Author's note: Much thanks to Jerie and Liz Logan for their beta reading. The typos, of course, are all mine.
tu probabilmente tu
sei stata fino a quì
per troppo tempo sola
fino a convincerti come
che si può stare da soli
perchè la solitudine
- Pierpaolo Guerrini & Girogio Calbrese
She hesitated for only a second in front of the Captain's Ready Room, but even that brief pause shook her equilibrium; she'd never hesitated before, not where Jean-Luc Picard was concerned. There was too much history between them and all formality had fallen to the wayside through the years. No, it was much too late to back away now. And that was another thing that threw Beverly Crusher off-balance - the idea, that no matter how much she had pushed him away, no matter how many times she'd denied the bond between them - Jean-Luc still had a way of making her a little nervous.
Aware of the presence of the Bridge crew directly behind her, aware that they would notice her hesitation, Crusher pressed the door chime; the doors opened a second later.
"Beverly." Picard looked pleased to see her. He got up from his desk, tugging at his uniform as he approached her.
"Hello," Crusher said. "I thought I'd come and check on you. Find out how you're holding up." It was an oblique enough reference to the events of the past week - beginning with the discovery of Picard's clone, Shinzon, and culminating with the 'death' of Data.
"That's very thoughtful of you, Doctor, but I assure you, I am doing well enough." Picard's lips pressed into a thin smile. Crusher wasn't fooled. "Can I get you something to drink?" Picard nodded towards the replicator. "I was enjoying a cup of tea myself."
"Coffee would be nice."
"Coffee it is then." Picard turned to the replicator.
"You should have come with me to see Will and Deanna off," Crusher said softly as she moved closer to stand next to Picard's desk. "The Titan is a beautiful ship and I'm sure they will be very happy there. You should know that Will is thrilled to have his own command." She deliberately omitted the 'finally' from her statement. Riker's refusal to accept a promotion for so many years had always been a subject of gossip among some of the lower ranked officers aboard Enterprise. But it had never been a mystery to Crusher, or to other members of the senior staff. Looking at Picard now, Crusher understood that Riker had stayed for the same unspoken reason that had kept her aboard Enterprise all these years.
"And it's about time," Picard said easily, echoing Crusher's thoughts. He handed a steaming mug to Crusher. "I've always encouraged Will to seriously consider promotions when they were offered to him, but he always claimed that none of them felt right to him. I never could shake the feeling that I was holding him back, never providing the right amount of encouragement or support." Picard returned to his seat behind the desk. "I admit, Beverly, to feeling a small degree of guilt over my selfishness in keeping Will with me for so long. I could not ask for a better first officer and I will miss him."
"Will accepted the position when he found a ship and a mission that fit him," Crusher said. She perched on the edge of Picard's desk, her legs crossed as she leaned towards Picard slightly. "And-" she smiled - "I don't think his loyalty to you was the only reason he kept turning down the responsibility of command."
"That I'm aware of. It takes a little of the pressure off," Picard said. He moved his chair a little to the left. "It was about time that he and Deanna made it official." Picard's lips turned up at the corners.
"Your speech at the wedding was excellent. I didn't get a chance to tell you at the time." Crusher leaned forward slightly. "I was too busy catching up with Wesley."
"It was good to see him again," Picard said warmly. He relaxed in his chair, letting his guard down the way Crusher knew he only did around her. Something else that unnerved her. How could two people be this close, this intimate with each other's feelings and mannerisms, and yet be nothing more than friends? Very good friends, but still. "I was surprised when you told me that he would attend the wedding. I expected he would be too busy with his studies and discoveries to come. However, I felt that he was curiously reticent about the Traveler when I asked."
"Wesley has gone on his own now," Crusher said. She straightened, carefully placing the mug on the desk. She missed Wesley, that piece of her that had grown and gone so far away from her to explore phenomena that she couldn't - even with her keen scientific mind - quite grasp herself.
She'd touched Wesley's face, almost in awe, wondering if this boy - this man - was her son. She'd memorized him, unwillingly to let go of him for a moment. When another reunion like this would come, she had no idea; communication with Wesley was sporadic at best and she could only trust that he was comfortable in his decision to leave Starfleet Academy to explore other planes of existence. Now, Crusher took a deep breath, giving herself the pause to compose herself once again. "He says he's learned all that the Traveler has to teach."
"Forgive me, Beverly, if that sounds a little disconcerting to me." The Captain tipped his head to the side contemplatively. "But in the same measure, it does not surprise me."
"It frightens me as well." Until the words were spoken, Crusher hadn't realized how she actually felt about Wesley's revelation that he was ready to try things that were more advanced than what the Traveler had been able to accomplish. She swallowed hard, trying to push away the prick of fear she felt for her son. No matter how much he grew up and away from her, she would always worry about him.
Picard pressed his lips into a thin, straight line. "Have you any idea of when you will see him again?"
Crusher shrugged; she tried to make the action smooth and fluid, in an attempt to make answering the question look easier than it really was. "Sometime in the future. This timeline or that one. Something like that. You know how it is." She kept her tone light, casual, almost flippant; this was Jean-Luc, her friend, and yet when it came to Wesley, this was one thing she felt she had to pretend about. "He's like you, Jean-Luc, an explorer through and through, intent on knowledge for the sake of knowledge."
"Is that where I differ from Shinzon?"
Crusher shifted her position on the desk, uncrossing her legs. "You and Shinzon aren't the same. No matter what genetics say."
Picard glanced at Crusher. She could tell by the expression on his face that he did want to talk, that she wouldn't have to push too hard.
"I could see the resemblance. I could hear it in his voice, the ambition and the drive to succeed," Picard said.
"But it wasn't tempered with a strong heart," Crusher said gently. She covered Picard's hands with her own; his skin was cool beneath her palm. "There was a fundamental difference between the two of you. Something that transcends flesh and blood."
"And if things had been different?" Picard asked. His tone was pensive, contemplative.
"If I had to work in the dilithium mines? If I had been created for a purpose and then abandoned? What then?"
"It's not easy to predict. It's the time old question of nature versus nurture and in the end, one proves dominant to the other," Crusher said. "But I know you, Jean-Luc, and you would have overcome any adversity that you came across without blaming the circumstances of your life."
"You sound quite confident of that, Beverly."
"Because I know you." Without thinking, Crusher leaned forward and caressed him lightly on the cheek. "Because of that, I know that you and Shinzon share nothing but the same DNA." She stood up. "I never expected to see you indulge in personal reflection to this extent, Jean-Luc. Don't beat yourself up. Shinzon is not your fault."
"Is that what I'm doing? 'Beating' myself up?"
"You haven't been on the Bridge in hours."
Picard appeared amused by her comment. "A captain is entitled to some privacy, Doctor."
Crusher nodded. "You do have a point there, but a captain is also allowed to have his feelings. You've had a rough couple of days, Jean-Luc. There's no harm in acknowledging that."
"Do I hear a lecture forthcoming? Did Deanna put you up to this?" Picard asked suspiciously. He stood up, once again yanking at his uniform jacket, straightening what was never wrinkled or out of place. It was a habitual gesture, a mannerism that was as much Picard as anything else. "Is this why you have been so quiet for the last few days? You hardly said anything while we were dealing with Shinzon."
Crusher shrugged. "It could be that I have something on my mind as well."
Picard stood in front of her. "Such as?"
"This is only the beginning, Jean-Luc," Crusher said. She inhaled deeply. "The beginning of the good-byes. I've only just realized that. First Wesley, then Data, now Will and Deanna..."
"But we will be seeing Will and Deanna again," Picard reminded her. "And Wesley as well."
"I know that." Crusher remembered watching Will and Deanna exploring their new ship, the Titan; they were deliriously happy, and it appeared that Deanna had overcome the pain of Shinzon's intrusion into her mind. Or at least, Crusher mused, Deanna had found a way to deal with it. Some things could never be forgotten or forgiven and Crusher would never forget the tone of Deanna's voice when she'd described the event as a 'violation.' "But perhaps, it's time for another change, another good-bye."
"What are you saying, Beverly?"
"I've been offered a post of my own on the medical ship, the Pasteur." Crusher watched Picard carefully. She'd been trying to find a way of breaking the news to him since she'd received word of the promotion earlier that afternoon. She'd debated it for a while then; it was not the first time she'd been offered her own command on a medical ship, but this was the first time she was seriously contemplating leaving the Enterprise since her return from Starfleet Medical years ago. "Admiral T'Nok informed me about an hour ago of my selection. No doubt, he should be contacting you soon."
"Captain Crusher," Picard said, his thin lips turning up into a smile. "Another cup of coffee, Doctor?"
"So it seems, and no, thank you."
"Congratulations are very much in order then."
"It's a well-deserved honor. I'm happy for you, Beverly," Picard said. He turned to face the replicator. "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot."
"I haven't decided if I would accept it or not."
"Is there something preventing you from making a decision?"
"Perhaps." Crusher laid her hand gently on Picard's arm. "I admit, Jean-Luc, when I first came aboard Enterprise fifteen years ago, I didn't know what it would feel to serve with you. I admit to feeling a little trepidation, but at the same time, I knew that turning down the post of chief medical officer on Enterprise wasn't the smartest career move. And I wanted Wesley to feel a little of the excitement his father felt."
Picard stiffened slightly at the mention of Jack Crusher; years had passed, yet the ghost of a man long dead still hovered between them. Crusher pulled her hand away from his arm.
"I was concerned over the prospect of having you aboard my ship as well," Picard said as he sipped his tea. "But we are professionals, Beverly."
"Yes, but it's not always possible to untangle feelings from duty."
"Now you sound like Deanna."
"Deanna always knows the right things to say," Crusher said slowly. "But I'm not always so good at finding the words myself."
"It's in her training," Picard pointed out. "But we managed it, Beverly." Her name rolled off his tongue lightly. "I am grateful you chose to stay on Enterprise, and even more grateful that you chose to come back after serving at Starfleet Medical. Your friendship-" Picard cleared his throat. "I value your friendship, Beverly."
"And I yours." She moved away from Picard, as if consciously trying to engineer their eventual separation. "It's been an honor serving with you, Jean-Luc."
Picard put his mug down. "Will said those words to me just yesterday. His way of saying good-bye." He faced Crusher. "Are you leaning towards accepting this position?"
"I'm accepting the fact that one day, I will have to move on, Jean-Luc," Crusher said. "If not the Pasteur now, it will be something else later on."
After a pause, Picard nodded. "And so it should be. You've been a valuable member of this crew and I've come to rely on your thoughts a great deal." He took a deep breath. "I will miss you, Beverly."
"But of course, our paths will cross again in the future, I'm sure," she said the words almost desperately. Was she accepting the position? Was that what had been decided in the space of the last thirty seconds? Crusher took a deep breath. If Jean-Luc had asked her to stay, she knew she would have. Force of habit, she had to admit, to turn down promotion after promotion in order to stay on Enterprise, to stay with *him*. But this time, Picard was looking away, and she could see by the firmness of his jaw that he wasn't going to stand in her way. "If I accept this position, that is."
"Of course you'll accept it. The Pasteur is a fine medical ship, one of the finest in the fleet and the crew is said to be nothing less than first-rate. When do you leave?"
She stared at him for a second before finding her voice. "In one week."
"So soon?" Picard looked shocked. "I did have two years to adjust to the fact that eventually I would lose both Will and Deanna."
"They want me on the Pasteur as soon as possible. Of course, if you need me to stay, perhaps I could make some arrangements to..." She let her voice trail off, leaving an invitation there for him.
"I can understand that, but no, Beverly, somehow, we will struggle through without you. It won't be easy-" he grimaced - "but Dr. Selar will make a capable replacement for you in Sickbay."
They faced each other, silence settling between them. If there was something else to be said, this would be the time, Crusher thought, but somehow, she couldn't say the words. She'd made her decision long ago. Her feelings for Jean-Luc were firmly platonic, occasionally crossing over the line into something more inappropriate based on their natural chemistry with each other, something that have developed out of comfort they had adapted in each other's company over the years.
"Of course, I expect you to tour the new ship with me," Crusher said slowly. Her throat tightened as she spoke.
"I will be there."
"Thank you." There was nothing more to say. She didn't trust herself to even discuss the weather without tears at the moment. And if there was one thing she was certain of, it was that she wouldn't cry in front of Jean-Luc Picard. Not even a little. She prepared to leave, but Picard grasped her hand in his, pulling her slightly towards him. She turned in surprise.
"The honor, Beverly," he said softly, "was all mine." He released her hand, his gaze still intent on her face. She thought she noticed excessive moisture gathering in those sharp eyes. "Dismissed, Doctor."
On the Bridge, Beverly Crusher took a deep breath and bit her lip, taking a moment to regain her composure. She hadn't imagined it would be so hard to say good-bye to Jean-Luc Picard. But, she also knew - no, felt- that it was time to move on.
With that, she squared her shoulders and headed to Sickbay. She had work to do.
~ the end
You, probably you
have been till now
too long alone
till you're convinced, like me,
you can stay alone
which never smiles
becomes a habit
and not a choice you made
- Pierpalo Guerrini & Giorgio Calabrese
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