Notes, disclaimers and all that:

Finally! It’s done! I was beginning to think I’d never finish this monstrosity.

I initially set out to write a story that would explain some of the null space, so to speak, in the series timeline. It sort of grew from there. If you’ve never read any of the stories in our series, this one may actually be a good place to start. Although this takes place after Ninjababe’s story, “Ace in the Hole”, the flashbacks span from Triona’s first getting involved with vampires, to the founding of Imladris. Think of it as a clip story <g>

Other on my archive, "Tales From the Darkwood"  We also have an announce list for the Bloodties universe if you'd like to be kept up to date on new stories and such.

If you’re just joining us, welcome! I hope you enjoy the story. If you’ve been following the series, thanks for all the support we’ve received over the years! It’s been much appreciated.

Special thanks to my beta readers: Tammy, April, Kylie, and Glo. Any remaining errors are my fault entirely.

All Star Trek, Highlander and Forever Knight characters belong to their respective PTBs. Triona and the rest belong to me and to my fellow Bloodties authors. Please archive only with permission. Rated: PG13 for violence.

This is Part One of the "A Thing Called Forever" Trilogy

The Last Time We First Met
by Ithildin
c. 2001

 "A job well done, Picard," the short, black man wearing an admiral's pips said as he and Captain Jean-Luc Picard walked down a perfectly manicured garden path at Starfleet Command.

 "I did my duty, Admiral Dean -- my crew, and I." the slim, blue eyed Enterprise captain said with his usual modesty.

 Admiral Dean sighed good-naturedly. "Always so self effacing, Jean-Luc. When the man walking next to him began to protest, the admiral waved him to silence. "Never mind. I did want you to know I have arranged for those crew commendations you asked for."

"Thank you, Admiral."

"It's the least I can do." He looked sidelong at Captain Picard. "Zefram Cochrane.... I envy you, Captain, I really do. Here I am flying a desk, while you’re out experiencing one of the most exciting moments in Earth history."

"Experiencing Earth's history is one thing, Admiral. However, I could have done without another experience with the Borg." Only someone who knew Picard well would have noticed the almost imperceptible clenching of his jaw at mention of the Borg.

"Of course, of course, Jean-Luc," the Admiral replied, not really paying attention. Picard looked to see what was distracting his superior officer as Admiral Dean continued with a wink, "Of course, there are some advantages to flying a desk."

As a very familiar form walked up the path towards them, the admiral called out, "Minister MacAlpine!"

Triona MacAlpine, defense minister of the Imladrin Planetary Union, smiled and quickened her stride, rapidly drawing even with the two Starfleet officers. She looked to be in her early thirties, but her jade green eyes belied the youth that she still wore on her face. Her long honey blonde hair, swept up in an intricate knot, was held in place with jeweled pins that were alien to Earth. Clad simply in a dove grey jumpsuit and a heather green cape that brushed the tops of her knee length grey boots, she looked like she had sprung from the twilight of the Pacific coast night that surrounded them.

"They told me I'd find you up here. Captain, Admiral." She nodded in greeting. Admiral Dean took her proffered hand, bowing over it. She rolled her eyes over the admiral’s bent head and grinned at Jean-Luc. "And since the Captain's debriefing is over, I'm assuming I can expect a copy soon?" she queried.

"It shall be in your hands by the morning," the admiral assured her. "You are still coming to my little gathering tomorrow night, aren't you, Minister? My children will be so disappointed if they don't see you on this visit to Earth."

"Of course, Terry, I wouldn't miss it." She looked at Picard. "But, if you're finished here, Jean-Luc...?"

"I believe we are, Minister," Picard replied, looking at the admiral for confirmation.

Admiral Dean looked from Captain Picard to Minister MacAlpine with interest. "You didn't come up here to see me, did you, Triona?" he asked in mock disappointment.

Laughing, she replied, "No, I'm sorry, Terry, I didn't. I came for a moment of Jean-Luc's time." She looked up at the dashing captain and smiled softly. "We have matters to discuss that have waited for some time."

"I didn't realize that the two of you knew each other so well." Again the look of interest on Terry Dean’s face as he waited for Triona’s answer.

"The Captain has been an invaluable aide to me in the last few years. I consider him a good friend," Triona explained, wondering now if she should have waited till the captain was alone before approaching him.

Perhaps the admiral’s interest was purely innocent, but she wasn’t that naïve. Triona knew that the knowledge of the captain’s friendship with the defense minister of the secretive Imladrin Planetary Union was a nugget that would be filed away for later use. Sighing inwardly, she decided that it was too late now, and that in the future, she should be a little more circumspect. After all, she was an old hand at this game and should know better.

Her only excuse was that she’d been waiting for this day for four hundred odd years. Ever since that cold Montana night when she’d bumped into a starship captain from the future. It had only been a brief encounter, but it had changed everything.

"In that case, Jean-Luc," Admiral Dean said jovially, "you must join us tomorrow! It just wouldn't do for such a lovely lady to attend unescorted."

"But, Admiral..." the captain began, looking very much like a child who’d been told he had to eat Brussels Sprouts.

"No, no, I won't take 'no' as an answer. Nineteen hundred tomorrow. Make it so, Captain," Admiral Dean ordered. "Triona, till later," he said in parting before turning away and heading back to his office.

Triona laughed at the appalled expression on Jean-Luc's face. "Is taking me to the Admiral's party such a horrifying prospect? I assure you I know which fork to use."

"No, of course not," he replied hastily. "I just loathe these social events."

"And if you ever want to make the admiralty, you *need* to get out more!" She shook her head. "Really, Jean-Luc, when was the last time you socialized?"

"I don't recall. And have you considered that maybe I have no wish to be an Admiral? I like what I do. Being a starship captain is what I am."

"One doesn't necessarily preclude the other," she said, considering. "You are head and shoulders more qualified than half those stuffed shirts!" Not to mention that Picard as an Admiral would be strategically advantageous. “A few nudges in the right places...” she murmured half to herself.

He was a friend – more than a friend – and they had shared a great deal. But Triona was a pragmatist. Her first duty was always to her family and her people. What they had suffered through during the Third World War and its aftermath had taught her that sentimentality and power didn’t mix. All they had accomplished upon going to the stars was something she would do anything to preserve. Even if it meant arranging a few things, or a few people, here and there to assure the protection of what she loved.

And for that matter, Jean-Luc was among those she loved. He was the father of her unborn daughter, and as such, was family to her. What needed to be done, and what she would do if need be, was as much for him as it was for the Imladrin people.

"No!" he said sharply. "I do *not* see you as an entrée into advancing my career." He placed his hands on her shoulders, looking at her intently. "You must promise that you will never do anything to pull strings for me."

"I can't make that promise," she said quietly. "I don't have to do anything. Just by virtue of our relationship, the strings will be pulled. I think you know that." This at least was true. But Triona knew that her presence in Picard’s life had changed the course of that life irrevocably.

Picard shook his head. "I suppose I do. It doesn't mean I have to like it." Looking at her intently, he added, “Just try and contain yourself, Minister.”

Deciding that Jean-Luc seemed to know her just a little better than she’d quite like, Triona ignored his last comment.  "Do you always do that?"


"Switch to French when you get agitated?"

"Did I?"

"We've both been speaking it for some time now. I just thought I'd mention it," she said, grinning. "Well, you know I didn't actually come here to discuss your promotion prospects."

"No, I didn't suppose you had."

"I think it's time, finally, to answer all those questions." Triona cocked her head. "I think you understand now why I've held back."

"It's all become much clearer." He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. "Just how old are you, Triona?"

She just laughed. "Now, Captain, don't you know you never ask a lady her age?" Suddenly serious, she added, "Not unless you think you can handle the answer." She shook her head. "Not here. We need to go somewhere more conducive to revelations." Looking up at him, she extended her hand. "Shall we, Captain?"

Picard took the proffered hand. "Let's."

"Tea?" Triona offered from the forest green and gold tapestry settee of her sitting room at the Keep. The room looked much as it had when she and her family had taken up residence in the anachronistic nineteenth century Montana estate just before the Third World War. For that matter, so did she.

Taking his attention from the portrait that hung above the mantle, he replied politely, "Yes, please," he said, accepting the cup she held out. "Imladrin Blue, I hope?"

"Would I serve you anything else?" she asked archly, a smile in her eyes.

Picard smiled in return and took an appreciative sip of his tea before turning back to the portrait. Triona getting up, went to stand beside him. "When was this done?" he asked. The portrait was of Triona sitting on a bench under a maple tree, surrounded by autumn leaves. The light of sunset made her hair, and the leaves surrounding her, a riot of golds and reds.

"LaCroix commissioned it as a birthday gift for me. It was just before...." She shook the memory away. "Before a momentous change in my life.

"And what birthday would that be?"

"Back to my age again, are we, Jean-Luc?" Triona looked him straight in the eye. "My thirty-second actually -- the autumn of 1996."  She smiled slightly at the look of shock that her companion quickly tried to suppress. "I did warn you, Captain."

"You did. I don't know why it's so much harder to accept than meeting you the evening of First Contact not far from this very spot in 2063." He sighed. "I know you couldn't tell me, but it was such a shock!"

"What's another seventy years, after all?" Triona led him back to the settee. "I never told anyone I’d met you. But it gave me such hope for the future! Especially once I'd convinced Zefram to tell me all he knew about the starship from the future.”

What Triona didn’t tell Picard was that *convincing* Zefram had required more than a friendly chat. The genius that had invented the Warp Drive had also proven to be something of a resistor. It had taken all of Triona’s considerable skill to work the story out of him.

 “I knew we'd meet again; and that you'd have a special place in my life." She took his hand. "And you've been all that to me. You've given me the greatest gift -- a child of my own. A dream I'd given up by the time that portrait was finished."

"The baby, she's well?" Picard asked, squeezing Triona's hand.

"She's fine. The surrogate's pregnancy is going wonderfully. In fact, she's here at the Keep. I decided I wanted Lucia born here on Earth."

"Lucia? You've named her then."

"Mm-hmm, Lucia, after you and Lucien. Serendipity at its best," she said lightly. "Lucia Nora MacAlpine. Nora, after my mother. I thought you might like to add your mother's name to that?"

"I would very much" He smiled warmly. "But, Triona, I want you to know, you've given me a gift as well," he said earnestly. "My family is dead. There's no one to carry on our line. And I'm too much a wanderer of the stars to ever settle down to raise a family. Lucia fills a void I've felt for some time now. I'm honored that you chose me to fulfill your dreams."

She smiled softly. "Some things are meant to be, Jean-Luc." Triona stood up and walked to look out the window, changing the subject. "So, I'm here to answer your questions. Where'd you like me to start?" she asked, taking a deep breath before turning once more to face him.

"From the beginning. I suppose that's always the best place," he said, smiling reassuringly.

She didn't return the smile. "Jean-Luc, I'm sorry, but I must have your word, on your honour. What I'm about to tell you could have... repercussions. Both our lives could be endangered without the proper assurances. Once Lucia is born, you will be family and that should suffice. But still, knowledge can bring danger from many sources -- not just from my own people."

Triona knelt next to where Picard sat, placing her hand on his arm. "I don't need to tell you that Imladris sits on a precipice. There are many who would kill to discover our secrets."

The room became silent as Picard absorbed her words. Triona could hear the sound of the wind whistling around the gables and the hiss of the fire in the grate. She could even hear the beat of her heart as she waited for his decision.

"I'm willing to take the risk that knowing the truth offers. And I give you my word of honour that what you tell me will go to my grave having never passed my lips."

"Even if that conflicts with your oath to Starfleet?" she asked gravely. "I would not have you forsworn, Jean-Luc."

"Is anything you tell me likely to put me in that position?"

She shook her head. "Not than I can foresee. But one can never know the future with certainty."

"If it ever came to that, I would resign my commission before I would betray you -- or my daughter."

Triona didn't try to hide the tears that slipped down her face. "I would never ask that of you, Jean-Luc!"

"You aren't. I offer it freely." He pulled Triona up to sit next to him. "Now, more than ever, I realize that what you and your family preserved from the war helped to pave the way for the very existence of the Federation and for the fleet I serve. The very least I owe you is my silence."

Searching his face, she reached her own decision. "Very well then. From the beginning." She settled herself more comfortably and took a sip of her tea. "Would it surprise you to learn that mankind has shared the planet with a variety of other races? And still does? Vampires, Immortals, Demons -- until the Great Sundering at least -- and probably ones I've never discovered?"

"Surprise me? That would be one way to put it...." he trailed off, trying to take in what she'd told him.

Getting up, Triona strode over to the mantel, pulling a dagger out of an ornate wooden box. Before he had time to react she said, "I'm an Immortal," as she sliced her arm open in one smooth move, hissing at the pain, "and this is the easiest way to explain." Picard watched in amazement as the wound healed before his eyes. "I really hate that part," she grumbled, "but it's effective."

Finding his voice, Picard asked, "Are all your family... Immortal?"

"No, some of them are vampires. I am as well. But that's complicated and I'll get to it later. LaCroix is a vampire -- my Master, my creator." She saw the look of distaste that flickered across Picard's face at the term. Triona had never really had to explain her relationship with LaCroix to a mortal before, and felt on unsure footing. How could she make Jean-Luc understand something that was so integral to her very being? All she could do was tell him the truth and hope he could accept it -- and her.

"Don't judge, Jean-Luc. Vampires are not human. We start out that way, but we have our own laws, our own culture. He is my Master -- I chose to accept his gift, to become what he was. Yes, I know, it sounds like ownership. And at its most basic, I suppose it is. But it's so much more than that," she said passionately. "We have a bond that no mortal could fully understand. A bond born of blood and love. His presence is always in my mind, my heart, as mine is in his."

"LaCroix, the Governor.... What happened with the alien probe on the Enterprise. It was all real, as I suspected. Wasn't it?"

"Yes. It was all pulled from his memories. He was that Roman general. He was brought across as a vampire the night Pompeii erupted in 79 AD." She grinned lopsidedly. "He still *is* that general, truth be told. You can take the boy from Rome, but you can't take Rome from the boy."

"My god, the stories he must tell! To have witnessed over two thousand years of human history." Picard had an almost rapturous expression on his face at the thought.

"Be careful, Jean-Luc. That temptation can lead you on a dark path," she warned only half in jest.

"Was that your temptation? Knowledge?" he asked in a soft voice.

She considered. "In part, I suppose it was. But my getting involved with vampires came long before I met Lucien. I suppose I can blame my poor judgment on wanting something more than my life offered at the time. To feel like I belonged somewhere. It all started one night on a business trip....

 "I think we should go," Triona insisted once more, looking around the dark club warily. She knew the others thought she was being a wet blanket. But something about this place scared her to death.

 She was in Toronto for a conference and had hooked up with a few people she knew from work and previous conferences. It was Saturday night, and someone had had the idea of sampling the nightlife. Triona had no objections to a pub or two, or even a dance club. She'd had no idea that she and her companions would end up in a 'vampire bar'.

 From the moment they'd been motioned past the bouncer at the door, Triona had been trying to convince them all to leave. She felt like a sheep in a circle of wolves. But none of them would listen -- in fact, they seemed to be having the time of their lives.

"Jeez, Triona," said Mark in irritation, "you'd think you thought there were really vampires here, the way you're carrying on."

She bit her lip. Is that what I think? Maybe, deep down; in the part of her that thought that myths and legends must have a basis in truth somewhere. "That's stupid," she replied instead, plucking at the sleeve of her emerald green velvet top in unconscious agitation.

"Oh, come on. Like vampires would hang out in a vampire bar!" Susan, another of their group chimed in giggling, already more than a little drunk.

She took a swallow of her scotch before answering. "I don't know, I think it would make a pretty good cover. No one looks for what's right under their nose." Triona pressed herself further into her corner of the booth as the others laughed.

Twenty minutes later, all her group were out on the dance floor. Triona just sipped at her drink, eyes darting here and there as she nervously fingered the cross that hung under the neck of her blouse. She didn't honestly believe in vampires -- or anything else that went bump in the night. But something about this place put every hair on her body on end.

 "It's a crime that the most beautiful member of your party sits all alone," a seductive voice whispered past her ear.

 Fighting back a shriek of fright, Triona turned to find a muscular Asian man sitting next to her, smiling. She found herself riveted by his deep black eyes as he placed his hand on her wrist. "I prefer it actually," she managed to say, finally finding her voice.

"I refuse to believe that. Just because your friends are foolish enough to leave you here, all by yourself, doesn't mean that others are so blind."

She felt like she were drowning in his eyes -- an expression she'd never really understood till now. "Really, I prefer to wait here for my friends... alone."

The hand on her wrist tightened. "Ah, beautiful lady, never alone." He ran a finger across her cheek, making her shy back, and he smiled. A smile that didn't reach his eyes. His voice took on a deeper timber when he spoke again. "Come with me now. You know you don't want to be alone...."

Shaking her head at the wave of dizziness that took her, she felt a cold fear seep through every pore. "No," she said faintly. Then a little stronger as she shook off the dizziness, "No. Let go of me, please."  She tried to pull away, but his grip was unbreakable. The black eyes were no longer seductive, but hard and predatory. "Let go of me or I'll scream."

The man laughed. "Do you think anyone will pay any attention? And even if they did -- you have to leave here eventually," he finished menacingly.

"And when she does, it will be under my protection, Anatole." The man's head snapped around at the sound of the soft as steel female voice. "Release her," the voice demanded.

As she spoke, the woman moved out of the shadows that had hidden her face from view.  Triona was taken aback at the almost perfect features that were revealed by the light: jet black hair, porcelain skin, and brilliant blue eyes. Anatole seemed almost ready to protest the order, but one look at the woman's eyes were enough to make him swallow whatever objections he might have had. She felt his hand release her wrist.

"Go!" the woman ordered. He went. Then the woman's attention turned to Triona.  "Are you all right?" she inquired in a soft, French accented voice as she slid into the booth next to Triona.

Nodding, she nervously took a sip of her drink. '"Yes. Thank you."  She wasn't quite sure what to make of her rescuer. Definitely more dangerous, but she didn't feel the cold fear that she had before. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't come along," she admitted.

"I'd say screamed." She smiled slightly.

Triona laughed. "I'm sure the management would have been thrilled at my causing a scene."

"Oh, I don't mind the occasional scene. It can add spice to an otherwise boring night." Again, the slight smile. "My name is Janette. Welcome to my club...."

Triona came back from where she was, hundreds of years in her past -- though it always seemed like it was only yesterday. "And if it had ended there, I probably would have gone back to Vancouver and my life as it was."

"And what was your life then?" he asked, totally drawn into her tale.

"I was an investment banker -- and a damn good one. Basically I took the money of people who had too much of it and made them more," she added, responding to his look of confusion at the term. "Not by choice. But of necessity."

"What would your choice have been?"

"An astrophysicist actually." Triona laughed outright. "I didn't grow up to be a bureaucrat, Jean-Luc, believe me." She chewed her bottom lip, far away once again. "My parents, and my aunt and uncle, were killed in an small-plane accident when I was twenty-four; my father was the pilot. I was in university at the time, working towards my PhD.  All of a sudden I was the guardian of my thirteen-year-old cousin, Stephanie. There was some money from life insurance, but not enough for me to keep going to school *and* raise a child."

"There was no one to help you?" The pain in his eyes was quite real as he realized just how alone the young Triona must have been.

"No one." She shook her head. "A family friend offered me a job. I had a business degree -- my parents had insisted I have something sensible to fall back on. No rocket scientists for them!" Triona smiled sadly. "They would have had no idea.... So, I became an investment banker. I was very successful and made pots of money for my clients -- and it allowed me to build a nest egg for me and for Stephanie."

"But it didn't end there."

"No, it didn't...."

Triona walked out to the street with her co-workers. It was late -- or early, she supposed -- and she wanted nothing more than to get back to her hotel and bed.

She pondered her evening. While her companions had danced and drunk the night away, Triona had spent it chatting with Janette. It was the oddest thing, how this woman she barely knew seemed to draw her life story from her. Triona was surprised, looking back, at all she'd told the lovely dark-haired woman. Things she'd barely ever even acknowledged to herself. They'd ended their encounter with Janette inviting her back before Triona left for home.

Triona wasn't sure how she felt about that. For some reason she felt an odd compulsion to return and a connection to the mysterious owner of the Raven. And she also felt a tingle of danger at the thought of returning. She was sure her little voice was trying to warn her -- if only she would listen.

Sighing, she watched most of her party get into a waiting cab, leaving her, Mark, and Susan to get the next one. Mark and Susan leaned against each other drunkenly, laughing at something Triona was sure only they would find funny.

Mark called out, "Hey, Trie, you sure are the party animal!" That comment sent her two inebriated companions into paroxysms of laughter. "You know you're going to give all investment bankers a reputation of being boring if you don't loosen up a bit!"

Triona's reply was lost in screams as something attacked the laughing couple. Before she even had time to register what was going on, Mark's throat was being torn at by something that couldn't be a man.  Then he dropped to the ground with a shuddering finality. Susan's screams were cut off as her attacker snapped her neck, and she too fell to the ground.

Then the creature turned to Triona. "I'm sure you'll be the life of the party, beautiful lady," he half growled through his fangs, advancing towards where she stood.

It was Anatole. And he was a vampire. The thought registered in Triona's stunned brain as she moved backwards. "You didn't have to kill them," she said so calmly she shocked herself, "it was me you wanted." You're trying to reason with a monster, she thought hysterically.

"But I like killing. And I'm going to love killing you." He extended his hand. "Come here," he commanded in the same voice he'd used earlier in the Raven.

Triona felt the same odd urgency to obey. As she fought it off, fear took over and she ran. Anatole grabbed her arm, pulling her to him.  As she screamed piercingly into the night, the vampire hit her across the face, stunning her. '"You will obey me!" he snarled.

"Go to hell!" Triona gasped out, finding her voice from somewhere.

Anatole flung her away, propelling her into the wall. Triona hit the unyielding brick and collapsed to the ground. "I really will enjoy you, mortal."

As he advanced on her, Triona managed to find the strength to pull the cross she wore out of her blouse, not knowing if it would work at all. Saying a silent prayer, she waited until the vampire leaned down to her, then flung the cross against his cheek. It worked -- but only to enrage the vampire even more as the cross burned his face. She felt consciousness slipping away and her one small protection fell from her hand. Her last thought was for Stephanie. She wept inwardly at how alone her young cousin would now be -- then all went black.

"Triona, can you hear me? Wake up. You're safe and the police will be here soon."

She tried to focus on the voice. Female with a French accent. It kept insisting she was safe. Why did her head hurt so badly? Slowly she opened her eyes, not sure at first who the woman looking down on her was. Then she remembered and she shrank back in instinctual fear; so many pieces of a puzzle she didn't understand snapping together in her traumatized mind.

"It's all right, Triona. Anatole is gone," Janette reassured. "I give you my word you will come to no more harm."

Triona realized she was lying on a bed, in a dark room lit by candles. "Police? What am I going to tell the police? Susan and Mark were murdered by a vampire?" She laughed, a harsh sound from deep in her throat. "That they were killed because of me?" She began to cry.

"Non! You are not responsible. I should have never let you leave unescorted. I thought my threat would be enough to warn Anatole off. I was wrong."

"What do I say? I have no idea. My head hurts," she whispered to one in particular.

"Just...." She was interrupted by a new voice in the room.

"Is this the witness, Janette?" a male voice asked.

"Oui, Nicolas. But she is hurt, so please, don't upset her."

The man came into view. Blonde curls, light eyes -- a cherub's face. "I don't make a habit of upsetting the victims of violent crime. You should know that, Janette."

"I did not mean it that way, Nicolas. She has just been through a tremendous ordeal and I wish her pain eased. That is all." Janette turned to Triona. "Triona, this is Nicholas Knight. He is a homicide detective, and you can speak freely to him," she told her, emphasizing the 'him'.

"Do you feel up to discussing this, Ms. MacAlpine?" the detective inquired solicitously. "You should be checked out by a doctor you know. You may have a concussion."

"Maybe later, Detective. But right now I'd just like to get this over with."

Nick nodded, asking, "Why don't you tell me what happened?"

Triona looked over at Janette who gave her a small nod of reassurance.  Taking a deep breath, she recounted what happened as best she could remember. "I thought I was dead, and then I woke up here."

"It would be better if you forgot all this, Ms. MacAlpine," Nick told her. "But from what you say of your experience with Anatole, it would appear you're a resistor." He looked at Janette. "What are we going to do with her?"

"You're not going to do *anything* with me, Detective," Triona said with a note of asperity. "I'm not a child for you to manage away!"

Janette smiled. "She'll stay with me." She waved away Nick's protest. "Who better to protect her from one of our kind, hmm? She won't be safe in her hotel -- he undoubtedly heard where she was staying when the others caught their cab," she pointed out. "Triona?"

She nodded. Somehow her life seemed to be spinning away on its own and where it led seemed to be no place she had ever imagined. Janette, for good or ill, seemed to be the catalyst. "I feel safe here." Triona looked at Nick, who seemed unhappy with the arrangement, but didn't have a better solution. "And officially? What is the story, Detective Knight?"

"The assailant threw you against the wall, you lost consciousness and never saw anything of the murders or the murderer."  He pointed to Janette. "The owner of the Raven heard screams, ran out with several staff members and scared off the perp before he could kill Ms. MacAlpine. Any questions?" Both women shook their heads. "Good. Ms. MacAlpine, I'll contact you tomorrow evening."

Triona sorted through the receipts and bills of lading that covered Janette's desk like a blizzard. \\What on earth is she going to do if she's audited?// She thought bemusedly as the blizzard became organized mountains covering the surface of the desk.

She'd woken a few hours past dawn, her head feeling like it would split open. Janette had told her, before wishing her a good night, to make herself at home. She'd also left food and a thermos of tea for her should she feel hungry later on. So Triona had moved into the sitting room with her thermos, feeling restless and a bit hysterical. Deciding that she couldn't deal with what happened last night, she pushed it firmly away. The pile of bookwork on Janette's desk was a soothing symbol of normalcy that she grabbed onto for dear life.

Many hours later, the tea long gone, Triona looked with satisfaction at what she'd accomplished. All the piles were now filed in the right places and all the ledger entries were up to date.

"My, you have been industrious!" a voice said from behind her. "But you should be resting," Janette chided gently as she walked over to the desk, her black lace negligee swishing around her legs.

Triona looked slightly embarrassed. "I hope you don't mind...." She waved her hand at the desk. "But I wanted to help, and I needed something to keep from falling apart," she finished apologetically.

Janette looked closer at the desk. "You did all of it? I can't believe it. No, of course I don't mind. Though I believe you're slightly over-qualified to be doing the books of my club."

"I loved doing it, honestly. I liked feeling I was helping someone who needed it and not just making more money for someone that already has too much," she said, grinning wryly. "But, Janette, my professional opinion? You need to hire a bookkeeper. If you were ever audited.... Well, it would be bad news!"

"As you might imagine, Triona, hiring accomplished staff isn't always easy in my particular circumstances. I've had very little luck with the accounting help I've engaged since buying the club."

"No, I don't suppose it is," Triona replied as she stood up and stretched. "I'd be happy to set your accounts up on a computer." She looked at Janette with a wicked gleam in her eye. "You do know what those are, right? Machines that are all the rage right now. Replaced the abacus."

"Computer? Me? I wouldn't allow one of those dreadful little machines in my club! Paper and pencil are quite adequate."

Triona rolled here eyes, grinning. "Yes, I can see how well you're doing with those."

"Are you taunting me, young woman?" she replied with mock sternness. "I won't tolerate such disrespect. Unless of course...." She trailed off, a satisfied look on her face. "Unless of course you worked for me. How do you feel about managing a nightclub?"

Triona sat back down again, nonplussed. "I beg your pardon?"

"It would be perfect. I need someone I can trust -- a mortal -- to be here during the day. To take deliveries, to deal with all the annoying little details that only seem to happen in the full light of day. And I need a business manager, a discrete one. My business doesn't only involve what you see on face of it. I have...varied interests around the world that I'm sure would prosper under your professional care."

Triona sat in stunned silence, not believing she was actually considering the vampire's -- and even though it had never been spoken, she knew that's what Janette was -- proposal.  "It's not that I'm not flattered...." She shook her head, grasping for the right words. "After what happened last sane would it be for me to accept?"

"Anatole will be dealt with -- and made an example of," Janette said in a voice that made Triona shiver. "No one defies me here that does not pay a price. You will be as safe as it is possible to be safe in these times." Janette took Triona's hand. "Stay, cherie. You need not be alone ever again...."

"So you stayed." Picard said, pouring himself and Triona a glass of sherry from the sideboard.

"So I stayed, " Triona agreed, taking the proffered glass and sipping delicately. "I loved my new life. It wasn't stodgy and routine. It was different and exciting and slightly dangerous.  Janette and I became very close. I knew she hoped that one day I would ask to come across. But that was left unspoken for some time in the future. Truthfully, though I toyed with the idea in my head, the idea of immortality never lured me. I think if things had stayed the same I would have never asked to walk in the night."

"What changed, Triona?" he asked softly, not wanting to startle her from whatever long ago time she was once more visiting. She walked over to the fireplace, staring at the flames like they were a window. He wondered what she saw through that window.


"Petite, we have to speak of this," Janette said urgently to her young mortal friend. It had been several days since Triona's encounter with LaCroix. In that time, she had spoken barely a word. Janette, bound by her agreement with her Master, hadn't pressed her.

 "I am sorry. Once I knew he was still alive, I should have sent you away. But I lulled myself into a false sense of security, assuming he'd be too intent on dealing with Nicolas to pay any mind to my life." Janette said bitterly.

"It's not your fault, Janette. You didn't force me to come here. I played with fire and I got burnt." Triona's voice was tired and sounded far away. She stroked the almost healed bite marks at her throat with a fingertip, shivering a little as she replayed that night over in her mind for the thousandth time.

"You can't stay, Triona. Not if you wish to stay in the light."

"Would he let me go? From the stories you've told, how do I know it's not already too late?" She sank into a chair, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "I... feel him. Calling me. God help me, but all I can think of is how it felt when he..." her voice broke, "drank from me."

Janette, sitting in the chair next to Triona, took her hand in a strong grip. "You must not think of that or you will never break free," she almost hissed. "LaCroix gave me his word that he would let you leave. And leave you must -- soon! It will only be more difficult the longer you wait. You need distance to escape the link you now have."

Triona looked at Janette with eyes that were years older than they had been just days before. "I'm not sure I want to escape, Janette, and it terrifies me...."

"But you did go to him, didn't you?" Picard asked into the silence. Somewhere a clock struck one and the sound of rain could be heard sheeting against the windows.

"Yes," was all Triona said as she busied herself adding fuel to the dying fire. He waited for her to continue, sensing the conflict she still felt over her decision all these centuries later.

Instead of coming back to sit with him, she sat on the floor next to the fire, drawing her legs up, thinking. As the silence stretched, Picard asked, "Do you regret your choice, even now, after all this time?"

Shaking her head, Triona looked startled at the question. "No. No, I don't regret it. But I suppose I still question my motivations. I wish I could say it was something pure, like love. But it wasn't. It was need, desire, lust, possession. All very primal. Later, it was love, as it is now. But not then. He wanted to possess me, remake me. And I let him; at least in the beginning. Lucien offered me everything I thought I wanted, deep down, where I'd never let anyone see -- not even me. He seemed to see all of me and wanted me anyway. I'd never felt that sense of total belonging before and it was addictive."

"No one can accuse you of self-deception," he commented wryly.

"I've had centuries for introspection -- one of my faults, or so LaCroix likes to tell me."

Picard searched for the right words. "You said he wanted to possess you. I'm sorry, but the only analogy I keep coming to is from 'Dracula'. But somehow I can't see you as a mindless slave to a vampire."

Triona threw her head back and laughed. "Me? No, definitely not, Jean-Luc! And that wasn't what he wanted either. My 'willful nature'," she said dryly, "was one of the things that drew him to me in the first place. But that didn't mean that at the same time he didn't expect absolute obedience from what was his. The fights we used to have! And still do on occasion. But in the beginning, the rage, the anger, would overwhelm us. I'm still surprised that he didn't kill me in those early years."

Jean-Luc unsuccessfully tried to hide the shock he felt at her last statement, realizing she meant it quite literally.

"It's okay, Jean-Luc," she said shaking her head. "At the time there were undercurrents at work that neither of us were aware of. You see, he didn't want to bring me across immediately. What he wanted was a mortal lover. Something that only very old and powerful vampires can manage. But those years changed me, changed him, more than he realized. We were trapped in a cycle of primal emotions that neither of us could break. We did eventually figure it all out -- but it was almost my death."

A knock at the door interrupted further conversation. "Come in," Triona called.

A tall stocky woman in her fifties stepped into the room. "Madam, will there be anything else tonight?"

Triona looked quickly over at the clock on the shelf behind her, noticing with some surprise it was after one. "Heavens no, Mrs. Baker! I'm sorry, you should have checked hours ago."

"It's alright, ma'am, I had things to see to with you back in residence and all," she said, smiling. "I did want to let you know that I've prepared the Grey Room for your guest, should he be requiring it."

Triona nodded her thanks. "Did you check on Elizabeth?" she asked after the surrogate.

"She's quite well, madam. Sleeping like a baby. And she ate a large dinner, have no fears there."

"Has T'Rayla gone to bed yet?"

"She's a night owl, that one," Mrs. Baker tsked disapprovingly as she smoothed the gingham print apron she wore. "Working on some engine design project last I checked on her."

Triona laughed at the older woman. "She's her father's daughter."

T'Rayla was Triona's ward while her father, Spock of Vulcan, worked undercover on the Romulan home world towards the goal of Vulcan/Romulan reunification. She was ten and a genius even by Vulcan standards. It was all Triona and the rest of her family could do to keep up with her.

"Or her 'grandmother's'," the housekeeper replied pointedly. "It's that little skimmer of yours she's working on, after all."

Triona just smiled in response. She was well used to Mrs. Baker's good-natured grumbling. "Thank you, Mrs. Baker. Have a good night."

"Mrs. Baker doesn't approve of my penchant for fast ships," Triona commented to Picard as the woman shut the door behind her. "She's sure I'm going to splat myself all over an asteroid one day."

"And are you?" he asked, a note of teasing in his voice.

"I've been flying ships since there've *been* ships, Captain." Triona arched a brow and said smugly, "I fancy I could teach you a thing or two."

Triona may have been thwarted as a mortal in pursuing her degree in astrophysics, but she had remedied that not long before the war. As technology progressed, it had turned out she had a talent for spaceship design. It was one of the reasons she’d taken on the task of Imladrin defense. They may have been a small federation of aligned systems, but thanks to Triona, they had an efficient and deadly fleet of starships that were some of the most advanced in known space.

Over the last four centuries, Triona had carefully cultivated the best minds and nurtured a space and advanced technology program that would be the envy of many governments – had they realized it existed. Of course, some suspected, but Imladris held her secrets close.

"Of that, I have no doubt, Minister," he conceded.

"But I'm a terrible hostess. Here I am keeping you up till the wee hours of the morning talking."

"On the contrary. If you're willing I'd like to hear more."

"Until you have all my secrets?" She laughed softly. "Very well. But first, I'm hungry. I think we should continue this in the kitchen."

"No objections here. I wouldn't mind another cup of tea either." Picard looked woefully at his long empty cup on the table in front of him. Imladrin Blue tea was an extremely rare and expensive luxury export from the Imladrin system. Since Triona had discovered Jean-Luc's fondness for it, she'd made sure to keep him supplied with his now- favorite vice.

"It's a good thing you now have a pipeline of Imladrin Blue, Jean-Luc. I think you've become quite addicted!" she accused jokingly. "Fine, then off to the kitchen. It should be safe now that Mrs. Baker has gone to bed."

Soon the two were seated at the large kitchen table in front of a merrily crackling hearth. Triona had made tea and laid out everything from cheese and fruit to cookies and cakes.

"You know," Triona said contemplatively, "as much as I love Imladris, and our home there, I still find comfort in the familiarity of Earth and this house. This kitchen brings back so many memories. I remember the first time I saw it. Benjamin and I had been lost in a blizzard and we found this...ruin. Something told me it would be important to us one day, so he arranged to buy it. Little did I know."

"Benjamin, Dr. Adams. How does he fit into all this? He seems to have a claim on your...affections as well," Picard said carefully.

"How politic of you, Jean-Luc," she said, smiling to take the sting out of her words. "He does indeed, " she admitted. "We are married after all." This last was dropped in casually.

"Married?" Picard seemed genuinely surprised at the news.

"As far as I know, the statute of limitations hasn't run out yet," Triona replied wryly. "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, I just assumed you knew."

"No, I had no idea."

"I am sorry," she said again, patting his hand across the table. "To answer your question, yes, Benjamin turned my life upside down. And while he became the cause of much stress between Lucien and myself, at the same time, he's probably the reason I'm still alive." She tapped her finger on the smooth, dark wood of the table, not quite sure how to explain.

"If it makes you uncomfortable...." he offered.

"No. No, it doesn’t, not really. It's just that I still feel a little odd trying to explain to mortals. I was so horrified with myself at the time. Believe it or not, before I got mixed up with vampires, I was a woman of fine, upstanding morals." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "Boy, did I do a one eighty!"

She sipped at her tea while gathering her thoughts, Picard waiting patiently for her to begin. Finally, she said, “I was living at an estate LaCroix kept outside of Toronto. At first, I lived there alone with only the servants. Then, after some upheavals in Lucien’s life, he moved in as well and I became more and more bound to him. Some months later, a man showed up on our doorstep, who claimed to be an old friend of my Master’s.”

“Old friend?”

“Mmm, yes, though I thought he was a mere mortal at the time.” Triona smiled. “It turned out that he had saved LaCroix’s life a century before in San Francisco and that, in repayment for Benjamin’s trouble, LaCroix agreed to a forfeit at some unspecified time in the future." Pausing, she took a deep breath and looked Picard in the eye. "That would have been me.”

Triona choked back a laugh as the Captain made a vain attempt not to choke on the bit of cracker he was swallowing. “It wasn’t quite that bad, Jean-Luc, honestly.” He didn’t look like he believed her.

“You have to understand that Lucien and Benjamin have known each other since LaCroix was mortal. They have a...unique relationship. Frankly, there are times when I could cheerfully throttle the both of them!” she said with some heat. But her smile took the sting out of her threat.

“So, the forfeit, “ Picard reminded her when she seemed to drift off. “And how it wasn’t like it sounded.”

“Oh, yes, the forfeit. Benjamin mostly wanted to annoy Lucien, by calling in this century old debt. And it worked.” Triona shook her head. “Lucien was not happy, but his word meant something and Benjamin knew it. It would have all probably ended there, except that I fell in love with Lucien’s ‘old friend’. Something that still astounds me to this day!”

“And so your life became even more complicated,” he observed adroitly.

“Oh yeah,” she agreed. “Complicated and wonderful and frightening.” Suddenly, Triona’s mood became pensive. Standing, she pushed her chair back from the table. The sound of scraping wood against slate made a tearing sound in the quiet of the kitchen. “And heart breaking,” she said, twisting the wedding band on her left ring finger.

She’d tried hard to keep thoughts of Methos from overwhelming her since he’d left almost a year before. And mostly she’d been successful. It was easy filling time when you had a an entire system to oversee, not to mention a large family that demanded attention. The rest of her time had been spent preparing for the birth of her daughter. Rarely had she let thoughts of Methos intrude into her waking mind.  But now, after a night of telling Jean-Luc about her past, memories of her estranged husband would no longer be held at bay.

Trying to pull herself together, Triona turned away, taking a  steadying breath. “I apologize. It’s just... this has been harder than I thought it would be. All these stories from my past. It brings back so many memories.”  Once more looking at Picard, she found herself admitting, “It’s been a year since I’ve spoken to him.” The pain was evident in her voice.

"I'm sorry, Triona.” And she knew he was. Triona could *feel* his sincerity.

Shaking her head, she sat down once more. “It’s okay. We’ll deal with it, or not. After more than four centuries, you think it would get easier....”

“But it doesn’t,” he finished.

“Not a bit of it.”

Picard shook his head. "I understand now why you told me on the Enterprise that time that your life was complicated." He stood up, walking over to the window and peering out. "As much as I thought I'd prepared myself for what you might tell me, I must admit it's quite overwhelming." He looked over to where she sat, a bemused expression on his face.

"Too overwhelming?" she asked, a touch of concern in her voice, worried that what she'd told this man, who had come to mean so much to her, might be more than he was willing to accept.

"No!" he answered forcefully, realizing that she was afraid on some level. He sat down next to her, taking her hand. "Nothing you could tell me could change my respect for you."

"You might not feel that way if you knew about some of the stupid and selfish things I've done in my life." Triona looked slightly embarrassed. "I'm not sure you see me as real person, Jean-Luc. A fallible human woman despite it all. You see me through the prism of history, for my position, even my age."

Picard began to object, but she forestalled him. "No, it's true. I can see it in your eyes." She shook her head, trying to find the words. "It's important to me that you see *me*. Not the Defense Minister of the Imladrin Planetary Union. Not a founder of the Federation. Not even as an Immortal."

"I'm sorry, Triona. But you need to give me time to absorb all this." He brushed her cheek with one finger, saying softly, "It might be better if I didn't see you as an approachable human woman."

Triona bit her lip, her eyes sad. "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc," she whispered. "I never intended...."

"Shhh...." He interrupted her apology. "It is better this way. I know that and so do you. You don't need another lover in your life." She shook her head, unable to deny his words. "But a friend? Somehow I don't think that you make room for friends in your life any more than I do. There's always some duty or responsibility to take the time we should set aside for friendship."

Triona nodded. "And, outside my family, few I could trust...."

"And the ones you could trust led brief mortal lives and died," he finished for her. "It must make it hard to let yourself feel sometimes."

She didn't answer, just leaned against his shoulder, allowing herself for just a moment to wonder what it would be like if she could be more than just friends with him. Sighing, she pushed the fantasy firmly away. He deserved more than she could offer, that she knew. And that she would remember. "Friends? I think I'd like that. More than you know." Triona tilted her head up to look at him, answering the unspoken question in his eyes. "Yes, it is worth the pain, Jean-Luc."

"I'm glad," he said simply, putting his arm around her shoulders lightly.

Triona looked at him appraisingly. "I think it's time for you to hear a less flattering story from my past. I suppose friends need to know the good and the bad." She swallowed nervously. "This falls under the category of selfish and stupid. Probably one of the stupidest things I've ever done in my life....

She lay curled up on her bed, sniffling and scrubbing her eyes with her fists. Methos had been angrier, and more scared, than she had ever seen him, and she fervently hoped never to see him that way again.

It wasn't at all like LaCroix -- that she was used to dealing with. Anger, displeasure, usually the two of them raging at each other. Heat, anger, lust and passion, all components of the rather volatile relationship she shared with LaCroix. But not with Methos.

Anger, fear -- with punishment as an outlet for that fear -- that was what had happened with Methos. No baser instincts, merely punishment for the sake of punishment; no games, no power struggles.

But such deep thoughts were not uppermost in her mind at this particular moment. Guilt, pain, worry at what LaCroix's reaction would be when he found out, and what Methos' attitude would be towards her when he finally spoke to her again.  Not that she deserved him even being civil to her after what had happened. How could she have been so stupid?

It had seemed like such a good plan at the time. LaCroix was out of town on business, Methos was occupied with some old manuscripts that he and Terese had unearthed just before she had become Immortal and Stephanie was mesmerized by her new game system and probably wouldn't come up for air for days. What could go wrong? This was the opportunity she had been waiting for for months....

It was a little after 3pm and the heavy overcast of the winter afternoon blocked out the sun. If she were careful -- and she would be very careful -- she could go out, by herself. Even if only for a few hours. Triona had chafed at the restrictions that LaCroix and Methos had placed on her movements since the disastrous attempt at bringing her across that had left her Immortal, but with vampire attributes that made her vulnerable.

 Triona had thought that once she had come home after almost two years training with Duncan MacLeod that things would change. But they hadn't. If anything, they’d gotten worse. After taking her first quickening, she manifested a reaction that changed everything – she turned into a full vampire. Worse, a vampire in the state of first hunger, with no control whatsoever. In the months since the other women had left after becoming Immortal, the situation had become almost unbearable.

She covered as much of herself as possible; a wide brimmed hat, gloves, dark glasses. Everything would be fine. All she wanted was a few hours of freedom, and for that, she’d take the risk. ‘What if the sun breaks through? What if you run into another Immortal?’ a niggling voice of doubt questioned. She pushed it back firmly, nothing was going to happen. Nothing.

Triona desperately blocked the downward swing of her opponent's sword. She wasn't overmatched, or at least she hadn't been till the sun had broken through the clouds with a vengeance. The light reflecting off the snow made it even worse. Along with her hat, she had lost her sunglasses in the initial tussle with the Immortal that had challenged her.

Her attempt to stay in the shadows had failed miserably. Instead, she found herself forced into the open sunlight with no escape other than death -- either hers or his -- though it was becoming more and more likely that it would be hers. As the sun finally burned its way through the clouds completely, the pain became almost unbearable; she could barely even see, the light stabbing into her eyes like shards of bright ice. Her exposed flesh burned in the sunlight.

Triona's opponent drove her back into the shadow, but too late to do any good. Another blow drove her to her knees just as she felt the buzz of another Immortal.  As he plunged his sword through her, forcing hers from her grip, the awareness that it was Methos filled her along with the pain, the least of which was physical. Her mental anguish at how foolish she had been and how her death was going to affect those she loved slammed into her, making the pain of her wounds almost insignificant.

Everything was going dark, she wasn't even able to make an attempt to draw the knife that LaCroix had recently given her. She waited for the death blow that never came. Instead she heard voices. What was happening?

"You can't interfere."

"I'm not interfering -- I'm making you my problem. There's a difference."

"She's your student?"

"No. But she *is* mine. And I do so dislike it when someone tries to deprive me of what belongs to me."

"This is against all the rules."

"There are no rules. Only the polite facade of them. If you'd lived longer, you'd have realized."

Then came the sounds of fighting: swords clashing, grunts and snarls, the sound of a blade cutting through air and the unmistakable sound of a head being severed. The westering sun, once more covered by cloud, sank behind the buildings that formed the alley courtyard they were in.

Finally able to see once more, Triona fought off the blackness long enough to see the start of the quickening take Methos. Briefly the realization that she wasn't going to die flickered through her mind, then was gone as blessed unconsciousness took her in its pain-free grasp.

She'd come to in the car, Methos refusing to even speak to her. "Methos..." she began, only to be cut off harshly.

"Shut up! I don't want to hear one word out of you. Do you understand me?" he asked her in a voice heavy with barely contained fury. She just nodded, a tickle of fear at the look in his eyes running up and down her spine.

After a seemingly endless time, they finally reached home. Triona following Methos into the house in wary silence. She had no idea what he would do now, none at all. Had this been LaCroix, there would be no doubt in her mind as to what awaited -- and that was oddly comforting in its predictability. But Methos, that was something else entirely. He was an enigma; mercurial and unpredictable.

Occasionally, there were glimpses of another man, that other self, the part he kept tightly reined in. Hard, sharp, dark as obsidian. But that had been what they were, just glimpses. Not like now. Now, she thought she was seeing the layers fall away, the layers that buried that dark Methos -- and it frightened her as few things had.

Methos took her elbow in an ungentle grip and led her down the hall towards the ballroom, pushing her into the large, empty room.

"You want to play games?" he spat, tossing her sword on the floor in front of her. "Pick it up," he commanded in a voice that demanded obedience.

"But," she began, picking up the sword, pleading, "Methos, please...."

"For the last time, be quiet!" he shouted, eyes flashing angrily. In a softer, but still menacing voice, he continued, "Obviously, MacLeod failed to instill any common sense in you. I intend to rectify that."

She started to protest, but one look at his eyes and she swallowed her words unsaid.

Methos brought his sword around and she made a halfhearted attempt to block it, which only seemed to anger him more. "Is that the best you can do? Have you heard nothing that you've been taught?" he demanded. "By me? Mac? Even LaCroix?" This time when she failed to sufficiently block his blow, he angled his sword so the flat, not the edge, hit her thigh in a stinging blow. "There Can Be Only One. Whether you believe that or not, it's what you will live -- or die -- by."

His sword caught her again, this time across her hip, the blow making her gasp. It was a frequent disagreement between them. Triona and LaCroix thought the mantra of Immortals, that there could be only one, a myth, a fable designed to keep their race in eternal combat for a reason lost in the mists of time. A time even older than Methos.

She knew she had to learn how to protect herself, but steadfastly refused to play the *Game*. Triona had never been sure how much of Methos' annoyance with her stance was from her actual belief -- one she knew he shared in part --  or from the fact that LaCroix supported her, and truth be told, encouraged her.

He continued to rain blows down on her, till she was sure she was a mass of bruises. Even at her best, she was no match for Methos, but the battle in the sun with the now dead Immortal had left her both physically and mentally impaired, unable to do more than make feeble attempts to ward off Methos' carefully calculated blows. Only a master swordsman could have accomplished it without once miscalculating and slicing through flesh.

"If this is the best you can do," his sword smacked across her upper thighs and buttocks, "then perhaps you shouldn't be let out at all," he mocked.

That tore it. She knew she'd been stupid, she knew he had a right to be angry, but damn it, she wouldn't be ridiculed. If he was angry, then just do something about it -- not this tormenting. "Like I was?" she shouted, throwing her sword down. "Did it ever occur to you that you were smothering me?"

"Smothering? Trying to keep your head attached to your shoulders is *smothering*?" Methos shouted back. She would have been afraid at the escalation of his anger if she hadn't been so furious. "This isn't about your being smothered. This is about you acting like a spoiled brat!"

"How dare you!" she exclaimed. "What do you know about any of this? How I feel? Did you ever bother to ASK?"

"So you decide in a childish snit to run out in broad daylight? To throw your life away? If you can't act like an adult, you don't deserve to be asked your opinion on anything!"

Enraged, she slapped him across the face -- regretting it the instant her palm connected with his cheek.

Methos grabbed her wrist, twisting her arm, forcing her to her knees. She shied back at the wild look in his eyes, sure he was going to strike her. Breathing hard, he let go of her like he'd been burned. Suddenly released, she lost her balance falling backward on to the floor. He raked her with one last furious gaze before the shutters dropped over his face, leaving it cold and expressionless.

Triona closed her eyes at the cold blankness, almost wishing the fury were back, not this nothingness. She heard his retreating footsteps, the slam of a door, then silence....

That had been several hours ago. After sitting on the floor in the dark and silence for some unmeasured space of time, she had finally made her way to her room, collapsing on her bed sobbing.

She didn't know what to do or how to make it right. Methos had interfered in a fight with another Immortal, breaking one of the most hallowed rules of the Game. And even though his sense of honor as far as the game went wasn't as set in stone as Duncan's was, he still had his own --  albeit different -- code. And she had put him in the position of violating that code.

Exhausted, Triona finally fell into a fitful sleep.

In the end, she slept the night and half the day through, her dreams troubled. After getting up, she had taken care of some pressing business matters and then pushed papers around her desk, trying to avoid the inevitable.

Finally, she could avoid it no longer. She had to speak to Methos.

She paused by the library door knowing he was within, even before she felt his buzz, as she slowly entered the room.  He was sitting in a chair in front of one of the large picture windows that fronted the room -- in the sun. He didn't even look up from the manuscript he was reading as she drew nearer.

Triona stood as close as she dared, keeping a wary eye on the wash of light that flowed over the carpet in front of her. Now that she was here, she had no idea of what to say. And the fact that he didn't move out of the sun, as he usually did, didn't bode well at all.

"I know you're angry and I'm sorry, but I don't know what else to do or say." She squinted into the bright light, trying to make out any expression on his face. "Please, could you move out of the light? It's so difficult..." she trailed off tiredly.

"You didn't have any problem with the sun yesterday. Did you?" he asked acidly, still not looking at her.

Triona recoiled at the verbal blow. "No." Trembling, she reached out her hand, steeling herself. "No, you're right." Gritting her teeth, she grabbed his arm, the pain making her gasp. "You want me to suffer before you forgive me," she dropped to her knees, "then I will." Her hand was in a death grip around Methos' arm. She couldn't have let go, the pain of her burning flesh locked her fingers in their hold.

"Are you insane?" Methos shouted, leaping out of the chair and propelling her backwards out of the sun.

She huddled on the floor, her hand still on his arm. "No," she said desperately, "I just want you to stop hating me."

He knelt next to her. "Good gods, woman," he gently pried her burnt hand from its death grip on his arm, "I don't hate you. Yes, I'm furious with you, but I don't hate you. I could never hate you."

"Then what?" Triona drew herself into a sitting position. "What do I have to do for you to forgive me?"

"Well, self-immolation is not required for a start. And if you *ever* do anything like that again...." The threat hung unspoken, his eyes as hard and cold as jade.

Triona swallowed, nodding. "I... I'm sorry." Shaking her head, she fell silent.

Methos brushed his lips across her forehead. "You're forgiven. But," he placed a finger over her lips, "there are consequences."

He stood up, holding out his hand to her. She bit her lip nervously as he drew her to her feet. "Consequences?"

"Sit down," he directed, pointing to the sofa by the door. He leaned against a reading desk, hands in pockets. "You know, there are times when I think that the way Lucien deals with the lot of you has merit."

She started a little at that, but held her tongue.

"But that isn't really my style," Methos continued, "and I'm sure he will deal with you in his own inimitable fashion when he's informed of your...adventure."

"Informed? You're going to tell him? Please don't, Methos! I swear I'll never do it again," she promised, pleading. "I'll accept any punishment you choose, just please don't tell LaCroix what I did."

"I'm not." Her shoulders sagged in a relief that was short-lived. "You are." He looked at her sternly. "And you will tell him."

"That isn't fair," she said truculently.

"Don't even go there, young lady," he warned. "You're getting off lightly and you know it. And as for the rest of it -- I've been lax in making sure you're keeping your fighting skills up to snuff. That is going to change. Until I'm satisfied with your skill level, I want you in the ballroom, every morning at six a.m. sharp. This is not optional."

Triona glared at him. She *hated* early mornings and he knew it, the bastard. She'd hated them as a mortal and she hated them even more now. "And what if I don't want to?" she shot back, getting angrier by the minute.

"What you want isn't relevant. You'll do as you're told!" He glared back at her, determined to make her comply.

"You can't make me!" Triona jumped off the couch, knowing she was being childish, but not giving a damn. She was sick and tired of being told what to do and she didn't care if it was for her own good.

Methos snaked out a hand, pulling her sharply towards him, one hand tangling in her hair, pulling her head up to look at him.  "Ohhhh... I think you know that isn't true," he told her in a low, hard voice. "I may not employ the same methods as LaCroix. But mine are no less effective when I put my mind to it. I don't think you really want to put it to the test. Do you?"

She didn't answer, but her eyes shot daggers. He let her go, stepping away. "Six a.m.," he told her once more, before leaving, closing the door firmly behind him.

Triona set down her wineglass, looking at LaCroix surreptitiously from under her lashes. He had returned home early in the evening, four days after her *incident*.  They had eaten dinner in his suite, catching up on the last week.

The last few mornings had been hell. In the end she had decided not to test Methos' resolve and had shown up as ordered. Well, almost. She had shown up at six thirty instead. Methos didn't remark on her minor rebellion, merely handing her a sword and beginning their bout.

At least their sessions hadn't been like the afternoon he'd beaten her into the ground with his sword. He was actually making an attempt to teach her something of use, not just teach her a lesson. But he was cutting her no slack. Any hesitation Methos had in teaching her when she had first become Immortal had disappeared.

Now, she had to tell LaCroix what had happened while he had been away -- and she dreaded it. Methos' reactions might still be an enigma, but she could bet sure money on how LaCroix would react.

A yawn escaped; it was late and it had been a *very* long day. And it's about to get even longer, she sighed to herself.

LaCroix leaned across the table, kissing her softly. "You should have told me you were so tired, my dear." He stroked her long wavy hair with one hand.  "I would have made sure you were in bed long ago." He kissed her again, this time not so softly.

Triona let herself forget for just a few moments the unpleasantness to come, drowning in his kiss. She missed him so much when they were apart. Missed the comfort of his mental touch nearby, missed the stability of his presence. The almost two years she had been away, training with Duncan, had been almost unbearable and she was still trying to make up for it.

Still kissing her, LaCroix stood, lifting her with him, moving back towards the bedroom. Regretfully, she broke the kiss, drawing away. "I have to talk to you -- tonight."

If he was surprised, he didn't comment. "Very well," he said, sitting back down.

Hanging her head, Triona began to speak, "I did something stupid while you were gone. If it hadn't been for Methos, I'd be dead." Not to mention Baker, LaCroix’s butler, immediately telling Methos where he’d dropped her off after returning to the estate.

LaCroix sat very straight in his chair at that, but didn't interrupt.

In unstinting detail, she told him about her misadventure, offering no excuses, only facts. Finally she was finished and she waited for the explosion, stomach churning.

"You have told me what you did, but not why," he commented quietly.

Triona looked at him with startled eyes. He wanted to know why? He never wanted excuses. The question was so unexpected, she didn't know what to say.

"I would like to know, child."

She looked up, meeting his eyes, surprised not to see the displeasure, the disappointment, she had expected. Dropping her eyes, she began quietly, "I couldn't take it any more. You, Methos.... Since the others left it's become almost unbearable." Now she had started, it all came pouring out. "I thought it would be different, that I'd be free, finally. But I'm more a prisoner than I ever was. And I see all the time I have ahead of me being like this.... It wasn't supposed to be this way," she whispered brokenly.

The next thing she knew, she was enfolded in LaCroix's strong embrace. "No, it wasn't," he sighed. "And I should have realized how unhappy you have been. I failed you."

"You didn't fail me, Lucien. I didn't want you to know, didn't want to add to your regret over my condition.  And Methos has been so angry, I don't think he has ever really been able to accept what happened. I don't know if he ever will." Triona buried her head against the silk of his shirt, just wanting him to hold her. She had only ever told her sisters how she really felt, and that only just after they became Immortal. It had been her secret sorrow for almost three years.

"And his long-simmering anger has found outlet in this incident," LaCroix stated.

She nodded. "It doesn't excuse what I did. He was right; it was selfish of me. I never considered how you would feel if something had happened to me. But he was so...enraged. Methos has never frightened me before," she said softly. "I thought...I thought he might use this as an excuse to leave for good."

This time, as LaCroix stroked her hair, it was to comfort. "And do you think that's what he wants? To have an excuse to leave our family... to leave you?"

Triona shook her head against his chest. "I...I don't know. I've seen the way he looks at me sometimes. When he thinks I'm not aware. It's like he doesn't know who I am. Maybe he doesn't want to know." She laughed bitterly. "This isn't what he expected when he decided to stay with us; with me. It's not like we're married. There is no 'for better or worse', nothing tying him here. He can just walk away -- something he's very good at." The level of hostility in her voice surprised both of them.

"You're angry with him, for not accepting you, aren't you?" Triona didn't answer, getting to her feet, not looking at him. "And you resent him for that." It wasn't a question, not really. It was more of a revelation -- to both of them.

Triona, her back still to him, hunched over, nodding. Suddenly she whirled, a pained look flashing across her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered, dropping to her knees at his feet. "Methos is right, I am a spoiled brat." At the vampire's look of confusion, she continued, "I have you. You've always accepted me for who I am, all of me, the good and the bad. You love me. And how do I repay that? By weeping over another man. Over what I can't have from him that you've given me unstintingly." Taking his hands, she looked up at him beseechingly. "Can you forgive me?"

"There is nothing to forgive. There never was." LaCroix leaned down, brushing away the tears on her face with his lips. "You love him. And he loves you, despite his reservations about your new nature." At the look of doubt in her eyes, he sharpened his voice, asking, "Have I ever lied to you?"

Triona knew an answer was required. Shaking her head, she said, "No."

Nodding in satisfaction, he stood, drawing her up with him. "I'll speak to Methos, if you like?" She nodded. "As for your enforced *lessons*, those will stand." He smiled a little at the look of rebelliousness that flashed in her eyes. "I think it is a fitting punishment and will do quite well till I decide what action to take myself."

He cut off her protest with a stern "Triona." She fell silent, but still glared at him, her arms crossed tight across her chest.  "Unless you'd prefer me to decide now?" he asked, a warning note in his voice.

"No," she said, shaking her head in defeat.

"I thought not," he said smugly. "In that case..." He drew her closer, his hands running down her back to press her against him. "You can always show me just how much you do love me," he said, his voice now as gentle as it had been stern a few moments before.

Triona smiled up at him. This time she had no objections as his lips met hers....

"I was a fool," Triona declared to no one in particular.

"I beg your pardon?" Picard asked, not sure what she meant.

She laughed, shrugging her shoulders. "Hindsight is always twenty-twenty after all." Realizing the Captain still didn't know what she was talking about, she backtracked, explaining, "Benjamin and me. Our relationship. Even after what happened we never really talked about what was at the core of our problem. We both just danced around it till it blew up in our faces." A sad look flitted across her pale face, remembering what that avoidance had cost.

"It still makes you sad," Picard said.

"I suppose it does. It changed both of us, our relationship, so much that it was really like we were two different people when we finally reconciled." She toyed with her cup, staring into it like she might see something revealed within. Coming back to the world around her, she looked at the man sitting across from her. "Do you really want me to go on with this, Jean-Luc? Surely you must be tiring of my overly long and melodramatic life experiences.”

"I'm not going anywhere. At least, not till Admiral Dean's party tonight. You have my undivided attention, my Lady," he said with a gallant tilt of his head.

Triona had to laugh. "Don't say I didn't give you an out!" Pouring them both more tea, while Picard went to check on the fire, she thought for a moment before continuing. "We didn't talk about Benjamin's problems with my being a vampire -- even if it was a part time one." She smiled wryly. "So it all just festered, waiting for a spark to set it off. The spark was a fledging of LaCroix's: Dominique. She wanted to be brought across, but wasn't happy with the familial obligations that came with that gift. As you might imagine, Lucien is a traditionalist. He expects a great deal from his children. Not that he's wrong," she hastened to add. "A young vampire, without the firm control of its Master, can be a danger to themselves and to the Community. It's ironic really. When it was all over, Benjamin had left me, and had left with Dominique -- a full vampire."

Picard stirred the fire with a plain iron poker before tossing some more fuel on the embers. "What happened?"

"Benjamin had an old enemy. He told me not to interfere -- I did. Somehow Dominique became the catalyst." Triona sighed, twisting at an old fashioned, white gold band on her left ring finger. "I'm still not quite sure how it all got away from me, even now, after all this time. He saw my actions as a betrayal. That I chose LaCroix -- chose being a vampire -- over him." She propped her head in her hands, chewing her lower lip. With no makeup, her long hair in a messy ponytail and her legs curled underneath her, she looked like little more than a teenager. Only her eyes gave any hint of the years. "Maybe he was right."

Coming back to the table, Picard said, "I couldn't help but notice the tension between the two of you the last time I was on Imladris." He paused, as if trying to carefully choose his next words. "He doesn't approve of the baby, does he?"

Triona winced a little at hearing the words out loud. "No," she said so quietly that the sound was lost in the crackle of the fire. "This time he forced me to choose -- and I didn't choose him. That's why we separated last year. Though that sounds very formal for something that was so full of rage and hurt."

Picard could feel her sadness through the dimness. "This place is amazing," he said, changing the subject. "I can imagine you riding out the war here. Remote, defendable, away from the radiation and pathogens that inundated more populated areas."

Triona was grateful for the change in direction. Even World War Three was a preferable topic of conversation to her present and past problems with Methos. "It wasn't easy. Even with all the planning and preparation. It was a truly horrible time. One I could do with never having to relive."

"You don't sound as if you believe you won't."

"I don't. Civilizations rise and fall. One day, so will the Federation. Entropy, Jean-Luc, entropy."

"You'll forgive me if I don't share your pessimistic view, Triona. I think that what we've built will last for millennia."

"It will, but as a foundation for a new Empire, a new civilization. The ruins of the Federation will be the basis of things we can't even imagine." She patted Picard's hand. "History is on my side, you know it is." Standing up and stretching, she carried their cups to the sink. "But that's a debate for another time."

Picard following, leaned against the counter. "I'll hold you to that debate, Minister."

"I look forward to it. I'll even go you one better -- you can debate the fall of civilization with Lucien. He has some personal experience with it," she said, grinning impishly. "So, how do you feel about a pre-dawn walk? I'll share my thinking place with you."

"It would be my pleasure."

"I love this place," Triona said as she sat on a flat boulder next to a spring burbling into a brook that ran through the forest glade.

"It's very peaceful," Picard said, looking around the moonlit clearing. The silver light of Earth's satellite made the water of the spring sparkle like a fairy spell.

She nodded in agreement as he sat down next to her. "This place seems timeless to me. It never changes." Triona drew her legs up, wrapping her arms around her knees. "I used to come here to escape the war. Or my family -- which was like a war sometimes," she said, laughing.

"What was it like? The war, I mean." Jean-Luc snapped a long pine needle between his fingers. "I've read about it, even seen old pictures. But it's difficult to imagine the Earth I grew up on in total ruin."

Laying her cheek against her knee, she considered his question. How to explain everything she'd ever known being destroyed. That only the forethought of LaCroix and Methos had saved all of them from death or worse. "It was like every level of Dante's hell compressed into a horror that those of us who survived could not really comprehend. You did things.... I did things that I never thought myself capable of to save those I loved...."

Methos' palm struck her across the cheek. "Triona, listen to me! You have to focus!" His voice was full of fear. "You have to shut Lucius out!" Taking her shoulders in a fierce grip he shook her, trying to break through.

Shuddering, she gasped for air, trying to pull herself from her Master's mental hold. "He's dying, Methos," her voice cracked, "I can't leave him alone."

"He's not going to die. We won't let him," he said, trying to sound as if he really believed it. Collapsing against Methos, Triona shook uncontrollably from exposure and mental exhaustion. It was bitter cold in the autumn night, but they didn't dare risk a fire. "Please, love. I won't let you die too," he whispered.

He held her there in the bombed out basement of what had been a school, hidden from view by fallen timbers from the roof, and piles of masonry from the building's destroyed walls. LaCroix lay next to them, half his body burned terribly from a bomb blast. As awful as it looked, it wasn't what concerned the two Immortals. The force of the blast had driven shards of wood into his body. Including a large, vicious fragment through the ancient vampire's heart. Unfortunately, LaCroix's injuries had not left him unconscious. Instead, the trauma of his injuries had left him helpless and in incredible agony. And, in his delirium, he had lost all ability to control his link with Triona. Their bond had become a conduit for all the pain and fear that he felt, dragging her into his mind. Minute by minute, she was slipping farther away from the reality around her.

Triona, Methos, and LaCroix had come to what had been Billings, Montana to meet with an enclave of vampires that were rumored to be led by an old comrade of LaCroix's. They had hoped to arrange a route of safe passage for the Keep's foraging parties. The meeting itself had gone well. But trouble had hit when they were a half night out of the city.

The three had been eluding a party of human scavengers on the outskirts of some nameless town. They had killed several of them, but a few persistent ones continued to follow. Just as they thought they'd shaken their pursuers, the sounds of a baby crying broke into the cold of the night. At Triona's insistence, the two men followed her towards the sound. There, seemingly abandoned in the ruins of a house, was a child. It may have been as old as two, but in the near dark it was almost impossible to tell. It cried in sheer terror as they debated what to do.

 In the end, Triona had refused to abandon the child to an almost certain death. She had been almost to where the baby lay when Methos shouted a warning. Then an explosion ripped through the frigid Montana night, knocking Methos off his feet. LaCroix had moved as soon as he heard the Immortal's warning, hurling Triona over a ruined brick wall and shelter. The vampire had taken the brunt of the blast.

"It's my fault." She looked up at Methos, her eyes more lucid than they had been a few minutes before. "I walked right into the trap. I should've listened to you." She covered her face with her hands, as if trying to block out the horror of what had happened. "I just couldn't believe anyone would use a baby to bait a trap."

"How could you conceive of such a thing? Blaming yourself isn't going to help Lucien," he said firmly.

"Why did he do it?" she whispered. "I would have survived."

"Instinct. He can't help himself from protecting you."

"And now I need to protect him. We need to get the wood from his body -- especially from his heart. Then he needs blood." Triona looked at Methos intently. "He won't have any control. He'll drain me and we can't stop him."

"No, absolutely not!" Methos protested. "You'll be totally defenseless. What happens if we're attacked while you're unconscious?"

"And if he dies -- which he will without my blood -- then I'll be just as defenseless. You know it's true, Methos. It's all I can do now to ward off his madness. I don't know how long I can do this." She let him see just how scared she was; and how determined as well.  "I need your strength, Methos. Please," she said, pleading.

He pulled her to him, crushing her against his chest and kissing her fiercely. With reluctance he let go of her, touching her face with his fingertips. "Let's do this," he said in a heavy voice.

Nodding, Triona knelt at LaCroix's side, pulling out a small emergency solar light from her pocket. "Hold this over the wound," she instructed, preparing to remove the wood from the vampire's heart.

"No," Methos said. "I'll do it." At her questioning look, he elaborated, "It's going to hurt him -- and you. It'll be better if I do it." He put the light on a broken pile of cinderblock adjacent to where he knelt next to LaCroix. "Ready?" She nodded, taking LaCroix's hand in hers.

An hour that seemed like a century later, Methos pulled out the last splinter he could find. Triona lay huddled in a ball next to her Master, crying softly. "It's over," Methos said, lifting her into his arms.

In the beginning, she'd been able to hold it together. But as the hour wore on, the vampire's agony battered down the tenuous shield she'd managed to erect. By the end she wasn't even able to sit up, collapsing on the cold floor.

"Blood... need blood. So hungry.... Please...." Triona opened her eyes, herself again for a moment. "You promised me, Methos," she said, sensing his reluctance to carry through with her plan.

Nodding, he sat her gently down. Then he propped LaCroix into a sitting position. The ancient vampire groaned in pain, murmuring something unintelligible in Latin. Triona, finding the strength from somewhere, lay against LaCroix's chest, exposing her throat.

"Methos, you need to nick the vein. He needs to smell the blood."

Sighing, the Immortal drew a knife from a sheath at his belt. With one swift motion he opened the vein at her throat. Gasping, she pressed her bloodied neck against LaCroix's lips, willing him to drink. She felt each beat of her heart driving her blood from the wound, and she prayed he would respond before the wound healed. Heart soaring, she felt him swallow. ‘Please, Lucien, please,’ she whispered to herself. It was enough. Some desperate instinct seemed to take him as one hand clamped behind her neck and his fangs sank into the bloodied flesh of her throat. Triona bit down a scream at the pain. This was feeding with no niceties, with none of the usual seduction that LaCroix used to such great effect. This was only about survival.

Soon the blackness crept around her senses as more and more of her life's blood was drained away. As she fell into that blackness, she reached out a small hand to Methos. The last memory before blessed unconsciousness was the touch of her hand in his.

Triona stirred, still feeling Methos' hand holding hers. Waking further, she called out to him softly.

"You're awake," he said as he kissed her softly on the lips.

She peered up at his face in the dark, once more thankful that one of the vampire traits she had all the time was enhanced night vision. "How long?"

"About twelve hours," he told her, helping her sit up. "Here, drink this," he said, pressing a canteen into her hands.

Horribly thirsty, she nonetheless sipped carefully at the water. Who knew when they find more? And Immortal or not, weakening themselves unnecessarily in this hostile environment was foolhardy. Triona gratefully accepted the ration bar that he handed her next, wolfing it down hungrily before taking another sip of water.

"How is he?" she asked, dreading the answer.

"The wounds have healed a little. But not enough," he admitted.

"He needs more blood. More than I can give him."

"I know. The time between you giving him blood and recovering enough to give him more is too much." Methos looked worriedly at LaCroix. "We need help. Either I go back to Billings, or go on home. Or we wait it out here and hope Stephanie or Janette can home in on the two of you." Methos' tone made it obvious that he didn't hold out much hope for that plan.

Triona began to reply, but fell silent, looking into the dark. She placed her hand over his mouth, warning him to silence. Then he heard it too and nodded his understanding. As quiet as a cat on the hunt, Triona slipped away from their hiding place and moved around behind where she heard the unmistakable sound of intruders. Soon, she was behind them, cutting off any escape they might attempt. Their whispers drifted into the dank confines of the destroyed basement.

"They had to come here, we've searched everywhere else," a gravelly male voice said.

"At least one has to be dead. You saw all the blood where we set the bomb off," another male voice replied. His voice was high and thin, like an out of tune piccolo.

"They all should’ve been easy pickings, Zoo, after that blast. How’d they make it to safety?" He sounded nervous. "Maybe we'd better just leave this one."

"To hell with that," his companion said in an explosive whisper. "We didn't go to all this to let prime bounty go to waste. Just do what I tell you, Cromby; don't think."

Triona felt rage crawl up her throat as she listened and followed the two scavvies farther into the basement.  Looking closer, she realized that they wore night-vision lenses. Reaching into her pocket she took out the solar light once more. Switching it to full brightness, she tossed it over the two, distracting them as the sudden brightness hit their eyes. Bringing the hilt of her sword down on the head of the one nearest her, she saw Methos rush the other as he made a vain attempt to escape the sudden unexpected assault.

Enraged, Triona kicked the groaning man at her feet. "You should have listened to Cromby, you murdering bastard," she snarled as she kicked him again. This time she heard the sound of a rib breaking and Zoo cried out in agony.

Having rendered his own scavenger unconscious, Methos looked over in shock at Triona. "What are you doing?" he demanded.

She looked up, startled, as if she had forgotten Methos was there. The look of pure hate in her eyes made her lover step back. "They did this to us, Methos," she spat out. "I heard them. They set the bomb, killed the baby...." her voice broke.

"You're sure?"

"Yes!" she hissed. This time Methos stopped her before she could kick her prone prisoner again.

At her look of outrage, he said, "Don't do this, love. Don't. You can't fall to their level. It will poison you, it will taint your soul."

"Don't you dare judge me, Methos," she snarled as she pulled from his hold.

Methos just looked at her calmly, refusing to let her draw him in. "I'm not. But I am warning you. I can't make choices for your conscience -- only you can do that. I know this path; I know it intimately. Please don't take it."

Pressing her fist against her lips, she stared at him. When Zoo groaned again, she whirled away, going to sit next to LaCroix. Methos sighed, wisely not saying anything. Instead, he busied himself securing their captives.

Triona took her Master's cold hand in her warm one, a tear marking her face as it slipped down the grime that coated her skin. "He needs blood, Methos. And he needs it now," she declared suddenly into the silence. Still, the Immortal remained silent. "I can think of no better source than those that did this to him!"

"Triona," Methos began.

"No! It's his life or theirs. It shouldn't even be a decision you have trouble making!" she accused him furiously. "Do you think I wouldn't make the same choice for you? Wouldn't you for me?"

He looked down, shoving his hands deep in his pockets. "You know I would."

"Then why the hesitation?" she demanded. "It's a merciful death. God knows it's more merciful than what they would have done to us -- what they did to Lucien."

Methos finally looked at her. "I know you're right. It doesn't mean I have to like it -- or that I like to see you reveling in blood lust. Because that's what it is. I'd like to blame it on Lucius, but I can't, can I?" The look in his eyes told her that he wanted her to deny it. To let him believe the fiction that she wasn't a vampire at heart.

It was an age-old bone of contention between them. One that kept cropping up long after they thought they had laid it to rest. Oh, he loved her without reserve, but love wasn't always enough. In reality, it was that love that enabled him to see beyond her vampiric nature. Without that bond to sustain them, they'd never have come through so much to still be together some sixty years later. But it was times like these that he would look into her eyes and see nothing human. Triona's eyes may as well have been burning gold for all the humanity that was left to them. In these moments she was totally and thoroughly LaCroix's creature.

Triona visibly tried to rein in the feyness she felt rushing through every fiber of her being. "I'm sorry. Sorrier than you'll ever know. No, you can't blame it on Lucien. But I'm so tired. So scared that he's going to die and leave me alone. Scared that you'll think you mean less to me because of that fear." Her shoulders sagged and she shivered. "I can't do this alone, my love. His pain, his anger, his hunger, all of them batter at my soul. I'm losing myself, Methos."

This time when she looked at him, her eyes were human, vulnerable, and fading. Methos nodded, pulling Zoo to his feet. "Never alone, love. Never alone....."

This time when Triona awoke, it was LaCroix who cradled her in his arms. The blood of their would-be murderers and her blood once more had been enough to affect a cure for the ancient vampire.

"Lucien," she said softly, as if it might be a dream that she could scare away. "You're better." She squeezed his hand as tight as she could, pulling herself around to look him in the eyes. "I thought..." her voice trembled with unshed tears and days of stress. "I thought you were going to die."

LaCroix smiled, brushing her lips with his thumb. "You should know better than that by now, mon amour."

Triona smiled back. "Yeah, I guess I should."  She looked over to where Methos was sprawled against a large chunk of broken cement, looking nothing more like he was sitting comfortably in his own chair at home. Somehow, he always managed to blend in wherever he was. "If it's any defense, Methos had his doubts too."

Quirking a brow, LaCroix also looked over at his oldest friend. "Indeed? So sorry to disappoint you, Methos."

"Oh, I'm sure there'll be another time," Methos replied jauntily as he got himself to his feet. He looked at the vampire with a wicked smile on his face. "You do realize that I saved your life yet again, Lucius. It's becoming a habit. What forfeit do you think you owe me this time?"

Triona took Methos' hand, drawing him down to where she and LaCroix sat. "You had to save his life because he saved mine! If you think you're going to get *another* woman out of this..." she let the mock threat hang.

Looking at her deliberately, Methos placed one warm hand on her upper thigh. "Then I guess it's *you* that owes me a forfeit then, isn't it?" he asked, his voice a husky rasp.

"Oh, I suppose," she replied, attempting a tone of bored nonchalance, while at the same time swaying closer to the distracting heat of her husband.

"She doesn't seem very interested in paying her debt, does she?" LaCroix commented to Methos.

"Not at all," he replied in mock disapproval. Placing a hand on either side of her head, he pulled her sharply towards him. "I'll have to collect regardless."

As Methos kissed her, she could feel LaCroix with her, their bond strengthened by the last few days. Triona reveled in the feeling. Methos' flesh against her, his warm lips rediscovering her. And as intimate as any kiss, Lucien in her thoughts, at one with the feelings of love and desire that swept through her. Here in the middle of hell was everything that she was, everything she had ever loved. A small measure of peace in war. A moment of contentment when all worries and doubts were cast out, leaving only love and belonging. No matter what had happened in their past, or what would happen in their future, they would always be bound together....

Triona felt a gentle touch against her cheek. In surprise, she realized that Jean-Luc was wiping away the tears that streaked her face. "It was a terrible time," she said in a voice so soft that it was barely a whisper. Pressing his hand against her face, she closed her eyes. "You have no idea the feeling of pure joy I felt when I realized you were from our future. I'd almost despaired of our people ever leaving Earth, for all my faith. We were so close before the war came."

"How hard has it been?" he asked. "All these years, waiting for this moment."

"You have no idea! I never knew when it would come, just someday. There were times, when you were in some terrible danger, that I'd make myself insane with the conundrum of temporal anomalies."

Triona got to her feet, seeing that the eastern sky was beginning the gradual paling that signaled the approaching dawn. Picard followed suit as they began back down the path that would take them to the Keep. "I've been worrying about you for so many years, Jean-Luc -- you haven't made it easy," she said wryly.

Picard stopped dead, looking down at her, suddenly remembering. "You were there, in the Starfleet HQ sickbay! After the Borg..." he trailed off in remembered pain.

She squeezed his hand. "Yes, I was there. I couldn't let you remember. But I wanted to try and ease your torment. I sat with you all through the night, wondering when I would ever have the opportunity to actually *know* you. I knew though, that I could never adequately explain my concern for you, so I blurred the memories of the visit."

"And shortly after we did finally meet."

"My hero," she said, smiling. "I should have known our first true meeting would be memorable. There was the Enterprise, swooping down to rescue our hapless party from our enemies."

"You've always been memorable, Triona," he said gallantly, smiling at the memory. Then the smile disappeared, his eyes pained and hard. "And then you were there, after I'd been captured by the Cardassians. Once more soothing my demons. I never had the chance to tell you how your presence after the debriefing sessions helped me to heal."

"After our experience with the alien probe, I felt such a strong connection to you. When I received the report that you'd been taken, I was frantic with worry." Triona shook her head, sighing deeply. "I harangued Fleet intelligence incessantly, demanding they get you out of there. I think I called in every favor I was ever owed. I was ready to send my own people in after you if need be and treaties be damned!" Her tone was flinty as she recalled the worry and fear.

"I never knew," Picard said, obviously totally surprised by her revelation.

"I didn't want you to," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "I still had so many mixed feelings from the effects of the probe. Added to the knowledge I held of our eventual meeting in my past and your future.... I just wanted to be there for you in some fashion -- even if you never knew of it." She leaned her back against a towering pine wrapping her arms behind her around the trunk. "It was all very confusing," she finally said, tilting her head and peering up at him.

Picard laughed, the sound lightening the pre-dawn of the woods surrounding them as much as the coming sun. "And it isn't confusing now?" Hastily he added, seeing her eyes flash in annoyance, "I wasn't laughing at you. It’s just that I feel like a blindfold has been ripped from my eyes, allowing me to see what's been right in front of me all these years."

Mollified, she pushed away from the tree, looking back at the ever-lightening sky. "That's better," she said, laughing. "But, I'll be a crispy critter if we don't get indoors before the sun rises!" Setting off at a quick walk, Triona started once more for the Keep.

Picard looking startled at her turn of phrase, nevertheless quickened his pace, following her down towards home.

Picard wandered around the library, reverently touching books that he had thought would only exist in museums. But here they were; free to be touched and read. Not locked in some case or under some energy shield.

After returning just before the sun broke into the morning sky, they'd decided that some sleep would be in order. Triona had shown him to his suite and wished him a 'good morning' with a huge grin. He'd slept like the dead, feeling a sense of peace that had been missing for far too long. He didn't know if it was this place, seemingly held in a space in time that was both old and peaceful and new and filled with the laughter of family. But whatever it was, he felt at home here.

On waking in the early afternoon, he'd found a lunch tray set on the table of the sitting room of his suite. On closer inspection, he found the tray to be heaped with all his favorites -- including a steaming pot of Imladrin Blue tea. Finding himself famished, he'd made quick work of the mound of food. The comm unit had beeped just as he was finishing, with a message from Triona that she had some matters to attend to and for him to make himself at home.

The captain had taken her at her word and had spent nearly an hour wandering the massive home before he stumbled upon the library. It was an imposing room, with picture windows along the long front set to catch the sunset. The bookcases were pieces of art unto themselves: fret work and carvings, all circles and curves with no beginning and no end. All of it crafted with the rich patina of old dark wood. Large granite fireplaces bracketed either end of the room, bookends to the windows that encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley below and the distant mountains that marched along the horizon.

He spied a glass-enclosed case next to one of the several sitting areas in the room. He moved towards it for a closer look. Peering through the glass, he realized that it was a complete set of the works of Tolkien. Opening the door of the cabinet, he removed one of the volumes, gently opening the cover. Sinking into an overstuffed chair next to the cabinet he read the faded ink of the inscription. He realized it wasn't a first edition, or even a rare copy -- but it was special, and very old. 'To my dearest daughter, Triona, from your loving mother, Nora. May all your fantasies come true.'

Picard's throat tightened with unexpected emotion. Holding the book in his hands, he felt he had a special insight into the woman that had somehow become so much a part of his life. "All these years," he said quietly to himself.

"Indeed," a voice said into the stillness of the room. It was all Picard could do not to jump out of his chair at the sudden sound.

Gathering himself, Picard stood politely. "Governor," he greeted the unexpected presence of Lucien LaCroix, standing in front of him.

"Captain," the ancient vampire acknowledged with an almost imperceptible tip of his head. He nodded towards the book that Picard still held in his hands. "It's one of the few things she's kept from her life before." He paused briefly, a small smile brushing his lips. "Other than Stephanie, of course."

Picard was slightly nonplussed at LaCroix's demeanor. Was the stern and foreboding Roman general actually making an attempt at humor?

Unfortunately, the governor of Imladris seemed to have the same uncanny knack of reading minds that Triona did. "Despite what my child may have told you, Captain, I do have some slight sense of humor." Again, there was the almost not there smile.

"Of course, " he hastened to reply. "Please forgive me, Governor, it was a late night and I didn't realize you were in residence." Despite himself, Jean-Luc found himself insanely curious and not a little daunted by the Imladrin governor. They'd only met in reality a handful of times under various official circumstances. But Picard possessed knowledge of LaCroix that few mortals -- or immortals for that matter -- had due to their shared experience in the General's Roman past. Triona was right, he thought wryly to himself, it was confusing.

"I wasn't," LaCroix commented as he sat down in the chair across from Picard's, motioning the other man to sit. "I arrived this morning. I was actually due next week. But, I wanted to assure I didn't miss the birth of Lucia." Once more, LaCroix seemed to pick up on the Captain's unease. "Indeed, it is a tangled web, Captain. But you have made Triona happy. And for that, I am grateful. I can not pretend that I don't wish she had never been wrenched into my past. Or that the experience hadn't caused a yearning for something she could never have. Nevertheless, it did happen and you and I must make the best of it." He fell silent, his face wearing a pensive expression.

"I swore an oath to her, General," the title seemed to slip from out of nowhere, but it seemed to fit. "Lucia is my daughter, Triona is dear to me. I will never betray either of them, or by extension, any that she loves."

LaCroix nodded, but remained silent. "Didn't you ever wonder why our entire system had names from those books?" he asked, suddenly changing the subject.

Picard accepted the change, knowing that LaCroix has accepted him and his oath. "The question had crossed my mind," he admitted, his long fingers gently sweeping the worn cover.

"After Cochrane and his warp drive, Triona became even more obsessed with leaving Earth -- of creating a sanctuary for our people. Once she had a ship, she was single minded about finding a planet," the vampire explained, his voice sounding long suffering -- but tinged with fondness.

"And she found one."

"Ah, yes. She did indeed."

"I did, and I was right," a female voice interjected from the door. Triona moved farther into the room, standing behind LaCroix's chair, waving Jean-Luc back into his seat as he began to rise at her entrance. She shot Picard a warm smile as she leaned over LaCroix's shoulder. "And you know it," she said smugly, kissing the vampire on the cheek as he turned to her.

"I believe I was telling this story," he reminded her pointedly.

Triona, grinning unrepentantly, ran a finger across her lips. “My lips are sealed."

"That will be the day," her Master replied, arching one expressive brow. Before Triona could interrupt again, he began his tale once more; not at all convinced that Triona would let him have the last word.....

"I told you it was beautiful, didn't I?"

LaCroix watched his child spin excitedly around under the light of the red giant sun above, her gold hair glinting with the ruddy fire of its reflected light. Even though he knew they were perfectly safe under the full power of this sun, so unlike their own G2 type star, he was still finding that the reactions of over two thousand years were hard to overcome.

"It does have a," LaCroix paused, searching for the right word, "unique beauty." He knew his grudging praise and less than enthusiastic tone was not what she wanted.

Exasperated, Triona placed her hands on her hips and glared at her Master. "Why do you have to be like this? Can't you even allow me the satisfaction that I made the right decision in choosing this place -- our new home?"

 It had been a long month's trip, the two of them alone in the newest and fastest prototype that the Mars Planetia shipyards had been able to develop. By the time they returned, the tests on a new, larger, ship should be complete. That would be the ship that took them from Earth to this new place, a planet she had named Imladris. In that month, she had been unable to wear down LaCroix's continued resistance to the idea of leaving Earth, even though he knew that there was really no other choice.

"I am not denying you that! I allowed myself to be dragged here against my better judgment, did I not?" LaCroix glowered, not wanting to go over the ground of this old argument yet again. "You, however, continue to deny that there is no urgency in leaving Earth because this is what *you* want."

"That isn't true and you know it!" she practically shouted, not caring that he was becoming visibly angry. "What is the point of delaying the inevitable? Yes, we could probably be quite safe on Earth for another fifty years, or maybe a hundred, but the day is coming when our people will need a place, a haven, to go to when our home world is no longer safe for our kind!"

She turned away from LaCroix, falling silent as she looked out over the deep river valley that sliced through the massive mountain range on either side of them.  Even though it was summer, so tall were the highest peaks that snow was still abundant, snow that was like blood in the odd light.

This was the spot she had chosen for their new home. Secure and safe, deep in the mountain fastness, the river below, a vast meadow behind dotted with streams and small lakes. And past that, a forest of huge trees of a type that bore no comparison to anything on Earth. She could see it all so clearly in her mind's eye, but it wouldn't be at all if LaCroix would not agree.

"It was becoming dangerous before, then the world went to hell and we were safe for a few more decades," she finally continued quietly. "We won't have another chance like that one, and if we wait too long, this planet will be gone; claimed by the new Federation. The only reason they haven't yet is that they haven't found it. But they will soon." She turned back to face him. "I will of course obey your wishes in this matter, as I have always done," she informed him with calm dignity. "I only ask that you give me the courtesy of honestly accessing our position on Earth before making your final decision." Triona dipped her head slightly, before walking past him, back to the ship, leaving LaCroix alone under the blood red sun.

Angry, and knowing from long, sometimes bitter, experience not to follow Triona into the ship and into what would become a major confrontation, LaCroix launched himself into the air, enjoying, despite himself, the sensation of flying through the air of an entirely new planet. There was little that was new to LaCroix anymore, and no matter what his final decision, he intended to relish the experience.

He flew over the treetops to where the forest abruptly ended, the mountain suddenly sheering away in a drop that was shrouded by mist. LaCroix flew down, below the mist, stunned at the incredible vista that lay below him. An ocean, or maybe even a gigantic lake, of water the color of amethyst crashed against the cliffs. To his right was a beach of glittering mauve sand that stretched out of his sight along the curve of the mountain cliff.

He landed lightly on the glittering sands, for once in his long life utterly awed by the spectacle before him. He felt like he had the first time he had seen Rome, not believing that something so beautiful could exist in such a pain-filled universe. Sitting on a rock, he watched the waves crash, listening to their roar, and the soft sound the water made as it ran back away from the sand, like fingers on silk. In the distance, he could see some sort of sea creatures leaping and playing in the calm water beyond the wild shoreline.

He knew it made no sense. After all, he'd always been fascinated by the stars. Why was he so resistant to the idea of moving to one of those spots of lights that he had gazed upon from his earliest years? LaCroix knew that Triona didn't understand, as much as she wanted to. She seemed to have no doubts about the incredible undertaking she was proposing. And he seemed to have nothing but doubt.

Spying a shell out of the corner of his eye, LaCroix slid off his rocky perch and picked it up. In a fit of whimsy, he put it to his ear, wondering if alien shells sounded the same. There it was -- the roar of the ocean -- both this one, and the waters of his home. He sighed, listening as the two sounds melded; perhaps that was his answer....

Triona sat on a rock of her own, looking down into the chasm at the roaring river. In her hands she held the copy of 'The Fellowship of the Ring' her long dead mother had given her. She'd wanted the book to be here on this new planet with her. Somehow, it made her feel like a little part of her mother was here with her too.

This planet, with its four moons and red giant sun, was so beautiful. It reminded her of the world of Tolkien; hence the name she had chosen for it: Imladris; Elrond Half Elven's last homely house. It had seemed fitting for what she hoped would be a home for her family and their people -- Vampire, Immortal, and Mortal.

She had worked so hard to see this day, a day when they were no longer tied to Earth. From the days after the War, supporting Zefram Cochran's wild dreams of trans-light speeds, despite the constant fights she had had with LaCroix over rocket scientists and wasting resources. It was a validation of not just that, but of the thwarted dreams of her youth, given up because of tragedy and the ensuing responsibility.

Triona's reflections were halted by the shift in the air that signaled LaCroix's return. She didn't acknowledge his presence, just continued to stare at the book in her hands. He sat next to her, but chose to let the silence hold sway. After a few minutes, she relented, leaning against his shoulder. He covered her hands with one of his, kissing the top of her head and there they remained.

The sounds of day's end surrounded them. Different sounds than those of Earth, but familiar all the same. From very far away, the echo of pounding surf could be heard, melding with the sounds of the wind in the treetops that towered above them like a canopy from some medieval pageant. The sky continued to darken, the pale reds, pinks, and mauves becoming crimson, fire, and deep purple, until night finally fell.

As the first two moons rose over them, LaCroix looked down at her. "She would have been proud of you, Triona," he said softly.

She looked at the book she still held in her hands; a book she'd kept through death and war. Biting her lip, she shook her head sharply. "She wouldn't even know me as I am now -- let alone be proud of me."

"That is not true. Your mother would know you and love you. How could she not?" Triona looked up at him with an expression that was disbelieving. He sighed in frustration. "You have accomplished so much. You are loved. You are needed."

Holding his gaze, she asked, "Do you need me, Lucien?"

"Always." That one word hung in the night air.

Triona nodded slowly, as if savoring the sound of it. "Let's promise not to fight tonight. Please?"

"Very well," he agreed, brushing his lips against the soft, paleness of her cheek. "What would you like to do instead?"

She ignored his teasing sarcasm. "Take me somewhere beautiful. Someplace you found during your flight."

"I think that could be arranged," he said as he scooped her into his arms. "We'll fight tomorrow." Launching them into the night sky, Triona's laughter followed in their wake.....

Triona took her book from Picard's hand. "And so we found our last homely house, and we thrived."

"You accomplished a great deal. I know it must have been difficult in the early years of the colony," Picard said.

"It was." She sighed. "But, that's a story for another time," she said briskly, once more firmly back in the present. "You, my dear Captain, are on leave. Unfortunately, I am not." In mock despair, she explained, "I have to attend a symposium on incremental photon defense grids. How shall I ever survive?"

"You are devoted to your duty, my dear," LaCroix told her magnanimously, spreading his arms wide.

"I empathize with your pain, Minister," Picard added, his eyes twinkling.

Triona sniffed. "Obviously, I'll get no sympathy here! In that case, I shall take my leave of you gentlemen. Jean-Luc," she said, turning her attention to the Captain, an impish gleam in her eye, "you can take this opportunity to discuss the inevitable fall of civilization with LaCroix!"

Before either man could respond, she was gone.

Once again, night had fallen across the North American continent. For some, the day was ending and sleep beckoned. For others, bed was hours away. Triona and Jean-Luc paused in the foyer of Admiral Terrence Dean's home on the grounds of Star Fleet headquarters, taking in the lay of the land. The strains of a waltz could be heard, filtered through the murmur of hundreds of voices.

The two made a striking couple; Picard in his dress uniform, looking dashing and proud, Triona in garnet-red velvet dress that looked vaguely Roman in style. At her ears and throat were crimson red gems -- Imladrin rubies -- set in gold. Pins of the same style held her long wavy hair up in complicated knot.

She looked up at her escort. "I'm afraid if I let go of your arm, you'll flee the party," she whispered teasingly.

He looked down at her with ill-concealed irritation. "I thought when Governor LaCroix showed up, I'd be off the hook."

She laughed outright at his expression. "I'm sorry, Jean-Luc," she said, not very sincerely. "But honestly, you're like a grumpy old bear!" Triona attempted to stifle the giggles that overcame her at the Captain's look of indignation at being compared to a bear. Catching her breath, she continued, "Lucien and I have been going to things like these for centuries. Believe me, he welcomes the opportunity to dump me on someone else."

Looking around, she whispered, "Too late now! Admiral at three o'clock." Triona squeezed Picard's arm sympathetically.

"Jean-Luc, Triona!" a jovial voice greeted as their host came into view. Taking her hands in his, he told her, "You look magnificent, Minister. What can I do to convince you to spend more time here on Earth?"

Triona laughed. "Keep up the compliments, Terry, and see what happens."

"What are you two doing hiding out here in the foyer? The party is in there," he directed, while putting an arm around Triona's shoulder, walking them to the main room.

The room was a sea of races from dozens of Federation worlds -- and not a few non-Federation systems. A group of musicians played in the corner; the waltz of a few minutes ago now over and a dance tune popular from the early part of the current century was being played. Triona's attention was caught by two of the guests, standing as far apart from the crowd as possible.

She looked at Admiral Dean appraisingly. "Romulans, Admiral?" Picard quickly scanned the room at her question. "Was this why you were so eager for me to be here tonight?" she asked, her tone one not to be trifled with.

Dean looked more than a little uncomfortable. He coughed a bit, before finally answering, "Honestly?"

"That would be a start," she said coolly. Suddenly, the easygoing Triona had been replaced by the steely visage of the Imladrin defense minister.

 "Could we move this to my office, Minister?" he asked hopefully.

"Fine." She walked ahead, knowing the way and forcing the Admiral to follow with Picard close behind.

Once in the Admiral's office, Triona waited impatiently for an answer.

Dean sighed. "Yes, I admit, you being here on Earth was a stroke of good fortune." He looked even more uncomfortable if that were possible. "We, the Federation, are in a bit of sticky spot with the Romulan government right now...but Imladris isn't."

"And you hoped I might use my influence to further the Federation's agenda," she finished for him.

"Something like that," he admitted. "I know you have a relationship with the Romulan Empire and I'd hoped you might use it to our advantage."

"Exactly," she said forcefully, "your advantage, the Federation's advantage. But what's in it for Imladris? Why should I risk my carefully cultivated relationship with the Romulans?"

"Minister," Picard interjected, "surely the goals of Imladris and the Federation are in accord?"

Triona looked at the Captain. "Sometimes. Usually. But not always."  She perched on the edge of the large marble-topped desk, looking like a queen holding court. "I could name at least half a dozen instances of our disagreement with Federation policy in the last twenty years. But we're getting off track." Once more she turned her attention to Admiral Dean, waiting for a reason.

"All I want, all I hope you'll do, is to feel them out. I'm hoping that maybe they'll let something slip about what has changed so much in their government recently, that they are once more taking a hard-line position against the Federation." Dean scrubbed the top of his head with his hand, making a sound of frustration. "The two that came, they're high level diplomatic staff from their embassy here..."

Triona interrupted him, "They're Tal'Shiar."

Her calm declaration that the two Romulans were members of the elite intelligence Corp startled the two men. "Tal'Shiar?" Picard repeated. "How can you be sure?"

"Because I am," she practically snapped. Taking a deep breath, she said in a more measured tone, "Just accept that I know, Captain." Closing her eyes, she put her palms together, the edges of her fingers against her lips. She was angry at the position that Admiral Dean had put her in and even angrier that Jean-Luc had been involved. She wanted to give the Captain the answer she knew he wanted -- but her duty had to come before her personal feelings.

Opening her eyes, she glanced at Jean-Luc with a hint of apology, before turning her attention to Admiral Dean. She had no doubt that he had every intention of using her relationship with Captain Picard to pressure her into a decision that benefited his position. "If you didn't already know, Admiral, then know this now; I will not be manipulated -- not by you, or anyone else." She enunciated each word with force and conviction. There could be no doubt that she meant every word. "It does not benefit the position of my government to interfere in the relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire at this time." She held up a hand, forestalling the protestation of Admiral Dean. "No, Terry. You gambled and lost. If you'll excuse me?" With no further word, Triona strode out of the room.

Once more in amongst the press of the party, she snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, draining the glass. Taking a few steadying breaths, she calmed her thoughts.

"Minister MacAlpine," a cool measured voice interjected into her troubled reflection.

Triona turned to acknowledged the Romulan that had come to stand behind her. "Legate Trayvan," she said, nodding at the tall, heavyset Romulan male. "Your family? They're well, I hope."

Trayvan made a little bow before replying, "They are well, Minister. My eldest daughter just entered the diplomatic service."

"Your family does you credit, Legate. I found the time I spent on Romulas with them most illuminating."

"I hope we can expect another visit at some point in the future, Minister. Perhaps with your own child?"

Triona smiled, seeming not at all surprised that the Romulan intelligence officer knew of the impending arrival of Lucia. "It would be my very great honour, Legate."

The Romulan took a glass of champagne from a passing server, and offered it to Triona. "Perhaps we could share a meal during your sojourn here on Earth," he asked as she accepted the glass of sparkling liquid with a nod of thanks.

She sipped from her glass before replying, a thoughtful look in her eyes. "I would welcome it, Legate Trayvan." She tilted her head in a little gesture of acceptance.

He looked over her head, his own eyes holding a thoughtful gaze. "But, I have taken enough of your time. Your escort is looking for you." He nodded at a space behind her.

She turned at the direction of his glance, seeing Picard heading towards her, a purposeful measure to his stride. "So it would seem," she said softly. Turning her attention once more to the Romulan Legate, she said, "Have your aide call my office, Trayvan, about lunch."

"I look forward to it, Triona," he said, bowing over her and giving one more look at the approaching Picard before turning away.

Triona squared her shoulders as she turned to meet Captain Picard. She looked at him quizzically as he came to a stop in front of her, once more sipping at her glass of champagne.

Uncomfortable at her silence, he finally spoke. "You left so abruptly."

"There was nothing to say," she said, shrugging, not helping him.

"Wasn't there?" He looked over at where Legate Trayvan was speaking to the Andorian Ambassador. "And him?" he asked, half accusing.

"There's nothing to say," she repeated coolly, her eyes daring him to press her further.

"I don't agree, Minister," he replied sharply.

"That’s of no concern to me, Captain," she answered just as sharply in return. "No!" she waved him to silence. This was getting out of hand. She was old enough to know better, she chided herself. "Jean-Luc, we talked about this, you and I. I told you there might be times when you'd feel torn, even betrayed by my duty to my people." She shook her head sadly. "Admittedly, I never expected it to happen this soon. But maybe it's for the best," she said quietly. Placing her palm against his chest, she sighed. ""I'm sorry, Jean-Luc, I truly am."

Picard put his hand over hers. "I am too, Triona. Just tell me that what you do isn't a danger to the Federation."

"Of course not!" She stepped closer, looking up at him. "You must believe that I would never do anything like that. In the end, you have to choose whether or not you can trust me."

He nodded slowly. "You're right -- it is up to me."

"Do you think you need to speak to Guinan again?" she asked half in jest.

Picard had a lopsided smile on his face. "No, I think I can figure this one out for myself."

"I'm glad to hear it," she told him, returning his smile. "Now, I see that we have two choices."


"We can let this ruin our evening, or you can ask me to dance."

"I think I'd like the second choice, Minister MacAlpine."

"I'm glad, because that's my preference as well. I want to make the most of this time, Captain Picard."

Picard offered her his hand. "I'm afraid I have new orders. The Enterprise leaves tomorrow at 0600 hours."

"But I thought...." She squeezed his hand. "Admiral Dean's payback for my lack of cooperation? Never mind," she said quickly, not wanting to put him in an awkward position. He looked at her gratefully. "Then time's a wasting, Captain. Shall we?" She indicated the dance floor with her free hand.

"It would be my pleasure," he said, raising her hand to his lips and kissing it gallantly before taking her in his arms and swirling her onto the dance floor.

The rest of the evening was a whirl of music and laughter. Triona made a point of ignoring both Romulans and Starfleet admirals. She simply concentrated on moving to the music and enjoying the company of Jean-Luc. But soon, it was time for good-byes.

Captain Picard briefly spoke to the Enterprise from the rose garden of the Keep. Finished, he joined Triona where she sat on a bench by an ornamental fountain. She was glad of the wrap she'd snagged from the house. It was spring and nights were chilly here in the mountains of Montana.

"Everything all right?" she queried.

"Fine," he replied. "Commander Riker is getting the final departure coordinates from Space Dock."

"Then it's time I suppose," she said, not quite willing to let him go.

Taking her hand, he nodded. "I'm afraid so."

"Jean-Luc, are you sure? You have a right to be here for the birth of your daughter. I could raise a fuss, give you a few more weeks here on Earth. I'm very good causing a stir." She grinned unrepentantly. "It's been a long time since I've started an incident."

Picard, laughing at the almost gleeful ring in her voice, said, "I'm quite sure." His expression turned serious. "I've thought a great deal on this, Triona. I think it's best for you, and the baby, to be a part of one consistent family. It's not that I don't want to be a part of her life, but I think it should wait till she's older and can understand."

Triona nodded her understanding. He was right; Lucia would have enough to deal with the rather odd family that she belonged to. But she didn't want him to be cut off from his child either.

"Anytime you want to see her, Jean-Luc -- I mean that. And no one outside of the family will know of her paternity till you wish it known. I'll send you pictures every week, so you can watch as she grows, I promise." She still sounded unsure, despite her reassurances.

"It's best this way," he said with a certainty that that calmed her doubts.

"If you're sure...."

"I am. I know that our child will have a loving mother and an extended family that will raise her to be secure and confident."

Picard's communicator chirped, telling him that they were ready to beam him to the ship. Triona walked him out to the lawn, giving him a hug. "If you ever decide to leave Starfleet, there's always a place for you on Imladris. If you'd like to run our Space Guard, or the winery, or just sit on the porch and watch the grass grow...." She smiled up at him. "My planet is your planet."

"I'll keep that in mind," he promised with a returning smile as she stepped away. He signaled the ship, raising his hand in farewell.

"Till we meet again."

"Now that we've both finally met for the first time." His eyes sparked with humor as the transporter shimmered around him, Triona's laughter following him as she disappeared from view.


On to Part Two -- "When Did Forever Die?"

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