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Stardate 55724.9
USS Enterprise – NCC-1701-E
Starbase 214
Mooring Bay Delta

“No Deanna, I can’t. Geordi and I are meeting for dinner later.” Doctor Beverly Crusher answered her friend as they walked side by side through the mooring bay doors to the Enterprise. They were laden with packages from what was apparent to anyone had been a long day shopping. “You’re welcome to join us but aren’t you and Will having dinner?” she asked.

Deanna was frustrated. “I haven’t seen him since yesterday Bev. I have no idea where he might be or if he has other plans.”

“I thought you said you don’t get jealous.” Beverly smirked.

Deanna smiled and wasn’t going to take the bait. “I don’t Beverly. Really. Captain Steele is just a close friend of Will’s that’s all. I know he loves me.”

“You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself,” said Beverly as she tried to readjust the armloads of merchandise she bore.

“I do not!” Deanna retorted.

“Deanna! There you are!” Riker’s voice came distantly down the corridor from inside the ship. He appeared quickly from around the corner.

Deanna was unable to control her gleaming smile. “Will! Can you help us please?” she asked, already beginning to unload some of her bags into his assisting arms.

Riker laughed heartily. “Leave you two alone for a day on a Starbase…”

“Excuse me, Commander.” Beverly warned with her voice. “Deanna and I haven’t been shopping since long before Ba’ku. We were actually overdue.”

“Whatever you say, Doctor.” He began to relieve her of a few of her bags when he noticed the captain walking through the main atrium of the mooring bay corridor. The other two, having noticed Will’s attention being caught, turned to look as well.

Picard and Steele were walking blithely side by side, carrying their respective saddles, wide smiles apparent on both of their faces. They stopped together at the mooring bay door for the Enterprise when Picard quickly turned and kissed Steele once on each of her cheeks. Steele returned the affection with a quick kiss on his lips then turned to walk towards the Panther’s mooring bay.

Picard stepped inside the Enterprise. He noticed Will and his two companions and greeted them brightly as he walked by. His voice was light and happy. “Hello Beverly, Deanna, Will!” he smiled. “Remarkable day! I have to say!”

Dumbfounded, the three watched Picard as he turned into the corridor of the Enterprise. It was only then they heard him begin to whistle brightly as he walked away.

Deanna smiled happily as she looked to Beverly’s confused face. “Now…what were you just saying Beverly?” She giggled, only too happy to return the dig.

Beverly scowled. “Nothing. Come on,” she sniped.

Will looked down the corridor to where Picard and Steele had departed from one another then towards the corridor where Picard had walked away whistling. He let loose a wide smile and looked to Deanna where his smile was met with enthusiasm. She reached up quickly to kiss him lightly and began to whistle as she walked deeper into the ship.

Will laughed quietly and rolled his eyes, “Toni…” he said to no one other than himself.

Stardate 55727.8
Starbase 214
Holosuite 12

“His name is Nate Hunter.” She grinned and reined her horse down the rocky trail towards the grove of tall trees. The dry, crisp air floated through her dark hair which fluttered back in large wisps as her horse stepped agilely though the scrub and juniper.

“I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.” Picard stated, allowing his horse to follow Steele’s down the terrain.

“And it will be. He’s an amazing officer. He was Jellico’s XO on the Cairo until Jellico was promoted. Not too long after that, he was offered his own command of the Firebird,” she clarified, “He graduated three years before Will and me.”

"The Firebird…ah. He remained under Jellico’s command then, in a different fleet. That’s why I don’t know him.”

She nodded her understanding and moved her horse into the sandier soil along the river’s edge. They entered the deep grove of cottonwood trees that lined the edges of the river. Their leaves were an intense shade of yellow and flicked and quivered vibrantly in the breeze. In the remote distance large sandhill cranes waded in the shallow river waters by the thousands, their shrill and quivering calls still easily heard. Over the noise of the birds, Steele could still hear Picard take in a deep and refreshing breath. “You know, I’ve never seen such unusual and beautiful country before. It’s a wonder I’ve never been to New Mexico. I should make a point of visiting when I have some time on Earth.”

“I grew up about three hundred kilometers northwest of the area depicted in this program. I told you that you’d like it. It’s the exact opposite of France, I think. Rugged, dry and untamed…even to this day.” She slowed her horse to allow Picard to sidle along side as the trail widened along the shallow river-bed. “So what else can I tell you?”

“There are three others in the Panthera class correct?” He asked now back on their original topic of discussion.

“There will be a total of five. The Cougar and Puma have also been launched and the Leopard will be launched in about two months,” she replied.

“Worf said he thought they were the evolution of the Defiant.”

“Worf was right. These ships make the Defiant class look like mosquitoes. Their firepower and maneuverability are unmatched.” Picard’s scowl made Steele grin and roll her eyes. “Explorers! They always grimace when the fighters talk about their ships.”

Picard nodded. “We’re just cut from a different cloth I think.”

“No. I disagree, Jean-Luc. The fighters and the explorers both like to live life on the edge.”

“Excuse me?” He asked her with surprise.

“Oh come now, I know a lot of men and women like you. I even married one. You love the surprise of the unknown. You love the challenge and the thrill just like a fighter does. How do you face a new species? Your brain works the same way a fighter’s does…like a tactician. What can I say? What might be offensive? How might they react? How do I not blow this?” She smiled. “Am I right?”

Picard laughed. “Maybe so.”

“So you see…not cut from different cloth, we make up the same cloth. We’re all Starfleet. You like peace. I like making sure peace sticks around awhile. I like to think of myself as the one who protects your ability to go out and discover.” She replied. “Don’t get me wrong, I have always found myself fascinated by the explorers. I find their differences illuminating and refreshing.”

“The fighters always seem to find that hidden thread of excitement as well Antoinette,” he conceded. “There always seems to be a light in the eyes when they talk about victory. It can be quite exhilarating…a certain Klingon attitude, I might say.”

Steele grinned. “You might be right.” She looked up to the crystal blue sky through the tangled canopy of shining, yellow cottonwood. “I bet you used to go out at night, find a comfortable spot to lay back and stare at the stars and wonder what it would be like to sail and soar among them…right?” She allowed her velvet voice to waft over him.

Picard’s mood lifted. “Exactly!” he hushed excitedly. “That’s it exactly!”

She laughed quietly. “You see Jean-Luc…I never did that.”

“What?” He was confused by her statement.

“I would go out, especially at dusk, and stand on the edge of the mesa by our home and wait for the Earth perimeter patrol guard to fly in for the base, just so I could feel the pulse engines reverberate the air inside my chest.” Her eyes lit with excitement. “I couldn’t wait to become a pilot. I didn’t care where I flew. I just wanted to fly.”

Picard grinned. “Same sky…”

“Different views...”

“Same cloth.” He nodded in comprehension and breathed in deeply once more. “What’s planned for these Cats? They’re extremely formidable. Having them near sectors on the edges of Federation space could appear as an aggressive stance by the UFP.”

“You’re right. The ships were developed as focused defense ships only. Our main objective will be to remain in Sectors 001 through 048 and keep on patrol. We’ve had so many direct incursions into the heart of the Federation we want to prevent another raid like the Breen.” She smiled when she saw him concur. “But we’re also meant to act as heavy escorts.” She grimaced. “Which is why I believe whatever the Enterprise already has on board or will take on board, is of grave concern.” She sighed as she slowed her horse to a stop.

Picard ceased his horse along side. “I agree…but I haven’t received any word or any additional orders, have you?"

Steele shook her head. “No.”

The disappointment and worry were now evident in her voice and Picard noticed it immediately. “Any suspicions?”

Steele looked north up the Rio Grande and sighed once more. “Jean-Luc, I won’t lie. I don’t like what we might be in for.” Her eyes met his. “If it were a dignitary then they wouldn’t have asked for a Cat to escort you. But two Cats? The Federation is expecting some kind of resistance to our passage I think.” She shifted in her saddle. “Someone doesn’t want us to make it back to the Sol System.”

“Well then, Captain.” Picard smiled to her brightly. “I am glad you’ll be at my side.”

She nodded faintly. “Likewise Jean-Luc.” She clicked her horse to a post-trot. “Lunch?”

“Absolutely!” he followed in her stead.

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