’s this great big bear of a man, and he’s Scottish, and I’ve seen him in vids like half my life – we all have – so I know his reputation, but he walked into class on the first day, and announced that ‘acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly.'”

“That is an interesting description of the craft,” Data observed. “Please continue.”

“Then he said that some of us were probably here because we were the children of celebrities, and some of us probably had professional credits from work as kids, and some of us had the leads in our school plays…and that none of that mattered.”

“Ah,” Data said.

“Ah? I tell you that the instructor basically said I didn’t belong here, and all you say is ‘Ah?'”

Data didn’t typically need to search for words, so his hesitation confused me. After a beat or two, however, his soft reply came over the comm-link: “I am uncertain of what you would have me say. Did Mr. Meade state explicitly that you do not belong in this program?”

I took a breath, “Well, no. But Data, I fit every single one of those three criteria.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “You do. However, I would ‘hazard a guess’ that you are not the only student who does so. ACT’s summer intensive is a pre-professional program, is it not?”

“Well…yes.”

“And is it not also usual for the children of professional performers to follow their parents into ‘the biz,’ just as the children of Starfleet officers often follow their parents into service?”

“Yes,” I said again. “Of course it is, but…”

His brow-crinkle, this time, was the one I recognized from class as the expression he wore during ‘teachable moments.’ “Then, is it not possible that your own flair for the dramatic, as well as your prolonged absence from home and family, have combined to reduce your confidence in your own talent and abilities?”

I wrinkled my nose at him. “It’s…possible,” I allowed.

“There is more,” he stated. And I knew he meant that I had more to tell him.

“He’s having us do these exercises where we talk about ourselves.”

“I do not understand.”

“He puts us all in a circle, and makes us close our eyes and talk about our scariest moments, or the time we were happiest, or who makes us our best selves.”

“I have never known you to be reticent about sharing personal anecdotes.”

“All my biggest moments would involve name-dropping. I’ve never been more scared than when I was afraid you’d all been Borgified, or when I thought you were dead. I’m happiest when I’m playing music, which is pretty normal, but the best musical moment I had was doing Hugo Rodriguez’s master class. And the person who makes me my best self is…” I could feel myself blushing, but somehow the distance between us and the fact that it was just a comm-call made the confession come out anyway. “…is you. And I can’t talk about any of it, because Lachlan – I mean everyone -already thinks I’m an over-privileged ‘fleet brat with a celebrity father, so naming the Enterprise or talking about how my math tutor and music theory teacher is…you… would be…less than helpful.”

I hesitated, catching my breath, then continued before he could say anything. “But it doesn’t matter, anyway, because really, Lach is – I mean everyone is – is right. I’ve never had to struggle for anything, really. I’ve been taught how to succeed, but I’ve never been taught how to deal with failing. And Data, I feel like I’m failing.”

“I suspect you are simply having difficulty adjusting to a new paradigm.”

I rolled my eyes at his image on the screen. “You would say that.” A thought occurred to me. “Have you ever failed at anything?”

“Yes,” he said, in the same matter-of-fact tone he’d used when he’d said he’d missed me. “I experienced failure many times as a cadet at Starfleet Academy.”

“You failed classes? Aren’t you omniscient, or something?”

His expression was reproachful. “You are aware that I am not. But, yes, I did fail more than one class. Anything that required personal interaction was difficult for me, as I had not yet learned human social customs.”

“You weren’t programmed with stuff like that?”

“There is often a great divide between theoretical knowledge and the knowledge gained from experience,” he said. And then his face lit up, as a thought apparently occurred to him. “Zoe, do you play poker?”

“Poker? The card game? No. Most people my age consider it a geezer game.”

“Query: ‘geezer game?'”

“One of those things only old people play.”

“I do not think either Geordi or I count as ‘geezers’ by any definition,” he said. Anyone else would have been miffed. He, of course, was not.

“Well, no…not you two…but, why are you asking me about card games?”

“My experience playing is a good example of ‘knowing how to play’ a game, but lacking the necessary real-world experience to excel.”

“I’m not sure how your poker prowess – or lack thereof – relates to my problem.”

“It does not relate to your problem, merely to your question about what ‘stuff’ was included in my original programming.”

“Oh…okay.” I waited a beat. “I think maybe we should talk about the message I received from your bro – from Lore.”

“He did say he would be watching you.”

“I remember. I was there. It was creepy then, and it’s creepier now. Bordering on scary, even. The thing is, Data, most people don’t actually mean it when they say things like that.”

“That is true. However, Lore is not ‘most people.’ He has demonstrated a tendency to be unpredictable, and his behavior is often irrational. As well, he –”

I cut him off, “Data!”

“Zoe?”

“Am I in danger? Is he likely to kidnap me from my bed? Should I inform the instructors that I may have a stalker?”

“Ah.” His eyes betrayed that he was searching for information. “I do not believe he means you direct harm. In fact, I am inclined to believe that he meant for you to forward his message to me. As long as you are cautious about where you go, and with whom, I do not think you are at risk.”

“Can you do me a favor?”

“Of course, if I am able.”

“If you believe that I’m really not in danger, I trust your judgement, but… I didn’t tell my parents about that message. I also haven’t told them that I thought I saw him – Lore – at the Suzuki concert.”

“If Lore truly wished you harm, he could have ‘made a move’ against you at any time.”

“Oh, thanks for that.”

“Is the concert the only time you have glimpsed him?”

I closed my eyes, thinking it over, “I thought I saw him at mass this morning as well, but that seems unlikely…I mean why would he go to mass? But most everywhere we’ve been there’ve been Starfleet officers in uniforms, and I’m betting he still has your old one, or access to more, and really what’s one more officer in a sea of…oh, god, I just realized why you’re always in uniform, even when other people are in normal clothes.”

“Zoe?”

“It’s to blend, isn’t it? You in civvies would stand out, but in a uniform…. People see the uniform first, not the man who’s wearing it.” I said it softly, not with the usual gleeful tone I’d have used when solving some other, less personal, puzzle. “When you’re in uniform, it forces people to see you as an officer and not…”

“…as a machine.” He finished the sentence for me. “Indeed,” he added quietly.

The kid I’d told Geordi about, the one with the VISOR, flitted into my thoughts for a moment, and when I looked at Data’s face on my comm-screen, and met his eyes, all I could say was, “People really kind of suck, sometimes.”

“I would not use that phrasing,” Data said, in a tone as subdued as my own, “but you are correct. However, as you yourself have noted, sometimes people can also be ‘kind of awesome.'”

My slang coming out of his mouth made me grin. “You are kind of awesome. All kinds of awesome.” I managed to maintain a real smile for him. “Thank you, Data. Talking to you has really helped.”

“I am glad that it did.”

The rest of our conversation was just chat. He told me the ship was still mapping and charting, but that Commander Riker was deployed on a mission to determine if a planet was able to be contacted by the Federation, and I told him about some of the stuff I’d been doing at ACT that hadn’t been completely awful.

As our conversation wound down, I asked him again, “So, you won’t tell my mother? About Lore?”

“I will not, for now, if only because she would likely insist that you return to the Enterprise, and I believe Lore would consider such an action cause for alarm.”

“But…?”

“But I must insist that you stay in touch with your parents, and that you let me know if you see or hear from him again.”

“I will,” I said. “I promise.”

“I accept your promise,” he said gravely.

“Data…”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“Do you really think I have talent?”

“Yes, Zoe.”

We ended our call at that point, and I went to comb out my hair before bed. I was still half-convinced that I wasn’t doing very well, but I wasn’t ready to give up, either.

Notes: First, a shout-out to Phangirl27. No, I’m not in school. Haven’t been for decades. Just crazy-busy. Improv helps me get into the heads of different characters. Sometimes. Second, Riker’s mission (referred to by Data) is “First Contact,” the episode, not the movie. It’s the only episode that doesn’t reference a specific Stardate, but based on the episodes on either side of it, mid-July should be about when he first goes ‘undercover’ on the planet. Third, I’m off to Mexico on 12/23, but will try to have this story finished before I leave. Someone stop me before I write a Christmas one-off. Edited to add: the quotation, “Acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly,” used by Zoe’s instructor Lachlan Meade, was actually coined by Rosalind Russell.

Chapter 7: Wish You Were Here – Part II

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Wish You Were Here – Part II

(All messages are video recordings unless otherwise noted.)

Stardate 44588.42

3 August 2367, 6:36 PM Pacific Time

To: Stevek Mairaj, U.S.S. Berlin

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Well, you’ve been gone again for like four days now, and somehow it doesn’t hurt as much as it did after my birthday. Does that mean we’re really over each other – romantically – or does it just mean we’re growing up? I’m guessing a little of both.

Anyway, I’m just dashing this off between class and dinner, and I’m late for the latter. I loved hanging out with you in San Francisco, and I’m glad Theo didn’t feel threatened by you being here. It shouldn’t matter that the two of you get along, and yet somehow it does, at least a little.

And how dare you tease us about being the new power couple of ‘fleet brats? Aren’t you the boy with five – FIVE – different girls pinging your padd all the time.

Really, Tev…if I’d known you were such a player…

But…I guess it’s good you have options.

And…I still miss you like crazy.

I should go.

Give your parents my love, and I promise to be better about keeping in touch if you are. Deal?

(=A=)

Stardate 44589.98

4 August 2367, 08:13 hours, ship’s time

From: Lt. Cmdr. Deanna Troi, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Hello, Zoe, I hope this message finds you well.

Data says you and he have been corresponding regularly – no, he hasn’t provided any details of what you’ve talked about – so I bet you know that we’re still on our mapping and charting mission. Commander Riker is back from his away mission – I think I mentioned that in my last letter, if someone else didn’t – and I hope you don’t mind, but I shared the recordings of your music with him. He says any time you want to switch to jazz, you’re welcome in his band. Take him up on it – he could use the challenge.

I’m glad to hear you’re not struggling so much now that you’ve been at ACT a while longer. Remember that even though it’s a pre-professional program, you are not committed to a career in theatre if it’s not what you want. This is just a time for you to explore possibilities. If you look at the experience that way, I think you’ll find the pressure eases.

Perhaps I wasn’t clear, Zoe, but you are welcome to contact me any time. As long as your mother is part of this crew, you are a part of the Enterprise family. Something tells me there are people – a certain android of our mutual acquaintance – who would consider you a part of the ‘family’ even if your mother transfers to a different posting.

Enjoy your last few weeks, Zoe. I look forward to seeing you again in person, and hearing your adventures over some kind of chocolate.

(=A=)

Stardate 44592.92

5 August 2367, 10:00 AM Pacific Time

To: Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

I looked at the time as I was getting up just now, and the first thought that entered my mind was, “Oh, god, it’s ten in the morning and I’m going to be late for my Saturday Session with Data.” Then reality penetrated my brain, and I remembered I was still in San Francisco. No, I’m not crazy (Counselor Troi says so) it’s just that Saturday mornings with you have been imprinted into every part of my being.

Translation: I miss you. I miss my routine. I even miss the ship, but don’t you dare tell my mother I admitted that.

On the other hand…things here have completely turned around. So, last Friday in class (a week ago Friday, not yesterday-Friday) I got so fed up with all the ‘find your inner truth, tell your deepest secrets’ stuff that Lach – Lachlan Meade – was pushing us to share that I blew up at him.

I mean, I really blew up at him.

I told him I thought he sucked as a teacher, and not everyone was supposed to be a method actor, and anyway, he’d already said the kids of celebrities, community theater brats, and people who’ve had the leads in school plays didn’t belong at ACT, so why would he want us to share truths that amounted to name-dropping.?

And the weirdest thing happened.

He started laughing.

I mean like belly-laughs, from the deepest core of himself, and then he started to applaud.

As I’m sure you can imagine, I was confused. Actually, the whole class was confused. Then we all started laughing, too – it was like some invisible wire had snapped, and suddenly there was no more tension.

(Whenever she’s quoting Lachlan Meade, Zoe imitates his Scottish brogue.)

Then Lach looked at me, and said, “Zoe, just because it happens that ye match ev’ry category I ticked off on m’fingers, doesna mean ye’re not s’pposed t’be here. Sharing yer truth isna about the facts of a story; it’s about finding the universal truth in all of us. And fer yer information, almost ev’ry one of ya has some celebrity in the family tree. So now, I’m gonna ask ye again t’tell us yer scariest moment, and this time, ‘stead of worrying yourself silly over droppin’ names, just open yer pretty mouth and tell the fookin’ tale.”

So, Data, I did. And do you want to know something? It wasn’t about Lore, after all. And it wasn’t about the Borg, either. And…and I just realized that breakfast ends in an hour, and Lach is leading an improv bootcamp today, and I kind of really want to go.

Tell Spot I’m bringing her a special present.

(=A=)

(The following is neither text nor video, but printed on monogrammed paper, delivered by courier.)

6 August 2367, 2:00 PM Pacific Time

From: Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco

Ms. Harris

The pleasure of your company is requested at the Historic Cliff House at 11:30 A.M. local time on Sunday, August 13th, for a farewell brunch honoring my nephew Theodore. RSVP at the above address.

(Below the printed invitation, the following note is handwritten in peacock blue ink.)

Zoe, dear, Theo insisted that you’d appreciate a written invitation, and we use paper so seldom these days that I was happy to indulge him. Send me a note at the office, and I’ll make sure a ground car picks you up and returns you to ACT on the day.

It’s not a surprise, of course, but I’m not sure if Theo remembered to tell you he was heading back to campus on the 14th – he has a chance for a better position in the housing lottery, but only if he’s present on the day.

You are, of course, still welcome to spend the rest of August at the house, if you like. In fact, if you let me know when your showcase performances are, I’ll extend an invitation to your parents to come as well.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, Zoe, whatever you decide.

Regards,

Alynna.

(=A=)

(This message is text-only.)

6 August 2367, 8:30 PM Pacific Time

To: Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco

Alynna,

(You keep telling me to use your first name, so I really hope you mean it.)

Thanks so much for the invitation to brunch. The formal paper made me smile. Of course I’ll be there. Thanks for including me.

I’m not sure of the performance dates, yet, but should know in the next day or so.

Whether or not my parents can make it, I hope you’ll come.

– Zoe

(=A=)

Stardate 44620.46

Tuesday, 15 August 2367, 11:15 AM Pacific Time

To: Lt. Commander Emily Harris, U.S.S. Enterprise

cc: Zachary & Gia Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

I’m pretty sure you’ve all received messages from Admiral Nechayev already, but you know I had to tell you in person. Theo and I eloped two days ago right before he went back to school, and we know it’ll be hard and everything but…

Yeah, I wouldn’t buy that either, if I were you.

Although it’s true that you should all have personal notes from Alynna (yes, she told me to call her that). Why? Because they’ve announced the dates for the ACT Summer Showcase – not whole plays, or anything, more like our own plot that we all wrote, but using scenes and musical numbers from established productions.

Anyway the dates are the 24th-26th of August, and I’d really love it if some or all of you could come. Mom, Ed is invited, too, if he wants to come. Or can. I was thinking maybe you could beg for leave and we could spend the last week of August together, here in San Francisco or somewhere else.

Alynna says she has room for up to seven people in the house, if you uniform-y types don’t want to slum it in ‘fleet housing. Um, her words were probably a lot more gracious than mine.

Anyway…I have to dash off for lunch, then a dance rehearsal, then a vocal rehearsal and then we’re taking a picnic dinner to the Fort Mason Green to watch the sailboats. Lach said if we’re off-book by Friday he’ll take our group sailing on Saturday.

I love that he knows just how to bribe us (he calls it an ‘incentive’) to make us rehearse.

Hope you’re all hale and hearty. Gia – I want a new belly-pic!

Love you, miss you…can’t believe my time here is almost over.

(=A=)

Stardate 44621.67

15 August 2367, 9:53 PM, Pacific Time

To: Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Hi, Data…I think I was a little sappy in that last note. Call it a creative buzz and forgive me if I was out of line?

This message is a quickie, because I’ve got to dash out to lunch and rehearsal.

Anyway, they’ve set the dates for our showcase, and I know you’re Very Busy and Important and all but I’d love for you to come if you can.

I’ve attached a file with the calendar details. Also, Admiral Nechayev said I should extend her offer of housing to you, too, as long as I’m inviting you.

P.S. I thought I saw Lore at the Marina Green earlier today. I’m probably just being paranoid, but I got it on video. Also attached.

(File attachments: calendar of events, invitation from Adm. A. Nechayev, video of crowd at Marina Green)

(=A=)

17 August 2367, 10:47 PM Pacific Time.

Chat Request from MadRussian MIT

Chat Request accepted by CelloGirl ACT

CelloGirl: Theo! Did you get the dorm assignment you wanted? I meant to send you off with a proper message and failed utterly.

MadRussian: I did. I’m in a 2-person suite. Each of us has our own room, with a common area between them, and we share a bathroom with the suite across the hall. Visitors are allowed, you know.

CelloGirl: And you know my mother is unlikely to allow it, but I’ll ask. I’d like to see Massachusetts before I’m forced to go back to the ship. Or Boston, anyway. Is it true the swan boats are still there?

MadRussian: They are, and I’d be happy to take you on one. *sigh* You only want me for my connections; now I see it clearly.

CelloGirl: Yes, it’s true. Your connections…and your rowing prowess. Um, you do have rowing prowess, don’t you?

MadRussian: I’ll have you know, I’m on the crew team.

CelloGirl: Well, that’s a relief. I could never be with someone who can’t handle a canoe.

MadRussian: Do you want to…be with me…Zoe?

CelloGirl: …

MadRussian: Zoe?

CelloGirl: I do, and I don’t. I’m afraid of going too far, too fast with you…

MadRussian: The way you did with T’vek. Doesn’t he have around seventeen girls hurling messages at him?

CelloGirl: At last count it was only five. But…yeah. I mean, at the time neither of us had any clue his parents were being PCSd, but still…

MadRussian: I know…I DO know, Zoe. Think about it…meanwhile, I’ll see you on the 24th.

CelloGirl: You’re coming to showcase?

MadRussian: As if I would miss it.

CelloGirl: I’ll talk to the parental units. I’m sure we can figure something out. Good to chat with you, Theo.

Session Ends.

(=A=)

Stardate 44627.78

18 August 2367, 03:22 hours, ship’s time

From Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

To: Zoe L. Harris, Fort Mason Hostel, San Francisco, Earth

Zoe,

After viewing the video footage that you sent, I can assure you that you are not being paranoid. However, I remain certain that you are in no direct danger from Lore. Nevertheless, I would advise caution. Secure the door to your room when you enter and leave, and avoid being alone in public spaces.

I have just processed your mother’s leave request – I do not think she will mind me telling you that it has been approved – and have made a request for leave for myself. If the captain approves it, then your mother, Professor Benoit, and I will travel to Earth together to see your performance. I will confirm this with you as soon as I am able.

Regarding your concern that you were ‘too sappy’ or ‘crossed a line,’ let me remind you that I cannot be offended, nor was there anything improper in what you said. I, too, am aware of the absence of our established routine, and anticipate your return to the ship so that it may resume.

I was in Ten-Forward with Geordi yesterday attempting to ‘cheer him up’ as he has recently met one of the ship’s original designers. Their encounter did not go as he had hoped, although their differences were resolved by the time she left this morning.

We had not been there long when Guinan joined our conversation. She asked after you, and I relayed your story about Lachlan Meade. She laughed, as did Geordi, and then asked if I had been imitating Meade or you. I explained that I was drawing on your habit of changing your voice for dramatic effect, and she smiled and nodded and made the observation that you were ‘good for me.’

If she meant that you are helping me to see new sides of humanity, and stretch further beyond my programming, then she is more correct than she knows.

She asked me to send her regards, and Geordi also sends greetings.

I hope to ‘see you soon.’

Data out.

Notes: This chapter involves a time jump of a couple of weeks. It takes place after “Galaxy’s Child” and before “Identity Crisis.” Not a great time for Geordi. Also, I cannot figure out how to escape out an at-sign so ffnet doesn’t think I’m trying to post a link.

Chapter 8: Love, Zoe

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Love, Zoe

(All messages are video recordings unless otherwise noted.)

Stardate 44655.45

28 August 2367, 5:46 AM, Eastern Time

To: Admiral Alynna Nechayev, Starfleet Headquarters, San Francisco

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ

Alynna,

I just wanted to leave a message thanking you for your hospitality over the summer. You made me feel very much at home, and it was reassuring knowing I had your house to call ‘home base.’ I’m pretty sure my parents were reassured, also.

I actually enjoyed the tour of Starfleet Academy more than I thought I would, but it only confirmed my feeling that it’s Commander Data, the other officers I’ve met, and even my friend Wes have experienced.

Mom, Ed, and I are settled into this B&B and even though I’m still on California time, I was up before dawn, listening to the tide come in. It’s so beautiful here. Different than San Francisco, but nice.

Anyway, thanks again, for everything, and I promise, the fact that you’re really not a dragon lady will be our secret.

(=A=)

31 August 2367, 10:30 AM Eastern Time

To: Theo Nechayev, MIT, Cambridge, MA

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ

Hey, Theo –

First, it was great spending bits of the summer exploring San Francisco with you. I’ll never forget the look on your face when that woman started shaking the dead chicken at you so you’d give up your seat on the cable car – and you thought they were just for tourists!

Second, thank you for being so patient with me. I know it’s not the romantic summer you’d hoped for, but be realistic. You’re twenty, and I’m – (She sings this line) – I am sixteen, going on seventeen. And while I’m not going to confess to being either innocent or naïve, I think we can both agree I’m too young to commit to someone half a galaxy away, and you…you’re in college. You’re supposed to be sowing wild oats, or wild triticale, or…I don’t know…wild Talaxian redstalks…or something.

Translation: I think you were right when you said we’d always be friends, but that we shouldn’t be more. At least, not right now. But I promise, if I do another summer in San Francisco next year, I will contact you (especially since your aunt has already invited me to stay).

That said, I had a blast with you in Cambridge the other day, and it was sweet of you to introduce me to your friends, and make time for the swan boats. If I follow my original plan and go to the Martian, I won’t be that far away, and if not, well, Earth has a lot of options for arts and academics.

Take care, keep in touch, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again.

(=A=)

Stardate 44664.32

31 August 2367, 11:30 AM Eastern Time

To: Zachary & Gia Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ, Earth

Hi, Dad! Hi, Gia! Hi, Future Sibling Currently Residing in Gia’s Belly!

This last week at the Jersey Shore with Mom and Ed has been really amazing. Not great for surfing, but Nonna and Nonno came from Connecticut to spend some time with us, and Nonno took me deep-sea fishing. It’s weird. I always think of my family as being only your side of the family – I guess because I lived with Gran when I wasn’t with you, Dad – and I forget about Mom’s parents, and I was so little the last time I saw them, but now I’m old enough to really get to know them.

Anyway, we leave tomorrow to return to the Enterprise, and I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the flowers. Yes, I completely understand why you couldn’t make it all the way back to Earth for my showcase. No, I’m not upset.

I guess I forgot to tell you that my instructor, Lachlan Meade is directing at Idyllwild and encouraged me to audition for their summer program. I know, I know, you don’t want me to ignore music…but auditioning isn’t necessarily committing, and I’ve learned so much this summer, that I kind of really want to.

Mom and Ed send their regards.

Mom is also convinced I’m about two inches taller than I was when I left the ship, but…whatever.

Love to you both. All. Whatever.

(=A=)

31 August 2367, 11:47 AM, Eastern Time

To: Cdt. Wesley Crusher, Starfleet Academy, San Francisco, CA

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ

Heyya, Wes.

Just a quick note to let you know, yes, I have the package for your mother, and no, I won’t forget to pack it. Ditto the package for Annette. Sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye in person, but things were kind of hectic. Hope your first full year at the Academy is as awesome as you want it to be.

Don’t be a stranger.

(=A=)

Stardate 44665.49

31 August 2367, 9:43 PM Eastern Time

To: Dana Swenson, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ, Earth

Okay, best friend, we head back to the Enterprise in the morning, and I’m dying for some girl talk with you and Annette. Set something up for Monday or Tuesday, please? When do classes start again? Oh, right, orientation meetings on the 7th and 8th and then instruction begins on the 11th – Ed said.

Miss you lots. I have stories to tell, and I’m sure you do, too. Love to Josh, and your Dad, and…sorry, I’m a little scattered.

Anyway, see you soon.

(=A=)

Stardate 44666.22

1 September 2367, 4:07 AM Eastern Time

To: Lt. Commander Data, U.S.S. Enterprise

From: Zoe L. Harris, Sandpiper Inn, Ocean Grove, NJ, Earth

(This message is text only.)

Dear Data,

I’m supposed to be awake in less than three hours, and the reality is that I haven’t slept at all. I can never sleep the night before I travel, and since I can’t sleep I thought I’d send you one last note. It’s text only because I don’t want to disturb Mom and Ed – this inn is old, and there’s no soundproofing.

On the other hand, I’m sitting on the sleeping porch as I write this, and I can hear the waves crashing on the sand, and it reminds me a lot of Dad’s house on Centaurus, a place I wish you could see.

Although…somehow, I don’t think you’re really a beach-person.

I have so much to tell you…and I have a present for you. It’s not very big, but I think you’ll like it. And don’t tell me you can’t like things. I know you have preferences, at least.

So, I was wondering if we could actually plan on tea when I get back? You pick the time, and let me know.

I’m looking forward to resuming music theory with you, and meeting Spot. I wish I could say I was looking forward to your math tutorial, as well, but the fact is, I’m never going to like math. Even if the teacher is made of awesome and wrapped in gold.

Thank you for letting me inundate you with messages and calls all summer.

See you soon.

Love, Zoe.

Notes: Ocean Grove, NJ is a real place, and a popular summer destination. It’s right next door to Asbury Park, and has some of the best swimming beaches on the central Jersey shore. As far as I know, there’s no inn named the Sandpiper…but there could be. This chapter ends Zoe’s summer. Her story – and Data’s – will continue in the proper sequel to CRUSH (title suggestions are still welcome).

 

Crush: Chapters 43 – 50

Chapter 43: Wallowing

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Wallowing

Stardate 44080.56

30 January 2367, 09:45

The Enterprise had been at Ogus II for three days before Captain Picard actually granted liberty to the crew, but that actually worked well for me, because it meant I didn’t have to choose between spending time with T’vek before he and his family transferred over to the Berlin, and going cello shopping with Data.

I did, however, have to suffer through a week of classes after our extended holiday break, but since T’vek was in some of those classes with me, it hadn’t been so bad. On Friday, the day of the actual transfer, I’d been excused from classes, first to be in the transporter room for a final goodbye, and then to have time to wallow – my mother’s word.

I’d spend the weekend lounging around our quarters in ratty sweatpants and one of Tev’s old tunic-style shirts, alternately sleeping and crying, but by Sunday evening I felt pretty much like myself again, so when Data stopped by to ask if I wanted to join him on the first shuttle down to the planet the next morning, I said yes.

Well, actually I said, “That depends. My math tutor is a little anal about attendance and I already missed a day this month.”

“That is not an obstacle to this plan,” he replied. “I have cancelled tomorrow’s class so that we may make the trip, and should the excursion require that you miss your afternoon classes, I will ensure that you are not penalized.” He waited a beat, then continued, “Have you forgotten that I assisted you in ‘catching up’ after your illness last year? Do you believe that I would suggest missing a class if I thought it would adversely affect your education?”

“Well, when you put it that way,” I said, managing a real smile for the first time in days. “Then if it’s okay with my mother, I’ll be ready whenever you say. What time?”

“I will stop by to pick you up at nine hundred hours,” he said.

I made a point of being ready at eight-forty-five.

The next morning, I was surprised to find that Data was just a passenger on the shuttle, one of the smaller ones that didn’t have bunkroom and dining suite modules, though he introduced me to the pair of officers who pulled that duty. “Lieutenant Morris, Ensign Barnett, this is Zoe Harris. She will be my guest today.”

Each of them gave me the kind of automatic greeting that was technically polite but meant they were focused on their job, and didn’t want to mess up in front of a superior officer, and I had to stifle my chuckle at their behavior.

“Yes, sir. We’ll be underway shortly, sir. We’re waiting for a few more passengers.”

“Very well,” Data said. To me, he said, “I noticed on our trip to Serenity Five that you enjoy the ability to see where we are going. The port side will give you the best view of our approach.”

Ordinarily, I’d have been delighted to be offered the window seat, and equally delighted with the discovery that my friend had noticed my preference for said seating. Instead, I merely shrugged, and said, “Okay, thanks,” before sliding into the port side bulkhead seat.

If Data was puzzled or concerned by my atypical behavior, he didn’t comment on it, just took the seat next to me.

Our travel companions joined us a few minutes later, one of the elementary school teachers, and a pair of boys whom I recognized as the Potts brothers, Jake and Willie. “Hey, Zoe,” the older boy greeted me.

“Hey, Jake,” I answered back. I wasn’t really in the mood for little kids, although these two weren’t entirely awful, but on the other hand, I knew what it was like to be a kid surrounded by adults all too well.

The teacher, Ms. Simms, ushered them to the starboard side of the shuttle, to the two rear seats, and took the front one on the same side, greeting Data first and then telling me, “It was so nice of you to include the boys in your birthday party last week, Zoe.”

I resisted the urge to shrug again, and even managed a smile. “Couldn’t let all that cake go to waste, and anyway, birthdays are meant for sharing. Also Ed – Professor Benoit? – seemed to enjoy spending time with them. I think he misses his own kids.”

“I did not realize you knew the professor,” Data observed.

“He took over our lit class when school started last week, but Tev and I ran into him on the beach the day we all went to Santa Cruz,” I explained. “Although, it would be more accurate to say that Bogart ran into us.”

“Bogart?” the question came from Ms. Simms.

“His dog.”

“Professor Benoit brought a dog aboard the Enterprise?” she asked.

“Pets are allowed,” Data confirmed, “as long as they are up to date on all required vaccinations, and are not considered to be dangerous animals.”

“Bogart’s only dangerous if you’re wearing white pants,” I put in. “I bet if they asked nicely, Ed – Professor Benoit – would let you guys meet him,” I told the boys.

Willie, the younger one, lit up at the thought. “Really? Do you know if he plays fetch? I used to have a dog, and we played fetch.”

I shrugged. “Not a clue. But you guys met the professor at my party, so it’s not like you’re strangers. Go ask him after classes someday.”

For the rest of the – blessedly short – journey, the boys babbled about dogs.

(=A=)

The music store my father had recommended was called CrossBows, and the logo on the building was a stylized skull and bones, except that the skull was formed from a cello bridge and the bones were – you guessed it – crossed bows. “Data, do you think it’s a good sign that they use a pirate theme?” I asked, looking up at the sign.

“The sign itself would appear to be quite engaging,” he deadpanned, causing me to glance up at him. “I believe your father knows your tastes well,” he added.

I shrugged. “Yeah, sometimes. Shall we go in?”

“That would be the logical first step toward acquiring a new instrument for you.” He reached for the door, opened it, and held it so that I would have to enter first.

Inside, the space was warmly lit, and smelled of wood and varnish, rosin and wax. Stringed instruments – violins and celli, as well as guitars, banjos, and lute-like instruments from many worlds – were hanging from the walls. A bell tinkled above our heads as the door swung closed behind us.

“I’ll be right there,” called a warm female voice. “Feel free to look around, and try anything that calls to you.”

We proceeded to do just that, picking up, not just classical instruments, but experimenting with the guitars as well. Data played a few bars of a classical piece on one of the acoustic six-strings, and I stopped to listen. “I didn’t know you played guitar,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to learn.”

“It is something I ‘picked up’ from a group of people we encountered before you were aboard the Enterprise, he explained. Has your mother told you about the cryogenic ship we encountered?”

“The one with people from the twentieth or twenty-first century?” I asked. “I vaguely remember her talking about the cultural information she got from them.”

“Their perspective was unique. In any case, one of the…passengers…was a country-and-western musician. He played the guitar as well.”

“Would you teach me sometime?”

“If our schedules allow it, I would be happy to,” he agreed.

He went back to playing the instrument, and I found a cello that seemed to be calling my name. It was obviously older, and it wasn’t quite true to size – not as large as a typical full-sized cello, and not as small as a 7/8-scale, or “lady’s” cello, but almost a hybrid. The wood was a deep mahogany color, and while the fingerboard was the traditional ebony, the scroll, pegs, and tailpiece were appeared to be redwood.

I plucked a string, listened to it resonate, smiled, and then looked around for a bow.

“Black or white?” came that warm voice again. I turned toward it, and almost ran into its owner, a woman of about fifty human years, with deep red hair worn in a single braid, and laughing green eyes. “I’m Cooper, by the way. And you can’t be anyone but Zach Harris’s daughter.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I am. I’m Zoe.” Data had joined us, and I added, “This is my friend Lt. Commander Data, of the Enterprise.”

“Nice to meet you Zoe, and friend-Data,” she said, blithely ignoring his rank. “So, black or white?”

“Black or white what?” I asked.

“Oh, right. Horsehair. For the bow?”

I grinned. “Black, please.”

“One moment.” She disappeared, then returned with a bouquet of cello bows, all with black hair. “We keep them in the back,” she said, “because when young boys come in they tend to believe bows and swords are interchangeable. Girls, too, sometimes, but mostly boys. Have a seat. Play for me, so I can tell if you’re the right person for this cello.”

I picked a bow, took the cello to the chair she’d indicated, extended the end-pin, and checked the tuning, which sounded fine to me, but Data said, “Bring the A-string up a quarter-tone,” and I adjusted it ever so slightly, playing the open string over and over until it met with his approval. “No such thing as special android tuning, my ass,” I muttered softly enough that only he could hear.

I earned a lifted brow from him, but that was all.

“Play,” Cooper commanded again. “Play anything. Play ‘Twinkle’ if that’s all you can come up with.”

I smirked, and played the first song every string player learns, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ but I played it all on the A-string with extended positions, and used syncopation to vary the melody a little, neither of which she was expecting.

Cooper smirked back at me, “Okay,” she said. “Play something real.”

I gave her my best rendition of another cello classic, Saint-Saens’ ‘The Swan.’

“It seems to like you,” she said slowly. “You really should try another instrument to be sure…”

“I like this one,” I said. “I don’t know why, though. It just feels right.”

Her smirk became a proper grin. “Still, you should try another. Something a little bit more stylish, maybe?” She handed me a maple instrument with bright flaming, holding the other aside. “Just try it, to say you did.”

I shrugged and played a few scales, but the tone was tinny and too bright, and I wrinkled my nose. “Too new,” I said. “Needs to season. Would be a good rental for a kid.”

“She’s good,” Cooper told Data. “You’re good,” she said to me. “Especially for someone who’s not much more than a kid herself.” Her gaze turned appraising. “Though you don’t play like a child at all. You’re what…sixteen? Seventeen?”

“Sixteen,” I said. “Just turned. Does that matter?”

“Not really, I just like to know if I’m right. It’s tough, isn’t though? Having one foot in each world? I’ll need you to try one more, because your father will kill me if I don’t make you.”

“That’s fair,” I said. I knew how my dad was with instrument selection. She was probably right. She was definitely right about the foot-in-each-world thing. The third cello was sort of in between the other two. It was a lovely dark walnut color – nearly black – which I liked, but when I played it, the strings felt ponderous, and didn’t respond well. “No.” I said. “Just…no.”

She gave me the funky cello again, and I played it one more time, only it wasn’t just a test play. The instrument sucked me into it, almost like a seduction. I let my fingers dance into the extended positions of a tarantella Seth had assigned. I was dreading resuming lessons with Seth, but I loved the way the piece moved. I played through all of it before I remembered that this was a shopping trip, and that Data had given up his morning for me. Again.

“Yep,” she said staring at me, “it definitely likes you, and you’re definitely Zach Harris’s kid. Let’s talk payment.”

We agreed on a price – less than Dad had budgeted, but not much less, once I added the bow, extra strings, and a new case. “I have a gig bag,” I explained, “but I’d like a case with a hydrometer built in. I’m concerned about the dryness of starship air.”

Data stood by and watched as we did business, and then stepped in to arrange for my purchases to be beamed directly to the ship. Then we both thanked Cooper for her time. “You keep in touch, Zoe Harris and friend-Data,” she said, her smile affectionate. “Play on.”

Once we were outside, my tutor observed, “You did not appear to require my presence.”

“Actually, I did,” I said. “If you hadn’t been with me, I’d have been nervous and shy, and anyway, Mom wouldn’t let me come here alone, and she had a duty shift she couldn’t get out of.” More softly I added, “I think she feels guilty for being in recovery for so long.”

“The ship was in Spacedock for much of her recovery time,” Data reminded me gently. “No one begrudges her that time.”

Acting on impulse, I reached for his hand, but then I stopped myself, and just said, “Thank you. Aren’t we heading back now?” He’d begun to walk in a direction opposite from where we were to meet the shuttle.

“I was under the impression that a ritual meal was required after making a major purchase,” he said.

“Ritual meal? Data, is that your way of inviting me to lunch?” It was nearly that time, after all, and I was hungry.

“Yes,” he said. “I have noticed your interest in new culinary experiences.” He was referring to the food slot adventures I’d engaged in when Mom was in the hospital. “As well, your mother expressed concern that you are still upset over the departure of your friend. She seemed to think a ‘lunch date’ would cheer you up.”

“Tev and I weren’t just friends,” I said, almost snappishly. Then I sighed. “I’m sorry. I get cranky when I’m hungry.”

“Yes,” he said. “I have noticed that too. Are you accepting my invitation?”

“That depends. Am I going to be the only one eating while you sit across from me with an empty plate? Because that wouldn’t be at all weird.”

“I do not understand.” He said it in the tone that meant he actually did understand, but that I’d made a faux pas he was pretending not to notice. It was something he typically only did with people he was close to, which made it worse, somehow.

“I know we’ve had meals together before, but I also know that you don’t actually need to eat,” I began slowly and patiently, though I shifted into teenage rant mode fairly quickly. “If the only reason you’ve invited me to lunch is because my mother thinks I’m too depressing to be around, and you’re not going to eat, then I’d rather skip it.” I was on the edge of rudeness, and I knew it, and tried to backtrack. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you’re one of my favorite people in the world to spend time with, but on the occasions that you’ve chosen not to eat when we’ve been together, it’s made me feel kind of like a lab rat.” I shifted my tone, imitating the narrator of a nature documentary, “The adolescent human has a penchant for foods that fall into the four main categories of cheesy, crunchy, salty, or cream-filled.”

“Zoe.” Just my name, in his calmest tone of voice, was all he said, but it was enough to snap me out of my rant.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “I thought I was better today, but I’m actually kind of a mess.”

“Would it help you to discuss it?” he asked.

“Yeah, probably.”

“Then let us do so over lunch, which I will eat.”

“Okay.”

“I do not think of you as a ‘lab rat,'” he added.

That made me smile again. “Okay.”

He had already picked out a local restaurant, and we were seated immediately when they realized he was from the Enterprise. I noticed the size of the portions being delivered to other tables, and observed that they seemed huge.

“It is the local custom that those who dine together share their entrees,” Data explained. “The portions are meant to be divided.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” I said. “So that takes meat off our menu then, doesn’t it?” T’vek had never been the only vegetarian in my life.

“It does.”

We chose a spiced lentil dish that came with tart yogurt and stewed root vegetables, all served on a bed of flatbread, which you were meant to use to scoop the food. I’d never seen Data eat with his fingers before, and privately, I was amused by the thought.

(=A=)

“That was amazing,” I said. “I’m glad you suggested it.”

“I had not realized that nutmeg could be used to enhance savory flavors,” he observed. “It was an intriguing combination.”

“Does that mean you liked it?” I asked, teasing him just a little.

“You know that I cannot like or dislike anything,” he began.

“You know that’s totally bogus,” I said, matching his placid tone. I continued, “If you really had no preferences about anything you wouldn’t still be wiping your fingers with that ever-so-clever moist towelette because you don’t like being sticky, and you wouldn’t have a best friend.”

He opened his mouth, likely to rebut my statement but he seemed to change tacks before he actually spoke, finally saying, “I will consider your perspective. However, the answer to your original question is that it is not the experience of the food I have consumed that is of import to me, but rather, the company.”

“Flatterer,” I teased.

“May I assume that your improved mood is a sign that you have had a ‘good time’?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You may assume that,” I was mimicking him again, but not to mock – never to mock – and I’m pretty sure he understood that. “Data…” I let my voice relax into a more serious tone, “may I tell you something, as a friend, that I wouldn’t tell you as second officer? And can you accept that it’s only my friend who I’m talking to?”

“I will do my best to confine myself to those limits.”

‘That’s fair. Seth – Lt. Starker – contacted me about resuming lessons with him next week. I know I need the help with technique, but sometimes being with him makes me feel really…uncomfortable.”

The head-tilt that came with Data’s response was not unexpected. “I am not certain I understand. Has Lt. Starker done anything to make you feel unsafe in his presence?”

“Not really. It’s more a …a vibe. Sometimes he gets kind of touchy-feely when he thinks I’m not holding the bow the way I should or extending far enough down the fingerboard. Sometimes when he’s looking at me, I feel like he’s…leering.”

“This is not recent behavior.” It was absolutely not a question.

“No,” I said softly. “I’ve tried to deflect it…we moved my lesson to one of the lesser-used observation lounges. Tev used to make a point of meeting me afterward, and walking me home. Not that I need protection, exactly…”

“You were attempting to make it clear that you were not available.”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“And now T’vek has gone.”

“Yeah,” I said. “There’s that. I mean, technically we’re still together, but I know that it won’t last – long-distance relationships never work, and we’re in high school, and I’m pretty sure neither of us ever thought we were a forever thing. I mean…but the other thing is…I turned sixteen.”

“Why is that significant?”

I blinked at him, unsure how to answer without making things really awkward. Finally I said, “You have pretty much all standard Federation law in your head, don’t you?”

“I can access legal code, yes.”

“Access standard age of consent laws.”

His eyes did their birdlike flicker, though he didn’t utter the word ‘accessing,’ until finally he said, “Ah.”

“That’s all, just ‘ah?'”

“I now understand your dilemma. You are concerned that Lt. Starker, who is no doubt aware of your status, will be seeking to change the parameters of your relationship. How can I help?”

“That’s just it, Data. You can’t. I mean, technically he hasn’t done anything wrong. I think he’s a little attracted to me, which isn’t…I mean, you know how intimate music can seem sometimes?” I waited for his confirming nod. “He’s pretty young for a lieutenant, actually, only twenty-four, but the even though the math is the same there’s a big difference between sixteen and twenty-four that there wouldn’t be if I were, say, twenty-one, and he was twenty-nine…but that’s not the point; I just get a weird vibe from him, like he likes me more than he should, or…I don’t know. I just needed to…tell someone.”

“I am honored that you chose to confide in me,” he said. “May I ask why you haven’t talked about this with Counselor Troi?”

I shrugged. “Well, first I haven’t seen her since I talked, and second, she’ll make me figure out why I get a weird vibe from him and how that makes me feel, and I’m just not in the mood to go there yet.” I waited a beat. “Anyway, thanks for listening.”

“That is what friends are for,” he said, which made me grin as I suspect he intended. But his tone turned quiet and serious afterward. “If his behavior becomes in any way threatening, or your ‘vibe’ mutates into a real cause for concern, I must insist that you tell me.”

I nodded. “I will,” I said. “I promise.”

The server came back to ask if we wanted the bill split, but Data looked at me and said that lunch was on him, and he used the voice I expect he used with bratty ensigns more often than bratty teenagers, the one that meant there was no point in arguing, so I excused myself to use the restroom, and told him I’d meet him outside.

(=A=)

We were just outside the entertainment complex where the Potts boys had been playing laser tag all morning when Data’s comm-badge chirped.

“Data here,” he said after tapping it. It was interesting watching him shift back into his ‘officer mode.’ I’d seen my mother do it, but with him it was way more subtle.

-“Commander Data, this is . There’s been an accident with the Potts boys. Willie is missing, and you’re the closest officer currently planetside.”

“What is your present location?” he asked.

“At the arcade, in the manager’s office, just inside the main entrance.”

“I will be there shortly,” he said. “We are just outside. Data out.” He closed the signal, and looked at me. “We must hurry,” he said, and turned back toward the arcade, taking more purposeful strides, yet not going so fast that I couldn’t keep up.

Ms. Simms was seated with Jake Potts and the manager of the arcade when we got there, and she stood up when Data and I walked in.

“Thank you for coming, Commander,” she said, and I had to wonder if she was being formal with him because of Jake, or because she was a teacher and it was just her way. “Willie and Jake were playing laser tag, and someone pulled a prank that was less than funny.”

“In my experience, pranks rarely are,” Data said. I made a mental note to ask him about that sometime. “Jake, where did you last see your brother?”

The kid was covered in red goo and obviously terrified. “He ran out of the laser tank…he…I…”

“You used stage blood, right? In a bag or balloon?” I’d seen the trick done before. Actually my cousins and I had played the trick on older relatives more often than we probably should have.

“How’d did you know?”

I took the seat next to Jake. I could tell all the adults were annoyed with him, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t really meant to scare his brother quite so badly. I didn’t like little kids, but he clearly needed an ally. “You’re not the only one to fool someone that way. Next time add a little green dye to the red. It makes the blood look more visceral.”

We chatted for a while as Data, Ms. Simms, and the arcade manager discussed their game plan. Finally, Data contact the Enterprise and asked for a security detail. They would partner with arcade employees to search for Willie. Once they’d arrived and been sent off on their kid-hunt, Data turned back to me, “Zoe, I can arrange for you to be beamed back to the ship if you like.”

“I’d offer to help look, but I’m not exactly dressed for it,” I said. I hadn’t worn a skirt, but I was wearing dressy pants and strappy sandals, rather than my usual jeans-and-t-shirt attire. “Are you sending Jake back?”

“I would prefer that he remain here.”

I glanced at Jake, then back at Data. “If it’s okay with you and Ms. Simms, I’ll stay here and hang out with him.”

The two of them conferred quietly, before Data said, “That would be agreeable. Do you have your comm-badge with you?”

“In my purse,” I said, “But I thought they were locked so they only worked on the ship?” I pulled it out as I answered his question, and handed it to him. He did something with the tri-corder the ship had beamed down to him. “It will work here, now. Use it in case of emergency, or if Jake remembers anything else about where his brother may have gone.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Please do not stray from the immediate vicinity,” he added.

“Okay,” I repeated.

There was a glint of something other than just-business in his eye when he gave me a perfunctory nod, then, and he and Ms. Simms left to join the hunt.

I turned back to Jake. “They’ll find him,” I said.

But Jake was staring at me with bug-eyes. “You know Commander Data?” he said.

I grinned. “Well, yeah,” I said as if it was perfectly normal to be hanging out with the second officer of Starfleet’s flagship. “We’re friends.”

(=A=)

Mom was waiting for me on the couch when I finally got home. Willie Potts had actually run out of the arcade and hidden in a palm grove, eaten the cove palm fruit, and been infected by parasites. Jake was confined to quarters, and Data had left messages with their parents and a couple of other relatives.

“Hey,” I said, as I walked through the door.

“Hey,” she answered softly. “Your cello’s in your room. I didn’t want to open the case without you here.”

I shrugged, “I wouldn’t have minded. It’s really pretty. Antique, I think. Definitely old, if not. Great tone.”

“Ms. Simms said you were very helpful with the Potts brothers.”

I shrugged again. “I hung out with Jake, is all. He was scared, and he needed someone to be on his side for a while.”

“You did a good thing,” she said.

“I cracked jokes and told stories.”

“Commander Data said you had the chance to beam back to the ship, and chose to stay.”

“When did he have time to tell you that?”

“When I contacted him to check on you.”

“Oh.”

“How was your lunch date?”

“It wasn’t a date, and it was a little awkward at first.” I said. “But it got better. Actually, it was kind of awesome, but don’t tell Data I said that.”

“My lips are sealed,” Mom promised. “Come sit with me for a minute.”

I plopped onto the couch, then curled up against my mother. Parental comfort never goes out of style. “Mom?” I asked, as my mother stroked my hair. “How do you get used to people leaving all the time?”

I felt, rather than heard, her sigh. “Oh, Zoificus. I don’t know. Maybe you never really do. You’ll be able to call him tomorrow, though.”

“Yeah.” Suddenly, I was weepy again. “I kind of went off on Data earlier,” I confessed. “He said he understood, but…God, Mom, I’m a mess inside. I miss Tev, and I’m angry that he’s gone, even though it wasn’t his choice and…does love always hurt this much?”

My mother kept stroking my hair. “Do you want the truth, or the lie that will make you feel better?”

“Truth, I guess.”

“It hurts because you love. If you didn’t…”

“I get it.”

But I still spent fifteen minutes sobbing on my mother’s shoulder, before she said, “Okay, enough. Go take a shower. Put on pajamas. We’re breaking out the hard stuff.”

“Aldebaran whisky?” I asked brightly.

“Nope,” she said. “Ice cream. And hot fudge.”

“Comfort food?”

Wallowing food,” she corrected.

I knew better than to argue.

Notes: Nothing major; this is sort of a lead-in to the episode “Brothers,” obviously. I arbitrarily decided to set sixteen as the legal age of consent in the Federation (though planetary norms take precedence), because it’s the average age for most of contemporary Earth, and it seemed reasonable. Zoe’s new cello is a combination of my own (which is from a company called Stringworks in Wisconsin) and one that belonged to my very first cello teacher’s daughter. The CrossBows logo is stolen blatantly from a t-shirt I bought at CafePress, sold by Carruther’s Violins. The meal Data and Zoe share is the Ogus II equivalent of Ethiopian food. Also, a special thank you to the Guest Reviewers, because I can’t respond to you. ALL of you readers are fantastic people, and I really appreciate your patience and continued support. MUSIC NOTE (Thanks to Javanyet who caught my 4 am confusion for reminding me): “The Swan” is the ultimate first cello solo for players beyond the grade school level. “Le Cygne” is from “Le Carnaval des Animaux,” – “Carnival of the Animals.” EVERY CELLIST PLAYS IT.

Chapter 44: Zoe-Lore

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Zoe-Lore

Stardate 44086.30

(1 February 2367, 12:00 ship’s time)

Dana, Josh, and I were headed to Ten-Forward for a combined lunch-and-study session when the lights flickered and the power on the Enterprise seemed to just stop and then restart again. When it did, the lighting was significantly dimmer, and a few minutes later, there was an announcement that all those off-duty or civilians should return to quarters, and everyone else should return to stations.

“I wonder what’s going on,” Dana said.

Josh said, “Alien incursion. I heard the Talerians were in this sector again.”

“Talerians?” I asked.

“Yeah, their thing is making their ships look as if they’re floating dead in space, and then, when a rescuer takes them in tow, they either blow everything up, or hijack the rescuer.”

“Sounds like a truly charming group of people,” I snarked. We kept going toward Ten-Forward, as the closest bank of turbo-lifts was also in that direction. When the ‘lift doors slid open, we all stopped in our tracks, because there was a kid huddled in the corner.

“Hey, you okay?” Josh asked, in his best big-brother tone.

I stared at the boy – for it was a boy – realizing all at once that I knew who it was. “Jake?” I asked. “Do you mind if we share the turbo-lift with you?”

Jake was sitting on the floor, hands around his knees, which were pressed up to his chest. “He…he just…he just stopped,” he said softly. “We were talking, and then he just stopped. And then he left me.”

The three of us entered the ‘lift and let the doors close behind us. Dana gave the instructions for the deck where I lived, as it was the closest. “Isn’t he one of the Potts brothers?” she asked me softly.

I nodded, then crouched down to be at eye-level with him. “Hey, it’s me, Zoe. We hung out together, remember? Who stopped? Who left you?”

“Commander Data,” he said in a small anguished voice. “He went all…robot…”

I’d seen Data go into his ‘information accessing’ mode more than once, but somehow I didn’t think that’s what Jake meant. Still, I could tell the kid was scared. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to frighten you,” I said. “And you know he’d never hurt you, right?”

It took a few seconds, but Jake finally said, “Yeah. I guess. But he just stopped.

I hadn’t been in counseling for long, but I’d watched a lot of medical drama vids, so I knew what to say next. “I’m sure that was really scary, Jake. Was Data taking you back home?”

He shook his head. “Sickbay,” he answered, his voice cracking a little. “To see Willie. But it’s not like he wants to see me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said, but when Josh, who actually had a little brother, opened up his mouth to protest, I amended. “I mean, it’s kind of like when you’re really mad at your parents and you yell ‘I hate you.’ They know you don’t mean it, and you know you don’t mean it, but in the moment, you totally kind of do, even if really you don’t.” An adult would have picked on my abuse of grammar for that sentence, but I was pretty sure it counted as kid-logic, and was therefore completely understandable.

“I…I guess…” Jake allowed.

“Good. Look, I don’t know if we’re supposed to go to sickbay right now, so why don’t you come back to my quarters with us – you know me, and these are my friends Josh and Dana – and we’ll call Doctor Crusher and see what she says. Okay?”

“Okay.”

I stood up again, glancing at my friends and trying to convince them of the merit of my plan using just my eyes. It must have worked, because Josh held out a hand to Jake. “Hey man, let me help you up,” he said. And Jake let Josh pull him up to his feet.

Dana didn’t say much, but when we left the ‘lift she fell into step with me, and whispered, “That was nice of you.”

“He’s okay, for a kid,” I whispered back. “Besides, he’s probably terrified of what’ll happen to his brother.”

We spent the next couple of hours eating replicated pizza and teaching Jake how to play several of our favorite card games. We played for cookies, not credits, and either junk food was a great motivator, or Jake was destined to haunt casinos someday, because the kid won nearly every hand, even when we weren’t making errors in his favor. Josh and Dana headed home after that, and the doctor returned my message to ask if I’d mind walking Jake down to see her.

I didn’t, so we walked together down the dimly-lit corridor, and into a different bank of turbo-lifts. Half-way to our destination, Jake said, “They want me to go to counseling. Because of the prank.”

“Counseling isn’t that bad,” I assured him. “It’s more like having someone you can talk to about anything, and they don’t judge, but if you have a problem, they help you figure out a solution.”

“Have you ever? Been to counseling?”

I nodded, “Yeah, ever since the Borg. My mom was injured in the battle and they were worried about how I was handling it. Also, my parents are divorced, so when Mom was in sickbay I was rattling around mostly on my own, kind of like you and Willie are.”

“We have officers assigned to take care of us,” he said.

“I had Da – Commander Data,” I answered. “Though he wasn’t with me all the time. He’s a really good friend, once he decides you’re part of his circle.”

“It doesn’t bother you? Knowing he’s a machine?”

I shrugged. “If it doesn’t bother him knowing the rest of us aren’t machines, who am I to care? I mean, he’s annoyingly, frustratingly right all the time…” I trailed off, but Jake was grinning, so my mission was complete. Doubly so, since we’d arrived at our destination.

“Hello, Zoe, Jake.” Counselor Troi was waiting for us just outside sickbay. “Thank you for keeping Jake company,” she told me.

“Actually, he kept me company,” I said, which made the boy blush faintly. “We had a good time. Don’t ever let him play cards with you though.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” she said. “Come with me?” she invited him, and he nodded and followed her away.

I went through sickbay to Doctor Crusher’s office, where I saw her sitting at her desk. I knocked on the frame of the open door, and she looked up and smiled at me, then beckoned me inside, asking, “Is everything alright?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I just thought someone should know…Jake Potts said he was with Data just before that power glitch a bit ago.”

“Really?” she asked, in the way that adults who have a little bit of information do when they want more pieces of the puzzle. “Data didn’t do anything to him…?”

“No!” I said, though I wasn’t sure why I was so loud about it. “No,” I repeated again, more softly. “Jake said he just stopped – his word – as if a switch had been thrown. Then he ‘unstopped’ but wouldn’t talk or acknowledge Jake at all. The kid think’s Data’s mad at him.”

The doctor nodded at me. “It must’ve been pretty alarming for him.”

“Yeah, I’d think so,” I said and then I asked, because something clicked in my head and I had to know, “Data…he’s responsible for all this isn’t he?”

“You know I can’t confirm that, Zoe.”

“You kind of just did,” I said. “Is it weird that I’m more worried for him than I am for the ship?”

She smiled, and it was a blend of her professional smile and her maternal one. “You and Data are pretty close,” she said. “So, no, I don’t think it’s weird.”

“You’ll tell someone…what Jake said? I have a feeling it might be important.”

“I’ll tell someone,” she promised. “Now scoot on back to quarters. Your mother will be worried about you.”

I laughed. “Yes ma’am,” I said, as I left her office. As I moved further away, I heard her add, “And never call me ‘ma’am’ again.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44094.29

(4 February 2367, 10:00 hours, ship’s time.)

By the time the weekend arrived, things were more or less back to normal on the ship. Data had showed up for our math tutorial on Friday as if nothing had happened, and our class actually ended up being really interesting, as Wesley and Annette argued about slightly different methodology for problem solving, and the rest of us voted on the ‘proper’ way – it was, of course, a lesson in the fact that there can be more than one way to arrive at a ‘correct’ answer, even in math.

Friday afternoon, I resumed music lessons with Seth, who picked apart my performance with the quartet from before Christmas. “Your technique was faulty,” he said, “which made some of your intonation a little off. Let me show you how to improve your vibrato.”

He covered my left hand with his, over the fingerboard, and rocked it back and forth. “You’ve been letting all the tension come from your fingers,” he said. “It needs to come from your shoulder, through your wrist.”

I didn’t really like him touching me that way, but I have to admit that his demonstration was effective, and when I played through that tarantella again, it was much easier, and my hand was less achy when I was done. “You might’ve told me this months ago,” I said.

“I tried,” he said. “But you were too focused on impressing Commander Data to pay attention.”

“That’s not true,” I said, but the reality was that it had been, just a little. “It makes me feel weird when you touch me,” I said. “It always has. Can’t you just explain what you meant instead of feeling the need to treat me like a puppet?” I didn’t mention his rude remarks about hands-on approaches from one of our last lessons.

“I…I hadn’t realized…” he stammered. I didn’t mean to…look, can I make it up to you?” For a minute he wasn’t creepy, just a geeky over-achiever who clearly had no idea how to deal with women.

“There’s nothing to make up,” I said, “just…maybe try to be less touchy-feely?”

“Sure, Zoe,” he said, but suddenly his tone seemed darker, though it might have been my imagination. “I’ll try to touch and feel a bit less.” Amazing how he could go from normal to creepy in five seconds flat, even if he probably meant it to be funny.

“I have to go,” I said. “Study group. See you on Monday.” I zipped my cello into its gig bag, and fled from his presence.

(=A=)

By Saturday morning, the Enterprise was in orbit around Starbase 416, and my friends and I – even Dana – had all secured permission to spend some time on the space station’s zocalo, which happened to have a branch of my favorite coffee place, but before that I was scheduled for the music lesson I really wanted to attend.

“Come in,” Data called when I activated his door chime at ten that morning.

The combined scents of varnish and linseed oil assailed my senses. He’d been painting again…the kind of painting he did when he needed to work through something, not the kind he did when he was just creating art. “What’s wrong?” I asked, setting my cello in the corner by the couch. He had indeed been engaged in a paint-a-thon, though there was no evidence other than a dozen completed portraits of the same old guy.

“I was so worried about you,” I said as I moved all the way into his quarters. “Dana, Josh, and I found Jake in the turbo-lift where you left him, and he was completely freaked out, and…” The paintings connected with prior knowledge in my shallow teenaged brain, and I shifted gears. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Who’s the old man, and why does he look like you, if you were, you know, jowly?”

“It would be more accurate to ask why I look like him,” Data said softly. “He is my father, Dr. Noonian Soong.”

“I thought he was dead?” I asked.

“He is,” Data said shortly. “But he was not.” Data was being uncharacteristically terse, always a sign that he was brooding about something.

“I haven’t had enough coffee to follow this conversation,” I told him. “Can you elaborate, or should I just stifle my intense curiosity and focus on music theory?”

“My father activated a homing signal in my positronic net that required me to make haste to his location, to the exclusion of any other tasks or rules.”

“He kidnapped you?”

“In a manner of speaking. He wished to present me with an emotion chip, but the same signal that activated my homing programming also called my brother Lore.”

“I didn’t know you had a brother,” I said. “Can I meet him?”

“While I recognize that you have a taste for both adventure and misadventure, Zoe, please believe me when I tell you that you do not want to meet Lore.”

I raised my eyebrows at that. “That bad?”

“Worse,” he said. “Lore overpowered me, switched our clothing while I was de-activated, and then caused a fatal injury to our father, in order to abscond with the emotion chip.”

“You’re kidding.” I wasn’t sure which was more shocking: the notion that my friend had a brother, the idea that said brother was evil, or the thought that Data’s uniform was not, in fact, permanently attached to his body.

“I assure you, I am not.”

“Data…your father died?”

“Yes.”

“Do you need help with a funeral or a memorial or…anything?”

He shook his head. “There is no need.” He waited a beat, then said, “If you will unpack your cello, we can begin today’s lesson.”

“Data!” I’m not sure if I was still shocked or had moved on to being horrified.

“Is there a problem, Zoe?”

“Your father died,” I said. “And you’re standing here telling me we can have a theory lesson as if nothing happened. I can understand no memorial – I mean, none of us ever even met the guy – but don’t you need time to grieve?”

He blinked those warm yellow eyes at me, and maybe I was just projecting, but what I saw in their depths nearly killed me. What made it worse was his flat pronouncement, “I cannot grieve, Zoe. You know this.”

“Bullshit,” I said.

“Language, Zoe,” his response was automatic, something, I had learned over the past several months, that was part of the array of files on typical teacher behavior he’d downloaded before I’d ever joined his math class.

“Don’t ‘language’ me. We’re not in class right now. And don’t stand there and pretend that you can’t grieve, because you’ve painted enough pictures of him to fill a gallery. I’ve seen how much you care about the people you call friends. You sat in my living room every night for at least a week, just so I wouldn’t wake up to empty quarters. You tried to comfort Jake. You’ve done so many other things that a person who truly couldn’t feel would never do, would never think to do. There may not be tears and hair pulling, or sitting shiva, or stations of the cross or…whatever…but you can grieve, even if you do it in a particularly…Data-ish way.”

I don’t know why I was so keen on picking a fight with him – because a separate part of me seemed to realize that was exactly what I was doing – but I couldn’t stop myself. Maybe it was still missing Tev. Maybe it was just, as my mother would have said, Being Sixteen. All I know is that I did something, then, that I’d never done before, and that I almost – almost –regretted the second I’d done it: I turned around and stormed out of his quarters, and I didn’t even bother to grab my cello on the way.

He didn’t follow me, either because he was stunned or because he knew it wouldn’t be a good idea. Whatever the reason, I was grateful, because I knew I’d been stupid and rude and a really bad friend, but there was no way I was ready to admit it, or apologize.

I took the fastest route back to quarters, where my mother was waiting on the couch, dressed in civilian clothing and sipping coffee. “I thought your lesson ran until noon,” she said.

“Usually it does,” I said, I could feel tears welling behind my eyes.

“Did something happen?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Data just told me his father died, and my response was to behave like an idiot.”

“Want to talk about it?” She patted the couch invitingly.

“Actually,” I said, “what I want is retail therapy followed by a large cinnamon mocha and a slice of cheesecake.”

“What time are you and your friends supposed to meet?”

“Three.”

“Go change, and be ready in fifteen minutes.”

“Mom?”

She smiled. “I’m sure whatever idiotic thing you think you did wasn’t as bad as it seems. And even if it was, dwelling on it won’t help. I know forcing you to talk about it will just frustrate both of us, and frankly, I could use a little ‘retail therapy’ myself.”

“Yeah?” The need to cry had dissipated.

“Yeah.” I could hear the smile in her voice.

“Have I mentioned lately that I have the best mother in all creation?”

“Not recently, no.”

“Mo-om!”

“Go change,” she repeated. “Twelve minutes now.” Before my door slid all the way closed, I heard her add, “And make sure you bring your comm-badge.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44094.85

(4 February 2367, 14:53 hours, ship’s time)

My mother had returned to the Enterprise with our plunder – Starbase 416 had a surprisingly broad array of clothing boutiques, and I was sitting at one of the ‘outside’ tables – not that there was really an ‘outside’ on a starbase – at Red Sands, my favorite coffee chain in the known universe, when I caught a flash of yellow and black and pale golden skin, a combination that could only belong to Data.

I thought about getting up to follow him, because a morning of shopping and girl talk with my mother had me ready to apologize – if he’d listen – but my friends were due any moment, so I ordered my cinnamon mocha and hooked one of the public-access padds that had magazines and newsfeeds on it, and waited.

Dana and Josh arrived first, followed by Wesley and Annette, and some guy in a red uniform with the single pip that marked him an ensign. He looked a little familiar, but I couldn’t place him, until Wes said, “Guys, this is Ray Barnett. I invited him to join us.” Unspoken, but evident in his tone, was his plea that an extra person was okay.

I decided to pretend to be in a gregarious mood, even though I was still feeling a bit uneven. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Zoe…I think I was your passenger a few days ago – the morning flight to Ogus II?”

“Right,” he said, grinning. “Commander Data’s friend. Sorry we didn’t get to chat, then. Is the Potts boy alright?”

“I think so,” I said. “I mean, we made it here, and he’s been transferred to the med facility…Wes would know more, I think?”

“Willie?” Wes asked. “He’ll be fine, now that he’s here,” he said, confirming my guess. “His parents should even be here by tonight.”

“Glad to hear it,” Ray said. He dropped into the chair beside me, and the rest of my friends followed suit, sitting down, and introducing themselves as they did so. “So, Zoe, what are you drinking? Is it good?”

I could smell a set-up a light-year away, and this one reeked, but Ray didn’t seem like a bad guy, so I said, “It’s a quad-shot cinnamon mocha. If you’re not used to espresso, you should go with their regular version. It’s only a double.”

“Zoe bleeds coffee,” Josh informed our new friend, oh-so-helpfully. “I don’t think anyone can match her.”

Ensign Barnett – Ray – grinned, “I was weaned on espresso,” he said. “I bet I could go shot for shot with her.”

“Since when did coffee supplant alcohol as the drink of choice for chugging contests?” I wondered aloud. “Order what you will, but don’t cry to me if you can’t hack the caff.”

The server answered our summons – the tables were equipped with call buttons – and took our order – my friends ordered various strengths of coffee drinks, and we also ordered a slice each of peach cobbler, chocolate layer cake, and classic cheesecake with forks enough for everyone to share, and for the next hour we pigged out on sugar and caffeine and laughter. It turned out that Ray wasn’t a bad guy. Under other circumstances I would have considered him dateable, even, but it was too soon, and I think he knew that. Still, more friends was never a bad thing, and he seemed to mesh well with all of us.

(=A=)

By five, we were all ready to move on, so we settled the tab. The boys – Ray included – went off to the arcade, while Annette and Dana and I decided to see the latest romantic comedy vid in the big projection tank that the starbase had, but before we joined the ticket queue I suggested a bathroom break.

The line for the public restroom wasn’t that bad, really, but no one ever gets in and out at the same time, and as I was the first of the three of us in line, I was also the first to finish. “Dana, Annette? I’ll wait out on the zocalo, by the fountain,” I called to my friends.

The fountain was made from lasers and holographic water, because obviously no one was going to waste real water on such a thing, but it was still pretty. I sat on the edge to wait for my girlfriends, but began scanning the crowd when it felt like they were taking too long.

Instead of Dana and Annette, I glimpsed Data again, and caved in to my impulse to follow him, off the main walkway, and down a sort of alleyway, to the kind of pub that even the edgier Starfleet types probably wouldn’t frequent, let alone a squeaky-clean android. “Data?” I called.

My quarry froze, staring at me for a long moment. Finally he said, “Greetings, Zoe.”

“Greetings?” I asked, teasing just a little. “You haven’t said that to me in months…I must really have managed to annoy you.”

“But I cannot be annoyed,” he protested.

“Yeah, right, of course you can’t,” I snarked. I was only a couple feet from him, by then, and I realized there was something off about his demeanor. I also realized that the pub was more of an interstellar biker bar, and I couldn’t help but boggle. “You can’t seriously be going in there,” I said. “Unless this is one of your experiments? Are you planning to get into a brawl just to see what it’s like?”

“Your curiosity will get the better of you one day,” he admonished, but even though it was something he might have said to me in an attempt at teasing me back, it wasn’t quite the kind of thing he’d just…say.

“Data…?”

“Zoe…?” he mimicked. “Won’t your friends be looking for you?” I had reached his side, and he had reached the door, where he gave his name to the bouncer. The verbal contraction should have been a warning sign, but somehow it wasn’t.

“Is the girl with you?” the bulky Lemnorian asked. “She looks kind of young.”

“She’s legal,” Data said. “Barely, but I like’m that way.” He hooked his arm around my neck, pulling me close. To anyone else, it would have seemed affectionate…or at least lustful…but his grip was tighter than it looked. Android strong, and all that. It shouldn’t have taken me that long, but that’s when I realized that this wasn’t Data after all.

“Oh, my god,” I said without thinking, “You’re not – ” but he tightened his arm even further, grazing my breast with his hand as he did so. He came dangerously close to finding the comm-badge I’d stuck on the inside of my shirt, so all I said was, “…kidding.”

The bouncer peered at him, and then at me, finally saying, “Fine. Whatever. Ain’t my neck. Go on in.”

Lore – I was certain that’s who it was, I mean, how many Soong-type androids could there possibly be? – pulled me with him into the dimly lit interior of the bar. “I know you’re important to my dear brother,” he hissed into my ear, though anyone else would have thought he was just nuzzling my hair. “Play along and you just might get to see him again. Don’t answer out loud; subvocalize. Do you understand?”

“Mmhmm,” I said softly.

He let go of my neck and put his arm around my waist instead, resting his hand on my hip, and we sauntered – well, he sauntered, and I went along for the ride – to a table in the back.

We passed a few other Starfleet types, mostly in ops or command colors, most looking grizzled and bleary, but the vast majority of the clientele was a lot more…rugged. A group of Orion men had pushed an Orion woman up against a dart board and were hurling throwing knives in her direction. Two Klingons and a Nausican were playing something that looked sort of like pool, except the cues were barbed on the ends. A Caitian wearing six pasties and a loincloth was dancing on another table, while a group of humans and Ferengi watched and – there really was no other word for it – cat-called.

“So, Zoe Harris,” Lore asked, the smirk on his face matching the syrup in his voice, “how much has my brother told you about his evil twin?”

“He never said you were evil,” I answered truthfully. It came out a bit more panicky than I wanted, but I couldn’t help it; my pulse was racing with a combination of fear and excitement. “Only that I shouldn’t entertain the notion of meeting you.”

“You thought I was him.” It wasn’t a question.

“Wasn’t that your intent?”

“Point to you.”

“How did you know my name?” I asked.

“Uh-huh, sweetheart.” His stereotypical noir gangster-speak was uttered with a perfect blend of bitterness and diction. “I ask the questions.”

I shrugged, but it was all fake bravado, and we both knew it. “Had to try.”

A server came to the table to ask for our drink order. Lore looked at me, but reverted to Data’s less casual mode of speech when he answered. “Denebian scotch, neat, for me. And for the lady…”

He hesitated, as if gauging my ability to hold my liquor, and I jumped in with, “Gin martini, dirty.”

Lore’s eyebrows rose just a fraction in response to my order, but he said nothing. The waitress didn’t respond at all, except to say “Gotcha,” and walk away.

The drinks were delivered by a Ferengi in a fedora, and I had to hide my face in my hand so I wouldn’t laugh. The glint in his eye told me laughter would be a very bad idea. Well, the glint in his eye and the blaster he wore under his brocade jacket.

“So, Mr. Data, you’re right on time. But you were meant to come alone, and instead you insult me by parading this clothed female in front of me.”

“Easy Pharyl.,” Lore said. “She is of no import. Just my plaything of the moment. Give us a kiss, hon.” His face loomed close to mine, and I tried really hard not to cringe.

“Please,” Pharyl said. “There is no need to exchange your spit in public. Come in back with me, and we’ll…negotiate.”

“As you wish,” Lore said, sounding uncannily like Data for just a moment. He rose to his feet, and motioned to me. “Bring the drinks, babe.”

I was seething inside, but I’d gotten myself into this, so I did as I was told. I picked up his glass and mine, and followed them to the back room, half expecting it to be a set-up and that mooks would jump us when we entered. I mean, there are always mooks, right? To my relief, and maybe my slight disappointment, it was just an office with an ostentatious desk.

Lore took the only chair on the supplicant’s side of the monstrosity, pulling me onto his lap, and we waited.

Pharyl made himself comfortable in the thronelike chair behind the desk. He was also the one who spoke first. “You came for a ship. I have a ship. It will cost you.” He tapped numbers into a padd and slid it across the desk’s surface. I couldn’t read the numbers, but I could tell there were a lot of them. “That much latinum, plus you make a delivery for me when you pass Saglyth III.”

“What sort of delivery?”

“The kind you make without asking.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then, Lt. Commander Data, I contact Starfleet and tell them their pet android’s gone rogue, get everyone in the sector chasing you.”

“I’ll pay half now, half when I break orbit at Saglyth III….gotta make sure no one objects to your package.”

The negotiations went on for a while, while I sipped the martini – it was sour and salty, and a bit herbal. Not bad, really. Lore’s hold on my waist never wavered though. I tried to pay attention. If he let me go I’d need to know where he was headed. If not…but I was pretty sure he wasn’t a killer, just an opportunist. Plus it would ruin his use of Data’s name and uniform if he murdered a civilian. On the other hand, hadn’t he murdered Noonian Soong?

Finally the deal was done, and Lore was leading me back out of the bar, down a different alleyway, and into the residential bloc of the starbase. “Go in,” he said, opening a door. Inside was the cheapest of cheap hotel rooms. It had a bed and a head with a drain in the floor and a sonic-cube shower stall in the corner. “Sit down,” he said.

I wasn’t stupid. I sat.

“What should I do with you, Zoe Harris?” he asked. He seemed to really enjoy using my whole name. “If I let you go, you’ll run squealing to Data, and he’ll be after me like a tribble on triticale. Your family is too well known for me to kill you, and frankly, if I wanted a fuck-buddy, I wouldn’t pick a little girl, who’s stuck on my brother.”

“You’re wrong on two counts, Lore,” I said, using his name for the first time. “I’m not ‘stuck’ on your brother; he’s just my tutor. And I’m not a little girl.” Too late, I realized he’d take the last part as a challenge.

Lore came to stand directly in front of me, not that there was really much room for him to stand in otherwise. I expected him to push me down on the bed and either hit me or seduce me. He actually did neither. Instead, ran his hands over my chest, slipped one inside my shirt, tugged the comm-badge away. “Thought you’d tensed when I touched you before,” he said. He dropped it on the floor and crushed it with his boot.

“I wasn’t going to use it,” I lied.

“Yes you were. You just couldn’t figure out how.”

Note to self: never try to bluff your tutor’s evil twin. It never goes well.

“I’d love to stay and find out exactly how much of a little girl you really aren’t,” he said. “But those things are rigged to send an alert if they’re destroyed, so I’ll have to leave you now. Give a message to my brother for me?”

“What?”

“Tell him I said, ‘Thanks for the memories. I’ll be watching.'” He turned to go, then stopped at the door and came back to me. “You can also tell him I had the first taste.” He gathered both of my hands in one of his, and held them, caressing my face and then teasing my ear with the other. His face came close to mine again, and I was struck by how cold and empty his eyes seemed. So different from Data’s. Then his lips were crashing into mine.

Just as he forced his tongue into my mouth, his caressing hand slid down my neck to meet my shoulder, and he squeezed, but as I slipped into unconsciousness, I thought I heard him say he’d be watching me, too.

Notes: No notes. Except to point out that cinnamon mochas are awesome. And even bright teenagers don’t use their brains sometimes. Oh, Zoe…

Chapter 45: The First Taste

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

The First Taste

Stardate 44095.72

(4 February 2367, 22:30 hours, ship’s time)

Just as he forced his tongue into my mouth, his caressing hand slid down my neck to meet my shoulder, and he squeezed, but as I slipped into unconsciousness, I thought I heard him say he’d be watching me, too.

It was several hours later before the sounds of comm-badges chirping and a masculine voice woke me up. I was still in the hotel room where Lore had brought me, still on the bed, and the voice in question was all too familiar.

“Data to Enterprise,” he said. “Captain, I have found her. She is alive and apparently unharmed.”

I heard some sort of acknowledgement come from the tiny speaker, but couldn’t be bothered to parse the words. When I opened my eyes Data was standing over me, calm as ever. “Zoe,” he said softly. “Your mother and the doctor will be waiting in sickbay when we arrive. Can you walk?”

I let him help me into a sitting position, and then onto my feet, but my neck and shoulder felt like fire where Lore had squeezed, and I was really wavery, as if I’d had way more to drink than one martini. “Don’t think so,” I said, sheepishly adding, “Sorry.”

“I will carry you.”

I would have protested, but there was no time. I was on my feet – sort of – and then I was being cradled in his arms. “S’posed to give you a message.” I said. “S’posed to tell you ‘Thanks for the memories and he’ll be watching.” I didn’t tell him the rest.

He freed enough of one hand – gotta love that android strength – to activate his comm-badge. “Data to Enterprise,” he said. “Two to beam up.”

I vaguely recall arriving in the transporter room.

I vaguely recall him not waiting for a gurney and carrying me all the way to sickbay.

I vaguely recall my mother, Dr. Crusher, and Counselor Troi all watching for me with concerned faces.

I fixed my eyes on my mother’s face, and over the whine of the medical tricorder, I asked, “So, how grounded am I?”

And then I don’t remember anything but a hiss followed by blissful relief

(=A=)

Stardate 44096.11

(5 February 2367, 02:00 hours, ship’s time)

The next time I woke up I was still in sickbay. I couldn’t see the doctor, but my mother and Data were both in chairs close to my bedside. “I’m still not sure what happened,” my mother was saying to him. “She was upset when she came back from seeing you this morning.”

They were talking about me, and I wanted to hear the conversation, so I closed my eyes again.

“I believe I may be to blame for that,” he answered her. “She took issue with a statement I made about the death of my father, and left abruptly before we could…talk it through.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” my mother said, not questioning his use of the word ‘father.’ “Do you and Zoe often have such discussions?”

“Our conversations have covered a great many subjects,” he said. “However I must confess that when emotions are involved, I often have trouble…” he hesitated, as if sensing the irony of what he was about to say, “…keeping up.”

I was glad to find that I wasn’t the only one who found that amusing. “Well, Zoe’s always been a bit of a whirling dervish,” my mother told him. “Music and drama are about the only things that have ever kept her attention for very long, but I suppose that’s not unusual in our family.”

“It would seem she is following in her father’s footsteps, so to speak.”

“And her grandmother’s,” my mother added. “Or hasn’t she mentioned who her grandmother is?”

My eyes were still closed so I couldn’t see , but I was willing to bet Data’s eyes were flickering back and forth as he accessed information. “I did not realize,” he said after a few beats, “but I am not surprised. She is…quite expressive.”

“If she’s becoming a nuisance,” my mother began, but then she changed tacks. “I haven’t discouraged her friendship with you because I assumed you would tell her if she was overstepping her bounds. Sometimes I forget that she’s only sixteen – she’s dealt with so much these past few years.”

“She is not a nuisance,” he assured her. “I do not foresee a time when she could become a nuisance.”

“If she does…”

“In the unlikely event that were to happen,” he said, “I will speak with her directly.”

“Data, do you mind if ask you something personal?”

“You may ask,” he said, a hint of my snarky inflection in his tone.

My mother caught his meaning. “Fair enough. Zoe joined me on the Enterprise not long after you…lost…Lal. I’ve often wondered if she reminds you of your daughter in some way.”

I tried to keep my breathing even while I waited for his response. Wesley had once mentioned the same thing, and I couldn’t deny I was curious to know the truth.

“She does not,” he said softly. He hesitated, and for a moment I was convinced he knew I was awake and was going to rat me out. “Have you ever heard of two people meeting for the first time, but developing a rapport so quickly it is as if they had known each other for a much greater length of time?”

“You mean feeling as if you’d known someone forever?” my mother asked. “Heard of it. Even felt it. Why?”

“It would not be an inaccurate description of my affinity for Zoe,” he said quietly.

“If you were anyone else that statement would set off alarm bells,” my mother said. “As it is, I worry that she’s developing a cr – ”

“Excuse me,” Data cut her off. “I do not believe you should continue that sentence.”

My mother’s tone changed, “Commander, if I’ve offended you…”

“You have not. However, I suspect that Zoe is awake, and has been for some time.”

My mother was at my side before I could even confirm that. “Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey,” I said, opening my eyes. “You were totally going to say ‘criminal tendency’ right then, weren’t you?” It wasn’t my best line, but I felt as if a ground car had rolled over my neck, so I figured I’d get a bye.

“Yes,” my mother said, stroking my hair tenderly. “Yes, that’s absolutely what I was going to say.” Of course, we all knew it absolutely wasn’t. “How are you feeling?”

“Sore,” I said. “Thirsty. Stupid.”

“Mmm. Data went to find Dr. Crusher. When she gets here, we’ll see about handling the first two. As for stupid, I’m still not sure what happened.”

“Oh.” She stroked my hair a bit more, and then Data was back with the doctor and Counselor Troi. “Do any of you people ever sleep?” I asked.

“And miss your charming company, Zoe? Not a chance,” quipped the doctor. “Think you can sit up? Data, do you mind helping her?”

His hands were supporting me even before I registered the question, helping me sit. Mom fluffed the pillow that had been under my head, and I scooted back against it. “Okay,” I said. “I’m way less spinny than before.”

“You were dehydrated and only semi-conscious when Data found you,” the doctor said. “But there were only trace amounts of alcohol in your blood. What were you drinking, anyway?”

“Gin martini, dirty,” I said, echoing my drink order from earlier. My voice cracked. “Before that? Two quad-shot cinnamon mochas. Could I please have some water?”

“I’ll get it,” the counselor said, and I caught a glimpse of her hair swinging as she moved away and then back. “Here.”

“Sip it,” Dr. Crusher told me. “That would explain the dehydration…but it wouldn’t have knocked you out.”

“Oh, no, it didn’t,” I said. I waited a beat before forcing my voice into the most nonchalant tone I could manage. “The being-unconscious thing was a gift from Lore.”

Four faces displayed reactions of anger and surprise ranging from Data’s eyes-wide, mouth-open look of shock, to the doctor’s dark glower – I didn’t know, then, that Lore had come pretty close to murdering Wesley – and then all of them began to speak at once:

“My brother was on Starbase 416?”

“Zoe, don’t you know how dangerous Lore can be?”

“Oh, god, Zoetrope, did he hurt you?”

I started to feel swimmy again, and I closed my eyes.

“Everyone, please calm down. You’re overwhelming her.” The last statement was from the counselor, and thankfully, silence did fall. “Zoe,” she said in her calm therapist’s voice. “Take a couple of deep breaths, and then sip some more water.”

I did, and felt my head clearing. “Sorry,” I said.

“You did nothing wrong,” the counselor told me. “Are you up to telling us exactly what happened?”

I nodded. “Yeah, but my shoulder is really hurting.”

Dr. Crusher came to take another look. “Zoe, you have a bruise here. Did Lore hit you.”

“No, he…squeezed.”

“Likely a nerve pinch,” Data said. “It is an elegant way to render someone unconscious very quickly.”

I felt the hiss of a hypo-spray, and then cool relief flooded through my shoulder. “Better.” I said.

My mother sat on the edge of the bed, and took my hand. “Just tell us what happened. Your friends said you disappeared outside a public restroom. What made you seek out Lore?”

“I didn’t seek him out,” I said. “I followed him, and at the time I thought he was Data. He was wearing a Starfleet uniform.”

“Lore did steal my uniform before he left our father,” Data confirmed.

I told them everything – well, almost everything. How I figured out he wasn’t really Data, but he stopped me from saying anything. How he put his arm around me and played me off as his lover, and how he said if I went along with him he’d let me go. “He knew my name,” I said. “He knew who I was. He thought…he said I was important to Data.”

“When did you realize that you were not actually with me?” Data asked.

“When he was telling the bouncer he liked his women barely legal,” I answered, “and feeling me up in the process.” I added. “Anyway, there was a Ferengi…” and then I laughed as a riff from a truly ancient movie came into my head: “The Ferengi with the fedora had a blaster under brocade,” I sing-songed., and then, because all four of the adults around me were wearing blank expressions, I said, “Never mind. There was a Ferengi with a blaster, and he took us into the back room, and Lore pulled me down onto his lap.”

“His lap?”

“There was only one chair. He kept his hand on my hip the whole time. It probably looked affectionate, but I’m betting there’s bruising there too, and could we not find out with Data here.”

The doctor was scanning me again. “I’ll send you home with some salve,” she said. “Just in case.”

“How did you end up in the hotel room?” Data asked.

“Lore and the Ferengi…Pharyll…His name was – is? – Pharyll…They were negotiating about a ship, but most of it was writing numbers down on padds, and passing them back and forth, and I’m sorry, but I can’t read as fast as you can Data. There were a lot of zeroes in the amount of latinum required…and a drop-off. Lore was supposed to make a drop-off.”

“Do you know where?” he asked.

“Sag…something….Saggy Lips? No, Saglyth…Saglyth III. Why can’t I think straight?”

“It’s a side effect of the nerve pinch, Zoe. You’ll be fine after you’ve rested more,” the doctor promised.

Counselor Troi was studying me as I spoke. “Zoe, at any point did you consider trying to get away?”

“I should have, I guess,” I said. “Part of me wanted to see what would happen. At the beginning, anyway.”

“And then it got too real?” My mother, that time.

“Kind of, yeah.” I sipped more water, and took another deep breath. “Anyway, he took me to his hotel…kept his arm around me the whole time. If anyone had seen…”

“They would have thought you wanted to be with him.” That was also Mom.

I blushed, but I wasn’t sure why. “Yeah. Probably.”

The counselor sat on the other side of me, also on the edge of the bed. “Zoe, in the hotel room…did you and Lore…?” She hesitated. “Do you want Data to leave while I ask you this?”

“What? Oh. Oh, no.” She was trying to ask if Lore had raped me, or if we’d had sex. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. There wasn’t. He didn’t. He flat out said he wasn’t looking for a fuck-buddy, and even if he was he didn’t want a little girl who was stuck on this brother.” As soon as I said it, I thought maybe I should have let them send Data out of the room, after all. “Which I’m not,” I said. “And I told him so.”

My mother started to chuckle, then. “Let me get this straight. An evil android – sorry, Data – ”

“I am not offended.”

” – takes you to a hotel and instead of being afraid he’ll rape or kill you, you’re afraid it might get around that you have a crush on your tutor?”

“Mom!”

“Zoe…,

“Kind of,” I said. “Straw, camel, all that.”

“Sorry, kiddo.”

Sheepishly, I added, “I might’ve also said something about not being a little girl. But for the record I was afraid.”

“You were bluffing him,” Data said softly. “Were you not?”

I met his eyes for a long moment, before I admitted. “I wish that’s what I’d been doing. Sorry to disappoint you, but I was hopped up on caffeine and sugar and gin, and really just didn’t have any filter.”

“You did not…” Data began.

But I cut him off. “He told me to sit, but the room was small and the bed was the only furniture. He told me to give you a message. I gave it to you, didn’t I?”

“‘Thanks for the memories,'” Data repeated. “And that he would be watching.”

I nodded. “He held my hands in his,” I said. “And he touched my chest…found the comm-badge…pulverized it.” I had to close my eyes for the rest. “He was in front of me, and I thought he was going to push me onto the bed. For a moment it felt like he was. But he just caressed my face, and my neck…and then he squeezed.”

“Zoe, you’re leaving something out,” the counselor said softly.

I looked her in the eyes and then looked away. “Yeah, but it’s not really important.”

“Let us decide that.”

“He kissed me.”

“Why do I get the feeling we’re not talking about a quick peck on the cheek?” asked Dr. Crusher. “Zoe…” she glanced at Data, then back at me, “…you’re sure that’s all?”

“He said that when comm-badges are destroyed they send an alert signal – is that true?” I waited for Data’s confirming nod. “He said that if he didn’t have to go he’d have liked to find out how ‘not a little girl’ I claimed to be.” I imitated his tone when I said it. “And no, the kiss…it wasn’t…it was…I probably should have bitten his tongue or kicked him in the balls, or something. Would that have even worked?”

“It is unlikely that you would have been able to make contact,” Data informed me. “But if you had…yes, it would have…worked.”

“Good to know.”

“Do you anticipate needing to know how to defend yourself against Lore?” Data asked.

It was clear that everyone in the room wanted to hear my answer. “There was a little more to his message,” I said. “He said he’d be watching me, too.” I looked around at these people – my mother, my friend, the two women who both only wanted help me. “Can you just start yelling now and get it over with? I’m really tired.”

My mother’s arms came around me, holding me tightly. “Oh, sweetheart. No one’s going to yell at you. Not for this.” She waited a beat and then grinned at me, “You are, however, grounded ’til you’re fifty. For your own protection.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44100.96

(6 February 2367, 10:00 hours, ship’s time)

My dreams on Sunday night began with T’vek – I’d had a comm-call with him before bed – but they were also about Lore. (Or Data?) No, I’m sure it was Lore. That kiss…that kiss that was more about assault than seduction repeated in my brain over and over, and every time, I heard the echo of Lore’s words, “…tell him I had the first taste.”

In my dream I remembered the pressure of his lips on mine, the taste of him: Denebian Scotch, faint metallic undertone, something sweet. Was the sweet just part of him?

When I finally woke up, I got ready for class almost as if I was on auto-pilot. I don’t think my mother expected that. I think she expected me to curl up in bed for another day, and a part of me wanted to, but the part of me that wasn’t a little girl any more (“…find out how exactly how much of a little girl you really aren’t…”) knew I had to face the world – or at least my friends – as soon as possible.

“Comm me if you need anything,” my mother urged as I left our quarters. She wasn’t on duty until afternoon. “And if class is too much…”

“Mom, I’m fine. Really. It was just a kiss. I didn’t get raped or pummeled or anything. Mostly, I’m just mortified, okay?”

“Okay,” she said, but I could hear that tone…the one that meant she knew I wasn’t being honest with her. The one that meant she was worried.

I was the last one into the conference room for Data’s math tutorial, that morning, which was unusual for me. I slid into the seat that Dana and Annette had left open between them, and my best friend whispered to me, “Your mom comm’d us this morning…are you okay?”

I favored her with a weak smile. “Yeah, mostly. Talk later?”

She nodded, and we both turned on our padds and reviewed our notes from the previous class.

It was probably just me, but Data seemed more reserved than usual that morning. Quieter. As if he’d pulled away from all of us, a little bit. He greeted us with his customary, “Good morning,” and quick nod of the head, and immediately launched into the intricacies of solving of a new kind of equation.

“The first step,” he began – but I lost the ability to follow him at that point because what I heard was ‘the first taste.’ (“Tell him I had the first taste. What should I do with you, Zoe Harris?” )

I shook my head, to clear it, and refocused on what Data was saying, but instead of taking notes, I tapped a message to Counselor Troi asking if I could move my regular session with her to just after Data’s class, instead of our normally-scheduled day later in the week. Her response was to come as soon as I was available, and to have someone on the medical staff page her if she wasn’t in her office when I arrived.

“A faster method for solving this type of problem,” Data was saying, “is to skip…”

(“You’ll go squealing to Data…” “…faster than a tribble on triticale…” “…stuck on my brother…” )

I don’t know if I did something physical to draw his attention, but Data broke off his lecture and called my name. Actually, I think he said my name a couple of times before I responded.

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.

“It is unlike you to be distracted in class, Zoe. Are you alright?” I hesitated. It was pretty obvious that I wasn’t alright, but I really didn’t want to admit it. “Zoe…?”

I pushed my chair back and stood up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really not. I need to go now.”

He seemed to want to say something meaningful, or at least comforting, but we were in the middle of class, and as it was all my friends were staring at me. “I will send the class notes to your padd,” he said simply. “Contact me if you require assistance.”

“I will,” I said. “Thanks.”

I left the room, taking a few minutes to catch my breath before I headed to the nearest turbo-lift, and then to the counselor’s office.

(=A=)

Counselor Troi was just returning to her office as I got there, and I must have looked pale, because her dark eyes got huge, and she wrapped a reassuring arm around me. “I’m not going to ask if you’re alright,” she said, “because you’re clearly not. Would you like a drink? Coffee? Tea? Hot chocolate?”

“Tea’d be good,” I said. “Peppermint?”

“Alright.” She ushered me to a comfortable chair and I folded myself into it, sitting cross-legged on the seat. “Just a minute.”

The mug was hot in my hand, but the mint seemed to clear my senses. “Thanks,” I said. I wrapped both hands around the mug, just holding it.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked after a couple of minutes of just letting me sit.

“It started last night, after I went to bed – I mean really to bed, not in sickbay.”

“Go on.”

“I kept dreaming about Lore and the things he said…and about him kissing me…and…I left something out last night, but I swear it wasn’t anything that could help you find Lore, or anything.”

“Can you tell me?”

“Just before he kissed me….before he said he’d be watching me, too?” I made it a question. “He said to tell Data…he said to ‘tell him I had the first taste.’ And now…that’s all I can hear. Data was talking about the steps in an equation, and all I could hear was Lore. In the back of my head. It was just a kiss, Couns – ” but she’d given me a look – “Deanna. Why am I going so crazy because of a stupid kiss.”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

I rolled my eyes. “Somehow, I knew you’d say that.”

“Zoe, you’re sixteen. You’ve just separated from your first lover. You and Data have a close friendship that seems to be getting steadily closer.”

I didn’t respond to her directly.

“Last night in sickbay…mom and Data were talking about me.”

“And you were eavesdropping.” It wasn’t a question.

“Well…they were right there. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

“I’m not judging you, Zoe.”

“No, I’m judging me. Anyway, my mother was worried I was pestering him too much, and he said his ‘affinity’ for me – his word – was similar to when people first meet and feel like they’ve known each other forever. Um. Only he was less clumsy about the phrasing.”

“And?”

“And my mother said she was concerned I was crushing on him. Well, she didn’t say that, but I knew she was about to. Data told her I was awake before she said the word.”

“I see.”

“And the thing is…I didn’t. I swear it was just being friends until yesterday, and then…and now…”

“And now, because of Lore you’re seeing Data through different eyes?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Something like that. Tev asked me once, before we – before we were sleeping together…if I had a ‘thing’ for Data. I wasn’t lying when I said no.”

“I’m sure you weren’t.”

“So, what do I do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Running away to become a surf instructor on Pacifica is looking awfully attractive,” I said.

The counselor chuckled. “An inspired choice. Not very practical, though.”

“The really fun options never are.”

“No. I suppose not.”

I sipped some of my tea, letting the minty warmth sit in my mouth before I swallowed it, using the time to think. “Did you mean it, about no judging?”

“I did.”

“And you won’t tell anyone what we discuss?”

“You know I won’t,” she promised. “What is it?”

“I picked a fight with Data on Saturday. I yelled at him for saying he couldn’t feel grief over losing his father, when the twelve pictures he’d painted really were his way of feeling it. It was just so… He went from telling me he’d met and lost his father to suggesting we just start my music theory lesson.”

Counselor Troi was silent for a long moment. “I didn’t realize Data had spoken to you about Dr. Soong.”

“He didn’t say much,” I said. “I didn’t really give him the chance. I blew up at him because…” The proverbial lightbulb clicked on inside my head. “…because he wasn’t grieving the way I thought he should. And I should know better. I know his brooding is his way of…processing.”

“But you picked a fight with him, anyway. Why?”

I thought about it. “Because…” I began slowly. “I’d been really worried about him when he was gone. And because he doesn’t seem to comprehend that it matters to people when he’s in jeopardy.” I hesitated. “And because I already lost T’vek, and my mother and father left me behind all the time, and…”

“And you don’t believe you can handle losing another friend right now?”

I felt small and pathetic when I said it. “Well…yeah.”

“So when you saw the person you thought was Data, you followed him,” she said bringing us back to the original topic. “Why?”

“I wanted to apologize,” I said.

“And when you realized it wasn’t Data?”

I hesitated again. “Part of me wanted to get away, or scream for help, or…I don’t know…do something, but the other part…it was kind of exciting. Like being in a mystery novel or a horror vid, but with less blood and guts.”

“Danger can be exhilarating,” the counselor agreed.

“I don’t think he would have raped me,” I said suddenly. “Lore, I mean. I’m not saying he isn’t capable…I’m saying…I don’t think it’s his style.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. In the bar, and with the Ferengi, he was all about the chase. Once they finished the negotiation, it was like he wasn’t interested any more. So no…I don’t think he would have raped me…” She was watching me very carefully, but she didn’t say anything, so I just continued. “I think he would have seduced me.” I paused again, adding, “And I don’t think it would have mattered if I was me, or just any girl. But he knew who I was, and he said I was important to Data, so I’m guessing…”

“You think Lore recognized who you were and chose to let things happen as they may?”

“Does that make me totally shallow and vain?”

“No. It makes you perceptive, though we can’t really be certain why Lore didn’t maintain his persona as Data and then send you away.”

“That’s fair.” I said. “Counsel – Deanna – there was…part of me kind of liked that kiss. Not the circumstances, but…I don’t know…the…technique. And in class today…I guess part of my distraction was…”

“Go on, Zoe,” she encouraged softly. “You can tell me.”

“Part of me kept hearing Lore’s voice in my head,” I said in a near-whisper. “And part of me was wondering if kissing Data would be like that. Oh, god, I’m horrible.”

“No,” she said very firmly. “You’re not. You’re a young woman who is just learning to navigate the complexities of adult relationships. You’re also a bit reckless, and more than a little curious.”

“Lore said my curiosity would get the better of me.” I said. “He was almost right.”

“The more you talk about how you felt,” Troi said. “The more I think Lore may have intended for someone from the Enterprise to find him. Not necessarily you, but…”

“You think it’s a set-up. You think everything he did was to manipulate Data?”

“I think,” she said, “that you need to worry about you right now, and leave the rest to the people who are trained to handle it. I also think that we need to find a way to channel your restless spirit just a bit. I know you love music, but maybe you should consider another art form as well. What do you like to do?”

“I like theater. I like to look at art, but I can’t draw or paint to save my life, and clay gets under your nails,” I offered helpfully. “Oh…and gardening. I used to help on the farm when I was there. And surfing, obviously. Actually pretty much anything involving the ocean.”

“Doesn’t soil get under your nails as well?” she asked, smirking.

“Oh, totally. But it’s different kind of being-dirty.”

“Let me think about some options for you, and we’ll talk about them later this week, alright?” She was smiling the warm I’m-just-a-friend-you’re-chatting-with smile again, and I could tell that we were wrapping up. I did feel a lot better.

“And until then?”

“What do you think you should do?”

“I still need to apologize to Data,” I said. “Also, I left my cello in his quarters after the music theory lesson that wasn’t…”

“I can promise you that you are more bothered by your behavior than he is,” she said. “But I agree, you do need to apologize, if only to give yourself resolution. Do you feel up to that?”

“I need a more time to decompress first. I’m pretty sure Mom expected me to beg off classes today.”

“You probably should have. Zoe…you went through a lot yesterday. You need to give yourself time to recover. I’ll contact your afternoon teachers, for you. I want you to go home, and take some time to just rest. No homework, no practicing.”

I refrained from pointing out that I literally couldn’t practice since my cello was still in Data’s quarters. “So, what do I do? Just hang out in pajamas and watch bad vids? I’m not sick.”

“Not physically, perhaps, but whether you admit it or not, everything with Lore – and even your ‘fight’ with Data – have taken an emotional toll on you. Data’s on bridge-duty until the end of alpha shift. If you’re up to it, stop by and see him this evening.”

“I’ll have to ask my mother. Because of the grounded-til-I’m-fifty thing.”

She laughed, “You do that.” She stood up, then, and I did, too, and when she offered a hug, I allowed it.

At the door, I paused. “Cou – Deanna – do you think I have a crush on Data?”

She smiled, and this time it was her enigmatic smile. “I think you and Data are good friends, and you should stop worrying about anything else.”

Typical therapist: always the perfect non-answer.

(=A=)

Stardate 44100.91

(6 February 2367, 20:00 hours, ship’s time)

I did what Counselor Troi instructed. I went home from her office, and changed to ratty sweats and a Beach Haven High School t-shirt, and curled up on my bed with music blasting through my earphones and the novels my father had given me for Christmas.

I was two-thirds of the way through Dracula when I fell asleep, though I woke up when my mother came home around seven that evening. We ate dinner together, and then she went back to her lab to work on something for a couple of hours, and I changed into (slightly) more presentable clothing, and went to see Data.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your evening,” I told him, after he invited me inside. “I came to get my cello. And to apologize for yesterday.”

“I was not offen –” he started to say, but he stopped abruptly. “Zoe, I believe this is a conversation that will require tea. Would you care for some?”

“I’d like that,” I said. “If you wouldn’t mind clearing it with my mother first?”

He did so, and I took up my usual spot in the corner of his couch, and we talked about why I’d been so upset, and what it was like meeting his father. He told me about the dinosaurs he’d brought back for the Potts boys, and the dinosaur skeleton that dominated Dr. Soong’s main room.

I still heard Lore’s words in the back of my head – that wasn’t going to go away any time soon – but they were less intrusive, at least.

By midnight, when he picked up my cello an escorted me back home, “…because I do not want to face your mother’s wrath if you go missing again,” he teased lightly, I felt like I had experienced the first taste of adulthood, and that our friendship had achieved some semblance of normalcy.

Notes: First, thank you to all of the people who have read and commented on this story, especially those who read it from the beginning, and came back to it after my months (ahem, years) of hiatus. I’m tickled to death that it’s received over 200 comments. Y’all know how to make a girl blush. As an aside: I don’t believe assault, sexual or otherwise, should ever be used to entertain. I tried to keep Zoe’s reactions in the realm of plausibility.

Chapter 46: The New Normal

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

The New Normal

Stardate 44143.86

(22 February 2367, 12:15 hours, ship’s time)

Two weeks after my little adventure with Lore, I’d finally found a new rhythm to my life. School was back in session, which helped. Saturday sessions with Data had resumed, Seth was being less hands-y, Lt. Caldwell was giving me more challenging vocal music, and I was spending a couple of hours a week – mainly Monday and Friday afternoons – helping out in the arboretum.

As well, Wesley’s friend Ensign Barnett had become just Ray, who hung out with me – with all of us – sometimes, but wasn’t really a potential romantic partner. I needed friends more than I needed romance, anyway, which was why we’d started going to lunch in Ten-Forward on Wednesdays after Data’s math class. It wasn’t always all of us, and sometimes some of the younger members of the ship’s crew came to sit with us, but it was a nice ritual.

“Zoe, Josh, you are just the people I wanted to see,” Dr. Crusher greeted us as we entered Ten-Forward, for one of those lunches, along with Dana and Nytan, a Rigellian boy who’d joined the ship with his parents when we were at Starbase 416. He wasn’t in our tutorial, but we had a lot of other classes together, and it wasn’t like there were many teenagers on the ship.

“Whatever it is,” Josh said, only half-kidding, “I didn’t do it.”

I could tell the doctor was about to ask Josh exactly what he hadn’t done, so I jumped in with a paraphrased quote from a play, “It was late. It was dark. It was rainy. He swore he was over sixteen.”

“Cute Zoe,” she said, then continued, “Seriously you two, the theater group has decided that The Diary of Anne Frank will be our next production, and we need a couple of teenagers to play Anne and Peter.”

“Isn’t that a bit grim for a shipboard production?” I asked. “I mean with the ending and all. Unless you plan to use a contemporary setting and replace the Nazis with the Borg?”

She stared at me as if she’d never considered such a thing. “Interesting premise. I’ll think about it. Auditions are tonight at eight in the auditorium.” She glanced at Dana and Nytan, “You’re both welcome to try out as well.”

Dana blushed and shook her head. “No thank you. I much prefer to be in the audience. What about you, Nytan?”

Our new friend also declined. “I get stage fright,” he said. “Very, very bad stage fright. Then I throw up.”

“Well, we’ll look forward to seeing you in the audience as well,” she said.

I’d seen a couple of shipboard performances, but never been in any of the theatrical pieces, having been mostly focused on music. The invitation (and I used the word loosely) to audition for this show was probably at the behest of Counselor Troi. After all, she’d been trying to fill ever more of my time as a way to channel my ‘vivid imagination and reckless tendencies.’

“So you’re going to audition, aren’t you?” Dana asked. “Josh has been in lots of plays since the D first launched, and I know you’ve done theater at home.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I sort of have to.”

Dana gave me the kind of look that meant we would talk about it later, and suggested, “We should order so we’re not late to lit class. Professor Benoit is fantastic.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Nytan put in. “I’ve never enjoyed books and reading so much, but he makes you see the…I don’t know…context? I guess?”

“The dude is stellar,” pronounced Josh.

And then we did order, and the rest of the hour was spent talking about music and the social scene on Rigel IV, and stuff like that.

(=A=)

On instructions from his girlfriend, Josh stopped by my quarters and we went to the auditorium together. I wasn’t surprised that the only other people even close to our age were Wesley and Annette. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Data was there, as well. I was surprised to see Professor Benoit.

“Ed? You’re auditioning for this play?”

“Ah, Josh, and my beach buddy,” he greeted us enthusiastically. I was ready to bet that he wouldn’t ever let that nickname go. “Bogart misses you, Zoe.”

“Well,” I said. “You’d never know it. He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write…I tried to hook him up with this really hot French Poodle…”

“Alright, alright, I see your point,” he laughed. “By the way, thank you for sending the Potts boys to meet me. I’m so glad they decided to stay on board after Willie’s treatment.”

“Did they?” I asked. “I kind of had my own stuff going on, and lost track.”

“They did, and Bogart is happy to have such great playmates.”

“I’m pretty sure the boys are just as happy to play with him,” I said.

“Who’s Bogart?” Josh asked, as he was still standing right next to me.

“My dog,” the professor answered.

“You have a dog on the ship?” Josh asked. “Seriously? What kind?”

I heard the professor tell Josh that Bogart was a Lab mix as someone came up behind me. “Zoe, I was not expecting to see you here tonight.” It was Data.

“Command performance,” I explained, following him into a row of seats two back from the front. “Dr. Crusher ‘invited’ me to be here. I’m pretty sure Counselor Troi suggested it. All part of her master plan to rehabilitate the wild child.”

“You do have a tendency toward the dramatic that might be better channeled into on-stage performances,” he pointed out.

I gave him my most scathing glare, and was about to add a witty comeback, but Josh and Ed had filed into the row behind us, and then Dr. Crusher stepped to the front of the room – a raised stage wasn’t actually the default configuration for the space – then began speaking when she had our attention.

“Welcome, everyone,” she said. “It’s good to see some new faces mixed in with the old. Zoe, you really didn’t have to send a resume and headshot, but thank you. We’re going to start with the readings for Anne, Peter, and Margot. I have data flimsies right here with the audition lines.”

I looked over the data flimsy I’d been handed. Anne’s piece was essentially a monologue, as it was one of her diary entries, and as soon as I read it through, I was pretty sure of how to interpret it. I was also certain that I really wanted to nail this role. Dad had always quoted a theater adage that directors always remember the first and last people they see, and there was no way I wanted to be last, so as soon as Dr. Crusher called for volunteers, my hand was raised.

“Okay, Zoe, go ahead,” she said, with more than faint amusement in her tone. I don’t think she’d ever realized just how ambitious I could be when I was motivated.

I channeled my father and his air of perpetual confidence when I left my seat and moved to center stage, but once I was there, looking out at the seats, the habits of my admittedly-short lifetime took over. “”I’m Zoe Harris, and I’m auditioning for Anne,” I said in my normal voice, but loud enough to reach the back rows without any need for amplification.

I waited for Dr. Crusher’s acknowledging nod, took a breath, and began the monologue, pitching my voice just a little bit higher than normal, slowing my speech, and doing my best to sound as if I were just composing the words I was speaking:

“I expect I should be describing what it feels like to go into hiding. But I really don’t know yet myself. I only know it’s funny never to be able to go outdoors . . . never to breathe fresh air . . . never to run and shout and jump. It’s the silence in the nights that frightens me most. Every time I hear a creak in the house or a step on the street outside, I’m sure they’re coming for us. The days aren’t so bad. At least we know that Miep and Mr. Kraler are down there below us in the office. Our protectors, we call them. I asked Father what would happen to them if the Nazis found out they were hiding us. Pim said that they would suffer the same fate that we would. . . . Imagine! They know this, and yet when they come up here, they’re always cheerful and gay, as if there were nothing in the world to bother them. . . . Friday, the twenty-first of August, nineteen forty-two. Today I’m going to tell you our general news. Mother is unbearable. She insists on treating me like a baby, which I loathe. Otherwise things are going better. The weather is . . . .”

Channeling Data, just a little bit, I put audio quotation marks around the phrase ‘our protectors,’ and I got a laugh when I emphasized the word ‘unbearable,’ as I had hoped I would. There was applause but I wasn’t sure if it was polite, or meant, or a mix of both.

“Thank you, Zoe,” the doctor said. “Annette, you’re next.”

Back in my seat, I tried to focus on my friend’s performance, but Josh wrapped his arms around me from behind, and asked softly, “Resume and head shot? Seriously? How much theater did you do on Centaurus?”

“Some,” I admitted. “But a lot of it was my dad going, ‘Oh, you need a kid? Throw Zoe onstage.’ Until I was eight, anyway.”

Annette had finished her audition and one of the two ensigns – Andrea Something – was on stage plodding through the same monologue. Data seemed really put off by her lack of performance skills, and I leaned close to him to ask in my quietest voice, “So, tell me what you really think of her?”

“Am I too blatant in my reaction to her obvious lack of performance skills?” he responded, equally softly.

“A little, yeah.”

“I will endeavor to be more discreet.”

Fortunately, she was done, and the other ensign, Laura Gilbert – she introduced herself in a clear voice – took the stage. She wasn’t bad…but she didn’t really look like a teenager, either.

“Please tell me I was at least as good as she was?” I asked Data, when she was finished.

“I’d cast you,” Ed said from his seat behind my tutor. “She was good, but no way is she believable as thirteen-year-old Anne, in the beginning of the play. She’d be a good Margot, though.”

By ten, I’d been given the part of Anne, and Ensign Gilbert had been cast as Margot. Ed surprised me by beating out Data for the part of Mr. Frank – he had better father-daughter chemistry with me, but Data was amazing as the dentist Mr. Dussel. Lt. Barclay and a woman in science blue were cast as the Van Daans, and a college student doing a “semester in space” in one of the science labs – Theo – was cast as Peter, though Josh’s audition was actually pretty good. Apparently Dr. Crusher herself was taking the part of Mrs. Frank, but other people had tried out, and she really was better than all of them.

The cast was asked to stick around for a few minutes to discuss rehearsal schedules, but we were released by ten-thirty. Ed and Dr. Crusher were doing the ‘get to know you better’ chat, and I heard them discuss moving their conversation to Ten-Forwad, while Theo and I merely agreed to meet for lunch the next day.

“Zoe, if you do not mind waiting a moment, I will escort you back to your quarters,” Data said, coming up behind me as I was finishing my talk with Theo. So far, I only knew that he’d joined the ship when we were still at Spacedock, and he was nineteen, and a sophomore at MIT, on Earth.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said. I’d just realized that I was the only non-adult, if not the only teenager, in the cast, but I really didn’t want anyone focusing on that bit of information.

“I do not mind,” he said. I would have protested further, but something in his tone implied that he wanted to speak with me.

“Okay,” I said. “Sure.” So I hung out while he spoke with the doctor for a few minutes, and then we left together. Outside the auditorium, I said, “You know, I’m not grounded any more. Mom wouldn’t have cared if I went home alone, and I know where I’m going now.”

“I did not mean to imply otherwise,” Data said. “I did wish to speak with you about your performance this evening.”

“Data, it was a cold reading. If you’re going to pick apart my interpretation, could it wait until I’ve actually started working on the character?”

“I did not intend to ‘pick apart’ your reading. I was merely curious about the resume you sent to Dr. Crusher.”

“Oh?”

“My impression was that you had performed only small roles in local productions in your hometown on Centaurus.”

“Oh. That.”

“Was I mistaken?”

“Shouldn’t you know? I mean, haven’t you investigated every detail of my life and committed it to memory?”

“Not every detail, no,” he said with the merest hint of snark. We’d definitely been rubbing off on each other. “With the people I consider friends,” he explained, then, in his more usual tone, “I prefer to get to know them at a slower pace. More…organically.” He sounded almost sheepish on the last word, as if he expected to be admonished for using it.

I didn’t call him on it, of course, only smiled, and touched his arm, which caused us both to freeze in place for a moment, and him to look at where my hand had made contact. “Sorry,” I said, pulling my hand back, suddenly conscious – too conscious – of the fact that I’d touched him. Casual contact had been a fairly usual thing with him forever, so I wasn’t sure why I was suddenly more aware of it. Of him. “I’ll send you a copy of my resume if you want.”

“If you do not mind, I would appreciate that,” he said.

“If I minded, I wouldn’t have offered,” I said, and then I realized it could have sounded snappish, and realized further why I was feeling irritated with him. Still, I counted to ten in my head before I asked, “Do you have any specific plans between now and midnight?”

“I do not, why?”

“Could we do our tea-thing, and talk? We haven’t really, not since the night after…everything. I mean, we talk in class, and stuff, but…”

“Zoe.” My name on his lips was always enough to stop me cold.

“Yes?”

“I, too, have missed our tea ritual.”

I laughed softly. “When I used that word, you said it wasn’t a ritual yet.”

“Apparently, I was wrong.”

He held out his arm, and I looped mine through it, laughing. “Lead on, then, kind sir,” I said in my best fake-English accent. “Ritual tea awaits.”

(=A=)

While Data was replicating tea (lemon-mint, with rosemary-laced sugar cookies on the side at my request), he directed me to use his console to let my mother know where I was (I also told her I might be late, just in case) and then to retrieve my theatrical resume and save a copy to his account. As I sat down in his chair, I asked, “Are you sure I won’t mess anything up?”

“You cannot,” he assured me.

“Okay,” I said. After a moment, I added, “You have mail.”

“The tea is ready,” he said. I looked up at him from behind his desk and for a split second I felt like I was experiencing déjà vu, or whatever the equivalent of déjà vu that means you’re seeing the future is called, because I swear it felt like I’d looked at him from that angle a thousand times, and suddenly I was staring at him with new eyes. He must’ve noticed…something…because he said, “Zoe? Are you alright?”

I shook my head to clear it, and the odd feeling was gone. “Yeah, sorry.” If I moved away from his chair with unusual haste, he didn’t mention it, and once I was settled on the couch with my shoes kicked off and my hands wrapped around a mug of fragrant tea, I was completely relaxed. “Is it utterly weird,” I asked, “that this spot is the place on this ship that I feel most at home?”

“I do not know if it is weird or not,” he said softly, “but I will accept your statement as a compliment.” He waited a beat then prompted gently, “Was there something specific you wished to speak to me about, when you suggested tea?”

I could feel myself blushing, because I’d been just watching him again. “Oh. Yeah. It’s a little awkward.”

“We have dealt with awkward subjects before.”

“True enough. It’s just…we talked about Doctor Soong, but we never really talked about what happened with your bro – with Lore. And…I don’t know…when you insisted upon walking me home, it kind of made me think maybe you think it was your fault.”

“Is it not? If I had prevented you from leaving that morning, you would not have followed him.”

“But I followed him because I thought he was you.”

“If we had talked through your concerns about my response to my father’s death,” he said diplomatically avoiding the use of the word ‘tantrum’ in regard to my behavior, “you would have had no reason to do so.”

“Yeah I would.”

“How so?”

I shrugged. “You being on the starbase without stopping to say hello to us would have been uncharacteristic behavior. You heading to a bar like that would have been decidedly weird. And anyway, you are not my parent or guardian, you’re my tutor – my friend – you are not responsible for me making stupid choices.” I watched him process those statements, and then I added, “Besides…he knew me. He knew my name, and believed I was somehow important to you.”

“I am aware of that.” Anyone else would have laced those words with anguish. Data, of course, did not.

“How did he know that?”

“I am uncertain. I believe he must have copied my memory engrams after he de-activated me.”

“You didn’t think of that before he showed up on the starbase?”

“I regret that I did not.”

“And that’s why you feel at fault?”

His answer was simple: “Yes.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Part of me wanted to just fling myself into his arms, and part of me knew I probably shouldn’t. I set down my tea cup, and reached for his hand, clasping it in much the same way he’d clasped mine one night after I’d had a nightmare. We sat in silence for several minutes, and in that time, I couldn’t help but wonder again if his kisses would feel the same way Lore’s had, but I shook myself out of the thought, and withdrew my hand.

“I should go,” I said. “Thanks for the tea, and the talk. If I promise to stop chasing after doppelgangers of the people I care about, will you promise not to blame yourself for everything that happens if I do?”

“I will try,” he agreed amiably enough.

“Stellar,” I said, forcing a lighter mood. I slid my feet back into my shoes, and left his quarters, but I paused at the door. “Hey Data?”

“Yes?”

“You know how you told me to make sure I had a password set on my padd?”

“I remember the conversation, of course, but…”

I cut him off. “Brain the size of a planet and you don’t have a password on your own memories?”

The look on his face as the door slid shut between us was priceless.

Notes: The Diary of Anne Frank (the play, not the original book) was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and originally produced on Broadway in 1955. It was turned into a movie in 1959. Zoe’s audition piece is from Act I, Scene 2. (Zoe’s last comment to Data, is, of course, taken from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Chapter 47: Legacies

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Legacies

Stardate 44152.91

(Saturday, February 25th, 19:30 hours, ship’s time)

“Sorry I’m late, kiddo,” my mother said as she dropped a kiss on the top of my head, and fell into the open chair at our table. I was having dinner with Ed and Theo in order for all of us to get to know each other, and we’d invited my mother to join us, so she could see who I was hanging out with these days.

“Mom, this is my new daddy,” I teased, referring to the fact that Ed had been cast as my father in the shipboard play The Diary of Anne Frank.

“Excuse me?” my mother asked in her best mom-voice.

“Sorry,” I said. “Professor Benoit – Ed – this is my mother, Lt. Commander Emily Harris. Mom, this is Ed. He’s our lit teacher this year, and he’s been cast as my father in ‘Anne.'” I waited for them to exchange greetings, then added, “And this is Theo…whose last name I still haven’t learned.”

“Nechayev,” he supplied. “I’m here from MIT for my semester in space, Commander Harris.”

“Emily, please,” my mother told him.

“Wait,” I said. “Nechayev like Admiral Nechayev?”

Theo blushed faintly and ducked his head. “She’s my aunt,” he told us. “Please don’t let it get around. People will think I only got this spot here because of her.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been cast in community theater stuff all my life because of who my father is. Why should it matter?”

“It shouldn’t,” he said. “My grades are excellent, and I worked my ass – excuse me – off to get here, but…”

“But people will still talk,” Ed said, finishing the thought.

“Theo’s playing Peter,” I told my mother.

“Ah,” my mother said. “It’s nice to meet you. Have you all ordered?”

I shook my head. “We were waiting for you.” Guinan came over, then, and we chatted for a little bit before she took our orders. Across the room, I noticed Wesley and some blond boy I didn’t know getting into some kind of kerfuffle over ice cream (I think) and I asked her. “Who’s Wes’s new friend?”

Guinan followed the direction of my gaze. “That,” she said, “is Jono. He’s from the Telarian ship we ran into the other day.” She pronounced it differently than Josh had, and I wondered if that was significant.

“I thought the rest of the kids were sent home?” I asked.

My mother gave me a look that seemed to imply I had more information than I should, but only said, “Jono is human by birth.”

“Oh.”

“The Telarian culture is fairly dismissive of women, Zoe,” my mother added after Guinan left our table. “So if you’re thinking about introducing yourself…”

“What, and skip out on the three of you? Never!” I said, and then I changed the subject, “Theo what’s MIT like…it’s in…Boston, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. “In the old city. It’s nice. Challenging, but there’s this sense of history. Have you started looking at colleges yet, Zoe?”

“Our Zoe’s going to the Martian,” my mother said. “She’s been planning it for years.”

“Actually…” I said, knowing this was a tough subject, but recognizing that my mother wouldn’t freak out in front of people. “I’ve been thinking I should consider other options.”

“The Academy?” Mom asked.

“Oh, god, no.” I said. “Sorry, Mom. That will never change. No, I was thinking maybe something a little more academic. I love music and all, but…I don’t want to be a one-note person.”

“Zoe, I’ve only known you for a bit over a month, and I can assure you, you will never be one-note,” Ed said.

Our food came, and the four of us chatted about the play, and Boston, and Ed’s decision to spend a semester on the ship as well. When we were finished eating, Theo invited me to go for a walk to the ship’s art gallery, and I accepted, but Mom and Ed stayed to have coffee and after-dinner drinks.

Outside Ten-Forward, I stopped Theo. “You didn’t have to do that…” I said. “Invite me on a walk. I could see Mom and Ed getting interested in each other.”

He laughed. “It really wasn’t for them,” he said. “We have to…Anne and Peter have to…”

“Kiss,” I said. “We have to kiss. Yeah, I know. Dr. Crusher said we were going to start running that scene next week. She wants us really comfortable with each other.”

He nodded, “Exactly. And I thought if we hung out alone…”

I looked at him, then. Really looked at him. Theo was taller than me by a few inches, and had dark brown hair and green eyes. I’d seen pictures of his aunt, Admiral Nechayev, and now that I knew they were related, I could see her features on him. “Do you even like art?” I asked.

“Actually,” he confessed, “I prefer fishing. I just couldn’t think of where else to take you.”

I laughed at that. “Well, there are fishing programs on the holodeck, but at this hour on a Saturday night, finding one free won’t be easy. There’s also an aquatics lab, and there’s a koi pond in the arboretum. You can’t fish, sadly, but you can have the replicator give you fish food, and they’ll chase the pellets.”

“The koi pond sounds like the best option,” he said. “Lead on.”

The arboretum was set up to mimic a diurnal schedule, and when we arrived synthesized twilight had settled over the pond. “Maybe we should have taken our chances with the holodeck,” I said. “I mean, right now this is screaming ‘make out spot.'”

He chuckled, “You make an excellent point. But I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

I shook my head. “Nope.” We sat on the grass near the pond and watched the fish nibble the pellets we’d replicated.

“So, how long have you lived on the Enterprise?” he asked.

“Less than a year,” I said. “Mom’s been here since Captain Picard took command, but I didn’t join her until just before the school year started. Does your aunt mind that you’re not at the Academy?”

He shook his head, “Not any more. My parents were actually the ones who didn’t approve, but…I’m not the dress-in-uniforms-and-salute-people type.”

I grinned. “Theo, I think we’re going to get along just fine.”

By the end of the evening, we were definitely more friends than just castmates, but I wasn’t sure if there would ever be anything more, and honestly, I didn’t really care either way.

(=A=)

“Okay, Zoe, who’s the boy?” Dana asked on our way to our math tutorial the following Monday.

“What boy?” I asked. “There is no boy.”

“Josh and I saw you at the koi pond with someone who was definitely of the male persuasion,” my friend said. “Saturday night, around twenty-one hundred hours.”

“Oh. That wasn’t a boy, exactly. That was Theo.”

“Theo?”

“He’s here doing a semester in space…from MIT.”

“Since when do you hang out with science-y types?”

“Ninety percent of the people on this ship are ‘science-y types.'” I pointed out. “He plays Peter…in the play. We thought we should get to know each other.”

“Oh?”

“Well…we have a couple of scenes that are…”

“Intimate?” she said it in a voice that left nothing to the imagination.

“Not that intimate,” I said. “There’s a kiss, is all. And I shouldn’t be telling you this, because I want you to come see the play.”

Dana grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“How’s Josh doing?” I asked. “I mean, he wanted the part of Peter.”

“He’s okay,” she said. “Actually I think he’s a little relieved. He was afraid kissing you would be weird.”

It was my turn to grin. “It would have been like kissing my brother, if I had a brother.”

“That’s pretty much what Josh said,” Dana shared, and then she asked, “So, do we get to meet him?”

“Who? Theo? Go visit the science labs. He’ll be around, I suppose.”

“Zoe!” My friend was obviously frustrated with me.

“Look, I barely know him. He and Ed – Professor Benoit – had dinner with my mother and me the other night, and then we left them alone and went for a walk. We are not dating. We are not canoodling. We’re just…well, we were just castmates. I guess we’ve sort of become friends, but there is no ‘there’ there.”

Dana was staring at me as if I’d gone slightly crazy. Then she just shook her head (her blonde ponytail bounced as she did so), and smiled, and said, “Sure, Zoe, whatever you say.”

I rolled my eyes at her, “Can we just go to class now?” I asked, and I walked through the door where Data and our classmates were waiting. “Morning,” I said brightly. “Lovely day for a math tutorial, don’t you think?”

(=A=)

Stardate 44166.22

(Thursday, March 2, 16:05 hours, ship’s time)

“Good lesson today, Zoe,” Seth said as he packed up his cello. As usual, we’d met in one of the smaller observation lounges. “The theory lessons you’re doing with Commander Data are really improving your technique. Soon you won’t need me.”

“Promise?” I asked, only half kidding. But he had been trying to be less creepy, and he really wasn’t a bad teacher. “Sorry…the snark is automatic sometimes.”

He chuckled. “It’s okay. I kind of deserved it.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “You kind of did. So, I’ll see you next week?”

“Same time, same place,” he said, and then he slung his gig bag over his shoulder and sauntered out.

I stayed in the lounge a bit longer. I didn’t have any place to be for an hour, and I was still working on a tricky passage in one of the quartet pieces Data had chosen, and something about playing with a view of the stars made everything sound better, though, of course, I was never going to admit that to my mother.

I played the passage a couple of times, trying to hear the other instruments in my head as I did so, but eventually I realized there was someone else in the room with me. I turned to see who it was and apologize for monopolizing the space. “Wesley?” I asked. “How long have you been sitting there?”

His voice was softer than I’d ever heard him speak. “I don’t know. A while. You don’t have to stop.” He hesitated, then said. “You’re really good, Zoe.”

“You think?” I asked. I knew I didn’t suck, but I was still really bad at accepting compliments.

“I think,” he said, with just a touch of humor. “There’s a piece of music my mother used to sing when I was little. Something about dancing in the moonlight.”

His mother – Dr. Crusher – had been missing for more than a day, having disappeared almost immediately after one of Wes’s experiments. He’d managed, with help, to find her, but he’d been moody ever since. “How’s she doing?” I asked.

“Fine,” he said. “Physically. Things are weird between us.”

“I think that’s kind of normal when a child outgrows their parent,” I said. It was sort of the same when a student outgrew their teacher, and not the same at all, both at once.

“Yeah,” he said. “Do you know the piece?”

I thought about it…moonlight and dancing. “Debussy composed music for a French poem called Clair de Lune,” I said, and hummed it. “Is that what you mean?”

His mood seemed to brighten. “That’s it,” he said. “Can you play it?”

I nodded, but realized he might not be able to see the gesture in the dim light. “Yeah, I can.” It really wasn’t a long piece, and it really wasn’t that difficult, but I bobbled a bit at the beginning. I wasn’t accustomed to doing spontaneous solo acts for my friends. “Sorry, it wasn’t perfect,” I said, after I finished.

“No, Zoe, it was..it was absolutely perfect.”

I began packing my cello, after that, but once it was stowed in my gig bag, and my chair was returned to the small table where it belonged, I moved to sit on the arm of the couch where Wes was sitting. I’d never seen him look so unsure before. “I have some time before I have to be home, if you want to talk?”

“Did you meet the Traveler, when he was here?”

I could tell he was making the word into a title, but I really wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “The Traveler?”

“He’s from Tau Alpha C,” Wes explained. “He has these …abilities… that go beyond normal human stuff. I think he kind of bends time and space, actually.” He must’ve seen my skeptical expression because he said, “I know it sounds really weird, but I’ve seen him do it, and I can almost see how, and then in the next second, I’m as clueless as anyone else.”

I laughed softly. “You’re eighteen. You’re supposed to be clueless half the time.”

“When did you become so wise?” he asked, with just a hint of the condescension I was used to hearing from him.

“When did you ever need my advice?” I shot back. “Aside from when it comes to earring selections for your girlfriend, I mean.”

His eyes met mine, and for a moment his face reflected utter agony, but then in the next moment, he was just Wes. “Keep a secret?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

“I’m being serious, Zoe.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “Tell me what you want to tell me, and I might even trade you like for like.”

“I’m supposed to start at the Academy this fall, but more and more, I’m not sure I want to go,” he confessed.

“Mr. Starfleet isn’t sure he wants to go to the Academy?” I asked, shocked.

“Sometimes, I feel like there’s all this pressure. What if I fail? What if I can’t compete? What if everyone there hates me as much as you do?”

“Heeey,” I said. “I thought we established months ago that I do not hate you.” I slid off the arm of the couch, and sat directly next to him, turning to face him in much the same way I often did when I was sitting on Data’s couch. “I thought we were even sort of friends, and stuff.”

“Are we?” he asked.

“Totally,” I said. “Don’t repeat this, but, I’d say we’re actually more alike than either one of us wants to admit. I mean…we’re both pretty ambitious, we’re both only children, we’re both usually at the top of our class with very little effort. I’m not quite as limited in my focus as you are,” I said, putting a little bit of humor in the last part of my speech. “And I have way better taste in music and fashion…”

He cracked a smile. “Yeah, okay, I get that.” He hesitated, “But you don’t have to live up to the ghost of your own father,” he said. “Follow in his footsteps, take up his legacy.”

“Well, my father’s not a ghost,” I agreed. “But you think I don’t have pressure? I grew up expecting I would go to the Martian School of Music and the Arts, just like Dad. I was thrown into music and dance and theater classes pretty much from the time I could walk. Fortunately, I like all that stuff – I even thrive on it, but then I got dragged to this ship, where everyone’s all science-y and smart…and nice.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Not exactly,” I said. “Not really bad, just…kind of dull. But the thing is, the longer I’m here, the more I feel like maybe I need to change my plan.”

“You’re not considering the Academy are you?” he asked, as if he were concerned I actually might be.

I laughed out loud. “Me? Never. Please! Why do people keep thinking that? I just meant, I might be looking at schools that have a broader curriculum.”

“Oh,” he said. “That makes sense.”

“Of course, I have way more time to figure it out than you do.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you?”

“Oh, hush, you.” The schedule alert on my padd sounded. “That’s my exit cue,” I said. “Gotta get home and have dinner with Mom, then squeeze in an hour of homework before quartet rehearsal.”

“I should get home, too,” Wes said.

I stood up, and slid my arms into the backpack straps on my gig bag. I didn’t usually carry my cello that way, but the corridors got kind of busy during shift changes, and there was about to be one. “Tell your mom I said hello,” I said.

“I will.” Wes stood up, as well, but instead of coming toward me, and heading to the doors, he went to the viewport. It was probably just the starlight beyond the glass-steel window and the dim light in the room, but he seemed to…phase out…for a moment, and when he phased back in, he looked like an older, more tired version of himself.

“Tell Data you’ve chosen him,” older Wesley said. “He needs to know.”

What are you talking about?” I asked, not sure if he were messing with me or if I should be worried. “I mean, seriously, what the actual hell, Wes?”

But there was that weird light-thing again, and then he was just Wes, just like always. “Tell Data you should play that piece for quartet,” he said, as if he were repeating it. “Clair de Lune.”

“Um, yeah, I’ll do that,” I said. And then I left.

(=A=)

Stardate 44215.2

(20 March 2367, 13:00 hours, ship’s time)

For the next several weeks my days were a mixture of school, music lessons, quartet rehearsals, play rehearsals, homework, gardening with this really awesome Asian woman named Keiko…wash, rinse, repeat.

Ray Barnett drifted away from our group, though we still met to use my night surfing program from time to time, and Theo and I grew closer. We weren’t exactly dating, but we weren’t exactly ‘just friends,’ either, and when we did have to do that kiss in rehearsals it wasn’t weird or uncomfortable, and it definitely wasn’t like kissing my brother.

I didn’t tell him that the last person who’d kissed me was Data’s evil twin. He didn’t mention the string of girls – female ensigns and girls from back home – whose messages constantly pinged his padd. If we necked a little when we met at the koi pond to run lines, or ignored the rods and reels in the fishing program in favor of making out, we both knew it wasn’t serious.

When we were ten days away from Tantalus Quartet’s concert at Cochrane’s World, (and three or so weeks from our first performance of the play) Data was called out of our math tutorial early. He and Wes had both been pretty subdued that morning, and when we pushed Wesley, he told us that the planet we were orbiting, Turkana IV, was the home world of the Enterprise’s first security chief, a woman named Tasha Yar, and that she and Data had been close.

Wes didn’t give us much more information than that, although he caught me later, and asked if I’d have lunch with him. I agreed, and we found ourselves at a table in Ten-Forward with class notes open on our padds – I was so busy with music and theater that I needed a little help with our math tutorial – and a plate of brownies between us.

He caught me staring at Data, who was across the room, sharing a table with some woman I didn’t recognize. “That’s Ishara,” Wes told me. “She’s Tasha’s sister.”

“The same Tasha you told me about? The one who died?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Exactly how close were Data and Tasha?” I asked softly, aware that almost anyone else would have accused me of being jealous. “Were they just good friends, or was there dating?”

“I’m honestly not sure,” Wes said. “I just know they were close. I mean…she was close to a lot of us. But Data was on her list to receive a personal message…after…and so was I.”

“Oh,” I said, realizing that my nosiness actually could hurt people. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up…”

He shook his head. “No. It’s okay. If it matters,” he offered. “I’m pretty sure she never had regular tea-dates with him.”

I could feel myself blushing, and felt stupid for doing so. “You know about those?”

“Only because he asked my mother for ideas about what other tea blends you might like, and I happened to be there.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s try to focus on math now?” he suggested.

“Yeah, okay.” But I couldn’t stop myself from watching Data and Ishara, watching her body language with him, the way she leaned in when he spoke. “There’s something off about that woman,” I said softly.

“How would you know?”

“I don’t know. I just do.”

(=A=)

Ishara Yar was only aboard the Enterprise for a few days, but during those few days, not only did Data skip rehearsal for the play, but he also canceled our math tutorial and suspended quartet rehearsal. I used the free evenings to make sure I stayed caught up on homework, but I was half-waiting for him to cancel my theory class as well.

The one time I actually met her was another evening in Ten-Forward. I was arriving with Theo just as she and Data were entering. I had no intention of stopping to say hello – in my teenaged brain, ignoring Data was punishing him not me – but Data saw us, and stopped.

“Zoe, Theo,” Data said, “This is Ishara Yar. Ishara, Theo is a visiting student working in our science department, and Zoe is one of the civilian residents of the ship.” He waited for us to exchange perfunctory greetings, then asked Theo and me, “Would you care to join us?”

It was the same polite offer he would have made to anyone, and I was this close to accepting when Ishara moved closer to him, squeezing his upper arm. “Oh, Data, I’m sure these children don’t want to share their date with us,” she said, and then she essentially dragged him into the lounge.

I couldn’t help it; I stuck my tongue out at her back.

“Easy, Zoe. Your green streak is showing,” Theo teased gently.

“Sorry,” I said.

He gave me an appraising look. “You’re jealous,” he said softly.

“I’m not,” I said. “Well…maybe I am, a little, but it’s stupid, and it’s nothing.”

But he just grinned at me. “No worries,” he said. “I’ve heard him talk about you, you know. Whatever your feelings might be, his friendship for you is solid.”

“Until recently,” I confessed, “I thought all I felt was friendship, too. Lately, things have begun to get…confusing.”

“Wanna do something truly vindictive?” he asked, though he said it with a teasing lilt in his voice.

“Like?”

“Go in there, have an amazing dinner, and be very visible about having a wonderful time?”

“Theo Nechayev, I love the way you think,” I said.

Over chicken shawarma, tabouleh, and hummus with warm pita, Theo started telling me stories about growing up with his Aunt Alynna, and how he chose MIT. He asked me about music, and what it was like having a celebrity for a father, and it turned out that we’d had similar experiences dealing with our famous family members. He was either a much better actor than I’d given him credit for, or just a truly nice guy, and he kept me laughing and distracted until long after Data and Ishara had left the lounge.

(=A=)

By Friday night, Ishara had been gone for several hours, but I was still feeling agitated. More than anything I wanted to ring Data’s door-chime and invite myself in for tea, but I stopped myself from doing so. Instead, I sent a note that was maybe a little passive aggressive, asking if he was still dealing with his mission or if we were having my scheduled music theory lesson.

I spent the rest of the evening playing my cello, but I wasn’t practicing anything for Seth or anything for the quartet. Instead, I downloaded the sheet music for Clair de Lune and worked on making it really good.

Saturday morning, I showed up at Data’s quarters for music theory still feeling at odds, but he was back in the subdued mood I’d noticed a week earlier, and all I could think was that I wanted to make it better. “Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he repeated, though the word never would sound right coming from his mouth.

There was no series of paintings of Ishara – or her sister – filling his living quarters, and I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. “I’ve missed you this week,” I said, rather than ask him how he was. “I’ve been kind of spoiled by commanding so much of your attention, and when you were busy, I kind of…it was weird.”

“You were angry,” he said, in a way that made me wonder if Wes or Theo had ratted me out.

“No,” I said. “I was jealous.” I took a breath. “And I didn’t like that woman.”

“It would seem that your instinct was accurate,” he said. “I will be fine. Before you unpack your cello, let us review last week’s notes.” He moved to the table where we always sat.

“Actually,” I said. “I was wondering if we could do something else first. I’ve been working on a solo piece, and I wanted you to hear it.”

“That would be acceptable,” he said.

I’d played with him many times, but except for when we’d been shopping for my new cello, I’d never really played for him, and even that wasn’t really meant specifically for his ears. This was. I took my usual chair, tightened my bow, and played Debussy’s Clair de Lune for him. When I was done, I sat still, and waited, willing him to somehow comprehend the feelings it was meant to express, even if I couldn’t name them myself.

“Thank you, Zoe,” he said, meeting my eyes. “Would you mind if we did not have a music theory lesson today?”

“You want me to leave?”

“No,” he said. “I would like to have tea with you, and I would like to talk to you about a…friend…of mine. I would like to tell you about a woman named Tasha Yar.”

I set my cello down on its side and moved to my usual corner of his couch. Data made a pot of peppermint tea, and brought a tray with cups and spoons and honey to the coffee table. He sat down in his usual spot, and he began to talk. Actually, he began to babble. Every meeting. Every conversation.

Eventually, the information dump slowed, and I started asking questions, until finally, I forgot who I was talking with because realization hit me and I blurted, “Oh, my god. You were lovers.”

“It is not appropriate to discuss that.”

“Seriously? Now? Now you decide it’s inappropriate? Can you pretend for a moment that I’m not sixteen and just remember that you’ve trusted me with much deeper secrets?” I was referring to his admission of wanting to kill Kivas Fajo, all those months ago.

He appeared to think it over for what was – for him – a really long time. Seconds, even. “It was only one night,” he said, at last.

I shrugged. “I don’t think it matters if something is one night or one million nights. A connection is a connection. Tev and I were only lovers for a month, but…” I stopped, because his eyebrows had practically reached his hairline. “Data?”

“I had not realized your relationship with the Mairaj boy was…intimate.”

“I kind of assumed you knew.”

“I did not.”

“Apparently.” I took a healthy swig of tea. “Technically, Data, our relationship is intimate. It’s just not…it’s just not sexual.”

Again, I saw him processing my statement, his eyes doing their birdlike flicker. “You are correct,” he said after a bit. “Thank you, Zoe.”

I knew he meant for listening, and not for the paradigm-shift we were both experiencing. Or at least, I think we were both experiencing it. It’s possible it was only me. “Stand up,” I said.

“May I ask why?”

“Because I’m going to hug you now, and then I’m going to play that piece again, only this time, you’re going to play it with me.”

“Ah.”

I grinned. “Exactly. ‘Ah.’ Welcome to ‘Achieving Normalcy Through Music.'”

We both stood up, and we did share an embrace, and we did play Clair de Lune again, as a duet. And after that? We went over the notes from the previous week’s discussion of music theory, and he demonstrated some wave theory that I wasn’t quite grasping.

It was nearly two in the afternoon before I left his quarters with my cello, and I was exhausted – emotionally, musically, physically, exhausted – but it was the sort of exhaustion that comes from deep honesty and hard work.

Outside Data’s door, I allowed myself to fantasize about going back in, telling him I’d forgotten something, and then kissing him, but it was just a fantasy. I thrust it firmly into the back of my mind, and went home, where I ate some lunch, showered, finished an essay that was due for one class, and did some reading for another, and then curled up on my bed with a novel and some really loud music.

When Mom came home from her duty shift, she knew something was different. “You okay, Zoe?” she asked.

But I wasn’t ready to talk to her. “Actually,” I said. “I’m better than okay.”

She looked at me with one of those gushy-mom looks that only parents can ever pull off. The one with the soft focus and the mixture of remembered innocence and hardened awareness. “Glad to hear it, Zoificus,” she said. “Do you want to go to dinner in Ten-Forward?”

“Actually,” I said, mentally blasting myself for using that word so frequently. “I think I’d rather eat here tonight, and then, I was thinking maybe we could watch one of those sappy mother-daughter bonding vids.”

My mother’s grin broadened to match mine. “Sounds like a plan, kiddo,” she said. “A really good plan.”

Notes: This chapter spans the episodes “Suddenly Human,” “Remember Me,” and “Legacy.” Yeah, that’s a lot of ground to cover in one chapter. Not every episode has room for non-officer OCs to fit into. Zoe’s version of Clair de Lune is the version by Debussy, though there’s an older version by Faure, who, interestingly, also composed for the cello, though not that piece. Both versions are based on the same French poem. Look it up. The piece is usually played with piano accompaniment. The solo cello version can be found here: www DOT youtube DOT com FORWARD SLASH watch QUESTION MARK v=CcSvOwACOJI (obviously, replace capital letters with symbols and remove all spaces).

Chapter 48: Gagh Order

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Gagh Order

Stardate 44236.61

(28 March 2367, 08:42 hours, ship’s time)

“I’m sorry, Zoe, but it would be inappropriate for me to allow you to travel to Cochrane’s World with a man for an overnight visit. You’ll have to see if the ship’s itinerary will mesh with the Tantalus Quartet’s tour at another planet.”

“But Mom,” I protested. “It’s not just any man; it’s Data. You know he would never hurt me, never allow me to come to harm on his watch. And you were going to let me go when the ship was supposed to be in orbit.”

The reality of Starfleet was that plans changed, sometimes on a dime – whatever that was. A month ago, when Data had agreed to escort me to a concert by my favorite string quartet, and one of my favorite musical groups of any kind, the Enterprise had been scheduled to visit the planet where they were playing – Cochrane’s World. Since then, there had been some backtracking because of a static warp bubble experiment gone wrong, an extended stay at a real hellhole of a world called Turkana IV, and now we were headed toward Klingon space where Captain Picard was expected to work some diplomatic magic.

“A quick trip to the surface, even by shuttle, is one thing. An overnight stay in a hotel is completely different.”

“I don’t see what you’re so afraid of. Again, I remind you, Mother –” I only ever called her ‘Mother’ when she was being extremely difficult, “– that either way I’d be with Data. The same Data I spend hours alone with every Saturday morning, who chats with me over tea into the wee hours of the night at least once a week, who has done more for my musical prowess than all the teachers Dad’s ever hired, including the one I’m ostensibly learning from.” I softened my tone, realizing that I was beginning to sound more like a petulant child than a rational young (very young?) adult. “Data’s done so much for me, and Gae-Lynn Jo, the violist, is a friend of Dad’s, and she said we could workshop with them. This is a rare opportunity to give something back to him.”

“Couldn’t you just bake him a tray of your world famous brownies?” my mother teased gently, “Or draw him a picture.”

“Oh, please,” I said. “First of all, double chocolate espresso brownies would be utterly wasted on him. And second, I have about as much drawing ability as a Regullan blood-worm.”

“I’ve heard worm-prints are quite trendy in some cultures,” my mother quipped. I got my sense of humor from her, and we both knew it.

“Mom!”

For a moment, I thought she would cave, but then her expression hardened. “I’m sorry, Zoe. You’ll have to come up with another option.”

“Okay, how about this…you could come too. Bring Ed.”

“Ed?”

I rolled my eyes. “You know perfectly well I mean Professor Benoit.”

“When did you start calling all your teachers by their given names?”

“When you dragged me here, where ‘learning is a collaborative effort between professional civilian educators, officer volunteers, and motivated students with a thirst for knowledge.'”

“I should never have let you read the brochure for family-friendly starships,” my mother observed.

I shrugged. “I should never have agreed to cut my hair short for this play, but we all make bad choices sometimes.” In fact, I’d been offered a wig to make me look a bit more like Anne Frank, the character I was playing, but it was itchy, and it was only hair. “Ed likes you,” I added.

“He is a refreshing conversationalist,” my mother allowed.

“And kind of hot, for an old guy…”

“And so well read,” Mom said, ignoring my addition. “I can see why you enjoy his class so much.”

Sheepishly, I admitted, “That might have more to do with the fact that he’s letting me do a paper on vampire imagery in classic literature.”

“Aha!” she said, grinning. “He appealed to your dark side.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He kind of did”

“Don’t you have his class this morning?”

I glanced at the time display on the entertainment console in our living area. “I have a little time,” I said. “Nytan was going to stop by and walk with me.”

As if on cue, our door-chime sounded.

“Get to class, daughter-of-mine,” my mother said. “And stop trying to set me up with your teachers.”

“Teacher, singular,” I corrected. “Not all of them. Although, Ms. Spencer might be open to it…”

“Zoe…”

I drained the mug of café au lait I’d been toying with, grabbed my padd, and headed for the door. “If I can come up with, say, a suitable chaperone for the overnight part of the trip, will you allow it?”

“I’ll consider it,” my mother hedged in that way that meant she would probably agree if I could actually figure something out.

“Awesome! Thanks, Mom!” I disappeared before she could change her mind, nearly knocking Nytan over in my haste. “Sorry,” I said to the Rigellian boy who was our newest classmate. “There was a mother-daughter thing going on.”

He grinned, “And you were using the ‘flee before they can change their mind’ tactic?”

“Exactly!” I said. “So, how’s your paper coming along? Have you figured out a topic yet?”

He frowned. “No. Everything I’ve come up with is either boring, stupid, or overdone. Prof and I are going to brainstorm after class today.” Professor Benoit was ‘Ed’ to me and a couple of my other friends, but ‘Prof’ to almost everyone else.

“I’m sure you’ll come up with something,” I said. “Ed’s pretty good at helping you figure out what’s already in your own brain.”

“That’s what I’m hoping. So, did you finish reading that Klingon poem? I’m not sure it all made sense.”

“I’m absolutely sure it didn’t make sense,” I said. “I’m also absolutely sure it couldn’t make sense unless you were actually Klingon.”

“Good point,” Nytan said.

We finished the trek to our classroom in companionable silence.

Stardate 44246.3

(31 March 2367, 21:35 hours, ship’s time)

“I know we’re supposed to accept that all people have inherent dignity and worth,” I grumbled to my mother over dinner in Ten-Forward on the day Data and I were supposed to be attending the Tantalus Quartet’s concert on Cochrane’s World, “but some people make it really challenging.”

My mother and our dinner companion – Edouard Benoit – exchanged amused glances. Then Mom asked, “Care to elaborate, daughter-of-mine?”

“Politicians,” I said, and then expanded that to, “Klingon politicians.”

“Why so?” Ed asked, and I wasn’t sure if he was truly curious or just baiting me.

“I’m supposed to be on an awesome not-a-date with Data tonight,” I said. “I’m supposed to be listening to my favorite quartet play their last gig of the season, and then going to a workshop with them in the morning. Instead? I’m stuck here on the fringes of Klingon space while half the crew plays politics with the locals, and classes are ‘celebrating Klingon culture’ and – oh, god, is he eating live worms?

Both Mom and Ed turned to look in the direction where my gaze was riveted. “You don’t have to watch, Zoe,” my mother pointed out.

Ed, on the other hand, informed me that, “Commander Riker and Lieutenant Worf are eating gagh. It’s not actually live worms.”

“It isn’t?”

“It’s live serpent worms.”

“And the difference is?”

“Bigger. Plumper. Five times the protein.”

“Ugh.”

“No, that’s something else entirely.” That time, I knew, he was teasing me.

“I’m suddenly really glad none of us ordered vermicelli,” I said.

Ed grinned at me. “You know, Zoe, most people your age will never meet a Klingon, let alone get a chance to experience their culture or try their delicacies.”

“You are not ordering any of that while I’m sitting here,” I said.

“No,” he agreed. “But let me tell you, when I was a reporter, I covered stories inside the Empire – I was a stringer for FedNet for a while – and when you’re staying somewhere on someone else’s payroll, or trying to get a local official to give you the inside scoop on something, you eat whatever’s offered to you…and you enjoy it.”

“So you’ve eaten gagh?

“I have,” he said.

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Well,” he allowed. “I’ve had worse.”

My mother was silently watching our exchange, amusement coloring her expression.

“Worse than live serpent worms?” I asked

“Oh, yes,” he said. “Have you ever heard of a Scottish dish called haggis?”

I rolled my eyes at him. “Doomed,” I said. “I am so doomed.”

My mother interjected to tell me, “Only if you choose to be, Zoificus. Finish eating.”

But I really wasn’t hungry anymore anyway, so I just excused myself, and headed back to quarters. At the doors, I glanced back at Mom and Ed, and noticed their body language had changed to much more intimate stances, and a smile stretched across my face. I didn’t know why, but I really liked them together.

Outside the turbolift, I ran into a child. Or rather the child ran into me. “Ooof,” I said as his ridged forehead came in contact with my rib cage. “Watch out.”

“Alexander, apologize,” came the command from the woman I assumed to be his mother. Her voice was almost a purr, and her tone was firm, but not angry or mean.

The boy – Alexander – looked up at me, and I realized he was a Klingon boy, and that his eyes were blue. “Sorry for not looking,” he said.

“Alexander…”

“Sorry for running into you,” he amended.

“It’s okay,” I said, and then confessed, “I wasn’t really watching where I was going either.”

His mother caught up with him in two more long strides. “He is not accustomed to having this much space to run in,” she said. “The embassy corridors are filled with sharp corners and heavy furniture.”

“Embassy?” I asked rather stupidly. “Are you…are you Ambassador K’Ehleyr?”

She offered me a slight smile. “I am indeed,” she said. “Your pronunciation is a little off though.” She said her name for me and I repeated it. “Better,” she said. “You have a good ear. Linguist?”

“Student,” I said. “My mother’s a cultural anthropologist. She dragged me here about a year ago. Oh. And also musician.”

“You or your mother?”

“Both, technically, but for her it’s just a hobby.”

“I see.”

“I’m keeping you,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Again, she smiled. “You’re not, truly. I’m meeting Lt Worf and Commander Riker, and I won’t mind a bit if my evening has to be somewhat abbreviated.”

I grinned. “They’re halfway through an order of gagh,” I said. “No offense, but it didn’t look terribly tasty.”

“It’s not,” she agreed. “I think Klingons eat it to challenge each other. Giant twelve-year-olds with sharp weapons. What could possibly go wrong?”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that, but it was only for a minute, because her son – Alexander – was tugging on her tunic hem and reminding her he was hungry. “You should go,” I said. “Actually, I should go. It was nice meeting you Ambassador K’Ehleyr.”

“It was nice meeting you as well…though, I didn’t get your name.”

“It’s Zoe,” I said. “Zoe Harris.”

She sketched a bow. “It is good to make your acquaintance, Zoe Harris,” she said.

She and her son moved toward Ten-Forward, and I started to step into the lift, then stopped. “Ambassador?” I said.

She also paused. “Yes?”

“You should take Alexander down to the aquatics lab when you have a chance. Meet the bat rays. It’s all kinds of awesome.”

“I’ll do that,” she said, and disappeared.

I went back home and had a comm-call with my father before curling up on my bed to read.

My mother, it should be noted, didn’t come home until zero two hundred hours the next morning.

(=A=)

Stardate 44247.89

(1 April 2367, 11:30 hours, ship’s time)

“Data, are you alright?” We had finished the theory portion of my Saturday Session, and were now playing together, just for fun. Oh, he’d wanted to work on some new music that he was considering playing as a gift to friends of his who had recently announced their engagement, but I’d begged for something with a little less purpose to it. Just for fun, and he’d agreed.

Except now he was curling and flexing the fingers of his left hand as if he were in some kind of discomfort or pain.

“I am fine, Zoe,” he said.

“Your hand isn’t,” I observed.

“Ah,” he said, placing his violin on his desk. “In my studies of the great violinists, I have found that tendonitis is a common malady among many of them. I have adjusted the servo-mechanisms and actuators in my wrist and hand in order to approximate the condition.”

I set my cello on its side. “Wait, you’re telling me you gave yourself tendonitis, just for kicks?”

“Repetitive motion injuries are a frequent aspect of the human condition,” he answered.

“Well, yeah, but most people don’t set out to get them intentionally.”

“Have you forgotten, Zoe?” he asked, in the tone that passed for a teasing one, when we were alone together. “I am not most people.” He sat down behind the desk and rested his left hand and forearm on it, palm up. He pressed into the skin there, and a panel popped open. “However, now that I have experienced the physical limitations of the condition, I do not believe maintaining my injured status will benefit me further.”

I didn’t answer him. I was too busy staring at his arm, at the flesh that had parted so seamlessly, and at the array of blinking lights I glimpsed inside. Part of me was fascinated. Part of me felt like I didn’t belong there, as if I’d walked in on him naked. Part of me wanted to see more. “Um…” I began feeling incredibly stupid. It was one of those rare occasions when I had absolutely no idea of what to say.

“Zoe, are you alright?” Data was echoing my earlier question to him.

I blinked a few times, then shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said, the words catching in my throat. “I’m sorry, I’ve just…you’ve never…”

He followed my gaze to his arm and the open access panel there. “Ah,” he said. “You are uncomfortable with the knowledge that I am a machine. I am accustomed to such reactions.”

“No,” I said. “I know you’re a machine. I’ve never not known that. I just…I don’t know…watching you tinker with bits of yourself seems…inappropriately intimate somehow.”

His head-tilt came even as he was reaching for a tiny tool that had been on his desk. “I do not understand.”

I gave voice to what had been running through my head a moment or so before. “I feel like seeing you…like that…is kind of like seeing you naked.” I said. I hesitated for a moment before adding. “May I come closer?”

“Of course, Zoe.” I couldn’t read his tone at all, but he seemed faintly pleased by my curiosity.

I left my chair and circled around his desk to stand behind him. “This is the servo-mechanism I referred to earlier,” he said, pointing to one of the components inside his forearm. “And this is the tension for the actuator.” He tweaked things with the tool as he spoke to me, then curled and released his fingers again. “I have restored normal function,” he stated, setting the tool aside.

I watched him close the panel, watched the skin of his arm seal itself as if there had never been a panel. Moving slightly to the side, I reached out to touch his arm, still resting on the desktop. Before making contact, I froze, and snatched my hand back. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I…?”

“Of course, Zoe,” he said, but he swallowed reflexively after he said it, almost as if he were afraid of my reaction.

My right hand was gripping the back of his chair, so I was reaching with my left, and the beads of the bracelet he’d given me for my birthday clicked gently against the desk as my fingers made contact with his skin. It felt smooth, and alive, and ever-so-slightly cooler than my own skin, but only in the way different people always have differing body temperatures.

I let my fingers traverse the length of his forearm, until my palm was resting against his. My pulse was racing; I wondered if he could feel it. On impulse, I laced my fingers with his, and both felt and saw his fingers curl around my hand. A thought occurred to me. “When you do that, are you actually responding to me, or are you anticipating what you think I’ll do and allowing me to move your fingers that way?”

“It is…a little bit of both,” Data explained.

He turned his head, and we were suddenly face to face and really close together, our eyes locked. If I leaned forward just a fraction of an inch I could kiss him…and I almost did…but then his comm-badge chirped and the moment was gone, leaving my heart still jumping in my chest.

“Data here,” he said.

“Data, I’m sorry, I know you’re off duty this morning, but…are you alone?”

It was Commander Riker’s voice on the other end of the channel. “Zoe Harris is here with me for her theory lesson,” he said. His tone was all business, but his eyes were still fixed on mine.

“Can you trust her discretion?”

“Yes, sir,” Data responded. “As much as I would trust your own.”

“Ambassador K’Ehleyr has been killed, Data. We need you on the bridge as soon as possible.”

For the tiniest part of a second, I could feel the power in his fingers, in all of him, as he released my hand. It was as if he were giving a demonstration and pulling back into himself at the same time. “Understood, Commander,” he said. “I am on my way.

I closed my eyes for a moment. I’d only run into the ambassador very briefly the night before, but she had seemed so vibrant, so present. When I opened them again, Data was shutting down his console, and pushing his chair back. I stepped out from behind his desk and began packing my cello.

“I must ask you not to repeat any of what you heard.”

“I would never,” I promised. I focused on end pins and zippers and stuff, working as quickly as I could. “Data…the Ambassador…you know she has a child, right?”

“His father…it’s Lieutenant Worf, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but, how did you know that?”

“He’s the only Klingon assigned to the Enterprise, and why else would you bring a kid that young with you on a mission like this? Don’t answer that. Just…I met the kid last night. He’s got a little bit of a rebellious streak. Tell Worf that if he needs someone to hang out with…um…Alexander….Tell him that I’ll help out, if I’d be useful at all.”

“I am certain he will appreciate the offer.”

“And tell him I’m really sorry.”

“I will do so.”

I hoisted my cello and left Data’s quarters. A split-second later, a black and gold blur left the room as well, moving past me down the corridor at a pace only an android could achieve, let alone maintain.

(=A=)

Stardate 44250.94

(2 April 2367, 13:17 hours, ship’s time)

The aquatics lab was kept dark, except for a somewhat murky blue light, and silent, except for the low burbling of air pumps. The first time I’d been there, it had been with T’vek, and we’d shared our first kiss. I was there with a boy again that day, but it wasn’t for romantic purposes. Instead, I was watching a very little boy kneeling at the bat ray tank splashing his small fingers in the water, and telling them his story.

“You left out the part where the awesome teenaged girl takes you to see the fish tanks,” I teased lightly, by way of a greeting.

“She’s only awesome if she doesn’t tell my father where I am,” he countered.

“Sorry,” I said. “He’s already on his way. But I’m pretty sure he understands that you needed to be someplace quiet, and you needed to be there with someone who wasn’t directly involved in…anything.”

“Five more minutes?” he asked.

“I can probably stall that long,” I said. “You know, he’s sad about your mother, too.” I wasn’t actually certain of that, but figured it was likely.

“I know,” he said. “But his sad is full of growling.”

“And yours isn’t?”

He shook his head, and I caught the glimmer of tears on his cheeks. “Mine’s much…wetter.”

I managed not to laugh at his phrasing.

“Maybe Worf’s sadness is wet on the inside,” I suggested.

“Maybe,” he agreed. I saw his body heave with a couple of deep breaths in and out, and then he turned to face me. “I think I can see him now,” he said softly.

“Okay.”

I left the room, passing Lt. Worf, who was entering as I was leaving. “You are Data’s protégé,” he observed.

“Some people call me that,” I said.

“Thank you for spending time with my son.”

I managed to smile into the face that really was made for growling. “I didn’t mind. He’s a cool little kid.”

He seemed to want to say something, and for a moment, so did I, but all I did was brush by him, and back into the brightly lit and busy corridor.

“Zoe Harris,” the Klingon lieutenant called.

I stopped and turned around in my tracks. “Sir?”

“You have acted with honor. It will not be forgotten.”

I nodded once then turned around and headed home, where I found an invitation to dinner with Theo. I was about to decline – I didn’t want to be surrounded by people attempting to eat Klingon food – but he insisted, and we finally chose to replicate dinner in his quarters.

Midway through the meal, the image of Data’s arm, and the access panel flashed through my head. “Do you ever,” I asked him, “wish you could un-know something?”

To his credit, he didn’t ask me to define or elaborate. “There’ve been things…” he said. “Do you need to talk about it?”

I shook my head. “Not yet. Maybe soon. What’s for dessert?”

“Us,” he said.

It should come as no surprise that we spent the next hour or so smooching and cuddling on his couch, and being generally affectionate with each other. What was a shock, at least to me is that when Theo was kissing me that night, my tutor’s face – Data’s face – kept overlaying Theo’s in my head.

He didn’t push for sex that night, but after he walked me back to my quarters, I decided I would probably accept if he offered again.

Notes: Spans the episode “Reunion” with no real impact on the plot. No music notes this time. Sorry for delay in posting. More to come…soon.

Chapter 49: Performance Anxiety

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Performance Anxiety

Stardate 44298.86

(Thursday, 20 April 2367, 02:02 hours, ship’s time)

It was a week before opening night of The Diary of Anne Frank, and I was dreaming:

“Tell my brother I had the first taste.” Lore’s voice echoed through my dream, the tone darker and darker with each iteration. “See how much of a little girl you really aren’t.” Fingers curling and uncurling. Android parts strewn everywhere. And then I was in the ‘secret annex’ set for The Diary of Anne Frank, except it wasn’t really the set, but the actual place, from the pictures of the museum, except it’s our cast speaking the words from the script:

“Oh, I don’t mean you have to be Orthodox . . . or believe in Heaven and Hell and Purgatory and things . . . I just mean some religion . . . it doesn’t matter what. Just to believe in something! When I think of all that’s out there . . . the trees . . . and flowers . . . and sea gulls . . . When I think of the dearness of you, Peter . . . and the goodness of the people we know . . . Mr. Kraler, Miep, Dirk, the vegetable man, all risking their lives for us every day . . . When I think of these good things, I’m not afraid anymore . . . I find myself, and God, and I . . . “

Theo, as Peter, answered me, “That’s fine! But when I begin to think, I get mad! Look at us, hiding out for two years. Not able to move! Caught here like . . . waiting for them to come and get us . . . and all for what?”

And I responded with the words I’d memorized from this scene, “We’re not the only people that’ve had to suffer. There’ve always been people that’ve had to . . . sometimes one race . . . sometimes another . . . and yet . . “

That doesn’t make me feel any better!”

In my dream, I walked over to him, took his hands in mine, only they weren’t Theo/Peter’s hands any more, but Data’s. “I know it’s terrible, trying to have any faith . . . when people are doing such horrible . . . But you know what I sometimes think? I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with Mother. It’ll pass, maybe not for hundreds of years, but someday . . . I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”

The voice that responded at that point was a mixture, a merging of Theo-as-Peter, and Data, and even Lore, “I want to see something now . . . not a thousand years from now!”

The scene kept playing in my head, I spoke my next line, but my voice was cracked and tired, “But, Peter, if you’d only look at it as part of a great pattern . . . that we’re just a little minute in the life . . . Listen to us, going at each other like a couple of stupid grown-ups! Look at the sky now. Isn’t it lovely? Someday, when we’re outside again, I’m going to . . .”

And that’s when the pounding started, and the loud voices barking in German, in Klingon, in some language I know is Romulan even though I’ve never heard it spoken aloud. The door was pushed open, and the storm-troopers came in, only they’re Romulans, and old-school Klingons and Borg, and Peter/Theo/Data was holding me, but when they ripped me away it was only Data, and his hands, his hands still clutching mine, were ripped away from his arms. And there were blinking lights and there was oozing yellow…ichor.

“People are really good at heart,” I heard myself repeat. “Good at heart.”

The scene shifted, I was back in that cheap hotel room with Lore. Or Data. No, it was definitely Lore. “Good little girl. I had the first taste,” Lore’s voice came again. And through it all, my hands were gripped, viselike, by those long, golden fingers, those disembodied wrists with connectors severed from connections.

I couldn’t help it.

I screamed.

“Zoe, are you alright?” My mother was in my room, the lights were on, and I was in bed, not really awake, still caught in my dream, heart pounding, and head a muddle of confused images.

“That’s what Data asked when he took his arm apart,” I said. It came out cracked and parched.

My mother sat on the foot of my bed. “Sweety, if you’re having nightmares about Commander Data…”

“I’m not,” I said. “Well, not exactly. Mostly, I was dreaming about the play. And Lore. And…stuff.”

“You don’t usually have nightmares about performances.”

“There aren’t usually people I know in the audience,” I said.

“Aren’t there?” my mother asked, faintly amused.

I reached for the glass of water that was always on the bedside table, and took a sip. “Well, okay, there probably are, but I don’t know there are people I know in the audience, so it doesn’t count. Also from a proper stage, you can’t see faces.”

My mother reached out and ruffled my hair, my seven-inches-shorter-than-it-used-to-be hair. “Do you want to talk about your dream?”

I shrugged. “It was kind of a mish-mash of stuff. The play. Data – he’d done something to his arm during my lesson a few weeks ago. He was trying to experience tendonitis, and when we were done playing, he took his arm apart and…”

“And you were confronted by the fact that he’s a machine?”

“No. Well, yes, but not in the way you mean. Or…I don’t know. It just seemed…weird. Like I shouldn’t have been there, and ever since then…no, ever since Lore, it’s like when I look at him, he’s my tutor, and he’s my friend, but there’s…more.”

“You have a crush,” my mother said, her fond expression threatening to turn positively gushy.

“Oh, please. Mom. Innocent virgins have crushes.” But I could feel my cheeks heating up.

“And so do young women who haven’t had a ton of relationship experience. For that matter, even older women with a lot of relationship experience can still have crushes.”

I stared at my mother for a long moment. “You mean you,” I said. And then I clapped my hands together in glee. “You mean you and Ed. Don’t you?”

It was my mother’s turn to blush. “Perhaps I do,” she said. “And perhaps it’s more than a crush. As to your feelings for Commander Data…”

“Yes?”

“I can’t say I’m surprised. You spend a lot of time with him. You connect with each other through music, and now through theater. He holds you in high regard. A shift in your feelings was probably inevitable, but Zoe, he’s a line officer, he’s too old for you, and anything beyond friendship really would be inappropriate.”

“And if it’s just a crush, I’ll get over it, right?”

She grinned. “You know this speech?”

“I might have heard it once or twice before.”

“I thought you and Theo were spending time together.”

“Theo’s nice,” I said. “He’s a good kisser. He’s fun to hang out with. He’s kind of hot.”

“Kind of?”

“He’s devastatingly hot,” I amended, “in a bookish, geeky, sort of way.”

“But…”

I shrugged again. “I don’t know. Sometimes there seems like there’s spark-age, and sometimes there’s no there there. Anyway, he has a girlfriend back home.”

“Oh.”

“Exactly.”

My mother opened her mouth to say something, but yawned instead, which made me yawn in response. “I think it’s time we were both back in bed.”

“I am in bed,” I pointed out.

“Back to sleep, then,” she said. She ruffled my hair again. “G’night kiddo. Try to have good dreams this time?”

“I will,” I said. “Thanks.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44314.43

(Tuesday, 25 April, 2367, 18:27 hours, ship’s time)

At our second-to-last rehearsal before opening night, and the first full run-through with lights, sets, costumes and music cues, Dr. Crusher showed up looking as haggard and exhausted as I felt. I’d knew my own condition was from the nightmares I couldn’t shake – nightmares I hadn’t yet spoken with Counselor Troi about – but I had no idea why the doctor would look so strained.

We went through the motions of the show. No one missed a cue, all the lines were uttered as they should have been, but the performance was lackluster.

“Okay,” the doctor said, gathering us together for notes after we’d all changed out of our costumes. “I know I’m not the only one who wasn’t feeling things tonight. It wasn’t anything technical, just bad energy, so let’s all go home and rest tonight, and come back tomorrow with our heads on straight.”

Data opened his mouth to say something, and Dr. Crusher put her hand up, interrupting him. “It’s just an expression, Data.”

He closed his mouth but something flickered in his eyes, which made me think he hadn’t planned to ask for an explanation of the colloquialism, after all.

“Zoe, wait here a minute – the rest of you can all go.”

Theo caught my eye, and mouthed the question, Do you want me to wait?

I answered him with a quick shake of my head, and then turned my attention back to the doctor.

“You’re a little off your game,” she said softly. “Everything okay?”

I shifted my gaze toward my feet, then looked back up at her. “Just nightmares. I’ll get over it.”

“You don’t strike me as someone who has performance anxiety-induced nightmares, Zoe.”

“I’m not,” I said. “Not usually. I don’t know. Things have been weird, I guess.” I hesitated a moment, letting silence stretch between us. “Doctor Crusher,” I began, “no offense, but you don’t exactly seem like your usual self either. I know ship’s business is none of my business, but…is it related to why Wes hasn’t been in class the past few days?”

“It is,” she said. “And it’s nothing top secret, Zoe. If you were paying attention to gossip, you’d have heard. Captain Picard and Wesley are on a mission together – it’s nothing terribly complicated – and they haven’t checked in. Intellectually I know they’re fine..”

“But Wes is your son, and the captain is your friend?”

“Exactly.”

“Maybe the adage about a bad dress rehearsal meaning a good performance will hold true,” I offered.

“I’m sure it will,” she said. She smiled at me, but it didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“If our positions were reversed,” I said, “I’d tell you to go talk to Counselor Troi. Actually, I’d tell myself the same. If not her, maybe you should just talk anyone. Someone else who has a kid, maybe?”

This time her smile was fully engaged. “Wesley mentioned you’d become a font of wisdom,” she teased gently. “I promise to take your advice, if you do the same thing. Go talk to Deanna about your nightmares. I need my Anne at her best on Thursday night.”

“Yes…ma’ – okay,” I said.

“Now scoot! I’m sure you have homework to do or a meal to eat or something.”

I laughed softly. “Yeah,” I said. “I kind of do.”

I left the auditorium, tapped the hated comm-badge I’d actually remembered to wear that day, and let my mother know I was on my way home.

(=A=)

“Going my way?” Theo was waiting near the bank of turbo-lifts.

“I thought we agreed you weren’t waiting,” I said.

He shrugged. “You agreed. I was worried about you.”

“My performance tonight was that bad?” I asked, only slightly miffed.

“Not at all. Your energy was lower than usual, but…I don’t know…the insomniac look sort of works for the character.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.

“I heard you mention nightmares. I wondered if you needed an ear.”

The computer reminded us to state a destination, so I named a deck before I said. “The problem with letting you offer an ear is that it tends to lead to other things that, while admittedly way more pleasant, are less productive.”

“We don’t have to make out,” he said. “We can go someplace public and talk.”

“You’d do that? Just…talk?”

For a moment he seemed surprised that I’d think anything else. “Zoe, how much dating have you actually done?”

I looked away. “I’ve hung out with guys all my life. Boys – men – whatever – they’re easier than other girls. I never even really had girlfriends until my mother dragged me here. I got together with one or two boys back home. I had a relationship with T’vek – I don’t think you ever met him – that got really serious really fast.”

“You’ve had relationships, but you haven’t dated?”

“I guess…yeah. I mean…no.”

“So when I asked about going to the next level…Zoe, you know that just because you and your T’vek were serious doesn’t mean we have to be. If you’re not ready…”

“I’m not…” I admitted. “Sometimes I almost am…And anyway, you also told me you have a girlfriend back home.”

He had the decency to blush. “Oh. That.”

I gave him my best arched brow stare. “Oh. That.” My tone was much cooler than his had been. The turbo-lift opened at the deck I’d requested. “I have to go,” I said. “My mother’s expecting me.”

“Zoe…”

“Not tonight, Theo, please?”

“Okay, not tonight, but Zoe…”

“What?” I didn’t bother to hide my exasperation.

“Your quarters aren’t on this deck.”

I looked at the indicator, saw the sign that said ‘Deck 8’ and realized I’d chosen the deck where Data’s quarters were. “No,” I said, “they’re not. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay? Let me just get out here, and take the next lift?”

He seemed both confused and concerned, but he took a step backward and the door closed between us. I hadn’t really planned to bug Data, so I waited for the next car in the circuit, not even paying attention to who might be in it when the doors opened again.

“Zoe?” Counselor Troi stepped into the corridor. “Is everything alright?”

Inexplicably, I started to cry. “No,” I said, feeling like a stereotypical melodramatic teenager even as I spoke the word. “I can’t think and I keep having nightmares and I think…I think…”

She wrapped her arms around me from behind, the kind of supportive semi-hug that was exactly what I needed just then. “If you’re looking for Data,” she said, softly, “he’s on the bridge. Why don’t you come and have a cup of hot chocolate with me, and we’ll talk.”

I was grateful for the offer. I was also mortified. “You’re off duty,” I said, pointing out the obvious. “I didn’t mean to…”

“You are not intruding on anything. I’m here, and you obviously need to talk. Does your mother know where you are?”

“I’m supposed to be on my way home from rehearsal.”

“Come with me, we’ll call her from my quarters.”

I knew better than to argue.

(=A=)

Stardate 44314.84

(Tuesday, 25 April 2367, 22:02 hours, ship’s time)

“…and they’ve been getting worse and worse,” I finished telling the Counselor. “The last one was this total blend of real life and the play. Tev and Theo and Lore and…and Data…and Nazis and Borg and…what’s wrong with me?”

We were sitting in her living quarters, on opposite ends of her couch, and we’d each been sipping hot chocolate. The counselor favored me with her warmest, friendliest smile. “The simple answer?” she said, and I could hear the amused affection in her voice. “You’re sixteen.”

I rolled my eyes at that, “Gee, thanks ever so…”

“I know that sounds like a non-answer,” she said. “But there’s an element of truth in it. More than an element, actually. You’re no longer a child, not quite an adult, and your hormones are shifting constantly, trying to find balance. It’s no wonder your brain is doing strange things at night.”

“Theo asked me earlier tonight – just before I ran into you – if I’d actually dated a lot. He seemed surprised that I’d really only ever had relationships.”

Her dark eyes widened slightly, but she took my subject-change in stride. “He may have a point.”

“Is it weird that I feel like I’m not ready to sleep with him, even though I slept with Tev?”

She reached across the couch to cover my free hand with hers. “No, Zoe, that’s not ‘weird’ at all. There’s no rule that says when sex is right or wrong between two people, and there’s nothing that says you must have sex with anyone just because you’re no longer a virgin. Has Theo been pressuring you?”

I thought very carefully about it. “No,” I said. “I may have felt pressure, might still feel it, but it’s coming from me, not him. He’s been nothing but kind and supportive. And I mean…I like making out with him.” We both laughed softly at that. “I’m just…not ready for more. I thought I was, but I realized I’m not. Not with him. Not yet.”

“I’d say ‘talk to Theo,’ but it sounds like you’ve already begun that process.”

“Yeah. The venue wasn’t ideal – seriously, when did every turbo-lift on the ship become a mobile confessional? – but, yeah.”

“Let’s revisit your nightmares, then,” she suggested, but she waited for my confirming nod before she continued, asking me, “When did this latest string of bad dreams begin?”

“Almost a month ago,” I said after thinking about it. “The night after Ambassador K’Ehleyr was killed.”

“Did you ever meet the Ambassador?” she asked softly.

“Only briefly. I think I’d have liked to get to know her, though. She was funny. Snarky, even.”

Troi grinned. “Much like another young woman of my acquaintance.” But she sobered quickly. “Do you think her death had something to do with your dreams?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, not directly. There was something else that happened that day.”

“Can you tell me what it was?”

“I had my usual Saturday Session with Data, and he’d done something to his arm to approximate tendonitis.” She shared a look with me. “I know, right? Anyway, we stopped playing, and he opened a panel in his forearm and started tinkering with servos and actuators and…I don’t know…I told him at the time that as much as I was fascinated I felt like it was inappropriate somehow. Like I’d walked in on him naked.”

“An inappropriate level of intimacy?” she suggested.

“Yeah, kind of. As if I hadn’t earned…I mean…he’s my tutor. He’s my friend, but everything is all weird in my head. I have nightmares about Lore, but then it’s Data who’s kissing me, and sometimes I wonder…” I froze. “Oh, god, it’s true, isn’t it?”

“Zoe?”

“I’m crushing on Data.”

Her smile wasn’t at all mocking. Just soft and supportive, and maybe even a little bit wistful, as if she were remembering a crush of her own. “Yes, you are.”

“So, Mom was right. Why do parents always have to be right?”

She laughed at that, the musical laugh that was more conspiratorial than anything else. “It is an annoying trait all mothers, in particular, seem to have.”

“I held his hand,” I said.

“Zoe?”

“Data. I held his hand. I mean, after he closed up his arm, and everything was…I mean, when he does that…after…it just looks like an arm. It could be anybody’s arm…except, you know, gold and all. I had to know. So I…I stroked his arm, and…” I described exactly what I’d done. “And my pulse felt like it was pounding, and Counselor – Deanna – whatever – he let me. He’s the adult. Isn’t he supposed to stop my deviant behavior?”

“Zoe, nothing you did was deviant. It was a normal reaction. Haven’t the two of you been physically affectionate before?”

“There’s affectionate and affectionate.” I said. “We’ve hugged. He’s held my hand before…but…I don’t know…this was…I crossed a line. And he didn’t stop me.”

“Why did you do what you did?”

“Curiosity, mostly, I think,” I answered. “I’d just seen all the blinky lights and stuff, and then it was just an arm, and…I asked him how much was him anticipating, and how much was responding. Have you ever wondered that? I mean, you put your hand over mine a bit ago, and if I’d wanted to move your hand off, I could’ve just slid mine out, no problem. But Data…you couldn’t really slip your hand out from under his unless he let you. You can’t twine your fingers with his unless he makes a conscious decision to bend his fingers, too.”

“I actually hadn’t ever considered that.”

“Oh.”

“It’s not wrong that you did, Zoe. We all want to know how our friends and loved ones think and feel.”

“What makes them tick,” I said. “Only with Data the ‘ticking’ part is kind of more literal.”

“Kind of,” she agreed, using my words.

“Sometimes when I’m kissing Theo, in my head I’m kissing Data,” I confessed. “I never thought about him that way before…Lore…and now, suddenly, I’m all too aware of him as a man. Oh, god. He could feel my pulse. He knows, doesn’t he? Does he know?”

The counselor was doing an excellent job of following my jumps from topic to topic. “He may,” she said, clearly hedging. “Or he may have merely assumed you were nervous after seeing his ‘blinky lights’ and other machine-parts.”

“I kind of was,” I admitted. “I mean…it doesn’t change anything. He’s still Data. It was just…I mean, I wouldn’t have wanted to see veins and muscle, either.”

“No,” she agreed, “I don’t doubt that.”

“So what do I do?” I asked. “Do I cancel music theory and avoid him? Do I tell him? Do we move our lessons back to a public space? How can I look at him again?”

“You have several options, Zoe. You can either tell him, or not.”

Tell him?”

“Have you considered that Data was probably concerned about your reaction to seeing his inner workings?” I got the sense she was trying to lead me to a conclusion without divulging privileged information. “He has many friends among the crew, as you know, but the friendship the two of you have forged is warmer, and deeper, than anything else he’s experienced. It wouldn’t be at all unusual for him to be anxious about your reaction to being confronted with the knowledge that he’s just a machine.”

“Data isn’t just anything. Except maybe awesome,” I said, and I felt the blush rise in my cheeks.

The counselor laughed. “Fair enough,” she said. “Listen, Zoe…I wouldn’t worry too much. I suspect your dreams will dissipate now that we’ve talked, and as for your crush – if that’s what this is – ”

“If?”

“With the amount of time you and Data spend together, and the obvious regard in which he holds you…I wouldn’t be surprised if your relationship did shift as you get older.” Her dark eyes widened into a mock-glare, “Much older. You may be ‘legal’ in regard to consent laws…”

“But he’s thirteen years older than me, and a line officer, and is watched carefully because of what he is,” I repeated my mother’s middle-of-the-night litany. +

“Something like that, yes.”

“Should I date?”

“What do you mean?”

“You said it yourself: Theo wasn’t wrong. I’ve only ever had relationships. Should I try just…dating? Not that there are a ton of appropriately-aged guys on the ship…but…”

“I think you should stop worrying about what is and isn’t right, and what is and isn’t appropriate and let yourself be open to what might happen. Cautious…but open. If your feelings for Data are just a crush, it will sort itself out. If they’re real, well, he’s an android and you’re very young.”

“And it wouldn’t matter anyway, because he would never – could never – return them.”

“Are you certain of that?” the counselor asked, but before she could continue, her comm-badge chirped and she was being called to the bridge by Data, ‘with apologies for the late hour.’ “Go home,” she said gently. “Get some sleep. We’ll talk after the play.”

“Okay,” I said. We both stood up, and impulsively, I hugged her. “Thank you.”

I was out the door a moment later, and in the lift a moment after that.

(=A=)

Stardate 44319.74

(Thursday, 27 April, 2367, 17:00 hours, ship’s time)

Three hours before curtain, ninety minutes before my call time, I stepped out of the shower in my quarters on the Enterprise to the sound of familiar voices rising and falling in the living room. I couldn’t discern the words, of course, as they were muffled by the closed doors, but I recognized the tones.

Hurriedly, I ran a comb through my hair and threw on the sweats I’d be wearing to the auditorium. My dress for the after-party, the same one I’d worn to my father’s symphony concert on Serenity Five, was already hanging in my dressing room. I paused to survey my face in the mirror. Since my impromptu counselling session with Deanna Troi two nights before, I’d managed to avoid nightmares, and I looked more like my usual self: well rested, if a little too old for my age, but only around the eyes. I glanced at the bouquet of Mizithryan Starflowers that were on my desk. They’d arrived early in the morning, with a card from Mom wishing me a successful performance. I was pretty sure she’d snuck them in while I was sleeping, but I didn’t care. I loved that people were sending me flowers, as if this was a professional production.

Smiling, I left my room, and ran smack into, “Dad?” I asked, confused. “Daddy! When did you get here? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? Is Gia alright?”

My father pulled me into an exuberant hug. “Do you think I would miss my only daughter’s opening night?” he asked. “I was in the neighborhood. It took me a commercial starship, two shuttles and an overnight on a rather unsavory space station to get into the neighborhood, but…”

“Dad,” I said. “I’m so glad you’re here. Did Mom know you were coming?” I glanced past him at my mother, who was smiling her patented gushy-mom look.

“She did, but she was sworn to secrecy.”

“How long are you staying?”

“Just a couple of days; I’m actually meeting a transport and then heading to Mars for six weeks.”

“Mars?”

“I’m teaching a six-week master class at the Martian,” he said. “But we can talk about that later. Your mother has graciously arranged for guest quarters for me, and I’m heading to take a shower. I’ll see you after your show.”

I hugged him again. “There’s an after-party in Ten-Forward. You should come. Is Gia with you?”

“She’s not,” he said. “We’ll talk about that later.”

He left our quarters.

I turned toward my mother. Part of me wanted to demand to know how she could keep this a secret, but instead I just smiled at her. “Mom,” I said. “Never let anyone say that you are not the best mother in the universe.”

She looked at me as if my brain had exploded, but I didn’t care. I went to her and hugged her as hard as I’d just hugged my father.

“Oh, Zoificus,” she said softly, but I knew from her tone that what she was really saying was, “I love you.”

“I have to go,” I said. “See you after the show?”

“Count on it, kiddo.”

Notes: The Diary of Anne Frank (the play, not the original book) was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and originally produced on Broadway in 1955. It was turned into a movie in 1959. Zoe’s dream incorporates dialogue from Act II, Scene 4. For those keeping track, this chapter takes place during the episode Final Mission.

Chapter 50: Just a Crush

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Just a Crush

Stardate 44320.48

(27 April 2367, 23:30 hours, ship’s time)

One of the things I’ve always loved about theater, even in my relatively limited experience with it, is the fact that it continually surprises you. Example: during our first performance of The Diary of Anne Frank, in the last scene we all have together, the Nazi soldiers give us ten minutes to pack a bag. I’m supposed to run into my room, sit on the bed, and put shoes on, and then throw stuff into a school bag, while Data, as Mr. Dussel, is supposed to do similar business, except at that moment, the buckle of my shoe would not cooperate, and Data – still perfectly in character – simply stilled my fumbling hands, met my eyes, and buckled the strap for me.

My breath caught when our eyes met, but I played the rest of the scene anyway, and tried not to think of how easy it was to get lost in that yellow gaze.

People talked about that moment at the after-party.

“Data, that was such a lovely moment with you and Zoe,” Counselor Troi said. “Very organic.”

“We should do it every night,” I suggested. “I think it really adds depth to the Anne/Dussel relationship, turning it from purely adversarial to prickly with a side of unresolved sexual tension.”

“And this,” Beverly Crusher intoned, “is why live theater is better than holograms or videos every time. You two should do that same business every performance.”

No one present disagreed.

The party, as all such gatherings do, reconfigured itself as the evening went on. What began with the cast and a few friends ended with the surreal experience of me sharing a table with both of my parents, as well as Ed, who was not only one of my teachers, but also my cast-mate and possibly, maybe, my mother’s new flame, Theo, the boy I wasn’t dating but wasn’t quite not-dating either, and Data.

Theo, warm and so very present, was sitting next to me, and my father was on my other side, but the seating placed Data almost directly across from me, and that moment from the play kept replaying in my head. I couldn’t look at him. I couldn’t not look at him.

“…if that is acceptable to Zoe, as well,” he was saying, and I realized I had no idea what the conversation had been.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said.

My mother and father favored me with matching concerned looks, but Data just calmly explained. “Your father asked if he could sit in on our theory lesson on Saturday morning.”

Did the disappointment at knowing I’d have to share my time with him show on my face, or did the pride associated with showing off for my father trump that? I didn’t know then. I don’t know now. I do know that I forced a bright smile and said, “Of course it’s ‘acceptable.’ Can we play that Vulcan duet for him?”

My father’s expression turned from his typical social politeness to true interest. “Vulcan duet?”

“Yes,” Data said. “We have been exploring several different musical styles during the ‘hands on’ portion of our sessions together.”

“The Vulcan piece is by…?”

“It is the ‘Second Duet for Terran Strings’ by Sonek.”

“That’s a complicated piece…balancing the urge to play with passion and the need for technical precision. I can see why it would appeal to you, but it doesn’t strike me as something Zoe would appreciate.”

“Perhaps you should reserve judgment until you hear us play it,” Data said, with the merest hint of…something…in his tone. Something apparently only I noticed.

Or maybe my father caught it, as well. “Perhaps I should,” he conceded. “Forgive me; I haven’t quite adjusted to ship’s time. I’m off to bed. Zoe…breakfast tomorrow at 9:30?”

“I can’t,” I said. “My math tutor is a stickler for attendance, and I promised all my teachers the play wouldn’t interfere with school. I can do 8:30, or we can do lunch. Class ends at noon.”

“I’d prefer the morning, if you think you can be up…” my father’s tone softened into one of affection, “none of us Harrises are ‘morning people,'” he reminded me.

Mornings are so overrated,” I agreed. “But for my favorite father, I think I can pass for a morning person…for one day. Just don’t complain if there are truly lethal amounts of caffeine and sugar involved.”

“Heaven forfend I stand between my only child and her caffeine habit.”

“Apple, tree…not far to fall…” I said. “Both trees, actually. I mean, really, was I weaned on espresso?”

“Oh, Zoe,” my mother joined the conversation, having finished a side chat with Ed and Theo. “You know we didn’t let you have actual espresso before you were five.”

Laughing, my father rose from his chair and dropped a kiss on the top of my head. “Good night, Zoetrope. Remember to stop spinning and get a little bit of sleep, please?”

I waited a few more minutes, then faked a yawn. “Don’t say it,” I said to my mother who was about to send me to bed. “I’ll see you at home.” I turned to Ed, “Have her home by two, young man,” I teased.

Everyone except Data chuckled softly, but it was clearly time for the entire group to disperse. Theo offered to walk me home, and Data excused himself to head to the bridge. Fortunately, that meant the three of us were not taking the same turbo-lift.

(=A=)

“So, I’ve been thinking,” Theo began, once we were alone, “I was wrong to question your relationship experience.”

I shook my head. “Actually, you brought up a valid point,” I said. “I mean. I really haven’t done the casual dating thing much. I fell into a serious relationship with T’vek, and then…” I sighed. “You should know that I got into a little trouble a few months ago, just after you would have come aboard, actually.”

“Oh?”

I gave him the capsule version of my experience with Lore, and then explained about the nightmares I was having, and how that was part of the reason I wasn’t ready to go further with him.

“I didn’t mean to push you, Zoe,” he said.

“You didn’t,” I said. “You haven’t, really.”

We were quiet for a long while, in the lift, and then in the corridor, but at my door, Theo asked, “Come visit me this summer?”

“In Boston? Have you forgotten I’m sixteen? My parents would never allow it.”

“Not Boston, San Francisco. I’m due to head home in a couple of weeks, but I’ll be in San Francisco beginning in June, at Aunt Alynna’s. It’s a huge house, and there’s plenty of room – she wouldn’t mind.”

“My parents still wouldn’t allow it.”

He mimicked my earlier tone. “Have you forgotten that my Aunt Alynna is Admiral Nechayev? Starfleet’s own Dragon Lady? I can’t imagine your parents – either of them – would find her an unacceptable chaperone.”

I smiled. “Okay, fair point. But…while they might allow me to visit for a week or two, they’d never allow me to rattle around your aunt’s house for an entire summer, and not only because it would be an imposition.” He gave me a reproachful look. “It would,” I insisted. “Not to mention that it would imply we’re more than we are.”

“Well, there is that.” He seemed to consider something. “What do you usually do during summer breaks?”

“You mean when I’m not involved in drunken carousing on the beach? In between surfing, I usually do summer stock at Capitol City, or a summer music program. I was in the Centaurus Youth Symphony last year, and then there was Shakespeare camp, and Backstage Beach Haven, and…”

“Wow, don’t you ever just relax?”

“For me, music and theater are as necessary to my being as eating, breathing, and coffee.” I could feel my smile twist into a wry grin. “Besides, I think I mentioned I like surfing.”

“Possibly once or twice,” he conceded. “Well, why don’t you just find some music and theater programs in the City? San Francisco may not be the bastion of trust-fund babies that Beach Haven is, but we do have a few arts programs. And then there’s that whole hub-of-Federation-society thing. We even –” and he waggled his eyebrows at me “-have excellent surfing.”

“Oh, twist my arm, why don’t you?”

“So…you’ll come?”

“You heard. I’m meeting Dad for breakfast early in the morning. If I show up armed with pamphlets and information, there’s no way he’ll say ‘no’ to his favorite daughter.”

“Aren’t you his only daughter?”

“And your point is?”

He laughed, “Okay, okay…let me know what you figure out.”

“Tomorrow night before curtain work for you?”

“Sounds like a plan.” We had arrived at my door, and the mood shifted. He lifted his hand and ran it through my hair. “Zoe…”

“Shh.” I stood on tip-toe to kiss him. It was sweet and tender, and that was all, but it was enough. “Goodnight, Theo.”

“G’night,” he said softly.

He’d disappeared around the curve of the corridor before my door had wooshed closed behind me.

(=A=)

Stardate 44321.51

(28 April, 2367, 08:30 hours, ship’s time)

“…so I did some research and there are four or five programs that still have open application periods, and mostly coincide with my school break,” I told my father over coffee and bagels with cream cheese and lox the next morning. Our 8:30 breakfast hadn’t actually begun until more like 9:15, and I was perilously close to being late for my math tutorial, but it wasn’t like I saw my father every day. I might have joked about Data’s strict attendance requirements, but the reality was that he would understand if I showed up late…or not at all.

“It’s a lot to go through just to spend the summer being with a boy you don’t really love,” Dad said, cutting to the chase the way he always did.

“How do you know I don’t love Theo?” I asked. Not that I’d ever claimed to. I liked him, sure, and I enjoyed making out with him, but no one had ever mentioned more.

“Well, there’s the matter of most of your attention being on your Commander Data last night, for one thing.”

“He is not my Commander Data,” I protested, likely (from his perspective) proving his point. “And it wouldn’t matter if he was. He’s my friend, and when you hear us play together tomorrow you’ll be blown away at how my musicianship has improved. Anyway, boy or no boy, I really want to do something new, something that will help me get into the Martian or wherever. I guess…I feel like I want to stretch my wings, a little.”

“Does your counselor think being so far from home would be wise?”

I sat back in my chair, rocked by the question. “You know about me seeing a counselor?”

“Zoe-darling, just because your mother and I aren’t married to each other, doesn’t mean we’re not both your parents. We do talk, and she keeps me informed.” He took a healthy swig of his double espresso. “She mentioned nightmares.”

I took a breath, deciding what to say, and how to say it. “That’s actually part of the reason I want to go away. I want to be in a place where I don’t have any memories. I absolutely need a break from being on this ship. Dad…the guy who…the man I followed…Mom told you it was Data’s brother, right? Physically, they’re virtually identical. Data’s my friend, and he’s been amazing to me, but half the time when I look at him I’m with Lore.” I didn’t tell him that the other half the time I looked at my tutor I wanted to kiss him until one or both of us was senseless. Teen fantasy aside, I knew it wouldn’t help my case. “I think some distance might be a good thing. Then I can come back here and start my junior year with the emotional equivalent of a clean slate.”

“And you can’t get this distance at home?”

“I could,” I said. “But I’ve done every summer program there is. I’m too old for junior company, and not old enough for the conservatory. San Francisco has more options. Actually, I’m looking at two that would be pretty amazing. Both include boarding, balance instruction and performance opportunities, and would give me the chance to work with real musicians and actors.”

“I’m not a real musician?” I could hear the humor in his voice that meant I was winning him over.

“Dad, you know what I mean.” I waited a beat, then added, “Anyway, you’re going to be on Mars aren’t you? I could visit you there before going to Earth, and we could have some serious father-daughter time.”

“I seem to recall,” he said, “that our last serious father-daughter time put a serious dent in my credit account,” but he was smiling when he said it. “Talk to me about the programs you’re interested in. Did you look at cost? The advantage of coming home is living at home.”

I picked up my padd to show him the brochures I’d downloaded. “There are two programs I really love, and a few others that seem ‘just okay.’ Suzuki San Francisco starts in June, and runs through mid-July,” I began, and then I explained how it involved master classes, technique intensives, and even an all-string orchestra. “Plus, the teachers are all principal artists with different orchestras or teach strings at different music schools. You probably know some of them. I probably know some of them.”

“Suzuki is a good program,” he said. “I actually taught there a few times when you were very little.”

“I don’t remember.”

“You wouldn’t. You would have been at the farm, I think.”

“Oh.”

“What’s the drama program you’re looking at?”

I told him about that one, as well, and he finally agreed that if I got approval from Mom, and Counselor Troi, he’d provide the necessary funds for me to not only attend both programs, but also have spending money for the summer.

“I do have a condition, however,” he added.

“Another one?”

“It’s a deal-breaker. I want you home for Christmas again this year. If you and this boy – ”

“Theo – ”

Theo – are still seeing each other, you may invite him along. What happened to T’vek? I liked him.”

“We broke up. His family got PCS’d.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

“Me, too. But…why is it so important that I be home? I mean, love you and all, but it’s not like you’re getting married again, and Mom should get a holiday with me once in a while.”

“She should,” he agreed. “But don’t you want to be there when your brother or sister is born?”

“What?”

“Gia is pregnant.”

“What?”

“She’s due in late December or early January.”

“What! Oh, Dad, that’s stellar!”

I got up so quickly that I knocked my chair over, and I flung my arms around my father’s neck. “So, I take it you approve?” he asked, and then, “Zoe darling, if you want me to pay for your summer plans, I need to be able to breathe.”

I let him go. “I approve,” I said. “I won’t pretend I’m not still a little pissed about how you told me about you and Mom breaking up, or how you introduced Gia to me in the middle of a field trip with all my friends, but I saw how happy you were at the wedding, and…you and mom both seem a lot more settled and together now that you’re apart than you ever did when you were still married. You’re both so much more…I don’t know…relaxed.”

“Well,” he said, with the tone of a man who’d been expecting a battle, and was at a loss without someone to fight. “I’m glad you approve.”

“I’ll come for Christmas, Dad. Even if you don’t pay for San Francisco.”

But we both knew he would.

Any further conversation was curtailed by the chirp that came from my detested comm-badge. “Go for Zoe,” I said, because the only people who ever used the thing were my friends or my mother.

This is Data, came my tutor’s voice, and I blanched at the sound. That was a most unconventional form of acknowledgement, Zoe. Class is due to begin now. Will you be joining us?

“Oh, god,” I said, “Sorry, Data, I’m still with my father. I’m on my way.”

Very well. Data out.

“I’m late,” I said, mortified. “I’m late to the one class I never want to be late for. And I don’t even like math.” I jumped up, and kissed my father on the cheek. “Love you. Mean it. Gotta go.”

(=A=)

I didn’t exactly run from my father’s guest-quarters to the conference room where we had class, but I was still breathing heavily when I got there, and I was even more mortified to find they’d held class for me. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “My father and I were discussing summer plans, and we got a little sidetracked when he told me I’m going to be a big sister.” I met Data’s eyes, and unlike the night before, I didn’t feel like I was drowning. “Dock me ten points, or whatever.”

“There is no need,” he said, but he added, probably to make it clear I wasn’t getting special treatment, “See that you are not tardy again.” He paused long enough for me to take my seat, but instead of reviewing the previous lesson, he said, “Before we begin, I wish to make an announcement. This will be Wesley’s final session with us.”

Annette, Dana, Josh, and I all turned toward our friend.

“What, you’re gonna be on the bridge full-time now?” Josh demanded.

“No,” Wes said. “Actually, I’m leaving for the Academy on Sunday.” He leaned forward to meet my eyes more directly, “I’ll be on the same shuttle back toward Earth with your father, Zoe.”

I leaned around Dana and Josh, as well. “Wow, Wes, that’s quick.” I sat back. “Data, what does that mean for the rest of us? Are we all being given our final exam today? I mean, this tutorial was created because of Wes, wasn’t it?”

“Anyone who wishes to take their final examination today may certainly do so,” Data agreed, but there was a hint of confusion in his voice, as if he hadn’t considered that the rest of us were essentially guests in Wesley’s private lesson. “However, Wesley has already done so, and I believe the rest of you would benefit from remaining in class for the rest of the school year.”

Annette stood up, then, and I realized that not only had Wes not told me or Dana or Josh about his leaving, he hadn’t told his girlfriend, either. “Data, is there any way we could just cancel class today, and go to Ten-Forward or the holodeck or something?” she asked. Then she turned toward Wesley, “I cannot believe you didn’t tell me about this.”

Wesley didn’t have a chance to respond. Data said, “I accept your suggestion, Annette. Which location would you prefer?”

“Ten-Forward, definitely,” she said.

The six of us picked up our padds and relocated to the ship’s hot-spot, where much of the senior staff, and most of our parents, were already waiting.

“You knew about this,” Wes accused his girlfriend.

“You didn’t think we’d let you leave without a party, did you? It would have been at night but with Data and Zoe and your mom all wrapped up in the play…”

I stepped away from them to give the illusion of privacy, and nearly backed into Data, who prevented my stumble with a lightly restraining hold on my arm. I almost didn’t want him to let go. “‘Anyone who wishes to take their final examination today may certainly do so?'” I teased. “Data, really?”

“Technically, that is always the case. However, I also stated that remaining in class for the rest of the school year would be of benefit.”

“Look at you, being all mischievous,” I teased lightly, but then I asked. “So, is there going to be a next year? Because while I’m never going to like math, another year with you teaching it and I might actually comprehend it.”

“You comprehend more than you generally admit,” he observed. “I will continue the tutorial as long as there are students who will benefit from it.”

He was pulled away by some officer I didn’t know, and Dana and Josh came to flank me. “Everything’s changing,” my best friend said. “Tev’s gone, Wes is leaving. I wonder who’ll be next.”

“Me,” I said. “But only for the summer.” I favored her – and by extension Josh – with a grin. “Talk later,” I said. “I see cake.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44381.05

(20 May, 2367, 02:00 hours, ship’s time)

The previous three weeks had been crazy-busy, at least for me.

We’d finished the run of the play, my father had left, I’d done the applications to the summer programs – with Data’s help – and been accepted to Suzuki and to the ACT Summer Youth Congress. I’d passed all my classes (even math) with flying colors, and I’d said good-bye to Theo.

Oddly, I didn’t miss him as much as I’d expected I would.

Theo’s aunt Alynna – Admiral Nechayev to almost everyone else – had confirmed that I was welcome, and, indeed, expected, to stay with them before, between, and after my other programs.

The night before I was supposed to leave, I had a party.

Or rather, I’d been given a party. Just as with Wesley, my friends had been conspirators, choosing wisely to run our tutorial’s theme park program one more time. All day, we’d been in and out of it (I took time to pack) and anyone else who wanted to had been invited, even encouraged to join in the fun.

By ten that night, only my closest friends – Annette, Dana, Josh, Laura Gilbert who’d played my sister Margot in Anne, Ray Barnett, who I still hung out with from time to time, Nytan who was sometimes part of our group, and sometimes not – Ed, my mother, Counselor Troi and Commander Riker (I tended to think of them as a single unit), Geordi, and Reg, were left, and Data was due back from the bridge at any second.

Once he arrived, we shut down the open access to the holodeck, and kept the last couple of hours private, but by midnight it was just our math class and Data.

Just before two, I separated myself from the group, and wandered off alone. Not that you could really be alone when you were all really in one room, but…it felt like I was alone.

Data found me at the entrance to the Ferris wheel. “Your classmates have gone home,” he said. “Do you wish me to leave as well? You are familiar with the proper procedure for closing and saving the program.”

“I am,” I said.

He turned to go. “I wish you well this summer, Zoe. It has been a pleasure having you in cla – ”

“Stop it.” I cut him off.

“I do not understand.”

“No one else is here, right?”

“I believe I said that.”

“Then, could you stop being my tutor, and just be my friend for this last little while?”

His posture relaxed slightly, and he turned back to gaze up at the giant, brightly-lit wheel. “I have not yet taken the opportunity to experience this ‘ride,'” he said.

I caught the eye of the holographic operator, and he brought the spinning wheel to a stop, and let the holographic patrons off. “All yours, Miss,” he said.

I grinned at Data. “So, ride now. Do you want your own gondola, or do you want to share?”

“Is sharing not the expected practice?”

“It is,” I said, faintly nervous, “but typically it’s couples who…you know what? Never mind. It’s no more intimate than tea on your couch.”

“That is true.”

We settled ourselves onto the gently-swaying bench and pulled the safety bar into its locked position while the holographic operator swung the door shut. Data waited for the ride to begin before observing, “There was no Ferris wheel in the theme park on Serenity Five.”

“No,” I said. “This ride was my idea. I thought we needed a focal piece. Besides, when you get to the top, and look down at the park below, or up at the stars – even though you know it’s not real – it’s a really different perspective. Clarifying.” I hesitated. “December feels like forever ago,” I said. “I came here with Tev after your shuttle exploded. He rode it with me for hours, and then we stopped it at the top and he just sat there with me. Then he tried to convince me to eat soup.” I waited a beat, then asked, “Is it weird that I feel guilty about missing tomorrow’s theory session with you?”

“I am also experiencing a sense of…absence…in that regard.”

“Yeah, but on the bright side, you’ll be free of me for three months. Just think of all that reclaimed free time.”

“You know the time we spend together is neither an imposition nor an inconvenience,” he said.

“I do know that, and I’m grateful. I’m going to miss spending those hours with you every week…but…I really need to do something kind of normal for a while. I need to make friends who are interested in the same things I am – friends my own age – and start figuring out if I really want to go to the Martian, like my father, or choose another school. And…” I hesitated. “I need to be off this ship for a while.”

“I understand. If there is anything I can ever do to assist you, Zoe, please do not hesitate to ask.” He seemed to withdraw inside himself, then, turning his head to look out over the holographic park below us. I wondered if maybe he knew that I needed distance from him, as well. I saw the stiffness return to his bearing, even sitting down.

The ride lurched to a stop when we reached the top of the circle, as Tev and I had designed it to, whenever there were two non-holographic riders sharing a car. A gentle breeze wafted through the feels-like-late-spring air, and the gondola rocked like a porch swing.

I reached out to touch Data’s arm, but pulled my hand back. Then I reached out again, resting my hand on his shoulder, instead. I called his name.

“Yes, Zoe?” He turned his head to meet my eyes, and my breath caught.

If he’d been T’vek, if he’d been Theo, I would have kissed him. I mean…we were at the top of the Ferris wheel, and the park was programmed for twilight. Part of me wanted to, as much to see what would happen as to find out if he really would feel different from Lore.

Part of me wasn’t quite ready.

I took my hand away from his shoulder, captured his hand, squeezed, and released, leaving my palm resting against his. “Assuming I don’t blow off all my summer plans to teach surf school in Tahiti,” I said, “would you be willing to continue our Saturday Sessions, when I get back? Seth keeps saying he can’t teach me anything more, and working with you is…there’s nothing like it.”

“That would be agreeable,” he said. I could see him relaxing just a bit.

“And would you mind if, while I’m away, I wrote or comm’d from time to time?”

His posture softened again, and that tiny ‘real’ smile showed on his face. “I would not mind,” he said.

He kept hold of my hand for the rest of the ride.

(=A=)

Stardate 44381.50

(20 May, 2367, 03:00 hours, ship’s time)

“You’re late,” my mother informed me from her position on the couch. She was literally lying in wait for me.

“You don’t seem all that upset.”

“If I’m trusting you to spend the summer in San Francisco,” she said. “I think I should be able to trust you when you haven’t even left the ship.”

“Well,” I answered, sitting on the arm of the couch, on the end where her feet were. “That’s very enlightened of you, Mom.”

“Also,” she added, “Commander Data let me know you were with him.”

I laughed softly. “Of course he did.” I yawned. “I should get to bed,” I said. “We’re doing brunch before my shuttle leaves, right?”

“11:30 hours,” she confirmed. “I invited Ed; I hope that’s okay.”

“Could we…he’ll probably decline…but could we invite Data to join us?”

My mother’s smile was positively beatific. “I already have.” I grinned at her, and patted her sock-covered ankle, after which she said, “Zoe, I have to ask: are you in love with him?”

“With Data?” I laughed, but when I gave her my answer, I wasn’t certain if I was lying, or kidding myself: “Of course not, Mom,” I said. “It’s just a crush.”

Note: Zoe’s summer programs are based on the sorts of summer programs young actors and musicians typically attend. ACT really does offer a summer youth program. The Suzuki program is based on the annual National Cello Institute summer program that takes place at Pomona College every year. Data’s stage business with Zoe’s shoe is a blatant rip-off from the staging of the same scene in the 2009 UK production of The Diary of Anne Frank (it’s available on Hulu+).

Further Note: Crush ends here, but Data and Zoe have a lot more to their story. Look for a sequel to begin in sometime later this month. Future-fic and side-stories already exist; see my profile. Also see it for the link to the “Crushing on Cello” playlist, which includes a lot of the music referenced in this story. That playlist will be expanded as the next story grows. THANK YOU to everyone who has read this, especially to those of you who have commented. Special shout-out to Javanyet. She knows why.

Crush: Chapters 32 – 42

Chapter 32: Love, Magic, Music

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Love, Magic, Music

“Mom, does this dress look frumpy?” It was the morning of the concert Data had scheduled. The first half would be a duet he and I would be playing; the other half was a selection of chamber music the quartet would be playing, only I’d be playing the cello part. I wasn’t nervous, exactly. More like…anticipatory. And excited.

“Let me see?” my mother came into my bedroom and had me turn in all directions. “It’s not the most flattering item of clothing you own,” she added.

“But it’s got a full skirt,” I pointed out. “If I wear any of my other dresses, I risk flashing the audience.”

“It would get their attention,” my mother teased. She brushed past me to explore my closet. “What is everyone else wearing?” she asked as she moved hangers back and forth.

“Standard duty uniforms, I’d assume. Data and I have one more rehearsal in an hour. I’ll ask then.”

“Do that,” she said. “And I’ll see if I can’t come up with a couple of other options.”

“I should have taken up viola,” I muttered. “Then I’d be able to wear any kind of skirt that I wanted.”

“You already play the viola,” she reminded me. She was right, of course. Most musicians play several instruments, even if there’s one they specialize in.

“I play a wicked musical saw, too, but no one writes duets for those…not that I’d know where to even find one on a starship.” Pretty much everything that required sawing on the Enterprise was done with laser cutters. The saw was something I’d picked up from my grandmother, who preferred folk music to the serious classical stuff I had been focusing on most recently. I froze, then, and added, “Whatever you do, do not tell Data I play the saw. It’s just the kind of thing he’d want to experiment with.”

My mother laughed at that. “I won’t,” she said. “I promise. Go eat something, and then go to rehearsal. Your concert isn’t until eight, there’s time to work out wardrobe.”

I shucked off the dress, replacing it with jeans and a baggy forest-green turtle-neck, slid shoes on and went out to the main section of our quarters, twisting my hair into a messy pony-tail as I did so. “Do you want anything?” I called to my mother.

“Maybe a salad.” she said.

I asked the replicator for two grilled chicken Caesar salads, which it promptly provided, along with iced tea. “It’s going to be a little weird going from eating whatever I’m in the mood for to eating things that are in season. Dad says Gia likes cooking almost as much as he does.”

“I thought you were looking forward to planetary life,” my mother said, joining me at the table. This had been a frequent topic of conversation for the last several weeks, ever since I’d begged her to let me stay with my father if he was willing to let me.

“Dirtside has its advantages,” I said, stabbing some salad with my fork. “Admitting that there are a few conveniences here doesn’t make living with Dad any less desirable. At least on a planet, I know my salad is actually, you know, salad, and not reconstituted toenail clippings mixed with recycled hair gel.”

“Mmm, tasty,” my mother quipped.

I just rolled my eyes at her.

We finished eating, and she left for her duty shift. I went back to my room to stare at my closet and will my existing clothing to morph into the perfect outfit.

(=A=)

Per Data’s instructions, I met him, not in Ten-Forward, but in the conference room where we used to meet for my theory lessons, before we moved them to his quarters. The rest of the quartet was there, already, though they weren’t playing until the second half.

Cress came over to me, and greeted me warmly. “Zoe, you look lovely, I’m glad you’re back with us.”

“Thank you,” I said. “You and Dennis look pretty amazing yourselves.” They were both in their dress uniforms, and her deep red uniform really worked for her. I, on the other hand, had chosen a white blouse, a black skirt that was barely knee-length but had enough volume to still be appropriate, and a faux-suede forest-green vest, as a nod to the season. “Data’s not here?”

“He is setting your chair, and making sure your mother and her party have good seats,” Cress said. “Are you nervous, Zoe? Because if I didn’t know better, I’d swear Data was.”

I laughed softly. “I’m a little anxious, I guess – I always am before any kind of performance – but once we start, I’ll be fine.”

“I heard that you’d been performing all your life,” Dennis said, joining the conversation. “Is that true?”

“Most of it,” I said. “But nothing really big until I was eleven or twelve.”

“As old as that,” he teased. “Oh, however will you manage?”

We all laughed, but then I remembered. “Hey, I was wondering…I know tonight is supposed to be a celebration of a bunch of Decemberish holidays, and I know we agreed to avoid anything specifically Christmassy, but could we add a piece at the end of the quartet set?”

Cress and Dennis met each other’s eyes. “What did you have in mind, Zoe?” the woman in command red asked.

“I brought the music – it’s really easy,” I began. “Just a four part round of ‘Dona Nobis Pacem.'”

“‘Grant us peace,'” Dennis translated. “I’m familiar with it. If Commander Data is amenable-”

“Amenable to what?” Data asked, interrupting as he came into the room. I hadn’t even heard the doors open.

“Your young protégé wants us to add ‘Dona Nobis Pacem’ to the end of our set,” Dennis explained.

“I believe it would be an appropriate ‘tag’ to our performance,” he said. “Zoe, did you bring music?”

“I did,” I said. I took my padd out of my gig bag, tapped a couple of commands, and sent the sheet music to each of our music stands. “Loaded and everything,” I added. I turned then, and got my first look at Data in his dress uniform. “Ohhh,” I said softly. “Data, seriously, you look fantastic.”

“Thank you Zoe,” he said, his tone just as even as ever, though one of his eyebrows quirked slightly, as if he were surprised that I’d made the comment at all. He took in my attire, “You are also particularly aesthetically pleasing, this evening.”

I stifled a chuckle, and managed to thank him, teasing, “Flatterer.”

He ignored my comment and merely asked, “Shall we warm up?” He was addressing me, directly, but he added, to Dennis and Cress. “Zoe and I will tune and warm up now, and we will re-tune and warm up as a group during the intermission.” He extended a hand in the direction of a pair of chairs.

Our warm-up was brief, but effective. As he always knew the music ‘by heart,’ and I was accustomed to memorizing it, we wouldn’t need music stands for our duet. I was glad, because being able to meet his eyes as we played made it easier to stay in synch.

After a few minutes he declared us ready.

“It is time,” he said. “Please follow me.”

He led me out of the conference room and into the lounge via a different set of doors than those near the main turbolift banks, and when we got to the raised platform that served as our stage, he offered his free hand to help me balance. I was used to climbing steps with my cello in hand – even in heels, like the ones I was wearing that night – but it was a sweet gesture.

We’d discussed how things would work, so I knew to go to the chair he’d set for me, and stand in front of it, while he moved to speak to the audience – and there was a serious audience. Everyone from our tutorial, Annette, a few other high school students, Geordi, Barclay…Wes’s mother…the Captain. I found T’vek in the front row, caught his eye, and grinned.

His return grin made me feel much more at ease.

Data finished his introductory speech, explaining who I was and why I was on stage, and I inclined my head to the audience. Then I took my seat, and he cued me to begin.

By the end of our duet, I felt as if I had been electrified. We’d played the piece well before, during rehearsals, but that night, it was as if we were completely connected. My part wove in and out of the part he played, cello and violin having a dialogue that was sometimes a seduction and sometimes a debate. By the time we’d crescendoed to the end of the final movement, I knew we had the audience completely under our control. It was a heady feeling.

The applause confirmed my own feelings, and I sketched a curtsey from behind my cello, before following Data back to the conference room where Dennis and Cress had been watching us on a monitor.

“You two,” Cress said, squeezing Data’s arm and then pulling me into a hug (I’d left my instrument on the stage), “were incredible.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I felt like we were flying. Without a ship.”

She and Dennis laughed softly, while Data merely said, “I do not believe we have ever played together with better attunement or a greater competence.”

Impulsively, I hugged him. “In other words,” I said, as his arms came around me, stiffly, but less so than the last time we’d embraced, “we rocked.

I could feel the tilting of his head, and hear the ever-so-slight smile in his voice when he said, “Indeed.”

I stepped away from him, and smoothed my outfit.

“Okay, I said, “I’m ready for more. Who’s with me?”

(=A=)

If the second half of the concert didn’t make my skin tingle the way the duet had, at the very least, the quartet had captured the audience. Rather than a really popular piece, Data had selected a Beethoven quartet in F-major, one that opened with the melody played on cello. I knew he’d selected it to showcase me, and I’d been incredibly worried when rehearsals had begun that Cress and Dennis would resent it.

Truly collaborative musicians, they supported both the music and me playing it, and on stage that night, just as it had been in our rehearsals, I wasn’t some kid, or Data’s student, I was a fully enmeshed part of the group.

After our collective bow, Data asked me to step forward. “Introduce the encore,” he said softly in my ear.

“Me?” I whispered back.

His answer was a simple, “Yes.”

And so I thanked everyone for attending, thanked Dennis and Cressida for welcoming me into their group, and thanked Data for being a generous teacher and gracious friend before I said. “As a nod to the many holidays we celebrate at this time of year, my fellow musicians have agreed to my selection of an encore piece. It’s an old tune, written in Latin, but it has only three words: ‘Grant us peace.’ We’ll be doing it as a round. If you know it, and feel inclined to sing along, feel free. As one of my personal heroes once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a wrong note as long as you’re singing it.'”

I resumed my chair, and this time, everyone else looked to me. The displays in the music stands were synched, and so we began.

The audience joined in when Cressida’s viola joined my cello, as we built the song from the bottom up, and for about ten minutes, we existed, all of us, not just in a ship made of titanium, duranium, and transparent aluminum, but also in a bubble of love and magic.

(=A=)

After the concert, there was a reception, and I noticed Cressida pull Data aside and whisper something, then gesture to me. I saw him nod, and then he came to join me at the table where my mother, T’vek, and T’vek’s parents were seated. Kenash and my mother had both gushed, while T’rella’s comments had been understated but appreciative. “You showed remarkable poise and musicality,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said. I felt, rather than saw, Data come up behind me.

“Commander Harris, Commander Mairaj, Kenash,” he greeted, and then added, “T’vek. May I borrow Zoe for a few minutes?”

“Of course, Commander,” my mother said, though she added, “We all enjoyed the performance.”

“Thank you,” Data said to my mother. To me, he said, “Zoe, please accompany me.”

I mouthed ‘sorry’ to Mom and Tev, said, “Sure, Data,” and followed him across the room where I saw Geordi and Reginald Barclay sharing a table with a tall, bearded man, a Klingon, and a woman not much taller than I was, who had long, dark, curly hair. The two officers I knew interrupted their conversation to congratulate both of us on our performance.

Data acknowledged them – as did I – but then he turned to the others, “Commander Riker,” he greeted, “Counselor Troi, Lieutenant Worf, I would like to introduce you all to Zoe Harris.”

The bearded man, Riker, grinned at me, and I saw a flash of humor in his blue eyes. “Good to finally meet Data’s Zoe,” he said genially, “although, I think we’ve met once or twice before.”

“Yes, sir. My mother said as much,” I admitted. “But I’m afraid I don’t really remember…no, wait…I do. Only you didn’t have a beard then, and I think you were playing…” I tried to remember what instrument. Something brass. “Trombone?”

He grinned. “Do you like jazz?”

“I like pretty much all music,” I answered. “I grew up with mostly classical and folk, though.”

“Folk music?” the curly-haired woman interjected. “How interesting. It’s good to meet you Zoe; you can call me Deanna.”

Her eyes were dark and luminous, like Tev’s, and her accent was a mix of British English and something else, and I realized she must be at least part Betazoid. “Thank you,” I said, because I really didn’t know what else to offer, but she seemed to be waiting for more. “My grandmother is a musician and anthropologist, and used to specialize in political and protest songs, and how music and civil activism are related.”

“Used to?” Riker asked.

“She’s retired, now. Lives on the family farm on Centaurus.”

“Your grandmother isn’t Irene Harris?”

“Yes, sir – ” I began.

“Will – ” he corrected, interrupting.

“Yes, Will. You know her?”

“I took a class from her when she did a guest semester at the academy. Your mother was in that class.”

I nodded smiling. “Yeah. Gran took a liking to her, and invited her back to the farm during semester break. She met my father and they were married before classes resumed.” I added in a softer tone, “But they’re divorced now. Dad’s getting married again over Christmas.”

Deanna favored me with a combination of a penetrating stare and a wistful smile. “You’re going to the wedding, Zoe? Are you on good terms with your father?”

“We’re good,” I said. “Gia – that’s the almost-stepmonster – is a lot less horrible than she could be, and has good taste in fashion, at least.” I hesitated, gauging their level of humor. “I might have blackmailed my father into getting me a flitter for my birthday in order to guarantee my presence and participation.”

As I’d hoped, they both laughed. The Klingon, however, did not. Instead, he glowered at me. “Children should not blackmail their fathers,” he almost growled. “I enjoyed your music. Good night.”

Alarmed that I’d insulted him, I took a step away from the table, apologizing, “I’m really sorry,” I said, looking for a way to bolt, but I felt Data’s hand at the small of my back.

“You said nothing wrong,” he said softly.

Deanna seconded him. “Worf’s a little touchy today,” she explained. “It’s a long story, and it’s not my place to tell it, but you needn’t worry, Zoe.” Her dark eyes met mine full-on. “I promise.”

I waited a beat, taking her measure as she had mine. “Okay,” I said slowly.

She looked slightly past me, addressing Data, “Are you two joining us, then?” Her invitation was warm, and the smile she wore was sincere.

Data glanced at me, and then back at his friends, “Another time,” he said. “Captain Picard asked that I bring Zoe by his table, and then I must return her to her family.

“It was nice to meet you all,” I said, as gentle pressure from my friend’s hand guided me away. Out of earshot, I whispered, “You didn’t tell me anything about having to talk to the captain. Data, the last time I saw him, I puked on his feet.”

He halted, and moved to face me. “Are you experiencing nausea now?” he asked, concern evident in his tone and on his face.

“No,” I said. “But I might die of embarrassment.”

“If you are polite and engaging, as you just were with Commander Riker and the Counselor, you will ‘do fine,'” he said. “He is expecting to speak with you. To avoid doing so would be considered a breach of etiquette.” He paused, then, watching me. “I have never seen you nervous before,” he observed.

“Yeah, you have,” I said. “The day I asked about being in your tutorial, I was terrified.”

“You hid it well,” he said.

“It was worth it, in the end.”

He understood my comment for the backhanded compliment it was. “Thank you, Zoe. I believe it has been beneficial for us both.” He touched me again, guiding me toward the captain’s table.

(=A=)

Captain Picard’s table was in a relatively secluded alcove. From it, he and his companions could see the stage, but were largely obscured from the view of everyone else. His companions turned out to be just one person – Wesley’s mother.

“Good evening, Captain, Doctor,” Data said, approaching the table. I wanted to freeze in place, but I let him nudge me forward. “You remember Zoe Harris, sir,” he added.

“Good evening, sir,” I echoed Data’s phrase because somehow ‘hello’ seemed inappropriate. “Doctor Crusher.”

The doctor gave me a warm smile. “You were wonderful tonight, Zoe,” she told me. “You, too, Data,” she added.

“Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate the opportunity.”

The captain smiled at me, but it was the tight smile I would later learn he used when he was nervous or uncomfortable. “I enjoyed the concert very much,” he said. “Mr. Data, your own playing has improved since you began working with Miss Harris.”

“Yes, sir,” Data agreed. “I believe it has.”

We chatted for a few more minutes, during which I was terrified that he would ask us to join them, but he didn’t, only made polite conversation. Finally, he flashed me a brief smile that was much less stage-y than before. “Miss Harris, you are a credit to your teacher. Thank you for sharing your talent with us. I’m sure you’d rather spend the rest of your evening with your family and friends.”

“Would it be incredibly bad manners to admit that you were right, sir?” I asked in my best wry tone.

He emitted a short bark of laughter. “Not at all. Mr. Data, please escort this delightful young woman back to her mother.”

“Yes, sir,” Data said.

“And Data?” the captain added.

“Sir?”

“Well done.”

His eyes widened slightly, “Thank you, sir.”

He escorted me back to my mother’s table – T’vek and his family were still there – and apologized for pulling me away for so long.

“Do you want to join us?” I asked him, mostly to be polite.

“I am afraid I have other duties to attend to,” he said. “Do not forget to reclaim your cello and case from the conference room. Good night, Zoe – everyone.” He walked off, and I focused my attention on the people I’d wanted to be with the whole night. “I’m so sorry,” I said, settling into the open chair between my mother and T’vek. “Data never told me I had to meet people. Commander Riker says hello, by the way, Mom.”

My mother’s smile was affectionate and indulgent. “I suspect, Zoe, that you’ll have to get used to such things if you intend to make any kind of career in the arts.”

“I guess,” I said

We lingered a while longer, but then the adults excused themselves. “Stevek will escort you to retrieve your belongings, and then walk you home,” T’rella told me. “Please be certain you are both home no later than zero-two-hundred hours.”

I glanced at my mother for confirmation, and she nodded and smiled. “Thank you,” I said.

Tev and I waited for them to be long gone before we, too, left Ten-Forward. Then he looked at me, and asked, mimicking a Federation News Net reporter, “So, Miss Harris, how does it feel to be a celebrity?”

I rolled my eyes at him. “I’m not a celebrity,” I said. “Not yet.”

(=A=)

By the time T’vek and I picked up my cello and returned to the corridor leading to our quarters, it was after one, and I was tired and hungry.

“You never ate?” he asked.

“I had a protein shake before the concert, and then I had to meet people so I never got dessert or even a drink.”

“I should have asked earlier,” he said. “I’m sorry. I was a little jealous.”

I laughed. “Jealous? Of what?”

“You spent a lot of time with Data.”

I shrugged. “I kind of had to. Anyway, he’s my tutor, and my friend, and…” I sighed. “I don’t even know why I’m making excuses. It was fun for the first few minutes, meeting all the senior officers, but I would much rather have been with you.”

“Really?”

“Truly.” I set my cello on the floor and stepped close to Tev so I could kiss him. “I love you,” I said. “Even if you didn’t comment on my outfit.”

“I was busy imagining you out of it,” he confessed. He pulled me close and tangled his fingers in my hair. “You have to wear it on Centaurus, just so I can see that.”

“I’ll consider it,” I said, leaning into him. “You might have to bribe me with a hamburger, though.”

“Lips that touch cow…”

“…have kissed you many, many times. I don’t twit you for eating texturized vegetable protein.”

“Good point.”

I yawned, then, and blushed because I had. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a very long, very strange day, and my performance-high is wearing off. I’ll see you later?”

“Ten?” he suggested. “We could have a late breakfast together.”

I shook my head. “Noon,” I said. “Or two, even. I plan to sleep very, very late.”

“Comm me when you wake up?”

“Definitely.” I kissed him again, and then I picked up my cello, and went into the quarters I shared with my mother. She’d gone to bed, so I just locked the door, replicated another protein shake, and took the glass to my room. I forced myself to wash my face and change to a sleep-shirt before I settled into bed, but I fell asleep before I managed to finish the shake.

Notes: As stated in chapter 27, Zoe & Data’s duet is “Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65” by Carl Maria von Weber. The quartet plays Beethoven’s Opus 59 #1 in F-major, the first of his three “Razumovsky Quartets.” “Dona Nobis Pacem” is a traditional Latin chant. The quotation, “There’s no such thing as a wrong note, as long as you’re singing it,” is from American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger.

Chapter 33: Moon Tide

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine. Warning: This chapter contains non-explicit consensual teen sex.

Moon Tide

Stardate 43969.29 (20 December 2366)

Capitol City, Centaurus

The problem with space travel is that sometimes, it feels more like a math problem then a mode of transportation. For example: if it took two shuttles three days to get from the U.S.S. Enterprise, which was patrolling the far reaches of Alpha Sector, to Centaurus (one of the three worlds collectively known as Alpha Centauri, though that’s really the local daystar, and not the planet), in the Beta Sector, how much of that time did I spend making out with my incredibly sweet, devastatingly sexy, Vulcan-Betazoid boyfriend?

The answer? As much as possible, especially after said boyfriend ‘graciously’ gave up his private stateroom on the second shuttle in order to accommodate a single father with his young son. Overbooking will never go out of style.

On the other hand, that much togetherness, even for two people who are madly in love with each other, gets a little overwhelming around day three. Translation: by the time we arrived at the Capitol City Spaceport on the world that I’d thought of as home for most of my life, we were both glad to be dirtside, and each of us was a little sick of the other’s company.

“Dad!” I saw my father in the crowd of people meeting incoming travelers. We’d already cleared customs, so our luggage was with us.

“Zoetrope!” My father ran forward, and grabbed me in a huge hug. “Did you get taller? You look taller.”

I laughed, mostly because I was seeing my real father and not the for-show version of him that I referred to as ‘The Zachary Harris Experience.’ I hugged him back until breathing became an issue, and then I said. “I don’t think so. Must be the boots.” I gestured to the chunky-heeled ankle boots I was wearing, boots that gave me a good five centimeters of extra height. “Or,” I teased, “maybe you got shorter.”

He mock-glowered at me, gave me his signature European-style kisses, and let me go, turning to my companion. “T’vek, isn’t it?” my father asked.

My boyfriend met my father’s eyes and shook his hand with a firm grip. “Thank you for having me, Maestro Harris,” he said. He could ooze charm, when he felt like it.

“Zach,” said my father. “You’re family now, or close as may be. Just call me Zach.”

“Thank you, sir,” Tev said. He caught my eye and smirked ever-so-faintly. I just rolled my eyes in response.

“So, are you two hungry? Do you want to get some food before we head back to the house? What’s your pleasure?”

I let bad Christmas music from the spaceport speaker system wash over me for about half a song. “Food would be good,” I said. “Anything that doesn’t come from a replicator, especially. But I’d be just as happy eating at home so we can hit the beach – there is time for that, right? Before the festivities begin?”

My father grinned at me. “I had a bet with your mother that you’d ask about the beach within ten minutes of arrival. She said you’d hold out for twenty.”

“So, how much does she owe you?”

“Oh, thousands…” he joked, and I was pleased to realize that I could laugh with him. “Rehearsal dinner is tomorrow. Ceremony’s on the 23rd. Gia and I will be spending that night in a hotel, but we’ll be back to join you and your grandmother for a proper Christmas.”

“What?” I teased. “No exotic honeymoon?”

My father grinned at me, the playboy grin that graced the news-nets and magazine covers. “There may be, but not ’til after the holidays. Gia insisted I spend time with you.”

“Smart woman, that Gia.”

“She actually is,” my father began, but he stopped. “T’vek, I’m sorry, my Zoetrope starts spinning and I forget others are in the room. Do you surf?” He took control of our luggage cart as he brought my boyfriend back into the conversation.

T’vek shook his head, “I don’t,” he said. “I sailed a little, when we lived on Betazed, and I swim.” He glanced at me, “Zoe promised to teach me while we’re here.”

Dad activated the anti-grav controls on the cart, and gave it a push, leading us out the doors and into the parking structure. Warm air wrapped itself around us, and I smiled slightly. “She’ll keep you from drowning,” my father assured. “What did you sail?”

I listened as my father and T’vek bonded over their first boats. Living on the coast was remarkably similar no matter what world that coastline inhabited. Kids on Centaurus, Earth, Tiburon, and Betazoid all grew up surfing and sailing and swimming, just like kids from Colorado and Alaska had the same experience of growing up on skis or skates that kids from similar climates on other worlds had.

Dad’s flitter was only a short walk, and he and T’vek loaded the luggage as if they’d been operating as a team for years. I thought about claiming the front seat, but decided it would be better to give Tev the option. Family policy was that new people got treated like guests on their first night, but after that, there were no special favors. Even so, it made me smile when Tev brushed my hand and said, “Zoe, sit in front. You know you want to.”

“Thanks,” I said, hopping into the flitter. My father slid into the pilot’s chair, and Tev sat behind us, but in the middle so he wouldn’t be excluded from any conversation.

“How’s the surf been?” I asked my father, once we were out of spaceport traffic and on our way home. We spent the rest of our half-hour journey discussing the condition of the surf, which beaches had the best swell at this time of year, and whether we should start T’vek on a short- or longboard.

Ten minutes away from home, Dad took the flitter into ground-mode, which meant that when I glimpsed the first red awning and the logo of a surfboard sticking out of a coffee mug, I could cry, “Stop!” and he could actually do so.

“What’s wrong?” T’vek asked.

My father, however, knew what I’d seen, and was already fishing a digi-card out of his pocket. “Zoe has heard the siren call of her people,” he told my boyfriend, and then, when he caught Tev’s blank look in the rear-view mirror, he added. “Espresso bar.”

“Dad, it’s not just espresso. It’s Red Sands. Anybody want anything?” I took the card from his hands and jumped out onto the sidewalk, breathing lovely salty air, and wondering if my parents had wagered on my zero-to-coffee time, as well.

I heard T’vek getting out of the flitter, behind me. “I have to see this,” he said.

Together we walked through the red-painted door, and into my version of Nirvana: People in business suits and people who had obviously just come from the beach – some working on padds, some not – mingled with teenagers who were either heading out to go shopping or just finishing. An espresso machine hissed and hummed as shot after shot was pulled and pitcher after pitcher of milk (or any of a number of milk-alternatives) was frothed, foamed, or steamed, and happy baristas bantered with their customers, and behind it all was the gentle symphony of porcelain cups, tempered glasses, and silverware being clicked and clanked. To other people, it was just a café. To me, it was bliss.

“On any given world,” I said, even though I really knew only two planets with any level of intimacy, “the beach is my favorite place. But Red Sands coffee? That’s my second favorite place. Now, do you want anything?”

He was laughing at me, though. “How did I not see this coming?” he asked, wrapping his arm around me. Suddenly, the feeling of being tired of his company was gone. “Go forth and caffeinate,” he said. “But if they do smoothies – ”

“They do – ”

“I’d like utteberry and peach.”

I stepped up to the counter, greeted the vaguely familiar barista and placed our order – a double mocha for me, and Tev’s smoothie, then handed over my father’s card.

“Thank you for coming to Red Sands, Zoe, your order will be – wait – Zoe? You’re back?”

The sandy-haired barista with the pukka-shell necklace stopped being vaguely familiar as recognition turned him into an old friend, “Kavan. Oh, god, you work here?”

“Yeah, since fall. Dad said I needed to learn responsibility. Who’s your friend?”

“Boyfriend,” I corrected. “T’vek. From the Enterprise. Tev, this is Kavan. We’ve known each other since forever.”

“Hey, man,” Kavan said, “Welcome to Centaurus. Do you surf?”

“Not yet,” T’vek said.

“Zoe gonna teach you?”

Tev and I shared a look. “That’s the plan,” I said. “Hey, listen, we should totally catch up while I’m here. You still have my comm info, yeah?”

“Count on it,” Kavan said handing over our drinks. “And hey, next time you’re in here, drinks are on me.”

“Stellar,” I said. “Thanks.” Drinks in hand, T’vek and I returned to the flitter.

“Mission accomplished?” my father asked.

“Yep. Also, did you know Kavan is working there?”

“Kavan…?”

“Kavan Meyer,” I said. “Surfer Kavan.”

“From that beach party.” My father’s tone grew distinctly more parental.

“Yeah,” I said. “But also no. It was his party, but he didn’t…never mind.” I interrupted myself. “It’s all water under the bridge. So, how’s Gia?”

For the rest of the ride home, I nursed my mocha in silence.

(=A=)

My father’s beach house wasn’t ostentatious, exactly, but it also wasn’t the cute coastal bungalow most people called to mind upon hearing the phrase ‘beach house.’ It was, in fact, and almost perfect replica of his family’s original beach house – a centuries-old nineteen-bedroom ‘cottage’ in a part of Earth called ‘The Hamptons.’

This house was also over a century old, as my father’s family – my family – was one of the founding families when Earth colonized the Alpha Centauri system. It didn’t really have nineteen bedrooms, though, but a slightly less pompous eleven. Of course, five of those were in the family wing, and were actually suites – a bedroom and a sitting room. Each pair of suites (one on each side of the hallway, plus the master suite at the end) shared a bathroom that included a claw-foot tub, a separate shower stall fitted for both sonic and water, and the other typical accoutrements.

The guest wing was a little bit less spacious, but those six rooms were also done in pairs with adjoining bathrooms, they just weren’t suites. My room was the furthest family suite from the master, on the side of the house that had a water view. We’d put Tev in the guest room furthest from the back stairs on the same side of the house. There were two mini-flights of stairs, a balcony, and several meters of hallway between us, but we were still closer than we’d ever been on the Enterprise.

“You live here?” T’vek asked as I showed him around the house. “I mean, really…you live here?”

I blushed. “Sometimes.” I said. “Sometimes I stay at my grandmother’s farm. Tev, it may be big, but it’s just a house. Besides, it has to be big…Dad entertains a lot. Like, a lot a lot.

We’d already eaten – Gia had arranged a really lovely alfresco lunch on the back patio overlooking the beach – but we’d only just gotten around to basic things like stowing luggage and showing off favorite rooms.

Gia came up behind us. “I know how you feel, T’vek,” she said by way of a greeting. “But Zach – and all the rest of the family – are such genuine people, you’d never know they owned something like this.” She turned to me, “Hello, Zoe. Welcome home.”

I’d promised my father that I’d be polite, so I didn’t snark about it being my home and not hers. Instead I said, “Hey, Gia. You look good,” and gave her a perfunctory hug.

“So do you,” she said, her smile becoming less nervous. “I’m glad you’re here for this. It means a lot to your father.” She hesitated before adding, “And to me. I’m sorry we don’t know each other better.”

Again, I bit my tongue to refrain from making a sarcastic comment. “So am I,” I said. I could sense, more than see, the tension rolling off T’vek. He seemed really concerned that I would do something…untoward.

Gia seemed to feel the awkwardness of the moment as well. “I’ll leave you two to get settled,” she said. “I’m told the first night of vacation is always pizza night, so we’ll see you in the den around eight. Is there anything you do or don’t like on pizza?”

“No anchovies,” I said. “Other than that I’m easy. Well, pizza-wise. Make sure one’s meatless, please? Tev doesn’t do dead animal flesh.”

Gia chuckled slightly at that, which surprised me, as it wasn’t really funny. “Got it,” she said.

She left us in T’vek’s room, and once she was out of earshot I asked my boyfriend, “Do you want some alone time, or do you want to hit the beach? It’s barely one.”

He hesitated. “Not that I don’t love you, Zoe…” he began.

“How about we go our separate ways for an hour or two? I’m actually kind of tired, and wouldn’t mind a nap. Besides, before we can go to the beach, I need to unpack a bathing suit or two.”

His smile was both grateful and radiant. “Stellar,” he said. He leaned close to kiss me. “I love you, I just need some downtime.”

I kissed him back. “I know,” I said. “Me, too – on both counts.”

(=A=)

As it turned out, we never made it to the beach. Unable to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, I curled up with a book – those wizard children had moved on to their fifth year, which apparently involved a lot of CAPITAL LETTERS to signify shouting – and then my father asked me to help with setting up dinner.

“What vids are we watching tonight?” I asked. “Or are we doing game night?”

“What’s your preference?”

“Honestly, vids are probably better; Tev and I have been together almost constantly for the last three-and-a-half days and an activity where we don’t have to talk much would be good.”

“You’re not fighting…?”

“No,” I said, scanning the menu of available vids on the entertainment system. “Does Gia like horror?” I asked before returning to the original subject. “Just…you know…a little too much time with just the two of us.”

“I see,” my father said. “You know, Zoe, they say one sign of a relationship not lasting is the inability to be alone together. She likes thrillers, but prefers them cerebral rather than…”

“Gee, thanks, Dad. But we’re in high school; not looking to get hitched.” I paused, then said softly, “Mom thinks Tev is the perfect ‘first boyfriend’ for me. I know – I mean – I know – it’s not forever.” I added after a beat, “Okay, so no slasher films. How about a family-friendly rom-com?”

My father reached over and ruffled my hair. “That’s my girl. So, tell me about this recital you were in. Commander Data arranged it?”

And for the next hour we talked about music, and how Data’s theory tutorial had me playing better than any of my technique teachers ever did. Finally, I asked, “Can we play together, while I’m here? We haven’t in forever. I miss it.”

Dad finished punching in the pizza order, and I saw that his eyes were crinkled and misty, even though his smile was dazzlingly bright, “I’d love that,” he said. “I thought you’d grown beyond playing with your old man.”

I shrugged, and teased him. “Haven’t you heard? Retro is in.”

(=A=)

Late that night, I woke up to the sound of the crashing surf and the light of the nearly-full moon shining through my window. I’d apparently grown so accustomed to life on a starship that it hadn’t occurred to me to close my blinds, but somehow, I didn’t mind. I glanced at the time display on my nightstand: just after two, perfect.

I opened the window, and let cool salty air wash over my skin, and then I smiled up at the moon. Quickly, I traded the baggy t-shirt I’d worn to bed for a bathing suit, then pulled a pair of board shorts over that. I grabbed flip-flops, and a sweatshirt, carrying the former and tying the latter around my waist. Then, as quietly as I could, I left my room.

I needn’t have worried. The door to the master suite was closed, and not a trace of light peeped through the cracks. Still, I stayed near the wall as I moved down the hall, avoided the one squeaky stair before the balcony, and the one squeaky board on the other side, and knocked softly on T’vek’s door.

He was a little bleary-eyed, but seemed happy to see me. “Zoe…” he said. “You okay?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Is this a booty call?”

“Nope. Not this time.”

“Do you just get off on bothering people in the middle of the night?”

“Are you?” I asked in my best breathy seductress voice. “Bothered?”

“No, but I will be if you keep talking like that.”

I grinned, “I came to ask you a question.”

“Oh?”

“Have you ever been to the beach in the moonlight?”

He shook his head. “No.”

“Wanna?”

“Now?”

I looked him over. “Change first. Bathing suit or shorts, but bring a sweatshirt, but otherwise, yeah, now.”

“You’re crazy.”

“I’m not,” I said. “I’m just extremely motivated to share this experience with you.”

He laughed. “Okay. Five minutes.” He started to close the door.

I blocked it, holding it open. “Can I watch?” I teased.

He laughed again. “Why not.”

It’s a miracle we ever left his bedroom, but we did, and I led him down the back stairway and into the kitchen, and then to the mud-room beyond that. “Towels are in the closet,” I said. “Grab three.” I pulled open another storage space and grabbed a couple of flashlights, checking to see if they had battery power. I dropped my shoes then, and slid my feet into them.

T’vek followed me out the mudroom door, across the back yard, and down the winding path to the beach below the house. The tide was high, and the surf was wild, and I thought it was the best thing ever. “The ocean here is crazy,” he said. “The Opal Sea is never like this.”

“Moon tide,” I explained. “Plus it’s a deep water, rocky coastline. Lay a towel down?” He did so, and I set the flashlights down, one on each end, digging into the sand to prop them up. I turned them on, and their beams cut through the darkness, illuminating a wide swath of sand. I kicked off the flip-flops and stepped out of my shorts. “Join me?” I invited, as my sweatshirt joined the pile of cast-off clothing. I took off toward the water, and was pleased to hear his footsteps and his breathing as he came up beside me.

The next thing I heard was “Surak’s hairy green balls! This water is freezing.” Tev was only knee deep in the surf, but it was likely enough, especially with his half-Vulcan biology.

“Well, yeah,” I said, splashing over to him. “It’s winter. And, okay, winter here isn’t particularly cold or anything, but still…”

“You might have warned me.”

“I assumed you knew.” I peered at him in the moonlight. “Is it too cold? We could wait and get you a wetsuit…”

He shook his head. “Naah, I know how I can warm up later.”

“I like the way you think.”

Moon tides looked crazy rough, but they really weren’t and unlike the oceans on Earth, we didn’t have to worry about big fish trying to eat us as we splashed in the sea. Which we did, until we were salty and soaking wet, and silly from the cold and the starlight.

“You ready to go dry off?” I asked when I knew I’d had enough.

“Beyond ready,” he told me.

He caught my hand and we ran back to our towels, laughing and shivering.

I picked up my towel and wrapped it around me, then set on the one we’d spread out. The flashlights had heat-lamp settings, and I switched mine to that. Tev followed my lead, scooting close to me, so both our towels were around both of us. I turned to ask if he’d enjoyed our little adventure, but when I did so, I saw his dark eyes glittering and I had to kiss him.

He kissed me back, and the mood shifted from playful innocence to something deeper, more primal. I darted my tongue out to taste the traces of seawater on his lips, and he opened his mouth, meeting me half way.

Long, slow, kisses gave way to salt-skinned caresses. I traced the lines of his neck, shoulders and chest with my fingers, and he found the knot that held my bikini top on, replacing the cool, slightly damp fabric with his warm, also slightly damp hands.

“More, please?” I asked as his fingers moved over my skin.

He kissed me again, murmuring, “Mmhmm,” into the kiss.

We moved together, so that I was lying down, with some – or all, I couldn’t really tell – of our dry clothes beneath my head. It felt like the moon was smiling down on us, and that the waves were providing background music. He straddled me, and I felt the bulge in the swim trunks he was wearing. “Tev?” I asked softly.

“You want to stop?” he asked, and I could have sworn he was holding his breath.

I hooked my fingers into the waistband of his trunks. “Not even close,” I said. The trunks were soon cast aside, and he was peeling off the bottom of my bikini.

“Lift your hips,” he said, drawing it off me.

Details began to blur after that. I know his body pressed against mind, the warm weight of him pushing me just a little more into the sand, and I was glad for the thick layer of cotton towel beneath me. He touched me everywhere, skin to skin, breath to breath.

“Zoe, are you sure?” his face was a mixture of desire and an attempt at restraint. “Are you really sure?”

“T’vek,” I said, “I love you. I’m sure.”

All the anatomy textbooks, health class teachers – even Doctor Crusher – had warned me to expect pain. I braced for the worst, but it really wasn’t that bad. A push. A pinch. A little bit of stinging. And then we were joined in the most intimate way possible.

He checked again to see if I was okay.

I assured him I was.

He started to move inside me.

It was over too soon.

I’d read somewhere that it was good manners to show your lover that you appreciated their efforts, so when it was over, and he was next to me, pressed close, I whispered “Thank you.”

He laughed, and I did too, but then he sobered. “You’re not…it didn’t hurt you?”

I shrugged against his chest. “A little, at the beginning. I was expecting worse.” I blushed, glad my face was turned away. “I didn’t mean that, that way.”

“It’s okay,” he said. But then he added, “You didn’t…you know…did you?”

I shook my head, realized he wouldn’t be able to interpret it, and said softly. “No. But I wasn’t exactly expecting to. I think the whole first-time-lovers-have-mutual-orgasms thing is pretty much limited to romance novels.” Again, we laughed together.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said, and it sounded like a promise and a goal.

“Okay.” I was pretty sure that we actually would.

We were both quiet a little longer, and then, as false dawn began to compete with the moonlight, he kissed my shoulder, and the back of my neck. “Zoe,” he said softly. “I love you. Thank you, too.”

I closed my eyes, and let myself just breathe for a while, and then I opened them. “I really have to pee,” I said.

We got up, dressing in the weird semi-darkness, pulling on our dry clothes, and wrapping our swimwear in the towels. Tev grabbed the flashlights, and I slid my sandy feet into my shoes. Neither of us had a free hand, but we kept accidentally-on-purpose bumping into each other as we walked back up to the house.

I dumped the towels into the laundry room, and reminded Tev to rinse his suit and hang it to dry. At the bottom of the stairs, he grabbed me, tangling his hands into my wet hair, and kissing me again. After we broke apart, I waited a good three minutes before following him up the stairs.

As I arrived at my door, the door to the master suite opened for a moment. “Zoe? Is that you?” I heard Gia’s voice say.

“Yeah, sorry…couldn’t sleep, was out on the deck for a while. I didn’t disturb you, did I?” Well, we’d crossed it twice, so it wasn’t technically a lie.

“I’m…a little nervous,” she admitted. “No worries. Get some sleep.”

“You, too,” I suggested.

I walked into my room, closed the door behind me, locked it, and then made a mad dash for the bathroom. After I answered nature’s call, I washed my hands. I turned to leave the room, but caught sight of my reflection in the mirror, and paused to study it. My hair would be a mess in the morning, I knew, but…as far as I could tell…I didn’t think I looked all that different.

I closed my blinds so sunrise wouldn’t wake me before I wanted to be up, changed back into my t-shirt, and went back to bed, hoping no one would need me before ten.

Notes: I hadn’t planned for Zoe and T’vek to have their first time on a beach; they had other ideas. I actually hadn’t planned to have it happen until after her father’s wedding, which will be in the next chapter unless these two kids hijack it the way they did this one.

Chapter 34: Afterand Before

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

After…and Before…

Stardate 43971.00 (21 December 2366)

Harris Beach House, Beach Haven, Centaurus

If I’d been able to schedule my life the way I could schedule classes during the school year, I would have spent my first full day at my father’s beach house staying in bed until ten, taking a luxurious hot-water shower, having a late breakfast on the patio overlooking the ocean, and then either spent the afternoon teaching my boyfriend – lover – wasn’t he technically my lover now? – to surf. Then I would have gone for a mani-pedi with Gia, because, honestly, if I’d met her as just a person, instead of the woman my dad had chosen to replace my mother, I’d probably have liked her.

Not that I actively disliked her.

At the very least, I would have had time to check in with said boyfriend, and assure him that I was okay, and make sure that he was okay, and maybe get some serious smooching in. Seriously, that boy was an amazing kisser.

Instead, I was roused at eight in the morning by the sound of the doorbell being rung repeatedly. I rolled out of bed and avoided the mirror, completely baffled as to why no one was answering the thing, then saw the note flashing on my padd: Zoetrope, Gia and I are meeting her parents at the spaceport and taking them to breakfast. Hold down the fort, won’t you? Thanks ever so…Dad.

Immediately, I pulled on the first clothing I could find, which turned out to be a Beach Haven Yacht Club sweatshirt and a pair of board shorts. I grabbed my flip-flops from the floor, and raced for the door, yelling, “Coming!” at the top of my lungs.

I almost tripped on the stairs, slamming into T’vek, coming from the other wing. “Morning,” I said. “Door.” I added.

“I heard,” he said. “Can I help?”

“Can you make coffee?” I asked.

“Sadly, no.”

“Why, exactly, do I love you?” I asked, teasingly, but I opened the door before he could answer, and flung myself at the person standing on the other side of it. “Uncle Zane!”

“Zoe-licious!”

My father’s younger brother picked me up and swung me in a circle. “Hey, put me down, I’m not a kid anymore.”

He returned me to the relative safety of the floor, and looked me over, waggling his eyebrows, “I should say not,” he said. Then he noticed T’vek. “Who’s the arm charm?”

I swallowed reflexively. “This is my boyfriend,” I said, “T’vek Mairaj, meet my uncle, Zane Harris.”

Tev offered his hand, human style, and my uncle shook it formally. “Lovely to meet you, T’vek,” he said, earning a gold star from me when he added, “Isn’t that the name of the pirate on that Betazoid show?” Trust my uncle to know the reference.

“It is,” T’vek told him. “My given name is Stevek.”

Zane offered my boyfriend the smile he reserved for people he liked. “I’d go with the piratical version, myself,” he said. Then he clapped his hands together, “So, who’s hungry? I’ve been living on ship- and hotel- food for six months and I’m desperate to mess around in a real kitchen.”

I grinned, “I’m starved. I have no idea if Tev’s eaten anything…?” I let the sentence trail off into a questioning tone.

“I have not,” he said. “I’m hungry, too.”

“Super,” Zane said, “T’vek, why don’t you come join me in the kitchen and we’ll see what we can come up with. Zoe-darling, you look like you’re desperate for a shower. Join us in twenty?”

“Should I be grateful for the chance to shower, or annoyed that you think I look like I need one?” I grumped, but I was teasing – mostly. “See you in twenty. Do not tell any baby stories about me or ask T’vek personal questions while I’m gone.”

My uncle grinned at me, the way he always did when he was about to get his way. “Would I do that?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “You totally would.” I turned and fled for my room – and it’s lovely, lovely shower – before he could respond to that.

(=A=)

It was actually more like thirty minutes before I joined T’vek and Zane in the kitchen, but they were only just finishing their preparations, so it wasn’t like it mattered much. I smelled coffee and toast and something else. “Did you make a frittata?” I asked as I unhooked my favorite mug (it had my name on it) from the mug tree. “Tev, are you okay with eggs?”

“Eggs are not actual animals, merely potential ones,” he said, sounding eerily like a certain gold-skinned math tutor we shared. “You know I eat dairy. It’s just actual meat I have a problem with…and it’s not even ethical; it’s biological.”

I cocked my head at him, studying him for a long moment. “How did I never know this?”

He shrugged, “It’s never really come up. You usually make sure to order vegetarian dishes when we eat together.”

“It would’ve been nice to know there was a little leeway in those orders,” I said. “Anyway, it smells amazing. I feel spoiled.”

“You should,” my uncle said, joining the conversation as he returned from the patio. “Not every young woman has two devilishly handsome men cooking for her.”

“Neither do I,” I teased. “Seriously, Uncle Zane, it smells amazing,”

“Glad you think so. Leave the hideous mug here, and come to the patio; your feast awaits.”

“My mug is not hideous,” I protested, though, in truth, it actually sort of was. It was this weird color that wasn’t quite red and wasn’t quite orange, and it had the Yacht Club logo on it, and my name, but somehow nothing seemed to work together. Still it was the perfect size for looping my hand through. That using it annoyed my fussy uncle was just a bonus.

“Zoe, I’ll grant you that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but does it make you blind as well?”

I put the mug back. “Fine,” I said. “For you, I will use some froufrou mug that matches all the dishes and has a way-too-small handle.”

T’vek had been laughing at our entire exchange. “Zoe, I’ll buy you a new mug, okay? One that has your name on it, but isn’t an affront to all things art and design-related.”

“I’m holding you to that,” I said.

He kissed me. “I know you will.”

(=A=)

All through breakfast, I could feel my uncle watching T’vek and me, gauging our body language, cataloguing the number of times we touched or made eye contact.

When we’d finally finished the meal, and I got up to clear the table, my uncle said, “Zoe, sit back down a minute.”

Zane had always been more like a big brother than an adjunct parent, but I recognized his serious tone, and returned to my seat. “What’s wrong?”

He shook his head, “Not necessarily wrong, just…do your parents know you two are sleeping together?”

I glanced at Tev before I answered. “What makes you think we are?”

“C’mon, Zoe, this is me. The one who proved to you that there weren’t monsters in the closet. The one who made sure you never had to see it when your dad had…friends…over while your mom was away…”

“…until I did,” I said softly.

“Yeah,” he said. “The point is, kiddo, you and me – we don’t lie to each other, and we don’t keep secrets.”

“It happened last night,” T’vek said, interrupting us both.

“Tev…”

“No, Zoe. It’s cool. Your uncle’s cool. Would’ve liked it if you’d told me he was the lead singer of the Federations best indie band before I’d asked if he’d heard their music, but…we can trust him.” He softened his voice, adding, “I can tell.”

So he had done a little observation, when they’d touched. Surface thoughts, he’d told me. Just surface thoughts. Suddenly I wondered how much of that was true. Then I put the thought out of my head, because he’d also said that where I was concerned everything else he felt overwhelmed even the surface thoughts.

I looked back at my uncle. “Mom knows we were on this path…she was hoping we’d wait…but, yeah, it happened last night.”

My uncle bit his lip, the way he sometimes did when he was about to tread into uncertain personal territory. “You were…careful, though, right?” he asked. “You used…”

“Birth control? Yeah, we’re good. We’re both clean, we’re both protected.” I heard myself getting snippy, and took a breath. “Are we that obvious?” I asked softly, even as I reached for Tev’s hand.

“Yes and no. My mother will be able to tell. Your father…well, he’s wrapped up in wedding stuff right now, and he’s never been one to notice the subtle stuff anyway.”

“True,” I said.

“I should tell you to stop. I should tell you that you’re both too young and you should let yourselves be kids while you can. I should tell you a lot of things. But I’m not going to. Instead, I’m just going to remind you that just because you’ve done it once, doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. And…be good to each other. Teen romances never last – try to remember that you’re friends first, and you can probably manage to stay friends, after.” He pushed his chair away from the table and stood up.

I stood up again, too, not to clear the table but to give my uncle a really big hug. “I love you,” I told him. “You’re the best uncle ever.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I am. Now be the best niece and clean this mess up.”

I shook my head at him, but couldn’t hide my grin. “I should’ve known I’d get stuck doing the dishes.”

Uncle Zane laughed. “Yeah, I was pretty amazed you fell for that.”

“I’ll help,” T’vek said.

“Thanks,” I said.

My uncle left us to clean up, but re-appeared a few minutes later. “One more thing,” he began.

“Plastics?” I asked, referring to an ancient film we’d watched together once.

He chuckled. “Nice, Zoe. But no. I just wanted to let you know – let you both know – that if you need someone to talk to…”

“You’re here for us?” I asked, finishing his thought for him.

“Something like that, yes.”

“Cool,” I said, at the same time Tev said, “Stellar.”

(=A=)

I never actually accused my uncle of intentionally separating me from T’vek for the rest of the day, but as soon as the breakfast dishes were done, and the kitchen put back in order, I was put in charge of sorting out family as they arrived.

Dad and Gia had decided a small wedding was best, and the people who did arrive at the house were mostly there to check in and see what needed to be done. Well, most of them. Uncle Zane, my cousin Vanessa, and Gia’s parents and one sister were all staying with us, and each of them had a problem to be solved. Zane needed a humidifier in his room to keep his throat healthy. Vanessa was annoyed that she’d been moved to the guest wing, sharing a bathroom with Gia’s younger sister. Her brother was sharing T’vek’s bathroom, and asked for more towels.

Gia’s older sister was staying at a local hotel with her husband and their children, but wondered if we could possibly lend them some toys and games to play with. Her parents were in one of the suites in the family wing of the house, and wondered if we had heating pads for their old bones (their words).

While I was feeling as though I’d been dragged into an alternate universe where I was the daughter of an innkeeper (would that make Tev the highwayman in the moonlight?), my boyfriend had also been pressed into service, setting up tables and a sound system, and even constructing an arbor for the bridal party to pose under, since the reception was being held at home.

Our paths did cross, of course, but by four in the afternoon, we were both tired and cross, and we still had to change for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner.

I caught my father, reminded him that I might be family, but Tev was a guest, and demanded he let us off to rest and bathe before we were needed again. He agreed, reminding us to be ready to leave for the rehearsal two hours later.

“I don’t know about you,” I said to T’vek as we climbed the stairs with considerably less energy than either of us had had a few hours before, “but I need to nap for an hour before I even think about putting on dressy clothes.”

“Agreed,” he said.

At the top of the stairs, I stopped and looked at him. “I’ve barely seen you since breakfast, and the next two days are going to be crazy with family and wedding and then there’s Christmas. Wanna come nap in my room.”

He gave me a soft, slow, smile. “Just nap?” he asked.

“Yeah, probably,” I said. “I really am tired.”

“That’s fair,” he said. “And there’s time, anyway.”

“Oodles.”

He walked with me to my room, took in my unmade bed, and arched an eyebrow at me. I shrugged, and kicked off my shoes, then peeled off the jeans I’d been wearing all day. I took my bra off, too, without taking off my t-shirt, and then I climbed into my bed. Even rumpled, the cotton sheets were soft and soothing.

Tev followed my lead, removing just enough clothing to be comfortable, and he snuggled in beside me. “Set an alarm,” he reminded me, and I did, giving us ninety minutes. I don’t know if he fell asleep, but I know that I didn’t wake until the alarm insisted that I had to.

(=A=)

By six-thirty that evening, Dad, Gia, T’vek, and the rest of the immediate family and I were assembled in the local Episcopal church, waiting for Mother Rodriguez. Known to the younger generation of Beach Havenites as Mother Ixchel, she had been the parish priest at Saint Alban’s by the Sea since before I’d been born. Her once-jet black hair was starting to grey a little, but she was still the same woman I remembered: strong, warm, and vibrant, with an amused twinkle in her eyes much of the time.

“Zach, Gia – welcome,” she said as she glided into the sanctuary. “Zane,” she added, with a hint of a warning to my uncle. He’d been quite the trouble-maker in his day. “And Zoe, you look so grown up. Welcome home.”

She extended her welcomes to Gia’s parents and family, greeted T’vek as if they’d known each other for years, instead of about a minute, and then looked around wondering, “Where’s Irene?”

“Here I am,” came my grandmother’s sing-song announcement, as if on cue. “Hold everything until I see my granddaughter!”

I turned in the direction of her bell-like voice, and ended up meeting her half-way down the aisle. “Oh, my darling girl, I’ve missed you,” she said gathering me into a life-threatening hug.

“Breathing,” I choked out, “I’d like to do some,” I added as her hold on me loosened somewhat. After a couple of breaths I added, “I missed you, too, Gran.”

“As well you should,” she said, though her tone was warm with good humor. “Give your old Gran a kiss on the cheek and introduce me to The Boy, and I might forgive you for being home a whole day without coming to see me.”

I did as I was told, kissing her, and then stepping back so I could beckon T’vek to join us. “Gran – Ms. Harris – this is T’vek Mairaj,” I said. “Tev, this is…Gran.”

T’vek offered her his hand, but she pushed it away, pulling him into a brief hug. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said. “Call me Irene.”

“It’s good to finally meet you…Irene…” he said a bit uncertainly.

She laughed. “You as well.”

“Irene…” Mother Ixchel interrupted the introductions.

“Yes, what?” my grandmother put on a mask of irritation.

“The rehearsal…?”

“Can’t you see I’m greeting my granddaughter and her beau?” the older woman asked, but we all knew she was mostly teasing. “Oh, very well, I suppose if we get rehearsal out of the way we can move on to dinner sooner.” She left T’vek and me and went to exchange much briefer greetings with everyone else.

“If we’re all ready,” Mother Ixchel began, her tone more than a little pointed, “let’s begin.”

And so we walked through the basic, simple ceremony. Gia’s family was neo-progressive Catholic, but she was a bit of a traditionalist, so they had decided not to use their own vows. Her older sister was the matron of honor, and was doing the first reading. Uncle Zane was doing the second.

As for me, I’d been ‘volunteered’ to lead the prayers of the people, the responsory where we prayed for the travelers and the family and the Federation, the planet, the people, and for peace and all that. I’d led it before, and didn’t mind.

I did mind, at least a little, when I found out that Vanessa and I had also been ‘volunteered’ to sing during the service. It was only “Amazing Grace,” so it wasn’t like we didn’t know it, but we’d had no rehearsal time.

“Why do I get the feeling you didn’t know you were singing?” she asked me as we moved to stand near the piano.

“Because I didn’t,” I said. “I would have had my voice teacher on the Enterprise work with me, if I’d known.”

“Is that the android your letters always mention?” she asked.

“Data? No. He’s my math tutor, and he’s been helping me with an AP music theory class. And he’s…kind of a friend, I guess. My voice teacher is actually an astrophysicist, Lucy Caldwell’s younger sister, actually.”

“Lorna, isn’t it?” she asked. “Everyone was so surprised when she chose Starfleet over music.”

“She still does music,” I said, “just, you know, not as a profession.”

Our conversation came to an abrupt end when Mother Ixchel insisted that we sing the song through a second time.

Finally, we’d rehearsed the entire ceremony twice, and Mother Ixchel released us with the reminder to be kind to each other during this time of stress and joy.

“You’re joining us for dinner, aren’t you?” my father asked her before she could glide away – she always glided.

“I’ll meet you at the restaurant in fifteen minutes,” she told him.

(=A=)

We left the church and reassembled at Pescatore’s a local Italian restaurant that specialized in seafood, though their menu was fairly extensive. Gia’s parents – Antonio and Nunzia – had chosen it, and made the rehearsal dinner their gift to their daughter and my father.

Gia, having learned a lot about event planning even though that wasn’t really her job as orchestra archivist, had arranged for one large round table, instead of a rectangular one, so that everyone could see each other, and conversations would be easier. I sat with T’vek on one side of me, and Gia’s brother, an attorney, on the other.

After we ordered, I did my duty as daughter of the groom, and engaged him in conversation, asking, “What kind of law do you practice?”

“Actually, I work for a non-profit,” he said. “We do a lot of work with immigrants from non-aligned worlds, and with people from planets that are new to the Federation.”

“So, mostly civil rights stuff?” I asked, intrigued.

“Yes,” he said. “And social justice. Actually, Gia was helping me organize a benefit for a children’s aid group after those lethal tremors on Artemia.”

“I remember reading about those,” I said. I didn’t mention that I’d been on the Enterprise, when it had gone to render first-response aid, or that my math tutor was part of the team that helped stabilize the weather net after the tectonic activity had rendered it inoperable.

“Well, Gia was helping me out with details, and contacted your father – he ended up hiring her, and then…well, you know the rest.”

“I hadn’t realized she wasn’t just a music student,” I said.

“Oh, no, she’s actually not that musical at all,” Nick told me. “She’s an organizational specialist.”

I raised my eyebrows at that. “Interesting,” I said. “So, what’s the name of your non-profit?”

He told me, and then added, “You know, we often invite high school juniors and seniors to come and intern with us.”

“That would be really educational,” I said, “and if I were a junior or senior, I’d probably be begging you for more information, but I’m only half-way through my sophomore year, and I’m pretty focused on the arts right now.”

“Keep it in mind for next year,” he told me. “We’re working with several universities around the Federation on the development of some new programs that combine different disciplines with pre-law and social justice coursework. The arts are often the best way to really break the ice with new citizens.”

“I promise to think about it,” I said, and it wasn’t just lip-service. I actually meant it.

The rest of the dinner included lots of different conversations, family stories from both sides, and a lot of joking and laughter. Finally, though, my father stood up, tapping his knife against his glass to request silence.

“Dear family, Gia and I just wanted to take a moment and thank all of you for being here to participate in our wedding. We’re so grateful to all of you for being here. If there isn’t time for us to tell you tomorrow, please know that we welcome all of you into both our families.”

“Here, here,” called Gia’s father. “The more the merrier.”

Everyone laughed, but my father signaled for us to be quiet again, and we responded. “Before we all go home to get our beauty rest – though I think I need it more than my lovely bride does – I’d like to ask Mother Rodriguez to offer a closing prayer.”

Mother Ixchel stood up, and invited us to join her. “I would invite you all to join hands,” she said, offering her own to T’vek on one side, and my grandmother on the other. “As we have people of varying faiths among us, I would simply remind you that ‘to pray,’ means only ‘to ask.’ Whether we are asking God, or merely sending our prayers into the universe, the intent is the same. Tonight, then, let us ask for joy, for love, and for peace, for this new couple, for all their friends and family, assembled here and elsewhere in the cosmos, and for all people wherever they may be.”

Many murmured ‘amens’ greeted her words, and then we all dropped hands, and the party broke up.

(=A=)

It was only a few blocks from the restaurant back to the house – the joy of living in a beach town – and T’vek and I decided to walk back.

“Are you sure?” my father asked.

“Zach, they’re teenagers. Let them have some alone time,” Gia told him.

My uncle was busy chatting with Vanessa and Gia’s younger sister, whose name kept going out of my head, or I’m sure he’d have offered to ‘chaperone’ us. I used the opportunity to hug my grandmother, and then promised my father, “We won’t be late, and I know the entry code.”

“Okay, then,” he said. “Be careful.”

“I promise to take care of her, Mr. Harris,” T’vek said.

“It’s Zach,” my father and I corrected him together. Dad continued, “And she’s pretty resourceful. Watch out for each other, yes?”

“That would be our cue,” I told my boyfriend, taking his hand. He grinned, thanked Gia’s father for dinner, and let me lead him out the door. Once we were away from everyone, I asked him, “So, how awful was it? I heard you in deep conversation with Mother Ixchel.”

“It was actually pretty interesting. We were comparing her faith to Betazoid and Vulcan spirituality.”

“Really?”

“Really. And then we got on to the architecture and art of each culture. You seemed pretty into your conversation.”

“Yeah, Gia’s brother does civil rights and social justice work. It was also really interesting.”

We took the shortcut home, through the park, but we didn’t linger on the benches or swings. We didn’t need to. It was nice just to be in the fresh night air, holding hands. About a block from the house, Tev asked me softly, “How come I’ve never heard you sing?”

“You have,” I said, automatically.

“No,” he said. “I haven’t, not before tonight.”

“Oh.”

“You don’t suck.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No, I mean….” He stopped walking. “You and your cousin…”

“…Vanessa…”

“…Vanessa…sounded really good. Like, professional. I mean, I knew you were taking lessons, but…”

“But you’ve only ever heard me play the cello?”

“Yes.”

“I wasn’t hiding it. I mean…I’m never going to be an opera diva or a pop star. But…I told you I’d done musicals.”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t know you made sculpture, until that day in the arboretum.”

“Fair point.”

“You don’t suck, either, you know. With your art.”

“I wasn’t sure you liked it.”

“T’vek…are you kidding? I loved it.”

“So, if I asked you to sing for me…?”

“Now?”

“Not now, no. It’s in the middle of the night, in a city park. But…sometime?”

“Sure,” I said. “I guess.”

We started walking again, but after a moment he asked another question. “Zoe…?”

“T’vek…?” I imitated his tone, in an attempt to keep things light. He squeezed my hand.

“Last night…are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m sure,” I said. “I’m really sure.”

“Do you want to…I mean your uncle said…”

I stopped our forward momentum that time. “T’vek Mairaj, I love you, and I have no regrets about last night, and it’s scaring me a little that you’re suddenly so unsure.”

He shrugged, and I saw a flash of his dark eyes in the starlight. “On the Enterprise, even though we see people – go to class, see our friends, and stuff – it’s like we’re in a bubble. Like it’s not quite real. Here, with all the wedding stuff, and your family, and…everything. It’s a little bit much.”

“How about we agree not to worry about it ’til after the wedding, then?” I suggested. “No pressure. No stress. Just…we’ll go to my Dad’s wedding, and we’ll dance at the reception, and after that, we’ll just see what the next day brings.”

“Wait, I have to dance…?”

“Sadly, it’s too late for me to ask Sven, now.”

He pulled me close to him, kissed me, and held me for a long moment. Then we continued the walk home, still holding hands.

We parted ways at the top of the stairs, but not before he kissed me again, and asked, whispering into my hair. “Hey, Zoe…is there really a Sven?”

I laughed, and kissed him. “Maybe.”

Notes: So sorry for the long delay after so many quick updates. I’ve been dealing with a back injury (wet tile is really not a good thing) and have acquired a new puppy who came home from the shelter with two infections, a heart murmur, and is also grossly underweight. (She’s a border collie mix and at eight weeks, only weighed 3 pounds.) On top of that, I had repair people in my house for plumbing and a/c issues on three separate days, the week before last. On the upside the puppy, Piper, is starting to improve. No music notes – “Amazing Grace” is a traditional hymn in many faiths.

Chapter 35: On My Father’s Wedding Day

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

On My Father’s Wedding Day

Stardate 43973.86 (22 December 2366)

The church smelled of sea air and pine boughs, as it was already decked in greenery for Christmas, and I stopped a moment, just breathing in that heady combination. For about two minutes, I was seven years old again, rehearsing “Silent Night” with the children’s choir, but then Gia’s older sister – her matron of honor – came up behind me and broke the spell.

“Zoe? Have you got a minute?”

I turned around, and gave Eliana my sunniest smile. “Sure thing,” I said, “what’s up?”

“My sister is asking for you. Says she needs to talk to you. I told her you were probably rehearsing or something, but…”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “‘Nessa and I worked on the song at the house this morning, and I’m already dressed. Is everything okay?”

Eliana shrugged. “I have no idea. One minute she’s babbling about how wonderful everything is, and the next she’s panicking over everything not being perfect. I swear, I would never have agreed to do this if I’d known she would be so…dithery.”

“What were you like, at your wedding?” I asked, as we crossed the sanctuary, and ducked into the back hallway that led to the changing rooms. My father, Zane, and T’vek were hiding in the one that had been designated for the groom, and I was a little envious. I’d much rather hang out with the boys than be subjected to as much primping and posing as I knew was going on in Bride Central.

“David and I eloped,” she said. “He’s not religious, and we were off-world working with the Corps.” Eliana’s husband, I’d learned, was part of the Starfleet Corps of Engineers. She herself had been working as a volunteer, on sabbatical from her professorship at University of Phoenix, Mars Campus, when they’d met. “If you and your Vulcan friend ever marry, you should consider the same. It’s easier on everyone.”

I wasn’t sure how to answer that, or even if I should. Sure, Tev and I loved each other, but even I knew it was silly to expect to actually marry your high school sweetheart. I settled for a mostly neutral, “I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Oh,” she said, stopping in the middle of the hallway. “I’m sorry; I forgot what it’s like to be in the first blush of young love. Didn’t mean to burst any bubbles.”

“You didn’t,” I said. “Really, it’s cool.”

She nodded, and then opened the door to the room where Gia was. “Good luck.”

The bride was sitting in a wing chair, with a smock over her dress. Her mother, Nunzia, smiled at me when I entered the room, making the too-solid sound of the door closing seem slightly less ominous. She was sitting on an ottoman, coaxing her daughter to eat.

“I’m told my presence was requested,” I greeted, keeping my tone as light as I could.

“Yes, thank you.” Gia said. “Mamma, could you give us a minute?”

“Certo, mio cara figlia,” her mother answered in Italian, as she stood up. To me, she said, “See if you can get her to eat a sandwich? Brides never manage to eat when everyone else does, and then they faint. It’s never good.”

“Mamma…” Gia said it with a warning in her tone.

“Yes, I’m going, I’m going.”

This time when the door closed, I was left alone with my almost-stepmother. “So, is this the part where you tell me that you’re in charge, and that if I cater to your every whim, you won’t try to ruin the relationship I have with my father?”

Her brittle, stressed smile softened into something much more natural. “Would that even work?”

I dragged over the straight-backed chair from the vanity. “Not a chance,” I said. “Besides, if Nick and Eliana are anything to judge by, you’re kind of…not so bad.”

She laughed at that, well, chuckled softly. “‘Kind of not so bad,'” she repeated. “It’s a start, I guess.”

“Well…”

“Oh, don’t backpedal now,” she said. She picked up one of the finger sandwiches from the tray, grimaced at it, and put it down. “This is actually the part,” she said, and her tone was both serious and sincere, “where I tell you that I don’t want to replace your mother, but that I’d really like us to be friends.”

“You called me in here an hour before your wedding for that?” I asked.

“It’s important,” she began, and then rephrased, “I feel it’s important that we start off on the right foot. We don’t know each other very well, and your father didn’t handle things at all well…”

“Understatement of the year,” I said cutting her off. “Though he did try to make it up to me.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “I saw the credit account statements.”

“I might have milked it a little,” I admitted.

“A little…?”

“Well, I still don’t have a pony.”

“I thought you were lobbying for a flitter…”

“About that…”

This time she cut me off. “Zoe, please…I need…I need to know that you don’t hate me, and that we can be friends.”

A small, petty part of me wanted to tell her it could never happen. A small, petty, bitter part of me wanted to slice into her with a truly sharp reply about how she’d wrecked our family, or something. The bigger part of me, however, listened to the inner voice of reason, which, oddly, sounded a lot like my math tutor, reminding me that my relationship with Dad had begun to improve since Gia had been on the scene.

I was quiet for a full minute, and then some. Finally I said. “I don’t hate you. I think, actually, you’ve been good for my father. As to being friends…we don’t know each other very well, yet, but I’m not going to put arsenic in your tea or strychnine in the sugar bowl, or anything.”

“Is that a ‘yes’?”

“It’s an ‘I’d like to try,'” I said, not quite ready to commit.

“I’ll take it,” she said, and then, after a beat she added, “Want a sandwich?”

(=A=)

The wedding itself was both simple and lovely. T’vek and I sat with my grandmother and Vanessa in the front row of the groom’s side of the church. My father and uncle both looked dashing in their tuxedos. Both of Gia’s parents escorted her down the aisle, and she looked fresh and relaxed, as did Eliana.

The readings were done with no one stumbling on words, and for the first time when I uttered the words in the prayers of the people about people who were traveling ‘in the air, on land or sea, or through space’ it wasn’t only my mother whose name came to mind.

Vanessa and I managed “Amazing Grace” without either of us getting choked up, though I was really glad I’d opted for a brand of mascara that was both clear and waterproof.

Finally, Mother Ixchel pronounced my father and Gia married, and we all followed them out of the church. I noticed a few reporters among the folks taking pictures, but since my father didn’t seem bothered, I chose not to be, either. He and Gia posed for the paparazzi together, and with various configurations of the bridal party and immediate family. Finally, he pulled me over and said, “One more, Gia and me with my lovely daughter, Zoe.”

Camera flashes, I decided at that point, must have been invented in hell.

(=A=)

If the wedding had been simple, quiet, and tasteful, Dad’s wedding reception was an all-out party. Sure, it had begun with formal introductions of the wedding party and family. Sure, there had been more posed pictures under the arbor that T’vek and my uncle Zane had constructed the previous day – actually, there was a shot of T’vek and me that I really wanted copies of – but once the formalities had been observed, there was music and dancing and food and liquor.

Lots of liquor.

And lots of dancing.

Dad and Gia, of course, started the dancing, and then separated, so he could dance with her mother, and then my grandmother. When Gia danced with her father, Dad caught me by the arm, and waltzed me onto the floor. “I heard you and Gia had a chat today,” he said.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I protested out of habit.

“Actually, I was going to compliment you on being gracious and mature these past few days.”

“Well…”

“Learn to accept compliments, daughter-of-mine,” he said softly. “I suspect you’ll be getting a lot of them as you grow older.”

“Flatterer,” I teased.

“Father,” he said, correcting me, but his eyes were serious, even if his tone was not, and he added, “Your android friend – ”

“Data – ”

“Yes, fine, Data – sent me a recording of your concert.”

“Oh?”

“You’ve improved a lot.”

“Yeah,” I said, as he spun me under his arm, “I have.”

“The duet you two played…you had a real connection.”

“Did we?” I asked. “We rehearsed it a lot, I guess.”

“You can’t rehearse a connection like that.”

“He’s my tutor, Dad. I mean, he’s my friend, but he’s my friend the way adults are with kids, you know?” Which wasn’t quite true, but wasn’t quite not-true either.

“He challenges you.”

That got my attention. “Musically, you mean?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why not?” It wasn’t a question, really.

I wanted to press him for more, but it was his wedding reception, and the song was over, and I hadn’t really danced with T’vek yet. I kissed him on the cheek. “Love you, Dad,” I said.

“Love you, too, darling girl,” he answered, and pressed his own lips to my forehead.

My uncle Zane dragged me into a dance before I had a chance to even process the conversation with my father, and then I danced with Gia’s brother Nick, as well. He was a good dancer, actually, but not chatty, which was fine. He did ask for my comm address, though, probably to keep me informed about internships.

After that, I managed to leave the dance floor so I could track down my boyfriend.

I found T’vek seated on the stairs massaging his temples, and I sat down next to him, ignoring the fact that we were now blocking access to the second floor. Well, there was no one who needed access to the bedrooms, anyway. “You okay?” I asked him.

“Too many people,” he said softly. “My head hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Do you want me to leave you alone?”

He started to shakes his head, then stopped himself, wincing. “No, you’re fine. I just…dancing involves a lot of touching, and…”

“I thought you said you only caught surface thoughts with contact and concentration,” I asked.

“Usually that’s true,” he said. After a beat he added, “Weddings and funerals involve a lot of intense emotion. People practically broadcast things they normally wouldn’t.”

“And the alcohol probably doesn’t help…”

“No.” He frowned slightly. “You wanted to dance, though.”

“I did, with Dad, and Zane and a couple of other people. I really wanted to dance with you.” I grinned and gestured to the dress I was wearing and to his tux. “I mean seriously, how hot are we tonight? But if you’re not up to it, it’s okay. And frankly, I’d rather sit here not-dancing with you than go dance with Dad’s orchestra members. The first trumpet player keeps leering at me, and it’s getting creepy.”

The music changed from a fast swing number to another waltz, and Tev lifted his head. “I know this one,” he said. “They play it at shipboard events all the time.”

I listened for a moment. “Yeah, it’s always the song they play at official functions.”

“Would you officially like to dance with me?” Tev asked, his face suddenly less strained.

“But you said…”

“I said the party was overwhelming. But you’re not. And we can hear the music just fine, here.” He stood up, and walked to the middle of the hallway, sketching a bow, “Miss Harris, would you do me the honor?”

I forced myself not to giggle, and followed his lead, rising as well, and even offering an awkward curtsey. “Why, Mr. Mairaj, I’d be delighted.”

And so we waltzed in the hallway, just the two of us, and when the music shifted again, to more contemporary, slower tune, we continued to dance, until we weren’t actually dancing any more, but kissing – making out, even.

“Seriously, you two, get a room.” My cousin Vanessa interrupted us.

“We have one,” I said. “Actually we have two, if you want to be picky about it.”

“Whatever,” she said. “Look, they’re about to do cake and champagne, and you are conspicuously absent.”

“Well be right in,” I said, moving slightly away from T’vek, but keeping hold of his hand.

“Fix your lipstick first,” she said. “I’ll stall.”

(=A=)

The cake was sliced, and champagne was served. Since the reception was at home, even T’vek and I got some of the latter, though he only sipped his during the toast. Finally, Dad and Gia took off for the hotel where they’d be spending the night – their real honeymoon would happen after the holidays and my birthday – and reminded us that we were all to meet at the yacht club for brunch the next day.

Guests began to depart, and the hired catering company began cleaning up the party mess, while Zane, Vanessa, T’vek and I sorted through gifts, making sure there was a list of whom had sent what. It would make it easier for Dad and Gia to send thank-you notes after the holidays.

Nick, Antonio, and Nunzia had also pitched in, and were dividing the flowers into small bouquets to be delivered to the local senior care center in the morning. Gia’s other sister, whose name, I’d finally managed to learn, was Cora, had gone with Eliana and David to their hotel, to spend time with her nieces and nephews.

Around midnight, the seven of us were finally finished with our chosen tasks. “Is anyone hungry?” Nick asked.

“I could eat,” I said.

“Me, too,” T’vek added, and everyone else agreed.

“The pizza place delivers til two am,” Vanessa pointed out, “or we could raid the refrigerator for leftovers.”

“Pizza,” T’vek and I said together. I continued, adding, “You can’t get delivery pizza on a starship, and the replicated stuff tastes like plastic and cardboard more often than not.”

“Zoe thinks there’s something magical in the pizza box that makes delivery pizza taste so good,” Tev shared, teasing me and making everyone else chuckle.

“She may be right,” Nuniza said. “I know I always like it better delivered than eaten at a restaurant. If you don’t mind two old people eating with you, Tony and I will buy.”

“I’ll order,” I said, “what does everyone like?”

And so we sat up for another two hours, eating pizza in the kitchen, and getting to know each other even better. When we’d all eaten our fill, we put the leftovers away, and went to our separate beds. I could tell T’vek wanted more than just the goodnight kiss I gave him but my uncle was hovering on the landing, and I didn’t want to give him cause to tell my father exactly what my relationship with my boyfriend really was.

“Love you,” I said to Tev. “See you in the morning.”

“G’night, Zoe.”

(=A=)

Stardate 43976.42 (23 December 2366)

9:30 AM Centaurus Local Time

Beach Haven Yacht Club, Beach Haven, Centaurus

Much like the rehearsal dinner had been, the post-wedding brunch was loose and informal. The yacht club didn’t have huge tables so we pretty much sat where we wanted at small round tables in the private dining room. Tev and I ended up with Nick and my grandmother, and had a really great conversation.

When the main meal had ended, and coffee was served, Zane asked if we minded having the monitors turned on so he could catch sports scores – his favorite soccer team was playing in the sector finals. No one minded, and screens flashed to life in the corners of the room.

We didn’t get the sports scores right away, though. Instead, there was an FNN reporter breaking into the game with a news bulletin:

“Jouret IV is as far from Earth as one can go without leaving Federation space,” the woman was saying. “It has little strategic value, and has enough resources only to support its own population, though it’s a popular retreat destination, for those in religious orders. Three days ago, Providence Colony, the first human settlement there, broadcast a planetary distress message, and activated an emergency beacon. Starfleet has dispatched the U.S.S. Enterprise to investigate. Further updates as information is received. We now return you to SportsDay!”

As soon as the ship we called home was mentioned, T’vek and I exchanged glances. “We’re calling the ship as soon as we get home, right?” I asked him.

“I was just going to say the same thing,” he said.

“Make sure you give your mother my love,” Gran told me, between bites of eggs benedict served on fish cakes rather than English muffins. She noticed the look I gave her in response to that, and added, “She may not be married to my son any more, but she’s still family through you, Zoe. The notion that someone signing a few documents can end affection between people is patently absurd.”

That was just one example of why I loved my grandmother. “If you come back to the house with us,” I invited, “you can talk to her yourself.”

“No, dear,” Gran said with absolute certainty. “I don’t think that would be wise…not just yet. I’ll be joining you at the house for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and then you know I always go away for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so if you want this dashing young man to see the farm, it will have to be after the holidays.”

“Zoe’s talked about the farm a lot,” T’vek said, interrupting the side conversation about the soccer sector finals that he and Nick had started. “I’d love to see it.”

“And so you will,” Gran assured. “When I return from my trip. Now, tell me, Zoe says your mother is Vulcan and your father is Betazoid. Were you raised in just one tradition, or both?”

And so we finished the meal talking about the different cultures we’d each grown up with, and what our favorite holidays were, and we almost – almost – put the news report out of our minds. Or at least, I did.

(=A=)

Stardate 43977.22 (23 December 2366)

16:30 pm Centaurus Local Time

Home of Zachary and Gia Harris, Beach Haven, Centaurus

T’vek and I were the only people home when we made the call to the Enterprise. Dad and Gia had gone to take her family back to the spaceport – apparently Tony and Nunzia liked to host Christmas at their own home, on Earth – Vanessa had headed off to her own home in the capitol – we’d likely see her again for Dad’s big New Year’s Eve bash, and my uncle said he had a gig, but I was pretty sure he actually had a date. In any case, there were thunder storms brewing out over the ocean and my attention was caught by the roiling clouds beyond the window while we waited in Dad’s study for the comm-call to go through.

It took half an hour, and seemed twice as long.

– “Zoe,” said my mother’s image on the screen. “Are you alright? Is everything okay?”

“We’re good, Mom,” I said. “Everything’s fine here. I mean, there’s a thunder storm on the way, but that’s normal for this time of year.”

– “You’re burning comm minutes for a weather report?” her amusement failed to hide the worry lines around her eyes and across her forehead.

“Not exactly,” I said, and then I explained about the news report. “Is everything okay?” I asked.

My mother looked away from the monitor and I could see her choosing her words very carefully.

– “I’m fine,” she said. “Your friends are all fine. We are investigating something, but I can’t tell you what. We’ll be fine though.” She paused. “Have a good Christmas, kiddo. I’ll talk to you again in a few days. Do you want me to transfer you to T’vek’s parents?”

I glanced at T’vek, and he nodded his head, “If it’s not too much trouble.”

– “It isn’t.”

There was a pause, and then she transferred us to the comm in the Mairaj quarters, but no one was answering, so T’vek left a message instead.

“Anyone else you want to talk to?” he asked.

“Go ahead and sign off,” I told him.

After he cut the signal, we sat there in silence for several minutes. “Mom knew more than she was telling,” I said, after a while.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “But we shouldn’t have expected real information on an open channel.”

“I guess that was sort of…optimistic.” I reached out and ruffled his hair. I loved his hair. “I’m sorry you didn’t get to talk to your mother and father.”

“They will at least receive my message,” he said. “And for all we know we’re worrying over nothing.”

“Do you really believe that?”

His dark eyes were shining when he turned his head to stare directly at me. “I have to.”

I offered him my hand. “Have you ever watched a major storm over the ocean?” I asked. “The view from the back patio is amazing, and we can turn on the patio heaters if it’s too cold.”

He grinned at me, “Let’s go watch some weather.”

Hand in hand, we walked through the house and out to the patio, where we didn’t turn on the heaters, but did settle into a single rattan lounge chair to watch as the skies darkened and the air thickened and the lightning show began, and if either of us imagined that a similar light show – a much more lethal one – might have been taking place wherever the Enterprise was, neither of us actually voiced it.

(=A=)

I’m not sure how long we sat outside, but it was full dark – even without the added gloom of storm clouds – by the time Dad and Gia returned to the house.

My father is the one who actually came out to talk to us. “Hey, weather-bug,” he said to me. I’d been a storm-watcher for most of my life. “T’vek. Thank you both for all your help the last couple of days.”

“It was no trouble, Zach,” T’vek said.

“I was glad to do it, Dad,” I added, overlapping my boyfriend.

“Still, it means a lot to Gia and me.” He hesitated a moment, “Did you get in touch with your mother?”

“You knew I was going to try?” I asked.

“I suspected,” he said. “Is she okay?”

“Everyone’s fine,” I said, accenting the word my mother had used with me. “But she couldn’t really say much.”

“I’ll see if I can find out more, after Christmas,” my father promised. “Are you two hungry?”

I shrugged. “Not really,” I said. “Tev?”

He was just as non-committal. “I could eat or not,” he said, adding, “Sorry if that’s less than helpful.”

I looked at my father – really looked at him – and saw that he looked tired and drawn. “Dad, it’s been a crazy couple of days. If you and Gia want a quiet night, we can go into town, or forage for leftovers or…whatever. Do you know when Uncle Zane’s due back?”

My father tried to hide a smirk. “He left a message he’d see us sometime tomorrow.”

“Hah!” I said. “I knew it was a date.”

“Was there any doubt?” Dad quipped. “Zoe, I’ve added credits to your account and left your account card on the kitchen table. If you really don’t mind being on your own, Gia and I are going to retreat to our room.”

I started to say ‘have fun,’ but decided it would be a little tacky. “No worries, Dad,” I said. “We’ll see you in the morning – we’re putting the tree up, right?”

He grinned, “We are indeed. Remember that your grandmother likes to start early.”

“So, be home by dawn?”

“Try midnight, if you leave the house.”

“Sure, Dad. Love you.”

My father disappeared into the house, just as a gentle rain began to fall. “So,” I said to the boy who was snuggled against me on the lounger, “Do you want to explore town, or explore the kitchen.”

“Kitchen’s closer,” he observed. “There’s pizza left from last night.”

“Re-heat it and then get cozy in the den? I suggested.

“Sounds like a plan,” he agreed.

We went inside to do just that, bringing the rewarmed pizza into the den, and closing the door so sound wouldn’t travel. I turned on the entertainment system, but it defaulted to IPN – InterPlanetary News. The show was just an entertainment news magazine – celebrity gossip – and we watched a while to see if Dad’s wedding had made the cut. He and Gia were pictured in stills and video, and there was even a shot of T’vek and me walking out the church doors.

“Look, Tev, you’re famous,” I said, “Computer, save clip,” I said to the entertainment system. “Well send it to your parents.”

But he wasn’t paying attention to the video; he was reading the ticker below frame. “Zoe.”

“What, they won’t want to see you all dressed up?”

“Zoe, read.”

I focused on the news ticker.

Representatives of Starfleet have confirmed that Providence Colony on Jouret IV has been destroyed. There are no survivors. Tune in at eleven local time for an interview from the scene.

Suddenly, watching horror vids didn’t seem like such a great idea, after all.

Notes: As Zoe’s father’s beach house is modeled on my uncle’s (by marriage) family’s 17-bedroom “cottage” in the Hamptons (though the Harris beach house doesn’t have quite that much space), I made their entire community sort of Hamptons-esque, thus the name Beach Haven. Providence Colony, Jouret IV is the first Federation world attacked by the Borg in “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I.” (Going by stardates, the “season breaks” of TNG happen in late December (Earth calendar).) As Centaurus was originally a human colony, one of the first, I’ve used Earth-equivalent dates for the sake of the story.

Chapter 36: A Little Christmas

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

A Little Christmas

Stardate 43977.58

(23 December 2366, 19:37 hours)

“Zoe, read.”

I focused on the news ticker:

– Representatives of Starfleet have confirmed that Providence Colony on Jouret IV has been destroyed. There are no survivors. Tune in at eleven local time for an interview from the scene.

Suddenly, watching horror vids didn’t seem like such a great idea, after all.

“Maybe we should watch a vid that’s a little less bloody,” I suggested to T’vek. “You know, in the spirit of the season, and all.”

“Does your father get the FleetNet?” he asked, by way of a response.

“What’s FleetNet?”

“It’s the Starfleet channel. It began as an entertainment band that was ‘cast out to space stations and starships – news, entertainment, even scripted shows – but all with Starfleet positive messages. Now, it’s got some of that, but it’s also the best source of live updates when there’s an emergency.”

“They ‘cast that on open networks?”

“No. You have to be a ‘fleet family or be in Starfleet, and then they give you an access code. They probably also track your data use.”

“Probably,” I agreed. “Let’s try and see?”

As it turned out, we did get the Starfleet network, and we caught the tail end of an interview with Commander Riker, who was talking about something called the Borg, which, he explained, were sort of like cybernetic zombies, only instead of eating people’s brains, they assimilated whole populations, keeping what they could use (bodies to make more drones, any advanced tech) and spitting out the rest.

It made me shiver.

“C’mere,” Tev had collapsed onto one of the couches, and he beckoned for me to join him. I did so, snuggling into his embrace. “Your mother, my mother, all of the officers we know, and the ones we don’t, they’ve got this. You don’t have to worry.”

“I know this,” I said. “But why did it have to be zombies?”

I couldn’t see his face, but I’m pretty sure he rolled his eyes at me.

(=A=)

Stardate 43978.88

(24 December 2366, 07:00 hours)

“Haul out the holly.
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stockings.
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now!”

My grandmother’s boisterous singing, coming all the way from downstairs, startled me out of the troubled sleep I’d managed to fall into. For a moment, the fact that I was in my own bed was disorienting. The last thing I remembered was snuggling with Tev and watching the news long into the night.

I rolled over, and came to face with my boyfriend, realizing as I did so, that we were both fully dressed. “Tev,” I said softly, as I nudged him. “Wake up. Gran’s here. Why are you in my room?”

He opened those endless, dark eyes of his, and quirked a smile. “Zombie protection,” he said. “You didn’t want to sleep alone, and your father made me promise not to try anything.”

“Wait,” I said, sitting up. “Dad knows you’re in my room?”

He sat up as well, stretching slowly as he did so. “He’s the one who told me to stay.”

“Oh.”

“He didn’t say anything about not trying anything this morning.”

“Tev!” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kiss him or hit him with my pillow.

His smile broadened to a deliciously evil grin. “You know I had to try,” he said.

I kissed him.

Then I jumped out of bed and ran, barefoot, to greet Gran. “Isn’t it a little early for the Jerry Herman songbook?” I asked her, after wrapping her in a hug.

“Nonsense,” she said, giving me a grab-and-release hug of her own, one that was surprisingly strong for a woman her age. “It’s never too early for a rousing musical number.” Her bravado softened into tender affection as she tucked strands of my hair behind my ears. “I saw the news, too, darling-girl. Your father called me after he found you and your young man not canoodling in the den.”

I felt my eyebrows wrinkling, betraying my confusion. “So, now it’s worrisome when he finds his teenage daughter not making out with a hot boy? Wow, have times changed.”

She gave me her patented tilted-head and furrowed-brow frown. “Zoe, your father loves you, and as I reminded you yesterday, we both still care about your mother. She will always be part of this family, because she is your mother. We’re all concerned, but you, my dearest girl, always react with your heart first.”

“I’m told that’s what makes me a good musician.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “And compelling on stage – you should act more, learn to channel your impulses into creative energy.”

“I’ll consider it,” I agreed drily.

“Do that,” she said. “But first, go shower, you’re completely unkempt, and while I find it charming, it is Christmas Eve. Breakfast will be ready in an hour, and then there’s a tree to trim.”

I managed to find, not just a real smile, but a warm chuckle. “Okay, Gran. Who am I to argue with you?”

“Precisely my point. Now, go on. Scoot!” And she turned away from me, heading through the house to the kitchen, as I turned and went back up the stairs. As soon as she was out of sight, I heard her singing again,

“For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after,”
Need a little Christmas now.”

(=A=)

Stardate 43978.82

(24 December 2366, 18:30 hours )

The seven of us – my uncle and his latest squeeze, a flautist named Felicia (yes, really) had arrived just in time to place the topper on the tree – sat in the kitchen with plates of fettuccini al pesto and salad, and, following Gran’s instructions, shared our favorite holiday memories. It was her way of keeping us busy, keeping us focused on the holiday, keeping us away from the news feeds.

“I’ll go first!” Felicia volunteered. Woodwind players were always disgustingly perky. “Every year, my parents used to take me to see Santa Claus at the local mall, and we’d get a picture taken. As a joke, my sisters and I went and took pictures with Santa last year, just before Dad and Mom retired to the Lorkin colony.”

“Classic,” Uncle Zane observed. “My memory is trains. Zach – do you remember? – our grandfather collected vintage toy trains, the kinds that used tracks, and we’d make these elaborate loops around the Christmas tree, with high and low trestles – ”

“You always whined when he let me wear his engineer’s hat,” Dad put in. “And, remember that one set from twentieth century Germany?”

“The one where the middle rail was live?”

“Yes.” Dad directed himself to Gia and me, but included T’vek as well. “We used to torture Barney – that’s Vanessa’s older brother – by making him touch it. ‘Put your finger right there, Barn It won’t hurt at all.'”

“And he’d do it, every time,” Zane added.

“You used to electrocute your cousin?” T’vek asked, grinning through his shock. “Zoe, do you think we could try that on Wesl – never mind.”

But I wasn’t going to let images of my mother and friends battling space-zombies ruin this moment. “I’m pretty sure Wes is savvy enough not to fall for that. Josh, on the other hand…”

Gia laughed softly, “Zach-honey, Zane, the two of you are giving Zoe and T’vek dangerous ideas.”

“Gia!” I protested, but I knew she wasn’t serious, and neither was I, really, so I asked, “what’s your favorite memory, then?”

“Pancakes.”

“Pancakes?” I asked.

“Yes. Every year my family attends midnight mass at the church we’ve been going to forever, and then, after it’s over, we go out for pancakes.”

“I like this tradition,” I decided. “Dad, isn’t Breakfast Emporium open all night?”

“I think so,” my father said. “Easy enough to find out.” I could tell he was pleased that I was willing to help Gia honor her family’s tradition, even if my motivation was a dinner out in the wee hours of the morning.

“Irene,” Gia asked, “will you share your favorite memory?”

My grandmother laughed. “I could never choose! Many of my favorite memories involve evenings like this one, when the family would come together to share food and conversation. It’s such a joy seeing my boys both happy and healthy, and to see my favorite granddaughter growing into such an interesting young woman.”

“Gran, you’re cheating!” I protested.

“On the Enterprise, have you heard the saying, ‘rank has it’s privileges?'” she asked me.

“Yes.”

“Well, I’m old, and therefore I outrank the lot of you.”

“So you get to change the rules?”

“Modify, darling. I get to modify the rules. And, it’s your turn, by the way.”

I thought about it. “Part of me wants to say it was the moment when Mom would walk in the door after a mission, every year, and the knowledge that she’d be home for a couple weeks, at least, but…lately, I’ve been really nostalgic for a different tradition.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. This is the first year in forever that Dad and I haven’t had our Nutcracker date.”

My father interjected before I could continue. “Oh, no, Zoe, I’m sorry. With the wedding and all, I forgot.”

“It’s okay, Dad. I’m probably too old for it anyway.”

“What’s a Nutcracker date?” T’vek asked.

“Well,” my father explained for me. “When Zoe was about four, she started taking ballet lessons. She was a very round child – positively plump.”

“Dad!”

“Hush, Zoetrope.”

“It’s supposed to be my story.”

“Don’t argue with your father on Christmas Eve,” he warned. “Santa doesn’t like it.”

“Fine,” I said. “Whatever.” Tev reached over and squeezed my hand. “Sorry.”

“Anyway, the year Zoe was six, the ballet teacher arranged for the entire group to attend a local performance of The Nutcracker. It’s a ballet that takes place at Christmas.”

“Only I couldn’t go,” I said. “Because I had chicken pox.”

“Chicken pox?” T’vek asked. “Humans still get that?”

“They do when their mother is a Starfleet officer who brings home a weird strain of it from a forgotten colony.”

“Which your mother did.” T’vek wasn’t asking. He just knew.

“Which my mother did.”

“Anyway,” my father said. “Zoe couldn’t go with her class, but the ballet was playing for another week or two afterward, so when she was better – ”

“On Christmas Eve – ” I added.

“On Christmas Eve,” my father said, grinning fondly at me, “I called the theater, and since the conductor of the pit orchestra was a friend of mine, we managed to get comps for that afternoon.”

“And every year since then, Dad and I have gone to see The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve,” I said. “And then out to Café Belle Mar for hot chocolate.”

“I think that’s an awesome tradition. Maybe we could at least do the hot chocolate part while we’re here?” T’vek asked. “I mean, hot chocolate is an important thing for us.”

I laughed. “Well, frozen hot chocolate is,” I said. “But sure, we could do that.”

“T’vek, I know you don’t celebrate Christmas,” my father began, “but if there’s something you’d like to share…?”

My boyfriend smiled. “Actually it was at the Vulcan Solstice Celebration about five years ago that my parents first acknowledged that my interest in art and architecture wasn’t just a phase. We were in Shi’Kahr visiting Mother’s family that year, and her brother, Solvek, introduced me to sand patterning.”

“That’s like building sand castles, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes and no. We don’t have beaches the way you do here, so water is used in small amounts from a mister, and we use compression techniques, as well, but…sand patterns tend to be elaborate structures. In any case, Solvek and I entered in the beginner-level competition, and ended up winning.”

“So you were a total rock star, even at the tender age of eleven?”

“Perhaps not a total rock star,” he said. “But if you want to think of me that way, I’m good with it.”

We were all quiet for a moment, reflecting on the good memories we’d shared. Then Felicia broke the spell. “Wait a minute,” she said. “I thought Zane was the rock star.”

My uncle never did pick his dates for their intellectual capacity.

(=A=)

Stardate 43980.84

(25 December 2366, 00:12 hours)

We went to midnight mass after all, because it was tradition, and because Gran insisted that it would do us all good to spend time with others in our community. Mother Ixchel greeted us warmly, and made a point of welcoming T’vek. The church, I noticed, was more crowded than usual – apparently a lot of people needed comfort and normalcy.

The service was more hopeful than joyful, and when Mother Ixchel mentioned the people serving in Starfleet, and asked us to pray specifically for them, and for all the people the Borg had taken, I felt my throat getting thick. I squeezed T’vek’s hand, and he smiled at me, and squeezed mine back.

At the end of the service, we rose as a congregation to sing “Joy to the World,” and T’vek joined in the singing. His tenor wasn’t well-developed but there was a warmth to it that felt like a favorite sweatshirt. I made a mental note to ask him about it, afterwards.

Outside the church, auxiliary members passed out mugs of cocoa and oversized candy canes. I ran into the older sister of one of my friends.

In the course of catching up, Tonya told me that she hadn’t heard from her husband, an ensign named Erik, since the twenty-second, first because of the time difference, and then because of the communications blackout that had gone into effect the previous evening.

“I know he’s just doing his job,” she confessed to me, “but how do I not feel resentful?”

I had no clue how to respond, so just said, “I think you just have to remind yourself that he loves you and will communicate when he can. It’s what I’ve been telling myself, about my mom, and my friends.” Then I gave her two-year-old daughter my candy-cane. “Tell Noreen I said hi,” I said. “And Merry Christmas.”

“Same to you, Zoe,” she answered. “Come by the house before your holiday is over. She’d love to see you.”

Dad and Gia reappeared at that moment. “So,” my father said, rubbing his hands together in delighted anticipation. “Pancakes, yes?”

I grinned at him. “Pancakes, definitely. Tev, you hungry?”

“Definitely,” my boyfriend answered.

(=A=)

Stardate 43982.47

(25 December 2366, 14:30 hours)

After the presents had been opened, and a Christmas brunch eaten; after we’d sat around sharing more stories of holidays past – favorite gifts, other traditions – we all dispersed. Gran went into the living room with a book she’d been given, while Dad and Gia went back upstairs, claiming the need for a nap, though no one believed they were actually napping.

Uncle Zane and Felicia had been invited to spend Christmas day with her family, who lived in the capitol city – New Athens – so they’d taken off to do that. “I’m not sure if I’ll see you again before New Year’s Eve,” my uncle had said, pulling me into a rough embrace. “So just…have fun, and make good choices.”

“The same advice would seem to apply to you,” I pointed out.

He chuckled. “That’s fair. I love you, kiddo. Talk soon.” And then he was out the door to the flitter that Felicia was piloting.

Left on our own, Tev and I could have easily returned to the den to find out the latest updates on the news, but there was a tacit agreement among the family that for this day, at least, we would live in a sort of self-imposed bubble. The rain from two days before had long-since passed, and the beach was beckoning. “Wanna learn to surf?” I asked.

His answer began with a slow grin. “Yeah.”

We went to the storage room and found my wet suit as well as one that would fit him, grabbed towels and boards, left a note telling the adults where we were headed, and took the cliff-stairs down to the beach. The day was warm and breezy, and the swell was perfect for one brand new surfer, and one who hadn’t been in the water in half a year: not too big, not too rough.

“Before we start,” I began. “You can swim, right?” We’d only ever waded before, and he hadn’t joined Dana and me in the hotel pool back on Serenity V.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can swim. Grew up on the Opal Sea, remember?”

I grinned. “Now I do. My pirate king.” Lessons were delayed about ten minutes for a make-out session, after which I quipped, “Being thoroughly kissed totally helps you maintain balance.”

I put him through a quick and dirty training session – standing on the board in the sand, getting from paddle position to standing, first on the sand, then in about three feet of water. Paddling out past where the waves were breaking. “The nice thing about surfing on Centaurus,” I pointed out, as we sat straddling our boards, bobbing in deep water, “is that we don’t have to worry about being eaten by sharks.”

“I thought you had carnivorous fish here.”

“We do,” I said. “But they never come in this close to shore, and they never attack people.”

“Good to know,” he said.

The water got suddenly choppier, but it wasn’t waves. Instead it was a speed boat zipping by farther out than we were. I turned around to see if I knew the boat, but it went by too quickly for me to tell. Still, after it had passed, a really good set of waves started rolling in, and I grinned at Tev. “Time to see how fast you learn this.”

“I’m so ready,” he said.

For the next couple of hours we talked and laughed, and did some decent, if not exceptional, surfing. T’vek was a quick study, after all, and by the end of the day he’d gotten really good. I might have been biased, though, because more than once, I found myself just watching him.

Finally, we were waterlogged to the point of being prunes, exhausted, and, at least for the moment, happy. “That was awesome,” Tev said. “How are you not out on the beach all the time?”

I laughed. “I am, when I can be. It’s what I miss most, on the Enterprise.”

“There are surfing programs for the holodeck,” he said.

I blinked at him. “Really?” I asked. “It never occurred to me to even look.”

He shrugged. “I’ve never tried them – obviously – but they do exist.”

Add one to the ‘pro’ list for returning to the ship, after all.

The angle of the sun changed just enough that the air was starting to chill. “We should get back to the house,” I said. “I’m cold…”

“I’m starving,” T’vek said.

I laughed. “Race you?” Then I took off, board in hand, before he could respond.

He beat me to the bottom of the steps anyway.

We were still laughing as we climbed the steps, crossed the patio, and entered the house. “Hey,” he said, as we moved to the storage room to stow the surfboards. He’d unzipped his wetsuit and shrugged out of the top half, so his chest was bare. “Do I get a prize?”

“A prize?” I raised my eyebrows. “What did you have in mind?”

He stepped forward, and I could smell the salt on his skin mixed with the scent that was just his – vaguely spicy, vaguely warm. “You, me, upstairs.”

I ran my hands over his chest, couldn’t resist tasting his skin. Warm. Salty. Comfortable. “I need to make sure no one needs us for anything, but if not right now, then later tonight. I kissed his shoulder. “Maybe both.”

I could feel his soft chuckle in his throat and chest. “Let’s go see what’s up.”

(=A=)

Stardate 43982.96

(25 December 2366, 18:47 hours)

We found everyone in the living room. Gran and Gia were curled up on one of the couches, and Dad was at the piano, playing a variation of “Oh Holy Night.”

“Zoe, come sing with me,” he called.

I gestured to the wetsuit I was still wearing. “Not really dressed for it, Dad. Are we doing dinner together, or is there even a plan?”

“We were waiting for you two. We were thinking of ordering Chinese food, since we didn’t do a big meal to cull leftovers from, but there’s still wedding food if you want to pick at that. Or we could order Vulcan take-out instead, if that’s more to your liking?”

I glanced at T’vek. “I’m good with either. Tev?”

“I get enough Vulcan food at home,” he said. “I’ve never had Chinese take-out. Zoe talks about it a lot.”

“Can you order while we shower?” I asked. “Mongolian beef, for me, and pot stickers. And…Tev? Do we need to keep things veggie for you tonight? Pot stickers have pork, but they can do tofu instead of beef or chicken –?”

“If you could order some vegetable lo mein,” he said, “I would like to taste your beef.”

“Oh, we pretty much share everything. Add spring rolls to the order, Dad. And get sticky rice, not fried.”

“And spring rolls,” added Gia, who had been silent so far.

“Any other requests?” my father asked. “Ma?”

“I really dislike ‘Ma,'” my grandmother said in her matter-of-fact tone. “Use ‘Mom’ or ‘Mother,’ please. And order some garlic shrimp, please.”

My father laughed. “Yes, Mother.”

“We’ll be back down in about half an hour,” I said. “C’mon, T’vek.”

It was actually more like forty minutes before I rejoined my family. I’d showered, and dressed again in a baggy t-shirt and old sweatpants, leaving my feet bare, and my damp hair down. T’vek was already with everyone at the kitchen table, dressed not that differently from me.

“We were about to draw lots to see who would go drag you from the bathroom,” Gran said, once I was seated.

“I had to get all the salt out of my hair,” I said. “Everything smells amazing.”

“Should we say grace?” Gia asked.

“That would be lovely, my dear,” Gran said. “Would you the honors?”

Gia said a simple grace, and then we began eating, sharing different dishes tasting everything. T’vek did taste my Mongolian beef, and I had some of his lo mein, and when the meal was over we volunteered to clean up.

The entire family had tea in the living room after the dishes were done, and when Dad returned to the piano, I did sing with him for a while, but as the hour grew late, we all separated once more, heading up to our various bedrooms.

(=A=)

Stardate 43983.77

(26 December 01:57 hours)

The moon was no longer full, but it was close enough to wake me in the middle of the night, though that wasn’t really unusual. I’d always been one who responded to the lure of the night sky. It was actually sort of ironic that I’d been dragged into space, where it was always black outside the window.

In any case, the light from the moon shining through the partly closed blinds pulled me from a dream about T’vek…the boy who was just down the hall, and to whom I’d promised a late night visit. I slid out of bed, not bothering to pull my sweats back on beneath my t-shirt, and cautiously opened my bedroom door. All was quiet. No lights shone through the cracks of any of the doors, and the only sounds I heard were normal house sounds – electrical hum, air conditioning and filtration, stuff like that.

Just as I had a few nights before, I avoided the creaky board, and hesitated as I passed each door. I wasn’t entirely certain which bedroom Gran had claimed, and she tended to be as nocturnal as I was. Arriving at T’vek’s room, I knocked softly, then just opened it.

I had no idea if he was wearing anything below the waist, but his t-shirt had been draped over a chair, and he’d pushed the covers down to just above his hips. I closed his door behind me, and then approached his bed. “Tev?” I called softly.

“Took you long enough,” he said in an equally quiet tone. “I was going to come to your room but I wasn’t sure which board to avoid, and whether or not I’d wake anyone.”

“You wouldn’t have,” I said. “Even the creaky board probably wouldn’t have really bothered anyone. I’ll show you tomorrow.” I crossed the room to the bed. “Move over.”

He slid to one side, and lifted the covers, and I saw that no, he wasn’t wearing anything. “Like what you see?” he asked.

There was just enough moonlight in his room for me to catch the sparkle in his eyes and the wicked grin on his face. “Always,” I said. I drew my underwear off, and then joined him in the bed, adding, “I like what I feel, better.” I reached to touch him, but he caught my hand.

“No,” he said.

“No?”

“Not yet,” he amended. “After the other night…I uh…did some research to see how I could make it better for you.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Care to tell me what you discovered?”

“Well,” he said softly, “I could, but it’d be better if I showed you.” He slid his hand under the t-shirt I was still wearing, finding my breast, cupping it, and teasing the nipple. “Will you trust me, Zoe?” he asked softly. “Will you let me show you?”

I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them, then took a breath. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, yes.”

He kissed me, sliding his hand down my body as he did so. “Can we lose this shirt?” he asked.

“Definitely,”

I wasn’t sure exactly what reference materials T’vek had found – he never told me, and to this day I’m half-convinced it was incredibly specific porn – but he did things with his hands and lips that required I stifle screams with his shoulder, the pillow, whatever was handy.

It wasn’t until we were both coming down from our climaxes that we realized the comm-systems in every room of the house were emitting emergency signals.

I grabbed my t-shirt from the floor, as Tev pressed the button to engage the system.

The screen flashed with first the Federation emergency symbol, then the Centaurus emergency symbol, then the Starfleet insignia.

T’vek came back to the bed and wrapped his arms around me as the image changed again. The face we saw was familiar to me, and yet not. Captain Picard, but as if the color had all been sucked out of his life, and one eye was covered by some weird piece of hardware.

“I am Locutus of Borg,” came the message. “This message is being sent to all receivers in the Federation. I speak on behalf of the Borg. You will all be assimilated. Your distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

NOTES: “We Need a Little Christmas” was written by Jerry Herman for his musical Mame. The midnight mass Zoe and her family attend is Episcopalian ( as stated earlier, that’s her family’s tradition, but they’re not particularly religious). The episodes “Best of Both Worlds I” and “Best of Both Worlds II” really do take place over Christmas, spanning the time from just after Christmas to just after New Year’s Day. I’m fudging dates a little, but not that much. (Seriously, NEVER spend Christmas on the Enterprise. Just don’t.)

Chapter 37: Not So Happy New Year

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Not So Happy New Year

Stardate 43983.85

(26 December 2366, 02:32 hours)

The screen flashed with first the Federation emergency symbol, then the Centaurus emergency symbol, then the Starfleet insignia.

T’vek came back to the bed and wrapped his arms around me as the image changed again. The face we saw was familiar to me, and yet not. Captain Picard, but as if the color had all been sucked out of his life, and one eye was covered by some weird piece of hardware.

“I am Locutus of Borg,” came the message. “This message is being sent to all receivers in the Federation. I speak on behalf of the Borg. You will all be assimilated. Your distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

“Oh, god,” I said after a few moments of staring at the screen, which had cut to static and then been replaced with FNN reporters and images of government leaders.

The tickers quoted news headlines at the bottom of the frame: Starfleet Captain Corrupted – Picard Compromised – Who Can We Trust? – Assimilation: Myths and Truths – What ARE the Borg? – SpaceZombies Want Your Brains…and Bodies Too.

I repeated it, “Oh, god.”

“Yeah,” T’vek said, his voice soft and sober near my ear. “That pretty much covers it. You know, for whatever you mean by ‘god.'”

“Should we wake up my father?” I asked, though I wasn’t really asking him. “No, he’d have heard the emergency signal. Should we go to the den and see what FleetNet says?”

I slid out of his bed, found the pair of panties I’d left on the floor and put them back on, catching my toe on the lace band of one of the leg-holes as I did so. This caused me to stumble awkwardly, but I recovered.

“Zoe, calm down.”

I gestured at the screen. “Calm down? Captain Picard’s been turned into…that thing…and we have no idea what’s going on with our parents and friends, and you think I should be calm?”

T’vek’s part-Vulcan biology was never more evident than in the next few moments. “Zoe, I love you, but you have to calm down.” He slid back against the headboard of the bed, crossing his legs under the covers. “C’mere,” he said. “Sit facing me.”

“Fine.” I did as he asked, my back against the footboard, my legs crossed lotus style. He threw the bedspread back toward me, so I’d be covered. Apparently he thought I was cold. “Now what?”

“Breathe.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. Breathe. In through your nose, out through your mouth.”

“Meditative breathing? Really?”

“It works,” he said. “Here, take my hands, and meet my eyes.” His warm hands closed over mine, and his dark eyes captured my gaze. “I’m scared, too,” he admitted softly. “I can’t decide if I’m glad we’re here, and relatively safe, but in the dark, or if I resent not being on the Enterprise where we’d have a shot at hearing the whole truth. But being scared won’t fix anything. Now, breathe. In through your nose, then hold it for two seconds, then out through your mouth.”

I raised my shoulders in an exaggerated shrug, then let them fall. “Okay, fine,” I said. I breathed in, held it, let the air rush out of my mouth.

“Good,” T’vek said softly. “Again.”

I knew better than to argue with him when he was being all vulky. It never worked out well. In. Hold. Out. He made me do it about ten times, but it felt like a thousand, except I really did feel calmer after about the first three. More in control.

“Okay,” I said softly. “I think I’m okay, now. For a while, anyway.” I turned my hands in his. “Thanks, Tev.”

“Hey, I did it for me,” he teased. “Call it enlightened self-interest.”

“Uh-huh.” I grinned at him as I said it.

My father knocked on the door a few minutes later. “T’vek,” he called, “Is Zoe with you?”

“I’m here, Dad,” I called, meeting T’vek’s eyes, and waiting for his affirming nod. “Come in if you want.”

I’d never seen my father so worried – frightened even – before. “Darling girl, when you weren’t in your room, I didn’t know what to think. Gia said you’d be with your friend.”

Ordinarily I’d have corrected ‘friend’ to ‘boyfriend,’ but it wasn’t an ordinary night. “I was panicking,” I said, which was true, to a point. “Tev helped me get control of myself.”

He nodded. “Your grandmother woke me as soon as she heard the e-blast. She’s gone back to bed now, but said to wake her when you’re ready for breakfast.” He stared at T’vek and me for a long moment. “If you think you can sleep, you should go back to bed, Zoe.”

“We’re supposed to just go back to sleep? Like nothing happened? Like nothing’s wrong?”

“We’re safe here,” he assured me. “I’ve tuned the comm-system to local e-blasts only, so you won’t have to hear every ‘cast,” he added. “Sleep is the best thing you can do for yourself right now.”

I met Tev’s eyes again, and he nodded, “Go on back to sleep, Zoe. I’ll be fine.”

His breathing exercises actually had made me feel tired. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you in the morning…well,” I added ruefully, “later in the morning.” I leaned forward to kiss him, then unfolded myself and stood up. “You know where to find me.”

His answer was to smile his sexy wicked smile at me. “Yeah,” he said, “I do.”

I followed my father out of the room, waiting for the inevitable lecture on appropriate behavior with male guests, but it never came. “I’m glad your friend is here with you,” is what my father actually said as we walked back to our side of the house. “You can support each other, and help your Gran.”

I snorted at that. “Dad, please, Gran is stronger than all of us.”

He chuckled softly. “Excellent point, darling.” We stopped at my still-open door. “Get some sleep, Zoetrope. I mean it. Don’t stay up all night watching the news feeds.”

My father knew me too well. “I will,” I said. “And I won’t.” I kissed him on the cheek. “Love you, Dad.”

“Love you, too,” he said.

(=A=)

Stardate 43985.47

(26 December 2366, 16:44 hours)

“Anything new?” I asked as I entered the room that we’d always called the den, but Gia kept referring to as the ‘media room.’ Whatever you wanted to call it, we’d been hunkered down there in various configurations since early that morning.

It had begun with me not being able to sleep after the emergency alerts had gone crazy and my father had found me in T’vek’s room, and sent me back to mine. I’d tried to sleep, but I only tossed and turned, until finally, I’d given up, slid sweatpants on under the t-shirt I had worn to bed earlier, and wandered down to find something to snack on. When in doubt: seek solace in junk food.

Gia had been in the kitchen, too. “Is it like this when you’re on the ship with your mom?” she asked me, probably not even thinking about the fact that my mother was, in fact, on a ship – the ship – dealing with the Borg.

“What do you mean?” I asked, too worried to even bother snapping at her.

“You know, sirens and alerts and stuff.”

I shook my head. “There are alarms, sure, when something bad happens, but civilians are mostly just confined to quarters. We don’t get all the gossipy stuff – you know the people on the news making guesses about what went wrong – but we also don’t typically know anything unless an officer lets something slip that they shouldn’t.”

“Isn’t it terrifying?”

I hesitated before answering her. “There are different kinds of terror,” I said slowly. “On the Enterprise, you fear the ship breaking up during a battle, though, really, there aren’t that many of those. Here? We have no real information, except there are space-zombies coming to kill us.”

But that had been hours before.

T’vek lifted his eyes to mine, tearing himself away from the vid-screen. “Your Grandmother is napping. Your dad and Gia went for a walk on the beach. The Enterprise is currently under the command of Commander Riker and someone named Shelby is serving as his second.”

I arched my eyebrows at that. “Shelby? Not Data? But I thought he was second officer?”

Tev shrugged. “I can only report what I hear. FNN thinks the Romulans are involved. Centaurus News has people who swear they found a secret base where the Breen are actually making – creating? raising? – whatever – the Borg.”

“Has anyone ever actually seen what’s inside Breen armor?” I asked, more musing than anything else. “Maybe the Borg are the Breen.”

Tev favored me with the kind of smirk you have to be at least half-Vulcan to pull off. “Guess what the commentators on FedNet Two are saying?”

“No!”

“Yes.”

I descended the three steps into the main part of the room, and joined him on his couch. “Have you slept any?” I asked quietly. I noticed dark circles under his eyes, the bruised green making him look more alien than he usually did.

He shrugged. “A little. In here. You?”

I shook my head. “I keep trying. I keep having nightmares. It’s like when we all thought Data was dead, but worse. Way, way, way worse.”

“FleetNet mentioned reports of a huge cube-shaped object approaching the Wolf 359 system.”

“Cube-shaped?”

“Yeah. No video though.”

“I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.”

“Me neither.”

(=A=)

Stardate 43988.84

(27 December 2366, 22:16 hours)

After two days of media immersion, I’d lost track of time, and I was pretty sure neither T’vek nor I had eaten a regular meal or slept normally since the alerts went off. Gran made stacks of sandwiches, and several casseroles so that we wouldn’t all rely on replicator food since none of us felt like cooking.

Then she gathered us all in the foyer.

“I love you all,” she said, pinning first my father, then me, then Gia, and even T’vek with her gaze. “But I’m not spending the week tip-toeing around while the lot of you mope and scowl. As my travel plans have changed, I’m returning to the farm today.” Off-planet travel for anything but emergent reasons was currently being restricted.

“Mother, are you sure that’s wise?” my father never used the word ‘mother’ unless he was concerned or angry.

“Why wouldn’t it be?” she challenged him.

He couldn’t think of a reason.

“Sven will handle anything that needs handling,” she added. Then she kissed him on the cheek. “Take care of your family, Zachary. I’ll see you for New Year’s.”

She hugged each of us, muttering reassurances in our ears, although from Tev’s expression I think she whispered something else to him. Then she left.

Dad and Gia went back to the den then, and T’vek and I were left alone, but he did manage to elicit a smile from me by asking, “Wait. There really is a Sven?”

“There might me,” I said. Then I turned around and headed upstairs. “I’m tired of staring at vid screens. I’m going to take a bath.” And that’s what I did.

Hot water, bath bubbles that smelled like summer flowers and sea salt, a good book – it was my go-to formula for washing away gloom. I set the entertainment system to play a mix of light classical and jazz music – rock and roll was not good accompaniment for a decent soak – and submerged my body in the tub.

Instant relaxation.

Maybe a little too much relaxation, because I could have sworn that I closed my eyes only a minute before, but when I opened them the water had gone cold, and someone was knocking at my door.

“Be there in a minute!” I called out, reaching to unplug the drain stopper. I toweled off and wrapped myself in the fluffy robe I always had and rarely used, and even slid my bare feet into cotton chenille spa slippers. “Is there new news?” I asked, opening the door.

I was expecting Dad.

It was actually T’vek.

“Nothing new,” he said. “Your father just realized you’d come up here more than an hour ago. Sent me to make sure you didn’t drown.”

“Translation: Zoe, come down and be morbid with everyone else instead of in your room alone.” I said, and then I was immediately apologetic. “I didn’t mean to abandon you.”

“You didn’t,” he said. “But it’s after ten, and I know you haven’t eaten anything in hours, because I haven’t, and except for your bath we’ve been together.”

“And they’ve decided we all need to have a meal together, despite the odd hour.” It wasn’t a question.

“Pretty much,” T’vek confirmed.

“Have a seat,” I gestured to my bed, which I’d remade after not-really-sleeping in it, mostly out of habit. “I need to find something to wear.” I rooted through drawers and came up with clean pajama bottoms and a faded Starfleet Academy t-shirt that had once been my mother’s. It was pretty worn, and I made a mental note to figure out a way to acquire a new one. I left my hair in its damp ponytail. “Okay,” I said, as I pulled a pair of athletic socks onto my feet in lieu of slippers. “Let’s go have a sweet family dinner.”

(=A=)

Stardate 43990.29

(28 December 2366, 11:00 hours)

We spent the morning of the third day after Christmas flipping channels.

“…reports that the Borg Cube continues to progress toward the Wolf 359 system, with estimated arrival in roughly three standard days…”

FLIP

“…Locutus has refused requests for interview, repeating only that the Federation’s ‘technological and personal distinctiveness’ will be assimilated by the Borg…”

FLIP

“…Enterprise sent a subspace burst confirming the ship is intact, but transmissions are being jammed…”

FLIP

“…saying that you believe the Borg are just the first wave of an attack from the Delta Quadrant or beyond…”

FLIP

“….Romulan Empire has never been on friendly terms with the Federation. Even now diplomacy is strained at best…”

“System off.”

“Dad!”

“No,” my father said. “Zoe, I get it, I’m worried and scared, too, but we can’t hide in here until something happens. Gia and I are going into town to have lunch. Would you like us to drop you and T’vek at the arcade or the skating rink?”

“Tev?”

“Actually,” he said, hesitating, “I’d really like to try surfing again, since the sun is out.” He flashed me a rueful grin. “If the apocalypse comes,” he said, “wouldn’t you rather meet it on the water?”

“The boy makes an excellent point,” I said. In truth, I’d been monitoring the surf reports on my padd. “Would you drop us at Hikaru Beach?” I asked. “There’s awesome swell there today.”

My father grinned. “Sure,” he said. “Anything to get you away from the vid-screen for a few hours.”

“But if you hear anything….”

“I promise I’ll come get you the instant there’s any kind of news. Go get ready; Gia’s waiting.”

“Hikaru Beach was named for Captain Hikaru Sulu,” I explained to T’vek, as we unloaded our gear. “He was a friend of Captain Kirk’s and I guess Kirk owned a lot of property on Centaurus at one point, so there are lots of places named after his friends.”

There were a few other surfers already there, but that made sense, as it was nearly noon. A blonde girl came up to us as we staked out our section of sand, “That can’t be Zoe Harris,” she challenged, grinning.

“Oh, god, Kelly!” I dropped my gear and ran to hug one of my oldest friends. “I thought you’d moved to Garrovick Bay?”

“We did,” she said, cheerfully, returning my embrace. “But my grandparents still live in Beach Haven, so we came for the holidays. Who’s the boy? Is he available?”

I rolled my eyes at her, then called back to T’vek, who was lingering a couple yards away, “Tev, come meet one of my friends from before…”

My awesome boyfriend joined us, gave Kelly an appraising glance, and then wrapped his arm around my waist.

“T’vek Mairaj, meet Kelly Weaver.”

“Hi,” he said to her. “Good to meet you.” He lifted his free hand and tucked some of his shaggy hair behind his ear, so the point showed. “And no,” he added, “I’m definitely not available.”

“Wow, you heard me?” Kelly’s grin turned sheepish. “Oops, sorry.” Then she added, “So, did your parents throw you out of the house, too?”

“Kind of,” I said, “yeah.”

Tev shook his hair back into its more usual place. “Did we come to chat?” he asked, “or surf. Because I was promised surfing, and I think we owe it to our friends on the ship to be sporting awesome tans when we get home.”

I laughed. “Okay, okay.”

Kelly laughed, too. “I should get back to it, too. No surf to speak of in the Bay. Nice meeting you T’vek,” she said. “Nice seeing you, Zoe. We’ll be at the club, later, if you want to join.”

She ran back across the beach to her friends, and T’vek and I chose a new spot several more yards in the opposite direction. “You can be with your friends if you want,” he said.

“I don’t,” I said. “I really don’t. But if you do…?”

He stabbed his surfboard into the sand, drew me close, and kissed me. “I’m kinda loving not having to share you with parents or teachers or other friends for long chunks of time.”

We really didn’t do that much surfing, after all.

(=A=)

Stardate 43995.32

(30 December 2366, 07:02 hours)

Two days after our forced surf excursion, T’vek and I rented a sailboat from the yacht club so he could show off his sailing prowess. We didn’t go far, just out to one of the closest islands for a picnic lunch, but it was amazing to be with him, watching his shaggy hair blow in the breeze as he directed our course.

“Now I see why you named yourself after a pirate,” I teased him, after he’d set the autohelm and come to sprawl on the wooden deck with me. “You love the water as much as I do.”

He grinned. “Yeah, I do. My mother says that’s my Betazoid blood. I keep reminding her that Sasak of Xir’tan was a celebrated shipwright on Vulcan and throughout the Federation.”

I keep forgetting Vulcan has an island continent…everyone seems to be from Shi’Kahr, or at least from nearby.”

“Most non-Vulcans forget about Xir’tan”

“Have you been there?”

“No, but I want to. There’s an excellent architectural academy there, and it would make Mother happy if I attended a Vulcan school.”

“But you’re considering other schools, too, right?”

“About as much as you’re considering schools other than M-SOMATA.” He was referring to the Martian School of Music and the Arts, my father’s alma mater.

“Oh, you!”

We spent the rest of the day building sand castles rather than focusing on possible futures, then returned to the boat, diving from it, swimming back, and generally playing in the water. We returned to the yacht club a mere five minutes before our check-in time, met Dad and Gia for dinner, and got home too tired to watch the news.

(=A=)

Stardate 43998.34

(31 December 2366, 09:30 hours)

By the morning of New Year’s Eve, we were tan, salt encrusted, and managed to pass for ordinary, blissful teenagers, except when there was a news report on. Then all laughter would cease, and we’d focus on whatever reporter was on the vid-screen at that moment.

Nevertheless, Dad and Gia decided to hold their New Year’s Eve party. After all, it was tradition. T’vek told me he thought it was a good idea. “If we let the possibility of a Borg attack stop us from living our lives,” he said, “they’ve already won.”

He had a point.

So, we helped set up for the party, which mostly meant staying out of the way of the caterers and their staff, and we found ourselves back in the den, after all, glued to the news.

FleetNet reported that a fleet of forty Starfleet ships had formed a sort of line in the proverbial sand in the Wolf 359 system, and was preparing to challenge the Borg head on.

“That sounds dire,” I said to Tev.

“Naah,” he said, in a tone I’d learned was his version of whistling in the dark, “the fleet will prevail and all will be well by the time we ring in the new year.”

“I hope you’re right,” I said.

(=A=)

Stardate 43999.85

(31 December 2366, 22:45 hours)

As was typical for my father’s annual bash, the guests were a mix of local elite, members of the arts community, friends, and family, and whatever houseguests any of the above had invited along. The furniture in the formal living room had been pushed back to make room for dancing, and a jazz combo was set up in one corner.

Every indoor plant, and almost everything vertical outside had been draped with white fairy lights, and clusters of candles were on the center of almost every flat surface. The caterers had provided a spread of finger foods that ranged from chips and dip to sushi to things I couldn’t identify, and champagne was served throughout the evening, rather than only at midnight.

I introduced T’vek to some of the family he hadn’t met at the wedding reception, and to a few of the members of Dad’s orchestra, whom he recognized from Serenity Five. He danced with my cousin Vanessa, and then with Gia, and when Gran made her appearance, he danced with her as well.

Mostly, though, he danced with me. Well, it would be more accurate to say we swayed, because while I’d had a childhood full of ballet, tap, and jazz, I wasn’t very good at social dancing, and T’vek, for all his other talents, was rhythm-impaired.

The band was just going on a break when someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around to see my friend and favorite baristo, Kavan. “Hey,” I said. “You’re here.”

“I am,” he agreed, dragging his companion forward. “The parents came, and Kelly was in town, so she’s here too.”

“Hey, Kell,” I said.

“Hey,” she breezed. “Sorry if I interrupted your date the other day.”

“You didn’t,” I said.

“What do you say we all get out of here?” Kavan suggested.

I glanced at T’vek, who shrugged. “Why not,” I said. “I’m about danced out.”

The four of us trouped down the back hallway, and out through the mudroom to the back deck, which was empty. I found the timer for the patio heaters – the sea air was a bit chilly late at night – and revealed the bottle of champagne I’d hooked en route.

T’vek dropped into one of the chaise lounges, and gestured for me to join him, while Kavan and Kelly opted for chairs of their own.

“So,” Kelly said, “catch us up. How awesome is it living on a starship?”

Tev and I told them what it was really like, how most of the kids were Starfleet wannabes like their parents, how the classes were small, and the teachers pushed us hard. We told them about some of the dignitaries we’d met – though I left out the brief introduction to Sarek – and where the ship had gone.

Finally, though, Kavan picked up the champagne bottle, took a healthy swig and asked, “Okay, now tell us what we really want to know. T’vek…how did you tame Zoe.”

It’s a good thing neither of us had been drinking at that moment, or I’m certain there would have been a spit take. “Tamed?” we both asked at the same time.

“What makes you think Zoe could ever be tame?” T’vek asked, holding my hand more to keep me from slugging Kavan than for purely affectionate reasons.

“How do you know I’m not the one who did the taming?” I asked, in my best one-false-move-and-you’re-dead tone of voice.

Kavan was saved from certain death by the sudden appearance of my grandmother. “Darlings,” she enthused, “it’s nearly midnight. Sparkle time!”

We followed her back inside, to where the countdown to midnight was just starting, and when it officially became 2367, T’vek and I were kissing amidst the hiss of sparklers and the sound of off-key singing.

(=A=)

Stardate 44001.40

(1 January 2367, 12:15 hours)

The pleasant buzz I’d had from the stolen champagne the night before gave way to the combined sounds of e-blast alerts and T’vek’s voice calling my name. “Zoe! Zoe, wake up!”

I sat up in my bed, nearly hitting him in the nose with my elbow as I did so. “What?” I asked groggily. Then the alerts penetrated my brain. “Oh, shit. What now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The blasts just sounded. Your father said he’d reset the system for only real emergencies, though, so…”

I reached for the remote on my nightstand, and pressed the sequence of buttons that would allow my entertainment console to show news.

“Officially Starfleet is referring to this event as the Battle of Wolf 359,” a mocha-skinned FNN reporter was saying. “But the truth is that it was more like a massacre. Just a few hours ago, forty ships faced the Borg. Now, only one starship remains, in addition to any survivors who made it to escape pods.”

“Which ship?” I asked, not sure if I was asking T’vek or the screen. That information would determine my reaction.

“We go now to Starfleet Headquarters where Admiral Alynna Nechayev is speaking to the press corps.”

We watched the screen as a slight blonde woman strode into a room and took her place behind a podium. The front was draped with Starfleet’s sigil, while the flags of United Earth and the United Federation of Planets flanked her. She talked in a voice that managed to be warm and sweet at the same time it was also confident and commanding, and she spoke of the ships that had battled against the Borg cube.

She listed thirty-nine ship names, but I couldn’t focus, couldn’t track. Finally she gave us the confirmation we both needed: U.S.S. Enterprise, under the command of William T. Riker is tracking the Borg vessel on its approach to Sector 001. The Borg known as Locutus, formerly Captain Jean-Luc Picard, continues to issue statements regarding assimilation. We urge everyone to minimize travel. Off-world transit is suspended except in emergent situations. Local authorities will provide more information.”

“Enterprise survived,” T’vek repeated to me, as if trying to convince himself. “Thirty-nine out of forty ships were destroyed, but Enterprise survived.”

I couldn’t find words. We were half un-dressed, though we hadn’t done anything but sleep the night before, and we were in my bed, and clinging to each other for everything we were worth, and when my father came in a few minutes later, he didn’t seem surprised, and we didn’t bother to move apart.

His tone was a mixture of relief, concern, and exhaustion, and probably no small amount of hangover. “I guess you saw the news,” he said, sitting on the edge of my bed, on my side. “I’m glad you two have each other,” he said. “And I’m glad you’re here, Zoe.” He sighed, and I reached for his hand with my free one. “We’re all going to have to hold tight to each other now.”

When Gia came into the room a few minutes later, her face drawn and tight, we just moved so she could join us. When Gran arrived a few minutes after that, she was more subdued than I’d ever seen her. “My dear ones,” she said softly, “I was wondering if you’d join me in a prayer.”

We didn’t bow our heads, or utter any words aloud, but we all held hands, and took in a collective breath, and each of us, in our own way, sent a plea out into the Universe. I can’t pretend to know what anyone else’s was, but my own thoughts were the safety of my mother, T’vek’s parents, Data, our friends, and everyone else, and the continued safety of the rest of the Federation at large.

We were silent for several minutes, and then, T’vek broke the mood. “Forgive me if I’m being a bad guest,” he began. “I know things are dire – I mean, my parents are up there – but is anyone else hungry?”

Notes: Forty ships engaged the Borg at Wolf 359 on New Year’s Day (Earth equivalent date) 2367. 39 were destroyed, with most hands either lost or assimilated. Among the survivors, of course, were Benjamin Sisko and his son Jake.

Chapter 38: Support Systems

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Support Systems

Stardate 44006.62

(2 January 2367, 10:00 AM)

The thing about space battles is that, unless the news tells you what’s going on, there’s really no way to know what’s happening much beyond the atmosphere of whatever planet you happen to be occupying at any given moment. T’vek and I had been at my father’s beach house on Centaurus for roughly two weeks, and about half of that time had been spent with impending doom hovering just above us. Or behind us. Or…whatever.

On New Year’s Day, forty Starfleet vessels had gone head-to-head against these hive-mind space-zombies called the Borg, and only one – the Enterprise – had survived. Less than a week later – a mere thirty-six hours later, actually, T’vek and I were on a transport back to Earth, to San Francisco, where someone from the ship would be meeting us.

Both of our mothers were among the injured. We’d only been given the barest of facts: neither T’rella nor my mother had been actual combatants, but several sections of the ship had been damaged, and a lot of people – even science-types like my mother – had received plasma burns or inhaled noxious chemicals.

We’d been told we didn’t have to come. In fact, on January second, my father had gathered the whole family and T’vek around the dining room table, and introduced us to Lieutenant Hayley Symons, a too-perky red-head from the Starfleet Affairs office.

“Protocol,” Symons had informed us, “dictates that we provide this information in person whenever possible. Stevek Mairaj, your mother has been injured and is in stable condition. Your father is with her, and she is likely to recover within the week, however, they are requesting that you return to the Enterprise.

Tev and I looked at each other, and neither of us said anything right away, but his hand crept into mine under the table, and I squeezed it.

“Zoe Harris, your mother is also injured, and is in critical care. The Enterprise CMO believes your presence would be beneficial to her healing process, but it is entirely up to you and your father to make that decision.”

This time, it was T’vek who squeezed my hand.

“And if I decide to go,” I asked, “then will Tev and I travel together?”

“You will,” she said. “Although I cannot guarantee that there is a free officer to accompany you.”

I rolled my eyes at that. “We’re not six-year-olds,” I reminded her with a bit more bite in my tone than was polite. “We traveled here without accompaniment, after all.”

To her credit, Symons responded to my snark by softening her tone. “I’m sure you did, Zoe, but…tensions are running high right now, and with so many ships out of commission…”

“Pirates.” I said. “You’re worried about pirates and hostile aliens and…stuff.”

She cracked a smile, “I cannot confirm or deny that.”

“Whether Zoe decides to go or stay, I still have to go?” T’vek asked then. “I mean, I don’t get a choice?”

“Presumably if you wished to stay, you could work that out with your parents, but I’m not authorized to allow it without hearing from them.”

“When do we have to let you know?” my father interrupted the conversation for his first time, with that question.

“Stevek would have to be at Capitol City Spaceport by noon tomorrow,” she said.

“We’ll call this evening to confirm,” my father said, rising from his chair. “Let me walk you out.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44012.30

(5 January 2367)

“Who do you think will be meeting us?” I asked T’vek as we joined the transport’s senior officers for breakfast in their mess on our last day of travel. “Your dad, I’m guessing? Maybe Counselor Troi or one of her staff.”

“If it’s Crusher, I’m going back to your Dad’s house on Centaurus,” T’vek said, which made both of us chuckle.

“Generally speaking,” the ship’s second officer, a half-human, half-Rigellian named Marek put in, “they’ll send someone who knows you, and who you know well, so if your father isn’t available, T’vek, it may be an officer you both know, or even one of your teachers.”

“Barclay,” Tev and I said together, and then I continued, “It’s totally gonna be Barclay.”

But it turned out that it wasn’t any of the people whose names we’d bandied about. Instead, it was the one person who was guaranteed to make me smile, in spite of everything, because when we exited the ship with Tev guiding the grav-sled with our luggage through the umbilical to Spacedock, Marek paused. “Wow, I knew you two were part of the Enterprise family, but I didn’t know you were this important.”

I tried to peer around him to see who was waiting for us, and couldn’t. “What do you mean?” I asked.

But Marek had already stepped forward, extending his hand in greeting toward the person in question, someone he clearly knew. “D-man,” he said, “I haven’t seen you since we were on the Trieste together.”

I still couldn’t see, but the voice that responded to Marek was one with which I was incredibly familiar. “Greetings. It is good to see you, as well.”

“Data!” I said, “Tev, Data’s meeting us.”

But T’vek wasn’t thrilled with that news. “If they sent Data,” he told me, pausing the sled, “it means something really bad happened to one of our parents. It means Symons was soft-pedalling.”

I almost wished I’d stayed on Centaurus after all, but before that thought was even fully formed, Marek moved out of the way. “Zoe Harris, T’vek Mairaj, it was a pleasure traveling with you.” He handed the padd with our information over to Data, who was in view by then.

“Thanks for everything,” I said, speaking for myself and Tev. “It was surprisingly not-horrible.”

Marek grinned at me. “I’m glad to hear it. Be good, you two. Don’t cause too much more trouble.”

T’vek murmured something to the effect that we wouldn’t. I merely grinned.

Data came up to us then, looking as calm and reliable as he ever did. “Zoe,” our teacher – my friend – greeted us. “T’vek. I am sorry your vacation was abbreviated. Please accompany me.” He turned around and started down the corridor, explaining, “The Enterprise sustained significant damage during the events of the past two weeks. We will be remaining at Spacedock for four to six weeks for repairs and retro-fitting.”

“Are we staying on the ship, or ‘fleet housing, or…?”

“For now, you will be returning to your parents’ original quarters.”

“For now?” T’vek asked.

Data paused, facing us directly. “Starfleet is likely to be shuffling assignments in order to restructure the fleet,” he explained in his usual soft, matter-of-fact way of speaking.

I felt stupid for not realizing that, and could see a similar I-should-have-known expression on Tev’s face. “Oh,” I said.

Data’s brow quirked ever so slightly. “Indeed.”

(=A=)

T’vek and I parted ways at his parents’ quarters. His father had just returned from sickbay, and wanted to have some one-on-one time with his son before they went to see his mother. I felt a little bit abandoned, but I understood. Kenash pulled me into a fatherly embrace, and assured me that if I needed anything I could call on them. Tev hugged me, and we shared a chaste kiss, and then he and his belongings were behind the closed door of his home on the Enterprise.

Suddenly teary, and not sure why, I stepped away from the door, and reached for the handle of the grav-sled, only to find that Data was already holding it. “Allow me,” he said quietly, and then, probably because he was one of the few who could tell when my moods changed, he added, “Zoe, are you alright?”

I shook my head. “Just a little overwhelmed,” I said. “Can we go now? I want to change into clothes that don’t smell like transport vessel, and then I’d really like to see my mother.” I hesitated then added, “I mean…if I’m…Lieutenant Symons said she was in critical care?”

He guided the sled down the corridor as he explained. “You will be able to see her, but the burns she received were extensive, and she has been sedated to help minimize her pain.” He sounded as if he was quoting from an official report. Probably he was. “She may not be awake, Zoe.”

I nodded, then realized he likely couldn’t see me as I was next to, but slightly behind him. “Okay,” I said. “Will she recover?”

“It would be better if you wait for Doctor Crusher to explain…” he began.

“No.”

“Zoe?”

“I want to hear it from you,” I said. In a softer voice, one that came out smaller than I’d intended, I added, “I know you won’t soften things so I’ll feel better. I know you’ll tell me the truth.”

“Your mother’s prognosis is good,” he said after a beat. “The doctor’s reports are favorable. She is already showing signs of improvement.”

We entered a turbo-lift, and I was quiet for the entire ride, and for the rest of the walk to my quarters – my mother’s quarters – ownership seemed kind of nebulous to me at that moment. At the door, I hesitated. “Is this when you tell me that someone from the counseling staff will be by to check on me, and that I should contact them or Kenash if I need anything?”

“That is the standard protocol,” Data confirmed.

“Am I supposed to wait to hear from some counselor I don’t know before I can see Mom? I mean…Tev’s father was really sweet and all, but I’m pretty sure he was just being nice. He has his own family to worry about. And you…”

“…are an emotionless android who cannot offer support?” He made it a question but his inflection made it seem as though someone had actually used those words.

“I didn’t say that,” I said. “I would never say that.” I stood aside as he guided the grav-sled through the still open doorway I’d been standing in. “I was going to say that you’re the second officer of this ship, and are probably way too busy and important to hand-hold a student.”

“May I enter?” he asked, remaining in the corridor even after I was in my quarters.

I paused, and blinked at him. “Are you a vampire now?”

“I do not understand.” Sometimes when he said that, I knew he really didn’t understand. This time, I was certain, he was teasing me.

I rolled my eyes. “You know, unable to cross a threshold unless you receive a specific invitation?” It came out snarkier than I meant it to. “Sorry. But yes, of course you ‘may enter.'” The lights had come up as soon as we’d opened the door, and it took me a breath or two, but then I noticed that the room was in disarray: planters on the floor, art fallen off the wall, my cello on its back, the top smashed in by an end table that had rocked forward. “Oh…god.” I stood in the middle of the room, and for the first time since T’vek and I had heard the first e-blast back on Centaurus, I burst into tears.

Data’s hand touched my shoulder, and I heard his voice near my ear. “Zoe,” he said. “I am sorry. It did not occur to me that your living space might have been adversely affected. These are only things. Things can be replaced. Your mother will recover, and you are safe.” He waited a few seconds for me to respond, but when I didn’t immediately do so he added, “Please tell me how I can help.”

His sincere effort to be supportive only made the tears flow more freely, but I shrugged his hand away, and turned to face him. “I should ask you to help me clean up, but right now what I really need is a hug. Is that okay?”

He didn’t point out that I’d hugged him before, or remind me that we were friends. His eyes flickered back and forth for a second or two, and then he stepped just enough closer to me that when he extended his arms he could pull me into a slightly stiff embrace. Well, he was stiff. I wrapped my arms around him and buried my face in his chest, and cried until I didn’t have any tears left, while he said softly, “You do not have to ask if this is ‘okay.'”

I couldn’t help it. His sincerity made me chuckle even as I cried the last of my tears, but I stayed in the protective circle of his arms for a few moments longer. When I felt ready, I pulled away and he let me go. “Thank you,” I said, and then, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think…everything just kind of hit me all at once.”

“I have often observed that humans react to stressful events long after the events themselves have occurred. In your case, I believe you essentially ‘bottled up’ your worry about your mother and friends while you were away.” He moved past me and quickly righted the plants and the end table, and set the fallen art against a wall. “You should sit down,” he said, and it was more than just a suggestion.

I moved to the couch and collapsed onto it. “I really didn’t mean to fall apart like that,” I said. “And you shouldn’t be cleaning up. I’m not entirely helpless.”

“I do not think you are at all ‘helpless,'” he said. “But you are in need of more care than I anticipated when I volunteered to meet you and T’vek and escort you home.”

“You volunteered?”

“Counselor Troi is involved with a high-priority patient,” he said. “Her staff has been assigned first to help personnel who lost family to the Borg, and then to counsel those who were aboard. Doctor Crusher is overseeing the care of patients like your mother, as well as others who were injured…” he trailed off, then began again. “As well, it is protocol for escorts and informants to be…”

“People we know. That part I get.” I also got, though I didn’t ask for confirmation, that the ‘high-priority patient’ was the captain. Who else would it be? I considered asking him who had said he couldn’t offer support but decided against it. Instead, I said, “I’m glad it was you.” I was silent for a bit after that, and so was he, but then I asked, “So, exactly what does happen now? Can I shower and change and see my mother? Am I supposed to check in with anyone, or am I on my own?”

“I will happily wait here while you ‘freshen up,'” he said. “I will also escort you to sickbay if you prefer not to go alone. Someone from the counselling staff will be checking on you at least daily, but I assumed you would prefer not to have a ‘babysitter.’ Was I mistaken?”

I shrugged. “Normally, I’d be fine on my own, but nothing about this – ” and I gestured to the room “- feels normal.”

“No,” he agreed. “I do not suppose that it does. Go change. I will be right here.”

I took the luggage off the sled and moved toward my room, though I paused in that doorway to look back at him. “Data?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“Thank you, for everything.” I allowed my door to slide shut between us, without waiting for any response.

(=A=)

Sickbay was surprisingly quiet when Data and I arrived there, despite it being late afternoon, ship’s time. I wasn’t actually holding his hand, of course, but he was hovering pretty nearby. He’d obviously called the counselor’s office to inform her of when we were arriving, because Counselor Troi herself met us in the corridor outside.

“Hello, Zoe,” she greeted in her ‘professional’ voice. “I thought you’d be here a little earlier.”

Someone decided I should eat something before I came,” I grumbled, though it was a perfunctory grumble. “He was probably right,” I admitted.

Actually, Data had a spinach and mushroom omelet waiting for me in the cleaned-up living space when I’d emerged from my room showered and dressed in fresh clothing: a comfortably worn pair of jeans, ancient canvas sneakers, and a Beach Haven Yacht Club tank-top. He’d sat opposite me at my mother’s dining table, informing me that he had observed me eating such food more than once in Ten-Forward, and that he had noticed my tendency to become ‘a bit unpleasant,’ which was android for ‘really cranky,’ when I was hungry. I’d tried to ignore the fact that he knew me that well, allowed that good food shouldn’t be wasted, and pretty much devoured the omelet.

Only then had he agreed to take me to see my mother.

I should have known I was being set up.

The counselor laughed, and it lit up her whole face. “Data has a tendency to be right far too often,” she said.

“Yeah, for someone who claims he has no emotions, he’s kind of a mother-hen,” I agreed. “But I’m pretty sure you’re not here to discuss your colleagues right in front of them.”

She sobered instantly. “No,” she said. “I’m not.”

“I’m kind of flattered though,” I said. “I was expecting one of your staff, not you.”

Her smile returned, though in a more subdued fashion. “Anyone who can convince Data to open his door in the middle of the night deserves my direct attention.” She said it lightly, but there was seriousness underlying her words. “Data, would you mind leaving us for a while? I’m sure you have duties to attend to.”

“I do,” he said. “However, I promised Zoe I would stay with her if she needed me.”

Part of me wanted him to stay, but the better part of me knew I was being ridiculous. “I’m good,” I told him. “Don’t let me keep you.”

“If you are certain…” he began.

“I am,” I said. “I promise.”

“Very well.”

He turned and left and I refocused my attention on Counselor Troi. “Was that weird, just now?” I asked her, not really expecting an answer. “I mean…was he…”

“…expressing affection for his favorite student?” she asked, with a hint of something like amusement. “It would seem he was. We can talk about that later, if you like. Now, let me tell you what to expect when we see your mother. Beverly – Doctor Crusher – will join us in a moment.”

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do this.”

She led me into sickbay, and then out the back way to the private rooms. “Most of the people injured in the battle with the Borg are recovering in their quarters,” she told me. “There weren’t a lot of truly serious physical injuries. A few have been relocated to Starfleet Medical.”

“From what Data told me, my mother’s sort of between the two extremes? Bad enough to be kept sedated, but not so bad she needs a dirtside ICU?”

“That’s essentially correct. Were you also told that we asked you to come back so that she would have you for support?”

“Yeah,” I said. “That I knew. Counselor, may I ask a question?”

“Ask away,” she said, “and call me Deanna, please?”

“Is she really improving?”

“She really is. And having you here really will help.” We didn’t go into her room though. Instead the counselor – Deanna – led me to a small conference table in a really tiny room. “Have a seat, Beverly should be here in a moment.”

And just like that, she was. “Hi, Zoe,” she greeted, and for that split-second she was my classmate’s mother, and not the CMO of the Enterprise. “You’re looking tan and healthy.”

I managed a real grin. “You should see T’vek…I think he’s still trying to get salt out of his ears.”

“I heard you taught him to surf.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I did. It was awesome.”

“Good. I’m glad. Okay,” and her professional demeanor slipped into place as she sat down, “let me tell you what’s going on with your mother.”

She explained that the plasma burns had covered forty percent of Mom’s body, mostly her back and arms. Her face had been spared. She’d received skin grafts, and was being kept on a cocktail of nutrients, basic fluids and painkillers. “She’s pretty weak,” the doctor added softly, “and it’s only this morning that she’s been awake for longer than a few minutes, but the worst is over, and over the next three or four weeks, she’ll be improving pretty much daily.”

“Are there going to be tubes and needles and things?” I asked.

“She had a tube to help her breathe,” Doctor Crusher explained. I tensed, listening, and the counselor covered my hand with hers. I allowed it…comfort was comfort. “We removed that a few hours ago, but her throat is pretty raw, so she may not be able to speak much. We’ve got an IV attached to her – you know what that means, right?”

“I do,” I said. “I mean, I’ve seen them, and stuff.”

“Good.”

“Can I see her now?” I always gave up good grammar when I was stressed or worried.

“You may,” the doctor agreed. “She’s right next door. Would you like one of us to go with you?”

I thought about it for a moment. “I’m honestly not sure,” I said. “Is she awake?”

The counselor gave me her softest smile. “Let’s go find out, shall we?”

(=A=)

It’s a scary thing to see the person who is supposed to care for you unable to even care for herself. When you have a parent in Starfleet, even when you’re someone like me who pretends to be disinterested in most of the protocol and hierarchy, and all that, you live with the knowledge that you could lose your parent at any time. You live with the knowledge that there may be missions from which she may not return. You live with the specter of a catastrophic injury hanging over everything and you try to live your life as if the specter didn’t exist.

All the knowledge in the entire Federation, however, doesn’t prepare you for the cold, harsh, fact of seeing the person who is supposed to be your guardian lying in a bio-bed looking small, and fragile, and like they are missing a vital part of their own essence.

Doctor Crusher and Counselor Troi walked with me into my mother’s room, and I saw the monitors, and heard the beeping of machines, and saw the bag of nutrient fluids with its tube going to my mother’s arm. “She’s sedated,” I heard the doctor say behind me. “But she’ll hear you if you speak to her.”

I nodded absently, then moved forward. There was a chair next to the bio-bed and I sat in it. “Mom?” I said softly. “Hey. I just spent two and a half days on a Starfleet transport vessel. After that, I might never complain about living here again.”

There was no response, and I glanced toward the doctor and the counselor. “Keep talking, Zoe,” Troi told me.

“So, Tev and I survived Dad’s wedding. Did you know Vulcan-Betazoid boys look awesome in tuxedos? We even danced, but that was decidedly less awesome. Uncle Zane thinks I should take ballroom dancing lessons. Then again, he also suggested I dye my hair pink, and we both know that’s not happening any time soon.”

“You can hold her hand, if you’re very gentle,” the doctor told me.

Gingerly, I took my mother’s hand in mine. The skin on her arm was shiny – a mix of plas-skin and the grafts I’d been told about – but her hand looked normal. Pale. But normal. “We did a lot of surfing. I can’t wait for you to see how tan I am. Seriously, I may have to take up the whole fake-and-bake thing just to keep the look going. T’vek, by the way, is not a natural surfer, but shaggy wet hair and pointy Vulcanoid ears are kind of hot.”

I felt really silly talking to her this way, but I figured light chatter was better than telling her that her fifteen-ear-old daughter had been de-virginized by said shaggy-haired, pointy-eared boy. “Gran sends her love,” I added. “She said to tell you that you’re still family to her, because you’re family to me.”

My mother’s hand twitched in mind, and the monitors started flickering differently. I saw her eyes move back and forth beneath their closed lids, and then I saw her mouth working. “Zoe?” she croaked through parched lips. “…that you?”

“Yeah, mom. In the flesh.”

“Thought you were staying on Centaurus…”

“I thought about it,” I admitted, because Dad and I had had that conversation. “I decided I should at least finish the school year. I mean, I’m determined to get a solid ‘A’ in Data’s class this term.”

She emitted something that would have been a chuckle under other circumstances, and while it clearly took some effort, managed to open her eyes. I stood up so she could see me without turning her head. “…thought you came home because you couldn’t stand being away from me…”

I grinned. “Well,” I said. “That might have been a factor.”

We talked for a while longer, until my mother said she was tired. I told her I loved her, and let Doctor Crusher and Counselor Troi pull me away after that, but they promised Mom would be better and stronger in the morning, and, oddly, that helped. It also helped to know I could visit with her, and maybe even bring lunch in.

“Ordinarily,” the counselor told me, as we walked together toward the turbo-lift, “I’d ask you to come with me right now, and have a talk in my office, but I’ve just finished with a rather intense patient, and I need a break as much as you probably do.”

“You were counseling the captain, weren’t you?” I asked. “I mean…I know, it’s probably a secret and stuff, but…”

She turned her dark eyes – eyes that were a lot like T’vek’s actually – on me, as if she was gauging how much she could trust me. “I was,” she said.

“Is he…will he still be the captain of this ship?”

“He will,” she assured me. “Have you met him?”

“Only very briefly, the night Data introduced me to all of you, after the concert. And one time in a turbo-lift.” We were actually approaching one as I said that. “He’s kind of intimidating.”

Her smile broadened. “He can be,” she agreed, “but I’ve heard if you vomit on his boots, it may help.” I blushed, and she was kind enough to change the subject. “What are your plans for the evening?”

“I hadn’t thought that far,” I said. “Tev’s probably spending time with his family, and I’m not sure my friends even know I’m back aboard. I guess it’s back home for replicator food and a book.”

“Or,” she said, “you could join me for dinner in Ten-Forward.”

“I’m not exactly dressed for it,” I said, and then added, “and I wouldn’t want to impose.”

She stared at me. “The ship is in Spacedock, which means things are a little more casual than usual. Commander Riker’s in charge for the next two weeks, by the way, and you didn’t seem intimidated by him the night of the concert.”

“Um, no, I guess not. Mostly, I was just embarrassed. I felt like Data was showing me off, or something.”

“He was,” she said. “He’s never really had a protégé. He certainly hasn’t ever counted a student among his friends.”

“Wait, I thought our tutorial was new, created just for Wes?”

“It was, and it wasn’t,” she said. “Most of the senior officers teach classes from time to time – not always in the high school, but…you know Lt. Worf offers several self-defense courses, and Dr. Crusher leads the theater group.”

“Well, yes…”

“Data, too, has taught other classes. But your tutorial was – is – the first time he’s been involved with the school.”

“Oh, okay.” The ‘lift stopped, and I realized we were at Ten-Forward, after all. “But Wes is his friend…”

“Yes,” she allowed, leading me through the double doors. “But their friendship came about from shared bridge duty, and is more collegial, in nature, whereas Data’s relationship with you is…”

“Affectionate?”

“And organic.” She stopped at the table where Commander Riker was already seated. “Hello, Will,” she greeted. “You remember Zoe Harris.”

“Of course,” he said. “Welcome home. How’s your mother?”

“She spoke to me,” I said, “so that’s good.”

“I’ve invited Zoe to join us for dinner, as she’s on her own while her mother recuperates.”

Riker’s polite smile broadened into a truly friendly grin. “Excellent,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting Data’s protégé.”

I took the seat they seemed to want me in, groaning inwardly. Apparently being Data’s protégé was more of a thing than I knew.

Notes: By January 5th, 2367, Picard was in France with his brother, and the Enterprise was at Spacedock for repairs and re-fits. Space medicine means accelerated healing, even for plasma burns, but don’t expect Zoe’s mother to be out of sickbay immediately or anything. Also, while Lt. Cmdr. Marek is my creation, Data’s service record (per Memory Alpha, and other sources) supports a previous posting on the Trieste.

Chapter 39: Limbo

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

LIMBO

Stardate 44013.07

(5 January 2367, 18:30 hours, ship’s time)

Counselor Troi stopped at the table where Commander Riker was already seated. “Hello, Will,” she greeted. “You remember Zoe Harris.”

“Of course,” he said. “Welcome home. How’s your mother?”

“She spoke to me,” I said, “so that’s good.”

“I’ve invited Zoe to join us for dinner, as she’s on her own while her mother recuperates.”

Riker’s polite smile broadened into a truly friendly grin. “Excellent,” he said. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting Data’s protégé.”

I took the seat they seemed to want me in, groaning inwardly. Apparently being Data’s protégé was more of a thing than I knew.

“Of course,” Riker continued once I was seated, “We’ve already met, haven’t we?” The question was rhetorical. We both knew we had. “So, let me rephrase. I’ve been looking forward to getting to know Data’s protégé.”

“If I ever start a rock band,” I responded, “I’m totally using that as the name – Data’s Protégé.” I was kidding, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it had kind of a cool ring to it. His expression remained open, but I realized after I’d spoken that I didn’t really know him well enough to joke that way. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just I keep hearing people refer to me that way, and it isn’t really true.”

“Isn’t it?” Riker asked. The counselor, I noted, remained quiet, observing us.

“Well, no. I mean…it implies that I’m another cookie-cutter kid trying to impress officers to get into the Academy – not that doing what you all do is bad, or anything, it’s just – ”

“Not you?” he asked.

“Well…yeah.”

“That’s fair,” he said. “But consider, Data’s never really taken such a special interest in anyone before. He’s tutoring you in math and music theory; he’s got you playing in his quartet, and I heard you were the one who got him to talk after that whole thing with Kivas Fajo.”

“I don’t think that had anything to do with me,” I said. “I mean…I think he was just ready.” I shrugged. “Whatever.” Sometimes resorting to typical teenaged behavior was the best way to shut down an uncomfortable conversation.

The counselor and the commander shared a look, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. “Are you uncomfortable with the thought that you might be having as significant an impact on Data as he’s having on you?” Troi asked.

“No,” I said. “Well, yes. Kind of. I don’t know.” I used the arrival of the waiter to formulate a better answer to her question, but not until I’d ordered a chicken Caesar salad and a glass of sparkling water with lime. “I guess, I just feel weird about overanalyzing a friendship with someone who’s never been anything but kind to me.”

“You’ve used that word twice now,” she observed. “You wondered earlier if I thought Data’s behavior toward you was weird.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I did. But ‘weird’ wasn’t really the right word. Inappropriate might be more accurate. Mom thinks I spend too much time with him. That I’m imposing on his good nature, or something.”

She shared another look with Riker, then asked me, in true psychologist mode, “What do you think?”

I resisted the urge to shrug and utter some inane teenager-ism, again. Slowly and carefully, I picked my way to a real answer. “I guess…he’s reminded me more than once that we’re friends. If that’s true, it has to also be true that if I was in his way or imposing on his time, that he’d tell me.”

“And?” she prompted.

“And?” I was blank for a moment. “Oh. I guess I do worry that people will think our friendship is inappropriate, but I know it’s not. We just…he just…gets me. Spending time with him is easy. I don’t have to be the child people expect me to be, but I don’t have to be entirely grown up, either.”

“So, what you’re saying,” Troi said slowly, “is that Data takes you at face value?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess. I mean, he doesn’t always understand slang or pop culture references, but once he does he actually appreciates my sense of humor. And he explains things in a way that makes them make sense. Math, I mean. And theory. I think I must frustrate him though, I’ve always been more intuitive than technical when it comes to music.”

Riker chuckled and Troi’s smile broadened. “I think,” she said, “that you’re both good for each other, and that you’re right. Data will tell you if you take up too much of his time.”

“He cleaned up the mess in my – mom’s – quarters today. I feel a little like I took advantage of him. I mean, I could’ve done it.”

“Did you tell him that?”

“Yes. He seemed to want to help.”

“I think he was expressing concern for you in the best way he could,” she said.

“Yeah, probably. Especially since his hugging skills need serious improvement.”

Commander Riker interrupted to ask, “Hugging skills?”

“It’s nothing. I kind of had a meltdown when I saw everything all topsy-turvy and when he asked what he could do I told him I really needed a hug. I think I cried a couple of liters of tears all over his shirt. Please tell me mascara stains wash out of uniform fabric?”

“I have it on excellent authority that they do,” he assured me just gravely enough to elicit a smile.

“Good to know,” I said, feeling a bit more like myself. “Are you really assigning some poor junior counselor to babysit me until my mother’s out of sickbay?” I asked, then, more to change the subject than anything else.

“That depends,” Troi answered. “Do you want a babysitter? Data seemed to think you were better off without one.”

“He mentioned that. I guess I’d like to know there was someone I could call if I have a nightmare and can’t get back to sleep because being alone feels too creepy,” I said. “But I don’t really need someone sleeping on the couch, or anything. I mean, what if I want T’vek to come over. It’d totally cramp my style.”

I’m pretty sure they could both tell I was mostly teasing. “Mmm, you’re what, fifteen? A bit young for having male guests overnight, I’d say.” That was from the commander.

“I’ll be sixteen in three weeks,” I said. “And it’s not like we’ve never – um – nevermind.”

But they were laughing, though it wasn’t a malicious sort of laughter. “Oh, Zoe. We were both teenagers not that long ago. How about this: you agree to check in with me in the mornings, and to send T’vek back to his parents by midnight, and I’m pretty sure we already have a volunteer if you need something in the middle of the night.”

“You mean Data.” It wasn’t a question. I’d known from the beginning they were setting me up for this. I waited for a confirming nod from the counselor anyway. When I got it, I said, “He’s cool with this plan? I mean…you said the Captain was off the ship…isn’t he kind of busy?”

“Haven’t we agreed that he cares about you, in his way? Data makes time for his friends, Zoe, whether or not they’re his protégé.”

“Okay, okay. I want to hear from him that he’s on board with being my…go-to guy, or whatever…while Mom recovers…but if he says it’s cool, I’m good. But please, please, don’t ever call me his protégé again. I’d rather be known just for being myself.”

Riker grinned. “And we’re back to where we started. Getting to know Data’s…friend. So, do you only play classical music?”

Our meals were delivered before I could answer, but it didn’t matter, because the rest of the evening was spent in light chat about Favorite Musical Performers, Great Meals We Had Known, and Best Surfing Experiences, although Counselor Troi and I might have had a conversation about the importance of designer shoes at one point. By the end of dinner, I felt like I’d spent a couple of hours with a favorite aunt and uncle, and not two of the most senior officers on the Enterprise.

(=A=)

Stardate 44013.24

(5 January 2367, 20:00 hours, ship’s time)

T’vek was waiting for me when I arrived back at my quarters. Commander Riker and Counselor Troi, whom I still couldn’t call ‘Deanna,’ unless she reminded me, had stayed with me as far as the turbo-lift, and then bid me goodnight, with a reminder to check in with her the next morning, and the further reminder that I should contact Data before I went to bed. I’d rolled my eyes at the latter, but agreed, mostly because it was the expedient thing to do.

“I’ve been looking for you for hours,” Tev said by way of a greeting. “Where were you? Why haven’t you been answering comms?”

“Gee, honey, it’s good to see you, too,” I snarked before I realized what I was saying. Immediately, I was chagrinned. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been a really long, really weird day. Do you want to come in and talk?”

My minor outburst didn’t seem to phase him, and he moved closer to me, laying a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry, too,” he said. “I disappeared with my father and barely even looked back. How’s your mom?”

“Bad,” I said as we walked through the doors. “Really bad. She’s got no energy, they had to graft skin, and use plas-skin, and there are tubes and monitors and…” I took a deep breath. “They say she’s actually improving, though.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been trying to comm you all afternoon and evening. Father wanted me to invite you to dinner, and mother said you were welcome to stay with us if you wanted to.”

“I didn’t have my padd,” I said, collapsing on the couch.

“Um, hi? Remember those lovely, lovely comm-badges we were issued a couple months back?”

“Oh, right…that…I left mine in my drawer before we went to my dad’s. I didn’t even think about putting it on today…it was…everything was toppled and knocked over.”

“Everything?”

“The living room furniture…a bunch of stuff in my room. I haven’t looked at mom’s room yet. Data was kind enough to clean up for me.”

“It’s good he was here for you,” T’vek said, moving closer and wrapping his arm around me. “I should have been.”

“No,” I said. “You needed to see your family, and honestly, there wasn’t much you could have done. How is T’rella, anyway?”

“Mostly better,” he said. “She’s on bed-rest through tomorrow, confined to quarters for two more days after that, and then she can resume light duty.”

“That’s good. If it’s alright, I’ll stop by tomorrow and pay my respects.”

“She’d like that,” he said. “I think she misses female companionship.”

“I bet she does,” I agreed. I kicked off my shoes and tucked my feet up, leaning into T’vek’s embrace. “I had a meltdown in front of Data earlier. His hugs do not compare to yours.”

“Oh, Zoe…”

“I’m not blaming you, I just…I don’t know. All day I’ve felt like I’m in some weird sort of Limbo…all out of sorts and out of place. I didn’t realize how much I’ve been relying on you and Mom until I didn’t have either of you. And then there was all this stuff with Counselor Troi analyzing my friendship with Data.”

“Oh?” I couldn’t tell if he was jealous or just interested.

“Oh, don’t worry. No one’s concerned he’s going to kidnap me and seduce me or anything. People just keep calling me his protégé and it was weirding me out, and…well, I ended up having dinner with her and Commander Riker, which was also weird, but in a different way.”

“Wow,” he said, arching an eyebrow at me. “Impressive. My girlfriend is moving up in the world.”

“Stop that,” I said, punching him lightly with the hand that wasn’t curled against him. “They just felt sorry for the girl who had no one to take care of her tonight, and didn’t want me to be alone.”

His dark eyes scanned my face for several seconds. “It feels like everything we know is about to change. Classes are suspended until the ship breaks orbit, which might be a month, but might be longer. Dana, Annette, and Josh are all with their families in temporary housing, by the way. They’ll be back on the ship in a day or so.”

“But they’re okay, right?”

“Yeah, they’re fine. We can comm them in the morning.”

“Good to know.”

“Zoe…would you rather I not be here? You’re acting kind of…I don’t know…distant.”

I shook my head, and squirmed closer to him. “I’m just tired,” I said, “and a little bit in shock, still. Can you just…can you just hold me, please?” I wasn’t accustomed to asking for support. More weirdness. But it was weirdness that came with a very warm, very attractive boy attached, so I decided to just accept it and move on.

We stayed like that, just holding each other and talking, until midnight or so, when Tev’s comm-badge chirped, and his father asked him to please return to quarters.

“Are you sure you’re okay here alone?” T’vek asked, lingering at the door. “I could convince my parents to let me stay …just to sleep…or you could come back with me.”

I put my hands on either side of his face, and met his eyes directly. “I promise, I’ll be fine,” I said. “If you stay, I’ll want more than ‘just sleeping’ and if I go with you, being that close to you and not being able to touch you will feel worse than being alone.”

He pulled me close and kissed me, hard. “I’ll worry,” he said.

“I’ll be fine. I’ve spent lots of nights alone here while Mom’s been on duty, and slept just fine.”

“Okay,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t be able to ‘just sleep’ either.”

I grinned at that. “So I’ll see you in the morning? We’ll have breakfast or something?”

“Stellar,” he said. He kissed me again, and then left, and I stood there like an idiot staring at the sealed door for another five minutes, at least.

(=A=)

Stardate 44016.67

(7 January 2367, 02:07 hours, ship’s time)

I woke up to the sound of dripping water, and opened my eyes to find my room bathed in eerie green light. There were no klaxons going off, but the air in the room felt damp and dank, like something out of one of the horror vids I was so fond of.

After blinking for several seconds, I realized that the light was emanating, not from the living space beyond my closed bedroom door, but from my bathroom, which meant that was likely the source of the dripping sound. “But I took a sonic shower last night,” I reminded myself. Water showers were discouraged most of the time aboard ship, but especially so when we were in Spacedock.

I sat in bed for a minute or two, weighing my options: I could stay in bed, pull the covers over my head, and pretend nothing was wrong, waiting for whatever was lurking in the bathroom to find me, I could make a dash for the living quarters and the outer door beyond, and make a run for it, or I could go investigate the bathroom. It was probably just a toothbrush charger glowing weirdly, after all.

Horror fan or not, I went with option three, even though I knew this trope: the teenager hears a noise or sees a light, goes to investigate, and ends up eviscerated…or worse. Even so, I slipped out of bed, and began my slow advancement toward the bathroom. Just like in a horror vid, I was dressed in clothing that was completely inappropriate for the occasion: an old white cotton t-shirt that had once been my father’s, hot pink panties, and bare feet. I made a mental note that if I lived, I’d make a point of sleeping in tank tops and yoga pants from then on, just in case.

The bathroom door slid open with a reluctant, rusty, whrrr, just as I reached the proximity sensor, and the green light deepened, though I couldn’t make out actual shapes or forms. I stepped through the door, and it slid shut behind me with an electric sizzle that, I knew, meant I wouldn’t be able to escape.

“Hello, Zoe,” a black-clad form stepped out from the shower enclosure, its voice a combination of my mother’s voice and that of Picard-as-Locutus, which latter I’d been made familiar with by endless news reports. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

“I thought only royalty got to use ‘we’ to mean ‘I,'” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. Banter was the only weapon I had.

“We are one and many,” that spooky voice continued, the shambling steps coming closer, but taking longer than they should have. My bathroom was seriously not that big.

“Wait,” I quipped, “you are Legion? Well, that explains a lot.” I wanted to back away, but I knew there was nowhere to go. Instead, I drew myself up to my full height, forcing myself to ignore the green slime and accordion-conduit tendrils slithering around my ankles.

“Come closer, dear,” the creature said. It was close enough, finally, for me to tell it was essentially humanoid. “It is time for you to join the Borg.” More tendrils appeared, pinning me to the sealed bathroom door. “It is time for you to join your distinctiveness with our own.”

“It is time,” I said, matching the Borg-thing’s tone, “for you to fuck off!” I tried to kick out with one of my feet, but the tendrils held me fast.

“Language, Zoe,” the creature responded, inclining its head toward me. The features swam and changed: Mom, Locutus, Data. “Resistance is futile,” it continued, morphing again, until the face resolved into the features of the boy I loved. In T’vek’s voice it added, “Give us a kiss,” and the black lips surrounded by gray flesh descended upon my own.

I couldn’t help it. I screamed.

I was still screaming when I suddenly found myself lying in my bed, in the normal, decidedly not-green semi-darkness of my room on the Enterprise. “Computer, lights, full illumination.”

The computer complied.

“Ouch, bright! Reduce illumination by twenty percent!” The light dimmed accordingly, and I was able to open my eyes again. No sound of water, no green light, and no funky air. I’d been dreaming. But I was shaking, and suddenly the concept of a babysitter seemed less insulting than it had when I’d first returned to the ship.

“Computer, what time is it?” I asked, even though there was a display a head-turn away.

Ship’s time is oh-two-oh-seven hours.

I’d gone to bed around ten-thirty, after dinner and board games with Tev and his family. T’rella was supposed to be resting, but insisted they come spend time with me in my own quarters. It was enough to assure her that I was competent to care for myself, I think.

At least the early end to the evening meant I’d gotten some sleep. I eyed my much-hated comm-badge, which glinted at me from the top of my dresser. “Computer, tell me the location of Lt. Commander Data.”

– Lt. Commander Data is in his quarters.

I jumped out of bed, retrieved the comm-badge, and then returned to the safety of my blankets. I was about to actually take Data up on his offer to call for help when another thought occurred to me. “Computer, is Lieutenant Commander Data alone in his quarters?”

– Affirmative.

I tapped the badge, and spoke the words that would bring…well, companionship, at least.

“Data here. Zoe, what is wrong?”

I blushed, and was immediately glad he wasn’t there to see. “It’s stupid,” I began. “I had a nightmare, and I know it wasn’t real, and I know I’m actually safe, but…I guess I feel kind of edgy and creeped out, and…could you maybe just come and sit with me for a little bit. Um, if you’re not busy.”

His response was immediate. “I am on my way. Data out.”

I got out of bed again, and pulled a pair of sweatpants on under the shirt I’d been sleeping in. My hair was a mess, but I didn’t care. I padded out to the living room, wrapped myself in the chenille throw that we kept on the couch, and waited for his arrival. When the door chime activated a few minutes later, I didn’t even get up to greet him, just called, “Come in,” and waited.

“Greetings,” he said, defaulting to the phrase, I had learned, was the one he used when he wasn’t certain what else might be appropriate.

“Hey,” I said softly. “I’m really sorry to have bothered you…I just…I need to not be alone for a little while.”

He came all the way into the room. “It is no bother,” he said. “How can I help?”

I shrugged. “Talk to me? I’m all on-edge and off-kilter and, I know it’s silly to be going all melodramatic over a nightmare, but…” I stopped myself, and then continued in a slower, more controlled tone. “Usually, I revel in solitude, but usually, I know my mother’s just working, and not stuck in a bio-bed, doped on painkillers.”

“I have read that discussing a disturbing dream often helps the lingering effects to dissipate more quickly. Would you like to tell me what you dreamed?”

“Do you promise not to mock me if I do?”

“Zoe, you know that I cannot mo – ” he cut himself off, probably as a reaction to the look I’d given him. “I promise,” he said instead.

I nodded. “Okay.” But I was still hesitant.

“Is there something else wrong?” Data asked, his tone as concerned as I’d ever heard it.

“Would you mind if we had tea while we talk. It’s…It’s probably just me projecting, but…tea and conversation feels like a thing. Our thing. Almost a ritual.”

Data’s head-tilt told me he was considering what I said. Not the tea itself, but the rest. “You are not ‘projecting,'” he told me in that matter-of-fact, so-sayeth-me way he had of stating truths. “It is indeed ‘our thing,’ though I am not certain it is truly a ritual yet.”

“Yet?”

“I believe practices require a great many iterations before they pass into ritual,” he stated as he moved toward the food slot. “At this hour, it would be wise for you to refrain from tea varietals containing caffeine. Your most common preference is mint. Is that acceptable?”

“Spearmint, please,” I said. “With honey.”

He ordered it, waited, and brought it to the coffee table. I moved into the corner of the couch, leaving him room. “Will you tell me, now, what you dreamed?”

I reached for one of the teacups, swirled honey into the amber liquid and then sat back against the arm of the couch, cradling the cup in both hands. It was hot, but not so much that it burned my skin, and the heat was comforting. “It started with the sound of dripping water, and weird greenish light,” I began, telling him as much as I remembered.

Data sat silently while I related my nightmare, but when I was finished, he did something unexpected: he reached for my empty cup, set it aside, and then took one of my hands in his.

“Data?” I stared at our clasped hands.

“I have observed that physical contact between friends is often reassuring. Am I mistaken?”

I turned my hand over in his. “No. Just…unexpected. I’m usually the one initiating physical contact with you, and…usually reassuring physical contact is done with a hug, not hand-holding.”

“Do you require a hug now?”

I grinned. “No, I’m okay for the moment. But thanks for offering.” I didn’t withdraw my hand, though. His touch was oddly comforting.

“Did sharing your nightmare help you to feel better?” he asked.

“A little, I guess. I mean, it’s less immediate now. If you need to go, I think I could probably sleep okay.”

“I do not ‘need to go,'” he said. “Would you feel less ‘off-kilter’ if I reminded you that Captain Picard was recovered from the Borg, or told you that he, himself, provided the key to their defeat?”

“He did?”

“He did.”

“Are you allowed to tell me how?”

“I am not,” he said. “Does it matter?”

“Not really.” I watched him for a moment, and suddenly I knew – I don’t know how, but I just knew – that he’d been instrumental in whatever had been done. “It was you, wasn’t it? The captain may have provided the ‘how’ but the ‘what’ was all you.” It wasn’t a question.

He seemed a bit uncomfortable with my assertion, but then, maybe that time I really was just projecting. “That is not an entirely inaccurate assessment,” he confirmed.

I squeezed his hand, feeling the smoothness of his skin against mine. “You are probably creation’s only callous-free violinist,” I observed, both because it suddenly struck me as being true, and because I wanted to change the subject. “My hands are usually a mess.” And then something else struck me, “What did you do with the pieces of my cello?”

“I removed them to my quarters, where I hope to determine whether or not the instrument can be repaired. I had not realized it was not a replicated piece.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “So you’re a luthier now, as well? Is there anything you can’t do?”

“There are many ‘things’ I am unable to do – I cannot float, for example. Repairing your cello, however, is well within my capabilities, should the pieces allow it. I am afraid my duties to the ship and to you have prevented me from –” He stopped when I abruptly pulled my hand from his. “Zoe, have I said something wrong?”

“You said I was just another duty to you,” I said, stung. “Either we’re friends, or we’re not, and that’s fine, but I’d rather not be anyone’s ‘assignment.'”

As always, he was calm and collected when he responded, “I do not understand.” Unsaid, but clearly meant, were the words “…how I have offended you.”

“Duty,” I recited, carefully not imitating the tone he often used at such times, “job, task, assignment, mission, function, responsibility, obligation.” I turned away from him, so he wouldn’t see the tears welling in my eyes.

He used his hand to gently turn my face back toward his. “Those definitions are correct,” he stated softly. “But there are others that you have missed: allegiance, commitment, faithfulness, fidelity, homage, loyalty…”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I get it. I misconstrued, and I’m sorry.” He dropped his hand, and for a moment, I wanted to slip my own back into it, but I chose not to. “I kind of overreacted, didn’t I?”

“I believe so,” he agreed. “However, you are tired and stressed, so I will not ‘hold it against you.'”

That made me smile, but my smile widened into a yawn. “I am tired,” I agreed. “And I have to check in with Counselor Troi in the morning, so I’d better try to sleep some more. Please don’t tell her, but I’m kind of regretting that I balked about having one of her staff spend the nights here, after all.”

“I will not tell her,” he promised. “If you are averse to being alone, however, I will remain here. I have,” he reminded me, “guarded your sleep before.”

“Yeah, for like two hours when I was sick. And I felt bad about asking you then.”

“You are not asking; I am offering.”

“You’re not likely to let me win if I try to argue you out of staying, are you?”

“No.”

“Fine,” I said, and while I was acting as if the notion perturbed me, the reality was that I was relieved. Who better to guard you from nightmares than a person who didn’t ever sleep? “You won’t…none of my friends will know I was too chicken to stay alone, will they?” I hedged, even as I was unwrapping myself from the throw, and preparing to leave the room.

“It will be our secret,” he assured.

“Okay.” I got up from the couch, and padded back to my room, stopping in the doorway to turn back toward him. “Goodnight, Data,” I said.

“Goodnight, Zoe. Pleasant dreams,” he responded.

Actually, for the rest of the night, they kind of were.

Notes: I am aware that in Insurrection Data demonstrates his ability to be used as a flotation device. I always thought that choice was lazy writing, and kind of stupid, not to mention it contradicts events mentioned in the series, so we’re going to pretend that never happens. (And at this point in their story, it hasn’t.).

Chapter 40: Reunion

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Reunion

Stardate 44028.42

(11 January 2367, 9:00 AM, Pacific Standard Time)

“Zoe, go do something with your friends,” my mother urged me during my morning visit to her room adjacent to sickbay. “You’ve been so good about coming and spending time with me, but frankly, kiddo, you’re driving me crazy.”

I laughed at that, “Frankly, Mom, I really suck at being companion to a sickie.”

I was joking, mostly, but the reality was that for the past five days, I’d fallen into a routine: up at six; breakfast with Data, who insisted that lurking in our living room working on padds and other quiet projects was not really setting him behind, and was therefore acting as a sort of guardian/babysitter during the nights; check in with Counselor Troi; spend the morning visiting Mom; meet T’vek and our friends for lunch; visit mom for another couple of hours, have dinner with T’vek’s family; have some combination of friends over for a couple of hours, or, the night before, only T’vek, in what was absolutely a booty call, and the first time we’d made love since we were back on the ship; and finally tea with Data around midnight every night, which, oddly was becoming my favorite part of my life in limbo.

“Actually,” Dr. Crusher had put in, as she buzzed about the room checking readings and making sure my mother’s recovery really was going as well as it appeared to be, “that’s not a bad idea. Wes has leave today; why don’t you and your friends check out a shuttle and spend some time in Cabo San Lucas or San Francisco or…”

“Santa Cruz,” I said, immediately. “I want to go to Santa Cruz. They restored the boardwalk last year, and they have a vintage wooden coaster I really want to ride.” T’vek and I had done extensive research on roller coasters as part of a class project before the holidays. “What could be better than an amusement park on the beach?”

“I’ll contact Wes for you,” the doctor said, smiling. “I’m sure all of you could stand a chance for some fresh air and fun, especially since the holodecks aren’t operational yet.”

The post Starfleet vs. Zombie Enterprise was still undergoing repairs and refits, and it looked like we had at least another two weeks before breaking orbit, and while my friends, Dana, Josh, and Annette, had finally been allowed back aboard, there was precious little for us to do with half the ship either non-functional or off-limits. “That would be awesome,” I said, and then glanced back at Mom, “if you really don’t mind.”

“I’d mind more if you stayed,” she said honestly. “Zoe, I love you, and I appreciate all the time you’ve spent here, but honestly, I’m very tired, and the best thing I can think of now is sleep.”

“Hmph,” I said, in mock annoyance. “My own mother doesn’t want me. See if I care.” But I kissed her on the cheek before I turned to leave.

“Drama queen!” my mother called

“Takes one to know one,” I responded good-naturedly.

By the time I returned to my quarters Wesley had already arranged for the six of us – Dana’s father had actually given his permission – to spend the day dirtside.

(=A=)

Stardate 44028.93

(11 January 2367, 1:30 PM, Pacific Standard Time)

“So tell us,” T’vek asked as the six of us were having lunch in a restaurant at the very end – and two stories above – the Santa Cruz Municipal Pier, “how scary was it being on the ship during the whole Borg thing?”

Wes looked away for a moment, while the rest of our friends also hesitated. Finally Dana said, “I don’t know about everyone else, but I was terrified. Especially after they made us all go to emergency locations on the innermost decks.”

“Yeah,” Annette agreed. “That was really uncomfortable. Also, there was a lot of shaking, every time the ship took a hit.”

“You were on the bridge for some of it, weren’t you, Wes?” Josh asked. His use of our classmate’s first name was new.

“I was,” he said. “And in engineering. And honestly, I’ve never felt more like a kid than I did during the height of the battle. I thought I was ready for the uniform,” he said softly. “Now I’m not so sure.”

“I think,” I said in a sober tone, “that if you’re questioning your readiness, it means you actually are ready.”

“What was it like for you guys?” Annette asked.

“The worst part,” I answered after glancing at my boyfriend, “was the not-knowing. The various news nets were mostly repeating the same sound bites over and over, and some of the conjectures about what was actually happening…”

“Zoe actually invented a drinking game, at one point –” T’vek cut in.

“I seem to recall you being just as involved in that endeavor as I was,” I said.

Josh interrupted both of us, “Now, now, children. You can bicker like an old married couple later. We need info: how exactly does this drinking game work?”

Tev and I looked each other and laughed, and then I let him explain, because our soup had just appeared, and the restaurant we were in – The Sea Cloud – was famous for its clam chowder. “Well,” he began, “you take one drink every time a news anchor mention the Romulans or Breen, two drinks every time they bring on an ‘expert,’ and three if they manage to badmouth the captain.”

“They were badmouthing Captain Picard?” If Wesley had possessed hackles, they’d have been raised.

“Calm down,” Annette said, squeezing his arm.

“Oh, Wes,” my tone was sympathetic. “You know they did – anyone would have, considering.”

In a much less defensive voice he acknowledged. “Yeah, I guess.”

Dana stepped in to lift the mood. “Happy thoughts,” she said. “We have a party to plan.”

“Party?” Josh asked. “I’m down with the concept of ‘party.’ Whose party? Why party?”

“Zoe’s of course. She’s turning sixteen in ten days.”

“Ooh! Sweet sixteen and never been – ” but Josh peered at me, and then at Tev, and then at me again, “well, sweet sixteen anyway.”

Annette arched an eyebrow in my direction and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin to hide her grin. Dana simply ordered, “Talk. Later.” Wes…was Wes. Still socially awkward and slightly oblivious, but well-meaning.

“I’m not sure I actually want a party,” I said, causing all my friends to stare at me in shock. “What?”

“Aren’t you the one who finds any excuse for a celebration?” That was from Josh, again. “Seriously, Zoe, you love parties more than I do.” That was saying a lot. Once, while Josh’s parents were on sabbatical, he’d thrown a three-day bender, that only ended when Lt. Worf noticed that someone had replicated a beer bong and left it in the corridor. Both the party and the punishment afterward were the stuff of legend among the younger members of the crew, and the older kids.

I shrugged, “I don’t know, it seems…wrong…somehow.”

“Well, how would you have celebrated your sweet sixteen back on Centaurus?” Dana asked.

“Oh…easy…bonfire on the beach and midnight surfing. But…you can’t do that here, I don’t think.”

“Because the water’s too cold?” T’vek asked, and I could tell he was thinking about how cold the water was on Centaurus, and how much colder the water off the coast of California would be in January.

“Because of sharks,” I said. “I have no desire to become fishfood on my special day.”

Our waiter, an obvious townie, paused in clearing away our soup bowls to tell us, “Actually, we have really good shark repellents off Lighthouse Beach now. No one’s even been nipped at in decades.”

“Really?” I asked. “Are bonfires allowed?”

“Yeah, as long as you extinguish them completely before you leave. Do you all surf?”

“I grew up on the water – Beach Haven, Centaurus – T’vek learned the basics over Christmas. I’m not sure about…”

“Dude, I surf,” Josh said. “And Dana’s pretty awesome at swimming, at least on the holodeck.”

My friend blushed, but pointed out, “Holodeck oceans are a lot different than the real thing.”

“So, bonfire, midnight surfing…what else. Food? Drinks?” Annette demanded. I got the feeling she was making a list.

“Music. Preferably a live band, but recorded is acceptable. Vintage rock – uber-vintage. Like, twentieth-century Terran beach rock. Burgers – beef or veggie, shrimp skewers, chips and salsa. Picnic-friendly party food.”

“And cake, obviously,” Dana added. I could tell that the boys were tuning out, but she and Annette seemed too eager to start planning.

“Chocolate,” T’vek and I said together. “With orange or raspberry filling, and mocha buttercream frosting,” I added.

“But you don’t want a party,” Josh said. “Yeah, right.”

“Face it Zoe, you’re just afraid other people will think it’s inappropriate,” Dana accused. But she smiled when she said it.

“Wes, do you think a celebration would be…do you think it’s too soon?”

He may have been wearing civvies, but in that moment our classmate – our friend – was every inch an officer. “I think it would be good to have something happy to plan,” he said. “Something hopeful, and life affirming.”

We toasted to that with iced tea and sparkling water, and skipped dessert in favor of boardwalk food.

(=A=)

Stardate 44029.10

(11 January 2367, 3:00 PM, Pacific Standard Time)

The boardwalk was mostly empty because it was January, even though the weather was fairly warm, but the rides were open, and the six of us, plus a few other people who were out for the day, enjoyed short queues, and our choice of seats on the roller coaster.

As dusk began to fall, T’vek and I walked down the stairs to the actual beach. We sat on the stairs and kicked our shoes off, and then walked barefoot along the shore, letting the cold surf flirt with our toes, but not really getting wet. Our friends were still exploring the amusement rides, but we knew they wouldn’t leave without us.

“Is it weird,” he asked, “having Data lurking in your living room while you sleep?”

I shook my head, “I thought it was going to be, but it’s actually…he’s actually…It’s sort of comforting, knowing there’s someone there. And he’s happy to let me talk through the nightmares no matter how long it takes.”

“Nightmares? Zoe, you didn’t tell me you were having nightmares.”

“You were kind of focused on your mother; I didn’t want you to worry. And I was afraid you’d want to stay with me, and your parents would never allow it, and my mother wouldn’t either, and I don’t want to lie to them.”

“But she knows we’re…you know…”

“Sleeping together?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Well, no.”

His expression implied that I’d hurt him. “Zoe, I can’t believe you haven’t told her.”

“How exactly was I supposed to break that news? ‘Hi mom, so sorry half your skin is still figuring out how to reattach itself. By the way, my boyfriend de-virginized me over Christmas. Can I get you some tea?'” I turned my face out to sea, took a breath and asked in a calmer voice, “Have you told your parents?”

I turned back to him in time to catch his blush. “Yeah,” he said roughly. “Yeah, I have. I had to.”

“Had to? Why?”

“Because my mother is still on light painkillers, and that makes her telepathy wonky. Better to tell them outright than to have her sense it. Ditto Dad, only, you know, except the painkillers.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Were they mad?”

“Not really. I mean, they’d have preferred us to wait, but…”

“But no point in sealing the landing bay doors when the shuttle’s already been launched?”

He laughed. “Yeah, pretty much.” He looked down at our bare feet, and started so say something, but a large black dog came running up to us, jumping and yapping playfully. “Hey, stop that!”

“Sit,” I told the dog, which instantly complied. I knelt down to pet him – he was definitely a boy – letting him sniff me, and then rubbing his chest. “You’re a handsome boy,” I said, glancing up at T’vek and grinning. “Where’s your person?”

A couple of seconds later, a man in running clothes came jogging up to us. “Bogart, come here,” he said to the dog. To us he said, “I’m sorry, did he hurt you?”

Bogart ignored the man, and stayed put in front of us, his tail thumping up sprays of sand. “We’re fine,” I said. “Just startled. Right Tev?”

T’vek grinned, “Yeah. He jumped us, but it’s fine.”

I stood up, wiping my hands on my jeans, noting that the man was older than I’d first thought…fifty or sixty, probably…. He also had dark brown hair and stormy grey eyes, and a slight accent – definitely European, possibly French. “Bogart is really handsome.”

“Thank you, he knows that,” the man said. “He’s also a shameless flirt, as you can tell.”

Bogart had planted himself right next to me, and was leaning into my leg. “I’m flattered, I think.” I said, smiling. “Is he named after Humphrey?”

The man smiled, “You know vintage films, I see. But yes, he is. He is indeed.” He extended his hand, “I’m Edouard Benoit. Call me Ed.”

“I’m Zoe,” I said, “Zoe Harris. This is T’vek Mairaj.”

We shook hands all around, but then our comm-badges both chimed. I grimaced, and T’vek tapped his. “This is T’vek,” he said. “Go ahead.”

“Guys, it’s Wes. We need to be heading back now. I promised my mother I’d meet her for a late dinner.”

“We’ll meet you at the carousel,” Tev said. “Five minutes.” To Ed, he said, “I’m afraid we have to go. It was nice meeting you and Bogart.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was lovely.”

Ed grinned. “Bogart and I are pleased to make new acquaintances, but may I ask…aren’t you a bit young to be assigned to a starship? Those are Starfleet comm-badges?”

“We’re not assigned to one, exactly,” I said. “Our parents are though – well, our mothers – we live with them, on the Enterprise.”

“Enterprise? Really? Then we are not mere acquaintances, but future friends.”

“Oh?” T’vek seemed a bit wary of our ‘future friend.'”

“Oh, yes,” Ed enthused. “Bogart and I are on sabbatical from my university, and I volunteered to teach literature and journalism on your ship for the next semester. We’re due to board on Saturday.”

It was currently Thursday. “‘We?'” I asked. “Is Bogart going with you? Is that even allowed?”

“Yes,” he said. “He is, and it is. At least, Jean-Luc approved it, but then, he and I are old friends.”

“Jean-Luc?” I asked.

“I believe you may know him better as Captain Picard.”

The light dawned. “You knew him before, then, right? Before he was the captain?”

“Before he was even an ensign,” Ed said. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t like me telling tales. Your friends await. I look forward to seeing you again in a few days.”

“Me too,” I said, and meant it. “Well, see you soon, I guess,” I told him. Then I bent down one more time and gave Bogart a healthy scratch right above the base of his tail. “Here’s lookin’ at you, pup,” I added, and then T’vek and I ran across the sand to retrieve our shoes and meet our friends.

(=A=)

Stardate 44029.68

(11 January 2367, 20:00 hours, ship’s time)

Data was waiting for our shuttle when we docked. When we exited the craft, laughing and joking, he greeted all of us, then very quietly pulled me aside. “Please do not be alarmed,” he began. “There has been a complication with your mother.”

T’vek overheard, and left our friends to stay with me, and I felt his hand grasp mine in a subtle, but supportive gesture.

“Complication?” I asked. “But…she was better. She said she was tired this morning, but everyone’s been saying she’s improving.”

“It would be better if the doctor explained,” he said. “Please accompany me to sickbay.”

“Can T’vek come?”

Data looked from me to Tev and back. “If his parents have no objection, then of course he may join us.”

“They won’t mind,” he said.

The three of us made the trek from the shuttle bay to sickbay in silence, except at one point when T’vek told me I was squeezing his hand too tightly. I flashed him an apologetic look, and let go, but then he took my hand back, holding firmly. I got the message.

Doctor Crusher was waiting when we arrived. “Thanks for escorting them, Data. You can go, if you like.”

Data glanced from me to T’vek to the doctor, and then addressed me. “You will contact me when you have returned home.” He didn’t frame it as a request.

“Yes,” I said. “I will. Thank you.” I waited a beat, then turned back to the doctor. “So, what’s happened with Mom?”

She explained in soft but matter-of-fact tones that with burn patients the two major complications were grafts being rejected, or opportunistic infections, because of the need to suppress the immune system. “In your mother’s case, she’s got a systemic infection – ”

“But she was in a bio-bed,” I protested. “They’re supposed to keep that from happening, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” she said, “they are, but sometimes even the best technology isn’t quite enough. It’s a bacterial infection. We need to transfer your mother to a continuous care unit for a day or two in order to stop it – ”

I cut her off again. “‘Continuous care unit?’ You mean stasis. You want to put my mother in a stasis chamber.”

“Zoe, it’s the best way to ensure that she’s fully healed. It will only be 24-48 hours. You can still talk to her – she’ll hear you.”

“Did she know? When she told me she was tired this morning, and to go away and play with my friends…did she know?”

Doctor Crusher looked away from me, avoiding my eyes. “Yes,” she said, “she did. She didn’t want you to worry – we thought an anti-bacterial would be enough.”

“But it wasn’t.” I wasn’t asking.

“No.”

“Can I see her, before you put her in?”

“She’d like that, I’m sure. But Zoe, I need to ask…is there an adult – a family member other than your father – who can be contacted in case medical decisions are necessary?”

“Doctor Crusher, are you telling us that Zoe’s mother is going to die?” There was an edge to T’vek’s tone that I’d never heard before.

“No,” she said. “I just want to make sure that if anything should go wrong, Zoe has a support system in place.”

She was hedging, and we all knew it.

“I have to think about it,” I said, feeling small, and young, and a bit at sea. “My grandparents aren’t particularly fond of her Starfleet career, and so we’re not that close. Her younger sister – my Aunt Elaine – is a little…she’s a member of the…she used to be on the fringes of that EarthFirst group. We don’t really talk to her. ”

“That’s…understandable,” the doctor said, diplomatically. “Why don’t you go see your mother, and then get something to eat. Wes and I are having a late dinner in Ten-Forward. Do you want to join us?”

I couldn’t begin to count all the ways I did not want to have dinner with the Crusher family. “I’m not sure I’d be very good company,” I said.

Her expression softened, and for a moment she was my friend’s mother again, and not the CMO. “It’s extremely unlikely that anything will go wrong.”

I bit back the retort, anything else, you mean, and just nodded and smiled wanly. “I’d like to see her now.”

She led me to another room within the maze of corridors that formed sickbay – people always thought it was just the main clinic, but it took up a good chunk of the deck. When we got to my mother’s room, the stasis tube had already been set up around her bed, the clamshell lid standing open. Waiting.

“Hey, Mom,” I said softly. “There are better ways to get attention, you know.” When in doubt, try humor.

“Kiddo,” she said weakly. “Come closer.” I did and she drew in a deep, if shaky, breath. “You smell like salt air.”

I grinned. “Nature’s best perfume. You need to get well, Mom, so we can rent a beach house for my birthday weekend.”

“Instead of a party?”

“Instead, in addition to…whatever works” I was kidding, and we both knew it, but it didn’t matter.

“Okay,” she said. “Working on it.”

She was so pale – earlier she’d looked so much better – I wondered how much she’d been acting. Her eyelids, I noticed, seemed really heavy, as if she couldn’t hold them open. I made a show of yawning. “I’m so sorry, Mom. It was a long day, and I’m really tired.”

She smiled weakly. “Get some sleep, Zoe. See you soon.”

“Sure thing,” I said. “Love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too.”

I left the room before they closed the lid, fleeing sickbay as if a monster was chasing me. Maybe one was. T’vek caught up with me outside the banks of turbo-lifts. “Zoe, hey…wait.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. I would not cry. “I’m just…”

He pulled me into a rough embrace. “Hey,” he said. “I know… Let me help?”

“How?” I asked. “How can you possibly help?”

The ‘lift doors opened and we stepped inside. T’vek gave the order to take us to the deck where my mom’s quarters were. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Let me try?”

I let him hold me for the few minutes it took for the turbo-lift to deposit us on my deck, let him keep my hand in his as we walked down the corridor, and when we got into the dimly-lit living room, I welcomed his kiss, and something in me started to turn around. “Make love to me?”

“Are you sure, Zoe?” He seemed more cautious than actually reluctant.

“You said you wanted to help. This is how you can. Make love to me. Give me something to focus on. You. Give me you.”

His dark eyes stared into my own, and after a long moment, he nodded. “C’mere.”

We were already holding each other close. He walked backward, leading me to my bedroom, to my bed. We kissed again, and then he stepped back to pull his shirt over his head. When I touched his bare chest, he felt fire-hot. Or maybe I was cold.

He began working the buttons of the blouse I was wearing, sliding it from my shoulders. “Son of a sehlat, Zoe,” he breathed, “you’re like ice.”

So I was cold, then. “Make me warm.”

He pulled back the covers on my bed, and we slid into it, after toeing off our shoes, leaving our jeans on the floor. “Are you really sure?” he asked as he pulled the blankets around us both. “We could just rest. You were yawning, earlier.”

I heard a low, throaty chuckle, and realized it had come from me. “Faking,” I said. “So Mom could sleep sooner.” I took a breath. “I’m sure,” I said. “I want you. I’m sure.”

The first time we’d made love, it had been in wet sand, and it had been less than awesome. The subsequent times had been overshadowed by my father’s wedding, and then all the news stories about the Borg. Idly, I wondered if we’d ever come together without something else pushing us to it, but when he pushed himself into me, when he began moving inside me, when his heat finally managed to overtake the chill I’d been feeling, I stopped wondering about anything.

At the end, I felt a sort of tickle in my head, as if I’d opened my eyes after having them closed for a while, and for a split second, it was almost as if I was watching myself from someone else’s point of view. Everything was warm and soft and safe and then it was suddenly gone, as if someone had turned off a view screen. “Tev?”

“Oh, Zoe…” he began, and then, “shit, I didn’t meant to…” He rolled away from me, or tried to, but there was a bulkhead in his way.

“What?” I said. “What was it? That feeling…it was like I was watching myself.”

“No,” he said softly. “You weren’t. I was.”

“Tev?” I was confused.

“I think I might have accidently melded with you, a little. I’m not very good at it, and I’m still learning, and oh, god, I’m sorry.”

“Why sorry? It felt nice.”

“Because I’m not supposed to be able to…I’m a hybrid.” He was so calm about it, as if these things happened every day. “I think we need to talk to my parents,” he said. “Together.”

“Now?”

“No. Not til your mother is better. You need to focus on that.” He kissed me, a soft, sweet kiss. “I’m going to go,” he said. “I don’t want to leave you alone, but, I kind of…I’m not walking out on you…okay?”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m actually really tired, after all.”

“I’m contacting Data…”

I nodded. “Okay.”

He kissed me again, and then left the bed. I heard him pull his clothes on. I heard him contact Data. As I was drifting into something like sleep, I heard him tell our teacher – my friend – that he didn’t think I should wake up to being alone. Data answered him, but I couldn’t discern the words, because the remainder of my attention was on trying to reclaim that feeling of warmth and light.

Notes: T’vek isn’t supposed to be able to mind-meld, but obviously things happen when you put two emotional teenagers together. It’s possible he’s been not entirely honest about how much telepathy he really has, as well, but not because he’s malicious. So, so sorry for the time it took to update this. We bought a new car, had the kitchen redone, and then I got sick from the fumes from the polyurethane varnish they used on my cabinets. Also, I’ve been a bit wrapped up in The Dog Days of Podcasting. (My feed can be found at BathtubMermaid dot com, if you’re interested. The master feed of all participants is at DogDaysofPodcasting dot com.) Thank you ALL for your continued readership.

Chapter 41: In Dreams

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Stardate 44030.47

(12 January 2367, 03:00 hours, ship’s time)

“Meld with me, Zoe,” T’vek’s voice echoed in my head and in my room. “You know you want to. My mind to your mind touching…sharing thoughts just like we share love.”

“You said you couldn’t…”

His laugh was dark, wrapping itself around me in thick coils. “Maybe I lied. Maybe I just wanted to land the new girl before anyone else could.”

He was lounging on the foot of my bed, leaning against the bulkhead. Shirt off. Casual slouch. It should have been hot, but somehow it was threatening instead. “Get out of my head,” I tell him, but his dark eyes lock onto mine. “Tev, this isn’t funny.”

“No,” he agreed, and his tone was deadly serious – accent on the ‘deadly’ – “it isn’t funny. Most Vulcans wait, you know. Their first time is when they seal the bond with their betrothed.”

“You’re not fully Vulcan,” I pointed out.

“Nope. But I’m not fully Betazoid either, and yet, when we touch, I feel how much you want me.” He rolled onto his hands and knees, started crawling up the bed toward me. “Let me touch you, Zoe…”

I began to back away, until my head cracked against the headboard. Weird, there shouldn’t have been a headboard on my bed on the Enterprise. I turned to look behind me, and suddenly we were in my room on Centaurus, and the vid screen was showing images of my mother screaming inside a stasis chamber.

“Mom!” I screamed it out.

“Your mother isn’t here, now,” T’vek said. “C’mon, Zoe, let me touch you, let me share your thoughts.” His hands reached for the sides of my face, but it wasn’t his fingers that I felt. Instead, it was needle-like probes. “Don’t fight, Zoe…let me in…”

I started to struggle, pulling at his hands, and kicking out, but I was barefoot, and nothing connected, and behind him I could still see my mother’s terrified face.

“Let me in, baby,” he kept repeating. “Let me in, let me in….let me…”

“…in. Zoe, it is Data. May I come in?”

My tutor-cum-nighttime guardian’s voice penetrated my dream, or started to, but I was still struggling against nightmare-T’vek. My bedroom door opened and Data came in, but I wasn’t entirely awake, and my fist almost connected with his jaw.

He caught my hands – my wrists really – before that could happen, and his soft tones finally brought me back to myself, but I was hyperventilating. “Data?”

“You seemed to be having a rather violent dream,” he said, still holding my arms so I couldn’t flail. His touch was gentle, but firm to the point that I knew he could do damage if he wanted to. That probably should have scared me. Perversely, I found it comforting.

“Yeah,” I said not looking at him. “It was kind of intense.”

“If I release my grip, will you be able to remain calm.”

I blushed, but didn’t meet his eyes yet. “Yeah. I think so. I um…it wasn’t actually you I was trying to punch.”

He let go of my wrists, and I immediately pushed myself into a less horizontal position, while he said, “I assumed as much. Had you actually hit me, you would have been injured.”

“You’re that strong?”

“My skull is constructed from duranium,” he answered, “as is much of my internal framework – what is analogous to your skeleton.”

“Ouch,” I said.

“Indeed.” He glanced around my room, and I realized he’d never actually been inside it before. He took in the photos stuck on the edges of the mirror, the clothes tossed over the chair, but instead of commenting on it all, he merely asked, “Would you like to talk about your nightmare?”

“This one was kind of…personal. I don’t think I can talk about it. Not with you, anyway. I mean, I’m sure it was because I was worried about my mother.” I sighed. “And we’ve reached the part, haven’t we, where you remind me that there’s a whole staff of counselors I can talk to?”

He nodded, “Indeed, although it is also ‘the part’ where I must raise the question of whether you have been giving me something called ‘lip service’ when I have suggested that you speak with a counselor before.”

Again, I looked away from him, feeling a little guilty. “I didn’t mean to,” I said, after a beat. “Do you think we could have some tea and talk for a bit, even if it’s not my nightmare we talk about?”

“Will it help you to go back to sleep without further interruption?”

“Yeah,” I said. “It actually will.”

“Then it is an acceptable plan. What variety of tea would you prefer?”

“Chamomile,” I said. “To keep me dozy.”

“I will replicate it.”

“Thanks, Data,” I said. “I’ll be out in a minute or two.”

He left my room, and the door slid closed behind him. I got out of bed, and pulled a pair of sweatpants on under the t-shirt I’d been sleeping in, and used the bathroom before joining him in the main room, where tea was already waiting on the table near the couch. I noticed that the other table in the room – the dining table – was strewn with padds.

“What are you working on?” I asked, even as I curled into my usual corner of the couch.

“I am assisting Doctor Crusher and her medical staff in attempting to determine the source of your mother’s bacterial infection.”

“I was wondering how she caught one in a bio bed. I mean, that’s not normal, is it?”

“It is not.”

“Am I allowed to know what you’ve determined?”

“So far, my search has been inconclusive, except to note that the bacteria in question is both rare, and not typically found among human patients.”

“But Mom will be okay, right?” Something in my voice must have made it clear, even to him, that I wanted a less-than-technical response.

“There is every reason to believe so,” he said. “Doctor Crusher would have told you if that were not the case.”

“Somehow, hearing it from you makes it more…I don’t know. I guess I just know that you won’t lie just to make me feel better.”

“No,” he agreed. “I will not.”

“As much as I want Mom safe and well, and back in her normal routine, I’m going to miss our middle-of-the-night tea parties when normalcy returns.”

His response was softer than I expected. “I, too, have enjoyed our late-night conversations, but I will also appreciate the return to my former routine.”

“Being here every night’s kind of ruined your social life as well as your workflow, hasn’t it?”

“Do not concern yourself with that.”

“Too late,” I said, managing a smile. “You said we were friends, so now you’re stuck with me, and that means if you get to care if I’m having bad dreams or worried about something, I get to care if I’m totally cramping your style.”

“That would seem to be an equitable arrangement,” he agreed.

I opened my mouth to ask another question, but a yawn came out instead. “I think I should go back to bed, now,” I said. “Will you still be here when I wake up, or do you have a shift in the morning?”

“I am not scheduled for duty tomorrow,” he answered. “Why?”

I shrugged. “Eating breakfast alone is kind of depressing. Also, I may need an escort to a counselor’s office. To ensure I actually go.”

His head-tilt wasn’t one of confusion, but seemed to relay a combination of affectionate admonishment and faint amusement. “Then I will see you at breakfast,” he said. “Pleasant dreams, Zoe.”

“G’night, Data.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44031.39

(12 January 2367, 11:00 hours, ship’s time)

Counselor Troi sat in a low chair across from the one just like it that I was sitting in. Her legs were crossed elegantly at the knee, while I was sitting cross-legged in the bowl of the chair. I’m pretty sure she was taking as much note of my posture as I was of hers.

“I’m glad you’ve come to talk with me this morning, Zoe,” she said, her tone open and warm. “Selfishly, I’ve wanted a chance to get to know you a bit better. I enjoyed our dinner the other week.”

“Me, too,” I confessed. “The dinner, I mean. No offense, but I’m not all that into having another counselor poke and prod at my psyche.”

“I’m not offended,” she said, then asked, “you’ve been in counseling before?”

“Yeah…it was a last ditch effort to save me from my wild ways before Mom dragged me here.” Surprise flitted across her face, but only for a second. “You didn’t know?”

She shook her head. “It’s not in your file. Do you want to talk about it?”

I shrugged. “Not really. I mean, I was pissed at my mother for being on a ship all the time, and pissed at my father for suddenly deciding I should stay home and be a normal kid instead of touring with him, and then I caught him in bed with the au pair, and I acted out. Nothing terribly interesting. Parties. Drinking. Almost had sex, but the drinking turned into puking before much happened.”

“How old were you?”

“Thirteen when I started…fifteen when Dad and Gran figured it all out. It was just over a year ago.”

“And you’ve been with us on the Enterprise since the school year began last fall?”

“A little before then.”

“You’ve had quite the semester.”

“It’s never been boring, that’s for sure.”

“Would you like to tell me why you’re talking with me today?” she invited, setting aside her padd.

“Is that auto recording us, or are you really not taking notes?”

“I’m not sure notes are required yet. I know Data’s been concerned that you’ve been having increasingly violent nightmares.”

“He’s why I’m here,” I confessed. “I figure, if my dreams are frequent enough to worry him…” I sighed and told the whole truth. “The last one, last night – this morning, really – I couldn’t talk to him about it.”

“Was it about him?”

“What? No! It was…you know T’vek Mairaj, right?”

She nodded. “His proper name is Stevek, isn’t it?”

I smiled. “Yeah, but he prefers T’vek. Anyway, Tev and I clicked right from the first day I went to Data’s tutorial, and we’d been sort of dating – as much as you can when you’re on a starship and have no place to actually go – since right before the class trip to Serenity…”

She smiled softly. “I’d heard that. And seen the two of you together. T’vek cares for you deeply.”

“It’s mutual.”

“I see that. What does this have to do with T’vek, Zoe?”

“We’ve been sleeping together since the night we got to Centaurus for the holidays.” I said, mashing all the words together and speaking as fast as I could. “Last night he accidentally melded with me.”

“He’s a hybrid; that shouldn’t be possible.”

“That’s what he said. Anyway, the nightmare this morning, it wasn’t just Borg-Mom trying to assimilate me, or Borg-Seth trying to kiss me – ”

“Seth is?”

“Lieutenant Starker. Cello teacher.”

“I thought you were studying music with Data?”

“Data created a music theory tutorial for me when I couldn’t access the one on the holodeck menu. Apparently it’s a college class, or something. Seth was my music teacher when I got here. I’m also taking voice lessons from Lt. Caldwell. I’d give anything to stop studying with Seth, but no one else aboard has his experience.”

“We’ll revisit that in a bit…” she said.

“Bet you wish you’d been taking notes now,” I teased.

She laughed, “Maybe a little. In any case, the dream this morning –?”

“Oh, it was about Tev trying to…trying to meld with me, only when he touched my face it felt like needles, or probes, or something and…it wasn’t my Tev. It was this dark, sinister version of him. I woke up screaming and fighting, and then it resolved into Data standing outside my door asking if it was okay to come in.”

She nodded. “When T’vek started to meld with you, did it hurt?”

I shook my head. “No. I mean…it was weird. Knocking boots is one thing, but knocking brains? It wasn’t something I expected. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m psi-null.”

She stared at me for a long moment. “You should consider being formally tested,” she said after a beat. “If the two of you were intimate when it happened, it might have been just a hormonal flux that allowed it, but, creative people – musicians, actors, and the like – often find they have low levels of latent telepathy.”

I tried to make sense of what she was saying. “So, because I’ve got a vivid imagination and I’m musical and stuff, it basically means I’m more open than, say, someone who’s totally science-y?”

“Essentially,” she agreed. “How did you feel when T’vek pulled away?”

“Cold,” I said. “As if someone had ripped a blanket off me on a really chilly morning.”

“Many people find mind melds to be traumatic. That you didn’t tells me you and T’vek are very comfortable with each other.”

“I love him.” I said. “He gets me. Almost the same way Data seems to.”

“‘Seems to?'” she repeated.

“I’m never sure if he really does, or if he’s just pretending so I won’t feel frustrated.”

She laughed at that. “Data’s not that good at dissembling,” she said. “It’s good you have a friend in him.”

“You don’t think it’s inappropriate?”

She shook her head. “No. I don’t. Data is unique, and his friendships are also so. If the two of you have a sort of resonance with each other, I’d trust it.”

“It’s because of him, isn’t it?” I asked. “If I wasn’t his…friend…I’d be having this conversation with one of your underlings, wouldn’t I?”

“It is,” she said. “In part. He’s my friend and colleague, and he is as concerned for you as I believe he is capable of being.” She hesitated, then added, “But that’s only part of the reason, I wanted to talk with you myself.”

“What’s the other part?”

“I wanted to be certain you were handling everything with your mother as well as you appear to be.”

“Am I?”

“You tell me.”

“I feel kind of guilty,” I said, “for being off the ship yesterday, having fun, doing normal kid stuff, even though she told me to go. And…I don’t know…I feel like I’m imposing on Data way too much – he’s got piles of padds all over our dining table, so he can work and babysit me at the same time.”

“That’s actually fairly typical,” she said. “I’d be more surprised if there wasn’t a feeling of guilt about your mother.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I guess that makes sense.”

“And about Data…?”

“I need to learn to sleep without him guarding me?”

“No,” she said. “I know him well enough, and I suspect you do, too, to know that he wouldn’t be doing what he is if he didn’t feel it was important.”

I laughed, “Hey, for all I know he’s really using me as a lab rat while he studies human nightmares.”

She grinned at that. “In truth…”

“It’s probably a little of both?”

“Yes, exactly.”

That time, we laughed together. Then she got up. “Our hour is over,” she said, “and I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Do you want to join me in Ten-Forward, or have you had enough adult company for the day?”

I unfolded myself from my chair. “Actually,” I said. “I’d really enjoy that.”

“Good,” she said. “Two more things…do your parents know you’re sexually active?”

“That’s one,” I said. “Mine don’t. My uncle Zane does, and basically made me swear to call him if Tev did anything I didn’t like. Tev’s parents know. And before you ask, I’m not keeping it from them, exactly, I just…it hasn’t been the right time. We’re using protection, though. You can ask Doctor Crusher.”

“I believe you,” she said.

“What’s the other thing?”

“I think it might be helpful if you came to see me again in a couple of days, and after that, once a week, at least for a while.”

“Am I crazy?” I asked brightly.

“No more or less so than any of us,” she answered.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come.”

“I’m glad. Now…lunch.”

(=A=)

Stardate 44037.72

(14 January 2367, 18:30 hours, ship’s time)

Talking with Counselor Troi must have helped, because the night of my first session with her, even though I did stay up late to have tea with Data, once I went to bed, my dreams were trouble-free, and the night after, it was more of the same.

Saturday morning, exactly a week before my birthday I woke to the news that Data had traced the source of the bacterial infection that had attacked not only my mother, but a few other critical patients. It was an experiment from one of the bio labs. Containment had failed during the battle with the Borg, and no one had noticed until it affected actual people. My mother was due to return to quarters on the 15th, and resume light duty on Monday.

For the second Saturday since I’d been back on the Enterprise I didn’t have a Saturday session with Data, and I was anxious to get back to routine, back to music, back to…normal life. Especially since my friends kept making excuses not to see me…I mean, we met for meals and such, but they all seemed to be keeping a marvelous secret that they weren’t sharing.

Except T’vek. We hadn’t gone further than a couple of intense make-out sessions since the meld incident, but that night I was his family’s guest for dinner, and I was pretty certain the subject would come up.

“Welcome Zoe,” his mother greeted me when I arrived, still not sure I was dressed appropriately. T’vek had assured me that it was a casual family dinner, but I’d found a black shirt and plaid skirt that were dressy enough to be special without being formal. “You honor us with your presence.” T’rella didn’t smile, of course, but she managed to infuse her voice with motherly warmth, even so.

“Thank you for having me,” I said. “I’m sorry my mother still isn’t well enough to join us.”

“Stevek says she’ll be home tomorrow?”

“Yes, and back to work on Monday, to a point.”

“That is gratifying to hear. We have been concerned for her, as well as for you.”

I smiled at that. “Tev’s been really supportive,” I said. “And Counselor Troi and Commander Data have been watching over me.” More the latter than the former, but, whatever.

She was out of uniform, wearing a long dress that obscured her feet, and she glided all the way into the main living area of their quarters, while I followed behind, feeling much more bound by gravity. “Your home is lovely,” I said, admiring the soft lines of the various sculptures and paintings that decorated the room, not for the first time.

“Thank you.”

Kenash and T’vek were already in the living area – it was only meter or two away – but they rose when I entered. Kenash pulled me into a rough embrace and whispered, “Welcome, kiddo,” in my ear, and then T’vek came over to stand with me. He brushed a chaste kiss across my cheek, then greeted me with the two-fingered touch that Vulcans used for their closest loved ones. It was the latter that made me blush, and I was grateful for the dim lighting.

“We have much to discuss,” T’rella said, “but we will save the serious subjects until after dinner. Please, sit.”

Food was shared on the low table in the center of the room, and we all sat on the floor on cushions. Both Betazoid and Vulcan custom dictated that the meal be meatless, but it certainly wasn’t bland. Some of the dishes were similar to Mediterranean food from Earth, while others were completely foreign to me, but I tried everything, except for the one dish that reeked of pipali.

“Are you sensitive to spicy foods, Zoe?” T’rella asked, as if embarrassed that her choices hadn’t all been pleasing.

“Only some, and only a little,” I said. “But please don’t feel bad. If it’s something you all enjoy, it’s all good.”

She nodded and the meal continued, until we were done. T’vek cleared the plates – he wouldn’t let me help – and Kenash made a tea that was sort of minty but not quite, and then he and T’rella sat back on the sofa, and the mood shifted.

“Stevek has shared with us that the nature of your friendship has changed,” T’rella began. “I am told your mother is not yet aware?”

“There hasn’t really been time,” I said. “She knew we were…she knew it was going to happen eventually.”

“As did we,” Kenash said, a hint of humor in his tone. “And while I’m sure we all wish you would have waited, Stev’s assured us that you both used protection.”

“Forgive me if this is rude,” I said, trying not to fall into my default snarky mode. “Are you about to tell us that we can’t see each other anymore?”

Kenash laughed out loud at that, earning an arched eyebrow from his wife and a puzzled look from T’vek. “Not at all, Zoe. Not at all. We just wanted to assure ourselves that you were…well.”

I burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” I said. “When T’rella said serious conversation I envisioned some weird ultimatum of breaking up of having a shotgun wedding happening.”

Even T’rella could see the humor in the situation. Her own demeanor relaxed a lot, and even the hint of a smile showed on her face. “Do you think we are so unaware of how teenagers behave?” she asked. “We do, however, want to address a different point. Stevek told us that he touched your mind several nights ago.”

“I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to,” I said. “But it wasn’t bad. Actually, it was worse when it ended than when it began. Like being pulled out of a really cozy bed before you’re ready to be awake.” I was paraphrasing the description I’d used with the counselor.

“As my son has no doubt explained, his telepathic abilities, instead of being a blend of both Vulcan and Betazoid talents, are largely non-existant.”

I nodded. “He said it was like they cancelled each other out.”

“A simplistic if appropriate analogy,” she agreed. “The fact that he could meld at all, is surprising, and speaks highly of you.”

“Thank you?” I said. “I guess? I mean…I wasn’t doing…I was just there.” I hesitated, then added. “Counselor Troi said that musicians and actors and artists and other creative types often have latent telepathic abilities. Not enough to do anything with, just enough to…receive, I guess?”

“I have heard that as well. Have you been formally tested?”

“No, but it seems like I might have to be.”

“It would be advisable.”

T’vek broke into the conversation, finally. “Mother, please. It’s Zoe’s first time having dinner with us, and all we’ve done is make her uncomfortable.” He reached for my hand, then, squeezing it, and letting it drop.

“You’re right, my son. Zoe, Stevek says you enjoy word games. Are you up for a game of Scrabble?”

I do, and I was. T’rella took the first game, but we played a second, and I won that.

“Next time,” Kenash declared, “we’ll play in teams. Only then will Stev or I have a chance of winning.”

“Only if the teams aren’t divided by gender,” Tev said, and we ended the evening on a positive note, though he did walk me back to my quarters.

“That was better and worse than I thought it would be. I’m still not sure your mother likes me.”

“She does, Zoe, I promise. I can’t believe you said that about a shotgun wedding.”

“I can’t believe you let me think it.”

We stopped outside my door. “Are you coming in? It’s our last night of relative freedom.”

“Isn’t Data coming over?”

“Not til later,” I said.

“I want to,” T’vek said, leaning close to kiss me. “I really do. But I think I’d better not.”

I put my hands on either side of his face, staring into his dark, dark eyes, and seeing only my own reflection. “Yeah,” I said. “You’re probably right.” I kissed him, he kissed me…and then I went inside, and he went home.

Five minutes later, the door-chime sounded, and I opened it to find him there. “I’m kind of stupid sometimes,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Sometimes you are. But mostly you’re not.” We went to my bedroom and closed the door, and when we were together, that time, there was no meld, but we both knew if it ever happened again, we wouldn’t be afraid.

He was still there when Data comm’d me to tell me he was en route, a little after midnight, but we found the positive in the situation: if Data hadn’t called, T’vek would have missed his curfew.

When he left me the second time that evening, he grinned the insouciant grin that was his trademark and said, “I love you, Zoe.”

I smiled back at him. “I love you, too. I’ll comm you tomorrow.”

The irony is, I probably wouldn’t have had nightmares that night, even if Data hadn’t been in my living room.

Notes: Nothing important, just sorry for the delay. My birthday was last weekend, I had to write an entry for the NYC Midnight Flash-Fiction contest, and the Dog Days of Podcasting is still going on.

Chapter 42: Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen

Stardate 44050.51

(19 January 2367, 10:30 hours)

“Mom, I have to go meet Counselor Troi,” I shouted in the general direction of my mother’s bedroom in our quarters. Almost a week had gone by since she’d been released from sickbay, but she was still restricted to light duty. Pretty much, that meant she was only working afternoon shifts, which meant we had a lot more mother-daughter bonding time than we ever had before.

“Let me know when you’re done,” she called back. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, Mom,” I answered. Then I grabbed my padd and left our quarters, nearly walking into T’vek, who was waiting outside the door. “Hey you,” I greeted, then stretched up for a kiss.

He tangled his hand in my hair, and continued kissing me for a long moment, before pulling away. “So,” he said. “I thought I’d walk you down to the counselor’s office.” He took my hand, lacing his fingers with mine.

“And have an impromptu make-out session,” I teased, handing him my padd. “The least you could do is carry my books.”

“I can do that,” he agreed. “Also, I thought, if you don’t mind me waiting, we could go have lunch in Ten-Forward, after.”

“Sure. I mean, I have to let Mom know.”

“Obviously.”

We stepped into the turbo-lift, which was empty, which meant more time for – to use the term in the series of novels I was still reading – snogging. When the ‘lift stopped a few decks away from the medical section, we broke apart.

“Oh! It’s my beach buddies.” Edouard Benoit – the man with the dog named Bogart – said by of a greeting as he joined us in the ‘lift. “Let me see if I remember…you’re T’vek and Zoe, right?”

Tev and I shared a look, and then I confirmed, “Right in one. How’s Bogart adjusting to the ship?”

“Better than I am, I’m afraid. Apparently, I was not destined for space travel.”

“Um, you know we haven’t actually left Spacedock, right?” I asked. T’vek, meanwhile, was apparently trying not to smirk.

“I am aware. No worries though, Zoe, I’m sure I’ll adjust sooner or later. Hopefully sooner. Actually, I’m headed to sickbay to chat with the doctor about just that.”

Tev had controlled his amusement, and now offered, “Sometimes if you have an ear infection, even being in Spacedock can mess up your head. It happened to me, when I first came aboard.”

“It did?” I asked. “How come I never knew that?”

“Because I was here way before you were,” he said.

“Oh, right. There is that.”

“Are you two also headed to sickbay?” Ed asked us.

“Us? No, thank you. I’ve had enough of that place for a lifetime and the year’s not even a month old.”

“Oh?” for a moment he seemed more of a reporter than the journalism teacher he’d claimed to be. “Why’s that. Were you injured in the battle at Wolf 359?”

I shook my head. “No, we were both at my father’s place on Centaurus for the holidays, but my mother was injured, and it was pretty dire for a while. She wasn’t Borgified, or anything,” I added, realizing what his likely assumption would be. “Just plasma burns and a bad bacterial infection.”

“‘Just’ plasma burns?'” he laughed, surprised. “Are you all so jaded that you react that way?”

“Hardly,” T’vek said, wrapping his arm around me protectively. “But it’s a matter of degrees.”

“Tev’s mother was also injured,” I explained. “But not as severely. Actually, I’m on my way to meet with Counselor Troi.” Ed had just become the first person outside of Mom, T’vek, and Data who I’d told about my counseling sessions, and I was trying to hide my embarrassment, so I widened my eyes and quoted a line from a favorite holo-vid. “Haven’t you heard?” I asked, “We’re all mad here.”

To his credit, the man laughed, and responded, “Oh, I’ve no doubt you’re completely bonkers. All the best people are.” He was paraphrasing, of course, but it made me grin. “More seriously,” he said, “I’m a big believer in having a personal therapist. Everyone needs someone to talk to.”

I grinned at that, “Yes, exactly. And Counselor Troi never makes you feel like you’re in therapy. She makes you feel like you’re talking to a friend.”

The ‘lift stopped at our deck, and Tev and I stepped out of it, wishing Ed well on the rest of his day.

(=A=)

My conversation with the counselor went well, and a bit over an hour later, T’vek and I were in the lounge, sharing a table with Wes, Annette, Dana, and Josh. After we ordered, I looked at my friends and demanded, “Okay, guys. You’ve all been avoiding me since we got back from the beach. Did I do something to offend you? Are you trying to make me feel completely paranoid?”

“It’s not paranoia if people really are out to get you,” Josh pointed out, helpfully.

Dana slugged him good-naturedly. “Stop it, you,” she said.

“Make me,” he suggested, waggling his eyebrows at her, and stretching up for a kiss.

“Josh, no. Not in public. Someone might see.”

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “Zoe and T’vek canoodle all the time.”

“Zoe and T’vek don’t have a father in Security,” she shot back.

“Zoe and T’vek are sitting right here,” I pointed out, referring to myself and Tev in third person just to be snarky. “But, um, we could leave…?”

Dana pushed Josh’s hands away, and resettled herself in her chair. “No,” she said. “Actually, we need to talk to you.”

“Oh?”

“We’d been trying to plan a party for your birthday,” she confessed. “But we ran into a snag.”

“You couldn’t ask my mom for input because she was sick?” I guessed.

“Make that two snags,” Annette said warmly, joining the conversation. “Wes, tell her the rest.”

“Dana and Annette wanted to give you the beach party you described at lunch.”

“Oh!” I said, “That would be awesome!”

“Except…”

“Except what?” T’vek asked as the server placed a café mocha in front of me, and my focus turned toward caffeine.

“We’re breaking orbit tomorrow.”

I shrugged. “I told you I didn’t really want a party,” I said.

“Yeah,” Dana agreed. “I know. But that was when you were worried about your mother.”

“Well,” I allowed, between sips of mocha. “There is that…but why not just use the holodeck?”

“We could,” Wes said. “But there’s another option. We’re heading to Ogus II, which has one of the best arcades in the sector, including a huge laser tag arena, but we won’t be there until a couple days after your actual birthday.”

I knew I should be upset, but I’d meant it about not particularly wanting a party. “Not that I don’t love a good arcade,” I said, “but I’d kind of like something a little more low-key, if we can’t do a beach thing. Food. Cake. Music. Maybe dancing, because I’m so good at it.”

T’vek squeezed my hand under the table. “She’s not kidding. Our Zoe has dances move you would not believe.”

“Not that T’vek is exactly stellar,” I added.

“I don’t remember complaints from you…”

“I don’t remember complimenting your dancing…”

“No, just my moves…”

I couldn’t help it, I blushed, and my friends – our friends – exchanged knowing glances, before Dana said, “Would it be okay if I visit your Mom, and talk with her about your party?”

“You do realize you’ve lost the element of surprise?”

“Doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have to plan your own birthday.”

“She’s free most mornings, at least til next week,” I said. “I’m sure she’d welcome company from anyone who isn’t me, at this point. Oh, hey, did you guys know we have a new teacher this semester?” And I deftly switched the subject to one Edouard Benoit, professor and dog-lover.

(=A=)

Stardate 44055.87

(Saturday, January 21, 2367 – 09:30 hours)

“Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, to you.” I woke to the sound of my mother’s warm alto, singing in my ear.

“What time is it?” I grumbled sleepily. I’d stayed up really late the night before, finishing the series about wizard children, which I’d loved until the very last chapter. Seriously, who believes that everyone should end up with their high school sweetheart?

“Nine-thirty,” Mom answered. “Rise and shine, Zoificus. You are in great demand today!”

“It’s a weekend. How can I possibly be in great demand on a weekend?”

My mother sat on the edge of my bed, and presented me with a mug of steaming coffee. “Drink this, daughter-of-mine, and then go shower. You have a scheduled comm-call with your father and grandmother at ten, and Commander Data has asked for your attendance in his quarters at eleven.”

I sat up in the bed and took the proffered mug, sipping gingerly at first. Whoever decided that ground beans and boiled water should be a beverage should have been canonized. Or better. “This is fantastic,” I said. “Thank you. Why does Data want to see me?”

“He didn’t say,” Mom answered. “I assumed you were resuming your music theory tutorial.”

“My cello’s broken,” I said. “Oh, god, I forgot to tell you. My cello was shattered during…whatever. I found it when I got home – everything was a mess, and he…” I paused to sip more coffee, waited a moment for the caffeine to penetrate my brain, and then continued, “…he helped clean up. Mom, we owe him, big-time. He was…he was a really good friend to me while you were…you know.”

She smiled, and leaned forward to play with my hair. “I agree. We do owe him, but from what I’ve heard he volunteered for the daunting task of keeping you sane.”

“Well, sane-ish,” I said. “T’vek and his parents were pretty awesome, too. But Data was…he was like this solid, reassuring presence.”

“Paternal?” she asked.

“Actually, not.” I said. “You’d think so…but…no. Just…I don’t know, he’s calm, and I guess the calm is sort of contagious sometimes. I can be quiet with him.”

My mother laughed at that. “You are probably the first person to refer to Data as someone to be quiet with.”

I shrugged. “I bet I could out-babble him if I tried, but…it’s nice to just sit and not-talk.”

The look my mother gave me was affectionate, but also appraising. “You really aren’t a child any more, are you, kiddo?”

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Mom, over the holidays, T’vek and I…”

She stopped me with a finger to my lips and a kiss to my forehead. “Table that thought for the moment,” she said. “Let’s keep today a day of happiness and light topics, shall we? It’s enough to realize that my baby daughter has reached the advanced age of sixteen.”

“Yeah, and there’s been hardly any bloodshed,” I quipped.

“Oh, Zoe…” But she didn’t finish whatever she was thinking. “Drink up,” she said. “There’s a bagel with your name on it when you’ve showered and dressed.” She teased my hair again, then left.

I drained my mug, and then went to get ready to face the world outside our quarters.

(=A=)

By 11:00 hours I’d had a lovely chat (while I ate a bagel and had more coffee) with Dad, Gia and Gran via comm-link, and been warned to be on Holodeck Three at 20:00 hours. I’d asked my mother if she knew what my friends were planning, and she avoided answering the question.

Outside Data’s quarters, I felt suddenly nervous. We’d spent so much time hanging around in my living room that visiting his space felt distinctly odd. Nevertheless, I activated the door-chime and waited for him to invite me in.

“You beckoned?” I greeted as I walked into his space.

“Good morning, Zoe,” he greeted me from behind his workstation, though he was rising as he said it. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you,” I said, still a little confused. “Why am I here? Were we starting theory again, even though regular classes haven’t started yet?”

“That was not my intent,” he said, “although I am amenable to resuming our Saturday morning routine when you are.”

I grinned. “I’m actually kind of itchy to get back to normal, or whatever approximates it.” I said. “Are you going to make me guess?”

Something like a hint of devilish amusement flickered in those gold eyes, but he only said, “No. I wished only to present you with this.” He handed me a small box wrapped in purple paper and tied with gold ribbon that was somehow familiar. Once the connection was made, I started laughing, causing him to look perplexed, and ask, “Have I done something amusing?”

“Yes. No. Not exactly. When I told you to reuse this wrapping for my birthday, I was kidding. I mean you aren’t obligated to give me…I mean…” I looked up into his warm yellow eyes, and remembered my manners. “I mean thank you. But…I’m pretty sure my mom and my friends have organized some kind of party.”

“They have,” he confirmed, “though I have been requested to keep the details a secret. However, I am on duty as watch officer during the night watch this evening, and am not certain I will be able to attend.” He moved to the couch, and motioned for me to join him, which I did. “As well, I wished to watch you open it.”

His echoing of my words to him when I’d given him the mask and invitation to our amusement park unveiling made me smile, whether or not they were intentional. “Does it tick?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Nor does it involve confetti.”

“Confetti is evil,” I said, as I untied the ribbon. “It gets into carpets and hair and…ohh…Data, this is beautiful.” He’d given me a bracelet. Nothing terribly fancy, just a circle of white, green and turquoise beads that felt cool to the touch and clicked together with a satisfying sound. “These are mala beads, aren’t they?”

“You recognize them? I was uncertain if you knew what they meant.”

I shook my head. “I know they’re mala beads, but if there’s any significance to the color choice you’ll have to tell me.”

“Were classes in session,” he teased lightly, “I would instruct you to ‘look it up.'”

“But it’s my birthday, so you’re going to just tell me, right, oh, omniscient one?”

He didn’t rise to the bait and deny his omniscience. Instead he said, “Indeed. Both the white and the green are jade, and both are meant to inspire accomplishment and turn dreams to reality.”

“Good dreams, only, though, right?”

“Indubitably.”

“So what’s the turquoise for?”

“Technically it is turquoise jasper, and it is said to promote tranquility and comfort as well as to keep away evil spirits.”

I grinned at that, but had to ask, “Um, Data, you don’t actually believe any of that do you?”

He managed to look chagrinned. “I do not,” he admitted. “I chose them because I thought the meanings would appeal to your vivid imagination, and because the colors are reminiscent of water.”

“I love it,” I said. “Thank you.” Then I held out my left wrist, the bracelet dangling from my fingers. “Help me put it on?”

His fingers were deft as they looped the string of beads around my wrist, and tightened the pull cords to keep it fastened. If I felt the faintest hint of…something…when he touched me, I ignored it, chalking it up to birthday excitement.

“Thank you,” I said again. And then I remembered, “Oh, hey, I know I’ve made a habit of imposing on you lately, but…when the ship gets to Ogus II, will shore leave be likely?”

“It is possible,” he said. “Why?”

“Dad put funds into my credit account for a new cello, and mentioned that there’s a really good luthier there who’ll give me a fair price because I’m Maestro Harris’s daughter. I was wondering if you could find time to go with me. First because Mom will never let me leave the ship on my own, and second because I’d love your opinion on whatever I choose.”

“If Captain Picard allows shore leave, I will ensure that we visit your father’s recommended luthier,” he agreed.

“The awesomeness of you cannot be overestimated,” I said, but then I got up, “I have to get back home. Promised Mom I’d have lunch with her today – just us.”

Data rose as well, and escorted me to the door. “Enjoy the rest of your day, Zoe,” he said.

Impulsively, I turned and hugged him, and was pleased to find that his return embrace, while brief, held little of the stiffness I was accustomed to from him. “You too,” I said. “Bye.” And I breezed out the door and into the corridor where I paused, once the doors had closed, to look at my new bracelet again before I headed back to quarters.

(=A=)

Stardate 44057.25

(21 January 2367, 21:30 hours, ship’s time)

By nine-thirty that night, the party my friends and mother had conspired to throw was in full swing on one of the holodecks. Dana, Annette, Josh, and Wes had enlisted Lt. Barclay’s help to create a beachfront bungalow, though it was really just a giant living room and a back porch with steps down to the sand. T’vek had been left out of the planning so he wouldn’t be able to reveal what was going on.

My friends and their parents, as well as a few of the officers I’d spent time with while my mother was in recovery, had all accepted their invitations, including, I was surprised to see, Commander Riker, Counselor Troi. Also present were Edouard “call me Ed” Benoit and the ever faithful Bogart, as well as the Potts brothers, two of the younger kids aboard the Enterprise. Their parents were on sabbatical and had elected to leave them on the ship, and the counselor had asked if they could attend.

Dinner hadn’t been part of the scheme for this event – we had plans for late-night pizza, after – but my friends had convinced Guinan to not only provide a cake, but also an array of snacks and finger foods from many cultures. “Something for everyone,” she had told me, when I thanked her for her work and asked what inspired the menu, “but not too much of any one thing.” I got the impression that her philosophy was meant for more than just party food.

As surprised as I was that people like Geordi and Ed and Commander Riker had come to celebrate some kid’s sweet sixteen, I was equally surprised at the number of packages on the table with the cake, which, I’d been told, was chocolate and mocha and orange, and would be served at ten. Suddenly overwhelmed and uncomfortable, I left the main room, grabbed a glass of tamarind soda, and walked ‘outside’ to the porch, passing through the array of grouped chairs to sit on the steps.

“Zoe, do you mind if I join you?” Counselor Troi had come up behind me.

I scooted to one side of the step. “Sure,” I said. “Am I broadcasting that much, or are you that bored?” I asked.

“A little of the former, none of the latter,” she said, her voice warm as ever. “Do you want to talk about it?”

I shook my head. “Just feeling a little overwhelmed. Six months ago, I didn’t even want to be here, and now everyone’s being so nice, and I feel like at some point everyone’s going to wake up and realize I’m not worth it.”

She raised an eyebrow at me. “I’m not used to hearing that kind of talk from you,” she said.

I shrugged. “Birthdays are weird. I guess I’m a little homesick, too. And I can’t shake the sense that everything in my life is about to flip upside down.”

That made her laugh. “That’s the Zoe Harris I’ve come to know. Life is constantly changing, Zoe. Birthdays make us all more reflective. You are worth it, by the way. Look around you: you’ve managed to create a group of friends who love you and want to celebrate that.”

“I guess.”

“Guess?”

“Okay, I know. I guess – no, I know – that I’m also feeling like having a party at all is a little bit frivolous after…you know…everything.”

“Actually, celebrations like this are even more necessary after the sorts of things we’ve all been through. They’re a reminder that life goes on and joy exists.”

“You know, you’re almost as annoying as Data and my mother when it comes to being right all the time.”

“Almost?” she laughed.

“Well, Mom’s got the whole parental thing going for her. And Data is…” again, I shrugged. “Data’s Data.”

“Yes,” she said softly. “He is. You know he wanted to be here.”

“I know. We talked this morning. He wanted to tell me personally that he had night duty on the bridge. He also gave me my first official birthday present of the day…well, if you don’t count the mug of coffee Mom brought into my room this morning.”

“I’m sure you can guess that he polled all of us for ideas about what to get you.”

It was my turn to laugh. “I can just imagine. Well, whoever suggested a bracelet wins a prize.” I held up my left arm so she could see the beads.

“Oh, Zoe, those are lovely.”

“Yeah,” I said, “they really are. Also?” and I rotated my wrist back and forth “They make this awesome clicky sound that’s really just…”

“Satisfying?”

“Exactly.”

The counselor gave my back a couple of gentle pats. “I think there’s someone else here who wants to have a moment of your time,” she said softly. To whomever was behind us, she turned and said, “She’s all yours, Mr. Mairaj.” She got up, and T’vek took her place.

“Thanks, Counselor,” he said, sitting down. “Hey, Birthday Girl.” He wrapped his arm around me, and leaned in for a kiss. “Having fun?”

“I am now,” I teased lightly. “It’s a great party.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Apparently you’re everyone’s favorite.”

“I wish!” I said. “Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s Wes that managed most of this. Well, Wes and Lt. Barclay. Remind me to thank him, later?”

“I’ll do that,” he said. “Listen, Zoe…I have a present for you, but I kind of want you to open it alone, after the party. Is that okay?”

“That depends. If it’s you with a bow somewhere strategic…”

“That, too,” he said, grinning. “Seriously, I just…it’s kind of personal.”

“Okay,” I said. “We’ll find time…”

We were interrupted, then, by my mother’s voice. “If everyone would please gather inside,” she called, “It’s time for cake and presents.”

“And that’s my cue,” I said softly. “You coming?”

We stood up together, and he took my hand. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

(=A=)

The cake was amazing, and the presents were even more so. Lt. Barclay, acting on information from my friends, gifted me with a holodeck program for nighttime surfing, promising a full moon and no sharks. Commander Riker gave me a data solid full of jazz music featuring the cello, and Wes and Annette had dug up all the sequels to one of my favorite vintage horror movies and transferred them to a data solid as well.

Ed, who barely knew any of us, and had been invited mostly because T’vek ran into him again on the way somewhere, also gave me a data solid. “A little prying,” he confessed, “told me that you’re a voracious reader. I hope you’re not anti-Hemingway?”

“I’d heard he was kind of a despicable person,” I said.

“Oh, he was,” Ed confirmed. “He was, however, a brilliant writer. Did things with three words that would take most writers entire paragraphs.” He gave a self-deprecating half-shrug. “I took a chance.”

I grinned. “I’m willing to give him a shot.”

Counselor Troi and Dr. Crusher presented me with a basket full of soaps and perfumes, and Guinan gave me an exquisitely carved candle. Dana gave me a framed watercolor she’d done, and Josh had found an expansion to a board game we were all addicted to.

“I assume you’re giving me this because you know I’m going to ask you all to come play?”

“Score one for enlightened self-interest,” he said, causing the room to erupt with laughter.

Geordi’s gift surprised me, mostly because I hadn’t expected him to show up, let alone give me anything, but it was proof that he was a generally nice guy. He’d given me a digital message tag, and my mother made me read it to the group. “Flying lessons? Really? You’re either incredibly cool or incredibly insane,” I said.

“Well, it’s dependent on the ship being assigned somewhere we can actually rent a flitter,” he hedged. “But I heard you didn’t get to take the lessons for your license.”

I left the chair I was sitting in, crossed the room, and hugged him, then returned to my seat. “I’m not sure I deserve any of this,” I said, “but aside from having my favorite pop star show up for a private show, this has been the best birthday ever.”

T’vek’s parents presented me with a Vulcan lyre and a data solid with instruction videos, but stressed that it was acceptable to keep the instrument as a piece of art if I didn’t wish to learn to play.

“I’ll learn to play it,” I promised, adding, “thank you both.” And then, because I would have done so even without my mother’s pointed looks, I added, “Thank you all. I feel really special tonight.”

“You are special, kiddo,” Mom said.

Shortly after that, the party began to break up. The leftover cake and the presents were beamed back to our quarters, and the adults left the rest of us alone on the holodeck, which had been booked until the beginning of the day shift. I’m pretty sure my mother knew T’vek and I would end up staying there alone for the last several hours of that time, but we’d agreed not to talk about it, so I put it out of my mind.

“I have to go,” Wes said after a bit. We’d all been hanging out on the sofas at that point. “I’ve got bridge duty from midnight to zero-four-hundred.”

“You’ll bring Data the slice of cake I set aside?” I asked.

He grinned, “Yeah. And I’ll let you know what he says.”

I got up from the loveseat I was sharing with T’vek, and gave Wes a hug. “Tonight, everyone feels the love. Thanks for coming.”

“Happy birthday, Zoe.”

Annette came to hug me, and then left with him. “I’ll walk you…” I heard her say as they left the room.

“Anyone up for night surfing?” Josh asked. “Cuz I don’t know about Zoe, but I’m dying to try that program.”

“I think it’s going to have to wait for another day,” I said apologetically.

“Translation,” Dana said, merrily. “Zoe and Tev are kicking us out.”

I hung my head in mock-shame. “We are,” I said. “I’m sorry…but…”

She just laughed. “Naah, it’s okay. You two have your time together. Come on, Josh. My father’s on the late shift tonight, too…”

More hugs were exchanged, and then Tev and I were alone on the holodeck. Quietly, he called in an arch and locked the doors.

“So, your present,” he said, catching my hand and leading me to one of the larger couches.

“What, it really is you with a bow?”

He smiled, but shook his head. “I went to see Data a few days ago, and he said your cello couldn’t be fixed. I asked him for some of the pieces.”

“You made something for me?”

“Yeah…” He reached under the table where the gifts had been, and pulled out a flat package which he handed to me. “Open.”

I ripped the tissue apart, and found a box, which I opened. Inside was a framed holograph of T’vek and me at my father’s wedding. “Oh, wow,” I said. “Tev, this is gorgeous.” I looked more closely at the wood of the frame. “This is the wood from my cello.”

“Is that okay?”

“Okay? It’s awesome.”

“How awesome?” he asked, teasing me.

I grinned. “How ’bout I show you?”

Note to self: when having birthday tryst on the holodeck with your boyfriend, replicate blankets before you start.

(=A=)

Stardate 44057.99

(22 January 2367, 04:00 hours, ship’s time)

Late in the night – or really, very early in the morning – I woke to T’vek gently stroking my cheek. “Hey,” I said, my voice sounding too loud in the empty room.

“Hey,” he said. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I have to tell you something.” His tone was gentle, but the words were ominous.

“If you’re breaking up with me the night after my birthday…” I warned, sitting up, and looking around for the bag I’d been told to bring. It was behind him. “Hand me my overnight bag, please? I’m cold.”

Wordlessly he did so, waiting for me to shrug into the t-shirt and jeans that were stuffed into it. “I’m not breaking up with you,” he said, “exactly. And it’s not my choice.”

My hands fisted into the party dress he’d helped me out of the night before, and only the agony on his face and in his voice kept me from strangling him with it. “Go on.”

“My parents told me the night we almost melded…Mom’s being transferred to a different ship. Part of trying to restaff everything after Wolf 359.”

“Do you know which ship?”

“The Berlin. We’ll be transferring over when we get to Ogus II.”

“That’s less than a week from now,” I said. I should have been angry or upset, but all I felt was numb. “You should have told me sooner.”

“I wanted to,” he said. “Zoe, I tried, but then there was everything with your Mom, and your birthday and…” He stopped. “I love you,” he said. “I don’t want us to end.”

“Show me,” I said. “Show me what you really feel.”

His dark eyes fixated on mine, as if he was searching for something. “Again?”

“Not sex. Show me…meld with me again. But this time…do it like you mean it.”

“It might not work…I might not be able to…”

“It will work,” I said. “I know it will.” Very softly, I added, “Please?”

His breath hitched and his eyes grew wider, but after a moment, he nodded. “Give me a minute.” He, too, dressed in fresh clothes he’d brought with him, and then he asked the computer to increase the room temperature.

We sat on the floor, our legs crossed, our knees touching, and he guided my fingers to his temple, then put his fingers on mine. They were burning hot. Or I was freezing cold. Maybe both.

“My mind to yours,” he began, speaking the ritual words, but I quickly lost track of what they were, because all of a sudden I heard him in my head, only it wasn’t really hearing so much as knowing.

Zoe? His mind-voice was cautious.

Tev? Are we…together?

I think so.

And then he felt at me, and I knew – really knew – that he didn’t want to leave, that he really did love me. I tried to reflect back what I felt for him: love and desire and hope, and the knowledge that high school sweethearts never last forever.

When he pulled away from our connection, when we were both just ourselves again, he was very quiet, and tears were streaming down my face.

“Are you okay?” he asked, more tentatively than I’d ever heard him speak.

I rose to my knees and pulled him close, kissing him. “I hate this,” I said. “I hate that you’re going and I hate that you knew and didn’t tell me, but I’m not mad at you. How could I be.”

“So…what now?”

I sat back and was quiet for a moment. Finally, I said, “I guess…we just try to make the most of the few days we have left, and keep in touch as best we can.” I managed a watery smile. “Deal?”

He smiled back at me. “Deal.”

We put socks and shoes back on, gathered our belongings, and ended the holodeck program. He walked me back to my quarters, and we kissed at my door, lingering. “You should come in,” I said.

“Zoe…your mom…”

“I’m tired. I need to sleep. I don’t want to miss a second of time with you, and Mom will understand.” I wasn’t all that certain about the last part but I was willing to take the chance.

“And if she doesn’t?”

“She’ll just have to deal.”

We went to my room, to my bed, but we didn’t undress, just laid down to sleep, and if my dreams that night – morning – whatever – were about the universe shattering around me, at least I had Tev’s heartbeat pulsing against me like a beacon.

Notes: Yes, this chapter is a little longer than usual – a lot had to happen and there was no natural break. Yes, Tev and his family are really leaving the Enterprise. (In my original outline, Tev was going to die, but he insisted that shouldn’t happen.)

Crush: Chapters 21-31

Chapter 20: Conversations in Three-Quarter Time

Disclaimer: Paramount owns Star Trek: the Next Generation and all the canon characters and settings. Zoe, T’vek, and their classmates are mine. I’m just playing in the Trek sandbox.

Conversations in ¾ Time

“So we’re all agreed, then?” T’vek asked. He, Wes, Dana, Josh and I were in the living area of the family quarters Wes and his mother shared. Most of our group meetings had taken place in the quarters I shared with my mother, but she had been on a weird shift rotation ever since we’d all returned from our field trip, and the last thing she needed was a pack of pesky teenagers taking over her living room. “We’re going with a Steampunk Halloween theme and putting our rides in the context of a carnival?”

“I’m all for it,” I said, “and not just because it was my idea. But I think we might need a little help with the actual holodeck programming parts of our plan.”

Dana added, “Not to mention some extra time. Zoe, you should be the one to ask Data for that. You’re the favorite.”

I nearly choked on the cranberry juice I was drinking. “Favorite? Me? Hardly. Besides, Wes sees him on the bridge every day…” I turned to him. “So you should ask him. You’re not just teacher and student; you’re friends…and colleagues.”

“I’m pretty sure Data has you in the ‘friend’ category, too, Zoe,” Wes said. “Besides, I think it would be better if I’m the one who consults our holodeck consultant.”

“Holodeck consultant?” Josh asked. “You mean your mom, don’t you? She’s programmed some pretty awesome set designs…”

But Wes was already shaking his head. “Nope,” he said. “I mean Lt. Barclay.”

“Barclay?” Dana queried. “Isn’t he the one you nicknamed ‘Broccoli’?”

“Oh, god, I’ve heard of him,” I said. “Shy, nervous, prematurely balding, habitually late…”

“He’s also the best holodeck programmer on the ship,” Wesley pronounced in a tone that allowed no argument. “Well, except for Geordi and Data, but we can’t ask them.”

“I vote for Zoe talking to Data about time, and Wes consulting Barclay, then,” T’vek suggested.

“I agree,” Dana said. “Meanwhile Josh and I will work on the graphics for the video invitation.”

T’vek grinned, “And I,” he said, “will complete the draft of our report, but I think Zoe should do the final proof-reading of the part that gets our English grade.”

“Dana’s a better writer than I am,” I said, by way of a protest.

“But you have a way of using language that makes everything sound fresh and interesting,” my best friend countered.

“I knew you only loved me for my knowledge of slang and pop-culture,” I quipped to my friends, and we all burst out laughing. After a bit, I added, “I have quartet rehearsal with Data and the rest of his group tonight; I’ll ask him then.”

“And I’ll be in engineering tomorrow, so I can talk to Barclay.”

“And on that note,” Josh said, “I’m out of here. Dana, you’re still coming over for dinner, right?”

Dana blushed, but confirmed “I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

“We should probably all go. I need to check in with my mother and grab my cello. Wes, thank your mom for letting us take over her living space?”

“Sure,” he said. “Honestly, she’s just happy I’m spending time with people my own age.”

I shot him a rueful grin, but didn’t admit that we shared the tendency to gravitate toward adults rather than our actual peers. It was the typical curse of the only child. I turned off my padd and stood up to go. “T’vek, wanna walk me home?”

“As if you have to ask,” he said. He, too got up, and we left the Crusher quarters together. Outside their door, he caught hold of my hand. “Your mother is on night watch tonight, isn’t she?” he asked.

“Mmhmm.”

“So, if I were to stop by about…oh, say…nine?”

“I might be available…and alone…” I said coyly. “Assuming rehearsal is really only two hours. Your parents won’t mind, though?”

“As long as I’m home by midnight, they’re cool,” he said.

I grinned. “Nine, then.” We continued walking down the corridor, and into the turbo-lift, hand in hand. At my door, we shared a kiss. “See you later, Tev.”

“Bye, Zoe.”

(=A=)

I was happy to find my mother both home and awake when I entered our quarters. She’d been working a lot of late shifts since our return from Serenity Five. I knew it was payback for some of the shift juggling, but even so, I missed her working a nice, predictable day shift. “Hey,” I greeted her, grinning. “Want to have dinner with your favorite daughter?”

She smiled back at me over the top of the padd she was reading. “I could be persuaded to take you to the lounge for dinner if you want,” she offered.

I shook my head. “Tempting as that sounds, I think I’d better eat here tonight. Remember I told you Data invited me to take over the cello part in his string quartet?” She nodded and I continued. “Well, there’s a rehearsal tonight and I don’t want to have to race back to grab my cello.”

“You’ve been spending a lot of time with him,” my mother observed.

“Have I?” I asked. “We’ve only been back for a week, but except for rehearsal being added to the schedule, I see him about as much as I did before: three days a week for class and Saturday mornings for music.”

“If you say so,” my mother said. She set the padd aside and moved toward the replicator unit on the far wall. “Fettucini with pesto?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“Zoe, honey, I don’t want you to feel like there’s something wrong with your friendship with Commander Data. I just worry that you’re taking too much of his time.”

“I kind of worry that, too,” I confessed. “He keeps assuring me I’m not.” I began to set the table without being asked. “I spend a lot of time with T’vek, too,” I pointed out. “Are you concerned about that, as well?”

“Actually, yes,” she admitted. “But in a different way. The two of you seem so intense when you’re together.”

“Intense?” I asked. “Us?”

“Mmhmm. He’s a nice boy, and I trust you both, but Zoe, you’re very young.”

“Mom,” I interrupted. “You make it sound like I’m eight years old.”

“I know you’re not eight,” she said, setting steaming bowls of pasta on the table, and then directing the machine to dispense beverages. “But fifteen is a difficult age. You’re not a child, but you’re not quite a grown woman, and even though the ship is safe, all of you young people are unsupervised a lot…”

“I’ll be sixteen in three months,” I pointed out. “And you don’t have to worry. T’vek and I aren’t doing anything we aren’t ready for.” I sat down at the table with her, but my unspoken ‘yet’ was hanging over the entire meal.

(=A=)

Unlike my music theory lesson of a few days before, the quartet rehearsal took place in the multi-purpose room most often configured as a theater. I was a little nervous, but a video chat with my father had helped calm my nerves a bit, as did the knowledge that Data would never have asked me to join his group if he didn’t think I was good enough. He introduced me to everyone, and then we actually began to work through the music, first playing each piece straight through, then going over each section, agreeing on bow positions, and fine-tuning tricky passages.

After our two-hour session was over, the viola player, Lt. Commander Cressida (“Call me ‘Cress'”) Parish, flashed me an approving look, and said, “I have to admit, Zoe, when Data said he was bringing in his protégé, I was a little concerned, but you impressed me tonight.”

“Um…thanks, I guess. Data’s theory tutorial is helping my playing more than my formal lessons with Seth.” I mused aloud, adding, “For that matter, it’s been helping my voice lessons go more smoothly, too.”

Her smile softened. “You must be pretty special, to have attracted Data’s attention.”

I glanced across the room to where Data and the second violinist, Lt. Dennis Rai, were still in discussion about the right way to play a particular passage. “He’s pretty special too, I guess.” I said softly. Then I grinned. “My boyfriend says he likes it when we go out right after a music lesson because I’m always jazzed after doing ‘something artsy.'”

“Sounds like a smart boy. Who is he?”

“His name is T’vek Mairaj, and he’s also pretty special.”

She just smiled in that knowing way that adults often do when confronted by teenagers. Then she picked up her instrument case, and left the room. Dennis followed her soon after, and I moved to zip my cello back into its gig-bag. I had a hard case, of course, but the lighter, fabric, bag was easier when navigating corridors and turbo-lifts. Data came over to me as I was finishing.

“You played well tonight,” he said. “You seem to mesh well with the rest of the quartet. Are you comfortable with continuing as our cellist?”

“I’d like that,” I answered, standing up. “Cress called me your protégé before she left. Is that a bad thing?”

He seemed to analyze the word. “An appropriate, if not altogether accurate term. Do you object to it?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know…do you?” My padd, which I’d stuck in the back pocket of my gig bag, chimed a reminder of the time. “Aww, crap.”

“Is there a problem?”

I sighed. “Only that T’vek and I have a sort-of date at nine, and I’m going to be late and haven’t asked you…” I stopped. “Never mind.”

Data raised his eyebrows at me. “Have I not made it clear that your questions are always welcome, Zoe?”

“Yes, but…”

“Ah,” he said, in an apparent flash of understanding. “You do not wish to be late for your assignation with T’vek.”

“Assignation? Seriously? That makes it sound kind of…dirty.”

“I did not mean it that way.”

“I know.”

“Come, I will escort you back to your quarters via a somewhat shorter route than you are likely to know.”

“Much less awkward than trying to run with this thing.”

“Agreed.” He headed out the door, carrying his violin, which he’d replaced in its case while we’d been talking. “And you can ask your question while we walk.”

“It’s two questions now,” I said, following him into the corridor. “The first one is on behalf of the entire math tutorial. We wanted to ask if we could delay presentation of our project to next Friday.”

“Are you having difficulties with the assignment?”

“Me personally, or the group collectively?”

“I meant the group, but if you are having trouble with the work – ”

“I’m not,” I was quick to correct him. “I mean, I’m not likely to stop grumbling about it any time soon, because I am never going to like math – sorry, but it’s true – and I probably have to work harder than everyone else, but the challenge isn’t going to kill me or anything. Anyway, I meant the group. And no, we’re not having difficulties, exactly.”

He was leading me down corridors I didn’t recognize, turning left where I’d have thought going right made more sense – note to self, ask for a map of the ship – but seemed to still be paying attention. Nevertheless, he didn’t respond until we’d entered a turbo-lift and he’d told the computer where to send it. “Why do you require more time?”

“We chose to broaden the scope of our assignment. Our English teacher agreed that if we created marketing materials for our virtual amusement park, we could get extra credit – God, we sound like a bunch of nerdy over-achievers – and we want to present our report in a more…” I stopped, because he was staring at me as if I’d grown a second head. “What?”

“You typically use a much more casual mode of speech, even in class. Why are you not doing so now?”

“How is it that you can tell when I’m changing my speech patterns – I was attempting to be professional, by the way – but you don’t understand why I felt weird when you moved my theory lesson to your quarters?”

“Do you wish me to answer that?”

“Not really,” I muttered. “Although in a roundabout way you kind of did. Anyway, we’d like to give our presentation a bit more pizzazz, and to do that we need extra time, and please don’t ask me to elaborate, because we want to surprise you, and that is not an easy thing to accomplish.” I paused, since the turbo-lift seemed to be taking a while. “Where, exactly, does your shorter route take us?”

“We will be crossing the bridge and taking the lift on that side,” Data told me matter-of-factly.

“Excuse me, I think I went deaf a little. Did you just say the bridge? Isn’t that the place people like me are allowed only pretty much never?”

It was Data’s turn to be surprised. “You have really never seen the Enterprise bridge?”

“Hello, have you met me? The girl who goes out of her way to not understand rank hierarchies and thinks uniforms are barely one step above mixing plaids and stripes on the Giant List of Fashion Don’ts?” But I knew he was being serious, so I added, in a much softer tone. “Don’t rat me out to my friends, but I might be a lot more interested than I let on, and I vaguely remember there being a tour about a week before I started in your tutorial, except I didn’t go.”

“I will not ‘rat you out,’ but perhaps the next time a tour is offered you should avail yourself of the opportunity. If we were not trying to save time I would invite you to observe for a while.”

“Is that even allowed?”

“If an officer invites you, yes.” The lift doors opened, and there we were, and suddenly I couldn’t move, not because I cared about the consoles and controls, but because the view on the main screen was just fantastic. “Zoe, in order to cross the bridge, you must first exit the turbo-lift.” He took my cello from me. “Follow me, please.”

I wanted to stay and look at the view on the huge screen forever, but at the same time, seeing people doing their jobs brought me back to reality. “Sorry,” I said. I followed him across the back – back? – section of the bridge, which really reminded me of just a modified cockpit – only bigger – and into the lift on the opposite side. Once the door closed, he gave the deck order, and I just stared at him. “You see that view every day?” I asked.

“Not precisely that view,” he corrected. “But essentially, yes.”

“How do you ever get anything done?”

“I have assigned duties I am required to complete. The relative aesthetic qualities of the view do not impact that.”

“Data?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“That question, you weren’t supposed to answer.”

“Ah.”

“Sorry.” I waited a beat. “May I have my cello back now?”

He set it down, holding it steady until I’d looped my arm through one of the straps. “May I assume that you found something of merit in your brief visit to the bridge?”

“Maybe.” I admitted. “Please don’t be offended, but most of the time when I’m with you, I forget you’re an officer, and just see my tutor, or a fellow musician…or a friend.” I wasn’t entirely sure why that made him smile, but the expression spread slowly across his face.

“I am not offended,” he said mildly.

The lift doors opened and I realized we were in the junction closest to my mother’s quarters. “Wait, how did we get here?”

“I told you that it would be a route you were unlikely to know.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you have an annoying tendency to be right all the time?”

“Yes,” he said. “Quite often, in fact.”

I rolled my eyes at him, and was about to make another snarky comment, but then we were at my door, where T’vek was slouched against the bulkhead, waiting. “Hey,” I said. “Sorry I’m late.”

“Actually,” T’vek said, “you’re not. Hello, Data.”

“Greetings,” he said, as if it was a default response. For all I knew, it was. He met my eyes, and said, “Thank you for the conversation.” Then he added, “I will see you both in class tomorrow.” He turned and walked away at a brisk pace.

I thrust my cello into T’vek’s arms, and went after him. “Data, wait.” He stopped and turned expectantly. “Do we get the extra time?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “One week from Friday. I will look forward to being…surprised.”

Chapter 21: You Are Cordially Invited

Disclaimer: Paramount owns Star Trek: the Next Generation and all the canon characters and settings. Zoe, T’vek, and their classmates are mine. I’m just playing in the Trek sandbox. This chapter has a STRONG T rating.

You Are Cordially Invited…

Two days before the extended due-date for our project, I showed up to my math tutorial twenty minutes early, with a box wrapped in purple tissue paper and adorned with gold ribbon. Each of us had already presented similar boxes to our parents. Wes would be sharing more of them with the Captain and our friend – his kind-of girlfriend – Annette. Josh and Dana had arranged to deliver boxes to Lt. Commander LaForge and Lieutenant Barclay in Engineering, and T’vek had drawn Guinan from our list of invitees, though we’d be handling that particular delivery together, after class.

I entered the conference room where our tutorial typically met, to find that Data had also arrived early, as I’d requested. “Good morning,” I sing-songed, placing the package before him. “What’s the story, morning glory?”

He was seated at his customary place at the center of the conference table, and looked up at me with an expression that was the android-equivalent of perplexed, before singing back to me, “What’s the tale, nightingale?” His singing voice was a warm tenor, almost baritone, but he continued on in his regular speaking voice, “Is the musical ‘Bye-Bye Birdie’ somehow significant to your request to meet before class?”

“Nope, I’m just in a really good mood.”

“Ah,” he said. He examined the wrapped box with as much detail as possible without picking it up. “Is today a holiday of which I am unaware?”

“Nope again. That gift is step one of our class presentation, and I won the privilege of getting to see you open it.” I paused before adding. “I promise it’s not harmful, illegal, or illicit – more’s the pity. Just a bit of fun.”

“This would be the ‘pizzazz’ you mentioned.”

“The merest hint of it. Please open it before everyone else gets here. I lobbied hard to be able to give it to you privately.”

Again he offered me his perplexed look. “Why?”

I rolled my eyes. “Honestly, Data, analyzing everything spoils the fun in it. It doesn’t tick, it won’t explode, and there’s no confetti involved, so please just open it.”

“Very well.” He slid the gold ribbon off the box and began a slow and meticulous unwrapping job.

I chuckled softly.

“Have I done something humorous?”

“No,” I said. “I just had a feeling you weren’t the ripping type.”

“If one is careful, the paper may be re-used,” he pointed out.

“True enough. My birthday’s in January, by the way.” I considered telling him that I liked jewelry, but decided that doing so would be crossing a line.

He set the folded paper aside, and opened the box itself, drawing out the mask we’d chosen for him, an owl with copper wire feathers and cogs for eyes. “It is…a mask,” he observed.

“There’s more.”

He reached back into the box, and found the creamy paper envelope that had been under the mask, opened it, and read aloud from the enclosed card, “You are cordially invited to the grand opening of Crumpe and Lillivick’s Quantum Carnival, being a Presentation of Amusement Rides and Period Entertainments. Holodeck Three. Ten o’clock A.M, Enterprise Time. Friday the 31st of October, 2366. Victorian or Steampunk attire is encouraged but not obligatory.” He examined both sides of the card, but didn’t read the stardate conversion we’d included for the time and date. “You have expanded my assignment to a three-dimensional rendering on the holodeck?” he asked.

“That’s why we needed the extra time. It’s also why we’re all now bff’s with The Man Who Made Godot Look Punctual.”

“I do not understand.”

“Lieutenant Barclay.”

“Ah.” He thought it over for a about millisecond. “A remarkably apt description. However, I was referring to the term ‘bff’.”

I blushed. “Sorry. Slang. ‘Best friends forever,’ only, you know, not really. Iis it okay that we set it up for class-time without consulting you first?”

“I would prefer that you do consult me next time,” he said. “But in this case, it seems appropriate. I will see you at the holodeck on Friday morning.”

“Super,” I said. “I really hope you like what we came up with.”

He didn’t have a chance to answer, because the rest of the class came in, and I went to take my seat between T’vek and Dana.

(=A=)

After class, Dana reminded me that we had a study date planned for that evening, and then she and Josh went off to have lunch. T’vek and I headed for Ten-Forward, for once not needing an adult escort. “How did Data react to the invitation?” he asked me as we sauntered down the corridor toward the main turbo-lift bank, hand in hand.

“I was chastised for not clearing the schedule change with him, but it was perfunctory, at best. Also? I was right about him not ripping the paper.”

He grinned at that. “Care to claim your prize?”

“There’s a prize?”

“Mmhmm.”

I would never understand how he managed to make two syllables into something completely wicked. “Mom’s on night shift again tonight,” I said. “And Dana’s parents make her come home by nine on school nights.”

“They’re really over-protective.”

“She had an older sister who was kidnapped when they lived on Javartis. I think they just want her to be safe.”

“Really? I had no idea.”

I shrugged. “We’re raised with this notion that bad stuff doesn’t happen anymore, that no one is poor or oppressed, and that we’ve eradicated crime. The reality is that the universe is much grittier than we’re taught. You can give everyone a baseline of common necessities, but you can’t make people not want more.”

“Look at you, the budding activist.”

“I do more than just play pretty songs, you know.”

“I have never doubted this,” T’vek said.

We took the lift down to deck ten, and then walked to the forward section of the ship, and into the lounge. It was the alpha-shift lunch hour, so things were pretty busy, but Guinan had been expecting us. “Zoe,” she greeted as we approached the bar, “and T’vek. Welcome. I’ve got a table reserved for the three of us.”

“Are you sure you can spare the time?” I asked. Suddenly, I was all too aware of how often adults seemed to accommodate us.

“Of course.” She led us to a table in a quieter – relatively – part of the room. “Join me,” she said, sitting down. I noticed that she chose a seat that let her face the room, while T’vek and I had chairs that gave us a good angle to the large viewport.

“We wanted to give you this,” T’vek said, placing his wrapped box in front of her.

“It’s not every day I get presents from two young people such as yourselves,” she said, smiling faintly. Her fingers were nimble, sliding the ribbon away, and then ripping open the package. She seemed to notice us watching her, though, because she looked up. “Don’t you just love the satisfying sound of wrapping paper being torn?”

I grinned. “Absolutely,” I said.

T’vek’s answer was to quirk his eyebrow in my direction.

I grinned at him, then turned my attention back to Guinan, who was lifting her invitation out of the box first, reading it, and then reaching in for the other item. While we’d created a mask for Data, each person had received something we thought suited their personality. Obviously, the bartender was getting a hat. Well, sort of. It was a fascinator designed to look like a top hat, made in deep green with a black lace veil attached. “This is lovely,” she said “But who are Crumpe and Lillivick?”

“We are,” T’vek said. “Well, sort of.”

“Data assigned us a project, but we were having so much fun with it, we decided to expand the presentation from code and animated renderings to a holodeck experience. We didn’t want to send the invitation with five names on it, so we came up with Crumpe and Lillivick because they sounded cool.”

“Crumpe represents Wesley, Josh, and me,” T’vek elaborated, his dark eyes sparkling as he warmed to the topic. “And Lillivick is Zoe and Dana.”

“Dana, Josh, and I did most of the design on the invitations,” I added. “I hope you’ll come.”

“If this is your way of getting me to remove the requirement that you have an adult escort, it won’t work,” she said. “Though I admire your solution of making me your escort.”

“That was my idea,” T’vek admitted. “And we appreciate your willingness to play along.”

“We really just thought our presentation might amuse you.” I said.

“Interesting that you’re using a steampunk motif,” came her answer.

“Interesting how?” I asked.

“It’s a fantastic version of real history, but with better opportunities for women and those with certain scientific interests.”

“She wanted to include vampires and demons.”

“Only a few. And I left out Jack the Ripper.”

“Jack the Ripper,” Guinan mused. “You know, there are some great stories suggesting Sherlock Holmes was the man who solved those murders.”

“But Holmes was fictional,” T’vek said.

“Was he?” but she was obviously teasing us. “It’s still an interesting notion. But even without a serial killer, I think your ‘Quantum Carnival’ sounds interesting. I will attend.”

“Thanks, Guinan.”

“You’re very welcome. Now, what do you want for lunch?”

(=A=)

“How did you know T’vek liked you as more than a friend?” Dana asked me later that day, during our “study date.” I had just finished proofing an essay for her, just as she had been proofing mine.

“I’m not sure, exactly,” I answered honestly. “He came to me to ask about setting up Serenity Five, and we just kind of clicked. Though, taking me to the aquatics lab for a make-out session was kind of a clue.”

“Is it true Commander Data caught you two sleeping together in the corridor of the runabout.”

I had the decency to blush. “Um. Kind of. In the sense that we were just sleeping.”

She set aside the padd she’d been working on. “He didn’t tell your parents?”

I shook my head. “Data is surprisingly awesome, once you get to know him.”

“Only because you’re his favorite.”

“I’m so totally not his favorite. I’m pretty sure he can’t even have favorites. And if he could, it’d be someone who doesn’t have to struggle with every single assignment.” I noticed her starting to speak, probably to ask if I needed math help, so I cut her off with a question of my own. “Why the questions about me and Tev, anyway? Did something happen between you and Josh?”

It was Dana’s turn to blush. “He kissed me.”

“Really? When? Where? I want details.”

“Well,” she said, “remember when I went to dinner at his place the other night? His parents decided to go for a walk in the arboretum – ”

“Translation,” I interrupted, “they were giving the two of you some alone time.”

She picked up her padd again, pretending to study it, “Possibly. Anyway, we were watching a vid – that series about the café on the frontier of Mars – and there was a scene where the main characters were kissing and Josh said it wasn’t very realistic and we could do it better.”

“And then he kissed you?”

“And then he kissed me.”

“And?”

“And I kissed him back, and it was nice…”

“But?”

“But now when I see him I’m all squidgy and awkward.”

“Like butterflies in your belly?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Dana, my dear, you are in love.”

“I know that, Zoe, but what do I do?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. Boys are confusing sometimes. Maybe just ask him if he’ll ride the Ferris wheel with you on Friday.”

“What is it with you and Ferris wheels?”

I set down my own padd, and got up. “I’m getting a drink. Do you want anything?”

“That cranberry orange juice you had the other day was good.”

I ordered two glasses from the replicator, then returned to the couch, handing one glass to my friend. I sat cross-legged on the seat, facing her. “Ferris wheels are only the most romantic ride in existence. They’re slow, so you have time to chat or make out or whatever. They’re up high, so you get a great view. They’re not noisy, so you can hear yourselves talk. They only seat two, which encourages couple-hood. And if that isn’t enough, you can always rock the car a little and pretend you’re afraid of falling, as an excuse to hold onto the guy you’re with.”

“Pretend to be afraid of falling…?”

I shrugged. “It’s not the most empowering move, but I’m told it works.”

“Are Josh and I dating now?”

I laughed softly. “I think,” I said, “you’ll have to ask Josh. You know…we should all do dinner – the five of us and Annette – for Annette’s birthday. Like, a grown-up dinner thing.”

“That would be so much fun!”

“Yeah,” I said. “It really would.”

“Okay,” Dana said, “we should get back to work now. I have to be home by nine, and you have T’vek coming over.”

“I never said that!” I protested.

“You didn’t have to,” Dana said, grinning at me. And that was why we were best friends; there was a lot we didn’t have to say.

(=A=)

Typical of T’vek, before we did anything social, he asked me if I’d look over his essay as well. I did, of course, but then I asked. “Okay, what are we doing tonight? Vids? Games? Sneaking into astrometrics and using the planetarium sphere for battle sims?”

“Tempting,” he said. “All very tempting. But I thought we might just take a walk…you aren’t required to stay in are you?” He turned off his padd, set it on the coffee table, and moved toward the door.

“Nope,” I said “Arboretum? Aquatics lab?” I put on a fake English accent, “Wot’s yer pleasure, sir?”

He favored me with his most mysterious smile. “You’ll see.”

“Do I need to change?”

He gave me an appraising look, taking in the red turtleneck, jeans, and boots I was wearing, as if he hadn’t noticed that I’d been wearing the same outfit all day. Well, maybe he hadn’t. “You look perfect,” he said. “C’mere.”

Leaving my padd on the couch, I crossed the room to him. “You’re being Mysterious Guy tonight,” I observed. “It’s kind of hot.”

He didn’t say anything, just leaned in for a kiss, which lasted until we were both breathless.

“This isn’t a walk,” I murmured.

“Nope,” he agreed.

“We should go…” I started to say, but then I remembered that underneath his shaggy hair there were delicately pointed ears, and I had to touch them. “Although, here’s nice, too.”

“Zoe…”

I found his hand with mine, and tugged. “Come with me.” I didn’t lead him back to the couch. Instead, I took him to my room, which was actually clean for a change. I sat on my bed, and drew him down to sit with me. Dropping his hand, I reached up to brush his hair. His eyes were huge, and I was pretty certain mine were as wide as saucers, as I reached to trace the points with one trembling finger. “You said once, that you could sense surface thoughts, if we were touching…can you tell what I’m thinking now?”

He closed his eyes, concentrating. “Music,” he said. “When I touch you, it’s all music.”

I pulled away. “Is that a bad thing?”

“Never. I just wish it was all for me.”

I wanted to ask him what he meant, or who he thought the music in my head was really for, but a part of me was afraid of what he’d say, so I took the cowardly route. “Stevek,” I said, using his whole name, before I kissed him. “T’vek,” and I kissed him again. “Tev…”

His hands twined into my hair, and suddenly we weren’t just sitting any more, but sprawled across my bed, and for a long time, there was no talking at all, just lips and tongues and hands and more than a little heavy breathing. His hand tugged at the hem of my shirt, and he whispered something that might have been asking for permission.

My response was to wiggle into a more comfortable position.

T’vek’s hand was hot against my skin, as he slipped it under my shirt, cupping my breast over my bra. “Okay?” he asked softly.

“Yeah,” I said, my voice catching in my throat. “You?”

“Perfect,” he said, but I didn’t know if he meant himself or me, or just…this. He was mostly on top of me, and as he leaned down to kiss me again, I heard the twin thuds of his shoes falling to the floor, and I managed to work my own boots off as well, even as he was insinuating his hand beneath the fabric of my bra, but then he moved, or I moved and the collar of my turtleneck started to choke me. “Zoe! Are you alright?” He moved away from me, pulling me upright as he did so.

“For future reference,” I managed after a moment of gasping. “Turtlenecks are not recommended as make-out session attire.”

His grin was warm and gentle. “I’ll try to remember that.” After a beat he added. “I thought I was pushing you too far.”

I shook my head. “It felt nice.”

“Just nice?” he teased.

“Really nice. Kind of amazing, actually. What time is it?”

He glanced at the digital display on my nightstand. “Not quite ten. We have time.”

“If I took my shirt off, would that be slutty or weird?”

“Definitely not weird,” he said. His dark eyes were shining. “And not slutty, either, unless you’re stripping down for Wes and Josh as well.”

“Well,” I teased. “Not for Wes and Josh.”

“Zoe…”

“Sorry.” I hesitated, then said, “If I’m taking something off, you should, too.”

“That’s fair,” he said, stripping off the tunic he was wearing. Like most Betazoids, he had almost no body hair. Like most Vulcans his compact frame belied his strength. Translation: the boy had muscles. He also had tawny skin that was radiating heat. “Ohhh.” I said softly.

He smirked at me. “You like what you see?”

“You know I do,” I said. I pulled my shirt off, tossing it aside, and then faced him wearing only my bra and jeans, and hoped I didn’t look as shy and nervous as I felt.

“Me, too,” he said, before I could ask.

I bent and kissed him, and he pulled me back onto my bed.

We didn’t undress any further, except that he did manage to get rid of my bra a little bit later. His touches and kisses were gentle and exploratory, sending chills all through me, and I was caught between wanting to just enjoy this new facet of our relationship, or reciprocate.

We never heard either of our padds remind us that T’vek had fifteen minutes to get home. We never heard the door chime sound. We didn’t even realize that my mother had come into our quarters and was standing in my room until suddenly, too close for comfort, came the words no teenager ever wants to hear:

“Zoe. Lauren. Harris. What do you think you’re doing?”

NOTES: The lines Zoe and Data sing are from “The Telephone Hour,” a song in the musical Bye Bye Birdie (book by Michael Stewart, lyrics by Lee Adams, music by Charles Strouse). The names Crumpe and Lillivick are from a Steampunk name generator, for no reason except that I think they sounded cool. I chose not to have Barclay present in any scenes (only referenced) because it would have made this chapter incredibly long, but there will probably be a one-shot. For those keeping track, while I did move the whole Jenna D’Sora relationship into season 3, in ‘series time’ this chapter takes place around the episode “Hollow Pursuits.”

Chapter 22: Middle Names

Disclaimer: Paramount owns Star Trek: the Next Generation and all the canon characters and settings. Zoe, T’vek, and their classmates are mine. I’m just playing in the Trek sandbox.

It’s All Fun and Games Until They Use Your Middle Name

We didn’t even realize that my mother had come into our quarters and was standing in my room until suddenly, too close for comfort, came the words no teenager ever wants to hear:

“Zoe. Lauren. Harris. What do you think you’re doing?”

In my deepest fantasies, when my mother asked that question I would favor her with my sauciest grin, and demand to know if she was asking a trick question. When she walked in on T’vek and me – half naked and in my bed – in reality, my response was much less polished. I took the pillow my boyfriend thrust at me, and used it to cover my chest. “Mom! You’re early.”

To her credit, my mother did not yell. Instead she looked at T’vek and me, and then said, “Living room. Five minutes. Get dressed.” She turned on her heel and walked out.

I didn’t move until I heard my bedroom door slide shut, and then I sat up. “Where exactly did you throw my bra?” I asked.

“Here,” T’vek said, handing it to me. He got up and began collecting his clothes, pulling his tunic over his head, and handing me my turtleneck.

“I’m sorry,” I said, as I, too, got dressed. “I’m really sorry.”

He shook his head. “Don’t be. We messed up, but I don’t regret anything. Do you?’

I smiled. “No.”

He kissed me. “Zoe, the timing of this completely sucks, but…I think I kinda love you.”

My heart started racing in my chest, but I didn’t have a chance to answer him because my mother called, “Zoe, T’vek, time’s up.”

T’vek’s father, Kenash, was waiting with my mother when we left the room.

“Hi, Dad,” my boyfriend said, too brightly.

“Stevek.” Apparently, when you’re a Vulcan/Betazoid hybrid, using your whole given name is as dire as when a middle name comes into play for a human.

“Is this the part where you start yelling at us for being stupid and breaking curfew?” I asked. Putting my mother on the defensive was an old tactic, but sometimes it actually worked.

“No,” my mother said.

“No?” T’vek and I asked together.

“This is the part where we point out that you’re damned lucky you live on a starship, where I could come down here and check to make sure that you were okay when you failed to answer the door chime. This is the part where we remind you that you’re both far too young to be having relationships this serious. This is the part where I bring up the fact that you, darling daughter, are only fifteen, and therefore below the legal age of consent.” Her voice got higher and more strident with each sentence.

“Calm down, Emily,” Mr. Mairaj suggested smoothly. “I know you’re upset. T’rella and I are not pleased about this either, but yelling at our children won’t solve the problem or correct their error.”

My mother took a couple of cleansing breaths. “You’re right, Kenash.”

“So, what happens now?” T’vek asked. “Are you forbidding us to see each other?”

“Would it work if we did?” his father countered.

“Probably not,” T’vek admitted.

I reached for my boyfriend’s hand and squeezed it, and he squeezed mine back. “We messed up,” I said, using his words from just a few minutes before. “And we’re both really sorry, but no one got hurt, and we weren’t running loose on the ship.”

“That may be the case,” Kenash agreed. “But T’vek’s mother had to interrupt Emily’s work in order to be certain that the pair of you were here and safe, and that cannot happen again.” He yawned. “However, this is not the time to discuss it. T’vek, I’ll wait for you in the corridor. Say your goodbyes quickly. ”

“Yes, Dad.” T’vek said even as I was saying “Goodnight, Mr. Mairaj.”

I glanced at my mother for permission, and then the two of us walked to the door, where I kissed him on the cheek, and said, “G’night Tev. See you in class.”

He leaned his forehead against mine for a moment, then pulled away. “Seeya, Zoe. Goodnight, Commander Harris.” And then he was gone.

I stared at the closed doors for a long moment, and then turned back to my mother. “I assume the yelling actually starts now?”

But instead of screaming at me, as I expected her to do, my mother came and wrapped me in her arms. “I’m incredibly angry and disappointed with you,” she said softly. “But I will never stop loving you, and Kenash is right. Yelling won’t resolve this.”

“I love you too, Mom,” I said, hugging her back.

“Good,” she said, “now go change, and go to bed. I’m not pulling you out of classes tomorrow if you’re too tired.”

“Yes, mom,” I said, and beat a hasty retreat to my bedroom.

(=A=)

Morning came all too quickly. I was over-tired, and my mother was milking her knowledge of that for all that it was worth, singing loudly and off-key (well, off-key was pretty normal for her), stirring her coffee by banging the spoon against the inside of her mug, and things of that ilk. I wanted to grumble at her, but I knew sweetness and light was a better defense at the moment.

“You look really radiant this morning, Mom,” I told her.

“Thank you,” she said, “but that doesn’t get you out of any consequences. Consider yourself grounded for the next two weeks.”

“Grounded?” I goggled at her in disbelief. “How can you ground me? Ground me from what? It’s not like there’s any place to go.”

“Isn’t there?” she asked, too pleasantly. “For the next two weeks, you’ll go to class, and music lessons, and otherwise be back here.”

“Am I allowed to have friends come over for study sessions?”

She seemed to consider the idea before answering, “Annette and Dana are welcome any time. No boys without express permission and adult supervision.”

That actually wasn’t so bad. “But only for two weeks, right?”

“The ‘no boys’ part is indefinite.”

“Mom!”

“Zoe, there may not be ‘any place to go,’ but despite that you’ve broken my trust in you. Earn it back, and I’ll reconsider.”

“What about Data’s quartet? We’re supposed to rehearse tonight.”

“Excuse me?”

“You said class and music lessons, but Data’s quartet isn’t really either.”

“You may attend providing he or one of the other members of the group escorts you to and from.”

“Seriously?” I asked her. “He’ll think I’m a total child.” I paused, using the time to obtain a glass of cranberry-orange juice and a breakfast burrito from the replicator. “You’re not going to tell him why, are you?” I asked, after I’d returned to the table.

My mother relented, a little. “I won’t provide details, no, but I need to know where you are, and ensure that you are honoring your restriction, which leads me to this.” She slid a small metal object across the table, toward me. “Put it on.”

I stared at it, “This is a com-badge.”

“Yes.”

“Since when do civilians wear com-badges?”

“Since their mothers need to be able to track their whereabouts. Besides, if you’d had one last night, you would not have missed our attempts to contact you.”

I muttered something about kid-leashes and hand-cuffs.

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

“I didn’t think so.” But again she relented, adding the information, “It’s not just you. All civilians are being added to the com-network. You’ll have limited access, of course, so don’t think you and your friends can use them for chit-chat.”

“Whatever.”

“You will wear it.”

I sighed, and attached it to the shirt I was wearing, a black long-sleeved t-shirt with the slogan, “We’re all mad here,” written in silver text. It was a reference to Alice in Wonderland, but I liked it because it left people just a bit on edge. “Fine. See.”

“You will contact me as soon as you get back to quarters after every class or lesson.”

“Or quartet rehearsal?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll still come to our presentation tomorrow?”

“Of course. I’m looking forward to seeing the project that required a field trip and an entire suitcase full of new outfits.”

“Honestly, mom. You were there. You know the field trip was all about enhancing our education.”

“And the clothes?”

“My beloved father felt guilty for neglecting his only daughter. A little retail therapy did wonders to assuage that guilt.”

“A ‘little retail therapy’ would have been just the bags you came back with the night you snuck out to be with him.”

It was my turn to give a little. “I think part of it was from Gia. She’s trying to be my friend or something.” I got up, and returned my tableware to the replicator. “Gotta book. Things to learn, music to play, all of that.” I dropped a kiss onthe top of her head as I left. “Love you.”

(=A=)

For the first time in weeks, T’vek wasn’t waiting for me outside my quarters, but Dana was. “Hey, you,” she greeted, grinning at me. “I come bearing messages.”

“Messages? As in plural?” I started walking toward the ‘lift as we talked.

She laughed. “Yes, but they’re both from one person. T’vek’s got some kind of thing in sickbay today, and didn’t want you to worry when he wasn’t here.”

“Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

“That’s the second message. His father blocked communications on his padd, and – as you know – we’re not allowed to use our newly-assigned com-badges for anything that isn’t an emergency.”

I glanced at my friend, checking to see that she, too, was sporting new jewelry. I was oddly reassured that she was. “I was half-convinced that only T’vek and I were getting these. You know, electronic leashes.”

She shook her head. “Dad said they’d actually been considering it for a while.” Her father, I remembered, was in security.

“Is there something going on that we should know about?”

“Nothing I’ve heard, but Dad doesn’t really let me know what’s going on.”

“No, I guess he wouldn’t.” Dana’s father was the living example of over-protective. “I don’t suppose you and Annette would like to come have lunch at my place today, so that I don’t have to eat all alone?”

“Oh, Zoe, I’d love to…” she began, but hesitated.

I gave my friend a hard look, realizing for the first time that her blonde hair was not pulled back in its typical pony-tail, and that she was wearing an actual dress. I tried hard not to smile too broadly. “But…” I was going to make her say it.

“But I have plans with Josh.”

I grinned. “That’s wonderful. Well, for you, not so much for me. Although, I should probably use the time to practice. I have quartet rehearsal tonight, and I don’t want to disappoint Da – the group – because it’s my only non-class activity for the next two weeks.”

“What exactly happened between you and T’vek last night? Josh said you were running battle sims in astrometrics or something.”

“I’m not sure where he got that idea…” At least it meant T’vek hadn’t given him any details. “T’vek didn’t tell you anything?”

“Only that you’d both messed up, and he had an appointment.”

“Yeah, we messed up by getting caught messing around. Together. On my bed.” We’d ridden the turbo-lift to the school deck by now, and I didn’t want everyone else hearing. “We might have been a little bit topless.”

“Oh my god, Zoe, you didn’t…!”

“Oh, god, no. I mean…there was kissing and stuff, but…no. Not everything.”

“But you will.”

I blushed thinking about it. “I don’t know. Maybe? My mother made a few valid points between ranting about us being stupid.”

Dana seemed to think that over. “I’m not sure stupid is the right word,” she said after a beat or two. “But Zoe, I’m the same age you are, and I know I’m not ready to go that far with Josh…”

I shrugged. “People are ready for things when they’re ready for them. I’m pretty sure it was only a couple years ago that I was still insisting that boys are gross.”

Dana smiled at that. “So, you’re just grounded?”

“Like it matters much. Oh, and no boys in quarters without adult supervision. And I have to have an escort to and from rehearsals.”

“If you ever want to trade parents…” she began, but I knew she didn’t really mean it.

“Your father isn’t that bad,” I assured her. “I mean, he’s stricter with you than the rest of our parents are, but he’s in security. He sees stuff.”

“Yeah, but I’d never have gotten a mere grounding,” she countered. “If I was caught topless with a boy, my father would have replicated a chastity belt and used self-actuating stem bolts to keep it on me til I turned thirty.”

“When you put it that way…” I let the sentence trail off, because we’d arrived at our classroom for History of the Federation. “Though, with the right accessories a chastity belt could be a new fashion trend. Anyway, we have to go learn everything we never wanted to know about the Andorian-Tellarite wars, and save the important stuff for later.”

As I’d hoped, Dana responded to that with easy laughter.

Notes: Just a shout-out to all of you who continue to read and comment, especially those who don’t actually log in to do so.

Chapter 23: Tilt-a-Whirl

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Tilt-a-Whirl

The morning of our presentation, I transmitted the file with our written report to Data’s terminal about an hour before we were scheduled to meet at the holodeck. I’d been tasked with the final proofreading and sending, and I wanted to make sure it was there on time. As it turned out, our tutor was unable to make it to our presentation, and Geordi and the captain were also unable to attend. There was an emergency on Beta Agni II, and we were the closest ship to a supplier of the chemical needed to fix the problem.

At least, that’s what I gleaned from Wes’s excited chatter, when he came rushing down the corridor. “We have to get this done so I can get back to the bridge,” was his final pronouncement.

Our presentation, then, was made to our parents, Guinan, and Lt. Barclay. We paired off, well, divided up. – T’vek ended up riding the Ferris wheel with my mother (and what I wouldn’t have given to hear that conversation), Dana and Barclay went on the Wave-Warrior, a pendulum ride based on a pirate ship, with her father and Josh’s mother tagging along, while Josh escorted Guinan and Wesley’s mother onto the Stellar Scrambler.

That left Wes and T’vek’s father to ride the Galactic Gravitron, while I was paired with my boyfriend’s mother.

Other than that she was pure Vulcan, all I knew about T’rella Mairaj was that she was some kind of scientist and played the flute. She’d invited my mother and me to dine with them, but we hadn’t yet managed to schedule anything. I suspected that, given recent events, that dinner was going to be scheduled pretty quickly. “Commander Mairaj,” I invited, “would you join me on the Axial Tilt?”

“That would be agreeable.”

I led the way onto the ride, choosing a car at random, and explaining, “We designed each ride for maximum enjoyment based on average humanoid responses to spinning, twisting, and the possibility of falling from the ride, though the reality is that it’s almost impossible to fall out.” We’d also added holographic riders to fill any cars or gondolas that didn’t have real people, because our research showed us that part of the fun in an amusement park ride was the collective mood of the crowd.

“You have done an exemplary job at recreating the carnival atmosphere,” she observed, seating herself. “I see a lot of my son’s handiwork in the architectural choices.”

“Tev told me he’d like to do this for a living,” I said. “Architecture, not designing theme parks.”

“I am aware of that desire. I encourage it. I am also aware of your desire to make music your profession. Do you believe that to be a wise choice?”

The ride lurched into motion, the twisting circles beginning at a fairly gentle speed, but gradually accelerating. “I grew up watching my father’s career,” I answered. “Touring with him. I like theatre, too, but right now music is what’s driving me.”

“Then you are not committed to a career path?”

“I’m committed to becoming the best musician I can,” I said, trying to be polite. “I’m not even sixteen yet. My mother thinks I should ‘explore more options’ before making any irrevocable decisions.”

“And yet you and Stevek nearly made an irrevocable decision two nights ago.” It wasn’t a question, and her voice was neutral, so I wasn’t sure if she was angry or concerned or…anything.

“We let things go a little too far,” I allowed, “but no one got hurt. It’s not like we jumped ship to run off and elope, or anything.”

She must have sensed my defensiveness. “Zoe, please understand. I am not angry with Stevek or with you. I am concerned for my son’s well-being, and for yours.”

“Mine?”

“Stevek believes he is in love with you.”

The ride accelerated further, the twists and turns of the car on the tilted platform matching those of my emotions. “I know,” I said. “I think I’m in love with him, too.”

“But you are not certain.”

“I know I love him,” I said. “I’m not sure where just loving someone ends and being in love with them begins. He’s creative and supportive and – forgive me – kind of hot – and being with him is just…easy. But…”

“But…?” Her nudging was surprisingly gentle, considering the Vulcan reputation for being completely logical all the time.

I hesitated, not sure what, or how much, to say.

“Zoe, Stevek has outwardly embraced his Betazoid traits far more than his Vulcan ones. His father and I decided together that he would choose his own path in that regard. He displays emotion, as you know, but inside he is still half Vulcan.”

The spinning got even faster as we tilted and whirled among the other cars on the ride. “Are you telling me to back off?”

“No,” T’rella said. “I am not. I believe you and Stevek are well-suited. However, I believe that it is imperative the pair of you proceed with caution. As you pointed out, you are only fifteen. My son is not that much older.”

“My mother said basically the same thing,” I shared, even as I locked my grip on the lap bar of our car. “Only her phrasing was that we not be in a rush to grow up.” I paused, adjusted my grip, and continued. “If you’re worried about us having sex, I know I’m not ready to go there yet.” I’m not sure what compelled me to continue, but I added, “I promise I won’t hurt him.”

T’rella turned her head to meet my gaze. “No,” she said. “I do not believe you will. I only hope that he does not hurt you.” There was a long stretch of silence, and I felt the ride reverse direction, part of the deceleration routine. “I will contact your mother later today about a mutually agreeable time and date for dinner.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. “Thank you, Commander,” I said.

“T’rella,” she corrected, “is my given name. I would be honored if you would use it.”

“Thank you, T’rella,” I amended as the ride came to a stop. The locks on the lap bar disengaged, and I pushed it away. “And thanks for riding with me. I hope you enjoyed it.”

She didn’t smile at me, not quite, but there was a hint of a twinkle in her dark eyes when she replied, “I found the experience to be most educational. Thank you, Zoe.”

We left the platform and joined my classmates and the rest of our guests. T’vek caught my eye and raised a questioning brow, but I just shook my head and mouthed the word ‘later’ at him. Then, since none of my friends were moving things along I spoke up, “We know you all have things to get back to, so we’d like everyone to come and ride the Cosmic Comet together.”

As much as I’d lobbied for the inclusion of the Ferris wheel, the Cosmic Comet was the real piece de resistance of our carnival. Designed to look like it was made of copper tubing and wooden rails, it was actually a mag-coaster, translated into a holographic setting. It had three big peaks, and a final descent that corkscrewed to a finish. We’d debated adding a loop, but decided it would be overkill.

There were thirteen of us, which made seating a bit of a challenge, but T’vek and I, as the resident thrill seekers, commandeered the front seat of the front car, with his parents directly behind us, and Guinan my mother sharing the back seat. The second car had Josh and his mother in the front, Dana and her father in the back, and Wes and his mother in the middle.

“Reg,” the doctor invited, “come sit with Wes and me.”

The nervous lieutenant demurred. “I’m not really a fan of – ah – roller coasters,” he said. “Vertigo. I get vertigo.”

“You’re not riding?” Josh confirmed.

“But you helped us with all the programming,” Dana added.

“I’d really prefer to just…watch,” he insisted.

“Your loss,” Wes said, and even though I couldn’t see him, I just knew he was shrugging when he said it.

“Alright then,” I said, “Lt. Barclay, start the ride, at least?”

“That I can do,” he agreed, and did so.

The Cosmic Comet run was timed to last for two minutes and fourteen seconds, but everyone – including T’rella – asked for a second run, so it was five minutes later that we actually exited the ride.

“That was awesome!” Josh said.

“I had a great time,” his mother said, hugging him as long as he allowed it – about fifteen seconds.

“I enjoyed this experience as well,” T’rella told us. “You have all done a remarkable job. I am certain Commander Data will be impressed with your work.”

“I hope so,” I said, at about the same time Wes did.

“Do you think we could keep the program as part of the entertainment library?” T’vek asked. “So we can come back to it, and others can use it?”

“I do not see why not,” his mother answered. “Doctor?”

Beverly Crusher smiled, “I’m pretty sure once Data sees it, he’ll approve its inclusion,” she said. “Thank you all for a marvelous morning. I’m sorry the captain couldn’t make it.”

The conversation went on in a similar vein for a few more minutes, as we students answered some questions about the design and the inspiration for the project, and explained why we’d chosen the rides that we had.

Finally, though, Wes said, “I’m due on the bridge. Mom, do you wanna walk with me?”

“I’d love to,” she said, and they disappeared.

T’vek and his parents also left, as did everyone else. My mother and I remained, to shut everything down.

“You’re awfully quiet, Zoe,” she observed.

“I had an interesting chat with T’rella, is all,” I said.

“I thought as much.”

“Did you plan it? Separating T’vek and me so you could each have conversations?”

She favored me with her best wry grin. “If only I was that good at plotting. Actually, T’vek asked me to ride with him. He was lobbying to end your grounding.”

“He wasn’t!”

“He was.”

“Did it work?” I asked.

“I told him you were free of restriction after tomorrow morning.” She hesitated a moment, then said, in a softer tone. “I was your age once, too, Zoe. I might have over-reacted a little.”

“A little?”

“I could have sent you to the Sisters of Serenity on PaxWorld,” she pointed out.

“You would never do that,” I said. “We’re not even Catholic.”

“Fair point.” She reached out to me, and I moved closer so she could hook her arm around my waist. I returned the embrace, and saved and closed our program. My mother continued, though, saying, “I’m a little hungry. Let’s go have lunch in Ten-Forward.”

“I’d like that,” I said.

Author’s Note: The rides that Zoe and her friends created are futuristic versions of classic carnival rides, designed to look like they’d belong in a steampunk setting. Instead of hydraulics and machinery, their versions are designed to use magnets, anti-grav units, and small force-fields or tractor-beams. Contemporary equivalents: Axial Tilt (Tilt-a-Whirl), Stellar Scrambler (The Scrambler), Cosmic Comet (Imagine your favorite roller coaster. I prefer the wooden coasters found on seaside boardwalks (Santa Cruz, CA has my favorite), but the new suspended coasters – where you hang from the track, and your feet dangle – are probably closer to what the kids created), Galactic Gravitron (Round-Up), Wave-Warrior (pirate-ship pendulum ride) and the classic Ferris wheel.

Chapter 24: Ferris Wheel

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Ferris Wheel

The gondola of the holographic Ferris wheel swayed slightly, despite the fact that the ride was currently paused. We’d left the part of the program that included other passengers turned off, because at the moment, our creation was my haven from reality. Earlier that morning, I’d been all set to meet Data for our usual Saturday music theory session, only to have my mother grab me in a fierce hug and then tell me gently that the mission he’d been on the day before, the one that had caused him to miss our presentation, had ended in a fiery explosion and his death. A holographic breeze wafted by me, and I shivered.

“You’re cold, Zo’,” my companion said to me. “We should exit the program and get you a sweater or some soup or something.”

“I hate sweaters,” I said. “And I don’t think I could eat anything even if I wanted to.” I wasn’t looking at him but I knew his expression would be full of concern. “Put your arm around me and hold me close, and let me just be out of the world a little bit longer?” I asked.

He pulled me to his side, and I nestled against the heat of his body, always several degrees warmer than my own, resting my head on his shoulder. The gondola swayed even more as we resettled ourselves, but neither of us cared. “Better?” he asked.

“Way better,” I said. “What would I do without you, Tev?”

T’vek nuzzled my hair for a long moment before he answered. “Well,” he said, “you definitely wouldn’t be necking on a vintage carnival ride.” He kept his tone light, teasing.

“I was being serious,” I said, but the ghost of a smile flirted with the corners of my mouth.

“Yeah,” he said, a rough catch in his voice. “I know. ‘s why I’m not.” What he didn’t say, what he didn’t need to say, was that he, too, was mourning the loss of the man who led our math tutorial, who had given us the assignment that led to the Ferris wheel even being here – the man who had come into my life several months before as just another officer, and then morphed into my tutor, my friend, and more recently, my musical partner. “It’s okay if you need to cry some more,” he added softly. “It’s what I’m here for.”

I changed my position slightly, so I could wrap both my arms around his middle. “Thank you,” I said. “I’m okay for the moment. But that might change, so, you know stay close.”

“Hadn’t planned to go anywhere,” he said.

I took a deep breath, but didn’t lift my head, just let the breath back out slowly. “Good. Don’t. You and Data are pretty much the only reasons I haven’t figured out a way to hijack a shuttle and run away.” I wasn’t really teasing, but I wasn’t really serious either. “Anyway, I love you too much to make you an accomplice to that kind of crime.”

“What? I’m only good for petty larceny and plotting nefarious deeds?” He made it a joke, but I could hear the smile in his voice that was his reaction to my use of the l-word.

“Well,” I said, “maybe not only that.” I was quiet for a long time after that, but then there was a ping from my comm-badge, something I’d only had for about three days, and was still not comfortable with.

Wesley Crusher to Zoe Harris, please respond.

“Wonder what the boy wonder wants,” T’vek murmured.

I shrugged and tapped the badge. “Go for Zoe,” I said, sitting upright once more.

Sorry to bother you this way, our classmate’s voice came from the tiny speaker, but Geordi and I are in Data’s quarters, and we were wondering…Geordi thinks maybe you should join us.

“Think I should?” I asked my boyfriend.

“Why not?” he said. “The worst thing that happens is that you burst into tears, and I’m pretty sure Wes and Commander LaForge would understand.”

“Do you know him?” I asked. “Commander LaForge? I met him a couple of times when I was a kid, and had lunch with him and Wes and Data my first day in our m-math class.” Tears were threatening again. “He seemed nice. Said to use his first name.”

“About the same,” T’vek told me. “Ran into him a couple of times hanging with Wes, but no real direct interaction. If he’s the one who thinks there’s something there you need to see, I’d say you should go.”

“You wanna come?”

He shook his head. “I should get home. Make sure my mother has no need of me. I’ll see you later?”

“Count on it,” I said.

Zoe? You there? Wes’s voice reminded me I hadn’t actually answered.

“Sorry,” I said after tapping the badge again. “I’ll be there in a few minutes. T’vek and I are finishing something in the holodeck.”

Crusher out.

“Computer, return ride to start position,” T’vek ordered, and the wheel began to turn slowly, carrying us downward so we could exit the ride. In truth, we could have just ended the program, but we weren’t entirely certain if we’d be on the ground or in mid-air, so it was easier to exit properly.

“End program,” I said, as soon as we were off the ride. “Thanks,” I said to T’vek. We shared a brief, chaste kiss, and left the holodeck going in opposite directions.

(=A=)

When I got to Data’s quarters the door was standing open, and I could hear Geordi and Wes inside, but couldn’t discern what they were actually saying. Feeling awkward, I knocked on the door frame. “Um…hello?” I called.

“Zoe,” Geordi came to meet me at the door. “We didn’t pull you away from anything, did we?”

I shook my head. “My usual Saturday plans are sort of…permanently cancelled. It’s when we met for music theory.” I followed him back into the room, looking around at all of Data’s things in a way I hadn’t been able to the last time I was in his quarters. “Why did you want me here?” I asked, biting back tears. “I mean, why me, why not Josh or Tev or Dana – they’ve known him longer.”

“You mean, you don’t know, Zoe?” Wes came around the corner from the other part of the room, his voice gentler than I was accustomed to. “You’re on Data’s list.”

“List?” I asked. “What list? A ranking of the most annoying, disrespectful people on the ship? A catalog of people with the coolest collection of t-shirts? The roster of mindless jerks who will be first against the wall when the revolution comes?”

Wes looked at me as if I were crazy, but I could have sworn that Geordi let out a soft chuckle. Still, my classmate patiently explained, “It’s typical for Starfleet officers to have a list of people they’re close to. Family, and stuff. The people they record personal messages for. Your mom never told you about this?”

I shrugged. “She may have. I kind of tune out anything that involves my parents being, y’know, dead. Anyway, why would I be on Data’s list? I mean, yeah, we’ve been spending a lot of time together…but I didn’t think…” I went to the couch and sat on it. “You were totally serious about me being the favorite, weren’t you?”

He sat next to me. “He talks about you on the bridge, Zoe.” His voice was quiet, serious.

“Is that true?” I asked Geordi, who was staying mostly out of the conversation.

The chief engineer dropped into Data’s desk chair. “Yeah,” he said. “You come up a lot. When Data finds someone he connects with, especially if it’s someone who shares one of his personal interests, he tends to keep them pretty close.”

“His list must be huge,” I observed.

“Actually, it’s not.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, and save for my use of a contraction, I could have been echoing the man we were talking about.

“Most people, even people he works with every day, tend to treat Data more like a machine than a man. Maybe it’s subconscious – I don’t know – but it’s pretty rare that anyone treats him like any other person. Really rare. Besides,” he added with the flash of a grin, “I think you’re the only person who’s never complained about his babbling habit.”

I waited a moment before responding, letting everything Geordi had said sink into my grief-fogged brain. Finally I admitted, “I kind of like his babbling. I kind of have the same habit. And why wouldn’t I treat him like any other person? I mean, he does. Did. Whatever. I mean,” I wasn’t sure I was expressing myself with any kind of clarity, and I was less sure that I cared. “When he talks to me, I never feel like it’s an adult talking to a kid. I may be his student, but outside of class, I’m another musician. God. I still can’t wrap my brain around him being gone.”

“None of us can,” Wes said, reaching across the couch to touch my hand, a gesture I’d normally have rebuffed, but chose to allow.

I nodded. “Yeah. Okay.” I was quiet again, just sitting there, until I realized my initial question had never been answered. “Um, unless you’re both really hard up for conversation, I’m guessing there was an actual reason why you asked me to come here?”

Wes looked sheepish, and left it to Geordi to explain.

“We were disposing of Data’s belongings,” he said, his voice even softer than Wes’s had been a few moments before. “We thought you might want his violin, or one of his paintings.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, as shock washed through me.

“Look, Zoe, you don’t have to take it. I know you and Data spent a lot of time together, and…”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said again, and this time, I was beginning to feel anger.

“If there’s something else you’d rather have….” Wes began.

I stood up. “You’ve GOT to be KIDDING! What are you – vultures? It’s been, like, two days. Seriously, you could at least give the body time to cool before you divvy up all the loot.” I was half-shouting, and half-crying, and in the back of my head I could hear Data’s voice correcting me on the exact length of time he’d been dead, even as I realized that Wes had released the hold on the door, so it would slide shut. We wouldn’t want grief to cause a breach of Starfleet decorum, would we?

“Um, Zoe…his shuttle exploded. There isn’t a bod-”

“Not now, Wes,” Geordi cut him off. He stood up, and came around the desk, perching on the edge of it, and offering a handkerchief from somewhere in his uniform. “I guess it does seem pretty fast,” he said to me. “And maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, because I don’t want to get your hopes up, but there’s a part of me that isn’t convinced Data really is dead.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. I wiped my eyes on the soft, white cloth. “Is that actually possible?”

Geordi gave me an appraising look, and I wondered if his VISOR had the ability to read character as well as normal things like body heat. “You’re a civilian,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be telling you this but…lemme ask you something?”

I nodded.

“When you and Data meet for theory lessons, does he have a routine he follows?”

“You mean like tightening his bow, or specific warm-up exercises? Yeah. He does.” I walked through it in my head. “Three turns, always, and then a bounce of the bow on the A-string. He tunes enharmonically, the same way I do…” I could tell that meant nothing to the engineer, so I explained. “Instead of tuning each string separately, you tune the top to an external pitch – or, I guess, to the pitch in your head, if you’re Data – and tune the rest relatively. I could show you, but it really isn’t important.”

“No,” he agreed, the hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “But hearing you describe it, I can see a little of what he sees – saw – in you.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Anyway,” he said, ignoring my snark. “Wes and I spent part of the morning replaying the mission reports, and I feel like I’ve been missing something. Something about what he said. We could use a musician’s ear, if you don’t mind joining us in Engineering for a while?”

“Seriously, Zoe, we’ve listened to the recordings so many times, I’m not even sure we’re hearing them correctly any more,” Wes put in.

“If I come, will you delay disposing of all this for at least a week?” I asked.

“Deal,” Geordi said. “Do you need to let your mother know where you are?”

“I should,” I said. “Or…maybe you could? ‘Cause she’ll never believe me if I tell her I’m going to a part of the ship where actual work is being done.”

He managed a laugh, then tapped his comm-badge and contacted my mother. Meanwhile, I looked around a bit more, noticing a lucite case holding a collection of medals. “Impressive,” I said to myself.

Wes came up behind me and picked up the box. “He really was,” my classmate agreed. “I hadn’t realized he’d been decorated so many times, until I saw these earlier. I hope I’m half as successful as those medals imply, someday.”

“Oh, you will be,” I assured him, forcing a breezy tone. “Wesley the Wunderkind is doomed to succeed. It’s your destiny.” I managed a grin. “Sorry for losing it.”

He shook his head, “I totally bawled in front of my mom this morning. It just means you care.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do.” There was a moment of silence before I added, “But if you tell anyone about my little meltdown, I swear, Wesley Crusher, I will make your life a living hell.”

He managed a grin at me. “Somehow,” he said. “I don’t doubt that in the slightest.” He paused, and his attitude shifted to one of slightly goofy awkwardness. “Zoe…are we friends? I’m never sure with you.”

I took a breath. “I kind of kept you at a distance because our mothers kept pushing us together,” I said. “But, yeah, we’re friends.”

Geordi returned to the main part of Data’s quarters. “Zoe, your mother is a little concerned that you haven’t eaten anything.”

“Apparently my eating habits are a hot topic today,” I confessed. “Even T’vek was needling me about food. Can we eat and listen at the same time?”

“I could arrange a snack,” the engineer allowed.

“Probably a good idea. Mom will believe me if I tell her I’ve had food, but Tev will make me produce witnesses.” I glanced down at the floor, suddenly embarrassed. “Um, does Data have a bathroom, and if so, could I use it before we go?”

Geordi chuckled. “He does. And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t mind. Through the bedroom.”

I went and did what I had to, pausing a moment to note the relative lack of personal care items. Oh, he had towels and a set of hair brushes, but none of the stuff my dad had in his bathroom – razors and shave cream and stuff. I turned on the sink to splash water on my face, and used the noise to cover my prying into his medicine cabinet. Fleet issue toothpaste, fleet issue shampoo, and…hair gel. For some reason, that last made me laugh, and I couldn’t resist opening the tube to sniff it. I rolled my eyes, and muttered, “Scent free. Of course it would be.” I resolved that if Data was actually alive, I would manage to get him to try something scented.

With that thought firmly in place, I dried my hands, and left the room.

(=A=)

Geordi’s idea of a snack ended up being servings of vegetarian lasagna and glasses of iced tea, served in his office in Engineering. I’d never been in it before, and was surprised to find it somewhat homey. Diagrams – some on flimsies, some on actual paper, adorned the walls, and his desk was messy in the way that the workspaces of busy, creative people always are.

I knew the engineer was antsy to get going – he was investigating the loss of our mutual friend as well as working on the mission that led to the accident – but he patiently allowed us to be mostly finished with our food before he stopped the casual conversation we’d been having – sort of a ‘getting to know you’ chat – and called our attention back to the task at hand.

“Zoe, I asked you about Data’s routine during your music sessions because I wanted to confirm a theory – that he doesn’t deviate from routines. Does he follow the same procedure you described every time you meet?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Every time. Even for quartet rehearsal. It’s almost like a ritual. Is that weird?”

“Ritual’s a good word for it,” Wes added. “He’s the same way on the bridge, when he takes over the ops station. Always the same pattern of logging himself in, changing settings to the way he likes them…always the same order, down to the keystroke, and he chats about personal stuff only til he’s done.”

“Exactly,” Geordi said. “Once he has a routine, he doesn’t deviate from it unless there’s a strong reason.”

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted, “But what does all this have to do with a shuttle exploding?”

He collected our plates and glasses and returned them to the food slot, then resumed his seat behind his desk. “I keep thinking there’s something in one of his reports that might give us a clue. Here, listen…” He tapped his control panel a couple of times, and the sound of Data’s voice doing a pre-launch checklist filled the room. “That’s the first run.”

“There were five, total,” Wes informed me quietly. I just nodded.

Geordi informed the computer to play the next indexed report, and we heard the same words again. He was about to play the third, when he was paged to the bridge, and he canceled the command, sighing. “Guess we’ll have to revisit this a little later,” he said. “Thanks for your time, Zoe. Wes, walk her back to her quarters would you?”

I started to object, but thought the better of it. “Sorry I couldn’t actually help,” I said, rising from my own chair.

“Yeah,” he said. “Me, too.”

Wes and I left him in his office, though by the time we’d reached the doors leading out of Engineering, he’d rushed by us. “If he’s alive, Geordi will find him,” Wes said to me.

“Do you honestly think that’s possible?” I asked, once we were in the turbolift.

“Knowing Data? Do you honestly think it’s not?”

My smile was watery, but real. “Fair point. Look, Wes, we’re not that close, and I hate to ask, but…if he does turn out to be alive, can you let me know? Like, the second you find out?”

He reached out as if to pat me on the back, but stopped before he made contact. “Sure, Zoe. I can do that.”

“I mean, I don’t want you to get into trouble…” I hedged.

“I won’t.” He hesitated a moment before adding, softly, “But if we’re wrong…if he really is dead?”

“Save his violin for me, I guess,” I said. “And…if it’s not too weird, the portrait of his daughter.”

“Lal?” he seemed really surprised. “But you never even met her.”

“I know,” I said. “But…we had a long talk about her one night on the way back from Serenity, and I think he’d approve.”

“You two are connected,” Wes responded cryptically, making me stare at him.

“Wes?”

He shook his head, “Huh?”

“Are you trying to weird me out?”

“Huh? Oh…no, sorry. I’ll see what I can do.”

The turbolift stopped, the doors opened on the deck where mom and I lived, and I left him standing there, looking really confused.

(=A=)

For the next twenty-four hours, I felt a little bit like my brain was wrapped in cotton, and the world around me was a slowly spinning Ferris wheel – disconnected, disordered, out of synch.

T’vek and I met for a walk in the arboretum, and then back to the aquatics lab to play with the baby bat rays – they were fish, but their faces reminded me of puppies, and the strain we had on the ship was actually trainable. Mom and I had dinner and watched a holo-video – a romantic comedy that was funny enough, I guess – and then I went to bed to put earphones on and blast music while reading myself into exhaustion.

I spent Sunday just hanging out in our quarters, not even bothering to change out of pajamas. Mom was on duty, so at least I was spared her concern and her lecture. I picked up my cello to practice more than once, but couldn’t find the energy to do so, and ended up just noodling, before returning to the couch to indulge in a marathon of tri-vee comfort-viewing.

Finally, just before ship’s midnight, I noticed a message flag on my padd. It was from Wesley, and had just two words. “Alive. Safe.”

I sent a quick note to T’vek, repeating the information, and finally managed to sleep.

Notes: Obviously Geordi didn’t really need input from Zoe to find Data during “The Most Toys.” If you asked him, he’d probably confess he just wanted her to feel better. (Please note, she didn’t solve anything. She never heard enough to even notice a deviation.) Wes’s remark to Zoe in the turbolift might have been a random flash of Traveler-ness, and that may or may not come up again later.

Chapter 25: Unsettled

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine. This chapter takes place immediately after the season three episode “The Most Toys.”

Unsettled

Finally, just before ship’s midnight, I noticed a message flag on my padd. It was from Wesley, and had just two words. “Alive. Safe.” I sent a quick note to T’vek, repeating the information, and finally managed to sleep.

I woke up on Monday morning to find my mother waiting for me at the table in our quarters. She was sipping coffee, but had left a glass of orange-cranberry juice sitting at my place. “Morning,” I mumbled sleepily.

“Back at ya, kiddo,” she said, her gentle tone belying the flippant choice of words. “Join me?”

I padded across the room in bare feet. “Sure,” I said as I sat down. “What’s up?”

“I wanted to make sure you knew that Commander Data is actually alive, and has returned to the ship.”

I had the good grace to look sheepish. “I kind of knew that already,” I confessed. “Wes sent me a message last night. About the alive part, anyway.”

She nodded. “I had a feeling he might.” There was a long pause as she swallowed some of her coffee, grimaced, and pushed it aside. “Cold,” she said.

“You could just replicate another,” I pointed out.

“True enough,” she agreed. “Commander Riker mentioned that you hadn’t been aware of notification lists.”

“Is that what they’re called?” I asked, deflecting a little. “And, wait, how did he know. I don’t think I’ve ever even met him.”

“You have; you probably just don’t remember. He and I were at the Academy together. We’re not best friends, but we do talk, so when one of his department heads told him you’d reacted oddly to hearing you were on such a list –”

“It wasn’t oddly,” I interrupted. “I mean, how would you feel if someone you’d only really known for about six months had you on their list?”

“If the ‘someone’ in question was also someone with whom I was spending quite a lot of time, much of which in pursuit of a mutual personal interest…”

“Mom, could you talk like you and not a textbook?”

She sighed. “Look, Zoe, Data and I are colleagues. I report to him in his role as head of Operations, but we don’t work together directly very often – you know my specialty is considered a ‘soft’ science.”

This I knew. “Okay, and?”

“And even I know that while he’s always personable and amiable, he doesn’t truly connect with many people. So if he has included you on his notification list, it means he considers you a real friend. And if I were you, I’d consider it an honor.”

“Am I on your list?” I asked, even though I was pretty sure of the answer.

“At the top,” she said.

“Okay,” I said. I was quiet for a while, before I asked, “Mom, do you think I spend too much time with Data?”

“Do you think so?”

I thought about it. “I don’t know. It’s just…people keep referring to me as his protégé, and Wes went all cryptic in the ‘lift yesterday and told me I had a deep connection with Data, and sometimes I worry that T’vek is right, and I am crushing on him. A little.”

My mother smirked. “Sounds like T’vek is a mite jealous.”

I grinned. “Maybe a little.” I shrugged, “But he’s the one who makes me all dizzy and ishy inside. He’s the one I love. And when I’m spending time with Data, it’s almost exclusively related to music. I wish I could stop taking lessons from Seth and only study with him. I mean, he keeps saying he doesn’t have feelings, and he sucks at improvisation, but my technique has improved so much from playing with him, and theory actually makes sense now.”

“Have you asked Data about that?”

I shook my head. “He’s giving up so much time for me already; that really would be overstepping.”

“It’s your call, Zoe. If you want to take a break from formal lessons for a while, I’m sure your father would allow it.”

“Only if he hears me play, and he hasn’t since I’ve been here. There wasn’t time on Serenity.”

“You could have made time, instead of shopping.”

“Give up a shopping spree on Dad’s credit account? Mother! Bite your tongue.” I was teasing her, and she knew it.

“Alright then. Call your father and discuss it with him, and let me know what you decide.”

“I will.”

“Make sure you ask him about Christmas, also – I think he wants you to spend the holidays with him.”

“You mean with him and Gia,” I corrected. “But…yeah.” I drained my juice glass and moved to the comm system to place the call to my father, but was interrupted by an incoming message informing me our math tutorial had been cancelled for the day. “Hey, Mom, I thought you said Data was back on the ship?”

“I did; why?”

“He cancelled tutorial this morning. Is something wrong with him?”

“I don’t know much more than you do, Zoe, but I’d guess that he might be involved in debriefings.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling deflated. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

She must have heard it in my tone because her next question was, “Can I believe this? Is my daughter disappointed over missing a math class?” This time her teasing was gentle.

“Not exactly. I just kind of wanted to see Data for myself. To know he’s really back.”

My mother stared at me for a long moment. “I have a meeting I need to get to,” she said, getting up. “Make sure you eat something before you leave quarters.” She ruffled my hair as she moved past me. “I love you, kiddo.”

“Love you, too,” I said, before getting up and moving to the food slot, determined to convince it that peanut butter on toast was a thing it could actually deliver.

(=A=)

With no math tutorial to attend, I used the time to contact my father, who was actually available in real-time for a change. “Hey, Dad,” I greeted his slightly out-of-phase image.

“Zoetrope!” he seemed delighted to hear from me. “How are you?”

“‘m okay,” I said. “I guess. Data invited me to join his string quartet.”

“That’s wonderful, darling,” my father enthused. “I’d love to come hear you play sometime.”

“Would you,” I asked, wrinkling my nose, “actually do that? I mean, wouldn’t it be kind of awkward with Mom and stuff?”

“Your mother and I aren’t enemies, Zoe.” His voice took on a more serious tone. “And we both love you, so I think if it meant seeing you perform we’d be able to cope.”

“That’s good to hear. I keep having these images of epic battles, cello bows used as swords, that sort of thing.”

He laughed, as I’d hoped he would. “What pieces are you working on?” he asked.

I ran down the list of the quartet music, and the music I was working on with Seth. “The thing is, Dad, I’m learning so much from working with Data that I feel like Seth doesn’t have anything left to teach me, and sometimes he’s a little creepy.”

His Dad-alert instantly engaged. “Creepy how? Has he done anything…?”

“No, Daddy, I promise. Just…he keeps making comments that I seem really mature for my age, and that my boyfriend must be jealous of our time together. Stuff like that.” I ran a hand through my hair and added softly, “I made him move our lessons to a public space. And Tev – that’s T’vek to you – walks me back to quarters, after.” Well, he walked me back most days.

“Have you told your mother?”

“She knows I don’t want to work with him, but not why. I’d like to ask Data if he could work with me exclusively, but I don’t want to impose when he’s done so much already.”

“I wish I knew him well enough to advise you.” A thought seemed to occur to him. “Have you mentioned your concerns about Seth to your Mr. Data?”

“It’s Commander Data, Dad, not mister. And he isn’t mine.” I was deflecting and we both knew it.

“Zoe…”

“Dad…” I sighed. “Okay, no, I haven’t given him any details, either.”

“Why not?”

“Because Seth hasn’t actually done anything, just made some creepy comments, and because it’s not like telling Mom about a friend. If I tell Data, I’m not telling my friend, or my tutor; I’m telling the second-officer of the whole ship. It’s, you know, official.”

“Zoe, creepy comments could be nothing, or they could be just the first step. I think you should tell your mother, at least.”

“I’ll consider it.” I took a breath. “Mom said I should confirm holiday plans…?”

“Your grandmother and I both miss you, Zoe-licious, and I’d want you here anyway, but Gia and I are planning a wedding – nothing huge or fancy – over the break, and it would mean a lot if you could be in it.”

“You’re marrying her? Already?” I wasn’t really as surprised as I probably sounded. More hurt. “You and Mom are barely divorced.”

“I know it feels sudden –.”

I cut him off. “It is sudden. You only even told me about her in October.”

My father took a deep breath. “You’re right. I haven’t been as open with you as I should have been. Nevertheless, Gia and I are getting married, and I would like my beloved daughter to be part of it.”

“Beloved, huh?” I asked, a smile threatening to take over my face.

“Darling girl, I really can’t do it without you.” And his smile was the thousand-watt one that magazines and news agencies always talked about. “Say you’ll come.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll come.”

“And participate.”

“And participate. But, it’ll cost you.” I was smiling when I said it.

“Clothes? Shoes?” He hesitated before asking, in a very small voice, “You don’t still want a pony?”

“No pony,” I said, grinning. “I was thinking more like flying lessons so I can get my license while I’m there…and maybe my own flitter. Xenon is making this cloud-to-ground model that comes in British racing green with white pinstripes, and a sunroof.”

“You’re fifteen.”

“I’ll be sixteen in January, Dad. As long as it’s not more than thirty days before my birthday I can take the class, and Christmas is 29 days before.” I’d done my research, after all.

“That’s so old,” he said, teasing me.

“Yes,” I agreed, “But I’ll always be younger than you.”

“You wound me, darling,” he accused, but he was laughing as he said it. “You should probably go. I’ll contact your mother to arrange travel.”

“Hey Dad, one more thing?”

“Name it.”

“Can T’vek come? I mean, I can’t possibly go to my own father’s wedding without a date.”

“If his parents approve, I don’t see why not.”

“Thanks, Daddy,” I said. “Zoe out.” And I closed the call. Then I opened the comm channel again, and asked the computer to connect me to Data.

– Lieutenant Commander Data is not receiving calls right now, came the computer’s matter of fact announcement. You may leave your name, leave a message, or end call.

“Leave a message,” I said.

Begin recording.

“Hi, Data,” I said, feeling a little stupid. “I’m glad you’re back, but I wish you hadn’t cancelled class this morning. When you have time, I really need to talk to you. Please.” I was silent after that, long enough for the computer to prompt me to end the recording. It seemed like a lame message, but I told it to save and send, anyway.

– Message sent.

(=A=)

I wasn’t the only one of my friends who was pretty subdued that day. And it only got worse as the week drew on, and both Tuesday night’s quartet rehearsal and Wednesday morning’s math tutorial were cancelled as well.

That day, as T’vek and I walked to my voice lesson, he asked me, “Zoe, you know I love you, but…should I be jealous that you’re this mopey over Commander Data cancelling class?”

“You’re haven’t exactly been a bundle of laughs yourself,” I pointed out, “but there’s nothing to be jealous of. I’m probably just overreacting.” I managed a watery grin. “Would you feel better if I made a proposition?”

His grin was more wicked than watery. “Depends. What is it you’re proposing?”

“Be my date to my Dad’s wedding over Christmas. He says it won’t be huge or fancy, but I’m betting it will actually be one or both of those things.” I’d waited two days to ask him because a part of me was afraid he’d refuse.

“Why, Zoe Harris, are you inviting me home to meet your parents?”

“Why, Stevek Mairaj, are you being coy with me?”

We both laughed then, and I leaned up to kiss him. “I love you,” I said. “Ask your parents if it’s okay? Otherwise, I’ll have to ask Sven the farmhand, and he might get…ideas…”

“Sven…the farmhand…?”

“Yep. He’s six feet tall, blonde, muscly…”

“Zoe…”

“…thick as a brick, most of the time, but…”

“Zoe…!”

I blinked innocently. “Tev?”

“I would be honored,” he said, “to escort you to your father’s wedding.”

“Oh, good,” I said. “Though, Sven will be bitterly disappointed.”

We kissed some more, even though we were in the middle of the corridor, until he pulled away. “I have to go,” he said. “See you tomorrow.”

“Bright and early,” I agreed. I went into my lesson feeling better than I had before.

(=A=)

Thursday morning, I met T’vek for an early breakfast in the rec hall nearest the rooms where we had most of our classes. It had become a pattern for us to sit there and quiz each other for our Federation History class, and since we had a test scheduled that morning, we wanted to be ready.

He was at our usual table, immersed in reading something on his padd, so I went directly to the food slot for hot chocolate and a strawberry and sweet cream cheese croissant, took my tray to the table, and slid into my usual seat before greeting him with “So, do you come here often?” offered in my most over-the-top seductress voice.

“Every week,” he answered without looking up. “Better watch out; if my girlfriend sees you at her table she’ll snark you to death, and make you enjoy the process.”

“Mmm. I’m not afraid of a little snark. Is your girlfriend hot?”

“Not only hot, she’s awesome.”

“Awesome, huh? Is she around? I bet her ears are burning.”

“C’mere,” he said, “and let’s find out what else might be.”

I laughed, but I moved to his side of the table, and we ignored both books and breakfast for a make-out session.

“Could you two possibly get a room,” Wesley Crusher’s voice interrupted us.

“Hey, Wes,” T’vek said brightly. I straightened up in my seat. “We’re studying for history class. Join us?”

“Only if you’re done –

“Playing tonsil hockey?” I asked, blinking innocently at him even as I finished his sentence for him. “But I was winning.” He rolled his eyes and started to move away. “Wes, seriously, please stay?” I called.

“Okay, fine,” he grumped, but he took a seat opposite us. “Captain Picard says I need more knowledge of history, anyway.”

I raised an eyebrow at him. “Does he really?”

“Yeah,” Wes said. “Really. He’s kind of a history buff.”

“Probably has to do with that whole learn-from-mistakes-or-repeat-them thing,” I said, tacking on “Hey, get your own!” when T’vek stole a bite of my croissant.

“But it looks so tasty,” he protested.

“It is. But you don’t like it when I’m mopey, so I’m self-medicating with unhealthy amounts of sugar.”

“I’m sure Data’ll be back in class tomorrow,” T’vek said, putting down his padd, and taking one of my hands in his. With the other, he stole another piece of my croissant.

“Actually,” Wes said, “he won’t.”

We both stared at him.

“He’s talking to you?”

“Sort of. He was on the bridge this morning – I was there from four to eight – and he asked me to relay that class was cancelled. He was incredibly quiet otherwise, even for him, but he also had the conn, so…” He trailed off. “Zoe, I’m sure there’s nothing really wrong with him, he’s in charge of the prisoner.”

“Prisoner?” I asked.

T’vek leaned forward, “Are you supposed to be telling us this?”

“Probably not,” Wes admitted. “So if I tell you two, you’ll keep it to yourselves?”

“Wait, aren’t you the one who lives and dies by the book?” T’vek demanded.

It was Wes’s turn to shrug. “Usually, I guess. But right now, I’m worried about a friend, and I think maybe Zoe can help.”

“Me? Why me?”

“For the same reason Geordi and I called you down to Data’s quarters the other day. You’re important to him, and you’re a civilian, which means you don’t have to worry about chain of command stuff.”

“You came in here on purpose,” I said. “You wanted to find us.”

“Yeah,” Wes admitted. “I did.”

T’vek and I shared a look, and then we both leaned forward. “Okay,” T’vek said in a low voice. “You have our attention. Spill it, Crusher.”

And so Wes told us about Data being actually kidnapped by some megalomaniacal toy collector, and having been in the process of escaping, when the Enterprise found him, and beamed him back.

“So, wait,” I asked. “There really was something off in the recordings Geordi was listening to?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The last time, he didn’t finish the routine checklist.”

“And Data never, ever, varies a routine,” Wes and I said together.

“Guys,” T’vek said. “Don’t ever do that again.”

“Agreed,” I said to my boyfriend. I took a bite of my rapidly diminishing pastry before asking, “But what does this have to do with Data being off-duty, and cancelling things left and right?”

A troubled look crossed Wesley’s face. “You weren’t here when he built Lal,” he said. “His daughter?”

“I know the story,” I said. “He built her, she came to sentience, found emotions, and died of cascade failure.” I softened my tone. “We talked about it.”

“Yeah, well, afterward, he isolated himself from everyone for almost two weeks. He says he doesn’t have feelings, but…things happen and he goes all internal.”

“He broods,” I said, absently batting at T’vek’s hand. “And you think he’s brooding now?”

“Well, he’s back on the bridge,” Wes said. “But no classes, and Geordi says he isn’t talking to anyone. Not him. Not the Counselor.”

“Which leads us back to the question,” T’vek said as I pulled my plate away from his reach. “Why do you need Zoe?”

“I thought maybe you could reach him. Get him to open up and talk.”

“Wes, I’m his student. Just like you are. Just like Tev and Josh and Dana are. ”

“No,” he said, “You’re more. You speak his language.”

“Music? You mean music?”

“Yeah. Also…I think maybe…”

T’vek let go of the hand he was still clasping and put his arm around my shoulders. “You think Zoe reminds Data of his daughter?”

Wes shrugged. “Yeah, maybe. She always so…” He caught my glare. “Sorry, Zoe. You’re always so easy with him. Casual.”

“I’m really not,” I said. “I’m supposed to have a lesson with him tomorrow morning. If he doesn’t cancel it, I’ll see what I can do.

“And if he does?”

“I don’t know…maybe we could all stage a sit-in outside his door, or something.”

“What’s a sit-in?” T’vek and Wes asked, as one.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll try, okay?”

None of us studied any more, but we all aced the history test anyway.

(=A=)

I wasn’t surprised when I returned home after classes to find that Data had, in fact, cancelled our theory tutorial, but I was disappointed. I thought about practicing anyway, but chose to spend the evening curled up with a book.

When Mom got home, it was pretty late – after eleven – and she looked tired and strained. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” she asked me.

“No math again tomorrow,” I said. “So, actually no. Did you eat?”

“We ate while working,” she answered me. “We’re piecing together the history of a previously unknown culture,” she added. “Nothing dangerous, but Captain Picard came to check out some of the artifacts we were examining.”

“I thought you were an anthropologist,” I said.

“I am. I work with the archaeological and linguistic teams to put together a whole picture, based on artifacts, pictograms and writings, and even the way buildings are laid out.”

“So, you’re kind of like a detective?” I asked.

“Sometimes I am,” she said. “What’s behind this newfound interest in what I do?”

“Maybe I’ve always been interested and just didn’t want to tell you.”

“Afraid I’d inundate you with information?”

“Afraid you’d make me go look at dusty old ruins. I do not do dust,” I said.

“Mmm. I’ll remember that the next time your room is a disaster area. Did you eat, child-of-mine?”

“Oh, yes. I had a lovely bowl of chili with a tart little cheddar on top, and a glass of uttaberry soda. It was an audacious drink…a bit too much sparkle, but tasty.”

My mother was laughing by the end of my speech. “Kiddo, you crack me up,” she said.

I grinned and switched off my padd. “Then my work here is done. G’night Mom, don’t stay up too late.”

(=A=)

By the end of Friday, I was ready to storm Data’s door and just demand he return to class, or at least that he come to our Saturday session. Not only was my routine off, but even Seth could tell that I hadn’t practiced all week. He’d decided that technique was the order of the day.

“You aren’t drawing the bow to its full extension,” he told me, at one point. “Let me show you.” He stood behind me, and put his hand over mind on the bow. His breath was hot on the back of my neck and I felt really uncomfortable. “Here. Now when you do a down-bow you should feel it all the way into your shoulder, and when you go up,” and he pushed my arm the other way, “you should feel it, too. Do you?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Again,” he said, “together. Down.” He guided my arm back. “And up. Now you try.”

I did what he’d demonstrated but not before he’d let his hand trail up my arm. “Don’t,” I said.

“I’m only trying to help your technique,” he said. He rested both hands on my shoulders. “Play the arpeggio from our warm-up. I want to feel it in your shoulder.”

I’d had teachers do similar things…and the truth was, there was nothing wrong in the act. Cello technique is physical. But his manner seemed all wrong. “Seth,” I said. “I understand what you want me to do, but I’m really not comfortable with this approach.”

“I thought you told me,” he said, “that you and Data were into a hands-on approach.”

“Aren’t you supposed to call him ‘Commander Data’?” I asked. “And anyway, hands-on doesn’t mean literally having your hands on my body.” I shrugged away from him, wishing someone – anyone – would enter the observation lounge where we were working ever since I’d refused to meet in his quarters.

“I saw you in the rec room this morning, with your boyfriend,” he countered. “You didn’t mind him touching you.”

“T’vek waits for an invitation, and isn’t eighty million years too old for me.” I put down the bow and set my cello on the floor. “I have to go now.”

“Your lesson isn’t over,” he said.

“Yeah,” I answered. “It actually is.”

I packed my cello in record time, and while I didn’t run, I walked exactly as quickly as one can while carrying a large, stringed instrument.

(=A=)

Mom wasn’t home when I got there, but she’d left a message telling me I was welcome to swing by the lab if I wished to. I comm’d T’vek to see if he was available, but he had a chess date with his father, and Dana and Josh were double dating with Wes and Annette. Usually, a night alone was a rare gift, but tonight, I felt like I really needed company.

I put my cello away, had the replicator give me a bowl of tomato basil soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, and ate in the living room, in front of the entertainment unit. One of the shipboard vid channels was running a marathon of vintage pirate movies, so of course I had to watch.

Finally, I gave up on the night, took a shower, and went to bed, only to wake up several hours later with the knowledge of exactly how I would get Data to come back to class.

I got out of bed, dressed in sweats and a big t-shirt, and grabbed my padd. Mom was still out, so I left her another message, and made my way out into the dimly-lit corridor (because the ship was technically on night watch) and into the turbolift, to deck two.

Outside Data’s door, I took a deep breath and signaled him.

It was probably just me, but when he asked, “Who is it?” his voice seemed heavier than usual, despite the tiny speaker.

“Zoe,” I said. “It’s Zoe Harris. Please Data, I need to talk to you.”

“It is very late, Zoe,” came his too-polite response. “Perhaps we can speak at another time.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That won’t do. Lieutenant Commander Data, under the brethren pirate code, and upon the honor of the Royal Navy, I hereby invoke the right of parley.”

There was a long pause, but he hadn’t cut the signal to the annunciator. Finally, he said, “Very well, Zoe Harris. You may enter.”

The door slid open and I stepped inside his quarters to find the room filled with new paintings. Many of them were still wet; some were still in progress. Two figures were prominent in many of them. “Geez, Data, if this is supposed to be art therapy, you’re kind of taking it to extremes,” I said.

He just stared down at me, a paintbrush poised in each hand. “You said you needed to speak to me.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do. Could you maybe set the brushes aside and make tea or something? Conversations like this are easier when you have something to fiddle with, you know, hold and stir and stuff.”

(=A=) To Be Continued (=A=)

Notes: As it said in the disclaimer, this takes place after The Most Toys. We never get to see what happens after, but if Data was ready to pull himself off the bridge during the war games when he managed to lose a game of Stratagema, I think it’s plausible that he’d go all broody after pointing a weapon at an unarmed man.

Chapter 26: Parley

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine. This chapter is the wrap-up to my version of what happened after “The Most Toys.”

Parley

“I’m sorry,” I said. “That won’t do. Lieutenant Commander Data, under the brethren pirate code, and upon the honor of the Royal Navy, I hereby invoke the right of parley.”

There was a long pause, but he hadn’t cut the signal to the annunciator. Finally, he said, “Very well, Zoe Harris. You may enter.”

The door slid open and I stepped inside his quarters to find the room filled with new paintings. Many of them were still wet; some were still in progress. Two figures were prominent in many of them. “Geez, Data, if this is supposed to be art therapy, you’re kind of taking it to extremes,” I said.

He just stared down at me, a paintbrush poised in each hand. “You said you needed to speak to me.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I do. Could you maybe set the brushes aside and make tea or something? Conversations like this are easier when you have something to fiddle with, you know, hold and stir and stuff.”

(=A=)

If I hadn’t known better, I’d have assumed that Data had fifteen-year-old girls show up at his door in the middle of every night. As soon as I’d asked for tea, he put the paint brushes in cups of water – at least I assumed it was water – and cleared away the canvases that were leaning against his couch.

“Please sit down,” he said, his tone polite, but much cooler than I’d ever heard it. “Is there a particular blend of tea that you would prefer?”

“Lemon-mint, please,” I answered. “With honey. Are you having some, too?”

His answer was given in his order to the replicator. “Computer, two cups of lemon-mint tea, hot, pot of honey.” He turned back to me, then, and asked, “Do you require anything to eat with your tea?”

I refrained from rolling my eyes, as there was no way he would have known that I’d spent the past week being reminded to eat. “No, thank you,” I said.

He brought the tea and honey on a tray, but he didn’t have a coffee table near the couch – probably he didn’t need one – so I dragged over one of his extra chairs to use in place of a table. He got the hint, and even offered a “Thank you, Zoe,” very quietly before setting things down.

I spent an inordinately long amount of time doctoring my tea, watching the honey drip into the greenish-amber liquid in slow, thick swirls. Anyone else would have grown impatient. Anyone else would have prompted me to speak. “So, here’s the thing,” I began, “I woke up this morning and was actually disappointed that you’d cancelled our math tutorial. Since it’s a well-known fact that I detest math, I figure either I’ve got a deathly illness, or I miss my tutor, who is the one person in all creation who managed to make all the numbers and symbols and stuff into something I can at least pretend to understand.”

“You are giving me undue credit,” he said. “Your comprehension of the material has not appeared to change markedly since you joined the class.”

“Are you sure about that?” I asked, dubiously.

“Your test scores prove it,” he said. “However, what has changed is your confidence in your comprehension. I do not believe I can take responsibility for that.”

“Well,” I said, “I believe you’re wrong. It’s you, Data. It’s all you. My music is better because of you, too. Even my voice teacher commented that our theory studies have improved my ability to pick up new songs, that I’m using my voice ‘more intentionally’ or whatever.”

“I am gratified to know that my tutelage is helping you, Zoe,” he said, still too-polite. “However, I do not understand why you felt it necessary to tell me this at such a late hour. Is your mother not concerned about your whereabouts?”

Is it possible I could have forgotten how frustrating he could be in only a week? “Maybe because I miss my friend more than I miss my tutor,” I said, setting my cup back on the tray. “Maybe because I’ve heard stuff about what happened to you – that you were kidnapped by some psycho toy collector – that you shot someone.” He looked at me sharply when I said the last bit. “Maybe because when everyone thought you were dead, Geordi and Wes made me come here and tell them what of your possessions I might want just because you stuck me on some list that I didn’t even know about.”

“What did you choose?”

The question threw me. “Excuse me?”

“I have learned that when a person dies, the people closest to that person are often soothed by having something physical to ‘remember them by.’ Geordi has standing instructions that if something irrevocable ever happened to me, he was to make sure my belongings were dispersed among my closest friends. I am curious about what you chose.”

“I didn’t, exactly,” I said. “I mean, I came in here, and it felt all weird and wrong, and I yelled at Geordi about at least waiting for the body to cool.”

“Had the explosion that apparently destroyed –

“Killed –” I interrupted.

He went on, unphased, ” – me been what it seemed, there would have been no body.”

I rolled my eyes at him. “I know this. Do you really think I didn’t know this? I just meant it was too soon. Especially since Geordi was convinced you weren’t actually dead. He said something was off in the mission logs. Even asked me to be a fresh pair of ears, though that was just his attempt to make me feel better.”

“Inviting your participation to give you something else to focus on would not be out of character for him.”

“No. And sadly, having meltdowns is not always out of character for me.”

“Did you help?”

I laughed. “Of course not. But I did get to hang out in his office and have lunch. Will you tell me what really happened? Did you really shoot someone?”

“It would be more accurate to say that I shot at someone. The beam never hit its intended target.”

“You missed?”

“I was taken by the Enterprise’s transporter beam as I pressed the trigger. The weapon was in a state of discharge and was deactivated during my transit.”

“They can do that?”

“Yes,” he said. “They can.”

I glanced around at the paintings. “So which of the people in the paintings is the one you shot?” He opened his mouth to correct me, and I amended my question slightly, “Shot at. Whatever?”

He gestured to the male figure, wearing a hat, and I shivered. “That man has a black soul,” I said.

“I was not aware it was possible to catalogue the color of a soul.”

“It’s more an expression. It means he reeks of evil. Unless you just painted him that way. He was the collector?”

“Yes.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t want you for your awesome intellect and stunning conversational skills?”

“He wished to include me among his objects of art.”

“That’s awful.” I stared at the painting, at all the different images, each as dark as the others. “Did he have other people in his collection?”

“I do not believe Kivas Fajo perceived me to be a person.”

“But you are.”

“There has been some debate about that,” he admitted.

I shrugged. “Anyone who disagrees that you’re a person is either blind, bigoted, or stupid. Quite possibly all of the above.” The look I gave him dared him to defy the Wisdom of Zoe. He chose not to. “Who’s the other person? The woman? She looks sad.”

“Her name was Varia,”

“Was?”

“Fajo killed her as we were attempting to leave.”

“To stop you?”

“To make a point.”

I looked back at the picture of my friend’s former captor. “Yeah,” I said. “Definitely a black soul.” I let that thought rest in the space of the room for a moment, picking up my tea again, and actually sipping some. After a bit, I asked, “So, is that why you’re in your quarters brooding instead of helping to mold the minds of the Federations future leaders? Because you feel responsible for someone’s death?”

“I am not responsible for Varia’s death,” he said, and something in his demeanor told me not to question him on that point. “However,” he confessed. “Kivas Fajo had dropped his weapon before I aimed mine at him.”

I don’t know how it all clicked together in my head – maybe it had to do with all the horror and detective vids I liked to watch. Maybe it was just weird luck. “Oh my god,” I said. “You’re freaking out because you wanted him dead.”

I expected him to tell me he wasn’t – couldn’t be – freaking out. I expected him to deny his desire to kill the guy who’d wanted to just…collect…him. Instead Data admitted softly, “Yes, Zoe, I did. But I should not have. Vengeance is not part of my programming.”

“Apparently, it kind of is,” I said.

“I have been conducting self-diagnostics and processing my behavior, since then,” he added. “Cancelling classes was necessary until I was certain I was not…compromised.”

I stared at him for a long moment. I watched his face, then looked down at his hands that were clasped in his lap. His tea had remained untouched. I set mine back down. “Are you conscious of every tiny part of your programing?” I asked. “I mean, you blink, but are you conscious of every blink, or do you just sort of know that you do?”

“I can be aware of each movement,” he said. “I generally choose not to be.”

“Well, maybe there’s bits of your programming that decide that vengeance might actually be an appropriate response in certain cases. Maybe it’s a bit you’re not supposed to be aware of. Kind of like hyposprays.”

“Hyposprays?”

“Sure. Little kids, even older kids sometimes, when they’re getting ready for school, they get routine booster shots of common vaccinations. Hyposprays pinch a little, but it’s really not that bad. Except, if you know it’s coming, what you anticipate it feeling like is way worse than what it actually does feel like. If you don’t look, though, if you don’t see the thing coming at your arm, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Your theory is that there are parts of my program that I am meant to…not look at…so they do not…adversely affect me?”

I shrugged. “Well, it’s either that or you have to admit you might actually have a few emotions lurking in there somewhere.”

He raised both brows, appearing to think it over, but all he said was, “Hmh.”

Again, we sat in silence. Finally I asked, “Kivas Fajo is still on the ship, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” he said. “He will remain in the brig until we reach the next Starbase.”

“Do you still want him dead?”

“He will be dealt with by the proper authorities.”

“That’s not what I asked.” I took a breath. “Look, I’m not going to repeat anything you tell me. I mean. If we’re friends, there has to be trust right?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, you still want him dead, or yes you trust me?”

“Yes,” he said again, this time with the merest hint of a smirk.

“Data…!” I wanted to launch myself at him, and tackle him with a hug. Instead, I looked around at the paintings again. “Have you ever played darts?”

“No,” he said. “I have not. Why?”

“I have an idea. One that will enable you to cease the obsessive painting of soulless sociopaths before there’s no more canvas left in the sector. Might even help cure your bloodlust.” I smiled to show him I was teasing about the last part, then got up off the couch, taking the tea-things with me. I returned the still-full mugs, and asked the computer to replace them with new ones. Then I asked for a set of darts, which I added to the tray. “Can you get black and red paints and brushes please?” I asked.

“You wish to paint something as well?”

“Me? No. I have the artistic ability of a sand flea. You are going to paint a bull’s eye on one of the pictures of Fajo.” He gave me a quizzical look. “You know, a target, like on a dart board. I’m sure you can look it up faster than I can explain.”

He rose to his feet, but still seemed uncertain of my plan. Nevertheless, he painted the concentric red and black circles on the painting I chose, then, at my urging, hurled darts at it. “Is this supposed to be cathartic?” he asked, after landing all three darts dead-center.

“You tell me.”

“I do seem to be less inclined to create more images of him.” In fact, he painted circles on another of the images, and repeated the process. “I am not certain the bull’s eye is necessary.”

“For you? Probably not.”

He threw darts until every single one of the paintings of Kivas Fajo had been essentially obliterated. Then he quietly gathered the torn canvases and bundled them to be taken to the larger recycling chute at a later time. He also put away the paints, leaving only three images of Varia left in the room.

“I’m guessing flinging darts at her would be inappropriate?”

“Yes,” he said. “But I do not believe I need to keep all three images.” He came back to the couch, where I had moved to the corner that had been his before, the better to watch him with the darts. I’d been sipping my replacement tea the whole time. “Was my prolonged absence from your classes the only topic you wished to discuss, Zoe?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “If you hadn’t cancelled tomorrow’s theory lesson, I’d have waited to bring up one of my other topics ’til then. Although, I should probably confess that I haven’t practiced all week. Mostly, I want to know why I’m on your notify list. I mean, we really haven’t known each other that long.”

“Is a lengthy history a requirement for all close friendships?” Data asked. “Consider the number of hours we have been spending together, not only in your math tutorial, but theory lessons, quartet rehearsal, and the occasional social event.”

“You consider lunch a social event?”

“When eaten in the company of others, in the Ten-Forward lounge, it would seem to qualify.”

“Okay, that’s fair.”

“Consider also that you came here tonight to confront me about not being present at usually scheduled times.”

“I really didn’t think you’d actually let me in,” I said. “Wes said you weren’t even talking to Geordi. Isn’t he your best friend?”

Data’s eyes widened slightly, but he answered the question. “He is. However, Wes’s analysis is not entirely accurate.”

I cocked my head at him, in much the same way he often did when he was confused or needed time to process information. “So you have been communicating with –” I cut myself off. “You know what, that’s none of my business, and I’ve been pretty nosy already.”

“Concern for a friend and being ‘nosy’ are not the same thing. You are curious. Have we not agreed that this is a trait we share?”

I grinned at him. “Guilty, as charged, sir,” I said. “You still haven’t answered my original question, though.”

“No,” Data agreed. “I have not. Nor have you told me which of my personal items you did not ‘exactly’ choose.”

“I’ll tell if you do?” I offered, teasing.

He picked up his cup of tea, which I’d covered with a saucer to keep from cooling too much, and sipped some, probably just to be social. “I believe we have a bargain.”

“I asked for your violin,” I said, then hesitated. “I asked for something else, as well, but when I asked for it I felt like I was implying our friendship is deeper than it really is, and I couldn’t really explain why I wanted it.”

“You know you cannot offend me,” he reminded gently.

“I have a feeling that’s not entirely true,” I said. “But I asked for the portrait of your daughter. I thought someone should have it who wasn’t…I don’t know…official. And I couldn’t stand the thought of it being destroyed.”

One of his rare ‘organic’ smiles flitted across his face, and the look in his eyes seemed just a fraction warmer. “It would have been an honor to know that Lal’s portrait was in your care,” he said, and even if it was spoken in the same matter-of-fact tone he used to explain why strings vibrated at specific frequencies, in that moment, it didn’t matter.

I smiled back at him. “I’m glad you approve,” I said. “But I’m even gladder that you’re not actually dead.”

“As am I,” he agreed.

“So, kind sir, keep your part of the bargain, or pay a forfeit,” I said, using my best bubbly voice, in order to lighten the mood. I still wanted to know why he deemed me list-worthy, but suddenly it was only a ‘want’ rather than a ‘need.’

“A forfeit?” he asked. “Does that mean you no longer wish me to answer your question?”

“It means,” I said, “that I think I already know, and I suspect that time will confirm my theory. It also means I haven’t heard you play the violin in a week, and I really miss it.” I gave him the winsome look that always worked on the other men in my life – T’vek, my father, the really hot counselor I’d crushed on during music camp the year before – “Would you please play something for me, Data?” I asked.

“I would be happy to,” he agreed, standing up to get the instrument, but before he had even begun his customary tuning ritual, his comm-badge chirped, and he flashed an apologetic look at me, then tapped it to respond. “Data here.”

“Commander, I’m so sorry to bother you at this hour,” came my mother’s voice. “This is Emily Harris. Is my daughter still with you?”

He glanced at me, and I rolled my eyes, but nodded for him to answer. “Yes, Emily. Zoe is with me. Would you like her to return to quarters?”

“Would it be an imposition if I stopped by and picked her up?”

Again he glanced at me, and I gave a thumbs-up signal. “That would be acceptable, Emily. We have completed our discussion.”

“Thank you, Data. See you soon. Harris out.”

“I am afraid I will have to ‘owe you one,’ Zoe,” he said to me.

“Any chance you’d consider un-cancelling theory tomorrow? Or today? Or…you know what I mean.”

“I believe, in the light of our conversation, that reinstating our lesson would be appropriate. However,” and his voice took on the tone he used almost exclusively to tease me, “I was under the impression you did not practice this week. Are you certain you wish to –”

I cut him off, not with words, but by standing up and wrapping him in an impulsive hug. “Stop.” I said. “Data, please? If I suck, I suck, but I don’t want to miss another Saturday.”

He seemed to understand that it wasn’t just about the music, just as me hugging him wasn’t just about his agreeing to go ahead with our lesson, but was also my need to know he was really, truly, alive. Awkwardly, his arms came around me, in an embrace that was just close enough to be comforting without being inappropriate. “Alright,” he said softly. “As you wish.”

“Thank you,” I said, though it was muffled against his uniform jacket. I stayed there a bit longer before pulling away, and looking up at him a bit sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Whatever he had planned to say was cut off by the door chime. “Enter,” he called. “Emily, I am sorry to have kept Zoe so late.”

My mother and I shared a look, and for a moment I thought she was going to chastise me in front of him. Instead, she simply gave each of us the smile that I tended to refer to, at least mentally, as her ‘gushy Mom look,’ and reached for my hand. “It’s fine,” she said. “At least if she’s with you, I know she’s not getting into trouble. Goodnight, Data.”

I let my mother lead me into the corridor, adding my own, “G’night, Data.”

“Goodnight Zoe,” he replied, “I will meet you here at ten-hundred hours.”

His door slid shut, and my mother let go of my hand, only to catch me by the waist. We hadn’t walked that way in a while, and I was surprised to find I was almost as tall as she was. “So, exactly how much trouble am I in?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “None. Tonight you get a bye.”

“Dare I ask why?”

“Call it a mom-thing, accept it, and move on, Zoificius,” she said. We entered the turbolift, and she let go of me. “You look better. Happier.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I kind of am.”

“Must’ve been a pretty good talk.”

I smiled, thinking about everything that had happened with Data and me in the last few hours. Darts, tea, conversation…our first proper hug. “Yeah, Mom,” I said, smiling. “It was a really good talk.”

Notes: Yeah, I know, this chapter is really talky, but Zoe and Data are talkers. I suspect that part of his week was actually spent in debriefings, as Zoe’s mother suggested in a previous chapter. I also suspect that Data’s visit to the brig, to confront Fajo takes place after his evening with Zoe, but that’s me, and your mileage may vary, as the saying goes.

Chapter 27: Art and Noise

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Art and Noise

“Zoe, your intonation is incorrect in the second measure of section C,” Data informed me during my theory lesson the morning after our midnight…parley. We were meeting in his quarters again, and I’d noticed when I arrived that he’d removed the remnants of the paintings he’d darted to death, as well as the three of Varia.

“Incorrect how?” I asked. We’d finished the ‘theory’ portion of the morning, and had moved on to ‘application.’

“You are flat.”

“Flat-flat or android-flat?”

He cocked his head slightly, “In my understanding, you are either playing the correct note, or you are not. There is no special android tuning.” His tone changed on the last three words, but didn’t quite include his usual audible quotation marks. Instead, it sounded almost something like I would have said, which should have been weird, but somehow wasn’t.

“Wow, Data, I spend one night hanging out in your quarters, and you’ve turned into a snark-monster.”

“If I have offended you –”

“What, are you kidding? It’s awesome!” I waited a beat, then added, “You might want to avoid it around people who outrank you, though.” I played the note in question again. “Better?”

“Yes. Now play the phrase.”

I did as he asked.

“You are still slightly off,” he informed me.

“Data, there may not be ‘special android tuning’ but there is absolutely ‘special android hearing.’ If I can’t hear the flatness, I can’t correct it.”

“That is a valid complaint. One moment.” He picked up his violin and played the phrase I was having trouble with. “Does that help?”

“A little,” I said. “Could you play that E again?” He did so, and I rolled my eyes at him. “Could you play it and sustainit?” I requested, tacking on, “please?” after the fact.

I adjusted my fingering to match his pitch, and even though I still couldn’t hear the dissonance he had assured me was there, I felt it when my adjustment had us in perfect synchronization. “Ohhh!”

“You can hear the difference?”

“I can feel the difference,” I said. “The change in the way the string vibrates. Thank you.”

“It is unlike you to be unable to discern a wrong note,” he observed.

I shrugged. “I was a little congested when I got up this morning. I’m probably not hearing things the way I should.”

“If you are ill,” he said, his tone modulating into his concerned voice, “perhaps we should end this session now.”

If I had been younger, I would have pouted. Fifteen-year-olds didn’t pout, though. Well, at least not where people could see. “I don’t know,” I teased. “I kind of like this slightly snarky version of you. Leaving early would deprive me of the pleasure.”

“Then we will continue. From the first measure of section C, please.” He flipped his violin back into position, and we played the piece – a Weber composition arranged as a duet for violin and cello – together, once straight through, and then again, with him stopping me to adjust my intonation. “You are uncertain of the fingering in the last section,” he observed.

“I did tell you that I hadn’t practiced all week,” I reminded him. “Did you think I was exaggerating?”

“It is a tendency you do seem to have,” he responded. “Though you generally only do so for humorous effect.”

“True,” I admitted, but then I added softly, “I couldn’t practice last week.” To his credit, he didn’t ask me why. I shook my head to clear it, and offered him a bright smile. “I’ll work on the fingering, okay? But before we try it again, could you maybe try the same section with a little more legato? I think it would sound better. And don’t tell me whichever violinist you’ve chosen to emulate didn’t play it that way,” I added, hoping to ward off the inevitable response.

His mouth opened and then closed again. “I will not,” he agreed, “tell you any such thing. Shall we play the last section again?”

“Yes, please.” He sketched out the beat with his bow, and we repeated the last section of the piece with both our modifications (my intonation, his style). When we finished, I grinned at him. “That,” I said, “was fantastic.

“I concede that you were correct about the legato.”

“I’m glad you approve,” I teased. “Data, last night when you asked if there was another reason I needed to talk to you,” I began, but the door chime sounded, cutting me off.

“One moment,” he said to me, before raising his voice slightly to call, “Enter,” in the direction of the door, which opened to reveal Geordi.

The chief engineer walked in already talking rapidly. “Data, we just got the conference room specs for Ambassador Sarek’s meeting with the Legarans. I could use your advice on a couple of these parameters.” He noticed me, still sitting with my cello. “Oh, sorry, Zoe, I didn’t think you were meeting this morning.”

“Zoe stopped by last night with a very persuasive argument against cancelling her lesson.”

“Which we’ve finished,” I said, loosening my bow, and getting up to grab my gig bag. “I’ll be out of your way in a minute.”

“I hope I’m not chasing you away,” Geordi said.

I shook my head. “You’re not, though I wouldn’t blame you after I yelled at you the other day.” My expression turned slightly sheepish. “Sorry about that.”

“Why did you yell at Geordi?” Data asked as I finished zipping up my bag.

“He can explain better than I can,” I said. “Thanks for your time.” I eased my way to the door. “Um, will you be back in class on Monday?”

“Unless duties call me away, I will be there,” Data answered.

“Super,” I said. “See you.” Darting out would have been so much simpler if I’d taken up viola instead of cello.

(=A=)

T’vek was waiting for me when I got home, slouched against the bulkhead, one knee bent up. If he’d been holding a guitar, he could have been the poster boy for almost every slightly disreputable teen band ever. Even without a guitar, seeing him made my heart beat faster. “Hey, handsome,” I greeted, “are you lurking out here because my mother’s home, or because she’s not?”

He got up in one smooth, fluid, motion. “Your mother doesn’t scare me,” he said softly, leaning in for a kiss, a chaste – sweet even – buss across my lips. “But she’s not here, anyway. Take that for you?” He gestured to my cello.

“Pretty sure I can manage another few meters,” I said, laughing, but the laugh turned into a cough. “Or maybe not.” The door responded to my access code, sliding open to let us in.

“You okay?” T’vek asked.

I shrugged. “I woke up congested, and I feel a little tired, that’s all. Are we going to the holodeck or do you have other plans for us for the afternoon?” I stowed the instrument in my room while I was talking. “Do I need to change?” I called.

“Never!” he called back, but then he was leaning against the frame of my bedroom door. “And you’re dressed appropriately, too. I thought we’d eat here – if your mother approves – and then go to the arboretum.”

“On Saturday afternoon? Won’t it be crowded?” The arboretum was a popular destination for couples of all ages aboard the Enterprise.

“Probably, but there’s something there I want to show you.”

“This isn’t going to be tree identification one-oh-one is it?” I asked, “‘Number one, the larch. The. Larch.'” I was quoting ancient Monty Python, something my father had introduced me to when I was incredibly young. My awesome boyfriend didn’t know the context, but laughed anyway.

“No,” he said. “I promise. This thing…it’s something so amazingly stellar that you’ll be singing my praises for weeks, after.”

“Let me check with Mom, then,” I said, and I tapped the comm-badge I’d been forced to include as part of my wardrobe. My mother approved our plan, and told us to have fun, and I turned back to T’vek. “So, what’s for lunch?”

He stared at me for a long moment. “We’re in your quarters,” he said.

“Yeah, but you invited me…so you have to make lunch. Don’t worry, I’m not much of a snob.”

“Grilled cheese and tomato soup?” he suggested.

I grinned. “Works for me.”

We walked out to the main room, and he took care of ordering our food and carrying it to the table, which was good because my head was starting to hurt, and my throat felt a little scratchy. I coughed again, and he looked up in alarm. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

I brushed him off, “Something is caught in my throat; that’s all.”

We finished lunch, and went to the arboretum, where T’vek’s surprise was that the art and design students were hosting an ‘art in the park’ event. Light jazz wafted through the trees, and there were grids set up throughout the space, each holding a few paintings, or setting off a pedestal with a piece of sculpture on it. “So,” he said, as we stopped in front of a sculpture made of various pieces of metal. “This one’s mine.”

I’d been only half-paying attention to the exhibits we’d passed, not because I didn’t like art, but because my head was starting to hurt more, and swallowing was becoming painful. Now, though, I pushed through the ickiness I was feeling, and looked at his sculpture.

Constructed from pieces of metal of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, and standing about half a meter high, T’vek’s creation was a person cradling a cello, about to draw the bow. She – for the figure was clearly female – had hair made of “Is that electrical filament?” I asked. “Tev this is awesome.”

“It’s you,” he said softly. “I was trying to capture music in the metal, but the shapes kept pointing me to the musician instead. It’s called ‘found’ art,” he continued, “because the components came from the dead parts bin in one of the computer labs, and from the recycling bay, and…stuff.”

“It’s amazing,” I said. “You are amazing.”

He wrapped his arm around my waist and pulled me close, “Maybe I just have an amazing muse.”

I kissed him quickly. “No one’s ever called me a muse before,” I said. “Amusing, sure, but never an actual muse.”

“Clearly,” he said, his voice getting all low and husky, the way it always did when he was feeling really emotional, “you haven’t been traveling in the right circles.”

I would have happily kept staring at his sculpture for the rest of the day, but T’vek wanted me to meet some of the other design students. Two were ahead of us in school, one was two years behind, and then there were a few officers of different ranks who were taking some of the art and design classes as hobbies, or to learn new skills.

We stopped at more exhibits and he introduced me to his classmates and to the instructor, a stocky Tellarite Lieutenant named Karel who was much more jovial than his appearance would have led me to believe. “Ah, so you’re the girlfriend. Pleasure to meet you, Zoe.”

Ordinarily, I’d have objected to being referred to as ‘the girlfriend,’ but he clearly meant no offense, and it was T’vek’s day. “Actually, Tev says I’ve been elevated to muse,” I said, the words coming out a bit raspy.

“Just for the day,” he clarified.

“Wait there’s a time limit? You didn’t tell me there was a time limit.”

Karel laughed at the pair of us, “And now it all makes sense,” he said, “why our Tev’s been so inspired. Zoe, the lot of us are heading to Ten Forward as soon as this event ends. I’d love it if you joined us.”

“That’d be lovely,” I said, glancing at T’vek, “if you don’t mind?”

He shook his head. “I’d mind if you didn’t come.”

The parents of one of the younger students came up to visit with Karel then, and we moved away to sit on one of the benches. “Okay,” I said, “I knew you were smart, and I knew you did art, but Tev, you’ve seriously impressed me today.” I coughed again, then leaned back against the bench.

“Zoe, you’re getting sicker.” He released our clasped hands and put his on my forehead. “And you’re burning up.”

“I feel fine,” I insisted, but again, it came out raw and scratchy. “Well, except for my throat.”

“And the headache you’re trying to hide.”

“And that,” I admitted.

“You should go to sickbay. Call your mother and have her meet us there.”

“For a sore throat? It’s probably just something I ate.”

“Replicator food isn’t supposed to cause allergic reactions, Zo’,” he said. “And any illness can be disaster on a starship. Didn’t anyone ever warn you about the dangers of recycled air.”

“Heard that,” I said. “But I assumed it was an exaggeration.”

“Do you want to take that chance?” His dark eyes were wide and worried. “I’ll walk you to sickbay, and call your mother for you,” he coaxed.

I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I reopened them my vision felt a little swimmy. “Okay,” I said. “When you call my mom, make sure you send my love.”

He laughed softly, then took my hand again. “Absolutely.”

(=A=)

I don’t remember the walk to sickbay, except in vague glimpses of T’vek being a human – well, humanoid – crutch. I don’t remember Alyssa Ogawa ushering me onto a bio-bed and wrapping me in a blanket, as I’d gone from feeling vaguely headachy and hot to having convulsive shivers in the time it took to ride the ‘lift a couple of decks. I do remember Wesley’s mother and Captain Picard leaving the former’s office together, the latter with a napkin still tucked into the collar of his uniform – apparently they’d been having a lunch date – and I do remember, with perfect clarity, that the bright lights and bustling people and the headache that had gone from zero to a gazillion in about five minutes, made me nauseous. T’vek’s offering of tomato soup had been the worst possible choice (though no one ever blamed him) and I couldn’t help it when the waves of nausea turned into actual vomiting.

I swear I never meant to puke all over the captain’s boots.

Merde!” The French epithet came out of his mouth almost explosively, but within a breath he had recovered himself, removing the napkin-bib even as an orderly brought a more absorbent towel to help him clean up.

Blearily, and too ill to be as embarrassed as I otherwise might have been, I managed. “Oh, god. I’m so sorry.”

Captains are apparently well-trained in the whole grace-under-pressure thing, because his response was a light, “There’s nothing to be sorry for; I should have known better than to crowd a patient.” He paused, looking me over, then added, more as a clarification than a direct question. “Zoe Harris, isn’t it?” I managed a weak nod – bad choice – and he continued, “You’re Mr. Data’s protégé.”

I didn’t have the energy to roll my eyes, but I did find enough oomph to manage an apologetic grin and say, “Yeah, that’s me. But I promise, sir, Data didn’t teach me that.

Do you get a gold star if you make the captain of a ship bark with laughter after puking on his shoes? If so, I totally earned mine just then.

“Way to make a first impression, Zoe,” T’vek whispered to me, his remark covered by the arrival of my mother.

“Zoe, sweetie, are you alright?” my mother gushed worriedly.

“Her temperature’s dangerously high, and she’s congested,” Dr. Crusher answered for me, snapping shut the medical tricorder she’d been scanning me with the whole time. “I’ll need a blood sample to be certain, but based on the symptoms she’s presenting, and the rapid onset, I’m pretty sure she has Levodian flu.”

“And that means?” my mother asked.

“As flus go, this one’s relatively harmless – lie down, Zoe, you’ll be more comfortable – we’ll give her medication to reduce the fever, and treat the symptoms.” She directed the rest of her speech to me, though I saw her signal the nurse to get the necessary blood sample. “You’ll be pretty miserable for the next two or three days – congested, achy, dizzy, probably tired – but the worst of it is typically over in about forty-eight hours, and it almost never lasts longer than seventy-two.”

I let the rest of the conversation wash over me, as the voices of my mother, my boyfriend, and the medical staff discussed treatment and care. At one point T’vek came closer to tell me he had to go to the reception – he promised to save me a slice of cake if it was chocolate – and I heard my mother thanking him for taking care of me, before asking Dr. Crusher where I would have picked up a virus.

“Levodian flu has a ten-day incubation period,” Wesley’s mother told my own. “And even though it’s a relatively harmless strain, it’s fairly robust in terms of virulence. Lieutenant Barclay came in with a mild case a couple days ago.”

“Zoe doesn’t typically spend time with engineering officers,” my mother observed. “Oh, but he helped the kids with their theme park project.”

“That would do it,” she agreed.

I let the soft the soft beeping of the bio-bed lull me into sleep at that point. When I woke up again, my mother was in a chair near the bed, and T’vek was long gone.

“Hey,” I called, then grimaced because my throat still felt raw. “Mom?”

“Hey, yourself, kiddo,” she answered me softly. “Feeling any better?”

“Less puke-y, more achy,” I croaked. “Thirsty.” I looked around sickbay, and added wistfully, “Wanna go home.”

“Let me get the doctor,” my mother said. She left my sight for a minute or two, returning with a nurse, who recorded my vital signs from the bio-bed display, helped me sit up, sprayed my throat with something that took the pain away, and gave me a cup of ice chips. “If you can keep these down,” she said, “you’ll get to move up to water, later.”

“When do I get to go home?” I asked, not feeling up to even minimal snark.

“That,” the nurse answered, “is up to the doctor.”

I nodded, wished I hadn’t, and then popped an ice chip into my mouth.

Dr. Crusher appeared a few minutes later. “Good to see you sitting up,” she said. “How’s your head.”

“Sore,” I said. “Dizzy.”

“Mm. It will be for another day or so. We’re going to give you another hyprospray now, though, which should help.” She checked the readout on the bio-bed. “Your fever was down, but it’s rising a little. That’s actually normal for this flu,” she explained, including my mother in the conversation. “Your temperature will fluctuate until the fever breaks.”

“Can I go home?” I asked.

“I’d prefer to keep you here, where we can keep an eye on you,” she said, but apparently saw the distress and discomfort in my expression, and added, in a teasing voice, “Wes has told me stories about your adventurous spirit.”

I managed a weak chuckle. “‘m devious, not stupid,” I told her. “Anyway, I’m too tired to be adventurous.”

“Sleep’s the best thing for you, actually,” she agreed. “If your mother is alright with you returning to quarters, I’ll allow it. Emily,” and she changed her stance slightly, so that my mother wouldn’t have to get up to listen, “Zoe should sleep as much as she can. The first two days are the worst, so, if you can’t change your duty shift, make sure someone’s with her – preferably an adult – if she’s anything like my son, she’ll convince her friends she’s fine even if she isn’t.”

“I would never…” I began, but both women gave me pointed looks, so I was forced to confess. “Well, actually, I probably would.”

“How are you doing with the ice chips?” the doctor asked me.

I showed her the empty cup.

“No nausea?”

“Not right now. I have to pee, though.”

She grinned. “Go use the restroom, and come back. If your stomach is still okay, I’ll arrange a hover-chair and send you home.”

I thought about arguing about the hover-chair, but a glare from my mother quelled the urge. Instead, I went to bathroom, taking time to splash water on my face before I left the room, and then returned to the bio-bed. “No puke-age,” I said.

Dr. Crusher laughed at that. “Okay, okay.” A really buff ensign in science blue came over with the chair. “Ensign Le will escort you back to quarters. I’ve give your mom instructions – bed rest through Monday afternoon. No classes this week. ”

“What about quartet rehearsal?”

“‘Fraid not, Zoe.”

“Could someone let Data know that?”

The doctor grinned at me, “I have a senior staff meeting in an hour; I’ll let him know.”

“Could you also apologize to the captain again for me? I mean, I know it’s no secret I was less than thrilled about living on his ship, and all, but I typically prefer wit and cunning to…um…yeah.”

She laughed. “He’s really not angry, Zoe. I promise.”

“If you say so.” But my mother was giving me her concerned look, and my throat was starting to ache again. I let Ensign Le help me move to the chair, and the three of us left sickbay, even though I grumbled that I was perfectly capable of walking.

“I’m sure you are,” my mother agreed, “but how often do you get to have a handsome young man convey you through the corridors.”

“There is that,” I said. “I should practice my queen wave. How does that work again? ‘Screw in the light bulb, clutch the pearls.'”

Even Ensign Le laughed at that, and when he wheeled me into our living quarters, he even sketched a bow and flourish. “Glad to be of service, m’lady,” he told me. He handed a tray of sprays and bottles to my mother – it had been stowed on the back of the chair. “Call sickbay if you have questions on dosage or frequency,” he reminded.

“Thanks for the lift,” I told him, as he left. Then I turned back to my mother, “Can I go back to sleep now? Waving to all my subjects was kind of exhausting.”

She walked with me into my bedroom, and left the tray on my nightstand. “Instructions are on your padd,” she said. “I think you’re old enough to manage your own pain relief, but tell me if you need help.”

“I will.” I waited a beat. “You don’t have to tuck me in, Mom.” But I knew she wouldn’t leave ’til I was safely under the covers, so I grabbed a t-shirt, and went to the bathroom to change and brush my teeth – my mouth still felt all sour – then came back and got into bed. “Happy now?” I asked her.

She ruffled my hair. “That you’re sick? Never. That you’re cooperating, absolutely.” She rested her hand against my forehead, and I leaned into her cool, maternal touch. “T’vek took very good care of you today,” she said.

“He made art for me,” I said. “He said I was his muse.”

“Wow, you’re a queen and a muse in the same day.”

“I’m talented that way.”

Her smile was a little less watery than it had been. “He loves you.”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “It’s mutual. Um…he isn’t going to catch my flu is he? We were kind of…there was some kiss-age earlier.”

“I’ll check with his parents, but he’s probably fine.”

“Okay.”

“Do you need anything?”

“Water?” I asked, and my mother nodded. “My padd, so I can read if I want to?” And she nodded again. “A pony?”

“Zoe…”

I gave her a slight shrug, “Had to try.”

She brought the water and the padd, and kissed me on the top of my head. “Go to sleep, monster-child.”

“That’s ‘your majesty, monster-child,'” I corrected.

My mother laughed. “Sleep,” she said.

I did as she asked.

Notes: The duet Data and Zoe are playing during her theory lesson is “Invitation to the Dance, Op.65” by Carl Maria von Weber (the German title is “Aufforderung zum Tanze”). It HAS been arranged as a violin/cello duet, but the most common versions are for a full orchestra. There’s a recording by the New York Philharmonic that is truly amazing. Levodian flu is a canon illness, with the symptoms being much like the common strains of flu most of us are familiar with (we’re not talking H1N1 here). Officially, the worst symptoms last about 29 hours, but obviously everyone would react to it slightly differently.

Chapter 28: FOMO

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

FOMO

Levodian flu is one of the most common illnesses in the Federation. Almost every humanoid species has been affected by it at some point or another. It’s always annoying, rarely dangerous, and usually runs its course in about a day and a half. Usually.

The first day I was sick wasn’t so bad. The virus had snuck up on me: I woke up congested, and started getting sicker a few hours later. Once the fever took hold, though, things went from bad to horrible pretty quickly. And that was before I threw up all over Captain Picard’s boots. The rest of my weekend was spent alternately napping and reading. A collection of popular novels from the twentieth or twenty-first century (I could never remember which) – about a boy wizard and his friends – had seen a recent resurgence in popularity, and I had the entire series queued on my padd. With Mom keeping me supplied with water, tea, and various kinds of brothy soups, and nowhere I was supposed to be, I was happy as the proverbial clam. Except for the headache, body aches, fever, occasional nausea, and inability to breathe easily. You know, the little things.

By noon on Tuesday, even though I still felt mostly horrible, I was getting restless. My friends weren’t allowed to visit in case they got sick, and I felt bad about missing Data’s math tutorial after confessing to him that I’d missed his presence.

“Zoe, are you awake?” my mother came into my room.

“No,” I said. “I’m lying here dreaming about surfing the underground seas of Mars.”

“You’re starting to feel better,” she observed. “The snark is returning.”

“Sorry, Mom,” I said. “I just feel so isolated. What if I get really behind in math? What if T’vek decides Annette is more interesting than I am? What if Data realizes I’m really not worth his tutelage?”

“It’s been three days, kiddo. I doubt the boy who called you his muse is likely to defect so quickly. Commander Data counts you among his closest friends, so I’d stop worrying about that as well. As to your classes, I’ve arranged for your teachers to send your assignments to your padd. You can contact them if you have questions.”

I’d actually seen messages come in but hadn’t bothered to look at them. “That’s all fine with Lit and History and stuff, but I never understand the math just from reading things.”

“Try,” she said. “Maybe not tonight, but give your schoolwork a couple of hours tomorrow. You’ll be given extra time to catch up when you return to class, but you should at least try.” She was quiet for a moment, before adding, “I know you’re getting antsy, sweetie, but you really do need to rest.”

“It’s not just that…” I confessed.

“What is it then?” she sat on the end of my bed, apparently sensing an impending Deep Conversation.

“Tev took me to sickbay, and I left a note for Dana not to meet me for school this week, and neither of them have bothered to ask if I’m feeling better.”

“When did you become such a worrier?”

“It’s not so much worry as a vivid imagination. I keep thinking they might be taking Data to finally see our theme park project, or that they’re playing pirates with Josh and Wes, or that…”

She stopped me by tweaking my toe through the covers. “Enough of that,” she said. “Zoe, I think you have two illnesses.”

“A simple flu isn’t enough?”

“The other’s a little more metaphysical than physical. It’s called FOMO.”

“Fomo? What’s that?”

My mother grinned at me, and I suddenly realized that my own evil grin was an echo of hers. “F.O.M.O.,” she spelled out. “FOMO – Fear of missing out.”

If I hadn’t been leaning against all of my pillows, I’d have thrown one at her. “That’s not funny.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.” She seemed to search for words. “It means that you’re restless and worried because you’re accustomed to being in the thick of things, and now that you’re relegated to the sidelines –”

I cut her off, muttering “Sidelines? Try the cheap seats in the spectator section.”

“Zoe…”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Now that you’re no longer in the center of things, you’re afraid you won’t be missed or that people are having fun without you.” She favored me with a look that showed exactly how confident she was about being right. Then she sighed. “But I didn’t come in here to talk about the neurosis of being a teenaged girl.”

“And yet…”

“Don’t make me rethink that,” she countered. “I have a duty shift tonight. It’s a split shift – 16:00 to 20:00 hours tonight and then 04:00 to 08:00 tomorrow morning – I’m covering science one on the bridge during shift changes. I can ask for a nurse to stay with you…”

“Could you ask for Ensign Le? I totally wouldn’t mind having a babysitter if it was one who looked like that.”

“And you were worried about your boyfriend forgetting about you?”

“Not forgetting. I’m so not forgettable. Just…becoming disinterested.”

“I think you’re sicker than you appear if you truly believe that’s even a possibility, daughter-of-mine.”

“Seriously, Mom. I have the flu. I think I can survive a few hours alone in my room. I’m too tired to paint the walls black, anyway, and four hours isn’t enough time to sneak all my friends over for booze and loud music.”

“It’s a good thing I know you’re teasing, kiddo,” my mother said, smiling slightly. “I’ll bring you some soup before I go. Think you can manage something more substantial than broth?”

“I vaguely remember what it was like to chew things. Can the replicator make chicken and stars?”

It turned out that it could.

(=A=)

“Hey, gorgeous,” T’vek greeted me over the comm system in our living room. “Sorry I’ve been so scarce. I was afraid if we talked you wouldn’t sleep, and Dr. Crusher seemed pretty adamant that you really rest. How are you?”

“Well,” I said, not wanting to complain too much, “today I experienced the joy of food that actually requires chewing, so there’s that.”

“Who knew solid food could be so exciting,” he teased. “I miss you, Zo’. Class is boring without you. Wes is first to answer in every subject, and Josh is actually being nice to more than just Dana.”

“Josh isn’t that bad,” I said. “I mean, he’s kind of an ass sometimes, but he has a heart. Somewhere. Possibly locked in a chest under his bed. Is it true Ambassador Sarek is coming aboard?”

“He’s supposed to arrive on Thursday morning. Commander Data already warned us that we might not have class on Friday. Mother said she’s hoping to spend a few minutes with the Ambassador.”

“She knows him?”

T’vek grinned at me over the video feed. “Actually, she’s a distant, distant, many times removed niece or cousin or something…but to Vulcans one drop of blood from the right line means you’re family.”

“Wow, Tev. That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, it is.” He looked wistful for a moment. “There’s a reception for the Ambassador on Thursday evening. Data’s quartet is playing a concert.”

“I’m sure it’ll be lovely,” I said. I didn’t ask who the cellist would be. Even if I hadn’t been sick, I’d barely rehearsed with the group.

“Maybe they’ll let you attend, if you’re feeling better,” he suggested.

“Sure. Maybe.” I yawned at him, and then blushed. “Sorry, I’m still really sleepy. It’s kind of ironic…my mother’s on duty, and any other time I wouldn’t waste a minute asking you to come over, but I’m pretty sure I’m not up to it.”

His expression changed from a wistful smile to a decidedly wicked grin. “How long is her shift?”

“She’s on until 20:00 hours,” I said, “but Tev, I really am pretty tired, and as much as I’d love for you to come over, I don’t want you to catch this flu.”

His expression didn’t waver. “If I didn’t get from kissing you on Saturday, I’m not going to get it from not kissing you tonight.”

“You want to come over and not kiss me?” I asked, confused.

“Five minutes,” he said. “I’ll be there in five minutes.” And he cut the signal.

It was actually more like ten minutes later when the door-chime sounded, which is good, because it took nine of those minutes for me to wash my face, brush my teeth, twist my hair into a messy bun, and put on fresh pajamas. “Come in!”

“Hey,” he said, sitting next to me on the couch. “C’mere.” He didn’t kiss me, but he did pull me close and just hold me. “I ran into Data on the way down here,” he said. “‘s why I took longer than I planned. He’ll be here in half an hour to ensure that I don’t prevent you from your rest.”

“Thirty minutes?” I said in my most seductive voice . “Time for a quickie.” Seductive voices are way more effective when you’re not wearing pajamas decorated with rainbow-colored tribbles.

“Zoe!”

“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t be held responsible for anything I say tonight. I’m running a fever and am probably delirious.”

“If you weren’t sick, I’d have taken you up on the offer,” he confessed softly.

“If I wasn’t sick, I wouldn’t tease you that way,” I admitted, adding, “It’s not that I don’t want to…I’m just…”

“Shh,” he said, putting a finger to my lips, “I know.” He glanced around the living room. “I thought I’d find empty popcorn bowls and plates of cookie crumbs, but you’re really not spending days watching bad vids and snacking on junk food, are you?”

I shook my head, then winced when it hurt. I was due for a dose of pain medicine, but didn’t want to leave T’vek’s presence to fetch it. “Mostly,” I said, forcing a steady tone. “I’ve been either sleeping or reading.”

His expression softened. “I really shouldn’t have come, should I?”

I nestled myself more firmly against him. “Don’t say that. I’m glad you’re here, I just wish I had more energy. All I can do is sit here like a lump.”

“You’re not a lump. But even you were, you’d be a pretty awesome lump.” He grinned. “Did you hear about Wes and Annette?”

“Gossip? You have gossip and you’ve waited this long to tell me? What happened? Didn’t she like the earrings he got her for her birthday? Did they finally make out?”

“Actually, she’s kinda pissed at him right now. Apparently, our Wesley managed to accidentally agree to a date with Ensign DuMont.”

“You don’t mean Susan DuMont?” I asked. “I’ve run into her in the Pilates studio a couple of times. She’s flexible in ways most humanoids never dream of.”

“That’s the one.”

“How do you accidentally get a date with the human pretzel?”

“Well,” T’vek said, “the way I heard it is that Wes and Josh were playing handball in the gym…”

“Wait, Wes plays handball? I didn’t think he ever did anything that required, you know, exercise or exertion.”

“He and Josh play every so often when one of their parents gets on their case. So, they were in the gym and Josh bet Wesley a week of Lit assignments that Susan wouldn’t even talk to him.”

“But Susan overheard the conversation?”

“Better. Her roommate did, and told Susan, who asked Wes out in front of Josh, just to get a rise out of him.”

I snorted. “I’m betting there was a lot more ‘rising’ than she expected.”

“So, Wes said yes, partly because he really thinks she’d go for him, but mostly because he couldn’t back down in front of Josh.”

“You know, Susan’s gonna crush him.”

“Oh, I know. I just wish I could be there to see it.”

I started to laugh, but then I stopped myself. “We shouldn’t be laughing at this.”

“Why not? You agree Wes is pompous and annoying.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He is. He’s also a know-it-all with the social skills of a Trenzalorean shepherd dog, but he’s also our friend, and so is Annette, and while it is kind of funny, when DuMont cancels or whatever, he’s going to feel really stupid.”

“Since when do you care so much about Crusher?”

“Since…since that day in Data’s quarters when we thought he was dead. He…he was pretty cool even after I yelled at him and Geordi, and, I don’t know…I think sometimes he feels just as much out of place as the rest of us do. I wouldn’t be surprised if his whole Mr. Starfleet thing is an act he started playing and now can’t drop.”

T’vek stared at me for a long moment, then he smiled softly. “This, Zoe, is why I love you. You see through all the bullshit.”

“Language, Stevek,” I teased.

“And you make us all better.”

“Oh, god, first I’m a muse, now I’m a mother-confessor? Maybe I should just let the flu win.”

“Don’t say that,” he said. “Don’t ever say that. Don’t you know how worried I’ve been? How worried we’ve all been?”

I ran a hand through his shaggy hair. “I was kidding,” I said. “And this is when I remind you that I have no filter and am –”

” – probably delirious,” he finished for me. “Sorry.”

“‘s okay,” I said. “So how’s Annette through all of this?”

“Apparently, she told Wesley he was welcome to play with his, um, Barbie Doll, and should contact her when he was ready for someone with an actual personality.”

“Harsh,” I said. “But fair.”

“Yeah, except…what’s a Barbie Doll?”

I rolled my eyes. “I forget sometimes how much you’re not from a human culture,” I said. And then I went on to explain how Barbie Dolls had existed for hundreds of years, and even though their design and appropriate-ness for children was constantly being called into question, they remained the most popular doll for little girls on Earth, Mars, Centaurus, and most of the original Terran colonies. “They’ve also,” I added, “become a symbol for the kind of woman who has a gorgeous body, low moral standards, and pretty much no redeeming factors.”

T’vek kissed my cheek. “Sometimes, Zoe, I forget how very human you really are.” He eased away from me and stood up. “I should go, before our math tutor breaks down the door because I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

“You’re always welcome,” I said. “I’ll walk you to the door.” I got off the couch, and did so. Maybe I really was delirious, though, because Data was there when the door slid open. “Night Tev. Love you,” I said to my departing guest.

“Love you, too,” he said, and blew me a kiss. He nodded politely to Data, and walked off toward the turbo-lift that would take him home.

I was left staring into the face of my – friend? Tutor? I wasn’t certain why he was there, or in what role. “Hey, Data,” I said, choosing a neutral greeting. “Did you really come just to make sure Tev didn’t stay too long?”

“That was not my only motivation for visiting you. I wished to speak with you about the quartet.” He hesitated, then asked, “May I come in?”

“What?” My head was starting to really hurt. “Oh, yeah, sure. Sorry.” I moved further into the living area giving him room to enter. “Could you give me a minute? I was supposed to take more pain meds half an hour ago, and I got distracted when T’vek was here, and my head feels like it’s gonna explode. Or implode. Or whatever heads do when they’re hurting a lot.”

He stared at me as if he was trying to gauge exactly how much of my statement was teenage melodrama and how much was slightly delirious truth. “Perhaps you should sit down on the couch and allow me to retrieve your medication. Is the pain always as bad as you have described?”

“No. But this is the first time I’ve let the meds completely wear off. Um…there’s a blue bottle, on the nightstand in my room.” I tried to think of anything I didn’t want him to see, and remembered that I’d left my bra hanging on the back of my chair. “Actually, I think I can go get it.”

His eyebrows crinkled together the way they always did when he was dubious about something. “Are you certain?” he asked.

“Yeah.” I brushed by him into my room, found the bottle, and took the pill, which was supposed to work within a minute or two. I also grabbed a sweatshirt to put on over my pajama top, a comfortably worn, faded-blue pullover with Surf Mars stenciled over a stylized wave crest. Returning to the main room, I found him studying the framed photo-collage that hung on the wall above the couch. “It’s mostly family stuff,” I informed him. “The photos, I mean.”

“I had surmised as much,” he said, turning to face me. “Are you feeling better?”

“It takes a minute or so to kick in. Do you mind if we sit? I get a little loopy when the pain wears off, and I’m supposed to be resting.” I curled up in my usual corner of the couch, and watched him sit rather primly on the opposite end. “So,” I said. “Why are you here?”

“The quartet is playing for Ambassador Sarek on Thursday evening,” Data told me.

“Tev said as much.”

“I wished to explain personally why we cannot ask you to play with us at this particular concert.”

“Is there a reason other than I’ve barely rehearsed with you, and I’m sick?”

“No.” But he was studying my face. “I anticipated that you would be displeased. Are you not?”

I shrugged. “It is what it is. Even if I was perfectly healthy, you can’t have an unrehearsed ensemble play a formal concert. I grew up in the music biz, remember? I get this stuff. I’ve seen it with my father.”

“When you are well, we would like you to resume rehearsing with us.”

“I’d like that,” I said. “The concert Thursday…if Doctor Crusher says it’s okay, could I…come?”

“Of course,” he said, but then he added, “but make sure your mother also approves.”

“Of course,” I said, echoing his tone, but capping it with a grin. There was a sort of internal pop inside my head, as the meds kicked in and the pain was finally gone and I could breathe again. That was followed by a wave of exhaustion, and I had to lean back and close my eyes for a moment. When I spoke, my voice felt – and sounded – really young and small. “I’m sorry Data, I think I’ve used up all my energy today. Not being rude on purpose.”

“It is 18:30 hours. Your mother is on duty until 20:00. If you need her, I can arrange to – ”

“No. I – there’s nothing she can do except look at me and worry.” I managed a rueful expression. “I told her I could handle being alone. Think I overestimated things. I mean, I’m fine…I just feel…weird.”

“I will stay until your mother returns from her duty shift.”

“Also weird,” I muttered mostly to myself, but I couldn’t entirely ignore his questioning glance. “But good weird,” I amended. “Just don’t expect me to do homework for your class, because thinking is so not happening.”

“You are excused from classwork until you are well, Zoe. Did your mother not inform you of that?”

“I was teasing.”

“Ah.”

“Do you mind if I go back to bed? I mean, you can stay until my mother gets home if you think you should, or if you want to or…whatever…but…”

“I do not mind. Your mother was correct that you should not be alone, and I would not be a good friend if I left you.”

He was so earnest it almost made me laugh. “Okay.” I got up off the couch, and went back to my room, taking a moment to stuff my bra back into a drawer before I crawled back into bed. Once bundled into my covers, I called out, “Hey, Data?”

“Yes, Zoe?”

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” he said matter-of-factly, and then he added, with just a hint of authority in his tone. “Go to sleep.” As I drifted off I thought I heard him add one more thing, very softly, and sounding a little odd coming from his mouth, “You will be o-kay.”

(=A=)

If my mother was surprised to find her department head sitting on her living room couch when she came off duty, I never heard about it. What I did hear, because I was awake, and straining to hear, was a soft conversation:

“Commander, I hope Zoe didn’t cajole you into staying with her,” my mother said.

“She did not. I was en route here to explain why the quartet was playing without her, and saw that it was inadvisable to leave her alone. I believe she delayed taking necessary medication while her friend was visiting.”

“Which friend?”

“The Mairaj boy.”

“She knew she wasn’t supposed to have people over. If he catches her flu…”

“I do not believe that will happen. I encountered the boy on my way here, and informed him I would be checking in after thirty minutes. He was preparing to leave when I arrived.”

“But still…”

“Lieutenant Commander Harris,” he began, in the tone he used when one of my classmates or me – mostly me – was trying even android patience, and then, because he did know when he was speaking as an officer and when he was just a person, “Emily, I have interacted with your daughter extensively over the past several months.” He was getting better about vague-ing up specific measures of time when speaking casually. “I do not believe anything untoward happened with T’vek. I have observed that humans who are ill often benefit as much from a bit of company as they do from medical care.”

“You seem to know my daughter pretty well, Data.”

“She is my friend,” he said simply.

“You care about her,” my mother said, in a tone I recognized as being very like my own not-a-question tone.

Data had the good grace not to argue.

When my mother spoke again, it was in her resigned tone. “I need to wake Zoe for dinner. Would you like to join us? I’m sure it would benefit her.”

“I would be pleased to,” he said.

(=A=)

We sat down for dinner at about nine pm – later than usual, but my routine was so off it really didn’t matter. I was a little nervous about Data and my mother sharing a meal. What if they talked shop? What if she started hanging out with him on her own? What if he preferred my mother’s friendship to mine? Was it possible to experience FOMO when you were sitting at the same table with people?

I needn’t have worried. Probably in deference to my illness, the conversation was kept fairly light. They talked a bit about the Legaran culture – apparently the whole reason Ambassador Sarek was coming aboard was to negotiate their membership in the Federation, or some such, and made sure to include me.

When I asked questions, Data deferred to my mother more often than not, but I got the sense he was appraising both of us – my questions and her answers. When my eyes started to glaze over, it was Data, not my mother, who deftly shifted the topic to music, asking if I had attempted the passage I’d been struggling with, since our lesson.

“I haven’t had the energy to play,” I said, and then, because the notion only just struck me. “Why are we working on a duet? Are we going to actually play it together at some point?”

“Yes,” was Data’s simple answer. “When we are ready,” he continued, “I will schedule a recital.”

“‘We,'” I questioned him. “Don’t you mean me?”

“I do not,” he said. “Your observation that my stylistic choices were not serving the piece adequately was valid. Preparing the piece for performance will require a true collaboration.”

“Why do I get the feeling that you think I’m better than I do?”

“You are familiar with the human axiom ‘we are all our own worst critic’?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Can you accept, then, that where your own talent and skill are concerned, you may not be…objective?”

“Oh,” I said. “Point taken.”

Soon after that, I started to fade again. Data excused himself, thanking my mother for including him in our meal. To me, he said, “I have other obligations that will prevent me from visiting you tomorrow. However, if you are feeling ‘up to it,’ you are welcome to attend the concert on Thursday as my guest.” He glanced back at my mother. “I will provide escort to and from the venue, if you wish.”

“If Zoe is up to it,” my mother agreed, “I’m sure she’d love it.”

I didn’t want anything to happen that would change her mind. “That’s fantastic,” I said. “Thanks, Mom. G’night, Data.” And I retreated to my room.

(=A=)

I don’t know if she had someone come sit with me during her four-hour morning shift, or not, but I woke up Wednesday morning with only a slight temperature and almost no aches or pains. By Thursday morning, I felt practically normal, and I yelled for my mother before leaving bed.

“What is it?” my mother asked, running into my room.

I favored her with a huge grin. “I think my fever finally broke.”

Her cool hand caressed my forehead. “I’ll arrange for the doctor to see you this afternoon,” she said.

“So, I can go to the concert?”

“If Doctor Crusher says you may, then you may.”

“Awesome,” I said. And then, because it was the most crucial thing I could think of, “What do I wear?”

Notes: The concert in question is the one in “Sarek,” during which Mark Lenard’s performance is totally worth watching, and Brent Spiner’s faux violin playing is, quite possibly, the worst fake-playing ever seen on film. (Though I tend to be hyper-critical about those things.) For some of the best on-screen depictions of musicianship, go rent the movie QUARTET with Helen Mirren and Billy Connolly. It’s fantastic. End of pitch.

Chapter 29: Stormy Weather

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Stormy Weather

In the end, I wore basic black to the concert in honor of Ambassador Sarek, nothing terribly fancy, just a mini-dress with matching heels and really subtle jewelry. I still felt a bit shaky, but Data arranged for me to sit near Geordi, who asked after my health in that totally easy-going way he did almost everything.

“I’m better,” I told him. “Not a hundred per cent, but better.”

He grinned. “Glad to hear it. Data was worried about you. We all were.”

I chose not to question him about whether or not Data could worry. Instead I focused on the other part of his statement. “Um, exactly who does ‘we all’ include?”

“Me, Wes, Commander Riker, Captain Picard – did you really throw up on his boots?”

I blushed. “I did.” I said. “I really did. But I swear I didn’t mean to.”

He was laughing when he said, “Oh, I’m sure you didn’t.”

“The captain was surprisingly cool about it. At least, he didn’t yell. He actually apologized to me for being in the way.”

“Yeah,” Geordi said. “That sounds like him. Completely gracious unless forced to be otherwise.”

“Is that why he has such a great reputation as a diplomat, himself?”

“You seem pretty well-informed for a girl who, I’m told, has no real interest in Starfleet.”

“I have no interest in applying to the academy,” I corrected him. “And anyone who knows me would agree I’m not a uniforms-and-orders kind of girl. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect what you all – you, Data, my mother, Captain Picard – what you all do.”

“That’s fair,” he agreed. “So, why study up on the captain’s diplomatic expertise.”

“Would you believe I’m planning a career in espionage?” I teased.

“I might,” he teased back. “But really…?”

I shrugged. “Starfleet may not hold much interest for me, but history and politics do. Especially the politics. It’s theater on a universal scale, and while there are people who have a script in mind, the reality is that when you factor in free will anything can happen. It’s…it’s improvisational theater, except every single person is both a player and spectator.”

His laughter morphed into something else. “Do you talk about this stuff with your friends?”

“Sometimes,” I said. “With T’vek I do.”

“With Data?”

I could feel my eyes widening. “With Data? No. We pretty much exclusively talk about music.”

“You should share your other interests with him.”

I gave Geordi a confused look. “Um, why?”

“Trust me, Zoe. You just should.”

I opened my mouth to ask more questions, but the musicians walked in, then. Data came in last, and caught my eye for a moment before addressing himself to Sarek’s wife, Perrin. The music was good, but there was no sense of cohesion among the players, which lessened the impact, at least for me.

There was a brief intermission, during which Geordi left my side for a moment. When he came back, Data was with him. “Commander LaForge suggested I introduce you to our guests,” he said.

“Is that allowed?” I asked. “I mean, I’m just some kid.”

“We will debate that terminology at another time,” Data said, and I could tell he meant it. “Please accompany me.” So I had no choice but to leave my chair, and follow him down the steps to the front row of the auditorium, and introduced me, telling them, “Ambassador Sarek, Lady Perrin, I would like you to meet Zoe Harris. She is my student in music theory and advanced mathematics. Her mother is one of the ship’s science officers.”

Vulcans, I knew, didn’t touch other people as a rule, and I vaguely remembered being shown only formal greetings. Thankfully, Lady Perrin was both human and incredibly perceptive. She offered me her hand in greeting, and after I took it, she whispered, “You only have to be polite.” In a normal, surprisingly warm, voice, she said, “It’s nice to meet you Zoe. I’ve heard that the educational opportunities on starships are rich and robust.”

“Yes, we like our school system the way we like our coffee,” I quipped automatically, and then covered my mouth with my hand. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Sometimes I have no filter.”

I saw her look sharply at her husband, but he seemed unbothered by my comment, and she let herself laugh. “I suppose I did set you up for that. Perhaps I could observe a few classes, if time permits.” She glanced to Data for his approval.

“I would be happy to arrange it,” he said.

Sarek turned away from the brief conversation he had been having with the Captain and one of his aides on Perrin’s other side, and when he faced me it was like being stared down by some prehistoric, preternatural lifeforce, at least for a second or two. Then the feeling was gone as suddenly as it had come. “It is gratifying to know that young people still maintain interest in the arts,” he said to me, inclining his head.

“Yes, sir,” I agreed, matching his sketch of a bow with my own. “It’s an honor to meet you.”

“The honor is mine,” he said, as if by rote, and then something softened in those dark, dark eyes. “My son was a competent pianist in his youth. Even if you find that your career path lies away from music, never give it up.”

I’m pretty sure I was not the only person both shocked and perplexed by that exchange, but before I could even answer, the softness and warmth had vanished, Data had met Geordi’s eyes over my head, and Geordi was quietly escorting me back to our seats. “Did I do something wrong?” I asked the engineer as the lights flashed, signalling the end of intermission.

“I don’t think that was you,” he said. “I think there’s something else going on.”

Somehow, his words felt ominous. Even so, I caught Data asking Lady Perrin if there was a violinist whose style she preferred, and when he returned to the stage, my attention was absorbed by the music.

There was supposed to be a short reception after the concert, but Ambassador Sarek and Lady Perrin excused themselves early, claiming fatigue – I think when you get to be two hundred years old, people are required to just accept it when you say you’re tired – so the after-gathering was moved to Ten-Forward. Data gave me the option of attending, but I could feel the edge of a headache, my eyelids felt heavy.

“Not that I don’t love your company, or anything,” I said, “but I’m really kind of tired.”

“I will escort you to your quarters,” he said. “Please wait one moment while I let the captain know.”

I sat in one of the front row chairs, and waited for him to be free, but he really was back in about a minute and a half. “I feel bad for pulling you away from the party,” I said. “It’s your night.”

He gave me the same face he did in math class when I was balking at solving a problem he knew I understood. It was a look that meant any argument I made would be futile. “We agreed that I would escort you to and from this event.”

“No, you and my mother agreed to that,” I snapped, and was immediately contrite when I saw shock flicker across his face. At least, it looked like shock. “Sorry,” I said immediately. “I must be more tired than I thought.”

“Indeed,” he said a little too coolly, even for him. “Perhaps we should be on our way.”

Yeah,” I agreed. Then I went on, imitating his tone a little, “Perhaps we should.”

While we’d chatted amiably on the walk to the ship’s theater, the walk back to my quarters was made in silence, though I did pause at the door. “Data, I’m really sorry I was rude to you before,” I said. “Thank you for the evening. I enjoyed the music.”

“You are welcome, Zoe,” he said. “Goodnight.”

As he turned away, I saw something else flicker across his face – concern, maybe? Or confusion. He was probably trying to figure out why my mood had been so erratic.

(=A=)

There was a note from my mother waiting in our quarters. She’d be off-duty at midnight, it said. There were comm-messages from Dana, Josh, Wesley, and T’vek as well. Actually, there were three from Tev, but I didn’t have the energy to listen to all of them. The messages from Josh and Wes were sweet – just telling me they were sorry for not calling sooner, and heard I was feeling better. Wes added that if I needed help with catching up in math or chemistry, he was willing to help.

Dana, I actually called back, because I hadn’t talked to my best friend since the weekend. “Hey, stranger,” I greeted her smiling face. “Miss me?”

“Oh, Zoe, you have no idea. I’d forgotten what it was like to be the only girl in Data’s math class. Josh was nice for the first day, and then he started getting weird, and T’vek and Wes have been really…surly.”

“Surly?” I asked, both amused and delighted by the word. “Really? ‘Surly?'” Well, Dana was the one of us who was destined to be a writer.

“It’s an appropriate description,” she said. “T’vek actually came to class wearing black sun-glasses like the ones you have.”

I rolled my eyes, “They probably are the ones I have. I haven’t been able to find them since we got back from Serenity Five. I thought I’d left them there.”

“He stole them?” she was justifiably shocked by the idea.

“No, I probably just left them somewhere and he picked them up.” He’d done so before, with books, my padd, a sweatshirt. He often teased me that I should never become a fugitive because my trail of left-behind belongings would lead the cops right to me.

“Oh. Yeah. That makes sense.” There was a pause, and her tone softened, “So, how are you, Zoe? Really?”

“Better,” I said, just as I had to Commander LaForge earlier that night. “Still kind of ‘off,’ but no more fever, and my head is mostly clear. I get tired pretty easily though.”

“Will you be in class tomorrow?”

I shook my head. “Not til Monday. I only got to attend the concert tonight because Wes’s mom said I could, and because all I had to do was sit there, and be quiet.” I didn’t tell her about meeting the ambassador and his wife. “I even skipped the after-party.”

“I didn’t think T’vek had been invited to that concert,” Dana said.

“Commander Data invited me when he was here for dinner the other night,” I started to explain, and then stopped. “Okay, that sounded way more salacious than I thought it would. He was sorry that I couldn’t play the cello part and asked Mom if he could escort me to and from so I could at least hear the music.”

“Oh, that’s really sweet.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, smiling mostly to myself. “It kind of was. Except I ruined it by snapping it him.”

“You didn’t!”

“I did,” I whined. “I really did. And then I felt bad, but, Dana, it was weird. I felt like I had no control over my tongue. Suddenly, I was just really annoyed with him, and then it was gone.”

Her frown was a mixture of sympathy and confusion. “It’s probably just that you’re still not feeling perfectly well,” she said. “Was he angry? Oh, wait, it’s Commander Data, of course he wasn’t.”

“You underestimate him,” I said softly. “I think he feels more than he admits to, but that’s a whole other topic, and not one for comm.” I faked a yawn, which led to a second, real one. “I should go,” I said. “I was tired before I got home. If you have time, stop by after classes tomorrow? Bring Annette if you want.”

She smiled at me. “I like that plan. See you tomorrow, Zoe. Feel better.”

I really wanted to crawl into bed and go right to sleep after I finished chatting with Dana, but I needed to at least respond to T’vek. I sent a text message: Got your messages. Super tired. Going to bed. Talk tomorrow? Love Zoe. Then I forced myself to wash my face and brush my teeth before changing into an old Martian Academy tee-shirt that I’d stolen from my father. I was so tired, that I was asleep long before my mother got home.

(=A=)

Early – very early – Friday morning, I woke to the sound of our doorchime being signaled over and over. My mother, as she often did on the mornings after a late shift, had apparently enabled soundproofing in her bedroom, so I got up and padded to the door, forgetting that I was only wearing a baggy t-shirt and underwear. “Who is it?” I called in a less-than-cheery voice.

“T’vek. Zoe, please let me in.”

I asked the computer for the time and learned it was just past six. “Geez, Tev, what are you doing here this early?” I asked him through the still closed door.

“Please, Zoe, I have to see you!”

I wondered if his odd behavior was related to the surliness Dana had described. “Fine, enter, but keep it quiet because Mom’s still sleeping.” I squinched my eyes shut. “And so am I, I think.”

My boyfriend walked into the room with a swagger that would have been seriously impressive any other time. “You didn’t return my calls last night.”

“It was late and I was tired,” I said. “Still sick, remember?” Boys could be incredibly dense sometimes.

“You weren’t too sick to go out with Commander Data. You’re never too busy when he beckons. I know,” he said, “that you spent the night with him last week.” He was loud enough that even with soundproofing I was worried my mother would hear.

“Come with me,” I said, dragging him to my bedroom. I knew it was a bad idea, but it was better than waking my mom. I waited for the door to close then sat on my bed. I’d read somewhere that you were supposed to stay standing if you wanted to give the illusion of power, but there’s something to be said for being comfortable and non-threatening, as well. “I don’t know what is wrong with you, Stevek Mairaj,” I said, “but this new jealousy thing you’re doing is really unattractive.”

“I’m only jealous because you give me reason to be.”

“When? When have I given you reason? When Geordi and Wes called me to go to Data’s quarters, I asked if you wanted to come.”

“But you spent the night with – ”

“First of all, the very notion of that is absurd, Tev. I was with him for three or four hours, that’s all. We talked about music and art and played darts. My mother even came to meet me in his quarters. And even if I was interested in Data in any way other than as a friend and fellow musician – which I’m not – do you honestly think he’d return the feelings? You know, with those emotions he keeps telling everyone he doesn’t have? I’m fifteen years old, T’vek. He’s an officer.” I hesitated then added, “Try using the head on top of your shoulders instead of the one between your legs for a moment.”

T’vek stood in front of me, his jaw working, his fingers curling into tight fists and then uncurling again. His eyes were darker than I’d ever seen them, and when I looked into them, just for a moment, I felt that same old power that I’d felt when meeting Ambassador Sarek the night before. “But you went to the concert with him,” he said softly.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I did. As his student. And for the record, I sat with Commander LaForge, barely talked to Data all night, and said no when he invited me to attend the after-party, not that it’s any of your business.” I wanted to remind him that we’d been making out pretty intensely on this very bed not that long ago. I wanted to remind him that I’d sent him a note, at least. I did neither, because I also remembered my grandmother telling me that when you trying to make a deal, the person who speaks first, is the loser. Instead, I channeled her patience, shut my mouth, and waited.

The silence stretched between us like wire, growing tauter and tauter. I closed my eyes for what seemed like fifteen minutes but was probably more like one.

Finally T’vek spoke. “I’m an ass,” he said.

“Sometimes, yeah, you are,” I agreed, in as light a tone as I was capable of using.

“I just missed you. And then…when I tried to visit the other night, and I ran into him…”

“He was coming to tell me about the quartet in person. I skipped a dose of medicine while you were here, and got all hurt-y and spinny.” I was making up words, but I didn’t care. “He only invited me as a consolation. Not because there’s anything special between us.” I knew that wasn’t entirely true, but it didn’t seem relevant to the conversation.

Something seemed to pass out of him, at that point. His body relaxed into his more familiar posture and his eyes softened into the dark-but-somehow-glowing color they usually were. “Can I sit?” he asked.

“Sure.” I rearranged myself on my bed so I was seated cross-legged, leaning against my pillows, but under the covers. He sat at the foot end of my bed, on top of the covers, his back against the bulkhead wall. “There’s really nothing to be jealous of,” I said gently.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know that. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I woke up this morning feeling so angry at you and I didn’t know why.”

“Does this have anything to do with wearing sunglasses in class the other day?”

“Maybe?” he said. “I’m not sure why I did that either. It seemed like a good idea…”

“Why didn’t you tell me you had my sunglasses, anyway?”

His cheeks colored. “I liked that I had something that belongs to you,” he admitted.

I laughed softly. “Tev, don’t you know? You already have my heart.”

“You mean it?”

“You know I do,” I said.

“Well, good, because my parents said I could go with you to your father’s wedding.” He smiled, then, the wonderful roguish smile I loved so much. “Only two weeks ’til we leave.”

“Yeah,” I said. “So, how about we try to go that long without fighting?” I added, “I should warn you now, though, Data wants me to keep working on a duet with him. He suggested playing a recital. He’ll probably have to coordinate with Seth, but, it will mean extra practice.” I waited for an outburst, or even a comment; when I got none, I said, “You could probably come listen to us practice sometimes, if you wanted.”

“I probably won’t,” he said. “I mean, I love you, and I love that music gets you so juiced, but…I think watching you practice would be…distracting.”

I smiled. “Distracting, hmm? In a good way?”

“Oh, yes. In a very good way.”

“Hold that thought,” I said. “I kind of like it, and I kind of love you, but I’m still not completely well, and I really need to rest today, and most of the weekend, so you need to scoot before my mother knows you’re here and I need to go to sleep. Come to dinner, maybe, on Saturday night?”

“Deal,” he said. He slid off the end of my bed, and came to where I was propped up. “I love you, too, Zoe. I’m never too much of an ass to realize how awesome you are.”

“Well,” I teased. “Rarely.”

“Zoe…”

“Hmm?” I was all innocence.

He leaned over me and kissed me, lingering just long enough to show me how much he meant it. “See you Saturday.” He slipped out of my room and out of our quarters, which auto-locked behind him. I’ve always thought my mother must have known he’d come, but she never said anything, and I never asked.

(=A=)

I spent the rest of the morning napping, then spent the afternoon with Dana and Annette. Annette explained that she and Wes had talked out their issues, and then, blushing, she confessed, “He’s a really good kisser.”

Dana and I exchanged looks with each other. “That’s nice to know, I guess,” Dana said.

“No offense, Annette,” I added, “but the thought of kissing Wesley, is sort of like thinking about kissing my brother. You know, if I had one.”

She laughed. “That’s fine with me. I’m just glad we’re moving forward.” She added, “He said there’d been weird issues cropping up all over the ship – he got in a fight with Commander LaForge the other day, and his mother slapped him last night.”

“I kind of snipped at Data yesterday,” I confessed. “And then T’vek came over at oh-dark-thirty this morning all stormy and jealous. I talked him down, but for a few minutes it was kind of scary.”

“Scary? Or sexy?” Dana teased.

“Yes,” I answered, and then we moved on to other subjects.

After they left, I went back to bed to read some more, and then I actually looked at my homework from the week. I knew I had extra time, but I also knew the longer I waited to start, the less likely I’d be to actually complete it all before the holidays. Lit, history, and chemistry weren’t so bad. Biology was easy, and so was English (which really wasn’t English, it was Federation Standard Composition and Comprehension, but since Standard was based on English, the name had stuck), but Data’s homework…looking at it, I wondered if maybe he had been affected by whatever moodiness was going around.

I checked with my mother to make sure it was okay, and then contacted my tutor via text message, asking him to comm me when he had a free moment.

His response came in less than half an hour. “Zoe,” he greeted. “How are you feeling?”

I was pretty sure the question was out of politeness rather than actual interest, but I answered anyway. “Almost normal,” I said. “Well, normal for me.”

“That is good to hear,” he replied, and then asked, “How may I help you?”

“Are we still scheduled for theory tomorrow?”

“If you are well enough; are you?”

“Kind of. I was wondering if we could maybe alter the schedule a little bit?”

“In what way?”

“I was looking at the assignments from your class,” I said. “I understand this stuff when you explain it, but when I read it from the book it doesn’t make sense. Would you mind walking me through it? If it’s not too much of an imposition?”

“It is no imposition,” he confirmed. “I will see you at ten hundred hours.”

“One more thing?” I began. “Could we maybe meet here, this time? Mom doesn’t think I’m really well enough to go traipsing around the ship.”

“That would be acceptable.”

“Thanks, Data. You’re stellar.”

“You are welcome, Zoe. Data out.”

That accomplished, I returned to my bed again, bringing my padd with me, so I could start working on the composition we’d been asked to write. I was still working when my mother came home from her duty shift. “Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey, mom.”

“You look like you’re feeling pretty well today.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am. How ’bout if I order dinner tonight, since you took care of me all week?”

“Nope,” she said. “Tonight’s still my turn. Unless there’s another reason for a sudden burst of helpfulness?”

“Well,” I said. “I kind of invited T’vek to join us tomorrow, and I wanted to make sure you were cool with it.”

She sat on my bed, and ruffled my already-messy hair. “I am,” she said. “Completely cool with it.”

“Super,” I said, and smiled.

“Dinner in twenty minutes,” she told me, getting up. “Any requests?”

“Lobster tails drenched in butter, a Caesar salad, and a baked potato with sour cream and chives?” I suggested.

“Replace the lobster tails with grilled salmon and you have a deal,” she said, grinning.

“Oh…if you insist.”

She was humming softly when she left my room, and the good mood lasted until I went to bed.

I knew my flu had nothing to do with everyone’s moodiness, but it seemed like when I got better, all the interpersonal storm clouds cleared up, as well. Of course, it might also have been that the negotiations with the Legarans had been making all the officers tense, so when they were completed successfully, and Ambassador Sarek and Lady Perrin had gone home, everyone could finally relax.

I shrugged to myself as I thought of all that, then decided the best thing to do was to read some more about wizards and magic and stuff until I fell asleep. As I drifted off, I idly wondered if I could convince the computer to respond to words like lumnos and nox in order to turn the lights in my room on and off. I’d have to ask Wes about that.

Notes: Yes, it’s true, Zoe’s reading the Harry Potter series. No, that doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story, it just seems like a series she and her friends would enjoy. Literature didn’t end with Shakespeare or Dickens, after all. I have no idea what, if any, language Federation Standard actually is. For my purposes it’s a more unified hybrid of British and American English. But I suppose there’s every possibility it’s an engineered language like Esperanto. Oh, and yes, this is during the actual “Sarek” episode, but I took a few liberties with the length of the concert.

Chapter 30: Light Up the Sky – Part I

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine.

Light Up the Sky – Part I

The second Monday after I’d returned to class, I woke up feeling like my usual snarky self for what felt like the first time in eons. I’d caught up on all of the schoolwork I’d missed and stayed current on the new stuff, thanks in large part to Data, T’vek, Dana, and Josh – the latter of whom shared a class with me that none of the others did. Wesley would have pitched in as well, but he’d been busy with yet another attempt at getting into Starfleet Academy.

In any case, when my alarm sounded, instead of grumbling and hiding under the covers for an extra nine minutes (why was it never ten?) I bounced out of bed, with a truly ancient Christmas song on my lips. “Old Mr. Kringle is soon gonna jingle the bells that’ll tingle all your troubles away,” I sang in a throaty tone as I arranged breakfast for my mother and me.

“Do I hear singing?” Mom asked as she shuffled out of her room in the fluffy blue slippers we’d agreed never to actually mention in public. “Can my pale, wan, sickly Zoetrope have finally bowed out in favor of the great Zoificus?”

I stopped singing. “Seriously, Mom, it’s not like I was possessed. Only sick.”

“Mm.” She came to give me a quick squeeze before sitting down in her normal place at the table. “Clearly you don’t remember the devil child that came to visit those last couple of days.”

“Clearly,” I countered, “I was still delirious.”

“Delirious?”

“Or at least greatly overwrought.”

“Oh, good word.”

“A sparse vocabulary has never been one of my flaws,” I pointed out. “I replicated quiche,” I said, distributing plates and glasses. “With bacon.”

“I see that,” my mother said. “You’re still not getting a pony.”

“Oh, a pony has been off the table for a while,” I told her, sitting across from her. “Can’t I just be in a really good mood? The semester’s almost over, the beach is calling me, and Dad said he’d take me to get my license while I’m there with him.”

“Ah,” my mother said, grinning. She ate a forkful of quiche. “And you want me to approve the notion of my very young, extremely inexperienced daughter getting her own flitter for Christmas?”

“Just an atmospheric one,” I said. “Cloud-to-ground, nothing fancy. You know, except for the color.”

“Candy apple red?” she guessed.

“Mother, please!” I put my hand on my chest in mock-shock. “No one buys red any more. British racing green, on the other hand…”

“Right,” she said. “Classy.”

“Mmhm. And then there are the pinstripes.”

“You’ve had this conversation with your father, I take it?”

“It might have come up when he asked me to participate in his wedding.”

“You bribed your father?” my mother asked, and I could see amusement making the corners of her mouth curve up a little.

“‘Bribe’ is such a cold word, Mom,” I said, still playing my character. “Harsh, even. I merely informed my father that an incentive might guarantee my good behavior and willing contribution to the success of his event.”

“If your father is willing to foot the bill for a flitter, piloting lessons, and insurance, I won’t stop him. After all, it’s not like you’ll be using it all that often, except on vacations, and it may be useful when you go off to college.”

“About that…” I began, in my more usual tone.

“You are going to college,” my mother countered.

“Yes, of course, I am,” I said. “I meant about vacations. It’s true that I’m not that fond of Gia, but, as stepmonsters go, there could be worse…I was thinking, maybe, I could stay with Dad for more than just vacations.”

“Zoe, we had this conversation when your grandmother said she couldn’t handle you anymore. You were skipping classes, sneaking out at night, drinking…”

“Once, mom. I got drunk once.”

“You were fourteen.”

“I was almost fifteen. And it’s not like I was sneaking into night clubs. It was at Kavan Meyer’s birthday party.”

“On the beach, in the middle of the night, during high surf…you all could have been killed.”

“And drinking myself into oblivion then walking into the sea is worse than being stuck here on the U.S.S. Tedium, how?”

“Zoe, I know this is your usual brand of snark speaking, but after everything you went through when you thought Data was dead, can you understand how not funny it is when you tell me you’d choose drowning over living here.” She set down her fork, rather pointedly. “I thought you’d adjusted. You’ve made friends, you’ve made a real connection with Commander Data…”

Normally, I’d have avoided meeting my mother’s eyes. I’d have stared at my plate, or crumpled my napkin, or rolled my eyes. Something in her tone made me look at her. “You’re right,” I said softly. “Drowning would be way worse…but Mom, honestly, sometimes I feel like I’m drowning here.

She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “You know, it’s not only your behavior on Centaurus that made me want you here. I wanted to be there for this part of your life.”

“The terrible teens?” I snarked.

“The transition from girl to woman,” she corrected, her expression softening into her gushy mom look. “You’re changing, you know, a little bit, every day.”

“Yeah,” I said, though I didn’t pull my hand back. “I guess I am. And I know I’m not grumping about it all the time, but…”

“But you think you’d be happier with your father?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe? I think I’m more like him than I am like you, I guess. Sometimes I feel like I’m more of a puzzle to you than the ancient alien cultures you’re exploring.”

She squeezed my hand tighter, then released it. “Sometimes,” she said, grinning fondly at me, “you are.”

“Hmph.”

“You opened the door on that one, kiddo.”

“Hmph,” I said again, this time through a grin.

“Tell you what,” my mother began after a healthy swig of juice. “Fetch me a cup of coffee, and I’ll consider – consider – talking with your father and Gia about letting you stay. If they agree, and if, after the holidays, you still want to, I think we can work something out.”

I immediately got up to replicate coffee for my mother. “Here,” I said, placing the mug in front of her and sitting back down. “There’s another catch though, right?”

“What makes you say that?”

I gave her a pointed look. “There’s always another catch.”

She grinned around the coffee mug. “No more extortion. I’ll let the flitter slide; if you stay you’ll need it, and if you don’t we can probably have it transported to wherever you go to school, but…I don’t want to hear about expensive presents, shopping trips, or sightseeing beyond the norm.”

I shrugged. “That’s fair,” I said. “I guess.”

She peered at me, taking my measure. “I want you to be happy, Zoe. I don’t think your behavior before was the behavior of a happy person.”

“Geez mom, it’s not like I got seventeen tattoos or had my tongue pierced – is it true that guys like certain…activities… when their partners have tongue rings? – and I wasn’t exactly turning tricks on the street corners, either. It was a few parties, a few times missing curfew, and I still aced the classes I skipped out on.”

“Zoe…”

“There might be one tattoo…”

“Zoe…?”

“It’s a really small one, though. Somewhere discreet…” This time I was actually telling the truth. “I mean, I didn’t even have to take my bathing suit off to get it done.”

“Zoe Lauren Harris…”

I got up before she could finish her sentence. “Sorry, Mom. Gotta dash. My math teacher is incredibly anal about starting class on time. You might know him. Gold guy, average height, rarely uses contractions…”

I’d made her laugh, at least. “Go on, you,” she said. “Have a good day. Try not to do anything illegal before dinner.”

“Oh,” I said too innocently, reverting to the character I’d been playing earlier. “Never illegal. A little immoral maybe, but not before lunch. That would be gauche.” And I sailed out the door.

(=A=)

For the first time since I’d been part of Data’s math tutorial, we started class late. First, Data was delayed – he contacted us to let us know – because of some diplomats that had to be greeted and quartered, and then Wes came rushing in with a huge smile on his face.

He was also wearing a proper Starfleet uniform instead of one of the hideous grey things he usually wore, and his collar pip showed that had a rank of….

“So, are we supposed to salute and call you Ensign Crusher now?” Josh asked, interrupting my observation of our classmate.

Wes blushed, turning almost the same color of his uniform. “Of course not,” he said. “I’m still just a student, like you guys…mostly.”

“Seriously, Wes, you should only ever wear that,” I said. “Congratulations.”

“Does this mean you’re not going off to the Academy?” T’vek wanted to know.

“Wesley has been granted a field commission,” Data explained to us, probably because it was the only way to regain our attention. “He missed his connection on Betazed last week, because of…extenuating circumstances.”

I knew that our resident wunderkind had been instrumental in finding Commander Riker, Counsellor Troi, and her mother the Betazoid ambassador when a Ferengi had kidnapped them, but only because I’d been in sickbay getting a post-flu checkup before being allowed to return to class, and had overheard a less-than-discreet conversation. I’d also been sworn to secrecy.

“Captain Picard said I shouldn’t have to wait for the next open enrollment period, since I was already doing the job,” Wesley added for the sake of clarification. “I still have to finish my last semester of high school, and then I’ll be in other classes as well,” he elaborated.

“That’s fantastic, Wes,” Dana said. “We should celebrate later. Maybe combine it with a holiday celebration before Zoe and T’vek head off to Centaurus.”

Data interjected again. “Dana,” he said, “that is an excellent suggestion. However, we have already used thirty of our allotted one hundred twenty minutes. Therefore, I believe any planning should be postponed until after class.”

His non-admonishment admonishment caused all of us to refocus, just as he’d likely intended, and after a collective murmur of “Sorry, Data,” the lesson began.

After class, T’vek invited all of us back to his place for more planning, and everyone accepted, though Data asked me to remain behind, “…for a moment.”

“Sure,” I said to our tutor. To T’vek I said, “I’ll meet you all in a bit?”

“We’ll make sure the important decisions wait for your input,” he teased. Then he gave me a quick kiss, and went off with the rest of our group.

I turned back to Data, “Is this about the homework from when I was sick?” I asked. “Because I thought you’d said I’d ‘completed everything adequately’?” My tone was a slight imitation of his, but not in a malicious way.

“It is not,” he said. “It is about the duet we have been working on. I believe we are ready to perform it. There is a holiday party in Ten-Forward next Wednesday. If you agree, we will play the duet, and then you will join the quartet for another piece.”

“I leave a week from Friday,” I said. “Which, of course you know.”

“Is that relevant to this discussion?”

“Yes and no. I’d feel more comfortable about the duet if there was time for a couple of extra practice sessions, and I’m a little nervous about the final for this theory class I’m taking,” I put a teasing lilt into my voice, but I’m pretty sure he knew I was still mostly serious. “My teacher is a stickler for accuracy, and I don’t want to disappoint him.”

I saw him open his mouth, as if to protest that he could not be disappointed, but he closed it again, waited a beat, and then spoke a little more softly than he usually did. “I am certain your results will be more than satisfactory.”

From Data, it was a high compliment. “I wish I had your certainty,” I admitted. “But it’s probably just nerves. Anyway, I’m trying to balance school and music and getting ready for the trip, and I still feel a bit behind even though I’ve caught up on all my homework.” I took a breath more to ground myself than anything else. “Do you have time for a couple of extra rehearsals? Maybe Wednesday, and going longer on Saturday?”

“Those times would be acceptable,” he agreed. “Thank you, Zoe.”

I picked up my padd, and turned to go, but stopped in the doorway. “Thank you, Data,” I said, and left.

(=A=)

By the time I arrived at T’vek’s quarters, my friends had replicated burritos and tacos for lunch, and three different venues had been discussed. Dana wanted to throw a winter formal for the entire contingent of high school students – about forty – and Josh wanted to requisition the use of one of the observation lounges and hold our celebration there.

“I have a better idea,” I said.

“Do tell?” T’vek prompted me.

“Gimme a minute.” I finished eating my taco, took a large swallow of mango-peach iced tea, and said, “It just occurred to me that Data’s never seen our theme park in action; he only ever saw the report.”

“You want to hold a party there?”

“With a few tweaks,” I said, and I outlined what I wanted to do. “Wes, can you ask Reg to help out again?”

“I can,” he said, “but he might respond more favorably if you ask.”

“You’re just afraid you’ll slip and call him ‘Broccoli’ again,” I countered.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “I am, a little.”

Dana changed the subject. “So,” she breezed, “what’s it really like to wear an actual uniform, Wes?”

And just like that he was all smiles again. “It’s amazing,” he said. “I mean, I feel this whole new sense of responsibility, but I also feel like I have the right to be here.”

“You didn’t before?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said. “I always felt like Captain Picard might decide he didn’t want me around, after all.”

“He still could,” Josh said, but we all knew he was teasing.

The five of us hung out for another hour or so, eating the rest of the food that had been replicated, and sharing plans for the holidays. T’vek and I were the only people leaving the ship, but Dana said she and her father would be attending Christmas Eve services in the ship’s chapel, and Josh told us about the Christmas day snow-fest in the holodeck.

“Oh, I went to that the year before last,” Wes said. “It was amazing.”

“Until you beaned Lieutenant Yar with that snowball,” Josh said. He added, for the rest of us, “After that it was a whole different kind of amazing. He hit her in the butt.”

Everyone laughed, except me. I asked, “Who’s Lieutenant Yar.”

Wesley’s expression darkened and everyone else grew suddenly serious as well. “Tasha Yar,” he said, “was the security chief before Worf. She was fierce but she was also really…nice? No. Kind. She was kind.” He lowered his voice a bit. “She was killed on a mission. You should ask Data about her sometime. They were close.”

My curiosity was piqued, and I made a mental note to do exactly what Wes suggested. Later. Right then, though, I just grinned. “If we’re done planning, can I have my boyfriend all to myself for a while?”

T’vek leered at me for comic effect, but everyone else got the hint.

After they were gone, he said to me. “My father will be back here in an hour.”

We made quick work of returning the dishes and glasses to the replicator, and tidying the Mairaj living quarters, and then I said, “Show me your room.”

I’d been to his quarters before, of course, but I’d never been beyond the living quarters and the bathroom. Now, I got a better glimpse into the heart and soul of the boy I loved, because his room was full of wire sculptures of ships and found-art structures, but he also had a board full of holo-pics and posters of both Betazed and Vulcan.

The first one, a seascape, drew my attention. “Is that the Opal Sea?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “It’s one of my favorite places to be.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to see it, when the ship was there.”

“Me, too,” he said. “You’d love it there.”

“Pretty sure I’d love it wherever you are,” I said, my voice catching slightly. I crossed the room to sit on his bed. “Right here, for example, is pretty awesome.”

He came and sat with me, covering my hand with his. “You’re pretty awesome,” he said softly. He nuzzled my neck, nibbling just over my jugular. “You smell so good,” he said.

“It’s just shampoo,” I told him.

“It smells fantastic.” He lifted his free hand to run it through my hair, turning my head toward him so we could kiss – a proper kiss – not the chaste peck we’d shared after class.

We kept kissing, and I lifted my free hand to tease the tip of his ear.

“It’s not enough,” I said.

“No,” he agreed. His hand dropped to my waist, so he could slide it under my shirt. “Zoe…if we…would you want to…?” He couldn’t get the words out but I knew what he meant.

“You don’t mean right now?”

“Not now-now, no. But…maybe over the holidays.”

“Yeah,” I said, leaning into his touch. “Definitely over the holidays.” I freed my other hand from his, and tangled both of mine in his hair, kissing him harder. “God,” I said, “vacation cannot come soon enough.”

T’vek laughed through the kiss, as his thumb found my nipple. I gasped, and he laughed more, delighted and smug. “You’re amazing,” he said.

“I bet you say that to all the girls who let you feel them up,” I teased.

“And the guys,” he teased back. But then he grew sober. “There haven’t been any others…not…not in that way.”

“Oh, Tev…”

“Have you?” He was almost shy, when he asked me.

“What, had sex?” I wasn’t embarrassed, but I was feeling suddenly overwhelmed. “No,” I said. “Never. I mean, I’ve dated. A little. Back home.” I pulled away from him, and sat up straighter. He pulled his hand back from under my shirt, and I wrapped both of mind around it. “You don’t know this,” I said. “But the reason I’m here on the ship is that things weren’t working out so well for me at home.”

He moved so he was sitting cross-legged on his bed, and I moved to mirror his position. “How so?”

“Well, when I was little, Mom was mostly on short term missions, and assigned to planetary duty. When I got older, she started getting longer assignments, frigates and scout ships and stuff, so I stayed with Dad when he was home – he tours a lot – or at my grandmother’s farm when they were both away.”

He nodded, “I kind of knew that much.”

“Dad’s awesome, but for most of my life, he was more of a best friend than a parent. He didn’t always pay attention to when I was supposed to be in school, and when I wasn’t. He’d take me with him on tour, and if it was a musical and not a pure orchestra thing, he’d get them to throw me onstage as ‘atmosphere’ or whatever.”

“Wait, so you’re a performer? Like professional? Stellar!”

“No!” I said. “I mean, yes, but just tiny stuff. ‘Oh, you need a kid, use Zoe.’ That kind of thing. It was fine when I was five and six and school didn’t mean much. When I got older, attendance began to matter, so he couldn’t take me with him so much. And then a couple years ago Mom got assigned here.”

“And she asked you to come.”

“No,” I said. “She didn’t. I got really mad at her. It was like…she was finally in a place where she didn’t have to choose between me and her job, but she still chose the job.”

“Oh, Zoe….” he reached out to stroke my cheek. “I’m sorry.”

I pulled his hand away from my face, kissed his palm and then continued talking, “No, it’s okay. I mean it is now…but then Dad took a long tour, and I was stuck at my grandmother’s and – don’t get me wrong – she’s fantastic, but I was angry and hurt, and I did some stupid stuff. Parties. Drinking. Mom came home and found me at a party with a guy who was…older…and kind of freaked out.”

“How much older.”

“Four years,” I admitted. “He was eighteen, and I was fourteen.”

“But you didn’t?”

“No,” I said. I met his eyes, and told him with every ounce of truth in me, “We kissed a little, but that’s all.” I waited to see if he was going to say anything, and when he didn’t I added. “Tev, you’re the first – you’re the only guy I’ve ever loved.”

His smile, when it came, was devilishly sexy, but he didn’t say anything, just pulled me close again, and kissed me. We stretched out together on his bed, and just stayed there, quietly until we heard Kenash come home.

“I should go,” I said. “I have two language finals this afternoon. One in Vulcan, one in Spanish.”

“I’ve got my design final,” he said, “so I feel your pain. Let me walk you to the door.” We got up, and paused to say hello to his father, and then he kissed me again. “See you after?”

“I have quartet rehearsal,” I said. “I’ll comm you when I’m done.” I stepped into the corridor, and he followed me.

“I love you, Zoe,” he said, kissing me one more time.

“Love you, too,” I said.

(=A=)

I hadn’t lied to T’vek. I did have finals in Vulcan and Spanish that day, but I breezed through them, as I knew I would, and then I went to sickbay. This time, I wasn’t succumbing to a virus and I didn’t throw up on anyone’s boots.

“Nurse Ogawa?” I asked the duty nurse who was working.

She smiled at me, “It’s Alyssa to you. How are you feeling, Zoe?”

“I’m good,” I said. “I need to talk to someone about…” I hesitated. “Um…you’re not allowed to tell my mother why I’m here, right? Even though it’s a starship, privacy laws still count?”

Her smile softened. “Nope,” she said. “We’re not allowed to tell your mother.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “I need to talk about birth control.” I said.

She nodded once, and picked up a padd. “Let’s go to one of the bio-beds and you can relax for a moment while I get the doctor.”

It didn’t even cross my mind until I was lying on the bed that the doctor was also the mother of one of my friends. While I waited, Alyssa conferred with Dr. Crusher in a whisper. The doctor looked sharply in my direction, but her expression resolved into her usual professional demeanor almost immediately, and by the time she came over to me, she was smiling.

“I just can’t get rid of you, can I Zoe?” she teased.

“What can I say, Doc,” I replied. “Modern medicine fascinates me. Also, you have some super-hot orderlies.”

She laughed softly. “True enough.” She touched a control on the biobed, and an opaque force-field surrounded us, about a meter out from the bed all the way around. “So…birth control,” she said in a more serious tone. “You know I can’t tell your mother –” she waited for me to confirm what I’d already discussed with Alyssa. “- but you really should, Zoe. She’d want to know, and to be there if…”

“If T’vek hurts me in some way?”

“That,” she allowed, “and if you just need emotional support.”

“I’ll consider it,” I said. I almost wanted to ask her if Wes had come to her at some point, but I knew she couldn’t answer. Instead I asked, “Did you tell your mother? When it was your first time?”

She smiled the fond smile that was her version of my mother’s ‘gushy mom look.’ “I was raised mostly by my grandmother,” she shared. “She was a very wise woman, and I was afraid she’d be incredibly disappointed in me when she found out I’d taken that step…but she was also a healer, and I think she knew being supportive was more important than being judgmental.”

“My mother would tell me I’m too young, or not ready.”

“You are young…” the doctor hedged.

“I’ll be sixteen in slightly more than a month,” I pointed out. “And who decides what ‘too young’ is, anyway? I mean, wouldn’t you want your daughter to lose her virginity with someone who loved and cared about her, and not some random guy she met at a party?”

She had been scanning me, the whole time we’d been talking. Now she put the medical wand away, and hitched her hip onto the end of the bio-bed. “If you have the presence of mind to be asking about protection before you take that step, then as a physician, I’d have to say you’re ready.” She paused, and the teasing glint reappeared in her eyes. “As a mother, and I’m pretty sure your mother would agree, I’d urge you to wait til you’re thirty.”

I laughed at that, and was immediately more comfortable. “Okay,” I said. “Now what?”

“Now,” she said, “I ask you some nosy questions, and then I give you a hypospray that will prevent you from ovulating for three months, as well as a broad-spectrum vaccine against most common sexually-transmitted diseases.”

“Three months?” I asked.

“For now,” she said. “When you come back from your vacation, we’ll do an exam, and make sure the hormone levels are right for you, and then we can talk about longer-term options.”

“How long before it’s effective?” I asked, after I’d answered everything about when I’d had my first period and what my cycle was like, and other things that, yes, seemed really nosy.

“Twenty-four hours,” she said. “We’re lucky we live when we do; not so long ago, birth control for women meant needle injections, daily pills, or intrauterine implants, and you still had to use barrier methods to prevent STDs…now, things are simpler and safer.” She went through a list of possible, but rare, side effects and added, “Come see me if you have any questions. I mean it.”

“Cool,” I said. “And thanks.”

She turned off the privacy field, and I jumped off the bed. “Zoe…have T’vek come in, as well, before you leave for Centaurus.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And, Zoe…be safe.”

“I’ll try,” I promised.

I left sickbay in a much more reflective mood than I’d been in when I’d arrived, and almost careened into a strange man in an extremely form-fitting white jumpsuit as I reached the door. “Excuse me,” he said.

“Sorry,” I answered, brushing past him to the doors.

(=A=)

My mood stayed somewhat subdued even during quartet rehearsal, and was apparently noticeable enough that Data caught me before I left. “Zoe,” he said, “I have noticed that the expression on your face is similar to the way you look when you ask to have a cup of tea with me. May I invite you for one, now?”

(= To Be Continued =)

Notes:
This chapter and the one that will come immediately after it take place after “Menage a Troi” and during “Transfigurations,” which is the one with the mojo-giving alien John Smith. If you’re wondering why the season break (Best of Both Worlds I & II) is happening over Christmas, it’s because that’s what the Stardate engines say (which means, avoid the Enterprise during December if you want to live through the holidays.)

Chapter 31: Light Up the Sky – Part II

Disclaimer: Star Trek: the Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, and all the canon characters belong to CBS/Paramount. The rest is mine. (Note: this chapter is a strong T for teenaged horniness at the end.)

Light Up the Sky – Part II

My mood stayed somewhat subdued even during quartet rehearsal, and was apparently noticeable enough that Data caught me before I left. “Zoe,” he said, “I have noticed that the expression on your face is similar to the way you look when you ask to have a cup of tea with me. May I invite you for one, now?”

“Do I really look that distressed?” I asked.

“I would characterize your expression as more ‘reflective,'” he said.

“I’m dealing with some stuff,” I admitted. “Decisions of the possibly epic kind,” I added. “And while tea with you would be lovely, I think I should probably go home. Thanks, anyway.”

“As you wish,” he said, in his customary mild tone. “Good night, Zoe.”

I conjured a bright smile as I zipped my cello into its gig bag. “G’night, Data. See you in class on Wednesday.”

(=A=)

Back at home, I comm’d T’vek but he was busy putting the finishing touches on an art project. Dana had left me a message while I was at rehearsal, asking if she could come over and study. I returned it, telling her to bring Annette, if she wanted to.

The pair of them showed up about twenty minutes later, with their padds. “So, what’s the focus tonight?” I asked.

“History,” Dana said. “Then maybe math if Annette doesn’t mind.”

“I don’t,” she said. “Actually, I’d love to see what you’re working on. If I do well on my own final, I might be in your tutorial after the break.”

“Really?” I said. “It’ll be nice not to be outnumbered by the boys for a change.”

“I feel your pain. I’m the only girl in my Introduction to the Principles of Engineering class, and it’s kind of intimidating.”

“We should focus on history,” Dana reminded us.

We did so, gathering around the glass-topped dining table rather than being more casual on the living area floor. After about an hour, we took a break for snacks – I introduced my friends to the glorious combination of sliced apples dipped in peanut butter – and chatted more casually.

“Did I see you in Sickbay yesterday, Zoe?” Annette asked at one point. “You’re not relapsing, are you?”

“No,” I said. “Oh, god, no. I just…I had to see the doctor about something personal.”

She peered at me, as if trying to decide how nosy she was going to be. Then her face lit up with a huge grin. “You and T’vek are planning to go all the way during the holidays! I knew it! Wes said you were already, but, I didn’t think so.”

I could feel my cheeks getting hot. “You’ve talked about us?” I asked. “Dana, do you and Josh talk about me and Tev, too?”

“Nope,” she deadpanned. “We only ever speculate about Wes and Annette.”

That caused the three of us to dissolve into giggles, but then Dana said, “Is Annette right, though, Zoe? Are you and T’vek planning to…do it?”

“You’d never know we all grew up in the Age of Enlightenment, the way we’re dancing around the word ‘sex,'” I said, mostly to deflect their questions. “Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex…if we can’t even say the word in a private conversation with friends, do we have any business doing it?”

“Fair point,” Dana said. “So, are you and Tev planning to have sex?”

She said it with this really dirty tone that made me start laughing again, and it took me a moment to calm myself so I could answer. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we are. I mean…he wants to. I want to. We both…”

“Want to?” Annette asked, with a smile that was warm and sympathetic.

“Sorry,” I said, and then, because it was apparently that kind of conversation. “Have you and Wes…?”

Her smile softened. “Saturday night,” she told us. “To celebrate his field promotion.”

“Was it your first time?” Dana asked.

“Yes,” she said. “It was okay, though.”

“I’d hope so,” I said. “I mean, his mother’s a doctor…he’s been staring at models of human anatomy his entire life.”

We all laughed again, and the serious mood was broken.

“So, more history, or math?” Dana asked when we’d recycled our plates and glasses. “I think I’m actually okay with math,” she added.

“Me, too,” I said, surprising myself. “I was shaky on some things before I got sick, but you and Tev and Data helped so much when I was catching up, that I actually feel really confident about the exam.”

“Not too confident, though?” Dana asked. “Right?”

“Confident. Not cocky,” I confirmed.

“More history then,” Annette declared, and that’s what we did.

(=A=)

In the interest of practicing what I preached, so to speak, I contacted T’vek early Tuesday morning, to tell him to hit Sick Bay for a scan and anti-STD vaccine. I also pointed out that birth control options for men were way less invasive than even the modern hormone therapy women used.

He managed to listen and agree to go, without either of us blushing or stammering much, and when we were finally able to talk after class, he confirmed that he was clean, had been dosed as needed, and was really happy that neither of us had another final that day.

“Unless you want to cram for Data’s math tutorial?” he asked, as we walked toward my quarters.

“I do have to study something for Data, but not for math,” I said. “My theory final is Thursday evening.”

“Why Thursday?”

“Because tomorrow night and Saturday we’re spending rehearsing our duet.” I realized I hadn’t told my boyfriend about the concert. “You’ll come, right? And bring your parents? I mean, you’ll get to see me in an actual dress, and stuff.”

“An entire horde of Ontallian slither-worms couldn’t keep me away,” he promised. “Maybe my parents and I could share a table with your mother? Since we still haven’t managed to have dinner?”

“Not a bad idea,” I said. “Let’s plan it.”

We’d reached the door to my quarters. “So, this studying you have to do…”

“I need to eat lunch first, and then I can give you an hour, maybe two.” It was difficult for me to set limits like that, but I wanted to do well on my theory exam and on the duet.

“Evil, evil, woman.”

“You like it that way.”

“True,” he agreed. “The eviler the better.”

I gave him my best evil laugh, low and throaty, and he shivered. “What?” I asked, all innocence.

“When you do that, I can never decide if it’s hot or scary.”

“Oh?”

“It’s probably both.”

I just laughed again.

(=A=)

Wednesday morning, nerves hit me as I got ready to go to my math class. “Tell me I’m not going to fail?” I begged my mother at breakfast.

“You’re not going to fail,” she said in a flat tone, but ruined the effect by laughing softly. “Zoe, it’s one exam. Even if you don’t get the highest score, you’ll still pass.”

I thought about it. “I won’t get the highest score. Wes or Tev will. I’m just not ‘mathy’ enough.”

“And yet, everything I’ve heard tells me you’ve held your own.”

“Everything you’ve heard?”

“Commander Data and I do talk on occasion,” she allowed.

“Right,” I said, “I know. You worked together on the Ichobarian thing, yeah?”

“Look who’s taking a greater interest in shipboard events,” my mother observed, pleased. “Does this mean you don’t want to stay on Centaurus?”

“It means,” I said, “that I want the right to decide for myself. Centaurus has beaches, and an arts academy, and…”

“And the Enterprise has your boyfriend, and a very special friend in the form of Data,” my mother continued for me. Wryly, she added, “Not to mention me.”

“How could I forget the coolest mother in the galaxy,” I teased. I asked the replicator for a chocolate protein shake in lieu of actual food, and when my mother shot a questioning glance my way, I explained, “Chocolate conquers everything.”

She laughed again, and wished me luck on my test.

(=A=)

The rest of the week went fairly smoothly. My nerves subsided by the time I actually arrived at the conference room for Data’s tutorial, and while I wasn’t the first to finish his exam (Wesley was), I also wasn’t the last (that was Josh). Rehearsal that night also went well.

Thursday we had our Literature final in the morning, and then I went back home to do some last minute reviewing for the music theory exam I’d insisted Data give me that evening. It was true that it hadn’t originally been a for-credit course, but once I’d realized it counted as an extra elective he’d agreed to actually grade me.

“I don’t understand why you’re taking a final at seven at night,” T’vek said as he walked with me to Data’s quarters.

“Because,” I said, “I need the extra rehearsal time with him on Saturday, and I don’t want to have another final hanging over my head. I told you all this,” I reminded him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

“It was supposed to be this afternoon,” I confessed, “but he was scheduled to be on the bridge, and I feel weird when he changes his duty schedule to accommodate me.”

“You should feel honored,” he told me.

“Oh?”

“Sure. Not everyone has a hero of the Federation giving up their free time to tutor them in music theory.”

“Well,” I said. “Not every hero of the Federation has a tutee with such talent and such a winning personality.”

T’vek grinned. “Fair point. Clearly Commander Data is the one who should be honored.”

“Indeed.” Data’s voice interjected as he walked up behind us. “Have you been waiting long?” he asked. “I was delayed, and unable to get a message to you.”

“We just got here,” I said. “If you have work to do…”

“I do, but it can be done while you are completing the written portion of your examination,” he assured me. “T’vek, thank you for escorting Miss Harris.”

Tev grinned. “No worries.” He leaned close, kissed me, and then walked off. “Later, Zoe, Data.”

Data made one of his non-verbal sounds that generally meant he’d made a note of some bit of human behavior for later consideration, and opened the door to his quarters. “Please come in,” he said, and I followed him.

“You will need your padd for the first portion of the examination,” he said, taking my cello from me. “Afterward I will give you a break before the applied theory section.”

“Why do I get the feeling this exam is going to be way more difficult than the test you gave us in math yesterday?”

He raised his eyebrows at me. “Must I remind you that this is a college-level course?”

“Sometimes,” I confessed, “I forget it’s a class at all.”

“If you are nervous,” he said, “you have no reason to be. You know the material.”

“If you say so,” I said, sitting down at his dining table.

He took my padd, tapped in a few commands, and handed it back to me. “Begin.”

I did as he asked, noticing peripherally that he’d seated himself at his workstation. I’d never actually seen him working at it, but there was something kind of cozy about me working on my stuff while he was working on his. Not sure where that thought had come from, I banished it, and focused on the exam.

The written portion was difficult, but Data had been correct: I knew the material. About seventy-five minutes into the ninety he’d allotted me, I said, “Finished,” and pushed my padd away.

“Do you wish to know your score now, or would you prefer to complete the practical portion first?” he asked, without his focus seeming to leave whatever he was working on.

“I’d rather wait, if that’s okay.”

“It is fine. I will need four-point-seven-three minutes to complete my task before we can begin the practical. Would you care for a refreshment while you wait?”

“I’m good,” I said. “Though if it wouldn’t be a major imposition to use your bathroom…”

“It would not.”

I got up, and walked through his bedroom, past the perfectly-made bed, the completely uncluttered dresser, and the bare floor, to the bathroom, used it, washed my hands and returned to the main room. “Thanks,” I said. “Now what?”

“If you will take out your cello, and warm up, I will be asking you to demonstrate some musical shapes and intervals.”

I did as he asked, and he took me through a series of practical requests, asking me to play certain riffs in different keys, or to demonstrate specific arpeggios. He asked me questions about enharmonic tuning, about sympathetic vibrations, and finally, when I thought I couldn’t possibly answer another question, he called time.

“Please tell me we’re done and that this isn’t a break?”

“We are finished.”

“Did I pass?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

He stared at me for what felt like several minutes, then got up from behind his console to stand directly in front of me. “Zoe, you achieved a perfect score. Do you believe I would have allowed you to sit an examination of if I did not know you were ready?”

“Some teachers believe you learn as much by failing…”

“That is true,” he said. “But I believe there is a difference between the kind of failure you are describing, and being ‘set up’ to fail.”

I thought about that for a long moment. “That makes sense,” I said. I got up, and brushed past him to grab my gig bag and start packing my cello. “Thank you,” I said, “for the class and your time and everything.”

“You are welcome,” he said softly.

I rested my packed cello on the floor, and leaned on it. “Are we doing another semester of theory…after the break?”

“It is designed to be a year-long course.”

“Okay,” I said again. I hefted the instrument. “I should go. Let you do…whatever it is you were doing.”

“I will see you in class tomorrow, Zoe.”

(=A=)

I wasn’t at all surprised that T’vek was waiting for me in the corridor. He took my cello from me, grabbed my hand with his free one, and asked, “So?”

“Apparently, I ‘achieved a perfect score,'” I told him. “Also? Data is capable of writing exams that are truly brutal.”

“If he’s pushing you, it means he thinks you’re capable.”

“I guess,” I said. “When do you have to be home?”

“Zero two hundred hours. Is your mother on duty tonight?”

“Covering Science One on the bridge overnight.”

“Awesome.”

Despite knowing my mother’s schedule, I checked every inch of our quarters before letting T’vek past the living area, and then I still sent a text message to her letting her know that I was back and that he was visiting for a bit. “All clear,” I said. “Are you hungry, or…?”

He was staring at me with dark, luminous eyes. “C’mere.”

I set my cello in the corner and then returned to stand face-to-face with him. We tangled our hands in each other’s hair and kissed until we were breathless, and then we moved to my room, to my bed, where shirts and pants were quickly stripped away.

We didn’t actually have sex that night. We’d made an unspoken agreement that the first time wouldn’t be a night when we had a time-limit, but with our hands and lips we did almost everything else that two horny teenagers could do without taking that last step.

It wasn’t exactly perfect.

He removed my bra and kissed my breasts, but when he took me into his mouth to nibble and tease, I had to stop him. “Don’t bite so hard,” I said. “More tongue, less teeth.”

It was the same when it was my turn, when I met him eye-to-eye, so to speak. First, I was overcome with the desire to giggle. Then I was tentative. But when I reached out my hand to stroke him there his responsive shiver was enticing. “Tell me if I’m doing this wrong,” I asked him.

“You’re – ah – fine,” he said, his words coming amidst tremors.

And so I experimented, finally getting the nerve to take him into my mouth until: “Ouch! Zoe! Too much teeth!”

“I’m sorry!” I said, moving away. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Hey,” he said. “It’s okay. I haven’t done it either, you know.”

“Great,” I grumbled. “The blind leading the lame, and all that.”

“Who are you calling lame?”

“Good question.” But it made me laugh, and when I checked the time, it was nearly one-thirty. “You should probably get dressed,” I said. “Not that I want you to leave, but…”

“But a posse of worried parents kills the mood?” he teased.

“Yeah, kind of.”

I pulled an old t-shirt on, while he got dressed, and then I walked him to the door. “See you tomorrow,” I said.

His answer was to kiss me. “Love you. G’night, Zoe.”

I enabled the privacy locks on the door – Mom would be able to get in using her access code – and went to bed.

(=A=)

Friday morning was the last time our math tutorial would meet until the new semester. Because Wesley still maintained that I was Data’s favorite, I was given the job of escorting Data to the holodeck. I was, therefore, the only person sitting in the conference room when he arrived, and the look of confusion that flitted across his face was priceless.

“Good morning, Zoe,” he greeted me. “Was I not clear that class would be meeting today?”

I slid my padd across the table to where I could watch for messages. “Well, I know T’vek was up pretty late,” I hedged. “But yeah, Data, you were clear.”

“It is unlike Wesley to be absent without letting me know,” he continued. “Dana, also, is extremely dedicated to following the rules.”

“She can be,” I agreed out loud. Inwardly, I was willing my classmates to signal readiness.

“I will leave the decision to you then,” he said, when it became clear that no one else would be showing up. “Do you wish to review the examination material, or do you wish to wait until after semester break.”

“I feel bad about making you stay just for me,” I said. “Maybe you could just tell me how badly I sucked?”

“Your grade was acceptable,” he said.

“How do you define ‘acceptable,’ exactly?”

“In this case, ninety percent.”

I grinned. “Wow, really? I would have been happy with anything over eighty.”

“You do yourself a disservice by expecting low scores.”

“So you keep saying,” I said. “And I will keep reminding you that I’m math-deficient, and that the only reason I’ve survived in your class this long is that it’s you teaching it, and when you explain stuff, I understand it.”

“Thank you, Zoe.”

My pad flickered briefly with the word ‘now,’ and then went dark again.

“Data, since you still have our class time blocked out, would you consider an alternative plan?” I asked, trying to make it sound like a spur-of-the-moment idea.

He cocked his head at me, “What did you have in mind?”

“You never got to see our theme park in action. I mean, you graded us based on the report, and…” I hesitated. “And I’d really like you to see it now.”

I was pretty sure he could tell I was up to something, but he simply nodded. “I would be happy to accept your invitation,” he said.

“Stellar.” I grabbed my padd, tapped it once to send a pre-coded ‘on my way’ message, and vacated my seat. Data followed me out of the room and in the corridor, I impulsively linked my arm through his. He stared at me for a moment, then merely nodded.

At the holodeck, the corridor was empty, as I’d known it would be. “Data, if you want to do the honors, the version of the program we’re using is ‘light up the sky.'”

He told the computer to execute the program, and the doors slid open to reveal my classmates standing in front of a decorated Christmas tree. The ornaments on it were all scale model representations of the rides we’d created, and as for the rides themselves, we’d tweaked the program so they were all decked in Christmas lights, though, admittedly, they were lights that still evoked our steampunk theme.

“Welcome to Crumpe and Lillivick’s Quantum Carnival,” I said. “We tweaked the décor a little, for the season. We’d really like to give it over for public use after today, though.”

Data was looking around at all we’d done, “This is more than I expected you to do.”

“Once we got started,” Wes said, stepping forward, “we were having so much fun with it, we had to keep going.”

“There are elements of all of us in it,” Dana added. “Wesley, T’vek, and Zoe’s contributions are the most obvious, but…”

“But we’re all here,” Josh said. “Let’s go on some rides now, so we can have lunch and stuff?”

My arm was still linked through Data’s. “Would you like to choose another tour guide for the rest of the morning?” I asked, pulling away slightly.

Data favored all of us with the merest hint of a smile. “I will ‘stick’ the guide I have,” he said. “As long as everyone else comes along.”

For the next two hours we took Data on all the rides, answered his questions, and laughed lot. Finally, as the fake sky above us grew dim (we’d programmed it that way), we all met back at the tree, where a picnic table was set up. “If everyone would take a seat,” T’vek said, taking over as host. “We’re serving corn dogs, crinkle-cut French fries, and root beer floats.”

The six of us took our seats, though we had to explain the proper method of consuming the foods we’d chosen.

“Is it not proper etiquette to use utensils at meals?” Data asked.

“Not with carnival food,” Wesley explained. “Here, using your fingers is the preferred method.”

“It’s why we provided wet-wipes instead of normal napkins,” I added. “Wes, the fries are awesome.”

“Mom’s recipe,” he said. “The base recipe on file bordered on gross.”

“And for this improvement, we thank you, oh boy wonder,” intoned Josh.

When the food was gone, and programmed twilight was about to deepen into full darkness, I nudged Wes under the table.

“Data, we have one more thing to show you,” he said. “It’s our way of thanking you for leading this tutorial.”

“Look up,” I said, as T’vek gave a quiet instruction to the computer.

Above us, the holographic sky filled with a colorful fireworks display, each volley raining fountains of fiery color more incredible than the last. It lasted about ten minutes, and the whole time, sitting between Data and T’vek, and across from my best friend and the two other boys who had become friends as well, I kept thinking to myself, do you really want to give this up?

Notes: The concert Data and Zoe have been rehearsing for will be in chapter 32. No, really, it will. That aside, I really struggled with this chapter. There were so many really sweet moments that I had to cut because they were nice but didn’t move things forward. Some might be recycled into future bits, some may not. As well, I spent the weekend of the 17th at Dallas Comic-Con, and I think actually meeting Brent Spiner pulled me out of my story a little bit. (He is, in person, a wonderful mixture of funny, kind, and deliciously snarky.)

Crush: Chapters 11-20

Chapter 11: I’m going to Serenity Five

Disclaimer: Star Trek: The Next Generation, the U.S.S. Enterprise, Lt. Commander Data, and anything else recognizable belong to Paramount. Zoe and her mother belong to me. This takes place during the first four seasons of TNG.

I’m Going to Serenity Five, And I’m Taking….

Five teenagers. Three adults (one of whom is an android). Two days in space. One runabout. It was the perfect setup for a really bad joke, or possibly the premise of a twenty-first century situation comedy. Either way, no one would have expected the reality of the situation to include – roughly two hours after we left the Enterprise – the first, inevitable utterance of, “I’m bored.”

It was Josh who said it, but we were all thinking it.

My mother was up in the cockpit with Commander Data, taking a turn as co-pilot, or I’m sure she’d have offered a suggestion. Instead it was Kenash – T’vek’s father – who offered, “The replicator has the pattern for a tri-d chess set. Would anyone care to play?”

I looked up from the corner of the bench seat where I had been pretending to read one of the books I’d downloaded to my padd. “I think chess is T’vek’s game…”

“Don’t you play, Zoe?”

I had to laugh at that. “Me? Chess? Way too structured and organized for my tastes, Mr. Mairaj. I mean, unless you really want to see the Kamikaze Kid at work?”

“It’s Kenash, Zoe,” T’vek’s father corrected mildly. “Perhaps my son will do me the honor?”

T’vek joined his father at the center table in the runabout Amazon‘s main compartment. “One game, Father, but that doesn’t help everyone else find something to do.”

Josh slid off his bench seat – on the opposite bulkhead from mine – and sprawled on the floor. “Co-ed, naked, multi-species Twister,” he suggested. “We should play that.”

“I don’t think we have enough variance for the multi-species version,” I shot back at him. “I mean, if one of us spins and gets ‘left tentacle, chartreuse’ we’re kinda screwed.”

“Spoilsport,” he groused back, mostly teasing.

“Bratling,” I countered.

“Children, children, please…” Dana sing-songed from yet another bench. She wasn’t the biggest fan of the oh-so-sophisticated banter Josh and I often descended into.

Josh pretended to sleep, then, and I went back not-reading my book. Dana was also reading, or pretending to, I noticed, and Wesley was… “Wesley Crusher, are you actually doing homework?”

The boy looked up at me, eyes wide. “We do have assignments due when we get home.”

“Yeah, but we also have an even longer trip to get back home.”

“Data agreed that if my assignments were complete I could take a shift as copilot,” Wes admitted. “I am an acting ensign, after all.”

“And we all know it,” muttered Josh from