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"Good morning," Jean-Luc whispers into her ear.

Beverly stretches and smiles, unwilling to open her eyes. Right now, what she can feel is so much more important than what she can see. Soft sheets, a firm mattress, the heat of Jean-Luc's body against her shoulders, her back, her thighs.

Funny, how you don't realize how loud the humming of a starship's integrity field is until you don't have to hear it anymore. She and Jean-Luc are encased in silence and -- even through her eyelids, she can tell -- in sunlight. No duty beckons them; their time is their own.

"We should get up," Jean-Luc says. His breath is warm against her back.

Beverly rolls over, whispering, "Not yet." She finds his mouth with her own, even with her eyes closed.

**

Jean-Luc says that the landscape reminds him of Provence. To Beverly, it reminds her of Caldos IV, with rolling hills and the fresh scent of evergreens. But this place is even more beautiful, warm and dappled with sunlight in a way Caldos never was.

She likes having ground beneath her feet, soft and sloping, anchored by moss-fuzzed rocks. Jean-Luc's favorite spot seems to be the stream just at the edge of their property; he kneels there and stares down into the water for long minutes on end. It is so clear that the light glints not only from the surface of the stream but also from the minerals in the rocks below. Sometimes fishes dart through the current, their scales flashing silver-blue.

"I could catch some," he says. "Build a pole, bend a hook. Then I could cook a few for our supper."

"We have a replicator, and that's all we need." Beverly puts her hands on his shoulders, drawing him away from the brook. "Let them swim."

However, the replicator is the one modern convenience they use; for everything else they have gone back to the older ways they each cherish. Jean-Luc wanders through the vineyard, checking leaves and stems by hand. Though the plantings there are new, he seems certain that he'll be able to predict the quality and timing of the harvest. Beverly doesn't even want to look that far ahead. She finds herself taking joy in the most mundane tasks: polishing the oaken banister, watering the houseplants, cleaning the mud from her own boots when she comes in from the garden. The work doesn't feel like work. When she thinks about before -- only rarely can she give that time a name as concrete as Starfleet or Enterprise -- she can only remember a kind of regimented luxury, antiseptic in its precision. This, with all its mud and its messiness, is better.

At night, Jean-Luc builds a fire. Sometimes Beverly wishes for the dark, rich scent of smoldering peat, but the wood blazes nicely. They sit close to one another, reading or talking, but not touching. That always comes later.

"Prospero only means to protect Miranda," he says one night, looking down into his leather-bound copy of "The Tempest."

"And he does so quite well," Beverly agrees. She likes the way the firelight falls across his brow, the straight line of his nose. All at once, the desire to touch him nearly overwhelms her -- but she holds back.

All those years of denial would have been delightful, if only she had thought of them as anticipation.

"He imprisons her," Jean-Luc says of Prospero and Miranda. "In a sense, his daughter is as much his possession as Ariel."

Beverly sets aside Mansfield Park , tucking in a bit of blue ribbon to mark her page. Then she begins letting down her hair, pulling out the pins one by one. "You're spending too much time thinking about poetry, Jean-Luc."

At first Jean-Luc keeps frowning down at his Shakespeare. "Miranda longs for freedom as much as Caliban does, in her way. She longs for the freedom of the mind." But as he says it, he glances in her direction and does not look away. She knows that he is taking in her loose hair, her uplifted arms, the curves of breast and back that her posture reveals.

"It's late," she says. "Why don't you turn down the covers?"

He does, and when she steps into their bedroom a few minutes later, Jean-Luc is already in bed waiting for her.

Even as he holds open his arms, he says, "Did you put out the fire?"

"It's taken care of," Beverly murmurs as she slips into his embrace. And it must be, because when they come downstairs for their breakfast, the hearth is once again clean, ready for the next night to come.

**

They're good together, in bed.

Beverly had always suspected they would be; she believes you can tell these things, most of the time. The best qualities Jean-Luc has as a man he has as a lover: gentleness, intensity, generosity. By nature, he's a little conservative for her taste -- but he responds well to the art of suggestion.

She can't believe she spent so many years without knowing how they would make love to one another. She can't believe she didn't at least demand to know what it would be like when they kissed.

"Why did we wait so long?" she murmurs against his chest, feeling the hard muscles of his thighs between hers.

"Madness," Jean-Luc says, and then pushes into her, one long, slow thrust that makes her arch against him in delight.

Nothing else in the universe exists except him, except her, and the way they move together.

**

"How long have we been here?"

She gives him a quick kiss on the cheek. "Not nearly long enough."

"Agreed." He returns the smile as he slices through the bread they'll have with their breakfast ham. But as Beverly begins pouring the cranberry juice, he adds, "I'm only trying to recall the date."

"It doesn't matter, does it?"

"It might." Jean-Luc stares out the window, toward the sloping hill that leads to the stream.

"If you insist on dragging schedules into our time together, I swear to you -"

"What?" His distant expression vanishes at once, replaced by mischief. "You'll reprimand me?"

"In ways you won't enjoy." Beverly traces a line down his neck with one finger.

"Mmm. I'm not so sure of that."

After breakfast, Jean-Luc doesn't walk into his vineyard; instead, he wanders to the side of the stream. Beverly expects to see him fashioning a rod for fishing, despite her protests, but he doesn't do that. He just stares into the forest that lies beyond.

She tries to go about her own work, but she's distracted, ill-at-ease. Every time she goes to the window, there's Jean-Luc, still and focused on the dark trees of the forest, as if looking for shapes in the shadows beneath the pines. It's unnerving, though Beverly can't quite say why.

Finally, when she realizes she's been polishing the same shelf for half an hour, Beverly tosses aside her cloth and goes outside. "Jean-Luc!" she calls. "If you're not going to do anything today, you should at least keep me company."

He doesn't look back at her. "Beverly, come here. Tell me what you see."

"I see a forest. What else should I see?" She comes within a few feet of the stream, close enough to see the metallic glint of the fishes beneath the water. "Come on."

"No, no. Look into the trees. Really look."

She doesn't want to do that, but it's Jean-Luc who's asking her. So Beverly steps to his side and tries to focus.

The pine branches rustle in the wind, and it's remarkable, Beverly thinks, how they keep even one ray of sunlight from reaching the ground of the far bank. And yet the absence of light doesn't fully prevent her from seeing. There -- deep, deep in the shadows -- something is moving. Not the branches -- not the wind --

Beverly jerks her head upward as the light dims; clouds are blowing in from the east, thick, and blue-heavy with rain. "A storm," she says. "We have to get inside."

"Perhaps not," Jean-Luc says, then is immediately contradicted by the low rumble of thunder. She takes his hand and pulls him with her as she dashes for the door. Only the first few drops of rain strike them before they're inside.

"That was close." Beverly can already hear the pattering outside, growing stronger as the windows pebble with drops.

"We haven't had rain the entire time we've been here," Jean-Luc says. "However long that is --"

"I guess it was inevitable." She latches the door, something she hasn't done before. The memory of the strange movement in the shadows makes her feel the need.

**

The next day, it's sunny once more. Jean-Luc goes to his vineyard, and Beverly can almost forget the day before. But it stays with her -- this one strange, aberrant day of their holiday, frightening and rainy and cold. Despite the eerie allure of those memories, she resolutely does not look toward the stream or the forest that lies beyond it.

Jean-Luc's work is muddy today, naturally, and so she runs him a bath. Once he's reclining in the tub, the combination of warm water and her naked lover proves inviting enough for Beverly to join him. She reclines against his chest, and his fingers make lazy trails across her belly.

But then he whispers, "We should talk about yesterday."

"Do we have to?" She senses the need for such a discussion, but her desire to push the memories aside is stronger.

"That stream is perhaps three feet wide. It shouldn't represent such a -- profound boundary in our minds."

"It's not the stream. It's what lies beyond it."

Jean-Luc takes her hand in his own. "Yes. I think so too."

The horrible shape in the shadows -- what is it? All at once, Beverly doesn't want to think of it any more, or ever again. "Let's just stay here. Aren't you happy here?"

"Beverly--" She half-turns, so that they face each other, and Jean-Luc kisses her deeply. Just when she thinks they'll go to bed, or just make love in the bath, he pulls his mouth away and whispers, "I am happier here than I've ever been. But I don't know -- I don't think it's real."

"This is real. It is. What we've found here --" Beverly caresses his cheek. "If this isn't real, then nothing is."

Jean-Luc kisses her hand, but his eyes remain focused and intent. "I just want you to answer one question," he says. "If you can."

"All right."

Clearly, the next words are difficult for him -- it's as if he has to fight to remember them, even while he speaks. "When is the last time you spoke to Wesley?"

Wesley. Wesley is her son. A thousand jumbled memories pop into her mind -- childbirth, chemistry sets, teething, trips to the waterslide park on Alphacent, short letters from Starfleet Academy, the first time he climbed a tree. The memories have only two things in common: They are all about Wesley, and they are all real in a way that this --

--this house, this patch of ground, this bathtub, the days and nights she's spent with Jean-Luc, this world--

--is not real.

"Oh, no," she whispers. "When did I talk to Wesley? How long --" Beverly begins to shake as it hits her. "Time -- I can't remember time."

"Stay calm." Jean-Luc's voice rings with authority. It's the voice of the captain he was. Is? Beverly doesn't know which. "If our -- captor -- wanted to hurt us, I don't think this would be our jail."

Captor. The shape within the shadows.

Beverly says, "Can we leave?"

"I don't know," Jean-Luc says. "But I believe I know where we can find out."

The stream. It all comes back to the stream.

**

As soon as they begin walking toward the stream, the wind picks up again.

"Another storm," she says.

"Ignore it."

Easier said than done, as lightning crackles down on the horizon. The next time, Beverly suspects the bolt will not be so distant.

In the forest across the stream, the shadows are violent in the wind, as though they are writhing. It is horrible to look at, and even Jean-Luc has to turn his head. But he clasps her hand in a steely grip. "We'll leap over."

"Is that wise?"

"I have no idea. It seems a place to begin."

Thunder rumbles, and the wind whips her hair across her face so that it's hard to see Jean-Luc. As terror rises up in her, Beverly thinks with longing of the warmth and comfort of their bath. It's not too late, she wants to shout. We can go inside and forget about this. We can forget about everything except each other.

But Jean-Luc has reminded her of her son. Her son is more real than anything else, and he is not and cannot be here.

"Let's go," she says, clutching his hand tightly. "Let's go. Now."

They run in step, even as the lightning crashes nearby, one and two and --

The lightning strikes them, light and power and pain, searing her inside and out, then inside again, coalescing into fire –

**

She comes to on the couch inside their farmhouse; Jean-Luc looks ragged and pale as he strokes her forehead. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." And she is – completely. Beverly knows (but how is it she knows again?) that an injury capable of inducing unconsciousness should have lingering aftereffects. But neither her head nor her body hurts in the slightest. "We can't leave."

"Not through such simple means." Jean-Luc rises from her side to pace by the windows. Outside the glass, she can see the storm raging. "That excludes the first possibility."

"First possibility?"

"We are captives," Jean-Luc replies. He clearly is having to work hard to focus on this. "Our minds are – clouded, which would be unnecessary to simply hold us in place. Therefore something is deliberately confusing us, toward some purpose. If it were merely a test – to see if we could recognize the prison – we would now be free."

"We are free," Beverly says. "We're more free now than we've ever been."

She says it because she feels it's expected of her – though by who or what she can't say. But there's truth to those words too; they are not real and yet real, like everything else that's tied to Jean-Luc.

When he looks down at her again, the expression in his eyes strikes her to the core. "The most comfortable slavery is still slavery." He says it like a man who ready to hold his hands out for the chains. But Jean-Luc turns to the window and continues, "Our captor needs something from us. Something we have been providing, and must deny."

Beverly knows Jean-Luc is right, but she can't think clearly. Does their captor have a tighter grasp upon her? Or has Jean-Luc simply been through this so many times that he's learned how to handle it?

--What other times?—

--No, she won't panic herself by testing the edges of her mind, seeing the silhouettes left by the memories that should be there. "We don't know what it wants. How do we know what to withhold?"

"We withhold everything. We do everything differently than we did before."

Lightning flashes down outside, and it is less than a second before the thunder follows.

**

A hunger strike is their first step. Possibly their bodies provide fuel in some way, which means they must deny their own fuel. And though Beverly isn't sure any of this is physically real – food included – there's always the possibility they're being drugged. Wine is out of the question; they need their sobriety.

But within two hours she's ravenous.

"Just some bread," she says.

"We mustn't. I'm hungry too." Jean-Luc sighs. "Hungrier than I should be."

"Can we sleep?"

He frowns. "I hadn't thought of that, but probably not."

No sleep means no bed, which means –

Their eyes meet as the same thing occurs to them both at the same time. Beverly tries to smile. "That's going to be difficult."

"Yes." And how can just that one word make her want to drag him upstairs? Maybe it's the way he says it, the internal struggle she can sense even as he adds, "We have to be disciplined, Beverly."

She wants him so badly at this moment that it hurts. But it is like her hunger, her thirst, even the urge to sleep: It's all too strong. Something is pulling at them. Something is taking what's true and using it to lie.

**

The night lasts forever.

Literally, perhaps – for the first time, Beverly realizes they have no clocks nor chronometers, and with the storm rendering the skies pitch-dark, she can't guess the hours they've spent sitting in silence, not touching, not even looking at one another.

But she is aware of him, in every way.

I won't, Beverly thinks, over and over. I won't go to him. When she can do so, she forces herself to remember her hunger for food instead.

The storm worsens by the hour. The rain becomes a downpour, then is laced with sleet that clacks against the windowpanes. Shivering at the howling of the wind, Beverly takes herself into the cellar -- understanding, instinctively, that Jean-Luc won't follow. She just needs to be farther away from the storm.

Dusty bottles of wine surround her, and at once both thirst and the desire for alcohol's oblivion is overwhelming. Beverly turns to the brick wall and presses her cheek against cool mortar; at least with the stones, she can't be made to want.

Is that what their captor needs? This horrible, twisting fever of desire? It can't be -- or it wouldn't have given them a world of such perfect satiety. I will not want, Beverly tells herself, without specifying what she refuses to want. It's the emotion itself that's burning her from within. I will not want.

But then she hears a horrible thundering, as though the house itself were coming down; the one slim window at the very top of the cellar cracks, a silver line snaking across its surface. Beverly's fear intensifies when she hears creaking on the stairs --

--but when she turns, she sees Jean-Luc standing there. "It's hail," he says, of the terrible noise. "It's only hail."

Beverly nods. She knows -- as he must know -- that he did not come into the cellar to tell her that. His white shirt is open at the neck, and she can't stop thinking about putting her hand right on that exposed triangle of skin, right there.

"I'll go." Jean-Luc doesn't believe what he's saying; he steps closer to her, away from the stairs. His eyes are dark. The house shudders around them, weakened by the storm. "I must go."

"Yes," she whispers.

Then his mouth is on hers, and her back slams against the brick wall, and all the craving that's been building inside her is finally free. She tugs open his shirt, pulls him down to the floor so that his body is above hers. Hunger and thirst and fear are all very far away.

Later, when she's half-asleep in his arms, she realizes it's stopped raining.

**

"We've been kidnapped by a sex maniac," Beverly suggests.

Jean-Luc is not amused. "It isn't that. Not only that, anyway. Or why would hunger and thirst be just as acute?"

There are other cravings too, of course. Everything she's enjoyed here seems more than pleasant now; it seems necessary. She's gone from having normal desires to a constant state of addiction withdrawal. It's been only a couple of hours (or has it?) since she and Jean-Luc made love, but already the hunger is back.

"We have to do better this time," he says.

He means to do it. Does she? Beverly knows that she wants to be free, but it is a flat, meaningless fact, devoid of any real emotional response. When she thinks of freedom as something Jean-Luc needs to be happy, she can focus on it a little more.

Only the memory of Wesley can shock her from her unnatural complacency, so she tries to think of him often. Her little boy, with soft brown hair and eyes -- is he still her little boy? She has images of the man Wesley might be, but they're indistinct; they could be no more than her dreams.

They avoid each other entirely, despite the ravenous desire she knows he shares with her. They don't drink wine or even water, and go for so long that Beverly knows they'd be seriously ill if this were real. In her hungrier moments, she thinks longingly of the fish -- but in order to go fishing, she'd have to go to the stream and see the shadows in the forest. No, that's not possible.

Only one pleasure is left to Beverly now -- wandering through the home they've shared, remembering the happiness they've known together. The fireplace reminds her of good books and conversation; the hallways and banisters of the days she spent in work so pleasant it felt like luxury. Bed and bath remind her of Jean-Luc, and the relationship they have shared here. Do they really share none of this intimacy in the real world? Something about that seems inherently false to her, but maybe her confusion is just part of what's being done to them here.

Jean-Luc remains outside, as much as the now-permanently blustery weather permits. He doesn't look at her, and he won't speak. But she can feel the tension between them, every moment. He hates whatever it is that has trapped them here, and he hates whatever it is in himself that won't surrender to the trap.

**

Alone in bed, Beverly is roused from near-slumber by the sound of breaking glass. The windows, she thinks, expecting more hail. But it was a different kind of crash: sharper, heavier. Then she hears it again, and the corresponding splash of liquid.

Running downstairs, she sees Jean-Luc, his eyes wild. He is surrounded by broken glass and pools of red wine. She can see the fire's reflection in the puddles, repeated over and over. "What are you doing?"

"While we're here, we still have hope," he says. His voice is hoarse. "We can still want what we had before."

Her nightgown is too thin to protect her from the sudden chill. "How can we prevent that?"

By way of reply, Jean-Luc takes up another bottle of wine -- he has them stacked on the table and the couch -- and hurls it toward the stairwell. Wine and glass fly everywhere. "We destroy it all."

Then he picks up another bottle and throws it into the fire.

The alcohol catches the flames, sends them spraying out -- onto the wine-saturated floor. Fire flickers and spreads in a widening circle, fanning from the fireplace toward the corners.

Beverly grabs Jean-Luc's hand and pulls him toward the door. They run from the house, already ablaze, into the wind. Lightning begins slamming down, bolt after bolt, so that the sky is almost as bright as day. She didn't know she could be this afraid, but she thinks the name Wesley, to make herself strong. At this moment, she isn't sure what the name refers to, but it's important, more important than anything else here.

"The stream," Jean-Luc says. When she follows his gesture, she sees not water but light, irregular and electric, as if it were about to start shooting sparks. His hand tightens around her arm as he says, "The boundaries are breaking down."

They could still put out the fire -- any moment now, it will begin to rain again, and that would help them -- but Beverly pictures Wesley's face in her mind while she still can. "Now."

As one, they turn and run for the stream. The wind whips to gale force, stinging her face and chilling her skin, but Beverly keeps going. "Don't look back," Jean-Luc gasps. "Don't look --"

The lightning strikes them, light and power and pain, searing her inside and out, then inside again, coalescing into fire –

**

"We found them!"

Who spoke? Beverly tries to open her eyes, but the sunlight sears her eyes. Sunlight? She croaks, "Jean-Luc --"

"The captain is nearby." It's a different voice now, but a voice she knows and trusts. The name comes to her: Data. "He emerged from the energy field at the same time you did. You both appear to be unharmed, but I recommend you go to sickbay immediately."

"How -- how long --"

"Two weeks, three days, eight hours and 27 minutes."

Her head buzzes, and her tongue is thick in her mouth. "Sickbay. Yes."

The world dissolves in a swirl of blue light. Time and sensation are unreliable for a while after that, but before too long, she is aware of herself on a biobed, with Jean-Luc -- Captain Picard -- lying on another nearby. His attention, thus far, is focused mostly on Commander Riker. "You were able to make contact with this being? Our captor?"

"It refused to acknowledge that it was holding you both prisoner," Riker says. "We tried negotiation, threats, even direct attack, but it was powerful, and it couldn't be reasoned with."

"What did it say?" Jean-Luc asks.

Deanna Troi answers him, from her place by the door. "It claimed that it only wanted to make you both happy. As far as I could tell, it was telling the truth." Something in the tone of her voice suggests that she was able to sense far more than that; her eyes meet Beverly's, and she clearly thinks they need to talk.

Beverly can anticipate Deanna's questions -- What was it like? What do you think this means? Are you threatened by what happened? Were you happy? What she can't anticipate are her own answers.

"We denied it happiness," Jean-Luc said. "So perhaps that was the truth, after all."

For a moment Beverly imagines their captor, benevolent and bewildered by the two creatures who wanted harsh reality more than the paradise created from their own minds. It must not have understood us at all, she thinks, surprised by the momentary urge to cry.

**

After Jean-Luc leaves sickbay, Beverly overrides Selar's caution and insists on reviewing the files for the days she's missed. No major surprises, save for the fact that Lieutenant Commander Greene is pregnant with twins, news Beverly would have enjoyed delivering herself. The rhythm of her work begins again naturally, and Beverly realizes it would be perfectly possible to pretend that her days and nights with Jean-Luc never happened.

In a sense, they did not happen. So maybe it wouldn't be pretense.

The Enterprise warps away a few hours later, after reporting the incident to Starfleet Command and placing beacons in orbit that will warn others away from this world -- where something immensely powerful does not understand that there should be limits on happiness.

That night, when she goes to her cabin, it feels empty. Beverly sits down and composes a note to Wesley, whom she now remembers hasn't written in a month. A little motherly nagging is in order.

Jean-Luc knew -- even in the heart of their fantasy -- what was most real to her, what was more important. That intimacy was not born of the honeyed dreams that the alien wove around them; it was truth.

Which means that, at the very least, they need to talk.

"Come," Jean-Luc calls when she chimes at his door, and she can tell by the expression on his face that he was both hoping and fearing that it would be her. He is still in his uniform, but he's at ease on his couch, reading Shakespeare.

"I don't want things to be awkward between us," she says. A chair a few feet away seems like the best place to sit. "The longer we put off talking, the more awkward it's going to be."

Jean-Luc sighs. "You're quite right. Though I suspect that ease -- between us -- will take some time."

She remembers him asking questions, probing the limits of their captivity, and his fascination with the stream. "You saw through the trap," she says. "I didn't."

"I've been in too many such traps before."

But it's more than that, Beverly thinks. Maybe Jean-Luc's better at facing facts than she is. Maybe she's too good at denial. How many nights have they sat together like this, feeling one way and acting another? For years now, the dissonance between their emotions and their actions has been at her insistence; maybe it isn't a romance with Jean-Luc that she's feared all these years -- just facing the truth. Even in their captivity, she was the one who pulled Jean-Luc away from the stream.

Beverly has always been the one who insisted that they should live a falsehood. She has always been the one to hide from their feelings for each other -- afraid of the risks, unsure of the consequences. All the while, they have relied on each other as friends and companions, but never opening up the relationship to joy, because she insisted. She has been using the truth to tell a lie.

"It's late," Jean-Luc says. He is giving her the excuse she needs to end this awkward interview.

Instead, she says, "Why don't you turn down the covers?"

His eyes meet hers, too surprised to reflect anything like happiness. But just as Beverly thinks she'll have to explain, Jean-Luc nods. They've done this before, after all; that's the only way to look at if, once they've accepted that what happened on the planet was real. They are lovers already. This is not a beginning -- it is a continuation. Beverly spends a few moments staring out at the stars, reminding herself of what she knows is real.

By the time she follows Jean-Luc into the bedroom, he is already in bed, waiting for her.

**
END