There were no secrets on the Enterprise. Not really. Anything whispered, no matter how quietly, was likely to be overheard by some member of her crew (audible ranges varying widely from human to Klingon to android, etc.) or recorded by her computer, for posterity, historical accuracy, or mistaken as an order for supper. Even unspoken thoughts might not long be solely under the discretion of their proprietor. Empath or not, years of close proximity and a ship full of exceptionally clever creatures made for annoyingly perceptive shipmates, and a necessity for playing it very, very, close to the chest.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard had gotten quite good at that particular game. He thought.
"Have I got something in my teeth?" Commander Riker asked and Picard blinked.
Riker shifted his weight, crossed his arms, standing in Picard's ready room. He smiled.
"Seems like you've got something on your mind, Captain. Hopefully nothing serious. Should I finish my report later?"
Picard had had something on his mind. It was rather serious, he felt, watching Riker smirk at him. He sat a little straighter.
"No, of course not."
Riker squinted knowingly, but continued. "The Horta is aboard safely. Deanna is seeing to its--her...?"
"'Their' is sufficient."
"...their comfort," Riker said and shook his head. "Strange looking creature. I'd seen photos, data records, but it doesn't prepare you."
"They're quite intelligent, elegant beings," Picard said, trying to sound admonishing.
"So Deanna tells me. All I saw was a quivering rock."
"You haven't insulted our guest already have you, Number One?"
Riker smiled wider, "I'm not sure how I could tell!"
Deanna to Riker, Will's combadge said, and Picard shook his head. Our guest is ready for the Captain.
Riker tapped his combadge. "Thank you, Deanna," he said, and Picard stood, straightened his shirt. Riker caught his gaze, asking a question. Picard answered the same way. "The Captain is on his way."
The Horta does speak. It is the language of seismic activity, the pressure of rock against rock, the nearly imperceptible movement of earth over decades. Data, with a simple upgrade to his auditory sensory systems, was able to perceive this sound, however, each word in the Horta language, if they could be called words, was communicated over several hours, or days, or in some cases, years. After Data's first meeting and translation of two-point-seven hours generated only the word 'Hello', the task of communicating with their guest fell to the ship's counselor.
"They have an extremely complex emotional... " Deanna paused, searching for the word, "richness," she said at last, a little breathless, something that Picard long recognized as pleasure coloring her cheeks. They stood in the guest quarters for the Horta, a bed, a replicator, a chair, a sofa, all of which would not be used for the duration of its stay. "I can't explain it any other way, Captain," Deanna continued. She stood next to the mound of rock, its quivering carpet-fringe legs rolling along the deck like impatient fingers drumming boredly on a desk. "They don't understand our words, and they're not exactly empaths, but they seem nevertheless to pick up on something we broadcast, for lack of a better word, a frequency perhaps. It is incredibly easy to communicate with them emotionally. More easily for me, even, than with other Betazed. It's quite remarkable."
"Emotionally?" Picard asked, smiling but looking dubious. Next to him, Riker grinned.
"I think what the Captain means is that he's not fluent in that language."
Picard gave him a look but didn't argue. The Horta fluttered.
"You see," Deanna said, "it senses Will's humor." She smiled after a moment when the Horta shook again. "It seems to be reading you loud and clear, Commander."
Riker laughed and the Horta shuffled a little closer to him.
"I think it likes me," Riker said, grinning, red-cheeked as Deanna now.
"Yes, well," Picard said dourly. "Should we begin?"
"Any time you like, Captain."
Picard cleared his throat as the Horta settled down and Riker did the same. Then they all went silent. Picard stared down at the being. He had read Ambassador Spock's recollection of his time communicating with the Horta. The ambassador had spoken of its intelligence and discerning nature, but he had to rather agree with Riker.
"Welcome," he said.
The Horta sat still.
"We're pleased to have you aboard," Picard tried again, this time gesturing toward the creature, though it seemed to have no eyes.
"Captain," Deanna said, concern in her voice, " they do not seem to read you. Even I do not sense that you mean what you say."
Picard did not exactly frown. "I assure you that I say what I mean, Counselor."
Deanna nodded, glanced from Picard back to Riker, then smiled a little too sympathetically. "Perhaps I should translate," she said.
He sighed and touched his brow, but after a moment he tried again.
"Welcome," he said with what was likely unnecessary warmth in his voice. Deanna didn't speak or move but after a moment the Horta trembled. Picard resisted the urge to step back.
"Go on, Captain," Deanna said after several moments in which he said nothing. Next to him, Riker had sobered, watching quietly with great solicitude. Picard couldn't see it, or hear it, or even, like the Horta, feel it, but he knew it all the same
He cleared his throat. "We are pleased to be transporting you back to your home planet and hope that your time at the Federation outpost was successful…."
In his quarters, Data stood in cap and night shirt, rattling chains.
"Oh! Captive, bound, and double-ironed," Data proclaimed to empty space next to him with some despair. "No space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused. Yet such was I! Oh! Such was I!"
He turned then and spoke to spot where he had just been in a different voice. "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob."
Data turned once again, back to the place where he had first stood. His voice rose with urgency. "Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare--"
"Hold on, Data," Geordi said, interrupting him, and Data's face fell to Data-neutral.
"Yes, Geordi?" He said softly.
"Are you playing Marley, too? I thought you were playing Scrooge."
"I am playing all of the characters," Data replied, dropping his chains noisily to the deck. "That is why I have billed it as a One-Man show, although perhaps it would be more correct to change that to a one-person show, or in fact a one-entity show, to be as inclusive as possible."
Geordi crossed his arms. "Don't you think that will be difficult?"
Data tilted his head slightly, thoughtfully. Confusion was Data's most convincingly human expression.
"I am not the first to perform such a feat. In fact, it was the captain's admiration of a twentieth century one-man rendition of Dickens' work that gave me the idea."
"Okay, but don't you think it would be more… well, fun, to include other crewmembers?"
Data processed that, eyes dancing about as if the answer lay somewhere within the room. To Geordi's visor, his eyes were not the peculiar color he knew them to be, but they were still very unique.
"If by 'fun' you mean that such a production would provide more opportunity for teamwork and camaraderie, I suppose you are correct."
Geordi smiled. "Yeah, that's what I mean. Plus, between this, your poetry class, and your usual assignments, I think you might be taking too much onto yourself. And it will feel more like a community effort if you let others help. People like to feel like they're a part of something." He bent down and took up the chain, heavier than he'd expected; Data had handled them so effortlessly. When Data saw that he struggled, he assisted Geordi. "You see, it's like this heavy chain, well it may not be heavy for you, but it is for me, and it's lighter for both of us when we take it up together."
Data smiled, or what Geordi recognized as Data's equivalent of a smile. "You are correct, Geordi. Your ability to form a persuasive analogy is unmatched. Perhaps I did need to be reminded of it."
"Well I wasn't trying to impress you," Geordi said and let Data take the chains from him to put them away. "Honestly, it's the Captain that got me thinking about sharing heavy burdens. Have you noticed? Something about him lately is just..." Geordi thought. What was it? He leaned against Data's desk, arms crossed.
From an adjacent room, over the sound of steel chains, Data said, "I believe the phrase you are looking for," a pause and then Data returned, still in that cap and gown, "is 'off'".
Geordi smiled. "So you have noticed! Yeah, he's just a little off. Can you remember the last time he smiled or laughed?"
Data went very still then said, "Alpha shift, twenty-two of the ship's days ago, after Commander Riker was recovered safely following a transporter malfunction that phased him into another dimension."
"Three weeks?" Geordi asked with surprise. Even he hadn't realized it was so long.
"And one day," Data corrected, then moved to stand next to Geordi. He also leaned against his desk. He also crossed his arms as Geordi had done. For good measure, he crossed his feet at the ankles.
Geordi shook his head. "You know, that makes sense, though."
"In what way?"
"Well, I've always had this sense that… I mean, for a while now I thought it was clear that…" Geordi paused. He didn't like to gossip. He had never spoken aloud his suspicions to anyone else, not even Data, even though he knew that Data wouldn't tell another soul.
"Yes, Geordi?" Data asked softly, closely. He generated a warmth that was comparable to humans, carefully maintained, kept cool enough for the safety of his circuits, warm enough to not be off-putting. Geordi had helped him install the feature, and yet he still allowed himself to lean into it.
"Confidentially?" Geordi asked, just as softly.
"Of course, Lieutenant," Data said, then Geordi leaned over and whispered into Data's ear, and Data raised a brow.
"That is," Data paused, "unexpected."
Geordi shrugged. "I could be wrong, but it explains a lot."
"Indeed, I believe that it does."
They fell to silence, leaning together in Data's quarters, speculating over their captain's emotional state.
"Geordi," Data said after a while, "could we not do something to remedy the captain's situation?"
"Oh no," Geordi said, and stood. "You're not playing matchmaker again."
"I believe there are more subtle ways to assist the captain."
Geordi grimaced dubiously but said, "All right. I'm all ears."
Data cocked his head in that confused manner and Geordi thought he would have to clarify himself, but then Data stood and moved closer, very close, and whispered into Geordi's ear. There was no breath, but the low sound tickled anyway.
When Data moved away Geordi was smiling. "Alright, okay. I think we can do that."
Data smiled that Data smile, then slid the cap off of his head at last. His hair was messy.
"I have one more question, Geordi," Data said after he had changed into his uniform and combed his hair. They were headed down the halls toward their respective areas for their shifts.
"Would you be in my play?"
"Oh, I don't know, I'm not much of an actor."
"Will that not be more… fun? To employ amateurs, especially one's friends and those known to much of the crew, as a means to bring humor to the role?"
Geordi laughed. "I guess it would. I'll tell you what, Data. I'll be in it if you can convince Worf to be in it, too."
"It is a deal, Geordi. But why the Lieutenant in particular?"
"Because I think he'd make the greatest Ghost of Christmas future."
In another hallway, on another deck, Captain Picard was being followed. He felt the presence even before he heard the rolling patter of a thousand little Horta feet, and when he slowed it slowed too, and when he looked back and down it was there, a pulsing reddish-grey rock, watching him. Or whatever Horta did to observe their environment.
"Good morning," He said to it, standing still, and tried to mean it. This time the Hora did shiver a little. Or Picard thought that it did.
"Could I help you?" he asked.
The Horta shuffled forward. Perhaps he was in its way.
"Yes, uh, very well," he said, and continued down the hall. The Horta followed him.
It followed him past the mess hall and past the gym, past horticulture and the biology lab. It followed him past several crew members who nodded at their captain, then smiled at the rock following him. It followed him onto the turbolift.
"Bridge," he said to the lift, then, to the Horta, "any particular, uh… no I don't suppose so."
The Horta didn't shiver or shake or move at all, but somehow Picard began to understand that the Horta had no intention of going anywhere in particular but to follow Picard, that this was, in fact, sort of a tour.
"Perhaps you'd like to see Engineering," he said to it, and thought, or rather felt very hard about engines and warp drives and his capable Engineering team.
Over the hum of the turbolift, little feet fluttered softly.
"Perhaps not," he said, not entirely certain how he knew that the answer was no. "Medical?" He suggested instead, which earned him another disinterested Horta shrug. "Ten forward? It's for socializing."
To that he received an excited shiver and the sight of the dancing rock or something else put a smile on his face.
The turbolift doors snicked opened. Riker and Deanna stepped into the lift.
"I see you've got a friend with you," Riker said, grinning, after they had all said their greetings and the lift was on the move again. He stood closest to Picard. Closer than necessary, Picard thought.
"Have you been able to communicate, Captain?" Deanna asked, though surely she knew.
"In fact we have, just now. I was taking our guest on a tour of the ship."
"And where are you headed next?" Riker asked, and Picard could have sworn he was leaning in.
"Our friend here desires to see Ten Forward," Picard replied, then paused, "at least I believe… that is…." He wasn't so sure any more of what the creature desired. The understanding they shared seemed cut off. Had he imagined it after all?
"I sense confusion from you both," Deanna said.
"I sense that perhaps we interrupted a private conversation," Riker said, and winked at his Captain. He didn't actually wink, but he smiled like one. "C'mon, Deanna," he said as the Turbolift doors opened onto the Bridge.
The Horta shuffled a little to the side to let them pass, but clearly intended to stay on the lift with Picard.
"You have the bridge, Number One," Picard said needlessly and Riker winked that smile again and those wide shoulders nearly took up the entire lift door. He seemed to take up a lot of space in any room, Picard had noticed, more than the sum of his mass. He was just then taking up enough of Picard's field of vision that Picard did not at first notice Deanna watching him.
"Counselor," he said, and she stepped back onto the lift and the door shut behind her.
"Ten Forward," she said to the lift, with purpose, then stood beside him. They both looked down, watching the Horta as it shuffled excitedly. "May I speak freely, Captain?"
He sighed. He'd been expecting this. "I have never known you to do otherwise, Counselor. But do please consider the triviality of certain, ah, unbidden thoughts."
If Riker could wink with a smile, Deanna could certainly smirk in silence. After a moment she said, "As a practiced empath, I do understand that some emotions are fleeting, the product of a very specific moment, or in fact of a fond old memory unrelated to the present." This time it was her turn to sigh. She turned to him at last, "But this is nothing like that."
"I do wish you would refrain from analyzing my personal feelings which do not affect the operations of this mission."
"But they do," she said, dark eyes too knowing. "And it isn't your feelings I'm concerned about, it's your lack of them."
"You've been shutting down emotionally. It's what kept you from communicating with the Horta when it first arrived and just now when we entered the turbolift. I won't voice any opinion as to the exact," she paused, then proceeded carefully, "entity which has evoked this response in you, but I believe the cause of it is actually an overabundance of feeling, which you are either unwilling to acknowledge or unable to show, possibly because doing so may undermine your authority or those feelings may be unreciprocated."
The lift doors opened. A wide-eyed ensign stood in the hall uncertainly. At their feet, the Horta was very still.
"Counselor," Picard said, "if I require your counsel, I will be sure to make an appointment." Then he and the Horta exited the lift and the ensign stepped on.
"You know where to find me," she said as the doors closed.
The Horta followed him down the hall.
"You don't have this sort of meddling under several miles of rock, I bet," he said to it and it shivered. "Oh, yes, well, I never thought of it like that."
There were many things that Klingons did not do. No one would be surprised to hear most of them. More surprising may be some of the things that they did do. Knitting, for one. Afterall, what better skill for an embattled warrior than to fashion his own dry stockings from available materials? Perhaps more surprising was acting. Klingon acting, of course, was nothing like human acting; plays of morality, comedy, love. Klingon theatre was hewn from the tales of ancient battles past, stories of blood and honor.
Of course Data knew this. That was how Data convinced Worf to be in his foolish christmas play. Data promised he would be terrifying, cloaked in black, a promise of death. Worf assumed there'd be a great battle. Worf had been wrong.
"Good Spirit," Data said to him, standing on the stage in his cap and gown quivering, "your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!"
Worf waited boredly, dressed in a black cape and hood. He watched as some of the other crew were building sets backstage. He could have done that instead. After a moment Data spoke in his usual voice. "That is your cue, Lieutenant."
"Oh, yes," Worf said, then thrust his hand out accusingly, silently, at Data who cowered. In the otherwise empty audience seating, Alexander applauded.
"I will honor Christmas in my heart," Data cried anew, "and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me…."
Backstage, after his rehearsal, Worf had changed and was watching as Alexander ran his Tiny Tim lines. The child was a natural thespian clearly, if only he had a real Klingon play to show his talents.
Somewhere behind him, other voices whispered. Klingons did not eavesdrop. It was not honorable. But Klingon hearing is exceptional.
"Do you really think asking Commander Riker to participate will help the captain?" Geordi asked.
"I believe it may be some relief as the captain will be invited to admire the commander's virtues openly with the rest of us." That was Data. "As you said, a burden shared is a burden lightened."
Geordi made a sound that Worf could not quite make out, then said, "Love's not a burden, Data, it's a gift."
"I'm afraid the captain does not see it that way."
"Sometimes we just don't know how to accept it."
"Father!" Alexander said, and threw himself into Worf, pulling his attention away from the conversation. "Did you see?"
"You are a fine actor, my son," Worf said fiercely. "None shall be saved from the emotional onslaught of your performance."
Alexander frowned at him. Worf sighed. "You make a very good Tiny Tim," he said instead, and patted Alexander's head.
"Come," Picard said following the chime of his door. He sat in his quarters, dressed but out of uniform in the light low in their simulated nighttime. He was reading by lamplight.
The door hissed open and a rock entered.
"Well, good evening," he said to the Horta and sat up in bed. It shuffled over. "This is rather unexpected. Could I help you?" he asked.
Silence. Only the slight hum of the ship and the very quiet playback of Stravinsky he'd been enjoying. Of course, the Horta was always silent, but this was silence even for the Horta. Picard couldn't understand what it wanted, and there was no one there who might cause him to suppress his emotional response, as Deanna insisted was the case.
"Ehm," Picard said, and sat his book aside.
Deanna, he thought, watching the Horta tap one or two of its feet impatiently. He could call her. Perhaps she'd have some insight into this unexpected visit. Then again, perhaps she might also have more insight into his personal affairs.
"Hmph," he said to no one in particular, not even the Horta. Then he put his feet on the floor and pulled his tunic closed tighter, and reached for the comm button near his bed.
Riker had been reading, too, when he got the call from Picard. Nothing urgent, his captain promised, but that he would appreciate assistance. Many things came to Riker's mind about what sort of assistance he might offer Jean-Luc in his quarters, mid gamma shift. He stood from where he sat in bed, considered his uniform, dismissed it--it would take too long to change--then slipped on his boots. Perhaps it was an emergency? Perhaps it was a coded message. Perhaps he should hurry.
In case it wasn't, he checked himself in the mirror before he left, and smoothed down his beard but not his hair.
He found Picard in his quarters much as the Horta had, sitting in bed in his pajamas, a book beside him. It occurred to him that Picard would have found the same had he visited Riker's quarters instead.
One thing was different, though.
"I see you've got an intruder, Captain," Riker said when he entered, still in his pajamas, and walked around the Horta who shivered in his direction but was otherwise still.
"Yes," Picard said and stood, his thin legs pale in dark shorts. "I can't seem to make head nor tail of what they're here for."
"A bedtime story?" Riker asked.
Picard nodded absently, touched his shining head. "I thought I'd made some progress in communicating, but… at any rate, I knew Deanna would be sleeping and you…"
"Wouldn't?" Riker asked.
Picard had an expression of looking caught at something. "Pardon me, I hope I didn't interrupt… anything."
Riker smiled, Picard smiled back. It worked nearly every time.
"I was alone if that's what you're asking."
"I wasn't asking, of course. Short of mutinous activity, it's not a captain's prerogative to know with whom his crew spends their off time."
"But it might be a friend's," Riker suggested, smiling wider, but this time Picard's smile faltered. He nodded sagely.
"Well," Picard said, and motioned toward the Horta, "You seemed to have a particular understanding with our friend, can you tell what is the matter?"
Riker looked down. He waited. He looked from the Horta to Picard, standing there in shorts, himself in a robe and boots. He looked back at the Horta. The room was very quiet, save for the tinkling of soft music and the tick of an analog clock.
"I have no idea," he said at last, and laughed, the situation seeming suddenly absurd. Picard laughed with him, skin wrinkling around the eyes, looking far lighter than Riker had seen him in a long time.
"Would you like a drink?" Picard asked, and Riker couldn't say yes quite fast enough.
The last hours of Gamma shift, or what, on a starship, passed for mornings, was Beverly Crusher's favorite time of day. Everything was a little quieter, a little slower (assuming they weren't in active pursuit of an enemy), and each new day carried a lot of potential. Danger, perhaps, but discovery also, scientific, intergalactic, or self. It was all equally welcome. On this particular morning she was discovering why she'd chosen to become a doctor and not a painter.
"So how did Data talk you into this?" Deanna asked, sitting cross-legged next to her, painting a face on a doorknob.
"Well I thought he wanted an acting coach, turns out he wanted me to paint a coach!"
Deanna laughed then leaned over to inspect Beverly's work. "Those are excellent…" she paused, "cobblestones."
Beverly grimaced, then asked. "What about you? How did a Betazoid get wrangled into a Christmas play?"
Somewhere on stage, Alexander, was shouting his lines. He only had a few but he seemed to want to make them count.
Deanna shrugged, her loose tunic streaked with paint. "The same way a Klingon and his father got involved, I suppose."
On stage, Data was directing Alexander patiently, knelt down to his height. "Data is difficult to say no to."
"You're telling me," Geordi said. He had walked over just in time to catch Beverly's remark, and passed them just as quickly. He had an arm full of costumes, cloth and fur and buckles and boots piled up to his visor. He walked them over to Data and pulled him aside. Beverly couldn't hear what they were saying but Data took the pile from Geordi, then they stood and spoke closely together, as if in great secret.
"Those two," she said under her breath.
Next to her, Deanna leaned in, that particular perfume that Beverly had never smelled anywhere else floating about her, and said almost as softly, "I tend to agree," and smiled, bumping her shoulder into Beverly's.
Beverly smiled back but refrained from all the things she would have liked to say or ask. As ship's counselor, Deanna usually refrained from even harmless gossip.
After a while, painting sky and snow instead of coaches and doorknobs, Deanna asked, "Any news from Wesley?"
"He'd decided to spend the holidays at the Academy rather than go to my sister's. I can't blame him. He hasn't seen her in years. He's spent so much time up here with me, the rest of his family are like strangers to him."
"I'm sure many of his friends are doing the same," Deanna said, reassuring as ever, reaching up to paint a cloud.
"Oh they are, they're even planning a dinner. I'm not sure I want to know what all that will include," Beverly said, looking up from where she painted white over a differente white. "But I do often wonder if it wasn't unfair of me to keep him out here for so long."
"The only one you're being unfair to is yourself. Wes learned a lot on this ship, from the captain, Geordi, yourself…. I think that if you asked him, he would say the same."
Beverly smiled, as much in appreciation of Deanna's words as the fact that Deanna was on her tip-toes, straining to reach the top of the backdrop.
"Here, let me," Beverly said and took Deanna's brush to finish for her. Deanna shook out her arms and returned the smile.
"You know, there's actually a very similar Betazoid play," she said as she stretched, "only the main character is female and is thought to be overly narcissistic rather than miserly."
"And I suppose in the last scene she realizes she should be more humble and charitable?"
Deanna smirked, dark eyes sparkling. "Not at all. In the end everyone agrees that she is the most beautiful woman in the universe and they prepare for an orgy."
On stage, even Alexander could not be heard over Beverly's laughter.
Picard woke to warmth at his side, a chill on his legs, and a pain in his neck. On his shoulder lay Riker's head. Next to him on the sofa, Riker sat up close, asleep. There was an empty bottle on the table and two glasses. The Horta was nowhere to be seen.
"Will," Picard said softly, trying not to notice Riker's hand on his bare knee.
"Number One," he said, a little louder, and Riker sat up straight. Picard could not help but lean into the weight of him. He tried to compensate for it, but Will was like gravity. He couldn't resist.
Riker blinked at him several times, eyes a little puffy. After a moment he focused on Picard and smiled, more sheepish than rakish and that was rather new. His hand was still on Picard's knee. A long moment passed like that, then Riker stood, straightened his robe.
"I guess we had one too many," Riker said, his voice rough as he gestured toward the bottle of real whiskey he and Picard had finished together.
Picard nodded and stood (and he'd have to see Beverly about the stiffness in his back) but really he had not had too much. He remembered every moment apart from the few where he must have slipped off to sleep.
"Yes, I suppose," he said instead, and they stood there together, disheveled in their pajamas, the ship seeming quieter than it should have been. Riker's hair was flattened in places, sticking out in others, and his furry barrel chest was too big suddenly for that robe.
"I guess," Riker said, looking down, seeming to loom closer, "that we…"
"Oh yes," Picard said urgently, noting the clock over his shoulder. "We'll both be late to the bridge soon."
A strange look passed over Riker's face and he stepped back. Picard wasn't sure that he actually moved, but the sound of the ship returned suddenly, the hum of her, the tick of the clock, the music that had played now for hours upon hours unheeded.
Riker looked around. "It seems your intruder is gone at least."
"It does indeed," Picard said and moved away toward the replicator, pulling his tunic even tighter around him. "Have Deanna check in on them later, would you?" Then, to the replicator, "Tea, earl grey, hot."
He waited. He did not turn back to Riker.
"I'll see to it, Captain," Riker said from over his shoulder, and then the doors hissed open and shut and he was alone.
"Computer," he said, "end Stravinsky program," and the room went silent.
It was rumored on the Enterprise for the next four-point-six shifts that Commander Riker had been seen leaving the Captain's quarters at the end of Gamma shift in his robe and boots and nothing else, until the next Beta shift when Riker overheard two ensigns giggling and censured them both for spreading hearsay about their Captain in a tone of voice six-point-two decibels louder than the one he typically used on the bridge. Data had been standing nearby in Ten-Forward.
"Commander, if you find the laurel wreath irritating, I will have Geordi create a different type of crown."
Riker shook his head, standing on stage in a great, red, fur-lined robe, barechested, much as he was reported to have been as he left the captain's quarters. Perhaps without the laurel wreath on his head.
"No, it's fine, Data," he said, and read over his lines once more. "Come! Come here and know me better, man! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present," he said, raising his arms and his voice. " Look upon me! You have never seen the like of me before!"
"Never!" Data replied, dropping easily into character.
"Have you never walked forth with…" Riker stopped, looked down at the PADD in his hand, his brow knitted with irritation.
"May I make an observation, Commander?" Data, rather than Scrooge, asked.
"Sure," Riker said, and all the bluster of Christmas Present drained out of him in a sigh.
"I've noted that you have had some difficulty today with your lines, when you have not during previous rehearsals. I had thought the obvious distraction to be due to the costume which is newly fitted, but as you have assured me that neither the robe nor the laurel wreath is uncomfortable, I now suspect that it might be related to recent rumors about yourself and Captain Picard."
Riker frowned and stepped closer. Data noted, not for the first time, his superior height, though unlike many humans, it did not trouble him.
"I didn't agree to this to be prodded for information about my personal life," Riker said, even more agitated than before. It was early Gamma shift and the theatre was empty, so that the sound echoed off of the walls. Data had long ago learned that even humans who understood his superior auditory capabilities did not refrain from speaking more loudly to him in frustration. "Frankly, Lieutenant, I would have thought you had more respect for your captain to succumb to such gossip."
Data blinked. It was in his programming to do so.
"I am not seeking information, Commander, nor am I making any inferences as to what may or may not have occurred. I do, however, believe that you are bothered by those of others. If you need to talk to someone, I am, as the colloquialism goes, all ears." He walked to the edge of the stage and brought over two chairs. He placed one next to Riker and sat in the other, even though he was just as comfortable standing as sitting.
Riker sighed again and sat next to him. "Sorry, Data," he said softly, leaning in closely, elbows on his knees. Data did the same. "You're right, I don't mind the attention, I've never cared what anyone has said about me, but I don't like the crew gossiping about the captain. It's disrespectful."
"I do not believe any of the crew aims to be so," Data said, just as softly. "I believe curiosity and entertainment is more at the the heart of the human tendency to spread rumours."
"I don't want myself or the captain to be anyone's entertainment," Riker said, his voice rising a little. "You should understand. Doesn't it bother you, what everyone says about you and Geordi?"
Data sat up straighter. "Is there something particular that is commonly said of myself and Lieutenant La forge?"
Riker's face fell into a pattern Data recognized as the human emotion guilt. "Ah," he said, "just, don't worry about it, Data. The real point is that nothing happened. We talked and had a few drinks."
"And if it had?"
"What do you mean?"
"If the rumors were true, if yourself and the captain were in an intimate relationship, would you mind that everyone knew?"
"Of course not, but we aren't."
"Then the suppositions of certain crew members will not change that."
Riker smiled patiently. "You're right, they won't, but it undermines the captain's authority."
"I do not believe that is a legitimate concern either, Commander."
Riker sat back, stretched out his legs and Data did the same.
"It sounds to me, Data, like you're trying to tell me there's another reason I'm so bothered by this."
"That is a more logical explanation."
Riker smiled, this time at himself. "What's the saying, 'the lady doth protest too much'?"
Data stood. He felt it would give his next line the appropriate dramatic punch. "I believe Captain Picard is the Shakespearean expert, perhaps you should ask him."
On the day that her Captain and crew had chosen for the celebration of the Earth holiday called Christmas, Picard wore his dress uniform and headed toward the theatre. The Horta joined him in the turbolift, shuddering at him in greeting.
"Oh now you have something to say!" he said, and the Horta shivered in a laugh. "I don't know what you thought you were getting up to the other night, but-- oh? Is that right? Well you're wrong. And anyway I think it was very inappropriate. We have a code we live by, perhaps you could learn something from it. It's called the Prime Directive and it is a standing practice of non-interference with--. Yes… well the Prime Directive was not as stringently followed in those days, and certainly less so by certain captains…. I hardly think that's a fair comparison anyway."
The turbolift doors opened and they headed down the hallway. The Horta shook as it moved along.
"Why ask me that?" Picard replied, though he didn't know why he was even responding to such a forward question. "You were there, you know what did or, rather, what didn't happen….. Did you really? I didn't notice you leave. At any rate, the answer is… well it isn't your concern."
In the theatre the Horta sat next to him and for all its admonitions and prodding it made excellent company. The room filled up quickly and most of the crew nodded to him and acknowledged the Horta awkwardly.
The lights went down and in the dim a narrator spoke. After a moment, Picard recognized Guinan's voice.
"Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that…"
Backstage, Deanna waited impatiently as Beverly fussed with her hair.
"It's fine," she said.
"Just one more pin," Beverly insisted, and pulled another pin from the corner of her mouth with her free hand and slid it into Deanna's hair where she held it. "There, that's lovely," she said, and smiled.
To Deanna, every crew member felt like something different. Not just the sum of their personality, but like a memory she could replay. Will was the hot sun on her face, the Captain an ocean she once sailed with her father, and Beverly was that moment in the morning when you wake just long enough to realize you have a little more time to sleep, and burrow back into your covers.
"Thank you," Deanna said. "I don't know why I'm so nervous."
"Don't be. You'll be wonderful." Beverly reached out and squeezed her hand and Deanna felt that reassurance as a physical presence, a warm blanket heavy on her breast.
"I think your cue is coming," Beverly said and stood back. "How's my bustle?" She spun so that Deanna could see her backside and Deanna laughed.
"Perfect," she said.
They watched from the wings as Data cowered and Geordi shook his chains.
"Look to see me no more," Geordi's ashen Marley said, "and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us! . . . Remember, Ebenezer!"
With the help of the transporter, the ghost disappeared and reappeared next to Deanna. Geordi grinned. He sweated a little from the lights. Geordi was a memory of finding a nest of baby birds in a tree outside her window as a little girl.
"Nice work, Marley," Beverly congratulated him, and on stage Data climbed into bed. Deanna felt a hand on her shoulder. She knew it was Beverly without looking. She leaned into it, heard the whispered "break a leg". Then she stepped into the spotlight.
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past!"
Deanna floated onto the stage in a device Geordi had rigged, in a glowing gown that Geordi had designed. Worf was very impressed all the same.
"She's beautiful," Alexander said to him with all the awe of a child.
"Yes, the effect is rather… pleasing," Worf agreed.
Riker joined them, his great robe taking up twice the room that he normally occupied, which was already rather a lot. His chest was bare and so were his feet. Beneath the robe a hologram of poor orphaned children. The effect made Worf rather uncomfortable.
"If I may say, Commander," Worf said to him, "you do not look dignified."
Riker grinned at him, nearly as bright as the lights over the stage. "You have to admit, Data's pretty good at casting. Just look at you."
Worf wore all black. From beneath his hood, only the glint of his eyes could be seen. He was fearsome, imposing, terrifying. Yes, Data was very good at casting.
On stage, Data as Scrooge was speaking to Beverly about the life he had or had not chosen.
"Commander," Worf said again, "have I ever told you how Klingon courtship works?"
Riker's brow pinched in amused confusion. "I think I know the basics."
"For Klingons, more than anything, it is considered dishonorable to keep one's attraction hidden. It is a lie. It is…" he paused, reconsidered, then reconsidered that, "cowardly."
"Are you trying to tell me something, Lieutenant?" Riker asked, all but laughing. "You know, I think you're one hell of an officer, but you're not exactly my type."
Worf frowned, was about to argue, then Deanna rushed over to them, light and bright as the spectre she was meant to portray. Riker caught her in his arms and congratulated her as she grinned.
"You'd better get out there," she said, and he strutted into the spotlight. The stage suddenly seemed much smaller.
Deanna looked at Worf, her eyes widened. "Did you design your own costume, Mr. Worf?"
In the audience, Picard watched as Riker billowed onto the stage, that robe going before him, the stage seeming to move to meet him rather than the opposite, and the sight brought back the memory of a few nights before. The Horta, next to him, shuddered.
"Shh," he said to it.
Geordi watched from the shadows, first Riker on stage, then Picard in the audience. There was a visible change in their Captain. He smiled a little wider. Then again, the Commander did look pretty funny in that laurel wreath. He wished that Data was there to see, and not too busy being invisible in Bob Cratchit's home to look into the audience. He was quite an actor, though. And director, and producer. Geordi smiled, thinking more now of his friend that the Captain or the Commander.
"Barclay's pretty good, isn't he?" Beverly said beside him, surprising him as Barclay's Cratchit swept Alexander up onto his shoulder.
"Yeah, I guess it's all that time he spent on the holodeck."
"And Data sure seems to be having fun," she whispered, smiling sideways at him.
"He'd probably tell you that wasn't an emotion he was capable of experiencing," Geordi said, sounding a little bitter even to himself.
"You of all people know better than that."
Geordi nodded. "I may know it, but what matters is what Data believes. Just like Ebenezer doesn't believe in ghosts, Data doesn't believe in his own experiential emotion."
Beverly touched his shoulder, watching him now rather than Data or Barclay or Riker. Geordi looked at her. Her smile conspiratorial. "Too bad, like Ebenezer, he doesn't have someone to show him otherwise."
"Are there no prisons? No workhouses?" Riker said grinning with irony, and as he exited the stage Worf floated on, not walking but hovering a few inches from the boards. Another of Geordi's contraptions. At the side of the stage, Alexander watched his father intently, looking frail in his Tiny Tim costume.
"Excellent work, Commander," Deanna whispered to him, the glow of her dimmed out of the lights.
"It's hot as blazes out there," he said, and stripped down to the tights he wore beneath his robe, disabled the hologram of orphans huddling around his legs.
"It really seems to be going well," she said, peeking through the curtains. "The captain looks in good spirits."
Riker was still catching his breath and sweating, but he moved to where she stood, leaned over her small frame, looked through a gap in the curtains and in the audience he found Picard immediately, watching Worf and Data as Data cried to be given another chance, promising to change. Then the scene changed and still Riker watched. Deanna had gone. The Backstage was quiet. He spent the rest of the play like that, even though it seemed only a few moments before he could hear Alexander exclaim, "Picard bless us, everyone," and every voice in the theatre rose to laughter. Out of all of them, though, Riker heard Picard's best.
After the play, the Enterprise orbited Janus VI, the Horta's home planet. Picard stood outside the Horta's quarters, still in his dress uniform. He was about to request entry when Riker joined him, Deanna beside him. They were no longer in their costumes but in dress uniform as well. Around Riker's smiling eyes was the smudged remnants of dark stage make-up.
"Came to say goodbye?" Picard asked.
"We wouldn't miss it," Riker said.
Picard pressed the door chime.
The door hissed open.
Several large, soft, spheres rolled into the hallway. Inside, the Horta sat in the midst of a room filled with them, looking rather proud. It shuffled."
"Oh dear," Picard said.
Since they did not know what effect the transporter might have on silicon-based lifeforms (the Horta had been transported to the Enterprise by shuttlecraft for this reason), particularly those in their egg state, it was decided that the Horta and its offspring would be carried back to their planet the old fashioned way. So it was that more than half of the Enterprise crew created a long chain of personnel and handed each egg off person-to-person, from its quarters to the lift, down to the shuttle bay and onto one of several shuttles, down to the surface where more crew, together with many of the miners, handled them just as carefully, down deep into the heart of the planet. Picard himself stood at the door to the creature's quarters and insured that every last sphere was accounted for. Then he accompanied the Horta to its own shuttle and said, in very clear emotional terms, good bye and good luck.
He was still smiling to himself when his own door chimed. This time, at least, he was fully clothed.
"Come," he said.
Riker entered, also fully clothed.
"May I speak to you, sir?"
Picard smiled, sat his book aside and folded his hands on his lap. "Will, I think perhaps what you have to say may not require the use of such formalities."
Riker smiled back. It was the rakish kind that Picard knew well.
"Jean-Luc," Riker began to say, then moved to sit on the arm of the chair across from Picard. He crossed his arms. "I was visited by three ghosts."
"Not exactly. More like an android, a Klingon, and a Betazoid."
Picard stood, raised a brow. "I got the Betazoid and the Horta," he said.
"I'm starting to smell a conspiracy."
Picard moved closer, looking down. Riker's dark eye's followed him, looking less playful and more serious by the moment.
"And what did you learn from these visitations, Number One?"
In the silence of the room, but for the hum of the ship, Riker watched him thoughtfully, for long enough that Picard began to doubt that they were having the same conversation. Then, finally, Riker stood.
"I'm not exactly ready to change my ways," he said, and stepped closer, so that Picard now had to look up, close enough that his broad chest brushed against Picard's and Picard could feel the warmth of him even through his uniform. At last, he smiled. He said, "But I'd love another drink."
"Geordi," Data said, and dealt the cards. "Are you aware that many of the crew believe that you and I are, as the saying goes, an item?"
Geordi choked on a pretzel.
"Uh, yeah, I've heard something along those lines." He picked up his cards and inspected them carefully.
"Does this," Data paused, Geordi sorted his cards, "bother you?"
"No, of course not, Data. Those kinds of rumors are common on a starship, especially one on such a long mission." He wondered if he could turn his three-of-a-kind into a full house.
"What you are saying is that such rumors have no root in truth or bearing?" Data said, and for the first time Geordi looked up at him. He looked like Data always looked. He rarely looked any different. Geordi learned long ago that some of the emotions ascribed to Data were really a sort of anthropomorphism. But he also learned that some were just plain Data. The trick was knowing which was which.
Luckily, he was an expert.
"No, Data, that's not what I'm saying. You're my friend, we spend a lot of time together, help each other out, and watch each other's back. Those are the roots of a pretty strong relationship."
Data considered this. "But not a romantic one," he said after a moment when Geordi had thought the conversation was over. "Tell me, Lieutenant, do you believe it is possible for our friendship to progress to an association of a romantic nature?"
Geordi swallowed, his throat a little dry. "Data," he said.
"Perhaps the two of you would like to discuss this at another time," Worf suggested, sitting next to Data at the card table. "Any time other than now," he amended.
"I'm just glad no one's discussing my love life," Riker added.
"No one's discussed that for days, Will," Deanna said, elbowing him playfully.
Data frowned. "Do you all have objections to such a connection between Geordi and myself?"
"Now wait a minute--" Geordi tried to say.
"Of course not!" Deanna said.
"I have no objections," Worf assured him.
"Go for it," Riker said.
Geordi laughed. "I didn't get this much support when I was trying to grow a beard!"
"But I have to agree with Worf," Deanna added, "this is really a conversation that the two of you should have in private.
Across from her, Beverly shook her head. "I don't know, I think I'd like to hear the answer." She smiled hopefully at Geordi.
"Doctor," he said, "that's not really helpful. You should know how I feel, with everything that the crew says about you and Counselor Troi being a couple."
The room went silent. Deanna and Beverly both looked at each other, brows furrowed, then at him. "We are," they said together.
"For weeks now," Deanna said.
"Didn't you know?" Riker asked.
"We don't exactly try to hide it," Beverly added.
"It is common knowledge," Data said.
Geordi looked to Worf. Worf nodded. Geordi waited, thinking, considering something he had not really before. Then he stood and leaned across the table and took Data's face in his hands and kissed him.
He sat back down and picked up his cards. The room was silent.
"Alright," he said, "who's in?"