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Nothing Gold

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Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

--Robert Frost


 

The brown soil dimmed the shine on her black boots, but in front of her, Picard’s step was even and steady as he led the way through the rows of grape vines. The house rose in front of them, the shaded patio inviting in the heat of the afternoon. Their empty wine glasses remained where they’d left them on the table, and Deanna licked her lips as she remembered the taste of the 2371 Chateau Picard Bordeaux – full bodied, with delicate hints of vanilla, oak and blackberry in the mix. She could understand why that vintage – the last bottled by Picard’s brother, Robert – had received a series of coveted awards from a variety of organizations.

Picard huffed under his breath as he stepped onto the brick patio. He turned to look at the fields, his hands on his hips, the barest sheen of sweat visible over his angular features.

“Marie must be so glad to have your help,” Deanna said as she surveyed the hectares of vines in front of them. “This must have been so much for her to handle.”

“She has done an exceptional job managing the business,” Picard said, warmth infusing his voice as he spoke of his sister-in-law. Then his tone changed, a note of reproach edging under it. “You really should have brought the children.”

Deanna smiled. “I thought it would be easier to chat without them,” she said. Not to mention, she didn’t relish the idea of chasing Hanan and Thalassa through vineyard.

“Are you and Will still thinking about purchasing the property at Lake El-Nar?”

Deanna nodded. It had been quite by chance she and Will had stumbled upon the house, hidden in the woods, not far from her childhood home on Betazed. The house itself, built 150 years ago, was rustic and modest in size, but light and airy, and located just a few meters away from the lake. The surrounding trees provided plenty of privacy. However, the house had fallen into disrepair and neglect in recent years, needed quite a bit of work before it would be habitable again.

“I think we are close to a deal,” she said. “Will is eager to roll up his sleeves, get to work. He has such grand plans.” She smiled affectionately. Will’s enthusiasm for the project in front of them was catching, but she also hoped it wouldn’t fade when the reality of what they had committed themselves to settled in. “And of course, Mother is happy to have the children near. It’s an ideal place to spend our shore leaves, and then eventually –” she hesitated. Was now the time to bring up Will’s restlessness? His dismay that he no longer recognized the organization in which he served? The years since the end of the Dominion War had seen major changes in Starfleet, and there had been a recent spate of retirements; experienced officers who’d come of age when a greater premium had been put on exploration instead of military exploits didn't seem as greatly valued as in the past. The Federation, and by association, Starfleet, had begun to take on a more hawkish and more insular perspective. But observing the lines furrowing her former captain’s forehead, the puffy skin beneath his eyes, she decided to keep those thoughts to herself. “It will be nice to have some place to call home, after all of these years.”

“I can understand that.” Picard steepled his fingers together, his gaze unwavering as he glanced at her, as if he knew she wasn’t telling him the whole truth. She thought he was going to push for more information, but instead he said, “Would you like some more wine?” He gestured towards the wrought iron table on the patio and pulled out a chair adorned with a yellow and blue pillow in a classical Provencal design she recognized as Kalian.

“Thank you.” Deanna sat in the offered chair. There was the hint of mud edging her black uniform trousers. She shrugged out of her jacket, a decision she’d wished she made before Jean-Luc suggested they take a walk through the fields. “It really is beautiful out here. Relaxing. I can see why you prefer staying here instead of San Francisco.”

Picard poured the wine and placed a glass in front of Deanna. “There’s no reason to remain in San Francisco now,” he said evenly. He took the seat opposite her, his legs slightly apart, his hands resting on his thighs. His own wine glass remained untouched even as Deanna savored hers.

“You still have the house in Sausalito though, don’t you?

“Kathryn still uses it on occasion, though not as much now that she has left Starfleet.”

“And you?”

“The expansion of the vineyards requires supervision and I—” his voice trailed off.

Deanna resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. Ever stoic, but still with emotions churning below the surface, Jean-Luc Picard was no cipher to her. But she also knew she had to let him speak in his own time.

“Of course,” she said smoothly. “You know, Will would love this wine.”

“I can send you back with a few bottles, if you’d like,” Picard said.

“That would be lovely, thank you.” She leaned back against the iron-backed chair. There was just a hint of a breeze in the air, the sunlight dappling over the shades of green and brown in front of them. The air smelled like newly turned earth. After months aboard a starship, being outdoors like this was a true luxury. “So how long does Kathryn plan to stay away?”

“At least another few weeks. She plans to stop at Vulcan on her way back to see Tuvok, and it’s at least a week voyage there from Deep Space Three.” Picard rapped his long elegant fingers against the table. “The wedding was beautiful, she said. Lieutenant Kim seems very happy and his bride is a lovely person, a lieutenant in Operations aboard the same ship.” He paused. “It’s a long trip, but it seems like it was worthwhile. She hasn’t seen the crew since Chakotay and Seven’s wedding two years ago, just before she resigned from Starfleet to join me on the campaign trail.”

“That must have been a shock to her crew,” Deanna said. She wondered how well Jean-Luc knew Janeway’s former colleagues; when he spoke of them, they seemed nothing more than acquaintances. And Deanna knew Picard would never pry; it was likely he rarely inquired much about the private lives of Janeway’s Voyager crew, just as Deanna assumed Kathryn didn’t ask about Enterprise. In fact, Deanna couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken to Kathryn Janeway. She had once told Will that it seemed as if Jean-Luc and Kathryn lived completely in the present, as if there had been nothing before the point when their paths had intersected.

“It must be nice for her to get together with her old crew, especially for such a happy occasion,” Deanna said. She leaned towards him, her dark eyes focused on Jean-Luc. “Why didn’t you go with her?”

He shrugged. “The timing wasn’t good, as it coincided with the harvest —”

Deanna narrowed her eyes. “Surely the vineyard could have spared you for a few weeks.” She chose not to add the vineyard had managed just fine without him in the nearly fifteen years since Robert and Rene had died.

Picard squirmed under the pressure of Deanna’s gaze. “I didn’t want to intrude,” he said finally.

She arched her eyebrow. “You believe that your presence would constitute an intrusion?”

He shrugged. “Crews that serve together for so many years become more like a family; you know that. My being there would have been a source of tension. Is it so hard to believe that?”

Silence fell between them and he knew Deanna knew exactly what he was talking about. She sucked in her breath, knitted her fingers together, and then raised her eyes to meet his. “Beverly is worried about you, too.”

Picard gave a short laugh as he looked off into the distance. “Some things don’t change, do they?” He leaned forward. “Has there been some talk, then? Is that why you’re here then? To check on me?”

“Of course not,” Deanna said, laying deliberate stress on the last word.  “It’s been a long time, and you—you were so busy with the Presidential campaign that we haven’t had a chance to talk.” Her lips turned slightly up at the corners. “I thought many things about what this visit would be like, how you would be adjusting to this life. And to be honest, I never imagined you, like this –” she waved her hand towards the fields “—but it suits you. It really does.”

Picard tapped the tips of his fingers against each other but didn’t look at her. She could sense his unease and decided not to push.

“It’s been an intriguing pastime,” he said.

“Is that all it is? Something to fill your time until you decide what comes next?” She leaned forward, resting her weight on her forearms.

This time he did look at her. “I don’t know yet.”

It was possibly the most honest thing Jean-Luc Picard had ever said to her. Deanna sucked in her breath and curled her fingers around the stem of her wine glass. “Perhaps I wasn’t completely truthful with you before. Will is worried about you, too,” she said.

“Is that why he sent you?” She caught an undercurrent of anger coloring Picard’s voice and knew immediately she’d made a mistake. The temperature seemed to drop by a few degrees.

“You know better than that,” Deanna said. She lifted her chin to meet his gaze straight on, daring him to make that accusation again. She knew he would never say such a thing to Beverly Crusher, but then again, he was never completely honest with Beverly. “It’s been six months—"

“Yes. Six months, twelve days, and 14 hours. Perhaps if I thought about it, I could give you the minutes too.”

She took a sip of the wine. “Do you want to talk about it?”

The faintest hint of a smile played on his lips. “About my loss in the election? How confident I’d been in my victory, how I thought I would be living at the palace on the Champs-Élysées? Or, how Kathryn gave up her career in Starfleet to help further my ambition, and now, this is all I have to show for it? Is that what you came to see, Deanna?”

She shrugged. “You spent a year campaigning, crisscrossing the entire quadrant. How many worlds did you and Kathryn visit?” she said.

“All of them,” Picard said softly, but Deanna knew he felt both pride and hurt in that admission.

“More than two hundred worlds across ten thousand light years,” Deanna said. It would had been, she knew, a massive effort, and there were times when she would watch holovids and note the strain across Jean-Luc’s face as he would take the podium at various rallies after the warm introduction delivered by Kathryn Janeway. And Deanna imagined that when the couple wasn’t on stage, they were carefully planning their next campaign spot, how to respond to any allegations or rumors that naturally swirled around the front runner. It would be so easy to lose one’s self amid that kind of chaos. “It’s only natural for you to take a break now.”

There was a long pause as Picard took a long drink of his wine. The glass clinked against the wrought iron table. “Did you think I would lose?” his gaze focused on the distant, where the blue sky met the edge of the vineyard. The fields of Chateau Picard seemed an endless horizon. “I did consider the possibility, I never thought I was unbeatable.” His face contorted slightly. “But I did not expect to lose, never envisioned myself making a concession speech instead of delivering a victory address.” He gave a tiny laugh. “Everyone told me the same thing - that the legendary Jean-Luc Picard, long-time captain of Starfleet’s flagship, was a shoo-in. The existence of an opponent was merely a formality.” He shook his head. “I didn’t realize how much my lack of any noteworthy accomplishments during the Dominion War would hurt my chances.” He took another sip of wine. “And despite her initial involvement in Robert Leyton’s attempted coup, there’s no denying Ericka Benteen’s credentials on that count are unassailable.”

“You didn’t pick where the Enterprise was posted during the war, so it shouldn’t be held against you.” Deanna replied sharply. “You followed the orders given to you.”

At this, Picard stood. He took a few steps forward to the edge of the patio. “I should have disobeyed.”

“And then what?” Deanna kept her tone even. “Disobey orders in the midst of a war? You would certainly have been reprimanded, possibly even relieved of command, if not sent to a courts martial.” She rose to stand next to him. “What does Kathryn say?”

A long silence followed, and Picard took a few more steps beyond the patio until he was once again surrounded by the grapevines. Deanna sighed and quickened her step to follow behind him. He stopped once to check on a cluster of grapes ranging from a vibrant violet to a dusky blue. He held the cluster in his hand before pulling it free from the branch. He handed a few of the grapes to Deanna. She popped one in her mouth.

“This row will be harvested first thing in the morning,” he said. He continued his way down the field. Deanna followed.

“How many times do you walk the fields?” she asked.

He glanced back at her. “I’ve lost count.”

“You’ve also lost weight.”

Picard stopped there. “Deanna.”

She held up her hand. “So maybe it’s not just Will who’s worried about you.” She put her hand lightly on his arm, felt the bulge of muscle beneath the thin white cotton material. “You never answered my question.”

“Possibly because it isn’t any of your business,” Picard answered.

At this, Deanna allowed herself a small frown. “You don’t really know when Kathryn is coming back, do you?”

A long deep sigh and then just the faintest of nods. “She supported me in my political ambition and gave up everything for me,” Picard said. He tried to smile but it didn’t reach his eyes. “And I lost.”

“Do you think that matters to her?”

“She has said very little about what her plans for the future are.” He wrenched some curled leaves tipped with brown off a plant.

“And what about you? What are your plans?” She stopped. The afternoon sun was high above them now, the sky clear, with just a V of wild geese streaking across the blue. Picard slowly turned to face her.

“Isn’t it clear?”

“Not to me, no.” She waved her arm, indicating the verdant fields. “Unless it’s this, but I don’t sense you are happy.” She lowered her voice. “Are you?”

Picard’s jaw tightened, and his voice was strained. “There are not many options available to a man who saw little action during the Dominion War, resigned from Starfleet, and then lost a run for the presidency.”

“I don’t believe that’s a fair assessment of your service, and many people would agree with me,” Deanna said. “Maintaining security along the Romulan Neutral Zone was of vital interest to the Federation; if the Romulans hadn’t chosen to join the war on the side of the Federation, who knows what they might have tried to pull while our attention was distracted by the Dominion?”  She brushed a strand of hair off her forehead. “Ericka Benteen mentioned in one of her interviews that she would be reaching out to you for some advice, that she respected you and your long service to the Federation,” Deanna said.

“I’m available if and when she does call,” Picard said lightly. He glanced again towards the main house. “I imagine Will must wonder where you are.”

Deanna tipped her head to the side, contemplated her former CO with interest, and then said, “Perhaps you should come to San Francisco with me. Join us for dinner.”

“And meet old friends?”

“That could happen, yes.”

At this Picard allowed himself a small smile. “Let me guess. You’ve already made inquiries to Necheyev as to whether I would be allowed back after my failed political career.”

I wouldn’t presume.”

Picard’s smile broadened. “But Will would.”

She didn’t acknowledge the comment but instead matched her step with his. They reached the end of the row of vines, and then Picard stopped again.

“I’m pleased with the progress that has been made here,” he said. “Robert would be so proud.” He paused, deep in memory. “So many years ago, Robert and I fought in this very spot. It was when I was on leave, following my recovery from the Borg.” He indicated a long line of vines just to the right and smiled momentarily at the memory. “Marie was aghast that we’d resorted to fisticuffs, but it was necessary. No amount of talking would have eased the tensions between us.”

“I do remember that,” Deanna said. She inhaled deeply, relishing in the mixture of earthy aromas surrounding her. “You should consider meeting us for dinner, Jean-Luc. If not today, well, we’ll be in San Francisco for another week.”

“And then where will the Titan be off to next?”

“You know that’s classified,” Deanna said, trying to keep her voice. “I’m sorry.”

Picard bent his head, focused on a spot directly in front of them, as if acknowledging the true magnitude of all that he had given up. “There is no need to apologize.”

Impulsively, she threw her arms around him, standing on her toes to give him a hug. He was stiff within her embrace, but after a moment, she could feel the tension ease out of his muscles, and his hand rested gently on her back. After a moment, he drew away.

“Another week then,” he said.

“Yes.” She took another breath. “Obviously, we wouldn’t want to put you into a situation—”

Jean-Luc held up his hand. “Of course not. I’d want to discuss any proposals with Kathryn.”

“I understand.” Deanna sucked in her breath and then said, “I know you think the Federation has changed, that the election of Ericka Benteen is a referendum on the type of officer you were, are.” She held up her hand as Jean-Luc looked at her in surprise. “It’s a contrast in position, isn’t it? You are Starfleet through and through, believing ultimately in our mission of discovering new life, new worlds. Ericka Benteen, she belongs to the Admiral Leyton school of thought that we need to strike first, ask questions later.” She kicked a ball of sod with the tip of her boot. “It might seem as if they outnumber us, Jean-Luc, but more than ever, Starfleet needs people who remember its original mission.” She cast a sideways glance at him. Jean-Luc stood very still, a light sheen of perspiration glistening on his forehead, his gaze steady and unwavering, his jaw set tight. Deanna held back. After all these years, she knew he would let her in when he was ready.

“Is it really that bad then?” he asked quietly.

“Unrecognizable,” Deanna said. She thought about the dilapidated lake house nestled in the woods of El-Nar. No doubt it would be just as restful as the Picard Vineyards. Not for the first time, she contemplated what it would mean if they moved the timeline up, started on the renovations sooner rather than later. But that would mean giving up and in, and that idea was anathema to her. “But it just makes me more resolved to do what I can, Jean-Luc.”

They turned to look back at the house, and then her step fell into line with his, the dirt crunching beneath her boots. As they reached the patio, Jean-Luc squeezed her hand. This was a farewell of sorts, but for how long, it was impossible to tell.

“Tell Will,” Jean-Luc said, clearing his throat, “that I will see him soon.”

Deanna tamped down the little curl of excitement the comment elicited. Instead, she kept her voice steady. “Of course. And when the house at the lake is done, you must come visit us there.”

“I would love to.” His patrician features softened. “It was good to see you, Deanna.”

“Give Kathryn my best.”

“Of course.”

Later, as her shuttle arced into the sky, Deanna watched as the green fields of the Picard vineyards receded into the distance until finally, the clouds obscured her view.

~ the end