Working on an insomnia-inspired personal assignment in the middle of the night, Picard's curiosity is aroused when he finds many of the ship's computer functions have been taken off-line. He goes to the source of the situation, the Stellar Sciences department, and meets Lieutenant Commander Nella Daren, the section's new department head. Nella and her staff are using the early morning quiet attempting to construct a mathematical map of an emerging star system. Picard is intrigued by this lovely, intelligent woman — and his attraction increases the next evening, when he is overwhelmed by Nella's amazing piano performance during a concert. He expresses his appreciation afterward, and she — impressed by his musical knowledge — suggests they play together sometime. The attraction seems to be mutual.
The next evening, Picard practices on his Ressikan flute, when Nella pays an unexpected visit, bringing along a keyboard. She encourages the reluctant captain into playing a duet, which he begins to enjoy. When they next get together, she leads Picard into a specific Jefferies Tube intersection, where she claims the acoustics are perfect. The two engage in another duet, but their concentration drifts to something other than music — and they share a warm and deep kiss.
After their encounter, Picard suddenly feels unsure about his actions. Later, after setting a course for Bersallis III to study the planet's firestorms, he asks to talk with Troi privately in his Ready Room. There, he speaks frankly about his attraction to Nella and his worries about dating a woman under his command. He is relieved when Troi encourages him. Picard then shares some of his most private thoughts with Nella in his quarters, and they kiss more passionately, taking the relationship to a new level. However, Riker is troubled, and tells Picard he feels uncomfortable with handling Nella's demands for her department because of her relationship with the captain. Picard assures Riker that personal feelings will not be placed above what's best for the ship, and then talks with Nella about their unusual situation. They agree that she should not compromise herself, and must continue to do her job to the best of her ability.
Worf interrupts their conversation with news that the firestorms will hit much earlier than anticipated and endanger the Federation outpost on Bersallis III. Picard orders the U.S.S. Enterprise to aid in the outpost's evacuation, while Nella and La Forge devise a plan to build a protective shield to guard the outpost from the storm. Riker chooses Nella to lead the deployment team, and although Picard is worried about sending her on this dangerous mission, she reminds him that their relationship cannot stand in the way of proper command decisions.
When the Enterprise reaches the planet, Nella and her team transport to the surface with thermal deflectors to construct their shield. Unfortunately, she soon learns that there is a problem. The team members will have to remain on the planet during the storm to keep the deflectors cross-connected by calibrating them manually — a procedure they may not survive. Picard is torn, but when he realizes this is the only way to save the 73 colonists that still remain on the planet, he orders the group to stay, facing the horrible realization that he may have condemned Nella to death. The firestorm hits, and after it passes, Picard beams aboard the survivors. Nella is among the last to transport back, but when her eyes meet Picard's, he senses something different.
Later, Nella forgives him for the decision she knows he had to make, but the two realize that they cannot go on as both lovers as well as commander and subordinate. Nella tells Picard she will apply for a transfer, because for their love to remain, they must now be apart.